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, April 30, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (April 29) Athens First UMC

[During both worship services yesterday, we recognized our wonderful and dedicated Telecare ministry team (see picture above.) They meet on a monthly basis to make phone calls to our congregation to let them know about upcoming events, ask for any prayer requests, and see how they are doing. This year marks the 5th anniversary of Telecare. Our worship theme was “Staying Connected” which is at the heart of what Telecare does on behalf of our congregation. Click here for the sermon.]

O God, thank you for this connection we have with you called prayer. It’s a great way to be in relationship with you at any time and in any place. Your inbox probably gets pretty full, but we know you enjoy hearing from us.

Thank you for being a God with a stronger signal than any cell phone tower. You are ever more ready to hear than we are to pray.

Help us as your branches to stay connected with you because you are our living vine. When we stay connected with you, we notice that we are more likely to bear fruit and have a growing faith in Christ.

And so with confidence and boldness that your signal is strong enough to receive this message, hear our prayers as we pray for…

Our church including those who are in need of healing, our ministries, our leaders, and that we would stay focused on our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world as well as our discipleship strategy of each person have a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith.

We pray for those who are suffering and those in trouble…
We pray for the concerns of this local community…
We pray for the world, its people, and its leaders…
We pray for our Bishop of the West Ohio Conference and our District Superintendent as they provide episcopal leadership and guidance.

O God, we confess that for whatever reasons, we often forget turn to you for strength, guidance, and peace. And so, forgive us for the times where we have disconnected ourselves from you by not practicing the spiritual disciplines of our faith like prayer, scripture, worship, and serving others.

Whenever it seems that we have a weak signal, remind us to look over our shoulders to see that nothing can ever separate us from your love in Christ Jesus, our Lord. You are the true vine that connects us with you so that we can bear much fruit. And it’s in the name of Christ, our true vine, that we join together in praying the words you taught us to pray, 

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sermon (April 29) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Staying Connected”

     Whenever I stay at my brother’s house in south central Pennsylvania, I know that calls on my cell phone are going to be a major problem. He lives in a terrible spot for cell phone coverage. 

     He acts like it’s no big deal. He says that if you sit on a particular chair at his  kitchen table and stay absolutely still without breathing, you will be able to have a conversation for at least two minutes. What he doesn’t tell you is that even those specific instructions are hit or miss.

     I wish I had a nickel for every time he has ended a phone call conversation with these words, “I’m starting to pull up my driveway so I’m going to lose you. I’ll talk to you when…” There have been many a phone conversation where my brother never finishes that sentence.

     And I don’t even want to think about the places that don’t have a wifi connection or the signal is really weak. Those can be frustrating times. I know there are much bigger problems in the world, but it’s difficult to get anything done when you’re not connected.

     Penny and I have friends who went to France for vacation one year. They chose to stay at a hotel that offered free wifi according to the hotel brochure.

     When they arrived, they tried to connect to the internet but couldn’t. So they asked someone at the desk how to access the hotel wifi. The hotel employee looked confused and told him that they didn’t have wifi. My friend was disappointed but went on with his vacation. 

     During the last night of their vacation, he finally figured out that they don’t call it “wifi” in France. They call it “wee-fee.” I wonder if that hotel worker thought my friend was looking for a wife instead of wifi.

     Staying connected is a basic human need. It doesn’t matter if it’s cell phone coverage, a wifi signal, or our landline phone. There’s this basic need to be connected.

     I think this is what Jesus is getting at in our Gospel reading for today. He uses the image of a vine and the branches that grow from that vine. He tells his disciples, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself but must remain in the vine.”

     And just in case we might not get the point he’s trying to make, he says, “I am the vine. You are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.” Jesus is saying that all we need to do is stay connected to him.

     So what do you do when you have a weak connection or when you see the dreaded “no service” status regarding your faith? How do you get connected again in your relationship with God?

     Well, the good news is that God offers free spiritual wifi service. All we need to do is click on the little button that says, “connect.” OK, maybe it’s not as simple as that, but we often make it more difficult than it needs to be.

     The problem in having a strong connection in our faith isn’t because God doesn’t provide a strong enough heavenly signal. The problem is on our end. Sometimes, we just don’t connect when we can easily connect.

     The Washington Times carried a story about then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. According to this newspaper article, Dr. Rice once described to a Sunday school class at National Presbyterian Church in Washington, how she had drifted from her Christian faith and how God reached out and brought her back:

     "I was a preacher's kid," says Dr. Rice, "so Sundays were church, no doubt about that. The church was the center of our lives. In segregated black Birmingham of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the church was not just a place of worship. It was the place where families gathered; it was the social center of the community, too.

     "Although I never doubted the existence of God," Dr. Rice continues, "I think like all people, I've had some ups and downs in my faith. When I first moved to California in 1981 to join the faculty at Stanford, there were a lot of years when I was not attending church regularly. I was traveling a lot. I was a specialist in international politics, so I was always traveling abroad. I was always in another time zone.  

     One Sunday I was in the Lucky's Supermarket not very far from my house. I was standing near the spices section and an African-American man walked up to me and said he was buying some things for his church picnic. And he said, 'Do you play the piano by any chance?'

