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, 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?

No comments: