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, May 24, 2015

Sunday Worship Preview - May 31

Sunday, May 31 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, June 3  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - Trinity Sunday & Holy Baptism (9:00 &10:30)

Scripture - Isaiah 6:1-8

Sermon "Humbling Moments"

Theme - When the Prophet Isaiah encountered the presence of God, he believed that he was a person of unclean lips. It was a very humbling moment. What are some holy moments that have humbled you?

Sermon (May 24) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Where's the Fire?"

      A young pastor served his community as a chaplain to the local fire companies. One night, his first call came, and he jumped into his car and sped off into the night.   A police cruiser, lights flashing, pulled him over, and the police officer sauntered up to the driver’s side window, leaned in, and asked, “Well, sir? Where’s the fire?”
     Without hesitation, the young pastor replied, “216 Sherman Ridge Road!” Caught off guard, the police officer stammered, “Oh, well, OK then, follow me!”
     “Where’s the fire?” is a common euphemism used in three different ways. In the case of the police officer, it meant, “What’s the big hurry?” Others us the phrase to ask, “What’s all the excitement about?” Another approach uses the saying to inquire, “Where’s the passion and energy?”
     Any of these three questions is appropriate for us to ask on this Pentecost Sunday. “Where’s the fire?”
     The story of Pentecost in the second chapter of the Book of Acts has been known as the birthday of the church. This story challenges us with the “Where’s the fire?” questions in all three different uses.
     For the first use of that question where the police officer is challenging the motorist to explain why he was going too fast, today is a good day to address that question. Like the police officer, we too may assume that there really isn’t a fire when there actually is.
     The reason that God sent the Holy Spirit upon the disciples after Jesus had ascended into heaven was because God’s mission on this earth still needed to be fulfilled. More work needed to be done.
     Even though Jesus won the victory over sin and death through the cross and the empty tomb, God’s overall plan didn’t change. God still wants to work in and through ordinary people like you and me to do extraordinary things to make a difference in our world.
     As the saying goes, sometimes we can be so heavenly minded that we end up being no earthly good. When Jesus left his disciples, he didn’t tell them that it was nice knowing them and to take it easy because there was nothing left for them to do. No, he told them to go into the world to baptize, to teach, and to serve.
     Jesus was telling them that there was more work to be done. The difference would be that they would have the Holy Spirit to empower them to make a difference in the world.

     In 1963, civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was in a Birmingham, Alabama jail because he had led a non-violent protest against social injustice in that city.  While he was in jail, eight clergymen in Birmingham had placed a statement in the local newspaper criticizing him for coming to their city to speak out against racial inequality.
     While in jail, Dr. King responded to their criticism and here is a portion of his letter in response to their criticism of his work:
     Dr. King writes, Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here, I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.
     Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.
     Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
     Nobody was going to convince Dr. King that there was no fire of racial inequality. Dr. King dedicated his ministry to paving the way to a more just nation where all people regardless of skin color enjoy freedom and equality.
     The fact that Dr. King wrote this letter makes me very sad because his letter was not in response to people outside the church. His letter was in response to religious leaders who had chosen to not support him in his important work.
     They were more like the policeman who sarcastically told the speeding motorist, “Where’s the fire?”
     During these past few months, our youth have been leading the way in putting together a social justice ministry for the youth of our area. They have formed this group to identify social inequality in our local community and how they are to respond to these injustices as followers of Jesus Christ.
     Our youth are going out of their way to make a difference in our community. They are willing to go to bat for people who often feel invisible in our community. They are speeding down the road to make a difference in our community even if some would ask them, “Where’s the fire?”
     To our youth who are working toward a more just society, know that our church is so proud of you for leading the way. You are teaching us what it means to get out of our comfort zones and not just accept the status quo of injustices that are all around us.
     Whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminded of God’s call on each of our lives to make a difference in our community and world. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
     Our job as a Pentecost people is to sprinkle a little of heaven on earth. Check that. To spread a lot of heaven on earth.
     We are on fire with the Holy Spirit so that we can put out the fire of social injustice.
     In addition to assuming that there is no fire when in reality there are many fires in our community and world that are in need of God’s justice and love, Pentecost Sunday also helps us to share with others why we do what we do.
     Sometimes when people ask, “Where’s the fire?” they are asking, “What’s all the excitement about? What’s the commotion?”

     Well, the reason the disciples were speaking in tongues and causing such a commotion in downtown Jerusalem two thousand years ago is all related to the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
     We have a good news faith! We have a faith that turns heads and leads people to wonder why those people in church are filled with so much joy and hope in a world that is filled with so much bad news.
     Know wonder that Pentecost Sunday is often associated with the joy of a birthday party. It’s a time for us to celebrate and open the gift of the Holy Spirit who wants to be active and at work in our daily lives.
     After a worship service one Sunday morning, a church member said to me at the door, “What a great day to be here at church! I felt so much happiness and joy in this place!” That one comment made my heart sing that entire week. Who said church should be boring and painful? We have a good news faith.
     And this leads us to the third meaning of the phrase, “Where’s the fire?” Sometimes when people ask that question, they are asking, “Where’s the passion and energy?”
     I was in a coffee shop working on church work when these two radical teenagers were sitting near me talking passionately about the problem of human trafficking in our central Ohio area. They were talking really fast and getting a little loud so I couldn’t help but to hear what they were discussing.
     When there was finally a brief pause in their conversation, I leaned over toward them and I think I surprised them when I said, “I’ve been listening to a little of your conversation and I just wanted you both to know that you’re awesome.”  I explained to them that I was a pastor in Lancaster and that our church is also seeking to make a difference in our community and to speak out against injustices that we encounter.
     Their eyes lit up and they were so glad to hear that there is a church that believes that these are important issues to address as well. They told me a little about their ministry which they call the butterfly project.
     They even have a website that has a brief video about their purpose. Here’s their video. 

     When I hear about what our youth are doing in our church and what these two young people in the coffee shop were discussing, it gives me great hope for the future.
     These two youth who were in that coffee shop are on fire to make a difference in our world and they are doing something about it. They aren’t so heavenly minded that they aren’t any earthly good.
     When I think of those disciples on that first Pentecost Sunday, we are told that a tongue of fire appeared over top each of those disciples. They were on fire for their faith.

     Today isn’t just the anniversary of Pentecost Sunday. Today is also the anniversary of when John Wesley, the founder of Methodism had his heart-warming experience while he was attending a prayer meeting in London on May 24, 1738.
     Wesley wrote in his journal that it was at this prayer meeting when he stood up and told everyone, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” It was in that moment when Wesley internalized the good news that Jesus Christ had died not just for the world, but also for him.
     Methodists are known as a people of warm hearts. I was in an airport terminal several years ago when a large group of people from another country were walking by. They all were wearing the same t-shirts that had the United Methodist heart and flame logo.
     Not knowing how to speak their language, I went over to a couple of them, held my hand over my heart and said, “Methodists, hearts strangely warmed.” In very broken English, they smiled back and said, “Yes, hearts warm.”
     The crowd who had gathered at that first Day of Pentecost were from all over the world, but it was the Holy Spirit that helped them to speak the same language. The fire of Pentecost is why we have so much passion and energy in our faith.
     We need Pentecost. We need Pentecost because it helps us answer the question, “Where’s the Fire?”
     First of all, it reminds us that there are fires of injustice in our community and world where we are called to offer God’s healing love. It also answers the question as to why we can be filled with joy in a world of so much negativity and pain. We have a good news faith!
     And Pentecost is also what gives us such energy and passion that lead us to act like teenagers who are na├»ve enough to believe that they can change the world. No matter how old we may be, we are a people of hearts that have been strangely warmed.

     My prayer for all of us today on this Pentecost Sunday is that we would be a people who are on fire in sharing our faith with the world. Happy Pentecost Sunday!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dave's Deep Thoughts - The Swing that Changed My Brother's Life

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.

Some may want to go back to the past,
others, Back to the Future.
As for me, I just want to get back to living.

It was her 16th birthday party.
The year was 1967.

My sister was  six years older than me.
As a young boy, 
I had learned to endure parties 
where teenage girls invaded the house.

Answer…..about a gazillion girls were there,
all weekend.

For a ten year old boy,
this was a sentence of death.

Marty McFly may have thought he had it bad in 1985
but life for Davy McDowell in 1967 was no picnic either.

