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, August 27, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (August 26) Athens First UMC

[We welcomed back our Chancel Choir yesterday after a well deserved summer break. The picture above is the choir rehearsing the anthem, “With the Voice of Singing,” by Martin Shaw. Listen to a portion of their anthem in the video below. We also welcomed back several college students as they begin a new academic year which is why the pastoral prayer has a college student focus. For the sermon, click here.]

O God, be thou our vision. 

Be thou our vision as we pursue the dreams you have placed in our hearts.
Be thou our vision as we begin a new school year.
Be thou our vision as we grow in our understanding of who we are.
Be thou our vision as we go to class and find time to study.
Be thou our vision as we balance work and leisure.
Be thou our vision as we wake up early for class.
Be thou our vision as we get adjusted to a new schedule.
Be thou our vision as we take that first exam.
Be thou our vision as we are away from our loved ones.
Be thou our vision as we decide on a career path.
Be thou our vision as we attempt to stay awake during a long lecture.
Be thou our vision as we face times of discouragement.
Be thou our vision as we seek to meet new friends.
Be thou our vision as we try to find a parking space on campus.

But most importantly, O God…Most importantly...

Be thou our vision as we seek to live out the vision that Jesus offers us through this prayer which we are invited to pray together...

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Sermon (August 26) by Rev. Robert McDowell “A Dream Fulfilled”

     This is a little risky for a preacher to do but I’m going to ask it anyway.   Is there anyone here today who has been here in worship the past twelve Sundays?  That dates all the way back to June 10th.  Proudly raise your hand if you have been here all of these Sundays since June 10th.  I have a gift I want to give to you.  I personally don’t qualify because I was away for two of those Sundays.  (Hand Out Gifts)

     I just want to thank you for your commitment to weekly worship attendance because that’s not easy to do during the summer months.  But not only that.  You also have survived the longest sermon series I have ever preached in my pastoral ministry.

     During these past twelve Sundays, we have focused on the life of David from the Old Testament.  When I first thought of possibly dedicating a whole season of the year looking at this one individual, I was worried that it would be a little too much.  I was also worried that I would run out of things to say each week.  But what I found was that so much more could have been said and covered about this one man.

     So here we are.  The final Sunday.  And I need to wrap things up.  The focus last Sunday as well as today isn’t so much on David but on his son, Solomon.  And in today’s scripture reading from I Kings, it’s all about Solomon dedicating the new Temple in Jerusalem.  Even though David has died, his name appears three times in our reading for today.  Three times.

     The first time is when we are reminded that another name for the city of Jerusalem is “City of David.”  If you remember, David had bravely claimed the city of Jerusalem as the new capitol for the people of Israel after he had taken it from the Jebusites.

     The second time David’s name is mentioned is in Solomon’s dedication prayer when he refers to a covenant that God had made with David.  And the third time David’s name is mentioned is when Solomon refers to David as his father in his prayer.

     David’s not even around anymore and yet so much about this story of Solomon dedicating the new Temple won’t let us forget the critical role David played during these glory years of Israel.

     In one of the community’s I served as pastor, I became friends with a Church of Christ pastor who had served as a pastor of his church for over 25 years.  He retired from his church during my time in the community.

     At his retirement, I paid him a high compliment when I said, “Pete, when people refer to my church, they say the Methodist Church on North Detroit Street.’  But when people refer to your church they say, ‘That’s Pete Cramer’s Church.’”  I said to Pete, “When the church is identified by the name of the pastor, you know that you’ve had some staying power.”

     Solomon may be King, but this is still called the city of David.  

     Long before the Temple actually got built, it was David’s idea.  The Temple was David’s biggest dream.  He so wanted to build this Temple especially since all of the nations surrounding him had temples for their gods.  Plus, it didn’t seem right that he was living in a luxurious palace while the Lord was without a permanent dwelling place.  But the Lord did tell him that a day would come when a Temple would be built, just not during his lifetime.  

     You know, the truth is that we don’t always get to see the results of our deepest longings and dreams in our lifetime.  They come after us and sometimes when we’re long gone.  This is definitely true about the life of David.  He didn’t get to see his dream of a Temple for the Lord and he also experienced his share of broken relationships and disappointments in his lifetime.  

     Sometimes we put David on a pedestal and forget that in many ways, he was like us.  Not everything comes together as we envision and we wonder if we’re really making a difference.

     As I’ve been thinking about this scripture of Solomon dedicating the new Temple in Jerusalem, I thought about how Temple University in Philadelphia was founded.  Penny and I were students at Temple University during my junior year in college.

     Its name is Temple, not because of any direct Jewish connection, but because of Temple Baptist Church.  And the story goes like this:

      A sobbing little girl named Hattie May Wiatt stood near Temple Baptist Church, a small church from which she had been turned away because it "was too crowded." "I can't go to Sunday School," she sobbed to the pastor as he walked by. Seeing her shabby, unkempt appearance, the pastor guessed the reason and, taking her by the hand, took her inside and found a place for her in the Sunday School class. The child was so touched that she went to bed that night thinking of the children who have no place to worship Jesus. 

     A couple of years later, this child lay dead in one of the poor tenement buildings and the parents called for the kind hearted pastor, who had befriended their daughter, to handle the final arrangements. As her poor little body was being moved, a worn and crumpled purse was found which seemed to have been rummaged from some trash dump. Inside was found 57 cents and a note scribbled in child-like handwriting which read, "This is to help build the little church bigger so more children can go to Sunday school.”  For two years she had saved for this offering of love. 

     When the pastor tearfully read that note, he knew instantly what he would do. Carrying this note and the cracked, red pocketbook to the pulpit, he told the story of her unselfish love and devotion. He challenged his deacons to get busy and raise enough money for the larger building. 

