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, January 31, 2016

Sermon (January 31) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Nothing But Net"

    What do you do when you have a bad day?  We all have them.  Maybe you’re like me and you like to read about other peoples’ bad days.  At least you know that it could have been worse.
     If you’ve had a bad day recently where nothing seemed to go your way, maybe these examples of bad days will make you feel a little better.
     You know you had a bad day when your twin sister forgets your birthday.  That would be a bad day, wouldn’t it?
     Or, if your birthday cake collapses from the weight of the candles.
     The bird singing outside your house is a vulture.
     Your doctor tells you that you’re allergic to chocolate.
     The worst player on the golf course wants to play you for money.
     Did anyone have all of these things happen to you this past week?  See – maybe things aren’t so bad after all.
     I can’t think of a more frustrating thing than fishing.  My dad took me fishing a few times, and I never really got into it.  And I know that some of you love to fish and you’re quite good at it.  Maybe you can help me understand our Gospel reading this morning because it’s about fishing.
     The disciples were having a really bad day.  Check that.  Actually they had a bad night.  Fished all night and didn’t catch a thing.
     I understand from people who know a little about fishing, that night time fishing is the way to go, but not that night for some reason.  The disciples didn’t catch a thing, Luke tells us.
     When fishing is your hobby, that’s one thing.  But when it’s your livelihood, it’s quite another.  So I would think that the disciples were pretty discouraged when morning finally came.  Tired, grumpy, disappointed.
     Have you ever been there?  We all have.  Who hasn’t been discouraged at some point or who hasn’t had a bad day when nothing went right?
     Have you ever had one of those “nothing but net” days?  You know, one of those days where you throw out the net, and it always seems to come back empty?  No fish, but plenty of net!
     Jesus, sensing the discouragement of the disciples after a long night of fishing, goes against conventional wisdom by telling Simon, one of the disciples to give it another try. 
     “I know it’s broad daylight, but go out to the deep water again, and let your nets down again, and see if you won’t catch some fish this time.”
     And believe it or not, Simon takes Jesus up on this offer.  What?  Is he crazy?  He knows they’re probably not going to catch any fish, especially at that time of the day!
     Have you ever had someone do this for you?  Someone who was able to reach into your discouragement and help you look at the same situation in a whole new light? 
     That’s why consultants can be really helpful to a business or an organization.  A good consultant will come in, and maybe all it takes is one little comment about something, but that’s all that company needs to turn things around.
     And pretty soon, people start getting excited again.  “Yeah.  Why not?  Let’s give it a try!”
     And just like that Simon and the disciples reluctantly shove off from the shore.
     I guess, to understand why these tired and discouraged disciples would have been willing to do such a crazy thing, you have to think about the typical amateur golfer.
     I consider myself a typical average golfer.  My scores aren’t that great.  And no, the worst player on the course has never made a wager with me, just in case you were wondering.
     But only golfers will appreciate this.  Why do amateur golfers who aren’t that good keep playing this silly game?  Because somewhere in those 100 swings during your last round of golf, you actually hit one pretty good shot. 
     It’s that one shot that keeps you coming back.  Golf is like caffeine!  It’s very addictive!
     So maybe this is why those fishermen were willing to get their nets ready again, and give it one more try.  They can remember how they felt the last time they had a big catch. 
     There’s nothing like it in the world.  Am I right, fishermen? Sure! That’s what keeps you coming back to your favorite hobby.
     And of course, you know the story.  The disciples put down their nets and surprise, surprise.  Jesus was right!  They had the biggest catch of their lives. 
     Even their nets were breaking because of all the fish.  Signaling for some help, some other fishermen came out and they ended up filling two boats with all the fish they caught.
     I think Jesus made his point.  Hook, line, and sinker.  I totally apologize for that really, really bad pun, but you did fall for the bait. Alright, moving on…
     Here’s another part of Luke’s gospel which has us stop in our tracks, scratch our heads, and say to ourselves, “Who is this man we have been following?”
     Actually, Simon does something even better.  He goes a step further.  After the catch of fish, he falls down at Jesus’ feet, and he says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
     Words that remind us of what a prophet said centuries before Simon as he stood in the presence of God’s holiness.  “Woe is me!  I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
     Being in the presence of God has that effect, doesn’t it?
     God’s holiness caught me by surprise when I attended a community Thanksgiving service that was held at an Episcopal church one year.  I was sitting near the front of the sanctuary all by myself, when they began the liturgy for the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
     The words that were being shared were familiar to me even though I was in a different setting. Everything was going as I expected until…
     …until an usher stood next to me and invited me to go forward and kneel at the altar railing to receive the Sacrament. This took me off guard since I was new to the church and I was the first person to go forward.
     I nervously got up, walked toward the altar, and knelt down, all the time wondering if I was doing this the right way. I felt so humbled in that moment. I was out of my comfort zone.
     But just like that, I wasn’t self-conscious anymore, because I could sense that this had become a holy moment. I, a sinner, an outsider, was in the very presence of a holy God. 
     And when the communion steward gave me the piece of bread and the cup to drink, I also realized in that moment that I was unconditionally loved by this holy God.
     Whenever we come face to face with our sinfulness, our feelings of being out of place, and gaze upon God’s holiness, how can this not lead us to confession and worship and praise? 
     Perhaps the best part of our Gospel reading this morning is in what Jesus does next.  He says to Simon, “Do not be afraid.  From now on, you will be catching people.”      
     While Simon’s response to the miracle of the large catch of fish was a very appropriate one, that is, to remove himself from the presence of God’s holiness, the bigger point of the miracle was to help the disciples to follow Jesus in reaching out to a world of great need and to be prepared for surprises of some large catches along the way.
     Have you noticed how like the disciples in this Gospel reading, we too, continue to be surprised by this God who makes all things possible?
     Every year, I spend a few days up at a cottage along Lake Erie for a sermon planning retreat. It’s a great time to just get away from my daily routine to pray and plan out my sermons for the coming year.
     I stay at a friend’s cottage and Lake Erie is only about thirty yards from the back of my friend’s house. It’s a beautiful, beautiful setting.
     During those days at his cottage, I like to sit at a table near his sliding glass doors. As I sit there with my bible, laptop, and notepad, I have a great view of the Lake. I love to see the sailboats go by and I often think about the many stories of when Jesus was with his disciples along the Sea of Galilee, like the one from our Gospel reading today.
     During my time at Lake Erie this past August, it was time for me to leave and come back to Athens. My friend was leaving at the same time to go back to Cincinnati, so he was closing windows and locking up the house. As he was getting in his car to go home, I told him that I wanted to spend some quiet time by the lake before leaving.
     As he drove off, I walked down to my friend’s beautiful stone patio that overlooks the lake. And I just stood there taking in the fresh breeze and the mist of the water that was splashing up at me from the rocks below.
     I stared ahead at the beautiful vast lake with no end in sight. It was in that holy moment that God was telling me that there is no limit to what our church can do. There is no limit to the great things we can do for God as long as we let down our fishing nets into the deep waters.
     I just stood there for a few minutes looking at that huge body of water and thinking, “There is really no limit to what God will accomplish through our church. There is no limit.” Many of you know that I like to use the phrase, “Thin place moment.”
     A thin place moment is when heaven and earth mysteriously overlap and we experience the presence of God in a powerful moment. Looking out over the lake that day was a “Thin Place” moment for me.
     The prophet Isaiah had a thin place moment as he heard a heavenly chorus of “Holy, holy, holy.” There is no limit to what God wants to accomplish through our church. No limit, if we simply let down our nets into the deep waters.
     Several years ago, I was surprised to learn that Sports Illustrated and the United Methodist Church had formed a partnership. What could we possibly have in common, I wondered.
     Rick Reilly, a sports writer for Sports Illustrated at the time, had written an article about a campaign to save the lives of children in Africa who were stricken by Malaria. 
     Rick Reilly called the campaign “Nothing but Net.”  It was the precursor for what would later become known as “Imagine No Malaria.”
     For every $10 that is donated to this cause, an insecticide treated bed net can be purchased to cut down on mosquito bites while children sleep at night.  Malaria has been the leading cause of death in Africa and one of the most preventable diseases world-wide. 
     Thanks to Rick Reilly’s article and his partnership with the United Methodist Church, over 1.2 million dollars had been raised to help purchase 120,000 nets for the people of Nigeria. That was back in 2006.
     Fast forward to today. The United Methodist Church continues to be generous in raising money for Imagine No Malaria. In the past three years alone, our West Ohio Conference has raised over 3.6 million dollars to help save the lives of children from the deadly disease of Malaria.
     Who would have ever thought that Sports Illustrated and the United Methodist Church would come together as partners to help stop the spread of Malaria in Africa?  God never ceases to surprise us.
     Just when we’re discouraged and it seems like there’s nothing but net, Jesus says, “I can do something with those empty nets, thank you.”  To think that we can help prevent the leading cause of death on a whole continent by purchasing nets, gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase, “Nothing But Net.”
     When Jesus told the disciples to let down their nets again, they were shocked when they caught an incredible amount of fish. Their catch of fish was so great that their nets were breaking!
     Jesus turned a bad day of empty fishing nets into a really awesome day of nets filled with fish. Jesus wasn’t just offering the disciples practical fishing tips. He was helping them to see that by following and trusting him, they would have a hand in helping God’s kingdom to grow. Jesus tells them, “From now on, you’ll be catching people.”
     In the early 1900s, an Episcopal Priest by the name of Sam Shoemaker was sent to serve a big church in New York City.  Sam immediately began to help the congregation claim every person in that area of the city for Christ, especially those who were struggling with alcohol addiction.
     One of those persons was Bill Wilson.  Through the outreach of this Episcopal parish, Bill was able to stay sober.  With Sam, they developed what is now known as “The Twelve Steps” which Alcoholics Anonymous uses to help people stay sober.
     Sam Shoemaker saw himself as a fisher of people.  His desire was for all people to come to know the saving and healing grace of Jesus Christ for their lives.  All people.  He wrote a poem entitled “I Stand by the Door” and I’d like to read it.
     “I admire the people who go way in.  But I wish they would not forget how it was before they got in.  Then they would be able to help the people who have not yet even found the door, or the people who want to run away again from God.  You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long, And forget the people outside the door.”
    “As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place, near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there, but not so far away from people as not to hear them, and remember they are there, too.  Where?  Outside the door – thousands of them, millions of them.  But – more importantly for me – One of them, two of them, ten of them, whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.  So I shall stand by the door and wait for those who seek it.  I had rather be a door keeper…So I stand by the door.”
     This poem reminds us of the heart and soul of the mission of the church – To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  That’s why our church exists.  People need Jesus.  It’s that simple.
     To borrow from Rick Reilly’s Sport’s Illustrated article, he writes, “We need nets.  Not hoop nets, soccer nets, or lacrosse nets.  Not New Jersey Nets, or dot-nets, or clarinets.”
     He’s right. We need nets. And we are part of a church that is providing those nets to save lives.
     Jesus wants our nets. To be used to stop the spread of malaria.  To reach people outside the doors of the church.  To share God’s love with our university community. To help build homes with Habitat for Humanity. To share God’s love through our prison ministry. To provide food for children at Trimble Elementary School. To help stock our local food pantry. To include more people in our church through our small group ministry.
     To walk with Good Works on behalf of the homeless. To offer a kind word to the person working at the restaurant. To invite a neighbor to join you for church. To speak out against injustice. To serve meals for Monday lunch.  To buy a meal for the person behind you in the drive-through lane. To turn someone’s bad day into a really good day.

     Church – Let down your nets!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Worship Service (Combined) - January 24 at Athens First UMC

[Thank you, Lee Family for this Photo of Our Church Today!]

Due to the Level 2 snow emergency, we only had one worship service at 10:30 am. Pastor Robert's brother, Rev. David McDowell blessed us with special music. Instead of a sermon, the congregation shared "thin place" (Closest to Christ) moments. The joy of the Lord was in this place!

Athens First UMC
Sunday, January 24, 2016
10:30 am

Prelude Music

Call to Worship
Snow, rain, sleet, or ice, it is always good to worship together in this holy place. As we prepare to worship, we are invited to think of a “Thin Place” moment to share later in our worship.

A Thin Place moment is a phrase that Celtic Christians used to describe those times in our everyday lives when we experienced the presence of God in a very real way.  A “thin place” is when heaven and earth overlap during our everyday lives.

It could have been when you saw a brightly covered rainbow just when you needed an extra dose of hope in your life. Maybe it was when God answered a prayer just when you didn’t know which way to turn. Or maybe it was when you were holding a newborn baby in your arms and as this little one looked into your eyes, you were overwhelmed with joy and you will cherish that moment forever.

Thin place moments. They happen all around us. Sometimes we notice, sometimes we don’t notice, but they happen. We might not even notice we experienced a thin place moment until long after it actually happened! Today, on this snowy Sunday, let’s celebrate God’s many Thin Place moments and share them with each other! As you are able, let’s stand and sing hymn No. 365, which actually has a reference to snow in verse 3!

*Hymn No. 365                           Grace Greater than Our Sin


Opening Prayer
Dear God, thank you for the blanket of snow that reminds us of the beauty of your creation and how you are always present with us. Thank you that heaven is closer than we think, and often overlaps into our everyday lives. As we become aware of these “Thin Place” moments, may they always lead us into a closer relationship with you. May they warm our hearts on cold winter days, and may they lead us to share the good news of our faith with others. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ who promises to always be with us. Amen.

Old Testament Lesson                                                                            Psalm 139:1-18

*Gospel Lesson                                                                                         John 11:17-27
L: The Word of God for the people of God.
P: Thanks be to God!
Special Music                                        Rise Again              Rev. David McDowell

Sharing of Thin Place (Closest to Christ) Moments                                                             Congregation

Hymn No. 454                                  Open My Eyes, That I May See

Prayers of Joys & Concerns
The Lord’s Prayer




*Prayer of Dedication

*Closing Hymn 369                             Blessed Assurance

*A Celtic Benediction
Circle us Lord, keep love within, keep hatred out.  Keep joy within, keep fear out.  Keep peace within, keep worry out.  Keep light within, keep darkness out.  May you stand in the circle with us, today and always.


Monday, January 18, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (January 17) - Athens First UMC

God of revelation, thank you for the wonderful words of life that we find throughout the pages of scripture. Thank you for those times when a biblical story or a passage of scripture helped us to see your presence in a situation we were facing.

Your Word offers comfort, it provides guidance, it convicts, it challenges, and it inspires us as we seek to be the people you have called us to be. Thank you for family bibles, study bibles, old translations, new translations, pocket size bibles, and bibles that we can download onto our phones. Help us to be like those early Methodist bible moths who hovered around your Word at every opportunity.

O God, it’s your Word that reminds us that we are not alone in our journey of faith. You have given us a particular story that reveals who you are, who we are, and who you call us to be.

Whenever we hear your Word read or proclaimed, may it never leave us the same. May it always lead us into a deeper faith and trust in you.

Just as Ezra’s reading of your Word, gave hope and new life to the people of Israel, we pray that the reading of your Word would also give us hope and new life. We want to be a church that isn’t just surviving, but thriving.

We thrive whenever we invite people to church. We thrive whenever food is delivered to the homeless. We thrive whenever a choir of talented singers from all over the state blesses us on a Sunday morning. We thrive whenever we are generous in our giving. We thrive whenever we share our faith with others. We thrive whenever we make your story, our story.

Help us to always be your thriving, and not just surviving church, O God. You have a great future in mind for us. Help us to live into that future.

We lift up the people of our congregation who are homebound, for those who are facing medical challenges, those who are ill, those who have lost loves ones, and those who are facing doubts and discouragement. We pray for all who are in special need of you this day.

And now hear our silent prayers that we offer up to you, knowing that you are more than able to provide for all of these needs: (Silent Prayers)

We offer all of these prayers to you. Even now, we turn to your Word where we find this prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and not teaches to us, the Lord’s Prayer:

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”