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, January 30, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Jan. 29/Youth Sunday) - Athens First UMC

[The youth offered a message on the beatitudes with the help of the puppet, "Charlotte." Emily and Sophie explained the meaning of the beatitudes by giving examples of how they can help us feel closer to God as we live out our faith.]

Loving God, what would we do without our wonderful youth? They serve as worship leaders, participate in our music ministry, share in our Holy Hands Puppeteer ministry, teach classes, help with our Athens First Saturday outreach, and offer their time and gifts that help us live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world.

We especially thank you for their willingness to lead us in worship today and helping us to think about what the beatitudes mean in our daily lives.

Help us to be the merciful, peacemaking, righteousness seeking people that you are calling us to be. Just as our church building is under renovation, may your Holy Spirit bring renovation in our lives, especially in the way we relate to you, to each other, and those we meet. Loving God, help us to live out the beatitudes in all that we say and do.

On this month of five Sundays as we offer our Noisy Bucket offering to you, we are mindful of so many people in our surrounding community who struggle to have enough food to eat. Thank you for this important way that we are reminded of this need throughout the year.

On this Youth Sunday, we offer a special prayer of blessing upon all of our youth as they go to school, grow in their faith, serve through the church, and think about their future.

We pray that they will always know that you are always by their side, especially when they face challenges and feel discouraged. We pray that they will always know that there is a church family that cares for them, especially when they need a word of encouragement and hope.

Loving God, bless our youth.

And as your people, regardless of our age, we join together in saying this common prayer that Jesus has given to each one of us to pray:

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Dave's Deep Thoughts - My Rock'em Sock'em Brother

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.

They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,
but in this case,
this one rolled all the way to Ohio.

When he came along, he completed the quartet,
2 girls      2 boys

When I was almost five,
I was sent to my aunt’s house for a few days
because the stork was bring me a baby brother.

I remember thinking it was odd that I had to leave the farm
because a stork was coming.
We had chickens, pigs, dogs, cats and 4 goldfish.
I couldn’t figure out why a stork was such a big deal.

Turns out,  it was.

When I came home 3 days later,
there was a bed placed in the first floor dining room of the farmhouse for my mom.
I remember thinking mom was going to die.

I wanted to send my baby brother back, immediately.

After several minutes of parental reassuring,
and about a month of peaking in on my mom to see if she was still alive,
I accepted the fact that my baby brother was not sent to kill my mother.

Once I realized my brother wasn’t a killer,
I became friends with him……..
except for cartoon time.

Mom would place him in a swinging chair
that  played tunes on detuned bells
much like an ice cream truck does.

This was particular irritating to a 5 year old
who needed to focus to see if the coyote was ever going to catch the roadrunner.
(editors note:  he never did)

As we grew older we began to play together.
Much of our recreation involving dirt or depending on the weather, mud.

The farm became a magical wonderland……
building forts in the barn,
erecting dams in the creek (the downstream neighbor, not so happy),
exploring the woods,
playing hide and seek,
using the outdoor swing set (this one did not have detuned bell songs)
or running around the outside of the house 
as fast as we could with dogs following in close pursuit.

I remember teaching him how to make cinnamon toast.
There were other ventures into the culinary arts,
but I hold no responsibility for him ingesting
an inordinate amount of raisins in one sitting
or eating a stick of butter.

To this day, I would not advise offering my brother
a stick of butter or a box of raisins as an appetizer,
as he will start to get a green look on his face.

Perhaps my parents were ahead of their time in the 60’s
and believed in global warming,
because they opted not to heat our bedroom in the winter.

We remain living testimonies that you can survive artic winters
with only electric blankets and a  lot of flannel.

Our bedroom was our sports sanctuary.
Sisters were banned.

On subfreezing January evenings,
we could see our breath as we went toe to toe on the electric football field.
The ice on the bedroom windowpanes,
created the perfect setting for vicious ice hockey games.
And the rock ‘em  sock ‘em robots had epic boxing matches,
even though we both knew the blue robot’s head often was stuck.

After the spring thaw,
we decided to mow the pasture so we could create a baseball field.
Neither the livestock nor our parents were amused.

I take full credit for developing my brother into the athlete that he would become.
Our intense basketball games in the barn
set the standard for his 3-16  high school varsity teams.

Our two man football games on the front lawn,
paved the way for his 0-10 and 1-9 high school seasons.

But it was baseball where he truly blossomed
and followed his dad’s footsteps,
This was probably because dad showed him how to play,
but more likely,  because I removed the cow patties from our pasture/baseball park.

He ventured into the world of music for a while.
He failed at electronic organ lessons likely because he tried to play the instrument
while wearing a football helmet.

He picked up the trumpet in school,
and from what  I witnessed, that’s all he did with it.
I never saw the instrument actually touch his lips.

As he grew into adulthood,
it was clear that he favored my dad’s looks and personality,
Kind and gentle but strong in faith and conviction.

[Norman McDowell, High School Graduation Picture]

We went our separate ways during our college years
but in a three day period during the spring of 1983,
(and without knowing the other’s intentions)
we each called our parents and told them we wanted to go on to seminary.

Because he had tried to play the organ wearing a football helmet,
he became a preaching/lead pastor.

Because I did not wear a football helmet while playing,
I  became a music pastor.

Each church in Ohio to which he has been assigned
has been blessed by his pastoral leadership.

He has rescued two churches from financial crisis.

He has since become a faithful husband and  father.
But to me,  he will always be brother.

I do indeed give thanks to God for the gift of my brother.

Happy birthday Robert!
And remember, when playing Rock ‘em  Sock’em Robots,
always choose the blue robot.

Behold, how good and how pleasant it is 
for brothers to dwell together in unity!
                                                                     Psalm 133:1

Monday, January 23, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Jan. 22) - Athens First UMC

[Our Chancel Choir hosted a fun Cabaret Music event at our church this past Saturday evening. Several of the songs were from the Charlie Brown musical. Toward the end of the program, the choir presented me with this Charlie Brown football that was signed by our choir members. It is now in my office as a reminder that we have a wonderful music program and in addition to our Sunday worship services, we are also a church that likes to offer these other creative ways like Cabaret to reach our community with God's love.]

Lord Jesus, don’t take this the wrong way, but we are taken a little off guard by your invitation to drop what we are doing and follow you. We have our routines and schedules and so we’re a little worried what it will mean if we say accept your invitation. We’ll need to drop our nets like those first disciples and discover what it means to put you first in everything we do. In many ways, we have already been following you, so we’re not exactly sure what this new invitation that we received during church today will mean for our everyday lives.

Will it mean that we will follow you to new places that we have never visited? Will it mean that we will meet people we have never met? Will it mean that we will need to adjust our worldview, our opinions, and our culturally shaped mindset to conform to what you want for our community and world?

And so, as we hold on to our nets, deciding if we should respond to your invitation or not, we are also thinking about the new opportunities, the new blessings, the new joys, and the new purpose that you want each of us to have as well as our church. We have heard how you have a way of breathing new life into every situation you encounter.

So, yes, Lord. We’re game. We’re not going to wait until next week to decide, or next month, or next year. We’re dropping our nets right now. Right here. We’re going to follow you beginning this very moment. Thank you that we have each other in our walk with you. Thank you for this church that is here to show us what it means to be your fully devoted followers who offer our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness in all that we do.

Even as the pastor leads in this prayer, we seek to follow you by giving to you any situation, problem, or challenge that is more than we can handle. We give it all to you and we will depend on your wisdom, guidance, and strength to see us through. And we also lift up to you other people and situations that are in need of your transforming and life giving love. In these moments of silence, we lift these needs to you.

And now, as followers of Christ, we pray the words he taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon (January 22) by Rev. Robert McDowell - The Invitation

     Does anyone RSVP anymore? At the beginning of a wedding rehearsal, I asked the bride how many people were going to attend the reception dinner. And she said that she wasn’t sure because not many people had sent back their RSVP even though she knew that many of the non-responders would probably attend anyway.
     Since she was frustrated at the lack of response, I asked her, “What if you don’t have enough places for them at the dinner?” And sounding even more annoyed, she said, “Well, they’ll be in for a big surprise won’t they, because they sure won’t be eating here.”
     I was reading where it’s not uncommon for over 20% of the people to NOT RSVP one way or another. I became curious as to why this is, so I sent out a mailing asking people this question, but not enough people responded to my survey.
     All kidding aside, it is interesting to me that there are that many people who don’t respond one way or another. I wonder if it’s something to do with our human nature where we want to wait until the very last minute before making a commitment, but eventually the RSVP gets lost, thrown away, or we forget about it altogether.
     This is why you got to like Jesus’ approach in calling those first fishermen to follow him. Instead of bothering with invitations, he went by the seashore, found some people who were trying to make a living, and he invited them to follow him.

     But why were these fishermen so willing to drop their nets to follow Jesus? It wasn’t like Jesus was offering them a new job with better pay. What led them to make such a life changing decision right there on the spot?
     I have a friend who says that the church is guilty of being too afraid to invite people into a deeper relationship with God. He says that we assume that people will say no when in reality, many people are longing to become part of something bigger than themselves.
     Maybe this is why those fishermen were so willing to drop everything and follow Jesus. They were ready for something new and different even though they didn’t exactly know what to expect.
     We don’t know how much these fishermen knew about Jesus prior this meeting by the seashore. Matthew doesn’t offer any details. He does however tell us just before this story that Jesus had already started to announce that the Kingdom of Heaven was coming near.
     Perhaps they had heard rumors of this wandering Jewish teacher who was announcing this intriguing message of good news. Maybe this was why they were so willing to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow him. We don’t know. All we know was that they did. They accepted the invitation to follow Jesus.
     Of course, not everybody just drops what they are doing to follow Jesus. Many of us fit into that late responding category and when Jesus invites us to follow him, we take our time before finally saying, “Yes, I’ll follow you, Jesus.”
     I’m the type of person who likes to look at all the options before making any big decision. Don’t rush into anything because you might regret it, is the thinking, here. And so, we put off making a decision about something until we’ve gathered all the facts and then we finally decide.
     God has wired us differently. That is true. Leadership experts say that people can be divided into five groupings based on how early or on how late we tend to jump on board in making a commitment to a new opportunity.
     They say that only 2.5% of us are innovators where we come up with the new idea or concept that can lead us into a better future. Just 2.5% of us.
     13.5% of us are in the category called, Early Adopters. Anyone in this category can sense a good thing when they see it right away and they jump on board early. No waiting around for them. It’s not that they are impulsive. Once they hear the information about the new opportunity and it makes sense, there’s no need to wait. They want to get going.
     Then there are the middle categories which make up most of us. These middle categories represent 68% of those of us who are in either the early majority category or the late majority category.
     If we’re in one of these two categories, we need more time, some more than others, until we warm up to a new idea. Quite often, we don’t jump on board until we see other people who we respect jump on board, and then we do as well.
     And the last category represents 16% of us and these are the people who don’t jump on board until way down the line. The name given to this category is the name, “Laggards.”
     Back in the early 90s, I remember a friend of mine telling me about a pastor he knew who was now using a pager so that people could reach him when he was out of the office. This was before cell phones were popular.
     Here’s what I said to my friend who told me this. “Who feels that they are that important that they would need a pager?”  I actually said that.
     And today, if I leave home and forget my cell phone, I panic because people won’t be able to reach me. This is why our scripture reading this morning has always mystified me. It’s hard for me to believe that these common fishermen just laid down their nets and started following Jesus.
     Are we ready to lay down our nets when Jesus calls us to follow him?

     CS Lewis who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia has an interesting story about how he finally accepted the invitation and became a follower of Jesus. A professor of medieval literature at Oxford University, Lewis was an atheist.
     His mother had died of cancer when he was only nine, shattering his trust in God’s goodness. By the age of fourteen, he had rejected faith in any kind of God, and his horrific experience during World War I in which he was wounded only confirmed these convictions. Even though Lewis eventually began to reconsider his faith, he still wasn’t ready to become a Christian.
     On a fall evening in 1931, Lewis had dinner with J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the “Lord of the Rings” triology. They walked through the college’s park, talking until the early hours of the morning.
     The conversation turned to mythology. Lewis felt that myths, despite their imaginative appeal were in the end, merely lies. Tolkien proposed instead that the beauty of Christianity is that it is a myth that happens to be true.
     The universal hunger planted in human beings by God, evidenced by all the world’s mythologies was made manifest in time and space. In Jesus Christ, God really did walk this earth, die, and rise again.
     A few days after that late night walk, Lewis, still pondering the conversation, got in the sidecar of a motorcycle for a trip to the zoo. Lewis later wrote, “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo, I did.”
     Even though it took C.S. Lewis a long time before responding to the invitation, when he did, he jumped in with both feet. So maybe, the important thing isn’t in how long it takes us to say yes to Jesus, but when we do, let’s be ready to drop our nets and follow him.

