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, November 26, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Nov. 25/Christ the King Sunday) Athens First UMC

[The last Sunday of November is typically the Sunday before the Season of Advent begins which is the case this year. It was not only “Christ the King Sunday,” but it was also the annual Sunday when we invite the congregation to decorate our Chapel and Sanctuary with Advent/Christmas decorations. The top picture is our Sanctuary and the bottom picture is our Chapel. This week, three large Christmas wreathes will be placed above our front entrance graciously paid for by a church member. “Christ the King Sunday” always serves as a bridge between the long church season of “Ordinary Time” that began last June and the four weeks of Advent that begin next Sunday. For the sermon, click here.]

O Lord, you are more precious than silver. And may it always be true that nothing else we desire compares with our desire to love and serve you.

Help us to remember this song especially when we are tempted to not keep you as the top priority in our lives. Help us to remember this song as we put up Christmas decorations after worship today. Thank you for these symbols of faith that point us to your earthly as well as as heavenly rule.

And so, we pray for your loving and healing rule to be with all who are in need of you this day; for people in California who have been displaced by wild fires, for your creation that has been impacted by Global Warming, for world leaders who have been entrusted with the responsibility to seek peace and the protection of human rights, for our local leaders as they make decisions on behalf of our city and county, for our college students as they draw near to Final’s Week, and for our church that we would keep our focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. 

We also pray for those who are facing medical challenges, who are feeling lonely, who are grieving, or who are worried about the future. Surround all of these persons with your loving care. Thank you for reminding all of us on this last Sunday of November that Christ truly is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. And it is in his name that we pray for your kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Sermon (November 25/Christ the King Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Top Priority

     The celebration of Advent and  Christmas, and Lent and Easter are holy days and seasons in the church that go back for many centuries.

     There was a new recognition added to the church calendar in 1925 through the Catholic Church. The last Sunday before Advent was designated as Christ the King Sunday. This was done in response to governments who were seen as abusing their power and to life being lived with little thought of God.

     This day is a world wide recognition that above all leaders and states is the rule of Christ. In the twentieth century, monuments were erected like this  statue of Christ in Rio de Janeiro to commemorate that Christ is indeed over all. A contemporary song expresses the theme of this Sunday celebration.

Above all powers, above all kings
Above all nature and all created things
Above all wisdom and the ways of man
You were here, before the world began
Above all kingdoms, above all thrones
Above all wonders the world has ever known
Above all wealth and treasures of the earth
There's no way to measure what you're worth*

*By Paul Baloche and Lenny LeBlanc

     In the U.S., a king is not a familiar figure to us. There are 26 countries in the world that are still headed by kings, queens, emperors, sheikhs, or princes.  We do not live under the ruler ship of a monarch. However  we do have some interest in kings:

 -Our fascination with British royalty and the most recent royal baby
 -The Burger king guy  
- And the king of rock and roll                
     Elvis Presley  was given the title of king because of his popularity. In the mid-70's I have a friend who worked with a woman named Linda and she adored Elvis. He was doing a show at the Charlotte Coliseum. She had never seen him perform live and she offered to give her a ride to the concert which was several hours away. She bought a new outfit and had her hair done in a magnificent  bouffant. She brought her to the arena and returned to pick her up after the concert. For her it was one of the best nights of her life. She had maneuvered her way  to the stage and had touched his shoe. Her intention had been to take his boot off but she had been unsuccessful.

     Linda had polio as a child and consequently had spent time in a hospital. She had listened to Elvis on the radio during her illness and felt that it was his music that gave her hope. Elvis was at the top of her list, and for that one evening, life could not be better. We may have folks we idolize but our understanding of kings in our time is limited…

     Let's look at what we can discover  about  Jesus  being a king.

     In the Old Testament, kings are described as being like shepherds. A shepherd is to care for his flock, to know them by name, to lead them in the right  direction, to protect them from those who would harm them. Likewise, the king is to put the welfare of the people above his own.

     Jesus calls himself the Good shepherd. He cared for the hungry, the hurting, those who felt isolated from God. His heart was always  concerned with his flock.

     Jesus spoke  a lot about God's kingdom in his teachings. At the ending of his ministry, he is publicly proclaimed  as being the king of the Jewish people. In the last week of his life,Jesus enters into Jerusalem, and weeps for the city. He is accused of coming into Jerusalem to lead a rebellion against the ruling Roman government. He is tried and convicted. The Roman soldiers dressed him in a robe ,put a crown of thorns on his head and mocked him.

     The sign above his head on the cross read “King of the Jews.”  A king that is defeated and is killed is not our expectation.

     The story of Jesus being a king of course doesn't end there.

     In the letters of the New Testament and the Book of Revelation, we have wonderful  descriptions of the risen Jesus who is  now “king of all kings and lord of all lords.”

     He suffered a cruel death and yet his love rules over all creation. In Colossians, he is described as showing us what God is like, the invisible is now visible and of holding all things together. He is making all things new. He is bringing peace and restoration. He is king not for his own glory but he is king in order to bring all people to God. He is at the very center of everything. He reconciles all things thru death on the cross.

     Some years ago a pastor in Scotland traveled to the Queen’s Highland castle in order to lead the Sunday service at the chapel. He was uncomfortable about how to act around royalty, unsure what to say in her presence. He arrived but there was no one to meet him.

     He was taking his suitcase from the car when a woman came into view wearing a tweed jacket, with a scarf tied around her head, and walking three corgis. It was Queen Elizabeth herself! She apologized that no one had welcomed him and called for the absent doorman. That evening he joined them for a pleasant supper and he saw royalty in a new light.

     It is almost beyond belief that we have the privilege daily to be in the presence of our king who gave all so that we might have abundant life.

     What is the kingdom of God like? Jesus shared many stories to describe his kingdom. He  taught that  the kingdom is like the love extended by a father to his son when the son leaves home and takes his inheritance. When the son has nothing left , he returns home and is greeted by a joyful banquet  hosted by his father who offers forgiveness and love.

     Kingdom is like a shepherd who  goes out to find one missing sheep and doesn't give up until it is found. 

     Kingdom is like a man who had a party and extends his invitation to all who want to come.  The kingdom is a place where  servants are honored. It is a place of surprises: the last shall be first.

     In the Kingdom, there is justice; the widows, and poor and children are not forgotten.  It is a kingdom where the king offers not condemnation but forgiveness, not despair but hope, not brokenness but wholeness. It is a kingdom that may seem small like a mustard seed, but grows everyday into a mighty tree.

     It is a good day to think about the qualities of our Lord, all the names of honor. It is imperative that we consider Christ being our king. When I hear the news of the world, and become concerned about all the troubles near and far, all the uncertainties, I rejoice that there is One who holds all things together: all space, all time.

     When I think about this past week of Thanksgiving, I know that when we offer our thanks that underneath all the blessings of life is the great love of God for us and for this world. We see this so clearly in the way Jesus lived.

     A question that needs to be asked: Who has power over us? Who influences our lives?  Is Christ our top priority?

     N.T. Wright, British pastor and scholar wrote in his book Simply Jesus : “We want someone to save our souls, not rule our world.”  He was acknowledging that there are other kingdoms that can pull for our devotion. They may offer prestige and security, status and honor but that is not what the kingdom of God is about.

     We make a choice over who we follow and whose guidance we live by. We invite Christ to be a part of all areas of our lives as we claim him as king.

     But this is the amazing thing about King Jesus.  He will only be recognized as king when others see his love, compassion, and mercy in us. The kingdom becomes visible through us and our actions.

     Our hearts change, and our community changes - God continues to work within creation. We are part of God’s kingdom happening here  and  now.

     There is a carol sung often at Christmas concerning a king who looks out from his castle one cold night . He sees a  man struggling to gather fire wood. He asks his page who the man is and where he lives. Together, the king and the page travel to the man's house bringing food and drink. As they hike through the deepening snow, the night becomes more bitter. The page says that he cannot go on. The king tells the boy to walk in his footsteps and he will be able to make it.  He walks in the master's steps and together they bring a blessing.

     Whose footsteps are you following?  Who reigns in your heart?

     May Christ the king be the first priority in our lives.

Top Priority
Small Group Discussion Questions
Revelation 1:4b-8 & John 18:33-37
November 25, 2018

Christ the King Sunday represents the last Sunday of the church year (the Sunday prior to the 1st Sunday of Advent.) The theme of this Sunday is very similar to Ascension Sunday which is always observed toward the end of the Easter season. These two Sundays are on the calendar to remind us that Christ is the true King over all creation.

What helps you to remember that Christ is the true King over all creation especially when those who are in power fail to rule in loving and just ways?

In the Old Testament, the king of Israel was often described as having shepherd like qualities. Jesus referred to himself as the good shepherd. The sign above him on the cross read, “King of the Jews.” 

How does this image of Jesus being both our King and our Good Shepherd help you to have a stronger faith?
When we honor and worship Christ as the King of kings, we are making him and the building of his kingdom on earth the top priority in our lives.

In what ways is the building of Christ’s kingdom evident in the way you live?

Monday, November 19, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Nov. 18/Thanksgiving Sunday) Athens First UMC

[When Methodists meet, they eat! We did just that for our annual “Thanks for Giving” meal following the last service. The picture above is one of two long food lines with turkey, stuffing, gravy, casseroles and desserts. During the meal, several people went to the microphone to share a brief praise or thanksgiving of how God is present in their lives. It was a wonderful day to be together as God’s people for worship and table fellowship. It was also great way to begin the Thanksgiving week!]

Abundant, gracious, kind, compassionate, saving, loving, redeeming, welcoming, good, creating, sustaining, empowering, forgiving, caring, and merciful God, a pastoral prayer time during worship is nowhere near enough time to thank you for who you are and for all of your blessings in our lives and in the life of our church.

But let me try…

First of all, thank you for this wonderful congregation that I am so honored to serve as pastor. Thank you for their big hearts, their emphasis on prayer, their commitment to social justice, their inclusive spirit, their generosity, and their awesome covered dishes. 

Thank you for the growth we are seeing in our church with new people, new members, new ministries, and a renewed joy. Thank you for all of our vital and life-transforming Loving Faith ministries, Learning Faith ministries, and Living Faith ministries. And thank you for giving our church the bold mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world.

And thank you for Peter Jarjisian who graciously donated his lazy boy recliner for me to use during my sermon this morning.

Thank you this very moment, this split second and the oxygen that we are inhaling and exhaling. Thank you O God, for the gift of this moment. Thank you for the awesome miracle that we are all alive at the same time in history and gathered together to worship you in this sacred moment. Thank you, O God.

On a more personal level, thank you for all the deer who made it safely across the road this past week even though cars were going way to fast down the road. Thank you for Jan Slattery who made a prayer shawl which I was able to give to a family member at my aunt’s funeral this past week. Thank you for Jessie Essex whose funeral was this past week and who served as our organist back in the 1960s. Thank you for our current organist, Jeff Daubenmire and for our awesome music ministry we enjoy every single Sunday. 

Thank you for my loving wife and my family who will be joining us for Thanksgiving this week.

But most of all, most of all, most of all; thank you for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ who offers us life abundantly and by his example teaches us what it means to not worry and be thankful. And it is in his name that we pray, 

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sermon (November 18/Thanksgiving Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Don’t Worry, Be Thankful”

     So let me just say that if you ever felt that my sermons are too long, check out Jesus’ sermon on the mount. That sermon was definitely longer than 18 minutes! It’s three chapters long! 

     Whenever Penny and I travel in the car for several hours, I always like to update her on how much longer until we arrive. For example, I don’t just say an hour and a half. I say that we only have a little over four sermons to go. “Ok, now we’re just three sermons left! Now two! Final sermon just started! Last illustration. We’re home!!!  Amen!!!!”

     It actually makes the trip feel so much longer when I do that and I don’t know why.

     So Jesus has this super long sermon here in Matthew’s Gospel. We get a little hint that it’s going to be an extra long one because we are told that just before Jesus began to preach, he sat down. That is not a good sign when the preacher sits down to preach the sermon. Actually, that was a common thing for preachers to do in Jesus’ day.

     So how about for the rest of this sermon, I just go ahead and sit in this comfortable recliner over here? 

     I’ve always wanted to do this! I’m just being biblical because this is how Jesus taught. 

(Pastor Robert sits in a recliner)

     I’m guessing that this sermon is going to be a lot longer than 18 minutes. Just guessing.

     OK. So, I’m not really sitting in this chair because this how Jesus taught. I’m sitting in this chair because of what Jesus is telling us in our Gospel reading for this morning. 

     One of my favorite verses is Matthew 6:25 where Jesus says, “Don’t worry, be happy.” 

     OK, that’s not quite it. I never was good with memorizing verses. Actually, Jesus says, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life.” “Don’t worry.”

     In a way, I can actually hear Jesus saying that line because, well, just think about it. Don’t you get the sense that Jesus was a very happy person? I know that he had his fair share of run-ins with the religious leaders of his day and as he got closer and closer to the cross, things turned much darker as you would expect, but if you really think about his life in general and his day to day living, you get a strong sense that he was a very happy and joy filled person. 

     That’s probably why he had this great crowd of people listening to him preach! People can only take so much doom and gloom. We are drawn to people who are filled with hope, life, spontaneity, creativity, and joy. That’s who Jesus was. He was someone who was filled with all of those things on a consistent basis.

     And so, in this part of the sermon on the mount where Jesus is teaching about living a life free of worry, he is really just preaching about what he has already been practicing. Jesus showed us in the way he interacted with people, in the way he healed, and in the way he called people to follow him, that life is meant to be filled with joy and gratitude. 

     Jesus said that he came that we might have life and have it abundantly. So what does Jesus teach us about a life free of worry and a life that is filled with happiness, gratitude, and joy?

Having a Biblical Image of Who God Is

     Well, the first thing he reminds the people at this outdoor chapel service is the biblical image of who God is. How we perceive who God goes a long way in us having or not having a worry free life.

     And Jesus reminds us of this biblical image of who God is when he says, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather in into barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

     Just picture Jesus pointing up to some trees as he is offering this illustration. “Look at the birds. They’re right there in front of us. God is taking care of them so why wouldn’t he do the same for us?”

     Jesus is reminding the crowd of people who had gathered to hear him preach that the God of the scriptures is intimately involved in our world, even in the simple act of birds being fed. Jesus isn’t teaching anything new here because it’s a basic concept that we find throughout the Bible. 

     I wonder if Jesus might have had Psalm 145 in mind. The psalmist there says, “The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in al his deeds. The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.”

     This is a God who is not some remote deity that cares very little for the world that he created. This is a God who is actively involved in our day to day lives. Just think about this. God is constantly reaching out to us with his grace, mercy, guidance, and love. God’s grace surrounds us in any given moment! This is something we talk a lot about here in our church, to be alert to how God is at work in your life and in the lives of others. We call these “thin place moments” because heaven and earth often overlap and we get glimpses of God’s presence in both big and small ways.

     Where do you see God at work in the world? Where do you see God at work in your life? Where do you see God at work in others? 

     It’s kind of like the little message that is on the side mirror of a car where it says, “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.”

     I think that we need a sign like that as we go about our day. “God is closer than you may think.” This is the biblical image of who God is. God is more loving and more gracious and more active in our lives than we can ever imagine. What a great thought!

     God is present in the simple act of a mother bird feeding her young. Jesus is saying that if we want to have a worry free life, to just look at the birds and see how God is caring for their needs. If God is present in these very simple ways in creation, than certainly, God is present in our lives as well. Are we not of more value than they?

Live in the Present Moment

     The second way that we can learn to be more grateful and not get caught up in the worries of life is to live in the present moment. Live in the present moment.

     This is similar to the first point about always keeping in mind the biblical image of God as being constantly active in our world and in our lives. To do that, we need to live in the present.

     After Jesus points out the birds that are right in front of us, he then talks about the lilies of the field. So, when Jesus mentions the lilies, he isn’t referring to this one specific plant like when we think of an Easter Lilie. The word that is used here by Jesus would have also included many different kinds of plants that would have been growing in the fertile Galilean soil like the autumn crocus and the gladiolus. These plants didn’t have to put on any make-up to be beautiful. They are beautiful just as they are. And the same is true of us. 

     Do you know what this means? It means that I don’t have to spend hours and hours working on my hair. I don’t have to worry about which of my worship robes I should wear on Sunday morning. God already made me beautiful! 

     I have a friend from my home church in Pennsylvania who has taught me this basic truth. He’s a couple years older than I am and he said how he went on a trip with his daughter. And my friend said that he was feeling kind of lazy that day, so he put on an old pair of outdated shorts and a wrinkled polo shirt that totally clashed with the shorts. His daughter was terrified and said, “Dad, you can’t wear that! That’s awful!”  And he just shrugged his shoulders and said. “Hey, I’m 58. That means I can wear whatever I want.” 

     Jesus says, “Do not worry saying, ‘What will we eat?’ Or ‘What will we drink?’ Or ‘What will we wear.’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your Heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”

     Jesus is saying that the key to having a worry free life is to live in the present. Live in the present. Don’t get caught up in always thinking about the future. There’s so much in the present to appreciate and enjoy.

     I had lunch with one of our church members this past week, Mike Sweeney, and during our conversation Mike said how he is always seeking to “squeeze all the juice out of each day.” 

     I love that! Squeeze the juice out of each day. I think this is what Jesus is telling us. Live fully in the present moment.

     So it was during this part in Jesus’ sermon, that he starts to step on my toes because I’m not very good at living in the present moment. I feel like I’m always thinking about the future like right now, I can’t help but to be thinking about my Christmas Eve sermon. We’re not even at Thanksgiving and that’s what’s been on my mind lately.

     Now, we know that there’s nothing wrong with planning ahead. In fact, that’s also a wise thing to do, but if it keeps us from living in the present moment, than it will often lead to unnecessary worry and anxiety. And then, if I get my Christmas Eve sermon done early, yeah, I feel really good about it, but then I start worrying about if there’s going to be a snowstorm on Christmas Eve and how nobody will hear it anyway. And then there’s next year’s Easter sermon to worry about, and then… You get the point.

     Yes, this is the problem with focusing on the future at the expense of living in the present moment. As a friend of mine used to remind me, “All you got is now. All you got is now. Enjoy this moment.”

     When I was out on the bike path one Spring, I loved seeing those signs that simply said, “Look to your left.” “Look up.” “Look to your right.” Those signs were reminding people like me to be aware of all that is around us or we’ll miss it. Look at those beautiful southeast Ohio hills. Look at those Japanese tree blossoms. Look at the geese swimming in beautiful formation down the river. 

     How do we have a more worry free life? We remember who God is. God is a loving, gracious, caring, compassionate, and merciful God who cares about us more than we can ever know. When we fully live in the present moment it helps us to not get anxious about what the future might hold. All we have is the present, so enjoy it.

Keep God & God’s Kingdom as Top Priority

     And this final thing that Jesus teaches us for a worry free life. Keep God and God’s kingdom as your top priority in life. 

     Jesus ends this part of his sermon by saying, “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

     When I hear that, I think of how that also means that we need to get our focus off ourselves and on God. Sometimes the biggest reason that we worry is because we are focusing on the wrong thing. 

     A friend of mine who’s a pastor was telling me why his church went from survival mode to becoming a growing church. He said that it was all because the people shifted their focus from surviving to serving. When the church reclaims its mission of serving others and of reaching out in the name of Christ, it is striving first for the Kingdom of God. 

     And then this pastor said how the people in the church have become a lot happier and joyful because they were seeing more and more fruit by serving rather than just by being in survival mode.

     That’s also true on a more personal level. When we take our focus off ourselves and put our focus on serving God and others, we end up becoming more grateful, more joyful, more hopeful, more generous, more loving, and more thankful.

     “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added onto you.”

     Jesus says that if you want to have a worry free life, remember who God is, live more in the present moment and keep God and God’s kingdom number one in your life. 

     I was blessed to know a very loving older member of one of the congregations I served as pastor. Marjean was always very care free, grateful, and joy-filled. Didn’t seem to have a care in the world. She was the kind of person who you just wanted to be around. She had a very deep rooted faith that had weathered many storms in her life and she was a living example of this scripture passage today.

     She had a large family who also attended that church. One night, I received a call from one of Marjean’s sons. “Hey, mom is in the ER of the hospital. It’s not looking good. Can you come over and have prayer with us. We’re right here at the hospital.” 

     I said, “Sure.” And off to the hospital I went.

     When I got there, the family was now up at the surgery waiting room. Marjean was to have surgery soon and the family was giving me all of the details and they were all saying that things weren’t looking very good and they didn’t know if she was going to make it through the surgery. 

     There were a lot of tears and and hugs going on in that waiting room. I had them gather in a circle and we all lifted Marjean in prayer. We then continued our quiet conversations there in the waiting room. It was a very tense time.

     As we were sitting there, we happened to look up, and noticed that a nurse was wheeling a bed down the hallway. Imagine our complete shock when we realized that it was Marjeam on that bed. She lifted her head up, looked over at us, gave us a great big smile and then waved at us! That was just like her to take our tears and turn them into joy and laughter. 

     Marjean ended up recovering from whatever it was that put her in the hospital. It’s actually still a mystery to me. She continued on with her life as if nothing happened. That was several years ago.

     I heard that Marjean passed away last year. I looked up her obituary and here is what it said. I share this with you because the obituary really captures who she was and how she lived. It reads,

     She was the heart and soul of her family. She was a cheerful woman of great charm, with a ready smile and a loving disposition. Her example of courage, honesty, and love will be tenderly remembered. As a role model, she left her mark on several generations with her fortitude, perseverance, strength of character, and positive attitude. She lived with compassion and overflowing generosity for humanity. Her strong connection to the Lord gave her an inner aliveness that made her seem youthful despite her years. There was always a calming presence at the center of her being where she walked in union with God. She was full of love, full of hope, full of faith. Her family will not grieve, but will continue to honor with great celebration and enthusiasm all that she taught, knowing that she is forever at peace in God's home.

     As I read this, it made me smile. I recalled that story of her in the hospital and it made me laugh. And I remember thinking, “I want to be more like Marjean” in my life. Someone who knows that God is always present with us. Someone who knows what it means to live in the moment. And someone who always seeks to keep God and God’s kingdom as the most important priority in life.

    For those of us who worry way too much, let’s sing together, hymn no. 404, “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God.”

Don’t Worry, Be Thankful
Small Group Questions
Matthew 6:25-33
November 18, 2018

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus offers a teaching about having a life free of worry. He says, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life.”  - Matthew 6:25
Do you struggle with worry? What things cause you to worry?
Pastor Robert shared three things that Jesus teaches us to help us have a worry free life. These include 1) Having a biblical image of God 2) Living fully in the present 3) Keeping God and God’s kingdom as our top priority in life
Which one of these stands out to you the most?
Jesus uses nature to help illustrate how we can live a worry free life. He tells us to think about how birds feed their young and how the lilies of the field are naturally beautiful.
Share a time when your observation of nature helped you to overcome a worry in your life.
Having a worry free life is closely connected with having a more thankful life, hence the sermon title, “Don’t Worry, Be Thankful.”
As we near Thanksgiving Day, share one or two things for which you are thankful.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Monday, November 12, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Nov. 11/Veterans’ Day) - Athens First UMC

[We had a very special combined worship service on Veterans’ Day, marking the 100th anniversary of WW I. We recognized our veterans by giving each of them a poppy which is traditionally associated with Veterans’ Day. These were made by our children in Sunday School. We were also blessed by having the OhioBrass ensemble join our Chancel Choir in providing patriotic music to fit the occasion. See video below. Immediately after the service, we all walked together to College Green where the community veterans’ ceremony was held. See picture below. A big thank you to everyone for making it a special and memorial Veterans’ Day!]

God of peace, we do thank you for our beautiful country. Thank you for these opportunities to honor veterans past and present who have sacrificed so much on our behalf. 

We pray for those who have served our nation and who laid down their lives to protect and defend our freedom.

We pray for those who have fought in battles, whose spirits and bodies are scarred by war, whose nights are haunted by memories too painful for the light of day.

We pray for those who serve us now, especially for those in harm's way. Shield them from danger and bring them home. Be with their families who also are sacrificing by being separated from their loved ones. Surround them with your loving presence so they do not feel alone.

Turn the hearts and minds of our leaders and our enemies to the work of justice and a harvest of peace.

Let the peace you left us and the peace you gave us, be the peace that sustains and the peace that saves us.

Christ Jesus, Prince of Peace, hear us! Lord Jesus, hear our prayer even as we pray the words you taught us to pray together saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Chancel Choir & OhioBrass performing the anthem, “In Remembrance” at our special Veterans’ Sunday combined worship service.]

[Top Picture: Our congregation walking to College Green for the Athens community veterans ceremony following our special veterans’ worship service. Bottom Picture: The Athens community veterans ceremony on College Green.]

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Sermon (November 11/Veterans’ Day) by Rev. Robert McDowell “No Small Sacrifice”

It’s very appropriate that Veterans’ Day falls on a Sunday this year, a day when our Hebrew’s scripture passage focuses on the theme of sacrifice.  Today we honor and pay tribute to those who have served in the armed services and who have sacrificed so much for the cause of freedom.  Their service to our country has been no small sacrifice.

This Veterans’ Day prompts me to examine my own life and ask myself the question, “How willing I am to live sacrificially for the sake of others?”  Today is also a sobering day because like Memorial Day and the church’s All Saints’ Sunday which we observed this past Sunday, Veterans’ Day reminds us that life is short.

Sometimes, we think that the goal in life is to simply live as long as possible.  But even if we do everything that we can to be healthy, we are still faced with our mortality.  It doesn't matter if you spend two hours a day sweating at the gym . . . It doesn't matter if you take every vitamin found in a drug store . . . It doesn't matter if you never let a cholesterol-laden piece of food cross your lips . . . It doesn't matter if you obey every safety regulation ever written for any product . . . It doesn't matter if you drastically reduce the stress factors from everything you do . . . 

We won’t live forever. 

There is an old story about three friends one afternoon who were vaguely contemplating the inevitability of their own deaths. They posed the following question to themselves: "When you are in your casket and friends and family are mourning you, what would you like to hear them say about you?" 

The first guy said, "I would like to hear them say that I was a great doctor of my time, and a great family man." 
The second guy said, "I would like to hear that I was a wonderful husband and school teacher who made a huge difference in our children of tomorrow." 

The last guy replied, "I would like to hear them say: 'LOOK!!! HE'S MOVING!!!'"  

Death is inevitable, no matter how much we try to deny it or not think about it.  The author of Hebrews is careful to point this out from our scripture passage this morning when he writes that it is established that everyone will die at some point. He’s not writing this to ruin our day and put us into depression but to help us keep things in perspective and to make every day count.