     But the story didn’t end there! A newspaper learned of the story and published it. It was read by a Realtor who offered them a parcel of land worth thousands of dollars. When told that the church didn’t have that kind of money, the realtor offered the land for 57 cents. Church members were so moved by this act of generosity that they made large financial donations. Checks came from far and wide. 

     Within five years the little girl's gift had increased to $250,000.00 a huge sum especially for the early 1900s. The little girl’s unselfish love had paid large dividends. 

     When you are in the city of Philadelphia, look up Temple Baptist Church, with a seating capacity of 3,300 and Temple University with a student population of almost 40,000.  Drive by Good Samaritan Hospital and the Temple Baptist Church Sunday School building which provides plenty of room, so that no child in the area will ever need to be left outside to learn about Jesus. 

     In one of the rooms of this building there is a picture of the little girl whose 57 cents, so sacrificially saved, made such remarkable history. Next to her picture is a portrait of her pastor, Dr. Russel H. Conwell.     

     David wanted to build the Temple during his lifetime, but it wasn’t until his son, Solomon built it that his dream was fulfilled where all of God’s people from near and far could come together for worship.  We don’t always know what a difference our dreams and our gifts make, but this story of Solomon and the Temple remind us that God is faithful.

     We have a temple like building, don’t we?  What a beautiful church building we have.  This has been a place where so many people have experienced God’s love and grace over the years. 

     In one of the churches I served as pastor, we celebrated our 200th anniversary just like this church did eighteen years ago. 

     We had a special bicentennial worship service that included several old church pictures that were put into a bicentennial video presentation. 

     After that very inspiring worship service, one of our long-time church members came up to me crying.  And with tears streaming down her face, she said with a quivering voice, “When I saw my children who are now all grown in several of those video pictures during the service, I was so thankful to God that they grew up in a church like this where they experienced God’s love.”

     This is why we build Temples, right? That’s why we exist here on South College Street. We are here to help people experience God’s love. We are here to be a haven of blessing and peace for all who enter this building.

     David’s dream wasn’t just that a Temple would get built for God someday.  David’s dream was that more and more people would come to know God’s faithfulness and love.  

     This is why in our scripture reading for today, David’s son, Solomon concludes his dedication prayer with these words, “so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people of Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”

     The famous archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple once said, “The church exists for the people who are not already in it.”  The reason why we have this Temple is to share God’s love with the people in our community.

     One Sunday morning after worship, a ten year old came up to me with her friend who was about the same age. “Pastor Robert, I want you to meet my friend.  I brought her to church with me.”  And she went on to tell her friend about one of the stories I shared in a recent sermon.  I looked at her grandmother who was standing close by and she said, “She doesn’t miss a thing.”

     This ten year old gets it.  She knows that our Temple is here for the people who are not already in it.  She knows that God loves her and she shares that love with her friends.

     Solomon’s dedication of the Temple is a good ending for our summer series on the life of David.  David’s dream came true. 

     But David’s biggest dream wouldn’t be fulfilled until several hundred years later when through his lineage, God sent Jesus to be our Lord and Savior.  Through Jesus, we can receive forgiveness from our sins, hope for our future, the promise of eternal life, and the strength to be the people God has called us to be. 

     Because of Jesus, the unthinkable becomes thinkable.  The impossible becomes possible.  We can make a difference because God looks at our heart, not at our height.  We can battle giants with a single sling.  We can grieve with hope because God comforts us.  We can claim this community for God.  We can dance because the victory has been won.  We can receive forgiveness from our sins.  And we can dream big and reach the world for Christ.  

     All of this is what the life of David teaches us us.  

     I think of all of the dreams and longings that are in our hearts as we worship together this morning. So many dreams. I can even see the little thought bubbles over each of your heads out there. OK, I really can’t, but I can use my imagination. 

     I can see that you have dreams like…

     “I want to grow closer to God.” “I want more people to know of God’s love.” “I want to serve others.” “I want my life to have meaning and purpose.” “I want to use my gifts and resources to be a blessing to others.” “I want to serve in a new way.” I want to make a difference in the world. “I want to find my career path.” “I want to have a good semester.” “I want to meet new friends.” “I want to make a positive difference in how I live my life.”

     All of these dreams and so many more that could be mentioned. 

     Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the new Temple was also a dream, a dream for God’s house to be a place of blessing for all who would come.

     When our church building cornerstone was dedicated back in 1957, the congregation had a Solomon like dream as well. Their dream was expressed in a prayer from that dedication ceremony held on April 28, 1957. The prayer was, “O God, baptize your church afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus!”

      May this dream continue to be fulfilled through you and me.

The Life of David: A Dream Fulfilled
Small Group Discussion Questions
I Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43
August 26, 2018

Today marks the conclusion of our twelve-week summer focus on the Life of David. In today’s scripture, David’s son, Solomon dedicates the Temple in Jerusalem. Even though David has died, his name is mentioned three times in this scripture passage since the building of the Temple was something David had envisioned years earlier.

When those first Methodists who started our church back in 1800 started meeting, what dreams do you think they had for their new church? Have their dreams been fulfilled at least partially? How so?

Solomon’s dedication prayer of the new Temple includes a strong emphasis on God blessing all people including those who are outside of the Jewish faith. This is similar to what the famous archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple once said, “The church exists for the people who are not already in it.”

How do you see our church or the greater church in general living out Solomon’s prayer for the Temple to be a blessing to all people and not just the people who are already in it?

This story of David’s dream for a Temple to be built for God someday reminds us of the importance to have dreams and to not give up on our dreams if they will help us to be the people God wants us to be and if they help our community and world to be a better place.

Share a dream that would like to see fulfilled one day.

Pastor Robert shared a line from a prayer that came from the dedication ceremony of our current church building which was held on April 27, 1957. Allow this prayer to be your prayer especially as we begin a new school year.

O God, baptize your church afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus!

Monday, August 20, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (August 19) Athens First UMC

[Yesterday’s sermon focused on David’s son, Solomon who asked God to give him the gift of wisdom in order to govern the people of Israel. It was a great topic to consider for our backpack blessing Sunday. The picture above is the blessing time during the 10:30 service. See picture below of how our acolyte came prepared! During our worship services, we also blessed water bottles for our annual water bottle give away for college students which will be this Friday in front of our church building from 11 am to 2 pm.]

O God, help us to be like Solomon who chose wisdom as the greatest gift he could ever receive from you. In this new school year, give us a hunger to learn and grow in our understanding of who you are and who you are calling us to be. 

Help us to be up for the challenge this year of reading, studying, and growing in our understanding of you and the world around us. Give us open minds to see things from new perspectives. Remind us that you want us to be life-long learners.

We ask your blessings to be upon students, teachers, professors, administrators, and support staff in our surrounding local schools and college campuses. We pray that this would truly be a place where we can learn and grow together.

We also give you thanks for the many learning faith ministries of our church which will be in few swing next month; ministries like Sunday School classes, bible studies, and our Growing Tree pre-school. Thank you for the many opportunities that you give us to have a learning faith. 

O God, you have placed our church in this location of this university community on purpose. We are here to be a haven of blessing and peace for all who live in this community as well as the many students who will be arriving this week to begin a new academic year.

As we get ready to give away water bottles to those who walk by our church building this week, may this simple gesture of welcome be a blessing to those who receive them. 

And so, we pray your blessings upon these water bottles, and upon the servants who will be volunteering this Friday to give them away, that all would know that we are a church with open hearts, open minds, and open doors. We pray that the welcome baskets that we will be delivering to our neighboring fraternities and sororities would be a blessing to them as well.

Like Solomon, grant us your wisdom and may this be another great year of learning together. We pray this in the name of Christ who taught us to pray….  “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Even our acolyte went all out for blessing of the backpack Sunday!]

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sermon (August 19) by Rev. Robert McDowell “The Life of David:

      Well, the first verse of our Old Testament scripture reading is a real downer because it tells us of David’s death.   We have been spending a full summer exploring this one man’s life.  I hope that we have learned a lot from this incredible man of faith.  He wasn’t perfect by any means, but he was known as man after God’s own heart.

     To help remind us of what a great person of faith David was, the author of I Kings gives us a small portion of his obituary.   He tells us, “The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem.” 

     We’re going to conclude our series on the life of David by focusing today and next Sunday on Solomon, David’s son who became the new King of Israel.  And right off the bat, we learn something very important about Solomon.  Like his father, he too wants to be a man after God’s own heart. 

     While Solomon was dreaming one night, God tells him, “Ask what I should give you.”  I know of a lot of people who would love God to say something like this to them.  I mean, how would you respond if you heard God say this to you?  

     And Solomon asked God to give him wisdom.  Good answer, Solomon!  Very impressive!   You could have asked for wealth or power or fame, but you chose wisdom.

     Maybe you’ve heard the story of an angel who appears at a faculty meeting and tells the dean that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behavior, the Lord will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom, or beauty. Without hesitating, the dean selects infinite wisdom.

     "Done!" says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. Now, all heads turn toward the dean, who sits surrounded by a glowing halo of light. After a few seconds, one of his colleagues whispers, "Now that you have been given all of this wisdom, say something wise."

     The dean looks intently at his colleagues gathered around him and says, "I should have taken the money."

     Thankfully, I don’t think that Solomon changed his mind after he asked God to give him wisdom.  Actually, I’m thinking that Solomon already had a lot of wisdom since he chose this over wealth or any other type of selfish request.  

     And here’s what is really impressive; we are told that he’s a child.  Solomon is already showing that he is beyond his years at a very young age.

     Even to this day, we sometimes use or hear the phrase “having the wisdom of Solomon.”  It’s because of this story in the Old Testament.  Jesus even refers to Solomon’s wisdom during his teaching on the Sermon on the Mount.  The words, “Solomon” and “wisdom” are closely associated with each other.

     But what kind of wisdom are we talking about?  A little later in our scripture reading, we are told that the Lord will give Solomon an understanding to discern what is right.  Wisdom isn’t just about how much information or knowledge we have.  It’s about what we do with that knowledge.

     Knowledge is important.  There are some basic things we need to know to help us make good decisions in life.  And so as a new school year begins, I want to encourage all students out there to study hard, hand in your assignments, follow directions, and be nice to your teacher.  Learning can be a lot of fun.  Make this a great year of school. 

     Parents and teachers, you can thank me later!

     Penny also shared with me of something very simple that parents can do to help their children learn. Research shows that if you read to your child even just fifteen minutes a day throughout the school year, they will vastly expand their vocabulary. And you will have a stronger bond with your child. 

     It’s a double win by simply reading to your child at least fifteen minutes a day.  

     Penny tells the story of one of her first years in teaching.  She was a first grade teacher at the time.  She asked the class what was the capital of Mexico which is Mexico City.  One of her eager first graders raised her hand and with a grin on her face said, “The letter, ‘M’ is the capital of Mexico.”

     Now that I think about it, I know all the capitals too!  Learning is meant to be fun.

     And the same is true as we begin a new fall season of Sunday School classes, bible studies, and small groups.  There is so much for us to learn together right here at First United Methodist Church.

    John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was known to tell his preachers to “read, read, read.”  Wesley also emphasized the importance of education.  

     He earned the equivalent of a PH.D. while attending Oxford and was fluent in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic.  He loved to read ancient, and classical literature which he freely quoted throughout his life.  Wesley read about the latest information on medicine and would share what he was learning with his friends.Wesley’s emphasis on education is why our country has over a hundred colleges and universities that were started by Methodists.   

     I think about Jesus and how immersed he was in the scriptures.  As a faithful Jew in the first century, Jesus was able to use his incredible knowledge of the scriptures to help people understand how God had sent him to be the one who would bring salvation to the world.  And the more that we are able to know the stories of the bible, the more that we are going to understand who Jesus is.

     So from our Gospel reading that we heard this morning, when Jesus is teaching and telling the crowd that he is “The living bread that has come down from heaven and whoever eats of this bread will live forever,” he’s referring to the Old Testament story of how God provided bread or manna to the people of Israel when they were starving  in the wilderness.

     I love when I’m part of a bible study and someone’s eyes light up when they learn something new about their faith.  There is so much more that I have to learn about the bible.  Many times, it’s somebody’s comment or insight that helps me to see the scripture in a new way.

     A long time church member came up to me and said, “You know.  I’m really glad that I’ve been part of this bible study.  It’s made me want to know more about the Bible and now I’m reading it every day.”

     There’s no doubt that knowledge is an important part of what it means to be wise.  We need to know the biblical stories, we need to be aware of the world around us, and we need to be as informed as possible.  Let’s encourage each other to keep learning and discovering new things about our faith.  That’s an important part of wisdom.

     In addition to information and content, wisdom is also about discernment and how we use the knowledge that we have.  That’s really the key in being people who are wise.  We can have all of the knowledge in the world, but unless we use that knowledge in wise and loving ways, it really doesn’t mean a whole lot.  St. Augustine from the 4th century said that all true learning starts with love.

     This is why I am so impressed with Solomon’s answer.  He didn’t just want God to give him knowledge.  In verse 9 of our scripture reading, Solomon tells God, “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”

     As followers of Jesus, we are called to be good stewards of all of the gifts that God has given us which include our finances, our possessions, our gifts, our talents, our relationships, and our minds.  Part of being a good steward with our minds is to allow God to help us to do the most loving and wise thing when faced with a complicated situation.

     I can’t even begin to tell you the number of times when I’ve been in church meetings and just when it seemed like there were no good answers or solutions to something we were facing, some very wise person came up with just the right idea.  God has blessed our church with many wise and discerning people.

     Someone shared with me about a difficult situation he was facing at work. He was dealing with a customer who was very angry and upset at something that really wasn’t this person’s fault.  Even though he said he was so tempted to get into an argument, he kept calm and didn’t lose his temper.  The situation ended up getting resolved.  God gave this church member the strength to be wise and discerning in that situation.  

     Life isn’t easy.  We all face what seem to be impossible situations.  We don’t always know which direction to take or how to approach things.  Yogi Berra, the famous baseball player known for his quotes once said.  “When you come to a fork in road, just take it.”  If it was only that simple!

     I’m pretty sure that there are many of us here today who have come to a fork in the road.  You’re facing a complex situation and it’s difficult to know what the right thing is to do.  It might be a financial decision or a medical decision or a relationship decision or some other kind of difficult decision that is causing sleepless nights and a lot of anxiety.

     Who knows, maybe young Solomon was having one of those tossing and turning nights as he was anxious about being the new King of Israel following his father’s death.  And in the middle of the night, God gave Solomon just what he needed; an understanding mind.

     No wonder the Psalmist says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  It’s when we go to the Lord in prayer that we receive the wisdom and the guidance we need.

     I sense that there are many of us here today, who like Solomon, are in need of God’s wisdom.  I believe that prayer is an important way for us to receive the wisdom and the guidance that God so much wants to give to us.  As you feel led, I invite you right where you’re seated to bow your heads for a time of prayer. 

     I don’t know what you might be facing.  Maybe it’s a relationship issue that has you tied up in knots.  Or a financial problem and you don’t know where to turn.  Or you’re worried about finding a job or how to handle a situation at work.  Or maybe you’re getting ready to start school this week and you’re a little nervous about meeting new friends and having a new teacher.  

     Whatever it is, God invites us in these next few moments to ask for wisdom and discernment in facing these difficult situations.  Let’s just take a minute in silence and listen for God’s voice.  And then I’ll close our time together with a prayer.

(Praying in Silence)

     As we continue in prayer, one of the prayers that I turn to whenever I feel lost and in need of God’s wisdom and guidance is the one I’m about to offer now.  May it be a blessing to you and may we all seek God’s wisdom, like Solomon.

     “O God, by whom the meek are guided in judgment, and light rises up in darkness for the godly: Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties, the grace to ask what you would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices, and that in your light we may see light, and in your straight path may not stumble; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

The Life of David: Good Answer!
Small Group Discussion Questions
I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
August 19, 2018

As we near the conclusion of our summer sermon series on the Life of David, our scripture this week tells us of David’s death. This sad news gives way to the story of David’s son, Solomon who becomes the new King of Israel. God speaks to Solomon one night in a prayer and tells him, “Ask what I should give you.” And of all the things Solomon could have requested, he chose to receive the gift of wisdom. Wisdom is more than simply having a lot of factual knowledge. Wisdom is using good discernment. 

Why do you think the Bible emphasizes the importance of wisdom and discernment?

The Jewish/biblical understanding of wisdom is that every new situation we face in life calls for discernment in how we read and interpret God’s Word. This means that God expects us to pray, to be open to other perspectives, to be aware of our own biases, and be willing to wrestle. In other words, applying wisdom in our lives takes effort on our part!

Share a time when you “wrestled” with what to do when you needed to make a difficult decision. How did your faith help you to use good discernment?

St. Augustine from the 4th century said that all true learning starts with love.

In what ways can we use our knowledge in loving ways?

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism encouraged his preachers to read and grow in their understanding of the scriptures.

As we begin a new school year, this is a great time to have a plan for reading the scriptures as well as other resources that can help us grow in our faith. Share a specific way that God may be calling you to increase in wisdom, knowledge, and discernment.

Our church’s disciple strategy is for each person to have a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith. Our church will be offering a bible study this fall. This is a great way to have a “learning faith.”

Monday, August 13, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (August 12) Athens First UMC

[The flowers in front of our lectern on Sunday were from the previous day’s memorial service for our Maintenance Director, Todd Bradford. During the memorial service, people shared how they will remember Todd. Some of the comments included: “He was a hard worker.” He could fix anything.” “He was a loving dad.” “He had a great smile.” It’s interesting that the title of the sermon on Sunday was “How Do You Want to Be Remembered?” Click here for the sermon. That’s an important question for all of us to ponder as we seek to be the people God has called us to be.]

O God, help us to live out the words of our prayer hymn where you invite us to still our souls. Still our souls through our grief and pain. Still our souls through the thorny ways. Still our souls as we face the waves and winds of life. 

Still our souls when we read troubling scripture passages like the one we are focusing on today from the life of David. They teach us what it means to keep trusting in you even when life gets messy and complicated. Remind us that a day is coming when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone, sorrow forgot, and love’s purest joys restored. We long for that day, O God, and until then, we will keep singing this hymn, “Be Still, My Soul.”

Still the soul of the man looking for work. Still the soul of the single parent trying to make ends meet. Still the soul of the woman waiting on test results. Still the soul of the child being raised in an uncaring home. Still the soul of the person who is trying to overcome an addiction. Still the soul of the politician who is wrestling with doing the most helpful and caring thing, rather than just doing what the majority of people want. Still the soul of our nation as we continue to struggle with the ugly reality of racism and hate speech. Still the souls of your people, O God.

You still our souls when we take time to reflect on your Word and pray. You still our souls when we serve others. You still our souls when we receive encouragement from a friend. You still our souls when we confess our sins and receive your forgiveness. You still our souls when we step out in faith knowing that you are by our side. You still our souls when we simply sit in silence. (Moments of Silence)

As this hour hastens on, teach us to pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sermon (August 12) by Rev. Robert McDowell “How Do You Want to Be Remembered”

     When I was first thinking about preaching a summer series on the life of David, I was really excited and eager to get started.  I mean, we’re talking about one of the most recognizable names in the entire Bible and all of those great Old Testament stories about him.

     Who doesn’t like the story of little David going out to fight the big bad giant Goliath with just a sling and some stones?  Or the story of how God chose David to be the next king of Israel?  Do you remember that story?  It’s when Jesse’s sons were paraded in front of the prophet Samuel.  And each of these sons looks like he would be the ideal king.  But God instead chose the least likely of the sons.  God chose little scrawny, David.  That’s a great story, isn’t it?  God doesn’t look on our outward appearance.  He looks at what’s in our heart.

     Or how about the story of brave David sneaking into the city of Jerusalem to take that city from the Jebusites and making it the capitol for a new united Israel?  What an exciting story!

     And then you have the story of David and Bathsheba, the R rated story in the bible.  It has all the makings of a summer block buster movie.  We tamed it down a little bit for our family friendly worship experience, but we did learn from that story that it is possible to resist temptation with the power of God’s grace, and if we do fall into temptation, that we can own up to our sins and receive forgiveness from God.

     These are the stories that I was looking forward to during these summer months.  But I didn’t expect this very sad and tragic story that we find in II Samuel chapter 18.  I’m not sure that too many churches are focusing on this appointed scripture reading for today.  I would venture to say that 99.9% of all preachers are preaching on one of the other scripture readings instead.

     But that’s OK because if we want to really know who David was, we need to hear as many of these stories as possible.  With just a few more Sundays to go on the life of David, we have this very, very, very sad story.  We’ve already heard it read, but allow me to set the scene of what’s going on here.  This is one of those stories that if taken out of context, we can easily miss the point.

     On the surface, this sounds like a story in which we should feel really sorry for David.  I mean, his son, Absalom has died in battle.  And upon hearing this sad news, David weeps and cries out, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom!  Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

     At first glance, this appears to be a story in which we feel great sympathy for David and so we enter into his grief.  And while there is that element to the story, it’s really much more complicated and tragic, I’m sorry to say. 

     This scripture reading is from II Samuel, chapter 18, but we need to go back to chapter 11, the story of David and Bathsheba and her husband Uriah to understand what’s going on.  As you may remember, even though David was a tremendous leader for Israel, he did a terrible thing when he committed adultery with Bathsheba.  After he discovered that she was pregnant, he had Uriah killed to cover up what he had done.

     But then the prophet, Nathan confronted David about his sin and you may remember from last Sunday that he ended up repenting and receiving forgiveness from God.  But even after David repented and received forgiveness, Nathan still told David that there would be consequences for his actions.  And that’s important for us to remember whenever we sin and ask God for forgiveness.  Admitting our sins and receiving God’s forgiveness is so central to our faith but the truth is that we also need to face the consequences from those sins.

     The title I gave that sermon on David and Bathsheba was that famous line, “O, What a Tangled Web We Weave.”  And from that point on, David experiences a very tangled web as a result of his sin, and David somehow manages to tangle things up even more.

