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, August 2, 2021

Sermon (August 1) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     This is that time of year when expectations and excitement increase. We just made that flip on our calendar to the month of August which has become known as “back to school month.” And for many of us, our expectations are heightened even more this year because, “thanks be to God,” we are finally turning the corner on this long global pandemic.

     Here at the church, we are already beginning to talk about our annual water bottle give away for the students who will be arriving on campus in a few weeks. Our church choir will begin rehearsing soon and they we will hear them sing for the first time since March of 2020! It’s been a long year and a half!

     It’s this kind of heightened expectation that the Gospel writer, John wants to create within us. He is using his literary skills to tell us the story of Jesus in such a way that gets our attention and peaks our curiosity. In our Gospel reading for this morning, here in John, chapter six, John wants us to focus on the crowd. 

     This crowd of people have been following Jesus. Their expectations of who Jesus is have been heightened because they have just experienced the miraculous feeding of five thousand hungry people with only five loaves and two fish. Not only have their expectations been heightened, they even want to make Jesus a King. 

     The very next morning, the crowd want to find Jesus and they are surprised when they realize that he is on the other side of the lake. They’re surprised because there is no way Jesus could have made it to the other side of the lake without a boat. There was only one boat and they knew that the disciples had taken that boat.

     Of course, we the readers know that after the feeding of the five thousand and after the disciples took the boat to go across the lake, a storm suddenly arose and the disciples  were terrified. John tells us that Jesus walks toward them on the lake and calms the storm and together they make it to the other side.

     As if their curiosity about Jesus isn’t already mesmerizing, they now want to know how Jesus made it all the way across the lake without a 2nd boat. And after they get to the other side of the lake, they’re trying to figure this all out, adding even more to the mystique of who Jesus is.

     Jesus’ response is really interesting because he doesn’t tell them that he walked on the lake to get to the other side. And if you think about it, that would have been another golden opportunity, like the feeding of the five thousand to show this crowd that he truly was sent by God to be the Savior of the world.

     Instead, Jesus even downplays the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand and how he made it to the other side of the lake without a boat, and simply tells them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

     Jesus wants the crowd to know that there is so much more about who he is and the difference that he can make in their lives. There is so much more. Yes, they all got a free meal the day before, but Jesus wants them to know that the reason he came was to offer them a meal that would never leave them hungry or thirsty again. 

     And by telling us this story, the gospel writer is inviting us to receive this meal as well, a meal that is filled with more than we can possibly imagine.

     Christian author, Bob Benson tells the story of when he he was a single young man and his church was holding a picnic at the park. Everybody was to bring their own food. Bob was running late and when he opened his refrigerator, he only had a piece of boloney and a couple slices of stale bread. So, he slapped together a baloney sandwich, wrapped it up in wax paper, and went to the picnic.

     He got to the park and was prepared to simply lean against a tree and eat by himself when a nearby family of the church spotted him and said, “Hey, come sit with us.” And so he did. He sat down and unwrapped his baloney sandwich at the same time they began unpacking their enormous picnic basket.

     They had fried chicken, potato salad, baked beans, deviled eggs, a full relish tray, and two big chocolate pies. “And there I sat,” Bob writes, “with just my baloney sandwich.”

     And then this family said to him, “Listen, why don’t we just share?”

     “Oh,” he said, “I’ve just got a baloney sandwich.”

     “That’s okay,” they said. “We love baloney sandwiches. And we brought a lot of food. Let’s just put it all together.”

     Bob Benson says, “I felt pretty humbled, but I couldn’t resist – especially that chocolate pie!” And he concludes his story by saying, “I came as a pauper, and I ate like a king!”

     Sometimes, I wonder if we approach our faith thinking that all we have is a meager baloney sandwich. But God has so much more to offer us. God invites us to a great banquet where there is more than enough food and more than enough room.

     The crowd wanted to make Jesus a King because he performed a miracle, but Jesus was  showing them that he wanted them to eat like kings when he fed them with just five loaves and two fish. 

     And now, they think they’ve seen it all with Jesus somehow being able to make it to the other side of the lake without a boat. But Jesus turns to them and tells them that he is so much more than a miracle worker. He doesn’t just give bread to people. He is the bread of life, the one who offers us so much more than we can ask or imagine.

     This is one of the reasons why Holy Communion is so important. It’s more than a little piece of bread and small cup of grape juice. Every time we gather for this meal, it’s a holy encounter. It’s an opportunity to receive so much more than we thought was possible. We receive forgiveness, hope, new life, a fresh start, peace, and unconditional love.

     We come to this holy meal as paupers, but we leave as kings. And it’s all because Jesus is the bread of life. 

     A pastor friend of mine told me the story of something that happened during Holy Communion at the church she was serving. She said that they had a children’s event at their church and they concluded their time together with the Sacrament of Holy Communion. There were a lot of children at this event, about thirty of them, and she invited them to get in a line and take a turn to receive the Sacrament.

     One by one they came forward. She would give a child a piece of bread and say, “This is the body of Christ broken for you.” She then had them dip that piece of bread into the chalice and she said, “This is the blood of Christ shed for you.” The child would then eat the bread and take a seat.

     My friend told me that there was one little boy who was about 5 or 6 years old who had never been to church before, and he really liked this idea of eating bread with juice.

     After he received communion the first time, he got back in line to receive it again. She realized that he had jumped in line for seconds but she offered the Sacrament to him anyway. 

     When this little boy came up to her this second time, he had a great big smile on his face, and as he put the bread into his mouth, he said, “Thank you!”

     Well, guess what? He got back in the line a third time and the same thing happened. After he received the bread and the juice, he looked at the pastor and with another great big smile, he said, “Thank you!” And this time, he added, “Jesus tastes so good!”

     Now, I don’t think that this response is in our communion liturgy, but maybe it should be. “Jesus tastes so good!”

     God’s love tastes so good. God’s forgiveness tastes so good. God’s mercy tastes so good. God’s eternal life tastes so good. God’s faithfulness taste so good. God’s blessings taste so good.

     The crowd wanted to know how Jesus made it to the other side of the lake without a boat, as if the reason that Jesus came to the world was to impress us with his miracles. Jesus has so much more in mind for us than explaining how he made it from one side of the lake to the other. Jesus wants to give us food that will never leave us hungry again. Jesus offers us his very life so that we might have life and life in all of it’s fullness.

     The month of August, has a way of heightening our hopes and our expectations for a new school year, especially after this long pandemic. But even beyond our renewed hope for what this year might bring is this reminder from today’s Gospel reading, that God wants to give us more than we can ask or imagine.

     This new month of August is more than about simply finding a good deal for school supplies and thinking ahead to a new rhythm of life. We are invited to come and receive the bread of life that will never leave us hungry. 

     This is the bread that always offers so much more! 

So Much More!

Sermon Discussion Questions
John 6:24-35
August 1, 2021

The beginning of the month of August is a time when our expectations are raised because we are nearing a new school year. This is also a time of the year when the church begins preparing for a busy fall season.

What expectations do you have for this new school year and for our church as we slowly prepare for the start-up of several ministries through the church?

In our Gospel reading from John, chapter six, a crowd has been following Jesus. Their expectations have been raised because of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Their expectations are heightened even more because they want to know how Jesus could have made it to the other side of the lake without a boat!

What questions or thoughts do you have about who Jesus is? 

When the crowd finds Jesus, he doesn’t explain to them how he made it to the other side of the lake without a boat. We know from reading this scripture that he made it to the other side because he walked on the water and then got in the boat with the disciples. Jesus simply tells the crowd that he is the bread of life and whoever comes to him will never be hungry or thirsty.

Why do you think that Jesus didn’t answer their question about how he got to the other side of the lake and instead told them that he is “the bread of life?” What does it mean to you when Jesus says that he is “the bread of life?”

Jesus was skillful in the way that he was raising the expectations and the curiosity of the crowd regarding who he is. He wanted them to know that he is not only a miracle worker who can multiply bread to feed thousands. He IS the bread!!! And this bread will never run out! Jesus is wanting the crowd to know that there is so much more we have to learn about who he is. He is raising their expectations even more!

What is the “so much more” about who Jesus is that you want to experience as we begin this new school year?

Pastor Robert shared a story about a little boy who had never received the Sacrament of Holy Communion. He enjoyed the taste of the bread dipped into the grape juice so much that he got back in line to receive it a 2nd and a 3rd time. During the last time he received the Sacrament, he looked at the pastor who had served him communion and said with a great big smile, “Jesus tastes SO good!”

As we prepare for this new school year, offer this prayer from our worship service to help remind you that Jesus is the bread of life and with him, there is always “so much more.”

O Jesus, bread of heaven, some Sundays we come here thinking that we’ll just get a little bit of church to get us through the week. You not only satisfy our hungry souls, we leave from here with cups that our overflowing! As we worship you this day, raise our expectations so that we might receive all that you would give to us. Forgive us for whenever we underestimate the fullness of life that you intend for each one of us. With grateful and expectant hearts, we pray. Amen.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Online Worship (August 1) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
August 1
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, July 26, 2021

Sermon (July 25) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     When I first came here six years ago to serve as your pastor, I remember walking into the sanctuary and I could tell something right away. Call this what you want but I could sense even before I started meeting you, that you had been praying for me.

     There was just something about the spirit of this place where I knew that there had been many prayers preceding my arrival here. I mentioned this to somebody soon after I arrived here and that person said, “Yeah, that’s true. The people here really do believe in prayer.”

     Based on me sharing this observation with you, the answer to my sermon title question is pretty obvious. Yes, our prayers really do make a difference.

     The Apostle Paul believed in the power of prayer. In a letter that he wrote to the Christians who lived in Ephesus, he tells them that he has been praying for them. Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter to them. Imagine receiving a letter from someone who is confined to a prison cell because of his faith, but who still wants you to know that you are being lifted in prayer.

     And even though Paul was praying primarily for the Christians in Ephesus, as I read his letter, it feels like he was praying for all of us as well. He writes,

     “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, form whom every family in heaven and earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted  and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the Saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

     If you are ever having a rough day and feeling discouraged, imagine receiving a letter like this where someone shares that they are praying for you in such an uplifting and encouraging way. Prayers really do make a difference!

     In one of the churches I served, there was a home bound member I would visit from time to time. He lived in a really tiny apartment. His name was Chester, Chester Mustard. Great name! During my first visit with him, I introduced myself and he wanted me to know that he prays for me every day and that he would continue to pray for me every day.

     He said this in a way that I knew it was true. Just the look in his eyes told me that he really meant it. And throughout my ministry at that church, I would think of Chester often and how he was lifting me in prayer. That had such a powerful impact on me. Even though he was confined there in his small apartment, I could feel his prayers and encouragement finding their way to wherever I was at the time.

     I think it’s interesting that this Ephesians reading is paired today with our Gospel reading where Jesus fed five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish.  How do you feed that many people with such a small amount of food?

     What does Jesus do? He puts an usher team together and has them seat the people on the hillside. And after everyone has been seated, Jesus takes that little bit of food and offers a prayer of thanksgiving and that little bit of food ended up not only feeding those five thousand people, but they even had lots of leftovers.

     One little prayer of thanksgiving led to a miraculous feeding. Our prayers really do make a difference!

     These reminders of how prayer really does make a difference is important for us especially during those days when we are feeling that our prayers are just bouncing off the walls. We can get discouraged and we might begin to wonder if our prayers really do make a difference.

     This past spring following the mass shooting at a grocery store in Colorado, I was listening to two politicians sparring with each other over the topic of prayer. This type of heated exchange often happens after these mass shootings. A politician will offer their thoughts and prayers for the families of the shooting victims and then another politician will say, “our thoughts and prayers are not enough. We need common sense gun legislation.”

     The phrase, “thoughts and prayers” has been used so often that it almost feels empty in it’s meaning. Have you ever felt that way about prayer? I want to interrupt these politicians who are arguing with each other and say, “It’s not one or the other. We can pray and take action as well.” It’s both/and, not either/or. I want to say, “Yes, let’s offer our thoughts and prayers especially for politicians to make changes that will make it more difficult for these mass shootings to occur.”

     Sometimes, our prayers do lead us to make positive changes in order to make this world a better place. It’s not one over the other.

     Whenever I pray for someone who is about to have surgery, I pray for the surgeon and the medical team to use their God-given abilities, skills, medical knowledge, training, and expertise in a way that would help that person to receive healing and wholeness. Whenever I pray for friends or family members who are going on a trip, I pray for them to make wise decisions and to be alert to any challenges they may face along the way.

     I do this because deep down, I believe that our prayers really do make a difference. Even though the Apostle Paul was in a prison and there wasn’t a whole lot that he could do from a prison cell, he knew that his prayers could make a big difference.

     One of the reasons our church was able to not only survive but thrive during all of those months when our church building was closed for many of our ministries, was because of all of our prayers. We never stopped praying whether it was through our online worship services or throughout our weekly email prayer chain. 

     The prayers kept pouring out. And whenever I received those prayer requests, it always reminded me that we were still praying. And God was answering our prayers. Even though we were often times physically separated from each other, we stayed connected through our prayers for each other.

     I know all of this may sound mysterious as we think about how prayer makes a difference so let me offer a more scientific approach. 

     Ilia Delia is a Christian author and theologian who focuses on the interaction of science and religion. She explains in her writings how quantum physics helps us to understand how prayer can make a difference. Yes, you can tell the people that you see after church that your pastor talked about quantum physics in the sermon.

     Delia makes the point that quantum physics is really about wave particle duality. Now, stay with me because I think you will find this really interesting.

     All matter is a form of energy and all energy is a form of matter. So instead of matter simply consisting of separate little atoms, these atoms are really energy that have a relationship with each other. In other words, there is no matter that exists independent of any other matter. It’s all deeply relational and interconnected fields within fields.

     So, for example, if you pick a flower on earth, you can move the farthest star. And that means that if I would take two particles that have interacted and I separate them by a vast distance, and I then place one particle on this pulpit here in Athens, Ohio and the other particle on the moon, and if I would place the particle on this pulpit 180 degrees here, that means that the particle on the moon should also turn 180 degrees down. 

     Albert Einstein is the one who first started talking about this idea of the relationality of particles even when they are separated by an incredibly long distance. Even though the particles aren’t communicating with each other, by changing one particle, you end up changing the other. The word that describes this relationality between particles is known as quantum entanglement. 

     Ilia Delio has taken this understanding of quantum physics where there is this incredible relationship with particles and has applied it to our interactions as humans. Our actions and our thoughts are not isolated. Our thoughts and actions affect others.

     She uses the example of someone who has been interacting with a friend. And that person might wonder how his or her friend is doing in that particular moment. And then maybe just a half hour later, that person gets a phone call or an email from that same person. These mysterious serendipitous moments happen to us from time to time leaving us wonder if that was just a coincidence. 

     Based on quantum physics, these so called “coincidences” might have something to do with how our thoughts and our actions can still have this relational connection even when you are totally separated from the other person. This idea of quantum entanglement can help us to see how creation itself is entangled with the Creator. Which means that God’s life affects our lives and our lives affect God’s life.

     And all of this is what our faith teaches us that God is personal. God is communicative. And God is relational. The incarnation where God becomes one of us through the person of Jesus Christ reminds us that even though God is distinct from matter, God is is also connected with matter. 

     And all of this can lead us to this theological conclusion: Everything that has been created, you, me and this entire world has a divine dimension of depth to it in which all matter is connected to an eternal source. And this is what makes this world holy. 

     So when you see the face of another person, you are in some sense seeing a reflection of the face of God. When you look at a leaf, you are in some sense seeing a reflection of God’s wisdom and glory. 

     Maybe instead of referring to this as “quantum entanglement,” we can think of prayer as an exercise in “holy entanglement.” When we pray, we release an energy, an energy of divine love that according to all of this scientific talk, can have a positive impact in our world. Our prayers are connected with God and can make a difference in the lives of others.

     Well, anyway, the Apostle Paul thought so. And that’s why he continued to pray even while he was in prison because he knew that those prayers would have an impact upon the Christians in Ephesus. 

     So much so that this is why Paul says in the last verse of our scripture reading,

     “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever, and ever. Amen.”

    And so, yes.  Our prayers really do make a difference! Thanks be to God!

Do My Prayers Make a Difference?

Sermon Discussion Questions
Ephesians 3:14-21
July 25, 2021

Pastor Robert shared that when he first arrived in Athens, he could already sense the prayers that had been lifted for him. 

Have you ever sensed that someone had been praying for you? Share what that experience was like.

In our Ephesians scripture reading, the Apostle Paul is in prison for his faith and he is letting the Christians in Ephesus know that he has been praying for them. 

Why do you think that Paul wanted to them to know that he was praying for them? How do you think this made them feel?

Our Ephesians reading reminds us of the importance of prayer.

Who do you pray for on a consistent basis? Do you ever wonder if your prayers are making a difference in that person’s life?

Pastor Robert shared the theological work of Ilia Delio who focuses on the interaction of science and religion. Ilia uses the concept of quantum physics to help describe how our prayers really can make a difference in the lives of others. She explains how quantum physics says that atoms are energy and they share a relationship. In a similar way, our prayers are a form of energy that share a relationship. She uses the example of when we are thinking of someone, we sometimes receive a call from that person. We wonder if it’s just a coincidence but based on quantum physics, it may be that our thoughts and our prayer energy are making a connection with that person.

Share a time when you felt that a connection was being made with someone through your prayers. 

Our church provides several different opportunities for sharing prayers. These include sharing prayer requests that are sent to our email prayer chain, sharing in worship service prayers such as the opening prayer of confession and the pastoral prayer. We also encourage our small groups and bible studies to begin with prayer.

Do you have a personal prayer routine throughout the week? Share some of the ways that you seek to make prayer more of a priority in your life.

Share in this worship prayer that was used in Sunday’s service:

O Lord, we confess that there are times when we wonder if you really hear our prayers. Sometimes you feel so far away and we begin to doubt if our prayers really make a difference. As our Psalm for today says, “we have all gone astray.” Help us to find our way again and to rejoice in how you have been our refuge and strength. When we look down and see that we only have five loaves and two fish to feed thousands of people, remind us to also look up and offer these gifts to you. You are able to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine! To you be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Online Worship (July 25) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
July 25
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]