“Love Transforms” – the 5th and last sermon of a series called, “We Love First,” preached on May 28th, 2017 at First Church Coral Springs

“Love Transforms” – the 5th and last sermon of a series called, “We Love First,” preached on May 28th, 2017 at First Church Coral Springs

Do we Really Believe This Stuff?

During Lent our theme was “Restoration.”  We talked each week about how God can restore what is broken.  Throughout Lent, as I prepared for each sermon, I found myself asking, week-by-week, “Do I really believe this stuff?”  Do I really believe God can fix what is broken in our lives?  Or, is this just stuff we talk about?  I’ll come back to this in just a moment.

Over the last four weeks, I’ve asked the members of First Church to dream about what kind of church we can be. Each week, we have asked members to complete the statement, “I want to be part of a church that…”  As we have sorted through those responses, they seemed to fall into the following 8 categories; I want to be part of a church that…

  • Offers Warm & Caring Fellowship
  • Welcomes EVERYONE
  • Reaches the Next Generation
  • Transforms People & Places
  • Celebrates Diversity
  • Serves the Community
  • Strengthens Families
  • Shares the Good News

As I read this list, “Transforming People and Places” resonates most strongly with me.  I deeply believe that Go’s love transforms.  And, my question is, “Do we really believe that God can transform people and places?”


Figless Fig Trees

Jesus once told a story about a fig tree growing in a vineyard.  Notice – it’s growing in a VINEYARD.  Figs don’t grow in vineyards.  Grapes grow in vineyards.  The fig tree is taking up valuable space, and potentially blocking the grape-vines from the sun.  But, the main problem was that it wasn’t producing figs.  Why have a fig tree taking up space in a vineyard if it isn’t producing figs?

The owner told his worker, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

But, the worker replied, “Sir, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”

            The owner of the vineyard had given up hope on the fig tree, and only saw it as a liability – a waste of space.  But, the worker still saw potential.  With another year of fertilizer, the tree could possibly produce fruit.  He believed in the possibility of transformation.

Methodists and the Middle Class

            John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once wrote, “What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called Methodist?  To reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” 

John Wesley and the early Methodists believed in the power of God to transform lives.  And, as individual lives were transformed, he believed families would be transformed, and then neighborhoods and cities would be transformed – To reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land” 

            Methodism was birthed in 18th Century England, when there was a deep divide among the wealthy elite and the poor working class.  Among the poor, who worked on the docks or in the mines, there was rampant addiction, gambling, and debt.  That was where John Wesley and the Methodists directed their efforts.  And, as people came to Christ, they tended to quit drinking, give up gambling, become more responsible with their money and become harder workers.  As they did, their lives and their neighborhoods improved.

Many expert sociologists and historians believe that the development of a middle class in England was a direct result of the Methodist’s efforts to transform society.

Wouldn’t it be great to be part of something like that now?

Transformation

Scripture teaches that anyone in Christ is a “new” creation.  The clear expectation of God, expressed in Scripture, is that we are meant to change – to become more and more like Christ, and that our lives are meant to look more and more like the Kingdom of God on earth.  That is God’s intent – the movement of his Kingdom on the earth.  The expectation is that, like the fig tree in Jesus’ parable, we will become increasingly fruitful for the sake of the Kingdom and that the Kingdom’s advance will have a transformative effect on this world.

In Colossians, The Apostle Paul writes, “The gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world—just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and truly understood God’s grace.”  Colossians 1:6

He then goes on, “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.”  Colossians 1:9-10

            And, “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves.  Colossians 1:13

Two key phrases – “bearing fruit” and “rescued from darkness.”  Both mark a change.  Our lives are meant to bear fruit.  And, we are no longer who we were.  We may have lived in darkness.  But, now, in Christ, we have been invited into the light of the kingdom where we can live fruitful, productive lives.  That’s transformation!  That means…

  • If I was irresponsible before knowing Christ, I can become more responsible.
  • If I was self-centered before knowing Christ, I can become self-less.
  • If I was unkind and uncaring before knowing Christ, I can become more kind and loving.
  • If my life was fruitless before knowing Christ, my life can become fruitful.
  • If I was an addict, I can get sober.
  • If I was sick, I can get well.
  • If I was lost, I can find direction.
  • If I was broken, I can be restored.
  • If my life was in chaos, I can find order and purpose.
  • If I was trapped, I can be rescued and set free.

Just like a fruitless fruit tree, God can take our lives, and transform us into people who live healthy, productive, fruitful, kingdom-focused lives.

And, if Christ can transform a person who is broken, then he can transform marriages and families that are broken.  If he can transform families that are broken, he can potentially transform neighborhoods that are broken.  And, if he can transform neighborhoods that are broken, then cities, then counties, the societies, then nations.

Vance’s Vision:  Transforming People and Places Through the Power of God’s Love

            My personal vision for ministry, in a sentence, is the “transformation of people and places through the power of God’s love.”  God’s love has and is transforming me.  I’ve seen God’s love transform others.  The reason I became a campus minister was to be involved in shaping and forming young people into future leaders of the Church and world.  I used to tell my students that I was doing all I could to mess them up for Jesus, so that they could graduate and go mess up churches and the world for Jesus.  (If Jesus and his Gospel haven’t messed you, then you might not be paying attention!)

My vision hasn’t changed.  My vision is to mold and shape each of you – young and old – with the power of God’s love, so that we can all be fruitful agents of transformation in this community and the world. Everything I do is with the intent of changing someone’s life.  I never get in the pulpit, without that intent.

As a pastor and as a believer, I have absolutely no interest in just doing religious activities.  I have no interest in maintaining the religious status quo.  I have no interest in coddling and hand-holding people who don’t want to change.  I refuse go through the motions.

I’m not a pastor to just play at this.  I’m a pastor for no other reason than my deep conviction that God can and will transform people and places, and that he invites us to be his agents of transformation in a world that desperately needs transformation.

Do we really believe that God sent his only beloved Son, to die a violent death on a cross and conquer sin and death, just so we can have nice religious services and activities???  It is way for radical than that!  Jesus came to save and transform broken people and a broken world.  I don’t care anything all about being part of religious activities, but I desperately want to be part of what Jesus came to do!

One of my favorite quotes is from a El Salvadoran Arch-bishop named Oscar Romero, who fought for the poor, and who was murdered by the El Salvadoran government, while he was offering the Mass, on March 24th, 1980.  Here’s the quote,

“This is what we are about.  We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.  We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.”  
Oscar Romero

 

 

 

 

“Love Shares” – the 4th message in a 5-week sermon series called, “We Love First,” preached on May 21, 2017, at First Church Coral Springs

“Love Shares” – the 4th message in a 5-week sermon series called, “We Love First,” preached on May 21, 2017, at First Church Coral Springs

 

            In 1999, my family was sent to Port St. Lucie, Florida to start a new United Methodist Church.  I had dreamed of starting a new church, and had spent the previous year planning.  Though I didn’t know a single person in Port St. Lucie, I had ten acres of vacant land and a vision for the kind of church I wanted to start and lead.

Since we were starting from scratch, I knew that I needed to be very clear about what kind of church we were going to be.  My dream was to be a church for people that didn’t think they were welcome in church.  And, our vision statement was “To love the people of Port St. Lucie into a relationship with Jesus.”  Love would be out motive and our method.  We would not guilt people, coerce people, impress people, or scare people into a relationship with Jesus.  We would love them.

One way that we lived that out was through small acts of loving service.  Before I had any members, I recruited local youth groups to help me do free car washes.  When people tried to pay, I would hand them a card and tell them that their car wash was a free gift – just like God’s love is a free gift.

I had a cooler on wheels, and I would walk from business to business giving away free Cokes, using the same card and line – this is a free gift, just like God’s love is a free gift.

My favorite involved $1 bills.  On random Sundays, I would ask the congregation for $1 bills.  We would then tape our card to the back, which said, “This is a free gift – just like God’s love.  Please let us know if we can tell you more.”  We would then meet at the Mall, and sneakily leave dollar bills lying on benches, or on the back of toilets, or on tables in the Food Court.  Then we would watch to see who picked them up.  You would be amazed how many people read the card, and then passed it around to show their family and friends.

On my last day at that church, as I was saying goodbye, a young woman, named Angelique, handed me a dollar bill with our card taped on the back.  She told me that dollar saved her marriage.  She was at work one Sunday, working the make-up counter at the department store.  She was doing something, and had her back to the counter.  When she turned around, the dollar was sitting there.  She and her husband, Anthony, were about to get a divorce, but, because of that dollar, decided to hold on a little longer and give church a chance.  They were in church the next Sunday.

I looked on Facebook this week.  They are still married.

Today is the fourth sermon in a series called “We Love First,” which is a reminder that our first priority has to be to love God, love our neighbor, and love each other.  Thus far, we have talked about how love motivates us to grow as Christians and how love motivates us to serve as Christians.  Today, I want to talk about how love motivates us to share the Good News of Jesus with others.

After his death and resurrection, as Jesus was ascending to heaven, he gave his followers a “Great Commission,” Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  (Matthew 28:19-20)

So, in addition to the Great Commandment – to Love and God and neighbor – we have been given very clear direction to go and tell the world about Jesus.  We call this evangelism – which simply means to share the “Good News.”

Pope Francis writes, “Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God’s saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love.” 

The Stats…

            The work of evangelism has never been greater in this country.  Church attendance and participation in the United States is at an all-time low.  Fewer and fewer Americans profess faith specifically in Jesus Christ.  Less than 17% of the population attends church on any given weekend.  There is obviously less and less influence of the Church on culture.

