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, September 25, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Sept. 24) Athens First UMC

[It's always an extra special Sunday when we celebrate Holy Baptism like we did yesterday during our 10:30 service. Baptism is a sacrament that has many dimensions. It is how we are initiated into the life of the faith community, it is a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our life, it cleanses us from our sin, and it a sign of the new birth that we have through Jesus Christ. If you want to learn more about Holy Baptism along with other ways that we can draw closer to Christ, come to our Core Course, "Means of Grace," which will be offered on Monday, October 9, 6 pm to 8 pm on our 3rd floor lounge. Pictured above: Pastor Robert introducing Caroline to her church family while the congregation sings to her.]

Giving and compassionate God, in many ways, we can see ourselves standing beside Frank Donovan and wondering what it is that hold us back in being the generous people you call us to be. Thank you that we are not alone in pondering that important question.  During these next five weeks, teach us what it means to love you and our neighbor with not just some of our heart, mind, and soul. Help us to love with all of our heart, mind, and soul!

Just like Frank’s young son was able to teach him what it means to give our gifts from the heart, teach us what it means to give our gifts from the heart. As we grow in becoming more generous in sharing our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness, open our eyes to see the ripple effect of your love in our church family, in our community, and in our own hearts. May we see every moment as an opportunity to be a blessing to others.

Thank you prompting our church to reach out to the people who were impacted by the recent hurricanes down south. Thank you for all of those who loaded flood supplies on the truck this past Friday. Thank you for the school supplies, the hygiene kits, and the special offering that has been received to send to our United Methodist Committee on Relief. Thank you that we are part of a connectional church, where more good can be done with our churches working together rather than in isolation.

Help us to not be so discouraged by all of the negative news in our world, that we miss seeing all of the good that is all around us, like the person who sent our church a thank you card for the many ways we are blessing her mother with our visits and like the child who wrote on a prayer card that was placed in our outdoor prayer cross this past week, “Dear God, bless heven,” and spelled heaven, “H-E-V-E-N.” And like the crazy awesome rainbow over Athens a week and a half ago. You were really showing off that day!

O God, from big bright rainbows to the beautiful changing leaves of autumn, you take our breath away. Help us to add to your already beautiful world by being the generous and loving people that you have called us to be. We pray this in the name of Jesus who taught us to pray together saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sermon (September 24) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Living Generously: First & Best"

[The sermon began with a 7 minute video which introduced us to the fictional Frank Donovan family. Due to copyright issues, we are not permitted to post the video.]

     So, I’m wondering. How many of us like stinky sheep? If anyone says they like stinky sheep, they’re probably just trying to pull the wool over your eyes.
     This seven-minute video that we watched together is just the first part of a five-part story about Frank Donovan. I don’t know about you, but I can identify a little bit with Frank in the movie. Like Frank, I find myself struggling in what it means to be generous.
     Did you notice Frank’s dejected look when his wife mentioned that they would be hosting a dinner gathering to raise support for a missionary family who had returned home from the Philippines? Frank felt like they had already helped this family enough by sending a check to support them in their ministry. This family was now in need of additional assistance since they weren’t able to bring their belongings with them.
      You get the impression that Frank is more concerned with getting ahead in life more than he is with the needs of this family who was in need of some support. Frank’s heart just wasn’t in the right place.
     When you’re heart isn’t in the right place, have you ever noticed how easy it can be to offer our leftovers? Instead of giving this family his best, he settled for searching through a drawer and he found a dusty old watch that he was going to give to this family.

     When his son decided to give his favorite toy away which was the antique vintage plane, do you remember how Frank put that old watch back in his pocket? He was embarrassed that he was about to give away an old watch when his son was willing to give away a very special toy of his, his favorite toy.
     If I have to admit it, there are times that I don’t want to offer my best either. My heart isn’t always in the right place. 

     I heard about a church that came to the realization that they were not offering their best gifts to help people in need. This church had an annual toy drive each year and they gave the toys that were collected to the needy families in their community.    
     One of the church members noticed a dirty old doll that had been given to the church to give away. This old doll had stains on it and it was missing an eye. As they looked at some of the other worn out and broken toys that had been given that year to give away, they decided that this just wasn’t good enough. God expected better. They decided they would do things differently.
     They discontinued the used toy-drive and for Christmas that year and they asked each family in the congregation to adopt a needy family for Christmas. Instead of giving them toys and clothes that the people in the church didn’t want anymore, they were to buy their adopted family brand new gifts.
     The pastor was enthusiastic about this new approach and he encouraged the congregation to offer their best to help others. His wife went Christmas shopping one day for the family that they were assigned to help.
     When she came home, she showed her husband the electronic toys, the Nike shoes, and the Gap clothes that she had purchased for their Christmas family. He said, “Why did you shop in those stores? You could have purchased cheaper things in the less expensive stores.”
     She responded, “But you told us in church to buy things that we would buy for our own families. And these are the places where we shop.”
     This pastor was speechless because his wife was right. Why shouldn’t they treat others in the same way they treat their own children? Isn’t that what Jesus calls us to do, to offer our very best?
     Sometimes we want to offer God our stinky sheep, but God calls us to offer our finest sheep. When our hearts want to give God our best, we will offer our very best to others as well.
     In our Gospel reading, one of the religious leaders asked Jesus which one of the commandments is the greatest. Without any hesitation, Jesus answered by saying,    
     “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
     I think that one of the reasons Jesus cited these two commandments was because they help us to remember to give God our very best. I never really noticed this before, but did you hear the word, “all” mentioned over and over again?
     We are to love God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our mind. The word, “all” really makes a difference in living out our faith. Our faith means more to us when we offer to God and to others our all and our very best.
     I think that this is why Re, the gardener is always smiling in the video. Re has learned what it means to give his all. When Frank’s son asked Re why he was taking a plant to give to the missionary family, Re said that it wasn’t something he had to do. It was something that he wanted to do.
     Living generously is really a matter of the heart. It’s something that we do because we want to give our very best to God and to others.

     When we think of living generously, we often first think about money, but that’s only one part of what it means to live generously. Our video began with Frank meeting with his financial advisor.
     Frank and his advisor were working on a financial plan that would help him to cover all of his expenses for the rest of his life. Did you notice that Frank never talked about giving any money away? When his financial advisor said something about charitable giving, Frank told him that could wait for another day.
     It’s important to save money for colleges costs, for an emergency fund, and for retirement, but it’s also important to remember that the financial gifts we have really belong to God. If we are to love God with all of our heart, all of our soul, and with all of our mind, that will include how we use our money to bless others.
     The dictionary defines the word, “generous” as “showing a readiness to give more of something than is strictly necessary or expected.”
     Being generous doesn’t just include how we manage our money. It also includes our time and our service.
     A church member shared with me a time when she received a generous gift from some folks in our church. It wasn’t money that she received. It was the gift of time.
     A family member passed away. What a surprise it was when she was at the visitation and noticed the people from her small group bible were present to offer their support and love.
     She said that it wasn’t until that moment, that she realized how important it is for people to offer their gift of time. She said, “I am so blessed to have my church family!”
     Another member shared that she received the gift of prayer from a nurse in a doctor’s office during a family crisis. She can still feel her hand holding her hand as she prayed for her and for her son.
     Those moments when we are on the receiving line of generosity are special moments. Generosity reminds us of just how much God loves and cares for us.
     I have a friend who told me about a time when her car broke down and the repair was going to be more than she could afford at the time. She and her husband prayed about how they were going to handle this situation since she needed a car for work.
     She said, “Robert, you won’t believe this but somebody heard about my situation and donated a car to me. It was a nice car, too. It was an answer to prayer. One day, I walked out the front door of our home, and there it was in the driveway.”
     I said, “Diane, What an incredible answer to prayer!” She said, “But that’s not the end of the story. Around that same time, there was somebody in my small group who also needed a car, even more than I did at the time. My husband thought about it and prayed about it and we decided that we should give the car to her.”
     She said that it was wonderful to see what a blessing that car was for this woman who desperately needed a car. And so I said, “But what about you? How did you manage without a car?”  And she said, “Well, my husband and I prayed some more, and somehow we were able to put some money together and have my car repaired.”
     As I think about this woman’s story, even the first part of her story would be an incredible answer to prayer. Someone generously provided a car for her just when she needed it.
     The bigger miracle in this story was in how the generosity of one person led to even more generosity where two people ended up being blessed with cars. When we live generously, there is a ripple effect of God’s grace that touches more and more people. When we give the best we have to be a blessing to others, more people experience God’s grace and love.
     Our video ended with Frank standing in front of his house thinking about his son who had just given his favorite toy to a boy who needed it more than he did.  As we go through our week, I want us to also spend time thinking about whether or not we are offering our best gifts to God and to others.
     This is a great question to think about throughout this week. What we offer to God reflects what’s in our heart.

     But this is just the beginning. God has more in store for Frank. We’re going to continue to hear about Frank’s journey next Sunday in a court case you won’t want to miss.

     May God bless each of us as we seek to live generously.

Living Generously: First & Best
Small Group Questions
Leviticus 22:17-20 & Matthew 22:34-40
September 24, 2017

Today is the 1st of a five week sermon series on the story of Frank Donovan and his family. This is a family that is learning what it means to live generously. In this 1st video segment, Frank's son teaches his father what it means to be generous by offering his favorite toy to a missionary family.

Why do you think Frank's young son was more willing to be generous in helping the missionary family than Frank was? Do you think that generosity is more natural for some people than others? Why or why not?

Like Frank's son, Re, who is the Donovans' gardener is also a very generous person. When explaining why he was going to give a gift to the missionary family, he told Frank that it wasn't something he "had" to do. It was something he "wanted" to do.

What is the difference between "having" to be generous vs. "wanting" to be generous? 

Pastor Robert shared a story about a friend of his who received a car from a very generous anonymous person because they heard she had car problems. That car was an answer to her prayers. The bigger miracle in the story was that the person who received this car turned around and donated it to someone she knew who needed a dependable car even more than she did! Generosity has a ripple effect!

Share an example of where you experienced the ripple effect of generosity.

This week's video concluded with Frank thinking about his son's willingness to give his very best to the missionary family.

Pastor Robert shared the story about the pastor's wife who went shopping for a needy Christmas family. She bought the same quality clothing that she would buy for her own children. When her husband questioned why she spent all of that money on the family, she said that it was because she was simply doing what he had told the congregation to do in his sermon! She was practicing what he was preaching!

How would our church, our community, and our world be different if we all take Jesus' words to heart to offer our very best to God?

As a small group, read this scripture in unison and pray for God to guide all of us in thinking about the question, "Are we offering our very best gifts to God and to others so that we can be a blessing to others?"

“'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Monday, September 18, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Sept. 17) Athens First UMC

[It's hard to believe but the photo above was taken exactly one year ago. It was our first worship service in Fellowship Hall due to the sanctuary renovations. We worshipped in this space for twenty-one Sundays which took us into February. Yesterday, it was in this same space that our children assembled 114 hurricane relief hygiene kits during our Sunday School hour. See photo below.]

Gracious and heavenly King, thank you for forgiving us our trespasses as we have forgiven those who have trespassed against us. Remind us that your grace is like currency and is meant to be received and shared with others.

Thank you for the currency of grace and love that flows through this church family in so many wonderful ways; like through our children and youth Sunday School classes who assembled 100 hygiene kits to help with the Texas and Florida hurricane relief; like through those who prepared and served a wonderful chicken and noodles meal at our Monday Lunch outreach, like through our prayer team who prayed over several prayer needs this past Tuesday morning, like through our dedicated Growing Tree pre-school teachers who provide a safe and loving space for our children to learn and grow, and like through those who blessed us with their inspiring testimonies during last Sunday’s worship services on what it means to them to have a loving, learning, and living faith.

Gracious King, thank you for the positive energy and movement of your Holy Spirit that is flowing freely through this place. Thank you for teaching us as a church that the more we allow your love to flow through us, the more that we are able to see your kingdom made evident here on earth, and right here in our Athens community.

May your freeing love that is present in this place continue to flow freely beyond these church walls to the homebound who are unable to be here in church today, to the people in the south who have lost their homes and their belongings from the hurricanes, and to the children in Honduras where Sophie Mather from our church is serving in mission work this fall.

Whenever we see your cross, may it remind us of the incredible debt you paid on our behalf by sending us Jesus Christ. Thank you that 1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given.

It is in his name that we pray together saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Hurricane relief hygiene supplies waiting to be put into bags by our Sunday School children yesterday in church. Following Sunday School, Martha Sloan invited the children to bless these 114 hygiene kits during worship. In addition to these kits, we also dedicated 75 school supply bags, and thanked God for the $3,800 that our church raised that will all be given toward hurricane relief efforts. Way to go, church!]

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon (September 17) by Rev. Robert McDowell "But Who's Counting?"

     How many of you like math? Great, two of you! That’s a lot more than I thought.
      For some reason, there aren’t a lot of us who enjoy math all that much. Math can be frustrating.
     Here’s a little math trivia. Do you know how to make seven an even number? You just remove the letter, “s.” That will make it “even” just by doing that.
     Why shouldn’t you do math in the jungle? Because if you add 4 plus 4, you get ate!
     Why is 6 afraid of seven? Anybody know? Because seven eight nine!
     Where do two math teachers go on vacation? Times Square.
     I know, I know. I’ll keep my day job.
     Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew requires a test of our math skills. And that math problem is, “How many times should I forgive someone who has hurt me?”
     This is the question that one of the disciples asked Jesus. It’s a math question. How many times should I forgive someone who has hurt me?
     Actually, it’s not that difficult of a math problem because Peter already knows the answer to his own question. In biblical times, you were expected to forgive someone up to three times. Everybody knew that.
     Forgiving somebody for something they did to you was seen as a very noble thing. To forgive somebody two times, was seen as the gracious thing to do. And to forgive someone three times was viewed as being very generous. To forgive somebody that many times meant that you were going way above and beyond in being a very gracious and forgiving person.
     Notice that when Peter answers his own question about how many times somebody should forgive, he goes with a totally different number. He throws out the number seven. Wow, seven is more than double what the answer should have been.
     You got to hand it to Peter. He has been paying attention to what Jesus has been teaching. He knows that forgiveness is central to who Jesus is. He remembers that Jesus has already taught them to love their enemies and to pray for those who persecute them. He heard Jesus say that if someone wants you to walk one mile, you should go the extra mile.
     By going with the number, “seven,” Peter is thinking that this will show Jesus that he is one of his brightest students. Peter could have gone with an answer of four or five to prove his point, but he want all the way up to seven times. To Peter’s credit, he did expand the commonly held idea of forgiveness by 133 percent.
     Peter thought he got his own math problem right, but actually, he was still way off from the right answer. Jesus responds by saying, “Not just seven times, but rather as many as seventy-seven times.”
     It wasn’t that Peter wasn’t on the right track. He was.  I think Jesus was aware of this. It’s just that Jesus wanted Peter to see that forgiveness is not bound by arithmetic. Forgiveness is not an exercise of crunching some numbers in your head. Forgiveness is about the heart. We are to forgive others freely from our heart.
     And then Jesus drives his point home by offering us this parable about a man who was in debt. He owed a ridiculous amount of money to a king who wanted to settle his accounts.  One bible commentary I read suggested that the amount owed was probably equivalent to around 150 thousand years of wages. Sometimes, Jesus likes to use wild numbers like this just to get our attention.
     The king demands to be paid immediately or he will sell this man’s family and all his possessions. The man pleads for the king to be patient. Out of pity, the king forgives him of the mammoth debt that was owed to him.
     Can you believe it? The king forgave this man of 150 thousand years of wages! What would you do if you were that man? Kiss the king’s ring? Go home and write him a thank you note? Volunteer to polish his crown everyday for the rest of your life?
     You would be so relieved, that you would probably do something to show your gratitude to the King for freeing you from your debt. But what does this man in the parable do? Immediately after he leaves the King’s palace, the same King that forgave him of that ridiculous amount of money he owed, he runs into a friend of his who owed him some money.
     His friend owed him what was equivalent of half a year of wages.  Now, for sure, that would be a sizable amount of money, but compared to the millions of dollars that he had just been forgiven, it was small change.
     You would think that out of gratitude for what the King had just done for him, he would have been gracious toward this man, but that’s not what happens. Instead, he demands that this guy pay up immediately.
     This man pleads with him to have patience, just like he had done a few minutes earlier with the king who had forgiven him for his debt. We’re thinking that this man who has just experienced the largest bail out ever will reciprocate and pass it on, but he doesn’t. Instead, he throws this man into prison until he pays every penny that is owed him.
     As we hear this story, we are in disbelief that this man would do such a thing even though he was this close to never seeing the light of day. How can someone who has received so much grace, turn around and not offer some of that same grace to somebody else?
     Evidently, this man doesn’t understand the concept of “pay it forward.” Paying it forward means that we share the gifts we have received with others. Paying it forward means that when it comes to living graciously, sometimes we just need to throw math out the window.
     Eric Law is an Episcopal Priest and he has written the book, Holy Currencies. His book is based on four fundamental assumptions about life and faith:
#1 – God owns everything. #2 – God gives abundantly. #3 – We are not to keep God’s resources; we are to circulate these resources. And #4 – God’s blessings are then recycled to create more blessings.
     In his book, he says that the word we often use for money is the word, “currency.” Currency is a word that literally means to run or to flow.  That’s why we this word refers to electricity. Electricity has movement. In other words, money is not meant to be stagnant. It’s meant to move in such a way that it will not only bless you and me, but it will also be a blessing to others. That’s how our economy is supposed to work.
     The problem is when we become like the man in the parable who received so much but was unwilling to share even a small fraction of what he received with his friend who was in need of a helping hand.
      Eric Law’s parents started a music school in Hong Kong in the 1960s which has continued to this day in New York City with the same business model – a sustainable business that never makes much money, but has helped their family to make a lot of friends and has provided livelihood for many people over the years.
     Eric’s father started out as a furniture maker and he assembled pianos. His mother noticed early on that it was very expensive for a child to learn to play the piano especially if a family had to buy the piano and also pay for the lessons.
     She also noticed that children didn’t have a lot of places to go after school and that their parents didn’t have a lot of time in their busy schedules.  This is when they decided to build soundproofed rooms in their apartment and they put a piano in each room and hired teachers to offer piano lessons.
     The parents were charged a very modest amount each month and in exchange, the students received a thirty-minute lesson each week and they were allowed to practice there five times a week.
     The fee that they collected was shared with the teachers. Even though, their company never made a lot of money, it ended up creating jobs for piano tuners and other workers. Eric says that this is why his parents’ business is still going strong to this day. Their business is designed to be a blessing for others.
     This idea of money needing to flow and to not become stagnant is what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel reading this morning. The king’s generosity in forgiving the man’s large debt saved him and his family from going to prison and it helped him to get a fresh start. Just as this act of grace was set into motion, it ended abruptly by the man who was on the receiving end.
     The man who had received a huge blessing from the king was unwilling to forgive the smaller debt of his friend. He didn’t understand that generosity is meant to be shared with others. He didn’t understand the meaning of currency.
     If this is true of money, it’s also true of forgiveness. Forgiveness is like currency. It’s meant to be offered and shared again and again and again. The problem becomes when we treat forgiveness like we do a math problem. We put a numerical value on God’s grace. That’s why Jesus told Peter, “Not seven times, but seven times seventy. That’s how many times you’re supposed to forgive.”
     Of course, we all know that forgiving someone is easier said than done. We might want to offer forgiveness once, twice, or even seven times, but the painful memory of past hurts can become too strong to overcome.
     Maybe this is the whole point of Jesus’ parable. Instead of focusing on the past hurts, maybe we should focus instead on the graciousness of the king. Maybe we should focus on how God, the king of kings has been unbelievably gracious toward us.
     In a matter of minutes, the man who had been forgiven millions of dollars had already forgotten the King’s graciousness. He was only focusing on what was owed to him. He forgot that forgiveness is meant to be a way of life and something to be shared with others.
     Think of forgiveness like the breath you take in any given moment. Your lungs can only breathe in so much air in one breath. At some point, we need to exhale. Just think how silly we would all look if we walked around trying to hold in the breath we just took. We’d all have great big puffy cheeks and we wouldn’t survive if we tried to do that.
     Breathing works so much better when we breathe in and when we breathe out. When we breathe in God’s grace and forgiveness in our lives, we are to also breathe out God’s grace and forgiveness. God’s forgiveness is meant to be shared.
     This past Thursday was Holy Cross Day. It’s always observed on September 14. It’s a day for us to give thanks for what Jesus did for us when he died on the cross for the sins of the world. It’s a day to be grateful. It’s a day to celebrate God’s love for the world.
     The cross is the ultimate symbol of forgiveness. It reminds us that God went to great lengths to free us from our debt of sin. God didn’t just forgive us seven times. God forgave us seven times seventy times.
     I’m glad that Jesus doesn’t count up to a certain number of times that he will forgive us and then say to us, “OK, I reached my limit. You’ve sinned one too many times.” Jesus knows that we are as dependent on forgiveness as we are on needing to take our next breath.
     When we think more about the cross than we do the past memories of how we have been hurt by others, we are able to be forgiving and gracious people. But when we turn forgiveness into a math problem, we’ll end up with an answer that doesn’t even come close to how much God has forgiven us.
     Since we’re talking about math problems, I want to see if you know the answer to this math question. A church member came up to me one Sunday morning and handed me a little note that had this math problem on it. I think this sums up what we’re talking about today. It said, “1 cross + 3 nails = 4 given.”
     It’s when we focus on the cross and what God did for us through Jesus Christ, that we are then able to forgive others and yes, even ourselves.
     When we focus on the cross, and receive God’s amazing grace, we might be surprised to discover that we in turn can forgive others not just once, or twice, or three times, or who knows, even as many as seventy-seven times or seventy-eight times, or seventy-nine times, or how about even eighty times?
     But, who’s counting?
     There is no end. There is no end. There is no end to God’s eternal and forgiving love.