Our veterans who we recognize today remind us of the importance of living sacrificially for the sake of others. I officiated at a funeral of one of a church member who was in the Army during World War II.  His son shared a war story with me about his father.  A German pilot had been shot down and he had to eject from his plane.  He landed in a nearby orchard and was hiding there.

His dad was to find this German pilot which he ended up doing.  He faithfully carried out his orders but he also saw this German pilot as a fellow human being and they even got to know each other by sharing stories. Not only did his dad risk his life for his country, but he did so in a very honorable and humane way. This little story and many others are why we are honoring our veterans today.  The sacrifice they have made and are making is no small sacrifice.

The writer of Hebrews also points us to the ultimate sacrifice that was made through Jesus Christ.  He writes that Christ sacrificed and died to bear the sins of many.  It’s because of what Jesus Christ has done for us that we have forgiveness and new life.  That’s why we gather here on Sunday mornings.  We give thanks for all that Jesus Christ has done for us through his death and resurrection and then we are sent from this place to serve in sacrificial ways in his name.

When we remember that what Jesus did for us was no small sacrifice, we can’t help but to live sacrificially for others.  This is why I am so thankful for the author of Hebrews so that we will never forget what Jesus has done for us.

Two summers ago, I visited the Rutherford B. Hayes presidential library up in Fremont, Ohio. It’s the first presidential library and was built back in 1919. Hayes was the 19th president of the United States serving from 1877 to 1881. His life was one of service in many different ways.

Before he had become president, he served as a Union officer in the Civil War and was wounded five different times in various battles. He and his wife Lucy attended a Methodist Church in Fremont which now goes by the name of Hayes United Methodist Church. There is a large portrait of Rutherford B. Hayes in the back of the sanctuary of that church.

Hayes and his wife, Lucy were known to be very generous and sacrificial in their giving to make their community a better place. They spent a lot of time in social causes including the education of children. They also did a lot of work for the mentally ill and prison reform. Those needs were just as important in the latter part of the 19th century as they are today.

I was so impressed with this president who I didn’t really know all that well until that tour of the museum. Not only was he this known politician, he was also a veteran, and someone who made lots of sacrifices, big and small to help make this world a better place.

As I was nearing the end of my tour there, I took notice of a large bulletin board that had around 300 index cards that contained brief messages from young children. These cards were put there in response to the question, “What can you do to make this world a better place?”

Here’s a picture of all of these cards…

It also had this quote from Rutherford Hayes which he said in 1881. “Let him, like every good citizen, be willing and prompt to bear his part in every useful work that will provoke the welfare and happiness of his family, his town, his state, and his country.”

I read several of the children’s responses. Here are a few of them:

Help people in the nursing home.
If someone falls, help them up.
I love this one. It just says, “Be You.”
Treat everyone as you would like to be treated. Stop bullying!
To end gun violence!
Honor those who serve our country.
Slow down and take it all in. Enjoy the everyday.
Treat people with respect and help them reach their dreams.

The Hayes presidential library wants to leave every person with that very important question.”What can you do to make the world a better place?”

Three hundred ways people pledged to make a difference in the world! 

Our church motto in a lot of our advertising is “Putting Athens First.” It’s a play of words based on our church’s name, Athens First. It helps us to remember that the reason we exist is to live sacrificially in the name of Christ.

Many of us wear red Athens First t-shirts that has a quote about living sacrificially. It’s a quote attributed to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.

It goes like this:

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

I love this quote. It says it so well.

Every Sunday when we gather in this place, we remind ourselves of living sacrificially. Through worship, we are reminded who God is calling us to be and we pledge to live out our faith in big and small ways throughout the week. Jesus’ way is the way of sacrificial giving. We gather in the name of Christ, but then we leave from this place to serve in the name of Christ.

Every Sunday, when we leave from worship, we do something very similar. Through worship, we are reminded who God is calling us to be and we pledge to live out our faith in big and small ways throughout the week. Jesus’ way is the way of sacrificial giving.

I want you to know that every prayer, every time you attend worship, every gift you put in the offering plate, every way you serve through the life of the church, and every time you share your faith with someone, it is no small sacrifice.  Like the author of Hebrews, you are helping people to know of the sacrifice Jesus was willing to make when he died on a cross to take away our sins.

Our Hebrew’s scripture reminds us that life is short and one day, our time here will come to an end.  But even when that time comes, because of what Jesus Christ has done, we can have an assurance that we will be with him forever.

Acts 13:36 summarizes King David this way: "For when David had served God's purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep." In the words of a wonderful benediction, "May you live until the word of your life is fully spoken." 

Would you repeat that after me and this time use the word, “I” instead of “you.”: "May I live until the word of my life is fully spoken." 

When Jesus died on the cross, the word of his life was fully spoken.  His death, like the way he lived was no small sacrifice.  And there’s no reason why the same can’t be said one day about you and me.

No Small Sacrifice
Small Group Questions
Hebrews 9:24-28
November 11, 2018

Today is the 99th anniversary of the observance of Veterans’ Day, a day to remember those who have sacrificially served and are serving in the various branches of the military. Our Hebrews scripture talks about Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf when he died not he cross for the sake of the world. The sermon began with this question for all of us to ponder. How would you answer this question?

How willingly am I to live sacrificially for the sake of others?