I wasn’t the only male child facing such agony.
My brother, five years younger than me, had to endure it as well,
except that at age five, he was less aware of the GRAVITY OF THE SITUATION. *

As the cars continued to turn into the driveway,
and as the GIGIWATT *  level of girlish giggles reached painful proportions,
I did what any ten year old would do…..

That took me to the front yard
where I thought I was alone with my baseball bat.

It was there behind a bush that I took my first powerful practice swing…….
a swing that ended up in my brother’s skull.

I had forgotten that as a five year old brother,
he was more like a puppy dog.
He would follow me everywhere…….

That day, 48 years ago, on my sister’s 16th birthday,
he followed me right into a swing of the bat
as I was chasing an imaginary ball over the right corner of the plate.

I don’t remember much after that except blood,
a lot of blood…..
and that the giggles of teenage girls turned to screams.

somehow I knew that I had altered history.

What if I had never hit my brother in the head with the baseball bat?

He would have likely gotten better grades in high school.

He never would have had to listen to the
“Boy you had better buckle down and get better grades”
speech from our father.

Instead, he would have gone to Harvard,
and then Duke Divinity School
instead of attending the local commuter school.

He would never have transferred from the local commuter school
to Temple University.

He would have never met his wife.

He would have never moved to Ohio
and entertained everyone with his endless selfies and Facebook posts.

He would never have had his two wonderful children,
nor had his cute Westies  as pets.

All because of one swing of the bat in April of 1967.

I used to think I should apologize to my brother 
for slamming him  in the head with a large piece of wood,
but now I realize that he should be thanking me.

That traumatic blow to the noggin
wrote his future.

Doc Brown quoted
SO MAKE IT A GOOD ONE.”  *("Back to the Future" Quote)

I’d like to think that my mistimed swing
paved the wave for my brother to become an excellent pastor.

Theologians and people of faith have for centuries
debated over man’s free will versus God’s sovereignty.

Is life really scripted out for us beforehand and we are merely actors,
or do we really have a choice in determining our destiny?

I would say yes and yes.

When Moses goes before Pharaoh
in that dramatic account of the Exodus from Egypt,
several times Scripture says:
But Pharaoh hardened his heart at that time also; neither would he let the people go.”  (Exodus 8:32)
In the same account, Scripture also says that it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart….
But the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh; and he did not heed them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses.” (Exodus 9:12)

I believe that our free will can only operate within God’s sovereignty.
Are we responsible for our actions?

Is God in charge?

And because of that, I offer to my brother……
I’m sorry  for not looking to see where you were in that  moment” and
I am glad God purposed me to have a brother who is living out the intentions for his life.”

And as Doc Brown put it,
for those who know and love the Lord,

And in the meantime,
choose to live out well the purposes that he intended for you before you were even born.


Upcoming Sunday Scripture Commentary - May 24

Sermon (May 24) - "Where's the Fire?"

Acts 2:1-21

This is the story of Pentecost, the conclusion of the Easter Season, the 50th day after Easter Sunday, and the 10th day after Jesus' ascension.

Peter refers to Pentecost and the giving of the Holy Spirit as the "Last Days." This does not mean that the world will end in any moment. It's a figure of speech that states that this is a significant event in which God's people are being equipped to carry on Jesus' ministry and share the good news throughout the world.

Peter makes two very important points about Pentecost in his sermon to the people.

1) Only followers of Jesus are able to understand and appreciate the gifting of the Holy Spirit. The crowd doesn't understand what is happening. Most of them haven't yet heard about Jesus' resurrection, but this is about to change!

2) Peter's naming of this time as "The Last Days" is showing that the news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is about to transform the world. This is the time that the scriptures have pointed to over the centuries and it was being launched in that moment!

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

This passage offers three important points:

1) The Spirit will testify to the truth. 2) The Spirit will comfort the world but will also bring conviction of sin. 3) The Spirit will bring illumination to the disciples as they carry out Jesus' ministry.

The Holy Spirit is our advocate. The Spirit always points us to Jesus. The Spirit works through the disciples. We do not have to convince people about the good news of Jesus. The Spirit does this! The Spirit also increases our understanding of the work of Jesus. This leads to deeper gratitude and intimacy with God.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Sunday Worship Preview - May 24

Sunday, May 24 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, May 27  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - Pentecost Sunday, Graduates Recognition, Commissioning of Young Justice Advocates, & Memorial Day Weekend Sunday

Scripture - Acts 2:1-21 & John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Sermon "Where's the Fire?"

Theme - The church was on fire when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples. The early church had a sense of urgency to share the good news of Christ with the world. Do we share in that same sense of urgency in the church today?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sermon by Youth Director, Joe Palmer (May 17) - "What Are We Confirming?"

I cannot be more proud of the 12 young adults that we have welcomed into our church family this morning. During the last 8 months, I have been meeting with these students and we have been discussing what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be a Methodist, and what it means to join the church.
During their last retreat at Geneva Hills, we sat around a table and planned this morning. After they arranged the services, chose the hymns, and wrote the prayers, I asked them if any of them want to give the message. Not a single one raised their hand! Can you believe it! Well you all are an intimidating bunch sometimes and it does take a lot of courage to get up here and read scripture, lead you in prayer, and play musical instruments. So I volunteered to deliver the message for them. However, they sure were opinionated in what they wanted me to say. They gave me their bullet points and approved this message this past Friday night.
The confirmands decided they wanted me to take you through the confirmation year and share with you what they learned and what resonated with them most during this process. Their hope was to help rejuvenate you all in the manner that they have been. 
So let’s start off at our first retreat, last October. We stayed in the cabins at the Lancaster Campground and met at Crossroads.
 During this week we focused on the voices that we listen to.  We constantly have voices in our heads telling us things. Good and bad things. Some of those things were put there by others and some by ourselves. The confirmands worked at sorting out those voices and tried to tune in to the voice of God.
In the middle of the afternoon, we explored different types of prayer.

Traditionally when we imagine someone in prayer, we think of someone with a bowed head. This was the first image result when I googled “person praying.” However, we tried different postures and positions of prayer. We reached towards the sky, we covered our faces, we laid on our backs with our arms spread wide, and then we held our hands open and looked up into the tower at Crossroads.

As we were spending a moment in this position, a large brilliantly white cloud slowly crept its way over Crossroads. The cloud whited out the windows and made the black cross stand out more pronounced than ever. It was in that moment that some of us felt His presence and felt tuned into the voice of God.

Later that night confirmands were blindfolded and lead through an activity where they experienced Peter’s Life with Christ. They experienced the disbelief when there was enough bread and fish for 5000 people.  They experienced the terrifying sensation of trusting Christ and stepping out from the safety of our boats and walking to Christ on the sea of Galilei. They experienced the grace of Christ when He washed their feet. Then they experienced the gut reaching sounds of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice for us.  We finished in a catacomb worship service where we prayed for the ability to recognize the Christ presence in our lives, we prayed for the sight to identify the miracles in our lives, and we prayed for the wisdom in how we can respond to His presence.

Later on in the year we traced our United Methodist heritage back, and back, and back. The United Methodist church is a branch on a large tree of faith that is rooted in the Jewish Faith. To better understand where our religious ancestors came from, we visited a Jewish synagogue and Greek Orthodox Church.

At Temple Israel in Columbus we were met by a very welcoming group where we shared a mutual understanding and belief that is seeded in the Torah. 

A month later we traveled to the The Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in downtown Columbus where these 13 year olds sat through a 3 hour service with Greek being spoken 80% of the time. And no one fell asleep. The confirmands wanted to make sure you know that Pastor Robert and Pastor Cheryl have been taking it easy on us! In all honesty, we were all enthralled by the beauty of the cathedral and kept spotting similarities between their service and our own here. The confirmands were able to acknowledge that our Christian family transcends the walls of our church and our own denomination.

During our meetings on Sunday we discussed the many different ways that we can follow Christ. However, with most topics we referred back to this.  This diagram is one way for us to chart the four spiritual practices of being a Disciples of Christ.
Devotion is the private activity that draws us into Scripture, focuses our attention on prayer, and helps us to be mindful of God’s presence in our life. Devotion is more than just spending a few minutes each day reading from a daily devotional guide, although these resources have their merit. It also, includes spending time each day in personal prayer; reading, studying, and reflecting on Scripture; and spending time in silence and solitude.
In worship we confess our sins in the presence of God and one another. Worship is something that has happening here for years and will continue after we are gone. We pray for one another as we hear the concerns of the people of God, and we hear the interpretation of Scripture. Then we leave empowered to minister to the world. 
Compassion represents practices of caring for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of others. Through compassion, we put our gifts, blessings, and talents, to use on a personal level, caring and extending God’s grace to individuals. Acts of compassion are important ways in which we follow the biblical commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Justice is the corporate side of compassion. It involves seeking peace and wholeness for all people and all of God’s creation. When we seek justice, we move beyond meeting the needs of individuals and look at the root causes of social ills, such as poverty, hunger, slavery, sickness, and oppression. The work of justice sometimes means getting involved in politics, economics, and law; and it often involves being an advocate for those who lack the power and resources to make their voices heard. By striving for justice, we honor a God who is just, and who desires the well-being of all people.  
These four easy-to-remember concepts – devotion, worship, compassion, and justice – give us, all of us, structure for Christ like living. Jesus spent much time in solitude and private prayer but also worshiped with a community of followers. Jesus met the immediate needs of the sick and hungry but also said that the Spirit of the Lord had anointed him to “bring good news to the poor,” “proclaim release to the captives,” and to “let the oppressed go free.” We kept referencing this cross and the specific concepts throughout all of confirmation.

During class we also talked about Joh Wesley’s House of Salvation. He used the different parts of a house to describe salvation and God’s Grace.
John Wesley compared prevenient grace to the porch of the house. When we experience prevenient grace, God had invited us into the house, but we haven’t yet accepted the invitation. We are still just standing outside, loitering on the porch. The idea that of Prevenient Grace is the reason why United Methodists love to baptize babies. The act of baptism is a symbol of God’s prevenient Grace. Even if we are unable to cognitively recognize it, we still are extended the love and grace of God.
Now with justifying grace, John Wesley calls our attention to the door of the house. When we respond to God’s invitation and open the door into God’s house, we are right with God and have assurance that our sins are forgiven. For many Christians this is the most familiar form of grace. Our responsibility is to respond to God’s grace with our participation in the ministries of the church.
Once we enter the house and pass through the door, there are a lot of rooms for us to explore.
 Sanctifying grace is the grace that guides us when we are inside. We understand that salvation is a process, not just a one-time event. Gradually, God transforms us into the person God intends for us to be. This gradual transformation is called sanctification. The four pillars of Discipleship are what we can us to help guide us in this process.

It was during the last retreat that 4 of the confirmands were able to acknowledge God’s grace and reach out for that door handle of God’s house. Brittani, Hannah, Kaleb, and Adam were baptized infront of family mentors and friends.  These four were able to confirm God’s prevenient grace extended to them. 
All of this and more is what has led us here to today. This morning the twelve confirmands, and I find it very fitting that there are twelve of them, stood before you and confirmed their faith. They renounced the spiritual forces of wickedness, rejected the evil powers of this world, and repented of their sins. They accepted the freedom and power that God gave them to resist evil, injustice, and oppression. They confessed Jesus Christ as their lord and savior, putting their whole trust in His grace. The pledged to remain faithful members of Christ’s Holy church and serve as Christ’s representative by being faithful participants in the ministries of the church with their prayer, prescreens, gifts, service, and witness.
Today we celebrate the Ascension of Christ and Carynn / Maggie read for us the Ascension story from Luke. In this passage the disciples were witnesses.  They had seen Jesus with their own eyes.  They could testify to having seen Jesus after his resurrection and they could also testify to seeing him ascend into heaven.  These disciples were charged to go on and testify to what they had seen.  They were to tell the story.  To tell it not as hearsay, but as of their own knowledge.
These confirmands today have not seen the risen Christ with their own eyes, nor have they seen Christ ascend into heaven. However, they have experienced Christ in their lives.  They have confirmed their responsibility to go and tell the story.  To tell it not as hearsay, but as their own knowledge. 
Along with their vows today, we re-confirmed our responsibility to go and tell our story. We renewed our covenant to faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness so that together WE can glorify God though Christ.