by Rev. Joe Connolly
“…do not conform yourselves to this age or to this world. Rather, be transformed by the renewal of your minds, so that you may discern, that you may judge what the will of God is— that which is good and acceptable and pleasing and perfect.” — Romans 12:2.
I think most of you know I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s in New York City. Obvious proof of the specific years which straddled my youth is that specific timing gave me an opportunity to serve my country.
Let me translate that: serve my country means I was drafted into the armed forces. The timing means I was afforded an opportunity to serve my country in Vietnam.
Also, as I have from time to time indicated, when I was young my family was relatively poor, as those things go. Which is not to say we were destitute. It is to say we continually scraped by as we made ends meet.
Part of that economic picture is, for his entire working career, my father was a teacher in a Catholic High School. Both then and now most teachers in parochial schools earn by far less than those in Public Schools. And indeed, once her children were old enough to fend for themselves when home alone, to help the finances my mother held a series of jobs from being a school crossing guard to working in the Department of Housing in the city.
That having been said, growing up in New York City gave me some amazing opportunities for exposure to the broader culture and to the arts then would have been afforded to a youngster from a family with limited income who lived elsewhere. Now, one of those opportunities came about because of some contacts my parents had made in the city and because of some sacrificers they were willing to make.
Between 1956 and 1960— five years— my brother, my sister and I spent the whole Summer at a fairly ritzy, all Catholic, Summer camp, located in East Hampton. This came about because my parents knew the owners of this camp.
And so my father worked as the camp bookkeeper and treasurer; my mother worked as a camp counselor for small girls, four and five years old. Now, what I am about to say would probably be illegal today. My parents did not get paid money for their work. Instead, their three children got a break from inner city life and went to Summer camp.
I was reminded about this because I am in a Facebook group of camp alumni. Last week someone posted a whole Summer’s worth of newsletters from the camp. And, sure enough, there was a write up in one of them about my Dad.
Now, I’ve labeled this as a fairly ritzy camp. What I probably should say is it was a camp for fairly ritzy people. Broadway stars and movie stars sent their kids to this camp.
Those of you with long memories might remember the actor Don Ameche. He sent his kids to this camp. Late in his career— 1985— Ameche won an Academy Award for his performance in the Ron Howard movie Cocoon.
Another interesting person at camp was the head counselor, Ed Danowski. Who? Ed Danowski. In the 1950s Danowski was the football coach at Fordham University.
But Ed was more famous than that. Danowski was the starting quarterback for the New York Football Giants from 1935 to 1939. He was on the team in ’34 when the Giants won the NFL Championship and led the team in ’38 when they won it again. In 1935 Danowski led the league in passing yards and touchdowns.
My point here is simple. Please think about how much things have changed. Put differently, imagine the current Giants quarterback, Eli Manning, who has also won the championship twice, ten years down the road being the head counselor at a Summer camp. I don’t care how “ritzy” a camp claimed to be. There is no way Eli Manning would be head counselor at any Summer camp. (Slight pause.)
These words are in Romans: “…do not conform yourselves to this age or to this world. Rather, be transformed by the renewal of your minds, so that you may discern, that you may judge what the will of God is— that which is good and acceptable and pleasing and perfect.” (Slight pause.)
Occasionally I will hear other pastors and even members of the laity complain we live in a time and in a culture that ignores the Gospel message. It seems to me one strain within that complaint is a “Woe is me” kind of sentiment. Why do I live in this time where people so readily ignore the message of hope, peace, joy, freedom, equity, love found in Scripture?
I have a reaction to that kind of complaint. Here is it: “Well, we have it a lot better than the Apostle Paul had it. After all, when Paul was preaching no one knew what Christianity was.”
“Paul had to start from scratch. Today, even if people do not listen or adhere to the message of Scripture, at least they know it’s out there. Paul had to preach in the context of the Roman Empire, where people had never even heard of the Christ.”
“And we,” say I, “we have this huge opportunity to preach in the context of the American Empire where people have at least heard of the Christ, even if people generally pay no heed to the message of hope, peace, joy, freedom, equity, love found in Scripture.” (Slight pause.)
I want to suggest what I just said implies a specific analysis of American history and who we are, now, as a country. I also want to suggest that, than if you take a look at the 1950s and today, you can see how things on the world stage have changed and how the culture has changed.
As we left the Second World War in our rear view mirror, there was really only one other major power— Soviet Russia. But over the course of these last 70 years we are it. There now really is no other major world power. There is us. No one else even comes close. Hence, we are a little like the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was it. No one else came close.
Why do I say no one else comes close in terms of being an Empire? One statistic says it all.
We spend more than what the next eight highest spending countries combined together, spend on defense— we spend more than the next eight highest spending countries combined together spend on defense. That sounds empire to me. And, as a Biblical scholar, that sounds like Rome to me. 
Just to be clear and in case you think I’m making this statistic up, consider this chart. (The pastor holds up a chart— see the footnote about the chart.) We’re the red; this is everyone else. (The pastor moves from behind the pulpit and hands out copies of the chart to each group and there are groups because they are sitting at tables for this service.)  There is more where that came from in case you want it.
The chart comes from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation which was established by Mr. Peterson. He is a former U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the Nixon Administration and founder of the Blackstone Group, a financial-services company.
So, the foundation is not some radical, wacko-out there organization. These are simply the facts, the statistics. We spend more on defense than the next eight countries combined.
Indeed when it comes to empires, in ancient times the next largest empire— and we Westerners do not acknowledge or know about this since we concentrate on Western history— in ancient times the next largest empire after Rome was… China. And after the United States who today spends more on defense than any other country except us? China. We are the Roman Empire. And just like Rome, China is our next biggest rival— empires… the more things change…. I don’t have to finish that do I?
All that brings me back to what Paul had to say (quote:) “do not conform yourselves to this age or to this world. Rather, be transformed by the renewal of your minds, so that you may discern, that you may judge what the will of God is— that which is good… and acceptable… and pleasing” to God. (Slight pause.)
I need to emphasize something: saying we are the Roman Empire says nothing about our politics. It does not even say we should or should not be the Roman Empire.
It does say, if Paul was preaching in the context Roman Empire and what Paul preached was about the hope, peace, joy, freedom, equity and love found in Scripture, what should we be doing? What should we, as Christians, in our modern version of empire, be about?
Perhaps we need to be about the Gospel, the message of hope, peace, joy, freedom, equity and love found in Scripture. You see, in the sentence before the one I’ve been quoting Paul says we need to present ourselves (quote:) “as holy and acceptable to God.” (Slight pause.)
All that brings me back to Ed Danowski and Eli Manning, quarterbacks both. Times change. The context in which we live changes. Perhaps more to the point, our vision gets blurred by what is around us. Our vision gets blurred by the cultural context in which we live.
And that is precisely the point Paul makes. Our vision gets blurred, is blurred, because of the world in which we live.
Therefore, we do conform. We assume human empire is a given. And I think what Paul was stating quite clearly in the context of the Roman Empire is that the vision, God’s vision, for the world rejects empire.
God’s vision for the world encompasses hope, peace, joy, freedom, equity, love these things we in Scripture. And God’s vision is not at all like human empire. And that vision God has for the world, that vision needs to be our vision. (Slight pause.)
When the reading from Romans was introduced it was said Paul strives to place theology in the reality of the context, the situation in which people are living— the context of that time and that place. Theologian N. T. Wright has said New Testament times are exactly like our times in one way. In ancient times nearly everybody believed in God. Few people took God seriously. Wright insists the same is true today— nearly everyone believes in God; few take it seriously. The more things change…. I don’t have to finish that one, either, do I? (Slight pause.)
I think if we accept God’s vision for the world, a vision which encompasses hope, peace, joy, freedom, equity, love this wonderful wholeness found in Scripture, then we do take God seriously. But I also think, in order to take God seriously, in order to take the message offered in Scripture seriously we need to realize that we cannot be conformed to this age, to this world. Because this age and this world is not about the message of hope, peace, joy, freedom, equity, love we find in Scripture. Amen.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Do me a favor and consider this: if you do not think you are living in a time like the Roman Empire, or even if you do think you are living in such a time, sit down and read the works Paul actually wrote, as opposed to the works simply attributed to Paul. Those works in chronological order are: First Thessalonians, Galatians, First Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, Second Corinthians and Romans. I think you will see that Paul’s writings address both living in an empire and the message of hope, peace, joy, freedom, equity, love found in Scripture.”
BENEDICTION: This service of worship is over but our service in the name of God continues outside these doors. May we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe God that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.
 Note: to see the chart please go to this URL:
 The service was in the room where “coffee hour” normally happens so people were sitting at tables, in groups.