Do you like Country and Western songs? Sometimes these are called “somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs.” You might have heard the joke that if you play a country song backwards you get back your truck, your dog, your job, your spouse.
Perhaps these lyrics are popular in our culture because they acknowledge our difficulties with relationships, but they also speak from the cynical or negative aspects of our culture.
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul encouraged the church to think more positively. Specifically, Paul encourages us to consistently think on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy (see Philippians 4:8). But our cynical culture makes it hard to focus on these things, doesn’t it? Sometimes, even the church struggles to shift focus from the cynical and negative. That’s why we began a journey last week to consider matters of the heart.
From the great Shema of the Torah in Deuteronomy to the teaching of Jesus found in John 13, this focus on loving relationships is at the root of the scriptural values of our faith.
Deuteronomy 6:4-6. Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. (NRSV)
John 13:34-35. “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”
In the Christian faith, we attend to the teaching of the Shema in the context of the teaching of Jesus. One of the ways we express our love for God is through our love for one another. This is a clear expectation of our faith. Do you ever find this difficult sometimes?
If it helps any, Jesus found this very difficult throughout his ministry. At the heart of his ministry was to love people but he encountered all kinds of resistance, especially from his religious peers.
When he tried to heal somebody on the Sabbath, somebody complained that he was violating one of the Sabbath laws. When he tried to touch somebody who was bleeding, they accused him of becoming religiously unclean. When he talked about loving your enemies, they became angry at him.
Some would say that it was because his heart was totally filled with love for God and neighbor, that people wanted him to be crucified. When you live in a cynical culture where people are suspicious of each other, it’s kind of hard to follow the ways of Jesus, isn’t it?
Relationships are a vital part of our spiritual journey. Today, we thank God for people who have invested in us with their time, guidance, and unconditional love. Thanks to their extravagant generosity we have been richly blessed. And because of their positive impact, we want to do the same for others. Relationships that are from the heart are born out of extravagant generosity.
Last month, we were invited to share those who have made a positive difference in our spiritual lives. It’s been pure joy for me to read your responses these past several weeks. Here is a sampling of what I read:
Our Trinity Sunday School class and my United Methodist Women’s Circle group.
My small group where we regularly meet to share our faith and discuss the past Sunday’s sermon and how it connects with our daily lives.
My mom – She did the most good she could while living a very ordinary life.
My family, ministers of the church, and the church staff.
Someone wrote this about another church member. This person is always ready to offer support and prayers for us who need them.
I love how this person responded. She mentioned several Christian authors who have had a positive influence and her husband.
This church member had a really long list that included thirty-two of your names! He also mentioned several ministry teams that have been a blessing in his life like Telecare callers, choir members, bell choir members, Athens First Saturday volunteers, people on the Missions Team.
Someone else mentioned how our prayer team and the small group this person attends has been a positive influence.
I love how someone else shared about his father who would read from the Bible every Sunday evening and then they would pray and sing hymns while his mom played an old pump organ.
Speaking of family members who have had an important impact on our spiritual journey, there are some of us who have been blessed to have family members in this church over several generations.
One of those families is the Dowler family. I’ve asked John Dowler to come and share how his family has been a blessing to him spiritually through Athens First.
My name is John Dowler. Many of you have known me for over 36 years now. That’s because this church has been a part of my life from the day I was born and part of my family’s life for over 75 years. My grandfather John W Dowler laid the foundation for the building that we are standing in today. My Grandmother Aveline Dowler was deeply involved in the united Methodist women for 40 years +. They baptized and raised 4 kids in this church one of which was my father Jack Dowler.
My dad was involved in many aspects of the church from being a trustee, to helping start the mens breakfast group, to singing in the choir, to being a delegate at annual conference. After marrying my father my mother moved to a strange town where she knew no one but she was warmly welcomed into this church and quickly made to feel at home as she became involved with the womans society, ran countless rummage sales, made Easter baskets for shut ins and so much more.
From the day I was born I have been a part of this church. I was baptized right over there, confirmed over there and performed in more plays, skits, and choir singing then I can count right there. During my life this church and its programs like Sunday school, bible school, and youth groups has provided me a place to have great experiences, make some amazing friendships, learn about God and grow in my faith.
