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

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Monday, March 29, 2021

Sermon (March 28/Lent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

    Get ready, because this is going to be the most incredible sermon you have ever heard on the topic of humility. Do you see what I did there. Most incredible sermon on humility? 

     When the preacher starts bragging about a sermon on humility, that’s when you know that it’s not going to be a very good sermon. So let me just go ahead and offer my usual description of my sermons. Friends, it’s going to at least be an above average sermon. Let’s hope and pray. But that’s OK, because it’s on humility. It’s just going to be a solid, halfway decent sermon if I do say so myself.

     I say all of this because humility is such a difficult concept, isn’t it? How do you know when you are being a humble person? Certainly not when you start bragging to your friends that you are humble, right?

     This is what makes today’s wilderness challenge maybe the most challenging of them all. Just when you think you arrived at humility perfection, that is probably an indication that there’s a lot more work to be done!

     This reminds me of the best advice I have ever received. "Don’t try to be witty, charming, creative or intellectual. Just be yourself."

     What a great piece advice! Just be yourself.

     And of course, just being yourself is remembering that we have been created in the image of God. This is related to the first wilderness challenge back on the first Sunday in Lent, our identity and who we are.

     Like Jesus, we reminded ourselves that God loves us and calls us his beloved. We belong to God. We have been claimed and redeemed by God.

     Then on the second week, we focused on the wilderness challenge of our trust. Like Jesus, we are called to trust that God’s covenant will be fulfilled through us. God has called us and invites us to respond to that calling by trusting. 

     During the third week in Lent, the wilderness challenge was related to our passion. Jesus had a passion for offering his redeeming love for the world. We too are called to be passionate in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. Having that kind of mission and purpose in life is what gives us energy and motivation in living out our faith.

     Then for the fourth week in Lent, we looked at the wilderness challenge of our healing. Sometimes, we don’t realize how broken we are in mind, body, and spirit. By keeping our focus on the cross where Jesus offered his life for our sake, we too can receive the abundant life that God intends for each one of us. God can make us whole again.

     Last week, we faced the wilderness challenge of our focus. In a culture where we are constantly interrupted with alerts and text messages and the busyness of life, the challenge of finding time to spend with Jesus can be difficult. We talked about the importance of being more intentional in scheduling time with Jesus.

     Our wilderness challenge for today and this week is a very appropriate one because humility is not something that is valued in a world that espouses power, prestige, and privilege. What can we learn about this challenge of humility on this Palm Sunday and the events of Holy Week?

     Notice how Jesus uses the symbol of a lowly donkey to show what kind of King he is. Instead of riding into Jerusalem on a horse which is what you would expect of a king, he rides on a donkey instead. What kind of king does that?

     I am surprised that the crowd of people was still willing to wave their palm branches and proclaim him as king as he rode by them. Maybe they were initially taken in by this act of humility on Jesus’ part. They were used to displays of brute force and power but this was a very different way to triumphantly enter a city.

     I have to wonder if the crowd thought that this just might be Jesus’ way of creating some expectancy among the crowd by entering the way he did. Maybe they saw Jesus’ action as showing self-confidence that he only needs a donkey to take on the mighty Romans. Once he gets into the city, he’ll get down to business and then we’ll see him unleash the war tactics that successful kings use. 

     Who knows exactly what the crowd was thinking when Jesus entered Jerusalem by riding on a donkey, but they sure didn’t think that he would stay on that donkey. That’s not how you win any battles.

     We know this because it was only five days later that this same crowd that was shouting “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday, would now be shouting, “Crucify him!” when Jesus was standing before Pontus Pilate. 

     This king who entered into the city on a lowly donkey was now embarrassing them by being mocked by the Romans soldiers. We can say that the crowd was fickle because that’s what crowds do when they don’t understand the wilderness challenge of humility.

     But before we criticize the crowd too much, here’s the thing. We are all somewhere in that crowd. We might be waving our palm branches and welcoming Jesus as King today, but where will be on Good Friday when it becomes clear that Jesus is not meeting our expectations of who a king should be?

     The events of Holy Week still have a shock value. What King would ride on a donkey for his grand entrance? What King would become a servant and wash the feet of his disciples? What king would tell one of his disciples to put away their sword when they were being threatened? And what King would be mocked and hung on a cross to die? We, who know the end of the story might forget what it was like to be part of that crowd. We are all somewhere in that crowd facing the wilderness challenge of our humility.

     Jared Byas who has a weekly podcast about the Bible, tells the story of how difficult this challenge can be. He says how he grew up with the assumption that there is only one correct way of interpreting the Bible and of course, he had the only correct interpretation. Any time somebody challenged him, he worked hard at proving them wrong. 

     He shares the story of getting into a conversation with his mother about whether we are predestined by God or if God has given us free will. Looking back on that experience, he says that he had read a couple of books on the topic and he believed that he was now an expert and his job was to prove that others were wrong, even if it was his own mother. 

     During that theological conversation which started out as a simple exchange of thoughts, at some point it became more of an argument. When his mother shared one of her thoughts on the issue at hand, Jared pointed his finger in her face and he proudly said very loudly, “Aha! See? You just contradicted yourself!” 

     In an instant, Jared’s mother grabbed him by his throat with one hand and his shirt with the other and slammed him into the back door. They both then looked at each other in disbelief at what had just happened. They both began to shake and tears streamed down their faces as they sat in silence.

     Finally, his mom apologized as she explained that people pointing fingers at her was an emotional trigger from when she was a girl and her father would name-call the children while pointing his finger at them.

     That’s when Jared came to the painful realization that having the right theology isn’t all there is to the Christian faith. Living out our faith isn’t about being right at all costs at the expense of our relationships with others. When we don’t approach each other with a humble spirit where the focus is on the person rather than the argument we are trying to win, we end up doing great damage in our relationships. 

     We find this same problem when trying to talk politics with others even with those who are very close to us. What begins as a conversation of ideas can abruptly turn into a win at all costs full blown argument. 

     Yes, Jesus had strong beliefs about God and his mission and purpose, but instead of trying to win every single argument at any cost, he was more focused on being an expression of God’s self-emptying love for the sake of the world. 

     That’s why we find King Jesus riding on a lowly donkey on Palm Sunday. It’s why he will wash the disciples’ feet. And it will be why he suffers and dies on a cross. And it’s why our Philippians scripture reading for today offers us these words, 

     “If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

     I love the phrase, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” Good words for us to ponder as we enter into Holy Week.

     Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

     This humble King who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey is who enables us to remember our true identity, who invites us to trust God, who gives us passion and focus in living out our faith, who offers us healing, and who invites us to be his humble servants.

Wilderness Challenges - Our Humility

Sermon Discussion Questions
Philippians 2:5-11 & Mark 11:1-11
March 28, 2021

Today, we look at our 6th wilderness challenge during this season of Lent which is the challenge of our humility. On Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem in a very humble way. Instead of riding on horse like a king was known to do, he rode on a donkey instead. This did not dissuade the crowd from waving their palm branches and proclaiming Jesus as King.

Why do you think the crowd was so excited about the arrival of Jesus into Jerusalem especially since he chose such a humble entrance!

Just five days after the crowd had cheered Jesus when he arrived into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, they were now crying out, “crucify him!” as he stood before Pontus Pilate on Good Friday. 

Why do you think crowds can be so fickle? What does this say about crowds?

Pastor Robert shared the story of a Christian who when he was younger had a lot of pride about his intellectual approach to the Christian faith. His pride led him to get into a heated argument with his mother over a theological discussion. That’s when he realized that being humble and caring about the people around us are more important than trying to win arguments. 

Why do you think we struggle with this as a society in our approach to politics, religion, and other topics of discussion? What helps you to remember that humility is more important than winning arguments and proving that you are right and other people are wrong?

During Holy Week, Jesus offered many examples of being a humble King. He not only rode into the city on a donkey, but he also took the form of a servant and washed the disciples feet. On Good Friday, he gave us the greatest example of humility by offering his life for the world by dying on a cross. Pastor Robert invited us to reflect on our Philippians scripture reading this week as we face the wilderness challenge of our humility. Read each sentence, pause, and reflect on these words of humility:

 If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Online Worship (March 28/Lent) Athens First UMC

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

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Monday, March 22, 2021

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

      During this season of Lent, we have been spending time with Jesus in the wilderness and facing various challenges that can help us to have an even stronger faith. So far, we have faced the challenge of our identity, our trust, our passion and this week’s challenge is related to our focus.

     Staying focused is not an thing easy thing to do in our day to day living. When was the last time you had a conversation with someone without somebody’s phone sending either a text message or some news alert? Our family loves to send group text messages so it’s not uncommon for me to receive 15 to 20 text messages in a span of less than ten minutes.

     Usually, I like receiving these texts except when I’m trying to record a sermon or lead a bible study or set up for a golf shot. Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding, duhding . These messages are sent at a furious pace.

     Sometimes, I have to politely say to please remove me from the group text thread. Most of the time, these are fun to receive but they can also be very distracting when you’re trying to focus.

     One of the reasons that we are invited to spend these forty days in the wilderness is so that we can give more focus to our faith and our relationship with God. Maybe this is why Jesus was sent into the wilderness to prepare for his ministry rather than to the hustle and bustle of the city of Jerusalem. 

     Cell phones are useless in the wilderness. And there’s no Netflix. But there’s lots of hiking. Lots of gazing at the stars. And a lot of time to… well to just think and pray.

     Our Gospel reading today offers us a wonderful request that was made by some Greek speaking people who wanted to meet Jesus. They went to one of Jesus’ disciples and said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

     This one short request has made it’s way into several pulpits. You’ll fine it engraved on a plate attached to the pulpit to remind the preacher who is about to speak that his or her main focus as a preacher should always be to help people meet Jesus. That’s it. That’s the purpose of preaching.

     “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

     I want to offer some important ways that can help us keep our focus on spending time with Jesus in a world that bombards us with of lots of ding-ding sounds. 

     How can we stay focused on Jesus?

     Bishop Bruce Ough was the bishop of our West Ohio Conference prior to Bishop Palmer who is our current Bishop. When Bishop Ough first came to our conference, he encouraged the pastors and laity to actually schedule times to meet with Jesus. Yes, that’s right. Schedule times with Jesus.

     He uses a plan that he encouraged us to use as well. He calls it the 1-1-1 Plan. It’s pretty simple. He schedules time with Jesus by spending one hour each day in prayer and scripture reading. He also spends one weekend a month with Jesus. And then he spends one week  a year with Jesus. 

     This 1-1-1 Plan helps him to keep his focus on Jesus. It’s an intentional way of blocking out the distractions so that he can keep his focus on God.

     My plan is a little different. I do spend each day and specifically each morning with Jesus through prayer and the reading of scripture. 

     I don’t schedule a weekend each month like Bishop Ough, but on a weekly basis, my Mondays are my sabbath day where I spend the day in prayer and preparing my sermon. Mondays are my “Jesus and me” days. You’ve heard of the best selling book from several years ago, “Tuesdays with Morrie?” Well, if I wrote a book, it would be “Mondays with Jesus.” 

     That’s why you don’t see me a lot on Mondays unless there is a particular event that falls on a Monday. I need all of Monday to develop a sermon. Mondays are what helps me to focus on how I have experienced the presence of God in my life because often it’s those holy moments that make it into my sermon.

     I have been doing this same practice of Monday sermon work for years. When I can’t do it for some reason, I feel like I missed my appointment with Jesus. 

     It’s not the day of the week that’s important. The important thing is to find that day where you can be especially focused on your relationship with God. That’s the thinking behind having a weekly Sabbath. What day each week can you set aside to intentionally meet with Jesus and keep your focus on him? Maybe for you, it’s a Sunday or another day. 

     And the last part of the plan for me is to spend a week away each year with Jesus. I’ve been doing this for the past ten years although I missed it last summer due to COVID-19 traveling concerns. 

     A pastor friend of mine and I spend time at his summer lake house to reflect on sermons for the next year. We share in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, read scripture, pray, and do a lot of sermon planning. We also pick a fun place to visit within an hour radius which is usually a historic site. These day visits often lead to future sermon illustrations.

     These are just a couple of different plans that can be used to help us schedule time with Jesus. You might think of a different variation of the plan that is more suited to your unique schedule and needs.

     In describing the importance in having his 1-1-1 Plan, Bishop Ough tells the story of just after he was elected to be a Bishop. He and his wife Char were driving home to Cedar Rapids, Iowa where he was serving as pastor at the time, and during that long drive, Char said, “So, what are we going to do to keep you alive and to keep our marriage alive now that you will be a Bishop?”

     And that’s when they thought of the idea of spending one weekend a month together as a couple. That has worked well for them all these years.

     “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

     In the Anglican and Episcopal denominations, they have a wonderful appointment system with Jesus called, “The Liturgy of the Hours.” It’s based on Psalm 119 where the Psalmist says, “Seven times a day I praise you.”

     The Liturgy of the Hours offers specific hours during the day and night to pause and spend time with Jesus. These include 6 am, 9 am, noon,  3 pm, 6 pm, 9 pm, and midnight. Our own United Methodist Hymnal offers two brief services that can be used in a group setting or individually for the morning and another one in the evening. 

     One of my favorite prayers is a prayer that was written for the morning service. Here it is:

“New every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world. Stir up I us desire to to serve you, to live peacefully with our neighbors, and to devote each day to your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord. Amen.”

     For the evening Vespers service, this prayer is often used. 

“O gracious Light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven, O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed! Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light, we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Son of God, O Giver of life, and to be glorified through all the worlds. Amen.”

     The idea is that we have a scheduled time to be with Jesus each day and these daily services and prayers can help us do just that. These times also help to remind us that other people around the world are praying these common prayers as well. 

     Now, this might not be practical to use a scheduled time like this each day, but what’s important is that we find a way where we intentionally spend time with Jesus. 

     In what ways can we join those Greek speaking people from our Gospel reading today who said, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

     During my first pastoral appointment, I served as an associate pastor at a large church up in northwest Ohio. I had the privilege of serving with a Senior Pastor who was an incredible role model for me in how he provided loving and caring pastoral leadership in the church. I wish more new pastors who are just beginning the ministry could work with seasoned pastors like I was able to have early in my pastoral ministry.

     Probably the most memorable thing that he would say to me again and again and again was, “Robert, just stay focused on Jesus.” “Just stay focused on Jesus.” He told me this so many times that I can hear him telling me this now. “Robert, stay focused on Jesus.”

     Even after he retired back in the 1990s, we would meet once a month for breakfast or lunch. And he would remind me again, “Robert, just stay focused on Jesus.” Even when I moved here to be pastor, he called me on the phone and before the call ended he said, “Robert, just stay focused on Jesus.”

      Later that same year, I received the news that he passed away. I was thinking of him as I was working on this sermon because his birthday anniversary was just a couple of weeks ago. I realized that it’s now been five years that I haven’t heard his voice, but I will never forget those words he would say to me. “Robert, just stay focused on Jesus.”

      Our wilderness challenge this week is to find ways to stay focused in our faith. And may this challenge lead us to say, “Sir, we would see Jesus.”

Wilderness Challenges - Our Focus

Sermon Discussion Questions
John 12:20-33
March 21, 2021

During the forty day season of Lent, we have been spending time with Jesus in the wilderness facing various challenges into ur faith. These have included our identity, our trust, our passion, and our healing. This week’s challenge is related to our focus. We live during a time where we often get interrupted with cell phone messages and news alerts.

What are some annoying distractions that you face in your day to day living?

In our Gospel reading from John, chapter twelve, some Greek speaking people came to some of the disciples and asked, “Sir, we would see Jesus.” They were basically trying to make an appointment to see Jesus! 

What kind of “appointments” do you try to have in spending time with Jesus? Sunday worship? Daily scripture/prayer? A spiritual retreat? Other? And how do these “appointments with Jesus” help you to have more focus in your walk with God?

In the Anglican/Episcopalian church tradition, they set appointments with Jesus through what is called “The Liturgy of the Hours.” They are encouraged to have prayer and meditation everyday at 6 am, 9 am, noon, 3 pm, 6 pm, and 9 pm. This is based on Psalm 119 where the psalmist speaks of setting aside several times a day to be in prayer with God.

Can you think of ways of adapting a similar plan to help you find more time to focus on Jesus each day? What would that plan look like?

Bishop Bruce Ough, our former Bishop of the West Ohio Conference had an “appointment with Jesus” schedule that includes one hour a day, one weekend a month, and one week a year. 

Can you think of ways of adapting a similar plan? What would that plan look like?

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Online Worship (March 21) Athens First UMC

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

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Holy Hump Day (March 17) with Pastor Robert

Today’s Focus:
St. Patrick’s Day &
Celtic Christianity

[Pastor Robert’s Photo of Sunrise @ a Park Last Fall, a Thin Place Moment!]

Monday, March 15, 2021

Sermon (March 14) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     During this Season of Lent, we have been spending these weeks with Jesus in the wilderness. We are told that Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness and while he was there, he experienced challenges to who he was and what he was sent by God to do.

     If you remember, the Israelites, centuries earlier spent forty years in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. They needed that wilderness experience to help them become the people that God had called them to be. They only knew themselves as slaves under Egyptian rule, but now they had been freed and were in need of direction and purpose.

     And so, it is not a coincidence that the Season of Lent is also forty days. The season of Lent is our wilderness journey where we are invited to overcome challenges that come our way.

     So far, we have faced the wilderness challenge of accepting our identity. God loves us and we are his beloved children. As our weekly benediction reminds us every single week. “We are each a blessed, beloved, and beautiful child of God.”

     The second wilderness challenge we faced was our trust. We focused on the Old Testament story of when God made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah promising that they would become parents of a great nation even though they were well beyond child bearing years. God also makes a covenant with us where we are invited to trust and remember that with God, all things are possible.

     Last week, we focused on the wilderness challenge of our passion. There are so many things that call for our passion in our day to day living, but the greatest passion of all is when we give our full hearts and devotion to God. This is what leads us to be passionate about the things that God cares about the most, like justice, righteousness, goodness, and bringing transformation to our community and world. 

     Today’s wilderness challenge focuses on our healing. When we hear that word, “healing,” we usually first think about some type of physical healing we may need. But when I use that word, I am really referring to all types of healing that includes all of who we are; mind, body, and spirit. All of these dimensions of our lives are important.

     In any given moment, we are in need of some type of healing. Maybe it is related to our bodies. But is can also be related to our mental health. This global pandemic has especially revealed how vulnerable we are to maintaining our mental and emotional health.

     These past several months have been extremely challenging in trying to figure out new ways to work remotely, to study remotely, to worship remotely, to connect with our friends remotely, to celebrate birthdays and graduations remotely. Sometimes life takes a toll on our mental and emotional health.

     When a church member calls me because of a crisis that just happened in their lives, often times they are calling because they want to know where God is in the midst of what they are facing. Whether it be a job loss, a death, a family problem, those needs tend to be spiritually related where they are looking for spiritual guidance. 

     Sometimes our spiritual healing challenges are related to our sins and not knowing what to do with the guilt that we are carrying in our lives. We feel broken and past regrets can weigh us down. 

     We face so many different types of healing challenges throughout our lives because we are a people of body, mind and spirit.

     The medical profession bases their logo on today’s Old Testament reading when God healed the people in the wilderness by having Moses put a poisonous snake up on a pole. God told Moses to have the people look up at that snake on the pole so that they could be healed from their snake bites. What a strange story that we find here in the Bible. 

     A little context might be helpful in understanding this story. The Israelites had been murmuring against God as they were traveling through the wilderness. Murmuring is the biblical word for complaining. Murmuring doesn’t sound as bad as complaining but that’s what they were doing. They were complaining.

     They don’t like the food they’ve been eating in the wilderness. They’re becoming less and less grateful as every day passes. They don’t seem to remember that they are no longer slaves in Egypt thanks to God freeing them from bondage, but they do remember that they didn’t like the last meal they had.

     This story from Numbers is one of six murmuring stories. And now they have been bitten by poisonous snakes which leads them to ask God for forgiveness.“God, we didn’t’ really mean to murmer when we said that we’re getting tired of you manna bread meals everyday. But first, could you do something about these snake bites? Is there maybe an Urgent Care around here?”

    And our Old Testament reading tells us that God heard their prayer of confession and told Moses to put up a pole with a serpent wrapped around it and to have the people look up at that pole for them to be healed.

     Our Gospel reading from John chapter three references this story of the poisonous snakes when Jesus tells Nicodemus, “And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” And then we get that wonderful verse, John 3:16 that says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

     Nicodemus had approached Jesus at night to ask him questions and find out if he had been truly sent by God to bring salvation. And this is how Jesus responds, by referring to when he would be lifted on a cross for the sins of the world. 

     The cross is the Christian symbol of just how much God loves the world. God loves the world so much that God became one with us. And when Jesus was hanging on the cross on Good Friday, he was carrying all of the weight of our brokenness and sins. Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross looked like a defeat but it was actually God’s victory over sin and death. By looking to the cross, we find our healing and we can be made whole again.

     I have a dear friend who passed away a few years ago. He was a spiritual mentor to me and I still think of him often. Several years ago, he had a nervous breakdown. He was struggling with a lot of unresolved emotions in his life.

     He wife would later tell me, that one morning when he was getting ready for work, she found him sitting on the bathroom floor. He was so overwhelmed emotionally that he had forgotten how to shave. 

     One day while driving down the highway, he swerved into oncoming traffic in an attempt to take his life. Nobody was seriously injured, thank goodness but his family doctor knew that this wasn’t just a car accident.

     My friend was admitted to a mental health facility and ended up being there for six months. He was away from his wife, from his family, from his friends, and from his job. He didn’t want to be there. All he wanted to do was to go back home. My friend definitely felt like he was in the wilderness.

     A friend of his stopped by to see him. And he gave him something that was priceless to him. His friend gave him his personal cross neckless that he had received while attending a spiritual retreat. That retreat was where he had experienced God’s love in a very real way and it totally changed his life. He now had meaning and purpose in his life.

      He placed that cross in my friend’s hand and said, “You know how much this cross means to me and how I keep it in my pocket everyday, but I’m giving it to you to until you are well enough to come home to remind you that with God’s help you are going to get through this.”

     My friend was so moved by this gesture. It was that visit that became a turning point for him where he became more open to receiving the healing he needed through the help and support of the medical team who were caring for him. He kept that cross in his pocket each day to remind him that he wasn’t alone.

     That wilderness experience was where he rediscovered the cross as a source of healing in his life. When he arrived home, he felt like he was a new person. He was able to begin his life again. And because of the healing he had received, he was able to share the story of that cross with others who were struggling with their emotional and mental health. 

     If you ever find yourself in a wilderness where you feel lost and are in need of healing, whatever kind of healing that might be, remember to look to the cross. It’s the source of where we can be made whole again.

Wilderness Challenges - Our Healing

Sermon Discussion Questions
Numbers 21:4-9 & John 3:14-21
March 14, 2021

We are beginning the fourth week of our season of Lent series on “Wilderness Challenges.” Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness to begin his ministry in which he faced challenges to who who was and what God sent him to do. Today’s challenge is related to our need for healing. Jesus links our Old Testament reading from the Book of Numbers when the Israelites were in the wilderness and needed to be healed with when he would be lifted on a cross. Both stories involve looking up to a pole/cross in order for us to be healed.

What do you think of this story from the Book of Numbers that involves poisonous snake bites and looking up to snakes around a pole to receive healing? Why do you think God healed the people in this way?

Pastor Robert made the observation that we are always in need of some kind of healing, whether it be physical, mental/emotional or spiritual. God cares about our mind, body, and spirit. While we are in the wilderness with Jesus these forty days of Lent, this can be a good time for us to reflect on where we are experiencing brokenness in our lives and in need of healing.

How comfortable are you with sharing your brokenness with people you can trust? Why do you think some people may find it difficult to talk about their brokenness and seek help?

The story was shared in the sermon about a man who had a mental breakdown. His family doctor noticed that he was in need of emotional healing so he had him admitted to a mental hospital. He ended up being there for six months! At first, the man was in denial that anything was wrong even though he had tried to commit suicide. The turning point came when a friend of his loaned him his personal cross necklace to keep in his pocket during his time in the hospital. It reminded him to be more open to the counseling and medical care that he needed in order to find healing.

Have you ever thought of the cross as a symbol for healing? How can the cross be a reminder to you of Jesus’ healing and redeeming love? How has God used someone to help bring healing to you?

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Online Worship (March 14) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
March 14
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Monday, March 8, 2021

Sermon (March 7/Lent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Today’s story of when Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers is a story about passion. As the disciples watched Jesus expressing his anger, they were thinking about a Psalm in the Old Testament where the Psalmist says, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

     Zeal, passion, this is the wilderness challenge that we are presented with today. Are we passionate about our faith?

     This story of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers has led some churches to question if they should allow the youth group to have a fundraiser in between services on Sunday morning. And does Jesus not like the hazelnut coffee and pastries that we set up in our church’s hospitality area?

     Well, I think Jesus is much more concerned about a deeper issue than fundraisers or refreshments in between worship services. When Jesus overturned those tables, he was giving us a powerful sign that God had sent him to overturn sin and death. 

     He alludes to this when the money changers asked him to show him a sign of his authority to do such a thing and he told them, “Destroy this Temple and in three days I will raise it up.” Jesus saw himself as the Living Temple and it would be through his life, death, and resurrection that God would bring salvation to the world. 

     Overturning the tables was so much more than getting upset over people taking coffee into the sanctuary. It was a dramatic sign that Jesus used to get these Temple doorkeepers’ attention and prepare them for the radical new thing that God was about to do through him.

     Think of the story just before this this story where Jesus turns water into wine. He chose a wedding as the occasion for his very first miracle. Both of these dramatic stories in this one chapter are meant to get our attention and put us on high alert for what will happen later in John’s Gospel.

     Which brings us to our wilderness challenge for today which is related to our passion. The challenge for us is to renew our passion and zeal in what Jesus has done for us through his life, death, and resurrection. 

     During the months, weeks, and then days leading up to the presidential election this past fall, a lot of passion was being expressed by many people but it was related more about our choice of politics than it was about our faith. And while our faith and our political leanings do overlap, it can be easy to have more passion for our political party than we do for the party that counts, the one where Jesus is the true King over all creation. 

     Sometimes, our passion gets misplaced because of the competing voices around us. When Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness, he knew that his energy and passion for his work and mission needed to come from God alone. 

     One of my favorite verses in the Gospels is where the Gospel of Mark tells us that “Jesus  was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.”

     “And the angels waited on him.”

     Jesus was able to draw his energy from God. Satan was outnumbered there in the wilderness.

     Our passion and energy in living out our faith does not come from aligning with the correct political party or a certain political candidate or even a particular church or pastor. Our passion and energy is from God and from others who are also drawing their passion and energy from God’s redemptive love for the world.

     Actually, if you think about it, sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking that these other sources give us a boost of energy, but it’s not the same kind of energy and passion that only God can provide.

     “Zeal for your house will consume me.” “Your house.” “God’s house.” And by God’s house, Jesus wasn’t referring primarily about the bricks and walls of the Temple in Jerusalem. And by the way, that Temple would eventually be destroyed by the Romans about forty years later and would never be rebuilt again. 

     Jesus was identifying himself as God’s Temple. And even though he suffered and died on a cross, he was raised to new life on the third day, never to see death again. 

     We don’t draw our passion from the latest building campaign. We draw our passion from the Risen Jesus who is the living Temple.

     The story of three bricklayers is a multi-faceted parable with many different variations, but is rooted in an authentic story. After the great fire of 1666 that leveled London, the world’s most famous architect, Christopher Wren, was commissioned to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral.

     One day in 1671, Christopher Wren observed three bricklayers on a scaffold, one crouched, one half-standing and one standing tall, working very hard and fast. To the first bricklayer, Christopher Wren asked the question, “What are you doing?” to which the bricklayer replied, “I’m a bricklayer. I’m working hard laying bricks to feed my family.” 

     The second bricklayer, responded, “I’m a builder. I’m building a wall.” 

     But the third brick layer, the most productive of the three and the future leader of the group, when asked the question, “What are you doing?” replied with a gleam in his eye, “I’m a cathedral builder. I’m building a great cathedral to The Almighty.”

     Our passion is rooted in always remembering that we aren’t just laying bricks or building a wall. We are building a great cathedral to The Almighty.

     We are building a great cathedral where we are always growing in what it means to have a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith.

     We are building a great cathedral where we are providing meals every Monday for people in need.

     We are building a great cathedral where we are raising money to provide a house for a family here in southeast, Ohio.

     We are building a great cathedral where college students are welcomed and included in the life of our church.

     We are building a great cathedral where our Growing Tree preschool children can learn and grow in a Christian environment. 

     We are building a great cathedral where people are initiated into the life of our church through baptism.

     We are building a great cathedral where people’s prayer requests are lifted up every single week.

     We are building a great cathedral where we gather for worship and our spirits are lifted.

     Our Temple does have bricks and mortar and thank God, even air-conditioning, but more importantly, our Temple is so much more. It is a haven of blessing and peace for all who enter here.

     This Temple represents the presence of the Risen Christ who offers us hope, forgiveness, direction, purpose, and passion. We are never alone in the wilderness. Jesus is with us in every single moment.

      When Jesus overturned those tables in the Temple, he did so out of zeal to point people to what he was about to do through his life, death, and resurrection. This is why we receive Holy Communion, to draw our passion from what God has done for us through Jesus Christ.

     As we go through this week, I invite us to think about this question that the poet, Mary Oliver includes in her poem entitled, “The Summer Day.”

     “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” That’s a great question!

     Our wilderness challenge today began with Jesus getting our attention by overturning some tables, and it has led us all the way to this table where we are now invited to receive the bread and the cup. 

     Come to this holy table where we are invited to discover what we will do with our one wild and precious life.

Wilderness Challenges - Our Passion

Sermon Discussion Questions
John 2:13-22
March 7, 2021

Churches have been known to use this story of when Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers to prohibit fundraising efforts by church groups on Sunday morning. While it’s important to not overdo these fundraising efforts to the point where they overshadow our main reason for gathering which is to worship God, Jesus’ action in the Temple is about something far more important. Jesus overturned the tables to signify that he is the Living Temple. 

How does this passion and energy of Jesus impact your understanding of who Jesus is and what he was sent by God to do?

Jesus’ action of overturning the tables is connected with an Old Testament scripture that says, “Zeal (passion) for your house will consume me.” In addition to overturning the tables in this chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus had also turned water into wine which was his first miracle. These actions by Jesus were meant to point people to a deeper understanding of why God sent him into the world. 

In what ways do you display passion in how you live out your faith?

Sometimes we are more passionate about things like sports or a political party or a hobby than we are in growing in our faith. 

What helps you to stay passionate in how you live out your faith? 

Toward the end of John’s Gospel, we will read how Jesus suffered and died on the cross for the sins of the world. These gospel stories are known as the “Passion Narrative.” The word, “passion” is connected with self-giving and sacrifice. Every time we receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion, it’s an opportunity for us to reflect on this understanding of “passion.” 

How does this understanding of the Sacrament of Holy Communion deepen your relationship with Jesus?

Pastor Robert concluded the sermon with these words from the poem, “The Summer Day” by Mary Oliver: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” 

What is your response to this important question in light of this week’s scripture/worship theme of having a passionate faith?