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

Sunday, September 30, 2018

Sermon (Sept. 30) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Heart Healthy: Our Relationships”

     Do you like Country and Western songs? Sometimes these are called “somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs.” You might have heard the joke that if you play a country song backwards you get back your truck, your dog, your job, your spouse.     

     Perhaps these lyrics are popular in our culture because they acknowledge our difficulties with relationships, but they also speak from the cynical or negative aspects of our culture. 

     In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul encouraged the church to think more positively.  Specifically, Paul encourages us to consistently think on things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, and praiseworthy (see Philippians 4:8). But our cynical culture makes it hard to focus on these things, doesn’t it? Sometimes, even the church struggles to shift focus from the cynical and negative. That’s why we began a journey last week to consider matters of the heart.

     From the great Shema of the Torah in Deuteronomy to the teaching of Jesus found in John 13, this focus on loving relationships is at the root of the scriptural values of our faith.  

Deuteronomy 6:4-6. Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. (NRSV)

John 13:34-35. “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

     In the Christian faith, we attend to the teaching of the Shema in the context of the teaching of Jesus. One of the ways we express our love for God is through our love for one another. This is a clear expectation of our faith. Do you ever find this difficult sometimes?

     If it helps any, Jesus found this very difficult throughout his ministry.  At the heart of his ministry was to love people but he encountered all kinds of resistance, especially from his religious peers.  

     When he tried to heal somebody on the Sabbath, somebody complained that he was violating one of the Sabbath laws.  When he tried to touch somebody who was bleeding, they accused him of becoming religiously unclean.  When he talked about loving your enemies, they became angry at him.  

     Some would say that it was because his heart was totally filled with love for God and neighbor, that people wanted him to be crucified.  When you live in a cynical culture where people are suspicious of each other, it’s kind of hard to follow the ways of Jesus, isn’t it?

     Relationships are a vital part of our spiritual journey.  Today, we thank God for people who have invested in us with their time, guidance, and unconditional love.  Thanks to their extravagant generosity we have been richly blessed. And because of their positive impact, we want to do the same for others.  Relationships that are from the heart are born out of extravagant generosity.  

     Last month, we were invited to share those who have made a positive difference in our spiritual lives.  It’s been pure joy for me to read your responses these past several weeks.  Here is a sampling of what I read:

     Our Trinity Sunday School class and my United Methodist Women’s Circle group.

     My small group where we regularly meet to share our faith and discuss the past Sunday’s sermon and how it connects with our daily lives.

     My mom – She did the most good she could while living a very ordinary life.

     My family, ministers of the church, and the church staff.

     Someone wrote this about another church member. This person is always ready to offer support and prayers for us who need them.

     I love how this person responded. She mentioned several Christian authors who have had a positive influence and her husband.

     This church member had a really long list that included thirty-two of your names! He also mentioned several ministry teams that have been a blessing in his life like Telecare callers, choir members, bell choir members, Athens First Saturday volunteers, people on the Missions Team. 

     Someone else mentioned how our prayer team and the small group this person attends has been a positive influence.

     I love how someone else shared about his father who would read from the Bible every Sunday evening and then they would pray and sing hymns while his mom played an old pump organ.

     Speaking of family members who have had an important impact on our spiritual journey, there are some of us who have been blessed to have family members in this church over several generations.

     One of those families is the Dowler family. I’ve asked John Dowler to come and share how his family has been a blessing to him spiritually through Athens First.

     My name is John Dowler. Many of you have known me for over 36 years now. That’s because this church has been a part of my life from the day I was born and part of my family’s life for over 75 years. My grandfather John W Dowler laid the foundation for the building that we are standing in today. My Grandmother Aveline Dowler was deeply involved in the united Methodist women for 40 years +. They baptized and raised 4 kids in this church one of which was my father Jack Dowler. 

     My dad was involved in many aspects of the church from being a trustee, to helping start the mens breakfast group, to singing in the choir, to being a delegate at annual conference. After marrying my father my mother moved to a strange town where she knew no one but she was warmly welcomed into this church and quickly made to feel at home as she became involved with the womans society, ran countless rummage sales, made Easter baskets for shut ins and so much more. 

     From the day I was born I have been a part of this church. I was baptized right over there, confirmed over there and performed in more plays, skits, and choir singing then I can count right there. During my life this church and its programs like Sunday school, bible school, and youth groups has provided me a place to have great experiences, make some amazing friendships, learn about God and grow in my faith. 

     That’s a connection that I wanted my child Isabella to know. That’s why a little over a year ago she became the 3rd generation to be baptized in this church. I know that this church and this congregation will help her learn and grow just like you did for me.

     I want you all to know that your generous financial investment enables the church to move forward, fund ministries that touch lives, and make a difference in our church and community. But more importantly, your generosity is an important way you can express your love for God and grow in your faith.

