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, July 21, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (July 21) Athens First UMC



[Our Honduras mission team got home late Saturday night. They were busy building sinks and latrines, pouring concrete floors, mudding walls, and teaching the children. See below for more pictures. Our mission team stayed focused on sharing their faith by serving others which was our worship focus on Sunday. For the sermon, click here.]

Gracious and compassionate God, whenever we get distracted like Martha in our Gospel reading this morning, remind us of what is most important. Remind us to stay focused on Jesus. When we come up against challenges and distractions that would keep us from you, may the words of our prayer chorus come to mind, “He’s the great Shepherd, the Rock of all ages, almighty God is he.”

As we go through our everyday lives, give us the focus of those Apollo 11 astronauts, who fifty years ago, were able to do the unthinkable by walking on the moon. Lord, you have taught us that when we keep our focus on you, that we can do the unthinkable. That one small step in faith can turn into one giant leap for the sake of your kingdom.

Thank you for our summer mission team that took a step in faith by serving in Honduras this past week. Thank you for using them to be a blessing through building sinks and latrines, paving concrete floors, muddling walls, and sharing their faith.

Thank you for every single small step that is taken to help us have a more Loving Faith, a more Learning Faith, and a more Living Faith.

Thank you for the small step our church will be taking less than a month from now when we gather for the Faith Builders Two-Day Training Event here at our church. We pray for Rev. Jeff Motter who will be leading us and guiding us through this important way that we can strengthen our relationships with each other and especially with the people of our community.

O Jesus, your name is wonderful because you are our mighty King; a mighty King who keeps us steady in a very unstable world; a mighty King who gives us peace when we are in pre-op waiting for surgery; a mighty King who promises to be with us as we prepare to move to a new location; a mighty King who forgives us all our sins; a mighty King who teaches us to boldly pray together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”



[This is one of the pilas which they built; outside sink used for many purposes including laundry and dishes.]



[Looks like our mission team serving in Honduras this past week had a lot of fun sharing their faith!]

Sermon (July 21) by Rev. Robert McDowell



     Today, we begin a sermon series called “License Plate Sightings.” We’re going to spend the next several weeks through Labor Day Weekend focusing on Jesus’ teachings from the Gospel of Luke. Each Sunday, we’ll focus on a vanity license plate that will correspond with a particular teaching of Jesus.

    A couple of years ago, I was reading an article in the Columbus Dispatch that focused on the popularity of religious vanity license plates.  The article said that over the past six years, a Bloom Township couple has identified 275 religious vanity license plates while out driving.  

    These include O GLORY, 1 FAITH, & JC FREAK and some that are a little more difficult to decipher.  Some of the plates include scripture references like LUKE 6 31. That’s the Golden Rule in which Jesus says, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

      So let’s get started. Our vanity plate for today is KISS.  KISS is a shorthand way of saying, “Keep it simple…saint.” You thought I was going to use a different word, didn’t you? Jesus wants us to remember to keep things simple. I like this K.I.S.S. reminder from Jesus because it’s so easy for us to complicate things end get our focus off of what is vitally important.

     The Gospel writer, Luke, introduces us to Mary and Martha who provide a place for Jesus to stay during his journey.   Mary kept things simple.  She simply sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to him, something that I hope we do during this entire sermon series and beyond this series for our daily living - listening to Jesus.  The implication in this story is that Martha also wanted to listen to Jesus but felt that she couldn’t listen because of all of the things that needed to get done.  Martha was distracted.

    Whenever I read this story, I can always relate to Martha.  I know that we should be more like Mary and listen to Jesus, but do you want your guest to see dishes in the sink, shoes in front of the couch, an unmade bed, an unclean bathroom, and dirty windows?

     And when you know that you’re going to be entertaining a guest at your house, it’s always good to have a little extra help to clean things up like maybe your sister, Mary…hint, hint, someone like Mary, to come and lend a hand or two to get things ready for your guests. Mary didn’t even bother to ask Martha if she could help her.  

     You got to feel for Martha in all of this.  She wants things to be nice and she wants to be a good host.

     So let me ask us this question.  Was Mary lazy?  Was she unaware of the dishes in the sink, the shoes in front of the couch, the unmade bed, the unclean bathroom, and the dirty windows?  

     I don’t think that Mary was unaware of these things.  I just think that she was more aware of Jesus.

     I mean, how often are you given the opportunity to host the Son of God in your home and listen to Him face to face?  Martha, on the other hand, was more aware of the tasks that had to be completed, than she was with the physical presence of Jesus.

     And so Martha allows her distraction to interrupt this holy moment. Martha tells Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?  Tell her to help me.”

     And Jesus tells Martha, “You are distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

     Do you know what Jesus was telling Martha?  Simplify your life.  Stay focused on me.  Don’t let anything get in the way of our relationship.  Arrange your life in such a way that nothing gets between us.  Keep your life simple.

     What kind of distractions do we allow to get in the way of our relationship with Jesus Christ?  I think it all boils down to external distractions and internal distractions.

     What are some external distractions that can get in the way of us having a vital and growing relationship with Jesus Christ?

     External factors are distractions that are beyond our control.  

     If you are ever preparing for a ministry event that will touch lives for Jesus Christ, expect there to be lots and lots of external distractions getting in your way. 

     Just think about the Book of Acts in the New Testament.  There were a lot of external distractions that the apostles had to face.  It’s amazing.  They were thrown in prison, beaten, & often misunderstood by the crowds as they shared the good news of their faith.

     Whenever you try to do something good in the name of Christ, expect external distractions to come your way.  But in the midst of those external distractions that are beyond our control, let us also keep in mind that Jesus promises to see us through those distractions.

     Oswald Chambers the great Christian writer from the last century and who has written the great devotional book, My Utmost for His Highest, says this about the trials and external problems that we face as Christians.  “If you are going to be used by God, he will take you through a multitude of experiences that are not meant for you at all; they are meant to make you useful in God’s hands.”

     God allows us to encounter external distractions so that we can be more useful in His hands.

     John Wesley, the founder of Methodism once commented during a period of time in his ministry that he must have been doing something wrong because things were going so smoothly for him.

     Churches that aren’t experiencing problems and frustrations are probably not being faithful in their mission.  Christians that aren’t experiencing problems and frustrations are probably not being faithful in their mission.  Jesus himself said, “You will experience tribulations in this world.  Count on it.”

     The keys to handling these external distractions are for us to number one, 1) Expect distractions to happen, and 2) Stay focused on what God wants you to do.  If what we are doing is what God wants us to do, then we don’t need to worry about the external distractions.  

     Cicero once said, “The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory.”   William Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

     In our scripture from Luke’s Gospel, Martha allowed an external distraction, the need to get the house ready for Jesus, to get in the way of her main mission which was to be with Jesus and grow in a personal relationship with Jesus.  She allowed an external distraction, which was the need to provide hospitality to get in the way of what was most important in that moment.

     I understand these external distractions all too well. In one of the churches I served, I was about to process up the sanctuary aisle to begin worship one Sunday morning when someone came up to me, grabbed my worship stoles and said, “the downstairs toilet is running over!” And so, we had to delay worship so that we could figure out what to do.

     Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. On Friday, NPR interviewed a 60 year old man who shared how his father helped with the mission. The man was only ten years old at the time.

     When the ship was leaving the moon to return to earth, a satellite dish bearing had broken and his dad needed to think of a solution. Without that bearing in the satellite dish fixed, they wouldn’t be able to communicate with the astronauts during the return trip. 

     The problem was that nobody at the command center could reach back to a bearing through a small hole in the satellite dish that needed to be greased so his father went home and woke up his son and brought him to the station. This ten year old’s arm was small enough to fit through the hole to grease the bearing. And sure enough, the satellite started working again. 

     That ten year old boy who is now 60 telling this story, shared how he was so proud of his dad for thinking of a solution to what was a major problem and he was glad he could help him.

     External distractions will come our way. They happen to all of us. The question is how do we handle those external distractions so they don’t take away our focus on Christ.

    But in addition to external distractions, we also have to deal with internal distractions.  Unlike external distractions, internal distractions are things that we can control more or less.  

     But in addition to external distractions, we also have to deal with internal distractions.  Unlike external distractions, internal distractions are things that we can control more or less.

     For example, even though Martha was dealing with the external distraction of needing to get the house ready for Jesus, she didn’t need to interrupt Jesus and Mary like she did.  In trying to avoid a social faux pa in not providing hospitality, Martha actually committed a faux pa when she interrupted them.

     A good friend of mine served on staff at a large church and he was telling me that his church bought over a hundred devotional books for people in the church who wanted to intentionally read scripture throughout the year. When I talked to my friend a few months later, I asked him how things were going with the devotional books.  And he said, “Most people had let the discipline of reading the scriptures every day go by the wayside.  Most of the people were not even reading the devotional book anymore.”  

     Sometimes, it’s just a matter that we don’t follow through with our commitments and keeping our focus on Christ. We allow internal distractions to get in the way of what is most important.  Why did people in my friend’s church stop reading the devotional book?  They found other things that they wanted to do with their time.

     It takes a real commitment for us to keep things simple in our Christian faith.

     One of the ways that we seek to keep things simple here in our church is to have a very clear mission and a very clear strategy in living out our mission. We don’t want to over complicate what we are about here as a church. 

     So, our clear mission is that we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. And our clear strategy to make that happen is for each person in our church to have a Loving Faith, a Learning Faith, and a Living Faith. I call this our 3 “L” discipleship strategy.

     I pray this strategy every single morning at 11 o’clock. I call it the “L” prayer @ Eleven. “Lord, lead us in having a Loving Faith, a Learning Faith, and a Living Faith.”

     We even have the ministries of our church fall under one of those “L’s.” 

     A Loving Faith ministry is any ministry that helps us to love God and love each other. A Learning Faith ministry is any ministry that helps us to learn about our faith. A Living Faith ministry is any ministry that helps us to live our our faith by serving others.

     How simple is that? We make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by having a Loving Faith, a Learning Faith, and a Living Faith.

     Last month, before the vacation season, I encouraged us to keep three things in mind for these summer months. The first thing was for us to enjoy the summer. Enjoy this beautiful time of the year. The second thing was for us to keep practicing the spiritual disciplines of our faith like attending weekly worship, praying, reading the Bible, and serving. 

     And then the third thing I shared was for us to look forward to an incredible church-wide event that our church will be hosting next month on August 16 and 17, Friday dinner through Saturday afternoon. We’re calling it “Faith Builders” to help us strengthen the relationships we have inside as well as outside our church. 

     A good friend of mine, Rev. Jeff Motter will be our retreat leader for this event. I mention this in the sermon today for two reasons. First of all, we are receiving reservations for this event. But secondly, I mention it because this retreat will help our church to keep things simple which is our worship theme for today.

     Church doesn’t have to be all that complicated. Being part of a church family is all about having healthy and growing relationships with each other and with the people in our community. Yes, it’s really that simple. It’s all about having healthy relationships.

     When I was ordained an Elder in the United Methodist Church back in 1991, a dear friend of mine, my spiritual mentor gave me a wonderful gift. It was a small New Testament bible that could fit in the glove compartment of my car. It’s been my constant road companion in all my cars since 1991. In fact, I used this bible this past week when I was making a hospital visit.

     My friend knew that this little bible would come in handy for me when I would be out making pastoral visits. And knowing how easy it can be in the pastoral ministry to focus on things that really don’t matter, compared to keeping our focus on Christ, he wrote these words inside that little bible.

     Sometimes, I will open it up and remind myself of his words to me. It says, “Robert, stay focused on Christ!”

     Mary teaches us what it means to keep our focus on Christ. She teaches us how to overcome the external distractions and even the internal distractions that may come our way. 

     How do you and I keep our focus on Christ and not on things that aren’t really all that important? Remember today’s vanity license plate message…

     KISS. 

     Keep it simple, saint.


License Plate Sightings: KISS
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 10:38-42
July 21, 2019

We are beginning a 7-week sermon series on “License Plate Sightings” in which we will be looking at a vanity license plate messages that corresponds to Jesus’ teachings from the Gospel of Luke. Vanity license plates often will have a subtle way of stating something fun or important to the other drivers on the road.
Share an interesting vanity license message that you have seen. Why do you think the driver chose that message?
Sunday’s vanity plate message is KISS which stands for “Keep it Simple, Saint.” This is what Mary teaches us to do from our Luke scripture passage because she didn’t allow the distractions around her to get in the way of keeping her primary focus on Jesus.
Read Luke 10:38-42 which is the story about Mary and Martha. 
Why do you think that Martha was distracted? Why wasn’t Mary distracted?
Pastor Robert shared that that there are external and internal distractions that can keep us from our focus on Christ. External distractions are out of our control but there are two things for us to keep in mind when facing them. 1) Know that they will happen and we can’t avoid them. 2) Stay focused on what God wants you to do. 
Share some external distractions that you have faced or that you are facing now?
In addition to external distractions that are out of our control, we also face internal distractions that are in our control, like making our faith a priority in our lives. One of the ways that our church helps one another to KISS, is by emphasizing the “3 ‘L’ Discipleship” strategy. We encourage each other to be involved in at least one ministry in each of these three “L’s.” These include having a LOVING FAITH, a LEARNING FAITH, and a LIVING FAITH. Go to our church website and at the top of our homepage there are 3 tabs that will list our ministries.
How can these “3 ‘L’” ministries KISS? Why are all three areas important?
Pastor Robert shared that a friend of his always reminded him to “stay focused on Jesus.” Even though his friend has passed away, he will always remember these words.
Share at least one way that you can KISS beginning this week.
Pray our church’s “L” Prayer @ Eleven Prayer each day at 11 am. “Lord, lead us in having a Loving Faith, a Learning Faith, and a Living Faith. Amen.”

Monday, July 15, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (July 14) Athens First UMC


[The sermon focused on how our church is planting seeds of the gospel that are bearing fruit. For the sermon, 
click here. One of the ways that we can be even more equipped to bear fruit is by participating in the Faith Builders training event that will be held at our church one month from now. This was mentioned in the sermon. See information below on event information and how to register.]

Led by Rev. Jeff Motter, Senior Pastor Saint Andrews UMC, Findlay Ohio
Saturday, Aug. 17, 8:00 am to 2:30 pm (B-fast & Lunch Included)

$10/Person  Registration begins Sunday, July 14. Email jan@firstumcathens.org.
Please include your name and contact information. Checks can be made payable to Athens First UMC. For more information call the church office 740-593-3977 ext 10.


O God, thank you for giving us seeds of your good news to sow and bear fruit in our community and world. The garden of your kingdom is blooming all around us through acts of compassion, mercy, and justice. Thank you for our summer mission team as they plant seeds of your good news in Honduras this week with the people they serve.

Bless all of our loving faith, learning faith, and living faith ministries that they may continue to bear fruit through our church. We pray a special blessing upon the August Faith Builders training event and Rev. Jeff Motter who will be leading us. O God, what a joy and privilege it is to sow seeds of your kingdom!

May our prayer this morning sow seeds of your comfort, healing, and love in the hearts of those who are grieving over the loss of loved one, who are facing medical challenges, who are going through a time of transition, who are struggling to make a living, and who are without hope. O God, let all who are in need of your love know that you are a God who cares about all of our needs, heartaches, anxieties, pain, grief, hopes, and joys.

Thank you, O God for the seeds of your beauty that you plant in our hearts. Like beautiful sunsets and sunrises. Like spending time with a good friend you haven’t seen for a while. Like going on a retreat and planning out a year’s worth of sermons. Like coming to church and being drawn closer to you.

For all of these seeds of hope and beauty, we give you thanks, O God even as we pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray together,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Sermon (July 14) by Rev. Robert McDowell



     So, I wrote you all a personal letter and instead of sending it out in the mail this past week, I decided to just read it to you here in worship since I knew I would be seeing you. Plus it will save on postage. My letter has a long introduction so I’ll just read that portion of it for you this morning. Here it is.

     “Robert, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God; To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus at Athens First UMC in Athens, Ohio not to be confused with Athens First UMC in Athens, Georgia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. In my prayers for you, I always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for I have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. 

     You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.

     This you learned from several former pastors and current church leaders. They are faithful ministers on your behalf and they have made know to me your love in the Spirit.

     For this reason, since the day I heard it, I have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

     May you be made strong with all the strength that come from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

     So that’s the first part of my letter to you and you can hear the rest of my letter during future worship services. I’m not sure when, but whenever the lectionary includes it as one of the appointed Sunday readings.

     OK, as you might have guessed, I plagiarized most of that. That personal letter was actually written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Colossae, located in the region of southwest, Turkey. It’s a church that Paul had founded and he sent this letter to let them know that he is always giving thanks to God for their fruitful ministry in that area of the world.

     Fruitful. I intentionally used that specific word because Paul actually uses it in the introduction of his letter. The reason Paul is always thanking God for the people in his churches is because the seeds they have been faithfully planting for God’s kingdom are now bearing fruit. Paul is commending them for their spiritual gardening skills.

     Bible scholar, Tom Wright tells the story of Susan who bought a house that had a garden where nothing had grown in it for quite a while. Oh, there were a couple of little shrubs, a shriveled rosebush or two, and a tree that had been bent sideways by a storm and left to grow crooked. It was a garden that hadn’t been given any attention for a long time.

     Sadly, there are many churches like that depressing garden. The building is there. There are even some people in it from time to time, but there isn’t much fruit.

     Back to Susan and her new home. Just a couple of days after she moved in, a friend came to visit and brought some seeds for her dying garden. They were special seeds, he said; not what you’d expect. Once you’d sown them and watered them, plants would grow vigorously and would quickly cover a large area with beautiful flowers. 

     But that wasn’t all. Hidden under the leaves would be a delicious fruit. When that appeared, and ripened, then you’d know the plants had come to stay.

     Within a week or two, this garden was transformed, and Susan decided to get rid of the old plants and let the new ones flourish. They quickly filled the small space with color and perfume. It was one of the most beautiful gardens people had ever seen.

     Susan was so thrilled, she decided to call her friend to tell her about it. And she wanted to know all about this plant that had transformed her new garden. She hadn’t been able to find anything about it in any of the garden books she every read.
 
     Her friend told her, “Ah, you see Susan, this plant is something entirely new and it’s transforming gardens everywhere making them new again. You’re part of a whole new world.”

     While the story of Susan and her garden didn’t really happen, it does illustrate why the Apostle Paul is constantly giving thanks to God for the church in Colossae. The people of that church had received very special seeds from God. They were seeds with the message that God had sent Jesus to redeem and rescue the world from sin and death.

     Like Susan’s friend in the story, the Apostle Paul shared the seeds of the good news of Jesus Christ with the people of Colossae so that they would be able to plant a church that would be fruitful in offering God’s transforming love to the people around them. And the reason that Paul is writing to them is because he wants them to know how thankful he is that they have continued to plant these good news seeds which have been leading to a very fruitful and beautiful new garden of God’s grace and love.

     This is what happens when churches continue to faithfully plant the seeds of God’s kingdom. They bear fruit. They lead to changed lives. They lead to transformation. They lead to hope and new life in ways they could never have imagined. 



[Methodist Circuit Rider Preacher, Rev. James Quinn who started our church back in 1800. Notice in the drawing above that there wasn’t a church building when he started the congregation, but look how the seeds of the gospel he planted and gave to us have grown and grown over all these years!]

     Next year will mark the 220th anniversary of our church. In 1800, Rev. James Quinn, a circuit riding Methodist preacher came to this part of Ohio to plant seeds of the gospel that would lead to the beginning of this church. To this day, we continue to plant these special seeds that were given to us over two hundred years ago. 

     Like Susan’s friend told her in the garden story, thanks to the good news of Jesus Christ, we get to be part of this whole new world. Our lives are not the same because of God’s grace at work in our lives. And as we plant those seeds here in our community, we are bearing so much fruit through our loving faith, learning faith, and living faith ministries. 

     When I saw this Colossians scripture reading as one of the readings for today, I realized that I feel the same way that he felt about the church of Colossae. I feel so thankful for the many ways that our church is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. 

     The introduction of his letter to the Colossians conveys exactly what I want to share with you today. “To all the saints of Athens First, in my prayers for you, I always thank God because I always hear about your faith in Christ and how you are bearing fruit.”

     I want all of you to know that you are in my prayers every day. When I wake up, I get my coffee, read some scripture passages, and then spend time in prayer. My prayer always has the same template. Well, here, let me just pray it for you now.

     “Dear God, thank you for this new day. Thank you for your grace and for the many blessings in my life. Thank you for saving me from my sins and helping me to grow in my faith each day. Be with my family this day. 

     Here’s where I pray for Penny, our children who live out of town. Then I pray for my siblings and their families. I then thank God for our two westies, Lulu and Blu and for all of the pets in our families. Depending on special needs, I’ll pause and say a more specific prayer for a family member.

     And after I spend some time praying for my family, I then pray for my church family and this is how my prayer continues.

     “Thank you for my church family. I lift up to you our Leadership Board, our staff, our small group facilitators, our Stephen Ministers, our Growing Tree preschool, our weekly prayer group, our Sunday School teachers, and all of the ministries of our church as we seek to make disciples for you for the transformation of our community and world by having a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith. Be with our church as we meet this Sunday for worship. Bless those who will be offering music, those who will be greeters, ushers, setting up connect time, teaching Sunday School, and helping to lead in worship. Empower me to preach your word and to be the best pastor I can possibly be for this church.”

     And then I might pray for some other needs and that’s a typical prayer for me each day, but the reason I’m telling you this is so that you know that I thank God for you every day. I thank God for how each of you are growing in what it means to have a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith. I thank God for how you are fulfilling our church’s mission statement of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. 

     You are often in my prayers and I want you to know that.

     I thank God that we have the privilege to plant seeds of God’s kingdom together. I thank God for each of you! This is why I am channeling the Apostle Paul this morning. It’s because his heart for the Colossians feels like my heart for all of you here at Athens First. I am so blessed to have even just a very small part in what James Quinn started when he planted a few seeds back in 1800. 

     One of the ways that we can continue to grow and bear fruit as a church is by sharing our faith with those around us. This is a time of year when people are looking for a church home. People with children usually move into a new community before school begins. We also have people who have recently moved here because of a new job with the university and we know that over twenty thousand young people will be coming to campus a little over a month from now. For all of these reasons, it is so important for us to be ready for this wonderful opportunity.

     To help us be ready and to be a church that will continue to be as fruitful as possible in all that we do, I invite us to participate in a church-wide two-day training event one month from now called “Faith Builders.” It will be held on Friday evening through Saturday afternoon, August 16 and 17 which will include dinner, breakfast and lunch here at the church. It will be led by a clergy friend of mine, Rev. Jeff Motter who has led this training in other churches leading to even greater fruitfulness. Jeff will guide us through some sessions that will help each of us to develop our relational skills and how to use those skills to be a blessing to others. It’s an event that you won’t want to miss.

     Today is the first day to begin signing up for the event and the cost is only $10 per person which will help to cover the cost of the meals and the instruction materials. I have no doubt that this event will become one of those life changing experiences that will lead to even greater fruitfulness and blessings through our church.

     Here at Athens First, we get to be part of a whole new world by simply planting the seeds that we have been given. I can’t wait to see what God is about to do through us!

     So, once again, to the saints of Athens First, thank you for all the ways you are bearing fruit.

     Sincerely,
     
     Pastor Robert


     To the Saints of Athens First
Sermon Discussion Questions
Colossians 1:1-14
July 14, 2019

The Apostle Paul wrote several of the letters that we have in the New Testament and one of these letters was sent to the church in Colossae which he founded years earlier in his missionary journey. Paul is writing this letter to let them know that even though he is not there with them, he continues to pray for them. He thanks God for how they are continuing to bear fruit for God’s kingdom. 
Share a time when you received a letter (or email/private message) from someone who offered encouragement and reminded you that they continue to think of you. What did that personal correspondence mean to you.
Paul wants the church of Colossae to know that he is thankful for how they continue to bear fruit for God’s kingdom. 
Share some ways that our church is bearing fruit for God’s kingdom.
Pastor Robert channeled the Apostle Paul in his sermon by sharing a letter of gratitude to the saints of Athens First UMC for the many ways we are bearing fruit for God’s kingdom. He also encouraged us to continue to bear fruit through our relationships with people inside as well outside our church by signing up for a church-wide “Faith-Builders” training event on August 16 & 17 here at our church. The cost is only $10/person and will include a Friday dinner and Saturday breakfast and lunch. To register, contact our church office. We want as many people as possible to participate!
How can strengthening our relationship skills help our church to continue to grow and be fruitful in our community?
During the sermon, Pastor Robert shared a make believe story about special seeds that can help any dying garden grow and become beautiful. Like these special seeds in the story, the seeds of the good news of Christ can help renew, restore, and beautify our community and world. All we need to do is to plant those gospel seeds.
In what ways can you plant gospel seeds with the people you meet?

Monday, July 8, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (July 7)



[Last Sunday was our “Noisy Bucket Sunday” which is always held on the fifth Sunday of a month. During worship, the children take buckets like the ones picture above out to the congregation and the people place their spare change in them making noise. The money is given to the Athens County Food Pantry to help alleviate food insecurity in our area. Even with a lower than usual summer worship attendance, we collected over $1,000! This is a great example of how God doesn’t focus on the size of the crowd but on the readiness of the people to give. For Sunday’s sermon, click here.]

O God, thank you for this Independence Day Weekend in which we celebrate the founding of our country and for the many freedoms we enjoy. 

But even more importantly, we thank you for the freedom we find through your saving grace. Free us from our sins and brokenness. Free us from our shame and despair. Free us to accept our identity as your beloved children. Free us to use our freedom in you to be a blessing to others. Free us to reach our fullest potential. Free us to serve you through our Athens First Saturdays, through our Monday Lunches, and through our mission team who will be going to Honduras next week.  Free us to be the people you have called us to be.

We pray especially today for people who do not feel very free, like those who have no shelter or food or clothing. Like those who are facing life and death medical conditions. Like those who have been separated from their families at our country’s border. Like those who are struggling to make a living. Like those who have been turned away because of their gender, race, national origin, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or economic condition.

O God, help our country to not just celebrate freedom but to also live it in how we relate to all of your people. We confess that we sometimes only want freedom for ourselves and not for others. May our country lift the torch of freedom for the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses who are yearning to breathe free.

We pray this in the name of Christ who frees us and who taught us to pray together as one people, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Sermon (July 7) by Rev. Robert McDowell



     Our New Testament reading today is from The Book of Galatians. This letter which was written by the Apostle Paul has been termed by many Bible scholars as the “Magna Carta” of the Christian faith because of its emphasis upon the freedom that we have when we place our faith and our trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

     If you recall from history class, the Magna Carta is one of the most famous documents of all time.  I recently read how one student actually put as an answer to a test question, that the Magna Carta was a document that provided that no free man should be hanged twice for the same offense. 

     If you want the real scoop, the Magna Carta was drafted in England in the year 1215 to insure feudal rights and to guarantee that the king would not encroach upon the privileges of the barons.  There were also provisions guaranteeing the freedom of the church and the customs of the towns.  This document of freedom was needed because the King of England at the time, King John, was trampling over the freedoms of the people in order to finance his unpopular wars abroad.

     In 1215 at Runnymede, the people rebelled against the King, forcing him to adopt this document gaining particular freedoms for the people.  And since the Book of Galatians is known as the Magna Carta of the Christian faith and we recently celebrated the Fourth of July, it’s timely that we focus on the theme of “Freedom.”

     Galatians helps us to focus on how the freedom we have in Christ reminds us of our true identity and our purpose in life.

     Before we begin by looking at how God frees us to embrace our identity, I want to offer a little background about the Book of Galatians to provide a little context about Paul’s letter.

     It might be interesting to note that the Book of Galatians was written by the Apostle Paul not that long after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, probably about 20 to 25 years after the time of Christ.  So we’re not talking about a very long time between the time of Christ and Paul’s letter.

     Paul wrote this letter to the churches of Galatia which were located in central Asia Minor.

     And the really important piece of background information about this letter is that Paul wrote it because of false teachers who were teaching that people needed to be circumcised in order to become a Christian.  This is the underlying issue that you find throughout this book.  This issue of having to do something in order to become a Christian.

     Christianity isn’t about earning your way into heaven. It’s about receiving God’s free gift of grace made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

     Penny and I had a dog calendar that had a Mark Twain quote that says, “Getting into heaven is all about favor.  If it were based on merit, your dog would get in, and not you.”

     I like that.  I’m glad that getting into heaven isn’t about me earning my way because I wouldn’t make it.  The good things that we do aren’t meant to give us enough points to make it past the pearly gates some day. The good things that we do are our response to God’s free gift of grace in our lives.

     The main purpose of Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches is to correct the false teachers that were saying in subtle and not so subtle terms that you have to do something to earn you’re way into heaven.  And for these false teachers, it was all about being circumcised.

     I think it’s hard for people to believe that there’s nothing you can do to earn your way to heaven.  It’s too good to be true for many of us.  That’s why we have this Magna Carta type letter in the New Testament.  To remind us in no uncertain terms, that we are free in Christ by simply receiving God’s gift of grace.

     There’s nothing that you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing that you can do to make God love you any less.  The only thing that you and I can do is accept God’s free gift of salvation by faith. 

     What does it mean for us to know our true identity in Christ?

     One of the most basic theological statements about our faith is that we have each been created in the image of God.  When God created Adam and Eve, the scriptures tells us that God breathed his life into them.  And that’s what God did when we were born.  He breathed His divine life into us which gave us life.

     We were born with this potential to live out God’s plan for our lives, this wonderful plan in which we can use our unique personalities, our skills, our talents, and our gifts to bring glory to God and to be a blessing to others.

     Some of you are in the medical profession and you do amazing things to save lives.  I stand in awe of you.  When the doctor wants me to have a blood test, it’s all I can do to not faint when they take blood from me.  And yet, God has wired some of you to do incredible things in the medical profession.

     Many of you are awesome at being able to repair things.  You just look at something, and you know right away how to fix it.  Again, I must admit that I can’t relate to those of you who can do that.  God gave you that unique ability and mind to be able to fix things.

     We are all born in the image of God. We were each uniquely created by God. The Book of Galatians reminds us that God loves us for who we are and wants us to be all that we can be.

     And even though I can’t draw blood from people or fix things, that’s Ok, because I know that God has created me with purpose and potential. Several years ago, I went on a retreat where I thought about my purpose and potential in this world. After a lot of prayer and time to think and input from other people, here is what I finally wrote down as my purpose.

     My purpose is to equip and encourage the church to effectively and enthusiastically make disciples of Jesus Christ.  God made me for this purpose.  This is my potential.  To be the best that I can be to live out the purpose God has given me.

     Listen to Paul’s words in our Galatians passage this morning.  The first part of verse 20 – “…and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

     This is the key for you and me to claim our true identity, to know that Christ lives in us.

     I had breakfast with another pastor and we were talking about the ups and down of pastoral ministry.  And he said, “sometimes we forget as pastors, that we’re not the ones who are to change lives or to grow the church.  That’s God’s work in us.  It’s not about us.”

     What a great reminder.  It’s not about you and it’s not about me.  It’s about remembering as a Christian, that Jesus Christ lives in us.  Without God’s strength, I can’t do anything.  With God, all things are possible.  

     Sociologists tell us that we like to talk to ourselves.  Have you ever noticed that?  Do you ever find yourself talking to yourself?  Sometimes, I’ll be doing something, and all of the sudden, I realize that I’m talking to myself.  That’s pretty sad that I don’t even pay attention to myself sometimes.

     What’s even more interesting is that 70% of what we say to ourselves is negative.  70%.  That’s a huge percentage.  Why are we so negative?  Why do we get down on ourselves so often?  Could it be that so often we forget that Christ is living in us?

     How can you and I fulfill our potential while we’re spending so much of our time being negative and believing things about who we are that just aren’t true? The Apostle Paul gives us the answer.  He reminds us that Christ is living in us.  Christ makes all the difference in the world.

     So often we hear people say, and I have said things like this as well, so I’m just as guilty, “If only I would have had a different upbringing…or if only that teacher wouldn’t have been so mean…or if only I had a different boss…or if only I would have had opportunities like other people.”

     That kind of thinking doesn’t get us anywhere.  When we say that our potential is tied to our background or how we were raised, we are limiting the power of God to make a difference in our lives.  

     Neil Anderson has written a book that’s been around for a while now.  It’s called Victory Over Darkness.  And in his book, Neil Anderson reminds us as Christians of who we are in Jesus Christ.  It’s really an eye opener.  And when we remember who we are, it frees us to reach our fullest potential.

     I’ve asked some people in worship today to read some of these statements of who we are in Jesus Christ.  And as you listen to these, just think what a difference these statements can make in your life as you seek to reach the potential that God has for your life.

Adult:
“John 1:12 – I am a child of God.”

Adult:
“John 15:15 - “I am Christ’s friend”

Adult:
“Acts 1:8 – I am Christ’s personal witness sent out to tell everybody about him.”

Adult:
“Romans 8:17 - I am a coheir with Christ, inheriting His glory.”

Teenager:
“I Corinthians 3:16 & 6:19 – I am a temple – a dwelling place for God.  His Spirit and His life live in me.”

Adult:
“II Corinthians 5:17 – I am a new person.  My past is forgiven and everything is new.”

Child:
“Ephesians 2:19 – “I am a citizen of heaven with all of God’s family.”

Adult:
“Colossians 3:4 – I am an expression of the life of Christ because He is my life.”

Adult:
“I Peter 2:9,10 – I am a member of a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.”

Adult:
“I Corinthians 6:19,20 – I have been bought with a price; I am not my own; I belong to God.”

Adult:
“Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live is Christ’s life.”  

Child:
“Ephesians 1:3 – I have been blessed with every spiritual blessing.”

Adult:
“Ephesians 2:18 - I have direct access to God through the Spirit.”

Teenager:
“Colossians 1:14 - “I have been forgiven of all my sins and set free.  The debt against me has been cancelled.”  

Adult:
“Colossians 2:12,13 – I have been buried, raised and made alive with Christ.” 

     Isn’t that incredible?  This is who we are in Jesus Christ.  And if this is who we are, there is nothing that can keep us from accomplishing all that God wants us to accomplish in his name.

      I still need to be very intentional about reminding myself of who I am in Jesus Christ.  Because when I don’t, I end up forfeiting my potential.

     To help me be more intentional with remembering that Christ is living in me, I have developed five different personal affirmation statements.

     I use a simple formula to come up with these statements.  First of all, I begin every statement with, “Because Jesus Christ is living in me…”  That’s the key.  Reminding myself that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

     The second thing that I do is to put the statement into the present tense rather than the future tense.  And that reminds me that my potential isn’t something I can reach way into the future but I can live my potential in the here and now.

     The third thing is I make it short so it’s memorable.  If it’s too long, it probably won’t have too much of an impact.  

     And the fourth thing.  It’s good to make the statement action oriented.  I like to put a lot of verbs in my personal affirmation statement so that I begin to live into my God given potential right away.

     Here’s two of my personal affirmation statements to help me live into God’s potential for my life.

     The first one is, “Because Jesus Christ is living in me, I eagerly seek to make a positive impression within the 1st four minutes of meeting someone.” I have noticed what a difference it makes to me whenever someone makes me feel welcomed and at home in the first few minutes of arriving somewhere. I want to do that for others.

     Another statement of faith that I have is this.  “Because Jesus Christ is living in me I share positive words of affirmation to encourage others.”  Since I developed that statement, it’s been amazing how many times God has provided opportunities for me to offer encouragement.  

     I invite each of us this week to create personal affirmation statements.  It’s a wonderful way to be free in Christ and be reminded of not only who we are but who Christ wants us to become.

     So many times, we live far below the potential that God has in mind for us.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

     Like the story of the farmer’s son who was returning from the market with a crate of chickens his father had entrusted to him, when all of a sudden, the box fell and broke open.

     Chickens scurried of in different directions, but the determined boy chased all over the neighborhood scooping up wayward birds and returning them to the repaired crate.  Hoping he had found them all, the boy reluctantly returned home, anticipating the worst for being so careless.  

     “Pa, the chickens got loose,” the boy confessed sadly, “but I managed to find all twelve of them.”

     “Well, you did real good, son,”  the farmer beamed.  “But you only had seven to begin with.”

     The truth is we can be far more in our lives that what we think many times.   

     Never forget Paul’s words, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”

     That’s when we are truly free.


Freedom: My Identity
Sermon Discussion Questions
Galatians 2:15-21 & 3:23-29
July 7, 2019

The Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians has often been described as the “Magna Carta” of the Christian faith. Our American democracy and emphasis on freedom can be traced back to 1215 in England when the Magna Carta was established which protracted the freedoms of the people including the rights of churches and towns. In this letter to the Galatians, Paul wants them to know that we have been made free through the grace of Jesus Christ.

In what ways are we “free through the grace of Jesus Christ?”

Galatians 2:20 says, “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” This means that we are free to be who God has created us to be and we are also free to live to our God given potential.

How does your faith help you to accept who God has created you to be and to live to your God given potential? What helps you to remember that you are free in Christ?

During Sunday’s sermon, several people in the congregation took turns sharing a scripture verse that reminds us of who we are in Christ Jesus. Read these verses listed below and share which one(s) stand out for you the most to help you to remember how you are free in Christ.

John 1:12 – I am a child of God.”
John 15:15 - “I am Christ’s friend”
Acts 1:8 – I am Christ’s personal witness sent out to tell everybody about him.”
Romans 8:17 - I am a coheir with Christ, inheriting His glory.”
I Corinthians 3:16 & 6:19 – I am a temple – a dwelling place for God.  His Spirit and His life live in me.”
II Corinthians 5:17 – I am a new person.  My past is forgiven and everything is new.”
Ephesians 2:19 – “I am a citizen of heaven with all of God’s family.”
Colossians 3:4 – I am an expression of the life of Christ because He is my life.”
I Peter 2:9,10 – I am a member of a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.”
I Corinthians 6:19,20 – I have been bought with a price; I am not my own; I belong to God.”
Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live is Christ’s life.”  
Ephesians 1:3 – I have been blessed with every spiritual blessing.”
Ephesians 2:18 - I have direct access to God through the Spirit.”
Colossians 1:14 - “I have been forgiven of all my sins and set free.  The debt against me has been cancelled.”  
Colossians 2:12,13 – I have been buried, raised and made alive with Christ.” 

In addition to Christ setting us free to live out our identity, we also have been set free to live out our fullest God given potential. Pastor Robert shared how we can live out our potential by writing out personal affirmation statements. One of his personal affirmation statements is “Because Jesus Christ is living in me I share positive words of affirmation to encourage others.” Write out some of your own affirmation statements with these helpful guidelines in mind: 1) Begin each statement with, “Because Jesus Christ is living in me...” 2) State it in the present tense. 3) Keep it concise so you will remember it. 4) Make it action oriented by using verbs.

Spend time this week writing out at least 3 personal affirmation statements based on the guidelines above and share them with someone to help you remember that you are free to reach your God given potential in Christ.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Sermon (June 30) by Dr. Dave Bayless



[About Our Speaker: Dave Bayless serves on our church’s Leadership Board, is one of our several small group facilitators, often helps to lead our worship services, and is an engineering professor at Ohio University. We are especially blessed when he has the opportunity to speak and share God’s Word with us. Thank you, Dave!]





Our scriptures today remind us in different ways that being ready for God is not something we – as a people – are very good at doing. Oh we may love God and we may earnestly want his Kingdom to come, but we, okay maybe me, but I don’t think I am alone – so “We” are so not ready.

 

Like the Psalmist whose mind may know of the greatness of God, but whose soul refuses to be comforted by God, we are not ready.

 

Like the Samaritans who were not ready for Christ, we are not ready.

 

Like those that professed they would follow Christ, but… we are not ready.

 

Let us pray.

 

Lord, help us to be ready for you. Help us to be more like Elisha and less like the Samaritan villagers. Help us to be active seekers of the path you want us to follow. In Jesus name we pray – Amen.

 

So, today I’d like to ask you the question – Are you ready? But, that seems vagueSo, what is that we should be getting ready for? I bet a lot of you answered this

 

Are you ready for the return of Christ? 

 

What a great question. And what a great sermon that could be. We could read Matthew Chapter 25 versus 1-13 about the bridesmaids that waited for the groom, but only half of them were ready with additional oil for their lamps. But that is not what I am going to talk about. Because frankly, that is way above my paygrade to do it justice.

 

So how about another great, but maybe easier spiritual question – are you ready to follow Jesus? Right, we are here today, so the answer must be yes – at least to some degree.

 

To answer it, speaking as an engineer, we’d have to identify some tangible metrics by which to assess that we were indeed ready to follow Christ.

 

Let’s dig into the bible and get those metrics on a spreadsheet (long, long list) and viola. We will know if we are ready to follow Christ.

 

Okay, it looks like the Bible has a lot of things that could guide us to be better followers of Christ. Let’s do what all great engineers do when overwhelmed with data – we make assumptions and simplify. 

 

If we had to pick, from Jesus’ own words, for what we need to do, why not start with the two commandments Jesus said were the greatest and ask ourselves “are we ready to obey his two greatest commandments?”

… to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind?

… to love your neighbor as yourself?

 

That is easier, right? Love God. Love your neighbor. Okay

 

But now, if we really reflect, we get down to some uncomfortable places in ourselves when we answer if we are ready to follow those commandments.

 

I know that for me, I have not loved God with all my heart, soul and mind. Much like the rich man, who had been doing good things in Matthew 19, who could not give up his bountiful possessions, the threshold Jesus set for following Him. Like that rich man, I have tried to do good. I have tried to love God, but I will admit with much shame that I have put earthly things in front of God. I have worshipped my own false idols. I have failed. But I am up here today and you know why? 

 

God forgives. He wants us to keep trying. 

 

And that is the first key takeaway I hope you will remember – keep trying. Love is an active verb. It is not enough to just realize that the Holy Spirit is in it us. As Pastor Robert taught us two weeks ago – we have to embrace it, listen to it, love it. You have to work for that connection – for loving God.

 

What about love your neighbor? Hold on. That is not really the question. If we are to be correct, Jesus is asking us to be ready to love our neighbor as ourselves.

 

So, are you ready to love yourself?

 

Tough question, right? Let’s figure out what it means to love yourself, because if you hate yourself, you are likely to hate your neighbor. Have you ever heard the saying that “hurt people hurt people?” It is true.

 

I am not talking about love yourself as being selfish, being egocentric, hopping on Twitter to pronounce just how awesome you are and that everyone should know you are really, really, the best. In fact, that kind of behavior is anything but self love.

 

I would submit that loving yourself is being happy with your true self. Knowing yourself and living in the light – or what we call in leadership training circles – being authentic.

 

Are you ready to be authentic? With yourself? With others?

 

How can you love others when you don’t love yourself enough to be authentic? Lies, even white lies, are corrosive. Jesus didn’t say “And the truth shall set you free, except for those little lies you tell when you think you are protecting someone.” Or those little lies you tell yourself.

 

Here is takeaway #2 for the day: God wants you to be authenticAs Paul taught us, be authentic but DON’T be cruel about it. That is what interpret as being authentic with empathy. And as Paul taught us, being authentic and holding each other to authentic behavior is absolutely necessary to be closer to God because alone, we are weak.

 

To be closer to God, to be ready for Him, we must embrace His way. And those false faces we put on are barriers between us and others, especially God. He wants us to be in relationship with Him and with others. A relationship cannot be real if it is built upon falsehoods.

 

How can we be ready to love ourselves and others if we are not ready … to accept forgiveness? You might ask “What kind of person would not accept forgiveness? I would answer – humans. Sometimes it feels good to hold onto the hurt, as if we are paying for our sins. Don’t get me wrong – we need to really feel. We need to connect to the pain we cause. Remorse requires it. But we can hold onto the shame and the pain way past the point where we are remorseful and why do we do this? I don’t know, but I think a lot of us have something in our past, something we did that corrodes our love for ourselves. And it doesn’t have to be that way. Takeaway #3: God has given us the path out of that shame and slavery to sin. Jesus, cut off from God, took all the sin for us. All we have to do is authentically ask for forgiveness and authentically accept God’s infinite grace. 

 

And how can we be ready to love ourselves and other if we are not ready … to forgive? Oh, this is one so familiar to me personally. I cling to anger of injustice. The anger that our world rewards the liars and cheats. The anger that our world too often rewards those who hate and those who are evil.

You see Evil doesn’t just hurt those it directly affects. The injustice of it erodes usall when we hold onto the anger, pulling us farther from God.

 

It is not what God wants. He knows that we need to forgive – not forget – but forgive. Because you see, the hate we hold only hurts us and keeps us from being closer to God. Easy words to say, but hard words for me to live by.

 

Takeaway #4: Being ready to forgive is what we need to reject the hate, the evil, the greed, the hurt and the sin.

 

So you may be saying – that sounds really awesome and I try to do all those things. But then ask “How can I be a better Christian – more ready for God than I already am? You may already read the bible, or pray, or go to bible study, or serve others in His name. What else can you do to be more ready for Him?

 

Well, that is really good question. Honestly, I don’t have all the answers and only God knows the exact path that is right for you. 

But I do know these things

It is journey. You will stumble and fall – Get back up and keep going
As any journey, its success depends on you doing the work
And it is better to travel together than alone. So if you are not in small group, please think about joining one

 

A small group shares your struggles, you journey, and your spiritual needs. I am not saying they have all the answers, maybe they are not any more ready than you. But you know what, they are willing to share God’s love, be authentic and help you be authentic, help you forgive and accept forgiveness, and help you be ready for Him.