A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - September 28


Sunday, September 28 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, October 1  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 16th Sunday After Pentecost & First Sunday of a Five-Week Church-Wide Focus on Living Generously

Scripture - Leviticus 22:17-20 & Matthew 22:34-40

Sermon "Living Generously: First & Best"

Theme - Living generously means that we are giving our very best in loving God and others. Are you giving your best? This is the first part of a five-part church-wide focus on "Living Generously." 

Sermon (September 21) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "A Life Worth Living"


     I read in the news about a man who was recently hired to begin a new job. He is so excited about his new job that every single morning, he wants to do a back handspring out of bed, because he is that excited about going to work.
     If you are interested in trying this, I want to show you a little demonstration of someone doing a back handspring. This is one of our own church members, Alli Romans, who is a gymnast. Let’s watch her demonstrate this for us.
video

     I’m sure that most of us can do what Alli just did on that video! What a positive way to begin each day by doing a back handspring  out of bed every morning!
      Please do not try this unless you know what you’re doing and you have approval from your physician. I just wanted to offer that disclaimer.
     I really like this man’s approach to his new job. He is that excited about his day.
     The Apostle Paul strikes me as somebody who did back handsprings out of bed every morning. He couldn’t wait to begin his day so that he would be able to share his faith in Christ with the people around him. Nothing was going to stop him. Being an apostle of Jesus Christ brought him great joy.
     This is someone who founded at least fourteen and maybe up to twenty churches during his lifetime. He wrote fourteen of the twenty-seven books that are in our New Testament.  About half of the Book of Acts is about this man. And on top of all of that, he led three missionary journeys to help spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
     This man probably did back handsprings out of bed. He was that excited about his faith. If you haven’t already done so, I want to encourage you to read the Letter of Philippians from beginning to end.  It doesn’t take long to read at all. If you are feeling discouraged, this letter will probably cheer you up.
     Some of my favorite bible verses are in this one letter. Verses like the one that we already heard read a little bit ago. “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
     Philippians 2:13 – “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
     Philippians 3:10 & 11 – “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead”
    Philippians 3:13-14 – “But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
     Philippians 4:4-9 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
     And probably my favorite of all the verses. Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Say that verse over and over again and see if it doesn’t change your outlook and approach in a given situation.
      In writing this letter to the church at Philippi, Paul is pointing us to a life that is worth living. It’s a life that is centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s the kind of life where you want to do a back handspring out of bed when you wake up in the morning. You can’t wait to begin your day because you know that Christ will be with you in every single moment.
     In our scripture reading from Philippians, Paul offers three ways for us to live a life that is worth living. These three reasons can make a huge difference in our lives.
     The first way is by having a purpose in life. In our passage of scripture, Paul is wrestling with the idea of which is better; being with Christ for all of eternity, or serving Christ while here on earth.
     His answer is that both of these thoughts are wonderful! While he is looking forward to that time when he will be with Christ for all eternity, he also knows that he has a purpose here on earth.
     Several years ago, Rick Warren, the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in California, wrote a devotional book with the title, “The Purpose Driven Life.” The book offers a forty-day personal spiritual journey that offers five purposes for every person who is seeking to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  What a wonderful thing to know that your life has a purpose!
     I came across this funny story about three guys who wanted to sneak into the Olympic Village. I don’t know if they thought someone there might mistake them for athletes or if they just wanted to meet female gymnasts, but they kind of loitered around the screening table. Soon a big, hulking guy walked up with his athletic duffel bag, bulging biceps, size 19 neck, and said to the guards: “I’m Angus McPherson. Scotland. Shotput.” The security team looked in his bag, saw a huge shotput ball, and waved him right through. They gave him room keys and even meal coupons for the Pizza Hut and McDonalds and Häagen-Dazs food court. 

    So these three guys said to themselves: “Cool. We can do this.” The first one sneaks outside, slices all the branches off a tree limb, comes back in and says to the guards: “Chuck Wagon. Canada. Javelin.” The guards inspect his “javelin” and hand him a bulging envelope with his athletic pass, room keys, meal ticket, everything. This was pretty lax security—probably pre-9/11.

     The second guy goes down an alley, pries loose a manhole cover, marches up to the front gate and announces himself: “Dusty Rhodes, Australia. Discus.” Welcome to the Olympics, Mr. Rhodes. So these two guys who have impostered themselves into the inner sanctum loiter around the gate to see if their third beer-drinking buddy can weasel his way in.

     A couple of minutes later, he walks up to the front gate with a huge roll of barbed wire painfully tucked under his arm. “Who are you?” the guards ask. “Foster Bean,” he says. “Vermont, USA. Fencing.” 

     I guess the moral of that story is to not try to be somebody else but to live out who God created us to be. God has given each one of us a purpose and that purpose it to be in a relationship with God. Jesus invites us to follow him every single day of our lives. That’s our purpose. This is who we are called to be.
   
     A second way to live a life worth living is to serve others. This is what the Apostle did throughout his ministry. He had a gift of starting churches and encouraging them along the way.
     Paul writes in our scripture passage that as long as he is alive he will continue to help them be faithful in their ministry. Even when Paul was away from them, he wrote this letter to encourage them.
     It’s when we serve others in the name of Christ, that we are able to live a life that is worth living. Every time we help prepare a meal for the homeless, fold a church newsletter that will be mailed from the church, greet somebody at the door as they enter our sanctuary for worship, teach a Sunday School class, split firewood to help someone heat their home this winter, and lead one of the games for our fall Halloween festival, we are living a life that is worth living.


     Some of you might know the name, Mike Singletary who was a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Chicago Bears back in the 1980s. He was a member of a church in the Chicago area during his playing days.
     He asked his pastor if there was anything he could do to help serve the church by keeping a low profile. He said, “Well, there is something that just might be the perfect way for you to serve.”
     He went on to tell him that every week when the custodian vacuums the sanctuary following the weekend worship services, the vacuum cleaner cord gets caught on the pews and the custodian has to always stop and straighten out the cord. He said, “How would you like to be the person who holds up the vacuum cleaner cord?”
     And this ended being a very practical and humble way for an all-pro linebacker to serve in his church. I always think of this story when I happen to come across one of our unsung heroes tidying up our pews on a weekday morning. Every act of service in the name of Christ; great and small, seen and unseen, is what helps us to live a life that is worth living.
     A third way to have a life worth living is to live a life of integrity. We see this in our scripture passage where Paul encourages the church at Philippi to live in a manner worthy of the gospel.
     We all know how important it is to not just talk the talk but to walk the walk. If our actions don’t match our words, not only will people be turned away from the faith, our lives will become shallow and have little meaning.
     Our like the quote that our Discipleship Director, Dan Kemp puts at the end of each of his emails. It’s a quote attributed to St. Francis of Assissi. “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
     Yes, our words matter, but so do our actions. Paul wants the church at Philippi to live in a manner worthy of the gospel.
     A young officer being considered for a promotion stopped to purchase a newspaper. A passerby dropped some coins in the machine, took out a paper, and held the door open for the officer.
     “Go ahead and take one. Nobody will know,” he offered. For a moment, the officer held the door as the man went his way. Finally, he shut the door, inserted his coins, and took his paper.
     Later that morning, in the interview for his job promotion, the attending general retold what had happened at the newspaper box. “I watched to see what you would do. Had you taken the paper without paying, I was determined to pass you over for the promotion. You see, I am looking for a people of character who live their principles even when no one is around.”
     God calls us to back up our words with our actions.
     What are the ways that we live a life worth living? We live with purpose. We serve others. And we live with integrity.
     A woman who suffered with Parkinson’s disease made it a point to comfort her children by saying, “You must live until you die.”  She didn’t want her family members to stop living because of any adversity they may face, including the medical challenge that she was facing. This woman taught her children to lead a life that is worth living.
     So what do you think? Will you do a back handspring out of bed tomorrow morning?

    Better yet, will you wake up tomorrow morning, ready to lead a life that is worth living? I hope our answer to that important question will be, “Yes.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Don't Read This During Lunch


Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.


Summertime in America,
It’s all about baseball, hot dogs and……..oh  no, not that…….

The cars were coming up the highway by the hundreds.
If you happen to be in north central Pennsylvania in late August,
you can’t help but notice the migration
of thousands of fans to the Little League World Series.

I was in the vicinity that day, coming from a prison visit.
While heading home, I realized that I needed
to get something to eat for lunch.

The only food option around was a convenience store.
It was an older style store of which the exterior walls were glass.

As I entered, I found a hot dog rotisserie.
The smell of frankfurters cooking quickly lured me.

The rotisserie was next to the wall,
so I had a full view of the parking lot.
While I pulled out two buns,
I saw a van pull up in the parking lot.

Out sprang an all-American family,
no doubt headed for the little league game.
The son had a baseball glove
and the daughter was wearing a baseball cap.

The father was escorting his daughter towards the store
for what appeared to be a bathroom stop.

Instead of coming in,
the father and the daughter came up to the wall of the store,
just feet away from me on the opposite side of the glassed wall.

It seemed somewhat odd but I smiled
and continued to choose over the best looking hot dogs.

The father smiled back nervously.
I thought it odd that they chose to stand at the outside wall
gazing so carefully at me while I was preparing my lunch.

I am not quite sure about specifics of hot dog rotisserie etiquette,
but it seems that there should be a buffer space
similar to that of an ATM machine,
even when separated by a pane of glass.

