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, October 31, 2021

Online Worship (October 31) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
October 31
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, October 25, 2021

Sermon (October 24) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     A church, known for their high expectations when hiring a pastor, was interviewing for a new pastor. They had interviewed several well qualified candidates, but were still not satisfied in their search.

     During one of their interviews, they asked a very promising candidate, “So, tell us what your preaching is like.”

     And the candidate said that she takes sermon preparation very seriously and how her well crafted and Holy Spirit led sermons had helped her previous congregations to grow in their faith.

     The interview team, still not convinced if this was the right person, then asked the candidate, “But what about your pastoral care and visitation ministry?” 

     The candidate proceeded to tell them that this was another area of her ministry which she had been known to make a priority and had received positive feedback from her previous churches. She said that she had even helped organize a lay visitation team so that the whole church was involved in checking on the members.

     The interview team, not satisfied with her answer next asked the candidate about her administrative skills.

     The candidate, without any hesitation, shared how she was known for completing church reports in a timely fashion and was always prompt in returning phone calls and responding to messages.

     After answering all of these interview questions in a way that most churches would find very impressive, the candidate decided to try one last attempt to convince this committee that she was an excellent pastor. She invited the interview team to go outside the church and down to a pond that was nearby. They all made their way down to the water.

     The interview team, now standing there by the pond asked what she was going to do. She said to them, “Just watch. I think you’re going to be amazed at what I can do.”

     She then did the unthinkable. She proceeded to actually walk on the water like Jesus did. She walked to the one side of the pond and then back to where the interview team was standing.

     Thinking that this would convince them to hire her as their new pastor, she asked them, “So, what do you think?”

     With arms folded, one of the committee members said, “Do you mean to tell us that you don’t even know how to swim?”

     This fun little story reminds us that finding the perfect pastor is a futile search. We pastors have our strengths and our weaknesses. Sometimes you will hear us preach eloquent and inspiring sermons. Other times they are barely adequate, but God can use those sermons as well.

     Sometimes we make brilliant decisions, and other times, not so brilliant. Sometimes we know just the right words to share with someone who is going through a difficult time in their life, and other times, we stumble in trying to offer the right words.

     Which brings me to our Hebrews scripture reading for today. The Book of Hebrews is actually a letter that emphasizes how Jesus is our perfect high priest. Through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus was able to be the perfect, final, and effective sacrifice for the sins that keep us from being who God has called us to be. 

     This letter is saying that priests come and go. Pastors come and go. But Jesus is the only high priest who lives forever. And this leads the author of Hebrews to say in our scripture reading for today, “Consequently, he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”

     And just to emphasize his point, the writer of Hebrews says, “Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.”

     Priests come and go, but Jesus lives forever.

     Several years ago, I served as an associate pastor of a large church in northwest Ohio. This church had a hallway that was dedicated to all the pastors who had served the church over their very long history dating back to the early 1800s. They had portraits of each pastor on the wall of that hallway with their names and dates that they had served. 

     One of those pastors was Norman Vincent Peale’s father. Another pastor was Clyde Pinnell who was also the pastor here back in the late 1960s and early 70s. 

     It was an impressive display of the many pastors who had served that church over its long history. I always found it interesting that it wasn’t until around the 1950s, that pastors began to smile when their picture was taken. One pastor from the early 1900s looked so grumpy and stern in his portrait, that I wondered who would want him to be their pastor. 

     It’s not that the author of Hebrews is downplaying the role of priests. They served an important purpose in making sacrifices for the sins of the people. This sacrificial system was how the people received atonement for their sins. And this process required a high priest who was the only person allowed to enter into the holy of holies in the Temple to make this sacrifice once a year on behalf of the people.

     These high priests served a very important role, but Jesus has become the only high priest we will ever need because of his life, death, and resurrection. By dying on the cross and raising to new life, our sins are forgiven and we can receive the gift of salvation. This is why Jesus is the only perfect High Priest. He did for us what no other high priest could ever do by offering himself as the perfect sacrifice by dying on the cross for our sins. 

     It’s like the math equation that I have seen that says, “One cross plus three nails equals forgiven.” “One cross plus three nails equals forgiven.” This is what Jesus, our perfect High Priest has done for us.

     John Newton who wrote the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” was a captain of a slave ship during the 1700s. He accepted Christ and ended up renouncing the slave trade and became an abolitionist, preacher, and hymn writer.

     The first verse of that hymn says, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!” The word, “wretch” is such a strong word but it describes John Newton’s fallenness, his sinfulness, and his brokenness. 

     John Newton once said, “Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly, I am a great sinner, but I have a great Savior!”

     The author of Hebrews is right. Jesus, our High Priest is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” He is a great Savior. He is a perfect Savior.

    Dan Kiger who was pastor here several years ago is a good friend of mine. We often say that we are the recipients of pastors who have served ahead of us. As Dan says it so well, “We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.”

     I think this is why I love to visit our church’s archives room as often as I do. It reminds me of pastors who have served this church over the span of several decades. 

     I think of Rev. James Quinn who in 1800 rode a horse into Athens to help start a new Methodist congregation. 

     I think of Rev. Slutz who sacrificed so much to help raise funds for the new 1908 church building, only to pass away just before it’s completion.  

     I think of Rev. John Versteeg who in 1955 preached a very moving sermon to the congregation in Memorial Auditorium the day after a fire had destroyed our previous church building. That sermon was the first step in the healing process that would lead to the construction of this building which would be completed three years later.

     These pastors didn’t walk on water. They weren’t perfect. They had their strengths and their  weaknesses. But God used them at very critical times in our church’s history. 

     I was talking to a church member who was telling me a story about a pastor who had served as her pastor several years ago. And this person couldn’t remember the name of the pastor so she kept referring to him as, “Pastor What’s His Name.” We laughed together as she just couldn’t remember the pastor’s name.

     It is hard to remember so many names of pastors that come and go. Quinn, Pinnell, Wagner, Kiger…

     But the name that the Book of Hebrews will never let us forget is the one and only perfect high priest, the one who is holy, blameless, undefiled, and exalted in the heavens. This is the only name you really need to remember. 

     A perfect Savior. The name that is above all names, now and forever more. Jesus.

The Perfect Pastor

Sermon Discussion Questions
Hebrews 7:23-28
October 24, 2021

Sometimes our expectations of pastors can be unrealistic. We want pastors that are great preachers, skillful administrators, wise counselors, available for a conversation at any moment, and great at visitations and pastoral care, but we also know there is no such thing as a “perfect pastor.”

What are some qualities that you like to see in a pastor? Name a Pastor from your past who has left a lasting positive impression on your life.

In our Hebrews scripture reading, the author says that unlike the High Priests who have come and gone, Jesus is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.”  Jesus He did for us what no other high priest could ever do by offering himself as the perfect sacrifice by dying on the cross for our sins. Verse 28 of our Hebrews reading concludes by saying, “For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.”

How does this description of who Jesus is (a perfect High Priest) make a difference in your life? What makes Jesus unique to you?

Pastor Robert shared a couple of names of pastors who have served at Athens First UMC. Two of those names were Rev. James Quinn who founded our church back in 1800! Another pastor he mentioned was Rev. Slutz who led a campaign for the construction of the 1908 church building. Unfortunately, Rev. Slutz died just before it’s completion. These are just a couple examples of pastors who have faithfully served this congregation. 

Why is it important to know our church’s history? In addition to former pastors, share the name of a church member(s) who was (is?) an important part of your faith journey. 

John Newton lived during the 18th century and was the captain of a slave ship. He experienced a conversion and became an abolitionist, preacher, and hymn writer. He wrote the lyrics for the hymn, “Amazing Grace” which includes the line, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.”  Although John Newton saw himself as a wretched sinner, he is also known for this powerful quote later in his life, “Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clearly. I am a great sinner but I have a great Savior.”

What helps you to remember that Jesus, our perfect High Priest is our great Savior who is more than able to forgive and redeem us from our sins? Remember this line that Pastor Robert shared in the sermon to help us remember this…

1 Cross + 3 Nails = 4 Given

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Online Worship (October 24) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
October 24
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, October 18, 2021

Sermon (October 17) by Rev. Robert McDowell


    When I was in college, my home church had a summer ultimate frisbee league. If you’ve never heard of ultimate frisbee it’s kind of like soccer only you pass a frisbee instead of kicking a soccer ball. You and your teammates pass the frisbee up the field and you score when someone catches the frisbee in the end zone.

     It’s a very demanding game that can get really competitive. Even though we were a church league, that didn’t mean that some of those games didn’t get overly competitive.

     We had fun names for our teams. The Wompers, The Go-Gos, and The Muppets just to name a few.

     Before each game, and there would be several played every Sunday afternoon, each team would come to mid-field for a prayer. One of the team captains would offer the prayer. For one of those games, the team captain of one of the teams offered this prayer:

     Dear God, thank you for bringing us all together to play frisbee today. Keep us safe. Help us to have fun. And may the Muppets win this game. Amen. 

     And that prayer was given just a couple of hours from getting out of church! The person who prayed it was just having a little fun, but did God really care if the Muppets won or lost a frisbee game?

     I’ve played on church softball teams that were really competitive as well. Several years ago, the church that I was serving participated in a summer league. I love softball and it was a lot of fun, but some of those games could get a little heated between opposing players. No wonder that we have a prayer of confession and words of assurance included as part of worship every Sunday morning! Some of us needed absolution from our softball sins. 

     But heated competition among Christians is nothing new. Just think about today’s Gospel reading. James and John, two of Jesus’ disciples were asking Jesus to appoint them to prominent positions in his kingdom. 

     You see, they still didn’t understand what kind of Kingdom Jesus was trying to build. They thought this would be a kingdom where Jesus would rule over people and form some type of new government. As two of the twelve disciples, they were making their move to secure positions of power.

     Jesus, knowing that their understanding of God’s kingdom was far different from his own, asks them a couple of questions to reveal just how off the mark they really are. 

     Jesus asks them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink and are you able to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” Still not getting it, James and John reply, “We are able, Jesus!”

     Of course, they have no clue that the cup of which Jesus was speaking would be the cup of his suffering on the cross. And the baptism of which he was speaking would be a baptism of him dying on the cross. 

     When the rest of the disciples heard what James and John were doing, they became angry, not because James and John were seeking worldly power and fame, but because they wished that they would have asked for those same positions of prominence first! 

     With the disciples angry with one another and competing for the top spots in Jesus’ future political offices, Jesus uses this opportunity to explain to them how his kingdom is very different from the kingdoms of the world.

     “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

     Or to put it another way. Jesus was telling his disciples that God’s kingdom is really a “kin-dom.” A kin-dom that is made up of kinships where we remember that we are all part of the same family, the family of God, and where we seek to serve one other, not compete against each other.

     This isn’t just an important reminder for people who play on church softball teams, but it’s for each one of us. Softball games are meant for competing, but In God’s kingdom, we are here to serve one another. And when the whole church is filled with people serving, loving, encouraging, and supporting one another, we truly do become part of God’s kin-dom. 

     According to the Learner’s Dictionary, the definition of the word, “leader” is “a powerful person who controls or influences what other people do; a person who leads a group, organization, country, etc.”

     The Business Dictionary defines “leader” as “a person or thing that holds a dominant or superior position within its field, and is able to exercise a high degree of control or influence over others.”

     Listen again to Jesus’ definition. Jesus defines leader this way, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

     Jesus’ idea of kingdom is one of kinships where we remember that we belong to each other as brothers and sisters not as opposing players on a softball field. We are servants of one another just as Jesus came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.

     Psychiatrist and author, Scott Peck defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” He writes extensively about the importance of self-discipline in being a loving person.

     In one of his books, he shares a personal illustration of how he loved to play chess and so he taught his daughter at an early age to play it so that they could play it together. 

     The problem was that he loved chess so much that he became overly competitive when playing her. This would often result in the daughter becoming frustrated and leaving their game in tears.

     His strength was being a competitive chess player, but in this situation with his daughter, he  ended up allowing his strength to become his weakness. Instead of extending himself for the sake of his daughter, he was feeding his own desire to win.

     If this can happen to us when we are simply playing a fun little father/daughter chess match, it can also happen between different ministry groups in the church, clergy who inflate their worship attendance numbers, and other types of passive/aggressive behaviors that are done in the name of Jesus. When we remember that God’s kingdom is about kinships and serving one another, it’s amazing what we can do together where we support rather than compete against each other.

     Have you ever noticed that geese understand this concept of kinship and the importance of working with and not against each other? When they fly in the V formation, the lead goose takes the brunt of all the drag and resistance of the air so that the other geese have an easier time flying behind. The leader as defined by Jesus is the one who is willing to do the hard work so that the others are helped.

     I think of all of the ways that I see a spirit of kingship in our church. Often times, these go unnoticed because that is the nature of being servant leaders. This is what makes our church so special. People serving behind the scenes and doing the little and quiet things that make a big difference for the sake of others.

     The audio/visual team setting providing a live-stream of our service every single Sunday so that people who are unable to be here can worship with us. The person who changes out our altar, pulpit, lectern cloths and worship banners so they reflect the new season of the church year. The greeter, the usher, the small group facilitator, the choir member, the refreshment volunteer, the worship reader, the Monday Lunch food preparer and server, the preschool teacher, the nursery worker.

     I recently read a church newsletter where the church was thanking one of their saints for recording the worship attendance every single week for the past ten years! That’s a lot of work that I’m sure went unnoticed by the vast majority of people.

