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 21, 2016

Sermon (August 21) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Independence Day"

     The gospel writer, Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And I would expect that it was a typical day in worship.  People were sitting in their accustomed places and the service was going on as usual.  But remember that this particular Sabbath is different because Jesus was there.  And when Jesus shows up in worship, you never know what to expect.
     Jesus spots one of the worshippers who happened to be bent over and very crippled.  Luke doesn’t tell us that anyone else had paid particular notice of this woman even though she was probably a familiar face.
     And when Jesus spots her, he calls her over and tells her something amazing – “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  And after he laid hands on her, she stood up and began to praise God.
     Just imagine – this person who for the past 18 years has been bent over is now healed in a matter of a few minutes all because Jesus healed her.  Wonderful things happen when Jesus is present in worship.
     Now, on one level, I believe that Luke is giving us this story to help us see how Jesus brings healing to people in need.  Jesus spots this person who is crippled.  Jesus lays hands on her.  She’s healed.  And we’re all amazed.
     But I think that there is another level of this story that Luke wants us to notice.  By healing this woman, Luke is helping us to see something wonderful that is about to happen on a much larger scale.
     In some ways, I wonder if this crippled woman is symbolic for the people of Israel, God’s own people who had been under foreign rule for hundreds of years, and who were still longing for the day when God would fulfill his covenant by reclaiming His creation and filling it with peace and justice.  That was the longing of Israel during the time of Jesus.
     Notice that Luke tells us that this woman had been bent over for eighteen years.  That’s a really long time for a person to live with the day to day physical pain of being crippled.  In a similar way, the people of Israel had been suffering for a long period of time. They had been exiled, displaced, ruled over by foreign powers, and they were longing for God to come and heal them.
     By Jesus healing this woman, it’s like Luke is giving us a little hint in the middle of his gospel, that through Jesus, God is about to fulfill the covenant that he had made with them centuries earlier through Abraham, that one day, they would be free.
     Luke is hinting to us through this story that God’s healing love for the world is being launched.  We know what happens at the end of his gospel.  Early on a Sunday morning, the first day of the week, the women find the tomb empty. Jesus has defeated sin and death.
     Sunday is our Independence Day because it was on a Sunday when Jesus rose to new life. Every Sunday is what we refer to as “a little Easter.”
     I had a Sunday off so our family decided to worship in a mainline church which should have closed years ago.  It was difficult for me to believe that just twenty years ago, there were only a handful of families in that church and it was only a matter of time before they would have to close their doors or merge with another congregation. 
     You could say that this church had been disabled by a spirit and bent over for the past several decades. This church had been dwindling and dwindling and dwindling.
     That is, until someone began to notice that Jesus kept showing up in that church Sunday after Sunday.  And then someone else began to notice. And more people started noticing. And now twenty years later, there were probably 3,000 people in that very same church on that Sunday morning.
     “Where’s the pastor of the church,” I wondered to myself.  “I don’t see him anywhere.  He must be on vacation or something.”  In the middle of the service, I get the answer to my own question when they show a video of the pastor along with some members of the church who were in Sudan, Africa.  They are reporting back to their church what their money is doing to literally help save thousands of lives of starving families in that impoverished and civil war torn country.
     After seeing this video, the people in that church erupted by praising God through song and worship.  It felt like Independence Day in that moment. No, there were no fireworks in the sky, but there were fireworks of a different sort. There were fireworks of praise & worship of what Jesus was doing through their ministry in the Sudan. 
     Sunday is the church’s Independence Day, especially when we notice that the Risen Christ is present with us, empowering us to be the church he has called us to be. Sunday is always a “Little Easter” of new life, new hope, and new beginnings.
     When Will Willimon was serving as a United Methodist Bishop down in Georgia, one of the pastors in his conference invited him to a Sunday service to baptize a young boy in that church by immersion. He had never baptized anyone by immersion before, so he was a little nervous about the whole thing.
     As he was traveling to that church, Bishop Willimon was thinking to himself, “Why am I going to this church?  It barely has a hundred members, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, and I’m giving up a lot to make this one trip. Maybe I shouldn’t have scheduled this visit after all.” He was having all of these reservations running through his mind.
     The pastor of this little country church had told Bishop Willimon about this little boy who had just gone through the membership class and he said, “This kid is just determined that he wants to be immersed in baptism.  He just wants to.  This is how he wants it done.”
     Bishop Willimon arrives at the church, and sure enough, there was the pastor standing on the steps, and the little boy standing next to him.  So Bishop Willimon gets out of the car, gets his robe and his stole, and the pastor greets him, “Bishop, we’re honored to have you at our church today.  We haven’t had a bishop here in as long as anyone can remember.  This is Nathan.  Nathan is the one to be baptized today.”
     Bishop Willimon said, “Nathan, good to meet you. It’s great to be here.”
