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, January 29, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (Jan. 28/Kappa Phi Sunday) Athens FUMC

[Kappa Phi, a campus ministry organization that meets in our church each year helped to lead our worship services by offering prayers, reading scripture, providing special music, and serving as greeters. This ministry began back in the 1920s and we have a long history in serving as their host church. Kappa Phi Sunday corresponded with our Gospel lesson this week which emphasizes the teaching ministry of Jesus. Click here for the sermon.]

Lord Jesus, we call you by many names like savior, redeemer, friend, shepherd, king. But today, we refer to you primarily as our teacher.


Thank you for teaching us what it means to follow you. Thank you for teaching us what it means to love others especially those who are difficult to love. Thank you for teaching us in ways that challenge our preconceived notions of who you are.


Thank you for teaching us our faith story, that we have been created in the image of God, that you died on a cross and rose again for our sake, and that one day you will come again and make all things new.


Thank you for those who have taught us and continue to teach us. Thank you for Mrs. Maddox. Thank you for Mr. Smith. Thank you for my grandmother. Thank you for my Sunday School teachers. Thank you for seminary professors. Thank you for podcasts. Thank you for bible study teachers. Thank you for daily devotionals. Thank you for our Growing Tree preschool teachers. Thank you for the teaching ministries of the church. Thank you for school teachers. Thank you for elementary school principals. I just felt the need to throw that in.


Teacher, we all come to you with some kind of question this morning. Some of us might be questioning if you are really present in a situation we are facing. We have questions about what it means to live out our faith in the work place, in our community, and in the classroom. Lord, remind us that we are always in the process of learning and discovering what it means to be your disciples.


On this Kappa Phi Sunday, we are also thankful for our university community where there are so many opportunities to learn and grow. We pray your blessings to be with Kappa Phi in their ministry here on campus. Thank you for our partnership with them and especially for their awesome baked potato/chili meals!


Lord, you have so much you want to teach us. Even now, teach us to pray the word that you taught your disciples to say,


“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sermon (Jan. 28) by Rev. Robert McDowell "Teacher Man"

