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

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Online Worship (January 31) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
January 31
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Monday, January 25, 2021

Sermon (January 24) by Rev. Robert McDowell

    What is your reaction when God wants you to do something that is totally against what you think God should do? If you have ever struggled with this question, then do I have the Bible story for you. You might have heard of it. It’s called, Jonah

     It’s a short story, just four chapters long. While it’s based on the historical context of that time period, it reads more like a novel than it does a typical prophetic book. The added benefit of this book of the Bible is that it is VERY entertaining.

     The main character of this story is the prophet Jonah who fails miserably at being a prophet. He is so bad at it, that you begin wondering why on earth God chose him to have the lead role in this story.

     We only heard a very small portion of the story from our appointed Old Testament reading this morning. It’s where God gives Jonah a 2nd chance to go to the people of Nineveh to see if they will repent and accept God’s mercy since the Assyrians were known to be an evil and ruthless empire especially in how it treated the people of Israel.

     The first time God directed Jonah to fulfill this mission was in chapter one, but instead of heading toward the city of Nineveh, Jonah bought a boat ticket and traveled the opposite direction. And this is the comical part of the story and it’s worth telling even if you have already heard it this story a million times. 

     Jonah is on this boat deliberately going the opposite direction from where God wanted him to go and there are sailors on board with him. While they are sailing, they encounter a terrible storm. With their lives in danger, Jonah tells the others that he was the cause of the storm because of his disobedience to God. The only way they could survive the storm would be by throwing him overboard. 

     But wait. It gets even better because after they throw Jonah into the sea, he gets swallowed up by this great big fish. And while he is in the belly of this big fish, he writes this long poem telling God how sorry he is for not doing what God had told him to do. After he finishes the poem, God has the fish spew him out upon the dry land.

     Which brings us to our appointed scripture reading where God gives Jonah this 2nd chance to do what he was told to do which was to go to the wicked city of Nineveh and get them to repent of their evil and be forgiven. I can picture God pointing Jonah toward Nineveh saying, “It’s that way.”

     Let’s stop here in the story for a moment. Consider this a commercial break in this biblical sit-com. Jonah is making a case for being the worst prophet ever appointed by God. And by being the worst prophet ever, he is providing us with a lot of entertainment and laughs. 

     Can you believe this guy? He was told to go to the city of Nineveh and instead he finds a boat that is going in the opposite direction. He then endangers the lives of these innocent sailors because of his foolishness. And then he gets thrown into the sea only to be swallowed by a large fish who then spews him up after a full three days. 

    So during this commercial break, we, the audience are wondering if this guy is finally going to get his act together. I can picture God putting the palm of his hand on his forehead while saying, “oy vey!” 

     Smelling like a fish, Jonah begins walking slowly in the direction of Nineveh.

     As Jonah is nearing the city, we’re thinking that this reluctant prophet might just end up finally doing what he was supposed to do in the first place, which is to tell the people to repent and receive God’s mercy.

     Evidently, that poem of forgiveness that Jonah wrote while in the belly of the fish was more of a sorry/not sorry apology to God because when he gets to Nineveh he gives his version of God’s message instead. Jonah is supposed to tell the people, “Repent and God will forgive you.” Instead he says, “Hey, Ninevites! In forty days, your city is going to be destroyed!” No message of hope. No invitation to repent. Just doom and gloom. “You’re going down, Nineveh!”

      But then we get the really crazy part of this short story. Even though Jonah announces the wrong message, all of the people of Nineveh repent. And not only do they repent, the people proclaim a fast and they put on sackcloth which is a sign of true humility.  

     The king of Nineveh repents along with all of the nobles. And get this, even the animals of Nineveh repent! This turns out to be the most successful religious revival of all time. And it was led by probably the most incompetent and disobedient prophet you will find in the Old Testament.

     The ironic thing about the Book of Jonah is that in all of the children’s books about Jonah, he is always portrayed as this incredible prophet. A big deal is made about how he was able to survive being swallowed by a great big fish and how the people of Nineveh ended up repenting of their sins. Jonah is seen in this very positive light. He is cast as a hero.

      And then we come to the final chapter of this book which is the exclamation point on why this guy should be better named as the reluctant prophet. After all the people of Nineveh, including the king and the nobles and even the animals repent from their wicked ways, the story concludes with a very bitter and discouraged Jonah who is angry and disappointed with God.

      Here’s what I believe is going on with this crazy story about the prophet, Jonah. He might have been portrayed in a very comical and entertaining way, but all of this is to show how like Jonah, we also can be God’s reluctant prophets. That’s right. There are times when that’s you and me fleeing in the opposite direction of where God is calling us to go. There are times when we have the opportunity to share God’s message and we get tongue-tied. That’s you and me sulking off to the side because we aren’t nearly ready to forgive others as God appears to be.

     We are reluctant prophets whenever we set boundaries on God’s far-reaching love for all people. 

     We are reluctant prophets whenever we focus our attention on who’s inside and who’s outside of God’s grace. 

     We are reluctant prophets whenever we impose limits on who God should love or not love. 

     We are reluctant prophets whenever we forget that we are just as in need of God’s grace as anyone else. 

     We are reluctant prophets whenever we believe that our interpretation of scripture is the only true way to interpret it. 

     We are reluctant prophets whenever we reach a point where we think that we are done growing and being challenged in our faith.

     The story of Jonah serves an incredible purpose. It puts us on alert in how we are more like the comical character, Jonah than we care to admit. Just when we think that we have God all figured out is usually when God wants to send us to another Nineveh that will stretch us more than we think we are capable. 

     Jonah would have rather been swallowed by a fish than swallow his own pride when God told him to go to Nineveh. We are reluctant prophets as well, but the good news is that I’m pretty sure that God already knows this about us. We get something in our head. We form our opinions. We think we have everything figured out. And God reminds us there is so much more for us to experience and learn.

     And like Jonah, God gives us 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 20th or however many chances it takes to get us back on the road to Nineveh where we have an important message to deliver, a message of God’s grace and mercy for all people.

     I should know because you are looking at a reluctant prophet. When I first began the pastoral ministry, one of my strengths was in having strong convictions and I can be pretty stubborn with those convictions, so I have been told, anyway. For example, I have always had a high regard for scripture and what I would call an evangelical faith.

     But then soon into my ministry, I realized that my long-held traditional convictions about human sexuality were being challenged in my own ministry contexts. For example I got to know some of the most loving and faithful church members who happened to be gay. I couldn’t imagine not having them as part of our church family or being part of a denomination that would tell them that God did not approve of their sexual orientation.

     I can’t tell you have many candidates for ministry have been turned down during my pastoral career simply because of their sexual orientation. These were candidates who were very gifted and called to enter the ordained ministry and yet I have been part of a denomination that has denied them of that opportunity. Even during those early years of my ministry, I knew that something was very wrong when a thousand clergy were debating a candidate’s sexuality. 

     The same thing happened with our conference’s treasurer, Bill Brownson, a United Methodist lay person who happens to be gay.  Ten years ago, Bill, an exceptionally gifted person in the finance world had to stand up in front of over two thousand United Methodists during our West Ohio Annual Conference held at Lakeside, Ohio and listen to us debate back and forth if he should be approved as our new conference treasurer, not because of his financial qualifications or his deeply rooted faith, but because of his sexual orientation.

     In all of these situations, all I could say was, “Lord, have mercy on us.”

     I will say that there were some pastors back in the late 80s and 90s who spoke out against our denomination’s stance. They were our early prophets who weren’t as reluctant to speak out like many of us could have done including myself.

     For that, I am deeply sorry for my reluctance. But over time and in more recent years, this reluctant prophet of yours is now more inclined to speak out. This reluctant prophet is now more inclined to see scripture in a new light. This reluctant prophet is now more inclined to not equate strong convictions with having a closed mind. God is always challenging us to be open to the new thing that God has in mind for us and for the people God loves. 

     So, here’s the interesting thing about the book of Jonah. We don’t know how the story ended with him. It concludes very abruptly with Jonah being angry that God extended his love and mercy to a people he felt deserved it the least.

     This open ending to the Book of Jonah is the writer’s creative way of taking the spotlight off of Jonah and putting it on us. 

     What are the new places, the new ways of thinking, the new challenges to our long-held beliefs, the new experiences, and the new opportunities that God will be using to lead us to include even more people in his never-ending circle of grace?

The Reluctant Prophet
Sermon Discussion Questions
Jonah 3:1-5, 10
January 24, 2021

The story of the prophet, Jonah is one of the most entertaining stories in the entire bible! Even though it is based during a particular historical context, it reads more like a comical novel than it does a typical prophetic book of the Bible. God calls Jonah to share a message of repentance to the evil empire of Assyria but instead catches a boat that sails in the opposite direction! He then puts the lives of those on the boat in jeopardy, gets thrown overboard, is swallowed by a big fish, and is vomited onto dry land. God gives him a second chance and this time he goes to Nineveh but changes the message that God had given him.

Why do you think the author of the Book of Jonah uses this entertaining story-telling approach in telling the story of this reluctant prophet? 

Jonah is known by bible scholars as the Reluctant Prophet because he did so many unprophet-like things in the story. He was reluctant to do what God told him to do because he didn’t want the people of Nineveh to repent and receive God’s mercy. Jonah was not willing to extend God’s circle of grace.

Why do you think it was difficult for Jonah to extend God’s grace? Why are we reluctant to extend God’s grace to others? 

Pastor Robert shared his personal story of how he was a reluctant prophet in the long process of slowly changing his theological views regarding LGBTQ issues. After a long time of wrestling with the scriptures and experiencing the harm that LGBTQ people have experienced because of the church’s traditional stance, he realized that God’s circle of grace is much larger than what he was brought up to believe. 

In what ways does God help you to be open to new perspectives and new understandings in your faith?

The Book of Jonah is a cliff hanger. We are not told if Jonah ever embraced God’s grace that was extended to the Ninevites. The story concludes with Jonah sulking. This  lack of resolution to what happened to Jonah is probably the author’s creative way of inviting us to think about our own reluctance or willingness to extend God’s grace and love to all people. Here is our worship prayer for the week to help us be more open to becoming God’s willing prophets.

Merciful, compassionate, and gracious God, thank you for your patience with us. You know our struggles, disappointments, brokenness, and pain. You also know that we often fall short of who you have called us to be, people created in your image. Forgive us for whenever we are too prideful to offer your love to others or to receive it ourselves. With humility, we come this day to receive your loving kindness anew. Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Online Worship (January 24) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
January 24
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Sunday, January 17, 2021

Sermon (January 17) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     These past several months of physical distancing during this global pandemic have been pretty challenging for many of us, to say the least. One of the ways that I have been coping these past several months is by listening to music. And not just any music but for me it was mainly songs from the 60s and 70s. 

     As I listened to these hits from forty to fifty years ago, I became interested in the background for many of these songs. And one of those was the song, “Listen to the Music” by the Doobie Brothers. The song was a huge hit when it was released in 1972, rising to #11 on the charts. You are probably hearing this song being played in your head now as I talk about it.

     I read where the writer of that song, Tom Johnston was struggling to compose that first big hit for the band. And someone gave him the simple advice which was to, “Just go listen to the music.” And he did, and it led to him coming up with this hit song, “Listen to the Music.”

     In our Old Testament reading, the Priest, Eli offers similar advice to young Samuel after he hears his name being called in the night. Samuel thinks that it was Eli who was calling his name, but Eli knew that it was the Lord. 

     And Eli gave Samuel this simple advice. The next time you hear someone calling your name, just say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

     So Samuel did what Eli told him to do. The Lord called Samuel’s name again and this time, Samuel was ready to listen to the Lord’s voice. 

     Who encourages you to listen to the music of God calling your name? Who are the people in your life who have come alongside of you to help you know that God just might be calling your name?

     In our Gospel reading today, we have the story of how Nathaniel became a follower of Jesus. He became a follower because Phillip introduced him to Jesus. That introduction led to Nathaniel having a conversation with Jesus and he ended up becoming one of Jesus’ twelve disciples.

     Samuel had Eli. Nathaniel had Phillip. Who are the people who help you to listen to God’s calling in your life?

     As I reflect back on my decision to become a pastor, I think of the many people who helped me to listen to respond to God’s calling in my life. People like my pastor when I was in the 9th grade. He came up to me at a church event and very nonchalantly said, “You should think about becoming a pastor someday.”

     And then when I was in college, some of my friends would say to me, “We think God might be calling you to go into the ministry.” All of these people were encouraging me to listen to the music, to listen to God’s voice. 

     It was during this time when my college friends were encouraging me to think about going into the ministry that I went on a retreat that was held in the mountains of Central Pennsylvania. During one of the sessions of the retreat, the leader invited us to take our bibles and find a place and just spend that time listening to God.

     That’s like the simplest spiritual exercise to tell someone to do. “Hey, go somewhere and listen for God to speak to you.”

     I remember opening the Bible randomly and it opened to Jeremiah, chapter one. And so I read that first chapter. It’s the story of when God was calling Jeremiah to become a prophet and Jeremiah is coming up with all these excuses, and God then tells Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid. I’ve put my words in your mouth.”

     As I read this, it hit me that I was like Jeremiah in the story who was in need of reassurance from God. And that was the moment when I finally heard the music. I heard God calling me to become a pastor.

     If it wasn’t for my home pastor when I was in the 9th grade, if it wasn’t for my college friends, and if it wasn’t for that retreat leader who said, “Hey, go somewhere and listen for God,” I don’t think that I would have heard and responded to God calling my name to go into the ministry. 

     When somebody is exploring the possibility of becoming a pastor in the United Methodist Church, we talk about the importance of having both an inner calling and an outer calling. The inner calling is when the person believes he or she has been called by God to become a pastor. The outer calling is when the people who know that person believe that God may be calling him or her into the ministry.

     In our Old Testament reading, Eli represents Samuel’s outer calling. And Samuel’s inner calling was when he listened and responded to God’s calling by saying, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

     We need both an outer calling and an inner calling. When those two things come together, we are able to listen to the music of God’s calling in our lives.

     Who are the people who encourage you to listen to the music of God’s calling in your life? 

     This past July, one of our church members, Cathy Bigger contacted me to say that if I ever needed a Sunday off and needed someone to preach, that she would be interested in filling in. I knew from past experience in working with Cathy here in the church that she had always done a great job whenever she needed to speak in front of people. Cathy had also recently attended a United Methodist Lay Servant training class that was held in our district.

     So I think she may have been a little surprised when I responded so quickly and told her that I needed someone to fill in for me in about two months. When she said that would work on her schedule, I sent her the appointed scripture readings for that Sunday along with a possible sermon theme that she might want to use in developing her message.

     As we got closer to the date when she was to give the message, we went over some more details about her Sunday and about a week before she was to preach, she sent me her message so I could look it over. I was impressed with the time and prayer she put into writing it and it ended up blessing a lot of people that Sunday.

     Cathy later told me how much she appreciated the opportunity to preach and then she shared a thin place God moment with me. She said that the day that was chosen for her to preach ended up being really special because that happened to be her mother’s birthday anniversary. She said that her mother had also been trained as a Lay Speaker in the United Methodist Church and Cathy was honoring her mother’s memory by preaching that day.

     When we hear God calling our name to serve, we are often reminded of those who have been like Eli in our lives, people who have loved and nurtured us in the faith. This is what makes our church family so important. We are here to help each other listen and discern God’s calling in our lives. Is really is a team effort.

     People share with me how they have felt God calling them to teach Sunday School or serve on our Leadership Board or help record our online worship services or make prayer shawls or help with church mailings or go on a missions trip or any number of ways of serving. Without God calling each of our names, we would not be the church that God is calling us to be.

     It takes each and every one of us to listen to God speaking our name, to discern if that calling is matching up with our particular gifts, abilities and passion. And the good news is that we are here to support each other in that whole process. We are often each other’s cheerleader, advocate, spiritual guide, sounding board, voice of wisdom. Sometimes we are more like Samuel where we are seeking to discern if we are truly hearing God’s voice. Other times, we are more like Eli helping others to listen for God’s voice.

     My prayer is that we can see ourselves as both Samuel and Eli. God is speaking to each one of us. The question is how can we help each other hear that voice that is calling our names. 

     Our music director, Peter Jarjisian who is on sabbatical this year shared during a worship service last spring how he was able to hear God’s calling to pursue a music career. He attended Upper Darby High School near Philadelphia, PA where he was part of the school choir.

     His choir director took them on a singing tour to the state capital in Harrisburg one year. The capital has a large dome and so when you sing there, the music travels around that rotunda in such a beautiful way. 

     The choir sang the Hallelujah Chorus and he said that it was such a beautiful sound that it was one of the defining moments that led him to choose music as a career. Peter literally listened to the music and it led to his very distinguished music career here at Ohio University as well as through the life of our church as our Director of Music. 

     How do we know if God is calling our name? Just go and listen to the music. It will lead us to write a new song, one that God is calling us to sing out.

     Perhaps the sweetest melody is the one yet to be heard. God is calling our names to listen to the music and then sing it for the world.

Listen to the Music
Sermon Discussion Questions
I Samuel 3:1-10 & John 1:43-51
January 17, 2021

In the sermon, Pastor Robert shared how the 70s hit song, “Listen to the Music” was composed. Someone in the music industry told the band that if they want to write a hit song, they need to take time to just listen to the music. They did and that’s why they named their song, “Listen to the Music.” When God called Samuel in the night, he thought it was Eli speaking. Eli, knowing that it was really God who was calling him, told him to go back and this time, when he hears that voice to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” 

Have you ever heard God calling for you? What was that experience like for you?

Pastor Robert shared the difference between an inner calling and an outer calling. An inner calling is when we believe that God is calling us to do something. An outer calling is when other people believe that we have been called by God to do something. When we are wondering if God is calling our name, it’s important to have both the inner and the outer calling. Eli served as Samuel’s outer calling. In our Gospel reading, Philip served as Nathaniel’s outer calling. 

Who has been like Eli or Philip in serving as your outer calling? In what ways have you helped to confirm someone’s inner calling from God? 
In our Old Testament reading, the young Samuel heard an audible voice from God. 

Do you believe that God audibly calls our name? In what ways do you think that God tries to get our attention when calling for us to do something? How can we help each other in the church to listen for God’s voice?

Now that you know how the song, “Listen to the Music,” was created, be open to how God might be calling your name.

Online Worship (January 17) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
January 17
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Sunday, January 10, 2021

Online Worship (Jan. 10/Baptism of the Lord Sunday) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
(Jan. 10/Baptism of the Lord Sunday)
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Sermon (January 10/Baptism of the Lord Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Baptism of the Lord Sunday might as well also be called Holy Spirit Sunday because of the close relationship between the Sacrament of Baptism and the Spirit. In our Gospel lesson, we have the story of Jesus being baptized.

     People often ask why Jesus needed to be baptized since we usually associate baptism with the forgiveness of sins and Jesus as God’s Son was sinless. But in addition to cleansing from sins, baptism is also closely associated with the outpouring of God’s Spirit.

     Notice that when Jesus was coming out of the water, we are told that the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

     Baptism is closely associated with the Holy Spirit. 

     And this is also why on this Sunday of the year, our Old Testament reading is from the creation story where we hear that it was the wind from God that swept over the waters leading to the creation of the world.

     In the Hebrew language, which the Old Testament was written, the word for “wind” is the same word for “breath” and “spirit.” Wind, breath, spirit. It’s all the same word.

     I find it very interesting that the word, “breath” is interchangeable with the word, “spirit.” 

     Jack Leviton is a bible scholar who has recently written a book about this. The title of his book is “The Holy Spirit Before Christianity.” And in his book, he makes the important point that we often only think of the Holy Spirit in terms of the New Testament and specifically with Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples marking the beginning of the church.

     But he makes the point that when we read the Old Testament more carefully, we can see that the Holy Spirit is also prominent in the Old Testament. And this is why our Genesis creation story reading is paired with the baptism of Jesus story because they both speak of God’s Spirit. Spirit, wind, breath. They all are connected.

     And this has led Jack Levison to this very, very important quote that I would like us to think about on this Baptism of the Lord Sunday. He says, “If there is a message for the American church in a study of the spirit in the Old Testament, it’s for us to learn to breathe again.” “It’s for us to learn to breathe again.”

     That might not sound very spiritual at first, but since the word, “spirit” is closely connected with “breath,” breathing is probably one of the most spiritual things we can do.

     And when I heard him make this point about learning to breathe, I immediately recalled a conversation that I had with a pastor friend of mine who has suffered with anxiety. When we were together a while back, he told me that one of the things his therapist has taught him to do was to use his breathing to help him cope with his anxiety.

    There’s a way to breathe that can be helpful and there’s a way not to breathe. Breathing from the abdomen, experts tell us, has many advantages. It helps to diminish the sense of anxiety we may be feeling in any given moment.

     When we learn to breathe, it helps to increase our oxygen supply, it increases our feelings of connection between our mind and body, and it enables us to have better concentration and focus.

     This past Wednesday when I was watching the news where people broke into the Capitol to protest the presidential election based on a conspiracy theory, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. I was angry. I was embarrassed. I felt so helpless. And that’s when I thought about this sermon and how God invites us especially in moments like this to breathe and to receive God’s Spirit anew.

     I say all of this because I really think learning to breathe is a spiritual thing. 

     So, let’s just take a moment and be conscious of the breath we are taking in this very moment. As you breathe, think about that breath as God’s life-giving spirit filling your lungs and providing you with oxygen, connecting your mind and body, and helping you to be focused and centered. God’s Holy Spirit is as close to you as that breath you are taking.

     As we think about the breath we are taking, let’s try this abdominal breathing exercise that you might find helpful to do periodically during the course of your day. Go ahead and take a deep breath through your nose while silently counting to five. When you get to five, hold your breath for a second or two.

     Let’s try this together. Slowly breathe in using your nose, counting slowly to five…

     Now hold hold on to that breath for about two seconds…

     And exhale slowly.

     Let’s do that one more time…

     This is a breathing exercise that we can do each day. If you’re like me, we probably don’t do this nearly often enough. But what is more basic than being conscious of our breathing and learning to breathe?

     And whenever you do this breathing exercise, not only does it have health benefits and can calm us when we are feeling anxious, it also reminds us that God’s Holy Spirit is in that very breath we are taking. The Holy Spirit is as close to us as the wind and our breath.

     Another important point that Jack Levison makes about the Spirit in his writings is that the Spirit not only enables us to breathe, it also is what prompts us to be a people of justice and mercy.

     Throughout the scriptures we read how the Spirit leads and guides us to challenge the status quo where there is injustice. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism refers to this as the “promptings of the Holy Spirit.”

     When have you felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to speak out or take a action against racism, inequality, sexism or anything that seeks to dehumanize people? 

     I find it very interesting that this past summer’s Blacks Lives Matter protests were rekindled because an African American man was choked to death while crying out, “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

     That breath that he wasn’t able to take was also the Spirit that gives all of us life no matter what our color of skin might be. Spirit, breath, wind. It’s all the same. Those words all refer to God’s life-giving power at work in the world. Perhaps if we would keep in mind that every single human being is breathing in God’s spirit in any given moment, it might help us to see that we are one human family.

     George Floyd’s final breath led to an unleashing, an unleashing across our country of God’s Spirit calling out racism and injustice and demanding that changes be made in how we treat each other. God prompts us through the Spirit to stand up and speak out for what is right.

     Learning to breathe also means learning to use our breath and and our voices to promote justice and mercy.

     When Jesus was baptized by John, the Spirit descended upon him. And I also think about one of the first things that Jesus did following his baptism. He went into the synagogue and he read from the prophet Isaiah where it says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, (there’s that word again, ‘Spirit’) …”  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

     The Spirit, God’s wind is what prompts us to share God’s mercy and love with all people especially in those places where there is inequality and suffering.

     When we learn to breathe, we not only receive God’s life-giving Spirit for ourselves, we also can’t help but to offer that same life-giving Spirit to others.

     A little over two years ago, I felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to preach three sermons close together here at Athens First in support of the LGBTQ community. It was around that time that we were approaching our denomination’s special General Conference meeting which was focusing on that very issue. 

     I shared with you during those sermons how my biblical perspective had changed over the past several years and led me to this more inclusive understanding. When I had planned out my sermon schedule which I like to do months in advance, I had no plans on addressing this issue, but as that General Conference was fast approaching, I decided to change my sermon plans. I only did that because I felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to do so.

     I have been thinking about those sermons from two years ago because later this year toward the end of August, our denomination will be holding another General Conference that could potentially lead to a split in the United Methodist Church over this issue. My prayer is that our church will continue to be a prophetic voice of full inclusion where candidates for the ordained ministry are not disqualified based on their sexual orientation and where gay couples are not turned away from being married by a United Methodist pastor.

     The same Holy Spirit that led me to preach those sermons two years ago is the same holy breath and wind that is leading me to continue in lifting up this very important issue. The Spirit is always prompting us to stand up for justice and equality. I just pray that I would become even more open and responsive to the Spirit’s promptings.

     On this Baptism of the Lord Sunday, let’s continue to learn to breathe in God’s Spirit of peace and justice. Practice those breathing exercises and remember that God is with you in every breath you take. Every single breath.

     In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Learning to Breathe
Sermon Discussion Questions
Genesis 1:1-5 & Mark 1:4-11
January 10, 2021

Baptism of the Lord Sunday reminds us that the Sacrament of Holy Baptism is closely associated with the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is why the story of Jesus’ baptism includes a dove which represents the Spirit. Throughout the scriptures, the word for “Spirit,” is closely associated with the words, “breath,” and “wind.” This is why our Old Testament appointed scripture reading is from Genesis, chapter one which describes how God’s wind/breath/spirit swept over the waters of creation. 

When you think of the Holy Spirit, what comes to mind? What does the Holy Spirit mean to you in your faith journey?

John Levison, an Old Testament scholar who has written a book about the Holy Spirit claims that since the word that is used for “Spirit” is the same word that is associated with the words, “breath” and “wind,” this can remind us of the importance of our own breathing in coping with anxiety. Learning to breathe is as simple as breathing in slowly from our abdomen (through our nose) counting slowly to five, hold that breath for a second, and then slowly exhaling. When we are more conscious of our breathing, it can help us to be more aware of God’s life-giving presence through the Spirit which is as close to us as the breath we are taking.

Take a few moments to practice these breathing exercise. Breath in slowly from your abdomen (through your nose) for five seconds, hold that breath for a second, and then exhale slowly. Repeat this simple breathing exercise a few times.

How can this breathing exercise and being more conscious of the breath we take help us to remember our baptism and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

John Wesley often spoke of “the promptings of the Holy Spirit” in our everyday lives. Sometimes, the Holy Spirit prompts us to be a voice for justice and equality.

When have you felt prompted by the Holy Spirit to speak up for justice and equality in our community and world? This week, specifically pray to be open to these promptings of the Spirit for the transformation of our community and world. Here is our Sunday worship prayer to offer this week during our daily prayer time:

Creator God, your breathed and creation was born. You spoke and our world came came to life. The beauty of the earth, the bounty of creation, the rising and setting of the sun all speak of your goodness and grace. Breathe upon us anew with your life-giving Spirit. Remind us of our baptism in which you have claimed us as your own. Forgive us for whenever we do not breathe in your Spirit and receive the fullness of life you have in mind for us. Amen.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Sermon (January 3/Epiphany Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Today, we celebrate Epiphany Sunday and the story of the Wise Men who came from the east to offer gifts to the Christ Child. 

     Wise Men, Magi, We Three Kings – These are all titles that are commonly used in referring to this group of people who traveled from Persia in search of the newborn King.

      I’d like to add another title for these visitors from the East. For today, let’s think of them as “seekers.” I love that title. They were seeking to offer their gifts and honor the one who was born, king of the Jews.

      This year’s New Year’s celebration didn’t just feel like a welcoming of 2021. It also felt like a good riddance to 2020. 2020 wasn’t kind to us. The new year couldn’t come soon enough. I sensed a sigh of relief as we hung new calendars on our walls. Welcome, 2021!

     For many of us, this higher than usual expectation for a better year also includes a renewed hope. With this in mind, think with me for a moment what this renewed hope could mean for our faith.

     Like those magi who traveled many miles to seek the newborn king, what if we too would see ourselves as seekers of a deeper faith? This is a year in which we can take our faith to a whole new level. 

     Being seekers like the magi means that like them, we have a curiosity to know who this newborn king is and what this means for our own faith perspective. And like saying goodbye to 2020 and hello to 2021, being seekers may also mean letting go of the past and embracing the future that God has in mind for us. Yes, this new year seems like the perfect time to travel with the magi and seek a deeper relationship with God.

     I love the name given to this day on the church calendar. Epiphany. We sometimes use this word in everyday language when we say, “I just had an epiphany,” and we will proceed to share some new insight or something we discovered or learned.

     To have an epiphany means being open to the new direction that God may be leading us. It’s difficult to have an epiphany when we are satisfied with the status-quo and when our minds and our hearts are not open.

     Back in the fall, I received a college magazine update, and in her letter to the college community, the president of the college wrote these insightful words, “The three Rs of education should be more than reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic. It needs to include seeking and finding truth – research and reflection – before reacting.”

     I understood her words to mean that we shouldn’t be satisfied with the status-quo and to always have a healthy curiosity that will lead to growth and new understandings. Education and spiritual growth are never meant to be stagnant. When we stop learning and growing in our faith, we cease from being the seekers that God is calling us to be.

[Kirsten Powers, Journalist]

     Kirsten Powers is a journalist and political analyst. She’s been on Fox News, CNN, and USA Today. I recently heard an interview she gave about her faith journey which is really interesting. Her story is the story of a spiritual seeker.

     Kirsten shares how she grew up in a home that wasn’t particularly religious. Her mother was Catholic but had fallen away from the church. Her father was Episcopalian and didn’t attend regularly.

     When she was in college, she saw herself as an atheist or agnostic. She just didn’t know if she really believed in God. When she was in her 30s, her boyfriend at the time was attending a well known evangelical church in New York City, and she started attending worship services with him. 

     She said how that church got her to start thinking about her faith more seriously and she became a believer during that time. But as she continued in that church, she realized that she didn’t agree with a lot of what the people of that church believed about the Bible, about politics, and about social issues.

     Here she was, not a very conservative person, worshiping in an evangelical church that didn’t reflect her values and theological views. But, she says that she’s thankful for that church because that’s where she encountered Christ in a very real way. For the long-term, the church was just too narrow and one dimensional for her theologically because she was more progressive than they were on issues such as gay marriage.So she started attending a different church, an Anglican Church, but that church also felt too restrictive in their beliefs. 

     And so, she continued her spiritual search in finding where God was leading her in her faith. In her role as a journalist, she met Father Jonathon Morris and they became friends. She started asking him questions about the Catholic faith and he introduced her to a more inclusive understanding of the Christian faith, something that Kirsten had been seeking. For her, the evangelical church was too one dimensional, but in the Catholic faith, there was more room for both conservatives and liberals.

     She decided to join the Catholic Church just a few years ago and since then, she has continued in her spiritual quest. When she went to Rome on assignment to do a story with other reporters, she participated in a spiritual pilgrimage that was happening while they were there. She said how that pilgrimage in visiting the holy sites in Rome had a big impact on our faith. It helped her to appreciate the mystery of the faith and that there didn’t need to be an answer for every spiritual question. Just live in the mystery. And this has led her to practice the spiritual discipline of meditation and prayer. 

     Another spiritual mentor encouraged her to read the book, “Falling Upward,” by Richard Rohr who has written several other books on Christian spirituality in which he talks about how our failings can be the foundation for our ongoing spiritual growth. Kirsten shares how this long journey of seeking has been worthwhile and gives her a sense of peace and wholeness. 

     She is now writing a book on the topic of grace. 

     After I listened to her interview, I was reminded of how like Kirsten, we are all called to be spiritual seekers and that spiritual journey is ongoing and leads us to new understandings, experiences, and connections. Kirsten’s story reminds me so much of what the Wise Men were doing when they made their long journey to seek the new born king by following a star all the way to Bethlehem.

     Kirsten’s story also reminds me of the kind of church that I want us always to be, a church that gives room for people to be who God has called them to be, a church that is humble enough to see that we don’t have all the answers, but a church where we can point each other to the One who is the newborn king, the one who wants to live at the very center of all of our questions, doubts, and deepest longings.

     One of my favorite things to hear as a pastor is when someone who has been a long-time church members says, “I learned something new about my faith,” or “that bible study helped me to see that there are other ways of interpreting scripture,” or “I like being part of a church where we see our faith in different ways.”

     We are all seekers here. We are all following the star and it’s a long journey. But the good news that I want to leave you with today is, that journey will always lead us to Christ. That journey will always lead us to a deeper appreciation of divine mystery. That journey will always lead us to a richer understanding of God’s grace at work in our lives.

     And as we begin this new year and let’s all thank God for this new year! As we begin this new year together, how appropriate that we begin our journey with the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The one who was born as our king is also the one who suffered, died, and who rose again for our sake.

     May God bless you with many spiritual epiphanies this year. And like the Wise Men, may they always lead you to overwhelming joy. 

Sermon Discussion Questions
Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12
January 3, 2021

Epiphany is the day on the church calendar that we focus on the Magi who traveled from Persia to bring gifts to the Christ Child, the newborn king of Israel. Many different names are used for these travelers including Magi, Wise Men, Kings, etc. Whatever name we use for them, they were also seekers who were willing to travel a long distance to meet and present gifts to this newborn king.

In what ways do you see yourself as a spiritual seeker? What would you consider to be some common traits of someone who is seeking a closer relationship with God?

In today’s language we sometimes use the word, “epiphany” to describe a new insight, discovery or idea.

Share an epiphany of something new that you have learned or discovered.

Pastor Robert shared the spiritual seeking of Kirsten Powers, a nationally known journalist and political analyst. She grew up in a nominally religious home. She always saw herself as an agnostic or atheist. A friend invited her to an evangelical church in New York City where she became a Christian. Following her conversion, she began to realize that this church’s conservative views in interpreting the Bible did not line up with how she viewed the Bible and faith. This led her on another spiritual search and she ended up joining a Catholic Church. She continues to be a seeker in her understanding of the Bible and faith.

What does your spiritual journey look like? How has being a spiritual seeker helped you to keep growing, to keep asking questions, and to keep being open to new perspectives? 

As we begin this new year, offer this prayer to help us be more open to the epiphanies that are yet to come along our spiritual journeys. 

God of light, heal us with your steadfast love. Forgive us for when we close our minds and and refuse to allow your brightness to shine through us. Restore us in your mercy when we put our own comfort before the needs of others, and when we are unwilling to speak out against oppression and violence. Renew us in the power of your Spirit when we refuse to follow the star you have placed before us. Lead us again to bow at the manger, offer our best gifts, and honor you as our true King. Amen.