Every person in this room can think of family, friends, co-workers, neighbors that do not go to church, and by all evidence, do not seem to know Jesus.  That ought to break our hearts!  If we love Jesus and we love our family, friends, co-workers and neighbors, how can we not share Jesus with them?

Common Fears…

I typically take Mondays off.  I tend to sit around in my bathrobe for a while, eating breakfast, reading, thinking.  Last Monday, as I sat there in my bathrobe, there was a knock at my door.  It was the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They wanted a few minutes to talk to me – in my bathrobe.  I said no.  They wanted me to share some literature with me.  I said no.

I think one of the reasons we don’t share our faith in Jesus more is because of fear.  One fear might be that people will associate us with pushy door-to-door evangelists.  Another fear might be upsetting or offending someone.  Another fear might be a lack of biblical knowledge.  Another fear might be a question you don’t know how to answer.  Another fear might be rooted in a lack of personal spiritual security.

While those fears are legitimate, I want to suggest that sharing your faith is as easy as talking about your favorite movie or restaurant.  When we love someone or something, we tend to talk about it.

I have a pastor friend who has heard me preach several times.  She once told me that I had talked about how much I love my wife in every sermon that she had heard me preach.  I love my wife, so I love talking about my love for her.

This week, I took our new ministry intern, Olivia, to lunch to my favorite Indian restaurant.  I love Indian food, and I love this particular restaurant, so I wanted to share it.

I own at least 25 different Harley Davidson shirts.  That doesn’t even include hats, sweaters, jackets, and other miscellaneous biker apparel.  I only have to walk in the room, and not even say a word, and you already know that I love Harleys.

That’s what we do.  When we love something, we tend to share it.

Interesting, Paul uses the image of the image of clothing as an illustration for the Christian life, Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.  Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:12-17)

            Paul names a number of Christ-like virtues – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness – that we are to embody, as though they are clothes we can put on.  But, over all of it, he says, “put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” 

            He then says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another… And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

            In other words, sharing Jesus ought to be as easy as getting dressed.  Everything we do – everything we say – ought to point to Jesus in some way.

Jen Hatmaker writes, “If people around me aren’t moved by my Christ or my church, then I must be doing a miserable job of representing them both.” 

Easy ways to share…

Let me suggest four very simple ways to share Jesus with others…

  1. Invite: Invite someone to church or a church event.  I am here today because my cousins invited me to go to church camp with them.  I became a United Methodist because a family friend invited my family to go to a Christmas Eve Candlelight service.
  2. Social Media: I know not all of us use Social Media.  But, for those of us who do, use it to share that you are at church, or about a church event, or a Scripture verse, or share about something you are reading.  I am amazed how many of my non-church going friends “like” the Christian things I post.
  3. Talk about church: In casual, non-threatening conversations, mention church.  When someone asks about your weekend, mention that you went to church.  Mention something you heard in your small group or in one of my sermons over lunch.  Talk about all of the cool service things we do.  Talk about how much your kids love the children’s ministry or youth group.
  4. Pray & prepare: Fourth, I would encourage you to actively pray for some people in your life, and, specifically, that they would initiate a conversation that would allow you to share about your relationship with Jesus.  Just keep praying until that happens.

Notice – I didn’t say anything about approaching strangers.  I didn’t say anything about being confrontational or argumentative.  Look for easy ways to share and to invite.  It ought to be as easy and natural as talking about something you read on Facebook, or heard on the radio, or talking about your kids or your grandkids.  If we love Jesus, and if we love the people we want to share with, it ought to be easy.  Because that is what love does.  Love shares.

Go

            But, I need to remind us, as a congregation, that reaching out, beyond our four walls, to make Jesus known to this community and the world is not an option.  It’s why we exist.

Pope Francis writes, “Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend, to those who have quit or are indifferent.” 

Everything we do is ultimately about sharing Jesus with the world.  Every children’s program, every youth event, every worship service, every outreach, every mission, everything we do must be for the purpose of making Jesus known.  Otherwise, why do it?  We can do a lot of things – fun things, generous things, impressive things – but if they don’t explicitly share Jesus, and lead people to know him, why are we doing them?

We ultimately exist for two reasons.  To love God and to share Jesus.  That’s it.  It’s that simple.

 

Smooth

Smooth

I had to have an EEG (electroencephalogram) this week.  The purpose of an EEG is to test electrical activity in the brain, and to assess for abnormalities.  I suspect that no one, who knows me,  is surprised that I needed a test to check for brain abnormalities!

When the dozens of the wires from my scalp to the computer were connected, the technician said, “Wow!  Your brain waves are really smooth.”  I asked her to repeat herself.  “Your brain waves are really smooth.”  

Not knowing what a brain wave is supposed to look like, I asked, “Is that unusual?”  Oh yeah.” she said, “Most people’s are really chaotic!”

Let me be clear – the tech did NOT say whether “smooth” brain waves are a good or a bad thing.  She did not say that whether “smooth” or “chaotic” is a better sign of brain health.  Frankly, at that moment, I was just glad to hear that my brain was producing any waves at all!  I’m not always sure!

Let’s assume for a moment that having “smooth” brain waves is a good thing (I’m hoping that is the case).  I’m imagining the smooth stillness of a pool undisturbed water.  I’m imagining peace and tranquility.  I like peace and tranquility.

Then imagine some punk kid throwing rocks into your pool, or maybe jumping in like a cannon ball, wrecking your “smoothness” with a big splash, crashing waves and endless ripples.  Imagine rock after rock, cannon ball after cannon ball, endlessly disrupting your “smoothness.”

I feel like this happens a lot.  Did I mention that I really like peace and tranquility?

Interruptions.  Distractions.  Pressures.  Surprises.  Annoyances.  Noises.  Fears.  Complaints.  Emergencies.  Bad news.

Chaos.

For the moment, I am assuming that “smooth” brain waves is a good thing – at least, that is what I am hoping!  If so, then I wonder if that is why things like rest, Sabbath, prayer, contemplation and meditation, stillness, and silence are such good things.  The world around us creates chaos, that we inevitably internalize.  Sometimes we create our own mental chaos, from busy-ness or worry.  When our inner life reflects the chaos of our outer lives, I suspect we need to be intentional about seeking “smoothness.”

I could be wrong, of course.  My “smooth brain waves,” might be the evidence of what we have all suspected – a lack of sufficient mental activity.  But, regardless of what the doctor says, I suspect I am right about the need to regularly “smooth-out” our souls and psyches by inviting the Spirit to still us, silence us, and “smooth” us.

As the old hymn says,

Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.

So, how smooth are your waves?

Character Development vs. Sin Management

Character Development vs. Sin Management

Last night was my weekly Bible Study.  Our focus was chapters 46 and 47 of Genesis, and specifically on Joseph.  Joseph is often considered an example of great character and integrity, standing strong in the face of betrayal, temptation, false accusation, and hopeless circumstances.  And, yet, by chapter 47, Joseph seems to have lost a bit of that strength of character, possibly corrupted by the immense political power he held.

As we were wrapping up the class, a young attendee asked a particularly astute question; “When God raises someone to a position of importance, why doesn’t God also give them the character they will need for that position?”  What an excellent question!

We can all think of individuals who have risen to place of stature – athletes, politicians, celebrities, pastors, etc –  who lacked the character needed, and ultimately “fell from grace.”  It is tragic to watch, and often results in widespread collateral damage.

My response to the question was, “I think that character is our responsibility.  God has given us free will, and the ability to make good choices.”  Then I got on my soap box, saying something like, “This is a major failing of the Church.  We have focused entirely too much on sin management, and far too little on character development.  The Bible calls and instructs us to help people become people of character.”

Clearly the Bible addresses the problem of sin.  Undeniably, sin separates us from God. Clearly sin matters.  But, is that all there is?  Is being a disciple of Jesus just about being saved from sin and striving to avoid it (and possibly taking some kind of sick joy in spotting, judging and condemning the sins of others)?

I believe that the primary role of the Church is helping people grow to full stature in Christ, which is primarily about developing a godly and Christ-like character.  The Bible clearly talks about growing to maturity in Christ, and all that entails.  We wouldn’t have nearly so much sin to manage – in my opinion – if we spent more time developing godly characters.

As I ate my sandwich today, three high school seniors were sitting at the table next to mine – two young men and one pretty young woman.  I was not intentionally eaves-dropping.  Honestly, I was minding my own business.  But, the young woman was speaking loud enough for anyone and everyone to hear – whether they wanted to or not.

Her first comment was about abortion, saying she would get one if she had to, and that she’s already had one “twelve day scare.”  She then announced that she needed to go for a drug test today, because she is still on probation after being arrested six months ago.  I didn’t hear her say what she was arrested for.  She then mentioned the number of classes she has skipped this year, and that her best friend is a “stoner.”  All of this was shared in less than 15 minutes.

Honestly, I really wasn’t eaves-dropping!

What shocked me was how casually she made her comments, and how little her friends reacted.

I recognize that I am an old man, a pastor, and that I live in a church bubble.  And, please believe me when I say that my intention was not, is not, to judge her.  I’m not saying she is a “bad person.”  But, she did seem to lack any sort of moral compass, or any clarity about right and wrong.

I just left my lunch feeling really sad for her.  I certainly said and did a lot of dumb things in my younger years (and a few more recently!).  But, I sincerely believe that I have always known right from wrong.  I don’t think this young lady knows the difference.  And, I’m sad for her.  I’m not judging her.  I’m sad for her.  My point is not to call attention to her sins, but to wonder about her lack of moral development.

Who failed her?  Her parents and extended family?  Her teachers?  Her peers?  Society?

Or, the Church?  Isn’t that our job?

Maybe she’s never been to church.  Maybe she was just trying to impress her male friends with her stories.  Maybe she comes from a bad home or a troubled past.  Maybe she will grow up – I hope so.

The point of all of this rambling is simply to say that character matters.  Integrity matters.  And, I don’t think we – society, families, the Church – are doing such a hot job at developing people of virtue and character.

I can’t help but wonder if much of the world’s current woes and crises point back to a failure of character development.

We – the Church – have much work to do.

 

 

Love Serves – Part III of a 5-week sermon series called, “We Love First,” preached on May 14, 2017, at First Church Coral Springs

Love Serves – Part III of a 5-week sermon series called, “We Love First,” preached on May 14, 2017, at First Church Coral Springs

 

             Today, I’m talking about the intersection of love and service.  Though this is not, technically, a Mother’s Day message, I can’t think of any better examples of love-motivated service than mothers.  No offense intended toward the Dads!  But, let’s be honest – Moms, for the most part, put us to shame!  So, thanks to the Moms for modeling today’s message!

Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?

One day, Jesus was approached by an expert in Jewish law.  In Jesus’ day, the Jews had 613 laws – some biblical, and many that were made to support the biblical laws.  For instance, the Bible said to “keep the Sabbath.”  But, there were also laws about how to keep the Sabbath, which were not in the Bible.  So, to keep all 613 laws straight, there were “lawyers” – or experts in the Jewish law – to keep them al straight.

Jesus did not get along with the lawyers, because Jesus didn’t keep all of their laws.  Jesus certainly kept the biblical laws – and knew their intent.  But, there were numerous laws that he violated, which undermined the authority of the Jewish leaders, whose jobs were to enforce the laws.

You can be sure that any question a Jewish lawyer would ask Jesus had ulterior motives.  The man asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? 

Notice two things.  One, he asked, “What must I do?”  This implies that salvation is not just about believing.  In the lawyers mind it was about keep the 613 laws. We’ll come back to that.  Notice, he also asked about eternal life.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  In other words, “How do I get to heaven, and what could keep me out?”  His question implies that our actions, not just our beliefs, have eternal consequence – and he is, partially, correct.

Jesus answered the question with a question, “What is written in the Law?  How do you read it?”

            The expert answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

We know these words as the Great Commandment.  But, it should be noted that Jesus didn’t invent the Great Commandment.  It was generally understood by all of the Jewish teachers that the purpose of all of the biblical laws and commands were to love God and neighbor.  The problem was, for Jesus, that the religious leaders seemed to forget the intent of the Great Commandment –  focusing more on rigid enforcement of the 600+ other laws and less on love.

Jesus simply responded, “You have answered correctly.  Do this and you will live.”  What more is there to say?

Setting Reasonable Parameters…

But, the expert didn’t leave it there.  He asked, “Who is my neighbor?”

            In other words, “If I’m expected to love my neighbors, what are the rules?  I need to know who my neighbors are.  In essence, if I must love my neighbor, what are the reasonable parameters I can keep in place so that I know who I must love, and who I don’t have to love.  With whom, can I be allowed to NOT love – and maybe even not like, not care about, and maybe even hate; maybe even judge, or be prejudiced against?  Who can I talk about behind their backs? Who can I condemn?  Who can avoid?  Who is NOT my neighbor?”

Are my neighbors only the people who live on my street – in my neighborhood?  Is it the people I’m related to?  Is it the people who are my color, and speak my language?  Is it the people who have the same citizenship documents I have?  Is it the people who are my socio-economic level?  Is it the people who are as educated as me?  Is it the people who are the same political party as me?  Is it just the people I like?”

“Surely, my neighbor can’t be “THOSE” kinds of people!”

A Priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan…

            To answer the expert’s question, Jesus told a story…. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.  A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.  The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

The road from Jerusalem, down to Jericho, passes through a deep valley, known as the Valley of The Shadows.  It’s likely the setting for 23rd Psalm.  It was a dangerous place, where robbers hid behind rocks, and waited for their victims.  Any of Jesus’ listeners would have known the dangers of the road to Jericho.

In the story, just such a traveler was attacked, beaten, robbed, and left to die.

Sometime later, a Jewish priest came walking along the same way.  When he saw the man, he just kept walking.  That seems like a heartless thing to do.  But, those listening to Jesus would not have been surprised.  After all, the thieves might have still been close.  This could have been a trap.  And, some of the 613 Jewish laws had to do with being ritually clean.  If the man was dead, contact with a dead person would make the priest unclean.  A priest had a job to do, in the Temple, and couldn’t do it if he is unclean.  He really didn’t have a choice.  He had to keep on going.

The next to come along was a Levite, who also could have been in danger and who also had duties to perform in the Temple.  So, he likewise, had good excuses for not stopping.

The third to come upon the man was a Samaritan.  To a Jew, no one was more despicable than a Samaritan.  Jews hated Samaritans. To a Jewish leader, like this legal expert, no one could be worse than a Samaritan.

But, Jesus said that this Samaritan stopped to help. The Samaritan had excuses too.  This man was a Jew – why help him?  And, remember, the same thieves could have still been lurking behind a rock.  But, the Samaritan bandaged the man’s wounds, loaded him on his donkey, took him to an inn, and cared for him.

            Three men.  Two – religious leaders – had reasonable excuses for not helping.  One – a Samaritan – stopped and served.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote,The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” 

 Excuses, excuses, excuses…

The question this passage raises, is “What’s my personal responsibility to act, when there is a person in need?”  And, a second question, “What are reasonable, acceptable excuses for not helping that person?”

            On one level, it is about the excuses we make to not to love and serve….

  • Like the story – “it might not be safe.”
  • Like the Priest and the Levi – “I serve God in other ways.”

Or…

  • “I’m busy. I don’t have time.”
  • “I wouldn’t know what to do.”
  • “I’m not feeling it.”

I suspect all of us have plenty of excuses.  I know I do.  But, the issue isn’t just about making excuses.  The issue is really about the condition of our hearts.  Remember, Jesus told this story to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor? – Who do I have to love?  Who can I make excuses not to love?”

Mother Theresa said, If you can’t do great things, do little things with great love. If you can’t do them with great love, do them with a little love. If you can’t do them with a little love, do them anyway.  Love grows when people serve.” 

The question is not the legitimacy of our excuses.  The question is whether or not we love our neighbors, particularly those who are in need.

Jesus asked the religious expert, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:36)

            He replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” (Luke 10:37)   He couldn’t even make himself say, “The Samaritan.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Notice what Jesus is saying, “Go and do.”  “How do I love my neighbor?” – by putting love into action.  In other words, love serves. 

Love Serves…

            John Wesley once said, One of the principal rules of religion is, to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbor; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us.”

            Love serves.

When I’m in the market, in Guatemala, I’m frequently asked for money. Through the years, I’ve been very generous with my friends in Guatemala.  But, as a rule, I’ve not handed out money to strangers, and I’ve discouraged others from doing it.  Once you start, word gets around the market pretty quickly!

But, one year, one of my students challenged me on that.  He felt like we should be ready to help anyone we could.  He convicted me.  Honestly, I felt like the religious expert, with too many excuses for not loving my neighbor.

There was a particular woman, in a wheelchair, that I had refused to help many times.  I decided that the next time I saw her, I would offer whatever help I could.  But, I didn’t see her.  I had seen her dozens of times before. I actually searched for her, and couldn’t find her.

I did encounter another woman in the market, also asking for help and also in a wheel chair.  I knew that she wasn’t the same woman, but I felt compelled to help her instead – mostly to just to assuage my guilt.

Her name is Anastasia.  She can’t speak very well, and she only speaks a Mayan language – which limits our communication.  She can’t move her limbs very much.  She is totally confined to her wheel chair, and has to be rolled into the street by someone – probably a family member –  to beg.  Over the last seven years, she and I have become friends.  She lights up when she sees me.  And, frankly, I light up when I see her.  I look for her every time I’m in the market.  I love her, and everyone in the market knows it.  I always fear that she might not be there the next time I go back.

The point is that I never would have looked at Anastasia, if my student hadn’t challenged me.

There’s more to the story.  There was still the other woman in the wheel chair.

A couple of weeks later, I was making a quick trip through the market one night.  I was in a hurry, as everything was closing, and I needed something.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman in the wheel chair.  But, I didn’t have time to stop.

I found what I needed, bought it, and ran back to where I’d seen her.  She was gone – which is impossible.  She has a rickety wheel chair.  She’s tiny and frail.  The streets are rough.  There was nowhere for her to go that quickly.  I started to wonder if she wasn’t real, and that perhaps God had sent an angel to torment me!

Sometime later, I found her.  And, she’s no angel.  Her name is Thomasa.  I now help her, too, every time I see her.  I give her money, and sometimes I help push her wheel chair.  She always tells me that I don’t give her enough money.  Anastasia just smiles at me, and I love her.  And, the truth is, while I love Anastasia more, I love Thomasa too.  Guatemala wouldn’t be the same for me without her.  God used her to torment me, and teach me about love.

Thomasa and Anastasia are my neighbors.

Who are your neighbors?

 

Love Grows – Part II of a 5 week sermon series called “We Love First,” delivered at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, May 7, 2017

Love Grows – Part II of a 5 week sermon series called “We Love First,” delivered at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, May 7, 2017

 Either Growing, or…

            Now that the weather is warmer, and the rains have started, everything has started growing again – rapidly.  I’m enjoying my bonsai trees – as they are sprouting new growth and blooming.  But, I’m also daily weeding and trimming, just to keep everything under control.

Growth is what plants are supposed to do.  In fact, every living thing is intended, by God, to grow – including us. There’s a famous saying, “You’re either growing, or dying.”

            Seasons, water, temperature, fertilizer can make a plant grow.  But, what about humans?    What causes us to grow?

Love, Grow, Serve, Share…

            Let me pause, and change gears, just for a moment.  Last week, I talked about the importance of having a God-given vision for a church to have a clear sense of purpose and direction.  As we seek, at First Church, to discern what the vision is, last week I focused on the one thing that Jesus said must be our top priority – loving God and loving each other.

A number of years ago, before I arrived here, and even before Pastor Alex arrived, First Church adopted four themes to order and structure our ministries – Love, Grow, Serve and Share.

  • “Love” includes most of the ministries related to the Sunday morning worship experience – ushers, greeters, hospitality, welcome. “Love” also includes are visitor follow up, and our congregational care.
  • “Grow” includes all of our small group and Bible study opportunities.
  • “Serve” includes all of our service and mission to the community and the world.
  • “Share” includes all of the ways that we share the message of the Gospel with the world, as well as our ministries of invitation to First Church.

It seems to me that, while “Love” is the name of one of the four ministry areas, “love,” as Jesus defines and commands it, must undergird, motivate and support everything single thing we do as a church.  Thus, the theme – “We Love First.”  Today, I want us to think about how love stimulates, motivates, generates growth.  In other words, “Love grows”

Love Grows…

            A definition of the word,growth,” is “progressive development.”  We were created for progressive development.  During the early stage of our life, that growth is primarily physical and learning basic life skills.  But, even into adulthood, we are made to continue to generate new growth – emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, relationally.  Though we may stop growing physically at some point, we still have the capacity for progressive development until we die.  We never lose the ability to learn something new, to develop a new skill, to have new experiences, to build new relationships.

The old saying, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is stupid and false.

Today, I am focusing particularly on spiritual growth.

Eugene Peterson writes, “The most significant growing up that any person does is to grow as a Christian.  All other growing up is a preparation for or ancillary to this growing up.  The human task is to become mature, not only in our bodies and emotions and minds within ourselves, but also in our relationship with God and other persons.”

I want to suggest today that the greatest stimulant for that kind of growth is love.  When I love something or someone, I tend to grow.  Let me give you examples…

Because I love my wife, I have strived for the 26 years of our marriage to become the best husband I can be for her.  I still have quite a bit growing to do!

As a father, because I love my children, I always strived to do better and to better understand their needs from me.

I love being a pastor, and because I want to be a good pastor I am still actively learning and growing, so that I can fulfill my calling as faithfully as possible.  I read books on leadership and ministry.  I go to workshops and seminars to improve my knowledge and skills.

Because I love Jesus, with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength, I read his Word every day, I pray, and I read spiritual and theological books, so that I can know him and serve him better; so that I can be mature; so that I can be more faithful; so that I can be more like him.

Let me ask you a question.  What do you love?  Who do you love?  How has that love inspired you to grow?  Has it inspired you to grow?

A farmer went out to plant some seeds…

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told the story of a farmer, who went out to plant seeds.  “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. (Matthew 13:3-8)

Later, Jesus says that the seed is the “message of the kingdom.”  The obvious point of this parable is that God’s Word is intended to penetrate us, to grow in and through us, and to produce a great harvest.  The point, obviously, is growth.

This theme is repeated throughout Scripture. Jeremiah said that we are to “like a tree planted by the water that sends out its roots by the stream… and never fails to bear fruit.” (Jeremiah 17:8) Jesus said that he is like a grapevine, and we are like branches.  Paul said that we are to develop the “Fruits of the Spirit” – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  And, Paul described his work as an Apostle saying, “I planted the seed… but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6-7)

            Only God makes things grow.  So, what is our role?  I believe our job, if we love Jesus, is to be eager to receive the Word, and to be completely receptive.

4 Soils…

Jesus goes on to explain the meaning of the parable, “When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.  The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time… The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.  But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it.” (Matthew 13:19-23)

            The seed that falls on the path are the people who hear the Word, but are unreceptive.  The Word does not penetrate.  Let’s assume, for today, that’s not any of us.

The seed that falls on rocky soil are people who hear the Word, receive the Word, but never let it to sink in below the surface.  It never develops roots.  This could be some of us.

The seed that falls among thorns are the people who hear the Word, receive the Word, but don’t take proper care to avoid the distractions and temptations of life that can choke it out before it develops, grows and matures.  This could be some of us, too.

Then, the seed that falls on the good earth, that receives the seed and produces a harvest many times greater than what was sown are the people who hear the Word, receive the Word, and eagerly allow it room to grow.  This is who we were created to be.  This is who we have the capacity for being.  This is what God calls and expects us to be.

The goal…

God’s intent for human life is growth and fruitfulness.  Jesus said, “The seed that fell on good soil represents those who truly hear and understand God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!”  (Matthew 13:23)

            Our fruitfulness includes…

  • Development of Spiritual Gifts and the Fruits of the Spirit
  • Discerning God’s purpose for each of our lives and serving
  • Knowledge and understanding of God’s Word
  • A growing capacity to love
  • A life that looks and sounds more and more like Jesus

            Arch-bishop Desmond Tutu says, “You are made for perfection, but you are not yet perfect.  You are a masterpiece in the making.” 

            As Christians, we never stop growing!

 Ways to grow…

            Let me suggest four ways love can motivate us to be eager and receptive for growth.  They all, by coincidence, start with “S.”

The first “S” is for “Scripture.”  You simply can’t know God without knowing his Word.

The second “S” is for “Study.”  Reading the Bible is one thing.  It’s good.  But, study takes more effort.  Go to a Bible study.  Buy a Study Bible, with notes.  Read the books I suggest.

The third “S” is for “Serve,” which I will be talking about next week.  When you serve others, you develop new skills, you see new things, you hear new things, you interact with different people.  You might even find you love people you didn’t think you could love.

Finally, the fourth “S” is for “Someone different than you.”  More than anything else, I’ve grown from knowing and loving people who are different than me; people who are more liberal, or conservative; people with different life experiences; people from different cultures; people who are LGBT; people who are more educated, and less; people who work in different professions; people who are older and younger; people of other faiths; etc.  Our capacity to love is far greater than most of us know – including people who are very different than we are.  Loving people who are different than you is a gift to them and to you, and an opportunity for growth.

Earlier, I said that love is the best stimulant for growth.  Let me take that a step further.  How can we actually say that we love something or someone if we aren’t growing?  How can I say I love my wife, children, or friends, if I am not growing to be a better husband, father, or friend?  How can I say I love being a pastor if I am not growing to become a better one?  How can I say I love Jesus, if I am not eager and receptive to receive whatever growth he wants from me?

So, what do you love?

Who do you love?

How are you growing?

 

 

Utz a patik

Utz a patik

I received a Facebook message this week from my friend, Francisco, who is Mayan and lives in a small mountain village in Guatemala, called Chontala.  Yes – they have Facebook.

Chontala is a second home for me.  Actually, maybe, in many ways, Chontala is home for me.  I’ve been going there for about ten years, and have been many, many times.  At one point, I was visiting about three to four times a year.  I used to leave some of my belongings in Chontala, as I was traveling back and forth so frequently.

The people in Chontala are my friends.  They are my extended family.  I love them deeply.  It’s been a year since I was last in Chontala.  I miss everyone there terribly, and it breaks my heart to have been away for so long.

My friend, Francisco, is a bit younger than me.  He’s married, and has several smaller children. He is a subsistence farmer, and is very poor.  He actively attends the Methodist church.

Francisco’s message to me was not well written, as he is not well educated.  It was written both in Spanish and in the Mayan language Quiche.  I know a little of both, but not a lot of either.  He opened by saying, “This is Francisco.  I have not seen you in a long time.  I am Estella’s brother.”  Francisco, my friend, was reminding me who he is, in case I’ve forgotten over the last year.  I definitely have not forgotten him!

We exchanged a few lines, back and forth, thanks to my limited knowledge of Spanish and Quiche, and a little help from Google Translate.  His last message was, “My family misses you a lot. Also, the brothers of the church greet all of your family.  We wait for you with open arms.”

“We wait for you with open arms.”  I wept when I read it.  I’m weeping now, as I type it.  I could use those open arms right now.

The Quiche expression for welcome is “utz a patik.”

So, I’m feeling a little home-sick for Chontala this week.  Chontala isn’t exactly a convenient place to go to.  Finding time to go has been a challenge.  I used to take mission teams, but haven’t found a way to do that recently, and don’t know when I’ll be able to do that again.

So, I’m feeling kind of sad, and homesick. Estoy triste y nostálgico.  And, it breaks my heart that anyone there might think I’ve forgotten them.  I’ve not forgotten Chontala or anyone who lives there.  They are on my mind, and in my heart, every day.

But, in my sadness, I’m also deeply grateful.  I’m grateful for Chontala and the people who live there.  I am grateful for their love and friendship.  I am grateful for all that I have learned and experienced there.  I am grateful for who I have become because of that place.  I’m grateful, knowing that I will return, somehow.  And, it is so good to know that there is a place in this world where, “We wait for you with open arms.”  It is a blessing to loved, wanted, and missed by people who are so dear to me.

And, I know it is not the only place where I am loved and welcome.  For that, too, I am grateful.

Extraño a todos en Chontala. Espero volver a ti pronto.  Katuah.