A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

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

Monday, August 31, 2020

Sermon (August 30) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Don’t tell anyone, but I’m sneaking Psalm 23 into our Psummer of Psalms series. This is actually not the designated Psalm reading for this Sunday of the year, but today seemed like the best day to include it.

     Psalm 23 is the appointed Psalm reading during the spring on what is called “Good Shepherd” Sunday. On that Sunday, Psalm 23 is paired with the Gospel reading for that day which is where Jesus says that he is the good shepherd who cares for his sheep. 

     I just had to include this psalm during this series because it is a favorite psalm for many of us. We have often seen this psalm as a peaceful psalm with it’s image of still waters and green pastures, but it’s actually more of a psalm about protection and security. The psalmist is writing this psalm with danger close at hand.

     We can divide the psalm into two main sections. And by the way, this is a very short psalm, just six verses long. 

     The first section, verses one through three, give us the beautiful image of the Lord as our shepherd. The psalmist tells us that this shepherd is able to lead us, restore us and provide for us even in the darkest situations we face in life because he is never far away.

     Notice how the psalmist shifts from facing the threat of the valley of the shadow of death, also translated as “darkest valleys” to a more positive image of a banquet! That shift happens in verse five. “You prepare a table before me.” 

     And by the way, it’s so hard for me to not say this phrase the way the King James Version beautifully states. “Thou preparest a table before me.”

     This psalm which begins with the image of a shepherd and a pasture moves into a different image of being in a house that includes a banquet. It’s like the psalmist is saying, “Yes, God is present with us when we are out in the open space of green pastures, but our truest security is when we are in God’s house for worship.” This is the place of ultimate security for this psalmist. 

     I’ve been thinking about this a lot in preparing for this Sunday since we have been away from our physical house of worship for the past several months. So many of you have shared with me how our online worship services have helped you to sense that security during this time of physical separation from one another. Whether we are here in our sanctuary or watching on a computer while still wearing our pajamas, weekly worship has a way of offering a sense of peace and security.

     Another aspect of this psalm that I find interesting is that this image of the Lord as our shepherd is actually a frequent image throughout the psalms. I counted seven other psalms that describe God as our shepherd.

     Psalm 28 says, “O save your people, and bless your heritage; be their shepherd, and carry them forever.”

     Psalm 77 says, “You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”

     Psalm 78 says, “Then he led out his people like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock.”

     Psalm 79 says, “Then we your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever.”

     Psalm 80 says, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!”

     Psalm 95 says, “For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.”

     Psalm 100 says, “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”

     Psalm 23 reminds us that the Lord, our shepherd will provide for all our needs, will give us rest when we get tired, and will guide and protect us along our journey in life. I love how the psalmist also emphasizes that the Lord, our shepherd is also our gracious host by preparing a feast for us that includes an overflowing cup. 

     This is an image that reminds us of God’s amazing grace. God’s grace is overflowing and abundant, like a great banquet spread of plenty of food and drink. We have more than we can possibly need because the Lord is our shepherd.

     The other powerful part of this psalm is in how it concludes. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”

     The thought here is that the enemies and the threat of danger that are pursuing the psalmist, are no longer a cause for fear because of God’s protection and overflowing blessings. And I love the very creative way the psalm concludes by saying that instead of enemies following him, the psalmist can look back and instead see “goodness and mercy” chasing after him. 

     I had an Old Testament professor tell us in seminary that a better phrase than our translation that says, “goodness and mercy shall follow” would be the phrase, “goodness and mercy shall CHASE me.” 

     What a powerful theological thought from this Psalmist. God’s goodness and mercy is chasing us down. This idea of God’s loving chasing after us is at the center of John Wesley’s understanding of grace in how in any given moment, God’s grace is being extended to every single person. 

     Even when we have no thought of God, God is still reaching out to us and pursuing us with goodness and mercy. And all we need to do is to be open to receive God’s grace. And this grace never runs out. Our cup is always overflowing.

     One of the ways the coronavirus has been described is that it is an invisible enemy. As I think about that way of describing this virus, I also think about other invisible enemies we face from time to time, invisible enemies like fear of the future and things from our past that still haunt us.     

     Our invisible enemy might be our own self-doubts and unnecessary worry that keeps us awake at night. Like the psalmist, we too can have our share of visible as well as invisible enemies. The good news that the psalmist wants us to know is that as we face these enemies, take heart. The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want.

     About ten years ago at a church I was serving, I officiated for the funeral of an elderly church member. She didn’t have a lot of surviving family members, but her brother who drove up from South Carolina met me at the church to help me prepare for the funeral service.

     He was really nice and told me a lot about his sister. And then I asked him if there was any particular scripture that he wanted me to read during the service. And he said to me, “Yes, my favorite scripture is Psalm 23. I’d like you to read that during the service. It has special meaning for me.” And so I asked him what he liked about this psalm, and he told me the most amazing story.

     He said that he was in his hotel room in Philadelphia many, many years ago. He said that he couldn’t get to sleep because he was feeling very nervous and anxious that night. He said that he opened the nightstand drawer in his hotel room and found a bible. He opened it to Psalm 23 and after he read it, it really helped him to feel at peace and he was able to get to get a full night of sleep so he was ready to go in the morning. 

     But he wasn’t done with his story. He said that the reason he was nervous was because he was the starting pitcher for a baseball game the next day. And he said that he ended up pitching one of his best games he ever pitched. He said that they beat the Philadelphia Phillies and he was able to strike out Richie Ashburn to help win the game.

     And it was at that point when I said, “Excuse me? What did you say? You were a major league pitcher?”

    To make a long story short, I discovered that I was talking to Jim Waugh who was a starting pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950’s. He grew up in Lancaster, Ohio. And he told me that he had the record for being the youngest pitcher to win a game for the Pittsburgh Pirates when he was just 18 years old.  Joe Garagiola was the catcher for that game. And he said that’s why Psalm 23 has so much meaning for him. It helped him to know that the Lord was his shepherd and he didn’t have anything to fear. 

