Stretched! The First Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 18, 2017

Stretched!  The First Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 18, 2017

In Michelangelo’s famous painting of God reaching out to Adam, painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, God’s arm is fully extended.  Adam, however, is slouched back, barely exerting the effort to lift his arm, only almost reaching out to God.

Adam represents us.  While God always reaches out to us, we are often lazy, sluggish, and half-hearted in our response.  Notice that if Adam would just stretch out his fingers just slightly, he could touch the hand of God.  Since Adam, God has always yearned for us to stretch out and take his hand.

That’s what this Summer Stretch is about – to push all of us out of our ruts and comfort zones, and to challenge us to STRETCH!  The word “stretch” is defined as, capable of being made longer or wider without tearing or breaking.”  You and I are capable of stretching.  It might feel awkward and uncomfortable.  It might require some effort. But, we can do it.

  • What if a more abundant life is waiting for you just inches away, if you just stretched?
  • What if you could make a difference in this world, if you just stretched for it?
  • What if there are mysteries to be revealed, if you will just stretch to receive them?
  • What if there is deeper prayer and worship, if you would just be willing to stretch?
  • What if you could grow into the full stature of Christ, if you would just stretch more?

That’s what I want us to find out this summer.  If you and I could just stretch our minds, our hearts, our souls, our hands toward God a little more, I think we might find ourselves spiritually in a completely different place than we ever knew was possible.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians, I pray that you… may have power… to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”  Ephesians 3:17-19   That’s my prayer for all of us this summer!

Henri Nouwen writes, “Our spiritual life is a life in which we wait, actively present to the moment, expecting that new things will happen to us, new things that are far beyond our own imagination or prediction.” 

Patches & Wineskins:

In Matthew 9, Jesus is asked why he had his disciples are not fasting as much as the John’s disciples and the Pharisees.  Fasting is a spiritual practice of self-denial – usually not eating food for a period of time.  In biblical times, the tradition and practice of fasting was an act of sorrow for sin.  Jesus doesn’t condemn fasting.  In fact, in other passages he clearly expects it.  But, in this case he says, “How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them? The time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them; then they will fast.”  Matthew 9:15 Jesus is saying that fasting is a fine spiritual practice, but then wasn’t the time for it.

Traditions, like fasting, have purpose and value when their meaning aligns with the needs of the moment.  Jesus illustrates this by comparing fasting with patches and wineskins.  Jesus says, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse.   Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:16-17)

If you sew a patch of new cloth to an old garment that has been shrunk from many washings, when the new cloth shrinks, it will tear the garment.  An old garment needs an old patch.

A wineskin was made from goat skins, which would harden over time.  But, a new skin was stretchable, pliable.  It had to be so, because new wine releases gases during the fermenting process.  The skin has to be able to stretch and expand as the new wine ferments.  If you put new wine an old wine skin, the old wine skin can’t stretch, and will burst.

Jesus is the new wine.  He came to do something new and challenging – not to just reinforce the old.  Jesus is not anti-tradition.  But, neither is Jesus bound by tradition.  Jesus encouraged fasting, but not for the sake of fasting.  Jesus observed the Sabbath, but didn’t hesitate to violate Sabbath rules if a person needed healing or if the disciples were hungry.  Jesus came to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven on the Earth – not to preserve tradition.

Jaroslav Pelikan writes, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”

            There’s a story about a Buddhist temple, where a cat would wander in among the monks while they were praying, which was distracting.  It was decided to leash the cat, and time him to a post.  Years passed, and the leashed cat became a familiar presence in the temple.  So, when the cat finally died, the monks bought a new cat, and tied it to the same post.

A man went to the store to buy a ham for dinner.  His wife told him to have the butcher cut the end off.  He forgot, and brought home the whole ham.  His wife was frustrated that he forgot this simple detail.  So, the man asked, “Why does the end need to be cut off anyway?”  She didn’t know.  She just knew it was important.  So, she called her mother to ask why the end had to be cut off.  The mother also said it was necessary, but she also didn’t know why.  So, they called grandma, and asked her why.  She said, “Because I only had a small roasting pan.  The whole ham wouldn’t fit.”