     How can one ever underestimate the influence of a good teacher?
     Who was your 1st grade teacher?  I’ll start.  My first grade teacher was Mrs. Maddox.  Go ahead and turn to someone near you and tell that person the name of your 1st grade teacher.
     Just in case you were traumatized by your 1st grade teacher and have blocked that person out of your mind, turn to a different person this time and share the name of your fifth grade teacher.  Go ahead.
     My fifth grade teacher was Mr. Smith.  The first male teacher I ever had.  Besides wearing more cologne than any man should ever be allowed to wear, Mr. Smith taught me that you should be excited about learning new things.  Of all the teachers I had in elementary school, he seemed like the one who had the most passion for teaching.  I remember wanting to be just like Mr. Smith.
     How can we ever underestimate the influence of a good teacher?
     Frank McCourt, who wrote the book, Angela’s Ashes and then his second book, “Teacher Man,” had a 30 year teaching career in New York City’s public high schools beginning in the late 1950s.
     Frank McCourt became a great teacher and had a positive influence on his students because he was able to find ingenious ways to motivate them to learn.  To help students appreciate writing in all forms, he had them read cookbook recipes while other students played music in the background.  To help them to be better writers, he had them write critiques about the school cafeteria as well as restaurants in New York City.
     He tells of his second day teaching in 1958 when a fight broke out and one of the students threw a sandwich in anger.  To calm the situation, he simply picked the sandwich off the floor and started eating it much to the surprise of his students.
     In one of his chapters, he writes about a time that he took 20 to 30 rowdy teenagers to a play there in New York City.  He writes that it was one of the most challenging things that he ever had to do to get those teenagers safely to the play and back to the school.
     One of those girls, who was one of the more difficult young students on this field trip, ended up having such a positive experience, that it later changed her life.  All because of a teacher who was willing to go above and beyond his duties to help students explore and learn new things.
     In his book, Frank McCourt makes the observation that in America we don’t value teachers like people do in the countries of Europe.  I think he’s on to something. 
      Never underestimate the influence of a good teacher.
     So it shouldn’t surprise us in the least, to read in our Gospel Lesson this morning that one of Jesus’ first miracles happened to be while he was teaching in a synagogue.
     Jesus wasn’t known as a Priest or a Reverend.  People called him “Rabbi” or “Teacher.”
     And there he was one day, early in his ministry, teaching away right there in the middle of a worship service.  Wouldn’t you have loved to be a fly on one of those walls that day? 
     What was he teaching?  What did Jesus tell the people?
     I don’t know, but it must have been really good, since Mark tells us that the people were astounded at his teaching, because he didn’t teach like the scribes taught.  Jesus taught with authority.
     At a farm house retreat center in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the spring of 1984, I sat in utter astonishment, as Dr. Paul Schaeffer was teaching on the Book of Acts.
     Dr. Schaeffer, or Paul as we often called him, was leading a spring retreat for the college students of the Philadelphia area.  I already knew that he was a brilliant man who could speak a thousand words a minute, but it was at that moment of his teaching, that I really began to feel a tug on my heart about entering the pastoral ministry.
     Here was a man who had a doctorate in the History of the Reformation and who knew the Bible backwards and forwards, but who also had the wonderful ability to teach the Bible to college students in ways that we would understand and apply it to our lives.
     I was drawn to him.  And I felt God calling me into some kind of teaching ministry.
     A few years ago, I got motivated to track down this wonderful teacher, pastor, and scholar.  Figuring that he was no longer at the same church in Philadelphia, I discovered that he was now the Chairman of Religious Studies at Grove City College located in western Pennsylvania.
     I must have caught him in between classes when I called him on the phone that day, because he indicated that he was in a bit of a hurry.  But I had just enough time to tell him that he was one of the reasons that I felt a calling into the pastoral ministry. 
     How can we ever underestimate the influence of a good teacher?
     About thirteen years ago in Maumee, Ohio, which is close to Toledo, I was sitting in the bleachers during a baseball game, minding my own business when these two giggly girls who looked to be somewhere in their early teens sat a few rows down from me.
     After about an inning, one of the girls happens to turn back to get my attention, and she says in this giggly voice, “Are you Mr. McDowell?  Are you Mrs. McDowell’s husband?” 
     I could just tell that my peaceful late afternoon was about to change dramatically.
     And the one girl says, “Oh goody.”  And immediately, both of them moved on up a few rows to sit next to me. I was afraid that was going to happen.
    And the one girl says, “Oh my gosh.  Mrs. McDowell is our teacher.  And we just love Mrs. McDowell.  We just love how she is so organized.  She has a container for everything.  For paper clips.  For books.  For pens and pencils.  We want to be just like Mrs. McDowell.  What is it like to be her husband?  Is she the same way at home?  Does she keep everything in its place there too? 
     (Oh kid, you have no idea. You have no idea!)
     We just love Mrs. McDowell.  She loves to read. She’s like read every book every written!  We love to read, too. We love Mrs. McDowell. Tell her will said hi. Tell her we’ll see her tomorrow in school.”
     And these two girls proceeded to talk to me non-stop for the rest of the baseball game.  They wouldn’t even pause to take a breath.
     How can we ever underestimate the influence of a good teacher?
     I think of so many people who have taught me the Bible from a very early age, from Sunday School teachers to my grandmother who gave me bible quizzes after school each day. Thanks to their teachings, I became very familiar with the stories in the Bible.
     When I went to seminary, the professors helped me to understand the Bible in an even deeper way. They taught me the importance of understanding the historical context when reading the bible, knowing a little about Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible and how it’s not always easy to translate it into the English language because words can have a variety of meanings.
     They taught me the different kinds of literature that we find in the Bible, why there are two creation stories and not just one, why there are four gospels and not just one, why the same story appears in different books of the Bible and sometimes have conflicting details.
     And to be honest, at first, a lot of this was unsettling to me because it wasn’t quite the way my grandmother taught me the Bible or the way my Sunday School teachers taught me the Bible. 
     I’ll never forget what one of my seminary professors said to all of us during orientation. He said, “Think of yourself as a brick building. During seminary, you may feel like you are exploding and bricks are flying everywhere because you are going to be intellectually challenged, but eventually, those bricks are going to be put back and you are going to have a much stronger foundation of faith as a result of it.”
     He was so right. Let’s put it this way. I am extremely thankful for my parents, my grandmother and my Sunday School teachers who taught me the stories of the Bible at an early age. Without them, I wouldn’t have had a spiritual foundation on which to build. 
     And I’m equally grateful to teachers and professors later in my life who have challenged me to dig under the surface of those scriptures that I knew by heart. Some of those scripture passages have taken on a whole new meaning for me and I’m still seeing things in new ways.
     I think as we mature and grow, we begin asking questions about the Bible like how do we reconcile all of the violence that we find in the pages of this book where in some cases, even God’s own people are commanded to wipe out a whole group of people? 
     And other questions like, where does our modern understanding of science fit into how we read the Bible and how do we decide on what commandments are meant for today, and what commandments were meant for that time period?
     Here at Athens First, we’ve been emphasizing the importance for every person to grow in having a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith. This year, Rick Seiter and I have decided to offer more Learning Faith opportunities. 
     And so, here’s what we have planned. This is exciting! Beginning Monday, February 19, I am going to teach a six week course on Intro to the Bible. Following that course, Rick is going to offer a six week class on spiritual formation called, Renovation. And in between those two courses, Jenaye Hill will be offering a Spiritual Gifts class, similar to what we offered this past Fall.
     So, during these upcoming winter and spring months, there will be a lot of additional learning opportunities. And every Sunday morning, our Trinity Sunday School class studies different topics related to our Christian faith.
     Let’s have 2018 be a year where we emphasize the importance of having a “Learning Faith.”
     If you like to listen to podcasts which I like to do, you might be interested in listening to “The Bible for Normal People” podcast. It’s led by bible scholar, Peter Enns. He always has a bible scholar join him as a guest and they discuss different topics about the Bible each week. You might not always agree with everything that is said on those podcasts but the wisdom of these bible scholars is invaluable. I have listed this podcast in the bulletin announcements.
     But what’s the point of all of this again? How can we ever underestimate the influence of a good teacher?
     Mark says that things got even more interesting while Jesus was teaching in the synagogue.  He says that “Just then, there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?’”
     Worship got interrupted and the real test of Jesus, the Teacher Man is on the line.  Is this man truly a teacher sent by God?  Can this man truly back up what he has been teaching?
     Jesus, not one to back down from an opportunity to bring healing, commands the unclean spirit to come out of this man and after a few cries, the unclean spirit leaves him.  And just like that, he was healed.
     Now, remember, that even before this miraculous healing, the people were astonished at Jesus’ teaching.   Imagine what they think of Jesus now.  And we are told that they were all amazed.  This Teacher Man is something other.  This Teacher Man brings healing.  And as you read through the Gospel of Mark, you see many more moments like this, where Jesus heals people and makes them whole again.
     I wonder if this isn’t the whole point of the teaching ministry of the church.  Our Sunday School program, our bible studies, our small groups, the Sunday preaching – to teach and preach God’s Word in such a way, that it brings healing to people who are in desperate need for more of God in their lives.
     Physical healing?  Perhaps.  Emotional healing.  Certainly.  Spiritual healing?  No doubt.
     Perhaps St. Mark is calling us to lift up special prayers this week for those who are involved in the wonderful and exciting ministry of teaching.
     It’s a ministry that astounds us and can even usher in healing and new life.  Allow your life to be changed and transformed by this Teacher Man, this Son of the Living God.
     Why?  Because, you just can’t underestimate the influence of a good teacher. Thanks be to God!

