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, April 3, 2016

Sermon (April 3) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "A Light from Heaven"

     Norman Neaves is the founding pastor of The Church of the Servant United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City. He tells about a member of his congregation who wrote him a letter at 2:47 in the morning. She couldn't sleep that night, was upset and troubled on the inside, so she poured out her feelings to him.
     This is what she wrote: "Which stage of grief is this? Or is it grief at all? Just when I experience a little consistency in my new life alone, the next rug I step on is pulled out from under me. Is this all a part of adjusting, or am I being humbled for some greater purpose? My faith is not strong enough to stand on. But my instinct to survive this lonely stretch of my life is so compelling that I'm able to leave the security of my past and go on. Why do my thoughts wake me up in the night, screaming out for paper and pen? There are so few answers, I've found. It would be nice to have the comfort back, but not at the expense of my very own soul. So what can I do? Well, I think I will continue to feel my way back through the dark, feeding my faith until someday the lights come on again."
     We can all probably relate to the feelings of this woman who was going through a dark time in her life.
     As I was reading Facebook posts one evening, I came across this post that somebody had just written. It brought a smile to my face when I read it.
     This person posted, Isn't it odd how some nights you go to bed thinking ‘I have no clue how I'll pay my bills. I'm alone and desperate for love.’ And then other nights, you go to bed thinking ‘Life is grand. I love my cozy little bed.’”
     I know this person. During the time he put that message on Facebook, he was out of work and feeling lonely, but earlier that day, he had received a call for a job interview. Even though there was no guarantee that the job would be his, just knowing that he was called for an interview gave him a sense of peace that night. He could see some light beginning to shine in his life after a long period of darkness.
     On a cold day this past January, I went to the gym to work out. It was closed because of a power outage. I was disappointed because I really wanted to work out.
     As I left the gym, I heard a voice telling me to just run outside. I told this crazy voice in my head that it was too cold to run outside. Besides, I wasn’t dressed to run outside. It was too cold.
     As I was driving in my car, I reached into my duffle bag to see if by chance, I had a winter running hat. To my surprise, I did!
     “OK,” I thought to myself. “You win, crazy voice in my head. You win.”
     So I reluctantly drove to the closest place to park near the bike path. I was grumbling as I got out of my car. “I shouldn’t be doing this. Crazy voice doesn’t know what he’s talking about. It’s way too cold to be doing this!”
     I do some stretching, and off I start running. It was in the morning, and the sun was already shining brightly through the cold air. As I began running, I was amazed at how warm it actually felt. The huge sun shining down on me was making it feel like I was in the gym. I was amazed! It ended up being a great run.
     And the whole time during that run, I kept thinking how there is no power outage that is too great for God’s light to overcome.
     Light is a powerful, powerful thing. Just ask Saul who became known as the Apostle Paul.
     Here was a man who was headed down a very dark path and he didn’t even know it. That’s the really scary thing about darkness. Sometimes, we forget what it’s like to live in the light and we go on living in the dark.
     Saul was a God fearing Jew who was sincere in his faith. The only problem was he was sincerely wrong. It has been said that the “Worst things in the world are justified by belief.” This isn’t just played out through radicalized Muslim terrorists. People can hijack any religion and turn it into something that it’s not.
     This is exactly what Saul was doing when he assisted in the stoning of Stephen, an early follower of Christ. Following this story, we find Saul on his way to Damascus to persecute even more Christians.

     It’s while he was on his way to Damascus that Saul has his famous conversion experience. We are told that a light from heaven encircled him and he fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
     It was this light from heaven that totally changed Saul’s life. He changed his name to “Paul” and went from persecuting Christians to spreading the good news of Christ throughout the known world. A light from heaven can make all the difference in the world.
     A stand-up comic poked fun at weathermen who tend to state the obvious.  Pretending to be a weatherman, the comic says, “Weather forecast for tonight: Dark.  And it will continue to be dark overnight, with widely scattered light by morning.”
     Our Christian faith reminds us that even though the forecast for tonight is darkness, we can count on widely scattered light by morning. The Gospel of John focuses on this theme of light in a variety of ways.
     John begins his Gospel with these words, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
     Just a few chapters later, John is careful to note that it was at night when Nicodemus sought out Jesus.  And Jesus offers him the hope and promise of being born from above.
     In one of Jesus’ famous “I am” statements, John tells us that Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”
     In the middle of John’s Gospel, Jesus restores sight to a man who had been born blind.
     Toward the end of his Gospel, when John describes Mary Magdalene’s visit to Jesus’ tomb during the early morning, he is careful to point out that it was still dark.  But a new day dawned when she encountered the risen Christ.
     And in the very last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, the author John, who we think may be the same person who wrote the Gospel of John, offers us a beautiful picture of that future time when heaven and earth will finally come together.  John tells us that there will be no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
     When I first came here to serve as your pastor, I preached a sermon about “Thin Places.” “Thin Places” is a phrase that Celtic Christians used to describe those moments in our lives when heaven and earth come together and we are able to experience God moments in our day-to-day living.
     Our new small group ministry is designed around this idea of having people share about their recent “Thin Place” moments. Sometimes, these “Thin Place” moments are obvious at the time they are happening to us. Sometimes, we don’t recognize these holy moments until we look back on an event in our life.
     That’s why these new small groups are so important because they help us to be on the look out for these “Thin Place” moments. When we share these moments with each other, we are sharing how God is at work in our lives.
     I’d like to share a couple of “Thin Place” moments that have stuck with me over these past couple of years. Coincidentally, both of these “Thin Place” moments happened during a time of grief and loss. I have noticed that heaven’s light seems to be most noticeable during times of darkness.
     Here’s the first “Thin Place” moment that I’d like to share with you.
     Four or five years ago, I officiated at the funeral of a young boy who died from cancer. A few months following that funeral, I needed to make some visits at the hospital. For some reason, instead of going my typical route, I went a different way to the hospital.
     This route took me by the apartment of where this little boy used to live. As I was driving by, I noticed that his grandmother was sitting on the front steps of the house, and I felt nudged by God to pull over and see how she had been doing.
     This grandmother was so glad to see me. With tears in her eyes, she said that a little later that morning, she would be going to the cemetery to watch them place the headstone for her grandson’s grave. It was a special headstone with an engraving of a butterfly.
     Together, we shared a few stories about her grandson, how he had a great sense of humor, and how he showed so much faith in facing his death. We laughed and we cried as we sat together on those front steps of her apartment.

