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, June 4, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (June 4/Pentecost) - Athens First UMC

[We celebrated Pentecost Sunday, a day when God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church, and a day that concludes the Great Fifty Days of the Easter season. Even though the Easter Season on our church calendar has ended, the good news of our faith is that we are an Easter people everyday of the year and every Sunday is like a "little Easter." The red paraments on the altar, pulpit, and lectern on this Sunday remind us of the fire of God's Spirit that empowers the church share the good news of the Risen Christ in all that we say and do. Happy Pentecost!]

God of Easter and the empty tomb, thank you for the pouring out of your Holy Spirit upon your church and upon each and every one of us.

Thank you for the fire of your Spirit that opens our eyes to the fires of injustice that are all around us.

We also thank you for the fire of your Spirit that always reminds us of the good news of our faith because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. May the fire of your spirit continue to fill our hearts with joy.

And we thank you for the fire of your Spirit that prompts us to make a difference in our community and world, like the students from St. Joseph’s University who traveled from Philadelphia to stay at our church this past week to work with Habitat for Humanity. Thank you for blessing our community through them.

We pray that the fire of your Holy Spirit will be ablaze during our West Ohio Annual Conference this week. Bless Bishop Gregory Palmer as he presides at these meetings and bless the laity and clergy of the many churches of our conference as we gather to renew our connection and be renewed by your Spirit. Perhaps it is no coincidence that our conference this year begins on Pentecost Sunday!

On this Holy Communion Sunday, may the receiving of the bread and the cup lead us to live out our faith through the power of your Holy Spirit.  Remind us that it only takes a spark to get a fire going.

For those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, may the fire of your Spirit warm their hearts. For those who are facing medical tests or struggling with addictions, or are feeling weak, may the fire of your Spirit warm their hearts. For those who are in need of physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual healing in their lives, may the fire of your Spirit warm their hearts. For those who are feeling lonely or discouraged, may the fire of your Spirit warm their hearts. For a world grieving at yet another terrorist attack, may the fire of your Spirit warm our hearts

On this Pentecost Sunday, warm all of our hearts O God, as we pray the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and now teaches us to pray together… “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sermon (June 4/Pentecost Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Where's the Fire?"

      A young pastor served his community as a chaplain to the local fire companies. One night, his first call came, and he jumped into his car and sped off into the night.   A police cruiser, lights flashing, pulled him over, and the police officer sauntered up to the driver’s side window, leaned in, and asked, “Well, sir? Where’s the fire?”
     Without hesitation, the young pastor replied, “216 Sherman Ridge Road!” Caught off guard, the police officer stammered, “Oh, well, OK then, follow me!”
     “Where’s the fire?” is a common euphemism used in three different ways. In the case of the police officer, it meant, “What’s the big hurry?” Others us the phrase to ask, “What’s all the excitement about?” Another approach uses the saying to inquire, “Where’s the passion and energy?”
     Any of these three questions is appropriate for us to ask on this Pentecost Sunday. “Where’s the fire?”
     The story of Pentecost in the second chapter of the Book of Acts has been known as the birthday of the church. This story challenges us with the “Where’s the fire?” questions in all three different uses.

Where's the Fire? Or What's the Big Hurry?

     For the first use of that question where the police officer is challenging the motorist to explain why he was going too fast, today is a good day to address that question. Like the police officer, we too may assume that there really isn’t a fire when there actually is one.
     The reason that God sent the Holy Spirit upon the disciples after Jesus had ascended into heaven was because God’s mission on this earth still needed to be fulfilled. More work needed to be done.
     Even though Jesus won the victory over sin and death through the cross and the empty tomb, God’s overall plan didn’t change. God still wants to work in and through ordinary people like you and me to do extraordinary things to make a difference in our world.
     As the saying goes, sometimes we can be so heavenly minded that we end up being no earthly good. When Jesus left his disciples, he didn’t tell them that it was nice knowing them and to take it easy because there was nothing left for them to do. No, he told them to go into the world to baptize, to teach, and to serve.
     Jesus was telling them that there was more work to be done. The difference would be that they would have the Holy Spirit to empower them to make a difference in the world.
     In 1963, civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was in a Birmingham, Alabama jail because he had led a non-violent protest against social injustice in that city.  While he was in jail, eight clergymen in Birmingham had placed a statement in the local newspaper criticizing him for coming to their city to speak out against racial equality.
     While in jail, Dr. King responded to their criticism and here is a portion of his letter in response to their criticism of his work:
     Dr. King writes, Several months ago the affiliate here in Birmingham asked us to be on call to engage in a nonviolent direct-action program if such were deemed necessary. We readily consented, and when the hour came we lived up to our promise. So I, along with several members of my staff, am here because I was invited here, I am here because I have organizational ties here. But more basically, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.
     Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their "thus saith the Lord" far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town.
     Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid. Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
     Nobody was going to convince Dr. King that there was no fire of racial equality. Dr. King dedicated his ministry to paving the way to a more just nation where all people regardless of skin color enjoy freedom and equality.
     The fact that Dr. King wrote this letter makes me very sad because his letter was not in response to people outside the church. His letter was in response to religious leaders who had chosen to not support him in his important work.
     They were more like the policeman who sarcastically told the speeding motorist, “Where’s the fire?”
     Whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminded of God’s call on each of our lives to make a difference in our community and world. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
     Our job as a Pentecost people is to sprinkle a little of heaven on earth. Check that. To spread a lot of heaven on earth.
     We are on fire with the Holy Spirit so that we can put out the fire of social injustice.
     In addition to assuming that there is no fire when in reality there are many fires in our community and world that are in need of God’s justice and love, Pentecost Sunday also helps us to share with others why we do what we do.

Where's the Fire? Or What's All the Excitement About?

     Sometimes when people ask, “Where’s the fire?” they are asking, “What’s all the excitement about? What’s the commotion?”
     Well, the reason the disciples were speaking in tongues and causing such a commotion in downtown Jerusalem is all related to the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
     We have a good news faith! We have a faith that turns heads and leads people to wonder why those people in church are filled with so much joy and hope in a world that is filled with so much bad news.
     No wonder that Pentecost Sunday is often associated with the joy of a birthday party. It’s a time for us to celebrate and open the gift of the Holy Spirit who wants to be active and at work in our daily lives.
     After a worship service one Sunday morning, a church member said to me at the door, “What a great day to be here at church! I felt so much happiness and joy in this place!” That one comment made my heart sing that entire week. Who said that church should be something we have to endure rather than something we celebrate?  We have a good news faith! Every Sunday is a celebration of what God has done and is doing in our lives.
     What’s all the excitement about over there at Athens First? We are on fire because we are celebrating the greatest news the world has ever heard – the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Where's the Fire? Or Where's the Passion & Energy?

     And this leads us to the third meaning of the phrase, “Where’s the fire?” Sometimes when people ask that question, they are asking, “Where’s the passion and energy?”
     I was in a coffee shop working on church work when these two chatty teenagers were sitting near me talking passionately about the problem of human trafficking in Ohio. They were talking really fast and getting a little loud so I couldn’t help but to hear what they were discussing.
     When there was finally a brief pause in their conversation, I leaned over toward them and I think I surprised them when I said, “I’ve been listening to a little of your conversation and I just wanted you both to know that you’re awesome.”  I explained to them that I was a pastor and that there are many people in our church who care about issues like they were discussing.
     Their eyes lit up and they were so glad to hear that people in the church also have passion about these kinds of problems in our world. When I heard what these two young people in the coffee shop were discussing, it gives me great hope for the future.
     When I think of those disciples on that first Pentecost Sunday, we are told that a tongue of fire appeared over top each of those disciples. They were on fire for their faith.
     We need Pentecost. We need Pentecost because it helps us answer the question, “Where’s the Fire?”
     First of all, it reminds us that there are fires of injustice in our community and world where we are called to offer God’s healing love. It also answers the question as to why we can be filled with joy in a world of so much negativity and pain. We have a good news faith!
     And Pentecost is also what gives us such energy and passion that lead us to act like teenagers who are na├»ve enough to believe that they can change the world. No matter our age or how long we have been part of the church, Pentecost Sunday reminds us to allow God’s Spirit to burn within us so that we can change the world.
     Where’s the fire?
     This past January, I was invited back to my former church in Lancaster for a mortgage burning ceremony. We were celebrating the final payment of a mortgage that we had on a 4 million dollar facility that the church built back in 2005. It took a several years, but that congregation finally paid it off the mortgage this past January.
     The placed was packed because the congregation was so excited that they had finally paid it off. The present pastor was gracious to invite me to come and share a few words of congratulations.
     Then came the time for the mortgage burning ceremony. They had a little fire pit set up on the stage. Several church leaders joined the current pastor and me for that special moment. This was what we had all been waiting for, to burn those bank papers once and for all!
     We asked the Finance chairperson to do the honors. He flicked on that lighter and bent down toward those mortgage papers, but try as he might, he couldn’t get any kind of flame to catch. After a couple awkward minutes, another member of the Finance Committee went over to help him but to no avail.
     Nervous laughter could be heard throughout the large room. I turned to the person standing next to me and just couldn’t resist asking him the question, “How many Methodists does it take to light a fire?”
     Evidently it takes at least two Methodists to start a fire because that’s how many it took that day, but when it started, it didn’t take long at all to burn those papers and the entire congregation erupted in applause.
     Where’s the fire?
     It’s wherever we see injustice and brokenness. It’s in our hearts because we have a good news faith. And it’s when we dare to believe that we can make a difference in our community and world.

