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, July 31, 2016

Sermon (July 31) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Bread, Wine, & Donuts"

     After reading our Old Testament reading for today, I am even more sympathetic to the role of parenting.  Parenting, which can be a very rewarding and joyful endeavor, can also be a real pain in the backside!
     How many times do parents give wise advice to their children only to discover that their experienced words simply fall on deaf ears?  Often, it isn’t until years later that the child, after suffering the consequences of not listening to their parents in the first place, realizes that mom and dad were actually right.
     It’s difficult for parents to bite their tongue hold back the words, “I told you so!” at such moments of revelation.
     The old Mark Twain time-tested quote comes to mind in which he said, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
     Our Hosea scripture reading is almost too painful for us to read because you can’t help but to sense the anguish of God as he reminds the people of Israel of how he has cared for them as a loving parent, and yet they have forgotten what he has done for them.
     Living hundreds of years after their infant and toddler years, God reminds Israel that without him, they would never have escaped being slaves in Egypt under the rule of Pharaoh.   It was God who provided them a way of escape through the Red Sea, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land.
     I love the imagery that is used here.  God is using baby language by saying how it was he who took Israel in his arms and held her up to his cheek when he delivered them from Egyptian oppression. 
     Maybe the prophet Hosea, who is speaking on God’s behalf in our scripture reading, has in mind the rescue of baby Moses by Pharaoh’s daughter and how she had saved Moses from certain death by rescuing him from the river.  In the same way, it was God who saved Israel from slavery and led them into freedom.
     And we think of the whole wilderness journey in which God had fed Israel with manna from heaven.  Without that heavenly bread, they would never have survived.
     God says to these people of God descendents, “I was the one who bent down and fed you.”
     I have always kept a mental snapshot from several years ago when one of our kids was just a baby and because Penny was commuting as a student to Ohio Wesleyan University, a lot of the parenting during that time was up to me. 
     It seems like it was just yesterday.  I can vividly remember sitting with a friend at my kitchen table feeding our less than one year old child this grotesque looking baby food from a jar and then watching the food coming back out of the mouth, onto the bib and getting on everything. 
     As I sat there with my friend who happened to be another United Methodist pastor, I said to him, “I am making a vow with you and God as my witness, that I will never ever forget how difficult it is to raise a baby.”
     “None of this romanticized memory for me,” I said to myself.  No.  I’m going to look back on this moment and be able to say, “That was one of the most demanding times of my life.  But it was also the first time in my life in which I realized what real love is all about.”
     By being a parent, I came to appreciate more of what my parents did for me. 
     And it’s not just about those early years of baby food.  As you read this passage from Hosea, can you sense God’s anguish as he speaks to a people who centuries later, still do not realize just how much God loves them and all that he has done for them?
     What a fascinating picture of God.  Think of a parent pacing back and forth in the middle of the night wondering why their son or daughter hasn’t come home yet.
     Think of a mom worried to no end about a daughter who has been spending way too much time with the wrong crowd.
     Think of a father calling his son from a business trip, sick over the fact that he had to miss one of his sporting events.
     Hosea is saying, “This is how much God loves you.  And even more so!”
     Today is our family meal.  We usually have this meal on the first Sunday of the month but it just seemed appropriate to move it up a week early to this Sunday.
     Today, we are invited to come to the table and receive some bread and wine.  Ok.  It’s really grape juice, not wine.
     We have this meal once a month, to remind us of our great deliverance from oppression and slavery.   On one level, this meal reminds us of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and how God rescued his people and led them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
     But on another level, this meal reminds us of another kind of deliverance, the deliverance that God has provided from sin and death.  Instead of Moses, this time it was Jesus, who took upon himself the sins and the pain of the whole world 2,000 years ago by dying on a cross and rising to new life.
     This meal reminds us of what God, our loving parent has done for us in Jesus, which is why we often call this meal, “The Eucharist,” the word, “eucharist meaning, “thanksgiving.”  When we eat this meal together, we are giving thanks for what our parent God has done for us.  We even say a prayer together called “the Great Thanksgiving” to help us gratefully remember how God has taken us in his arms and lifted us to his cheek by doing what we could not do ourselves.
