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, February 28, 2021

Online Worship (Feb. 28/Lent) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
February 28
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Monday, February 22, 2021

Sermon (Feb. 21/Lent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     We are beginning a new season of Lent worship series called, “Wilderness Challenges” based on the forty days when Jesus began his ministry in the wilderness. While Jesus was in the wilderness, he faced several challenges related to his identity and his mission. 

      The forty day season of Lent is meant to remind us of those forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. If we want to grow in our faith and be faithful in following Jesus to the cross and the empty tomb of Easter, we need to be willing to face these challenges as well. By facing them, we will learn more about the areas of our spiritual lives that are in need of growth and renewal.

     Over these next several weeks of Lent, we will be looking at several different wilderness challenges. These include our identity, our trust, our passion, our healing, our focus, our humility and our belief. We will be using the appointed scripture readings for each of these Sundays in Lent to explore these themes.

     As we begin this season of Lent series, let’s think about why Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. What is the significance of the wilderness and why is it important for us to spend time there with Jesus as well?

    When we see that Jesus began his ministry by living in the wilderness for forty days, we immediately make the connection with the people of Israel, who centuries before were in the wilderness for forty years. 

    The people of Israel had been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years and God called Moses to lead them from slavery and into the promised land. To do this, they needed to travel through the wilderness. It was while they were in the wilderness that God was forming and shaping them to be his people.

     By first going to the wilderness to begin his ministry, Jesus is mimicking what happened to the Israelites centuries before him. Here is the parallel with the wilderness story of the Israelites and the wilderness story of Jesus. 

     Both of these wilderness stories begin with water. For the Israelites, it was the Red Sea when Moses parted it allowing them to escape from Pharaoh. For Jesus, it was the Jordan River where he was baptized. 

     These wilderness stories also were a passage way to their ultimate destination. For the Israelites, the destination was the Promised Land where they would be able to live as free people under God’s gracious rule. For Jesus, the destination was the city of Jerusalem where he would die on a cross and rise again which would lead to the freedom of God’s people from sin and death. 

     But to go from slavery to the Promised Land, the Israelites and Jesus first needed to face the challenges of living in the wilderness. The church has designated this season of Lent as a time to live out this wilderness journey. It’s not an easy journey. It will test us along the way, but it can be a time of tremendous spiritual growth.

     For this first Sunday in the wilderness, the appointed scriptures for today offer us our very first challenge and it’s related to our identity.

     Knowing who we are is critical in living out our faith. 

     Our Gospel reading this morning begins with Jesus in the wilderness but just before he was driven into the wilderness, we have the story of Jesus being baptized in the River Jordan. And I think this connection is a very important one because Jesus’ baptism centers around his identity. 

     So even before Jesus entered the challenge of the wilderness, he knew his identity. What do we learn about Jesus’ identity from his baptism?

     Well, the first thing we learn is that as Jesus was coming out of the water from his baptism, the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. And then we get this voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

     These two aspects of Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descending upon him and the voice from heaven calling him “beloved” are also important dimensions whenever we celebrate a baptism. Baptism reminds us that we have been claimed by God and that we are given the name, “beloved.” And so, when Jesus went into the wilderness, he already knew who he was and that the Spirit was with him. 

     Every week when we worship together, we collectively say our benediction which reminds us of our identity. We begin that benediction with these words, “You are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God.”

     We started using this benediction almost two years ago. The motivation for creating our own special benediction came out of the anguish I was feeling after the disappointing decision by our denomination to retain the restrictive language found in the Book of Discipline regarding LGBTQ issues. 

     The decision from that special General Conference had made national news and the spotlight was on our denomination. Since Athens First has always sought to be an inclusive and welcoming church, I was trying to think of what our congregation could do to emphasize God’s acceptance of all people, especially people in the LGBTQ community.

     And that’s when God reminded me of something that often goes unnoticed in a worship service. The benediction. The thought occurred to me that I put so much time into developing a sermon, that I don’t give nearly enough attention to what is spoken during the benediction. And so I prayed about it, and came up with that opening line, “You are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God.”

