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, February 25, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Feb. 24) Athens First UMC

[Today was Scout Sunday. For the past several years, we have hosted Scout Troupe #71. They participated in our 10:30 worship by serving as greeters, ushers, and leading parts of the service. Today was also the 2nd of two Sundays in which we offered prayers for the special UMC General Conference that is taking place Feb. 23-26 in St. Louis, MO regarding the denomination’s stances on issues related to human sexuality. For the sermon, click here.]

Loving God, we shall overcome because you created each one of us in your image.

We shall overcome because because your Holy Spirit empowers us.

We shall overcome because nothing shall ever separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We shall overcome because you love us unconditionally.

We shall overcome because you give us the amazing gift of peace.

We shall overcome because we are an Easter people.

Loving God, as overcomers may we work for justice where there is injustice, inclusion where there is exclusion, tolerance where there is intolerance, love where there is no love.

It is in this Spirit that we pray for the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church that is taking place in St. Louis, even as we worship you this morning. We pray for the 864 delegates from all around the world who are deciding on matters of human sexuality.

O God, baptize the United Methodist Church afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus.

And baptize us afresh as we seek to be the people you have called us to be, a people who are loving, generous, joyful, peacemaking, and welcoming.

We pray this in the name of Jesus, the one who overcame death on the cross, who rose again, who empowers us to be overcomers, and who taught us to pray together,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sermon (Feb. 24) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Our Faith Oath”

     I must say that I was more curious than usual about what the scripture readings were for today because of the timing of our denomination’s special General Conference which is taking place in St. Louis. 864 United Methodist delegates from all around the world; half of which are clergy and the other half are laity are representing our denomination as they re-examine our denomination’s stance on the topic of human sexuality.

     Not knowing what will be the result of this specially called conference made it very difficult to plan ahead for this worship service today. 

     One option would have been to go with a more generic theme and not even touch the subject. Or, I could have just invited a guest preacher to speak or have this be Music Sunday. But the more I reflected on it and prayed about it, the more I thought of how blessed I am to be your pastor and how we can share things honestly and openly no matter how controversial they may be.

     The General Conference will conclude this Tuesday so we will know what has been decided. If you’re interested, there are also several post-General Conference informational meetings that will be held on Saturday morning, March 2. The closest one to us will be at The Plains UMC and I’ll share more information about that later in our service.

     If you were here last Sunday, you heard me talk a little bit about my personal theological thoughts regarding our denomination’s stance on same sex marriage and the ordination of gay/non-celibate clergy.  One of the things that shapes my theological and biblical understanding of who God is and who God is calling us to be is in listening to other people’s faith journeys. 

     I have discovered that I grow more in my own faith when I listen to how other people interpret the Bible and live out their faith. I’ve always been fascinated how people can have very different perspectives on the same passages of scripture. 

     For example, last Sunday, I shared about Christian singer and song writer, Trey Pearson and his difficult decision three years ago to come out publicly about being gay. Trey made a surprise visit to our church last Sunday and sang his new song, “Hey Jesus” that describes a little of the heartache and pain that went into his decision to make that announcement.

     A couple of months ago, I heard him give an interview about how he was raised in a church near Columbus, Ohio. Ever since a young age, Trey loved Jesus and wanted to know more about the Bible and grow in his faith. He was always taught that being gay was a sin and so when he started to realize that maybe he was gay, he tried to deny those feelings because he didn’t want to disappoint God.

     He tried and tried to change his sexual orientation but he just couldn’t do it. And so, he got married and had two children. As his band became more and more popular, they toured throughout the world.  As a result of his touring and many concerts, he became more and more acquainted with churches and church leaders who offered him a different way of interpreting the scriptures as it relates to the topic of homosexuality.

     After a lot of prayer and struggle about his sexual identity, he decided to announce that he was gay. That was three years ago and that was just before his band was to perform a concert here in our church. The sponsoring group decided to not have his band perform here because of his announcement. His decision to publicly announce that he was gay had a negative impact on his Christian band. Many churches and church leaders would not allow the band to perform because of Trey’s announcement.

     Trey now has a solo career and his new CD has a lot of songs about his personal journey in that long struggle to understand his sexuality in light of his faith. A couple of things really stand out for me as I think about his recent interview where he shared his background and what led him to come out, risking his musical career. One of the reasons that he was able to reach that point was because he realized there were other ways of looking at scripture than just the way he was taught in his home church.

     Sometimes it’s OK for us to say that maybe we were wrong about a certain way we interpreted the Bible. It’s OK for us to listen to other people’s perspectives. It’s OK for us to hear other people’s faith journeys. It’s important for us to remember that the Bible doesn’t just spoon feed us with simple answers to complex issues. God expects us to have open minds and open hearts in our faith. We’re never done learning and growing as a people of faith. And that’s not an overnight process. Sometimes, it’s a very long and difficult struggle.

     One of my favorite bible scholars is Scot McKnight. Scot has written several books on how to interpret the Bible that I have found very helpful in my ministry. In his book, The Blue Parakeet he offers very important things to keep in mind when reading and studying the Bible and I highly recommend it. One of the things this book focuses on is in how the New Testament was written in the context of a 1st century Jewish and Greco/Roman culture which we need to understand so that we don’t take passages of scripture out of context. 

     In his book, he talks about the issue of women serving in leadership positions in the church. He shares about a time when he was a professor at a seminary (not United Methodist by the way) that believed the Bible taught that women should not serve as leaders in the church. Now, in the United Methodist Church, we have a long history of women serving in leadership positions. The first woman to be ordained in the Methodist Church happened back in the 1950s. We also have several women bishops.

     In the seminary where Scot McKnight was a professor, they had a very different biblical view on this. Scot himself had grown up in a church tradition where women weren’t allowed to be leaders in the church. While he was a professor at this seminary and studied this issue more carefully, he came to the realization that he had been wrong about this. He saw how some scriptures which appeared to not allow women to be leaders had been taken out of context. 

     Even though his view on this issue had changed, the seminary continued to have a strong stance on it. But because he didn’t want to jeopardize his teaching position at this seminary, he remained quiet about his minority view on this whole topic.

    In his book, Scot offers a deep regret for not speaking up about this at the time. He also thanks the small handful of professors at that seminary who actually did have the courage to be vocal against’s the seminary’s stance.

     So here’s this well publicized evangelical bible scholar who was vulnerable enough to say that he had been wrong on this particular topic. I totally respect that and I’m thankful for people like Scot and Trey who are willing to be vulnerable and say that their understanding of the scriptures has grown over time and sometimes that leads us to simply say, “Wow, I think I was wrong about that. There’s a whole new way of looking at this.”

     I wonder how much we would grow in our faith if we would learn to say that more often. “I think I was wrong about that.” And my prayer is that we would always be a church where we feel free to share where we are in our faith journey without fear of being judged by others but also where we in turn, extend an extra amount of grace to each other, especially to those with whom we may disagree.

     So, I began this sermon by saying that I was initially reluctant to look at the appointed scripture readings for today when planning for this Sunday. And we still don’t know what our General Conference will decide and what this will mean for our denomination and more specifically for Athens First.

     But then, as I got closer to preparing for this Sunday, something jumped out at me from our appointed Gospel reading for today. Of all Sundays of the year, on this challenging Sunday for our denomination, we get these words from Jesus which have become commonly known as “The Golden Rule.”

     “The Golden Rule.” Luke 6:31 – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

     Sometimes, when we get so focused on what we think the Bible says about so many different topics like what the Bible says about same-sex relations we end up forgetting about a foundational bible verse like “The Golden Rule.” Sometimes, in our desire to be right about something, we can get it all wrong because we forget this basic truth. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

     As Mark Twain once said, “It’s not the things in the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the things in the Bible that I do understand that bother me the most.”

     How do we treat each other? How much grace do we extend to each other? How much love do you think we should share with people even with people whom we may disagree?”

     On that topic, the Bible is very clear. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

     We don’t have to be a bible scholar to know what that means. “It’s not the things in the Bible I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the things in the Bible that I do understand that bother me the most.”

     That one verse kind of serves as our Faith Oath, doesn’t it? Kind of like the scouts have an oath to remind them of what it means to be scouts. We have this Faith Oath, this Golden Rule to always remind us of what it means to be followers of Jesus. 

     And when we remember our Golden Rule Faith Oath, it helps us to be gracious, to be kind, and to be loving. And sometimes it means that we become vulnerable enough that we simply say, “I’m sorry. I got it wrong.”

     I’ll close with this.

   Fred Craddock tells the following story about his family and I’ll share his story in his own words. 

     “When the pastor used to come from my mother’s church to call on him, my father would say, ‘You don’t care about me. I know how churches are. You want another pledge, another name, right? Another name, another pledge, isn’t that the whole point of church? Get another name, another pledge.’

     My nervous mother would run to the kitchen, crying, for fear somebody’s feelings would be hurt. When we had an evangelistic campaign the pastor would bring the evangelist, introduce him to my father and then say, ‘Sic him, get him! Sic him, get him!’ 

     May father would always say the same thing. ‘You don’t care about me! Another name, another pledge. Another name, another pledge! I know about churches.’

     I guess I heard it a thousand times. One time he didn’t say it. He was at the Veteran’s Hospital. He was down to 74 pounds. They had taken out the throat, put in a metal tube, and said, ‘Mr. Craddock, you should have come earlier. But this cancer is awfully far advanced. We’ll give radium, but we don’t know.’

     I went in to see him. In every window—potted plants and flowers. Everywhere there was a place to set them—potted plants and flowers. Even in that thing that swings out over your bed they put food on, there was a big flower. There was by his bed a stack of cards 10 or 15 inches deep. I looked at the cards sprinkled in the flowers. I read the cards beside his bed.
     And I want to tell you, every card, every blossom, every potted plant from groups, Sunday School classes, women’s groups, youth groups, men’s bible class, of my mother’s church—every one of them. 

     My father saw me reading them. He could not speak, but he took a Kleenex box and wrote something on the side from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. . . . 

     He wrote on the side, ‘In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ 

     I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ 

     And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”

     Friends, sometimes we do get it wrong and we need to be vulnerable enough to admit it. 

     And it’s when we do unto others as we would have them do unto us, that we will get it right most of the time.

     Our Faith Oath
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 6:27-38
February 24, 2019

The Feb. 24th sermon is the 2nd and final part of a two-part series in focusing on the special 2019 UMC General Conference which is meeting in St. Louis, Feb. 23-26. 864 United Methodist lay and clergy delegates are meeting from all around the world to consider issues related to same-sex relations. Last Sunday, Christian singer Trey Pearson made a surprise appearance during our worship services and sang his song, “Hey Jesus” which is a prayer describing his painful faith journey since coming out as gay. To read the sermon from that Sunday and hear Trey’s song, click here.

What are your thoughts about Trey’s faith journey in being a Christian singer and coming out as gay three years ago? Why is it important to hear other people’s faith stories to help us in our own understanding of scripture?

One of the points from this week’s sermon was that it’s OK to change in our views of how we interpret certain scripture passages. Pastor Robert shared the story of bible scholar and author, Scot McKnight who admitted that he had been wrong about his biblical understanding that women should not have leadership roles in the church. 

What helps you to have an open mind in how a bible passage is meant to be interpreted? Is there more than one “right” way to interpret the Bible?

Our Gospel reading this Sunday is Jesus’ teaching about the Golden Rule which is to “do unto others what you would have them do unto you.” Pastor Robert said that the Golden Rule serves as our “Faith Oath” in how we interpret the Bible and live out the Bible in our daily lives.

What difference would it make if we all remememberd the Golden Rule in how we interpret the Bible?

The special General Conference that is meeting to decide on issues related to human sexuality ends on Tuesday, February 26. We are invited to attend a post-conference informational meeting led by our Bishop on Saturday, March 2, 10 am to 11 am at The Plains UMC to learn about what was decided at General Conference and what this means for our denomination moving forward. This is open to clergy and laity. No registration required. 

What questions or thoughts do you have about this special General Conference of the UMC?

Monday, February 18, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Feb. 17) Athens First UMC

[Our prayer for Sunday focused on the special UMC General Conference that is meeting in St. Louis this week, Feb. 23 to 26 to decide on issues related to same sex marriage and ordination. We are inviting the congregation to pray the prayer above at 9 am today through Tuesday, Feb. 26. It is slightly adapted from our church’s 4:57 daily cornerstone prayer. For the streaming link of this special UMC General Conference, click here. For the sermon which focused on this upcoming conference, click here.]

Hey, Jesus. It’s us. It’s your church gathered in this beautiful place of worship. And we were just wonderin’… 

Do we truly love the way that you love? A love that is all-embracing, all-inclusive, all-welcoming, and all-affirming. We were just wonderin’ if we truly are that church that reflects your love in all that we say and do. With all of our heart, we want to be a church that lives out our welcome statement in being an open and inclusive congregation. 

But it’s not just our church here on College Street that’s thinking about this important question. It’s the larger church as well, and specifically the United Methodist Church as delegates from all around the world gather this week in St. Louis to decide on important issues related to human sexuality.

And so we pray for your all-embracing, all-inclusive, and all-welcoming presence to surround the 864 delegates who have the responsibility of representing our denomination in deciding on these matters. Grant them your wisdom. Grant them open hearts and open minds, so that we as a denomination would truly be a denomination of open doors.

Thank you for the lay and clergy members of The Way Forward Commission who over the past three years sacrificially gave of their time time to pray together, discern, and recommend, “The One Church Model” which would help us to be a more welcoming and inclusive denomination. Thank you for all this work which has been done on our behalf. 

And Jesus, even as we pray for our denomination this week, help us to each look within our own hearts to see where you are calling us to be more loving, more welcoming, and more like you. Forgive us for when we fail to truly love the way that you love. And thank you for those times when we get it right.

Teach us to pray the prayer you taught your disciples and now invite us to pray together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Trey Pearson Interview - Athens First UMC

[Trey Pearson, the founder and former lead singer of the Christian band, “Everyday Sunday” made a surprise visit to our worship service on February 17 and sang. Trey came out about three years ago. The song above is “Silver Horizon” from his CD, “Love Is Love.” Trey also sang “Hey, Jesus” at the end of the sermon. Click here. Below is an interview we had with Trey during his visit with our church. This was timely since a special General Conference of the United Methodist Church is being held Feb. 23-26 to focus on the issue of same sex relations.]

You were born and raised in Columbus, Ohio which isn’t too far from Athens. How familiar are you with Athens and this area of Ohio?

I am a little bit familiar. I’ve been there a few times, and driven through many times on my way south, or coming home from tours. My main connection would be the Wesleyan church there I’ve been to a few times when I was younger, and performed there before.

What helped you to reconcile your sexual orientation with your biblical and Christ-centered faith?

I think from failed experience and an insatiable desire to understand my faith and relationship to God as a Christian. Growing up as a Calvinist, getting into a Wesleyan church as a teenager, and then continuing to progress thanks to people like Rob Bell and Adam Hamilton, I just continued to peel the assumptions that I grew up with in my faith and understanding of the Bible, and how it works.

You have experienced a lot of negative reaction from evangelical Christians when you came out. How has your faith sustained you during this very challenging time of your life?

As much as I grieve sometimes how long it took me to accept myself, I am very glad that I had done the leg work to understand why I believe what I believe. That has given me a foundation to know that I am loved and worthy of love. Even when people throw a theology at me that is contrary to that, I am very thankful to have continued going past being in that place.

How has your faith grown since you shared with the public that you are gay?

I have seen how sharing my truth has helped as an element in other people’s journeys freedom. I still see things happen in a beautiful way that reminds me what it means to be a part of a body of others, and our Divine reflection of the Christ. It has helped me see even more so how we are all created in God’s image, and how wonderful that is.

What’s been the response of your friends and family since you came out? 

It’s a mixed bag. My oldest sister and her husband have been wonderful, and my sister has been my rock. It has been really difficult on the rest of my family, and I have lost a lot of friends, or a lot of those friends have kind of gone silent. But I have been able to slowly build a beautiful chosen family over these last couple of years, and I am very grateful to have the wonderful people around me that I do.

What helps you to be gracious toward Christians who disagree with you in how you interpret the scriptures, especially those scriptures that seem to be anti-gay?

I think the one thing that I try to remind myself is that I used to be where they are because that was the systemic belief I was raised in. I didn’t know how toxic, hurtful and damaging those beliefs were growing up, and it took having to go through some really difficult times to finally get to a healthier place. So I try to remind myself of why so many people are still in that place, but also why it is so important to speak truth about the reality of what those beliefs can do to people.

Your more recent solo album, “Love Is Love,” expresses a lot of your sorrows and joys during this significant time of transition in your life. What was the process like in writing those songs?

I think it was therapy for myself to write these songs. I had to find ways to express all of the emotions I was going through. It was quite a traumatic time to realize my life was about to never look the same, and to accept all of the things I had lost by not accepting myself sooner. But it was also quite freeing and liberating to finally be able to dig down and be so honest with myself, and then other people. 

You mentioned that you are aware of our denomination’s special General Conference this week where they will decide on issues related to same sex marriage and the ordination of those who are gay/non-celibate. What would you like the 1,000 delegates to consider in addressing these very important issues this week?

When you grow up wondering if you are different, and if you are different realizing that people will think there is something wrong and broken with you, it is very likely it will do a lot of damage to your mental health and development as a child. Kids should not grow up wondering if they are worthy of being loved, or worthy of being able to fall in love. A church rooted in following Jesus and loving your neighbor should continue to seek if their teachings are producing good fruit or bad fruit. If we ever find our teachings are destroying lives like we have with the LGBT community, we should do the same as what we have done in the past, and choose to do better. This is not the first obstacle we have had to overcome as a church. From slavery to treating women as property to so many other things, we need to see that what we have done in the past is not good enough, and that we can do better.

Regardless of what the special General Conference decides this week, what words of advice would you offer to Athens First in how we can be the most welcoming congregation we can possibly be to all people in our community especially the LGBTQ community?

I would encourage you to find ways to show the LGBTQ community that they are just as worthy of love as anyone else. If there are things within your denomination that cause questions to that, I would continue to speak up in ways that show that we can do better and that we will.

You have been touring the country to help provide a safe space for those who are  struggling to reconcile their sexual orientation with their faith. What has this experience been like and how have you seen God at work?

It’s been extremely wonderful to get to go out and share my story, but it has been just as powerful to hear others all over the country, and around the world, share their stories back with me. Truth leads to freedom. I am so thankful to be in a place where I can just be fully me, and share my truth. I love that I get to do work and create art that helps people continue to experience theirs as well.

Sermon (Feb. 17) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Blessed Are You Who Trust”

     At first glance, it would seem that this morning’s scripture readings offer a clear choice on how to have a strong faith. Both Jeremiah in our Old Testament scripture reading and Jesus in our Gospel reading offer us the option of either living a life that will lead to being blessed or a life that will lead to woes.

     Jeremiah basically says, “Hey, what sounds better to you? Would you rather live your life like a struggling shrub in the dry desert or as a strong, flourishing tree with deep roots by fertile soil? Take your pick.”

     Jesus pretty much is doing the same thing when he says, “If you want to have a blessed life, then here’s who you want to be. And if you don’t want to be blessed than just do the exact opposite.”

     When I was first reading these scripture passages, it seemed like this would be a really easy sermon to preach. This isn’t a trick question. Pick the tree! Pick the tree! Who wants to be a dried up bush?

     But that’s until I noticed a very, very important word that almost goes unnoticed in the Jeremiah scripture reading. In the middle of what seems like a straw man argument over which you would rather be, the strong tree with deep roots or the bush that is super dry and struggling to survive in the dessert, it throws in a very important word that I can’t stop thinking about and that word is “trust.”

     “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.”

     Trust. That’s a word that needs to be unpacked. 

     Trust means that WE play an active part in this thing called faith. To learn to trust means that not everything is so clear-cut where we don’t have to struggle, question, or doubt. 

     To trust means that we need to live moment by moment where we follow God in the best way we know how. And sometimes, that might mean spending some sleepless nights, second guessing ourselves, setting aside our long held preconceived notions, being good listeners and life-long learners, and yes, learning to be patient. 

     Our whole life is about learning to trust and learning to reach our fullest potential. It truly is a life-long process, a never ending process. It’s really at the heart of what it means to be human.

     So yes, of course, we want to be the tree and not the bush, but learning to trust doesn’t always happen overnight. Sometimes, it’s a very annoying and slow process. It involves dying to our selves and always being open to where God is leading us. 

     Maybe this is why Jesus offers blessings on those who are poor, those who are hungry, and those who weep. The blessings come when we are open, vulnerable, humble, and receptive. And that takes time.

     Speaking of a long time, for the last forty-seven years, our United Methodist denomination has been wrestling over the issue of human sexuality as it relates to same sex marriage and the ordination of those who are openly gay and non-celibate. 

     This week, 864 United Methodists, half clergy and half laity from all around the world will meet for an historic special General Conference meeting in St. Louis to decide on these two issues.

     A recommendation called “The One Church Model” has been presented to this special General Conference for consideration. The One Church Model basically says that in order to maintain the unity of the denomination since we are not of the same mind on this important issue of human sexuality, we should allow each pastor and each church to decide on whether or not they will allow same sex marriages in their local church settings. 

     Likewise, this One Church Model would allow each annual conference to decide on whether or not to allow the ordination of someone who is openly gay and who is non-celibate. 

     The reason that this special General Conference has been called is for a number of reasons. The first reason is that whenever our General Conference meets every four years, they have a lot of church legislation covering a variety of topics and they don’t have enough time to focus on this one issue with so many other things on the agenda.

     The second reason for this special General Conference is because our denomination is at a stand-still on this issue. Even though we have an official stance as a denomination which does not allow same sex marriage or the ordination of openly gay and non-celibate clergy, there are many United Methodists including lay and clergy who feel very strongly that our current official policy is unjust, discriminatory against those who are gay, and a misinterpretation of scripture.

     A third reason for this special General Conference is because the delegates who vote at the regularly scheduled General Conferences are from many different countries who represent unique cultures and contexts. Some of those ministry settings are in cultures where same sex marriage would not be acceptable inside or outside of the Christian faith compared to other parts of the world. This makes the issue complicated as well.

     And a fourth reason for the need of this special conference is because our current stance on this issue is not practical to continue for such a large denomination of people. 

     More and more clergy are ignoring the Book of Discipline on this particular church law because even though they strongly disagree with our denomination’s stance, they love the United Methodist Church so much that they don’t want to leave it over this one issue.

     Now, keep in mind that you are hearing just my perspective on why we are having this special General Conference. Other pastors might frame it a little differently, but I’m trying to be fair in offering a little context for why this special meeting is happening this week.

     The reason I mention all of this is to invite you to be informed as much as possible and to be in prayer for the delegates throughout the world who will be coming to represent our denomination at this very special conference being held in St. Louis. I also share this with you because I think this connects with our scripture readings today on trusting God.

     Like I said a little bit ago, trusting in God often involves a slow process of wrestling, struggling, discerning, praying, debating, and then arriving at a new place where you probably wouldn’t have gone without God’s spirit leading you. That to me is the meaning of trust. 

