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, August 31, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - September 7 (Special Combined Crossroads Worship Celebration)

SPECIAL NOTE: In place of our regular Sunday worship services on September 7, we will gather for one 10:00 am worship service at our beautiful Crossroads facility, 2095 W. Fair Avenue, Lancaster. We encourage car pooling. Shuttle service from our church building parking lot, 163 E. Wheeling Street will be provided at 9 am & 9:30 am (return to church at noon & 1 pm.) 

Schedule for the Day:
10:00 am - Combined Worship (Nursery for children 3 & under provided from 9:30 am to Noon.)
11:30 am - Group Picture of Congregation
11:45 am - Covered Dish Meal (Bring covered dish to share. Meat, beverages, & place settings will be provided.) Games/Activities for children will begin at 11:45 am.

Sunday, September 7 - (10:00 am Combined Worship @ Crossroads) & Wednesday, September 10  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads)

Features - Special Combined Worship Celebration @ Crossroads, Church Photo, Holy Communion, Covered Dish Meal, & 13th Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture - Exodus 12:1-14

Sermon "Let's Eat!"

Theme - Meals are a central part of the biblical story. Eating together provides a shared experience and creates community. The Sacrament of Holy Communion is an important way for us to experience a common fellowship in Jesus Christ.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Top Ten Reasons to Be Included in the New Church Pictorial Directory

We are in the process of signing people up for our new church pictorial directory. The directory is for all people in our church (members & non-members.) Sign-ups are available on Sunday mornings at the church as well as on our church website at www.lancasterfumc.org.

Here are my top ten reasons why you should make a photo appointment to be included in our new church directory as soon as possible.

#10 It's free! Now that I have your attention...
#9 You will receive a free 8x10 picture.
#8 You will receive a free copy of the new directory.
#7 If you don't sign-up, you'll have to be in a selfie with Pastor Robert and that will look really weird in the directory.
#6 You can include your pet in the photo.
#5 If we have at least 300 pictures in our directory, our church will receive bonus activity pages and future new members will be able to receive directories.
#4 Someone might nominate you for the ice bucket challenge if you don't.
#3 People in the church will be able to call you by name rather than, "Hey, you."
#2 There is no pressure to buy extra pictures and the whole process will be over before you know it.

And the #1 reason to be included in the new church pictorial directory...

You are a VERY important part of our church family and we want everyone to be included!!

Sunday Worship Preview - August 31

Sunday, August 31 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, September 3  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 12th Sunday After Pentecost & Labor Day Weekend

Scripture - Romans 12:14-21 & Luke 6:32-36

Sermon "What About Our Enemies?"

Theme - Is there an alternative to revenge? How can we repay evil with good?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sharing Hope: Bridges Out of Poverty Initiative Update (Summer, 2014)

Sharing Hope is a program that is designed to help people in our community overcome poverty. Several members of our church are active in this initiative which brings people of various economic levels together for mutual support and encouragement. I posted about Sharing Hope when it was just beginning about a year and a half ago.

Here is the latest newsletter from the Sharing Hope program. It's exciting to know that Sharing Hope is already making a difference in our local community. Our church hosts Sharing Hope on Thursday evenings at our Crossroads facility.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - August 24

Sunday, August 24 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, August 27  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 11th Sunday After Pentecost

Scripture - Matthew 16:13-20

Sermon "The Ultimate Question"

Theme - Jesus asked the disciples a question that is important for us to always think about. "But who do you say that I am?"

Sermon (August 17) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Boundless Love"

     As we get ready to bless backpacks for a new school year, I’ve been thinking back to my elementary school days when we would play kickball during recess.
     The two best players got to be captains and they took turns picking who they wanted to be on their team. Unlike the NFL draft that goes on for days, our kickball draft took only about three minutes.
     We all pretty much knew which kids were going to be selected first. You either needed to have a strong kicking leg or you needed to be a best buddy of one of the captains. That assured you of a first round selection.
     Even though we all knew our pecking order, it was still awkward for everyone when it got down to the remaining two kids. Someone always felt left out.
     It’s not just at school where people can feel left out. It’s anywhere, really. We live in a world that contains many boundaries which means that you’re either in or you’re out.

