A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Eye’s Wide Open to God’s Mercy

Image by Erich Ferdinand (used by permission via Creative Commons).

Eyes Wide Open to God’s Mercy
Pentecost 13A 2017
Rev. Doug Floyd
Romans 12:1-2

Pandita Ramabai was just five feet tall. She had short, black hair, small bones. She was a small Brahmin woman who walked with great authority. Her father was a Sanskrit scholar. He taught her Hindu scriptures in a time when it was illegal for women to study Sanskrit.

Wherever she went, the presence of this Brahmin Indian woman characterized by her green eyes, shapely lips, light complexion seemed to cast a spell on whoever she met. She was adored as a goddess when she walked into Calcutta at age 20. She spent her life as a tireless worker for women and children, addressing the Indian Congress as well as audiences in England and America. From the moment she first encountered Jesus, she was unwavering to follow Jesus as her guru and use the Bible as her guide. She did so with an indomitable spirit, inherited in part from her father, but honed by years of suffering and trial.

As she was preparing to speak on two resolutions for gender reform, her audience took some time to settle down. She remained silent and still until you could have heard a pin drop and then began with the remarkable words: “It is not strange, my countrymen, that my voice is small, for you have never given a woman the chance to make her voice strong!” From that moment on, she carried her enraptured listeners in the palm of her hand, and the resolutions were passed by a huge majority.[1]

During her life, she translated the Bible in a concordance into her native tongue of Marathi. She started a mission called the Mukti Mission for women and children that suffered abuse, and though she’s long since dead, the mission continues. This is their motto: Christ-centered homes where the destitute women and children irrespective of their background are accepted, cared for, transformed, and empowered to be salt and light in the society. Her life’s service continues, though she died in 1992.

Christians throughout the ages have transformed the world by simple acts, sometimes simple acts that had repercussions around the world. Other times, simple acts that simply affected their small, local community. I’m thinking of these Christians today as we meditate on Romans 12.

Now, for the next several weeks, the readings will be on this last few passages in Romans. Of course, throughout the summer, we’ve been hearing the story of Romans every week as we listen in the readings. The opening verses of Romans 12 sets the stage for chapters 12, 13, 14, 15, and 16. Paul writes,

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, 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 renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  (Ro 12:1–2)

As we read Paul’s text today and as we meditate on Romans over these next few weeks, we’re being called to ask, “What is the responsibility of Christians in this world?” It fits with this whole theme during this extended season after Pentecost, or we think about the nature of the church in the world and the nature of the disciple in the world, and what is the disciple called to be, and what is the disciple called to do, and what is the disciple called to look like?

You might describe these last passages of Romans as ethical in the sense that they lay out actual guidelines for the way you live your life, but this must be framed in terms of mercy and grace, so ethics and our right action in the world can never be understood out of sight of mercy and grace.

Briefly, I’m going to meditate on three things this morning, an actual outline here.

  • Our lives rescued by mercy
  • Our days centered in worship
  • Our service rooted in grace

Our Lives Rescued By Mercy

We think about this first part of Romans, Paul says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters … ” The actual reading should have sisters in there. It fits in the Greek, ” … by the mercies of God. I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God.”

Now, that is not simply a throwaway line. That is actually a summary of everything he teaches up from Romans 1 through 11. The whole book is about the mercies of God, and so I have to pause over that and think about the mercies of God. If we go back and look at Romans 1, we kind of get the thrust of this message Paul’s giving us about the mercies of God.

A quote from Hans Urs von Balthasar might help us. He says, “That we are prisons of finitude. Like every other being, man is born in many prisons.”[2] We don’t always characterize Romans 1 in this way, but Paul says that humans exchanged the glory of the Creator for the created thing and were turned over to a depraved mind. Essentially, Paul begins to list the series of sins or what we would call sins, but these are actually judgments based on the primary sin of man turning away from God, but all these sins, ultimately, are sins of selfishness or idolatry, of humans turned away from God, and ultimately, turned away from relationship.

