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, January 11, 2015

Sermon (January 11) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Let There Be Light!"

    There are times when we are reminded of just how small we are in comparison to the vastness of the universe. It’s humbling when we experience these moments.
     Some science museums offer a timeline of the history of the world. You’ve probably seen these timelines. They are sobering reminders that the human race is just a tiny speck on the large canvas of time.
     If the world was put into a twenty-four hour timeline, dinosaurs are still alive at the 11:51 mark. Humans don’t appear until the very last minute. In North America, human beings don’t appear until 1/7th of a second ago! That’s how small we are in the grand scheme of the lifespan of the world.
     Or maybe during a plane flight, you looked out the window, and you were reminded of how small we really are here on planet earth. It’s during times such as these that we are led to contemplate our sense of worth and purpose in the world.
     Like a museum timeline of the world, the Bible also provides us with a wide-lens view of the world and where we fit in the vastness of creation. Unlike the museum historical time-line chart, the bible offers us a perspective of purpose and self-worth.
     Many bible scholars believe that the Genesis chapter one creation story was written during a time when the people of God were living in exile. Away from their homes and familiar surroundings, they needed to be reminded that God had not forgotten them.

     More than just a tiny dot on a spinning globe, they were wondering if God still had a plan and a purpose for them. They needed a reassuring word that not all had been lost. The creation story provides this reassurance.
     The bible begins by reminding us that God has been present from the very beginning of creation. From there, we are given a description of the world as being a place that was without shape or form and was simply a dark sea. For a people living in exile, this would have sounded a lot like their present reality. Chaotic, dark, scary.
     This is a difficult time of year for many of us because the days have been dark for so long. It may also feel dark because of a situation we are facing that keeps us up at night. The creation story was written for people who face darkness and chaos from time to time. And it offers us an incredible word of hope when it says that God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”
     The good news of our faith is that in the midst of our darkness, God says, “Let there be light.”

     This past fall, Ohio State’s football coach, Urban Meyer, shared about some of the darkness that he has faced over the past several years. His darkness was in dealing with depression.
     He shares that his darkest time was back in 2009 when he was the head coach at Florida. He had just won a national championship. His closest friends knew that something was wrong, because instead of giving himself some time to enjoy a national championship that year, he was already thinking about the next football season.
     The pressure to win had caught up with him mentally, emotionally, and physically. He was taking sleeping pills, Ambien and chasing it down with beer just to fall asleep. He lost 37 pounds that year and at one point, he felt like he was experiencing a heart attack.
     He ended up retiring from coaching after the 2009 season and became a college football analyst before arriving at Ohio State in 2012. He has been learning to manage the stress of coaching and continues on the road to healing.
     As I read about this dark time in Urban’s life, it made me think about the darkness and the chaos that is described in the creation story. This isn’t just a story for exiles who lived a long time ago, this is a story for us whenever we face the darkness and pain in life.
     The creation story tells us that it’s when we encounter the dark and chaotic times of life that God offers us hope. We are told that God’s wind swept over the waters and God said, “Let there be light.” And the light appeared.
     Amid the threating force of chaos, the bible affirms God as the creator of order out of chaos. This scripture reminds us that there is no darkness that is too dark for God to help us overcome.
     I’ve shared with you several years ago about a friend of mine who went through a time of darkness in his life. Things had become unsettling for him that his family doctor had him admitted at a mental health hospital for treatment.
     He had been very successful in his career and yet, unknown to many people, he too struggled with depression. He told me that he was admitted on a picture perfect day of blue skies and 70 degrees but all he could see that day was darkness. That’s how bad things had become for him.
     Thinking that he would be in the hospital for a week or two, he became even more discouraged when he learned that he would need to stay in the hospital a lot longer than he previously thought. Even though he was receiving the help he needed, all he wanted to do was to go home.
     When he was allowed to have visitors from outside the family, one of his best friends came to pray with him. His friend gave him a cross that was very special to him. My friend, knowing how much that cross meant to him, told him that he couldn’t possible keep it.
     But his friend insisted. He said, “No. I want you to have this cross because I want you to know how many people are praying for you to get well.”
     Some days after that visit, my friend was walking through the lobby of the hospital. He was feeling down and wondering when he would be able to go home. He noticed that there was an open hymnal on the music stand of that piano.
     The hymnal was opened up to the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” He said that for some reason, his eye immediately was drawn to verse 3 of that hymn. It’s a verse that reads, “And grace will lead me home.”
     My friend says that it was in that moment, when the light began to dispel the darkness. “And grace will lead me home.”
     He soon was able to get home from the hospital. Thanks to the treatment he received in that hospital, the prayers of his family and friends, that special cross he received from his good friend, and that one little phrase from an open hymnal, my friend experienced God’s healing in his life.
     And God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light.
     The remarkable man of literature and faith, Robert Louis Stevenson has given us the inspiring story of a ship in a severe storm at sea. The passengers, huddled in the darkness below the decks, were in awful fear for their lives. At last, they chose one of their number to go topside and learn what he could about their situation and their chances.
     Reaching the forward deck, this man stood a few moments looking up to the bridge where the captain at the wheel was struggling against the storm. The captain, seeing him there, turned briefly to him and smiled reassuringly. The man returned quickly to the others below, saying to them, “I have seen the face of the pilot, and he smiled. All is well.”
     Like the people in this dark boat, the people who were living in exile needed to know that somebody was still at the wheel. The creation story reminds us that God’s Spirit is sweeping over the waters and providing light.
     What are the deep waters and chaos that you may be facing in your life? Know that God is not only present for you but is leading you back home.
    The city of Detroit has been facing dark times. The economy is struggling. People are out of work. It’s been difficult for families to make a living. This past Fall, Mitch Albom, wrote an article about a shining light in that dark city.
     Fifty-five year old pastor, Faith Fowler is not your typical pastor. Tireless, humble, with a shock of white blonde hair and a laugh that you can never forget, she houses people, feeds people, and has created 85 full-time jobs for once struggling Detroiters who now, among other things are turning old tires into sandals.
     During her first sermon at Cass Community United Methodist Church, she prepared a sermon and delivered it with passion until an older woman in the back of the sanctuary interrupted her with a loud voice for all to hear. “Hey, lady! We’re out of toilet paper!” The light of God has been shining in that church ever since that first Sunday.
     Pastor Fowler is often the only white face at the funerals she officiates and of the church groups she addresses. People had warned her to not serve a church in the inner city where there would be the poor, the addicted, and the developmentally disabled.
     Instead, Faith Fowler embraced them all. She offered them dignity. She started a culinary arts program, a warming center, and started a pageant contest after being told that many of her challenged church members had never accomplished anything great in life.
     She helped found a social services ministry which has blossomed into one of Detroit’s most effective charitable agencies, creating everything from apartment buildings for transitional clients to a green warehouse turning the city’s garbage into retail products, from floor mats to sandals that are now selling online around the world.
     Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.
     Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. We remember when Jesus was baptized and how a voice from heaven bellowed out, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
     Baptism is a sign that God has claimed us and calls us each by name. In this vast universe, we are not simply a little speck that goes unnoticed. We belong to Christ. We are loved by God.
     There’s a Peanuts comic strip where Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy are lying on a hillside looking up at the clouds. Lucy says, “If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud formations. What do you think you see, Linus?”
     Linus replies, “Well, those clouds up there look to me like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean…the cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, a famous painter and sculptor…And that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen…I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.”
     Lucy responds, “Uh, huh, that’s very good…What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?” And Charlie Brown responds with his typical note of inadequacy, “Well, I was going to say that I can see a ducky and a horsy, but I changed my mind.”
     What do you see when you look out at this vast universe, when you are facing the deep waters of chaos, when you are limited by short days, and when you wonder if you will ever make it home again?
     Do you see the captain at the wheel? Do you see some light breaking through the darkness? Do you hear a voice from heaven saying, “You are my beloved child with whom I am well pleased?
     In a few moments, we will be invited to come forward to remember our baptisms and be thankful. Even if you have never been baptized, you are invited to come forward and know that God is the creator and wants to have a relationship with you.
     If you’d like, you may also kneel at the chancel railing. Allow this to be a time for you to be drawn to the One who knows you by name and promises to be with you through every single storm you face.
     Each year that we have offered a baptism renewal, people have commented how meaningful it was to come forward and renew their faith. What a great opportunity on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday to remember that we are not just a speck on a giant timeline of the universe.

     We belong to God. Let there be light.

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