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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Water Bottle Prayer of Dedication - Athens First UMC

[Every year around this time, we dedicate over 750 water bottles that will be given away to college students and anyone who walks by our church during move-in Saturday here at Ohio University. The labels have "Welcome Bobcats" along with our worship times. We also dedicated the several welcome basket of goodies that we will give to our neighboring fraternities and sororities. Join us this Saturday any time from 11 am to 3 pm in front of our church building as we live out Jesus' words to give a cup of cold water in His name. Below is the water bottle prayer of dedication that we offered during our worship services.]

O God, great is your faithfulness! In response to your faithfulness and your many blessings in our lives, we present these offerings to you.

We also dedicate the many water bottles that we will be giving away this Saturday to students, parents, and families who will be walking by our church. And we ask your blessing upon the several welcome baskets of goodies that we will be giving to our neighboring fraternities and sororities. May all of these gifts be an expression of your love for those you have called us to serve and bless during this school year.

Great is your faithfulness, O God! Amen!

Pastoral Prayer (August 20) Athens First UMC

[Following yesterday's 10:30 worship service, Rick Seiter held a greeter orientation meeting in our sanctuary. We are adding new greeter stations to our weekly Sunday morning schedule so we need many more people to help in this ministry. If you are interested in being a greeter, call the church office and we will help you find a station where you can offer people a warm welcome on Sunday mornings.]

You are faithful, O God! Thank you for this first book of the Bible that tells the story of how you were faithful to the covenant you made with Abraham to form a new people so that they would become a blessing to the world.

For these past several Sundays, we nervously watched your promise to Abraham teeter on the brink of disaster. We laughed when you said that Sarah who was past child rearing years would end up having a baby. We were angry when it looked like Abraham was going to sacrifice their child. We were frustrated that it took several long chapters for Jacob to finally get his act together, and our hearts sank in despair when Joseph’s brothers threw him into a waterless cistern to die.

Through all of these adversities, you made a way for your people. Sarah became pregnant. You sent an angel to spare Isaac’s life. Jacob finally got his act together. And Joseph rose to prominence and saved his family from a terrible famine.

Thank you for the Book of Genesis and it’s amazing story of how you were faithful in keeping the covenant that you had made with Abraham.

Remind us of these Book of Genesis stories and how you are always faithful especially as we begin a new school year, as we go about our daily tasks, as we await the results of a medical exam, as we consider serving in a ministry through the church, as we share our faith with a neighbor, and as we speak out against racism and hatred in all of their various forms.

O God, more than ever, you are calling on your people in our day and age to continue to live out the covenant you made with Abraham so long ago to be a blessing to the world. Thank you for entrusting us with this sacred calling and purpose. And now, as your covenant people, we pray the words that Jesus taught his disciples and invites us to pray together saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sermon (August 20) by Rev. Robert McDowell "The Story of Joseph: Part II"