     Penny and I traveled to England several years ago. One of the favorite parts of the trip was when we visited the Cotswolds, the enchanted land of thatched roofs and William Shakespeare’s birthplace.
     It was a beautiful sunny day during our visit there. It was around lunch time and we decided to eat at a restaurant that had outdoor seating that overlooked the lush green grass and the meandering stream that went through one of the quaint scenic villages.
     It was extremely crowded and every table was taken. Fortunately, a couple got up to leave from a table right where we had been standing. “Ah, perfect! What great timing! We sat down and took in the beautiful scenery that was all around us as we waited for someone to come to take our order. It was one of those special moments where everything was just perfect; a perfect day, a perfect location, and a perfect trip.
    I’ll never forget what I said to Penny in that moment.  With so much joy and contentment in my heart, I said, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” Just then, a waiter interrupted our special moment to tell us, “Sorry, but you can’t sit here. This is reserved seating. You’ll have to leave.”
     As we walked out of the beautifully manicured garden where we had been seated, I finally realized why everyone was dressed nicer than we were.  We were mere tourists who didn’t know any better. We were on the wrong side of the boundary line.
     A non-Jewish woman found herself on the wrong side of the boundary line when she sought out Jesus. Matthew tells us that she was a Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon.
     The Canaanites were the people that the Jewish people had conquered several centuries earlier in order to take the Promised Land by force. She decided to cross over that boundary because her daughter needed to be healed and she knew that Jesus could make her well again.
     This non-Jewish woman was willing to do whatever was necessary to help her daughter find healing. She was even willing to refer to Jesus by using the Jewish title, “Son of David.”
     The disciples, knowing that she is an intruder, tell Jesus to send her away because she doesn’t belong there. She needs to be reminded that she is an outsider.
     Just like in Jesus’ day, we live in a world of boundaries that exist on so many levels. We have our own cultural, national, religious, economic, class, and political boundaries, just to name a few.      
     Whenever I visit my brother-in-law’s home near Baltimore, Maryland, I know to not wear my Steeler’s jersey since they are big time Baltimore Ravens fans. I know to bite my tongue when I’m tempted to gloat after a Steeler’s win. There’s a boundary that needs to be respected. I get that.
     Boundaries are just part of life. We live with them every day. They can serve a purpose as long as they don’t dehumanize people in the process. That’s the problem with boundaries. They often do more harm than good.
     This woman who crosses the boundary to meet Jesus respects the Jewish and Gentile boundary, but she’s willing to cross it anyway because her daughter needed to be healed.
     Jesus acknowledges the boundary between them when he tells this woman that his first priority is to his own people, the people of Israel. To emphasize this priority, he even used a common expression that referred to the Gentiles as dogs.
     You have to hand it to this remarkable woman. Even though she is well aware of this cultural and religious boundary, she pushes back and tells Jesus, “But even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
     This woman was not going to settle to be the last person picked for the kickball team. She knew that Jesus could heal her daughter and she was prepared to set aside any boundary to help her to get well. Jesus, impressed by this woman’s genuine faith, heals her daughter.
     The good news of the Bible is that God is about breaking down the boundaries that would keep us from experiencing life in all of its fullness. God’s love cannot be limited to one group of people. It’s meant to be shared with others. As one of our hymns says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.” God’s love is a boundless love.  It’s an overflowing love.
     Several years ago, our son played on the Middle School baseball team. During one of his away games, I noticed that the parents of the home team were getting ready to grill hot dogs for their players. They set up a couple of tables and put out ketchup, mustard, and relish.
     I remember thinking to myself what a great idea this was since the game was being played around dinner time and it would be a nice treat for their players once the game was over. During the final three innings of that game, I took in the delicious smell of those hot dogs on the grill.
     When the game finally ended, I was surprised when the parents of the other team invited the players and the parents of our team to join them. They had made enough hot dogs for everyone, including us. It was a wonderful display of sportsmanship and it reminded me of how God’s love overflows to all people, even people from the opposing team.
     Sometimes, we allow existing boundaries to prevent us from extending God’s love to others, but God’s love cannot be contained. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea.
     To all of our students who are here today for our backpack blessing, I want you to know that God’s boundless love will be with you as you begin a new year of school. God’s boundless love will be with you as you get to know your teachers and meet new friends. God’s boundless love will be with you as you study and work hard in school. God’s boundless love will be with you as you include others so that they don’t feel left out.
     God’s boundless love is meant to be shared. For this new school year, look for ways to offer God’s boundless love to those around you.
     At one of my previous churches, the congregation reached out to those who were developmentally challenged in our community by hosting a dinner party at the church each year. The church provided hors d’oeuvres, a DJ, and fancy decorations. The night included dancing, food, and lots of door prizes. Everyone had a great time at this event, including the people who volunteered from our church.
     I’ll never forget one year in particular when I was watching the DJ announce the door prizes. He would yell out number and a lucky person at one of the tables would happily claim their prize. This was probably the highlight of the evening for our guests.
     When the DJ yelled out one of the winning prize numbers, a lady sitting at the table closest to me yelled at the top of her lungs, “Here’s the winning ticket! Here’s the winning ticket!” You should have seen the smile and the excitement on her face as she screamed out those words. She wanted the world to know that she had won.
     I remember thinking to myself, “This is why we went to all of this effort to host this formal party. Just look at how happy she is that she won a prize.” 
     When the DJ came to her table to give her the prize, she pointed to the person who was sitting next to her and with great joy and happiness, she said, “Not me. Not me. My friend won the prize. Mary had the winning ticket!  Way to go, Mary! You won a prize!”
     This woman was more excited that her friend won the prize than if she had won the prize. She was teaching me and all of us the true meaning of God’s boundless love. God’s love isn’t meant to be kept to ourselves. It is meant to be shared with those around us.
     The Canaanite woman who crossed a religious and cultural boundary to ask Jesus to heal her daughter, also teaches us a thing or two about God’s boundless love. She knows that by the world’s definition, she has no business interacting with Jesus and his disciples. She knows that she is in unchartered waters. She knows that she has crossed the boundary line.
     There are very few people who would have done what she did. She took a risk because she knew that Jesus would be able to heal her daughter. She knew that there was a chance that Jesus would have compassion on her and her daughter.
     She was willing to take whatever crumbs were left under the table. And instead of leftovers, she ended up getting a four-course meal. Jesus even told her, “Great is your faith!”
     Jesus didn’t say this kind of thing to very many people but he said it to this woman, this outsider who knew that God’s boundless love was at work through him, something that the religious leaders and the insiders didn’t seem to understand.
     For those of us who may feel like we are on the outside looking in, I invite us to remember this remarkable woman.  She teaches us the true meaning of God’s boundless love.
     It’s a love that reaches out to all people. It’s a love that crosses all boundaries. It’s a love that never ends.
     There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.

     Thanks be to God!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Favorite Hymns - "And Can It Be that I Should Gain"

"And Can It Be that I Should Gain" is probably my favorite hymn ever. It was written by Charles Wesley, brother of John Wesley during the 1700's. These two brothers emphasized in their preaching and music God's grace made known to us through Jesus Christ.

[Charles Wesley: 1707-1788]

Charles wrote this hymn to describe his experience of when he received an assurance of his salvation. We often think of his brother's "heart-warming" Aldersgate experience, but we sometimes forget that Charles also had an equally powerful experience of God's amazing grace.

The verses of this hymn build upon each other and they describe the effect that God's grace can have on a person's life. As the hymn progresses, I get more and more choked up as I sing them because the lyrics and the music gradually progress to the last verse which celebrates the ultimate good news of our faith.

"No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in him, is mine; alive in him, my living head, and clothed in righteousness divine, bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own. Bold I approach the eternal throne and claim the crown, through Christ my own."

As awesome as this final verse is, it's the 4th verse that always gets me.

"Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature's night; thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; my chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee."

Churches do not sing this hymn nearly enough. I think it's because people are not as familiar with the melody. It's one of those songs that you need to listen to a few times and before you know it, you totally fall in love with the combination of the lyrics and the melody. Charles Wesley certainly had an incredible gift of describing and celebrating God's grace made known to us through Jesus Christ.

So what do you think? Is this in your top ten or top five hymns? Right now, it's my favorite hymn!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Mud Slinging...In a Good Way

This Saturday, the youth of our church will be hosting their annual mud-pit gathering. Youth and a few brave adults will be sliding down the slip 'n slide into the brown goo of grossness. Some will make mud angels. Others will pose as frozen statues. A few will sling mud (not the gossip kind.) Others will enjoy sitting in the muddy warmth of the earth.

Mud and dirt are very biblical. The creation story tells us that we were made from dust and to dust we shall return. Every Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the Season of Lent is a time for us to remember that we are finite beings who are called to depend on God's life giving Spirit. We even receive smudges on our forehead to remind us of our dependence on God.

...dirt clings to us just like our sins cling to our souls.

I have been honored to baptize two of our church members during our annual mud pit. After the baptismal candidate slides down into the mud pit and becomes yucky with mud all over, I have everyone gather around us in a circle. With mud covering our bodies and dripping from our faces, I explain how dirt clings to us just like our sins cling to our souls. I then offer the good news that baptism is a powerful symbol of God cleansing us from our sins and receiving the new life that God is offering to us through Jesus Christ.

Even though United Methodist pastors tend to use the sprinkling method for baptisms, this method will totally not work for someone who is covered in mud in a mud pit. I have to use a garden house and pour the water over the person for a couple of minutes. It always amazes me how the mud wants to cling to us.

"So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"

Once the human car wash has been completed, the person now looks like a new person. II Corinthians 5:17 takes on new meaning in that moment. "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!"

It's difficult to symbolize the contrast of mud and cleansing water in a pristine sanctuary, but in a mud pit, the theological meaning of baptism really stands out and is quite memorable. I look forward to future baptisms in that mud pit. I know it's not for everyone, but for some, being baptized in a mud pit is something they will always treasure.

Even if we don't have a baptism in the mud pit, we always share in a baptism renewal which is also very powerful. "Remember your baptism and be thankful," are the words told to each person. As the water washes away the mud from the head of each person, it is so cool to hear them respond with the words...

"Thanks be to God!"

Monday, August 11, 2014

World's Largest Men's Bible Class - 1915 (Lancaster Methodist Episcopal Church, Lancaster, Ohio)

[Historic photo of World's Largest Men's Bible Class - 1915, Lancaster, Ohio]
*Click picture to enlarge*

Our church is preparing to celebrate the centennial anniversary of having the world's largest men's bible class in 1915. There are 1,316 men in this photo! The photo above is proudly displayed in room #26 and also in the Work Center of our church. At the time of this photo, our church was known as First Methodist Episcopal Church.

To commemorate this incredible event, our church will be gathering for a combined worship service on Sunday, September 7, 10:00 am at our Crossroads facility, 2095 W. Fair Avenue. During this service, we will show a video segment about this historical achievement.

Following the worship service, we will have a group picture of our congregation (male & female.) This picture will be used as the front cover display for our new church pictorial directory.

Remember to join us for a combined worship service at our Crossroads facility on Sunday, September 7, 10:00 am.

Here is the schedule:
10:00 am - Combined Worship Service
11:30 am - Congregation Group Photo
11:45 am - Covered Dish Meal & Games

SPECIAL NOTE: There will be no services held at our main church building that day.

Other September 7 Details:
  • We will provide nursery care from 9:30 am to noon that day. We have a wonderful nursery at Crossroads!
  • Bring a covered dish to share for our meal together (bring coolers as needed & disposable containers if possible.) Meat, beverages, and place settings will be provided.
  • Games & activities for children will begin after our church photo.
  • Consider car pooling to save on our parking spaces! We will also provide shuttle service from our main building to Crossroads at 9:00 & 9:30 am and back to the church at noon and 1:00 pm.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - August 17

Sunday, August 17 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, August 20  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 10th Sunday After Pentecost & Blessing of the Backpacks

Scripture - Matthew 15:21-28

Sermon "Boundless Love"

Theme - Jesus' encounter with a quick witted and persistent non-Jewish woman offers us a glimpse of God's boundless love for all people.

Sermon (August 10) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Learning How to Walk on Water"

     In the small town where I grew up, all of the kids learned to swim at Glady’s swimming pool. I remember those swimming lesson days. They were held during the morning hours when the water was extremely cold.     
     They told us to just jump in the pool and we’d get used to it, but we never did. In a matter of seconds, our lips turned from red to blue and then to purple. When we finally let go of our senses and submerged into what felt like the Arctic Ocean, they asked us to hold on to our paddle boards and practice kicking the water for what seemed like an eternity. Those were my early memories in learning how to swim.
     When I was a little older, my parents took me to the Y for a more advanced class in swimming lessons. During one of those sessions, the instructor wanted us to learn to swim at the deep end.
      I had never been at the deep end of the pool. It always looked really scary to me. The water had a darker blue color to it and looked very intimidating and mysterious to me. Only the older kids ventured into those unchartered waters. I was content to stay right where I was, where at least my toes could touch the bottom of the pool. It wasn’t that I couldn’t swim. I just didn’t want to swim in the deep end.
     We were all instructed to get out of the pool and walk down toward the diving board end, yes, the dreaded diving board end. There I stood, dripping wet when the instructor motioned for us to get into the deep water. My decision had already been made. There was no way that I was going to swim across what might has well have been the English Channel.
     The instructor motioned for me to get in a second time. Not happening. And then a third. No deal. The instructor then came by my side and explained to me that it would be OK since I already knew how to swim. I was told that it would be no different at this end of the pool.
     I can still see myself standing there by the pool and telling my swimming instructor that there was no way that I was going to swim to the other side of that pool. This is why I am so impressed with the disciple Peter in our Gospel lesson for this morning.

     The disciples find themselves in a very scary situation. They are in a boat together on the Sea of Galilee where storms are known to occur when you least expect them. Matthew tells us that the boat was being battered by the waves and the strong winds had pushed them far from land.
     As they struggled to stay afloat, off in the distance, they could see a mysterious figure walking toward them on the sea. They thought it was a ghost and they cried out in fear, but then they realize that it is Jesus because he reassures them, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
     Peter who is known to be impulsive and outspoken is willing to do the unthinkable. He tells Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” That was the last thing I wanted to say to my swim instructor that day at the Y. I wanted to tell him, “Command me to go back to the shallow end.”
     But like my swimming instructor, Jesus said, “Come.” The only difference is that my swimming instructor had to say it three times to me.
     “Come, you can do it.”  “Nope.”
     “Jump in the pool. You know how to swim” “Nope.”
     “You can do it. Just get in the pool. I’ll be right here with you.  No response for several seconds. Finally, I get into the pool and surprise myself by swimming to the other side.
     Peter didn’t need Jesus to repeat himself. Amazingly, he trusts Jesus enough to just go for it. Before he knows it, he’s walking on the water toward Jesus. 
     This is a story to help us learn to trust in Jesus in the face of our doubts and uncertainties. As we go through our day to day living, we find ourselves facing difficult decisions, complex situations, heart-ache, fear, and self-doubt. Our faith is what can help us face these uncertainties and challenging times.
     What does it mean for us to face our doubts like Peter and learn to walk on water?
     Maybe you’ve heard of the story of a church that was interviewing for a new pastor. They interviewed several promising candidates but none of them measured up to their very high standards. They were very picky about things.
     They had one more interview to go. This candidate had a very impressive resume and came with a many positive recommendations from his previous church.
     They began the interview by asking this promising candidate if he was a good preacher. When he told them that he had won the Billy Graham award for excellence in preaching one year, a member of the interview team said, “Do you mean to tell us that you only won that award one time?”
     Someone asked him, “What about involvement in the community? How many people from the town joined your church when you were the pastor?” When he told them that half the town had joined his church, one member said, “Do you mean to tell us that half of the town stayed away from your church? That’s not very good.”
     This interview was not going well at all. Another person asked him, “How much money did the people in your church give to the offering each year?” Again, the candidate gave what he thought was an impressive answer. He said, “I’m proud to say that every member of my church gave ten percent of their income to the church each year so money was never a problem.” Sure enough, somebody on the committee was not convinced and responded, “Do you mean to tell me that you didn’t get your members to give more than ten percent?”
     By this time, the candidate was very frustrated. He knew that he had to do something very dramatic to convince this committee that he would be a good pastor for them. He had noticed a pond that wasn’t far from the church so he invited them to all go outside because he wanted to show them something.
     When they got to the pond, he proceeded to take off his shoes and his socks. He then rolled up his pant legs and looked at the members of the interview team and said, “Just watch this.”
     Believe it or not, this candidate started walking on water. It was a miracle. He walked out to the middle where it was really deep and then he walked back from where he had started. He thought to himself that this would finally convince them that he was a really good pastor.
     To his surprise, each member of the interview team looked unimpressed. Finally, one of them said, “Do you mean to tell us that you don’t even know how to swim?”
     When Jesus calls us to walk on water toward him, he invites us to let go of our doubts and our fears so that we can trust him more fully. Justin Daley who attends our church has a testimony would like to share his testimony of how he has gotten out of the boat to follow Jesus. Justin, come and share with us.

[Justin Daily Testimony - Available on the youtube sermon audio link..]

     I am so grateful for Justin being willing to share his story with us. Like Peter, he got out of the boat and he trusted Jesus by walking toward him. Thank you, Justin for sharing your story with us.
     The story of Peter walking on water is our story. What storm are you facing in life? What fear is holding you back from getting out of the boat? Jesus invites us to walk on water and learn to trust in him through all of life’s storms.
     There’s one other very important point about this incredible story. You’ll remember that Peter started to sink as he was walking toward Jesus. He started to sink because he started to focus on the storm rather than on Jesus.
     But even then, Peter said, “Lord, save me!” And Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.
     Even after we get out of the boat, we still might find ourselves focusing on the storm rather than on Jesus. If you should start to sink, look for that hand that is ready to save you.
      This is what it means to learn to walk on water.