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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Pre-Easter Thoughts - Rev. Robert McDowell

Dear Friends, 

Recently, I was flipping through the pages of N.T. Wright’s book, Surprised by Hope. It’s a book that explores the connection between the resurrection of Jesus and what this good news means for our everyday living. 

I offer the following quote from his book to help us prepare for our upcoming celebration of Easter: 

"Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of His creation; 

Every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow non-human creatures; 

And of course, every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching,every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world;

– all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make." - 1

In short, I think this quote is reminding us to keep living out our Easter faith through word and deed. We are an Easter people! 

Pastor Robert 

1 – N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, Harper-Collins, 2008, p. 208

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Never too Cold to Serve

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.

No man is an island.
But what if you are the last man standing?

It has been a brutal winter.

Since the holidays,
we have seen only 4 days with temperatures above freezing.
We have set record sub-zero lows on 8 days,.

How cold has it been you ask???

It has been so cold……
that students have had days off school not because of snow,
but because of  temperature.

It has been so cold……
that my dogs have turned my pool into a canine playpen.

It has been so cold……
that I canceled a ski trip because it was too cold.

It has been so cold……
that an outdoorsman decided 
to climb Niagara Falls   (successfully)

It has been so cold……
that a sunny day in the 20’s without gusting winds
felt so balmy that it caused me to drive with my windows down.

It has been so cold……
that when I opened my freezer in the garage,
it felt warm.

It has been so cold……
that my wood pellet stove running non-stop,
has cried uncle.

It has been so cold……
that I saw a youngster riding his bike
on the local lake.

Each day I drive by a local pond
that is a popular hangout for the ducks.

Each day I shiver as I watch 
hundreds of mallards swimming in the artic water.

And each day since the holidays,
I have watched the ice edge, like a glacier
progress steadily across the surface.

Each day, less room for the ducks to swim,
more room to skate.

Finally, during the most brutal days,
the ice overtook the springhead of the pond.
All that remained was one small hole.

One small hole big enough
for only one duck to go for a dip.

And there he/she floated…..
while hundreds of the brethren sunbathed on the ice.

I wasn’t sure  if this was privilege as being monarch of the mallards,
or it was a time-out chair for a disobedient duck.

I wondered why would any creature put itself in such a position?
Especially when they were so many others that could have taken the plunge.
I got my answer that night when I was curled up on the sofa 
under a blanket in front of the fire.

That was when one of my dogs came up to the sofa
and dropped his ball onto my blanket.
And then he sat there with eyes imploring me to do the unthinkable.

The thermometer said “minus two.”
The howling wind said ”I dare you.”
My dog said “please.”

2 sweatshirts, 1 ski pants, 2 thermal gloves, 1 facemask,
2 beanie hats, 3 layers of socks and 1 space age winter jacket later,
I was on the front lawn playing fetch with the boys.

They were having a blast.
Meanwhile, I was getting blasted.

And then I saw my salvation……
The clothes dryer was running inside the house.
Between tosses, I nestled myself up against the house
where the dryer vent was releasing lifesaving heat.

It was in that moment of pitiful desperation,
that I realized I was the one duck in the water.

What makes people do extreme things for others?
The answer in a word,  love.

What do you do when you are the last man standing?

Someone needs a ride just as you are calling it a day.
Someone needs  some help to cover their monthly bills.
Someone needs a place to stay and you have an extra bedroom.
Someone needs……..and you can help.
Last man standing

I don’t completely understand the warm blooded duck floating in the icy water thing.
But I do understand being the last man standing for someone who is desperate.
And I know God understands completely.

There was nothing to be personally gained  by God in journeying to the cross,
except to love those whom He created.
And He chose to do it.

And when we choose to love by reaching out to another,
especially when it costs us,
then we become the last man standing for that person,
and we fulfill the law of Christ.

And God finds the strangest ways to warm our hearts, and our blood.
Who knew, a dryer vent!

Now would someone get that poor duck a blankie????

But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need,
yet closes his heart against him,
how does God’s love abide in him.?
Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.
                                                                           I John 3:17-18

Upcoming Sunday Scripture Commentary - March 1

Sermon (March 1) - "Different Robes of Jesus: Servant's Robe"

John 13:1-17

John focuses on three things in telling this foot washing story:

Passover - Whenever Jesus mentions a Jewish festival, he is doing so to apply that festival to Jesus himself. Passover is the greatest of all the Jewish festivals. John's connection with Passover gives us a hint that Jesus will be the passover lamb.

Jesus' approaching death - John prepares us for the approaching cross in the opening verses of this chapter.

The motive of Jesus' actions - This story reminds us of the good shepherd scripture in John, chapter 10. The good shepherd loves enough to be willing to offer his very life for the sake of others.

