A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

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

Monday, November 30, 2020

Sermon (Nov. 29/Advent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Welcome to the season of Advent. This four week season that leads up to Christmas is known as a season of waiting. 

     For the most part, we don’t like to wait. We don’t like waiting in lines. We don’t like waiting in traffic. We don’t like waiting in a doctor’s office. And we certainly don’t like waiting for a vaccine. 

     We want things now. We want things yesterday. 

     The church recognizes the struggle we have with waiting and that’s why we have this important time on the church calendar. One of the things that helps me when I need to wait is to keep my focus on the reason why I’m waiting.

     And there is a good reason why we are beginning this church season of waiting. We are invited to wait on the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. God is preparing to send us a very special gift and this gift is priceless and the most important gift we can ever receive. It’s a gift that can make an eternal difference in our lives.

     This is why I am calling this new sermon series, “Wait for it!”

     I got the inspiration for this sermon series title a couple of years ago when our family was on vacation down in South Carolina. We had just gone boating and it was approaching early evening.

     After we docked the boat, we went inside the place where we were staying which was along the lake. The sun was just beginning to set so I went outside to see if it was picture worthy. There were some clouds and it didn’t look like there was going to be enough light for it to be one of those special sunsets.

     Usually, I would have just gone back inside thinking that there might be another time to get a picture of a beautiful sunset. But it was like I could hear this voice saying to me, “Wait for it!”

     It seemed like a waste of time because there just weren’t any beautiful sunset colors emerging at all. I decided to take a picture anyway. I looked at the photo and muttered to myself, “eh.” I quickly deleted it.

     Wait for what? That photo wasn’t worthy of a facebook post! 

     But I waited anyway. A couple of minutes went by and a couple more.

     And that’s when the miracle happened. Here’s the photo I took that evening.

     That moment became more than just another picture of a beautiful sunset. That moment has always reminded me that our faith is about being willing to wait for the new thing that God is about to do. Even though we might not be able to see any hint of a breathtaking sunset emerging, if we just wait for it, we won’t be disappointed. 

     During these next four weeks in this season of Advent, we are going to look at four important ways that can help us to wait upon the heavenly gift that God is sending our way. Yeah, I know. It’s not even December. We just got done Thanksgiving. We know that Christmas is still weeks away. But I hope you and I hear a voice saying to us even now, “Wait for it!” 

     For this first Sunday of Advent, the scriptures that are appointed for this Sunday talk a lot about the importance of waiting. 

     In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah says, “no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” 

     The Apostle Paul says in our I Corinthians reading, “that we are to wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Even after Christ came into the world, those early Christians were being instructed to continue to wait because Christ will come again. 

     And in our Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus himself tells his disciples, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware. Keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.

     Our faith is a constant waiting upon the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. Whether we are waiting to celebrate Christmas or we are waiting for Jesus to return or we are waiting for an answer to prayer, or we are waiting to see how God will guide us through a challenging situation in our lives, and especially as we are waiting to make it through the global pandemic, we are always in a season of waiting. The good news is that God is faithful and will be present with us as we wait.

     On this first Sunday of Advent, we are invited to wait for God’s presence through confessing. Confessing and waiting go hand in hand. That’s why today’s scriptures on waiting also talk about confessing our sins.

     Just after the prophet Isaiah reminds us to wait on God, he reminds us of the sobering truth that we have all become like one who is unclean. So an important part of waiting is that we take some time to see where we have not lived out who God has called us to be.

     To wait for it means to confess. And that can be a painful process. This is one of the reasons why our worship services always include a prayer of confession. Somewhere in these prayers, we can find ourselves and our need for God’s forgiving and healing love. 

     We are all broken and in need of mending. Isaiah says in our scripture passage that even our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. 

     This past summer, we were painfully reminded of the sin of racism that permeates in our society. The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota where an officer choked him while being recorded sparked outrage and protests across our nation. I remember being so humbled by those events and taking time to reflect on any prejudicial and racist attitudes I might have in my own heart. 

     An African American political commentator made an important point during the protests that has stuck with me. He said that racism isn’t confined to one political party or demographic. It is something we all need to overcome. Everyone, which includes the white nationalist marching in Charlottesville all of the way to the person who outwardly says racism is wrong but in more subtle ways prejudges people simply because of their skin color.

     As painful and uncomfortable as it is, we need a national spotlight to reveal the systemic and institutional racism that continues to exist in our world. We too often live in denial. That’s why we have liturgical seasons like Advent and Lent to give us the opportunity to look deep within our own souls in how we fall short in being the people that God has called us to be.

     In addition to prejudice, we can also talk about the painful realities of greed, pride, jealousy, selfishness, judgmentalism, hypocrisy, mysogynistic attitudes, dishonesty, manipulative behavior, gossip, bullying, etc.

     A lot of people use social media as a platform to point out the sins of others. But if we want to become the people God has called us to be, social media isn’t the place to go because for that we need to look within ourselves. And we do that by confessing, by repenting, and by receiving God’s grace.

     Advent is a season to confess where we have not lived out who God has called us to be. It’s a season for us to come clean with who we are as painful as that might be. It’s a season to start anew.

     When Penny or I complain that our smart phone or laptop isn’t working the way it should, we’ll complain to the other about it. And then the other person will say and you probably know these words, “Have you tried to reboot it?” And the other person will say, “Oh, that’s right.” And nine times out of ten, that will fix the problem.

     Advent is a time for us to reboot our souls. And we reboot by confessing where we have fallen short. We reboot by owning up to our shortcomings. We reboot by taking a long and hard look at our own brokenness.

     This is what Isaiah is calling upon us to do as we wait for Christmas. Reboot and repent. Turn away from our sins and turn toward God. 

     The next time you find yourself waiting for something, like in long grocery line, or during some 1-800 customer service phone call that has you on hold for what seems like forever, or at the dock of a lake waiting for the beautiful colors of a sunset to emerge over the water, that might be a good time to just say a little prayer of confession. 

     “O God, take my heart and make me new again.” 

Wait for It! Confessing
Sermon Discussion Questions
Isaiah 64:1-9 & Mark 13:24-37
November 29, 2020 

Today marks the beginning of the season of Advent, a four-week time for us to prepare for the good news of Christmas. The title of this year’s Advent series is, “Wait for it!” Waiting can be very irritating especially when it seems like there is nothing for us to do. For these four Sundays leading up to Christmas, the scriptures are giving us something to do! They are calling upon us to confess, to hope, to rejoice, and to trust.

What helps you to spiritually prepare for the Christmas season?

Our scripture reading from Isaiah emphasizes the importance of confessing our sins by stating that even our righteous deeds can be like filthy rags. Isaiah is pointing out that even though we have been created in God’s image, we also are flawed and broken people in need of God’s grace. Our sinful nature doesn’t just lead to us to commit individual sins. We also acknowledge that we are part of a world in which there is systemic injustice. The killing of George Floyd in Minnesota this past summer is an example of institutional sin. 

Why do you think it’s important that we recognize both our personal sins as well as systemic injustice? 

Pastor Robert mentioned in the sermon that when we confess our sins to God, it’s like rebooting our computer or our smartphone when they aren’t working properly. They reset so they can start working properly. When we confess our sins to God, we reboot our souls so that we can be realigned with God’s purposes.

What helps you to “reboot” your soul periodically? 

Our weekly prayers of confession that we say together in worship can help us reboot our souls. Share this prayer that was used for this first Sunday of Advent. Notice that we always include words of assurance.

Save us, O God. Save us from indifference and impatience. Save us from the distractions of life. Save us from complacency. Save us from insensitivity. Save us from cruelty. Save us from selfishness. Save us from narrow-mindedness. Save us from political bickering. Save us from denial. Save us from name-calling. Save us from jealousy. Save us from revenge. Save us from lack of compassion. Save us from injustice. Save us from inequality. Save us from unholy thoughts and actions. Save us from sin. Save us, O God! Save us!

Leader: In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

People: In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

All: Thanks be to God!

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Monday, November 23, 2020

Sermon (Nov. 22) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Sing to the King! What an interesting sermon title today given the fact that singing can lead to the spread of the coronavirus.  

     I can’t tell you how many times over the past several months that I have read about a church spreading the virus in their congregation mainly because they allowed for there to be congregational singing or choir anthems during in-person worship. That’s why it’s so important to wear a mask in fighting the spread of this virus. It protects others in case we may have it, especially since there are a lot of people who don’t even know they have it because they are asymptomatic.

     One of the strengths of our church is in our music ministry and our partnership with the OU School of Music. Our the past several months, we have missed our choir and their inspiring anthems on Sunday mornings. I have also missed the many choral concerts that we would have hosted this fall season.

[Ohio University School of Music Concerts @ Athens First UMC]

     On this Christ the King Sunday, the psalm reading for today tells us to make a joyful noise to to the Lord and to come into his presence with singing. But what do you do when you are still in the midst of a global pandemic. How do you sing then?

     It’s hard to believe but the last time the choir sang for us was way back on March 1st when they presented the anthem, “O Lamb of God.” When we are finally able to get past this global pandemic, I think it will be the singing that will stand out for us the most. Singing is such an important component of our faith and today’s psalmist would agree.

[Athens First UMC Chancel Choir]

     “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.”

     But how do you come into the Lord’s presence with singing during this time of social distancing in helping to stop the spread of the virus?

     We may not be able to sing out-loud during these months, but maybe this gives all of us an opportunity to think more about why we sing and what we are singing. Notice that the Psalmist doesn’t just tell us to sing. The psalmist is telling us to sing “to the Lord.”

     Sometimes we forget that our singing has an audience and that audience is God. “We give thanks to him, and bless his name,” the psalmist goes on to say.

     Who is this one to whom we direct our singing and joyful noise? The Lord. Our creator, redeemer, and sustainer; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And more specifically on this Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that we sing to the King, Jesus the king of kings and the lord of lords.

     Remembering to whom we sing is why those early Methodists were known as “shouting Methodists.” They couldn’t help but to shout their faith for all to hear because they wanted to share how the Lord was active in their lives. They wanted to share how they had an assurance in their faith that they were claimed by God. They wanted to share how God’s forgiving love had taken away their sins. They wanted to share how they were growing in their faith and trusting in the Lord everyday.

     It was their joy, their sense of peace, their gratitude for what God had done in their lives that led them to sing out for all to hear. They weren’t bashful in expressing what their faith meant to them. Singing to the King is the natural byproduct of a person and a congregation who have what John Wesley called, “warm hearts.” Hearts that have been warmed by the saving and redeeming love of Jesus Christ.

     And actually, before John Wesley had his heart-warming experience, it was a group of Christians singing that helped him to experience the joy of his faith. He was on a ship returning to England from America when a storm on the Atlantic caused him to have great fear for his life. On that same ship, he noticed a group of Christians, known as the Moravians. Even during the storm, they were singing and praising God together. Wesley realized that he was missing something in his faith.

     And when Wesley arrived back in London, he was walking past St. Paul’s Cathedral when he heard a choir singing an anthem that stirred his soul. It would be later that day that he would have his famous heart-warming experience.

     No wonder that singing has always been an important part of our faith as Methodists. John Wesley’s brother, Charles wrote six thousand hymns to help those early Methodists sing their faith.

     Singing our faith is what helps us to offer our praise and worship to God. This is why we sing to the king. The psalmist ends his psalm by saying, “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.”

     It’s now been eight months since we have sung a hymn together, eight months since we heard a choir anthem here in our sanctuary. How can we sing to the King when we are in the middle of a global pandemic?

     This past summer, we purchased new camera equipment to upgrade our online worship services. This has allowed us to record the entire service in one recording so instead of several videos for one service we now have just one video because of all of the editing we can do.

     This also made it easier for us to include Jeff to accompany the hymns. We weren’t sure how this would go over since there would be no singing, just the words of the hymn on the screen.

     On the first Sunday we tried this, I was skeptical if the lyrics of the hymns with Jeff playing would be enough to keep our attention especially since we’re so used to hearing people sing out loud. Even without the singing of the hymns during that first week of recording the worship service, I discovered that those familiar hymns became even more alive for me.

     I was forced to give my entire focus on thinking about the words of the hymns as I listened to Jeff play them. Now, don’t get me wrong because I would prefer singing over not singing, but I was drawn to those hymns in a new way.

     The hymn that really got to me during that first week of recording was the hymn, “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” A very familiar hymn to many of us, I was taken aback by verse 3, “God be with you till we meet again; when life’s perils thick confound you, put his arms unfailing round you; God be with you till we meet again.”

     It was like God entered the sanctuary and was speaking directly to all of us as we followed those words on our sanctuary screen. “When life’s perils thick confound you.” This pandemic has confounded us. We find it difficult to make decisions that are helpful when we don’t know what the future holds. Schools trying to decide if students should return. Churches deciding if it’s safe to have “in-person” worship. People deciding if they should wear a mask or if they should find a different job. So many things are confounding us. That hymn was speaking to what we were experiencing especially in that moment. 

     But then that verse says, “Put his arms unfailing round you.” And I was reminded of how God has been surrounding us during this difficult time. And of course, the words, “God be with you till we meet again,” gave me the hope and the assurance I needed that we will meet again. We’ll get through this. And when we meet again, we will be able to sing all of these great hymns of faith together. We will be able to sing to the king. I guess you can say that as the preacher was in the middle of recording a worship service, he had a powerful God moment.

     What I’m trying to say is, even though we may not be able to sing together now, we can still sing to the king. In this long season of not being able to sing, we at least have the words of our hymns of faith that bring us closer to the heart of God. And with the guidance of our Athens County Health Commissioner, we believe it is safe to at least have song leaders who are wearing masks and from a safe social distance provide the singing for us. I want to thank the music ministry of our church for leading us in the singing of our hymns of faith. 

     Several years ago at a church I was serving as pastor, I was asked to officiate at a funeral. It was my first year as pastor of that congregation so I was still getting to know the congregation as well as my staff members. 

     The funeral was for a very faithful church member. I met with the family to prepare for the service and they told me that they wanted one of our church staff members to sing, “How Great Thou Art.”

     When they mentioned this, I was taken by surprise because I had no idea this staff member was known for his singing. And so I called him and told him the hymn they wanted him to sing. The service was at the funeral home, so he said he would bring his own sound system. And I remember thinking, “wow, he really is a singer because he has all of his own equipment.”

     The funeral home was packed with people the day of the service. I led the service and gave the message. When I was done speaking, I said, “John is now going to sing for us, “How Great Thou Art.”

     Little did I know that I was about to be transported into heaven. John started singing that well known hymn. “O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder consider all the world thy hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.” He then sang that beautiful chorus, “Then sings my souls; my Savior God to thee…”

     And then he sings verse two. “When through the woods and forest glades I wander.”

     And then he gets to verse 3 and takes it up a notch. “And when I think that God, his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin.” 

     I was starting to get these holy goose bumps because John is singing like it’s the last song he’s ever going to sing. And this whole thing is taking me by surprise which by the way, God likes to do to us sometimes. Take us by surprise.

     And then John gets to the last verse and he took us all to heaven with him. “When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation and take me home, what joy shall fill my heart. Then I shall bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim, my God, how great thou art!” It was like God walked into that room during that last verse.

     He sang in a way that showed that he believed it, like he wrote the lyrics himself. It wasn’t a performance which is sadly what I was expecting. It was a song of faith. That old hymn all of the sudden came alive in a new way. 

     And then he brought it home with that closing chorus again, “Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee; how great thou art, how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee; how great thou art, how great thou art.”

     When it was over I could barely offer the closing prayer and benediction. 

     On this Christ the King Sunday, this week of Thanksgiving, the psalmist invites us to sing to the king, this king who is good and whose steadfast love endures forever.

Sing to the King!
Sermon Discussion Questions
Psalm 100
November 22, 2020 

Our psalmist for today calls for us to make a joyful noise to the Lord and to come into his presence with singing. The last time our church sang together as a congregation was back on March 8. That’s a long time for a church to not sing together!

During this time that our church has not been able to meet together in person for worship, how have you been able to “make a joyful noise to the Lord?”

Singing and music is an important part of our Methodist heritage. When John Wesley was returning on a ship over the Atlantic to England from his missionary trip to America in 1738, it was the singing of Moravian Christians during a fierce storm that led him to want their sense of peace and assurance. When he returned to England, it was a choir anthem at St. Paul’s Cathedral that awakened his spirit and led that same day to his famous “heart-warming” experience. John’s brother, Charles would later go on to write over 6,000 hymns that continue to inspire us today. 

Do you have a favorite hymn? How does it draw you closer to God and deepen your faith?

Pastor Robert shared a story of a funeral he conducted and a soloist sang “How Great Thou Art” that was so powerful it felt like God walked into the room in that moment. He sang the song as if he had written the lyrics! 

Share a time when an anthem, a hymn, or a song gave you “holy goose bumps.” 

Today is known as “Christ the King Sunday.” It’s a day when we celebrate that Jesus is King of kings. He is the true ruler over all creation!

How does this Sunday that emphasizes that Christ is King deepen and strengthen your faith? 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Monday, November 16, 2020

Sermon (November 15) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Jesus’ loves to tell parables and today, we get another one from Matthew’s Gospel. It’s the story of the talents. 

     In this story, a man entrusts his financial resources with three of his servants. To the one he gave five talents; to another, two; and to the third servant, one.

     A talent was the name given to a unit of money that would have equaled fifteen years of wages. So, Jesus is using a large sum of money in telling this parable. Fifteen years of wages would have totaled up to a substantial amount. Just one talent would have been a big amount, but just imagine if someone entrusted five talents to you. That was equivalent to 75 years of a living wage, a life-time of earnings. 

     So right away, we notice that the stakes are high. Can you imagine someone entrusting you with that amount of money? Even just one talent would make you nervous.

     Should I play it safe or be aggressive in how the money gets invested? Maybe I’ll buy some property with this man’s money hoping that there will be some equity when he returns. What if it’s a bad year in the stock market? 

     Those are great questions. Financial advisors make a living in helping their clients think through these risk-tolerance scenarios especially when we are dealing with such a large amount of money. We all know that even with the best financial advice out there, there are no guarantees that things will turn out as planned. 

     Being a good steward with the gifts that have been entrusted to us can be complicated. So, I don’t envy these three people who were entrusted with this man’s talents. It is a lot of responsibility.

     The first two servants are the stars of this parable. They ended up doubling what had been given them. It’s the third guy, the one who had been given one talent who couldn’t handle the pressure. He took his talent and buried it in the ground.

     When the man returned to see what they did with his wealth while he was away, he was pleased to hear that the first two servants doubled what had been given them. He rewarded them by giving them higher positions. As far as the third guy goes, well, let’s just say that it didn’t end well for him.

     Here was an opportunity that was handed to him out of the blue. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. That was his moment, his opportunity to shine. But he broke under the pressure. 

     I think that the reason Jesus told this parable was to remind us that we all have been given an opportunity of a lifetime. God has entrusted to us our unique backgrounds, experiences, skills, expertise, talents, gifts, assets, passions, hopes, and dreams. God has given us all of these resources so that we can be part of the building of God’s kingdom here on earth. And we only have one lifetime to make our mark. 

     Now, I don’t know about you, but it seems like we often focus more on what we don’t have rather than on what we do have. How often we worry about not having enough time, or enough money, or enough knowledge, or enough confidence to be able to make a difference in our world. We often are stuck in this scarcity type of thinking that we lose sight of what we have been given.

     And maybe this is why Jesus told the parable of the mustard seed which we find earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. In that parable, Jesus says, all you really need to have is faith the size of a mustard seed and if you invest that little faith, it will eventually grow into a large tree. You don’t even need to have money, just a tiny seed will do. 

    Two summers ago, our church hosted a “Faith Builders” training here at our church. We had a great turn-out, a little over forty people from our congregation attended. The whole point of that training was to remind us that each one of us has been given everything we need to live out our faith.

[Faith Builders Seminar, August, 2019]

     And here is what we learned. One of the resources that God has given to every single one of us are opportunities to build relationships and share our faith with people inside and outside the church. And so we spent most of that time during that training, improving our relational skills and becoming more aware of opportunities where we can be a blessing to others.

     One of the sessions during that two-day Faith Builders training included three simple questions to help us see the talents that each one of us has been given to share with others.

     The first question was, “What are some challenges that people face today?” Here are some of the responses from the forty or so people who attended the training. I wrote these down so I wouldn’t forget:

     Stress at work or school – Raising children – Loneliness – Grief – Depression – Political Division – Addictions – Safety – Food Insecurity

     The second question we were asked was, “What do these challenges tell us about the needs of people and what does this tell us about what people are seeking in this community?”

     Here are our group responses from that training:

     People are seeking a supportive community, medical access and affordability, hope, education and career opportunities, mentors and wise guidance, values, someone who will listen, forgiveness.

     And the last question we were asked to consider was the question, “What can we, the church, the Body of Christ in the world, uniquely offer people that they many not be able to get anywhere else?”

     Here are the responses from that question: 

     A community of love, forgiveness, hope, and a reality that is greater than ourselves. 

     That three-question exercise at this training led us to this conclusion: It’s not just about our church having programming and events, but it’s really about how we personally relate to people in authentic and meaningful ways.

     That training that we had about a year and a half ago reminds us that the talents and resources God has given us aren’t necessarily found in the church’s financial resources or our programming, it’s really found in the opportunities we have to build caring relationships with others and offer the hope and good news of our faith. 

     We are like those lucky servants in the parable who were given the opportunity of a lifetime. We’ve been given so much, more than we can ever imagine, but the question is always, “what will we do with the seeds and the talents God has given us?”

     I loved watching the musical, “Hamilton” this past summer.  Probably the most popular song from that musical is the song, “My Shot.”

     Alexander Hamilton who is played by Lin-Manuel Miranda sings this song as a young man who has just arrived to New York City. The words of the chorus are, “I am not throwing away my shot! I am not throwing away my shot! Hey yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, And I’m not throwing away my shot! It’s time to take a shot!”

     This theme of Hamilton not throwing away his shot runs throughout the musical. As a young immigrant who arrives in New York he finds himself in a position to become George Washington’s right hand man in the Revolutionary War and he later would become our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury. Throughout his life, Hamilton rose to the occasion to serve our country and is proudly known as one of our Founding Fathers.

     The parable of the talents is a parable about the importance of not throwing away our shot when given the opportunity to rise to the occasion. When the first two servants were given their talents, they knew that this was their shot to multiply those gifts. It was the third servant who out of fear, threw away his shot.

     In telling this parable, Jesus is reminding us that God has given each one of us talents and incredible opportunities to use these resources to be a blessing to others. The question is will we bury our talents and throw away our shot at making a difference?

     The question isn’ if we have been given talents. The question is how alert and ready are we when given the opportunities to multiply our talents by serving and blessing the people around us.

     Jesus, the one who told this parable of the talents, lived out his own parable. Every time, Jesus had an opportunity to use his talent of serving, he did. Every time Jesus had an opportunity to be a blessing, he was. 

     A few chapters earlier in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus said that he came to be a servant and to be a ransom for many. And when Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world, he offered all of the talents that had been given him, even his very life.

     What talents have you been given? An opportunity to listen to someone share their fears and concerns with you? Maybe it’s in sharing a little of your faith with someone. It could be some of the time you have been given to serve others. Sometimes it’s skill or area of expertise through the church. Maybe like the parable, you have been blessed financially and you want to see it multiplied by helping others.

     So many talents we have been given. So many talents 

     Let’s not throw away our shot.

Don’t Throw Away Your Shot!
Sermon Discussion Questions
Matthew 25:14-30
November 15, 2020 

The appointed lectionary Gospel reading from Matthew offer us another parable of Jesus. It’s the parable of the talents where a business owner gives each of his servants talents to invest while he is away. A talent was equal to fifteen years of wages. One of the three servants was given five talents which would have equaled seventy-five years of wages! That’s a lot of money!

How would you feel if somebody entrusted that amount of money to you? 

The first two servants invested wisely and doubled the talents that were given them. The third servant simply hid his one talent in the ground. He played it safe by not using his talent.

What are the “talents” that God has given you and me to invest and multiply in building God’s kingdom here on earth? 

Last year, our church hosted a Faith Builders seminar in which over forty people from our church attended. The seminar leader invited us to think about three questions. 1) What are some challenges that people in our community have? 2) What do these challenges teach us about what people need in our community? 3) What can our church uniquely offer to people that people might not get anywhere else? The people who attended our seminar offered the following responses to question #3. Athens First UMC can provide “a community of love, forgiveness, hope, and a reality that is greater than ourselves.”

In what ways can we as a church “provide a community of love, forgiveness, hope, and a reality that is greater than ourselves?” These are our “talents.”

In the sermon, Pastor Robert referenced the song, “My Shot,” from the musical, “Hamilton.” In the song, Alexander Hamilton says how he always wants to be ready to use his shot when called upon. He doesn’t want to “throw away his shot.”

What “shot” (opportunities and talents) has God given you to use and not throw away? How can we encourage each other to not throw away our shot?

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Online Worship (November 15) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our (November 15) 
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Monday, November 9, 2020

Sermon (November 8) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     When I conclude a wedding rehearsal, almost every single time, the bride will announce what time everybody needs to be at the church the next day. And there’s a different time depending on what role you have in the wedding. I’m always impressed by this, because the bride has this figured out to the minute.

     Now, does it always work out? No. But at least there is a plan for everybody to be ready for the big day. 

     In our Gospel reading today, Jesus offers a parable about a wedding where some in the wedding party didn’t show up on time and they missed out. Evidently, they didn’t listen to the bride’s very clear instructions at the rehearsal. Those who missed out on the arrival of the groom are referred to as foolish. Those who were ready when the groom arrived are the wise ones.

     What does it mean to be wise? Well, in this parable, being wise means planning ahead, making the needed preparations, and doing what needs to be done now so that you don’t miss out on the big event.

     There are some of you who are probably thinking of people who need to hear this parable. Maybe you know of a procrastinator who is notorious for waiting to the last minute and being late for events.

     But before we think of how other people are the foolish ones, maybe we need to first reflect on how we sometimes miss the boat.

     I think of myself as a very responsible person. When I am conducting a wedding, I will be one of the first people at the church for the rehearsal as well as for the wedding. I want to make sure things are in place and ready to go. And yes, it can be frustrating when a key person doesn’t show up on time.

     I conducted a wedding several years ago. About thirty minutes before the ceremony was to begin, I noticed that my organist wasn’t there yet. Even though there was still some time before the service, it was very unlike him to not be there by that time. 

     Then it was twenty minutes before the service and still no organist. Now, I’m more than a little worried, so I called him and it went straight to his voice mail.

     Five minutes later, he still wasn’t there so with just fifteen minutes before the service, I needed to have a plan B for music. And by the way, this wasn’t just a small chapel wedding. There were probably 100 or so people in the sanctuary for this wedding. 

     I found the bride and told her about the situation and I asked her if there was anybody she knew who would be able to play some processional and recessional music. She scanned through the crowd and couldn’t find anybody.

     So I said, “OK, here’s what we can do. For the processional, I will read I Corinthians 13, the love chapter as you come up the aisle.” She agreed and that’s what we did.

     It was actually a very beautiful way to begin the service, although it would still have been better to have an organist. We then went through the service and everything went well. The problem was when it came time for the recessional music at the end of the service. I had been so concerned about the processional that I didn’t even think about a plan B for the recessional. 

     I announced them as husband and wife and the people gave this loud applause, and then everything went silent as the couple and the wedding party recessed out of the sanctuary. That actually felt like a downer to have no music playing.

     Later that afternoon after the wedding was over, my organist called me to apologize. He said that he totally forgot about the wedding and that it was the first time that ever happened to him. 

     This happened to me as well but thankfully, it wasn’t for the actual wedding service. I ended up being a half hour late for the rehearsal. The time got changed and I had never changed it on my calendar and completely forgot about it. I remember telling everybody how sorry I was when I finally arrived for the rehearsal. I felt foolish like the bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable.

     All of this to say that I think we move in and out of foolishness more than we care to admit. I used to think that this parable was more clearly identifiable of which side I’m on. Surely, I am one of those wise people at the wedding, fully prepared, alert, awake, and ready for the coming of Jesus. But, on closer look, I miss seeing Jesus more than I care to admit.

     As I was preparing this sermon, I came across a video that showed three white members of a church in Californian telling a person of color to leave their church property. This young woman was simply sitting on the church lawn doing some reading when she was approached by these church members. Actually, it was much more passive-aggressive than that. One of those three church members was posting a “no trespassing” sign on a tree a few feet away from her.

     She asked if that sign was meant for her and the church member said, “yes, and for anyone else because we don’t want anybody destroying our church property.” She said, “But I would never do something like that. I’m just sitting here because it’s so quiet and peaceful.”

     Another church member just stood there during this super awkward conversation. You could tell on the video that he felt uncomfortable with what was happening, but he was probably friends with the other man and didn’t want to go against him.

     A third church member came over to the woman and told her to leave as well. The woman sitting on the church lawn again asked why she couldn’t just stay there and the church member said, “there is a perfectly nice park across the street.”

     As I watched this video and worked on this sermon, I couldn’t help but to appreciate why Jesus gave us this parable of being foolish and wise. Even though those church members probably do a lot of good work for their church, they missed seeing Jesus in that moment. They missed being gracious and loving in that moment. In that moment, they were the foolish bridesmaids. 

     Which leads me to think about how we are all susceptible to being foolish and missing out on Jesus. Jesus can appear in the middle of our day and we can miss him because we’re busy buying the oil for our lamps, when the true light of the world is standing right there in front of us.

