By Rev. J.C. Austin
One of the highlights of the year I spent in Africa after seminary was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream to go on safari in the Serengeti, which we did in several different areas. They were very much “budget” safaris, of course, since the fellowship I had needed to support us for a full year, but the animals didn’t care how much money we had spent to come see them, and the safari guides were still sharp-eyed and full of knowledge, wiith a desire to share it with those who wanted to learn.
Our guide in Kenya was particularly insightful, and as we talked during the down times of the safari, we discovered that we had a mutual appreciation for strange English names for groups of animals. I don’t mean the odd but familiar ones, like a school of fish or even a gaggle of geese. For some reason birds seem to have particularly vivid ones, perhaps because of their long connection with being interpreted as omens. So we can have a convocation of eagles, an unkindness of ravens, a murder of crows, and my personal favorite: a parliament of owls.
Or at least it was my favorite until my time in Kenya. Because there, aside from the obvious pride of lions, I learned about a crash of rhinoceroses, a tower of giraffes, a parade of elephants, and my new all-time favorite: a dazzle of zebras. Isn’t that amazing? A dazzle of Zebras? It sounds like the name of some underground album that an indie band released before making it big, and now hipsters talk about liking so much more than their new stuff: “Ugh, they’ve gone so mainstream, I won’t listen to anything after ‘Dazzle of Zebras.’”
I asked the guide why they were called a “dazzle” of zebras. Because most of the other names are clearly taken from the basic characteristics of the given animal, either physically, or the personality we ascribe to them: rhinoceroses crash, giraffes tower, lions seem proud.
But zebras don’t seem very dazzling. Oh, you’re excited to see them in the wild on your first day on safari: “look, zebras!” you cry out, pointing at the first group you’ve seen of them as they stand around grazing on the Serengeti grass. But by day three, you’re grumbling, “would someone get these zebras out of the way?” Because they are everywhere, and they don’t seem to do anything except graze, whinny occasionally at each other, and block the view of more rare and interesting animals.
The guide chuckled at my question, apparently hearing the dubious tone I was trying to hide. “Well, you have to see them run when a predator attacks,” he said. “They all take off together, kind of like a flock of birds, and when they are running like that, it kind of looks like black stripes waving up and down very quickly and crazy against a white background. It confuses the predator, and they have a hard time picking one out of the group; their eyes are dazzled, you see.”
So there you have it: the ordinary, even boring, zebra is really dazzling after all. And not by going through some kind of sudden and radical transformation; the individual stripes on a zebra don’t start suddenly moving up and down like those characters on neon signs that seem to wave at night when they are switched on. It’s the circumstances that transform them into something dazzling, not anything new or remarkable that changes about them.
Our brief Scripture lesson this morning from Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the better-known quotes in a letter that has more than its fair share. It’s just two verses, each containing an exhortation: “…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.”
That second one, in particular, is an extraordinary, even dazzling, statement: if we are transformed, we can recognize and understand the very will of God. It’s also a pretty difficult command, though. How can you order people to “be transformed”? He doesn’t say, “transform yourselves.” He doesn’t say, “transform each other.” Both those commands would be challenging and yet theoretically possible; we’ve got some experience transforming ourselves, and Lord knows we like to try and transform each other. But telling somebody to “be transformed” is like telling somebody to “be smart” or “be tall;” it’s not something they have control over. “Be transformed” is a passive command; it is something that is done to you, not something you do.
For Paul, it is something that can and does happen only when we have presented ourselves to God as a living sacrifice, which is why the two exhortations are in the order that they are. And offering ourselves as a living sacrifice is a pretty extraordinary statement, too. I think that’s why this passage is quoted so often, because it seems…well…dazzling. It’s often quoted as an exhortation for dramatic conversion: come forward, forward out of your godless, faithless, dissolute life, and present your soul to be dedicated on the altar of God as a living sacrifice, a grand and dazzling commitment of personal faith.
The problem is, that’s not what Paul is really talking about. First of all, Paul isn’t talking about personal faith, but communal; all of the pronouns are plural and directed toward the members of the church working together. Second, he says to present “your bodies,” not your soul; the language is very specifically referring to flesh and blood, not soul or spirit. Paul is stressing not the ethereal beauty of our souls and spirits, but the finite, fragile, common, boring reality of our bodies; bodies that get sick and get broken, bodies that feel heat and pain and cold, bodies that require constant maintenance with food and water and sleep and exercise.
But he also means bodies that feel pleasure and comfort, bodies that keep us rooted in the reality of this world, bodies that allow us to act on the instructions of our minds and hearts and spirits to build and create, cultivate and harvest, protect and above all be present: really, tangibly, present, in this world and with other people. Paul says we should present those very bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and acceptable to God.