     Thank you for sharing your faith journey with us, John.  Extravagant generosity is all about relationships from the heart.

     My mother passed away six years ago.  She struggled with dementia for about ten years before she died.  Until the very end of her life, she was able to attend her home church, the Stewartstown United Methodist Church, in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania.  I used to take her to church with me when I would go in to visit.  And yes, we always sat in the same pew together.

     The visitation and the funeral service for my mom were both held at the church.  During the funeral visitation, this one lady who appeared to be in her mid 50’s came up to me and said, “You don’t know me but your mom had such a positive impact on my life.  She is why I joined this church a few years ago.”

     She went on to tell me that about five years ago, she attended the church for the first time.  She sat in the same pew as my mom.  During the welcome and greeting time in the service, mom introduced herself and warmly welcomed her to the church.

     She told me that she felt so welcomed because of my mom that she came back the next Sunday.  And again, my mom welcomed her during the greeting time.  Mom didn’t remember her from the previous Sunday because of her dementia, but she again welcomed her and shared her name.

     This happened the following Sunday as well.  And this woman said to me, “It was that Sunday, that somebody explained to me that your mom had dementia which is why she kept forgetting that she had already met me.  But it didn’t matter,” she said.  “Your mom was so sweet to me and I decided to make this my new church home.”

     I thank God for all of the many relationships that are formed in our church.  Those conversations that take place in our Welcome Center or out in the hallways in between services, or in Sunday School class, or in the pews during the welcome time, help our church to feel like a family.  

     The teenager that you invited to McDonalds for a coke will never forget how you reached out to them and offered your love and support.  The member you sent a sympathy card to at the death of a loved one is still propped up on the corner of his desk reminding him that his church cares about him.

     These are the ways that we live out the two great commandments that Jesus encouraged us to keep at the center of our faith.  Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.  It’s pretty simple isn’t it?  Relationships are a matter of the heart.  Relationships remind us that we don’t stand alone.  We are here today because of the people who have gone before us and the people who surround us in our faith journey.

     In his book, Practicing Extravagant Generosity, Robert Schnaase describes how practicing Extravagant Generosity is a basic part of our faith because we ourselves have been recipients of Extravagant Generosity.  Listen to what he writes:

     Every sanctuary and chapel in which we have worshiped, every church organ that has lifted our spirits, every pew where we have sat, every Communion rail where we have knelt, every hymnal from which we have sung, every praise band that has touched our hearts, every church classroom where we have gathered with our friends, every church kitchen that has prepared our meals, every church van that has taken us to camp, every church camp cabin where we have slept—all are the fruit of someone’s Extravagant Generosity. 

     We have been the recipients of grace upon grace. We are the heirs, the beneficiaries of those who came before us who were touched by the generosity of Christ enough to give graciously so that we could experience the truth of Christ for ourselves. We owe the same to generations to come. We have worshiped in sanctuaries that we did not build, so to us falls the privilege of building sanctuaries where we shall never worship.

     Think of all the people who have made a difference in our spiritual lives. Consider an appropriate way to express your appreciation of these gifts of grace in your life.  You might want to thank someone who was there for you and who prayed for you during a very difficult time in your life.  That’s the church at its best.  And we can’t help but to offer our best gifts to Christ and his church because of the many gifts we have received from others and the incredible difference they have made in our spiritual journey.  

     One of my favorite rooms in this church is the archives room located up on the 3rd floor. It’s a small room that contains historical records and pictures of our church’s long history, a history that spans over two centuries!

     Every now and then, I’ll rummage through some of the items in that room and find something that reminds me of the many faithful people who have gone before us to help make our church what it is today.

     This past spring, I was doing just that and found a copy of the 1957 Cornerstone dedication service of our current building. It was held on a Sunday morning in April of 1957. The congregation was worshipping at Memaud on the OU campus at the time while our church was being rebuilt following the 1955 fire.

     It wouldn’t be until February of 1958 that the church building would be completed and the congregation would be able to worship for the first time in this building. 

     On that April morning, ten months before they would have their first worship service in this building, the congregation walked over from Memaud to the front corner of our present day building for a special dedication of our cornerstone.

     Friends, I have chills thinking about this because we are going to show you a short 2 minute video clip of that dedication ceremony narrated by John Dowler’s grandfather who was an instrumental leader in the rebuilding of our church. 

     This all kind of came together at the last minute when John Dowler who you heard earlier in our sermon told me this past Thursday that he had this video of his grandfather talking about our church’s cornerstone dedication back in 1957.

     Let’s watch the video clip of that cornerstone dedication service that was held in April of 1957 in front of our present day building.

     That service included a prayer that I found when I was in our archives room. I love this prayer and I invite us to reclaim it as we seek to have a heart healthy church. The prayer is simple: “O God, baptize us afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus.”

     Say that prayer with me. “O God, baptize us afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus.”

     In commemoration of that special day back which was held on April 28, 1957, I invite us to pray this simple prayer every day at 4:57 pm. The 4:57 time is to remind us of the 4th month of April, 1957 when this prayer was first spoken.

     Let’s say this 4:57 prayer again: “O God, baptize us afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus.”

     I think of all of the ministries that were started because of the people who have worshipped here. I think of the generosity of so many people who have made it possible for us to enjoy this beautiful place and to grow in our faith.  I think of the many prayers that have been lifted up in this place over the years.  We are blessed in more ways that we can even imagine.

     When I was in college, I attended what was then known as the Central Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church.  I wasn’t a delegate at this conference, but I attended as a visitor.

     I ended up sitting near a pastor who had served my home church several years ago.  His name is Rev. John Wesley Stamm.  That’s a great name for a United Methodist pastor, isn’t it?  John Wesley Stamm.  

     Not thinking that he would remember me, since I would have just been born when he was the pastor of my home church, I told him my name.  I was taken aback when he said, “Oh yes.  Robert McDowell.  I remember you.”  And then with great joy he said to me, “I baptized you.”  He then told me that I was his very first baptism as the pastor of that church.  

     How’s that for a good memory?  And how blessed I felt in that moment that he remembered me.  Thanks to Rev. Stamm and my baptism, I was able to begin a faith journey with Christ that begins through this day.  And along that journey, many people in that church helped to shape and mold me to be a disciple of Jesus.

     I am so glad to be part of the family of Christ! O God, baptize us afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus.

Heart Healthy: Our Relationships
Small Group Questions
Deuternomy 6:1-6, Philippians 4:8-9, & John 13:31-35
September 30, 2018
This week is the 2nd part of a sermon series on what it means for us to be “heart healthy.” Last week, we explored how to have a spiritual healthy heart through our ministries and this week our focus is on healthy relationships. Over the past month, we have invited the congregation to share their response to the question, “who has made a positive impact on your spiritual journey?”
Share who has made a positive spiritual impact in your life.
Our scripture readings emphasize how important love is in having heart healthy relationships. In Deuteronomy we are told to love the Lord with all of our heart, mind, and strength. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells us disciples to love another another. In Philippians, the Apostle Paul encourages the church to think positively. 
What helps you to remember to remember that love is the most important ingredient in a healthy relationship?
 In his book, Practicing Extravagant Generosity, Rober Schnase describes how practicing Extravagant Generosity is a basic part of our faith because we ourselves have been recipients of Extravagant Generosity. Listen to what he writes:

Every sanctuary and chapel in which we have worshiped, every church organ that has lifted our spirits, every pew where we have sat, every Communion rail where we have knelt, every hymnal from which we have sung, every praise band that has touched our hearts, every church classroom where we have gathered with our friends, every church kitchen that has prepared our meals, every church van that has taken us to camp, every church camp cabin where we have slept—all are the fruit of someone’s Extravagant Generosity. We have been the recipients of grace upon grace. We are the heirs, the beneficiaries of those who came before us who were touched by the generosity of Christ enough to give graciously so that we could experience the truth of Christ for ourselves. We owe the same to generations to come. We have worshiped in sanctuaries that we did not build, so to us falls the privilege of building sanctuaries where we shall never worship.
What stands out most for you from the above quote?
Pastor Robert has invited us begin praying a prayer that was part of the cornerstone dedication of our current church building back in April 28, 1957. We are encouraged to pray this everyday at 4:57 pm which will remind us of the April, 1957 date of our church’s dedication. This might be a good prayer to also pray as a small group:
O God, baptize us afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Sept. 23) Athens First UMC

[We just began a 4-week worship focus on having a “Heart-Healthy” faith through our ministries, our relationships, our hopes, and our commitments. For this 1st Sunday, one of our members, Stephanie Gyasi blessed us by sharing her testimony with us at both services. We also shared some of the responses from a recent church-wide questionnaire. We will be hearing more responses and testimonies throughout the series. To read Stephanie’s testimony as well as responses from the questionairre, click here for Sunday’s sermon, “Heart-Healthy: Our Relationships.”]

Generous, gracious, and all loving God, your many blessings surround us at every turn each day. 

From the flocks of geese flying in perfect formation into the beautiful southeast Ohio sunrise, to the three fawns walking innocently through our yards, to the warm welcome we received when entering the church, and through the reading of scripture that offers the good news of your forgiveness through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, you reveal your overflowing love to us again and again.

How can we ever just go through the motions of our faith when you offer us these and so many other blessings each and every day? How can we ever just keep our faith to ourselves when we receive so much from you?

