He Shall Overcome

When I was in seminary we all had to walk through a pretty dramatic entrance on our way to class everyday. Through heavy wood and bronze doors, quickly down a flight of stairs and under these big stone ceiling braces. On one of these big beams or braces, the words of Romans 12 were etched in stone: “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. It was a catchy phrase that became the motto that framed just about everything we did—it was a school after all, and we were there to read and write and learn as much as we could. But as it turns out there was a great irony at work because while we were all there to become teachers and preachers of the Gospel, to proclaim the good news of God’s grace that always points to the glory of the Cross rather than ourselves, what we really learned was how to take ourselves way, way too seriously. Some of my classmates, well before they got ordained, would wear clerical clothes and robes to class and even to the grocery store. Like a pre-med student wearing scrubs to the farmer’s market, these seminarians were convinced that they had been set aside from the rest, that it was up to them to inform, enlighten and save souls. And yet, this all seemed to miss the point entirely. If we continue reading the passage, St Paul says right after “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind… I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” Be transformed, but don’t think of yourself more highly than you should.

I really don’t have much room to take myself seriously this morning. You see, my wife Courtney is out of town, and this morning I realized she took all of her brushes and combs with her. So I found myself combing my hair with a fork! In fact, I took a few extra seconds hunting around for a fork with four prongs instead of three—thinking that would really get the job done.

But I do take myself way too seriously, we all do. For example: this entire last week I was psyching myself out as I prepared this sermon. Thinking that the recent tragic events in our community called for a particularly prophetic and profound word from me. That I was meant proclaim some good word of Josh. And of course there are aspects of this voice inside of us that are good, that call us to effect change for the good, but if we’re honest, or at least if I’m honest, the voice that I’m hearing in my own head 99% of the time is my own ego. It’s my desire to say the right thing or do the right thing for the sole purpose of presenting myself as an impressive and self-righteous person. It’s my desire to be liked—to be loved.

We also take ourselves too seriously in a tragic sort of way, thinking that we can save ourselves or bring about all on our own the beloved community that will provide us with everything we need.

We disregard St Paul’s words because too often we miss entirely the meaning of his words to begin with. We miss that he begins this whole section with the word “therefore”, establishing the fact that before all of this transformation stuff can happen, the Gospel must come first. We have been saved by grace, through no act of our own. THEREFORE, “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Notice what he’s not saying. Paul doesn’t say transform yourself, he says be transformed. You are the one being acted upon, you are the one receiving renewal. All you’re doing is receiving the grace of God.

Breece DJ Pancake grew up in Milton, West Virginia. He taught English as a young man in his twenties, just down the road from here at Fork Union Military Academy. When he was Twenty-Three he was accepted into UVA’s graduate creative writing program and the school’s literary review “The Rivanna” published the story from his application before he ever stepped foot in a classroom.

Pancake’s writing his hauntingly beautiful, it jumps off the page and takes ahold of you, as you’re led to stare at the serenity of nature alongside the things of life that most frighten us. He wrote from his own place of brokenness, of feeling dislocated from meaning, purpose and love in his life, whether he was in Milton or Charlottesville.

And so, through his writing he attempted to exorcise his own demons through his art. He turned inward as so many of us do in the face of the difficult things in life, and that’s what he wrote about. Unfortunately, he couldn’t beat his demons on his own and he killed himself before he turned 27.

Pancake’s characters long to escape the suffocating realities of home, family and their past just as he did, but at the same time they want to maintain and protect some vital connection to the things that have formed them and they feel a sense of duty to do so. There is an emotional push and pull that we all experience.

We’re caught between our own expectations or desires and our own reality. We’re caught somewhere between the laws of God and man, and our own inability to fulfill them. And too often we respond by doubling down on ourselves, simply trying harder to transform ourselves through our own work, through exercise or being more intentional and holding ourselves more accountable, but as a great theologian once said, this is like a drowning man trying to save himself by pulling up on his own head of hair.

In Pancake’s story “Trilobites”, the young protagonist man Colly feels duty-bound to keep the failing family farm while he experiences the futility of trying to do something “he isn’t any good at”. He tries all that he can to reunite with his lost high-school love, to make himself whole again, but in the end his arms are left empty and his efforts to leave West Virginia behind and to “live on mangos and love” are fruitless. It’s a story without fireworks or grand gestures in the end, but that seems to be the point. Life is hard, it rarely has a nice clean resolution, or transformation.

After she heard of her son’s death, Pancake’s mother wrote in a letter that her son “was a loving young man, that he was always writing letters and always giving people gifts, but he never learned to receive gifts, he never learned to accept the extent to which he was loved regardless of his own performance.”

Because much like his characters, Pancake was caught between the law and the gospel. Thinking that he had to, but in fact could not do, all the things expected of himself or that he expected might bring him happiness, like a beautiful girlfriend or simply packing up and leaving West Virginia. He was caught between the law he was receiving in spades, and what he actually need—a word of mercy, of forgiveness and love that was not dependent on his class, race or location in life in any way. And yet tragically these characters and Pancake himself, for some reason, don’t hear this word of grace, and they’re left to face the troubles of life on their own.

Be transformed, but don’t take yourself too seriously because the renewal we seek, more often than not, takes place first through repentance, through acknowledging that there is no power inside ourselves to save ourselves. The renewal takes place, or in fact, it HAS TAKEN place, on the Cross—through the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ for you and for you and for me. The peace, love and adoration that we are all seeking, the redemption and reconciliation that perhaps has become a more pressing need for you right now, more than you can remember in a long, long time, that mercy has already been made perfectly present through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The problem of despair, of the need for renewal and the original sin of racism in this country and throughout the world, these are theological problems that only have theological resolutions. And that one resolution is the Cross. Forgiveness for all, and redemption for all.

And so, when we stand together singing “we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day”, the great hymn of the Civil Rights Movement, and the hymn beautifully sung on the Lawn by candle light just a few nights ago, we should do so in great hope and confidence. But as Breece Pancake, and every other broken heart throughout history has shown us, seeking to defeat the demons waring within and without through our own strength and whit and courage, the bitter truth is that WE shall not overcome. But thanks be to God, He, Jesus Christ, shall overcome. In fact, he already has.