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, August 26, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Aug. 25) Athens First UMC

[It was a beautiful Sunday for moving our Connect Time coffee and refreshments outside, welcoming college students, blessing backpacks, listening to our wonderful Chancel Choir, promoting our new Sunday School program which begins Sunday, Sept. 15, and hearing a message about hope. For the sermon, click here. See below for one of the pictures from our water bottle/welcome basket give away over the weekend. It was another fun way to bless our community!]

God of new beginnings, untie us from those forces in our world that would keep us from being who you have called us to be. Remind us to turn to you for hope when those forces are at work in our lives.

God of new beginnings, untie us from spiritual dryness that we experience from time to time. Remind us to turn to you for hope when we have lost our joy.

God of new beginnings, untie us from ourselves whenever we miss the opportunities you place before us to see you at work in our daily lives. Remind us to turn to you for hope when our focus is on ourselves rather than upon you.

O God, this is a time of new beginnings in our community and in our church. There is so much transition happening all around us with the beginning of a new school year. But with transitions, comes stress. The stress of meeting new people. The stress of finding our locker. The stress of launching new fall ministries in the church. The stress of trying to find a parking space.

O God, so much stress, but also a time of new beginnings for each and every one of us. Thank you for the woman from our Gospel reading who turned to you for hope. Thank you for offering your healing love to us and untying us from anything that would keep us from being the person you have called us to be.

And so on this Sunday, we thank you for the hope-filled signs and sounds of your presence that are all around us like a neighbor surprising us with a gift bag to brighten our day, like positive sidewalk chalk messages greeting us as we enter a church, like receiving a blessing as we begin a new school year, like suddenly realizing that God answered our prayer in a beautiful way. 

God of hope, thank you for these and many other signs of your presence that untie us and help us to experience healing, wholeness, and a renewed joy in our lives. And now teach us to pray this prayer of hope that Jesus taught us to pray together saying…. “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[These two servants prepared 14 welcome baskets which were hand delivered to each of our church’s neighboring fraternities/sororities during move-in week. The students in these houses are always very appreciative and surprised that our church would take the time to do this. We also handed out 300 water bottles to those walking by our church on Saturday. A big thanks to all who helped at our 5th annual water bottle give away!]

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Sermon (August 25) by Rev. Robert McDowell

          Are you spotting any interesting vanity license plates lately? 

     Last week on Facebook, a friend of mine posted a picture that he took of a vanity license plate that he saw on the back of a pick-up truck in a Costco parking lot in Columbus. It had the letters IM with a space, and then the letters SANTA. IM SANTA. The comments under his post were fun. Someone said, “Santa drives a Dodge! Yes!!” Someone else said, “Did you put milk and cookies in his truck?” And another person wrote, “Maybe he’s picking up some reindeer feed.” 

     Jesus has been giving us very important messages this summer from the Gospel of Luke.  We are in the sixth part of a seven part sermon series on the things that Jesus wants to tell us, and in today’s scripture, Jesus wants to tell us that there is always hope for you and for me.

     I remember when our family went to our very first Cubs game at Wrigley Field in Chicago several years ago. This was several years before their more recent success when they actually won the World Series in 2016. You want to talk about people who have hope.  Just take a look at Cub fans!  It was in the middle of August, hot and humid, the Cubs were in last place in their division, and it was a Tuesday night.  But none of that mattered. The game was sold out.  There was an eternal hope even during those lean years that someday their Cubs would win the World Series.

     But if you really want to find hope, all you need to do is turn to Jesus.  Jesus is our true source of hope.

     Luke tells us of a woman who found hope in church one day.  She experienced the healing touch of Jesus Christ in her life.  Jesus has a way of untying us from things that keep us from having hope.  Luke tells us that Jesus set this woman free.  Later in this passage, Jesus says how this woman was set free from her bondage.

     Luke shows us three things that can prevent us from experiencing the hope of Jesus Christ in our lives.  These are things that can keep us tied up, if you will.

     I’m not very good at untying knots. 

     I remember when our daughter was just wee little and we visited my parents.  Penny and I went to a baseball game that night and my mom and dad were in charge of their little grandchild.

     When we got home, my dad said, “We had to put her to bed with her baby shoes on, because we didn’t know how to open up those little white plastic coverings over her shoestrings.”  He said how he had tried all evening to open up those coverings and he couldn’t do it.”   My dad was really embarrassed when Penny took all but five seconds to take them off and untie her little shoes.

     Sometimes we get tied up in life and we don’t know how to get free.  And sometimes we lose hope, don’t we?   

     Luke gives us three things that can sometimes tie us up in life, but he also shows us how Jesus is more than able to set us free and restore our hope.

     The first thing is this.  Jesus can untie the knot of the forces of evil in this world.  Luke tells us that this woman, who had come into that worship service when Jesus was preaching, had a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.  She was so crippled that Luke tells us that she was bent over and was unable to stand up straight.

     I find it very interesting that Luke just doesn’t tell us that this woman was crippled and bent over, but he tells us that she had a spirit that had crippled her.  This tells me that for the past eighteen years this woman was not just contending with a physical problem, but she was also up against an evil force.

     God’s design is for all people to be healthy and physically whole.  God doesn’t cause people to be sick or to be injured or to suffer from a serious illness.  I believe that these things are the result of our fallen world. 

     This text reminds us of the presence of evil in our world.  Even though God created this world and called it good, there is also an evil force that is at work in the world. In our story this morning, Jesus heals this woman and set her free from the spirit that had been troubling her for all of those years.  Luke tells us that she immediately stood up straight.

     We contend with evil forces all of the time.  Forces that would keep us from having hope in Jesus Christ.  Forces that would keep us from being set free. 

     William Wilberforce was a devout Christian and member of the British Parliament from 1780 to 1825.  He felt a calling to serve Jesus Christ through the political arena.  It was William Wilberforce who is mostly responsible for abolishing the slave trade and slavery itself in all of the British territories.  

     The interesting thing about William Wilberforce was that it took him 18 years to get his motion to abolish the slave trade passed.  And then just four days before his death, the English Parliament finally passed a motion to end all slavery in the British territories.  A year after William Wilberforce died, almost one million slaves were set free from the evil force of slavery.

     Eighteen years must be a significant number for us today, because Luke tells us that the woman in our scripture lesson had been crippled for eighteen years.

     We need to realize that sometimes, we are contending against the evil forces of this world.  We are involved in a spiritual struggle.  But thanks to people like William Wilberforce and this woman in our scripture today, we can always have hope in Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ will not fail us.

     The first thing that Jesus wants to untie us from is from the knot of the evil forces of this world.     

     The second thing that Jesus wants to untie in our lives is the knot of spiritual dryness.  When Jesus healed this woman, notice the first thing she did.  Nobody had to tell her to do this.  She just did it.  She began praising God.

     Sometimes, hope can be so low in our lives that we can feel empty and we experience a spiritual dryness. I don’t know of too many people who don’t go through times of spiritual dryness in their spiritual journey. 

     I have a friend who shared with me over lunch that he was feeling spiritually dry in his life. He was living out his faith and active in his church but inside he was very empty.  Before we left that day, we prayed right there in the restaurant and I told him that I would continue to pray for him and check in on him.

     A week later, I called him on the phone just to see how he was doing. And then I sent him a birthday card with a reminder that I was praying for him. Sometimes, I would just send him a text or a facebook message to let him know that I was thinking of him.

     Each time I spoke with him, he seemed like he was doing better. He said that he was learning to not let problems at work get the best of him. He was taking better care of himself by exercising and eating right. He also said that he decided to share what he was going through with his wife and he felt a lot of support from her.

     And then a really wonderful thing happened. He called me out of the blue one day to tell me that a new job opportunity was opening up for him and he was very excited about it. He said that this new job couldn’t have come at a better time.

     I can’t tell you how wonderful it was for me to hear the joy in his voice. In just a couple of months since our lunch together, he was feeling hope again. He was feeling more like his old self. And so I jokingly said to him, “I don’t like to brag, but I think it’s all because of my prayers.”

     But then I said to him, “I just want to cry tears of joy for you right now because I remember vividly how low you were feeling when we were together for lunch just a few months ago.”  And he said to me, “I know. I just want to praise God for these positive changes in my life. God is good!”

    Now, we all know that not everybody experiences that kind of spiritual transformation in a short amount of time but Jesus is always reaching out to us with healing and hope. 

     Jesus unties us from the knot of the forces of evil and from the knot of spiritual dryness.  And last, but not least, sometimes, we need to be untied from ourselves.  Sometimes, the knot that has us tied up isn’t external. It’s internal. It’s something we can choose or not choose to untie.

     I like how Luke contrasts the woman who was healed with the religious leader who criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. One was open to hope and the other was closed to receiving hope. The reason the religious leader didn’t choose to receive the hope that Jesus was offering is because of his narrow interpretation of working on the Sabbath.

     Jesus reminds the religious leader that this woman he healed is a daughter of Abraham which means that she is one of them.  This woman is a child of God. The religious leader of the synagogue saw this woman as someone who wasn’t worthy of being healed. He failed to see how God was at work in that moment in healing her and restoring her to wholeness.

     I wonder how many times our eyes aren’t opened to the new ways that God is at work in and around us. Sometimes, we just miss these holy moments which can keep us from receiving the hope that God wants to give us. 

     Sometimes, we are the knot that needs to be untied. Jesus calls us to have open minds to the new way that God is at work in the world. 

     On this day last year, I officiated at a memorial service here at our church. It was for Pauline McClew, Martha Sloan’s mother. Pauline was 99 when she passed away, just shy of her 100th birthday. 

     Martha and her family decided to celebrate Pauline’s 100th birthday anyway, so after the memorial service we went into our Fellowship Hall and celebrated her milestone birthday in heaven. It was a powerful reminder that nothing can rob us of receiving God’s hope in our lives, not even death.

     During that memorial service, I shared these words about Martha’s mother that continue to speak a powerful message of hope for all of us exactly one year later from that memorial service.

      I said, “I’m so thankful for the people in our lives like Pauline who offer hope and point us to God’s beauty and love.  Every time we gather for worship, God speaks a word of hope, helping us to see God’s presence in the midst of a broken and hurting world and pointing us to the future when God will make all things new again.”

     And so on this day, exactly one year later after that memorial service, I want to thank Martha and her family for that reminder that there is always HOPE4ME. There is always hope for you. God is even able to turn a memorial service into a birthday party. 

     A friend of mine was sharing with me this past week about a time when he had asked a printing company to print materials for United Way. It was a a big project that had a lot of pages.

     The man from the printing business dropped off the booklets and proudly gave them to my friend and asked him, “So what do you think?” My friend opened the box, looked down at the first page and realized there was a big problem. 

     The printing guy asked, “Is there something wrong?” And my friend said, “Instead of United Way, it’s says “Untied Way.”

     Evidently, the autocorrect they used at the printing store had changed every word that said, “united” to “untied.”

     It was such a big mistake, that the printing company had to reprint all of that paperwork to make it right.

     Actually, for you and me, it is true that God wants to untie us and give us hope. 

     And so, if you are here today and you are feeling all tied up in knots, maybe wondering what the future holds, maybe you are in need of healing in your life whether it be physical, emotional, or spiritual, whatever knot you are experiencing, know that Jesus is more than able to untie us and set us free. 

     Jesus Christ will not disappoint you. Regardless of what you are facing or what knot is keeping you tied down, whether it be an evil force, or spiritual dryness, or even ourselves, Jesus is offering all of us his hope so that we can receive healing and be made whole.

     Praise God that there is hope for you and for me!

License Plate Sightings: HOPE4ME
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 13:10-17
August 25, 2019

During our summer sermon series on vanity license plate sightings, we’ve been asking people to share interesting ones they have seen. 

Have you seen an interesting vanity plate recently?

We have been summarizing Jesus’ teachings from the Gospel of Luke into vanity license plate messages. Our reading this week is when Jesus healed a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years! Jesus was able to free her. This story reminds us to not give up on how Jesus can bring healing and wholeness to our lives.

Share a hope that you have for healing and wholeness either for yourself or someone else. It can be a need for physical, spiritual, relational, or emotional healing. 

Pastor Robert shared three areas in our lives that God offers us the hope of healing. He refers to these as “knots” that Jesus seeks to untie in our lives so that we can be the people that God has called us to be. 

Knot #1 - Jesus unties the knot of evil in our world. Notice that Luke tells us that a “spirit” had crippled the woman for eighteen years. This suggests that their is an evil force at work in the world. Pastor Robert lifted up William Wilberforce, the 19th century British statesmen who fought to end the slave trade. Like the woman who had been crippled for eighteen years, it took eighteen years for the British Empire to get the votes needed to end the slave trade. These stories of persistence remind us to not give up hope when facing the evil powers of this world.

Where do you see evil forces at work in the world?

Knot #2 - Jesus unties the knot of spiritual dryness in our lives. Notice that Luke tells us that after Jesus healed the woman, the first thing she did was to praise God.

Share a time when you were set you free from the knot of spiritual dryness leading you to praise God.

Knot #3 - Jesus unties the knot of ourselves. Notice that Luke tells us that after Jesus healed the woman, the religious leaders who heard about it were critical of Jesus healing on the sabbath.

Share a time when you were not open to how God was seeking to bring healing in your life. What helps you to be open to receiving God’s healing touch in your life?

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Aug. 18) Athens First UMC

[This past weekend, over forty people attended our 2-day Faith Builders training led by Rev. Jeff Motter, top right corner photo. Jeff led us through four training sessions to help us sharpen our relational and faith sharing skills. We were also blessed to have Mary Rizzardi, bottom right corner photo lead us in singing and worship. See video below. Copies of the training materials are available in the church office for those who were not able to attend. For Sunday’s sermon which includes a short summary of what we learned at our training, click here.]

Lord Jesus, remind us in this time of prayer of the importance of standing in your strength alone.

It is your strength alone that enables us to stand for you in any given situation. 
It is your strength alone that equips us for a task that seems beyond our capability. 
It is your strength alone that prompts us to take on a new challenge. 
It is your strength alone that beckons us to take our faith to a whole new level of faithfulness and vitality. 
It is your strength alone that encourages us when we are feeling weak. 
It is your strength alone that invites us to deepen our relationships with each other and with those we have yet to meet. 
It is your strength alone that helps us to be open to share our faith with others.
It is your strength alone that is empowering us to prepare for a busy fall season of new church programming and events to help us in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world.

O God, whenever begin to focus only on our own strength, remind us to stand in your strength alone for you are the one who is our creator, redeemer, and sustainer.

O God, this is a significant week in our local community with the beginning of school and move-in week for college students. And so we pray for all students and educators in this college town to find their strength in you. And may all find our church to be a haven of blessing and peace through our Loving Faith, Learning Faith, and Living Faith ministries. 

We depend upon your strength during this time of transition in our community and for each of our concerns and joys that we are in our hearts this day. And now, I invite us to remain standing together as we pray the words Jesus taught us to say together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Mary RIzzardi leading us in singing at our Faith Builders training.]

Sermon (August 18) by Rev. Robert McDowell


     We have been spending the past several Sundays focusing on what Jesus wants to tell us from the Gospel of Luke.  And in today’s scripture reading from Luke chapter 12, Jesus says some unsettling things.  Shocking things.

     Jesus tells us that he has not come to bring peace on earth, but division.  In fact, Jesus even tells us that families will be divided over who he is.

     Jesus says how a father will be against his son and a son will be against his father.  A mother against daughter. A mother in law will be against her daughter in law. 

     This would not be a good scripture reading to use on Mother’s Day so maybe that’s why this reading pops up in the month of August. If you just came back from a family reunion that didn’t go so well, maybe this scripture really resonates with you today. Hopefully not, but I think you see my point. This is just a really, really difficult scripture to hear. 

     Jesus often said some really comforting things, but this is not one of them. In fact, it makes us feel a little uncomfortable. Why would Jesus tell us that he has come to bring fire to the earth? And isn’t one of his titles, the Prince of Peace and yet he says that he hasn’t come to bring peace, but division?

     This scripture is one of those examples of why we need to read the Bible in context. Yes, Jesus is the Prince of Peace. And yes, Jesus offers us comfort when we are going through difficult times. And yes, Jesus wants family members to get along as much as possible. Yes, to all of those things.

     Jesus is using these shocking words about coming to bring division to emphasize that when we seek to be faithful in following Jesus in our daily lives, we’re not always going to have a cheering section. It will sometimes feel more like a jeering section at times. 

     Jesus himself experienced those times in his ministry when he was misunderstood, ridiculed, and rejected. Even though he was announcing the good news that God’s kingdom was at hand, not everybody was ready to embrace that good news.

     Embracing the good news of God’s kingdom can be threatening. Think about it. It might lead me to change the way I view other people. It might mean that I change how I do business. It could disrupt my Sunday morning routine. It might force me to rethink my politics. Now, you’re meddling. And get this, it could even impact how I spend my money.

     And when we make these changes in our lives, people are probably going to notice. And not everybody will be thrilled. That’s when we need to remember these words from Jesus to not be surprised if not everybody is over the top thrilled that you have made the decision to center your whole life around a traveling Jewish rabbi who said really off the wall things like “love your enemies,” “the first shall be last” and “take up your cross and follow me.”

     It’s not always easy to stand for Jesus.  That’s what the sermon title is all about this morning.  Jesus is telling us, “stand for me.”  I’m a little reluctant to preach on this text because some people have used this text as a license to rub people the wrong way. 

     There’s nothing worse than an obnoxious religious person who feels emboldened to be a holy pain in the backside. Jesus had plenty to say about that, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

     Jesus is referring to fire and divisions because when people begin to really live out the good news of their faith, it will disrupt the status quo. It will force people inside and outside the church to rethink their long-held beliefs and behaviors.

     Maybe these words of Jesus are here to remind us to not let our fear get in the way of what it means to be faithful in our walk with Christ.

     In Charles Swindoll’s book, “Living Above Mediocrity” Bruce Larson tells about his time growing up in Chicago.  He writes, 

     “When I was a small boy, I attended church every Sunday at a big Gothic Presbyterian bastion in Chicago. The preaching was powerful and the music was great. But for me, the most awesome moment in the morning service was the offertory, when twelve solemn, frock-coated ushers marched in lock-step down the main aisle to receive the brass plates for collecting the offering. 

     These men, so serious about their business of serving the Lord in this magnificent house of worship, were the business and professional leaders of Chicago. One of the twelve ushers was a man named Frank Loesch. He was not a very imposing looking man, but in Chicago he was a living legend, for he was the man who had stood up to Al Capone. In the prohibition years, Capone's rule was absolute.

    The local and state police and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation were afraid to oppose him. But singlehandedly, Frank Loesch, as a Christian layman and without any government support, organized the Chicago Crime Commission, a group of citizens who were determined to take Mr. Capone to court and put him away. 

     During the months that the Crime Commission met, Frank Loesch's life was in constant danger. There were threats on the lives of his family and friends. But he never wavered. Ultimately he won the case against Capone and was the instrument for removing this blight from the city of Chicago. Frank Loesch had risked his life to live out his faith. 
Each Sunday at this point of the service, my father, a Chicago businessman himself, never failed to poke me and silently point to Frank Loesch with pride. Sometime I'd catch a tear in my father's eye. For my dad and for all of us this was and is what authentic living is all about.”

     In our Luke passage this morning, Jesus is telling us to stand up for him. What do we need in order to stand up for Jesus and be faithful to Him? One of the things that can help us is to feel more comfortable in sharing our faith with others.

     For the past couple of days, several people in our church attended a “Faith Builders” seminar here at our church. It was an awesome, awesome event. My good friend, Jeff Motter who is a United Methodist pastor up in Findlay, Ohio led our two-day seminar. We had over forty people in attendance.

     Jeff taught us many things and helped us sharpen our relational skills and increase opportunities where we might share our faith with others. Jeff taught us that relating to other people and sharing our faith are not meant to feel like a root canal but are meant to be natural ways for us in living out our faith, even for those of us who are introverts.

     If you weren’t able to attend, here are some of the helpful things he shared with us to be better faith builders in how we relate to others and share our faith.

     I’m going to quickly go through these and I’m sure any of the several people who attended the training would be happy to share their notes with you if you weren’t able to attend. It was a wonderful time of instruction, singing, fellowship, great meals, and sharing together. 

     Jeff led us through four teaching sessions as part of our two-day training. In the first session, we talked a lot about the importance of being a good listener when having conversations with people. Jeff also shared some great thoughts on how we can have more meaningful conversations just in the the types of questions we might ask people. 

     Finding out a little about where they’re from, their family, what they do for a living or volunteer work, if they like to travel, what ideas that might have, if they are facing any problems, frustrations, or concerns, and dreams they may have. Jeff gave us time to pair up and have these types of conversations with each other. We discovered by doing this that even though we all attend the same church here at Athens First, we really didn’t know each other so deeper relationships in Christ were formed. 

     In the second session, we learned that building relationships are what is at the heart of effective ministry through the church. We learned that in order to have any effective ministry whether it be a small group, a Sunday School class, a children’s program, or a community project outside the church, we need to be aware of the challenges that people are facing and what they are seeking in dealing with those challenges.

     One of the takeaways from that session for me was that our programs and events are meant to be opportunities for us to connect with the people who are attending, especially new people who come seeking a loving, caring, authentic, non-judgmental, and hope-filled community of faith.

     And that led us to think a lot about what we as the church, and specifically here at Athens First can uniquely offer people that they many not be able to get anywhere else outside the church. And that’s what led us to a deeper understanding that relationships truly are at the heart of effective ministry.

     For the third session, we focused on what it means to be the kind of person that others want to be around through our words of affirmation.

     We affirm others by letting them know of the positive qualities that we see in them. And we also learned seven principles in sharing our faith with others. These include prayer, initiating a conversation, affirming and encouraging others, inviting people to share about themselves, sharing a little of who we are with others, looking for opportunities to share our faith, and being willing to invite people to go deeper in their faith.  

     And then the final session before we left yesterday afternoon was on how we might be a blessing to others. Jeff left us with two important suggestions for our church moving forward. He encouraged us to know your faith story and be ready to share it and be willing to pray with someone.

     One of the reasons we held this seminar now is because it is right before the college students come back and it’s also a time when people are more inclined to be seeking a church home. This is a great time for us to stand for Jesus in reaching out to the people in our community, share our faith with people through our conversations, and invite people to church.

     During 1857-1858 revival broke out in Philadelphia, PA. A young preacher, Dudley Tyng, one day preached to 5000 men using Exodus 10:11 as his text: “Go now ye that are men and serve the Lord.” About 1000 responded to his invitation that evening. 

     On the following Wednesday, he was involved in a terrible farming tragedy. The doctors did not believe he would live. While Tyng lay in great pain, he entreated his doctor to accept Christ. With a room filled with other preachers he asked them to “Sing, sing, Can you not sing.” 

     His last admonition to his friends was to “Tell the people to stand up for Jesus.” George Duffield witnessed his friend’s death that day and heard his dying words. That week he wrote the words to the hymn, “Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus.”

     And what an incredible coincidence! That’s the title of our prayer hymn. As you’re able, please stand and let’s sing together.

License Plate Sightings: STAN4ME
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 12:49-56
August 18, 2019

During our summer sermon series on vanity license plate sightings, we’ve been asking people to share interesting ones they have seen. 

Have you seen an interesting vanity plate recently?

Our vanity license plate message this week is STAN4ME. It’s based on our Gospel reading where Jesus says that he has not come to bring peace but division. The reason Jesus said this is to help us understand that not everybody will be receptive to the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus himself was often misunderstood, ridiculed, and rejected. This was because he often said unsettling things like “love your enemy.” He also spent a lot of time with people who were not viewed as important in society. It’s been said that if we have never been offended by something in the Bible, we have probably not read it carefully enough!

When have you been upset or unsettled over something that Jesus said or did? How did a new biblical understanding lead you to change long-held beliefs about something or lead to a change in how you live your life?

One of the reasons that we don’t change our opinions and behaviors is because we are afraid of what our friends will think of us. This is known as “tribalism” where we do not want to leave the “tribe” and embrace a new truth for fear of what others might think of us. This is why we tend to stay in our comfort zones and we don’t experience positive spiritual transformation in our lives.

What helps you to be open-minded and receptive when you read the Bible or feel unsettled by something Jesus said or did?

Sharing our faith with others is one of the ways that we “stand up for Jesus.” Our church recently held a “Faith Builders” two-day seminar in which we were invited to step out of our comfort zones and sharpen our skills in sharing our faith and relating to the people around us. In the sermon, Pastor Robert shared a brief summary of what we learned together because of this seminar.

Which of these faith sharing/relational skills from the “Faith Builders” seminar are you willing to implement in order to stand up for Jesus? Pray that God would bless your commitment in becoming more open in sharing your faith with others.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (August 11) Athens First UMC

[This was near the end of our 10:30 worship service during the benediction. The benediction always sends us forth to shine God’s light in our community and world which was our worship theme. For the sermon, click here.]

O God, our lamps are lit and we are ready to live out our faith in a very broken and hurting world. We are ready to respond to how you are prompting us to step out of our comfort zones and serve you. We are ready to share your love with others. We are ready to use the gifts you have given us to be a blessing with those around us. We are ready for where you are leading our church to be a haven of blessing and peace for the people of our community. O God, our lamps are lit and we are ready.

Thank you for providing us with many opportunities to be ready as your church. For Loving Faith ministries that help us to love you and one another. For Learning Faith ministries that help us to grow in knowledge. And for Living Faith ministries that lead us to use our gifts in ministry and service.

O God, you have given us everything we need to be ready to follow you as disciples of Jesus Christ. When the flames of our lamps begin to flicker because of doubts or fear or times that we turn our backs on you, remind us to turn to you for you are the light of the world.

Lead us, O God to light the way for our country, a country where there are an average of 300 hundred deaths per week because of gun violence. 300 deaths per week. O God, lead us to light the way of peace.

Lead us, O God to light the way for our county where there is so much food scarcity. O God, lead us to light the way of equity.

Lead us, O God to light the way for our community so that people would know there is hope because you are a God of hope.

Lead us, O God to light the way in our neighborhoods, in our schools, in our jobs, and in all our relationships.

O God, we are ready, ready to the end. Our lamps our lit as we join together in praying the words that Jesus taught us to pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Sermon (August 11) by Rev. Robert McDowell


    While I was stuck behind a long line of traffic in Columbus, I decided to play a game to pass the time.  And the game was, “Find the most creative vanity license plate.”

     And the winner was a car that had “Latte 7” on their plate.  Anybody that would need to let people know how many cups of coffee they need in the morning concerns me.

     When we were living in Findlay, Ohio, Penny purchased new plates for her car.  And the people behind the counter at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles wanted to give her a license plate that began with the numbers 666.

     And she said, “I’m sorry, but I need different plates.  I’m a pastor’s wife and 666 is not a good message to send.”

     And the person behind the counter said, “You have to take it unless somebody in the line behind you will take it.”  And the guy behind Penny said, “I’ll take it.” This also concerned me.

     Vanity license plates.  Today is the fourth part of a seven part sermon series on what Jesus wants to tell us.  We’ve been reading through the Gospel of Luke for these messages that Jesus has for us.   And we’ve been putting them in the form of what you might see on a vanity license plate.  And today, the message is for us as his followers to be ready to the end. Ready to Dee End. That’s our vanity license plate for this week.

     I attended a seminar with a group of 30 church leaders and we were asked to write a seven year letter.  The leaders of this seminar asked us to think about our church seven years from now.  And they wanted us to write down what our walk with Christ would look like and what our ministries would look like in seven years.

     And the seminar leader said, “Think about how old you will be in seven years because that will put this in perspective.” And all of the sudden, the woman sitting next to me let out this terrifying yell as she thought about how old she would be in seven years.

     It’s not easy to think about our lives seven years from now or even one year from now.  And the whole point of this seven year letter was to help us to think about where we want to be in the long-term since we usually only think of the short-term.

     In our Gospel reading from St. Luke, this is exactly what Jesus wants us to do.  He wants us to think about our future.  He wants us to think about what our relationship with Christ will look like down the road.  Jesus is reminding us that he will come again and when he comes again, will we be ready for him?  Will we be found faithful when he returns?

     The Tour de France was held just a few weeks ago. Cyclists are known to say that the race is won not at the beginning but in who makes it across the finish line in Paris first.  That’s how the race is won.

     Churches also are called to think about the future and where they want to be in order to be faithful to the end. Jesus reminds us from the Gospel of Luke to watch out for complacency because he will return and he wants to find us ready.

     Luke chapter 12 Jesus tells us, “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.”  Jesus is using two images here for being always ready in our faith.  The first image has to do with clothing.  Be dressed for action he says. 

     During Jesus’ day, people usually didn’t wear a belt around their garments because it was more comfortable to wear their clothes loosely around the house.  But they would need to wear a belt if they were to go on a trip.  So a belt was a symbol of being ready to go somewhere.  And Jesus is saying that in a symbolic sense, we are to be dressed for action and always be ready to be faithful in serving Him.

     And Jesus also uses the image of a lamp to make his point about the importance of always being ready.  We are to never be without the light of Christ in our lives.  That’s a great image.  Every Christian is a reflection of the light of Christ for the world to see.  And sometimes we forget to light our lamps or we feel like we can make it through the day without Christ’s light.  But Jesus is saying that we need those lamps lit every single day.

     What does it mean for you and me to be ready to the end?

     First of all, it means that we know Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord.  We can’t have our lamps lit for the world unless we first receive the light of Jesus Christ in our own lives.

     One of my duties at the house is to be the light bulb changer.   By the way, do you know how many TV evangelists it takes to change a light bulb?  One.  But for the message of light to continue, send in your donation today.

     Do you know how many Methodists it takes to change a light bulb?

     Twenty-two: One to hold the ladder, one to climb the ladder, ten to form a committee to evaluate the effectiveness of the old light bulb, and ten to form a committee for a pot-luck to welcome in the new light bulb.

     Once in a while, I go to our closet to find a new light bulb, and find that we’re all out.  That’s why the first thing we need in order to be ready to the end is to have the light of Christ in our lives by knowing Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. 

     The most significant moments of my life have been the times when I have allowed the light of Christ to shine through me.  Allowing the light of Christ to shine through us can turn a bad day into a good day.

     What does it mean to have our lamps lit?  It first means that we have received the light of Christ in our lives.

     The second thing it means is that we grow in a relationship with Jesus Christ. 

     Jesus used to say that about the Pharisees, the religious leaders of his day, who he bumped heads with time and time again.  Jesus would tell his disciples, “The teachings of the Pharisees are great.  They say good things.  The problem is – they just don’t practice what they preach.  And because they are not practicing what they preach, they’re not growing in their faith.”

     I was sitting with a pastor at a restaurant deciding on what we should order for dinner that night.  The waitress had dropped off our menus and said she would come back to take our order.  Well guess what?  When you have two preachers in the same booth, it will take about 15 minutes before they will even look at the menu because we talk so much.  

     So this waitress would keep coming back to our booth to see if we were finally ready.  And each time we would say, “No, just give us another two minutes and we’ll be ready then.”  This happened three times.  She would come back and we would say that we weren’t ready.

     We finally decided on what we wanted and we put in our order.  After our waitress left, we continued to talk and got caught up with how each other was doing.

     And then someone from the kitchen brought out our food.  And that’s when my good friend got an idea of how to apply his faith to that moment.

     He said, “Hey, before we pray, let’s include the waitress especially since she has been so patient with us.”  And he flagged down our waitress and he said, “My friend and I pray before meals, and we were wondering if there’s anything that you would want us to pray for and we’ll mention that in our prayer.”

     You should have seen the look on her face.  She was surprised that we would include her in our prayer but then this great big smile came to her face and she said, “Well thank you.  I really feel that it’s time to make a change in my life and I’m not sure what that means.”

     And my friend said, “Sure, we’ll pray for you.”  She said thanks and off she went and we prayed for Amanda, our waitress.

     After the meal, we got the bill.  And this was another high spiritual moment.  He said to me, “Let me pay for this.” 

     But that’s not all. Then he said, what percentage tip should I give her?  And I said, “Well since I’m not paying, I would recommend a really nice tip.” My friend ended up giving her a 30% tip because he wanted to make sure that the waitress knew that we really cared about her and that God really cared about her.

     My friend reminded me of the importance of applying our faith to everyday encounters with people.  When we grow in our relationship with Christ and apply our faith to our everyday lives, it helps us to be people who are ready to the end.

     And last but not least, if we want to be ready to the end, we always need to know where we’re headed.

     Jesus tells us in our scripture reading this morning that we are to be like those who are waiting for their Master to return from a trip, and who open the door for their Master upon his return. 

     Our faith begins and ends with Jesus Christ. It’s important that we know where we’re going.

     Billy Graham was known to tell a story about Albert Einstein.  Albert Einstein was traveling on a train when the conductor of the train was coming around to punch the tickets of the passengers.  When he arrived to Dr. Einstein’s seat he asked for his ticket.  And Dr. Einstein couldn’t find it and frantically began looking for it.

     The conductor said, “That’s OK. Dr. Einstein. We believe you have a ticket. That’s OK.”

     And as the conductor went on to punch the tickets of the next passengers he happened to look back and this time saw Albert Einstein now on his hands and knees of the train searching frantically for his train ticket.

     And the conductor went back to his seat and said, “Dr. Einstein.  Don’t worry about your ticket.  We all know who you are.  It’s really OK.”  

     And Dr. Einstein said, “But I still need that ticket because I don’t know where I’m going.”

     It’s important to know where we’re going as we seek to be ready to the end.

     Rev. Robert Lowry, 38 years old at the time, was the pastor of Hanson Place Baptist Church in NYC during that terrible period in 1864 when the plague was sweeping away multitudes of citizens.  When he wasn’t visiting church members who were ill, he was conducting funerals.

     One hot July day, Lowry himself was near collapse, exhausted, dispirited.  Reaching for a scrap of paper, he began composing a poem; then, at his organ, he composed the music for it.  It spoke of his hope to meet his suffering and dying parishioners in heaven, down by the River of Life.

     Just listen to the words of this hymn of faith:

     Shall we gather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod?  With its crystal tide forever. Flowing by the throne of God? Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the Beautiful, the beautiful river; Gather with the saints at the river.  That flows by the throne of God.

     God has promised that there will be a wonderful homecoming for those who have been faithful to Jesus Christ to the end.  For those who have received Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior, for those who are growing in their relationship with Christ, and for those who know that the Christian faith is a journey that leads to the beautiful river where all of God’s people will gather and rejoice together.

     John Maxwell relates the following experience in his book, Think On These Things.  He writes that he was awakened by a persistent knock on his motel room door at 3:45 A.M. It was the police! They were looking for a woman who had threatened to commit suicide.

     Sure enough, a young woman in a nearby room lay in desperation on a bed crying out to die.  Quickly the police held her down to the bed until her hands and feet were securely handcuffed.  For the next 45 minutes, he listened to her cry over and over again, “Please, let me die!  Let me alone!  Nobody cares! Nobody loves me!”

     The rest of that night John Maxwell thought about the desperation and the agony of that lonely young woman.  Somehow the message “I couldn’t care less” had echoed through the streets of Chicago until she felt compelled to reject life.

     And then he writes, “Just think how beautiful this world would be if this philosophy were replaced with Christian attitudes until people would begin saying, ‘I couldn’t care more.’”

     This story from John Maxwell motivates me to be ready to the end for Jesus.  Why?  Because I want to be one of those persons who tells others, “I couldn’t care more.”

     When Jesus tells us to keep our lamps burning and to be dressed ready for service, it means that we let the people around us know that, “We couldn’t care more.”

     We couldn’t care more.  That’s why we are going to give away water bottles to college students during move-in week later this month.

     We couldn’t care more.  That’s why this weekend, we will be having a Faith Builders church-wide training to help us build relationships and share our faith with people outside the church.

     We couldn’t care more.  That’s why our Athens First Saturday team meets each month to bless our community in several different ways.

     We couldn’t care more.  That’s why we provide meals for people in need through Monday Lunch each week throughout the year.

     We do what we do because we couldn’t care more and we want to be ready to the end.

License Plate Sightings: RED2DEN
Sermon Discussion Questions
Acts 11:1-18
August 11, 2019

During our summer sermon series on vanity license plate sightings, we’ve been asking people to share interesting ones they have seen. 

Have you seen an interesting vanity plate recently?

This week’s vanity license plate message is RED2DEN (Ready to thee end.) This is based on Jesus’ teaching from our Gospel of Luke reading where he tells his disciples to be dressed for action and have their lamps lit in anticipation of Christ’s second coming. Pastor Robert shared three ways for us to be RED2DEN. 1) Invite Jesus to be your Lord and Savior. 2) Grow in your relationship with Jesus. 3) Allow God to lead you into the future.

Why do you think these three things are important for us to be RED2DEN?

Christian author and speaker, John Maxwell offers this thought: “Just think how beautiful this world would be...if people would begin saying, ‘I couldn’t care more.”  This is a much better phrase than having the attitude of, “I couldn’t care less.”

Share one or two needs that you see in our community/world that leads you to say, “I couldn’t care more.” How are you offering God’s love to show that you “couldn’t care more?”

To help us be RED2DEN, think about where you want to be in your faith journey a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now, or at the end of your life.

How can you begin living out your faith to help you reach that preferred future?

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (August 4) Athens First UMC

[A member of the Korean UMC offered greetings at both of our worship services. They are celebrating their 30th anniversary as a congregation. They use our building for worship, prayer, bible study and fellowship and recently held a 3-day homecoming gathering in celebration of their anniversary. We enjoy our partnership with them! The pastoral prayer includes a recognition of our shared ministry with the Korean UMC. The prayer also mentions the tragic back to back mass shootings that occurred over the weekend in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. For the sermon on “License Plate Sightings: ENUF,” click here.]

O God, our prayer is exactly what we expressed just now in our hymn – “Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold. Take my intellect and use every power as thou shalt choose.”

Instead of building bigger barns O God, teach us how to build bigger hearts where we share your gifts with others and where we participate in the building of your kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Thank you, O God for big hearts that share your love with others. Like a family in our church who invited their Sunday School class members to their home this past week for a time of fellowship and sharing. Like one of our shut-ins who cannot attend church on Sundays, but is more than willing to sew festival of sharing bags in her home. Like a bunch of Methodists gathering yesterday morning to arrange flowers to give to residents of Lindley Inn. Like a Korean congregation celebrating 30 years of sharing your love with others here in our church. Thank you for all of these big hearts that share your many blessings with others, O God.

O God, teach us what it means to not store up treasures for ourselves, but to be rich toward you.

Gracious God, as we prepare to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, may the bread and the cup remind us of your big heart for the world; a world that is filled with so much violence, racism, division, fear, hopelessness, and inequity, a world that in just a matter of hours yesterday and earlier this morning, can have one mass shooting in El Paso, Texas and another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio. Our prayers are with the families of the 29 people who were killed in those two separate shootings, O God. 

We long for a world that instead of hate, is filled with love and  instead of fear, is filled with peace, the way you always intended it to be. 

We pray this in the name of Jesus who taught us to ask, seek, and knock and the door will be opened unto us. Open the door of peace in our violent world even as we pray together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sermon (August 4) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     We are following Jesus’ teachings from the Gospel of Luke for the next several weeks and today’s teaching is actually a parable that Jesus told about planning for our future retirement.

      You’ve probably seen those “now’s the time to prepare for retirement” commercials. I know there’s wisdom in saving and investing, but they can also add to our stress unintentionally. They can add stress to our lives where we already had enough stress.

     Bible scholar, Pete Enns describes these retirement commercials in a way in which many of us probably can relate.

     He writes how these investment commercials tend to use shame in getting us to join their investment company. Usually these commercials begin with a financial advisor and a client who appears to have “oodles of time to just hang out over coffee and review his or her investment portfolio from every imaginable angle.”

     The client is worried he or she won’t have enough money for retirement and the advisor shows how all the money that has been invested over the years has now tripled and by making a few changes here and there, they will be able to retire even earlier than expected.

     In referring to these commercials, Pete Enns says his one meeting with a financial advisor took on a much different tone, a more realistic tone for most of us. He says that his meeting went something like this:

     The financial advisor says, “Pete, Pete! Get up off the floor. It’s not all bad news. I project that if you get a second job, keep working until you’re ninety-seven, max out every year on every conceivable retirement plan known to humanity, and sell a kidney and one eye on the black market, you should be fine – assuming of course, that Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid and food stamps are still up and running. But just in case, swing by the office and let’s talk lottery strategies.”

     Of course, Pete was exaggerating in making this comparison but I think we get his point. Talking about money can be stressful on us, whether we have a lot of money or just enough to get by.

     Jesus told this parable because of an inheritance dispute. Yes, they happened in Jesus’ day, like they do today. Maybe that’s why the Bible speaks a lot about how our approach to money can get in the way of our relationship with God.

     Jesus knew that even thinking about money can cause anxiety. Most of the people who Jesus taught and healed were people who were barely making ends meet. Jesus knew that when your expenses are outpacing your income, that’s going to lead to a lot of stress in your life.

     But Jesus also knew that even if you have a lot of money, that can also lead to a different kind of stress, the stress of wanting to make even more money and where you always live thinking that you never have enough.

     This is why our vanity license plate message based on Jesus’ teaching on money today are the letters “E-N-U-F.” It’s part of our humanness to worry that we won’t have enough whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between. We never feel like we have enough.

     Now I don’t know exactly why someone in the crowd asked Jesus for his legal advice about a family dispute over an inheritance, but my guess is that they saw something in Jesus that they were missing – a sense of peace and contentment. And that’s ironic if you think about it because isn’t that what we think money should do for us? Give us peace and contentment?

     Maybe for a little while, but before too long, we are afraid we’re not going to have enough. 

     Instead of putting on his legal hat to answer someone’s question about how their family inheritance should divided up, Jesus takes a different approach. He gets at the root of the question by telling this parable about a man who had more crops than he knew where to store. His solution was to tear down his barns and build larger ones to store all the crops.

     If the parable would stop there, that would make all kinds of sense, wouldn’t it. That just sounds like being a good farmer, not wanting the extra harvest to go to waste.

     But the parable doesn’t end there. This farmer decides to retire and spend the money on himself. The problem was that he died that night and his abundance went to waste so nobody was able to enjoy his record harvest.

     It’s like Jesus is reminding us that money is meant to be a means to an end and not the end itself. The purpose of our portfolios, our savings and checking accounts, our harvests, and all that we have is so that we can multiply those gifts with the people around us. This is why Jesus’ teaching from our Gospel reading today concluded with Jesus saying, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.”

     Jesus’ kingdom is an alternative kingdom to what the world offers. Jesus’ kingdom is one where we share with others. It’s where we see our common humanity. It’s where all have plenty to eat. It’s where there is more than enough for all.

     Stephen King is the master author of scary stories and he has chillingly scared  movie audiences and readers. Some years ago he was the commencement speaker for Vassar College. On that day he tried not to scare the young graduates but challenge them to see that they had a window in their lives when they had the power to do good. 

     Two years prior to this speech, King had been severely injured in an accident where he was hit by a car as he walked on roadside. He refers to this accident in his speech:

     “A couple of years ago I  found out what “you can't take it with you” means. I found out while I was lying in a ditch at the side of a country road...on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life's simple backstage truths. We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we're just as broke. Warren Buffet?  Going to go out broke. Bill Gates? Going out broke... All the money you earn, all the stocks you buy.. all of that is mostly smoke and mirrors...So I want you to consider making your life one long gift to others. And why not? All you have is on loan, anyway. All that lasts is what you pass on... A life of giving-not just money, but time and spirit- repays. It helps us remember that we may be going out broke, but right now we're doing o.k. Right now we have the power to do great good for others and for ourselves. So I ask you to begin giving. Only yours to give for a short while.” 

     Stephen King's words were to Ivy League graduates who will probably earn lots of money.  His plea is applicable for all of us as we consider our possessions and their purposes.               
     Gary Moore is a financial consultant that helps Christians manage their finances.  He is asked often, “How much should I give? What should be the percentage/ perimeters?”

     He likes to smile and answer: “Well, that depends. How happy do you want to be?”

     I’ll tell you what makes me happy. It’s when as a pastor, I get to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion with you here in worship. My favorite thing as a pastor is when I watch you come forward to receive the bread and the cup.

     I can’t put into words the happiness I feel as we share in communion together. Rich/poor, employed/unemployed, old/young, long-time church member/new to the faith…we all come with open arms to celebrate NOT the treasures of the world, but the treasures of God’s overflowing grace so freely given to us by a loving God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And I realize in that moment, that I have more than enough. 

     Yeah, that’s what makes me happy. 

License Plate Sightings: ENUF
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 12:13-21
August 4, 2019

Jesus’ teaching in our scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke invites us to reflect on the question, “How can we know when we have “enough” stuff to help us live and enjoy our lives?” This is why this week’s vanity license plate is “ENUF.”

What helps you to know if you have “ENUF?”

Jesus tells a parable about a man who has everything he needs in life and yet it still wasn’t enough. Jesus called this man a “fool” for thinking that all of his possessions were meant only for him.

Why do you think that we somtetimes forget that our possessions and resources are meant to be shared with others and not kept to ourselves?

The sermon talked about the famous writer, Stephen King who gave a commencement address to the graduating class at Vassar College, known to be an elite school. In his address, King encouraged the graduates to think of their life as one long gift to others since we can’t take anything with us when we die.

In what ways can our lives be “one long gift to bless others?” 

Gary Moore is a financial consultant who is often asked by Christians, “How much should I give to my church?” He responds by asking them, “Well that depends on how happy you want to be?”

Why do you think that being generous by sharing our possessions with others leads to happiness?