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

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (June 25) - Athens First UMC

[Our Tuesday morning prayer ministry team blessed several blankets this morning that were made during last month's Athens First Saturday community outreach. These blankets will be given to the "Pathways to a Healthy Pregnancy," a program to help opiate addicted women here in our local area. Our next Athens First Saturday will be this Saturday at 9 am beginning in the church Fellowship Hall. The pastoral prayer from this past Sunday reminds us that God calls us to pray and reach out to those in need.]

O God, thank you for hearing our prayers. You know our prayers before we even put them into words. Maybe our prayers are more about helping us to know what you already know about us.

Before we even had the chance to speak a prayer to you this morning, you already knew that we were thinking about a friend or a family member who is in special need of your care this day.

Before we spoke a prayer to you this morning, you already knew about all of the many thoughts that were swirling in our head, like the latest news stories, an upcoming doctor’s appointment, or even if we should make the effort to go to church today.

Thank you for giving us the gift of prayer to help us center our thoughts, to clear our minds, and to be reminded that you care about our every thought and need.

And so, hear our prayers to you in these moments. Hear our prayers of adoration as we worship you in this beautiful church this morning. Hear our prayers of confession as we reflect on where we have not been your faithful people. Hear our prayers of thanksgiving for how you have blessed us in so many ways. And Lord, hear our prayers of supplication as we pray on behalf of others. We especially pray for United Methodist clergy across our West Ohio Conference like Rev. Dan Fuchs, the new pastor at The Plains UMC and his wife, Rev. Lauren Fuchs, the new associate pastor at Central Avenue UMC, as they begin their new church appointments today. Bless these pastors and churches as they worship and serve you together. And in the quiet of our hearts, we offer prayers of supplication for others who are in special need of you this day.

God of compassion, as we think of prayer and how you answer our prayers, we lift up to you our Tuesday morning prayer ministry team as they meet in our Welcome Center every week to lift up the prayer requests from our Sunday services and our outdoor prayer cross. Help our church to be a house of prayer, a church of prayer, a church of breakthrough prayer.

O God, just as you heard Hagar’s prayer on behalf of her son, Ishmael from our scripture reading this morning, hear the prayers of your people in these moments. Thank you that you are never more than a bowshot away from not only in hearing our prayers, but also in answering our prayers…especially this prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and now teaches us to pray together saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sermon (June 25) by Rev. Robert McDowell "And God Heard"

