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, October 30, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Oct. 29) Athens First UMC

[So many coins were collected for our special Noisy Bucket Sunday during our 9 am chapel service that some of them spilled all over the floor. Don't worry, a couple of kind people stayed after worship to pick them up. Our coins will be supporting the Athens County Food Pantry which has an urgent plea for additional funds to finish the year. Click here for the sermon.]

O God, thank you for your word to us this morning from Philippians to live a life worthy of the gospel.  Help us to live with purpose, to serve others, and to live with integrity. Help us to rejoice always, whether or not our favorite college football team wins or not.

O God, as our furnaces have emerged from a long hibernation, we think of those who will be cold this winter. Thank you that we can live a life worthy of the gospel by donating winter clothing to help people in need. Thank you that we can live a life worthy of the gospel through our Athens First Saturday outreach this upcoming Saturday morning. Thank you that we can live a life worthy of the gospel by serving meals at Monday Lunch here at our church. Thank you that we can live a life worthy of the gospel by making blankets for those who are cold. Thank you for all of these ways that we can provide warmth to the people in our community.

O God, we rejoice in you always because you are bigger than any problem that may come our way. We rejoice in you always because of how you guide us in making difficult decisions. We rejoice in you always because you offer your healing love in times of sadness and pain. We rejoice in you always because you love us unconditionally. We rejoice in you always because your love includes everyone regardless of our age, race, economic status, gender, political party, sexual orientation, or nationality.

O God, for those who find it difficult to rejoice today because of loneliness, grief, or pain, may they know of your life-giving Spirit. May the college students who walk by our church on a daily basis know of your life-giving Spirit. May our community leaders, our schools, and our local officials know of your life-giving Spirit.  May our local outreach organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Hospice, and Good Works Outreach know of your life-giving Spirit.

O God, we offer this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit and who has taught us to pray together saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermon (October 29) by Rev. Robert McDowell "A Life Worth Living"

     I read in the news about a man who was hired to begin a new job. He is so excited about his new job that every single morning, he wants to do a backflip out of bed. 
     If you are interested in trying this, I want to show you a little demonstration of someone doing a backflip.

     What a positive way to begin each day by doing a back-flip out of bed every morning!
      Please do not try this unless you know what you’re doing and you have approval from your physician. I jus wanted to offer that disclaimer. I really like this man’s approach to his new job. He is that excited about his day.
     The Apostle Paul strikes me as somebody who did back-flips out of bed every morning. He couldn’t wait to begin his day so that he would be able to share his faith in Christ with the people around him. Nothing was going to stop him. Being an apostle of Jesus Christ brought him great joy.
     This is someone who founded at least fourteen and maybe up to twenty churches during his lifetime. He wrote fourteen of the twenty-seven books that are in our New Testament.  About half of the Book of Acts is about this man. And on top of all of that, he led three missionary journeys to help spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
     This man probably did back-flips out of bed. He was that excited about his faith. If you haven’t already done so, I want to encourage you to read the Letter of Philippians from beginning to end.  It doesn’t take long to read at all. If you are feeling discouraged, this letter will probably cheer you up.
     Some of my favorite bible verses are in this one letter. Verses like the one that we already heard read a little bit ago. “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
     Philippians 2:13 – “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
     Philippians 3:10 & 11 – “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead”
    Philippians 3:13-14 – “But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead. I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
     Philippians 4:4-9 – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
     And probably my favorite of all the verses. Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Say that verse over and over again and see if it doesn’t change your outlook and approach in a given situation.
      In writing this letter to the church at Philippi, Paul is pointing us to a life that is worth living. It’s a life that is centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s the kind of life where you want to do a back-flip out of bed when you wake up in the morning. You can’t wait to begin your day because you know that Christ will be with you in every single moment.
     In our scripture reading from Philippians, Paul offers three ways for us to live a life that is worth living. These three reasons can make all huge difference in our lives.
     The first way is by having a purpose in life. In our passage of scripture, Paul is wrestling with the idea of which is better; being with Christ for all of eternity, or serving Christ while here on earth.
     His answer is that both of these thoughts are wonderful! While he is looking forward to that time when he will be with Christ for all eternity, he also knows that he has a purpose here on earth.
     Several years ago, Rick Warren, the founding pastor of Saddleback Church in California, wrote a devotional book with the title, “The Purpose Driven Life.” The book offers a forty-day personal spiritual journey that offers five purposes for every person who is seeking to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  What a wonderful thing to know that your life has a purpose!
     I came across this funny story about three guys who wanted to sneak into the Olympic Village. I don’t know if they thought someone there might mistake them for athletes or if they just wanted to meet female gymnasts, but they kind of loitered around the screening table.
     Soon a big, hulking guy walked up with his athletic duffel bag, bulging biceps, size 19 neck, and said to the guards: “I’m Angus McPherson. Scotland. Shotput.” The security team looked in his bag, saw a huge shotput ball, and waved him right through. They gave him room keys and even meal coupons for the Pizza Hut and McDonalds and Häagen-Dazs food court. 
    So these three guys said to themselves: “Cool. We can do this.” The first one sneaks outside, slices all the branches off a tree limb, comes back in and says to the guards: “Chuck Wagon. Canada. Javelin.” The guards inspect his “javelin” and hand him a bulging envelope with his athletic pass, room keys, meal ticket, everything. This was pretty lax security—probably pre-9/11.
     The second guy goes down an alley, pries loose a manhole cover, marches up to the front gate and announces himself: “Dusty Rhodes, Australia. Discus.” Welcome to the Olympics, Mr. Rhodes. So these two guys who have impostered themselves into the inner sanctum loiter around the gate to see if their third beer-drinking buddy can weasel his way in.
     A couple of minutes later, he walks up to the front gate with a huge roll of barbed wire painfully tucked under his arm. “Who are you?” the guards ask. “Foster Bean,” he says. “Vermont, USA. Fencing.” 
     I guess the moral of that story is to not try to be somebody else but to live out who God created us to be. God has given each one of us a purpose and that purpose it to be in a relationship with God. Jesus invites us to follow him every single day of our lives. That’s our purpose. This is who we are called to be.
     A second way to live a life worth living is to serve others. This is what the Apostle did throughout his ministry. He had a gift of starting churches and encouraging them along the way.
     Paul writes in our scripture passage that as long as he is alive he will continue to help them be faithful in their ministry. Even when Paul was away from them, he wrote this letter to encourage them.
     It’s when we serve others in the name of Christ, that we are able to live a life that is worth living. Every time we help prepare a meal for people in need, send encouraging notes to people who are home-bound, greet somebody at the door as they enter our sanctuary for worship, teach a Sunday School class, hand out water bottles to college students as they walk by our church, and invite someone to church with us, we are living a life that is worth living.

