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

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Monday, November 30, 2020

Sermon (Nov. 29/Advent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Welcome to the season of Advent. This four week season that leads up to Christmas is known as a season of waiting. 

     For the most part, we don’t like to wait. We don’t like waiting in lines. We don’t like waiting in traffic. We don’t like waiting in a doctor’s office. And we certainly don’t like waiting for a vaccine. 

     We want things now. We want things yesterday. 

     The church recognizes the struggle we have with waiting and that’s why we have this important time on the church calendar. One of the things that helps me when I need to wait is to keep my focus on the reason why I’m waiting.

     And there is a good reason why we are beginning this church season of waiting. We are invited to wait on the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. God is preparing to send us a very special gift and this gift is priceless and the most important gift we can ever receive. It’s a gift that can make an eternal difference in our lives.

     This is why I am calling this new sermon series, “Wait for it!”

     I got the inspiration for this sermon series title a couple of years ago when our family was on vacation down in South Carolina. We had just gone boating and it was approaching early evening.

     After we docked the boat, we went inside the place where we were staying which was along the lake. The sun was just beginning to set so I went outside to see if it was picture worthy. There were some clouds and it didn’t look like there was going to be enough light for it to be one of those special sunsets.

     Usually, I would have just gone back inside thinking that there might be another time to get a picture of a beautiful sunset. But it was like I could hear this voice saying to me, “Wait for it!”

     It seemed like a waste of time because there just weren’t any beautiful sunset colors emerging at all. I decided to take a picture anyway. I looked at the photo and muttered to myself, “eh.” I quickly deleted it.

     Wait for what? That photo wasn’t worthy of a facebook post! 

     But I waited anyway. A couple of minutes went by and a couple more.

     And that’s when the miracle happened. Here’s the photo I took that evening.

     That moment became more than just another picture of a beautiful sunset. That moment has always reminded me that our faith is about being willing to wait for the new thing that God is about to do. Even though we might not be able to see any hint of a breathtaking sunset emerging, if we just wait for it, we won’t be disappointed. 

     During these next four weeks in this season of Advent, we are going to look at four important ways that can help us to wait upon the heavenly gift that God is sending our way. Yeah, I know. It’s not even December. We just got done Thanksgiving. We know that Christmas is still weeks away. But I hope you and I hear a voice saying to us even now, “Wait for it!” 

     For this first Sunday of Advent, the scriptures that are appointed for this Sunday talk a lot about the importance of waiting. 

     In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah says, “no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” 

     The Apostle Paul says in our I Corinthians reading, “that we are to wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Even after Christ came into the world, those early Christians were being instructed to continue to wait because Christ will come again. 

     And in our Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus himself tells his disciples, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware. Keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.

     Our faith is a constant waiting upon the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Whether we are waiting to celebrate Christmas or we are waiting for Jesus to return or we are waiting for an answer to prayer, or we are waiting to see how God will guide us through a challenging situation in our lives, and especially as we are waiting to make it through the global pandemic, we are always in a season of waiting. The good news is that God is faithful and will be present with us as we wait.

     On this first Sunday of Advent, we are invited to wait for God’s presence through confessing. Confessing and waiting go hand in hand. That’s why today’s scriptures on waiting also talk about confessing our sins.

     Just after the prophet Isaiah reminds us to wait on God, he reminds us of the sobering truth that we have all become like one who is unclean. So an important part of waiting is that we take some time to see where we have not lived out who God has called us to be.

     To wait for it means to confess. And that can be a painful process. This is one of the reasons why our worship services always include a prayer of confession. Somewhere in these prayers, we can find ourselves and our need for God’s forgiving and healing love. 

     We are all broken and in need of mending. Isaiah says in our scripture passage that even our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. 

     This past summer, we were painfully reminded of the sin of racism that permeates in our society. The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota where an officer choked him while being recorded sparked outrage and protests across our nation. I remember being so humbled by those events and taking time to reflect on any prejudicial and racist attitudes I might have in my own heart. 

     An African American political commentator made an important point during the protests that has stuck with me. He said that racism isn’t confined to one political party or demographic. It is something we all need to overcome. Everyone, which includes the white nationalist marching in Charlottesville all of the way to the person who outwardly says racism is wrong but in more subtle ways prejudges people simply because of their skin color.

