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, September 16, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Sept. 15) Athens First UMC

[Our Chancel Choir sang two beautiful anthems on Sunday. This anthem, “If We Just Talk of Thoughts and Prayers” included the congregation singing the final two verses. The first verse was particularly fitting for our worship theme on the importance of commitment with the words, “If we just talk of thoughts and prayers and don’t live out a faith that dares, and don’t take on the ways of death, our thoughts and prayers are fleeting breath.” For the sermon, click here.This was also the beginning of our new children and youth Sunday School program which debuted Theo the puppet during the 10:30 Children’s Moments. See a picture of Theo below.]

Lord Jesus, teach us what it means to surrender all so that we can become the people you have called us to be. 

Teach us to surrender our hearts and our wills to you. Teach us to surrender our selfish ways. Teach us to surrender anything that would keep us from following you.

We dedicate these next seven weeks to you as we renew our commitments in the areas of having a personal relationship with you, in praying, in reading and studying your Word, in worshiping, in sharing our faith, in giving of our resources, and in serving in ministry. 

Lord Jesus, teach us to surrender all so that we might ever love and trust you and in your presence daily live. 

May the words of commitment that we have just spoken a few minutes ago become a prayer to you:

Jesus you are my guiding light, my compass, my lighthouse. I ask you for that ‘peace that passes all understanding.’ I strive for my speech and behavior to please you. I strive for my attitudes, values, and thoughts to please you. I am passionate about you being the priority of my life. I strive to share my faith with others. I look forward to having a constant awareness of your presence. I strive for others to see you in my life, words, and actions. At each major decision of my life, I will ask, ‘What would you have me do?’ I invite you to be at the center of all of my relationships. I will be open to how you want to use me to bless others.

Lord Jesus, teach us to surrender all. We feel the sacred flame. I the joy of the full salvation. Glory, glory to your name, even as we join together in praying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[You will be seeing a lot of Theo, the dog during our 10:30 worship service Children’s Moments. Theo always helps to introduce the Sunday School lesson for the day.]

[Theo, the dog with our Director of Education, Kathy Mangen following his debut at the opening children and youth 10:30 Sunday School program.]

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Sermon (September 15) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Almost. It’s a sad word in anybody’s dictionary. It keeps company with expressions like “if only” and if you’re from the South, “near ‘bout.”

     Almost is a word that speaks of missed opportunities and fumbled chances.

     Tim KcKee was edged out for first place in the Olympic 400 meter race by two-thousandths of a second. He almost won a gold medal.

     Christian author, Max Lucado offers these sad statements that revolve around “almost.”

     “He almost got it together.” “We were almost able to work it out.” “He almost made it to the big leagues.”

     In our Acts scripture reading, we are introduced to an “almost” kind of guy, King Agrippa who was one of Herod’s sons and the Roman procurator of Judea who was the puppet king the Romans allowed to sit on the throne.

     The Apostle Paul has been spreading the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the Roman Empire and here in our Acts scripture reading, he is nearing the end of his ministry. He is on trial before King Agrippa.

     Since Paul was a Roman citizen, he would eventually appeal to Caesar and be sent to Rome where he would be martyred; but first, Paul was granted his request for a private audience with Agrippa.

     Paul appealed to something that both he and Agrippa agreed upon – the Jewish prophets. And Paul used this appeal as an opportunity to invite Agrippa to follow Jesus. Paul’s purpose wasn’t to refute the charges against him but simply give a testimony to the faith that drove him. 

     Now, when I think of Paul, I think of someone who was very, very convincing when he spoke and shared about his faith.  He helped many, many people become followers of Jesus Christ throughout his ministry.

     Even as a prisoner in chains, he shared his faith with King Agrippa.  And it sounds like King Agrippa is a little surprised by what Paul is telling him because he responds by asking him, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?”

     Paul, known for his quick wit and ability to think on his feet responds, “Whether quickly or not, I pray to God that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am – except for these chains.”

     And this is where the conversation ends. Agrippa wasn’t fully persuaded to become a follower of Jesus.

     Over the next several weeks, we’re going to focus on the topic, “What does it mean to be fully persuaded to become a follower of Jesus Christ?” “What does it mean to be fully committed to Jesus Christ?” 

     Being fully committed is how we build up our faith which is the name of this series. What does it mean to be faith builders? We’re going to talk about the importance of building up our faith through prayer, reading the Bible, attending weekly worship, sharing our faith, offering our gifts, and serving.

     If I had to list the foundational components in being a committed follower of Jesus, these six things would definitely be at the top of the list. It’s hard to imagine being a follower of Jesus without making these six things a priority in our lives.

     But before we even begin to focus on these six things, let’s first ask ourselves where we are in our personal relationship with Jesus Christ. 

