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 24, 2014

Top Ten Reasons to Be Included in the New Church Pictorial Directory


We are in the process of signing people up for our new church pictorial directory. The directory is for all people in our church (members & non-members.) Sign-ups are available on Sunday mornings at the church as well as on our church website at www.lancasterfumc.org.

Here are my top ten reasons why you should make a photo appointment to be included in our new church directory as soon as possible.

#10 It's free! Now that I have your attention...
#9 You will receive a free 8x10 picture.
#8 You will receive a free copy of the new directory.
#7 If you don't sign-up, you'll have to be in a selfie with Pastor Robert and that will look really weird in the directory.
#6 You can include your pet in the photo.
#5 If we have at least 300 pictures in our directory, our church will receive bonus activity pages and future new members will be able to receive directories.
#4 Someone might nominate you for the ice bucket challenge if you don't.
#3 People in the church will be able to call you by name rather than, "Hey, you."
#2 There is no pressure to buy extra pictures and the whole process will be over before you know it.

And the #1 reason to be included in the new church pictorial directory...

You are a VERY important part of our church family and we want everyone to be included!!

Sunday Worship Preview - August 31


Sunday, August 31 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, September 3  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 12th Sunday After Pentecost & Labor Day Weekend

Scripture - Romans 12:14-21 & Luke 6:32-36

Sermon "What About Our Enemies?"

Theme - Is there an alternative to revenge? How can we repay evil with good?

Sermon (August 24) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Ultimate Question"


     Someone went to a rabbi and asked him, “Why do you always answer a question by asking another question?  I just find that very annoying!”
     And the very wise rabbi answered, “What’s wrong with asking questions?”
     You would think that Jesus would have asked the disciples who they thought he was a lot sooner in his ministry.  We find this question in Matthew 16, well into Jesus ministry with his disciples.
     Here, these twelve individuals left everything to follow him, and yet, this question presumes that they just might not have a grasp as to who he is.
     How can that be?
     There are a lot of different ways of answering who Jesus is.  Some folks would give you a long drawn out answer that will make you wish you never asked the question to begin with.
     “Who is Jesus?”  Well according to the Nicene creed, he is the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made and it goes on and on.
     And certainly there is some validity to answering this question with theological language which explains how Jesus Christ can be fully God and yet fully human at the same time.  The early church spent many years reflecting on this ultimate question which is why we have these ancient creeds.
     But the disciples did not have the advantage of this kind of reflection.  They were always on the move with Jesus.  And they, along with so many other people, were astonished at his miracles and the way he was able to teach great crowds of people with authority.  They knew that Jesus was a very special person.
     And they also knew from their time spent with him, that he was the promised Messiah.  The promised one who would hopefully free Israel from Roman occupation.  They saw him as a miracle worker who would perhaps lead the people of Israel into the glory days of old.
     Here in chapter 16 of Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples are with Jesus in Caesarea Philippi, and Jesus actually asks the disciples two questions, not just one.  The first question he asks is -  “What are other people saying about me?”
     And they tell Jesus what they have been hearing.  “Some people think that you are John the Baptist. Others think that you are one of the prophets from of old.”
     There are an incredible amount of opinions out there about Jesus.   It would be an interesting little project to go to some place here in town and ask them the question, “Tell me who Jesus is to you?”
     But Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to settle for what other people are saying about him.  Jesus also wants to know what they are thinking.  And he asks them, “But who do you say that I am?”
     Actually, I’m a bit surprised that Peter was able to give the answer he gave.  Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 
     It’s one thing to give the answer.  It’s another thing to live the answer. To say that we believe that Jesus is the Messiah, means that we are to love our enemies.  It means that we are to forgive others when they hurt us. It means that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
     Jesus also said things like, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.  Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.” Jesus was crucified on a cross for saying things like this. 
     And what about the time that Jesus said to “Go and sell everything you have and give it to the poor” and if someone forces you to go one mile, go two?
     As the humorist, Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the things in the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me.  It’s the things that I do understand that bother me the most.” Sometimes, I wish that Jesus was more mysterious or cryptic in his teachings.   
     Almost every Sunday that I worship with you in this great church, I hear something in the scripture reading that reminds me that I have so much more to learn about who Jesus is and what it means to follow him.
     I suppose that we could simply ignore all of these hard sayings and just focus on whatever is appealing to us at the time.  We certainly have the option of forming Jesus into our own image and many people do. There are people who associate Jesus with their political party or within their particular worldview, but that’s not the way of Jesus.  “Narrow is the way into my Father’s kingdom,” Jesus tells us.
     No.  We are left with Jesus’ troubling question.  “Who do you say that I am?”
     I much prefer the Nicene Creed response to that question.  The theology is orthodox and it really says it all.
     Except…it’s not in my own words.  Jesus says to Robert McDowell – “I know what the Nicene Creed says…but who do you say that I am?”
     The first time that I really answered that question was when I was on the playground during recess when I was in the 3rd or 4th grade and my best friend came up to me, and out of the blue, asked me if Jesus was my Savior.  He said to me that if I invited Jesus to come into my heart that I would be able to go to heaven someday.
     And so, right there on the playground, I invited Jesus to come into my heart.
     That little experienced showed me that Jesus wants to be my Savior.
     Sometime during my middle school years, I attended a summer youth retreat with my youth group at the shore. People form the East Coast call it “going to the shore” instead of “going to the beach.” 
     I’m not “shore” why that is.
     Anyway, I went to this summer youth retreat to the shore.  Each evening, we would gather around the campfire and we would sing all of these campfire songs about Jesus.  And one of those songs was “Pass It On.” 
     “It only takes a spark, to get a fire going.  And soon all those around, can warm up in its glowing.  That’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it; you spread his love to everyone; you want to pass it on.”
     After I got home from the retreat, I felt really different.  I could feel Jesus’ love in a very real way.  I knew that He loved me.  I couldn’t stop singing those words over and over – “that’s how it is with God’s love once you’ve experienced it; you spread his love to everyone; you want to pass it on.”
     Not only did I feel Jesus’ love for me, but I had this desire to share his love with others.
     From that experience I learned that “Jesus is someone who loves all people and that you can actually feel Jesus love if you just let Jesus love you.”
     Then during my freshman year of college, things really changed for me.  My grades were bad.  I got cut from the baseball team.  I was feeling alone.
     I didn’t feel Jesus’ love anymore, let alone a spark or a fire.  And I certainly didn’t want to spread his love because I was looking for it myself.
     At that point in my life, Jesus only seemed like a nice memory from my distant past, not someone who could help me now.
     I was even angry at Jesus, angry that I didn’t know what to do with my life, angry that I felt alone, and angry at feeling rejected. This went on throughout my freshman year of college, but then something happened toward the end of my freshman year.
      I stumbled across a cassette tape of a sermon that had been delivered at a county wide Christian youth rally.  Without anything to lose, I listened to that cassette tape.  What the speaker said helped me to see Jesus in a whole new way.
     Jesus wasn’t just somebody who offered people a warm fuzzy religious experience.  It was a Jesus who offers a challenge to us.  This preacher used Luke 9:23 as his text in which Jesus says, “If any one would came after me, that person needs to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” And this preacher went on to challenge his listeners to put their total trust in Jesus, to obey Jesus completely.
     I thought to myself, “I’ve never thought of Jesus in this way.”  I always thought that Jesus was kind of like a security blanket who offered comfort when you needed it.  I never thought of Jesus as someone who would challenge me to trust him.
     One day toward the end of my freshman year of college I made a decision to put Jesus first in my life. I told Jesus that I would totally trust him.  That day changed my life because from that day forward, I made a commitment to really Jesus to what Jesus wanted me to do in my life.
     I decided to quit feeling sorry for myself, and to start trusting and living for Jesus.  That led to many, many changes in my life that eventually led me into the pastoral ministry. 
     I discovered during this time that Jesus wants to be first in every area of our lives.  Jesus wants us to follow him to places that we would have never chosen to go on our own.  And the really important thing I discovered about Jesus during that time in my life was that he wants the relationship to be a two way street. Jesus meets us where we are but he also wants us to follow him and be willing to take our faith to a whole new level.
     I’m still learning and discovering who Jesus is.  Every day and every year and every new situation provides another opportunity for us to put Jesus first in our lives and place our trust in him. When we do that on a consistent basis, Jesus becomes more than just a warm fuzzy in our lives. Jesus becomes real. Our faith becomes real.
     I asked some of you to share who Jesus is to you and here are some of your responses.
     One of you said that Jesus is your compass through life. I like that. That shows that you are open to allowing Jesus to guide you through any situation you may face.
     Another said that Jesus is your rock, your sword, and your shield.
     Someone in our church referred to Jesus as a lighthouse. You need that lighthouse because you are the ship that is in need of direction and a safe harbor.
     One of our newer members mentioned that it’s because of Jesus that he lives each day with courage. You said that you are not fearful of the future because you know that he will live with you forever. Your desire is for people to see Jesus in everything you do.
     One of you said that Jesus is your constant companion.
     This person says something similar. “Jesus is my friend who I talk to in the middle of the night, who always forgives me, guides me, loves me, and so much more.”
     Another person in our church puts it this way: “Jesus is as ever present as the air I breathe and always patiently waits for me to discover his love.”
     One of you shared that when you were a child, you felt that Jesus was your heavenly Brother since God was your heavenly Father. As an adult, you see Jesus as your Savior and the light showing the way on the pathway to God’s kingdom of love and forgiveness.
     Somebody else in our church shared that when you were thirteen years old you became aware that Jesus was your Savior. As an adult, you have found Jesus to be your healer as he has helped you to survive a massive stroke. You thank him everyday for saving your life so that you can continue to be a witness for him.
     Those are some of the responses I received from many of you when asked the big question, “Who do you say that Jesus is?”
     Gregory Nazianzen was one of the early church fathers from the fourth century. He was baptized at the age of 30 and became a Christian.  He also went on to become a great theologian. 
          Here’s how he answered the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” He wrote:
  • He began his ministry by being hungry, yet He is the Bread of Life
  • Jesus ended His earthly ministry by being thirsty, yet He is the Living Water
  • Jesus was weary, yet He is our rest
  • Jesus paid tribute, yet He is the King
  • Jesus was accused of having a demon, yet He cast out demons
  • Jesus wept, yet He wipes away our tears
  • Jesus was sold for thirty pieces of silver, yet He redeemed the world
  • Jesus was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, yet He is the Good Shepherd
  • Jesus died, yet by His death He destroyed the power of death
     When Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” 
     Later, Peter will be asked this same question in a slightly different way as he warms himself by a fire in a courtyard and with his life hanging in the balance.  “You’re one of Jesus’ disciples, aren’t you?”
     And then while standing on a sandy beach, the resurrected Christ appears to Peter and he asks him not once, not twice, but three times in a row, “Peter – do you love me?” And each time, Peter answers, “Yes, Lord you know that I love you.”
     Evidently, the big question is too important to ask only once. It needs to be asked again and again and again and again.
     Who do you say that Jesus is?

