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

Friday, October 31, 2014

St. Fred Sunday

All Saints' Sunday is sometimes overlooked on the Christian calendar. Fortunately, that's not the case at First UMC where I serve as pastor. Over the years, it has become an important tradition for our church to give thanks to God for all of God's people who have faithfully lived and died.

Our church observes All Saints' Sunday by reading the names of people in the congregation who have  passed away over the past year. We ring a bell for each person and light a candle. Family members stand up when their loved one's name is read.

As we prepare to observe All Saints' Sunday, I offer these thoughts about this important day on the church calendar.

  • This is a day to help us continue to give thanks for those who have gone before us. In addition to reading the names of church members who have passed away over the past year, we also light a candle for all of our loved ones who are no longer with us. Yes, it's an emotional day because we miss those who are no longer with us but it's also a day of celebration as we are reminded that they are now shining in glory and one day we will feast at God's heavenly banquet together. What a great day that will be!
  • All Saint's Sunday is a day to remember that we are all saints. Saints do not just include Mother Teresa and the members of the New Orleans football team, but they also include those of us who have sought to follow Jesus through our words and actions. The Apostle Paul was known to begin his letters to the several churches he founded by referring to them as saints. I'm no psychology expert, but I know that when someone dares to remind us of who we are called to be, we tend to set the bar a little higher and reach for our full potential.
  • This day on the church calendar also reminds us that the church is bigger than we think. In the Book of Revelation, we are told that the author, John was able to peer into heaven and he saw those who were in heaven worshiping and glorifying God. What a powerful thought to remember that whenever we worship together, we don't just worship with the people sitting next to us or those who sit in the balcony, we are also worshipping with the saints in glory who are in the heavenly balcony! And pastors, I know how much you love to have record worship attendances, but no, you are not allowed to include the people who are worshiping in heaven in your Sunday count. It may be good worship theology, but it's also known as fudging the numbers.
"Maybe we should refer to each other as St. Fred..."

Since each person who is seeking to be a follower of Jesus is a saint, maybe we should refer to each other as St. Tom, St. Alice, and St. Fred. I know. It sounds kind of holier than thou, but it's good theology.

Happy All Saints' Sunday!

All Saints' Sunday Prayer

We bless your holy name O God, for all you servants who, having finished their course, now rest from their labors. Give us grace to follow the example of their steadfastness and faithfulness, to your honor and glory; through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Living Generously - Tooth Fairy Generosity

We have recently concluded a five-week focus on “Living Generously.” We followed the video drama of Frank Donovan and his family through our weekly worship services, Sunday School classes, and small groups. The Donovan family gave us the opportunity to reflect on what it means to live generously.

During the last week of “Living Generously,” we were invited to return our completed 2015 Estimate of Giving cards. If you haven’t already returned your card, there is still time. These can be mailed to the church or placed in the offering during worship. Additional cards and envelopes are available at the church.

My favorite scene from the five video segments of our “Living Generously” focus was when Re, the gardener throws seeds into the air to symbolize the joy of living a life of generosity. I want to be like Re in sowing seeds of hope through the giving of my prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.

"...the little girl who wants to donate her tooth fairy money to the church..."

I continue to celebrate the stories of how people in our congregation continue to seek ways to live generously like the person who bought a pack of apple dumplings following a worship service so that the next customer would receive a free pack, the little girl who wants to donate her tooth fairy money to the church because she has been listening to the "Living Generously" sermons each Sunday, and the many 2015 estimates of giving cards that are reflecting significant increases in giving from last year.

May we be a church that is known for living generously.

“Dear Lord, help our church to be like Re and sow seeds of your love wherever we go. Amen.”

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Selected to Do Good

Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.

I know that is has been said that nice guys finish last,
but no one ever said anything about ending up in the hallway.

The first trip to a prison is quite an ordeal.
There are a lot of rules  for visitors to learn.
Things like:
know your license plate number before you take the long walk from the parking lot,
if you have a metal plate inside your body, you’d better have a doctor’s verification note,
and most of all, metal detectors do not like wire supported brassieres.
(The latter, I learned through observation only.)

Having been through the entering process many times,
I have the routine down.

So there, I was, sitting in the waiting room,
having easily passed through the inspection process.

3 ladies entered the lobby.
1st timers.
They were easy to spot.
One was in a wheelchair,
one had a cane, 
and the other was the traffic director.

I quickly learned that the traffic director wasn’t afraid to speak her mind.
Especially when she found out
that the purses would have to go back to the car,
that all the jewelry would have to come off,
and that everyone needed photo ID.

After three trips to the car,
and several rants with the admissions officer,
they reached  the metal detector phase.
The traffic director had just about had enough.

The cane lady breezed through with flying colors.
Even the wheelchair lady made it through on the first go.
The traffic director, not so much.

3 trips        3  beeps

The battery of questions ensued….
Are you wearing any other jewelry?  No!
Does your belt have a metal buckle?  No!
Does you brassiere have wire in it?    Emphatic No!  (accompanied by a look to kill)
Did you touch the detector as you passed through?    Long pause……..Yes

The fact that the cane lady had been able to make it through
without grabbing onto the detector
seemed to give hope to the traffic director.
Led by the cheers of the wheelchair and cane ladies,
the traffic director eventually walked through the detector 
like a beauty pageant contestant on a runway.
On the 4th try……….silence.

After 30 minutes,
the three ladies had made it to the waiting room .

Now I have a sympathetic heart for 1st timers.
After all, I have been there.
So I began to converse with them, 
allowing them to vent their frustrations,
sharing war stories from my previous visits.
By the time I was done with them, 
I had them smiling and laughing at life.

Meanwhile, several other people entered the waiting room…..
but none nicer than me.
I should have been elected chair of hospitality.

We lined up along the wall for pre-entry.
I even offered to wheel the wheel chair lady.
And that’s when I got it……..

The tap

If you have never visited a prison
let me say there is nothing worse than getting the tap.

The tap means you have been selected for the random search and drug screening.
Now I have never won a raffle in my lifetime.
Never won a door prize.
I don’t think I’ve even won  game of BINGO

But lucky me.
I was picked for the tap.

The tap sent me to the hallway behind a screened divider.

Did it matter that I was a pastor?  No
Did it matter that I had an innocent face? No
Did it matter that I was the only one in the waiting room
who was nice to the cane, wheelchair, and traffic director ladies? No

I will not go into detail as to what happens 
when one is taken to the hallway behind the screened divider…..
that is private…… between me, the prison guard, 
and all the prison staff watching the event through the security cameras.

What I will say is
that one tap is one more tap than any nice person should ever get in his life.

When I got back to the pre-entry line,
the traffic director looked at me and said  “They gotcha!”

Being nice doesn’t guarantee you anything in life.
In fact, the word nice is not even used anywhere in the Bible.
Being nice is not the primary intention that God has for His children
At best, it is a sanitized contemporary understanding 
of how believers are to live with one another.

The apostle Paul, gives more teeth to how we are to live
by saying “be kind to one another, tender-hearted (compassionate),
forgiving each other, just as God in Christ Jesus also has forgiven you.”

The intention is not for us just to live with each other out of a superficial politeness
but out of profound appreciativeness for how God has treated us,
and to expect nothing in return 
except that we have pleased the Father’s heart by doing so.

And one day, we will all understand that that  in itself, is enough of a reward.

As the line began to move toward the visiting room, 
the traffic director noticed a tray of cookies on the admissions desk.
Despite being told that they were for the staff only for staff appreciation day,
she sneaked a cookie as she walked by.

Pretty sure she will never get tapped.
As for me, I’ll continue to focus on kindness,
tap or no tap.

Upcoming Sunday Scripture Commentary - November 2

Sermon (November 2) - "A Glimpse of Heaven"

Revelation 7:9-17

General information about the Book of Revelation - This book has a reputation for instilling fear because of its graphic imagery and symbolism. One of my New Testament professors in seminary made a point in saying that the actual purpose of this book is not to instill fear but to provide comfort for God's people as they face life's challenges.

Revelation is a book that brings us full circle. The bible begins with a garden and it concludes with a garden. God's purposes of redemption and new creation prevail in a world of brokenness, death, and sin. This is the ultimate hope of the Christian faith!

The word, "Revelation" is really the word, "Apocalypse" which has the meaning of a hidden truth becoming unveiled. In popular culture, we have redefined the meaning of the word, "apocalypse" by having it refer to something that is frightful and scary.

John wrote this book. He was probably not the same person who wrote the Gospel of John. John is using apocalyptic language which was a common literary device at the time to help people see behind the veil at God's unfolding purposes for the world.

When God's people began to experience persecution, this raised the question as to what is the ultimate purpose of being followers of Jesus Christ?

In our passage for this Sunday (All Saints' Sunday), John is helping the people of God in the facing of persecution for their faith. He wants them to know that God has already won the ultimate victory through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ.

The 144,000 number as referenced in the previous verses is symbolic of the complete people of God. It's a number that is also meant to reinforce that we are talking about a very large crowd of people who will worship God forever and ever. The number is derived by taking the 12 tribes of Israel and multiplying it by 12.

Palm branches are signs of victory. The people can't contain their enthusiasm and joy.

John sees himself in the throne room (the heavenly Temple.) Someone tells John who these people are. They are those who have come through the great suffering. The point is that God will protect the people through their time of persecution and this heavenly worship is what they can anticipate in the future.

When churches celebrate All Saints' Sunday as we will be doing this Sunday, this picture of all of God's people worshipping in heaven is to remind us that whenever we worship, we are joining with them in heaven and earth! What a powerful thought and reality!


[Note: The resources used for these scripture reading commentaries are based on the Everyone series by NT Wright, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, The Wesley Study Bible, and the “Montreal-Anglican”lectionary commentaries.]

Sunday, October 26, 2014

From a Mustard Seed to an Apple Dumpling

Our church recently concluded our five-week "Living Generously" focus today. Here is an excerpt from today's sermon on "Sowing Seeds."

If you have been watching these episodes in church each Sunday morning, you have probably noticed a significant change in Frank’s view of generosity. When he saw how others were experiencing joy in their lives by being generous, he wanted to become more generous as well. Sowing seeds of generosity is contagious. When you see someone being generous, it makes you want to become more generous.

Following one of our worship services this morning, someone bought some apple dumplings made by our United Methodist Women to support mission projects. The person who was helping at the table started to give the person the bag of apple dumplings that had just been purchased.

The person surprised her by saying, "Just keep those dumplings and give it to the next person who comes to your table to buy some." In just a few minutes after the worship service, this person was already sowing a mustard seed which in turn led to some free apple dumplings for an unsuspecting person.

In Jesus' parable of the mustard seed, we are reminded that all of our acts of goodness and generosity matter. We might not realize it at the time, but when the small seed of generosity is planted, it eventually grows into a big tree. 

"Our church, our community, and our world will be blessed."

So keep sowing, keep planting, keep doing good in the name of Christ in little and big ways. Our church, our community, and our world will be blessed.

The mustard seed continues to grow even after the last sermon has been preached.

Sunday Worship Preview - November 2

Sunday, November 2 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, November 5  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - All Saints' Sunday & Holy Communion

Scripture - Revelation 7:9-17

Sermon "A Glimpse of Heaven"

Theme - On this day, we remember the saints who have gone before us and who are now in eternal glory. Our Book of Revelation scripture offers us a glimpse of heaven and what awaits those who have placed their faith in Christ.

Sermon (October 26) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Living Generously: Sowing Seeds"

     Over the past several weeks, we have been thinking and praying about what it means to live generously.  Our theme today is sowing seeds of hope and love.
     Last Sunday, I told you about a time when I was in the fast food drive thru and paid for the car that was behind me. What I didn’t tell you was why I think God nudged me to do something nice in that moment.
      I think it was this past Spring when I pulled into a fast food drive for lunch. And no, it’s not like I eat fast food every single day. It’s more like every other day. Anyway, when I made it to the window, the worker told me that the person ahead of me paid for my order. This fast food employee was really impressed by this person’s generosity. She was so excited to tell me what this person had done for me.
      That person’s generosity not only made my day, but it also left a positive impression with this fast food worker. It also was one of the reasons why I felt nudged by God to do the same for somebody a couple of weeks ago. We take notice of when people are generous, don’t we? Living generously has a positive ripple effect.    

     Often times when Jesus healed someone or performed some miracle, we are told that the people were amazed and in awe. We are drawn to generosity.     Whenever somebody does something generous for us, it makes us want to do something kind for somebody else.
     Many years ago, I served as an Associate Pastor. Following one of the worship services, a woman gave Penny and me an envelope that was filled with cash. She said, “I heard that you will both be leading a retreat next weekend. This is to help pay your baby sitter while you’re away.”
     When we saw all of the twenty dollar bills in the envelope, we politely told her, “Oh my, we can’t accept this. This is a lot of money.” And she said, “Oh no. Please keep it. You’ll need it to pay your sitter and to buy meals for them. We know how expensive it can be.”
     We again thanked her and told her that this was just too much money for us to accept. I will never forget what this woman then said to us. She said, “Just take it. We’ve already prayed over this money. It’s not our money. It belongs to God. It’s part of our tithe offering to the church.”
     Now, how was I supposed to argue with God? And so, wee accepted the money and thanked her for her generosity.
     She later told me that she and her husband give ten percent of their money to the church and they set aside about two percent to be a blessing to help people whenever they see a need. They always have money to help others because they follow the biblical principle of tithing, giving ten percent to the work of Christ and his church.

     That act of generosity motived us to begin tithing and setting aside money to help people in the name of Christ. I share this story in my pre-marital counseling sessions with couples. We talk about the importance of not only saving money but also setting aside money to be a blessing to others.

