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, July 5, 2015

Sermon (July 5) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Thin Places"

    In case you weren’t here last week, the sermon was really awesome. I share that in all humility.
     Actually, our District Superintendent, Dennis Miller gave me some really good advice before my first Sunday here. He said, “You’re going to want to give them your best stuff right away.” So that’s what you’re getting but I make no promises by the time we get to August.
     Seriously though, we preachers want to make a good first impression in a new appointment. You have certainly made a good first impression on Penny and me. Thank you for your kind words, your warm welcome, and for making us feel right at home here in Athens. We really appreciate it!
     A couple of years ago, they changed the date for a preacher’s first Sunday from the first Sunday in July to the last Sunday in June. I guess they figured that a July 4th holiday weekend isn’t the best Sunday to begin at your new church.
     I think it’s kind of funny that the lectionary includes this Gospel reading from Mark, chapter six. It’s the story of when Jesus came to preach his first sermon in his home synagogue. Mark tells us that they took offense at him.
     One translation uses the word, “repulsed.” When Dennis asked me how my first Sunday went with you, I’m glad that I didn’t have to say that you were “repulsed.”
     Mark goes on to tell us that after Jesus’ delivered his unwelcomed sermon, that he was unable to do any miracles there except heal a few people here and there.
     I know of a lot of pastors who would call that a successful beginning to a new appointment, but for Jesus, it was just another day at the office. If I healed a couple of people on my first Sunday with you, that probably would have made the headlines in the Athens newspapers!
     Now, of course the reason the people didn’t respond to Jesus was because this was his hometown. They couldn’t imagine that someone from their hometown had the right to speak with such conviction. What’s that quote? “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
     Jesus’ sermon wasn’t the typical nice message of doing good and saying your prayers at night. Jesus’ sermon was announcing the surprising news that God’s kingdom was finally at hand and it was now time for people to get on board. The people just weren’t ready for this kind of message even if it was good news.
     In hindsight, maybe Jesus should have waited to preach this type of explosive sermon for a later date. Maybe if he would have eased into this talk about God’s kingdom breaking into our lives, that he would have received a more positive reaction from his home town.
     I think Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. I think that Jesus knew that the time was right, regardless of how the people might respond.
     Mark is clear to point out that the reason the people didn’t welcome Jesus’ message was because they didn’t expect to hear such good news from one of their own. When they thought about God’s kingdom breaking into their lives, their hometown of Nazareth was the last place they thought something like this would happen.
      Mark is trying to help us see that it can be easy for us to miss out on the signs of God’s kingdom that are happening all around us. I find this to be true in my own life. Even though I know that God is at work through the ordinary routine of my day to day living, I can easily miss out on signs of God’s presence that are all around me.
     Celtic Christianity has a wonderful name for these times when God’s inbreaking kingdom is being made visible in the here and now. They have called these holy moments, “Thin Places.” “This places”
     They are “thin places” because there is often just a razor thin separation between heaven and earth in any given moment. A lot of people believe that heaven is way out there somewhere, a long way from our time and space of everyday living.
     Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom and his miracles of healing people help to remind us that heaven and earth are a lot closer than we can imagine. Here are some examples of some thin places I have experienced in my own life.
     Last Sunday, I mentioned that I responded to a calling to become a pastor through a college ministry at Temple University in Philadelphia. During that time, I had gone on a weekend retreat for a time of spiritual renewal.
     The retreat leader asked each of us to take our bible, find a secluded place, and listen for God’s voice. And so, I remember taking my bible and sitting down by a tree.
     I flipped open my bible and it opened to the first page of the Book of Jeremiah in the Old Testament. As I read about how the Lord called Jeremiah to become a prophet, it sounded a lot like my story.
     After the Lord tells Jeremiah that he wants him to be a prophet, Jeremiah comes up with the excuse that he was only a youth and wouldn’t know what to tell the people.
     The Lord responds by telling Jeremiah, “Don’t say that you’re just a youth, for you shall go to I to whom I send. Don’t be afraid. I’ll be with you.” A few verses later, it says that the Lord touched Jeremiah’s mouth and said, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.”
   That moment became a “thin place” for me because those were just the words and the reassurance that I needed to hear in that moment. I could have opened my bible to who knows where, like a passage that lists genealogies and all of those begats, but it happened to open to that particular page.
     That holy moment led me to finally say, “yes” to God, because I knew that God would be with me and would give me the words to speak.
     Here’s another “thin place” holy moment that comes to mind.
     My mother passed away back in June of 2012.  Several months before she passed away, my brother, sisters, and I decided that it was time for our mom to move from her farmhouse where she has lived all her life. 
     All four of us were raised there and we all have strong emotional ties to the house and the farm. But we knew that it was time for our mom to move to a place where she would get much better care.
     We had a big task in front of us.  The four of us met at the farmhouse in November of that previous year to prepare mom’s belongings for an estate sale.
     Because of all the memories in the home we grew up in, the four of us had an agreement that we wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time reminiscing since we only had a week to get things ready for the sale.  For the most part, we kept to our agreement.
     In the attic were several large pieces of furniture, boxes and loose items that needed to be carried down two flights of stairs, and then sorted, and tagged.  The cellar which had experienced flooding from a lot of rain that year needed to be emptied and aired out.  The farm buildings needed to be cleaned and organized.
     Things that we didn’t want to keep or think would sell, needed to be thrown into a large dumpster that we had rented.  At the end of each day, I noticed that all four of us were limping from all of the carrying, lifting, and cleaning we had been doing non-stop.  We were quite a sorry sight to see.
     Toward the end of the afternoon of the last day that I was in for the trip, we had finished all our work.  My one sister and I were standing in front of the barn when my brother and my other sister drove up in dad’s old pick-up truck. 
     My brother said, “Let’s make one final trip out to the pines.”  The pines referred to a place on our farm where our dad would go to chop down a Christmas tree each year.  Dad had died in 1989 and so his memory was constantly with us throughout that week. 
     The pines was that place that served as a pet cemetery for our several dogs over the years.  The pines was that place where we would go as kids just to be quiet and be out in nature.
     We drove back to the pines on the same path that our dad would often take on his tractor, a path that was between two cornfields along the sloping farmland of south central Pennsylvania.
     When we made it out to the pines, we got out of the pick-up truck.  The sun was just beginning to set, providing a glow over the recently picked golden cornfields.  It was an unusually warm and calm November day.
     We remarked on how beautiful it was to be back at the pines.  I took a short walk through the woods where dad and I had hunted many years; so many memories of that beautiful farm. 
     We felt like kids again as we remembered stories from our childhood.  A large graceful deer interrupted our conversation as it came out of the woods and darted through the cornfield toward the pines, as if on cue. 
     And then we were silent, not saying a word, as we savored that holy moment.  I thought about dad and how much I missed him.  And then I thought about mom and how she would soon be leaving the home where she had lived all her life.
     Just at the right time, as my heart was feeling the ache of the pain of transition, one of us offered to say a prayer.  And the four of us, joined hands and made a little prayer circle. 
     We thanked God for giving us parents who loved each of us and passed the faith on to us.  We thanked God for giving us the farm as a great place to be raised and that we had these beautiful shared memories that would stay with us forever.
     That holy moment of prayer became one of those thin places for us in a surprising and mysterious way. Heaven and earth are not that far apart in any given moment.
     Let me offer one more “thin place” moment.
      A couple of years ago, I attended a funeral service that was held during a late afternoon at the church I was serving. The sanctuary was filled and I was seated in one of the back pews.
     During the service, the song, “Out of the Dark” by Gloria Estefan was played. It had been cloudy for most of the day and just before this song was played, the sun began to shine brightly through the beautiful stained glass windows of that sanctuary.
     As I listened to this beautiful song and saw heaven’s rays just streaming through those windows, I felt God’s presence even in the midst of our deep sadness and grief. The words of that song seemed to be speaking to each person in that Sanctuary.
     Why be afraid if I’m not alone
     Though life is never easy the rest is unknown
     Up to now for me it’s been hands against stone
     Spent each and every moment
     Searching for what to believe
     Coming out of the dark, I finally see the light now
     It’s shining on me
     Coming out of the dark, I know the love that saved me
     You’re sharing with me.

     I didn’t expect God to use a pop song from the early 90s and the perfect timing of the clouds giving way to the sun, to ease our grief, but that’s exactly what happened. God is present with us throughout the ordinary events of our day.
     Now, I know that it’s possible to take things a little too far like seeing the outline of Jesus’ face in the swirl of your guacamole dip.
     I recently read about a woman named Kelly Ramey in Missouri who says that she found Jesus in a bag of Cheetos. When she opened a bag of Cheetos, she noticed a mini orange sculpture that resembled Jesus. She has even given it a name. She calls it… “Cheesus” not with the letter “J” but with the letters, “CH.” “Cheesus.”
     But who am I to judge? I would rather us err on the side of seeing “Cheesus” than on the side of not seeing “Cheesus.” If we believe that God is present everywhere than why wouldn’t we have more of these God sightings throughout our day to day living, even while eating snacks.
     These thin places often catch us off guard. They sneak up on us. And sometimes, we don’t even recognize them until after they happened.
     Do you know what excites me the most about being your pastor? I CAN’T WAIT for the many ways that we will experience God’s “thin places” together. I can’t wait to celebrate those holy moments of God’s presence that are all around us in any given moment.
     It’s interesting to me that immediately after Jesus got a cold response from his hometown, that he didn’t give up. He paired up his disciples and sent them into the surrounding villages to actually live out the sermon he just gave. They went out and announced the good news that God’s kingdom was at hand.
     God is calling us to be on the look out for these holy moments and to share them with each other and with those around us. This is what it means for us to live out our faith.
     Jesus’ first sermon in his hometown might not have gone over very well, but his message of the good news of God’s inbreaking kingdom didn’t stop there.
     Where do you see God’s presence at work in your life? What are those “thin places” where heaven and earth have come together in a mysterious and holy way for you?
     They will sneak up on us in many different ways;
     When you flip through your bible, when you’re by an empty cornfield, when the sun all of the sudden shines brightly through some church windows, and especially when we come forward to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion and we hear the words, “This is the body of Christ broken for you. This is the blood of Christ shed for you.”

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Confronting Racism: Why We Need the Saints

Many Christian faith traditions include a calendar of saints in which the church celebrates the particular witness of saints on a daily basis. Today, (July 1), the Episcopal Church calendar of saints celebrates the Christian witness of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

It's especially timely to remember this saint due to the Charleston, SC shootings that were prompted by racism. As African American churches are being set on fire and people are arguing over the use of the Confederate Flag, it's times like this that it's extremely helpful to remember saints from the past who walked the walk and talked the talk. Harriet Beecher Stowe was one of those saints.

Brenda Putnam shares this thought about Harriet Beecher Stowe:

Harriet Beecher Stowe, the American author whose book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” opened eyes in its portrayal of Black slavery as shocking to all human sensibility. When he met her, President Abraham Lincoln said, “So you’re the little lady who started this (Civil) War.” For 40 years it was the world’s bestselling book, after the Bible.

As we approach the 4th of July weekend and give thanks for our country, may we also confess our racism, both subtle and overt so that we might be the nation that God has called us to be.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sermon (June 28) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "A Place Called Athens"

      I need to say straight up that normally I like to use the lectionary, which includes appointed scripture readings for each Sunday of the year, but today’s lectionary readings were just awful, to be quite honest.
     The Old Testament reading was about a funeral song that David wrote about Saul and Jonathon. Cross that off.
     The epistle reading was about money and giving. I think that one can wait.
     And that left the Gospel reading that talked about people who were sick and hemorrhaging. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t feel the Lord leading me to any of these scriptures for my first Sunday with you.
     So then I had to come up with my own scripture reading for this first Sunday. And that’s when I thought about this scripture from Acts 17, the scripture about the time when the Apostle Paul first arrived in Athens during one of his missionary journeys. Actually, Laura preached on this same text a couple of weeks ago, so maybe the Lord is trying to tell us something!
     We’re told that Paul was alone when he arrived in Athens. He didn’t have the luxury of a caring congregation waiting to greet him. He didn’t have a beautiful church building that seats eight hundred people that would serve as his home base. He didn’t have a District Superintendent sending him encouraging text messages for his first sermon there. He didn’t have a loving wife by his side or a cute little dog named, Lulu.
     No, it was just Paul all alone in this incredible place called Athens. Athens, the placed that was known as the greatest of all the city states. Athens had a reputation for having the best literature, the best poetry, the best drama, and the best schools. All the other city-states wanted to be like Athens.
     Athens had the Acropolis, which included the famous Parthenon that served as the Temple of the goddess Athena. It was a very impressive place.
     So I think it’s interesting that our scripture reading tells us that as Paul was there in the city, he became distressed. How could you be distressed in a city that offered so much culture, so much to do, and so many impressive places to see?
     We’re told that Paul was distressed because there was also an emptiness in that great city. And Paul knew that it was an emptiness that could only be filled by the same God who had filled the emptiness in his own life.
     It wasn’t until Paul had encountered the Risen Christ on his way to Damascus, that he was able to realize what he had been missing. He had been missing out on the gift of true life that is offered to us through Jesus Christ.
     This is why Paul was on a mission. This is why Paul arrived at a place called Athens. He wanted them to know that the God who they thought was unknown could be known in a personal way and was much closer to them than they had ever imagined.
     I think that Paul’s reason for being in Athens might be the same reason we are in this city of Athens, Ohio. God has placed us in this unique and beautiful setting for an incredible purpose. We are here to share God’s love in this university community.
     Penny and I met at Temple University in Philadelphia. We were in the same dorm building. She was on the second floor and my room was on the first floor by the stairwell.
     Here’s how we met. Instead of opening the stairwell door one day, she opened my dorm room door by mistake. She still says that it was an accident, but I think she knew what she was doing.
     So we ended up having a conversation there in my room and as we talked, we found out that we were both United Methodist. I told her about my church and she told me about her church. And from that point on, she fell madly in love with me and she has been adoring me ever since.
     When we were at Temple, we got involved in a student ministry on campus and on Sundays, we attended a Presbyterian Church that was known for their outreach to the college students of the Philadelphia area.
     Over a hundred of us would meet every week for Sunday School in the church basement known as the Catacombs and then we would go to the late worship service and sit as a group. It was wonderful to have that kind of Christian connection while we were away from our home churches. And it was through the encouragement of people in that college outreach that led me to respond to a calling to enter the pastoral ministry. 
     To make a long story short, Penny and I got married, moved to Ohio so that I could attend seminary, and we have served churches in Ohio ever since. Earlier this month, we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary.
     Coming to Athens is bringing back all of these memories of when Penny and I met through that college ministry so many years ago. We have felt God’s guiding hand throughout this time of transition in our lives in moving from Lancaster to Athens. Here’s a quick list of some of these little signs from God.
     This past January, we drove to Athens for the introduction meeting with the Leadership Team which was the same day as my birthday.
     When we went to look at the parsonage, we noticed that it is located on a road named after the county where I grew up. And if that wasn’t enough, that road leads to a road named after my wife’s first name.
     Another fun little coincidence is that we moved to Athens on June 8th which was on our 30th wedding anniversary.
     So there you have it. God has led us to this place called Athens, and has given us all of these fun little signs along the way.
     Paul was in Athens because he wanted the people of that city to know about a God who became known through the person of Jesus Christ. This was a God of resurrection and new life.  And we are here in this city of Athens to proclaim this same message of hope and good news.
     Today happens to be a special anniversary day. Today is our daughter and son-in-law’s first wedding anniversary. They were married in my previous church. I didn’t have to officiate. I was able to enjoy being the father of the bride.
     Two United Methodist pastors led the service. The one pastor was on staff with me at a previous church and so his family and our family became really good friends during those years. The other pastor was our son-in-law’s pastor when he was in High School.
     During the wedding service, these two pastors offered a very creative combined sermon. The pastor who knew our daughter offered words of affirmation about her. And the pastor who knew our son-in-law offered words of affirmation about him. Each pastor took about five to seven minutes in sharing words of affirmation about the one that they knew.
     I could tell it was meaningful because my niece who had traveled from out of state was sitting behind me and she was sobbing uncontrollably. Penny who was next to me kept grabbing her tissues.  I kept removing my glasses to wipe away the tears.
     It was the most genuine and beautiful wedding sermon that I have ever heard. It was beautiful because both pastors knew the couple in a very personal way. They knew Naomi and Aaron’s unique gifts, strengths, passions, and idiosyncrasies. They also shared funny stories about them.
     God is like that. God knows everything about us. God created us and is always seeking to be in a relationship with us. And God is always reaching out to affirm us and remind us of our gifts, our strengths, and our passions, and yes even the funny things that we have done.
     This was Paul’s message to the people of Athens. God knows you. God loves you. God wants to be in a relationship with you. God is not far from you. God is closer than you think.
     Today is also a special anniversary for another reason. Today is the birthday anniversary of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism who was born in 1703. John Wesley believed that in any given moment you can have an assurance that you belong to God.
     John Wesley is probably best known for his heart-warming experience when he was at a prayer meeting in London, England. It was during a time when Wesley was really struggling in his faith. But it was at that prayer meeting where he felt his heart strangely warmed and he was given an assurance that Christ had died for him.
     We Methodists are known for our warm heart faith thanks to John Wesley. A warm heart faith reminds us that God loves us and knows us by name. God even knows that I go by “Robert” and not “Bob.”
     This is what Paul wanted the people of Athens to know. He wanted them to know that there was a God who loved them and knows us by name. This was a God who had been made known to them through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This was a God who has been revealed to us in a personal way.
     Actually, there are a lot of places like Athens where there are people whose best description of God is “unknown.”
     Before we moved here, I was reading up on some demographic information about Athens. One of the statistics that really stood out for me was that only 22% of people have a religious affiliation. Just 22%! The national average is 50%.

     That’s a lot of people in our community who are not part of a church family. This also means that there are a lot of opportunities for us to make connections with people in our community who presently don’t have a church home.

[Brayden with Pastor Robert on the day of his baptism.]

     Four years ago, a church member called me to see if I could come and baptize Brayden, a seven year old boy in our community who she had been tutoring at his home. They didn't have any church connection.

     He was living with his grandmother who had primary custody because his mother was in jail for drug related issues and I’m still not sure whatever happened to his father.
     Brayden had terminal cancer. And he knew that he was going to die.
     Brayden told his family that he wanted to be baptized because in his words, if he was going to die, he wanted to know for sure that he would go to heaven.  And so I went to Brayden's house. 
     Brayden was playing a video game when I arrived.  I could tell he was a little unsure of who this strange man was who came to visit him.  Even after I explained that I was a pastor of a United Methodist Church there in town and came to get to know him, he seemed a little cautious of me at first.
     But all of that changed quickly when he started putting a puzzle together right there on his small living room floor.  Brandon surprised me by asking, "Hey, do you want to help me with this Spiderman puzzle?" After one puzzle, we began work on another one.
     Family and friends had moved into the living room where we were working on the puzzle. Someone had filled a baking bowl with warm water. They brought the bowl over to me.
     And I asked Brayden if he was ready to be baptized. All of the sudden, this talkative, quick-humored seven year old was speechless. A serious look came to his face and he nodded his head in agreement. Yes, he was ready. Oh, how he was ready!

     I told Brayden a little about Jesus, how he had lived on this earth a long time ago calling people to follow him and how he helped people come to know God. And I said that he then died on a cross so that we can live with God forever and three days later God helped him to become alive again. I concluded the briefest sermon I have probably ever preached by saying that Jesus is alive and is present with us wherever we are.

     "Brayden, the reason we use this water for baptism, is to remind you that just as water helps us to get clean in a bath, God cleans us so that we can be with him forever." After this brief baptism instruction, I felt ready to ask Brayden the big question,"Do you have any questions you want to ask me?" 

     By the way he was concentrating on my every word and knowing that he was very smart for his age, I had a hunch that he probably had something to tell me. As he looked intently into my eyes for the next few seconds, he finally said to me, "I have to pee, first."
     I didn't expect that particular comment in that sacred moment but that’s just who Brayden was.  Brayden was beyond his years. He knew to cut to the chase and how to dispense with long conversations. When he said he needed something, he just said it.

     Brayden came back from the bathroom with a family member guiding him and after stumbling to the floor since he had some paralysis on one side, he sat back down and said, "I'm ready."

     "Brayden, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."  We all laid hands on young Brayden and I offered a prayer that he would always know that Jesus loved him and will always be there for him.

     For the rest of my time in Brayden's home, he stared intently at his lit baptism candle which included his name on it. He then spent time looking at a large cross which was another gift that our church had provided.  

     And then he sat on my lap and we continued to talk and celebrate his baptism. The next time I visited Brayden, his grandmother told me how much that baptism meant to him and how it had given him a sense of peace.  

     Brayden passed away four months after I had baptized him.  I officiated at his funeral service which was held at the church.  The day of his funeral marked the four-month anniversary of when I had first met Brayden and baptized him at his home.

     The day before the funeral, I went to the visitation calling hours.  And next to his casket and proudly displayed on the wall was his baptism certificate.
     Brayden and his family had no connection to any church, but we became his church. Brayden was able to know of a God who loved him and who would be with him forever. This made all the difference in the world for him.
     Brayden’s story always reminds me of the main mission of the church. We are called to reach out to those who do not know of God’s love. We are called to share the good news of our faith.  We are called to be the church right here, in this place called Athens.

     What a privilege it is for Penny and me to begin this new journey with you!