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, May 16, 2022

Sermon (May 15) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Maybe you heard the joke about a man who enlisted in the army. And the first night while he's lying in bed contemplating his new surroundings, he hears someone yell out, "44!" Followed by laughter from the other soldiers.

     He thought that was pretty odd, then he heard someone else yell out, "72!" Followed by even more laughter.

     "What's going on?" he asked the guy next to him.

     "Well, we've all heard every joke so many times, we've given them each a number to make it easier."

     "Oh," he says, "can I try?"

     "Sure, go ahead."

     So, he yells out "102!" and the place goes nuts. People are laughing in hysteria. He looks at the guy nearest him rolling on the ground with tears in his eyes from laughing so hard.

     "Wow, good joke, huh?"

     "Yeah! That’s one we’ve never heard before!"

     I’ve been thinking about this old joke when I was reading over our Acts scripture reading for today, because it’s a story that was already told just a chapter earlier, and it’s kind of a long story. Sometimes I wonder if we should assign a number to each of these stories so why don’t have to repeat them word for word.

     Do you know of anybody who tells you the same story over and over again? Hey, don’t look at me like that! I mean, besides preachers!

     You can probably think of someone right now who tells you and others the same story over and over.

     These moments can get a little awkward because as soon as you realize they’re telling you that same story again, it can come across as rude if you would interrupt and say, “already heard it, like a million times!”

     I’m wondering if we were tempted to do the same thing just a little bit ago when we heard our Acts scripture reading. Here in Acts, chapter 11, the disciple Peter tells the other disciples the story of what happened to him one chapter earlier.

      I don’t know if you caught this or not, but before Peter tells them the story of what happened to him, we are told that Peter explained it to them step by step. When you hear those words, you know you’re going to get the long version! And Peter isn’t going to say halfway through, “And to make a long story short.” No, we have to hear the same long story that we already heard just one chapter earlier. 

     So, step by step, Peter tells these other disciples of how he was praying one day and he received a vision. And in this vision he could see a large sheet coming down out of heaven and it got really close to Peter, uncomfortably close.

     And all of these ritually unclean animals were on this sheet that was being lowered to earth. And Peter could hear a voice telling him to kill and eat. But then he says how there was no way that he was going to eat these animals even though he was really hungry at the time, because the bible clearly says to not eat these particular animals, but then the voice spoke again, “Peter what God has made clean, you must not call profane.” He goes on to say how everything in that large sheet was all of the sudden pulled up into heaven.

     This long story continues…

     And then Peter tells them that just then, three men appeared to him from the gentile city of Caesarea, the ritually unclean city of Caesarea, I might add. And the Holy Spirit told him to not ask questions, just go and follow those men to that Gentile city. 

     And when they arrived there at this Gentile house, (told you this was a long story), they told Peter that an angel had appeared to them telling them to send men to Joppa and find a person named Peter to bring back to their city. The angel said that this man will have a message to share with them about salvation.

     Peter said that when he began to preach there in that Gentile and ritually unclean house, surprisingly the Holy Spirit descended upon everyone and everyone in that house was saved. The point of this story is that God had to send Peter a strange and powerful vision to help him see his faith in a radically new way in which Gentiles were no longer to be viewed as outsiders of the Jewish/Christian faith. God’s all-embracing love was meant for all people.

     The reason Peter shared this long story with the other leaders of the early church is because they had asked him or more likely demanded of him to answer the question, “Why did you as a faithful Jew even think about entering the house of someone who was outside the Jewish faith? Don’t you know your own bible? You know we don’t do that! Explain yourself, Peter and you better have a good answer.”That’s my paraphrase of this part of the story.

     Now, what do you think would have worked best? For Peter to give these church leaders a lecture on the importance of being inclusive or telling them this amazing story that led to a whole non-Jewish household receiving the good news of Jesus? When trying to help people look at their faith and belief system in a new way, stories can be so much more impactful.

     I notice how so much of the Bible is in story form rather than bullet point statements. And often times these stories get told and retold over and over again. Stories are what shape us as human beings. Families have stories that are shared again and again and they serve to remind us of who we are. They shape us and give us an identity. But these stories can also challenge us to think about our faith in a new way, especially the new stories and experiences in life that we encounter.

     There are many other examples of stories getting repeated in the Bible. We have this one that became a game-changer in helping those early church leaders to see how God was breaking down cultural and religious barriers in order for the gospel to include more and more people.

     These stories get repeated because each time we hear them, God has a way of helping us to see our faith in a new way. Same old story, but it connects with us in a new way.

     This story that Peter shared about the Holy Spirit coming upon a non-Jewish household opens us up to how God is inviting us to move beyond the established boundaries in our worldview and be part of the new thing that God wants to do in and through us.

     Pastor Cyndi McDonald tells the story of her niece, Samantha who upon turning 10, asked to invite ten friends to her birthday party. Everyone would bring their overnight bags, but her plan was that after the dinner, cake and gifts, she would present one of her guests with a rose. All the other guests would return home. Her mother was shocked and dismayed that her daughter would even think of an idea like this. 

     The reason that Samantha thought of this was because unknown to her mother, she had been watching The Bachelor show on TV. On The Bachelor, that’s what they do. The person gives a rose to the person they like the most and the others go home. You see, it’s not only the Gentiles of Peter’s time who are told they are not worthy of being included.

     Pastor Cyndi goes on to say that she shared this story about her niece during a sermon with her small rural church in Missouri. The next Sunday, during the last hymn of the worship service, Pastor Cyndi passed out a flower to everyone in worship that morning, repeating to each person the words, “Everyone gets a flower. Everyone gets a flower. Everyone gets a flower.”

     She said that she wondered how her idea might have impacted the people who were there that Sunday in worship. Sometimes, we preachers have great ideas and other times, not so great. 

     But later that week, Pastor Cyndi ended up talking with a soft-spoken bachelor farmer who always sits in the back pew because he likes to arrive late and leave early to avoid talking to people. This farmer had called her to say how much the flower meant to him. He said that in his 70 years, no one had ever given him a flower. 

     It was the first of many conversations she would have with him about the meaning of God’s grace and the pain of feeling left out. He had always wondered about these questions and because of that flower, he now felt comfortable to talk about it.

     Now, I’m sure Pastor Cyndi could have gone with a different approach in getting her point across about the importance of widening the circle and including others in the church, but that story about Samantha and the giving of a flower to each person, was something that little congregation will never forget, especially that soft-spoken bachelor farmer who now felt included and welcomed.

     When I first heard about this story, I couldn’t help but to think of another story that has always stayed with me. A pastor friend of mine said that it was the custom in his church on Mother’s Day for a church member to give all of the mothers a flower during the worship service. 

     He said that one year he had a guest preacher fill in for him that Sunday and this guest preacher’s wife was in the congregation. For some reason, when the church member came to her pew, he started to hand her a flower, but then realized she was a visitor, and he said, “Oh, you don’t get one. These flowers are only for our church members.”

     When the pastor of the church heard about what happened to this guest preacher’s wife, he called and apologized. He was so embarrassed. This guest preacher’s wife graciously thanked him for his concern, but he still felt really bad about it.

     I had another pastor tell me that they went back to worship at a church they had served several years ago. They sat down in one of the pews waiting for the service to begin when another couple came up to them and said, “Please move over, you’re sitting in our seats.”

     No wonder that the Bible wants us to hear these same old stories over and over again, these stories of how God is always seeking to break down barriers and move us beyond our comfort zones so that more and more people are included and welcomed in God’s family.

     Thankfully, I know of many more stories where I see people including others. Someone new comes to a church event and a church member welcomes them and helps them to feel at home.

     A United Methodist pastor who had always believed in being inclusive but never really spoke out regarding his denomination’s ban on conducting same sex weddings or allowing the ordination of those who are gay because of his previous theological interpretation of scripture. He finally speaks out in protest because God opened his eyes to the tremendous emotional pain that is caused when people are forced to suppress their sexual orientation. 

     A church choir director watching a TV remake of the 1973 musical, Jesus Christ Superstar becomes inspired and receives a vision from God to direct that same musical in his local area with the purpose of reaching people beyond his own church. Instead of performing it in his church where their events are usually held, he has it performed under a massive tent on the grounds of a popular local winery where over 2,000 people end up coming from all over the county to watch it and reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ teachings and ministry and his willingness to die on a cross. 

     A church’s preschool and Monday lunch ministry decide to partner together and provide a community blessing box of canned goods and children’s books so that people can have access to these essential resources.

     These stories are what lead us to break down barriers. These stories are happening all around us because of the same old story of God’s desire for everyone to be welcomed and included in God’s family.

The Same Old Story

Sermon Discussion Questions
Acts 11:1-18
May 15, 2022

Since most of the Bible is in narrative (story) form, a lot of stories get repeated. Such as this case for this past Sunday where our appointed Acts reading in chapter 11 is a retelling of the same story a chapter earlier! As a reader of the Bible, it might be tempting to skip over the retelling of the story that we just read! But, the scriptures invite us to hear the same old story more than once.

Does your family have a story that often gets told when you get together? Why are these stories important to hear, especially those that get repeated several times?

In our scripture reading from Acts, Peter tells the other church leaders why he baptized gentiles (non-Jews) into the Christian faith. Up to this time, gentiles were first expected to become Jewish and then become followers of Jesus. Peter tells them the long story of how he was at his home when God sent a vision of a large sheet being lowered from heaven containing several unclean animals that no faithful Jew would ever eat. The voice tells Peter to eat anyway. After Peter has this vision, some gentiles from the ritually unclean city of Caesarea come to see Peter. They were told in a vision to come and get Peter and bring him back to their city to meet a gentile and his family. Peter does so and when he arrives, shares the good news of Jesus with them and they were all baptized! 

Why do you think Peter in order to defend his actions, told those early church leaders this long story to explain why he baptized gentiles? Why do you think stories can be more impactful and convincing then other methods?

Pastor Robert shared the story of a a pastor’s niece who hosted a birthday party at her house for her 10th birthday. She told her mother that she was going to give just one of her friends a rose, at her party, the friend she liked the most and send her other friends home. She wanted to do this because she had watched The Bachelor on TV and that’s what they do on the show. Her mother explained that this was not a nice thing to do because it would make her friends feel bad. 

What are some other examples of people seeking to excluding others? Why do you think people do this?

Share an example of where people were welcoming and included others who were new. What do you think motivated them to be inclusive and welcoming of others?

Close with this prayer from Sunday’s worship service:

O God, we confess how easy it can be for us to forget the stories of our faith. Thank you for your repeated reminders of who you are and who you are calling us to be. Quicken our hearts and minds so that we hear your Word in a new and fresh way today. May we never tire of hearing the old, old story of Jesus and his love. Like the disciple, Peter, lead us to share the good news of our faith with others, not just once, but again and again. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Online Worship (May 15) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
May 15
(5th Sunday of Easter)
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, May 9, 2022

Sermon (May 8) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Every year toward the end of March or early April, Penny and I will be driving somewhere during one of those first warm and sunny days, and I will exclaim with joy, “everything looks so green!”

     I always look forward to that day when I become overwhelmed with the signs of spring and new life all around us, especially after a long and cold winter.

     Today is what has become known as “Shepherd’s Sunday.” It’s around this time every year that the shepherd’s psalm, Psalm 23 is paired with the Good Shepherd scripture reading from John, chapter ten. 

     This Good Shepherd Sunday and my “everything looks so green” day always lifts my spirit and restores my soul. 

     In a bible commentary that I was reading about our Gospel reading for today where Jesus refers to himself as the “Good Shepherd,” it said that a more fitting word would be “beautiful.” Jesus is our “beautiful” shepherd. By the word, “beautiful” this bible scholar was not referring to the shepherd’s physical appearance but to what this shepherd offers his sheep. 

     We are drawn to the shepherd’s unconditional love, mercy, forgiveness, wisdom, protection, hope, strength, companionship, and of course, the shepherd’s saving grace. This is what makes Jesus so beautiful and why people are so drawn to Jesus.

     Thinking of Jesus as our Beautiful Shepherd in this way helps us understand why Jesus says in our Gospel reading, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

     Where does Jesus as our beautiful shepherd lead us? Think of Psalm 23. “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.”

     Green pastures! GREEN pastures! Our shepherd invites us to “go green” which refers to that place where our souls can be renewed and replenished. 

    When Jesus calls our names, he calls us to “go green,” and to find that space where our souls can find peace. Where is your green space that Jesus is calling you to follow him so that you can find that sense of peace, security, and protection? 

     I served a church near Dayton, Ohio and while we were there, they built an outdoor shopping area like Easton in Columbus and it’s called, “The Greene.” 

     Everybody couldn’t wait to go to “The Greene” to go shopping and we did on a number of occasions while we lived in that area. During our time there, I came across a young pastor who felt called by God to begin a new church start in the middle of that new outdoor shopping center. 

     He explained that he wanted to provide a church presence in that shopping area for store managers, retail workers, groundskeepers, and shoppers and to provide a sense of community and spiritual support for the people of that retail community.

     For this young pastor, to “go green,” meant to go to “The Greene” and to be a blessing to the people in that retail community. If going green can lead us to a shopping center, what about a hotel room?

          Twelve years ago at a church I was serving, I officiated for the funeral of an elderly church member. She didn’t have a lot of surviving family members, but her brother who drove up from South Carolina met me at the church to help me prepare for the funeral service.

     He was very nice and told me a lot about his sister. And then I asked him if there was any particular scripture that he wanted me to read during the service. And he said to me, “Yes, my favorite scripture is Psalm 23. I’d like you to read that during the service. It has special meaning for me.” And so I asked him what he liked about this psalm, and he told me the most amazing story.

     He said that he was in his hotel room in Philadelphia many, many years ago. He said that he couldn’t get to sleep because he was feeling very nervous and anxious that night. He said that he opened the nightstand drawer in his hotel room and found a bible. He opened it to Psalm 23 and after he read it, it really helped him to feel at peace and he was able to get some needed sleep that night so that he would be rested for the next day. 

     But he wasn’t done with his story. He said that the reason he was so nervous that night was because he was going to be the starting pitcher for a baseball game the next day. And he said that he ended up pitching one of his best games he ever pitched. He said that they beat the Philadelphia Phillies that day and that he was able to strike out Richie Ashburn to help win the game.

     And it was at that point when I said, “Excuse me? What did you say? Were you a major league pitcher?”

    To make a long story short, I discovered that I was talking to Jim Waugh who was a starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950’s. He grew up in Lancaster, Ohio. And he told me that he had the record for being the youngest pitcher to win a game for the Pittsburgh Pirates when he was just 18 years old.  Joe Garagiola was the catcher for that game.

     And he said that’s why Psalm 23 has so much meaning for him. It helped him to know that the Lord was his shepherd and he didn’t have anything to fear.

     For this young Major League Baseball pitcher, a bible in his hotel room was the green space that he needed to calm his nerves and place his trust in his loving shepherd.

     My family has a cottage in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. My mom and dad bought this as a vacation home back in the 1970s. They would take us there during the summer. It was about a two and a half hour drive from where we lived. The cottage is located along a mountain range that’s very secluded and near a beautiful state park. Even though mom and dad are no longer with us, I feel their presence whenever I visit there which is about once a year. 

     My mother’s bible is still there in the cottage near one of the windows where she would enjoy looking out at the beautiful green trees surrounding her. I can still picture her reading that bible with a cup of coffee next to it. Sometimes when I’m there visiting, I’ll open her bible and see where she highlighted some verses and scribbled some notes in the margin. That was where my mom and dad “went green,” in that little escape to the mountains of Central Pennsylvania.

     Our shepherd has many green spaces where we our souls can be restored. 

     When one of my uncles died several years ago, my family asked me to read Psalm 23 during the funeral service which was held in northern Maryland near where he lived. My uncle was a farmer all his life and that small country church was packed with other farmers and their families. I began reading this Psalm like I usually do, using the King James Version which is the common way this psalm is read and the way most of us have learned it.

     And so I started reading it, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…”

     And I just stopped reading it after that first line of the Psalm because I realized in that moment that Uncle Bill’s whole life was about spending time in green pastures on his farm. I think people at that funeral were wondering if I was OK because I just stood there for a few moments of silence thinking about that line from Uncle Bill’s perspective. He literally spent his whole life living out Psalm 23 by working on his farm.

     My green space is in the study of our house. Every Monday, I have an all day appointment with Jesus and I spend that time in prayer, listening for the shepherd’s voice, and writing sermons. I refer to this as my “Mondays with Jesus” time. I’ve been doing this for the past 27 years. 

     I have other green spaces as well, but those Mondays in my study are a time for me to not only work on sermons, but to invite God to restoreth my soul. And depending on how it went on Monday, sometimes, I also need to have Tuesdays with Jesus, and Wednesdays with Jesus and maybe even Thursdays with Jesus in order to finish the sermon.

     Actually, Jesus calls us to go green everyday, to find those green pastures and still waters where our souls can be renewed. 

     This sanctuary is a green space for us. I love how we refer to our church building as “a haven of blessing and peace.” This is holy space for us where we worship, fellowship and encourage one another as we listen for the shepherd’s voice calling our names.

     What would lead a young pastor to begin a new church in an outdoor shopping center?  What would lead an anxious young man to open a bible in a hotel room because he can’t sleep? What would lead a mother to always have a bible next to a window looking out toward the trees along a mountain range? What would lead a farmer to spend his whole life taking care of green pastures? What would lead a pastor to escape from the world for a day each week to see what God might want to say through him? And what would lead some people every Sunday morning to meet in this place to have their souls restored?

     I know what would lead us to do such a thing. The voice of a good shepherd, a beautiful shepherd who calls each one of us by name, who leads us to green pastures, and who restoreth our souls.

     Go green!

Go Green!

Sermon Discussion Questions
Psalm 23 & John 10:22-30
May 8, 2022

Today is what is known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” on the church calendar. All of the appointed scripture readings for this day are focused on God as our Good Shepherd. In Psalm 23, the psalmist says that the Lord who is our shepherd leads us still waters and green pastures. What a beautiful image of what it means to “go green” and follow our shepherd to those places where our souls can be restored as the Psalmist says. 

Share where your “green space” is that helps your soul to be restored. What is it about that space that provides renewal for you?

 Pastor Robert shared several examples of how people “Go Green” in finding renewal for their souls. 1) A young pastor who started a ministry in an outdoor shopping complex which ironically is called, “The Greene” which is located near Dayton, Ohio. 2) A Major League pitcher who couldn’t sleep in his hotel room the night before a big game so he pulled a bible from the drawer of the nightstand and he read Psalm 23 which gave him a sense of peace and he was able to get to sleep. 3) A couple who had a vacation home along a mountain range 4) A farmer who spent his whole life farming green pastures. 5) A pastor who spends every Monday in his study praying, reflecting, and preparing sermons.

What are some other places that people use to “Go Green” where they can hear the Shepherd’s voice and where their souls can be restored and renewed?

At Athens First UMC, we have often referred to our sanctuary as “a haven of blessing and peace.” Our sanctuary is a holy space where we can “go green” each week and have our souls restored and renewed. One church member commented that every time he comes into our sanctuary, he feels a sense of peace.

In what ways does weekly Sunday worship restore and renew your soul?

Share in this “Go Green” closing prayer from our Sunday worship service:

Loving Shepherd, all of heaven is proclaiming, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne and to the Lamb!” We desperately want to hear these words of victory especially when we are feeling alone and discouraged. Like sheep, we get get easily distracted and stray from your ways. Lead us back to green pastures and still waters where we can hear your praises above the noise and distractions of our busy world. O Shepherd, open our ears and help us to listen. Amen.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Online Worship (May 8) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
May 8
(4th Sunday of Easter)
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]