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

Friday, May 2, 2014

Sermon by Rev. Robert McDowell (May 18) - "A Peculiar People"

    Our scripture reading from I Peter says that we are God’s own people. The King James Version offers a slightly different wording.  It says that we are a “peculiar” people.
      Do you see yourself as peculiar? That’s not a very flattering word, is it?  “Jim, I have always felt that you were peculiar, and I mean that as a compliment.”
     Peculiar has a connotation of being weird and strange. Who wants to be known as peculiar besides Dennis Rodman and Charlie Sheen? Most of us want to be seen as normal and people who fit in.
     I’m told that there is a town in west central Missouri with the name of Peculiar. What would it be like to be born in a town called, Peculiar? There’s a church in Louisiana known as Strange United Methodist Church. How would you like to be a member of that church? “Yeah, I go to Strange Church. I feel like I really fit in there.”
     The more that I think about it, the more it makes sense that we should be known as a strange and peculiar people. Those of us who have been part of the church for any length of time, can easily forget that God has called us to be set apart.
     The writer of I Peter puts it this way. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.” In other words, you are a peculiar people.
     Today is known as “Heritage Sunday” on the church calendar. It’s a day to remember and give thanks in particular for our United Methodist heritage.

     Did you know that the United Methodist Church got its start in England back in the 1700s? Two brothers who were Anglican Priests, John and Charles Wesley, began forming small groups of people who would meet every week for a disciplined life of mutual prayer, bible study, and serving people in need on a weekly basis. These groups were very regimented and they followed very strict rules of accountability among the members.
     These small groups were so disciplined in practicing their faith in a society that had grown very lax about their faith that many people outside of these groups began calling them names. They felt that these small groups of Christians were taking their faith way too seriously.
     One of the names they gave for these groups was “Methodist.” They referred to them as “those Methodists” as a way to ridicule them. Wesley decided to turn this into a positive and he made this their new name.
     The very name of our denomination is a reminder that we are a peculiar people. When we take our faith seriously, it will create a reaction that will be both positive and negative. No one seems too interested in a church that simply blends in with the crowd. We are called to be a peculiar people, a people set apart for the work of Christ in the world.

     I have a friend who is a retired United Methodist pastor. He told me the story of a time when he was on the crew team in High School where he lived in Philadelphia. His crew coach was the father of the famous actress and Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly.
     The coach, whose name was Jack Kelly, wanted the crew team to practice on Sunday mornings, but my friend told him that he wouldn’t be able to do that because he attended church on Sunday mornings. The coach said, “Teller, you will practice on Sunday mornings or you won’t be on my crew team.” And my friend who loved to row, but also was very committed to his faith, responded by saying that he would need to quit the team. In front of the whole crew team and because he didn’t want to lose this gifted rower, the coach swallowed his pride and said, “Because of Teller who feels the need to go to church on Sundays, we’ll have to practice on Saturday mornings instead.”

     Sometimes, it’s not easy to be known as a peculiar people. People will wonder why we do what we do. But sometimes, people will be drawn to God out of curiosity as we seek to be faithful to God in our everyday lives.
     One of the reasons why the early church grew so rapidly the first few centuries was because those early followers saw themselves as peculiar people. They offered a radical new way of living that caught people off guard.
     Tertullian, a 2nd century Roman writer reported that the Romans would say about the Christians, “See, how they love one another!”
     Justin Martyr, a leading Christian leader in the 2nd century described the early church this way: “We who used to value the acquisition of wealth and possessions more than anything else now bring what we have into a common fund and share it with anyone who needs it. We used to hate and destroy one another and refused to associate with people of another race or country. Now, because of Christ, we live together with such people and pray for our enemies.”
      In his book, You Lost Me by David Kinnaman, he offers his thoughts on why there has been such a decline of young adults attending churches. He writes that the church has become overly institutional and not enough relational which is what most young adults are seeking in a church. As a side note, this actually isn’t just want young adults want. It’s what people of all ages want.
     Kinnaman goes on to write that the reason why the Methodist Church grew rapidly and consistently early in it’s history is because it was more focused on relationships than it was with being an institution. Relationships in the early Methodist Church were formed through several small groups of about ten to twelve people who met in each other’s homes to help one another grow in their walk with Christ.
     The leaders of these class meetings were considered lay pastors who helped their groups to deepen their bond with each other and with Christ. They shared their joys, failures, griefs, sins, and spiritual struggles. Over time, a trust level grew among the people in the group to the point where everyone felt comfortable in sharing their faith with each other.
     These groups were always open to receiving new people, regardless of where they were in their spiritual lives. The focus wasn’t on the institution. The focus was on building strong spiritual relationships in and outside of the church.
     Kinnaman makes the observation that for churches to reach young adults in today’s world, we need to reclaim our own Methodist heritage of small groups and class meetings. It’s through the building of strong relationships that the church is able to reach people of all ages.
     I think that this is what our scripture reading from I Peter never wants us to forget. We are a peculiar people. We’re peculiar because we have been claimed by Christ and we are called to be his people in the world.

     Many of us remember the tragic story of a gunman who killed five girls at an Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania about seven and a half years ago. If you remember, the killer ended up taking his own life.
     Just days after burying their own daughters from the shooting, this Amish community also attended the funeral service of the gunman. They showed incredible forgiveness and kindness by hugging the widow of the gunman and members of her family.
     Just one year after the shooting, this same Amish community offered another gesture of forgiveness. They donated money to the killer’s widow and her three young children.
     The response of this Amish community is an amazing story of healing and forgiveness, but it doesn’t end there. There was a ripple effect. Because of the love and kindness that the shooter’s wife had received from the Amish community she decided to write a book that offers a message of hope that is possible even after a terrible tragedy like the one caused by her husband.
     There was another ripple effect. The mother of the gunman has been able to find healing by forgiving her son just as the Amish community has forgiven him.  Teri Roberts has gone on the speaking circuit to share her story of forgiveness and hope to anyone who will listen. She says that the world needs more stories about the power of forgiveness and the importance of seeking joy through adversity.
     All of these stories of healing, hope, and forgiveness out of a terrible tragedy have been made possible because of a peculiar group of people who were willing to take that first step in offering forgiveness.
     Do you see yourself as peculiar?

     I mentioned that today is known as Heritage Sunday on the church calendar. Another interesting piece of our history is that John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement almost died when he was only five years old.
     A fire broke out at his house and little John was stranded on an upper floor of the building. Two neighbors were able to rescue him jus seconds before the roof collapsed. One neighbor stood on the other’s shoulders and pulled him through the window.
     As he grew older, John Wesley often referred to himself as a “brand plucked out of the fire.” He always knew that God had a special mission for him to accomplish. And that mission was to be the leader of the Methodist movement to help people grow in their faith and relationship with Jesus Christ.
     John Wesley knew that he was a peculiar person who was called to form a peculiar people known as Methodists.

     A friend of mine who has served many years as a pastor tells me about the time when he was appointed to a church in northwest Ohio several years ago. It was his first Sunday as the new pastor and several people had come to worship that Sunday to check out their new preacher.
     This church had a balcony like our church and on that Sunday, the balcony of this church was just packed with people. During the opening of worship, my friend welcomed everyone to church and he noticed the many people up there in the balcony. To acknowledge their presence he said, “What a great crowd of people we have today. There must be fifty odd people up there in the balcony.”  
     The people started laughing at his comment and that’s when he realized the double meaning of his phrase, “fifty odd people.”
     You know, come to think of it, we are an odd bunch of people, aren’t we? In Jesus Christ, we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.
      We really are a strange and peculiar people.

     And I totally mean that as a compliment.

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