Sermon: The Wonder of the Call

The Wonder of the Call
Mark 1:14-20
RUMC January 21, 2018
Pastor Paul R. O’Neil

Just before the Revolutionary War, John Hancock, the President of the Continental Congress, felt he needed to make a clear and strong statement to the King of England: that he was a true follower of the newly formed United States of America. The first to sign the Declaration of Independence, he signed large enough to make sure King George III could read his name without the aid of glasses. Hancock’s signature was a bold declaration that he was a true follower of this new nation.

When we follow Christ and answer his call, may it be similar to Hancock’s declaration of saying yes. My scripture text is Mark 1:14-20.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee; he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

Today’s gospel story took place on the very beautiful Sea of Galilee, which is 14 miles long and six miles wide. Among those who fished in this lake were two sets of brothers, Simon and Andrew and James and John.

Jesus said to the four fishermen, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” When you think of it, that was a strange way to start a following. Normally, if a rabbi wanted to gather a new group of students, he would sit in the synagogue and wait for new disciples to show up. But Jesus did not follow this method; instead he went straight to the lake and called Peter & Andrew; James & John from their boats.

What I find amazing is that none of the four fishermen questioned the call. They didn’t consult with their families. They didn’t wait to see if anything better were to come along. Nor did they ask what was in it for them. They knew there was something different about Jesus and decided to follow.

I believe most of us here at RUMC have answered our Lord’s call to believe and follow. Perhaps our call wasn’t as dramatic as what the four fishermen heard, but our call to discipleship was real enough to commit our lives to Christ.

I suppose the call to discipleship could be compared to the time when Baptist minister Jim Denison served as a summer missionary in East Malaysia. During one of the worship services, a Malaysian teenage girl shared her faith in the small warehouse that was used for a church. Following her testimony, she was baptized in an old bathtub. While this took place, Rev. Denison noticed some worn out luggage that leaned against the wall. He was told that the girl’s father had threatened that “If she were baptized as a Christian, she could never go home again.” In response, the young teen brought her luggage to church. She understood the cost and commitment of discipleship. We have to give her credit because she made a difficult decision with the eternal consequences in mind.

Many of us became part of Christ’s family when we were baptized as infants. Later we made a profession of faith, this was the part when we became committed disciples. Others have taken different paths, but we are all here as disciple. Just like Peter, Andrew, James and John, hopefully our relationship with the Lord is personal and real.

When Jesus calls us to follow, we often receive that invitation in a church setting, but it can happen anywhere. The call to believe is the beginning point. Faith is linear; it starts with the presence of God in our lives and follows us until we reach our eternal home in heaven.

Christian author, Philip Yancey wrote an interesting book called, “The Jesus I Never Knew”. Yancey noticed a dilemma that many Christians have when it comes to belief and came up with an odd description called the Prozac Jesus. Let me explain.

  • This is the mild manner Jesus who doesn’t really care what we do and will forgive us anyway as long as we are sincere.
  • If we don’t like where our Lord leads or what he does in our lives, we can veto his plan.
  • Essentially, we can do anything we want with his blessings as long as we don’t hurt anyone.

That is the Prozac Jesus and it is how a lot of people approach their Christian faith.

In true discipleship, it doesn’t work that way. What Jesus offers is a present experience and a future expectation. The kingdom is something that can be grasped and experienced in our hearts, but it is also futuristic in a sense that we will live for eternity.

When our Lord calls, our response is voluntary and we have free will. However our Lord expects something in return: a sense of immediacy, a sense of conviction, a sense of commitment; a sense that we will turn our entire lives over to him.

Along these lines, there is the story of one who responded to the call; but not in the same usual way. A surgeon in Erin, Tennessee, Dr. Doren Edwards shared this story of one of his former patients, a woman named Blanche Bennett. It seemed that Blanche had more than her share of troubles: her alcoholic husband had died, there was tension in the family, finances were tight and she didn’t feel well. She saw Dr. Edwards about some physical problems, and through extensive testing she was diagnosed with stage iv cancer. Unfortunately the cancer had progressed to the point where there was no realistic treatment left to halt the spread.
As you could understand, Blanche was devastated when she received the news. Dr. Edwards, who was a devout Christian, wanted to talk to her about her faith, but she didn’t want to hear it. However, she reluctantly accepted a pocket New Testament from the doctor. Several weeks later, Dr. Edwards read in the obituary page of a local newspaper that Blanche had died. In Blanche’s memory, the doctor donated some Bibles to an organization called the Gideon’s who distribute them to the military, hotel rooms and college campuses. Shortly after that, Blanche’s daughter called on the telephone. She asked Dr. Edwards, “Could you please send us a Bible like the ones you donated in the memory of our mother. We don’t have one at home”. Then she told this story. The last six days mom was alive, her whole life had changed. She was no longer bitter, and she wasn’t afraid to die. Her mother said something about knowing Jesus, and wanted to be buried with her Bible in her hand. So she asked the doctor if he could give them a Bible so they could find what their mother had found in that book. Dr. Edwards sent them a Bible, and shortly after that three members of the family heard the call to believe and asked Christ into their lives.