     Nathan responds by saying, “They tell me you’ve never done one of these before.”
     Bishop Willimon responded, “Well, I’ve read about them, Nathan.”
     And Nathan said, “Well, I’d feel better if we’d run through it one time.”   
     Bishop Willimon said, “I was going to do that, Nathan. I was going to suggest that. I was going to suggest that, that we try it. Do it. Run through it once.”
     The pastor of this church had borrowed a portable baptistery from the Baptist Church and put it in the fellowship hall, which was also a gym, and somebody put some potted plants around this baptistery and there it was.
     So Nathan said, “Now, you want me to take off my shoes?”
     Bishop Willimon said, “Yeah, that’s right. Just remove your shoes. That’ll be good.”
     And the boy said, “Socks? You want my socks off?”
     The Bishop said, “You can keep your socks on. That’s okay with me.”
     This boy then says, “Well, you go through the ritual. Then you take my hand and you lead me up these steps. And you stand over here to the side. And you will lead me down into the pool.”  He then said, “I want to be baptized three times.”
     Bishop Willimon said, “Well, that’s the way John Wesley believed in it.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Yeah, I can do that.”
     And he said, “I want to go all the way under, too.”
     The Bishop said, “You’ll go under. You’ll go under three times. Yeah. Yeah. We’ll do that.”
     So they had the service, and it was just great. The little church packed with people. They sang songs in this little church. The Bishop preached on the meaning of baptism. And then they processed from the sanctuary, down the corridor, following the cross, down into the fellowship hall/gym, and the whole church gathered around that borrowed baptistery.
     And then Bishop Willimon stood there, and he went through the baptism ritual and he asked him the questions, with the whole church gathered around. And he said, “Now before we do this, Nathan, is there anything you would like to say to the congregation?”
     And he said, “Yeah.”
     And Bishop Willimon said, “All right. It’s time for Nathan to witness.”
     And this boy said to the congregation,
     “You know, I wouldn’t be here today if you hadn’t put me here. I wouldn’t have known that God wanted me to be here if you hadn’t told me. When my parents got their divorce, my world ended, and I just thought I didn’t have anywhere to go. I couldn’t imagine myself without a family. But then you showed me that you were the family. And you took me, and all you people who put up with me in Sunday school and everything, I just hope you feel good about what’s happening today, because God did this through you.
     And I want to tell you that I’m taking this seriously and you’re going to be proud of me. And for all that y’all have done, one day you’re going to be able to say, ‘I had a hand in that. And I helped make him a Christian.’ So, thank you. This really ought to be a day when you feel good. About yourselves.”
     So then Nathan turns to Bishop Willimon and he’s weeping profusely. And the Bishop is sitting there and all he can say is, “Sing a hymn! Sing a hymn!”
     And Nathan is over there saying, “You think you’re going to get yourself together?”
     Bishop Willimon said, “Yes, yes. I’ll be OK.  Just sing a hymn or something!  Sing a hymn!”
     All that little country church was doing on that Sunday morning was celebrating Independence Day. That’s all. It’s why churches meet on this particular time of the week, to remind us that it was on this day when Jesus freed us from our sins.
      I think what Luke is trying to tell us from our Gospel reading this morning, is that whenever Jesus shows up in church, “Watch out, Watch out.” Good things are going to happen. People’s lives are going to be changed forever. It’s our Independence Day, where we hear the good news that we have been set free from those things that have been holding us down. On Sunday, Jesus says to each one of us, “You are set free.”
      In one of the churches I served, a church member sent me this note. I love notes like this. It made my day. Here is what the note said…
     Pastor Robert: Wanted to share a couple of comments from my eight-year old granddaughter last Sunday. When I asked her what she liked about church she said, “When I have a baby and get it baptized, I’ll go whereever your minister is. I like the singing best. I want one of those Bible song books.”
     This grandmother goes on to say, “She carries around the church bulletin and sings the baptism song and had her parents look up the hymn, “Hear I Am, Lord” on YouTube so she could sing along. She has been talking about Music Sunday all week and wants to make sure I take her. Love it! Prayers, Signed, Marsha.”
     I often refer to the children in our church as “Little Methodists.” On Sunday mornings, they are absorbing the hymns, the scripture readings, the prayers, and even the sermon more than we can ever imagine. Sometimes they even draw pictures of me during the service, some more flattering than others.
     For this eight year old, church is her Independence Day, and she can’t stop thinking about it during the week. Sunday is also an Independence Day for her grandmother because she is so happy to see what a difference the church is making in the life of her granddaughter at such an early age.
    Every Sunday is an Independence Day celebration where Jesus is present, God’s healing love for the world is shared, and the good news of Easter is proclaimed.

     I just love Sundays!

Independence Day
Small Group Questions
Luke 13:10-17
August 21, 2016

1)  Weekly worship in the church reminds us of the freedom we have from sin and death because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  How does this impact the way you worship?

2)  List ways that our church is offering God’s liberating, healing, and saving love to our community and world. 

3)  Part of the meaning of observing the Sabbath is to rest from our work, enjoy God’s creation, and worship God.  How are you doing in keeping this a priority in your life?  In what ways can you make this a higher priority?

4) Share a time when you experienced God's presence during worship. 

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