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, March 6, 2016

Sermon (March 6) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Putting Athens First with Our Service"

    What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus Christ? What does it means to be the church? This is what our focus has been through the season of Lent. During this forty-day period, we are following Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem. This journey will conclude with Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week.
     This is a journey to help us become more like Christ who emptied himself by serving God and others. This is not a journey of self-help or positive thinking. It’s not an inward journey. It’s a journey that pushes us outside of ourselves so that we can be a blessing for others in the name of Christ.
     Several years ago, I took my staff members to a Church Growth conference in Indiana. Half of us car-pooled and the other half drove separately.
     Toward the end of the conference, one of my staff members told me a most amazing story about his journey to meet up with us in Indiana. He said that he had been feeling really discouraged and kind of down in the dumps the past few weeks leading up to that conference.
     Knowing that he would be driving alone to Indiana for several hours in the car, he came up with an idea. He decided to go to a bookstore and pick up a self-help motivational CD so that he would be able to listen to it during that long trip. He thought that this CD by a popular motivational speaker might help to lift his spirits.
     So I asked him, “Well, did it work? Was it helpful?”
     And he said, “Well here’s what happened. I bought this CD, and as soon as I got on the highway, I popped it into the CD player of my car. I was driving along, and noticed that there wasn’t any sound. I cranked up the volume, and there still wasn’t any sound. I pushed the forward button and it still didn’t play anything.”
     And then he said, “That’s when I realized that I had purchased a bad CD.” He said how that made him even more discouraged during that long car ride.
     Realizing the absurdity of what he just told me, he started laughing and I started laughing with him. I don’t think I ever laughed so hard than I did in that moment. What a crazy thing to happen! What are the odds that someone would have purchased a blank CD on positive thinking? Talk about the definition of a bad day!
     But here’s the important part of this story. He didn’t need a motivational CD to help him get out of the dumps. The message and the ideas of that church conference were all that he needed to renew his spirit. The theme of that church conference was about how to help your church reach out to your community.
     All of us felt invigorated from our time at that church conference. When we got back from that weekend, we made our church’s focus more outward than inward. And the craziest thing happened. Our church started to grow. We were reaching our neighborhood with God’s love.
     One of the best ways to get out of the dumps is by serving others. That’s what Jesus came to help us see. He said that it boils down to these two things. Love God and love your neighbor.
     Jesus demonstrated that love by not just spending time in the Temple, but by going to where the people were and offering God’s love to them. When we get to Holy Week, we will once again be reminded of how Jesus’ life was about serving others when we watch him become like a servant and wash the disciples’ feet. The king of the universe became a servant.
     We’ll also see it on full display when his arms are outstretched on the hard wood of a cross on Good Friday.
     In the middle of our season of Lent journey, we read this wonderful scripture from the prophet Isaiah who reminds us that God’s grace is extended to everyone. Nobody is left out!
     He says, “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money at no cost, buy wine and milk!”
     It’s interesting that the Psalm for this Sunday says, “I’m fully satisfied as with a rich dinner.”
     I love this image of how God’s mercy and love are offered freely. Nobody is left out. All are invited to receive. God’s love is abundant. There’s plenty for everyone. No reason to keep it to ourselves.
     Jesus embodied this message as he journeyed to Jerusalem and in the way he offered himself for the world. God’s love isn’t exclusive. It’s inclusive. “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water!” “All of you who are down in the dumps, come and receive new life and hope.”
     During these weeks leading up to Easter, we are learning what it means to be like Jesus in offering our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness. Today’s scripture from Isaiah helps us to focus on what it means to offer our service as followers of Jesus.

     William Temple, who served as the Arch Bishop of Canterbury during the 20th century said this about the purpose of the church. “The church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.”
     This is what my friend heard when he attended that church seminar in Indiana. This is what helped him to feel new life through the church. It’s when he was reminded that the church exists for the benefit of those who aren’t already in it.
     “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water! Whoever has no money, come, buy food and eat! Without money at no cost, buy wine and milk!”
     This scripture reminds me of the water bottle give away that our church did this past August during moving in week. Knowing that the students and their families would be tired and thirsty from moving in, we set up camp outside our church and gave away water bottles that day.

