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, September 23, 2020

Monday, September 21, 2020

Sermon (Sept. 20) by Rev. Robert McDowell



    Today begins a new focus on what it means to “come to the water.” Water is a very important image throughout the scriptures in describing the fullness of life that God intends for us.

     This is going to be an exciting time because the more thought and effort we put into these next six weeks, the more we are going to experience transformation and fullness of life as well as in the life of our church. It’s going to be a win/win for all of us!

     But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we first need to think about priming the pump before fullness of life can begin to happen. Do you remember how those old-fashioned pumps first needed some water poured in to prime them before they could reach down deep and provide the water supply? That’s what this first week of our series is all about—a priming of the pump, preparation, getting ready.  

     Priming the pump means we reflect on where we are now, evaluate where we’d like to be, and even question some of our basic beliefs about our relationship with God. All of this is to help us acknowledge where we are now and to prepare to commit to be the best followers of Jesus Christ we can possibly be. 

     Today I want to suggest four things for us to consider over these next several weeks.

     You know, one thing I like about this focus of coming to the water is that it meets each of us where we are no matter where we may be on our faith journey.  So the first point is that these Sundays will help us to take a fresh look at where we are now. God wants to meet us where we are.  

     We’re all in different seasons of our life in Christ. Some of us are thirsty for more, and we know we’re thirsty. We know God has more for us in our lives than we’re experiencing or struggling through right now. We want that deep refreshing drink that will satisfy every need and every cell crying out for more.

Others of us are walking hand in hand with God and know what it means to receive the living water that refreshes us. Some of us might be thinking that we’re in a place in our spiritual lives where it’s hard to imagine that it can be any better. But it always can be better.

And some of us are moving so fast with family, work, and activities that we don’t even know that we’re parched. We think we’re okay and can’t imagine how on earth we could find the time to stop for a cool refreshing drink. I mean, we might get one if we can get it at the drive-thru and drink it on the way, but to actually consider adding one more component to our life—well, when we’re in that spot, we’re so dry we don’t actually know how desperate for water we really are. 

     The woman who met Jesus at the well was going about her business of getting water for the day. Little did she know that she was about to encounter Jesus who is the living water. It was at this well in the middle of a hot day when Jesus told her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.”

     Did you know that word was in the bible?  “Gushing.” That’s a great word. Is your life filled with the gushing living water that comes to us from Jesus? And I love this woman’s response to Jesus. I hope it’s our response to him today.“Sir, give me this water, so that I may never be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”

     One thing that each of us has in common, no matter what our level of thirst at the present time, is that we all really want more.  Some of us might not think of it that way or realize we want more, but we do. We aren’t fully satisfied.

     There’s something inside of each of us that wonders if there’s more to life than what we have; if it’s possible to be happier, more fulfilled, more content, more satisfied.  Even if you are really satisfied with your life in this moment, remember that even one of the richest men in the world wanted more. 

John D. Rockefeller Jr. was heir to the greatest fortune in the world back in the 1920s. Among their enterprises, the Rockefellers owned Standard Oil, which controlled almost all the oil industry in America at the time.  Most of today’s big oil companies—ExxonMobil, Conoco, Phillips, Chevron, Amoco, BP, Atlantic Richfield, and Marathon—were part of Standard Oil.  

     Recent estimates of JDR Jr.’s net worth placed it at $995 million in 1928, which would be about $6.5 billion in our time. Well anyway, John D. Rockefeller was once asked how much money was enough. Rockefeller’s reply was “Just a little bit more.” 

     Even one of the richest men in the world said that regardless of what we have, we all have the desire for more.  Of course, he was talking about money, and we do need to be wise with how we use our finances. 

     Luke chapter 16, verse 11 says, “If you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven?” But Rockefeller’s statement also applies to other aspects of our lives. Money is just a little thing when compared to true riches in life.

     Money doesn’t make people happy and money won’t ever completely satisfy. God offers us the true riches of life—and among them is the gift of God’s care and love for us. That’s the second point to consider: God really loves and cares for us.

     Do you know how much God cares for us? God cares so much that he offers the very best for us. Like Rockefeller, as a society, we tend to think that if we could just get a little more money, we’d be happy. 

     But the true riches of life go far beyond material possessions. It has been aptly noted that “in today’s society we know the price of everything, but the value of very little.” Value is what’s important. What is true? What is lasting? 

     Deep down, you and I know that we want what’s true and lasting. It’s what we want in our relationships with our spouses, our children, and our life’s work. It’s okay to want what is true and lasting, to want more and to not want to settle for less than what God intended for you. God created us with a thirst to be more. 

     God created us to want more, to want a rich life, one of more meaning and more fulfillment. And the good news is that when we seek God, we get those things we long for . . . and more. 

     Have you ever wondered what that “MORE” is for us?  We know we want it, but don’t have an idea what IT is. That’s okay. One thing I believe we’ll all gain through these weeks together is that we’ll discover new aspects of who and what really satisfies our souls. 

     We’ve heard all our lives that God has a plan and a purpose for us. Some of us have been fortunate to discover what that very personal plan is. But the rest of us, we have this wonderful opportunity. Now we get to explore for what—and for whom—we’ve been created. 

    The third point is this: you’ll discover your niche. There’s a place where you fit perfectly into the niche that God has created for you, and where everything you have or do works together to accomplish his desires for you. You may be called on to use your time, money, talent, knowledge, or even relationships. God has given us all these and he wants us to use them in order that God’s kingdom will fill this earth.

    God’s desire is to show us what is the best for us in a life where we come to the water that only God can provide. He wants us to jump into the water and enjoy it in all of its fullness. This can’t happen if we have divided loyalties. We need a central focus. 

     In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God.” What if at the top of our priority list was focusing on the kingdom of God? When we choose God, other choices will begin to take their rightful place. 

     One of the foundational truths of this fall; series is that we are all to be in ministry. Every person in the body of Christ is called to have the kingdom of God as his or her whole life. Every person in the body of Christ is called to be a minister—especially those who do not have that title on their business cards.  Or especially if they don’t even have business cards. 

     We minister to people by the way we live our lives, by the way we talk to the person in line next to us at the grocery store, by little kindnesses you do like bringing in the mail for your elderly neighbor, and by volunteering in areas of service in the church and in our community. 

     The kingdom of God is not just about service. It’s all about that relationship we talked about earlier. When you love someone, you become like them. You want to do the things you see them do. Jesus said he only did what he saw God doing. “Whatever the Father does, the Son also does,” the Gospel of John tells us.

     And putting the kingdom of God first doesn’t have to be that complicated. Some people know that already. But for the rest of us—this series will help us discover how foundational it is when we have the Holy Spirit guiding and empowering us along the way.

     It really comes down to this simple truth. God loves us, forgives us, offers us grace upon grace, and seeks to be in a daily relationship with us. I’m constantly amazed that the creator of the universe wants to be in relationship with me.  God wants to spend time with us.  He wants to talk with us, and God listens to what we have to say. That’s an incredible thought.  But it’s true. 

     God created us to be in relationship with him. That relationship takes many forms. It develops in prayer, it expands when we participate in worship, it deepens when we give, and it grows when we reach out to others in need.  And like all intense, satisfying relationships, it requires commitment. 

     This is the fourth point to consider: it’s time to commit. God has already made his commitment to us. Now, as we walk through this six-week focus as a church, we have the opportunity to commit—or in some cases—recommit in our relationship with God and experience the joy of living a life where we are always drawing from the water that brings life in all its fullness.

     The woman who met Jesus at the well experienced joy and transformation, didn’t she? She immediately left the well and went back to her community and told them all about Jesus. And John tells us that many believed because of her.

    Because this woman experienced the true living water, she wanted others to as well.  And she made the commitment to live out her new faith in Christ.

     In preparation for this journey together, I’ve been praying for us to discover how we might satisfy our thirst for that something more that’s missing. I hope you’re as excited by this possibility as I am. 

     There’s that word again: commitment.  It’s an important word and concept, and we’re going to hear it again and again. Commitment primes the pump, bringing the water of life. Once primed, the pump will flow endlessly as long as it keeps moving.  

     To keep ourselves moving in the right direction, we’ll be thinking a lot about our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness —beginning the fulfilled life that God has in mind for us.

     A pastor in Africa who possessed contagious faith wrote these words about commitment that speak straight to the heart:
 
I am a Christian, the die has been cast. I’ve stepped over the line. My decision has been made. I’m a disciple of his. I will not let up, look back, slow down, or be still. My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, and my future is secure. I’m finished. I’m totally done with low living, small planning, smooth knees, mundane talking, chintzy giving, and dwarfed goals. I no longer need preeminence or prosperity or position or promotion or popularity. I don’t have to be right or first or top or recognized or praised or rewarded. My pace is set, my goal is sure. The road is narrow. My way is rough, my companions few, but my God is reliable and my mission is clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, delayed, or deluded. I will not flinch in the face of adversity nor negotiate at the table of the enemy nor meander in the maze of mediocrity. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I’ll go until he comes, give until I drop, speak all I know of him, and work until he stops me. And when he comes again, he’ll have no problem recognizing me because my colors are clear.

     Commitment is when our colors are clear; it involves knowing whose team we’re on. Commitment primes the pump for receiving the water of life that God has prepared for us. My prayer is that each of us will commit to the journey over these next several weeks and receive all that God has in mind for us. We are invited to come to the water.
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This sermon is based on the resource, Treasures of the Transformed Life, Abingdon Press, 2006.