     "I said, 'Yes.' They said they were looking for someone to play the piano at church. It was a little African-American church right in the center of Palo Alto. A Baptist church. So I started playing for that church. That got me regularly back into church going. 

     I don't play gospel very well. I play Brahms and you know how black ministers will start a song and the musicians will pick it up? I had no idea what I was doing and so I called my mother, who had played for Baptist churches.

     "'Mother,' I said, 'they just start. How am I supposed to do this?' She said, 'Honey, play in C and they'll come back to you.' And that's true," says Dr. Rice, "If you play in C, people will come back. I tell that story," she goes on, "because I thought to myself, 'My goodness, God has a long reach.' I mean, in the Lucky's Supermarket on a Sunday morning."

     This is a story about reconnecting in our faith. God is always available to us. God is always reaching out to us. God is always extending his love and grace to us. It’s doesn’t matter what we have done or what we have left undone, God’s grace signal is always at full strength for us. There’s zero chance for a dropped call. 

     God can always get through to you even if you are walking through the deepest valley of your life. Just ask the person who wrote Psalm 23. He’ll tell you the same thing.

     While God’s signal strength is always at full strength, sometimes we are the ones who don’t stay connected in our faith. The good news is that there are many ways for us to stay connected to Christ.

     John Wesley, the founder of Methodism referred to these ways as “Means of Grace.” We call these ways of staying connected, “Means of Grace” because these are tried and true ways that people over the centuries have been able to stay in a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

     So here’s a quick list. Prayer, reading and meditating on scripture, fasting from meals, attending weekly worship, sharing our faith with others, group bible study, share groups, classes, serving through the church, seeking justice, Christian conferencing, healthy living, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, being a generous giver, doing good, baptism renewal, receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

     John Wesley, who was the founder of what we know today as the United Methodist Church, emphasized the importance of staying connected to Christ by participating in these means of grace on a regular basis. Yes, God can meet us in chance encounters in a grocery store, but God also will meet us through the holy spiritual practices of our faith.

     When we worship here in church, know that the risen Christ is with us in the reading of scripture, in our prayers, in the singing of  hymns, when we listen to an anthem, and yes, even through the sermon. 

     That devotional booklet that you will read tomorrow will serve as a means of grace to help you begin your day with God. When you share a little of your faith story with a next door neighbor, don’t be surprised if you are drawn closer to God yourself. When you help serve a meal or visit someone who is feeling lonely, it’s amazing how these small acts of kindness will not only bless the people we serve, but will bless us as well.

     The means of grace are what help us to have a strong connection in our faith. When we drift away from God, they help to bring us back. When we lose a signal, these are the ways that we get connected again.

     Our family has a cottage in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania. My dad had built this place to stay during the deer hunting season many years ago, but today it’s a place where we can get away for a few days.

     It’s a beautiful place that is nestled at the base of a mountain range. It’s a secluded area with a state park nearby. When you wake up in the morning, you can see the mountain fog hovering over the valley right in front of the cottage. I always feel close to God when I go there.

     In a place like that, you really shouldn’t care about getting on the internet, right? You shouldn’t worry about making calls on your cell phone. But I can’t help it. I do.

     There is absolutely no cell phone coverage where the cottage is located. The mountains around the cottage will not allow any phone calls to be made. When I’m there, I get that dreaded “No Service” message at the top of my cell phone. 

     My brother and I spent a weekend there a few years ago. We enjoyed the quiet and much slower pace of what we like to refer to as God’s country.

     Near the end of our time there, my brother and I decided to go find the place where dad liked to take us for deer hunting when we were teenagers. It was about a twenty-minute drive from the cottage. 

     We found the little one lane gravel road at the base of the mountain and up we went to the very top. When we got out of the car, my brother said, “This is it. This is where dad liked to go hunting. Remember it?”

     We went down a path where dad would set up camp and wait patiently for the deer. It was a holy moment for us as we remembered how much dad loved to hunt and be out in nature.

     I took out my phone to take a picture of the beautiful scenery of the valley below and that’s when I noticed that I had full cell phone service. All of my cell phone bars were showing. I was at full strength.

     All of the sudden, emails and text messages starting flooding into my phone after having absolutely no service the past few days. I told my brother that I was connected again. And that’s when he told me to turn around.

     And there, right behind me at the top of that mountain was a ginormous cell phone tower. I couldn’t have been more connected than I was in that moment.

     You know, sometimes, all we have to do is turn around to see that we are already connected to the creator of the universe. Sometimes, all we need is that one person on top of a mountain or that stranger by the spices in a grocery store to simply point out that God is already there.

     Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.” 

     Just look over your shoulder. God is closer than you think.

Staying Connected
Small Group Questions
John 15:1-8
April 29, 2018

Our main scripture lesson this week is The Vine & The Branches: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit.” – John 15:5a. This is a scripture that reminds us of the importance of staying connected with Christ in order to have a strong faith. The church offers ways for us to stay connected to Christ. These include Prayer, Scripture, Worship, Fasting, Good Works, Serving, Journaling, Faith Sharing, Holy Communion, Giving Generously, Visiting the Sick, Bible Study, Classes, Baptism Renewal…

Which of these means of grace have helped you to stay connected with Christ and the church along your faith journey?

Pastor Robert shared the faith story of former Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice. Because of her demanding work schedule, she had drifted away from her faith. Thanks to a conversation with someone at a supermarket who invited her to attend church, she was able to reconnect to Christ and the church. Her story shows how far God’s reach is to each one of us, even when you least expect it like while standing in an aisle of a local supermarket.

Share a time when you experienced God reaching out to you in an unexpected way. 

Pastor Robert shared the story of how he was in a remote area for several days where there was no signal on his phone when all of the sudden, during a hike through the mountains, his phone started getting a really strong signal. Text messages and emails that couldn’t be delivered during those days of no cell coverage were all of the sudden flooding into his phone. His brother prompted him to looked over his shoulder and that’s when he realized that he was standing next to a large cell tower.

How can we help each other to “look over our shoulder” to not miss out on seeing how God is seeking to connect with us in a deeper way?

Monday, April 23, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (April 22/Music Sunday) Athens First UMC

[Our Call to Worship on Music Sunday began with Psalm 100, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord!” Our several music ministry teams helped us to do just that during our 10:30 worship service yesterday. A big thank you to our Chancel Choir, Bell Choir, & Worship U Praise Band for offering their gift of music to the glory of God. On top of all of the wonderful music, we also recognized 7 graduates. See photo below. For discussion questions related to our Colossians scripture reading which focuses on the importance of music as it relates to our faith, click here.]

[Our graduates being recognized.]

O God, you have blessed our church with the beautiful gift of music. Thank you for singers and musicians who help us to honor and glorify you through our worship services.

Thank you for the many concerts that are held here through the School of Music and for the awesome St. Nicholas Christmas cantata that our church performed this past December. What a joy to see so many people in the community come and hear inspiring music here in our church.

We pray for the Anointed Gospel choir who will be here for a concert next week and for our choir who will be singing the following Sunday night for a special district event. O God, thank you for the gift of music in this place.

Gracious God, you have given us the gift of music to help us celebrate the many blessings in our lives like good health, family, friends, graduation, a new home, a new job opportunity, answered prayers, and most importantly the good news of our Easter faith.

You have also given us the gift of music to help us express our deepest longings to you and those things which weigh our hearts down. And so we pray for those who are in need of your healing, for those who are lonely, those who are without work, those who are in need of direction, and those who are going through a difficult and challenging time in their lives.  O God, you give us music for these times as well. 

And so whatever the song you have for us in this moment, help us to hear the melody so that we can be in rhythm with you. We pray this in the name of Christ who taught us to pray together,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Small Group Discussion Questions (April 22/Music Sunday)

Small Group Discussion Questions
(Music Sunday)
Colossians 3:12-17
Sunday, April 22, 2018

Colossians 3:12-17 is a very appropriate scripture for Music Sunday because it encourages us to sing psalms and spiritual songs to God.

Share a time when a song helped you to experience God’s presence in a very real way.

When the Apostle Paul wrote the letter of Colossians he was in prison in Ephesus. No doubt, Paul would have relied on singing songs of faith to help him stay encouraged especially since he was in confinement. He wrote to the Colossians because as he says in chapter one of that same letter, the gospel is bearing “fruit” through them and he wants to encourage them to keep nurturing that growth. 

Share how someone has encouraged you to keep growing in your faith. When has God used  you to encourage someone else?

Since music is an important way for us to grow in our faith, discuss the following “worship tips” below.

1. During the singing of hymns, think about how each verse builds on the other. The lyricist of the hymn is telling a story that is meant to encourage us in our faith.
2. If you feel uncomfortable singing out loud in church, think about mouthing the words. This is a great way to internalize what is being sung.
3. Sometimes the music presentation by a choir is so joy-filled and uplifting, it just makes sense to applaud after the anthem. This it totally appropriate. For other times, the anthem may be somber, meditative, and very thought provoking. At these times, sometimes our silence after the anthem is the most appropriate response. 
4. Our church’s singers and musicians offer a lot of their time, practice, and energy on our behalf. Let’s encourage and thank them at every opportunity.
5. If you find yourself humming a melody or thinking of lyrics of a hymn from the previous Sunday’s worship service, allow that moment to become your personal prayer to God. Music is a great way to help us to continue to worship throughout the week. 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (April 15) Athens First UMC

[Yesterday was our Growing Tree Preschool Sunday during the 10:30 service. Our Growing Tree children, parents, and families were our special guests. Our church also took time to thank our preschool teachers. From left to right: Laura Calentine, Angela Strycker, Kathy Mangen, & Cathy Bigger. We had a special recognition of our current director, Cathy Bigger who will retire from her director position after this school year. Kathy Mangen will become the new director this fall. We are grateful for everyone who helps to make Growing Tree preschool a special place of learning and nurture! Click here to find more information about Growing Tree.]

Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thank you that you love us so much that you call us your children. On this Growing Tree Sunday, help us all to have a child-like faith.

A faith that feels free to ask you any question like...

Why are rainbows so beautiful? Did Jesus have long hair? Why are sermons so long? Are pets allowed in heaven? 

O God, help us to be like children who aren’t afraid to ask questions about you and our faith. Help us to learn together and to remind each other that we are all your children. 

We especially thank you on this Sunday for all of our Growing Tree children, their families, our Growing Tree teachers, and everyone who helps to make our Growing Tree preschool a special place of learning. You want all of us to be like growing trees where we never stop learning and discovering the world around us.

And dear God, since we have done our share of complaining about the weather in recent weeks, we just want you to know how incredibly grateful we are for the several days of sunshine and warmer temperatures this past week. 

You bless us in so many ways; family, friends, parents, grandparents, food, fellowship, fun puppet skits, and times like this when we get to say a prayer to you at the same time. And especially this prayer you taught us to say together as one family,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Small Group (April 15) Discussion Questions

Small Group Discussion Questions
(Holy Hands Puppets & Growing Tree Pre-school Sunday)
I John 3:1-7
Sunday, April 15, 2018

Our New Testament lesson this week opens by saying, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” - I John 3:1 This is a very appropriate scripture since our children and youth ministry,“Holy Hands Puppeteers” led our Sunday worship services and it was also Growing Tree Pre-school Sunday.

In what ways are we God’s children, regardless of our age?

Since we are given the name, “children of God,” this implies that we are always in the process of growing and maturing

Share a specific way that you are growing in your faith journey.

As God’s children, the author of I John tells us to keep our focus on Christ since he is the one who shows us what true love is. This means that while it’s important to be “child-like,” we also want to avoid becoming “childish” where we fall into sin. 

What helps you to be “child-like” without becoming “childish?”

Our church is blessed with the presence of children and youth. 

Share one or two specific ways that you or your small group might bless our children and youth in the coming weeks? 

Conclude your time together by repeating this verse out-loud. This is to help us remember who we are!

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” - I John 3:1a

Monday, April 9, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (April 8) Athens First UMC

[The photo above was taken last week before our Easter Sunday worship services. The Easter season lasts for fifty days and will conclude on Pentecost Sunday which will be on May 20th. Each Sunday during the Easter season is a time for us to celebrate the presence of the Risen Christ especially when we walk through the valleys of life. Click here for yesterday’s sermon, “Through the Valley.”]

Our Lord and shepherd, thank you for times like this when you lead us beside the still waters of prayer. Our days can get so busy, that we sometimes forget to drink enough water. But you always know what we need and you lead us to places where we can restore our souls. 

Forgive us, O God when we forget to enjoy the green pastures and the pools of water along life’s journey. Sometimes, we even forget that we need a shepherd, but then life knocks us to our knees and we remember that we are more like sheep than we care to admit.

We get thirsty. We get lost. We wander. We stray. We get weak. We get tired. But thankfully, as our shepherd, you give us what we need and just when we need it. Help us to be open to those “thin place” moments when our eyes are finally opened like Doubting Thomas, and we are able to sense the presence of the Risen Christ in a very real way.

Thank you for the many thin place moments and green pastures that you have blessed us with this past week, like last week’s inspiring Easter Sunday celebration, like helping a pastor to write another sermon, like a bible study group giving thanks to you for all that they have learned together, like church members giving away Easter lilies to people in our community, like our puppet ministry blessing the residents of Lindley Inn yesterday through our Athens First Saturday Outreach.

Thank you for all of these thin place moments and green pastures and so many others that you provided for us along our journey this past week. And we know that you will lead us to many more this week.

Lord, our loving shepherd, even as you have led us to places of safety and refreshment, comfort those who are in special need of you this day. We pray for those who are in need of direction, those who are grieving, those who are in need of healing, those who feel lonely, those who have broken hearts.

Savior, like a shepherd lead us, much we need thy tender care. We pray this in the name of the Risen Christ who taught us to pray together saying… “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Sermon (April 8) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Through the Valley”

     Today I want us to focus on one of the most well known and loved passages of scripture in the entire Bible, Psalm 23, or as we have been known to call it, “The Lord is My Shepherd” Psalm.

     Psalm 23 ranks right up there with the Lord’s Prayer as a passage of scripture which most people have heard at least one time or another.  When I grew up in church, I can remember having to memorize Psalm 23.

     Maybe you heard of the story of the Sunday School teacher who decided to have her class memorize Psalm 23.  She gave the children a whole month to memorize this beautiful Psalm.  

      One of the boys in her class, Jimmy, was excited about the task, but he just couldn’t seem to remember the lines, no matter how hard he tried.  

     After a lot of practice, he could barely remember the first line.  On the day that the class was scheduled to recite Psalm 23 in front of the congregation, Jimmy was so nervous.  When it was his turn, he stepped to the microphone and proudly said, “The Lord is my shepherd…and that’s all I need to know.”

     Good for Jimmy!  Even though this Psalm is one of the shorter of the Psalms, 6 verses in all, sometimes all we need is to remember one little phrase or one verse and we might be surprised at how much that little bit can bring us comfort and hope in our lives.

     The little phrase I’d like us to focus on from this Psalm today is the phrase, “Though I walk through the valley?” One of the reasons why I think that short phrase is worth focusing is because all of us have experienced those valley times in life.  What do I mean by “those valley times?”  

     Valley times are when we find ourselves going through the dark experiences of life.  I say, “dark experiences” because various bible translations are not in agreement on exactly how this phrase should read.  

     But if we follow the theme of Psalm 23, the Psalmist is saying that like sheep, there are times in life when our way forward does not always seem very certain or secure.  In the ancient Near East, shepherds knew very well that there would be times when they would need to guide their sheep through sharp and dangerous trails, not to mention through deep valleys and gorges where even the sun wouldn’t be able to reach during that stretch of the journey.  

     Valleys would also mean that the sheep would become more vulnerable to predators which could strike at the sheep from higher ground.

     All of these images are what the Psalmist probably has in mind when he says, “Though I walk through the valley.”  Shadows, darkness, vulnerability, danger, fear – all of these are part of what it means to go through the valleys of life.

     The important thing to remember is that as we go through these valleys, we are never alone.  God is with us.  The Lord is our shepherd.  Sometimes we forget that first line of the Psalm, don’t we?  Maybe we can become like Jimmy who was able to say, “The Lord is my shepherd, and that’s all I need to know.”

      There are many valleys that people experience in their walk through life. The valleys of disappointment, depression, broken relationships, grief... just to name a few.

     Let’s think about a valley that we all face from time to time and that is the valley of disappointment.

     Sir Alexander Mackenzie is a Canadian hero.  An early fur trader and explorer, he accomplished a magnificent feat when he led an expedition across Canada from Fort Chippewyan on Lake Athabasca to the Pacific Ocean.  

     His incredible journey was accomplished in 1793, eleven years before Lewis and Clark began their famous expedition to the west.   Mackenzie’s earlier attempt in 1789, however, had been a major disappointment.  

     His explorers had set out in an effort to find a water route to the Pacific.  The valiant group followed a mighty river, now named the Mackenzie, with high hopes, paddling furiously amid great danger.  Unfortunately, it didn’t empty into the Pacific, but into the Arctic Ocean.

     In his diary, Mackenzie called it the “River of Disappointment.”

     I think all of us can probably think of times when we’ve felt like we’ve been down that river.  Maybe, it seems like we’re on that river now, where life feels like one big disappointment.  

     In his book, “Disappointment With God,” Phillip Yancey identifies three questions we usually ask when we come face to face with disappointment in life.  These are three questions which the people in the bible have asked as well.

     Here they are:  Is God unfair?  Is God silent?  Is God hidden?  Yancey reminds us in his book that those are fair questions to ask.  In fact he says that in some ways, it’s easier to not believe in God because a true atheist would not even think about asking those questions when facing disappointment.  But people who do believe in God, do ask those questions.  

     And sometimes, when disappointment comes our way, we ask those questions about God or to God, we make it through the disappointment, but then later on down the road, we end up asking one or more of those same questions again.  Why do we do this?  Because inevitably, we will end up facing another disappointment.  I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the way life is.

     For those of us who are parents, one of the most difficult things about parenting is in knowing that our children will have to face and deal with disappointment from time to time.  We don’t want our children to face the valley of disappointment because we know how it can feel.  Naturally, we want to shield them from having to deal with disappointment, and yet we know that one way or another, disappointment will come.

     One of the things that I love about the church is in how we can learn from each other in how to handle disappointments in life.  

     When I was just getting started in pastoring a church, an older and wise pastor in our conference pulled me aside one day and said, “I like you.  God has given you gifts to be an effective pastor in our conference.  I just want you to know that there will come a day when you will face disappointment.  A long time member will leave your church and it’s going to hurt.  A ministry that you worked so hard to get off the ground will go by the wayside.  Sometimes things won’t go the way you were hoping.  But remember this,” he said like a father to a grown son, “You’ll get through those disappointments.  And you’ll be a better pastor and Christian for it.”

     Rarely do I face a disappointment in my ministry, without thinking about this wise pastor’s words of advice to me twenty-nine years ago.  He basically was telling me that the disappointments will happen to the best of us and to know that God will get us through.

     Thank God for Christian mentors and shepherds along the way.  And how important it is for those of us who have a little more experience to come alongside us and remind us with the words, “You can make it through this with God’s strength and help.”

     My hope is that you can probably think of someone who has been that Christian source of strength for you during times of disappointment.

     Every year, on this second Sunday of Easter, the church hears the story of a follower of Jesus who was going through probably thee most difficult disappointment of his entire life – the death of a dear teacher, guide, and friend, Jesus.

     It had been a little over a week since Jesus had been crucified on a cross by the Romans.  Imagine Thomas, one of Jesus’ closest followers, one of the twelve disciples, feeling the tremendous disappointment of not only losing a friend and teacher, but also losing the faith that he had in God.

     I can’t help but wonder if Thomas asked those same questions that I mentioned earlier.  Is God unfair?  Is God silent?  Is God hidden?

     Maybe he was asking those questions, and that’s why we have given him the name, “Doubting Thomas.”

     Our Gospel reading reminds us that his disappointment was so deep that even when the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen Jesus’ alive on the evening of Easter Day, he wouldn’t believe them.  Nobody gets crucified and returns to life with a new body.

     But something amazing happens to Thomas one week later as he is gathered with the other disciples.  While the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them, John tells us, and I love this.  Jesus specifically goes to Thomas and invites him to not doubt but believe.

     And just by hearing Jesus’ words to see and believe, Thomas’s disappointment gives way to faith, hope, and joy.  After living with unbearable disappointment for the past several days, Thomas shouts out one of the clearest expressions faith you will find anywhere in the entire Bible. 

     Looking at Jesus with his own eyes, he says, “My Lord and my God.”  This is the first time in all of John’s Gospel, that anyone has referred to Jesus as God.  And who shares these words?  The one who was walking through an incredibly painful and dark valley of disappointment.  Thomas.  

     Our Gospel reading reminds us that sometimes, it’s in the midst of our deepest disappointments that we end up with our deepest faith.

     Phillip Yancey closes his book on “Disappointment with God” with this story.  One day, he visited his mother who lived several hundred miles away and during his visit with her, they ended up getting out the old family photos of Phillip as a little boy wearing cowboy and Indian costumes, the Peter Cottontail suit when he was in a play in the 1st grade, and the several piano recitals.

     Among all of those childhood photos, he found one when he was an infant.  Unlike the other photos, this particular photo was crumbled and mangled.  So he asked his mother why the photo was in such bad shape, compared to the other ones.  

     When Phillip was only ten months old, his father contracted spinal lumbar polio and he ended up dying just three months later, just after Phillip’s first birthday.  At only 24 years of age, the condition had paralyzed him and his muscles had become so weak that he had to live inside a large steel cylinder that did his breathing for him.

     He didn’t have many visitors because of the fear and the stigma this condition had during the 1950s, much like HIV/AIDS has today.  

     But the one visitor who came faithfully to see him was Phillip’s mother.  And she would always sit in a certain place so that he could see her in a mirror bolted to the side of the iron lung.

      During those visits, he would ask for pictures of her and his two sons, and she would have to jam those pictures in between some metal knobs.  One of those pictures was this crumpled picture of Phillip as an infant.

     When Phillip’s mother told him this story about his father and the mangled picture, he thought that it was amazing that his father, who had never really met his newborn son, could care about him as much as he did.

     During the last months of his life, his father literally spent his waking hours staring at the pictures of his family and no doubt, saying prayers for each of them.  How could it be that his father, who never really knew him at all, had so much love for him?

     It’s the same question we can also have about God.  How can the One who is bigger and greater than anything we can ever imagine, be the one who would become flesh in the person of Jesus and show how much he loves us by dying on a cross for our sins?  How can that be? 

     Whenever you walk through the valley of disappointment, know that you are never alone in that valley.  The one who defeated death and who rose again is walking with you.

     “The Lord is my shepherd and that’s all I need to know.”  

     Jimmy was right.

Through the Valley

Small Group Questions

Psalm 23 & John 20:19-31

April 8, 2018

Our worship focus is on Psalm 23 which for many people is their favorite of the 150 psalms in the Bible. Pastor Robert began his sermon by telling the story of Jimmy, a little boy who was asked to recite Psalm 23 in front of the entire congregation. He nervously began by reciting, “The Lord is my shepherd and...” Since he couldn’t remember the rest of the lines from this Psalm he simply said, “The Lord is my shepherd and that’s all I need to know.” 

How is the Lord a “shepherd” for you? 

The phrase, “through the valley” in this Psalm is an important one because it refers to those times in our lives when we are facing disappointment, fear, and questions about our faith. Christian author, Philip Yancey says that when we walk through valleys we often struggle with at least one of these three questions: 1) Is God unfair? 2) Is God silent? 3) Is God hidden?

Share a time when you walked “through the valley.” Did you wrestle with any of these questions? Remember, it’s OK to share this with your group because regardless of how strong our faith may be, it’s still perfectly normal to struggle with any or all of these questions.

In the sermon, Pastor Robert shared, “It’s often in the midst of our deepest disappointments that we end up with a deeper faith.” Doubting Thomas experienced this when he found it difficult to believe that Jesus had been resurrected. When he saw Jesus face to face and realized it was really him, he offered this statement of faith, “My Lord and my God!”

In what ways does the Lord help you walk “through the valleys” of struggle, doubt, and disappointment in your life? How has the church or more specifically your small group helped you through a difficult time?

Monday, April 2, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (April 1/Easter Sunday) Athens First UMC

[Our church was blessed to have Rev. Kirstin Shrom-Rhoads, a former member serve as our 10:30 worship leader. Kirstin plans to be ordained as a Deacon in the West Ohio Conference in June of 2019. She is currently a United Methodist camp director in Maryland and was in Athens visiting friends over the Easter weekend. Pictured above is Kirstin with her family. Click here for the Easter sermon.]

Rise up, Jesus! Rise up! We’re out of your way! 

Risen Lord, nothing was able to keep you from rising to new life on that Easter Sunday! Not even death itself could keep you in the grave. And so, on this Easter day, we boldly touch your living robe.

Your living robe is what makes us an Easter people. Your living robe is what reminds us that death is never the last word. Your living robe is what empowers us to live life fully. Your living robe is what gives us hope when we are feeling discouraged. Your living robe is what makes our hearts sing with such joy. Your living robe is what sends us forth to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. Your living robe is what leads us to have a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith.

As your resurrection people, we pray for those who are longing to touch your many different robes this day. We pray for those who need to see your shining presence in their lives and who are longing for a more shining faith. We pray for those who are in need of your healing presence. We pray for those who are feeling separated from others and in need of your uniting love. We pray for those who have a heart to bless others and want to offer honor you with their gifts. We pray for those who are experiencing grief and loss and are in need of your redeeming grace. 

And Lord, on this glorious day of resurrection, we pray for those who are feeling defeated and are in need of a living faith.

Rise up, Lord Jesus! Rise up! We’re out of your way!

It is in the name of the risen Jesus, that we offer the prayer that he taught us to say together as his resurrection people…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Sermon (April 1/Easter) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Come, Touch the Living Robe of Jesus”

    The Easter service had just begun at old First Church, a church built near the end of the 1800’s. The choir started its processional, singing "Up from the Grave He Arose" as they marched in perfect step down the center aisle to the front of the sanctuary. 

     The last woman in the choir processional was wearing shoes with very slender heels.  Without a thought for her fancy heels, she marched toward the grating that covered that hot air register in the middle of the aisle.  Suddenly the heel of one of her shoes sank into a hole in that register grate! 

     Just as soon as she had done it, she realized her predicament. Not wishing to hold up the whole processional, without missing a step, she slipped her foot out of her shoe and continued marching down the aisle. 

     Everything continued as planned.  The processional moved with clock-like precision.  The first man in the processional who was following behind the now shoeless woman, spotted the situation and without losing a step, reached down and pulled up her shoe, but the entire grate came up with it!  Surprised, but still singing, the man kept on going down the aisle, holding in his hand the grate with the shoe attached. 

     Everything still moved like clockwork.  Still in tune and still in step, the next man in line stepped into the open register and disappeared from sight.  You could say that First Church’s Easter service took on a special meaning that Sunday. Just as the choir ended with "Hallelujah! Christ arose!" a voice was heard under the sanctuary shouting, "I hope all of you are out of the way, ’cause I’m coming up!" 

     Just then, the little girl closest to the aisle shouted, "Rise Jesus, rise! We’re out of your way!"

     I don’t know if that really happened or not, but I found it on the internet and it was too good to pass up. May the church say on this Easter Sunday, “Rise Jesus, rise! We’re out of your way!”

     Although nothing quite that dramatic has happened here this morning, (yet), this is still a day like no other. It’s Easter Sunday. Jesus is risen! Up from the grave he arose!

     You already heard it told to you from John’s gospel a few minutes ago.  But let’s take a moment and really think about what Jesus’ resurrection from the dead means for each one of us.

     “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.  So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

     Jesus has been dead for two days.  Mary Magdalene had been near the cross just a few days ago.  She had seen Jesus hanging on the cross dying.  She had seen his tortured body.  She had watched him breathe his last breath.  She had seen his body taken down from the cross. And she had seen the tomb where his lifeless body had been placed.

     It had been late on that Friday afternoon, and the Jewish Sabbath was about to begin as sundown was approaching.  No work could be done on the Sabbath, not even preparing a body for proper burial. That would have to wait until the next day.

     So Mary waited during the long Sabbath day, mourning the death of her master and friend, and wondering how life would ever be the same now.  What would she do next?

     Well, she couldn’t think beyond the immediate situation.  Jesus’ body still had to be prepared for a proper burial.  So, after the Sabbath day was over and early on the first day of the week, Sunday, Mary took some spices and oils to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body for burial.

     What she discovered at the tomb that early Sunday morning troubled her greatly.  You see, the stone which has been placed at the front of the cave where Jesus was buried had been removed. Something wasn’t right, so she ran to tell Simon Peter and the other disciple that Jesus’ body was missing, and she didn’t know where it had been taken.

     “Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.  The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.  He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in.  Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb.  He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. [Remember that little detail because we will come back to it a little later.] Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.”

     When Peter and the other disciple got to the tomb they each looked inside the tomb in turn and noticed that Jesus clearly wasn’t there inside.  The only thing they did see was the burial wrappings that had been put on Jesus.

     It was customary to wrap a dead body with strips of linen cloths for burial.  I imagine they wound the linen strip around and around the body.  Another strip of cloth was used to cover the face and head of the deceased.

     This is exactly how Lazarus had been buried in the story which is told in the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel.  

     You remember how Lazarus had been ill and at the point of death.  Jesus had been called to come to him, but by the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus had already been dead four days.

     Jesus came to the tomb where Lazarus’s body had been laid, and he told them to roll the stone away.  Jesus commanded in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

     And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in cloth.  Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

     You’ll notice some similarities between the two stories of being raised from the dead that John tells, but note the differences.

     In Jesus resurrection account, the stone has already been rolled away from the front of the tomb.  Also, there is no dead body in the tomb!  The only thing left in the tomb is the grave clothes, the rolled up robe. The burial shrouds have been left behind by Jesus after his resurrection, because only a dead body needs to be covered in burial shrouds!  A former dead man who has been resurrected from the dead to eternal life has no need of these old clothes.

