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, September 26, 2021

Online Worship (September 26) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
September 26
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, September 20, 2021

Sermon (Sept. 19) by Rev. Robert McDowell


    Penny has me hooked on watching house shows. We love watching how designers are able to take an existing home and create more living space for the people who live there.       

     Sometimes they will do this by removing a wall to open up the room or repurposing a corner in the house where there is a lot of wasted space. And the best part of these shows is the look on their faces when they have the big reveal. A lot of times, we fast forward through a lot of the show just to get that part.

     You’ve heard of the phrase, “I need some space.” We all need space. We all need enough room where we don’t feel crowded. There is something about getting rid of the clutter in our lives to help us feel more at peace. 

     Jesus was incredible at creating space for people. I think this is why people were so drawn to him. He was able to make room for them.

     In our Gospel reading for today, we have another example of Jesus creating space for people, this time for children. And I love how Mark sets up this story. Just before this story of Jesus welcoming the children, we have the story of the disciples arguing with each other about who was the greatest. 

     This is that classic example of adults acting like children. The disciples were arguing with each other about who is more important.

     This ties in with our James New Testament reading where James asks the question, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?” I can’t help but to wonder if this is the same James, the disciple who was in that same group arguing about who was the greatest. My hunch is that James was speaking from his own experience.

     After Jesus calls the disciples out on being so childish, instead of giving them a lecture about what it means to be one of his disciples, he does a little visible demonstration instead. Jesus takes a little child to his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

     That’s an interesting word that Jesus uses here. “Welcome.”  In the original Greek, the word, “welcome” refers to exactly what Jesus was doing here, providing space for someone, in this case a little child. 

     Think of a grandparent hugging their grandchild for the first time after several months of being separated because of the pandemic. Think of parents hugging their son or daughter after they have been away at college for several months. This is the kind of genuine, authentic welcome that Jesus means when he uses the word, “welcome.”

     In all my years serving as pastor, I have never heard people in a church say that they are not a welcoming church. And that’s probably true. Most churches are welcoming. OK, there might be a few out there who really aren’t, but for the most part, I do think that churches are welcoming.

     But do we really welcome in the way that Jesus means here? This scripture has led me to rethink what it means for us to be a welcoming church. If welcoming means that we join Jesus in giving space for people to have enough room to feel safe and grow, that takes it to a much more meaningful level. 

     To be a disciple of Jesus means that we create space for others. Jesus is showing us that being a disciple is closely associated with being welcoming of others. When we create space for others, we are giving people room to grow and flourish. 

       I love our Call to Worship this morning that is based on Psalm 1. The psalmist says, “Happy are those who follow God. They are like trees planted by streams of water which yield their fruit in its season.”

     That’s a great image of what we are called to do for others. Create space for others so that together, we can flourish and grow in our faith.

     Every now and then, Mindy, our custodian will take me on a landscaping tour around our church building. She’ll offer suggestions on what we might do to provide more space for some of our plants and bushes. 

     If we think that moving a plant to another area around the building would provide more space, we also need to think about how much sunlight that plant will need. There’s a lot that goes on when thinking about how we can help plants to grow and flourish. Psalm 1 is reminding us that we too need to be planted where we can grow in our faith. 

     All of this is to say that this story of Jesus welcoming a child is is a story of creating space for others. It’s what it means for us to be Jesus’ disciples. It’s what it means for us to be a welcoming church.

     Three weeks ago, we hosted Trey Pearson’s Safe Space tour. 

[Trey Pearson singing during worship on August 29.]

     Trey was the lead singer for a popular Christian rock band that had a huge following and was known world-wide. When he came out as gay five years ago, sponsoring groups canceled his concerts including a concert that was supposed to be held here in Athens around that time when he publicly came out. 

     Since that time, we have invited Trey to sing in our church and share his testimony with us. The first time was in February of 2016 and the second time was just a couple of weeks ago. In Trey’s own words, his safe space tour and his safe space Facebook page are places for LGBTQ persons and allies to talk about their journeys, and to be vulnerable with their stories and their questions without fear of judgment. Whether from a religious background or not, these safe spaces are dedicated so that people can share their journey and where all are welcome.”

     And by the way, his Facebook Safe Space page has almost five thousand members. It’s that last part of his description that stands out for me. “Where all are welcome.”

