A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

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

Monday, July 25, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (July 24) - Athens First UMC

[Construction for our capital improvements began this past week with the preparation work for what will become our new elevator shaft. The picture is what used to be the pastor's office which is next to our Chapel. Speaking of our Chapel, due to Sunday's extreme heat, the 10:30 worship service moved to our air-conditioned Chapel. We anticipate having air-conditioning in the Sanctuary by the end of August! Hallelujah!]

God of all creation, thank you for reminding us this morning, that all we need to do is to knock on heaven’s door, and you will not only hear us, but you will also give to us what we need in that moment.

Sometimes, your response may be, “No, not yet,” or “No, I love you too much,” or “Yes, I thought you’d never ask!” or “Yes, and here’s more.” Thank you that you are our loving heavenly parent and that you care about our needs.

Just as the disciples asked, “Teach us to pray,” we also want to grow closer to you through our prayers. Help us to keep asking, to keep seeking, and to keep knocking, because you promise that your door will always be open to us. Thank you for the college student who not only appreciated our prayers for passing a Spanish test, but who also reminded us to “keep it up, guys.”

Thank you for the prayer that Jesus has given us to pray alone, to pray in church, and to pray often, “The Lord’s Prayer.”

As we pray this prayer together, we pause after each phrase to silently lift up our individual prayers to you.

We pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven” and we take a few moments now to silently thank you for not being a distant and vague deity, but for being our loving parent who loves and cares for each one of us. (PAUSE)

We pray, “hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and we take a few moments now to silently ask you to offer your healing love for a part of the world like Honduras, to this country, or to a situation we may be facing. (PAUSE)

We pray, “Give us this day, our daily bread,” and we take a few moments now to silently think about the many ways you feed us physically and spiritually. (PAUSE)

We pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and we take a few moments now to silently confess our sins to you, knowing that you are a very gracious, loving, and forgiving God. (PAUSE)

And we conclude this wonderful prayer you have give to us by joining together and saying the entire Lord’s Prayer together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespassed against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon (July 24) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Knockin' On Heaven's Door"

     When I saw the appointed Gospel reading for this Sunday, I was reminded of a retired pastor who filled in for me on occasion in one of my previous churches.
     On the first Sunday that he covered for me, he told me that he was going to preach on “The Lord’s Prayer.” I told him, “That’s a great scripture for preaching.”
     Several months later, this retired pastor filled in for me again. I discovered that he had preached about “The Lord’s Prayer” yet again. I was curious why he decided to preach on this same text a second time.
     He said, “Well, the first time, I focused on ‘Our Father,’ and for the second sermon, I moved on to the phrase, ‘Who art in heaven.’”
     He said, “When you go away again, I’m going to preach on the phrase, ‘Hallowed be thy name.’”
     Long story short. Over my six years at that church, he only made it to the “Give us this day our daily bread,” part.
     I’m just glad that his first sermon wasn’t entitled, “Our.”
     No, I’m not going to spend the next ten weeks preaching on “The Lord’s Prayer,” although I’m sure I could pull that off since this is an incredible, incredible prayer that Jesus has given us.
     I’m going to attempt to cover this awesome prayer with just one sermon.
     My retired pastor friend did give me a great idea, though. Let’s look at each section of this prayer so that it can become even more meaningful for us.
     Let me begin by saying that our familiarity with “The Lord’s Prayer” can be a good thing and it can be a bad thing. It can be a good thing because many of us know it by heart, and it’s wonderful that many of us can pull this prayer out of our hip pocket in a pinch. There’s nothing wrong with that.
     The bad thing about it being familiar to us is that we can easily forget its meaning, and we can easily say it without even thinking about what we’re praying.
     Maybe you’ve heard of the two Christians who were trying to outdo each other. The conversation came around to prayer. One said, “I’ll bet $20 you can’t even say ‘The Lord’s Prayer.’”
     The other replied, “You’re on.” And so he began… “Now I lay me down to sleep…”
     The first man interrupted him and said, “Ok, ok. Here’s your money. I didn’t think you could do it.”
     So, what really is “The Lord’s Prayer” and how can it help us to have a stronger prayer life?
     Jesus taught us what we now know as “The Lord’s Prayer” when the disciples came to him and asked him point blank, “Lord, teach us to pray…” 
     In Jesus’ day, there were many, many different ways to pray, just as there are today. It was common for a rabbi to give his disciples a model prayer to use which is probably the motivation for the disciples asking their question about prayer in the first place.
     When people want to know how to pray, I think they’re really wanting to know how to have a relationship with God. That’s a very basic question, isn’t it? How can I have a relationship with God?
     In 1993, William Hendricks wrote a book entitled, Exit Interviews: Revealing Stories of Why People Leave Church.  Hendricks found that two-thirds of people who attended church said they didn’t experience God in their worship on a regular basis. Two-thirds!
     They said that the preaching was poor and that worship was boring. Hendricks said that if the church was a restaurant, it would be like hungry people coming to eat food and the restaurant not being able to feed them!
     People who gave the church a try, left because they weren’t getting fed. Maybe this is why Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
     Fifteen years after William Hendricks’ eye opening book on why people were leaving the church, Julia Duin did the same kind of research. Guess what? She found exactly what Hendricks’ had found fifteen years earlier in his research.
     In her 2008 book, Quitting Church: Why the Faithful Are Fleeing and What to Do About It, worshippers told Duin that they weren’t getting decent preaching, good community, or spiritual food.
     The church had become irrelevant to their lives, so they were investing elsewhere. Church goers were asking the same question that the disciples were asking Jesus, “Teach us to pray. Help us to know God.”
        So the pressure is on today, isn’t it? I can’t afford to preach a bad sermon, or we may miss out on connecting with God in a deeper way. Actually, the pressure was on Jesus to come up with a prayer to share with his disciples that would be able to get at the heart of what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus.
      Let’s briefly look at each phrase of this prayer, and then we’ll give some thought on how it can help us connect with God in a deeper way.

Our Father...

     “The Lord’s Prayer” begins by addressing God as “Our Father.” Two things to mention hear. Notice that the prayer begins with the pronoun, “Our” and not the pronoun, “My.”
     At the heart of being a Christian and a being a growing follower of Jesus is this understanding that we are not alone as we live out our faith. We are part of a community of people who need each other in living out our faith.
     John Wesley, the founder of what we know today as the United Methodist Church knew this very well. It’s why he spent his whole life encouraging people to be in a small group of no more than a dozen or so people. He called them, “Methodist class meetings.”
     Wesley knew that it’s when we share our faith and pray with each on a regular basis that we are able to grow in our faith. We need each other.
     The word, “Our” in “The Lord’s Prayer” is a subtle, but powerful way of reminding us that to do this thing called “Christianity” right, we need each other.
     And notice that of the many, many names there are for God, Jesus chose the word, “Father,” to begin his model prayer for his disciples. In the Aramaic language, the word, “Father” is translated as the more loving and intimate word, “Daddy.”
     I don’t know about you, but I am so glad that “The Lord’s Prayer” doesn’t refer to God as “our distant and vague deity.” No, it refers to God as “Our Father.”
     The biblical view of God is not that God is some abstract source who is far away from us. Many people have this view of God. The biblical view is that God is much more like a loving parent who wants to have a loving and caring relationship with us.
     Even the first two words, “Our Father” of “The Lord’s Prayer” remind us that God is a loving God who cares about us.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

     The next part of “The Lord’s Prayer” that I want us to think about is the phrase, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
     This one phrase summarizes the message of the Bible. If someone would stop you on the street and ask you, “Could you summarize the bible for me in one sentence,” it would be wise to share this line from “The Lord’s Prayer” for them.
     From the Book of Genesis to the last book of the Bible, “The Book of Revelation,” God’s desire is for the joy, peace, love, and justice of heaven to completely fill this earth one day. And the way that we seek for this hope to become a reality is by praying this wonderful prayer that reminds us for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.
     For many people, inside and outside the church, we have this mistaken notion that the whole point of Christianity is for us to go to heaven someday. Yes, we all want to be with God in heaven when we die, but the bigger story line of the bible is that one day, God will make all things new here on earth.
     God loves this world too much to just give up on it. God’s will is for this world to reflect all of the glory and splendor of heaven. Imagine a world of no homelessness, no crime, no pollution, no terrorism, no hatred, no injustice, no child abuse, no war.
     And you think to yourself, “well, that describes heaven.” Exactly! And that’s why Christians pray “The Lord’s Prayer” because the big deal of the bible is that we are to pray for and work toward a world that is filled with all of the love, peace, and justice of heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

     The Lord’s Prayer concludes with a request for God to provide bread for the day. Not only does this part of the prayer remind us of how God provided bread for the Israelites when God was leading them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land, it’s also Luke’s way of reminding us of what we now know as, “The Sacrament of Holy Communion,” and how Christ is present with us every time we receive the bread and the cup.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive...

     “The Lord’s Prayer” concludes with a confession of our sins, but notice that it comes with a little twist which is always important for us to remember. We ask God to forgive us in the same proportion that we forgive those who have wronged us. Nobody said that “The Lord’s Prayer” is an easy prayer to live out.
     So much more could be said about this incredible prayer that Jesus taught us, but I think some of these thoughts can be helpful to us whenever we say this prayer.
     After Jesus teaches the disciples this prayer, he then encourages them to be persistent in offering their prayers to God. He says, “Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.”
     Prayer really does make a difference. It’s been said that God answers prayers in four ways: 1) No, not yet. 2) No, I love you too much. 3) Yes, I though you’d never ask! And 4) Yes, and here’s more.
     I like that! Jesus gave us “The Lord’s Prayer” to encourage us to be persistent in our prayers. In one way, shape, or form, God will answer our prayers. We just need to keep knocking on heaven’s door and be open to how God will answer our prayers.
     A few months ago, I met a good friend of mine for breakfast here in Athens. He’s also a pastor and used to attend my church in Lancaster when he had a Sunday off from his church. We became good friends these past several years.
     When we got together for breakfast recently, he asked me what he always asks me when we get together. “What are your prayer needs?” So I’ll give him a couple of prayer requests.
     On that particular day at the restaurant, I told him about a family member who needed to find medical insurance because he needed his wisdom teeth extracted. He said sure. And so before we left the restaurant, he said a little prayer, and I prayed for him.
     We said our “good byes.” As I walked out of the restaurant to head to my car to come to the church, I got a text message from this same family member that we just prayed about. He was letting me know that he had just found out that his part-time job offers dental insurance and that he was going to sign up for it later that day.
     God answered that prayer in less than ten minutes! I looked up into the sky after I received that text message and whispered to myself, “Wow, that was quick! Thank you, God.”

     Many of you know about our outdoor prayer cross in front of our church building. There’s a box on that cross where you can place prayer requests. When our prayer team was getting that prayer cross ready, I remember how we were wondering if anybody walking by our church would actually take the time to fill out a prayer card and place it in the box. We were willing to give it a try.
     To our astonishment, we received 35 prayer requests during that first week back in February. They were mostly from college students. During the remaining school year, we averaged around 20 or so prayer cards each week.
     These prayer requests have been melting my heart. It’s encouraging to know that college students who might have no connection with our church or any church are drawn to that cross.
     I love seeing people stop at our prayer cross to offer their prayer concerns. This is their way of knocking at heaven’s door. I just want each person who places a prayer request in the prayer box to know that our church is praying for these needs on a weekly basis.
     I want to share a prayer request that we received from a college student about a month ago. This college student had placed two prayer requests card in our outdoor prayer cross that same week. The first card was for our church to pray for a test this student would be taking.
     I want to share what this student wrote on the 2nd card we received later that same week. Here’s what it said:
     “I passed Spanish. Keep it up guys.”
     In a fun kind of way, this college student is telling our church to keep knock’n on heaven’s door. That’s what Jesus is telling us to do. Keep asking because you will receive. Keep seeking because you will find. Keep knocking because the door will be opened.
     Like the college student said, “keep it up guys.”     

Knockin' On Heaven's Door
Small Group Questions
Luke 11:1-13
July 24, 2016

Jesus instructed the disciples to say "The Lord's Prayer."

Begin your small group meeting by sharing this prayer together, pausing at each phrase for reflection.

Our Father...

We address God as a loving parent and not as a distant and abstract deity. Share a time in your life when you have felt God as a loving parent.

...who art in heaven. Hallowed by they name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven...

This part of the prayer reminds us that we are to pray for heaven to come upon earth. Share how you see the church working toward bringing heaven to earth in our community and world.

Give us this day our daily bread...

The phrase, "daily bread" is to remind us of the exodus story in the Old Testament when God provided the Israelites with manna in the wilderness. It also reminds us of the Sacrament of Holy Communion and Jesus' death on the cross for the sins of the world. Share a time when you were fed spiritually in your walk with God.

And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Jesus is inviting us to be forgiving toward others. What helps you to be forgiving toward others?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Pastoral Prayer (July 17) - Athens First UMC

[This is a photo of three of our Honduras mission team members on their way home yesterday. We prayed for them during our worship services earlier in the day (see prayer below.) Notice their smiles after their long trip. There is great joy when we serve the Lord! A couple of people from the mission team will be sharing about their experiences this upcoming Sunday during worship. Welcome home, missions team!] 

O God, thank you for the many ways that our church is living out our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of our community and world. Thank you for placing our church in this location to be a haven of blessing and peace.

Thank you for the vision you have given us to put Athens First. Thank you for the many ways you are helping us to connect with our community and world. We look forward to the continuing of these ministries as well as new ministries this fall, like “Core” where we will exercise our minds in exploring the foundational components of our Christian faith.

Help us to be a church where we use our hands to serve, where we use our hearts to love, and where we use our minds to grow. Serve, love, and grow. Teach us what it means to keep our focus on those three areas of our faith, O God. Take away any unnecessary distractions that would keep us from serving, loving, and growing in our faith.

We confess that we sometimes struggle in having the focus you want us to have. There are so many things that would pull us away from keeping the main thing the main thing. Reminds us again and again of the words of my pastor friend who used to always tell me, “Stay focused on Jesus. Stay focused on Jesus.”

Keep our focus on you as we share our faith with each other in small groups. Keep our focus on you as we serve through our Athens First Saturday outreach. Keep our focus on you as construction begins for our several building improvements. Keep our focus on you as we begin our “Core” classes this fall. Keep our focus on you every time we gather in this place to worship you.

We pray for those who may find it difficult to focus on you because of financial difficulties, loneliness, relational struggles, health issues, or some other challenge they may be facing. Help our church to be a haven of blessing and peace especially for anyone who feels overwhelmed by the many distractions that come our way. We lift up to you the people of France who experienced a terrorist attack this past week. We pray for a world of mutual understanding and peace. And we continue to pray for our Honduras mission team as they do their part in making this world a better place.

And Lord, help us to not take ourselves so seriously that we miss out on the joy of living out our faith. And that’s why we especially thank you that today is National Ice-Cream Day. Continue to help us be a church that knows how to have a lot of fun. We pray this in the name of Jesus who is the reason that we have joy in our hearts and who has taught us to pray together saying… “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sermon (July 17) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Distracted By Many Things"

    Today's scripture reminds us of how easy it can be for distractions to get in the way of us seeing Jesus. Martha was distracted by many things. We need to have the focus of Mary.

     Does anybody know who is in the lead at the British Open this morning? I left early in the morning so I'm curious who is in the lead. 

     There I go getting distracted again! So anyway, the story of Mary and Martha reminds us of the importance of being focused in how we live out our faith.

     It's feeling really warm in the sanctuary this morning. Anyone else feeling a little uncomfortable this morning. Just so hot in here.

     But back to my sermon on staying focused...
     I wonder if Martha from our scripture reading in Luke’s Gospel was as distracted like me as I try to begin this sermon. Martha was a doer.  She was task oriented.  She had a legitimate concern when Jesus stopped by her house one day.  To provide hospitality for a guest, which in that time period, was a major social custom and expectation.
     So here’s Martha, doing the best she can to probably prepare a meal of some kind on short notice, maybe clean up some things, and finish up whatever she might have been doing when Jesus first entered her home.
     And did you notice that Martha took out her frustration on Jesus himself?  She interrupts Jesus’ time with Mary by saying, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister isn’t helping me?  Tell her to help me!” 
     Martha is so distracted by many things that she doesn’t even realize what she’s saying in that moment. 
     A distinguished business leader offered this piece of advice to a pastor recently:  “The main thing is to keep your eye on the main thing.”  Upon reflection of this much appreciated piece of wisdom, the pastor thought to himself, “It is so easy for people who are in leadership positions in the church to be overcome, swamped with trivialities and distractions, and to lose sight of the main thing.”
     But what this pastor says next is what has helped me to better understand this scripture about Mary, Martha, and Jesus.  Continuing his reflection on keeping the main thing, the main thing, this pastor says, that we as leaders in the church need to maintain and nurture the deep conviction that God really is present in our ministry, doing more than we can think, say, or do. 
     This is what keeps us from burning out.  When we know deep down that Jesus is present in all that we do, how can we not keep moving forward in spite of it all?
     As in the case with Martha, sometimes, Jesus can be right in front of us, and we still can miss him.
     One year, while visiting my family in Pennsylvania for a family reunion, we worshipped at my home church.  The pastor greeted the congregation, shook his head back and forth, and announced that it had already been a rough morning.
     He was fighting a bad cold.  The person who was supposed to work the sound system didn’t show up.  Their drummer had a migraine.  And he said, “But that’s not all.  We can’t seem to find the offering plates.”
     But then he said, “All of these distractions mean nothing compared to what’s really important today – our worship of Jesus Christ.” 
     Now there’s a pastor who knows how to handle distractions! I’ve had this same thing happen to me here where I let pre-worship distractions get the best of me. Thankfully, I have a prayer group that meets with me every Sunday morning before the first worship service begins to help me to remember to keep the main thing, the main thing.
And even beyond the distraction to provide hospitality to Jesus, Martha was allowing another distraction to get in the way of truly seeing Jesus.  She couldn’t believe that her sister, Mary, was going against social custom by crossing over the male/female boundaries to listen to Jesus’ words.  Men and women could be together outside, but not inside the same room of a house, and certainly, not next to each other as we see in this scene with Mary so close to Jesus.
     As Jesus does so many times in the Gospel, he dissolves the customary boundaries whether they are invisible or visible boundaries.  And when he does so, like Martha, it’s so easy for us to become distracted and not really see what Jesus is doing.  It’s like Luke is telling us that Jesus’ love is like an overflowing river that goes well beyond our prescribed boundaries.  God’s love cannot be contained by our own societal or self imposed limits.
     It’s like Luke is telling us that Jesus’ love is like an overflowing river that goes well beyond our prescribed boundaries.  God’s love cannot be contained by our own societal or self imposed limits.
     Luke is showing us that the way to not be distracted is to be like Mary and keep our eyes on Jesus at all times.  Jesus is the main thing.  Jesus even says to Martha, “There is need of only one thing.  Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
     I’ve been in a nostalgic mood these past few weeks because it was around this time last year that I became your pastor. I don’t know if you have noticed or not, but I really enjoy being your pastor.
    When I see my pastor friends, they will say to me, “You’re having way too much fun there in Athens.” They’re right. I’m probably having a little too much fun here.
     Well, Penny and I want you to know that after a full year with you, we still like you. You’re a great congregation.
     Since I recently begun my second year with you, I was thinking that today would be a good time to reflect on our past year together and where God is leading us into the future. It’s also good timing to do this because our worship theme for today is to not get distracted from keeping the main thing the main thing.
     The main thing for our church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That’s it in one sentence. The main thing is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
     In my years of pastoral ministry and serving at different size churches, I have discovered that any church can grow as long as we don’t allow distractions to keep us from our main mission and purpose which is to make disciples. Our goal isn’t to be a busy church. It’s to be a focused church that doesn’t get caught up in unnecessary distractions that will keep us from keeping the main thing, the main thing.
     So, over this past year, what have we been putting in place to help us make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world? There are three things that we have been giving a lot of our attention and prayer focus this past year and these are all vital to the discipleship making process.
Focus #1 - Small Groups
     The first thing is that we have started a small group ministry. An effective small group ministry helps us to share our faith with each other. Small groups are where people can pray with and for each other and serve together in local outreach. They also help people who are looking for a church home to get to know people in the congregation.
     We launched several new small groups this past February during the season of Lent and they continue to meet. Our small group facilitators have done a wonderful job in leading our small groups.
     Here is what happens in one of our small groups. You meet for about an hour and fifteen minutes and take turns sharing your thin place moments, meaning those moments when you have experienced God’s presence in your life. If you don’t feel comfortable sharing, you just say, “pass” and you keep going around the circle until everybody has had an opportunity to share.
     You also pray for each other in the group. And periodically, the small group chooses to serve in a hands-on-mission project.
     It’s simple. You share where you have experienced God’s presence during the past week, you pray, and you find ways to serve.
     Small group ministry is one of the three key things we have been able to get started this year.
                          Focus #2 - Small Groups 
     A second important focus this past year has been our new Athens First Saturday outreach which started this past April. Each month, we are invited to show up here at church on the first Saturday morning of each month to serve in simple and practical ways in our local community. Our next First Saturday outreach is on Saturday, August 6, at 8:30 in the morning. We’re always done before noon so we have the rest of our Saturday.
     For the one in August, several of our projects will be to get ready for our water bottle give away for when the students arrive on campus during the month of August.
     Our First Saturday local projects have included picking up litter in our community, helping with the Trimble Elementary backpack/food pantry outreach, leading a worship service at one of our nursing homes, making blankets for different groups in our community, and the list goes on and on.
     Our Athens First Saturday outreach is helping us to live out the famous quote by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism when he said,
     “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”
     That quote appears on the back of our Athens First Saturday t-shirts that many of us wear when we go out and serve in our community. As Rev. Dan Kiger, a former pastor reminded us when he was with us this past March, “God is calling our church to be a haven of blessing and peace.”
     We share our faith in small groups, and then we share our faith in the community by serving others.
Focus #3 - Capital Campaign
     This leads me to the third key focus of our past year which is our “Putting Athens First Capital Campaign.” The whole point of our Capital Campaign plan of building improvements is so that our facility can become more accommodating and accessible for the people of our community.
     We want to create more space, more accessibility, and more opportunities to utilize our church facility. Our building has served our community well for the past several decades and over these several months, we’re going to make it even better.
     It’s exciting for me to think that our building improvements will be completed by the end of the year. This means that we will all be able to enjoy air conditioning in the sanctuary by this winter. Actually, I am looking forward to next summer when we will be able to cool our sanctuary on those hot and steamy days.
     So these are three vital projects that we have been focusing on this past year to help our church keep the main thing the main thing which is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. These three key areas are helping us to lay a solid foundation for years to come.
     If small groups, Athens First Saturday outreach, and the Capital Campaign have been our focus this past year, what is God calling us to focus on for this second year?
     Well, we will still need to focus on growing our small group ministry, expanding our Athens First Saturday Outreach, and implementing our Capital Campaign, but we also have another new ministry that will help us fulfill our mission of making disciples. Beginning in September, we will be offering six short-term instructional classes on what it means to live out our faith.
     These six short-term classes will be offered from September through April of each year and will be taught by several of our Athens area United Methodist pastors at our various churches. The churches include our church, Richland UMC, Central Avenue UMC, and The Plains UMC.
     Each of these courses will meet for four weeks. The six core courses are Christianity 101, Introduction to the Bible, Methodism History and Theology, The Means of Grace including the Sacraments, Stewardship/Personal Finance, and Spiritual Gifts.
     We have included an insert with the schedule of these events in your bulletin this morning. I will be teaching the first of these classes on Christianity 101 this September here at our church. I can’t wait for this. Not only will this be a great way to learn about our faith, it will also be a wonderful way to share in ministry with our fellow United Methodist congregations in the surrounding area.
      The thinking is that if you participate in each of these six short-term classes, you will have a well-rounded understanding of the Christian faith.
     So if you think about these four new ministries, it might be helpful to use an analogy for each of these. Small groups represent our hearts because it’s in small groups that we share our hearts with each other as we share our faith and pray with each other.
     If small groups represent our hearts, “Athens First Saturday Outreach” is like our hands because we are called to use our hands to be a blessing in our community.
     If small groups represent our hearts, and “Athens First Saturday Outreach” represents our hands, think of our new instructional classes as our minds because there is so much for us to learn about our faith.
     Now of course, there are many other things that we do to help us fulfill our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The important thing is that we stay focused on keeping the main thing the main thing. The story of Mary and Martha reminds us to not let distractions get in the way of our main purpose as a church.
     I had a good friend, a United Methodist pastor who was my spiritual mentor ever since I became a pastor back in the late 80’s. He died this past November. Whenever I need advice or need to talk to someone, he was the one I would call.
     He would encourage me, pray for me, and share words of wisdom from his forty plus years of pastoral ministry. Whenever my head would start spinning and I wasn’t sure what direction I needed to go, he always reminded me of something very, very important that I would like to share with you today in his memory.
     Whenever I called him on the phone or met him halfway for breakfast or lunch, he would carefully listen to me and then offer wise words of counsel.  And he always, and I mean always, reminded me of a saying that has served as his anchor over his many years as a pastor and as a Christian.  He told me this hundreds of times.
     He would say, “Robert, remember to stay focused on Jesus.” “Stay focused on Jesus.”  And that little reminder helped me to see where I had become distracted by many things and the areas in my life where I needed to become more focused on the main thing and how to help my church keep the main thing the main thing.
     Penny and I have enjoyed our first year with you, and we can’t wait for what God is going to do in and through us this coming year.
     And so, if you’re feeling distracted by the craziness of life, by difficult situations and circumstances, and even by the busyness of church life and ministry, today’s a good day to hear these words:
     Stay focused on Jesus.

Distracted By Many Things
Small Group Questions
Luke 10:38-42
July 17, 2016

Pastor Robert opened with an illustration about a treadmill that  moved backward after a workout. It move backward because it was slipping on the floor when in use.

When have you felt like you have gone backward even though you have expended a lot of energy in trying to move forward? How can this happen to us in a spiritual sense?

In the sermon, Pastor Robert encouraged us to stay focused on four areas of ministry at First UMC. These include 1) Small Group Ministry 2) First Saturday Outreach 3) The Capital Campaign 4) Six Core Courses (Intro to Christianity, Intro to the Bible, Methodism, Means of Grace, Stewardship, Spiritual Gifts)

Share how you have become more focused and less distracted in your life through any of these four focuses of the church. How have you seen God at work in these four focuses in the life of our church?