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, July 30, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (July 29) Athens First UMC

[Pastor Robert’s sermon planning retreat was held last week in a beautiful setting along Lake Erie. The purpose of the retreat is to plan worship themes for the upcoming year. The picture above shows some of the resources to help with the planning. Not shown is all of the prayer, brainstorming, and notepads of ideas that go into this process. Even though the 2019 worship themes, scriptures and sermon titles have been developed, the actual writing of the sermons and choosing of hymns, calls to worship, and prayers happen on a week to week basis. This past Sunday’s worship and sermon (click here) were the result of last year’s annual sermon planning retreat. The picture below is the view of Lake Erie from the lake house during one of the retreat days last week. It’s easy to be inspired by God in a location like this!]

O God, our prayer this morning is for you to tune our hearts to sing of your grace. When we are tempted to wander from our faith, remind us to give you our heart, take and seal it for thy courts above.

Forgive us, O God when we allow the pull of sin to lead us away from you. Forgive us when we neglect to practice the spiritual disciplines of our faith like weekly worship, prayer, reading scripture, fasting, Christian fellowship, that can help us to receive your grace and be empowered to make wise decisions in our day to day lives.

Thank you for your grace that is always available to us in any given moment so that we can be in relationship with you. Thank you for your grace which can overcome any temptation or pull of sin in our lives. Thank you for your grace which helps us to respond as you would respond in any given situation. 

We pray for our church to be an instrument of your grace in so many incredible ways. Thank you for our Noisy Bucket offering this morning to help alleviate hunger in southeast, Ohio. Thank you for other offerings that help us to live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. O God, always remind us that we are an instrument of your grace.

As we prepare for another Athens First Saturday outreach, we pray that you would use us to be a blessing to others. Where there is brokenness, lead us to offer your healing love. Where there is a need, lead us to offer helping hands. Thank you for this awesome way that our church can be an instrument of your grace right here in Athens and in our surrounding community.

This week, remind us that we don’t need to get tangled up in the webs of sin. Instead, may we get tangled up in the webs of your grace and forgiving love.

We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ who taught us to pray together, saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Pastor Robert’s daily view from the lake house overlooking Lake Erie during last week’s annual sermon planning retreat. In addition to being a working retreat, it is also a week long sabbath of prayer, study, rest, and quiet. “He leads me beside still waters and restores my soul.”]

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sermon (July 29) by Rev. Robert McDowell “The Life of David: O What a Tangled Web We Weave”

     Several years ago, I heard someone offer a terrific sermon that included a story that I wanted to use in one of my own sermons.  I sent a short note to him asking for his permission to use this story since it was original to him.

     This gracious preacher promptly responded to my letter and in his note he wrote this funny line to me, “You always have permission to use any of my stories because the only thing original about me is original sin.”  I laughed as I read this.  “The only thing original about me is original sin.”

     If only we can all be as humble as this preacher and admit that we are all sinners.  Nobody’s perfect.  This is one of the very basic things that the bible teaches.

     Original sin is the doctrine that goes all the way back to the Book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible when Adam and Eve sinned and ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  God clearly told them to not eat from that specific tree but they did anyway.  And from that point on, every single person has been born into sin.  Sin is like this pull of gravity that seeks to keep us from having a relationship with God and to be the people we are created to be.

     You might recall the man who offered this prayer one day.  “Dear Lord, so far today I’ve been doing alright. I have not gossiped, lost my temper, been greedy, grumpy, nasty, selfish or self indulgent.  I have not whined, complained, cursed, or eaten any chocolate. I have not charged anything to my credit card....but I will be getting out of bed soon, and I think I will really need your help!  Amen.”

     One of the spiritual disciplines that I try to incorporate in my life is the spiritual discipline of fasting or giving up a meal.  Giving up a meal is not something I enjoy doing.  I would much rather read the bible or pray than I would to fast from a meal.

     I was telling this to another pastor who has much more experience than I do with the spiritual discipline of fasting.  I told him, “The reason I don’t like to give up a meal is because it makes me so grumpy and irritable during the day.”

     And I’ll never forget what he said back to me.  He said, “Oh, it’s not fasting that makes you grumpy and irritable.  Fasting only reveals what is already in your heart.”  Well, that wasn’t what I wanted to hear.

     Sometimes, we don’t even realize the ugliness of sin that lies within us.  But when we practice the spiritual disciplines like fasting, reading the scriptures, and prayer, God is able to reveal those parts of our lives where we need transformation.

     When people join the church they respond to some membership questions and one of those questions is pretty heavy.  The question is, “On behalf of the whole church, I ask you: Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world and repent of your sin”

     The church doesn’t sweep this whole sin problem under the rug or sugarcoat it.  As that preacher told me, “The only thing original about me is original sin.”

     During our summer series on the life of David, we have been learning some positive things in what it means to be faithful in following God.  

     As we’ve gone through these Old Testament stories, these stories of David have taught us to pray boldly, to be a person after God’s own heart, to allow God to comfort us during times of grief, to seek unity where there is division, to dance and rejoice in God’s goodness and grace, and to be open to receiving the gifts and blessings that God has in mind for us.

     But in our scripture reading for today, the lesson we receive from the life of David is, “Don’t make the same mistakes that I did.”  Today, we get the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba.  It’s a very tragic story that reminds us of this doctrine of original sin.  Even though David was known as a man who was after God’s own heart and he was this great king of Israel, he was still vulnerable to the gravity and the pull of sin.

     When we hear this story, we tend to only focus on David’s sin of adultery with Bathsheba, but when we look carefully at this story, we find that David didn’t just break one of the Ten Commandments, he broke at least three of the ten in just this one story!  “Do Not Covet” is one.  “Do Not Commit Adultery” is the second one.  And the third commandment that David broke was the commandment, “Do not kill.”

     This story reminds us how easily one sin can lead to another and then to another.  Walter Scott wrote the famous line, “O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”  This pretty much sums up this sad story from the life of David.

