Fix Your Attention On God
August 27, 2017
by Rev. Melanie Homan
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“Fix Your Attention on God”
August 27, 2017
Rev. Melanie Homan
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. 2Do 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. 3For 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. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he spends the first eleven chapters talking about “belief”. Theology. Doctrine. Whatever word you want to use to describe what it is that Paul wants the people to believe. After getting through all of that, Paul shifts, and he makes the shift in the passage we just heard. He goes from talking about beliefs, to ethics. Here’s how you should LIVE – a set of moral principals. This is what belief, put into action, should look like. Paul recognized that belief put into action would look different for each of us, though, because we each have different gifts.
As Paul Achtemeier writes, “The difference BETWEEN Christians is not that some have spiritual gifts and some do not. The difference consists in the fact that not all have received the same gift. …Not every Christian will have the gift of preaching or of teaching or of social action. But, every Christian does have some gift. Part of our responsibility is to discover (our gifts) and then to use (them) for the glory of God and the good of (our) fellow human beings.” (page 197).
Figuring out what our gifts are, and how we can use them to serve the greater good, is no small order. How often do we think about our gifts and how we put them to use? Probably not often enough. But, we’re supposed to do just that! Figure out our gifts and then offer them to God. That’s what Paul meant when he said we should offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to God. He’s not saying we should literally sacrifice ourself. He’s saying we should offer our whole life to God’s purpose in the world.
“There are no gifts of God the Christian community can afford to ignore. Because all gifts come from God, none confers superiority over others. No one has a right to boast, or feel superior, because of the gift he or she has received.” Paul is trying to clarify some things, to warn people to keep their egos in check, because over-inflated egos and pride can get in the way of putting our beliefs into action.
We can end up going down several different paths with this. We can be so committed to humility, not wanting to be an ego-maniac, that we fail to see the gifts God has given us and we fail to use them as fully as we could.
Another path we can take is to see our gifts, but fail to use them for the good of others. With pride or selfishness in the driver’s seat, our gifts can end up causing “crashes”, resulting in harm to those who happen to be caught in our path.
I’ve gone back and forth over the past two weeks between two extremes. On the one hand, I’m committed to paying attention and reading the news in detail about what is happening around our country and around the world. But, it’s like a swirling vortex of despair, and so after reading one horrid thing after another about white supremacists and natural disasters in Sierre Leone and Texas, I shift to the other extreme and say, “I’m taking a news Sabbath. I’m not listening anymore. I need a break.” So, I vow to take a break, but then I’m sucked right back into it because I can’t ignore it!
I know I’m not alone in this! It’s into this reality, then, that we ask ourselves: What are my ethics, and what are my God given gifts? What can I offer, for such a time as this, that can serve God? What are YOUR ethics? What can YOU offer?
As I was prepping my message for today, I was reading a commentary written by Mary Hinkle Shore. She’s a professor at Luther Seminary, just over the river in St. Paul. She wrote a commentary on Romans back in 2011, titling it, “We Belong Together”. “Sin, in the singular, is a POWER in Paul’s thought. It is the bully on the playground that enthralls everyone, gathering devotees, terrorizing would-be opponents into silence, enslaving all. Sin vies with the Creator for control of humanity and the rest of creation to such an extent that Paul can speak of our having been “enslaved to sin.” (workingpreacher.org)
There aren’t a lot of definitions of sin that resonate for me. It’s often a topic that is shied away from. But, this definition stopped me in my tracks this week. Sin is the bully on the playground that enthralls us, draws us in, and because of our fear, it causes us to stand or sit by in silence.
Paul believed that, because of the grace of God, we can resist sin. We can stand up, speak out, and name sin when we see it. By the grace of God, we can resist. We can live the Wesleyan ethic to “Do good, do no harm, and stay in love with God.” That’s OUR uniquely Christian ethic, the actions that are a result of our beliefs.
I’ve been pondering this connection Paul made between belief, ethics, and action. I was reading an editorial by Peter Marty in The Christian Century, and it was so good that I want to share it with you, almost in its entirety, because it connects so well with what Paul is talking about. Marty reflects, not on ethics, but on the idea of conscience.
“Where does the inner compass of conscience, which helps us make moral decisions, come from?” Marty writes, “The word conscience comes from the Latin word conscientia, meaning ‘knowing together’”. Conscience is not something that just operates inside our heads individually. It is formed by outside influences, and we hope that those influences help to develop a GOOD conscience. Parents, teachers, pastors, coaches, God through Christ – they help form our conscience. But, “Just as a compass can be skewed by a local magnetic field, our conscience can be distorted by negative influences. A good conscience requires maintenance.” Reinhold Neibuhr viewed the awakening of our conscience as critical to mending a broken world, and Marty says that “Now is the time to start renewing our own conscience by asking the right questions.”
A good place for us to start is with the questions raised by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expedience asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But, conscience asks the question, is it right?”
Is it right?!?!
Bishop Sally Dyck, probably 8-10 years ago, asked every United Methodist pastor in the conference to read The Message version of Romans 12 every day. She wanted us to integrate these words into our lives. She wanted every pastor to serve their congregation with this ethical framework. Whenever things get hard or feel completely messed up in the world, I go back to this passage. I go back and read it every day, because this is how I want to live. This passage helps us fix our attention on God, to reawaken our conscience, and to ask ourselves, “Is what we’re doing right?”
Hear this paraphrase of Romans 12 from The Message.
12 1-2 So, here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what God wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
3 I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. (that’s the ego check) No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what God does for us, not by what we are and what we do for God.
4-6 In this way we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So, since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.
6-8 If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated or depressed. Keep a smile on your face.
From here, Paul’s words and ethic for living get even better. We’ll dive deeper with that next week. In the meantime, fix your attention on God. Fix your attention on God, taking your everyday, ordinary life and placing it before God as an offering, reawakening our conscience together. Amen.