A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

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

Monday, May 31, 2021

Sermon (May 30/Trinity Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Every year for Memorial Day Weekend, I can’t help but to think about my hometown’s community softball tournament. Our church always had a team in this tournament led by a church member who was our coach and pitcher. He also was the only one who had a bunch of bats and balls for us to use. 

     The tournament would begin on Friday evening and last through Monday afternoon of that long holiday weekend. There were about twenty adult teams who participated.  Our team consisted mostly of teenagers but also had some really old guys and by old, I mean guys in their 40s! To us younger players, that was really old.

     For a team that was pretty young and inexperienced, we did really well, even winning the tournament a couple of times. The church member who was our coach did a really good job of helping us to play as a team. The only broken bone I have ever had came from playing in one of those softball tournaments. 

     Since this was a community and not a church softball tournament, we were the only church team and the only team that prayed before each game. Theologically, I don’t think that our prayers had anything to do with our winning or losing, but it did remind us that we were representing our church when we took the field. It also taught us a lot about teamwork and giving our best.

     In our Romans scripture reading for today, the Apostle Paul is reminding me a little of our softball coach. Like a good coach, Paul is reminding the church in Rome that they are children of God. They are teammates. He uses this phrase, “children of God” three times in this one passage of scripture. We are children of God. We are teammates who represent Christ and his church. Win or lose, we belong to God. “We are joint heirs with Christ,” Paul says. 

     I love this image of the church being like a team where we are connected with each other and with God who has made us his children. Which brings me to the Trinity Sunday part of this scripture passage.    

     Paul refers to all three persons of the Trinity in this very short passage. He says that when we cry, “Abba, Father,” it is that very Spirit that bears witness with our spirit that we are teammates, we are children of God. 

     And then Paul says, that as God’s children we are all heirs with Christ. There you have it. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It only takes Paul two verses to include all three members of the Trinity and he does so in the context that we are children of God. 

     This is what is beautiful about being part of the church. We all have this in common where God’s Spirit keeps us from falling back in fear by reminding us that we are heirs with Christ. We are reminded of this every time that we offer our prayers to the Father. 

     This scripture reading is at the very middle of Romans, chapter eight, probably one of the most hope-filled chapters in all of the Bible. It concludes with this incredible exclamation point of who we are because of this God who is known as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

     After giving us this long list of things that might separate us from God and each other; things like rulers, worry about the future, powers, height, depth, and even death itself, Paul concludes this chapter by saying, “None of these things will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”

     We remind each other of this hope that we have together in a variety of ways. Through our weekly worship, through bible studies, through small groups, through the sharing of testimonies, and through prayer requests that we receive each week.

     Those prayer requests always remind me that we are children of God. Especially this one that was shared a while back by a member of our church who has been fighting cancer the past six and a half years. 

     He updated our prayer chain to let us know how our prayers for him over all these years have helped him to beat the odds of this disease and that he is truly blessed. He says “I am a winner in so many ways! Let’s celebrate!”

     That’s our teammate sharing this with us. That’s a member of our family letting us know that our prayers have been a life-line to him, especially during these many months of being separated because of COVID19 precautions. 

     As children of the Triune God, Paul wants us to be reminded again and again that we have much to celebrate. We are joint heirs of Christ and nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. We have the Spirit who Paul says will not allow us to fall back into fear but always keeps us moving forward in hope.

     Heirs of Christ, children of God, Paul says. I like that. Children of the Triune God.

     In reflecting on this passage, gifted speaker and author, Heather Murray Elkins says that “Trinity relationships are ties that bind and loosen at the same time. We are family because we’ve been adopted by the triune One whose nature and name is Love. We are heirs of God, not by right, not by ancestry, but by grace.” 

     This is what binds us together in the church, God’s grace, God’s unconditional, inclusive, and all-embracing grace. And it’s because of this grace, that the Triune God loosens us from our fears and doubts. We are freed from all that would enslave us and keep us from being the people that God has called us to be. 

     Next week, close to three-thousand clergy and lay delegates, representing the one-thousand United Methodist churches from all over the West Ohio Conference will be meeting online for our Annual Conference meeting. We met online last year as well because of the global pandemic.

     It is amazing to me that this online option works as well as it does. We are able to conduct the business of the annual conference as well as receive new clergy into the conference, recognize pastors who are retiring, and share in worship together. 

     But what I miss the most is not being able to physically gather in Hoover auditorium along Lake Erie, in Lakeside, Ohio. It’s always so powerful to worship with three thousand other United Methodists in the same place.

     One of the hymns that we sing when we gather at annual conference is the Charles Wesley hymn, “And Are We Yet Alive.” It’s a powerful hymn to sing when we’re all together because it’s a hymn that reminds us to celebrate these opportunities when we can gather as children of the Triune God.

     The first verse says, “And are we yet alive, and see each other’s face? Glory and thanks to Jesus give for this almighty grace.” The 3rd verse says, “What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past, fightings without, and fears within, since we assembled last.”

     This leads to verse four, “Yet out of all the Lord hath brought us by his love; and still he doth his help afford, and hides our life above.”

     These verses build upon each other in describing what it means to be children of God together. We are a family. We are “heirs of God” as Heather Murray Elkins says so beautifully. We are heirs of God, not by right, not by ancestry, but by grace. 

     This is what makes us children or teammates of the Triune God.

     Speaking of hymns, I think it’s really interesting that when the church building before this one burnt down back in 1955, that they were able to salvage this one hymnal. We have this hymnal in a glass case here at the church.

      And if you look closely, the hymn that is at the top of that burnt hymnal is the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” It was our opening hymn for today’s worship. It’s a hymn that celebrates the Triune God. “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” 

     It would be three years later in 1958 when the congregation would be able to worship for the first time in this building. I can’t even imagine what it must have felt like for the congregation to worship for the first time here. 

     They say they even needed forty ushers that first Sunday to accommodate the crowd. On that Sunday, February 9, 1958 they truly were children of the Triune God, teammates, brothers and sisters who together by God’s grace were able to start anew.

     I think of these past several months where we have faced the many challenges of a global pandemic. Like the Apostle Paul at the end of this eight chapter of Romans, maybe we have been asking, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or a fire, or a global pandemic?”

     And we can answer with confidence. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Why? Because we are children and teammates of the Triune God!

Children of the Triune God

Sermon Discussion Questions
Romans 8:22-27
May 30, 2021

In our New Testament reading, the Apostle Paul refers to God in terms of the “Father” in verse 15, “Christ” in verse 17, and the “Spirit”  in verses 13-16 which is why this is one of the appointed scripture readings on Trinity Sunday. On this day, we celebrate that God is one God, but known in three persons; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The reason that Trinity Sunday is observed on this Sunday is because during the Easter Season, we celebrated the resurrection of Jesus (Easter) and the giving of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost.) 

Share how this past Easter/Pentecost season has helped you to grow closer to God.

In our Romans scripture passage which only includes six verses, the Apostle Paul uses the phrase, “children of God” three times. Paul wants us to know that we are children of the Triune God. The word, “children” implies that we are connected to each other and part of the same Triune family. Pastor Robert used the word “teammates” in describing our relationship with each other.

In what ways do you see the people of our church as teammates? What are some things that good teammates do for their fellow teammates?

Pastor Robert offered an example from our own Athens First UMC history of how the congregation pulled together as teammates following the fire that burnt down our previous church building. Together, they were able to raise money and build our current building in just three years. He noted a hymnal that was salvaged from the fire. We have it in a glass encasement  here in our church and that hymnal is opened to the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty” which is a classic hymn about the Trinity. Even though part of that hymn’s page was charred from the 1955 fire, it serves to remind us even to this day that together, we are “Children of God.” We are teammates!

Share some ways that teammates pull together when facing adversity. 

Pray our Trinity Sunday prayer and think about the meaning of these words:

O God, you are holy, holy, holy. You are Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, one God known in three persons. On this Trinity Sunday, we confess those times when we have forgotten that you have created us in Your image and have included us in your family. Thank you for sending us your Holy Spirit that bears witness with our spirit that we are your children together. On this day, we celebrate your claim in our lives and your call for us to live out who you have called us to be. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen. 

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Online Worship (May 30/Trinity Sunday) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
May 30
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, May 24, 2021

Sermon (May 23/Pentecost) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     There are so many names for God throughout the scriptures. It’s striking to me that we so often focus on only a couple of these names especially in the way we address God when we pray. God is probably the most common name we use when we pray to or speak about God. And on this Pentecost Sunday, we are reminded of another name for God, “Spirit.”

     And of course we have other standard names for God like, “Lord” and “Heavenly Father.” These names for God usually get top billing.

     I’m amazed at how many times I continue to uncover new names for God, at least new to me. In today’s New Testament reading from Romans, the Apostle Paul slips in another beautiful name for God. “Searcher of Hearts.”

     We find this name for God in our Romans passage. The New Revised Standard Version which is what we commonly use for scripture readings during our worship services and bible studies makes this name sound more like a description than a name, which is why I like how one New Testament scholar translates this verse.

     His translation of Romans 8:27 based on his understanding of the Greek language which Paul is using here says, “And the Searcher of Hearts knows what the spirit is thinking, because the spirit pleads for God’s people according to God’s will.” “The Searcher of Hearts.” What a great name!

     This name, “Searcher of Hearts” reminds us that God is active. I like that. God is a searching God. This name reminds us that God is always on the move.

     One of my favorite chapters in the four Gospels is found in the 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel. This one chapter contains three parables where Jesus is describing God as a searching God. It begins with the parable of the Lost Sheep. “Which one of you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness  and goes after the one that is lost until he finds it?”

     The second parable is the parable of the Lost Coin. “What woman having ten silver coins if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” 

     And the third parable is the parable of the Son Son, the Prodigal Son. That parable concludes with the father saying to the elder son after the younger son had returned home, “We had to celebrate and rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

     These parables all point to a God who is always searching for what is lost. And at the conclusion of each of those parables is a time of rejoicing because what was lost is now found.

     In our Romans scripture reading, Paul writes “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” And the Spirit does this because God is a searcher of hearts.”

     In theological language, this is what we refer to as God’s prevenient grace. “Prevenient” means to go before, to go ahead of us, to prepare the way. Which means that God is always the primary actor. God is the one who is initiating a relationship with us and who first reaches out to us before we even think about reaching out to God.

     Or let me describe prevenient grace in this way. There is never a moment, there is never a second, and there is never a time in our lives, when God is NOT searching for us and reaching out to us. When we take a moment to let that sink in, it really gives us this powerful picture of a God who is the one who always makes the first move toward us. That’s prevenient grace.

     The word that Apostle Paul is using here for “search” is a Greek word that was often used in reference to the lighting of a torch in order to search for something in the dark.  And when Paul says that the Spirit helps us in our weakness which he defines as those times when we don’t know how to pray, this becomes an even more powerful image for us. I love this thought of the Searcher of Hearts lighting a torch in the depths of our soul to help us communicate what is so deep down in us that we can’t even find the words to tell God what we are feeling.

     If you ever find it too difficult to pray because what you are feeling is so raw and inexpressible in that moment, then this scripture reading offers us a powerful word of hope. The Searcher of Hearts is lighting the way in our troubled souls.

     Maybe that darkness is related to a grief that you are experiencing. It might even be a grief that you didn’t even know you had until the Searcher of Hearts revealed it to you.

     A few years ago on a late afternoon, I was driving down the road and listening to the radio. I wasn’t able to concentrate that whole day and I knew that something had been troubling my soul but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

     Something was telling me to turn off the radio, so I turned it off and there was this eerie silence as I continued down the road. But that’s when I finally realized why I was so down and distracted that whole day. It was like a light revealed what was troubling my soul. 

     All of the sudden, it came to me. It was my dad’s death anniversary. And that time of silence in the car is what helped God’s spirit to connect with my spirit and led me to be able to name what was troubling me so that I could receive God’s healing and comforting grace. 

     Whether it’s grief or past wounds or a regret or feelings of disappointment, this Searcher of Hearts is helping us in our weakness. This Searcher of Hearts is shining the light of love and grace in whatever brokenness we may be experiencing.

     This is a dimension of Pentecost that I never really gave that much focus until I noticed this new name for God buried in this passage of Romans. “The Searcher of Hearts.” God’s grace and love are always going before us. This Searcher of Hearts has already been lighting up the darkness of our souls to help lead us to healing and wholeness.

     Tomorrow marks the anniversary of when John Wesley, the founder of Methodism had his heart-warming experience in London, England after suffering through a very long time of spiritual dryness. It’s kind of interesting that it was when Wesley was hearing someone read from this letter of Romans that led him to stand up and tell everyone at that prayer meeting that he felt his heart strangely warmed.

     Strangely warmed. The Searcher of Hearts had been lighting a torch in Wesley’s despondent soul leading him to be awakened to God’s joy, hope, and mercy. Wesley went on to share his heart-warming faith with others who like him were in need of God’s reassuring love.

     Methodists are known for our wonderful casseroles and our love of committee meetings, but we are most known for being a people of warm hearts. We are known for our warm hearts because the Seeker of Hearts is always lighting the darkness of our souls. 

     God’s prevenient grace is always going before us, preparing us, inviting us, wooing us, beckoning us, and reaching out to us with a love that fills our hearts. This God who is known as The Searcher of Hearts.

     Several years ago, I served as a Christian camp counselor at one of our United Methodist camps. I was sitting with four or five other camp counselors around a blazing campfire. Our hearts had been warmed by the testimonies of several of the campers who just shared how they had experienced God’s love in a very real way because of that week of camp.

      Some of the young campers had shared how they had received Jesus in their heart for the first time because of our week together. Others shared that they experienced God’s love in a new way and they were now ready to make a recommitment in being Jesus’s followers.

      And as I sat there with the other camp counselors around that campfire, one of them questioned why these same spiritual experiences weren’t happening in our local churches. There was some silence as we thought about that questions. And then I said, “Well, maybe tonight wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the local church that sponsored them to come, that shared God’s love with them through Sunday School, youth group, and worship. Maybe God was already at work before we even arrived here this week for camp.”  

     This Searcher of Hearts is always going before us lighting the way and preparing us to have hearts that are strangely warmed. 

     On that first Pentecost, we are told that a tongue of fire rested on each of the disciples and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit. 

     Spirit, Searcher of Hearts, so many names for this God who is always on the move, always lighting the way before us and who is always helping us in our weakness.

Searcher of Hearts

Sermon Discussion Questions
Romans 8:22-27
May 23, 2021

The scriptures offer us many names for God. Some of these include; Father, Rock, Lord, Shepherd, King, Spirit, Mother, Savior, etc.

What are some other names for God and do you have a favorite name for God?

In our Romans 8 scripture reading, the Apostle Paul offers us another name for God that is very descriptive. Paul refers to God as the “Searcher of Hearts.” In the Greek language, the word “searcher” was often used to describe how someone would light a torch to find something in the dark. In the context of Romans, chapter 8, the thought is that God is like a light that reveals what is hidden in our souls. This could be a grief, a regret, a sadness, or something else that might be difficult for us to identify because it is buried deep within us.

Has God ever revealed to you something that was deeply hidden in your soul which was in need of healing? These moments can be painful but also very liberating as well.

This name for God, “Searcher of Hearts” reminds us that God is the one who first searches for us before we seek God. In our Wesleyan/Methodist theological understanding, this is what is known as God’s prevenient grace. Prevenient means to “go before.” God’s grace reaches out to us before our awareness of it! This means that God is always reaching out to us in any given moment.

How does this thought of prevenient grace where God’s grace is always being extended to us in any given moment have an impact upon you? What helps you to be open and receive God’s grace?

On the Day of Pentecost, we are told that a tongue of fire rested upon each of the disciples. When we think of Paul’s name for God as a “Searcher of Hearts” who is always shining the light in our dark souls, it helps us to appreciate how the Spirit of God is at work in our lives.

As you say this Pentecost prayer, extend your hands in front of you with palms facing upward in a spirit of receiving what the Searcher of Hearts is wanting to share with you in this moment:

Gracious God, we do not often listen for your Holy Spirit. We turn from your guidance and your inspiration. The whispers and the shouts do not penetrate the noise of our daily lives. We silence the wisdom available to us through your Spirit of Truth. O searcher of our hearts, help us to hear both your quiet whispers and your holy shouts that our very lives may testify to your unseen hope. Amen.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Online Worship (May 23/Pentecost) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
May 23
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, May 17, 2021

Sermon (May 16/Ascension Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Today’s Acts scripture reading on this Ascension Sunday offers us a three dimensional perspective for our faith. It reminds us that we are called to have a faith that looks upward, that looks downward, and a faith that also looks outward.

    Let’s first focus on what it means to have a faith that looks upward. Ascension Sunday is when we remember that it was on the 40th day following Jesus’ resurrection that as Jesus was with his disciples, he was mysteriously lifted up into the sky and eventually out of their sight.

     Jesus was lifted up. And then we are told that as he was being lifted up, the disciples were gazing up toward heaven, watching this incredible sight. With their heads upward, two men in white robes, supposedly messengers from God mysteriously appeared on the scene and said to them, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

     What do we make of a story like this? 

     This is a great example of remembering that the biblical writers were very creative and gifted in how they described mysterious and holy events like this one. When we say that the biblical writers were inspired by God to write scripture, it’s important to remember that God allowed the biblical writers to use their literature and storytelling skills in describing events that are really indescribable. 

      If we read this story of Jesus’ ascension and all we get out of it is that Jesus took an invisible hot air balloon up into the sky, we will totally miss what this author of Acts is wanting us to take away from this scene. Depicting Jesus as being lifted from earth into the sky is a very creative way of giving us a mental picture that on this fortieth day following his resurrection, it was now time for Jesus to ascend to his heavenly throne. It’s the same language that we use when a king on earth ascends to his royal throne. It’s about assuming authority and rule.

     And so, when we think of this ascension of Jesus story, our pondering should be less about questions related to the defiance of gravity and more focused on the question, “What does it mean that the Risen Christ is now ascending to his throne to rule as the true King over all creation?”

     It’s this second question that the scripture writer wants us to give our utmost focus. The Risen Christ is ascending to his heavenly throne to rule over all creation and what does that mean for us?”

     So with this background in mind, I have no problem whatsoever with the disciples gazing toward heaven as Jesus was leaving them. As long as we remember that looking upward isn’t about “how did he do that?” and more of, “Jesus truly is the King of kings.”

Faith Dimension #1 - Looking Upward

     I began by saying that this scripture of Jesus’ ascension offers us a three dimensional perspective of our faith. This first dimension is pointing out the importance that we remember to look upward from time to time. When we look upward and remember that the Risen Christ is ascended upon his heavenly throne and offering his loving and gracious rule over all creation, it gives us hope as we face the challenges and injustices of this world. 

     Ascension Day reminds us that it’s not all up to us. We have a Risen King! We have a gracious King! We have a victorious King!

     When the world gets crazy as it often does, this scripture reminds us to look upward and see Jesus seated as the King of kings!

     When you are facing what seems to be an impossible challenge in your life or what feels like an impossible decision to make, look upward and see Jesus seated as the King of kings!

     When you listen to the news and feel so helpless with so much suffering and injustice in the world, look upward and see Jesus seated as the King of kings.

     When you feel that you have been misunderstood and treated unfairly, look upward and see Jesus seated as the King of kings. 

     Ascension Sunday is such an important day on the church calendar because sometimes we forget that Jesus is the one who is enthroned and who rules over all. And not only is there a King, who as the scriptures inform us is above all and in all, this King is also the one who has promised to come again and establish his kingdom here on earth forever and ever. Looking upward is what gives us that larger perspective that as the song says, “he’s got the whole world in his hands.”

Faith Dimension #2 - Looking Downward

     If looking upward is the first dimension of our faith from our ascension scripture reading, the second dimension of our faith is by looking downward. Why would we want to look downward? 

     In the next verse, verse 12, which isn’t part of our Acts reading this morning, we are told that after Jesus’ ascension, they went to a room where they were staying in Jerusalem. We are told that it was an upper room which is where we get the name of the United Methodist devotional pamphlet. The Upper Room. And in verse 14, it says that it was there that the disciples devoted themselves to prayer along with certain women.

     Many times when we are invited to pray, we bow our heads. If looking upward to Jesus sitting on his heavenly throne is what reminds us that Jesus is the King of kings over all creation, it’s when we look downward in prayer that we can have a conversation with this King of kings. Prayer is where we enter into a sacred space with the King. It’s how we listen. It’s how we share what’s on our hearts and minds. It’s what we do when we offer ourselves in worship.

     One of the spiritual exercises that has really helped in my faith formation over the years is in the regular discipline of writing down my prayers. I have found that writing is a very therapeutic way of expressing what is deepest in our hearts and minds.

     Often time, it’s during this process of writing out my prayers, that I am able to to get at the heart of what is most troubling me. It gives me the needed time and space to reflect on what I am feeling in any given moment. Sometimes, it reveals where I am feeling week, anxious, and broken. And I can just give all of that to God and be filled anew with his mercy and love.

     Writing out my prayers also helps me to go beyond my immediate concerns because it slows me down to where I am more open to other needs around me, needs that I would have probably not thought about without that time of reflection. This has led me to pray regularly for family members, for the people of our congregation, for our church’s ministries, as well as churches and church leaders beyond Athens First. 

     I now look at my prayer time during the early morning hour as my therapy time with God. It helps me to process all that happened the day before so that I can begin the new day. So where is your Upper Room located? What helps you to look downward and pray to the King of kings and the Lord of lords? 

       Faith Dimension #3 - Looking Outward

     Our three dimensional faith includes looking upward and remembering that the Risen Christ is enthroned in heaven as the King of kings. We look downward and find daily renewal through prayer, and the third dimension of our faith is that we are invited to look outward in sharing our faith and serving others.

      Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, he told his disciples that they are to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judaea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In other words, Jesus was handing the baton to them. It was now their turn to be his witnesses. 

     Mike was my Trustees chairperson at a church I was serving. He was great at getting things repaired or knowing who to call to get things fixed. Mike was highly analytical and didn’t often show his emotions in church.

     So I was kind of surprised when Mike signed up to attend a weekend-long faith sharing seminar that we were sponsoring at our church. The seminar began on Friday evening and lasted through Sunday afternoon.

     At the closing of the seminar on Sunday afternoon, the leader invited anyone to share what they learned by attending the faith sharing seminar. And immediately, Mike stood up and with great enthusiasm he exclaimed, “I’d like to share something!”

     I couldn’t believe that this was Mike who was volunteering to share so eagerly. And he could hardly contain himself as he told us that this seminar gave him the confidence to invite someone he had just met the day before at a nearby restaurant to attend worship with him and his wife the next morning.

     And then Mike said that this young man enjoyed our worship service and meeting new people and told Mike that he wanted to come back next Sunday. I had never seen Mike this happy and this willing to show and share his emotions. 

     Not only did this weekend seminar help Mike to look outward and share his faith with others, this young man that he had invited to attend church kept coming and ended up becoming part of our church family.

     The reason this story is on my mind this morning is because Mike recently called me here at the church to give me an update on how our mutual friend is doing. He said that he was soon going to move to be closer to his family and Mike thought it would mean a lot to him if I called him to say a prayer for him over the phone.

     So I called him and we had a great conversation. And he said to me what a difference Mike and his wife had made in his life over these past several years and how our church has meant so much to him. 

     And when I got off the phone, I just said a little prayer thanking God for sending Mike to that seminar that led him to invite this man to our church which ended up having a huge impact on his life. What a wonderful thing it is to share our faith with others and invite them to be part of our church family. What a blessing it is to be witnesses for Jesus. Mike was willing to look outward and share his faith with others.

     Ascension Sunday is day that reminds us to look upward and remember that Jesus is the King of kings. It’s a day that reminds us to also look downward and offer our daily prayers to this King of kings. And it’s a day that reminds us to look outward and share our faith with others.

     Happy Ascension Sunday!

A Three Dimensional Faith

Sermon Discussion Questions
Acts 1:1-11
May 16, 2021

Ascension Sunday occurs on the 40th day following Easter Sunday and focuses on when Jesus ascended to heaven. Our Acts scripture reading for this Sunday tells us that  Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. This is a creative way that the author is showing that Jesus is “ascending” to his heavenly throne. In other words, we shouldn’t be focused on how Jesus was able to defy the laws of gravity but instead focus on what it means that the Risen Christ has ascended to rule as the true King over all creation.

What are your thoughts about the creative ways that the biblical writers describe events like the ascension of Jesus? What biblical resources have helped you to interpret the Bible in a way that represents the author’s original intention? Commentaries? Sermons? Bible Studies? 

Since the Ascension of Jesus is more about the Risen Christ ascending to his heavenly throne than about how did Jesus defy the laws of gravity, this scripture reading invites us to think about our faith in three different dimensions. These three dimensions include the importance of 1) looking upward 2) looking downward and 3) looking outward.

Faith Dimension #1 - Looking Upward
Like the disciples, what helps you to look upward at Jesus ascending to his throne and remember that the Risen Christ truly is the King of kings and the Lord of lords?

Faith Dimension #2 - Looking Downward
Like the disciples who after the ascension of Jesus, went to the Upper Room to pray, what helps you to look downward in prayer to have a conversation with the Risen Christ who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords?

Faith Dimension #3 - Looking Outward
Like the disciples who following the Day of Pentecost and with the power of the Holy Spirit shared their faith with others, what helps you to look outward and share the good news of the Risen Christ who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords?

Which of these three dimensions of faith do you need to focus on the most now?

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Online Worship (May 16) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
May 16
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 AM]

Monday, May 10, 2021

Sermon (May 9) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     My wife, the professional educator often refers to what is known as, “The Schema Theory.” Basically, this theory states that we all have particular ways of interpreting information that we have been given.  This isn’t just related to basic factual information. It also relates to our cultural and ideological assumptions in how we process this information.

     And this is important to recognize because our educational system is meant to help us take what we have already learned and incorporate new information to help us to continue to grow and expand in our understandings. And when that process doesn’t happen, we end up with what is called a “fixed schemata” in which we impede our potential to mature in our thinking process. 

     Now, to put this in my own words based on my own schema of information in trying to understand this educational concept, what I think this is saying is that humans in general are basically closed minded people. 

     OK, that’s a little harsh, so to put it a little differently, education requires that we have an open mind to allow new understandings to come alongside of our past ways of thinking. And when we constantly work at this, take our past ways of thinking and being open to new understandings, this leads to growth and wisdom, and that’s a good thing.

     This approach to education always has me thinking about how I process information. Do I dismiss new knowledge and experiences solely because they don’t square with my past understandings, or do I work at seeing how introducing new information can lead to greater intellectual growth?

     All of this is to say that growth in new understandings depends a lot on how open our schemata is to new information. 

     And this brings me to our Acts scripture reading for today which gives us the tail end of the very long story of when Peter was able to share the good news of Jesus with a non-Jewish man named Cornelius and his household. They embraced the good news of Jesus and received the Holy Spirit.

     What led Peter to do such a thing? The previous information that he had formulated in his thinking throughout his life was for Jewish people to never enter into the house of a non-Jewish person because of strict religious codes that had been taught to him. Jewish people were not allowed to enter any non-Jewish homes or they would be considered ritually “unclean.”

     These strict codes of holiness were there for a reason which were to help set apart God’s people and to make them distinctive from those who were non-Jewish. That information in Peter’s head was deeply embedded in him. It was what he had been taught from an early age and what society expected of him.

     We might wonder how Peter was able to avoid the dreaded “fixed schemata” syndrome that led him to rethink his understanding of faith and who is included in God’s family. Certainly, Peter must have attended a church growth seminar where a popular keynote speaker offered this as a way to increase worship attendance. Or maybe Peter had a temporary lapse in judgment and ended up realizing that those Gentiles aren’t so bad after all.

     What was it that dislodged Peter from an older understanding of his faith that was now outdated, important for an earlier time, but now needed to be reevaluated in the light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? What on earth led Peter to a new understanding and a new approach to his faith?

     God gave Peter a heavenly vision. And in this revelation, Peter saw heaven opened up and a large sheet came down in which there were several ritually unclean animals. He also heard a voice that said, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

     But Peter, reacting out of his current schemata of what foods are clean and what foods are unclean, protested. This new information made no sense to him. This would be a violation of his religious code of conduct. Everyone knows that certain foods are considered ritually unclean.

     But this voice from heaven persisted and offered him important new information to factor into his thinking. And this voice said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”

     And I think it’s important to note in this story that the voice said this to Peter three times. They are called fixed schematas for a reason. Our old way of thinking can be so embedded in us that it may take lots of repetition until we finally have that “aha” moment.

     Even when that finally happened, we are told that Peter was still greatly puzzled by this vision. Greatly puzzled. Sometimes, when we are greatly puzzled, that just might be an indication that we are getting closer and closer to a whole new understanding in our faith.

     Our scripture reading today is a word of hope for us “fixed schemata” types. We might be nearing a spiritual breakthrough, a spiritual epiphany that just might turn our world upside down.

     As Peter is greatly puzzled, we are told that some travelers had arrived at Peter’s house asking for Peter to come with them. They had been sent by Cornelius, a Gentile who lived in the non-Jewish city of Caesarea, the “unclean” city of Caesarea. And his vision was to have his men go to Joppa to bring Peter to see him. 

     Which brings us to our Acts scripture reading for today in which we just get the end of this story where Peter then realizes why God had sent him the vision of the unclean animals. That vision was to prepare him to see how the distinctions between clean and unclean were giving way to God’s inclusive welcome to all people, Jew and Gentile.

     Visions are power things. They are even able to break the stones of our fixed schematas so that we will be able to see our faith in a whole new light.

     On this Mothers’ Day, I think of my mom who passed away back in 2012. She was a woman of vision, a woman who always had room for people around our kitchen table. 

     When I was growing up on a farm in south central, Pennsylvania, it was not uncommon for mom and dad to invite people who were visiting us during the later afternoon to stay for dinner.

     When I refer to people, I specifically mean people like our insurance agent, the ice cream delivery man, the tax accountant, the neighbor down the road, the relative stopping by to say hi. As dinner was nearing, mom would always invite these folks to stay for dinner.

     I honestly think that these folks strategically timed their visits as close to our dinner time as possible because they knew that mom and dad would invite them to stay by pulling up an extra chair or two to the kitchen table. When mom would invite them to eat with us, they would always politely decline because they didn’t want to be much trouble. 

     But they always did because, how could you not with the aroma of roast beef, mashed potatoes and green beans being prepared during these meetings!

     Mom’s vision was for the people who stopped by our house to feel welcomed and included. I still have that vision of my parents there in our kitchen being so welcoming to people.

     Sara Cunningham is a member of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Arkansas. She explains how there was a time in her life where she believed that gay people were going to go to hell. When her son told her that he was gay, her fixed schemata on this issue was suddenly cracked open and it led her to a more inclusive understanding.

     Her new vision and understanding of people’s sexual orientation has led her to begin what is called “Free Mom Hugs.” She wanted people in the LGBTQ community to know that even if their biological parents turned their backs on them, that she was a mother who cared.

    Here is her quote about this new organization that she started called, “Free Mom Hugs.” 

     “If you need a mom to attend your same-sex wedding because your biological mom won’t, call me. I’m there. I’ll be your biggest fan. I’ll even bring the bubbles.”

     Her vision of supporting people in the LGBTQ community has led other mothers to sign up to help. One gay couple who she supported at their wedding said, “We need a million Saras.”

     When Peter saw the vision of the unclean animals and heard the voice from heaven telling him that God’s love is extended to all people, it forced Peter to rethink his previous understanding of who is included in God’s kingdom. Heavenly visions have a way of opening us up to new understandings of our faith, about who we are as God’s people, and God’s all-embracing love for the whole world. 

     Heavenly visions remind us that there is hope for all of us fixed schemata types.

Heavenly Visions

Sermon Discussion Questions
Acts 10:44-48
May 9, 2021

Educators speak of the “Schemata Theory” which states that we all have particular ways of interpreting information that we have been given.  This isn’t just related to basic factual information. It also relates to our cultural and ideological assumptions in how we process this information. A “fixed schemata” is when we do not receive new information especially if it challenges our current understandings.

Share a time when a teacher or professor helped you to receive new information that led you to a greater understanding about a topic. 

Our Acts scripture reading for this week is the story of when God sent the disciple, Peter a heavenly vision in which it there was now no distinction between ritually clean and ritually unclean foods. A voice from heaven had to repeat this new information to Peter three times before Peter finally heard what was being said. This voice was breaking down Peter’s “fixed schemata.” Even so, we are told that Peter was still puzzled by this heavenly vision and what it meant for him. The story continues with some Gentiles, who Peter would have considered ritually “unclean” inviting him to go with them to the ritually “unclean” Gentile city of Caesarea to meet Cornelius. It was there, in this ritually “unclean” Gentile house, that Peter shared the good news of Jesus and baptized Cornelius and his family. This is when Peter finally had his “aha” moment! God broke through his “fixed religious schemata” to a new understanding in how God was breaking down sociological barriers because of the good news of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Do you think that religious “fixed schematas” are more difficult to overcome than other areas of our lives? Why do you think it was difficult for Peter to accept this new information of inclusion?

Sara Cunningham grew up with the religious understanding that gay people were going to go to hell. When her son came out as gay, this new experience broke through her previous theological understanding of this issue. She was able to see how lonely and hurtful it is when people who are gay are shunned and judged by others especially in the name of religion. This led her to start the organization, “Free Mom Hugs,” which provides loving substitute mothers for gay couples whose biological mothers refuse to attend their wedding. One gay couple who met Sara are so grateful for her unconditional love and support. They said, “We need a million Saras!”

Be open to helpful and intentional ways that we can be inclusive and welcoming of all people. Pray our Sunday worship prayer throughout the week to help provide this deeper understanding of just how much God loves ALL people.

Loving God, we come in search of love and in the hope of learning how to love as you love us. Help us to see others with your eyes of love. Help us to forgive and accept forgiveness just as you fully forgive us. Free us from our prejudices and fear of others who are different from us. Empower us to widen our circle of relationships so that we would share your love with others. In your love and grace, we pray. Amen.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Online Worship (May 9) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
May 9
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 AM]