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

Monday, February 29, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (February 28) - Athens First UMC

Loving God, like a doting grandmother who spoils her grandchildren to no end, and like a love-smitten man who arranges to have an airplane spell out an “I love you” message high in the sky for his love interest, you go above and beyond in showing us just how much you love us.

Thank you for loving us, especially when we feel unlovable. Thank you for loving us more than we can ever dream or imagine.

When we think of just how much we are loved by you, it gives us so much joy and peace in our lives. Like the Psalmist, who when counting his blessings said, “What can I give back to God for all the blessings he’s poured out on me,” we ask the same question this day.

“What can we give back to you for all the blessings you have poured out on us?”

Are you calling us to tithe our resources to Christ and the church, or take the next step closer to tithing? Are you calling us to offer our gifts generously toward our Capital Campaign?

“What can we give back to you for all the blessings you have poured out on us?”

Thank you for this season of Lent and giving us this time to think about what it means to offer to Christ and the church our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. What do you want to do through each one of us to accomplish your will in our church?

Your many blessings are all around us like in the large number of volunteers who served Monday Lunch this past week, like in the smiles of a little girl and her mother who attended our church for the first time last Sunday, and like in the college student here in our church who recently began visiting nursing home residents because she is responding to your calling in her life to be a blessing to others.

O God, your blessings are all around us and they lead us to respond by offering to you our very best gifts. Thank you for running out to embrace us even before we have a chance to tell you that we’re sorry for our sins. Thank you for the awesome robe, the expensive ring, and for the welcome home party that we didn’t deserve.

But most of all, thank you for giving us the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, who taught us to pray together saying,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sermon (February 28) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Putting Athens First with Our Gifts"

    Love is at the heart of the season of Lent. It’s at the heart of the biblical story. It’s a story of just how much God loves us. As someone once said, “God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it!”
     So, it’s only appropriate that the first Sunday in Lent this year began on Valentine’s Day. On one hand, we could say that it was just a coincidence that these two special days would fall on the same day on the calendar.
     But, on the other hand, maybe it’s God’s way of reminding us, just in case we forgot, that we are loved by God more than we can ever imagine. Because the truth is, there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more, and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less.
     It’s like God is saying to us, “I love you. Now, deal with it!”
     A few years ago, Penny and I spent the beginning of Lent in New Orleans. We arrived on the day after Mardi Gras! Now, who travels to New Orleans on the day after Mardi Gras? What pastor travels to New Orleans and arrives on Ash Wednesday? This pastor!
     Actually, Penny was attending an education conference in New Orleans so I decided to join her. While we were there, we visited parts of the city and were having a fun time together, but not too much fun!
     As we were walking along one of the streets late one afternoon, we looked up in the sky and noticed that some love smitten man had hired a pilot to leave a message in the clear blue sky for his love interest to see. The message read in large smoked filled letters, “I love you Sarah.”
     Other people who were walking near us were noticing it as well. We all kept gazing at the sky until the “I love you” message finally disappeared.
     Penny was thinking about how incredibly sweet that was for this man to do. All I was thinking about was how this was going to make one heck of a sermon illustration some day!
     The timing of that message in the sky wasn’t lost on me. It was the beginning of Lent and somebody wrote an “I love you” message in the sky for someone to see. God is writing an “I love you” message in the sky for each one of us during this time of year as we reflect on God’s self-giving love through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
     If we open our eyes, we can see that message of love being written as we journey with Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus is showing us just how much he loves us through his prayers, his presence, his gifts, his service, and his witness.
     And in turn, we have been discovering what it means to respond to this love through the offering of our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.
     Today, we focus on how Lent is a time to reflect on God’s gift of love for the world by giving us the gift of salvation. Jesus was always trying to help people see just how much God loved them.
     Jesus showed us God’s love in a variety of ways. In our scripture reading today, Jesus uses a parable to describe just how much God loves us. 
     We often refer to this parable as the parable of the Prodigal Son, but it really should be known as the Parable of the Prodigal Father. You’ll see what I mean as we look at this parable in greater detail.
     Let’s first take a look at the youngest son in this story.   The story begins with this son abruptly asking his father for his share of the inheritance and he goes off into the wild blue yonder to live it up. 
     And does he ever!  Loaded with cash, he wastes no time in finding the nearest luxury camel dealer and five star hotel.  A dream come true.
     But there was just one problem.  The money ran out.  So he did the only thing he could do, just to survive. 
     Irony of ironies, he lands a low level job feeding pigs, which wouldn’t be a bad thing except that such a job would be the last job that any self-respecting Jewish person would ever think of doing. 
     But hey, what is a Prodigal to do when the bank is sending overdraft notices every other day in the mail?
     But even this job wasn’t helping him to survive, because the text says that the pigs’ food was starting to look pretty good to him.  We are also told that outside of giving him a dirty low level job, nobody in that country offered to help this guy out.
     No hand-outs.  No social services.  No United Methodist mission sites. Don’t expect any hand-outs here. 
     It’s a hard lesson for this young man.  This isn’t Israel, where the God of all creation calls upon his people to offer hospitality to the stranger and the sojourner.  He’s living in a place with different rules.  Different values. 
     There he stands, leaning against the fence post, watching those pigs make their way to the feed trough, and he starts thinking about his father, the father he left behind.  “Dad has some hired hands on his farm.  And at least they have something to eat each day.”
     So off he heads home.  Rehearsing his speech. 
     “Dad.  I made a big mistake.  I blew the money you gave me, and now I can’t even feed myself.  I know you have every right to send me away because I’m not worthy to ever be called your son again.  But please, let me at least work as one of your hired hands. Yada, yada, yada.”
     Those miles back home must have been some of the longest miles he had ever walked.  It’s funny how those same miles didn’t feel so long when his pockets were full of fifties and hundreds.  Imagine his hands getting sweaty and his heart beating faster as he approaches the family farm. 
     “Will dad even recognize me at first?  I’ve lost so much weight.  What’s he going to say to me?  I need to speak first and tell him that I’m sorry.”
     And then he happens to look up, and in the distance he can’t believe his eyes.
     The scene now shifts from the son to the father.
     What the son sees is something that very few sons would have ever seen in 1st century Israel.  It’s a picture of a father running toward him. 
     No father in the ancient world would have ever been seen running outside.  It was against social custom.  It would have been a sign of disgrace and embarrassment for a father to do such a thing.
     And yet, here this father is running toward him. And not only is he running, but his arms are open wide and when he reaches his son, he embraces him and gives him a kiss.
     As the father embraces him, this son tries to give the speech he’s been rehearsing the past several miles, the speech about how he is not worthy to be called his son, and how he’s sorry for the disgrace he has brought to the family, and then to beg for his father to include him as one of his hired hands.
     No sooner has the son said these words, that the father is yelling out to have someone quickly bring a robe – the best robe they have, and to bring a ring – and some sandals.  All symbols of forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation. 
     This part of the story reminds us of the story of Joseph from the Old Testament, when Joseph went from being a prisoner who had absolutely nothing to becoming one of Pharaoh’s top officials. 
     Remember when Pharaoh gave Joseph his own ring and gave him garments of fine linen, and put a gold chain around his neck?
     For the Jewish people, that was a story of restoration.  By God’s grace, Joseph was able to rise to this high position under Pharaoh, and would later end up saving his own brothers from a severe famine in the land, the same brothers who had sold him into slavery from the beginning. 
     Joseph, who was lost, was found and restored to his family and his father, Jacob.
     Jesus, in telling the story of the Prodigal Son, is tapping into one of the great truths in the Bible – that God loves us more than we can ever imagine. 
     And when someone is found and brought back to God’s family, there is great rejoicing, the best party you have ever seen.
     After the Prodigal son returns home, the father spares no expense in celebrating the homecoming of his son.  The fatted calf is killed.  They get the best DJ in town.  And before you know it, the party is on.
     We heard about the son who squandered his share of the inheritance, forsaking his family, all for a brief taste of the good life.  This is why this parable is known as “The Prodigal Son” story. 
     The word, “prodigal” means “wasteful.” It means “overly extravagant.”
     But this parable should be known as “The Prodigal Father.”  Talk about being recklessly extravagant!  His youngest son has disgraced the family, depleted the family reserves, and now has the audacity to return home.
     And what does this father do?  He spares no expense in throwing an outlandish party for his son.  And he evidently doesn’t take into consideration how his oldest son will respond to this preferential treatment.  What kind of father is this who would go to such extremes?
     There’s only one word to describe this father.  He’s just as reckless as his son.  Impulsive.  Wasteful.  Extreme.  He’s a prodigal father who gives us a picture of our prodigal heavenly father who will spare no expense in showing us just how much we are loved.
     A couple of years ago, I attended a wedding brunch at an upscale restaurant with the groomsmen and the father of the groom. There were probably fifteen of us ordering off the high priced menu. We were all prepared to pay for our own meals, but the father of the groom asked for the waiter to bring one check. He was going to cover it.
     As we were leaving the restaurant, I thanked the father of the groom since I know he had already helped with a lot of the couple’s wedding expenses. As he started toward his car, he looked back at me with this great big smile on his face, and he said,
     “I love my son so much. Moments like this don’t come around very often.”
     Jesus didn’t just tell us this parable to show us how much God loves us. He showed how much God loves us when he died on the cross for our sins. Jesus was the embodiment of God’s love for the world.
     God gave us the greatest gift of all when he sent us Jesus. And like the prodigal father in the story, Jesus offers us his amazing, over-the-top, outlandish, and extravagant love even though we don’t deserve such love.
     This outpouring of God’s love is at the heart of why we are invited to offer our gifts to Christ and his church. Our gifts are in response to the reckless and extravagant love of God.
     When we embrace God’s over-the-top love in our lives, it makes us want to offer our very best gifts to be a blessing to others. What does it mean to offer our gifts in response to God’s extravagant love for the world?
     I have a friend named, Stan. Stan is a retired United Methodist pastor who now lives in Michigan. He shared with me how some folks in his family who aren’t tithers to the church just can’t understand why he and his wife would even think about giving 10% of their income to their local church each year.
     To them, that money could have been invested in other ways over the years to make even more money.  Stan and his wife see it very differently.  They believe that by being generous givers to the church, he and his wife, are rich in a different way, a way that is distinctive and set apart from the rest of the world.
     In the eyes of his family, their commitment to tithing their income and giving 10% of their income to Christ and the church over all these many years is still viewed as wasteful.
     The bible says that they are just being “prodigal” with their use of money. Prodigal, like a prodigal heavenly Father who gave everything he had to bring salvation to the world, even his very own Son, who died on a cross for our sins. 
     I served a church that was conducting a large capital campaign, much like the one that we are getting ready to launch here at our church. Phyllis was a faithful member of that congregation. She served as the church treasurer for a number of years
     During the early part of that capital campaign, she, along with the other leaders in the church, were invited to write down on a little piece of paper, an amount that they thought would be a reasonable amount to give to the campaign over a three-year period. They weren’t asked to include their name, just the amount they thought they would probably give to the campaign.
     Phyllis told me that she wrote down a number that she felt was pretty generous. But the more she thought about what she should give, the more she thought that number needed to be a lot higher. 
     As she reflected on her many blessings, what the church meant to her, how her relationship with Christ was such an important part of her life, she ended up giving a much higher dollar amount toward the campaign.
     Someone would say that Phyllis was wasteful. Others would call it, just being “prodigal.”
     John Bunyan, the great Christian writer from the 1600s once said, “A man there was, though some did count him mad, the more he caste away, the more he had.”
     As we prepare for the launch of our campaign which is only a few weeks away, I invite us to reflect on this story of the Prodigal Father.  What does it mean for us to put Athens First with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness?
      Let’s pray the prayer we have been invited to pray during this season of Lent. It’s found in your bulletin.

     Dear God, what would you do through me to accomplish your will in my church? Amen.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Dave's Deep Thoughts - Our Different "Teams"

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.

Sing along………
“The more we get together, together, together,
the more we get together the happier we’ll be.”

or maybe not………………..

I root for Team A,
the virtuous team that stands for everything that is right about America.

Team A does not like Team B.   Never has, never will.
Team B does not like Team C because Team C cheats.
Team A is not particularly fond of Team C either
  because for once, Team A agrees with Team B: Team C  cheats.

This year Team A played Team D three times, including the playoffs.
Prior to this year, Team A thought that Team D was just a silly nuisance.
That is until Team D added some mean, stupid, not so nice players to their team.
These mean, stupid, not so nice players hurt several players from Team A.

This hurt Team A  both emotionally and physically,
so much so that they could not continue to be in the playoffs.
This meant that they didn’t have a chance to beat Team C,
the Cheaters who are always in the playoffs, only because they cheat.

A funny thing happened  during this crazy season.
Team A  now dislikes Team D more than they dislike Team B.
Team A still thinks Team B is evil, but not as evil as Team D
Never before in the history of mankind has this been true.

Nobody even talks about Team E
Nobody cares about them.
They always finish in last place.

This caused Team to sit down and think……..
what happens next year when Team B plays Team D?
Or what if Team C plays Team D, or Team B plays C?

This caused Team A’s head to hurt just thinking about it.
What could Team A do?

Option A
Team A could hope for Team B not to be so evil,
  or for Team C not to cheat anymore,
  or for Team D to not have any mean, stupid, not so nice players.

Option B
Team A could  beat Teams B, C, & D and be the champions,
   proving that being virtuosity has it rewards.

Option C
Team A could become as evil as Team B or D, 
   or begin to cheat like Team C, 
   thus giving Teams B, C, & D a taste of their own medicine.

Option D
Team A could pray for Teams B, C, D & E.

What?    You thought I was talking about football?
Goodness no. 

I was talking about international affairs.
Or maybe I was talking about candidates seeking election.
Or maybe I was talking about how ethnic groups treat each other.
Or may I was just talking how people in general treat people.

We don’t treat each other very well,
not as nations, not as citizens of a country,
not as fellow human beings.

If we are honest with ourselves……

Sometimes, we are Team A.
We see all that’s wrong with all other teams,
but fail to see what’s wrong  within us.

Sometimes we are Team B.
Our thoughts or actions are not what they should be.

Sometimes we are Team C.
We do things to gain undeserved advantages for ourselves.

Sometimes we are Team D.
We just hurt other people.

Sometimes, we are Team E.
Beaten down, with no hope of being seen as of value.

Jesus recognized that condition within us.
It is our sinful nature.

He showed us that only by being transformed,
so that we are not the center of our universe,
that we become the people that we are intended to be.

That is, people who love.
He loved everyone, even while hanging from the cross.
Granted, He did not love the things that people did sometimes,
but He loved who they were created to be.

I believe He even loved the Pharisees,
the one group to whom He consistently demonstrated His righteous anger.
I believe He loved them individually as the ones whom He formed in their mother’s wombs..

This Lent, 
I don’t seek the changes that I need in myself
through nations winning wars.

Nor do I seek the changes that I need in myself
through a candidate winning an election.

I claim no victory in my ethnicity or my upbringing.
My only victory is in Christ.

May I be the change that I seek in everyone else,
and may I open myself Lord, for You to do exactly that in me.

And do not be conformed to this world,
but be transformed by the renewing of your mind,
that you may prove what the will of God is,
that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
                                                                Romans 12:2

Monday, February 22, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (February 21) - Athens First UMC

O God, thank you for the 150 odd people who are here in worship today. 
[See sermon for context of the "150 odd people" reference.]

Help us to be odd in a good way, whether that be by attending worship on a Sunday morning, walking for the homeless on a Saturday morning, attending a small group meeting to hear people share about their faith, or just by taking the time to listen to a child share what she learned in Sunday School. O God, help us to be odd in a good way.

On this second Sunday of Lent, we thank you for how Jesus offered his presence as he continued in his journey toward Jerusalem even though he knew that people were waiting there to do him harm. Thank you for his resolve and his willingness to die on a cross for a broken and hurting world.

Lead us to be like Christ in how we relate to each other and the people of our community. Help us to be like the hearts that we placed on the large map of Athens last Sunday. We want our church to be a positive presence in this community.

We pray for those who are unable to be physically present in worship today but who are able to listen to this service on the radio. We also pray for those who are traveling, those who are ill, and those who might be feeling disconnected from the church. Thank you for your tie that binds us together in Christian love.

With one voice, we join now in praying together,

“Our Father, who art in heaven..."