Sermon
January 9, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Mark 1:4-11 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

    9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (NRSV)

Romans 12:1-21     I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect.

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

    14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…. 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NRSV)

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Sermon

Welcome to a new century and a new millennium! 

Actually it isn’t a new century or a new millennium, but ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN say it is.  Ford, Chrysler, Chevrolet, Toyota and VW say it is.  Who am I to swim against the tide?  The fact that everyone seems to have agreed on this has put more pressure on me than I care to bear alone.   I surrender.

 This century situation reminds me of one I often encounter at weddings.  Proper etiquette, as I understand it, requires that everyone remain seated until the bride comes through the door and starts her walk down the aisle.  But quite often you’ll find that someone decides to stand the moment the first bridesmaid steps foot in the sanctuary.  And once one person stands, it’s like a wave coming inevitably and inexorably toward the shore.  Soon everyone is on their feet, and the honor that should be reserved for the bride is squandered on the four year old ring bearer whose is now frightened out of his wits.  At rehearsal it was a few relatives seated at eye level with smiles and friendly faces.  Now it’s towering strangers. He freezes half way down the aisle and waits for his sister, the flower girl, so he doesn’t have to walk through this sea of knees all alone.

 No, this situation with the so called turn of the century reminds me of an old Chinese saying:

These days,

continually fuddled with drink,

I fail to satisfy the appetites of the soul,

But, seeing all men behaving like drunkards,

How can I alone remain sober?

 Did I mention what my topic was today - it’s the issue of conformity and non-conformity, and the need to nurture a little creative mal-adjustment in our world.

 The Apostle Paul writes: Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect.

 There is something in our nature that finds great comfort in conformity.  I was reading about a college professor who uses old tapes from Alan Funt’s Candid Camera as part of the psychology curriculum at Cornell University.  One of the favorite episodes for this class involves people on an elevator.  The unsuspecting subject of Funt’s camera was allowed to get into an elevator alone.  Like most people they turned and faced the elevator doors, so they could see the little lights that blink and show the location of the car and so you can walk out the door when you reach your floor.  It’s the convention to face the front, it’s the way we all do it, there would be no reason, short of a double doored elevator which this was not, to face the back. 

 But then one of Funt’s actors boards the elevator - and he faces the back.  Then another actor gets on, and she faces the back too.  Ah, the pressure is building.  How long will our unsuspecting subject hold out.  Typically, by the time the third actor gets on board and faces the back, the subject too has turned around and is in conformity with the others.  The pressure was too great; the discomfort on non-conformity was overwhelming; a life long habit was reversed   It made for a great Candid Camera.

 Funt had the gift of getting us to chuckle at our own foibles,  putting us in situations where our commonly accepted values, habits, and assumptions were stretched beyond their limits and rendered laughable.  But the trade-offs of conformity are not always funny.  There is a cost associated with every benefit, and without denying the benefit of conformity, many have seriously questioned the cost.

 If I remember correctly, in the summer of 1963 before I began my first year of college, most of the required reading Rutgers assigned had to do with the cost of conformity.  I don’t remember all the books, but one title stuck with me throughout the years: it was The Organization Man by William Whyte.

 In his book Whyte described the men and women who submerged their sense of self into the corporate culture - the culture of large institutions of business, science, medicine, and education.  These men and women gave up autonomy for security.  They made a deal.  They conformed to corporate interests and values in return for the rewards of good salaries and benefits, opportunities to advance, the prestige of a well established identity and a secure place in the American dream.

 I recently went to the New Milford Library to see if I could find this book, but it wasn’t there.  Instead I found a more recent work, The Death of the Organization Man, by Amanda Bennett, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.  She begins:

 This is the story of how a group of managers, once the elite of Big Business, became its outcasts.  It is the story of how these coddled executives were unexpectedly expelled from the corporate womb that sheltered them, the story of how a set of values, for three decades the foundation and touchstone of all corporate behavior and expectations, almost overnight became obsolete…. It is the story of the death of the Organization Man.

 Suddenly the organization man or woman found themselves facing the wrong way on the elevator.  And when the door opened on the next floor, they were pushed out.  Unlike Candid Camera, it was no laughing matter.  Lives were turned upside down.  The kind of conformity that had been required was now a liability, and new rules of conformity had to be learned.

 I say new rules had to be learned because the death of the organization man certainly did not mean the death of conformity.  What it did mean was that conformity was becoming confusing, fragmented, and very manipulative.  Now the straightforward humor of Alan Funt that gives us a hearty laugh has been replaced by the ironic cynical observations of Dilbert that cause us to wince in bittersweet recognition of the absurdity of our situation.    In the new culture of management, media, and mass marketing, conformity is disguised as nonconformity, as innovation, as quality, identity, rebellion, spirituality, and even as personal choice. 

 How to follow Paul’s injunction, Do not conform, is as difficult in our time as it was in Paul’s as it was a generation ago for the Organization Man.  About the same time as the Organization Man was being written, Martin Luther King preached a sermon entitled, Transformed Nonconformist, and it is from that sermon that I have taken our title for today.  King preached: Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.

 Human salvation lies in the hands of those who do not conform to this world, but who are transformed by the renewing of their minds.  It lies in the hands of those who are not merely dwelling in this time and place, but who have hearts and minds set on heaven and on the compassionate justice of our Lord.  Human salvation lies in the hands of people who chose the courage of conviction over the comforts of conformity, people of moral nobility, not social respectability.

 I’m sure we’ve all seen non-conformity that seemed little more than self promotion or even exhibitionism.  But the kind of non-conformist that the Apostle Paul or Dr. King are talking about is not necessarily   someone you could even pick out of a crowd.   It’s not about show, it’s about substance; it’s not a fashion statement, it’s a moral perspective.

In his time King had this to say: I confess that I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination, to the moral degeneracy of religious bigotry and the corroding effects of narrow sectarianism, to economic conditions that deprive men of work and food, and to the insanity of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.

 What can we say in our time?   Thankfully, some of what King listed has actually been improved.  But we should never forget it was improved at a price.  Segregation didn’t just end, it was ended by those who refused to conform to its rules and who were beaten, burned, jailed, shot, bombed, and buried for their non-conformity.

 Still the need is pressing for a little creative maladjustment, for the person who feels tension with the world the way it is because the gospel of Jesus Christ has given them a set of values that stirs their conscience and a vision that sets fire to their soul, the person who will not surrender their sense of self or responsibility for their moral freedom. 

 And the world needs institutions that week after week, season after season, century after century hold up the example of sages, prophets, and saints who would not conform to this world but transformed us all by their faith and courage and witness.

 So whether this new year marks a century or a millennium is of no matter.  What matters is that today is a new beginning for all who desire to be formed according to the image of God revealed in Christ and honor Christ as our standard of values, our teacher in the art of living, our one true comfort and security, the full and complete revelation of the love of God, the shining example of the purpose of our common humanity.

 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect. Amen

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