     We fast forward several years when Absalom, who was David and Bathsheba’s son is now an adult.  Absalom finds out that his brother has sexually abused their sister, Tamar.  Mysteriously, David does nothing to bring justice to Amnon who did this terrible thing.  Absalom does the right thing by being there for his sister.  But because his father, David does nothing about this, Absalom takes matters into his own hands and kills his brother, Amnon.

     Absalom then flees Jerusalem and stays away from his father David for three years.  David ends up forgiving Absalom for murdering his brother, Amnon and has him return to Jerusalem and they are reunited as father and son.  But the story takes another tragic twist when Absalom undercuts David’s leadership to the point where he leaves Jerusalem and claims to be the true king of Israel.  And now David has to flee Jerusalem for his life.  The nation of Israel is now experiencing a civil war between David and his own son, Absalom.

     Today’s scripture reading is when David’s men were finally able to track down Absalom and kill him in battle.  To complicate matters, David’s own men are upset with him because while they are risking their lives and fighting for the unity of Israel, David’s heart isn’t with them since he’s more concerned about his son even though his son had betrayed him.

     O, what a tangled web we weave.  What a sad, sad story!

     Part of me wants to throw up my arms and ask, “Lord, what can we possibly learn from this story?”  One of the commentaries that I read about this chapter in II Samuel has this as the subtitle, “A Story in Which Everything is Wrong.”  And that is so true.  

     In this story, everybody is angry at everybody else.  David is angry at Absalom for betraying him.  Absalom was angry at his father, David for not doing anything about Tamar’s rape.  David’s fighting men are angry at David because it’s because of David’s mistakes that they have risked their lives to stop Absalom.

     Everybody is angry at everybody and it can all be traced back to the consequences of David’s sin and David’s poor leadership in all of these events.  And yet, we still remember David as a great leader of Israel and a man who was after God’s own heart.  He’s still viewed as a great biblical hero.  

     But then I started thinking about other great biblical people and was reminded that they had feet of clay as well.  Abraham left everything to follow God’s calling but he ended up doubting God and he lied to Pharaoh to protect his life. 

     Moses led the people of Israel to freedom but he sinned against God and didn’t even make it into the Promised Land. 
     Peter, probably the greatest of Jesus’ disciples, denied that he even knew Jesus.

     The reason we have these flawed biblical heroes and these very painful and sad stories like the one for today, is to show how serious and detrimental sin can be.  It’s like the biblical authors continually want to remind us of the consequences of sin.

     As I think about this sad part of David’s life, I’m reminded of another David who I have known for many years.  I always admired him. He was a great athlete and a very skilled carpenter, probably one of the strongest and toughest guys I have ever met.  

     But even with all of these great qualities, it always bothered me that David never attended church with his wife and children.  Even when his children would sing in the children’s choir on a Sunday morning, he wouldn’t come.  He kept God and the church at a distance, for some reason. 

     One day, I felt led to begin praying for David on a regular basis.  Knowing that he didn’t believe in God and that as a carpenter he often worked outside on building projects, I prayed that David would be able to see God’s handiwork on those beautiful blue sky workdays.  Even when I moved from that community, I continued to pray for David that he would know of God’s love for him and that God is real.  

     A few years later, his wife told me that he was now attending church with her and the family.  I was so glad to hear this! This was an answer to prayer!  And not only was he attending church, he was also leading a bible study in their home!  He was also beginning to lead church mission trips in Africa and throughout our country to help with building projects. 

     But even with all of these wonderful changes in his life, there were signs that something wasn’t quite right, something from his past that was unresolved.  To this day, I don’t know what demons David was battling against, but they were very, very real.

     And he ended up making some really bad decisions.  He started having an affair and when his wife finally heard about it, she was devastated.  He quit attending church and slowly drifted away from his faith.  In fact, he even said that he would never set foot in a church again.  He and his wife divorced and from that point on, I kind of lost contact with David.  That was several years ago.

     And then back in 2011, I attended the wedding of his son, but David didn’t come.  I discovered at the wedding that David, now in his early 60’s, was confined to a wheelchair and under hospice care.  The family showed me a picture of David in a photo album at the wedding.  

     The day after the wedding, I received the sad news that David had died.  It was like he gave everything he had so that he would live through his son’s wedding day, which amazingly, he was able to do in his very weakened state.

     That’s a sad story, isn’t it?  Kind of sad like the story from our scripture reading for today. We get these stories from time to time as we read through the bible.  We can’t ignore them.  They’re must be some purpose for stories like these or they wouldn’t be in the Bible.

     If David did all of these bad things, why do we still remember him as a great biblical hero?  Why would we spend a whole summer focusing on this one man from the Bible?  These are the questions I’ve been wrestling with as I prepared for this message today.  

     It’s interesting that we still hold David in high regard.   I think it’s because of at least two very important reasons.  And the first reason is that even though David really messed up during this part of his life, that doesn’t take away from all of the good he did for God and for Israel.

     And secondly, we remember David, not primarily for what he did or didn’t do, but because of the promise that God had made to him.  And the promise was that it would be through David’s lineage, that a king, a messiah, would one day bring salvation to the world.  Hundreds of years after the time of David, God sent us this Savior, and his name is Jesus.  

     And it’s through Jesus, that you and I are invited to receive salvation, forgiveness of our sins, and new life.  God kept the promise that he made to David.  Jesus wants to be our Lord and Savior.   So our sad story today eventually has a very good ending.

     Oh, and as for the story of the other David I was telling you about?  When I heard that he had died, I found his obituary online.  I was surprised to read that David’s funeral would be held in the church, the same church that he said he would never return to again.

