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, February 14, 2016

Sermon (February 14) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Putting Athens First with Our Prayers"


   Sometimes the church calendar and the secular calendar line up at just the perfect time, like today for example. Combining the first Sunday in Lent with Valentine’s Day is a really good match. Most preachers will not resist this rare opportunity to tie these two dates together.
     It seems like both of these occasions can benefit from the other. For example, sometimes Valentine’s Day can just skim the surface of what true love really is. If not careful, love can become very superficial and self-serving.
     For example, I saw this note that a woman sent to her love interest. Let me read it to you.
“Dear Jimmy,
     No words could ever express the great unhappiness I’ve felt since I broke off our engagement.  Please say you’ll take me back.  No one could ever take your place in my heart, so please forgive me.  I love you.  I love you.  I love you.
     Yours forever,
     P.S. And congratulations on winning the state lottery.”
      You see, this is the problem with Valentine’s Day. It tends to focus on a surface and shallow kind of love that really isn’t true love.
     True love is unconditional. True love is not just based on what’s in it for me. It’s others focused. It’s a selfless kind of love that thinks about the needs of others.
     This is the kind of love that the season of Lent wants us to think about during these forty days that lead up to Good Friday and Easter. Every year for Lent, we are invited to follow Jesus as he journeys to Jerusalem where he ends up dying on a cross for a sinful, broken, and hurting world.
     Jesus’ love was a costly love. It was a self-giving love. It was a cross shaped kind of love.
     This is why the name of our sermon series during this season of Lent is, “Putting Athens First.” Just as Jesus demonstrated a costly love in the way he lived his life, we too, are called to offer God’s love with the people around us, right here in Athens and the surrounding area.
     Whenever somebody joins the church, they make a commitment to serve Christ and the church in five important areas that include our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. Over these next five Sundays, we’re going to see how each of these areas can help us live out our faith by putting Athens First.
     Jesus is calling us to move from a Valentine’s inward kind of love into a season of Lent kind of love that is others focused.
      In Jesus, we find that deeper kind of love. We see a love that reaches out to all people. We can see this love as it keeps him moving toward Jerusalem and Good Friday. It’s a love that isn’t just in the shape of a heart. It’s in the shape of a cross.
     It’s a cross shaped love that helps us focus on others. It’s a cross shaped love that helps us to be a church that puts Athens First.
     So how do we get from a heart shaped love to a heart and cross shaped love? We follow Jesus. Lent always begins with Jesus spending forty days in the wilderness which is why the season of Lent lasts forty days.
     It’s not that Jesus wanted to be in the wilderness. We are told that the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness.
     The wilderness was that place where Jesus spent time in fasting and prayer. Even Jesus, God’s Son, needed to set aside that time to sharpen his focus, to claim his calling, and to prepare to live so faithfully to God, that it would eventually lead him to a cross.
     Put it this way. If Jesus didn’t spend his time in the wilderness doing those things, then the devil would have had a much better chance of turning Jesus toward a very different direction, and not one that would involve serving and sacrifice.
     Prayer is at the very center of our forty day journey. This is why it always comes first in the list of church membership vows. Prayer is one of those spiritual disciplines that the more we do it, the more natural it becomes.
      When people tell me that they want to be better at praying, I tell them to just pray whatever comes to mind. Here are some children’s prayers that might encourage us to not worry so much about what to say in our prayers, as long as we just pray.
          In the book, “Dear Pastor,” several short prayer requests have been compiled.  These prayer requests were written by children and given to their pastor.  Here are a few of these prayer requests.
     Dear Pastor, I know God loves me but I wish He would give me an “A” on my report card so I could be sure.  Love, Teresa (age 8, Milwaukee.)
     Dear Pastor, Thank you for your sermon on Sunday.  I will write more when my mother explains to me what you said.  Yours truly, Justin (age 9, Westport.)
     Dear Pastor, We say grace every night before we eat dinner even when we have leftovers from the night before.  Yours truly, Jackie (age 9, Chicago)
     If only all of us would be as free to express our prayer concerns!  I think there’s something to be said for being as open as children, to let God know what is on your heart and mind in any given moment or situation.  Don’t be bashful. 
     Don’t worry about how your prayers might sound.  The important thing is to pray.
     Larry was a member of my pastor’s bible study. He was retired and told me that he never attended church while growing up. He just thought it was time to begin attending somewhere and he so he chose my church.