     In God’s kindom, we are all servants who take the brunt and the drag of the resistance to make it easier for other to fly and soar.

     So much of Christianity today is extremely individualistic, rather than communal. It’s focused a lot on “me and Jesus” or “how can I go to heaven when I die.” That’s a “me centered faith,” not a “kin-dom of God centered faith.”

     James and John saw an opportunity to grab the top two positions in Jesus’ kingdom. And actually, we should all ask Jesus for those top positions, but maybe with a little twist to this gospel story. 

     “Jesus, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 

     “And what is it you want me to do for you?”

     And what if our answer would be, “Grant us, not to be seated at your right hand or your left hand in your glory. Instead, grant us to be servants of one another in your kingdom.”

     May it be so.

The Kin-dom of God

Sermon Discussion Questions
Mark 10:35-45
October 17, 2021

In this week’s Gospel reading, two of Jesus’ disciples, James and John, asked Jesus to grant them positions of power in his kingdom. When the other disciples heard they requested this, they became angry toward them. Actually, they were probably just upset that they didn’t ask Jesus for those prominent positions! Before we get too critical of James and John requesting these positions of power, they were simply operating under the assumption that Jesus’ kingdom would be like other earthly kingdoms where power and prominence were highly valued. Instead of Jesus building a kingdom of God, he was really building a kin-dom of God where we serve one another in humility.

Where do you see signs of God’s concept of “the kin-dom of God” vs. “the kingdom of God” at work through the church and in the world? In what ways are these examples of humility and serving others more powerful than kingdoms that promote greed and prominence?

In our Gospel reading, Jesus defines leadership as “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

How is this definition of being a leader in our world the same or different from the world’s understanding?

The lead goose in the V formation takes the brunt of the air current to allow the other geese to fly more efficiently. 

Share an example of how someone has unselfishly taken the “brunt of the air current” to help you fly more efficiently in your life. How did that display of servanthood make a difference in your life?

Pastor Robert shared a story of psychiatrist and author, Scott Peck who loved to play chess. When teaching his young daughter to play, he became overly competitive in trying to win. Instead of using that time as a way to bond with his daughter, he used it as an opportunity to show how good he was at chess. He allowed his strength (the ability to play chess) to become his weakness (forgetting to be loving toward his daughter.)

In what ways can we use our unique gifts and talents to build up others rather than draw attention to ourselves?

This week, be open to opportunities where God may be calling you to serve, be helpful, and encourage others. 

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Online Worship (October 17) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
October 17
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Monday, October 11, 2021

Sermon (October 10) by Rev. Robert McDowell

    One year when I was on vacation, my brother who is also a pastor and I visited a church that was known for its excellent preaching. It’s not often that we preachers get to visit other churches so we were looking forward to being together for worship.

     Of the countless number of churches that we could have chosen to attend together, we somehow picked a church that was having their pledge drive Sunday.

     And it didn’t help matters when the preacher began his sermon by saying, “Well, first of all, I need to apologize to those of you are visiting this morning. We normally do not focus on money, but that’s what you’re going to hear me talk about for the next forty-five minutes this morning.”

     My brother and I looked at each other in disbelief. We looked around for the nearest exit door. But God does work in mysterious ways because after that service, we both agreed that it was one of the best sermons we had ever heard, and it was on the topic of giving. 

     And all this preacher did was string together several stories of generosity. I have been thinking about that memory as I’ve been planning for this special Sunday here at our church. 

     My prayer is that we will leave here today thanking God that we were able to be here today. Maybe you’ll tell your friends, “You should have been in church this morning. Our preacher talked about money!!”  

     Friends, this is going to be a great Sunday of worship in celebrating God’s unbelievable blessings, God’s redeeming grace, and God’s immeasurable love that can’t help but to lead us to be the generous and joyful givers that God has created each one of us to be. 

     Let me first begin by thinking about what inspires people to be generous givers? I think we all are drawn to stories about sacrificial giving. The reason why I still watch the evening news is because of what comes at the end of that half-hour broadcast. No matter how bad the news was that day, we know that they are going to leave us with a glimmer of hope. They always end with a feel good story of how someone did something nice for someone. 

     And these same kind of stories happen a lot in our churches in big and small ways. They happen all the time because the God of resurrection is always showing up in beautiful and surprising ways.

     These are the stories that inspire us and motivate us to be the gracious and generous givers that God has called us to be. Jesus taught us to look for these moments of generosity that are all around us, like the one from our Gospel reading today. 

     As Jesus is teaching, he decides to do a little people watching with his disciples. They were sitting across from where the Temple treasury was located. 

     The Temple treasury was most likely a large box that had a little opening at the top of it for people to drop in their money to support the work of the Temple. This offering box was out in the open where the crowds would walk, so this would have been a great location for Jesus and his disciples to do some people watching. Picture crowds walking by, and once in a while someone steps up to this treasury box to drop in some money.

     Evidently, while they were watching all of this, they would spot a few people who had a lot of money to drop into the box. And because they had so much money to donate, they would stand there for a long time dropping in one coin at a time. But obviously, they didn’t give away everything they had because they were wearing nice clothes. 

     I can’t help but to think that the disciples would have been impressed as they sat there watching all of the rich people putting large sums of money into the Temple treasury. Who knows, maybe the disciples were feeling a little envious as they watched this impressive display of wealth and charitable giving taking place right before their eyes.

     As one person after another makes their way to drop in their big payments, someone makes her way to the same treasury box, and in a very brief moment, she drops in two copper coins, and is lost in the crowd again.

     Jesus, who always knew what to look for in a crowd, turns to the disciples, and makes sure they didn’t miss what this unassuming woman had just done. Jesus wanted the disciples to know who the big spender really was during their people watching exercise. 

     It wasn’t the one wearing the nicest clothes and who gave the highest dollar amount. It was the one who gave all that she had to her name. Two copper coins.

     The people who gave the most still had plenty in their savings account.  But this woman, who probably won’t know how she will get her next meal, gave out of her poverty.

     What does it mean to give out of our poverty like the poor widow, rather than out of our abundance like those who were rich and put in large sums of money?

     Like so much of our faith, it really comes down to our willingness to trust in what God wants to do in and through us to be a blessing through our church and community. 

     This reminds me of the story of the successful millionaire businessman who was giving a testimony at his church one night. He said how as a young man he was struggling financially and he only had a few dollars to his name. So he prayed to God and he felt that God was calling him to give away all that he had and to trust God completely with his life.

     So he took the remaining few dollars he had in his wallet and put it in the offering plate the following Sunday. And then this man went on to say that by giving to God all the money he had, that’s why he was now a millionaire.

     A lady who was listening to this man’s testimony wasn’t impressed and she stood up and shouted, “I dare you to do it again!”

     It’s difficult for us to trust God with ALL that we have.  We’re afraid we’re going to lose even the little that we have. We want to hang on to what we have instead of using our resources  to be a blessing to others. So we end up holding back.

     I think that the important part of the story of the widow who gave everything she had was that we are told that she gave out of her poverty, not out of her abundance.

     I have always found it interesting that the year that marked the highest level of giving to charity in this country was during one of the worst economic times our nation has ever faced.  In 1933 and during the Great Depression people gave the highest percentage of their income to charity than in any other year.  

     Deep down, people want to make a difference in our world.  We will give as long as we know that our gifts are making a difference.

     Here’s another story that inspires me to give. It’s the story of the Christians in Macedonia who we read about in II Corinthians, our other scripture reading this morning. The Macedonian Christians were living in poverty. 

     It’s interesting that Paul uses this story to inspire the wealthier congregations in Corinth to follow their example of generosity. He writes, 

     “We want you to know brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.”

     And a few verses later, Paul goes on to use another example of how someone gave out of their poverty in overflowing generosity on behalf of others. He writes, 

     “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

     These inspiring stories of generosity have something in common. They all involve how generosity does not come from our abundance, but it comes out of our poverty and our willingness to trust God by sharing what we have with others. 

     These stories are all rooted in God’s overflowing love for the world. This is why I began my sermon by saying that this is going to be a great Sunday of worship in celebrating God’s unbelievable blessings, God’s redeeming grace, and God’s immeasurable love that can’t help but to lead us to be the generous and joyful givers that God has created each one of us to be.

     We are each called to be an expression of Christ’s self-giving love for the world. Athens First United Methodist Church is called to be an expression of Christ’s self-giving love for the world.

     Which leads me to share one more story of generosity that continues to have a big impact on my life. I’ll never forget it. 

     During the early years of our marriage, my wife and I didn’t give all that we could have given to the church.  We didn’t feel like we were in a position to be as generous as we wanted to be.  At the time, I was the only one working because Penny had gone back to college to complete her undergraduate studies.  And we also had two small children to raise at the time so money was really tight, really tight.

     One day, as the two of us were standing in the hallway of the church where I was serving at the time, a lady in the church came up to us and handed us an envelope stuffed with lots of money in it.  And this woman said, “I want you to have this money to help you pay for child care this weekend.”  

     She knew that we would be leading a church retreat that weekend and that we would need to pay a baby sitter while we would be away.  And of course, I said what many of us would have said in that situation, “Oh, this is so nice of you, but we really can’t accept this. This is a lot of money.”

     And I will never, ever, ever forget her response to me. She left me speechless. She said, “Oh, this isn’t my money. It’s a portion of our tithe money and we’ve already prayed over it and God wants you to have it.” Now, how are you supposed to argue with that kind of a response? She was basically saying that if I had a complaint, I should take it up with God. 

     It was that experience that led Penny and me to become more generous in our giving and to begin tithing our money to Christ and his church in our early years of marriage. This woman showed us what it means to trust God with all that we have, and to give out of our poverty rather than out of our abundance, kind of like the poor widow who gave all that she had. And kind of like the Macedonian Christians who gave out of their poverty.

     These are the stories that inspire us to be the generous givers that God is calling us to be. That might mean that we begin living out the biblical principle of tithing and giving 10% of our income to the work of Christ and his church. It might mean that we move from giving 2% this year to giving 3 or 4% of our income for next year. That is between you and God. All I know is that these stories of generosity have an impact on us.

     This week is an opportunity to take that next step increase by trusting God with our resources so that we can fulfill the mission God has given this church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And that is an awesome mission, to be part of sharing God’s healing love here in Athens and beyond. 

     This week we will be sending a mailing out to the congregation that will include a 2022 Estimate of Giving card. We invite you to prayerfully complete that card and either send it back to the church in the mail or you can bring it to church with you next Sunday and place it in the offering plate.

     As we prepare to take that next step of faith as we make our financial estimate of giving for 2022, I’m reminded of a story told by famous radio personality, Garrison Keillor. He said how a letter was sent from a church to those members who were not present on Pledge Dedication Sunday and therefore did not fill out their pledge cards.

     Here is what the follow-up letter from the church stated:

     "Dear Ann and Joe: We missed you last Sunday which was Pledge Sunday. Since you were not present to fill out your pledge card and to make it easy for you, we have completed a pledge card for you. Thank you for being so generous. Signed, Your Finance Committee"

     And may it be said of each and every one of us, “Thank you for being so generous.” 

Stories of Generosity

Sermon Discussion Questions
II Corinthians 8:1-9 & Mark 12:38-44
October 10, 2021

Our focus today is sharing stories of generosity. Two of these examples are included in our scripture readings. In II Corinthians, Paul writes to the Christians in Corinth who were known for their wealth to tell them about the generosity of the churches in Macedonia who even though they are poor have collected a generous offering to give to the churches in Judaea who were facing a severe famine and food shortage. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus points out a poor widow who gave all that she had in the Temple offering. In both of these stories, the ones who had the least ended up being the most generous.

Why do you think that those who had the least to give ended up being the most generous in their giving?

Like so much of our faith, being generous really comes down to our willingness to trust in what God wants to do in and through us to be a blessing through our church and community. 

What helps you to “trust in what God wants do do in and through you to be a blessing through our church and community?” Share some examples of where you see people being blessed through the financial gifts of the church.

Pastor Robert shared the story of how a woman in one of the first churches he served as pastor inspired him to be more generous in his financial giving. She offered to pay for babysitting so that he could lead a weekend church retreat. When he first declined this very generous gift, the woman said, “Oh, this isn’t my money. This is part of our extra tithe this month so it really belongs to God and we feel led to support the retreat you will be leading for our church.” This woman’s explanation gave him a new perspective of what it means to be generous in our giving.

As we prepare for a new year in ministry here at Athens First UMC, which of these stories of generosity inspire you the most? 

We will be receiving a mailing that will include a 2022 pledge card to prayerfully complete and return to the church. These pledge cards are kept confidential and serve the purpose of not only helping our Leadership Board to prepare next year’s budget but these cards also provide us with an opportunity to be the generous people God has called us to be. As you prepare to fill out a pledge card, offer this prayer that was used in this past Sunday’s worship service:

Gracious God, everything we have belongs to you. You have given us many gifts, but we forget to be generous. Forgive us for holding onto our gifts too tightly. Teach us to release our gifts so that we can be a blessing to others. Thank you for your example of generosity by sending Jesus who is the greatest gift we can ever receive. We offer this prayer in his name. Amen.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Online Worship (October 10) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our 
October 10
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:25 AM]

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Sermon (October 3) by Rev. Robert McDowell


    I was meeting with a church member over coffee and he was telling me a little bit about his family. He said how when he and his wife were raising their children, they needed to have different approaches because of their personalities.

     He said how their one child didn’t always respond positively to being reprimanded and so they had to use different approaches to get their point across. On the other hand, it was a lot easier with their other child because all they needed to do was give that stern parental look. No words, necessary. Just that serious look. 

     Here in our Gospel reading for today, the disciples crossed a line with Jesus. They were trying to keep people from bringing their children to Jesus. 

     I’m not sure what “look” Jesus gave the disciples, maybe something similar to what this church member shared with me when they needed to reprimand their children. I know that I wouldn’t have wanted to be one of the disciples in that moment, because we are told that Jesus was “indignant” with them.

     Indignant. That’s a strong word. My loose translation of that word is, “Jesus was fed up with them.” Fed Up. Disappointed. Frustrated. This is one of those awkward moments for the disciples especially since this was taking place out in public.

     And then Jesus goes on to tell the disciples, “Let the children come to me; do not step them; for it is such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

     Interestingly enough, this is the only time that Jesus expresses this particular emotion in Mark’s Gospel. Indignant. I wonder if this has something to do with Jesus’ over the top, radical, counter-cultural understanding of what God’s kingdom on earth is meant to look like.

     In Jesus’ day, children were relegated to a very low status. They were seen as expendable, a disturbance, and of little value. That was the common cultural understanding in that Greco-Roman culture in which Jesus and the disciples lived.

    So for people to actually interrupt Jesus for the sake of children would have caused this kind of negative reaction from the disciples. The disciples’ reaction would have been a very natural one in that particular cultural setting. So, it’s really interesting to me that Jesus reacted so strongly in this situation. 

     My sense is that this approach to correcting the disciples was the only way that they would have known that Jesus was serious about letting the children come to him. And it also seems to me that Jesus is using this as a teaching moment about what it means to be his disciples. To be a disciple of Jesus is to see every single second, every single situation, every single interruption as an opportunity to “live in the moment.”

     That’s a phrase that therapists use. “Live in the moment.” A friend told me several years ago that his therapist told him that if you live mostly in the past, we can become anxious because we tend to focus too much on past regrets and things we can’t change. And if we live mostly in the future, we can become anxious because that can lead to worry. But what we can do is live in the present.

    The Jesuits and the Franciscans are religious orders known for their emphasis on what they call the “Sacrament of the Present Moment.” According to Franciscan author, Terry Hershey, the Sacrament of the Present Moment invites us to choose to live each day as a sacrament so that we can see, hear, taste, and touch God’s grace which is defined as the goodness of God’s presence in our world.

     Our church talks a lot about “Thin Place Moments.” Thin place moments refer to those times when we are especially aware of how God is present with us in a very real way. We encourage each other to share our Thin Place moments because we believe that God’s grace is present with us in our everyday lives. Jesus offers us a great example of what it means to be open to these Thin Place moments through our every day encounters. 

     What the disciples saw as an annoying interruption and most likely an embarrassing social situation when people were bringing children to him, Jesus saw as another sacred opportunity to include more people in experiencing God’s goodness.

     Jesus was teaching the disciples to live in the moment when he did this very counter-cultural and subversive thing by welcoming the children and blessing them. This is why Jesus said, “Allow the children to come to me.”

     In addition to using language such as “The Sacrament of the Present Moment” or “Thin Place Moments,” to help us live in the moment, another phrase comes to mind. This phrase comes from the old Mr. Roger’s children’s program. 

     In one of the programs derived from the Mr. Roger’s show is the story of Daniel Tiger and his family who live in the neighborhood of Make-Believe. In this program, children are taught wonderful lessons from waiting patiently for a duck to hatch to allowing anger to be shown but not hurting someone because of your anger. The show uses cute and catchy musical jingles to reinforce this positive way of living.

     This musical lesson is repeated throughout the thirty-minute program with the purpose that children learn it and then hum or sing it throughout the day. One of these programs was about enjoying the present moment and not allowing it to pass by because you are caught in your own futuristic wants, like being sad about a lost toy during bubble bath time or distractions form too many choices like so many good books at the library. 

     The musical jingle for that program was “Enjoy the ‘Wow’ that’s happening now.” I love that phrase! “Enjoy the ‘Wow’ that’s happening now.”

     It’s a pretty catchy song. Let me play it for you.

     Enjoy the wow that’s happening now. 

     Henri Nouwen was a Catholic Priest who wrote a number of books on Christian spirituality. Nouwen made the insightful observation that interruptions were his real work. He made it a point to allow enough room in his daily schedule for interruptions to happen.

     What if we would be able to rename “interruptions” and call them “opportunities” instead? What if we saw each interruption as an opportunity to experience the Sacrament of the Present Moment? I’m just thinking out loud here. I think we will need some grace if we really work at this because I can already tell you that living in the moment is not one of my strengths. 

     But that’s OK. We aren’t here to judge. We’re hear to cheer each other on as followers of Jesus. 

     I often will remind wedding couples as they prepare for their wedding day to not allow all of the last minute planning to get in the way of just enjoying what should be one of the most joyous times of their lives. If things don’t go exactly as planned, that’s OK. Live in the moment. Savor the moment. Enjoy the Wow that’s happening now.

     One of my favorite things about serving as pastor here is to walk uptown to get a cup of coffee or some lunch. It’s not uncommon that I will encounter someone from the church or someone else I might know and we’ll end up having this wonderful spontaneous conversation. 

     These are holy moments when you just live in the moment and enjoy these opportunities in being part of this beautiful campus community. Sometimes, these serendipitous moments end up becoming just the encounter I needed to feel renewed and more open to God’s presence.

     Several years ago in the early 90s, I attended a college graduation on the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University. It was held outside and the featured speaker for the commencement address was the famous, Norman Vincent Peale who was a pastor and author. He was most known for his best selling book, “The Power of Positive Thinking.”

     An Ohio native, Dr. Peale was an alum of Ohio Wesleyan, class of 1920. This commencement address would end up being his last public speaking appearance.  He would end up passing away less than a year later at the age of 94.

     When it was Dr. Peal’s turn to offer the commencement address, two people needed to help lift him from the chair and lead him to the podium.  I couldn’t help but wonder if these soon to be young college graduates would appreciate the words of wisdom that he was about to impart to them.

     It’s amazing that it’s now been almost 30 years ago since he gave his speech and I can still remember some of the stories that he shared with the graduates that day. Sometimes, he seemed to ramble a bit, but he still had his remarkable sense of humor. 

     Toward the end of his address, I could tell that the graduates were beginning to not pay attention to him. I get it. It was hot sitting out there in the sun and he was starting to meander a little bit in his long speech.

     His voice was frail and a little shaky at times which also made it a little challenging to hear. As he was sharing yet another one of his stories with the graduates, something amazing happened.

     The bells on the campus started ringing. Dr. Peale paused when the first bell rung and he continued on with his story. But when they rang the second time, he paused, looked around and said, “I can hear bells ringing.”

     People started to chuckle over his comments and you could tell that some of the graduates were wondering if he was OK. Actually, I was wondering that myself.

     After pausing for a few more seconds, Dr. Peale, abruptly stopped sharing his story and he simply looked out at those graduates and said, “I do hear bells ringing. And those bells are ringing for you.”

    He turned from the podium, went back to his seat, and sat down. It was a masterful way to end his speech. Instead of those bells being an interruption, he saw it as an opportunity to live in the moment and to enjoy the Wow that was happening now. 

    Let’s live in such a way that every moment, every interruption is an opportunity to see, hear, taste, and touch the presence of God’s goodness in the world. 

Enjoy the Wow!

Sermon Discussion Questions
Mark 10:2-16
October 3, 2021

Jesus uses very strong language in our Gospel reading this week. When the disciples refuses to all children to come to Jesus, he told them, “But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’”

Why do you think that Jesus was so indignant with the disciples and why do you think that Jesus made a special effort to allow the children to come to him?

This story of Jesus being open to the children coming to him is an example of how Jesus was always “living in the moment.” Sometimes, we focus too much on the past and what might happen in the future that we forget to simply “live in the moment.”

What helps you to “live in the moment” and not be so worried about the past or what might happen in the future?

The Jesuits and the Franciscans are religious orders that emphasize what they call, “The Sacrament of the Present Moment.” By this, they mean to claim each moment as an opportunity to recognize God’s presence. Our church refers to this as “Thin Place Moments” where we recognize those thin places where heaven and earth overlap in our daily lives.

Share a recent “Thin Place Moment” that you experienced. 

Franciscan author, Terry Hershey defines “God’s grace” as “the goodness of God’s presence in our world.”

What helps you to be alert to noticing the goodness of God’s presence in our world?

The story of Jesus’ inviting the children to come to him reminds us of the importance of our children’s ministry. Spend some time praying for the teachers of our children’s Sunday School as well as our Growing Tree Pre-school. 

One of the shows derived from Mr. Rogers is about Daniel the Tiger. The show had a fun jingle called, “Enjoy the Wow that’s Happening Now.”  Listen to this fun song and invite God to help us see how God is present in each moment.