     The obituary said that David left this earth to be with the Lord on July 31st, 2011.  It went on to say that his personal mission was to serve the Lord by going to Sierra Leone in Africa, South Dakota, Mississippi and Kentucky to build homes for those in need.  As I read this, I realized that at some point, David had made peace with God.

     And at the very bottom of the obituary, it said, “In lieu of flowers, donations in memory of David may be made to the Sierra Leone Water Drilling Fund being raised at the church.”

     Thankfully, this is how I will remember David. He will always remind me that it’s never too late to make peace with God. 

     Just like another David we all know.

The Life of David: How Do You Want to Be Remembered
Small Group Questions
II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
August 12, 2018

Last Sunday, the focus was on David’s sin by committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband killed. Bathsheba gives birth to Absalom, David’s son. Absalom ends up killing his brother, Amnon for raping their sister, Tamar. He then claims to be the true King of Israel over his father, David! This family is a mess! Our story for today is also very tragic because David’s men kill Absalom and David grieves the loss of his son who had betrayed him. 
Why do you think these kinds of very sad and tragic stories are included in the Bible?
We usually remember David as an incredible leader for Israel and the greatest king that Israel ever had but we often forget that he also had many flaws. As we are drawing near to the close of our summer series on the life of David, which story about David stands out for you the most? Here are a few we have looked at to this point: Trusting in God to face the giants in our lives. Seeking unity where there is division. Dancing and rejoicing for God’s many blessings. 
Which story of David stands out for you the most? What comes to mind when you think of David?
How do you want people to remember you? What helps you to live in such a way that people are blessed and drawn closer to God?

Monday, August 6, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (August 5) Athens First UMC

[This past Sunday felt a little bit like a homecoming. Elyse Suhay (left) and her husband, Matt moved to Indiana earlier this summer. She returned to Athens First to offer special music at both worship services (see picture below.) Jenaye Hill (right) our Office Manager was able to join us Sunday morning as well after serving the past several Sundays as the pastor of Union UMC and New Marshfield UMC. Recently, Jenaye has sensed God calling her to begin work toward a Master of Divinity degree at The Methodist Theological School of Ohio in Delaware. She will continue to serve on staff at our church as she pursues her degree. We are so glad to welcome Jenaye back to our church on Sunday mornings!]

Creator and redeeming God, you have formed each one of us in your image and you know everything about us. You know our gifts. You know our desires. You know our hearts. You also know our regrets, our fears, our brokenness, and where we have not been our best selves, the people that you have created us to be. 

Basically, you know everything about us, and quite frankly that is both awesome and scary at the same time. There are some things that we would rather keep off limits, things in our lives that we don’t want to be out in the open like what our true motives are, naming our struggles and our weaknesses, admitting that we need help, and confessing our sins, just to name a few.

And so we tend to bottle things up, making things worse for ourselves forgetting that a) your love love for us is unconditional, that b) people like David were really just like us and we can learn from them, and c) that we can risk speaking the truth about ourselves because you already know everything about us.

And so, help us to just come clean. To just come as we are. Our real selves. Thank you for this church family where we can learn to be real and to be the people you have called us to be. 

And as your church family, we lift up to you those who are in special need of you this day. For those who are broken in mind, body, or spirit. Those with grieving hearts. Those who are feeling overwhelmed. Those who are thinking about taking that next step in faith. And those who have been away from our church and who have now returned home.

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

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Elyse Suhay joining Cathy Lee and Wendy Merb-Brown offering Sunday’s special music.]

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Sermon (August 5) by Rev. Robert McDowell “The Life of David: Seeing the Real You”

     It was springtime...

     King David  of Jerusalem was at home enjoying the breeze and the view from the palace roof. A beautiful woman caught his eye.  With this introduction, we might be expecting a love story. But a entirely different story  develops.

     We remember from last week that David's setting his sights on a woman began a series of disastrous  events in his life.  David had the woman Bathsheba  brought to his palace and afterward sent her away. 

     The situation became more complicated when she sends word to David that she is pregnant.  David begins to scheme how he will resolve this dilemma. He sends for her husband Uriah who is a soldier on the battlefront. David tries in vain to get Uriah to spend his furlough with his wife Bathsheba but the loyal soldier refuses.  

     So David pursues a new plan: he will see that Bathsheba's husband is killed in the next battle and then when Bathsheba is a widow, David will add her to his harem.  The abuse, the deception, and the murder  will be hidden away. David after all is king. 

     There is one person that questions David's plan: his friend Nathan, the prophet.  Nathan loved David enough to confront him.

     Nathan speaks to his king in a manner that does not put David on the defensive. He tells David a story: a person of wealth  needed a lamb for his banquet. 

     And even though the rich man had a flock of sheep, he chose to take the pet lamb of his neighbor to be slaughtered. (The pet lamb which was like a member of the family.) This  lamb was served to the guests.

     David is filled with disgust.  What kind of person would do such a thing?  To bring such heartache to his neighbor.

     David is ready to punish the guilty party, the greedy person who  had no pity. Who has done this thing?

     And then Nathan delivers the blow:  “You are the one. I'm talking about you. “

     This becomes David's moment of  truth.

     In our day, we would say that Nathan and David had a confrontation, an intervention.

     Brad Lamm describes intervention as “interrupting self-destructive behaviors with love. We are reminding someone that we care, that we pay attention, and that we see them for what they really are.”

     Nathan risked his standing with David in order to help the king. David had much power and status, but he had forgotten that he also had boundaries. God's laws set limits for him as well as others.

