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, August 14, 2016

Sermon (August 14) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "We've Got You Surrounded!"

       How many of you remember the 1960s sitcom, “Get Smart” starring Don Adams?  Don Adams played the part of the bumbling secret agent, Maxwell Smart, also known as Agent 86.  Maxwell Smart worked for Control, which was a secret US Government spy agency.
     Because of his many mistakes, he would get into all kinds of problems, but somehow some of those same mistakes would get him out of trouble and save the day.
     When Maxwell Smart would be backed into a corner by the bad people and he would have nowhere to go, he would use a little deception which by the way, never worked, but it was always funny. He would try to convince the other spies that they were surrounded.
     The bad guys, having Maxwell Smart caught in a corner with no where to turn ask Smart, “What did you tell your chief on the phone, right before we caught you?”  Maxwell Smart tells them, even though none of this was true, “I told the chief our precise location and in a few minutes, 2,000 state troopers will be rolling in here like oranges.”
     The bad guy says, “That’s difficult to believe.  You’re lying.”
     Maxwell Smart says, “Would you believe 500 armed boy scouts?”
     Bad guy responds, “I don’t believe you.”
     Smart says, “How about Little Boy Blue and a couple of his sheep?”
     And by buying a little time, somehow Smart was always able to get away from the bad guys.
     We have you surrounded.  This is the point that the author of Hebrews is making in our scripture this morning.  “Would you believe that you are not alone in your walk with Christ, and that you are surrounded by a whole host of faithful men and women who are cheering you on to help you remain faithful a follower of Jesus Christ?”
     In our scripture reading, the author of Hebrews goes on to list several people who have faithfully run the course of faith.  Some of these names might not be familiar to us.  Others we might recognize when we hear their names.  But the point is to never ever forget, especially when you get discouraged in your walk with Christ, that there are people who have shown us what it means to be faithful over a long period of time.
     The author of Hebrews says, “We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses.”  People like the ones who passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land.  People like Rahab and Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephtha and David and Samuel and the prophets.  The author of Hebrews is showing how we are all surrounded by people who have gone before us.
     But wait, he has more examples of God’s people who surround us day after day.  Faithful men and women who conquered Kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fires, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight, women whose children were brought back to life, those who were tortured, who refused to accept release, those who suffered mocking, flogging, and imprisoned.  Some were stoned to death, sawn in two, those who went destitute, persecuted, tormented, they wandered in deserts and mountains and in caves and holes in the ground.
     While, this might sound like a typical episode from “Game of Thrones,” it really shows how far people were willing to go to build God’s kingdom here on earth.  These are the people who were courageous and did not give up on their faith – “Would you believe that we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses?”
     John Wesley, the founder of Methodism once said, “There is no such thing as solitary Christianity.” That’s why Wesley organized all of those early Methodists into classes or small groups. He knew that if we supported and encouraged each other in living out our faith, that we would become more deeply devoted followers of Jesus Christ. This is why we emphasize being part of a small group through the church.
     One of the TV shows that Penny and I enjoy watching is on HGTV. The title of the show says it all. It’s called, “Disaster Do It Yourself.” Instead of getting professionals to provide guidance and expertise, the show is about couples trying to do their own remodeling to save money. Most of the time, things end in a disaster, hence the name of the show.
     For example, one couple needed to do some electrical work as part of their remodeling. During one of these remodeling episodes, the husband was ready to cut through an old electrical wire in the house when his wife warned him about turning off the breaker first.
     He assured her that it wasn’t necessary, so he started to cut into the wire.  All of the sudden, you can hear this man screaming for someone to turn off the power. The TV screen went blank because even the cameraman was scared for this man.
     Nobody ever gets seriously hurt in that show, thank goodness, but couples do end up getting their fair share of cuts and bruises during the show because they think they can do all of this remodeling without any outside help. The lesson from this show is to not be afraid to ask for help.
     This is what the author of Hebrews is telling us. Our faith is best lived out when we remember that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We can learn from their example. When we think about those who have gone before us, we find encouragement and a renewed energy in being the people that God has called us to be. Christianity is meant to be lived in community, not in isolation.
     When has God reminded you that you are not alone, and that you are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses?
     Curt was a member of one of the churches I served. He was a gifted artist and had been recently retired. He was best known as the man who had painted animals from the Noah’s Ark story on the walls of the church nursery. Curt was also one of our ushers and was active in his Sunday School class.
      While I was there, Curt became ill and was in and out of the hospital. The people in the church and especially the people in his Sunday School class prayed for him, took meals to their home, and sent him get well cards.
     Curt reached a point in his illness where they were having hospice come to the home to care for him. He missed not being able to go to church on Sunday mornings so I would stop by his house whenever I had the opportunity.
     One day, Curt’s wife called to see if I could bring Holy Communion to their home. I was meeting with my clergy cluster that day. Our cluster consisted of ten United Methodist pastors serving within a twenty-minute radius of each other. We met once a month to pray together, encourage each other, and think of ways that our churches could share in ministry together.
     Knowing that I needed to go to Curt’s house after our cluster meeting, I felt a little nudge from the Holy Spirit to see if anybody from our clergy meeting would want to come with me. I explained the situation to them and they all agreed to join me.
     When I arrived at the house, Curt’s wife was surprised to see all of these people at her doorstep. I told her that these were several United Methodist clergy serving churches in our county and they just wanted to stop by with me and offer their love and support. A big smile came to her face and she said, “Curt will really love this.”
