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, May 23, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (May 22/Trinity Sunday) - Athens First UMC

[Some of our little Methodists arrive early for church. Here, Hope and Lily had a lot to share with me. They were so excited to tell me that they brought a cake to share for Sunday School teacher appreciation Sunday.]

Triune God, we lift our prayers to you as the One who creates, redeems, and sustains. You are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, known in three persons. You are wholly other, and yet, intimately close. You are transcendent and mysterious, and yet, imminent and personal. Thank you for this day when we are reminded of the good news of our faith simply by naming you as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We confess that we find it difficult to keep up with our rapidly changing culture and complicated social issues. We long for what is familiar, but we feel as though we are constantly being challenged to have an open mind on issues that are facing us on a day to day basis. Remind us during these changing times, O God, that there is a mystery to life that is not always easily explained. Just as the Psalmist looked into the sky and marveled at your mysterious creation, help us to also look up and know that you are God.

In this time of transition for our graduates, we pray your blessing to be upon them as they pursue new opportunities. Lead them into new paths that will enable them to be a blessing to others. Calm any fears they may have as they begin this new journey in their lives.

O God, we also lift up to you those in our church and in our community who are going through a difficult time right now.  We especially pray for the family here in Athens who were part of the tragic car accident just this past week. The mystery of death has stricken us and we are heartbroken. May your healing love be with the friends and family of those who lost their lives.

O God, thank you for giving us a language of faith as we face heartache, pain, and grief. Thank you for the good news of our faith that reminds us that there is absolutely nothing in all creation that can ever separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Not even death. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

And now, we join together to pray the words you taught your disciples and now teach to us…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Sermon (May 22) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Language of Faith"

     When you live with an educator, you tend to start picking up on education lingo. Phrases like, “fixed schemata,” “grade level indicators,” “differentiated instruction,” “data-driven decision-making” are household terms to me.
     Christians use religious jargon all the time, even without thinking about it.  For example, I remember explaining to a church member that they were to share their announcement from the “lectern.” “What’s a ‘lectern,’ they asked?”
     “It’s the churchy word that means, ‘the podium on the opposite side of the pulpit.’”
     Here’s another example. “Well, just make sure you put those trays back in the... sacristy.  You do know where the sacristy is, don’t you?”  You nod your head pretending that you know where the sacristy is even though the word “sacristy,” sounds more like an artificial sweetener than the name for a specific room in the church. 
     You’re talking to someone who’s a member of another church in town and in comparing churches, you assume this person will know what you mean when you say, “I’m curious.  How many people can fit inside your nave?  The person looks at you with a shocked expression wondering why you think he has a large belly button.
     “No, no.  You must have misunderstood me.  How many people fit inside your nave, the place where you worship on Sunday morning?  We call that the nave.”
     We throw around so much religious language without even thinking about it.  Words like, “chancel,”  “stoles,” “cherubs,” “altar,” “acolytes,” “liturgist,” “hymnal,” “font,” and the list goes on and on.  We have a religious word for everything.
      Some would say that since we are living in an increasingly unchurched culture, that we should refrain or at least minimize our use of religious words and make things simpler and more understandable.  We often hear this same request when it comes to doctors talking with their patients or attorneys speaking with their clients. 
     So we say, “Would you please say that again, and this time, pretend that I’m a 2nd grader so that I can understand what you’re saying to me?”
     There is a lot of truth when we say that the church should find ways of speaking our faith language in a way that can be understood.  There is no doubt in my mind that we in the church often take for granted that people will understand our faith language or pick it up easily without too much help.
     I guess it was sometime around the early 90s when I read about a high school that was in the midst of a debate on whether or not the students would be permitted to say an opening prayer at the graduation ceremony.  The school board had recently voted to not allow a prayer to be said at the graduation ceremony for fear of violating the separation of church and state.
     But some of the graduating seniors put pressure on the school board to change their decision and to allow them to say a prayer at their graduation ceremony.  And because of their persistence on the matter, the school board backed down and said, “OK.  We’ve decided that you can say a prayer at your graduation ceremony.”
     The national news media got wind of this controversy and on the day of the graduation ceremony, some reporters showed up to do a story on how the senior class was able to convince the school board to change their minds. 
     But to the surprise of the parents, the school board, those in attendance at the graduation, and members of the news media, when it was time for one of the seniors to offer a prayer during the ceremony, nobody stepped forward to the podium to pray at the designated time.  After about a minute of awkward silence, the ceremony continued on without a spoken prayer.
     When the graduation ceremony was over, one of the reporters asked a graduating senior, “Why didn’t one of your classmates stand up to give the opening prayer during the ceremony?  The school board gave you permission to say a prayer and it was listed in the program.  What happened?”
     This graduating senior said, “Well, that was our plan.  Someone was going to stand and give the prayer.  The problem was, none of us knew that the word ‘incoyvation’ was another word for ‘prayer.’”  The reporter said, “I believe you mean,’ invocation.’  Not’ incoyvation.’  ‘Invocation, is a religious word that refers to a prayer that is given in a public ceremony.’”
     After hearing a story like that, there might be some of us who would say that we should do away with religious jargon all together.  And there are people who don’t see any value in understanding theological doctrines and religious words.  “What’s the point,” they may ask.  “Why make something that should be easy to understand, like the Christian faith, so complicated?”
     George Buttrick was a well known Presbyterian preacher.  Several years ago, Buttrick was on a plane and writing intently on a legal pad.
     His seat mate interrupted him, saying, “I hate to disturb you, but you certainly seem to be working awfully hard on something.”  Buttrick replied, “Yes, I’m a preacher and I’m working on this Sunday’s sermon.”
     “Oh, religion,” the man said.  “Well I don’t really like to have everything so complex and theoretical.  ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – the Golden Rule, that’s my religion,” this man said.
     “Oh, I see,” said Buttrick.  “And what is it that you do?”
     “Well, I’m a professor at a university.  I teach astronomy.”
     “Oh, astronomy,” Buttrick said.  “Well, I don’t like to have it all so complex and theoretical.  ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ that’s my astronomy.”
     Sometimes, we have a “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” approach in our attempts to describe God.   Let’s dummy things down, we reason.   Who is God?  No big deal, right?  Webster’s dictionary gives us the answer.
     Who is God?  Definition #1 – the supreme reality.  Definition #2 – The Creator and Ruler of the Universe. 
     That’s a good start.  But it doesn’t get us to a more complete picture of the God of the Christian faith.  If we would stop short on that answer alone, we would be settling for a “twinkle, twinkle, little star” language of faith.
     Today is Trinity Sunday which the church celebrates around this time each year.  It’s a Sunday for the church to reflect on who God is.  It’s a Sunday to do exactly what the Psalmist does when he says in Psalm 8,
 “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
     When I was between 13 and 18 years old, a buddy of mine and I would often lie on our backs on the hood of his car and on a clear summer night, look up at the sky and just think about God.  Sometimes we would ask each other questions like, “How did God create all of this?”  But mostly we would just be still, and not say a word.
     Have you ever noticed how easy it can be to think you know someone when you really don’t?  This happens a lot whenever I meet with the family and have them tell me about their loved one in planning for the funeral service.  Even if I knew that person really well through the church, I still often discover that there was so much more about that person that I never even knew.  By hearing the family share, I get a more complete picture of this person’s life. 
         If that’s true among people, that there is so much more that we can know about each other, just imagine how much more we can know about the creator of the universe.
     In our scripture reading from Romans, the Apostle Paul really wants us to know more about who God is.  Yes, God is the creator and ruler of the universe, but believe it or not, God is so much more.  Paul says that through Jesus Christ, God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
      When the early church began to use the term, “Trinity,” they were referring to the good news which the Apostle Paul is expressing in this scripture and which is described in many other passages of scripture as well.
     And here’s the best news of all:  Because God sent his only Son Jesus to overcome sin and death through his suffering, death, and resurrection, and has also given us the Holy Spirit, we can have peace with God.
     But that’s not all.  Paul also says that God will take the sufferings we face in life, and turn those sufferings into endurance, and from endurance, God will produce character, and from character God will produce hope, and this hope will never disappoint us.
     Here, in just this one passage of scripture, we can see why the early church came up with the word, “Trinity” to describe the heart and the essence of who the one true God is.  In addition to the dictionary’s definition of God as the supreme reality and the creator of the universe, the early Christians saw a unifying interworking of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  One God, yet known as three persons.
     And so when we use the word, “Trinity,” today as part of our language of faith, we do so, not for the purpose of sounding churchy or religious, but so that we can be reminded of what God has done for us and continues to do in us.
     So if someone should ask you what you mean when you use the word, “Trinity,” you can tell them about the Father who created the world, who sent his son, Jesus, to redeem the world, and who has sent us the Holy Spirit so that we can transform the world. 
     That’s so much more exciting than simply saying that God is the supreme reality.  Tell them about the Trinity and the good news of what God has done for us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
     As we become more and more familiar with the language of faith, we discover the good news of who God is.
     Just imagine - the God who made the moon and the stars, the Father; is the one who became flesh and died on the cross for our sins, the Son; and is also the one who continues to pour out his love upon us and warm our hearts; the Spirit. 
     John Wesley was an 18th century Priest in the Church of England. This Tuesday is the anniversary of when he felt his heart strangely warmed while at a prayer meeting.
     Here was a man who knew the language of faith better than anyone. We might find it interesting that even though Wesley was a proponent of education and had himself received a classical education, that he was also quick to recognize that regardless of our educational backgrounds, God uses each of us, to share the good news of our faith with those around us.
     In fact, many of Wesley’s lay preachers had very limited education.  On one occasion, one of these lay preachers preached from Luke 19:21 which says, “Lord, I feared thee, because thou art an austere man.”  “An austere man.” The word, “austere” in the context of this scripture reading refers to someone who is severe, strict, and very stern.
     This lay preacher, who had never heard of the word “austere,” before, mistakenly thought that this Bible verse was referring to “an oyster man.”
     And so, he proceeded to preach a sermon about the work of people who retrieve oysters from the sea bed even though it had absolutely nothing to do with what that scripture reading was trying to convey.
     And so he began his oyster sermon this way,
    “The diver plunges down from the surface, cut off from his natural environment, into bone-chilling water.  He gropes in the dark, cutting his hands on the sharp edges of the shells.  Now he has the oyster, and kicks back up to the surface, up to the warmth and light and air, clutching in his torn and bleeding hands the object of his search.  So Christ descended from the glory of heaven into the squalor of earth, into sinful human society, in order to retrieve humans and bring them back up with Him to the glory of heaven, his torn and bleeding hands a sign of the value he has placed on the object of his quest.”
     Because of his passionate preaching on Jesus as our “oyster man,” twelve people ended up giving their lives to Jesus Christ that evening.  Afterwards, someone complained to Wesley about the inappropriateness of this lay preacher who didn’t know the difference between the word “austere” and the word “oyster.”
     Wesley replied, “It doesn’t matter.  What matters is that the Lord got a dozen oysters tonight.”
     Trinity Sunday is a day on the church calendar that reminds us that we have been given this wonderful vocabulary of faith. We get to use fancy words like “trinity,” and “gospel,” and “invocation,” and “sacristy,” and “nave,” not just so that we can sound “churchy,” but to be able to help us have a better understanding of the good news of our faith.
      Trinity. What a wonderful churchy word!
      It’s a shorthand way of helping us to remember that God, the heavenly father who created the world, and who sent his son, Jesus, to redeem the world, has also sent us the Holy Spirit so that we can transform the world.
     I can only think of one churchy phrase for us to say in response to that really, really good news. And that churchy phrase is,
     Thanks be to God! 

The Language of Faith
Small Group Questions
Psalm 8 & Romans 5:1-5
May 22, 2016

Christianity has a lot of “church” sounding words. We have words like, vestibule, sacristy, invocation, lectern, etc. The word, “trinity” is another churchy word that simply refers to the Christian understanding that God is known in three persons as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Rather than try to dissect and analyze the doctrine of the trinity, share when you have experienced God as a loving parent (Father) or as a rescuing/redeeming presence (Son), or as a present help offering guidance and strength (Holy Spirit.)

Psalm 8 invites us to slow down and join him in reflecting on who God is. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

Share a time when you felt God’s presence through nature and how that experienced gave you a deeper appreciation for who God is.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (May 15/Pentecost Sunday) - Athens First UMC

[We received four confirmands into the membership of our church yesterday which was Pentecost Sunday. These four young people have met over the past several months to explore what it means to claim the name of Christ. Our church is blessed by their faith perspective and enthusiasm in serving the Lord.]

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on each person here today. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on our confirmands who will be received into full membership this morning. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on our Stephen Ministers who offer one to one peer support for those who are facing transitions in their lives. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on our Sunday School teachers, our ushers, our musicians, our Leadership Board, our gardeners, our staff members, and all who seek to live out their desire to be your disciples through this particular church.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on our denomination’s General Conference as they continue to meet and deliberate over church policies in Portland, Oregon. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on our city’s Mayor, our city council, our city and county police and first responders, school administrators, teachers, students, parents, and support staff.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on those who are facing medical challenges, financial difficulties, relational strains, grief and heartache, and loneliness. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on the LGBT community and any one who may not always feel welcomed and included in the life of the church. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on the political leaders of our nation that they would seek justice and freedom for all people.

Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us, fall afresh on us, fall afresh on us on this Day of Pentecost, even as we pray the words that Jesus taught us to say together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sermon (May 15/Pentecost Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Red Hot!"


    It’s no contest.  No contest at all.  My wife is a lot tougher than I am. 
     For example, when we’re in a restaurant and we order chicken wings for both of us, it’s a bit humiliating when I have to say, “She’ll have the ‘killer sauce’ and I’ll have whatever sauce you have for toddlers and young children.”
     How many of you liked to eat those fire ball candies?  Let’s just say that they’re not my favorite candy.  They leave me feeling like I have a sore throat for the next three weeks. 
     On a scale that has “red hot” at one end and “ice cold” on the other hand, I would suppose that many of us like to be somewhere in the middle.
     But our scripture reading this morning doesn’t give us that option.  Our scripture from the Book of Acts reminds us that we the church, are to be red hot followers of Jesus Christ.
     Red hot.  Not cold or lukewarm.  Red hot and on fire!
     You might recall what John has to say about one of the seven churches from the Book of Revelation.  John, in writing about the church of Laodicea says, “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.”
     Just a week ago, the disciples were filled with joy as they went back to Jerusalem after having seen Jesus lifted up into heaven.  Specifically, we are told that after Jesus ascended, they worshipped him and returned to the city with great joy and they continued in the temple blessing God.
     Now, keep in mind that this was before Pentecost had even happened.  This is what the followers of Jesus were doing during this “in between” time.
     Think about this with me for a moment.  If the disciples were filled with joy and were praising God even before the Holy Spirit was sent upon them, can you imagine what the Day of Pentecost must have been like?
     It wasn’t like the disciples were cold going into Pentecost as we sometimes portray them. These disciples were filled with joy and they were blessing and worshipping God at every moment. 
     You can’t go wrong with that, blessing and worshipping God continually.  That’s powerful stuff when you have followers of Jesus together and waiting eagerly for what God is going to do next.
     And when the Day of Pentecost finally came, we don’t find timid disciples standing on the sidelines.  Luke tells us that they were all together in one place, which tells me that they were together because they were praying and they were eager for what God was about to do.
     We get this same sense of joyful and hope-filled waiting in the Season of Advent, which is the church season that leads up to the celebration of the birth of Jesus.  In that great song of Mary, the mother of Jesus, which we know as the Magnifat, Luke tells us that Mary prays, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
     Mary had a red hot faith even as she was carrying the Son of God in her womb.  In a similar way, those first followers of Jesus had a red hot faith even as they were waiting expectantly for the birth of the church through the outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit.
     Pre-Pentecost or Post-Pentecost, we find a red-hot community of disciples eagerly anticipating what God was about to do next.
     That’s the wonderful thing about being red hot in our faith.  Awesome and wonderful things happen.  And it leads us to anticipate the next awesome and wonderful thing that God is about to do.
     This kind of active faith and radical trust in the power of God at work in our lives is especially good news for our confirmands who are joining the church this morning. They have been meeting for the past several weeks to prepare for this very special day.
      To our confirmands who will be standing before us today, I want to say to never forget that you joined the church on a Pentecost Sunday. Never forget that on this Day of Pentecost, you have the gift of the Holy Spirit. You are to have a red hot faith, a faith that will make a difference in the world.
     Yes. God wants to use ordinary people like you and me to proclaim and live out the good news of Jesus Christ in our various walks of life.  And God promises to be present with us through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. 
     Luke tells us that when the wind of the Spirit came upon the disciples on that Pentecost Day that divided tongues of fire appeared among them and rested on each of them.
     Things got red hot as God’s Spirit enabled them to speak in different languages in order to communicate the message of the risen Christ to people of all nationalities who were visiting Jerusalem on that day. 
     And really, the entire Book of Acts tells the story of how the early church was living out its red hot faith.  People came to know Christ day by day through the powerful witness of the disciples.
     I was talking to a couple of pastors in our District after a meeting.  You know how we Methodists like to have an unofficial meeting after the official meeting? 
      Well, we were having a meeting after the meeting and one of the pastors all of the sudden got really fired up and he said,
    “I didn’t enter the ministry just so that I could play church.  I became a pastor so that I could be part of something awesome for God – to reach our neighborhoods and our cities with the love of Jesus and to see real transformation.”
      And he wasn’t finished.  He said,
    “There are people who have no idea that Jesus is real, and yet we the church are just standing by as if we don’t even care.  I’ll tell you right now, I’m pretty sick of it.”
     It got really hot all of the sudden, and I think I got singed. 
     The Christian author, Evelyn Underhill put it so well when she wrote, “The church wants not more consecrated philanthropists, but a disciplined priesthood of theocentric souls who shall be tools and channels of the Spirit of God.”
     The quote is too good to not say it again.  “The church wants no more concescrated philanthropists, but a disciplined priesthood of theocentric souls who shall be tools and channels of the Spirit of God.”
     At one of my previous churches, I was asked to offer a prayer before one of our meals that we provided for the community. I looked at my watch and noticed that it was close to noon when the lunch would start.  I quickly went downstairs to offer a prayer before the meal.
     When I entered the kitchen, I was surprised to find a new person helping our team of volunteers with the lunch.  Just when I was about to ask if they were ready for me to pray, our newest volunteer, whose name was Jason beat me to the punch, and with great enthusiasm he said, “I’ll go out and say the prayer!”
     I remember in that moment feeling sorry for myself and thinking, “But I usually get to say the prayer.”  I shrugged it off and as Jason was offering the prayer, I turned to our lunch crew and said, “Well it sure seems like Jason has a lot of energy!”  And one of our volunteers said, “Yeah, but he’s wearing us out!”
     Just then, Jason pops back into the room and with a great big smile says, “Finished the prayer!  I’m ready to take the plates of food to the tables!”  I remember in that moment thinking to myself, “But I usually get to take the plates of food to the tables.”
     Jason worked at full throttle speed, taking plate after plate of food out to our guests.  Our kitchen crew couldn’t dish up the food fast enough for Jason.  In just a short amount of time after leaving the kitchen, he was back in the kitchen ready to take out more plates. 
     What usually took about ten minutes for two or three of us to feed 50 people, took Jason only about three to five minutes.  He was a one man wrecking crew.
      Once everybody was served, our crew sat down to eat.  We had just started eating when we heard the dishwasher running.  It was Jason!  He had already eaten and was now single handedly washing the dirty dishes!
     I finished eating and went into the kitchen and I introduced myself to Jason.  I said, “Jason, we really appreciate your help today.  We’re not used to someone with your energy and enthusiasm.”
     He replied with a great big smile, “Oh, no problem.  This is my way of giving back for everything your church has done for me.”  And he went on to share how our church had helped him get back on his feet again during a very low point in his life.  He couldn’t stop thanking me for what our church did for him.
     He said, “I felt that the Lord wanted me to meet you so that I can receive some mentoring as a new Christian.  Can you meet with me sometime?”
     And so, Jason and I ended up finding a time to meet.  And one of the things I shared with Jason was to affirm him for his red hot faith and his enthusiasm in serving the Lord.  I told him that I longed to have some of his energy and joy in serving the Lord.
     But then I said, “You might want to think about slowing down a little bit or you’re going to wear us all out!”  Jason has a red hot faith.

