We’re continuing our sermon series today on the marks of Christianity. And we are using Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth as our guide. Last week’s conversation was about how sympathy is a Christian virtue. That was a piece of cake compared to today’s topic. And so, I have two goals today: first, to convince you that "chameleonic" is a word; and second, to convince you that to be chameleonic is a virtue. At this point in the game, I'd say the odds are stacked against me. But at least it gives us an excuse to talk about how cool chameleons are.
The word "chameleon" is a Greek word meaning, literally, "ground lion". They seem to be most famous for being able to change the color of their skin. But contrary to popular belief, they don't necessarily change colors to match their surroundings. It's far more complex than that.
Chameleons have a transparent outer layer of skin. The layers underneath are where the pigments are contained. The situations the chameleon faces are what dictate whether or not that pigment is "expressed", giving way to all sorts of amazing colors and patterns.
What causes them to change colors depends on the species. Many change their color according to mood. In competition over territory or a mate, they may end up with a color pattern signaling their dominant or submissive position. Some change colors in an effort to moderate temperature, staying dark to soak in the heat and turning light to reflect it and stay cool.
When it comes to their defenses, there are some that change colors to match their background and hide from predators, but none that change their color to blend in with any background. Instead, most change their colors in order to fool their predators. Most animals have sight limitations with regard to color, and so chameleons have adapted to know best to exploit these deficiencies.
In short, chameleons are able to adapt to survive. And it is this ability to adapt by which we seem to know them best.
But when it comes to people, we rarely use the word "chameleon" to describe someone in a complimentary way. The implication of someone being chameleonic is that they are fake. They are unreliable, having no true, "authentic" self. We are in the season of politics again, when panderers, flip-floppers, chameleons can actually win our votes, but rarely our respect.
The only time we might describe someone as a chameleon to flatter them is actors. The ability to disappear into a variety of characters is the kind of thing that wins awards. Otherwise, chameleons may be fascinating reptiles, but not something to which we ought to aspire.
And yet, as Paul writes to the church at Corinth, he seems to be advocating for just that sort of thing. Using the more familiar wording of other translations, Paul became a Jew to the Jews; to those under the law, he became as one under the law; to those outside the law, to the weak, and so on. "I became all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some."
Is Paul saying that to be Christian is to have no authentic self, but instead that one must pander endlessly so that anyone with whom we come in contact might be convinced that the way of Christ is the way of truth? Doesn't that very idea expose the hypocrisy in the approach, using fakery to establish truth? If so then it must not have been that true to begin with.
Chameleonic may be on that border between word and fiction; but it's certainly not virtuous.
Jesus certainly wasn't given to such pandering whimsy. We find him at the beginning of the lesson from Mark in a rather mundane moment, visiting the home of one of his new disciples. Quickly the every day scene gives way to the extraordinary, as he cures Peter's sick mother-in-law. And this miraculous moment builds toward the dramatic, as she...makes supper? Mark seems to have missed an opportunity to move the story forward.
In any case, word soon spreads because the house is filled with sick people seeking similar healings, so much so that Jesus has to get away for a little solitude. Once the disciples track him down, though, he doesn't give in to popular sentiment and head back to the crowds, like they want him to. Instead, he is ready to chart a different course, going to other villages in the Galilee. Because, when you're building a movement, the last thing you want to do is something that people might like. "But this is the reason I came," he says. And it's impossible to argue with logic like that.
And yet, that seems to be what Jesus does time and time again. He does not seem to be pursuing a strategic agenda, to the constant frustration of the disciples. Instead, he is constantly meeting people where they are: a woman drawing water from a well; a blind man begging by the side of the road; a crowd celebrating at a wedding banquet; a mother-in-law serving dinner to her guests. And in those moments, he brings the unexpected: revealing hidden secrets; healing; turning water into wine. Jesus enters the ordinary and brings about the extraordinary!
Is there a better definition of the gospel? The grand story we say we believe is that ultimate truths like God or hope have something to say about the day to day challenges we face. The incarnation itself, God in Christly human form, takes ordinary human flesh and turns it not only into something extraordinary, but into something other-worldly!
And that, I believe, is Paul was getting at. Connecting with others is absolutely vital. And that’s no less true today than it was in Paul’s day. And the essence of that connection isn’t fraud, or becoming something you’re not. Instead, it’s about awareness of that other person – what it is that drives them, what experiences have led them to this moment in their lives; and in that awareness, listening for the bonds that unite instead of the ones that divide.
We have, with one another, a shared humanity that is greater than any political ideology or national boundary or, dare I say, any theological conviction that we may hold. And it is that shared humanity, our absolute ordinariness, which brings us closest to the Godly reality that surrounds and uplifts and holds us fast. It doesn’t mean that we let go of those things that we believe make us unique. And yet it does mean that we hold them loosely enough that we might be able to recognize what their real weight is. They might not be as important as we they think they are. Because the truth is, we might not be as important as we think we are.
To connect this back to our cold-blooded friends for just a moment, the chameleon isn’t a panderer. It doesn’t change colors because it is pleasing to others. And the adaptation isn’t merely about survival. Instead, they have developed a deeply ingrained awareness about the world around them – their habitat, the temperature, the eyesight ability of other animals. It’s an awareness that runs more than just skin deep.
The truth is that Christianity is the religious equivalent of the chameleon. The habitat in which it takes root, the culture where it makes its home, adds its own color to it. But the heart of it, the bit about ordinary interactions taking on extraordinary consequences, remains the same. Christianity is not bound by denomination, or worship style, or even language. It is an incarnational faith, adapting itself to different times and places, but never losing its ultimate truths of God’s love and mercy and grace and hope.
Friends, God meets us where we are, even in the most ordinary of moments. And when we meet God, we are marked; we are changed forever. And in that process of transformation, we are sent out into the world to meet others where they are. We welcome them as they are. We befriend them unconditionally as Christ befriends us. And in that momentary connection, we give the world a glimpse of the kingdom, the way God desires things to be.
By the way, one more thing about chameleons: the Greek word for ground from which chameleons get their name is also the origin of the word “humility”. Every interaction that we have –those ordinary, chance encounters with others who may or may not be like us in ways that are ultimately superficial – should be aware enough to be marked by humility. And when we are humble, when we are aware that we ourselves are not actually at the center of creation, we open up the possibility that God will work through us. And when that happens, every exchange will be colored by the extraordinary.
May it be so. Amen.