A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (Jan. 21) Athens First UMC

[Kappa Phi, a campus ministry group that meets in our facility blessed us with another delicious baked potato & chilli fundraiser meal following our 10:30 service. Next Sunday, they will be back to help lead our worship services for Kappa Phi Sunday. We are blessed to partner with them in sharing God’s love with the people of our university community.]

O God, we thank you for the good news of our faith that reminds us that death is never the last word. And because of this good news, we look forward to that time in the future when all of your people will be gathered together in your glorious kingdom. What a great day that will be!

Some say the streets will be paved with gold and there will be no need for salt trucks and snow plows. We won’t even have to wonder if it’s a level 2 or a level 3 outside. I heard that the golf courses there are unbelievable, but I think that’s just speculation.

Anyway, thank you for the future promise that one day you will make this world the way you had always intended it to be. A world without pain. A world without suffering. A world without sin. A world without cancer. A world without any disease for that matter. Even a world without death, itself. 

As awesome as this future dimension of your good news is, what’s even more incredible is that this good news has already been set loose in this world thanks to the empty tomb of Easter. We see signs of your good news all around us. As the hymn says, your mercies are new every morning.

And so I thank you for the bright red cardinals who looked so beautiful in my backyard along the freshly fallen snow this past week. Your timing was impeccable since I was kind of grumpy about the weather that morning.

Thank you for our Tuesday morning prayer team this past week who made their way to our church through the snow and the bitter cold just so that they would be able to pray over all of the prayer cards from last Sunday. We were all blessed by their prayers on our behalf. What a great church this is! What a great God you are!

O God, in all of these ways this past week and so many more that I could have mentioned, your good news is available to us in any given moment thanks to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And it is in his name that with joyful hearts, we join together in praying, 

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sermon (Jan. 21) by Rev. Robert McDowell "The Good News of the Good News"

      A family had twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks. If one felt it was too hot, the other thought it was too cold. If one said the TV was too loud, the other claimed the volume needed to be turned up. Opposite in every way, one was an eternal optimist, the other a doom and gloom pessimist. 

     Just to see what would happen, on the twins' birthday their father loaded the pessimist's room with every imaginable toy and game. The optimist's room he loaded with horse manure.
     That night the father passed by the pessimist's room and found him sitting amidst his new gifts and crying bitterly.

     "Why are you crying?" the father asked.

     "Because my friends will be jealous, I'll have to read all these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff, I'll constantly need batteries, and my toys will eventually get broken." answered the pessimist twin.

     Passing the optimist twin's room, the father found him dancing for joy in the pile of manure. "What are you so happy about?" he asked.
     To which his optimist twin replied, "There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!"

     Some people can be positive in any situation!
     I think it’s interesting that the first four books of the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus are called, “Gospels.”  The word, “gospel” literally means, “good news.”  The story of Jesus is a story of good news.  Our faith is a good news faith.

     And really, the entire bible is one big story of how a loving God who created this world is bound and determined to rescue it from sin and death.  The bible is a story of good news.

     In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming this good news.  And notice that Jesus isn’t saying that this good news is something that will only be for the future.  This good news has already been launched in the here and now.  Listen to the present tense from this verse.  Jesus says, “The time IS fulfilled, and the kingdom of God HAS come near.”

     This is the good news of the good news!  The good news is that the good news is already happening!  And it has been happening because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Can you think of any gooder news than that?  J Pardon my grammar!  The good news is that the good news is already happening!

     Where do you see the good news of the good news at work?  Where do you see the good news of the good news in your day to day living?

     We live during a time where there seems like there’s nothing but bad news.  Mass shootings seem like a common occurrence, an out of control opiod epidemic, increasing poverty, negativity abounds in politics, the threat of nuclear war – the list goes on and on.  You can see why somebody would choose to be a pessimist instead of an optimist.