     As I have been reflecting on this parable, I’ve been wondering how we can help each other not miss Jesus’ presence. The parable is set up in a way where we all need to take personal responsibility in being ready, but what if we would watch and wait together? What if we would encourage each other to be alert and ready to see Jesus in our day to day living? What if the wise bridesmaids would have been more helpful to the foolish ones?

      Or like the example of that church in California, what if that one church member who was feeling uncomfortable about the situation would have intervened by getting to know the woman who was sitting on the church lawn? Instead of just watching the other church member foolishly posting a no trespassing sign, what if he showed compassion toward that person who was sitting there?

     I don’t know if that would have changed the mindset of the two other church members who were bound and determined to get that woman to leave, but at least it would have showed that there was a better way in handling that situation.

     Watching and waiting for Jesus’ presence in our everyday lives is one of the reasons why our church emphasizes being part of a small group where we can encourage and support one another. Who helps you to be alert and ready in noticing Jesus’ presence? How can we help one another to see how God is at work in our lives?

     Today’s closing hymn is one of my favorite hymns, “Blessed Assurance.” There’s a wonderful line in that hymn which gave me the inspiration for today’s sermon title. It’s in the last verse of that hymn.

     “Perfect submission, all is at rest; I in my Savior am happy and blest, watching and waiting, looking above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love.”

     Watching and waiting and looking above is how we are filled with God’s goodness and lost in his love.

     Watching and waiting is what helps us to identify what we refer to as “thin place” moments, those moments when heaven and earth overlap in our ordinary lives. Being wise means that we are alert and ready for those moments where God shows up unexpectedly. 

     So, for those of you who are the wise ones out there, please help us foolish ones to be ready and alert so we don’t miss out. Maybe bring some extra oil for our lamps just in case we forget to bring our own.

     Let’s watch and wait and look above together, so that we can all be filled with his goodness and lost in his love.

Watching & Waiting Together
Sermon Discussion Questions
Matthew 25:1-13
November 8, 2020 

Jesus is on a roll in telling parables. He now offers this parable of the foolish bridesmaids who end up missing out on the big wedding.This is a parable about being alert, prepared and ready for when Jesus appears.

What helps you to be alert, prepared and ready to recognize Jesus in your day to day living?

Pastor Robert shared the story of how some members of a church in California were being rude toward a young woman who was simply sitting on their church lawn. They wanted her to leave because the church had recently experienced some vandalism to their church property. Instead of getting to know this woman and show kindness, they were more focused on just getting her to leave.

Why do you think we sometimes miss opportunities to see Jesus in other people?

The reason the foolish bridesmaids were late to the wedding was because they had forgotten to bring enough oil for their lamps. Even though the foolish bridesmaids should have remembered to bring enough oil, it would have been nice if the wise bridesmaids shared what they had with them. This parable reminds us that we can all be foolish and miss out on Jesus.

How can we help and encourage each other to see see how God is at work in our everyday lives?

Today’s sermon title is taken from the hymn, “Blessed Assurance.” “Watching and waiting, looking above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love.”

Share a recent “Thin Place” moment where you have been filled with God’s goodness and lost in his love.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Online Worship (Nov. 8) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our (November 8) 
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Monday, November 2, 2020

Sermon (Nov. 1/All Saints’ Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

     I highlight this verse from our Revelation reading because it describes every preacher’s dream. We preachers love preaching to a great multitude. We like it when sanctuaries are filled. We look forward to Christmas Eve and Sunday Easter services. 

     No wonder the author of the Book of Revelation describes that great heavenly scene of worship as a “great multitude.” Crowd size is important to preachers.

     Maybe this is how I will start to responding to people when they ask me how many were at church. I’ll just say, “there was a great multitude” and let them figure out what that means.

     All Saints’ Sunday is a day for us to remember that the worship attendance doesn’t just include the people who are in the pews. It also includes the great multitude that no one can count. They are all crying out with a loud voice saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb.”

     This great multitude is not limited to COVID19 guidelines. No, this crowd is one that goes beyond the pews of a sanctuary and includes all the company of heaven.

     This is why you haven’t heard me use the language that our church is “closed.” Our church is never closed even though our building has been closed for several months. The word, “church” doesn’t refer to the building where we meet. The word, “church” refers to the assembly of God’s people which is not dependent on whether we have a building or not. Building or no building we are always the church.

     It helps for a church to have a building where we can sit together in padded pews, where we can listen to inspiring music, where we can drink coffee or punch with our friends, but it’s not a deal breaker in what it means for us to be the church. In theological language, the church is the communion of saints in which God’s people are knit together in a web of relationships that crosses the boundaries of life, death, time, and eternity.

     And especially on this Sunday each year, All Saints, we are reminded of this true perspective of what it means when we say that we are the church. We are God’s people who just so happen to meet in a building or worship online or meet in someone’s home.

     There is a beautiful mystery within this definition of what it means to be the church. The church includes all the saints of God including those who are alive now and those who have gone before us and who are now singing their alleluias around the very throne of God in heaven.

    The church is so much more than a building that sits along South College Street. The church is the people of God both past and present offering themselves as the visible expression of God’s healing love for our community and world. 

     I could preach about this more mystical definition of the church all day long but I also want to focus on what this means for us in how we live out our faith on a daily basis. How can All Saints Sunday lead us to have a deeper faith? What does it mean for you and me to be part of the great multitude of saints?

     To help us think about these questions, ask yourself who are the people in your life who have guided you in your faith? They may no longer be living or maybe you haven’t seen them for the past several years, but their spiritual influence and guidance remain with you to this day. Who do you think about when you are struggling with an important decision in your life? 

     A couple of years ago, I was asked to do a funeral here in Athens of a man who was a member of our church many years ago. He had moved out west several decades ago. At one point, he lived in Chicago.

     During the funeral service, I invited people to share a thought or a memory about him. One of the people who shared was from Chicago and he had traveled to Athens to be at the service. He shared how he attended the adult Sunday School class where Louis taught while living in Chicago. He said how everyone who attended grew in their faith because of that Sunday School class. 

     Saints can be Sunday School teachers, people in your small group, a parent or grandparent, or that confirmation mentor who met with you when you were preparing to join the church.

     This past June, I was reading about someone who made national news because of that great multitude of saints. His name is Robert W. Lee, the 4th great nephew of Robert E. Lee, the famous southern general from the Civil War.

     Robert W. Lee was in the news because he had recently resigned from his church in North Carolina because of backlash he received for his comments denouncing racism and his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

     Here is what he shared at an awards show that disappointed the members of his church and led him to resign. “My name is Robert LeeIV; I am a descendent of Robert E. Lee, the Civl War general whose statue was at the center of violence in Charlottesville. We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate. As a pastor it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin. Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on.”

     During one of his interviews following his resignation, he explained why he decided to take this courageous stand. He said that it was because of his confirmation mentor when he was a youth preparing to join the church. His mentor’s name was Bertha Hamilton, who happened to be a person of color. 

     During the confirmation process, Bertha challenged him one day to take down the confederate flag that he had on his bedroom wall. Bertha said to him, “If you are called to be a follower of Jesus, this flag is incompatible with that calling.”

     He said that he was taken aback by her courage to challenge him on this issue. This was the prophetic voice that he needed to hear. 

     This is why he said in an interview this past June, “I’m also reminded that I have to speak up and speak out in God’s name and in the name of my family to protect what little dignity we have left and to possibly redeem the situation for our family so that, going forward, they can say there was a Lee who stood up for what’s right instead of standing up for the wrong side of history,” he said.

     Robert W. Lee is now a prophetic voice against racial injustice because of saints like his confirmation mentor.

     So when we light these candles on All Saints Sundays, we are remembering these loved ones who have been examples of what it means to follow in the way of Jesus. The multitude of saints surround us at all times whether they are still with us in person or even if they are now surrounding God’s heavenly throne. They continue to remind us of who we are and who we are called to be.

     We are part of a multitude of saints who shape and guide us in our faith. This is what All Saints’ Sunday helps us to celebrate. Together, we are all part of God’s great big family.

     This is why we celebrate All Saints’ Sunday, to be reminded that our church building may be closed but not the church, never the church. Some of our saints are watching this service online. Some have gone on to be with the Lord as represented by the candles on the altar. Some have maybe moved away and we haven’t seen them for a long time. Some we might see on a regular basis.

     This great multitude of saints past and present who are cheering us on and who serve as great examples for us of what it means to be followers of Jesus.

     How many people are in worship today? You really can’t put a number on that, especially on All Saints’ Sunday. Let’s just say that it’s a “great multitude.” Hallelujah!

A Great Multitude
Sermon Discussion Questions
Revelation 7:9-17 & Matthew 5:1-12
November 1, 2020 

During these several months that our church building has been closed, it’s been important for us to remember that even though the building is closed, the church is never closed. This is because the church isn’t the building. The church refers to God’s people. 

Why do you think that we often associate the word, “church” with the building where the people gather? How is the church so much more than just the building?

The author of the Book of Revelation says, “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”  This verse reminds us that the church doesn’t just consist of people sitting on pews in a sanctuary. The church is the mystical presence of all of God’s people both past and present. On All Saints’ Sunday, we give thanks to God for those saints who have gone before us and who are now standing before the throne and before the Lamb.

What do you think that was like for the author of Revelation to have seen this vision of this “great multitude” of God’s people surrounding the heavenly throne? What would have been your reaction? How do you think this vision shaped his understanding of what it means to be the church?

Pastor Robert shared the recent story of how Robert W. Lee, the 4th great-nephew of Robert E. Lee is speaking out against white nationalism and racism. Robert W. Lee, who is now a pastor credits his confirmation mentor who when he was a teenager challenged him to take down the confederate flag that hung in his bedroom because it represented pro-slavery and racism. He now offers interviews to show that he wants his family name to be known for promoting racial equality.

Who are the saints along your spiritual journey who have challenged and encouraged you to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ?