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

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Sermon (Feb. 27/Ash Wednesday) Athens First UMC

     How long does it take to change?  There is a  popular  wellness book that proposes that within 10 days, if you follow the nutritional guidelines, you will see a noticeable difference in your body and well being. In just 10 days!  But how long does it take to change our souls?

     Within the  Christian tradition, the season of Lent is 6 weeks long, a season where personal change is desired and expected. Lent is linked to the 40 days that Jesus  spent in the desert wilderness where he considered the path of his life. He wrestled there with how he should live out his calling. The book Meditations on the Sand emphasizes Jesus' struggle and our struggle. Listen to this portion from the book:

     “One goes to the desert to see more and to see better. One goes to the desert especially to take a closer look at the things and people one would rather not see, to face situations one would rather avoid, to answer questions one would rather forget.”

     We come together on this Ash Wednesday to take a look at the condition of our hearts. We look inside and see that there are things not quite right, things that need restoring. If we were houses, we would be described as “fixer-uppers.” 

     Lent is an annual invitation to come closer to God, to look at ourselves honestly and believe that change is possible through Jesus. We grieve over what could have been, for what should have been done and wasn't. Lent gives us the chance to go in a different direction.  If we have closed the doors of our hearts, now is the time to let life in again.

     We come and receive the ashes which starts us out on our journey. We have six weeks not to continually berate ourselves over our sins or to be overwhelmed by guilt, but to be hopeful.  Even though we are still weeks away from signs of spring, we believe that this is a season of new spiritual growth, of starting over, of being refreshed. On this journey are destination is  the new life of Easter morning.

     Whatever concerns you today - whatever weighs heavy on your hearts - look forward to how God will help you with your problems, how God will help you to see what you need to do differently, what needs to end and what needs to begin. We are on a pilgrimage even though we are not leaving home. 

     A young couple walked the 500 mile trail which stretches across northern Spain  and is called the Camino de Santiago. This is an ancient road which pilgrims have followed for centuries with the goal of arriving at the Cathedral which honors the Apostle James.

     The couple wrote an article  for a travel site with advice for other walkers. I'd like to share with you some of their thoughts with some thoughts from me also:

     Keep a notebook. Invite you to answer this question on paper: “What needs to be changed within me?” Everyday, write down some conversation with God, your own personal prayer.   And be open to where this holy conversation might lead you.

     Get a stick. They were speaking of a hiking staff that is used for balance and stability.

     What could keep us anchored, keep us from falling? Scripture reading, prayer, fasting, silent reflection are just some examples of the things we will need for balance and stability along our pilgrimage. 

     Take ear plugs. They discovered how important this was after sleeping in a hostel with 60 other  tired people lying on their backs - bunks  close together. Noise level was pretty loud!        

     How can you enjoy  more quiet?  How can you listen to God, and hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit? How can you listen to your own heart?  What needs to be turned down, turned off?

     Pack light. In college, a friend of mine worked at a camp where she back-packed for 5 day trips.. They had to carry  everything that they needed and so they were very careful to have nothing but the bare essentials.  

     In checking, a young boy's pack seemed stuffed. He had his pillow, robe, slippers, books, candy. They had to convince him that all those things would just weigh him down.

     Is there anything that prevents you from loving God?  Would you be spiritually better off if something was gone or reduced in your life?

     Talk and listen and ask for advice from other walkers. They discovered how much they could help one another . Do you have a friend that you can talk with during Lent? A friend to pray with and share your fears/hopes?

     Join us for Sunday worship beginning this Lent as we join together in our study of the twelve disciples based on “The Last Supper” painting by Leonardo Da Vinci. The sermon discussion questions in our small groups will focus on each of these disciples following each week’s sermon. 

     We will also gather together during Holy Week for our Maundy Thursday service and we will experience a reenactment of the Last Supper. That famous Last Supper painting will come alive for us on that holy night.

     Remember to join the other hikers so that we can learn from each other during our pilgrimage of faith.

     And also keep in mind, that this walk is not a race. Dr. Ellsworth Kalas says that he flunks Lent every year because his good intentions don't last for 6 weeks. He still looks forward to Lent. “Heaven continues to call him to a higher life,”he says. He keeps stretching his soul for all that God promises even though it is not all accomplished in one season.

     On Ash Wednesday several years ago, two Episcopal priests  stood outside Duke University Hospital and offered ashes to those who were entering. Some people walked  by, and some  stopped to receive the sooty mark. 

     As a cross was put on their foreheads and a prayer was said, the pastor and stranger  reflected together on their sins and God's needed grace. In this busy hospital where life and death are often side by side, there was a recognition that Jesus was also present and he offers hope. A few moments in an ordinary day can be the beginning for new life.

     During Lent we have a chance to rewrite our stories with the power of God's spirit. I hope that I am not the same person tonight as I will be by Easter morning. I want to be restored. I want my faith to be stronger. I want to see others as God sees them. I want to be courageous in my sharing of God's love.

     What is your hope for this Lent?  As you receive the ashes, you are accepting God's invitation to come home. You are on your way to being made whole.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Feb. 24/Transfiguration Sunday) Athens First UMC

[On this Transfiguration Sunday, we included the congregation of Junction City Good Shepherd UMC in our pastoral prayer. This is one of our Foothills District churches. The building burnt down this past Tuesday. The cause of the fire is under investigation although local law enforcement has someone in custody. Our District Superintendent, Rev. Dennis Miller helped to lead their worship service at a local community center on this first Sunday following the fire. The church was built in 1875 and the letters on the front, “UB” refer to the “United Brethren” denomination which eventually merged into what is now known as the United Methodist Church. Please keep this congregation in your prayers. We specifically gave thanks that nobody was physically injured. Photo courtesy of NBC affiliate, WHIZ. For Sunday’s sermon, click here.]

O God, who is transcendent and wholly other, but who is also imminent and ever present, thank you for revealing yourself to us in so many surprising and timely ways. Thank you for those thin place moments where we are reminded that heaven and earth are closer than we can even imagine.


On this Transfiguration Sunday, we seek to be transfigured as we prepare to transition from these Sundays following the Epiphany and into the Season of Lent. Shine your light upon us. Keep us alert to where you are being made present to us. 


When you send us on an unfamiliar road, open our eyes to the slice of heaven that is suddenly all around us through the astonishing beauty of your creation or maybe as subtle as a butterfly landing gently on a grieving woman’s arm. O God, like Peter, James and John, help us to be alert to your transfiguration moments in our lives.


O God, we lift up to you the many needs that are on our hearts and minds today. We pray for those who are in need of healing. We pray for the congregation of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Junction City, one of our Foothills District churches whose church building burnt down this past week. We pray for them in this time of loss and are grateful that nobody was physically hurt by the fire. 


O God of transcendence and closeness, come near to us this day. May your dazzling light not only shine on the mountain top as it did for the disciples, but may it also shine upon your people when we share with each other in our small groups, when we begin our day in prayer, as we sing hymns during worship, in our conversations during the week, in making a new friend. O God of the transfiguration, come near to us this day and every day.


We pray this in the name of Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, the one who died and rose again for the sake of the world, and the one who teaches us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[The inside of the Junction City Good Shepherd UMC that burnt down this past week. Photo courtesy of NBC affiliate, WHIZ.]

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Sermon (Feb. 23/Transfiguration Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Our Gospel lesson from Matthew tells us about an extraordinary event that some of Jesus’ disciples were able to experience. While Jesus and three of his disciples were on the mountain, a bright cloud covered them. Jesus was transfigured so that his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.

     Moses, representing the law tradition, and Elijah, representing the prophetic tradition, appeared with Jesus. Then the disciples heard God’s voice tell them that Jesus was his beloved Son and that they should listen to him. The disciples were extremely frightened and fell on the ground. Jesus walked toward them, touched them, and told them to get up and not to be afraid.

     What do we make of a story like this? Do we find stories like this difficult to believe? Evidently, Peter, James, and John were caught off guard by it. It actually frightened them.

     This story of the transfiguration of Jesus raises the question about miracles. Do miracles like this really happen or was that just something that people in bible times believed?

     One summer, I noticed several billboards of a local church that invited people to their summer sermon series on the topic of miracles. The word, “miracle,” gets our attention.

     What do we make of miracles living in our post-modern 21st century world? What do they mean for us today?

     In his book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense,” former Anglican Bishop, NT Wright offers a very helpful story to help us think about the place of miracles in our own day and age. 

     He writes, “There was once a powerful dictator who ruled his country with an iron will. Every aspect of life was thought through and worked out according to a rational system. Nothing was left to chance.

     The dictator noticed that the water sources around the country were erratic and in some cases dangerous. There were thousands of springs of water, often in the middle of towns and cities. They could be useful, but sometimes they caused floods, sometimes they got polluted, and often they burst out in new places and damaged roads, fields, and houses.

     The dictator decided on a sensible, rational policy. The whole country, or at least every part where there was any suggestion of water, would be paved over with concrete so thick that no spring of waver could ever penetrate it. 

     The water that people needed would be brought to them by a complex system of pipes. Furthermore, the dictator decided, he would use the opportunity, while he was at it, to put into the water various chemicals that would make the people healthy. With the dictator controlling the supply, everyone would have what he decided they needed, and there wouldn’t be any more nuisance from unregulated springs.

     For many years the plan worked just fine. People got used to their water coming from the new system. It sometimes tasted a bit strange, and from time to time they would look back wistfully to the bubbling streams and fresh springs they used to enjoy.

     Some of the problems that people had formerly blamed on unregulated water hadn’t gone away. It turned out that the air was just polluted as the water had sometimes been, but the dictator wouldn’t, or didn’t, do much about that. But mostly the new system seemed efficient. People praised the dictator for his forward looking wisdom.

     A generation passed. All seemed to be well. Then, without warning, the springs that had gone on bubbling and sparkling beneath the solid concrete could no longer be contained. In a sudden explosion – a cross between a volcano and an earthquake – they burst through the concrete that people had come to take for granted.

     Muddy, dirty water shot into the air and rushed through the streets and into houses, shops, and factories. Roads were torn up; whole cities were in chaos. Some people were delighted: at last they could get water again without depending on The System. But the people who ran the official water pipes were at a loss: suddenly everyone had more than enough water, but it wasn’t pure and couldn’t be controlled.”

     NT Wright goes on to say that we in the Western world are the citizens of that country. The dictator is the philosophy that has shaped our world for the past two or more centuries, making most people materialists by default. And the water is what we today call “spirituality,” the hidden spring that bubbles up within human hearts and human societies.

     Even in our hyper scientific modern world, walk into any bookstore, and count the number of book shelves that contain books on spirituality. Evidently the waters of spirituality cannot be contained underneath the rock hard pavement of secularism. People know deep down that there is a mystery at work in the world, a mystery that leaves us speechless when heaven intersects our ordinary lives.

     We have heard people share bright light stories of how they had near death experiences in which they saw a bright light which brought them great comfort and peace and then they came back to life. Or maybe there are other dramatic and powerful stories that you have heard that defy explanation.

     While those once in a lifetime stories can be very meaningful, there are other bright light stories that happen to us all of the time in big and small ways. They happen to us in the course of our day to day activities and they remind us of that bubbling spring of water that runs through all of life.

     The Celtic Christians had a name for these moments when heaven and earth intersected in our day to day living. They referred to them as thin places. I like to refer to them as sacramental moments, those times when the sacred overlaps our time and space in beautiful and meaningful ways. 

     Where do you see God at work in your day to day living? What are those sacramental moments where God has been made present in a very real way for you?

    A little over a year ago, I drove about seven hours to attend the funeral of my ninety-four year old aunt. She represented the last family member of my parents’ generation. She was my dad’s sister-in-law. 

     Her death really impacted me because I when I would visit with her, she always had a story to share about our family that I had never heard. She was like our family historian and I loved to hear her stories about my parents and my other aunts and uncles. She was also a woman of great faith and I will always cherish those times that we got to pray together.

     As I started the long drive from southeast Ohio to attend her funeral in south central, Pennsylvania, I said a prayer in the car for God to give me a little sign of his presence in the midst of our sorrow. As I was driving through Maryland, my GPS wanted me to take a route that was different than what I normally take on my way back to see my family.

     It was near rush hour and instead of having me go into the Baltimore rush hour traffic, it wanted me to save time by turning north a little sooner. I debated in my mind if I should take this new route but I did since it said it was going to save my some driving time.

     Since this was a new route for me, I was still a little skeptical if I made the right decision. Instead of being on a highway, I was now on a two-land road. “I should have stayed on the highway,” I thought to myself. To make matters worse, it became a very curvy and hilly road. 

     Before too long, I was now in what seemed like a state park where I was now only going about 35 miles an hour and navigating through sharp curves. I was now regretting my decision.

     It was about that time, that the miracle happened. I suddenly realized that I was taking a route that was running alongside the Appalachian Trail. As I drove through this heavily forested area, it was one of the most scenic drives I had ever experienced. The fall leaves were unbelievably vibrant and the sun was so beautiful as it made those autumn colors become even more alive.

     And for what seemed like the next several miles, I was driving along a clear stream that meandered through that beautiful park. It was just unbelievably breathtaking. Honestly, it was like I was all of the sudden driving through heaven. 

     I started to think of Aunt Dot and wondered if this was what she was now experiencing in the heavenly realm. A smile came to my face when it finally dawned on me that this was the sign from God that I had prayed about several hours earlier when I left for the trip. 

     A peace flooded my soul as I continued on that drive. About a couple of minutes later, I found myself back on a highway that took me the rest of the way home. That portion of my unexpected detour was a thin place moment for me.

     God works in mysterious ways. There are transfiguration stories like this all around us. And like the disciples, we are reminded that heaven is a lot closer than we may think. 

     I shared this with you before, but it’s one of those stories that is worthy repeating. A couple of years ago, I officiated at the funeral of a young boy who died from cancer. A few months following the funeral, I needed to make some visits at the hospital. For some reason, instead of going my typical route, I went a different way to the hospital. 

     This route took me by the apartment of where this little boy used to live. As I was driving by, I noticed that his grandmother was sitting on the front steps of the house, and so I decided to pull over and see how she had been doing.

     This grandmother was so glad to see me. With tears in her eyes, she said that a little later that morning, she would be going to the cemetery to watch them place the headstone for her grandson’s grave. 

     Together, we shared a few stories about her grandson, how he had a great sense of humor and how he showed so much faith in facing his death. We laughed and we cried as we sat together on those front steps of her apartment.

     And then the strangest thing happened that I will never forget. As this grandmother was sharing a story with me, a butterfly landed on her arm. We both became silent and then we looked at each other in disbelief. 

     Before this little boy had died, he told us that God would send us butterflies to let us know that he was with God and that everything was all right. After a few moments of silence, we looked at each other and started laughing. And then we prayed together, right there on those front steps, thanking God for sending us that butterfly at just the right moment.

     I don’t know what you make of stories like this. All I know is that it felt like one of those thin places where heaven and earth overlapped in a very mysterious way. It was a holy moment that I will never forget.

     Our small groups are designed to give each other the opportunity to share our Thin Place moments with each other. They remind us like we said in our opening prayer that God is constantly reaching out to us with his transforming love. 

     These transfiguration stories remind us that the bubbling stream of God’s presence has been under our feet all along. There is no pavement that can contain it. It springs up when we least expect it.

     And the good news is that they are happening all around us in any given moment.

Stories of Transfiguration
Sermon Discussion Questions
Exodus 24:12-18 & Matthew 17:1-9
February 23, 2020

Transfiguration Sunday is when we remember when Jesus was transfigured and his clothes became dazzling white. This happened in front of some of his disciples on the mountain. It was a very unusual experience where Moses and Elijah who lived centuries before Jesus appeared alongside him. The disciples could hear a voice from heaven confirming that Jesus is God’s beloved Son. This story is an example of what we have been calling, “Thin Place Moments” where heaven and earth overlap in our ordinary lives in surprising and beautiful ways.
Share a “Thin Place Moment” that has happened to you where you felt God’s presence in a very real way. When did you recognize it as a “Thin Place Moment?”
During the sermon, Pastor Robert shared the story of a funeral he did for a little boy several years ago. A couple of weeks after the funeral, he was driving through a part of town he normally didn’t drive and spotted the grandmother of this little boy sitting on her front porch steps. He sensed that God was wanting him to pull over and see how she was doing since the funeral. She shared with him that it was a tough day because she missed her grandson so much. It was just then that a butterfly landed on her arm and her eyes lit up and said that her grandson had told her before he died that he would send her a butterfly to cheer her up whenever she felt sad. It was in that moment that the grandmother and Pastor Robert knew they were experiencing a “thin place moment.”
What helps you to recognize “Thin Place Moments” in your day to day living? Why do you think that we are more open to recognizing them than at other times?
Why is it helpful to share “Thin Place Moments” with others? In what ways are you blessed by hearing someone’s “Thin Place Moments?”
NT Wright, a prolific New Testament scholar and theologian claims that our modern western rationalistic/scientific world is often biased against signs of spirituality in our everyday lives.
Do you agree? Why do you think this is true or not true? 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Feb. 16) Athens First UMC

[Sunday was the 2nd week in a row that we hosted one of our church’s partner groups. For this Sunday, it was Kappa Phi, an Ohio University Christian sorority group that holds their meetings and events in our church. They served as greeters, led parts of the worships service and offered special music. You may know them best for their awesome Sunday baked potato and chili fundraiser meals. For the sermon, click hereWe also celebrated the baptism of Elizabeth Bruno, daughter of Alex and Tony Bruno. See picture below. Yes, you can say that it was another special Sunday at Athens First UMC!]

God of love, may today be our best offering ever as we offer to you our hearts that are filled with love, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, and goodness. And where we fall short in this offering to you, we trust in your grace to help us be the people you are calling us to be.


Thank you for Jesus’ teachings that make us think, that lead us to seek reconciliation, and that prompt us to grow in a deeper relationship with you. May this be our offering to you today. We give to you our hearts.


On this Presidents’ Day weekend, we pray for our President. Fill him with the love of truth and righteousness, and make him ever mindful of his calling to serve the people in humility.


We lift up to you those who are on our hearts and minds this morning; those who are recovering from surgery and illness, those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, those who are seeking reconciliation in a relationship, those who feel separated from you, and those who can’t wait for Spring to come. 


We also celebrate this afternoon’s baptism of Elizabeth Ann Bruno, infant daughter of Alex and Tony Bruno. We pray for all who attend that service that we would surround Elizabeth with a community of love and support. 


And we are so grateful for our Kappa Phi sisters in Christ who bless our church and our community in so many ways. Thank you for their presence here with us this morning.


O God, as we prepare to receive our morning offering, may we offer our gifts to Jesus and his love that is so amazing and so divine.


We join together in praying the prayer that he taught us to say together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Tony and Alex Bruno with their daughter, Elizabeth Ann who was baptized this Sunday. We surrounded Elizabeth with a community of love and support.]

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Sermon (Feb. 16) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     One of the parts of a worship service that rarely gets the attention it deserves is the offering. Rarely do you hear someone say after church, “Wow, the way we collected the offering this morning was especially meaningful to me.”

     “Hey, you should come to our church on a Sunday morning and check out how we receive the offering. Very impressive!!”

     The truth is that our ushers really do an amazing job. They know what they’re doing and I don’t take them for granted. If for some reason our entire ushering crew would take a Sunday off, it wouldn’t be that easy to replace them. Have you noticed that they have a method to how they distribute the offering plates. They have it down to a science.

     Here’s a picture of one of our ushering crews one Sunday. Don’t they look great! They look like they know what they’re doing! So, join me in giving a hand to our ushering team. Let’s show them our love. 

     We often take their work for granted and we take the offering time in the service for granted. But did you know that our church made the local news one Sunday because of our offering? 

     Sixty-two years ago this month, back in February of 1958, our church held the first Sunday worship service in this building. A fire had destroyed the previous church building three years earlier and on Sunday, February 9, 1958, the long, anticipated first worship service in the new building was held.

     The newspaper reported on this grand event and one of the highlights of that newspaper article was that there were so many people who attended that first worship service that we needed forty ushers to collect the offering that morning. Forty ushers!

     We usually have four ushers but can you imagine forty ushers?? That’s a pastor’s dream!!

     And so, our church was made famous by how many ushers we needed one Sunday morning to receive the offering. It impressed the local reporters, anyway.

     The reason I’m so focused on how we take the offering for granted is because it seems like Jesus doesn’t want us to take our Sunday morning offering for granted either.  He says in our Gospel reading for this morning that when you are about to offer your gift at the altar and you think about a broken relationship that you have with someone, to not offer your gift until you first go and seek reconciliation with that person.

     I’ve always struggled with this scripture reading and who doesn’t struggle with the Sermon on the Mount teachings in general. These are hard, hard teachings to follow. Jesus is setting the bar really high in these teachings.

     If you are familiar with the Sermon on the Mount, what Jesus is doing here is that he is taking those ancient commandments of Moses like don’t murder and do not steal, and he’s saying, that it’s not just about not killing somebody or taking something from somebody. It’s about out attitudes toward others. It’s about doing all we can to seek reconciliation with the other person. That’s the hard part about living out our faith. It’s in our attitudes toward others and not just our actions.

     You have heard people say, “Now, preacher, don’t go meddl’n or stepp’n on my toes in the sermon this morn’n. Don’t make me feel uncomfortable.” In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is meddl’n. He’s stepp’n on our toes. And he is making us feel uncomfortable. He is raising the standard on what it means to live out our faith. It’s about our actions and our attitudes.

     And we hear this all the time. One of the reasons why people don’t go to church is because they see how some Christians behave and treat others outside of Sunday morning.

     A pastor was telling me about a church member who was speaking negatively about another church member and often times it was in front of people during church meetings. I asked him how he handled this and he said that he had gone to her and told her that what she was saying was inappropriate, but she kept on doing it.

     So he prayed some more about it and he decided to approach her again, but this time with a slightly different theological twist. Instead of just telling her to stop doing it, this time he said, “Alice, as the pastor of this church, I will not permit you to speak negatively about another brother or sister in Christ.”

     By referring to the other person as a brother or sister in Christ, this church member was able to start thinking about her attitudes about this person through the eyes of faith and not just based on her perceptions of this person. 

     In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is calling for us to not just obey the ancient commandments of Moses but to also obey through the eyes of faith which leads to our attitudes toward other people.

     Following Jesus involves religious practices like putting an offering in an offering plate, but it also involves how we live out our faith in our relationships with others. 

     And so the best offering ever really wasn’t that Sunday morning, sixty-two years ago when forty ushers collected the morning offering. The best offering ever is when we offer our gifts, not to earn God’s love, not to just go through the motions of worship, and not without any thought of how we treat other people, but to always offer our gifts in the spirit of Christ.

     Maybe this is why the Apostle Paul says in II Corinthians that God loves a cheerful giver. Cheerful giving is when we offer our gifts through the eyes of faith and in the spirit of Christ. Cheerful giving is when we see our whole lives as an offering to God. Our offering isn’t just about a bank transaction. It’s about a spiritual transaction involving our attitudes and our hearts.

     Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teachings are about inviting us to offer not just our money, not just our time, and not just our resources, but it’s about offering our lives and all of who we are to Christ. The offering time in worship is just a small symbol of that larger perspective. The offering time of worship is always an invitation for us to offer ourselves and not just our gifts to Christ.

     In one of the churches I pastored, a church member stopped by my office at the church during my first week there. He had called to say that he would be stopping by at some point.

     I’ll never forget this. He came into my office, introduced himself, and said “I just stopped by today to offer a prayer for you as you begin as our new pastor.” 

     And there in my office, he put his hand on my shoulder and offered this beautiful, beautiful, and encouraging prayer on my behalf. After he said, “Amen,” he welcomed me again to the church and before I knew it, he was out the door.

     I would soon discover what an incredible person of faith he was. He just did simple things like that, very unassuming, where he offered himself and always blessed others with his presence. He was a living offering for God.

     A favorite hymn of mine is “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” And I love the verse in that hymn that beautifully says,

     “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

     There’s a story about this hymn that involves one of the most prominent Christian leaders of the first half of the 20th century, William Temple who was the Anglican Bishop in England during World War II. His whole life was an offering to God as he worked to provide relief for Jewish refugees from Naziism.

     He once led a revival at one of the churches in England and he led the people in singing the hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” 

     There are four verses of that hymn and he led the congregation in singing the first three verses. And when it became time to sing the last verse, he momentarily stopped the music and he said to the people, “Now, if you mean this next verse with all your heart, I want you to sing them as loud as you can. If you don’t mean them at all, keep silent. If you mean them even a little but want to mean them more, sing them very softly.”

     When the organ started to play the fourth and final verse of that hymn, just imagine two thousand voices in that massive cathedral whispering in humility and reverence…

     “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

     It is said that of those who attended that service, that holy experience was never forgotten. Whenever we offer our gifts to God in humility, in faith, and in the spirit of Jesus, those are always the most special moments. 

     Our ushers are unsung heroes who by simply passing the plates pew by pew are giving us the opportunity to offer not just our gifts, but our very lives once again to Christ. And they remind us that we offer our gifts in response to “love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, and my all.”

     That is always the best offering we can ever give.

The Best Offering Ever
Sermon Discussion Questions
Matthew 5:21-37
February 16, 2020

Pastor Robert shared that sixty-two years ago on February 9, 1958, our church held its first worship service in our current building. The previous building was destroyed by a fire three years earlier. A local newspaper article covering that special Sunday service noted that there were so many people in attendance that we needed to have forty ushers to collect the offering! Most churches only need to have 2 to 4 ushers each Sunday!
What do you think about during the offering time of the service? If you are an usher, what does this role mean to you?
Jesus highlights the importance of our offerings in our Gospel reading today from the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us that when we are going to offer our gifts to God and we realize that we have a broken relationship with someone to first go to that person and seek reconciliation and then come back and offer our gift.
Why do you think that Jesus connects our offerings to God with the importance of being reconciled to others?
In his teachings from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is emphasizing our attitudes as well as our behaviors. Jesus is wanting us to have the eyes of faith in all that we do which means seeing others as children of God. The Apostle Paul reminds us to be “cheerful givers.” Pastor Robert defines a cheerful giver as “giving our gifts through the eyes of faith and in the spirit of Christ.”
What does it mean for you to have the eyes of faith in the spirit of Christ?
The lyrics of our church hymns often remind us to offer our gifts through the eyes of faith and in the spirit of Christ. For example, the last verse of the hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” says, “Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
What does this verse from the hymn mean to you?

Monday, February 10, 2020

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Feb. 9) Athens First UMC

[We enjoyed hosting scout troupe #71 and their families for Scout Sunday. They assisted in leading parts of the service. This was also the 100th anniversary of the United Methodist Church’s affiliation with scouts. We appreciate all they do in our church and community! For more scout worship photos, see below and for the  sermon, click here.]

O God, this is a prayer for someone who is going through a time of darkness in their life, someone who is growing tired of these grey and dreary winter days, someone who is struggling with an addiction, someone who is facing a health problem, someone whose doubt makes it difficult to even say a prayer, someone who is fed up with our politicians, someone who is at odds with the teachings of their own denomination, someone who doesn’t even want to get out of bed in the morning because of all of the negative news in our world.


This is a prayer for someone, someone like us, someone like me.


In this dark time of year, we clutch onto Isaiah’s promise that your light will break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quickly. We cling to Jesus’ words that we are the light of the world. O God, help us to be the light we want to see in our world.


Help us to be your light in the way that we care for the needs of others. Help us to be your light in how we live out our faith. Help us to be your light in sharing with others how you have made a difference in our lives. Help our scouts be your light in the way that they serve you and their country. Help us to be the light we want to see in our world. Just as the darkness gathers around a glowing candle, we gather around you, for you are the light of the world.


O God, you say that as we allow our light to shine in the way we care for others that your light shall rise in the darkness. May your church be a candlestick burning brightly through all that we do and say. It wasn’t that long ago that we raised our candles in this darkened sanctuary on Christmas Eve. It was a beautiful display of what a difference we can make if we all lift our lights together.


And so, we turn to you, O God to once again receive your light so that we might be your light that shines brightly in any place where darkness is bringing despair, hopelessness, pain, or brokenness. May each one of us contribute to the repair of the world by shining your light. We pray this in the name of the light of the world, Jesus who taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Sermon (Feb. 9) by Rev. Robert McDowell

    This is that time of year when many of us are so ready for spring to come. Nothing against the month of February, but I can’t think of a more depressing weather month on the church calendar. 

     There was a day last February that for me won the award for the yuckiest possible weather day you can possibly have. It was on February 11th and I posted a picture of the weather that day on Facebook. Here’s the photo…

     It was when I was backing out of my drive way. I put this caption under the picture which stated: “I am nominating this day for the worst weather day of the year award. 

     The sky was as gray as it could possibly be. During the couple of days leading up to that day, we had almost every single weather alert known to humanity. One day, there was a snow alert. Another day there was a fog alert. Then there was a freezing rain alert. The shorter days, the gray skies, and the brutal winter weather are enough to make even the most positive thinking person want to crawl back into bed. 

     The only redeeming quality of this gray month of the year is that when that first 65 degree and sunny spring day finally does arrive, there is this unbelievable euphoric happiness that emerges. Everyone heads to the lawn and garden center. Neighbors begins to speak to each other for the first time since December. The world is made new again. What a difference light makes in our world.

     So much of the Bible describes a world that is filled with gray February type days. Take for example our Old Testament reading. The people of Israel at the time of this writing were living in exile. Torn from their homes and their familiar way of life, they were living during a time of great darkness. 

     They had lost hope even though they were still God’s people. They wondered if they would ever be able to return to their homeland. At least we have a calendar that tells us that spring is coming. That at least reminds us that better days are ahead. 

     The Israelites were in such despair that their gloomy situation led them to take out their frustrations on each other. They took on kind of a survival mode where their focus turned inward rather than outward. They became so absorbed with their plight, that they had forgotten to be who God had called them to be, a living witness of God’s love in a dark and hurting world even if that world is filled with gray and dreary skies.

     This is what happens to a people who lose hope. We can become so absorbed with all of the bad news in the world, that we either refuse to watch the evening news, kind of like crawling back into bed, or we can become cynical and negative in our attitudes with the people around us including with the people who are closest to us. And it can become this vicious cycle of negativity.

     This is why God has an important word of hope to speak to the people through the Prophet Isaiah. In our scripture reading, Isaiah is reminding the people to put their focus back on serving God and others and to spend less time wallowing in all that’s wrong with the world. Be the light that you want to see in the world.

     Maybe that’s why during this gray month of February, verse 10 really jumps out at me. Isaiah tells the people who are living in darkness that their “light shall rise in the darkness and their gloom will be like the noonday.”

     Like someone who encourages me during this time of year by saying, “I know it’s still February and football is officially over, but just one month from now, we will get to spring forward and we’ll have an extra hour of daylight. Hang in there! The light is going to shine!”

     Or in other words, Isaiah is telling the people of Israel to “be the light they want to see.” What does it mean to be the light you want to see? It means caring for the needs of others. It means blessing others through serving. It means having our outward religious expressions like attending worship and reading the Bible match how we treat others and care for the needs of people in need.

     But in the meantime, Isaiah reminds God’s people of what they can do to have a little sunshine even during their very dark time of exile. He tells them to serve others and to seek justice. He also tells them to not just go through the motions of their religious activities but to instead be humble and to open their hearts to God. “Be the light you want to see.” 

     Isaiah couldn’t change the fact that they were living in exile and away from their homes, but he was able to remind them to not give up on being who God had called them to be, a people who God formed to be his people and to be a blessing to others, a people who were called to shine God’s light no matter how dark the days may appear.

     Several centuries later, Jesus said something very similar to a people who were also living during a dark time. They too were wondering when God would deliver them from Roman occupation. They too were wondering when God might send them a King who would reestablish them as God’s people.

     And so, in this famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells a crowd of discouraged people these words of great hope, “You are the light of the world. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

     Jesus was echoing some of the same thoughts as Isaiah did centuries before him. As you wait for light, remember that you are the light, so shine your light before others. Be the light you want to see. 

     There is a Jewish phrase, Tikkun Olam which means the “repair of the world.” The idea behind this is that if we each allow the divine light from creation to shine in the world, the world can be made new again. 

     As people of faith, we are called to participate in Tikkun Olam, the repair of the world by shining God’s light wherever there is the darkness of injustice, inequality, and hopelessness. 

     We know all too well about the darkness. Alcohol and drug addictions can be like this great big gray cloud hovering over our communities. Two Ohio University professors, Dr. Dan Skinner and Dr. Berkeley Franz recently wrote a book about the Opioid crisis. Since the mid 1990s, almost 400,000 people have died from opioid overdoses, almost as many American soldiers who died during World War II. 

    But there are also many signs of hope as communities are beginning to come together to surround people who are facing these addictions. I think of the six AA meetings that happen on a weekly basis here in our church. Providing space for these meetings is a way that we are being the light that we want to see. 

     “The light shall rise in the darkness,” Isaiah tells the people.

     We also know all too well about the problem of food insecurity here in southeast, Ohio. We often feel powerless. The darkness is so great that we can easily lose hope. 

     But there are also signs of hope like when a Heisman award winner briefly mentions the extreme poverty rate that exists in his home area in southeast Ohio which then leads to people from all over the country donating over 500,000 thousand dollars to our Athens County Food Pantry. 

    Every Monday at noon here in our church, the light rises in the darkness as we serve an average of 110 hot meals every single week to the people of our community. 

     “You are the light of the world,” Jesus tells us.

     A couple of months ago, a clergy colleague, Rev. Ed Stallworth shared a powerful story of how one of his older church members continues to shine the light in her congregation.

     He says how he has been pastoring his current church for the past five years. And some of his members are now thinking that he will be moving soon and they are even starting to lament and dream of what the future holds. He told them that’s not how it works, and that there’s not a set time line in the United Methodist Church for how long a pastor stays, but his church has experienced short pastorates over the past several years so they have been a little concerned now that he reached the five year mark.  

     He went on to say that during a recent Sunday morning, a 94-year-old woman in his church kind of startled him by saying, “When you leave, I hope we get a woman pastor. And if my time comes, and you know I love you, I want HER to do my funeral.” He asked her why? Of course out of pastoral courtesy, he would want the new pastor to lead the service, but he was still curious as to why she would make such a statement. 

     She then explained that she, at one time, wanted to be a pastor herself but was told that she could never be one. She then told him how she has worked hard to change minds, encouraged support of women being pastors, and finished by saying, “When my funeral happens, I want to be in heaven watching, point to the preacher doing my funeral and say, ‘I helped make that happen.’”

     But she wasn’t finished. She then told him that she also hopes that the next pastor will be a gay woman pastor but at 94, she isn’t going to hold her breath and she will have to leave that work for him to do. 

     The woman’s friend who was sitting next to her in the pew as she was telling him all of this scoffed and shook her head in disgust.

    After sharing this story, this pastor concluded by saying, “I love my church.”

    I can relate to what this pastor is saying because I don’t know what my family would have done without the caring and loving support of our home pastor when my dad died several years ago. She was amazing! And I have been blessed to work with so many gifted and talented woman pastors in my years of ministry. 

     And as we approach this May’s General Conference being held in Minneapolis, Minnesota, my prayer is that our denomination will finally change our stance on LGBTQ issues so that people who are called by God and have the gifts and graces and qualifications to be a pastor will one day be ordained in the United Methodist Church. And I hope that day comes sooner rather than later.

     It was almost a year ago when the General Conference had a special meeting in St. Louis and failed to find a way forward. The skies seemed even grayer this time last year when that vote was taken. But that dark time for our denomination led me to become even more intentional in shining the light of God’s welcome and love for all people. Sometimes our light becomes even brighter the darker it gets.

     Isaiah has a word for us in this gray/slushy/freezing rain/raw time of year. “Your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom will be like the noonday.” Jesus reminds us that we are the light of the world. Let your light shine.

     Let’s keep being the light we want to see. 

Be the Light You Want to See
Sermon Discussion Questions
Isaiah 58:1-9a & Matthew 5:13-20
February 9, 2020

During the time of our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, the people of Israel were living during a time of great darkness and despair. God’s people were still in exile and during this time of darkness, they became inwardly focused and had forgotten who God had called them to be.
Share a time when you were living in a time of darkness and despair. How did that experience shape your view of God?
The Prophet Isaiah spoke a word of hope in the midst of the people’s exile and darkness. He proclaims, “light shall rise in the darkness and their gloom will be like the noonday.”
Has anyone offered a word of hope to help you get through a difficult time in your life? What did they do or say that gave you the hope you needed? When have you offered hope for someone who was going through a time of darkness? What did you do or say?
In our Gospel reading, Jesus reminds us that we are the light of the world. Keep in mind that the people to which he was speaking were also living during a dark time under the rule of the Roman Empire. During Jesus’ day, the people were longing for a coming Messiah who would free Israel and set up God’s long awaited kingdom. Even though the people were living under oppression, it was like Jesus was telling them to not wait in being the light, but to be the light that they want to see.
In what ways is God calling you/the church to be the light that we want to see in the world? What helps you to be the light that you want to see?

Pastor Robert shared the story of a male clergy colleague who was told by one of his elderly parishioners, that she wanted a female pastor to do her funeral. Even though she loved her current pastor, this was her way of supporting women pastors who have often been unfairly treated simply because of their gender. Currently, the United Methodist Church is torn over the issue of equal rights for the LGBTQ community at it pertains to ordained ministry and marriage equality. The upcoming May UMC General Conference meeting will focus on these issues again.

In what ways can we be the light that we want to see in the world especially for people who often feel marginalized in our society?