     

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sharing Hope: Bridges Out of Poverty Initiative Update (Summer, 2014)



Sharing Hope is a program that is designed to help people in our community overcome poverty. Several members of our church are active in this initiative which brings people of various economic levels together for mutual support and encouragement. I posted about Sharing Hope when it was just beginning about a year and a half ago.

Here is the latest newsletter from the Sharing Hope program. It's exciting to know that Sharing Hope is already making a difference in our local community. Our church hosts Sharing Hope on Thursday evenings at our Crossroads facility.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - August 24


Sunday, August 24 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, August 27  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 11th Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture - Matthew 16:13-20

Sermon "The Ultimate Question"

Theme - Jesus asked the disciples a question that is important for us to always think about. "But who do you say that I am?"

Sermon (August 17) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Boundless Love"


     As we get ready to bless backpacks for a new school year, I’ve been thinking back to my elementary school days when we would play kickball during recess.
     The two best players got to be captains and they took turns picking who they wanted to be on their team. Unlike the NFL draft that goes on for days, our kickball draft took only about three minutes.
     We all pretty much knew which kids were going to be selected first. You either needed to have a strong kicking leg or you needed to be a best buddy of one of the captains. That assured you of a first round selection.
     Even though we all knew our pecking order, it was still awkward for everyone when it got down to the remaining two kids. Someone always felt left out.
     It’s not just at school where people can feel left out. It’s anywhere, really. We live in a world that contains many boundaries which means that you’re either in or you’re out.