Sin imprisons the person. It imprisons us in ways that distort the very nature of what it means to be human; that turning away from God causes the very needs we have as humans. God created us with needs, physical needs for eating. We have needs, sexual needs. We have needs to be nurtured, needs to nurture. We have all sorts of needs is what is means to be a person, things that we need to do, things to feel affirmed and fulfilled, as well as we need others to surround us. If we look at that list in Romans 1, what we see is that those needs are distorted. Every area of one’s life becomes twisted.

In fact, Paul is not addressing someone else. He’s addressing us. He’s addressing all of human kind. All of us have a tendency to step into these prisons of finitude. It might help to think of it this way. Sometimes, it happens in childhood but it also happens in adulthood, as a matter of fact, when people get upset. They have an argument either with their parents or with their spouse, and they lock themselves in the bedroom. That’s the tendency to flee. Or some people get in the car and take off. Sometimes, there is a need to cool down, but actually, this is the natural human tendency to toward inward, towards self. If you could imagine going into the bedroom locking the door and never leaving, that’s what sin does. It could speak of murder and suicide both as violent acts towards humanity, breaking off of human relationships.

In the ’60s, The Beatles sang a song that haunted me as a child and they sing,

“Eleanor Rigby picks up the rice in the church
where the wedding has been.
Lives in a dream.
Waits at the window,
wearing the face she keeps in a jar by the door.
Who is it for?”

and the chorus is,

“All the lonely people,
where do they all come from?
All the lonely people,
where do they all belong?”

They proceed to sing about Father McKenzie preaching alone, Eleanor Rigby, again, dying, and Father McKenzie putting her in the grave alone. It captures this sense of human aloneness, humans isolated. That’s exactly what sin does. It breaks apart all of creation. All of us turn inward in different ways. Sometimes, the inward turning causes violence. Sometimes, it causes loneliness. Sometimes it causes perversions in the way I act, obsessions, but it is the turning inward. Sometimes, the very people that look the most successful have been overcome by this.

I remember when I was in the ’70s, I guess, in high school, my dad was in the FBI. There was a man in Knoxville that owned many businesses in Knoxville. He was actually very, he was wealthy and considered very successful, and he had a newspaper. Can’t remember the name of it. The newspaper has long since ceased to exist. The FBI was investigating him because he had some financial dealings that were inappropriate.

As they closed in on him and they got to his office, he had put a gun to his head and killed himself. From all outward appearances, this man was completely successful. He was at the top of the world, but he was actually in a prison of finitude.

All humanity struggles with this. There is a film called, What Dreams May Come. If anybody remembers that film, it’s a strange film about the afterlife. One woman, named Annie, has been unable to cope with the loss of her husband, so she decides to commit suicide. That happens before the film, and now she’s trapped in a hell of her own making. She’s trapped in the very prison she created, and the husband who is in Heaven wants to rescue her, but the angels tell him very rarely can you get someone to leave that place because they have built so many layers, so many walls, and it’s dangerous for you to even go down there because you might get trapped in her own prison.

Sounds very much like C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce where it opens to these people in The Grey Town, which we find out later is hell, and they had been trapped by strange obsessions, sometimes. There’s a grumbling woman who complains about everything. Of course, all these characters have day in Heaven. She’s complaining about everything, and eventually, we find out that the only thing that’s left of her humanity is a grumble. There is no human left. She has become the very obsession that has controlled her.

There’s a ghost that thinks everything’s a con. He thinks Heaven’s a con, it’s a sham. He’s seen through it all. It’s all a con game. He’s trapped in his own con. He chooses willfully to go back to hell. An artist who looks around and he thinks this is pretty good, but I can paint something even more glorious.

Each character is obsessed by their own actual gifting and particularity. They’re so turned inward that they can’t behold the glory of God, even when they’re close to it. That’s what Romans 1 is trying to communicate to us. We are so trapped, we are incapable of getting out of the trap, and that’s what Romans tells us is that Christ comes into our sinful captivity, rescues us from the power of sin, the slavery of sin. He enters in to the very death that our prisons have caused us, and now He’s freed us.

This Balthasar describes the fallen condition this way.