Come to the Water: Priming the Pump
Sermon Discussion Questions
John 4:1-14
September 20, 2020 

Today, we begin a new 6-week fall series on “Come to the Water.” Water is one of the most frequent images the Bible uses in describing in what it means in having a vital and growing relationship with God. We think of bible stories such as the parting of the Red Sea, Noah and the Ark, baptism, and the woman at the well from our Gospel reading for today.

At this point in your life, for what are you thirsty?

Are you willing to get a little more wet (to go deeper into what God has in store for you?)

Pastor Robert offered four things to consider during our six-week “Come to the Water” spiritual focus. 1) God always meets us where we are in our faith journey. 2) God always has more in store for us in our faith development. 3) God invites each of us to discover our purpose in building up God’s kingdom here on earth. 4) God invites us to make a commitment and prime the pump in getting the most out of this six-week series.

Reflect on the four important things to consider above as we go through our six week journey. Which of these stands out for you the most? Why?

In preparation for next Sunday’s focus on “drawing water through prayer,” make a commitment to pray our church’s 11 am and 4:57 pm daily prayers. 




Sunday, September 20, 2020

Online Worship (September 20) Athens First UMC




Welcome to our (September 20) online worship!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Holy Hump Day (September 16) with Pastor Robert






Today’s Focus:
West Ohio Virtual Annual Conference News
& Upcoming Church Events

[We celebrate the Deacon ordination of Sung Young Lee, a member of our partner Korean congregation who meet in our church building.  The ordination service led by Bishop Gregory Palmer was part of Saturday’s West Ohio Viritual Annual Conference which met through Zoom. Congratulations, Sung Young Lee!]




Monday, September 14, 2020

Sermon (Sept. 13) by Rev. Robert McDowell



    In 1986, the World Cup was held in Mexico. You wouldn’t remember it because, sadly, the US didn’t qualify. The tournament is best remembered for bringing to a world audience that pre-coronavirus activity loved by crowds gathered in stadiums known the Wave.

     These days, the crowds who start the Wave tend to be really bored and it’s gives the fans something fun to do. This is why I’m really glad it hasn’t started here in our church. I would try it here in worship but it wouldn’t be very impressive with just the five to six people here for our online recording.

     I was thinking of the the Wave phenomenon when reading over our Gospel lesson for today where Jesus tells the story of the unforgiving servant. This unforgiving servant was like that guy in the stadium who didn’t stand up when the wave made its way to his section. The only way the wave works is when people in each section of a stadium participate.

     We have probably all been part of those times when a wave begins but then it fizzles out. It usually takes several starts before it catches on. They can be fun when they work and they can look really sad when they don’t.

     In Jesus’ parable, he is telling us that this is how God’s forgiveness works. Forgiveness is meant to be like a great wave in which everyone participates. 

     Jesus begins his little story by telling about a king who was owed a lot of money. And by a lot of money, I mean a fortune that would take the average person many lifetimes to pay back. Even paying a little back at a time would not save this man. He and his family would have been caught in an unending financial disaster not just for their generation but for future generations as well. This servant was facing the crashing wave of long-term financial ruin. 

     And then Jesus, the story teller tells us the shocking news that this King out of an extraordinary act of compassion, forgave the massive debt that he owed. Instead of a wave of financial ruin, this gracious king unleashed a wave of amazing grace. 

     Now, wouldn’t this have been a great ending to Jesus’ story telling time? And the man was forgiven his gigantic debt and everybody lived happily ever after.

     It’s this next part of the story that reveals where Jesus is going with all of this. As this servant was fresh off of his massive financial bailout by this gracious king, he runs into a slave that owes him some money, just a tiny fraction of the debt that he had just been forgiven.

     The shocker in this parable is that the man who had just been forgiven of his massive debt, grabs this poor guy by the throat and demands that he pay it back immediately or he would have him thrown into prison. And this leaves us scratching our heads wondering, how this man could do such a thing.

     It’s not rational. It’s confounding. You’re thinking, “there’s not something right with this guy.” Who would do such a thing?

     If that is what we are thinking, then we are on the right track in understanding the point that Jesus is making about not being forgiven of a financial debt, but about being forgiven of a spiritual debt.

     Receiving God’s grace and forgiveness is an incredible thing because there are a lot of people who are walking around thinking that they have to pay off their spiritual debts to God. They are walking around thinking that they have to live with the burden of carrying their regrets and their shortcomings for the rest of their lives. And so they end up punishing themselves and living in a prison of their own making.

     But then God reminds them whether during a worship service when they hear the worship leader say, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven,” or when a friend comes alongside them and says, “Hey, God forgives you and you don’t need to carry that guilt,” or when you read a parable like the one today that reminds us that God is gracious, forgiving, compassionate and loving.

     We are like that servant in the parable who owes God so much because of our sins and our brokenness and God tells us that his grace is sufficient. When that weight that you have been carrying for so long is finally lifted, it is replaced with a peace that is beyond human understanding.

     I cherish those moments when people come to me as their pastor just to let me know that they have experienced the love and mercy of God in a new and fresh way. You can tell that they are different. You can tell that they have been transformed from the inside out.

     When I was serving in my first church as a student pastor, my church organist called me on the phone and asked to see me. I said, “sure.” Thinking that I had done something wrong as a new pastor, I was worried about what she wanted to share with me.

     I’ll never forget that meeting with her because as soon as she came into my office, her eyes were just gleaming. Without even saying a word, I knew right away that something really special had happened to her.

     She said, “Robert, I just have to tell you this. Here, I have been a church organist all my life, and about a month ago, I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior.”

     She said that even though she had always gone to church and knew all the hymns, that in many ways, she was just going through the motions in being a Christian. She had been feeling really empty and so she started to pray about it and that’s when she experienced Christ in a new way. She felt her sins forgiven, like she was a brand new person. 

     She said, “I’m now finding myself praying to God in a very natural way like two people having a conversation in the middle of the day.” 

     She said, “I feel so much more joy when playing the organ for worship. When I hear the people singing, it just fills my heart. I’m now listening to you when you preach. And the prayers we say now have meaning for me.”

     I said, “Wait, what was that about my sermons?”

     She couldn’t stop talking and telling me about all the ways that she felt different because of this new found peace in Christ.

     She said that she just wanted to tell me about this change in her life. And she asked me for my thoughts on how she might keep that new fire kindled in her life. Her fear was that she would fall back in just going through the motions.

     After celebrating her renewed faith, I told her to not be surprised if some of the joy she was experiencing would eventually subside because human emotions can do that from time to time. And I also told her that the best way to keep that joy alive would be to share it with others.

     And so, Janet started finding ways to share her testimony and she got involved in the missions team of the church where she helped start some new projects to bless people in our community. Janet’s faith was alive like never before and she kept it alive by sharing it with others.

     Janet started a wave in our little church and it grew and grew to where more and more people got splashed with God’s love.

     This sharing of God’s forgiving grace is what was missing from the servant in Jesus’ parable. He thought that God’s love was meant only for him.

     Jesus’ parable has a very unsatisfying ending as most of his parables do. After the servant refuses to show forgiveness toward someone just after he had been forgiven, the king in hearing about this had him thrown into prison.

     At the heart of being a follower of Jesus is in not only receiving forgiveness, but being forgiving toward others as well. 

     In God’s economy, forgiveness begets more forgiveness. Compassion changes us and motivates us in being compassionate toward others. When we who are forgiven do not respond by being the ripples, being conductors of that mercy, we prevent God’s grace from spreading. This is the cost of God’s mercy. 

     And so, if you have received mercy, if God has forgiven you, the next step is to share it with others. Forgive those who have wronged you. Show mercy toward those who said something to you that probably could have been said in a much nicer way. Share what God has done for you especially with those who feel they are not worthy of forgiveness. 

     Go to those places of despair and brokenness and shine God’s love. Because when you keep God’s forgiveness to yourself, you’re really not free anyway. 

     You’re really only free when your willing to stand up when God’s wave of mercy reaches you. And even when you sit down, if you find that you enjoy seeing others taking their turns in standing up and making the wave even bigger, that’s when you’ll know that you are truly free.
    
The Wave
Sermon Discussion Questions
Matthew 18:21-35
September 13, 2020 

Jesus’ parables like today’s of the unforgiving servant are always thought provoking. A man who owed an unbelievable amount of money to a king was to be thrown in prison but pleaded for mercy and the king forgave his debt. 

How would you react if you had been forgiven that enormous amount of money?

The twist in the parable was that immediately after this man was forgiven an impossible debt to repay, he demands that someone who owed him a much smaller amount to pay him back in full or suffer the consequences. The person who owed him pleads for forgiveness but he threw him into prison.

Why do you think this man who had been forgiven a large sum of money turned around and refused to offer grace to someone who owed him money?

In his parable, Jesus is referring to receiving and offering forgiveness. Pastor Robert shared this thought in the sermon: In God’s economy, forgiveness begets more forgiveness. Compassion changes us and motivates us in being compassionate toward others. When we who are forgiven do not respond by being the ripples, being conductors of that mercy, we prevent God’s grace from spreading.”

In what ways can we be the “ripples” in receiving and sharing God’s mercy and grace with others?

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Online Worship (September 13) Athens First UMC



Welcome to our (September 13) online worship!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

Wednesday, September 9, 2020