     Some of you might know the name, Mike Singletary who was a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Chicago Bears back in the 1980s. He was a member of a church in the Chicago area during his playing days.
     He asked his pastor if there was anything he could do to help serve the church but he wanted to keep a low profile. The pastor said, “Well, there is something that just might be the perfect way for you to serve.”
     He went on to tell him that every week when the custodian vacuums the sanctuary following the weekend worship services, the vacuum cleaner cord gets caught on the pews and the custodian has to always stop and straighten out the cord. He said, “How would you like to be the person who holds up the vacuum cleaner cord?”
     And this ended being a very practical and humble way for an all-pro linebacker to serve in his church. I always think of this story when I happen to come across one of our unsung heroes doing these simple but very needed acts of service here in our church building. Every act of service in the name of Christ; great and small, seen and unseen, is what helps us to live a life that is worth living.
     A third way to have a life worth living is to live a life of integrity. We see this in our scripture passage where Paul encourages the church at Philippi to live in a manner worthy of the gospel.
     We all know how important it is to not just talk the talk but to walk the walk. If our actions don’t match our words, not only we people be turned away from the faith, our lives will become shallow and have little meaning.
     Our like the quote that is attributed to St. Francis of Assissi. “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.” “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
     Yes, our words matter, but so do our actions. Paul wants the church at Philippi to live in a manner worthy of the gospel.
     A young officer being considered for a promotion stopped to purchase a newspaper. A passerby dropped some coins in the machine, took out a paper, and held the door open for the officer.
     “Go ahead and take one. Nobody will know,” he offered. For a moment, the officer held the door as the man went his way. Finally, he shut the door, inserted his coins, and took his paper.
     Later that morning, in the interview for his job promotion, the attending general retold what had happened at the newspaper box. “I watched to see what you would do. Had you taken the paper without paying, I was determined to pass you over for the promotion. You see, I am looking for a people of character who live their principles even when no one is around.”
     God calls us to back up our words with our actions.
     What are the ways that we live a life worth living? We live with purpose. We serve others. And we live with integrity.
     A woman who suffered with Parkinson’s disease made it a point to comfort her children by saying, “You must live until you die.”  She didn’t want her family members to stop living because of any adversity they may face, including the medical challenge that she was facing. This woman taught her children to lead a life that is worth living.
     So what do you think? Will you do a back-flip out of bed tomorrow morning?
    Better yet, will you wake up tomorrow morning, ready to lead a life that is worth living? May our answer to that important question will be, “Yes.”

A Life Worth Living
Small Group Questions
Philippians 1:21-30
October 29, 2017 

Pastor Robert opened his sermon by sharing about a man who loves his job so much that he feels like doing a back-flip out of bed every morning.
When have you felt like doing a back-flip out of bed? In other words, what makes you want to jump out of your bed to begin your day?
The Apostle Paul couldn't wait to begin his day because he was focused on wanting to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the whole world. This is why he founded 14 to 20 churches, wrote 14 of the 27 New Testament books, and led 3 missionary journeys to share the good news of Christ.
What motivates you to share God's love with others and make a difference in the world?
In our scripture reading, the Apostle Paul offers us three important ways for us to live a life that is worthy living. These include 1) having a purpose 2) serving others, & 3) living a life of integrity.
What would you say is your purpose in living out your faith?
In what ways do you enjoy serving others? 
Why is it important to live a life of integrity? What does it mean to have integrity?
Pastor Robert concluded his sermon with a quote from a woman who suffered from Parkinson's. She told her family and friends, "You must live until you die."
What do you think she meant by this statement?

Paul's letter to the Philippians has some of the most uplifting scripture passages that we find in the New Testament! 

Take turns reading some of these well known verses that we find in this one letter: Philippians 2:13; 3:10-11; 3:13-14; 4:4-9; & 4:13

Monday, October 23, 2017

Pastoral Prayer (Oct. 22) Athens First UMC

[We concluded our 5-week "Living Generously" worship series by planting seeds for God's kingdom as we prepare for a new year of ministry here at Athens First UMC. Click here for the sermon. Several people came forward and placed their 2018 Estimate of Giving cards in a basket and received a packet of "Doing Good" wildflower seeds. The packet of seeds is to remind each of us that our our financial gifts and deeds of kindness are really seeds that we are planting in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. Extra 2018 Estimate of Giving cards and packets of seeds are available in our church office.]

God of the harvest, thank you for all of the seeds that have just been planted to help us fulfill our church’s mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world.

As the hymn writer/poet so beautifully puts it, “In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”

As we plant seeds for your kingdom to bear fruit this coming year, I pray for your blessing to be upon every gift and upon every giver as we seek to continue to live generously in and through the life of our church.

And as we look toward a new year of fruitful ministry together, we also give you thanks and praise for the harvest we continue to experience this year:

Thank you for hot chocolate and water bottle give-aways. Thank you for the receiving of new members. Thank you for a new discipleship strategy of having a Loving, Learning, & Living faith. Thank you for a growing hospitality ministry. Thank you for loving and caring Stephen Ministers who offer one to one peer support. Thank you for our beautifully remodeled church building. Thank you for our new Monday evening meal and Worship U gathering. Thank you for our many outreach ministries. And thank you for the many, many other blessings that we are experiencing in the life of our church. We are so blessed!

And so, in this prayer, we just want to say, “thank you.” Thank you for the privilege it is be part of the Body of Christ where we can actually see what a difference you are making in and through us. And we thank you in advance for how the seeds that we are planting today, will bear fruit exponentially in the coming year.

We offer this pray in the name of the one who has given us the seeds to plant, Jesus Christ, and who taught us to pray together saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sermon (October 22) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Living Generously: Sowing Seeds"

     Over the past several weeks, we have been thinking and praying about what it means to live generously.  Our theme today is sowing seeds of hope and love.
     A couple of months ago, Penny and I were in Vienna, West Virginia shopping. When we made the turn to get on the road that gets you on that toll bridge, we noticed that it was really backed up because they only had one lane open. There was a little parking lot with cars trying to get out.
     Penny and I waved for one of the cars to get in line ahead of us. We didn’t think a lot of it, but when we got to the toll booth to pay the 50 cents to cross, the toll booth guy waved us on and said the guy in the car ahead paid it for us.
     He was the guy we had let pull in ahead of us. Penny and I couldn’t get over how nice that was for him to do. For that whole trip home, I thought about that guy’s generosity.
     That’s a warm fuzzy story, isn’t it? We helped a guy pull out in front of us. He then pays our 50 cent bridge toll. So sweet. That story could make it into the book “Chicken Soup for the Soul.”
     But here’s the thing. I ended up breaking the chain because a couple of days later, I was walking down Court Street toward my car here in town, and a young man, probably a college student walked up to me and politely asked if I had 50 cents? 50 cents the same amount of that bridge toll.
     Now, as a practice, I don’t hand out money on the spot like that, plus my hands were full at the time, so I went to my default response which was, “I’m sorry, I don’t.”
     At the time, I knew for sure that I had zero change in my pockets, but I did know that I had a few dollars in my wallet that I could have easily spared, not to mention, that I had a kagillion quarters in my car which was a couple of blocks away. For those of you who don’t know, I have a quarter fetish.
     But back to the story. So after I started walking away from this guy, it hit me like a thunder bolt, that I had missed the perfect opportunity to pay it forward. I had broken the generosity chain.
     But then I thought, well maybe if I hurry to my car where my quarters were, I could drive a block ahead of the direction this guy was walking and roll down my window and give him as many quarters as he wanted.
     Sorry to say that this story doesn’t have a happy ending. He was nowhere to be found. I drove on realizing that I failed to live generously in that moment. “Lesson learned, Robert,” I thought to myself.
     I thought that story was over and done until I started working on this “Living Generously” sermon series. It dawned on me that I had made a promise two years ago to donate my precious quarters above and beyond my annual pledge.

     So, here’s a picture of me a couple of years ago, during worship, taking my bag of quarters up to the altar in front of the entire congregation. How many of you remember when I did that?
     So, to help bring closure to my missed opportunity a couple of months ago, to pass on those 50 cents, I feel nudged by God to give away all my quarters again.
     Here is my bag of quarters! I don’t know how much this huge bag of quarters equals, but I know it’s a lot. I am going to place them on the altar where they belong.
(Pastor Robert places large bag of quarters on the altar.)
     During these past several weeks in following Frank Donovan as part of our Living Generously sermon series, I’m realizing that I’m more like Frank than I’d care to admit. I want to be generous, but like, Frank, I often want to hold back for whatever reason.
     Actually, I think God used that guy at the toll booth and that guy who asked if I had 50 cents on me, to teach me something about what it means to live generously.
    We take notice of when people are generous, don’t we? Living generously has a positive ripple effect.
     Often times when Jesus healed someone or performed some miracle, we are told that the people were amazed and in awe. We are drawn to generosity.
     Whenever somebody does something generous for us, it makes us want to do something kind for somebody else. 

     In our DVD story that we have been watching over the last four weeks, Frank Donovan and his family have embarked upon a spiritual journey learning about generosity. They have been learning about giving God their best and not just their leftovers.
     Though Frank did give to charitable groups, he realized through a crazy dream in a court room, that he was not putting God first. He was guilty of loving the bread more than the baker. And then, as his family helped out at a local soup kitchen, we all learned that a spoon is for feeding ourselves, while a ladle is for serving others.
          Frank was learning that people are valuable, and serving others in Jesus’ name is more than just writing a check. After Frank’s wife, Cassie, was mugged and hospitalized, Frank understood for the first time that his money he counted on for security, was only an imaginary wall. His gardener, Rea taught him that God is our strong tower and where we should place our trust.
     In today’s final episode, Frank is going to take some risks with his time, his talents, and his treasure. He is going to involve his entire family in making some decisions regarding their future generosity. Frank is going to sow some seeds and trust that God will grow them.
     Let’s watch the fifth and final episode of the Donovan family.

[Due to copyright issues, we are not permitted to post the video.]

     If you have been watching these episodes in church each Sunday morning, you have probably noticed a significant change in Frank’s view of generosity. When he saw how others were experiencing joy in their lives by being generous, he wanted to become more generous as well.
     Sowing seeds of generosity is contagious. When you see someone being generous, it makes you want to become more generous.

     I think this is what the Apostle Paul was talking about in our Galatians scripture reading. Paul says that if we sow seeds to the God, we will reap eternal life. And if we’re patient, we will enjoy a wonderful harvest.
     After he says that, Paul goes on to encourage the Galatians by saying, “Whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.”
     Paul is telling us to do good whenever we have an opportunity. Our acts of generosity add up and are making an eternal difference. You might not have realized it at the time, but that one thing you did or said to help someone along in their faith was what they needed to not give up.
     Paul is telling us to keep sowing seeds of our faith. They will take root and they will grow and there will be a wonderful harvest.
     It is often said that there will be two questions that will be asked of us in heaven. The first question will be how did we respond to the invitation to receive the good news of Jesus Christ?
     In Matthew, chapter 13, Jesus shares a number of parables regarding the Kingdom of heaven. He talks about the kingdom of heaven like treasure hidden in a field and someone sells everything he has in order to buy that field. He also compares the Kingdom of Heaven to someone who comes across a fine pearl and is willing to sell everything in order to buy that pearl.
     The Kingdom of Heaven is the good news of Jesus Christ. It is the treasure in the field. It is the pearl that is priceless.
     How have we responded to the good news of Jesus Christ?
     But it’s also been said that there’s a second question we will be asked in heaven. That question is, “What did we do with the gifts that God gave us?” Did we share them with the people around us or did we keep them to ourselves?
     Jesus tells us that even if we sow a tiny mustard seed into the ground, the smallest of all the seeds, it will grow to became a tree where even the birds of the air will be able to make their nests.
     Many of us are aware of the incredible stories of faith about Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity who have worked with the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India.
     Mother Teresa was 36 years old when she was riding a train in India and experienced a call within a call to help the poorest of the poor. Just think of how many people the Sisters of Charity have helped in the 133 countries where they are now located?
     Mother Teresa had very little resources when she began her ministry but in 1979, she won the Nobel Peace Prize and has spoken with dignitaries from around the world. The world takes notice when we sow the seeds of the good news of Jesus Christ. It just goes to show that you don’t have to have a lot of resources to make an impact on the people around you. All you need is a little faith, even the size of a mustard seed.
     In a few moments, we are going to be invited to bring our completed 2018 Living Generously cards forward to the nearest station and place in the basket. These were sent out to our congregation this past week.
     We have extra estimate of giving cards in the pew pockets if you need one. If you are a guest with us this morning, we certainly do not expect you to complete one of these cards. This is a commitment that our church makes around this time every year as we prepare for a new year of ministry.
     As we come forward to hand in our Living Generously card, I want you to use your imagination a little bit. I want you to imagine that your 2018 Living Generously card is really a handful of seeds that you are plant to help grow God’s kingdom.
     We are all called to sow a variety of seeds. Seeds like serving in a new ministry to help people know that God loves them. Seeds like making a financial estimate of giving to help our many ministries grow and flourish.
     For some of us, these seeds will represent our desire to give 10% or more of our income or what the bible refers to as the “tithe” to the work of Christ and his church. For others it might mean growing closer to tithing this year. All of us have seeds to plant for this coming year of ministry at First United Methodist Church.
     Just think what a difference it will make in our community as we the sow the seeds that God has given us. That’s a powerful thought. Just think of the harvest that we will enjoy a year from now or maybe two years from now or even farther down the road as we intentionally sow seeds of love and hope, right here in church this morning.
     Let’s think of 2018 as a year for sowing seeds, a year of living generously.

Living Generously: Sowing Seeds
Discussion Questions
Galatians 6:1-10 & Matthew 13:31-46
October 22, 2017

Pastor Robert shared how the person in the car ahead of him paid 50 cents toward his toll bridge toll. A day later, someone on the street asked him for 50 cents and he missed the opportunity to help that person. In that moment, he realized that he was more like the stingy Frank Donovan in the early part of our video series rather than the generous Frank Donovan that he is becoming.

Share a time when you had the opportunity to "pay it forward." If you missed the opportunity to be generous, remember, God always provides new opportunities for us to offer our gifts and be a blessing to others. Just ask Pastor Robert about "his" quarters!

In the last video episode of Frank Donovan, he decides to get together with his family so they can decide how they can live more generously. They are learning that generosity is contagious!

Who has been an example to you in what it means to live generously? How has that person helped you to become more generous toward God and others?

Jesus tells us that even if we sow a tiny mustard seed into the ground, the smallest of all the seeds, it will grow to became a tree where even the birds of the air will be able to make their nests. Jesus can use our quarters, our time, our talents, our passions, and our gifts no matter how small we may think they are.

How can we encourage and help each other to remember to sow the seeds we have been given by God so they will be able to grow and be a blessing to others? 

As we complete our estimate of giving cards for a new year of ministry through the church, offer this prayer:

God of abundant love, we come to you this day in the midst of a season of great growth and coming harvest. All around us are signs of your many generous gifts. Remind us that the harvest we see today has been made possible because of the seeds that have been planted this past spring. You have already given us the seeds of love and hope to plant for our next harvest. Free us to live generously as we prepare to offer our gifts for a new year of ministry. We offer this prayer in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.