     As I was preparing this message and thinking about how a lot of our young people are getting ready to go to college, I couldn’t help but to think of how famous people got their start.
     For example, the memo from the testing director of MGM, shortly after Fred Astaire’s first screen test read: “Can’t act!  Slightly bald!  Can dance a little!” 
     Come to think of it.  That sounds a lot like me!
     An older “expert” once said of another younger coach, “He possesses minimal football knowledge.  Lacks motivation.”  This younger coach was referring to Vince Lombardi, who went on to become the great Green Bay Packer’s coach.
     The parents of Enrico Caruso believed his teacher, who said he had “no voice at all – he just cannot sing.”  And so they urged him to be an engineer instead.
     Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because they felt that he had a “lack of ideas.”
     Thomas Edison’s teachers gave up on him.  They actually wrote in an evaluation these words – “He’s too stupid to do anything.”
     Before he succeeded, Henry Ford failed and went broke five times.
     The author Scott Peck begins his book, The Road Less Traveled with these depressing but true words, “Life is difficult.”  And he goes on to say that once we accept the fact that life is going to be difficult for each and every one of us and once we begin to incorporate important disciplines into our lives, then we will be well on our way to maturity.
     And so it’s a good thing, that we have stories such as this story from the Book of Genesis – this story of Joseph and his brothers because this is a story of disappointment and failure.  This is a story of setbacks and unexpected life changes.  But it’s also a story of how God is always faithful and how God is always present in our lives as we go through these difficult times.
     Last Sunday, we began looking at the story of Joseph and his brothers.  And this morning, we look at the second portion of this incredible story as we conclude our sermon series on the Book of Genesis.
     We left church last Sunday with seventeen year old Joseph being taken away as a slave to Egypt.  His own brothers, all eleven of them, had sold Joseph to some traveling Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver.
     They did this because they were sick of Joseph’s ego and how their father, Jacob had given him special treatment.  We are told how their father had provided Joseph with a colorful robe which didn’t go over too well with the brothers. 
     And Joseph didn’t help matters any by telling his brothers about the dreams he was having at night.  You know, there are just some dreams that are better kept to yourself.  Joseph told his brothers about his dreams one day.  “I had a dream that we were binding sheaves in the field one day, and suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, and your sheaves gathered around my sheaf and bowed to it.”
     And Joseph, not picking up on the negative body language that he was receiving from his brothers over the telling of that dream made matters even worse by telling them this 2nd dream.  “And that’s not all brothers.  Let me tell you about this dream I had.  I had a dream that the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
     If you would look up the word “naïve” in the dictionary, you will read these words, “See Joseph in the Book of Genesis.”  How can anyone be more naïve than this?  I mean, who in their right mind would ever think that this would have gone over well.
     Once in a while, I will run into a colleague of mine, a United Methodist pastor, someone I know.  And we enter into this one sided conversation in which he tells me all of the wonderful things that are happening in his ministry and in his church.  And he never pauses to take a breath.  It’s one success story after another.
     And this happens every time we meet each other.  I find it hard to believe that he hasn’t faced any adversity or setbacks in his church and in his ministry.  Sometimes I wonder if he lives on the same planet that I do.  Every time I see him, I know that it’s going to be another one sided-conversation of one success story after another. 
     I am reminded of a tongue in cheek comment that the famous comedian, Jerry Lewis once said when he said, “People hate me because I am a multifaceted, talented, wealthy, internationally famous genius.”
     This ego gets seventeen year old Joseph into a lot of trouble.  His brothers almost kill him and they end up selling him to some Ishmaelites who are on their way to Egypt.
     Just listen to this list of misfortunes in the life of Joseph as we pick up the story from last Sunday.
     1) He is almost killed by his brothers and ends up sold into slavery.  2) Separated for years from the father he loves, Jacob, thinking that his son, Joseph is dead, grieves his loss everyday.  3) Framed by the wife of a high ranking Egyptian, Joseph is falsely accused of sexual assault and thrown into prison.  And 4) Joseph helps one of his fellow prisoners escape by interpreting his dream but after this fellow prisoner is released, he does nothing to help Joseph get out of prison.
     Scott Peck may begin his book with “Life is difficult” but is life supposed to be this difficult? 

