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, October 23, 2016

Sermon by Rev. Robert McDowell (October 23) - "A Humble Song"

     Maybe you have heard of the song, “Lord, it’s Hard to be Humble.” I thought it was written by country singer, Mac Davis back in 1980.  I was wrong. It was actually first recorded by the Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading.
     Maybe you remember how this song goes.
“Lord, it’s hard to be humble
When you’re perfect in every way
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
‘Cause I get better lookin’ each day.

     Actually, here are the original lyrics directly from Jesus’ parable:
“God, I thank you that I am not like other people,
Thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”

     Does that song sound familiar? We sometimes sing that song when we consciously or sub-consciously compare ourselves to others.
     Like the day I was at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to get my driver’s license renewed. It was crowded that day so I took a ticket and found a seat. They called out a number and the guy next to me goes up to the counter.
     He was a middle-aged man who seemed like someone who had a responsible job. He was wearing a polo shirt and blue jeans. Probably his day-off, I surmised.
     When he got to the counter, I was shocked to see that one of his back pockets was totally ripped away from his jeans exposing his underwear. I don’t think he had a clue that the threads of his one back pocket had worn that thin.
     The woman sitting next to me, thinking what I was thinking says into my ear, “My oh my, do you think he knows? Do you think one of us should tell him?”
     I said, “Nah. That’s just the new cool way to wear jeans for middle age men nowadays.”
       Several years ago in a community where I was serving as pastor, I became a member of a gym. I made a commitment that year to begin exercising after several years of not exercising.
     During my tour of the gym, I remember feeling a little intimidated by all of the guys pumping iron in the weight room that day. Even during this quick tour, I was feeling out of my league. I was beginning to second guess myself if I should become part of the gym scene.
     I decided to go out and buy some fancy gym shorts, some running shirts, expensive running shoes, a water bottle. It was really important for me to at least look the part, if you know what I mean.
     Since this wasn’t the largest gym, you had to wait your turn to get on one of the running treadmills. This meant that you sometimes had to wait fifteen or twenty minutes for the guy ahead of you to finish his work-out. Standing around made me feel even more self-conscious.
     But, at least I looked the part. I head the really cool Nike clothes. I think I even had sweat-bands. Does anybody even wear those things anymore? Back in the 90’s, that was part of the whole work-out look.
     So it was my first day at the gym. There I was all decked out waiting my turn to run on the treadmill for the first time.
     Oh, the other thing about this gym was that all of the walls had floor to ceiling mirrors to make the gym look bigger than it really was. The mirrors were also the gym’s way of reminding you that you were totally out of shape.
     Well, finally, the guy in front of me got off the treadmill. Now it was my turn to shine in that gym. So I start running on that treadmill.
     It wasn’t as bad as I thought. I was feeling a little winded the first couple of minutes but not too bad. I started to feel a little more confident so I made the treadmill go a little faster, and then a little more. I was now running at a pretty fast pace.
     I looked in the full-length mirror at my reflection and I thought to myself, “Robert, you are looking really good, my friend.” I was becoming more and more confident by the second.
     As I was starting to break a sweat, I decided to look back at the mirror to admire myself just one more time. That’s when I noticed a dryer sheet coming out from underneath my Nike shirt, and it floated in mid air for an incredible long time before it finally landed on the person who was running on the machine next to me.
     I quickly turned away to act like it wasn’t my dryer sheet. It was in that moment that I had been brought down a peg or two. Instead of feeling like a world class athlete, I now felt like I had been put in my place. I had been humbled.
     I am convinced that the reason dryer sheets fall from our shirts and our back jeans pocket wears way too thin, and spinach is stuck in our teeth when we meet somebody for the first time is because such humbling moments remind us that we so often take ourselves way too seriously.
     If only the Pharisee from our Gospel reading knew that as he ridiculed the guy sitting next to him in church that he had a mustard stain on his shirt, maybe he would have sung a different song that day. Maybe his song in church that day would have been a song of humility instead a song of self-sufficiency.
     The reason Jesus tells gives us this parable about the self righteous Pharisee and the humble tax collector is to remind us since we so easily forget that God’s grace is a gift and not something that we have earned. God’s grace is given to us as a gift through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
     In theological language, we call this, “Justifying Grace.” Justifying grace is the grace that is extended to us without price. Nobody is left out of the invitation. All are invited to receive God’s gift of salvation regardless of our station in life.
     The story is told of the great theologian, Karl Barth who was on a speaking tour in America. Barth was known as a great intellectual thinker of the Christian faith.
     He got into the backseat of a cab and asked the driver to take him to his hotel. The driver of the cab was a fundamentalist Christian who was very suspicious of highly educated theologians like Barth. When the taxi cab driver found out who was in his cab, he asked him in a very condescending way, “So, Dr. Barth. If you’re really a Christian like you say you are, tell me the exact day you were saved by the blood of Jesus.”
     Karl Barth, who was used to these kinds of questions, calmly responded to this taxi cab driver by saying, “On Good Friday. The same day you were.”
     What a great answer!
     Like the taxi driver, sometimes, we think we’re singing a humble song about God’s free gift of grace, when our song is really all about us. “O Lord, it’s hard to be humble.”