  Change is threatening, but it is not evil…

Not growing up in church, my introduction to Church tradition was in seminary, where I was taught the practice AND the meaning traditions.  It might surprise some of you to hear that I LOVE Church tradition.  I LOVE ritual.  I LOVE “smells and bells.”  Traditions and rituals have the ability to communicate mystery at a much deeper level than words ever can.

But, I don’t believe in practicing tradition and rituals just because they are familiar.  Habit is not the same as tradition.  Familiarity is not the same as tradition.

And, change is not the opposite of tradition.  I think we sometimes resist what God can do, because we expect him to do a new thing in our old wineskins.  Or, maybe we don’t want to do a new thing.

There’s undeniably something in our human nature that clings to the familiar and resists change.  Change feels like threat.  Typically, our first response to change is to assume the old was better and that the new is wrong.  The Pharisees and Sadducees certainly reacted to Jesus that way.

Certainly, change is not always right or good.  But, change is not inherently wrong, bad, or evil.

 Every tradition began as an innovation…

We have to remember that every tradition was once an innovation that someone hated.  Let me say that again – every tradition was once an innovation.  Every hymn in the hymnal was once a contemporary song – that someone didn’t like.  Every tradition and every hymn we cherish began with someone saying, “It’s new. I don’t like it.”

Take a walk with me through history…

Starting Genesis, the sole expression of worship was the building of altars and animal sacrifice, that was only practiced occasionally, as an individual’s thanks to God.

By the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers, animal sacrifice became a daily ritual to express thanks, to seek God’s blessing, and to atone for sin.  All sacrifices were performed at a sacred, moveable tent called the Tabernacle, and were performed by priests.  There were precise instructions for how the rituals were to be performed.  Annual festivals were also instituted – like Passover.  And, the Sabbath became a holy day.

By the time of King David, the Tabernacle was given a permanent home in Jerusalem, and David instituted musical worship and dance for the first time.

David’s son, King Solomon later replaced the tabernacle with a permanent Temple.  At this point, all worship took place in Jerusalem.

During the time of the Prophets, the Babylonians invaded and destroyed the Temple and took the Jews to foreign lands as slaves.  There was no way to worship in Jerusalem.  And, the Prophets taught that their destruction was because they forgot God’s teaching.  The Jews had to find a new way to worship in this new context.  Psalm 137 was written during this time,

“By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps,  for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”  How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4)

A new situation required new traditions and practices – new wineskins.  So, during this time, the local Jewish synagogue was created as a place of study, and worship took the form of songs and teaching Torah.

By the time of Jesus, the Temple was rebuilt and sacrifices had resumed.  The festivals had been reinstituted.  But, the local synagogues remained.  Local Sabbath worship happened in the synagogue for instruction and annual festivals happened in Jerusalem at the Temple, as well as daily sacrifices in the Temple.

By Acts, the persecution of Christians led to primarily worshipping in homes – not the Temple or the synagogue.  Within a generation, because the Romans were persecuting the Jews, the Christians switched the Christian Sabbath to Sunday instead of the Jewish Sabbath of Saturday.  Worship primarily consisted of songs, teaching, collections for the poor, and a shared meal.  It was during this time that the Jewish Temple was destroyed again, and sacrifices ended.

Think about that.  Biblical worship began as an occasional burnt animal sacrifice, performed by an individual or family.  By the end of the Bible, worship became the gathering of diverse groups of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free men, in homes for common meals, teaching and singing.  That’s a pretty radical change of tradition!  New wine skins were required for new wine.  But, change didn’t stop with the book of Revelation.

Did you know that churches haven’t always had seating? For centuries, people had stand for worship.  When benches were introduced in churches, some thought it was heretical sit in worship.

Did you know that pipe organs were originally considered offensive in church, because they produce “artificial” sounds?  Instead of an orchestra playing instruments, one person could play one instrument that simulated all of the sounds of a symphony.  People didn’t like it.

For centuries, the Bible was only written in Latin, and only read by priests.  When it was translated into spoken languages, and mass produced by the printing press, many objected to the idea of common people having and reading their own Bibles.

For centuries, churches were filled with tapestries, and mosaics, and stained glass, and statues to help illiterate Christians learn the stories of the Bible and the Saints through pictures.  But, during the Reformation, those were considered too “Catholic,” and churches were stripped bare.

