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, May 30, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (May 29/Memorial Day Weekend) - Athens First UMC

[Once in a while, the appointed scripture reading will line up perfectly for a non-liturgical calendar holiday such as Memorial Day. Yesterday, our Gospel reading from Luke focused on a Roman military officer who surprised Jesus by believing that he would be able to heal his servant. Click here for yesterday's sermon about Jesus and the surprising faith of a Roman centurion.] 

O God, on this Memorial Day weekend, we are thankful for those who have served in the armed forces and who now rest from their labors. We are grateful for their sacrifice, for their love of country, and for their pursuit of freedom for all people.

We pray that their sacrifices would not be in vain. Help us each of us to do our part in seeking peace, rather than conflict; in seeking common ground, rather than division; and in seeking mutual understanding, rather than fear and mistrust.

O God, we owe these brave men and women who have served our country, not to mention the generations who will come after us, to leave this world a better place. Thank you that we are part of a church that is seeking to make a difference in our community and world. Remind us that every backpack at Trimble Elementary School, every coin that is donated to the Athens Food Pantry, every swing of a hammer to build a new home for Habitat for Humanity, and every dozen cookies donated to the Kairos Prison Ministry are all important ways for us to help make this world a better place.

As we prepare for the summer season, help us to not take a vacation from our faith, but to use this more relaxed time as a way to grow closer to you. Help us to slow down and to remember that you have called us to enjoy your beautiful creation.

May this season of picnics, of vacations, of grilling out, of swiping away cicadas, and of trimming bushes be a time for us to appreciate yet a new season in our lives. We also think of those who are facing a different kind of new season in their lives. We pray for those who going through a season of loss, a season of a job search, a season of finding a new church home, a season of adjusting to a new community, a season of caring for an aging parent. O God, be with us as we go through these new seasons, some more difficult than others.

In this season that the church calls, Ordinary Time, this long season that will take us all the way into late Fall, help us to use this time to steadily grow in our faith. Teach us to appreciate the green altar cloths in our sanctuary, since we’re going to be seeing them for a really, really, long time, like for the next four months. May these green altar cloths remind us that sometimes our spiritual growth takes time.

Help us to not be in hurry, even as we pray the prayer you taught your disciples and now invite us to pray together saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Sermon (May 29) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "A Soldier's Faith"

     I find it incredible that of all the possible Sundays of the year, our appointed Gospel reading for this Memorial Day weekend, focuses on Jesus’ encounter with a military person. What can we learn from Luke’s telling of Jesus and this Roman officer on this Memorial Day weekend?
     Well, it’s clear that Luke wants us to know that this military man is not the kind of officer we were expecting, not in that time and place, anyway. We would expect to hear something very negative and derogatory about this military officer, not something this positive.
     This Roman centurion was part of an occupying force, since Israel was under the control of the Roman Empire. Just by seeing a Roman soldier or a Roman centurion in their community would have reminded the Jewish people that they were not a free people.
      The Jewish people would have despised the presence of these Roman-occupying forces. There would have been an incredible amount of resentment and hostility toward the presence of these outsiders.
     This was the historical context in which Jesus lived. His own people were under the control of the despised Roman Empire.
     So, we are a more than a little surprised when Luke tells us that there was this Roman commanding officer who was very kind and gracious toward the very people he was in charge of occupying.
     Luke tells us that he loved the people of that community and when he heard they were about ready to start a capital campaign to build a new synagogue, he covered the cost and even had his men build it. I wonder if the name of their Capital Campaign was “Putting Capernaum First.”

     Luke tells us that a servant of this unusually gracious Roman commanding officer was very ill and was near death. Having heard about Jesus’ many healings (word must have really spread), he sends the Leadership Board of Capernaum First Synagogue who he had gotten to know during their capital campaign to plead with Jesus to come and heal his very ill servant.
     Jesus, hearing the news of this centurion’s servant, decides to go with them to the home of the centurion. As he nears his house, another group of people from Capernaum First come out to meet him.
     Knowing that Jewish custom would keep Jesus from entering a Gentile house, this centurion shows great respect toward Jesus by telling him that he would not have to enter his home. With full assurance that Jesus would be able to heal his servant, he simply asked Jesus to speak a word of healing for his servant from outside his house.
     The centurion surprises us yet again by recognizing Jesus’ authority even though he could have pulled rank on Jesus based on his own military status. When the people went into the house, they found that this centurion’s servant had been totally healed by Jesus.
     What Jesus does next is the third huge surprise in this story. The first surprise is in hearing that there was this Roman commanding officer who was generous toward the very people he was occupying.
     The second surprise in the story is in how humble this commanding officer was toward Jesus by respecting the cultural boundary that the Jewish people had with their Gentile neighbors. He did not force Jesus to come into his house, although he could have easily used his authority to do so.
     The third surprise in the story is that Jesus was able to heal this servant, although in a way that shouldn’t be a surprise since Jesus was able to heal many people. But let’s not take these healings for granted. Every healing is an incredible display of God’s miraculous presence in our time and space. It’s easy to read the gospel accounts where Jesus heals someone, and because we are so used to hearing them, we think, “Oh, just another healing by Jesus today, ho-hum, what’s new?”
     Let’s not lose the sense of awe and amazement that Jesus was able to do incredible signs and wonders throughout his ministry.
     This brings us to the fourth surprise in Luke’s telling of this story. The fourth surprise is that Jesus is astonished by this commanding officer’s faith. This is the only time that we find Jesus surprised by someone’s faith. Usually it’s the other way around. People are surprised at who Jesus claims to be.
     Luke tells us that Jesus was impressed with this centurion. Jesus was surprised that this Gentile who was considered an outsider was displaying more faith in God than anyone he had encountered among his own people of Israel.
     Luke, the masterful gospel writer will introduce us to another Roman soldier toward the end of his gospel as Jesus is hanging on the cross. Luke tells us that when Jesus breathed his last, a Roman centurion who had watched him die said, “Certainly, this man was innocent.”
     Luke wants us to know that some of the people who have the biggest faith in God, don’t even sit in a church pew on Sunday morning. Even a Gentile commanding officer can see that Jesus is who he says he is.
     It is very fitting that on this Memorial Day weekend when we take time to give thanks for those who have served in the military and who are no longer with us, that we think about the faith of this military officer in Luke’s gospel. This story reminds us that there are many other soldier faith stories that can be shared as well.
     A couple of years ago, my brother shared a soldier’s faith story with me. It’s about a World War II veteran who owned a farm near our farm where we grew up in south central, Pennsylvania.
     Our families were very close and we still stay in touch even after all of these years. Our parents were about the same age. They attended the same school and church all their lives. It was a small rural area where everybody knew each other.
     Only George is living now. He still lives on the farm that’s next to our family farm.
     A couple of years ago, my brother, who still lives in that area, decided to take George out to lunch one day, just as a nice neighborly thing to do. George is around ninety years of age now.
     Here is what my brother wrote about that day when he took George, our long-time farming neighbor out to lunch. It’s a story about a soldier’s faith.
     Referring to George, he writes,
     He has lived a good, long life, filled with may difficulties like anyone else, but also filled with countless blessings.
     He is now a widower and is learning how to live again as a single man, no easy feat after decades of marriage.
     He met her in his teens, when he was a strapping, handsome young man. In a culture far removed form the one we know today, he courted her.
     Although, he did not come from wealth or position, he was a hard worker and a man of the soil…and he knew she was the one with whom he wanted to spend his life.
     They married when he was 18, and soon after, they were expecting their first child. But while he was starting a family, Hitler was starting a war, a war that would soon demand his involvement.
     He was shipped to basic training to train for an occupation that he had never imagined. Within weeks, he was on a boat headed for Europe.
     Since wars don’t offer tutorial programs, upon reaching the continent, he found himself on the front lines, sharing foxholes with other young men, whose lives had similarly been interrupted.
     There were bone chilling rainy nights in foxholes where his body experienced a coldness he had never before felt.
     There were times when he saw buddies die before his very eyes, and wondered if this is how his story would end.
     The Allied forces pressed forward and one day he found himself in the attic of a German farmhouse, serving as a watchman.
     That’s where the war caught up with him. He was struck in the skull with shrapnel from mortal fire. He was transported to Paris to an army hospital.
     But for the grace of God and a battle helmet, his life was spared. Doctors told him if the shrapnel had invaded another half inch, he would not have made it.
     And so he returned home, to the family that he had started, and to create the family that would be.
     Seventy years later, as he was having lunch with me, he showed me the scar, a wound not completely healed after seventy years.
     Seventy years of life…births, anniversaries, holidays, illnesses, deaths, accidents, challenges.
     Seventy years of additional children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, all who would not be here, if that shrapnel had penetrated one half inch deeper. And a scar to remind us how life is so mysterious, precious, and fragile.
     He has had seventy years to experience a gratitude that might not otherwise be…
     Seventy years to live a life that could just as easily have been take away.
     Seventy years of passing on life to others who bear the family name.
     Scars from wounds remind us of who we were, who we are, and who we can become.
     When my brother shared this story about George with me, he said, “Isn’t it incredible that as much as you think you know someone after all these years, there is always more to know?”
     A few years ago, I conducted a funeral for a World War II veteran. The family told me about a time when their father was in Germany during the war. He was commanded to go into a German orchard and apprehend a Nazi soldier.
     They told me that their father did as he was ordered to do even though he didn’t know what to expect and he was fearful for his life. After he apprehended the soldier, they had a long way to travel to get back to camp.
     They said how their father told them how he had treated this soldier humanely and with respect even though he was the enemy. He saw him as a fellow human being with the same human worth as anyone else.
     They said how he treated him that way because of his faith. And they also said that their father only told them that story later in his life, because he was a very humble man. Reminds me of George. And it reminds me of the soldier in our Gospel reading. These are humble stories of faith.
     When Jesus turns to the crowd to tell them that even in Israel, he hasn’t found anyone with as much faith as this Roman officer, that’s an important word for us to hear as well. If this Gentile was able to see that Jesus is the one who can bring healing to our world, than there’s hope for all of us.
     Jesus doesn’t see insiders and outsiders. He doesn’t see Jew and non-Jew. He doesn’t see American and non-American. He doesn’t see church members and non-church members. Jesus sees beyond all of those boundaries and into our hearts. Jesus is looking to see if we have faith.
     Do we have faith that Jesus can bring healing to nations who are at war? Do we have faith that Jesus can bring healing in our community where there is so much poverty? Do we have faith that Jesus can bring healing out of what seems like a hopeless situation?
     Do we have faith that Jesus can bring healing to a broken relationship? Do we have faith that Jesus can give us new life and hope? Do we have faith that Jesus can bring transformation to our community and world?
     Personally, I want to say that my answer to all of these rhetorical questions is a resounding “yes.” But I must admit, that if I’m tempted to say, “no,” or “I’m not sure,” to any of these questions, Luke wants us to remember the faith of this soldier from our gospel reading today.

        With that kind of faith, there’s no telling what God will do through you and me.

Small Group Questions
Luke 7:1-10
May 29, 2016

On this Memorial Day Weekend, our appointed Gospel reading appropriately is about Jesus’ encounter with a Roman military officer who needed Jesus to heal one of his servants. Since this officer was part of the occupying force over the Jewish people, his request of Jesus was a tremendous step of faith since he was a Gentile. Luke tells us that even Jesus was surprised by this officer’s act of faith!

Share a time when you were surprised by someone who showed faith toward God.

Jesus was known to heal people throughout his ministry, including this story of a Roman military officer’s servant.

When have you experienced Christ’s healing presence in your life emotionally, physically, or spiritually? What needs to be healed in your life, now?

Since this is Memorial Day Weekend, form groups of three and take turns praying for those who are serving in the military, their families, and our country. Also, include prayers of thanksgiving for those who served our country but who are no longer with us.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (May 22/Trinity Sunday) - Athens First UMC

[Some of our little Methodists arrive early for church. Here, Hope and Lily had a lot to share with me. They were so excited to tell me that they brought a cake to share for Sunday School teacher appreciation Sunday.]

Triune God, we lift our prayers to you as the One who creates, redeems, and sustains. You are Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, known in three persons. You are wholly other, and yet, intimately close. You are transcendent and mysterious, and yet, imminent and personal. Thank you for this day when we are reminded of the good news of our faith simply by naming you as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We confess that we find it difficult to keep up with our rapidly changing culture and complicated social issues. We long for what is familiar, but we feel as though we are constantly being challenged to have an open mind on issues that are facing us on a day to day basis. Remind us during these changing times, O God, that there is a mystery to life that is not always easily explained. Just as the Psalmist looked into the sky and marveled at your mysterious creation, help us to also look up and know that you are God.

In this time of transition for our graduates, we pray your blessing to be upon them as they pursue new opportunities. Lead them into new paths that will enable them to be a blessing to others. Calm any fears they may have as they begin this new journey in their lives.

O God, we also lift up to you those in our church and in our community who are going through a difficult time right now.  We especially pray for the family here in Athens who were part of the tragic car accident just this past week. The mystery of death has stricken us and we are heartbroken. May your healing love be with the friends and family of those who lost their lives.

O God, thank you for giving us a language of faith as we face heartache, pain, and grief. Thank you for the good news of our faith that reminds us that there is absolutely nothing in all creation that can ever separate us from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Not even death. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

And now, we join together to pray the words you taught your disciples and now teach to us…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”