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, November 29, 2015

Sermon (November 29/1st Sunday of Advent) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Who Dey!"

     How do you ever put up with me?  I know it’s bad enough that I’m a Penn State pastor in Bobcat & Buckeye country, but then you also have to deal with this. 

(Pastor Robert waves a Terrible Towel.)
     Yeah, I’m a Steelers fan. I know that my public declaration means I have just been removed from several of your Christmas card lists. Even if you despise the Steelers, hopefully, we can still be friends, at least friends in the Lord.
     For those of you I might have offended, here’s an olive branch. There’s a lot to like about the Browns. They have the dog pound which is pretty cool. And the Bengals play like they have a chip on their shoulder because they don’t feel like they get the respect they deserve.  They love playing the underdog role.  I respect that.
     Who dey!!  Right? Who dey!!
     When our West Ohio Conference was downsizing from having 14 districts to only 8 districts several years ago, they established transition teams in each of the new districts, and one of their purposes was to offer suggestions for new names.  So for example, what was once the Cincinnati District, became what is now, “The Ohio River District.”
     I couldn’t believe that they didn’t go with my suggestion.  I wanted the new Cincinnati area district to become the “Who Dey?” district. 
     What a perfect name! I’m guessing they didn’t go with that name because there are probably more Steelers fans in Cincinnati, than Bengals fans, so maybe that explains it. I think I just got dropped from two more Christmas card lists with that snarky comment.
     By the way, they also didn’t like my suggestion for the Dayton area district which is now called the Miami Valley District.  Miami Valley District. You know, if you’re going to have the word “Valley” in the name, you might as well call it “Happy Valley.”  But once again, I was outvoted.
     The “Who Dey” district.  I still like that.  And I wonder if we shouldn’t be called the “Who Dey” church.
     And the reason that I think this would be a good name for us is because the church is sometimes overlooked in our culture. People wonder if the church is relevant anymore. People often have this image of us that we are behind the times and we don’t have a whole lot to offer in a positive way but nothing could be further from the truth. 
     This is why I think we should be known as the “Who Dey” church. “Who Dey!”  They are a people who actually believe that Jesus Christ is the hope for the world and they are willing to live out this promise of hope every single day.
     It’s no wonder that our Gospel lesson for this First Sunday of the Advent Season is a scripture in which Jesus offers encouraging words to his disciples.  He’s being realistic by helping them to see that there will be days when they will feel like giving up on this thing called “church.”  They’re going to lose their zeal in being his followers and they will be tempted to give up and follow the ways of the world.
     If you have ever set goals in your life, you know exactly what Jesus is talking about here in this scripture passage.  We might start out with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, but after some days pass, maybe we make it to a few weeks, or who knows, even a few months, it gets a little more difficult to keep that goal a priority in your life.
     Jesus tells us in our scripture reading to not let our hearts get weighed down.
     I was in for some blood work, and the lady who checked me in said, “Oh I see you’re a minister.”  And then she said, “Do you know who are the most sour people who come through these doors?”  “No,” I politely said.
     “The most sour people I meet in here are engineers.  They just aren’t a friendly lot…you know what I mean?  But the 2nd most sour people that I see come through here are… ministers.   They’re almost as negative as the engineers!”
    At least ministers weren’t at the very top of her list. Now, I’m not sure why ministers have come across as sour people in her estimation. Even stand-up comedians probably come across grumpy when they’re getting their blood work done. Giving blood is not the most enjoyable thing to do.
     But I hear what this woman is saying.  Ministers can allow the pressures of ministry to get them down.  They can reach a point where they have lost the joy of being in the pastoral ministry.
     A friend of mine who leads seminars for clergy in several states in the Midwest region told me several years ago, “Until I started leading these church seminars, I had no idea that clergy morale was that low.  I see pastors come into our seminars all the time who are beaten down, discouraged, and ready to give up.  Even with positive seminars like the ones we offer, there are some pastors we just don’t reach.”
    But Jesus isn’t just referring to pastors in our Gospel reading.  He’s thinking about all of us.
     When I was a freshman or sophomore in High School in southeastern Pennsylvania, the pastor of my home church, said in a sermon one Sunday for us to not be ashamed of the good news of Jesus Christ and to be willing to share this good news to the people around us.
     And silly me, I actually took that to heart.  I made a commitment that morning in church that I would not be ashamed of my faith in Jesus Christ outside of church.  And so I made up my mind that I would begin to wear my cross necklace to school, not underneath my shirt but on the outside of my shirt, so people would see that I was a Christian.
     Monday morning came around, and sure enough, I put that cross around my neck and over my shirt.  Some time that morning, a friend of mine asked me why I was wearing that cross.  And after I told him that Jesus was my Lord and Savior, he laughed at me as if I was some kind of crazy person.
     And do you know what I did?  Before the end of school, I took the cross off and put it in my pocket.  I didn’t want anybody making fun of me for being a Christian.
     Jesus says, “Be on guard so that you’re hearts are not weighed down.”
     We can so easily become weighed down by so many things, like fear of what other people might think if we express our faith or like the temptation to just follow the ways of the world around us like consumerism and materialism, especially in these weeks leading up to Christmas.
     We also can allow doubts and uncertainties weigh us down because of all of the brokenness and pain we see in the world. We begin to wonder, “God – do you care about all of this pain and suffering?”
     Have you ever been excited about a ministry, only to become discouraged because of less than desirable results?
     Jesus says, “Be on guard so that you’re hearts are not weighed down.”
     Today’s Gospel reading forces us to think about what keeps us going in our faith when things can get so discouraging at times.  What does it mean to be a “Who Dey” church – a church that just won’t give up?
     In the Old Testament, the prophet Jeremiah announces that God will be faithful and will keep his promises.   He will send us One who will bring God’s long awaited justice and righteousness to the world.  But of course, this promise was made 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. 
     This is what amazes me about the generations of people who waited all those years for God to fulfill his promise.  Imagine telling your grandchildren, “Someday, God’s righteousness and justice will come.  Keep waiting.  Keep hoping.”
     Penny and I were standing in line at a fast food restaurant.  “May I take your order,” the nice lady says behind the counter.  Penny orders first, “Well yeah.  I’ll have that chicken sandwich.  I’d like to have that with the new kind of bread you have.” 
     “Actually, you can’t get that particular sandwich on that kind of bread,” she says.  Penny asks, “Well, what other kinds of bread do you have?”
     It was at that point that the person behind me made a snorting noise, the kind of noise that a bull makes.  I dared not turn around in that moment for fear of what he might say.  But obviously, he was in a hurry.
     After Penny gets the bread thing all sorted out, I place my order.  “I’ll take that sandwich and I’d like lettuce, tomatoes, and let’s see…do you have banana peppers?” 
     It was just then that I distinctly heard a second outburst from this man, but I’m thinking, “Is it against the law to ask if they have banana peppers?”
      So I finish my order and she says, “Is that all?”
     And Penny says, “We also need to place a “to go” order.  Do we need to make that a whole different order or can we pay it all together?”  The lady behind the counter says, “No, we have to do this separately.”
     It was at that point, that I discovered that the guy behind me was a Christian, because he began to shout out Jesus’ name for all to hear.
     This guy stomps out of the restaurant, just fuming.  But let’s face it.  He’s not alone.  We don’t like to wait for too long either. 
     Think of the last time you were put on hold on the phone.  They say that we become really impatient at the 9 minute mark.  Think of the last time you sat in a waiting room.  They say that we lose it at around the 17 minute mark.
     And now think about 500 years! That’s how long the people of Israel had to wait before God’s promises were fulfilled when Christ was born! A “Who Dey” church is a church that trusts in God’s promises and is willing to wait on God for however long it takes. 
     Even when our lives can be so messed up with one disappointment after another, we still manage to come to this place week after week and remind each other that God is faithful and will keep his promises.  We just don’t quit, because deep down, we know that God is faithful.  That’s all there is to it!
     And last but not least, another important feature of being a “Who Dey” church is being a people of prayer.  Jesus tells us to “be alert at all times, praying that you may have strength.”
     Prayer.  Prayer is how we stay alert.  Of all the people I’ve known who have persevered, there’s this common theme – they were all rooted in prayer.  Prayer probably ranks at the very top of the spiritual discipline list.
     Prayer is what we do privately as well as together as the church.  It’s a both/and, not an either/or proposition.  
     I was visiting an elderly homebound member in my previous church. She was one of several fifty plus year members in that church.
     During my visit at her home one day, I noticed something familiar that she had displayed on the front of her refrigerator. It was a laminated card that our church had sent out to all of our members several years earlier.
     It was a prayer that our Leadership Board wanted the congregation to pray every single day. We had encouraged everyone to place this prayer somewhere that they would see if often, like on a refrigerator, which is where this dear saint had decided to place it.
     Since it had been several years, I had forgotten all about that prayer, until that day during my visit in her home. Here’s the prayer:
“Dear God, thank you for our church.  Strengthen us through the power of the Holy Spirit to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world through radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission, and extravagant generosity.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.”
     This woman, realizing that I was focusing on that prayer card on her refrigerator, said to me, “Oh, thank you for sending this card to everyone. I pray this prayer several times a day.”
     She’s had been praying that prayer several times a day for the past several years and here I, the pastor of the church, had almost forgotten about it. My prayer card was probably tucked in the back corner of one of my desk drawers at the church.
     I felt so humbled in that moment to know that I was with a saint who understood perseverance. She understood the importance of prayer. And she loved her church.
     God calls each one of us to have a “Who Dey” faith, a faith that is filled with joy and hope even in seasons of waiting.
     Jesus reminds us as we begin this Season of Advent, to not be discouraged, to not put our crosses in our pockets, but to get them out and let people see them.  And better yet, to let people see the Christ in us.
     So don’t be discouraged.  Stay strong.  Pray for strength.  Stay on your knees. 

     And don’t get back up until you hear an angel speak these words of good news, “To you is born this day, in the city of David a Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord.” 

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