Did you know that Methodism began outdoors with “field preaching?” Methodist preachers preached out-side in public squares, at boat docks, and near the entrances to mines.  Many considered field preaching highly offensive, because preaching was supposed to happen ONLY inside church walls.

In recent years, some have objected to contemporary worship music with drums and guitars, projection screens, videos, and the use of the arts in worship.  Before long, contemporary practices will become traditions that we won’t want to change, and something new will come along that’s meaningful to the next generation, but will inevitably be offensive to us.

We can never forget the words of Isaiah 43:18-19. “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?”

While it’s never wise to abandon traditions that are meaningful, we can never forget that traditions have changed and adapted over and over throughout the generations.  Traditions have been adapted and changed by different cultures.  When Jesus spoke about new wine, he was talking about fresh moves of the Holy Spirit in every generation.  Every generation must pour the new wine of the Spirit into new wineskins, and not try to force it into old ones.

Traditions are one form of wine skins.  We  – you and me – are wine skins too.

            Mark Batterson writes, “One of our fundamental spiritual problems is this:  we want God to do something new while we keep doing the same old thing.  We want God to change our circumstances without us having to change at all.”

So here is my question for all of us this morning – “What do we value more –  wine skins or new wine?   Are we more committed to preserving the old wineskins more than we are to receiving the new wine?  Could it be that clinging to old wine skins is actually keeping you from being stretched by the new things God wants to do in your spiritual life?”

Are you ready to be stretched?

 

 

Children’s Ministry Sermon – preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 12, 2017

Children’s Ministry Sermon – preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 12, 2017

I suspect we would all agree that children need Jesus.  Adults need Jesus.  Everyone needs Jesus.  But, the earlier we can introduce a child to Jesus, the earlier we can begin to develop solid spiritual foundations for the opportunities, challenges and responsibilities they will face as adults.

There is an old book called, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, by Robert Fulghum.  Her writes,  “These are the things I learned (in Kindergarten):

1. Share everything.
2. Play fair.
3. Don’t hit people.
4. Put things back where you found them.
5. CLEAN UP YOUR OWN MESS.
6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
7. Say you’re SORRY when you HURT somebody.
8. Wash your hands before you eat.
9. Flush.
10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

He later adds, “Think what a better world it would be if we all-the whole world-had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.” 

We would add to Fulghum’s list, “meeting and knowing Jesus at an early age.”  Research shows that about 85% of all Christians make a 1st time commitment to Christ during their childhood or teens.

            Frederick Douglas, the abolitionist, wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” 


            Once of the most familiar stories about Jesus is the time that parents brought their children to Jesus to bless.  But, the disciples thought Jesus had more important things to do, so they pushed the families away.  But, when Jesus saw what was happening, he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

            That’s a pretty meaty statement – “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what it means.  But, if we simply take it at face-value, Jesus is elevating the importance of Children’s Ministry to an entirely different level.  He is saying that his Kingdom belongs to the children!

He didn’t say, “Let the children come to me – I just love kids!” 

  • or, “I’ve got a few spare minutes.”
  • or, “I’d really like to get their parents into church.”
  • or, “somebody post a picture of this on Instagram!”
  • or, “they’re a lot more fun than you guys!”

He said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”

According to Jesus, Children’s Ministry is more than…

  • a tool to attract young families.
  • baby-sitting.
  • A place to put the kids during “big” church.

According to Jesus, Children’s Ministry is where the real action is, because it’s where the Kingdom is!

There is an old evangelical expression, “God doesn’t have any grandchildren.”  It basically means that you don’t automatically know Jesus, just by being born into a Christian family.  Every person has to meet Jesus for themselves, and make a personal decision to accept him as Lord and Savior.  It has to happen in every generation.

Psalm 78:1-7 says,

My people, hear my teaching;   listen to the words of my mouth.  I will open my mouth with a parable; I will utter hidden things, things from of old— things we have heard and known, things our ancestors have told us.  We will not hide them from their descendants; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,  his power, and the wonders he has done.  He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our ancestors to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children. Then they would put their trust in God  and would not forget his deeds  but would keep his commands.

            Notice the intentionality about passing the stories and God’s laws on to the next generation.  Two key phrases…

  • “We will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the ”
  • “Then they would put their trust in God.”

If you read the Old Testament carefully, you will notice that God seems paranoid about the dangers of his people forgetting to teach the children, to tell them the stories of God, to remind them of what God has done in the past.  And, over and over, there are stories – in Judges, and in the Prophets – of one generation that knows and worships God, and a following generation that forgets God, and falls into disaster.

I believe we are living out that same biblical story now.  More-or-less 100% of the Baby Boomer generation, and the prior generations, were religious.  Everyone had a place of worship.  Everyone was either Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish.  And, Sundays, for the most part, were days set aside culturally, as a day for family and for worship.

But, in my generation – Generation X – only about 50% of us were raised going to church.  My children’s generation – the Millennial Generation –  dropped to under 30%.   The youngest generation -Generation Z – is the largest generation ever born in the United States.  The question is whether they will be the generation that abandons the church entirely, or if they will be the generation that returns to the Lord.

I can’t help but wonder how many of the problems we see in our nation – in our own county – today are directly because there’s so little influence of Christ?  Will that change with the next generation, or will it just keeping getting worse?

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” 

Let me be very clear about this.  We all know the expression, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  Children’s Ministry is one important part of that village.  But, spiritually, the church can only do so much.  Think about this.  If you add up all of the time a child can potentially spend in church Children’s Ministry activities, that only totals to about 3 days out of 365 days in a year!  Where does a child spend the rest of their time?  School, sports, screen time, parents?  Children’s Ministry, at best reinforces and supplements what children must learn primarily at home.  Church cannot be a substitute!

Carey Nieuwhof writes, “The average parent has 75 times the influence of a church leader.”

             Kids, for the most part, don’t discover Jesus at church.  They might make a decision to follow Jesus at a church event.  Children’s Ministry can strengthen, develop, and deepen a child’s faith.  But, a child needs to learn about Jesus from his/her family.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote,  I learned more about Christianity from my mother than from all the theologians of England.”

Let me ask you, do your children and grandchildren…

  • hear you talking about Jesus?
  • see you reading your Bibles?
  • Hear you pray?

Do you have clear, practiced Christian traditions and values in your home?  Are your kids learning to give to the church?  Are they learning how to serve Jesus? Do they know your testimony?

Several years ago, I noticed a new trend.  I was a campus minister for 11 years – from 2003 to 2014.  We had grown a large successful ministry.  But, around 2011/2012, our attendance dropped off significantly.  At first, I wondered what we were doing wrong.  But, after further investigation, we realized that we had more students involved than ever before.  They just weren’t coming as often.  After even more investigation, we realized that this was the first generation of Christian college students who had grown up playing sports on Sundays.  Previously, Sunday’s were reserved for church and family.  But, by this particular class of students, skipping church had become normal.  They had learned that church was something you do, when you have time.  We’ve shaped a generation of young people who believe it is normal to be a part-time Christian.

            Faith in Christ is foundational and eternal.  Faith in Christ is core to character development.  Faith in Christ is about learning the Truth about the world, and themselves.

 “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”  I’m sure we can all think of exceptions – people who did grow up in Church, but turned away.  There are no guarantees.  But, if raise up a child to believe Church is low priority, when they are older, they will not depart from that.  If we teach a child to go to Church only when it’s convenient, when he/she is older, they will not depart from it.  If we teach a child that Church is an occasional thing, when he/she is older, they will not depart from it.

We have to be intentional teaching a child that faith in Christ is the highest priority!

My wife and I were far from perfect parents.  But, one of things I believe we did right was teaching our children that their faith in Christ, and their activity in church, is the first priority.  My kids were active in sports, and dance, and music, and took AP classes.  But, they very rarely missed church or Youth Group – for anything.  Those were priorities.  When they complained, we simply reminded them about our family’s priorities and values.

Church, we’ve got to do all we can to immerse our kids in the love of Jesus.  At church, we must offer the most dynamic Children’s Ministry we possibly can.  And, parents, your kids need you to make faith a priority in your home.  The spiritual investments we make in kid’s lives now, will directly impact the adults they become later, and for eternity.

 

 

“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.

 

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?

 

 

We Love First – Part 1 of a 5-week Sermon Series called “We Love First” – preached at First Church Coral Springs on April 30, 2017.

We Love First – Part 1 of a 5-week Sermon Series called “We Love First” – preached at First Church Coral Springs on April 30, 2017.

 What’s the Vision?

Almost as soon as I arrived last summer, as your new pastor, some of you were asking, “What’s your vision for First Church?”  What’s my vision?  Are you kidding?  At that point I was still trying to find the grocery store, the movie theater, a new dentist!  I had no idea what vision I had for First Church.  At that point, I wasn’t sure about the vision for my last church!  Now, 9 months later, I still have no idea what the vision is.  I still need a GPS just to find most places around Broward county!  I’m still looking for stuff I packed this time last year.

What’s the vision?  Give me a break!

You tell me!  Almost all of you have been here longer than I have!

But, saying that I don’t know what the vision is, doesn’t mean that I don’t think a vision is extremely important.  It is!  I do!  Proverbs 29:18 says, Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  And, Acts 2: 17 says, that Holy Spirit is given so that, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.”

Pastor Andy Stanley, in Atlanta, writes, Vision is a mental picture of what could be, fueled by a passion that it should be.”

Imagine that.  Imagine what could happen if we had a shared, crystal-clear picture of what God wants us to do, AND that we all shared a deep passion for accomplishing it.

            I passionately believe in the value of having a defining, unifying vision.  Without it, it is very difficult to say what is a priority and what is not a priority, what we will do and what we won’t do.  Without a clear vision, there can be competing values and agendas, or no values or agendas at all.

And, honestly, I think that describes First Church pretty well.  We do a lot of great things.  But, can we say why we do what we do?  What is our core God-given sense of purpose?

Some of us are passionate about music ministry.  Some of us are passionate about food ministry.  Some of us are passionate about the homeless.  Some of are passionate about Bethlehem.  Some of us are passionate about children and youth.  Some of us are passionate about prayer.  Some of us are passionate about Bible study.  Some of us are passionate about serving and reaching the community.  Some of us are passionate about traditional worship.  Some of us are passionate about contemporary worship.  Some of us are passionate about growth.  Some of us are passionate about maintaining the status quo – never changing anything, ever.

As long as that is true, how do we decide how to allocate our budget?  How do we decide what ministries to start?  How do we decide which ministries to stop?  How do we decide what kind of staff we need?  How do we decide how to use our buildings?  How do we know when to stretch, take risks, and act of faith?

We need a vision.

On the day after Easter, I packed a small bag, strapped it to the back of my Harley, and headed north on A1A.  Before I left, I made arrangements for places to stay in Vero, Ormond Beach, Jacksonville, St. Augustine, and Stuart.  I made arrangements to see some friends.  I had a basic route planned out.  I knew that by Wednesday afternoon I would be with my friends in Jacksonville, and Saturday I would be home.  I had a vision and a plan for where I was going, how I would get there, and what I would do.  And, I had a great trip.

But, I didn’t plan every minute.  I was very loose and flexible with my time and agenda.  I only rode for a few hours a day, which left me lots of time to explore, and relax, drink cups of coffee, read, and spend time with friends.

But, if I had left with no plans at all, no vision for where I was going, I might not have found places to stay.  I might not have known where to go.  I might have gotten lost.  I might have wasted a lot of time.  My friends might not have been available to meet.  I might have had an entirely frustrating trip.

A vision and plan is a helpful thing.  Churches need vision.  First Church needs a vision.

The problem is, a true God-given vision doesn’t just pop out of thin air.  Going on a week-long vacation is a bit easier than knowing who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.  You can’t just send a pastor to the top of a mountain and expect he will return with stone tablets carved with God’s vision.  If just doesn’t work that way.

But, I do want you to know that I’ve been devoting significant prayer to First Church’s vision since before I arrived, and I won’t stop until it is crystal clear.  Then I will pray that God will help us achieve it.

But, God works in God’s timing not mine.

I also tend to believe that while I may be the one to eventually articulate the vision, I’ll only be saying something that God has already spoken into the heart of this congregation.  Like I said, many of you have been worshipping, serving, giving, and praying for this church for a long time.  I suspect you already know the vision.  I suspect it has already been given.  I suspect the vision for our future is already here.  We just have to find it.

A Church the Loves Well…

One of the ways I’ve been seeking that vision, is by listening – asking questions and listening.  A few months back, I was riding to Orlando with our youth director, Chris Linderman. I asked him, “Chris, what kind of church do you dream of being part of?”  After a few minutes of quiet thought, Chris said, “I want to be part of a church that loves well.”  I asked him what that meant.  He said something like, “I want to be part of a church that loves God so much that everything we do is motivated by God’s love; we serve because we love; we worship because we love; we share Jesus because we love; we fellowship because we love; we take care of each other because we love”

            I like that.  I like that a lot.

