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, November 25, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Nov. 24/Christ the King Sunday) Athens First UMC

[Athens First UMC is now ready for the beginning of our Advent Season which begins next Sunday. A big thank you to our congregation for taking time to decorate our chapel and sanctuary following Sunday’s worship services. Looks like some of our college students were on a mission to put up the sanctuary Christmas tree and they were successful. For the Sunday sermon, click here.]

King of kings, you who are seated at the right hand of God in heaven, remind us on this day and throughout this Thanksgiving week that your authority and power are rooted in your self-giving, sacrificial, and redeeming love for the world. As citizens of your kingdom here on earth, lead us to reflect your kingdom in all that we do.


Forgive us for those times when we have reflected an alternative kingdom that focuses more on power and privilege, rather than upon justice and mercy. You know how enticing these other kingdoms are to us and how often we confuse patriotism with our faith as if they are one and the same. 


We confess that we are often more passionate about a political party than we are about our own faith. Untangle us from our preoccupation with our personal political biases so that we can devote our full allegiance to your kingdom here on earth.


As citizens of your kingdom, we pray for the political leaders in our world and country. We pray that they would be guided by peace, freedom, justice, and compassion, especially for those who are most vulnerable and marginalized. King of kings and Lord of lords, may your freedom ring for all.


On this special Sunday, we are thankful for Jesus, our King. Thank you for reminding us that we are citizens of your kingdom through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thank you for your rule that is above all earthly rule. And thank you for blessing each one of us so that we can be a blessing to others. 


And now, hear our prayers as we seek your blessings upon those who are mourning the death of a loved one, those who are in need of your healing, those who are in need of hope, and those who are are in need of comfort.


We offer this pray in the name of Jesus our King, to whom be glory, majesty, power, and authority, and in whose name we pray your kingdom prayer…


“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Sermon (Nov. 24) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     As your pastor, I have some advice for you when you gather for Thanksgiving this week with family members you haven’t seen in a while. My pastoral advice is for you to interject your political thoughts into as many conversations as possible. Yes, you heard me right. Bring up the topic of politics whenever you get the chance. 

     Now, before you tune me out for the rest of the sermon, let me explain. By politics, I’m not talking about Republican vs. Democrat. I’m not talking about Fox News vs. CNN. I’m not talking about Sean Hannity vs. Anderson Cooper. And I’m not talking about our upcoming presidential election. I’m talking about a much larger perspective of politics that often gets ignored in our political conversations and it has nothing to do with blue vs. red.

     Today is known on the church calendar as “Christ the King Sunday.” Whenever you throw in the word, “king,” we’re talking politics, aren’t we? A king by definition is a supreme ruler, someone who has been given all authority to rule. 

     This is the title that the New Testament uses for Jesus. He is the king of kings. The word, “Christ” isn’t Jesus’ last name as many people think. Jesus’ didn’t have a last name. Like many Jewish people in Jesus’ day, he was known in reference to his father, “Jesus, Son of Joseph.” He also was known for where he was from, “Jesus of Nazareth.” 

     The word, “Christ” however, is referring to his title. Jesus, the Christ. Jesus, the King. The word, “Christ” is the Greek word for king and the Hebrew word for king is “Messiah.”

     And I never thought about this, but “Christ the King Sunday” is not the best way to refer to this Sunday on the church calendar. “Christ the King” is redundant, isn’t it? The title for this Sunday is taking the Greek word for King which is the word, “Christ,” and also using the English word for “King” so essentially this Sunday is mis-titled as “King the King Sunday,” which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

     As I’m thinking about this, it should be changed to “Jesus the King Sunday.” I’ve been in pastoral ministry for over thirty years, and I just noticed this as I was working on this sermon. Today should be known as “Jesus the King Sunday.” 

     One of the reasons this Sunday is on the church calendar is to remind us that our faith is political. There’s no way around it. Who is in charge of the world? Not a political party as we think of today, but “Jesus, the King” rules over the world. 

     This is such a deeply embedded understanding of who Jesus is that many of our hymns refer to Jesus in some fashion as king or as ruling over creation. Just listen to these hymn titles as a sampling:

     “All Praise to Thee, for Thou, O King Divine.” “Crown Him with many Crowns.” “Jesus Shall Reign.” “Majesty, Worship His Majesty.” “Rejoice the Lord is King.” “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven.”

     Hymn after hymn remind us that our faith is political. Jesus is King. Jesus rules over all creation. And so it’s impossible to separate our faith from politics since we refer to Jesus as the one and true king.

     But what kind of king is Jesus? And this is what makes today’s appointed Gospel reading for this special Sunday on the church calendar quite interesting. It’s the story of Jesus dying on the cross of all things. The true king over all creation doesn’t sit on a throne of gold. No, this king hangs from a cross in self-giving, sacrificial, and redeeming love for the world. 

     Self-giving, sacrificial, and redeeming are NOT the first words that come to mind when we think of our everyday political vocabulary. But really, that’s the way it’s always been whether in democracies like our own or in empires like the one that put Jesus on the cross. We think in terms of protecting our political ideologies, increasing our voter base, and doing whatever it takes to stay in power.

     Jesus operates under an entirely different set of rules that is rooted in God’s love for the world, a love that is willing to risk everything in order that all of creation might be redeemed and claimed by God. It was this love that led Jesus to take his place on a cross hanging between two thieves. And even as Jesus was hanging on a cross, he continued to show mercy.

     I was visiting someone up at one of the Columbus hospitals a couple of months ago. A hospital volunteer was taking me back to the pre-op area and she was wearing a red volunteer coat. A nurse came up to meet us and she was wearing a blue nursing uniform. 

     So I said to both of them, “Together, you are very patriotic!” And I said, “God bless America.” And the hospital volunteer obviously, not happy with the the state of politics in our country said, “Our country can use all the help it can get right now.”

     Her comment to me has led me to wonder why on one hand we can be so passionate about politics but on the other hand, it often leaves us so unsatisfied. I know of some people who are so set in their politics, that it is almost like a religion to them.

     I think this is why it’s very wise to not talk about that understanding of politics around the Thanksgiving table this Thursday, unless you really enjoy eating your turkey and mashed potatoes with lots of tension in the air. So, when I say to talk politics around the table, that’s not the kind of political talk that I’m referring. 

     The kind of politics I’m talking about is based on this Sunday on the church calendar where we celebrate and honor Jesus as King. This affirmation of faith is what helps you and me to be thankful people. Jesus, the King is the one who suffered, died, and rose again. Jesus, the true king over all creation offers the good news of self-giving, sacrificial and redeeming love for the world. That’s the political platform of Jesus, the King. That’s the kind of political talk that is at the heart of our faith.

    This political news is what leads me to having a grateful heart in this season of Thanksgiving. We offered this gratitude in the singing of our opening hymn referring to our King. “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation! O my soul, praise him, for he is thy health and salvation! All ye who hear, now to his temple draw near; join me in glad adoration.”

     If we must talk politics around the Thanksgiving table, let’s use this kind of political talk instead. The King of creation is our health and salvation. 

     This political news isn’t confined to the boundaries of a country. It’s not tied to a political party. It’s much bigger than that. It is the politics of a God who rules over all and whose reign is from coast to coast. All other authorities and powers are subject to this king of kings and lord of lords.

     One of the members of a church I served was a retired US congressman who had a distinguished career from 1967 to 1993. When I would go visit him at his home, I would always walk over to his stairway where he had pictures with him next to a US president. I remember one in particular with him standing next to LBJ.

     I had his funeral a couple of years after I got to know him. When I met with the family to prepare for the service, it was obvious that they were very proud of his work as one of the leading politicians in our country. 

     They specifically told me that he was known to do his best to respond to any mail that was sent to him.  And he would often tell his staff that they were not to worry about their politics as much as in meeting their needs.  And if they did anything less, they weren’t working for him anymore. It was refreshing to hear that he cared less about the politics of his constituents and more about meeting the needs of the people.

    His funeral reminded me that even in our country’s contentious political climate, there are examples of elected officials who truly do care about making a difference in our world. And I was so proud that he was a member of my church even though I wasn’t a member of his political party. 

    But it sounds like we shared the same politics of our Creator God who offers self-giving, sacrificial, and redeeming love for a broken and hurting world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

     I’m glad that Christ the King Sunday falls on this Sunday before Thanksgiving because it gives us the opportunity to be thankful for the King.

     One of my favorite prayers is an old thanksgiving prayer that I like to reflect on during this week of Thanksgiving. I love this prayer because it beautifully sums up the good news of our faith and why we are called to be thankful for our king. 

     Let’s pray together:

     Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Thankful for the King
Sermon Discussion Questions
Colossians 1:11-20 & Luke 23:33-43
November 24, 2019
“Christ the King Sunday” represents the last Sunday of the church calendar year, just before the beginning of the Advent Season. It’s a Sunday to reflect on what it means to refer to Jesus as the king over all creation. It’s a very political statement that we make whenever we proclaim Christ as the true king. It also reminds us that regardless of our political party affiliations, we as a people of faith have a much higher authority and allegiance, Jesus who is King of kings and Lord of lords. 
What does it means to you to call Jesus the King of kings?
It’s kind of surprising that for Christ the King Sunday, the Gospel reading is when Jesus was crucified on the cross. The Roman authorities placed the title, “king” above the cross to show the people who were citizens of the Roman Empire what happens to anyone who claims to be a king. The powerful statement that Luke is making is that Jesus’ throne isn’t like Caesar where he sits on a golden throne. Jesus’ throne is a cross where he rules over all creation through his self-giving, sacrificial, and redeeming love for the world. 
In what ways is Jesus the King calling us and the church to be citizens of his kingdom through his self-giving, sacrificial, and redeeming love for the world?
Pastor Robert shared the story of a US Congressman who was a member of his church. At his funeral, the family shared that he was known as someone who cared more for the needs of the people in his district than about their political party affiliation. He expected anyone who worked in his office to have that same mindset in putting people’s needs above politics.
What helps you to not label somebody as “conservative” or “liberal” and instead see them as people with whom God is calling us to serve and bless?
Since this is Thanksgiving week, reflect on this prayer to help us be thankful for our true King:
Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up our selves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Nov. 17) Athens First UMC

[As always, our Chancel Choir blessed us with two beautiful anthems. They tied in perfectly with our worship theme of living in two worlds at the same time. We live in the world of pain, brokenness, injustice and despair, but we also live in the world where God is making all things new. For the sermon, click hereThe anthem in the video above reminds us to keep reaching for God’s light in this world of so much darkness. We also held our annual “Thanks for Giving” church-wide covered dish following our worship services in honor of all of our many volunteers who serve through the church. See picture below.]

God of new beginnings, we are thankful that you can make all things new. You can take a cross, and turn it into an empty tomb. You can take a few fish and a couple loaves of bread and feed a multitude of hungry people. You can take a small gathering of people on a Sunday morning and send them out to be a blessing to the people in their community. O God, you really can make all things new.


Thank you for you many blessings and signs of your presence in our broken and hurting world. Thank you for the many people in our community who receive a meal through our weekly Monday Lunch ministry. Thank you for all the children and families who will receive Christmas presents through our Angel Tree ministry. 


Thank you for Sunday School teachers, ushers, greeters, choir members, bulletin folders, nursery workers, Honduras mission trip participants, Stephen Ministers, audio/visual helpers, college student lunch cooks, Athens First Saturday volunteers, and so many more ways that our church is seeking to live out the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of new heavens and a new earth.


Forgive us for those times when we become overly cynical and negative and for those times when we ignore the cries and pain of our world. Teach us what it means to live in two worlds at one time, the world that is filled with so much inequity, injustice, and hatred, but also a world that contains so much beauty, grace, and kindness. 


And thank you for the gift of prayer that keeps us connected with you especially during times when we face heartache, grief, broken dreams, criticism, and despair. And during this time of prayer, we lift up to you those who are on our hearts and minds who are in special need of you this day; those in the hospital, those recovering from surgery, those who are feeling lonely, those who are struggling financially. May the light of your grace shine upon each of these persons and situations they are facing.


And shine your grace upon each one of us that we would be open to the signs of your presence and goodness that are all around us. We pray this in the name of Jesus who invited us to pray for your world to become part of our world… “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Our annual “Thanks for Giving” volunteer appreciation meal was well attended. In addition to the wonderful Thanksgiving meal, we spent time thanking all of our volunteers who give of their time to help our church live out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. Thank you, volunteers!]

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sermon (Nov. 17) by Rev. Robert McDowell


    Over these past few months, it’s amazing to me how many people I know, who for various reasons need to live in two different communities. Mostly it’s because of a temporary job relocation where they need to live out of state while their families remain here in Athens. I would think it would be like living in two different worlds.

     I was thinking about this in planning for this Sunday because our scripture readings offer two very different worlds in which we are called to live everyday. On one hand, there’s the beautiful world described so poetically by the prophet Isaiah in which there is nothing but gladness, rejoicing, hope, and new life.

     And on the other hand, there’s the broken and hurting world as described so forcefully by Jesus in our Gospel reading where there is the reality of violence, war, natural calamities, and persecution. 

     If I asked you which world sounds more appealing, I would guess that you would be like me and choose the world described by Isaiah, the world that is completely filled with joy and gladness. But the reality is we live in both. We only need to hear the latest breaking news to be reminded that Jesus’ description of the world is all too true, sadly.

     This dichotomy of two worlds is also evident for those who like to travel. Tourist and vacation spots are often located in the wealthier areas of a community, but just across the bridge or across the tracks from where you’re staying, we would find unbelievable poverty and hopelessness. 

     In one of the churches I served, we would send a mission team to serve in the Bahamas each year. What can I say, except that we felt “called” to serve in a place which just so happens to have the most beautiful beaches in the world. 

     But all joking aside, Eleuthera Island where we sent our team each year not only has beautiful beaches but also very severe and unbelievable poverty. It’s an island that contains two very different worlds where the rich and famous live and where the poor and forgotten live side by side.

     Whenever people from our missions team would return from one of our trips, they didn’t focus on how blue the ocean was or how the Caribbean Sea was a welcome relief from the our cold and gray Ohio winters back home. Instead, they shared about the beautiful people they met in some of the most impoverished villages they had ever visited in their lifetimes.

     During one of our mission trips to the island, our guide took us to the Glass Window Bridge which is known as the most narrow land mass in the world. Only one hundred feet separate the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean on one side with the calmer waves of the Caribbean Sea on the other.

     Tim, who was one of the people who went on these mission trips to the Bahamas said to me as we were walking across that bridge, "Robert, I see a future sermon illustration with this bridge. Sometimes our faith and life can feel turbulent like this Atlantic side and other times it can feel peaceful like the Caribbean side."

     Tim’s insightful observation was a wonderful metaphor in describing the worlds we were experiencing during that mission trip on Eleuthera Island. We saw beauty and desperation side by side.

     But we don’t need to go to Eleuthera Island to live in two worlds. We live in two worlds right here where we live. In fact, there is probably no other place in Ohio that is more of a contrast than living in the city of Athens while also living in a county which is one of the poorest in the state, not to mention the entire nation. Friends, we live in two worlds all the time right here in southeast, Ohio.

     It’s not easy to live in two worlds simultaneously. And I think this is why we have these two very contrasting scripture images of the world next to each other in our scripture readings this morning. On one hand, we have Isaiah who paints this beautiful picture of how the world is meant to be where there is joy, and rejoicing, and abundance for all. That’s the calm and tranquil Caribbean side to borrow Tim’s metaphor. 

     And on the other hand, we have Jesus’ passage from Luke’s Gospel where there is destruction, brokenness, violence, and pain which is the turbulent and wave crashing Atlantic side to complete his metaphor. The truth is that we live to varying degrees in both worlds all of the time.

     From beginning to end, the Bible is constantly reminding us of these two worlds. The beauty that is all around us coupled with the hope and promise that one day God will make all things new runs alongside of the painful reality that this world often times feels like it’s going to hell in a hand basket. And depending on which side of the bed you wake up in the morning, you’ll end up seeing one more than the other.

     And so what do we do with this dilemma of having to live in two very different worlds? How do you NOT become extremely negative and cynical in this world but at the same time, not become na├»ve and reality denying.

     The scriptures are really, really awesome at keeping us grounded in both worlds. 

     And so, if you are one who tends to only see the world in rose colored glasses where we ignore the cries of the hungry, and the tears of the oppressed, and those who are marginalized, and those who are excluded in subtle and not so subtle ways based on age, race, gender, or sexual orientation, maybe Jesus’ words from our Gospel lesson are what we need to hear the most this morning. 

     Jesus is reminding us that working for peace and justice is unbelievably hard and excruciatingly painful. It’s not easy taking on the shape of someone else’s pain.

     But take heart, because Jesus says that if we take seriously the pain and brokenness of our world, God will be by our side as we suffer on behalf of others. Jesus is saying that even though there will be those who will not support you in making this world a better place for all and not just for a privileged majority, that not even a hair of your head will perish. Please don’t take that literally because just look at my hairline. 

     Or, conversely if you are one who tends to see the world only through doom and gloom lenses where there is no beauty anywhere to be seen, then maybe Isaiah’s words from our Old Testament reading need to take more prominence. Look for the beauty. Open your eyes to the possibilities. See God’s presence at work in the world. It’s there. You just have to be alert to see it. Be joyful, be glad! And without a doubt, in these days leading up to Thanksgiving, be thankful. Be grateful. Be aware of the blessings that are all around us.

     Don’t miss the rainbow after the storm. Listen to that song that makes you cry tears of joy every single time you hear it. Don’t miss God’s presence in the everyday moments of your life. Seek to bless others knowing that you are an important part of the building of God’s kingdom here on earth.

     This is where our II Thessalonians scripture reading says to us, “Don’t forget about me, because I have something to add to what the preacher is saying this morning. And it’s short and sweet. ‘Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.’”

     II Thessalonians is saying, that as we live in these two worlds every single day, don’t grow weary. See the good. See what needs to be changed and contribute to that change to help make this world a better place.

     Great words for us as we live between these contrasting worlds described by Isaiah and Jesus. “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

     God knows it’s not easy to live in two these two overlapping worlds; the calm Caribbean side of tranquility, peace, justice, equality, and harmony, contrasted by the Atlantic side of chaos, violence, destruction, oppression and death. We live in both. That’s just the way it is. It’s not easy, but God promises to be with us as we live in both these worlds.

     Perhaps one of our own members, Cathy Lee said it best in a Facebook post just before school began this past August when she offered these words, and I share these words with her permission. She writes…

     “I enjoyed my last weekday run this morning before my school year begins this Wednesday. As I was running, I thought about "place" and how we each are called to or at least find ourselves living in a particular place on this big Earth. I thought of the people in the village of La Boca in Honduras, where my church mission team visited this summer and last summer.  These lovely people love their families, raise their children, keep their modest homes as nice as possible, give thanks to their God and others, show hospitality to visitors, and work toward a bettering their village and their school for the present and the next generation. Each of them probably (although I didn't see it) also bickers with others at times, and has their share of dark moments...hopefully followed by new beginnings. They enjoy the beauty of the sunrise and sunset from their slice of the Earth.  I don't know that there's any better way to live, no matter our financial status, job status, level of education, or geographical location.”

     Cathy’s insightful words remind us that it is possible to live in these two worlds at the same time as difficult as it may seem. And what gives me hope in this crazy, hurting, confused and often violent world, comes from the very first verse that was read to us this morning from Isaiah, one that is meant to sustain us every single morning when we wake up to begin a new day. 

     He offers us this word of hope. Memorize it. Meditate on it. Hold on to these words for dear life, friends. And here it is. 

     When you feel that all hope is lost, more than anything, remember this…

     God is creating new heavens and a new earth. 

Living in Two Worlds
Sermon Discussion Questions
Isaiah 65:17-25; II Thessalonians 3:6-13; & Luke 21:5-19
November 17, 2019

Our Isaiah and Gospel readings offer two contrasting views of the world. In Isaiah, we are given a picture of God’s preferred future for the world which includes gladness, rejoicing, hope, and new life. In Luke Gospel, there is the reminder that are world is filled with violence, war, natural calamities, and persecution.

Where do you see the world as described by Jesus today?

Where do you see the world as described by Isaiah today?

Pastor Robert shared an illustration of how we as people of faith live in both of these worlds at the same time. The world’s most narrow land mass is what is known as the Glass Window Bridge located on Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas. On one side, you can look down and see the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean. On the other side, you can see the calm and peaceful Caribbean Sea.

What helps you to not be overly naive and ignore the pain and suffering in our world?

What helps you to not be overly negative and pessimistic and ignore the beauty and goodness in the world?

Our 3rd scripture reading from II Thessalonians helps us to live in both worlds by offering us these words, “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.”

What are some specific ways that we can do what is right in our community and world?

Since we are approaching Thanksgiving, spend some time in prayer thanking God for Isaiah’s picture of the world. Remember these words of hope from our Isaiah scripture reading: “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” 

Monday, November 4, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Nov. 3/All Saints Sunday) Athens First UMC

[All Saints' Sunday is the annual day on the church calendar where we remember those of the faith who have gone before us. We read six names of our members during the prayer time, lighting a candle and ringing a bell after the reading of each name. (See names below.) We also lighted a seventh candle in memory of others who have enriched our lives and helped us to become more like Christ. Notice in the picture above that the word "Alleluia" is conveniently below the seven candles. We sing, "Alleluia" for all of the saints who have gone before us and who are now with God in glory. Here is a link to the sermon.]


O God, we lift up to you these saints by name, who have faithfully lived and died:


We will light one more candle this morning. It is in loving remembrance of all others who have blessed us in so many caring ways. Thanks to their Christ-like example, we have a stronger faith and a closer walk with God. Let us remember with grateful hearts all those whom we have loved. Their lives brightened and changed this world. In this moment, we say their names silently in our hearts. 


God holds all of us in his great arms of mercy. Let us offer a prayer of thanksgiving for all the saints who have gone before us:


Almighty God, we thank you for all the saints who have faithfully lived and died and who are now with you in your glorious kingdom. We especially thank you for those we have just named and for how they have been a blessing in our lives. We also pray for family members who have made a special effort to be here in worship today to remember their loved ones. Remind us that you are our loving shepherd who comforts us, especially when we have heavy hearts.


Most of all, on this All Saints’ Sunday, we give you thanks for the good news of our faith that points us to a time when there will be no more mourning, sadness, pain or injustice, and where even death itself will be defeated once and for all. To you O God, be all honor, glory, dominion, and power, now and forevermore.


And now with confidence as the people of God, let us pray the prayer that Jesus taught us to say together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Sermon (Nov. 3/All Saints Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     I always find it interesting that people who are familiar with the church calendar will often say that they are always drawn to All Saints Sunday which we are observing today and Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the season of Lent.

     I think we are drawn to these two dates on the church calendar because they offer one of the rare opportunities in our culture where we are given the opportunity to grieve in helpful ways. Processing our grief is one of the healthiest things we can do.

     The more I think about it, the more I believe that we are always moving through some type of grief process. And many times, we are not even aware that we are grieving.

     A while back, a friend of mine knew that I wasn’t myself. And upon reflection of that observation I thought about some transitions that were happening in my life and I shared about these transitions with her. And her comment back to me surprised me a bit. She said, “It seems like you’re grieving.” And she was right. Thank God for friends who know us well enough to lovingly remind us that it’s OK for us to grieve. 

     Our Gospel reading this morning is often used for All Saints’ Sunday. I wonder if this is because of the beatitude where Jesus pronounces a blessing upon those who mourn. “Blessed are you who weep now,” Jesus says. “Blessed are you who weep.”

    When we read the names of people in our congregation who have passed away over this past year, we are thankful for their lives, but we also are reminded of the loss we have experienced in our lives. It’s a bitter-sweet Sunday.

     The same is true for Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of the season of Lent. Ashes are imposed on our foreheads and we are reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It’s a reminder of our mortality, but it’s also a reminder that the season of Lent will also lead to the good news of Easter and new life in Christ.

     All Saints’ Sunday and Ash Wednesday remind us that it’s important for us to grieve. Life has its joyous moments but it also includes its share of grieving moments.

     John James and Frank Cherry, in their book on grief recovery, trace the story of a boy named, Johnny. When five-year old Johny’s dog dies, Johnny is stunned, and he bursts out crying. His dog was his constant companion; it slept at the foot of bed. Now the dog is gone, and Johnny is broken up. 

     Johnny’s dad stammers a bit and says, “Uh, don’t feel bad, Johnny, we’ll get you a new dog Saturday.” In that one sentence, Johnny’s dad is really offering the first two steps in how some people deal with the reality of grief: Bury your feelings; replace your losses. Once you have the new dog you won’t even think about the old dog any more.

      Later when Johnny falls in love with a high school freshman girl, the world never looked brighter, until the break up. Suddenly a curtain covers the sun. Johnny’s heart is broken and he doesn’t know what to do. This is a person his heart was fixed on.

     Johnny is a wreck. But mom comes to offer the following advice which is basically just a worn-out and unthinking cliche, “Don’t feel bad, John, there are other fish in the sea.” Bury the pain, replace the loss. Johnny has steps one and two down pat now. He’ll use them the rest of his life.

     Much later, John’s grandfather dies—the one he fished with every summer and felt close to. A note was slipped to him in math class. He read the note and couldn’t fight off the tears. He broke down sobbing on his desk. The teacher felt uncomfortable about it and sent him off to the school office for him to grieve alone.

     When John’s father brought him home from school, John saw his mother weeping in the living room, and he wanted to embrace her and cry with her. But his dad said, “Don’t disturb her, John, she needs to be alone. She’ll be all right in a little while. Then the two of you can talk.”

     The third piece in the grieving puzzle was now making sense to John: Grieve alone. So he went to his room to cry alone, and he felt a deep sense of loneliness.

     Eventually he buried those feelings, and he replaced the sense of loss over his grandfather with a whole host of athletic involvements. He tried his best to function normally. But he found himself many months later constantly thinking about his grandpa: the fishing trips, the Christmas Eves, the birthdays.

     His preoccupation went on for months until he finally told his dad about it. His dad said, “John, give it time.” Translation: Time heals in and of itself. This became step four in John’s understanding of grief management.

     What has all of this taught John over the years? Bury your feelings, replace your losses, grieve alone, and give it time because time heals.

     Well, John gave it time and more time, but somehow he felt trapped in a cell of sadness. What made matters worse was that as he relived his relationship with his grandfather, he realized that he had never really thanked his grandpa for the fishing trips, the sack lunches, and the late afternoon swims when the fish weren’t biting.

     He had left so many things unsaid—even the big one: “I love you, Grandpa.” He didn’t get to say it. John said to himself, “What can I do about it now? I guess I’ll just live with regret the rest of my life.” That became the fifth piece in his approach to grief: If there’s unfinished business, plan to live with regret; there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

     As you can imagine, with all the trauma, John thinks to himself, “Close relationships expose me to the possibility of deep pain; therefore, the way to make sure that this kind of anguish is never experienced again is to keep an arm’s distance from any close involvement.” This is why he decided to put up a wall and never trust again. Don’t get so close to people that their absence could hurt you deeply.

     Maybe this is why Jesus felt it was so important to pronounce a blessing on those who mourn. He knows that grieving is a difficult process and we don’t always get the support we need.

     Someone shared with me the grieving process they were going through for a family member who was under hospice care.  And one of the things this person shared was that they were keeping a box of tissues close by when the tears would come.

     People who are in touch with their feelings and express them freely can begin the journey toward hope.  Jesus teaches us to feel free enough to grieve our losses—when we face the death of a loved one, and other losses as well: childhood traumas, parts of our past, health losses, relational losses, financial losses. Through his own tears, Jesus’ shows us that it’s OK to cry.

     A second way to grieve with hope is to not run away from the pain. Sometimes when people face grief, they think that they have to replace whatever they lost as soon as possible. 

     A seasoned grief counselor offers these words of wisdom for those who are going through grief.  She says, “Of course I tell them to feel their feelings. But then I also urge people to reduce radically the pace of their lives. I urge them to review their loss, talk about it openly, think about it thoroughly, write about it reflectively, and pray through it.”

     She continued, “It’s my experience that people want to run from their pain. They want to replace pain with another feeling as soon as they can. To recover from pain, you have to face it. You must stand in it and process it before it will dissipate. That’s God’s way.”

     To grieve with hope is also to grieve in community.

     The Bible has hundreds of texts urging the brokenhearted to band together with family and friends in order to grieve in community. Once again Jesus, when his upcoming death was looming large in his mind, grabbed Peter, James, and John, and he said, “Come to a quiet place with me. A loss is coming, and I need my closest friends with me. So pray with me, and hold me up.”

     Apparently Jesus-followers learned well to grieve in community, because after Jesus’ crucifixion, Christ’s followers were grieving together in community when the knock on the door came announcing the resurrection of Jesus on that first Easter Sunday. Grieving in community can bring both healing and bondedness. 

     One of the wonderful ministries of our church is Stephen Ministry which offers one to one peer support for people who are experiencing a time of transition and grief in their lives. Our Stephen Ministers have received extensive training to be good listeners and offer a safe space for people who need to talk.

     Our small group ministry is another way that we can find support from one another and know that there are people who care. 

     We aren’t meant to grieve in isolation.  We are to grieve in community.

     A fourth way to grieve with hope is to give to God our past regrets.

     The Bible offers an amazing word of hope and healing for people who have unfinished business with someone who won’t or can’t offer reconciliation. This word of hope and reconciliation is found in Romans 12:18, which says, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” 

     This verse teaches that we can finish our part of the unfinished business with anybody. Subsequently we can live without the nagging feeling that we won’t ever be able to bring closure to that relationship.

     I while back, I was reading about a father and a son who had a tension-filled relationship.  In the middle of all the hostility, his dad died of a heart attack. The sadness over all that unfinished business just about overwhelmed this man. A wise counselor challenged him to write a final letter to his dad in order to express the unexpressed and bring closure to the relationship.

     Writing that letter ended up being the most difficult assignment of his life. He wrote a 30-page letter, which he read word for word to his mom, and his brothers and sisters, in the presence of the counselor. He said, “When that was over, a weight was lifted that I had carried for almost a decade.” He made peace on his side of the relationship.

    God’s approach says we don’t have to carry a backpack of regret the rest of our lives. 

     And this fifth way to grieve with hope is to know that a day will come when there will be no more death, loss, or the need to grieve. Our Ephesians scripture passage this morning remind us to set our hope on Christ and the promise of redemption. God is a redeeming God! “Blessed are you who mourn.”

     The Christian hope has, and always will be, the sure and certain assurance that God’s kingdom of love and righteousness will one day fill this earth fully and completely when Jesus returns.

     Death and loss will not have the last word because of the good news of what God has done for us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

     And it is why Jesus can say, “Blessed are you who mourn.”

Blessed Are Those Who Mourn
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 6:20-31
September 8, 2019

All Saints Sunday, Ash Wednesday, and Holy Week are all days on the church calendar that invite us to grieve. Ash Wednesday invites us to grieve over our sins and our mortality. Holy Week invites us to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and death. And All Saints Sunday is when we remember those who have died and are no longer with us.

Why do you think grieving is important? What helps you to express your grief in a way that brings comfort to you?

Our main scripture focus for All Saints Sunday was Luke 6:21b where Jesus says, “Blessed are you who mourn for you shall be comforted.” Pastor Robert shared 5 important ways that our faith can lead us to grieve with hope. 

1. Be in touch with your feelings. Remember, feelings are facts. They are neither right or wrong. They just are.

What helps you to be in touch with your feelings and to honor your feelings that can lead you to grieve?

2. Don’t run away from the pain of grief.

How do you know when you’re running away from the pain of grief?

3. Open yourself to others you can trust and share with them about your grief. This might be a trusted friend, your small group, a Stephen Minister which is a ministry of our church that offers one to one confidential peer support.

Share a time when you opened yourself to others about your grief. Who are the trusted persons who can be by your side when you are grieving?

4. Give to God your past regrets. Sometimes, our grief relates to things from our past that we can’t change. Pastor Robert shared Romans 12:18 which says, “If it is possible, as so far it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” This verse reminds us that God only calls on us to control what we can control and to give unresolved issues over to God.

What unresolved issue continues to be painful for you? How can Romans 12:18 help you in receiving God’s peace in that situation that is beyond your control?

5. Remember that a time is coming when God will make all things new! This is the ultimate hope of our faith that one day all relationships, pain, brokenness, and grief will be fully healed. All Saints Sunday not only gives us the opportunity to grieve, but it also reminds us of this hope! This is why Jesus tells us in our Gospel reading for All Saints Sunday, “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”

What are some ways that you remind yourself of this ultimate hope of our faith? Worship? Scripture Reading? Prayer? Other?