But it is not the bodies themselves that are to be transformed; that comes through the renewing of our minds so that we will know how to use our bodies as living sacrifices to “discern the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” And what is good and acceptable and perfect may not be dazzling at all on its own: it’s the circumstances in which they are found and used that make them dazzling, that make them good and acceptable and perfect.
On my short list for all-time favorite films is The Princess Bride, a romantic fantasy adventure that is one of those timeless films that one generation introduces to the next. It is crammed full of classic lines and exchanges that fans love to quote and reference, which are probably ringing through the minds of many of you right now just by my mentioning it.
My personal favorite line, though, comes soon after the heroes arrive at the villain’s castle to rescue the princess, which is guarded by 60 men and a locked portcullis. The heroes, though, are just three people: a giant, a master swordsman, and Westley, a sort of Errol Flynn-style pirate who is the long-lost love of the princess. The other two sum up what’s going on for Westley, who doesn’t know what’s been happening because he’s just been brought back from being (mostly) dead.
He gamely starts to plan, asking what their assets and liabilities are. But when they tell him it’s just the three of them against 60 men and a locked castle, he despairs: “Impossible,” he says; “if I had a month to plan, maybe I could come up with something.” And then, in resignation, he laments, “If we only had a wheelbarrow, that would be something!” The other two look at each other slowly, then admit that they know where a nearby wheelbarrow is from an earlier encounter.
Wesley’s eyes narrow in frustration: “then why didn’t you list that among our assets in the first place?” he hisses, and the plan begins to take shape. In the next scene, they’ve placed the giant in the wheelbarrow and draped a flaming cloak over him, creating an illusion of a dazzling otherworldly monster hovering across the ground towards the 60 guards who are so terrified that they all flee from their posts, allowing the heroes to storm the castle.
“If we only had a wheelbarrow, that would be something.” The reason I love that line so much is that, of all the things Wesley could have asked the heavens for in that moment, he picks not an army of allies, not a battering ram, not a wizard, not anything that is conventionally mighty in battle, but a wheelbarrow: the utterly undazzling cargo transportation of simple farmers. And yet Wesley has somehow discerned that a wheelbarrow is the invaluable asset they need: that is what is good and acceptable and perfect in these particular circumstances for their attack on the castle to improbably succeed.
It feels like we are being asked to storm a lot of castles these days, under circumstances that seem impossible no matter how long we have to plan, and our assets can seem meager at best to help us meet the challenge. And that leads easily to despair or resignation. As one of my seminary professors used to say: the problem with living sacrifices is they have a habit of getting up and walking off the altar. And it’s true. Living sacrificially means dealing with the constant temptation to get up off the altar upon which we offer ourselves to God and conform ourselves to the world instead, by which Paul means all the powers that post themselves in opposition to God’s will: fear and hate, injustice and greed, division and oppression, suspicion and indifference.
The thing is…we have a lot of wheelbarrows, ordinary things that are actually invaluable assets and resources, which we can recognize by the transforming of our minds to be the very things we need most in this moment, that are good and acceptable and perfect for fulfilling God’s will. Like the plot of ground around the corner there that is producing bushels of fresh vegetables for those in need in our community. Like the building next to it, which has stood largely empty for months, but which we are now considering might be used as a safe, productive, and welcoming space for school-aged children doing who need somewhere to go for their remote learning while their parents are working.
And like our very bodies, which we have brought together here today for the first time in a long, long time. Bodies with eyes to connect with those who are suffering and let them know that we see them, and that we will not look away; voices that can express words of regret or sympathy, can build understanding, offer companionship, and create community; ears that can listen for signs of hope, receive confession and repentance from those who have wronged us or others, accept truths that we have been unable or unwilling to hear; and hands that may not be able to touch others with compassion or solidarity yet, but which can still prepare food for those who are hungry, sign checks to support groups that are working for compassion and justice in our community and our world, and write encouraging words to those who are lonely or despondent.
And together, in the extraordinary circumstances that we are living through these days, what might otherwise seem common or, if not boring, then at least unremarkable, becomes dazzling, because of its beauty and brightness in such gloomy times, because of how it confuses the powers of this world that want to pick us off one by one to satisfy their hunger for division and enmity, because of how it inspires others to join and follow and make their own contribution.
This is who we are created to be, who we are called to be, who we are empowered to be as disciples of Jesus Christ: a dazzle of wheelbarrows in the world. And that is who and how we, the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, will strive to be as we enter what promises to be a volatile and even more uncertain time in our society this fall. May we continue to have the gifts and guidance of the Spirit to discern the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect, and to follow it together in faith.