     In our DVD story that we have been watching over the last four weeks, Frank Donovan and his family have embarked upon a spiritual journey learning about generosity. They have been learning about giving God their best and not just their leftovers.
     Though Frank did give to charitable groups, he realized through a crazy dream in a court room, that he was not putting God first. He was guilty of loving the bread more than the baker. And then, as his family helped out at a local soup kitchen, we all learned that a spoon is for feeding ourselves, while a ladle is for serving others.
          Frank was learning that people are valuable, and serving others in Jesus’ name is more than just writing a check. After Frank’s wife, Cassie, was mugged and hospitalized, Frank understood for the first time that his money he counted on for security, was only an imaginary wall. His gardener, Rea taught him that God is our strong tower and where we should place our trust.
     In today’s final episode, Frank is going to take some risks with his time, his talents, and his treasure. He is going to involve his entire family in making some decisions regarding their future generosity. Frank is going to sow some seeds and trust that God will grow them.
     Let’s watch the fifth and final episode of the Donovan family.
[Watch this video which is the concluding video telling the story of the  Frank Donovan family. Use the password, rhemedia to access the video.]
     If you have been watching these episodes in church each Sunday morning, you have probably noticed a significant change in Frank’s view of generosity. When he saw how others were experiencing joy in their lives by being generous, he wanted to become more generous as well.

     Sowing seeds of generosity is contagious. When you see someone being generous, it makes you want to become more generous.
     I think this is what the Apostle Paul was talking about in our Galatians scripture reading. Paul says that if we sow seeds to the God, we will reap eternal life. And if we’re patient, we will enjoy a wonderful harvest.
     After he says that, Paul goes on to encourage the Galatians by saying, “Whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
     Paul is telling us to do good whenever we have an opportunity. Our acts of generosity add up and are making an eternal difference. You might not have realized it at the time, but that one thing you did or said to help someone along in their faith was what they needed to not give up.
     Paul is telling us to keep sowing seeds of our faith. They will take root and they will grow and there will be a wonderful harvest.
     It is often said that there will be two questions that will be asked of us in heaven. The first question will be how did we respond to the invitation to receive the good news of Jesus Christ?
     In Matthew, chapter 13, Jesus shares a number of parables regarding the Kingdom of heaven. He talks about the kingdom of heaven like treasure hidden in a field and someone sells everything he has in order to buy that field. He also compares the Kingdom of Heaven to someone who comes across a fine pearl and is willing to sell everything in order to buy that pearl.
     The Kingdom of Heaven is the good news of Jesus Christ. It is the treasure in the field. It is the pearl that is priceless.
     How have we responded to the good news of Jesus Christ?
     But it’s also been said that there’s a second question we will be asked in heaven. That question is, what did we do with the gifts that God gave us? Did we share them with the people around us or did we keep them to ourselves?
     Jesus tells us that even if we sow a tiny mustard seed into the ground, the smallest of all the seeds, it will grow to became a tree where even the birds of the air will be able to make their nests.
     Many of us are aware of the incredible stories of faith about Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity who have worked with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India.
     Mother Teresa was 36 years old when she was riding a train in India and experienced a call within a call to help the poorest of the poor. Just think of how many people the Sisters of Charity have helped in the 133 countries where they are now located?
     Mother Teresa had very little resources when she began her ministry but in 1979, she won the Nobel Peace Prize and has spoken with dignitaries from around the world. The world takes notice when we sow the seeds of the good news of Jesus Christ. It just goes to show that you don’t have to have a lot of resources to make an impact on the people around you. All you need is a little faith, even the size of a mustard seed.
     In a few moments, we are going to be invited to bring our completed 2015 Living Generously cards forward to the nearest station and place in the basket. These were sent out to our congregation this past week. We have extra forms in the pew pockets if you need one. If you are a guest this morning, we certainly do not expect you to complete one of these cards. This is a commitment that our church makes around this time every year as we prepare for a new year of ministry.
     As we come forward to hand in your Living Generously card, I want you to use your imagination a little bit. I want you to imagine that your 2015 Living Generously card is really a handful of seeds that you are planting to help grow God’s kingdom.
     We are all called to sow a variety of seeds. Seeds like serving in a new ministry to help people know that God loves them. Seeds like making a financial estimate of giving to help our many ministries grow and flourish.  For some of us, these seeds will represent our desire to give 10% or more of our income or what the bible refers to as the “tithe” to the work of Christ and his church. For others it might mean growing closer to tithing this year. All of us have seeds to plant for this coming year of ministry at First United Methodist Church.
     Just think what a difference it will make in our community as we the sow the seeds that God has given us. That’s a powerful thought. Just think of the harvest that we will enjoy a year from now or maybe two years from now or even farther down the road as we intentionally sows seeds of love and hope, right here in church this morning.

     Let’s think of 2015 as a year for sowing seeds, a year of living generously.