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 21, 2016

Sermon (February 21) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Putting Athens First with Our Presence"

      Last Sunday, our season of Lent journey began with Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness fasting and praying.
     Sometimes, we have this image of Jesus who could just snap his fingers and heal someone or make a difficult situation go away just like that. Instead, Jesus had to rely on prayer to get him through his long journey in offering his self-giving love to the world.
     Prayer is what enabled Jesus to overcome the temptation to take the easy road while he was in the wilderness. Prayer is what enabled Jesus to live out his calling to be the Savior of the world.
     Prayer is what helped Jesus to keep his focus on offering love to a broken and hurting world. Prayer is how it was possible for Jesus to face opposition and adversity as he made that long journey to Jerusalem where he would give his life for the world.
     Last Sunday, Jesus faced opposition and adversity by being tempted in the wilderness. This week, we find Jesus facing a different kind of challenge.
     Jesus knows that he is headed to Jerusalem to offer his life for the sins of the world. Standing in the way at this point of Jesus’ journey to the cross is powerful Herod.
     If there was ever a time for Jesus to make a U-turn in his mission of bringing salvation to the world, this would have been it. The price is high. Jesus’ life is at risk. As we follow Jesus to Jerusalem during this season of Lent, we are able to see how Jesus was able to stay focused on his mission and purpose.
     This past December, our church made a big decision to go the direction of putting Athens First by making much needed building improvements that will help our church be more accommodating and attractive to our community.
     We also decided that this campaign also needs to include a staff person who will help us be involved in local mission work and help us focus on our ministry with young adults and college students.
     One of our members was telling me how this capital campaign was meant to be launched a long time ago and that we can’t let this opportunity pass us by this time.
     Knowing that these building improvements will help us to be more effective in our mission and outreach, this person said that it’s time to make that leap of faith as a congregation and just go for it.
     I like that! Jesus presses on to Jerusalem even though he knows that there will be challenges along the way to take him off course. He took that leap of faith.
     Really, that’s what is at the heart of living out our Christian faith. It’s not just a leap of faith, but it’s also a willingness to commit ourselves with everything we have.
     Last Sunday, we focused on putting Athens first with our prayers as we prepare to begin our capital campaign. Today, Jesus teaches us what it means to put others first with our presence.
     Some people warned Jesus to “get away from here” because Herod was seeking his life, but Jesus held his ground. I believe he held his ground because he had already made his decision at the very beginning of his ministry that he wouldn’t turn back.
     Jesus was determined to put others first by offering his very presence. Offering our presence is a powerful thing.
     I have a friend who was a retired United Methodist pastor. He died a couple of months ago. He told me the story of a time when he was on the crew team in High School where he lived in Philadelphia. His crew coach was the father of the famous actress and Princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly.
     The coach, whose name was Jack Kelly, wanted the crew team to practice on Sunday mornings, but my friend told him that he wouldn’t be able to do that because he attended church on Sunday mornings.
     The coach said, “Teller, you will practice on Sunday mornings or you won’t be on my crew team.” And my friend who loved to row, but also was very committed to his faith, responded by saying that he would need to quit the team.
     In front of the whole crew team and because he didn’t want to lose this gifted rower, the coach swallowed his pride and said, “Because of Teller who feels the need to go to church on Sundays, we’ll have to practice on Saturday mornings instead.”
     This is one of the reasons why I believe so much in the people of God coming together week after week.  Because if we come enough times, these Jesus beliefs start to take hold of us. 
     Even our dry prayers, those rambling sermons, and those same old songs, end up getting to us.  And in God’s own mysterious way, heaven breaks through.
     And sometimes, we get to be on the other end when someone comes through these doors, and we love them unconditionally - the way that Jesus loves them, and a life is changed.
     I truly believe that being physically present in worship is one of the key ways that we grow in our faith and experience God’s grace. 
     It’s in worship where we experience fellowship with other Christians, hear the scriptures read and proclaimed, receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, surround a family with our love and support as they bring their child for baptism, and remind ourselves on a weekly basis of who we are and to whom we belong.
     This is one of the greatest gifts we can give to each other. Our presence. No wonder it’s one of the five membership vows we make when we join the church.
     The ministry of presence – It’s when you’re going through a very dark time in your life and someone from the church leaves a card or brings some food, or gives you a look which says, “I don’t know you very well, but we’re both part of the body of Christ, so I’m here for you.”
     The ministry of presence – It’s when a person says to you, “I don’t now if it’s something you said, or in something you showed me through your actions, but I’ve come to believe in Jesus because of you and my life has been transformed.” 
     The ministry of presence is at the very heart of what it means to be the church of Jesus Christ.
     Penny and I have been on the receiving end of the church’s presence during times of heartache and joy. The church has celebrated with us when our children were born and when they were baptized.
      And the church was there for us when we’ve experienced the loss of a loved one, when our children needed to be picked up from school because they were sick, and when we needed a listening ear.     

     In all these ways, it was the presence of the church that has sustained us through the good times and the bad times. But there’s one time in particular that the church was present for me in a way that I will never forget.