     But the good news of the good news is that God’s kingdom has already come near.  The signs of God’s grace surround us in any given moment even in the midst of the struggles, pain, and difficult transitions that we face in our daily living.

     Jesus certainly knew how difficult life can be sometimes.  Mark tells us that just before Jesus began to announce the good news of God’s kingdom, that John the Baptist had been arrested.  By referring to this sad event, Mark wants us to know that in the midst of life’s struggles and disappointments, there is hope.  The kingdom of God has come near.

     Speaking of transitions, just think about Jesus calling those first disciples.  They were fishermen.  In Israel, fishing was often a family business going back several generations, even centuries.  And Jesus called them to leave not just a hobby, but their livelihood, their family business of being fishermen in order to follow him.

     When you have a family business that has any history to it, there’s an expectation that this will carry on with the next generation if possible.  And here, these disciples were willing to say goodbye to the world as they knew it.  I can’t think of a more daring step of faith.

     When you read this scripture, you wonder if Mark wasn’t also thinking about Abraham from the Old Testament.  Like the fishermen in Mark’s Gospel, God called Abraham to leave what he was doing, his home, his whole way of living in order to follow God into an unknown future.

     Stephanie Warner who was a member of my previous church, served in the Peace Corps in Botswana, Africa.  Our own Emily Brown is also serving in the Peace Corp and Sophie Mather, another church member here helped children in Honduras last year. I think it’s incredible for young people like Stephanie, Emily, and Sophie to make this huge commitment and help others in a foreign land.

     In her work in the Peace Corp, Stephanie was helping to stop the spread of AIDS through the medical clinic in her village.  I remember meeting Stephanie when I first became pastor of that church.  She was teaching Sunday School for the High School youth.

     Stephanie shared with me about her decision to leave the comforts of her home and her familiar way of life. She said that there were times when she questioned if she made the right decision to serve in this way.  But then she said, “You only have one life to live so you better make sure you are living it to the fullest.”

     When she shared those thoughts, it reminded me so much of the disciples and how Jesus called them to leave everything and follow Him.  The good news isn’t just something that’s way out there in the future.  It’s also breaking into this present time.  As Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

     Even in the midst of life’s transitions, God is with us.  This is the good news of the good news.

     On a Saturday evening this past November, I received a text message from someone who was a member of my previous church. He wanted to know our worship times because he wanted to travel down to Athens and worship with us the next day. And so I responded with our worship times and gave him directions.

     Just before our 10:30 service that next morning, I met Mike back at our front entrance. You just couldn’t miss Mike because he was wearing a very bright pink polo shirt. Mike always wears something pink because it was his wife’s favorite color.

     They’re house was decorated in pink. They even had beautiful pink plants all around the front of their house.

     Mike’s wife died during my time at that church. In fact, that was my last funeral before coming down here to Athens to become your pastor. I’ll never forget that funeral because Mike wore a bright pink blazer to the service.

     During my sermon at that funeral, I said that because of Mike and Wanda’s strong faith during Wanda’s fight with cancer, in my mind, pink was now the new color to symbolize the good news of our faith.

     And so, it was not surprising at all when I spotted Mike wearing a pink polo shirt before worship here at our church on this past November morning. We hugged and had a brief conversation before the worship service began.

     I said, “Mike, since today is All Saints’ Sunday, I’m thinking of your wife, Wanda and her strong faith.”

     Mike was taken aback. He said, “Today is All Saints’ Sunday? I didn’t know that.” Tears welled up in his eyes. He looked at me again and said, “All Saints’ Sunday. Hmm.”

     I could tell that Mike was experiencing what we’ve been calling a “thin place moment,” those moments when God becomes mysteriously present in our day to day lives. It just so happened that he picked that Sunday out of the blue and it ended up being the perfect Sunday for us to reconnect and for him to remember and give thanks for Wanda’s life and receive Christ’s healing love in an unexpected and holy way.

