Nicholas Kristof wrote an unsettling editorial in the NYTimes this week about America’s loss of religious faith. The great de-churching means that more people have left Christian churches over the last 25 years than ever joined during times of effective evangelism over the last three centuries. The reason? To many people who find the teaching of Jesus compelling, the church has felt judgmental, hateful, and not very Christian. If this pattern continues, Kristof predicts that in 15 years fewer than half of Americans will identify as Christian.
Unlike Kristof, I think we can do something about this. At SSEC, we seem to be on the right track, serving and welcoming our neighbors, serving families and young adults, offering vibrant worship. We are interested in life in the presence of God and in building a community of spiritual transparency, trust, and generosity.
The teaching of St Paul resonates in our community. Paul always remembers that we are embodied souls who can accomplish the work God needs. “ . . . present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God . . .”
The goal for Paul is to work so that our life is a living “thusia” (θυσία), a living, breathing, daily “offering to God” (NRSV translates as sacrifice, which is not incorrect but lacking in nuance connected with offering of a gift to God). Paul knows that since worship is an embodied experience, over a span of time, what we do in our bodies creates a reality, through which we reflect our love with heart, soul, strength, and mind. Paul warns his readers not to be dominated by culture: do not be conformed to this world.
What does it mean to devote one’s life to Christ and not to conform to worldly values?
To live a life identified as a Christian today in the USA does not demand much sacrifice. Our physical selves are not threatened here as they were in Paul’s first century Rome, or even in 21stcentury Pakistan or Sudan. Most of us are fairly comfortable in our bodies even as we complain they are too short/fat/old. This comfortable physical identity may not be the case for someone whose identity does not conform to the usual worldly standards.
A story: Once upon a time, over a decade ago, I was serving a parish in Waterbury CT. Waterbury is a large and complex city, with high levels of the usual urban issues connected to poverty and dislocation. Sunday morning services could be quite interesting. For a variety of reasons, it was not easy to get supply clergy who were willing to come into the city. Among the very few who were willing to take the assignment of preaching three services was my colleague Michelle. Michelle was a bi-vocational priest. She worked in IT, and was very smart. She had an excellent sense of ironic humor. She knew Jesus Christ the Messiah and she preached well. Michelle was a big woman, towering over me at about 5’10”. She also had an Adam’s apple.
It was not I who noticed but my warden. It was fortunate because the wardens did not really care that Michelle was transgender. It mattered more that she showed up and did her work. She had transitioned 20 years prior. It was not an easy decision and came with a terrible cost, professionally and personally. Still, she was comfortable in herself and was a kind and generous priest. I thought about her as I read Romans this week and as hot button issues and hatred divide our country.
What does it look like to devote one’s life to Christ and not to conform to the usual categories of gender?
Do you know that 1-3% total human population identifies as a gender different from the one assigned at birth. In the US, about 5.1% of adults younger than 30 identify as trans or nonbinary.About 1% of people have chromosomal variations which do not actually match their assigned gender. About 21% of Gen Z (born 1995-2010) identify as LGBTQ: that is one in five. Scientific data suggest that the usual social and cultural constructs, which assume that the binary of two sexes covers everyone, do not seem to be accurate. Among younger folks, non-binary really isn’t an issue. I wonder how we as Christian people can work toward a culture of inclusion and appreciation, which is so much richer than mere tolerance. Because gender identity is more complicated than we thought it was. Could God be inviting us to consider a broader framework? It may not be possible for any of us to totally understand another’s inner experience. In what ways can we choose to act with love and kindness toward someone we may not understand?
Long-term Christians might want Christian community to serve as a refuge from the stresses of our time, the rock against which the powers of evil cannot prevail. (Interesting concept for a foundationally revolutionary movement). What if God is asking our community to imagine confronting the injustice of misunderstanding and judgment, by opening up the doors for those who need a refuge?
Paul addresses a group of faithful people and invites them to offer themselves up in gratitude for the work of Christ, asking them to embrace values that are not of this world, as embodied souls. If one is told by the church that one’s body, one’s identity is hateful or sinful or an abomination (a word tossed around nowadays), it’s hard to imagine walking through the doors, or considering that one ‘s body could ever be a living sacrifice, acceptable to God.
What, really, are the values of God? The longer I live, and the more I study the gospels, I am more convinced that God values love, mercy, and justice above coercion or domination. As I recognize my own shortcomings and weakness, I am hoping that the judgment of God is tempered by love, mercy, and justice.
My colleague Michelle was a courageous person and fine priest. She was a fine woman too, holy and acceptable to God, and she just happened to have an Adam’s apple.
I would like to think that Jesus would bless her as a child of God. I would like to think that she would be welcomed here.
Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God . . .
 Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/transgender/how-common-is-transgender
 Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/06/07/about-5-of-young-adults-in-the-u-s-say-their-gender-is-different-from-their-sex-assigned-at-birth/