When our Lord called the first disciples, it was to follow him. To follow is a verb of motion. It is not static or motionless.

Let me tell you what eventually happened to the four Apostles.

  • When the Apostle Peter was older, he was crucified upside down in Rome.
  • The Apostle Andrew went to Greece where he too was crucified on an X shaped cross.
  • The Apostle James was arrested and was put to death by the sword in Jerusalem.
  • The Apostle John was exiled to the island of Patmos where he was released and was the only one who died an old man.

But I don’t think any of them had any regrets.

Let me close. Just as those early disciples were called:

  • We too are called to follow the Lord in the midst of our busyness.
  • We too are called to follow the Lord in the depths of our pain.
  • We too are called because our Lord needs us to complete the building of his kingdom on earth.

Have you heard his call?

  • He speaks to us in our worship services.
  • He speaks through other people.
  • He speaks through the still small voice.
  • He speaks through our conscience.

If you have never answered the call, don’t wait for a more convenient time, because it may never come.

Sermon: Scouting Sunday

Scouting Sunday
26 March 2017

What makes scouting stand out in comparison to other young people’s organizations? It is the emphasis of God. For example:

  • The Brownie Promise: “I promise to do my best, to love God and my country…”
  • The Cub and Boy Scout Promise: “I promise to do my best, to do my duty to God and my country…”
  • The Girl Scout Promise: “On my honor, I will try: To serve God and my country…”

Scouts gives our young people the opportunity to build their lives on timeless principles. And as they grow older, it will serve as a guide on important issues.

John Wayne, the famous American actor, was a Boy Scout in his younger days. Later in life he was honored by President Ford at a black tie benefit dinner.  When it came time for Mr. Wayne to speak, he recited the Boy Scout Law, which says: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” Mr. Wayne spoke about the final point, being reverent: “Keep God at the top of what you believe in. With Him, life can be a beautiful experience.  Without Him, you’re just biding your time.”  Well said.

I want you to note that all levels of scouts (under the umbrella of girl scouts: Daisies, Brownies, Juniors, Cadettes, Seniors and Ambassadors; and for the boys: Tigers, Cubs, Boy Scouts, Venture Explorers) include God in their promises or oaths. It is similar to what Jesus said in Luke 10:27 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

Whether you are a scout or not, that one scripture can easily be the spiritual foundation of our faith in the Lord.

Baden Powell, who was instrumental in starting a scouting program, believed that duty to God should be at the heart of all scouting. He said, “Religion means recognizing who and what God is, second it is making the best of the life He has given us and third it is doing what He wants of us. That is mainly doing something for others.”  Juliette Gordon Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts, saw her organization as a means to show the wonder of God in nature and good works to the community.  Through their goals and practices, both of these organizations sound a lot like the United Methodist Church.

Lord Powell, who grew up as a minister’s son, recognized that when a young man or lady includes God and service to others in his or her life, it is a life well lived.  Along these lines, John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church explained the outgrowth of Christian discipleship as this: “Do all the good you can, to all the people you can, as you ever can.”

One person who discovered the power of service to others was a 13 year old Boy Scout named Frank Wilson. This story takes place on Christmas Eve.  Frank was depressed because it was the first Christmas without his brother Steve, who lost his life in a car accident.  It was especially painful because Frank and his brother were very close.  On that Christmas Eve afternoon, Frank, in his despondency, needed to get away from the house.  He put on his new winter coat, put all of his Christmas gifts on to his new sled, tied them down and began to walk.  As he went through a rundown section of town, Frank looked in the window of a house and saw a crying woman who appeared to be as discouraged as he felt. On impulse, Frank knocked on the door and told the woman, “Choose any presents you would like for your children from the sled.” The lady was astounded and said, “Why God bless you” and selected some candies, a game, a toy airplane and a flashlight.  As he was about to leave, she asked his name. Frank answered, “Just call me the Christmas Scout.”  Frank left with an unexpected flicker of joy in his heart, but he was not finished.  Along the way, he found other needy people and gave the rest of his gifts away, including his new winter jacket.  As Frank made his way home, he knew he was in trouble.  And sure enough, his parents were highly upset at their son’s erratic behavior; they were convinced their son had made some poor choices and ruined the family’s Christmas.  Frank, on the other hand, felt alone and confused.  He thought he had done the right thing when he did his good turn and his duty to God.  He didn’t expect that type of family fall out.  The next morning, the local television reported the following:  “Crippled boy has a new sled, another youngster has a fine winter jacket and several families report that their children were made happy last night by gifts from a teenage boy who simply called himself the ‘Christmas Scout’.”   Frank’s mom and dad realized the Christmas that started out on a bad note was really one of the best.

What Frank had done was a clear example of duty to God.

Our duty to God includes, first and foremost, that we follow and live by the teachings of the Lord. We must live our lives with honesty and service to others.

As a boy, I too was involved with the scouts and, for the most part, I had great memories. I was fortunate that my parents sent me to summer camp.  In the midst of all the wonderful activities of boating, fishing, swimming, camping, camp fires, and earning badges, I attended the chapel services overlooking the lake.  As I look back on it, the oaths, the promises, and the ideals of scouting nurtured me in my faith.  When I was older and served on staff at a Boy Scout camp, the chaplain had to resign for health reasons, and I was pressed into service; I preached my first sermon ever under some pine trees.  I did that for three years.

Proverbs 22:6 “Train up a child in the way that they should go, and when they are old they will not depart from it.

What I take from that passage of scripture is do not underestimate the role parents have with their children. Even today, I still go to my 89 year old father for advice.

Let me share with you a paragraph from today’s bulletin insert. It is called:
For every 100 girls who join Girl Scouts:

  • Four will earn the Girl Scout Gold Award-the highest award for girls.
  • Twelve will have their first contact with a church.
  • Five will earn their church religious award.
  • One will be brought before juvenile court.
  • One will enter the clergy.
  • Eighteen will develop hobbies used during their adult life.
  • Eight will enter a vocation that was learned through the badge or patch program.
  • Seventeen will be future Girl Scout volunteers.
  • One will use her Girl Scouting skills to save a life.
  • One will use her Girl Scouting skills to save her own life.

For the boys, the results were similar and that is a pretty good return on an investment in scouting.

Let me close: How many of you were in scouts?  Good memories?  Helped you in your faith in God?  Any thoughts or comments?

Sermon: The Call: Then and There & Here and Now

The Call: Then and There & Here and Now
Matthew 4:18-22
RUMC 22 January 2017

A number of years ago, three military recruiters showed up at a particular high school to talk to seniors about military career opportunities. Since the scheduled meeting was to last 45 minutes, the Army, Navy and Marine Corp recruiters were each allotted 15 minutes.  However, the Army and Navy recruiters were long winded with their presentations which left the Marine only 2 minutes to speak.  The Marine sergeant walked up to the podium, and he stood silent for a full sixty seconds, which was half of his time.  Then he said: “I doubt whether there are two or three of you in this room who could even cut it in the Marine Corp.  I want to see those two or three immediately in the dining hall when we are dismissed.”  He turned around smartly and sat down.  When the Marine arrived in the dining hall, there was a great crowd of students who wanted to talk to him.  That morning the Marine had made the call to service and the students responded.

In our gospel text, Jesus also made the call, and the disciples responded. Even today, as our Lord calls us to discipleship or service, it is up to us to decide how we are to respond.  My text is Matthew 4:18-22.
18 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21 As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22 Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Today’s Gospel reading took place at the Sea of Galilee; there are some good reasons why Jesus went to the sea. For one, he needed followers.  And number two, he chose fisherman because the life on the water was good discipline where hard work combined with danger often built inner character.

The fishermen that Jesus called were not scholars; the education they received was in the school of hard knocks. Of all the fishermen who made their living on the Sea of Galilee, our Lord chose those men because they feared God and waited for the kingdom.  Even today, Christ looks for those types of disciples who will fear God and who would be willing to be used in the Kingdom of God.

I don’t know if you have ever thought of it like this. God looks for those who are not idle, but busy with the task at hand.  For example, I have some examples of faith in the Old Testament:

  • Moses tended his flock of sheep, when he was called to lead the young nation of Israel out Egypt.
  • Gideon threshed wheat, when he was called to be a judge of God’s people.
  • Saul searched for his father’s lost donkeys when he was called to be king.
  • David tended his father’s sheep when he was called to serve in the royal court.
  • Elisha plowed a field when he was called to be a prophet of the Lord.
  • Nehemiah served as cup bearer to the king when he was sent to repair the walls of Jerusalem.
  • Amos took care of sycamore trees when he was called to be a prophet of the Lord.

Here in the gospels:

  • Peter and Andrew were employed as fishermen when they were called to be Apostles.
  • James and John mended the fishing nets as they responded to the call.

There are also countless number of women, both in the Old Testament and the New, who though busy with their own lives, made a significant difference in the Kingdom of God.

What I am saying is this: when God calls a person for discipleship or to be in his service, he usually calls someone who is responsible with own time and who can be trusted with the things of God.

Jesus said in Luke 16:10. “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” 

I often liken the call of God to when a cell phone or pager goes off. It seems that no matter where they are, when the sound or vibration goes off, people respond in a blink of an eye, and I am no exception.

Incidentally there is a new psychological disorder called “Nomophobia”. It is the stress and anxiety that a person experiences when they lose their cell phone or if they are in an area where there is no network coverage.

It makes me wonder: when God calls us to discipleship or service, will we be as responsive as we would to the call of a beeper or cell phone?

Someone asked Emily Post, an expert on etiquette, this particular question. “What is the correct procedure, when one is invited to the White House and has a previous engagement?” Her answer was this, “An invitation to dine at the White House is a command and automatically cancels any other engagement.”  In the spiritual realm, when God calls, it should be taken seriously.

When I was a chaplain at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, I heard a local pastor tell this story. While he was out, the church secretary received a phone call from the Office of the Vice President of the United States. The message was for the pastor to return the phone call.  The Vice President at the time was Dan Quayle, and it was reelection time.  When the secretary gave the pastor the message, he thought that someone in the congregation wanted to play a joke on him and he wouldn’t return the call.  Instead he went to lunch at a local restaurant.  The church secretary became concerned.  She knew the phone call was authentic, and it was no joke.  So she asked the associate pastor to go the restaurant and convince the pastor that the phone call was legitimate.  The pastor did make the phone call.  Vice President Quayle wanted to attend church the following Sunday.

You see, when the pastor was convinced of the message, he wasted no time responding to the call. It is the same thing with us.  When God calls those to discipleship or service, it is up to us to answer.

Another way we can look at this. Let’s pretend that there are three types of people in the world and they all begin with the letter C.  They are the curious, the convinced and the committed.

  • The curious will show up, but leave when asked for any type of commitment.
  • The convinced are the ones who show up and stay.  But when asked to make a sacrifice of a commitment, they don’t respond.
  • The committed are the ones who, when asked, say “yes.”  These are the dependable ones.

Genesius was an actor during the dark days of Roman Imperial Persecution of Christians. When Genesius appeared in a play in which Christians were ridiculed, he performed his part to the delight of the audience until the moment when he was to ask in jest to be baptized in water.  Seized by an irresistible power, he suddenly stood still and silent.  Then departing from, the script, Genesius explained to the astonished audience that he himself desired to become a Christian.  Genesius left the stage, answered the call of God, and was baptized.  Soon afterwards, he died a martyr’s death.  Genesius is the patron saint of actors.

Let me close, God is active in people’s lives; he invites, directs, guides, proposes and suggests. Is the Lord knocking at the door of your heart so you can be a disciple of Christ and of service?  We have a choice.  We can respond with a yes or we can respond with a no.

Sermon: Who’s Right?

Who is Right?
Luke 10:38-42
17 July 2016

Let me present to you this hypothetical situation. Let’s pretend that after this morning’s church service, you get into your car and go home.  For the sake of my illustration, let’s assume there are other family members who live with you.  When you get home, to your shock and amazement, Jesus is waiting outside your front door.  He explains that the purpose of his visit is to spend some time with you and the family and share some spiritual truths.

Since it is close to the noon day hour, one family member is given the task to entertain Jesus and make him comfortable while you work fast and furious to prepare lunch.  And once the meal is served, Jesus begins to eat and share the many wonderful truths about the Kingdom of God.

While this is going on, you who did the bulk of the food preparation are still on the job. In order to be a good host, there are other things that must be done, but you miss out on what was said.

What happened in my scenario is a lot like what happened in today’s scripture text. Martha was upset with her sister Mary.  The issue at hand was the question of service versus personal devotion.

My text is Luke 10:38-42. Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

This story took place in a small village called Bethany, which was about two miles from the capital city of Jerusalem. From what we can gather from the other gospels, Martha, her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus all lived under one roof.  There is some speculation that Martha might have been a widow and was the actual head of this household.

Of all the places Jesus had visited in the three years of ministry, this was a place where he could rest and relax and be himself. But it was in verse 40, where we find the first hint of trouble.  It seemed in the midst of all the food preparation; Martha reached the boiling point.  Martha felt she was doing all the work and her sister did not pull her fair share.

Now in Martha’s defense, perhaps she had done everything to get Mary’s attention. I think we all have certain ways to get a loved one’s attention.  We clear our throats, we make attention getting motions.  We make certain facial expressions, perhaps kick a leg under the table.  But I assume in Martha’s case, none of the things she tried worked, so she went directly to Jesus and complained.

Our Lord’s message to Martha and to all of us is this. Life is a series of choices.  There are good choices and there are better.  Martha served and worked in the kitchen.  That was a good choice.  Mary sat at the feet of Jesus and that was better.

Down through the ages, many have questioned the fairness of Jesus on this. And it all boils down to the issue of good choices vs better.  Again it was service versus devotion.  Actually you need both.  You can’t run a church without both, but it is knowing when.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church had many duties and responsibilities. In his 50+ years of ministry, he had ridden some 250,000 miles and preached some 40,000 sermons.  He had the oversight of thousands of Bible societies and lay preachers

But despite his many responsibilities, he felt his first and foremost duty was devotion. Every day before the sun came up; Wesley had his private time with God.  It was the only way he could experience the fresh presence of God.  After filling his soul, Wesley was able to serve.  For all of us Methodists, Wesley set the standard.  Devotion to God then service.  It worked for Wesley and it will work for us.

In our scripture text, what Martha did was a good and necessary thing; however in Jesus’ eyes, what Mary did was better. It is commendable to be busy for God, but it is not so noteworthy when we do not spend time with him.  The point is that we all need to make time in our relationship with God just as we do with other family members or spouses.

I think my natural inclination is to be like Martha. I find it hard to sit and reflect when lots of things need to get done.  Knowing that I am this way, I try to spend the first part of the day in personal devotions; otherwise I would never get around to it.  I would find something else to do and before you know it, it is already evening.

Several years ago, we took a three day trip into Canada to get a taste of a real Canadian winter. We drove up to Pittsburg, NH to cross the border.  I was a bit nervous knowing that the temperatures would plunge well below zero, and I was afraid our car would not start in the morning.

Fortunately, we were okay. However I noticed at the hotels where we stayed, many of the cars were hooked up to a trickle battery charger, which kept the battery charged and warm; the cars were able to start right up in the morning.

I see a correlation in the spiritual realm. If we do and do and do and do, but neglect the devotional aspect of our spiritual lives, we will eventually gradually grow cold in our relationship with God.  However if we stay active in our faith and have personal devotions, which is like having a trickle battery charger, then our faith will remain vibrant and alive; then our service will not seem like a chore.

Like I mentioned before, I have a tendency to be like Martha. Because there is always someone to visit, to call and to email.  There is always a newsletter article or sermon to write.  But in light of the many ministerial tasks, I need also to be like Mary.  If I don’t do that, I will become stagnant in my relationship with God.

So I would encourage all of us to keep the fires of God’s love burning. Don’t just rely on the Sunday morning worship service as your own spiritual connection of the week, but schedule a time for personal devotions.  If you have to, put it on your calendar and see what happens.

Prior to my ordination, I met with Bishop Peter Weaver and he gave me a framed inscription of a Covenant Prayer that John Wesley used for his personal devotion. It is in our UMH.  Consider this your prayer.

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty,
let me have all things,
let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Let me close with this thought. In the Kingdom of God and in the church, we need both sisters.  Actually we cannot have one without the other.  If we keep the perspective of Mary first, then Martha second, then we won’t become burnt out with our service to the Lord.  When we spend time with God and make it a daily habit, it will be a time we can look forward to and it will become the best part of the day and our service will be a joy.