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, July 12, 2015

Sermon (July 12) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "A Varsity Faith: Lettering In Worship"

      I don’t mean to brag but I can still fit into my 1981 High School varsity jacket. I’m wondering how many people here attended Kennard-Dale High School in Fawn Grove, Pennsylvania? Am I the only one?

     OK. How many of you graduated from Athens High School? Now we’re talking! How many of you graduated from a High School in Athens County? OK.
     Here’s my next question. How many of you had a varsity jacket or varsity sweater at one time or another? OK. Keep your hands up. How many of you still have your varsity jacket or varsity sweater somewhere in your home?
     Well, here’s what I am going to do during worship over these next several Sundays. I am going to wear different varsity jackets during the sermons. So for today, I’m going to wear my high school varsity jacket.
     By wearing different varsity jackets during my sermons, my hope is that it will help us to think about what it means to have a varsity-like faith.
     One of our church members has even volunteered to dump a bucket of Gatorade over me after each of these sermons to go along with our sports theme. You may notice that I will be looking over my shoulder after each of these sermons.
     Beginning today and for the next six Sundays, I’d like us to focus on the Letter of Ephesians that was written by the Apostle Paul.
     Paul wrote this letter to help the Christians in Ephesus to have a growing and mature faith. He covers seven key vital areas of the Christian faith that include worship which we’ll look at today, and then unity, spiritual growth, spiritual gifts, kindness, a Spirit-Filled life, and prayer.
     As I was thinking about these topics, it occurred to me that we need the same kind of discipline in these spiritual areas that we need when we letter in a varsity sport.
     I played three sports in High School: football, basketball, and baseball. I would have practice after school almost every day the whole year. I was always taking the late bus home because of being at practice each day.     

     Even though it’s been several years, I can still remember the drills that my coaches had us do including those torturous wind sprints at the end of every practice. At the time, those drills didn’t seem necessary, but when you were playing in a game you could see why all that hard work and preparation was important.
     The Book of Ephesians is Paul’s way of helping us to become strong and mature in our faith. Each week, we’ll have an opportunity to letter in an important part of our Christian faith. So this is where we’re heading for the next several Sundays. 
     I know it can get pretty warm during these next several Sundays, but if you want to get in the spirit of this sermon series and wear your varsity jacket to church on Sundays, be my guest.  People might think we’re a little crazy, but that’s OK. 
     What does it mean to have a varsity faith?
     The Apostle Paul doesn’t waste any time in showing us what we need to focus on first in having a varsity faith.  For Paul, it all begins with worship.
     Just look at how Paul begins his letter.  Most letters start out with “Dear so and so.  How are you doing?  I’m doing fine.  I’ve been meaning to write.  How’s your family?  And on and on.”  Paul takes a very different approach in opening his letter.  His letter begins with worship and praise of the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. 
     What a great way to begin a letter! These opening lines tell us something very important about Paul as a person.  Paul places worship as a very high priority in his life. 
     Worship isn’t just something that is a good thing to do once in a while if we have time. For Paul, worship is a way of life, to the point where he can’t even write two sentences of a personal letter before he is launching into worship and praise of Jesus Christ.
     And so, these first 14 verses of this letter are verses of worship.  These aren’t verses to skip over so that we can get to what we might consider the more practical aspects of what it means to be a person of faith. 
     I think what Paul is doing here, is to show us that worship is something that is to permeate through everything we do, not just in church, but even in letter writing.  Worship is meant to be a way of life.
     I don’t know about you, but I don’t always find it easy to be in an attitude of worship throughout my day to day routine.  We can so easily allow the demands of life and the distraction of life to rob us of being a people of worship.
     You would think that pastors would maybe be a little ahead of the game in this area, but not necessarily.  I’ve been in worship settings with pastors and instead of allowing ourselves to worship, what we tend to do is nitpick the worship service apart.
     “Oh, I wonder where they found that opening prayer. Who chose that hymn? Do you think they know about the cracks in the ceiling? Why is that pastor wearing a varsity jacket?”
     We pastors are merciless when we gather together for worship. We are like Simon Cowell when he was a judge on American Idol.  Everything has to be scrutinized, examined, and put under a magnifying glass.
     But I suppose all of us have problems in focusing on worship.  And sometimes, even just a typo in the bulletin can throw you off just enough to keep you from worshipping.
     One of my favorite bulletin typos that I read somewhere is the one that read, “Ushers will eat latecomers.”  I’m pretty sure they meant to say seat latecomers” and not eat latecomers.”
     This next typo was found in a church bulletin in North Carolina.  And it makes you feel sorry for the organist of that church.  The typo reads, “If you choose to heave during the postlude, please do so quietly so as not to interrupt those remaining for worship and meditation.”
     Actually, I would think that someone heaving during the postlude would be more disruptive then someone leaving during the postlude, so maybe it wasn’t a typo after all.
     But beyond these silly things about worship, Paul is reminding us in these opening lines of Ephesians, that worship is to be at the very center of everything we do, whether we’re attending a Sunday worship service, feeding a meal to the hungry, serving on a mission trip, or writing a letter to a friend.  A varsity faith means that we are lettering in worship.
     It’s not difficult to understand why Paul has such a strong focus on worship if you think about it. Think of Paul’s faith journey up to this point.  Here was a man who had a very strong background of being a God fearing Jew which meant that he understood the importance of worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
     And later, when Jesus in his resurrected state appeared before Paul as he was on his way to persecute the early Christians, he became an even more devoted worshipper of the one and true living God, but now with the living Christ at the center of that worship. 
     It’s no wonder that Paul’s letter begins with worship because Jesus Christ had changed his life from the inside out.  Paul had basically become a new person because of his encounter with the risen Lord. Worship takes on a whole new meaning for us when we have encountered the presence of the living Christ in our lives.

     This reminds me of the story of a woman who walked into a Haagen-Dazs store on the Kansas City Plaza for an ice-cream cone.  After making her selection, she turned and found herself face-to-face with the famous actor, Paul Newman who happened to be in town filming a movie. 
     For those of you who might not be old enough to remember Paul Newman, he was the Brad Pitt of his day, good looks, good actor. And so Paul Newman, the handsome actor smiled at this woman in the ice cream shop and said hello.  His blue eyes caused her knees to shake.
     She managed somehow to pay for her ice-cream cone, then left the shop, her heart pounding. When she gained her composure, she realized she didn’t have her ice-cream cone. She started back into the store to get it and met the handsome actor at the door.
     “Are you looking for your ice-cream cone?” he asked.  She nodded, unable to speak. “You put it in your purse with your change.”
     As I think about this story, I think it’s good to ask ourselves, “When was the last time the presence of God quickened our pulse?”
     Several years ago, I was serving a little rural church and my organist wanted to meet with me one day.  She came to my house and I could tell that she had some really good news to share with me. She was smiling from ear to ear as if she had just hit the jackpot. 
     And I said, “Janet. What’s going on? This looks like it’s going to be really good news that you’re going to share with me.”
     And she said, “Robert, the most wonderful thing has happened. I received Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Here, I had been attending church all my life, and I never really had a personal relationship with God.”
     Without even taking a breath, she kept right on going. “Robert, my life is so different now.  Playing the organ in church has taken on a whole new meaning for me.  These past couple of weeks have been incredible.”
     “How has it been different?” I asked.
     “I now see worship in a whole new light. It’s about offering to God my thanks and praise because of how he has changed my life. All of the sudden, these hymns that I play in church are coming alive for me.  I see things in a whole new light now. And please don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m even listening to your sermons more. I’m just so hungry for the Word of God in my life.
     “Wait a minute, what did you just say about my sermons?”
     And for my remaining couple of years at that church, there was no doubt that Janet was a changed person. Worship took on a whole new meaning for her. 
     And it wasn’t just about Sunday morning worship at church.  She was now spending every day in a time of prayer and reading scripture, sharing her faith with others, and serving in ministry.
     Janet was now lettering in worship.
     Things really do change when we encounter the living God.
     Timothy J. Christenson says this about worship and I think he’s right on.  “If worship is just one thing we do, everything becomes mundane.  If worship is the one thing we do, everything takes on eternal significance.”
     How true. And because the Apostle Paul knew Jesus to be the one who had changed his life from the inside out, he couldn’t help but to begin his Letter to the Ephesians with worship and praise. Listen again to his opening words:
     “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  That’s easy enough to remember.  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 
     Let’s offer these words throughout this upcoming week as our personal worship to God wherever we may be throughout the day. In our coming and in our going.  In our heaving and in our leaving.
    “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Let’s say this a couple of times together.
     “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
     “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

     When we have that down, we are well on our way in having a varsity-like faith. Amen and Amen.

No comments: