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

Monday, March 18, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (March 17) Athens First UMC

[It’s not often that St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday but it did this year on the 2nd Sunday in Lent. It’s a good thing this worship stole has purple and green as reversible colors for when this happens on the church calendar! We continued our Lent theme of “My Fears Relieved” by focusing on our fear of doubt. Click here for the sermon.]

God of mystery and wonder, we confess that we have many questions about our faith. Our hearts are heavy today over the recent mass shooting in New Zealand and we pray for your peace to overcome hate, bigotry, and evil. 

We want answers but you offer assurance. We want certainty but you offer compassion. We want proof but you offer peace. Help us to learn to be your faithful people especially when we have more questions than answers. 

Whenever we doubt, help us to be like Abraham and look up at the stars and remember the covenant that you made to be our God and to never leave or forsake us.

Whenever we doubt, help us to be like the Psalmist who begins his prayer with questions and uncertainty but then concludes his prayer with a renewed trust in you.

Whenever we doubt, help us to be like Thomas who was honest about his reluctance to believe, but then was able to say, “My Lord and my God!”

God of mystery and wonder, thank you for reminding us that we are not alone in our doubts and for your amazing grace that relieves us of our fears.

And so we pray for anyone who maybe be struggling with doubt and fear; for the family stricken by the loss of a loved one, for the high school senior uncertain about their next steps after graduation, for the teacher trying to find the best way to help a student to learn, for the person dealing with a challenge that offers no easy solutions. 

God of mystery and wonder, on this St. Patrick’s Day, we thank you for Celtic Christianity that emphasizes how you are closer to us than we can ever ask or imagine. Thank for the “thin place” moments in our lives where you give us just enough assurance to help us through our times of doubts and questioning. 

As we prepare to pray the Lord’s Prayer, I invite us to do something a little different. As we pray this prayer, let’s pray it with our eyes open while looking at the cross in the front of our sanctuary. As we pray together, know that the one who hung on that cross and then rose again is also the one who has you covered… “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sermon (March 17/Lent) by Rev. Robert McDowell “My Fears Relieved: Doubts”

     Perhaps one of our biggest fears that we face in life is the fear of doubting. My guess is that many of us, myself included view doubting as something to avoid. We value certainty.

     As the popular phrase goes, “The bible says it! I believe it! And that settles it!” I really wish our faith was that easy. The problem is that even the Bible offers conflicting answers to some of life’s most complex questions. In other words, contrary to popular opinion, the Bible isn’t designed to be an answer book. If it was designed to be that, then why in the world didn’t God shorten it from sixty-six books to just one book of Frequently Asked Questions with each answer non-ambiguous and no more than one paragraph long?

     For my bible studies, I like to offer these two back to back verses from the Book of Proverbs as a case in point. Now, I always thought that Proverbs is more like what the other sixty-five books of the Bible should be…a listing of several clear directions of easy to understand proverbs of what to do and what not to do.

     But here’s the problem. Even in the Book of Proverbs, these sayings can contradict each other and you’re left wondering which way to go. One of these examples is from Proverbs chapter 26.

     Verse 4 gives us this pretty simple proverb to follow in life. “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” Now you’re talking! This is how the Bible should behave! That makes perfect sense to me. If somebody is saying foolish things to you, don’t engage them in a conversation because you’ll get nowhere. Now, that sounds like great advice. I think I’ll start following that very easy to understand word of wisdom.

     But, listen to the very next verse that offers this proverb. Verse 5 instructs us to do the exact opposite when faced with the same situation. “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” Wait! Which is it, Mr. Bible? Should I answer or not answer someone who is speaking foolishly?”

     Verse 4 says don’t do it because it will be foolish to do so. And verse 5 says to answer them because if you don’t, they’ll keep on being foolish. 

     OK, this is a perfect example of how the Bible really works. Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible is not an answer book that dropped out of heaven one day and fell into our laps. It’s actually a complex book written by many different authors over a span of more than a thousand years.

     The Bible offers us incredible words of wisdom in how to live our lives and what it means to be a people of faith. But it also invites us to prayerfully discern how a passage of scripture or a bible story relates to whatever particular situation and context we may be facing. In other words, the Bible isn’t designed to spoon feed us simplistic answers. It invites us on a journey, a journey that includes times when it’s good to answer a foolish person as well as times when it’s not wise to answer a foolish person.

     And the wonderful thing about this journey is that it’s OK to ask questions and express our doubts and fears along the way. The reason I know this is because the Bible gives us example after example of people who did just that. They asked questions. They expressed fears. They voiced doubts. 

     Like Abram from our Old Testament reading on this 2nd Sunday in Lent. He asked God a question. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless?” Three chapters earlier, God had called Abram and his family leave to leave their home and become the father of a new nation.

     It’s now three chapters later in the story. Abram and his family have sacrificed everything to follow God. They have arrived to the land that God wanted them to now live, but there was one problem. A big problem. Still no offspring. And this leads Abram to question God, to express his doubts that God was really going to keep his covenant.

     Is it really OK for us to be good Christians and still doubt? When we doubt or question our faith, does that mean that there is something wrong with us? Actually, it means that we’re normal. That’s what it means. How do I know this? Because the Bible tells me so.

     Take the Psalms for example. Sure, there are many Psalms that say that life is hunky dory and everything seems to be what it should be. Let’s praise and thank God for blue skies and answered prayers. But then there are other Psalms that question if God is anywhere to be found because sometimes it rains on your picnic, the medical tests don’t always come back negative, and the job you were hoping to get was given to someone less qualified.  

     When the Bible itself has people of faith questioning if God is even around, then it’s pretty reasonable to assume that it’s OK for us to have doubts and questions along our faith journey as well.

     I was teaching a bible study at a church I was serving. One of the members of that bible study had recently been diagnosed with cancer. It was a scary time for her. During one of our bible study sessions, someone who meant well gave her a book to read that might help her through this unsettling time in her life.

     The woman with cancer surprised all of us by shoving the book back into the arms of the person who gave it to her and with great frustration in her voice she said, “I just can’t take another (blankety blank) book to read about how I should deal with this. I’m sorry, but that’s just how I feel right now!”

     Now, this was a woman of incredible faith. She attended church every week. She showed up to every single Bible Study. She was a trained Stephen Minister. She prayed everyday. She loved God. Had a heart of gold. But she was also human. And she had obviously reached a breaking point when her well intentioned friend offered her that book to read.

     Her response reminded me of several people in the Bible like Moses, like Abraham, like many of the Psalmists, like the disciples. In other words, the Bible gives us permission to be human. And part of being human is that sometimes we are going to doubt. Sometimes we are going to have unanswered questions. Sometimes we are going to shove a book back into the arms of a well-intentioned friend.

     This is why I’m thankful for people in the Bible like the disciple, Thomas who refused to believe that Jesus rose from the dead until he saw for himself. Or John the Baptist, the who because he was in prison sent word to Jesus asking if he really was the Messiah.

     Even Jesus himself when he was hanging on the cross asked, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

      If we ever wonder if it’s OK to have doubts in our faith, the Bible should be a good indicator that it’s perfectly normal.

     Right here, in the very first book of the Bible, Abram is questioning and doubting if God was going to keep his promise to make of Abram a great nation especially since he was still childless and he and Sarah weren’t getting any younger.

     So here’s how God responds to Abram’s doubts. Instead of saying, “Here, read another book about faith,” God simply reassures him by having him look up at the stars and imagine that each one of those stars is one of his descendants. 

     At first, it seems like that visualization exercise does the trick for Abram because verse 6 says that “Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” 

     But notice that the doubt resurfaces just two verses later because Abram asks God, “How am I going to know that I shall possess the land you have in mind for me?” Abram is the kid in the back seat who asks in a really nasally voice, “How long till we get there? How long till we get there?”

     Questions, questions, questions. And notice that the Lord doesn’t lose patience even after this second round of questioning. This time, instead of reassuring him with another visual like he did with the many stars in the sky, the Lord actually raises the stakes by making a covenant with Abram. 

     Now, this is a really big deal, because when God makes a covenant, if what was promised does not happen than it’s on God. That’s what a covenant in the Bible means. It means that God will come through on his end of the bargain no matter how disobedient and no matter how many questions or doubts we may have.

     One might say that God is not a very good negotiator because he’s basically saying that no matter what you decide to do, I’m already committed to making this thing happen. You can count on me even if you decide that you want out. Wow, that’s what I would call unconditional love. That’s what I would call, “Amazing Grace.” “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”

     What does all of this mean for you and me? It means that if you ever experience doubt or uncertainty along your faith journey, just remember that God has you covered. Whenever you are facing something that’s too much for you to handle, God has you covered. Whenever your prayers don’t seem like they’re being answered, God has you covered. Whenever you doubt or even get angry with God, God has you covered.

     The great Christian writer, Frederick Buechner shares this thought about having doubts, “Whether your faith is that there is a God, or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” 

     “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.” There’s the quote of the day. “They keep it awake and moving.”

    In 1975, the Jesuit philosopher, John Kavanaugh, went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa.

     He was searching for an answer to some spiritual struggles. On his very first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked.

     He answered with the request that was the very reason he traveled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly, “No. I will not do that.”

     When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”

     When Kavanaugh said, “You always seem to have clarity,” Mother Teresa laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

     The Lord didn’t offer Abram clarity. The Lord invited Abram to trust.

     Our journey of faith isn’t about not having doubts. It’s about trusting the God who is all in and the God who can’t go back on his promises.

     Whenever we face the fears of our own doubts, let’s look up at the stars and remember the covenant that God made with Abram. 

     Or better yet, let’s try a different visualization exercise. When you find yourself doubting, just look up at the cross, the cross that is always there to remind us of just how far God was willing to go. 

