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, June 30, 2021

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Online Worship (June 27) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
June 27
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Online Worship (June 20) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
June 20
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, June 14, 2021

Sermon (June 13) by Rev. Robert McDowell

   I don’t feel that I’m a very patient person. Here’s an example. When I put something in the microwave, I sometimes will impatiently say, “Hurry up. What’s taking you so long!”  You know, it’s pretty bad if you find yourself telling your microwave to hurry up.

     That’s why I think our Gospel reading was written just for me and for people who struggle with being patient. Jesus told this parable to explain what the Kingdom of God is like. Jesus compares God’s kingdom to someone who sows seeds.

     Ok, I can tell right away, that I’m not going to like this parable. I grew up on a farm that included a great big garden so I know where this parable is going. Jesus is going to tell us that it takes time to build the kingdom and that it won’t be an overnight process.

     Oh great. Well, that just means that I’m going to have to wait and I don’t like to wait. I want to see results yesterday, make that last week!

     In his parable, Jesus talks about the process that a farmer goes through in order to have a harvest. Did I say that I don’t like where this parable is going?

     This process involves scattering seeds and then that dreaded word, “waiting.” You have to wait night and day until finally, the harvest time comes. 

     Jesus says essentially the same thing about how the mustard seed needs a lot of time until one day it becomes a large bush. In both cases, the result is good but it’s the waiting part that really stinks.

     And then Mark tells us that Jesus told even more parables as much as they were able to hear. I wonder if Jesus needed to do this because there were people like me in the crowd, people who were impatient, people who wanted to see results right away. 

     Jesus wants us to know that the Kingdom of God doesn’t work that way. It takes time, lots and lots of time before we are finally able to see the results.

     We Methodists are known for being active. We’re always running around doing something. Sometimes, the church can feel like grand central station with all kinds of ministries, all kinds of programs happening.

     Before the pandemic hit and our building was fully operational, we were a very busy church. 

     Sunday worship services, Sunday School, small groups, Monday Lunch, Athens First Saturday outreach, bible studies, weddings, funerals, baptisms, new member classes, Tuesday prayer team, School of Music concerts, AA groups, Growing Tree preschool, Kappa Phi and Boy Scout meetings, Korean congregation prayer gatherings, Leadership Board meetings, choir and bell choir rehearsals, and on and on and on.

     One look at our pre-pandemic church calendar shows that we were a very, very busy church and we have been for a very, very long time. But the pandemic changed us in a very significant way. With the need to close the building, we had to rethink how to be the church. Instead of being a busy church, we needed to learn what it means to be a more patient church.

     And so over these past several months, instead of focusing on results, we have focused more on what kingdom seeds God has been wanting us to plant. This has led us to plant new seeds leading to a high quality online worship option, online small groups and bible studies, mid-week Holy Hump day videos from your pastor, video check-ins with our Sunday School and pre-school children, delivery of Sunday School packets to our children, a more expanded social media presence, and Monday Lunch curbside meals.

     And this long time of sowing seeds with the church building closed gave our dedicated custodian the needed time to do some needed painting and strip and wax the floors which are very difficult to accomplish when you have several groups using the church building throughout the week. 

     We have been sowing lots and lots of Kingdom seeds over these past several months. And it’s going to be exciting to see what this new garden will look like. Some of the new growth will look very similar, but we will also notice new plants and new ways of going about ministry here at Athens First. 

     I think something very similar happened to our congregation back in 1955 after the fire that destroyed the previous church building. How is God calling you to be the church when you don’t have a church building? 

     So they had to regroup and pray about the new direction that God was calling them to go and who God was calling them to be. And all of that took a lot of patience as they waited three years until this new building was constructed.

     In order to be kingdom sowers, it takes a lot of patience, a lot of dreaming, and a lot of praying. But it is all worth it, especially when you start seeing those seeds taking root and blossoming.

     James A. Garfield, prior to serving as President, was the President of Hiram College here in Ohio. One day, a father asked Garfied if there was a short-cut to help his son get through college in less than the usual four years. 

     This man wanted his son to start making some money sooner rather than later. Garfield offered this wise reply, “Of course there is a way; it all depends on what you want your boy to do. When God wants to grow an oak tree, he takes 100 years. When he wants to make squash, he only takes two months.” Point taken!

     A six year old boy was assisting his mother with some spring gardening. The mother was absorbed in her work while the little boy tried to figure out how he could speed up the process of seeing a seed become a beautiful plant.

     All at once, the boy picked up a daffodil bud, and sat down on the ground, and studied it. Then with his two little hands, he tried to force it open into a full blossom. The result of course, was disappointment and a mess: limp petals and a dead flower.

     Frustrated, he cried out, “Mommy, why is it that when I try to open the buds, it just falls to pieces and dies. How does God open it into a beautiful flower?”

     Even before his mother could answer, a broad smile broke across the child’s face, and he exclaimed, “Oh! I know! God always works from the inside!”

     This little boy’s experience in the garden is like the parable of sowing seeds. God works from the inside. His kingdom is alive and it is growing.

     All of these past several months of wondering if the seeds we had planted would ever grow into something beautiful are beginning to sprout up all around us. And they will continue to sprout up because we continue to sow seeds for God’s kingdom. 

     Penny and I stopped by to see friends of ours who moved into a new home. After we got the tour and were about to leave, one of them said, “Oh, there’s one more thing we’d like to show you.” 

     She opened the door to this little closet near their front door. On the inside of that closet door, she showed us how a previous owner had the height of each of their children along with their age. It was fun to see how each child grew taller and taller as they got older and older in that house.

     At the time, it may seem like they will always be five or eight.  I remember when it seemed like forever before our kids would reach that next stage of development. At the time, it might seem like a slow process, but they are growing moment by moment and day by day into the incredible people that God has called them to be.

     Last summer, one of you asked me what I thought God was wanting to teach us during this global pandemic. What a great question! I want to thank whoever asked me that question.

     There’s probably a lot of things that God has been wanting to teach us during this challenging time. But I wonder if Jesus’ parable today helps us to answer that question. 

     Maybe we have learned to plant some new seeds that we wouldn’t have planted if we didn’t have this global pandemic. And maybe, we have learned to become more patient along the way, knowing that the seeds that we have been planting are already beginning to sprout and grow. 

     This past winter, I needed a new part for my treadmill and after several emails, the customer service support person finally sent me an email that he would be sending me the part. The email said, “I have arranged to send the part. Please do not worry and wait.”

     And so I decided to not worry and wait. Two weeks later, guess what? I started to worry and wait because there was still no part delivered. They totally forgot about my order. Why would they tell me to not worry and wait if they weren’t going to follow through on their end?

     Well, here’s the good news for those of us who are sowing seeds of the kingdom. We truly do not need to worry because the seeds of the kingdom that we have been sowing are already starting to become visible. 

     This God doesn’t forget our order. This God always delivers. 

Kingdom Sowers

Sermon Discussion Questions
Mark 4:26-34
June 13, 2021

In Jesus’ parable, he associates the growth of God’s kingdom with that of planting seeds. Sometimes, the most difficult part for us can be in remaining patient until we begin to see the results of our planting.

On a scale of 1 to 10 with ten being the most patient, how patient are you in waiting to see results? Why are some people more patient than others?

Methodists are known for being active in their faith. Check out any church calendar, and you will probably discover a very busy church. While it’s wonderful to have a busy church, sometimes we forget to take time to patiently wait for growth to happen. Pastor Robert mentioned that the long global pandemic has forced churches to slow down and be in a more waiting mode.

How has this slower time over the past several months due to the global pandemic helped you to be more patient and reflective of how God is at work in your life and in our church? 

During these past several months, our church has been planting a lot of seeds like adapting to a more remote approach to ministry through online bible studies, small groups, worship services, etc. Even though in-person ministries will always be the preferred way in living out our faith individually and as a church, just think of all the new and creative ways we have been discovering how to be God’s people over this past year.

Share how you have found new and creative ways to grow closer to God and live out your faith?

Parents with young children will sometimes mark the height of their children each year on a wall in their home to help show how they have grown over the past year. Unless we take time once in a while to see how much we have grown, it can be difficult to appreciate how we have been maturing.

Think of some ways that we can take time to see how much we have been growing and maturing in our faith. Do you think that it’s easier for others than it is for ourselves to see the growth that is happening in our lives? If so, why do you think that is true?

As we celebrate the seeds of our lives that are beginning to blossom and bear fruit, what is a faith seed that God is calling us to plant now?      

One last question: Is there someone you know who is struggling with patience and getting frustrated in not seeing any results? Lift them up in prayer and if possible and helpful, remind them of your support and encouragement. 

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Online Worship (June 13) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
June 13
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, June 7, 2021

Sermon (June 6) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     In less than a month, several United Methodist Church pastors will be preaching in front of their newly appointed congregations for the first time. That first Sunday is important because it’s an opportunity for the congregation to get to know their new pastor.

     I remember my first Sunday with you around this time six years ago. We had a large attendance. People wanting to check out who this new pastor was. We even ran out of bulletins that Sunday. Getting off to a good start at a new church is so important.

     So, I can’t even imagine what Jesus must have been experiencing in our Gospel reading for today. We are only in chapter three of Mark’s Gospel, the beginning stages of Jesus’ ministry, and it looks like the honeymoon is over. You know it’s not good when the people are saying that the preacher has gone out of his mind.

     Things started out great at least in chapter one. Jesus began by teaching in the synagogue and we are told that the people were astounded. That’s always a great response for a new preacher to have with his or her first sermon. They were astounded!

     Not only were his sermons above average, but Jesus was even healing people. And we are told how the people were amazed. Astounded. Amazed. I would say that Jesus was off to a pretty good start! Crowds started to follow him because people were telling others about this new pastor in town and all the things he was doing.

     But then Jesus started doing things that seemed questionable to the religious authorities. Things like forgiving someone of their sins which only God would be able to do. Throwing dinner parties for the wrong crowd. Not encouraging people to follow important religious practices. And they really got upset when Jesus did work on the Sabbath, not once, but twice!

     And this brings us to today’s Gospel reading where the crowd tracks down Jesus because they are beginning to wonder if he is possessed by a demon. They are thinking of all of the ways that Jesus isn’t following the rules and how he is demonstrating this great power which leads them to wonder if he was up to more harm than good, like a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

     If chapter one is the honeymoon, then chapters two and chapter three are the disillusionment. “Sure, your sermons are great, and we love your pastoral care with all of these healings, but your approach to ministry is very unconventional, blasphemous even.” Reality is starting to set in and the tension is slowly building even by the time we get to the middle of chapter three, our Gospel reading for today.

     Now, it’s easy for us to dismiss these religious leaders, but I wonder if Mark is trying to help us think through who Jesus is.  I wonder if these religious leaders are voicing some of the questions that we might have about who Jesus is and are just too afraid to ask those same questions out-loud.

     And maybe our questions about who Jesus is and what Jesus is doing are different than their questions because we don’t live in the 1st century. We have our own questions about Jesus and maybe more complicated questions since we live in a world that is so different from the time when Mark wrote his Gospel.

     The sobering truth is that all of us are susceptible to misunderstanding who Jesus is. And sometimes, the scariest thing of all is when we start thinking that we have Jesus all figured out. 

     Today is the 77th anniversary of D-Day, the day we remember when allied forces landed on the beaches at Normandy during World War II. That successful and heroic invasion eventually led to the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany.

     It can be tragic when an entire political system not only misunderstands a religious faith but when that system uses religion to justify a particular race as superior to others as Nazi Germany did in the 20th century. In order to justify the superiority of Aryan people, German theologians portrayed Jesus as Aryan. And by doing so, they sought to remove Jesus from his Jewish ancestry in order to justify their anti-Semitic beliefs. Some of the worst atrocities are done in the name of religion.

     This misrepresentation of Jesus continues to feed into dangerous political ideologies today with the events of this past January’s storming of the Capitol being a recent example. You might recall several of the insurrectionists who were part of that event carrying large red, white, and blue banners that had Jesus name associated with the 2020 presidential election. 

     The point they were making was that Jesus was endorsing their presidential candidate. Those that attended the events that day also carried large crosses and “Jesus Saves” banners.

     Dr. David Watson, a New Testament professor at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio wrote an article a day or two after the storming of the Capitol. His article immediately came to my mind as I have been reflecting on the consequences of when we misunderstand Jesus and especially when we do so in such an irresponsible way.

     The title of his article is “A Jesus I Do Not Know: Christians and the Capitol Riot.” David admits up front that he is not one to get into political debates, but he decided to write that article because the name of Jesus was on bold display during the riot as were other symbols of the Christian faith. 

     David gave his article the title, “A Jesus I Do Not Know” because these are the words that Christian author and speaker, Beth Moore shared in a tweet the day of the riot in which David agreed with her assessment of the situation. David’s response to her tweet was, “I agree, Sister Moore, I don’t know that Jesus either.”

     David goes on to write in his article these words, “The Jesus given to us in Scripture is no political pawn. He is the very incarnation of God who has come to call us to repentance and teach us to live rightly. He defeated sin, Satan, and death, and he offers us the opportunity to live with him forever in a peaceable Kingdom. The Jesus of Scripture has given us the Sermon on the Mount. He has taught us to live with humility, meekness, kindness, and most of all love. He has taught us that if we want to be his disciples, we must take up the cross and follow him. He has commanded us to care for the poor. He has warned us against the danger of riches. He has taught us that whoever wants to be first in the kingdom of God must be last of all and servant of all. He has taught us that the world will hate us, but that God will love and honor us nonetheless. And he has taught us that no one can serve two masters. We will invariably hate one and love the other. God and mammon is the example he uses, but we could insert ay other master and the result would be the same. God and fame. God and sex. God and ego. God and power. God and politics.”

     David concludes his article with these words, “I care about the spread of the Christian faith. I want everyone – everyone – to know and love Jesus. But we do not draw people to Jesus by presenting that Jesus who is given to us in Scripture – the Christ who taught us to love our neighbors, love our enemies, act justly, care for the poor, and humble ourselves that he might one day exalt us. There is no other Jesus.”

     Dr. Watson is reminding us of how important it is to not mischaracterize or misrepresent who Jesus is especially for personal, political, or selfish motives. When the crowd in Mark’s Gospel accused Jesus of being out of his mind and being possessed by a demon, they were reacting out of their own fears and limited understandings of who he truly was.

     We too can misunderstand who Jesus is. We don’t always get it right in how we think Jesus should act or who Jesus should include or not include. We all are susceptible in forming Jesus into our own image.

     Penny and I were watching a movie in which a man befriended the young boy of a widow. The boy was worried about his mother who was dying of an illness. This boy shared with the man how he felt that he hadn’t been a good son to his mom and that he had somehow failed her.

     And this wise and kind man comforted this little boy by saying to him, “The truth is that we fail everyday. All of us do.” This line in the movie has stuck with me because this little boy needed to hear that we all come up short. We all fail. That’s what it means to be human. We give our best and we don’t always get things right. But, we keep on living. We keep on trying. And we keep on trusting. 

     I think that’s true of how we approach our faith. We don’t always get it right. And sometimes we misunderstand who Jesus is. And that’s why we are here for each other, to help each other grow more and more in our understanding of who Jesus is and in our love for him.

     Notice at the end of our Gospel reading. Jesus gives us a hint at how we can know when we are on the right track in trying to figure out who he is. The crowd tells him that his mother, brothers, and sisters are looking for him, and Jesus points to people in the crowd and he says, “These are my mother and brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

     And Jesus has shown us in these first few chapters of Mark that the will of God is to bring healing to those who are hurting and to humbly serve the needs of those around him. If we are seeking those things, then we aren’t too far off in understanding who Jesus really is. 

     And maybe the best way we seek to understand who Jesus is besides reading and studying the Bible is when we receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It’s in the bread and the cup that we encounter the Risen Christ who humbled himself even to the point of death, even death on a cross.

     Every time that we receive this holy meal, it reminds us once again, “This is the Jesus that I do know.”

The Misunderstood Jesus

Sermon Discussion Questions
Mark 3:20-35
June 6, 2021

Jesus began his ministry in dramatic fashion. In just the first two chapters in the Gospel of Mark, he has been providing powerful and insightful teachings and healing people. Word was getting around about him and crowds started following him.

Can you remember when you were first drawn to Jesus? What led you to begin following him?

Our Gospel reading marks the end of this “honeymoon” period for Jesus. The people are beginning to wonder if all of this was too good to be true and if Jesus was up to more harm than good. The people were misinterpreting Jesus’ actions.

Have you ever wondered if you have misunderstood Jesus? What helped you to have a better understanding of who Jesus is?

Sadly, we have examples from history in which people have misrepresented Jesus for selfish purposes. In the early 20th century, there were Christians in Nazi Germany who remade Jesus to be Aryan in order to promote one particular race over all others. Even more recently, we have seen how many people use Jesus to justify their political views. All of us can fall prey to forming Jesus into our own image because we can so easily view Jesus from our limited perspectives.

What helps you to grow in your understanding of who Jesus is?

Toward the end of our Gospel reading from Mark, chapter 3, Jesus gives us some insight on how we can know if we are understanding who he truly is. When the crowd tells Jesus that his mother, brothers, and sisters are looking for him, Jesus tells looks out at those who are his followers and says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” In the first two chapters of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus has shown us that God’s will includes offering God’s healing love to all people. This inclusive love of all people is at the heart of who Jesus is and what he has come to do.

Sunday’s prayer reminds us of who Jesus is and his desire to seek God’s will. As you offer this prayer, be open to how God will help you to have a greater understanding of who Jesus is.

Lord Jesus, you have come into the world to offer healing, hope, forgiveness, and new life. Through your life, death, and resurrection, you have shown us that you truly are the One sent by God. May all that we do and say reflect your saving and redemptive love for the world. Forgive us for whenever we have strayed from living out who you have called us to be. Thank you for calling us your sisters and brothers who seek to do your will in all that we say and do. Amen.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Online Worship (June 6) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
June 6
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Wednesday, June 2, 2021