     For the first few Sundays, I was the only one speaking this benediction because that is what typically happens. The pastor offers the benediction and the congregation listens. And then I went on vacation for a few Sundays and the person who was leading the service for those Sundays invited the entire congregation to say it with him.

     When I got back from vacation, somebody told me about it and they said how powerful it was that everybody was saying it together. So, I continued this new tradition where I invite all of you to speak those words with me.

     What I love about this benediction is that on any given Sunday when we worship together, every single person is invited to say these words and know that they truly are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God.

     The other interesting thing about this is that my plan was to use this benediction for a month or two and now it’s been almost two years that we have been using it!

     One of the leading worship scholars of our denomination has been Laurence Hull Stookey who passed away in 2016. Stookey wrote a book about baptism in which he says, 

     “Each of us stuffers from spiritual amnesia. We forget what God has done for us and promised to us. We also conveniently forget what God wants from us as disciples. In short, we are oblivious to the identity we have been given by our creator. God, aware of our malady and of our inability to effect a cure, acts to reveal our true identity to us. One means by which God counteracts this amnesia is baptism.”

     Our first wilderness challenge is related to having spiritual amnesia and this is all rooted in our identity. To overcome this challenge, we need to find ways to remember who we are.

     Martin Luther, who started the Protestant Reformation back in the 1500’s would remember his baptism and who he was by placing his hand on his head and repeating the words, “I am baptized. I am baptized.”

     He would do this especially whenever he was feeling anxiety or distress. “I am baptized.”

     What a great way to remember our baptism, to cure our spiritual amnesia and to remember our true identity, that we are loved by God.

     In one of the churches I served, a member of the congregation told me that she doesn’t know what she would have done without our church. I asked her what she meant.

     And she said how throughout her life, she had always struggled with self-worth and feeling accepted. She then told me that sometimes when she is really struggling and feeling down, she’ll simply pull her car into our church parking lot and sit there in her car looking at our church building. She said that it has a way of reminding her that she is somebody, that God loves her, and that this is a safe space for her.

     One of my favorite things to do is to look up at our church steeple especially when it’s a beautiful day and seeing that cross high above, 130 feet above our sidewalk. That steeple is here to remind us that God loves us.

     Friends, let’s remember to never underestimate how God can use a hymn, a benediction, a kind word or gesture, a steeple, or even a church parking lot as a way of reminding us of our true identity.

     So on this first Sunday in the wilderness, never forget who you are. You are a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God! That is who you are!

Wilderness Challenges - Our Identity

Sermon Discussion Questions
Mark 1:9-15
February 21, 2021

During these next seven weeks, we will be spending time with Jesus in the wilderness when he began his ministry. We will be focusing on seven challenges while we are in the wilderness. These are related to our identity, our trust, our passion, our healing, our focus, our humility, and our belief. When Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, it reminds us of when centuries earlier, the Israelites spent forty years in the wilderness. The wilderness is that place where we are shaped and formed as God’s people.

Which of the seven challenges above stand out the most for you? 

The first challenge from our scripture reading today is related to our identity. Notice that just before Jesus entered the wilderness he was baptized. The Spirit descended upon him and a voice from heaven called him, “my beloved.” Baptism is one of the significant ways for us to remember who we truly are, God’s beloved.

If you have been baptized, what memories of it come to mind? If you were baptized as a baby, were any stories told about the day you were baptized? 

Theologically speaking, baptism is an outward sign of God’s grace at work in our lives. Baptism has several spiritual meanings which include 1) We are born again 2) We are cleansed from our sins 3) We are initiated into God’s family 4) We are given the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Which of these meanings of Holy Baptism stand out for you the most? How can this help us remember our true identity?

Martin Luther, the 16th century theologian who is credited for starting the Protestant Reformation was known to remember his true identity by placing his hand on his head and saying the words, “I am baptized.” 

What are some ways that you can remember who you are and that you belong to God?

Our worship benediction that we say together each week is a reminder of who we are. Say these words which remind us of our true identity. Instead of using the word, “you,” change it to “I” to help personalize it.

I am a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God. There are no exceptions, asterisks, or loopholes. As I leave from this place today, may I continue to bear witness fo the love of God in this world so that those who whom love is a stranger, will find in me a generous friend. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with me through this day. Amen.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Online Worship (Feb. 21/Lent) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
February 21
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Online Ash Wednesday Service (February 17) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
Feb.17 (Ash Wednesday)
pre-recorded online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Join us at a time of your choosing]

Holy Hump Day (February 17) with Pastor Robert

Today’s Focus:
Thoughts on Today’s Online
Ash Wednesday Service &
Our Season of Lent Series

Monday, February 15, 2021

Sermon (Feb. 14/Transfiguration Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     I always have mixed feelings about Transfiguration Sunday. It is one of the more significant Sundays on the church calendar and is known as a high holy day. You know it’s a really big deal when you see white or gold paraments on the altar for our worship service and that’s what we have today.

     I get it. It is a special Sunday. Jesus takes the disciples up a mountain and he is transfigured right in front of them. His clothes became dazzling white. And then out of nowhere, Moses and Elijah, these two ancient biblical heroes appear next to him. That must have been an amazing scene.

     James, Peter, and John don’t know how to react. It catches them off guard. 

     It’s interesting that we don’t make that big of a deal about Transfiguration Sunday. I don’t know of too many people who are planning big meals today to celebrate the occasion. But maybe we should. 

     Think about it. Peter, James and John were able to experience this very holy moment and they didn’t know how to respond or what to do in that situation. And then we’re told that Jesus didn’t want them to tell the other disciples about what had happened.

     So we’re left with he question why Jesus didn’t want the disciples to tell anyone. Why would he say that? I can’t imagine keeping something as incredible as this to myself. How did Peter, James, and John manage to keep a straight face when they came down from that mountain.

     “Hey, how did it go up there? Why did Jesus want you to go with him?”

     “Oh, it was no big deal. He just wanted to show us something.”

     “What did he show you?”

     “Oh, just this spot on the mountain where the light can get really bright. He wanted us to see it. That’s all.”

     I don’t know how they were able to not tell the other disciples especially since they were still trying to figure out what just happened.

     Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of heaven on that mountain. They actually were able to see two Old Testament heroes standing there next to Jesus. I would have been asking for their autographs and I know for sure that I would have tried to get a group photo. This would have definitely been posted on Facebook and Instagram.

     It’s not easy for me to live in the moment. I want to capture it with a photo or be able to record beautiful music at a concert. And I think the reason for this is because I want to share these special experiences and moments with others. They are too wonderful to keep to myself.

     But on the other hand, while I’m reaching for my smartphone to take the picture, I run the risk of missing that experience for myself. And sometimes, that heavenly moment is already over as I fumble around for my camera app. 

     I don’t know how long this heavenly transfiguration on the mountain lasted. The way that it’s described, it doesn’t seem like it lasted more than a minute and maybe not even that. 

     Every so often, we experience heavenly glimpses in our day to day living. These are holy moments when it feels like heaven opens up and shines upon us. We don’t know what exactly to do. Peter wondered if they should build booths to mark the spot where this took place. And just like that, it was all over.

     But what wasn’t over was the memory of this experience that they would be able to take with them. Even though they received just a small glimpse of God’s light shining upon them with these ancient figures from the past, that powerful moment reassured them that Jesus was truly  God’s own Son. 

     I’ve had people ask me why God doesn’t make it easier for us to know for sure that God is real. That’s a question I sometimes ask as well, especially during those times in my life where I am in need of some reassurance in my faith. 

     I guess there’s two ways of looking at this. We can either be disappointed that these moments don’t happen nearly enough or, or … maybe it can motivate us to become even more alert and ready to be open to these holy moments in our lives. And maybe they happen more often than we realize and we miss them.

     Now, for sure, Peter, James, and John, couldn’t have missed that transfiguration moment because it was so dramatic. Yes, it was brief, but the shining light, the appearance of Moses and Elijah next to Jesus, and voice from heaven all made this impossible for them to miss. But the truth is that we also have those mysterious holy moments that are sometimes dramatic and sometimes not as dramatic. 

     Or maybe that’s not a good way of putting it because any glimpse of heaven, any holy moment, whether it be dramatic or not so dramatic is a special gift reminding us that God is present in our day to day living. And maybe we shouldn’t worry too much about categorizing which of these glimpses of heaven have been more meaningful. In other words, let’s not rate them and make a top ten list. 

     They all are unique and sacred opportunities for us to know that God is not only real, but is also actively present in our daily lives offering to us holy moments.

     I was conducting a graveside service on a chilly and overcast spring day. The ten or so people who were there were bundled up, protecting themselves from the cold chill that was sweeping over us on the top of that cemetery hill.

     I was using the graveside ritual that I always use. The prayer had the line, “Give to us now your grace, that as we shrink before the mystery of death, we may see the light of eternity.” 

     I then concluded with a benediction and when the service was over, the widower, a soft-spoken elderly gentleman, was sitting in the front row of chairs there by his wife’s grave. And right after that benediction, he slowly looked up at me and it was obvious by the look on his face that he wanted to tell me something important.

     After a few seconds of collecting his thoughts he pointed above me and said, “The sun. The sun came out from behind you just when you were saying the closing prayer. It was so bright and warm.” After saying this, he stared ahead processing what he had just told me.

     He then very carefully stood up, grabbed his cane, and as he was walking away, I could hear him repeating, “It was the strangest thing. It was the strangest thing.”

     I will never ever forget the look on this man’s face. He had experienced a transfiguration moment and I’m not sure that any of us who were there at that graveside experienced it in the same way that he did. Maybe we weren’t as spiritually alert in that moment as we could have been or maybe, that holy moment was specifically meant for him only and because he shared it with us, it left a lasting impression on us. 

     This is why it’s important for us to share these God moments or “thin place moments” as we like to call them here in our church with others. Sometimes we need others to point us to the presence of God’s heavenly light especially when we are turned the other way. 

     These holy moments often come to each of us in brief glimpses and when we do recognize them, it seems like time stands still.

     This past fall when our building was closed and we were still only offering an online worship option, I drove uptown to buy a cup of coffee. I was feeling a little sad that morning since it had been six months since we first closed due to COVID19.

     I walked out of the coffee shop and got into my car. As I started to drive out of my parking space, I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw the most beautiful sight behind me. There in my mirror I could see the early sun light shining so brightly behind our church steeple.

     And of course, I just had to take a picture of that moment. Here’s the photo I took. 

     It was like our church building was saying to me in that transfiguration moment, “The Lord be with you, Robert.” And I mouthed the words, “And also with you, church building.”

     And after I took the picture, I just stood there staring at that glorious light shining through our building. I remember thinking how I was probably the only one taking in that holy moment.

     I felt a little like the disciples who didn’t know exactly what to do. Peter wanted to build booths. I wanted to take a picture. 

     That moment of transfiguration led me to pray for all of you as I drove home that morning. I gave thanks to God for shining brightly upon our church steeple even though our building was closed. My prayer was that God’s light would shine upon each one of us even though we would once again not be worshiping in person that morning.

     On that early Sunday morning, I got a glimpse of God’s light shining through the darkness of a global pandemic. I felt God’s love surround me and it warmed my heart that morning.

     Looking back on that thin place moment, I’m wondering how many of these moments I might be missing just because I’m not paying attention.

     So on this Transfiguration Sunday, let’s give thanks to God for the many little and big ways that God is shining in our lives, especially when we are least expecting it. May these holy glimpses of heaven shine upon you as you go throughout your week. And may they lead us to say with Peter, “It is good for us to be here.”



Sermon Discussion Questions
Mark 9:2-9
February 14, 2021

Transfiguration Sunday marks the transition between the Sundays After Epiphany and the beginning of the Season of Lent. It is the story of when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up a mountain and a bright light shined upon him. If that wasn’t enough of a holy moment, Moses and Elijah, two Old Testament figures appeared with Jesus! 

How would you have responded to this surprising, mysterious, and glorious holy moment?

Our church refers to these holy moments as “thin place moments” where heaven and earth mysteriously overlap in the course of our day to day living. Sometimes we notice them and at other times we miss them. Sometimes people help us to notice them which is why we encourage people in our church to share their “thin place moments” with others.

Share a recent “Thin Place Moment” that happened to you. How did that holy moment impact you? 

Pastor Robert shared a thin place moment that happened to him one early Sunday morning this past September when he saw a beautiful sunrise shining upon the steeple of our church building. That bright light moment reminded him that the Lord was with our congregation even though we were worshipping remotely that morning due to COVID19. 

Why do you think we notice the “Thin Place Moments” that happen to us? What are some ways that we can be more alert to these moments?

After Peter witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus on that mountain he responded with, “It is good for us to be here!”

Share a time when you experienced a “Thin Place Moment” and felt led to share those words from your heart.

Offer this transfiguration prayer as a way to help you be more alert for those moments when God is made present to us in a very real way.

God of true love, shine upon us with your grace, that we might see what frightens us and be willing to face what threatens us. Flow through us with your mercy, that we might sense your presence, even when we have run away, and that we may know your love, especially when we feel unlovable. Abide in us with your love so that we would be your faithful followers. Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Online Worship (Feb. 14/Transfiguration Sunday) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
(Feb. 14/Transfiguration Sunday)
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Monday, February 8, 2021

Sermon (February 7) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     I love our appointed New Testament reading for today from I Corinthians because it reminds me of the importance of not just living out our calling from God, but living out our “joyful calling.”

     Hear the difference? I know that there are times when the church feels a little more joyful than at other times.

     For example, I don’t always feel that joyful when the conference sends me the end of year church reports to fill out. They want to know specific  information that isn’t that easy to find. And by the way, this report always arrives to the church with my name on it in the middle of December, thee busiest time of year for pastors. I try to see it as an early Christmas present, but honestly, it don’t feel a lot of joy when it arrives.

     I also don’t feel that joyful during those weeks when I’m staring hours on end at the blank screen of my computer trying to prepare a sermon.

     And then there are those times when a toilet in the church is leaking water all over the place fifteen minutes before a wedding is to begin. I don’t feel very joyful on those times either.

       Relearning how to lead worship during a global pandemic has presented it’s share of ministry challenges as well, like realizing some camera angles are more flattering than others. In the first three months of the pandemic, our worship production crew included me, my iPhone, and a music stand which resulted in a lot of bloopers and out-takes. 

     There was one weekday sermon recording, where it took about ten out-takes because of someone running a jackhammer just outside our church building that same day. I did not feel very joyful that morning.

     On a much more somber note, being a pastor to someone who is experiencing a crisis, or visiting with a family near the end of someone’s life, or officiating for a funeral, those are all challenging times where ministry can feel overwhelming. Even though I know that God is present with us in these times of great sadness, it can still be very challenging to feel any joy in those particular moments, holy as they may be.

    And then, there are those little things about being a pastor that don’t rank very high on my joy list. I offer these in no particular order. Cleaning out the boiler room, sweeping up broken glass on the parking lot, preparing what you think will be an awesome sermon that doesn’t get preached because of a Level 3 snow emergency, attending a district or conference meeting. 

     But besides these exceptions, there truly is a lot of joy in living out our calling.

     For example, there is nothing like that moment when the Holy Spirit leads you to the perfect sermon idea that you have been desperately seeking to find. It is a joyful moment when these breakthroughs happen and you know that idea came from above.

     Here’s another one. I feel so much joy when people share a “thin place” moment with me. I totally love when you share how you experienced God in a very real way and what a difference it made in your life.

     Another joyful moment is whenever I have the honor to officiate for a wedding or a baptism. These are special occasions that are filled with so much happiness and joy.

     I must admit that playing with our church toys has filled me with a lot of joy over these past several months. Some of you might be worried that your pastor treats these toys as if they are alive, but it has been amazing how these toys have lifted our spirits and we even had “church toys to the rescue” t-shirts made which always bring a smile to my face when I see you wearing those shirts.

     Receiving your words of encouragement and reminders that you are praying for me also brings me great joy as a pastor.

     My experience over these many years has been that the  joy of being in ministry far exceeds the challenges and struggles that happen along the way. And even during those more challenging times, God has ways of keeping our spirits lifted.

     This is why I am so drawn to the Apostle Paul’s words to the Christians in Corinth. Here is a man who experienced great hardship and persecution for his faith, and yet he still was finding joy in sharing the good news of his faith with others. And he wants us to experience that same joy as we live out our calling.

     So what was Paul’s secret? What kept Paul so joy-filled in living out his calling to share the good news of Christ?

     In our I Corinthians reading, he offers us three important ways to keep our joy alive as we share the good news of our faith with others. 

     The first way is by remembering to see the people around us for who they are and not for who we think they should be. Everyone has been created uniquely by God and Paul was really good at meeting them where they were, not where he thought they should be in their faith.

     I think this comes from Paul’s own personal experience. Before he encountered the Risen Christ, he had been persecuting the early Christians. Just as Christ chose Paul to become one of his followers and a key leader in his church, God also meets us where we are.

     Ministry can get really discouraging if we are expecting the people around us to conform to who we think they should be. When we see people for who they are, it frees us to get to know them and they can get to know us.

     So the first thing that Paul teaches us about having a joyful calling is to accept people where they are.

     The second thing Paul teaches us is to empathize with others. We have heard of the phrase that we really don’t know another person until we walk a mile in their shoes. The comedian, Steve Martin offers this tongue in check twist on this popular phrase that we don’t want to follow…

     “Before you criticize a man, walk a mile in his shoes. That way when you do criticize him, you’ll be a mile away and you’ll have his shoes.” 

     So let’s stick with the original quote and walk a mile in their shoes because that is what will help us to empathize with others. It’s easy to be critical of others when we don’t take the time to appreciate their unique experiences and what makes them who they are. Better yet, instead of just walking a mile in someone’s shoes, we probably should walk two miles or maybe three to really get to a point in knowing that person.

     In our I Corinthians passage, Paul says that to the Jews, he became a Jew and to those who were under the law, he became as one under the law. Even though Paul was a Jew himself, he had this incredible ability to empathize with his own people as well as with those who were outside of the Jewish faith. He was able to say this because he actually was walking several miles with his own people. 

     Having genuine empathy for others is how we experience joy in our faith.

     And this third way that Paul was able to live out a joyful calling was through his servant leadership. Paul even uses the language of being willing to be a slave to all. He uses this heavy language just to show that God has called us to be humble servants. 

     He also writes, “To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak.”

     I think this sense of being a humble servant to others is needed more than ever in the church today because sadly, Christians are too often known for being judgmental, self-righteous, and narrow-minded. But when we remember that we are simply servants, we are more open to sharing the good news of our faith in a very genuine way.

     A joyful calling is one that sees people for who they are, not who we think they should be, we empathize with others, and we remember that we are simply here to serve others. No other agenda, but to treat people with respect and share the good news of our faith with the people around us. 

     When these three aspects of our faith are present, it allows us to live out our calling joyfully and share our faith freely with others.

     Our calling in being followers of Jesus is meant to be a joyful calling. It’s a joy to share the good news of our faith with others especially when we do so by seeing others as they are, showing empathy, and having the heart of a servant.

     I know that not all of ministry is fun and we do face moments of sorrow and challenge along the way. But the good news that we have received from God and in turn share with others makes all the difference in the world. 

     Our faith is a joyful calling even during those more challenging and difficult times in living out our faith. And this is why Paul can say in the last verse of our scripture reading, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.”

A Joyful Calling
Sermon Discussion Questions
I Corinthians 9:16-23
February 7, 2021

Ministry and living out our faith can be both joyful and challenging. For example, Pastor Robert shared in the sermon that filling out end of year church reports and dealing with church plumbing issues do not feel very joyful to him.

What are some examples of when church, ministry, or living out your faith doesn’t feel very joyful? And what are some examples of when you do feel joy in living out your faith?

In our I Corinthians, chapter 9 scripture reading, the Apostle Paul offers us three important ways that we can help us live out a joyful calling, even when we have to complete year end church reports! These include 1) Remember to see the people around us for who they are and not for who we think they should be. 2) Empathize with others. 3) Remember that we are servant leaders!

Which of these three ways of maintaining a joyful calling stands out for you? Why?

The Apostle Paul concludes our scripture reading by saying, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings. 

Share a blessing you have experienced in living out your joyful calling. 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Online Worship (February 7) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
February 7
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Monday, February 1, 2021

Sermon (January 31) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     It’s amazing how much you can learn about a person from one incident but that’s what we get from our Gospel reading this morning. Mark gives us this story of when Jesus healed a man who had an unclean spirit.

     At first glance, we might be tempted to just say, “Oh, this is just another story of where Jesus healed someone,” and leave it at that and move on. Notice how flippant I am with that initial impulse of just moving on from this story. 

     This just goes to show how accustomed I am to reading about Jesus healing people. But then I started thinking about it. That healing changed this man’s life as all healing can do whether it be physical, mental, emotional, relational or spiritual healing.

     This story reminds me of just how many people Jesus impacted during his ministry. Think about all of the healings, all of the miracles, all of his teachings, and all of the people who experienced new life and wholeness because of him.

     I think it’s creative the way Mark describes this particular healing story in helping us to see all of who Jesus is. Let’s look at this healing story a little more closely to appreciate all of these dimensions of Jesus.

     Let’s start with how Mark begins this healing story with Jesus teaching in the synagogue. This little detail reminds us that Jesus impacted people through his teachings as a rabbi. This was not an isolated case of Jesus teaching in the synagogue. He was known to be a very powerful and prophetic teacher, impacting the lives of many. Mark even tells us that the people in the synagogue were astounded at his teaching.

     And then of course, Jesus’ showed that he was a compassionate healer as he healed a man who had been suffering with an unclean spirit. We’re not sure what this unclean spirit really was. 

     Was the phrase, “unclean spirit” the biblical world’s way of describing what we think of today as a mental health issue? Or was it more of a physical condition? Or was it primarily about a spiritual torment that he was experiencing as this story indicates? Whatever it was, this man was in need of healing and because of Jesus, he was healed.

     This one small story shows us that Jesus was a teacher, a healer, and the Son of God. Notice that when the man was brought to Jesus to be healed, the unclean spirit cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God?”

     In telling us this story, Mark wants us to see not only who Jesus is as a teacher and as a healer, but also as the very Holy One of God. And because of who Jesus is, he impacted many people through his healings, through his teachings, and through his identity as the Son of God.

     In all of these ways, Jesus as the Son of God demonstrated throughout his ministry what it means to be a walking presence of compassionate humanity. Compassionate humanity. I wonder if this story and so many of the other gospel stories about Jesus are to help us see not only who Jesus is but who we are called to be. Like Jesus, we are called to offer God’s healing love with compassionate humanity.

     This past September, I received the sad news that a good friend of mine, a high school classmate died suddenly of a heart attack in his home. Craig was not only a dear friend but a distant relative.

     Growing up, we spent many of our summer days in south central Pennsylvania at each other’s house playing baseball. We also played sports together in high school and were in a lot of the same classes.

     Penny and I moved from Pennsylvania to Ohio in 1985. A few months after we arrived, Craig was traveling through the state and we ended up spending a couple of days together. That was the last time that I spoke with Craig. I heard through another classmate over the years that Craig became a doctor and moved to Texas, but that’s all I really knew about him. 

     He wasn’t on Facebook, so I wasn’t able to keep up with him that way. When Craig died suddenly this past September, that’s when I was blown away by Craig’s remarkable career. Little did I know that this childhood friend brought healing and compassion to so many people through his career as doctor.

     He was a Brigadier General in the Air Force and was a recognized leader in emergency medicine. He was the Medical Director for the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians and an Associate Professor in the Department of Emergency Health Sciences at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. 

     His deployments included Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and he lead evacuations from the New Orleans’ Convention Center during Hurricane Katrina as well as leading multi-state massive medical responses to Hurricane Harvey. 

     So I’m reading all of this thinking, wow, Craig. Way to go!

     But what caught my eye was what the family included at the end of his extensive obituary. And it has a direct connection with our Gospel reading for today. His obituary concludes with these words, “His compassionate humanity and humble leadership are already missed. Friends and family will always remember his consistent question that he asked everyone he encountered, “What can I do for you?”

     What a wonderful way to be remembered. As someone who was known for his compassionate humanity and for how he would ask people, “What can I do for you?”

     But we don’t have to be a Brigadier General or a well known emergency doctor in order to live out Jesus’ healing ministry. We just need to be open to the opportunities where we can be a blessing to others.

     Sometimes these opportunities have a domino effect. Like this past fall when we were collecting food and hygiene products for the international students here on campus. You were so generous in helping out with that mission opportunity.

      It was during that collection when Goodwill Activities and Training Center donated food to our Monday Lunch ministry. And because we already had a large stockpile of food when we received those donations, Tom Murray, our Monday Lunch coordinator decided that their food donations to our church would be better served by giving it to the international students. The people at Goodwill agreed and so our church was able to give even more thanks to the timing of these donations.

      I love this picture of the people from Goodwill and Tom Murray showing some of the food items that we were able to jointly give to the students. Even though they are wearing masks in the photo, you can tell that they are all smiling. 

     Our Stephen Ministers have been active either by calling on people in our congregation to see how they’re doing or by meeting with people over the phone and offering a listening ear and spiritual encouragement. When we think of the healing ministry of Jesus,’ our Stephen Ministry banner that we have in our sanctuary really says it all. 

     Notice the Stephen Ministry statement. It says, “Christ Caring for People Through People.” This ministry which provides one to one peer support has blessed many people over the years and I’m so thankful that we have it here in our church. 

     Here are some comments from people who have been on the receiving end of Stephen Ministry:

     A young woman describes how her caring relationship with her Stephen Minister allowed her to experience Jesus in a personal, tangible, and life-transforming way. She says, “I began to feel God’s love again.”

     Another person tells how having a Stephen Minister during a family crisis provided a spiritual anchor and the opportunity to focus on her own needs. When describing Stephen Ministry to others, this person says how it provides “a steady reminder of God’s presence.”

     A man says how grateful he is for Stephen Ministry and how it built a highly trusting relationship apart from his regular circle of friends, so that he could move forward through a tough time in his life.

     Stephen Ministry is one example of how the church offers God’s healing presence. Let us know if you would like to know more about Stephen Ministry.

     This healing story of Jesus from our Gospel reading today reminds me to be open to the opportunities to offer God’s healing love to others. Here’s a short prayer that I discovered about a year ago that has reminded me to be more open to these opportunities. It’s a prayer written as a poem.

     Dear Lord Jesus, help me to do the things I should. To be to others kind and good. And in all I do or say, grow more loving every day.

     Say that with me: Dear Lord Jesus, help me to do the things I should. To be to others kind and good. And in all I do or say, grow more loving every day.

     And like my friend, Craig, may we be known to ask this question to the people we encounter, “What can I do for you?”

Compassionate Humanity
Sermon Discussion Questions
Mark 1:21-28
January 31, 2021

This week’s appointed Gospel reading from Mark tells the story of Jesus healing a man with an unclean spirit. Just think about how this healing changed this man’s life in so many ways. 

Share a time when you have experienced healing in your life? Was it a physical, emotional, relational, mental, financial or other type of healing?

Our Gospel reading offers three important dimensions of Jesus in this one story! Jesus was a healer (the man with the unclean spirit), a prophetic teacher (the crowd was astounded by his teaching) and he was God’s Son (the unclean spirit recognized that this was who Jesus was.)

Which of these dimensions of Jesus stands out for you? Healer/Teacher/Son of God

Pastor Robert shared about the sudden death recently of one of his classmates, a widely respected doctor who was known for his compassionate humanity and for asking the people he encountered this question, “what can I do for you?” 

Why do you think this question is important to ask? 

Our Stephen Ministry which consists of trained men and women who are available to offer one to one confidential peer support is one of the many healing ministries in our church. The stated purpose of Stephen Ministry is ‘Christ caring for people through people.” Anyone who is interested in either having a Stephen Ministry or becoming a Stephen Minister, please contact our church office.

What do you think of the Stephen Ministry purpose which is “Christ caring for people through people?” How has God used you to care for someone and offer God’s healing love?