Thoughts and Prayers | February 17

Text: Romans 12:1-8

Speaker: Mark Rupp

Often when I sit down to write a sermon, I start by taking time to think about what is in the air, what kinds of things are occupying our minds, our hearts, and our lives.  With Valentine’s Day this last week, it means that, among other things, love is in the air.  It only seems right, then, to make this a sermon about love (which, aren’t they all), and to start with a love poem.  This one by Elizabeth Barrett Browning is probably familiar to many of us:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Barrett Browning’s poem speaks of a love that permeates all of life, both days and nights, through praise and grief, quiet and shouting.  It is a love that spans the entire depth, breadth, and height of the experience of life. 

But this year, and probably for years to come, it will be hard to separate Valentine’s Day from the anniversary of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.  It is hard to imagine that it has already been a year since the day 17 people were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  Perhaps it is hard to image it’s already been a year because it doesn’t seem like much has changed as one mass shooting blurs into the next and the next and the next before we’ve even begun to process and grieve the one before it.   

In the wake of that tragedy and the many others like it, people are quick to offer their “thoughts and prayers.”  From politicians in the highest levels of power to strangers all across the globe, “thoughts and prayers” seems to have become a placeholder, an automatic response for times when we are not sure what else to say, let alone do. 
And, rightfully so, these “thoughts and prayers” have come under fire by those who are exposing the ways the phrase and its sentiments have become meaningless.  Words tossed away by so many who have no intention of letting their thoughts or prayers transform them. 

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.
I think and wish and dream those things so sweet.
My loves are thoughts and prayers. Of this I tweet,
But ne’er be moved to do the things I pray…

This is a sermon about love (which, aren’t they all?), but it’s also a sermon about renewal and transformation and action because love without these things is merely sentimentality.  We are in the second week of our series on stewardship, and this week we are focusing on the stewardship of our talents, our gifts, our skills, the work of our hands and feet.  In many ways, stewardship is about love in action because stewardship is about how we care for the things we love.  Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” but where we put our time and our talents is also where we will find our heart, the center of our being from which love flows. 

So how do we cultivate a culture of generosity when it comes to our talents?  What does it look like for each of us to utilize the gifts we’ve been given in service of love? 

I’m sure there are any number of ways to approach these questions, but today I want to spend some time focusing on thoughts and prayers.  Yes, we’ve reached a point where simply offering “thoughts and prayers” has become a throwaway sentiment, but that is not because praying for others or thinking of them and remembering them throughout our days is a worthless endeavor. Ghandi is reported to have said, “Prayer is not an old woman’s idle amusement.  Properly understood and applied, it is the most potent instrument of action.”  Our thoughts and our prayers can be powerful, potent instruments of action if we allow them to transform us, to renew our deep commitments of love to one another, to God, to all creation, and to ourselves. 

It is this interplay between the transformation of the mind and meaningful action that Paul writes of in Romans 12.  You can almost feel the urgency with which he approaches this topic as he starts, “I appeal to you, friends,” “I urge you,” “I beg you.”  He calls on his readers to offer themselves as a living sacrifice, to give all of who they are, not as a dead thing with nothing more to offer, but as a living offering that continues to share itself with the world.  As living sacrifices we become renewed through the abundance of God’s love as we offer ourselves in service to the world. 

When the sharing of our talents and gifts becomes divorced from love, we turn grace into a to-do list.  Unless we allow ourselves to be continuously transformed by the renewable resource of love, we become dead sacrifices rather than living ones and watch as our offerings to the world deplete us bit by bit.

From this call to offer all of ourselves as our act of worship, Paul turns toward the transformation of the mind.  It is through the daily renewal of our minds, the turning of our thoughts toward the will of God, that we are able to discern what is good, and holy, and true.  Our thoughts and prayers transform our lives when we allow them to break us free from the patterns that keep us from loving fully. 

In a society that pushes us toward self-centeredness, our thoughts and prayers can allow us to see beyond ourselves.  In a culture that tells us to buy and consume as much as we can, our thoughts and prayers can ground us in a simplicity that recognizes our interconnectedness with all creation.  In a world that wants us to believe that the only way to achieve peace is through violence, our thoughts and prayers can fortify our resolve to nonviolent peacemaking. 

Our thoughts and prayers help lay the groundwork for answering that important question, “What, then, shall we do?” 

Last week Joel pointed out that we are doing this series on Stewardship after we have already finished up our First Fruits pledge drive and are past the deadline for when the Opportunities to Serve forms were due.  He noted that this was either really poor planning OR an invitation to understand stewardship more as a life of generosity and less as a way of simply manipulating you into giving more time, talent, and treasure to the congregation.

All the forms may have already been collected and the budget already set, but the reality is that as a congregation of people seeking to be good news in the world, there will always be more opportunities to use our time, talents, and treasures.  Recognizing that there is need is perhaps the easy part.  More importantly, however, we must also learn to recognize that God is continuing to call and equip all of us in our own ways to respond with love to the needs and the hurts and the broken parts of the world.

We must renew our minds every day to listen deeply for this call and discern how we are being equipped to love the world more deeply.

Paul goes on to list off a series of gifts that people have to share within the complex workings of the Body of Christ, but before he does that, he tells readers to “not 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.”  One biblical scholar I read this week noted that the nuance of the Greek words Paul is using here admonish us not to think too highly or too lowly of ourselves as we discern the gifts we have to offer the world. 

For some of us, perhaps we need to recognize that no act of love, no matter how small, lowly, or insignificant is beneath us.  Every care package we send; every ride we give to those who can’t drive; every lasagna we bake for new parents; every Christmas carol we sing in a hospital waiting room; all these gifts we share put more love into the world.

And for others of us, we need to be reminded that God has almost always chosen the least expected to do great things.  I just recently finished a booked called Glimmer of Hope, which was written by survivors of the Parkland shooting.  In their own words, these teens recounted not only the story of February 14th last year but of the rise of the March for Our Lives Movement.  Many of the different authors wrote about how they never expected to be where they are today, about how they were just ordinary teens before this happened.  One young man named John wrote, “These kids that were struggling to get an A in Algebra II, these kids that were stressed out about their teachers, and the SATs, and what they were going to wear to prom, those kids were able to accomplish so much in so little time with so much trauma that has happened to them.” 

Those survivors rejected the “thoughts and prayers” of those who offered them with no intent to do anything meaningful, and, instead, they decided to become the answer to their own prayers, to step up and do whatever they could with whatever they had to take care of what they love.  They may not have had the experience or the talent or the knowledge to start a nationwide movement but they didn’t let that stop them from following where love was calling them. 

Because remember, as much as this is a sermon about stewardship, it’s also a sermon about love. 

How shall we love?  Let us count the ways…

And so, my wish for us, my friends, is

  • That our thoughts and prayers would center us in a love that transforms us every day;
  • That we would see stewardship not just as part of a long to-do list but as the way we care for what we love.
  • And finally, that the grace we receive would allow us to become living sacrifices, renewing us daily as we offer our whole selves in service to the world.