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, June 28, 2015

Sermon (June 28) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "A Place Called Athens"

      I need to say straight up that normally I like to use the lectionary, which includes appointed scripture readings for each Sunday of the year, but today’s lectionary readings were just awful, to be quite honest.
     The Old Testament reading was about a funeral song that David wrote about Saul and Jonathon. Cross that off.
     The epistle reading was about money and giving. I think that one can wait.
     And that left the Gospel reading that talked about people who were sick and hemorrhaging. I’m sorry, but I just didn’t feel the Lord leading me to any of these scriptures for my first Sunday with you.
     So then I had to come up with my own scripture reading for this first Sunday. And that’s when I thought about this scripture from Acts 17, the scripture about the time when the Apostle Paul first arrived in Athens during one of his missionary journeys. Actually, Laura preached on this same text a couple of weeks ago, so maybe the Lord is trying to tell us something!
     We’re told that Paul was alone when he arrived in Athens. He didn’t have the luxury of a caring congregation waiting to greet him. He didn’t have a beautiful church building that seats eight hundred people that would serve as his home base. He didn’t have a District Superintendent sending him encouraging text messages for his first sermon there. He didn’t have a loving wife by his side or a cute little dog named, Lulu.
     No, it was just Paul all alone in this incredible place called Athens. Athens, the placed that was known as the greatest of all the city states. Athens had a reputation for having the best literature, the best poetry, the best drama, and the best schools. All the other city-states wanted to be like Athens.
     Athens had the Acropolis, which included the famous Parthenon that served as the Temple of the goddess Athena. It was a very impressive place.
     So I think it’s interesting that our scripture reading tells us that as Paul was there in the city, he became distressed. How could you be distressed in a city that offered so much culture, so much to do, and so many impressive places to see?
     We’re told that Paul was distressed because there was also an emptiness in that great city. And Paul knew that it was an emptiness that could only be filled by the same God who had filled the emptiness in his own life.
     It wasn’t until Paul had encountered the Risen Christ on his way to Damascus, that he was able to realize what he had been missing. He had been missing out on the gift of true life that is offered to us through Jesus Christ.
     This is why Paul was on a mission. This is why Paul arrived at a place called Athens. He wanted them to know that the God who they thought was unknown could be known in a personal way and was much closer to them than they had ever imagined.
     I think that Paul’s reason for being in Athens might be the same reason we are in this city of Athens, Ohio. God has placed us in this unique and beautiful setting for an incredible purpose. We are here to share God’s love in this university community.
     Penny and I met at Temple University in Philadelphia. We were in the same dorm building. She was on the second floor and my room was on the first floor by the stairwell.
     Here’s how we met. Instead of opening the stairwell door one day, she opened my dorm room door by mistake. She still says that it was an accident, but I think she knew what she was doing.
     So we ended up having a conversation there in my room and as we talked, we found out that we were both United Methodist. I told her about my church and she told me about her church. And from that point on, she fell madly in love with me and she has been adoring me ever since.
     When we were at Temple, we got involved in a student ministry on campus and on Sundays, we attended a Presbyterian Church that was known for their outreach to the college students of the Philadelphia area.
     Over a hundred of us would meet every week for Sunday School in the church basement known as the Catacombs and then we would go to the late worship service and sit as a group. It was wonderful to have that kind of Christian connection while we were away from our home churches. And it was through the encouragement of people in that college outreach that led me to respond to a calling to enter the pastoral ministry. 
     To make a long story short, Penny and I got married, moved to Ohio so that I could attend seminary, and we have served churches in Ohio ever since. Earlier this month, we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary.
     Coming to Athens is bringing back all of these memories of when Penny and I met through that college ministry so many years ago. We have felt God’s guiding hand throughout this time of transition in our lives in moving from Lancaster to Athens. Here’s a quick list of some of these little signs from God.
     This past January, we drove to Athens for the introduction meeting with the Leadership Team which was the same day as my birthday.
     When we went to look at the parsonage, we noticed that it is located on a road named after the county where I grew up. And if that wasn’t enough, that road leads to a road named after my wife’s first name.
     Another fun little coincidence is that we moved to Athens on June 8th which was on our 30th wedding anniversary.
     So there you have it. God has led us to this place called Athens, and has given us all of these fun little signs along the way.
     Paul was in Athens because he wanted the people of that city to know about a God who became known through the person of Jesus Christ. This was a God of resurrection and new life.  And we are here in this city of Athens to proclaim this same message of hope and good news.
     Today happens to be a special anniversary day. Today is our daughter and son-in-law’s first wedding anniversary. They were married in my previous church. I didn’t have to officiate. I was able to enjoy being the father of the bride.
     Two United Methodist pastors led the service. The one pastor was on staff with me at a previous church and so his family and our family became really good friends during those years. The other pastor was our son-in-law’s pastor when he was in High School.
     During the wedding service, these two pastors offered a very creative combined sermon. The pastor who knew our daughter offered words of affirmation about her. And the pastor who knew our son-in-law offered words of affirmation about him. Each pastor took about five to seven minutes in sharing words of affirmation about the one that they knew.
     I could tell it was meaningful because my niece who had traveled from out of state was sitting behind me and she was sobbing uncontrollably. Penny who was next to me kept grabbing her tissues.  I kept removing my glasses to wipe away the tears.
     It was the most genuine and beautiful wedding sermon that I have ever heard. It was beautiful because both pastors knew the couple in a very personal way. They knew Naomi and Aaron’s unique gifts, strengths, passions, and idiosyncrasies. They also shared funny stories about them.
     God is like that. God knows everything about us. God created us and is always seeking to be in a relationship with us. And God is always reaching out to affirm us and remind us of our gifts, our strengths, and our passions, and yes even the funny things that we have done.
     This was Paul’s message to the people of Athens. God knows you. God loves you. God wants to be in a relationship with you. God is not far from you. God is closer than you think.
     Today is also a special anniversary for another reason. Today is the birthday anniversary of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism who was born in 1703. John Wesley believed that in any given moment you can have an assurance that you belong to God.
     John Wesley is probably best known for his heart-warming experience when he was at a prayer meeting in London, England. It was during a time when Wesley was really struggling in his faith. But it was at that prayer meeting where he felt his heart strangely warmed and he was given an assurance that Christ had died for him.
     We Methodists are known for our warm heart faith thanks to John Wesley. A warm heart faith reminds us that God loves us and knows us by name. God even knows that I go by “Robert” and not “Bob.”
     This is what Paul wanted the people of Athens to know. He wanted them to know that there was a God who loved them and knows us by name. This was a God who had been made known to them through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This was a God who has been revealed to us in a personal way.
     Actually, there are a lot of places like Athens where there are people whose best description of God is “unknown.”
     Before we moved here, I was reading up on some demographic information about Athens. One of the statistics that really stood out for me was that only 22% of people have a religious affiliation. Just 22%! The national average is 50%.

     That’s a lot of people in our community who are not part of a church family. This also means that there are a lot of opportunities for us to make connections with people in our community who presently don’t have a church home.

[Brayden with Pastor Robert on the day of his baptism.]

     Four years ago, a church member called me to see if I could come and baptize Brayden, a seven year old boy in our community who she had been tutoring at his home. They didn't have any church connection.

     He was living with his grandmother who had primary custody because his mother was in jail for drug related issues and I’m still not sure whatever happened to his father.
     Brayden had terminal cancer. And he knew that he was going to die.
     Brayden told his family that he wanted to be baptized because in his words, if he was going to die, he wanted to know for sure that he would go to heaven.  And so I went to Brayden's house. 
     Brayden was playing a video game when I arrived.  I could tell he was a little unsure of who this strange man was who came to visit him.  Even after I explained that I was a pastor of a United Methodist Church there in town and came to get to know him, he seemed a little cautious of me at first.
     But all of that changed quickly when he started putting a puzzle together right there on his small living room floor.  Brandon surprised me by asking, "Hey, do you want to help me with this Spiderman puzzle?" After one puzzle, we began work on another one.
     Family and friends had moved into the living room where we were working on the puzzle. Someone had filled a baking bowl with warm water. They brought the bowl over to me.
     And I asked Brayden if he was ready to be baptized. All of the sudden, this talkative, quick-humored seven year old was speechless. A serious look came to his face and he nodded his head in agreement. Yes, he was ready. Oh, how he was ready!

     I told Brayden a little about Jesus, how he had lived on this earth a long time ago calling people to follow him and how he helped people come to know God. And I said that he then died on a cross so that we can live with God forever and three days later God helped him to become alive again. I concluded the briefest sermon I have probably ever preached by saying that Jesus is alive and is present with us wherever we are.

     "Brayden, the reason we use this water for baptism, is to remind you that just as water helps us to get clean in a bath, God cleans us so that we can be with him forever." After this brief baptism instruction, I felt ready to ask Brayden the big question,"Do you have any questions you want to ask me?" 

     By the way he was concentrating on my every word and knowing that he was very smart for his age, I had a hunch that he probably had something to tell me. As he looked intently into my eyes for the next few seconds, he finally said to me, "I have to pee, first."
     I didn't expect that particular comment in that sacred moment but that’s just who Brayden was.  Brayden was beyond his years. He knew to cut to the chase and how to dispense with long conversations. When he said he needed something, he just said it.

     Brayden came back from the bathroom with a family member guiding him and after stumbling to the floor since he had some paralysis on one side, he sat back down and said, "I'm ready."

     "Brayden, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."  We all laid hands on young Brayden and I offered a prayer that he would always know that Jesus loved him and will always be there for him.

     For the rest of my time in Brayden's home, he stared intently at his lit baptism candle which included his name on it. He then spent time looking at a large cross which was another gift that our church had provided.  

     And then he sat on my lap and we continued to talk and celebrate his baptism. The next time I visited Brayden, his grandmother told me how much that baptism meant to him and how it had given him a sense of peace.  

     Brayden passed away four months after I had baptized him.  I officiated at his funeral service which was held at the church.  The day of his funeral marked the four-month anniversary of when I had first met Brayden and baptized him at his home.

     The day before the funeral, I went to the visitation calling hours.  And next to his casket and proudly displayed on the wall was his baptism certificate.
     Brayden and his family had no connection to any church, but we became his church. Brayden was able to know of a God who loved him and who would be with him forever. This made all the difference in the world for him.
     Brayden’s story always reminds me of the main mission of the church. We are called to reach out to those who do not know of God’s love. We are called to share the good news of our faith.  We are called to be the church right here, in this place called Athens.

     What a privilege it is for Penny and me to begin this new journey with you!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Inappropriate Hymns for a Pastor's First Sunday

Just as there are inappropriate hymn choices for a pastor's farewell Sunday (click here), there are also hymn selections that a new pastor will do well to stay away from for his or her first Sunday. To all my clergy colleagues who are leading worship in their new churches this Sunday and have chosen any of these hymns, hopefully there is time to change the bulletin asap before they get printed for this Sunday.

You're welcome.


God Forgave My Sin in Jesus' Name
[Your first Sunday is not the time to share your deepest sin with the new congregation.]


O Mary Don't You Weep, Don't Your Mourn
[Chances are really, really good that there is a parishioner named Mary in your new congregation. Don't choose this one!]


A Heavy Burden
[I know we pastors can be high maintenance, but let's not get off to a negative start.]


Restless Sea of Time
[For most congregations, the perception is that the 1950's was the only non-restless "Sea of Time." Think positive and don't use this hymn!]


Dear Lord, for All in Pain
[Let's not assume that people will not like you on your first Sunday. Again, think happy thoughts!]


I Want to Be Ready
[I know that we never feel perfectly ready to deliver that all important first sermon, but if we studied the text, prayed, and know what the Lord wants us to say, just let it happen! OK, now go hit it out of the park!]


Let the People Seek Their Freedom
[OK, this hymn should NOT be sung for the first Sunday because of United Methodist Book of Discipline and governing reasons. Even though this hymn has nothing to do with voting on keeping or not keeping a new pastor, perception is reality. We do not have a congregational method of choosing pastors. Our Bishop makes clergy appointments.]


Farewell Dear Friends
[Do I even need to explain why you shouldn't use this hymn for your first Sunday? Do you know how crazy tired you will be if you move twice in two weeks??]


People Look East
[This hymn should not be chosen if the Bishop's office is located east of your new congregation.]

And the top most inappropriate hymn for a pastor's first Sunday is the exact same hymn that is inappropriate for a pastor's last Sunday...


Move Me, Move Me

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Problem with Having a John 3:16 Approach to the Bible

When I was growing up watching sports on TV, I would often see the rainbow hair guy either behind the field goal posts or home plate holding up his John 3:16 sign. I remember thinking how cool it was that he was living out his faith in a very bold way by doing this.

John 3:16 is arguably the most memorized verse in the whole bible. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life."

If you were given a giant poster board, some markers, and told to write down one verse that summarizes the entire bible which consists of sixty-six books written by many authors over several centuries representing many different cultures and varying languages, what verse would you pick? Actually, it's an unnecessary exercise because there really isn't just one verse that can possibly include the one grand narrative of the bible. Some verses do a better job than others and some verses can speak to a present situation we may be facing, but without the other 31,101 verses depending on your bible translation, we can easily take one verse out of context.

Just for fun one day, a friend of mine and I decided to look up other 3:16 verses in the bible. Here is a small sampling of the 3:16 verses just to show how easy it is for us to proof text the bible.

Genesis 3:16 - Speaks about the consequences of Adam and Eve's sin and how the husband will rule over the wife. Starting with this verse probably won't win over a lot of the women I know to the Christian faith. Just say'n.

Leviticus 3:16 - Speaks about animal sacrifices and how all the fat belongs to the Lord. What about those of us who prefer a "Five Guys" kind of burger or a really nice juicy steak?

Ecclesiastes 3:16 - This verse speaks of how wickedness is everywhere. Well, that's a downer.

Lamentations 3:16 - "He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes." When was the last time you saw that verse printed on a hallmark card or a coffee mug? Exactly!

Habakkuk 3:16 - This verse tells us that he is waiting quietly for a day of calamity to come upon his enemies. I think Jesus offered an alternative view to this line of thinking.

II Peter 3:16 - In referring to Paul's letters, Peter writes, "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own desctruction, as they do the other scriptures." Ironically, this verse explains why focusing on only one verse of the bible might give us a very twisted view of the bigger picture presented by the entire Bible.

So, the point in all of this is to guard against a John 3:16 single verse approach to the bible. We need to be careful to not put too much weight on just one verse. Remember, there's a bigger story to tell and the good news of our faith is greater than just one verse of the bible, even though John 3:16 is a pretty cool verse.

FOOTNOTE: I looked up the rainbow hair guy from the 70s and unfortunately, he was convicted of some pretty bad things and is serving time in prison.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sermon (June 14) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Kingdom Sowers"

     I don’t feel that I’m a very patient person. Here’s an example. When I put something in the microwave, I sometimes will impatiently say, “Hurry up. C’mon. What’s taking you so long!”  You know, it’s pretty bad if you find yourself telling your microwave to hurry up.
     That’s why I think our Gospel reading was written just for me and for people who struggle with being patient. Jesus told this parable to explain what the Kingdom of God is like. Jesus compares God’s kingdom to someone who sows seeds.
     Ok, I can tell right away, that I’m not going to like this parable. I grew up on a farm that included a great big garden so I know where this parable is going. Jesus is going to tell us that it takes time to build the kingdom and that it won’t be an overnight process.
     Oh great. Well, that just means that I’m going to have to wait and I don’t like to wait. I want to see results yesterday, make that last week!
     In his parable, Jesus talks about the process that a farmer goes through in order to have a harvest. Did I say that I don’t like where this parable is going?
     This process involves scattering seeds and then that dreaded word, “waiting.” You have to wait night and day until finally, the harvest time comes.
     Jesus says essentially the same thing about how the mustard seed needs a lot of time until one day it becomes a large bush. In both cases, the result is good but it’s the waiting part that really stinks.
     And then Mark tells us that Jesus told even more parables as much as they were able to hear. I wonder if Jesus needed to do this because there were people like me in the crowd, people who were impatient, people who wanted to see results right away. Jesus wants us to know that the Kingdom of God doesn’t work that way. It takes time, lots and lots of time before we are finally able to see the results.
     I remember my first winter with you back in late 2009 and early 2010. Brand new pastor. Great church. Lots of optimism. We were poised to change the world.
     Our theme for 2010 was going to be, “This will be our best year of ministry ever!” That was saying a lot since our church has been around since the early 1800s, but I am known to be a little presumptuous!
     Well, as many of you know, it was just after Christmas in 2009 and the first few months of 2010, that we realized that our church was facing a very unexpected major financial crisis. We realized that our financial situation at that time was so bad that in a month or two, we weren’t going to be able to fund our payroll. And then this led to cutting the staffing portion of our church budget by $240,000.
     So not only were we dealing with a major financial crisis in our church, we were also in a position where several key staff positions at that time were reduced or eliminated all together. Because of these problems, many people left the church, which made things even more difficult as we headed into my first full summer with you.
     And here I had said so confidently that this was going to be our best year of ministry ever. Timing has never been one of my strong suits.
      When we first learned about our financial crisis, I called a pastor in the Cincinnati area who had something similar happen in his church several years earlier. I told him about our situation and he told me two things.
     He surprised me with his candor. He said, “Here’s what’s going to happen. You are going to lose a lot of people.” He said, “That’s what happened to us and it’s probably going to happen at your church.” And then he said, “But if you just love the people and just stay patient, trust me, things will start to turn around there. I know it will, but it will take a lot of time.”
     This is not what this new pastor wanted to hear. “Be patient?” “It will take a lot of  time?”
     As the saying goes, we were stuck in a moment and we couldn’t get out of it, at least not overnight and not by our own resilience. We needed to trust God through the storm. And so we did.
     James A. Garfield, prior to serving as President, was the President of Hiram College here in Ohio. One day, a father asked Garfied if there was a short-cut to help his son get through college in less than the usual four years.
     This man wanted his son to start making some money sooner rather than later. Garfield offered this wise reply, “Of course there is a way; it all depends on what you want your boy to do. When God wants to grow an oak tree, he takes 100 years. When he wants to make squash, he only takes two months.” Point taken!

     Financial crisis or no financial crisis, our church trusted in God by launching our Second Saturday Outreach around the same time that we announced our financial situation. We made a commitment to live out our faith during a time when it would have been so easy to turn inward and feel sorry for ourselves.
     We launched Second Saturday on Valentine’s Day of that year. We made a commitment to meet on the Second Saturday of every month and share God’s love in our community through a variety of ways.
     We have painted several of the city’s fire hydrants, painted over graffiti on bridges, served as volunteers for charity events, helped with house repairs, laid new flooring at Foundation Dinners, split and delivered wood to help people in need to heat their homes, given away quarters to people at the Laundromat, helped residents at a nursing home play bingo and chair volleyball, taken bags of fruit and cookies to first responders and to people who are shut-in, raked people’s yards, helped with the Habitat for Humanity resale store, made blankets for nursing home and hospice patients, helped build a tree house for the students at Forrest Rose school for Developmental Disabilities, assembled cribs for families who are struggling financially, along with many, many other projects.
     All of this started during a time when our church was facing major challenges. This just goes to show what a wonderful church you are. This is a church that is known for making a difference in our community. We forged ahead with our Second Saturday vision and it has been a blessing ever since.
     I haven’t shared this story with you but this is probably a good time to do it since this is my last Sunday with you. You can get away with a lot on your last Sunday.
     Back in spring of 2010, when we sent a letter to the congregation explaining our emergency financial situation and how we were going to need to eliminate several staff positions in order to keep operating, one of our church members stopped by our finance office soon after they received that letter in the mail.
     This was a time when I was wondering how our church was going to react to that letter which described the dire situation that we were facing. We were also concerned how we were going to pay for several building repairs that were needed.
     One of our church members who had received that letter, came that very day to our finance office here at the church. This person said, “I read this letter and I just feel awful about our situation.” And then she said, “I love my church so much that I want to make an extra financial contribution to help us get through this difficult time.” This person then handed over a check for $50,000.
      That check, along with the extra financial support of so many of you here today, gave us the boost we needed to make it through those initial months of our crisis. Friends, looking back, 2010 really was our best year of ministry ever. It really was!
     Slowly but surely, during these past six years, we have seen God at work in so many wonderful ways. Our worship attendance is growing. Our Love-Grow-Serve vision and discipleship process is off and running.
     We have just started the final lap with the goal of paying off our Crossroads facility loan by this time next year. We had a $68,000 surplus from last year’s budget, and on top of all of that, we managed to give over $33,000 to Imagine No Malaria a year and a half ahead of schedule. We have really come a long way.
     Thanks to your faithfulness, your patience, and your generosity, those seeds that were planted way back in 2009 and 2010 have become a full crop. Those tiny seeds, those little mustard seeds, have over time, become large branches where people are being blessed through the ministries of this church.
     My how time flies when you’re having fun.
     Thank you for giving me the opportunity to see God do so many incredible things through the life of our church. Thank you for teaching me to be patient. Thank you for helping me to understand why Jesus gave us this parable about sowing seeds and what it means to trust that they will one day grow into something incredibly beautiful.