Teacher Man
Small Group Questions
Mark 1:21-28
January 28, 2018

Pastor Robert began his sermon by referring to teacher/author, Frank McCourt who wrote the book, Angela's Ashes. Frank was a very creative High School teacher who helped students who didn't want to learn discover the joy of learning.

Who was (is) your favorite teacher in school? What made that person a special teacher for you?

In our Gospel reading, one of Jesus' first miracles occurred while he was teaching in the synagogue. This shouldn't come as a surprise to us since Jesus was referred to as a rabbi and a teacher. Teaching was an important part of his ministry.

Share a time in your life when you learned something about your faith and it opened up a new way of looking at things.

This week's focus on the importance of Jesus' teaching ministry and the importance of learning more about our faith reminds us that it's perfectly OK to have questions about our faith. In one survey in which Christians were asked to share their troubling faith questions, these were the top ones: 1) Why does the bible sometimes portray God as violent when God is supposed to be loving? 2) Why does the Bible and our understanding of science not always agree? 3) Why does God allow evil in the world? 4) Is Christianity the only correct religion? 5) How can we believe in God and the bible when so many Christian treat each other so badly?

Share a particular question that you have about the bible or about your faith in general that you would like to give more focus. NOTE: Don't use this time to try to "solve" these questions. Just name them. 

Pastor Robert mentioned that he wants 2018 to be a year where we offer more “Learning Faith” opportunities. These include an Intro to the Bible 6-week course beginning on February 19, 6:30 pm at the church, a 6-week course on spiritual formation called, “Renovation” beginning in April, as well as a short course on knowing your spiritual gifts. Look for more information about these coming Learning Faith classes. He also shared a bible podcast, “The Bible for Normal People,” that includes a bible scholar each week. Also, don’t forget about our Trinity Sunday School class that meets every Sunday at 9 am in our 1st floor lounge.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Christian Nerd & Proud of It! Liturgical Calendar

C’mon, you know you want to be a Christian nerd, right? Who doesn’t? I’m a Christian nerd and proud of it. No need to be ashamed! Christian nerds have discovered that there is so much in our Christian tradition and history that can help us grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. We don’t have to reinvent the holy wheel. We just need to tap into these great traditions of our faith.

One of those traditions is the liturgical calendar. Forget about those cute puppy calendars that you can choose from at any random mall kiosk. No, this calendar goes way back to the early centuries when the church was just getting started. Instead of cute puppies and sports team calendars, the main image for the liturgical calendar is Jesus Christ. 

The liturgical calendar revolves around the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Here’s how this calendar works:


This marks the beginning of the liturgical calendar which happens around late November/early December every year. Unlike the secular calendar which begins in January, this calendar starts a month early to help us get ready for two very important events which are closely related. These include the coming birth of Jesus Christ as well as his 2nd coming when heaven and earth will become as one and all of creation will get a total makeover. This is the ultimate promise of the Christian faith. A day is coming when there will be no more suffering, sin, brokenness, pain, grief, or death!!!! No wonder that we need four weeks of Advent to help us prepare for all of this! The colors for this season are blue or purple to remind us to be patient and prepare for the celebration of Christmas.


Advent gives way to Christmastide which begins on Christmas Day and lasts for the next twelve days through January 6 which is Epiphany. I know that everyone and their brother want us to begin celebrating Christmas after Labor Day, but the true Christian nerd knows that the liturgical calendar has an entire 12 day Christmas celebration that occurs when everyone else and their brother is busy taking down their trees and packing up their Christmas decorations. The color used for these twelve days is white or gold which are the colors used whenever the liturgical calendar wants us to party. 

