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, March 28, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (March 27/Easter Sunday) - Athens First UMC

O God, we can see signs of new life all around us. The warmer temperatures, the flowering plants, the tree buds, and yes even the blotches of tall grass in our yards are pointing us to a new season of the year.

We thank you that Easter serves as a new season on the church calendar. We want to live out the dream you have in mind for each one of us and for our church. Thank you that we are an Easter people!

Even as our heart aches for the victims of the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium, we know that Jesus looked evil straight in the eye when he took upon himself all of the brokenness and pain of the world as he hung on the cross. When we saw you hanging on the cross on Good Friday, we thought that evil had won. Instead, you won the victory by rising from the dead. The empty tomb is vindication that you really are who you said you are, the Messiah who has come into the world to defeat sin and death once and for all.

O God, help each one of us to live out our dream in making this world a better place. Thank you for the holy privilege it is to be part of your church family where we are all called to be world changers, peace makers, and bearers of good news.

May this day only be the beginning of our celebration of your Easter victory over sin and death. We want to celebrate your good news all the way through the month of May and Pentecost Sunday when our confirmands join the church. What a great day that will be as well.

As your Easter people, your empty tomb people, your liv’n the dream people, we offer the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and now teaches us to say together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sermon (March 27/Easter Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Liv'n My Dream!"

    A few years ago, I attended a church conference leadership meeting with some friends of mine. Every morning, we would stop at a greasy spoon diner for a home cooked breakfast.
     The d├ęcor in the place wasn’t that great but the breakfast food was incredible.  And we would often be served by a waitress who had been an employee there for several years.  She seemed to know her customers quite well, calling them by name, anticipating what they might need, and sharing some jokes back and forth.
     Even though we were from out of town, she had a way of making us feel like we were her regular customers.
     During one of those mornings, we came in for breakfast and she came over to take our orders. Someone in our group complemented her on how she had made us all feel so welcomed throughout the week.  And this person in our group asked her if she could see herself doing anything else with her life besides waitressing.
     Her answer was priceless.  As she turned to walk away from our table, she rolled her eyes, and with a touch of sarcasm in her voice and a lot of attitude, she said loud enough for all of us to hear,
     “I’m livin’ my dream, babe.”  I’m livin’ my dream.” 
     Those of us who were around that table, still talk about that great line.  “I’m livin’ my dream, babe.” 
     Obviously, being a waitress or waiter isn’t easy work.  You’re on your feet all day.  You don’t make that much money.  People complain.  And the truth is, there are probably very few of us who will ever have that perfect dream job or that perfect dream life or that perfect dream family or that perfect dream church.
     The question for each of us is, can I honestly say, that“I’m livin’ my dream?”  
     I remember reading about a former local Dayton news anchor who was dating Charles Spencer, the brother of Princess Diana.  Their relationship created a lot of reaction in the greater Dayton area. 
      At the time, people became really jealous of her, knowing that if that relationship continued, she would be able to live a lifestyle that most of us can only dream about.  Others believed that this relationship was doomed to failure.
     Actually, the relationship didn’t work out. It didn’t turn out to be a fairybook ending.
     When I read that story, I remember thinking to myself how sad it was that people were so worked up about whether or not she would become an aristocrat. In a celebrity oriented culture, we sometimes think that the only way to live our dream is to be rich and famous.
     On this Easter Sunday, I want us to think about if we are living the dream that God has in mind for us.
     The good news of the Christian faith is that each one of us is invited to live out God’s dream.  And it’s because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that God’s dream is a reality.
     You don’t need to marry into an aristocratic family. You don’t need to win the lottery. You don’t even need to become a celebrity to be livn’ your dream.
     It’s early on a Sunday morning.  Several women quietly make their way through a spacious garden.  A couple of days have passed, and they can still hear the sound of nails being hammered into the hard wood.  What started with so much promise had ended in unbelievable tragedy. 
     With spices in hand, they are nearing Jesus’ tomb.  They will pay their last respects.  The dream is over. They will never get back what they lost.
     Or so they thought.
     The Gospel writer Luke tells us that Easter came as a complete shock to those women who were visiting the tomb.  Because of an empty tomb and some words from God’s messengers, “He is not here.  But has risen,” these women were able to dream again.  Jesus’ resurrection changed everything for them.
     This morning, the Gospel writer, Luke is inviting us to live out God’s dream.   What does it mean to live out God’s dream in the light of the resurrection?
     First of all, Luke wants us to know that the resurrection of Jesus means that Jesus is who he said he was. 
     In various ways throughout the Gospel, Jesus took upon himself the claim of being the Messiah, the one who would lead God’s people to freedom.  The only problem was, most of the people in Jesus’ day, equated freedom with defeating Roman oppression.  Not only did Jesus refuse to pick up the sword and lead a revolt against Rome, he ended up being put to death by the Roman Empire.
     Jesus’ resurrection shows that he truly is the long awaited Messiah.  But instead of leading a violent overthrow of the Romans, Jesus’ accomplished something far greater than any revolt could have done.  Through his suffering and death, Jesus was able to defeat sin and even death itself.
     The good news of the resurrection is that Jesus is who he said he was.
     Without the resurrection, Jesus would have gone down in history as just another person in a long line of people who claimed to be the true Messiah.  Because of the resurrection, Jesus’ showed that he is who he said he was. 
     I’ve been noticing that a leading newspaper includes religious editorials each week by religious leaders.  One of these religious leaders is a bible scholar who writes about various religious topics such as the resurrection of Jesus and why the story of the Bible makes sense.
     And underneath each of these articles, on this newspaper’s website, readers can respond to this Bible Scholar’s articles and offer their reactions.  As I read through several of the comments made by various readers, I’m always amazed at just how many of these responses are filled with anger and even outrage, not all of them, but quite a few of them.
     In a way, I shouldn’t be surprised at these negative reactions, because the Christian faith does sound too good to be true. Just think about what we believe.
     We believe that a person named Jesus who lived two thousand years ago was crucified on a cross, and three days later, was raised from the dead.  The Gospel writer, Luke, is careful to point out that the women who found the tomb empty were totally shocked at what had happened.  And when they went to tell the other disciples, Luke tells us that they all thought it was an idle tale, that it wasn’t true.
     The first thing about living God’s dream is to accept the truth that the shocking news of the resurrection, shows that Jesus was who he said he was.  And maybe that’s why we go to great lengths to celebrate Easter Sunday each year – just to remind ourselves that what we believe is no idle tale.
     The second thing Luke points out is that the resurrection changes us.
     Our Gospel reading begins with grieving women walking quietly to the tomb, and it ends with them going to tell the disciples of what they had experienced.  I guess that’s what an empty tomb and a few messengers from God will do to you.  It will turn your life upside down.  But it will also transform you from the inside out.
     Several years ago, a friend of mine who was nearing retirement shared with me about his story of faith.  He said that he would attend church once in a while with his wife, but it didn’t really mean a whole lot to him until one day, everything changed for him.
     While he was washing the dishes one night, he was watching TV, and the Catholic channel was on.
     A Priest was giving a short devotional message, talking about how we all have a God shaped hole in our lives and how that God shaped hole can only be filled by inviting Jesus Christ into our lives.  And my friend said,
     “I was really interested in what he was saying because I knew that I was missing something in my life.  I had a nice house, great job, loving family.  But something was still missing.  And then, this Priest on the television program invited anyone who was watching to pray a simple prayer and invite Jesus Christ to come into their lives.”
     And my friend said to me, “I just knew in that moment that I needed to say this prayer.  And with my sleeves rolled up and my arms submerged in the soapy dish water there in our kitchen, I accepted Jesus Christ into my life.  And I started sobbing right there by my kitchen sink. 
     I felt forgiven for my sins and it was like this huge weight was lifted from my shoulders.  From that point on, our lives really changed.  My wife and I attend church now, we serve in ministries together, and we seek to put Jesus first in all that we do.  My life has never been the same again.”
     When Jesus died on the cross he took upon himself all of the sin and pain of the world, and by rising again, he showed that new life is possible for us as well.
     Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we can be freed from our sins.
     Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we can lead new lives.
     Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we have endless hope.
     Because of Jesus’ resurrection, I can be the person God has called me to be.
     Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we become his new creation.
     Because of Jesus’ resurrection, I can let go of past grudges.
     Because of Jesus’ resurrection, I have a joy that fills my heart even when I’m having a really bad day.
     Because of Jesus’ resurrection, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
     Because of Jesus’ resurrection, I know I’ll never be alone, because he is always with me through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
     Because of Jesus’ resurrection, I am a new person.
     Because of Jesus’ resurrection, anything is possible.  Anything is possible! We can live God’s dream!
     All because of Jesus’ resurrection! All because of Jesus’ resurrection! All because of Jesus’ resurrection!
     Friends, I’m just getting started. It’s going to be an above average sermon today.
      And last but not least, the third thing that Luke points out about the resurrection, is that together, WE can change the world.  Together. WE can change the world.
     Actually, Luke’s Gospel is the first book of a two-book volume.  He also wrote the Book of Acts which tells the story of how the early church, through the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, was able to bring transformation and hope to the world. 
     In fact, if anyone has trouble in believing that the resurrection is true, all they really need to do is read the Book of Acts.  Something had to have gotten into those disciples to do what they did.
     They took care of widows and orphans.  They healed the sick in the name of the risen Jesus.  They told others about the good news of the resurrection.  They believed that Jesus would change the world through them.
     A friend of mine called me a while back.  He called me at a terrible time.  It had been a long day with lots of loose ends.  One of those days, if you know what I mean.  He begins by asking me if I had received the information about his ministry in the mail.  And I said without a lot of enthusiasm that I did get it in the mail.
     I’m now thinking, “Here he goes.  He’s going to ask me for some money.  And I really don’t feel like badgering different groups in our church to give money to yet another project.  I’ve got enough on my plate as it is.”  Like I said, it had been a very long day.
     And sure enough, he says, “Robert, I’m calling to see if your church can support my ministry over here in the inner city.”  I think to myself, “OK.  Here’s where he’s going to say how his ministry can’t make ends meet, and would our church be able to help them out?”
     But no.  Here’s what he says.  “Robert, it is unbelievable what is going on in the neighborhood near our church. Jesus is alive in our church! The members of my church are reaching out to the people in our neighborhood through acts of kindness, prayer walks, and personal invitations to attend our church.
     People in the neighborhood are starting to come to our church.  We have celebrated more baptisms in our little church than anyone can ever remember. They’re attending bible studies. These are folks who would most likely never come to church on Sunday morning, but they’re responding to this new ministry.  God is just doing an unbelievable thing and we’re just praising God for it.
     Hey, if your church can help us out with an offering, that would be great. We could really use the extra help.”
     Because of that phone conversation, my friend reminded me that Jesus is alive and is making a difference in people’s lives! 
     After I hung up the phone, not only did I write out a personal check and send it to his church, I also spent the rest of that afternoon on the phone, bugging different groups in my congregation to help support my friend’s new ministry that was doing wondering things in the inner city.
     Because of Jesus’ resurrection, my friend turned my bad day into a really, really good day!
     I think it’s no coincidence, that we will begin what we are calling our “Athens First Saturday” local outreach ministry less than a week after today’s Easter Sunday celebration.
     We will be meeting here at the church this Saturday morning, and then we will be put into different teams to go out and serve the needs of our community in the name of the Risen Christ.
     The resurrection of Jesus means that we can live out God’s dream because it means that Jesus is who he said he was. It means that it can change our lives from the inside out when we receive Christ into our lives. And thirdly, we can live out God’s dream because the resurrection of Jesus is what empowers us to change our community and world.
     Several years ago, I read an article in a magazine about a grown son whose father had recently died.  They had a stormy relationship as father and son.  The mother had died when he was only fourteen leaving his father to raise him.
     This article went on to say how the father would often tell his son to give up dreaming because if he kept on dreaming, he would end up being disappointed again and again.  “Quit dreaming,” he would tell his son.
     There was one problem, though.  The son didn’t stop dreaming.  In fact, his dreams only got bigger to the point where he was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 2005.  Bono, the leader singer for U2 has been leading a massive campaign to stop the spread of AIDs in Africa. 
     This rock star often visits with politicians, has preached from United Methodist pulpits, and has given commencement addresses on University campuses, shaping each of his talks with a call to embrace Jesus’ vision for a more just world.
     All this from someone who was told again and again to, “Quit dreaming, because you’ll just be disappointed.”

     But dreaming just isn’t for rock stars or celebrities.  It’s also for waitresses in greasy spoon diners.  And it’s for grieving disciples as they walk toward a tomb.  
     In fact, it’s for anyone who hears the good news, “He is not here. He is risen.”

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (Maundy Thursday) - Athens First UMC

Gracious and merciful God, we thank you for the very unique meal that Jesus shared with the disciples so long ago.

We are grateful that this meal reminds us of how you delivered your people from slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. We’re thankful that every time we receive this meal of the bread and cup, you promise to be present with us. And Lord, we are also thankful that this meal reminds us of that future time when you will make all things new. Thank you for the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

During this week, we remember when Jesus took upon his shoulders all of the brokenness, pain, suffering, and sin of the world so that we can be the people you called us to be, created in your image. Thank you for this incredible gift of new life made possible through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Even as you offered your life for us, we also know that there continues to be pain and suffering in our world. We think of the terrorist attacks in Belgium, the ongoing tensions in the Middle East, and even in our own country, where people resort to violence, rather than peace making. O God, forgive our sinful ways.

As we ponder and reflect upon these events of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, keep hope alive in us even as we prepare for a glorious Easter celebration this Sunday.

Be present with us even now as we join together in saying the Lord’s prayer together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven..."

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Sermon (Maundy Thursday) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "A Very Unique Meal"

    Maundy Thursday is an important day during Holy Week.  It’s a time for us to remember when Jesus shared in a last supper with his disciples. Soon, he would be arrested by the Roman authorities and crucified on a cross.  This last meal has become a meal we continue to receive to this day to help us reflect on what Jesus’ suffering and death mean for us.

   This is why the Apostle Paul spends time writing about the Lord’s Supper in his letter to the Christians in the city of Corinth.  They had forgotten why the Lord’s Supper is a very unique meal.

     In Paul’s day, the Corinthian Christians would have met in homes to worship, eat a meal together, and receive the Lord’s Supper.  The bread and the cup were part of that much larger meal they would have had together.

     Somewhere along the way, they forgot the reason why they were gathering for a meal in the first place.  They forgot why the loaf of bread and the cup were part of that great spread of food.  This holy meal that was meant to remind them of their oneness in Jesus Christ had become just another meal.

     And so Paul reminds them of the meaning of this meal by saying how it was Jesus who offered his body and his blood for us so that we will always remember what he did for us when he died on the cross for the world.

     Paul is saying that whenever you see the bread and the cup on that table of food, to remember that this is why we have gathered in the first place.  We have gathered because of what Jesus has done for us.

     In my first church where I served as pastor, I was celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Communion one Sunday morning. We were serving by intinction where people come forward to a communion station, take a piece of bread, dip it into the chalice of juice, partake, and then return to their seat. I was serving at one of those communion stations. 
     One of the beautiful things about the intinction method is that it is a very personal experience as people come forward one by one to receive the Sacrament.  It is also a very meaningful time for me as pastor because when I offer the bread and the cup, I can make eye contact with each person as they receive the Sacrament.

     So anyway, I was serving Holy Communion at one of the stations and one of my older members who was in her 90’s was in my communion line. As a life- long member of the church, she was seen as the matriarch of our small congregation.

     When it was her turn to receive, I lovingly looked into her eyes and said, “Florence, this is the body of Christ broken for you.”  She received the large piece of bread but then accidentally dropped it on the floor.  So I offered her another piece of bread which she received. 

     Then I offered her the cup and said, “Florence, this is the blood of Christ shed for you.”  She then dipped the bread into the chalice and ate. And then she did something that I will never forget.
     She looked down at that large piece of bread that she had accidentally dropped on the floor.  I assumed that she was going to gently bend over and pick it up since it would be in the way of the person behind her. 

     To my great surprise, she quickly swung back her foot, and with all of her might, she kicked that piece of communion bread as far away as possible. As she started to go back to her pew, she gave me a little smile as if to say, “Problem solved.”

     I know she thought she was doing a helpful thing but all I could think about was, “I can’t believe dear Florence just kicked the consecrated loaf of Christ.”

     The Apostle Paul wants us to know that Holy Communion is a very unique meal. He sums up the meaning of this meal in the last verse of our scripture reading when he writes, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

     The Sacrament of Holy Communion has a past, a present, and a future dimension.  When we receive the bread and the cup, we remember the past and how Jesus died on a cross for the sins of the world. 

     When Jesus died on the cross, he allowed all of the pain, brokenness, and sin of the world to rest on his shoulders, so that he would be able to defeat its power once and for all.

     The cross reminds us of how deep our vulnerability to sin is.  It also reminds us of how costly love is.  Jesus was willing to do for us what we were not able to do for ourselves.  He broke the power of sin and death.