     John Wesley who is the founder of the United Methodist denomination was an 18th century priest in the Church of England.  John Wesley could have settled into a life of comfort in the Church of England, but he felt called by God to help the church reach people that were outside of the church – people that the Church of England were neglecting in their mission and ministry.
     John Wesley was drawn to the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew in which Jesus tells us to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ.  That’s when the troubles really began in Wesley’s life because many church members in Wesley’s day did not want to reach people for Christ.  They wanted to stay comfortable. 
     And so Wesley’s sermons were often about taking our faith seriously and reaching out to people who weren’t already part of the church and to go to where the people were. 
     Just listen to several of his personal entries that he put in his diary. Here are Wesley’s entries:
     Sunday, A.M., May 5 – Preached in St. Anne’s.  Was asked not to come back anymore.
     Sunday, P.M., May 5 – Preached in St. John’s.  Deacons said “Get out and stay out.”
     Sunday, A.M., May 12 – Preached in St. Jude’s.  Can’t go back there, either.
     Sunday, A.M., May 19 – Preached in St. Somebody Else’s.  (By the way, isn’t that an interesting name for a church?  St. Somebody Else’s?)  Wesley then writes, “Deacons called special meeting and said I couldn’t return.  (Are you sensing the pattern here?)
     Sunday, P.M., May 19 – Preached on street.  Kicked off street.
     Sunday, A.M., May 26 – Preached in meadow.  Chased out of meadow as bull was turned loose during service.
     Sunday, A.M., June 2 – Preached out at the edge of town.  Kicked off the highway.
     Sunday, P.M., June 2 – Afternoon, preached in a pasture.  Ten thousand people came out to hear me.
     Life is difficult.  Joseph’s life was difficult.  Our lives are difficult.  How do we handle those difficulties so that we can remain faithful to God’s calling in our lives?
     The story of Joseph begins in Genesis chapter 37 and concludes with the end of the book in chapter 50.  What do we learn from Joseph in how to handle life’s difficulties and disappointments? 
     As I’ve thought about these chapters, it seems to me that Joseph teaches us to never ever stop dreaming.
     The word “dream” or “dreams” appears thirty times in the life of Joseph.  Dreams were a big part of his life and how he handled adversity.  It’s pretty obvious that he didn’t help matters by sharing his dreams with his brothers leading them to become jealous of him.  But even those early dreams as a seventeen year old helped Joseph to see that God had a special plan for his life.
     For there would be a day when Joseph, through his powerful position in Egypt, would end up saving the lives of his family from a terrible famine which had extended from Egypt to the land of Canaan where his family lived.
     It was through Joseph’s God given ability to interpret dreams that helped a fellow prisoner to be set free.  It was through Joseph’s God given ability to interpret dreams that led Pharaoh to release Joseph from prison and appoint him to oversee the land of Egypt.  And it was through Joseph’s God given ability to interpret dreams that he was able to save countless numbers of lives from the terrible famine during that time.
     Joseph reminds us to never ever stop dreaming.
     Joseph could have easily given up on dreams.  His own father criticized his dreams.  It was because of his early dreams that led his brothers to almost kill him and sell him into slavery.  And his own brothers sarcastically said as they saw Joseph approaching them one day, “Here comes this dreamer.”
     Why do people stop dreaming?  Sometimes people give up on their dreams because they don’t have anyone encouraging them along the way.  It’s a lot easier to pop someone’s balloon than it is to fill it.  Have you noticed that?
     Someone shares a new idea, a vision for a better future, a dream – and it’s so easy to take out a pin and just pop that balloon.  “Oh, that will never work.”  “Do you realize how much that will cost?”  “I know of somebody who tried that and it didn’t work.”  “Why don’t you try something else, something more practical?”  “We’ve never done it that way before.”
     I think it’s interesting that following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, one of the early disciples of the church was given the nickname, “Barnabas,” which literally means, “son of encouragement.” Barnabas was not his real name.  His real name was Joseph.
     Why was he given this nickname of “son of encouragement?”  During a time when the early Christians didn’t want to have anything to do with a man named Saul who had been persecuting Christians, Barnabas was one of the very few people in the early church who was willing to give Saul a chance following his conversion on the road to Damascus.
     While most Christians wanted to keep their distance from Saul, Barnabas went out of his way to find Saul, speak with him, and introduce him to other Christians.  If the early church wouldn’t have had Barnabas, they might have missed out on one of the greatest ambassadors for Jesus Christ who ever lived, because Saul, or the Apostle Paul as we now know him, went on to spread the good news of Jesus Christ all the way to Rome and he went onto write through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, much of the New Testament.
     Encouragement and dreams go together.  God wants us to encourage each other, not discourage each other.
     Joseph did not let the tremendous adversities that came his way discourage him in his walk with God.  Joseph kept dreaming.  Without the dreams, Joseph would have sunk into despair.  But he kept on dreaming.
     A friend of mine sent me an e-mail that shared how he was going through one of the worst times in his life.  It was related to his job and how people were treating him.  I could tell he was really down and I was really concerned about him. 
     Instead of sending him an e-mail reply, I decided to call him on the phone which I did.  I left a message on his voice mail telling him that I had received his e-mail and that I wanted to talk to him on the phone.
     I didn’t get any response for the next few days, so I called him again.  Same thing.  He didn’t answer the phone so I left another message.  There was still no reply over the next few days, but I didn’t want to give up.   So I called his wife and told her that I was concerned about him. 
     She was surprised that he hadn’t returned my call.  But then she told me about some of the things he was dealing with and why he was so down.  And then I asked her why he hadn’t returned my phone call. 
     And she said, “Oh, he’s just being stubborn and he knows you’re busy so he doesn’t want to bother you.  I’ll tell you what.  After you hang up, I’ll call him and tell him to give you a call.”
     Sure enough, later that morning my friend called me and told me what he was going through.  He said how he was getting a lot of criticism at his job and that he was feeling pretty low. 
     I listened to him and when he was done, I simply reminded him of all of his many good qualities and assured him that he was going to get through this difficult time in his life.  And then I prayed with him over the phone.
     Now, I didn’t do all that much, just a few phone calls, some encouragement, and a prayer.  But just that little bit meant a lot to him and helped him through a very challenging time.
     A church member sent me a personal note of encouragement.  It took me by surprise when I saw this hand written envelope in my home mail.  This person was just offering some words of encouragement and thanking me for being her pastor.
     Now, I can’t say that I was down or depressed at the time, but when I received that letter, it lifted my spirits to a whole new level.  I was reminded of God’s love for me and that through God all things are possible.  Guess what I thought about the rest of that day? That letter of encouragement.  Even just a little bit of encouragement from others is how God helps us to keep dreaming.
     The story of Joseph concludes with one of the most heart warming stories in the entire Bible.  The brothers go to Egypt to receive food during the time of famine.  And this is when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers as the brother who they had sold into slavery.  What a scene that must have been of reconciliation and forgiveness.
     God was there all along for Joseph.  God was in that waterless cistern with him.  God was in the prison cell with him.  God was with him all the way keeping Joseph’s dreams and hopes alive.
     And it was those dreams and it was those hopes that led Joseph to inform his brothers at the end of our story that God had remained faithful in the midst of all the adversities, disappointments, and setbacks that he had faced.

