A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

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

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Online Worship (August 29) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
August 29
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, August 23, 2021

Sermon (August 22) by Rev. Robert McDowell


   Today is the 2nd part of a two-week series on the theme, “Back to School.” Last Sunday, our focus was on “Back to School” supplies. 

     Hopefully, we already have the basic supplies like plenty of pencils, erasers, markers, and notebooks, but King Solomon from our Old Testament reading last week reminded us of the most important item and that is wisdom. 

     Wisdom and knowledge are not the same thing. Knowledge is the information we will take in during the school year through reading books and listening to lectures. Wisdom is about how we apply that information in loving and fruitful ways. We can memorize all of the facts and information in the world but unless we know how to use that knowledge in helpful ways, it doesn’t really matter what we know.

     This reminds me of the widely circulated leadership phrase, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

     This is what the new King Solomon was asking God to grant him when he asked for wisdom. It’s important for us to remember that King Solomon did not always make wise decisions as the King of Israel. 

     Wisdom is something that we don’t want to take for granted. It’s something that we need to constantly work at through disciplines of study, prayer, and reflection. This is why you can’t find this school supply at Walmart. It’s the intangible school supply but it can make all the difference in the world.

     And this brings us to our focus today which is the back to school clothing that we will need throughout this new year of learning. Yes, even in our faith, it’s important to have the clothing that will help us to be the growing and mature Christians God is calling us to be.

     According to our scripture reading from Ephesians, this is the back to school look we need to have this year. What do you think?

     It’s a little much if you ask me. Actually, I’ve always been troubled by this scripture passage and others like it because it seems to promote having a warrior type of faith. I cringe whenever I hear preachers talk about spiritual warfare because don’t we have enough violent talk in our culture?

     The phrase “spiritual warfare” is problematic to me because of a couple of important reasons. The first reason is related to the many holy wars that have been fought in the name of religion. One would think that since Christianity emphasizes peace and humility, we would not have such a violent history. Unfortunately, we know that’s not the case.

     Just think of the several crusades that Christians undertook around the 11thcentury. Those crusades were to reclaim land in the name of Christ. They would use the cross to show that God was on their side.  Many people were killed in the name of the one who died on the cross for our sins.

     When President George Bush first referred to the fight against terrorism following the 9/11 attacks as a “crusade,” he later realized that it was a poor choice of words. That loaded word, “crusade” is a reminder of how Christians have a very violent history.

     The events of 9/11 have led us to rethink how we use certain words and phrases like “crusade” and “spiritual warfare.” We often forget that our choice of words are so important because they are packed with so much historical meaning.

      This is why a Christian student organization changed their name from “Campus Crusade for Christ” to the shortened word, “Cru” just a few years ago. They became more aware of how words and phrases have meaning.

     Some of us may remember when our current hymnal was being revised back in the late 1980s and how the big controversy was if the old hymn, “Onward Christians Soldiers” should be included in the hymnal because of it’s spiritual warfare language. Ironically, this debate over a Christian hymn in the hymnal became so heated among Christians that it kind of proved the point of how our phrases and words really matter!

     And by the way, this whole discussion about the use of the phrase, “spiritual warfare” is related to last Sunday’s  “back to school” supply of “wisdom.” Knowledge alone isn’t enough. Wisdom is what we gain when we think about our use of words and how they impact the people around us.

     The second reason why I get uncomfortable with using spiritual warfare language is because the use of that phrase has become misunderstood in our culture. It has a holier than thou sound to it. It’s language that sets up a “we vs. they” mentality.

     Sadly, we see this “we vs. they” mentality in politics, in churches, and in our everyday conversations. We even have a phrase that speaks to this mentality. We call it, “demonizing others” because they don’t agree with us.

     And let me just say this. This spiritual warfare language sounds so primitive and antiquated. Let’s look at my picture again where I’m wearing that armor. 

     Is this what you want your pastor to look like when you introduce me to your friends. “Pastor Robert, your helmet looks so nice on you. It makes you look so much taller and more intimidating.” I cringe whenever I come across scripture passages like this about getting ready for a battle and putting on armor for a spiritual warfare.

     I still stand by what I have just mentioned about the difficulty of using this warfare language, but here is what we can learn from it. There really is a spiritual warfare going on around us in any given moment. But it’s not the kind of warfare where we put on this armor so that we can take land by force in the name of Christ. And it’s also not the kind of warfare where I see people who don’t agree with me as the enemy.

    The warfare as the Apostle Paul says in our Ephesians scripture reading is not against “enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

     That’s the context we need to remember as we read Paul. He wants us to be fully aware of the spiritual forces of evil and to not take that lightly.

     God’s intention for the world is for there to be justice, righteousness, goodness, and peace, but the force of evil in the world seeks to undermine these things. Unfortunately, we see many examples everyday of the presence of evil. Whenever we see hate groups or racist attitudes or anything that is dehumanizing toward other people, that is a sign of the presence of evil in our world. 

     Think of what we say in the Lord’s Prayer. It’s a prayer asking for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. That’s the justice, righteousness, goodness, and peace that God desires for the world. But notice how the prayer concludes. It says, “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”

     This prayer reminds us to be delivered from evil which is anything less than God’s desire for their to be justice, righteousness, goodness, and peace. And this is why he wants us to put on the whole armor of God that will help us to withstand and stand firm as he says. 

     So let’s quickly look at what this back to school clothing looks like and why it’s important for us to wear. There are six items that we need to put on if we want to withstand and stand firm against evil and promote justice, righteousness, goodness, and peace in our world. 

     So let’s bring up my picture again. Paul says that we fasten the belt of truth around our waist. The belt of truth is what reminds us that our faith is true. God has sent us Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. God’s redemptive and saving love for the world is made possible because of Jesus. Jesus is our belt of truth.

     Paul also wants us to wear the breastplate of righteousness. The breastplate serves as a protective device because when evil presents itself, we can boldly declare that we have been made right with God through Jesus.

     We also are to put on shoes of peace. Evil will do everything it can do to knock us off our feet, but if we are wearing shoes of peace, it will help us to stand straight and not lose our balance.

     We also are to take with us the shield of faith. Whenever the arrows of despair, doubt, or discouragement come our way, we can hold up the shield of faith that will see us through anything that evil might throw our way. 

     And my favorite thing that Paul says we need to wear is the helmet of salvation. What a back to school fashion statement if we all really started wearing helmets! This helmet is what reminds us that we have already been rescued from evil and we belong to Christ. 

     And don’t worry, this good news of our faith will more than offset the helmet hair you will have when you take it off each day.

     And last but not least, we are to always carry with us the sword of God. This is the only offensive part of our armor. The sword reminds us that God continues to speak to us through the careful and prayerful discernment of the scriptures. This relates to the back to school supply of wisdom where we are always discerning what God is saying to us. 

     God is not silent. God still speaks to us. That’s why we need the sword of God.

     As we think about the importance of putting on the whole armor of God to help us in our struggle against the spiritual forces of evil in the world, I’ve been thinking about an anti-racism task force that I have been helping to chair in our West Ohio Conference.

     About fifteen clergy and laity from all over our conference including Bishop Palmer have been meeting to develop a mission and strategy to overcome the sin of racism. It’s been very humbling for me to learn just how deeply embedded racism is in our society. 

     After several meetings discussing all of this, one of the members of the group finally named what needed to be named. He said, “what we are really going up against is the powerful force of evil in our world that would seek to dehumanize others just because of the color of someone’s skin.”

     It was only after this person openly used the word, “evil,” that we were able to have a spiritual breakthrough in our conversations. Our task became more real, more meaningful, and more purposeful because we realized that the sin of racism is so much bigger than any one of us can handle alone. 

     We were reminded in that moment, that we really do need the WHOLE armor of God. 

     Whether it be racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, bigotry, or whatever injustice we may encounter, the only thing, the ONLY thing that will help us overcome evil in this world, is by putting on the belt of truth,  the breastplate of justice, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.

     As we begin this new year of school, my prayer for all of us is that we would seek God’s wisdom and put on the whole armor of God.

Back to School Clothes

Sermon Discussion Questions
Ephesians 6:10-20
August 22, 2021

Last Sunday, we focused on the “Back to School” supply of wisdom that we need to have for this new school year. When Solomon became King, he asked God to give him wisdom. Wisdom is more than just knowledge and facts. It’s the ability to prayerfully discern how to use the knowledge we have so that we can make wise decisions. We gain wisdom by using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that utilizes tradition, experience, and reason in interpreting the Bible. We also talked about John Wesley’s emphasis on remembering the three simple rules of 1) Doing no harm 2) Doing good, and 3) Loving God by practicing the spiritual disciplines of our faith, like worship, bible reading, and prayer.

What helps you to make wise decisions? How does the quadrilateral approach to interpreting scripture and Wesley’s three simple rules help you to be more wise?

This week, we conclude our two-part sermon series by looking at the importance of “Back to School” clothes. In our Ephesians scripture passage, the Apostle Paul encourages us to “Put on the whole armor of God.” Paul encourages us to wear six items.

1st Piece of Armor - Belt of Truth Around our Waist (Reminds us that our faith is true)

2nd Piece of Armor - Breastplate of Righteousness (Protective armor so that when we face evil forces in the world, we can be assured that God is with us)

3rd Piece of Armor - Shoes of Peace (Helps us to keep our balance when evil forces seek to have us fall)

4th Piece of Armor - Shield of Faith (When the arrows of evil come all our way, we are protected through our faith in Christ)

5th Piece of Armor - Helmet of Salvation (Reminds us that we belong to Christ)

6th Piece of Armor - Sword of God (The wise use of the scriptures will help us overcome the challenges that come our way)

Which of these pieces of armor stand out for you? Share a time when your faith has helped you through a challenging time.

The Apostle Paul uses this armor of God language because he believed that evil is a very real and powerful force in our world. Evil manifests itself through the dehumanizing treatment of others. The whole armor of God is what protects us from the evil forces in our world.

Pray our Sunday worship “back to school” prayer to remind us of the importance of having wisdom and God’s armor as we begin a new school year together:

O Lord, as we begin this new school year, may we find our strength in you. Lead us to have wise and discerning minds. Clothe us with all that we need to stand firm in our faith. We confess that we often forget to put on your armor that will enable us to have a growing and mature faith. Remind us in this time of new beginnings that our faith is not meant to be lived out in isolation but in community. Thank you for the opportunity to worship together and to be part of your family! Amen. 

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Online Worship (August 22) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
August 22
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, August 16, 2021

Sermon (August 15) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Today, we begin a short two-week sermon series to help us get ready for this new school year. 

     Just like schools send out “back to school” supply lists and stores encourage us to buy “back to school” clothing, our appointed scripture readings for the next two Sundays offer us important ways that can help us to be ready for this new season of spiritual growth.

     Today, our Old Testament reading from I Kings reminds us of a “back to school” item that we don’t always find on a typical school supply list. So, for example, here is a list of supplies from one of our local schools.

     2 packages of sharpened pencils, a package of pink erasers, a large box of tissues, 2 boxes of crayons crayons, 2 boxes of crayons markers, 2 packages of large Elmers glue sticks, 1 large bottle of Elmers glue, 1 package of twistable colored pencils, and plastic zipper bags.

     These lists vary from building to building and based on grade levels, but I think this is a pretty typical list of supplies for the new school year.

     But there’s something very important that is missing in this list that we find in our Old Testament reading today, and that very important item is “wisdom.” We can have all of the boxes of crayons, the glue sticks, and pencils we can buy, but if we don’t include wisdom, our list is far from complete.

     Wisdom is a really big deal in the Bible, so much so that we get this story about it here in I Kings, chapter 3, which is the story of when Solomon became the new King of Israel. Solomon’s father has just died and as a son of David, he inherits the throne. 

     The Lord, knowing that Solomon was new to being a king appeared to him in a dream and said, “Ask what I should give you.” What an offer! The creator of the universe wants to give Solomon whatever he needs in order to be a successful king.

     Solomon responds to the Lord by saying that since he is still young and doesn’t have any experience in being a king, what he really needs is, and I quote, “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”

     That is a sentence that describes what wisdom is. Wisdom is having an understanding mind and the ability to discern. 

     I have a Wesley Study Bible that provides commentary for selected scripture passages and next to this passage, it offers this important piece of information about this scripture reading:

     “God calls us to use our minds. God wants us to use the intellectual abilities with which we have been blessed. John Wesley, who taught logic at Oxford University, emphasized the importance of reason. God asks that we further develop our intellectual abilities. Part of what it means to love God is that we develop our minds in ways that deepen and enhance our expression of love.”

     This note in my study bible goes on to say, “Solomon developed his reasoning powers in ways that we now think of as setting the standard for wisdom. His example demonstrates that wisdom involves more than memorizing data. Although there is some value in memorizing information, Solomon’s wisdom involves much more than storing up info tidbits. To be wise is to know how to fully integrate the information we have stored with the situation at hand. This integration takes into account the relationship we have with God and others. Wise Solomon sets an example that we ought to emulate.”

     The part of that brief commentary that stands out for me is where it says, “To be wise is to know how to fully integrate the information we have stored with the situation at hand.” It’s one thing to be able to memorize information for a test and be able to win as a contestant on Jeopardy, but it’s another thing to know how to use and apply the knowledge and information that we have received.

     As we begin a new school year, we will be encountering a lot of different situations and experiences in which we can respond in a variety of ways. As my educator spouse likes to tell the students in her school, “It’s important to make good choices.”

     We make good choices by carefully reflecting on the information we have and then we discern what is the best response in that particular situation. This is what Solomon was asking the Lord to give him, a discerning mind.

     And this is why our faith is so important. Our faith is what can help us to wisely and lovingly discern how to use the knowledge we have been given and the situations we face so that we can make the best possible choices. 

     In our Methodist tradition, John Wesley emphasized the importance of the quadrilateral in understanding the scriptures. The four parts of the quadrilateral include scripture, tradition, experience, and reason. The quadrilateral is an important way for us to not just be knowledgeable about the Bible, but to also be wise and discerning in how we interpret it.

     So we begin with scripture but have you ever noticed that the Bible is not a simple answer book where you can just turn to the answers? Sometimes things seem straight forward like the Ten Commandments where it says “Do not kill.” 

     Now, for sure on the surface, that says we shouldn’t go out and kill people, but what if your life is being threatened? Or what about the commandment, “Do not covet.” That sounds straight forward but when does admiring end and coveting begin?” And then we have the commandment about not working on the sabbath. What kind of work isn’t allowed on the sabbath? 

     So this is why we have the quadrilateral. To help us discern how to apply our knowledge of the scriptures that were originally written during a particular situation and time in history to how we should apply that same scripture today. 

     Which brings us back to the quadrilateral in helping us to discern. We begin with the scriptures, but then we have the second part of the quadrilateral which is tradition. Tradition is how people of the Jewish and Christian faith have interpreted scripture in their particular contexts. We can learn from them and see how their interpretation might inform us in our particular setting.

     After tradition, we have the third part of the quadrilateral which is reason. And that was what my bible study commentary which I read for you earlier was emphasizing where it said, “Part of what it means to love God is that we are to develop our minds in ways that deepen or enhance our expressions of love.”

     Reason is what helps us to not take a scripture passage out of context. We use our minds to reflect on who wrote it, to whom they were writing or speaking, and for what purpose. That’s part of what it means to use discernment and to be wise.

     And the fourth part of the quadrilateral is “experience.” We reflect on our experiences with our understanding of a scripture passage and we also consider other people’s experiences with that same scripture. 

     This is why group bible study and small groups are so important. They give us the opportunity to see our faith from other people’s experiences and perspectives. What a gift it is to share our faith experiences with each other. 

     And then, just this final thought in what it means to include wisdom and discernment in our school supplies list for this year. In additional to the quadrilateral approach to scripture, John Wesley also emphasized these three simple rules in living out our faith.

     And here they are: 1) Do no harm 2) Do good, and 3) Practice the spiritual disciplines of our faith. Every back to school supply list should include those three essential items as well. 1) Do no harm 2) Do good, and 3) Practice the spiritual disciplines of our faith.

     Having a wise and discerning mind should really be at the top of our school supply list, even above having crayons, markers, and pencils. We are told in our Old Testament reading that God was pleased when Solomon asked God to give him wisdom. 

     But notice that God then reminded Solomon that wisdom isn’t just something we receive once, but it is something that also requires our effort, careful attention, and participation. We never really fully arrive at being a wise and discerning person. And so, we need to keep working at it, knowing that with God’s grace, we can grow in becoming who God is calling us to be. 

     I was talking to a college student last year. He was volunteering around our church building and helping where needed. 

     We got to talking one day and I asked him, “So, Alan, what led you to come to our church and volunteer your time when you could be studying or hanging out with your friends?”

     And he said, “During a meeting with my school advisor, she told me that my grades were great and that everything looked really good with my course work. But then she said to me, ‘You are missing something really important though. Your file just tells me that you know how to get good grades. I would recommend that you start volunteering in the community here to show that you have more to offer than just what you know.’ 

     And he said to me. ‘So that’s why I decided to spend my time here at the church. To give back and make a positive difference.’”

     Here’s a high GPA student on schedule to complete his degree, who is willing to listen to good advice and act on it, who is wanting to make a positive difference in the community, and who is a Steelers fan. He is wise beyond his years.

     As we begin this new school year, let’s make sure we add wisdom to our back to school supplies. May it be at the top of our list. 

Back to School Supplies

Sermon Discussion Questions
I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
August 15, 2021

This is the 1st part of a 2-part sermon series on “Back to School.” This first week’s focus is on the importance of having the right back to school supplies. 

What are some back to school supplies that you believe are important to have for the new school year?

In our Old Testament reading from I Kings, chapter 2, young King Solomon asks God to give him the gift of wisdom. Solomon could have asked for any other supply item but he chose to receive wisdom. 

Why do you think that Solomon wanted God to give him wisdom? What do you think his 2nd choice was?

In the Wesley Study Bible, biblical wisdom is defined as “To be wise is to know how to fully integrate the information we have stored with the situation at hand.”

What is the difference between being knowledgeable and being wise?

