First United Methodist Church
October 22th, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Celebrating the Present
I once knew a young man who had made some poor choices that resulted in a couple of short stays in the local jail. Up to that point he was living a pretty good life. He had a college education, he had a job, and he was engaged to be married. But he wasn’t taking life seriously and he thought he could pretty much do whatever he wanted to do. The second time he ended up in jail, he looked around at his cell mates, many of whom were repeat offenders and their crimes ranged from drug and alcohol related offenses to armed robbery, and he realized that even though he had been given every advantage in life he was doing no better than the people who surrounded him. It took some time, but eventually, he worked through the things he needed to in order to turn his life around. Everything worked out for him.
After sharing his story with me, he told me, “That’s why I do this. I had a lot of resources and a family who supported me, so I was able to get better. But a lot of people don’t have that. I want to be one of the people who helps another person get better. It’s my way of giving back a little of what God gave me. If I wasn’t a Christian, I’m not sure that I would be willing to do it.”
The ”this” he was talking about was a system of care that the town was developing to provide bicycles to people who needed transportation to get to work, or probation appointments, or medical appointments, or the grocery store, things like that. This man’s role was bicycle repair. He owned a bicycle shop, and we were asking him to repair old bicycles so that they were in good condition for the recipients. He would be paid for the parts, but he offered to repair them for free.
In today’s scripture Jesus says, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.” No matter what we accomplish in this world, we should never forget that we were created by God and that we were created in the image of God. If we are created by God, then we must belong to God. So if we are to give God what belongs to God, then it makes sense that Jesus expects us to give something of ourselves to God.
Last week we talked about wearing the garments of Christ’s righteousness. We have been blessed with the privilege to wear these garments and as we go about our daily lives, the people we encounter should recognize that our clothes are a little different. This week, we will consider how we wear these garments.
So, as we ponder what it means to give to God what belongs to God, let’s also consider what it means to become “imitators of Christ” and to receive “the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” so that we may become examples to other believers.”
Sometimes I wonder if, in our zeal to grow in numbers as congregations, perhaps we have lost sight of the core of our mission, which is to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are transforming the world. That doesn’t sound quite right, does it? That’s because our mission is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Don’t get me wrong: growth is important, and we must continue to seek new people for Christ in creative and innovative ways, but I also want to suggest that our discipleship is deeply connected to our understanding of how we wear the garment of righteousness. We can’t make disciples unless our own discipleship is active and ongoing.
When Paul wrote his letter to the church in Thessalonica, he began with a greeting. He announces no agenda. He thanks God for them. He embraces the giftedness he has found among them. Discipleship begins with this kind of embrace.
The people of the Thessalonian church have clothed themselves in the garments of Christ’s loving compassion so well that their witness has become an example for others.
Thessalonica was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. The letter addresses the Gentile believers who, through Paul’s ministry, had come to know the gospel message of Jesus Christ that he proclaimed. Part of the letter’s purpose is to encourage these new disciples who were facing persecution and adversity to remain strong and not waver in their conviction. They were under threat, not just in terms of social pressure to return to the beliefs and values of Roman culture, but they had also faced physical violence for their non-conformity.
A critical thing to understand about Paul’s message is that for Paul, conversion was not simply about hearing the story of Jesus and his saving love proclaimed. Receiving the good news carried power that could be seen and experienced. The very power of the Holy Spirit was made manifest in those who accepted the gospel.
The people who heard Paul proclaim the message were changed by the experience. They didn’t just hear his words. They saw and felt the power of the Spirit in those words. They saw and felt the power of the Spirit through Paul. And once they became followers, apparently that same power of the Spirit shone through each one of them as well.
When I was in Middle School, I remember cheering on the bleachers whenever I attended a basketball game. One of our favorite cheers went something like this: “We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit, how ‘bout you?” and then the other team’s fans were supposed to yell back, “We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got more spirit than you!” Eventually, both groups of fans would shout at each other, “We’ve got it all! We’ve got it all!” In this case, the “spirit” we were claiming was our passion for our school and our basketball team. We showed our spirit by shouting it loudly, and jumping up and down, and showing good sportsmanship. We showed our spirit by dressing in black and gold, and wearing our uniforms, and never getting discouraged, even when our team lost.
I think that an important habit for disciples is that we need to show our Spirit as loudly and passionately as possible. This doesn’t mean we never have a hard day or admit that we aren’t feeling particularly joyful sometimes. It just means that we don’t ever give up our hope that joy will return, because the Spirit of Christ is always with us, in us, shining through us and infecting others with the love and grace of the Lord. Methodists early on were known for their “enthusiasm.” I think that Wesleyan enthusiasm, that habit of showing our Spirit through our passion, our hope, our excitement—and wearing that enthusiasm like a holy garment for all to see—is in our DNA. It is who we are, not only as disciples of Jesus Christ, but as United Methodists.
I think it’s easy to get discouraged when we compare the church of today with what the church was twenty or thirty years ago. It’s hard to look around at all the empty seats that once were overflowing with people every Sunday. But one of the lessons that I have learned over time is that you can spend all your time dreaming about what you once were, or you can use that time working toward what you want to be.
There is a Marine Veteran named Rob Jones who ran 31 marathons in 31 cities in 31 days. He didn’t have to do this. But he didn’t have to join the Marines, either. When he lost both his legs in an IED explosion while serving in Afghanistan, he went through some grueling rehab. Some people would just hope to perform everyday tasks again. Jones chose to become an athlete, winning a bronze medal at the 2012 Paralympics. In 2014 he rode a bicycle from Maine to California during one of the coldest winters on record. Remember the Polar Vortex? Now he is running a month of marathons.
Jones wants to become “a better version of himself.” He also wants to show fellow injured veterans that there is life beyond amputation. And he wants Americans to connect with veterans, and show everybody the value of sacrificing time and energy for a larger goal.
I have known people in my life in whom the very Spirit of Christ was manifest in such a way that I could see it and feel it. People who exhibit this depth of faith are like leaven. They literally spill the Spirit out on to everyone they meet, so that it infects the people around them. As I sit here writing these words, I feel myself surrounded and embraced by the great cloud of witnesses who, like Paul and the people of the Thessalonian church, infected me and continue to infect me with the Spirit of the living Christ. I know that I am just one person, but I also know that I am one of many parts in the body of Christ, and if we all, like Rob Jones, want to become “a better version of ourselves,” we can make a huge difference in this world.
So like Paul, I always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in my prayers, remembering before God your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray…
Invitation to Discipleship
The work of God succeeds when God’s people see the need and do what has to be done. Let’s help this world become a better version of itself, as we give of ourselves this week.