     As painful and uncomfortable as it is, we need a national spotlight to reveal the systemic and institutional racism that continues to exist in our world. We too often live in denial. That’s why we have liturgical seasons like Advent and Lent to give us the opportunity to look deep within our own souls in how we fall short in being the people that God has called us to be.

     In addition to prejudice, we can also talk about the painful realities of greed, pride, jealousy, selfishness, judgmentalism, hypocrisy, mysogynistic attitudes, dishonesty, manipulative behavior, gossip, bullying, etc.

     A lot of people use social media as a platform to point out the sins of others. But if we want to become the people God has called us to be, social media isn’t the place to go because for that we need to look within ourselves. And we do that by confessing, by repenting, and by receiving God’s grace.

     Advent is a season to confess where we have not lived out who God has called us to be. It’s a season for us to come clean with who we are as painful as that might be. It’s a season to start anew.

     When Penny or I complain that our smart phone or laptop isn’t working the way it should, we’ll complain to the other about it. And then the other person will say and you probably know these words, “Have you tried to reboot it?” And the other person will say, “Oh, that’s right.” And nine times out of ten, that will fix the problem.

     Advent is a time for us to reboot our souls. And we reboot by confessing where we have fallen short. We reboot by owning up to our shortcomings. We reboot by taking a long and hard look at our own brokenness.

     This is what Isaiah is calling upon us to do as we wait for Christmas. Reboot and repent. Turn away from our sins and turn toward God. 

     The next time you find yourself waiting for something, like in long grocery line, or during some 1-800 customer service phone call that has you on hold for what seems like forever, or at the dock of a lake waiting for the beautiful colors of a sunset to emerge over the water, that might be a good time to just say a little prayer of confession. 

     “O God, take my heart and make me new again.” 

Wait for It! Confessing
Sermon Discussion Questions
Isaiah 64:1-9 & Mark 13:24-37
November 29, 2020 

Today marks the beginning of the season of Advent, a four-week time for us to prepare for the good news of Christmas. The title of this year’s Advent series is, “Wait for it!” Waiting can be very irritating especially when it seems like there is nothing for us to do. For these four Sundays leading up to Christmas, the scriptures are giving us something to do! They are calling upon us to confess, to hope, to rejoice, and to trust.

What helps you to spiritually prepare for the Christmas season?

Our scripture reading from Isaiah emphasizes the importance of confessing our sins by stating that even our righteous deeds can be like filthy rags. Isaiah is pointing out that even though we have been created in God’s image, we also are flawed and broken people in need of God’s grace. Our sinful nature doesn’t just lead to us to commit individual sins. We also acknowledge that we are part of a world in which there is systemic injustice. The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota this past summer is an example of institutional sin. 

Why do you think it’s important that we recognize both our personal sins as well as systemic injustice? 

Pastor Robert mentioned in the sermon that when we confess our sins to God, it’s like rebooting our computer or our smartphone when they aren’t working properly. They reset so they can start working properly. When we confess our sins to God, we reboot our souls so that we can be realigned with God’s purposes.

What helps you to “reboot” your soul periodically? 

Our weekly prayers of confession that we say together in worship can help us reboot our souls. Share this prayer that was used for this first Sunday of Advent. Notice that we always include words of assurance.

Save us, O God. Save us from indifference and impatience. Save us from the distractions of life. Save us from complacency. Save us from insensitivity. Save us from cruelty. Save us from selfishness. Save us from narrow-mindedness. Save us from political bickering. Save us from denial. Save us from name-calling. Save us from jealousy. Save us from revenge. Save us from lack of compassion. Save us from injustice. Save us from inequality. Save us from unholy thoughts and actions. Save us from sin. Save us, O God! Save us!

Leader: In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

People: In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

All: Thanks be to God!

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Monday, November 23, 2020

Sermon (Nov. 22) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Sing to the King! What an interesting sermon title today given the fact that singing can lead to the spread of the coronavirus.  

     I can’t tell you how many times over the past several months that I have read about a church spreading the virus in their congregation mainly because they allowed for there to be congregational singing or choir anthems during in-person worship. That’s why it’s so important to wear a mask in fighting the spread of this virus. It protects others in case we may have it, especially since there are a lot of people who don’t even know they have it because they are asymptomatic.

     One of the strengths of our church is in our music ministry and our partnership with the OU School of Music. Our the past several months, we have missed our choir and their inspiring anthems on Sunday mornings. I have also missed the many choral concerts that we would have hosted this fall season.