     The good news is that the good news isn’t just something for us to receive in the past or something we have to wait to receive sometime in the future. It’s also available to us in the present.

     Several year ago, I pastored a church in Xenia, a county seat town near Dayton.  Xenia is unfortunately known for the large 1974 tornado that destroyed much of that city.  In 2000, I arrived at the church just a few months after Xenia had been hit by another tornado.  The church was hit and suffered a lot of damage and I was there during the rebuilding phase.

     It was a very difficult time for that congregation.  Before the tornado hit the church, they had just completed a one million dollar building expansion.  The tornado destroyed a lot of the new addition.  It was a very stressful time for everyone.  Sunday worship services needed to be held at the local High School.  Sunday School classes met at a Senior Citizen building as well as in other places in the community.  And the congregation was faced with yet another stressful rebuilding project.

      A member of my church wrote this journal entry about her experience during that difficult time in the life of our church.

     “I am discouraged and sad.  Our church was hit by a tornado several months ago. Much of the building was destroyed; the rest was badly damaged.  It will take a year to rebuild. Everyone pulled together through the clean up and the start of the rebuilding.
     Now, six months later, the weariness of living with construction has hit.  We’ve had flat tires from nails in the parking lot, and the strains of meeting in a dozen places around town have worn our spirits thin.

     We are caught in a conflict over the reconstruction – should we rebuild what we had or redesign for future needs?  We have differing hopes, a deep sense of loss, and competition for inadequate space.

     Fierce disagreements among people who hold different priorities make this a tense and ragged time.  I am beset by ugliness and conflict.  I find myself in tears, wanting to run away from it all.  I desperately want God to gather me up like a sobbing child, hold me against his shoulder and comfort me.

     As I sit in the living room, the cat climbs onto my shoulder, snuggles down and purrs.  I let go of fears and strife and I settle into the peaceful joy of cat-cuddling.

     God gently whispers into my ear, ‘This is how I love you.’

     My anguish diminishes as I understand; as painful as this is, it will pass.  I am not alone.  I am in the embrace of God.”

     For Barb, she was able to embrace the good news of the good news even in the midst of the rubble and the chaos.  She was reminded of God’s love for her in a moment when she needed it the most.

     Barb eventually included this entry in a book she wrote called “Road Grace.”

     Our Gospel reading tells us that as Jesus begins to share this good news that the kingdom of God has come near, he calls on some fisherman to drop what they’re doing and follow him.  “Repent and believe in the good news,” he tells them.  And they followed.

     Jesus’ announcement of the good news isn’t only for those fishermen.  It’s also for the woman whose church had been hit by a tornado and was facing the stress of rebuilding.  It’s for the widower who wears pink polo shirts and who misses his wife.  It’s for the young woman serving in the Peace Corp. It’s for the optimist AND the pessimist.

     It’s for anybody who hears the words, “The kingdom of God has come near.”

The Good News of the Good News
Small Group Questions
Mark 1:14-20
January 21, 2018

Pastor Robert opened the sermon with a story about a set of twins. One was an optimist and the other a pessimist. 
How does the good news of Jesus Christ and your faith help you to be positive in a world that is filled with so much negativity?
Pastor Robert made the point that the good news of the good news is that God's kingdom is happening now in our present moment and not just sometime way in the distant future. He shared the story about the widower who felt Christ's presence when he visited our church on All Saints' Sunday this past November. Of all the Sundays he could have chosen to attend, he came on that particular Sunday which helped him to remember his wife with thanksgiving. Pastor Robert also shared about a church member who felt Christ's presence during a time of great stress in her church.
When have you experienced the good news of God in your day to day living? We call these "thin place moments" where heaven and earth overlap in mysterious ways in our everyday lives.
Jesus called some fisherman to come follow him and believe in the good news. Amazingly, they dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Think about it. These men gave up their family business of fishing in order to follow Jesus.
What is your fishing net that Jesus is calling you to set aside in order to follow him? What is holding us back?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (Jan. 14) Athens First UMC


[This is a photo taken yesterday after our combined 10:30 worship service. We chose to cancel the 9 am service due to the below zero temperature early in the morning. Hopefully, the weather will warm up and this snow will melt in time for next Sunday’s services. We are blessed to have a maintenance staff person who was able to shovel and salt our church sidewalks on Saturday afternoon. The conclusion of the pastoral prayer below reminds us to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who responded to God’s calling to help make this world a better place. Click here for the sermon.]

O God, was that my name I just heard? Maybe I just imagined it. After all, wasn’t that just in bible times that you spoke in that way to people? I can see you doing that for someone like Samuel, but not for someone like me.

But what if you really are calling my name? Just like you called Samuel? Just like you called the disciples? Just like you called Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? What if you really are calling my name? My name?

Do you really know my name? Do you know that I go by Robert and not Bob? Do you know that I get nervous in new situations? Do you know that I often second guess myself? Do you know that I sometimes struggle with doubt and I often feel like I have more questions than answers? Do you know that I often use humor to hide my insecurities? And you want me to follow you? Me of all people?

What was that? Come again? So you really do know my name. And you really do know my insecurities. And you really do know that I don’t have this faith thing all figured out. And you still want me to follow you?

You’re saying that none of that really matters because your grace is more than able to overcome any of my weaknesses. What was that? Are you serious? You have gifted me with every spiritual gift and you will be my strength in every situation. And what’s that? My biggest fears are nothing compared to your biggest plans for what you want to do in and through me.

OK, God. I get it. I’ll come out from under the covers. I’ll step out in faith even though I don’t have a clue how you are going to use me.

But I’m going to need help in trusting you. You know I’m not good at that. Help me to trust that you can use me to make this a better world. A world that is free of inequality. A world that is free of injustice. A world that is free of brokenness. A world that is filled with your mercy, justice, and peace.

Here we are Lord. Your servants are listening even as we pray the words you taught us to pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sermon (Jan. 14) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Name Calling"

