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, December 11, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Dec. 10) Athens First UMC

[Our 2nd Sunday of Advent worship theme was "Open the Gift of Acceptance." For the sermon, click here. Joseph is the symbol of this important gift because of how he accepted a new reality of supporting Mary who was told that she was with child of the Holy Spirit. Opening the gift of acceptance means trusting God with our current situation and accepting all people into our fellowship. Pictured above is the greeting time during yesterday's 10:30 worship service. ]

God of mercy and grace, thank you for inviting each one of us to open the Christmas gift of acceptance. Help us to be like Joseph who was willing to trust you through a new situation that was about to change his life.

God of hope, help us to trust you when you call us to invite someone to church with us.

God of hope, help us to trust you when you call us to pray with someone.

God of hope, help us to trust you when you call us to offer a positive word in the midst of a negative situation.

God of hope, help us to trust you when we feel like our lives have been turned upside down.

God of hope, help us to trust you when we don’t receive what we think we should receive.

God of hope, help us to trust you when what you are asking us to do is beyond what we think we can do.

God of hope, help us to trust you when we find it difficult to let go of past hurts, painful memories, and things we cannot change.

God of hope, help us to trust you when you challenge our preconceived understandings of scripture or when we have questions about our faith.

God of hope, help us to trust you when we have given up trusting in you.

God of hope, on this 2nd Sunday of Advent, help us to open the gift of acceptance and the gift of trusting you in a deeper way.

We pray this in the name of Jesus, our Emmanuel who taught us to pray together saying,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon (December 10) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Open the Gift of Acceptance"

Wrapped presents are intriguing. A friend of mine told me that when she was a child she got into trouble when she crawled under the Christmas tree to examine a package which was for her. Unfortunately, she upset the tree and it fell over. Water and pine needles and broken ornaments were everywhere and she was caught underneath the mess.

But don't worry, there is no danger in opening this Christmas box that we have today. We need someone who will open the box for us.

(Box on table is opened and the unwrapped figure of Joseph is put on the altar)
At home, when I am setting up the nativity scene with the various figures, I sometimes wonder “where do you put Joseph? “ Is he back in the stable in shadows observing all that is happening?  Beside Mary? Out front guarding the doorway and greeting those who come?  What is Joseph's place in the Christmas story?

A child was drawing a picture of the Christmas story. In one corner he had a small brown house.

“That is where Jesus was born.” he said. He had drawn a  large star in the sky: “This is the star that guided the wisemen.” he explained.

There was a figure of a man carrying two bundles. He was asked “Is that one of the wisemen bringing gifts?”   Child replied: “No, that's  just Joseph taking out the trash.”

The boy's drawing highlights that Mary and Joseph were real people dealing with realities of everyday life.  They were dealing with conflict, hurt, a broken relationship.

Joseph had to deal with the reality of being a father. He was engaged to Mary when it became evident that she was expecting a child and the child was not his. He is now in a situation where his world is upside down, and his previous plans are gone.

He has to pick an action: charge her with adultery and publicly humiliate her because as a righteous man, how could he marry her? Or he could quietly break off the engagement and sever all ties with her; or he could choose to continue with the relationship and marry her.  

Prompted by God in a dream, he chooses to accept her and his situation. He stands by Mary and faces the consequences. 

In his actions, Joseph demonstrates the gift of acceptance. Precious gift to be able to accept and nourish the situation in which we find ourselves.  Many times what we planned for, dreamed about, does not happen, and then what?

Joseph will care for her and for the baby to come. Like John the Baptist who thirty years later prepared the way for Jesus and his ministry, Joseph also prepared the way for Jesus by the way he was willing to accept and trust God with the news of Mary's pregnancy. 

Joseph made a life changing discovery. He saw the big picture: God was at work in the world and Joseph was going to be a part of it! He was not sure what all it would mean to raise a child born to save the world.  

Joseph said “Yes” to his life. He said “yes” to the opportunity to grow in his faith and love.  He said “yes” and waited for further instructions. He was living out the expression: “Contentment is not having everything you want, but wanting what you have.”

