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, July 26, 2021

Sermon (July 25) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     When I first came here six years ago to serve as your pastor, I remember walking into the sanctuary and I could tell something right away. Call this what you want but I could sense even before I started meeting you, that you had been praying for me.

     There was just something about the spirit of this place where I knew that there had been many prayers preceding my arrival here. I mentioned this to somebody soon after I arrived here and that person said, “Yeah, that’s true. The people here really do believe in prayer.”

     Based on me sharing this observation with you, the answer to my sermon title question is pretty obvious. Yes, our prayers really do make a difference.

     The Apostle Paul believed in the power of prayer. In a letter that he wrote to the Christians who lived in Ephesus, he tells them that he has been praying for them. Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter to them. Imagine receiving a letter from someone who is confined to a prison cell because of his faith, but who still wants you to know that you are being lifted in prayer.

     And even though Paul was praying primarily for the Christians in Ephesus, as I read his letter, it feels like he was praying for all of us as well. He writes,

     “For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, form whom every family in heaven and earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted  and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the Saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.”

     If you are ever having a rough day and feeling discouraged, imagine receiving a letter like this where someone shares that they are praying for you in such an uplifting and encouraging way. Prayers really do make a difference!

     In one of the churches I served, there was a home bound member I would visit from time to time. He lived in a really tiny apartment. His name was Chester, Chester Mustard. Great name! During my first visit with him, I introduced myself and he wanted me to know that he prays for me every day and that he would continue to pray for me every day.

     He said this in a way that I knew it was true. Just the look in his eyes told me that he really meant it. And throughout my ministry at that church, I would think of Chester often and how he was lifting me in prayer. That had such a powerful impact on me. Even though he was confined there in his small apartment, I could feel his prayers and encouragement finding their way to wherever I was at the time.

     I think it’s interesting that this Ephesians reading is paired today with our Gospel reading where Jesus fed five thousand people with just five loaves and two fish.  How do you feed that many people with such a small amount of food?

     What does Jesus do? He puts an usher team together and has them seat the people on the hillside. And after everyone has been seated, Jesus takes that little bit of food and offers a prayer of thanksgiving and that little bit of food ended up not only feeding those five thousand people, but they even had lots of leftovers.

     One little prayer of thanksgiving led to a miraculous feeding. Our prayers really do make a difference!

     These reminders of how prayer really does make a difference is important for us especially during those days when we are feeling that our prayers are just bouncing off the walls. We can get discouraged and we might begin to wonder if our prayers really do make a difference.

     This past spring following the mass shooting at a grocery store in Colorado, I was listening to two politicians sparring with each other over the topic of prayer. This type of heated exchange often happens after these mass shootings. A politician will offer their thoughts and prayers for the families of the shooting victims and then another politician will say, “our thoughts and prayers are not enough. We need common sense gun legislation.”

     The phrase, “thoughts and prayers” has been used so often that it almost feels empty in it’s meaning. Have you ever felt that way about prayer? I want to interrupt these politicians who are arguing with each other and say, “It’s not one or the other. We can pray and take action as well.” It’s both/and, not either/or. I want to say, “Yes, let’s offer our thoughts and prayers especially for politicians to make changes that will make it more difficult for these mass shootings to occur.”

     Sometimes, our prayers do lead us to make positive changes in order to make this world a better place. It’s not one over the other.

     Whenever I pray for someone who is about to have surgery, I pray for the surgeon and the medical team to use their God-given abilities, skills, medical knowledge, training, and expertise in a way that would help that person to receive healing and wholeness. Whenever I pray for friends or family members who are going on a trip, I pray for them to make wise decisions and to be alert to any challenges they may face along the way.

     I do this because deep down, I believe that our prayers really do make a difference. Even though the Apostle Paul was in a prison and there wasn’t a whole lot that he could do from a prison cell, he knew that his prayers could make a big difference.

     One of the reasons our church was able to not only survive but thrive during all of those months when our church building was closed for many of our ministries, was because of all of our prayers. We never stopped praying whether it was through our online worship services or throughout our weekly email prayer chain. 

     The prayers kept pouring out. And whenever I received those prayer requests, it always reminded me that we were still praying. And God was answering our prayers. Even though we were often times physically separated from each other, we stayed connected through our prayers for each other.

     I know all of this may sound mysterious as we think about how prayer makes a difference so let me offer a more scientific approach. 