      May 24th will be the anniversary of when the founder of Methodism, John Wesley felt his heart strangely warmed.  During a prayer meeting in 1738, he received an assurance that Jesus Christ died on the cross for his sins. 
     That heart-warming experience ended up igniting a red hot fire of transformation and newness of life throughout England and then here in America that continues to this day.
     Methodists will always be known as a people of warm hearts.  But will we be known as a people with a red hot faith?
     My friend, Dr. Ed Zeiders, who served as President of United Theological Seminary in Dayton believes that every church needs to think, act, and behave, as if it was the only church in the county.     
     “That’s how urgent your mission is,” he said to me.  “What would you do differently if you knew that you were the only church in existence in this whole surrounding area?”
     I’ve often thought about the significance of what he said.  There are almost 65,000 people living in Athens County.  And just think if there was only one church in this large area to share the good news of Jesus Christ with so many people.  What would we do differently?
     No time to play church. It’s Pentecost.
     No more mild sauce. Only red hot will do.

     At least for this church…

A Red Hot Faith
Small Group Questions
Acts 2:1-21
May 15, 2016

Pentecost Sunday is the 50th and concluding day of the season of Easter. The church calendar calls this season, “The Great Fifty Days.”

Looking back on the Easter season, share a time or experience where you felt the presence of the risen Christ in a particular way.

Pentecost marks the day when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in a mighty way. These disciples ended up sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to the known world. It’s amazing to think that this small group of followers who had denied, betrayed, and forsaken Jesus, were now “red hot” in their faith.

How does God help you to have a “red hot” faith?

John Wesley’s “heart-warming” experience (May 24, 1738) served as a defining moment in his life. His new found assurance of faith motivated him to help people to have a red hot faith through the formation of “faith sharing” small groups.

How does your small group help you to have a “red hot” faith? Before leaving your small group today, break into groups of three and take turns praying for each other. Prayer is an important way for us to stay connected to the Holy Spirit.