[Ohio University School of Music Concerts @ Athens First UMC]

     On this Christ the King Sunday, the psalm reading for today tells us to make a joyful noise to to the Lord and to come into his presence with singing. But what do you do when you are still in the midst of a global pandemic. How do you sing then?

     It’s hard to believe but the last time the choir sang for us was way back on March 1st when they presented the anthem, “O Lamb of God.” When we are finally able to get past this global pandemic, I think it will be the singing that will stand out for us the most. Singing is such an important component of our faith and today’s psalmist would agree.

[Athens First UMC Chancel Choir]

     “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.”

     But how do you come into the Lord’s presence with singing during this time of social distancing in helping to stop the spread of the virus?

     We may not be able to sing out-loud during these months, but maybe this gives all of us an opportunity to think more about why we sing and what we are singing. Notice that the Psalmist doesn’t just tell us to sing. The psalmist is telling us to sing “to the Lord.”

     Sometimes we forget that our singing has an audience and that audience is God. “We give thanks to him, and bless his name,” the psalmist goes on to say.

     Who is this one to whom we direct our singing and joyful noise? The Lord. Our creator, redeemer, and sustainer; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And more specifically on this Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that we sing to the King, Jesus the king of kings and the lord of lords.

     Remembering to whom we sing is why those early Methodists were known as “shouting Methodists.” They couldn’t help but to shout their faith for all to hear because they wanted to share how the Lord was active in their lives. They wanted to share how they had an assurance in their faith that they were claimed by God. They wanted to share how God’s forgiving love had taken away their sins. They wanted to share how they were growing in their faith and trusting in the Lord everyday.

     It was their joy, their sense of peace, their gratitude for what God had done in their lives that led them to sing out for all to hear. They weren’t bashful in expressing what their faith meant to them. Singing to the King is the natural byproduct of a person and a congregation who have what John Wesley called, “warm hearts.” Hearts that have been warmed by the saving and redeeming love of Jesus Christ.

     And actually, before John Wesley had his heart-warming experience, it was a group of Christians singing that helped him to experience the joy of his faith. He was on a ship returning to England from America when a storm on the Atlantic caused him to have great fear for his life. On that same ship, he noticed a group of Christians, known as the Moravians. Even during the storm, they were singing and praising God together. Wesley realized that he was missing something in his faith.

     And when Wesley arrived back in London, he was walking past St. Paul’s Cathedral when he heard a choir singing an anthem that stirred his soul. It would be later that day that he would have his famous heart-warming experience.

     No wonder that singing has always been an important part of our faith as Methodists. John Wesley’s brother, Charles wrote six thousand hymns to help those early Methodists sing their faith.

     Singing our faith is what helps us to offer our praise and worship to God. This is why we sing to the king. The psalmist ends his psalm by saying, “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”

     It’s now been eight months since we have sung a hymn together, eight months since we heard a choir anthem here in our sanctuary. How can we sing to the King when we are in the middle of a global pandemic?

     This past summer, we purchased new camera equipment to upgrade our online worship services. This has allowed us to record the entire service in one recording so instead of several videos for one service we now have just one video because of all of the editing we can do.

     This also made it easier for us to include Jeff to accompany the hymns. We weren’t sure how this would go over since there would be no singing, just the words of the hymn on the screen.

     On the first Sunday we tried this, I was skeptical if the lyrics of the hymns with Jeff playing would be enough to keep our attention especially since we’re so used to hearing people sing out loud. Even without the singing of the hymns during that first week of recording the worship service, I discovered that those familiar hymns became even more alive for me.

     I was forced to give my entire focus on thinking about the words of the hymns as I listened to Jeff play them. Now, don’t get me wrong because I would prefer singing over not singing, but I was drawn to those hymns in a new way.

     The hymn that really got to me during that first week of recording was the hymn, “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” A very familiar hymn to many of us, I was taken aback by verse 3, “God be with you till we meet again; when life’s perils thick confound you, put his arms unfailing round you; God be with you till we meet again.”

     It was like God entered the sanctuary and was speaking directly to all of us as we followed those words on our sanctuary screen. “When life’s perils thick confound you.” This pandemic has confounded us. We find it difficult to make decisions that are helpful when we don’t know what the future holds. Schools trying to decide if students should return. Churches deciding if it’s safe to have “in-person” worship. People deciding if they should wear a mask or if they should find a different job. So many things are confounding us. That hymn was speaking to what we were experiencing especially in that moment. 