My Fears Relieved: Doubts
Sermon Discussion Questions
Genesis15:1-12, 17-18 & Luke 13:31-35
March 17, 2019
When thinking about having doubts in our faith, it’s important to remember that the Bible is less of an “answer book” and more of a book that invites us on a journey where God promises to be faithful.
Share a time when you have doubted God or a question that you have about your faith that hasn’t found a complete answer. 
The Bible is filled with examples of people of faith who also had a lot of doubts along their journey. The list includes Abram from our scripture reading where he questions if he and Sarai will have children as God had promised since they are advanced in years, Moses when he doubted if he would be able to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, Job who was trying to figure out why so many bad things were happening to him, many Psalmists who even questioned if God even cares, Thomas who wanted to see Jesus’ nail prints before he would believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and many other biblical names could be mentioned here. All of these biblical characters learned to trust God even though they sometimes doubted.
What helps you to hold onto your faith during times of doubts and unanswered questions.
The great Christian writer, Frederick Buechner wrote,  “Whether your faith is that there is a God, or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” 

Share a time where your doubts led you into a deeper faith.

In our scripture reading, when Abram expressed his doubts, God had him try a visualization exercise. He had him look up at the stars to remind him that this would be the number of his descendants one day. Pastor Robert shared that we can do something similar by either looking up at the stars on a clear night or even better, we can look up at the cross and be reminded of how far God was wiling to go for us.

What does the cross mean to you? How can it help you to trust God even though you may be struggling with doubts and questions about your faith?

Monday, March 11, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (March 10/Lent) Athens First UMC

[Even with losing an hour from the time change, a wonderful servant in our church made sure that our Sunday morning refreshments and coffee were ready for those who would be attending church. On this first Sunday in Lent, our focus was on how Jesus used his special relationship with God not to serve his own ends but to serve the needs of others. For the sermon, click hereOur church is filled with many servants who sacrificially offer themselves for others. Thank you, servants!]

O God, we know that it was only four days ago that we started our journey through this wilderness, but…

Are we there yet? It’s too dry out here, and there’s nothing but rocks. I’m hungry. When are we going to stop and get something to eat. We did this same thing last year. Why do we have to go on this trip again? 

I’m not even getting a signal on my phone anymore. It’s way too quiet here. We’re like in the middle of nowhere. 

But wait. Is that Jesus over there? Is that why we’re going on this trip? To follow Jesus? Why do we have to stop here? This isn’t Jerusalem. Isn’t that where we need to go? 

O God, sorry for so many questions. It’s just that we’re not used to stepping out of our normal routine. We felt a little uneasy walking down the sidewalk with ashes smudged on our forehead this past Wednesday.

Along this journey, remind us that you are right beside us each step of the way. Along this journey, remind us that we do not walk alone. We have each other. We have your amazing grace that relieves our many fears.

Along this journey, we also pray for anyone who may feel overwhelmed by fear; the fear of how to handle a difficult situation, the fear of facing the death of a loved one, the fear of not finding a new job, the fear of not being able to handle challenges at work, the fear of raising a family with limited resources, the fear of a threatening medical situation.

O God, so many fears along life’s journey. As we walk with Jesus these 40 days of Lent, teach us to pray and to know that in any given moment, you are offering us your amazing grace. We pray this in the name of Jesus who taught us say together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sermon (March 10/Lent) by Rev. Robert McDowell “My Fears Relieved: Temptations”

      Every single year when we begin the season of Lent, we get this story of Jesus beginning his ministry in the wilderness. When I say, “wilderness” don’t associate that word with the beautiful Hocking Hills area that we all enjoy. Whenever the Bible uses the word, “wilderness,” think more desert, more arid, and little vegetation. 

     When we see the word, “wilderness” in the Bible, we are also to think of the Israelites, who had spent forty years wandering through the wilderness over one thousand years before Jesus appears on the scene. They had been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years, and were led by Moses through the wilderness and after forty long years, they eventually make it into the Promised Land.

     The wilderness wasn’t a place where you would rent a cabin to enjoy a relaxing week with your family. The wilderness represents barrenness, dryness, and danger at least in the context of when we see that word used in the Bible. So why would Jesus have chosen to begin his ministry in of all places, the wilderness? 

     It’s almost like the gospel writer, Luke is giving us a huge hint that here at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he will be representing the people of Israel throughout this story of his life. 

     Or to bring it a little more closer to home, Jesus will be representing you and me. This is such an important connection to make when reading the gospels and it will unlock a whole new way of following Jesus throughout the gospel story which is what we will be doing during this season of Lent. When Jesus does or says something, it’s like he is personifying the people of Israel.

     So here, Jesus is at the very beginning of his journey in the wilderness, just like the Israelites centuries before him. 

     And while Jesus is in the wilderness, he encounters all the fears that come with being in the wilderness. And these fears come in the form of temptations. Jesus resists each one of these temptations by saying, “no.” That’s usually how we read this story. Jesus is tempted. He resists. End of story. But actually, it’s not just how Jesus responds to these temptations while’s he’s in the wilderness. It’s in how he resists these temptations after he’s in the wilderness and as he lives out his ministry.

     The first temptation is when Jesus is confronted with hunger. Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread. And Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

     Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus will feed five thousand people with just fives loaves and two fish. Jesus’ resists the fear of hunger by turning around and feeding others.

     The second temptation is when Jesus is confronted with earthly power. He is told to worship the devil and in return, he will give him all the kingdoms of the world. And Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’”

     Later in Luke’s gospel, we will watch Jesus offer his life on the cross. Jesus’ resists earthly power by freely offering himself in bringing salvation to the whole world.

     The third temptation is when Jesus is confronted with self-focus. He is told to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and allow angels to save him. A Jesus responds, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

     Later in Luke’s gospel, we will watch Jesus resist being self-focused by having compassion and healing others.

     Notice that Jesus’ doesn’t just say “no” to each of these temptations, but throughout his ministry, he resists these temptations again and again by living fully for God and others. Jesus’ teaches us that the best way to overcome our fear of temptations is by being true to who God created us to be and to be true to the calling that God has placed in our lives.

     Being faithful to God isn’t just about saying no. It’s about saying yes.

     And that’s why Jesus began his ministry in the wilderness because that is how Israel was shaped and formed as well. It was in the wilderness where they were also tempted with hunger and power and self-focus. It was in the wilderness where they received the Ten Commandments and were slowly and surely shaped and formed into what it means to be the people of God.

     We also have this opportunity over these forty days of Lent to be shaped and formed to be the people that God has called us to be. Like Jesus and like the people of Israel, we’re not simply observers. We are called to be active participants. 

     We are invited to follow Jesus from the wilderness all the way to the cross and the empty tomb as we face our fears together and allow God to shape and form us into the people that we were created to be. And it all begins here in the wilderness.

      A little over a year ago, I crossed something off my bucket list. I hiked through a desert on New Year’s Day. My sister and brother in law had just moved to their new retirement home in Arizona and we decided to spend New Year’s out in the desert with them.

     On that New Year’s Day, my brother in law and I followed a desert trail that included signs describing some of the plants along our journey. As we walked and walked and walked in the hot desert sun, I was thinking about this story of Jesus in the wilderness. 

     I especially took notice of this interesting desert plant which is known as the Crucifixion Thorn. Like many of the other plants you find in the desert, it has leafless stems to help it conserve enough moisture to survive. If you look closely enough, you can see that this plant is in the shape of the thorns that Jesus would have worn while hanging on the cross. I also took notice of the description that this plant’s fruit is dry but persistent.

     This Crucifixion Thorn desert plant has given me a deeper insight in what it means to face our fears and temptations as we walk with Jesus each day. Sometimes our journey feels hot and dry. 

     Like the Israelites who wandered through the desert wilderness, we face our fears along the way. Will we make it? Will God continue to guide us? Will we have enough strength to endure? 

     Like Jesus in the wilderness, we face our fears along the way. Will God provide? Will I be able to rely on God’s power rather than what the world has to offer?  Will I remember who I am and who God created me to be?

     The good news is that God always empowers you and me to be faithful and to live out our true calling and purpose as we face the many fears in life, like temptations that will come our way. And during this season of Lent, we will also be exploring how God can lead and guide us as we face the fears of doubts, fruitfulness, forgiveness, generosity, confidence, serving, and death.

     Whenever someone joins the church, they respond to some membership questions. One of those questions is kind of heavy and it makes me hesitate before asking it every single time.

     The question is, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sins?” How’s that for a first question? I don’t often use the words, “renounce, reject, and repent,” in a sentence, but I do every time I ask this question. By the way, those are season of Lent type of words. Repent, Reject, and Repent. Such heavy language.

      But on the other hand, I can’t think of more appropriate words when you think about the darkness, the brokenness, and the evil that we encounter through life. We are better at seeing these things in other people and in other places and situations rather than thinking about how it might be residing in our own thoughts and actions in subtle and not so subtle ways.

     If you think the first church membership question is a doozy, remember that there is a follow up question that offers us some relief. And the second question is, “Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”

     The key phrase there is “the freedom and power that God gives you.” “The freedom and power that God gives you.”

     Say that with me… “The freedom and power that God gives you.” One more time. “The freedom and power that God gives you.”

     Here is the awesome good news of our faith. In any given situation and in any given moment and in any given temptation that we face, we have the freedom and power to resist. God’s grace is always being extended to us to be true to ourselves, to be true to who God has called us to be, and to be true to our calling as followers of Jesus.

     Did you notice how our Gospel reading ends? Jesus does just that. He resists those temptations in the wilderness one by one because of the freedom and power that God gave him to resist. 

     But then notice that last verse of our Gospel reading. “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him UNTIL an opportune time.”

     Like Jesus, we are called to receive the freedom and power God gives us again and again and again and again and again. It’s not just for forty days. It’s about following Jesus every day.

     When I was thinking of a title to give this series, that beautifully worded phrase from the hymn, “Amazing Grace” came to mind. It’s from the 2nd verse, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.’”

     It just hit me how beautiful that phrase is. “My fears relieved.”

     When I started working on this first sermon, I remember accidentally typing “My fears relived,” instead. 

     I laughed out-loud when I noticed my mistake because that’s the exact opposite of what I’m hoping to get across during this sermon series. I don’t want us to relive our fears. We do enough of that, I’m sure! 

     No, instead of reliving our fears, my prayer during this holy season is that we will allow the freedom and power God gives us to “RELIEVE” our fears. And may we all be able to say at the end of our journey together in the words of that wonderful hymn, “How precious did that grace appear.”

My Fears Relieved: Temptations
Sermon Discussion Questions
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 & Luke 4:1-13
March 10, 2019

During the Season of Lent, we will be focusing on eight different fears which focus on temptations, doubts, fruitfulness, forgiveness, generosity, confidence, serving, and death. For this first Sunday in Lent, we focus on the fear of temptation. Jesus begins his ministry in the hot and arid wilderness and was tempted by the devil for forty days. He was tempted with hunger, earthly power, and self-focus.
Share how you have experienced one or more of those temptations in your life. How did you respond?
Pastor Robert shared how Jesus didn’t just say “no” to these temptations when he was in the wilderness, but he also said “yes” to serving others throughout his ministry. For example, Jesus didn’t just say no to the temptation of hunger. He also said yes by feeding the hungry. He didn’t just say no to the temptation of earthly power. He also said yes by dying on the cross for the sake of the world. He didn’t just say no to the temptation of self-focus. He said yes by having compassion and healing the people he encountered.
Share ways that you say YES in how you live out your faith. Share a new way that God might be calling you to say YES and serve others during this season of Lent.
Pastor Robert shared about a desert plant that he saw during a hike through the desert in Arizona. It’s called “Crucifixion Thorn” because it looks like the thorns that Jesus wore when he hung on the cross. This desert plant is very dry but is also known to be very “persistent.”
What are some ways that God helps you to be “persistent” like that desert plant in resisting temptation and being true to who God has called you to be?
Whenever someone joins the church, they pledge to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of their sins. They also pledge to “accept the freedom and power that God gives them to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” This is the good news of our faith that in any given moment, God’s grace is being offered to us so that we can be the people God has called us to be.
What helps you to remember to accept the freedom and power that God gives you in any given moment? Why do you think we sometimes forget that God’s grace is being offered to us?
The title of this sermon series during the season of Lent is “My Fears Relieved.” This phrase is in the 2nd verse of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Sing this verse together and close in a prayer thanking God for offering us his grace to us whenever we face fear along our faith journey.
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Sermon (Ash Wednesday) by Rev. Robert McDowell “My Fears Relieved”

     For the upcoming Sundays of Lent, we will be thinking about eight different fears that we all face from time to time. These fears are related to how we handle temptations that come our way, the doubts we face, our willingness to be fruitful in our faith, our need to be forgiven, the willingness to become more generous, having self-confidence, and being open to serving others. And then on Easter Sunday, we will look at probably one of the biggest fears that people have, the fear of death.

     Oh, yes, almost forgot. On April 15th, we’ll focus on our fear of Tax Day. Just kidding about that last one.

     It’s going to be quite a journey as we face some of these fears head on. Interestingly enough, Jesus himself had to work through all of these fears. We believe that Jesus was fully God, but he was also fully human and we often forget about this. And so, each year, the journey of Lent begins with Jesus in the wilderness where he faced temptation and it concludes with him facing his own death on the cross.

     Out of curiosity, I looked up how many times the word, “fear” appears in the Bible, and it was a shocking 423 times. Fear is part of our struggle as human beings. Being afraid isn’t a sin. It’s in what we do with those fears that is important. There are healthy ways and unhealthy ways in dealing with our fears. Our goal in this season of the church year like it is every year for Lent is to walk with Jesus not simply as observers, but as his faithful followers and disciples. 

     So it probably shouldn’t be too surprising that our very first scripture reading to begin this season of Lent is a scripture about fear. The Prophet Joel uses words like, darkness, gloom, and trembling. 

     And when I think of fear, sometimes those words come to mind. Maybe you have thought of those words in the middle of the night.

     I’ve shared this story with you before about a mother who was tucking her small son into bed one night during a severe summer thunderstorm. She was about to turn the light off and shut his bedroom door when he asked her in a trembling voice, "Mommy, will you stay with me all night?" Smiling, the mother gave him a warm, reassuring hug and said tenderly, "I can't dear. I have to sleep in Daddy's room."

     A long silence followed. At last it was broken by a shaky voice saying, "The big sissy!"

