A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

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

Monday, May 27, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (May 26/Memorial Day Weekend) Athens First UMC

[The sermon was given by guest preacher, Naomi McDowell and was entitled, “When We Google the Church.” We were encouraged to be advocates for people in our community. Anne Stempel, a church member who passed away last year was an advocate for people struggling with mental illness. In 1976, she helped co-found “The Gathering Place” which provides mental health services in our community. Our pastoral prayer focused on ways the church might be more like Jesus in being advocates for people in our community.]

O God, our prayer this morning is very simple. Help us to be more like Jesus. Help the church to be more like Jesus. Help us to be more loving, caring, compassionate, gracious, welcoming, accepting, open, forgiving, kind, peace-making, gentle, serving.

When people google the church, may they find these qualities and know that they will be welcomed into a community who are simply seeking to be more like Jesus. Help us to remember that it’s really that simple in what it means to be your church. 

We pray for a world filled with so much pain, brokenness, violence, and injustice; a world where people and institutions can be very de-humanizing in how we treat one another and in how we disrespect one another. 

But we also thank you for a world where there are signs of our common humanity where people are genuinely seeking the common good for all. Like The Gathering Place located just a few blocks from our church who provide mental health services. Thank you for Christ Lutheran Church, who recently received the Anne Stempel memorial award this past week for their support of The Gathering Place. Thank you for Anne who as a member of our church saw an important need and helped to co-found this vital organization in our community. 

Thank you, O God for these signs of goodness and compassion. When people google the church, may they read more of these stories where people are finding support, love, hope, encouragement and life transforming resources.

On this Memorial Day weekend, we are also grateful for those who have served in the armed services and who are no longer with us. We thank you for their sacrifice on our behalf in helping to make this world a better place for all.

We pray this in the name of Jesus who welcomed the stranger, fed the hungry, healed the sick, and who taught us to pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Naomi McDowell preaching at our church.]

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sermon (May 26) by Naomi McDowell

[We had a guest preacher! Here is the introduction that was given by Pastor Robert before she preached. “
I just want to share a brief word of introduction about our guest preacher this morning, our daughter, Naomi McDowell. She and and husband, Aaron will be celebrating their 5th wedding anniversary next month. They live in Columbus where Naomi works at Capital Legal Clinic and is a domestic violence advocate. Aaron works at Battelle Research company. So why is my daughter preaching this morning? Well, she brings a perspective to the pulpit that is so important and she is passionate about social justice and issues related to domestic violence. It’s not just because this issue is connected with her job, but it also relates to her faith. As a preacher’s kid, Naomi was always the one who would say to me, ‘But dad, you need to preach about this. Dad, I haven’t heard you talk about this issue.’ This is why this fiery, passionate, loving millennial is our guest preacher this morning. She offers an important perspective that we need to hear. Naomi, may the Holy Spirit speak through you as you share with us today.]

Good morning.  It’s so great to be here this morning!  As you know from that introduction, I am Pastor Robert’s daughter, also known as Naomi McDowell.  Usually this familial relation begs many questions from curious people about growing up as Pastor Robert’s daughter.  So let’s get the most popular question out of the way.  Yes, it was very hard for me to raise my dad into the man he is today, but every day was truly a joy.  

And while many of you already knew that Pastor Robert is my dad, you may or may not be aware of what my job is.  This is due to the fact that my dad may or may not be fully aware of what my job is.  And while I joke, it is a pretty complex field I’m in, so let me once and for all set the record straight.  I am a Domestic Violence Victims Advocate.  This is the part where I already lose some people but I know I still have you all following me.  Here’s where it gets bureaucratic.  

     Specifically, I work for a pro bono legal clinic through Capital Law School.  Due to a federal grant, we are able to represent clients, pro bono, to obtain a Civil Protection Order against his or her abuser.  A Civil Protection Order is what most people think of as a restraining order.  It means your abuser cannot come within 500 feet of you or contact you.  If he or she does, they could be arrested and charged criminally with a violation of protection order.   Our team consists of three attorneys and two advocates, including myself.  We have an office at the Franklin County Courthouse where we do intake from the Domestic Violence Prosecutor’s office.  Our intake office is for anyone screening for our representation for their Civil Protection Order.  From now on I’m going to refer to the Civil Protection Order as “CPO” because my dad mentioned several times, very emphatically, that this sermon cannot be over 18 minutes.  We have an office at the DV Prosecutor’s office because most victims with a criminal case against their abuser means they need a CPO for after the case.  DV is usually a misdemeanor charge, meaning the consequences are normally minimal jail time, usually just probation, if anything at all.  The CPO keeps the client protected after the case ends for anywhere from 1 month to 5 years (maximum).  So this is exactly why many of our referrals are from Prosecutors and their advocates.    

     My job is to interview that client on the 17th floor, explain to the attorney why I think that client does or does not qualify for our services, and then to do some hand holding when we go in front of the judge.  I also attend any further court dates for the CPO with that client and help the attorney prep the case.  Sometimes I am listening to 1-3 stories of domestic violence in one day, sometimes it can be as many as 6.  I never know what the day will bring.  I have some cases that go on for months (one even went over a year believe it or not), and some are over within weeks.  After the case is over and we (hopefully) obtain a 5 year CPO for our client, I then follow up with him or her for up to 5 years and make sure things are still going okay in general, and that their abuser is following the CPO.  We do have people dismiss their CPO, get back together with their abuser, and call us for help again.  We do help children being abused and even sometimes animals.  We also have clients who don’t show up to court despite long and desperate conversations trying to encourage them to.  We have clients who have used us more than once to file against multiple abusers throughout their lives.  I have experienced a client murdered by her husband.  We’ve seen it all, so to speak.  

     Are you guys starting to see why I would start to lose people explaining this at a cocktail party?  I think my title should actually be “Just runs around the entire courthouse in heels most days.”  Our team is small but it is mighty.  I go to work every day because I truly believe this is what God has called me to do.  When I hear my dad speak about when he felt called to be a minister it feels very similar to my calling into victim advocacy.  It’s always been there for me.  And it is my faith that I lean on when I have a dark day.  Some people have asked if my job makes it hard to keep my faith in God.  I actually feel the opposite.  

     Yes, the majority of my day is spent seeing the ugliest parts of humanity.  But with this has come immense gratitude in the smaller victories people experience such as paying their first bill without their abuser’s help, testifying in court in front of their abuser, and even just the look of relief on a client’s face, knowing the CPO has bought them some time to start a new life (which is still a journey in itself).  For me, my trust in God is what fuels me to keep going and believe that every hard day is worth it.  Besides, without God, my only self-care would be watching The Real Housewives and cute dog videos, and that’s just not enough. I was actually also going to say a glass of wine and left it out.  But I do watch the cute dog videos with a glass of wine.  Full disclosure.  It’s still not enough.

     A lot of advocates in my field are not religious.  It’s a widely liberal profession and I think a number of people in general have been slighted by their churches and religious communities.  So other advocates are often surprised when I choose to share my faith, or just that my father is a minister.  

     But to me, it’s only natural because I take my passion for domestic violence work directly from scripture.  
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

     I can’t think of a better metaphor for domestic violence than this.  And I have an important note; men are also victims of domestic violence.  So please don’t take this scripture as me discounting men in this issue.  We deal with shame and victim blaming with our male clients but in other ways, unique to their gender, than with our female clients.  And according to The National Coalition against Domestic Violence, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience severe intimate partner physical violence.  We also have cases with same sex relationships.  This means the majority of our clients are women.   Just wanted to make sure I noted that.

     Jesus tells this woman “you are set free from your infirmity.”  Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, you’re a woman after all.  You should probably just stay in pain.  As a woman you don’t really want to experience a full life.  Yeah, that’s not really an issue I’m willing to take stance on.  It’s also the Sabbath so…good talk.”  No, and in fact, Jesus is so firm that this woman should stand straight and be released from this crippling spirit, that he does in fact heal her on the Sabbath, a day of religious observance and abstinence from work.  Jesus broke with religious tradition so that this woman would not be in pain.  

     And this brings me to a frustration I’ve been having.  What are we, as The Church known for vs what Jesus is known for?  If most of us if not all of us sitting in these pews are against domestic violence, then why do we not speak out more?  Why do we expect women and men experiencing abuse to come to us so that then we can speak out against it?  

When I google “The Church teaches…” I see a lot about controversial issues.  And I know as a Christian, that the way we are perceived is not always accurate.  Even just within The United Methodist Church there’s disagreement and differing views.  However, I believe we are missing the mark when it comes to Domestic Violence.  I googled “The Church and Domestic Violence” and what comes up first is obviously disappointing.  In fact this list mostly includes stories of trying to convince Christians and Churches that Domestic Violence is very real and actively happening in their communities.  The others were trying to convince readers that there’s even a case to be made that the Bible speaks out against abuse.  So that’s not much of a win for us on that one, guys.  Especially on a topic we can all get behind.  

Many of my clients reference not only their faith, but things their fellow church members and even pastors have said, encouraging them to stay in an unhealthy and abusive marriage.   Sometimes these clients have shared with their churches about the abuse, while other times they have implied or used more coded language for the physical violence they’re experiencing.  I don’t believe the majority of these people mean ill intent.  In fact, many people who say these things do so, with the belief they’re guiding someone in the best possible way.  And if you think a person will flat out say they’re being physically abused, that’s usually the last resort.   That’s the problem is the very intimate nature of domestic violence.  That’s why outside of legal advocacy, people are now referring to it as Intimate Partner Violence.  Even with this change in language, it’s still greatly misunderstood.  

But this is not only “family” issue.  Abuse is a community issue, a world issue, a religious issue, a human issue.  Earlier I used a statistic that said domestic violence will reach 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men.  I’m looking around this room and doing some quick math.  It makes it a bit more real to visualize that statistic in a familiar setting.  By choosing to take a more proactive stance, we can take the power from those who use religion to justify abuse. 

What if one of my clients sees a poster at her church against domestic violence?  What if she thinks her church will be supportive if she speaks up about what’s happening in her home?  What if a teenager in youth group looks on the internet about Christianity and abuse and sees countless of examples that what’s happening to him or her is wrong and not love. 
I used the term google in this sermon because when it comes to domestic violence and abuse this is the resource people now go to first.  The internet is how The Church reaches people in their homes before they walk through the doors.  When the home is unsafe, we must provide safety.  We are The Church.  We must provide hope for the hopeless.  And trust me when I say that abuse victims/survivors are quick to feel blame, guilt, and dismissed.  We all want to be seen.  We all want to be heard.  This brings me back to Jesus helping the bent over woman.  So many passed by her while she was so obviously in pain.  They thought, “Who am I to help her?  I don’t know how to help her?  I’m no expert.”  “What if I do more harm than good?”   I’m sure some even thought that wasn’t their problem, so best to not get involved.  But Jesus saw her.  What if The Church could be more like Jesus?  What if we could see the bent over woman too?