To help us grow in wisdom, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism encouraged people to use the quadrilateral approach to our faith. We study scripture through the lenses of 1) tradition - how the church has interpreted scripture in the past 2) experience - both our personal experiences and other people’s experiences 3) reason - does my interpretation take into account the context of when a scripture passage was written and does it makes sense with the larger understanding of who God is?

Why would this quadrilateral approach of interpreting scripture by utilizing tradition, reason, and experience lead us to greater wisdom in our faith?

Another way that we can grow in wisdom is by using John Wesley’s three-fold test of 1) Do no harm 2) Do good 3) Practice the spiritual disciplines of our faith. These are known as “The Three Simple Rules.”

How can these three simple rules lead us to greater wisdom in our faith?

Our Sunday worship prayer invites us to receive God’s gift of wisdom: 

Eternal God, you are the source of wisdom and understanding. Give to us wise and discerning minds, that we may seek your wisdom above earthly riches. Remind us that we are never done learning and growing in our faith. Help us to not settle for shallow answers to the complex problems and situations we face in life. Open our minds to new understandings, perspectives, and experiences that will help us to grow and mature into the people you are calling us to be. Forgive us for accepting anything less in our pursuit of wisdom. Amen. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Online Worship (August 15) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
August 15
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, August 9, 2021

Sermon (August 8) by Rev. Robert McDowell


    This past spring, Penny and I were driving home from Columbus to Athens and we stopped at a fast-food drive-through to get some ice cream. It was a crazy long line of cars, and I was complaining about the long wait. 

     When we finally made it to the window, the worker had a big smile on her face, the opposite of my facial expression, and she said, “There’s no charge. There was a car way ahead of you that gave money to pay for as many cars behind them as possible and you’re one of them! Isn’t that so nice?”

     My attitude changed in an instant and I smiled in agreement. And as I pulled away, I noticed that I wasn’t grouchy or impatient anymore. Those feelings were replaced with gratitude and appreciation. 

     It’s amazing how someone’s unexpected act of kindness can change your attitude and brighten your day. In our Ephesians scripture reading for today, the Apostle Paul talks about being kind, tender-hearted, forgiving, and speaking words that build up others and offer grace to those who hear. In other words, being like God who is kind, tender-hearted, forgiving, and offering grace.

     What a difference we can make when we become more like God and offer a simple act of kindness toward others. Paul is actually writing to the whole church when he offers these words. So, imagine what a difference a congregation can make when we each do something kind for others on a regular basis and not just when we feel like it.

     Notice that Paul doesn’t give specific examples of kindness like randomly paying for people’s ice cream. But Paul does go on to say, “Be imitators of God as God’s beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loves us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

     Be imitators of God. What a powerful phrase! 

     That’s something that we can remember as we go throughout our day. Be imitators of God. Imitate God and live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.

     Thomas a’Kempis who lived during the 15th century wrote a book called, “The Imitation of Christ” which has become a Christian classic.  It was one of John Wesley’s favorite books to read on what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus.

     In his book, Thomas a’Kempis offers this thought, “Whoever wishes to understand fully the words of Christ must try to pattern his whole life on that of Christ.” This is really what the Apostle is saying in our scripture reading for today. Be imitators of God. Be imitators of Christ.

     This is what is so unique about the Christian faith. We have someone to imitate in how we pattern our lives.

      While Paul himself was not perfect, and he would be the first to admit that, in other letters that he wrote, he encourages people to imitate him. He was able to say this because he was seeking to imitate Christ.

     In I Corinthians chapter four, Paul writes, “I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me.”

     In Galatians 4:12, he writes, “Friends, I beg you, become as I am.” In I Thessalonians, we read these words, “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord.” Philippians 3:17 – “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.”

     Imitate. They say that that imitation is the best form of flattery. But in Paul’s case, it’s not so that the flattery is to be directed at Paul himself. It’s to be directed, as he says in today’s scripture reading to Christ who loves us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

     Paul also offers us a powerful theological thought to help us be imitators of God. He reminds us that we have been marked with a seal of the Holy Spirit for the day of redemption.

     The day of redemption is that time in the future when God will make all things new. It’s that time in the future when all of God’s people will be raised up and given new bodies. 

     Paul is saying that the mark of the Holy Spirit in our lives is a sign of that glorious future reality. And it’s a reminder to us that we are to live in such a way in the present that anticipates that new world. It gives us a frame of reference. Every kind deed that we do is like adding another splash of water to the river that is leading to this greater ocean of God’s kingdom which is a kingdom where there is nothing but beauty, love, joy, peace, and kindness. 

     Maybe you’ve heard of people who tape a picture of a new house or a new boat on their bedroom mirror. They do that to remind themselves of a future reality when they will be able to have enough money to purchase those things. It helps them to anticipate and not dread the future. 

    In a similar kind of way, Paul is wanting us live in such a way now that helps us to anticipate a glorious future in God’s kingdom. Live in such a way where people can begin to see what lies ahead. Remember that you have been marked with the seal of the Spirit. And this is what leads us to be imitators of God. 

     I often think of how the church is to be that place that helps us to anticipate the future that God has in mind for the world. We might not think that people are trying to imitate us but we may be surprised.

     When our children were around kindergarten/early elementary age, they would play at the house of a neighbor. Jill, our next door neighbor said to us one day, “You won’t believe what your kids have been doing in our back yard.” We weren’t sure if we wanted to hear the answer!

    She said that they have been playing in the dirt over at their house and making mud pies. They were pretending that they were cooks in the church kitchen making meals for people who were hungry.

     Our neighbor said how our daughter was the cook and she would mix the dirt and the water in a bowl and then pour it on toy plates that had been set out on their plastic picnic table.  Our son who is two years younger than our daughter would then serve the people represented by stuffed animals by handing them the plates of mud.

     By telling us this fun story, our neighbor was helping us to see that our children were imitating our church members who would make meals for the people in our community. And they also had watched our members offering hospitality by serving the food to each person. They were imitating them. And by imitating them, they were also becoming imitators of God. 

     There is nothing wrong with people imitating us as long as it’s because we are seeking to imitate God by showing kindness, by being tender hearted and forgiving, and by using words that build up rather than tear down.

     We have so many people who offer their time and skills to serve through the church. It’s truly amazing to be part of such a loving and caring congregation.

     One of our members loves doing things around the church to help us save money. He is a true jack of all trades. 

     One day, in an email, he sent me a picture of a small rural church out in Indiana. And under that picture, he said, “You might be wondering why I’m able to do a lot of the different projects around the church. It’s because when I was a youth, I spent a lot of time with a man who fixed things around our little country church. I learned how to repair things  thanks to that church member. That’s why I’m able to do things around here.”

     We are called to be imitators. Imitators of God who live in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. And imitators of others who are imitating Christ in how they live.

     Several years ago, when our daughter was around five years old, I went to an airport to pick up a family member who came to visit us for the week. The flight was delayed so we had to wait an extra hour there.

     I took her over to the large window to look at the planes on the runway. And as we were looking at the planes, she starting repeating the words from Holy Communion. 

     “This is the body of Christ broken for you. Take and eat. This is the blood of Christ shed for you. Take and drink.” 

      My daughter memorized these words at such an early age because I would often take her with me on pastoral visits in people’s homes that often included the sharing of Holy Communion. There in the airport, she was imitating me by repeating the words from the communion liturgy.

     Paul tells us to be imitators of God by living in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us. It’s how we are able to make a difference in someone’s life and make this world a better place.

Imitators of God

Sermon Discussion Questions
Ephesians 4:25-5:2
August 8, 2021

Have you ever been a recipient of someone’s random act of kindness? Maybe someone paid for your food as you were going through a fast-food drive-thru or a neighbor shoveled snow from your sidewalk. 

Share a time when someone did a random act of kindness for you. How did it make you feel?

In this week’s New Testament reading from Ephesians, chapter 4, the Apostle Paul writes,  “Be imitators of God as God’s beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loves us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” Paul goes on to write that we are to be imitators of God so that we can share God’s love with others.

What are some specific ways that we can imitate God by sharing God’s love with others?

The Apostle Paul also says that when we imitate God by sharing God’s love with others, we are giving ourselves and others a glimpse of that day in the future when God will make all things new. This is that future time when heaven and earth will be made one. Paul describes this day by saying that we have been given the seal of the Holy Spirit which marks us for the Day of Redemption. Pastor Robert offered this thought about anticipating the future by saying in his sermon, “Every kind deed that we do is like adding another splash of water to the river that is leading to this greater ocean of God’s kingdom which is a kingdom where there is nothing but beauty, love, joy, peace, and kindness.”

Share some ways that you might add another “splash of water” this week to the river that is leading to the ocean of God’s kingdom.

In several other references in his New Testament letters, the Apostle Paul encouraged people to imitate him. He said this because he was seeking to imitate God. Pastor Robert offered examples of children who have watched adults do kind things for others in the name of God. In these examples, they were seeking to imitate those adults causing a ripple effect in blessing others.

Have you ever experienced a “ripple effect” of people doing kind things for others because they saw others doing kind things?

Be open to the kind deeds that people do for you and allow those “splashes of water” to remind you that God is leading us to a great ocean of God’s kingdom where this world will be transformed into a place of beauty, love, joy, peace, and kindness.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Online Worship (August 8) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
August 8
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, August 2, 2021

Sermon (August 1) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     This is that time of year when expectations and excitement increase. We just made that flip on our calendar to the month of August which has become known as “back to school month.” And for many of us, our expectations are heightened even more this year because, “thanks be to God,” we are finally turning the corner on this long global pandemic.

     Here at the church, we are already beginning to talk about our annual water bottle give away for the students who will be arriving on campus in a few weeks. Our church choir will begin rehearsing soon and they we will hear them sing for the first time since March of 2020! It’s been a long year and a half!

     It’s this kind of heightened expectation that the Gospel writer, John wants to create within us. He is using his literary skills to tell us the story of Jesus in such a way that gets our attention and peaks our curiosity. In our Gospel reading for this morning, here in John, chapter six, John wants us to focus on the crowd. 

     This crowd of people have been following Jesus. Their expectations of who Jesus is have been heightened because they have just experienced the miraculous feeding of five thousand hungry people with only five loaves and two fish. Not only have their expectations been heightened, they even want to make Jesus a King. 

     The very next morning, the crowd want to find Jesus and they are surprised when they realize that he is on the other side of the lake. They’re surprised because there is no way Jesus could have made it to the other side of the lake without a boat. There was only one boat and they knew that the disciples had taken that boat.

     Of course, we the readers know that after the feeding of the five thousand and after the disciples took the boat to go across the lake, a storm suddenly arose and the disciples  were terrified. John tells us that Jesus walks toward them on the lake and calms the storm and together they make it to the other side.

     As if their curiosity about Jesus isn’t already mesmerizing, they now want to know how Jesus made it all the way across the lake without a 2nd boat. And after they get to the other side of the lake, they’re trying to figure this all out, adding even more to the mystique of who Jesus is.

     Jesus’ response is really interesting because he doesn’t tell them that he walked on the lake to get to the other side. And if you think about it, that would have been another golden opportunity, like the feeding of the five thousand to show this crowd that he truly was sent by God to be the Savior of the world.

     Instead, Jesus even downplays the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand and how he made it to the other side of the lake without a boat, and simply tells them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

     Jesus wants the crowd to know that there is so much more about who he is and the difference that he can make in their lives. There is so much more. Yes, they all got a free meal the day before, but Jesus wants them to know that the reason he came was to offer them a meal that would never leave them hungry or thirsty again. 

     And by telling us this story, the gospel writer is inviting us to receive this meal as well, a meal that is filled with more than we can possibly imagine.

     Christian author, Bob Benson tells the story of when he he was a single young man and his church was holding a picnic at the park. Everybody was to bring their own food. Bob was running late and when he opened his refrigerator, he only had a piece of boloney and a couple slices of stale bread. So, he slapped together a baloney sandwich, wrapped it up in wax paper, and went to the picnic.

     He got to the park and was prepared to simply lean against a tree and eat by himself when a nearby family of the church spotted him and said, “Hey, come sit with us.” And so he did. He sat down and unwrapped his baloney sandwich at the same time they began unpacking their enormous picnic basket.

     They had fried chicken, potato salad, baked beans, deviled eggs, a full relish tray, and two big chocolate pies. “And there I sat,” Bob writes, “with just my baloney sandwich.”

     And then this family said to him, “Listen, why don’t we just share?”

     “Oh,” he said, “I’ve just got a baloney sandwich.”

     “That’s okay,” they said. “We love baloney sandwiches. And we brought a lot of food. Let’s just put it all together.”

     Bob Benson says, “I felt pretty humbled, but I couldn’t resist – especially that chocolate pie!” And he concludes his story by saying, “I came as a pauper, and I ate like a king!”

     Sometimes, I wonder if we approach our faith thinking that all we have is a meager baloney sandwich. But God has so much more to offer us. God invites us to a great banquet where there is more than enough food and more than enough room.

     The crowd wanted to make Jesus a King because he performed a miracle, but Jesus was  showing them that he wanted them to eat like kings when he fed them with just five loaves and two fish. 

     And now, they think they’ve seen it all with Jesus somehow being able to make it to the other side of the lake without a boat. But Jesus turns to them and tells them that he is so much more than a miracle worker. He doesn’t just give bread to people. He is the bread of life, the one who offers us so much more than we can ask or imagine.

     This is one of the reasons why Holy Communion is so important. It’s more than a little piece of bread and small cup of grape juice. Every time we gather for this meal, it’s a holy encounter. It’s an opportunity to receive so much more than we thought was possible. We receive forgiveness, hope, new life, a fresh start, peace, and unconditional love.

     We come to this holy meal as paupers, but we leave as kings. And it’s all because Jesus is the bread of life. 

     A pastor friend of mine told me the story of something that happened during Holy Communion at the church she was serving. She said that they had a children’s event at their church and they concluded their time together with the Sacrament of Holy Communion. There were a lot of children at this event, about thirty of them, and she invited them to get in a line and take a turn to receive the Sacrament.

     One by one they came forward. She would give a child a piece of bread and say, “This is the body of Christ broken for you.” She then had them dip that piece of bread into the chalice and she said, “This is the blood of Christ shed for you.” The child would then eat the bread and take a seat.

     My friend told me that there was one little boy who was about 5 or 6 years old who had never been to church before, and he really liked this idea of eating bread with juice.

     After he received communion the first time, he got back in line to receive it again. She realized that he had jumped in line for seconds but she offered the Sacrament to him anyway. 

     When this little boy came up to her this second time, he had a great big smile on his face, and as he put the bread into his mouth, he said, “Thank you!”

     Well, guess what? He got back in the line a third time and the same thing happened. After he received the bread and the juice, he looked at the pastor and with another great big smile, he said, “Thank you!” And this time, he added, “Jesus tastes so good!”

     Now, I don’t think that this response is in our communion liturgy, but maybe it should be. “Jesus tastes so good!”

     God’s love tastes so good. God’s forgiveness tastes so good. God’s mercy tastes so good. God’s eternal life tastes so good. God’s faithfulness taste so good. God’s blessings taste so good.

     The crowd wanted to know how Jesus made it to the other side of the lake without a boat, as if the reason that Jesus came to the world was to impress us with his miracles. Jesus has so much more in mind for us than explaining how he made it from one side of the lake to the other. Jesus wants to give us food that will never leave us hungry again. Jesus offers us his very life so that we might have life and life in all of it’s fullness.

     The month of August, has a way of heightening our hopes and our expectations for a new school year, especially after this long pandemic. But even beyond our renewed hope for what this year might bring is this reminder from today’s Gospel reading, that God wants to give us more than we can ask or imagine.

     This new month of August is more than about simply finding a good deal for school supplies and thinking ahead to a new rhythm of life. We are invited to come and receive the bread of life that will never leave us hungry. 

     This is the bread that always offers so much more! 

So Much More!

Sermon Discussion Questions
John 6:24-35
August 1, 2021

The beginning of the month of August is a time when our expectations are raised because we are nearing a new school year. This is also a time of the year when the church begins preparing for a busy fall season.

What expectations do you have for this new school year and for our church as we slowly prepare for the start-up of several ministries through the church?

In our Gospel reading from John, chapter six, a crowd has been following Jesus. Their expectations have been raised because of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. Their expectations are heightened even more because they want to know how Jesus could have made it to the other side of the lake without a boat!

What questions or thoughts do you have about who Jesus is? 

When the crowd finds Jesus, he doesn’t explain to them how he made it to the other side of the lake without a boat. We know from reading this scripture that he made it to the other side because he walked on the water and then got in the boat with the disciples. Jesus simply tells the crowd that he is the bread of life and whoever comes to him will never be hungry or thirsty.

Why do you think that Jesus didn’t answer their question about how he got to the other side of the lake and instead told them that he is “the bread of life?” What does it mean to you when Jesus says that he is “the bread of life?”

Jesus was skillful in the way that he was raising the expectations and the curiosity of the crowd regarding who he is. He wanted them to know that he is not only a miracle worker who can multiply bread to feed thousands. He IS the bread!!! And this bread will never run out! Jesus is wanting the crowd to know that there is so much more we have to learn about who he is. He is raising their expectations even more!

What is the “so much more” about who Jesus is that you want to experience as we begin this new school year?

Pastor Robert shared a story about a little boy who had never received the Sacrament of Holy Communion. He enjoyed the taste of the bread dipped into the grape juice so much that he got back in line to receive it a 2nd and a 3rd time. During the last time he received the Sacrament, he looked at the pastor who had served him communion and said with a great big smile, “Jesus tastes SO good!”

As we prepare for this new school year, offer this prayer from our worship service to help remind you that Jesus is the bread of life and with him, there is always “so much more.”

O Jesus, bread of heaven, some Sundays we come here thinking that we’ll just get a little bit of church to get us through the week. You not only satisfy our hungry souls, we leave from here with cups that our overflowing! As we worship you this day, raise our expectations so that we might receive all that you would give to us. Forgive us for whenever we underestimate the fullness of life that you intend for each one of us. With grateful and expectant hearts, we pray. Amen.