This is the message that I gave at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen (Grace UMC, Newburgh) on Saturday, October 12th, for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Jeremiah 29: 1, 4- 7; 2 Timothy 2: 8 – 15; and Luke 17: 11 – 19; I focused primarily on the passage from Timothy but used thoughts from the other two readings as well.
Last Sunday I got a note about an interesting book written back in the late 1960s. It was entitled “How To Be A Nonconformist: 22 Irreverent Illustrated Steps to Counterculture Cred from 1968”. It was written and illustrated by a 12-year old girl over in Connecticut. There were two things that were interesting about this book and its author; the author would go on to lead a decidedly nonconforming life and it was the only book that she wrote by herself.
At the end, after listing and illustrating the various rules that one needed to follow, she wrote “Now, you are ready to be a nonconformist.” You turned to the next page and there it read, “just like everyone else.”
I think that 1) that was a pretty good description of our society back then and 2) it still applies today. We seek to be an individual who does his or her own thing yet we end up looking and acting like everyone else. We find our individuality in the common things we share with each other. I am not sure that is being a nonconformist.
I would like to suggest that being a Christian today, in the greatest sense of the word, is to be a nonconformist. In fact, I know that many individuals, Christian and non-Christian today, who would object to that description because they are anything but nonconforming.
And yet, when you look at the work of Jesus as walked the roads of the Galilee you are looking at an individual who did not conform to the rules and regulations of His society. How many times did Jesus heal the sick by touching them, in direct violation of normal rules of society? How many times did He include women and children in His group, again a direct violation of normal behavior? If Jesus’ ministry was anything, it was nonconforming.
And Paul, whose instructions to Timothy are the center of today’s message, was just as much a nonconformist as Jesus was. As Saul, he would seek to persecute Christians because they went against the accepted norms of society. He was very much the conformist, seeking to arrest, persecute, and execute anyone who offered any view that didn’t conform with his society.
But, as Paul, he would continue the preaching the Gospel message that Jesus began and quickly became a nonconformist. And he was sufficiently nonconforming, sufficiently against the standards of society to warrant arrest and persecution. That’s why we heard in the passage this morning that Paul was writing from jail.
Even the early Methodist church was nonconforming; it represented an alternative way of life to the self-indulgence, hedonism, and social fragmentation of society. In a society where admission into God’s Kingdom was believed to be based on who you were and your status in life, the early Methodist church said that all were welcome.
Just as Jeremiah told the people of Israel, returning to their homeland destroyed by war and invasion, when many of what may call the best and brightest were taken away in captivity and slavery, that God had not forsaken them, that there was hope and that they would be able to rebuild their broken lives, so too did the early Methodist church speak out against the norms of society that said hope was impossible for all but a select few.
But we live in a world today where it seems that not much has changed. It is a world where it seems as if people no longer have any hope, that lives cannot be rebuilt and should just be thrown away, where your admittance into God’s Kingdom is still based on the statistical things and not one’s character.
The church must exist as a alternative to that world, it must not conform to the ways of society, it has to be a light to the world and a beacon of God’s coming kingdom that reaches beyond race and class, economic standards and social norms. The church through its people must show the love of God in a world where there is no love. The church through its people must show its concern for and friendship with the poor, the despised and vulnerable people of the world. It has to announce to all that God is present among all the people, including the marginalized, the abused, and the outcast and not just on a Sunday morning at a given hour of the day.
The church through its people must show a moral integrity and commitment to justice that is a prophetic witness to God’s holiness and righteousness. In all that is said and done, the people of the church must stand as an alternative to a society that relies on success, prestige, wealth and power as a means to happiness and salvation.
Paul was preparing Timothy to lead the church when he gave those instructions to him that we read this morning,
Warn them before God against pious nitpicking, which chips away at the faith. It just wears everyone out. Concentrate on doing your best for God, work you won’t be ashamed of, laying out the truth plain and simple. Stay clear of pious talk that is only talk. Words are not mere words, you know. If they’re not backed by a godly life, they accumulate as poison in the soul.
What is that Paul is saying here? He is saying that how we act has a lot to do with where Christ is in our lives and where we are in Christ. If our words are not backed by our actions, then our words are hollow. If we speak of God’s love but have no love, then we do not mean what we say. You cannot say “this is mine and you can’t have it!”
Now, here comes the “tricky” part. The Gospel reading for this weekend is the story of the healing of the ten lepers. The healing of the lepers was one of those acts that literally got Jesus in trouble because it violated so many of society’s (not God’s) rules. Jesus healed ten lepers, ten outcasts, and brought them back into society. And yet, only one of the ten truly understood what had transpired and he came back to say thank you.
I am sure that the other nine were healed just as well as that tenth one was but I wonder how long they stayed healed and cured. It is our nature to take something and not respond; ours is a society where it is me first and no one else (in part, I think that is why Paul was talking about what Timothy had to do).
What happened to those nine lepers who were healed by Jesus but didn’t come back and say thank you? Who knows? They were happy to have been healed and given a chance to get back into society. But the odds are that they didn’t change the way they lived and probably found themselves with the disease again as a result.
Society doesn’t require that they say thank you; God doesn’t ask for a thank you either. God’s grace is free and unlimited to everyone and you can do with it whatever you wish. He gives us His Grace freely and openly; we are the ones who need to be saying thank you, in our words, our thoughts, our deeds, and our actions to God for what He has done for us.
Each day, we are given the opportunity, to accept God’s grace and change the way we live. Instead of being one who tries to be a nonconformist by confirming to the wishes and desires of society, we can find our individuality and soul by being one with Christ.
The challenge for each one of us is to make that decision – shall I accept Christ or shall I continue along the path that I have walked. The first choice gives me the opportunity to be who I am; the second just makes me one of the crowd. The choice is yours today.