     Whenever I get discouraged or experience disappointments, all I have to do is think of the cross and I am reminded of God’s great gift of love through Jesus Christ. 

     Approximately two thousand years ago, Jesus, an historical figure, the one who was the visible expression and true embodiment of God gave his life for you and me. What Jesus did is rooted in human history.

     But Holy Communion also has a present dimension.  The Apostle Paul writes that we are to receive the bread and the cup.  By receiving Holy Communion, it’s a way for us to know and experience God’s saving love in the here and now. 

     We believe that the Sacrament of Holy Communion is one of the means of grace in which God offers his love and grace to us anew.  Every time we receive the Sacrament, we can have an assurance that God will be present with us just as he was present with Jesus and the disciples in the Upper Room 2,000 years ago.

     And Holy Communion also has a future dimension.  In the last verse of our I Corinthians scripture reading, Paul writes, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”  Those last three words are so important in helping us to understanding the meaning of this Sacrament.  “Until he comes.” 

     Whenever we receive the bread and the cup, we are reminded that there will be a day when Christ will return and all of God’s people will feast at his heavenly banquet.  This is the ultimate hope of our faith, that one day God will make all things new and it will be a time when there will be no more suffering, sadness, mourning, sin, and death.

     Every time we receive this Sacrament, it’s a time for us to look forward to that time in the future when there will be new heavens and a new earth. And until that time, we are called as the church to live out our faith and share this hope with others.

     Somewhere along the way, the church at Corinth forgot that this was a very unique meal.  Maybe it was good that they forgot or we wouldn’t have this scripture from Paul to help us understand the meaning of this meal.

     During church camp one year for elementary age children, a pastor noticed that that one of the children was always misbehaving, even during their worship time in the evening.  One of the counselors explained this boy’s story with the pastor.

     This boy whose name was Adam and his brother were staying with their grandparents because their parents had recently divorced.  The grandparents thought that it would be good for her grandchildren to attend church camp.  The boys had never attended church so all of this was very new to them.

     To help the situation, the pastor and this counselor partnered Adam with a high school counselor whose name was also Adam.  Big Adam was to help explain to young Adam why they were doing the camp activities and why they had closing worship each night. This high school counselor helped changed little Adam’s behavior.

     On the final evening of worship, they all celebrated Holy Communion.  Each camp family picked two persons from their group to serve Communion to the other members.

     As young Adam’s group came forward, the pastor asked for the two persons to come and join him at the altar to receive the communion elements to serve to their family.

     Little Adam was one of those chosen. The pastor served him and the other student, and then he handed the elements to them to serve their camp family. 

     Tears filled this pastor’s eyes as he watched this young student serve the bread and the juice and share the words of communion to his group.

     This young boy who was going through a very difficult time in his life was experiencing transformation and newness of life, all because somebody took time to come alongside of him.

     On a Maundy Thursday several years ago, I took my Holy Communion kit with me to a rehab center to visit a retired United Methodist pastor. I just thought that he would like Holy Communion since he wouldn’t be able to attend our Maundy Thursday service that night.

     Well, as luck would have it, when I arrived at the rehab facility, he was having his therapy session. Fortunately, he was taking a break so we had time to talk. He was so glad to know that I brought my Holy Communion kit.

     As I got out my communion kit to set things up on one of the tables, his physical therapist came over to us and my pastor friend introduced me to her. Looking at my communion kit, she asked me if I always take the Sacrament with me during my visits.

     I told her that I brought it because it was Maundy Thursday and I thought Clarence would like to receive the Sacrament to remember Jesus’ Last Supper. She said, “Today is Maundy Thursday? I should have know that! Do you have enough for me?”

     I said, “Sure. Pull up a chair and join us.” I was about ready to offer a communion prayer when another patient came over and asked, “Mind if I join you?”

     No sooner had this man joined us that another staff member noticed what was going on and said, “I’ll come over, too if that’s OK!”

     So many joined us for Holy Communion in that physical therapy room, that we almost needed to have ushers and acolytes!

     There is something very unique about this meal, isn’t there?

     It’s a meal that is rooted in the past when Jesus died on the cross for our sins. It’s a meal that includes the present because Christ promises to be with us whenever we receive it. And it’s a meal that points us to that future hope when one day, we will all feast at Christ’s heavenly banquet together.

     Past, present, and future. It’s all part of this meal that we call, “Holy Communion.”

     Thanks be to God!