     Ilia Delia is a Christian author and theologian who focuses on the interaction of science and religion. She explains in her writings how quantum physics helps us to understand how prayer can make a difference. Yes, you can tell the people that you see after church that your pastor talked about quantum physics in the sermon.

     Delia makes the point that quantum physics is really about wave particle duality. Now, stay with me because I think you will find this really interesting.

     All matter is a form of energy and all energy is a form of matter. So instead of matter simply consisting of separate little atoms, these atoms are really energy that have a relationship with each other. In other words, there is no matter that exists independent of any other matter. It’s all deeply relational and interconnected fields within fields.

     So, for example, if you pick a flower on earth, you can move the farthest star. And that means that if I would take two particles that have interacted and I separate them by a vast distance, and I then place one particle on this pulpit here in Athens, Ohio and the other particle on the moon, and if I would place the particle on this pulpit 180 degrees here, that means that the particle on the moon should also turn 180 degrees down. 

     Albert Einstein is the one who first started talking about this idea of the relationality of particles even when they are separated by an incredibly long distance. Even though the particles aren’t communicating with each other, by changing one particle, you end up changing the other. The word that describes this relationality between particles is known as quantum entanglement. 

     Ilia Delio has taken this understanding of quantum physics where there is this incredible relationship with particles and has applied it to our interactions as humans. Our actions and our thoughts are not isolated. Our thoughts and actions affect others.

     She uses the example of someone who has been interacting with a friend. And that person might wonder how his or her friend is doing in that particular moment. And then maybe just a half hour later, that person gets a phone call or an email from that same person. These mysterious serendipitous moments happen to us from time to time leaving us wonder if that was just a coincidence. 

     Based on quantum physics, these so called “coincidences” might have something to do with how our thoughts and our actions can still have this relational connection even when you are totally separated from the other person. This idea of quantum entanglement can help us to see how creation itself is entangled with the Creator. Which means that God’s life affects our lives and our lives affect God’s life.

     And all of this is what our faith teaches us that God is personal. God is communicative. And God is relational. The incarnation where God becomes one of us through the person of Jesus Christ reminds us that even though God is distinct from matter, God is is also connected with matter. 

     And all of this can lead us to this theological conclusion: Everything that has been created, you, me and this entire world has a divine dimension of depth to it in which all matter is connected to an eternal source. And this is what makes this world holy. 

     So when you see the face of another person, you are in some sense seeing a reflection of the face of God. When you look at a leaf, you are in some sense seeing a reflection of God’s wisdom and glory. 

     Maybe instead of referring to this as “quantum entanglement,” we can think of prayer as an exercise in “holy entanglement.” When we pray, we release an energy, an energy of divine love that according to all of this scientific talk, can have a positive impact in our world. Our prayers are connected with God and can make a difference in the lives of others.

     Well, anyway, the Apostle Paul thought so. And that’s why he continued to pray even while he was in prison because he knew that those prayers would have an impact upon the Christians in Ephesus. 

     So much so that this is why Paul says in the last verse of our scripture reading,

     “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever, and ever. Amen.”

    And so, yes.  Our prayers really do make a difference! Thanks be to God!

Do My Prayers Make a Difference?

Sermon Discussion Questions
Ephesians 3:14-21
July 25, 2021

Pastor Robert shared that when he first arrived in Athens, he could already sense the prayers that had been lifted for him. 

Have you ever sensed that someone had been praying for you? Share what that experience was like.

In our Ephesians scripture reading, the Apostle Paul is in prison for his faith and he is letting the Christians in Ephesus know that he has been praying for them. 

Why do you think that Paul wanted to them to know that he was praying for them? How do you think this made them feel?

Our Ephesians reading reminds us of the importance of prayer.

Who do you pray for on a consistent basis? Do you ever wonder if your prayers are making a difference in that person’s life?

Pastor Robert shared the theological work of Ilia Delio who focuses on the interaction of science and religion. Ilia uses the concept of quantum physics to help describe how our prayers really can make a difference in the lives of others. She explains how quantum physics says that atoms are energy and they share a relationship. In a similar way, our prayers are a form of energy that share a relationship. She uses the example of when we are thinking of someone, we sometimes receive a call from that person. We wonder if it’s just a coincidence but based on quantum physics, it may be that our thoughts and our prayer energy are making a connection with that person.

Share a time when you felt that a connection was being made with someone through your prayers. 

Our church provides several different opportunities for sharing prayers. These include sharing prayer requests that are sent to our email prayer chain, sharing in worship service prayers such as the opening prayer of confession and the pastoral prayer. We also encourage our small groups and bible studies to begin with prayer.

Do you have a personal prayer routine throughout the week? Share some of the ways that you seek to make prayer more of a priority in your life.

Share in this worship prayer that was used in Sunday’s service:

O Lord, we confess that there are times when we wonder if you really hear our prayers. Sometimes you feel so far away and we begin to doubt if our prayers really make a difference. As our Psalm for today says, “we have all gone astray.” Help us to find our way again and to rejoice in how you have been our refuge and strength. When we look down and see that we only have five loaves and two fish to feed thousands of people, remind us to also look up and offer these gifts to you. You are able to accomplish far more than we can ask or imagine! To you be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Online Worship (July 25) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
July 25
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, July 19, 2021

Sermon (July 18) by Rev. Robert McDowell

      I came across a children’s book written by a Rabbi that is entitled, “Where Does God Live?” Have you ever thought about where God lives? What kind of house would be suitable for the creator of the world to live?

     King David was thinking about this very question in our Old Testament reading. Notice how our scripture reading begins. “Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” 

     David is feeling settled and satisfied in his luxurious house so it makes sense for God to have a nice house as well. Nathan agrees and gives David the green light to proceed forward.

     But just before David even had time to go to his Zillow app and start searching for the nicest houses on the market or contact a local builder, that very next morning, the Lord tells Nathan “thanks, but not thanks.” The mobile tabernacle home where the Lord has been residing for the past several years is more than adequate. So this leads us to ask the question, “Why doesn’t God want to live in a nicer house?”

     Well, as they say about real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The tabernacle in which God was living was transportable. The Israelites took the tabernacle wherever they went. This God likes to be on the move. This God doesn’t seem all that interested in settling down in one specific place.

     I think this is something that we have discovered during the long global pandemic. We have this wonderful church building, not to mention substantial renovations that we made just a few years ago. But for over a year, for many of us, our homes became God’s new address. Our kitchen tables were transformed into sanctuary altars every Sunday morning. Yes, God still resided at 2 S. College Street, but we needed to set another place for God at the kitchen table or make room for God in our living rooms as we worshiped in our homes.  

     People ask me what I’ve learned during this long pandemic and I believe that we have been reminded that with or without a church building we are still the church because God is with us wherever we may be. When our church building burnt down in 1955, that was another time when the people of our church were reminded that God was still with them.

     God was with them at Memorial Auditorium on the OU campus where they worshipped for the next three years before our current church building was completed. God doesn’t just have one address. God lives in multiple locations, even at the same time!

     And then I think back to when our church was founded back in 1800. We didn’t even have a church building until fifteen years later. For those first fifteen years, somebody’s log cabin was God’s address on Sunday mornings. 

     If God was listed in the white pages, there wouldn’t be enough room to list all of the places where God lives because God is present wherever the people of God are able to gather and worship together. That’s a lot of dwelling places! This is why I say that the pandemic was a reminder of how we are still the church with or without a church building. 

     Sometimes, we can focus so much on a church building that we forget that God isn’t tied to a building with a steeple on top. When we fall in love with a building or equate the building with God, we develop what some church consultants refer to as an “edifice complex.”

     Early in my ministry, I served on staff at a church in which the youth group was not allowed to use one of the rooms in the church because that room was too nice for them to use. This room had the really nice furniture, the expensive coffee table, the nice book shelves, the plush carpet. 

     Since I was the youth pastor, I suggested that they just turn that space into a museum room that had signs that read, “Don’t Touch.” The youth were eventually allowed to use that room.

     I will be the first person to say how much I love this building. I love the simplicity and beauty of our sanctuary. I love our tall steeple. Love the large meeting rooms and our spacious kitchen. There is a lot to love about our building. But Lord have mercy, if I should ever elevate this space over the One for whom this space was created. 

     It was understandable that David wanted to build God a great big house to live. And that great big Temple did eventually get built by Solomon, David’s son. It would become a gathering point for people to worship. Having a physical space for people to gather is so important as we were reminded during this long pandemic but it didn’t stop us from being the church.

     I wonder if our Old Testament reading this morning is here to remind us that as important as it may be to have this wonderful space to gather as a congregation, it’s even more important to remember that God isn’t contained within these walls. God isn’t confined to our physical space. God is always on the move, calling us to recognize God’s presence wherever we may be.

     This past February, I watched the movie, Nomadland. It won the Golden Globe best motion picture of the year. I’ll try not to give away the main plot, but it’s a movie about people who downsize by selling their houses and buying a conversion van where they can live, travel and become nomads on wheels.

     What struck me most about this movie was in how the people who did this became a community where they shared their resources and found lasting relationships. One of the advantages of this lifestyle is that they are free to travel to wherever they’d like to go. 

     There’s a scene in this movie that has stayed with me. The main character in the movie is Fern, a woman who had lost her job and whose husband had recently died. She sells what little she has, buys a van and travels out west to places where she can find seasonal work. 

     A friend invites her to become part of a community of people who are also nomads. The people are really nice and they help her to develop survival skills for the road and they become her friends.

     Early in the movie just after she started to live in her van, Fern runs into a family she knows while shopping at a Walmart. This was before she left town. The woman who heard that she was now living in her van is concerned about her. In this scene, she asks Fern, “Are you still doing the van thing? We’re worried about you.” And Fern tells her to not worry about her and that she’s fine.

     And then this woman’s school age daughter who she had tutored came up to Fern to say, “Hi.” And she says, “My mom said that you’re homeless.” And Fern reassures her by saying, “I’m just houseless, not homeless. It’s not the same thing, right?”

     That moment in the movie stood out for me and I was reminded of it when I started preparing this sermon. Fern chose to do the van thing. And God was choosing to keep doing the tabernacle thing. God didn’t need a Temple. God wanted something more mobile in which to reside.

     I wonder if God was telling David, “I’m not homeless. Just houseless. It’s not the same thing, right?”

     Sometimes we want to have a place for God to live but we forget that God can’t be contained in one location. God shows up in places that we don’t expect. Yes, we expect to meet God in a sanctuary on a Sunday morning, but we also meet God in so many other places, too.

     Like out on the front sidewalk as we give away water bottles to college students. Like at the hospital when we deliver flowers to the patients and hospital staff. Like at the assisted living facility where we provide a worship service and get to know the residents. Like where we work and go to school and share a little of our faith with others. God is in all of these places.

     There is a wonderful Irish blessing that reminds us of God’s traveling ways. It goes like this:

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

     We have a traveling faith where God is with us wherever we go.

     There is a little twist to our Old Testament reading that I think is worth mentioning. David wanted to build a house for God, but God tells David that he is going to build a house for him, not a house of cedar which David already had, but a house that will establish David’s kingdom forever.

     That promise was fulfilled centuries after David through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the long awaited Messiah. Jesus, who was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn. Jesus, the traveling rabbi who once told someone who wanted to follow him, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

     This God who doesn’t have a primary address isn’t confined to one place. Maybe we should think of our church building more as a base of operations for kingdom work than as a permanent address for God. We encounter the living God whenever we gather in this place, but then we are sent into our community to encounter the living God wherever we go. 

     Where does God live? And maybe the best way to answer that question is, God isn’t homeless. Just houseless. It’s not the same thing, right?

Where Does God Live?

Sermon Discussion Questions
II Samuel 7:1-14
July 18, 2021

There is a children’s book that is entitled, “Where Does God Live?” It’s a great question and one that King David asks in our appointed Old Testament reading.

Why is having a place to live important? Why do you think that King David was thinking about this question? 

Up until the time of King David, the Lord was living in a portable tabernacle. This was because Israel was God’s traveling people. After God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, they needed to travel through the wilderness for forty years before finally arriving in the Promise Land.

Share a time when you have been in between homes. How was God present with you in that time of transition?

During the global pandemic and especially when our church building was closed to in-person worship, many of us needed to turn our homes into “sanctuaries” where we watched worship online. 

In what ways was that experience of not having access to our church building for weekly worship a challenge? In what ways was it a blessing?

The short answer to the question, “Where does God live?” is “everywhere.” God is present with us wherever we go even though we dedicate particular places like a church building as our physical gathering point to encounter the living God. We encounter God in our church building, but God goes with us as we go out into the community and world to live out our faith. As Pastor Robert said in the sermon, “God may be houseless, but not homeless.”

Share some ways that help you to remember that God is present with you and with the people you encounter in your day to day living.

This traditional Irish blessing reminds us that God goes with us wherever we travel. Share these words out loud and give thanks for God’s presence.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Online Worship (July 18) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
July 18
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Monday, July 12, 2021

Sermon (July 11) by Rev. Robert McDowell


    “Do you even know what a plumb line is?” she asked in a surprised tone of voice.  “Well of course I know what a plumb line is.” 

     There was a long pause. 

     “Well, do you know that it’s a string with a weight at the bottom of it to make sure that a wall is straight?”

     “Yeah, that was what I was about to say.”

     This was a conversation that Penny and I had early in our marriage when I was telling her about a sermon I was working on based on our Old Testament reading for today. I told her that it was the reading from the prophet Amos where God is standing next to a wall holding a plumb line against it.

     I can’t say that I have ever used a plumb line to build anything but I have used my putter as a plumb line when lining up for a putt. Does that count? At least I have the gist of what a plumb line does.

     Standing behind your golf ball and holding up the putter in front of you will help you to see if the putt will break to the left or to the right or if it will go straight to the hole. So, I think I understand why God is showing Amos a plumb line. God is showing how far off point the Israelites have been in living out who God had called them to be.

     They had lost their fixed point in what it means to be the people of God. God wanted Amos to tell the people of Israel that they needed to get back on point which meant that they needed to stop being so self-indulgent and to starting caring for the needy, the poor, and the weak.

     So Amos serves as a human plumb line by sharing this message that he had received from God with Amaziah, a Priest in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

     Amaziah ends up telling Amos to essentially take a hike back to his backwoods town of Tekoa. “Who invited you here anyway?  You can talk till you’re blue in the face about food insecurity in southeast, Ohio, or how there are more people than you think who can’t find affordable housing or any housing at all, or how half of the population around here has no church affiliation while most churches continue to shrink in numbers, but get real, Amos.  At some point, people need to help themselves. And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

     Again, if it was me instead of Amos, I might have said something like, “Well, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.”  And leave it at that.  But no.  Amos just doesn’t know when to stop. 

     He goes on to tell Amaziah, “Oh, by the way. I might be from a nowhere land, but that didn’t stop the Lord from giving me another message to tell you.”

     We as the readers are thinking to ourselves, “Don’t say anything else, Amos.  You’ve said enough already. Don’t say what we think you’re going to say next. Don’t do it. Uh, oh. He’s actually going to say it, isn’t he?”

     Amos goes on to say, “Oh yeah. There’s one more thing. Because of your disregard for the ways of God, your wife is going to become a prostitute and your sons and daughters are going to die by the sword.”

     We cringe and we want to say to Amos, “OK,  Amos.  Way too much information.  But we gotta hand it to you.  You stood up to them.”

     Can you believe these prophets?  The Lord gives them a word of judgment and they don’t back down.

     They call Amos one of the 12 Minor Prophets, but there’s nothing minor about this mouthpiece of God.  

     Prophets by their very nature scare us to a large degree.  I was speaking with a member of another church and he was telling me about his involvement on the staff/parish relations committee of his church.  

     And he said, “Yeah.  We had a problem with one of our pastors years ago and we asked for a new minister.”  “What did he do,” I asked, not knowing if I really wanted to hear the answer.  “He upset a lot of our people because of his anti-war sermons and our congregation is very patriotic.”

     I wanted to sarcastically ask if their pastor went by the name of Amos by any chance, because it sure sounded like something Amos would have said.

     Now, Amos wasn’t telling Amaziah something that he didn’t already know.  He would have known that the God of Israel was a God who cared for the poor, the marginalized, and for those who were seen as outsiders.  He would have known that the people of Israel were meant to be a light to the world, and not a light unto themselves.

     The truth is – we can know something to be true and yet live in a way that defies that truth about God and ourselves. We can so easily lose our fixed point and get off track with our purpose and mission.

     So what Amos is actually doing in his role as prophet, is reminding the people of Israel of who they are called to be.  A people who are called to be faithful.  A people who are called to change their ways when they fail to be the people God has called them to be.

     That’s why we need people like Amos who will get out that plumb line and show us where we have gotten off centered. You know. It’s not easy to stay centered without the help of a plumb line.

     This past January, Penny and I decided to watch a recording of the online worship service at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. It was the service that was held on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. We thought it would be a nice way to reflect on the meaning of Dr. King’s legacy.

[Dr. Michael Eric Dyson]

      This past January, Penny and I decided to watch a recording of the online worship service at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC. It was the service that was held on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. We thought it would be a nice way to reflect on the meaning of Dr. King’s legacy.

     The guest preacher was Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, professor of African American Studies at Vanderbilt University. Dr. Dyson is also an ordained pastor and a powerful preacher. We got more than we bargained for because Dr. Dyson proceeded to tell painful story after painful story of how deeply embedded racism is in our nation.

     For some reason, I was thinking that the sermon would be more of a nice little reminder for people to get along with people better, especially with people of a different color, but instead we got hit hard with an Amos type of sermon. 

     Dr. Dyson held up that plumb line there in that beautiful cathedral, making the people in those church pews squirm as well as Penny and me as we watched the sermon online from our living room couch. 

     It was one of those sermons that reminded us of the painful reality of racial injustice that continues to permeate our society. What I thought was going to be a nice little sermon that would make me feel better, ended up becoming a major wake-up call, as painful as it was to hear, to do better and to be better. We need these Amos sermons from time to time. We need that plumb line.

     A friend of mine sent me an email that shared her frustration over people who call themselves Christian but exhibit hate-filled rhetoric. She asks, “Does their Bible have some extra Gospel of Hate, that isn’t in our bibles? And how do they think that they will draw people to Christ if all they have to offer is hate?” 

     She then shared this raw emotion – “I have been left feeling that instead of wanting to offer encouragement to these people, I would rather whop them up side of the head with a skillet to knock some sense into them. How do these people claim to be Christian?”

     My friend was sounding a lot like Amos who was looking at that plumb line and wondering how people who claim to be people of faith don’t even notice how off point they have become.

     And of course the truth is that we are all susceptible in getting off point in our faith. That’s why we all need this plumb line to help us get closer to that fixed point where we are living out a Gospel of Love rather than a Gospel of Hate.

     It’s been a little over four years now when we remodeled our sanctuary and the front entrance of our church building. One of my favorite memories from that time is when one of our members entered the front entrance of our church and saw the new look.

     As she stood in our front Welcome Center and was looking into our sanctuary, she said to me, “This is my favorite thing about the improvements we made.” I asked her what she meant. 

   And she said, “From back here, my eyes are more drawn to our large cross up front. It’s the way that the new carpet in the back of the sanctuary starts wide but then narrows and leads your eyes all the way to the front of the sanctuary and then upward to the cross.”

     I think about her observation often. She’s right. The cross has become more of the fixed point for whenever we enter this building. It helps to remind us that we have a Gospel of Love, not a Gospel of Hate. It reveals where we have fallen short of who God has called us to be.

     Like a plumb line that sways back and forth and finally comes to a stop, the cross is our fixed point leading us to be the people that God has called us to be. 

Our Fixed Point

Sermon Discussion Questions
Amos 7:7-15
July 11, 2021

The prophet, Amos used a plumb line to speak out against the northern kingdom of Israel for how they off gotten off point in who God had called them to be. They had become self-indulgent and were not caring for the poor and those most vulnerable.

Why do you think a plumb line was used to share this message from the Lord?

A pastor of a church spoke out against war at his church and his congregation felt that he was being “unpatriotic” so they asked him to leave.

Share another example of someone who took a risk by speaking out against something that was against God’s desires and suffered the consequences for it.

Dr. Michael Eric Dyson is a professor of African American Studies at Vanderbilt University. He is also an ordained pastor and a powerful preacher. Dr. Dyson is like a modern day Amos who is willing to use a plumb line to show how we as a country have been off the mark in race relations.

How can the plumb line prophetic voice that calls out out the deeply embedded racism in our country help our country to become more aware of the sin of racism and find positive ways to overcome systemic prejudicial behaviors and attitudes?

One of our church members said that what she likes most about our remodeled sanctuary is that when you enter the room, her eyes are drawn up the center aisle to our large wooden cross. What a wonderful observation. Pastor Robert shared that the cross is our plumb line to help us be the people God has called us to be. Our plumb line is the cross where Jesus offered his life for the sake of the world.

Think of some other ways that we can be reminded of when we get off center. Who has been like the prophet Amos in your life? Our weekly Sunday worship prayer of confession serves as one of those plumb lines for us. Here is the prayer:

O God, center us on this day of worship. Reorient us so that we will be aligned with your desires and purposes. Renew our focus and set our eyes upon Jesus who is the true plumb line of our faith. We confess that we too often use our own political and personal agendas to establish what is true rather than upon your relentless pursuit of justice, mercy, and goodness for all people. Remind us again and again to always find the truth we are seeking by looking to Jesus who lived, died, and rose again for our sake. Amen.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Online Sunday Worship (July 11) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
July 11
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, July 5, 2021

Sermon (July 4) by Rev. Robert McDowell


    Several years ago, I read the book, “1776” by David McCullough.  It’s a book that focuses on that very important year when our colonies were fighting for independence from Britain. I’ve been thinking about that book with today being our nation’s Independence Day.

     This book reminded me of just how divided we were in our cause for freedom.  Sure, there were many who were tired and angry over British rule, but there were also many people who remained loyal to the British cause. Even beyond this major division, there was a lot diversity among the different colonies.  Each colony had its own identity, its own history, and its own needs and perspectives. It was quite a challenge for our founding fathers to bring us together as one united people.

     When it was time for our new nation to select a permanent location for our capitol, they didn’t choose Boston, Philadelphia, Richmond, or New York. Choosing any one of those cities would have been showing favoritism to one colony or region.  So they ended up creating a new city that would be a symbol of our new nation.  Washington D.C. became the wise political solution for promoting unity among so much diversity.

      Like our country’s founders, the leaders of Israel faced the same challenge in trying to unify a people of so many diversities and backgrounds.  Today’s appointed Old Testament reading from II Samuel is the story of David becoming King of both the southern and the northern tribes of Israel. 

     David had been serving as king of the southern part of Israel but the northern part was being ruled by a different king.  And these two regions of Israel were at constant war with each other.  This was not the unified Israel that God had intended for his people.  

     And this was the Prophet Samuel’s greatest fear when the people of Israel had first approached him about wanting to be like the other nations and have their own king.  This is one of those, “I told you so” moments. Thankfully, there are a couple of heroes in our passage of scripture today who were brave enough to step out in faith for the sake of bringing unity to a divided nation.

     The first hero was actually some of the leaders who belonged to the northern tribes of Israel.  They were somehow able to put aside their animosity with the southern tribes and make the journey into their territory to meet with David.  

     This was a very risky political move on the part of these northern leaders.  Their political approval ratings probably took a nose dive when this trip was first announced.  But they were more concerned with unity than they were with any political fall-out for doing such a thing.

     When they arrived to Hebron, they gave David credit for leading the people following Saul’s death.  And for the sake of unity, these northern leaders anointed David to be the king for both the northern as well as the southern tribes. 

     So, the first hero was this group of leaders who risked everything to acknowledge David as King.

     And the second hero in this story is David himself.  David could have continued his rule right there in the city of Hebron in the southern territory which would have been the easy thing for him to do.  But instead of alienating the northern territory, he strategically chose a neutral city, a Washington D.C. type of city to be the new capitol for a unified people, a city that had neither southern nor northern connections.  And that city was Jerusalem.

     But there was only one problem.  The city of Jerusalem was controlled by the Jebusites, which were a people that Israel had never been able to defeat.  Defeating the Jebusites and claiming Jerusalem as the new capitol of all of Israel would be a symbol of this new unity of Israel.  This is one of the reasons why David was such a great leader.  Not only was he a man after God’s own heart, he also had a heart for the unity of God’s people.

     But David’s brave decision to conquer Jerusalem would not be easy.  The Jebusites were a very confident people and they boasted that the walls of the city were so strong that the city could even be defended by the blind and the lame.

     David’s plan was to not enter by the walls but to out-smart them by entering through the water shaft which he and his privately paid soldiers ended up doing and they were successful.  And this is why the city of Jerusalem is also known as the City of David. 

     David, along with the leaders of the northern territory who put unity ahead of politics are the heroes of this story from II Samuel.  It was because of their heroic actions, that God’s people became a united people again.  They were now one nation under God.

     When I first noticed that July 4th would fall on a Sunday this year, my first thought was how many churches and pastors would be tempted to turn today into a political rally that promotes a particular political agenda. I’m pretty certain that later today when I go online to read the news that I will stumble upon churches and preachers who have used this day to promote one political party over another.

     When churches blur the distinction between their faith and patriotism, it’s called Christian Nationalism. And they also make it very clear which political party or political candidate Jesus endorses. 

     Several years ago, a clergy friend of mine who served in the same community where I was serving invited me to attend a National Day of Prayer breakfast in a nearby city. By the way, he was not United Methodist which may or may not be helpful for you to know as I tell you this story.

     And I thought to myself, “This will be really nice, to gather with other pastors from different denominations and community leaders and spend time in prayer for our communities, our nation, and our world.”

     What I didn’t realize was that this National Day of prayer gathering was more about a political rally than it was about joining together as one diverse community of pastors and leaders in prayer. I just wish they would have been upfront with their agenda.

     In a church I was serving, I went to the hospital to visit one of my older church members who was to have surgery that morning. When I saw her in the pre-op room, she had time to talk and she asked if I had seen an interesting news story on TV the other day. 

     And as she started to tell me about it, she stopped in mid-sentence, and she said, “Oh, you probably don’t watch that channel, do you?” She was referring to a certain cable news channel that she likes to watch. When she said that, a smile came to her face and we laughed. I said, “Opal, am I that obvious with my political leanings?” She gave me another smile and a wink and continued in her story.

     Here’s the reason I share this story. Even though Opal and I didn’t see eye to eye politically, that didn’t matter to her at all. She saw me as her pastor and she was so glad that I could be with her to have a prayer before her surgery that day. 

     I think it is so interesting that our appointed Old Testament scripture reading for today is this one about how David was able to bring two politically and very divisive factions together so that they would be one nation under God. This is a scripture that reminds us that just because we may not agree with each other politically, this is still a day where we can see ourselves as one.

     Last fall, as we were nearing the presidential election, I offered a holy hump day video in which I shared some thoughts about faith and politics. Here’s a brief recap of what I shared in that video this past October.

     The first thing I shared is for us to not confuse the theocracy form of government that we find in the Bible with our democratic form of government. In a theocracy, there is one God who rules over all. But in a democracy like we have here in our country, there is a lot of diversity. Our country is known as a melting pot where there are people who practice many different religious faiths and some, not at all. 

     I like to call it a “democracy of diversity.” And to me, this is what the American dream is all about; having people from many different backgrounds, experiences, and religious faiths and blending them together to be one united country. 

     So this is the first thing, is for us to not confuse the theocracy of the Bible with our democratic form of government. Christian nationalism which I spoke about earlier tries to makes these two forms of government the same. Here is a different approach. You can be a Christian whose ultimate allegiance is to Jesus Christ, and at the same time be respectful that we live in a democracy where there are people who represent other religious faiths, beliefs, and backgrounds.

     The second thing I mentioned in that video is that at the heart of the scriptures is God’s desire for their to be justice and righteousness throughout the land and this includes caring for those who are marginalized and most vulnerable. So, regardless of our political leanings, we are called to be aware of those who are often left behind and forgotten.

     The final thing that I mentioned in the video is that our faith calls upon us to exercise humility and to be servants of others. Jesus came to serve others and he died on a cross by emptying himself for the sake of others.

     As we reflect upon what it means to be patriotic on this July 4th, let’s remember that we live in a democracy of diversity, that we are called to seek justice and righteousness by remembering those who are most vulnerable, and we are called to have humble hearts and serve others like Jesus.

     Today is not a day to have a political rally. It’s a day to find unity in our diversity. That’s the American dream that I know and love.

The American Dream

Sermon Discussion Questions
II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10
July 4, 2021

Today’s appointed Old Testament reading is appropriate for this July 4th Sunday because it describes how Israel became a united nation under the leadership of David. The two heroes in the story are leaders of the northern kingdom who were willing to accept David as their new King. The other hero in the story is David who wisely chose a neutral city to become the Capitol for this new united nation. This scripture reading reminds us that political systems work best when there is a willingness to set aside self interests for the good of the whole. 

Share an example of where you have seen a willingness to set aside self interests for the good of the whole. It doesn’t have to be related to politics. Maybe it was a delicate job situation or a fragile relationship.

Pastor Robert made the statement, “When churches blur the distinction between their faith and patriotism, it’s called Christian Nationalism.” This can be dangerous because our faith is meant to inform and critique nationalism. Rather than keeping our allegiance with God, Christian Nationalism can turn a political party or candidate into a god.

What helps you to keep your faith and your political leanings separate while also allowing your faith to critique your politics? Why do you think it can be easy to confuse the two?

Pastor Robert offers these three thoughts on living out the American Dream and how we might allow our faith to inform our politics rather than the other way around. These include 1) Remember that we live in a democracy and not a theocracy which means that we need to respect the diversity of opinions, backgrounds, and perspectives in our country. 2) Seek God’s justice and righteousness in your political conversations. And remember, that God’s justice and righteousness include a concern for those who are marginalized and most vulnerable. 3) Be humble and respectful of others. Jesus offers us the example of what it means to set aside our own interests for the sake of others. 

Discuss these three thoughts on living out the American Dream. What are some practical ways that we can live out these ideals as a people of faith?