     David’s sin is great.  He commits adultery with Bathsheba while her husband was out fighting a battle for Israel.  He tries to cover up his involvement in Bathsheba’s pregnancy by having Uriah come back from battle to be with Bathsheba.  This plan backfires because of Uriah’s vow to not be with his wife until the battle is over.

     David tries to convince Uriah again by getting him drunk but that plan doesn’t work either.  So David sends Uriah to the front of the battle where he would definitely end up being killed.  And this is pretty much the end of this sad story of David’s sin.  “O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”  

     This story is included in the Bible to help us see that because of original sin, we are all prone to sin against God. Even this man who is known to be one of the greatest people in the entire bible made these terrible decisions that led to tragic consequences. 

     This story of David is a story about power and how power can sometimes lead us to sin.  Early in this story, we get a hint that something is going to go wrong when II Samuel tells us in verse one that “It was in the spring of the year, the time of the year when kings go out to battle.” 

     Even to this point, Israel has been at war and David’s job as King was to continue to lead the people in battle.  Instead of doing what a king should do, David sends Joab to wage war instead while he stays back in Jerusalem and takes it easy.  

     David, who had been such a great leader is now beginning to let power go to his head.  He thinks that he can handle things his own way.  He no longer has his focus on God.

     In his hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” Robert Robinson penned these words, “Oh to grace how great a debtor daily I’m constrained to be! Let they goodness like a fetter bind my wandering heart to thee.  Prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart – O take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.”

     Robinson wrote those words because he was known to wander from his faith because of sin.

     Like this great hymn writer and David in our scripture today, all of us are prone to wander and leave the God we love.  The pull of sin can keep us from being the people God created us to be.

     Maybe instead of just being born again, we need to be born again and again and again and again and again.  We need to be born again every day.  We need to receive God’s grace moment by moment, kind of like we need to breathe again and again and again.

     The Christian faith is not a sprint.  It’s a long journey that includes ups and downs and detours and zigzags.  But it also includes wonderful and unforgettable moments where God’s grace is present for us just when we need it the most.  All we need to do is receive it.

     You know, when new members join the church, they also respond to this question which is an important one for us to always remember, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

     We don’t have to give into sin and we don’t have to allow the pull of sin to lead us down the wrong road.  God’s grace is always reaching out to us to help us be the people we are called to be in any given situation.

     About a year ago, a friend of mine who’s a pastor was sharing with me about a situation he was facing in his church.  One of his church members was undermining his ministry by always speaking negatively about him and his family.  

     Another member of the church agreed to serve as a mediator between them.  So late one night, the three of them met in the sanctuary to work things out.  My friend said that before that meeting, he had been praying all day long to remain calm and to take the high road no matter what this member of his congregation might say in that meeting.

     Unfortunately, the meeting did not go well at all, even with the help of a mediator.  This person made accusations about my friend that just weren’t true.  I asked him, “How did you respond to her?”  And he said, “I just listened the best I could and when it was my turn to speak, I calmly pointed out that what she was saying about me just wasn’t true.  But she would interrupt me and didn’t want to hear what I had to say.”

     And then he said, “The worst part of the meeting was at the end when the mediator, sensing that this other person had no interest in working things out, said, ‘Well let’s at least close in prayer together.’  But the woman refused and said, ‘Oh, I’m not going to pray with him.’”

     And the mediator making sure she heard this correctly said, “I’m sorry, did I hear you correctly? You’re refusing to even close our time in prayer?” “That’s right,” she said in a huff.  “When I do pray for him, I pray that he’ll leave the church or something bad will happen to him.”  The mediator’s jaw dropped in disbelief at what she just heard, especially since they were sitting in front of the sanctuary altar for this meeting. 

    My friend said that he was shocked as well, but surprisingly remained calm and didn’t react.  And I asked, “How on earth did you manage that?” And he said, “Oh, believe me…It was all I could do to not reach over and…”

     I know why he didn’t reach over. Somewhere in that heated moment, God’s grace helped him to resist. 

     God’s grace is what enables us to not act impulsively even when we feel that we have been treated unfairly. Just ask my friend.

     God’s grace is what enables us to turn back to God after we have wandered from the faith. Just ask the hymn writer, Robert Robinson.

     We don’t need to get caught in tangled webs of sin of our own making. It’s not worth it. Just ask David.

     And remember that in any given moment, you and I can accept the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice, sin, and oppression. 

     Take that, original sin!

Monday, July 23, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (July 15) Athens First UMC

[Last week, Pastor Robert and his wife, Penny visited their families. The church on the left is Penny’s home church, Wesley UMC in Nescopeck, PA. The other church is Stewartstown UMC in Stewartstown, PA which is Robert’s home church. They have been blessed with church families who loved them and helped them to grow in their faith. They are now blessed to be part of a loving church family here at Athens First UMC. In Sunday’s Old Testament scripture reading, King David wanted to build a Temple for God. It was eventually built by David’s son, Solomon. Click here for the sermon. We are presently asking our congregation to respond to three questions that will be used for a fall sermon series. One of those questions is, “what does your church mean to you?” That’s a great question! We would love to hear your responses and have them by the end of August. These questionnaires are available on the guest book podium in the Welcome Center and on the back table of the Chapel.]

How do we say thank you for your many blessings in our lives, O God? How do we say thank you for sending us Jesus to be our Lord and Savior and your Holy Spirit to be our guide and comforter? How do we say thank you when we are surprised by a bright vivid rainbow that catches us off guard, reminding us of your presence?

We say thank you by whispering a prayer to you in the middle of the day. We say thank you by singing a hymn during worship. We say thank you when we offer encouragement to someone who is feeling lonely. We say thank you by traveling to Honduras to build latrines, and outdoor sinks for laundry, and pouring concrete floors over dirt floors, and for spending time with children. We say thank you when we place a gift in the offering plate. And we say thank you when we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world by having a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith. These are ways that we say thank you, O God for your many blessings in our lives.

Gracious and generous God, we pray for those who are in particular need of you this day; those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, those who are ill and concerned about their health, those who are struggling with addictions, those who are anxious about the future, those who feel separated from you.

In these moments of silence, we lift up to you others who are on our minds this day. We pray that you would surround them with your gracious presence and love… (Moments of Silence)

Gracious God, we often feel that we don’t have that much to offer to you because we are overwhelmed at just how much you have given and continue to give to us. 

And so we thank you for accepting our spontaneous whispers of praise, our presence in worship, our weekly offerings, our gifts of time, and yes, even though it doesn’t sound like very much, we also offer up to you our bologna sandwiches. 

We pray all of this in the name of Christ who gave his all and who taught us to pray saying… “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sermon (July 22) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Life of David: Trading Places”


    Like many of you, I sometimes struggle with what to buy for people when it’s their birthday or for Christmas. There’s a feeling of accomplishment when you think of that perfect gift to give to somebody.  

     But isn’t it disheartening when you forget to buy someone a Christmas gift?  Or if somebody buys you a gift and they give it to you like a couple of days before Christmas and then you’re left with a dilemma.  “Would it be tacky if I buy this person a gift?  Obviously, they’re going to know that any gift I give to them is only because they bought me a gift.” And we wonder what we’re going to do in that situation.

     Gift giving isn’t always easy.

     Someone in my family used to always get me something religious for my birthday and at Christmas.  And there’s certainly nothing wrong with religious things.

     And yet, how many praying hands book ends does a pastor need?  Or how many bible verse wall plaques are one too many?  I think I have every Chuck Swindoll and Max Lucado book that’s ever been published.

     And then we have the problem of buying for someone who seems to have everything.  These are the people who tell you, “Oh, you don’t need to get me anything.”  They think they’re being modest and polite, but it really just makes it that much more difficult for you as the gift buyer.  It would be so much easier if that person would just say something like, “You know, I could use another set of praying hands.”

     What do you get for someone who seems to have everything?

     And what can you and I possibly give to God?  Have you ever thought of that?  What appropriate gift can we give since God is the creator of everything there is? 

     About 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, King David had a tremendous desire to give God a gift.  He was living during a period of Israel’s history where things have really settled down and the nation of Israel was at peace with her enemies.

     David was aware of God’s goodness and love.  And he wanted to express his gratitude to God for all of these blessings.  And one day, he thought to himself, “What would be a nice gift for God?  What does God need?”

    As he looked around at his beautiful house of cedar, the thought came to him that the Lord should have a nice house like this.  And so David consulted the prophet Nathan that he wanted to build the Lord a Temple. 

     Nathan likes the thought of this, and tells King David, “That’s a wonderful idea.  I suggest you begin working on getting that gift idea right away.”  But there ends up being one important snag in this whole new home for God idea.  The Lord tells David and Nathan, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

     Why would the Lord turn down such a nice gift?  If you know the rest of the story, it ended up being David’s son, Solomon who built the Lord a Temple.  But why didn’t the Lord want it to be David?

     Our scripture reading from II Samuel tells us why.  It was because the Lord still had another very important gift to give to David.

    Instead of a house for the Lord, the Lord wanted to give David a house, not a house of cedar which he already had, but a house or a kingdom that would last forever.  How’s that for trading places?  The gift giver, David, becomes the gift receiver!  

     And this gift of an everlasting kingdom was not only to bless David and his family, but was also a gift for the whole world, because it would be through Jesus Christ, a descendent of David that God’s kingdom would be established forever, a kingdom of God’s love, grace, and righteousness. 

     David’s desire to build the Lord a Temple was well meaning and from the heart.  But it didn’t come close to the gift that the Lord wanted to give David.  It can be a struggle to think of what gifts we might give to God, the God of all creation.

     Many of us put an offering in every Sunday morning.  Does God want our financial gifts?

     Or maybe we attend worship and serve in a ministry through our church.  Wouldn’t these be considered our gifts to God?  Does God want us to offer our time and our physical presence as gifts?

     Well yes, but…

     I heard a Christian once say, “You know, my wife and I follow the biblical principle of tithing our income and giving it to the church.  Since we both make decent incomes, that check to the church each week is a pretty big chunk of money.  Ten percent of our income is bigger than our car payments and we have nice cars.” 

     And then he went on to say, “But when I stop to think of who God is and how Jesus Christ has changed my life, it makes my check to the church look so puny in comparison.”  

     I think this person is on to something.  Our gifts to God and the church are meant to be expressions of our gratitude for all that God has done.  Our gifts to God and the church are never meant to earn God’s favor or to pay back what God has done for us.  We can never do that.

     When we put our offering in the plate, I often feel like the man who, in a hurry to go to the church picnic, quickly grabbed a bologna sandwich and ran out the door.  Each family was asked to bring their own food to eat.  The man with the bologna sandwich sat next to a family who had this incredible spread of fried chicken, potato salad, and apple pie.

     And here, this man sat with this meager bologna sandwich all by himself.  The family, noticing this man sitting by himself graciously said, “Hey would it be ok if you share your sandwich with us and we’ll share our food with you?”  This man came with a plain old bologna sandwich, and ended up receiving so much more.

     On a beautiful fall day, just about the time when the leaves were finally beginning to turn colors, I went for a run on the bike path.  It was a memorable autumn day with blue skies and sun rays shining through the leaves of the trees.

     It was just one of those moments that I’m sure you have experienced as well, where you just say to yourself, “God is so unbelievably present in this moment.”  And as I was running, I couldn’t help but to think of how God is so gracious to us.

     What gift could I give to God in that moment as I was taking in God’s beautiful creation?  I smiled as I thought about the absurdity of trying to write a personal check to the church as I was running, even though it’s what I felt like doing in that moment to show my appreciation to God.

     I even thought about the impossibility of signing up to serve in a ministry area as I ran on the bike path, but I usually don’t carry a church commitment form with me when I go for a run.  After I was done humoring myself with these crazy ideas, a more serious thought came to me.

    There was really only one thing that I could realistically do as I ran through that splendid display of God’s beauty.  I whispered some psalms of praise to this wonderful God who blesses us again and again and overwhelms us with his grace even when all that we have is the sweat on our brow and our running clothes.

    It’s times like these that a quote from Christian author, Philip Yancey comes to mind. He said how very sad it would be if we would receive a blessing but would have no one to thank for that blessing. 

     Like when you see a beautiful sunset and have no one to thank. Or hear the good news that somebody you know is recovering from an illness and there’s no one to thank. Or that you received a gift out of the blue that you needed at just the right time, but had no one to thank. That would be sad to not be able to express our gratitude to someone.

     Maybe some of you remember the incredibly vivid and enormous rainbow that draped over Athens last year. I think it was the most beautiful rainbow I have ever seen. I was taking one of our dogs for a walk in the neighborhood when I looked up and there it was.

     Here’s a picture of it. Notice that even our dog was taking it all in. It’s times like this that we are reminded that all we can really do is say, “thank you” to the creator of the universe.

     I hear this all the time from many of you. You tell me how you signed up to serve in a ministry so that you can be a blessing to others. 

     Maybe you visited someone at the nursing home or served as a greeter to welcome people or offered a listening ear to someone who was going through a difficult time or helped in the nursery.

     You went to give a gift but you got so much more in return. You were expecting to offer a blessing but you ended up receiving a blessing.

     What a great thought the next time we put something in the offering plate. Whenever we offer our gifts to God, we are reminded of God’s overflowing gifts in our lives. 

     As a dear friend of mine who served as my spiritual mentor told me time and time again… “Robert, don’t just think about the gifts you can offer to God. Remember to also receive what God wants to give to you.”

     And the emphasize his point, he would say, “Receive! Receive! Receive!” 

     And this was someone who on a limited income gave 10% of his income to the church, went on several international mission trips, and served the church in a number of ways over the course of his lifetime. 

     But what he wanted me to remember the most was the word, “Receive.” I was thinking of him as I was preparing this sermon for today. Receive God’s gifts of forgiveness, grace, guidance, comfort, love, beauty, and salvation.  

     Like David, we offer to build God a great big house.  We bring our offerings and the best that we have, even if it’s only a plain old bologna sandwich.

     We bring it all to God.  And God gives us so much more. Thinking that we were the gift givers, we end up being the gift receivers. 

     And so, what do we learn from the life of David? We learn that when we think we have something special to give to God, God always has something even more special to give to us. We learn to trade places with the giver of all good gifts.

     And we are reminded that no matter how large we think our gifts may be, we can never out-give God, who is the greatest gift giver of all.

The Life of David: Trading Places

Small Group Questions

II Samuel 7:1-14a

July 22, 2018

During our summer series on the life of David, we have reached a point in David’s life where he wants to give God a gift. He wants to build a house for God, a Temple. The only problem is that God has something else in mind. God wants to give David a house instead. This will not be like the kind of house we think about like a house with bedrooms, a deck, and an attached garage. God wants to give David an eternal throne where his descendants will rule forever (the house of David.) This house will eventually lead to the reign of Jesus Christ who would be from the family line of David. This gift that God wants to give David will eventually lead to God saving the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In what ways can we remember to be thankful for the incredible gift of God’s salvation for the world?

As we go through our day to day living, we see signs of God’s gifts all around us like the gift of a vivid rainbow that takes us by surprise, encouraging words from someone just when we needed it the most, an unexpected gift just to name a few. 

Share a recent time when you have experienced the gift of God’s presence in a real way. We call these “thin place” moments because these are moments when heaven and earth overlap in a mysterious and beautiful ways.

Pastor Robert shared the observation that like David, we think that we are going to bless God with the offering of our gifts but God ends up blessing us even more through the giving of our gifts.

Share a time when you offered a gift or served in some way and you ended up receiving more than you gave.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (July 15) Athens First UMC

[Todd Bradford, our faithful Director of Maintenance passed away peacefully with his family by his side on July 14 following an eight month battle with an undiagnosed spinal chord condition that left him immobilized. Our prayers are with Todd’s family and his many loved ones during this time of sorrow. Sunday’s sermon was about dancing. The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there’s a time to dance and a time to mourn. We mourn the passing of Todd Bradford and yet we also remember the good news of our faith that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord, not even death. As our closing hymn reminded us, “...and the dance goes on.”]

O God, your Spirit calls us to sing and dance for joy and there are other times, when your Spirit calls us to cry out to you because of heavy hearts. And so, we begin this prayer with deep sadness because of the recent news of Todd’s passing. 

For the past several months we have been praying for Todd’s healing and we were all hoping for a different outcome. We are reminded with this news about Todd of our own mortality and of the mystery of life and death. O God, it’s in moments like this where we cry out to you and offer to you our pain. This is one of those times where we really need to trust you through all of this.

And so, our hearts especially go out to Todd’s wife, Christy; to their children, Mikayla and Evan; and to the entire Bradford family in the midst of their sorrow and grief. 

Even as our hearts are weighed down with this sad news, I think of all of the many ways Todd was such a blessing to our church. Everything from fine tuning the boiler so that we would have heat in the winter, to changing out Air Conditioner filters to cool us on hot and humid days, to hanging banners in front of our church, and all of the countless things he did behind the scenes, we are so grateful that he was an important part of our church family. 

I’m grateful, O God, for the many times when I would visit Todd and even with his very limited mobility would extend his hands to have us join in a circle prayer together. Those sacred and thin place moments of prayer with Todd will always remind me of his quiet and humble faith.

O God, we long for that time in the future when sickness, pain and death will be no more. We long for that time when we will gather around that great heavenly banquet where there will be no more sadness or tears. That will be the ultimate thin place moment where heaven and earth will be as one. 

Thank you for sending Jesus, who through his life, death, and resurrection, offers us abundant life here on earth, abundant life where we experience thin place moments in the midst of our everyday lives, thin place moments that give us great joy, thin place moments that lead us to dance and sense your peace and joy in our lives.

We pray all of this and all of the things that are deepest in our hearts and minds in the name of Jesus who taught us to pray together saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sermon (July 15) by Rev. Robert McDowell “The Life of David: Dance, David, Dance!”

     I have really been enjoying our focus this summer on the life of David.  David, who is this larger than life Old Testament figure has so much to teach us.  After just five weeks of our summer study of his life, we have already learned a lot about this great man of faith.

     The life of David has helped us to explore what it means to pray boldly, to not allow outward appearances get in the way of serving God, to know that there is no giant in our lives that is too big for God and us to handle, that when we experience a loss we can grieve with hope, and to do whatever we can to seek unity among God’s people.

     So what does David have to teach us today?  Are you ready for this?  David teaches us that it’s ok to dance.  So consider me your dance instructor this morning!

     But first, let me quickly set the scene of this time in David’s life and then we’ll see how important it is to learn how to dance in our faith.

     Last Sunday, we learned how David had become king over all of Israel which included the northern tribes as well as the southern tribes.  And to help these two geographical areas of Israel begin to feel a sense of unity and common purpose as the people of God, David strategically made the city of Jerusalem the new capitol.  

     It was a neutral place that allowed both the southern and the northern tribes to claim as their capitol city together.  And because of David’s heroic efforts to take over the city, Jerusalem became known as the city of David.

     In our scripture passage today from II Samuel, David decides to do something else to help all of Israel know that they are one people and that they are God’s people.  He brings the ark of God, which is a symbol of God’s presence, to now stay in this new capitol city of Jerusalem. 

     The ark of God is what the Israelites carried with them during their wilderness journey to the Promised Land.  In the Book of Exodus, this ark of God is described for us.  It was four feet long, two and a half feet high, and the box that surrounded it was made out of acacia wood.

     This ark meant everything to the people of Israel.  It was a symbol of who they were.  Whenever they went to battle, they took this ark with them to defeat their enemy.  And since Israel was always on the move and battling the people around them, the ark was on the move as well. Up to this point, the ark had no true home.

     And so, to help symbolize the new unity of God’s people, David has decided to retrieve the ark from where it was last located and bring it with great fanfare into the new capitol city of Jerusalem.  This was a bold move on David’s part because something like this had never been done before.  

     To add to the drama, as the ark was being carried to Jerusalem, it began to shake, and one of the men did a no-no.  By instinct, he tried to steady the ark by touching it and because of this, he died, right there on the spot.  

     This just goes to show how holy and set apart the ark was for the people of God.  You didn’t treat it casually.  It was a matter of life and death.  So the fact that David had decided to move the ark to a new and permanent location was a very bold thing for him to do, but one that he believed would help the people to serve God as one people.

     You might think that all of this was done in a very solemn and subdued way, but it was really the opposite.  And this is what is so surprising to me about this story of the ark making its way to Jerusalem.  What we have is loud and joyous music with lots of lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets, and cymbals.  This was a celebration.

     And to top it off, we have David leading the way and they’re all dancing!  David and the people were dancing!

     Several years ago, I remember taking the dogs for a walk in our neighborhood.  It was a neighborhood that had a lot of families with children.  During the walk, I began to hear someone singing and it was getting louder and louder.

    As I turned to head down a different street, there, standing in front of this house was a shy seven year old girl holding a toy microphone and singing out as if she was performing at an outdoor concert.  She was wearing a pretty dress and was showing off some well choreographed dance moves.

     Now, I had often waved to this little girl and to her parents during walks in that neighborhood, and this little girl would always look away because she was so shy.  On this particular day, she was singing and dancing to her heart’s content.  That is until she spotted me coming around the corner.

     She didn’t expect to see anybody on that quiet afternoon in the neighborhood.  I caught her by surprise.  In a matter of just a few seconds, she went from singing in front of hundreds of adoring fans at a make believe outdoor concert, to being that shy seven year old who I would often see outside playing with her mom and dad.

     As soon as she saw me, she ducked behind one of the bushes that was in front of her house.  In an instant, this rock star phenom had become a hidden statue, frozen in time.  I could tell she was embarrassed.  

     As I passed by, I told her, “You have a great voice!”  Surprised that I had spotted her, she smiled back.  I often wonder if she resumed her concert.  I hope she is still singing and dancing today.

     I feel so bad for Penny that she ended up marrying a non-dancer.  But that’s the way it goes.  If I could have two wishes come true in my life it would be to be as handsome as our organist, Jeff Daubenmire and to be a really, really good dancer.

     You’ve all seen that guy on the dance floor at a wedding reception, right?  That guy who has all those awesome dance moves and looks really cool.  I want to be that guy!

     I officiated at a wedding that was held in Cincinnati for the daughter of my best friend.  The reception was held at a beautiful park and I knew I was in trouble when I saw a huge empty space that was obviously reserved for dancing.  

     People from the wedding party pushed me on to the dance floor.  They were playing the song, YMCA where you have to form those letters.  I totally couldn’t do it.  The twenty year olds who were up there with me did great but I was always behind a couple of letters.

     But here is what I learned from that experience.  I actually didn’t care how bad my dancing looked.  We were all having fun.  My best friend and his wife were happy.  His newly-wed daughter and son in law were having a great time.  It was a wonderful day of celebration.  And it was ok to look a little silly.

     What keeps us from being like David where we feel free enough to dance and sing?  The great writer, H.L. Mencken once said that “a Puritan was someone who feared that somewhere, someone was having a good time.”  

     The reason that David let loose as the ark of God was being brought into Jerusalem was because he was celebrating the new thing that God was about to do in the midst of the people.  God was coming to dwell in this new capitol city.  God was coming to unite a divided people.  God was coming to be the true king of all of Israel.  David was celebrating the new way that God was present in their midst.

     Some years ago, I attended a community ministerial meeting.  The host pastor led the morning devotions.  And I’ll never forget what he said.  He invited us to remember that time in our lives when we first knew just how much God loves us.  And then he shared his experience.

     He said, “I’ll never forget it.  I experienced a peace in my life like I never felt before.  I knew that my sins were forgiven and that I wasn’t alone.”  And then he looked at me and all the pastors around the table and he encouraged us to never forget.  “Don’t ever forget,” he said.        

     Always remember that time when you first realized just how much God loves you.  Don’t let the demands of ministry and life ever get in the way of remembering what God has done for you and continues to do in your life.   Jesus loves you.  Never forget. That’s why we can be filled with joy.

     I don’t exactly recall what specific thing I was going through when he shared that thought with me that day, but I needed to hear that message that morning.  I left that meeting rejoicing because this pastor had helped me to remember who I was in Jesus Christ.  I didn’t dance like David, but I had a spring in my step the rest of that day.

     Friends, I’m going to do the same for you today.  I want you to remember when you first realized just how much God loves you.  Do you remember?  Never forget!  

     Don’t ever let the demands and challenges of life get in the way of remembering when you first experienced God’s unconditional love.  And when you remember, it’s ok if you want to celebrate your relationship with God in a fun way.  Rejoice in how much you are loved by God.

     Several years ago, Christian speaker and author, Tony Campolo was invited to preach at a Lutheran Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, near my home area. A few days before, he had been the speaker at a nearby inspirational music festival, and some of the young people who were at the festival decided to travel to Lancaster to hear Dr. Campolo preach there as well.  And so, because of all the people who had traveled from the festival, the sanctuary was packed with a lot of young people.

     When the Lutheran pastor began the service, he called the people to worship by saying, “Let us make a joyful noise unto the Lord! Let us come into his gates with thanksgiving and into his courts with praise!” 

     Imagine that Lutheran pastor’s surprise when someone in the balcony actually jumped up and yelled, “Amen! Hallelujah!” and started clapping.  Before long there were several hundred young people on their feet shouting praise and applauding wildly.  

     “I don’t know what the pastor was expecting when he told the people in the pews to make a joyful noise to the Lord,” said Dr. Campolo later, “But I do know that the last thing he expected was that anybody actually would!”

     But it’s not just about Lutherans because back in the day, we were known as the “Shouting Methodists.”  That’s hard to believe isn’t it? Shouting Methodists!

     Back in 1807, here’s what one new Methodist convert said about the shouting Methodists.  “At length I went amongst them, to hear them groan and shout.  I thought they were distracted, such fools I’d never seen.  They’d stomp and clap and tremble, and wail and cry and scream.”

     We are fools, aren’t we?  To dance, to shout, and to express our joy in such inappropriate ways, like David who danced all the way into the city of Jerusalem.

     Thank you David, for reminding us that God is present with us in a new way this day and in this moment!  Thank you, David for teaching us to dance.

The Life of David: Dance, David, Dance!

Small Group Questions

II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

July 15, 2018

During the first five sermons in our summer long focus on the life of David, we have learned the importance of praying boldly, to not focus on outward appearances but what’s in people’s hearts, to trust God when facing the giants of our lives, to grieve with hope, and to seek unity. In today’s story from II Samuel, David teaches us to dance.

Share a time when you felt so much joy, that you wanted to dance. Why do you think joy often leads to a physical display such as skipping or dancing?

The reason that David danced for joy was because the ark of the covenant was being brought to the city of Jerusalem which was the new capitol of Israel. This was a very joyous occasion because the ark represented the very presence of God for the people. The ark was believed to be the intersection of where heaven and earth overlap. The ark itself was a physical “thin place” moment for the people of Israel.

Share a recent “thin place” moment where you have experienced heaven and earth overlap in your every day life. 

Back in the day (like the 1800s!) we were known as “shouting Methodists” because of the joy the people would experience in knowing that God offers forgiveness, peace, and new and abundant life. 

Methodists shouted with joy. David danced with joy. How do you express your joy as a child of God?

Conclude your time together by praying this prayer together. It’s a prayer of joy.

Lord, we offer you our praise and worship.  Our souls dance before you today with unbridled joy and with unconcealed abandon.  We shout your praise for the whole world to hear.  We sing our thanks for your presence among us.  We love and worship you and we’re not afraid to show it.  Your unconditional love and saving grace in Jesus Christ are cause for celebration.  In Jesus’ name, we pray.  Amen.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (July 8) Athens First UMC

[It’s always fun when your organist’s 50th birthday falls on a Sunday! Yesterday during worship, the congregation sang a very creative rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Jeff Daubenmire using a variety of pitches and melodies so it was really just a noisy bunch of notes. That song was a great illustration of how important unity is which was our worship theme from our summer series on the “Life of David.” Click here for the sermon. When we sing together in unison, the music sounds so much better!]

Make us one, O God. Make us one.

Make us one in a world of such much diversity, in a country of so many strong opinions, in a denomination with an array of theological views, and in our relationships with people who have very different backgrounds and experiences than our own. Make us one, O God.

And so we thank you for David from our scripture reading this morning who wisely sough compromise and common ground for the sake of unity. Forgive us for turning our arguments, opinions, and perspectives into modern day idols. Forgive us for closing our minds out of fear, rather than opening our hearts into a deeper faith. Forgive us for when we have elevated our opinions over offering a listening ear. O God, in your mercy, forgive us and lead us into being the vibrant people of love and acceptance that you are calling us to be.

O God, sometimes we are so focused on seeing so much disunity that we forget to see the many signs of beautiful unity in our world, like the unity of a refugee child being reunited with her mother after being separated; like the unity of an entire world praying for the rescue of the boys who have been trapped in a cave; like the unity of our five partnering United Methodist Churches gathering together for potlucks, Holy Communion, and fellowship; and like the unity of a church where everyone is focused on one common purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Today, we offer a special prayer for those who will be leaving for the Honduras missions trip this Saturday. Bless them as they travel, as they serve, as they share your love with others, and as they make new friends. Help them to overcome language and cultural differences so that they would be one in you.

We pray this in the name of your Son, Jesus Christ who makes us one and who taught us to pray together saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Sermon (July 8) by Rev. Robert McDowell “The Life of David: One Nation Under God”

     Several years ago, I read the book, “1776” by David McCullough.  It’s a book that focuses on that very important year when our colonies were fighting for independence from Britain.

     This book reminded me of just how divided we were in our cause for freedom.  Sure, there were many who were tired and angry over British rule, but there were also many people who remained loyal to the British cause. Even beyond this major division, there was a lot diversity among the different colonies.  Each colony had its own identity, its own history, and its own needs and perspectives. It was quite a challenge for our founding fathers to bring us together as one united people.

     When it was time for our new nation to select a permanent location for our capitol, they didn’t choose Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, or New York. Choosing any one of those cities would have been showing favoritism to one colony or region.  So they ended up creating a new city that would be a symbol of our new nation.  Washington D.C. became the wise political solution for promoting unity among so much diversity.

      Like our country’s founders, the leaders of Israel faced the same challenge in trying to unify a people of so many diversities and backgrounds.  In our summer focus on the life of David, today’s scripture from II Samuel is the story of David becoming King of both the southern and the northern tribes of Israel.  

     David had been serving as king of the southern part of Israel but the northern part was being ruled by a different king.  And these two regions of Israel were at constant war with each other.  This was not the unified Israel that God had intended for his people.  

     And this was the Prophet Samuel’s greatest fear when the people of Israel had first approached him about wanting to be like the other nations and have their own king.  This is one of those, “I told you so” moments. Thankfully, there are a couple of heroes in our passage of scripture today who were brave enough to step out in faith for the sake of bringing unity to a divided nation.

     The first hero was actually some of the leaders who belonged to the northern tribes of Israel.  They were somehow able to put aside their animosity with the southern tribes and make the journey into their territory to meet with David.  

     This was a very risky political move on the part of these northern leaders.  Their political approval ratings probably took a nose dive when this trip was first announced.  But they were more concerned with unity than they were with any political fall-out for doing such a thing.

     When they arrived to Hebron, they gave David credit for leading the people following Saul’s death.  And for the sake of unity, these northern leaders anointed David to be the king for both the northern as well as the southern tribes.  

     So, the first hero was this group of leaders who risked everything to acknowledge David as King.

     And the second hero in this story is David himself.  David could have continued his rule right there in the city of Hebron in the southern territory which would have been the easy thing for him to do.  But instead of alienating the northern territory, he strategically chose a neutral city, a Washington D.C. type of city to be the new capitol for a unified people, a city that had neither southern nor northern connections.  And that city was Jerusalem.

     But there was only one problem.  The city of Jerusalem was controlled by the Jebusites, which were a people that Israel had never been able to defeat.  Defeating the Jebusites and claiming Jerusalem as the new capitol of all of Israel would be a symbol of this new unity of Israel.  This is one of the reasons why David was such a great leader.  Not only was he a man after God’s own heart, he also had a heart for the unity of God’s people.

     But David’s brave decision to conquer Jerusalem would not be easy.  The Jebusites were a very confident people and they boasted that the walls of the city were so strong that the city could even be defended by the blind and the lame.

     David’s plan was to not enter by the walls but to out-smart them by entering through the water shaft which he and his privately paid soldiers ended up doing and they were successful.  And this is why the city of Jerusalem is also known as the City of David. 

     David, along with the leaders of the northern territory who put unity ahead of politics are the heroes of this story from II Samuel.  It was because of their heroic actions, that God’s people became a united people again.  They were now one nation under God.

     Last month, I traveled to Pennsylvania to help lead a funeral service for my cousin’s wife. It was held in a beautiful Presbyterian Church where they have attended the past several years.

     After the funeral, everyone was invited to the Fellowship Hall for lunch. I was at a table with my family who I hadn’t seen in a while.

     While I was sitting there, a woman who attended the funeral came up to me and said, “I heard you say during the service that you are a United Methodist pastor. Is that right.”

     I said, “Yes, that’s right.” She said, “Well, I’m not Presbyterian but I knew Joanne really well. I attend a United Methodist Church which is just down the block.”

     Her jaws began to clench up as she continued. “So what do you think of this whole gay issue?” 

     Obviously, I knew that she was referring to our denomination’s special General Conference meeting that will be held February, 2019 to decide on the direction we will go as a denomination regarding same sex marriage and our stance on the issue of ordination as it relates to those who are gay and non-celibate.

     My family overhearing this person’s question, all turned away and continued in their conversation. It was obvious I wasn’t going to get any help from them. I was on my own on this one.

     I said a silent prayer in my heart for God to give me the words to respond to the awkward timing of her pointed question. I wanted to hear how Joanne was a blessing in her life, not enter into a discussion about the topic of human sexuality at the funeral of one of my family members.

     I could tell by her look, she wanted to know my opinion and she wasn’t going to back away. By the grace of God, here is how I answered her. 

     “Well, we won’t know anything until the General Conference meets next February to vote on this, but here is what I do know. There are probably people in your church who have strong opinions about this. I have clergy friends who don’t agree on this issue. But here is what I have learned. We can still see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ regardless of our different theological viewpoints.”

     And the last thing I told her was, “I have learned a lot about this issue just by listening to people who have a different opinion than my own. As a pastor, I want people to have an open mind and listen to different viewpoints. That’s what helps us to grow in our faith.”

     I then asked her, “Did that help?” And she smiled, thanked me and walked away.
    In that moment, it was like the Holy Spirit was reminding me that my opinion wasn’t the most important thing to share with her in that moment. And here’s why. We have it in our heads as United Methodists that if we can just get passed this particular controversial issue, we will have arrived in the Promised Land. But we all know that there are many more issues over which we disagree.

     No, what was needed in that moment was for me to encourage her and remind me in doing so that when we stop listening to each other, that’s the far greater threat to who we are as God’s people. I’d like to think that I channeled my “inner David” where unity was elevated over uniformity. 

     Several years ago, I served a church that faced a very difficult decision.  We were trying to discern if we should consider merging with another United Methodist congregation that was not that far from us. 

     Our two churches were about the same size and we thought that if we would bring our resources together and become one congregation that we would be more effective in our ministry and outreach.  Leaders from both churches served on a joint task force and after several meetings, research, and a lot of prayer, the recommendation was to merge.

     So we had a joint congregational meeting to vote in which both churches were present.  Our District Superintendent presided at this meeting which was held in the sanctuary of the church I was serving.  
    After our joint task force made their presentation and their recommendation for our two churches to merge, we voted.  We decided that for the motion to pass, we should have both congregations vote separately.  Instead of a simple majority, we recommended approval to be 2/3 for each congregation.

     I remember this like it was yesterday.  We distributed the ballots and the people voted with a simple, yes or no.  Since it would take a while to count the ballots, the District Superintendent led us in a time of singing.  I felt God’s presence as our two congregations sang together.  

     There was a spirit of unity.  The sanctuary was filled.  I remember thinking that this was why the task force was recommending the merger.  This was a taste of what our two congregations could do together as one united church.

     When the counting of the ballots was completed, the District Superintendent invited the joint task force to face the congregation.  He thanked them for all their hard work, their long hours, and their many prayers.  Everyone applauded.  I was so excited.  God was about to do a new thing among our churches.

     Finally, the District Superintendent was ready to announce the results of the vote.  He began with the other church and said that they voted 78% in approval of the merger, well above the 2/3 required.  There was some light applause but everyone knew that there was still one more church.
    Everyone was on the edge of their pew waiting with anticipation.  The eyes of the task force members were turned toward where the District Superintendent was standing.  I think I saw a few crossed fingers in the group.  Finally he announced the results that my church had voted only 54% in favor, short of the needed 2/3 approval.

     My heart sank.  And I’ll never forget the look of disappointment on the faces of those faithful task force members who had given so much of their time, energy, and hard work over the past several months.  These faithful church members who didn’t know each other very well before our meetings had started, were now close friends in the Lord.

     Tears streamed down their faces as they sought to maintain their composure.  After the District Superintendent closed our time with prayer, the spirit of excitement that had filled the sanctuary just moments before had all of the sudden evaporated.  And many of us were left in heart ache.

     That week, I remember feeling so bitter and angry toward my own congregation since we were the ones who voted it down.  I was thinking not so pleasant thoughts.  If there was any time that I would become a hell, fire, and brimstone preacher, that upcoming Sunday would have been it!  I remember feeling like I didn’t want to even be a pastor anymore and I’ve always loved being a pastor.  Politics got the best of me, I guess you could say.

     And then this evil thought came to me during that week.  As pastor, I have a lot of power.  I get to stand up in front of people and say things.  I could shame them and tell them how we had just missed out on a golden opportunity to be a stronger church.  At the least, I could drop subtle hints in my sermon to let them know of my displeasure.  

     But here’s what really happened.  God softened my heart that week.  Slowly, but surely, God allowed me to be angry, but then reminded me to use my authority as a pastor for good.   In my prayer time that week, God was telling me that something really good was going to come out of this disappointment in my ministry.

     And so, that Sunday morning during the welcome and announcement time of worship, I named the elephant in the room and I said how many of us had participated in the vote earlier that week and that the merger proposal had been defeated.  And I said how easy it will be to look at each other as a “yes” vote or as a “no” vote.  But I said, that’s not who we are.  We are one body in our one Lord.  We are not a “no” or a “yes” people.  We are so much more than that.  We are brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ.

     Now, I don’t always get it right. I have fallen into my share of unnecessary arguments where there are winners and losers. I’m not always a good listener who seeks to understand rather than be understood as the ancient St. Francis prayer reminds us. But by the grace of God, sometimes I do get it right.

     Back to my church story about the vote...Do you know that it was only a couple of months after that church vote that things began to really happen in that church?  They let me put a video screen in the sanctuary.  They voted yes for a new contemporary worship service.  It was like they gave me a blank check and said, “Let’s do whatever it takes to grow the church right here, pastor.”  And we did.  

     We experienced significant growth from that point on.  But we did it together, not as a divided body of Christ but as a united body of Christ.  God was right.  Something good was going to come out of thee most disappointing time in all of my pastoral ministry.

     And this is why David is a great man to follow in these summer months.  He’s my hero.  He, along with those leaders from the northern territory of Israel knew that unity was essential if they were to move forward as the people of God.

     And isn’t it interesting that because of David’s desire for unity among God’s people, that the last verse from our scripture reading today says, “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.” When you and I seek unity among God’s people, great things can happen.

      One of my favorite quotes comes from St. Augustine which John Wesley, the founder of Methodism took to heart in his work and ministry.  It goes like this.  “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

      May it be so.

The Life of David: One Nation Under God

Small Group Questions

II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

July 8, 2018

In this week’s summer long focus on the life of David, both the northern tribes of Israel and David who was from the southern tribes promote unity by reaching out to each other. David decides to make Jerusalem, a neutral sight, the new Capitol of Israel.

Share a time when you experienced two sides coming together to promote unity and compromise.

All of us have the opportunity to promote unity in any given situation. It’s been said that each person carries two buckets. One bucket is filled with water and the other bucket is filled with gasoline. We can either help put out a fire or make the fire larger.

What are some practical ways that we can use our bucket of water to help put out fires that threaten unity?

The last verse from our scripture reading today says, “And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.” This verse seems to suggest that good things happen when we seek unity.

Think of a practical way that you or your small group can do something intentional to promote unity where there is division and discord.