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


Saturday, January 21, 2017

God's Got This - Thoughts on the Presidential Election


[Below is a portion of my November 13, 2016 sermon, the Sunday after the election of Donald Trump. I offer it again on this day after his inauguration as a way to help our country move forward together, especially for people of faith.]


     Many of us continue to feel the highs and the lows of the recent presidential election. Regardless of who we supported with our vote, this election cycle has led us through many twists and turns throughout the very long campaign. It has been a roller coaster ride like no other.

     In many ways, our presidential election process has felt like a country music song, that has taken us all on quite an adventure that has included many surprising detours and an election result that has left people from both of our political parties speechless.

    In light of this past week’s election, there are many people which includes half the country who are very hopeful for the future. They see our next president as someone who will make needed changes in our country that our present elected officials have not been able to accomplish.

     At the same time, the other half of the voters in our country, while trying to have an open mind, are very worried, fearful, and concerned about how this change in the oval office will impact the lives of immigrants, minorities, and the LGBT community. These fears are very real and concern many of us greatly.

     How do we move forward as a country? No matter who we voted for this week, this is a question all of us have been asking these last few days.

     As your pastor, I want to offer some thoughts on how we as a people of faith can move forward and find unity. I pray that these will be helpful to you.

PRAY!

      The first thing is to pray. Pray for President Obama who is our president now, and pray for our next president, Donald Trump as he prepares to take office. The scriptures are pretty clear that we are to pray for those who are in positions of authority. So the first thing is for us to continue to pray that their leadership will ensure freedom and justice for all.

SEEK UNITY!

     The second thing we need to do, and this is the challenge for those of us who may not have voted for Donald Trump. We need to come together as a country and work toward unity while at the same time, be faithful to our beliefs and core values about what is right, what is wrong, and what is unjust. Holding our elected leaders accountable and working toward unity as a country are not mutually exclusive things.

REMEMBER, WE ARE CITIZENS OF GOD'S KINGDOM!

     Here’s the third thing. As people of faith, let’s remember that as followers of Christ, we are first and foremost, citizens of God’s kingdom. And this means that we recognize Jesus Christ to be the true Ruler, Savior, and Just Judge over all creation.

LISTEN TO EACH OTHER!

     And then this fourth thing which came to me 9 o’clock last night. God just hit me with this out of the blue. The fourth thing is for us to actually listen to each other’s hopes, joys, fears, and pain. And I’m not just talking about listening to the people who agree with us, but especially with the people who think differently than the way we do.

      This is hard stuff, because it means that maybe I should do less talking and more listening. And you know what? Confession time. I personally really stink at that. That’s why I think God gave this to me at 9 o’clock last night! A wise friend once told me to do these three things. Listen. Listen. Listen. I forget these all the time! What are the three things again?

     I don’t offer this as an easy answer in how we move forward as a country. I offer these thoughts to remind us that no matter how many twists and turns our country has faced over this past election cycle, not to mention the twists and turns that remain for us as a country in the future, this presidential transition is not something that God can’t handle.


     God’s got this. God’s got this because God has always been faithful.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (January 15) - Athens First UMC

[We were blessed to have the Ohio University Honor Choir sing two beautiful anthems for us during our 10:30 worship service. The choir consists of fifty high school students from all across the state including West Virginia. Our church provided them with refreshments and a lunch following the worship service. Thank you, Honor Choir for blessing us with your wonderful gift of music!]


God of healing and compassion, thank you for your presence in this place today. Thank you for people in our lives who have pointed us to you. Thank you for those times where you have helped us to move beyond simply having a plateaued faith. Grant each of us a growing faith, an adventurous faith, a risk-taking faith, a sanctifying faith.

Thank you for blessing us with a church that is willing to explore new seas and experience new heights in our faith together. Sometimes you challenge us with a gentle nudge, but there are also those times when it feels more like a push or a shove. But it’s all good. You just want us to experience all that you have to offer us in our walk with you.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, help our country to gain greater momentum in promoting civil rights for all. May our church and our community be a place where all people are welcomed and the rights of all are protected.

As we near the presidential inauguration, we pray for our new president, his cabinet and all of those who will be serving on his team. We also pray for our current president as he prepares to step down from his eight years of service. Be with our country as we seek to continue to be a land of liberty and justice for all.

O God, we are so excited about our upcoming Dedication Sunday and all of the people who will be joining us on that special day. We continue to pray for our Building Implementation Team and the contractors and construction workers who are nearing the end of their work. Bless them in all that they are doing on our behalf.

And finally, O God, we thank you for the Honor Choir and their gift of music to us this morning. Guide and direct each of them to be the people you have created them to be, and to continue to offer their gift of music to be a blessing to others.

In the name of Christ, who calls us to follow him, and who always promises to be with us every step of the way, we pray the words that he taught us to say,


“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sermon (January 15) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Big Mo!"


     What better time of year to talk about getting momentum in your life than this time of year, the middle of January? The holidays are long behind us. It’s not fashionable to say “Happy New Year” anymore. We need to get on with life. But how do we do that?
     At a church that I was serving, we wanted to create some excitement and dream new dreams. We felt that we had plateaued a little bit, so we wanted to refocus our ministry.
     Someone told me about a new prayer and small group ministry. We even hired a spiritual consultant who had a reputation for helping to breathe new life into churches. We were going to be one of those churches!
     This exciting initiative was to begin with a church wide weekend retreat. We had arranged for the consultant to come in from out of state. Everything was ready and we were ready to take our church to the next level.
     That is until a major snowstorm forced us to cancel the retreat! It was a real bummer for everyone who had invested so much of their time and energy into this new direction for our church.
     Now, in hindsight, not all was lost. Thankfully, we were still able to move forward as a church in spite of that snowstorm and the cancelation of that retreat, but looking back on that experience, I remember how extremely hard it was to regain the positive momentum that we all had shared in preparing for that retreat.
     This morning, I want to talk about the importance of momentum both in our personal faith journeys as well as in the life of a church. Coaches of sports teams refer to this as “the big mo,” “the big momentum.”
     If you’ve ever been to a sports event, you know how important it is to have “the big mo.” Think about the game of football for example.  Maybe your favorite team is working the ball down the field. They’re now in the Red Zone which means that their getting close to the goal line.
     They’re on a roll. There’ve been some break away runs and some incredible pass plays during the drive. The other team is on their heels and they just can’t stop your team from getting first downs and moving the first down chains.
     But once they make it into the Red Zone, they hand it off to their best running back and guess what? He fumbles, and the other team recovers. Here, you thought your team would at least get a field goal out of that great drive down the field, but after all of that, they end up empty handed. And now the other team has the big mo.
     After the other team gets the ball back, their home fans are going hysterical, the stadium is rocking, and the momentum shifts, big time. The other team ends up taking the ball down the field and scoring.
     There is no better feeling than when you have “the big mo” at work in your life. And there is no more frustrating feeling than when you can’t seem to find “the big mo” at work in your life. Sometimes, I’ll even settle for a “little mo” which is better than not having any “mo” at all.
     This is why I really, really appreciate John the Baptist in our scripture reading this morning. He was someone who understood the importance of “the big mo.”
     Sometimes, we forget that before Jesus came onto the scene, John the Baptist had quite a following of disciples himself. Evidently, John the Baptist was kind of a big deal before Jesus arrived.
     He was a trend setter. He was the guy who wore camel’s hair before it was even fashionable to wear camel’s hair. Everybody wanted to be like him. He even came up with a new snack where you dip locusts in wild honey. Who would have thought that those two things would really taste great together?
     But seriously, these strange things that John the Baptist was doing before Jesus even arrived on the scene was creating quite a stir. He was telling the people to get ready and to anticipate the coming of God’s kingdom in a new and fresh way in their lives, and people were really responding. 
     Even before Jesus arrived, John the Baptist was helping these soon to be followers of Jesus to have some positive momentum in their relationship with God.
     John was teaching them and baptizing them which makes it all the more remarkable that when Jesus arrived, he then pointed them toward Jesus instead of himself.  John knew that he could only take them so far. He knew that he had done his part and now it was time for them to move to a whole new level in their faith, one that only Jesus would be able to fulfill. 
     John the Baptist shows us that if we want to keep the positive momentum going in our church and in our own spiritual lives, we need to point people beyond ourselves to Jesus.
     I want to say a really nice word about Rev. Lynn Miller at Christ Lutheran Church just down the street from us. Lynn stopped by our church this past fall and in the course of our conversation, she said that like us, they are a church seeking to provide a church home for college students.
     It’s what she said next that really stood out for me. She said that she doesn’t just encourage college students to attend her church. She also tells them about our church, meaning First Church, as well as the other churches near us. She said, “You know, all I care about is that these students who are away from home, can find a church that will help them in their spiritual journey.”
     Sounds to me that Lynn is another John the Baptist pointing young people to Jesus.
     When I was a youth attending my home church in south central, Pennsylvania, my home pastor who I still keep in touch with even today, said to our youth group, “By this time next year, I want you to be able to look back on your year and be able to see just how much you have grown in your faith.”
     Pastor Ed was making sure that we would keep growing in our faith throughout the year. He was encouraging us to keep the “big mo” in our faith.
     Sometimes, we hit a plateau in or faith and it’s always good to have someone who can help us keep moving forward in our faith.
     Several years ago, a pastor friend of mine called me at home late one evening, one of those phone calls that surprises you because it was kind of late. She was so excited and could hardly breathe.
     I said, “Cheri, what’s going on? Are you OK?”
     She said, “I’m still at my church and I just finished having a bible study. Robert, it was so awesome. People in my bible study experienced an incredible spiritual transformation tonight. One person made a recommitment of his life to Christ. A married couple felt prompted to begin a food pantry ministry. Someone else shared how she is going to invite her friends to begin attending church with her. I’m not used to this much excitement from a bible study, but people were really connecting with Christ. I just needed to call someone to celebrate.”
     If I didn’t know any better, that was John the Baptist on the other end of the line. Cheri was pointing people to Jesus. She was helping them to experience the “big mo” in their faith journey.
     Who are the John the Baptists in your life who have pointed you toward Jesus and who help you to keep growing in your faith?
     The church calls this process of maintaining the “big mo” in our spiritual journey, the process of sanctification. God is never done working on us, and the more we are open to God’s grace in our lives, the more we become like Christ.
     Some people may be able to point back to a time in their lives when they first accepted Christ. They might refer to that as the time when they were born again.  One of the unique features of the early Methodists was that they didn’t just focus on the time when they were born again but they also focused on the importance of being born again, and again, and again, and again.
     They saw this process as part of God’s sanctifying grace at work in their lives. God isn’t done with us when we first accept Christ into our lives. That’s only the beginning.
     Our closing hymn today is a hymn about God’s sanctifying grace, “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling.” Listen to the fourth and concluding verse of this great Methodist hymn.
     Charles Wesley writes, “Finish then, they new creation; pure and spotless let us be. Let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee; changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before they, lost in wondering, love, and praise.”
     That’s not a hymn about standing still in our faith journey. That’s a hymn about continually allowing Christ to be at work in our lives. It’s a hymn that celebrates the “big mo” that is always available to us along our faith journey because God is never done shaping and molding us into the people God wants us to be. That’s a life long process.
     This was never made more clear to me than my first year of attending seminary. I came to seminary with what I thought was a strong and solid faith. During seminary orientation one of the professors emphasized that seminary would challenge us in so many different ways.
     He said, “Think of yourself as a brick building. And while that’s a good thing, our job here at the seminary is to blow up your brick building. While you are here, the bricks will be flying every which way. There are going to be times when we will challenge you to think about your faith in ways that will make you feel uncomfortable. But hang in there because if we do our job, and you do your job, those bricks are going to get reassembled and you’re going to be a stronger person of faith because of your time here.”
     You know, I could have gone to a seminary that would have spoon fed me with simplistic answers to complex dimensions of the Christian faith, but no, I had to choose this seminary where they told me that they were going to blow up my brick building and make me think. I’m so glad I chose the seminary I did! My seminary experience always reminds me that we are never done growing in our faith.
     I’d like to close with this thought and it comes from the movie, “Mama Mia.” Maybe you’ve seen this movie. It’s actually a movie/musical.