Baptism of the Lord Sunday

I know. It’s probably weird that right after we celebrate the Christmas season, Jesus somehow has a growth spurt where he is suddently an adult, but remember, we only have 365 days to cover the full life of Christ so use your imagination., The Baptism of the Lord Sunday marks the official beginning of his ministry where we are told that a voice from heaven at Jesus’ baptism says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” The color is white because this is meant to be a festive occasion where we celebrate the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

The Sundays After the Epiphany 

OK. I know what you’re thinking. Some of these church seasons have the most boring titles and this is one of them! During these weeks, the church follows the life of Christ where he teaches, heals, and proclaims the good news that God’s kingdom is at hand. This season is the little brother of Ordinary Time which we’ll talk about a little later that gets the award for being the longest season of the church year. This mini ordinary time serves as a little bridge between the end of the Twelve Days of Christmas and Transfiguration Sunday. Oh, and the color for this season is green which reminds us of spiritual growth and renewal. If you live in Ohio when winters feels like it just drags on and on, we could use the color green. Plus, it’s my wife’s favorite color.

Transfiguration Sunday

Then there is this one week celebration of when Jesus was transfigured before the disciples on top of a mountain. This dazzling display where everything was shining so brightly that the disciples needed to wear sunglasses reminds us that Jesus is like no other. It gives us a little hint of when he will be dazzling again on Easter Sunday. The color for this Sunday is...you guessed it. White! Dazzling white!


Lent begins just three days after Transfiguration Sunday and marks a seven week time of preparation, contemplation, and repentance as we follow Jesus travel to Jerusalem where he will be crucified on a cross. To help us mark the beginning of this season, we get ashes smudged on our foreheads to remind us of our mortality, our brokenness, and our need for God’s grace. You’ll probably not hear too many “happy/clappy” songs during this long season because this is a time to get real about what’s in our souls and how God is calling us to be transformed. This season also includes Holy Week, the final days of Jesus’ life before he was arrested, tried, crucified and placed in a tomb. Christian nerds know this as Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. The color for this season is purple, a subdued color to remind us to ponder, meditate and confess.


Easter Sunday, the day that Jesus was resurrected to new life is the high point of the liturgical calendar. Sorry, Christmas but you are a close 2nd. Easter, like Christmas is a season and not just a day. The Easter season is also known as “The Great Fifty Days” which will include the many times the risen Christ appeared to the disciples, his ascension to sit at the right hand of God in heaven, and when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the church to empower us to be the presence of the Risen Christ in our broken and hurting world until he returns. The color for Eastertide is white except for the 50th day which is the Day of Pentecost and that day’s color is red which symbolizes the fire of the Holy Spirit.

Trinity Sunday

The Sunday after the red of Pentecost is Trinity Sunday which focuses on...you guessed it, the Trinity! Trinity Sunday is a Sunday to help us wrap our heads around the holy mystery that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God but also three persons. It’s also a fun Sunday to attend to watch the preacher struggle in trying to explain this unexplainable doctrine. The color for this Sunday is white, another festive day for the church to celebrate!

Ordinary Time/Sundays After Pentecost

So, this is my wife’s favorite season because the color for this season is green. This wins the award for longest season of the liturgical calendar by far. It begins when we are mowing our yards twice a week and lasts all the way to the end of November when we need to rake leaves. Like the Sundays After Epiphany, this season follows the teaching/healing ministry of Jesus. It’s a time for us to experience steady spiritual growth while we are tanning on a beach somewhere. 

All Saints’ Sunday

The Sunday following November 1st is always the celebration of All Saints’ Sunday which is a time time to give thanks for all of God’s people who have gone before us. In many churches, we light candles for each member of the church who passed away since the last All Saints’ Sunday. The color for this Sunday is white to remind us that even though we grieve the loss of those who have gone before us, we rejoice to know that one day all of God’s people will be reunited in God’s glorious kingdom. It’s one of my favorite Sundays on the church calendar.

Christ the King Sunday

Another white color Sunday, Christ the King serves as the final Sunday of the long liturgical season of Ordinary Time and focuses on the incredible good news that Christ is the true King over all creation. 

There, you now have a quick summary of the liturgical calendar that all Christian nerds love to use every year. If you are a true Christian nerd, you will wear the color of the liturgical season every single day during that season. 

OK, I’m just kidding. Or am I? Our dog, Lulu must be a Christian nerd.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Pastoral Prayer (Jan. 21) Athens First UMC

[Kappa Phi, a campus ministry group that meets in our facility blessed us with another delicious baked potato & chilli fundraiser meal following our 10:30 service. Next Sunday, they will be back to help lead our worship services for Kappa Phi Sunday. We are blessed to partner with them in sharing the good news of our faith with the people of our university community. Speaking of good news, here is the sermon link.]

O God, we thank you for the good news of our faith that reminds us that death is never the last word. And because of this good news, we look forward to that time in the future when all of your people will be gathered together in your glorious kingdom. What a great day that will be!

Some say the streets will be paved with gold and there will be no need for salt trucks and snow plows. We won’t even have to wonder if it’s a level 2 or a level 3 outside. I heard that the golf courses there are unbelievable, but I think that’s just speculation.

Anyway, thank you for the future promise that one day you will make this world the way you had always intended it to be. A world without pain. A world without suffering. A world without sin. A world without cancer. A world without any disease for that matter. Even a world without death, itself. 

As awesome as this future dimension of your good news is, what’s even more incredible is that this good news has already been set loose in this world thanks to the empty tomb of Easter. We see signs of your good news all around us. As the hymn says, your mercies are new every morning.

And so I thank you for the bright red cardinals who looked so beautiful in my backyard along the freshly fallen snow this past week. Your timing was impeccable since I was kind of grumpy about the weather that morning.

Thank you for our Tuesday morning prayer team this past week who made their way to our church through the snow and the bitter cold just so that they would be able to pray over all of the prayer cards from last Sunday. We were all blessed by their prayers on our behalf. What a great church this is! What a great God you are!

O God, in all of these ways this past week and so many more that I could have mentioned, your good news is available to us in any given moment thanks to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And it is in his name that with joyful hearts, we join together in praying, 

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sermon (Jan. 21) by Rev. Robert McDowell "The Good News of the Good News"

      A family had twin boys whose only resemblance to each other was their looks. If one felt it was too hot, the other thought it was too cold. If one said the TV was too loud, the other claimed the volume needed to be turned up. Opposite in every way, one was an eternal optimist, the other a doom and gloom pessimist. 

     Just to see what would happen, on the twins' birthday their father loaded the pessimist's room with every imaginable toy and game. The optimist's room he loaded with horse manure.
     That night the father passed by the pessimist's room and found him sitting amidst his new gifts and crying bitterly.

     "Why are you crying?" the father asked.

     "Because my friends will be jealous, I'll have to read all these instructions before I can do anything with this stuff, I'll constantly need batteries, and my toys will eventually get broken." answered the pessimist twin.

     Passing the optimist twin's room, the father found him dancing for joy in the pile of manure. "What are you so happy about?" he asked.
     To which his optimist twin replied, "There's got to be a pony in here somewhere!"

     Some people can be positive in any situation!
     I think it’s interesting that the first four books of the New Testament that tell the story of Jesus are called, “Gospels.”  The word, “gospel” literally means, “good news.”  The story of Jesus is a story of good news.  Our faith is a good news faith.

     And really, the entire bible is one big story of how a loving God who created this world is bound and determined to rescue it from sin and death.  The bible is a story of good news.

     In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming this good news.  And notice that Jesus isn’t saying that this good news is something that will only be for the future.  This good news has already been launched in the here and now.  Listen to the present tense from this verse.  Jesus says, “The time IS fulfilled, and the kingdom of God HAS come near.”

     This is the good news of the good news!  The good news is that the good news is already happening!  And it has been happening because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Can you think of any gooder news than that?  J Pardon my grammar!  The good news is that the good news is already happening!

     Where do you see the good news of the good news at work?  Where do you see the good news of the good news in your day to day living?

     We live during a time where there seems like there’s nothing but bad news.  Mass shootings seem like a common occurrence, an out of control opiod epidemic, increasing poverty, negativity abounds in politics, the threat of nuclear war – the list goes on and on.  You can see why somebody would choose to be a pessimist instead of an optimist.

