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, July 31, 2016

Sermon (July 31) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Bread, Wine, & Donuts"

     After reading our Old Testament reading for today, I am even more sympathetic to the role of parenting.  Parenting, which can be a very rewarding and joyful endeavor, can also be a real pain in the backside!
     How many times do parents give wise advice to their children only to discover that their experienced words simply fall on deaf ears?  Often, it isn’t until years later that the child, after suffering the consequences of not listening to their parents in the first place, realizes that mom and dad were actually right.
     It’s difficult for parents to bite their tongue hold back the words, “I told you so!” at such moments of revelation.
     The old Mark Twain time-tested quote comes to mind in which he said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
     Our Hosea scripture reading is almost too painful for us to read because you can’t help but to sense the anguish of God as he reminds the people of Israel of how he has cared for them as a loving parent, and yet they have forgotten what he has done for them.
     Living hundreds of years after their infant and toddler years, God reminds Israel that without him, they would never have escaped being slaves in Egypt under the rule of Pharaoh.   It was God who provided them a way of escape through the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land.
     I love the imagery that is used here.  God is using baby language by saying how it was he who took Israel in his arms and held her up to his cheek when he delivered them from Egyptian oppression. 
     Maybe the prophet Hosea, who is speaking on God’s behalf in our scripture reading, has in mind the rescue of baby Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter and how she had saved Moses from certain death by rescuing him from the river.  In the same way, it was God who saved Israel from slavery and led them into freedom.
     And we think of the whole wilderness journey in which God had fed Israel with manna from heaven.  Without that heavenly bread, they would never have survived.
     God says to these people of God descendents, “I was the one who bent down and fed you.”
     I have always kept a mental snapshot from several years ago when one of our kids was just a baby and because Penny was commuting as a student to Ohio Wesleyan University, a lot of the parenting during that time was up to me. 
     It seems like it was just yesterday.  I can vividly remember sitting with a friend at my kitchen table feeding our less than one year old child this grotesque looking baby food from a jar and then watching the food coming back out of the mouth, onto the bib and getting on everything. 
     As I sat there with my friend who happened to be another United Methodist pastor, I said to him, “I am making a vow with you and God as my witness, that I will never ever forget how difficult it is to raise a baby.”
     “None of this romanticized memory for me,” I said to myself.  No.  I’m going to look back on this moment and be able to say, “That was one of the most demanding times of my life.  But it was also the first time in my life in which I realized what real love is all about.”
     By being a parent, I came to appreciate more of what my parents did for me. 
     And it’s not just about those early years of baby food.  As you read this passage from Hosea, can you sense God’s anguish as he speaks to a people who centuries later, still do not realize just how much God loves them and all that he has done for them?
     What a fascinating picture of God.  Think of a parent pacing back and forth in the middle of the night wondering why their son or daughter hasn’t come home yet.
     Think of a mom worried to no end about a daughter who has been spending way too much time with the wrong crowd.
     Think of a father calling his son from a business trip, sick over the fact that he had to miss one of his sporting events.
     Hosea is saying, “This is how much God loves you.  And even more so!”
     Today is our family meal.  We usually have this meal on the first Sunday of the month but it just seemed appropriate to move it up a week early to this Sunday.
     Today, we are invited to come to the table and receive some bread and wine.  Ok.  It’s really grape juice, not wine.
     We have this meal once a month, to remind us of our great deliverance from oppression and slavery.   On one level, this meal reminds us of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and how God rescued his people and led them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
     But on another level, this meal reminds us of another kind of deliverance, the deliverance that God has provided from sin and death.  Instead of Moses, this time it was Jesus, who took upon himself the sins and the pain of the whole world 2,000 years ago by dying on a cross and rising to new life.
     This meal reminds us of what God, our loving parent has done for us in Jesus, which is why we often call this meal, “The Eucharist,” the word, “eucharist meaning, “thanksgiving.”  When we eat this meal together, we are giving thanks for what our parent God has done for us.  We even say a prayer together called “the Great Thanksgiving” to help us gratefully remember how God has taken us in his arms and lifted us to his cheek by doing what we could not do ourselves.
     God the loving parent sends his own Son, to suffer and die for you and for me and for the whole world.  This is why we receive this holy meal with thanksgiving in our hearts.
     A pastor of a church told me about one of the most meaningful Holy Communion meals he has ever experienced in his ministry.  He had taken a singing group from his church to offer the love of Jesus Christ through their singing ministry at a casino as well as a homeless shelter in Atlantic City.   