     A six year old boy was assisting his mother with some spring gardening. The mother was absorbed in her work while the little boy tried to figure out how he could speed up the process of seeing a seed become a beautiful plant.
     All at once, the boy picked up a daffodil bud, and sat down on the ground, and studied it. Then with his two little hands, he tried to force it open into a full blossom. The result of course, was disappointment and a mess: limp petals and a dead flower.
     Frustrated, he cried out, “Mommy, why is it that when I try to open the buds, it just falls to pieces and dies. How does God open it into a beautiful flower?”
     Even before his mother could answer, a broad smile broke across the child’s face, and he exclaimed, “Oh! I know! God always works from the inside!”
     This little boy’s experience in the garden is like the parable of sowing seeds. God works from the inside. His kingdom is alive and it is growing.
     All of those months and years of wondering if the seeds we had planted would ever grow into something beautiful have been sprouting up all around us. And they will continue to sprout up because you continue to sow seeds for God’s kingdom.
     We have seen God at work in so many wonderful ways these past six years. We have planted many seeds and we have seen many of them grow. Just think of the many new seeds that God will have us plant as Pastor Brian comes to serve as your Senior Pastor.
     Last year, Penny and I stopped by to see Pastor Cheryl and Ben’s new home here in Lancaster. After we got the tour and were about to leave, Pastor Cheryl said, “Oh, there’s one more thing I’d like to show you both.”
     She opened the door to this little closet near their front door. On the inside of that closet door, she showed us how a previous owner had the height of each child along with their age. It was fun to see how each child grew taller and taller as they got older and older in that house.
     At the time, it may seem like they will always be five or eight.  I remember when it seemed like forever before our kids would reach that next stage of development. At the time, it might seem like a slow process, but they are growing moment by moment and day by day.
     Do you know what my favorite memory is of being here with you these past six years? No, it’s not the time when I fainted during a sermon one Sunday morning. And no, it’s not the time that you all dressed up in scarlet and grey after Ohio State beat Penn State my first year with you.
     No, the time I will most remember is the day that I walked my daughter down this aisle to be married. Two United Methodist pastors officiated for that service and I was able to just be a dad.
     At the wedding reception, I offered a toast to my daughter. I said, “Naomi, do you remember when you were really little and I used to throw you in the air and then catch you? I would do that over and over again and you would just laugh and ask me to do it again.”
     “Well, Naomi, I don’t know what happened. But one day, I threw you really high into the air, and you never came down. And you are still flying and you are still soaring to new heights. And now here you are on your wedding day, marrying a great guy.”
     As they say, “They grow up fast.”
     So in the midst of change and transitions, let’s keep sowing seeds for the kingdom day after day after day. Keep patient.
     You are proof that it's worth the wait.