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, November 20, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Nov. 19/Thanksgiving Sunday) Athens First UMC

[Like the old saying goes, "whenever Methodists meet, they eat." Pictured above is a packed Fellowship Hall for our "Thanks for Giving" covered dish meal which followed our 10:30 worship service. The church provided the turkey, stuffing, gravy, and drinks and people brought covered dish food and desserts to share. It was a little taste of the future heavenly banquet! The meal was a way of thanking our congregation for their faithful giving to both our general budget ministries as well as to our Capital Campaign. It was also a special day as we received six new members and celebrated a baptism. Click here for the sermon.] 

Gracious, Giving, and Abundant God, we your thankful people have come to worship and praise you this morning. We are here in this place because you have summoned us to be here.  You have called each of us by name and have gathered us to be your family. Thank you for our church family and for the many blessings we have enjoyed over this past year.

Thank you for new members and baptisms. Thank you for Sunday School classes and small groups. Thank you for choirs and soloists. Thank you for worship leaders and greeters. Thank you for blanket makers and flower arrangers.

Thank you for telecare callers and radio sponsors. Thank you for anthems and Worship U gatherings. Thank you for building renovations and air conditioning. Thank you for dish washers and table setters. Thank you for prayer cards and prayer chains.

Thank you for the Korean congregation and for Kappa Phi. Thank you for Wonderful Wednesdays and Music Sunday. Thank you for OU concerts and scout meetings. Thank you for officering envelopes and online giving. Thank you for clothing donations and Monday lunches. Thank you for water bottle give aways and Trimble backpacks.

Thank you for acolytes and church workdays. Thank you for preschool children and preschool teachers. Thank you for choral risers and moveable pulpits. Thank you for ushers and Leadership Board members. Thank you for refurbished pews and our lighted cross at night. Thank you for Sunday youth group and United Methodist Women.

Thank you for staff members and first time worship guests. Thank you for sermons especially the good ones. Thank you for a parking garage and meetings less than 2 hours. Thank you for casseroles and hazelnut coffee.

But most of all, even beyond all of these many blessings, we are most thankful for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in whose name we now offer this grateful prayer together saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sermon (November 19) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Faith Trek"

     I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that you are familiar with this short video clip. Let’s watch it because it just never gets old.

     Those opening words were spoken by Admiral James T. Kirk of the starship, Enterprise. I love how dramatic he sounds. “To seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

     Even if you’re not that much into space exploration and the whole Star Trek craze, how can you not want to be on that spaceship with James T. Kirk?

     Penny loves Star Trek so she was really excited when they came out with a new Star Trek movie a few years ago. For the months leading up to that movie, she couldn't stop talking about it. She just couldn’t wait to see that movie.

     Now, the truth is, it’s not that Penny is the biggest Trekkie fan in the world. I just think she likes these more recent Star Trek movies because of actor, Chris Pine who plays James T. Kirk.

     Here’s a picture of Chris Pine in the movie, "Star Trek Into Darkness." He’s the handsome looking guy in the middle. He’s the new James T. Kirk.

     Penny doesn’t realize it, but the producer of this new Star Trek movie first asked me to play the part of Kirk. So here I am.

     As you can see, I was extremely excited to be asked to try out for the movie. It was hard to contain my enthusiasm. They took several pictures and this ended up being the best one.

     Here’s the actor Chris Pine again.

     Here he is using his communicator as Admiral Kirk. He looks OK in this scene, I guess. So they asked me to do this same scene. And well… I’ll let you be the judge.

     The camera guy kept telling me to not use the communicator to send text messages, but that’s my preferred mode of communication. I’m looking pretty intense there.

     Here’s a picture from a scene in the movie with actor Chris Pine and the actor who plays Spock.

     Yeah, I admit Chris Pine looks good in this scene, but it seemed kind of boring to me so I decided to put some action into the scene.

     I kept asking for a phaser gun and they finally gave me one so I used it in this scene even though there weren’t any bad people in this scene.

     So the next scene that they asked Pine and me to do was a scene with the beautiful actress, Alice Eve. So here’s Chris trying to pull off the macho look.

     They tell me that he’s kind of a heart throb. Now here’s me in the same exact scene.

     I went with a more natural look that would look much better on the big screen.

     And believe it or not, we did this scene in one take. I kid you not. I’m not bragging, but I am comfortable in front of a camera.

      And then of course, we all know that Spock and Kirk are the main characters in Star Trek. So, here’s Chris Pine in one of the scenes with Spock.

     You know, I looked at that scene and to me, they just look way too serious. I mean, these guys were buddies, right? So here’s me in this same scene with Spock having a little fun with him when he wasn't looking.

     I thought it was funny too, but the actor who plays Spock didn’t think it was as funny as I did. It was a tough choice, but in the end, they finally made the decision to go with Chris Pine. But at least, I had my fifteen minutes of fame.

     By the way, I’m curious how many Star Trek fans are here today. Raise your hand high if you’re a big Star Trek fan? 

     The way we resonate with that dramatic opening Star Trek theme song about “seeking out new life and new civilizations and going boldly where no man has gone before” is similar to how God’s people must have resonated when the Prophet Isaiah spoke his dramatic words to the people of Israel.

     Sounding a little like James T. Kirk, Isaiah says, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.”  Isaiah was speaking to a whole nation of people who after returning home from the Babylonian exile after several years, still find their homes and gardens in ruins, the city in rubble, and the rebuilding of their Temple nowhere near the beauty and splendor of the former one.

     The people of Israel were still without hope and they were stuck in a mindset that their best days were behind them. They had given up believing that God would be able to give them a new future. They were left only with their memories of the good old days.

     I remember speaking with someone whose mother had passed away. It had been several months since her death and I asked how he was doing. He said that he still feels the pain of grief because he still misses her.

     Since he lived in the house next to her, he was always able to see a light in the living room of the house where she would read at night before going to bed. And he said, “It was so strange to look at mom’s house from my window at night and now only see darkness.” 

     He went on to say, “Ever since she’s been gone, I think about all of the good times I had growing up in that house and how it was filled with so much laughter and so many good memories. It’s been really difficult to adjust over these past several months,” he said.

     My heart went on to him as he shared his grief and heavy heart with me.

     The people of Israel were living during a time when the present looked bleak and the good memories from the past were becoming more and more distant as the years went by. Nostalgia over the good ole days will only take you so far.

     It’s in this context of hopelessness and a longing for the good ole days, that Isaiah speaks a word about something the people of Israel hadn’t thought about for quite some time. Isaiah speaks about a future that is filled with hope.

     And this is no empty hope. This hope is rooted in the words of the Lord who spoke them through the prophet Isaiah.

     The Lord is inviting the people of Israel to experience a new faith trek. They have been dwelling in the past long enough. It’s now time for them to boldly go into a new future, a future that is filled with hope.

     My sense is that there are many of us here today who are looking for a new challenge and who are ready to follow God into a new future. Do you want to be a faith Trekkie? Are you ready to let go of the past and begin a new journey with God?

     James T. Kirk describes the Star Trek exploration as seeking out new life and new civilizations and going boldly where no man has gone before. Isaiah describes it a little differently. He says that it’s about God creating new heavens and a new earth.

     Sound exciting? Well, here is what is involved in this new faith trek according to Captain Isaiah.

     First of all, this faith trek involves a letting go of the past. Isaiah says that the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  That may sound too difficult to do because it seems like the past is all we have.

     The problem with the past is that it’s in the past! The other problem is that dwelling on the past and the things we can’t change can prevent us from moving forward in life.

     Isaiah spoke his word to the people at just the right time. They were so focused on the good ole’ days before their exile and the despair of their present situation, that they were now stuck and going nowhere. And that’s not a good place to be.

     I thought it was interesting how much media coverage there was in the weeks leading up to the birth of William and Kate’s first baby in England a few years ago. Even though England has so much incredible history, all of the focus that year was on the future of the country and the birth of that royal baby.

     What part of the past is God calling you to let go so that you can move into the future God has in mind for you? It might be a negative personal experience, a broken relationship, a long held grudge, or a maybe it’s a disappointment that has been difficult to overcome. God invites us to let go of our past.

     A second thing that this faith trek involves is accepting our new identity in God. Isaiah shares these words of the Lord to the people of Israel. The Lord says, “Be glad and rejoice forever for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.”

     What a great identity the Lord gives to us. God sees us as a people of joy and as a people of delight. If only we would be able to see ourselves the same way that God sees us. We were created in the image of God.

     What a wonderful description to embrace for our church. We are a church of joy and we are a people of delight! When people ask me where our church is located, I usually say that we’re the church with the white pillars across from the parking garage. Maybe I should just tell them, “We’re the church that is filled with joy and the people are a delight.”

     And wouldn’t it be great if that person would say, “Oh, I know which church you mean. Yeah.” And wouldn’t that be wonderful for every church to embrace. “We are a people of joy and we are God’s people of delight.”

     And here’s a third important part of our faith trek journey. And this is just as important as the first two things. We are called to live into God’s preferred future.

     Back to Captain Isaiah, or rather, Prophet Isaiah. In addition to telling the Israelites to let go of their past and claim their new identity, he also paints a picture of the preferred future that the Lord has in mind for them.

     And this picture includes things that the Israelites have been missing for a long time like the building of houses, plentiful vineyards, safety and security, and blessings. Isaiah even goes so far as to say that the Lord’s preferred future includes harmony in the animal kingdom where the lion and the lamb shall feed together in peace.

     Now, on one level, the Israelites began to experience some of these things as they continued to get settled after their many years in Babylonian exile. But on another level, we also know that God’s ultimate preferred future will be even more glorious when God creates new heavens and a new earth. This is the ultimate hope of our faith, that this world will receive a total makeover and God will make it all new again.

     The Lord wants the people of Israel to begin living with this beautiful and hope-filled future in mind. Just think what a difference it would make if we would all live in such a way that anticipates this future reality for our world.

     Instead of cynicism or negativity, the Lord wants us to approach each day with the end result in mind and the end result is a world that is filled with peace, justice, harmony, compassion, friendship, safety, and an abundance of resources for everyone.

     And if all of this seems just too good to be true and unrealistic, let’s remember that this faith trek we are called to take is like no other. This faith trek isn’t about us trying to remake the world on our own strength. We can try, but we will be very disappointed.  No, this trek is about what God can do in and through us. Nothing is impossible with God.

     So how about it? Are you up for the journey? Are you ready to be a faith trekkie? Are you ready to let go of the past? Have you claimed the new identity that God has for you that you are a joy and a delight? And are you ready to live into God’s preferred future that will be beyond our wildest imagination? Are you ready to embark on a faith trek? Are you ready to boldly go where no one has gone before?

     There’s one more thing that I wanted to share with you about my conversation with the person I mentioned to you earlier in the sermon, the man who was still grieving the loss of his mother.

     As I mentioned, he said that it’s been difficult to look out his window at night and see nothing but darkness in the house where his mother once lived. I could see the sadness and the heaviness in his eyes as he was sharing all of this with me.

     But then he said to me, “But not too long ago, a new family moved into mom’s house. I got a chance to meet them. They are a very nice family with two teenagers. I took them a chocolate pie that mom used to make and gave it to them as a house warming gift. I explained to them that I used to live there and had many, many happy memories in this house.”

     He said they thanked him for the warm welcome. And the wife said, “When we were looking for homes in the area, this one really stood out for us because we could sense that there had been a lot of love here.”

     And after sharing all of this with me, he said, “And now, when I look down from my window at the house where mom lived, I’m glad to see that there’s a light in the house again and that this new family can call it home like I once did.”

     In the midst of our brokenness, disappointments, and despair, Isaiah speaks a word of hope to us. He reminds us that our faith journey is never over.

     God promises to be with us throughout all of our experiences in life. And we are invited once again to boldly go where no man has gone before. We are called to let go of our past, accept our new identity in Christ, and live into God’s preferred future.

      If you would like to be part of this faith trek, I invite you to simply hold out your hands right there in front of you, bow your heads and close your eyes, and join me in prayer.

     Let us pray. God of new beginnings, just as you offered a word of hope to the people of Israel so long ago, you offer a word of hope to us this morning. In the midst of our pain and brokenness, you invite us to boldly follow you into your preferred future that is beyond our wildest imagination. This is the day to respond to your summons in a new way.

     As we hold out our hands, we know that your hand is reaching out to us. You want to bring healing to those places in our lives where we have felt empty. You want to give us hope where we have only known despair and disappointment. And you want to use these same hands to be your healing presence in our community and world. Thank you for coming close to us today. And thank you for new beginnings and new adventures. In the name of the One who has promised to create new heavens and a new earth, we want you to know that we’re ready to make this faith trek, to be your people, and to place our trust in you. Amen.

Faith Trek
Small Group Questions
Isaiah 65:17-25
November 19, 2017

The prophet Isaiah sounds like a "trekkie" (Star Trek) fan because of his call for Israel to leave behind the troubled past and boldly go forward into God's future where he is creating "new heavens and a new earth." (Isaiah 65:17a) The people of Israel were primed to go on this "faith trek" because they had just returned from exile where Jerusalem was in ruins and their homes had been destroyed. They probably welcomed Isaiah's call to boldly enter into a new faith trek with God.

Share a time where your faith took on even greater importance because of a challenging time in your life. How did you grow from that new "faith trek?"

The prophet Isaiah offers us three very important ways to be involved in a new "faith trek" in our lives. Share how you are doing in each of these areas:

Isaiah's "Faith Trek" involves:

1. Letting Go of the Past (Isaiah 65:17b)
      What is the "past" that God is calling you to "let go?"

2. Accepting Our New Identity from God (Isaiah 65:18b)
      What is the new identity that God wants us to embrace and always remember?

3. Live Into God's Preferred Future (Isaiah 65:17a)
      What is the preferred future that God has in mind for the world? What does this    
      preferred future means for you in your "faith trek?"

Close Your Time Together By Opening Your Hands & Praying this "Faith Trek" Prayer Together:

God of new beginnings, just as you offered a word of hope to the people of Israel so long ago, you offer a word of hope to us this morning. In the midst of our pain and brokenness, you invite us to boldly follow you into your preferred future that is beyond our wildest imagination. This is the day to respond to your summons in a new way.

As we hold out our hands, we know that your hand is reaching out to us. You want to bring healing to those places in our lives where we have felt empty. You want to give us hope where we have only known despair and disappointment. And you want to use these same hands to be your healing presence in our community and world. Thank you for coming close to us today. And thank you for new beginnings and new adventures. 

In the name of the One who has promised to create new heavens and a new earth, we want you to know that we’re ready to make this faith trek, to be your people, and to place our trust in you. Amen.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Nov. 12) Athens First UMC

[Our church hosted a West Ohio conference event at our church on Sunday afternoon. Pictured above is our Bishop Gregory Palmer presiding over the Sacrament of Holy Communion in our beautiful sanctuary. This is the first time the Bishop has been in our remodeled building and he was very impressed. Since our church is centrally located in our Foothills district, we often host district and church events like this. This means that several of our church members and staff were willing to give up their Sunday afternoon to serve as greeters, work at the registration table, set up rooms for break-out sessions, run audio/sound, provide and set-up the communion elements, accompany the hymns, and provide direction signs around our building. Thank you, Athens First UMC for being a gracious host for this event!]  

O God, in these darker days of the year, you want us more than ever to shine your light in our community and world. You are calling your churches to be the glowing candlesticks of your love and mercy. We are all your acolytes who are called to take your light into our community and world.

Thank you for the many ways that our church was a like a candlestick this past week where we were able to shine your light of love like the college student who donated brand new winter hats, like the choir members who went to a nursing facility to lead a hymn sing for a dear member of our church, like the great response we had to our Angel Tree Christmas present outreach, like the businessman who had our winter clothing professionally dry cleaned at no cost, and like the many volunteers who will be providing hospitality for a conference event this afternoon here at our church.

Thank you, O God, for the many ways that our church is lighting the way here in our community. We want to be a church that doesn’t miss out on your unexpected arrival. We want to be a church that creatively finds ways to poke holes in the darkness.

On this Sunday as we think about churches being candlesticks in our darkened and broken and hurting world, we lift up our neighboring churches as they light the way for people in need. We also lift up to you the 160 United Methodist Churches in our Foothills District, and the 1,000 United Methodist Churches in our West Ohio Conference as we shine your light in Toledo, in Cincinnati, in Marietta, and everywhere in between. We pray for our District Superintendent, Rev. Dennis Miller and our Bishop, Gregory Palmer as they provide caring leadership in helping our churches in our unified mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our world.

On this Veterans’ Recognition Weekend, we also thank you for those who have served and who our currently serving in the military. Thank you for their service to our country.

We pray all of this in the name of Jesus who invites us to pray for a better world even as we pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”