     Penny and I traveled to England several years ago. One of the favorite parts of the trip was when we visited the Cotswolds, the enchanted land of thatched roofs and William Shakespeare’s birthplace.
     It was a beautiful sunny day during our visit there. It was around lunch time and we decided to eat at a restaurant that had outdoor seating that overlooked the lush green grass and the meandering stream that went through one of the quaint scenic villages.
     It was extremely crowded and every table was taken. Fortunately, a couple got up to leave from a table right where we had been standing. “Ah, perfect! What great timing! We sat down and took in the beautiful scenery that was all around us as we waited for someone to come to take our order. It was one of those special moments where everything was just perfect; a perfect day, a perfect location, and a perfect trip.
    I’ll never forget what I said to Penny in that moment.  With so much joy and contentment in my heart, I said, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” Just then, a waiter interrupted our special moment to tell us, “Sorry, but you can’t sit here. This is reserved seating. You’ll have to leave.”
     As we walked out of the beautifully manicured garden where we had been seated, I finally realized why everyone was dressed nicer than we were.  We were mere tourists who didn’t know any better. We were on the wrong side of the boundary line.
     A non-Jewish woman found herself on the wrong side of the boundary line when she sought out Jesus. Matthew tells us that she was a Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon.
     The Canaanites were the people that the Jewish people had conquered several centuries earlier in order to take the Promised Land by force. She decided to cross over that boundary because her daughter needed to be healed and she knew that Jesus could make her well again.
     This non-Jewish woman was willing to do whatever was necessary to help her daughter find healing. She was even willing to refer to Jesus by using the Jewish title, “Son of David.”
     The disciples, knowing that she is an intruder, tell Jesus to send her away because she doesn’t belong there. She needs to be reminded that she is an outsider.
     Just like in Jesus’ day, we live in a world of boundaries that exist on so many levels. We have our own cultural, national, religious, economic, class, and political boundaries, just to name a few.      
     Whenever I visit my brother-in-law’s home near Baltimore, Maryland, I know to not wear my Steeler’s jersey since they are big time Baltimore Ravens fans. I know to bite my tongue when I’m tempted to gloat after a Steeler’s win. There’s a boundary that needs to be respected. I get that.
     Boundaries are just part of life. We live with them every day. They can serve a purpose as long as they don’t dehumanize people in the process. That’s the problem with boundaries. They often do more harm than good.
     This woman who crosses the boundary to meet Jesus respects the Jewish and Gentile boundary, but she’s willing to cross it anyway because her daughter needed to be healed.
     Jesus acknowledges the boundary between them when he tells this woman that his first priority is to his own people, the people of Israel. To emphasize this priority, he even used a common expression that referred to the Gentiles as dogs.
     You have to hand it to this remarkable woman. Even though she is well aware of this cultural and religious boundary, she pushes back and tells Jesus, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
     This woman was not going to settle to be the last person picked for the kickball team. She knew that Jesus could heal her daughter and she was prepared to set aside any boundary to help her to get well. Jesus, impressed by this woman’s genuine faith, heals her daughter.
     The good news of the Bible is that God is about breaking down the boundaries that would keep us from experiencing life in all of its fullness. God’s love cannot be limited to one group of people. It’s meant to be shared with others. As one of our hymns says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” God’s love is a boundless love.  It’s an overflowing love.
     Several years ago, our son played on the Middle School baseball team. During one of his away games, I noticed that the parents of the home team were getting ready to grill hot dogs for their players. They set up a couple of tables and put out ketchup, mustard, and relish.
     I remember thinking to myself what a great idea this was since the game was being played around dinner time and it would be a nice treat for their players once the game was over. During the final three innings of that game, I took in the delicious smell of those hot dogs on the grill.
     When the game finally ended, I was surprised when the parents of the other team invited the players and the parents of our team to join them. They had made enough hot dogs for everyone, including us. It was a wonderful display of sportsmanship and it reminded me of how God’s love overflows to all people, even people from the opposing team.
     Sometimes, we allow existing boundaries to prevent us from extending God’s love to others, but God’s love cannot be contained. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.
     To all of our students who are here today for our backpack blessing, I want you to know that God’s boundless love will be with you as you begin a new year of school. God’s boundless love will be with you as you get to know your teachers and meet new friends. God’s boundless love will be with you as you study and work hard in school. God’s boundless love will be with you as you include others so that they don’t feel left out.
     God’s boundless love is meant to be shared. For this new school year, look for ways to offer God’s boundless love to those around you.
     At one of my previous churches, the congregation reached out to those who were developmentally challenged in our community by hosting a dinner party at the church each year. The church provided hors d’oeuvres, a DJ, and fancy decorations. The night included dancing, food, and lots of door prizes. Everyone had a great time at this event, including the people who volunteered from our church.
     I’ll never forget one year in particular when I was watching the DJ announce the door prizes. He would yell out number and a lucky person at one of the tables would happily claim their prize. This was probably the highlight of the evening for our guests.
     When the DJ yelled out one of the winning prize numbers, a lady sitting at the table closest to me yelled at the top of her lungs, “Here’s the winning ticket! Here’s the winning ticket!” You should have seen the smile and the excitement on her face as she screamed out those words. She wanted the world to know that she had won.
     I remember thinking to myself, “This is why we went to all of this effort to host this formal party. Just look at how happy she is that she won a prize.” 
     When the DJ came to her table to give her the prize, she pointed to the person who was sitting next to her and with great joy and happiness, she said, “Not me. Not me. My friend won the prize. Mary had the winning ticket!  Way to go, Mary! You won a prize!”
     This woman was more excited that her friend won the prize than if she had won the prize. She was teaching me and all of us the true meaning of God’s boundless love. God’s love isn’t meant to be kept to ourselves. It is meant to be shared with those around us.
     The Canaanite woman who crossed a religious and cultural boundary to ask Jesus to heal her daughter, also teaches us a thing or two about God’s boundless love. She knows that by the world’s definition, she has no business interacting with Jesus and his disciples. She knows that she is in unchartered waters. She knows that she has crossed the boundary line.
     There are very few people who would have done what she did. She took a risk because she knew that Jesus would be able to heal her daughter. She knew that there was a chance that Jesus would have compassion on her and her daughter.
     She was willing to take whatever crumbs were left under the table. And instead of leftovers, she ended up getting a four-course meal. Jesus even told her, “Great is your faith!”
     Jesus didn’t say this kind of thing to very many people but he said it to this woman, this outsider who knew that God’s boundless love was at work through him, something that the religious leaders and the insiders didn’t seem to understand.
     For those of us who may feel like we are on the outside looking in, I invite us to remember this remarkable woman.  She teaches us the true meaning of God’s boundless love.
     It’s a love that reaches out to all people. It’s a love that crosses all boundaries. It’s a love that never ends.
     There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.