     Last spring, a teaching instructor doing doctoral work here at Ohio University was walking by our church building and he noticed that we had added an outdoor prayer cross. He was curious about this so he interviewed me about how our church was seeking to reach out beyond our walls to our community.
      Specifically, he wanted to know what our church was doing to reach young adults in the community since studies are showing that a high percentage of young people are staying away from the church. During the interview, I told him that the outdoor prayer cross was one of our ways that we are showing our community that we are a church that cares.
     I also told him that we want to be a church of authenticity. We want to be a church of humility where everyone feels welcome in this place.  I must have sounded like a broken record the amount of times I used the word, “authenticity” during that interview.
     I shared how the church needs to become more humble in the ways that we share the gospel. Our monthly “First Saturday community outreach” is such an important way for our church to have street cred in our community.
     The people outside the church aren’t just interested in our theological doctrines and beliefs. They want to see us actually live out our beliefs in ways that are making a positive difference in our community.
     And all of that is a good thing because it reminds those of us inside the church to be the authentic, humble, and genuine people that God has called us to be. That’s why we come here week after week to church. It’s not to show that we are religious. It’s to be gradually transformed into the likeness of Christ.
     Several months ago, I was visiting a couple in our church. They have been married for several years. She has round the clock nursing care because of health issues, but he is always there by her side.
     I was visiting with the husband one day while his wife was resting in the other room. He could hear his wife so he went to see if there was anything he could do for her. While he was there by her bedside, I witnessed one of the most authentic and loving things I have ever seen. This husband was stroking his wife’s hair and saying to her over and over, “I love you. I love you.”
     He wasn’t doing that to show me what a great husband he was. He was doing that because that’s how much he loves his wife. In that moment, I had a glimpse of his incredible humility.
     When we come to church, we don’t come to show off our faith like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable or try to appear as someone we’re really not. We come to this place more like the sinful tax collector, who was humble enough to simply sit in a pew and with humility say, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
     In fact, here’s how I like to describe what it means to be a Christian. I shared this thought as a facebook post a while back:
     “Being a Christian simply means that as hungry people, we thankfully stumbled upon a bread line that led us to the bread of life.” God’s grace isn’t something we buy or earn. It’s a gift that God wants us to receive with no strings attached.
     And it’s a gift that is offered to every single person. Every single person.
     A young homeless woman stumbled upon a United Methodist Church one Sunday morning in St. Louis. Not a church-goer, this woman felt she had run out of options.
     With nothing left to lose, she decided to give God a try. She quietly crept into the back of the church and sat huddled all by herself.
     She listened to the service, not fully understanding what was happening. Panic set in as she heard the preacher talk about something called, “Holy Communion.”
     She listened to the words of liturgy that are spoken before the Sacrament is offered and the invitation for all to receive this holy meal. She decided that she was not going to share in this meal. She felt unworthy to receive the bread and the juice along with everybody else in that church.
     She liked the ideas she heard but she knew in her heart of hearts that she was an unclean person and that Communion wasn’t for people like her. As she was thinking about these things, she was startled and alarmed to see a man and a woman heading toward her with holding the bread and cup.
     She gripped her hands together and shook her head from side to side. She politely refused to receive.
     “What’s the matter?,” the woman usher asked.
     “I’ve never been here before. I don’t belong here. I don’t know what’s  happening,” the young woman stammered.
     Both the man and the woman smiled. Then the man said, “You don’t have to belong here. Holy Communion is for everyone.”
     “Not for me,” the visitor replied. “I’m not a good person. That’s not for me,” she said, nodding at the bread and cup.
     “This is especially for you,” the woman said. “No one here deserves it. It’s a gift to us from God. You don’t have to get ready for Communion. Communion makes you ready to receive God’s love.”
     This young woman sat there with tears in her eyes, speechless. Still clutching her hands together in front of her, she clenched her eyes shut and opened her lips.
     The woman dipped a piece of bread in the cup and placed it in the young woman’s mouth. As the sweetness of the juice and the rich flavor of the bread mingled on her tongue, the young woman broke down, sobbing, “thank you, thank you” over and over.
     This is what it means to be humbled in a good way. It’s not that we are evil or overly mean or hurtful. We are human beings who sometimes do incredible and wonderful things, but who also can be hurtful, neglectful, short-sighted, and misguided.
     We are as God made us, desperately in need of love and forgiveness and second chances. Not one of us is worthy of the grace of God, but it is denied to none of us. It is a gift that cleanses us and changes us and makes us the people God wants us to be.
     But this isn’t the end of the story. One week later, the young woman returned to that same church with five of her friends. She noticed the woman who had served her Communion the week before and she waved her over. “When’s Communion?” she asked.
     “Oh, well, we only serve communion once a month,” was her reply.
     Eyes wide, he young woman said in a shocked voice, “But we need it. I haven’t felt anything so good in years, and I want my friend to have it, too!”
     This woman was learning the tune to the same song of the tax collector from our Gospel reading this morning. It’s a humble song.
     And it goes like this…

     “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

A Humble Song
Small Group Questions
Luke 18:9-14
October 23, 2016

Our Gospel reading this week takes place in a synagogue where a Pharisee known for his religious faithfulness, justifies himself by comparing himself with a tax collector, who would have been considered a very sinful and unscruplous person.

In what ways do we sometimes compare ourselves with others in terms of morals, ethics, and religious faithfulness and why do we sometimes feel the need to justify ourselves to God through these comparisons?

In his sermon, Pastor Robert shared a humbling moment that happened to him recently when he noticed the genuine way that a husband was lovingly caring for his wife who needs round the clock care. That was a "thin place" moment for him because he could see God's love present in the loving actions of that husband.

Share a time when you noticed someone doing a very genuine and humble act of love on behalf of someone that reminded you of God's presence.

The closing story of the sermon was about someone visiting church for the first time who didn't feel worthy to receive Holy Communion. When someone in the church told her that God's grace is extended to everyone including her, it helped her to see just how much God loves her.

Can you think of someone along your faith journey who has helped you to receive God's love in a deeper way? 

This week, be open to opportunities inside as well as outside the church to help others know and receive God's unconditional love. Sharing God's love with others is one of the best ways to for us to live our faith in humility.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Dave's Deep Thoughts: A Favorite Aunt

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.

Sometimes it is good to bare the soul.
As for the other parts, that can be problematic.

She is my favorite aunt,
because she is my only surviving aunt,
endowed with a wonderful spirit and sense of humor.

Out of the generation that proceeded me,
my 95 year old Aunt Deb is the last one standing,
well sitting….in a wheelchair.

I visit her often.
I think of all the years that she and her generation cared for me,
and now  it is my time to care for her.

I  like to take her on trips from her nursing facility
to give her a change of scenery.

Because Aunt Deb’s legs do not function well anymore, 
transporting her is no easy feat.
It involves lifting her out of her wheelchair,
moving her body towards the car,
and lifting her into the car seat.

My daily trips to the gym pay off
as I count on my  upper body strength to lift and move her.
Getting  Aunt Deb to her co-pilot seat demands strength and stamina.

Recently, I took her on an extended lunch to visit my siblings.
It was a beautiful, sunny fall day,
the kind of day one desperately longs for in February.

She enjoyed seeing the fall foliage,
driving through places she knew from her earlier days,
and sharing all the latest news.

After enjoying a great lunch, 
soaking in the Indian Summer sun,
and sharing lots of laughter,
it was time to return home.

As I hoisted her and moved her into the car, she said,
I think you pulled my pants down
That would be the stretchy pants made fashionable
by most 95 year old nursing home residents.

I attempted an exploratory excursion to see if the situation could be rectified,
but when a 95 year old aunt was fully imbedded in a car bucket seat,
there was little room for adjustment.

Since the situation was not going to change in the hour drive home,
I assured her that the problem would be corrected upon arrival at the nursing home.

This promise, like many promises made during an electoral season,
was destined to be an empty promise.

When we arrived, I pulled her upright out of the car.
As I held on to her, I could surmise with one appropriately placed hand, 
that she had not been exaggerating.
And apparently, the friction created by car seat upholstery and comfy stretch pants
only caused the situation to be exasperated.

It was October,
it was harvest season, 
and my aunt was giving the world a full moon.

This might have been enough of a problem,
but it was then that I realized in my apprehension over my aunt’s state of undress,
that I had not put the brake on the wheelchair.

My aunt’s vehicle to freedom from this madman nephew 
had now rolled two feet away.

Not only was this practically problematic,
it also now allowed a voyeuristic view of the situation
to every passing driver coming up the street.

We received one thumbs up,
two car horn honks,
and several looks from people questioning if they should call the police.

It is times like these, 
when one has two hands holding up a nonagenarian,
that one truly wishes for another set of hands.
but this was not to be.

I had my arms wrapped around Aunt Dot
as if we were waltzing,
and this dance was not what either of us wanted.

It is amazing what one can do with one’s feet when in crisis.
Some people run, others kick box in self-defense.

I implored my aunt to take a step towards the wheel chair,
and in a moment of grace she was able to do so.

Spurred on by Aunt Dot's two step foxtrot,
I used one leg to pull the wheelchair towards her
and I brought her safely into the wheelchair.

With her still in a mode of undress,
I decided to let the nursing staff solve this wardrobe malfunction.

There are times when doing good that bad things  also happen..
It is that fear which sometimes keeps people from doing good…..
like reaching out to a person whose car has broken down along the road,
or stopping to help feed a hungry person,
or being available to someone who has suffered a tremendous loss.

Bad things happen everywhere.
The evening news will daily confirm that.
And often bad things need to happen before good things can occur.
When something bad happens,
it is often difficult to see that something good can come out of the experience.
But negative events can often lead to something  positive and uplifting.

It is the very center of Christian faith that Friday turns in Sunday.

Jesus knew that bad things happen to good people.
A man, blind since birth, was an opportunity for revealing God’s glory. 

The next time you have the opportunity to do good,
but fear negative results, remember when walking with Christ,
bad never has the final answer.

The nurse, unknowing of my Aunt’s problem, greeted her and said,
“I’ll bet it was chilly outside.”

Aunt Dot, in her wonderful sense of humor smiled and said,
“More than you know.”

That is the final answer and why she is my favorite aunt.

Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents,
but it was in order that the works of God might be displayed in Him.’ “
                                                                                                 John 9:3

Monday, October 17, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (October 16) - Athens First UMC

[It's always a special day when your District Superintendent spends the morning and preaches at your church. Rev. Dennis Miller preached on the topic, "Facing the Future Together" at our church yesterday. He encouraged us as we continue to grow and make needed building improvements and offered moving stories of how the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is changing lives through our conference. Our church is one of 172 churches in the Foothills district and one of 1,100 churches in our West Ohio Conference.]

God of hope and new life, thank you for reminding us this morning that we need not fear the future because you have promised to never leave or forsake us. Thank you for giving us an incredible purpose as your church, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

And so whenever we get discouraged or fearful about what the future may hold, remind us again and again of who we are, who you are, and for what purpose you have placed our church here on South College Street.  We are here to be a visible expression of your life-giving and life-transforming grace for the world.

We are humbled to be entrusted with such a mission and purpose, O God. And we are humbled whenever we are reminded that our church serves alongside 171 other churches in our Foothills District, and with the 1,100 churches in our West Ohio Conference. And so, we pray for our episcopal leaders, for Bishop Palmer, for Dennis Miller and his Assistant, Steve McGuire as they provide leadership in our conference. Thank you for these our spiritual leaders who help us to face the future together.

This morning, we especially pray for those who are finding it very difficult to face the future because of the Hurricane Matthew flooding, the loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, a need for physical, emotional, or spiritual healing, or some other uncertainty or challenge they may be facing.

Whatever our individual needs this day may be, thank you for today’s word of hope that we have each other and that your grace is always sufficient to meet every need.

It is because of this word of hope that you call us to be bold as we pray the words you that Jesus taught his disciples and now invites us to say together,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”