     This is the theme of the Book of Genesis.  God is faithful in fulfilling his covenant.  Even with all that life has to throw at us – don’t despair.  Keep dreaming.  Keep trusting.  God is faithful!

The Story of Joseph: Part II
Small Group Questions
Genesis 45:1-15
August 20, 2017

Today marks the conclusion of our summer long sermon series on the Book of Genesis. One of the main purposes of this first book of the bible is to show how God is faithful in keeping his covenant with Abraham to make him the father of many descendants. There are many times in the Book of Genesis where it looks like God's promise to Abraham would not be fulfilled, but by the end of the book, the reunion of Joseph's family shows us that God's plan is still on course!

Share a time where you have experienced God's faithfulness in your life.

Joseph experienced a lot of adversity in his life, some of which was brought on by himself. This list is long! Here's a quick recap: 1) He is almost killed by his brothers and ends up sold into slavery.  2) Separated for years from the father he loves, Jacob, thinking that his son, Joseph is dead, grieves his loss everyday.  3) Framed by the wife of a high ranking Egyptian, Joseph is falsely accused of sexual assault and thrown into prison.  And 4) Joseph helps one of his fellow prisoners escape by interpreting his dream but after this fellow prisoner is released, he does nothing to help Joseph get out of prison.

How does the story of Joseph overcoming these many challenges give you hope in pursuing your dreams and goals in life?

Pastor Robert shared in his sermon that the word "dream" or "dreams" appears thirty times in the story of Joseph. Joseph was able to overcome his adversities because he didn't give up on God's dream.

Who helps you to not give up and to keep God's dream alive in your life?

What are some ways that you can encourage others to not give up on their dreams? How can the church be a place where we are encouraged to follow God's dreams?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (August 13) Athens First UMC

[At first, Sunday's opening hymn during our worship service seemed out of place in light of the previous day's tragic and racist events in Charlottesville, Virginia. How can we "come with joy" when we have such heavy hearts? Verse 3 of this hymn reminds us. "As Christ breaks bread and bids us share, each proud division ends. The love that made us makes us one, and strangers now are friends, and strangers now are friends." The good news of our faith is that God's love can overcome any proud division and strangers can become friends. That's why we can "come with joy" even with heavy hearts.]

Loving God, thank you that there is always room at your table for sinners and saints alike. Thank you for being a gracious God who welcomes all to your bountiful feast.

On this Sunday that we focus on Joseph and his brothers, we lift up to you relationships that have experienced strain and brokenness. We confess the times when we have been careless and uncaring in our relationships. Where possible and when given the opportunity, prompt us to be instruments of your healing love with those we have wronged and those who have wronged us.

For those relationships that have deep hurts, wounds, and painful memories, grant us patience as we trust in you to bring healing and wholeness in your good time. Grant us your peace to accept the situations in our lives that we cannot change and help us to move into the new future that you have in store for us.

But on this Sunday that we focus on relationships, we are especially aware of the broken relationships between countries and world leaders. And so, we especially pray for peace to prevail throughout the world. We pray for world leaders to exercise wise judgment and seek diplomatic solutions with those nations that would threaten world peace.

O God, hold the tyrants of this world accountable for their lust for power and dominance, and for their disregard of human life. In this time of global uncertainty, remind us that you are the true ruler of this world and you rule with peace and righteousness.

And Lord, we pray for our country, so filled with hate speech and racist attitudes and actions. Forgive us for not being the land of liberty and justice for all that you have called us to be.

As we prepare to ask you to “forgive us our trespasses,” help us to equally take to heart what comes next in that prayer… “forgive us our trespasses, AS we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”

And so, as your people who need forgiveness, and who need to offer forgiveness, teach us to pray together the prayer you taught your disciples,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”