     But then that verse says, “Put his arms unfailing round you.” And I was reminded of how God has been surrounding us during this difficult time. And of course, the words, “God be with you till we meet again,” gave me the hope and the assurance I needed that we will meet again. We’ll get through this. And when we meet again, we will be able to sing all of these great hymns of faith together. We will be able to sing to the king. I guess you can say that as the preacher was in the middle of recording a worship service, he had a powerful God moment.

     What I’m trying to say is, even though we may not be able to sing together now, we can still sing to the king. In this long season of not being able to sing, we at least have the words of our hymns of faith that bring us closer to the heart of God. And with the guidance of our Athens County Health Commissioner, we believe it is safe to at least have song leaders who are wearing masks and from a safe social distance provide the singing for us. I want to thank the music ministry of our church for leading us in the singing of our hymns of faith. 

     Several years ago at a church I was serving as pastor, I was asked to officiate at a funeral. It was my first year as pastor of that congregation so I was still getting to know the congregation as well as my staff members. 

     The funeral was for a very faithful church member. I met with the family to prepare for the service and they told me that they wanted one of our church staff members to sing, “How Great Thou Art.”

     When they mentioned this, I was taken by surprise because I had no idea this staff member was known for his singing. And so I called him and told him the hymn they wanted him to sing. The service was at the funeral home, so he said he would bring his own sound system. And I remember thinking, “wow, he really is a singer because he has all of his own equipment.”

     The funeral home was packed with people the day of the service. I led the service and gave the message. When I was done speaking, I said, “John is now going to sing for us, “How Great Thou Art.”

     Little did I know that I was about to be transported into heaven. John started singing that well known hymn. “O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder consider all the world thy hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.” He then sang that beautiful chorus, “Then sings my souls; my Savior God to thee…”

     And then he sings verse two. “When through the woods and forest glades I wander.”

     And then he gets to verse 3 and takes it up a notch. “And when I think that God, his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin.” 

     I was starting to get these holy goose bumps because John is singing like it’s the last song he’s ever going to sing. And this whole thing is taking me by surprise which by the way, God likes to do to us sometimes. Take us by surprise.

     And then John gets to the last verse and he took us all to heaven with him. “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart. Then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, my God, how great thou art!” It was like God walked into that room during that last verse.

     He sang in a way that showed that he believed it, like he wrote the lyrics himself. It wasn’t a performance which is sadly what I was expecting. It was a song of faith. That old hymn all of the sudden came alive in a new way. 

     And then he brought it home with that closing chorus again, “Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee; how great thou art, how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee; how great thou art, how great thou art.”

     When it was over I could barely offer the closing prayer and benediction. 

     On this Christ the King Sunday, this week of Thanksgiving, the psalmist invites us to sing to the king, this king who is good and whose steadfast love endures forever.

Sing to the King!
Sermon Discussion Questions
Psalm 100
November 22, 2020 

Our psalmist for today calls for us to make a joyful noise to the Lord and to come into his presence with singing. The last time our church sang together as a congregation was back on March 8. That’s a long time for a church to not sing together!

During this time that our church has not been able to meet together in person for worship, how have you been able to “make a joyful noise to the Lord?”

Singing and music is an important part of our Methodist heritage. When John Wesley was returning on a ship over the Atlantic to England from his missionary trip to America in 1738, it was the singing of Moravian Christians during a fierce storm that led him to want their sense of peace and assurance. When he returned to England, it was a choir anthem at St. Paul’s Cathedral that awakened his spirit and led that same day to his famous “heart-warming” experience. John’s brother, Charles would later go on to write over 6,000 hymns that continue to inspire us today. 

Do you have a favorite hymn? How does it draw you closer to God and deepen your faith?

Pastor Robert shared a story of a funeral he conducted and a soloist sang “How Great Thou Art” that was so powerful it felt like God walked into the room in that moment. He sang the song as if he had written the lyrics! 

Share a time when an anthem, a hymn, or a song gave you “holy goose bumps.” 

Today is known as “Christ the King Sunday.” It’s a day when we celebrate that Jesus is King of kings. He is the true ruler over all creation!

How does this Sunday that emphasizes that Christ is King deepen and strengthen your faith? 

Sunday, November 22, 2020