Obviously, that’s very close to something Jesus said.

The Greatest Commandment:

On numerous occasions, Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment?”   Jesus replied: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

            In John 13:34, Jesus also says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

I know we’ve all heard that.  But, I’d like for us to think about it for a moment.  What is the most important commandment?  He doesn’t say anything about rule-keeping, church attendance, or theological correctness.  He doesn’t say anything about spiritual gifts, or Biblical knowledge, or serving.  All of those ARE important.  But, the #1, most important thing we can do, according to Jesus, is love God and love neighbor.

Also, notice that.  He states the two as a single command.  One command:  love God and love one another.  They go together, inseparably.

Brennan Manning writes, “The litmus test of our love for God is our love of neighbor.” 

They go hand-in-hand.

We Love First

            In other words, Jesus seems to be saying, “love first.”  Before everything else, ground yourself in love.  “Love first.”  There are many valuable religious things we can do – worship, Bible study, service, retreats, etc., etc.  But, nothing is more important than love.  In fact, without love, everything else is utterly meaningless.  Paul wrote, If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”  (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)

            John Wesley writes, “Love is the highest gift of God; humble, gentle, patient love; that all visions, revelations, manifestations whatever, are little things compared to love.”

 What is Love?

            I want to be very clear about something.  I’ve heard people say, “I don’t want to hear sermons about how I’m supposed to love everybody!”; as though there is something biblically or theologically soft about talking about love; as though there are more weighty things to talk about, like sin and judgment.  I think such sentiments must be rooted in a complete misunderstanding of what love is.

Love begins with God…

            Love can’t be weak or soft, because love begins with God.  In fact, love is God’s own self-definition.  I John 4:7-8 says, Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

Hear that again – “whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”  That is a bold statement.  Love isn’t optional for Christians.  It is the one and only way we can know who God is.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.”

Love is more than a feeling

I think part of the problem with our understanding of love is that we think it is just an emotion or feeling.  1 John 4:9-11 clearly corrects this, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

            Which leads us back to what is first… “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (vs. 12)

            But, notice the kind of love he’s talking about.  Christian love isn’t just warm, affectionate, sentimental feeling.  We are called to love one another the way that God loves us – sacrificially.  He showed us he loved us by sacrificing his son.  He shows us love by loving us before we loved him.  He shows us love by loving us when we don’t deserve it.

1 Corinthians 13 describes a love that is far from just emotion and sentimentalism… “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (vs. 4-7)

Can any of us honestly say that we haven’t been envious, impatient or unkind – even with the people we claim to love the most?  Can we honestly claim that we haven’t been boastful, or prideful, or self-seeking, or easily angered?

Love is far from soft emotional sentimentality.  Love is hard.  Love is challenging.  Love is work.  Love requires deep personal sacrifice and a significant amount of personal spiritual maturity!

Mother Teresa said, “(For) love to be real, it must cost—it must hurt—it must empty us of self.” 

What’s the Vision?

            So back to the original question, “What’s the vision?”  Like I already said, I have absolutely no idea.  I have no idea what kind of church we will be in the years to come. But, I know we need a vision, and I am fully committed to identifying that vision and pursuing it to actualization.

Some of you might be thinking, “Why do we need a vision?  Hasn’t the Bible made it pretty clear what we are supposed to do?”

            I absolutely agree.  The Bible is clear.  Until a specific vision for First Church becomes clearer to us, it seems to me that Jesus has already given us some pretty clear instruction – to love.  Love God.  Love our neighbors.  Love each other.  Love First.

Love God, passionately in worship and service.  Love each other – even when you may not like each other.  Love the people who walk in our doors – no matter who they are.  Love the people we serve.  Love the people in this community that don’t know Jesus.  Love the people that we might otherwise consider unlovable.  Love God and people more than traditions.  Love God and people more than institutions.  Love God and people more than rules.  Love God and people more than our personal agendas.  Love God and people more than our petty personal preferences. Love God and people with our words, our actions, our service, our offerings.  Love like God loves.

Love first.