A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

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

Monday, 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

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