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, June 17, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (June 16) Athens First UMC

[This necktie always makes an appearance on Father’s Day. It was a great day of worship as we recognized fathers and celebrated Trinity Sunday. For the sermon which focused on the mystery of the Trinity, click here  This Sunday also marked the beginning of the long season known as Ordinary Time on the church calendar. This is a slower time of the church season that invites us to follow Jesus and experience gradual and steady growth in our faith.]

O God, last week the preacher told us to do three things over the next several weeks: 1) Enjoy our summer, 2) Continue to practice the spiritual disciplines of our faith, and 3) Pray for this August’s “Faith Building” church-wide seminar here at our church. 

And so this past week, we have enjoyed riding our bikes, taking walks, and working out in our gardens. We have begun our mornings in prayer and some reading of scripture, and now we are here today sharing in weekly worship as a church family. This morning we have this opportunity to pray for our church’s Faith Building seminar which will be held exactly two months from today here at our church. Our prayer is for this special seminar to sharpen our relational skills and strengthen our faith.

O God, help us to continue to remember these three things as we go through these summer weeks. In this slower pace season of the year, may each one of us experience the gradual spiritual growth that you intend for us. Whether we are out picking strawberries, playing basketball in our driveway, reading a book out on the porch, traveling to the beach, or going to a Copperheads game, open our eyes to the beauty of this season and this opportunity to catch our breath and regroup. Teach us what it means to take care of ourselves physically, emotionally, relationally, mentally, and spiritually. 

We pray for our city and community and especially for those who work in the summer heat. Keep us patient when we are waiting in a long line of traffic on Richland Avenue due to construction work. Keep us positive when it rains on our picnic. Keep us kind when we talk politics with friends who disagree with us.

On this Father’s Day, we especially thank you for those who have had a positive fatherly influence on our lives. And thank you that you are our loving, gracious, and kind Heavenly Father, the perfect example for all earthly fathers and the one to whom Jesus taught us to pray together saying…

“Our Father who art in heaven….”

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Sermon (June 16/Trinity Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Today is Trinity Sunday. I call this Rubik’s Cube Sunday because we usually approach this Sunday thinking that the Trinity is some sort of puzzle we need to solve. How can God be one and yet known as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

     When Jesus prayed, did he pray to himself?  When Jesus died on the cross, did God die in that moment as well?  How do we explain the puzzling doctrine of the Trinity?

     A story is told of St. Augustine who was one of the greatest theologians who ever lived.  While puzzling over the doctrine of the Trinity during a walk along the beach one day, he observed a young boy with a bucket.  The boy was running back and forth to pour water into a little hole.

     Augustine asked him, “What are you doing?” And the boy replied, “I’m trying to put the ocean into this hole.”

     This helped Augustine to realize that part of his problem in figuring out the Trinity is that he had been trying to put an infinite God into his finite mind.

     John Wesley, the founder of Methodism once said, “Show me a worm that can comprehend a human being, and then I will show you a human being that can comprehend the Triune God.”

     Martin Luther, who helped start the Protestant Reformation was even more to the point.  He said, “To try to comprehend the Trinity endangers your sanity.”

     Since I don’t want to jeopardize our sanity this morning, maybe there’s another approach we can take on this Trinity Sunday.  Maybe instead of trying to solve the Trinity like we would try to solve a Rubik’s cube or some other puzzle, we should take a different approach.

     The word, “Trinity” is never mentioned in the bible.  That’s a term that the church and theologians have used to label this puzzling doctrine.  Maybe instead of seeing the Trinity as a puzzle, we should take the advice of Justo Gonzalez, a Methodist historian who said, “Trinity is a mystery, not a puzzle.  You try to solve the puzzle, but you stand in awe before a mystery.”

     In thinking about the Trinity, let’s think of it more in terms of a mystery rather than as a puzzle to solve.  Seeing it as a mystery helps me to approach this important topic with more of an open mind.  

     For whatever reason, Jesus never saw the need to explain the Trinity to the disciples.  He didn’t draw up diagrams or use creative metaphors to explain how one God can be known as three persons and yet still be one.  

     In our Gospel reading today, Jesus has the perfect opportunity to present his Trinity powerpoint presentation to the disciples.  He spends four whole chapters preparing his disciples for when he would be leaving them.  What would it have hurt to dedicate one of those chapters to the Trinity? 

     Jesus says in our Gospel reading that he has many things to tell the disciples but that they aren’t able to bear them now.  That must have been frustrating for the disciples to hear! “What do you mean, Jesus? We’re right here.  We’re listening.  Don’t underestimate us!”

     And let’s not stop at the Trinity.  Think of the many other unsolved mysteries that Jesus could address in these chapters. I came across an interesting book written by Tom Ehrich, a church consultant, author and Episcopal Priest.  The title of the book is Just Wondering, Jesus: 100 Questions People Want to Ask. 

     He wrote the book because of his weekly newspaper column in which he invited his readers to let him know what questions they would like to ask Jesus. Some of the questions include, “Will I see my late husband in heaven?,” “How can I make my marriage more joyful?,”  “Will we ever find peace?” “What do you want of me?”

     My guess is that the disciples would have really liked it if Jesus invited them for a Q & A session. I also wonder if they ever wished they would have asked Jesus some of their specific questions during these chapters. 

     Do you ever have one of those dreams at night where toward the end of the dream, someone is about to explain a mystery to you and that’s when your dream ends and you never get to hear the answer?  What’s that all about? 

     Several years ago, I attended a church growth conference in Kansas City which was hosted by a leading pastor in our denomination.  He’s a pastor who I admire and respect very much. 

     About 2,000 pastors and church leaders attended the three day conference.  This pastor and his church staff shared a lot of great information to help our churches experience growth and vitality. During our three days there, the people of the church were very gracious with their hospitality.  For one of our lunches, they had one of the famous barbeque restaurants there in Kansas City cater the meal since that area is known for their incredible barbeque. Those three days were a wonderful experience, but I still had many questions swirling in my head about what we had learned.

     After I got home from the conference, I had a dream that night. And in that dream, I was back at that church conference in Kansas City.  I was in a room at this church in Kansas City.  And while I was in this room, the pastor who led the conference came in and was standing right next to me.

     This was my golden opportunity to ask him the question that had been on my mind that week. With so many people at the conference, this was my chance.  It was just the two of us! But for some reason I became really, really nervous.  Instead of asking him the question that I had always wanted to ask him, this is what I said to him:

     “Boy, that was some good barbeque!”

     I couldn’t believe that this was what came out of my mouth! “Boy, that was some good barbeque?” Really???  My golden opportunity was gone.  He smiled back at me as he walked out the door. And just like that, my dream was over.

     Now, I’m no psychologist, but maybe the point of that dream was to remind me that not every question comes with a simple answer. Life doesn’t work that way.  Our faith doesn’t work that way.  

     Maybe this is why Jesus didn’t give simple answers to the disciples during his farewell discourse.  Jesus was offering the disciples something better than easy answers to complicated questions. Jesus was offering them a reassuring word that even after he would leave them, they would not be alone.  God the Father will send them the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit will glorify Jesus, the Son.

     This is what the doctrine of the Trinity means for you and for me.  The one God, known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, wants to be in relationship with us.  God is all about relationships.  

     Even within God’s own being, there is a dynamic relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God the Father is our creator.  God the Son is the human embodiment of God.  And God the Holy Spirit is the presence of Jesus Christ in our day to day living.

     If you find it difficult to understand all of this on an intellectual level, know that you’re not alone.  Even with helpful analogies and images that have been used to explain the Trinity over the past several centuries, it’s still a mystery to us. 

     Evelyn Underhill was an early 20th century Christian writer from England. She is one of my favorite Christian authors drawing on the mystical tradition of our faith. 

     One of her famous quotes about the mystery of God is, “If God were small enough to be understood, He would not be big enough to be worshipped.”

     God is bigger than our minds can fathom which is one of the reasons we observe Trinity Sunday each year on the church calendar.

    But that’s OK because the thought of a loving God who loves us so much and was willing to send us the Son and the Holy Spirit is more than our finite minds can understand and comprehend.  A God who would choose to love us this much defies our human explanations.

     When I hit a low point in my life during my freshman year of college, it wasn’t an explanation of the Trinity or easy answers to life’s unsolved mysteries that turned my life toward God again.  The reason I turned toward God again was because God had reminded me that he wanted to be in a relationship with me.

     And that’s when I knelt down by my bed one day and in the quiet of that room, I received God’s love in a new way.  After that prayer, I had tears of joy.  It was like a heavy weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I felt a peace that I had been missing in my life. I felt God’s love in a very real way.

     The funny thing is that I left from that prayer with more questions than answers.  I still didn’t know what my major in college should be or the future direction of my life.  All I knew was that God loved me and would never leave me. I suspect that this is a little of what the disciples were experiencing from our Gospel reading when Jesus promised that he would be sending them the Holy Spirit.  

     Jesus didn’t answer all of their questions but he did promise that he would continue to be in relationship with them through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, it’s not answers and explanations that we need the most.  It’s the reassurance that God loves us and will always be with us.

     A woman who had been attending a church that I was serving met with me at my office one day.  After she sat down in my office, a smile came to her face and she said, “I think I’m ready to become a follower of Jesus.”

     She had been visiting our church for the past several weeks and this was the first time that we had more than just a casual conversation.  She then asked me what she needed to know or to do in order to start following Jesus. Now, even though this is what every pastor wants to hear, sometimes it catches us off guard a little bit.  

     I began to share with her some key theological truths which sounded brilliant at the time.  But the more I spoke, the more I could tell that what I was sharing with her wasn’t really making a connection.

     About halfway through my impromptu Christianity 101 presentation which would have made my seminary professors proud, she politely held up her hand and said, “I’m sure that’s all important information, but I just want to be a Christian like you talk about on Sunday mornings.”

     I said, “O sure. I understand.” I then proceeded to offer her some bible resources that I had nearby on one of my bookshelves thinking that would help her begin her new journey of faith.

     As I began to reach for them, she again politely said, “Thank you, but what I guess I just need is for you to say a prayer for me.”

     This is when I finally wised up and realized what she really needed in that moment.  At least on that afternoon for her, less was more. One of my problems sometimes is that I can over-think things.

     So right there in my office with the doctrine of the Trinity still unexplained and other mysteries still unsolved, I invited her to pray a prayer with me in which she invited Jesus Christ to be the Lord of her life. After that simple prayer, she thanked me, and left my office that day with great joy in her heart.

     Sometimes, Jesus says to us, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”  There will always be unsolved mysteries for us to ponder and many questions seeking answers.  

     But one thing we can know with absolute certainty is that God loves us and wants to be in a relationship with us.  That’s the good news of Trinity Sunday. And for now, that’s really all we need to know.

     In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unsolved Mysteries
Sermon Discussion Questions
Romans 5:1-5 & John 16:12-15
June 16, 2019

The doctrine of the Trinity, (God is one but known as three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is difficult for many people to understand. 

What does the doctrine of the Trinity mean to you and why do you think this is an important doctrine of the church?

In our Gospel reading from John 16, Jesus tells the disciples that he has many things to tell them but they aren’t able to bear it now. Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal Priest wrote the book, 100 Questions People Want to Ask Jesus

What questions do you want to ask Jesus?

While the doctrine of the Trinity is one of those unsolved mysteries in our Christian faith, the Bible does help us to see how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to another another and help us to grow in our faith. In the sermon, Pastor Robert shared this thought about things that are beyond our ability to understand completely: “Jesus didn’t answer all of their questions but he did promise that he would continue to be in relationship with them through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, it’s not answers and explanations that we need the most. It’s the reassurance that God loves us and will always be with us.”

What difference does it make in your life to know that God, the Father, has sent us his Son, who is present with us today through the Holy Spirit? What helps you to remember that God wants to be in a relationship with you and is always with you?

Close your time by praying our Trinity Sunday worship prayer: O Sacred Three in One, we enter worship with our hearts lifted toward heaven. Come into our midst, we pray, that in your light we may see, in your joy we may sing, and in your love we may be formed into your people. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit we pray, one God, now and forever. Amen.”  

Monday, June 10, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (June 9) Athens First UMC

[Pentecost Sunday is a day that we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church. For the sermon, click herePraying for each other is one of the signs of the Holy Spirit in our lives. In the photo above, several lay and clergy delegates from our Foothills district joined hands in prayer in between sessions at the West Ohio Conference held in Lakeside, Ohio this past week to pray for the father of our District Supintendent who was having surgery that day. Click here for conference highlightsEven though we represented different churches, prayer is what brought us together this past Monday in this Holy Spirit moment. We don’t have to wait for the pastoral prayer on Sunday to pray. The Holy Spirit prompts us to pray for each other throughout the week. Oh, and the good news was that our District Supintendent’s father had a successful surgery. Scroll down to the bottom to listen to Sunday’s special music featuring Joe and Laura Brown.]

Almighty and all powerful God, even though our sanctuary has air-conditioning, heat up this place today anew with your Holy Spirit. Heat up this place. Set us on fire! Ignite a renewal in this place like we have never seen before. Like Kirstin Shrom-Rhoads’s ordination banner this past week said, “Come, Holy Spirit!” Like John Wesley said over two hundred years ago, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.”

Warm our hearts this day, Spirit giving God and lead us and all of the 1,000 United Methodist Churches in the West Ohio Conference to be your Spirit-filled people, not depending on our strength alone, but upon your mighty presence at work in our lives.

Thank you for these great fifty days of Easter in which we have been celebrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whenever we get discouraged or lose our way, remind us yet again that we are an Easter people where new life and new hope are always gifts that you are more than able to graciously provide for us.

As we begin to enter into this new church season, remind us that we are also a Pentecost people in which your Holy Spirit empowers, equips, and encourages us to be the people you have called us to be.

And as your Easter/Pentecost people, we lift up to you anyone who may be in need of your guiding and healing hand in this moment, especially anyone who may be facing medical challenges, the loss of a loved one including the loss of a beloved pet, or a new transition in life filled with excitement but also some anxiousness. Spirit giving God, remind all of us that you give us everything we need along our journey.

As we enter into this long time of summer, help us to enjoy the beauty of your creation, remind us to take time to pray and reflect, and may we look forward to a very special church-wide faith building opportunity later this summer.

As our prayer hymn so beautifully reminds us, “Spirit of the living God, descend upon my heart,” even as we pray the prayer that Jesus taught us to say together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Joe and Laura Brown sang, “Every Time I Feel the Spirit” during our 10:30 worship service. It was a great way to help us celebrate Pentecost Sunday!]

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Sermon (June 9) by Rev. Robert McDowell “ACT V”

    This past winter, we had a problem with the heating in our chapel. Evidently, the air handler for that room needed a new belt. So, I called a heating/cooling company, told them that I was the pastor of the church, and asked if  someone would be able to come fix it before Sunday worship.

     I said, “We need hot air for Sunday.” And without missing a beat, the receptionist said, “So I guess you don’t really need us then.”

     She obviously understands preacher humor.

     When the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples on Pentecost Sunday, there was a lot of hot air that day. We’re told that divided tongues as of fire appeared on each of the disciples. 

     Fire. Wind. Heat. Spirit. That pretty much describes Pentecost Sunday.

     You would think that after Jesus ascended to be with his Heavenly Father which happened ten days prior to Pentecost that things would have cooled down a bit for those early disciples. But it’s the exact opposite. After Jesus left them, things only got hotter and hotter and hotter. 

     Pentecost marks the beginning of this new act in the biblical drama. Bible scholar and theologian, Tom Wright talks about the Bible being a five act drama to help us understand where we are in the biblical narrative.

     Wright says that the five acts of this divine drama are 1) Creation 2) the Fall 3) Israel 4) Jesus and the fifth Act, the Church. Pentecost Sunday is the beginning of this 5th and final act of the divine drama that continues to this day. In Act V, the church takes center stage. 

     In this last act, the church continues the signs and wonders that we saw Jesus do in the Gospels. The church becomes the visible expression of Christ in the world. And here is the really awesome thing about this fifth and final act of the biblical divine drama. Even today, you and I are invited to continue to live this closing act where we are the visible expression of Christ in the world. We are in the play and we have a very important part to play. 

     Our denomination’s Book of Discipline describes the church’s role in the world. It tells us what it means to be the church.

Here is what it says,

     “Our Mission in the World—God’s self-revelation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ summons the Church to ministry in the world through witness by word and deed in light of the Church’s mission. The visible church of Christ as a faithful community of persons affirms the worth of all humanity and the value of interrelationship in all of God’s creation.

     In the midst of a sinful world, through the grace of God, we are brought to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. We become aware of the presence and life-giving power of God’s Holy Spirit. We live in confident expectation of the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purpose.

     We are called together for worship and fellowship and for the upbuilding of the Christian community. We advocate and work for the unity of the Christian church. We call all persons into discipleship under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

     As servants of Christ we are sent into the world to engage in the struggle for justice and reconciliation. We seek to reveal the love of God for men, women, and children of all ethnic, racial, cultural, and national backgrounds and to demonstrate the healing power of the gospel with those who suffer.”

     Last Sunday, I ended the sermon by saying something very similar about our role as the church. I said, “Maybe this is what Ascension Day was like for the disciples. Jesus reminded them of who they were and that they will receive power to continue Jesus’ mission here on earth. They will be his hands and feet to continue what Jesus has started. And they will go out and make disciples of Jesus Christ and bring transformation to the world.

     We are called to do the same. As we come forward to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we will receive all that we need to be the hands and feet of Christ in a broken and hurting world. Let’s go forth from this place and continue on what Jesus has started. Christ has no body on earth, but yours.”

     That was last Sunday and today on this Pentecost Sunday, we are again invited to live out God’s divine drama in being part of the saving and redeeming work of Christ in the world. I would say that we have starring roles in this final act but that wouldn’t be true. The starring role goes to the Holy Spirit.

     The official name of the Book of Acts is actually “The Acts of the Apostles.” Some have said that a more accurate title of this book should be “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” because without Pentecost and the sending of the Holy Spirit on those early disciples, they wouldn’t have been able to do what they were able to do in continuing Jesus’ redeeming work in the world.

     We need the hot air of the Holy Spirit blowing through the church today. We need holy tongues of fire falling upon each church member. We need fiery sermons, passionate worship, and flaming hearts.

     What a strange time of year for red hot Pentecost Sunday to fall on the church calendar. Just as summer arrives when we get TV commercials on how to stay cool. 

     Luke has a different message for us. Here is how you stay hot during these weeks. Allow the Holy Spirit to fill your heart, to ignite your soul, and to inflame your Spirit. Don’t try to get cool. Get hot. Get red hot. 

     Maybe you heard about the church revival service where the preacher got everybody fired up about receiving the Holy Spirit. It was a fiery and passionate sermon.

     One man in particular was taken by what the preacher was saying. He interrupted the service by yelling out to God, “Fill me, Holy Spirit. Fill me!”

     But then he said it again and this time louder. “Fill me, Holy Spirit. Fill me!”

     He did it again and this time the people in the congregation were getting annoyed because he was disrupting the service too much and making it all about him.

     After the eleventh or twelfth time of this man yelling out, “Fill me, Holy Spirit. Fill me,” somebody in the back of the sanctuary yelled out, “Don’t do it Lord. He leaks!”

     And so as we begin these lazy summer weeks in Athens, here are some thoughts about how we can stay filled with the Holy Spirit in how we live out our faith. Here is how we can keep the hot air of the Spirit at work in our lives.

     The first thing I want to say is to enjoy your summer. Get outdoors if you can. Explore, and delight in God’s beautiful creation. The summer is a great time for spiritual renewal. Enjoying this time of year is one of the ways that we can live out our faith and not allow the Holy Spirit to leak from our lives.

    That’s the first thing I want you to remember. Enjoy your summer. Turn to someone near you and say, “Enjoy your summer.” 

     The second thing to help us not leak is to keep practicing the spiritual disciplines like praying, reading the scriptures, meditating, offering our gifts, serving, sharing our faith, and worshipping on Sunday mornings. Even though our church will be at a slower pace during the summer, remember that the church is still open and the sermons will continue to be above average. 

     I think it’s also worth noting that the official name for this season on the church calendar which begins next Sunday and lasts throughout the summer months is called “Ordinary Time.” The color associated with ordinary time is green which reminds us of steady spiritual growth.

    As you enjoy your summer, take advantage of the slower pace. It might not be intense like the build up to Christmas or the Season of Lent leading up to Easter, but it’s still a time that we can simply catch our breath and continue to follow Jesus. 

     And here’s a third thing to help us to continue to be Spirit filled people during these summer months. I’m sharing this with you ahead of time so that we can mark it on our calendars because August and the beginning of the school year will be here before we know it. Sorry, didn’t mean to depress you.

     I want you to take note of a church-wide event called “Faith Builders” that will be held on August 16 and 17, a Friday evening dinner through Saturday early afternoon. A good friend of mine, Rev. Jeff Motter will be leading this to help strengthen our relationships within the church and how we might connect with people outside the church. It’s going to be a great event. 

     It’s perfectly timed because this church-wide focus will help us to be ready for the students who will be coming back to campus and for families who will be looking for a church home. This event is printed in your bulletin so that you can put it on your calendar ahead of time. Please pray for this event because I believe it will have a huge impact on helping us to continue to be a welcoming, loving, and community focused congregation. 

     So remember these three things as you begin your summer as we continue to be a church that lives out Act V of the biblical drama in being the Spirit-filled people that God has called us to be. 1) Enjoy your summer. 2) Continue to practice the spiritual disciplines. 3) And mark your calendars for the August 16 and 17 church-wide Faith Builder’s event.

     On this Pentecost Sunday, I believe that these words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from his famous letter that he wrote to local clergy while he was a prisoner in the a Birmingham jail back in 1963 are very timely for us today.

     In referring to the Spirit-filled early church, Dr. King wrote, “In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

     Dr. King was right. The church is called to be the thermostat where the hot air of the Holy Spirit will continue to fill us even during these slower summer months. 

     The biblical drama is far from over. It’s Pentecost Sunday. Take your places. Act V has already begun. 

     ACT V
Sermon Discussion Questions
Acts 2:1-21
June 9, 2019

Bible scholar, Tom Wright summarizes the biblical story as a five-act drama. The five acts are 1) Creation 2) Fall 3) Israel 4) Jesus 5) Church.

How is this five-act summary of the Bible helpful to you in your understanding of the Bible? How can this be helpful to you in sharing your faith with others?

The church is ACT V of the biblical drama. Pentecost, the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the church marks the beginning of ACT V. We continue to live out this fifth and final act through the life of the church.

What does it mean for you to be filled with the Holy Spirit? What helps you to stay filled with the Holy Spirit?

In the sermon, Pastor Robert offered three important ways that we can stay filled with the Holy Spirit through the summer months which is typically a slower time in the life of the church. He told us to 1) Enjoy your summer by being out in God’s creation as much as possible. 2) Continue to practice the spiritual disciplines of your faith like attending worship, reading the Bible, praying, serving, and sharing your faith. 3) Mark your calendar now to attend our church-wide “Faith Builders” spiritual retreat, August 16-17. This retreat will help us to build bridges with each other and with the people in our community. This event will fill us even more with the Holy Spirit as we prepare to see new families and new college students this fall. 

Share your thoughts about these three ways to stay filled with the Holy Spirit and live out Act V in being the church.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

Say this prayer to help you and the church to be the “thermostat that transforms the mores of society.” 

Spirit of Truth, pour out your presence on us. Cause wonders to occur as we dream your dreams and see your visions. Creat unity and love as you weave us together as one body of Christ, one family of God, and one community of justice and peace. Amen.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

2019 West Ohio Annual Conference Highlights

[This year marked the 50th gathering of the West Ohio Conference of the UMC. Clergy and lay delegates representing our 1,000 churches gathered on the grounds of Lakeside, Ohio this week to vote on various resolutions, recognize clergy retirements, celebrate Deacon and Elder ordinations, and this year, we elected lay and clergy to represent our conference at the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. The picture above is the opening Sunday evening worship service in Hoover auditorium at Lakeside, Ohio. Scroll down for some highlights of this year’s conference.]

[One of the highlights of conference each year is the inspiring worship services, music and preaching. This was one of the songs during a morning worship service.]

[Every four years, each annual conference elects General & Juridictional clergy/laity delegates to represent their conference. General and Jurisidctional Conferences meet every four years and include delegates from all around the world. Unlike other mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church is a world-wide denomination. A specially called General Conference was held this past February in St. Louis to only focus on LGBTQ legislation. General Conference focuses on issues related to “The Book of Discipline” which is our denomination’s rule book. Jurisdictional Conference elects Bishops and assigns them to geographical areas. The next regularly scheduled General and Jurisdictional Conferences will be held May and July of 2020. We needed to elect a total of 22 people to attend these meetings from West Ohio. Each delegate needs to receive a majority of votes to be elected which means this is a very long process. We spent an entire day doing this finishing around 9:30 at night! The picture above shows the voting device and the voter guide to help us choose who should represent us.]

[Not everything we do at annual conference is super serious. We also like to have fun to help break the tension. In case you are interested, this is what the lay delegates voted as their top ice cream flavors. The results were posted during a morning session.]  

[Before each vote during the General and Jurisdictional, the Bishop invites various lay and clergy delegates to lead us in prayer. Youth delegates participated as well. Here is one of our youth leading the prayer. I personally know this youth because I used to be her pastor at a previous church!]

[Our West Ohio Conference is blessed to have Bishop Gregory Palmer as our episcopal leader. Bishop Palmer presides at our meetings and is one of the most powerful and eloquent preachers you will ever hear. He is also responsible for appointing pastors to serve in our 1,000 churches in West Ohio. How would you like that difficult job????]

[Here are the 22 people our conference voted to serve as General and Jurisidictional delegates in 2020. We will be sending 14 lay and clergy delegates to General Conference and 14 lay and clergy delegates to Jurisdictional Conference. We also elected 8 delegates to be alternates. Please pray for this group as they will be joining delegates from other conferences in this country and around the world at next year’s meetings.]

[The man speaking at the podium is my good friend, Rev. Barry Burns, District Superintendent of the Northwest Plains District located in northwest, Ohio. Barry delivered the Bishop’s cabinet report which represents the 8 District Superintendents who meet throughout the year to care for the needs of our clergy and the 1,000 churches. On a personal note, Barry was the first person I met when I arrived at seminary 34 years ago!]

[Athens First UMC was well represented at conference this year thanks to the ordination of former church member, Kirstin Shrom-Rhoads who was ordained a Deacon this week. A Deacon is one who is set apart for particular ministries such as Christian Education, counseling, music, etc. and helps the local church to serve the community. Kirstin’s particular area of ministry is serving as a church camp director. The picture above is Kirstin on the right. Next to her is Alexa Lee, one of our youth and on the left is Cathy Lee. Cathy carried the banner during the ordination processional and Alexa held Kirstin’s deacon stole during the ordination. Congratulations, Kirstin!]

[Conference isn’t all about voting and elections. It is also about supporting each other. The picture above are the arms of several lay and clergy delegates joined together as one to pray for the father of our Foothills District Superintendent who was having surgery that day. We prayed for God to bring healing to Dennis’s father through the skills and expertise of the surgeon and medical staff. The good news is that we found out later that day that the surgery went well and he is in recovery! Thanks be to God!]

[Not every annual conference is blessed to meet in such a beautiful place as Lakeside, Ohio. Here are some pictures of the dock and in the distance you can see Perry’s monument. We also had beautiful sunsets! Not pictured are people eating ice cream which is always a favorite thing to do during conference.]

[With almost 3,000 United Methodists traveling into Lakeside on Sunday to begin conference, our Athens group of Martha Sloan, Athens First lay delegate and Pastor Rick Seiter were blessed to run into Kirstin that first day of conference as we were walking the grounds. Kirstin was ordained a Deacon on Wednesday. Thirty years ago, I was ordained an Elder here in Lakeside. The picture above of smiling faces reminds me of the many fun ways that God brings people together through our conference.]

Monday, June 3, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (June 2) Athens First UMC

[The Sunday sermon title was “Unfinished Business.” It focused on how when Jesus ascended to his rightful throne in heaven, he entrusted his disciples to carry on his work of offering God’s healing love to the world. Of course, we also have the power of the Holy Spirit helping us, but that will be the topic next week when we celebrate Pentecost Sunday. The picture above is from our monthly Athens First Saturday Community Involvement which included leading a worship service for the residents of an assisted living facility. We also arranged flowers to give to the people at our local hospital to brighten their day. “Continue to move us to do thy will, O God.”]

Move us to do thy will, O God. Move us to share our faith with that person who is in need of hope. Move us to bless someone in an unexpected way. Move us to share our gifts with others.

On this Ascension Sunday, we are reminded that you have empowered us to be the hands and feet of Jesus. You have empowered us to continue to build your kingdom here on earth. Move us to do they will, O God.

As your kingdom people, we especially pray for the many people who who have been in the pathway of tornados and devastating storms this past week, and for the people of Virginia Beach and the shootings that happened there on Friday claiming twelve lives. May your gracious hand be upon all who have experienced destruction and violence over this past week. 

As your kingdom people, we pray for those who are graduating from High School and beginning a new chapter in their lives. May your guiding hand be upon them as they begin this new journey.

As your kingdom people, we pray for the West Ohio Conference as we meet this week in Lakeside, Ohio to elect clergy and laity delegates to attend next May’s General Conference. May your loving hand be upon us in this time of holy conferencing that we would make decisions that would reflect your inclusive love for all people, especially those who are in the LGBTQ community. 

As your kingdom people, we pray for one of our former church members, Kirstin Shrom-Rhoads who will be ordained a Deacon this week at conference. May your empowering hand be upon Kirstin and upon others who will be ordained to serve you and the church.

As your kingdom people, equip each one of us to be the hands and feet of Christ and to pray the prayer the he taught us to say together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Sermon (June 2/Ascension Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     In ranking the most important dates of the church calendar, Easter Sunday usually is at the top. Not far behind is Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday. But a case can be made for Ascension Sunday to be equally as important.

     Ascension Day or maybe a better title for this day is “Kicking the birds out of the nest Sunday” because that’s basically what Jesus did when he ascended into heaven. The only way the disciples were going to continue what Jesus had started would be for them to get our of their nest and learn to fly.

     Imagine the puzzled look on their faces when the day finally came for Jesus to ascend into heaven. Luke tells us that when Jesus ascended, they just stood there watching. They weren’t ready for that day. But are we ever ready for moments like this?

     A pastor, upon reflection of what the disciples must have been feeling in that moment offers this memory from his childhood.

     He says he can vividly remember Saturdays during his childhood. His dad would haul he and his younger brother in a battered yellow El Camino car to a remote section of their small farm. He says that they only had 50 acres but at the time, it seemed like they drove for miles. 

     He and his brother would get out of the car and their father gave them instructions on what they were to do – weeding, fertilizing, planting, painting.  And then he would show them the way he wanted it done.

     They were handed a bucket of supplies and some water. And then just like that, he drove away. He left them there expecting them to complete the work he had already started and now wanted them to complete.

     Even when left with directions, it’s so much easier when the person who trained us stays right there with us. Why on earth did Jesus leave those disciples?!

     They weren’t ready for this! They were still asking Jesus a bunch of questions. And instead of Jesus answering them, he gave them a job to do. The job was for them to continue sharing the good news of God’s kingdom made present through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

     Sometimes, we just need a little push out of the nest to start flying on our own.

     There was a stage during my teenage years when my mother sensed that it was time for me to get out of the nest. She could tell that I was bored during summer break one year.

     My mother actually told me and I’ll never forget her words. She said, “You need to go out and do something different, anything! Just go! Get into trouble or something. Quit wasting your summer away.”

      I remember thinking, “Did mom just tell me to get into trouble?” Of course, I knew what she meant. She was just wanting me to get out of my rut.

     Maybe this was a little of what Jesus was doing with the disciples. “How long have you been by my side? How long has it been since I was raised from the dead? We’ve gone over and over what you need to know. It’s time for me to go now and it’s time for you too carry on what I started. Later. Bye.”

     Jesus leaves us with unfinished business. It’s up to us. But what incredible unfinished business it is. Jesus is calling each one of us in our own unique ways to offer God’s healing love to the people around us.

     Have you ever heard of the church committee that had work that needed to be done? The names of the people on the committee were Everybody, Somebody, and Anybody. 

     Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

     When Jesus left the disciples with unfinished business, he also left them with important tools and supplies to get the job done. Jesus didn’t leave them empty handed. Luke tells us that Jesus gave them the important tool of power. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you,” Jesus tells them. And just like that, Jesus is gone, driving away leaving us with thousands of miles to be seeded, planted, watered, and harvested.

     Oh, I almost forgot, Jesus also gave them a a strategy. He told them to start here in Jerusalem. And from Jerusalem, just head west to the Judean towns, and then go north to Samaria, and from there, just keep on going, farther and farther out until you reach, well, until you reach the ends of the earth.

     So we have the tools. We have the strategy. And now it’s time for Jesus to do what he needs to do. He needs to go to the Father so that he can send us the Holy Spirit which will arrive next Sunday at exactly 9 and 10:30 am when we celebrate Pentecost.

     But here’s the thing. It’s not all up to one person to continue what Jesus has already started. It’s all of us. We all get to participate. 

     A Catholic Church in San Diego, California had a statue of Jesus just outside of it’s building. In 1980, the hands of Jesus were broken off by vandals. Imagine how that statue looked with a Jesus with no arms!

     Instead of repairing the hands, the church very wisely decided to put up a plaque at the base of that Jesus statue that states, "I have no hands but yours." 

     They borrowed this short phrase from a poem that was written by St. Teresa of Avila from the 16th century that begins: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours."

     What a powerful thought. We are the body, the hands, and the feet of Christ. We each embody the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in our own unique ways. 

     Like the guy I met a couple of months ago who attends one of the United Methodist churches in our Foothills District. He was telling me how he became friends with someone he would see at the gym each week. As they continued to get to know each other, they began to form a friendship and he would offer to pray for him when he shared about a problem that he was facing. 

     This led him to share a little of his faith with him and the difference that Jesus has made in his life. He encouraged him to start attending a church near where he lived which he started doing. It happened to be another United Methodist Church in our district. The pastor of that church ended up baptizing him and this man has been attending church ever since and is growing in his faith.    

     This chain of events happened because this guy in the gym was the hands and feet of Christ.

     Someone else recently shared about a widow in his church who, on the anniversary of her husband's death, makes a point to thank him for walking with her through that heartbreaking journey. He says how he never ceases to be moved by this gesture and it reminds him of how important it is to live out our faith in these simple but life changing ways.

     We are the hands and the feet of Christ. 

     And every Sunday morning, we are reminded of this and at the end of every worship service. We hear the benediction calling us to go forth from this place to be the hands and feet of Christ wherever we go. Why? Because like those first disciples, Jesus is calling us to continue what he has started. We are the hands and feet of Christ. 

     Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher tells the story of a town where only ducks live. Every Sunday morning, the ducks waddle out of their houses and waddle down the main street to their church.

     They waddle into the cathedral and squat in their pews.

     The duck choir sings and then the duck pastor comes and reads from the duck bible.

     He encourages them, “Ducks, God has given you wings!  And with these wings you can fly!  With these wings you can rise up and soar like eagles!  No walls can confine you, no fences can hold you.  You have wings and you can fly like birds!”

     And and all the ducks shout out, “Amen!”

     And then they all waddle home.

     Maybe this is what Ascension Day was like for the disciples. Jesus reminded them of who they were and that they will receive power to continue Jesus’ mission here on earth. They will be his hands and feet to continue what Jesus has started. And they will go out and make disciples of Jesus Christ and bring transformation to the world.

     We are called to do the same. As we come forward to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we will receive all that we need to be the hands and feet of Christ in a broken and hurting world. Let’s go forth from this place and continue on what Jesus has started.

     Christ has no body on earth, but yours.

Unfinished Business
Sermon Discussion Questions
Acts 1:1-11
June 2, 2019

This is the time of year on the church calendar where we celebrate three important Sundays which include Easter Sunday (the resurrection of Jesus Christ), Ascension Sunday (when Jesus ascended into heaven), Pentecost Sunday (the sending of the Holy Spirit upon the early church), and Trinity Sunday (the celebration of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.)

What questions do you have about these three special Sundays and why do you think we celebrate them each year?

On Ascension Sunday, we celebrate when Jesus “ascended” to his throne in heaven where he rules as King over all creation. Before ascending to his heavenly throne, Jesus tells the disciples to continue on his work here on earth. 

What kinds of emotions do you have about Jesus entrusting us to carry on his mission here on earth? Is it exciting? Scary? Confusing?

Jesus tells the disciples that he will leave them with a very important gift so they won’t be alone in carrying out his work here on earth. That gift is the Holy Spirit who will empower them to share the good news of Christ near and far. Jesus kept his promise because ten days later, the disciples received the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost which we will celebrate next Sunday.

Share a time when you felt empowered by the Holy Spirit to share the good news of Christ with others through word or deed. What was that like for you and the people you served?

There is a statue of Jesus in California in which his hands were broken off by vandals. Church leaders decided to not repair the statue and instead they put up a sign in front of it with words from St. Teresa of Avila who lived during the 16th century that says, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours." This creative idea emphasizes the meaning of Ascension Day where Jesus has given us the unfinished business to continue to share God’s love with our community and world.

Think of a specific way that you might be the hands and feet of Jesus this week through word and deed.