     When I saw Curt, I told him, “You said you would like a pastoral call so I thought I would bring every United Methodist clergy in the county to see you. I hope that’s OK.”  He was so glad to see all of these pastors.
     One of us read a scripture passage. Another shared a brief devotional thought. One of us anointed Curt with oil. And all of us joined in offering a prayer for God’s comforting presence to surround him. We even sang a hymn together.
     The next day, I received a call from Curt’s wife. She just called to let me know that our visit meant so much to him. It’s not often that ten United Methodist clergy make a house call together! I sent an email to the clergy group to let them know what a blessing they were to Curt.
     I look back on that day when we all visited Curt at his home and I’m still amazed that every clergy person was willing to sacrifice part of their time that day to be a blessing for someone who wasn’t even a member of their own church. They didn’t just bless Curt and his wife. They blessed me that day. That was the United Methodist connection at its best!
     That pastoral visit had reminded all of us of this verse from Hebrews that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
     I have another “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” moment that happened in my life.
     Many of you of heard me tell the story of my mother’s passing back in 2012. My two sisters, my brother and I had to get our mother’s belongings ready for a sale.
     On the day of the sale at our mother’s home, the place where we had been raised, a woman from somewhere in the county decided that she wanted to buy one of our mom’s nightstands. In the course of our conversation, this woman discovered that our mother’s name was Janelle.
     She said, “That’s interesting. My name is Janelle.”
     As the conversation continued, she learned that our mother’s last name was, “McDowell.” She said, “Janelle McDowell? Is this the same Janelle McDowell who attended the Stewartstown United Methodist Church?” And we said, “yes.” It was in that moment, that this woman realized that our mother was why she was given the name, “Janelle.”
     Before she was born, her mother was trying to choose a name for her. Her mother had purchased a church cookbook that contained several recipes that had been provided by our mother and being the wonderful cook she was, our mom’s name was next to many of these recipes.
     As her mother kept seeing the name, “Janelle McDowell,” next to several of these recipes in that church cookbook, she liked the sound of that name so much that she decided to go ahead and name her daughter, “Janelle.” As her daughter grew, she told her this story of why she was given this name.
     Talk about “Thin Place” moments! This was definitely one of them. It was a holy moment for this woman, named Janelle, because she was able to stumble upon the home of the woman that she had been named after. She also was able to buy a piece of furniture that meant a lot to our mom.
     It was also a holy moment for my brother, two sisters, and me because, think about it. What were the odds that this woman would have come across a church cookbook, named her baby after one of the people in that cookbook, and that this baby would grow up, and out of the blue, attend a yard sale at the home of the woman she was named after?
     But this amazing story is far from over. This woman who bought our mom’s nightstand that day at the sale, had it refurbished and she gave it back to our family as her gift to us. She wanted us to have our mother’s nightstand out of her appreciation for our mother.
     And here’s the last little “thin place” moment of this story. I have an elderly aunt who resides in a nursing home where Janelle is employed, and our paths have crossed in this way as well. During some of our visits, we will see her. What a crazy, crazy story, huh?
     I just don’t know how else to put it, except to say, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.” We really are.
     So, I was in the pre-op area of a hospital visiting a church member. This person was very nervous about his surgery and very anxious. I was there to offer a brief prayer before they would take him back for surgery.
     In my prayer, I said something like, “Dear God, bless John as he prepares to have this surgery. Remove any anxious thoughts he may have and replace them with your peace. Grant him your healing. Remind John, that there are many people in our church who are surrounding him with our love and prayers this day. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.”
     As I said, “Amen,” I could hear someone else say, “Amen,” with me. It was his pre-op nurse who had opened the curtain during our prayer. This nurse happened to be a faithful member of our church. I looked down at John and I said, “See, I told you. We do have you surrounded! You just can’t get away from the love and support of your church.”
     The author of Hebrews says, “We’ve got you surrounded.”
     Have you ever noticed just how many United Methodist Churches there are? I mean, you can’t travel through a town, a village, a city, and many times, out in the middle of nowhere without seeing a United Methodist Church.
     Sometimes, even a tiny town of 700 people will have two United Methodist Churches. We’re all over the place!
     I don’t know if this is still true, but someone who researched this, said that there are more United Methodist church buildings then there are post offices. I can believe it.
     You just can’t get away from Methodists. A bunch of clergy will show up at your door. We will find you through a cookbook. We will help you to name your baby girl. We will be the nurse who wheels you back to surgery. Methodists are everywhere!
     I love how we respond as a congregation whenever we celebrate a baptism. We offer these words of commitment toward the family and the one being baptized:
     “We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness.”
     What we’re saying is, “We’ve got you surrounded. The memories of those who have gone before us are cheering us on. You don’t have to walk alone in this life. We are all part of a great cloud of witnesses.”

     Thanks be to God!

We've Got You Surrounded!
Small Group Questions
Hebrew 11:29-12:2
August 14, 2016

Our scripture reading from Hebrews tells us that "we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses." This verse reminds us that our faith is meant to be lived out in community and not in isolation. 

When have you experienced the love and support of the church in your life? Was it a small group, someone in the congregation, a Sunday School class?

When have you been able to remind someone that they were not alone in their journey of faith? What prompted you to reach out to that person?

Pastor Robert offered examples of times when he has experienced a great cloud of witnesses like the story of the person who was named after his mother, when he and his clergy friends visited a man at his home who was under hospice care, and when a nurse in the hospital who was a member of his church ended up blessing a patient who was also a member of the same church.

When have you been unexpectantly blessed by someone's presence in your life? How did that experience draw you closer to God?

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