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 14, 2015

Sermon (June 14) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Kingdom Sowers"

     I don’t feel that I’m a very patient person. Here’s an example. When I put something in the microwave, I sometimes will impatiently say, “Hurry up. C’mon. What’s taking you so long!”  You know, it’s pretty bad if you find yourself telling your microwave to hurry up.
     That’s why I think our Gospel reading was written just for me and for people who struggle with being patient. Jesus told this parable to explain what the Kingdom of God is like. Jesus compares God’s kingdom to someone who sows seeds.
     Ok, I can tell right away, that I’m not going to like this parable. I grew up on a farm that included a great big garden so I know where this parable is going. Jesus is going to tell us that it takes time to build the kingdom and that it won’t be an overnight process.
     Oh great. Well, that just means that I’m going to have to wait and I don’t like to wait. I want to see results yesterday, make that last week!
     In his parable, Jesus talks about the process that a farmer goes through in order to have a harvest. Did I say that I don’t like where this parable is going?
     This process involves scattering seeds and then that dreaded word, “waiting.” You have to wait night and day until finally, the harvest time comes.
     Jesus says essentially the same thing about how the mustard seed needs a lot of time until one day it becomes a large bush. In both cases, the result is good but it’s the waiting part that really stinks.
     And then Mark tells us that Jesus told even more parables as much as they were able to hear. I wonder if Jesus needed to do this because there were people like me in the crowd, people who were impatient, people who wanted to see results right away. Jesus wants us to know that the Kingdom of God doesn’t work that way. It takes time, lots and lots of time before we are finally able to see the results.
     I remember my first winter with you back in late 2009 and early 2010. Brand new pastor. Great church. Lots of optimism. We were poised to change the world.
     Our theme for 2010 was going to be, “This will be our best year of ministry ever!” That was saying a lot since our church has been around since the early 1800s, but I am known to be a little presumptuous!
     Well, as many of you know, it was just after Christmas in 2009 and the first few months of 2010, that we realized that our church was facing a very unexpected major financial crisis. We realized that our financial situation at that time was so bad that in a month or two, we weren’t going to be able to fund our payroll. And then this led to cutting the staffing portion of our church budget by $240,000.
     So not only were we dealing with a major financial crisis in our church, we were also in a position where several key staff positions at that time were reduced or eliminated all together. Because of these problems, many people left the church, which made things even more difficult as we headed into my first full summer with you.
     And here I had said so confidently that this was going to be our best year of ministry ever. Timing has never been one of my strong suits.
      When we first learned about our financial crisis, I called a pastor in the Cincinnati area who had something similar happen in his church several years earlier. I told him about our situation and he told me two things.
     He surprised me with his candor. He said, “Here’s what’s going to happen. You are going to lose a lot of people.” He said, “That’s what happened to us and it’s probably going to happen at your church.” And then he said, “But if you just love the people and just stay patient, trust me, things will start to turn around there. I know it will, but it will take a lot of time.”
     This is not what this new pastor wanted to hear. “Be patient?” “It will take a lot of  time?”
     As the saying goes, we were stuck in a moment and we couldn’t get out of it, at least not overnight and not by our own resilience. We needed to trust God through the storm. And so we did.
     James A. Garfield, prior to serving as President, was the President of Hiram College here in Ohio. One day, a father asked Garfied if there was a short-cut to help his son get through college in less than the usual four years.
     This man wanted his son to start making some money sooner rather than later. Garfield offered this wise reply, “Of course there is a way; it all depends on what you want your boy to do. When God wants to grow an oak tree, he takes 100 years. When he wants to make squash, he only takes two months.” Point taken!

     Financial crisis or no financial crisis, our church trusted in God by launching our Second Saturday Outreach around the same time that we announced our financial situation. We made a commitment to live out our faith during a time when it would have been so easy to turn inward and feel sorry for ourselves.
     We launched Second Saturday on Valentine’s Day of that year. We made a commitment to meet on the Second Saturday of every month and share God’s love in our community through a variety of ways.
     We have painted several of the city’s fire hydrants, painted over graffiti on bridges, served as volunteers for charity events, helped with house repairs, laid new flooring at Foundation Dinners, split and delivered wood to help people in need to heat their homes, given away quarters to people at the Laundromat, helped residents at a nursing home play bingo and chair volleyball, taken bags of fruit and cookies to first responders and to people who are shut-in, raked people’s yards, helped with the Habitat for Humanity resale store, made blankets for nursing home and hospice patients, helped build a tree house for the students at Forrest Rose school for Developmental Disabilities, assembled cribs for families who are struggling financially, along with many, many other projects.
     All of this started during a time when our church was facing major challenges. This just goes to show what a wonderful church you are. This is a church that is known for making a difference in our community. We forged ahead with our Second Saturday vision and it has been a blessing ever since.
     I haven’t shared this story with you but this is probably a good time to do it since this is my last Sunday with you. You can get away with a lot on your last Sunday.
     Back in spring of 2010, when we sent a letter to the congregation explaining our emergency financial situation and how we were going to need to eliminate several staff positions in order to keep operating, one of our church members stopped by our finance office soon after they received that letter in the mail.
     This was a time when I was wondering how our church was going to react to that letter which described the dire situation that we were facing. We were also concerned how we were going to pay for several building repairs that were needed.
     One of our church members who had received that letter, came that very day to our finance office here at the church. This person said, “I read this letter and I just feel awful about our situation.” And then she said, “I love my church so much that I want to make an extra financial contribution to help us get through this difficult time.” This person then handed over a check for $50,000.
      That check, along with the extra financial support of so many of you here today, gave us the boost we needed to make it through those initial months of our crisis. Friends, looking back, 2010 really was our best year of ministry ever. It really was!
     Slowly but surely, during these past six years, we have seen God at work in so many wonderful ways. Our worship attendance is growing. Our Love-Grow-Serve vision and discipleship process is off and running.
     We have just started the final lap with the goal of paying off our Crossroads facility loan by this time next year. We had a $68,000 surplus from last year’s budget, and on top of all of that, we managed to give over $33,000 to Imagine No Malaria a year and a half ahead of schedule. We have really come a long way.
     Thanks to your faithfulness, your patience, and your generosity, those seeds that were planted way back in 2009 and 2010 have become a full crop. Those tiny seeds, those little mustard seeds, have over time, become large branches where people are being blessed through the ministries of this church.
     My how time flies when you’re having fun.
     Thank you for giving me the opportunity to see God do so many incredible things through the life of our church. Thank you for teaching me to be patient. Thank you for helping me to understand why Jesus gave us this parable about sowing seeds and what it means to trust that they will one day grow into something incredibly beautiful.

     A six year old boy was assisting his mother with some spring gardening. The mother was absorbed in her work while the little boy tried to figure out how he could speed up the process of seeing a seed become a beautiful plant.
     All at once, the boy picked up a daffodil bud, and sat down on the ground, and studied it. Then with his two little hands, he tried to force it open into a full blossom. The result of course, was disappointment and a mess: limp petals and a dead flower.
     Frustrated, he cried out, “Mommy, why is it that when I try to open the buds, it just falls to pieces and dies. How does God open it into a beautiful flower?”
     Even before his mother could answer, a broad smile broke across the child’s face, and he exclaimed, “Oh! I know! God always works from the inside!”
     This little boy’s experience in the garden is like the parable of sowing seeds. God works from the inside. His kingdom is alive and it is growing.
     All of those months and years of wondering if the seeds we had planted would ever grow into something beautiful have been sprouting up all around us. And they will continue to sprout up because you continue to sow seeds for God’s kingdom.
     We have seen God at work in so many wonderful ways these past six years. We have planted many seeds and we have seen many of them grow. Just think of the many new seeds that God will have us plant as Pastor Brian comes to serve as your Senior Pastor.
     Last year, Penny and I stopped by to see Pastor Cheryl and Ben’s new home here in Lancaster. After we got the tour and were about to leave, Pastor Cheryl said, “Oh, there’s one more thing I’d like to show you both.”
     She opened the door to this little closet near their front door. On the inside of that closet door, she showed us how a previous owner had the height of each child along with their age. It was fun to see how each child grew taller and taller as they got older and older in that house.
     At the time, it may seem like they will always be five or eight.  I remember when it seemed like forever before our kids would reach that next stage of development. At the time, it might seem like a slow process, but they are growing moment by moment and day by day.
     Do you know what my favorite memory is of being here with you these past six years? No, it’s not the time when I fainted during a sermon one Sunday morning. And no, it’s not the time that you all dressed up in scarlet and grey after Ohio State beat Penn State my first year with you.
     No, the time I will most remember is the day that I walked my daughter down this aisle to be married. Two United Methodist pastors officiated for that service and I was able to just be a dad.
     At the wedding reception, I offered a toast to my daughter. I said, “Naomi, do you remember when you were really little and I used to throw you in the air and then catch you? I would do that over and over again and you would just laugh and ask me to do it again.”
     “Well, Naomi, I don’t know what happened. But one day, I threw you really high into the air, and you never came down. And you are still flying and you are still soaring to new heights. And now here you are on your wedding day, marrying a great guy.”
     As they say, “They grow up fast.”
     So in the midst of change and transitions, let’s keep sowing seeds for the kingdom day after day after day. Keep patient.
     You are proof that it's worth the wait.

1 comment:

Mary Catterlin said...

Excellent sermon Pastor Robert!!!