A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sermon (March 31) by Rev. Robert McDowell “My Fears Relieved: Forgiveness”

     In season two of the Netflix series, “The Crown,” there’s an episode that focuses on when Queen Elizabeth met the famous American evangelist, Billy Graham in 1955, ten years after WW II had ended. It’s an incredible episode because it focuses on our topic today of forgiveness.

     In this episode, Queen Elizabeth struggles in what it means to forgive her uncle, former King of England, Edward VIII. As Queen, Elizabeth had to decide on how to respond to the revelation that her uncle had been a Nazi sympathizer, plotted to overthrow his brother, Queen Elizabeth’s father, and encouraged Germany to bomb England so that England would eventually sign a peace treaty with Germany.

     Queen Elizabeth makes the difficult decision of telling her Uncle, the former King of England that he is no longer allowed to return to England without her permission and Edward leaves from that meeting upset and angry that she would decide to do such a thing especially since he is part of the royal family. During her meeting with him, she actually tells him that there is no possibility of her forgiving him.

     After she makes this difficult decision regarding her uncle, Queen Elizabeth sets up a meeting with Billy Graham who was visiting England at the time to see if the famous new evangelist might have some helpful insights on how she might be able to forgive her unrepentant uncle for the things he had done.   

     During this meeting, the Queen remarked to Billy Graham the tremendous pressure that is involved in being the top leader of the Church of England and the challenge it is to be constantly making difficult decisions. And she tells the famous preacher how she longs to be what she referred to as a “simple Christian.”

     She then asks Billy Graham on his thoughts about forgiveness and it’s that conversation that I find to be an incredible theological dialogue on the challenge of forgiving others. I said to Penny after we watched this episode last year, “You know that I’m going to use this someday in a sermon.”  And so here we are.

     In their conversation about forgiveness, Queen Elizabeth asks Billy Graham whether there can be any good circumstances where one can be a good Christian and not forgive someone. And Billy Graham answered that Christianity teaches that no one is beneath forgiveness. He said that even when Jesus was dying on the cross, he asked the Lord to forgive those who were crucifying him. 

     And Queen Elizabeth countered that with the observation that Jesus also said as he hung on the cross that they know not what they do. The implication she was making was, “What do you do when people do know what they are doing and still do it?”

     And that really is the question of all questions, isn’t it? “What do you do when people do know what they are doing and still do it?”

     Like our Gospel reading for example. How do you forgive a son who rudely demands his share of the family inheritance in which he was basically saying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” How do you have a forgiving attitude toward someone like this, not to mention a close member of your family.

     And how do you forgive your son who then foolishly wastes the family inheritance on loose living and irresponsible spending of the money. How do you forgive that kind of person even if he’s your son?

     This story reminds me of the passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes where the melancholy author says, “I hated all the toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.”

     What does a father do when his son squanders the family fortune in a small fraction of the time that it took the father to accumulate it through hard work and dedication? What does a father do?

     You heard the story. A father has two sons and the younger of them does the unthinkable by asking for his share of the inheritance and basically cutting himself off from the family by doing so.

     He leaves and the first thing this son does is find a financial advisor with a really good reputation and invests his money in savings bonds, equity mutual funds, blue-chip stocks, income mutual funds, and standard saving accounts that would allow for transfer of funds without penalty. He updates his resume, buys a nice interview suit, and applies for job openings that match his skills and offer the possibility of career advancement.

     OK, I made that part up. Just making sure you were awake. No, what this wayward and rude son does is he spends the entire fortune on temporary pleasures leaving him in a very desperate situation.

     With no more money left to buy lottery tickets, he has no choice but to start growing up. And he’s forced to take one of the lowest jobs you can have during that time which is to feed someone’s pigs. Since he didn’t know anybody, was in a foreign land, and was cut off from his family, there was nobody left to help dig him out of the hole he had dug for himself.

     Just as he is about to scoop up some of the pig food for himself, the thought occurs to him that if he is going to have to live at the bottom of the food chain, he might as well do it as one of his father’s servants who at least get to have people food every day. 

     I never thought about this part of the story in this way, but when this wayward son becomes super excited at the possibility of becoming one of his father’s low level servants, he probably felt like he won the lottery. 

     This young man who at one time had everything he ever needed was now facing a life and death situation. And because he was in such a desperate situation, he lowers the bar so much that even the thought of possibly being a low level servant for his father was now comparable in his mind to being the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. 

     And of course, the amazing “over the top” part of this parable is when the father throws caution and pride to the wind by running out to welcome his son home before the son even has a chance to offer the apology of his life.

     Instead of being one of his father’s servants, this wayward son is welcomed back and reinstated as one of his sons. It is an incredible and unbelievable story of grace.

     This is a parable that has a feel good ending, or does it? 

     I mean, yeah, it’s awesome that Jesus is helping us to see that we have a loving and forgiving God who is always ready to welcome us back no matter how far we have drifted away and no matter how unworthy we may think we are and how underserving we may feel, but the story actually ends with the elder son feeling excluded.

     This elder son who was dependable, reliable, and faithful isn’t so ready to forgive his younger brother. And he certainly is in no mood to attend the welcome home party.

     And that’s how this story ends, with a son who doesn’t deserve mercy receiving mercy, a father who shouldn’t be forgiving being very forgiving, and an elder son debating in his mind on whether or not he will be attending the welcome home party for baby brother.

     Like any story, we can probably identify with the different characters. Maybe we can see ourselves as the prodigal son who really messed up but then received forgiveness. Or maybe we can identify with the father because we have been praying for reconciliation and when the opportunity arose, we were more than ready to offer forgiveness. Or maybe we can relate to the elder son who is nowhere near ready to offer forgiveness. There’s just too much pain. You need time.

     Which kind of brings us back to the Queen Elizabeth and Billy Graham story and why I think that episode of The Crown is so important. Queen Elizabeth was struggling with forgiving her uncle, the former King. She was feeling very conflicted about the situation and reached out to Billy Graham for spiritual advice.

     How do you forgive someone after they have caused so much pain, especially when there’s no sign of contrition or humility on their part? And what does that mean for people of faith who believe in a God who is forgiving and offers unconditional love like the prodigal son received in the parable?

     No easy answers, I know, as much as I’d like to wrap this sermon up in a nice little package with a bow on top and send us all on our way. What does it mean to have our fears relieved when it can be so hard to be forgiving. Where is the relief in that?

     Well, even John Newton, the writer of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” admitted even years after his conversion that he often struggled in accepting God’s forgiveness because of his past sins. If the writer of “Amazing Grace” struggled to come to grips with forgiveness and if the Queen of England has similar struggles, then maybe we’re in good company. Forgiveness is a beautiful thing but it can also have some rough edges if we’re honest.

     And so, I wondered how Billy Graham was going to respond to the Queen’s excellent question that I shared at the beginning of today’s sermon. “What do you do when people do know what they are doing and still do it?”

     And I loved Billy Graham’s response. He said, “The solution for being unable to forgive is to pray for those that one cannot forgive.”

     Wise words. What else would you expect from Billy Graham?

     “The solution for being unable to forgive is to pray for those that one cannot forgive.”

     As that scene between Queen Elizabeth and Billy Graham fades out, the next scene, the last scene of the episode shows Queen Elizabeth alone in the chapel in prayer. 

     She took his advice. She prayed.

     We are halfway through the season of Lent and our series on “My Fears Relieved.” We have looked at the fear of temptation, the fear of doubts, the fear of fruitfulness, and today, the fear of forgiveness.

     Whatever fear we might be facing, let’s take Billy Graham’s advice and pray.

     And when you pray, pray that you would be open to receiving God’s forgiving love in your life. Pray for those you find it difficult to forgive. And pray for those who are unforgiving toward others.

     In the words of a beautiful ancient prayer: 

     “Almighty God, you know our needs before we ask, and our ignorance in asking: Set your servants free from all anxious thoughts about the future, give us contentment with your good gifts, and confirm our faith that as we seek your kingdom, you will not let us lack any good thing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

My Fears Relieved: Forgiveness
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
March 31, 2019

Forgiveness is a beautiful thing but we often find it difficult to forgive ourselves or others. 

What are some reasons why people find it difficult to be forgiving?

In the series, “The Crown” there’s a scene where Queen Elizabeth is struggling to forgive her uncle, Edward VIII who was the former King of England and who had been a Nazi sympathizer during his reign as king. She consults the famous evangelist, Billy Graham and asks him how it’s possible to forgive someone who is unrepentant. 

If you were Billy Graham in that situation, how would you have answered the Queen?

The story of the Prodigal Son is about the youngest son who rudely demands his share of the inheritance. He then spends all of the money on foolish things leaving him destitute. He comes to his senses and decided to go back to his father and beg him to be one of his servants so he would at least be able to have food to eat. Surprisingly, the father welcomes his wayward son home and throws a lavish welcome home party for him and the family. In observing all of this, the elder son is reluctant to join his father in welcoming his brother home. 

Which character in this parable that was told by Jesus do you relate to the most at this time in your life? Which character do you relate to the most from your past?

At the end of the scene between Queen Elizabeth and the evangelist, Billy Graham, the Queen asks a very difficult question. “How do you forgive someone who has caused you harm and is unrepentent (referring to her uncle)? Billy Graham wisely answered, “you pray for that person.” The following scene shows the Queen taking his advice by praying in a chapel.

What do you think of Billy Graham’s advice to pray when we find it difficult to forgive? How can prayer help us find relief from other fears that we have been looking at in our Lent series: Temptation, Doubt, Fruitfulness?

Conclude your time by praying this ancient prayer of faith that can help us overcome our fear of forgiving ourselves and others:

Almighty God, you know our needs before we ask, and our ignorance in asking: Set your servants free from all anxious thoughts about the future, give us contentment with your good gifts, and confirm our faith that as we seek your kingdom, you will not let us lack any good thing; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (March 24/Lent) Athens First UMC

[We were blessed to have The Company of Praise, a youth choir from Stewartstown, PA offer several anthems during our 10:30 worship service. They were here since Wednesday to do mission work at Good Works, Habitat for Humanity, the Food Pantry, & Rural Action. They also performed concerts at Morrison-Gordon Elementary, the community building in Stewart, and were part of the Ohio University School of Music concert held here at our church. Thank you, Company of Praise for showing us what it means to be fruitful rather than fearful in living out our faith. For Sunday’s sermon on fruitfulness, click here and for three songs from their concerts, click here.]

Quiet our souls, O God. Quiet our souls.

We’re really good at being busy but not so good at simply being still and knowing that you are God. And then we wonder why we get so anxious. Maybe we just need to slow down, take a deep breath, and simply be in your presence. 

I’m going to try something really different with the pastoral prayer this morning, dear God. Instead of me talking, I’m going to encourage us to simply listen to what you want to say to us. What do you want to say to us?

In these next few moments, O God, quiet our souls.

(Moments of Silence)

In these next few moments, O God, what is it from our gathering in worship this morning that you are calling us to allow to continue to settle in our hearts and minds? Maybe something from the awesome music we have heard or the reading and proclamation of your Word. We are listening, O God…

(Moments of Silence)

In these next few moments, O God, what is it about our past week; maybe a situation we faced, maybe someone we met, maybe a new experience we encountered that we are still processing? We are listening, O God…

(Moments of Silence)

In these next few moments, O God, how are you calling us to be fruitful rather than fearful? We are listening, O God…

(Moments of Silence)

We are listening, O God, we are listening, O God,

Even as we pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Company of Praise Youth Choir from Stewartstown, PA Concert Highlights

[The Company of Praise Youth choir from Stewartstown, PA posing for a picture in front of Ohio University following our 10:30 am worship service. They are from Stewartstown UMC which is Pastor Robert’s home church. His brother, Rev. David McDowell is the Music Director. They spent their spring break offering concerts at Morrison -Gordon Elementary, the Stewart community center building in Stewart, Ohio, and the Ohio University Unity Concert at Athens First UMC. They spent their days working at Good Works, Habitat for Humanity, the Food Pantry, and Rural Action. Their mission is to share God’s love through song and service. We were blessed to have them!]

[The Company of Praise singing one of their concert songs, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” at a Morrison-Gordon Elementary assembly on Friday. They also helped with projects in the classrooms.]

[The Company of Praise joining the Ohio University Choral Union and Logan Elm High School Choir in this rousing arrangement of “Jacob’s Ladder” which closed the concert. The instrumentalists in this song were from the Company of Praise.]

[And singing the song, “Only the World” at the Stewart, Ohio Community building that included a covered dish meal and ice-cream social after the concert!]

[Top Left: Performing at the Stewart, OH community center. Top Right: Performing at the Ohio University Unity Concert hosted by Athens First UMC. Bottom Left: One of their work groups helping at Southeast Ohio Habitat for Humanity. Bottom Right: Preparing to sing at the Athens First UMC 10:30 Sunday worship service.]

Sermon (March 24) by Rev. Robert McDowell “My Fears Relieved: Fruitfulness”

    So here’s a fun little factoid you might be interested in knowing about me before I begin this sermon. My first sermon that I gave in seminary back in 1985 was based on our Gospel reading this morning from Luke, chapter thirteen.

     This scripture reading is bringing back a whole bunch of memories for me. I honestly don’t think I’ve preached on this Gospel reading since that day in preaching class thirty-four years ago. Dr. Kendall McCabe was my preaching professor and he was very intimidating. He had a reputation for being tough on aspiring preachers like myself. 

     During the semester, each student was expected to prepare and then preach a sermon in front of the class while being video taped. This one sermon would be a major part of our overall grade.

     It didn’t help that the first person who preached in front of our class was so nervous that great big beads of sweat dripped from his forehead making us all wonder if we should call 911 just in case. He was that nervous.

     It also didn’t help that this professor said that we had to preach whatever scripture reading he would assign to us. Of course, we were all praying that he would give us a familiar and well-liked scripture reading such as John 3:16 or Psalm 23, you know something comforting, something that would lend itself nicely to a three point sermon, a couple of heart-warming illustrations, and a sweet little poem at the end to tie everything together.

     As luck would have it, I got assigned our Gospel reading for this morning. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that Luke 13:1-9 does not make your top ten favorite scripture list. 

     My challenge? To take this very awkward Gospel reading which talks about people getting murdered and another group of people dying because a tower fell on them, and then Jesus’ words that we all need to repent or we will all die like them…take all of that and somehow turn it into an above average sermon for a passing grade.

     To this day, whenever I preach, I can picture Dr. McCabe sitting out there somewhere with his notepad and pen, analyzing each and every word. And you never knew what he was thinking as you preached your sermon. He always had a poker face, a neutral expression so you never knew what he was thinking. 

     Now, most students did not take preaching class until their 2nd or 3rd year of divinity school but I wanted to get it out of the way. I wanted to face my fear of preaching head on. Yes, you heard that correctly. My fear of preaching.

     When I decided to go to seminary to become a pastor, my biggest fear was preaching. I was very intimidated by it. I couldn’t imagine preaching week after week. I could see myself leading Bible studies, organizing committees, and eating at potlucks, but preaching? That was scary to me. They say that speaking in public is one of the top fears that people have. 

     When I started seminary, I also needed reassurance that I would be able to make a difference by being a pastor. I knew that becoming a pastor was going to be a long process of not only three years of seminary but also all of the assignments and interviews that would be required of me before I would be able to be ordained a United Methodist pastor. Our denomination has a very extensive ordination process.

     I honestly didn’t know if I was up for the challenge. It was an exciting time for me but I also was face to face with the fear of beginning this long, long process toward ordination. And here I was facing my fear of putting together this sermon for my preaching class.

     Ironically, this scripture reading that was assigned to me is about facing fear which is our focus during this Season of Lent. 

     So this is what I discovered when I did my research on this very obscure and mysterious scripture passage from Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, the same city where Pontius Pilate had previously sent several of his Roman soldiers to murder Jewish pilgrims who had gathered in Jerusalem to observe their religious holy day festivities. 

     Since Jesus was now on his way to Jerusalem, the same place where the Roman soldiers wiped out a large number of Jewish worshippers, they are wondering why Jesus doesn’t seem to be afraid to go there, especially since he had been attracting a large following of people who wanted to make him a king. The Roman Empire was known to do whatever it took to remind the Jewish people that there was only one king and that King was the emperor of Rome.

     Jesus’ answer to their concerns seems very unJesus-like because he tells them that the same thing is going to happen to them if they don’t repent. What Jesus is doing here is that he’s trying to help them stop fearing the Romans and fear more about whether or not they are being willing to be open to the new thing that God is about to do through Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection. 

     Jesus doesn’t want us to live in fear of what others might do to us like Pilate and the powers that be.  Jesus wants us to be be more focused on our willingness to trust God as we face an unknown future. Jesus wants us to trust God more than we fear what others might do to us.

     And this is why we will find that Jesus will continue his journey to Jerusalem and a possible confrontation with the powers of the Roman Empire. Jesus was more focused on trusting God and how God was going to use him for the sake of others rather than on being afraid.

     To emphasize his point, Jesus offers a short parable about a vineyard that failed to yield any fruit. When the owner of the vineyard became so frustrated with the lack of fruit that he wanted it cut down, the gardener intercedes and tells the owner to give the vineyard one more chance to bear fruit. 

     By telling us this parable, Jesus is wanting us to focus more on trusting God and bearing good fruit in the way we live out our lives rather than placing our focus on being fearful. Do you want to be fearful or do you want to be fruitful? It’s our choice, Jesus is telling us.

     The people who were warning Jesus about going into dangerous Jerusalem weren’t telling him anything he didn’t already know. They just didn’t realize that Jesus was more focused on being fruitful than he was in being fearful.

     John Newton, who wrote the famous Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace” was born in England in 1725. He became a captain of slave ships. During one of his voyages, off the coast of Ireland, his ship encountered a severe storm. He awoke in the middle of the night and noticed that his ship was filled with water and he called out to God for help. 

     Soon, the cargo of the ship shifted and ended up stopping up the hole where the ship had been taking on water and the ship was able to drift to safety. This would mark the beginning of John Newton’s spiritual conversion. Because of that experience, he began reading the Bible and started treating the slaves with compassion and sympathy.

     He became a lay minister and eventually was ordained as a priest in the Church of England. He would write a pamphlet called “Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade,” in which he described the horrific conditions of the slave ships. He had this sent to as many people as possible who had influence in helping to end the slave trade. Just before he died, he was able to see the passage of the British Slave Trade Act which prohibited the slave trade in the British Empire.

     Years after John Newton’s conversion he would confess that he never felt like he was truly converted to Christianity until he started to actively help end the slave trade. It wasn’t until he was producing good fruit that he truly knew that his life had truly changed.

     When I was trying to think of a title for this Season of Lent sermon series on fear, the phrase from his hymn, “Amazing Grace,” came to mind. It’s from verse two of that incredible hymn. “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace, my fears relieved.”

     “My fears relieved.”

     One of the best ways that our fears can be relieved is when we seek to be fruitful in the way that we live our lives. A former slave ship captain working to end the slave trade. A bunch of Methodists serving a meal, picking up litter along the highway, leading a worship service in a nursing home, delivering flowers to hospital patients, and helping to build a Habitat for Humanity home. And how about fifty high schoolers giving up their Spring Break to travel to another state and offer their gift of music and serve in the community?

     Do we want to be fearful or fruitful? Fearful or fruitful?

     Oh, back to my earlier story. So it was my turn to preach in front of my preaching class. I was so nervous. Here, I was facing my biggest fear. My first big test. All eyes were on me including Dr. McCabe taking notes and not giving me any indication if I was on the right track or not.

     Later that week after I had preached in front of the class, he invited me to his office. He played the video and together we watched the sermon. He pointed out the good parts and where I needed improvement. He would pause the video from time to time and make a few suggestions for improvement. He ended our time together by saying, “Not bad for your first sermon, especially since I gave you a very challenging scripture.”

     I took that to mean that it was above average which is a high compliment coming from this hard-nosed preaching professor.

     And so, Dr. McCabe, even though you’re not really in attendance today, I can’t help but to wonder what you thought of my sermon today on the same scripture thirty-four years later. In my imagination, I saw you jotting down notes. Could my delivery have been better? Maybe I could have explained this difficult passage of scripture in a more helpful way? Was it too long? Too short? What did you think of my little power phrase I used in the middle? Fearful or fruitful? Fearful or fruitful? Kind of clever, don’t you think?

     More importantly, Dr. McCabe. After all of these years, I just want to say, “thank you.” Thank you for helping me to overcome my fears as a first year seminary student. Thank you for seeing fruit in me that I couldn’t see myself. Thank you for seeing beyond my inexperience, my insecurities, and my fears to what I could become with a little seasoning.

     Thank you for assuring me just when I needed it the most, that there is nothing to fear, there is nothing to fear, especially when I’m preaching to a people I love, a people who love God, and a people who are fruitful in the ways they live out their faith. 

My Fears Relieved: Fruitfulness
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 13:1-9
March 24, 2019

This Sunday’s Gospel reading which is Luke 13:1-9 probably does not end up on anyone’s favorite list of scripture passages. It’s where the disciples ask Jesus about Jewish worshippers who were recently murdered by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. They also asked Jesus about a tower that had fallen and killed some other people. The reason the disciples were asking Jesus about these very tragic events is because they were fearful of why these things happened. Jesus responds to their questions by encouraging them to not be fearful about those events but to instead keep their focus on following God.

Why do tragic events that happen in our world lead us to be fearful? What helps you to overcome your fears of when bad things happen?

In addition to encouraging the disciples to focus on repenting and keeping their focus on God, he also tells them a parable about the importance of living out their faith by being fruitful. One of the best ways of overcoming our fear of bad things that happen in the world is to find ways to make a positive difference. 

What are some positive things that we can do especially in a world filled with so much bad news and negativity?

Pastor Robert shared the story of John Newton, the writer of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” He was a former slave ship captain who had a conversion experience. As a result of his new found faith, he became more compassionate toward slaves and would later work to overturn the British slave trade which actually ended just before he died. John Newton dedicated his life following his conversion to repenting and being as fruitful as possible in making this world a better place. John Newton wrote this hymn to help him remember how God’s amazing grace changed his life.

What helps you to remember God’s amazing grace in your life?

In the sermon, Pastor Robert asked the question, “Do we want to be fearful or fruitful?”

Share a specific way that you can be fruitful this week.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (March 17) Athens First UMC

[It’s not often that St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Sunday but it did this year on the 2nd Sunday in Lent. It’s a good thing this worship stole has purple and green as reversible colors for when this happens on the church calendar! We continued our Lent theme of “My Fears Relieved” by focusing on our fear of doubt. Click here for the sermon.]

God of mystery and wonder, we confess that we have many questions about our faith. Our hearts are heavy today over the recent mass shooting in New Zealand and we pray for your peace to overcome hate, bigotry, and evil. 

We want answers but you offer assurance. We want certainty but you offer compassion. We want proof but you offer peace. Help us to learn to be your faithful people especially when we have more questions than answers. 

Whenever we doubt, help us to be like Abraham and look up at the stars and remember the covenant that you made to be our God and to never leave or forsake us.

Whenever we doubt, help us to be like the Psalmist who begins his prayer with questions and uncertainty but then concludes his prayer with a renewed trust in you.

Whenever we doubt, help us to be like Thomas who was honest about his reluctance to believe, but then was able to say, “My Lord and my God!”

God of mystery and wonder, thank you for reminding us that we are not alone in our doubts and for your amazing grace that relieves us of our fears.

And so we pray for anyone who maybe be struggling with doubt and fear; for the family stricken by the loss of a loved one, for the high school senior uncertain about their next steps after graduation, for the teacher trying to find the best way to help a student to learn, for the person dealing with a challenge that offers no easy solutions. 

God of mystery and wonder, on this St. Patrick’s Day, we thank you for Celtic Christianity that emphasizes how you are closer to us than we can ever ask or imagine. Thank for the “thin place” moments in our lives where you give us just enough assurance to help us through our times of doubts and questioning. 

As we prepare to pray the Lord’s Prayer, I invite us to do something a little different. As we pray this prayer, let’s pray it with our eyes open while looking at the cross in the front of our sanctuary. As we pray together, know that the one who hung on that cross and then rose again is also the one who has you covered… “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sermon (March 17/Lent) by Rev. Robert McDowell “My Fears Relieved: Doubts”

     Perhaps one of our biggest fears that we face in life is the fear of doubting. My guess is that many of us, myself included view doubting as something to avoid. We value certainty.

     As the popular phrase goes, “The bible says it! I believe it! And that settles it!” I really wish our faith was that easy. The problem is that even the Bible offers conflicting answers to some of life’s most complex questions. In other words, contrary to popular opinion, the Bible isn’t designed to be an answer book. If it was designed to be that, then why in the world didn’t God shorten it from sixty-six books to just one book of Frequently Asked Questions with each answer non-ambiguous and no more than one paragraph long?

     For my bible studies, I like to offer these two back to back verses from the Book of Proverbs as a case in point. Now, I always thought that Proverbs is more like what the other sixty-five books of the Bible should be…a listing of several clear directions of easy to understand proverbs of what to do and what not to do.

     But here’s the problem. Even in the Book of Proverbs, these sayings can contradict each other and you’re left wondering which way to go. One of these examples is from Proverbs chapter 26.

     Verse 4 gives us this pretty simple proverb to follow in life. “Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.” Now you’re talking! This is how the Bible should behave! That makes perfect sense to me. If somebody is saying foolish things to you, don’t engage them in a conversation because you’ll get nowhere. Now, that sounds like great advice. I think I’ll start following that very easy to understand word of wisdom.

     But, listen to the very next verse that offers this proverb. Verse 5 instructs us to do the exact opposite when faced with the same situation. “Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.” Wait! Which is it, Mr. Bible? Should I answer or not answer someone who is speaking foolishly?”

     Verse 4 says don’t do it because it will be foolish to do so. And verse 5 says to answer them because if you don’t, they’ll keep on being foolish. 

     OK, this is a perfect example of how the Bible really works. Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible is not an answer book that dropped out of heaven one day and fell into our laps. It’s actually a complex book written by many different authors over a span of more than a thousand years.

     The Bible offers us incredible words of wisdom in how to live our lives and what it means to be a people of faith. But it also invites us to prayerfully discern how a passage of scripture or a bible story relates to whatever particular situation and context we may be facing. In other words, the Bible isn’t designed to spoon feed us simplistic answers. It invites us on a journey, a journey that includes times when it’s good to answer a foolish person as well as times when it’s not wise to answer a foolish person.

     And the wonderful thing about this journey is that it’s OK to ask questions and express our doubts and fears along the way. The reason I know this is because the Bible gives us example after example of people who did just that. They asked questions. They expressed fears. They voiced doubts. 

     Like Abram from our Old Testament reading on this 2nd Sunday in Lent. He asked God a question. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless?” Three chapters earlier, God had called Abram and his family leave to leave their home and become the father of a new nation.

     It’s now three chapters later in the story. Abram and his family have sacrificed everything to follow God. They have arrived to the land that God wanted them to now live, but there was one problem. A big problem. Still no offspring. And this leads Abram to question God, to express his doubts that God was really going to keep his covenant.

     Is it really OK for us to be good Christians and still doubt? When we doubt or question our faith, does that mean that there is something wrong with us? Actually, it means that we’re normal. That’s what it means. How do I know this? Because the Bible tells me so.

     Take the Psalms for example. Sure, there are many Psalms that say that life is hunky dory and everything seems to be what it should be. Let’s praise and thank God for blue skies and answered prayers. But then there are other Psalms that question if God is anywhere to be found because sometimes it rains on your picnic, the medical tests don’t always come back negative, and the job you were hoping to get was given to someone less qualified.  

     When the Bible itself has people of faith questioning if God is even around, then it’s pretty reasonable to assume that it’s OK for us to have doubts and questions along our faith journey as well.

     I was teaching a bible study at a church I was serving. One of the members of that bible study had recently been diagnosed with cancer. It was a scary time for her. During one of our bible study sessions, someone who meant well gave her a book to read that might help her through this unsettling time in her life.

     The woman with cancer surprised all of us by shoving the book back into the arms of the person who gave it to her and with great frustration in her voice she said, “I just can’t take another (blankety blank) book to read about how I should deal with this. I’m sorry, but that’s just how I feel right now!”

     Now, this was a woman of incredible faith. She attended church every week. She showed up to every single Bible Study. She was a trained Stephen Minister. She prayed everyday. She loved God. Had a heart of gold. But she was also human. And she had obviously reached a breaking point when her well intentioned friend offered her that book to read.

     Her response reminded me of several people in the Bible like Moses, like Abraham, like many of the Psalmists, like the disciples. In other words, the Bible gives us permission to be human. And part of being human is that sometimes we are going to doubt. Sometimes we are going to have unanswered questions. Sometimes we are going to shove a book back into the arms of a well-intentioned friend.

     This is why I’m thankful for people in the Bible like the disciple, Thomas who refused to believe that Jesus rose from the dead until he saw for himself. Or John the Baptist, the who because he was in prison sent word to Jesus asking if he really was the Messiah.

     Even Jesus himself when he was hanging on the cross asked, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

      If we ever wonder if it’s OK to have doubts in our faith, the Bible should be a good indicator that it’s perfectly normal.

     Right here, in the very first book of the Bible, Abram is questioning and doubting if God was going to keep his promise to make of Abram a great nation especially since he was still childless and he and Sarah weren’t getting any younger.

     So here’s how God responds to Abram’s doubts. Instead of saying, “Here, read another book about faith,” God simply reassures him by having him look up at the stars and imagine that each one of those stars is one of his descendants. 

     At first, it seems like that visualization exercise does the trick for Abram because verse 6 says that “Abram believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” 

     But notice that the doubt resurfaces just two verses later because Abram asks God, “How am I going to know that I shall possess the land you have in mind for me?” Abram is the kid in the back seat who asks in a really nasally voice, “How long till we get there? How long till we get there?”

     Questions, questions, questions. And notice that the Lord doesn’t lose patience even after this second round of questioning. This time, instead of reassuring him with another visual like he did with the many stars in the sky, the Lord actually raises the stakes by making a covenant with Abram. 

     Now, this is a really big deal, because when God makes a covenant, if what was promised does not happen than it’s on God. That’s what a covenant in the Bible means. It means that God will come through on his end of the bargain no matter how disobedient and no matter how many questions or doubts we may have.

     One might say that God is not a very good negotiator because he’s basically saying that no matter what you decide to do, I’m already committed to making this thing happen. You can count on me even if you decide that you want out. Wow, that’s what I would call unconditional love. That’s what I would call, “Amazing Grace.” “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”

     What does all of this mean for you and me? It means that if you ever experience doubt or uncertainty along your faith journey, just remember that God has you covered. Whenever you are facing something that’s too much for you to handle, God has you covered. Whenever your prayers don’t seem like they’re being answered, God has you covered. Whenever you doubt or even get angry with God, God has you covered.

     The great Christian writer, Frederick Buechner shares this thought about having doubts, “Whether your faith is that there is a God, or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” 

     “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.” There’s the quote of the day. “They keep it awake and moving.”

    In 1975, the Jesuit philosopher, John Kavanaugh, went to work for three months at the “house of the dying” in Calcutta with Mother Teresa.

     He was searching for an answer to some spiritual struggles. On his very first morning there, he met Mother Teresa. She asked him, “And what can I do for you?” Kavanaugh asked her to pray for him. “What do you want me to pray for?” she asked.

     He answered with the request that was the very reason he traveled thousands of miles to India: “Pray that I have clarity.” Mother Teresa said firmly, “No. I will not do that.”

     When he asked her why, she said, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.”

     When Kavanaugh said, “You always seem to have clarity,” Mother Teresa laughed and said, “I have never had clarity. What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

     The Lord didn’t offer Abram clarity. The Lord invited Abram to trust.

     Our journey of faith isn’t about not having doubts. It’s about trusting the God who is all in and the God who can’t go back on his promises.

     Whenever we face the fears of our own doubts, let’s look up at the stars and remember the covenant that God made with Abram. 

     Or better yet, let’s try a different visualization exercise. When you find yourself doubting, just look up at the cross, the cross that is always there to remind us of just how far God was willing to go. 

My Fears Relieved: Doubts
Sermon Discussion Questions
Genesis15:1-12, 17-18 & Luke 13:31-35
March 17, 2019
When thinking about having doubts in our faith, it’s important to remember that the Bible is less of an “answer book” and more of a book that invites us on a journey where God promises to be faithful.
Share a time when you have doubted God or a question that you have about your faith that hasn’t found a complete answer. 
The Bible is filled with examples of people of faith who also had a lot of doubts along their journey. The list includes Abram from our scripture reading where he questions if he and Sarai will have children as God had promised since they are advanced in years, Moses when he doubted if he would be able to lead the Israelites to the Promised Land, Job who was trying to figure out why so many bad things were happening to him, many Psalmists who even questioned if God even cares, Thomas who wanted to see Jesus’ nail prints before he would believe that Jesus had been raised from the dead, and many other biblical names could be mentioned here. All of these biblical characters learned to trust God even though they sometimes doubted.
What helps you to hold onto your faith during times of doubts and unanswered questions.
The great Christian writer, Frederick Buechner wrote,  “Whether your faith is that there is a God, or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts, you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.” 

Share a time where your doubts led you into a deeper faith.

In our scripture reading, when Abram expressed his doubts, God had him try a visualization exercise. He had him look up at the stars to remind him that this would be the number of his descendants one day. Pastor Robert shared that we can do something similar by either looking up at the stars on a clear night or even better, we can look up at the cross and be reminded of how far God was wiling to go for us.

What does the cross mean to you? How can it help you to trust God even though you may be struggling with doubts and questions about your faith?

Monday, March 11, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (March 10/Lent) Athens First UMC

[Even with losing an hour from the time change, a wonderful servant in our church made sure that our Sunday morning refreshments and coffee were ready for those who would be attending church. On this first Sunday in Lent, our focus was on how Jesus used his special relationship with God not to serve his own ends but to serve the needs of others. For the sermon, click hereOur church is filled with many servants who sacrificially offer themselves for others. Thank you, servants!]

O God, we know that it was only four days ago that we started our journey through this wilderness, but…

Are we there yet? It’s too dry out here, and there’s nothing but rocks. I’m hungry. When are we going to stop and get something to eat. We did this same thing last year. Why do we have to go on this trip again? 

I’m not even getting a signal on my phone anymore. It’s way too quiet here. We’re like in the middle of nowhere. 

But wait. Is that Jesus over there? Is that why we’re going on this trip? To follow Jesus? Why do we have to stop here? This isn’t Jerusalem. Isn’t that where we need to go? 

O God, sorry for so many questions. It’s just that we’re not used to stepping out of our normal routine. We felt a little uneasy walking down the sidewalk with ashes smudged on our forehead this past Wednesday.

Along this journey, remind us that you are right beside us each step of the way. Along this journey, remind us that we do not walk alone. We have each other. We have your amazing grace that relieves our many fears.

Along this journey, we also pray for anyone who may feel overwhelmed by fear; the fear of how to handle a difficult situation, the fear of facing the death of a loved one, the fear of not finding a new job, the fear of not being able to handle challenges at work, the fear of raising a family with limited resources, the fear of a threatening medical situation.

O God, so many fears along life’s journey. As we walk with Jesus these 40 days of Lent, teach us to pray and to know that in any given moment, you are offering us your amazing grace. We pray this in the name of Jesus who taught us say together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Sermon (March 10/Lent) by Rev. Robert McDowell “My Fears Relieved: Temptations”

      Every single year when we begin the season of Lent, we get this story of Jesus beginning his ministry in the wilderness. When I say, “wilderness” don’t associate that word with the beautiful Hocking Hills area that we all enjoy. Whenever the Bible uses the word, “wilderness,” think more desert, more arid, and little vegetation. 

     When we see the word, “wilderness” in the Bible, we are also to think of the Israelites, who had spent forty years wandering through the wilderness over one thousand years before Jesus appears on the scene. They had been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years, and were led by Moses through the wilderness and after forty long years, they eventually make it into the Promised Land.

     The wilderness wasn’t a place where you would rent a cabin to enjoy a relaxing week with your family. The wilderness represents barrenness, dryness, and danger at least in the context of when we see that word used in the Bible. So why would Jesus have chosen to begin his ministry in of all places, the wilderness? 

     It’s almost like the gospel writer, Luke is giving us a huge hint that here at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he will be representing the people of Israel throughout this story of his life. 

     Or to bring it a little more closer to home, Jesus will be representing you and me. This is such an important connection to make when reading the gospels and it will unlock a whole new way of following Jesus throughout the gospel story which is what we will be doing during this season of Lent. When Jesus does or says something, it’s like he is personifying the people of Israel.

     So here, Jesus is at the very beginning of his journey in the wilderness, just like the Israelites centuries before him. 

     And while Jesus is in the wilderness, he encounters all the fears that come with being in the wilderness. And these fears come in the form of temptations. Jesus resists each one of these temptations by saying, “no.” That’s usually how we read this story. Jesus is tempted. He resists. End of story. But actually, it’s not just how Jesus responds to these temptations while’s he’s in the wilderness. It’s in how he resists these temptations after he’s in the wilderness and as he lives out his ministry.

     The first temptation is when Jesus is confronted with hunger. Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread. And Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

     Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus will feed five thousand people with just fives loaves and two fish. Jesus’ resists the fear of hunger by turning around and feeding others.

     The second temptation is when Jesus is confronted with earthly power. He is told to worship the devil and in return, he will give him all the kingdoms of the world. And Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve only him.’”

     Later in Luke’s gospel, we will watch Jesus offer his life on the cross. Jesus’ resists earthly power by freely offering himself in bringing salvation to the whole world.

     The third temptation is when Jesus is confronted with self-focus. He is told to jump off the pinnacle of the Temple and allow angels to save him. A Jesus responds, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

     Later in Luke’s gospel, we will watch Jesus resist being self-focused by having compassion and healing others.

     Notice that Jesus’ doesn’t just say “no” to each of these temptations, but throughout his ministry, he resists these temptations again and again by living fully for God and others. Jesus’ teaches us that the best way to overcome our fear of temptations is by being true to who God created us to be and to be true to the calling that God has placed in our lives.

     Being faithful to God isn’t just about saying no. It’s about saying yes.

     And that’s why Jesus began his ministry in the wilderness because that is how Israel was shaped and formed as well. It was in the wilderness where they were also tempted with hunger and power and self-focus. It was in the wilderness where they received the Ten Commandments and were slowly and surely shaped and formed into what it means to be the people of God.

     We also have this opportunity over these forty days of Lent to be shaped and formed to be the people that God has called us to be. Like Jesus and like the people of Israel, we’re not simply observers. We are called to be active participants. 

     We are invited to follow Jesus from the wilderness all the way to the cross and the empty tomb as we face our fears together and allow God to shape and form us into the people that we were created to be. And it all begins here in the wilderness.

      A little over a year ago, I crossed something off my bucket list. I hiked through a desert on New Year’s Day. My sister and brother in law had just moved to their new retirement home in Arizona and we decided to spend New Year’s out in the desert with them.

     On that New Year’s Day, my brother in law and I followed a desert trail that included signs describing some of the plants along our journey. As we walked and walked and walked in the hot desert sun, I was thinking about this story of Jesus in the wilderness. 

     I especially took notice of this interesting desert plant which is known as the Crucifixion Thorn. Like many of the other plants you find in the desert, it has leafless stems to help it conserve enough moisture to survive. If you look closely enough, you can see that this plant is in the shape of the thorns that Jesus would have worn while hanging on the cross. I also took notice of the description that this plant’s fruit is dry but persistent.

     This Crucifixion Thorn desert plant has given me a deeper insight in what it means to face our fears and temptations as we walk with Jesus each day. Sometimes our journey feels hot and dry. 

     Like the Israelites who wandered through the desert wilderness, we face our fears along the way. Will we make it? Will God continue to guide us? Will we have enough strength to endure? 

     Like Jesus in the wilderness, we face our fears along the way. Will God provide? Will I be able to rely on God’s power rather than what the world has to offer?  Will I remember who I am and who God created me to be?

     The good news is that God always empowers you and me to be faithful and to live out our true calling and purpose as we face the many fears in life, like temptations that will come our way. And during this season of Lent, we will also be exploring how God can lead and guide us as we face the fears of doubts, fruitfulness, forgiveness, generosity, confidence, serving, and death.

     Whenever someone joins the church, they respond to some membership questions. One of those questions is kind of heavy and it makes me hesitate before asking it every single time.

     The question is, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sins?” How’s that for a first question? I don’t often use the words, “renounce, reject, and repent,” in a sentence, but I do every time I ask this question. By the way, those are season of Lent type of words. Repent, Reject, and Repent. Such heavy language.

      But on the other hand, I can’t think of more appropriate words when you think about the darkness, the brokenness, and the evil that we encounter through life. We are better at seeing these things in other people and in other places and situations rather than thinking about how it might be residing in our own thoughts and actions in subtle and not so subtle ways.

     If you think the first church membership question is a doozy, remember that there is a follow up question that offers us some relief. And the second question is, “Do you accept the freedom and power that God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”

     The key phrase there is “the freedom and power that God gives you.” “The freedom and power that God gives you.”

     Say that with me… “The freedom and power that God gives you.” One more time. “The freedom and power that God gives you.”

     Here is the awesome good news of our faith. In any given situation and in any given moment and in any given temptation that we face, we have the freedom and power to resist. God’s grace is always being extended to us to be true to ourselves, to be true to who God has called us to be, and to be true to our calling as followers of Jesus.

     Did you notice how our Gospel reading ends? Jesus does just that. He resists those temptations in the wilderness one by one because of the freedom and power that God gave him to resist. 

     But then notice that last verse of our Gospel reading. “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him UNTIL an opportune time.”

     Like Jesus, we are called to receive the freedom and power God gives us again and again and again and again and again. It’s not just for forty days. It’s about following Jesus every day.

     When I was thinking of a title to give this series, that beautifully worded phrase from the hymn, “Amazing Grace” came to mind. It’s from the 2nd verse, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.’”

     It just hit me how beautiful that phrase is. “My fears relieved.”

     When I started working on this first sermon, I remember accidentally typing “My fears relived,” instead. 

     I laughed out-loud when I noticed my mistake because that’s the exact opposite of what I’m hoping to get across during this sermon series. I don’t want us to relive our fears. We do enough of that, I’m sure! 

     No, instead of reliving our fears, my prayer during this holy season is that we will allow the freedom and power God gives us to “RELIEVE” our fears. And may we all be able to say at the end of our journey together in the words of that wonderful hymn, “How precious did that grace appear.”

My Fears Relieved: Temptations
Sermon Discussion Questions
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 & Luke 4:1-13
March 10, 2019

During the Season of Lent, we will be focusing on eight different fears which focus on temptations, doubts, fruitfulness, forgiveness, generosity, confidence, serving, and death. For this first Sunday in Lent, we focus on the fear of temptation. Jesus begins his ministry in the hot and arid wilderness and was tempted by the devil for forty days. He was tempted with hunger, earthly power, and self-focus.
Share how you have experienced one or more of those temptations in your life. How did you respond?
Pastor Robert shared how Jesus didn’t just say “no” to these temptations when he was in the wilderness, but he also said “yes” to serving others throughout his ministry. For example, Jesus didn’t just say no to the temptation of hunger. He also said yes by feeding the hungry. He didn’t just say no to the temptation of earthly power. He also said yes by dying on the cross for the sake of the world. He didn’t just say no to the temptation of self-focus. He said yes by having compassion and healing the people he encountered.
Share ways that you say YES in how you live out your faith. Share a new way that God might be calling you to say YES and serve others during this season of Lent.
Pastor Robert shared about a desert plant that he saw during a hike through the desert in Arizona. It’s called “Crucifixion Thorn” because it looks like the thorns that Jesus wore when he hung on the cross. This desert plant is very dry but is also known to be very “persistent.”
What are some ways that God helps you to be “persistent” like that desert plant in resisting temptation and being true to who God has called you to be?
Whenever someone joins the church, they pledge to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of their sins. They also pledge to “accept the freedom and power that God gives them to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” This is the good news of our faith that in any given moment, God’s grace is being offered to us so that we can be the people God has called us to be.
What helps you to remember to accept the freedom and power that God gives you in any given moment? Why do you think we sometimes forget that God’s grace is being offered to us?
The title of this sermon series during the season of Lent is “My Fears Relieved.” This phrase is in the 2nd verse of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Sing this verse together and close in a prayer thanking God for offering us his grace to us whenever we face fear along our faith journey.
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”