A little girl went to see Santa at the Mall. She sat in his lap and he asked the question; “Well, what do you want for Christmas?”  With shock she looked at him and said, “You didn't get my email?”

Sometimes I feel like praying: “Lord, you didn't get my email?!”

How do you react when your reality doesn’t match with what you wanted?

We can be disappointed by much in life: our jobs, family members, our health, our relationships, our circumstances. They don't match up with our dreams. Like Joseph we have choices as to how we face each day and which direction we take.

We can blame others, have bitterness in our hearts, hold on to what might have been, should have been, or could have been. We can run away, or we can take take the courageous step of trusting God with our lives.

A man was writing on his blog concerning his many physical problems: “I can become angry and bitter. I can ask why me? Lash out at all those  around me because it is so unfair that my life is limited.  But I choose to accept that I have these physical conditions. I am going to do everything I can to live a full life while dealing with my illness. I am choosing to live each day aware that God is with me.”

God is with us in all times and places, working through good and bad. God takes our frustrations, disappointments, losses, and gives us the strength that we need and shows us his possibilities.

Prior to WW II, Rienhold Niehbur, a professor at Union Seminary in New York used a prayer in his sermons and in his talks to young people in this country. These words have been prayed by many persons through the years, especially by those in 12 step programs. The prayer has become known simply as the serenity prayer.

To me, it captures the essence of the gift of acceptance. This is the complete version of the prayer and I would like for us to pause for a few moments and pray it together as we consider our own situations.

God, give me grace to accept with serenity, the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other, living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,taking, as Jesus did,this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it,
trusting that You will make all things right,if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.

An elderly church member in my previous church was a resident at an assisted living facility. She also has her own prayer of acceptance which she prays daily. She asks God to lead her everyday in his will, to show her his way, to guide her to the people that he would want her to reach.

In her daily prayers, she would ask God this simple prayer: “Please, God, help me to not mess it up!” She has had many changes in her life, loss of family members, and of her home, but has a quiet acceptance of what is. She is most open to being available to God's Spirit leading her to accept others and share God's love with them.

This gift of acceptance is revealed in our attitude towards our own circumstances, but it becomes an even greater gift as we accept the people around us in our neighborhoods and communities.  Who is God calling us to accept?

Not far from Washington D. C., Floris UMC invites day laborers in from cold for a Christmas party, a fiesta. For over 17 years, this church has reached out to immigrants in their neighborhood.  They have accepted all of this change in their county, and have been open to God's possibilities.  Let's see what is happening in Virginia:

It was not a long conversation. Two friends met on the street. One looked very tired; it had been a difficult year with his daughter and loss of a job.

The other friend asked “How are you doing?”  He paused before replying: “How am I doing? You know, I belong to God.  My life has been so much more than these recent troubles. However this all turns out, I still belong to God. That's the bottom line. There really isn't anything else. “

The gift of acceptance comes down to this: our deep trust in God's amazing love for each of us wherever we are on our journeys and whatever we are facing. 

This trust helps us find hope and purpose in the midst of life's upside down, backwards, inside out surprises!  May we, like Joseph, receive the gift of acceptance this Christmas. 

Outside the Box: The Gift of Acceptance
Small Group Questions
Isaiah 40:1-6a & Mark 1:1-8
December 10, 2017

During these four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas, we are opening a Christmas present each week. This week, we open the gift of acceptance which is symbolized by Joseph, the father of Jesus. When Joseph found out that Mary was with child, he could have a) charged her with adultery and publicly humiliated her b) break off the engagement or c) accept God's word that Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit. Joseph chose option "c" and he accepted the situation that was presented to him.

What helps you to accept God's promise for you when you are facing a trial or challenging situation in your life?

Pastor Robert shared about a man who had a difficult year. He had problems with his daughter and lost his job during that time. When asked by a friend how he was doing through all of this, this man responded, “How am I doing? You know, I belong to God. My life has been so much more than these recent troubles. However this all turns out, I still belong to God. That's the bottom line. There really isn't anything else."

Share a time when you experienced God's presence and guidance during a time of transition in your life.

Not far from Washington D. C., Floris UMC invites day laborers in from the cold for a Christmas party, a fiesta. For over 17 years, this church has reached out to immigrants in their neighborhood.  They have accepted great change in their county and have been open to God's possibilities.

In what ways does our church reach beyond our walls to be more accepting and welcoming of the people in our community?

As a group, prayer this well known prayer of acceptance that was written by the famous theologian, Rienhold Niehbur before World War II, and has become known as "The Serenity Prayer."

God, give me grace to accept with serenitythe things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other, living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,taking, as Jesus did,this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will, so that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Why Is Advent Turning Blue?

Many people in our church are asking why we have new blue paraments for the season of Advent. In past years, we have used purple paraments to drape over our pulpit, lectern, and altar.

Some might be wondering if the switch from purple to blue is a subtle way for the pastor to promote the color of a certain Big Ten team.

Others have wondered if maybe it has something to do with the new pastor's puppy whose name is Blu.

Actually, the real scoop on why we have switched to blue for Advent is for some important theological reasons. Here they are:


The color blue is a color that is often associated with hope and this is at the heart of the season of Advent. We have hope and anticipation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ and for his second coming when the scriptures speak of God forming new heavens and a new earth.

Distinguishing Itself From Lent

Secondly, the season of Lent was filling a little possessive in having to share the color purple with it's cousin, the season of Advent. By having two separate colors for these two seasons on the church calendar, we provide new ways of focusing on these two significant seasons and keep them a little more separate in our minds.

Respecting the Holiday "Blues"

Another reason we are using the color, blue in Advent is due to the phrase, "holiday blues." Advent is meant to be a restrained time in waiting for the big celebration of Christmas. This is particularly helpful for people who struggle during this season when stores begin playing "Jingle Bells" as early as the day after Halloween. Our church wants to honor people who aren't feeling the giddiness of this time of year due to a passing of a loved one, a painful memory, or because of the shorter days and longer nights.

This is why we offer a "Blue Christmas" service in our church each year. It's especially designed for people who want to share in the hope of Christmas, but who prefer a more subdued time of reflection and introspection. During this service, people have the opportunity to light a candle in memory of a loved one or as a way to name another sadness they may be experiencing in their lives.

In addition to the Blue Christmas service, you may have noticed our beautiful new white Christmas tree with blue lights located in the corner of our Welcome Center. People are invited to place a tag on the tree that names a sadness or a prayer concern they would like to give to God.

So there you have it. We have shifted to using the color, blue in the season of Advent because blue is associated with hope, it distinguishes itself from purple which is used during Lent, and it shows respect for those who may be feeling the holiday "blues."

Some churches continue to use the color, purple during Advent which is perfectly fine, but we just wanted to emphasize these other important theological and practical aspects of this time of year as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Come, Lord Jesus! Come!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Dec. 3/Advent) Athens First UMC

[It's beginning to look a lot like Advent at Athens First UMC! We had a wonderful day of worship as we opened the first of five Christmas presents. For this 1st Sunday of Advent, we opened the gift of "expectation." Click here for the sermon. The gift of expectation helps us to be open to the new thing that God wants to do in and through each one of us.]

Come thou long expected Jesus.  May this be our earnest prayer during this Advent Season. Come thou long expected Jesus.

As we open the gift of expectation and the new way that you want to be at work in our lives, remove our barriers of pride, cynicism, apathy, and distractions that would prevent us from receiving all that you have in mind for us. Thank you for Mary who was willing to open the gift of expectation and may we do the same on this first Sunday of Advent.

Come thou long expected Jesus and be present in our chapel this Tuesday for those who will be attending our Blue Christmas service. May those who have heavy hearts this holiday season be comforted in having that needed space to express their deepest longings to you.

Come thou long expected Jesus and be present at Monday lunch tomorrow as people gather in expectation for a hot meal and table fellowship.

Come thou long expected Jesus and be present with the Angel Tree children and family members who gather tomorrow evening for our Worship U service to worship with us and receive the many presents that were donated by people in our congregation.

Come thou long expected Jesus and be present with those who are in the hospital, in nursing homes, who are home-bound, and who are not able to be with us in worship today.

Come thou long expected Jesus and be present with the women of Kappa Phi who are preparing a potato bar meal for our congregation today.

Come thou long expected Jesus and be present with our college students as we open our church during finals week so they can have a quiet and safe place to study and enjoy free meals and refreshments.

Come thou long expected Jesus and be present with each person here today or who may be listening on the radio even as we join together in praying the words he taught us to pray... “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Sermon (Dec. 3) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Open the Gift of Expectation"

     Every year, my brother sends Christmas presents through the mail.  And every year, he has the words, “Don’t open until Christmas,” printed on each package. 

     He does this because when he first started sending us Christmas packages, we would open them up on the day we received them, even if it was a week or two early.  And it would really bother him when we would break the news to him that we had already opened his gifts before Christmas.  Who doesn’t want Christmas to come a little early?
     Well, for those of you who don’t like to wait for Christmas, I have some really good news for you!  We get to open up a different Christmas present each Sunday from this large wrapped Christmas box!  These are Christmas gifts that God wants us to have even before Christmas Day arrives.  Each week, a child or youth who is involved in our children and youth ministries will open the Christmas box on our behalf.

     For this 1st Sunday, I need a volunteer to open the Christmas box.  

[Volunteer Lifts the Mary Figurine from the Box]

     Today’s Christmas gift is the gift of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Mary is the right person to symbolize this gift since she received the unexpected and very surprising news that she was with child.

     Every year on the first Sunday of Advent, the Gospel reading has this theme of expectation.  It’s the scripture where Jesus is telling his disciples to expect great things to happen.  He tells them to be alert at all times and to know that the kingdom of God is at hand.  The Kingdom of God is just around the corner.  It’s breaking in even as we speak.  Don’t blink because you just might miss it!

     Jesus tells us that the way to receive the gift of expectation is to be alert.  Be ready.  Expect the unexpected.

     In my previous church before coming to Athens, I was asked to be part of the church float for the big holiday parade which was on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.  They needed more people so I innocently said, “Sure, I’ll help.”

     Little did I know what I was getting myself into!  I was then told that I would have a costume for me to wear.  No problem, right?

     So here’s my picture of me wearing that holiday parade costume.  Someone said I looked like a frozen Rod Stewart.  My make-up included a lot of sparkles around my eyes.  Do you know how hard it is to get rid of those sparkles?  I had a wedding that day, and the bride and groom chose not to include me in their pictures!

     The theme of our float was “Joy to the World” complete with dancers, singers, and people like me who handed out candy and church invitations.  Here’s a picture of Mary and Joseph and the “Joy to the World” singers behind them. 

     The Christmas gift of expectation is the gift that helps us to be more like Mary and to be ready for the unexpected thing that God wants to do through us, even if that means wearing a crazy costume.

     Roswell United Methodist Church in Atlanta has opened the Christmas gift of expectation. Twenty years ago, one of their Sunday School classes started a conversation with, “What If.”  From there, they began a ministry for the developmentally disabled.  Let’s watch a video about their ministry.

     Opening the Christmas gift of expectation is exciting because when we live out our faith knowing that the kingdom of God is at hand, incredible things happen. Miracles happen.  We are able to reach out to more and more people with the good news of Jesus Christ.

     Mary was the first person to open the Christmas gift of expectation when the angel told her that she was with child of the Holy Spirit.  She knew that the kingdom of God was at hand, even within her own womb!

     I’m also impressed that Mary, as a young teenage woman, was able to persevere through the challenges that came to her as a result of her pregnancy.  Think of the rumors, the gossiping, and the ridicule that she endured as she waited patiently for the birth of her child.  It’s not always easy to open the gift of expectation, is it?

     I want to list four barriers that can keep us from opening the gift of expectation in this Season of Advent. 


     And the first barrier is our pride.  While Mary was planning for her wedding and this exciting transition in her life, God interrupted her plans with this news that she was with child of the Holy Spirit.  Things didn’t go as originally planned by Mary.  Have you ever noticed how God has no problem in messing with our carefully planned out lives?  Christmas is a time to remember that it’s not about us.  It’s about what God wants to do in and through us.

     One of the greatest lines in all of scripture is when Mary responded to the angel by saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word.”  Mary didn’t let her pride get in the way of receiving the holy gift of expectation.


     The second barrier is cynicism.  This is when we say negative things like, “It will never work like that for me?”  Or, “It will never work here in our church.”  Or, “God can’t possibly use me to make a difference like that.”  Cynics always find ways to keep the expectations so low that we can’t possibly fail.  But failure isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us.  Not trying and responding to God’s voice is.

     Mary was willing to take some risks in order to respond to God’s calling in her life.


     A third barrier is apathy.  Do you know the difference between ignorance and apathy?  “I don’t know and I don’t care!”

     The opposite of love is not hate.  It’s apathy.  Apathy is when we simply don’t care.  And if we don’t care, then why would we want to open the gift of expectation to include more things that we probably don’t care about? 

     The story of Christmas is a story of God’s tremendous compassion for the world.  God risked everything by sending us Jesus.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”


     And a fourth barrier is a more subtle barrier and this is the barrier of distraction.  This is when we put off responding to God because we are so caught up in our usual pre-holiday busyness.  The problem is that we never do get around to responding to God’s calling because there’s always another distraction.

     Since the kingdom of God is at hand, we need to set aside any distraction that would keep us from the urgency of this present reality.  This Advent season, think about setting aside the things that on the surface may seem important to do, but in reality, are things that are just keeping us from opening the Christmas gift of expectation.

     Maybe you can think of some other barriers that keep us from opening this incredible gift.  I believe that one of the reasons why Mary didn’t let these barriers get in her way of opening the gift of expectation was something that the angel told her when she found out that she was with child. 

     The angel said to her, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

     Since today is the first Sunday of the month, we will be celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion. When we receive the sacrament of communion in December, it kind of feels like we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

     I mean, here, we’re supposed to be getting ready for the birth of Christ during these weeks of December, but on this day, when we receive communion, we’re already focusing on the events of Holy Week when Jesus was with his disciples in the Upper Room and shared the cup and the bread with them.

     But think of it this way. When those disciples were with Jesus during that Passover Meal, just think how surprised they must have been when Jesus changed the script for that special meal.

     When Jesus lifted the bread, he did the unexpected when he referred to that bread as his body. And when he lifted the cup, he told the disciples that this was his blood.

     Jesus was helping them to see that his death on the cross would be the means by which salvation and forgiveness of sins would be accomplished. Even during those last couple days of his life, Jesus was helping the disciples to open the gift of expectation.

     God is always doing a new thing. A disciple’s denial will lead to forgiveness. A cross will give way to an empty tomb.

     God can take any barrier in our lives, even the barriers of our own making, and turn them into something good.

    Like the angel told Mary, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

     On this first Sunday of Advent, Mary reminds us to open the gift of expectation.

Outside the Box: The Gift of Expectation
Small Group Questions
Jeremiah 33:14-16 & Luke 21:25-36
December 3, 2017

During these four weeks of Advent, we will be opening a Christmas gift each week to help us prepare for the coming of Christ into the world. The first gift that we open is the gift of expectation. Mary, the mother of Jesus is a symbol of this gift because she was open to new thing that God was about to do.

What helps you to stay alert for the new thing that God wants to do in and through you, not just as we prepare for Christmas but for any time of the year?

Pastor Robert mentioned four possible barriers that can keep us from opening the gift of expectation during this season of Advent. These include the barriers of pride, cynicism, apathy, and distraction.

Which of these four barriers do you struggle with the most in your faith? How can opening the gift of expectation help you to overcome these common barriers?

The bible is filled with examples of how God is always doing a new thing. For example, at the Last Supper, Jesus redefined the meaning of the Passover meal when he said, "This is my body and this is my blood." This new understanding of the Passover meal, led to Jesus offering his life on the cross which then led to the good news of Easter and the resurrection.

Share a recent time where you experienced God doing a new thing in your life? Did it take you by surprise? What was your initial reaction? What was the outcome of this new thing or is it too early to tell? 

Close your time by saying in unison this awesome promise of scripture where the angel reassures Mary by saying, "For nothing will be impossible with God."

"For nothing will be impossible with God!"