     But the good news of the good news is that God’s kingdom has already come near.  The signs of God’s grace surround us in any given moment even in the midst of the struggles, pain, and difficult transitions that we face in our daily living.

     Jesus certainly knew how difficult life can be sometimes.  Mark tells us that just before Jesus began to announce the good news of God’s kingdom, that John the Baptist had been arrested.  By referring to this sad event, Mark wants us to know that in the midst of life’s struggles and disappointments, there is hope.  The kingdom of God has come near.

     Speaking of transitions, just think about Jesus calling those first disciples.  They were fishermen.  In Israel, fishing was often a family business going back several generations, even centuries.  And Jesus called them to leave not just a hobby, but their livelihood, their family business of being fishermen in order to follow him.

     When you have a family business that has any history to it, there’s an expectation that this will carry on with the next generation if possible.  And here, these disciples were willing to say goodbye to the world as they knew it.  I can’t think of a more daring step of faith.

     When you read this scripture, you wonder if Mark wasn’t also thinking about Abraham from the Old Testament.  Like the fishermen in Mark’s Gospel, God called Abraham to leave what he was doing, his home, his whole way of living in order to follow God into an unknown future.

     Stephanie Warner who was a member of my previous church, served in the Peace Corps in Botswana, Africa.  Our own Emily Brown is also serving in the Peace Corp and Sophie Mather, another church member here helped children in Honduras last year. I think it’s incredible for young people like Stephanie, Emily, and Sophie to make this huge commitment and help others in a foreign land.

     In her work in the Peace Corp, Stephanie was helping to stop the spread of AIDS through the medical clinic in her village.  I remember meeting Stephanie when I first became pastor of that church.  She was teaching Sunday School for the High School youth.

     Stephanie shared with me about her decision to leave the comforts of her home and her familiar way of life. She said that there were times when she questioned if she made the right decision to serve in this way.  But then she said, “You only have one life to live so you better make sure you are living it to the fullest.”

     When she shared those thoughts, it reminded me so much of the disciples and how Jesus called them to leave everything and follow Him.  The good news isn’t just something that’s way out there in the future.  It’s also breaking into this present time.  As Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is at hand.”

     Even in the midst of life’s transitions, God is with us.  This is the good news of the good news.

     On a Saturday evening this past November, I received a text message from someone who was a member of my previous church. He wanted to know our worship times because he wanted to travel down to Athens and worship with us the next day. And so I responded with our worship times and gave him directions.

     Just before our 10:30 service that next morning, I met Mike back at our front entrance. You just couldn’t miss Mike because he was wearing a very bright pink polo shirt. Mike always wears something pink because it was his wife’s favorite color.

     They’re house was decorated in pink. They even had beautiful pink plants all around the front of their house.

     Mike’s wife died during my time at that church. In fact, that was my last funeral before coming down here to Athens to become your pastor. I’ll never forget that funeral because Mike wore a bright pink blazer to the service.

     During my sermon at that funeral, I said that because of Mike and Wanda’s strong faith during Wanda’s fight with cancer, in my mind, pink was now the new color to symbolize the good news of our faith.

     And so, it was not surprising at all when I spotted Mike wearing a pink polo shirt before worship here at our church on this past November morning. We hugged and had a brief conversation before the worship service began.

     I said, “Mike, since today is All Saints’ Sunday, I’m thinking of your wife, Wanda and her strong faith.”

     Mike was taken aback. He said, “Today is All Saints’ Sunday? I didn’t know that.” Tears welled up in his eyes. He looked at me again and said, “All Saints’ Sunday. Hmm.”

     I could tell that Mike was experiencing what we’ve been calling a “thin place moment,” those moments when God becomes mysteriously present in our day to day lives. It just so happened that he picked that Sunday out of the blue and it ended up being the perfect Sunday for us to reconnect and for him to remember and give thanks for Wanda’s life and receive Christ’s healing love in an unexpected and holy way.

     The good news is that the good news isn’t just something for us to receive in the past or something we have to wait to receive sometime in the future. It’s also available to us in the present.

     Several year ago, I pastored a church in Xenia, a county seat town near Dayton.  Xenia is unfortunately known for the large 1974 tornado that destroyed much of that city.  In 2000, I arrived at the church just a few months after Xenia had been hit by another tornado.  The church was hit and suffered a lot of damage and I was there during the rebuilding phase.

     It was a very difficult time for that congregation.  Before the tornado hit the church, they had just completed a one million dollar building expansion.  The tornado destroyed a lot of the new addition.  It was a very stressful time for everyone.  Sunday worship services needed to be held at the local High School.  Sunday School classes met at a Senior Citizen building as well as in other places in the community.  And the congregation was faced with yet another stressful rebuilding project.

      A member of my church wrote this journal entry about her experience during that difficult time in the life of our church.

     “I am discouraged and sad.  Our church was hit by a tornado several months ago. Much of the building was destroyed; the rest was badly damaged.  It will take a year to rebuild. Everyone pulled together through the clean up and the start of the rebuilding.
     Now, six months later, the weariness of living with construction has hit.  We’ve had flat tires from nails in the parking lot, and the strains of meeting in a dozen places around town have worn our spirits thin.

     We are caught in a conflict over the reconstruction – should we rebuild what we had or redesign for future needs?  We have differing hopes, a deep sense of loss, and competition for inadequate space.

     Fierce disagreements among people who hold different priorities make this a tense and ragged time.  I am beset by ugliness and conflict.  I find myself in tears, wanting to run away from it all.  I desperately want God to gather me up like a sobbing child, hold me against his shoulder and comfort me.

     As I sit in the living room, the cat climbs onto my shoulder, snuggles down and purrs.  I let go of fears and strife and I settle into the peaceful joy of cat-cuddling.

     God gently whispers into my ear, ‘This is how I love you.’

     My anguish diminishes as I understand; as painful as this is, it will pass.  I am not alone.  I am in the embrace of God.”

     For Barb, she was able to embrace the good news of the good news even in the midst of the rubble and the chaos.  She was reminded of God’s love for her in a moment when she needed it the most.

     Barb eventually included this entry in a book she wrote called “Road Grace.”

     Our Gospel reading tells us that as Jesus begins to share this good news that the kingdom of God has come near, he calls on some fisherman to drop what they’re doing and follow him.  “Repent and believe in the good news,” he tells them.  And they followed.

     Jesus’ announcement of the good news isn’t only for those fishermen.  It’s also for the woman whose church had been hit by a tornado and was facing the stress of rebuilding.  It’s for the widower who wears pink polo shirts and who misses his wife.  It’s for the young woman serving in the Peace Corp. It’s for the optimist AND the pessimist.

     It’s for anybody who hears the words, “The kingdom of God has come near.”

The Good News of the Good News
Small Group Questions
Mark 1:14-20
January 21, 2018

Pastor Robert opened the sermon with a story about a set of twins. One was an optimist and the other a pessimist. 
How does the good news of Jesus Christ and your faith help you to be positive in a world that is filled with so much negativity?
Pastor Robert made the point that the good news of the good news is that God's kingdom is happening now in our present moment and not just sometime way in the distant future. He shared the story about the widower who felt Christ's presence when he visited our church on All Saints' Sunday this past November. Of all the Sundays he could have chosen to attend, he came on that particular Sunday which helped him to remember his wife with thanksgiving. Pastor Robert also shared about a church member who felt Christ's presence during a time of great stress in her church.
When have you experienced the good news of God in your day to day living? We call these "thin place moments" where heaven and earth overlap in mysterious ways in our everyday lives.
Jesus called some fisherman to come follow him and believe in the good news. Amazingly, they dropped their nets and followed Jesus. Think about it. These men gave up their family business of fishing in order to follow Jesus.
What is your fishing net that Jesus is calling you to set aside in order to follow him? What is holding us back?