    The story is told of a terrible two car accident which involved two men who were driving in one of the cars.  The one man died in the accident and the other man who was the passenger survived but ended up losing a leg.
     The two different families representing these two men who had been in the same car together, sued the other driver who had caused the accident.
    Both families went to court.  The family of the man who died because of the accident didn’t win their case.  But the family of the man who lost his leg from the same accident ended up winning over 3 million dollars.
    Now why did the family of the man who died not get a dime?  And yet the family of the man who lost a leg was able to win all of that money?  They had both been in the same car, the same accident, and yet two very different court decisions.
    It’s pretty simple.  Every day that the court met to discuss this case, the family would wheel in the man who had lost his leg in the accident.  And so every day, the jurors would be face to face with this man who had lost his leg.
    This had a huge psychological impact on the people in the courtroom.
     Was it fair?  We would probably say, ‘no.’  But isn’t it true that when we actually see suffering face to face, we are more likely to do something about it?
    I was thinking of this story as I read our scripture reading from the Book of Genesis.  I believe that this story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael teach us what it means to respond to the suffering in our world.
    Here we have Abraham, a man who responded to God’s call to be the father of a great nation back in Genesis chapter 12. 
     And just to show that anything is possible, God makes a way for Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who is past child bearing years to have a baby and they end up calling this baby “Isaac” which means “He laughs.”
     This was a fun little play on words to show what an incredible miracle Isaac’s birth was.  Everybody was laughing but God had the last laugh the day that Isaac was born.  Isaac was the miracle baby, if you will.  We are reminded in this story that with God, all things are possible.
     But before Isaac was born, Sarah, not thinking that this whole pregnancy thing was going to work out, gets the idea to have Abraham marry Hagar, who was her maid.  And Sarah encourages Abraham to have a child through the two of them.  And Hagar conceives.
     Let’s get real here. We all know that this isn’t going to end up being the happy Brady Bunch family.   This is going to be a recipe for disaster.
     When the news is out that Hagar passed the pregnancy test, she proceeds to flaunt her good news in front of Sarah who you remember is childless and Sarah doesn’t take too kindly to this as you might imagine.
     So she goes to Abraham and complains to him about it.  Then she says a few choice words to Hagar.  Notice that the Bible doesn’t get specific with what she said.   And for good reason.  Let your imagination fill in what was said during those exchanges between Sarah and Hagar.
     They must have been pretty dicey words because before you know it, Hagar is out of there.  She’s in the wilderness.  And the Lord reassures Hagar as she’s out there in the middle of nowhere and tells her that everything is going to be OK.  Don’t worry because when your son is born, he will begin a great nation himself.
     Thirteen years later, the Lord visits Abraham out of the blue and tells him, “Well it’s time.  It’s now Sarah’s turn to give birth – just like I promised would happen five chapter ago.”  Abraham has a good laugh over that one, but God wasn’t laughing.  God was serious. 
     And God says, “Since you think this is so funny and impossible, I already picked out a name for this child  - I want you to name this child ‘He laughs.’  I know that you wanted to name him ‘Abraham Jr.’ but this way, whenever you say the name, ‘Isaac,’ which means ‘He laughs’ you will remember that with me, nothing is impossible.’”
     So Sarah ends up giving birth and names her baby, “He Laughs” or “Isaac” and Sarah has this great line soon after Isaac was born.  She says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.”
     Well, there was one person who quit laughing once Isaac was weaned – and that person was Hagar.  Remember her?  The mother of Ishmael who Sarah banished to the wilderness for a period of time several years before? 
     Remember, this dysfunctional family is living under one roof, and one day Sarah had it up to here when she noticed Ishmael playing with his younger step-brother Isaac.  On most days, Sarah could bite her tongue, clench her fists, and count slowly to ten.  But not on this day.
     On this day, when she got to the count of seven, she blew up and she looks for Abraham and finds him.  Abraham is in a no win situation.  Two children, two different wives, all living under the same roof.
     Sarah says, “This is the last time I’m going to tell you – Get her out of here.  Far away!  Like to a different zip-code.  Or better yet, to a different time-zone.  Just get her out of here, like right now!”
     Abraham’s heart just sinks right there on the spot.  He loves them both.  He loves the boys.  What to do.
     The Lord tells Abraham, “I feel your pain, but you’re going to have to let go.  You’re going to need to send Hagar and the boy away because this just isn’t working.  But, trust me, because I will take care of them both.”
     So Abraham provides them with some provisions and sends them into the wilderness – not a good place to be sent.  The wilderness. That sounds like it’s a place with lots of wildlife and vegetation, but in Israel, the wilderness refers to rocks, desert, and hot sun.
     The wilderness is code for a place of suffering and lostness.  You don’t want to be in the wilderness.  But this is where Hagar and Ishmael are sent. 
     And now I want to really slow the story down and I want you to place yourself there with Hagar out there in the wilderness and just watch what happens.   Even if you want to turn away and tune me out – hang in there and hear our scripture reading this morning.
     Picture Hagar emptying the last drops of water into young Ishmael’s mouth.  It’s been several days now.  It’s hot.  The sun is beating down.  There’s no place to turn.  There’s nobody to call on who can refill that water skin.  That’s it.  She’s at the end of her rope. 
     Watch this mother do really the only thing that she can do.  Just watch her carry the limp body of Ishmael over to some bushes where there is a little shade because she knows that he isn’t going to live too much longer, not in that beastly heat and without anymore provisions.  At least he'll die in the shade.
     What would you do if you were the mother?  Would you stay by your son waiting for the inevitable to happen? Or would that be just too much to bear? 
     We are told that she goes a good way off, about a bowshot away, and there she weeps.
     She weeps.  And she talks to God.
     Wow!  Can the Bible be any more gripping, heart wrenching, and real?  By the way, I’m always amazed at people who like to boil the Bible down to four easy points or turn it into a set of abstract principles especially when you read stories like this. 
     The Bible is not meant to be reduced to a set of formulas that somehow convey spiritual truths.  No.  The Bible invites you and me to live at the heart of what it means to be truly human.  We are left with a mother watching her child die.
     Is there anyone else watching this child die?  Do we dare watch?  Or is this too real?
     But if you remember, Hagar did something critically important on behalf of her son.  She prayed for him.
     And this is what we read beginning at verse 17 - "God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.”
     Take note of that all important phrase in the middle of that verse – “And God heard.”
     This is an important story to remind us that God really does hear our prayers even though we might wonder if there is anyone listening on the other end of those prayers.
     Earlier this year, I prayed for someone who was going through a difficult time in his life. I was really worried about him because he was shutting his family out and they were concerned that he wasn’t making good decisions for his life.
     There were so many things that I could have asked God to do for him during my prayer time that morning, but when it came right down to it, the main thing I wanted to know was that he was OK. So one morning during my prayer time, I asked God to just give me a sign that this person was OK. I could have prayed for a number of things, but really, that was the most important thing I needed to know, just to know that he was OK.
     By the way, prayer has a way of helping us to sort through all of our confusing feelings so that we can focus on what is most important on our heart in any given moment. In that moment, all I really cared about was that this person was OK.
     So I go through my day and went to sleep that night. At around 10:30, about a half hour after I went to sleep, I got a call on my cell phone. It was someone who knew this person who I was praying about earlier that morning.
     This is someone who also was concerned about this person. He told me that he happened to be in the same town visiting family where this person lived that evening, and he decided to go see him. He told me all of this, and then said, “I just thought you would like to know that he’s doing OK.”
     Alright, this person who called me knew nothing about my prayer for this person earlier that day. How incredible that on the same day as my prayer, this person who called me that night would have been in the same town as the person I was concerned about, and then, felt led to see how he was doing, and then to go the extra step and give me a call to say that he had seen him, and that he was OK.
     After I hung up the phone, I said, “Thank you God, for answering my prayer.”
     Friends, I have no doubt that God hears our prayers. Now, we might not always get an answer like I did before the end of the day, but God does answer our prayers.
     Here’s another example of God answering prayer. This past February, our church held a special dedication worship service for our new building improvements. The theme of that Sunday was for our church to be a haven of blessing and peace.
     During that worship service, we offered this prayer of dedication. Here is that prayer, word for word from that special Sunday:
“O God, we pray that people who walk by our church building on any given day will see our church as a haven of blessing and peace. We pray that the light of Christ will shine through these windows and be a blessing to all. O God, we dedicate this new entrance to your glory. In the name of Christ, we pray. Amen.”
     The very next day, following that special dedication worship service, a college student was walking by our church and felt led to come into our building. She just wanted to talk to someone about some questions she had about her faith.
     Rick happened to be here at the time and provided a listening ear, and at the end of their conversation, he offered a prayer for this college student.
     Just one day earlier, we as a congregation had prayed for our church to be a haven of blessing and peace for people who walk by our front entrance, and in that short amount of time, God used our church to be a blessing to that person.
     God hears our prayers. And God answers our prayers.
     Throughout these summer Sundays, we will continue to focus on stories from the Book of Genesis like this one today about Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham. These are stories about a dysfunctional step-family, a blind date, a brother who cheats his brother out of a birthright, and a brother sold into slavery. These are crazy, crazy stories, and yet, the dysfunctional people of these stories are considered the matriarchs and patriarchs of our faith.
     I think these strange and all too familiar stories are included in the bible just to show us that God is bound and determined to hear and answer our prayers even in spite of ourselves. God is determined to use ordinary and flawed people like you and me to live out God’s purpose and to be a blessing to the people around us.
    If anything, these stories show us that if you’re worried if you are holy enough to pray, don’t be. God is accustomed to hearing the prayers of dysfunctional, broken, flawed, shortsighted folks like you and me. That’s nothing new for God. We have these stories from the Book of Genesis to prove it.
     I think you’re going to enjoy these stories in church this summer. They are quite entertaining. But more importantly, these old stories are important to hear because we can see ourselves somewhere in these stories. In varying ways, we can identify with these characters, because we’re all human.
    For today, know that when you feel like you’re at the end of your rope and you have nowhere else to turn, you do have this going for you. You can pray and see how God will guide you through any situation, problem, or adversity you may be facing.
     Just remember, we are always just a bowshot away from God hearing our prayers.


And God Heard
Small Group Questions
Genesis 21:8-21
June 25, 2017

This summer, the sermons are focusing on stories from the Book of Genesis. We begin with this story from Genesis 21:8-21. It's a story about the tension between Abraham's wives, Sarah and Hagar. The story concludes with Hagar and her son, Ishmael being banished to the wilderness, where Ishmael almost dies of thirst. God heard the prayers of Hagar and Ishmael survived.

Share a time when you felt that God heard and answered your prayer.

The story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, and Ishmael is a story of many miracles including Sarah becoming pregnant at a very old age and young Ishmael surviving the brutal heat of the wilderness. Stories like this remind us that God is present in our everyday lives more than we may think. We've been calling these, "thin place moments" where there is a razor thin space between heaven and earth.

Share a "thin place moment" when you experienced God's presence in a very real way.

Like many of the stories in the Book of Genesis, we read about flawed, dysfunctional, and sinful people who ended up becoming the matriarchs and patriarchs of our faith. These stories remind us that God can use anyone to accomplish his purposes.

Share a time when God called you to respond in faith even though you felt inadequate for the task.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (June 4/Pentecost) - Athens First UMC

[We celebrated Pentecost Sunday, a day when God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church, and a day that concludes the Great Fifty Days of the Easter season. Even though the Easter Season on our church calendar has ended, the good news of our faith is that we are an Easter people everyday of the year and every Sunday is like a "little Easter." The red paraments on the altar, pulpit, and lectern on this Sunday remind us of the fire of God's Spirit that empowers the church share the good news of the Risen Christ in all that we say and do. Happy Pentecost!]

God of Easter and the empty tomb, thank you for the pouring out of your Holy Spirit upon your church and upon each and every one of us.

Thank you for the fire of your Spirit that opens our eyes to the fires of injustice that are all around us.

We also thank you for the fire of your Spirit that always reminds us of the good news of our faith because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. May the fire of your spirit continue to fill our hearts with joy.

And we thank you for the fire of your Spirit that prompts us to make a difference in our community and world, like the students from St. Joseph’s University who traveled from Philadelphia to stay at our church this past week to work with Habitat for Humanity. Thank you for blessing our community through them.

We pray that the fire of your Holy Spirit will be ablaze during our West Ohio Annual Conference this week. Bless Bishop Gregory Palmer as he presides at these meetings and bless the laity and clergy of the many churches of our conference as we gather to renew our connection and be renewed by your Spirit. Perhaps it is no coincidence that our conference this year begins on Pentecost Sunday!

On this Holy Communion Sunday, may the receiving of the bread and the cup lead us to live out our faith through the power of your Holy Spirit.  Remind us that it only takes a spark to get a fire going.

For those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, may the fire of your Spirit warm their hearts. For those who are facing medical tests or struggling with addictions, or are feeling weak, may the fire of your Spirit warm their hearts. For those who are in need of physical, emotional, relational, or spiritual healing in their lives, may the fire of your Spirit warm their hearts. For those who are feeling lonely or discouraged, may the fire of your Spirit warm their hearts. For a world grieving at yet another terrorist attack, may the fire of your Spirit warm our hearts

On this Pentecost Sunday, warm all of our hearts O God, as we pray the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples and now teaches us to pray together… “Our Father, who art in heaven…”