"God's Nonconformists Final Words"
Scripture - Romans 12:1-8
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, August 24, 2014

Best-selling author, Barbara Kingsolver, recalls the tough terrain of her teenage years. She went to school in the hand-me-down clothes of her cousin who was three years older. The cousin was always dressed in the latest fashion, but by the time Kingsolver received her clothes, they were no longer in style. When the girls in her class were wearing straight shifts with buttons down the front, she had skirts that flared out in every direction. And her black lace-up oxfords, which her parents perceived to have orthopedic value, made her feel as if she were clomping around in army boots. She suspected people noticed, but then had it bluntly confirmed one day when Billy Stamps announced to the lunch line: "Make way for the bride of Frankenstein!"

That Christmas she pleaded for a pair of go-go boots. She knew the rest of her life would be bearable if she just had a pair of those white, calf-high boots with the tiny heels. But, her dream went unrealized. For Christmas she received a pair of white rubber boots with treads that looked like tires.1

She wanted what most every teenager yearns for: she wanted to fit in with the crowd. She wanted to be like everyone else. She was convinced that acceptance was to be found in conformity.

Of course once she became a parent, she saw things differently. She hoped her daughter would not be a conformist. She wanted her child to be an independent thinker who would not be swayed by the latest fads and the opinions of others.

Not surprisingly, that is also what God hopes for us; that we not expend our energy seeking to conform to the ways of the world. In fact, it appears that God urges us to take the necessary steps to live up to the titles of dissident, oddball, eccentric, rebel.

In today's Scripture passage, pulled from Paul's Letter to the Christians in Rome, he writes, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds." And he says the reason for not conforming to the standards of the world is in order that we might "discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect."

The word "perfect" sets off warning bells. It sounds like an unrealistic standard. The Greek word teleios can mean perfect, but one of its meanings is also "mature." That is why some translations do not render the word in this passage as perfect, but rather as mature, which better fits the context.

A college sophomore made an appointment with the school's chaplain because something was troubling her and she needed to talk. She had come to this university because she knew she could get a top flight education and because she thought she would fit in well with the other students. She felt good about the academics, but the social part was unraveling. She had discovered that making friends and fitting in carried a steep price. There were subtle pressures that said: "People here do things this way. You need to loosen up. You need to do what we're doing."

But the young woman was unsettled because she did not want to passively drift along with everyone else. She said she had spent time thinking about what actions were right for her and the kind of life she wanted to live, but that strained her relationships. She said, "Nobody wants to look odd, but I finally found the courage to say to myself, €˜This is the life I want."2

Who knows? Perhaps she had stumbled across the words of John Kenneth Galbraith who said, "The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking." She was discovering that questioning her peers could be painful. The fact that she had gone to speak to the college chaplain points to the fact that her faith was calling her in a different direction than her friends. She felt the tension between the values of the crowd and the way of Christ. Many choose the path of least resistance, but God calls us to take the challenging and more satisfying route.

Paul urges us to be non-conformists, but not simply for the sake of touting ourselves as mavericks who reject established ideas or values. He calls on us to discern the will of God which often requires us to reject the prevailing values of our culture in order to embrace a better way.

Conformists ignore consequences. They go along with the crowd in order to feel accepted. They conform to feel confirmed. They develop a herd mentality and never grapple with where it will take them. But when everyone sings the same note, there is no beautiful harmony.3

North Americans like to believe they are non-conformists. Many imagine themselves to be independent thinkers not easily swayed by prevailing norms. However, marketers know otherwise. They know that there is a strong desire to win the approval of others; to fit in with whatever is in fashion - whether it be clothes or opinions or values.

Mark Twain spoke against this common human desire to conform when he said, "Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect."

You may remember Apple's "Think Different" campaign from a few years ago. Although their grammar missed the mark, their message did not. While showing images of people such as Albert Einstein, Amelia Earhart and Mahatma Gandhi, a voice says, "Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They are not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do."

In the first century, the followers of Jesus were criticized and persecuted. One of the chief accusations against them was that they were turning the world upside down.

The Apostle Paul counsels non-conformity because he has experienced the joy and satisfaction that results from living as Jesus lived - to stand courageously against the prevailing norms that focus on possessions, privilege and power. Instead, we are to focus:

not on possessions, but on generosity;
not on privilege, but on compassion;
not on power, but on justice and peace.

In the novel, Marcelo in the Real World, Marcelo is a young man who is high functioning on the autism spectrum. He has been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. He is smart and compassionate, and he possesses a special love for animals and God. He has lived a protected life, attending a private school for children with special needs, and through the support of his doctor, his family and his faith, he better understands his special way of processing things, and how to read the cues that will help him relate better to others.

