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 29, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (May 28/Ascension Sunday) - Athens First UMC

[Have you ever noticed the several people in our congregation who wear those red t-shirts on the last Sunday of each month? People wear these shirts to promote our upcoming "Athens First Saturday" community outreach held on the 1st Saturday of each month. We meet in Fellowship Hall at 9 am and during the morning, people choose to serve in one of several outreach projects to bless our community like arranging flowers to take to the hospital, making blankets for community organizations, picking up litter around town, making cards for shut-ins, leading a nursing home worship service, etc. Pictured above is the Mather family from Sunday's worship service. The quote on the back of their shirts is from John Wesley which encourages to "do all the good you can to all the people you can." Ascension Sunday reminds us that when Christ blessed his disciples as he ascended to his heavenly throne, he also blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others. That's what AFS is all about.]

O God, thank you for your Son who is seated next to you on your heavenly throne. We acknowledge you as the true king and ruler over all creation. Thank you for this day on the church calendar when we not only remember, but also celebrate your kingship and authority. Your rule is one of love, peace, and justice.

You are the true king who can make all things new. You are the one who parted the Red Sea and led your people into the Promised Land. You are the one who sent Jesus to point people to your kingdom and who did many signs and wonders. You are the one who raised him from the dead on Easter morning. You are the one who has promised to return to establish your kingdom once and for all. You are the one who blessed those disciples as Christ ascended to his throne.

And thankfully, you continue to bless your people so that we can be a blessing to others. O God, we all are in need of your blessings of peace and justice this day. Your world is in need of your healing love.

On this Memorial Day Weekend, we are especially thankful for those who have given their lives through serving our country. Thank you for their sacrifice and courage. We long for a world where all nations work toward peace. We long for a world where people can attend a concert without fear of a terrorist bomb exploding. We long for a world where everyone has access to the basic necessities of life.

O God, on this ascension Sunday, bless us, bless our church, so that we will be able to fulfill the awesome purpose and mission that you have entrusted to us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world.  It is in his risen and ascended name that we now pray together…

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Sermon (May 28/Ascension Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Good Night & Good Luck"

     Several years ago, Penny and I saw the movie, “Good Night & Good Luck.”  It’s a movie starring George Clooney and is the true story about the CBS newscaster, Edward R. Murrow, who in the 1950s, stood up to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s accusations of people being involved in communism.
     I found the movie very interesting but I must say that I was bothered by his send off phrase that he would use after every news episode, “Good Night and Good luck.”  I don’t know about you, but I’m in need of something more than just luck.
     In our scripture reading this morning, Jesus shares final words with the disciples before ascending into heaven.  I’m sure it was an emotional and tearful moment.  They had been through so much together over a three-year period and it was now time for Jesus to leave them.  Jesus didn’t tell the disciples, “good luck” as he was being lifted from their presence.
     No.  Luke tells us that he lifted his hands and blessed them and he continued to bless them as he ascended into heaven.
     Of all the elements of a worship service; including the music, the sermon, and the prayers; there’s one element of worship in particular which sometimes gets forgotten and that’s the benediction.
     My first pastorate was as a student intern at a church in Lima, Ohio.  The Senior Pastor was on vacation one Sunday and had invited a guest pastor to preach on that particular Sunday.
     My job as the student intern was to welcome this guest pastor and assist in the worship service such as handling the prayers and the scripture reading.  Before we went into the sanctuary to worship, I asked this visiting pastor if he would like to offer the benediction when the service was over.
     And he said to me, “No.  I really think you should offer the benediction.  That’s something that the congregation should hear from you.”
     I’ll never forget that brief conversation a little over thirty years ago, and since then, I have tried to never take this last piece of the worship service for granted.
     What really is the benediction?  It’s a blessing upon the congregation as they prepare to go forth to live out the good news of Jesus Christ during the week.
     The idea is that every Sunday morning when we come to this place for worship, we receive a blessing from Christ.  Or to put it another way, you and I receive a blessing at the end of worship so that we can in turn go into our community to be a blessing to others.
     The Apostle Paul reminds us that the living out of our faith has nothing to do with luck and has everything to do with who Jesus is. 
     His prayer of blessing upon the Church of Ephesus is that…
 “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
     Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, Luke tells us that Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures.  And specifically, he explained again the meaning of his crucifixion and resurrection and told them, “You are witnesses of these things.  And once you receive the Holy Spirit, you are to proclaim this good news.”
     Jesus didn’t leave the disciples with luck.  His plan was to make sure that they understood the scriptures, accepted their responsibility to be witnesses throughout the world, and to have them wait to receive the power of the Spirit to carry out his work.
     Instead of luck, we are to be faithful and depend on the presence of Jesus in our daily lives.
     And it certainly doesn’t hurt to throw a little strategy into the mix.
     Several years ago, I was eating lunch in a restaurant and got to know the owner of the restaurant.  After he heard that I was a pastor, his eyes lit up and he told me about his involvement as a layperson in helping to start new churches. 
     And I asked him the question, “In the churches that you have helped start which have turned out to be growing and vital churches, do you notice any key ingredient that helps them to be successful?”   He said, “Well yes.  I do notice something.  Either people want their church to grow or they don’t.  It’s as simple as that.”
     He said, “For example, this is one small thing but it just goes to show how intentional this growing church is in reaching people for Christ.  This church intentionally built an outside basketball court on its property with the hope of attracting young people from the neighborhoods.  But that’s not all.  They intentionally place a basketball on the court during a time of the day when young people are walking by the church so that they will be more likely to start playing.  And then this church has someone watching all of this and when that person sees a young person or a group of people gather on that court, that church member goes and starts shooting baskets with them with the intention of getting to know them and to build relationships.  The church member ends up providing care and support for those young people and then they begin to bring their friends and family members to the church.  That one little strategic ministry has built a bridge between the church and the community.”
     When Jesus left the disciples by ascending into heaven, I think he expected them to not only rely on the coming of the Holy Spirit, but to also use some creative thinking and smart strategy in being his witnesses. 
     I notice that Jesus didn’t give the disciples a detailed strategy on how to go about being his witnesses.  He pretty much left that up to us to figure out.  God gave us minds to think these things through and the Holy Spirit to empower us to carry forth His mission.
     He doesn’t want us to depend on luck to fulfill His purposes.  He wants us to participate with him and to share in the joy of a job well done.
     Every Sunday morning, when I stand before you to offer the benediction, I can’t help but to think of the many people who will be blessed because of your faithfulness to the Gospel.
     One night during a Missions Team meeting, one of you came to let us know that your small group wanted to have a hot chocolate donut give away in front of our church during Final’s Week. You blessed over 75 students that day through this creative way of letting the people who walk by our church know that we are a church that cares. 
     I remember saying a silent prayer of thanksgiving that you would do such a nice thing.
     What a blessing you are.
     Speaking of Final’s Week, many of you know that our church invites college students to study down in our Fellowship Hall during Final’s Week. When I first heard one of you mention this to me, I remember wondering how many students would really come. There are a lot of places students can study, like the library, a coffee shop, or back in their dorm or apartment.
     A lot of college students ended up coming to our church all because one of you personally went to each fraternity, sorority, and apartment near our church and you personally invited them to come. You told them that not only would we provide a quiet space, but that we would also have home baked cookies and other snacks.
     One night during Final’s Week, I stopped by here and I saw Wendy Merb-Brown in the kitchen. She and Logan were providing dinner for our college students. You didn’t just provide cookies and snacks. You went all out because you wanted them to know that we are a church that cares.
     What a blessing you are.

     Last month, a worship guest wrote this on the back of their Sunday Connect Card.
     They wrote, “May God bless your church! We are in town for our son’s graduation. Thank you for being so friendly and welcoming.”
     As I read this note, I could picture one of our greeters opening a door for this couple as they entered our church that morning. I could picture another person going up to them and inviting them over to our coffee and refreshments area. I could picture someone else telling them, “My name is…It’s so nice to see you.”
     What a blessing you are.
     Our church received this thank you card from Habitat for Humanity here in Athens. Here’s what the card says:
     Our church received this thank you card from Habitat for Humanity here in Athens. Here’s what the card says:
     Rev. McDowell and First UMC Family,
Wow, how amazing is our Lord!? I cannot begin to describe how amazed I am with the passion of this church and your willingness to give unto others! Your donation of $6,318 is a blessing to a family soon to be partnering with Habitat for Humanity of Southeast Ohio! Thanks to you, a family will have the opportunity to not only own their own home, but will be able to raise their family in a safe environment! We are beyond grateful to be a part of such a community as your church! Thank you!
     What a blessing you are.
     One of you walked up to me in church and you said, “I just want you to know that my wife and I will be sending a check to the church, but we don’t want it to go directly into the general budget. We’re still going to give to the general budget like we usually do, but we want you to use this extra gift to help pay for anything that the general budget doesn’t cover, like if you want to start a new ministry or something like that.”
     Pastors live for these moments! I’m pretty sure that I could hear the angels of heaven singing the “Hallelujah Chorus” when you shared this with me.
     Do you remember the awesome hospitality training that we had at the OU Inn this past March? Yeah, that happened because of your unexpected gift.
     What a blessing you are.
     I thank God for each one of you and for all the ways that you are shining the light of Christ as you go forth from this place week after week.  Lives are being changed and people are growing closer to Christ because of you.
     With this in mind, let me close this sermon by saying from the bottom of my heart…

     Good day and God bless!

Good Night & Good Luck
Small Group Questions

Ephesians 1:15-23 & Luke 24:44-53
May 28, 2017 

Just before Jesus ascended to heaven to be with his Heavenly Father, St. Luke tells us that he "blessed them (his disciples.)" This scripture passage reminds us that Jesus blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others.

How has God blessed you? Share with the group.

Just like the disciples, we are blessed by God to be a blessing to others. That's the whole point of the benediction at the end of a worship service.

In what ways has God empowered you to be a blessing to others as you live out your faith?

The accompanying scripture for today is from Ephesians 1:15-23. This reading reminds us of how God has blessed us in many incredible ways through the presence of Christ in our lives.

Read this scripture together and share which part of this blessing stands out for you personally.

“The God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”