Be What We Were Made to Be

A Sermon for Sunday October 27 (Reformation Day & All Saints’ Day ) Romans 12 (Eugene Peterson’s The Message)

Shades Valley Presbyterian Church Youth Retreat, Camp Lee, Anniston, AL, 1991. Bonkey is wearing the green hat. Andy is pictured in center of photograph.
Shades Valley Presbyterian Church Youth Retreat, Camp Lee, Anniston, AL, 1991. Bonkey is wearing the green hat. Andy is pictured in center of photograph.

For more than 20 years, during the days that lead up to Halloween, the memory of a significant event in my life resurfaces like The Creature From The Black Lagoonthe death of my friend Bonkey Nezariah McCain, who at the age of 17 was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in the late evening of Friday, October 30, 1992 in Birmingham, Alabama, and pronounced dead at 12:01 am on Saturday October 31.

My tearful mom shook me from my blissful sleep later that Halloween morning to tell me the horrifying news. I staggered out of bed in utter disbelief. It was hard enough to comprehend that a beloved member of our church’s youth group at Shades Valley Presbyterian and a fellow classmate at Shades Valley High School had died, but more difficult to fathom that he was killed.

A member of SVHS’ football team, Bonkey and his teammates had been innocently celebrating their win over another school by eating at a local Pizza Hut. As the players walked out into the parking lot to head home, two guys in a car drove by and opened fire into the crowd. Although Bonkey wasn’t the intended target, he took three bullets to the chest. No one else was injured.

Bonkey’s death shook the community. Bonkey was a remarkable young man who had a deep love for God and people. He had that unique ability of making friends and connecting folks to one another regardless of their differences. And he had big dreams of getting a higher education, playing in the NFL and doing good for others with the gifts God gave him.

The day Bonkey died, I was awoken to the harsh reality of fear, pain and sadness. And yet, in the midst of the shock and grief, my instinct (like many of my church friends) was to not crawl back in bed and isolate myself from the world. My immediate desire was to shower, get dressed and be with my friends.

Within a few hours, our youth group had gathered in one of our friend’s homes. We sat there and held one another as we cried and lamented and expressed our anger over a senseless death. We made phone calls to share the news with friends who lived and attended Presbyterian churches in other parts of central Alabama. They immediately got in their cars and drove to Birmingham. By dinner that evening, there were close to 50-60 people, youth and adult advisers from eight separate high school youth groups, squeezed inside a friend’s living room. Holding onto one another, we cried some more and we told stories about Bonkey’s life and we prayed.

And our advisers reminded us that God grieves with us and yearns for us to live together in love and hope and peace.  They cautioned us to not become jaded by the brokenness and pain of the world. They encouraged us to push against the culture of selfishness, hate and violence by showing God’s goodness in all that we say and do…together.  They proclaimed to us that we—despite our momentary anger and loathing over Bonkey’s death—were called to continue to be the mercy-filled body of Christ in our daily lives.

Our advisers, our God-bearers of the faith, echoed the words of the apostle Paul in his letter to the early Christian church in Rome:


Don’t become so well adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without ever thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God…God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you….

The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him. …

In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other…

Love from the center of who you are; don’t fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply ….Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody. Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone…Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do…Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.

I realize that Paul’s letter may sound too idealistic and naïve to 21st century ears. Paul’s instructions don’t seem feasible during a time in which there is great upheaval divisiveness, and bitter contention in our nation and world.

To some, they are nice-feel-good words that you say to cheer people up. It’s not practical advice.

Except that Paul’s teaching about how Christians should live is actually possible to practice and not some pie-in-the sky idea. Paul’s message is firmly grounded in real-life experience. Paul, like many Jews and Gentile followers of Jesus in those days, lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire and its cruel emperor who decreed himself a god among mortals.

The apostle knew that the only way followers of God could survive the ruthless, conquering military machine of the Roman Empire, the great body politic, was by becoming a part of a body that is greater than any corporate entity, nation, kingdom or ruler—

The body of Christ.

 Made up of chosen people who each find their meaning and function from the body that has shaped them with exquisite design and awe-inspiring purpose.

Paul believed fervently that human beings were created by God to be together and live as one body in love and gratitude to the Creator. To detach one’s self from the whole body of Christ served no purpose.

A person could be alive and functioning but essentially that person was dead in their soul because of their detachment, as useless as a cut-off toe. The individual was like a re-animated corpse that aimlessly wanders the countryside looking for opportunities to rip off the parts of living bodies.

AMC's Walking Dead, Season 1 commercial poster, courtesy of Google Images
AMC’s Walking Dead, Season 1 commercial poster, courtesy of Google Images

Many of us can identity with that metaphor of zombies (which is all the rage these days)—an individual or an individualized culture that seeks to devour our uniqueness, turning us into mindless creatures that fit into societal norms regardless of the harm it does to fellow human beings.

That allegory is so relatable to our lives and world that 3-16 million people tune in every week in the Fall to watch a show about an apocalyptic world overrun with zombies called The Walking Dead, which is set in metro Atlanta and currently being filmed an hour away from here in the Peachtree City area.

The reason for the show’s popularity may surprise those who have never watched an episode and suspect its all for the sake of guts and gore or just get twitchy watching gruesome stuff. But The Walking Dead actually offers a much deeper over-arching message about humanity that is loaded with spiritual and societal themes—particularly individualism v. community.

At one point in the story, Rick Grimes, a sheriff’s deputy of the fictional King County, Georgia, gives a group of survivor’s the “from now on it’s my way or the highway speech” if they are planning to outlast the widespread zombie epidemic. The group is reluctant at first but quickly decide that Rick’s leadership is exemplary and his intentions are in the right place.

However, over the course of several episodes, Rick and his friends, who have sought refuge in an abandoned Georgia prison, encounter the residents of a nearby town called Woodbury and its leader, The Governor. A crazy narcissistic dictator, The Governor views himself as the savior of civilization and is willing to resort to the most deplorable measures to achieve that goal.

Courtesy of Google Images,  Photo Collage of still images from AMC's The Walking Dead, Episode 15 "This Sorrowful Life" March, 2013
Photo Collage of still images from AMC’s The Walking Dead, Episode 15 “This Sorrowful Life” March, 2013, Courtesy of Google Images

Because other survivors are always a threat to his quest for supremacy, the Governor threatens to attack Rick’s group at the prison unless they hand over a particular group member to be tortured and killed. Realizing that he has been losing his sanity and was wrong to ever assume sole leadership, Rick gathers his fellow survivors for a meeting. With sorrow in his eyes, a lump in his throat and guilt in his heart, he tells them: [1]

When I met with the Governor, he offered me a deal. He said he would leave us alone if I gave him Michonne. And I was gonna do that to keep us safe. I changed my mind. But now Merle took Michonne to fulfill the deal and Daryl went to stop him and I don’t know if it’s too late. I was wrong not to tell you. And I’m sorry.

What I said last year, that first night, after the farm, it can’t be like that. It can’t. What we do, what we’re willing to do, who we are, it’s not my call. It can’t be. I couldn’t sacrifice one of us for the greater good because we are the greater good. We’re the reason we’re still here, not me.

This is life and death. How you live…how you die, it isn’t up to me. I’m not your Governor. We choose to go. We choose to stay. We stick together.

There have been numerous moments in my life and ministry where I thought I was solely in charge, the only person making the tough calls and decisions, which were always absolutely right.

I have become, at times, too well adjusted to a culture that thrives off personal success, self-importance and fierce individualism. I have gone from being self-reliant and independent to arrogant, pretentious, judgmental and hateful in seconds. I have been, as my 5-year-old daughter Katie says, a “butt-butt.”

I have been like the demented Governor who is hungry for power and his own needs to be met at the expense of others or I have been like a crazed zombie who rips into others without thinking about the pain and suffering it causes them.

And all that conceited desire to be absolutely right and satisfied all the time (which were my choices) has always separated me from God and the body of Christ.

That’s why I need others to keep me from being detached from the body of Christ. I need that community of faith—made up of people from every time and place—to keep me connected, to keep me in check, and to remind me of the Creator’s unconditional love and my worth as a member of Christ’s body, God’s kingdom.

Intuitively we know that we are the greater good, not because we are perfect and do everything right but because we are the people of God. We know that each of us is so much better when we are together and not alone. We are so much better when we are “marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body.” We are so much better when we “just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other.”

The most well known saints of our time, the ones who seemingly look as if they did things all on their own, understood the importance of togetherness and community all too well.

Martin Luther King Jr. needed Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Bayard Rustin and John Lewis and thousands of other civil rights activists during the days of segregation. Never could he have fought the battle alone.

Mother Theresa needed the Missionaries of Charity to help her care for the poor, the sick and the dying in Calcutta, India and other impoverished countries for more than 50 years.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu needed the Rainbow Coalition and the support of Christians in the West to lead non-violent protests against apartheid in South Africa.

Even now, we need one another to do ministry in our country and across the ocean. Because Lord knows, not a single one of us can do it alone. Try to teach all the church school classes by yourself or single-handled lead both Middle and High School youth groups or do every part of Family Promise or the Red Cross Blood Drive or Rainbow Village ministries alone and you’ll witness disastrous results.

Foremost, an individual who chooses to go solo or walk away from the body of Christ will likely forget their meaning and their purpose in the first place. Without the body of Christ to remind that person who they are and whom they belong to, the individual could end up leading an unfulfilled life.

The gospel truth is that we need one another to live. We were wired to be nothing less than a community that does God’s work together—loving deeply, blessing our enemies, discovering beauty in others, avoiding revenge and overcoming evil with good.

This we know.

This we trust.

This we believe.

So “let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be.”

Amen.


[1] AMC’s The Walking Dead, Season 3, Episode 15: “This Sorrowful Life” March 2013

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1 thought on “Be What We Were Made to Be”

  1. Well done. I think of Bonkey every Halloween and also think of friends grieving in distant houses both then and now. To think of Paul as one of those grieving and still preaching life brings comfort.

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