     He said that he celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Communion with them one morning.  But before they received the Sacrament, he did something very creative.  A couple of people in the group prepared breakfast that morning by setting up a circle of chairs along with a table for donuts and juice.
     He tells the group as they arrive in the room, to find a seat and that this breakfast will be served in an unusual fashion.  So he asks a member of the group if she would like a donut.  She answered, “Yes, I’d like a donut.”
     This pastor then turns to one of the leaders in the group, “Jim, in order for Sarah to have this donut, would you do five push ups?  Jim nods his head and does the five push-ups.  Unknown to the group, Jim has been preparing for this special donut breakfast the past several months by doing push-ups every day and strengthening his upper-body.
     Then the pastor asks another member of the group, “Tom, would you like a donut?”  Tom is pretty hungry, so of course he answers, “Yes.”  The pastor turns to Jim and asks him, “In order for Tom to have his donut this morning, would you do five push-ups right now?”  Jim does five more push-ups.
     This goes on for the next several people.  Each person wants a donut because it’s breakfast time and they’re hungry, and this guy, Jim has to keep doing these five push-ups each time just so that each person in the group can have a donut.  During the first series of push-ups, the people in the group couldn’t help but laugh because they thought it was some kind of early morning joke.  Poor Jim has to do a few push-ups, or so everyone assumed.
     The nervous laughter continued for the next couple of people who said they would like a donut. When it got to about the 7th person around the circle, she decides to not have a donut to save Jim from doing more push-ups. She can tell that Jim was beginning to really struggle with these push-ups and with about 35 people left in the group, decides to end this fun little experiment.
     But even though this person refuses to eat a donut, the people in the group are surprised when the pastor asks Jim to do five more push-ups anyway.
     Suddenly, the people in the group weren’t laughing anymore, because this was getting serious.  Jim is doing five push ups for each person in that group whether they want a donut or not.
     As this continues on, Jim begins to really struggle as he does the push ups.  His arms are shaking and his breathing is getting more and more labored. Sweat is falling from his forehead to the floor.
     The group, instead of laughing at Jim are now cheering for him, because they realize that Jim is doing this for the benefit of each person in the group.  A few members in the group begin to get emotional, some start to cry, as they watch helplessly, as Jim struggles to do more and more push-ups.  As it gets closer and closer to the last person in the room, Jim can barely do another push up, but somehow he makes it.
     When Jim finished the last push-up for the last person in the group, that’s when this pastor brought out the bread and the wine for Holy Communion.  And he explained to the group,
     “The love that Jim just shared with each of you by doing push-ups on your behalf is just a small expression of what Jesus did for each of us by dying on the cross.  Whether you wanted God’s love or not, Jesus still died on the cross for you.  And as we receive this holy meal, I want you to know just how much God loves you and what Jesus was willing to do for you.”
     This pastor said that there was not a dry eye on that room and he said that the members of that group will probably never think about Holy Communion in the same way again.
     Can you sense the anguish of God as he tries to remind the people of just how much he loves them?  Parents, can you relate to this? 
     “When you were a child, I loved you.  I was the one who taught you to walk.  I took you up in my arms and healed you.  I lifted you to my cheek and fed you.”
     This Hosea passage ends with this tremendous word of hope.  God the parent says, “I want you to come back to me.  I want you to come home.”
     Even though God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land, the people had forgotten what God had done for them and they followed after other gods.  And now, centuries later, they were facing exile from the Promised Land.  And God, like a loving parent, not wanting to give up on the people he loves, is saying,
     “I want you to come home to me.  I want you to know just how much I love you. You don’t remember this, but before you were even born, I sent my Son to die in your place and rise to new life so that you might have forgiveness from your sins and newness of life.  My heart breaks whenever you turn your back on me and follow after other gods.  No one loves you more than I do.  Return to me and come home to where you belong.”

     If you’re wondering where you belong, God is reminding us on this morning that we receive Holy Commnion, that it’s right here at the family table, the table with the bread and the wine, a table that has been prepared by a loving God who loves you more than you can EVER imagine.

Bread, Wine, & Donuts
Small Group Questions
Hosea 11:1-11
July 31, 2016

The Bible often refers to God's love for us like the love of a loving parent toward a child. Listen again to this verse from our Hosea scripture reading this past Sunday: "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt, I called my son."

Share a time when you experienced God as a loving parent toward you.

Pastor Robert shared the donuts and Holy Communion story in his sermon. The point of this story is to show just how much Jesus showed his love for us when he died on a cross.

What does the Sacrament of Holy Communion mean to you? How does this holy meal help you to see God as your loving parent and a God who offers you unconditional love?

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