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, October 24, 2021

Online Worship (October 24) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
October 24
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, October 18, 2021

Sermon (October 17) by Rev. Robert McDowell


    When I was in college, my home church had a summer ultimate frisbee league. If you’ve never heard of ultimate frisbee it’s kind of like soccer only you pass a frisbee instead of kicking a soccer ball. You and your teammates pass the frisbee up the field and you score when someone catches the frisbee in the end zone.

     It’s a very demanding game that can get really competitive. Even though we were a church league, that didn’t mean that some of those games didn’t get overly competitive.

     We had fun names for our teams. The Wompers, The Go-Gos, and The Muppets just to name a few.

     Before each game, and there would be several played every Sunday afternoon, each team would come to mid-field for a prayer. One of the team captains would offer the prayer. For one of those games, the team captain of one of the teams offered this prayer:

     Dear God, thank you for bringing us all together to play frisbee today. Keep us safe. Help us to have fun. And may the Muppets win this game. Amen. 

     And that prayer was given just a couple of hours from getting out of church! The person who prayed it was just having a little fun, but did God really care if the Muppets won or lost a frisbee game?

     I’ve played on church softball teams that were really competitive as well. Several years ago, the church that I was serving participated in a summer league. I love softball and it was a lot of fun, but some of those games could get a little heated between opposing players. No wonder that we have a prayer of confession and words of assurance included as part of worship every Sunday morning! Some of us needed absolution from our softball sins. 

     But heated competition among Christians is nothing new. Just think about today’s Gospel reading. James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples were asking Jesus to appoint them to prominent positions in his kingdom. 

     You see, they still didn’t understand what kind of Kingdom Jesus was trying to build. They thought this would be a kingdom where Jesus would rule over people and form some type of new government. As two of the twelve disciples, they were making their move to secure positions of power.

     Jesus, knowing that their understanding of God’s kingdom was far different from his own, asks them a couple of questions to reveal just how off the mark they really are. 

     Jesus asks them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink and are you able to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Still not getting it, James and John reply, “We are able, Jesus!”

     Of course, they have no clue that the cup of which Jesus was speaking would be the cup of his suffering on the cross. And the baptism of which he was speaking would be a baptism of him dying on the cross. 

     When the rest of the disciples heard what James and John were doing, they became angry, not because James and John were seeking worldly power and fame, but because they wished that they would have asked for those same positions of prominence first! 

     With the disciples angry with one another and competing for the top spots in Jesus’ future political offices, Jesus uses this opportunity to explain to them how his kingdom is very different from the kingdoms of the world.

     “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

     Or to put it another way. Jesus was telling his disciples that God’s kingdom is really a “kin-dom.” A kin-dom that is made up of kinships where we remember that we are all part of the same family, the family of God, and where we seek to serve one other, not compete against each other.

     This isn’t just an important reminder for people who play on church softball teams, but it’s for each one of us. Softball games are meant for competing, but In God’s kingdom, we are here to serve one another. And when the whole church is filled with people serving, loving, encouraging, and supporting one another, we truly do become part of God’s kin-dom. 

     According to the Learner’s Dictionary, the definition of the word, “leader” is “a powerful person who controls or influences what other people do; a person who leads a group, organization, country, etc.”

     The Business Dictionary defines “leader” as “a person or thing that holds a dominant or superior position within its field, and is able to exercise a high degree of control or influence over others.”

     Listen again to Jesus’ definition. Jesus defines leader this way, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

     Jesus’ idea of kingdom is one of kinships where we remember that we belong to each other as brothers and sisters not as opposing players on a softball field. We are servants of one another just as Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.

     Psychiatrist and author, Scott Peck defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” He writes extensively about the importance of self-discipline in being a loving person.

     In one of his books, he shares a personal illustration of how he loved to play chess and so he taught his daughter at an early age to play it so that they could play it together. 

     The problem was that he loved chess so much that he became overly competitive when playing her. This would often result in the daughter becoming frustrated and leaving their game in tears.

     His strength was being a competitive chess player, but in this situation with his daughter, he  ended up allowing his strength to become his weakness. Instead of extending himself for the sake of his daughter, he was feeding his own desire to win.

     If this can happen to us when we are simply playing a fun little father/daughter chess match, it can also happen between different ministry groups in the church, clergy who inflate their worship attendance numbers, and other types of passive/aggressive behaviors that are done in the name of Jesus. When we remember that God’s kingdom is about kinships and serving one another, it’s amazing what we can do together where we support rather than compete against each other.

     Have you ever noticed that geese understand this concept of kinship and the importance of working with and not against each other? When they fly in the V formation, the lead goose takes the brunt of all the drag and resistance of the air so that the other geese have an easier time flying behind. The leader as defined by Jesus is the one who is willing to do the hard work so that the others are helped.

     I think of all of the ways that I see a spirit of kingship in our church. Often times, these go unnoticed because that is the nature of being servant leaders. This is what makes our church so special. People serving behind the scenes and doing the little and quiet things that make a big difference for the sake of others.

     The audio/visual team setting providing a live-stream of our service every single Sunday so that people who are unable to be here can worship with us. The person who changes out our altar, pulpit, lectern cloths and worship banners so they reflect the new season of the church year. The greeter, the usher, the small group facilitator, the choir member, the refreshment volunteer, the worship reader, the Monday Lunch food preparer and server, the preschool teacher, the nursery worker.

     I recently read a church newsletter where the church was thanking one of their saints for recording the worship attendance every single week for the past ten years! That’s a lot of work that I’m sure went unnoticed by the vast majority of people.

     In God’s kindom, we are all servants who take the brunt and the drag of the resistance to make it easier for other to fly and soar.

     So much of Christianity today is extremely individualistic, rather than communal. It’s focused a lot on “me and Jesus” or “how can I go to heaven when I die.” That’s a “me centered faith,” not a “kin-dom of God centered faith.”

     James and John saw an opportunity to grab the top two positions in Jesus’ kingdom. And actually, we should all ask Jesus for those top positions, but maybe with a little twist to this gospel story. 

     “Jesus, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 

     “And what is it you want me to do for you?”

     And what if our answer would be, “Grant us, not to be seated at your right hand or your left hand in your glory. Instead, grant us to be servants of one another in your kingdom.”

     May it be so.

The Kin-dom of God

Sermon Discussion Questions
Mark 10:35-45
October 17, 2021

In this week’s Gospel reading, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, asked Jesus to grant them positions of power in his kingdom. When the other disciples heard they requested this, they became angry toward them. Actually, they were probably just upset that they didn’t ask Jesus for those prominent positions! Before we get too critical of James and John requesting these positions of power, they were simply operating under the assumption that Jesus’ kingdom would be like other earthly kingdoms where power and prominence were highly valued. Instead of Jesus building a kingdom of God, he was really building a kin-dom of God where we serve one another in humility.

Where do you see signs of God’s concept of “the kin-dom of God” vs. “the kingdom of God” at work through the church and in the world? In what ways are these examples of humility and serving others more powerful than kingdoms that promote greed and prominence?

In our Gospel reading, Jesus defines leadership as “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

How is this definition of being a leader in our world the same or different from the world’s understanding?

The lead goose in the V formation takes the brunt of the air current to allow the other geese to fly more efficiently. 

Share an example of how someone has unselfishly taken the “brunt of the air current” to help you fly more efficiently in your life. How did that display of servanthood make a difference in your life?

Pastor Robert shared a story of psychiatrist and author, Scott Peck who loved to play chess. When teaching his young daughter to play, he became overly competitive in trying to win. Instead of using that time as a way to bond with his daughter, he used it as an opportunity to show how good he was at chess. He allowed his strength (the ability to play chess) to become his weakness (forgetting to be loving toward his daughter.)

In what ways can we use our unique gifts and talents to build up others rather than draw attention to ourselves?

This week, be open to opportunities where God may be calling you to serve, be helpful, and encourage others. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Online Worship (October 17) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
October 17
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, October 11, 2021

Sermon (October 10) by Rev. Robert McDowell

    One year when I was on vacation, my brother who is also a pastor and I visited a church that was known for its excellent preaching. It’s not often that we preachers get to visit other churches so we were looking forward to being together for worship.

     Of the countless number of churches that we could have chosen to attend together, we somehow picked a church that was having their pledge drive Sunday.

     And it didn’t help matters when the preacher began his sermon by saying, “Well, first of all, I need to apologize to those of you are visiting this morning. We normally do not focus on money, but that’s what you’re going to hear me talk about for the next forty-five minutes this morning.”

     My brother and I looked at each other in disbelief. We looked around for the nearest exit door. But God does work in mysterious ways because after that service, we both agreed that it was one of the best sermons we had ever heard, and it was on the topic of giving. 

     And all this preacher did was string together several stories of generosity. I have been thinking about that memory as I’ve been planning for this special Sunday here at our church. 

     My prayer is that we will leave here today thanking God that we were able to be here today. Maybe you’ll tell your friends, “You should have been in church this morning. Our preacher talked about money!!”  

     Friends, this is going to be a great Sunday of worship in celebrating God’s unbelievable blessings, God’s redeeming grace, and God’s immeasurable love that can’t help but to lead us to be the generous and joyful givers that God has created each one of us to be. 

     Let me first begin by thinking about what inspires people to be generous givers? I think we all are drawn to stories about sacrificial giving. The reason why I still watch the evening news is because of what comes at the end of that half-hour broadcast. No matter how bad the news was that day, we know that they are going to leave us with a glimmer of hope. They always end with a feel good story of how someone did something nice for someone. 

     And these same kind of stories happen a lot in our churches in big and small ways. They happen all the time because the God of resurrection is always showing up in beautiful and surprising ways.

     These are the stories that inspire us and motivate us to be the gracious and generous givers that God has called us to be. Jesus taught us to look for these moments of generosity that are all around us, like the one from our Gospel reading today. 

     As Jesus is teaching, he decides to do a little people watching with his disciples. They were sitting across from where the Temple treasury was located. 

     The Temple treasury was most likely a large box that had a little opening at the top of it for people to drop in their money to support the work of the Temple. This offering box was out in the open where the crowds would walk, so this would have been a great location for Jesus and his disciples to do some people watching. Picture crowds walking by, and once in a while someone steps up to this treasury box to drop in some money.

     Evidently, while they were watching all of this, they would spot a few people who had a lot of money to drop into the box. And because they had so much money to donate, they would stand there for a long time dropping in one coin at a time. But obviously, they didn’t give away everything they had because they were wearing nice clothes. 

     I can’t help but to think that the disciples would have been impressed as they sat there watching all of the rich people putting large sums of money into the Temple treasury. Who knows, maybe the disciples were feeling a little envious as they watched this impressive display of wealth and charitable giving taking place right before their eyes.

     As one person after another makes their way to drop in their big payments, someone makes her way to the same treasury box, and in a very brief moment, she drops in two copper coins, and is lost in the crowd again.

     Jesus, who always knew what to look for in a crowd, turns to the disciples, and makes sure they didn’t miss what this unassuming woman had just done. Jesus wanted the disciples to know who the big spender really was during their people watching exercise. 

     It wasn’t the one wearing the nicest clothes and who gave the highest dollar amount. It was the one who gave all that she had to her name. Two copper coins.

     The people who gave the most still had plenty in their savings account.  But this woman, who probably won’t know how she will get her next meal, gave out of her poverty.

     What does it mean to give out of our poverty like the poor widow, rather than out of our abundance like those who were rich and put in large sums of money?

     Like so much of our faith, it really comes down to our willingness to trust in what God wants to do in and through us to be a blessing through our church and community. 

     This reminds me of the story of the successful millionaire businessman who was giving a testimony at his church one night. He said how as a young man he was struggling financially and he only had a few dollars to his name. So he prayed to God and he felt that God was calling him to give away all that he had and to trust God completely with his life.

     So he took the remaining few dollars he had in his wallet and put it in the offering plate the following Sunday. And then this man went on to say that by giving to God all the money he had, that’s why he was now a millionaire.

     A lady who was listening to this man’s testimony wasn’t impressed and she stood up and shouted, “I dare you to do it again!”

     It’s difficult for us to trust God with ALL that we have.  We’re afraid we’re going to lose even the little that we have. We want to hang on to what we have instead of using our resources  to be a blessing to others. So we end up holding back.

     I think that the important part of the story of the widow who gave everything she had was that we are told that she gave out of her poverty, not out of her abundance.

     I have always found it interesting that the year that marked the highest level of giving to charity in this country was during one of the worst economic times our nation has ever faced.  In 1933 and during the Great Depression people gave the highest percentage of their income to charity than in any other year.  

     Deep down, people want to make a difference in our world.  We will give as long as we know that our gifts are making a difference.

     Here’s another story that inspires me to give. It’s the story of the Christians in Macedonia who we read about in II Corinthians, our other scripture reading this morning. The Macedonian Christians were living in poverty. 

     It’s interesting that Paul uses this story to inspire the wealthier congregations in Corinth to follow their example of generosity. He writes, 

     “We want you to know brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.”

     And a few verses later, Paul goes on to use another example of how someone gave out of their poverty in overflowing generosity on behalf of others. He writes, 

     “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.”

     These inspiring stories of generosity have something in common. They all involve how generosity does not come from our abundance, but it comes out of our poverty and our willingness to trust God by sharing what we have with others. 

     These stories are all rooted in God’s overflowing love for the world. This is why I began my sermon by saying that this is going to be a great Sunday of worship in celebrating God’s unbelievable blessings, God’s redeeming grace, and God’s immeasurable love that can’t help but to lead us to be the generous and joyful givers that God has created each one of us to be.

     We are each called to be an expression of Christ’s self-giving love for the world. Athens First United Methodist Church is called to be an expression of Christ’s self-giving love for the world.

     Which leads me to share one more story of generosity that continues to have a big impact on my life. I’ll never forget it. 

     During the early years of our marriage, my wife and I didn’t give all that we could have given to the church.  We didn’t feel like we were in a position to be as generous as we wanted to be.  At the time, I was the only one working because Penny had gone back to college to complete her undergraduate studies.  And we also had two small children to raise at the time so money was really tight, really tight.

     One day, as the two of us were standing in the hallway of the church where I was serving at the time, a lady in the church came up to us and handed us an envelope stuffed with lots of money in it.  And this woman said, “I want you to have this money to help you pay for child care this weekend.”  

     She knew that we would be leading a church retreat that weekend and that we would need to pay a baby sitter while we would be away.  And of course, I said what many of us would have said in that situation, “Oh, this is so nice of you, but we really can’t accept this. This is a lot of money.”

     And I will never, ever, ever forget her response to me. She left me speechless. She said, “Oh, this isn’t my money. It’s a portion of our tithe money and we’ve already prayed over it and God wants you to have it.” Now, how are you supposed to argue with that kind of a response? She was basically saying that if I had a complaint, I should take it up with God. 

     It was that experience that led Penny and me to become more generous in our giving and to begin tithing our money to Christ and his church in our early years of marriage. This woman showed us what it means to trust God with all that we have, and to give out of our poverty rather than out of our abundance, kind of like the poor widow who gave all that she had. And kind of like the Macedonian Christians who gave out of their poverty.

     These are the stories that inspire us to be the generous givers that God is calling us to be. That might mean that we begin living out the biblical principle of tithing and giving 10% of our income to the work of Christ and his church. It might mean that we move from giving 2% this year to giving 3 or 4% of our income for next year. That is between you and God. All I know is that these stories of generosity have an impact on us.

     This week is an opportunity to take that next step increase by trusting God with our resources so that we can fulfill the mission God has given this church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And that is an awesome mission, to be part of sharing God’s healing love here in Athens and beyond. 

     This week we will be sending a mailing out to the congregation that will include a 2022 Estimate of Giving card. We invite you to prayerfully complete that card and either send it back to the church in the mail or you can bring it to church with you next Sunday and place it in the offering plate.

     As we prepare to take that next step of faith as we make our financial estimate of giving for 2022, I’m reminded of a story told by famous radio personality, Garrison Keillor. He said how a letter was sent from a church to those members who were not present on Pledge Dedication Sunday and therefore did not fill out their pledge cards.

     Here is what the follow-up letter from the church stated:

     "Dear Ann and Joe: We missed you last Sunday which was Pledge Sunday. Since you were not present to fill out your pledge card and to make it easy for you, we have completed a pledge card for you. Thank you for being so generous. Signed, Your Finance Committee"

     And may it be said of each and every one of us, “Thank you for being so generous.” 

Stories of Generosity

Sermon Discussion Questions
II Corinthians 8:1-9 & Mark 12:38-44
October 10, 2021

Our focus today is sharing stories of generosity. Two of these examples are included in our scripture readings. In II Corinthians, Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth who were known for their wealth to tell them about the generosity of the churches in Macedonia who even though they are poor have collected a generous offering to give to the churches in Judaea who were facing a severe famine and food shortage. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus points out a poor widow who gave all that she had in the Temple offering. In both of these stories, the ones who had the least ended up being the most generous.

Why do you think that those who had the least to give ended up being the most generous in their giving?

Like so much of our faith, being generous really comes down to our willingness to trust in what God wants to do in and through us to be a blessing through our church and community. 

What helps you to “trust in what God wants do do in and through you to be a blessing through our church and community?” Share some examples of where you see people being blessed through the financial gifts of the church.

Pastor Robert shared the story of how a woman in one of the first churches he served as pastor inspired him to be more generous in his financial giving. She offered to pay for babysitting so that he could lead a weekend church retreat. When he first declined this very generous gift, the woman said, “Oh, this isn’t my money. This is part of our extra tithe this month so it really belongs to God and we feel led to support the retreat you will be leading for our church.” This woman’s explanation gave him a new perspective of what it means to be generous in our giving.

As we prepare for a new year in ministry here at Athens First UMC, which of these stories of generosity inspire you the most? 

We will be receiving a mailing that will include a 2022 pledge card to prayerfully complete and return to the church. These pledge cards are kept confidential and serve the purpose of not only helping our Leadership Board to prepare next year’s budget but these cards also provide us with an opportunity to be the generous people God has called us to be. As you prepare to fill out a pledge card, offer this prayer that was used in this past Sunday’s worship service:

Gracious God, everything we have belongs to you. You have given us many gifts, but we forget to be generous. Forgive us for holding onto our gifts too tightly. Teach us to release our gifts so that we can be a blessing to others. Thank you for your example of generosity by sending Jesus who is the greatest gift we can ever receive. We offer this prayer in his name. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Online Worship (October 10) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
October 10
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]