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 26, 2015

Sermon (July 26) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "A Varsity Faith: Growth"

     Each week, I have been wearing someone’s varsity jacket during our summer sermon series on having a varsity level faith. We are reading through Paul’s Letter of Ephesians during this series.
     Today, I am very proud to wear the varsity jacket that belongs to our District Superintendent, Rev. Dennis Miller. He attended Philo High School in the Zanesville area.
     This man was an athlete back in the day. He received varsity letters in volleyball and basketball. He was concerned that it doesn’t look clean, but I think it’s in pretty good shape after all of these years.
     It was always on my bucket list to wear my District Superintendent’s varsity jacket so I can now cross that off my list! Today’s varsity letter stands for growth and growing in our faith.
     Did you know that before you woke up this morning, somebody had already prayed for you?
     And not only has somebody already prayed for you, but somebody has written you a letter with your name on it.  Have you opened the letter?
     For the past couple of weeks, we have been reading a letter that is meant for each and every one of us.  It’s a letter written by the Apostle Paul and he wrote it for you and for me.
     OK, so maybe this letter wasn’t originally addressed to us, but I’m sure that Paul meant for as many people as possible to read it. It’s a fascinating letter that helps us to see what it means to have a mature faith in Jesus Christ. 
     And this morning, as we open this letter, we find that the Apostle Paul has said a prayer for us.
     What is his prayer?  Paul writes, “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your heart through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” 
     “I pray that you Robert McDowell, may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”
     What a prayer!  And just to think that this prayer is meant for each and every one of us. 
     Well that’s all well and good.  In a way, just knowing that Paul prayed this prayer for us can make us feel good and we can know that somebody cares about us, and we can just go home and leave it at that.  But that’s not Paul’s goal for us.  No.  Paul has something much more in mind in this prayer from Ephesians chapter 3. 
     The purpose of Paul’s prayer is for each one of us to be involved in a daily journey in which we grow in being the people God has called us to be.
     In his book, First Things First, Roger Merrill tells of a business consultant who decided to landscape his grounds.  He hired a woman with a doctorate in horticulture who was extremely knowledgeable.
     Because the business consultant was very busy and traveled a lot, he kept emphasizing to her the need to create his garden in a way that would require little or no maintenance on his part.  He insisted on automatic sprinklers and other labor-saving devices.
     Finally she stopped and said, “There’s one thing you need to deal with before we go any further.  If there’s no gardener, there’s no garden!”
     I wonder if we’re more like this businessman than we would like to admit.  Sometimes we think that we can have a mature and varsity level type of faith that involves little or no maintenance.  But that’s not how our faith works. 
     Our faith is like a garden that needs to be watered, maintained, and given plenty of time and attention.  And we are the gardeners.  We have an important role to play in having a growing and mature faith in Jesus Christ.
     I’d like to focus on three important ways for us to live out the Apostle Paul’s prayer for us.  These are three ways that I have found extremely helpful in my own life and which continue to undergird my faith today.
     The first way to have a growing faith is to worship God with the gathered community of faith.  That seems simple enough.  Just check out the worship schedule and come to one of the worship services, right?  Well yes, but…
     The writer of Hebrews reminds us to not neglect to meet together as is the habit of some.  I like that word “habit.”  Worship helps us to get into God’s rhythm. 
     Just as we have four seasons in the year; Winter, Spring, Summer, and the College Football Season, (I mean Fall), the church has seasons as well.  We call these “liturgical seasons.”
     For example, we are now in the church season known as Ordinary Time. This liturgical season which lasts from late Spring until the end of November is a season which is also known as “A season of growth.” 
     This is  why green is often associated with this season.  Green reminds us of the importance of growing in our faith and commitment to Jesus Christ.
      After this liturgical season concludes at the end of November, we begin a new cycle with the season of Advent, which will then lead us to Christmas and eventually to the Easter season.
     This is how we Christians grow. We allow the church year to get us into the rhythm of following the life of Christ. We grow in our relationship with Christ through weekly worship.
     The second way that we grow is by being involved in a small group that meets on a regular basis. There are all kinds of small groups but I like small groups that include the acronym, PALS.
     The first letter is “P” which stands for Prayer.  Small groups pray for each other.
     A pastor shared with me that she had formed a small group that included some of the youth of her church. During one of their meetings, the pastor asked for the group to pray for her because she had been asked to speak at a large denominational gathering and she was really nervous about it.
     A couple of weeks later, this pastor was at her kitchen table and the phone rang. It was one of the youth in her small group. This youth wanted her pastor to know that she was praying for the big talk she was about to give the next day.
     This pastor felt so blessed that someone in her small group called to say that she was praying for her. She didn’t feel as nervous or anxious about her talk thanks to the prayers and support of the people in her small group.
     Prayer is an important part of any small group.
     The 2nd letter of the word, PALS is the letter “A” which stands for Action. Small groups are meant to serve together. There are some small groups that are intentional about serving in some type of ministry every month.
     They might serve at a homeless shelter or tutor children or visit people at a nursing home. There are all kinds of ways a small group might want to put their faith into action.
     The letter “L” in PALS stands for learning.  Learning involves focusing on scripture and topical studies related to our faith. It may be as simple as reading the scripture from the previous Sunday’s worship service and reflecting on its meaning.
     And the final letter is “S” which stands for sharing.  John Wesley, the founder of Methodism encouraged those early Methodists to take turns sharing their faith with each other. The question he would have them ask each other was, “How is it with your soul?”
     That’s a great question. Some small groups like to ask the question, “What was your closest moment to Christ since we last met?” When we share our answer to that question with each other on a regular basis, it becomes a little easier to share our faith outside our small group as well. Sharing our faith with others shows that we are growing in our faith.
    Carl Conner shares this story after a heavy snowstorm hit North Carolina one winter.  Along Interstate 40 stood several large groves of tall, young pine trees.  The branches were bowed down with the heavy snow – so low that branches from one tree were often leaning against the trunk or branches of another.
     Where trees stood alone, however, the effect of the heavy snow was different.  The branches had become heavier, but without other trees to lean against, the branches snapped.  They lay on the ground, dark and alone in the cold snow.
     Carl Conner goes on to say, “When the storms of life hit, we need to be standing close to other Christians.  The closer we stand, the more we will be able to hold up.”
     I think that’s true.  I have noticed that I have grown more in my faith through the help of other Christians than I have in trying to live out my faith without the help of others.
     Attending weekly worship at church and being part of a small group that emphasizes the PALS model of sharing in prayer, action, learning, and sharing is an important way to grow in your faith.
     A third way to grow in our faith is through personal time with God.  Personal time with God can involve a lot of different disciplines, such as daily prayer and scripture.  I have found it extremely helpful to set aside a certain time each day to be with God.
     Personal time with God helps us to grow and live out Paul’s prayer for us to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breath and length and height and depth of God’s love.
     Methodists have long been known as people who are intentional and methodical about growing in our faith. I always find the history of the churches I serve very fascinating.
     In one of the churches I served, I read about John Mitten who was one of the founding members of that church dating back to the early 1800’s.
     He was one of the seven original Trustees of the Meeting House as they were known in those early years.  These small groups of Christians would gather on a weekly basis to hold each other accountable in their Christian growth.
     The leader of the class would keep a record of attendance and monies paid.  And yes, they had a specific amount in mind.  If you were in good standing, the leader of your small group would give you a ticket which you would then present to the visiting circuit riding Methodist preacher.
     Only then, were you permitted to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. You needed to present that ticket.
     Can you imagine that? What if we would have to hand someone a ticket before we could receive Holy Communion? That ticket meant something. It meant that you were actively growing in your faith through worship, your small group, and your personal daily time with God.
     In the early 1800’s, the Methodist class leader was responsible for keeping a record of the state of each person’s soul.  In order to be in good standing in the church, you were expected to attend every single class meeting, unless of course you were sick and couldn’t come.
     But this poor John Mitten.  According to church records, he quit attending those mandatory Methodist class meetings.  And wouldn’t you know it…they expelled him and kicked him out of the church.  They gave him the boot. And he was one of the founding members of that church!
     I’ve been thinking about this story and what it would be like to resort to such tactics in the church today. What if we started using a ticket system to show that we were actively growing in our Christian faith?
     Even though the ticket system probably isn’t going to come back anytime soon, it is a good reminder of just how important our individual spiritual growth is. The Apostle Paul seemed to think so.
     Last week, I received an invitation to attend the 100th birthday party of a member of my previous church. Mary joined that church back in 1925 when she was only ten years old. She’s been a member of that church for 90 years, more years than anyone else in that church.
     Even at 100 years of age, Mary still lives in her own home, and is doing pretty well. On occasion, I would stop by and make a pastoral visit to see Mary.
     During one of those visits, she said to me, “Pastor Robert, do you know what? After all of these years, I can still recite the books of the Bible by memory. Do you want me to recite them for you now?”
     And right there in her living room, Mary recited all 66 books of the Bible. She didn’t pause or stumble during that whole time. When she was finally done, she asked me what I thought.
     And I said, “Mary, since I can’t do what you just did, it sure sounded like you got every one of them.” I can’t stand it when parishioners show off in front of me.
     And then, she says to me, “And I can recite all twelve of Jesus’ disciples, too.” And again, she flawlessly recited each of their names.
     And then she said to me, “Guess where I learned how to do all of this?” I asked, “Where, Mary?”
     “There in the basement of our church during Sunday School back in 1925, the year I joined,” she said. After that conversation, I made Mary the poster child of our church for the importance of growing in our faith throughout our lives.
     At 100 years old, Mary is still growing in the Lord by reading her bible, praying, and being an inspiration in her church.

     Along with worship and unity, Christian growth is how we can have a varsity faith.

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