     Larry went through the new member classes and became a member. During one of our bible study classes, I invited everyone to get into groups of three so that they could pray with each other.
     As people started to get into their groups of three, Larry came up to me and with a very worried look on his face said, “Pastor Robert, I don’t know how to pray or what to say. I’ve never prayed in front of people before.”
     In just one minute, I taught Larry how to pray. I said, “All you have to do is begin your prayer with, “Dear God.”
     After that, you just say to God whatever you want to say, like, “thank you for this day” or “be with so and so.”
     And then I said, the third thing you need to do is just end your prayer by saying, “Amen.”
     He looked at me and said, “Ok.”
     I didn’t think too much about that conversation until several months later. I was in a small group with Larry and we took turns praying. When it got around to Larry, this was Larry’s prayer:
     “Dear God, thank you for your blessings. Amen.”
     I mean, that was it.  Just like that, it was the next guy’s turn. Larry didn’t mess around. Larry would be the perfect person to pray before a church potluck because the food would never get cold!
     I kind of smiled when he prayed, because he really took my words about praying to heart.  That made me feel so good to know that here was a man who had never prayed out loud in front of people, and now he was praying out loud all the time.
     He even went on prayer walks where a group of us would walk around the church building stopping at different rooms with different people taking turns to pray. When it would be Larry’s turn to pray, it was always the same kind of prayer, but it was from his heart.
     “Dear God, bless this room. Amen.”
     I noticed that he even started to have a little spiritual swagger when he prayed. They were still really short prayers, but he said these little prayers with such confidence.  When he discovered that all he needed to do was to begin his prayers with “Dear God” and end it with “Amen,” he was good to go!
     Larry reminded me that prayer is as simple as that. We don’t need to flower our prayers up with “thous” and “thees.” We just need to be ourselves.
     A few months ago, I received a church newsletter from the church where I served as Larry’s pastor. I read where he had recently died and they had the funeral for him there at the church.
     It kind of hit me hard when I read that, because we had become good friends at that church. After I regained my composure, I said a little prayer to God, right there at my desk.
     And guess what? I purposely did not pray a very long prayer. I kept it short and sweet.
     In that moment, I prayed, “Dear God. Thank you for Larry. Amen.”
     It was definitely a Larry prayer.
     When the devil was tempting Jesus in the wilderness, I don’t think that Jesus had a lot of time to flower up his prayers. Jesus teaches us that prayer is meant to be as natural as breathing, something that we can do at different times throughout the day.
     The more we are open to prayer in our given day, the more that we will have a love and a faith that is others focused and rooted in God’s unconditional love for the world.
     Prayer has a way of pointing us in the direction we need to go. It keeps us moving toward our mission which is to share God’s love with those around us.
     When I think about our “Putting Athens First” Capital Campaign, I know that prayer has been an important part of the process. Prayer is what has been helping us to make sure that the campaign isn’t just about what we want, but what God wants.
     In some ways, I’m sure these past few years of preparing for this campaign has felt like a wilderness journey, but it’s in the wilderness where we have learned to listen to God’s voice and to be the people that God has called us to be. 
     Prayer is what helps us to have a love that is in the shape of a cross.  It’s a love that reminds us that everything we do in the church, including making much needed building improvements, is so that we can be a blessing to our community.
     One of the ways that our church will be Putting Athens First through our prayers is by having a prayer cross in front of our building. People who walk by our building will be able to write a prayer request and place it in the locked prayer box on the cross.
     Our Boy Scout troupe along with our Tuesday prayer team have worked together to make this new prayer cross a reality. We will be dedicating this cross to the glory of God a little later in this service.
     This is just one of the ways that God is calling us to put Athens First with our prayers. I invite you to take out the prayer insert that you find in your bulletin.
     During these next several weeks leading up to our capital campaign commitment and celebration Sunday on March 20th, I invite us to pray this prayer.
     It’s included in your bulletin so that you can take home with you and keep. I want us to pray this prayer every day, even several times each day during this season of Lent.
     It’s a prayer that my friend Larry would approve, because it’s really, really short.
     “Dear God, what would You do through me to accomplish Your will in my church? Amen.”
     Let’s say that prayer together - “Dear God, what would You do through me to accomplish Your will in my church? Amen.”
     Keep that prayer where you can always see it and offer this prayer throughout each day.

     The season of Lent begins with our prayers. That’s how we put Athens First.

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