The sermon mentioned Rutherford B. Hayes who fought in the Civil War and became our 19th president. He is buried in Fremont, Ohio where the first presidential library is located. President Hayes and his wife, Lucy were Methodists who believed in living sacrificially for the sake of others. The Hayes museum has an exhibit that invites people to complete a card with a simple way that we can personally live sacrificially for others.

If you were filling out one of those cards, what would you write down as a way that you can live sacrificially for others?

There is an old benediction that goes like this: “May you live until the word of your life is fully spoken.”

What is that “word” that you are seeking to fully speak in your lifetime?

We are called to pray for those serving in the military as well as for their families. Pray this prayer together as a small group:

Almighty God, we commend to your gracious care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces at home and abroad. Defend them day by day with your heavenly grace; strengthen them in their trials and temptations; give them courage to face the perils which beset them; and grant them a sense of your abiding presence wherever they may be; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

In Loving Memory of Dorothy S. Sweitzer (Aunt Dot) June 7, 1921 to November 6, 2018

[My Aunt Dot who was married to my dad’s brother passed away last week and the funeral was held yesterday at Round Hill Presbyterian Church in Crossroads, PA where she had been a member for 85 years. This is also the church where my mom and dad were married in 1950. Since my dad was Methodist my parents decided to attend that church instead which is why I am a United Methodist today. I guess God “predestined” this to happen. Sorry, using a little theological humor, here. My brother and I were asked to assist in the service. With tears of grief and gratitude for a like well lived, we commended Dorothy S. Sweitzer into the loving arms of Jesus Christ, her Lord and Savior.]

[The eulogy was beautifully delivered by Colonel Todd McDowell, one of Aunt Dot’s grandsons. Todd recounted how Aunt Dot loved all of us and was known for her sharp mind and faith in Christ. After the service, Todd and I both noticed that the etching around the beautiful stained glass window behind him states that it was dedicated in loving memory of Major James Patterson, a member of that church who served in General George Washington’s Army. This church was established in 1756.]

[My brother, David McDowell is a Deacon in the UMC and is the music director of the church where mom and dad decided to attend after they were married. It was very fitting that he sang this song, “Come to Jesus” along with another talented vocalist in the family, Terri Hoffman to the glory of God in loving memory of our Aunt Dot. The whole family felt like we were coming home.]

[Picture of our family standing in the back of the sanctuary in front of beautiful stained glass windows following Aunt Dot’s funeral service. It was an honor to offer the pastoral prayer and the Lord’s prayer during the service. As a UMC pastor, I kind of stumbled during the Lord’s Prayer since Presbyterians typically use “debts” and I am accustomed to “trespasses.” Evidently Aunt Dot’s church prefers neither. They say “sins.” When we got to that part of the prayer, you could hear all three options spoken at once reminding us that God has a sense of humor.]

God of love, we thank you for all with which you have blessed us even to this day. Thank you for the many ways that Aunt Dot lived out her faith and cared about each one of us. 

She amazed us in how she remembered people and fun stories that we had long forgotten. She remembered our birthdays, asked often about our families, attended our graduations, helped us to get summer jobs, prayed for each one of us without ceasing, and reminded us of silly things we did when we were young that always brought a smile to her face. 

We thank you for your gift of joy in days of health and strength, and for the gifts of your abiding presence and promise in days of pain and grief. We are reminded how blessed we are to be surrounded by family and friends in this place today. 

We are also mindful of other friends and family members who are no longer with us but who are now part of that great cloud of witnesses where there is no more tears, suffering, sorrow, or pain; only joy, love, and peace. We remember these loved ones silently in our hearts during this time of silence.


Thank you for these loved ones, O God. They are forever in our memory.

Be with everyone who has gathered here to remember and give thanks for the life of Aunt Dot as well as with those who are unable to be with us this day. Thank you for the many ways in which she has blessed each one of us and for cherished memories that we will be able to take with us from this place. And we are forever grateful that your grace is extended to each one of us to have a seat around your table with all of those who have faithfully lived and died. Above all, we give you thanks for your Son Jesus, who knew our griefs, who died our death, rose for our sake, and who taught us to pray together saying,

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts/trespasses/sins as we forgive our debtors/those who trespassed against us/those who sinned against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

[Round Hill Presbyterian Church, Crossroads, PA Est. 1756]

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Sermon (November 4) by Rev. Robert McDowell “In 3 Days”

     One summer, I was in the city of Dayton making a visit and was about to get into my car when I noticed an interesting vanity license plate on the back of the car which was parked in front of me.

     It said, “In 3 Days.”  As I started to drive away, I noticed a man getting out of this car.  I slowed down, put my window down, and said, “I read your license plate.  Are you a Christian?”  With a great big smile on his face, he nodded his head, and yelled back to me, “My life changed because of those 3 days!”

    He’s right! Everything changed because of those three days. Those three days refer to Good Friday when Jesus who was God made flesh took upon himself all of the pain, and the brokenness, and the heartache, and the sins, and all of the evil in this world and broke its power through his death on the cross. 

     The second day was Holy Saturday when Jesus was placed in a tomb and rested reminding us of when God created the world and rested on the seventh day of creation. All was silent on that day of rest. The powers of this world thought they had claimed the victory when Jesus died on a cross and was then placed in a tomb with a large stone rolled in front of it.

     Jesus’ disciple’s thought the game was over and so they fled out of fear because of those two days. 

     Have you ever gone to a sporting event when the home team is losing pretty badly going into the fourth quarter and everyone starts to leave to beat the traffic? I’ve done that!

     You’re heading out of the stadium and you’re walking that long distance to your car when you hear the crowd give out a distant roar from the stadium. A meaningless score you think. And then you hear another roar from the remaining fans in the stands. And you begin to question if you should have left the game so early.

    Which leads us to the third day or if you prefer the fourth and final quarter. Everyone turned out the lights and gone to bed, only to wake up the next morning and realize that they’re team came back and won.

     By the way, this sporting analogy happened to me a couple of years ago. Ohio State playing at Penn State. Being from Pennsylvania, I was of course rooting for Penn State, but by the end of the 3rd quarter, Ohio State was winning 24 to 7 and the momentum was with the Buckeyes.

     Pastors do not appreciate late Saturday college football games since they end around midnight, and like a good pastor, I decided to put up the white flag at the end of the 3rd quarter, and accept an early defeat in order to get my beauty sleep and be ready for church the next morning.

     That next morning I woke up, staggered down the stairs toward the coffee pot, checked my phone to get the final score and surprisingly saw that Penn State had made an incredible comeback and ended up winning in dramatic fashion by blocking a field goal attempt and returning it for a touchdown and winning 24 to 21. 

    In that early morning hour, I let out a loud yell even though Penny was still sleeping and I ran up the stairs to tell her all about it! It felt like Christmas morning! How sad that a middle age pastor makes such a big deal out of a football game.

     I remember proudly wearing my Penn State tie to church that morning because although a Penn State win over Ohio State is not necessarily a liturgical holy day on the church calendar, it’s always a religious holiday in the McDowell household.

     Looking back on that surprising victory, I can’t help but to think of how surprised and ecstatic the women must have been when they discovered that Jesus’ tomb was empty on that early Sunday morning. In a matter of hours, they had gone from certain defeat to the greatest victory imaginable!

     Now, I realize this is a very poor analogy but work with me here. The empty tomb was the biggest surprise in all of history. No one saw it coming, even the people who knew the scriptures backward and forward. They didn’t see it coming. They all went to bed at the end of the second day thinking, “Game over. We lost!”

     This is what the third day or Easter represents. God surprised everyone when he brought Jesus back from the dead.

     Actually, my sports analogy isn’t a terrible one. 

     St. John, the gospel writer, uses his own limited analogy by telling us the story of how Jesus brought his friend Lazarus back from the dead. Lazarus had been placed in a tomb. His sisters, Mary and Martha thought the game was over. Jesus was too late. But Jesus surprised everyone by bringing Lazarus back to life.

     By sharing this story in the middle of his gospel, John is giving us a little sneak preview of the Easter story which will involve Jesus coming back from the dead. Far be it from me to criticize a gospel writer, but the analogy does break down because the two stories do have a major difference.

    In the Lazarus story, Lazarus died, was brought back to life, and would eventually die again. In the Easter story, Jesus died, was brought back to life, and would never experience death again.

      Jesus, unlike Lazarus was given a new body, a resurrected body, one that would not be subject to death. This is the incredibly surprising news of our faith. Just as the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead is an advanced sign of Jesus’ being raised from the dead, so Jesus’ resurrection is an advanced sign of the resurrection that is awaiting all of God’s saints when Jesus’ returns and all of creation will be made alive.

     Easter, the third day is a hint of what awaits all of God’s people. And the saints point us to this future hope of our faith. As the Apostle Paul says, we will all be changed and we will exchange that which is perishable with that which is imperishable. 

    The early Christians used a couple of powerful images to convey the importance of those three days when Jesus died on the cross, was laid in a tomb, and then rose again. 

    One of those images was the process that a caterpillar goes through in becoming a beautiful butterfly. This process involves dying, resting in a Chrysalis tomb, until finally a new creation emerges.

    Another image for these three days is related to baptism by immersion where the pastor has the person be submerged under the water to symbolize Jesus’ death on the cross and our dying to self. The person then re-emerges from the water, symbolizing Jesus coming out of the empty tomb and symbolizing our new life in Christ. And when we baptize by sprinkling which we often do here in our church, we are still reminded of this powerful, powerful image. Baptism is all about death and resurrection. Death and resurrection.

    These ancient Christian symbols remind us of the good news of our faith which centers on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which the Apostles’ Creed remind us every time we recite it.

    Sometimes even a vanity license plate can remind us of this good news. And today, the saints who have gone before us won’t let us forget this awesome, awesome surprising and life changing news!

     On this All Saints’ Sunday, we join all of the saints in proclaiming with great joy, “Those three days changed my life! Alleluia!”

In 3 Days
Small Group Discussion Questions
Revelation 21:1-6a & John 11:32-44
November 4, 2018

Both Easter and All Saints’ Sunday remind us of the good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

What helps you to remember the good news of your faith in your day to day living?

The story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life is a little sneak preview of Jesus’ resurrection later in John’s gospel. The gospels want us to know that God specializes in bringing life out of what seems to be hopeless situations. 

Share an example of where you have seen God bring new life and transformation out of what seemed like a hopeless situation.

All Saints’ Sunday is a day to remember the 3 most important days of our Christian faith; Good Friday when Jesus died on a cross for the sins of the world, Holy Saturday when Jesus rested in a sealed tomb, and Easter Sunday when Jesus rose again. It’s also a day to remember that a day is coming when all of God’s people, including those who have gone before us will be reunited in God’s eternal kingdom.

Share the name of a loved one who has gone to be with the Lord and who had an important influence on your life.