     If you haven’t seen it, the movie takes place on one of the Greek isles, one of the most beautiful and gorgeous locations in the world. It’s just incredible, breathtaking scenery.
     The whole movie is about a daughter who is going to be married. It’s a really good movie, but here’s what I haven’t been able to understand about the movie until I began preparing for today’s sermon.
     Instead of staying on that Greek isle, the most beautiful place in the world, they decide to leave as a couple to explore other places, and eventually settle down someplace else. When we first saw this movie, I turned to Penny, which I always do during movies because I need her to explain things to me.
     I turned to Penny and asked, “What is this couple thinking?” And as they sail off in their boat, I wanted to scream out, “Don’t do it! Open your eyes and look around! You’re already in paradise! Why would you leave this place?”
     OK, we saw that movie when it first came out back in 2008, and for the past eight years, this ending scene from the movie has always bothered me. I mean, I haven’t been able to sleep at night because of how this movie ended!
     Until….Until I started preparing for today’ sermon and our Gospel reading.
     Here’s why the ending of this movie now makes sense to me. Friends, we are never, ever, ever, ever done growing in our faith. And we are never, ever, ever, ever done exploring our faith, no matter how much we may think that we have already arrived in paradise.
      If that couple would have stayed on that Greek isle for the rest of their lives, eventually they would have lost out on new adventures and other exciting places to see.
     Some of you are sitting there thinking, “It really took you eight years to figure that out???”  Now you know what Penny has to deal with whenever we go to the movies.
     John the Baptist knew that there was a whole new world for his disciples to explore. Even with all of his notoriety and appeal, he knew that his mission was to point them to Jesus.
     And come to think of it, when Jesus was nearing his death on the cross, like John the Baptist before him, he prepared the disciples for the next chapter in their lives. He told them that the Holy Spirit would take it from there and remind them of everything that Jesus did and taught.
     And from there, they learned to depend on the Holy Spirit as they formed the church and started a new adventure of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the known world.
     Friends, it’s January 15th.  The year is ahead of us. There are new seas to explore and places to see. I’m not sure what those new places might be.
     Maybe it will include joining one of our small groups where people gather to share how God is present in our everyday lives. Maybe it will include signing up for one of our Core courses that meets on Sunday evenings to help us explore the basics of the Christian faith. Maybe it will include serving in some way through the life of our church or attending worship more regularly.
     Whatever it is, one thing is for sure. There are always new seas to explore and places to see as we live out our faith.
     In our scripture reading this morning, John the Baptist is pointing us to follow Jesus. Let’s keep the big momentum going as we seek to grow in our faith.

     And let’s never forget that our faith is a life long journey.

The Big Mo!
Small Group Questions
John 1:29-42
January 15, 2017

John the Baptist is known as the person who pointed people to Jesus. Because of his popularity, he could have easily kept the focus on himself but he knew that people needed Jesus more than they needed him.

Share a time when someone pointed you to Jesus? What impact did this have on your faith journey?

The "Big Mo" sermon title refers to the "big momentum" that helps us as individuals and as the church to reach new heights in our faith. 

Share some "big momentum" that you have been experiencing in your life and in the life of our church.

Some of the tried and true ways to experience positive momentum in our lives spiritually is by practicing "the means of grace" which include regular scripture reading, prayer, small groups, bible studies, serving others, receiving Holy Communion, attending church, fasting, attending a spiritual retreat, getting involved in a ministry, etc.

If John the Baptist was here today, what would he be pointing you to do in this New Year in order to keep the "big mo" happening in your spiritual life?