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Saturday, August 20, 2011

What Does God Want?

Pentecost 10A 2011
Romans 12:1-8
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to 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—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Indulge me for a few moments. Think about one of the best presents you ever received from someone else. Maybe it was an article of clothing, or a book, or a trip, or a musical instrument, or a vehicle. Now, what did you do with that gift? Did you use it as the giver intended, or did you waste it, ignore it, or do something else with it? Turn to your neighbor and briefly tell them what that gift was and what you did with it.
Now, think about a gift you gave someone else, but it wasn’t appreciated or used as you had hoped. Tell each other about that.
Finally, share with each other about a time you gave someone a gift and they loved it and used it well. How did you feel when that happened?
As last Thanksgiving approached, my wife’s brother sent me a message saying he had an extra bike that he was no longer using, and he thought he would give it to me. Eric is an avid cyclist and rides a really nice and really expensive racing bike. He had bought that bike to replace another bike, only about three years old and while a really nice bike, not as state-of-the-art as his new bike. He decided to give the old bike to me because I was the only other person in the family his size.
I tried to beg off. It was much too nice a bike for a fat old guy like me to be riding around once in a blue moon. I suggested he sell it on ebay, but, when Eric and his family pulled into our driveway Thanksgiving morning, there was the bike on top of his car.
Now, this produced a crisis in me. What do you do when someone gives you something ever-so-much nicer than you need or deserve or are going to use? I tried to give Vicki a Porsche to drive back and forth to work and church, but she refused because it was more car than she really needed. What was I going to do with this ridiculously wonderful bike my brother-in-law had given me?
Well, I decided I really had to start riding it. I asked Vicki to give me an indoor trainer so I could ride it during the winter, and when spring came I started riding it in the neighborhood every now and then. As time went on, I rode it more often, and on longer trips. I bought a new, more comfortable seat, some cycling shorts with the padding to compliment my natural padding, and a little computer to tell me how much I’ve ridden and how fast. Yesterday I did my farthest ride so far – 20 miles to Ashland and back. And in October Eric and I are going to ride the Tour Between the Waters on the Eastern Shore – a “metric century” of 62 miles in one day. Next year we want to ride the full century – 100 miles. You see, I had been given this incredible gift, and the best thing for me to do with it was to use it as it was intended. And a strange thing has happened: now I can’t wait to get out and ride the bike.
The magnificent 1998 film Saving Private Ryan is the story of a squad of American infantry, led by Tom Hanks, who are assigned to find an American paratrooper after D-Day and bring him home safely. The first twenty-seven minutes of the film are a blood and gore-bathed portrayal of the horrors of war, featuring the D-Day landing on the beaches of Normandy. As a child, I could not understand why my father, a veteran of two World Wars, would not watch the war movies and TV shows I so dearly loved. His answer was, “Because it’s not like that.” Saving Private Ryan shows what war is really like, and, as William Tecumseh Sherman said, it is hell.
Private James Ryan is the last survivor of four brothers, and because of the “Sole Survivor Policy,” which protected soldiers if they were the last surviving family member in the war, Hanks is ordered to find him and bring back alive. The squad searches for Ryan, finally finding him at the expense of many of the squad member’s lives, including their leader. Near the end of the film, as Hanks is bleeding to death, he looks at Private Ryan and says, “James, earn this. Earn it.”
The last scene in the movie – spoiler alert if you’ve not seen it – shows an old man and his wife searching through a military cemetery in France. He comes to the grave of Hank’s character, Captain John Miller. With tears streaming down his face, the elderly Private Ryan asks if he’s been a good man, if he’s earned the gift that had been given him. He then salutes the grave, as the camera pans down to a small American flag on the grave.
What do you do with an incredible gift that’s been given you?
By the time St. Paul gets to today’s lesson from the twelfth chapter of Romans, he has laid out for eleven chapters the meaning of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection for Jews, for Gentiles, and for the entire cosmos. The Letter to the Romans is, in many ways, the foundation of all Christian theology forever after. After laying out this grand vision of what God has done in Jesus, chapter twelve begins with a crucial word: Therefore. Whenever you see or hear therefore in a speech, in an article, or especially in the Bible, draw a big circle around it. Therefore is like that moment at 9:53 pm when Dr. House suddenly stops and stares wide-eyed into the distance. Therefore is when all the discussion and argument and conjecture are done, and you’re going to get the answer to what really needs to happen. Here it comes. Here’s the punch line, the bottom line, the instructions. And in this case, after St. Paul has laid out this staggering gift of salvation God is offering to the world through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, we’re going to hear, in one sentence, what God really really wants us to do about it.
Therefore, I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. What does God want? He wants our bodies.
What? I thought God wanted our hearts. God wants us to feel good feelings and to think good thoughts and, above all, try. Just try to love God. Try to be nice. What’s this body thing? What does God want with this body?
The real sign of commitment, the real sign of love, is not what we feel or think – it’s where we put our bodies. When Eric gave me the bike, I could have thanked him profusely, written him notes, told the whole world about the wonderful thing he did, but what counted was whether I actually put my fat carcass on the thing or not. Thursday my best friend, Jim Hewitt, had some follow-up surgery on his brain. Lots of folks sent best wishes and notes and said he would be in their prayers. Vicki and I needed to drive to Arlington and be there. We needed to put our bodies there in the room with him. It wasn’t enough for Captain Miller and General Marshall and President Roosevelt to send their condolences to Private Ryan and his mother. They needed to get his living body back home safely, sometimes at the expense of their own.
Faith is not, primarily, about what we feel or what we think. It’s about what we do. It’s about where we put our bodies and time and presence and gifts down. It’s about getting down on our knees to pray, it’s about getting our bodies in the pew to worship and in the classroom seats to learn and in the kitchen to cook and on the floor with the children and in the ghetto with the poor and the shelter with the homeless and the hospital with the sick and the dying and in the jail with the imprisoned and in the statehouse with the lawmakers and in the school with the teachers and children. It’s not about thinking about it or feeling about it – it’s about presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, as our spiritual worship. God doesn’t give a rip what you think and feel if your butt is not in the seat or on the line.
Look at the next sentence from Paul: 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. First our bodies, then our minds. We get that conveniently backwards all the time. I could have studied about riding the bike (which I did), I could have thought and felt about riding the bike (which I did), and waited until I was in the right frame of mind and feeling the right feelings before I went out to ride. Had I done that, how many miles do you think I would have ridden so far this year? Any parent will tell you he or she doesn’t wait until their child thinks and feels the right things before they teach a child to eat, or walk, or use the toilet, or talk, or read, or say please and thank you. You teach the action, and the mind and heart follow. Do not be conformed to this world means do not ACT like this world. Change the action, and you will change the thinking and the feeling. Every great athlete, every great musician, every great dancer, every great actor practiced right action over and over and over until the mind and heart followed. That’s why “I don’t feel like it” or “my mind’s just not in the right place” are the two most ridiculous excuses in the world. Do the right thing, and your heart and head will follow.
God has given you this incredible gift: forgiveness, healing, reconciliation, love, grace, peace, and eternal life, through Jesus Christ. Just as Captain Miller and his men died for Private Ryan, the Son of God died for you, so you could come home safely, too.
Now, what are you going to do with that gift? What does the giver of that gift want you to do with it?
It’s not about what you think, and not about what you feel. By the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Put your bodies at God’s disposal, and you’ll be amazed at how your heart and brain will follow.

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