Today began a series that involves reading some children’s books as supplemental readings to the scripture. It was an idea I toyed with for a few years before trying last year, to an enthusiastic reception. Each sermon will contain a link to the book in question.
Scripture: Romans 12:4-8
There are few forces on earth more powerful than peer pressure. If we let it, peer pressure can contort us into looking like someone else. It can erode our physical and emotional well-being. It can squeeze us into doing horrible things that are counter to our convictions. And peer pressure is always present, no matter the stage in life we find ourselves.
In both the extreme and mundane, peer pressure is the driving force behind what psychologists call a “mob mentality.” That’s when perfectly rational individuals all bend their convictions to what they believe others think. On the more innocent end of the spectrum, it influences clothing trends and home decor. On the more violent end, it has led to riots and lynchings.
It’s the reason that Kay (from the first Men in Black movie) remarked: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.”
I grew up near Chicago, hearing tales of kids being killed for their sneakers—the peer pressure of having the right clothes and to fit in with the right crowd led to Cain & Abel-like murders.
I remember the first fight I ever got into—I didn’t even have anything against the other guy, but “they” thought we should fight and that it would show everyone that I was tough.
And I remember how desperately and how long I wrestled with my pastoral calling. I felt the peer pressure of cultural conformity—I thought being a pastor would mean I would have to fit in a box that just didn’t fit, that I would have to live, dress, think, laugh, and be someone other than who I was. Thankfully, after a long time wrestling with God, I came to understand that God called me to be me—to be myself and serve as clergy, two things which (it turns out) are not mutually exclusive.
In the Romans text, Paul makes an appeal to Christians to resist peer pressure, to be authentically ourselves, and to be wary of pressuring others into being someone other than who God created and gifted them to be.
We all do not, as Paul remarks, have the same function or the same gifts. I might add that we do not all come from the same backgrounds or have the same experiences—when we expect that others encounter the world just like us, we deny God’s unique giftedness of them. When we suppose our way of seeing the world is the only one that is right, we turn a blind eye to the rest of the body.
Think about this: every part of the body does not experience the world in the same way.
Eyes may see, but cannot conceive of texture.
Hands my put food in your mouth, but know nothing of taste.
A nose might understand smell, but it is completely ignorant of what created that smell—not without help from the other senses.
Each part of the body needs the experiences of all the others in order to comprehend what it itself discerns.
No matter how certain you are of your experiences and convictions, if you are unwilling to look through others’ eyes and lives your perspective will always be incomplete and skewed toward selfishness and pride.
Because of this, Paul also urges us to simultaneously be the best “me” we each can be. Instead of trying to be like others, Paul encourages us to embrace the gifts and abilities endowed on us by God. Whether anticipating God’s action, serving, teaching, encouraging, generosity, leading, mercy, or any other gift, we are told to embrace our gift, to use our gift, and to find joy in sharing our gift.
Back to Backbeard
In the book, Backbeard wonders if the other pirates will respect him when he is true to himself. His concern is first for his immediate friends (his crew), but also for the other pirates he might come across. The heart of the book is probably found in this exchange:
“Do you like it, Cap’n?” asked Sweaty McGhee.
“I do,” said Backbeard.
“Well then, that’s all that counts, ain’t it?” said Sweaty.
Despite their funny way of showing it, Backbeard’s crew really do love each other and are close friends. Because of that, they accept him for who he is—even if he likes different clothes and things than they do. A person’s appearance, they understand, doesn’t really matter; it’s the person that counts.
The book takes it a step further than this, too. Most of you were not in a position to see for yourself, but the final pages of the book depict Captain Backbeard, his boat, and his crew—all decked out in bright colors and patterns (even the sails & boards of the ship!). While it might not be as explicit, this communicates a powerful truth: When you follow your heart, it will inspire others to do the same. Because Backbeard decided to be his authentic self, others on his crew felt the freedom to express their unique selves too.
One of the false gods of our world is conformity. It is the lie that everyone is supposed to look, be, act, and think the same. That is not the way God created us. God created us uniquely different. God sets us on paths that are different. God gifts us differently, and expects us to use our gifts in different ways.
Saying “no” to the pressure of conformity frees us up to say “yes” to God’s invitation to become our authentic selves. But it also requires being part of a body much larger and more complex than our own perceptions can discover by ourselves.
As I said at the beginning, there are few forces on earth more powerful than peer pressure. There may, in fact, be only one thing strong enough to conquer it: Love. In his book Strength to Love, Dr. Martin King penned these words:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction….
The chain reaction of evil—hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars—must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.
This has been yet another week where many have felt on the ragged edge of that “dark abyss of annihilation.” People have been killed—people whose lives matter, because God loved them and created them in God’s own image. People who matter because Christ loved them enough to die for their sins. People who matter because they mattered to their family, friends, and communities.
One thing that has become clear to me this week is that a great deal of the violence we do to one another in this world is because we cannot or will not look beyond our own lives and experiences and admit that other people have experiences vastly different than our own. We are unwilling to believe that our experience is not absolute truth for everyone. But this view comes from arrogance, and it denies the truth present in the Romans 12 text and so many other places in the Bible.
The way of Christ requires the humility to admit that we only know in part—of this world and the next.
The way of Christ necessitates that we confess our need to hear other voices and perspectives to obtain a more complete picture.
The way of Christ is the path that more readily says “I don’t know” than “You’re wrong.”
The way of Christ calls me to be me, but it also calls you to be you—and we each must honor the differing calls Christ places on each other.
After all, each part of the body needs the experiences of all the others in order to comprehend what it itself discerns. But with Christ as our head, we can be complete, together.