We think of domestic violence as hiding behind walls and private.  How can we know for sure if it’s secretive and hidden?  But often times it’s hiding in plain sight.  We hear horrible fights that go beyond a normal bad fight.  We see a couple in a parking lot and something doesn’t feel right about their interaction.  We see a teenager whose significant other never leaves them alone.  We see someone wearing a scarf around their neck when it’s 85 degrees.

We can be that change.  As individuals, as a church, as The Church, we can start that change.  We need to ask if someone is okay.  We need also say, “this is not okay,” we need to report abuse, we need listen to people, we need reach out, we need be educated on this issue, we need to...preach...on this issue.  We need to understand this is happening all around us even when we don’t see it.  Because it is happening.  Millennials are leaving churches at high numbers and as an ahem older millennial, I choose to keep my faith and church family because Jesus was so radical in so many ways.  And Jesus would have a thing or 2 to say about Domestic Violence.  I need you all to be warriors for this cause with me.  Some of you in this room right now are survivors.  Some of you are surviving.  Share your stories if, and when safe.  You are powerful.  But it is not on the survivor.  It’s on us.         
8 Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. 9 Speak up and judge fairly;
   defend the rights of the poor and needy. Proverbs 31:8-9 (NIV)

    Woman, you are set free.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (May 19) Athens First UMC

[We celebrated the baptism of the Ferguson children at our 10:30 worship service. It was a very fitting day for the baptism since our Acts scripture reading shared the story of how Cornelius and his family were baptized into the Christian faith. The Sacrament of Holy Baptism reminds us that God’s grace is available to all. All are welcome into God’s family. For the sermon, click here.]

This is our song, O God of all the nations that speak languages we find difficult to translate, cultures so different from our own, worldviews that make little sense to us, and religions that have their own unique understandings and practices. O God, in this world of so much diversity between countries and regions of the world, teach us what it means to live in peace and harmony as your global community.

This is our song, O God of all the people of this land that we call America, a melting pot of so many customs, religions, ideas, and political leanings. O God, in this country of so much diversity, teach us what it means to live in peace and harmony as fellow citizens.

This is our song, O God of all the people of Athens and southeast, Ohio, a diverse area of our state where people live in big houses with manicured lawns, others who live in homes with dirt floors, many who live somewhere in between, and still others who have no home at all. O God, in this beautiful area of so much diversity, teach us what it means to be in relationship with each other across social-economic lines and to live in peace and harmony as neighbors.

This is our song, O God for all the people of the United Methodist Church, this denomination of so much diversity that is wrestling with what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ even though we often have very differing ways of interpreting the scriptures. O God, help us as United Methodists and as the larger Christian community to live in peace and harmony as your diverse family of Christ.

This is our song, O God for our world, our country, our region, our denomination, and the church universal, as diverse as we may be to live in peace and harmony.

We pray this in the name of Jesus whose grace is more far reaching, more inclusive, and more welcoming than we can ever think or imagine, and who taught us to pray together,

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Sermon (May 19) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Walk into Earl’s kitchen, a restaurant on the north side of Chicago, and from the door you will be greeted with a larger than life sized painting of blues singer Buddy Guy, crooning at you from fifty feet away. 

     The image is big and explosively bright. It’s only as you are led to your table that you realize that the picture of Buddy is actually made up of a composite of all his song titles arranged to form his image.

     “Photo mosaic” refers to the way small pictures are arranged in such a way that they form a larger image. Each tiny square contains a fully formed whole whether it’s your face or the title of a Buddy Guy song, a whole picture you could simply study and appreciate for its own characteristics. But when we step back, these individual segments create an entirely new scene.

     In our Acts scripture reading today, the Apostle Peter is reporting to the Jerusalem church about all the puzzle pieces that were recently brought together to form the larger and beautiful picture of God’s love for the world. Take even one piece away from the finished puzzle that Peter is describing and the picture makes little sense. Every piece of the puzzle is vitally important.

     The key to putting jigsaw puzzles together is in being patient. They take time, but there’s nothing like when you are down to just a few pieces out of the five kagillion puzzle pieces and those two remaining pieces are nowhere to be found. Maybe one fell off the table and got sucked up by the vacuum cleaner. Maybe another one got thrown away by mistake. Regardless of how those last few puzzle pieces got lost, it’s just doesn’t look right without all of the pieces beautifully connected together.

     I am very challenged when it comes to putting a jigsaw puzzle together. I’m the guy who if I see two puzzle pieces that look like they should go together, but I know they really don’t, I will stubbornly try to force them to fit. God bless you if you have the patience and the stamina to put together a jigsaw puzzle.

     Sometimes, we can lose patience in putting pieces together in making sense of how God is at work in our lives. We want to see the big picture of where God is leading us, but sometimes all we have are a few pieces put together and we have no idea how they will connect with the other ones.

     Maybe the problem is that we are looking at our faith all wrong. Maybe instead of seeing our faith as something that has been completed, we should just accept the fact that we are always going to be a work in progress. That’s not to say that our faith journey should just be a bunch of unconnected puzzle pieces. That would be no fun. But, if I’m thinking about this correctly, it just means that we should enjoy the process of seeing the pieces come together and not just be focused on the end result.

     If anything, the Apostle Peter is teaching us that God is the one who has the big picture in mind. We get to help build that larger picture by seeing how the pieces connect.

     Peter thought he knew what God’s big picture was. He thought that all of the pieces of the Gospel puzzle were all put together. How could anything be missing? 

     Jesus was that long awaited puzzle piece for the people of Israel. Jesus was the Messiah who had come to restore Israel. Those Jewish followers of Jesus had been given the Holy Spirit to empower them to share the good news of Jesus with all of the people of Israel. This was a beautiful, beautiful picture. What could possibly be missing from this puzzle of incredible good news?

     And this brings us back to our Acts scripture reading where Peter is telling them that he has found the missing piece. The missing piece is that…

     Drum roll please….

     The missing puzzle piece at least for Peter in that moment is that Jesus didn’t just come to save Israel. Jesus came to save the whole world including people outside of the Jewish faith, including people who never heard of words like Moses, or Ten Commandments, or Isaiah, or Abraham or Deuteronomy, or Noah, or Passover, or exodus.

     You don’t have to be Jewish in order to receive the good news of Jesus Christ. You can be a Gentile! You can even be a Roman centurion like Cornelius who Peter ended up baptizing because of a dream that God had given Peter. It was a dream that showed him that through Jesus, God’s grace is extended to everyone.

     Thank goodness that Peter was open to receiving that missing puzzle piece of God’s far reaching love for all people.

     This story of how Peter was willing to enter into what he knew to be a ritually unclean Gentile city and a ritually unclean Gentile household and offer these non-Jewish people the good news of Jesus Christ is a story about us. We wouldn’t be here in this church today without this story of full inclusion, this story of God’s all embracing love for all people.

     Our picture of God’s redeeming love for the world includes all people. That’s why our church’s welcome statement is so important. 

     Let’s recite it together since it’s been a while since the last time we spoke it together. It’s listed on the back of the bulletin as well as on the screen.

     Let’s say it together:

     We celebrate the diversity of the human community, and affirm and believe in the sacred worth of each person as a recipient of God’s love and grace. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we declare ourselves to be an open and inclusive congregation. We welcome all persons regardless of gender, race, national origin, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, marital status or economic condition.  

     Like Peter, God gives each one of us this missing puzzle piece that needs to be added to God’s full picture where everyone is invited to be part of God’s family. The Gospel puzzle is never fully complete unless all are welcome.

     We have modern day examples of people like Peter who were open to God’s full embrace of all people. 

     A couple of months ago, Jan Miller-Fox and her husband Dave shared with me the incredible story of twenty-four courageous Methodist ministers in Mississippi who back in 1963 spoke out against racial discrimination. I didn’t know about this story until they shared it with me. It’s a proud moment in our denomination’s history. Those twenty-four Methodist ministers signed a document that was published in support of racial integration and freedom from their pulpits to speak out against exclusion and discrimination. 

     It was a very radical thing for these ministers to do in Mississippi back in the early 60s especially since many of their own church members were against racial inclusion. And they paid the price.

     Death threats, slashed tires, crosses burned in their front lawns. Because of these threats, seventeen of the twenty-four Methodist ministers ended up leaving the state within eighteen months of signing that document. 

     These ministers were willing to take a stand because they knew that the full picture of God’s redeeming love for the world would never be complete without taking a stand for those who were being excluded simply because of the color of their skin. They knew, like the Apostle Peter, that there was a missing piece to the puzzle and they held that missing piece in their hands.

     Who knew that finishing a jigsaw puzzle could be so dangerous?

     It’s now been almost three months since the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church met in St. Louis to decide on whether the LGBTQ community should have full inclusion in our denomination. The conference voted to continue our denomination’s stance which has been in place for the past forty-seven years. This basically means that United Methodist clergy and churches are not permitted to participate in same sex weddings and that people who are LGBTQ are still no longer permitted to be considered as candidates for ministry. 

     I remember watching this special session of General Conference online and it was so painful to watch. So many hurtful things were said during speeches at the microphones. But even during ugly times like this in our denomination’s history, there can be incredible moments of courage and prophetic witness.

     One of those moments was when JJ Warren, an openly gay delegate from the Upper New York Conferences made an impassioned speech on the day the vote was taken. JJ is currently a senior at Sarah Lawrence College which is just outside of New York City and he feels called by God to be a minister in the United Methodist Church, but of course, he is not allowed because of our denomination’s stance. 

     Even though he is not permitted to become a pastor, JJ has led a very fruitful student ministry at Sarah Lawrence College which has one of the highest percentages of non-religious students of any college in the nation. 

     When I heard JJ give his speech on the floor of General Conference a couple of months ago in support of same sex weddings and the ordination of people in the LGBTQ community, there was no doubt in my mind that he would be an incredible pastor in our denomination. 

     Let’s watch JJ give his two minute speech two months ago at the special General Conference.  

          All I can say is that I hope our denomination finds a way to not exclude people like JJ from serving in ministry through the United Methodist Church. God’s picture where all are welcome in God’s family is not complete without him.

     Like the Apostle Peter, we each hold the missing Gospel puzzle pieces in our hands. These pieces represent anyone who feels unwelcomed, who feels excluded, and who feels unworthy to be included in the circle of God’s redemptive love for the world.

     I love how the last verse of our scripture reading says that after Peter shared about how God was including the Gentiles, they praised God. 

