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, April 28, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (April 28/Music Sunday) Athens First UMC

[Our Chancel Choir sang four beautiful anthems for our Music Sunday.  This anthem, “Hymn to the Trinity” by Van Denman Thompson concluded our 10:30 worship service in a grand way. We also had a trombone solo, a vocal solo, and our Bell Choir offered a spirited rendition of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” In addition to this being Music Sunday, we also recognized our graduates. After they introduced themselves and shared their future plans, we joined in offering a prayer of blessing over them. May God bless them as they prepare to begin this new chapter in their lives!]

God of resurrection and new life, we have a very simple prayer on this Sunday morning. We just want to say thank you for blessing our church with outstanding singers and musicians to help us honor and glorify the Risen Christ every time we gather for worship.

Thank you for our Chancel Choir, our Bell Choir, and for Peter, Jeff, and Kevin who serve on our music staff. They help us to express in song what we find difficult to articulate with words alone; your amazing love made known to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Over this past year, our music ministry has inspired us with Sunday worship anthems and solos, a special Veterans’ Day anthem with a brass ensemble, Christmas Eve worship music, and more recently during Holy Week, a very moving performance of Faure’s Requiem performance with the Ohio University Choral Union. We have been the recipients of their gift of music and we are eternally grateful.

God of resurrection and new life, in this world that often is deaf to the spoken word of your good news, we turn to music to share our Easter faith of hope and salvation. May the harmony of your all inclusive love be heard by those who feel excluded from the church. May the crashing crescendo of your redemption be heard especially by those who feel separated from you. May the beautiful melody of your abiding presence and guidance be heard by those who are facing the pain and brokenness of this world, especially those who were impacted by the recent shooting at a California synagogue.

God of resurrection and new life, thank you for our old songs of faith, but we also thank you for new songs yet to be composed and heard. May our faith always find artistic expression through the music of our hearts. We pray this in anticipation of that time when we will join all the saints in one mighty chorus in singing, “Allelulia! Alleluia!”

As your Easter people, we join together in praying the words that Jesus taught us to say together,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Scout BSA Annual Banquet Keynote Address - Rev. Robert McDowell

 Scouting Banquet
OU Inn
April 25, 2019
Rev. Robert McDowell

    Thank you for inviting me to talk with you tonight about the positive impact that the scouting program has in our communities. I must admit though, that I feel a little out of my element in sharing with you tonight. 

     For example, as a pastor, I’m not used to so many people sitting in the front seats like this. That’s really different for me and it’s kind of throwing me off my game. I think you should get an award or something for sitting up here. Let’s have a hand for the front seat people. So brave of you!

     I also want to temper any expectations you may have about my message tonight because I used up all my best material for my Easter sermon last Sunday. It’s usually not a wise move to ask a preacher to speak at an event immediately after Easter Sunday. We only have so many good illustrations. So basically, you’re just going to get last Sunday’s Easter sermon tonight. Just kidding.

     In all seriousness, when it comes to scouting, I have more than enough heart warming material to share with you. So, the first thing I did when I was invited to speak tonight was to ask some people I know what scouting has meant to them. 

     That’s what I have learned about being a preacher, by the way. Preaching is really just me as the preacher sharing other people’s incredible stories of faith with the entire congregation, with permission of course. And I get to sprinkle in my personal stories as well. And waa-laa, when you do all of that, you will probably end up with an above average sermon. It’s actually a little more complicated than that but that’s not too far from the truth.

     The stories of how scouting have made our communities and world a better place are all around us. I’m just going to share some of these inspirational stories and experiences about scouting with you.

     Someone was telling me about his aunt who was vacationing in England and taking a tour along with her friends of all the old castles along the canals.  They had rented a long and narrow boat for this.  One day their motor stopped.  There were many other boats going both ways on the canal.  Nobody stopped to help them in their distress, except for one group. I’ll give you one guess who. 

     That’s right. They were Boy Scouts and they were able to get them going again. The people in that boat were so grateful. They will always remember these scouts who rescued them and got their boat to safety.

     Recently I was reading about three marines who were killed a couple of weeks ago while serving in Afghanistan. The news article caught my eye because one of the marines is from my home area in south central, Pennsylvania.

     I kept reading the article which led me to the second marine who was killed on that same mission. The name of this second marine is Staff Sgt. Christopher Slutman who graduated from a high school in Maryland where he was an Eagle Scout. 

     He resided in Newark, Delaware with his wife and three daughters. He was a New York City firefighter with Ladder Company 27, The Bronx, and was credited in 2014 with saving a woman’s life. “He represents the very best of us, all the bravest of the brave,” said FDNY Chief John Sudnick. It’s not uncommon to come across news stories like this that remind me of how scouting develops young people to be leaders who end up making a positive difference in our communities and world.

    Speaking of scouts who save lives, in one of the churches I served as pastor, two of the Boy Scouts from the troupe we chartered were also members of my church. They were coming home from school one day and I don’t remember too many details because it’s been approximately fifteen years ago. But as they were coming home from school, they used their first aid training to save a woman’s life. They were fortunately in the right place at the right time. But the story continues.

     Two years ago, one of the those two scouts, Eric made the news again in that same local paper. Now in his 30’s, he was featured in an article for helping to organize four to five truckloads of supplies from the Dayton, Ohio area to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey down in Texas. 

     They partnered with two of the local car dealerships in their community who let them use some of their trucks. They loaded those trucks with water, blankets, food, baby supplies, clothing, toiletries, and other flood relief items. Once a scout, always a scout in doing good for your community in these selfless ways.

     A former Boy Scout Master attends my church. And we were talking one day and knowing that he is very passionate about scouting, I asked him about his Troupe which he had back in the late 80s and early 90s. 

     He said that he had four scouts in his group including his son and they were all good friends growing up and they have all done well for themselves. I’m guessing that you might recognize one of these four scouts from that Boy Scout Troupe. You might know him as Dr. Sergio, an orthopedic surgeon here in our town. I told my church member, the former scout leader that he must be proud to know that he helped to influence these young people’s lives.

     I share these stories about scouting to remind us of the positive ripple effect that scouting has in our community.

     We are honored at Athens First United Methodist Church to be a charter organization for Boy Scout Troupe, #71. They have their meetings at our church on Monday evenings and are consistently asking me, “How can we help your church? Is there anything we can do? Just let us know.”    

[Pastor Robert with Boy Scout Troupe #71, February, 2019]

     I’ve been at Athens First for four years now, and it’s amazing how much they have done for us just since I’ve been here. They have cleaned “hard to reach” windows, picked up trash around the church, weeded and mulched, painted, helped lead worship services, and just a couple of weeks ago, they saved us a lot of work by helping to clean out one of our storage rooms.

     They’re hourly rate is very reasonable. $0 an hour. I tried to negotiate that down but they said that’s the best they could do. And they do all of this helpful work with a great attitude and a positive spirit. What else would you expect from scouts?

     But let me share my favorite thing these Boy Scouts did for our church. Athens First is located along College Street, just across from the city parking garage and so we have a lot of people, especially college students who walk by our church on a daily basis.

     If you have been by the front of our church the past few years, you probably have noticed that a large prayer cross is mounted in front of our church entrance. This white cross has two metal boxes attached in the middle of where the two cross beams meet.

[Boy Scout Troupe #71 Outside Prayer Cross Dedication, Athens First UMC, February, 2016]

     The one box contains prayer request cards with small wooden pencils for people to write a prayer need and then place it in the slot of the other little secured box. Every Tuesday morning, one of our church members takes out the prayer cards from that box and our church prayer team includes those prayers with other prayer cards from our congregation. Each and every one of those prayers including the ones from the prayer box are prayed over by our prayer team that same morning.

     I want you to know that our Boy Scout Troupe made that cross for us. They did that a little over three years ago. During a Sunday morning worship service, our congregation blessed that cross and during the closing hymn, several scouts carried that new cross out of the sanctuary and they mounted it in the ground. 

     I didn’t know what to expect when we put that prayer cross in front of our church building. Would anybody use it? Would people not even notice it and just walk on by? Would college students see it as a way for them to share a prayer need and to know that our church is here for them?

     The first week the cross was put up, I’ll never forget this, but twenty prayer cards had been placed in the box of that cross. We prayed over each and every one of those cards. And we continue to do so every Tuesday morning at 7:30 am.

     This prayer cross has revealed to me that when I see college students walking down the sidewalk, there are a lot of heavy hearts walking by. A lot of heavy hearts. They might not show it on the outside, but many of them are carrying an unbelievable amount of anxiety, fear, and brokenness.

     One of those prayer requests has always stayed with me. It was a prayer request for us as well as a message for our church. It read, “Pray for me because I drink too much and thank you for not judging us.”

     Without that outdoor prayer cross that was made possible by our Scout Troupe, we would not know of what is on the hearts of the students who walk by our church every single day. Our church is eternally grateful to our scouts for making this possible. 

     All of these inspirational stories of how Boy Scouts are making a positive difference in our community and world have been reinforcing something that I have been thinking a lot about lately as a pastor, as a father, and as someone who cares deeply about our community. Anything that helps our young people to know that they have value, that they have self-worth, and that they are unconditionally loved is worth supporting. Scouting is one of those organizations.

     It breaks my heart to think about so many young people who do not feel worthy, who do not feel like they have value, and who do not feel that they are loved for who they are. It can make all the difference in the world to that teenager going on a camping trip with other scouts or that college student walking by a church to get to class to know that somebody really does love them and cares about what’s on their hearts.

     I’ve been in the pastoral ministry for over thirty years now and if I could change anything with my approach to being a pastor over all these years, it would be to simplify my message and just remind people, especially young people, that they are loved. That’s it. It’s not that complicated. We have value. We are loved.

     Scouting is one of those ways that we help share this simple but very profound message with the young people in our community. We all have something to contribute. We all have value. 

     I’ll close with this thought.

      A couple of months ago, my wife encouraged me to watch the Mr. Roger’s documentary that was on HBO. If you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend it.

     As many of you know, Fred Rogers was the creator and producer of the children’s TV show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood which aired from 1968 to 2001. Fred was a Presbyterian pastor and this show was his way of helping children to know that they are loved for who they are.

     There were a couple of times that I cried during the documentary and one of those times was when they shared a conversation that Fred had off the set with one of his cast members Francois Clemmons who played Officer Clemmons on the show. 

     One day, Fred said to Francois off the set, “Francois, I love you just the way you are.” And Francois was taken off guard by his comment and replied, “Fred, are you talking to me?” And Fred said, “Yes, Francois, and I’ve been telling you this for two years and you finally heard me today.”         

     Francois said that after Fred said that, he collapsed into Fred’s arms and started crying because that was the only time he heard someone say that he was loved. His parents never told him. His family never told him. Fred was the first person who told him that he was loved.

     For some young people, especially in our day and age, scouting might be one of the few ways and who knows, maybe the only way for them to hear somebody say those life-changing words, “You are loved just for who you are.”

     Interestingly enough, soon after I watched that Mr. Roger’s documentary, a member of my church gave me a book about Fred Roger’s life. On the inside of the front cover, she wrote these complimentary words, “Pastor Robert, thanks for living in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.”

     To all the scout leaders who are here tonight, “Thanks for living in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.”

     To all who support scouting with your time and your gifts, “Thanks for living in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood.”

     I can’t think of a better place to live.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (April 21/Easter Sunday) Athens First UMC

[Our opening gathering music set the tone for our Easter worship celebration. Ellen Brown and Jeff Daubenmire offered this beautiful piano duet. Our church is so blessed with musical talent that honors and glorifies the Risen Christ. For the sermon, click here. Happy Easter, everyone!]

God of resurrection and new life, thank you for your amazing grace that relieves our many fears. 

We confess that we have more fears and anxieties than we would care to admit. If we’re honest, sometimes, it’s a struggle for us to face a new day, a challenging situation at work, beginning a new project, mending a broken relationship, being open to a different point of view, stepping out of our comfort zones.

So many fears, O God; temptations, doubts, fruitfulness, forgiveness, generosity, confidence, serving, life after death. We live with these fears and they never seem to go away.

But on this day, this day of resurrection, in only the way you can, you have surprised us with news of great joy. The tomb is empty and Christ is risen! And like the women on that first Easter morning, we will leave from this place with something more than just fear. We will leave from here with great joy.

The fear of a fire burning down a cathedral quickly moves into the joy of a world coming together in a way no one thought was possible. The fear of not being able to pay off a three-year capital campaign quickly moves into the joy of a church coming together with additional generous gifts. The fear of not winning The Masters ever again quickly moves into the joy of a surprising victory. 

God of resurrection and new life, thank you for reminding us today that even though we live with both fear and joy in our day to day living, joy always wins because of the good news of Easter. 

May the joy of this special day continue to sustain us when fears overwhelm us, when death has its grip, when the morning feels like it will never come, and when all hope feels lost.

It is with this great joy, that we pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Our chapel and sanctuary were beautifully decorated by faithful volunteers for our Easter Sunday celebration. The Easter Lillies were especially beautiful this year!]

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Sermon (April 21/Easter Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Whenever I hear the gospel account of that first Easter, so many emotions surface to the top.  These emotions are so powerful, you can almost touch, smell, and taste the events of that first Easter morning.

     Easter.  The biggest day in world history.  The day death died.  I want to take you back to that distant Sunday morning, the first day of the week, when the dew lay heavy, the sun was warming up, the birds were shaking sleep away with the thrill of dawn, and all of creation breathed in the smell of anticipation.

     Two people rose early, their sandaled feet covered with dust.  They went to the tomb, and met an angel, who broke open their whole world, saying, “He is not here: he is risen.”  Feel the intensity of their emotion: smell it.  

     Matthew, the gospel writer, tells us what they did and what they felt.  They ran, with fear and great joy.  With fear and great joy.  And we can see them running, with fear, with the hasty, gulping breath of fear, and with gurgling joy, with the outstretched hands and billowing cloak and squealing yelps of joy.

     Fear and great joy: at the heart of the resurrection.  

     I’ve been thinking about how much the bible addresses the emotion of fear.  Fear is interwoven throughout the pages of scripture.  And no one seems to be immune from its hold upon us as we go through life’s peaks and valleys.

     There’s the fear of judgment.  Adam and Eve, banished from the garden.   Cain, discovered to be a murderer.  David, exposed as a scheming adulterer.  Israel herself, thrown into exile as a result of her own sin.  

     Then there’s fear of holiness.  Moses meeting God in the burning bush and on Mount Sinai in a dark cloud amid thunder, lightning, fire, and smoldering cloud.  

     Fear of taking a risk, like the third servant in the talent parable who buried his talent in the ground out of fear.  Terrible fear.

     And yet, great joy.  After forty days of rain and 150 days of flood, Noah sends out the dove and it returns with an olive branch.  After the shame of the tower of Babel, God calls Abraham to be the father of a nation.  

     As the Ark of the Covenant is brought into Jerusalem, David dances before the Lord.  As Ezra reads aloud the books of the Law to the returning exiles, they weep with joy.  As Elizabeth greets Jesus’ mother-to-be she feels the babe within  her leap for joy.

     Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, ends up picking up his robe and runs home with glee to prepare a kingdom banquet for Jesus.  The father of the prodigal son is bursting with joy when he sees his son, the one who has just squandered his inheritance, off in the distance.  Great, great joy!

     Fear and great joy are at the heart of the resurrection story of Jesus, at the heart of the entire biblical narrative, and at the heart of what it means to be a people of faith today.

    Fear of sharing our soul with someone and being misunderstood. Fear of being vulnerable enough to say to someone, “I struggle with those doubts in my faith as well.” Fear of stepping away from an abusive situation. 

     Fear that the people we love will give up on the church. Fear of getting to know someone who doesn’t look like us, talk like us, or think like us. Fear of admitting when we are afraid. Fear that Jesus will call us to a new way of living, a new kind of ministry, or call us to carry his cross farther than we think is possible.  Fear.  Horrifying fear!

     And yet, also great joy.  Joy, when you discover that love isn’t just a fleeting feeling but that it became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.  Joy, when after years of living under the burden of guilt and self-hatred for something you’ve done, you finally hear the words, “You are forgiven” and you now know it to be true.

     Joy, when in the midst of your anger and frustration at how the world or your denomination isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, God calls your name and says, “This is what I want you to do,” and you realize that you are being invited to play a part in God’s story after all.

     Joy, when a family stricken by death, can somehow gather together in a living room and through the telling of shared stories, can begin to laugh again, and celebrate the life of one who has touched each of them in so many special ways.

     Joy, when someone says, “Here take this prayer shawl to the hospital with you and give it to the couple who just had a baby girl.”

     Joy, when you’re going through a very dark time in your life and someone from your church leaves a card or brings some food, or gives you a look which says, “I don’t know you very well, but we’re both part of the body of Christ, and I just want you to know that I’m here for you.”

     Joy when you are anxious and nervous about a challenging situation you are facing in your life and someone says to you, “Let me just say a short prayer for God to bless you in this situation.”

     Joy, when a person says to you, “I don’t know if it’s something you said, or in something you showed me through your actions, but I’ve come to believe in Jesus because of you and my life has been transformed.”  

     Joy.  Fabulous joy!

     Fear and great joy: at the heart of the story of Easter, and at the extremes of our hearts today.  So much to fear, so many reasons to be afraid.  Fear for ourselves, that the hole in our hearts will turn our faith into dust and our hope into cynicism,  Fear for those around us.  Fear that we feel so powerless.  So vulnerable.  So helpless.  

     Fear that we won’t know the right thing to say to someone who recently lost a loved because we don’t want to say the wrong thing.  Fear that our hidden fears will be exposed.

     And also, great joy.  Great joy!  Joy of a lamb finding its rickety feet in a meadow.  The joy of a baby discovering how to swallow.  The joy of the song, when we have the words and only God has the tune.  The joy of friendship, of those we have known and have loved through thick and thin. 

     The joy of forgiveness, when bitterness and failure do not get the last word.  The joy of creation, when we hear birds chirping on a spring morning. The joy of finally finishing up your Easter sermon. The joy of someone at a bible study who now sees the Bible in a whole new way. The joy of hitting a three-wood right on the sweet spot. The joy of the orchestra, about to break into a thrilling crescendo.  Great joy.  Great, great joy.

     So here we are friends.  We are at the moment when the angel’s words break open in our lives, and we start to run with fear and great joy.  Fear and joy, the two poles, the two extremes of our human response to the awesome intimacy of God.  Fear and joy run with us throughout out our lives together, as constant reminders of the cost and promise of following Jesus. 

    So many fears. So many fears which we’ve been looking at over these past several weeks during the season of Lent. Fear of temptation, fear of doubts, fear of forgiveness, fear of fruitfulness, fear of generosity, fear of confidence, fear of serving, and the fear of life after death. 

     Fear and joy, at the center of our longings, at the heart of our desires.

     But there is a secret.  It’s a secret that we only glimpse at in this life.  It’s a secret that was first revealed to those two early risers on the first day of the week, while all creation breathed in the aroma of anticipation.  

     It is the secret of Easter.  It is a secret that I pray we will realize and embrace not just on Easter Sunday but every day.  It’s a secret that is the climax of our gospel, a secret of the mystery of fear and joy.  And the secret, my friends is this: 

     Joy wins.   

Note: Portions of this sermon have been incorporated from the April 8, 2007 sermon, “Fear and Joy” delivered by  Rev. Sam Wells, Dean of Duke Chapel, Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC.

My Fears Relieved: Life After Death
Sermon Discussion Questions
Matthew 28:1-10
April 21, 2019

We conclude our season of Lent sermon series on the theme, “My Fears Relieved” by focusing on the fear of life after death. The good news of Easter is that Jesus defeated sin and death through his life, death, and resurrection. 

How does the good news of Easter help you to think about life after death?

Matthew tells us that when the women found that the tomb was empty, the angel told them the good news that Jesus had been raised and to go and tell his disciples. Matthew then tells us that the women “left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy.” If the women who first experienced the resurrection were filled with fear and great joy, that means that it’s OK if we live in between these two emotions as well.

When have you felt “great joy” because of your faith?

During our “My Fears Relieved” season of Lent focus, we have looked at eight different fears which include the fear of temptation, doubt, forgiveness, fruitfulness, generosity, confidence, serving, and life after death. We have looked at each of these fears based on the scripture readings for each of those weeks.

Share how this season of Lent journey has helped you to face any of these fears that we all face from time to time.

The series title, “My Fears Relieved” was taken from verse two of the well known hymn, “Amazing Grace.” We sang this beautiful hymn several times during the season of Lent. That verse says, “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.” John Newton who wrote this hymn wants us to know that God’s grace is what helps us to overcome our fears.

Share at least one specific way that you can be more intentional in being more open to God’s grace in your daily life.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Ecumenical Good Friday Service - Athens First UMC

[Our church was honored to host this year’s annual ecumenical Good Friday service. Participating churches were First Presbyterian, Church of the Good Shepherd Episcopal, Richland UMC, Christ Lutheran, & Athens First UMC. Each pastor read a portion of the passion narrative and then extinguished a pair of candles. The last reading included Jesus’ words, “It is finished.”]

Good Friday Prayer

We confess to you, our Lord and Savior, that we have betrayed and denied you, forgotten and doubted you. When our faith is tested, we wonder where you are. When we see injustice in the world, we often stand by, we turn our backs, we ignore the cries of others. We confess that we deny you and betray you with our silence when we fail to proclaim your good news, when we fail to live out your teachings and love our neighbor as ourselves. Help us to remember your sacrifice, your love, and to know your forgiveness. In the name of the one who lived, who was crucified, and who lives again, Jesus the Messiah, we pray. Amen.

[One of our youth, Erin Dael offered the ministry of music, “Pie Jesu.” Her father, Kevin played the handbell solo, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” For such a heavy day, music is one of the best ways to reflect on Christ’s suffering and death on the cross.]

[Even though the last words of Good Friday are “It is finished,” we also know that a joyous Easter celebration awaits us. Soon after the Good Friday service, we already started to prepare our sanctuary and chapel for the good news of Christ’s resurrection.]

Pastoral Prayer (Maundy Thursday) Athens First UMC

[Jesu, Jesu was our middle prayer hymn following the Maundy Thursday sermon. This hymn refers to that night when Jesus gathered in the Upper Room with his disciples, “Kneels at the feet of his friends, silently washes their feet, Master who acts as a slave to them.” Serving others is the 7th fear in our Lent sermon series, “My Fears Relieved.” We will focus on the eighth and final fear of this series on Easter Sunday. Join us as we reflect on how God’s amazing grace can help our fears be relieved as we face the fear of life after death.]

Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you. 

Fill us with your love, show us how to serve at the food pantry, at a habitat for humanity building site, at Monday Lunch, at the school, at the nursing home, at the prison, at the homeless shelter, at the church.

Fill us with your love and show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you.

On this holy night in which you washed the disciples’ feet, you gave us a glimpse of God’s overflowing love for the world. Likewise, when you are placed on a cross, we will see how even death itself cannot overcome God’s redeeming and costly love for the world. There is nothing greater than your love for the world; not fear, not foe, not frustration, not fate, not even a fire that rages out of control. Your love is bigger than anything in its way.

Thank you for showing us who God is. Thank you for showing us what it means to serve you in simple and humble ways.

Jesu, Jesu, on this holy night, fill us with your love, show us how to serve the neighbors we have from you, and teach us to humbly pray together without fear,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Sermon (April 18/Maundy Thursday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     During our season of Lent sermon series, we have been focusing on the different fears we face along our journey of faith. We have looked at the fear of temptation, doubts, fruitfulness, forgiveness, generosity, and confidence. 

     The title of this series is “My Fears Relieved,” which is the beautiful little phrase that we find in verse two of the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

     My fears relieved. During this series, we have been discovering again and again that one one of the ways that we can overcome our fears is by keeping our focus on Jesus. 

     Jesus helps us overcome our fear of temptation because we saw how he faced his own temptations when he was in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry.

     Jesus helps us overcome our fear of doubts by trusting him even though many of our questions about faith and life have no simple answers.

     Jesus helps us overcome our fear of fruitfulness by inviting us to spend more time following him everyday and less time worrying about things that we out of our control.

     Jesus helps us overcome our fear of forgiveness by praying for those who have wronged us.

     Jesus helps us to overcome our fear of generosity by pointing us to the cross where he poured out his life for the sake of the world.

     And this past Sunday, we saw how Jesus helps us to overcome the fear of confidence by giving each one of us a purpose in life and remembering that God is always with us.

     All of these fears are relieved when we keep our focus on Jesus and become more like him. This is the common theme throughout our season of Lent. Keeping our focus on Jesus can make all the difference in the world.

     And tonight, the disciple Peter teaches us in only the way that he can, what it means to overcome our fear of serving.

     Peter refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet. And we can understand why. By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus was committing a 1st century Middle East faux passé because only servants were supposed to wash feet.  

     Washing feet was a necessary thing to do during that time because it wasn’t like everyone had a pair of sketcher hiking shoes during their long travels. Having your feet washed was a very common and necessary thing for people entering into a home.

     And here, their teacher, their Rabbi, and indeed, the one who they knew to be their Messiah was doing something that seemed to be so un-Messiah like.  He was stooping down to gently and lovingly wash “their” feet. 

     Peter is still in shock over this whole foot washing scene and when it is finally Peter’s turn, Peter does only what Peter knows how to do.  Instead of silence, he speaks.  Sometimes, silence is an appropriate response in times like this.  But Peter can’t control himself.

     In our bibles, Peter’s response comes out like a coherent and complete sentence, but the original Greek is very abrupt and choppy.  A better translation would read, “You?...  You wash…my feet?”  

     Peter was in shock that Jesus, would do such a thing.  And Jesus proceeds to wash Peter’s feet.

     In this quiet, but powerful and countercultural act, Jesus was turning the disciples’ preconceived notions of who the Messiah should be and what religion should be, upside down.  Without using words, Jesus was showing the disciples what it means to be His followers.

     Think about what Jesus’ does in this loving action.  John tells us that after Jesus got up from the table, he took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  The next time that we will read about Jesus’ clothing will be six chapters later when Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate wearing a crown of thorns and a purple robe.

     And soon after that, Jesus will be stripped naked and will die on a cross showing us once again, how far he is willing to go to redeem us and claim us as his own.   No wonder Peter found it difficult to allow Jesus to serve him by washing his feet.  

     God’s love goes beyond our comprehension.  It even shocks us, and when we come face to face with it, we often have trouble receiving it.  That’s why we can never exhaust the deep meaning of Holy Week.  No matter how many times we read these scripture lessons, God’s love is revealed to us in new and fresh ways, surprising us, and calling us to receive it again and again.

       In my years of pastoral ministry, I have discovered that many of us, me included, find it difficult to receive God’s gift of love.  In our thinking, we need to do something to earn God’s love.  But it just doesn’t work that way with God.  God loves us right where we are.

     What if, on this night, instead of trying to earn God’s love or favor, we instead receive God’s love?  What if on this night, we allow God to stoop to wash our feet?  What if on this night, we allow the Son of God to serve us even though not one of us really deserves it.

     Will Willimon, who now serves as a Bishop in our denomination tells of a friend of his, Stuart Henry, who grew up in a very strict southern Presbyterian church.  Whenever they would serve the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the pastor would stand before the congregation and say something like, “It is my sacred and solemn duty to warn you that if there be any adulterers, fornicators, liars, thieves, or blasphemers among you, and that if you partake of this holy food unworthily, you partake of your own damnation.

     Dr. Henry said, “We all pranced right down to the front to receive the body and blood of Christ anyway.”

     And tonight, here we are.  We can relate to Judas and Peter, for we know about betrayal and denial all too well.  And yet, John tells us that Jesus washed their feet.  

     A friend of mine shared with me how he became a Christian.  While he was in college, a friend of his invited him to a worship service at a United Methodist church.

     And during the worship service, the lay reader read this very same scripture from John’s Gospel – the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  And my friend said, “For the rest of that week, I couldn’t stop thinking about that scripture reading.  I couldn’t get that image of Jesus out of my mind.  Jesus washed the disciples’ feet.”  

     “The reason why I’m a Christian today,” he went on to tell me, “Is because I went to church on a Maundy Thursday and was amazed by this story.”

     This friend of mine is one of the most serving people I know. He loves to be part of a prayer walking group in his church who will periodically walk through their city neighborhoods and serve the people they meet in simple ways.

     Since their church is located in a very poverty stricken part of the city, they will hand out gift bags that contain hygiene items and other practical gifts. He has been part of a team in his church who have started a small group in one of the neighborhoods.

     Jeff is serving in all of these ways all because during a Maundy Thursday service one year, someone read to him this story about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. Jesus helps us overcome our fear of serving by first serving us in such a humble way.

     A bowl and a basin are powerful images for us to reflect on tonight.  Think about it.

     Jesus washed their feet.  
     Jesus washed their feet.
     Jesus serving us.
     Jesus serving us.
     Jesus washing our feet. 

(Pastor sits down while continuing these lines.)

     Jesus washing our feet.
     Jesus washing our feet.
     Jesus dying on the cross for us.
     Jesus dying on the cross for us.
     Jesus dying on the cross for us.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (April 14/Palm Sunday) Athens First UMC

[The children led the way in the procession for our opening hymn and then offered this hymn of praise for the congregation during our Palm Sunday worship. Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week that will lead us to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and then to the empty tomb on Easter Sunday. For the Palm Sunday sermon, click here.]

O God, palm branches are waving, children are singing, choirs are rehearsing, extra worship bulletins are being printed. We have finally arrived to Holy Week; the week of all weeks on the church calendar, the week that changed the world, the week that showed us what perfect love can do, the week of Easter lilies being delivered, the week of Holy Communion and Tenebrae services, the week that leads us to a cross and an empty tomb.

O God, thank you for these past several weeks of Lent that have been preparing us for this moment. We have learned so much from you along these dusty roads leading to Jerusalem. We are growing in what it means to face temptation, wrestle with doubts, focus on being fruitful, seeking to be forgiving, becoming more generous, and growing in confidence. But now, all of our fears will be on the line this week, as the shouts of hosanna that we are hearing today will quickly turn into shouts of “crucify him.”

And so, we offer to you our fears as we prepare to gather around the Passover meal on Thursday, the cross on Friday, and by the sealed tomb on Saturday. This will be the most difficult stretch of our journey with you, but we will still follow you because deep down we know that these events will once again lead us to the surprising good news of a glorious resurrection. 

It is with this hope that we lift up to you any who feel fearful this day; for the family grieving the loss of a loved one, for the person looking for employment, for those feeling lonely, for the one who is preparing to move to a new community, for people who feel judged and excluded by others, for those with physical or emotional distress, and for anyone who is in need of hearing these incredible words of faith, “Twas grace that taught my heart to fear and grace my fears relieved.”

Relieve our fears, Lord Jesus even as we pray the words you taught us to pray…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Sermon (April 14/Palm Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell “My Fears Relieved: Confidence”

     On this Palm Sunday, we are nearing the conclusion of our season of Lent series on the theme, “My fears relieved.” 

     If you were here five Sundays ago at the start of this series, you might recall that this long journey began with the story of Jesus in the wilderness. I mentioned how this story of Jesus in the wilderness is to remind us of the exodus story when the Israelites had escaped from being slaves in Egypt and traveled in the wilderness for forty years on their way to the Promised Land.

     So when we read the story of Jesus beginning his ministry in the wilderness, this is to help us see that Jesus’ life and ministry will be about retelling this story of Israel in a new way. It’s like Jesus is embodying the story of the people of Israel from the Old Testament. Jesus is Israel.

     Today’s scripture of Jesus riding a donkey into the city of Jerusalem for what would be the last week of his life is another way that Jesus is embodying Israel. Just like Israel had been freed from slavery and led by God in the wilderness to the Promised Land from the Old Testament, so Jesus has been taking us on a journey leading us into a new kind of Promised Land. Jesus is leading us to a new kind of Exodus, an exodus not from slavery in Egypt, but an exodus from our own slavery to sin and death.

     Jesus reenactment of the exodus story will lead us to the promised land but this time, it will lead us to a cross and to an empty tomb. All of this is to say that Jesus’ three year journey with his disciples has been paralleling the journey of God’s people from the wilderness into the Promised Land.

     When we think of Jesus’ life and ministry in this new light, the light bulbs start turning on in our minds. We begin to see how Jesus’ story and the story of the Israelites centuries before him are woven so closely together. 

     And even more importantly, we are able to see how purposeful Jesus’ life and ministry really were. Jesus doesn’t do things arbitrarily. He does them in such a specific way to fulfill the earlier story of the people of Israel. Jesus is purposefully leading us from our own slavery to sin and death and into a new Promised Land that will lead to freedom from fear and salvation. 

     Or to put all of this in a more short-hand version, Jesus is doing for us what the people of Israel were unable to do for themselves – conquer sin and death once and for all.

     We call this day that begins Holy Week, “Jesus’ Triumphant Entry.” Jesus triumphantly enters into Jerusalem to face the powers of this world face to face. I like that word. Triumphant. To be triumphant means to be confident.

     Notice that Jesus chooses to ride into Jerusalem on a donkey which again is a very purposeful thing for Jesus to do. Riding on a donkey into Jerusalem fulfills a prophecy from the Book of Zechariah in the Old Testament in which it was believed that the coming Messiah, the coming King who was to bring freedom to the people of Israel would enter Jerusalem in this very humble way. 

     Yes, Jesus is that purposeful which helps explain how Jesus was able to be so confident knowing that he would be facing incredible opposition from the religious leaders who had been opposing him. Jesus was remarkably confident because he was on a mission, a mission filled with the specific purpose of leading God’s people to freedom and salvation.

     Jesus had the kind of confidence that the Prophet Isaiah proclaims in Isaiah chapter 50 when describing the future Messiah, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefor I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who are my adversaries? Let them confront me. It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?”

     Jesus had a mission and a purpose and he trusted in God as he lived out that mission and purpose. He rode into Jerusalem knowing that he was not alone. God was with him.

     God relieves our fears as we embrace the purpose and calling that has been given to us. 

     Sometimes when fears begin to overwhelm me, I think back to the spring semester of my freshman year in college when I was at one of the lowest points in my life. I was feeling really lonely and was struggling with my grades that first year. I also didn’t make the final cut to be on the baseball team. Sports had always served as my sense of security and confidence and now I didn’t even have that. I was feeling lost and without any kind of direction in my life.

     But then something amazing happened. I found an old cassette tape of a county-wide Christian rally that I had attended when I was in Junior High School several years earlier. Just for kicks I played that tape and the speaker who I obviously didn’t listen to the first time was challenging all of the youth who were at that rally to respond to Jesus’ challenge from Luke 9:23 to take up our cross and follow him. 

     I listened to that tape over and over and over and over again. Even though I had been raised in the church, I realized that I had never really made a commitment to put Christ first in my life. And so, one day I thought to myself, “What do I have to lose.” And so I got down on my knees and prayed for God to help me put Christ first in all that I do.

     During that prayer, I was already feeling the weight of my loneliness and lack of purpose in life being lifted from me. It was the most freeing experience I have ever had. I felt like a new person. 

     During that prayer, it was like I could hear God telling me to begin putting Christ first in my life by doing these two very specific things. The first thing was to focus more on my studies even though I still didn’t know what major or future career I should pursue. 

     Actually, it wouldn’t be for another two years that I would know the career path I should take but that wasn’t the important thing. In that moment, God just wanted me to trust him on a day to day basis and the rest would take care of itself. 

     The second thing I felt God calling me to do was to begin a bible study for people my age so that I would be more likely to keep Christ first in my life and I could help other people keep Christ first.

     After that prayer, amazing things began to happen. Surprise, surprise! I started getting really good grades even in classes that I didn’t even like. I started making the Dean’s List. And I started a bible study with people my age that faithfully met throughout my college years.

     I also started feeling more confident and at peace in my life. I  started stepping out in faith in ways that I could never have imagined. All of this new-found confidence was because of that very important prayer during my freshman year in college to put Christ first in my life.

     What a difference it makes when we put Christ first in our lives! What an incredible difference it makes when we live out the purpose and the calling that God has given to each one of us!

     Like any of the other fears we have been looking at throughout this sermon series, it’s not like we totally overcome them. Even when we are seeking to put Christ first in all that we do and living a purposeful life, we still face situations where we doubt ourselves and wonder if we are really up to the challenges that we face in our day to lives. Some challenges seem more difficult than others.

    Adam Hamilton is the Senior Pastor at Church of the Resurrection United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri. I believe it’s the largest United Methodist Churches in the country. He was asked to deliver the inauguration sermon at the National Cathedral in Washington DC under then President Obama. 

    Even though he speaks to large crowds each week at his church, he was very nervous. There was the president, the vice-president, members of the cabinet, many members of congress, and C-Span cameras broadcasting this event.

     He said that just before it was time for him to get up to deliver his sermon, that he became unusually nervous. All of the sudden, he became overwhelmed by the national spotlight. He started to think, “What if I trip and fall while climbing up the steps of this large stone pulpit? What if I make a mistake and say something that I will regret? What if my pounding heart doesn’t stop pounding?”

     And that’s when he remembered all of the people who were praying for him back at his church in Kansas City. As he thought about those many prayers that were being lifted on his behalf in that very moment, a sense of peace came over him. He didn’t feel as nervous anymore. He felt God’s presence with him and he ended up delivering quite a powerful and prophetic message to some of the most influential people of our country.   

     When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he knew that God had called him for that purpose. Even though he knew that suffering and death awaited him, he also knew that the cross would lead to resurrection and freedom from sin and death for all of God’s people, the ultimate exodus.

     He knew that he wasn’t alone. God was with him.

     Whether we are in the wilderness facing temptation or riding into a very challenging time in our lives, keep Christ first in your life. Know that God has given each one of us a purpose. Know that God has given you a purpose.

     And remember, this story ends with an empty tomb.

My Fears Relieved: Confidence
Sermon Discussion Questions
Philippians 2:5-11 & Luke 19:28-40
April 14, 2019

During this 40-day season of Lent, we journey with Jesus from the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan and we continue to follow him all the way to the cross and the empty tomb. On Palm Sunday, we are nearing the conclusion of Jesus’ long journey as he rides into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus’ journey is in many ways, a reenactment of when the people of Israel wandered through the wildnerness and eventually made their way into the Promised Land. In other words, Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem was very purposeful. This is what helped him to face his fears of what was to come with confidence.

Share a time when you faced a situation with confidence because you were aware of your purpose.

During this season of Lent, we have been looking at several different fears that we face from time to time. These have included the fears of temptations, doubts, fruitfulness, forgiveness, generosity, and today we look at the fear of confidence.

Which of these fears do you struggle with the most? How can being more purposeful help you overcome these fears?

Pastor Robert shared the story of when Adam Hamilton was invited by then President Obama to offer the inauguration worship service sermon in front of many high profile leaders in Washington DC. Adam said that he was overcome with nervousness before getting up to speak but then he remembered that his congregation was praying for him back in Kansas City. 

Who are the people in your life who can pray for you whenever you are feeling afraid and in need of confidence?

Today is the beginning of Holy Week which will conclude with his crucifixion but three days later, he will be resurrected from the dead. 

How does the good news of Easter and Jesus’ resurrection give you confidence in your life?

Monday, April 8, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer ( April 7/Lent)

[Our Sunday worship theme was about overcoming the fear of being generous with sharing our gifts with others. For the sermon, click here. The picture above is from one of our Athens First Saturday ministries this past weekend in which we went to different assisted living facilities to sing songs with the residents and hand out Easter eggs with bible verses. Our monthly Athens First Saturday ministry is a great example of how simple it can be to be generous with our time and bless others.]

Generous God, you constantly bless us with many incredible gifts. This past week, you splashed us with sunshine and blue skies. You spoke to us through a caring friend. You opened a new door of opportunity when another door had closed. You spoke a reassuring word to us through a bible verse we read. You warmed our hearts through an unexpected gift.

And we thank you for the many examples of how people have been generous to us; a friend who offered a listening ear when our hearts were troubled, small group members who were willing to share their faith and offer prayer for each other, a noisy bucket collection this past Sunday of over $1,000 to support the Athens County Food Pantry, church members preparing a meal for a new member lunch, additional financial donations to help pay off capital campaign expenses, a friend who was willing to say, “I’m sorry for what I said. Please forgive me.”

God of abundance, your gifts of grace abound in our lives in so many beautiful ways. Thank you for these gifts and the opportunities you give us to be a blessing to others.

In a community and world of so much need, help us to not allow fear to keep us from being the generous people you have called us to be. Remind us that it’s in giving that we receive blessings as well. May each of our hearts overflow in generosity for the sake of others. May each gift given in your name begin a ripple effect of grace that will continue to bless others in ways that we can’t even imagine. May we be more like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus who were generous in their hospitality, their resources, and their witness of their new life in you. 

Generous God, relieve our fears and teach us to be generous like you are generous. Thank you for your gift of Jesus who lived, died, and rose again so that we might have life abundantly. 

It is in his generous name that we pray the prayer he taught us to say together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Picture of an Easter basket at one of the assisted living facilities where our church sang to to the residents. The basket reminds us that the good news of Easter is not far away!]

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Capital Campaign Celebration Message (April 7, 2019)

[Our church celebrated the completion of the three-year capital campaign with a church meal after worship on Sunday. The campaign helped us to add a handicap sidewalk cut-out, a new front entrance kitchenette, an expanded glass entrance, a completely renovated sanctuary, an elevator for all floors, an expanded 3rd floor mult-purpose space, and a new pastor’s office on the 2nd floor. Due to unanticipated construction costs and some church members who have died or moved away over the past few years, we announced on Sunday that we are short by $25,000. Based on the spirit of the people at the celebration meal, there is no doubt that we will reach that goal by the end of the year.]

Today is a day about saying thank you to everyone who has helped to make this day of celebration possible. It’s very fitting that today’s worship theme was about generosity because without your generosity, we wouldn’t be where we are today. It’s also a day to thank God who has blessed us richly through our three year capital campaign journey. In the words of the song, “The Color Purple” which our choir sang for our capital improvements dedication Sunday in February of 2017, “Look what God has done.”

Our presentation is going to be brief but I do want to offer some words of historical context to help us celebrate our more recent building improvements. Plus, I love history, so there’s that. 

This past Monday, was the birthday anniversary of Rev. James Quinn, the Methodist Circuit Riding preacher who started our church back in 1800, three years after the founding of Athens and four years before the founding date of Ohio University. Yes, our church and our surrounding community are that intertwined. And by the way, James Quinn, our founding pastor from 1800 and our own Rev. David Maze look a lot alike, like they could be twins or something. 

From 1800 to 1814, those first handful of Methodists met weekly in someone’s log cabin. When they met, they would have simply shared how they experienced God since the last time they met and they also encouraged each other to live out their faith. And footnote. This is exactly what we are seeking to do through our small groups, where we share how God is present in our everyday lives. That’s at the very core of what it means to be a Methodist. We share how God is at work in our lives with each other.

This handful of Methodists grew to a point where they needed a larger space to meet and so they built their first church building in 1815. Over the course of our two hundred plus year history, our church has had four church buildings, the one we are in being built in 1958. As many of you know, the reason this needed to be built was because of a fire in 1955 that destroyed the building before this one. 

The first worship service in the new building was held on February 9, 1958, sixty-one years ago at a cost of $850,000. Thanks to insurance money from the fire, the congregation needed to raise only $648,000 which ironically is about the same amount of money that our church needed to raise for our recent three year campaign.

It took two campaigns over a span of twenty-three years for the congregation to pay off the building we are in today. They paid it off in 1981. 

Thirty-five years after that campaign was completed our church began a major capital improvement campaign which has included the front sidewalk curb space, our front entrance kitchenette, the expanded glass entrance, a totally remodeled sanctuary including air conditioning, the addition of an elevator to all floors of the church, an expanded 3rd floor multi-purpose room, and a new pastor’s office on the 2nd floor.

The name of our three year campaign has been, “Putting Athens First.” We decided to go with that theme because it’s a play on words of the name of our church, “Athens First” and it reminds us that God has placed us in this unique spot to “put Athens First” by reaching out to our surrounding community with God’s love.

The mission component of the campaign helped us to hire two staff people to begin our monthly Athens First Saturday Community Involvement as well as other college student and community ministries. Several people were part of Athens First Saturday yesterday with projects here at the church as well as out in the community. Athens First is continuing to put Athens First and that will continue.

Many of you received a letter in the mail this past week to thank us for our pledges and our gifts toward our capital campaign over these past three years. All of these gifts have been greatly appreciated. Thank you.

May the words from the song, “The Color Purple,” continue to remind us of how blessed we are as the people of Athens First. Let us pray. 

Generous God, look what you have done by giving us this beautiful space in which to worship and serve you. As beloved former pastor, Rev. Dan Kiger said about our campaign when he preached here just a little over three years ago, help our church to always be a haven of blessing and peace for the people of our community. Thank you for the gifts and the generosity of your people and may we continue to be like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus who offered their very best gifts to Jesus. It is in his name that we offer our honor, glory, and praise. Amen.

Sermon (April 7) by Rev. Robert McDowell “My Fears Relieved: Generosity”

      A man named Jack was walking along a steep cliff.  He accidentally got too close to the edge and fell.

     On the way down, he grabbed a branch, which temporarily stopped his fall. He looked down and to his horror saw that the canyon fell straight down for more than a thousand feet.

     He couldn’t hang onto the branch forever, and there was no way for him to climb up the steep wall of the cliff. So Jack began yelling for help, hoping that someone passing by would hear him and lower a rope or something.

     “Help! Help! Is anyone up there? Help!”

     He yelled for a long time, but no one heard him. He was about to give up when he heard a voice.

     “Jack, Jack. Can you hear me?”

     “Yes, yes! I can hear you. I’m down here!”

     “I can see you, Jack. Are you all right?”

     “Yes, but who are you, and where are you?”

     “I am the Lord, Jack. I’m everywhere.”

     “The Lord? You mean, God?”

     “That’s Me.”

     “God, please help me! I promise if, you’ll get me down from here, I’ll give you everything. My money. My time. You name it.  I’ll serve You for the rest of my life.”

     “Easy on the promises, Jack. Let’s get you down from there; then we can talk. Now, here’s what I want you to do. Listen carefully.”

     “I’ll do anything, Lord. Just tell me what to do.”

     “Okay. Let go of the branch.”

     “What?” asked Jack.

     “I said, Let go of the branch. Just trust Me. Let go!”

     There was a long silence.

     Finally, Jack yelled up, “Is there anyone else up there?”

     That story is funny only because we know what it’s like to be Jack. We know what it’s like to be asked to give up control and let go. It can be unnerving. It can be a very fearful thing. 

     During the Season of Lent, we have been focusing on different fears that can keep us from being the people that God has called us to be. Today’s fear is the fear of being generous in offering our resources. That’s understandable because sometimes we worry that if we give something away, we won’t have enough for ourselves.

     I think that one of the ways that God helps us to overcome our fears of being generous is through the example of other people. Take for example our Gospel reading for today.

     It’s the story of three people who were willing to let go and trust God with all of who they were. We know them as Mary, Martha, & Lazarus. They were siblings and they were close friends of Jesus. They offered their very best gifts to him in their own unique ways.

    Before we look at each of them individually, I just want to mention them as a family because together, they were very generous. On more than one occasion, this family provided lodging for Jesus and his disciples after their long journeys traveling to Jerusalem. Bethany was a town just outside of Jerusalem so it was a perfect location for Jesus and the disciples to stay when they traveled to Jerusalem for the different religious festivals that took place there each year. They had formed a friendship with Jesus.

     And perhaps this is where generosity begins. It begins with becoming friends with Jesus. We offer Jesus a space in our hearts where he can reside. We offer Jesus a space in our day to day living where we grow in our relationship with him.

     One of the ways that we can overcome our fears is by first realizing that Jesus wants to be in a relationship with us, a real relationship that we cultivate through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. These are the five things that every person who joins the church pledges to do when they stand up here and are received into membership. This gives a whole new meaning in what it means to be part of a church family. Becoming part of a church where we are all offering our gifts is how we grow in our relationship with Christ. 

     So let’s take a look at our Gospel reading for this morning and see how Martha, Mary, and Lazarus offered their very best gifts to Jesus.

     Let’s start with Martha. In verse 2 of our Gospel reading, we are told that they prepared a dinner for Jesus and specifically it said that Martha served. We’re not exactly sure of what that meant specifically, but it’s probably a good guess that her generosity involved cooking and hospitality.

     I don’t mean to brag, but if you’re looking for someone to make sloppy joes and put out some potato chips for a family of four, I’m your man. But if you need someone to cook a real meal, you probably want to go with Martha. Martha knew how to turn a house into a home, as they say.

     The incredible thing about Martha is in how she literally created a space for Jesus whenever he was in need of lodging during his long journeys into Jerusalem. Martha had a very generous and serving heart. 

     When our children were in elementary school, an older couple in our church always invited our family to join their family at there house on Christmas Eve. And they would always serve this incredible Christmas feast for all of us. They held it a couple of hours before the Christmas Eve service so that we would have time to get home and get ready to be at the church.

     It’s now been twenty years since we’ve been at that church and we still get Christmas cards from this couple telling us how much they enjoyed those meals together. And I still remember the menu: Roast beef, potatoes, green beans, several other incredibly delicious side dishes, and for dessert, they always had grasshopper pie. This pie was a homemade mint chip, chocolate cookie crust with whipped cream on top. Basically it was like biting into heaven. It was that good!

     After our meal, we would exchange gifts, laugh, and tell stories. We became really close. We felt like we were part of their family. I would later officiate at their granddaughter’s wedding that was held in Michigan. We will always be grateful to Jack and Jean and their generous hearts toward our family every Christmas Eve. They helped our children feel special while we were at that church since our families were out of state.

     Those of you who love Jesus, have the gift of hospitality, treat others like they are family, and know how to make grasshopper pie, please know that your acts of love will be remembered for a long time. Martha knew to not be afraid in being generous with her gift of hospitality. Martha used her gift to serve Jesus, her family, and their friends.

     But Martha’s sister, Mary is another great example for us of someone who wasn’t afraid of being generous in offering gifts to Jesus. In fact in our gospel reading, her gift was so generous, that one of the disciples even rebuked her for not giving her expensive gift to help the poor. Her gift was a very costly burial perfume which in that time period was a necessity for every person to have in order to have a proper burial.      

     It’s also likely that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had this gift of burial perfume to offer Jesus since they didn’t have to use it for Lazarus who Jesus had brought back to life just one chapter earlier. Ironically, Jesus who brought back Lazarus from the dead was being prepared for his own death through this incredible gift of generosity on the part of Mary. 

     When have you opened the costly jar of ointment to bless others?

     The great Christian writer, John Bunyan wrote these awesome poetic words about generosity, “There was a man, they called him mad. The more he gave, the more he had.” Generous people teach us this all the time. The more you seek to bless others, the more you get in return.

     The Psalmist for today ends his Psalm by exclaiming, “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”

     Mary’s heart was full of joy as she anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. She knew that her generous gift for Jesus was nothing compared to what Jesus meant to her and to her family. 

     Mary teaches us that we can overcome any fear of generosity simply by remembering to whom our gift is being offered. And here’s another thought about overcoming fear of generosity. Imagine the incredible scent of perfume that filled that house the moment that Mary opened that jar. Burial perfume in Jesus’ day was known for it’s delightful and powerful aroma. It was a treasured item.

     Reflecting on this story, someone offered these questions to consider. I love these. “When was the last time that you experienced the love and power of God in such a real way that the perfume of God’s grace lingered with you? What would our lives “look like” if we bore the aroma of the Holy Spirit? What if grace and love and compassion poured out of us in an intoxicating way.”

     No wonder that some churches use incense during the worship services, to remind them of the perfume of a gracious God and a generous congregation who joyfully offer their gifts to be a blessing to others.

     Martha was fearless in her generous hospitality. Mary was fearless in her generous offering, which brings us to Lazarus who offers us an example of being fearless in his generous witness as well.

     Think about it. Just one chapter earlier, Lazarus was dead and Jesus brought him back to life. I’m sure that incredible story got some mileage. Lazarus was literally, a living testimony of Christ’s power at work in his life. Jesus literally breathed new life into him. He was once dead, but now was alive and could tell others about it.

     How is Jesus breathing new life into you? How has God answered a prayer in your life in an unexpected way? In what ways did you experience Christ’s presence recently? We call these “thin place” moments because heaven and earth often overlap in our every day lives giving us holy goosebumps.

     One of the ways that we can overcome our fear of sharing our faith with others is by becoming more alert to those thin place moments in our lives where God has breathed new life into us and then to sharing those holy moments with others. This is an important part of our small group ministry here at our church as we give each other the opportunity to reflect on how God is at work in our lives based on the previous Sunday’s worship theme.

       Martha offers us the example of being fearless in our hospitality. Mary offers us the example of being fearless in our possessions. And Lazarus offers us an example of what it means to be fearless in being a generous witness of God’s life-giving presence in our lives.

     And on this Holy Communion Sunday, we have the greatest example of generosity there is, Christ himself who offered his life so that we might have life in all of it’s fullness. As we come forward to receive the bread and the cup, we are invited to let go of our fears, trust God to catch us, and become the generous people that God has called us to be. 
My Fears Relieved: Generosity
Sermon Discussion Questions
Psalm 126 & John 12:1-8
April 7, 2019

Pastor Robert began his sermon by telling the story of a man who was hanging from a cliff for dear life by holding onto a branch. He calls out for help and God responds by telling him that he will catch him if he is willing to let go of the branch. After a long silence, the man shouts, “Is there anyone else up there?!”

Have you ever felt like the man in this humorous story who was fearful of letting go of the branch and trust in God? Share a time when God called you to “let go” and trust him.

Our Gospel reading is the story of a time that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus who were friends of Jesus offered him hospitality and lodging during one of his trips into Jerusalem. Each of these friends of Jesus offer us an example of what it means to “let go” and trust Jesus with our gifts.

Martha offered her generous gift of hospitality by serving Jesus a meal. Share a gift that you have and how you have used or might use that gift to be a blessing to God and to others.

Mary offered her generous gift of her possessions when she anointed Jesus with very closely perfume. This gift was equivalant to a year’s worth of income. 

When have you gone above and beyond in offering a financial gift to be a blessing to God and to others?

Lazarus offered his generous gift of being a witness of how Jesus restored him back to life (see John 11 for this story.) How has God breathed “new life” into you? When have you felt God’s precense at work in your life? Are you sharing these “thin place” holy moments with others so that they can be drawn closer to God?
While Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are great examples of what it means to overcome our fear of being generous through their sacrificial sharing of what they had, Jesus himself is our greatest example of generosity. Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate example of overcoming our fear of being generous by letting go and trusting God with all of who we are. When people join the church, they commit to offering their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. 

In what ways do you see people living out their membership vows through the church?