     God the loving parent sends his own Son, to suffer and die for you and for me and for the whole world.  This is why we receive this holy meal with thanksgiving in our hearts.
     A pastor of a church told me about one of the most meaningful Holy Communion meals he has ever experienced in his ministry.  He had taken a singing group from his church to offer the love of Jesus Christ through their singing ministry at a casino as well as a homeless shelter in Atlantic City.   
     He said that he celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Communion with them one morning.  But before they received the Sacrament, he did something very creative.  A couple of people in the group prepared breakfast that morning by setting up a circle of chairs along with a table for donuts and juice.
     He tells the group as they arrive in the room, to find a seat and that this breakfast will be served in an unusual fashion.  So he asks a member of the group if she would like a donut.  She answered, “Yes, I’d like a donut.”
     This pastor then turns to one of the leaders in the group, “Jim, in order for Sarah to have this donut, would you do five push ups?  Jim nods his head and does the five push-ups.  Unknown to the group, Jim has been preparing for this special donut breakfast the past several months by doing push-ups every day and strengthening his upper-body.
     Then the pastor asks another member of the group, “Tom, would you like a donut?”  Tom is pretty hungry, so of course he answers, “Yes.”  The pastor turns to Jim and asks him, “In order for Tom to have his donut this morning, would you do five push-ups right now?”  Jim does five more push-ups.
     This goes on for the next several people.  Each person wants a donut because it’s breakfast time and they’re hungry, and this guy, Jim has to keep doing these five push-ups each time just so that each person in the group can have a donut.  During the first series of push-ups, the people in the group couldn’t help but laugh because they thought it was some kind of early morning joke.  Poor Jim has to do a few push-ups, or so everyone assumed.
     The nervous laughter continued for the next couple of people who said they would like a donut. When it got to about the 7th person around the circle, she decides to not have a donut to save Jim from doing more push-ups. She can tell that Jim was beginning to really struggle with these push-ups and with about 35 people left in the group, decides to end this fun little experiment.
     But even though this person refuses to eat a donut, the people in the group are surprised when the pastor asks Jim to do five more push-ups anyway.
     Suddenly, the people in the group weren’t laughing anymore, because this was getting serious.  Jim is doing five push ups for each person in that group whether they want a donut or not.
     As this continues on, Jim begins to really struggle as he does the push ups.  His arms are shaking and his breathing is getting more and more labored. Sweat is falling from his forehead to the floor.
     The group, instead of laughing at Jim are now cheering for him, because they realize that Jim is doing this for the benefit of each person in the group.  A few members in the group begin to get emotional, some start to cry, as they watch helplessly, as Jim struggles to do more and more push-ups.  As it gets closer and closer to the last person in the room, Jim can barely do another push up, but somehow he makes it.
     When Jim finished the last push-up for the last person in the group, that’s when this pastor brought out the bread and the wine for Holy Communion.  And he explained to the group,
     “The love that Jim just shared with each of you by doing push-ups on your behalf is just a small expression of what Jesus did for each of us by dying on the cross.  Whether you wanted God’s love or not, Jesus still died on the cross for you.  And as we receive this holy meal, I want you to know just how much God loves you and what Jesus was willing to do for you.”
     This pastor said that there was not a dry eye on that room and he said that the members of that group will probably never think about Holy Communion in the same way again.
     Can you sense the anguish of God as he tries to remind the people of just how much he loves them?  Parents, can you relate to this? 
     “When you were a child, I loved you.  I was the one who taught you to walk.  I took you up in my arms and healed you.  I lifted you to my cheek and fed you.”
     This Hosea passage ends with this tremendous word of hope.  God the parent says, “I want you to come back to me.  I want you to come home.”
     Even though God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt and led them to the Promised Land, the people had forgotten what God had done for them and they followed after other gods.  And now, centuries later, they were facing exile from the Promised Land.  And God, like a loving parent, not wanting to give up on the people he loves, is saying,
     “I want you to come home to me.  I want you to know just how much I love you. You don’t remember this, but before you were even born, I sent my Son to die in your place and rise to new life so that you might have forgiveness from your sins and newness of life.  My heart breaks whenever you turn your back on me and follow after other gods.  No one loves you more than I do.  Return to me and come home to where you belong.”

     If you’re wondering where you belong, God is reminding us on this morning that we receive Holy Commnion, that it’s right here at the family table, the table with the bread and the wine, a table that has been prepared by a loving God who loves you more than you can EVER imagine.

Bread, Wine, & Donuts
Small Group Questions
Hosea 11:1-11
July 31, 2016

The Bible often refers to God's love for us like the love of a loving parent toward a child. Listen again to this verse from our Hosea scripture reading this past Sunday: "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt, I called my son."

Share a time when you experienced God as a loving parent toward you.

Pastor Robert shared the donuts and Holy Communion story in his sermon. The point of this story is to show just how much Jesus showed his love for us when he died on a cross.

What does the Sacrament of Holy Communion mean to you? How does this holy meal help you to see God as your loving parent and a God who offers you unconditional love?

Friday, July 29, 2016

"And a Verse for We" - A Poem by Robert Vincent McDowell

"And a Verse for We”
[A Poem in celebration of my 1st Year Anniversary at Athens First UMC]
By Robert Vincent McDowell
July 26, 2016
 Of The Year of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ

I have a verse for we
On our first anniversary.

It is not hard to see
That I have so much glee.

You see, I am so very happy
Because of this church family.

You even like Cabernet,
Oops, I meant to say Cabaret.

We worship here every Sunday,
And serve here every First Saturday.

The music here is a solid A,
Thanks to a man named Dr. J.

It’s far-out to serve by a university,
And I would even say that it’s groovy.

Remember the water bottle give away?
People loved it on that very hot day.

Students who are on their way,
See our cross and stop to pray.

The children are cute at Growing Tree
I read them stories about my Westie.

Poster Rabbit is what they call me,
I’ve been called a lot worse, trust me.

I don't give up my quarters easily,
But they can’t compare to my Penny.

Can't wait for year two, what more can there be?
New elevator, atrium, and sanctuary.

More is in store for you and for me,
That’s why I offer this verse for we...

On this our first anniversary.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (July 24) - Athens First UMC

[Construction for our capital improvements began this past week with the preparation work for what will become our new elevator shaft. The picture is what used to be the pastor's office which is next to our Chapel. Speaking of our Chapel, due to Sunday's extreme heat, the 10:30 worship service moved to our air-conditioned Chapel. We anticipate having air-conditioning in the Sanctuary by the end of August! Hallelujah!]

God of all creation, thank you for reminding us this morning, that all we need to do is to knock on heaven’s door, and you will not only hear us, but you will also give to us what we need in that moment.

Sometimes, your response may be, “No, not yet,” or “No, I love you too much,” or “Yes, I thought you’d never ask!” or “Yes, and here’s more.” Thank you that you are our loving heavenly parent and that you care about our needs.

Just as the disciples asked, “Teach us to pray,” we also want to grow closer to you through our prayers. Help us to keep asking, to keep seeking, and to keep knocking, because you promise that your door will always be open to us. Thank you for the college student who not only appreciated our prayers for passing a Spanish test, but who also reminded us to “keep it up, guys.”

Thank you for the prayer that Jesus has given us to pray alone, to pray in church, and to pray often, “The Lord’s Prayer.”

As we pray this prayer together, we pause after each phrase to silently lift up our individual prayers to you.

We pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven” and we take a few moments now to silently thank you for not being a distant and vague deity, but for being our loving parent who loves and cares for each one of us. (PAUSE)

We pray, “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and we take a few moments now to silently ask you to offer your healing love for a part of the world like Honduras, to this country, or to a situation we may be facing. (PAUSE)

We pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread,” and we take a few moments now to silently think about the many ways you feed us physically and spiritually. (PAUSE)

We pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and we take a few moments now to silently confess our sins to you, knowing that you are a very gracious, loving, and forgiving God. (PAUSE)

And we conclude this wonderful prayer you have give to us by joining together and saying the entire Lord’s Prayer together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespassed against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon (July 24) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"

     When I saw the appointed Gospel reading for this Sunday, I was reminded of a retired pastor who filled in for me on occasion in one of my previous churches.
     On the first Sunday that he covered for me, he told me that he was going to preach on “The Lord’s Prayer.” I told him, “That’s a great scripture for preaching.”
     Several months later, this retired pastor filled in for me again. I discovered that he had preached about “The Lord’s Prayer” yet again. I was curious why he decided to preach on this same text a second time.
     He said, “Well, the first time, I focused on ‘Our Father,’ and for the second sermon, I moved on to the phrase, ‘Who art in heaven.’”
     He said, “When you go away again, I’m going to preach on the phrase, ‘Hallowed be thy name.’”
     Long story short. Over my six years at that church, he only made it to the “Give us this day our daily bread,” part.
     I’m just glad that his first sermon wasn’t entitled, “Our.”
     No, I’m not going to spend the next ten weeks preaching on “The Lord’s Prayer,” although I’m sure I could pull that off since this is an incredible, incredible prayer that Jesus has given us.
     I’m going to attempt to cover this awesome prayer with just one sermon.
     My retired pastor friend did give me a great idea, though. Let’s look at each section of this prayer so that it can become even more meaningful for us.
     Let me begin by saying that our familiarity with “The Lord’s Prayer” can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing. It can be a good thing because many of us know it by heart, and it’s wonderful that many of us can pull this prayer out of our hip pocket in a pinch. There’s nothing wrong with that.
     The bad thing about it being familiar to us is that we can easily forget its meaning, and we can easily say it without even thinking about what we’re praying.
     Maybe you’ve heard of the two Christians who were trying to outdo each other. The conversation came around to prayer. One said, “I’ll bet $20 you can’t even say ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’”
     The other replied, “You’re on.” And so he began… “Now I lay me down to sleep…”
     The first man interrupted him and said, “Ok, ok. Here’s your money. I didn’t think you could do it.”
     So, what really is “The Lord’s Prayer” and how can it help us to have a stronger prayer life?
     Jesus taught us what we now know as “The Lord’s Prayer” when the disciples came to him and asked him point blank, “Lord, teach us to pray…” 
     In Jesus’ day, there were many, many different ways to pray, just as there are today. It was common for a rabbi to give his disciples a model prayer to use which is probably the motivation for the disciples asking their question about prayer in the first place.
     When people want to know how to pray, I think they’re really wanting to know how to have a relationship with God. That’s a very basic question, isn’t it? How can I have a relationship with God?
     In 1993, William Hendricks wrote a book entitled, Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Leave Church.  Hendricks found that two-thirds of people who attended church said they didn’t experience God in their worship on a regular basis. Two-thirds!
     They said that the preaching was poor and that worship was boring. Hendricks said that if the church was a restaurant, it would be like hungry people coming to eat food and the restaurant not being able to feed them!
     People who gave the church a try, left because they weren’t getting fed. Maybe this is why Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
     Fifteen years after William Hendricks’ eye opening book on why people were leaving the church, Julia Duin did the same kind of research. Guess what? She found exactly what Hendricks’ had found fifteen years earlier in his research.
     In her 2008 book, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It, worshippers told Duin that they weren’t getting decent preaching, good community, or spiritual food.
     The church had become irrelevant to their lives, so they were investing elsewhere. Church goers were asking the same question that the disciples were asking Jesus, “Teach us to pray. Help us to know God.”
        So the pressure is on today, isn’t it? I can’t afford to preach a bad sermon, or we may miss out on connecting with God in a deeper way. Actually, the pressure was on Jesus to come up with a prayer to share with his disciples that would be able to get at the heart of what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus.
      Let’s briefly look at each phrase of this prayer, and then we’ll give some thought on how it can help us connect with God in a deeper way.