     A pastor I know tells the story of a time a few years ago when he had the privilege of baptizing a ninety-nine year old man during worship one Sunday morning. This man had attended church occasionally throughout his life and finally decided to get baptized. He was finally ready to drop his net and follow Jesus.
     It was a very moving service as the people of this congregation watched this elderly man step toward the baptism font to be baptized. He responded to the baptism questions, each time, speaking in a shaky and soft voice with the words, “I will.”
     The pastor then baptized him in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. And then the congregation said a prayer of blessing over him.
     Following the worship service, a church member came up to the pastor and said, “Uh, he was kind of cutting it close, don’t ya think?”
     Maybe he did cut it close, but the important thing was that he said yes to Jesus.
     In our United Methodist theology, we believe that in any given moment, Jesus is inviting every single one of us to follow him. God’s grace is being extended to us no matter who we are or how old we might be.
     We call this “prevenient grace,” the grace of God that goes ahead of us to prepare us to say yes to Christ. God’s grace stirs within us and is always encouraging us to drop our nets and follow him. Even when we’re not aware of this grace that is at work in our lives, it is still reaching out to us and beckoning us into a closer relationship with Christ.
     I can’t remember how old I was at the time, maybe around ten or eleven, I invited all of my friends to come to a birthday party at my house. The only problem was, I didn’t tell my parents about the party. I was throwing a birthday party in my honor.
     When my friends started coming to the door of my house, my mother finally figured out what was going on. She had to go out and buy a large cake, party favors and enough food for about a dozen of my friends who came to our house that day.
     On the day before my birthday and without telling my parents, I had handed out birthday invitations to all of my friends. And many of them came. For many years now, I have been known in my family as the one who threw a birthday party for himself.
     When Jesus saw those fishermen along the Sea of Galilee, he extended an invitation to each of them to come to a Kingdom of heaven party. And Matthew tells us that they dropped their nets and followed him.
     I like to think that every time we gather for worship, it’s an invitation for each of us to attend God’s party. It’s a party where all are invited. Nobody is left out.
     Are you ready to follow Jesus?  
     I want to invite us in these next few moments to take a look at the invitation that you will find in your bulletin this morning.  You’ll find it at the bottom of that middle page at the end of the order of worship.
     And no, it’s not an invitation to come to my birthday party. It’s an invitation to a different party. It’s an invitation to a kingdom of God party. It’s an invitation to follow Jesus.     

     You can see where you can sign your name to attend the party. By signing it, it’s your way of saying, “Yes, Jesus. I want to follow you.” Take this home with you and let it be a reminder of the invitation Jesus extends to you today.

     Jesus says to each one of us, “Drop your nets and follow me.” Will you come to the party?

The Invitation
Small Group Questions
Matthew 4:12-23
January 22, 2017

Read this scripture reading together as a small group:

As he (Jesus) walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net in the sea – for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. – Matthew 4:18-20

What made it so compelling for these first disciples to drop everything and respond to Jesus' invitation to follow him?

Share a time when you felt compelled to follow Jesus in some way.

Prevenient grace was John Wesley’s (founder of Methodism) way of emphasizing that God always make the first move toward us. The word, “prevenient” is a Latin word that means, “to go before.” God is always reaching out to us with an invitation to follow Christ. We are invited to respond and say, “yes.”

Can you think of a time when you looked back on your life and noticed how God was reaching out to you even though you didn't know it was God at the time? Share with the group.

During worship this past Sunday, we were given invitations to follow Jesus with an RSVP on it. This is to remind us that God is always calling us and invites us to follow him. 

What are the "nets" that Christ is calling you to lay aside in order to respond to his invitation to follow?