Before we look at our Biblical text this morning, I’ve invited Mark Twain to set us up for it. Mark remembers that at age 15 he knew a young black slave in Hannibal, Missouri who used to preach sermons from the top of his master’s woodpile with Mark as his sole audience. “He imitated the pulpit style of the several clergymen of the village,” Mark writes, “and did it well, and with fine passion and energy. To me he was a wonder. I believed he was the greatest orator in the United States and would some day be heard from. But it did not happen; in the distribution of rewards he was overlooked. It is the way, in this world. He interrupted his preaching, now and then, to saw a stick of wood; but the sawing was a pretense — he did it with his mouth; exactly imitating the sound the bucksaw makes in shrieking its way through the wood. But it served its purpose; it kept his master from coming out to see how the work was getting along. Forbidden by my mother to partake of his impudent and delightful society, I listened to the sermons from the open window of a lumber room at the back of the house. One of his texts was this: ‘You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.’
“I can never forget it,” Twain goes on. “The black philosopher’s idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he would prosper, he must train with the majority. In matters of large moment, like politics and religion, he must think and feel with the bulk of his neighbors, or suffer damage in his social standing and in his business prosperities. He must restrict himself to corn-pone opinions — at least on the surface. He must get his opinions from other people; he must reason out none for himself; he must have no first-hand views.” Corn-pone opinions, based on self-interest, held tenaciously (and sometimes loudly) to keep the corn-pone coming.
We have been paying attention recently to some of the great themes in the book of Romans, and we come this morning to one of the greatest of all: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” What Twain calls corn-pone opinions, this verse calls conformity. There is no better trivial example of how it works than the fashion industry. Somewhere in the basement I have a collection of ties and sports coats that look as new as the day I bought them, all waiting patiently in the closet for the sultans of style to resurrect them. I used to think I was immune to fashion, and I still run behind the times, but I have learned the power it has over me. When I needed a pair of brown slacks the other night I pulled out a like-new pair, had a faint little twitch of doubt about them, and decided it might be wise to check with the resident critic. It’s not her style to take a look and then dissolve in gales of uncontrollable laughter. She simply smiles, gently, and says, “Hello, Elvis.”
So I changed — and the power of conformity in dress won another victory. We all know how it works. A certain kind of skirt is suddenly popular, no fashionable woman dares to ignore it, and then by and by it runs its course and disappears. Designers may kill it off, or it may be that one woman gives it up, her neighbor notices and follows her lead, that influences the next woman, and so on and on until the skirt has vanished, no one knows how or why, or cares. It will come again by and by, and in due course will disappear again. We are creatures of outside influence; for the most part we do not think, we only imitate — an impulse born of our natural yearning for the approval and praise of our peers. In Twain’s words again, “The name of this great power is public opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it is the voice of God.”
Fashions in dress are a source of pleasure for those who can keep up, a source of embarrassment for those who cannot, and are otherwise not of any great importance. They are not at all what Paul had in mind when he begged the church in Rome not to conform to this world. It sounds almost quaint now, but he believed in certain timeless values not meant to be at the mercy of public opinion — courtesy, kindness, patience, self-control, responsibility, genuine concern for the welfare of others. I like the Phillips translation: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves toward the goal of true maturity.”
The squeeze play from which fashion makes enormous profit is trifling compared to the pressures brought by the world against the character traits Paul says express the spirit of Christ. Pick out just a single one of them, like courtesy, and think about how rare a commodity that has become in public life. So rare that when I find it — the unexpected pleasant smile, the bonus of a cheerful hello, some small service beyond the call of duty — I am so impressed I want to set up an immediate trust fund in that person’s name. Talk with any teacher you know about the influence of Beavis and Butthead on courtesy in the classroom and you will appreciate the power of television to set patterns of behavior. I have known a few kids who were basically polite but who admitted they were rude in the classroom because it was considered the fashionable thing and they didn’t want to be different.
One of the worst things said about anyone in the Bible was about those rulers who actually believed in Christ but would not confess it, lest they be cast out of their synagogues, “for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (John 12:43). This is how the world makes us conform: we don’t want to be cast out of the synagogue. And there are “synagogues” all around us that are ready to do us in if we do not fit the mold. It starts in grade school and never lets up, all the way to the factory and the office and the church. Always the demand to conform. Always the demonic whisper, “One must get along, one must not rock the boat.” Do you think anyone has ever blessed us greatly in human history who bought completely into that creed?
There really is a System at work, always, in economics and religion and politics, and it does not tolerate any nonconformity that truly threatens it. Luther was no problem for the established church so long as the Pope could brush off his antics as merely “a monk’s quarrel.” It was when he became a real threat that the Pope felt, for the system’s sake, he had to bring the monk to trial. I have no idea whether the motives of that former tobacco company executive are good or bad when he swears his bosses deliberately manipulated the nicotine levels in cigarets so as to hook people on the drug and guarantee continued high profits, but their retaliation makes me believe he is telling the truth. Whether he is telling it now for conscience’s sake or for revenge, he has refused to conform to the rules prescribed for him — and the result could ultimately become one of the greatest blessings ever conferred upon the American public.
Paul would argue that the noblest kind of nonconformity comes when our minds are renewed by dwelling on what is honest and decent and good — an internal remedy for an external problem. We hear more about renewing the body than the mind: glamor studios that promise a new look, ever more popular “cosmetic surgery” with its reward of new eyelids, new nose, new lips, new neck…..and all those other anatomical rearrangements you were wondering if I would name. I don’t blame people for improving on nature or reversing the ravages of gravity, but my principal business is with the mind. The religious life, after all, does not work like an automatic thermostat. You have to keep resetting it, keep renewing it. Otherwise, after a while, all that is left is what some thoughtful person called “the ghost of an old amazement.” A popular, if sometimes risque modern slogan, can be applied to meditation, prayer, worship, reading skill: “Use it, or lose it!” Actors in Broadway plays that run for years explain how they keep their performance fresh: we have to recover, they say, “the illusion of the first time.” Renewal: our old Puritan Congregational ancestors loved the idea so much that if you look carefully at some church lists and in some old cemeteries you find names like “Renewed Robinson” — “Renewed Cartwright.”
Not a one-time-only process, either, as they well knew. I find it fascinating to hear from dear friends I knew when we were heedless and immortal and immensely full of ourselves, and to discover that they have discovered renewal. They take more seriously now what I would call “spiritual” matters, except that the word has been used so tackily that it embarrasses some of us. One of the brightest women I know wrote a few days ago from Los Angeles about the things that renew her mind. She wonders if they can be called “spiritual” since they are not conventional things: she speaks of Pavarotti and great theater and the love of irresplacable friends, but she has been in church, too, and found renewal there. She says of a friend here whom she has known since they were in college: “Billie singing spirituals in the choir is, of course, a spiritual experience, so maybe all is not lost for me. I cried buckets [that day in your church] and would have shouted, danced, and gesticulated, had it been seemly.”
She knows, of course, that feelings are not enough, that renewal may take one — as it has taken her — to the AIDS patient and the illiterate; that in Christian thought the reason for renewal is so that“we may prove in practice” that the plan of God for us is good. We can argue doctrine and theology for eternity and prove nothing much for those not already on our side, but the world cannot successfully argue against a renewed mind and a changed life.
All of you see the Salvation Army bellringer around Christmas, but some of you can remember when those little Salvation Army bands used to play and give their testimonies on a street corner. Here is a moment from those days. When the man playing the bass drum was asked to speak, there was a little murmur in the crowd because he looked — to put it as kindly as possible — a bit unpredictable. You could tell he wasn’t used to speaking to an audience, and you guessed his testimony would likely be short. It was. “Well,” he said, “before I was converted, I led a wild life. I drank all the time, I caroused on the weekends, I gambled away every paycheck. But since I’ve been converted…..” (he paused and smiled) “all I do is beat this damn drum.” Everybody laughed for a few seconds, and then everybody stopped because they suddenly realized from the look in his eyes that he was not unhappy after all, that behind the words was a note of new self-respect — a kind of grudging affection for an old drum that had become the symbol of his changed life. In silence, for a moment, he and the crowd looked at one another and every last one of them understood perfectly what he had tried, in his native tongue, to tell them. They were as reflective when they walked away as any crowd I have ever seen leaving church after a sermon.
One last time: “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God remold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that his plan for you is good…..” If you forget the rest when you leave this morning, remember three words: “prove in practice.” Emotion evaporates uselessly unless life changes in some practical way, no matter how simple. I liked the hotel cleaning lady, years ago, who had been converted during what used to be called a “gospel meeting,” and was asked later what difference Jesus made in her life. She said, “I don’t sweep dirt under the carpets anymore.”
Help us this week, Eternal God, to prove in practice that because
we met in worship this day there came some small change in us for the better. Amen.