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, November 30, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - December 7

Sunday, December 7 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, December 10  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 2nd Sunday of Advent & Holy Communion

Scripture - Isaiah 40:3-5, 8-9 & Luke 1:26-36

Sermon "Reclaim Christmas: Giving Up on Perfect"

Theme - Our Advent and Christmas focus this year centers on the theme, "Reclaim Christmas."  On this Sunday, we discover that we don't need to be perfect to be used by God. Like Mary in the Christmas story, we are simply called to be open to how God wants to use us to be a blessing to others.

Sermon (November 30) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Reclaim Christmas: Great Expectations"

     About this time last year, Pew Research conducted a poll of a random selection of people in our country regarding their thoughts about Christmas. The encouraging news is that 92% of those who were sampled say that they celebrate Christmas. The discouraging news is that only half of those said that Christmas is a religious holiday.
     Here are some other results from the survey. Attending Christmas Eve services is on the decline. It has gone from 69% to just 54%. This next statistic doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with my main message for today but I did find this other survey response interesting. Sending Christmas cards through the mail is also on the decline from 81% to now just 65% of us.
     So just think about this. While the religious meaning of the Christmas holiday is gradually falling by the wayside, listen to how people responded to this other survey question. And again, this is from just one year ago.
     They asked people, “What do you like least about Christmas?” The top three responses were commercialism, all the extra shopping, and trying to get through all of the crowded stores.
     I don’t know about you, but I find these Pew Research survey responses quite interesting. On one hand, we are seeing Christmas as less of a religious holiday and more of a secular holiday. But on the other hand, we are reacting more and more negatively toward the non-religious practices of the holiday such as commercialism.
     The commercialism side of Christmas has really gotten out of hand for both the religious and the non-religious. That’s why I believe our scripture readings for this morning offer us a much better way of preparing for Christmas.
     Writing hundred of years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Isaiah, speaking to a very tired and weary people wanted them to know that something incredibly wonderful would happen to them. God was about to turn their darkness into light. The people would be able to experience joy and hope.
      God will send a child who will be born unto them. All authority will rest upon his shoulders and he will be known as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This child will continue the throne of David and he will uphold it with justice and righteousness.
     It is no coincidence that when Jesus began his public ministry hundreds of years after these words were first spoken, that he said that he came to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
     Helping people who are struggling to find hope and freedom from despair is at the heart of the Christmas story.   But somehow, we as a culture have lost sight of the true meaning of this season. Instead of it being about Jesus’ presence, we have made it about getting presents under the tree.
     That’s why this Season of Advent and preparation is so important for us during these weeks leading up to Christmas. This is a time for us to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas.
     The way we reclaim Christmas is the really fun part in all of this. We reclaim Christmas by allowing God to use us to make a difference in the world. God didn’t send us Jesus so that we can sit back and sing Christmas carols. God sent us Jesus so that we would become his followers and live out his mission of bringing transformation to our community and world in very real and practical ways.
    The story of God becoming human in the person of Jesus is the miracle of all miracles. But what’s even greater than that is in how God continues to work through ordinary people like you and me to make a difference in the lives of others.
     The question is if we are willing to sacrifice some of our own comfort for the good of others. That’s what is involved in having great expectations this Christmas.
     Everything about our culture tells us that Christmas is about us. Maybe this is a year when we can reclaim these words of Isaiah and offer good news to people who are walking in the darkness of unemployment, the darkness of poverty, the darkness of loneliness or some other kind of darkness. Christmas is about how God’s light can remove the darkness in people’s lives.

     Toward the end of the summer, I came across Pope Francis’s ten-point outline plan for happiness. It was released to celebrate his first five hundred days in office. Coming in at number two on his list of being happy is to give yourself to others.
     Pope Francis is constantly reminding people that charity shouldn’t stop at giving money to help others. Charity should also include giving one’s time to someone who needs it. He says that if we think of only ourselves, we run the risk of living stagnant lives.
     Who are the people who are waiting to see a great light? Is God calling you to share the light to someone in need? These are important questions for us during these weeks of Advent if we want to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas.
     Curt was a member of one of the churches I served. He was a gifted artist and had been recently retired. He was best known as the man who had painted animals from the Noah’s Ark story on the walls of the church nursery. Curt was also one of our ushers and was active in his Sunday School class.
      While I was there, Curt became ill and was in and out of the hospital. The people in the church and especially the people in his Sunday School class prayed for him, took meals to their home, and sent him get well cards.
     Curt reached a point in his illness where they were having hospice come to the home to care for him. He missed not being able to go to church on Sunday mornings so I would stop by his house whenever I had the opportunity.
     One day, Curt’s wife called to see if I could bring Holy Communion to their home. I was meeting with my clergy cluster that day. Our cluster consisted of ten United Methodist pastors serving within a twenty-minute radius of each other. We met once a month to pray together, encourage each other, and think of ways that our churches could share in ministry together.
     Knowing that I needed to go to Curt’s house after our cluster meeting, I felt a little nudge from the Holy Spirit to see if anybody from our clergy meeting would want to come with me. I explained the situation to them and they all agreed to join me.
     When I arrived at the house, Curt’s wife was surprised to see all of these people at her doorstep. I told her that these were several United Methodist clergy serving churches in our county and they just wanted to stop by with me and offer their love and support. A big smile came to her face and she said, “Curt will really love this.”
     When I saw Curt, I told him, “You said you would like a pastoral call so I thought I would bring every United Methodist clergy in the county to see you. I hope that’s OK.”  He was so glad to see all of these pastors.
     One of us read a scripture passage. Another shared a brief devotional thought. One of us anointed Curt with oil. And all of us joined in offering a prayer for God’s comforting presence to surround him. We even sang a hymn for him and we sounded pretty good.
     The next day, I received a call from Curt’s wife. She just called to let me know that our visit meant so much to him. It’s not often that ten United Methodist clergy make a house call together! I sent an email to the clergy group to let them know what a blessing they were to Curt.
     I look back on that day when we all visited Curt at his home and I’m still amazed that every clergy person was willing to sacrifice part of their time that day to be a blessing for someone who wasn’t even a member of their church. They didn’t just bless Curt and his wife. They blessed me that day. That was the United Methodist connection at its best!
     I have learned over the years that shining God’s light doesn’t have to be all that complicated. It’s just a matter of being open to those nudges and seeing what God will do in and through us.

     If you received a Sunday bulletin this morning, I left a space in the sermon outline where you can list three or four items for your Christmas wish list this year. Next to each Christmas wish, you might want to write down at least one specific way that you can be part of making that wish come true in somebody’s life. Remember, it doesn’t have to be that complicated. It might be doing a simple thing like offering your time and just being there for someone in the midst of their darkness.
     Sometime before leaving church today or even by the end of this week, share your list with at least one other person. Invite them to share their wish list with you and offer encouragement.
     I also want you to know about our church-wide Christmas wish list. For Christmas this year, our church has great expectations to financially support our Christmas missions offering.
     There are four items under this church-wide wish list. These include supporting our partner church in Lithuania, helping to eliminate hunger in Africa through the Africa Development Fund, supporting Good Works ministry nearby in Athens, and providing a gift to Imagine No Malaria which is helping to save lives in Africa.
     Last year through our Christmas missions offering, we raised $8,600 which was wonderful. Just think if we have even greater expectations for our missions offering this year. What if we exceed our expectations because God wants to work a miracle through us?
     Our expectations are related to our views on the true meaning of Christmas. Is Christmas about us or is it really about what God can accomplish in and through us? Is Christmas really just about going shopping or is it about bringing God’s light to where there is darkness? What sacrifices will we need to make so that the good news of Christmas will help others experience transformation in their lives?
     Christmas is about great expectations. It’s about a prophet who announces to a disheartened people that God will send a child who will be known as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

     This year, let’s reclaim Christmas. May this season be a time where we allow God to use us to bring light to those who are in darkness.

1st Sunday of Advent (Week of November 30th) - Lancaster First UMC

We light this first Advent candle as a symbol of expectation. We expect God to do great and wonderful things through each one of us this Advent season.

[As the first Advent Candle is lighted, the following prayer is offered.]

O God, we have high expectations. You are a God of the incarnation. This is a season of the impossible becoming possible. There is no God like you. We stand on our tiptoes waiting to see what you will do in and through us this Advent Season.  Through our special Christmas offering this year, lives will be saved, hearts will be transformed, and the hungry will be fed. Thank you for calling each one of us to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas this year. We pray this in the name of the One who is to come, our Emmanuel. Amen.

1st Week of Advent Thoughts:
  • What is on God's wish list for Christmas this year? Eliminating poverty, hunger, homelessness, malaria? List some other wish list items God has for our community and world. Don't forget to include our Christmas Missions Offering wish list which includes financial support for our Lithuania United Methodist Partner Church, Africa Development Fund, Imagine No Malaria, & Good Works Outreach, Athens, Ohio.
  • Reclaiming Christmas means that our wish list lines up with God's wish list. Be open to God's nudges to offer God's light to someone going through a time of darkness this Advent Season.

What is Advent?
Advent is a four-week vigil prior to Christmas, a period of watchfulness, waiting and reflection, not only for the celebration of the birth of Christ but especially for his coming again. Each week we light another candle on our wreath as the time of Nativity draws closer.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Non-Creative Thanksgiving Sermon Titles

Over the years, I have had my share of non-creative sermon titles. I take ownership for my share of lackadaisical thinking in this vital area of the prophetic witness. In particular, Thanksgiving sermons have been known to be breeding grounds for ho-hum sermon titles.

"So here is my top ten list of the most boring and obvious Thanksgiving sermon titles."

I think it's because we preachers are so focused on preparing Sunday sermons, that our creative juices hover around empty as we limp toward the Thanksgiving holiday. So here is my top ten list of the most boring and obvious Thanksgiving titles.

#10 - "A Spirit of Thanksgiving"
#9 - "Thankful"
#8 - "Being a Thankful People"
#7 - "Thanksgiving Is More than a Holiday"
#6 - "Becoming More Grateful"
#5 - "Are You Thankful?"
#4 - "The Importance of Being Thankful"
#3 - "Reasons to Be Thankful"
#2 - "Thanks Living"

And the #1 all time most non-creative Thanksgiving sermon title of all time is...

"An Attitude of Gratitude"

Attention all Preachers: As you prepare sermons for Christmas Eve this year, you are not allowed to use the title, "Born Unto Us." I've heard that about 1.3 million preachers have already claimed it.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Sunday Worship Preview - November 30

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

Features - 1st Sunday of Advent

Scripture - Isaiah 9:2-7 & Luke 4:18-21

Sermon "Reclaim Christmas: Great Expectations"

Theme - Our culture views Christmas as a time to give and receive presents. To reclaim Christmas means to be open to allowing God's light to shine in and through us so that we can be a blessing to others who are living in darkness and despair. This will require a sacrifice of our time and resources.

Sermon (November 23) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Thanksgiving Challenge"

     The thanksgiving holiday is pretty simple and straightforward, right? I’ve always approached thanksgiving as a time to make a personal list of the many blessings in my life which are many.
     When our family gathers around the thanksgiving table, we go around the table and share something for which we are thankful. If we would each share all of our blessings, the food would get too cold. I think the listing of our blessings is the easy part of Thanksgiving because there are just so many for us to name.
     So it’s no wonder that our Thanksgiving reading from the Book of Deuteronomy begins with a long list of reasons for the people of Israel to be thankful. At the top of that thanksgiving list was that God was leading them to their new home in the Promised Land.
     Just listen to this long thanksgiving list that involves the land they are about to enter. A wonderful land, streams of water, springs, wells that gush up in the valleys and the hills, a land of wheat and barley, vines, fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil, honey, no shortage of food, stones, copper and plenty of stones for building.  What a list!
     If this was scripture was written today rather than thousands of years ago, maybe this is how it would read. “Because the Lord your God is bringing you to a wonderful land, a land with housing developments, a shopping mall, a Starbucks, a brand new movie theatre, newly paved roads, beautiful parks, and new downtown restaurants, including a Five Guys Burgers & Fries, you will eat and be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord in the wonderful land that he’s given you.”
     Whether it’s the 21st century or during ancient times, coming up with a thanksgiving list is the easy part. Just take a few minutes to think about your blessings, and I’m sure you’ll come up with a really long list.
     The challenge isn’t in coming up with a list of blessings in our lives. The real challenge is in not forgetting who we are. That’s the challenge. Our scripture reading even offers us this warning: “But watch yourself! Don’t forget the Lord your God. Don’t become arrogant, forgetting the Lord your God.”
     We forget the Lord our God whenever we forget that we live in a world were many people go without the basic necessities of life. We forget the Lord whenever we forget that the blessings we have are in some measure due to other people who have helped us to get to where we are in life.
     I think of a successful farmer who started with little more than a mule and a small piece of land. He plows the fields, endures droughts and floods, and enjoys abundant harvests and prosperity. At the end of a long work day, he drinks a cold beverage on his beautiful front porch that he had built with his own hands. He thinks about his wealth and how far he has come in life.
     In Bolivia, a similar aged farmer who has worked just as hard as the first farmer is still poor because he hasn’t had adequate roads to transport his produce to the market. He also lives in an area where there are inadequate schools, a lack of opportunities for success, and poor health care. And yet, the first farmer believes that the only reason people are poor is because they just don’t work hard enough.  
     I remember my first impression of Guatemala when I went there on a mission trip back in 2009. Our Guatemalan mission team leader had picked us up at the airport and drove us to the place where we would be working for the week.
     As I looked out the window of the van during our hour-long trip to our mission site, I took notice of the many Guatemalans who were working out in the coffee bean fields under the extremely hot sun. In addition to the men, I saw many women and children working in the fields.
     I tried to think how different my life would be if I was forced to work in the hot sun like that every single day. Even before I arrived at the place we would be staying for the week, God had already opened my eyes to how so many people live throughout our world.
     Our job was to dig a long water trench from a lake to a tiny village so that the people of that community wouldn’t have to walk everyday to get their water. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a tiny shack where there was no water.
     The Guatemalans of that village worked side by side with us and together we dug a long trench in the hot sun that week. They taught us to pace ourselves and drink plenty of water as we swung pix axes and shoveled the dirt.
     Thanks to that mission trip, I have a renewed appreciation for the cup of coffee I buy at the coffee shop. Somebody worked long hours in a hot field for very little pay so that I could go through a drive-thru and have that grande size speciality coffee.
     The challenge of Thanksgiving isn’t so much to come up with a list of our many blessings as important as that may be. The real challenge is to not forget those who struggle every single day just to make ends meet. This is the real Thanksgiving challenge.
     It’s not surprising then, that just a few chapters later following our Deuteronomy scripture reading we read that we are to open our hands to the poor and to the needy. The sheer abundance of the land means that their wealth is to be shared, not hoarded.
     What helps you to not forget those who struggle to make a living?
     When I focus only on my blessings and forget about so many people who are struggling and lonely, than I miss out on the true meaning of the Thanksgiving holiday.
     So, here’s a typical list of thanksgiving blessings. I’m thankful for family, friends, job, food, health, clothes, clean water, electricity, heat, car, and the list can go on and on.  This list is important and I hope we name our many blessings during this holiday week, maybe even around the table before we eat the big meal this Thursday.
     But, there’s another Thanksgiving list that I hope we make this week. It’s a list based on our Deuteronomy scripture that reminds us to not forget who we are as God’s people. This list is meant to help us not just be thankful people but to be a  serving people.
     Here’s another Thanksgiving list that might help us to take up the Thanksgiving challenge.
     Offer free baby sitting for a single mother. Provide a financial gift toward our church’s local relief fund to help people in need. Volunteer to read to children at a local school. Take one of the angels from our Angel Tree in the parlor and buy gifts for a needy family. Say something positive to the grocery clerk and to the waitress at the restaurant. Come to our Second Saturday Outreach in a couple of weeks and help us wrap Christmas presents for several needy families in our community. Donate food and your time at a local food pantry. Visit at a nursing home and give encouragement cards to the residents. Become a pen-pal for someone with special needs. Throw a pizza party for the children in your neighborhood.
     This past summer, I conducted a graveside funeral service that was located at a cemetery outside of Lancaster. I was to ride back to Lancaster with the Funeral Director.
     Before we left the cemetery, this funeral director made it a point to call the cemetery office that was in charge of the cemetery to let them know what a wonderful job their workers did to prepare the grave for the service. After he got off his cell phone, I told him that this was a really nice thing to do for those workers.
     He said that even though he thanked the cemetery workers in person, he knew that if he would also call the cemetery office manager, that they would probably say something nice to those workers as well. This funeral director was living out the Thanksgiving challenge. He was thinking of the people who often receive little or no appreciation.
     This Thursday, members of our church will be serving a Thanksgiving meal to people in our community who might not otherwise enjoy a holiday meal. They too, will be taking up the Thanksgiving challenge by serving the needs of others.
     As we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday this week, let’s prepare two thanksgiving lists, one that lists our many blessings, and one that will remind us of how God is calling us to be a blessing to the people around us.

     May all of us accept the Thanksgiving challenge.