     Thanks be to God!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Favorite Hymns - "And Can It Be that I Should Gain"

"And Can It Be that I Should Gain" is probably my favorite hymn ever. It was written by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley during the 1700's. These two brothers emphasized in their preaching and music God's grace made known to us through Jesus Christ.

[Charles Wesley: 1707-1788]

Charles wrote this hymn to describe his experience of when he received an assurance of his salvation. We often think of his brother's "heart-warming" Aldersgate experience, but we sometimes forget that Charles also had an equally powerful experience of God's amazing grace.

The verses of this hymn build upon each other and they describe the effect that God's grace can have on a person's life. As the hymn progresses, I get more and more choked up as I sing them because the lyrics and the music gradually progress to the last verse which celebrates the ultimate good news of our faith.

"No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in him, is mine; alive in him, my living head, and clothed in righteousness divine, bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own. Bold I approach the eternal throne and claim the crown, through Christ my own."

As awesome as this final verse is, it's the 4th verse that always gets me.


"Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature's night; thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee."

Churches do not sing this hymn nearly enough. I think it's because people are not as familiar with the melody. It's one of those songs that you need to listen to a few times and before you know it, you totally fall in love with the combination of the lyrics and the melody. Charles Wesley certainly had an incredible gift of describing and celebrating God's grace made known to us through Jesus Christ.

So what do you think? Is this in your top ten or top five hymns? Right now, it's my favorite hymn!