     I have shared with you about how I made a recommitment of my life to Jesus Christ when I was in college.  That new commitment to Christ had such an impact on my life, that it changed everything for me. 

     It gave me hope because I was going through a low point of my life. It gave me comfort because I knew that with Christ in my life, I wasn’t alone anymore. It gave me assurance because I knew that nothing could ever separate me from God’s love.

     Because of this positive change in my life, I wanted to share my faith with others. One of the people I shared my faith with was a friend I knew in college. On Mondays before class, he would tell me about how he drank too much over the weekend.

     During our conversations, I told him about my new commitment to Christ and I invited him to a bible study. He came to those bible studies and I could tell that God was working on him.  Even though he continued to drink on weekends, he started asking me questions about the bible and faith. I would ask him if he wanted to make a commitment to follow Christ, and he kept telling me that he wasn’t ready for that, but at least he kept attending the bible study.

     One day, he totally surprised me by saying, “I want you to know that I finally invited Jesus Christ into my life. I’m going to put him first in everything I do.” And I could tell that he meant what he said. He stopped his heavy drinking on the weekends and he started going to church. He began reading the bible every morning and he was constantly asking me questions about the Christian faith.

     He ended up going to seminary and becoming a pastor. We still keep in touch through facebook.  Making a commitment to Jesus Christ is where it all begins.

     Those of you who follow golf, you might know the name of Rik Massengale who was a tour pro during the 70s and early 80s. Rik admits that early in his career, golf was his god. This not only caused him inner turmoil, but it also created marriage problems.

     His wife decided to file for divorce. But before the divorce was finalized, they had a long talk. They decided to attend the Tour Bible Study. The guest speaker happened to be Billy Graham, who was playing in the pro-am of the Kemper Open that year.

     Billy Graham made a statement that really stuck with Rik that day. He said, “Christianity is not a religion; it is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Rik had grown up in church and assumed that being a Christian just meant attending church. He was honest enough to admit that he didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. 

     Through the guidance of a friend, Rik found out how he could begin this new relationship with Christ. He and his wife both made a commitment to put Christ first in their marriage.

     Rik says, “I didn’t experience an overnight change, but over the next six to eight months, I realized that God was making significant changes in my life.” Rick went on to serve as the director of College Golf Fellowship, a Christian ministry to college golfers and coaches.

     When we make a commitment to follow Jesus Christ, like Rik, we might not experience an overnight change, but over time, we will find that we are becoming more and more like him. 

     In our Galatians scripture reading, we find the Fruit of the Spirit which consists of these wonderful character traits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Over time, this is what the Holy Spirit can do in our lives. By making a commitment to Christ, we become more like Christ.

     I am excited about what a difference Jesus Christ can make in our lives. I am also excited about what Christ is going to do in our lives and in our church over these next several weeks through this faith builders series.

     Making a commitment can be challenging. We often need to be fully persuaded before we finally decide to make something a priority in our lives.

     Like the time when I read an article about how too much sugar isn’t good for you. This was when I was serving a church in Lancaster. I already knew that but this particular article traced sugar to several potential medical problems.

     After I read that article, I told Penny that I was going to stop eating anything with sugar in it. And I must admit that I got off to a good start. A couple of days went by. No sugar. My personal commitment was to not have any more sugar for the rest of my life and I remember being so proud of myself for making it to day 3.

     I think it was that 3rd day that I attended a meal at the church. One of the bakers in the church who didn’t know about my no sugar commitment brought out a big tray of several dessert options to my table. Lemon meringue, coconut cream, cherry. Friends, I’m not bragging, but I won that victory and survived day 3. “Get behind me Satan!”

     Long story short. I also survived day 4, day 5, day 6, day 7, day 8. And then day 9 came along. Day 9.

     A member of my church had a 90th birthday party that was held at the church. When I arrived, a member of that family made a bee line for me and said, “Pastor Robert, you have to get a piece of this double chocolate cake. It’s my dad’s favorite. Just look at that chocolate icing. This cake was made by a special friend.”

     Again, not bragging, but remembering my commitment, I politely declined. The person who was offering me the cake thought I was kidding and gave me a piece anyway. 

     Friends, I actually set that cake back on the counter. Yeah, not bragging, but…

     So far, so good. Day 10. Day 11. Day 12. 

     I think it was around day 30 when Penny and I made a day trip down to Athens. She said, “let’s stop at Larry’s and get something to eat.”

     We were looking at the big menu and my loving, supportive wife said, “Hey look. They have butterscotch milkshakes, your favorite!”

     Friends, that was the day that my sugar fast ended. For Adam and Eve, it was an apple. For me, it was a butterscotch milkshake. 

     I share this story with you to say that it’s not easy to keep our commitments, but on the other hand, because I made a commitment, I surprised myself by lasting a whole month. Commitments really do matter.

     And the same is true in our faith. Just because we don’t always keep our commitments doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make commitments. They can help us to keep moving forward and when we stumble, we get back up again and keep striving toward our goal.

     John Wesley, the founder of Methodism called this process, “moving onto perfection in this life.”

     So, for this first Sunday, our commitment is to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ where we put him first in our life in the best way we know how.

     To help us with this first commitment in our Faith Builder’s series, up on the screen are some choices for us to consider. I’m going to give us time to think about these choices and which one we would like to be our commitment in this area. I’ve asked Jeff to play some music for the next minute or so as we silently make our commitment to God.

     Here are some options if you decide to not make a commitment to Jesus Christ at this point. 

No, today, I am not ready to make a commitment.
No, but maybe someday.
And here are a couple of options if you have or want to make a commitment to Jesus Christ. Yes, beginning today, I   
        want to be a follower of Jesus Christ. 
A second option is Yes, I am already a follower of Christ but I want to be an even more devoted follower of Him.

     I’ve asked Jeff to play some music for the next minute or so as we silently make our commitment to God.

     If you chose yes as one of the options, I’d like us to join together in saying this commitment of faith in having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s up on the screen.

     “Jesus is my guiding light, my compass, my lighthouse. I will ask the Lord for that ‘peace that passes all understanding.’ I will strive for my speech and behavior to please the Lord. I will strive for my attitudes, values, and thoughts to please the Lord. I will be passionate about the Lord as the priority of my life. I will strive to be able to explain clearly what I believe and why. I look forward to having a constant awareness of the Lord’s presence. I will strive for others to see Christ in my life, words, and actions. At each major decision of my life, I will ask, ‘What would Jesus have me do?’ I will invite the Lord to be at the center of all of my relationships. I will allow Christ to love others through me, even those who are different from me.”

Faith Builders: Committing
Sermon Discussion Questions
Acts 26:27-31 & Galatians 5:22-24
September 15, 2019

We’re beginning a new series on the theme, “Faith Builders.” We will be looking at several areas of our spiritual lives that are meant to build up our faith. Without making a commitment in these important areas, it can be really difficult to have a strong faith. These areas include praying, reading, worshiping, sharing, giving, and serving. We begin this series by focusing on the importance of the word, “committing.”
What comes to your mind when you think of the word, “commitment?”
In our Acts scripture reading, the Apostle Paul is on trial in front of King Agrippa. After Paul shares his faith in Christ with him, Agrippa responds with the question, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” Agrippa was willing to listen to Paul talk about his faith but he remained unconvinced.
Share some reasons why people today, like King Agrippa might not be ready to make a commitment in being a follower of Christ.
Pastor Robert shared the story of Rik Massengale, a professional golfer who was making golf his “god” in life. His marriage was not working out and he went to a bible study that talked about making a commitment in being a follower of Jesus. He decided to go all in and made a commitment to do just that. Rik says that it wasn’t an overnight change, but over the course of the next several months in living out his commitment, he began to experience a transformation in his life and in his marriage. He became the Director of College Golf Fellowship.
Do you know of other examples of people who have made a commitment to Jesus Christ and experienced a transformed life?
For this first week of our Faith Builders series, we are invited to consider making a commitment in one or more of the following ways. Read over this list of commitment options and if you feel comfortable, share with others about the commitment you have decided to make during our Faith Builders focus.
  • No, today, I am not ready to make a commitment.
  • No, but maybe someday.
      And here are a couple of options if you have or want to make a commitment to Jesus Christ:
  • Yes, beginning today, I want to be a follower of Jesus Christ. 
  • A second option is Yes, I am already a follower of Christ but I want to be an even more devoted follower of Him.
     If you chose yes as one of the options, say this commitment of faith statement as you begin your journey with Christ:

     “Jesus is my guiding light, my compass, my lighthouse. I will ask the Lord for that ‘peace that passes all understanding.’ I will strive for my speech and behavior to please the Lord. I will strive for my attitudes, values, and thoughts to please the Lord. I will be passionate about the Lord as the priority of my life. I will strive to share my faith with others. I look forward to having a constant awareness of the Lord’s presence. I will strive for others to see Christ in my life, words, and actions. At each major decision of my life, I will ask, ‘What would Jesus have me do?’ I will invite the Lord to be at the center of all of my relationships. I will be open to how God wants to use me to bless others.”

Monday, September 9, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Sept. 8) Athens First UMC

[Our college student ministry is up and running through Sunday lunches, worship, and small group ministry. What a holy privilege it is to be a home church for college students while they are at Ohio University.  During Sunday’s worship services, we also blessed 89 school kits and 66 hygiene kits that were assembled at our Athens First Saturday gathering and will be given to Festival of Sharing through the United Methodist Church. See the photo below. For Sunday’s sermon click here.]

Searching God, of all the people in the world, you somehow know how to find us. We are more than a social security or student ID number to you. You actually know us by name, and are constantly reaching out to us with your unconditional love.

Thank you for the many times this past week that you called our name. That early morning drive to Lancaster with the sun beaming through the fog that was hovering over the green hills along 33. That conversation in a crowded coffee shop that concluded with a prayer for God’s continued healing and guidance. That friend who just a couple weeks ago was feeling so much stress at work, now feeling renewed, encouraged, and hopeful. The Growing Tree preschool child who noticed a child who looked lonely and stooped down to give her a hug. Celebrating the 102nd birthday of a church member who continues to faithfully love and serve her church and listen to our services over the radio. 

Thank you for all of these ways that you have called our names just in this past week alone, O God, reminding us of your presence. Thank you for seeing us up in that sycamore tree and inviting us into a deeper relationship with you. 

You have called us by name to share what a difference you have made in our lives with others. You have called us by name to bless others. You have called us by name to pray for those who have lost so much from last week’s Hurricane. You have called us by name to bring peace in a world of so much violence. And Lord, instead of stores that have outside banners that read, “Guns & Ammo,” help us to be a church that promotes “Love & Peace.” You have called us by name to be part of your community of faith, the Body of Christ.

O God, thank you for calling each one of us by name.

And now, we call you by name, as we pray the prayer you taught us to say together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Some of our children blessing the Festival of Sharing school and hygiene kits during the 10:30 service. They were assembled during our Athens First Saturday gathering.]

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Sermon (September 8) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     I think most of us have a love/hate relationship with crowds. Depending on how large the crowd is, it may be next to impossible to make our way to where we need to go. 

     I attended a large event at a stadium and after it was over, I was walking with this massive crowd of people into the parking lot. After we had walked quite a ways, I suddenly realized that I was walking the wrong direction to get to my car so I had to turn back and walk against the crowd. It was almost impossible to walk against the flow of that massive amount of people walking toward me. 

     And I don’t know of anybody who enjoys sitting in a long line of traffic, just one car of many going nowhere. Crowds can be frustrating. 

     But with all of the annoying things about being in a crowd, there are also some positives. Like, at least there is probably something special going on or there probably wouldn’t be a large crowd. This reminds me of the famous Yogi Berra quote when he said, “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”

     Plus, crowds allow you to kind of hide in the background, right? This is especially helpful to people who are introverts and don’t want to be called out.

     Penny and I visited Colonial Williamsburg, VA one year and we were in a tour group and during that tour we were in the colonial court house. There were a lot of us in that group but Penny and I were standing in the very front next to the tour guide. And as luck would have it, the tour guide said, “I need some volunteers to act out a courtroom scene.”

     I tried to not make eye contact so he wouldn’t pick me, but the guide pointed at me and said, “You sir, come forward. You are going to be the defendant in this case.” 

     Life lesson learned: Never, ever be in the front of a crowd when someone is looking for a volunteer. 

     I say all of this because I find the first line of our Gospel reading very interesting. Luke tells us, “Now large crowds were traveling with him, with Jesus.”

     It’s interesting that Jesus attracted large crowds and this is what we have here. Over the past several weeks during our vanity license plate sermon series, we focused on several of Jesus’ teachings in which he was creating quite a stir among the people through his life transforming teachings and healings. And because of this, Jesus was attracting a large following.

     Now, what preacher doesn’t want a filled sanctuary? You would think that Jesus would have turned to them and said something like, “Hey, let’s see if we can make this crowd even bigger. Let’s have an ‘invite a friend to synagogue Sabbath’ and see if we can pack this place.”

     Jesus, who obviously had never attended a church growth seminar does the exact opposite and kind of spoils the positive momentum that he has been creating by saying things we wouldn’t expect Jesus to say. Things like…

     “Think twice if you believe that you are one of my disciples simply by following me at a distance. And unless you love me more than anyone else in your life, you’re really not following me at all. You need to be all in, otherwise you’re just a spectator.

     And before you sign up for the next leg of this journey, just know that it’s going to be extremely costly. You’re going to have to sacrifice a lot along the way.

     Instead of pumping up the crowd, it seems like Jesus is thinning out the crowds. In my world, the size of your church identifies if you are a successful pastor or not, but not so much in Jesus’ world. Jesus is more concerned with transforming the world than he is about crowd size.

     Five chapters from this one, we will find Jesus with another crowd of people. Instead of seeing just a great big crowd of people, he focuses on one person who was kind of lost in that big crowd. His name was Zacchaeus, a despised tax collector.

     Maybe you grew up learning this song about him:

Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see

And when the Savior passed that way
He looked up in the tree
And said, 'Zacchaeus, you come down!
For I'm going to your house today!
For I'm going to your house today!'

     And as the story goes, Zacchaeus, the tax collector, the outsider, the person you would least expect, the one who was lost in the crowd, became a disciple of Jesus that day and experienced the salvation of God. 

     And by the way, Luke the Gospel writer is especially good at this where he highlights all of the times when Jesus noticed people who would have otherwise gone unnoticed in Jesus’ day. 

     Like Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector and later in Luke 15, where we find the prodigal son story, the lost sheep, and the lost coin. Jesus has an unfair advantage when he plays hide and seek because he always knows how to find us.

     Luke wants us to know that nobody escapes Jesus’ attention. We can’t hide in the crowd. We can’t blend in and go unnoticed. God’s grace has a way of locating us and inviting us to become followers of Jesus.

     Kind of like our Psalm reading which is one of our appointed readings on this Sunday. “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you search out my path and my lying down, Even before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely.”

     God knows us even better than we know ourselves.

     So what does this mean for you and me whenever we find ourselves in a large crowd feeling a little lost. Like a college student who is just one of twenty thousand other students here on campus trying to chart your future direction in life. Like attending a church and trying to figure out that next step in your faith journey.

     Well, maybe it all starts with remembering that God sees each one of us in the crowd. We’re not invisible to God. We don’t all just blend in. God knows each one of by name and knows everything about us as Psalm 139 reminds us.

     We say that God is omniscient which means that God is all knowing. God sees us and God knows us. You are not lost in the crowd. Like a lost coin or a lost sheep, God knows where to find you.

     The second way that we can move from being lost in a crowd toward a more growing faith is by responding to Jesus’ call to move into a deeper faith and trust in Him. And this is why Jesus stops along his journey and offers a challenge to the large crowd that has been following him. 

     Jesus wants them to know that it’s not just about being followers in a crowd. It’s about each person responding to Jesus by living out our faith in our everyday lives and not just when we’re in the crowd.

     This past June, I officiated at a wedding in Columbus. It was a large wedding with almost three hundred people in attendance. After the ceremony, a couple came up to me and said, “Pastor Robert, do you remember us?”

     This was a couple who attended my previous church. It was a fairly large church so I didn’t get to know them personally, but they were regular attenders at one of our worship services. This was one of those moments where only by the grace of God, their names immediately popped into my head! “Hi Frank and Amy! It’s great to see you!” 

     The first thing I asked them was how they knew the bride since the groom was from out of state. They said that when they first moved into the community, the bride’s parents invited them to attend our church. They said that if it wasn’t for them, they probably wouldn’t have attended any church.

     They went on to tell me all the ways they are involved in the church and what a difference it has made in their lives. They have become good friends with other church members and they are growing in their faith.

     I keep thinking about that conversation with this couple and how wonderful it was that a simple invitation to attend church, led to this friendship in which they were invited to that wedding. But even more importantly, how this couple has moved from being in the crowd, to actively growing in their faith together through that church.

     I always think of late August and early September as a new beginning. It’s the beginning of the school year. Many of us are into more of a routine following the summer months. I think that this is also a time of year when we are more open to a deeper faith and a more meaningful relationship with God.

     Our church’s way of helping with this renewed time of spiritual growth is by encouraging each and every person to have a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith. This is what helps us to move from being in the crowd to a more personal walk with God.

     Our Loving Faith ministries are to help us love God and each other. These include Sunday worship gatherings like we’re doing now, small groups where we can discuss our faith with each other by focusing on the previous Sunday’s worship theme, and our prayer ministry where we share our joys and concerns together on a weekly basis.

     Our Learning Faith ministries are to help us grow in our understanding of God and our faith. These include our Sunday School classes for all ages which begins next Sunday and I’m beginning a four-week pastor’s bible study Monday evenings on the topic, “How the Bible Actually Works.” We also have many other Learning Faith opportunities offered through our church.

     Our Living Faith ministries are to help us live out our faith through service. There are so many ways to serve in and through the church, like serving as a greeter or an usher, helping set up our Sunday morning Connect Time, helping in the nursery, working with children, folding bulletins, volunteering at our weekly Monday Lunch community meal, serving through our monthly Athens First Saturday to bless our community which was held yesterday morning, and the list of possible ministries goes on and on.

     Vickie Buck, our new Ministries Coordinator will be offering a Spiritual Gifts class to help us identify our gifts and how we might use those gifts in specific ways through the ministries of our church.

     This week, I invite us to think about the question, “in what ways might God be calling me from out of the crowd so that I can have a more loving faith, a more learning faith, and a more living faith?”

     That’s a perfect question for us to think about especially as we begin a new series next Sunday called “Faith Builders.” We’ll be looking at how we can build our faith through praying, reading, worshipping, sharing, giving, and serving.

     Jesus knows how easy it is for us to get lost in a crowd, but the good news is that he always knows how to find us.

Found in a Crowd
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 14:25-33 & Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
September 8, 2019

In our Gospel reading from Luke, we are told that a large crowd of people was following Jesus. 

What are the positives and the negatives of being part of a crowd?

Luke’s Gospel is known for the many times that Jesus was able to notice someone in a crowd like Zacchaeus, the tax collector. Jesus also talked about the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost son as a way of describing how God can always find us. Our Psalm for today refers to God searching us and knowing everything about us.

Share a time when you felt lost in your faith. 

In the sermon, Pastor Robert shared two ways that can help us when we feel lost in our faith. 

#1 - Remember that Jesus sees you in the crowd. You are not lost. God knows you! What can help you to remember that God knows you and sees you in the crowd?

#2 - Respond to Jesus’ invitation in having a loving faith, a learning faith, and living faith.

How is God calling you to respond to having a more loving faith? Weekly worship? Daily time with God? Prayer ministry? Join one of our small groups?

How is God calling you to respond to having a more learning faith? Sunday School? Pastor’s Bible Study? Other?

How is God calling you to respond to having a more living faith? Serving as a Greeter or Usher? Helping with Our Children’s Program? Folding Bulletins? Our monthly Athens First Saturday Community Involvement? Serving at Monday Lunch? Other Service Opportunities? 

Monday, September 2, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Sept. 1) Athens First UMC

[Our worship theme focused on the Gospel of Luke where Jesus offers us some important very important table manners. For the sermon on what these table manners are click here. It was very fitting on this Sunday to actually share a meal together, the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The picture above was taken immediately after we received the bread and the cup. It was a great morning of worship!]

O God, the table is set. The food is ready. And we have sung the grace before our Holy Communion meal.

Thank you for teaching us the most important table manners of all. That you are present every time we gather, that we make room for others around the table, and that we receive the nourishment of your love as well. O God, there is so much more joy in living out our faith when we remember these table manners. 

Help us to remember your teachings from the Gospel of Luke over these past several weeks. To keep things simple by having our focus on you. To remember to pray often because you are always ready and willing to open your door to us. To remember that all that we have comes from you and because of your grace, we have more than enough. To remember that our faith is a long journey where you call us to be ready to the end. To remember to stand for you in the midst of trials and challenges. To receive your hope anew during those times when we are in need of your healing love. And today’s teaching to put you and others ahead of ourselves.

And on this Labor Day weekend, remind us to think less about mattress sales and cook-outs, and more about those in our community and world who are struggling to make a living. Thank you for our Monday Lunch ministry which will provide not only a holiday meal for our guests who come to our church tomorrow, but also an opportunity for fellowship and connections. May we continue to be a saving station church, rather than a country club church.

We pray this in the name of Jesus, who has prepared a feast for us, who invites us to his table, and who has taught us to pray together saying, 

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Sermon (September 1) by Rev. Robert McDowell

    For the past several Sundays, we have been following the teachings of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. To help us remember these teachings, we have been using vanity license plate messages.

     Since this is the last Sunday for this series, let’s review each of these license plate messages. Hopefully, many of you will remember these. So, let’s look at the first message:

     KISS – Keep it simple, saint. This was the story where Mary and Martha spent time with Jesus. Martha missed out on learning from Jesus because she was distracted by being too busy, while Mary kept things simple by focusing on what Jesus wanted to tell her. 

     NOK2OPN – Knock to Open. This is where Jesus taught the disciples how to pray by teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus said that all we need to do is to knock and Jesus will open the door to us. That’s all we need to do. 

     ENUF – Jesus teaches us the meaning of enough.  He tells us to guard against all kinds of greed and to not store up treasure for ourselves but to instead, be rich toward God.

     REDE2DN – Ready to the end. Jesus tells us to always be ready in our faith because Jesus will come back at an unexpected hour. Be ready to the end.

     STAN4ME – Stand for me. Jesus tells us that people will not always understand why we follow him. It will cost us something. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t always easy.

     HOPE4ME – Hope for me. This was last Sunday’s message and it’s where Jesus heals a woman who had been ill for eighteen years. With Jesus, there is always hope for us. God is always reaching out to us with his healing love.

     And here’s today’s vanity license plate. This one stands for Jesus, Others, & You. Jesus wants us to have our priorities in order. 

     For this Sunday, Luke tells the story of the time when Jesus went to the house of a Pharisee for a meal and it was a Sabbath day. It’s interesting that the people who were around the table with Jesus were watching him closely. 

     That’s what I hope we have been able to do over these past several Sundays. I hope that we’ve been able to watch Jesus closely through the Gospel of Luke. When we watch Jesus, we can learn what it means to follow him. We can learn from him because he has so much to teach us.

     In today’s gospel reading, we learn some table manners. Now, I don’t have the best table manners. I always have to think really hard about which bread plate or which drinking glass is mine. I don’t always get this right. I do know to put the napkin on my lap, to not eat until everyone has their food, and to have polite conversation.

     Well, for whatever reason, these aren’t the table manners that Jesus wants to teach us at this dinner scene. Jesus has some other table manners in mind. And I don’t think that his actions and what he had to say went over very well with the people who were carefully watching him. It certainly didn’t go over well seven chapters earlier when Jesus attended a dinner party.

     So, here’s the first table manner lesson from Jesus. God is the most important part of the dinner gathering. The most important thing at a meal isn’t the placement of the utensils or where you should place your drinking glass. The most important thing is to know that God is present at your meal. 

     During the time of Jesus, the religious leaders had all kinds of rules about what you could and couldn’t do during a meal. One of those rules was to not allow anybody who was considered ritually unclean with a disease to be part of that meal. 

     And guess what? Here at this meal was a man who had a disease. He was considered a nobody and yet Jesus healed this man! Not only did Jesus affirm this man’s place at this meal, but he also healed him on the Sabbath which was another rule that was not meant to be broken.

     The reason Jesus broke the rules was because he knew that the most important table manner of all was to keep God and not rules as the most important part of the dinner gathering. By keeping God first at that meal, Jesus was able to offer healing to this man with a disease.

     What would it be like if we would remember to keep God first in everything we did?  I think that this would help us to know which table manners to keep and which table manners are not worth keeping. Jesus is helping us to see that we can know where every fork and spoon should be placed at a table setting but if we don’t keep God first, none of these other rules really matter.

     The second table manner that Jesus teaches us is to put others first.  Immediately after Jesus broke the table rules by healing a man on the Sabbath, Jesus teaches a lesson about where people should sit during a meal.

     Jesus says that instead of going for the best seats, to first think of others and to let them have the better seats. Like in many social settings today, in the time of Jesus, people believed that those with titles and social standing were superior to everyone else and should have the better seats. And so Jesus teaches them that to be his followers, they need to humble themselves and allow others to be first.

     On a dangerous seacoast where shipwrecks often occur there was once a crude little life-saving station. The building was just a hut, and there was only one boat, but the few devoted members kept a constant watch over the sea, and with no thought for themselves, they went out day or night tirelessly searching for the lost.

     Many lives were saved by this wonderful little station, so that it became famous. Some of those who were saved, and various others in the surrounding areas, wanted to become associated with the station and give of their time and money and effort for the support of its work. New boats were bought and new crews were trained. The little life-saving station grew.

     Some of the new members of the life-saving station were unhappy that the building was so crude and so poorly equipped. They felt that a more comfortable place should be provided as the first refuge of those saved from the sea.

     They replaced the emergency cots with beds and put better furniture in an enlarged building. Now the life-saving station became a popular gathering place for its members, and they re-decorated it beautifully and furnished it as a sort of club.

     Less of the members were now interested in going to sea on life-saving missions, so they hired life boat crews to do this work. 

     The mission of life-saving was still given lip-service but most were too busy or lacked the necessary commitment to take part in the life-saving activities personally.

     About this time a large ship was wrecked off the coast, and the hired crews brought in boat loads of cold, wet and half-drowned people.

     They were dirty and sick, and some of them were foreigners, and spoke a strange language, and the beautiful new club was considerably messed up. So the property committee immediately had a shower house built outside the club where victims of shipwreck could be cleaned up before coming inside.

     At the next meeting, there was a split in the club membership. Most of the members wanted to stop the club's life-saving activities as being unpleasant and a hindrance to the normal pattern of the club.

     But some members insisted that life-saving was their primary purpose and pointed out that they were still called a life-saving station. But they were finally voted down and told that if they wanted to save the life of all various kinds of people who were shipwrecked in those waters, they could begin their own life-saving station down the coast. They did.

     As the years went by, the new station experienced the same changes that had occurred in the old. They evolved into a club and yet another life-saving station was founded.

     And as the story of the lighthouse goes, if you visit the seacoast today you will find a number of exclusive clubs along that shore. Shipwrecks are still frequent in those waters, but now most of the people drown!

     I think of this story of the saving station and how Jesus taught us to put others first. There is a real temptation for us to forget the primary purpose of the church. The purpose of the church is to think of others before we think of ourselves. It’s to remember our primary mission and why we exist in the first place.

     Jesus has taught us two table manners so far. God is the most important part of the dinner gathering and we are to think of others before ourselves.

     And the third table manner – Remember that you are also invited to be at God’s table.  And so, the table manners begin with God, they extend to others, and they also include us.  Jesus, others, and you. That’s what Jesus wants us to remember.

     Toward the end of the dinner in our gospel reading, Jesus tells us that if we put God and others first, that we will be blessed. He even says that we will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. 

     In one of the churches I served, some leaders in our community including people from the church helped launch an exciting community wide program called “Sharing Hope.” It was a program to help people in the local community get out of poverty and to make a better life for themselves.

     Each gathering included people who were in poverty as well as people who wanted to help make a difference in their lives. Whenever they met, they had a meal together. And during that meal, it didn’t matter the economic levels of the people who were there. What mattered, was that everyone was there to help and encourage each other.

     I wasn’t able to attend the first dinner gathering but I was able to attend the second meal gathering. One of the community leaders who was helping with this program had been preparing the meals and donating the food because we were on a shoestring budget, especially for that first year of the program.

     When this kind hearted volunteer with a heart of gold saw me at our second dinner gathering, he said, “Robert, last week’s gathering was just incredible. During our time of sharing around the circle, a woman in the group really opened up about her life making us all tear up, and that was just our first meeting. This gathering really is about sharing hope!”

     You should have seen the smile on his face as he told me this story. I know that Jesus said that we will receive our reward in heaven, but I could tell that this man was receiving his reward a little early.

     As we come to receive Holy Communion this morning, we come because Jesus is the host. And we come with others because there is always room for more. And we come to this table, because we need to eat, too. 

License Plate Sightings: JEOTHU
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 14:1-14
September 1, 2019

For the past several weeks, we have been following Jesus’ teachings from the Gospel of Luke and turning them into vanity license plate messages. See if you can recall these messages:


Which of these messages from the Gospel of Luke have spoken to you the most? Why?

Our final Sunday’s vanity license plate message is JEOTHU which stands for “Jesus, Others, You.” This is based on when Jesus was eating a meal with some Pharisees. Jesus teaches us some important spiritual table manners to help us grow in our faith. 

Table Manner #1 - God is the most important part of the meal. This is the first part of this week’s vanity license plate. “JE” stands for Jesus and God. Jesus broke religious customs by healing a man on the Sabbath. He chose to heal the man because he was more focused on God’s presence at that meal rather than on certain rules he was expected to follow. 

What can help you keep God first in all that you do?

Table Manner #2 - Allow others to have the best seats around God’s table. This is the second part of this week’s message. “OTH” stands for “others.” 

In what ways you can you provide space for people who are not affiliated with any church or who may feel disconnected from God’s love? Who feels excluded?

Table Manner #3 - You are also invited to sit around God’s table. This is the final part of this week’s message. “U” stands for  each one of us! Sometimes, when we focus on the first two table manners of putting God and others first, we forget that we are invited to be part of God’s circle as well. The Sacrament of Holy Communion is a meal that reminds us that we are ALL invited to share at God’s table. Nobody is excluded!

How does your participation in receiving Holy Communion remind you that you are invited and welcomed at God’s table?

Monday, August 26, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Aug. 25) Athens First UMC

[It was a beautiful Sunday for moving our Connect Time coffee and refreshments outside, welcoming college students, blessing backpacks, listening to our wonderful Chancel Choir, promoting our new Sunday School program which begins Sunday, Sept. 15, and hearing a message about hope. For the sermon, click here. See below for one of the pictures from our water bottle/welcome basket give away over the weekend. It was another fun way to bless our community!]

God of new beginnings, untie us from those forces in our world that would keep us from being who you have called us to be. Remind us to turn to you for hope when those forces are at work in our lives.

God of new beginnings, untie us from spiritual dryness that we experience from time to time. Remind us to turn to you for hope when we have lost our joy.

God of new beginnings, untie us from ourselves whenever we miss the opportunities you place before us to see you at work in our daily lives. Remind us to turn to you for hope when our focus is on ourselves rather than upon you.

O God, this is a time of new beginnings in our community and in our church. There is so much transition happening all around us with the beginning of a new school year. But with transitions, comes stress. The stress of meeting new people. The stress of finding our locker. The stress of launching new fall ministries in the church. The stress of trying to find a parking space.

O God, so much stress, but also a time of new beginnings for each and every one of us. Thank you for the woman from our Gospel reading who turned to you for hope. Thank you for offering your healing love to us and untying us from anything that would keep us from being the person you have called us to be.

And so on this Sunday, we thank you for the hope-filled signs and sounds of your presence that are all around us like a neighbor surprising us with a gift bag to brighten our day, like positive sidewalk chalk messages greeting us as we enter a church, like receiving a blessing as we begin a new school year, like suddenly realizing that God answered our prayer in a beautiful way. 

God of hope, thank you for these and many other signs of your presence that untie us and help us to experience healing, wholeness, and a renewed joy in our lives. And now teach us to pray this prayer of hope that Jesus taught us to pray together saying…. “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[These two servants prepared 14 welcome baskets which were hand delivered to each of our church’s neighboring fraternities/sororities during move-in week. The students in these houses are always very appreciative and surprised that our church would take the time to do this. We also handed out 300 water bottles to those walking by our church on Saturday. A big thanks to all who helped at our 5th annual water bottle give away!]