     And every time we add a missing piece to the puzzle, may we do the same.
     The Gospel Puzzle
Sermon Discussion Questions
Acts 11:1-18
May 19, 2019

 Do you like putting jigsaw puzzles together? What is fun about jigsaw puzzles and what is “not so fun” about them?

In our scripture reading from Acts 11, the Apostle Peter shared an important missing puzzle piece about the gospel story with the other disciples who were gathered at the Jerusalem Church. This missing piece puzzle piece was that Jews AND non-Jews (Gentiles) were invited to become part of the church family. Peter shared with them the recent story of how a Roman centurion accepted Christ and the how the Holy Spirit came upon him and his family. The inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s family was a new thought for the early church to accept.

What does this missing piece of the Gospel puzzle where all are welcomed into God’s family mean to you? 

Our church has a welcome statement that reminds us of this important Gospel puzzle piece. Take time to read it:

We celebrate the diversity of the human community, and affirm and believe in the sacred worth of each person as a recipient of God’s love and grace. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we declare ourselves to be an open and inclusive congregation. We welcome all persons regardless of gender, race, national origin, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, marital status or economic condition.  

Pastor Robert shared two modern examples of how the church has struggled to remember this important Gospel puzzle piece of full inclusion for all people. He mentioned that twenty-four courageous Methodist ministers in Mississippi spoke out against racial segregation back in 1963. Many people in their congregations resisted their prophetic witness including people in their communities. Another example he gave is from our recent special General Conference of the UMC regarding their vote on issues related to the LGBTQ community. 

Can you think of other examples of groups or individuals who feel excluded from the church and God’s all inclusive love?
The last verse of our Acts scripture reading says that after the people of the Jerusalem Church heard Peter’s story about how the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his gentile family, they praised God. Whenever people are included in God’s family rather than excluded, it leads to a joyous response because we celebrate God’s far-reaching love.

Think of someone with whom God may be calling you to share the good news of your faith and invite to church. Pray for opportunities to help complete the gospel puzzle by welcoming ALL people into the family of Christ.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (May 12/Confirmation Sunday) Athens First UMC

[Pictured above are our four confirmands with their mentors, and parents. Our confirmands attended and participated in membership classes, met with their mentors, and wrote their own statements of faith which were read to the congregation as they were coming forward to be confirmed as new members. In addition to Mother’s Day, it was also known as “Shepherd’s Sunday” in which Psalm 23 and the Gospel reading about Jesus being the Good Shepherd were the appointed readings. How appropriate that our confirmands joined on this Sunday that reminds us to listen to the voice of our shepherd along our faith journey! For the sermon, click here.]

Savior, shepherd, thank you for your voice that leads us to green pastures, still waters, and when we are experiencing the dark valleys of life. You are our good shepherd and we shall not want.

Savior, shepherd, thank you for your voice that called Theo, Alexa, Lucy, and Connor to respond to follow you and begin a new journey in offering their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness as members of this church.

Savior, shepherd, thank you for Dave, Jordann, Tom, and Vicki who heard your voice and served as confirmation mentors these past several months.

Savior, shepherd, thank you for this congregation who have heard your voice and surrounded our confirmands with a loving community of faith.

Savior, shepherd, thank you for your voice which reminds each one of us that we are loved by you.

Savior, shepherd, thank you for your voice that calls us to love a world that is filled with so much brokenness, pain, violence, hatred, and evil.

Savior, shepherd, thank you for the sound of your voice that sometimes sounds a lot like the voice of a Sunday School teacher, a friend, a pastor, a neighbor, a mother.

Savior, shepherd, may we hear your voice even now as we pray together saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[One of our confirmands being received into membership through the laying on of hands. Each confirmand hears these words, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that having been born of water and the Spirit, you will be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, our Shepherd. Amen.”]

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Sermon (May 12/Confirmation Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     I’m always amazed at how distinctive our voices are. Our voices reveal how we are uniquely created by God. 

     That’s why our Gospel reading this morning is so interesting to me because  using the image of a shepherd, Jesus is saying that we can know his voice and follow him. And when we follow him, we will be able to receive new life and be the people that God has called us to be.

     Our confirmands have met over the past several months to think about their faith and what it means to be a member of the church. And now they are ready to join. And we are here to receive them into membership and continue to encourage them as they grow in their faith. 

     That’s why the church is so important. We are here to help each other listen for the shepherd’s voice. 

     And we’re actually pretty good at this, I think. We help each other to hear the shepherd’s voice through worship, through small groups, through bible studies, through serving together, through having meals together like Thirst where we people offer their testimonies. Our church provides a lot of ways like these to help each other listen to what God is saying to us. And to our confirmands, I say to them to be involved in these loving, learning, and living faith ministries of our church on a regular basis because they help us to be open to God’s voice in our lives.

     Confirmation Sunday always brings back fun memories for me. My confirmation class was held each week after school, probably not the best time of the day for young adolescents who had been in school all day to spend another two hours learning about Methodist history. I’m sure we gave Rev. Lippert all he could handle, but he was extremely patient with us. Even though we weren’t always very cooperative, we could tell that preparing to join the church was an important step in our faith journey.

      When I was in the 9th grade, the new pastor in our church came up to me at some church event and said to me, “I think God might be calling you to become a pastor someday.” He could see something in me that I couldn’t see at the time. Looking back on that moment, maybe it wasn’t just my pastor speaking to me. Maybe it was the shepherd’s voice speaking through him.

      I kind of brushed aside his comment and I went through my high school years. And then I went to college. And I was trying to figure out the future direction for my life. 

     But it was when I was thinking about all of this in college, that I got involved in a campus ministry where I met some other Christians and we went to church together on Sundays and met in a small group during the week. And one day out of the blue, two of these college friends said to me, “We think God might be calling you to become a pastor.”

     It was at that very moment that I remembered what my home pastor had said to me when I was in the 9th grade. “I think God might be calling you to become a pastor someday.” Hmm… Could this be a coincidence. Why didn’t I listen the first time? And so I prayed about it over the next few days and that’s when I realized that I was being called to become a pastor and I said, “OK, God, this time, I heard you. I’ll become a pastor but you need to lead me through this.”

     The best part of this story is that the same pastor who had planted that first seed when I was in the 9th grade that God might be calling me to become a pastor was still serving as the pastor of my home church. And when I went home over break, I stopped by his office at the church. He was sitting at his desk and holding a bunch of papers. And I said, “Pastor Ed, do you remember when you told me to think about becoming a pastor when I was in the 9th grade? Well, I heard the call again and I said ‘yes.’”

     And I’ll never forget this. He threw all of the papers that were in his hands up in the air as a way of celebrating and as those papers were falling down around him, he said, “Praise God!”

     I share this story for all of us, but especially to our confirmands who are joining today because there are times when the shepherd’s voice might sound very similar to the voice of someone we know, someone who cares about us, and who can see things in us that we so often can’t see ourselves. And sometimes, we hear the shepherd’s voice and sometimes we don’t hear the shepherd’s voice. That’s why we need each other. That’s why being part of the church is so important so that we can help each other hear God’s calling in our lives and respond to those callings.

      A couple of months ago, Penny and I watched the Fred Roger’s documentary that was on PBS. If you haven’t already seen this, 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, “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. Francois finally heard the shepherd’s voice telling him that he was loved just the way he was. 

     To our confirmands and to all of us this morning, being part of the church family means helping each other to hear the voice of the shepherd. 

     Listen to the shepherd’s voice say that you are loved just the way you are. Listen to the shepherd’s voice invite you to follow him and become more and more like Jesus every day. Listen to the shepherd’s voice guide you to green pastures, still waters, and paths of righteousness. Listen to the shepherd’s voice promise to be with you all the days of your life.

     This is what it means to be part of the church, the family of God. We help each other to hear the voice of the shepherd, the voice of Jesus.

The Shepherd’s Voice
Sermon Discussion Questions
Psalm 23 & John 10:22-30
May 12, 2019

Our scripture readings from Psalm 23 and John 10 tell us that God is like a shepherd who leads and guides us. In John’s Gospel, Jesus even says that those who follow him can “know” his voice when he is calling them.
Share a time when you heard God speaking to you? What was God wanting you to know?
The church provides many ways to hear God speaking to us including worship, small groups, bible studies, our Thirst gathering where people share their testimonies, as well as other ministries of our church including the conversations we have together.
Since God is speaking to us in all these ways, why do we sometimes not hear God speaking to us? What prevents us from hearing “the Shepherd’s voice?”
Pastor Robert shared the example of how God spoke through his home pastor and his college small group friends about becoming a pastor. God often uses several people in calling out to us because we don’t always hear God speaking to us the first time. 
What can we do to help us recognize when God is speaking to us through others?
Psalm 23 reminds us that the Lord is our loving shepherd who is always seeking to guide, lead, and protect us. 
Conclude your reflection time by reciting Psalm 23. Pause for a few seconds after each phrase before moving on to the next one. Focus on really listening to what the Shepherd’s voice is saying to you after each of these phrases.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (PAUSE)

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. (PAUSE)

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. (PAUSE)

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (PAUSE)

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. (PAUSE)

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (PAUSE)

Monday, May 6, 2019

Stephen Ministry 10th Anniversary Recognition (May 5) Athens First UMC

[Picture above are our Stephen Ministers and Leaders. They are from left to right: Elaine Dabelko, Marge Hagerman, Cathy Bigger, Kim Mather, Jenaye Hill, Kevin Dael, Barb Dingle, Mike Bila, & Ken Edwards. Jan Miller-Fox got squeezed out of the photo. Sorry, Jan! Stephen Ministry is a ministry that provides one to one peer support for people who are are in need of a listening ear. Stephen Ministers are people in the church who have received 50 hours of instructive training on being a caring, loving, attentive, encouraging, hope-filled and confidential listeners. Rick Seiter, our director of congregational care ministries serves as the Stephen Minister Leader of this ministry. During the month of May, we celebrate the 10th anniversary of having Stephen Ministry at our church.]

Stephen Ministry 10th Anniversary Prayer of Blessing

God of healing and wholeness, on this tenth anniversary of our Stephen Ministry, we give you thanks for all of these care givers who have served and continue to serve in this ministry.  Thank you for their willingness to give of their time to be trained and to be a blessing to others. On this special anniversary, we also pray for the many people who have been care receivers. Thank you for their openness to receive care through this ministry. Thank you for reminding us that we have each other in the Body of Christ in which you offer your abundant love, amazing grace, and healing love. We do not need to walk this journey alone. May this vital and life-giving ministry of our church continue to be a blessing for both the care givers and the care receivers. We pray this in the name of the Risen Christ who is more than able to bind up our wounds and make us new again. It is in his name, that we offer this prayer of blessing and thanksgiving. Amen.

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (May 5) Athens First UMC

[Sunday’s sermon title was “Living Mirrors.” The mirror in the picture above was used during the sermon to illustrate what it means to be a living mirror. Being created in the image of God means that we worship by reflecting God’s glory back onto God and serving others by reflecting God’s glory into our community and world. Think of your life as a living mirror where we reflect God’s glory through worship and service. One of the ways people in our church serve is through our Stephen Ministry, a one to one peer support program. This month represents the 10th anniversary of this ministry in our church. We invited our past and present Stephen Ministers to be recognized at both services on Sunday. Thank you, Stephen Ministers for serving in this way! For this special recognition blessing, click here.]

O God, you have created each one of us to be your image bearers. You have created us to be your living mirrors who reflect your glory onto you and outwardly to the people we encounter through acts of service and kindness. Thank you for creating us to be your image bearers in this world that is filled with so much pain and brokenness.

Thank you for the many opportunities we have to be your living mirrors of worship, whether it be when we are holding a bulletin and a hymnal in a sanctuary, when we are moved by an inspiring concert of religious music, or when we are at the kitchen table for our daily morning time of prayer and devotions to begin our day. Remind us of all the ways that we can point our mirrors to the heavens and reflect your glory back onto you.

And thank you for all the many ways that we can be your living mirrors through service, whether it be when our church is partnering with Good Works, going on a summer mission trip, serving at Vacation Bible School, serving as a Stephen Minister, or taking flowers to a neighbor who recently lost a loved one. Remind us of all the ways that we can point our mirrors outward to our community and world and reflect your glory in loving ways.

May our church be one giant living mirror as we worship and serve you together!

As we continue in this Easter season in which we celebrate the good news of the empty tomb, teach us what it means to be your disciples and feed your sheep. Teach us what it means to join in one mighty chorus in heaven and on earth in singing your praises.

As your Easter and image bearing people, we confess that sometimes our mirrors are pointed inward toward ourselves instead of outward to be a blessing to you and to others. Forgive us for those times when we have forgotten who you have created us to be, a people created for worship and service.

We pray this in the name of Jesus, the ultimate image bearer who taught us to pray together saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Sermon (May 5) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     It’s important to know the purpose of mirrors.

     For example, I recently read about a rural middle school in Northwest Florida. The principal of the school was faced with a unique problem and it involved an incorrect way in using a mirror.

     At this middle school, a new fad arose among the 8th grade girls with the use of lipstick.  They began bringing, sharing, and trading lipstick with their friends to try out all the new styles and shades.  

     The gathering point for this activity was one certain bathroom at the school. That was fine, but after they tried out all of these lipsticks they would press their lips to the mirror, leaving dozens of lip prints every day. 

     Every night the custodian had to clean them off, but the next day the girls would put more lip prints on the mirror.  Finally the principal decided that something had to be done.  So class by class, the principal paraded the 8th grade girls to the bathroom to meet with the custodian.

     She explained that all these lip prints were causing a major problem for the custodian who had to clean the mirrors every night. To drive the point home, she asked the custodian to demonstrate to the girls what a pain it was for him to clean the mirrors. 

     And so the custodian took out a long-handled squeegee, dipped it into one of the toilets, and cleaned the mirrors off thoroughly.  The reaction was almost always the same.  The girls stood there in shock, glared at each other and squealed, and then hurried back to their classes in disgust.  

    Since then, there have been no more lip prints on the mirrors.

    What is the purpose of mirrors? So, one of the ways that we can use a mirror like the one that I have here, is so that we can see what we look like. (Demonstrate)

     But there’s another very important function of a mirror. We can also turn it away from ourselves. Here’s what I mean…

     Our scripture readings for today remind us that God has created each one of us to be living mirrors. We are told in the very first book of the Bible that we were created in the image of God. Created in the image of God. We are image bearers of the one who created us. Have you ever thought of yourself as an image bearer?

     To help us understand what this means requires that we think of ourselves as living mirrors who have been created to reflect God’s loving image back up to God and reflect God’s loving image into the world. To do that, we need our mirrors to be pointed away from ourselves.

     Think of it like this. When we worship God, what we are doing is, we are angling our mirrors so that God’s glory in heaven is reflected back onto God. That’s what we’re doing when we worship. We are reflecting God’s glory back onto God.

     And when we are living out our faith by serving others, we are angling our mirrors so that God’s glory in heaven is reflected outward to the people we are serving.

     God created us to be living mirrors to reflect God’s glory back onto God which is worship and to also reflect God’s glory into the world in service which is how we are helping to bring transformation to our community and world.

     Each one of us was created for this purpose – to be living mirrors who reflect God’s glory to God and to the people around us. The question is if we are aware that we were each created for this purpose.

     Our scripture readings from Revelation and the Gospel of John are meant to encourage us to be living mirrors for God.

     Let’s begin with being a living mirror of worship. In the Book of Revelation, the prophet John has a revelation in which he gets a glimpse of what is taking place heaven. Have you ever wondered what heaven is like? John is here to help you.

     In this heavenly scene, John is worshipping along with thousand and thousands of God’s people. How he found a parking space, I have no idea.

     He totally missed the pre-service Connect Time refreshments, because the heavenly choir has already started to sing their rousing anthem. They are singing their praises to Jesus Christ, the one who died on a cross and rose from the dead for the redemption of the world. That is the focus of this worship gathering.

     I sure hope John had ear plugs because after this powerful heavenly anthem, all of creation in earth as well as in in heaven sing and worship together. Just imagine the record offering they probably had! That’s the pastor in me wondering about things like this.

     This worship scene reminds me of some of our own worship services here where God is so incredibly present through music, through prayers, and through the reading and proclamation of God’s Word. There are times when we feel God’s presence more than at other times, but for John, heavenly worship is always that powerful and meaningful. There are no “low Sundays” as we say here on earth.

     I believe John’s vision of worship in heaven is to remind us that this is what we have all been created to do. We are image bearers. We are living mirrors who reflect God’s glory back onto God. This is the basic meaning of worship.

     Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher pointed out that most Christians have a misunderstanding of what is happening when we worship. Using the analogy of a drama performance, many of us think of the pastor as the actor and the congregation as the audience. Kierkegaard said that true worship is really where God is the audience, the people of the congregation are the actors, and the pastor is the prompter. 

     I like that. This analogy helps us to see that when we worship together, we each take on an active and not a passive role. We’re not the audience. God is the audience who takes delight in us offering our praise and thanksgiving. Our singing, our liturgy responses, our prayers, our offering, our fellowship throughout the worship service are all ways that we are invited to be actively engaged in worship and not passive spectators.

     Whenever we offer our worship in this spirit of engagement, we are being the living mirrors that God has created us to be where we reflect God’s glory back onto God. And that’s not just supposed to be on Sundays here in church. We have been created to worship God each day.

     The second way that we use our living mirror is by angling it in such a way that God’s glory in heaven is reflected back into our community and world as we serve others.

     In our Gospel reading, we have the story of when Jesus meets up with the disciples following his resurrection. Jesus tells Peter to feed and tend his sheep. And in the last verse of our Gospel reading, Jesus tells Peter, “Follow me.”

     To follow Jesus means that we are his disciples. It means that we will love others the way that Jesus loves others. It means that we will serve others the way that Jesus served others.

     Or to quote our own Mike Sweeney from his excellent graduate commencement address on Friday when he reminded the graduates of this lyric from a Bob Dylan song, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

     Worshipping and serving are what it means to be created in the image of God. We worship God by reflecting God’s glory back onto God and we serve others by reflecting God’s love out onto our community and world. We are living mirrors.

     How are you a living mirror of worship?

     As you know, our church hosts several of the Ohio University choral concerts here in our sanctuary. Those concerts are usually packed where people have to sit up in the balcony. The music is always phenomenal and uplifting.

     One of those university concerts was based on the Psalms. During the concert I was seated in the back of the sanctuary. At one point during the concert, I happened to look up to the balcony, and I noticed a man totally engaged in the music. It was a Psalm of praise and he had his arms outstretched during that inspiring piece. He wasn’t a spectator in that moment. He was fully participating in his own way. He was angling his mirror upward to heaven where God’s glory was being reflected back onto God through that beautiful music. 

     That moment made me smile as I thought about how that concert turned into worship for that man. Maybe he felt a little like John who was caught up in that heavenly worship experience.

     How are you a living mirror of worship and secondly, how are you a living mirror of service?

     I know of someone who started a ministry in reaching out to people who live in poverty. He doesn’t just help people in need of shelter or a job. He does something so much more. He invites them to live in community where they feel welcomed and affirmed.

     He serves the way that Jesus served. Many, many people have been blessed through his ministry which has spanned over thirty-eight years.

     Here’s the really interesting thing about these two examples of worshiping and serving. The man who attended the concert here in our church and the man who started a ministry for the poor are the same person.

     You probably have heard his name. Keith Wasserman, director of Good Works here in Athens.

     Keith is a great example of someone who is a living mirror in the way that he reflects God’s glory back onto God and reflects God’s healing love out into our community and world.

     This is what it means to be created in the image of God. Worship and service. Worship and service.

     And of course, the ultimate example of someone who is a living mirror is Jesus Christ. Through his ministry, his teachings, his healings, his serving, his death, and his resurrection, he was always reflecting God’s glory back unto heaven and also outward into a broken and hurting world. Jesus, the perfect image bearer of God’s love. 

     Next time you look into a mirror, remember that you have been created in the image of God. You are a living mirror.

Living Mirrors
Sermon Discussion Questions
Revelation 5:11-14 & John 21:1-19
May 5, 2019

In the Book of Genesis, we are told that human being were created in the image of God. Being created in the image of God means that we are to reflect God’s glory back onto God (worship) and also to reflect God’s glory into the world (service.) A helpful image in thinking about this is a mirror which if we turn it away from ourselves, we can reflect God’s glory back to God and into the world.
Share some ways that you can reflect God’s glory back onto God. What are some ways that you can reflect God’s glory into our community and world?
Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher said that when the church gathers for worship, we should see ourselves as actors, the pastor as the prompter, and God as the audience. 
What does Kierkegaard’s image of the importance of Sunday worshippers being the actors rather than the audience mean to you?
Our scripture readings emphasize the importance of being image bearers by worshipping and serving. In the Book of Revelation, John gets a glimpse of heaven in which everyone is praising God with all of who they are. In the Gospel reading from John, Jesus invites Peter to feed and tend his sheep which is about serving.
Why do you think worshipping and serving God are the two ways that we live out what it means to be made in the image of God?
Jesus, who was the embodiment of God was the most complete living mirror in reflecting God’s glory through his life, death, and resurrection.
What are some specific ways that can help you keep your focus on Jesus each day to help you to be a living mirror?