     Several years ago, the church I was serving at the time sent me to be trained as a Stephen Leader at a week long seminar in one of the nice downtown hotels in Pittsburgh.
     Many of you know that we have a Stephen Ministry here in our church. Stephen Ministers are lay people who have received extensive training to offer caring and loving one to one peer support for people of the same gender who are going through a difficult transition in their life. It’s a wonderful, wonderful ministry that has helped many people.
     If you ever feel the need to talk to someone in the church who you can trust, I highly encourage you to let one of our Stephen Ministry Leaders know to help you connect with one of our Stephen Ministers. They are here to be great listeners and offer caring support.
     So there I was at this Stephen Ministry training in Pittsburgh several years ago.  I was the only one from my church at that training so I was a loner there. My church already had several Stephen Ministers, but they wanted me to receive the training as well so that I would understand how this ministry works.

     I guess it was the second day of the Stephen Ministry conference when I went to my hotel room following the afternoon session, and there on my hotel room dresser was this beautiful and very large fruit and candy basket.  It was incredible and took me by surprise.
     And attached to this large basket was this card which said something like, “Dear Robert.  This is from your Stephen Ministers.  Hope you have a nice conference.”  And at the bottom of the card it said, “The Stephen Ministry.”
     And I thought, “That is so nice of the Stephen Ministry conference leaders to give everyone a basket like this in their hotel room.”
     So a little bit later, I went down to the hotel banquet room for dinner and I sat with a group of people who were all from the same church somewhere out west I believe.  They had all come to Pittsburgh to be trained as Stephen Leaders and begin this ministry back in their church.
     After introducing myself and telling them where I was from, I said, “Wow, that was some fruit basket that these seminar leaders gave to us in our hotel room today.” 
     And they looked at me kind of funny, and finally someone from their church said to another church member there at the dinner table, “I didn’t get a fruit basket, did you?” 
     And someone else responded, “No.  Did you?”
     Well it turned out that nobody at my table had received their fruit basket, so I said,
     “Well, there’s about 300 or 400 of us here at this conference, so maybe they’re going to distribute the fruit baskets at different days during the week.  And then I went on to describe the different fruits and candy that were in my basket.”  I remember one lady saying, “Wow.  I can hardly wait to get my fruit basket.”
     Well, I didn’t have a chance to talk to those folks the rest of the week since I ended up at different tables for the remaining meals at the conference. But I did the same thing when I ate meals with other church groups. “Did you get a fruit and candy basket from the Stephen Ministry team?”
     And curiously, they would always say, “No, we haven’t.” And then I would say, “Well, maybe when you get back to your room after dinner or maybe tomorrow before you leave, you’ll get one in your room.”
     So when the week long Stephen Ministry training was over, I drove home, and maybe a couple weeks had passed by, I got a phone call from one of my church’s Stephen Ministry leaders and this person asked me,
     “Hey by any chance, did you happen to get a fruit basket from our church’s Stephen Ministry team while you were there in Pittsburgh for the training?”
     My jaw hit the floor in that moment, because I realized that the seminar leaders back in Pittsburgh had nothing to do with that incredible fruit basket that I had received.  I was the only person in that group of 300 to 400 people who had received a fruit basket at that hotel.
     And then I immediately thought of those strangers I met at each of those hotel meals, and how I had told them that I had received a fruit basket and how I was sure that they would be getting one too.
     Well, obviously they never did receive a fruit and candy basket the week of the conference. That was my church just wanting me to know that they were thinking of me during that week of training. They went to all of that trouble because they were offering me their gift of presence.
     Friends, that’s the spirit of this capital campaign of putting Athens First. Think of the campaign as our way of giving each person in our community a ginormous fruit and candy basket just so that we can let people in our community know that our church cares about them and is here for them.
     Our capital campaign will enable us to put Athens First with our presence as we begin a new community outreach ministry and as we make much needed improvements to our church facility. Offering our presence is one of the key ways for us to offer God’s love right here in Athens.
     In just a few weeks, we will be invited to prayerfully complete a three-year financial estimate of giving card to help us “Put Athens First.” Last Sunday, I encouraged us to pray this simple prayer during these five weeks.
     “Dear God, what would You do through me to accomplish Your will in my church? Amen.”
     Say this prayer with me:
     “Dear God, what would You do through me to accomplish Your will in my church? Amen.”
     It’s exciting for me to know that this building campaign isn’t just about bricks and mortar. It’s about offering our prayers and our presence for the people in our community.
     I’ll close with this one last thought about the power of offering our presence.
     A friend of mine told me about an embarrassing thing he did during his first Sunday at his new church. You know, we pastors are kind of nervous for that first Sunday in a new church. Everything’s new. We want to make a good first impression. Pressure’s on right?
     So, my friend said that on his first Sunday, he greeted the congregation gathered there for worship. He said, “Oh my, what a great turn-out this morning.”
     Noticing that even the balcony was crowded with people, he said something that he would later regret.
     He said to his new congregation,
     “It’s so good to see so many people here this morning and just look at how filled the balcony is. There are probably 50 odd people up there!”
     Now, of course, he meant that there were fifty or more people; not that they were odd looking people. Everyone laughed to the point where it was really hard for him to continue to lead that worship service. That congregation never let him forget that comment. It was all in fun.
     You know, I think God can do something really special with the 150 odd people who are here today. We are odd in a really good way, though.
     We are odd because we are willing to follow Jesus all the way to the cross. We are odd because we are choosing to put others first. We are odd because we come here every Sunday believing that God can actually make a difference through us.

     I hope this campaign makes us the oddest church in town. And I mean that in a good way.

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