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 4, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Nov. 3/All Saints Sunday) Athens First UMC

[All Saints' Sunday is the annual day on the church calendar where we remember those of the faith who have gone before us. We read six names of our members during the prayer time, lighting a candle and ringing a bell after the reading of each name. (See names below.) We also lighted a seventh candle in memory of others who have enriched our lives and helped us to become more like Christ. Notice in the picture above that the word "Alleluia" is conveniently below the seven candles. We sing, "Alleluia" for all of the saints who have gone before us and who are now with God in glory. Here is a link to the sermon.]


O God, we lift up to you these saints by name, who have faithfully lived and died:


We will light one more candle this morning. It is in loving remembrance of all others who have blessed us in so many caring ways. Thanks to their Christ-like example, we have a stronger faith and a closer walk with God. Let us remember with grateful hearts all those whom we have loved. Their lives brightened and changed this world. In this moment, we say their names silently in our hearts. 


God holds all of us in his great arms of mercy. Let us offer a prayer of thanksgiving for all the saints who have gone before us:


Almighty God, we thank you for all the saints who have faithfully lived and died and who are now with you in your glorious kingdom. We especially thank you for those we have just named and for how they have been a blessing in our lives. We also pray for family members who have made a special effort to be here in worship today to remember their loved ones. Remind us that you are our loving shepherd who comforts us, especially when we have heavy hearts.


Most of all, on this All Saints’ Sunday, we give you thanks for the good news of our faith that points us to a time when there will be no more mourning, sadness, pain or injustice, and where even death itself will be defeated once and for all. To you O God, be all honor, glory, dominion, and power, now and forevermore.


And now with confidence as the people of God, let us pray the prayer that Jesus taught us to say together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Sermon (Nov. 3/All Saints Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     I always find it interesting that people who are familiar with the church calendar will often say that they are always drawn to All Saints Sunday which we are observing today and Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the season of Lent.

     I think we are drawn to these two dates on the church calendar because they offer one of the rare opportunities in our culture where we are given the opportunity to grieve in helpful ways. Processing our grief is one of the healthiest things we can do.

     The more I think about it, the more I believe that we are always moving through some type of grief process. And many times, we are not even aware that we are grieving.

     A while back, a friend of mine knew that I wasn’t myself. And upon reflection of that observation I thought about some transitions that were happening in my life and I shared about these transitions with her. And her comment back to me surprised me a bit. She said, “It seems like you’re grieving.” And she was right. Thank God for friends who know us well enough to lovingly remind us that it’s OK for us to grieve. 

     Our Gospel reading this morning is often used for All Saints’ Sunday. I wonder if this is because of the beatitude where Jesus pronounces a blessing upon those who mourn. “Blessed are you who weep now,” Jesus says. “Blessed are you who weep.”

    When we read the names of people in our congregation who have passed away over this past year, we are thankful for their lives, but we also are reminded of the loss we have experienced in our lives. It’s a bitter-sweet Sunday.

     The same is true for Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the season of Lent. Ashes are imposed on our foreheads and we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It’s a reminder of our mortality, but it’s also a reminder that the season of Lent will also lead to the good news of Easter and new life in Christ.

     All Saints’ Sunday and Ash Wednesday remind us that it’s important for us to grieve. Life has its joyous moments but it also includes its share of grieving moments.

     John James and Frank Cherry, in their book on grief recovery, trace the story of a boy named, Johnny. When five-year old Johny’s dog dies, Johnny is stunned, and he bursts out crying. His dog was his constant companion; it slept at the foot of bed. Now the dog is gone, and Johnny is broken up. 

     Johnny’s dad stammers a bit and says, “Uh, don’t feel bad, Johnny, we’ll get you a new dog Saturday.” In that one sentence, Johnny’s dad is really offering the first two steps in how some people deal with the reality of grief: Bury your feelings; replace your losses. Once you have the new dog you won’t even think about the old dog any more.

      Later when Johnny falls in love with a high school freshman girl, the world never looked brighter, until the break up. Suddenly a curtain covers the sun. Johnny’s heart is broken and he doesn’t know what to do. This is a person his heart was fixed on.

     Johnny is a wreck. But mom comes to offer the following advice which is basically just a worn-out and unthinking cliche, “Don’t feel bad, John, there are other fish in the sea.” Bury the pain, replace the loss. Johnny has steps one and two down pat now. He’ll use them the rest of his life.

     Much later, John’s grandfather dies—the one he fished with every summer and felt close to. A note was slipped to him in math class. He read the note and couldn’t fight off the tears. He broke down sobbing on his desk. The teacher felt uncomfortable about it and sent him off to the school office for him to grieve alone.

     When John’s father brought him home from school, John saw his mother weeping in the living room, and he wanted to embrace her and cry with her. But his dad said, “Don’t disturb her, John, she needs to be alone. She’ll be all right in a little while. Then the two of you can talk.”

     The third piece in the grieving puzzle was now making sense to John: Grieve alone. So he went to his room to cry alone, and he felt a deep sense of loneliness.

     Eventually he buried those feelings, and he replaced the sense of loss over his grandfather with a whole host of athletic involvements. He tried his best to function normally. But he found himself many months later constantly thinking about his grandpa: the fishing trips, the Christmas Eves, the birthdays.

     His preoccupation went on for months until he finally told his dad about it. His dad said, “John, give it time.” Translation: Time heals in and of itself. This became step four in John’s understanding of grief management.

     What has all of this taught John over the years? Bury your feelings, replace your losses, grieve alone, and give it time because time heals.

     Well, John gave it time and more time, but somehow he felt trapped in a cell of sadness. What made matters worse was that as he relived his relationship with his grandfather, he realized that he had never really thanked his grandpa for the fishing trips, the sack lunches, and the late afternoon swims when the fish weren’t biting.

     He had left so many things unsaid—even the big one: “I love you, Grandpa.” He didn’t get to say it. John said to himself, “What can I do about it now? I guess I’ll just live with regret the rest of my life.” That became the fifth piece in his approach to grief: If there’s unfinished business, plan to live with regret; there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

     As you can imagine, with all the trauma, John thinks to himself, “Close relationships expose me to the possibility of deep pain; therefore, the way to make sure that this kind of anguish is never experienced again is to keep an arm’s distance from any close involvement.” This is why he decided to put up a wall and never trust again. Don’t get so close to people that their absence could hurt you deeply.

     Maybe this is why Jesus felt it was so important to pronounce a blessing on those who mourn. He knows that grieving is a difficult process and we don’t always get the support we need.

     Someone shared with me the grieving process they were going through for a family member who was under hospice care.  And one of the things this person shared was that they were keeping a box of tissues close by when the tears would come.

     People who are in touch with their feelings and express them freely can begin the journey toward hope.  Jesus teaches us to feel free enough to grieve our losses—when we face the death of a loved one, and other losses as well: childhood traumas, parts of our past, health losses, relational losses, financial losses. Through his own tears, Jesus’ shows us that it’s OK to cry.

     A second way to grieve with hope is to not run away from the pain. Sometimes when people face grief, they think that they have to replace whatever they lost as soon as possible. 

     A seasoned grief counselor offers these words of wisdom for those who are going through grief.  She says, “Of course I tell them to feel their feelings. But then I also urge people to reduce radically the pace of their lives. I urge them to review their loss, talk about it openly, think about it thoroughly, write about it reflectively, and pray through it.”

     She continued, “It’s my experience that people want to run from their pain. They want to replace pain with another feeling as soon as they can. To recover from pain, you have to face it. You must stand in it and process it before it will dissipate. That’s God’s way.”

     To grieve with hope is also to grieve in community.

     The Bible has hundreds of texts urging the brokenhearted to band together with family and friends in order to grieve in community. Once again Jesus, when his upcoming death was looming large in his mind, grabbed Peter, James, and John, and he said, “Come to a quiet place with me. A loss is coming, and I need my closest friends with me. So pray with me, and hold me up.”

     Apparently Jesus-followers learned well to grieve in community, because after Jesus’ crucifixion, Christ’s followers were grieving together in community when the knock on the door came announcing the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday. Grieving in community can bring both healing and bondedness. 

     One of the wonderful ministries of our church is Stephen Ministry which offers one to one peer support for people who are experiencing a time of transition and grief in their lives. Our Stephen Ministers have received extensive training to be good listeners and offer a safe space for people who need to talk.

     Our small group ministry is another way that we can find support from one another and know that there are people who care. 

     We aren’t meant to grieve in isolation.  We are to grieve in community.

     A fourth way to grieve with hope is to give to God our past regrets.

     The Bible offers an amazing word of hope and healing for people who have unfinished business with someone who won’t or can’t offer reconciliation. This word of hope and reconciliation is found in Romans 12:18, which says, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” 

     This verse teaches that we can finish our part of the unfinished business with anybody. Subsequently we can live without the nagging feeling that we won’t ever be able to bring closure to that relationship.

     I while back, I was reading about a father and a son who had a tension-filled relationship.  In the middle of all the hostility, his dad died of a heart attack. The sadness over all that unfinished business just about overwhelmed this man. A wise counselor challenged him to write a final letter to his dad in order to express the unexpressed and bring closure to the relationship.

     Writing that letter ended up being the most difficult assignment of his life. He wrote a 30-page letter, which he read word for word to his mom, and his brothers and sisters, in the presence of the counselor. He said, “When that was over, a weight was lifted that I had carried for almost a decade.” He made peace on his side of the relationship.

    God’s approach says we don’t have to carry a backpack of regret the rest of our lives. 

     And this fifth way to grieve with hope is to know that a day will come when there will be no more death, loss, or the need to grieve. Our Ephesians scripture passage this morning remind us to set our hope on Christ and the promise of redemption. God is a redeeming God! “Blessed are you who mourn.”

     The Christian hope has, and always will be, the sure and certain assurance that God’s kingdom of love and righteousness will one day fill this earth fully and completely when Jesus returns.

     Death and loss will not have the last word because of the good news of what God has done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

     And it is why Jesus can say, “Blessed are you who mourn.”

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 6:20-31
September 8, 2019

All Saints Sunday, Ash Wednesday, and Holy Week are all days on the church calendar that invite us to grieve. Ash Wednesday invites us to grieve over our sins and our mortality. Holy Week invites us to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death. And All Saints Sunday is when we remember those who have died and are no longer with us.

Why do you think grieving is important? What helps you to express your grief in a way that brings comfort to you?

Our main scripture focus for All Saints Sunday was Luke 6:21b where Jesus says, “Blessed are you who mourn for you shall be comforted.” Pastor Robert shared 5 important ways that our faith can lead us to grieve with hope. 

1. Be in touch with your feelings. Remember, feelings are facts. They are neither right or wrong. They just are.

What helps you to be in touch with your feelings and to honor your feelings that can lead you to grieve?

2. Don’t run away from the pain of grief.

How do you know when you’re running away from the pain of grief?

3. Open yourself to others you can trust and share with them about your grief. This might be a trusted friend, your small group, a Stephen Minister which is a ministry of our church that offers one to one confidential peer support.

Share a time when you opened yourself to others about your grief. Who are the trusted persons who can be by your side when you are grieving?

4. Give to God your past regrets. Sometimes, our grief relates to things from our past that we can’t change. Pastor Robert shared Romans 12:18 which says, “If it is possible, as so far it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” This verse reminds us that God only calls on us to control what we can control and to give unresolved issues over to God.

What unresolved issue continues to be painful for you? How can Romans 12:18 help you in receiving God’s peace in that situation that is beyond your control?

5. Remember that a time is coming when God will make all things new! This is the ultimate hope of our faith that one day all relationships, pain, brokenness, and grief will be fully healed. All Saints Sunday not only gives us the opportunity to grieve, but it also reminds us of this hope! This is why Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading for All Saints Sunday, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”

What are some ways that you remind yourself of this ultimate hope of our faith? Worship? Scripture Reading? Prayer? Other?

Monday, October 28, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Oct. 27) Athens First UMC

[The photo above was taken during the memorial service for Dr. Sam Henderson which was held on October 26 at the OU Inn. This is one of Sam’s children offering the eulogy. Sam was a faithful and long-time member of Athens First UMC. He was a wonderful example of someone who loved and served his church by offering his gifts. It is fitting that the sermon the following day for Sunday worship was on the topic of serving. Next Sunday, Sam’s name will be read along with other members of our church who have passed away over this past year as we observe All Saints’ Sunday.]

Holy God, our prayer today is so simple but powerful. Move us, move us to do thy will.


Move us to pray without ceasing. Move us to read your Word often. Move us to worship you every Sunday morning. Move us to share our faith with others throughout the week. Move us to be generous givers in support of Christ and his church. Move us to serve you with our hands and our hearts. Move us to do thy will, O God.


Thank you for these past seven weeks of our Faith Builders series, where we have been given the opportunity to reflect on our commitments for each of these vital areas of our faith. Thank you for how the church helps us to live out our commitments and for giving us each other where we can build up our faith and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. Thank you for giving us a church where there are so many exciting things happening that we don’t have enough volunteers to keep pace. Thank you for that good problem. Thank you for constantly stretching us to be the church you are calling us to be.


On this Reformation Sunday, move us to always be reforming in what it means to be your people. Thank you for reforming us especially when we get too set in our ways. Thank you for not just saving us, but also enlisting us to do your will. Thank you for giving each one of us a job to do in offering our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness in the building up of your kingdom here on earth.


Move us to do thy will, O God. Move us from the pew to our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces in sharing your love with others. Move us from complacency to commitment. Move us into the abundant life that you have in mind for us. 


Move us to do thy will even as we pray the prayer that Jesus taught us to say together…


“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Sermon (Oct. 27) by Rev. Robert McDowell


    During a work day at the church, a church member came up to me and with a smile on his face said, “Let me see your hands. I want to see some blisters.” 

     Blisters are a sign that we are getting some work done and that we’re doing something that we normally might not do. I don’t like blisters. They hurt. But over time, those blisters toughen up our skin allowing us to get more accomplished.

     I would imagine the disciples had really rough hands. I don’t even want to think about what they’re hands looked like compared to my soft hands. No comparison. 

    That’s what I like about the disciples. Many of them were tough fisherman who left everything to follow Jesus. Instead of pulling in nets full of fish every day, they were now using those same hands to offer God’s healing love to the people around them. I’m sure they continued to fish from time to time, but Jesus had taught them to use their hands to also build up God’s kingdom here on earth.

     Do me a favor and look at your hands. Does anyone have any blisters? If so, raise your hand so we can see them!

     Of course, I’m referring to blisters on our hands as a metaphor to emphasize the need for all of us to be involved in serving as Jesus’ followers. Maybe you have developed a few spiritual blisters as a result of serving Christ and his church. Hopefully, those blisters were only temporary and now that you have been serving over a period of time, those blisters have been replaced with an inner joy of knowing that you are making an eternal difference in people’s lives.

     In our I Corinthians scripture reading, the Apostle Paul tells us that the church is made up of many different people who have many different ways of serving. This is how God designed the church to function.

     Like parts of the body, each person has God given abilities that contribute to a whole that is much greater than the sum of its parts. And, like a human body, when one part suffers, the rest of the church body suffers with it and must devote its energies to making the body whole again.

     Vernal E. Simms served as the Senior Pastor of Morris Brown A.M.E. Church in Philadelphia. In the book, From One Brother to Another, he shares how he grew up in a rough Boston housing project called Columbia Point in a family of nine children. Although he was a hard working student, paying for college seemed impossible.

     But his mother used to say, “Pray, and the Lord will make a way somehow.” He remembered his mother’s advice and began to pray about being able to go to college. He also felt called by God to enter the pastoral ministry which would mean attaining a Master of Divinity degree as well. Stepping out in faith, this young man packed for college and went to orientation but he still didn’t have enough money to enroll. He was about to pack up and make the 100 mile trip back home.

     And then something amazing happened. An heir to a corporate fortune heard about his plight and paid for his college education. After he graduated, he went to his benefactor’s office to thank him for all he had done and asked him what he could to repay him.

     Imagine him saying to this multimillionaire, “What can I do to repay you?” And the man responded with, “Help somebody.”

     Vernal Simms went on to spend the next twenty years pastoring churches in the drug-ridden, crime-infested inner city as well as in well-manicured suburbs. He followed the advice of his benefactor by applying those two simple words, “help somebody.”

     Help somebody. This is what it means to be committed to Jesus Christ. Each one of us has been given at least one gift to use in ministry. We are all called to get some spiritual blisters for Jesus. 

     Our church is awesome at helping each of us to get some holy blisters through our discipleship strategy of having a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith. 

     Think of these three areas as a three legged stool to help each person in the church to fulfill our church’s mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. 

     Let’s take a little time to look at each of these areas where we can be involved in serving:

     On the screen, you can see all of our Loving Faith ministries. A loving faith is what helps us to love God and one another.

     Loving Faith ministries include Sunday worship, Small Groups which meet to discuss the previous Sunday’s worship theme, Stephen Ministry which offers one to one peer support, Music Ministry, United Methodist Women, and our Prayer Ministry which meets every Tuesday morning to lift up the many prayer requests from the previous Sunday.

      Speaking of our Stephen Ministry, we have a couple of people who are interested in being trained to be Stephen Ministers, but we need a minimum of six people to offer the training. Let us know if you have an interest in this. Stephen Ministry is our one to one peer support ministry for people who are in need of a listening ear. 

     The next area in helping us to get some holy blisters our Learning Faith ministries. On the screen, you can see these. Learning Faith ministries help us to learn and grow in our understanding of God and our faith.

     Our Learning Faith ministries include Sunday School classes, Pastor’s bible studies, Children’s Ministries including our Growing Tree Pre-school, & Youth Ministries.

     We are excited about a change we have made with our children’s Sunday School which has now moved to the 10:30 service. The children’s moments during the 10:30 worship service provide the teaching theme for Sunday School that day and then the children go down to room 3 in our Lower Level to continue their Sunday School time and finish by 11:30. We don’t have children’s Sunday School on the first Sunday of each month when we celebrate Holy Communion because we want families to be together for the entire service on that Sunday.

     We have seen an increase in our children’s Sunday School attendance with this recent change in the schedule, but we are in need of more adult leaders. Our goal is to have three teams of children’s leaders with each team taking just one Sunday a month. We have a sign-up sheet in the back of the sanctuary if you feel called by God to serve on one of those teams.This is one of our more immediate needs which is why I’m singling out this particular ministry.

         Learning Faith ministries for all ages are such an important part of the healthy and vitality of our church.

     For the past several weeks, I have been thinking about key ministries in our church like our revamped children’s Sunday School that’s in need of more volunteers. Kathy Mangen and I along with our Sunday School teachers have been constantly brainstorming how we can encourage more people to serve.

     In my mind, it’s been a problem in need of a solution. But this past Friday morning during my prayer time, it hit me that it’s actually a good problem for our church to have. I’d rather be a pastor of a church that is trying to keep up with God, than be the pastor of a church that does just enough to get by.

     So we’re going to keep trying to catch up with what God wants to do in and through us. God is way ahead of us and we’ll need to step it up. I’m thankful for this good problem!

     So far, we’ve looked at our Loving Faith and our Learning Faith ministries.

     Now we turn to our Living Faith ministries which are the 3rd part of the 3 legged stool to help us get holy blisters in serving through the church. On the screen, you can see our many Living Faith ministries:

     These include our monthly Athens First Saturday ministry that happens on the 1st Saturday morning of each month here at our church and includes several mission projects to bless our community. One of the reasons we started Athens First Saturday was to make it as easy as possible to provide a consistent time for people of all ages in our congregation to actively live out their faith in practical ways.

     Monday Lunch is another great way to be part in having a Living Faith.

     Going on a mission trip like we do each year to Honduras is an opportunity to live out our faith.

     Our annual water bottle give away for college students during move-in week in August and our hot chocolate and water give away during OU’s October homecoming parade that goes by our church are other great hands on living faith ministry opportunities.

     Throughout the year, we ask for donations to support Pathways to a Healthy Pregnancy, the Athens County Food Pantry, our Christmas angel tree ministry to help families of those who have loved ones serving time in prison. 

     Our church is blessed to offer so many Living Faith ministries to help us bless our community and world.

     We have a ministry involvement form where you can let us know of which loving faith, learning faith, and living faith ministries you would like to serve. These include over fifty ministry possibilities. They are located in the literature rack located in our front Welcome Center space.

     For now, Jeff is going to play some music as we take a few moments to reflect on how God is calling each one of us to get some holy blisters by serving through our Loving Faith, our Learning Faith, and our Living Faith ministries of the church.


     I want to end with this thought about building up our faith through the six different areas that we have been looking at during our Fall Faith Builder’s series.

     Over these last six Sundays, we have focused on building up our faith through praying, reading, worshiping, sharing, giving, and serving. None of these areas will build up our faith without us making a personal commitment to make all of these areas a priority in our lives.

     It really comes down to that “C” word, “commitment” which was our focus we began this series seven weeks ago.

     Today is Reformation Sunday on the church calendar which is always observed on the last Sunday of October. This is the Sunday that we remember when back in 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in Germany.

    This document was protesting several abuses in the church during his day. That action of posting this document sparked the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. 

     Knowing that he would be labeled as a heretic for doing this, Martin Luther’s commitment to reform led to needed reforms in the church of his day.

     Today, we are invited to make a commitment in the reformation of our own faith. We are invited to in a sense, post our own commitments on the door of our hearts as we offer ourselves to God in this coming year.

     What does the posting on the door of your heart look like based on our Faith Builder’s series?

     Does it include a commitment to praying, reading, worshiping, sharing, giving, and today’s focus on serving?

     May God bless all of our commitments in these vital areas of our faith as we prepare for a new year of ministry. And in the words of hymn writer, Richard Alan Henderson, may our prayer to God always be, “Move me, move me; move me to do thy will.”

Faith Builders: Serving
Sermon Discussion Questions
I Corinthians 12:12-20
October 27, 2019

In I Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul lists several spiritual gifts and the importance of using the gifts God has given us to be a blessing to others by serving. Our strength is in the diversity of our gifts! Paul doesn’t list all of the spiritual gifts in this one passage but the complete list includes apostleship, prophecy, evangelism, shepherding, hospitality, serving, exhortation, giving, craftsmanship, compassion, healing, working miracles, tongues, interpretation of tongues, wisdom, knowledge, faith, discernment, helps, administration, teaching, leadership, intercession/prayer, music, missionary.

Which of the spiritual gifts above interest you? Which need more explanation? Do you know which of these spiritual gifts that God has given you? Our church provides a spiritual gift inventory to help you identify your spiritual gifts and how you might use your gifts to help build up the church. Let our church know if you want more information about spiritual gifts.

Pastor Robert shared the story of a student who received a grant to help him pay for his schooling in becoming a pastor. When he asked the generous donor how he could repay him, the man responded by saying, “Just help somebody.”

How has someone used their spiritual gifts in helping you to have a stronger faith? What gift(s) did they share with you?

Once we know what our spiritual gifts are, we are better able to serve in ministries that match our spiritual gifts. Our church has approximately 50 ministry opportunities that help to build up the church and each other. They help us to be Faith Builders, the title of this sermon series! Our church has a list of these several ministries. Copies are available in the literature rack of our church’s Welcome Center entrance.

What ministries of the church match up best with your spiritual gifts?

During our Faith Builders series, we have looked at the importance of making a commitment in the following six areas to help us prepare for a new year in ministry. These include commitments in praying, reading, worshiping, sharing, giving, and serving.

Which of these six areas has God been calling you to give more focus and attention? Share some specific ways that you can build up your faith in each of these areas.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Oct. 20) Athens First UMC

[We welcomed six new members and celebrated two baptisms on Sunday! From left to right is Josh Verity and Sara Folk holding their daughter, Ella Jane; Cathy Baker; Jeff & Ann Frymier; and Mark Slagle. The highlight of our morning was the baptisms of 7 month old, Ella Jane and her father, Josh. After the baptisms, Josh carried his daughter up and down the aisles as the congregation sang these words of blessing to them, “God claims you, God helps you, protects you, and loves you too. We your family love you so, we vow to help your faith to grow.” It’s special moments like this that remind us what a privilege it is to surrender all by offering our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness to Christ and his church. For the sermon, click here.]

Salvation, abundant life, forgiveness, mercy, guidance, wisdom, hope,  blessings, thank you for all these gifts that you so freely give to us on a daily basis, O God. What expression of gratitude can we possibly give to you in response to your great love for us in Jesus Christ?


We can begin by following the example of the nameless woman who placed who few remaining coins in the Temple treasury. Like her, may we surrender all and trust you to use our gifts so that others may know of your healing and transforming power for our community and world.


As many of us will be reflecting this week on what dollar amount we will be giving to the church, lead us to decide on a level of giving that will best express our love for you and the degree to which we believe that you will once again use your church to bring hope and healing to our community and world. What a joy it is to be part of a church family like this that is seeing so many signs of your kingdom being made visible in beautiful and surprising ways.


Thank you for your church which makes it possible to support missionaries throughout the world. Thank you for your church which provides a safe environment for preschool children to learn and grow. Thank you for your church which offers a nutritious hot meal every week for the people of our community. Thank you for your church which serves as a home away from home for so many of our college students. Thank you for your church which helps to form life-long friendships that would never have been formed without small groups and times of fellowship and worship. Thank you for your church in which we will host a concert of uplifting music tomorrow night. These concerts always remind us that you planted us in this location for a purpose.


And so yes, Lord, we surrender all to you because you have surrendered all on our behalf. Bless the financial commitments that many of us will be making this week as we prepare for another exciting year of ministry.


For you so loved the world that you GAVE your only Son, who taught us to pray together…


“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Baptism of Josh Verity with his wife, Sara, and their daughter, Ella Jane.]

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sermon (Oct. 20) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Praying, reading, worshiping, and sharing have been the first four spiritual disciplines to help us build up our faith.  We have two more to disciplines in our Faith Builders series. Today, we focus on giving.

     For this, we turn our attention to a person who often goes unnoticed, who flies under the radar, whose name no one seems to remember, and who often gets lost in the crowd. And yet this same person is the one who Jesus lifts up in our Gospel reading as a shining example of financial generosity. 

     Jesus and the disciples were people watching one day. They weren’t sitting on a bench at a shopping mall, but they were watching the hustle and bustle of a large crowd of people making their donations to the Temple treasury. 

     There were some big time donations being made by some pretty impressive and well known people. They were dropping in some serious coinage as a display of their power and wealth. 

     These are the names that you see in the first pages of the annual financial report under the heading, President’s Club. It’s the annual gift that could buy a new car. It’s such a large gift that you just might get a call and be invited to serve on the board of directors.

     As they watch this impressive display of financial giving, Jesus points out the obvious that it’s so easy to focus on the people who are making the big donations. That’s the easy part. There’s a reason why most people know who you mean when you say Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. They’re rich. They have a ton of money. And they donate more money to causes than we can ever imagine.

     And I like it that Jesus doesn’t trivialize the giving of those impressive donors. Everyone is called to offer their financial resources to be a blessing to others. That’s something that we are all called to do.

     But Jesus doesn’t want the disciples and he doesn’t want us to only focus on the dollar amount of the financial gifts. Jesus wants us to focus on something much more important. Jesus wants us to focus on the spirit in which we offer our gifts.

     And for this, he points out a poor nameless widow who drops in her two coins into the Temple Treasury. Those two coins will not get her name printed in the top donor category. She won’t even get listed under that last category called, “Other Contributions.” She will largely go unnoticed. She will remain nameless.

     But Jesus noticed. And Jesus lifted up this poor widow as an example of what it means to be fully committed to God. She gave her financial gift out of her poverty and gave all that she had. Jesus wants us to see that giving is not just about the dollar amount. It’s about the heart.  It’s about the spirit in which we offer our gifts.

     We might even say that Jesus doesn’t just notice the size of our financial gifts. He also notices what’s in our checking and saving accounts. Jesus sees the big picture. He can see what’s important to us. He can see where we place our priorities.

     Someone said to me one day that when he reviewed his spending over the past several weeks, he was shocked with how much money he spent on entertainment. It can be shocking when we do the math and think about how we are spending our money vs. what we say is important in our lives.

     Sometimes what we say is important doesn’t translate into our practical everyday lives.   We need to do a better job of going from the theoretical to the practical.

     Maybe you heard about the preacher who visited a farmer one day and asked him, “Joe, If you had $200, would you give $100 to the Lord?”  And the farmer said, “Sure, I would!”

     And then the preacher asked him, “Joe, if you had two cows, would you give one cow to the Lord?” And the farmer said, “Well, yeah, if I had two cows, I’d give one of the those cows to the Lord.”

     And the preacher asked him, “Joe, let me ask you one more question. What if you owned two pigs? Would you give one of your two pigs to the Lord?”

     This time the farmer got angry and said, “Now, that’s not fair preacher, because you know that I actually own two pigs!”

     Sometimes what sounds great in theory doesn’t always translate into real life generosity.

     This is why the bible talks about the principle of tithing our financial resources. Tithing is the biblical model of giving 10% of our financial blessings to the work of Christ and his church. Some have said that the biblical principle of tithing acts as a great equalizer because if a poor person puts $15 into the offering plate one Sunday morning and a very wealthy person puts in $1,500 that same day, and both gifts represent 10% of that’s week’s income, then their gifts are equal according to Jesus’ math. The call is for equal sacrifice, not equal gifts.

     The widow in our Gospel reading has much to teach all of us about love, trust, and the nature of God. She didn’t have much, but she gave all she had because she loved others beyond herself. She gave because she believed those coins could be multiplied by God for God’s work. She knew that God could be trusted to be faithful beyond any bank or possession.

     A friend of mine shared his faith journey with me. Early in his marriage he would attend church on occasion but not very often. A buddy of his invited him to attend a spiritual weekend retreat which he did and during that retreat, he experienced God’s love in a way that he had never before experienced. That weekend became a major turning point in his life.

     When he got home after the retreat, he told his wife all about it. He told her about how he had experienced God’s love and grace in such a real and powerful way and how he made a commitment to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ during that weekend.  And so he asked her, “How much do we give to the church each week?” He had never asked her what they give each week.

     She told him the amount and he said, “Oh, my. That’s nowhere near what we should be giving. We need to at least triple that amount.”

     Not only did that weekend retreat change him inwardly, it also had a huge impact on his commitments in the key areas we have been focusing on these past several weeks. He began praying and reading his bible on a daily basis. He started attending worship with his wife and family every single week. He became intentional in sharing his new found faith with the people at work. And he began to tithe his income to the work of Christ and the church.

     If you would do the math, even before this man’s spiritual renewal weekend, he was giving a whole lot more money in the offering than the poor widow in our Gospel reading.  But it wasn’t until after that spiritual weekend that he realized that his gift was so small in comparison to her great sacrifice. He was now wanting to make up for lost time. He realized what the poor widow already knew, that our giving is a response to God’s gracious love in our lives.

     To help us with this fifth commitment of giving as part of our Faith Builder’s series, up on the screen are some choices for us to consider. I’m going to give us time to think about these choices and which one we would like to be our commitment in this area of giving to Christ and his church.

     I invite us to look up at the screen on some giving options for us to consider. Like previous Sundays, you can see the various options that are listed. I’m going to read these possible responses.

No, I am not ready to commit at this time.
Yes, I am ready to commit as follows:

    You’ll see that it says, “General Budget” which supports over fifty vital ministries through our church.  It then says that from this coming January 1 to December 31 of 2020, that I will give so much money every week or month or quarter or year for an annual total amount of so many dollars.

     And then at the bottom, you’ll notice an option where you can indicate if this will represent a tithe or 10% of your income to the work of Christ and the church. If it’s not a tithe, you can put down whatever % of your income that represents. This is between you and God. 

     And finally, you also have the option of checking the last line that says that in the years ahead with God’s help, I will step up toward tithing. This might mean that instead of giving 2% of your income to Christ and the church, that you set a goal to give a higher percentage the following year until you reach the biblical principle of tithing.

     I think the last paragraph is very important with this Sunday’s commitment on financial giving. It says that giving will be the greatest joy in my life. I will make my contribution to Christ and the church the top priority in my personal budget.   

     This week, many of us will be receiving a mailing that will include a 2020 Financial Estimate of Giving card to support the work of Christ and the church. Look for that mailing this week and prayerfully consider your commitment in this area of giving as we prepare for a new year of ministry here at Athens First, and return the card at your earliest convenience. 

      As Wendy plays some music, we’re invited to think about what God is calling you and me to give in this coming year. 


     I’ll close with this thought. Many of us are familiar with the Bible verse, John 3:16. It’s probably one of the most recognizable scripture references in all the Bible.

     That’s always been interesting to me because it’s a verse about giving. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son.” He gave his only son.

     You’d think that the most familiar verse wouldn’t be about giving but about something else like our happiness or feeling peaceful. Instead, this well known verse is about giving.

     We notice sacrificial giving, like a poor widow giving all that she had to bless others. Like the God of creation giving us his only Son to die on the cross.

     Deep down, we know that God has created each one of us to be generous givers. It’s at the heart of who God is. And it’s at the heart of who we are called to be.

Faith Builders: Giving
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 21:1-4
October 20, 2019

Our Faith Builders sermon series is focusing on six key areas which include praying, reading, worshiping, sharing, and we have two more to go. This week’s focus is on giving. For this area, we turn to a nameless widow who teaches us what it means to give generously bless God and God’s kingdom from our heart. This story is found in Luke 21:1-4. She gave all that she had into the Temple treasury and Jesus noticed her sacrificial giving.

Why do you think that of all the examples of generous givers in the Bible, probably the most generous of all isn’t even given a name? What does this say about where our focus should be when we offer our gifts to Christ and the church?

In the sermon, a true story was told about a man who gave what he thought was a generous amount to support the work of his local church. But when he attended a life-changing spiritual retreat, he realized that his financial contribution did not truly match his newfound gratitude for God’s many blessings in his life. After this spiritual awakening, he and his wife reconsidered and increased their giving to match what they were feeling in their heart. Pastor Robert defined financial giving to Christ and his church as “my response to God’s gracious love in my life.”

Share a time when you became more aware of “God’s gracious love in your life.” How did this new awareness have an impact on your life?

For each Sunday of our Faith Builders series, we have been given time during worship to consider making a commitment in these vital areas of our faith. For this week on giving, we contemplated these possible commitments:
  • No, I am not ready to commit in financially supporting Christ and his church at this time.
  • Yes, I am ready to commit in the following way...
(Because this is such a personal decision, our church will be soon sending a mailing out to the congregation inviting us to consider our estimate of giving to the church in 2020.)

As we continue to reflect this week on our financial support of Christ and his church, use this prayer from Sunday’s worship service:

Gracious God, you have blessed us with many gifts. We are here today because you have led us to this place. You have given us your Son, Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Savior. You have given us this church to help us grow closer to you so that we might be a blessing to our community and world. You have given us so much. Help us to offer our very best gifts to you so that we might be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. Forgive us for when we take your gifts for granted and for when we neglect to share your gifts for the sake of your kingdom. Give each one of us generous hearts. In your name, we pray. Amen. 


Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sermon (Oct. 13) by Dr. Dave Bayless

Unfortunately, we have all probably experienced times when people who claim to be Christian, but who do not act very Christ-like when they are out in public.

A waitress at a Cracker Barrel said that her least favorite day to work was Sunday because of the “church people” who came in.  She found that they could be demanding, critical of her service and did not  leave very good tips.  She knew that they were church people because they often were carrying their Bibles and were talking about church activities.  As a believer in Christ herself, she was embarrassed! 

A common theme in the New Testament is that we are to be Jesus' witnesses in the world. For better or for worse, we are the models of what it means to live as a follower of Jesus.  How do we gracefully share our faith in Christ?

Perhaps you have been confronted about your faith by a well-meaning believer.  Someone has witnessed in such a way that you feel that you are doomed unless you believe as they do.  I don't like those encounters. I don't want to be judged or manipulated.  We want to be witnesses who encourage others to know God, and to explore the wonders of God's love.

How can we prepare to be a witness?   We don't have to memorize a script, or even give out leaflets. It is helpful if we are just aware of God's presence, and aware of people. Think about how God has been real to you! What you share from your experience and faith is valuable and needed by others. No canned speeches are necessary.

In the prior weeks, we have talked about being faith builders through praying, reading, and worshiping. Making a commitment in each of these practices are foundational to our having a strong faith. Today, we focus on the faith building discipline of sharing.

Every day we encounter other people. How do we share our faith with them?    

A woman told that years ago she was struggling in her life. She   had just finished working  her second job when she ran into a convenience store to pick up some items.  She was physically tired and worn down by her circumstances.  As she was leaving the store an older man walked past her, opened the door and held it for her.  She was so encouraged by this simple act  that made her feel that she had some worth!  It is still a sweet memory for her years later.   Our witness can indeed be a simple gesture of kindness.

It is a valid witness to smile at the cashier, to tell someone that they have done a good job, to hold the door open for someone else.

It was near Christmas, Bill had gone to get the  oil changed in his car. He overheard the attendant saying that he was hungry but he didn't have quite enough money for some food. When Bill was leaving, he gave him a $5.00 bill and said “Merry Christmas.”  The guy  asked “Why would you do something like this?” Bill told him that  Christmas was all about Jesus’ love and that it is always a gift.

I think of Jesus as noticing people around him .He drew them out, engaged their minds and hearts.  As disciples, we are called be attentive to the people around us, to listen to their stories, and if we can, share our own.

We all like someone to listen to us, to ask us how we are. If someone “really” wants to hear your story, how great is that!

A woman was getting a facial at a spa.  She asked the spa employee “How are you doing?” The employee answered:  “ I shouldn't be sharing about my sad life.”  She told her that sometimes it helps to talk about your problems.  The young woman shared that she was separated, her job was not the best, and she felt the spiritual was missing in her life.  The woman did a lot of listening during that one hour appointment.  When she left, she put the tip in an envelope, and also wrote a note encouraging the woman to call out to God, to seek and she would find, because God did care for her.

As God leads us, we can be generous with our resources and our time.

You can be a witness  through your relationships with people you see often at work, at school, in the neighborhood, at the gym.

 You can  help a neighbor rake leaves and then listen as he shares about his loneliness since his wife died. 

You can offer to pray for your co-worker who is facing an illness and cannot get the words out. 

You can invite a friend for coffee and as you catch up with each other, share how God's grace touched you through the funny antics of your grandchild. 

You can invite someone to worship or another activity. You can help connect them to our family of faith and here they may discover God's love. 

Maybe offer to pick them up and then sit together in worship. They may not be interested in Sunday morning, but are intrigued by serving others through our Athens First Saturday ministry which we hold each month.  Your personal  recommendation means a great deal. You are the best publicity for our church.

A new mom named Sarah wrote about coming back to church with her husband and new baby. “We weren't drawn in by any slick brochure or fancy website.  It was community that got us to the altar... and community that has kept us coming back week after week. It was the community of young parents like us- friends we knew from preschool that kept inviting us to church again and again. It was that community of intelligent and thoughtful people who welcomed my doubts...It was the community of loving and compassionate hearts who made room at the table...”

Along the way, as you share about spiritual issues, you may be asked some hard questions such as  “With the world in such a mess, how can you have hope?”  “Why did this have to happen to me?”  “After what I have done in my life, can I ever find forgiveness?”  (That is when you say “I don’t know” and tell them to call Pastor Robert…)

Actually, that's when you ask God to give you the right words for the situation, and you share the best that you can. We are called to listen and learn from others. We don't have to have all the answers. 

Your story with all its faults can still help change someone else's story.  Know that you are just a part of all the ways that God is working in their lives.

Logan Waldie was one of several people who attended our church-wide Faith Builders training event this past August. Part of that training time that we had together was to get in touch with our personal journeys of faith so that we will be more likely to share our faith with others. He/she is now going to briefly share his/her faith journey with us to show how simple this can be…

Thank you, Logan for sharing your faith story with us.

You have your own story of faith to share.  You have people to notice, and  to share about the important things in life. Jesus has invited us to let others know about the hope and salvation that he offers. You can do this!  Each morning we ask the question: what opportunities might come my way where I can encourage somebody by sharing my faith with them? To help us think about this day, we have an opportunity this morning to make a commitment in sharing our faith.

Let's look at those options on the screen. I am going to read the various responses that you can choose from:
1.       I cannot make a commitment today.
2.       I will look for ways that God is real in my life each  
3.       I will be attentive and listen to other people and their 
4.       I will pray for other people and for opportunities to share 
          God's love.
5.       I will invite someone to come  to worship with me.
6.       I will invite someone to join me in an Athens First   
          activity: Athens First Saturday serving, a small group, a 
          concert, or other special event.
7.       In conversation with others, I will share how God's love 
          has made a difference in my life.               
8.       To love others and show God's kindness will become a 
           priority so that...

I will intentionally notice people around me (family, friends, neighbors, strangers) and listen to what they have to share. I will look at others as God's children. I will not be arrogant but attempt to be honest about  the ups and downs of my  life as a follower of Jesus. I will pray that we all will grow in our understanding and  in our faith and  love of God. I will take the responsibility of reaching out to others and inviting them to be a part of our church family. I will go out of my way to make a guest here feel at home,  Each day I will offer to God my efforts of caring for his children and then depend upon  the wonderful sufficiency of God's grace for each of us.

     Jeff will play some music for the next minute or so as we silently make our commitment to God.

     May God bless all of our commitments as we share our faith with others.

Faith Builders: Sharing
Sermon Discussion Questions
Colossians 4:5-6 & Matthew 28:19-20
October 13, 2019

We are in the middle of a seven week sermon series on the theme, “Faith Builders.” We have focused on building up our faith through praying, reading, worshiping, and for this week we focus on sharing and specifically, sharing our faith with others.

What is your initial reaction to the thought of sharing your faith with someone? Which of these responses do you most relate? 1) I can’t wait! I love sharing my faith! 2) I’m not sure about this. 3) I’d rather have a root canal. 4) I’m willing to share my faith, but would appreciate some thoughts on how to go about doing this.

Contrary to popular belief, sharing our faith isn’t about handing out religious tracks or trying to convince somebody that God is real. Sharing our faith is simply about sharing how God is at work in our everyday lives. We call these “Thin Place Moments” where we experience heaven and earth overlapping and forming a “thin place” where we can sense God’s presence. These are often not very dramatic but simple moments where God’s presence is experienced.

Have you experienced a “Thin Place Moment” recently? What was it? Share your thin place moment with someone.

The New Testament emphasizes the importance of us in being “witnesses” by sharing our faith with others. Here are some thoughts on how we might share our faith with others. Reflect on each of these possible commitments that God is inviting you to consider in sharing your faith with others.

1.       I cannot make a commitment today.
2.       I will look for ways that God is real in my life each  
3.       I will be attentive and listen to other people and their 
4.       I will pray for other people and for opportunities to share 
          God's love.
5.       I will invite someone to come  to worship with me.
6.       I will invite someone to join me in an Athens First   
          activity: Athens First Saturday serving, a small group, a 
          concert, or other special event.
7.       In conversation with others, I will share how God's love 
          has made a difference in my life.               
8.       To love others and show God's kindness will become a 
           priority so that...

I will intentionally notice people around me (family, friends, neighbors, strangers) and listen to what they have to share. I will look at others as God's children. I will not be arrogant but attempt to be honest about the ups and downs of my life as a follower of Jesus. I will pray that we all will grow in our understanding and in our faith and love of God. I will take the responsibility of reaching out to others and inviting them to be a part of our church family. I will go out of my way to make a guest here feel at home. Each day I will offer to God my efforts of caring for his children and then depend upon the wonderful sufficiency of God's grace for each of us.

Which of the commitments above appeal to you the most? Why? Which ones are more intimidating? Why? What do you find rewarding or challenging in seeking to live out the paragraph above?