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An elliptical sermon

The Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins preaches from his garage gym during ‘ReVital’ worship

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins of Columbia Theological Seminary preaches from his garage gym Tuesday as part of Vital Congregations’ “ReVital” worship service. (Screen grab)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Ralph Basui Watkins has no doubt preached in many settings over his long career in ministry and in training ministers to be.

Add the former garage he’s transformed into a garage gym to the list of his preaching venues.

Watkins, the Peachtree Professor of Evangelism and Church Growth at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, told worshipers participating in Vital Congregations’ “ReVital” worship on Tuesday that the pandemic has challenged both his mental and physical health — so much so that, due in part to his gym being closed, he put on 35 unwanted pounds during the time of coronavirus, even though he’s walked four or five days each week during the pandemic.

“All the time I was waiting, waiting, waiting for the gym to reopen,” Watkins said amidst the collection of garage-based exercise equipment that has relegated his car to the driveway. “I was like the disciples in today’s text (Matthew 8:18-22, the story of a would-be follower of Christ and Jesus’ comment to his disciple to “let the dead bury their own dead”). I wanted to go back from whence I’d come.”

“I hear what you’re saying,” Watkins told worshipers. “’Ralph, help us connect that [biblical text] with what you’re doing in your garage gym.’”

And so he did.

“I had to make a decision” after the pandemic stress-induced weight gain, he said. “I realized the gym wouldn’t reopen anytime soon, and when it did, I wouldn’t go because I didn’t feel safe … The gym I knew in February would not be the gym of today. The gym as I knew it was dead. The way I was prior to the pandemic was long-since history.”

It was just last month, Watkins said, “when I realized I couldn’t go back. I had to decide how I would maintain physical and mental health in a time of pandemic, which wasn’t going away anytime soon. No one is coming to save us,” he said. Federal and state leadership “are failing us, and local leadership is caught in the middle.”

Watkins imagined he would buy an exercise bike and that would be the end of it. But he also added an elliptical machine, fans and a television to his burgeoning garage gym. In just a few weeks, he’s shed half his weight gain.

However, “I didn’t build the gym to lose weight,” he said. Instead, the goals were to be healthy and whole and to enjoy “a lifetime of healthy living.”

Jesus tells the scribe who volunteers to follow the Lord wherever he goes, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

“Don’t worry about the building; follow me,” Watkins said of Jesus’ invitation. “Jesus says, ‘I don’t even have a building fund, but follow me.’ He is saying, ‘Go, don’t look back. Now is the time to act, to build, to do something new, to be daring, bold, creative and innovative. Don’t wait.’”

The choice is ours, but Watkins made it clear he believes now’s the time to take action. To help “drive” that point home, he played a car commercial from 10 years back in which hamsters tell prospective buyers, “You can get with this or you can get with that.”

“What you are doing now will support you during the post-pandemic,” he said. “We have to embrace the challenges — and there are so many challenges now! And yet in the midst of them I refuse to throw in the towel. We have to be safe and listen to the science, the guidelines from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. The constraints seem random, but we might be able to flip the script and see the constraints as moments for opportunities.”

“What is God calling you to do in the midst of this pandemic?” Watkins asked. “I come to you to encourage you, to challenge you and to ask you during this time to dream, ignite your imagination and be willing to be innovative. Build something that will sustain you during the pandemic and will live long after the pandemic. You can get with this, or you can get with that.”

The Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III, director of Theology, Formation & Evangelism, offered a charge to go along with his benediction.

“There are so many reasons to give up and to give out, so many reasons to just say, ‘We’re done,’” Jones said. “But keep the faith. I know in the midst of this pandemic God is at work.” Pay attention, Jones urged worshipers, to what God is doing in your life, in your faith community and in your neighborhood.

“I believe,” Jones said, “that we will discover God at work in ways that are part of the ancient tradition and in new ways, and we will be revived and revitalized.”

“May the fierce love of God and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the communion of the Holy Spirit remind us again and again that we do have enough food for the journey, enough for all people in our neighborhoods, our country and the world. That’s our gospel mission. So be it! Amen.”

View a recording of the “ReVital” worship service here.


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