     When Jesus was raised to new life, he left the remnants of death behind him.  Jesus defeated the power of death, and defeated it once and for all.  “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?  But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

     You see, when we place our faith and trust in what Christ has done for us, we too can share in the good news of Easter.  We can celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death.

     We can leave our burial shrouds, our funeral clothes, our death outfits behind us.

     The Apostle Paul writes this about the resurrection in II Corinthians.  He writes, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling—if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked.  For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”

     We are called to take off our grave clothes, the ones that we wore before we knew Christ, and put on our empty tomb clothes, our Easter clothes, that will remind us that we have been raised with Christ.

    In Paul’s letter to the Colossians he instructs them, “If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on the things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

     He goes on to say, “But now you must get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.  Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices, and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

     So what do we wear instead of the burial shrouds of our dead selves?  What do we wear instead of our grave clothes?

     Paul tells us, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also much forgive.  

     Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  

     And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

     Turning your lives over to God, means leaving behind the selfish, dead selves we once were, and coming alive in the eternal love of God.

     Over these past several weeks during the Season of Lent, we have been focusing on the different robes of Jesus as he journeyed to the cross. These different kinds of robes can help us to be the Easter people that God has called us to be.

     The shining robe is what points people to God’s glory and radiance. The healing robe is what reminds us that God’s healing presence is always reaching out to us so that we can be made whole. The servant’s robe is what prompts us to humbly serve the needs of others. 

     The uniting robe is what reminds us to not gamble away our faith. The honoring robe is how we honor Christ as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. The redeeming robe is what will never let us forget the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf when he died on the cross.

     And finally, there’s the living robe. The Easter robe. The robe that will never let us forget that Jesus is risen and that we are an Easter people!

     You know sometimes, I feel so sorry for you as my congregation. Some churches have really cool and hip pastors who preach wearing tapered ripped jeans and tight fitting t-shirts. They have tattoos and goatees. 

     And then there are pastors like me, traditional, worship robe wearing pastors. Sometimes I feel like a dinosaur still roaming this earth.

     This past August, I said to Penny that I wanted to buy another worship robe. You would think two robes would be enough for one pastor, but no, I wanted another one, one with a different color and a new design.

     My new robe was even custom made so it took several weeks before it finally arrived. The day it was delivered to the house was a day I will cherish forever. Like a young child waking up early on Christmas morning, I couldn’t wait to open that package when it came to our house.

     I ripped open that box, took out the robe, unfolded it, and proudly put it on. I immediately took a selfie and sent the picture to Penny who was at work. I then drove to the church and modeled it in front of the staff. “Look at my new robe!” I proudly told everyone.

     If you don’t mind, I’d be happy to give you a closer look at my new robe.

     The reason I like to wear a robe in worship is because it reminds me that I am set apart for the work of Christ. This rope that ties around the robe is called a cincture and is to remind me of how Christ was bound and arrested and then led to the cross to die for our sins.

     The stole is to remind me that I am bound by the yoke of Christ and that I need to yield to him in all things.

      I love my worship robes. They remind me, as we have been looking at these past several Sundays of the many robes of Jesus. His shining robe, his healing robe, his healing robe, his serving robe, his honoring robe, and his redeeming robe.

(Pastor Robert takes off robe, rolls it up and places it on the floor.)

     But on this Easter Sunday, the robe of Jesus that we celebrate today is the most important robe of all, the living robe, the rolled up robe.

     Because just like the angel said, “He is not here. He is risen!”

Come, Touch the Living Robe of Jesus

Small Group Questions

John 20:1-18

April 1, 2018

The word, “resurrection” means that after we die, our physical bodies will be made new again by a special act of God’s grace and will be immune from disease and death. There was a belief in Jesus’ day that this would happen at the end of time when God would raise up from the dead all of God’s people. The surprise of Easter Sunday is that God made this happen in the middle of history by raising Jesus from the dead. The resurrection of Jesus is an advance sign of what will happen in the future when all of God’s people will be given new bodies.

Is this biblical/Jewish understanding of the word, “resurrection” different or similar to your understanding? Why is it important to understand the correct meaning of this word? 

After his crucifixion, Jesus’ body would have been anointed with spices and wrapped in linen cloths and then placed in the tomb. We are told that on Easter morning, only the rolled up linen cloths were found in the tomb because God had raised Jesus from the dead.

What helps you to not lose the awe, wonder, and surprise of the Easter story even if you have heard it many times?

At the end of his sermon, Pastor Robert shared why he loves wearing a worship robe. It reminds him that he is set apart for the work of Christ and to always remember “to put on Christ” in our day to day living.

Share what helps you to remember to “put on Christ” each day.

Easter Sunday marks the conclusion of our seven week long series on the different robes of Jesus. Each robe offers particular ways for us to become more like Jesus in our everyday lives. These include the shining robe, the healing robe, the serving robe, the uniting robe, the honoring robe, the redeeming robe, and Easter Sunday’s focus on the living robe. 

Which of these robes during our series has been most interesting to you and why?