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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sermon by Rev. Robert McDowell (June 22) - "A Better Way"

    For the past couple of years, we have been spending several of our summer Sundays focusing on stories from the Old Testament.  I’ve chosen to do this because the Old Testament provides us with many important stories to help us grow in our faith.
     During my elementary school years, I would get off the school bus and run up to my grandmother’s mobile home which was just up the hill from my house. I always looked forward to my weekday afternoons with Mom-Mom because she always had a large jar of freshly made iced tea with way too much sugar and lemon juice waiting for me in her frig.
     If that wasn’t enough sugar for me, she also made a cake each week which always had way too much icing if that’s even possible. You might be thinking that my grandmother was much too kind to do this for me each day, but she actually had an ulterior motive in doing this.
     As I guzzled down her overly sweet iced tea and delighted in the buttercream icing, she would hand me my Old Testament study book. She would have me read an Old Testament story like the one we heard today. After I was done reading the story, I took a test on what I just read and she would give me a grade.
     This is how I became familiar with the stories of the Old Testament. Whenever I read an Old Testament story today, I feel the need to have a lot of sugar. I think it’s called behavioral conditioning.
     My grandmother gave me all of that sugar even though a lot of these Old Testament stories are not very sweet. Some of these stories are so sad and tragic that I want to sugarcoat their meaning. Today’s Old Testament story really takes the cake. OK, that’s enough sweet talk. It’s time to dig into the story.

     If we were paying attention when today’s Old Testament scripture was read to us this morning, most of that story was hard to take. Your palms might have gotten a bit sweaty. This is not a story for the faint of heart.
     It’s a story that seems so primitive to us and we’re more than surprised that it’s included in our bible. If you visit Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello, Virginia, you might have noticed his bible on display.
     Our brilliant founding father, the towering intellect who crafted the Declaration of Independence and established the University of Virginia, literally cut out any part of the bible that he found offensive, illogical, or uncomfortable. I don’t know this for sure, but based on his criteria, I don’t think he wanted this story in the bible.
     Who would want to include a story about a father coming this close to sacrificing his own son? From the very beginning of this story, we are told that this is exactly what God told Abraham to do. It’s not an ambiguous command. Abraham is told to sacrifice his own son.
     From there, this story feels like it will never end because it slowly tells us how Abraham journeyed with his son to the place where this was sacrifice was to be made. When they reach their destination, we are even given the details of how Abraham prepared for the sacrifice. This is such a disturbing story. How is it possible that a story like this can be included in the bible?
    It’s stories like this that remind me of just how important it is for us to understand the context of when these stories were originally told. Without any knowledge of the historical and social context of this story, I would probably go find some scissors and cut this story out from my bible.
     So here’s the context of this story. Abraham lived during a time when the people of the Ancient Near East offered up their children as sacrifices to their various lifeless deities. When Abraham was told to sacrifice his son, Isaac, he didn’t know what we have come to know, that this God is not like any other deity of that time period. The God we know and worship is a God of love and grace.
     This is not a story about God arbitrarily changing his mind at the last minute to spare Isaac’s life. This is a story to help us understand that the God of Abraham is like no other God. This is not a God of death. This is a God of life. This is a God who offers us a better way.
     When you think about the story in this way, it helps us to understand what the author of Genesis is trying to communicate to us. Once we put this story in the proper context of the time period in which it was originally written, we can then see a message of hope and good news.
     I’ve been thinking a lot about the many ways that God offers us a better way. And like, Abraham, we are called to trust in this God everyday of our lives.
     What are the better ways that God is offering to us in our journey of faith?
     This story of Abraham and Isaac might sound extreme to our modern day sensibilities, but I think that we can all acknowledge that we don’t always choose the life that God is offering to us.
     Children watch our every move and pick up messages that we never intended to send. We can let work drive a knife into the beating heart of a marriage. We can bind our families with cords of anger and addiction that can feel like death. If we are not aware of or sensitive to others, we will kill life’s most precious relationships.
     We face these life and death situations all the time. The question is if we are open to God’s better way of living.
     In one of my previous churches, a middle age woman with tears in her eyes told me how she had been bullied throughout her early school years. She said that she had a facial skin condition during those years in school and several of the other students including some that she thought were her friends, had consistently made fun of her. Because of all of this, she suffered from extremely low self-esteem during those early years.
     She said how she still deals with low self-esteem even though the bullying had ended a long time ago. But what’s different is that she knows that God loves her unconditionally. She knows that beauty is more than skin deep. She knows that her self-worth is not dependent on how other people treat her. She has chosen the better way.

