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, May 8, 2016

Sermon (May 8) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Power!"

     When I was growing up with my brother, I can remember standing in the middle of our garden, and I was wearing these bright red boots, blue pajamas, and a red cape. 
     Our white haired dog at the time also had a red cape tucked underneath his collar and there we were standing together ready to save our home town from imminent danger. 
     You see, my dear brother was in a Superman craze, and he had convinced me that I could become superman and fly.  That is, as long as I wore those red boots and that red cape.  I could be as powerful as Superman!
     He actually said to me, “Little brother, if you concentrate really hard and say over and over again to yourself that you can fly, you will be able to fly like Superman.  But you have to really want to fly.”  Keep in mind that this was before we had adequate laws against child endangerment.
     And so, with my shiny red boots and long red cape, I can remember walking into the middle of our garden behind the barn, and saying over and over to myself, “David said I can fly.  If I can just think hard enough, I’ll be able to fly.” 
     But no matter how many times I would jump into the air, gravity would always pull me back down.  It was exhausting in trying to be Superman. And you know, now that I reflect back on that experience, it’s a really good thing that I didn’t try this from some higher elevation!
     But we all know that you don’t have to have to be Superman to possess power. All you need to have is that look that your mom used to give when you were in trouble. Do you know what “look” I mean? That “mom look.”
     One of you told me about a time when you and your three siblings were in school. You said how your mom would line all four of you along the wall every year on the first day of school from oldest to youngest.  And she would say to you as she wagged her finger back and forth,
      “I expect each one of you to behave in school because if you get into trouble, it will be twice as worse when you get home!” “Twice as worse.”
     So I asked the question that you probably would have asked this person – “So, did each of you behave?” And you told me, “Are you kidding, me? Of course we behaved! And that’s why all four of us did so well in school!”
     Oh, the power of a mother!

[Susanna Wesley, Mother of John & Charles Wesley]

     Many of us are familiar with the name, Susanna Wesley. She was the mother of John Wesley, the founder of what is today, the United Methodist Church. The Wesley family, which included John and eighteen other children, grew up in England during the 1700s. Half of them died when they were still in their infancy.
     At one point, Susanna’s husband, Samuel, who was an Anglican Priest, was sent to debtor’s prison. Here’s what Susanna wrote to her husband while he was in prison. This will give us a little glimpse of this remarkable and powerful woman of faith. She wrote:
     I am a woman, but I am also the mistress of a large family. And though the superior charge of the souls contained in it lies upon you, yet in your long absence I cannot but look upon every soul you leave under my charge as a talent committed to me under a trust. I am not a man nor a minister, yet as a mother and a mistress I felt I ought to do more than I had yet done.
     I resolved to begin with my own children; in which I observe the following method: I take such a proportion of time as I can spare every night to discourse with each child apart. On Monday I talk with Molly, on Tuesday with Hetty, Wednesday with Nancy, Thursday with Jacky, Friday with Patty, Saturday with Charles.”
     When it was becoming apparent that her children were spending too much time playing and not enough time studying, she resolved to have them focus more on their education.
     The children were not permitted to have any formal lessons until they had reached their fifth year, but the day after their fifth birthday is when Susanna taught them more formally in their home. She had them learn the alphabet on that first day. And they would be taught for six hours every day after that.
     The children got a wonderful education, thanks to their mother. Daughters included, they all learned Latin and Greek and were well tutored in the classical studies of that time period. This was one powerful woman!
     But that’s not all! While Susanna’s husband was in debtor’s prison, a substitute priest led the worship services in his absence. Since he was not a very effective priest, Susanna resolved to have her own Sunday worship services for her family.
     When the locals heard that she was very good at leading these family worship services, they began attending these services in her home instead of the ones at the church. Over 200 people came to these services which were held in her kitchen, while the church would only have a handful of people on Sunday mornings.
     I think that there are many mothers out there who know a thing or two about power and what it means to use that power for good. Susanna Wesley certainly did!

     This is what the Apostle Paul wants each one of us to know from our Ephesians scripture reading this morning. We have been given God’s power and we are called to use this power to bless the people around us.
      The Apostle Paul wants us to know that through Christ, we have received the riches of his glorious inheritance! He wants us to know that through Christ, we have been given the immeasurable greatness of his power!
     When this letter was first read to the various churches located in the greater Ephesus area around the middle of the first century, it must have been mind boggling for these congregations to hear these words. 
     At the time they first heard this letter, they were living in or near a city which was a very powerful city, a city which was home to powerful Roman leaders, and a powerful pagan religion which used powerful displays of magic to impress it’s followers.
     This was the kind of city that would give a new religious movement like Christianity, an inferiority complex.  What power could this new religion possibly have?  Certainly not anything that can rival the glamour and prestige of a progressive major city that is adopting Roman culture and customs at a fast and furious pace. 
     In writing his letter for the churches located in or near the city of Ephesus, the Apostle Paul, is reminding these congregations that what they have been given in Jesus Christ puts them head and shoulders above anything their surrounding culture can ever hope to offer.
     Paul doesn’t want them to ever forget what they have received through Christ.  It’s an impressive list:  Wisdom, hope, a glorious inheritance, and power.
     Power.  Paul uses this word four times in this short passage of scripture.  Obviously, he wants the church to not only know about this power, but to live out this power through their ministry.
      I mentioned Susanna Wesley and how she was a powerful woman of faith. On this Mothers’ Day, how can we not mention another powerful woman of faith, Barbara Heck. She is known as the mother of American Methodism.

     Barbara Heck started the first Methodist class meeting in New York, back in 1766. Barbara and her family came to the New World from Ireland where she and her family had become Methodists.
     When the Heck’s came to New York, they no longer had their Methodist group and so they became very lax in their faith.  That is until one day when Barbara Heck walked into a room to find her friends who had also come over from Ireland, playing cards and gambling. Much to her dismay, one of the men who was gambling was Philip Embury who had served as a local Methodist preacher back in Ireland!
     Barbara immediately shared some choice words with these backslidden Methodist “wanna bees” and then she grabbed their playing cards and tossed them into the fireplace.  But she wasn’t finished.  She then turned to Embury and told him that he should begin preaching and pastoring again or their blood would be on his hands.
     Soon after this famous gambling incident, the first Methodist class meeting in America was formed, and from there, Methodist classes and small groups spread like wildfire along the eastern part of our country and would later find it’s way to places like Athens, Ohio.
     God’s power was at work through Barbara Heck.
     And how about Harriet Tubman? Talk about a powerful woman of faith! She is known to have led a thousand slaves to freedom before and during the Civil War. She will become the first woman on paper money, bumping Andrew Jackson from the $20 dollar bill.
     Some of these powerful women of faith are closer than we think, like our own Ann Stempel right here in our church. Anne is one of the co-founders of The Gathering Place which provides support to newly discharged mental health patients who have little or no support.
     Thanks to her efforts, our community offers this place where people can form friendships, support networks, and receive vital services. As many of you know, Anne continues to be active in our church and community. God bless you, Anne Stempel!
     And thankfully, there are many other wonderful examples of how people of faith are making an incredible difference in the world by living out the power of the risen Christ in ways that bring God’s kingdom to earth.
     I had lunch with a member of a rapidly growing church near Dayton.  He told me the fascinating story of his church.  About five years ago, this church was going to close its doors because it had dwindled down to just a few members.
     Located in a strategic and growing area, over the past several years, this church had lost its vision and passion in reaching the people of its community.  Just when they were about to close the church, a denominational official decided to give this church one more shot. 
     Over the past five years, this church has grown to over 500 people.  So I asked this church member over lunch, “What’s the main reason why your church has turned things around in a short amount of time?”
     His eyes lit up and without even thinking about it, he said, “It’s because we pour ourselves out and share the love of Jesus in our community.”  And for the next sixty minutes he proceeded to tell me several ways that their church is pouring themselves out.  One of the ways they are pouring themselves out is by partnering with the local school district to help children and families in need.
     After our lunch and on my way back to the church, I couldn’t get that phrase out of my mind.  “Poured out.”  I thought to myself, “That’s a great image for what the church is meant to be.”  We are to be poured out for the sake of the world.
     Out of curiosity, I did a google search to find this church’s website.  I clicked on their mission statement, and sure enough, here’s what it says:  “We are committed to building a church that is real, transformed, connected, and POURED OUT.” Poured out.
     No wonder he used that phrase over and over again.
     Ascension Sunday, it’s a Sunday in which the church remembers when Jesus ascended to be seated at the right hand of God forty days following his resurrection.  Ascension Sunday reminds us that when Jesus ascended, he literally ascended to his throne as King of kings and Lord of lords. This is kingly language that is being used here.
     The Apostle Paul refers to Jesus’ ascension in our Ephesians scripture passage this morning when he writes that God’s power was at work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.
     But let’s remember the events which preceded this King’s ascension.  This King gave it all.  This King gave his life.  This King was “poured out” for the sake of the world.
     So when we hear scriptures like this one from Ephesians which talk about power, we’re not just talking about any power.
    On this day, we are invited to remember what real power is. 
     Think about Jesus, the Son of God, being placed in a manger.  That’s power. 
     Think about Jesus telling the disciples to love their enemies and to do good to them.  That’s power.
     Think about Jesus hanging on a cross to take upon himself the sin and pain of the world.  That’s power.
     Think about the resurrected and ascended Jesus, now seated at the right hand of God, victorious over sin and death.  That’s power.
     Think about some folks going to their cars following a worship service on Ascension Sunday.  They aren’t the same people who first entered those church doors. 
     They can’t wait to go into the community to be the “poured out” church of King Jesus; through humble service, unconditional love, bold witnessing, and risk taking mission.
     Whenever the church pours itself out in the name of Christ for the sake of others, that’s a church that knows what real power is.
     Happy Ascension Sunday!

Small Group Questions
Ephesians 1:15-23 & Luke 24:44-53
May 8, 2016

We are all too familiar with examples of how people have exercised power for selfish gain. In his letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul reminds us that through Christ, we have a power that includes hope for a better world.

Share an experience of where you have seen someone exercise power in a loving, healing, and hopeful way. How did it make a positive difference?

Ascension Day, the 40th day after Easter Sunday is when we celebrate the ascension of Christ to his heavenly throne. It’s a time on the church calendar for us to remember that the ascended Christ’s definition of power includes humility, love, and justice for a broken and hurting world.

When has God’s loving power helped you get through a difficult challenge in your life?

Share a way that helps you to remember that no matter how crazy the world may seem, Christ continues to be the true ruler over all creation.

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