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, June 23, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - June 29

Sunday, June 29 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, July 2  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 3rd Sunday After Pentecost, Young Adult Sunday, & Children's Sing & Praise Special Music

Scripture - Joshua 22:1-6 & Luke 10:25-37

Sermon - A Life of Service

Theme -  Our church is blessed with many young adults who are growing in their faith and who want to make a difference in our world. On this Sunday, one of our young adults, Kristi Bope will be sharing a message about responding to God's call to be involved in a life of service.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sermon by Rev. Robert McDowell (June 22) - "A Better Way"

    For the past couple of years, we have been spending several of our summer Sundays focusing on stories from the Old Testament.  I’ve chosen to do this because the Old Testament provides us with many important stories to help us grow in our faith.
     During my elementary school years, I would get off the school bus and run up to my grandmother’s mobile home which was just up the hill from my house. I always looked forward to my weekday afternoons with Mom-Mom because she always had a large jar of freshly made iced tea with way too much sugar and lemon juice waiting for me in her frig.
     If that wasn’t enough sugar for me, she also made a cake each week which always had way too much icing if that’s even possible. You might be thinking that my grandmother was much too kind to do this for me each day, but she actually had an ulterior motive in doing this.
     As I guzzled down her overly sweet iced tea and delighted in the buttercream icing, she would hand me my Old Testament study book. She would have me read an Old Testament story like the one we heard today. After I was done reading the story, I took a test on what I just read and she would give me a grade.
     This is how I became familiar with the stories of the Old Testament. Whenever I read an Old Testament story today, I feel the need to have a lot of sugar. I think it’s called behavioral conditioning.
     My grandmother gave me all of that sugar even though a lot of these Old Testament stories are not very sweet. Some of these stories are so sad and tragic that I want to sugarcoat their meaning. Today’s Old Testament story really takes the cake. OK, that’s enough sweet talk. It’s time to dig into the story.

     If we were paying attention when today’s Old Testament scripture was read to us this morning, most of that story was hard to take. Your palms might have gotten a bit sweaty. This is not a story for the faint of heart.
     It’s a story that seems so primitive to us and we’re more than surprised that it’s included in our bible. If you visit Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello, Virginia, you might have noticed his bible on display.
     Our brilliant founding father, the towering intellect who crafted the Declaration of Independence and established the University of Virginia, literally cut out any part of the bible that he found offensive, illogical, or uncomfortable. I don’t know this for sure, but based on his criteria, I don’t think he wanted this story in the bible.
     Who would want to include a story about a father coming this close to sacrificing his own son? From the very beginning of this story, we are told that this is exactly what God told Abraham to do. It’s not an ambiguous command. Abraham is told to sacrifice his own son.
     From there, this story feels like it will never end because it slowly tells us how Abraham journeyed with his son to the place where this was sacrifice was to be made. When they reach their destination, we are even given the details of how Abraham prepared for the sacrifice. This is such a disturbing story. How is it possible that a story like this can be included in the bible?
    It’s stories like this that remind me of just how important it is for us to understand the context of when these stories were originally told. Without any knowledge of the historical and social context of this story, I would probably go find some scissors and cut this story out from my bible.
     So here’s the context of this story. Abraham lived during a time when the people of the Ancient Near East offered up their children as sacrifices to their various lifeless deities. When Abraham was told to sacrifice his son, Isaac, he didn’t know what we have come to know, that this God is not like any other deity of that time period. The God we know and worship is a God of love and grace.
     This is not a story about God arbitrarily changing his mind at the last minute to spare Isaac’s life. This is a story to help us understand that the God of Abraham is like no other God. This is not a God of death. This is a God of life. This is a God who offers us a better way.
     When you think about the story in this way, it helps us to understand what the author of Genesis is trying to communicate to us. Once we put this story in the proper context of the time period in which it was originally written, we can then see a message of hope and good news.
     I’ve been thinking a lot about the many ways that God offers us a better way. And like, Abraham, we are called to trust in this God everyday of our lives.
     What are the better ways that God is offering to us in our journey of faith?
     This story of Abraham and Isaac might sound extreme to our modern day sensibilities, but I think that we can all acknowledge that we don’t always choose the life that God is offering to us.
     Children watch our every move and pick up messages that we never intended to send. We can let work drive a knife into the beating heart of a marriage. We can bind our families with cords of anger and addiction that can feel like death. If we are not aware of or sensitive to others, we will kill life’s most precious relationships.
     We face these life and death situations all the time. The question is if we are open to God’s better way of living.
     In one of my previous churches, a middle age woman with tears in her eyes told me how she had been bullied throughout her early school years. She said that she had a facial skin condition during those years in school and several of the other students including some that she thought were her friends, had consistently made fun of her. Because of all of this, she suffered from extremely low self-esteem during those early years.
     She said how she still deals with low self-esteem even though the bullying had ended a long time ago. But what’s different is that she knows that God loves her unconditionally. She knows that beauty is more than skin deep. She knows that her self-worth is not dependent on how other people treat her. She has chosen the better way.

     My hero in the faith is John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Anyone that knows me is aware of my fascination with Wesley who was an Anglican Priest in England back in the 1700’s.
     Whenever I meet with our confirmation class, I’ll tell them the date when he was born. June 28, 1703. My family knows that I am fixated on this great man of faith.
     So when our daughter and her fiancĂ© told Penny and me the date of their wedding, I was thrilled. Out of all of the dates they could have chosen, out of 365 choices, they chose June 28 which is John Wesley’s birthday anniversary.
     My daughter is afraid that when I give the toast at her wedding reception this Saturday that instead of focusing on her, I will say something about John Wesley. That’s how much I love John Wesley, but I love my daughter more so I’ll behave.
     In the early part of John Wesley’s ministry, he experienced a time of deep darkness. In 1735, he traveled to America to serve as a missionary to the Native Americans in the colony of Georgia.
     His hope was to convert them to Christianity but they didn’t respond to his preaching. While in Georgia, he fell in love with a young lady but the relationship didn’t end very well. To make a long story short, her father forced him to go back to England.
     On his journey back to England, he was feeling really down and dejected. He felt empty inside. He was at a very low point spiritually.
     When he got back to England, he was really struggling in his faith. On May 24th, 1738, Wesley reluctantly went to a prayer meeting that was held on Aldersgate Street in London.
     In his journal from that night, he writes that he stood up during that meeting and said, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
     This heart-warming experience was life changing for John Wesley. From there, the Methodist movement grew rapidly as people responded to the message of hope and new life through Jesus Christ. Small groups were formed all over England welcoming people to embrace life over death.
     God showed John Wesley a better way.
     The story of Abraham coming close to sacrificing his son, Isaac, is a story about God offering a better way. God is unlike the other deities that were worshipped during that time period. This God is a God of life, not of death.
     This story reminds us that God is always reaching out to us with new life and new hope. Just when the knife seems like it’s going to take away life, God intervenes and offers a better way.
     Maybe you’re going through a time where it feels like a time of dryness and no life. It’s especially during those times when God reminds us that life is stronger than death. Hope is greater than any despair.
     We are told that because of what God had done for him, that Abraham gave that place a name. It became known as “The Lord will provide.” God does provide for all of our needs, especially during those times when we feel we have run out of hope. There’s always a better way with God by our side.
     A while back, I attended a meeting where the leader of the group invited each of us around the table to share how it was with our souls. The leader looked across the table and said, “Steve, let’s start with you. How is it with your soul?”
     It’s not always easy to be the first person to respond to such a deep question. I was just glad that this person didn’t call on me first!
     Steve went on to share with all of us that he had been feeling kind of low in his spiritual life. He said that when he was in church one day, he decided to go to the chapel and pray.
     And as he was there in one of the pews praying, he felt led to just go ahead and lie face down on the floor of that chapel. He said that his church had been emphasizing the importance of prayer and he thought to himself, “Why not?”
     At first, he felt kind of silly stretched out on the floor like that, but as he continued to spend time in prayer, he felt the weight of his concerns and trouble being lifted from him. In place of all of that weight, he felt a peace that he hadn’t experienced for a long time.
     As he continued to share with us, he counted off one by one, all of the ways that this time of prayer had changed him.
     “Because of that time in prayer, I have renewed hope and a more positive attitude  in what I do,” he said.
     Because of that time in prayer, I feel more energy, both physically and spiritually.
     Because of that time in prayer, I’ve been exercising more and eating better. I’ve lost some weight, which is a good thing.
     And when he pointed at his fourth finger, he said that because of that time in prayer, he feels more balance in his life, more meaning, more purpose.
     As he shared with us, you could tell by the look in his eyes, that he had chosen a better way.
     These painful bible stories have a way of surprising us. What starts out as a story of death ends up being a story of new life.

     Even the story of Good Friday becomes the story of the empty tomb. Afterall, this God is like no other.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - June 22

Sunday, June 22 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, June 25  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 2nd Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture - Genesis 22:1-14 & Matthew 10:40-42

Theme -  The story of Abraham coming close to sacrificing his son, Isaac is one of the most difficult and challenging stories in the bible. What is God trying to teach us in this story? Is God showing us a better way?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

2014 Annual Conference Highlights

As I drove back from Annual Conference last night, many highlights of the week have been going through my mind. In no particular order, here are the things that stand out for me.
  • The chocolate milk shakes at Lakeside, Ohio are out of this world! I had two of them. Remember, these highlights are in no particular order.
  • The biggest news that most people will remember is that on Tuesday $395,429.50 was collected during the worship service for Imagine No Malaria. This total will put the West Ohio Conference close to the 3 million dollar mark. Our three year goal as a conference is $3.5 million. We are well on our way of making this goal. Our church submitted a check for $2,700 and we will be sending in another $5,000 in the next couple of weeks. To date, our church (counting the $5,000) will have given approximately $17,000 to Imagine No Malaria. Our goal is to contribute $25,000 over three years. 
  • Although this highlight belongs with the first highlight regarding our Imagine No Malaria offering, the offering atmosphere during worship up at Annual Conference is amazing. It's incredible to watch all of the ushers line up to dump their baskets of offerings into the large Malaria net on stage. The Ginghamsburg praise band played an inspiring version of the popular song, "Happy" during the entire offering time. Imagine three thousand Methodists clapping and praising God during the entire offering time. Wow! It was a closest to Christ moment in the most powerful way.
  • As usual, the preaching of Bishop Gregory Palmer was outstanding. I tweeted earlier in the week that Bishop Palmer's preaching is like a holy freight train delivering the good news of Jesus Christ.
  • During the week, we were blessed with the teachings of Dr. Eric Law, an Episcopal Priest who has written the book, Holy Currencies. Eric reminded us that money is not the only currency. Other currencies include relationships, time and space, wellness, leadership, and truth. The biggest take away from this is to always remember that currency is meant to always be flowing. If it becomes stagnate, it becomes useless. When the church uses these six currencies and shares them with the community and world, more people are able to experience the abundant grace of God. There was a lot of great food for thought for First UMC to implement. Oh, and of course, I had to take a selfie with Dr. Law!

  • We also did the typical stuff of voting on various resolutions brought forward by individuals or ministry groups. One of the resolutions that we approved was to encourage the Ohio legislators to approve a measure which would offer non-discrimination protection regarding secular housing and employment for the LBGT community. This resolution was sponsored by a wide range of people across the theological spectrum. It was what we would call in the political arena, a bi-partisan issue. The resolution passed. 
  • Voting was much easier this year because of the introduction of electronic voting. Each delegate was given a device to record our votes. This meant that instead of votes taking several minutes to record, we knew the results in thirty seconds! 
  • And last but not least, Annual Conference is always a time for the building or relationships. We get to see other pastors, church members, and friends throughout the West Ohio area. Here's a picture of the folks who attended from our church in Lancaster. Missing in the picture is Judy Morgan who served as an at large member of our Capital Area District.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Sermon by Rev. Robert McDowell (June 8) - "How We Got Our Start"

     It was on this very day, twenty-nine years ago, at two in the afternoon that Penny and I were married at the Stewartstown United Methodist Church in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania.  We picked this date because this was the Saturday closest to the birthday of Penny’s grandfather who was a very important part of her life.
     Two United Methodist pastors officiated and we had five wedding attendants on each side. Our colors were light blue and yellow.
     The reception was held in the church basement and we had lots of leftover macaroni salad. The weather that day was warm and humid with some sun and a little bit of rain.
     That’s how we got our start as husband and wife. Anniversaries are times for us to reflect on how it all began.
     Today, we celebrate Pentecost, the birthday anniversary of the church. Luke gives us some important details to help us remember how we got our start.
     The first detail he gives us is an important one and one that I hope we will never forget. We got our start when God sent the Holy Spirit upon those first followers of Jesus.
     I shared a little bit ago that our wedding day was humid with some rain during the day. Luke gives us a weather report as well. It was extremely windy.
     It got windy because God sent the Holy Spirit upon the church and in the bible, wind is associated with the Holy Spirit.  It wasn’t just a slight breeze. He describes it as a violent wind.
     Do you remember that terrible wind storm we had a couple years ago late in the summer? I’ll never forget it.
     I was walking toward the church parking lot and noticed black clouds that were coming our way but while I was walking, everything was still and calm. By the time I turned around to come back to the house, the wind came out of nowhere. I noticed our hanging plant on the back porch swinging back and forth like it was going to be ripped off the hook.
     I ran as fast as I could to the porch, took down the plant, and made it into the house. We heard this really loud bang and we noticed what looked like the tarp of our neighbor’s boat lying in the middle of Wheeling Street. When we looked a little more closely, we realized that it wasn’t their boat covering. It was part of their roof. After just a couple of minutes, the stormed had passed and everybody was out in the streets helping each other clean up the mess.
     That’s the kind of strong wind that I think about whenever I hear this Pentecost scripture reading. The big difference was that this wind didn’t do any damage. This wind was from God and it filled each person with God’s Holy Spirit.
     It’s good for us to remember how the church got it’s start because it can be so easy for us to just go through the motions of church activities. Many of us remember when our church had the Unbinding Your Soul emphasis during the Season of Lent a few years ago. Several of us participated in small groups in which we really focused on prayer and being led by the Holy Spirit.
     The whole point of that several week focus was to help us get our focus away from just being a busy church to becoming a church that relies more on prayer. Unbinding Your Soul was our church’s Pentecost moment. Those several weeks helped our church to remember that we need to listen more, to pray more, and to share our faith more.
     I can’t tell you the number of people who shared with me how transformative that experience was. I think that it made our church more aware of how the Holy Spirit is at work in and through each of our lives. The fruit of that experience continues with us to this day.
    Some have shared that it was because of our Unbinding Your Soul focus that they are now praying more on a daily basis. For others, it has given them confidence to pray out loud at church gatherings. Together, we learned that prayer is simply practicing the presence of Jesus Christ in our day to day living.
     One of the reasons we became stronger in our prayer lives is because Unbinding Your Soul was a church wide focus. There was a lot of positive peer pressure to pray together as well as individually.
     As time goes on and as we allow the busyness of life to take over, have you noticed how prayer can so easily take a back seat when it should be the most important thing we do as a church? Pentecost reminds us to not let that happen. We got our start because one day a mighty wind blew open the doors of where the disciples were meeting and the Holy Spirit filled each and every one of those disciples.
     And God’s Spirit continues to blow through these church doors prompting us to be the people God has called us to be. Pentecost Sunday won’t let us forget. The first thing for us to remember about how we got our start was that God sent us the Holy Spirit.
     The second detail Luke gives us about that first Pentecost is that the church is meant to be inclusive.  Pentecost was a Jewish holiday in which people from all around the world would come to the city of Jerusalem to celebrate.
     There would have been large crowds on that particular day giving the city a multinational, multicultural and multilingual feel to it. Here’s a challenge you can try after you get home from church. Just try reading this Acts chapter two passage out loud. You’ll find it very difficult to pronounce the names of those foreign places.
     Clarence was lucky enough to read this scripture for us today and he did a great job with those hard to pronounce names. Let’s give Clarence a hand.
     We are given obscure names of places, many of which no longer exist today. When the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples, we are told that they began to speak in the languages of all of these out of towners. The disciples had never spoken in these different languages. It was the Holy Spirit that enabled them to do this. Luke wants us to know that we got our start by being inclusive and welcoming to all people, not just to those who think, speak, and act like we do.
     Several years ago, I attended a monthly ministerial association meeting. Pastors and lay representatives from each of the several churches in town attended these meetings. We were quite the diverse group.
     There were Presbyterians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, United Methodists, Episcopalians, Church of Christ, non-denominational, Pentecostal, and probably some others that I haven’t mentioned. Some of us were conservative, some liberal, and some in between. We were black and white, male and female, old and young.
     I never truly appreciated the diverse make-up of our group until one meeting in particular. For our closing prayer, the leader of our association invited us to gather in a large circle and join hands.
     It’s amazing how something as simple as forming a group circle can become a powerful sign of God’s presence. I watched in awe as a female Episcopal Priest took the hand of a Baptist church member. A non-denominational pastor clasped his hand with a Roman Catholic. A black hand was being extended to a white hand.
     I had to do a double take, but I even saw a Buckeye hand holding a Wolverine hand! As God as my witness!
     We joined hands together in this great big circle because we were the church of Jesus Christ. Only God could bring a diverse group of people like us together in Christian fellowship. That was a Pentecost moment for me that I will never forget.
     Luke tells us that when the church first started, it was inclusive and was welcoming to all people…to all people, no matter our differences.
     There’s a third detail that Luke offers about how the church got its start. It got its start by dreaming big. After the rush of a mighty wind came upon the disciples and the Spirit enabled them to speak in different languages so that everyone was included, the disciple, Peter got up to speak.
     He knows that the crowd is wondering how they were able to speak in all of these different languages. They were acting this way and doing these things because what God had spoken through the prophet Joel in the Old Testament, was now being fulfilled.
     That scripture said that “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”
     Visions and dreams. That’s the third important detail about Pentecost.
     These first followers of Jesus, now filled with the Holy Spirit, knew that they were part of something that was going to change the world. They were on the ground floor of a holy movement that would offer hope and salvation.
     Have you ever thought about our church’s mission statement? It’s very bold and daring. Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world.
     Now that’s crazy. Who would ever have a mission statement like that? The church would. Those first disciples of Jesus, now empowered by the Holy Spirit, saw themselves as world changers. And the rest of the Book of Acts records how the church carried out Jesus’ ministry. The church is the visible expression of the presence of Jesus Christ in our broken and hurting world. And we get to be part of this incredible mission.
     Our Bishop of the West Ohio Conference, Bishop Palmer, wants every church to dream big. He wants us to dream big because we are the church of Jesus Christ and we have been blessed with a mission and a purpose that brings transformation to all people.
     This time last year during our West Ohio Annual Conference sessions up at Lakeside, Ohio, Bishop Palmer challenged us with a vision. He said that there’s no reason why our churches can’t raise 3.5 million dollars over three years to help end the deadly disease of Malaria which kills an average of three thousand children every day. Three thousand children.
    We all kind of gasped when we heard that goal of 3.5 million dollars. But then Bishop Palmer told us that the number of children dying each year from Malaria has gone down from one million children a year to 655,000 a year, thanks in part to the financial support of the United Methodist Church.
     Another way of thinking about it is that in 2007, a child died from Malaria every 30 seconds. Now it’s every 60 seconds. Obviously, our financial support is making a huge difference.
     Let’s watch this three-minute video about Imagine No Malaria.

      When I heard our Bishop challenge our conference to raise 3.5 million dollars over three years, I’ll be honest with you, I began to wonder how our church might respond to this.  We have the large Crossroads loan that we are seeking to pay off in the next couple of years. At the time, I also knew that we were projecting some necessary increases to our general budget for the coming year.
   So, here’s what I have learned and I have all of you to thank for this. With God, all things are possible. Last year, our church was able to contribute over $10,000 to “Imagine No Malaria.” And thanks to all of you, when Pastor Cheryl and I go up to conference this afternoon, we’ll be submitting another check from our church in the amount of $2,700.  And I’m sure we’ll give a lot more before this year is over.
     Our Bishop is reminding us, and especially this pastor, that the church exists to dream big and to live out our mission of bringing transformation to the world.
     How did the church get its start? It was filled with the Holy Spirit, it reached out to all people, and it dreamed big dreams.

     Happy Anniversary, church. And a happy anniversary to my lovely wife.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - June 15

Sunday, June 15 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, June 18  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - Trinity Sunday & Holy Baptism (10:30 am)

Scripture - Genesis 1:1-2:4a & Matthew 28:16-20

Theme -  The creation story says that each one of us has been created for a purpose. We are to be God's image bearers in the world. How are you living out God's purpose in your life?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - June 8

Sunday, June 8 - (9:00 &10:30 Services) & Wednesday, June 11 (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "How We Got Our Start"

Features -  Pentecost Sunday

Scripture - Acts 2:1-21 & John 7:37-39

Theme Anniversaries are important because they mark important milestones in our lives. They help us remember who we are and to whom we belong. Pentecost is the birthday anniversary of how we got our start as the church.