Color Outside the Lines

Romans 12:1-8

When I was in kindergarten one day, I had a bright idea. We were coloring in apples, four to a sheet. We were going to cut them out and mount them on a paper tree on the wall. So I thought to myself, why fuss with coloring inside the lines? I can do this a lot faster if I just color the whole paper red. The other kids at my table saw what I was doing, thought it was a good idea, and did it, too.

But then Mrs. H, the teacher, came over and looked at my paper. She did not see an ingenious solution to a problem; she saw a mess. “Take that to the trash can, and start again!” she said. “And this time, stay inside the lines!”

Stay inside the lines. It is a message we have all received at one time or another. Follow the rules, keep your head down, do the tried and true. Above all, don’t make trouble.

But this is not the advice that St. Paul gives in our lesson for today. “By the mercies of God, I appeal to you, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” He goes on to give examples about living in a counter-cultural way—looking honestly at yourself instead of promoting yourself; using your gifts not for your own gain but to build up others. If you read on in the passage, you’ll see that Paul also expects that Christians to do other unexpected things: make peace with others, rather than protecting your territory; care for the poor rather than looking the other way; welcome the stranger instead of being wary of them. Don’t be conformed to the world’s habits, St Paul says—color outside the lines, and it will transform you.

St Paul was indeed a person who lived outside the lines. He was raised as a Pharisee—a sect of Judaism which focused on living out the law. 517 laws of scripture governed everything from when to wash your hands to how to treat mold in your home to who you could eat with—Paul was taught to keep them all. But when he became a Christian, he began to see how God’s good law could be twisted into slavish rule-following rather than loving devotion. And so Paul stepped outside the lines and began to preach to non-Jews and told them they didn’t have to keep the law in order to become Christians. It caused a lot of conflict, but the Spirit’s work in Paul and others like him transformed the church from a narrow faith to a universal one.

The truth is, sometimes you have to go outside the accepted boundaries because the established boundaries are wrong. Martin Luther, the namesake of our denomination, is an example of this: upon realizing the foundation of medieval theology was based on the notion that you could buy your way into heaven through the sale of indulgences, he went outside the lines and returned to scripture, proclaiming salvation by God’s gift of grace alone, through faith.

The civil rights movement in our country is another example—luminaries like Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis stirred up what Lewis called “good trouble,” and went outside the lines to challenge laws that kept Black people from voting, public amenities, and equal opportunity. Tomorrow is, in fact, the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington where 250,000 people walked from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial to demand equal access to jobs and housing and voting rights. It was the day Dr King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and afterward leaders met with President Kennedy and VP Johnson. But despite the success of the day, the impact was not immediate. Moving forward would require bipartisan support, and most of Congress was not interested in the March. But mounting public pressure and continued protests created the bipartisan consensus needed to pass the Civil Rights Act the following year and the Voting Rights Act the next. It seems to me that in each of these cases, new possibilities were created because people were willing to color outside the lines. They were willing to explore the in-between spaces—in-between what was commonly accepted as right and wrong. They were willing to look closely at the effects of current practice and policy and listen to the lived experience of neighbors.

But to be fair, as an adult, I can identify with Mrs. H—she had 25 kids in the classroom and was probably trying to help us work on our fine motor skills. Instead of following the lesson plan, I caused a whole table of kids to miss the goal of the lesson and finish a full 10 minutes ahead of schedule. Coloring inside the lines has its place.

But if Mrs. H just asked me why I did it, I am convinced she would have acted differently. I wasn’t trying to cause trouble, I just saw the lesson had wider possibilities. Similarly, St Paul didn’t say “be not conformed to this world” to be an iconoclast; he wasn’t encouraging anarchy or the wholesale abandonment of the civil order. He was telling the Christians in Rome to measure their actions by God’s standards, not the world’s. He was telling them that, like Jesus, there would be things they have to stand up for—things that other people won’t like, will judge, and will call you out for. If you do good to your enemies like St Paul writes later in this chapter, people will criticize you for it. But that is how Jesus lived his life, and that is our measure—not what our next-door neighbors are doing or even what laws are on the books.

We live in challenging times, where loud voices claim to be right and the other side wrong. It seems there is little middle ground these days and little understanding. It is therefore incumbent upon us as people of faith to remind ourselves where our ethics come from: they come from Jesus and his life. They come from the knowledge that we all stand in need of forgiveness and grace. They come from the belief that no matter the death-dealing forces in the world, that God intends life, and nothing will stop that resurrection power.

I invite you to let St Paul’s words today inspire you to think about how you are coloring. What lines have you been staying inside of? Are there lines that are unjust? That keep people out? That punish rather than help? Maybe those boundaries need to be crossed. Take to heart St Paul’s words, as if they were written for you: “I appeal to you, by the mercies of God, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Be willing to color outside the lines and let the Holy Spirit shape the outcome.

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