     My hero in the faith is John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Anyone that knows me is aware of my fascination with Wesley who was an Anglican Priest in England back in the 1700’s.
     Whenever I meet with our confirmation class, I’ll tell them the date when he was born. June 28, 1703. My family knows that I am fixated on this great man of faith.
     So when our daughter and her fiancé told Penny and me the date of their wedding, I was thrilled. Out of all of the dates they could have chosen, out of 365 choices, they chose June 28 which is John Wesley’s birthday anniversary.
     My daughter is afraid that when I give the toast at her wedding reception this Saturday that instead of focusing on her, I will say something about John Wesley. That’s how much I love John Wesley, but I love my daughter more so I’ll behave.
     In the early part of John Wesley’s ministry, he experienced a time of deep darkness. In 1735, he traveled to America to serve as a missionary to the Native Americans in the colony of Georgia.
     His hope was to convert them to Christianity but they didn’t respond to his preaching. While in Georgia, he fell in love with a young lady but the relationship didn’t end very well. To make a long story short, her father forced him to go back to England.
     On his journey back to England, he was feeling really down and dejected. He felt empty inside. He was at a very low point spiritually.
     When he got back to England, he was really struggling in his faith. On May 24th, 1738, Wesley reluctantly went to a prayer meeting that was held on Aldersgate Street in London.
     In his journal from that night, he writes that he stood up during that meeting and said, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
     This heart-warming experience was life changing for John Wesley. From there, the Methodist movement grew rapidly as people responded to the message of hope and new life through Jesus Christ. Small groups were formed all over England welcoming people to embrace life over death.
     God showed John Wesley a better way.
     The story of Abraham coming close to sacrificing his son, Isaac, is a story about God offering a better way. God is unlike the other deities that were worshipped during that time period. This God is a God of life, not of death.
     This story reminds us that God is always reaching out to us with new life and new hope. Just when the knife seems like it’s going to take away life, God intervenes and offers a better way.
     Maybe you’re going through a time where it feels like a time of dryness and no life. It’s especially during those times when God reminds us that life is stronger than death. Hope is greater than any despair.
     We are told that because of what God had done for him, that Abraham gave that place a name. It became known as “The Lord will provide.” God does provide for all of our needs, especially during those times when we feel we have run out of hope. There’s always a better way with God by our side.
     A while back, I attended a meeting where the leader of the group invited each of us around the table to share how it was with our souls. The leader looked across the table and said, “Steve, let’s start with you. How is it with your soul?”
     It’s not always easy to be the first person to respond to such a deep question. I was just glad that this person didn’t call on me first!
     Steve went on to share with all of us that he had been feeling kind of low in his spiritual life. He said that when he was in church one day, he decided to go to the chapel and pray.
     And as he was there in one of the pews praying, he felt led to just go ahead and lie face down on the floor of that chapel. He said that his church had been emphasizing the importance of prayer and he thought to himself, “Why not?”
     At first, he felt kind of silly stretched out on the floor like that, but as he continued to spend time in prayer, he felt the weight of his concerns and trouble being lifted from him. In place of all of that weight, he felt a peace that he hadn’t experienced for a long time.
     As he continued to share with us, he counted off one by one, all of the ways that this time of prayer had changed him.
     “Because of that time in prayer, I have renewed hope and a more positive attitude  in what I do,” he said.
     Because of that time in prayer, I feel more energy, both physically and spiritually.
     Because of that time in prayer, I’ve been exercising more and eating better. I’ve lost some weight, which is a good thing.
     And when he pointed at his fourth finger, he said that because of that time in prayer, he feels more balance in his life, more meaning, more purpose.
     As he shared with us, you could tell by the look in his eyes, that he had chosen a better way.
     These painful bible stories have a way of surprising us. What starts out as a story of death ends up being a story of new life.

     Even the story of Good Friday becomes the story of the empty tomb. Afterall, this God is like no other.

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