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, May 31, 2015

Sermon (May 31) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Humbling Moments"

     Several years ago in a community where I was serving as pastor, I became a member of a gym. I made a commitment that year to begin exercising after several years of not exercising.
     During my tour of the gym, I remember feeling a little intimidated by all of the guys pumping iron in the weight room that day. Even during this quick tour, I was feeling out of my league. I was beginning to second guess myself if I should become part of the gym scene.

     I decided to go out and buy some fancy gym shorts, some running shirts, expensive running shoes, a water bottle. It was really important for me to at least look the part, if you know what I mean.
     Since this wasn’t the largest gym, you had to wait your turn to get on one of the running treadmills. This meant that you sometimes had to wait fifteen or twenty minutes for the guy ahead of you to finish his work-out. Standing around made me feel even more self-conscious.
     But, at least I looked the part. I head the really cool Nike clothes. I think I even had sweat-bands. Does anybody even wear those things anymore? Back in the 90’s, that was part of the whole work-out look.
     So it was my first day at the gym. There I was all decked out waiting my turn to run on the treadmill for the first time.
     Oh, the other thing about this gym was that all of the walls had floor to ceiling mirrors to make the gym look bigger than it really was. The mirrors were also the gym’s way of reminding you that you were totally out of shape.
     Well, finally, the guy in front of me got off the treadmill. Now it was my turn to shine in that gym. So I start running on that treadmill.
     It wasn’t as bad as I thought. I was feeling a little winded the first couple of minutes but not too bad. I started to feel a little more confident so I made the treadmill go a little faster, and then a little more. I was now running at a pretty fast pace.
     I looked in the full-length mirror at my reflection and I thought to myself, “Robert, you are looking really good my friend.” I was becoming more and more confident by the second.
     As I was starting to break a sweat, I decided to look back at the mirror to admire myself just one more time. That’s when I noticed a dryer sheet coming out from underneath my Nike shorts, and it floated in mid air for an incredible long time before it finally landed on the person who was running on the machine next to me.
     I quickly turned away to act like it wasn’t my dryer sheet. It was in that moment that I had been brought down a peg or two. Instead of feeling like a world class athlete, I now felt like I had been put in my place. I had been humbled.
     There’s nothing wrong with being humbled from time to time. Humility is what keeps us grounded and keeps things in perspective. It’s what helps us to not take ourselves so seriously.
     The Prophet Isaiah experienced one of these humbling moments from our scripture reading this morning. Isaiah was an incredible prophet who God called to speak a word of truth to the people of God.
     It was during the beginning of Isaiah’s prophecy, that God gives him a vision. All of the sudden, Isaiah finds himself in the Temple, that sacred space where it was believed the God of Israel resided.
     He sees these heavenly creatures flying around and they are singing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” The singing is so powerful that the foundation of the Temple shakes and the whole place is filled with smoke.
     As Isaiah takes in this incredible out of body experience, he feels so humbled and all he can do is say, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
     There are times along our faith journey when we experience these humbling moments that point us away from ourselves and toward a God who is holy and awesome. These humbling moments often take us by surprise.

     I got a call at the house late one afternoon. A family who I had never met but had an indirect connection to our church called me to see if I could make a trip to the hospital to visit their father who was a patient there.
     When I arrived, I made my way to this person’s room. I was in full pastor mode, ready to visit a few minutes and offer a prayer, my customary routine. I’ve done this before so I was feeling confident.
     As I was walking down the hallway toward the room, I knew that this wasn’t going to be a typical visit. Several family members were standing in the hallway outside the room. Some looked lost while others were wiping tears from their eyes.
     As I made it to the door of the room, the oldest daughter of the family took me by the hand and guided me into the room while everyone followed behind us. We gathered around the bedside of the person who I later would discover was her father. His breathing was labored and it was obvious by their reactions and the situation that he was in the last moments of his life.
     We all just stood there in silence, nobody saying a word for what seemed like the longest time. I finally broke the silence and assured the family that God was with their loved one and that God was with us.
     I read a couple of verses that seemed appropriate and then led in a prayer where we offered this dear man to be with the Lord. Each family member either gave me a hug or shook my hand and thanked me for my visit.
     As I started on my way down the hallway to go toward the elevator, I was overwhelmed by the thought that I had just experienced a holy moment in a way that I wasn’t expecting when I left my house that day. In the midst of that unexpected pastoral visit, I felt God’s presence in such a real way. I felt so humbled to think that God called me to be part of that family’s holy moment with their loved one.
     Sometimes, holy moments take us by surprise and humble us in a good way.