     We gave away something like 500 water bottles that we had blessed during worship the Sunday before we gave them out. So many people were blessed by that little act of kindness over a span of only three hours!
     Now, my idea was to hand out boxes of offering envelopes to people walking by our church, but we went with your water bottle idea instead. Much better idea!
     Who knows what other acts of kindness God may be calling our church to do so that we can be a blessing in our community.
         I served a church that decided to throw a neighborhood party in our parking lot which was located by a bike path.  We had music, games, and free food.  We also had hot dogs, baked beans, and potato chips.  We had invited people from all around our church neighborhood to come and enjoy this picnic.
     The people of the church had put a lot of work into getting this neighborhood picnic ready.  So, it was a little disappointing, that for most of the afternoon, we only had a few people from the neighborhood come and join us.   As our picnic was drawing to a close, we all felt a little down that not more people came.
     But that’s when someone thought of a crazy idea.  “Let’s break up into teams and let’s each take these home-made cookies to the homes and apartments around our church.”
     Being the fearless leader that I am, I said, “What, are you crazy?  People aren’t going to answer the door, let alone, take cookies from complete strangers.”
     I was over-ruled.  Before I knew it, a church member had put a big pan of cookies in my arms and basically pushed me toward the neighborhood she wanted me to go.  And to my amazement, not only did people answer the door, but we received many comments about how nice it was for the church to reach out to the community. 
     After giving them some cookies, we then said, “If you’re interested, there are some free hot dogs and food by the bike path near the church.  You’ll want to come soon, though, because the picnic is almost over.”
     Our team must have gone to at least 15 apartments and I don’t know how many homes the other teams were able to visit, but we did give away all our cookies.  As we get near the church parking lot, I’m thinking that we’re going to need to put the picnic items away and call it a day.
     But to my amazement, there were several people from the neighborhood going through the food line.  They had accepted our invitation and made it our church parking lot before we did.  And some of our church members were sitting with our new friends and getting to know them.
     It was a remarkable scene.  Thanks to a risk taker who had the bright idea to take cookies to the neighborhoods, relationships between our church members and people in the neighborhood began to form and a little of heaven came to earth that afternoon.
     In one of my sermons last year, I had us think about this question. “If our church would cease to exist, would anybody miss us?”
     That’s a great question that I invited us to ask ourselves again and again. “If our church would cease to exist, would anybody miss us?”

     John Wesley, the founder of Methodism is known for this wonderful quote. He said,
“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
     When we ask ourselves the question, “If the church would cease to exist, would anybody miss us?” it centers on another question. “Are we a church that puts Athens First with our service?”
     We are getting close to launching our capital campaign to make improvements to our church facility. These building improvements will help our church to provide more space and accessibility for not only our own congregation, but for the people in our community who come through these doors on a weekly basis.
     In addition to all of these wonderful building improvements, our capital campaign will also help our congregation to be involved in local hands on community mission work on a regular basis. We’re calling it “Athens First Saturday” since we will hold it on the first Saturday of each month beginning in April, less than a month from now.
    We will meet here at the church on the first Saturday at 8:30 am, and there will be a number of different outreach projects for us to do here in our community. We’ll be done by noon so we’ll still have the rest of our Saturday. There will be something for all ages to do.
    Picture our church being a blessing in our community in very practical and tangible ways through our new “Athens First Saturday” outreach!
     When you combine this hands on mission component with our building improvements that are designed to help our church be in a better position to reach more people and grow as a church, you can see why we are so excited about this campaign.
     During this season of Lent, as we follow Jesus to the cross which will then lead to the wonderful good news of Easter, we are learning what it means to offer our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.
     Putting Athens First with our service is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.
      “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

     Sometimes, all it takes is just a little push now and then, and God takes care of the rest.

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