     Well, I’m here to tell you that if you ever feel afraid, that does not mean that you are a sissy. It just means that you are human. As we go through this series on fear, my prayer is that we not only have this opportunity to name our fears but to also claim God’s presence in the midst of our fears.

     As Jesus faced his fears throughout his ministry, we will see how he consistently turned to his Heavenly Father in facing those fears, even when he was hanging on the cross. We are not alone in facing our fears. We have each other. We have God. 

     That’s why we have ashes imposed on our foreheads each year on Ash Wednesday. It is a humbling reminder of our mortality and of our complete dependence upon God. 

     Last fall, I attended the funeral of my 96 year old Aunt. Aunt Dot represented the last surviving family member of my parents’ generation. I was asked to help lead the funeral service. On that cold and windy day, we made our way to the cemetery.

     Her pastor invited me to offer a closing prayer there at the cemetery and so I stood next to him near the casket. He began by offering a prayer and a scripture reading. He then pulled out a tiny capsule of dirt, opened the lid, and shook the capsule toward the casket while reminding us of those ancient words of faith, “remember we are dust and to dust we shall return.”

     As the pastor tossed the dirt out into the wind toward the casket, I don’t think he realized that most of that dirt would be blown right back at me. It was like I was experiencing my own personal Ash Wednesday service in that moment. 

     As those small flakes of dirt were being sprayed back into my face, it was a powerful reminder of the reality of death. I couldn’t avoid getting hit by that dusty and powdery symbol of my own mortality. It’s moments like this that help us to keep our life and our faith in perspective.

      One of the things that I will always remember about Aunt Dot was I how she loved to tell the story of when I was really young, like four or five years old, I was over at her house.

     My uncle was sick and in bed that day. My aunt told me that it was OK for me to go into the room and say hi to him but for whatever reason I was afraid. I loved my Uncle, so I’m not sure why I would have been afraid to go in to see him. Maybe it was because I knew he was sick and wasn’t sure what that meant.

     My aunt, knowing that I was afraid to go into the room to see him, gave me a glass of water to give to him thinking that this would help me overcome my fear. And what came next is her favorite part of the story.

     I guess that when I walked over to my uncle’s bedroom door, I just froze like a statue holding that glass of water and didn’t go in. And Aunt Dot said, “Go ahead, Robert. Go in and give him the glass of water.” 

     And I still didn’t go in so she asked me again. “Don’t be afraid, Robert. Go in. You can do it.”

     And according to my Aunt Dot, I looked over at her and said, “I can’t. My legs won’t let me.”

     There’s part of me that doesn’t want to follow Jesus during this Season of Lent because I know it will involve spending time with Jesus in the arid wilderness of temptation. It will involve facing my fears of doubts, fruitfulness, forgiveness, generosity, confidence, serving, and death.

     And so I stand frozen not wanting to begin the journey. My legs won’t let me. I don’t like to face my fears. I don’t like to think about the areas of my life that need transformation. And I know that this journey of faith will lead us all back to the cross as it does every year and that’s not a comfortable place to be.

     Our Joel scripture reading might begin with scary words of darkness and gloom but it also promises that if we make this journey, we will discover a God who is gracious and merciful, and abounding in steadfast love. God is calling us to not be afraid and to take that first step of faith in this Season of Lent.

     And so I invite each one of us to become even more intentional during these next several weeks in practicing the spiritual disciplines of our faith like fasting, the reading of scripture, prayer, serving, and attending worship. Join us each Sunday as we face our fears together.

     The Season of Lent is a great time to join one of our small groups that meet at different times throughout the week to discuss the past Sunday’s sermon and worship theme. Those small group opportunities are printed in your bulletin.

     We have eight small groups that meet throughout the week in various locations and they are led by a trained facilitator who guides the discussion. I’m so glad to announce that we have added three new small groups, one of which is a college student small group that will be meeting on Tuesday night. 

     In addition to participating in a small group, you may also want to use a more personal approach to our church’s Season of Lent focus on facing our fears. It was developed by Jenaye Hill, our Director of Discipleship Ministries. It provides ways to reflect on our fears and how God can guide us through those fears. That’s available on our church website by going to our small groups link under loving faith ministries.

     By following Christ during this forty day period, may our fears be relieved.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (March 3) Athens First UMC

[This shirt was worn by one of our church members on Sunday. It was this person’s way of protesting last week’s special UMC General Conference decision that will unfortunately continue our denomination’s stance against same-sex weddings and the ordination of those who are gay and non-celibate. The phrase “love is love” reminds us of our own church’s diversity/welcome statement that says, “We welcome all persons regardless of sexual orientation.” The pastoral prayer is a prayer of confession for the harm that was done by General Conference toward the LGBTQ community. For the sermon which also focuses on last week’s General Conference, click here.]

O God, we have heavy hearts today. We have seen our denomination’s cross and flame logo on every major news network this past week…

…not for how we respond quickly to natural disasters with relief aid, and not for how we serve the least, the last, and the lost, and not for our many hospitals, colleges, and churches that are bringing transformation to our communities and world. We were in the news this past week because our denomination was unable to agree to disagree over issues related to human sexuality. 

The whole world watched our spiritual dysfunctionality in full display. It was painful to watch especially since our Wesleyan heritage has taught us that personal holiness and social justice for all people should never be mutually exclusive. They belong together and they always have belonged together. O God, we somehow missed an opportunity to find a way forward at this past week’s General Conference.

And so, hear our confession that we have not only caused harm to each other as a denomination, but we have also caused harm to those who feel unwelcomed and excluded from the United Methodist Church. Forgive us, O God and renew a right spirit within us.

We pray in confidence, not because we know what the future holds for our denomination, but in knowing that you are a God who is more than able to make all things new, beginning even now as we pray the prayer Jesus taught us to say together,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Sermon (March 3/Transfiguration Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell “There’s Something Different About You”

         Today we have the story of when Jesus was transfigured on the mountain in front of the disciples. Jesus’s appearance literally changed right before them. Luke tells us that his clothes became dazzling white.

     The disciples who witnessed this incredible scene couldn’t believe what they were experiencing. They were seeing Jesus in a new way, a way they had never before seen. 

    This scripture leads me to wonder how open we are to change and specifically, how open we are in our understanding of who Jesus is.

     Sometimes we treat change as if it’s a bad thing.  We’ll say things like, “you haven’t changed a bit!”  And the other person will take that as a compliment…usually.  And I guess that can be a positive thing to some degree.  But, it could also mean that we have reached a point of stagnation in our lives.

     If that’s true in our personal lives, the same can be said about businesses and organizations and yes, even the church. 

     I served in a church that decided to install screens in the sanctuary since we were now living in a very visual society. And there was some push back by some of the church members. And I asked one of the persons in the church why they didn’t want the screens.

     And I’ll never forget their response. This church member said, “It’s because our society is changing so much. I need my church to be the one thing that doesn’t change in my life.”

     I totally understand why this person feels this way, because change can be difficult. But on the other hand, change is what keeps us growing. Change is what keeps us from being stagnant in our faith. 

     Just think what the United Methodist Church would look like today if it never changed over it’s two hundred year history. 

     If the church had never changed, only men would be allowed to sit on this side of the sanctuary and only women would be allowed to sit on that side.

     If the church had never changed, the woman pastor who helped our family to deal with the sudden passing of my father wouldn’t have been there for me because there was a time when we didn’t allow women in ministry.

     If the church had never changed, we would still use scripture to justify slavery.

     If the church had never changed, people who are divorced would not be allowed to become pastors. 

     But it’s not just our Methodist history in which the church has needed to change, we also see this played out in the Bible itself when the early church changed their views on the observance of certain Old Testament laws in light of their faith in Christ.

     This past week, our denomination’s General Conference decided to not change its stance regarding same sex marriage and the ordination of gay and non-celibate candidates for ministry. As many of you know, this is a debate that has been happening in the United Methodist Church for the past 47 years. 

    Not only did they vote to continue the current stance, they also provided more accountability measures for any pastor or church that would go against the official stance of the denomination.

     So what does all of this mean for our denomination and our church specifically moving forward. Well, the short answer is that Athens First will continue to be the most welcoming and inclusive congregation that we can possibly be. That’s for sure.

     The second thing that I want you to know is that the General Conference is made up of delegates from all around the world including countries where homosexuality is illegal. If this would have simply been the delegates from the United States voting, they most likely would have adopted the recommended “One Church Plan” that would have allowed each congregation, clergy, and annual conference to decide on whether or not to allow same sex marriage and the ordination of those who are gay.

     To put this into perspective, out of the 864 delegates, the One Church Plan only needed 25 more votes to pass. Two-thirds of the US votes were for the One Church Plan. 85% of the delegates outside of the United States went for the traditional plan which was adopted. Since the United Methodist Church is a global denomination, it makes this an even more complex issue than what it already is.

     The third thing I would say is that conservatives and progressives interpret the scriptures very differently with regard to this issue. Conservatives have a more literal understanding of the Bible where certain verses are meant for all times and settings and progressives see these verses more in terms of the historical/cultural setting when the Bible was written.

     And the fourth thing I would say to you is that no matter where you stand on this issue, there are still things pending from this past week’s General Conference decision. Some things might get ruled out of order by the Judicial Council of our denomination. 

     There is also talk of future meetings of denominational leaders to continue to find a way forward for progressive clergy and congregations who want the LGBTQ community to have full inclusion in the church. 

     The truth is that even after this special session of General Conference that just took place, we don’t fully know what the future holds for our denomination. But what I do know is what we sang during our opening hymn, “God is our help in ages past and our hope for years to come.”

     And my prayer is that when people look at us, they will be able to see that God is our help and our hope through any storm or challenge we may face. My prayer is that when people look at us, they will be able to see something different about us that would point them to the saving and redemptive love of Jesus Christ.

     A love that welcomes all people, gay/straight/questioning, all people. It’s a love that affirms the sacred worth of every single person. 

     It’s a love of full justice and full inclusion. Love is love. Love is love. Love is love. Love is love. Love is love.

     Somebody asked me when I changed in how I interpret the scriptures related to same-sex marriage and ordination. And the answer is that it was a very slow and gradual change for me. It involved a lot of prayer, a lot of reading, a lot of conversation, and a lot of rethinking. And so, I totally understand why people are struggling with this. And I don’t want to ever forget what this long journey has been like for me and continues to be for me.

     The biggest thing that has changed for me is that I have become much more empathetic to what LGBTQ people are feeling about our denomination’s constant debate about their self-worth. 

     Two weeks ago, Trey Pearson the former lead singer of the popular Christian band, “Everyday Sunday” made a surprise visit to our church and sang a song for us about his difficult and painful journey in coming out as gay. Three years ago, a sponsoring ministry group had informed Trey and his band that they were not allowed to perform a concert here because of his announcement in coming out as gay.

     We were all blessed by Trey’s presence with us two weeks ago. Many of you are still talking about that Sunday of worship. Trey now has a ministry of touring the country and providing a safe space where the LGBTQ community can hear about his decision in coming out and where they feel safe to share their stories with each other as well.

     I now follow Trey on twitter and follow his daily posts. It broke my heart to read his tweets this past week as our denomination’s General Conference was debating and voting on matters related to the LGBTQ community.

     Let me share two of his posts from this past week as the General Conference was taking place.

     “Today, I am exhausted from people talking about the United Methodist Church voting about our worth as LGBTQ persons. It is exhausting knowing that your whole life people have been debating about your worthiness of falling in love.”

     And here’s the second tweet from this past week:

     “Just having people debate your worth has made me think all day about how much I didn’t want to be gay. No one wants to be broken, and when you grow up being taught that that is what ‘gay’ is, it brainwashes you to have deep shame and insecurity. This is spiritual abuse.”

     Trey is one example among many of why I have changed my scriptural and theological understanding of this complex issue. I continue to be open to change for other issues as well by carefully reading the scriptures, understanding it’s historical context, and then praying and wrestling over what those scriptures mean for us today. 

     As John Wesley, the founder of Methodism said, we are all to be moving onto perfection. And that means being open to change and where God is leading us and to realize that we’re not always going to be at the same place along that journey, as this past week’s General Conference has shown us. We are not always going to be at the same place.

     This past Wednesday evening, I met with an associate pastor at a United Methodist Church in our conference. She said, “of all Sundays, I’m schedule to preach this Sunday.”

     I said, “what are you going to say?” She said, “I’ve been reading and thinking about the transfiguration scripture for this Sunday, and I suddenly realized that this story isn’t just about Jesus changing in front of the disciples, it’s about how the disciples also changed because of it. They saw Jesus in a whole new light, literally.”

     Friends, when we see Jesus in a whole new light, we change too. So don’t be surprised if you run into somebody you haven’t see in a while and hear them say, “there’s something different about you.” 

     That just might be a good thing.

There’s Something Different About You!
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 9:28-36 & Exodus 34:29-35
March 3, 2019
Has anyone ever said to you, “There’s something different about you?” To what were they referring?

Transfiguration Sunday is when we remember when Jesus was “transfigured” in front of the disciples while they were on the mountain together. Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white and two famous Old Testament figures from the past appeared with him! The disciples knew that Jesus was changing before their eyes and they didn’t know what to make of this experience.

When have you experienced Jesus in a new way in your life? What was different about him that you had never before noticed and what impact did that have on your life?

The special UMC global General Conference that was held this past week decided to retain our current denominational stance prohibiting same sex weddings and ordaining gay and non-celibate candidates for ministry. Pastor Robert shared these points for our Athens First church in moving forward: 1) WE WILL CONTINUE TO BE THE MOST WELCOMING & INCLUSIVE CHURCH WE CAN POSSIBLY BE! 2) Two-third of the US delegates voted for the One Church Plan which would have allowed each clergy, congregation, and annual conference to decide this issue for their own settings. 85% of the delegates from outside of the US, voted to continue our current denominational stance. This disconnect makes this issue very complex from a global perspective. 3) Conservatives and progressives interpret the scriptures on this issue very differently. 4) Some denominational leaders are planning to meet again after Easter to discuss how to move forward due to the strong stances on both sides.

Continue to pray this prayer together for our denomination: “O God, baptize the United Methodist Church afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus. Amen.”

Has anyone ever questioned a change that you have made in your life because you felt God leading you to a new understanding? Why do you think people are often resistant to accept change?

Share a way that God is at working in changing your perspectives, your lifestyle, your faith, your future goals, etc. Pray for God to guide and direct you to be open to “transfiguration moments” in your life and in the lives of others.