     Thanks be to God!

But Who's Counting
Small Group Questions
Matthew 18:21-35
September 17, 2017

1       Our Gospel reading is on the topic of forgiveness and how many times we should forgive somebody. For some people, once is asking a lot. Peter offers the gracious response of seven times. Jesus counters with the unbelievably high number of 77 times!

      This scripture reminds us that forgiveness is a touchy topic. Why do we struggle with offering forgiveness?

    Jesus often used parables to illustrate what it means to be part of his kingdom. He tells about a king who forgave someone of what was equivalent of 150,000 years of wages. This man who was now forgiven of his debt ran into somebody who owed him a small fraction of what he had just been forgiven by the King. Instead of showing mercy like he had received, he demanded to be paid. 

     What does this parable tell us about who God is (our King) and what does it reveal about who we are?

     Jesus showed us the extreme nature of God's forgiving love through his interactions with those who were considered outcasts, through his teachings to love our enemies, and through his suffering and death on the cross for the sake of the world.

    Where have you experienced God's forgiving love? What helps you to remember to offer God's forgiving love toward others?

     Pastor Robert ended his sermon by offering a math question. The math question is 1 cross  + 3 nails = 4 given. This fun little spiritual math equation reminds us that if we want to be  more forgiving in our lives, the cross is the place to turn because it reminds us of the graciousness of God our King.

      As a small group, find some time to stand in the glass welcome center of our church and face toward the cross that hangs above the altar. Notice how our newly remodeled sanctuary draws your eyes toward the cross and invites you to enter the sanctuary. Walk up the center aisle and offer prayers thanking God for his forgiving and saving love.