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Romans 12:1-8

Epworth United Methodist Church

August, 7, 2016

Linda Loessberg-Zahl

Today we are going to send forth some of our high school graduates. Think back to when you were that age. What do you wish someone had told you? What would you tell your younger self? To those who are that age: what do you wish someone would tell you?

Many people have offered their wisdom to graduates ready to make their mark on the world:

“The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places.”

By the prolific author anonymous.

“Even though, as a class, you are smart, you are still allowed to say, ‘I don't know.’ Just because you are in high demand, you are still allowed to say, ‘Let me get back to you.’ This will come in handy when your parents ask when you plan to move out of their basement and you answer, ‘I don't know. Let me get back to you.’"

Amy Poehler offers that practical advice.

“Follow your passion, stay true to yourself, never follow someone else's path unless you're in the woods and you're lost and you see a path then by all means you should follow that.”

By the famous philosopher Ellen DeGeneres

Paul has his advice for anyone wanting to make their mark on the world: “Do not be conformed to this world.” Do not let the world mold and distort who you are.

Dr. Tony Campolo, professor and pastor, says children in our world often get a very different message. They are told “to go to school and work hard, so they can …make good grades, so they can go to college and work hard, so they can …make good grades, so they can find a good job, so they can make …a lot of money, so they can get …a lot of stuff.” Do not be conformed to the world of consumerism. Do not let the world reduce your worth to the value of what you own, who you know or what others think of you. Rita Mae Brown says, “The reward for conformity is that everyone likes you but yourself.” If you get wrapped up in making your mark on the world, be careful about the mark the world makes on you. Don’t let the world mar your view of the image of God, the gifts of God within you. There are systems in the world that disregard that sacred image, systems that can mar our own view.

Parents give their children specific advice when they go out into the world. It’s not all the same advice. The advice parents tell their gay or transgendered youth was not given to me. The advice parents tell their black sons about how to stay safe and get along with police was not given to me. The advice immigrants tell their youth about how to lay low and fit in, in a foreign culture was not given to me. Because who I love or how I identify has never been condemned, my race has never made me truly vulnerable, and my citizenship has never been questioned. My parents did advise me never to walk alone at night or drive too far by myself, and to put my husband’s career before my own, because of my gender. The world makes a lot of painful marks on those who don’t conform to the valued image, the valued nationality, the valued gender, the valued race, the valued age. The world makes a lot of marks on those who don’t conform to the preferred image.

Some of those marks are deadly as Paul O’Neal’s family and all of us saw yet again in Chicago on Friday. What marks has the world made on you? When have you felt devalued by the dominant values in the world? Why would we try to conform to that value system? Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Paul’s advice is not just for the young. Do not be conformed to the world, because the values of the world can devalue you. Don’t let the world mar your view of the image of God within you, the gifts of God within you.

Paul’s letter challenges us to be non-conformists. He tells us not to be conformed to the world, but to transform the world. Conforming is natural at every age. We need to belong, but to what, to whom shall we belong? Don’t connect with something that doesn’t let your gifts flourish or your spirit breathe. It can strangle your breath and undermine your greatest gifts.

Rev. Dr. Peter Gomes was an American preacher and theologian. After teaching and serving at Tuskegee Institute he became the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University. In one of his sermons he recounts the day President Nelson Mandela came to Harvard, saying it would go down as “one of the great moments” in the school’s history because for a moment Mandela transformed the thousands in the theater. Gomes says the “noisy, pushy, self-centered, conceited undergraduates and graduate students” along with his “pompous, pushy, arrogant colleagues” were all for a moment changed by the “magnificent moral stature” of Mandela. Gomes asks what distinguishes Mandela from the rest of us. Along with his twenty-seven years in prison and Nobel Peace Prize, Gomes says is “…the simple fact that this is a man who knows who he is. This is a man whose ideals are intact... He has been neither seduced nor intimidated by what others think; his authority – gravitas combined with grace—comes from that sense of knowing who he is and…his sense of worth and of being.”

Gomes tells his audience, “…if you realize in some moment of insight, of inspiration, that you are indeed a child of God, that you as you are now – with your thick lips, your yellow skin, your hooked nose, your life-giving breasts, your aging body, your youthful vigorous body – are part of the image of God that God intended, then you are empowered, you are liberated,…you are bearing the image and mark of the maker… They can lock you up…humiliate you in a thousand countless and artful ways, and yet you (are) free on the outside because you have always been free on the inside.”[i]

You don’t have to make your mark on the world, you just have to be yourself and recognize and remember the mark of the maker on you, and you…, and you…, and even on the person who is the most different from you. Where do you need Paul’s advice? Where do you need to be reminded not to conform to the values of the world?

Where do you need to let go of pleasing others, of making it, or chasing some idealized image of yourself? What external expectations, internal self-loathing, or worthless worries are sapping your energy and marring your vision of the mark of the maker in you?

You have been given this time, given your life, given your unique constellations of gifts not to conform but to transform. It’s not about making a mark for ourselves, it’s about making this world a place where every person’s worth is recognized, where every person’s life is protected. It’s about joining in community with others, but not just the Epworth community. You are part of a 7.4 billion member world community reflecting God’s magnificent, multifaceted glory, each member gifted, each member loved, each member called to transform the world. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men [sic] willing to be co-workers with God…”

Peter Gomes knew who he was, though he didn’t conform to any of the simple stereotypes we like to use. He was a strong black preacher, a Republican who officiated at weddings of the rich and famous, prayed for Republican presidents, and who in 1991 announced that he was “a Christian who happens as well to be gay.” When the accolades faded he continued to rebut literalist and fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible and to work against intolerance. Later he became a Democrat. He couldn’t be pigeonholed. Neither can you.

Do not let the world mold you into thinking you are not a beautiful and remarkable child of God with a purpose beyond yourself. Where do you need to see the mark of the maker in the mirror? Where do you need to see the mark of the maker in others? Latishia AV James is a recent graduate of Pacific School of Religion. She writes, “As a black woman, learning to be okay with taking up space has been a difficult process.”[ii] What would Latishia’s mother say to her? What do we say to her? Look for the Latishias in our community. Our actions are the only words that matter. Latishia has a God-given space in this place. Without her we are an incomplete reflection of the beauty and glory of God.

Look for the mark of the maker on those you see in your home, in your grocery store, in your office, in your school, in your mirror. It will transform the world. Even more, it will transform you. Amen.

[i] Strength for the Journey, Peter Gomes, pp. 81-89.

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