     A young homeless woman stumbled upon a United Methodist Church one Sunday morning in St. Louis. Not a church-goer, this woman felt she had run out of options.
     With nothing left to lose, she decided to give God a try. She quietly crept into the back of the church and sat huddled all by herself.
     She listened to the service, not fully understanding what was happening. Panic set in as she heard the preacher talk about something called, “Holy Communion.”
     She listened to the words of liturgy that are spoken before the Sacrament is offered and the invitation for all to receive this holy meal. She decided that she was not going to share in this meal. She felt unworthy to receive the bread and the juice along with everybody else in that church.
     She liked the ideas she heard but she knew in her heart of hearts that she was an unclean person and that Communion wasn’t for people like her. As she was thinking about these things, she was startled and alarmed to see a man and a woman heading toward her with holding the bread and cup.
     She gripped her hands together and shook her head from side to side. She politely refused to receive.
     “What’s the matter?,” the woman usher asked.
     “I’ve never been here before. I don’t belong here. I don’t know what’s  happening,” the young woman stammered.
     Both the man and the woman smiled. Then the man said, “You don’t have to belong here. Holy Communion is for everyone.”
     “Not for me,” the visitor replied. “I’m not a good person. That’s not for me,” she said, nodding at the bread and cup.
     “This is especially for you,” the woman said. “No one here deserves it. It’s a gift to us from God. You don’t have to get ready for Communion. Communion makes you ready to receive God’s love.”
     This young woman sat there with tears in her eyes, speechless. Still clutching her hands together in front of her, she clenched her eyes shut and opened her lips.
     The woman dipped a piece of bread in the cup and placed it in the young woman’s mouth. As the sweetness of the juice and the rich flavor of the bread mingled on her tongue, the young woman broke down, sobbing, “thank you, thank you” over and over.
     This is what it means to be humbled in a good way. It’s not that we are evil or overly mean or hurtful. We are human beings who sometimes do incredible and wonderful things, but who also can be hurtful, neglectful, short-sighted, and misguided.
     We are as God made us, desperately in need of love and forgiveness and second chances. Not one of us is worthy of the grace of God, but it is denied to none of us. It is a gift that cleanses us and changes us and makes us the people God wants us to be.
     But this isn’t the end of the story. One week later, the young woman returned to that same church with five of her friends. She noticed the woman who had served her Communion the week before and she waved her over. “When’s Communion?” she asked.
     “Oh, well, we only serve communion once a month,” was her reply.
     Eyes wide, he young woman said in a shocked voice, “But we need it. I haven’t felt anything so good in years, and I want my friend to have it, too!”
     Forgiveness, acceptance, healing, and love – we all need these things. We need these things because like Isaiah, we are a people of unclean lips, and by God’s grace, we have been given enough love, healing, kindness, acceptance, and forgiveness that we can share it with everyone we meet.
     Last year, I attended a clergy meeting. Toward the end of the several hour meeting that morning, another pastor came up to me and began to fix my shirt collar. Evidently, it had been turned up and I didn’t realize it. That whole morning, the people who were sitting behind me probably wondered what kind of absent-minded pastor I must be. Situations like this humble us and remind us that we are in need of God.
     Whether it’s a dryer sheet falling from our clothes, a turned up collar during a meeting, the gathering of family in a hospital room to say good-bye to their loved one, a chance visit to a church on a Sunday morning, or a vision of angels in the Temple singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” these moments of humility remind us of who we really are and of God’s love for us.

     Whenever we experience these moments of humility, may we respond with Isaiah and say, “Lord, here am I. Send me.”

No comments: