[WOUB intereviewed me recently about why organized religion is declining in America. For the full text interview, go to https://woub.org/2018/11/09/finding-faith-somewhere-else/]
Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Monday, November 12, 2018
[We had a very special combined worship service on Veterans’ Day, marking the 100th anniversary of WW I. We recognized our veterans by giving each of them a poppy which is traditionally associated with Veterans’ Day. These were made by our children in Sunday School. We were also blessed by having the OhioBrass ensemble join our Chancel Choir in providing patriotic music to fit the occasion. See video below. Immediately after the service, we all walked together to College Green where the community veterans’ ceremony was held. See picture below. A big thank you to everyone for making it a special and memorial Veterans’ Day!]
God of peace, we do thank you for our beautiful country. Thank you for these opportunities to honor veterans past and present who have sacrificed so much on our behalf.
We pray for those who have served our nation and who laid down their lives to protect and defend our freedom.
We pray for those who have fought in battles, whose spirits and bodies are scarred by war, whose nights are haunted by memories too painful for the light of day.
We pray for those who serve us now, especially for those in harm's way. Shield them from danger and bring them home. Be with their families who also are sacrificing by being separated from their loved ones. Surround them with your loving presence so they do not feel alone.
Turn the hearts and minds of our leaders and our enemies to the work of justice and a harvest of peace.
Let the peace you left us and the peace you gave us, be the peace that sustains and the peace that saves us.
Christ Jesus, Prince of Peace, hear us! Lord Jesus, hear our prayer even as we pray the words you taught us to pray together saying…
“Our Father, who art in heaven…”
[Chancel Choir & OhioBrass performing the anthem, “In Remembrance” at our special Veterans’ Sunday combined worship service.]
[Top Picture: Our congregation walking to College Green for the Athens community veterans ceremony following our special veterans’ worship service. Bottom Picture: The Athens community veterans ceremony on College Green.]
Sunday, November 11, 2018
It’s very appropriate that Veterans’ Day falls on a Sunday this year, a day when our Hebrew’s scripture passage focuses on the theme of sacrifice. Today we honor and pay tribute to those who have served in the armed services and who have sacrificed so much for the cause of freedom. Their service to our country has been no small sacrifice.
This Veterans’ Day prompts me to examine my own life and ask myself the question, “How willing I am to live sacrificially for the sake of others?” Today is also a sobering day because like Memorial Day and the church’s All Saints’ Sunday which we observed this past Sunday, Veterans’ Day reminds us that life is short.
Sometimes, we think that the goal in life is to simply live as long as possible. But even if we do everything that we can to be healthy, we are still faced with our mortality. It doesn't matter if you spend two hours a day sweating at the gym . . . It doesn't matter if you take every vitamin found in a drug store . . . It doesn't matter if you never let a cholesterol-laden piece of food cross your lips . . . It doesn't matter if you obey every safety regulation ever written for any product . . . It doesn't matter if you drastically reduce the stress factors from everything you do . . .
We won’t live forever.
There is an old story about three friends one afternoon who were vaguely contemplating the inevitability of their own deaths. They posed the following question to themselves: "When you are in your casket and friends and family are mourning you, what would you like to hear them say about you?"
The first guy said, "I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor of my time, and a great family man."
The second guy said, "I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and school teacher who made a huge difference in our children of tomorrow."
The last guy replied, "I would like to hear them say: 'LOOK!!! HE'S MOVING!!!'"
Death is inevitable, no matter how much we try to deny it or not think about it. The author of Hebrews is careful to point this out from our scripture passage this morning when he writes that it is established that everyone will die at some point. He’s not writing this to ruin our day and put us into depression but to help us keep things in perspective and to make every day count.
Our veterans who we recognize today remind us of the importance of living sacrificially for the sake of others. I officiated at a funeral of one of a church member who was in the Army during World War II. His son shared a war story with me about his father. A German pilot had been shot down and he had to eject from his plane. He landed in a nearby orchard and was hiding there.
His dad was to find this German pilot which he ended up doing. He faithfully carried out his orders but he also saw this German pilot as a fellow human being and they even got to know each other by sharing stories. Not only did his dad risk his life for his country, but he did so in a very honorable and humane way. This little story and many others are why we are honoring our veterans today. The sacrifice they have made and are making is no small sacrifice.
The writer of Hebrews also points us to the ultimate sacrifice that was made through Jesus Christ. He writes that Christ sacrificed and died to bear the sins of many. It’s because of what Jesus Christ has done for us that we have forgiveness and new life. That’s why we gather here on Sunday mornings. We give thanks for all that Jesus Christ has done for us through his death and resurrection and then we are sent from this place to serve in sacrificial ways in his name.
When we remember that what Jesus did for us was no small sacrifice, we can’t help but to live sacrificially for others. This is why I am so thankful for the author of Hebrews so that we will never forget what Jesus has done for us.
Two summers ago, I visited the Rutherford B. Hayes presidential library up in Fremont, Ohio. It’s the first presidential library and was built back in 1919. Hayes was the 19th president of the United States serving from 1877 to 1881. His life was one of service in many different ways.
Before he had become president, he served as a Union officer in the Civil War and was wounded five different times in various battles. He and his wife Lucy attended a Methodist Church in Fremont which now goes by the name of Hayes United Methodist Church. There is a large portrait of Rutherford B. Hayes in the back of the sanctuary of that church.
Hayes and his wife, Lucy were known to be very generous and sacrificial in their giving to make their community a better place. They spent a lot of time in social causes including the education of children. They also did a lot of work for the mentally ill and prison reform. Those needs were just as important in the latter part of the 19th century as they are today.
I was so impressed with this president who I didn’t really know all that well until that tour of the museum. Not only was he this known politician, he was also a veteran, and someone who made lots of sacrifices, big and small to help make this world a better place.
As I was nearing the end of my tour there, I took notice of a large bulletin board that had around 300 index cards that contained brief messages from young children. These cards were put there in response to the question, “What can you do to make this world a better place?”
Here’s a picture of all of these cards…
It also had this quote from Rutherford Hayes which he said in 1881. “Let him, like every good citizen, be willing and prompt to bear his part in every useful work that will provoke the welfare and happiness of his family, his town, his state, and his country.”
I read several of the children’s responses. Here are a few of them:
• Help people in the nursing home.
• If someone falls, help them up.
• I love this one. It just says, “Be You.”
• Treat everyone as you would like to be treated. Stop bullying!
• To end gun violence!
• Honor those who serve our country.
• Slow down and take it all in. Enjoy the everyday.
• Treat people with respect and help them reach their dreams.
The Hayes presidential library wants to leave every person with that very important question.”What can you do to make the world a better place?”
Three hundred ways people pledged to make a difference in the world!
Our church motto in a lot of our advertising is “Putting Athens First.” It’s a play of words based on our church’s name, Athens First. It helps us to remember that the reason we exist is to live sacrificially in the name of Christ.
Many of us wear red Athens First t-shirts that has a quote about living sacrificially. It’s a quote attributed to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
It goes like this:
“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
I love this quote. It says it so well.
Every Sunday when we gather in this place, we remind ourselves of living sacrificially. Through worship, we are reminded who God is calling us to be and we pledge to live out our faith in big and small ways throughout the week. Jesus’ way is the way of sacrificial giving. We gather in the name of Christ, but then we leave from this place to serve in the name of Christ.
Every Sunday, when we leave from worship, we do something very similar. Through worship, we are reminded who God is calling us to be and we pledge to live out our faith in big and small ways throughout the week. Jesus’ way is the way of sacrificial giving.
I want you to know that every prayer, every time you attend worship, every gift you put in the offering plate, every way you serve through the life of the church, and every time you share your faith with someone, it is no small sacrifice. Like the author of Hebrews, you are helping people to know of the sacrifice Jesus was willing to make when he died on a cross to take away our sins.
Our Hebrew’s scripture reminds us that life is short and one day, our time here will come to an end. But even when that time comes, because of what Jesus Christ has done, we can have an assurance that we will be with him forever.
Acts 13:36 summarizes King David this way: "For when David had served God's purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep." In the words of a wonderful benediction, "May you live until the word of your life is fully spoken."
Would you repeat that after me and this time use the word, “I” instead of “you.”: "May I live until the word of my life is fully spoken."
When Jesus died on the cross, the word of his life was fully spoken. His death, like the way he lived was no small sacrifice. And there’s no reason why the same can’t be said one day about you and me.
No Small Sacrifice
Small Group Questions
November 11, 2018
Today is the 99th anniversary of the observance of Veterans’ Day, a day to remember those who have sacrificially served and are serving in the various branches of the military. Our Hebrews scripture talks about Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf when he died not he cross for the sake of the world. The sermon began with this question for all of us to ponder. How would you answer this question?
How willingly am I to live sacrificially for the sake of others?
The sermon mentioned Rutherford B. Hayes who fought in the Civil War and became our 19th president. He is buried in Fremont, Ohio where the first presidential library is located. President Hayes and his wife, Lucy were Methodists who believed in living sacrificially for the sake of others. The Hayes museum has an exhibit that invites people to complete a card with a simple way that we can personally live sacrificially for others.
If you were filling out one of those cards, what would you write down as a way that you can live sacrificially for others?
There is an old benediction that goes like this: “May you live until the word of your life is fully spoken.”
What is that “word” that you are seeking to fully speak in your lifetime?
We are called to pray for those serving in the military as well as for their families. Pray this prayer together as a small group:
Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad. Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
[My Aunt Dot who was married to my dad’s brother passed away last week and the funeral was held yesterday at Round Hill Presbyterian Church in Crossroads, PA where she had been a member for 85 years. This is also the church where my mom and dad were married in 1950. Since my dad was Methodist my parents decided to attend that church instead which is why I am a United Methodist today. I guess God “predestined” this to happen. Sorry, using a little theological humor, here. My brother and I were asked to assist in the service. With tears of grief and gratitude for a like well lived, we commended Dorothy S. Sweitzer into the loving arms of Jesus Christ, her Lord and Savior.]
[The eulogy was beautifully delivered by Colonel Todd McDowell, one of Aunt Dot’s grandsons. Todd recounted how Aunt Dot loved all of us and was known for her sharp mind and faith in Christ. After the service, Todd and I both noticed that the etching around the beautiful stained glass window behind him states that it was dedicated in loving memory of Major James Patterson, a member of that church who served in General George Washington’s Army. This church was established in 1756.]
[My brother, David McDowell is a Deacon in the UMC and is the music director of the church where mom and dad decided to attend after they were married. It was very fitting that he sang this song, “Come to Jesus” along with another talented vocalist in the family, Terri Hoffman to the glory of God in loving memory of our Aunt Dot. The whole family felt like we were coming home.]
[Picture of our family standing in the back of the sanctuary in front of beautiful stained glass windows following Aunt Dot’s funeral service. It was an honor to offer the pastoral prayer and the Lord’s prayer during the service. As a UMC pastor, I kind of stumbled during the Lord’s Prayer since Presbyterians typically use “debts” and I am accustomed to “trespasses.” Evidently Aunt Dot’s church prefers neither. They say “sins.” When we got to that part of the prayer, you could hear all three options spoken at once reminding us that God has a sense of humor.]
God of love, we thank you for all with which you have blessed us even to this day. Thank you for the many ways that Aunt Dot lived out her faith and cared about each one of us.
She amazed us in how she remembered people and fun stories that we had long forgotten. She remembered our birthdays, asked often about our families, attended our graduations, helped us to get summer jobs, prayed for each one of us without ceasing, and reminded us of silly things we did when we were young that always brought a smile to her face.
We thank you for your gift of joy in days of health and strength, and for the gifts of your abiding presence and promise in days of pain and grief. We are reminded how blessed we are to be surrounded by family and friends in this place today.
We are also mindful of other friends and family members who are no longer with us but who are now part of that great cloud of witnesses where there is no more tears, suffering, sorrow, or pain; only joy, love, and peace. We remember these loved ones silently in our hearts during this time of silence.
Thank you for these loved ones, O God. They are forever in our memory.
Be with everyone who has gathered here to remember and give thanks for the life of Aunt Dot as well as with those who are unable to be with us this day. Thank you for the many ways in which she has blessed each one of us and for cherished memories that we will be able to take with us from this place. And we are forever grateful that your grace is extended to each one of us to have a seat around your table with all of those who have faithfully lived and died. Above all, we give you thanks for your Son Jesus, who knew our griefs, who died our death, rose for our sake, and who taught us to pray together saying,
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts/trespasses/sins as we forgive our debtors/those who trespassed against us/those who sinned against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
[Round Hill Presbyterian Church, Crossroads, PA Est. 1756]
Sunday, November 4, 2018
One summer, I was in the city of Dayton making a visit and was about to get into my car when I noticed an interesting vanity license plate on the back of the car which was parked in front of me.
It said, “In 3 Days.” As I started to drive away, I noticed a man getting out of this car. I slowed down, put my window down, and said, “I read your license plate. Are you a Christian?” With a great big smile on his face, he nodded his head, and yelled back to me, “My life changed because of those 3 days!”
He’s right! Everything changed because of those three days. Those three days refer to Good Friday when Jesus who was God made flesh took upon himself all of the pain, and the brokenness, and the heartache, and the sins, and all of the evil in this world and broke its power through his death on the cross.
The second day was Holy Saturday when Jesus was placed in a tomb and rested reminding us of when God created the world and rested on the seventh day of creation. All was silent on that day of rest. The powers of this world thought they had claimed the victory when Jesus died on a cross and was then placed in a tomb with a large stone rolled in front of it.
Jesus’ disciple’s thought the game was over and so they fled out of fear because of those two days.
Have you ever gone to a sporting event when the home team is losing pretty badly going into the fourth quarter and everyone starts to leave to beat the traffic? I’ve done that!
You’re heading out of the stadium and you’re walking that long distance to your car when you hear the crowd give out a distant roar from the stadium. A meaningless score you think. And then you hear another roar from the remaining fans in the stands. And you begin to question if you should have left the game so early.
Which leads us to the third day or if you prefer the fourth and final quarter. Everyone turned out the lights and gone to bed, only to wake up the next morning and realize that they’re team came back and won.
By the way, this sporting analogy happened to me a couple of years ago. Ohio State playing at Penn State. Being from Pennsylvania, I was of course rooting for Penn State, but by the end of the 3rd quarter, Ohio State was winning 24 to 7 and the momentum was with the Buckeyes.
Pastors do not appreciate late Saturday college football games since they end around midnight, and like a good pastor, I decided to put up the white flag at the end of the 3rd quarter, and accept an early defeat in order to get my beauty sleep and be ready for church the next morning.
That next morning I woke up, staggered down the stairs toward the coffee pot, checked my phone to get the final score and surprisingly saw that Penn State had made an incredible comeback and ended up winning in dramatic fashion by blocking a field goal attempt and returning it for a touchdown and winning 24 to 21.
In that early morning hour, I let out a loud yell even though Penny was still sleeping and I ran up the stairs to tell her all about it! It felt like Christmas morning! How sad that a middle age pastor makes such a big deal out of a football game.
I remember proudly wearing my Penn State tie to church that morning because although a Penn State win over Ohio State is not necessarily a liturgical holy day on the church calendar, it’s always a religious holiday in the McDowell household.
Looking back on that surprising victory, I can’t help but to think of how surprised and ecstatic the women must have been when they discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty on that early Sunday morning. In a matter of hours, they had gone from certain defeat to the greatest victory imaginable!
Now, I realize this is a very poor analogy but work with me here. The empty tomb was the biggest surprise in all of history. No one saw it coming, even the people who knew the scriptures backward and forward. They didn’t see it coming. They all went to bed at the end of the second day thinking, “Game over. We lost!”
This is what the third day or Easter represents. God surprised everyone when he brought Jesus back from the dead.
Actually, my sports analogy isn’t a terrible one.
St. John, the gospel writer, uses his own limited analogy by telling us the story of how Jesus brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead. Lazarus had been placed in a tomb. His sisters, Mary and Martha thought the game was over. Jesus was too late. But Jesus surprised everyone by bringing Lazarus back to life.
By sharing this story in the middle of his gospel, John is giving us a little sneak preview of the Easter story which will involve Jesus coming back from the dead. Far be it from me to criticize a gospel writer, but the analogy does break down because the two stories do have a major difference.
In the Lazarus story, Lazarus died, was brought back to life, and would eventually die again. In the Easter story, Jesus died, was brought back to life, and would never experience death again.
Jesus, unlike Lazarus was given a new body, a resurrected body, one that would not be subject to death. This is the incredibly surprising news of our faith. Just as the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is an advanced sign of Jesus’ being raised from the dead, so Jesus’ resurrection is an advanced sign of the resurrection that is awaiting all of God’s saints when Jesus’ returns and all of creation will be made alive.
Easter, the third day is a hint of what awaits all of God’s people. And the saints point us to this future hope of our faith. As the Apostle Paul says, we will all be changed and we will exchange that which is perishable with that which is imperishable.
The early Christians used a couple of powerful images to convey the importance of those three days when Jesus died on the cross, was laid in a tomb, and then rose again.
One of those images was the process that a caterpillar goes through in becoming a beautiful butterfly. This process involves dying, resting in a Chrysalis tomb, until finally a new creation emerges.
Another image for these three days is related to baptism by immersion where the pastor has the person be submerged under the water to symbolize Jesus’ death on the cross and our dying to self. The person then re-emerges from the water, symbolizing Jesus coming out of the empty tomb and symbolizing our new life in Christ. And when we baptize by sprinkling which we often do here in our church, we are still reminded of this powerful, powerful image. Baptism is all about death and resurrection. Death and resurrection.
These ancient Christian symbols remind us of the good news of our faith which centers on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which the Apostles’ Creed remind us every time we recite it.
Sometimes even a vanity license plate can remind us of this good news. And today, the saints who have gone before us won’t let us forget this awesome, awesome surprising and life changing news!
On this All Saints’ Sunday, we join all of the saints in proclaiming with great joy, “Those three days changed my life! Alleluia!”
In 3 Days
Small Group Discussion Questions
Revelation 21:1-6a & John 11:32-44
November 4, 2018
Both Easter and All Saints’ Sunday remind us of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
What helps you to remember the good news of your faith in your day to day living?
The story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life is a little sneak preview of Jesus’ resurrection later in John’s gospel. The gospels want us to know that God specializes in bringing life out of what seems to be hopeless situations.
Share an example of where you have seen God bring new life and transformation out of what seemed like a hopeless situation.
All Saints’ Sunday is a day to remember the 3 most important days of our Christian faith; Good Friday when Jesus died on a cross for the sins of the world, Holy Saturday when Jesus rested in a sealed tomb, and Easter Sunday when Jesus rose again. It’s also a day to remember that a day is coming when all of God’s people, including those who have gone before us will be reunited in God’s eternal kingdom.
Share the name of a loved one who has gone to be with the Lord and who had an important influence on your life.
Monday, October 29, 2018
[We celebrated Youth Sunday. Our youth led the worship services and our Holy Hands Puppeteers offered a fun skit on the story of Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus. Click here for the skit. Our church is so blessed to have youth who are active in our church and who help us understand the scriptures from their perspective.]
Jesus, come and fill your lambs. Fill your lambs with new sight to help us see our way forward more clearly like you did for Bartimaeus. Fill your lambs with the energy of youth when we begin to feel weary. Fill your lambs with conviction like you did for Martin Luther when he posted the 95 theses on the doors of the Wittenberg Church on this anniversary Sunday of the Protestant Reformation.
Jesus, come and fill your lambs.
We especially pray on this Youth Sunday for you to come and fill each of our young people with the the full assurance that they belong to you. Whenever they get discouraged, face disappointment, feel lost or experience stress, fill them anew with your love.
Fill us all anew with your love in this world where bomb threats, violent rhetoric, blatant racism, and abusive behavior seem to be an all too common occurrence. Fill us anew so that we can be the change that we want to see in this world that you created.
Fill us anew so that we can continue to be your people who pick up litter along the highway, arrange flowers to bless someone’s day in the hospital, provide meals for the community, pray up and down Court Street, and help build a home with Habitat for Humanity.
Jesus, come and fill your lambs who are gathered here this morning or who are listening over the radio. We give to you all the things that hold us, all our tears and sadness, and all our years of pain. We give all of this to you silently in this very moment and lift our hands in sweet surrender to you.
(Moments of Silence)
Fill your lambs, dear Jesus and descend upon our lives and make us whole even as we pray the prayer you taught us to pray together,
“Our Father, who art in heaven…”
Sunday, October 28, 2018
Kids: TRICK OR TREAT!
Pastor Robert: Well hello children! Happy Halloween! Now let’s see what we have here….
Meena: I’m The Black Widow!
Connor: I’m Thor, the God of Thunder!
Mackenzie: Ummm… I’m a ghost.
Pastor Robert: Why doesn’t your costume have eye-holes?
Meena: Mom wouldn’t let her cut holes in her good sheets.
Mackenzie: Yeah, so I’m a BLIND ghost. WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.
Meena: But mom insists on following us around to make sure nobody gets hurt.
Mom (Kamile): (off stage) Hi Pastor Robert!!
Pastor Robert: (Waves)
Connor: I’m the god of thunder! Nobody can hurt me!
Mackenzie: I wish I could see what is going on.
Pastor Robert: Well I know about someone who was able to make the blind see.
Mackenzie: Really? Where is his house? Maybe he can fix my costume.
Pastor Robert: I’m talking about Jesus. He cured 2 blind men when he was on his way to Jericho.
Meena: How would he fix Mackenzie’s costume? Maybe he could make the sheet transparent!
Pastor Robert: Well, Jesus didn’t really….
Connor: OR he could send lightning bolts from his hammer to burn 2 eye-holes
Pastor Robert: I don’t think Jesus could do that but…
Mackenzie: Yeah, Jesus doesn’t have a lightening hammer like Thor.
Meena: Maybe he could punch him in the head to reset his vision, just like Natasha Romanoff did to Hawkeye in the Avengers. HAAAAYAAAA!!!!
Mackenzie: Maybe, he could use a spell like Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme!
Pastor Robert: I don’t think Jesus would do any of the things like that.
Meena: Well what kind of super hero is he? What are his super powers?
Connor: Yeah if he can cure the blind he must have some super powers!
Pastor Robert: Well, as a matter of fact, Jesus did have super powers.
Meena: Like what?
Pastor Robert: Well, he could cure the sick, raise the dead and even feed a bunch of people with just a few fish and a bit of wine.
Mackenzie: WOW! So he could command an army of the dead. COOL!
Pastor Robert: No, that is not what I mean. I mean that he could help people.
Connor: Like the Avengers!
Meena: Or Wonder Woman!
Connor: If you’re into that DC universe stuff.
Meena: Helping people is nice, but it’s not really a super power.
Connor: Yeah Dr. Strange could cure people and stuff. Pastor Robert, what was Jesus’s real super power?
Pastor Robert: Love
All 3 children: LOVE???!!!
Pastor Robert: Yes, love. Love is the most powerful force in the universe. Jesus said “Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” It can defeat the greatest of enemies.
Connor: Even Thanos?
Meena: Connor! Thanos is make believe. Jesus is REAL.
Mackenzie: I should have dressed up as Jesus for Halloween. At least then I would be able to see.
PARENT (From off stage): KIDS! COME ON WE HAVE A LOT OF HOUSES TO GET TO!
Meena: Thanks Pastor Robert.
Connor: Yeah, I like talking to you.
Mackenzie: But I think you left something out.
Pastor Robert: What is that?
ALL CHILDREN: The CANDY!!!!!!