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, October 16, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Oct. 15) Athens First UMC

[This past Friday evening, our church hosted the first Ohio University choral concert since our building renovations were completed this past February. It was a packed house! The balcony was also filled and people were able to mingle in our newly expanded glass enclosed Welcome Center. Within two days of Friday's concert, the risers were taken down, the protective floor mats were put away, and the pulpit, lectern, altar, baptism font, and organ were put back into place in time for our worship service on Sunday morning. We will be hosting another university concert this Friday at 8pm and another concert is scheduled for Sunday, November 19, 6pm.]

O God, if we are really honest, we have to admit that we do have trust issues. We say that it is well with our souls, but when trouble hits, sometimes our faith is difficult to find. Thank you, O God for reminding us again and again in the scriptures that it is perfectly normal to have trust issues.

You don’t shame us when we have questions about our faith. You don’t try to quiet us down when we feel like we have been treated unfairly. You don’t shun us when we question if you are truly present or if you are even real. Like for so many of the Psalmists, you actually invite us to express our frustrations, our doubts, and yes, even our anger.

Thank you for being a God who wants us to be honest and open with you. Thank you for being a God who promises to walk alongside us especially during those times in life when it feels like the ground has been removed from underneath our feet.

It’s during those difficult times that you quietly offer to us your patient and listening ear. It’s during those difficult times that you cry with us. It’s during those times that we are reminded that we are not alone.

O God, be our strong tower. Be that tower where we can find renewed strength to begin a new day. Be that tower for the people of California where wildfires have destroyed homes and communities. Be that tower for the people who have been in the path of so many hurricanes during these past several weeks. Be that tower for so many people who walk by our church each day with heavy hearts. Be that tower for those who are experiencing financial, medical, relational, and spiritual strain. Be our strong tower, O God.

God of compassion and love, we thank you for the many ways that our congregation has been able to serve others this past week in very specific ways. Thank you for these past several weeks where we have been learning what it means to live more generously in our faith.

Thank you for sending us Jesus, who embodied your generosity through his life, death, and resurrection, and who taught us to pray saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sermon (October 15) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Living Generously: Trust Issues"

     Last Sunday, we handed out a plastic spoon to each person who was here in church. Those plastic spoons were to remind us to serve in three different ways this past week.
     After leaving church last Sunday, I remember feeling excited but I also felt a little nervous about what serving opportunities the Holy Spirit might open up for me during the week.
      Here are a couple of ways that the Lord led me to reach out to bless others.
       The first way was through an idea that some of our staff had to surprise the Presbyterian Church office staff across the street from us with some coffee from Donkey coffee. That was a lot of fun!
     Another way was by joining our Kappa Phi group in helping to paint the 2nd floor lounge where they meet each week.

     Here’s a picture of me with them. OK. Actually, I didn’t do any painting at all. This was purely a photo op where I held up one of the brushes. But I did get to tell them what a great job they were doing.

     But my favorite way of serving this week was when Penny and I took our two dogs to visit one of our church members, Anne Stempel who has been at the Kimes Nursing Center the past several months. Anne had always told me that she wanted to meet our dogs, so the white spoon reminded us to follow through with that visit.

     We had a really nice visit together and when we got home, Lulu and Blu got to eat peanut butter off the white plastic spoon as a treat for going with us.

     It’s been a fun week of serving others so let’s keep finding even more ways to be a blessing to the people we meet on a daily basis. Living Generously is really a way of life.

     This morning, we continue our “Living Generously” church-wide focus by focusing on trust issues. Do you have trust issues? I think we all have trust issues to varying degrees.
     Proverbs is considered one of the Wisdom books in the Old Testament. In our Proverbs reading for this morning, it tells us that “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe.”
     In the ancient world, a strong tower was a central place located in a particular territory or city where people could go if they felt threatened. It was a defensible place of protection and security.
     We’ve probably experienced those times when there was a tornado warning and everybody huddled in the safest place you could find.
     Penny and I lived in Xenia for eight years. Xenia is known as tornado alley primarily because of the ‘74 tornado that destroyed much of the town and over thirty people were killed. In addition to that tornado, they’ve had several others come through that town.
     One hit Xenia in the fall of 2000, destroying about a third of my church that I served as pastor. The congregation had to worship at the High School during the long rebuilding process.
     The people who live in Xenia are always nervous about approaching storms because of their history with tornados. People would nervously look into the sky at approaching dark clouds.
     Legend has it that long ago, Native Americans left the Xenia area because of what they referred to as “the devil winds.”  I guess the white settlers who came after them didn’t believe them.
     I remember the first time there was a tornado warning when we lived there. We didn’t mess around. Our house didn’t have a basement and the four of us, along with our dogs huddled in our small guest bathroom. People in Xenia know what it means to find shelter from a storm.
     Where do you go when you feel threatened by the storms of life? That’s a really good question because all of us experience challenging times from time to time.
     Over the past few weeks, we have been watching a video series revolving around Frank Donovan and his family. In the episode that we are about to watch, Frank’s sense of security is challenged.
     Even though Frank is extremely wealthy and has more resources than many of us combined, in today’s episode, he comes face to face with a challenge that is beyond what he can control. He is in need of a strong tower of protection in his life. Let’s watch and see how Frank responds.

[Due to copyright issues, we are not permitted to post the video.]

     Can you relate to Frank? Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you felt helpless and without any hope? While it was good that Frank wanted to take care of his family financially, he had forgotten the most important source of his protection. That source is God.
     In his book, “Half Time,” Bob Buford shares about a tragic event that happened in his life. Bob had made a fortune in the TV cable business.  One January evening in 1987, his brother called him to let him know that Bob’s son, Ross, along with two of Ross’s friends had attempted to swim the Rio Grande River.
     “I think we have serious trouble,” his brother told him. “Ross is missing in the Rio Grande.” He told him that the Texas Rangers were coordinating the search for Ross.
     And so Bob flew down to the Rio Grande Valley to join in the search, arriving by daybreak the next morning. Because of his substantial wealth, Bob was able to hire and pay for extra airplanes, helicopters, boats, trackers with dogs, anything money could buy.
     By three o’clock in the afternoon, Bob looked into the eyes of one of the trackers and knew that he would never see his son, Ross again. He remembers walking along a limestone bluff perhaps two hundred feet above the muddy and treacherous river, as frightened as he had ever felt.
     He thought to himself, “Here’s something you can’t dream your way out of. Here’s something you can’t think your way out of, buy your way out of, or work your way out of. This is,” he thought “something you can only trust your way out of.”
     And then he prayed, “Dear God, somehow, give me the ability to accept and absorb whatever grace people might bring to me at this terrible time.”
     As the search for Ross continued, God’s grace surrounded Bob. The search team ended up finding his son four months later about ten miles down the river.
     As horrifying and sad as this experience was, Bob also experienced the gift of God’s grace and in ways that he had never experienced. Close and silent embraces from friends, letters and phone calls of concern and empathy, and gifts of meals prepared and brought to his home were much needed signs of God’s love.
     In that moment when Bob was at a loss for what do do, God became a strong tower for him during the most difficult time of his life. Even with all of his wealth and fortune, that was nothing in comparison to the sure foundation of God that was provided Bob and his family in their darkest hour.