It was somewhere between the application
of the mustard and the ketchup that I realized what was going on…..

The all-American girl was sick and was losing her cookies
into the parking lot waste can……
two feet away from me.

Now some things just don’t go together…….
Upchucking  and hot dog preparation is another.

Only a thin layer of glass
separated my condiments from utter vileness.

The father now realized that I was preparing my lunch,
as his little girl was losing hers.

There are many sacred and high holy moments in any man’s day.
Preparing a meat sandwich is one of them.

Having invaded my inner sanctum of meat preparation,the father feebly offered an “I’m so sorry” gesture through the window pane.      

I must admit that I have a strong stomach,
but nothing says “let’s skip lunch”
like an unobstructed frontal view of regurgitation.

But as the champion of sacred moments that I am,
I pressed on.
As I reached for the relish packets,
Little Miss Shortstop lost it again.

The resemblance of the relish to the projectile
was more than I could bear.
Game over.

I bagged my hot dogs,
headed to the cashier,
and paid for a lunch that would never be eaten.

As I left the store,
the father now offered a verbal “I’m so sorry,”
while his little princess continued to expectorate.

Sometimes, a kind deed is just as important as a word.
I offered him my napkins,
knowing that the hot dogs were of no good to anyone.

“I hope she feels better” I said.
And with that,
I departed knowing that I would never again
view hot dogs the same way.

As a Christian,
I should and need to be moved
when the lovely things of my world
are confronted by the unlovely realities of other’s worlds.

Each day, I return home to a comfortable residence,
while many in the world live in sub-standard or no housing.

I receive hearty and delicious meals several times a day,
knowing that children throughout the world go to bed hungry.

I have excellent medical resources at my disposal when I feel ill
while many in the world die prematurely from preventable diseases.

I live in a land that is relatively safe
while others dwell in war torn countries.

How do we as  people of faith reconcile all of that?
It starts with an abiding sense of gratitude.
But it needs to go further.
Gratitude should prompt us to action.

None of us can end world hunger,
or cure all diseases,
or build suitable housing for all of the world.

But we can make a difference in at least one person’s life.
What if the Body of Christ all rose and did so?

No one needs to see vomit while preparing their lunch.
But seeing can and should lead us to compassionate and healing works.

Jesus told us as much…..

Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing,
and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)

It’s interesting to note that Jesus predicates this on His return to the Father.
It’s because it is then that He sends the Holy Spirit to empower us.

We are without excuse.
And sometimes we need to see the unlovely immediately in our faces
to move us to service.

It’s not always pretty.
Just remember to bring extra napkins…………


Upcoming Sunday Scripture Readings Commentary - September 21

Sunday, September 21 - "A Life Worth Living"

Philippians 1:21-30

Overview of this Epistle - Philippi, located in northern Greece was the first European place to hear about Jesus Christ. Paul's first visit to Philippi can be found in Acts 16. This congregation gave Paul the most joy.

Paul is writing this letter while in prison, probably in Ephesus. The Christians in Philippi had sent him a relief offering and he is thanking them for this gift.

In this passage, Paul claims that whether he lives or dies, he has confidence because of his relationship with Christ. This passage offers some insight regarding life after death. Upon death, a Christian will be with the Lord.

New Testament, Tom Wright reminds us that there is a two-stage process after death. The first stage is being with the Lord as Paul mentions in this passage. The second stage is when Christ returns and all of God's people are resurrected and given new bodies. This is good news for those who have placed their faith in Christ and Paul wants the Philippian Christians to embrace this hope.

II Corinthians 1:8-11 is a companion passage to this one because Paul describes what happened before he was released from prison. Paul had thought he was going to be killed. Paul was willing to suffer the consequences for his obedience to the gospel but his desire was to continue building up the churches that he had founded. His release from prison ended up being a sign that Jesus was the true King of the world and not the Emperor of Rome or any other world leader for that matter.

For the sermon, I want to explore what it means for us to embrace this life that is worth living. Even though we face adversities, Paul is reminding us that life is worth living.  It all centers on the good news of Jesus Christ and his calling to share this good news with others.

Matthew 20:1-16

The Gospel reading is part of the lectionary texts for this Sunday. Even though my focus will be on the Philippians text, this scripture from Matthew is an incredible parable about God's grace.

As is true for many of Jesus' parables, this parable isn't primarily about workers' rights or fair labor. That's an important issue but in the context of Jesus telling this parable, that's a side issue. The point of the parable is that God's grace is available fully for everyone, regardless of how "late in the game" we may have come to Christ.

I once preached a sermon on this text entitled, "The Sting of Grace." We often think of grace as a sweet and beautiful thing but when we see other people receive it who we think don't deserve it as much as we do, we can become bitter.