     And then the strangest thing happened that I will never forget. As this grandmother was sharing a story with me, a butterfly landed on her arm. We both became silent, and then we looked at each other in disbelief.
     Before this little boy had died, he told us that God would send us butterflies to let us know that he was with God and that everything was all right. After a few moments of silence, we looked at each other and started laughing. And then we prayed together, right there on those front steps, thanking God for sending us that butterfly at just the right moment.
     It was a light from heaven story I will never forget. This experience reminds me how these holy moments often occur as we are going through our day-to-day activities.
     Here’s another one that happened during a time of darkness.

     A couple of weeks after our Christmas Eve services, someone who had been to one of our services shared this light from heaven story with me.
     He arrived late to the 7:30 Christmas Eve service and he didn’t see the box of candles that we had been handing out before the service.
     Later in the service, the really good part, when we light our candles and sing “Silent Night,” he realized that he was the only person without a candle and he didn’t want to miss out.
     Someone who was seated behind him saw that he didn’t have a candle, so she handed him her candle.
     This person who shared this story with me said, “You don’t know how much that meant to me that someone from your church did this. She made Christmas Eve special for me.”
     That’s a great story about what a wonderful congregation you are, that you were willing to give away your candle so that somebody else could enjoy that holy moment on Christmas Eve. That sounds like something one of you would do.
     As I’ve been thinking about that story, isn’t that a wonderful metaphor for why we exist here on South College Street? We are here to shine the light of heaven with those around us. That’s what it means to “put Athens First.”
     Actually, I have one more “light from heaven” story I’d like to share with you. It happened during one of my first few months here as your pastor, right here in our sanctuary. I’m beginning to see a pattern here! Thin place moments are happening all around us right here in the sanctuary! Imagine that!
     I was meeting with a couple for pre-marital counseling one evening. We came into the sanctuary because I wanted to have us briefly walk through the wedding service so they would feel comfortable for when we would have the wedding.
     When we entered the sanctuary, I noticed that it was kind of dark in here, but I was too lazy to turn some lights on. There was just enough light, so it was OK, but it was getting darker by the minute.
     We were standing in the front of the sanctuary. I was facing the back of the sanctuary and the couple was facing me. As I was sharing with this couple, I couldn’t help but notice the glowing light of a beautiful sunset that was streaming through the frosted windows of our front entrance doors. That bright glowing orange light was just so beautiful.
     I stopped reading from my wedding ritual, and I had the couple turn around to witness the breathtaking sunset that was pouring through those back windows. The only problem was that they didn’t seem as impressed with this light from heaven moment as I was.
     And so I continued to walk through the practice ceremony with them, and I just had to stop again. I said, “I’m sorry, but I just can’t stop looking at that gorgeous sunset. It’s just so beautiful!”
     It was in that moment, that I realized that we weren’t looking at a sunset at all. That beautiful orange light was coming from the crosswalk light just across the street from our church!
     When I shared this with the couple, the groom just looked at me and said, “Yeah, I already knew that, but I didn’t want to spoil your moment.”
     You must be so proud that I’m your pastor.
     And now, every time I walk through our darkened sanctuary at night, I smile when I see that bright orange light coming through those windows. We have the most gorgeous sunsets every single night here, even around 10 o’clock at night Just gorgeous!
     Actually, there are many ways that God provides a light from heaven for us. Sometimes this light from heaven will knock us to our knees like it did for the Apostle Paul, and it will turn our life around. Other times, it will warm our hearts as somebody gives us their candle at a Christmas Eve service. Or it can come to us in the form of a butterfly, gently landing on the arm of a grieving grandmother.
     Heaven’s light is all around us. These “Thin Place” moments can come out of nowhere, like when you’re walking through the sanctuary late at night.
     The light from heaven that Paul saw in our scripture reading for today, led him to share the light of Christ with the whole world. Heaven’s light is meant to be shared. Share your “Thin Place” moments with others. Offer your candle to someone. Tell them how the light of heaven has changed your life.
     I learned a song in Sunday School that has stayed with me for these many years.  The song is “This Little Light of Mine, I’m Gonna Let It Shine.” 
     Anybody else go to the same Sunday School?  Do you know how this song goes?  Sing it with me if you think you know it.
     “This little light of mine.  I’m gonna let it shine.  This little light of mine.  I’m gonna let it shine.  Let it shine.  Let it shine.  Let it shine.”

     Let it shine!

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