Our Father...

     “The Lord’s Prayer” begins by addressing God as “Our Father.” Two things to mention hear. Notice that the prayer begins with the pronoun, “Our” and not the pronoun, “My.”
     At the heart of being a Christian and a being a growing follower of Jesus is this understanding that we are not alone as we live out our faith. We are part of a community of people who need each other in living out our faith.
     John Wesley, the founder of what we know today as the United Methodist Church knew this very well. It’s why he spent his whole life encouraging people to be in a small group of no more than a dozen or so people. He called them, “Methodist class meetings.”
     Wesley knew that it’s when we share our faith and pray with each on a regular basis that we are able to grow in our faith. We need each other.
     The word, “Our” in “The Lord’s Prayer” is a subtle, but powerful way of reminding us that to do this thing called “Christianity” right, we need each other.
     And notice that of the many, many names there are for God, Jesus chose the word, “Father,” to begin his model prayer for his disciples. In the Aramaic language, the word, “Father” is translated as the more loving and intimate word, “Daddy.”
     I don’t know about you, but I am so glad that “The Lord’s Prayer” doesn’t refer to God as “our distant and vague deity.” No, it refers to God as “Our Father.”
     The biblical view of God is not that God is some abstract source who is far away from us. Many people have this view of God. The biblical view is that God is much more like a loving parent who wants to have a loving and caring relationship with us.
     Even the first two words, “Our Father” of “The Lord’s Prayer” remind us that God is a loving God who cares about us.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

     The next part of “The Lord’s Prayer” that I want us to think about is the phrase, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
     This one phrase summarizes the message of the Bible. If someone would stop you on the street and ask you, “Could you summarize the bible for me in one sentence,” it would be wise to share this line from “The Lord’s Prayer” for them.
     From the Book of Genesis to the last book of the Bible, “The Book of Revelation,” God’s desire is for the joy, peace, love, and justice of heaven to completely fill this earth one day. And the way that we seek for this hope to become a reality is by praying this wonderful prayer that reminds us for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
     For many people, inside and outside the church, we have this mistaken notion that the whole point of Christianity is for us to go to heaven someday. Yes, we all want to be with God in heaven when we die, but the bigger story line of the bible is that one day, God will make all things new here on earth.
     God loves this world too much to just give up on it. God’s will is for this world to reflect all of the glory and splendor of heaven. Imagine a world of no homelessness, no crime, no pollution, no terrorism, no hatred, no injustice, no child abuse, no war.
     And you think to yourself, “well, that describes heaven.” Exactly! And that’s why Christians pray “The Lord’s Prayer” because the big deal of the bible is that we are to pray for and work toward a world that is filled with all of the love, peace, and justice of heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

     The Lord’s Prayer concludes with a request for God to provide bread for the day. Not only does this part of the prayer remind us of how God provided bread for the Israelites when God was leading them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land, it’s also Luke’s way of reminding us of what we now know as, “The Sacrament of Holy Communion,” and how Christ is present with us every time we receive the bread and the cup.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive...

     “The Lord’s Prayer” concludes with a confession of our sins, but notice that it comes with a little twist which is always important for us to remember. We ask God to forgive us in the same proportion that we forgive those who have wronged us. Nobody said that “The Lord’s Prayer” is an easy prayer to live out.
     So much more could be said about this incredible prayer that Jesus taught us, but I think some of these thoughts can be helpful to us whenever we say this prayer.
     After Jesus teaches the disciples this prayer, he then encourages them to be persistent in offering their prayers to God. He says, “Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.”
     Prayer really does make a difference. It’s been said that God answers prayers in four ways: 1) No, not yet. 2) No, I love you too much. 3) Yes, I though you’d never ask! And 4) Yes, and here’s more.
     I like that! Jesus gave us “The Lord’s Prayer” to encourage us to be persistent in our prayers. In one way, shape, or form, God will answer our prayers. We just need to keep knocking on heaven’s door and be open to how God will answer our prayers.
     A few months ago, I met a good friend of mine for breakfast here in Athens. He’s also a pastor and used to attend my church in Lancaster when he had a Sunday off from his church. We became good friends these past several years.
     When we got together for breakfast recently, he asked me what he always asks me when we get together. “What are your prayer needs?” So I’ll give him a couple of prayer requests.
     On that particular day at the restaurant, I told him about a family member who needed to find medical insurance because he needed his wisdom teeth extracted. He said sure. And so before we left the restaurant, he said a little prayer, and I prayed for him.
     We said our “good byes.” As I walked out of the restaurant to head to my car to come to the church, I got a text message from this same family member that we just prayed about. He was letting me know that he had just found out that his part-time job offers dental insurance and that he was going to sign up for it later that day.
     God answered that prayer in less than ten minutes! I looked up into the sky after I received that text message and whispered to myself, “Wow, that was quick! Thank you, God.”

     Many of you know about our outdoor prayer cross in front of our church building. There’s a box on that cross where you can place prayer requests. When our prayer team was getting that prayer cross ready, I remember how we were wondering if anybody walking by our church would actually take the time to fill out a prayer card and place it in the box. We were willing to give it a try.
     To our astonishment, we received 35 prayer requests during that first week back in February. They were mostly from college students. During the remaining school year, we averaged around 20 or so prayer cards each week.
     These prayer requests have been melting my heart. It’s encouraging to know that college students who might have no connection with our church or any church are drawn to that cross.
     I love seeing people stop at our prayer cross to offer their prayer concerns. This is their way of knocking at heaven’s door. I just want each person who places a prayer request in the prayer box to know that our church is praying for these needs on a weekly basis.
     I want to share a prayer request that we received from a college student about a month ago. This college student had placed two prayer requests card in our outdoor prayer cross that same week. The first card was for our church to pray for a test this student would be taking.
     I want to share what this student wrote on the 2nd card we received later that same week. Here’s what it said:
     “I passed Spanish. Keep it up guys.”
     In a fun kind of way, this college student is telling our church to keep knock’n on heaven’s door. That’s what Jesus is telling us to do. Keep asking because you will receive. Keep seeking because you will find. Keep knocking because the door will be opened.
     Like the college student said, “keep it up guys.”     

Knockin' On Heaven's Door
Small Group Questions
Luke 11:1-13
July 24, 2016

Jesus instructed the disciples to say "The Lord's Prayer."

Begin your small group meeting by sharing this prayer together, pausing at each phrase for reflection.

Our Father...

We address God as a loving parent and not as a distant and abstract deity. Share a time in your life when you have felt God as a loving parent.

...who art in heaven. Hallowed by they name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven...

This part of the prayer reminds us that we are to pray for heaven to come upon earth. Share how you see the church working toward bringing heaven to earth in our community and world.

Give us this day our daily bread...

The phrase, "daily bread" is to remind us of the exodus story in the Old Testament when God provided the Israelites with manna in the wilderness. It also reminds us of the Sacrament of Holy Communion and Jesus' death on the cross for the sins of the world. Share a time when you were fed spiritually in your walk with God.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Jesus is inviting us to be forgiving toward others. What helps you to be forgiving toward others?