That’s a connection that I wanted my child Isabella to know. That’s why a little over a year ago she became the 3rd generation to be baptized in this church. I know that this church and this congregation will help her learn and grow just like you did for me.
I want you all to know that your generous financial investment enables the church to move forward, fund ministries that touch lives, and make a difference in our church and community. But more importantly, your generosity is an important way you can express your love for God and grow in your faith.
Thank you for sharing your faith journey with us, John. Extravagant generosity is all about relationships from the heart.
My mother passed away six years ago. She struggled with dementia for about ten years before she died. Until the very end of her life, she was able to attend her home church, the Stewartstown United Methodist Church, in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. I used to take her to church with me when I would go in to visit. And yes, we always sat in the same pew together.
The visitation and the funeral service for my mom were both held at the church. During the funeral visitation, this one lady who appeared to be in her mid 50’s came up to me and said, “You don’t know me but your mom had such a positive impact on my life. She is why I joined this church a few years ago.”
She went on to tell me that about five years ago, she attended the church for the first time. She sat in the same pew as my mom. During the welcome and greeting time in the service, mom introduced herself and warmly welcomed her to the church.
She told me that she felt so welcomed because of my mom that she came back the next Sunday. And again, my mom welcomed her during the greeting time. Mom didn’t remember her from the previous Sunday because of her dementia, but she again welcomed her and shared her name.
This happened the following Sunday as well. And this woman said to me, “It was that Sunday, that somebody explained to me that your mom had dementia which is why she kept forgetting that she had already met me. But it didn’t matter,” she said. “Your mom was so sweet to me and I decided to make this my new church home.”
I thank God for all of the many relationships that are formed in our church. Those conversations that take place in our Welcome Center or out in the hallways in between services, or in Sunday School class, or in the pews during the welcome time, help our church to feel like a family.
The teenager that you invited to McDonalds for a coke will never forget how you reached out to them and offered your love and support. The member you sent a sympathy card to at the death of a loved one is still propped up on the corner of his desk reminding him that his church cares about him.
These are the ways that we live out the two great commandments that Jesus encouraged us to keep at the center of our faith. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. It’s pretty simple isn’t it? Relationships are a matter of the heart. Relationships remind us that we don’t stand alone. We are here today because of the people who have gone before us and the people who surround us in our faith journey.
In his book, Practicing Extravagant Generosity, Robert Schnaase describes how practicing Extravagant Generosity is a basic part of our faith because we ourselves have been recipients of Extravagant Generosity. Listen to what he writes:
Every sanctuary and chapel in which we have worshiped, every church organ that has lifted our spirits, every pew where we have sat, every Communion rail where we have knelt, every hymnal from which we have sung, every praise band that has touched our hearts, every church classroom where we have gathered with our friends, every church kitchen that has prepared our meals, every church van that has taken us to camp, every church camp cabin where we have slept—all are the fruit of someone’s Extravagant Generosity.
We have been the recipients of grace upon grace. We are the heirs, the beneficiaries of those who came before us who were touched by the generosity of Christ enough to give graciously so that we could experience the truth of Christ for ourselves. We owe the same to generations to come. We have worshiped in sanctuaries that we did not build, so to us falls the privilege of building sanctuaries where we shall never worship.
Think of all the people who have made a difference in our spiritual lives. Consider an appropriate way to express your appreciation of these gifts of grace in your life. You might want to thank someone who was there for you and who prayed for you during a very difficult time in your life. That’s the church at its best. And we can’t help but to offer our best gifts to Christ and his church because of the many gifts we have received from others and the incredible difference they have made in our spiritual journey.
One of my favorite rooms in this church is the archives room located up on the 3rd floor. It’s a small room that contains historical records and pictures of our church’s long history, a history that spans over two centuries!
Every now and then, I’ll rummage through some of the items in that room and find something that reminds me of the many faithful people who have gone before us to help make our church what it is today.
This past spring, I was doing just that and found a copy of the 1957 Cornerstone dedication service of our current building. It was held on a Sunday morning in April of 1957. The congregation was worshipping at Memaud on the OU campus at the time while our church was being rebuilt following the 1955 fire.
It wouldn’t be until February of 1958 that the church building would be completed and the congregation would be able to worship for the first time in this building.
On that April morning, ten months before they would have their first worship service in this building, the congregation walked over from Memaud to the front corner of our present day building for a special dedication of our cornerstone.