     And so beginning tomorrow and through Tuesday, February 26, the last day of this special General Conference, I’m inviting us to pray this daily prayer at 9 am. This prayer is slightly adapted from our 4:57 prayer that we pray everyday. I invite us to pray this, “O God, baptize the United Methodist Church afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus. Amen.” Let’s pray that together now. “O God, baptize the United Methodist Church afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus. Amen.”

     So, if I may be vulnerable with you. I have shared little bits of my thoughts with you on this issue in previous sermons but I want to share a little more since this special General Conference is close at hand.

     About a year and a half ago during a Leadership Board meeting, someone asked me my thoughts about this important issue and what we can do as a congregation to continue to be a welcoming congregation for all people especially during this uncertain time facing the United Methodist Church.

     My response was two-fold. As an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church, I have sought to uphold the Book of Discipline, because it’s part of the covenant I made when I was ordained back in 1991. 

     And then regarding the question about helping our church to continue to be a welcoming congregation for all people, we drafted this inclusive statement about our church that you may have seen in our weekly newsletter and on our church monitors from time to time.

     Here it is. I invite us to read it together.

     I have no doubt that we will continue to grow in what it means to welcome all people regardless of what our General Conference decides when they meet in St. Louis this week. What is decided there will not detract our commitment to be the welcoming community of faith that God has called us to be. 

     So, keep on being the big-hearted welcoming people that you are already are. And thank you for being that kind of congregation!

     And then, I just want to leave you with this story of faith that I recently came across which has a connection with Athens First. Trey Pearson was the lead singer and founding member of a well known Christian band, “Everyday Sunday.” 

     The band had a very successful career with five #1 singles and twenty top ten Christian hits. They have toured throughout the world and their music is incredible.

     Interestingly enough, a campus ministry group here at Ohio University invited “Everyday Sunday” to perform at a concert here in our sanctuary in the spring of 2016, just three years ago. It was right before we remodeled our sanctuary. Because of the popularity of the band, they were expecting a large crowd which is why they asked our church to host the concert.

     Not too long before the concert, we received some phone calls from various pastors and church leaders who heard about the concert, warning us that this band’s lead singer had just come out publicly that he was gay and they were concerned that our church was going to host this concert.

     The ministry group who had invited the band to play here decided to not have the group perform because of the news of the lead singer.

     A couple of months ago, I was reminded of this concert that was supposed to be held here in our sanctuary because I came across a recent interview with the lead singer of “Everyday Sunday,” Trey Pearson. In this interview, Trey shared the heartache and pain that he has felt from the wider faith community who have not approved of his coming out. I was incredibly moved by his story of faith.

     In this recent interview, he said that he grew up in a conservative church near Columbus, Ohio where he was raised in the faith. He had a personal relationship with Jesus, went to church every Sunday, read his bible, and wanted to be the best Christian he could possibly be. But he also knew during his teenage years that he might be gay.

     He tried to suppress those feelings because he knew that his church and his parents would disapprove if he came out. He also tried really hard to change his sexual orientation but he just couldn’t do it. He also spent a lot of time trying to reconcile who he was with what he read in scripture and how his home church taught that homosexuality was a sin.

     And so he went on with his life the best he could, continuing to struggle with all of this. He started the band, “Everyday Sunday” back in 1997 which became very successful. He also got married and he and his wife had two children. 

     But he reached a point where he couldn’t continue to be someone he wasn’t, and so he came out that he was gay not too long before the concert was to be performed here at our church.

     During the recent interview, he shared how his wife had encouraged him to talk to somebody about his struggle in coming to terms with his sexual orientation. He also said that during that time, he was worried how his father would respond to this news since he believed that homosexuality was a sin. He shared how his father hugged him when he publicly came out.

     Trey’s band discontinued soon after he came out because in the evangelical world of Christian concert venues and festivals, they would not be welcomed to perform. He also lost a lot of Christian friends because of his announcement. 

     Trey’s faith journey has been a painful one, but the good news is that he has also received a lot of support from new Christian communities. He also was blessed to have spiritual mentors who were able to offer a different way of interpreting the scriptures when it came to the issue of homosexuality.

     As I listened to Trey’s interview, his faith is as strong as ever, but not after several years of intense inner struggle and pain in coming to terms with his sexual identity. A lot of that pain came from well meaning Christians and not so well meaning Christians who were disappointed in his decision to come out. 

     But in his interview he says that his faith is stronger than it ever has been as a result of his challenging journey. He says that he loves Jesus more than ever. 

     After I listened to this recent interview, I immediately thought of our scripture reading this morning. Trey is like that tree planted by the water. His faith is stronger than ever because he has learned to trust in the Lord through the good and the bad.

     It’s because of people like Trey, people who love Jesus like I do, that I have changed my views on what I thought was a biblical understanding of human sexuality. Their stories of faith have helped me to have a much stronger faith as well and for that I am incredibly thankful.

      Trey is back to singing and he has a new CD called, “Love Is Love.” The songs on this new CD are about his long and painful, but also fruitful journey of faith. 

     I’d like to close this sermon by playing one of the songs from his new CD. I cried when I heard it because it’s not just a song. It’s actually his prayer to Jesus since coming out. The song is called, “Hey, Jesus.” Let’s listen.

     Oh, wait! Even better, Trey Pearson is here with us today to sing his song, “Hey, Jesus!”

     Please welcome, Trey Pearson!!

Blessed Are You Who Trust
Sermon Discussion Questions
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; & Luke 6:17-26
February 17, 2019

The Jeremiah reading invites us to think about if we prefer being a healthy growing tree planted near fertile soil or a dried up bush in an arid desert. The answer seems obvious. Who wouldn’t want to be the tree? But Jeremiah goes on to talk about the importance for us to “trust in the Lord.” To trust the Lord is not an overnight process. Trusting often involves a long process of having an openness to learning, discovering, discerning, and wrestling in our faith.

What does this understanding of what it means to “trust in the Lord” mean to you in your faith journey?

This week, the United Methodist Church is meeting in St. Louis for a special General Conference to vote on the “One Church Model” which says that each pastor and each church should be allowed to decide on whether or not to officiate same sex weddings and to allow each annual conference to decide on whether or not to allow openly gay and non-celebitate clergy candidates to be ordained. For the past forty-seven years, our denomination has debated, struggled, and wrestled with this issue. Pastor Robert shared in the sermon that as we await the decision of this special General Conference we should continue to be the inclusive and big-hearted welcoming people that we have always sought to be. This is why we drafted this inclusive welcoming statement for our church.

Read this statement out loud & share your thoughts about what it means to you for us to be a welcoming congregation: We celebrate the diversity of the human community, and affirm and believe in the sacred worth of each person as a recipient of God’s love and grace. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we declare ourselves to be an open and inclusive congregation. We welcome all persons regardless of gender, race, national origin, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, marital status or economic condition.              

We are also inviting people to pray this daily prayer beginning Monday, Feb. 18 through Tuesday, Feb. 26 which has been adapted from our 4:57 prayer: O God, baptize the United Methodist Church afresh with the life-giving spirit of Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Robert concluded the sermon by telling the story of Trey Pearson, former lead singer of the popular Christian band, “Everyday Sunday.” After a lifetime of painful struggle and wrestling in his faith as it relates to his sexual orientation, Trey came out that he was gay almost three years ago. He says how his faith is stronger because of his decision to come out and he loves Jesus more than ever. Trey is an example of someone who has learned to trust in the Lord over a long period of time. He is an example of what it means to trust in the Lord and be like a growing tree rather than a dried up bush. His new song, “Hey Jesus” tells about his journey in seeking to trust in the Lord and at the same time being true to himself. Listen to this very moving song by Trey Pearson. Click here for our interview with him.

Pray for the special General Conference that is meeting this week in St. Louis to consider the “One Church” model related to the issue of human sexuality. Pray for the one thousand delegates to trust in the Lord by having open minds and hearts in decisions that are made on behalf of the denomination. To watch the live stream of General Conference February 23-26, click here. For more information about the proposed “One Church Plan” that is being recommended to the General Conference, click here

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Sunday Worship (Feb. 10) Kappa Phi & Small Group Emphasis Sunday - Athens First UMC

[Today was Kappa Phi & Small Group Emphasis Sunday. Our theme was “A Loving Faith” which is one part of our three-part discipleship strategy to have a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith. The services were led by Dave Bayless, one of our Leadership Board members who is also a small group facilitator for one of our seven small groups. Members of Kappa Phi who meet in our church also helped lead the services. Below are some of the highlights which were many from our day.]

[Dave Bayless offered the sermon in which he encouraged people to get involved in our of our small groups. We are especially encouraging people to join a small group for our 7-week season of Lent series, “My Fears Relieved” which begins the week of March 10. For a complete list of our small groups, click hereDave concluded his sermon with this thought about the importance of being involved in a small group. He also offered these quotes from people who are currently involved in a small group through our church.]

Meeting with our very small group has become important to me. 

Through Small Group, I feel reaffirmed in my halting spiritual path. 

Our leader prays aloud in such a beautiful way. Also, I like to observe him because he is a master at giving affirmations. He always has a compliment, a caring question or word of support. He is a good model for me. I thought I was a fairly positive person but his active listening and proactive style of interaction teaches me much. 

Another member of our group sometimes shares struggles he has had in his difficult life. He reminds me that life is not easy for many people. He broadens my view  of the world. I am reminded anew of the many ways I have been blessed through the talents, situations, family and relationships God has given me.

Another member of our group helps those at the fringes of our society. I admire his willingness to reach out and care for those whose lives are so very complicated by hungry, poverty, drugs, abuse, and incarceration. He shows God’s love to and prays for people in extreme need. I question my own willingness to self-sacrifice my comfortable life-style.

Members of my Small Group cause me to do some soul-searching. I admire them and see their actions as expressions of God’s love. They show me different ways to be more Christ-like. I have much to learn from them.

I like the opportunity to meet with Christian friends who know me in depth.  Who understand my fears, and why I am afraid.  Who understand my doubts and why I doubt.  Who understand my hopes and the reason for my hopes.

Participating in a small group has helped me have a more loving faith:
> when we plan and host a Lindley Inn Service and speak with and sit with the residents;
> when we send greeting cards and valentines to members who are in care facilities or cannot easily leave their homes;
> when we discuss questions on a given sermon and share our thin place moments;
> when we gather together as a small group for a potluck dinner

Small group helps me stay grounded in my faith.  No matter my mood or how my week has been, our small group helps me re-focus and appreciate so much about life and our faith experience.
Small group for me is an opportunity to sit with friends in a non-threatening setting to listen and share and learn from each other.
We start each session with prayer followed by sharing important events, both positive and negative that are impacting our lives,  a :"soul check" if you will.

We share achievements and also disappointments and by doing so move towards a "peace" that arises from growing to understand that despite what we might individually think is an enormous overwhelming situation or condition in our own lives or in the lives of others important to us,  by sharing with others, the "me" in the situation, becomes the "we."  By sharing, we learn that triumphs and tribulations are shared by all, that we all have good days and bad days, We learn that we all have health issues, that we all have regrets, that we all have memories of what seemed like simpler, more peaceful, less complicated times with parents and friends and family. Sometimes I arrive at small group carrying something that puzzles me deeply, that I can come to understand better as a result of the insight or experiences of another small group member. 

Through Pastor Robert's sermon questions, we get the opportunity to share personal reflection and through the group give-and-take come to better understand scripture and the enigma that the Bible sometimes seems to be.
Small group gives me a chance to get to know and talk with folks that I wouldn’t normally see on a regular basis.  It’s interesting and encouraging and sometimes convicting to hear what the group members have to contribute each time we meet.  Our loving faith is exercised as we discuss how we experience God’s love for us,
how we show our love for God, and how we share God’s love with those around us.

Small group is anchors me in my faith and to the church. It is the place where I can openly discuss my faith with other Christians; I support them and am supported by them. There is so much love in this group for which I am grateful. It is an important extension of our church.

The members of our small group quickly became friends and felt comfortable sharing feelings, experiences and support that came from the heart.  As we got to know each other we began a faith journey together to support each other through death of family members, cancer, family problems and illness.  We have become ”a faith family” that helps us experience God’s love through our interactions with each other and serving together when we are monthly hosts at the welcome coffee time.  Each day we walk with God but we also know that our small group is praying for each other especially when our journeys take us on rocky paths.  Thank you for creating the small groups and I hope more people will benefit from these faith communities in the future.

[One of the Kappa Phi members offered her testimony on how Kappa Phi and Athens First help her to have a more loving faith.]

[Not only was this a Kappa Phi & small group emphasis Sunday, we were also celebrating our church’s 61st anniversary of the first worship service in our current building as well as our 2nd anniversary since the completion of the remodeling of our building. Our Chancel Choir sang “The Color Purple” which they also beautifully presented for our special service two years ago.]

[Kappa Phi sang, “Lord I Need You” to help remind us that this is at the heart of what it means to have a loving faith.]

[Kappa Phi members with Pastor Robert for our Kappa Phi/Small Group Emphasis Sunday]

[We had plenty of worship greeters this morning!]

Monday, February 4, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Feb. 3) Athens First UMC

Jesus, thank you for being so much more than our limited understanding. Thank you for being our Lord, Savior, Redeemer, Healer, Shepherd, Friend, and King. Forgive us for when we limit you or put you into the box of our own making.

Help us to be humble enough to admit when we misrepresent who you truly are. And thank you for those times of openness where we can see you in new and fresh ways.

We also confess those times where we have labeled others in ways that are not reflective of who they truly are. For those times when we have judged others based on our own limited information and biased opinions, forgive us and help us to see the good in others.

Thank you for seeing beyond our own pettiness and selfish ways. Thank you for seeing who we truly are, people who are loved and made in your image.

And so we pray for reconciliation where there are misunderstandings. We pray for harmony where there is discord. We pray for community where there is division.

As we prepare to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion this morning, help us to leave behind our limited views of you and each other and open our hearts and our minds to receive you anew.

In your name we offer this prayer even as we pray the prayer you taught us to say together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sermon (Feb. 3) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Joseph’s Boy”

     There were many advantages growing up as the last of four siblings. The main advantage was that I was able to avoid some of the same mistakes my older siblings had made when I became their age.

     Another advantage was that being the last of four, there was a lot less pressure on me to always have the best grades. By the time I was born, I think mom and dad were much more relaxed as parents and didn’t have as high expectations for me as they did for the others. Actually, that was a disadvantage to some degree but at the time, I saw it as a huge advantage.

     But with all of these advantages, there was one very big disadvantage in being the youngest of four. Most of my teachers didn’t really see me for who I was as a student. They had a tendency to compare me to the educational achievements of my older siblings. 

     I’m not sure why but that constant comparison did nothing to motivate me to do better in school. I guess it was because I knew that it would be extremely difficult to ever meet those expectations and it made me want to focus on other outlets in my life like sports to help distinguish me from my siblings.

      I almost feel like I should be lying on a couch telling you these personal things about my life, like I’m in therapy or something! How much do you charge again?

      It also didn’t help that I was often referred to not as “Robert” but as “Norman’s boy” because my dad was an awesome baseball player back in the day and I played baseball. Plus, I looked a lot like him. To this day, when I go back to my hometown, people will still say to me, “You look so much like your dad.”

     It’s kind of hard to find your own way when everybody is comparing you to other family members.

     We find a similar kind of family comparison going on with Jesus from our Gospel reading this morning. One chapter earlier, we are told that Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. Even at age thirty, the people who knew him from when he was just knee-high were still referring to him as “Joseph’s boy” even though he was now well into his adult years of life.

     By calling him “Joseph’s boy” it was like they were limiting Jesus to this one very small aspect of his life as if there weren’t any other dimensions to who he had become. They weren’t prepared to see Jesus in this new light where he was connecting with people in a way they had never before experienced.

     It also says something about how they perceived Joseph.  To them, he was nobody special so why should Jesus be seen any differently.

     And actually, by referring to Jesus as “Joseph’s boy,” they were also putting themselves down because they just couldn’t believe that somebody from their sleepy town was impacting people the way that he had been doing in this early stage of his ministry.

     That phrase that they used when they referred to Jesus as “Joseph’s Boy” reveals a whole lot more of how they saw themselves than in their understanding of who Jesus was. 

     I guess this is just how we’re wired. We tend to only see what we expect to see in others and yes, even what we expect to see in ourselves.

     In one of the top selling leadership books entitled, Leadership & Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, the authors explain how all of us are prone to self-deception in how we see the people around us and what we see or don’t see in ourselves. 

     The basic premise of the book is that we tend to live in a box where we perceive people based on the faulty assumption that we have all the information necessary to form opinions about people and what we consider to be their inadequacies.

     When we are living in the box of our own preconceived opinions about others, we then fail to see them as fully human. The authors in the book say that when we stay in our box, we see others as “objects” which then makes it really hard to work toward forming positive and healthy relationships.

     One of the examples given in the book is about a parent who had an 18 year old son named Bryan who never came home on time even though it was very clear what time his curfew was. The parent was in her own box where she saw her son as irresponsible, a troublemaker, and disrespectful. Her son was also in his own box in how he viewed his mother. He could only see her rules as dictatorial, unloving, and overly concerned about how he was using his free time.

     The book goes on to say how the parent and the son were both living in their boxes of how they perceived each other. We’ve all been in these boxes and it’s very understandable when we are because these situations can be very frustrating.

     The problem is that sometimes we live in the box so long that we fail to see anything positive about the other person. We only focus on what drives us crazy about the other person.

     So, one night, Bryan asked for the car keys and the mother told him to be home no later than 10:30. Bryan grabbed the car keys and slammed the door behind him. For the rest of that evening, the mother was focused on the clock. She watched the 10 o’clock news knowing that Bryan only had 30 minutes to get home. Thinking about this only made her angrier toward Bryan.

     But then something amazing happen. At 10:29 pm. 10:29, with just one minute left, she heard Bryan getting out of the car and then he walked into the house. To her complete surprise, he made it home by curfew.

     You would think this would have been a moment of great joy for this mother. Her son finally came home on time!

     Instead, because she had been so anxious that entire evening, when her son walked into the door, she didn’t thank him for coming home on time. She didn’t say how much she appreciated him coming home by 10:30. Instead, because she was living in her box, she made a sarcastic comment, “So, I see that you cut it really close, didn’t you?” As you might imagine, that comment didn’t go over well with Bryan and he stormed to his room. 

     This illustration from the book reminds us that we are all susceptible in seeing only what we want to see in others or what we think we see in others. It’s easy to stay in the boxes of our own making in how we perceive others.

     Now if we stay in these boxes in how we relate to others, think of how the same can be true in how we relate to God. Like the people in our Gospel reading, we too can live in boxes of our own making where we only see Jesus in a certain way. Even though Jesus had been doing some incredible things in this early stage of his ministry, they could only see him with their limited understanding.

     As we follow Jesus through the Gospels, we are invited to see Jesus in new and fresh ways. We are invited to step out of our boxes and see him as the one who is the very embodiment of God. 

     Maybe this is why we have this story from Luke’s Gospel, to help us see Jesus apart from our preconceived notions that we have about him. Maybe Jesus is bigger than my limited understanding. Maybe I have more to learn about who Jesus is. Maybe I need to step out of my box.  And when I actually do that, it’s amazing how this can lead me into a deeper faith.

     Just four months ago, eleven people were killed by an anti-semitic gunman at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On the day before the first funeral, I remember thinking what a difficult job it would be for the rabbi of that congregation to prepare for those funerals.

     Rabbi Jeffry Myers was interviewed by many major news outlets about his thoughts on this tragic event that occurred in his synagogue. He offered these prophetic words to a nation that was turning to this religious leader for answers as we often do in times such as this.  Here’s his response just a couple of days after the shooting as he was preparing for the funerals:

     “When you speak words of hate, when you speak ill of the other candidate, any words of hate, Americans listen to you. They get their instructions from you," Myers said, "When you speak words of hate, you say to them, 'This is okay, you can do it as well.’ Hate is not blue, hate is not red, hate is not purple. Hate is in all," Myers said. "Tone down the hate. Speak words of love, speak words of decency and of respect. When that message comes loud and clear, Americans will hear that and we can begin to change the tenor of our country."

     Rabbi Jeffry Myers rose to the occasion following that tragedy by modeling for all of us and especially for the leaders of our country what it means to step out of our boxes and begin to see people not as blue or red or purple. We are supposed to be one nation and our words really do matter. People are listening.

     I pray for this same fresh perspective to be present for the 1,000 United Methodist delegates who will be meeting at the special General Conference gathering in St. Louis later this month to decide on issues related to human sexuality. Will we each stay in our tiny theological boxes that simply affirms what we think we already know about this issue? Or will we dare to step out of those boxes where we seek to be more understanding, more inclusive, more gracious, and more loving toward all of God’s people?

     As that leadership book reminds us and as the Gospels remind us again and again, we are always faced with the decision to stay in the box or to get out of the box. We are always faced with the decision on whether or not we are willing to see Jesus for who he is.

     Is he just “Joseph’s boy” or is Jesus truly the embodiment of a loving and gracious God? A loving and gracious God who was willing to become human like us, so much so, that he was even willing to die on a cross for the sins of the world.

     And so every time we receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, maybe think of it as an opportunity to get out of our box and see Jesus in a new way. See this as an opportunity to set aside our preconceived notions of who we think Jesus is and instead, see him for who he truly is.

     We not only know him as Joseph’s boy. We also know him as Lord, Savior, Redeemer, Healer, Shepherd, Friend, and King.

     Joseph’s Boy
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 4:21-30
February 3, 2019

In our Gospel reading from Luke 4, people from Jesus’ hometown were amazed at his teachings which led them to ask the question, “Is this not Joseph’s son? Behind this question is a skeptical attitude that God would be able to use anyone from Joseph’s family in such a powerful way.

Have you ever underestimated the power of Jesus to work through you or through a particular situation? Share a time when Jesus surprised you.

In the book, Leadership & Deception: Getting Out of the Box, practical examples are given in how we often put ourselves and others in little boxes where we fail to see ourselves and each other for who we really are. One example in the book is in how a teenage son was always violating his curfew and this frustrated his mother. One night, when her son came home in time, she failed to affirm him because she was anticipating that he would be late again. Sometimes we stay in our boxes where we fail to see ourselves and each other in deeper ways.

Can you think of a time when you felt affirmed and encouraged by someone who was able to see you in a deeper and more meaningful way?

Pastor Robert shared about Rabbi Jeffry Myers who is the Rabbi of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh where the mass shooting occurred this past fall. In one of his interviews, Rabbi Myers encouraged our country to not put people in political boxes of blue, red, and purple and instead see each other as children of God. 

What helps you to see someone with whom you strongly disagree as a child of God?

We celebrated Holy Communion this past Sunday where we were reminded that Jesus is our Lord, Savior, Redeemer, Healer, Shepherd, Friend, and King. 

In addition to the Sacrament of Holy Communion, what else helps you to remember that Jesus is more than simply, “Joseph’s Boy.”