     Just one month after that funeral for his sister, I read the sad news that Jim also passed away down at his home in South Carolina. The Lancaster newspaper had a nice article about his life and career. While the article focused on his life as a Major League Baseball player, I will remember him more as someone who learned to trust in the Lord as his shepherd, and who came across this psalm one night in his hotel room many years ago.

     This psalm reminds us that enemies, both visible and invisible may chase after us, but they are no match for God’s goodness and mercy that pursue us all the days of our lives. We can always find our security in the Lord who is our shepherd. He is the one who leads us to green pastures, still waters, and a banquet table filled with all that we need. 

     When you are feeling the anxiety of beginning a new year of school, remember that the Lord is your shepherd. When you are anxious about what the future may hold, remember that the Lord is your shepherd. When you find yourself all alone in a hotel room and you just can’t get to sleep, remember that the Lord is your shepherd. When a virus continues to cause fear and uncertainty, remember that the Lord is your shepherd.

     When one of my uncles died several years ago, my family asked me to read this Psalm during the funeral service which was held in northern Maryland near where he lived. My uncle was a farmer all his life and that small country church was packed with other farmers and their families. I began reading this Psalm like I usually do, using the King James Version which is the common way this psalm is read and the way most of us have learned it.

     And so I started reading it, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” 

     And I just stopped reading it after that first line because I realized in that moment that Uncle Bill’s whole life was about spending time in green pastures on his farm. I think people were wondering if I was OK because I just stood there for a few moments thinking about that line from Uncle Bill’s perspective

     I say this because maybe we need to take our time whenever we read this short psalm. Even if we know it by heart, read it like you are reading, or I should say, praying it for the very first time.

     And as you pray this psalm and savor each verse, may God’s goodness and mercy chase after you all the days of your life and may you dwell in he house of the Lord for ever.

A Psummer of Psalms: Psalm 23
Sermon Discussion Questions
Psalm 23
August 30, 2020 

Psalm 23 is considered by many to be their favorite psalm. It’s only six verses but it offers very rich imagery in describing how the Lord is our shepherd.

What do you appreciate most about this psalm? How has it helped you to have a deeper prayer life?

Psalm 23 can be divided in two sections. The 1st section, verses 1-3 describe the Lord who as our shepherd, leads, guides and protects us even through the “darkest valleys.” The 2nd section, verses 4-6 uses the image of a banquet and how God’s abundant goodness and mercy are always following after us. The psalm is categorized as a psalm of protection because it mentions the threat of “enemies.”

What are some “enemies” that we face from time to time? (Enemies do not necessarily need to refer to human enemies.) How has God protected you from enemies?

Pastor Robert shared a story of someone who said how Psalm 23 helped him in facing the invisible enemy of his own self-doubts and anxiety. He stumbled upon Psalm 23 one night before bed, read it, and he was able to get a good night’s sleep, knowing that the Lord would lead and guide him through a challenge he was facing the next day.

What are some ways that you keep the Bible and psalms like this close by when you are facing an anxious and challenging time in your life? 

Sometimes, it can be helpful when reading a psalm, to pause at phrase or verse that is speaking to you in that moment, and reflect on how God is reaching out to you as a loving shepherd.

Go ahead and read Psalm 23, pausing wherever you sense God is speaking to you the most.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Online Worship (August 30) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our (August 30) online worship!
Athens First UMC!
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

Monday, August 24, 2020

Sermon (August 23) by Rev. Robert McDowell

   Today’s featured psalm, Psalm 124 is the third “psalm of ascent” that we have looked at during our summer series on the Psalms. This psalm, along with thirteen other “psalms of ascent” were the hymns that would have been sung by the Jewish people during their long festival pilgrimages to the city of Jerusalem three times each year.

     These psalms not only helped to make the time go faster, the lyrics of these songs also reminded them of God’s faithfulness and would have helped them to remember the reason why they were making this long pilgrimage which was to gather from all parts of the world and worship together. 

     Notice that Psalm 124 is a very communal psalm. It calls upon Israel to recount God’s faithfulness and the psalm ends with that powerful verse that proclaims, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” “Our help,” not just “my help.”

     In addition to this being one of Israel’s traveling psalms, it has also been known as a psalm of thanksgiving. It is known as a psalm of thanksgiving because it begins by talking about an event in the past in which Israel had been threatened by an enemy. It then goes on to celebrate how God saved them from their time of trouble, helping them to escape.

     This is why this psalm is paired with our Exodus scripture reading for this morning. Our Exodus reading is the story of how the new king of Egypt started to oppress the Jewish people because they were becoming too numerous. We are told that Pharaoh became increasingly ruthless in how he treated them and forced them to do hard labor.

     The Pharaoh went so far as to instruct the Egyptian midwives who helped the Hebrew women who were giving birth to kill all the newborn male children at birth. But as we are told in our Exodus scripture reading, the midwives feared God and did not do as they were commanded. They spared the Hebrew newborns.

     And this leads to the story of how Moses was spared when the daughter of Pharaoh noticed a basket in the river containing a baby and she saved the child. This is how our Exodus scripture reading ends, but we know that Moses would be the one God would use to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land.

     As I said, this story about Moses is paired with our Psalm reading for today because the Psalm begins by saying if it had not been the Lord who was on our side, we wouldn’t have been saved. But this Psalm isn’t only about that big event when the Lord called upon Moses to deliver his people from Egypt into the Promised Land. This psalm could refer to many other events as well. And it can also speak to us on a more personal level in how God has rescued us from times of adversity.

     Which brings me to this thought about the Psalms and any scripture reading for that matter. When we approach any scripture passage, I think its helpful for us to remember two things. The first thing is to think about what that scripture reading meant in its original context to the people who first heard it. And the second thing that I think is important is to think about how God might be using this text to speak to us.

     So when we read Psalm 124, it’s good to keep in mind that this psalm is probably thinking about Moses and the Exodus story or maybe even another story in which Israel was threatened by a surrounding enemy, maybe a situation that happened to them well after they made it into the Promised Land. That’s why bible study is so important. We need to think of what was in the mind of the Psalmist when he or she was writing these words.

     But it’s also important for us to realize that the scriptures are a living word and is an important way in how God communicates with us today. And in the case of Psalm 124, it’s good to ask ourselves, what challenges and adversities have I faced in my life that have led me to say like the Psalmist, “If it had not been the Lord who was on my side…” And you fill in the blank from there.

     This is how the Psalms, ancient as they are can still speak to us today, where we first think what they most likely meant in their original context and how they might speak to our own day and age. That approach to the Bible helps us to not take the scriptures out of context and it also reminds us that God has a word for us today as well.

         How would you fill in that first line of this psalm? “If it had not been the Lord who was on my side…I don’t know how I would have made it through college.” 

     “If it had not been the Lord who was on my side…I don’t know how our church would have remained strong during a global pandemic.” 

     “If it had not been the Lord who was on my side…I don’t know how I would have cared for my elderly mother.”

     “If it had not been the Lord who was on my side…I don’t know how I would have made it through the divorce.”

     “If it had not been the Lord who was on my side…I don’t know how I would have survived my job loss.”

     What comes to mind when you think about completing that sentence which is really a statement of faith?

     This is how we make the psalms our prayers. We respect what it might have meant to the original author and then we allow that psalm to become our prayer as well.

     Several years ago, I was standing with my associate pastor in a hallway of one of the top floors of Dayton Children’s Hospital. We were there to visit a family in our church whose young child was there as a patient.

     As we were waiting to go into the hospital room to make our pastoral visit, my associate pastor was standing over by the large window that was overlooking the city of Dayton. And he was staring out that window. I said, “Mark, everything OK?”

     He said, “This was the same window I was looking out about 18 years ago when our daughter was a month old.”

     He went on to tell me that when she was a month old, she developed a really high fever and couldn’t keep any formula down, so they took her to Children’s Hospital. They took tests and discovered that when she was born, her organs were not in the right places. She was now experiencing a bad infection from all of this. They needed to do a risky surgery because she was just a month old. 

     And my friend said that when they took his baby into surgery, he went by that window where he was now standing to call his parents to  give them an update. And as he was on the phone with his parents, that’s when he experienced a God moment, or what we call, a “thin place” moment.

     As he was looking out that window on that cold February day, he noticed the beautiful Ukrainian Church there in the city of Dayton. And just then in that moment, the sun came out and hit the gold cross of that steeple in such a way that it was breathtaking. He felt God’s presence in such a powerful way. He said, it was in that moment that he knew that Allie would be OK.

     And then he said that during the surgery, his wife stayed in the room while he went down to the cafeteria to get something to eat. And while his wife was in the room, a little girl who was a patient came into the room with a balloon on a stick. She handed it to her and said, “You’re baby will be OK.”

      Their baby made it through the surgery and recovered completely. When my friend and his wife went to look for that little girl who had brought them the balloon, they couldn’t find her. His wife to this day believes that that little girl was sent from God just for her.

     It was this incredible challenge that led my friend and his wife to begin attending church again. They joined the United Methodist Church in their neighborhood and it was through that church that my friend ended up receiving a calling to go into the pastoral ministry. 

     To add one more detail to the story, I had the honor of officiating at his daughter’s wedding several years later and our families stay in touch.

     If it had not been for the Lord who opened up the skies to shine upon that Ukrainian church steeple and who sent that little girl with a balloon into the room, and who used the skills of that surgeon…they would probably not have been led to a deeper faith and trust in God.

     No wonder my friend was looking out that window that day there at Children’s Hospital. He was remembering how the Lord was by their side during a very challenging time in their lives. I don’t know what was going through his mind in that moment. But my guess is that it had some kind of connection with how Psalm 124 concludes. 

     “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”

     I love how the Psalmists invite us to look back on our lives so we can remember how God got us through some troubling times. That’s what helps us to face new challenges. We look back and see how God has guided us through the storms and the floods that we have experienced.

     Whether it would be starting a new semester. Learning new ways of adapting to the coronavirus. Beginning a new job. Facing a medical challenge. Experiencing stress in a relationship. Being fearful of the future. These are all challenges we face from time to time. 

     Psalm 124 might be a prayer for you. Remember the story of Moses and how God rescued his people from slavery and led them into the Promised Land. Look out that window and remember how the sun lit up that church steeple at just the right time. Remember the little girl who gave you the balloon and said, “everything’s going to be alright.”

     And remember, whatever you may be facing, our help is in the name of the Lord. 
     A Psummer of Psalms: Psalm 124
Sermon Discussion Questions
Exodus 1:8-2:10 & Psalm 124
August 23, 2020 

Psalm 124 is known as a “psalm of ascent.” These psalms were used by the Israelites when they made the long journey from their homes three times a year to celebrate religious festivals in Jerusalem. Notice that Psalm 124 is a communal psalm. The psalmist says, “Our help is in the name of the Lord.”

What helps you to remember that our faith isn’t just about our personal relationship with God? How do other Christians remind you that “our” help is in the name of the Lord?

The psalm is paired with our Genesis scripture reading which describes the time when Pharaoh sought to have all the male Hebrew children killed. Thanks to the daughter of Pharaoh, one of those Hebrew children who would eventually lead the Hebrews out of slavery was spared. Psalm 124 invites us to reflect on times when God has rescued us and helped us overcome a difficult challenge we were facing.

Share a time when the Lord helped you through a difficult challenge you were facing. 

Pastor Robert shared the story of his friend who’s one month baby needed surgery several years ago. He and his wife weren’t church goers at the time, but they still prayed for their little girl. They ended up experiencing God’s presence during that very difficult time through several “thin place” moments at the hospital. Their baby ended up having successful surgery. That experience led them to start attending a United Methodist Church in their neighborhood and they continue to grow in their faith.

Share a “thin place” moment where you experienced God’s presence.

How would you complete this first part of the psalmist’s prayer? “If it had not been the Lord who was on our side...”

Close by offering this prayer of thanksgiving: 

Maker of heaven and earth, we come today from different places along our faith journey. Some of us are feeling settled and secure while others are facing fear and uncertainty. Thank you for this place of haven and peace where all are welcome here. Forgive us for those times when we have not turned to you in times of need and for when we have forgotten to give you thanks and praise for guiding us through the storms of life. Today, we join the Psalmist in exclaiming, “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Amen.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Online Worship (August 23) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our (August 23) online worship!
Athens First UMC!
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Monday, August 17, 2020

Sermon (August 16) by Rev. Robert McDowell

    Last Sunday, we focused on Psalm 105 which feels like it goes on forever because it summarizes Israel’s early history with story after story. That psalm needs to feel long because it is reminding us of how God has been faithful in the past. 

     But just like sermons, not every psalm needs to feel long or go on and on, like for example, today’s psalm, Psalm 133. Psalm 133 only has three verses compared to last Sunday’s psalm that had 45 verses.

     Of the 150 psalms, Psalm 133 is one of only three psalms that has three verses. Trivia question time: Which psalm has the shortest number of verses? Psalm 117 which only has two verses. 

     So why is Psalm 133 so short? I think it has something to do with it being one of the psalms of ascent. Three  weeks ago, we were introduced to a psalm of ascent, Psalm 128. Psalms of ascent were known as psalms you would sing as you were making the long journey from wherever you live up the long slope toward the city of Jerusalem where the Jewish Temple was located to attend one of the 3 big religious festivals. Those pilgrims would literally ascend for many miles during their long journey before finally arriving into the city. 

     People would have traveled together during those long journeys and the singing of these psalms of ascent was a way for people to not just fill the time, but to remind them where they were headed, Zion, the beautiful city of God. One of our hymns in the hymnal, in fact the very last hymn is a modern day hymn of ascent called, “We’re marching to Zion.” That’s an example of a hymn where the lyrics help you to feel like you are on a journey.

     Psalm 133 is one of fourteen of these psalms of ascent that we find in the Book of Psalms. And by the way, all fourteen of these psalms of ascent are grouped together from psalm 120 to psalm 134.

      The reason the people would sing this psalm during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is because of two reasons. First of all, it refers to Jerusalem which was the location of the Temple where all of Israel was called to worship during three annual festivals.

     And secondly, this psalm focuses on the goodness and blessings of people living together in unity. This would have been an important focus for those singing pilgrims because the people of Israel were divided into several different tribes scattered throughout the Middle East region. 

     Even though they shared the same religious faith, the Jewish faith, they also represented many different cultures and customs, so there would have been a lot of differences between them. This psalm of ascent as it would have been sung over and over again served as a great reminder of what they had in common in spite of their differences which was their faith and trust in the Lord. So this Psalm in particular was a way to remind the people that together, they were God’s people.

     In the back of our hymnal, you will find a big section called, The Psalter. These are several psalms that appear in our weekly scripture readings that are accompanied by a short refrain that is sung in between the responsive readings. Some of those refrains are taken from familiar hymns while others were composed by church musicians. 

     The lyrics of those sung refrains reflect the theme of each psalm. For our Psalm today, Psalm 133, the words of the refrain are, “Unite us, Lord, unite us us by your everlasting love.” When the Israelites sung this psalm on their long journey to Jerusalem, they were celebrating their unity as God’s people. 

     Whenever I ask church musicians what they appreciate most about church music, they will often say to me that it is what brings people together. I think that’s what I love the most about church music as well. Whenever I hear an anthem, it’s such a beautiful thing to hear several people singing as one.

     That’s why choirs meet every week to rehearse an upcoming anthem. They are perfecting the art of blending their voices and instruments together as an offering to God. And those who listen to the anthem are drawn into that sense of unity and togetherness.

     So let’s look at the three verses of this Psalm to see how the Psalmist helps us to celebrate our unity as God’s people. The first verse might sound familiar because it is so beautifully stated. There are several colleges that use this as their school motto by the way. Just listen to this beautiful phrasing:

     “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.”

     And the last two verses of the Psalm offer us an image to help us celebrate that unity which need a little unpacking. The psalmist prays, “It is like the precious oil on the head running down the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.”

     I must admit that at first glance, this image does nothing for me. In fact, the thought of oil dripping down someone’s beard makes me not want to be anywhere near that person, quite frankly.

     But this image is referring specifically to the time when Aaron was anointed by his brother Moses to be a High Priest during the time when Israel was being formed as God’s people. Perhaps this psalmist is thinking about the unity of these brothers, Moses and Aaron as they in turn, helped to unify the people. And just as the anointing oil was poured on Aaron’s head and flowed down over his robe, so too, God’s blessings flow down over us forming us into a community of God’s people.

     And in the last verse, the Psalmist compares the oil that flows down upon us to the morning dew of Hermon, which was located many miles north of Jerusalem. The overflowing dew of Hermon is even able to reach Zion, the city of Jerusalem, the Psalmist tells us.

       Hermon was known for its plentiful rain, hence the dew image, and Jerusalem was known to be more arid and located in a dry area of Israel. And so, the image is that the dew of God’s blessings reach as far south as Zion, the city of Jerusalem. The oil and the dew are  powerful ways of describing how God’s blessings extend far and wide covering God’s people and making us one.

     When explained this way, I’m not as grossed out at the thought of oil dripping from a man’s beard, although I think I like the dew image of God’s blessings much better. But that might just be me.

     Whichever image you go with, the important thing about this psalm is that we are called to celebrate God’s overflowing blessings that extend beyond what we think is possible to include all people. We are all within reach of God’s goodness and blessings, even if we feel that we are too far south for God to find us. You can never be beyond God’s reach, even when a congregation is unable to worship together in person.

     God’s blessings and sense of unity continue to be present with us during this challenging time. During the first few weeks in not being able to worship in person together, many of you reminded me that God was still with us as a church.

     I love these pictures from this past spring that some of you shared. Here’s one where the Boger family worshiped together in their living room.

     Here’s one where the Lee family celebrated Holy Communion at their kitchen table during one of our online worship services.

     Here’s one where one of the Eckelberry children used their dog as a pillow as they watched our online children’s moments.

     Kay Taylor took gift bags and encouragement cards to the residents of assisted living facilities.

     For Palm Sunday, Wendy Merb-Brown led a Palm Sunday processional parade in her neighborhood which included several other of our church members. The families who participated kept to the six feet social distancing guideline. They couldn’t find any palm branches at the store so they improvised by using forsythia branches.

         Our Stephen Ministers made phone calls to the people listed in our church directory just to see how they were doing and to offer prayers over the phone.

     People are volunteering to give additional offerings to the church to help us stay financially strong since we are unable to gather in person for worship..

     Our staff is finding creative ways to work remotely and tackle some projects that normally don’t get done when the church is so busy with weekly events. Our Growing Tree preschool teachers offered online teaching moments with the Growing Tree families when they weren’t able to be together here at the church. 

     Mindy, our custodian has been waxing our church floors, and doing some much needed painting.

      Our maintenance director, Dan Inman is getting a lot of projects done in and around the building.

     Our Leadership Board has been holding online Zoom meetings to help us stay in communication of any needs in the church. 

      Our Trustees team has been really busy by adding new thermostat controls in the rooms of our church, adding new security doors for our Growing Tree preschool hallway, repairing our church steeple, and adding a camera to record worship services in our sanctuary.

           Vicki and Jed Butcher continued to receive and send out prayer requests from the congregation. And by the way, every time I receive an email prayer notice from them, it makes my heart glad to know that we are still connected as a congregation through the power of prayer.

     And the good news is that these creative ways of staying connected and unified as a church continue to be a blessing. 

     I could go on with more examples of how we are staying connected and unified as a church but these are some of the stories that come to my mind when I reflect on Psalm 133, our psalm for today.

     The dew of Mount Herman didn’t stop when it reached several miles south to the city of Jerusalem. It has been making its way into each of our homes during this time of physical separation. God’s blessings have been running down Aaron’s beard and they keep flowing, covering each one of us. I believe we are becoming an even more unified church because of this very challenging time.

     These blessings go beyond our shinier floors and fancy new thermostat controls. We are receiving so much more. We are discovering how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity, even during a global pandemic.

     And for however long it takes, we will continue to sing this psalm, this song of ascent that reminds us that we are still God’s people.

A Psummer of Psalms: Psalm 133
Sermon Discussion Questions
Genesis 45:1-15Psalm 133
August 16, 2020 

Psalm 133 is known as a “psalm of ascent” because it is one of fourteen psalms that were used by Jewish pilgrims who attended three large holy festivals in the city of Jerusalem (Zion) each year.

Do you ever find yourself singing a hymn while out traveling? How does this “singing/humming while traveling” strengthen your faith?

Psalm 133 has two focuses which include 1) a focus on Jerusalem (Zion) where the Temple was located. 2) the goodness and beauty when God’s people are unified.This would have been important since Jewish families from the surrounding Middle East region representing different cultures would need to be reminded of their unity.

What helps you to feel united with people in our church even though we also represent different backgrounds and opinions?

With our church building closed for these several months due to the coronavirus, we have had to find creative ways to feel unified as a church family. Our online presence through our church’s social media, church emails, online worship services, and telephone calls are helping us to stay connected.

What helps you to feel connected to others during this time of physical separation?

Psalm 133 uses two images to emphasize how God helps us to stay connected. The first image is of oil dripping from Aaron’s beard down upon his robe. The other image is of the dew of Herman in the north able to flow all the way south to the city of Jerusalem. Both images convey that God is more than able to unite us even though we may be separated in other ways.

What are some practical ways that you can help others feel connected and an important part of our church family?

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Online Worship (August 16) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our (August 16) online worship!
Athens First UMC!
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Holy Hump Day (August 12) with Pastor Robert

Today’s Focus:
Bible Translation Challenges & 
Tour of Archives Room

[The unison prayer above is found in the April, 1957 cornerstone ceremony bulletin that is located in our church’s 3rd floor archives room. Notice the middle line that says, “Oh, baptize her (the church) in the life-giving spirit of Jesus!” This is the prayer that we use for our ‘4/57’ daily prayer to commemorate that important date in our church’s history.]

Monday, August 10, 2020

Sermon (August 9) Rev. Robert McDowell

     Have you ever listened to a sermon that was way too long? Wait, don’t answer that.

     Actually, this is the question that first came to mind when I began reflecting on our psalm for this week, Psalm 105. It’s not just that this Psalm is one of the longer psalms we have. There are forty-five verses. We just read a small portion of those verses which I’ll get to later.

     It’s not only long with the number of verses, but it goes over things that many of us already know or have heard at some point in our lives. It tells story after story of Israel’s early history. You have to have a lot of patience to work through this whole Psalm since you already know about these stories.

     Psalm 105 would be like if I started my sermon by saying, “Let me begin by telling you about the day I was born.” And then I would tell the story of when our family went to Niagara Falls when I was two years old and I cried the entire trip. True story by the way. And I don’t know why I wouldn’t have liked going to Niagara Falls, but I didn’t. 

     And from there, I tell you a story about my kindergarten graduation. My favorite childhood birthday party. And I would continue to tell you a string of these stories of my life. 

     Penny likes to remind me of the watermelon approach to public speaking. When you give a talk you don’t have to tell people about the whole watermelon. Maybe focus on just one seed so your message doesn’t skip and jump from one thing to the other.

     But the Psalmist of Psalm 105 wants to tell us about a lot of stories in just one psalm. We get the whole watermelon with this psalmist. In this psalm, he recounts earlier biblical stories about Abraham, the person who God called to be the father of a great nation. Then he moves to the next story about Isaac and then he references Jacob. 

     Which then leads to a story about how God formed Israel and that leads to a story about Joseph in the land of Egypt, and from there, we hear about how the Israelites became slaves in Egypt which leads to a story about Moses confronting Pharoah who finally let God’s people go. This leads to a story of how God guided Israel through the wilderness to get to the Promised Land.

     Every time the psalmist seems like he’s going to say, “And in conclusion” or “To make a long story short,” we get another story and another story.

     Normally, I would say that if that was a sermon, it would be considered “below average” because it doesn’t follow the watermelon seed approach. Too many stories.

     But actually, that’s the whole point this Psalmist is making. All of these stories of how God has helped his people to overcome all of these challenges and adversities over all those years remind us of how faithful God really is. The Psalmist even gives us a little warning that this is going to be a long prayer at the very beginning of the psalm when he says, “Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wonderful works.”

     “Tell of all his wonderful works.” Really? All his wonderful works? We’ll never make it to the closing hymn and the benediction if we take that literally.

     But I love that line because the psalmist is reminding us that God has done many wonderful works. And he wants us to tell others about those wonderful works.

     And this is probably the most important reason our discipleship strategy here at Athens First is for each person to have a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith. If you think about it, all of these areas are about helping us to do what this psalmist is saying, “to tell of all his wonderful works.”

     Our loving faith ministries include small groups that are designed for each person to share in the group the wonderful things that God is doing in their lives. I also thing about our Thirst covered dish gatherings where different people share how God has been present in their lives. 

     Our learning faith ministries help us to learn about the wonderful things that God has done throughout the scriptures. So we have bible studies, confirmation classes, and other learning groups where we can study together.

     And our living faith ministries encourage us to share with others through word and deed about the wonderful things that God has done and is doing.

     The good news of our faith is that we don’t have a shortage of the wonderful things that God has done and is doing. Those stories are plentiful.

     So this is what the Psalmist is doing. He is reminding us of all the things that God has done in the past. And we get this brief summary of stories of the biblical patriarchs. But it’s more than a history lesson where we need to take notes or we might fail the exam.

     This psalmist wants us to not just remember the details of these past wonderful deeds that God has done. He wants us to see how God has been faithful to his covenant. This is probably one of the reasons why this psalm is read on the first day of the Jewish holiday of Passover each year. It’s a great Psalm to reflect on the past history of our faith.

     We do something similar every time we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion which is the Christian adaptation of the Passover meal. We have that long responsive prayer called “The Great Thanksgiving.” 

     In that one prayer, we recite God’s mighty acts of salvation beginning with the creation story, then we hear about how God delivered the Israelites from slavery and led them into the promised land, how God formed a covenant with them, which then leads to the telling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This “Great Thanksgiving” prayer is celebrating God’s wonderful works like this Psalmist is doing.

     I love the name for our communion prayer, “The Great Thanksgiving.” What a great name for a prayer. And we share in this prayer every time we gather to receive the Sacrament. 

     Stories are what help form us into a community of faith. I think this is why the Psalmist is calling on us to tell our stories of how God has been faithful. 

     On one hand, we all share the same story of faith which comes to us from the scriptures. We all can share how God created us and formed us into his image. We can all share how God rescued the people of Israel and led them to the Promised Land. We can all share the highs and the lows of how God’s people sought to live out their covenant with God. And we can share the story of how God sent Jesus into the world to be our Lord and Savior. These are all of our shared stories of faith. What a great, great story of faith we have. The Bible is our family album, too!

     And then we also have our unique stories of faith that are born out of these shared biblical stories. God’s wonderful works didn’t end with these biblical stories. God continues to do wonderful works through each of us. We call these “thin place” moments, or as our psalmist likes to call them, “wonderful works” moments.

     Where do you see God at work in your life offering guidance, direction, comfort, assurance, encouragement, hope, new life? These are the wonderful works that continue to happen in our every day lives.

     I’d like to share one of these “wonderful works” moments that happened to me this past March. We had just made the decision to not hold our worship services at the church because of the coronavirus pandemic. And if you remember, these decisions needed to be made on a day to day basis because of new information we were receiving from the State of Ohio. Even before the “stay at home” order issued by the governors of Ohio, we decided to discontinue our Growing Tree preschool and our Monday Lunch ministry for safety reasons.  

     Even though our worship services were now online and groups weren’t using our church building, our staff was continuing to work in the building. At that time, people could still come in and out of the building for church business. 

     I remember struggling with the decision to just lock down the building 24/7. It wasn’t an easy decision because on one hand, we needed to care for the basic administrative needs of the church, but I was also worried about the safety of our staff with people still coming in and out of the building.

     You know how when you are facing a difficult decision, you just pray to God to show you a sign? That was basically my prayer for those couple of days. 

     As that decision was weighing on me of what was best to do, I needed to go to Kroger one day and purchase something we needed for the church. I remember thinking how I just wanted to get in and out of the store because of how contagious the virus is.

     After I left Kroger, I decided to get on Highway 50 to come back to the church instead of going through town. Remember when I said that I prayed that God would given me a sign? When I was driving back to the church, I saw the flashing state highway sign that read, “STAY HOME. WE’RE IN THIS TOGETHER.”

     Friends, sometimes God’s signs to us are that obvious! When I got back to the church, I told the staff that beginning the next day, we were shutting down the church. I encouraged the staff to find ways to do as much of their work as possible in their own homes.

     When I went home that day, I remember feeling so relieved! It ended up being the right decision. 

     This is just one example among many of God’s wonderful works that happen all around us in big and small ways. Psalm 105 encourages us to share these “thin place” moments with each other and tell of God’s wonderful works.

     When you have a bunch of people telling each other and the people we see of how God is at work in our lives, in our community, and in our world, it always leads us to praise God even more. That’s why this psalm is known as a praise psalm. 

     No wonder this Psalmist prayer is so long. He wants us to remember all of these stories of how God has been faithful. He’s describing the whole watermelon and not just one seed.

     Story after story of how God is at work in the world. So many stories that lead us to say again and again and again, “Praise the Lord!”
     A Psummer of Psalms: Psalm 105
Sermon Discussion Questions
Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b & Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
August 9, 2020

Psalm 105 is one of the longer psalms (45 verses!) The reason that it is long is because the psalmist is reviewing the history of Israel. One of the reasons biblical writers do this is to remind us of God’s faithfulness over the years. It also reminds us that the Bible is our family album even though we did not live during that time period.

Do you think it’s important to pass along family stories to other family members? Share an example of a helpful story about your family that has been passed down to you and other family members. How do these kinds of stories help us to be more connected as a family?

The psalmist from Psalm 105 includes stories (Genesis through Exodus) about Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. These are some of the most important patriarchs of the biblical faith.

What stories do you know about the patriarchs mentioned in Psalm 105? Who shared these stories with you? In what ways can we share these stories with others?

The psalmist encourages us to sing praises to the Lord and to “tell of all his wonderful works.” Our church refers to “wonderful works” as “thin place moments” where we experience God’s presence in our everyday lives.

Share a “thin place moment” that you have experienced where God has been present in your life or in how God has guided you through a situation you were facing. In what ways do you offer praise to God in response to God’s “wonderful works” in your life?

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Online Sunday Worship (August 9) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our (August 9) online worship @ Athens First UMC!
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Monday, August 3, 2020

Sermon (August 2) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     If you have ever felt that you have been treated unfairly and you need to vent, wow, do I have the psalm for you! 

     Our Psalm for today is Psalm 17. Of the five categories of psalms, this psalm fits into the “psalms of lament” category because the psalmist is lamenting at being treated unjustly. 

     Now, this topic of being treated unjustly can be a little tricky because it’s prone to subjectivity. We can easily get bent out of shape over what we consider to be someone’s unjust treatment toward us when in reality, it might just be that we have misunderstood the situation or that we are too quick to judge someone.

     For example, and I can’t believe I tell you these stories of things that I have done of which I am embarrassed, but here it goes.

     The following round-about chart helps us to see how these things are supposed to work with a little humor thrown in. Let’s start with car “A” at the top of the round-about. This car is yielding properly. If it enters now, it will cause an accident. Don’t be car “A.”

     Next is car “B” located at the bottom of the round-about. This car is entering properly. There is no one to yield to. 

     Next is car “C,” the red car located on the left of the round-about. This car is yielding to nobody for no reason because it things is has to yield if ANY car is in the circle ANYWHERE. Don’t be car “C.”

     And finally, there is car “D” which is also on the left of the round-about. This car hates car “C.”

     I know that roundabouts are not everyone’s favorite way of dealing with intersections in Athens. I actually don’t mind them because I think that it keeps traffic flowing. If you have questions about how to use a roundabout, I think Penny has the best answer. All you need to remember is once you’re in the circle, you’re in. When you’re in, you’re in. You have the right-a-way. And you can drive around that circle as long as you like. When you’re in, you’re in.

     But once in a while, and I’m sure this has happened to you, you are in the roundabout driving behind a car who doesn’t understand how this works, and they end up slowing down at each entry point to let people into the roundabout. This is not how roundabouts work. Once you’re in, you’re in. Usually when someone ahead of me stops to let people in, I do not lay on my horn, but one day I did.

     I got in the roundabout on the Richland bridge one day, and the car ahead of me in the circle all of the sudden completely stopped to let a car enter into the circle. I thought to myself, “Buddy! Really?” And I don’t know why this annoyed me, but I decided to lay on my horn. I also mouthed the words, “Keep it moving!” Don’t worry, I didn’t say any bad words.

     But in that moment, I was upset. This guy in front of me was slowing me down. I had places to go. People to see! And c’mon, learn how to drive through a roundabout. These out-of-towners! I’m tell’n ya! I was venting and employing some of this Psalm 17 language. “Rise up, O Lord, and confront them!”

     As I was getting worked up about this and feeling that I had been treated unjustly, that’s when I realized that the car in front of me had stopped in that roundabout for a very good reason. It was because he was letting a funeral procession enter into the circle. When I saw that, I realized that I was being a “you know what” for laying on my horn. I felt absolutely terrible! I waved my hand at the person in front of me to indicate that I was sorry.

     Now as a pastor, I have been the passenger of that funeral procession lead car many times and I have often complained how cars can be disrespectful when it comes to funeral processions, and here I was being “that guy.” In that situation, Psalm 17 did not fit the situation. I was not being treated unfairly. I was just plain wrong.

     So, let’s be clear as we look at using Psalm 17 in our own prayer lives. This psalm is assuming that we aren’t being “that guy.” It’s assuming that we have taken the time to reflect on if we have truly been treated unfairly or if we have maybe misunderstood the situation.

     This is why the Psalmist begins by saying, “let your eyes see the right” and “try my heart” to see if there are any transgressions in him. So, there is humility in the way this psalmist begins the prayer. “I’m really upset with what this person has done to me, but Lord, let me know if there is something not right within my own heart.” That’s my wording, but this sounds like the intent of how the psalmist begins Psalm 17.

    Now, that’s a sign of spiritual maturity when you can start complaining about how you are being treated unfairly, and at the same time admit that maybe you are not seeing the big picture. Maybe I’m part of the problem. So, it is with this spirit of humility that the Psalmist continues to vent to God about what has been done against him. 

     Psalm 17, along with the many other psalms of lament that we find in the Book of Psalms, gives you and me the permission to vent our frustrations to God. Long before modern day psychology, these psalms help us to process our frustrations, our anger, our rage, and our disappointments and let God know how we truly feel.

     We all can probably name several unhealthy ways for us to vent these feelings. We can take it out on those closest to us. We can use passive-aggressive behavior. We can let these feelings bottle up but that only lasts so long. They will come out in some way. This psalmist is giving us permission to let God know how we have been treated unjustly. Sharing our feelings with God in prayer is a very healthy way for us to process these feelings.

     This is the only time during the three-year lectionary cycle of Sunday scripture readings that Psalm 17 appears. It’s not a long Psalm, but the lectionary only offers us a portion of this Psalm to read in worship. Notice that it leaves out verses 13 and 14. 

     These are verses in which the Psalmist tells the Lord to rise up and put these slanderers in their place. It tells the Lord to punish their accuser’s children, and their children as well. This is not the Psalm that any of us probably learned when we were children in Sunday School. 

     But think of it this way. Is it better to vent your feelings of vengeance in a prayer, or to take matters in our own hands? The answer is to vent your feelings through prayer.

     Unfortunately, many of us, myself included have been taught to keep our feelings inside, especially our feelings of anguish and disappointment. But that’s just not healthy and it’s unrealistic. I had a theology professor in seminary tell our class that God is big enough to take on any question or frustration that we might be dealing with in our lives. God wants us to be our authentic selves and how we are feeling in any given moment.

     That was such a freeing thing for me to hear my seminary professor make this point. God is big enough to take on any question or frustration that we might be dealing with in our lives. The Psalmist of Psalm 17 reminds us that it’s OK. It’s not like he was holding back. But again, as long as we vent to God in a spirit of humility, and knowing that our hearts need to be examined as well, this Psalm can help us to become even stronger in our faith and in our trust in God.

     This Psalm is paired with our Old Testament reading from the Book of Genesis. It’s the story of Jacob who wrestles all night with a messenger sent from God. Jacob has been on the run from his brother, Esau who has been his adversary since childhood.

     This night of wrestling serves as a turning point in Jacob’s life. Jacob ends up winning the wrestling match and in the morning, the Lord blesses Jacob with a new name. No longer will he be known as Jacob. His new name will be Israel. In a similar way, like Jacob, this psalmist in Psalm 17 invites God to test his heart by night, with the hope that when morning comes, he will be satisfied and behold God’s likeness. 

     If you have ever had a restless night where you are struggling with unresolved issues, a complicated relationship, and the emotions of fear and uncertainty, this Psalm invites us to let all of that go and know that God is our refuge. So many times, we forget that it’s OK to complain to God. It’s OK to wrestle with God. It’s OK to let God know how we truly feel about a situation we may be facing.

     There is something very freeing about offering our laments to God. The Psalmist knows that God will answer him and he will receive God’s steadfast love. 

      Over the past several years, our denomination has been struggling to find a way forward regarding same sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors. The tension over this issue has been very divisive among clergy and laity. 

      During the week leading up to the special General Conference in February of 2019, I was really finding it difficult to maintain a collegial spirit with my clergy friends who were very open about their traditional stance on this issue. I would read their facebook posts, their tweets on Twitter and their online sermons about this issue, and I remember becoming very angry with them in how they were in my view, misrepresenting the Bible’s teachings on this important issue. 

     I was being labeled as being unbiblical in my views. And this made me really angry, because, quite frankly, I have spent my whole life reading, studying, and loving the bible. So it wasn’t an issue of being unbiblical. It was that we were interpreting the bible differently. So much can be said about that, but I think that was the issue.

     So the more and more I was hearing that I was being unbiblical, the more and more I was leaning on these psalms of lament, like Psalm 17 just to get out my frustration. People who know me well could tell that I was becoming irritable and impatient. And they could tell that I wasn’t being myself. But I want you to know that like the Psalmist in our Psalm for today prayed, I had confidence that God would guide me through that dark period. 

     “I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me, hear my words.”

     I knew that God would answer my prayer and help take away that anger that was beginning to fill my heart. Like the psalmist, I had confidence that God would vindicate me, but it was the way that God answered my prayer that took me by surprise.

     Right after that special General Conference voted to retain the restrictive language on same sex marriage and the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors, one of these pastors who I felt had misrepresented me, sent me an email right after that General Conference vote. I actually saved his email.

     Here was his message to me. It came at 8:43 pm on that Saturday night.

     “Hi Rob…” (OK, bad start, because I don’t go by Rob, but whatever.) “Hi Rob…I know that you are struggling. I am praying for you and love your people very much” (meaning all of you). “I’ve done a good job of not reading social media posts but I did read some of your comments. I am a dues paying member of WCA” (the WCA is the traditional wing of our denomination). “I am a dues paying member of WCA and I pray you don’t hold that against me. I know the Holy Spirit will guide your congregation tomorrow morning knowing that his joy will come in the morning. Come, Holy Spirit, come and prop up Athens First.”

     That email came out of the blue. It melted my heart that he would reach out the way he did. 

     I mean, he’s still wrong, but…

     But here’s the thing. We need these psalms of lament. We need to be able tell God when we feel that we have been unfairly judged. It’s not healthy to keep our anger and our frustrations all bottled inside us.

     And as we offer these raw and honest prayers to God, like the Psalmist, and like Jacob who wrestled with God all night long, the good news is that we will find joy in the morning.

A Psummer of Psalms: Psalm 17
Sermon Discussion Questions
Psalm 17:1-7, 15 & Genesis 32:22-31
August 2, 2020

Psalm 17 is categorized as a Psalm of Lament. The psalmist feels that he has been treated unjustly by someone. He takes his frustration out by sharing with God his raw feelings.

Have you ever shared with God your raw feelings about how you feel your were treated unfairly? Why do you think the Psalmist is giving us permission to share these feelings with God? 

Notice that in verse 3, the Psalmist is humble by inviting the Lord to try his heart and test him for any wrongdoing he may have done. 

Share a time when you felt that you were treated unjustly but then realized that there was a simple misunderstanding or that maybe you were at fault to some degree. What helps you to stay humble and open minded about a difficult situation?

Psalm 17 is paired with our Genesis reading which is about when Jacob wrestled with the Lord at night. Jacob has been on the run from his brother because of the shady way he had treated him. When it was morning, the Lord blessed Jacob and the brothers ended up being reunited. Notice that the psalmist after his lamenting also says that in the morning he shall be satisfied.

How has offering your laments and raw feelings to God like Jacob and the Psalmist led to you feeling satisfied and blessed?