The foot washing helps us to see who God is. God loves us this much! The next time that Jesus' clothing will be mentioned is when he will be revealed as "the man" in front of Pilate in John 19:5. On the cross, Jesus will be naked, again showing God's vulnerability in giving everything for the sake of the world.

Peter's objection to allowing Jesus to wash his feet reminds us of when Peter objected to Jesus going to Jerusalem and to the cross.

Jesus tells us to follow his example which means that we are to serve in humble ways.

[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.]

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Even I Like this Buckeye Van

Pastor Robert, would you be able to attend a photo gathering at Medill Elementary School on Tuesday at 12:30?

Sure! What's going on? 

Our church gave $1,000 to help a family with two disabled children have a handicap accessible van that includes a chair lift.

OK, I can do that!

When I arrived at the school, I walked passed the van (see picture above) and was very impressed! I approached the door of the school and could see that they were already having a special party in the hallway. Standing there were the very grateful parents and their two children sitting in wheel chairs. A teacher introduced them to me. I told them that I was Pastor Robert from First United Methodist Church in Lancaster. I looked up at the parents and said,

My church is so glad that we could help contribute funds toward the van. That's why we're here. We're here to be a blessing.

I wish all 1,400 members of our congregation could have seen the look of deep gratitude in each of their eyes.

They thanked me (meaning you, the congregation) over and over again as if I didn't hear them the first two times. Dad and mom were so appreciative that our church gave so much to help them even though we hadn't ever met their family personally and they don't attend our church. I wish all 1,400 members of our congregation could have seen the look of deep gratitude in each of their eyes.

Actually, we do know this family. About two years ago, we provided an air conditioner for this family because one of their children had extensive surgery and would need to stay in their hot apartment during the extensive recovery process.

Our church was able to make this generous donation through your faithful giving to our Local Relief Fund. We used to call this our Pastor's Discretionary Fund but that sounded like it was a fund to send the pastors on a vacation to Hawaii! This fund has always been used to help people like this family who are facing significant financial challenges and who are finding it difficult to care for basic needs.

Thank You!

So thank you church for helping to buy a special van that will help this family get from place to place. Our dollars are being used to build God's kingdom right here in our community!

As I was getting ready to leave the school, a church member standing next to me said, Hey Robert, did you notice the large Buckeye decal that is on the back of the van? Isn't it nice? If you look closely at the picture of the van above, you can see this sticker on the back side of the van.

The new owners of the van overheard our conversation and they looked at me with a confused look. The church member said, Oh, don't worry about him. He's just a Penn State fan.

I have to admit that even though I bleed blue and white, that Buckeye sticker looks really great on that van!

SPECIAL NOTE: Our Local Relief Fund is received on the first Sunday of each month when traditionally we offer the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Click here for the article about this story in the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sermon (February 22) by Rev. Cheryl Foulk - "Different Robes of Jesus: Healing Robe"

During the Sundays of  Lent, we are focusing upon  Jesus' ministry   by using the image of his clothing, his robe. Last week, our theme  was  the shining robe of the Transfiguration.  Jesus is a reflection of  God's glory  and we can  also reflect God's love by our actions of kindness.

Today, we are  looking at the healing robe.  In the Gospel accounts,  Jesus is well known as a  healer. He is seen as having great  compassion for people and a desire to lift them out of their suffering.  People  are not left in the condition that he finds them.

 Here is a general description from Mark:

“That evening at sundown, they brought to Jesus all who were sick. And the whole town was gathered around the door. And Jesus cured many who were sick with various diseases. All who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him.”

In the Gospel story for today, we have  an unnamed woman who is  part of a crowd that was gathering around  Jesus.

We are told a few things about her:   she has a persistent  illness and for 12 years she has sought medical help. Her health has not improved. Financially, she has little resources left.

If you have been sick or taken care of someone sick, you know what this means.

One's daily life changes: your schedule revolves around appointments, and medications, and tests, and waiting for answers.   You lose touch with what is happening outside.   People have told me: “the only time I go outside the house is to the doctor.”   For this woman, because of the nature of her sickness, she would not be welcome in certain places.  Every day she would have to deal with the debilitating fatigue of chronic anemia.  Illness can isolate us from  our neighbors, and add to our loss of hope.

In the early 1940's I had an aunt who had tuberculosis  and was sent to a sanatorium in the mountains of N.C.   She was some distance away and her family  did not have a means for visiting her.  My aunt felt very alone and neglected during the many months  she was away. 
 Even after she returned to our community, she  had problems reconnecting with the family.   Illness effects many areas of our lives, not just  our bodies.

The woman in the story must have used all her energy in order to find Jesus.
She has a bold faith. Desperation could have spurred her on but she is courageous.   She doesn't ask for permission but she takes hold of the edge of Jesus' robe believing that something would happen if she could just make contact.

She touches his clothing, and her medical problem is resolved. She may have been known as “that sick lady who lives on the corner” and now she is well!
Jesus turns, acknowledges her,and  wants to hear her story .

In a very tender way, he breaks down barriers to make her part of the community again: Jesus calls her “daughter.”  

If this woman has been shunned before, she is accepted now by Jesus. Everyone around has over heard the details of her pain, but they have also heard about her faith.

To be well was important to Jesus  and it is important to us also.

W e offer prayer every Sunday for those in need. Our hospital visitation team visits daily in the hospital- offering prayers for wholeness. Today children in the pre-school Sunday School class are making get well cards for those who are sick.  We have a prayer group connected by email  who pray for expressed concerns. In small groups  and on our own, we   call out someone's name and ask for their healing. Out of faith and  with empathy (and sometimes with anxiety)  we pray.

I cannot explain  the hows or whys of prayer for healing.

When the outcome is not what we wanted, when we wonder “why  not me” , I can't say it was because we did not have enough faith or  we didn't pray in the right ways.

 I do believe that there are always changes because of prayer: for those who are praying, and for the situation. Even when we are disappointed, we can receive God's peace. Even when we are heartbroken, we can realize that God is still with us. We may not be able to see the many ways that God's love was realized in our lives or in others' lives.
Kayla Mueller was a young woman from Arizona who worked for human rights thru a variety of organizations in many countries. In 2013 she was taken hostage in Syria ;  she died in captivity during this past month.

Recently her family  released a letter that Kayla had written to them.  She stated in the letter her great appreciation for their support.  She wrote: “I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else ... + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free fall.”        

To me  that phrase “tenderly cradled in free fall” captures the essence of the experience of prayer.  As we pray for someone else, we become part of  their story, we offer our love  and our support.  We become part of God's wide net of compassion.

We will take time today to pray for ourselves and for others.  Everyone of us hurts in some way or knows of the heartache of another.  We may need the healing of a broken relationship,  the release from an addiction, the lifting of a burden.

A doctor was writing about this  Gospel passage and he commented that when Jesus healed persons, it appears to happen very quickly.  In the doctor's experience,  healing may be a slow process, and  patience and prayer are part of that process.

We will have two stations for prayer here in the front  of the sanctuary and two in the balcony. When you come for prayer, you will be anointed with oil  and a blessing offered. 

You may not have a pressing need, but wish to come in recognition of Christ's care for you.  You are welcome to come  representing  the need of another person. You may want to pray for  a family or a neighborhood. You may feel led to come  because of your concern for  a situation in our world that is overwhelming.  There will be no asking of why you came , only a claiming of God's grace for you and for whatever is on your heart.

Our  choir will be singing an anthem of invitation before we pray. 
Through our  prayers, we are in faith touching the healing robe of Christ.

Sunday Worship Preview - March 1

Sunday, March 1 - (9:00 am & 10:30 Services) & Wednesday, March 4  (6:30 pm Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Features - 2nd Sunday in Lent & Holy Communion

Scripture - John 13:1-17

Sermon "Different Robes of Jesus: Serving Robe"

Theme - During the Season of Lent, we are focusing on the different robes related to Jesus and his ministry leading up to his death and resurrectionToday's focus is on Jesus' serving robe when he washed the disciples' feet.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why Ashes for Ash Wednesday?

[Picture above are some of the people in our church who helped lead one of our three Ash Wednesday services at Lancaster First UMC this past week. Before the service, we practiced placing the ashes in the form of a cross. These are some of the best looking crosses I have seen in a long time!]

During the Ash Wednesday service I was leading last week, someone asked me about the theological meaning of the ashes. I explained that ashes are comparable to dust. The creation story in the Book of Genesis reminds us that we were created out of dust. God was able to create new life out of the dust of the ground.

The sobering part in all of this is that since we are dust, we will one day die and return to the dust. These are words that we hear during a graveside service for a loved one. I know that this isn't something we enjoy hearing but Ash Wednesday is a powerful way to help us remember that life is short and to keep things in perspective.

The good news in all of this is that because Jesus defeated sin and death through though the cross and the empty tomb, we too are given the promise that one day we will be given new bodies.

It sounds too good to be true, right? 

I know that the whole thought that one day God will raise us to new life and give us new bodies that will never experience death again sounds totally crazy. It sounds too good to be true, right? According to our faith, this is what we believe. The Apostles' Creed, which the early church established in the early centuries states, "I believe in...the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting."