Think of people who after living a life of intentionally hurting people and acting in very non-human ways accept Christ on their death-bed. If it's a genuine repentance and acceptance of the good news of Christ, they are given just as much grace as someone who has lived a full life of serving Christ.

We shouldn't be dismayed at this apparent disparity because if the death-bed conversion was truly authentic, that person would realize that he/she is the one who really missed out for most of his/her life. The point of the parable is not about when we receive Christ, but if we have received Christ. Don't be upset over death bed conversions. Be grateful for the grace you have received from Christ as well as for the grace others have received.

 [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.]

Monday, September 15, 2014

Happy Anniversary Lancaster First UMC Main Building! - September 15, 1907


Today (September 15) marks the 107th anniversary of when our congregation held the first Sunday worship service in our main church building. It was also when the building was dedicated. Construction on the building began in 1905.


It's interesting that 100 years later, our congregation dedicated another building, our beautiful Crossroads facility on West Fair Avenue. We held a dedication for Crossroads in 2007.


Think back with me to 1907 to provide some needed historical context.

  • Theodore Roosevelt was the President
  • Hershey Park opened
  • Taxis first begin running in New York City
  • The automatic washer & dryer were introduced
  • Pitcher, Walter Johnson won the first of his 416 career wins.
  • Oklahoma became our 46th state
  • The Apple iPocketWatch was first introduced (Just kidding!)
Our church decided to move to our present location because space was limited at the South High Street location. As a side note, the present day Sixth Avenue UMC had just built a new church in 1902 at the corner of Sixth and Garfield Avenues.

Our present church building was the location of the Stutson family residence. The church bought the lot for $5,333.33 and hired the John Rouser Company of Dayton as the General Contractor. Construction began early in 1905 and a cornerstone laying ceremony was held. Dr. Herbert Welch, President of Ohio Wesleyan University was the speaker. The church was finally completed by late summer of 1907.
In 1907, the church sold it's South High Street property to the Lancaster Masonic Bodies for $6,000 and used the proceeds from this sale to make the first payment on the new church building.

The last worship service at the South High Street location was held on Sunday, September 8. The following Sunday (September 15) our church worshipped for the first time in our present day building.

The sermon on that day was delivered by Dr. Thomas C. Iliff of Denver. The pastor of our church at the time was Charles C. Elson. The last dollar to insure the payment of the debt was announced allowing for the formal dedication of the church building to occur just before midnight on September 15!

The total cost of the church building including the pipe organ was $80,210.70. The first baptism in the new church was Elizabeth Stutson, the infant daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Willis Stutson. Assuming this was the same Stutson family from which the church bought the lot, this probably made the first baptism in the new church building even more special.


Eight years after the first worship service in the new building, our church celebrated another key event in our history. In 1915, we won the world's largest men's bible class. Our historic photo from April 18 of that year shows 1,316 men standing in front of what was then, Lancaster High School. Today, it is known as the Stanbery campus of Lancaster City Schools. The men had walked from the church to that location so that a large panoramic photo could be taken. For more on this historic photo, you can view the video here.

The first highlight is in how dedicated the church members were to financially support their new church building.

As I reflect on our 1907 dedication anniversary of our main church building, there are a couple of highlights that stand out for me. The first highlight is in how dedicated the church members were to financially support their new church building. Their dedication service on September 15, 1907 lasted until midnight when the final dollar to cover the cost of the building was pledged. Imagine the joy of the congregation in that moment. I look forward to a similar time of joy in 2016, the target date to pay off our Crossroads building loan. What a great day that will be!

The other highlight for me is how it seems like history sometimes repeats itself. When the church members dedicated our present church building back in 1907, it's pretty special to think that 100 years later, we would be doing the same thing for our new Crossroads facility. The reason for these buildings remains the same. They are meant to help us share God's love with the people in our community. 

Happy 107th main church building anniversary!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Lancaster First UMC Heart Photo - September 7, 2014

This photo was taken at our Crossroads facility to be used for the front cover of our new pictorial directory. We used the shape of a large heart to match our church's logo, "Love First." The photo is also a way of commemorating the 100th anniversary of our church's 1915 photo of the world's largest men's bible class.

[Church Photo for 2014 Pictorial Directory, September 7, 2014]

[World's Largest Men's Bible Class, 1915 - Lancaster First Methodist Episcopal Church]

Sunday Worship Preview - September 21


Sunday, September 21 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, September 24  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 15th Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture - Philippians 1:21-30

Sermon "A Life Worth Living"

Theme - Why are some people so excited about each day that they want to do a back handspring out of bed? Paul's letter to the Philippians is a positive letter about a life that is worth living. It is worth living because of the hope we have in Jesus Christ