August 27th, 2017 
Psalm 138:1-3, 7-8 Romans 12:1-3
I recall precisely, where I was, the first time I heard, really heard, Paul’s words, expressed in the opening verses of Chapter 12, to the followers of Jesus in Rome. I couldn’t tell you the exact date without looking it up in my notes in my office, but it was somewhere around the year 2000 or 2001,when I was attending Christian educational program at a retreat center in Mahwah, NJ, presented by the Alban Institute. Alban had been a leading Christian educational organization providing literature, speakers and consultants to mainline Protestant churches and denominations for over forty years, on everything from finding a new pastor to strategies for growth and financial health. It is now part of the Duke Divinity School. I can’t recall specifically the subject of the week-long program, but like most programs of that sort, a particular scripture passage was selected as the theme of the event. The scripture chosen by the leader of the seminar were Paul’s words from Romans 12; she began each day by reading Romans 12:1-2 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message.
“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.”
Naturally I had read this scripture before, countless times, no doubt, in the more traditional translations of the New Revised Standard Version and the even more traditional New King James, which sounds like this:
“I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
but I had never really heard them before encountering them in the Message, nor ever had the same reaction as I had that week – the first day really.
Many years ago I took part in a writer’s workshop; the instructor went around the room and asked the same question of everyone in the workshop: “why do you write?” I was struck by one individual’s response; he said he wrote because he wanted to be “published”, admitting that he was not particularly concerned with what he was writing, only that he could ever-after lay claim to being “published.” When you read the language of The Message you may get the wrong impression of Peterson, that he’s just writing in informal, contemporary language for the sake of being published; you’d be very mistaken. Eugene H. Peterson is no kid, he is an 84 year old American-born clergyman, scholar, author, and poet who has written over thirty books, including The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. The Message is Peterson’s attempt to make the often archaic language of the scriptures relevant to our everyday lives… and just those two verses, in the rendering of the Message did just that in my life.
Let me read it to you again because, I think we sometimes don’t pay enough attention to what we’re reading:
Here’s what I want you to do, with God helping you: (because you won’t be able to do this on your own): Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life (your ordinary existence) and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the (very) best thing you can do for God. Don’t become so (wrapped up) so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God and you’ll be changed from the inside out. Recognize what God wants from you, and do it! Unlike the culture around you, which is always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.”
Suddenly it was like Paul’s words weren’t written to the early Roman Christians, he was talking directly to me. I understood exactly what he meant when he told me:
“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. 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.”
Without realizing it, Romans 12 had turned into a running conversation between me and Paul; I understood that sense of gratitude to God Paul wrote about, but I didn’t see it in the same context; I saw it as very personal and individual. I didn’t see myself in a bigger picture – God’s bigger perspective. I had never preached, had never taught (in the traditional sense), but certainly I had led church groups; in fact the reason I had been chosen to attend this particular seminar was because I was the leader of a church board of Deacons. But I didn’t see the things I did in church as something particularly extraordinary, or special, or important; they were just tasks that needed doing, which I was available to do. I had never viewed it from the perspective Paul was describing when he tells the Romans what this new life, as believers, is all about, describing how we are to work together, with what we have, to serve and bring honor to God:
“In this way (Paul says) 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 chosen 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.
“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 with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face.”
So as Paul describes it, it is not only about worship in the traditional sense, but about making your life into your worship; whether you’re a checker in the supermarket or the CEO of that supermarket corporation, it’s all about turning your life over to God – taking your life and making it your offering to God. He says we each have abilities and talents, and you might consider them ordinary, mundane, or even inadequate… but God doesn’t see it that way. In the same way God told Peter in a vision: ‘all people are God’s creation and should be considered holy,’ Paul says our talents and our abilities were given to us and are gifts from God, and they should be considered with the same reverence; which is why Paul is so passionate when he encourages us to use them for God.
I suppose I always had a fairly good appreciation, from the more traditional Bible translations I was familiar with, of Paul’s emphasis on the function of the church, how it takes the combined participation of each and every one of us to make God’s church work, but I needed to hear those first three verses in the vernacular of Eugene Peterson’s Message, before I understood them.
If my life depended upon it this morning, I would not be able to describe (without digging through those old notes) the lessons, the conversations, the topics that two or three dozen church lay leaders and clergy discussed that week… but those two verses have stayed with me… ‘Take your ordinary, everyday, life – and give it to God,’ literally changed me; changed how I saw myself and my role, through God’s perspective – make everything you do, first about God. I still had no illusion, or even a wisp of a dream that I might one day preach, or even teach; those things were the farthest from my mind. Neither did I ever consider I might one day work with the disadvantaged or disabled. And that’s Paul’s point, we don’t have to all be called to do those things; we are all called to do and be different, yet each is vital in God’s sight. What changed that day was not my purpose or my calling, what changed was how I now understood my relationship with God. God and church were not supposed to fit into my everyday life when and where I make time; God and church are supposed to be my life, and the things I do are an extension of that life.
I had to hear it in the Message’s contemporary language before my eyes were opened, and it was the biggest “eye-opener” in my life. But in any translation, Paul’s message is directed to you too; his words are for all of us. ‘Take your life, and give it to God! Make everything you do, be about serving God and God will be pleased to receive your gift.’ Suddenly the words of the psalmist captured my joy, “Thank you, God!” “Thank you for your love; thank you for your faithfulness; thank you for my life! Thank you… but don’t quit on me yet Lord; you started something, you started this, you ignited this burning in my soul, so don’t quit on me – here’s my ordinary life, finish what you started in me, God – Thank you!
— Amen ―
 Image copyright: Alban at Duke Divinity School, https://alban.org/
 Romans 12:1-2 (MSG)
 Romans 12:1-2 (NKJV)
 Romans 12:3 (MSG)
 Romans 12:4-8 (MSG)