     In our movie, Frank Donovan was faced with a challenging time as he waited to hear the news about his wife who was in a coma. Re helped Frank to see that even though Frank was feeling helpless in that moment, that God was there for him. God was his strong tower in that time of great need.
     I think that Re provided Frank with three important things in his time of great need.
     The first thing that Re showed Frank is to trust that the Lord is our strong tower. Today’s story began with Frank being frustrated in his work on trying to develop a trust fund. Re points out that Frank doesn’t just have issues with his trusts. He also has issues with trust.
     Re shared about the time when his wife had cancer and how that led him to allow the Lord to be his strong tower. That’s what we can do for each other. We can share with each other how God has been a tower of strength in our lives during times of adversity.
     Our Proverbs reading tells us that the Lord is our strong tower. That’s the first important point.
     The second thing that Re helped Frank to see is to trust in God’s perspective. When Re went to the top floor of the hospital to look out over the city, it helped put Frank’s work and focus on money in perspective. Sometimes, we need that bigger perspective to remember that God is so much bigger than the things that we face in our everyday lives.
     The tower that we read about in the Book of Proverbs doesn’t just provide something to hide behind. It also provides a perspective to help us see the bigger picture. What bigger picture is God helping us to see during our five-week focus on what it means to live generously?
     And here’s this third thing that Re helped Frank to see from today’s episode. Re helped Frank to trust that God can help something good come out of a bad situation.
     God doesn’t cause bad things to happen, but God does provide good to come out of the bad things that happen. We might not see it right away, but this is part of our faith. In the Book of Romans, the Apostle Paul writes, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
     In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus is preparing his disciples for when he would be leaving them. He comforts them with these words. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
     This scripture is often read at funerals to help family members know that God is offering his peace as they go through that difficult time. God’s peace is a gift that is always available to us.
     This week, I invite us to think about the walls that we create to provide us with protection and security. Instead of focusing on creating more walls to protect what we have, let’s think more about placing our trust in the Lord who is our strong tower.
     Many of us will be receiving a mailing in the next day or two that will include a financial estimate of giving card for us to complete and bring with us to church next Sunday. This estimate of giving card is one of those ways that we can put our focus on the Lord as our strong tower rather than on the walls that we create to protect what we have.
       As we consider our financial gift to God and our church for our upcoming year, I leave us with something that Re said to Frank in today’s video. Frank asked Re a really important question while they were together overlooking the city. Frank asked how he will be able to tell the difference between building imaginary walls and being smart with his money. Re gave him this answer. “Maybe when you stop thinking of it as your money.”
     I think that’s the whole point of our five-week focus. If we truly want to live generously, then we need to remember that everything we have belongs to God anyway.

     If God is truly our strong tower, than we can certainly trust him by being generous in our giving.

Living Generously: A Strong Tower
Discussion Questions
Proverbs 18:1-12 & John 14:23-31a
October 15, 2017

Last week, we handed out a plastic spoon to each person as a symbol of serving others. We were encouraged this past week to serve others in three different ways. 

Share one of the ways that you served others this past week. What was that experience like?

For this Sunday, we continue to follow the story of Frank Donovan and his family as they are growing in their understanding of what it means to be generous. In this episode, the stock market plummets and Frank's wife ends up in the hospital. Re, the family's gardener comforts Frank by telling him about his faith story and that the Lord is our strong tower in times of difficulty. He offers him this verse from Proverbs 18:10 - "The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe.

Share a time in your life when you were in need of a strong tower to protect you. How is God like a strong tower for us, especially in times of need?

Re shared three important things with Frank to help him during his time of need. 1) Trust the Lord as our strong tower. 2) Trust God's perspective. 3) Trust that God can bring good out of bad situations. Please note that this does not mean that God causes bad things to happen in our lives so that we trust God more. It means that when we face challenges in life, the Lord is right there with us even when we don't have all the answers. 

Who are the "Re's" in your life who are willing to pray for and with you when you go through difficult times? How are you like Re for others?

This week, members of our church will receive an estimate of giving card as we spiritually and financially prepare to for a new year of ministry. We are invited to prayerfully complete this card and bring it to worship with us for a special time of dedication. The theme next week will be "sowing seeds" in building God's kingdom by living generously. At the end of today's video, Re responded to Frank's question about how to know the difference between building imaginary walls vs. being smart with how he uses his money by saying to him, "Maybe when you stop thinking of it as your money."

To help us prepare for this special dedication next week, pray this prayer to help us see that all we have been given ( our time, gifts, money, relationships, health, food etc.) is from God. 

"Lord, thank you that you are our strong tower. You see us through the storms of life. As we prayerfully consider our estimate of giving to Christ and the church for this coming year, help us to remember that all we have been given are gifts from you. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen."

Monday, October 9, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (October 8) Athens First UMC

[We handed out white spoons to everyone during worship. The white spoons are to remind us to serve at least 3 different people this week. The idea of handing out the spoons came from the Living Generously video we watched during worship where Re explains to Frank the difference between a spoon and a ladle. A spoon is used to feed ourselves. A ladle is used to serve others. One of our youth shows how she was able to turn her plastic spoon into a ladle. She was obviously listening to the sermon. This week is going to be SUPER FUN!!!!!! as we serve others in the name of Christ.]

O God, as someone in our church likes to put it. This week is going to be SUPER FUN!!!!!

It’s going to be a super fun week because who knows what opportunities you are going to open up to each and every one of us to serve and bless at least 3 different people this week.

Just yesterday, we gave away several cups of hot chocolate, coffee, and water at the homecoming parade, led a worship service at Lindley Inn, and arranged flowers and delivered them to the hospital, all in just one morning! Even as we worship you this morning, some members of our church are serving at the Kairos prison ministry. O God, thank you for giving us kind hands to serve others just as you sent Jesus to serve others.

Thank you for the service we held this past Monday evening outside our church to pray for the people of Las Vegas, following the mass shooting. Thank you for this past week’s Rummage sale in which money was raised to bless others. Thank you for the ministries of this church that help us to live out our faith in so many different ways.

O God, our world can be transformed if we would just offer a little kindness to the people we meet throughout the week. May our acts of kindness be expressions of your love made known to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thank you for spoons and ladles. Thank you for towels and basins. Thank you for hands and hearts. We have everything we need to live generously in any given moment.

We pray for those in prison. We pray for those who mourn the loss of loved ones from last week’s mass shooting. We pray for those who have lost their homes and belongings in Texas, in Florida, and in Puerto Rico, and for those who are in the pathway of Hurricane Nate. We pray for those who are living from paycheck to paycheck and for those who do not receive a paycheck. We pray for those who are experiencing physical, relational, emotional, mental, and spiritual strain in their lives. Comfort them with your healing presence.

We pray this in the name of the one who had kind hands and who taught us to pray saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Sermon (October 8) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Living Generously: Ladles & Spoons"

     We are beginning week #3 in our Living Generously video series. During our first Sunday, we met Frank Donovan and his family. In that video, Frank’s son, Evan gave his most favorite toy to another boy who was returning home from the Philippines.
     Evan’s generous gift challenged the way Frank had been living his life as he realized that he wasn’t giving God his first and best. Instead, he had been giving God his leftovers after all of his needs and wants were met.
     In last Sunday’s video segment, Frank had this crazy dream that his money could talk. As his dream progressed through a very unusual court case, Frank was sentenced as guilty, that he was loving his money and things more than God. That dream prompted Frank to start thinking about his priorities.
     This leads us to our video today. Let’s watch the continuing saga of the life of Frank Donovan.
[Due to copyright issues, we are not permitted to post the video.]

     I can’t think of too many people who would be willing to give away everything and become poor. Our culture tells us to accumulate and that we can never have enough.
     This is what makes our scripture reading from II Corinthians stand out for us. The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus was once rich but he voluntarily became poor for our sake so that through his poverty, we might become rich.
     Just think about that for a moment. Jesus left the glory and the riches of heaven in order to become a human being like you and me; a human being who would face temptations, a human being who would face heartache, a human being who would experience hunger, a human being who would experience suffering and even death on a cross.
      That’s hard for our minds to fathom. Why would Jesus give up all of the blessings and glories of heaven just so that he could become a human being like us? Is this not the question we ponder every year at Christmas, the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of God taking on human form?  This is Paul’s focus in this scripture passage. Jesus was willing to become poor so that we would become rich. 
     My dad used to say to me that he and mom were the happiest when they were poor. And then he would always deliver the punch line. “Which means we have always been happy.”
     My parents weren’t poor, but they weren’t rich either. They were happy because they were grateful for what they had. They left a legacy of being generous givers to the church and to people who were in need.
     I think this is what Frank learned from our video segment this morning. He learned that generosity does not come from our excess, but from our essence.

     He learned this from Re, his gardner who gave the bonus money that Frank had given him to the soup kitchen. Re was generous because he gave from his heart.
     While giving money is one of the ways we can live generously, Re helps Frank to take it one step further when he invites him to actually serve. Frank didn’t come dressed for the occasion, but it wasn’t long before he set aside his suit jacket, rolled up his sleeves and began serving in the kitchen.
     By serving in the kitchen instead of just writing out a check, Frank was able to get to know the people he was serving. He had a conversation with one of the men at the meal and they established a relationship.
     This makes me think of our Gospel reading for today where Jesus was walking through a great crowd of people. Out of all of the people who were reaching out to him, Jesus notices this one person who needed to be healed. He could have kept on walking but he stopped to listen to her need and he healed her.
     Jesus shows us that we are to get to know the people around us. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to see the same people in our daily activities without really getting to know them? It’s when we stop to get to know someone, that we receive a blessing. And hopefully, we become a blessing to them.
     By serving at the soup kitchen, Frank went from seeing the poor to seeing people. When we are willing to humble ourselves and serve, we take the next step in our journey of generous living. We remove our own pride from the equation and see with the eyes of God.

     One final thought from our video this morning. I like how Re explained the difference between a spoon and a ladle. A spoon is meant to feed ourselves and a ladle is what we use to serve others.
     As you leave this morning, there will be somebody handing you a plastic spoon to take home with you. I wanted each of us to take home a ladle but that just wasn’t feasible.
     I need to use your imagination and pretend that the white plastic spoon is really a ladle. During this next week, I want you to keep that spoon in a place where you will see it. This spoon is to remind us to live generously.
     What if each one of us would serve three different people on three different occasions this week? Here are some very simple ideas on how you might serve.
     It could be letting someone jump in line in front of you at the store. It could be helping someone carry something. It could be picking up someone and taking them somewhere. It could be serving someone in your family in a way that they weren’t expecting. It could be serving in a ministry through our church which many of you are already doing.
     But here’s the thing. When we serve, let’s remember that the person we are serving is a child of God. Let’s remember that serving isn’t just about doing something for somebody else. It’s about letting them know that we want to get to know them. That’s what Re was teaching Frank in our video this morning.
     I know it’s going to be a temptation to use this spoon to eat some ice cream. Or maybe, we will be tempted to just throw this spoon away and forget about today’s message.
     So, think about this. If we usually have around 160 people who come to our worship services, that means that potentially in just one week, we will have intentionally served 480 people. So don’t throw your spoon away until you served at least three different people on three different occasions this week.
     The good news of our faith is that God sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross for our sins so that we might live abundantly. This is what we celebrate every week in worship. We are a people who are called to share this good news with others.
     Just as Jesus Christ emptied himself, we are called to become poor so that others may become rich.
     This week, when you look at your plastic spoon, ask yourself, “Where is God calling me to roll up my sleeves and serve somebody else?”
     Today’s video shows us that Frank is futher along on the path in learning what it means to live generously.
     Next Sunday, Frank is going to learn the importance of living generously even when it feels like the ground is falling out from beneath him. It’s a story that we won’t want to miss.

Living Generously: Ladles & Spoons
Discussion Questions
II Corinthians 8:8-15 & Luke 8:40-48
October 8, 2017

For the past three Sundays, we have been following the life of Frank Donovan and his family as they discover what it means to live generously. In the video segment this week, Frank learns what it means to be generous by reluctantly serving at a soup kitchen where he not only serves but he also gets to know the people who eat there.

Why do you think it's important to not only "donate" money but to also build relationships with people who are in need of the basic necessities of life? What blessing are we missing if we only give money without getting to know the people we are seeking to bless?

One of our scripture readings is this verse from the Apostle Paul. "For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. -  II Corinthians 8:9 

   How do you feel "rich" because of Christ's willingness to become poor for our sake?
    Plastic spoons were handed to people in worship. We were told that the spoon is to symbolize the serving ladle that Re, the gardener gave to Frank Donovan in the video. We are to keep the spoon so it reminds us to serve the needs of at least three different people in a Christ-like way this week.

    Brainstorm some ways that God may be calling you to serve others this week. Is God calling your small group to serve in some way?