Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | July 5, 2020
Recently my son Elliott came up to Duluth to do some landscaping work for us. I handed him my keys so that he could get into the garage and he pointed out to the grandsons my key fob. A small metal plate inscribed with three words, “Guide Me, Lord.” I picked it up around the time Elliott was born and have carried it ever since.
“Guide me, Lord,” has served as my go-to prayer on many occasions. I’ve thought about it a lot lately, in these times in which we find ourselves; these times in which we try to find ourselves, what it all means and how we try to live our lives.
The prayer, “Guide me, Lord,” raises for me the question, “How am I supposed to respond to all of this as a person of faith?” And collectively, “How do we as people of faith respond to what the world throws at us?”
We find a response to the prayer and the questions in a brief chapter of the book of Romans. Romans 12 might be described as Christianity in a nutshell. There are some hard truths to be found there.
“Be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God.”
When I was a senior in high school in 1972, the debate question that year was, “Should abortion be legalized?” As an 18-year-old thinker, I tended to see the world in clear cut lines. Life was black or white and shades of grey had not yet entered into my world view. I had a firm belief about the correct answer to the debate question.
In our speech class we discussed the question before we debated it. In preparing for the debate, we had to research both side of the question. That was an enlightening process. Researching the side of the argument with which I did not agree helped me to better understand where the other side was coming from. When it came time to debate, the teacher assigned me to argue for the side of the question I did not agree with. I won the debate. But I did not change my mind. Though there was more to think about.
A few years later I was called upon to help out the young sister of a friend. She was 16 years old and feared she might be pregnant. In those days you couldn’t go to the pharmacy and buy a test. You had to go to the doctor. There was a free clinic in town and the friend asked me to take her sister there to get a pregnancy test. So I did. I remember the young girl being scared, embarrassed and confused. The test results came back positive.
This girl came from a staunch Christian family. She attended a private Christian school. Her parents and the boy’s parents got together and decided the best thing for the situation was for her to get an abortion. The Supreme Court had ruled on Roe vs. Wade by then, so abortion was essentially legal.
The problem was, she didn’t want an abortion. But what she wanted didn’t matter. Her parents forced her to undergo an abortion. The scandal of her pregnancy in the good Christian community was avoided, and that was a wound she carried that with her from then on.
That experience, my part as a close observer, and seeing the humanity in a real situation and not merely an intellectual argument, affected a change in my thinking. What was once black and white was now shaded with grey. Sometimes we think we need to change the world. But often the greater challenge is to find our own transformation.
The challenge to renew our minds is all around us.
How do we respond as a community of faith to the world around us goes hand in hand in claiming our common ground as followers of Jesus. That sounds simple enough. But I imagine Jesus was not long out of the tomb before his followers began to say to each other, “This is my piece of ground, you stand over there!”
What the Word teaches us is that though we are in it together, we are in it differently. We stand on our common ground, each bringing our unique gifts and talents to the community. That means we don’t have to think exactly alike and march in lockstep.
I remember a discussion I had in a worship committee meeting. It was a couple of days after the events of 9/11 and we were talking about how to address the situation in the next worship service.
I was trying to talk about the tone of the service, and how we might respond to what was happening as “people of faith.” I thought a service with elements of somber reflection and hope of the resurrection would be in order. Something almost like a funeral service.
One woman insisted that we should sing, “God Bless America.” Members of congress had stood on the steps of the nation’s capital building and sang that song together and it was a moving sight. I thought “God Bless America” was more appropriate to a civic function rather than a worship service.
There was discussion back and fort. Our latching onto “God Bless America” yes or no prevented us from considering other options, such as “My Country Tis of Thee.” Finally, the proponent of God Bless America said to me through her tears, “If you had ever served in the military, then you would understand!”
Now, that was the first time someone had ever questioned my patriotism. And the events of 9/11 began a trend in American life of a kind co-opting of patriotism. The idea that in order to be true patriot, one had to hold to a particular political stance and ideology.
I resented that, deeply. I turned down the opportunity to serve as a chaplain in the Air Force Reserve because the woman to whom I was married at the time was against it. She had been raised in a military family and it was not a good experience for her. For
the sake of family harmony, I followed a different path. I served as a volunteer fire-fighter for eight years.
At the time of 9/11 I was a Civil Service Commissioner for the St. Louis Park Fire Department.
When reason, logic and even science are in an argument with emotion, no one is going to win.
It was one of the few times I pulled rank and said, “As a Presbyterian minister, there are two things over which I have the final say. One is the content of my sermons and the other is the selection of hymns in worship.”
We did not sing “God Bless America” in our worship service. I took the heat for that. And today I have an American flag displayed from my front porch, because it belongs to me as much as it belongs to everyone in this country.
I think if I were faced with that scenario today, I would probably do it differently; something along the lines of, if that song makes you feel better, then sing it. Maybe we should have a time of patriotic fellowship after the worship service. Just know that there’s more to it than that. By hearing them, I would likely have been better heard myself.
The last paragraph of Romans 12 presents the big challenge for how we respond to the world as people of faith. In two words: counter intuitively.
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Sometimes I look at the world and I think, I’m certainly glad that God loves the world, because I struggle with it. The misery and the suffering, the injustice and unfairness, the brutality and violence, the greed and cruelty. All these human maladies that are so preventable. So unnecessary.
But I also think, I’m in the world and I’m part of it. I can be part of the problem or part of the solution. And if I’m in the world, I’m in it as a person of faith; that’s how I need to respond. Faith is not like a pension where you can retire and live on the proceeds. Faith is an everyday investment – an investment into our own transformation and renewal – into our common ground as followers of Jesus – and into the world in which we live, and breath and have our being.
Guide me, Lord. Guide us all.