A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Sermon (September 30) - "Extravagant Generosity: Relationships from the Heart"

     Do you like Country and Western songs? Sometimes these are called “somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs.” You might have heard the joke that if you play a country song backwards you get back your truck, your dog, your job, and your wife or husband.    
     Perhaps these lyrics are popular in our culture because they acknowledge our difficulties with relationships, but they also speak from the cynical or negative aspects of our culture.
     In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul encouraged the church to think more positively.  Specifically, Paul encourages us to consistently think on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy (see Philippians 4:8). But our cynical culture makes it hard to focus on these things, doesn’t it? Sometimes, even the church struggles to shift focus from the cynical and negative. That’s why we began a journey last week to consider matters of the heart.
     From the great Shema of the Torah in Deuteronomy to the teaching of Jesus found in John 13, this focus on loving relationship is at the root of the scriptural values of our faith. 
Deuteronomy 6:4-6. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. (NRSV)
John 13:34-35. “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.
     In the Christian faith, we attend to the teaching of the Shema
     If it helps any, Jesus found this very difficult throughout his ministry.  At the heart of his ministry was to love people but he encountered all kinds of resistance, especially from his religious peers. 
     When he tried to heal somebody on the Sabbath, somebody complained that he was violating one of the Sabbath laws.  When he tried to touch somebody who was bleeding, they accused him of becoming religiously unclean.  When he talked about loving your enemies, they became angry at him.  Some would say that it was because his heart was totally filled with love for God and neighbor, that people wanted him to be crucified.  When you live in a cynical culture where people are suspicious of each other, it’s kind of hard to follow the ways of Jesus, isn’t it?
     Relationships are a vital part of our spiritual journey.  Today, we thank God for people who have invested in us with their time, guidance, and unconditional love.  Thanks to their extravagant generosity we have been richly blessed. And because of their positive impact, we want to do the same for others.  Relationships that are from the heart are born out of extravagant generosity. 
     A few weeks ago, we sent out a mailing to our congregation that included a card that asked us to list people who have made a difference in our spiritual lives.  It was pure joy for me to read your responses this past week.  Here is a sampling of what I read:
     Parents, Sunday School teachers, and friends.
     The pastors, my Sunday School teachers, youth fellowship leaders, and my family.
     A dear friend who brought me back to my church after a long absence due to living in two different cities for a while.
     Many  members of our church who have been willing to welcome me and discuss problems with me.
     A young adult pastor when I was a young adult.
     All the people who came to see me and all those who prayed for me.
     Women in my Circle study group.  Everyone in my bible study.  They all make a big difference in my spiritual life.
     Small groups we have been involved in over the years.
     Youth leaders in high school, Sunday School teachers, pastors, and people through the Emmaus program.
     Thank you for sharing these with me and there are many others I could have shared.
       One of the greatest joys I have as a pastor it to hear about your faith journey.  Joe Palmer is one of our young adults in the church. He serves on our Staff/Parish Relations Committee.  I’m going to invite Joe to share about the people who have made a difference in his spiritual life.

     Good Morning.

     My name is Joseph Palmer, and most of you probably know me or someone in my family fairly well.

     My parents are Shawn and Ann Palmer and my grandparents are Bill and Betty Whitmore and Carl and Barb Palmer. My mother and here parents, Bill and Betty, all were members of the choir at one time, and and Carl is currently still singing. My father's mother, Barb, rang bells in the bell choir, was the church's wedding coordinator for years, and was a very active member of the clown ministry.

    With such an active church family, I pretty much grew up here. So many memories of my childhood are here at First United Methodist Church. I remember spending my summers in vacation bible school and being ornery in Sunday School.

   I remember performing in the clowns as Carrot Top with my Grandma Palmer. I would explain how carrots come from carrot seeds and i would correlate this with the growth of your faith. Sorry I left the makeup and wig at home today.

  I remember my grandfather' seeing eye dog poking its head out between those curtains on the balcony and then how she would fall asleep during service and her snoring shaking that entire section.

  I remember the Christmas Eve service where I played Joseph in the Christmas pageant. Once I reached the manager on the alter I quickly realized that I was on the wrong side. So what did i do. I simply hiked my robe up and quickly hurdled the baby Jesus to assume my correct position.

  As I got older I went through confirmation and was part of the largest confirmation class in church history. We all became very involved in youth group and Sunday night small groups. With the help of Sam Halverson, youth group leaders like my parents, Bill and Gina Pressler, Tim and Jill Warner, Judy Hug, Hobey and Susie Griset, and others were able to guide and help shape our faith and moral compasses.

  After graduating high school and moving on to college I was thrown into the real world. I met new people from around the country and the world. With the difference in cultures came varying beliefs and faith and then long in depth conversations about beliefs and faiths. Thankfully I was able to keep my faith and morality intact mostly impart due to my upbringing in the church and thanks to the numerous people in who helped guide and shape who I am today.

  However, after graduating from Ohio State I found it hard to find my place here at the church. I'm not a high school kid anymore and I'm not my parents. Becoming a young adult and trying to evolve in the church is not easy after being away for so many years.

  The summer after I returned from school I was asked to serve on the Staff Parish Relations committee. In hind sight, this was the turning point in the continuing growth of my faith as a young adult. Being on Staff Parish brought me closer with individuals on the committee and I finally felt accepted as a young adult member of this church.

  While on Staff Parish , this past Spring I felt the need to be part of the Unbinding Your Heart program. I was not expecting how much I was going to gain from participating. Being able to opening discuss my faith and beliefs and have in depth conversations with other members of the church was an amazing experience. I have never felt so welcomed and respected here. For that I want to personally thank Nancy, Kelly, Dan, Linda, Debbie, Jeff, Ann, Scott, and Regina.

  I want you all to know that your generous financial investment enables the church to move forward, fund ministries that touch lives, and make a difference in our church and community. But more importantly, your generosity is an important way you can express your love for God and grow in your faith.
     Thank you for sharing your faith journey with us, Joe.  Extravagant generosity is all about relationships from the heart.
     Many of you are aware that my mother passed away this past June.  She had dementia over the past several years.  Until the very end of her life, she was able to attend her home church, the Stewartstown United Methodist Church, in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania.  I used to take her to church with me when I would go in to visit.  And yes, we always sat in the same pew.
     The visitation and the funeral service for my mom were both held at the church.  During the funeral visitation, this one lady who appeared to be in her mid 50’s came up to me and said, “You don’t know me but your mom had such a positive impact on my life.  She is why I joined this church a few years ago.”
     She went on to tell me that about five years ago, she attended the church for the first time.  She sat in the same pew as my mom.  During the welcome and greeting time in the service, mom introduced herself and warmly welcomed her to the church.
     She told me that she felt so welcomed because of my mom that she came back the next Sunday.  And again, my mom welcomed her during the greeting time.  Mom didn’t remember her from the previous Sunday, but she again welcomed her and shared her name.
     This happened the following Sunday as well.  And this woman said to me, “It was that Sunday, that somebody explained to me that your mom had dementia which is why she kept forgetting that she had already met me.  But it didn’t matter,” she said.  “Your mom was so sweet to me and I decided to make this my new church home.”
     I thank God for all of the many relationships that are formed in our church.  Those conversations that take place in our parlor in between services, or in Sunday School class, or in the pews during the welcome time, help our church to feel like a family. 
     The teenager that you invited to McDonalds for a coke will never forget how you reached out to them and offered your love and support.  The member you sent a sympathy card to at the death of a loved one is still propped up on the corner of his desk reminding him that his church cares about him.
     These are the ways that we live out the two great commandments that Jesus encouraged us to keep at the center of our faith.  Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.  It’s pretty simple isn’t it?  Relationships are a matter of the heart.  Relationships remind us that we don’t stand alone.  We are here today because of the people who have gone before us and the people who surround us in our faith journey.
     As we continue this second Sunday of our stewardship focus on Extravagant Generosity, many of us are reading through Robert Schnase’s devotional guide, Practicing Extravagant Generosity.
     In the Friday reading of this past week, the author describes how practicing Extravagant Generosity is a basic part of our faith because we ourselves have been recipients of Extravagant Generosity.  Listen to what he writes:
     Every sanctuary and chapel in which we have worshiped, every church organ that has lifted our spirits, every pew where we have sat, every Communion rail where we have knelt, every hymnal from which we have sung, every praise band that has touched our hearts, every church classroom where we have gathered with our friends, every church kitchen that has prepared our meals, every church van that has taken us to camp, every church camp cabin where we have slept—all are the fruit of someone’s Extravagant Generosity.
     We have been the recipients of grace upon grace. We are the heirs, the beneficiaries of those who came before us who were touched by the generosity of Christ enough to give graciously so that we could experience the truth of Christ for ourselves. We owe the same to generations to come. We have worshiped in sanctuaries that we did not build, so to us falls the privilege of building sanctuaries where we shall never worship.
     This week you celebrated the people who have made a difference in your spiritual lives. Consider an appropriate way to express your appreciation of these gifts of grace in your life.  You might want to thank someone who was there for you and who prayed for you during a very difficult time in your life.  That’s the church at its best.  And we can’t help but to offer our best gifts to Christ and his church because of the many gifts we have received from others and the incredible difference they have made in our spiritual journey. 
      When I came into this sanctuary for the first time over three years ago, my first impression was how this sanctuary has a family feel.  The pews are angled so that we can see each other instead of some sanctuaries where there are two long rows of pews that simply go straight back.
     And then I noticed the wooden floors in the pews and how they have that worn look like an old comfortable shoe.  I thought about all of the people who have sat in these pews over the 100 plus years of this building.
     I think of all of the ministries that were started because of the people who have worshipped here. I think of the generosity of so many people who have made it possible for us to enjoy this beautiful place and to grow in our faith.  I think of the many prayers that have been lifted up in this place over the years.   We are blessed in more ways that we can even imagine.
     When I was in college, I attended what was then known as the Central Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.  I wasn’t a delegate at this conference, but I attended as a visitor.
     I ended up sitting near a pastor who had served my home church several years ago.  His name is Rev. John Wesley Stamm.  That’s a great name for a United Methodist pastor, isn’t it?  John Wesley Stamm. 
     Not thinking that he would remember me, since I would have just been born when he was the pastor of my home church, I told him my name.  I was taken aback when he said, “Oh yes.  Robert McDowell.  I remember you.”  And then with great joy he said to me, “I baptized you.”  He then told me that I was his very first baptism as the pastor of that church. 
     How’s that for a good memory?  And how blessed I felt in that moment that he remembered me.  Thanks to Rev. Stamm and my baptism, I was able to begin a faith journey with Christ that begins through this day.  And along that journey, many people in that church helped to shape and mold me to be a disciple of Jesus.
     I am so glad to be part of the family of Christ! How about you?

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