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Practical Religion ~ Romans 12:1-13

I want to sing a song with you this morning, a song by Cris Williamson that I grew up singing in my youth group. It was called “Song of the Soul.” If you know it, join in!

Love of my life, I am crying, I am not dying, I am dancing
Dancing along in the madness, there is no sadness,
only a song of the soul.

Chorus
And we’ll sing a song, why don’t you sing along,
And we can sing for a long, long time.
Why don’t you sing this song, why don’t you sing along?
And we can sing for a long, long time.

What do you do for a living? Are you forgiving? Giving shelter?
Follow your heart, love will find you, truth will unbind you,
Seek out a song of the soul.

Chorus

Come to your life like a warrior, nothin’ will bore yer, you can be happy.
Let in the light it will heal you, and you can feel you
And sing out a song of the soul.

Chorus

So many people find religion a burden for so many reasons. There are lots of reasons why this is so, of course. But the Christian faith (our religion – the way we bind ourselves to each other) as I understand it, as this song lifts up and frankly as Paul reminds us, is to trust in a God who calls you and us to living joyfully and powerfully – that’s what makes us different. People should look at you and say “what do you have, I want some of that!”

Yes, we can talk all day long about theological implications, interpreting the vocabulary – I enjoy doing that – but if you think you will have faith only when you have all your questions answered, or that religion is a new set of rules, or propositions that you HAVE to believe – ok, fine, good luck. But Paul’s practical religion encourages you and me to LIVE a certain way, have a certain attitude towards life: are you seeking to find your gift and use it? Are you other-centered? Are you walking the walk? This is Paul’s practical religion.

The prophet Micah made it pretty plain: “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly before your God?” For Jesus it was pretty simple: “love God, love neighbor.” And “What you do to the least of these, you do to me,” Jesus said (Matthew 25).

My mother used to say, “Just DO what Jesus says and you will be all right!”

So I am glad, that after 11 chapters of intellectual, theological reflection by Paul, that he says: “I appeal to you, therefore….” Therefore, Paul asks his readers and asks you – what does Christian faith look like?

Paul gets practical – he tells us to present our bodies as living sacrifices. Don’t hold back. OFFER yourself to something big. Miguel de Unamuno once wrote: “Marry some big idea, and then go make a home with it.” Paul’s big idea is that God loves with abandon so you should too. God offered himself/herself to this grand idea that all would be reconciled. Offering yourself to that big idea is a great start. You have to offer yourself to SOMETHING – and doing nothing is in fact choosing a position. “Just do it” as Nike says.

Paul’s practical religion is counter-culture. He writes: “Don’t be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (12:2-3).

Conforming to this world is projecting our own fears and insecurities upon God and making God a judgmental, vengeful, champion of fear. – “DON’T MAKE ME COME DOWN THERE.” The bill board reads.

Conforming to this world narrows options, creating boundaries of who is in and who is out.

Conforming to this world means never taking a risk because something could go wrong.

Conforming to this world is walking in lock step to cultural norm that we are defined by stuff, and status, instead of your own heart.

Paul tells us to be transformed by the “renewing of your mind”! Doesn’t that mean to be open and inquisitive – a life-long learner? Rilke’s famous phrase: “Learn to love the question” is on point. Faith is not about narrowing down, it is about opening up, it is about discovery, options. Listen to your life, trust the movement of your heart – God whispers from there.

“Renew your mind” is Paul’s way of saying REPENT – step outside yourself, get a new mind for a new age. Don’t shut down, open up.

Paul’s practical religion invites us into community. It is not about you or individual perfection, it is about community action. We can’t do this alone. I don’t have to tell people who have been through Faith Leader, or any small group, about the power of community to help clarify, to hold accountable, to support. I heard someone say to the others at Bible and Bagels the other day, “I couldn’t get through my week without you.”

And in this community don’t think more highly of yourself than you should; it is not a competition. In fact, competition is conforming. No gift is overlooked, no gift is better than another. “Ring the bell that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen wrote that line – it’s a beauty. You are part of the body – you are no more or less important than anyone else. It is all from God. Sure some are gifted in ways you are not – but who cares?

And then listen to this: “Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” (9:9)

I don’t like “hate what is evil.” “Evil” and “hate” are hard words. We tell our children to never use the word “hate.” Some preachers love to preach on what God hates. Just this past week, some Christian preacher said that Hurricane Sandy was judgment on the evils of homosexuality and on BOTH Romney and Obama who he claimed are not Christian. Are you kidding me?! Does that sound mind-transforming? It sounds mind-numbing to me.

Paul isn’t making a declarative statement – HATE EVIL! As if our primary task is to run around trying to identify evil so we can hate it! That is conforming to this world. That is not what Paul is saying.

He is saying that genuine love is antithetical to evil. Evil drives the creature away from God, love brings the creature towards the mystery of God. Evil drives the wedge of judgment and fear, genuine loves is grounded on realistic hope and the willingness to be surprised by joy.

Evil causes division, love calls us to unity. Evil covers up, Love sheds light. Evil uses power over and against another – this is why racism and sexual abuse are evil and the holocaust and ethnic cleansing are evil. Genuine love, to quote Paul in another letter, “is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrong doing, but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (I Cor. 13).

So let your love be genuine – honest, passionate, gentle, inclusive – and you’ll be living the high life of Christian community. No barriers, no boundaries, no fear – only welcome and transformation.

Think about it this way: Some cinemas hand out 3D glasses so you can fully appreciate what is happening on the screen. We Christians hand out the metaphorical lenses of love and realistic hope of Jesus Christ so that you can fully appreciate what is coming at you in real time.

Here is another invitation to the practical religious life: Contribute to the needs of the saints, be generous. Don’t be tight or overly worried about money. Share!

Finally, the mark of practical religion is hospitality. The mission of the church is to welcome. All our policies, how we use our building, our benevolences, how we engage with people – is not to put up barriers, or make too many hoops to jump through – everything is geared to welcome, strangers are our best friends! This is quite transforming!

This is how it is in the kingdom. We don’t have to wait for it – we have to live it.

This is the practical religion that you and I are called to by Jesus.

This is what our faith is all about – this is what we give our heart to.

This is the lens through which we see it all.

Today we share the feast which is the embodiment of this truth. This is who God is and no one is turned away. Present your bodies, your minds, your best selves to this reality for God is presenting herself/himself to you.

“And we’ll sing a song, why don’t you sing along, and we can sing for a long, long time…”

Thanks be to God!

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