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, August 28, 2016

Sermon (August 28) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Three Simple Rules"

    I don’t know of a whole lot of people who wish that we had more rules than what we already have. Rules often feel like a killjoy. Some of you who just moved here may have already paid a price for not obeying the parking rules in our fine community.
     Some rules seem sillier than others. Here are some random silly rules that people have sent in from all over the country. I’ll list a couple of my favorite ones.
     Here’s a silly rule in Youngstown, Ohio for example. They have a law that says you’re not allowed to run out of gas. Actually, that’s a personal rule I try to live by whenever I drive my car.
     Did you know that supposedly in Oklahoma, it is illegal to have a sleeping donkey in your bathtub after 7 pm? That's a crazy rule, right? 7 pm is just way too early in my opinion.
     In Louisville, Kentucky, I understand that there is a law that says it is illegal to walk down a street, public or private with an ice cream cone tucked in your back pocket. This is one of the reasons I love living in Athens. You can do things like that.
     This is too much fun. OK, just one more silly rule. In Baltimore, Maryland, there is a law that says that you are not allowed to take a lion to the movies. That’s crazy, right? And I am not “lion” about this. I am not “lion” about this. I am not “lion”…
     Well, that’s enough of the silly rules. I actually don’t know if any of these are actually true or not. I found them on the internet. You might want to do some fact checking to see if these laws are still on the books.
     The point is that we can have too many rules. But, imagine if we had no rules. Things would get really chaotic. What if baseball didn’t have any rules? There would be no point in playing the game, right? Rules can be helpful.
     Someone once asked John Wesley, the 18th century founder of the Methodist movement in England, what it meant to be a Methodist. And he basically said that Methodists are Christians who follow three simple rules.
     The three rules are #1) Do no harm.  #2) Do good. And he said the 3rd rule was to stay in love with God.
     Those are easy enough to remember.  #1) Do no harm.  #2) Do good. #3) Stay in love with God. That’s all we need to remember.
     John Wesley said that these three rules summarize what it means to be a Methodist.
     Our scripture reading from Hebrews this morning touch on all three of Wesley’s simple rules to some degree which is why I thought it would be good for us to reflect on these this morning.

Simple Rule #1 - Do No Harm

     The first simple rule is to do no harm. Do no harm. The author of Hebrews gives us some examples of what it means to do no harm. In verses four and five, he warns how dishonesty in a relationship and the misuse of money, can cause harm.
     Of course, there are many other ways that we can do harm to others in addition to dishonesty and greed, but these are two important ones that we need to guard against. If all we care about is getting ahead and what’s in it for me, then we will make things more important than people.
     What does it look like to live out this first simple rule of doing no harm?
     One of the great Methodist preachers was Sam Jones who lived during the 1800’s.  He came from a line of seven Methodist preachers in the family.  Born in Alabama, the Jones’ family moved to Georgia when Sam was just ten. 
     The hope was for Sam to attend college but that didn’t happen since he started to drink heavily.  He thought that by getting married and settling down it would help him to stop drinking, but it didn’t.  He kept on drinking his life away.  Somehow, he became a lawyer but that ended quickly because of his drinking problem. 
     By 1872, he was stoking furnaces and driving freight wagons for a living.  The death of his infant daughter sobered him for a time, before he fell off the wagon yet again. 
     Then in 1872, Jones was called to his father’s deathbed where his father pleaded with him to quit drinking and Sam promised he would.  A week later during a church service, he made his confession to God to turn away from all the harm he was causing himself and others and he became a Christian.
     Sam then became a Methodist preacher in the North Georgia Conference.  Before long, his talent for preaching had him leading revivals in large cities that often gathered over a thousand people.  He later became known as the Billy Graham of his day. 
     Sam was always preaching against sin and hypocrisy.  His message was simple.  He would often say, “The best thing a person can do is to do right and the worst thing a person can do is to do wrong.”
     His most famous sermon was entitled, “Quit Your Meanness.”  I love that sermon title! In that sermon he said, “Just quit your meanness and follow along in the footsteps of Jesus.”
     To be sure, there are many different kinds of meanness.  There’s a meanness that is deliberate, blatantly rude and disrespectful.
      Our family went to a minor league baseball game one year with some friends. We were pretty close to the action, so the players were able to easily hear what people were shouting from the stands.
     There was a guy who was sitting pretty close to us and he was really obnoxious toward one of the players who was waiting in the on deck circle. I mean, it was awkward because the player was only like 20 or so yards from us, and this fan was just being over the top rude.
     His favorite line was something like…and keep in mind that I have to clean up the language to share this with you in church. He yelled out, “You can’t make it to the big leagues because you always strike out. You stink!” And he kept repeating that over and over again.
     Now, my wife isn’t one to make a scene in a public place, but after about three innings of this guy spouting off, she couldn’t take it anymore. So after this guy yelled out, “You always strike out,” for like the 20th time, she yells out, “If you wouldn’t be yelling at him all the time, maybe he could get a hit!”
     Everybody around us applauded because they were tired of hearing this guy, too! My wife is my hero for sticking up for that player!
     Sometimes, “doing no harm,” isn’t easy to follow. We can all be tempted to say something we shouldn’t say or do something we shouldn’t do.
     One of our membership vows when we join the church asks, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”
     I love that question because it reminds us that in any given moment, God’s grace is always reaching out to us to help us do the right thing in any given situation.  The question is if we are open to receiving God’s grace to help us exercise self-control and to do no harm.
     Simple rule #1 is to do no harm.

Simple Rule #2 - Do Good

     The second simple rule is to do good. Our scripture reading gives us lots of examples of doing good. He tells us to love each other like family, be hospitable, do good, and share what you have with others.
     This is a good time for me to offer a shout out to our Monday Lunch crew. For the past several years, they have been doing so much good by providing a hot lunch for the people in our community. Tom Murray and Allene Kilgore help coordinate this ministry and many of you volunteer. This weekly lunch is a very practical way for our church to “do good.”
     Here’s what impresses me the most about Monday Lunch. Often times, there will be construction workers working outside on some project near our church building, and somebody from our Monday Lunch will personally invite those workers to join us for lunch. Isn’t that great?
     That’s living out this 2nd rule of doing good by just being aware of the needs around us and then finding a way to fill that need. Jesus talks about even offering a cup of cold water as a way of doing good.
     I admire people who are so good at anticipating a need and then doing something about it. They inspire me to look for those little ways of doing good.
     Another pastor and I were driving back from a conference meeting. This other pastor asked me if I would mind pulling into the next fast food drive through so she could buy a cold drink. I said, “sure,” and I got off at an exit with a McDonalds.
     I went through the drive thru and placed my order. As I was pulling up to the window, my pastor friend said, “When we get up to the window, ask the person if he has any prayer concerns.” I said, “What??”
     She said, “You heard me. I do this all the time. Ask him if he has any prayer concerns that we can lift up in prayer.”
     When we finally pull up to the window, he takes my money and as I’m waiting for my change, my pastor friend tugs at my shoulder and says, “Ask him. Ask him”
     I said, “You ask him.” She says, “No, you’re closer. Ask him.”
     Feeling a little uncomfortable in that moment, “I said, OK, OK, I’ll do it.”
     So when the guy gives me my change, I somehow got enough courage to ask him to share any prayer concerns with us. I know it was the Holy Spirit, because there’s no way I would have done this on my own.
     Surprisingly, he says, “Well yeah. Actually, I have a son in Texas who lives with his mom and I haven’ seen him for a while. Maybe say a prayer for my son. That would be great.”
     I was stunned that in that brief moment, he had shared such a heartfelt prayer request. It took me off guard. So I said, “I’ll just offer a quick prayer for him now.” I couldn’t believe it. I was praying in this drive thru line with cars behind me.
     Peeking up at his name badge, I prayed, “Dear God, be with Kevin’s son down in Texas. Help his son to know that his dad here in Columbus, Ohio loves him very much. Bless Kevin as well. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”
     After that 7 second prayer, Kevin looked down at me in my car and said, “I really appreciate it. Thanks.”
     As I began driving forward, my pastor friend tapped me on the shoulder and with a great big smile she said, “I’m proud of you. I’m going to make a Christian out of you, yet!”
     That drive-thru experience reminded me that there are opportunities all around us to do good. It also reminded me that we need to be open to those Holy Spirit moments when God nudges us to step out of our comfort zones and to bless somebody’s day.
     We have an incredible opportunity to do a lot of good as a church this upcoming Saturday morning. It’s our monthly “Athens First Saturday” outreach where we meet here at 8:30 in the morning and then we go out to do good in our community and we conclude before noon.
     There’s something for all ages. Now that the Fall semester has started, we are looking forward to having a lot of college students serve with us.
     Many of us wear our red “Athens First Saturday” t-shirts when we serve on these “First Saturdays” to let our community know that we are a church that is seeking to do good in our community. We should change our name to “First United Methodist Do Gooder Church.”
     Join us this Saturday, at 8:30 in the morning as we live out this second simple rule of doing good.

Simple Rule #3 - Stay in Love with God

     Do no harm. Do good. And the third simple rule is to stay in love with God. This was an important rule for Wesley because he knew that when we stay in love with God, it helps us to live out the first two rules.
     What does it means to stay in love with God? The author of Hebrews speaks about remembering God’s Word which we would associate with the scriptures. We are also told to offer our praises to God.
     One of the best ways to stay in love with God is through weekly worship like we’re doing right now. Weekly worship is how we remember God’s Word and offer our praises.
     Sunday morning worship continues to be one of the best bargains in town. There’s no cost. The offering is voluntary. The sermons are halfway decent most of the time. The music is inspirational. And we always offer a continental breakfast with flavored coffee.
     Seriously, Sunday worship is like a family reunion where we gather each week to be in fellowship and to honor and glorify God. If you attend Sunday worship on a weekly basis, you will be able to follow the entire life and ministry of Jesus Christ. You will be in sync with the Christian year.
     Forget about summer, fall, winter, and spring. Forget about semesters. Think about the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Kingdomtide. These are the seasons that matter the most, the seasons that invite us to follow the entire life of Christ.
     Shaping our lives around these seasons of the church year by attending church every Sunday, unless we are sick or out of town, will help us to be the people that God has called us to be. These church seasons will help us to stay in love with God.
     Another great way to stay in love with God is by participating in one of our awesome small groups. Our several small groups meet on various times and days during the week.  
     Their main focus is to give everyone an opportunity to share how they have experienced God’s presence in their lives, especially since their small group last met. We have been calling these, “Thin Place Moments.”
     These groups meet no longer than an hour and fifteen minutes so that we respect your time. We also use questions based on the previous Sunday’s worship theme.
     I have invited on of our small group participants to share how their small group has been helping them to stay in love with God.
(Small Group Member Shares)
      We are able to stay in love with God by attending weekly worship and by participating in a small group where we can share our faith with each other.
     What does it mean to be a Methodist? No, it doesn’t mean you have to attend so many covered dishes per year or join so many committees, or have read all 52 of John Wesley’s sermons.
     Being a Methodist is really just about focusing on these three simple rules:

     Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.

Three Simple Rules
Small Group Questions
Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16
August 28, 2016

Simple Rule #1 - Do no harm

Share a time when you were tempted to do harm to someone. What helped you to resist?

Simple Rule #2 - Do good

Share a time when you stepped out of your comfort zone to do something good. What helped you to do good?

Simple Rule #3 - Stay in love with God.

Share how you are seeking to stay in love with God. How does your small group help you to stay in love with God?

Monday, August 22, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (August 21) - Athens First UMC

Pictured Above: Our Outreach Directors, Logan & Wendy with the gift baskets.

[We had another fun time this year in handing out 650 water bottles to OU students during move-in week. We also fed parking meters and took eleven baskets of goodies to our neighboring sororities and fraternities. They were very appreciative. A couple of guys from the frat house next to our church came back to our church that afternoon to thank us a 2nd time for the gift basket! We also had a young couple who noticed us doing all of this outreach pull up and ask about our Sunday worship services. Thank you, Athens First UMC for "Putting Athens First."]

O God, what a joy it is to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ every Sunday here in our church! Thank you for giving us this day of the week to celebrate the new life and new hope that you offer to each one of us and indeed, even to the whole world. Sometimes, Sunday just can’t come soon enough for us because of the challenges and busyness of our day to day living. Thank you for giving us this weekly reminder that we are an Easter people.

We offer a special prayer today for all of our college students who have arrived to campus this past week to begin a new academic year. Bless them as they begin their classes this week. Strengthen them as they face the challenges and temptations of college life so that they would be able to stay focused in the direction you are leading them. And help our church to continue to be a haven of blessing and peace in this unique location you have given us here on South College Street.

On this Independence Day, this little Easter celebration day of our week, we lift up prayers for those who are recovering from physical setbacks, those who are undergoing medical tests, those who are facing major decisions in their lives, those who are searching for a church home, those who feel discouraged and lonely, and those who are unable to leave their homes because of physical limitations. Just as Jesus healed the woman who had been ill for eighteen years in today’s scripture reading, may your healing love surround every person who is in special need of you this day. Thank you for our Stephen Ministry leaders and Stephen ministers who are available in our church to offer your healing love through caring and confidential one to one peer support. We thank you for this vital ministry and for the many people who have and who are being blessed by it.

Empower our church to share your liberating love in all that we say and do. Help us to be like the prayer cross that is located in front of our church building so that the people we see during the week will know that we are a church that cares. May everyone who walks by our church feel welcomed and know that they are unconditionally loved by you.

And now, teach us all; young and old, college student and preschool child, university professor and fast food employee, pastor and church member to pray the prayer you taught us to say, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon (August 21) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Independence Day"

     The gospel writer, Luke tells us that Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.  And I would expect that it was a typical day in worship.  People were sitting in their accustomed places and the service was going on as usual.  But remember that this particular Sabbath is different because Jesus was there.  And when Jesus shows up in worship, you never know what to expect.
     Jesus spots one of the worshippers who happened to be bent over and very crippled.  Luke doesn’t tell us that anyone else had paid particular notice of this woman even though she was probably a familiar face.
     And when Jesus spots her, he calls her over and tells her something amazing – “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”  And after he laid hands on her, she stood up and began to praise God.
     Just imagine – this person who for the past 18 years has been bent over is now healed in a matter of a few minutes all because Jesus healed her.  Wonderful things happen when Jesus is present in worship.
     Now, on one level, I believe that Luke is giving us this story to help us see how Jesus brings healing to people in need.  Jesus spots this person who is crippled.  Jesus lays hands on her.  She’s healed.  And we’re all amazed.
     But I think that there is another level of this story that Luke wants us to notice.  By healing this woman, Luke is helping us to see something wonderful that is about to happen on a much larger scale.
     In some ways, I wonder if this crippled woman is symbolic for the people of Israel, God’s own people who had been under foreign rule for hundreds of years, and who were still longing for the day when God would fulfill his covenant by reclaiming His creation and filling it with peace and justice.  That was the longing of Israel during the time of Jesus.
     Notice that Luke tells us that this woman had been bent over for eighteen years.  That’s a really long time for a person to live with the day to day physical pain of being crippled.  In a similar way, the people of Israel had been suffering for a long period of time. They had been exiled, displaced, ruled over by foreign powers, and they were longing for God to come and heal them.
     By Jesus healing this woman, it’s like Luke is giving us a little hint in the middle of his gospel, that through Jesus, God is about to fulfill the covenant that he had made with them centuries earlier through Abraham, that one day, they would be free.
     Luke is hinting to us through this story that God’s healing love for the world is being launched.  We know what happens at the end of his gospel.  Early on a Sunday morning, the first day of the week, the women find the tomb empty. Jesus has defeated sin and death.
     Sunday is our Independence Day because it was on a Sunday when Jesus rose to new life. Every Sunday is what we refer to as “a little Easter.”
     I had a Sunday off so our family decided to worship in a mainline church which should have closed years ago.  It was difficult for me to believe that just twenty years ago, there were only a handful of families in that church and it was only a matter of time before they would have to close their doors or merge with another congregation. 
     You could say that this church had been disabled by a spirit and bent over for the past several decades. This church had been dwindling and dwindling and dwindling.
     That is, until someone began to notice that Jesus kept showing up in that church Sunday after Sunday.  And then someone else began to notice. And more people started noticing. And now twenty years later, there were probably 3,000 people in that very same church on that Sunday morning.
     “Where’s the pastor of the church,” I wondered to myself.  “I don’t see him anywhere.  He must be on vacation or something.”  In the middle of the service, I get the answer to my own question when they show a video of the pastor along with some members of the church who were in Sudan, Africa.  They are reporting back to their church what their money is doing to literally help save thousands of lives of starving families in that impoverished and civil war torn country.
     After seeing this video, the people in that church erupted by praising God through song and worship.  It felt like Independence Day in that moment. No, there were no fireworks in the sky, but there were fireworks of a different sort. There were fireworks of praise & worship of what Jesus was doing through their ministry in the Sudan. 
     Sunday is the church’s Independence Day, especially when we notice that the Risen Christ is present with us, empowering us to be the church he has called us to be. Sunday is always a “Little Easter” of new life, new hope, and new beginnings.
     When Will Willimon was serving as a United Methodist Bishop down in Georgia, one of the pastors in his conference invited him to a Sunday service to baptize a young boy in that church by immersion. He had never baptized anyone by immersion before, so he was a little nervous about the whole thing.
     As he was traveling to that church, Bishop Willimon was thinking to himself, “Why am I going to this church?  It barely has a hundred members, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, and I’m giving up a lot to make this one trip. Maybe I shouldn’t have scheduled this visit after all.” He was having all of these reservations running through his mind.
     The pastor of this little country church had told Bishop Willimon about this little boy who had just gone through the membership class and he said, “This kid is just determined that he wants to be immersed in baptism.  He just wants to.  This is how he wants it done.”
     Bishop Willimon arrives at the church, and sure enough, there was the pastor standing on the steps, and the little boy standing next to him.  So Bishop Willimon gets out of the car, gets his robe and his stole, and the pastor greets him, “Bishop, we’re honored to have you at our church today.  We haven’t had a bishop here in as long as anyone can remember.  This is Nathan.  Nathan is the one to be baptized today.”
     Bishop Willimon said, “Nathan, good to meet you. It’s great to be here.”
     Nathan responds by saying, “They tell me you’ve never done one of these before.”
     Bishop Willimon responded, “Well, I’ve read about them, Nathan.”
     And Nathan said, “Well, I’d feel better if we’d run through it one time.”   
     Bishop Willimon said, “I was going to do that, Nathan. I was going to suggest that. I was going to suggest that, that we try it. Do it. Run through it once.”
     The pastor of this church had borrowed a portable baptistery from the Baptist Church and put it in the fellowship hall, which was also a gym, and somebody put some potted plants around this baptistery and there it was.
     So Nathan said, “Now, you want me to take off my shoes?”
     Bishop Willimon said, “Yeah, that’s right. Just remove your shoes. That’ll be good.”
     And the boy said, “Socks? You want my socks off?”
     The Bishop said, “You can keep your socks on. That’s okay with me.”
     This boy then says, “Well, you go through the ritual. Then you take my hand and you lead me up these steps. And you stand over here to the side. And you will lead me down into the pool.”  He then said, “I want to be baptized three times.”
     Bishop Willimon said, “Well, that’s the way John Wesley believed in it.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Yeah, I can do that.”
     And he said, “I want to go all the way under, too.”
     The Bishop said, “You’ll go under. You’ll go under three times. Yeah. Yeah. We’ll do that.”
     So they had the service, and it was just great. The little church packed with people. They sang songs in this little church. The Bishop preached on the meaning of baptism. And then they processed from the sanctuary, down the corridor, following the cross, down into the fellowship hall/gym, and the whole church gathered around that borrowed baptistery.
     And then Bishop Willimon stood there, and he went through the baptism ritual and he asked him the questions, with the whole church gathered around. And he said, “Now before we do this, Nathan, is there anything you would like to say to the congregation?”
     And he said, “Yeah.”
     And Bishop Willimon said, “All right. It’s time for Nathan to witness.”
     And this boy said to the congregation,
     “You know, I wouldn’t be here today if you hadn’t put me here. I wouldn’t have known that God wanted me to be here if you hadn’t told me. When my parents got their divorce, my world ended, and I just thought I didn’t have anywhere to go. I couldn’t imagine myself without a family. But then you showed me that you were the family. And you took me, and all you people who put up with me in Sunday school and everything, I just hope you feel good about what’s happening today, because God did this through you.
     And I want to tell you that I’m taking this seriously and you’re going to be proud of me. And for all that y’all have done, one day you’re going to be able to say, ‘I had a hand in that. And I helped make him a Christian.’ So, thank you. This really ought to be a day when you feel good. About yourselves.”
     So then Nathan turns to Bishop Willimon and he’s weeping profusely. And the Bishop is sitting there and all he can say is, “Sing a hymn! Sing a hymn!”
     And Nathan is over there saying, “You think you’re going to get yourself together?”
     Bishop Willimon said, “Yes, yes. I’ll be OK.  Just sing a hymn or something!  Sing a hymn!”
     All that little country church was doing on that Sunday morning was celebrating Independence Day. That’s all. It’s why churches meet on this particular time of the week, to remind us that it was on this day when Jesus freed us from our sins.
      I think what Luke is trying to tell us from our Gospel reading this morning, is that whenever Jesus shows up in church, “Watch out, Watch out.” Good things are going to happen. People’s lives are going to be changed forever. It’s our Independence Day, where we hear the good news that we have been set free from those things that have been holding us down. On Sunday, Jesus says to each one of us, “You are set free.”
      In one of the churches I served, a church member sent me this note. I love notes like this. It made my day. Here is what the note said…
     Pastor Robert: Wanted to share a couple of comments from my eight-year old granddaughter last Sunday. When I asked her what she liked about church she said, “When I have a baby and get it baptized, I’ll go whereever your minister is. I like the singing best. I want one of those Bible song books.”
     This grandmother goes on to say, “She carries around the church bulletin and sings the baptism song and had her parents look up the hymn, “Hear I Am, Lord” on YouTube so she could sing along. She has been talking about Music Sunday all week and wants to make sure I take her. Love it! Prayers, Signed, Marsha.”
     I often refer to the children in our church as “Little Methodists.” On Sunday mornings, they are absorbing the hymns, the scripture readings, the prayers, and even the sermon more than we can ever imagine. Sometimes they even draw pictures of me during the service, some more flattering than others.
     For this eight year old, church is her Independence Day, and she can’t stop thinking about it during the week. Sunday is also an Independence Day for her grandmother because she is so happy to see what a difference the church is making in the life of her granddaughter at such an early age.
    Every Sunday is an Independence Day celebration where Jesus is present, God’s healing love for the world is shared, and the good news of Easter is proclaimed.

     I just love Sundays!

Independence Day
Small Group Questions
Luke 13:10-17
August 21, 2016

1)  Weekly worship in the church reminds us of the freedom we have from sin and death because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  How does this impact the way you worship?

2)  List ways that our church is offering God’s liberating, healing, and saving love to our community and world. 

3)  Part of the meaning of observing the Sabbath is to rest from our work, enjoy God’s creation, and worship God.  How are you doing in keeping this a priority in your life?  In what ways can you make this a higher priority?

4) Share a time when you experienced God's presence during worship.