     That’s where the fire is. Happy Pentecost!

Where's the Fire?
Small Group Questions
Acts 2:1-21
June 4, 2017

In his sermon, Pastor Robert that there are three possible meanings of the phrase, "Where's the fire?" It can mean, "What's the big hurry?" It can mean, "What's all the excitement about?" It can also mean, "Where's the passion and energy?"

First Meaning: "What's the big hurry?" Name some reasons why you think the church should be in a hurry to share God's healing love in our community and world? List some social injustices that are community and world are facing today.

Second Meaning: "What's all the excitement about?" Why should Christians be filled with joy in how they worship and live out their faith? Do you think people in our community notice our excitement in how we live out our faith?

Third Meaning: "Where's the passion and energy?" What causes you to be passionate in your faith? 

Join together in praying the Pentecost prayer that was part of our worship service this past Sunday:

O Lord, send your Holy Spirit as you once did in the city of Jerusalem so long ago. Join us in this place and time and give us the fire that transforms and renews. Burn away all our complacency. Consume the cords that bind us to anything that would keep us from a relationship with you. Give us the life that lives in your praise and service. We pray this in the name of the Risen Christ. Amen.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (May 28/Ascension Sunday) - Athens First UMC

[Have you ever noticed the several people in our congregation who wear those red t-shirts on the last Sunday of each month? People wear these shirts to promote our upcoming "Athens First Saturday" community outreach held on the 1st Saturday of each month. We meet in Fellowship Hall at 9 am and during the morning, people choose to serve in one of several outreach projects to bless our community like arranging flowers to take to the hospital, making blankets for community organizations, picking up litter around town, making cards for shut-ins, leading a nursing home worship service, etc. Pictured above is the Mather family from Sunday's worship service. The quote on the back of their shirts is from John Wesley which encourages to "do all the good you can to all the people you can." Ascension Sunday reminds us that when Christ blessed his disciples as he ascended to his heavenly throne, he also blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others. That's what AFS is all about.]

O God, thank you for your Son who is seated next to you on your heavenly throne. We acknowledge you as the true king and ruler over all creation. Thank you for this day on the church calendar when we not only remember, but also celebrate your kingship and authority. Your rule is one of love, peace, and justice.

You are the true king who can make all things new. You are the one who parted the Red Sea and led your people into the Promised Land. You are the one who sent Jesus to point people to your kingdom and who did many signs and wonders. You are the one who raised him from the dead on Easter morning. You are the one who has promised to return to establish your kingdom once and for all. You are the one who blessed those disciples as Christ ascended to his throne.

And thankfully, you continue to bless your people so that we can be a blessing to others. O God, we all are in need of your blessings of peace and justice this day. Your world is in need of your healing love.

On this Memorial Day Weekend, we are especially thankful for those who have given their lives through serving our country. Thank you for their sacrifice and courage. We long for a world where all nations work toward peace. We long for a world where people can attend a concert without fear of a terrorist bomb exploding. We long for a world where everyone has access to the basic necessities of life.

O God, on this ascension Sunday, bless us, bless our church, so that we will be able to fulfill the awesome purpose and mission that you have entrusted to us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world.  It is in his risen and ascended name that we now pray together…