     In Jesus’ day, children were viewed as nuisances. They were marginalized. And sadly, even today, children are not always shown love and nurture. But this was especially true in Jesus’ day, since he was living in a Roman/Greco culture where the treatment of children was very cruel by our standards today.

     So when Jesus took a child into his arms in order to demonstrate to the disciples what it means to be welcoming, his point would have been well taken. Being welcome is about giving space to people who have not been given the space they need and deserve to help them to be who God has called them to be. 

     Jesus’ inclusive love for all was demonstrated in so many ways throughout his ministry. Jesus’ own Safe Space tour took him to many places where people didn’t feel welcomed.

     Jesus offers us example after example in how he welcomed all people and shared God’s unconditional love with them. Just here in Mark’s Gospel alone, in the chapters preceding today’s reading, the first thing Jesus does is he calls on a bunch of common fisherman to become his disciples. He welcomed them.

     He then heals a man with an unclean spirit, a woman sick with a fever, a leper, and a paralytic man. He welcomed them.

     He ate dinner with people who were considered sinners and unworthy to be included in God’s family. He welcomed them.

     He healed another man who had a withered hand and he did this on the Sabbath which was considered a major religious violation. He healed many others as well. He welcomed them.

     When his mother and brothers were calling for him, he looked at the crowd and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.” He welcomed them.

     When the disciples were caught in a storm and they thought the boat was going to sink, he calmed the storm and saved them by saying, “Peace, be still.” He welcomed them.

     When they made it to the other side of the lake, he then healed a man who had an unclean spirit, healed a young girl who was near death, and restored a woman who had been sick for twelve years. He welcomed them.

     He fed a large crowd of people with just five loaves and two fish and even had twelve baskets of leftovers. He welcomed them.

     I’m now in chapter 6 where Mark tells us in his own words, “And wherever he went, into villages or cities, or farms, they laid the sick in the market places and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak and all who touched it were healed.” He welcomed them.

    A non-Jewish woman came to him begging to heal her daughter and Jesus healed her and then he healed a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech. When he was healed, he said, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” He welcomed them.

     Where are we?  Oh, yes. Chapter eight. Once again, he feeds another great crowd of people with a little bit of bread and some fish, and this time there were seven baskets of leftovers. Jesus welcomed them. 

     Hey, we’re finally in chapter 9! He invites some of his disciple to follow him up a mountain and they watched the most incredible thing where he, along with Moses and Elijah, those two ancient figures from the Old Testament, mysteriously appear and are transfigured with Jesus right there in front of those disciples, a glimpse of heaven they would never forget! He welcomed them.

     Just barely down from the mountain, he heals a man’s son who was unable to speak since childhood. He welcomed them.

     And this brings us to today’s story. Let me catch my breath.Taking a child into his arms, Jesus tells his bickering disciples, “Whoever welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me, welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” He welcomed them.

     Jesus’ welcomed everyone throughout his ministry and he calls us to be welcoming as well.

     Last winter, someone who was new to our church sent me this wonderful reason why she and her husband enjoy coming here. It has stayed with me ever since. 

     She wrote, “Thank you for helping to create a space for us.”

     And my response to her was… “You are welcome.”

You are Welcome!

Sermon Discussion Questions
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a & Mark 9:30-37
September 19, 2021

In our Gospel reading, we are told that Jesus “welcomed” the children. In the Greek language, the word, “welcome” refers to creating space for others.

What kinds of “space” do you think people need? What do you think people mean when they say, “I need some space?”

Jesus’ ministry was about “creating space” for others. Throughout the Gospel of Mark, we have been reading how Jesus welcomed others through his teachings, his healings, and by his very presence with others. 

What kind of “space” does Jesus create for us? How have we felt welcomed by Jesus?

Our Psalm for this week talks about being planted by streams of water which leads to the yielding of fruit. Just like plants need space to grow, we also need space to be the people God has called us to be. Singer, Trey Pearson who recently sang at our church began a ministry called the Safe Space Tour which provides an opportunity for people in the LGBTQ community to feel welcomed and not judged. 

What are some ways that we can create space for others, especially those who feel isolated and judged by society?

In our James scripture reading, he talks about “conflicts and disputes” that occur between people. It’s unclear if this is the same “James” who we read about in today’s Gospel. The disciple, James and his brother, John were seeking power in Jesus’ kingdom. This leads Jesus to welcome the children. It was a lesson of humility and of creating space for others. Children in the Greco/Roman world were seen as dispensable and were often ignored in society. 

In what ways, can we join Jesus in welcoming and creating space for children? 

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Online Worship (September 19) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
September 19
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, September 13, 2021

Sermon (September 12) by Rev. Robert McDowell

    When was the last time that you did something foolish? It probably wasn’t that long ago because we all do foolish things from time to time. We are human beings which means that we are prone to do foolish things.

     I was reading an article about foolish things people have done. I think I read that article because it made me feel better about myself. These were pretty funny and made me smile.

      Someone shared the story of a time when he spent almost an hour searching his house for his phone....WHILE he was on the phone with his mother. He says that she could hear him getting frustrated and throwing things around, so she asked what was wrong. And he replied, "I can't find my phone anywhere! I have been looking for it the whole time that we’ve been talking…” That’s when he said, “oh, nevermind.”

     Someone else mentioned that they couldn’t find their favorite pair of shorts. He spent the next half hour looking everywhere for them and then realized that he was already wearing them. 

     Somebody posted on Twitter that they just made some yummy synonym rolls and showed a picture of them. Someone else responded, “Yeah, just like grammar used to make.”

     Another person asked if anybody knew the name of the boat in the movie, “Titanic.”

     This person was showing off some pictures that they had taken with their new iPhone. They said, “The quality of these photos is so surreal, it’s like Leonardo DiCaprio had painted them.” I wonder if this person thinks that Leonardo DaVinci was an award winning actor.

     If we had enough time, I’d share some foolish things that I have done as well. Ok, just a couple, I guess. 

     I think it was my first year here as your pastor and in one of my announcements during worship, I invited you all to attend a “Cabernet” event and I meant to say “Cabaret.” Many of you were a little disappointed that we were only offering water and punch, but you loved the music!

     During a weekday here at the church, somebody called into the church office needing to talk to the pastor. When the phone in my office rang, I thought it was our Office Manager letting me know who was on the other line.

     So, I decided to have a little fun as I like to do sometimes thinking that it was our Office Manager. I picked up the phone and in a very snobby voice I said, “Yes, this is the Right Reverend and Most Holy, Senior Pastor, Robert McDowell. Please state your purpose for calling.”

     And there was this brief pause and my heart sunk when I realized the person on the other end wasn’t our Office Manager. It was an attorney regarding an estate gift that was being made to our church.

     I was so embarrassed!

     So yeah, I have done my fair share of foolish things, but don’t we all. 

     The Book of Proverbs talks a lot about foolishness and how God is always wanting us to be the wise people that we have been created to be. Now, I don’t think the writer of Proverbs is too worried about the examples of foolishness that I’ve just shared with you. I think Proverbs is much more concerned about the kind of foolishness that can have far greater negative consequences.

     The Bible’s references to the importance of wisdom vs. foolishness can be found throughout its pages. From the Book of Proverbs, the prophetic writings, and into the New Testament where Jesus uses wise vs. foolish parables in his teachings, the Bible emphasizes the importance of wisdom.

     Jesus refers to the wise person who built a house on a rock vs. the foolish person who built a house on sand. Jesus talks about the foolish bridesmaids who weren’t prepared for the wedding vs. the wise ones who were ready. 

      Wisdom is so important in the Bible that we are told here in our Proverbs scripture reading that it even cries out in the streets to get our attention. In verse 22 of our scripture reading, we are told that wisdom cries out, “”how long, O simple ones, will you love being simple.” By the way, I don’t think the use of the word, “simple” here is a compliment.

     If you have ever seen or heard how somebody did or said something that was so thoughtless, so irresponsible, so selfish, and so hurtful toward themselves or others, maybe this is the visual of what you felt like doing in that moment! You just couldn’t believe that someone could be so foolish, thoughtless, and uncaring.

     Or maybe upon further reflection, you realized that it was you that did or said something that was foolish, you might have done the palm to the forehead. We can all be foolish where we make impulsive and shortsighted decisions.

     The Book of Proverbs has a word of hope for us human beings who are prone to do foolish things. And again, I’m not referring to the light-hearted things. That’s part of being human. I’m referring more to decisions that do not reflect our best selves in how we live our lives and care for one another.

     The Book of Proverbs was most likely written after Israel had been in exile for the past several decades. Their pride and foolishness had placed them in a vulnerable situation that led to their exile by the Babylonian Empire. 

     Their foolishness was that they had turned from God and refused God’s wisdom which led them into exile. The Book of Proverbs is to remind God’s people who are now back home from being in exile to seek wisdom and to not be foolish as they look toward the future. 

     Notice that the wisdom that God wants us to have is not hidden somewhere. We are told that wisdom cries out in the streets and in the squares for all to hear. Even on the busiest street corner, wisdom cries out. In verse 23 of our Proverbs reading, God says that “I will pour out my thoughts to you and I will make my words known to you.”

     The word on the street is wisdom calling out to each one of us. I love this descriptive way of showing how wisdom is accessible. We don’t even have to be in church to hear wisdom speaking to us. It’s calling out in the coffee shops, in the classrooms, on Court Street, on East State Street, in the restaurants and bars, in churches and everywhere we go. Wisdom cries out in the streets because that’s where we spend most of our time.

     Sometimes, the choices we face in life are not about wisdom vs. foolishness. It’s more about making a wise decision when the pathway in front of you doesn’t look very clear.

     A recent high school graduate wanted to meet with me one day. He wanted to know my thoughts on Christians serving in the military because he was thinking about enlisting. 

     He was conflicted because on one hand he wanted to serve our country but at the same time, his Christian faith was very important to him and he took Jesus words from the sermon on the mount very seriously about loving your enemy and doing good to them. He wanted to know what I thought about this spiritual conflict and what the United Methodist Church had to say about it.

     And so together, we did a little study of the topic there in my office from the perspective of our denomination. Our denominational Social Principles state that war is incompatible  with the teachings and example of Christ but then it goes on to say that “when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may regretfully be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny and genocide.”

     Before he left that day, I told him that whatever he decided to do, God would still be with him to guide and direct him. He also reached out to other people he trusted to get their thoughts and he continued to pray about it. 

     He ended up deciding not to enlist. A very gifted athlete, he made the decision to attend college instead, becoming an incredible place kicker for the football team.

     I lost track of him as time went by until a couple of years ago, I saw an article where he was being inducted into his college’s sports hall of fame. It made me smile because I remembered that day when he came to get my thoughts on this issue as his pastor. He was seeking to make a wise decision regarding the future direction of his life.

     Wisdom may cry out in the street, but it’s also not handed to us on a silver platter. When wisdom calls out to us, it’s calling us to think about our decisions, to live in the tension, to pray, to discern, to seek counsel, and then by God’s grace, to make decisions that would best express who God is calling us to be.

     I always wonder if anyone takes time to look up and notice the words that are engraved on the College Green archway entrance. It’s there every single day on the busy and noisy intersection with people and cars going by on a daily basis. 

     Those words are “So enter that daily thou mayest grow in knowledge, wisdom, and love.”

     The word on the street is that wisdom is literally crying out on the street. May we all hear her voice. 

The Word on the Street

Sermon Discussion Questions
Proverbs 1:20-33
September 12, 2021

The Book of Proverbs is known as a book of wisdom. It encourages us to be wise and not foolish. This is not referring to silly things we  do from time to time. That’s a different kind of foolishness. 

Share a time when you did something silly like misplace your car keys, leave your purse at the restaurant, checked your mail box on a federal holiday, or referred to somebody by the wrong name. 

The kind of foolishness that the Book of Proverbs is talking about is a foolishness where we make impulsive decisions without prayer reflection and consultation. Foolish decisions that do not express our best selves are what prevent us from being the people God has created us to be. In verse 22 of our Proverbs reading, the writer says, “How long, O simple ones will you continue to be simple?”

Share a time when you made a wise decision based on prayerful reflection and consultation. 

Our Proverbs reading tells us that wisdom cries out in the streets and in the squares for all to hear. In other words, wisdom doesn’t remain silent. It is calling out to us in our everyday lives. God is always reaching out to us in any given moment!

What helps you to listen for wisdom calling out to you? Why do you think that we sometimes don’t listen for it?

Pastor Robert closed the sermon by sharing the phrase that is engraved on the College Green gateway entrance that is next to the busy four-way intersection on Court Street. It says, “So enter that daily thou mayest grow in knowledge, wisdom, and love.” 

Do you have an important decision that you are facing in your life? What are some ways that can help you to hear God’s wisdom calling out to you?

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Online Worship (September 12) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
September 12
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Online Worship (September 5) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
September 5
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]