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

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Merry Christmas from the Church Staff!

This is how a typical church staff looks right before the busy Christmas season. Ha! 

Top Row (L to R) - Dustin Roberts, Dan Kemp, Jill Warner, Sandy Roberts, Clarence McCoy, John Coen, & Joe Palmer
Bottom Row (L to R) - Pastor Cheryl, Lisa Schenck, Deb Silvia, & Pastor Robert

Wait, here's a much better picture. Merry Christmas from the church staff! We are so blessed and honored to serve First United Methodist Church!

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Exodus: God's and Kings" - A Bible Scholar's Movie Review

The movie, "Exodus: God's and Kings" was recently released in movie theaters. It's based on the story of the Exodus which is so central to the biblical narrative.

Themes from the Exodus are interwoven throughout the scriptures and are vital in helping us to understand other biblical passages. For example, Jesus is seen as the new Moses who has come to rescue the world from our slavery to sin and death. The water of baptism points us back to the parting of the Red Sea when the Israelites were saved. There's much more that can be added to this discussion which just goes to show how important the Exodus story is in helping us to understand and appreciate the entire biblical narrative.

Movies that are based on events that have been recorded are a little tricky because the script will often add story lines to fill in the gaps, especially when those events occurred in ancient history. These detours from the main event are often needed for "artistic purposes." I am totally fine with that as long as it fits within the historical framework and it doesn't detract from the basic narrative of the actual event.

For example, after watching Tom Hank's movie, "Captain Phillips," I was disappointed to discover that this movie most likely offered a very different portrayal of what actually happened on that cargo ship. Sticking with the historical integrity of an event in a movie is important to me.

Dr. Ben Witherington, a United Methodist bible scholar offers a critique of "Exodus: God's and Kings" in a recent blog post. He gives the movie a B- and you can read his article here.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Ugly Christmas Sweater Sunday Controversy

As we approach our church's 2nd annual Ugly Christmas Sweater Sunday (the Sunday after Christmas) a controversy is brewing. There seems to be some discussion over what title to give this new Sunday on the church calendar.

Ugly Christmas Sweater Sunday 
Christmas Sweater Sunday?

We certainly do not want anyone to feel left out of Christmas sweater fun if they honestly believe that their sweater is tasteful rather than ugly. Let me just say that as United Methodists, we embrace inclusiveness. We have a big tent where many sweaters are welcomed into God's house.

Having said that, there are particular sweaters that are noticeably tackier than others. Examples include a very dainty Christmas sweater that a burly man steals from his wife's dresser drawar and wears on Ugly Christmas Sweater Sunday.

There is also what I would classify as the Perry Como Christmas sweater that is several decades out of style.

And let's not forget the homemade Christmas sweater complete with a string of lights, puffy snowmen, and sad looking Christmas trees.

If any of these above Christmas sweater styles falls outside of your definition of ugly, I apologize. I'm just say'n that if a poll was conducted, most regular church attendees would probably agree with me on this distinction.

So all of this leads me to want to keep the word, "ugly" in the title. Some have suggested we change the title to "tacky." I can live with that but the word ugly is a little more head turning for me. We need that little extra oomph for a Sunday that is typically not all that well attended.

UCS also provides a nice acronym for this new liturgical Sunday. CS feels a little too short for my liking.

We will continue to pray about the title of this important Sunday during the Christmas Season. Whatever you want to call it, during the Christmas Season, let's celebrate the birth of our Lord for all its worth! After a long penitential Season of Advent, we are called to rejoice, celebrate, and have some fun together! Christ is born! The Savior has come!

The good news of Christmas is meant for everyone, even those of us who have very little fashion sense.

Happy Ugly Christmas Sweater Sunday!

Sunday Worship Preview - December 21

Sunday, December 21 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) PLEASE NOTE: There will be no 6:30 pm Wednesday Gathering Worship service at our Crossroads facility the next two weeks. This service will resume on January 3.

Features - 4th Sunday of Advent

Scripture - Romans 16:25-27 & John 3:16-18

Sermon "Reclaim Christmas: Choosing the Best Gifts"

Theme - Reclaiming Christmas means that we remember that God sent us his very best gift at Christmas. God sent us Jesus to be our Savior. God also expects us to offer our best gifts this year. By giving to our Christmas missions offering, we can offer our best gifts which will be used to bring transformation to our world.

Sermon (December 14) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Reclaim Christmas: Scandalous Love"

     Scandalous love. That’s an intriguing sermon title, isn’t it? Actually, it’s from the title of a chapter in the book, Christmas Is Not Your Birthday, by Mike Slaughter. In his book, Mike makes the case that the Christmas story is really a story about God’s scandalous love for the world.
     It’s scandalous because, we didn’t do anything to deserve this love. God loves us even though we have not always loved God. There’s nothing that we can do to make God love us any more and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less. God’s love for us is always full and complete.
     This is why God was willing to take the incredible risk of sending his only Son to be born in our world. That’s how much God loves us. God was willing to take that risk because love is at the heart of who God is.
     God sent Jesus into our world of brokenness and pain knowing that it wouldn’t be easy for him. Jesus would be born in a manger that was really a feed trough for livestock. From the very beginning, King Herod sought to kill Jesus and his family had to seek refuge in another country.

     Raising a child is one the most challenging things in life because of all of the responsibility that is involved. When our first child was born, I remember the incredible joy of holding her little body in my arms for the first time. But I also remember feeling the pain just an hour later of watching the nurse draw blood from her little foot.
     We know that at some point, they will fall and scrape their knees. We know that at some point, they will probably fall off the bike. We know that at some point, they will walk into a classroom on their own. We know that at some point they will step on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal when learning how to drive. This is all part of what it means to be a parent. You do what you can do, but at some point, you need to let them learn on their own. Love involves risk.  The Christmas story is a story of God’s risky love on our behalf. That’s how much God loves us.

     This story of God’s risky love isn’t new. It’s throughout the bible, especially from the Book of Hosea. You don’t hear the Book of Hosea read too often during worship. That’s because it can get a little too graphic.
     I’ll do my best to explain what I mean without going over the top. Hosea was a prophet who lived during a very dark time of Israel’s history. Even though God had loved them and given them everything they needed, they turned away from God and things really started to fall apart for them.
     To give you some idea of how bad things became for Israel, four of their kings were killed in a span of just fourteen years. They were facing warfare and anarchy. And all of this was because they had turned away from God’s love and became very selfish and greedy.
     Desperate times calls for desperate measures. God tells the prophet Hosea to marry someone who he knows will be unfaithful to him. If that sounds like a crazy thing for God to ask Hosea to do, then you’re right. It was crazy! It was also a very scandalous thing for Hosea to do. But that’s what God told Hosea to do.
     Hosea, wanting to be faithful to what God wanted, did as God instructed. He married this person who he knew would be unfaithful to him. To make a long story short, Hosea’s wife was unfaithful to Hosea. Even though his wife cheated on him over and over again, in the end, Hosea publicly received her back. Hosea’s willingness to receive her back as his wife was unheard of during that time period.
     The point of this story is simple, but profound. Hosea symbolizes God and God’s unconditional love for the people of Israel. Hosea’s wife who had turned her back on Hosea is symbolic of how Israel had turned away from God over and over again.
     This story is why God’s love for us can be called a scandalous love. Even though we turn away from God again and again, God doesn’t turn his back on us. Like Hosea, God receives us back and offers us a forgiving love.
     This understanding of God’s scandalous love is probably what the Apostle Paul was thinking about when he wrote, “All have sinned and fall short of the God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus.”
     Amazing Grace is probably the most popular hymn because God’s grace is amazing. It’s a grace that is offered to us even though we have turned our backs on God. It’s a grace that is stronger than anything we might do to offend God. That’s why we call it amazing. It is amazing!

     When I was growing up, I loved to see how far I could throw a football down a big hill that overlooked my house. Because of that hill, I could throw the football really far. My dad kept warning me to not throw the football so close to the house because I might break a window.
     One day, I was on top of the hill throwing the football as far as I could. It was windy that day and sure enough, when I let go of the football, the wind just blew that football into our dining room window. The sound of breaking glass is not a pleasant sound.
     When I made it to the bottom of the hill, my mom told me to have a seat in the kitchen. She asked me, “What did your father tell you about throwing the football so close to the house? You’re going to sit in this chair until your father comes home.”
     This was not looking good. Mom was right. I should have known better.
     As I sat in the chair, I remember praying for God to perform a miracle like fixing the window before dad would arrive home. Once in a while, I would peak into the dining room and sure enough, I could still see broken glass everywhere. “So much for miracles,” I thought to myself.
     Finally, dad came home. I expected the worse. He first went to the dining room to look at the damage. He came back to where I was seated, looked me in my eyes and said to me, “Next time, don’t throw the football so close to the house and help me clean up this mess.”
     Even though I deserved a whole lot worse that day, my dad offered me grace. No wonder they call it amazing grace. Actually, my prayer for a miracle was answered, just not in the way I expected.
     Hosea’s scandalous love is similar to the kind of love at Christmas when God sent Jesus. It’s an over the top kind of love, a love that we don’t deserve, but are invited to receive again and again.

     We often associate the word, “scandal” with tabloid news stories of crazy things people do. There’s a reason those scandals make it on the front page. They peak our interest. We want to know why somebody would do something so out of the ordinary.
     God’s love is scandalous, but in a good way. Mary knew that she was being called to bear God’s scandalous love when she was told that she was with child of the Holy Spirit. She couldn’t believe that God called someone like her to be the one who would carry God’s love full term.
     Just listen to her words which we know as the Magnificat from Luke’s Gospel. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
     God’s scandalous love did become scandalous for Mary and Joseph as they had to endure the suspicious looks and the hurtful gossip regarding her pregnancy. God’s scandalous love for the world has a way of turning heads and creating a stir in the crowd.
     The Christmas story doesn’t just invite us to be spectators of God’s scandalous love. Like Mary and Joseph, it invites us to become part of the scandal in which we becoming willing participants in offering God’s love to the world.
     In his book, Surprised by Scripture, Tom Wright shares a story about a youth group that became willing participants in offering God’s scandalous love in their community. As their Bishop in northeast England, he had invited teenagers from the various churches in that area for a week long gathering. They had bible studies in the morning, social projects in the afternoon, and worship rallies in the evening.
     His favorite memory from that week was when he went with one of the dozens of afternoon groups to paint the back walls of a lane of dark and dismal houses in the wrong part of one of the nearby old towns. They also hung flower baskets all the way down the road.
     People came out of their houses our of curiosity, something they didn’t normally do because they were afraid of those dark back alleys and what usually went on there. They asked nervously whether they were from the town’s council or whether they were going to have to pay for these improvements.
     The teens would just smile at them and say that they were from the church and their work was a present to them and to the people of their community.  The town’s people were taken aback by all the beautiful work they were doing on their behalf.
     The story didn’t end there. A year later, the Bishop went back to this town and he noticed something very interesting. The residents had begun to do more things in that back alley, planting little gardens and hold barbecues and getting to know one another.
     All of this was the result of just one small gesture of love and generosity from young people who had come together from various churches to live out their faith in a very practical way. God’s scandalous love takes a life of its own when lived out in even the smallest of ways.
     The reason that God risked everything by sending us Jesus was because of scandalous love, a love that turns heads, a love that makes people step out of their homes to see what new thing is happening in their community, a love that offers grace even though we have been unfaithful, and a love that comes to us as a little baby born in a manger.
     And like Mary, God invites us to offer this love to the world, a world that God loves and seeks to redeem. Mary knew that the baby inside her was not just meant for her, but was also meant for the whole world.
     Christmas is a time for us to share in God’s love for the world. How can we not share in God’s broken heart wherever there is pain and suffering?
     God feels the pain of those who are unemployed or who live in communities where there is little or no hope. God feels the pain in knowing that a child dies from hunger related causes every five seconds somewhere around the world. God feels the pain in knowing that a child dies from Malaria every sixty seconds.
     God’s scandalous love calls each one of us to reclaim Christmas, to not have Christmas be about us, but about what God wants for the world. We are to reclaim Christmas by joining Mary in accepting God’s call to be a blessing to our community and world.
     Over these first few weeks of Advent, we have been extending the invitation to reclaim Christmas through our special Christmas missions offering this year. Our special Christmas gift is going to support four vital mission projects. These include supporting our Lithuania United Methodist partner church, the Africa Development Fund, Imagine No Malaria, and Good Works Outreach in Athens, Ohio.
     Can you imagine what a difference our church can make through this special missions offering? We’re just one church, but when we reclaim Christmas and offer ourselves to the world, great things can happen. Lives can be saved. People can receive hope. Communities can be transformed.

     This year, reclaim Christmas. Receive God’s amazing grace. And here’s the really important part. Let’s offer God’s scandalous love to the world.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Reclaim Christmas - Don't Forget Jesus' Birthday!

You would think that since our church's Advent and Christmas focus this year is to reclaim Christmas that I would not have forgotten to include Jesus in our December birthday announcement at a church program last night.

The whole point of our reclaiming Christmas theme is to remember that Christmas is about Jesus' birthday and not about us. Disclaimer: This does not mean that people with December birthdays, especially December 24/25 birthdays should not celebrate their own birthdays. It just means that we should remember that Christmas is about the celebration of Jesus' birthday.

Last night's epic fail reminds me of how easy it can be for us, even those of us in the church, to not keep Jesus as the focus of the season. By keeping Jesus as the focus, this doesn't necessarily mean to sing Christmas carols 24/7. Reclaiming Christmas means that we always keep in mind why Jesus came in the first place.

God sent Jesus to redeem and renew the world and we are called to join in the fun! We are called to shine the light of Jesus into any darkness we may encounter in our day to day living. I think of the darkness of unemployment, the darkness of sickness and pain, the darkness of racism, the darkness of greed, the darkness of grief, the darkness of despair, etc.

This is why we hold those lighted candles and sing "Silent Night" on Christmas Eve. God invites each one of us to take the light of the nativity and shine it wherever we go.

Last night's epic fail of not remembering to include Jesus in our December birthdays reminds me that reclaiming Christmas is not always easy. The pull of our culture to make Christmas all about us surrounds us at every turn.

The good news is that God's invitation to reclaim Christmas also surrounds us at every turn. Should we buy gifts for each other this time of year? Sure! Should we indulge a little and eat Christmas cookies, peanut butter fudge, and other goodies that aren't good for us. Sure!

But let's not forget to shine the light of Christ in a world that is broken and hurting! Let's offer God's love to those in need. Let's be generous as we support mission projects throughout the world like "Imagine No Malaria." Let's not forget that Christmas is about Jesus' birthday. Let's remember to include Jesus in the list of December birthdays.

Let's reclaim Christmas!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Upcoming Sunday Scripture Commentary - December 14

Sermon (December 14) - "Reclaim Christmas: Scandalous Love"

Romans 3:21-26

Context of this scripture passage:
Paul is using the metaphor of a courtroom. Court was in session and everyone was found guilty. Israel was not able to be the people God had called them to be. Israel was supposed to be the solution to the problem of sin, but they were also part of the problem!

v. 22 - God's righteousness - This refers to how God is faithful to the covenant he made to Israel. It wold be through Jesus' life, death, and resurrection that the world would be made right.

v. 23 - All have sinned. That is, human were created to reflect God's image in the world and we have failed in being who we were created to be!

Instead of God giving up on the covenant, God fulfills it through Jesus. Jesus is our representative and did what we were not able to do on our own.

v. 24 - The result of Jesus fulfilling the covenant is redemption. This word is a technical word in biblical times of buying back a slave. The metaphor is extended here because God's redemption means that we are no longer slaves! Humanity is now declared not guilty.

v. 25 refers to a piece of furniture in the Temple - the mercy seat. Instead of the mercy seat, we now have Jesus. Jesus has become the reality of what the Temple had been pointing all along.

v. 26 - We are justified by faith which means that those who accept the good news of Jesus are declared to be in the right and not guilty.

Luke 1:39-56

This is called the Magnificat because the first word of this passage in Latin is Magnificat. This is often sung by choirs and in monasteries.

Mary and Elizabeth were filled with joy because they shared in the hope of all Israel that one day God will fulfill a promise to bless the world through the covenant that had been made with Israel. In order for this to happen, the powers of this world would need to be overthrown.

This song reminds us of Hannah's song from I Samuel 2 in the Old Testament.

This scripture shows us Elizabeth, an older woman who is pregnant alongside a younger woman, Mary, who is also pregnant. They are joyful because they know their sons will be part of the long awaited fulfillment of God's covenant.

For this reason, Mary offers this incredible song of celebration.

[Note: The resources used for these scripture reading commentaries are based on the Everyone series by NT Wright, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, The Wesley Study Bible, and the “Montreal-Anglican”lectionary commentaries.]