Friends, I have chills thinking about this because we are going to show you a short 2 minute video clip of that dedication ceremony narrated by John Dowler’s grandfather who was an instrumental leader in the rebuilding of our church.
This all kind of came together at the last minute when John Dowler who you heard earlier in our sermon told me this past Thursday that he had this video of his grandfather talking about our church’s cornerstone dedication back in 1957.
Let’s watch the video clip of that cornerstone dedication service that was held in April of 1957 in front of our present day building.
That service included a prayer that I found when I was in our archives room. I love this prayer and I invite us to reclaim it as we seek to have a heart healthy church. The prayer is simple: “O God, baptize us afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus.”
Say that prayer with me. “O God, baptize us afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus.”
In commemoration of that special day back which was held on April 28, 1957, I invite us to pray this simple prayer every day at 4:57 pm. The 4:57 time is to remind us of the 4th month of April, 1957 when this prayer was first spoken.
Let’s say this 4:57 prayer again: “O God, baptize us afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus.”
I think of all of the ministries that were started because of the people who have worshipped here. I think of the generosity of so many people who have made it possible for us to enjoy this beautiful place and to grow in our faith. I think of the many prayers that have been lifted up in this place over the years. We are blessed in more ways that we can even imagine.
When I was in college, I attended what was then known as the Central Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church. I wasn’t a delegate at this conference, but I attended as a visitor.
I ended up sitting near a pastor who had served my home church several years ago. His name is Rev. John Wesley Stamm. That’s a great name for a United Methodist pastor, isn’t it? John Wesley Stamm.
Not thinking that he would remember me, since I would have just been born when he was the pastor of my home church, I told him my name. I was taken aback when he said, “Oh yes. Robert McDowell. I remember you.” And then with great joy he said to me, “I baptized you.” He then told me that I was his very first baptism as the pastor of that church.
How’s that for a good memory? And how blessed I felt in that moment that he remembered me. Thanks to Rev. Stamm and my baptism, I was able to begin a faith journey with Christ that begins through this day. And along that journey, many people in that church helped to shape and mold me to be a disciple of Jesus.
I am so glad to be part of the family of Christ! O God, baptize us afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus.
Heart Healthy: Our Relationships
Small Group Questions
Deuternomy 6:1-6, Philippians 4:8-9, & John 13:31-35
September 30, 2018
This week is the 2nd part of a sermon series on what it means for us to be “heart healthy.” Last week, we explored how to have a spiritual healthy heart through our ministries and this week our focus is on healthy relationships. Over the past month, we have invited the congregation to share their response to the question, “who has made a positive impact on your spiritual journey?”
Share who has made a positive spiritual impact in your life.
Our scripture readings emphasize how important love is in having heart healthy relationships. In Deuteronomy we are told to love the Lord with all of our heart, mind, and strength. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us disciples to love another another. In Philippians, the Apostle Paul encourages the church to think positively.
What helps you to remember to remember that love is the most important ingredient in a healthy relationship?
In his book, Practicing Extravagant Generosity, Rober Schnase describes how practicing Extravagant Generosity is a basic part of our faith because we ourselves have been recipients of Extravagant Generosity. Listen to what he writes:
“Every sanctuary and chapel in which we have worshiped, every church organ that has lifted our spirits, every pew where we have sat, every Communion rail where we have knelt, every hymnal from which we have sung, every praise band that has touched our hearts, every church classroom where we have gathered with our friends, every church kitchen that has prepared our meals, every church van that has taken us to camp, every church camp cabin where we have slept—all are the fruit of someone’s Extravagant Generosity. We have been the recipients of grace upon grace. We are the heirs, the beneficiaries of those who came before us who were touched by the generosity of Christ enough to give graciously so that we could experience the truth of Christ for ourselves. We owe the same to generations to come. We have worshiped in sanctuaries that we did not build, so to us falls the privilege of building sanctuaries where we shall never worship.
What stands out most for you from the above quote?
Pastor Robert has invited us begin praying a prayer that was part of the cornerstone dedication of our current church building back in April 28, 1957. We are encouraged to pray this everyday at 4:57 pm which will remind us of the April, 1957 date of our church’s dedication. This might be a good prayer to also pray as a small group:
O God, baptize us afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus. Amen.