     Nathan also knew that David was a man of faith, one who searched for God, and desired to follow God's ways. Nathan was not going to let David's  behavior go un noticed.

     To intervene  can be messy, and also scary because we don't know the reaction of the other person. It involves talking honestly about things that may make us uneasy.

     When we intervene, we are not condemning, or shaming, or embarrassing.

     The goal is not to destroy, but to restore. Nathan wanted David to be the great leader that he believed he could be. 

     Pastor and we’ll now Christian author, Charles Swindoll  commented that he would prefer to have a friend who cared more for his character than for his comfort. He said: “In your choice of friends, be certain that you have a few who care less for your comfort that they do for your character.”

     Most of us want to make our friends comfortable. Few are good enough friends to overlook the comfort for the good of the character. And if you have some who care more for your character than your comfort, you are rich indeed, you are many times blessed. 

     Thank goodness for good doctors. A good doctor doesn't say when she gets to an x-ray that looks questionable, “Oh.. we won't worry about this one. This is a bad picture, Let's talk good news today. Let's go have lunch together.”

     No, she snaps that x-ray on that screen and she says, “Just take a look at this. That doesn’t look good. We gotta do something about that.” And so it is with a spouse. And so it is with a parent. And so it must be with a friend.

     How did David respond to the truth?  Did he completely deny his behavior? Did he make excuses?

     Did he put the blame on others?  Did he downplay what had happened?  Did he tell Nathan to mind his own business?

      David offered no excuses, he didn't try to explain away his actions. David offered a simple confession:   

     “I have sinned against the Lord.” In Psalm 51, (believed to have been written by David in the midst of this situation) we hear from David's heart as he takes responsibility for all that has happened.  David wants his life to be cleaned up, he wants to be a different person.  

     Nathan held a mirror up to David so that he could see himself, and he did not look away.

     Virginia Satir, renown family therapist ,wrote: “Until we own all of who we are and what we have done- the good, the bad, the ugly - we can never be whole.”

     David has come to a life changing moment and he accepts the truth about himself that he sees.

     In  recovery programs which use the 12 steps, some of the steps include:

     Admitting to God, yourself, and another person the wrongs that you have done; asking God for help, and being ready to be transformed by his power. Even though David was not in a recovery group, this is the process that David is engaged.

     Within our relationships, there are times when some one is like a Nathan to us, expressing their concerns about our behavior. And other times we also may be in a position to speak to a friend as a Nathan. We all have blind spots in looking at our actions. 

     As we speak to one another, the goal is always to restore and not tear down. It may take many encounters and  consequences  in our lives before the truth sinks in. Thank God for those who care, the Nathans who help us to see where our life is going.

     A  father was on a weekend retreat for men. Before he left home, his daughter had asked him why he yelled at Mommy so much. The dad had thought about his daughter's words ever since. 

     During the retreat, he had a time of sharing with other men. He came to the harsh realization that he had higher expectations and was more short tempered and less forgiving with his wife than with anyone else. 

     He saw the pain that he was causing. With his friends' support at the retreat, he committed himself to change his behavior with God's help. And he promised to share what he realized with his wife.

     In these times of intervention, there is a spiritual mirror so that we can see ourselves as we are.

     There is also a window that reveals God's grace and love for us, great mercy in the midst of failure!

     Remember that David confessed his sins and he was forgiven.

     Like us, David still had to deal with the consequences of his past actions. Nathan told him that “the sword shall never depart from your house” and that was the reality. 

     In David's life, there would be violence and betrayal between him and his children. His quest for power and control were imitated by his sons and there was much heartache in David's future.

     Eugene Peterson wrote a book about David, “Leap over the Wall” and in it he writes that there is not much variation in sin. It is dull and repetitive. People have been doing the same kind of things for thousands of years. 

     The wrong that we do is basically our wanting to be in control of everything, regardless of what God might want for us, or how it affects others. But God's grace and love, Peterson says, that is another story: it is rich, an endless variety, and can come in so many ways to save us!!

     That is what David discovered. God is present when David's life is out of control. God is there when Nathan helps David  to see himself. God is present in David's confession and in his yearning to be a new man. God's faithfulness to David never falters.

     God  kept reminding David of his identity: a man whose heart was to be one with God's.

     God is present with us also in all our wanderings and our struggles.

     May we too accept the truth in love about ourselves and also the abundant grace of God that brings us wholeness!

The Life of David: Seeing the Real You
Small Group Discussion Questions
II Samuel 11:26-12:13a
August 5, 2018

The story of David’s sin when he commited adultery with Bathsheba and arranged for Uriah to be killed in battle reminds us of the darker side that lurks inside each one of us. Fortunately, Nathan the prophet helped David to see that he had sinned against God. 

Who are the “Nathans” in your life who care about you so much that they are willing to help you see the “real you?”

Psalm 51 is believed to have been a prayer of confession written by David as a result of his sin against Bathesheba and Uriah. This psalm invites us to reflect on our real selves and turn to God in repentance so that we can receive forgiveness. This psalm begins with an acknowledgment of God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy (v. 1), an admission of the sin (v. 3), a request to be forgiven (v. 7), and a desire to begin anew (v. 12.)

Which of these aspects of confession/forgiveness stand out for you as most important? Which ones are the most challenging?

It’s interesting that our monthly Sacrament of Holy Communion fell on the same day as this story of David’s realization of his sin. The bread and the juice remind us that even though we are sinners, Christ died for us and offers forgiveness and a new beginning.

In what ways does Holy Communion help you to see the “real you” and restore your joy (Psalm 51:12a)

Close your time by sharing in this traditional general prayer of confession:

Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.  We have failed to be an obedient church.  We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.  Forgive us, we pray.  Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.