“How far it is from one being to its closest neighbor! And even if they love each other and wave to one another from island to island, even if they attempt to exchange solitudes and pretend they have unity, how much more painfully does disappointment then fall upon them when they touch invisible bars—the cold glass pane against which they hurl themselves like captive birds. No one can tear down his own dungeon; no one knows who inhabits the next cell.”[3]

It is only the mercy of God that rescues us.

J. B. Phillips translates this Romans 12:1. He says, “Keep your eyes wide open to the mercy of God.” [4] Always be aware that you would be imprisoned, and you can imprison yourself if not for the mercy of God. It is the mercy of God who rescues you.

Paul opens this passage to Christians, reminding us that our freedom is completely dependent on God’s rescue, God’s mercy. I cannot rescue myself, so I could never read Romans, by looking at other people and thinking, “Those people are under judgment. Those people are wicked. Those people are sinful.”

The only way I could read Romans 1 is to say God have mercy on me because I am the one who tends toward living within my own prison of sinfulness. God has rescued us, and He doesn’t abandon us, even though we have a tendency to continually do this, to turn away from Him to turn away from other people, to hold grudges, to become complainers, to become embittered, to lose hope in God, to grow angry with the world, even our own, sometimes, righteous clauses can become perverted. Justice can be, sometimes, the cry for justice can become a horrible expression of human perversion as we destroy those who stand against our notion of judgment, but God rescues us and has brought us into this wide, open place.

Last week, the passage from Isaiah on salvation, the word salvation that he uses means wide, which is fascinating. It means wide. God has brought us into the wideness of His mercy. We are no longer trapped in this prison. He’s brought us into a wide place. The only response is to center our lives in worship, is to be of people who become thankful.

Our Days Centered in Worship

Paul says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). I become a person whose days and nights are marked by Thanksgiving. Simple Thanksgiving. Thanks upon awaking that I have been brought back to a new life, been given another day. Thanks upon going to sleep as I rehearse the events of the day, as I release the bad things of the day back to God, asking for mercy, and as I thank Him, even as I go down to rest, thanks when I come to meal time, not to pray some magic prayer over my food, but simply to offer thanks to God that He has blessed me, He has overwhelmed me with His goodness.

My whole life becomes a turning, and Paul specifically says, “Present your bodies as living sacrifices,” so my body is participating in this thanksgiving, and this is what he begins to open up through the rest of Romans is, “My body is expressing Thanksgiving in my service to the world in the way I love people, in the way I care for people, and in the way I act in this world so that Thanksgiving is not simply a mental thing, worship is not simply something I do with my mouth and my head. Worship is something I do out in the world, participating in the lives of others. My whole body becomes an offering to God of love.

Our Service Rooted in Grace

There’s more we can spend on that, but I’m going to continue with the last part because this is the expression, “Our lines rooted in grace,” summarized, the whole passage is framed by the grace of God. Paul will say in verse three, “For the grace given to me, I say to everyone not to think of himself more highly than he ought.” Then later, he will say that we having gifts that differ than one another according to the grace given us, let us use them.

The word grace has a wide range in meanings, but we just begin with just the idea of gift as in the gifts of the Spirit. You try to think what are my gifts of the spirit? Sometimes, churches have a gift of the spirit test to take to see what your gifts are. I’m not opposed to this but that’s very limiting because the very first gift of grace that I’ve been given is breathing. Every single time I take a breath, it is a gift. Psalm 150, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”

What do I do with a gift of breath? I praise the Lord. Every time I breathe, I’m reminded of the giftedness of existence. I didn’t have to be. I didn’t have to exist. I didn’t have to eat that delicious meal, but I did, thanks be to God that He created a world where I actually enjoy eating. I’m actually surrounded by gifts. My fingers, the miracle of the hand, my feet. In fact, I’m not actually aware of the giftedness of my feet until one of the feet hurt, then suddenly, I’m aware of the gift of walking. The whole body is a gift.

I have been gifted just with living, and in one sense part of sharing the gift of God is simply showing up, is simply being present, bringing this body of mine into the presence of another, being ready to serve. There might be any number of ways that I might be able to serve.

Yesterday, I saw the film Dunkirk, which I actually thought there was going to be a lot of fighting in it so I told Kelly, “You probably wouldn’t like it. I’ll just go by myself.” It was really a rescue operation, so now I think she’ll like to see it. It’s a rescue story of all these soldiers trapped in Dunkirk and the Germans are picking them off, and the whole film was about how do you get all these soldiers out of there? How do you rescue them?

There’s all sorts of things that were happening to go on to rescue them, but one of the fascinating things is that all these people with their little boats, their recreational boats show up. The Navy asked them to participate. The film follows one man in particular, Mr. Dawson, his son Peter, and a friend George. They ride in on the boat Moonstone, which is not equipped at all for going into war. They just show up. They don’t even know what they’re going to do. They just show up. They just start heading that way. Along the way, they figure out what they’re doing. Along the way, they begin to rescue people, and they have their own sorts of challenges and problems in rescuing people, but they figure it out as they go.

One of the greatest ways my gifts are expressed is simply showing up. God begins to tap these gifts that I’ve already been given because they’re gifts beyond breathing and beyond my hands, there, are gifts that we have a particular ability to do.

I thought of another expression of giftedness that is worth at least reflecting on briefly is a thing called KIVA. Some of you may be familiar with it. It was started in 2005. Some folks thought, “Hey, the Internet is a pretty cool place to connect people. Maybe we could connect people and set up these microloans.” Some of you are familiar with microloan programs. KIVA was one of the first programs that use the Internet to set up microloans where they would loan $25 to someone in Latin America or in an African nation. These are very small loans such to set up their own business.

What they did here, then, in American and in Europe is they invited people to participate, and they listed all the loans that people needed. They’ve been doing that since 2005. I was really excited about it when it started, and I was active in it, and then I, honestly, I had forgot about it until I was thinking about today’s service, and so I looked it up, and it’s quite exciting what all’s happened over the last 12 years.

Over the last 12 years, just from regular people like me and you, they’ve raised over a billion dollars, and they have set up loans in over 85 countries helping people get into business. They’re often single mothers in these countries that have no source of income.

There was one wonderful story of a girl in Kyrgyzstan. Miriam wanted to go to school. None of the women in her community went to college. She contacted KIVA, 41 different people pooled their money to pay for her to go to school. She takes a loan, instead of from a bank, from individuals. Then when she gets out of school, she’ll repay that loan, and then she can begin to sow back in to the other women in her culture.

Sometimes, just a little idea like that, sometimes, God gives people a little idea. There’s so many ideas like that all around us. A couple of children ages 4 and 6 wanted to help the ministry SixtyFeet to help the children in Uganda. They made some cupcakes and a set up a lemonade stand, hoping to raise around $50. They raised $260 dollars the first day. Word spread around the country and other kids set up a cupcake stand. A donor stepped in to match donations, and in one weekend they raised over $10,000. Now, there’s this National Cupcake Day every year all across the country to raise money for this little ministry in Africa.

If you watch the news from time to time, you’ll see where children often come up with brilliant ideas that are transformative, so there’s no limit to the age and the way the giftedness of the people of God work. That’s where Paul’s getting at. When that prison is broken open, the gifts we have are poured out for one another. First, he’s dealing with what’s happening in the community within the family, and then outward, how it affects the whole world. We have different gifts. Some of us simply can’t do what someone else can do.

When I was in sixth grade, I won an award for selling the most ads for the yearbook, but I didn’t sell one single ad, I just went with my mom to businesses, and turns out, my mom turns out she’s a master salesman. Everywhere we went, they signed on the dotted line.

My dad, on the other hand, who’s very gregarious, or was very gregarious, an FBI agent, leader, very funny, loved to speak, was a terrible salesman. He got into many MLM programs and lost every penny, always. He was easily sold to. There were signs on the door when he would walk out. He wrote signs for himself, “No impulsive buying,” because as soon as he talked to his salesman, he would feel suddenly like he had to buy, and sadly, I inherited that tendency of his.

Sitting out on the porch a couple of years ago, one of those lawn guys walks by that wants to fertilize the lawn, I said, “Nope. I cannot even talk to you. I’m not … Can’t even talk to you about it.” Needless to say, I signed a contract for over $400. Kelly was like, “You have to call them the next day and cancel this contract.” I have to stay far clear of salespeople because I don’t seem to have the capacity to walk away. Suddenly, I’m drawn into their story.

We have different gifts. Some of us are very good at saying no, which that could be a gift. Some of us are not so good at it. We have very different gifts today. When we came in and Kelly starts laying out the bulletins, and they’re completely, I don’t know what happened, but when it printed, they were, they’re just, you can’t make sense of them. She had to cut this one up so that I could use it. I don’t know what to do. I’m totally in chaos. I have no idea what to do at that point. My mind goes blank, but Kelly says, “No, don’t worry about it. It’s all going to work out.” Before you know it, Kelly and Ryan figure out a solution, and we make it.

There are people that have different gifts. We all need each other, and that’s exactly how the body works. These prisons of sin and selfishness are being opened up. Now God will begin to stretch us. He will invite us to give far beyond what we think we can do, and we may do some amazing things that we didn’t were possible.

It may just be locally in a small way, maybe financially. I have a friend who has not been that long out of college, doesn’t make a whole lot, and yet many-a time, he’s hired his neighbor to do work for him because he knew the neighbor needed work. Kelly and I are like, “Wait a minute, you don’t need to be spending your money,” but actually, he does, because that’s how God is, that’s how the giftedness of God is working.

Many times, we don’t know how God will draw up on our gifts. We might discover a variety of gifts by just showing up, by being present with people, and suddenly, we figure out what we can do, how we can participate, and then all of a sudden, you begin to see the body of Christ in motion. This is what Paul’s trying to get at. This is what it looks like. It’s never something you do by sheer will. This is always an act of grace, and we can only do it because of the mercy of God.

The word grace we understood as gift, but it actually is directly connected to the word joy, rejoice. When the angel shows up, it says, “Rejoice.” It’s also connected to the word Thanksgiving. Eucharist. You can hear the charis in there. It’s Thanksgiving. The Eucharist is with great Thanksgiving. It’s also connected to the word beauty because the beauty of the Lord is realized when the people of God start just pouring out whatever they’re supposed to pour out.

I’ll end with this quote from back to Hans Urs von Balthasar. He started us with this idea of being in prison, and here’s a very different idea.

“The world is like a vast orchestra, tuning up. Each player plays to himself, while the audience takes their seats and the conductor has not yet arrived. All the same, someone has struck an A on the piano, and a certain unity of atmosphere has established around it. They are tuning up for some common endeavor, nor is the particular selection of instruments fortuitous with the graded differences of qualities. They already form a kind of system of concordance, the oboe, perhaps is supported by the bassoon, and it will provide a foil to the corpus of strings, but could not do so effectively if the horns did not create a background linking the two sides of this counterpoint. The choice of instruments comes from the unity, that for the moment, lies in the silent open score on the conductor’s podium, but soon, when the conductor taps his baton, this unity will draw everything to itself and transport it, and then we shall see why each instrument is here.”[5]

Thank you, Lord, that You have called Your people together, that You are the great conductor, that You are transforming us even as You transform our world, restoring the beauty with which You created us and created our world. May we go out into the world as people who spread mercy and grace to those in prisons that we might bring the Gospel of Christ and help release people from their prison, that the very particular gifts You’ve given each of us might flourish and begin to sign and begin to be poured out for the world around us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

[1]  Keith J. White, “Jesus Was Her Guru,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 87: Christianity in India; A Faith of Many Colors (Carol Stream, IL: Christianity Today, 2005).

[2] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Heart of the World, Ignatius Press (1979), p. 19.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Romans 12:1-2 – “With eyes wide open to the mercies of God, I beg you, my brothers, as an act of intelligent worship, to give him your bodies, as a living sacrifice, consecrated to him and acceptable by him. Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity.”

[5] Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Truth Is Symphonic: Aspects of Christian Pluralism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, l987), 7–8.




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