A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, May 28, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (May 27) Athens First UMC

[On Trinity Sunday, how could we not get a picture of several of our Trinity Sunday School class members? This adult Sunday School class has a long history of exploring different topics related to the Christian faith. They help our church to have a learning faith which is part of our discipleship process at Athens First UMC. For the Trinity Sunday sermon, click here.]

O God, thank you for this Trinity Sunday where we are reminded that you are not some remote deity far removed from the real world.

You are our loving and gracious Heavenly Father who became one with us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You are the one who sent us your Holy Spirit to guide, direct, and empower us along our faith journey. You are the presence of the Risen Christ in our day to day living . Thank you for the fullness, the completeness, the mystery, and the unity of your very being!

And because you are both wholly transcendent and imminently present, we are grateful that you are bigger than any problem or temptation, or evil, or challenging situation that we may face. And we’re also grateful that you are so close to us that you know what we are going to say to you even before we pray.

Hear the prayers of your people as we pray for those who are ill, those who are grieving, those who feel lost, and those who are discouraged. We continue to pray for our nation especially after the recent school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas. O God, we long for a world where children feel safe at school.

On this Memorial Day Weekend, we are especially thankful for those who have served our country in the military and who now rest from their labors. Thank you for their sacrifice on our behalf.

O God, as we begin to transition into the summer months, help us to not forget your name. Help us to remember that you are one God; Father, Son, AND Holy Spirit.

Hear us as we pray together…

Our Father, who art in heaven…

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Sermon (May 27) by Rev. Robert McDowell “What’s Her Name Again?”


      A while back, a friend of mine kept calling me on the phone to complain that people had not been returning her e-mails or her phone calls.  And because of this, she reached the conclusion, that she must be invisible.

     I think she likes to call me just to make sure that she really isn’t invisible.

     Have you ever felt invisible, where nobody seems to notice your presence?

     You’re at a meeting and as you’re reading over the minutes of the previous meeting which you attended and you notice that your name is the only name that is not included as being present.  And yet you know you had attended the last meeting.

     Maybe you were invisible at that previous meeting, you conclude.

     People say that it’s important for leaders of committees and small groups to include as many people in the discussion as possible especially since, some people are more prone to speak out than others.  But what about those other people around the table who have good thoughts, but for whatever reason, are reluctant to share them?

     And this is why you will often hear a conscientious leader say in the midst of a group discussion, “Bill, I’m curious about what you think about all of this?”  Or, “Karen, do you have any thoughts to add to our discussion?”

     I remember one time when a staff member came to me and said, “I’ve been pretty quiet the past several weeks because I’ve been going through a tough time in my life, and yet, nobody has seemed to notice.  I was wondering if anybody really cared.”

     Or have you ever tried to contact your phone company or your medical insurance company, and you end up being put on hold, and after about 30 minutes, you hear this “click” on the other end. And you realize that somebody forgot about you.  You must be invisible. 

     This morning, I would like us to think about someone who comes to our church week after week after week, and who many times goes unnoticed.  And that someone is the Holy Spirit.

     Have you ever thought about how easy it can be for us to ignore the presence of the One who has called us to gather for worship in the first place?  

     I was reading a wonderful book on preaching by Adam Hamilton who pastors Church of the Resurrection United Methodist Church in Kansas City.  And in this book, he talks about a Sunday in which he preached a pretty good sermon.  It had a clear theme, a good opening, it was rooted in scripture, and it had excellent illustrations.

     But he said, the problem with the sermon was, that he preached it without depending on the presence of the Holy Spirit.  He said that he just kind of went through the motions.  And even though it was a pretty good sermon by most people’s expectations, it lacked the presence and the power of the Spirit to bring about real transformation.

     And this has made me wonder, how many sermons are delivered that have no business of making their way into the pulpit on a Sunday morning, and yet because of the presence and the power of the Holy Spirit, awesome things happened as a result of that message.

     Now, that’s no excuse for poor planning in preaching, but it is to say that sometimes, the Holy Spirit goes unnoticed in church.  Sometimes we forget that the Holy Spirit is real and present and here in the middle of all that we do.

     Does this ever happen to you when you begin your day? You get up, drink some coffee, eat your cheerios, get dressed, go out the door, and at some point during the day, it hits you, “Oh.  I forgot all about you today God.  Sorry about that.”  

     Today is Trinity Sunday.  And particularly, it’s a day to remember the third person of the Trinity.  Oh, what’s her name again?  Oh yeah.  The Holy Spirit.  I keep forgetting.  We know the Father.  We know Jesus.  But we often forget that third member of the big three.

     How can we ever forget the presence and power of the Holy Spirit?  How can we ever worship God and forget the presence of the Holy Spirit?  I mean, it was just last Sunday, that we celebrated the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the early disciples.  And yet it’s so easy to forget her name only one week later.  What’s her name again? I refer to the Holy Spirit as “her” because the word for “Spirit” in the Bible is a feminine noun.

     If you want to read a great chapter in the Bible that focuses on the third person of the Trinity, just read Romans chapter 8.  The word “Spirit” appears twenty-two times in this one chapter alone and it is the focus of our scripture reading this morning.

     The Apostle Paul knows how easy it can be for us to forget the Spirit.  And to keep us from forgetting the Spirit, Paul tells us to do one of the most basic things we can ever do.  Pray.

     Every time we offer a prayer, the Holy Spirit connects with our spirit reminding us that we are children of God.   And once we are reminded that we are children of God – just look at the chain of events that happen.  We realize that in addition to being children, we are heirs with Jesus Christ.

     In other words, every time you and I say a prayer, we are practicing the presence of the Trinity.  We pray to God and the Spirit witnesses to our spirit.  And the result is new life because we realize that as children, we are heirs of Christ.  There you have it.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, just by praying.

     The Holy Spirit brings life.  Not just a pulse.  But life in all its fullness.

     In addition to prayer, Paul tells us something else very important about the Holy Spirit in our scripture reading for today.  He says that the Spirit leads us.  Isn’t that a great thought?  The Spirit leads us.

     And to emphasize this thought, Paul has us think back to the Old Testament and specifically to the period of time when God was with the Israelites in the wilderness following their exodus from slavery in Egypt.  

     It was while the Israelites were in the wilderness that many of them were tempted to fall back into fear because the wilderness can be a scary place.  Many of them were ready to go back to Egypt and be slaves again.  They thought that they were going to die out there in the middle of nowhere.

     And Paul says that instead of depending on God’s Spirit to guide them through the wilderness, they were more interested in depending on their own strength and upon what they could feel and touch, even if that meant going back to slavery.  At least they knew what they were up against back in Egypt.  Even after all of God’s miracles in delivering them from slavery, they still didn’t really depend on God’s Spirit to lead them to a better place.

     How was God’s Spirit at work in the wilderness?  During the heat of the day, God provided them with air conditioning, in the form of a protective cloud and during the night, they were led by a pillar of fire.  

     The Holy Spirit is not invisible.  The Holy Spirit is at work guiding and leading us to the next place that God wants us to go.

     This is both scary and thrilling at the same time.  

     Where is God calling you to go in your journey of faith?  Instead of falling back into fear, God wants us to depend on the Spirit to see us through.  

     The Christian author and speaker, Tony Campolo tells the story of a friend of his who had a layperson in his church and he was trying to help this layperson open up and let the spirit of God lead him in ministry.

     And this layperson thought of something that he could do.  He could take the youth group to a nursing home.  And so, once a month, the youth group of this church went to this nursing home and they would put on a church service for the people who were there.

     During one of those services at the nursing home, he was standing in the back of the room when he noticed an old man in a wheel chair was coming straight toward him.  When he made it over to this layperson, this old man took him by the hand and held it the entire service.

     This was repeated the next month and the next month and the next month.  Every month, this old man in a wheelchair would come over to him and hold his hand during the service.

     But one month, the old man in the wheelchair didn’t come to the service.  And so this layperson asked the nurse in charge, “What happened to that man in the wheelchair who would always come over and take my hand?”  And she said, “He’s probably going to die soon.  He’s just down the hall, the third room.  Maybe you should go in and visit him.  He’s unconscious, though.”

     This layperson went into the room and he saw all of these tubes.  It was all that he could do to keep moving toward the bed because he didn’t like the sight of all of those tubes and he was afraid of this whole situation.

     But he did make his way toward the bed, and he felt led by the Spirit to take the hand of this man and just say a little prayer for him.  He was surprised when the old man squeezed his hand and it moved him so much that he began to cry.  

     After a few moments of holding this man’s hand, he decided to leave the room and as he was leaving he bumped into a woman who was coming into the room.  

     And she said, “He’s been waiting for you.  He said that he didn’t want to die until Jesus came and held his hand and I tried to tell him that after death he would have a chance to meet Jesus and talk to Jesus and hold Jesus’ hand.  But he said, ‘No.  Once a month Jesus comes and holds my hand and I don’t want to leave until I have a chance to hold the hand of Jesus once more.’”

     On this Trinity Sunday, let’s not forget the third member of the Trinity.      

     When we come to church each Sunday, let’s not forgot the presence of the Holy Spirit. When we serve at Monday Lunch, let’s not forget the presence of the Holy Spirit. When we greet someone at the door, let’s not forget the Holy Spirit. When we have a conversation with a neighbor, let’s not forget the Holy Spirit. When we wake up in the morning, let’s not forget the Holy Spirit. 

     Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  One God. Three persons.

     Father, Son AND Holy Spirit.

What’s Her Name Again?
Small Group Questions
Romans 8:12-17
May 27, 2018

It has been said that of the three persons of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the most difficult to describe or put into words.

In your own words, how do you describe the Holy Spirit?

Theologically and biblically speaking, the Holy Spirit has been described as the presence of the Risen Christ.

Share a time where you have sensed the Holy Spirit (the presence of the Risen Christ) in your life. What was that like?

In Romans chapter 8, the Apostle Paul mentions the word, “Spirit” twenty-two times! To help us not forget the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, he encourages us to pray. When we pray, our spirit connects with God’s spirit (Holy Spirit) which reminds us that we are children of God (God, the Father), and that we are heirs with Jesus Christ. There you have it! The doctrine of the Trinity just by praying! Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Take time to think about your prayer life. How does prayer help you connect with the Holy Spirit?

In Romans chapter 8, the Apostle Paul also connects the Holy Spirit to the exodus story from the Old Testament where the Spirit led the Israelites through the wilderness by protecting them with a fire by night to help them see and a cloud during the extremely hot days to protect them from the sun.

Share a time when God guided you through a difficult time in your life and share how you were able to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Close your time together by praying this prayer:

Forgive us, O Lord, when we allow ourselves to doubt. We sometimes forget that you are with us, present through your Holy Spirit. Remind us that there is nothing impossible to those who hold fast to their faith in you. In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit, we pray. Amen.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (May 20) Athens First UMC

[Part of our Pastoral Prayer on Pentecost Sunday included prayers for the people of Santa Fe, Texas impacted by the recent school shooting. We prayed for the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit to blow through our land to overcome violence with peace, hatred with love, and despair with hope. See the full prayer below. Click here for the sermon, “A Spirit-Filled Church.]

Spirit of the living God, thank you for being our church’s batteries and power source. Thank you for Pentecost Sunday and for reminding us of the many ways that we are a Spirit-filled church.

Like a sailboat in need of wind, we are always in need of your Holy Spirit to lead us forward. Sometimes it feels like a strong wind that pushes us forward to help us grow in our faith. Other times, it’s more of a gentle breeze that helps us to renew our faith.

Thank you for the presence of your Holy Spirit this past week that gave us just the right words to share with a grieving family, that prompted us to invite a neighbor to church, that strengthened us to make a difficult decision, that calmed us during a very stressful situation. Thank you for your empowering Spirit in our lives and through the life of our church.

On this last Sunday of Sunday School for our children and youth, we give you thanks for all of the teachers who served this past year. Thank you for their commitment, their love for children, and for their creativity. 

As we near the end of the school year, we especially pray for the Santa Fe, Texas community in the aftermath of the school shooting this past Friday. We pray for the mighty wind of your Holy Spirit to blow through our land overcoming violence with peace, hatred with love, and despair with hope.

Spirit of the living God, we don’t necessarily know where you might lead us or how you might prompt us to follow you as we begin a new week. We do know that your Spirit will empower, guide, direct, instruct and comfort us in whatever we might face. 

May the fire of Pentecost burn brightly in each of our lives as we continue to be a Spirit-filled church.

As your Spirit-filled people, we join together in praying the prayer that Jesus taught us to say together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Sermon (May 20) by Rev. Robert McDowell “A Spirit Filled Church”

     One year, I had the privilege of offering the sermon at a non-denominational church in the community where I was serving as pastor. It was a growing church that was reaching a lot of unchurched people. 

     You could sense the Holy Spirit at work through the pastor and that congregation. Having attended one of their worship services on one of my vacation Sundays, I knew that the congregation was very expressive during worship.

     Many lifted their hands during the worship music. Some shouted words like, “Amen,” or “Preach It,” during the sermon. They were a very expressive and Spirit filled church.

     On the Sunday, that I preached at this non-denominational church, I began my sermon by telling them that it was an honor for an introverted mainline Methodist preacher like me to be invited to such a growing Pentecostal congregation.

     After the sermon, the pastor of this congregation thanked me for my message, but then offered this little bit of criticism. He said, “I wish you wouldn’t have called us a Pentecostal Church, because a lot of our people don’t like that word. It carries too much baggage. We want to simply be known as a Spirit filled church.”

     I haven’t forgotten what this pastor told me. “We want to simply be know as a Spirit filled church.” What a great description of a church. “We want to simply be known as a Spirit filled church.”

     I wonder how much we think of Athens First UMC as a “Spirit filled church.” And what does that even mean to be known as a “Spirit filled church?” 

     Does it mean that we raise our hands during a hymn? Does it mean that we speak in tongues? Does it mean that we dance in the aisles?

     Actually, I don’t think it has anything to do with any of these things, although once in a while, you might see somebody lifting their hands or tapping their foot during a worship service here. There isn’t just one way to express ourselves in worship, that’s for sure.

     The important thing is to be aware that the third person of the Trinity is in this place. The Holy Spirit is in this place whenever we gather.  

     We are part of a Spirit-filled church in which the Holy Spirit fills this beautiful room every time we meet.  For Jesus said, “wherever two or three are gathered, there I am in the midst of them.”

     Isn’t it great to be part of a Spirit filled church?

     We all long to be the best church that God is calling us to be.  Somebody recently shared with me a tongue in cheek “Disciple Model Church Kit” that you can get through the mail.  Wouldn’t it be great if it was that easy?

     This Disciple Model Church Kit contains a perfect pastor, a highly efficient, totally organized, fully mature governing board, representing the diversity of the congregation.

     This kit also contains the perfect congregation which consists of 273 members.  48 of these members are 55 years and older but extremely healthy.  95 members ages 40 to 54 who all work more than 60 hours a week but are also able to devote ten hours or more a week to the church.

     85 members are ages 25 to 39 most of whom are raising bright, well-behaved children who sit quietly in worship.  45 members are ages 18 to 24 mostly single, but they all love traditional music and old hymns.

     In addition, the kit contains, 27 - 15 to 17 year olds.  33 – 12 to 14 year olds.  49 – 6 to 11 year olds.  43 – 2 to 5 year olds.  And 32 kids in the nursery.

     A supplemental kit contains modular pieces which allow you to build the sort of physical plant you wish, including: a sanctuary with movable pews and chairs on wheels.  A fellowship hall that can convert into a home theater complete with stadium seating.  Classrooms which can only expand.

     And for an additional cost, a pastor’s study can also be included, providing a place for the pastor to work on sermons and have meetings.

     This kit requires some assembly. Batteries and power source not included.

       I was almost ready to order this kit until I read that last line, “Batteries and power source not included.” 

     Pentecost Sunday is the day for us to remember that a disciple model church kit is really useless when it doesn’t come with a power source. And that power source is the Holy Spirit. 

      Two thousand years ago, a handful of Jesus’ disciples were gathered in an Upper Room. And in the middle of someone’s prayer for God to send His Spirit, the floor began to rumble, some dishes fell off the table, some candles flew across the room, and each of them held on for dear life as this powerful wind was thrust upon them.

     And then what looked like little flames of fire started to dance around them until there was a little flame over top of each person in that room.  Not one person was left out, Luke is sure to tell us.  

     All had received the flame of God.  And Luke tells us that each disciple was filled with the wind of God’s Spirit. God sent his mighty wind upon his gathered disciples. 

     Seven days ago, a group of teenagers gathered in a different Upper Room, also known as the 3rd floor of a large church located along South College Street in Athens, Ohio. Like that first Pentecost, it got a little windy that night as a storm blew threw the area.

     They had gathered to discover how the Holy Spirit is present throughout the entire church, and not just one small part of it. And so the Holy Spirit led them on a tour of the place. They called it the Fruit of the Spirit tour. Fruit that every Spirit-filled church has in large quantities. 

     The first stop was right where they began, there in the Upper Room, I mean the 3rd floor. And when they looked out one of the windows, they could see the surrounding neighborhoods below and how the Holy Spirit is leading the church to love their neighbors.

     A Spirit-filled church overflows with the fruit of love.

     The next stop on the Fruit of the Spirit tour was the large sanctuary where some of our youth spelled out the word, “Joy,” another fruit of the Spirit. This is where we experience the joy of worship every Sunday.

     A Spirit-filled church overflows with the fruit of joy.

     And before they continued to the next room, they looked back and saw the large cross in the sanctuary and they were reminded that this is also a space where we experience God’s peace. Some have said that this church is to always be a haven of blessing and peace.

     A Spirit-filled church overflows with the fruit of peace.

     The Fruit of the Spirit tour continued when they noticed a large clock in one of the rooms near an elevator. These young disciples were reminded that the Holy Spirit helps us to be patient in our faith as we seek to remain dedicated in following God.

     A Spirit-filled church overflows with the fruit of patience.


    Next on the Fruit of the Spirit tour was the large church kitchen. This room in the church reminded the youth of all the kindness that is done in this space, especially all the meals that are made to feed the hungry.

     A Spirit-filled church overflows with the fruit of kindness.

     The Fruit of the Spirit tour then continued in the long Sunday School/Growing Tree Preschool hallway.

     It was during that part of the tour that the young disciples noticed the Sunday School quilt made by children and the Growing Tree preschool children’s handprints. These are symbols of God’s gentleness expressed through the lives of our little ones.

     A Spirit-filled church overflows with the fruit of gentleness.


     The Holy Spirit then led those young disciples back to the Upper Room where they encountered God’s goodness through enjoying some Fruit of the Spirit salad and dominos pizza. The Spirit feeds us with good things.

     A Spirit-filled church overflows with the Spirit of goodness.

     Next on the tour and in that same room, they noticed the large wooden cross and a small prayer rock. The little praying angel reminded them of God’s gift of being faithful in praying.

     A Spirit-filled church overflows with the Spirit of faithfulness.


     The Fruit of the Spirit tour then led them down to the front entrance of the church, the Welcome Center. This is the place where Connect Time is held that always offers lots of pastries and desserts in between services. This reminded them that after one or two of those sweets, it’s important to remember that God offers the gift of self-control.

     A Spirit-filled church overflows with the Spirit of self-control.

     The Holy Spirit filled had filled the entire house where those teenagers had gathered just one week ago. I want to say thank you to our youth and our youth leaders for reminding us that we really do have a Spirit-filled church, a church that is filled with the fruit of the spirit; 

     Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

     The fun part about being part of a Spirit-filled church is to celebrate the many ways that the Spirit is active in the life of the church.

     Like even in just this past week alone. Here are a just a couple of examples in addition to our youth group’s encounter with the Holy Spirit last Sunday night.

     Last Sunday after worship, one of you introduced me to a friend you brought to church with you. When people are inviting people to church, that’s a sign of a Spirit-filled church!

     This past Monday evening, people from our partnering United Methodist churches gathered for a covered dish meal and shared in Holy Communion together at Pisgah United Methodist Church. 

     The Spirit was present in that 1836 church building as Rick Seiter and his organist led us in a joy-filled hymn sing and together we joined each other in a circle and shared praises as we offered the bread and the cup to each other.

     When Christians join in fellowship with other churches, that’s a sign of a Spirit-filled church!

     This past Tuesday, Jenaye Hill and I conducted a funeral service for an elderly man who was originally from this area but had moved out west several years ago. He wasn’t connected to our church, but the family told the funeral home that they wanted a Methodist preacher to conduct the service. 

     During the service, Jenaye and I were able to tell the family and friends of their loved one that they were all lifted up in prayer earlier that morning by our Tuesday prayer team. We also gave them grief support books to share with each other and to help them in their grieving process. 

     Athens First, you provided these books thanks to your support of our Stephen Ministry outreach. 

     When a church has caring ministries like Stephen Ministry and a prayer team that meets every single week to lift up prayer needs, that’s a sign that it’s a Spirit-filled church.

     And just this last little way that the Holy Spirit is present in this place and this happened this morning. Every Sunday morning, before the start of our first worship service, a group of people join with me in the sanctuary to pray for our morning together. 

     They pray for all of you to be blessed through our worship services. And they pray for me to preach an above average sermon. 

     This is just another sign among many that we are a Spirit-filled church.

     And that’s just this past week alone. I wonder how the Holy Spirit is going to blow through the church this upcoming week. I’ve learned that there’s no such thing as a normal week when you serve in a Spirit-filled church.

     A few months ago, a friend of mine visited here for worship one Sunday morning. He had never been to our church. It was his first visit. I had a chance to talk with him in our Welcome Center following worship that morning.

     His first words to me after the service were, “I can feel the Holy Spirit in this place.” 

       From the third floor and all of the way down to our kitchen, and all the other rooms in between, I agree with my friend. The Spirit is in this place.

     I can feel it, too.


A Spirit Filled Church
Small Group Discussion Questions
Acts 2:1-21
May 20, 2018

If you were in charge of putting together a “Disciple Model Church Kit” that included all the accessories needed for a perfect church, what would those things be?

Pastor Robert shared that the most important thing a “Disciple Model Church Kit” would need is the Holy Spirit. The story of Pentecost reminds us that without the Holy Spirit, the disciples would not have been able to boldly proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ and include more and more people into the life of the new church.

Share a specific way that you sense the Holy Spirit at work in your life and in the life of the church.

It was shared in the sermon that a thriving Spirit-filled church is overflowing with the fruit of the Spirit that includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

Where do you see these 9 important fruits of the Spirit at work through the church? What are some specific ways you might incorporate this fruit in your own walk with Christ?

Close your time together by praying this Holy Spirit/Pentecost prayer together:

Almighty and everlasting God, your Holy Spirit came to the saints in Jerusalem. You came in the form of a rushing wind and tongues of flames that filled the entire place where the disciples were gathered. We welcome the flame of your Spirit to fill our lives in this moment. Come, Holy Spirit, come! Amen.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (May 13) Athens First UMC

[During worship yesterday, we announced that a staff member, Rick Seiter will become the pastor of Chesterhill UMC on July 1. He will continue to serve as pastor of Pisgah UMC as well as serve on the staff of Athens First. Since he will be pastoring two churches, he will not be available at our church on Sundays but his responsibilities with us will remain the same. We announced two months ago that our Office Manager, Jenaye Hill agreed to become the pastor of Union UMC & New Marshfield UMC. Our goal is to form a partnership with our five churches. Pray for God to open up opportunities for our churches to share in ministry together. Click here for yesterday’s sermon.]

Risen Christ, thank you for the good news of Easter and the empty tomb. Thank you for the many signs of your presence during this Easter season.

Help us to be patient this week as we wait upon your Holy Spirit to come upon us when we gather here next week for Pentecost Sunday. As we wait upon your Holy Spirit to fall afresh on us, we lift up to you all of those who are in particular need of you this day. 

On this Mothers’ Day, we especially lift up to you our mothers who have given us life and love.

We pray for mothers who have lost a child through death, that their faith may give them hope.

We pray for women, though without children of their own, who like mothers have nurtured and cared for us.

We pray for mothers, who have been unable to be a source of strength, who have not responded to their children and have not sustained their families.

Loving God, as a mother gives life and nourishment to her children, so you watch over each and every one of us. 

We pray this in the name of the Risen and Ascended Christ who taught us to pray together saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sermon (May 13) by Rev. Robert McDowell “On a Need to Know Basis”

     We knew that somebody would finally have enough courage to ask the big question, the question that they were just dying to ask Jesus.  Actually, Luke tells us that the disciples came to Jesus as a group.  Maybe this was their version of an intervention, who knows.

     “Someone has to name the elephant in the room.  C’mon, let’s get it out in the open.  You know we’re all wondering when it’s going to happen.  Lord, is this the time when, well, you know, when…when, it’s all going to happen?  When Israel will finally be free from foreign rule?  We’ve been with you three years and now it’s been 40 days since the empty tomb, and we’re still wondering, ‘Is this the time?’”

    Now, you can’t blame them for asking him this question.  It’s just that you can’t say it too loudly, or the powers that be might get wind of it, and believe me, they won’t be afraid to answer it for you.  And they’ll answer it in a way so that you’ll never ask it again.

     “So Lord, just tell us.  I mean, we weren’t going to bring it up, but now you’re telling us that you don’t want us leaving Jerusalem and we’re supposed to wait even longer.  We’ve been waiting!  When is it going to happen?”

     I don’t think it’s difficult for us to identify with the disciples in this passage.  We might not be asking the exact same question of the disciples, but we still want to know when things are going to get better.

     Is this new tax plan really going to do anything for the people who need it the most? Are we ever going to get beyond the threat of a nuclear war? Is peace in the Middle East ever going to be a possibility? Are the Reds ever going to make it to the playoffs?

     “Is this the time, Lord?”  

     One of the things that I like about our faith is that it encourages us to ask questions like this.  At the heart of our faith is an anticipation of how God is at work in making this world a better place.  It’s when we stop asking questions like the one the disciples asked Jesus, that we should get really concerned.  

     When people are asking questions like this, at least I know there’s a sense of hope and that we still believe in what the Apostle Paul says in our Ephesians scripture for today, “what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

     Having said that, I’m also not so sure that the disciples were on the same page with Jesus when they asked him this question.  Knowing the disciples and knowing the political climate of the 1st century, I think that their idea of God’s kingdom and Jesus’ ideas of God’s kingdom were going in different directions.

     For the disciples, I think they were still thinking in terms of Israel regaining their dominance and superiority over other kings and rulers.  But for Jesus, I think something much greater was at stake.  For Jesus, the Kingdom of God would be that time when all of creation, and not just Israel would live in peace and where all people would be drawn into God’s family.       

     Now, on some level, I think that Jesus and the disciples weren’t that far apart in what they meant when they were talking about the kingdom of God.  Even the disciples would have known about the messianic promises of a future day when the world would be totally filled with peace, justice, and righteousness.  And certainly, when the disciples asked Jesus their question, “Is this the time?” it was pretty obvious to them as it is for us today, that as glorious, wonderful, and surprising as Easter and the empty were, the world around them hadn’t really changed all that much. 

     The Romans were still in charge, and besides, if you even have to ask the question, then it’s pretty certain that God’s kingdom hasn’t quite arrived yet.

     This was the puzzling question for those first disciples of Jesus.  Jesus’ resurrection and his appearances to them over the past 40 days were proof enough to them that he was truly the Messiah, the promised one who was to come and bring peace and justice to the world. But why didn’t the world look any different since the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection?

     This is one of the big reasons why people of the Jewish faith do not believe that Jesus is the long awaited Messiah.  In fact, this is probably one of the big reasons why people in general find it difficult to believe that Jesus truly is the Messiah.  Messiah and changed world are supposed to go hand in hand.  

     So how does Jesus respond to the disciples’ question, “Is this the time?”  Jesus tells them what they didn’t want to hear.  “It’s not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.”

     That’s sounds like something my mother told me many times. “It’s not for you to know.” Whenever our children had a question like why is the sky, blue or how does electricity work, I would always say, “Just ask your mom. She knows.” Penny was google before google was invented. 

     “It’s not for you to know.” Or to translate it a bit differently, Jesus was basically telling the disciples, that they were on a need to know basis, and for now, they didn’t need to know.   Notice that Jesus didn’t say that there question wasn’t important.  Nor did he tell them that this is about as good as the world is going to get.

     He simply says that it’s not for us to know the times or periods when the world will be set aright. Every year, it seems like some quote, unquote religious expert sets a date for when the world will end. After the date comes and goes without anything happening, they give a new date and then that date comes and goes.

     In our scripture reading from Acts, Jesus is reminding us to not worry about dates.  If we spend too much time trying to figure out when that time will come, we’ll miss out on doing our part in the present moment.
     If we are on a need to know basis, what does Jesus want us to know in this present moment, on this Ascension Sunday?

     Here’s really all that we need to know:

     The first thing the scriptures want us to know is that Jesus is the King of kings. Presidents come and go. World leaders come and go. But this king isn’t going any where. This king is seated at the right hand of God and is the one who extends grace and love upon the whole world. 

     That’s the first thing we can know. Jesus is the King of kings and will always be the King of kings. 

     The second thing we need to know is that God hasn’t given up on establishing his kingdom on earth.  Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to give up on their silly dream that one day the world will be transformed and made new by a special act of God’s grace. 

     Ever since God created the world and called it good and then sin entered the world bringing sin, pain, and death, God has been on a rescue mission to reclaim and renew it.  Through forming a covenant with Abraham and the people of Israel, through the sending of judges, kings, and prophets, and ultimately through the sending of his own son, Jesus Christ, God has sought to bring healing, love, and justice to the world and not allow sin, evil, and death to have the last word.

     That future hope of a world reclaimed by God is at the heart of the biblical story.  It’s the controlling theme that runs throughout the scriptures.  That God created this world and will one day rescue it. 

     This is the second thing we need to know.  That God hasn’t given up on establishing his kingdom on earth.

     The third thing we need to know is that God wants us to be part of the transformation of the world.  Back to our Acts passage of scripture; after Jesus tells the disciples that it’s not for them to know the times or the seasons when God will bring his kingdom to bear on this earth fully and completely, he tells them that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them.

     And through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives, they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth.

     The message here is clear.  The reason Jesus is putting us on a need to know basis, is because he wants our focus to be on transforming the world now and to not spend our time wondering about some time in the future.

     Until that day comes when God will reclaim all of creation and make it new, we are to be diligent and faithful in allowing the Holy Spirit to use us to bring transformation to the world in the here and now.

     And the final thing that we need to know; we can have an assurance that we belong to God.  For forty days following that first Easter morning Jesus appeared to the disciples many times and so the disciples knew that Jesus truly was the Messiah, the one who had long been promised to come into the world to bring salvation.

     And now, as Jesus was preparing to leave them, he reminds them that the Holy Spirit will come upon them to not only help them to change the world, but to also give them an assurance that their lives have been transformed as well.

     A couple of weeks from now, we will celebrate the anniversary of when John Wesley, the 18th century founder of Methodism, went to a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Street in London, England, and felt his heart strangely warmed.

     It was on that day, that Wesley knew without a doubt that his sins had been forgiven and that he belonged to God.

     This is the wonderful thing about our Methodist faith.  We believe that we can have an assurance in any given moment, that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have been made whole and are transformed people.

     When Jesus ascended, he didn’t leave the disciples alone.  He promised them that they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

     So on this Ascension Sunday, consider yourself on a need to know basis.  And here’s what you need to know.

     Jesus is the King of kings. Always has and always will be. God hasn’t given up on establishing his kingdom on earth.  God wants us to be part of the transformation of the world in the here and now.  And in any given moment, we can have full assurance that we belong to God.

     Like the disciples, maybe we know more than we thought. Of course, there’s still a lot that we would like to know. And I get it.

     What’s heaven going to be like? What will our world look like a year from now? What about my health? What problems will come my way? Will the gifts I offer through the church really make a difference and how will I know? 

     Those are all great questions that will be answered in God’s good time. And all you really need to know right now…All you really need to know is…

     Jesus is Lord.

On a Need to Know Basis
Small Group Questions
Acts 1:1-11
May 13, 2018

We celebrated Ascension Sunday which is when Jesus ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of God. Jesus ascended to his throne and will return one day to make all things new.  The disciples didn’t understand all of this at the time which leads them to ask this question in our New Testament reading, “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’” – Acts 1:6
Share a question that you would like to ask Jesus.
This dialogue between Jesus and the disciples shows that our questions are important. It’s through our questioning that we dig deeper in our faith. We might not always get the easy answers we’re looking for but the questioning and wrestling in our faith can lead us closer into the heart of God. Jesus does help us to focus on the things that we already know thanks to the scriptures. These include 1) Jesus is the King of kings. 2) God wants to establish his kingdom on earth. 3) We belong to God!
Share at least one way that you can remind yourself of these three very important parts of our faith on a regular basis. Why do you think we sometimes forget about these important aspects of our faith?
One of the ways that we can remind ourselves of these important aspects of our faith is to be open to those times in our everyday lives where we see God at work. As we await for Jesus to return and set up his rule over all creation, there are many signs of his presence all around us.
Share a recent time where you experienced the King of king’s presence in your day to day living. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (May 6) Athens First UMC

[We received eight new members and celebrated a baptism yesterday during worship. The new members are holding gift bags that contain a bicentennial church plate, a United Methodist teddy bear, and a membership certificate. There is a common thread in their responses as to why they decided to join. They all felt welcomed and accepted by our congregation. Let’s continue to be an inclusive church that welcomes all. Click here for the sermon.]

O God, you do offer wonderful words of life. You offer words that offer healing, comfort, guidance, good news, rest, and yes even challenge.

Thank you for how you speak to us through the stories, parables, proverbs, psalms, and letters that we find in the Bible. Help us to hear your word as people would have heard it when it was first written. And help us to hear your word afresh in our day and age.

O God, we confess that we so often interpret your Word through our own perspectives. Help us to be aware of those assumptions and to be willing to dig deeper in our faith. With open minds, we seek to listen to your voice to be the people you have called us to be.

Thank you for those who helped with our finals week study tables here in our church this past week. Thank you for all the good we were able to do yesterday on the sabbath through our Athens First Saturday outreach. Thank you for all our volunteers who will be providing hospitality for our Foothills district worship service this evening. 

We pray your blessings to be with our District Superintendent, the keynote speaker, those who are providing special music, the greeters, the ushers, those preparing refreshments, and all of the churches that will be represented here in our church tonight. May we be a haven of blessing and peace for all who enter here.

We also lift up to you all of those who are in need of healing, guidance, assurance, and comfort. Bless and encourage all who are in need this day.

We pray all of this in the name of the One who taught us to pray together, saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Sermon (May 6) by Rev. Robert McDowell “The Bible Tells Me So”


    What’s your favorite day of the week? When people answer that question, they usually go with a day that is the least stressful.

     One of the weekend days is a favorite choice because for many people, it’s the end of the work week. Wednesdays are popular because it’s also known as “hump day” when the weekend isn’t that far away.

     We preachers might be the only ones who like Mondays until we realize that we have another sermon to write. 

     Penny and I love it when we have a free Saturday morning together. That’s our time to sleep in and then go for a walk in a park with the dogs. 

     I kind of feel bad for Tuesday. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of love for Tuesdays. 

     In Jesus’ day, there was no question which day was the favorite. It was Saturday, the Jewish sabbath. 

     The Sabbath was the 7th day of the week when God rested from creating the world. It’s also a big deal because it’s the only day of the week that makes it into the Ten Commandments. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

     What does it mean to keep the sabbath holy? It means don’t work. 

     But what does that mean? How do you know if something is work or not? Am I not allowed to check work related emails? What about mowing the grass? Or moving furniture?

     I started out in ministry as a student intern at a church. I was a seminary student. I was only at that church for ten months when another church opened up, one that was closer to the seminary so I took it. 

     I only had one day to move out from our apartment which was next to the church where I was serving. It was a Sunday afternoon and Penny and I were loading up the U-Haul truck when the Senior Pastor of that church stopped by to inform me that it was the Sabbath and I shouldn’t be doing that. 

     With sweat dripping off my forehead and with a little snarkiness in my voice, I kindly told him that he was off a day because the Sabbath was actually the day before if he wanted to get technical about it. He left from that little conversation muttering something not so nice about me.

     Sometimes we use the Bible to meet our own ends. For example, I was using the Bible to defend myself for moving out on a Sunday. This Senior Pastor was using the Bible as one last dig at me because he was upset I was moving to this other church. 

     And by the way, I get it. Even though the Sabbath is really referring to Saturday and not Sunday, this Senior Pastor was not happy with me because we both knew that most people think of the Sabbath as Sunday because that’s the day we go to church.

     And in today’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees were using the Bible to prove their point as well. The Bible clearly says that we are not to work on the Sabbath. 

     Before we get too critical of the Pharisees, you gotta hand it to them. They are being biblical. And they have been noticing how Jesus seems to have a complete disregard for following this commandment.

     They even catch Jesus’ disciples picking grain on the Sabbath and they call him out for it. By the way, this happened way before the whole WWJD craze. Back then, it was WWPD. What would the Pharisees do?

     Well, the Pharisees would do whatever their interpretation of the scripture would tell them to do and they expected others to fall in line. And their understanding of observing the Sabbath meant to not pick grain even if you are hungry. 

     Jesus has a very different approach to interpreting scripture and specifically on this topic of obeying the commandment about observing the Sabbath. He points out how one of their heroes of the faith, King David from the Old Testament didn’t have a problem with feeding his fighting men on a Sabbath when they were hungry. 

     And they didn’t just pick grain from a field like Jesus’ disciples had done. David and his men actually went into the house of God and ate the bread of presence which was seen as holy and sacred.

     By reminding them of this story from the scriptures, Jesus isn’t just being snarky with the Pharisees. He’s trying to help them to see their own bias in how they were interpreting scripture.

     But let’s face it. We’re all biased. We all have our own lenses in how we think the scripture should be interpreted. That’s why we need Jesus who is able to help us see scripture beyond our own biased views. 

     Notice how Jesus uses the Bible itself to show that there is more than one way to look at a commandment or a bible verse. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus said began each of his teachings with the phrase, “You have heard it said, but I tell you.”

     Our tendency is to want the Bible to be an answer book that clearly spells out exactly what we should do and believe on any given topic, but that’s not how the Bible works. 

     What the Bible does is to invite us to enter into the scripture, study it, think about what it meant in the time that it was first told, reflect on our present day context and how it might speak to us, and be aware of our own biases on how we think it should be interpreted. And then to pray about it and wrestle with what is God wanting to say to us today through that scripture.

     If you we can do all of those things with a spirit of humility, integrity, intentionality, self-awareness of our biases, prayerfulness, and Christ likeness, and I know that’s a mouthful to say, then we will be well on our way in seeing how the scripture relates to us in new and fresh ways.

