“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

 

 

 

 

Pre-Easter Pondering

Pre-Easter Pondering

I know it’s not Easter yet.  Easter is still a few days away.  Before Easter, we still have Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  We can’t just skip to Easter, bypassing all that led to Easter.

But, Easter is on my mind – probably because it’s the biggest day of the Christian year and I have a sermon to prepare.

Here’s what I’m pondering…

I don’t have any problem believing in Jesus’ resurrection.  As unexpected as it was, and as impossible as it may seem, I do actually believe that Jesus died a human death, that his corpse lay in a tomb from Friday evening through early Sunday morning, and then his dead body came back to life – resurrected life!

Undeniably, that is a pretty remarkable thing to believe.  But, I do.  With all of my heart, I do.

I also don’t have a problem believing that because Jesus was resurrected, that he has made that possible for me.  I mean, because Jesus died and came back to life – in a new, resurrected way – I will be raised after I die, too.  I believe that.  When I die – whenever that may be – and breathe my last breath, I believe I that I will awake to a new, resurrected life on the other side of death.

Undeniably, that, too, is a pretty remarkable thing to believe.  But, I do.  With all of my heart, I do.

But, here’s what’s on my mind this Holy Week about the Resurrection.  The Bible doesn’t only say that Jesus rose from the dead (past tense), or that we will be resurrected after we die (future tense).  The Bible says that we ARE resurrected (present tense).  Now.  Today.

“Therefore, if anyone IS in Christ,the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new IS here!”  (2 Corinthians 2:17)

“I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but CHRIST LIVES IN ME. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”  (Galatians 2:20)

“Since, then, YOU HAVE BEEN RAISED with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life IS NOW hidden with Christ in God.”  (Colossians 3:1-3)

I HAVE been raised with Christ.  I AM a new creation.  My life IS NOW hidden Christ.  CHRIST LIVES IN ME!

Present tense.  Not just past tense.  Not just future tense.  Present tense.  Resurrection is a present reality.  I AM resurrected!

Is that really true (I know that it is)?  I don’t always feel resurrected.  I don’t look resurrected.  The Lord knows, and everyone I know will confirm, I certainly don’t act resurrected.  What does it mean for Vance Clifton Rains to be a resurrected human being, alive in Christ, today, in Coral Springs, Florida, at work, in my house, etc., etc.?

I certainly couldn’t ask such a question without Christ’s resurrection.  And, this life is short, so my future resurrection from the dead is pretty exciting.  But, increasingly, it seems to me that my current state of resurrection may be what’s most important.

If my future resurrection means that, on the other side of death, I will be completely free from this life of sin and selfishness, and that I will have perfect communion with God and God’s family, and that I will be a perfectly whole and unique reflection of God’s image in me, does my current state of resurrected-ness mean that I am to be those things now…

  • free from sin and selfishness?
  • in perfect communion with God and God’s family?
  • a perfectly whole and unique reflection of God’s image in me?

Today?  Is that what being resurrected, in the present tense, means?  If not, what else?

This week, as I ponder Easter, I just keep coming back to wondering if we are missing the point.  We (Church-going Christians) do our programs and rituals.  We read our Bibles.  We believe what we we’ve been taught to believe.  We have our stances regarding what is right or wrong.

But, are we resurrected people?  Do we worship as resurrected people?  Do we serve as resurrected people?  Do we work as resurrected people?  Do give as resurrected people?  Do we love as resurrected people?

If I AM resurrected, why am I still so enamored with this world?  If I AM resurrected, why isn’t my life, my attitude, my worship, my heart a better reflection of the world and the life to come?  If I AM resurrected, why aren’t I more like Jesus?  Now?  Today?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not questioning the present reality of my resurrection.  I AM raised with Christ!  I know that it is Truth.

I’m wondering what it would look like for me, for you, for the Church, for the Body of Christ to look a bit more resurrected – TODAY.  And, every other day, until Christ comes again.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

Happy Pre-Easter.  Now, go be resurrected.

The Sin of Being Passive

The Sin of Being Passive

I can easily be accused of being passive.  I don’t move quickly.  I take my time making decisions.  I tend to be quiet – taking in more than I express.  I don’t get very excited very often.  I prefer peace and calm.  I don’t show much variation of facial expression.  I can watch grass grow or paint dry, and be perfectly content.

But, I wouldn’t say that I am mentally passive.  In fact, my mind is so active that I have trouble shutting my thoughts down.  But, externally, I realize that’s a different story.

During Lent, I’ve been reflecting on that line from a familiar prayer of confession, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done…”  We not only need to confess our sins of commission, but also our sins of omission – in other words, our sins of passivity.  While I may not be guilty of this or that particular action (though I likely am), I am very likely guilty of inaction.

It recently occurred to me that Adam was standing next to Eve – passively – while the snake tempted the two of them to eat the forbidden fruit.  Then Adam blamed God for making Eve.

When the angels told Lot’s family to leave Sodom, they dragged their feet.

When Dinah was raped (Genesis 34), her father, Jacob, did nothing.

Passive.

Isaiah 1:17 says, Learn to do right; seek justice.  Defend the oppressed.  Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

That’s action.  That’s what it means to God’s people.

But, by verse 23, Isaiah says that, our rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts. They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”  Their actions were evil – bribery, corruption, theft.  But, equally evil was their inaction – including the distinctive call to God’s people to love justice and do kindness – “they do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”

Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

Oppression is not only the result of sinful action.  Oppression is also the result of passive inaction – MY passive inaction.  YOUR passive inaction?

Though I read and speak and write about justice, acting on behalf of the oppressed and the marginalized is another matter.  I cannot – we cannot – passively watch the injustice in our communities and broader world, and do nothing.  We are called to be people of action – to be a hand of mercy and a voice of prophecy.  We are called to act.  To do less, is nothing less than sin.

I confess that sometimes my passivity is selfish – I just don’t want to do anything.

I confess that sometimes my passivity is selective blindness – if I don’t see it, it must not be happening (ostrich syndrome).

I confess that sometimes my passivity is rooted in busyness – I am so busy doing church work that I don’t have time to do Kingdom work (there is a difference).

I confess that sometimes my passivity is a result of cowardice – will I be criticized for this, and am I willing to pay the price?

I confess that sometimes I am passive because I don’t know what to do – ignorance becoming a convenient crutch.

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther king wrote the following words from a Birmingham jail cell, largely to white passive pastors, who were discouraging his actions, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.”

“The time is always ripe to do what is right.”

This week, chemical weapons were deployed in Syria, Isis killed over 50 people in Syria and Iraq, and – as is true every other week – multitudes of people are suffering and dying in countless ways, while I passively do nothing.

Forgive me, Lord, for what I have left undone, and those things which I ought to have done. 

What will we do?  What will I do?

 

We’re All Mad Here…

We’re All Mad Here…

I just finished the manuscript for Sunday’s sermon.  Unfortunately, I had to cut a quote a I planned to use from Alice in Wonderland, “You’re mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

Confession: Sometimes, when I am preaching, a little voice inside my head says, “You sound like a crazy person.”  I just keep preaching.

Think about it.  Most of what we believe, as Christians, is pretty crazy stuff – an invisible God, a Heaven you can only get to by dying, angels and demons, a dead man rising from the grave – not to mention all of those miracle stories.

We’ve become so accustomed to the teachings of Jesus, in particular, that I think we forget how much he must have sounded like a Mad Hatter to his original listeners…

When someone slaps you, offer the other cheek.

When your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.

It’s easier for a camel to climb through the eye of a needle that for a rich man to go to heaven.

Take the log protruding from your own eye before kindly helping someone remove the teensy tiny little speck in their’s.

You must eat my flesh and drink my blood.

You must be born again.

I speak in parables so that no one will understand what I am talking about.

I’m a king.  But my kingdom isn’t of this world.

The Father and I are one.

Go, sell everything you’ve got and give it to the poor.

Love your enemies.

Forgive someone 77 times.

The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.

Blessed are you when you are poor, hungry, sad, and everyone hates you and says mean things about you.  Rejoice and jump for joy!

Don’t worry about what you will eat or what you will wear…

You see.  But, you don’t see.  You hear.  But, you don’t hear.

In Alice in Wonderland, Wonderland is an odd place, filled with stranger characters, where the rules are different, and where no speaks or acts “normally.”  Everyone is bonkers.

Is it possible, that if we were to really take the teachings of Jesus seriously, and really lived like Kingdom people, that we wouldn’t seem very normal in this world either?

“Welcome to the Kingdom of Heaven – we’re all mad here.”

But, if the values of this world are “normal”…

  • obsession with wealth, power, beauty, and fame
  • war, fear, and hate
  • self-advancement and looking out for #1
  • “fake” news

Shall I go on?

If what this world offers is “normal,” I’ll choose the madness of Jesus any day.

Ah.  But you, like Alice, might say, “But I don’t want to go among mad people.”  I’m afraid I must side with the Cheshire Cat, “You can’t help that.  We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

You must be mad… or you wouldn’t still be reading this blog!  You must be completely off your head!