Like our scripture reading from I Timothy, help us to always respond to your amazing grace in our lives through doing good, being rich in good works,  generous, and ready to share.

As we begin our four week church wide journey on what it means to have a heart-healthy faith, teach us what it means to be generous through our ministries, our relationships, our hopes, and through our commitments. Help us to be the generous people you call us to be.

Thank you for the many ways that you invite us to be your generous people. We are humbled to think of all the good that is being done for the people who were in the way of Hurricane Florence through our denomination’s United Methodist Committee on Relief. Thank you for helping us to do more together than we could ever do as one congregation. We truly are a people of heart-healthy ministries throughout the world.

And so, with hearts ready to do good, rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, we join together in praying the words you taught us to pray together as your one united people…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Sermon (September 23) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Heart Healthy: Our Ministries”

     As we begin our new church-wide focus called “Extravagant Generosity,” we’re going to be focusing on our spiritual health.  The phrase, “heart healthy” is something we hear a lot.  We know that it’s important to eat heart healthy foods and take care of ourselves.  During these four weeks, we’re going to be focusing on our spiritual heart health.

     What’s your pulse rate like today?  Do you know how to take your pulse?  Go ahead and let’s try it.  Can you feel your heart beating?  That’s always a good sign!

     In our scripture reading from I Timothy, the Apostle Paul provides a way for us to take our spiritual pulse.  Paul writes that a healthy spiritual life includes extravagant generosity which will be our theme.  He writes, “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”

     And right before this verse, Paul explains why people who are spiritually healthy are generous and ready to share.  It’s because they understand that God is the original generous giver.  They give in response to what God has done for them.  And when spiritually healthy people are consistently conscious of God’s many gifts, they can’t help but to do good, be rich in good works, be generous, and be ready to share.  

     I’ve been thinking about this scripture from I Timothy a lot and asking myself, “Does this scripture describe me?  Does this scripture describe our church?”

      Recently, we have been invited to respond to the question, “What do you love about your church?”  We received many responses from that questionnaire and I want to thank you for taking the time to let us know your thoughts. Over the course of the next three Sundays, I will be sharing several of your responses to the various questions from that questionnaire.

     But first, I want to invite one of our members, Stephanie Gyasi to share what she loves about our church.  Stephanie and I got to talking at a school event and I asked her what she likes about our church since she attends every Sunday. What she shared with me melted my heart and I asked her if she would be open to sharing her story with you.

     Stephanie, thanks for being willing to share what you love about Athens First.

     My name is Stephanie Gyasi I grew up in Logan, Ohio and have lived in Athens for the past six years. I will be sharing a little bit about what brought me to the church and what made me feel welcome here. I was raised in a Methodist church my whole life in Logan. After my daughter was born I decided I wanted to look for a church in the area, so I turned to the internet and googled United Methodist Churches and chose to try the one that was the closest to my house. 

     In April 2013 me and my daughter Laikyn who was 2 months old at the time came to First United Methodist for the first time. For me being a quiet, shy introverted person it can be hard coming somewhere new. The first Sunday we came to church there was a lot of things that reminded me of my previous church in Logan. After the service I was approached by a woman that introduced herself to me as Wendy Merb Brown. She was very welcoming, Shared things about the church, and talked to my daughter. She made me feel very comfortable and welcome in the church. 

     Following that first Sunday me and my daughter continued to keep coming to church and meet other wonderful people and Wendy would always introduce me to many people. In November 2014 when my daughter was baptized Wendy stood up front with me and my family this made me feel like me and my family were part of the church. If Wendy would not have introduced herself to me that first Sunday I may never have come back. 

     This is one of the first memories of coming to church here, this one person made a difference in my faith journey by making me feel so comfortable and welcome at a new place. This motivates me to want to be that person for someone else and make sure they feel comfortable and welcomed. I want you all to know that your gifts to the church are what enables us to touch lives like mine was touched but more importantly it’s through our giving that we express our love to god and grow in our faith.

    Thank you, Stephanie!

     Let me share some of the responses that you provided to this statement, “Things I love about my church.” Here’s a brief sampling of what you shared.

     “The emphasis on prayer and trusting God.”

     “The people.”

     “The many opportunities for church fellowship and our music ministry is awesome!” By the way, several people commented on how much they love our music ministry.

     “Inclusive hospitality.”

     “The worship services and our beautifully remodeled sanctuary.”

     “Members are accepting of other people.”

     “The church is my family.”

     “It is so welcoming and inclusive.”

     “I enjoy and applaud our church’s participation in the community.”

     “All that we do for others. God is here.”

     “Our Growing Tree preschool. The location. Monday Lunch.”

     My two westie dogs even made it into the top reasons why people love our church when this person wrote, “Our church’s mascots, Lulu and Blu.” 

     Monday Lunch was mentioned several times.

     “We are made up of very kind, giving folks who truly feel like family.”

     I love this one! It says, “The first thought that popped into my head when I read that question was Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, ‘How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.’” 

     “The joyfulness of gatherings on Sunday mornings. Our Leadership Board. Friday Email Communications.”

     “I feel at home here. We are a haven of blessing and peace for college students. I love that we can write down prayer requests and know that our Tuesday prayer team will pray over these. I receive so much encouragement here.”

     “I love the people, the staff, and yes, even the pastor.”

     “Our new elevator!”

      And here’s one more from your many responses.  “I just love every single one of Pastor Robert’s dad jokes. They are so funny, especially his puns. He obviously spends a lot of time on these. These jokes really bless my heart and have drawn me closer in my relationship with Christ. Keep them coming! Can’t get enough of them!”

     The pastor was allowed to fill this out, right?

     But seriously, I want to thank everyone who took time to fill out this questionnaire and for letting us know what you love about your church. It was so heart-warming to read all of the responses.

     Penny and I were eating out at a restaurant here in Athens.  When we were about done, the waitress said, “Somebody took care of your check.” She pointed over at a booth and said,“It was them.” 

     A couple of months later, we were in the same restaurant. Same thing happened but different family. They picked up our check.

     This is now our favorite restaurant!

     There is so much generosity in this church.

     One Sunday morning when we were already into our worship service, a new family entered the front entrance of our church and I could see them come into the church since I’m facing that direction.  It was crowded that Sunday and I remembered wondering if they would find a seat for the several people in their family.  

     A church member who was sitting at the end of his pew noticed this them looking for a seat. And God bless him.  He gave up his seat so that this family could all sit together in the same pew.   

    Whenever there is a need, it seems like you are ready to help.  If you take the time to check our church’s pulse, you can easily see that our church has a strong heart beat.

     The Apostle Paul knows that if we are to continue to be a church with a strong and healthy heart, we will need to remember that any good that we do is because of what Christ has already done for us.  The more that we are aware of God’s amazing grace the more that we will be an amazing blessing to others.

     I’ve been reading a book on the topic of generosity written by Robert Schnase, one of our United Methodist bishops. In this one chapter, he talks about building nests.  He says how he saw a large Red-Tailed Hawk fly by carrying a long heavy stick.  He smiled as he thought about the hard work that is involved in building nests during the spring season.  

     Earlier in the day, he had seen an American Crow who had carried some straw for the same purpose.  He had also watched House Sparrows tucking threads of grass into the hole in a convenience store awning.

    These birds pour extraordinary effort, time, and ingenuity to the construction of nests, the protection of eggs, and the feeding of their vulnerable young ones.  Every ounce of their effort is devoted not to their own comfort and feeding, but to the survival of the young.

     Robert Schnase then makes an interesting point.  He says how we often talk about building a nest in metaphorical terms as a way of providing for our own comfort.  We use the word, “nest” to talk about shelter, security, and being cozy.  But in actuality, nests are built not for the birds who build them, but for their young and the next generation.  

     This leads Bishop Schnase to ask these important questions:  The buildings, programs, ministries, job descriptions, and gatherings that we build – are they for our own comfort and coziness?  Or are they to further the faith and provide for future generations?  Does our giving serve us and our needs or serve God by supporting the mission of the church to reach new people?

     I would hope that the nests we are building here at Athens First are for others and not just for ourselves.  What is the purpose of the nests that we are building and maintaining?

     For this first week in our four-week focus on what it means to be heart-healthy and have a heart-healthy church, we check our pulse to make sure that our ministry flows from our heart and into the lives of others.  Being generous begins with a heart check and it becomes a lifestyle.

     I like how Paul describes this kind of extravagant living in our I Timothy passage.  He refers to it as a lifestyle by saying that we are to take hold of the life that really is life.  I like that!  We are to take hold of the life that really is life.

     Have you ever noticed how easy it is to just go through the motions in life?  It’s easy, isn’t it?  The same is true in the church.  We can so easily just go through the motions of doing things in the church and forget why we do what we do.  

     I can’t tell you how much it meant to me to read your many responses to the statement, “What I Love about My Church.”
     My heart melted as you shared what our church means to you.  It gave me a new perspective on who we are and why we do what we do.  It’s not just about going through the motion of doing good things for people.  Ministry is a matter of the heart.  It’s taking hold of the life that really is life, like our scripture says.

     I really like this way of describing our faith.  It’s a lifestyle.

     We are building nests not for our own comfort but for the sake of the people who are in need of God’s hope and love.  Church isn’t just a thing to do in what is already a busy schedule.  Church is taking hold of the life that really is life.  It’s leading us to be extravagant givers in a community that has so much brokenness and pain. I praise God for our church’s strong heart beat.

     There’s a contemporary Christian song that’s called, “Going Through the Motions” which I think speaks to this first week’s focus in what it means to be a people of extravagant generosity.  The song was written by Matthew West.  Here are the words:      

This might hurt, it's not safe
But I know that I've gotta make a change
I don't care if I break
At least I'll be feeling something

'Cause just okay is not enough
Help me fight through the nothingness of life
I don't wanna go through the motions
I don't wanna go one more day
Without Your all consuming passion inside of me

I don't wanna spend my whole life asking
What if I had given everything
Instead of going through the motions?

No regrets, not this time
I'm gonna let my heart defeat my mind
Let Your love make me whole
I think I'm finally feeling something

'Cause just okay is not enough
Help me fight through the nothingness of this life

'Cause I don't wanna go through the motions
I don't wanna go one more day
Without Your all consuming passion inside of me

      As we think about this first week of our Heart-Healthy sermon series, how’s your spiritual pulse?  I pray that it is strong. I’ve noticed that you’re not the kind of church that just goes through the motions. Thanks be to God!


Heart Healthy: Our Ministry
Small Group Questions
I Timothy 6:17-19 & Mark 9:30-37
September 23, 2018

We invited people in our congregation to offer their responses to the question, “What do I love about my church?”

What do you love most about your church?

In his book, Extravagant Generosity, Robert Schnase makes the observation that the phrase, “building a nest” usually refers to how people save money for themselves. In contrast, the nests that birds make are for their young and the next generation. 

In what ways do you see the church “building a nest” for the next generation and for those who are not already part of our church family?

This week, we began a sermon series on the importance of being “heart healthy.” In our scripture reading from I Timothy, the Apostle Paul provides a way for us to take our spiritual pulse.  Paul writes that a healthy spiritual life centers around our degree of generosity.  He writes, “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.”

Brainstorm ways that you or your small group can have a healthy spiritual heart by being generous and serving others.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Sept. 9) Athens First UMC

[We were blessed on Sunday to hear two very inspiring anthems which included Daniel Mullins playing the violin. Music during worship has a special way of helping us to remember our faith throughout the week which was the theme of the sermon based on our Letter of James scripture reading. The pastoral prayer reinforced this theme by inviting God to help has have an everyday faith and not just a Sunday faith.]

Living God, we confess that our actions and behaviors during the week often fall way short of what we profess with our lips in church.

We recite the Apostles’ Creed that fills us with so much hope on Sunday, and by Monday, we are already letting the negativity of the world get the best of us.

We sing an inspiring hymn about being your servants at church on Sunday, and by Tuesday, we are already upset that someone beat us to an open parking space.

We hear an above average sermon about being more inclusive on Sunday, and by Wednesday, even the preacher who preached the sermon is avoiding people at a clergy meeting who he finds annoying.

In unison, we say “Amen” to a prayer in our bulletin that asks you to help our deeds and our faith be as one, and by Thursday, we have already forgotten that both are vitally important.

Living God, we don’t have to tell you how difficult it is for us to not live our our faith during the week since you know everything about us. But we do need to be reminded just how gracious, loving, and forgiving you are toward us. 

What would we do with out you? So, thank you for being patient with us. Thank you for putting up with our hypocritical ways. Thank you for extending your loving grace especially when we fail to show by our actions what we profess with our lips.

And so, it is in this spirit of humility that we become more inclined to pray for the needs of others, like the mother who bravely left her husband who was abusing her, like the student who is being bullied in school, like the person who is struggling with an addiction, like the new resident stepping inside the church on a Sunday morning in search of a caring congregation, like the coworker who is on the opposite end of the political spectrum than where we are.

O God, humble us. And help are deeds match our faith even as we pray the words you taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Sermon (September 9) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Are You a Believer?”


    Our scripture from the letter of James begins with a question.  And it’s one of those questions that isn’t meant to be answered because the answer should be obvious.

     The question James asks is, “My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  

     Now, obviously James is writing to people who do believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.  It’s not like he’s sending this letter to an atheist organization.  He’s sending it to a community of believers, to a people who see themselves as Christians.

     I think I sense a little sarcasm in this opening verse of chapter two.  Kind of like the question, “Is the Pope Catholic?”  We all know the answer.  Of course the Pope is Catholic.  Of course we believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.  Of course! Of course!  

     “Where are you going with this, James?  You know who we are.  Quit playing games with us. I was baptized and confirmed in the church.  Why, I even was ordained. I can show you my ordination certificate if you give me time to find it.  What do you mean if I really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? I give to the church.  I’m in worship most Sundays.” 

     It’s a little unnerving when someone questions if we really are who we say we are.  

     I was visiting in a hospital one day.  I went to the ICU waiting room where I used the phone to call back to the nurse’s station to get permission to enter through the door.  “Who are you?” she asked in a not so polite way.  “I’m clergy to see so and so,” I said.  “Well, just wait.  I’ll meet you at the door.”

     By the tone of her voice, she seemed suspicious of me.  I didn’t know what to expect as I stood there waiting for the door to open.  And when it did, this nurse came up to me, noticed my clergy badge which was clipped to my suit jacket, and took me by surprise by giving me a hug. 

      And she said, “I wasn’t sure if you really were a pastor.  Lately, we’ve been getting a lot of people who claim to be clergy and they come back here and they end up disturbing the other patients and the medical staff so we’re trying to be careful who we let back here.  Thank you for wearing your clergy badge.  You’re a real pastor!”

     There you have it.  I’m a real pastor!

     How do you know if someone is a real Christian?  Do they have to wear a badge or attend church for so many years or serve on thirteen committees?

     This is one of the key reasons that James wrote this letter.  He wants us to really stop and think about what it means when we say that we believe in Jesus Christ.  

     And so we get this troubling question.  “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”  

     And James spells this out in greater detail by saying, “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges?”

     There’s something really wrong about saying we’re Christians but not living out what it means to be Christian.  There’s just something really wrong about that.  And for James, it is in how we care or not care for the those in need.

     Notice that James doesn’t ask us if we believe in Christ. He asks us if we are Christ-like. Or as Jesus said, “you will know people by their fruit.”

     This past spring, a very powerful politician who was known for his advocacy of women’s rights resigned from his high profile position because of several accusations that surfaced of him being violent toward women. This is what James is getting at. Your actions aren’t matching up with your words.

     James wants to know, “do you really believe?” Not just on what you say, but in what you do and in who you are. 

     James also isn’t impressed with our facebook memes that proudly say that we are believers while at the same time we are typing out comments that come across abrasive, mean spirited, and judgmental. James knows that it’s easy to make statements. It’s a whole other thing to actually live out what we say we believe.

     We are so overly focused with having all the correct theological boxes checked that we totally overlook the living out of our faith part. 

     Doctrine of the Trinity…Check! Bodily Resurrection of Jesus…Check! Jesus is the Son of God…Check! 

     We can check off all of the many doctrines of the faith, but unless we can check off that we are actually living out our faith and seeking to be Christ-like in our actions where we exercise humility, kindness, self-control, and graciousness, then we need to rethink if we really are believers.

     James is reminding us that our words need to match our behavior.  Our theological views need to be consistent with how we relate to one another, and especially in how we relate to people who are different from us.  James is thinking specifically about socio-economic differences.

     A church member told me about a time when she stopped by at the church.  She met one of the folks who was here for a lunch we were serving that day.  This person told her about the problems she was dealing with in her life.  

     When this church member invited her to come into the sanctuary with her to pray, she declined and said, “Oh, just look how I’m dressed.  I can’t go in there looking like this.”  When this church member told me this story, she said, “How sad that this woman didn’t feel worthy enough to come into our sanctuary because of what she was wearing.”

     You know, whether we want to admit it or not, most of us live in these little bubbles defined by our employment, our educational background, and our race.  And yet, we worship and serve a God who loves the whole world regardless of our differences.

     Whenever I have to go to the BMV to renew my driver’s license, I’m usually in a long line of people waiting my turn.  I’m sure we are a good cross section of the people in our community.  Some of us are well to do. Some of us are poor.  But these differences do not stop us from being in the same line. What would it look like if the church mirrored the people who are waiting in line at the BMV? 

     I served a church in Toledo that hosted the largest AA meeting in the entire city.  Every Tuesday evening, the parking lot was filled with some cars parked up and down the street as well.  

     As I would walk through the parking lot to get to the church entrance, I would see a BMW parked next to a beat up Ford Escort.  There would be a new mini-van parked next to a Ford truck with mud all over its sides.  Addictions are not confined to one socio-economic group.  They impact all segments of society.

     A friend of mine who began serving at a United Methodist Church in an affluent suburb of Columbus met with different groups of church members and asked them this question, “What are the biggest needs facing this community?”  Drug addiction was by far the #1 issue.  

     Sounds like a number of different communities, including our own. As a people of faith, we are called to be in community with those who suffer from addictions, with those who are struggling to make ends meet, and with those who are usually outside of our socializing bubbles. 

     James says, “When you don’t show favoritism and seek to come alongside of those who are different from you, that’s when you truly believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”

     Several years ago, I visited a rapidly growing church which is known for their radical hospitality on Sunday mornings.  They offered a hospitality seminar led by their church volunteers who serve in this ministry.

     The woman who heads up their hospitality ministry began by saying that they weren’t always a very welcoming church.  She said that several years ago, a local newspaper reporter was doing an undercover story on how well churches welcome new people on Sunday mornings.  The reporter went to several churches incognito including to their church.  

     This reporter came to their church wearing worn out clothing, nothing like what most of the congregation was wearing that day.  As the reporter walked through the large fellowship area where the congregation was gathered for donuts and coffee, not one single person spoke to him.  When eye contact was made, church members would quickly look the other way and continue their conversation.

     About a week later, the newspaper ran the article.  As the pastor was reading this article, he began to realize that the reporter was writing about his church without saying the name of the church.  The article described the church as a large, predominately white, middle to upper class congregation with a large fellowship area in a certain section of the city.  

     After a few more details that fit the description of his church, he realized that the reporter was referring to his church.  Here he thought that his church was a very welcoming church, but they evidently had a lot of room to grow.  

     Determined to not accept the status quo of mediocre hospitality, the pastor and some key leaders got together and to make a long story short, this church is now known for their outstanding hospitality ministries.  And it all began because the church became painfully aware that their faith didn’t match their actions.  Sometimes we need to be reminded of James’ words to us.  Do our faith and our actions match up?

     One Sunday morning during worship at a church I was serving, I mentioned a special offering we were receiving that day to help those in need. 

     An elementary age girl who was listening to my announcement told her mom that she wanted to give all the money she had been saving to this offering.  I think it was $15.  Wanting to help people in need, she put her money in the special offering envelope.  On the envelope, she wrote, “for homeless people.” 

     During that week, we got a phone call from a woman who was living at a shelter for women and children who are victims of domestic violence.  When this woman left her husband who had been abusive to her, she also gave up her home to get out of that violent situation. 

     She had a full-time job and all she needed were some extra funds to help her leave that shelter and rent an apartment.  That little girl’s $15 was used to help this woman and her two boys begin a new life together.

     Interestingly enough, I had baptized this young girl a few weeks before all of this.  As she stood in front of our congregation and as part of the baptism ritual, I remember asking her if she believed that Jesus Christ was her Lord and Savor and she said, “Yes.”   

    I guess she really meant it.

Are You a Believer?
Small Group Questions
James 2:1-10, 14-17
September 9, 2018

The word, “believer” is often used as a way of saying that someone is a Christian. 

How can someone know if they are a “believer?” What does this word mean to you?

In our scripture reading, James doesn’t ask us if we believe in Christ. His question is more about if we are Christ-like. Or as Jesus said, “you will know people by their fruit.

What does being “fruitful” and “Christlike” mean to you?

Pastor Robert shared the story about an elementary age child who had saved up $15 and she decided to give it all to the church to help someone in need. That gift went to help a mother of two little children who needed to move into an apartment as soon as possible because of a domestic violence situation. The little girl who had given her money to help this family had just been baptized all few weeks before all of this happened. Her actions matched her beliefs.

Share an example when you noticed someone’s actions matching their beliefs. 

Monday, September 3, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (September 2) Athens First UMC

[The photo above hangs in the library of New Lexington First UMC which is one of our churches in our Foothills District. It was taken back in the 1950s when the  congregation was leaving from a worship service. The picture was taken to remind us that at the end of every worship “service,” our true “service” begins. We showed this picture during Sunday’s benediction to reinforce what we heard from our summer Honduras Missions Team earlier in the service about the importance of serving others. Click here to view the Honduras Missions Team video.]

O God who calls us to serve you in our neighborhoods and to places far away like Central America, this is our song today, a song of peace for our world.

Thank you for our Honduras mission trip team who sacrificed their time this past July because they wanted to make a difference in our world. Thank you for the many blessings they experienced through their willingness to serve others. 

And thank you for all the people who served at our Athens First Saturday outreach yesterday, through litter pick-up, arranging and delivering flowers, making blankets, gratitude card making for school administrators, and leading an assisted living worship service. Thank you for the many blessings that were shared in all of these ways.

On this Labor Day weekend, we especially lift up to you those who are in need of work. We pray for those who are employed that they would use their skills and abilities to make a positive difference in our community and world.

We also lift up to you the many students here in our community who are preparing for future career paths. Bless the professors, instructors, counselors, and grad assistants in their working of preparing students for meaningful careers. 

And O God, remind us to always be employed for you; ready to love, ready to learn, and ready to live out our faith.

We pray this in the name of your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ who taught us to pray together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Sermon (September 2) Honduras Mission Trip Sharing

[Our Honduras Mission Team from this past July shared highlights from their summer trip during the sermon time this Sunday. As part of their sharing time, they showed this video of each person who participated in the trip. Our scripture reading from James tells us, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers...” Whether we travel to Honduras to build outdoor sinks and pour cement floors or make and deliver encouragement cards to give away to local school administrators through our Athens First Saturday community outreach, there are many ways for us to be doers and not just hearers.]