     This is what Jesus is teaching us to do in reinterpreting the meaning of observing the Sabbath. But it’s just not how we interpret what it means to obey the Sabbath. It also relates to how the church has wrestled with all kinds of issues over the centuries like the issue of slavery, the issue of women in pastoral ministry and leadership roles, divorce, dancing, card playing, and today’s current debate regarding human sexuality.

     Peter Enns is a Bible scholar and he’s written the book, The Bible Tells Me So. In his book, he makes this important point: “The Bible is not a Christian owner’s manual but a story—a diverse story of God and how his people have connected with him over the centuries, in changing circumstances and situations.”

     Our Gospel reading this morning is a great example of this. It’s scriptures like this that remind me that every generation needs to roll up their sleeves and wrestle with what the Bible is saying to them. I can’t just rely on how my grandmother read and interpreted the scriptures throughout her lifetime. I can learn from how she applied it to her life based on her life experiences, but then I need to see it in light of my own. 

     As the famous Christian quote says, “God has no grandchildren,” just children who are called to live out our faith in our own day and age. That is both challenging and exciting at the same time and how awesome that we get to help each other do this together.

     My new favorite prayer is one that I stumbled upon a couple of months ago. It’s actually a prayer found in our United Methodist hymnal. It’s meant to be prayed before we read a scripture passage. Here it is:

     “From the cowardice that dares not face new truth, from the laziness that is contented with half-truth, from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, Good Lord, deliver me. Amen.”

     I can’t think of a better prayer to say before reading a scripture passage. 

     Many of you might be aware that our Council of Bishops will be unveiling their recommendation this summer regarding “A Way Forward” with regard to our denomination’s stance on homosexuality. Our Council of Bishops can only recommend because in our denomination, only the General Conference which will meet in February and includes clergy and laity delegates from all over the world can take official action on these kinds of issues.

     Currently, our Book of Discipline states that United Methodist clergy are not permitted to officiate at a gay marriage. It also states that those who are openly gay and non-celibate are not permitted to be ordained ministers.

     I mention this because this issue of how to interpret the scriptures related to human sexuality is a perfect example of how the church is not of one mind on this. We’re not of one mind because people have different theological perspectives on how the scriptures should be interpreted. I have several clergy friends who are on different sides of this issue.

     My point is to not debate this issue here, but to highlight it as the pressing issue facing our denomination today as it relates to our interpretation of scripture. I also mention it to invite you to continue to pray for our Council of Bishops as they prepare to make their recommendation public this summer.

     It’s not just the issue of human sexuality that we are called to discern in our day and age. It’s a whole host of issues. The Pharisees thought that their biblical interpretation of what it means to obey the Sabbath was clearly the correct way, the only way to look at it.

     And so, immediately after the Pharisees confront Jesus about his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath, a man in need of healing approaches Jesus in the synagogue, also on a Sabbath. 

     You know, the day where the Bible clearly says that you’re not allowed to do any work, even if it means healing someone. The Bible tells us so, right? Or does it?

     Once again, Jesus turns their understanding of what is allowed and not allowed on the Sabbath upside down and heals this man. 

     I wish this story would end with the Pharisees having an open mind and praising God because of this new understanding of the Sabbath, but it’s actually the opposite. In their attempt to remain biblical, this is when Mark tells us that they began to conspire with the religious leaders to destroy him. Long held biblical beliefs even if they are misguided don’t die very easily.

     Several chapters later in Mark’s Gospel, we will find Jesus in an Upper Room with his disciples. 

     You know, those same twelve men who apparently violated the Sabbath commandment when they picked grain from the fields, at least according to the interpretation of the Pharisees? 

     It would be during that Passover meal when Jesus would reinterpret the scriptures yet again. This time, he will have the audacity to go off script and say “this is my body broken for you.” He would also say, “this is my blood shed for you.” Sometimes, when it doesn’t sound very biblical, it really is.

     This is the challenge to each of us whenever we read the Bible. We are called to interpret the scriptures with the mind of Christ. And that means with all of our heart, with all of our mind, and with all of our strength as one bible verse puts it.

    How do we know that? Because the Bible itself tells us so.

The Bible Tells Me So
Small Group Discussion Questions
Mark 2:23-3:6
May 6, 2018

What is your favorite day of the week and why?

In Jewish thought, the Sabbath (Saturday) is the most important day of the week because it reminds us that this is the day that God rested after creating the world. It was also believed that if everyone observed the Sabbath by not doing any work that God’s kingdom would fill this earth. This is the main reason why the Pharisees didn’t like it when Jesus’s disciples picked grain on the Sabbath. They also viewed any healings on the Sabbath as work.

Do you think we should observe the Sabbath today by not doing any work? How do you define “work?” 

As Jesus so often does, he reinterprets scripture. He points out that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath. Jesus would also begin many of his teachings with the words, “You have heard that it was said...but I say unto you...” Jesus was helping us to see that the Bible should be interpreted in a more wholistic way and not in a very narrow and rigid way. 

Can you share any examples of where you have seen the Bible interpreted in a very narrow and legalistic way?

Bible scholar, Peter Enns offers this quote to help us interpret various passages of scripture:  “The Bible is not a Christian owner’s manual but a story—a diverse story of God and how his people have connected with him over the centuries, in changing circumstances and situations.”

The Pharisees who were seen as the most biblical people  in their day were convinced that they had the only correct interpretation of scripture. One of the ways that can help us to be more open minded in how we approach scripture is by praying this prayer found in our hymnal. Pray this prayer together as a group:

From the cowardice that dares not face new truth, from the laziness that is contented with half-truth, from the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth, Good Lord, deliver me. Amen.