    Another pastor and I were sitting at the gate waiting to board our plane when I think I heard these words over the loud speaker: “Robert McDowell, please come to the desk.”  Since it was noisy in our gate area, it was difficult to hear the words clearly. 
     My friend was seated next to me and so I asked him, “Did my name just get mentioned over the speaker?”  And he said, “You know, I’m not sure, but it did kind of sound like your name was mentioned.”
     Just then, there it was again, but it was still kind of difficult to hear.  I looked at my friend and I said, “I think I heard my name again.”
     So I decided to go up to the desk.  I told her that it sounded like my name was called over the loud speaker.  And she said, “No sir.  I didn’t call for your name.”  And I said, “But I think someone called my name and I just want to make sure that everything is ok.”  She again assured me that my name wasn’t announced. 
     She told me to check with security which wasn’t that far from our gate, which I did.  They gave me the same story.  Nobody had called my name over the loud speaker.  I checked to make sure that I still had my wallet and my car keys which I did.
     When I got back to the gate and sat down next to my friend, I said, “I’m positive that someone was calling my name.”  And he said, “Yeah, I know.  That’s really strange.”
     I never did find out why I heard my name called in that airport.  It’s still a mystery to me.
     Does it make you a little nervous to think about the possibility that right now, even in this very moment, God just might be calling out your name?  It can be a little unsettling when we hear our names spoken.  And we might wonder, “Did I just hear someone calling out my name?”
     I say this because of our scripture readings for this morning.  In the Old Testament, we read about the young boy, Samuel who was under the care of Eli.  One night, Samuel hears his name.  I wonder if when he heard this voice that he didn't just pull up the covers and hide under the sheets.
     But then he thought.  "Hey wait a minute.  Maybe Eli called my name.  Maybe that voice that sounded like it was right above my head was really Eli.”
     When we're scared, that's what we do, don't we?  Look for a good reason why we're hearing voices.  So Samuel jumps out of bed and runs as fast as he can down the hallway hoping that Eli will say to him, "Yes.  That was me you heard.”  But no.  Eli says, "What are you talking about Samuel?  I didn't call you.  Go on back to bed.”
     I'm guessing that Samuel didn't like that answer from Eli.  Can you imagine poor little Samuel?  I don’t think I’d want to go back into that room after hearing voices!
     Maybe you heard of the story about the little boy who couldn't sleep because of the loud thunderstorm one night.  He woke up crying in the middle of the night and his mom came to his bedroom.  And he was holding the covers close to his chin and with his voice shaking, he said, "I want you to sleep with me tonight, mommy.”
     And his mom said, "Oh, you'll be alright sweetheart.  I need to sleep with your daddy."  After a short pause, the little boy said, "The big sissy!”
     If I would have been Samuel in that situation, I would have said to Eli, "Let's see you go into that room and see how you like hearing your name called in the middle of the dark night with all of the other spooky sounds.”
     But Eli just sends Samuel back to his room.  And when he gets back into his room, and probably just praying that he wouldn’t hear anymore voices, there it was again!  “Samuel.  Samuel.”   So he jumps out of his bed again, runs down to Eli’s room, and Eli tells him for the 2nd time, “Little Sam, go back to your room.  It wasn’t me.  Just go to sleep.”
     Well, as we’ve already heard from our scripture reading, Samuel went back to his room after hearing his name called out for the 2nd time & then a 3rd time.  And it was after this 3rd time that the wise elderly man of God, Eli, realized what was going on. 
     God was calling Samuel’s name.  And so, this time, Eli does a very wise thing.  He simply tells Samuel to go back to bed and this time, if he hears that voice again, to say, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
     Isn’t this one of the best things that we can do for one another in the church?  To help each other not only hear God’s calling, but to respond to God’s calling.  We need each other to listen for God’s voice because hearing our name called out in the middle of the night can be a scary thing.
     Listening and responding to God’s call might cost us something.  Later on in Samuel’s life, he will realize the high stakes that are involved in saying yes to God.  Such is the life of a prophet of God.
     I think of the twelve disciples of Jesus and how they responded to his call to come and follow him.  Little did they know that the road of discipleship would lead them to a wooden cross on a hill called Golgotha on which the one who had called their names to follow him would die, but it would also lead them to an empty tomb of victory.
     When Martin Luther King Jr., heard God call his name to become a leader in the Civil Rights Movement, I wonder just how much he realized the danger he would face in responding to this call. Here he was with a wife and a young family.  So much to lose.  And how much would be gained? 
     In his pursuit of nonviolent means to bring racial equality to all of our country, he was arrested, his home was bombed, and he was subjected to personal abuse. 
     Over an eleven year span from 1957 to 1968, Dr. King traveled over 6 million miles and spoke over 2,500 times, appearing wherever there was injustice, protest, and action.  He also led massive protests in Birmingham, Alabama, that caught the attention of the entire world providing what he called a coalition of conscience.
     He is perhaps most remembered for the peaceful march which he directed to Washington, D.C. which consisted of a quarter of a million people and at the end of that march he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
     During the evening of April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed in Memphis, Tennessee.  Even though Dr. King was killed by a bullet that night, his dream for equality lives on.  His dream for a just America and a just world lives on. 
     Did you know that Dr. King’s dream is rooted in God’s dream?  A world where there is no hatred.  A world where there is no hunger.  A world where there is no racism.  A world where there is no injustice.  A world where all people are treated with respect.  A world where medicine is available to all people.  A world of hope.  A world of promise.  A world of God’s love.  A world of forgiveness.  A world where all things are made new.
     Can you imagine such a world?  This is the world that God has intended from the very beginning.  This is the world that God is calling you and me to build and reclaim for God.
     And God does this by calling each of us by name.  It might not be an audible voice in the night as it was for Samuel, but God does call out our names to come and follow Him and make a difference in the world.  To bring hope where there is no hope.  To bring light to where there is darkness.  To build a better world.  A just world.
     Several years ago, I had a conversation with a young man who was visiting a friend in the hospital. The person he was visiting was in the same hospital room of the church member that I was visiting.
     I noticed that he was reading a bible and so I said to him, “It looks like you are a person of faith.”  And his eyes lit up as he told me a little of his faith journey and how he had been baptized in his early teens.
     He said that when he got older, he kind of let his faith slide, but now he was really close with the Lord. 
     And then he told me something really interesting.  He said, “You won’t believe what happened to me this past summer.”  He went on to say that he was driving down the road when he said that he felt that God was calling out his name. 
     He said, “It was the strangest thing.  I could tell that God was trying to get my attention.  It was like God wanted me to stop at a church somewhere.  But I kind of shrugged it off and kept driving.  And I drove past this little church.   But the more I drove, the more it became clear to me that I should have stopped at that church. And so, I turned the car around and went back to that little church, but the only person that was there was this painter.  He was painting the outside of the church building.  And I asked him if the pastor was available.”   
     And he said, “You just missed him.  He left.”
     “And so I was pretty down because I felt like I missed out on something big that God wanted me to do.  I got in my car and kept on driving down the road when I felt God calling me again.  And this time, I could sense that God wanted me to cash a check that I had in my wallet and give $20 of that check to somebody who really needed it.”
     You should have seen this man’s eye’s light up as he continued his story.  He said, “I know this all sounds far fetched, but honest to God, this is exactly what happened to me that day.  After I cashed my check, I got in my car and started to leave when I noticed this handicapped woman and her son on the sidewalk along the road.  And I could tell that God wanted me to help them.”
     “And so I stopped at the next parking lot and parked my car.  As soon as I got out of my car, this little boy had already run up to me.  Without even saying a word, this little boy gives me this big hug and says…He says to me… ‘Thank you for helping us.  Thank you for helping us.’”
     “As I was being hugged by this little boy, I kept asking myself, ‘How did this little boy know that I was going to help them?’  And I gave this boy’s mother the $20 and I said to her, ‘I believe God wanted me to give this to you.  God bless you.’”
     After he told me this incredible story, this man paused, looked right into my eyes and said, “If that isn’t strange enough, after I got in my car and drove away, I felt that the Lord was telling me to tell a pastor about what had just happened.  I felt it so strongly.  And come to think of it, you are the first pastor that I have told this story.  I think you’re that pastor.”
     I just kind of smiled and nodded.  And I thought to myself, “Here’s someone who truly believes that God called his name, and somehow I got drawn into his story.” And now, guess what? You have all just been included in this guy’s amazing story.
     But isn’t it true, that we often become part of each other’s stories as we listen and respond to God’s calling in our lives? 
     We all get swept into this story of God calling Samuel’s name.  Our name is called.  We’re nervous and we’re scared.  The stakes seem high.  And we’re left with a choice. 

     Do we dare follow this God or do we hide under the covers?   

Name Calling
Small Group Discussion Questions
January 14, 2018
I Samuel 3:1-10 & John 1:43-51

In our Old Testament reading from I Samuel, God calls Samuel's name in the middle of the night. Eli, the Priest who is watching over Samuel, helps him to realize that God is calling his name.

Who has helped you to be open to hearing God calling your name? How have you been like Eli in helping someone else hear God's calling?

This week, we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because he responded to God's calling in his life to work for civil rights and racial equality. Dr. King responded to God's calling at great peril to his life. Listening to God's voice can be risky business.

What helps you to deal with any fears you may have in responding to God's calling in your life?

When Samuel heard God calling his name in the middle of the night, he was experiencing what we have been calling, a "Thin Place Moment." These are moments when God is present in a very real way.

Share a time when you experienced a "Thin Place Moment" in your life.