To sum up, we put ashes on our forehead on Ash Wednesday to remind us that even though we are dust, the cross and the resurrection of Christ offer us new life as well. This is why it's important that the ashes are placed in the form of a cross and not just smeared on our foreheads. The symbol of the cross reminds us that God can once again bring life out of death. What a wonderful way to begin the season of Lent!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

40 - The Story of Lent

Sermon (Ash Wednesday) by Rev. Cheryl Foulk - "Matters of the Heart"

We have just celebrated the holiday of hearts:  paper valentines,  satin hearts of chocolate, pastel candy hearts,  and diamond hearts.  Coincidentally this year Ash Wednesday is just days after  Valentines ,and Ash Wednesday  is also concerned with hearts.

These are some of the traditional Scriptures for today:

      “Create in me a clean heart, O Lord,  and renew a right spirit within me”
“Test me O Lord and examine my heart.”
        “I will take away your hearts of stone”
        “I will give you a heart to know me”

and the Scripture passage just read from Ezekiel:
           “I will give you a new heart”

What does it mean to receive a new heart?  

For the Davis family in South Carolina, for their little 5 year old daughter Natalie, a new heart was crucial if she were going to continue to live. Natalie had a rare heart condition where the heart muscle was weakening.  Her activities were limited; she could no longer  run or play. Thankfully  she was able to receive a transplanted heart. Now almost a year later, she has grown taller and she is much more active. She even chases her  sister around the house.  A new heart gave her new life, a new way of being.

We are beginning our Lenten journey of six weeks where we are thinking about the possibilities of new life. We look ahead to the promise of Easter morning and  remember the reconciling love and grace that our Lord offers.

The “heart “ can be defined  as our innermost character, feelings, or inclinations

How would you describe  the spiritual health of your heart?

Sometimes in daily life, we are surprised by what we discover about our heart.  Heather Kopp writes a blog where she frequently reveals her  “growing edge”,  her long way to go, as a follower of Christ.  This story is from one of her writings:

“My husband Dave can be so selfish. And this morning was a great example. Normally he gets up first, and so naturally, he makes the coffee... But here's the selfish part. Sometimes, Dave gets up super early to work on manuscripts...and by the time I get up, there's less than two cups of coffee left for me- which is obviously not nearly enough. What a coffee hog!

 This morning it happened again. I came down to the kitchen at 7am, plenty early you'd think, but as soon as I went to pour the coffee I could tell the thermos was too light in my hand. Sure enough, there was only one cup left.
Like I said, Dave can be so selfish. Especially when you consider that soon he'll be going into the office where he works and where he can drink all the coffee he wants all day long- while I'm stuck at home without.”

Heather continues her story by saying she headed for the den so that she could confront her husband.  He wanted to know if she was wondering about the coffee. 

She said   Of course not...but I did happen to notice that there wasn't much left for me.”    Dave explained that the coffee grinder broke and so he brewed  the last of the ground coffee just  for her and he was having tea.         Heather writes:

“ I glanced at his mug. It was true. My husband was drinking useless tea....so that I could have at least one cup of coffee to drink this morning while I prayed and meditated next to my candle, reflecting as I'm wont to do on all those gushy feelings of love for God and for all people that help to convince me I really am growing in selflessness. Lord, have mercy.”

Lent is the season for examination of the heart, for being open to seeing ourselves as God sees us.  Like Heather, we may  want to cry out:  Lord have mercy!

In our hymnal,  the Word and Table 1 (communion service) begins with this prayer:
Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hiddenWe declare together in our worship that God knows us very well, and knows the condition of our hearts.

Lent offers us the daily opportunity to open ourselves, to drop our defenses, and to bring God's light shining into the shadowy corners of ourselves.

What needs might we find in our hearts? a need for forgiveness of our sins      healing of old wounds need for encouragement the cleansing from guilt and shame empowerment greater empathy for others for a stronger faith for acceptance of the truth of who we are.

What does God desire for your heart? 

One of my favorite newspaper cartoons is Agnes, drawn by a cartoonist in Columbus. Agnes is a little girl who lives a simple life with her grandmother.   Agnes has a friend named Trout.  In one of the cartoons, Agnes and  Trout are sitting on a hill and contemplating their lives.   Agnes says “ I'm going to clean up my little corner of the world. I think if everyone did that the whole world could be shiny, clean and perfect.” Agnes asks Trout: “ Are you going to clean up your little corner of the world?” Trout replies”Can I just stay in yours until I can rent a backhoe?”

Trout  is very perceptive; it may seem like we do need a back hoe to clean up our lives. Change seems to be too hard, too demanding, and many times, temporary.
God is willing to help you to transform your heart so that you have more joy, and are more free to love and to serve him.

Lent is  the season of hope where we partner with God to clean up our little corner of the world, to receive in many ways, a new heart.  On this first evening of Lent, we say a simple prayer:  “Lord, here I am. Where do we start?”

Ezekiel 26:  26 And I will give you a new heart—and put a new spirit within you. I will take out your hearts of stone and give you new hearts of love.