When Marcelo turns seventeen, his father decides it is time for him to learn how to navigate the "real world." A Harvard-educated, corporate lawyer, his father gives him a summer job in the law firm mail room. His father says to him, "This summer you must follow the rules of the...real world." And Marcelo knows what that means - he will engage in small talk with people, look people in the eye and shake their hands. He will try to understand their facial expressions and refrain from discussing his special interest in God. He is to pretend that he is normal according to the definition put forth by the "real world."

On the first day of his summer job, Marcelo's father finds him praying before he leaves their house for work, and decides to teach him another lesson about the real world. He says, "I want you to be religious but, at the same time, I want you to participate in the day-to-day world. People in the workaday world are discreet about their religion. They pray in private. They don't quote scripture unless it's a figure of speech like, I don't know, €˜An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, the blind leading the blind.' Things like that. Phrases that have common usage.'"

Marcelo says, "Jesus' exact words were, €˜Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit?' Luke, chapter six, verse thirty-nine."

"That's exactly what I mean," his father says, "It's not customary to quote scripture to someone, much less quote him chapter and verse. I think that if you're going to benefit from this experience, it's important that you try to act as is customary."

Marcelo takes out the small yellow notebook he keeps in his shirt pocket and writes: Do not pray so that others see... do not quote scripture...Note: Listen for religious phrases that have become figures of speech. Those are allowed even if not accurate. Do not provide correct version or cite where it appears in the Bible.

Thus, Marcelo begins his summer job where he will discover in three months' time that "the real world" is about competition, the assumption that most people are looking out for themselves and making a profit even when it means inflicting pain on another. As Marcelo puts it, he comes to understand that "the real world will always poke you in the chest with its index finger."

But he never lets go of the words of Jesus, "Be in the world but not of the world." Refusing to let go of his love for God and the Scriptures, Marcelo also discovers a community of people out there in the real world who are not just out for number one, who care about people who suffer, who make sacrifices to help those in need, and who break the rules of the real world when it is the right thing to do. It turns out this young man with special challenges learns to navigate "the real world" without letting go of the way of Christ.4

The Apostle Paul does not want us to "become well-adjusted to our culture so that we fit into it without thinking."5 He wants us to become God's nonconformists who comprehend the real world, but not the world that currently exists. He wants us to see the world as God envisions it can be so that we will look to the needs of others as well as our own, seek forgiveness rather than revenge, work for justice rather than personal privilege, become generous rather than accumulating more, weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice and strive to turn our twisted world into a realm of hope and peace.


  1. Barbara Kingsolver, High tide in Tucson, (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), p. 54-55.
  2. William Willimon, "The Joy of Not Fitting In."
  3. My paraphrase of a quote by Doug Floyd.
  4. Agnes Norfleet, ""Welcoming an Upside-down World," May 4, 2014.
  5. Eugene Peterson's translation of Romans 12:2 in The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Alive Communications, Inc., 2005).

Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton

Gracious God, you have united a diverse people together in this church, given us a variety of gifts, and bestowed upon us resources to be faithful people. We give you thanks and praise for the gifts you have given us, and acknowledge with gratitude the faith of those who walked before us within this church. Give us the fervent desire and the vision needed to discern your will for our own lives and for your church. Transform our hopes into your hopes, our desires into your desires, and our lives into that which you know we are capable of becoming.

Although you are a God of peace who is bringing in a day when our swords will be turned into farming implements, this world continues to solve her disputes with bombs, and we have growing divides between the haves and the have-nots, and racism is still a motivating force in our society. O God, transform this hostile world into a garden which blooms with love and respect, gentleness and trust, hope and generosity.

Where people are sick, and where people are hurting, send your Spirit of comfort. Where people are lonely, where people are oppressed and where they are bound by dashed hopes or crumbling dreams, send your Spirit of freedom. Where they are struggling with life changing decisions, and where they are embracing new directions, send your Spirit of wisdom.

For students going away to college for the first time, we ask for your special presence as they adjust to new communities and new freedoms. For children who are just beginning their educational endeavors, we ask for your presence as they learn to relate to new people and settle into new routines.

Where you call us to blaze new trails, and where you beckon us to shake things up for the sake of the Good News of the Gospel, fill us with the power we need. Help us to see the need around us, and with compassionate service seek to fill those needs.

We ask these things, remembering the love shown to us in Jesus Christ, and remembering the prayer he taught saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen."