Bless – The Third Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on July 9, 2017

Bless – The Third Sermon in a Series Called “The 2017 Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on July 9, 2017

I’m friends with a Nazarene pastor named Jay.  We worked on our doctoral degrees together.  On the whole, Nazarenes tend to be pretty conservative about lots of things – especially their behavior.  Historically, they don’t go to movies, don’t drink, don’t dance, don’t wear jewelry, don’t gamble, etc., etc.

            While I try to be careful about what I say and how I say it, I can get in silly moods and say some foolish stuff – not hurtful, not mean, not inappropriate, not offensive – just goofy.  While my friend is a fun guy, and we laugh easily, he has a line he doesn’t cross.  More than once he has quoted Matthew 12:36 -37 to me, But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”

            Actually, he shortened it, just saying, “Every word.  Every word, my friend.”

Other versions say, “every idle word” or “every careless word” or “every useless word.”

The Bible actually says a lot about the kind of words that are not becoming for Christians to say…

  • Misusing the Lord’s Name
  • False Witness
  • Gossip
  • Meaningless Talk
  • Malicious Talk
  • Unwholesome Talk
  • Foolish Talk
  • Coarse Joking
  • Obscene Talk
  • Deception
  • Ignorant Talk
  • Corrupt Talk
  • Smooth Talk
  • Sinful Talk
  • Lies
  • Slander
  • Seductive Words
  • Perverse Words
  • Empty Words
  • Quarreling
  • Boastful Words
  • Defiant Words
  • Blasphemy
  • Grumbling
  • Cruel Words
  • Rash Words
  • Words of Hatred

There are also a number of good words, that we are supposed to say, which I will get to in a moment.  But, for now, back to Matthew 12:36, “Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” 

I can honestly say that when I imagine Judgement Day, and giving an accounting of my life, I tend to think about the deeds I have done and the deeds I haven’t done – the sins I have committed, and the good works I have omitted.  But, Jesus says that we will also be judged for every word which we have spoken.  EVERY WORD!

An image popped in my head the other day of a funeral service, and the public reading of everything the deceased has ever said – how many times they’ve gossiped; how many times they’ve cussed; how many times they’ve complained about the pastor; how many times they’ve been ugly or critical; how many times they’ve used the Lord’s name in vain.  For many of us, that would be a pretty lengthy report!

According to the Bible, what we say and how we say it matters a lot – enough for us to be held accountable to our words on Judgement Day!  If that doesn’t give you pause to consider your words, I don’t know what will!  That ought to be more effective than threatening to wash someone’s mouth out with soap!

John Calvin, the Church reformer said, “I consider looseness with words no less of a defect than looseness of the bowels.”

I grew up in a conservative home.  We didn’t go to church very much.  But, I was raised with a high standard of morality – including my language.  I was not allowed to cuss, or use bad language in any way.  In fact, I wasn’t even allowed to say things like gosh, golly, dang, or darn, as they were close to bad words – sort of.  My High School best friend made fun of me for frequently saying, “dadgummit” – I don’t even know how that one snuck into my vocabulary!

When I started a church in Port St. Lucie, one summer I offered my congregation the opportunity to put me to work.  One day each week of the summer, I was available to go to work with anyone who could work it out with their employer, and I would work for one day for free.  I rode with the Coast Guard.  I rode with Animal Control.  I worked in a kitchen in Jupiter – and others.  My desire was to experience the lives of my members.  It was great.  But, the biggest surprise from that experience was how much people cuss in the real world.  In the church, I don’t hear that a lot.  But, in the secular work place, I was amazed how much people cuss – all of the time.

While I’m not an advocate for using obscene language, I’ve also heard some supposed Christians say some pretty awful things without using four-letter words to do it.  So, we are not just talking about R-rated language.  We’re talking about anything said that is ugly, degrading, or just rude.

The point, of course, is the intent.  Are my words rooted and grounded in love?  Or, are they at best thoughtless, or, at worst, intentionally negative and harmful.

Why do words matter so much?  Proverbs 18:21 says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”  Words have power.

When we were kids we were taught, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  That’s a ridiculous lie!  Sticks and stones might hurt and leave bruises.  But, cuts and bruises heal.  Words wound.  Words wound deeply.  Some words wound permanently.

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to remember the many nice things people say about us, but we can easily remember ugly things that were said?  Why? Because words have power, and ugly words seem to be particularly powerful.

A few days ago, I recalled an instance from my childhood.  I had made my father angry about something, which led to him following me outside, and accidentally locking us out of the house.  In his anger at the situation, and me, he said, “Get out of my sight.  I’m sick of looking at you.”  When I remembered it the other day, over 4 decades later, I wept.

Sticks and stones.

Gary Chapman writes that words can be either seeds or bullets.  When we speak words of encouragement, love, affirmation, gratitude, and kindness, we plant seeds in a person that can grow to become something beautiful.  But, when we speak words that are hurtful, condescending, destructive, belittling, and ugly, they can be like bullets that wound, injure and possibly even kill and destroy.

So, let’s do some honest self-assessment.  What kind of seeds are you planting – and in whom?  And, what kind of bullets are you shooting – and at whom?  In whom are you sowing seeds of blessing?  At whom are you firing bullets that injure and curse?

Maybe that’s another image.  On Judgement Day, will there be more evidence of the seeds you have planted through your words?  Or, will there be more evidence of the destruction you have caused by your word bullets?

Here’s another image.  Joyce Landorf Heartherly wrote a book called Balcony People.  She writes that we all need balcony people in our lives.  They are the ones who believe in us, encourage us, and cheer us upward.  But, many of us also have basement people in our lives.  They are the ones who insult and discourage us, and drag us down.  Her challenge is to be a balcony person for someone else – and to avoid being a basement person!

Biblically speaking, we are talking about blessing and cursing.  In the Bible, when a blessing or a curse was spoken over a person, it was believed that those words had power, and could not be taken back.  Blessings build people up.  Curses tear people down.

James 3:3-12 says, When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go.  Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.  All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind,  but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?  My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Well, frankly, that’s pretty discouraging.  James does not provide any hope of controlling our tongues at all!  He just names the problem as hopeless, and then tells us that we shouldn’t do it!  That’s a major problem!  If we will be judged for our words, and we can’t control them, we are all in big trouble!

While James doesn’t give us much help, thankfully other verses of scripture do.  For instance,

  • “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Ephesians 4:29
  • “Keep your mouth free of perversity; keep corrupt talk far from your lips.”  Proverbs 4:24
  • “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.” Proverbs 16:24
  • “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Romans 12:14

The point is, we have to be very intentional about what we say and what we don’t say.  We have to develop self-control when it comes to things like gossip, grumbling, complaining, criticizing and cussing.  And, we have to be intentional about speaking words of encouragement, affirmation, and blessing – words rooted in love.

We may have to learn new habits and break old ones.  If you’re not in the habit of blessing, it may mean you need to learn a new language.  Or, you may have to relearn what we learned as children –  “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

            James is very clear that getting control of the tongue is hard.  But, this is the 40-day Summer Stretch!  And, I can’t think of anything that deserves more effort than controlling what we say, and what we don’t say.

Let me be very clear.  This does not mean that difficult, truthful, sometimes painful conversations can’t happen.  Sometimes, those conversations are necessary – even if they are hard.  Sometimes, avoiding difficult conversations is the worst thing we can do, and only makes the problem worse.  But, difficult conversations must be for the purpose of working through a problem, and offering forgiveness, and seeking reconciliation, and rebuilding what is broken.  They can never be for the purpose of hurting, or belittling, or tearing down.

In the village where I work in Guatemala, they speak a Mayan language called Quiche’.  The first word I learned in Quiche’ was “utz.”  It also seems to be the most frequently used word, in a variety of ways.

“Utz” simply means good.  If you like something, it is “utz.”  If you feel good, you are “utz.”  If you are healthy, you are “utz.”  When you greet someone, you say, “utz, uwuch?,” which basically means, “are you good?”  To which you respond, “utz.”  Or, if you are really good, you might say, “pudu utz,” or, more often, “utz, utz, utz.”  Or, if it’s really good, you might say, “pudu utz pin pin,” which means it is the best of the best!

When you are welcomed, you hear, “utz a patik,” which basically means, “good for you to come.”  If something is beautiful, it is “utz kakyak.”  If you like something, you say, “utz kinwilo,” which literally means it is good for you to look at.

If you want to know if you have done something correctly, you might ask, “utz?’  To which you will most likely be told, “utz.”  In essence, you spend the day asking and saying over and over, variations on a theme of “good.”

What if, at the core of everything we ever said was simply, “good?”

Why Superheroes Wear Masks…

Why Superheroes Wear Masks…

 

When I was a kid, I loved to watch Florida Federation Wrestling.  I know it was fake.  I knew, then, it was fake.  But, I loved the action.  I loved the moves.  Mostly, I loved the characters.

638b9e7fb174476b9c70d7f9cd4821e3

In particular, I remember the “bad guy” wrestlers that wore masks.  There was always a lot of mystery about who was behind the mask.  Every time one of them wrestled, I hoped they would lose, and that the victor would successfully pull off their mask and reveal who the mystery wrestler was – before being hit over the head with a folding chair by one of the masked wrestler’s friends.

When I was a kid, I was also a fan of the rock band KISS.  Their music was never really great – but the costumes and make-up were awesome!

kiss

I still remember when they took off the make-up for a few years, revealing real faces.

rs-127658-20131213-kiss6-x1800-1386968390

I was glad when they put the makeup back on!

I’m also a fan of comic book superheroes.  I was, when I was a kid.  And, I still am.

ddc3a688-03b5-4dd6-9a08-78af32de84b6

Like masked wrestlers and KISS, many superheroes wear masks to conceal their true identity.

The primary reason superheroes conceal their true identities is to protect the people they love.  After all, if the Joker found out the Batman is Bruce Wayne, he might blow-up Wayne Enterprises. If the Scorpion found out Spiderman is Peter Parker, he might kidnap Aunt Jane.  And, so forth, and so on…

mascaras-de-superheroes-D_NQ_NP_20373-MLA20189128826_102014-FThe point is, even with their amazing super-powers, superheroes wear masks to protect their weaknesses and vulnerabilities – namely, the people they love.

Superheroes aren’t the only ones who wear masks.  We all do.  All of us wear some kind of mask to hide and protect our weaknesses, fears, and vulnerabilities.  Sometimes masks are pretending to be something we’re not.  Sometimes masks are hiding secrets we’re ashamed of.  Sometimes masks are presenting a better image than is actually true, like the fantastical/fictional lives portrayed by many of us on social media.

We wear masks to hide our shame.  Shame is a lie, whispered in our ears by our arch enemy…

  • I’m the only one.
  • I’m not good enough.
  • You won’t like me.
  • I’m all alone.
  • No one cares.

hiding

The first humans to attempt to hide their shame was a couple named Adam and Eve.  They did something they weren’t supposed to do, and were so ashamed of their mistake they hid in the bushes – from God.  It’s really hard to hide from God.  God has x-ray vision.

Adam and Eve’s shame was revealed, and they paid the consequences for their mistake.  But, the consequences were pretty bad for them, and for everyone that’s come after them.  One of the consequences is that we’re still ashamed and we think we still need to hide.

But, the Bible says, when we hide in shame, God comes looking for us.  When Jesus came, he was searching for people hiding from God.  The story is a bit complicated, but the Bible says Jesus took our shame away from us when he died on the cross, and when he beat death by coming back to life.

Earlier, I mentioned superheroes wearing masks to conceal their true identity.  Most superheroes started life as average, normal people, only discovering their superpowers later.  But, there is an exception.

Superman.

Superman has always been Superman.  Actually, his real name is Kal-el.  He’s a refugee from the planet Krypton.  On Krypton, Kal-el wouldn’t have had superpowers, because Krypton had a red sun.  But, under our yellow sun, Kal-el has remarkable super-powers.  From an early age, Kal-el’s adopted parents, Jonathan and Martha Kent, felt the need to protect Kal-el’s alien identity.  So, they named him Clark, and over time Clark Kent adopted a human identity to conceal who he actually is.

Superman doesn’t wear a mask.  Clark Kent does – thick glasses, social awkwardness, and general nerdy-ness.

1368804821_cw-tribute-superchange-pierson-02

Bruce Wayne puts on a mask to become Batman.  Superman puts on glasses and a business suit to become Clark Kent.  See the difference?

How many of us do the same?

You and I are more like Superman than Batman.  How cool is that?

We are sons and daughters of God, made in his image and likeness, invested with incredible abilities and potential.  But, because we feel insecure and ashamed, we put on masks to conceal who God created us to be.  By doing so, we hide from the world and ourselves who we really are.

There’s no more need for hiding in shame!

Romans 8: 1 says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

But, in spite of our new freedom in Christ to rip off our masks, most of us are still hiding.  Even though we have nothing to be ashamed of, because of Christ, most of us still FEEL pretty shameful.

Which leads me, at last, to one of my favorite quotes, by Marianne Williamson.  She writes, Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

So, take off your mask.  Lay down your shame.  Cast off your fear.  Come out of the bushes.  You are a child of God, with nothing to be ashamed of.  Let your light shine!  Be who you are!

Leap: The Second Sermon is a Series Called “The 40-Day Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 25, 2017

Leap:  The Second Sermon is a Series Called “The 40-Day Summer Stretch,” Preached at First Church Coral Springs on Sunday, June 25, 2017

Aquaphobia

Many of us have one phobia or another.  A phobia is an irrational fear, a kind of anxiety disorder in which the individual has a relentless dread of a situation, living creature, place, or thing.  According to Phobialist.com, there are at least 350 known, documented, verifiable phobias.  According to Medicalnewstoday.com, the 5 most common phobias in the United States are…

  • Social phobia – fear of being in places with a lot of people
  • Agoraphobia – fear of being somewhere with no support, away from home, open spaces
  • Claustrophobia – fear of being in constricted, confined spaces
  • Aerophobia – fear of flying
  • Arachnophobia – fear of spiders

Most phobias are more-or-less individualized.  My phobias are different than your phobias.  But, I’d argue, that there’s a generalized phobia that seems to affect Israel throughout the Bible; aquaphobia – fear of water.

  • In Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” Water pre-existed the Creation story, and represented chaos, darkness, and the absence of God.
  • In Genesis 6, God destroyed every living thing on the Earth with a flood.
  • When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, they got stuck between the Egyptian armies and the Red Sea. God parted the waters so that they could walk through on dry land.  But, Pharaoh and his army were drowned.
  • Ancient Israelites believed in sea monsters called leviathan.
  • Jonah was swallowed by a whale.
  • Historians have noted that ancient Israel never had a navy.
  • And, by the way, we forget sometimes that the symbolism of Baptism represents drowning the old person, and raising a new person to new life.

The Israelites feared water.

But, more often than not, God pushes us to confront our fears and to trust him.

Sticking your toes in the water…

Joshua 3 tells the story of when Israel, after centuries of waiting, was about to enter the Promised Land.  The problem was, they were on one side of the Jordan river, and the Promised Land was on the other.  And, to make matters worse, the river was higher and wider than usual.  Joshua 3:15 says, Now the Jordan is at flood stage all during harvest.”

            Joshua gave the following command,

“This is how you will know that the living God is among you... See, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth will go into the Jordan ahead of you…  And as soon as the priests who carry the ark of the Lord—the Lord of all the earth—set foot in the Jordan, its waters flowing downstream will be cut off and stand up in a heap…”  As soon as the priests who carried the ark reached the Jordan and their feet touched the water’s edge, the water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away…  So the people crossed over opposite Jericho.  The priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground. (Joshua 3:9-17)

Notice, the river didn’t stop flowing until AFTER they stepped into the water.  As long as they stood on the shore, the river kept flowing.

After everyone had passed through the Jordan on dry ground, Joshua had a monument of stones built in the river, as a reminder for future generations of what God had done.  Joshua said, “In the future when your descendants ask their parents, ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them, ‘Israel crossed the Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the Jordan before you until you had crossed over…  He did this so that all the peoples of the earth might know that the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God.” (Joshua 4:22-24)

The stones were a visual reminder that God is strong and God fulfills God’s promises. God can be trusted.  The stones were a reminder that God is bigger than our fears.  The stones were a reminder that God is worthy of our faith.

But, they never would have known that if they hadn’t faced their fears, and stuck their toes in the water.  They had to get their feet wet.  They had to take the first step.

You and I have to be willing to take that first step, and get our feet wet too.

            Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Faith, Trust, Fear…

            Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” 

            2 Corinthians 5:7, “For we live by faith, not by sight.”

            We trust what we know.  We trust evidence and proof.  We trust our possessions.  We trust what we see.

But, we’re called to faith.  Faith is trusting in a God we can’t see.  Faith is based in belief more than evidence.  Faith requires trust – not in what’s tangible and provable – but, in God.  And, faith is only faith if we act on it.  You have to take a leap.  You have to get your feet wet.

How will you know you can do it?  You won’t, until you try.

How do you know for sure what God wants you to do?  You won’t. until you try.

How do you know you’ll have enough money, or time, or talent?  You won’t, until you try.

You won’t know until you act on faith.  That’s why it is called a “Leap of faith.”

            Maya Angelou wrote, “It is this belief in a power larger than myself and other than myself which allows me to venture into the unknown and even the unknowable.”  

            But, faith in the absence of visible evidence is really, really hard.

            Another story from the Bible is the time the disciples sailed across the Sea of Galilee, at night, and Jesus came to them walking on water.  Matthew 14:26-27 says, When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.   But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”

            Notice – their first assumption was that Jesus was a ghost.  After all, remember, water is a scary place. But, this is no ghost – it’s Jesus.   Jesus speaks to the phobia – “Don’t be afraid.”

            Then something surprising happens.  Peter said, Lord, if it’s you, tell me to come to you on the water.” “Come,” he said.  Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”  Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”

“You of little faith” seems a bit harsh to me.  Besides Jesus, Peter’s the only human I know to successfully walk on water – even if only a few steps.

That’s more than I can say.  What about you?

Paulo Coehlo writes, “Pitiful is the person who is afraid of taking risks. Perhaps this person will never be disappointed or disillusioned; perhaps she won’t suffer the way people do when they have a dream to follow. But when that person looks back – and at some point everyone looks back – she will hear her heart saying, ‘What have you done with the miracles that God planted in your days? What have you done with the talents God bestowed on you? You buried yourself in a cave because you were fearful of losing those talents. So this is your heritage; the certainty that you wasted your life.’” 

All of the focus is on Peter, who took a few successful steps on the water, but sank when he became afraid.  All of the attention is on his lack of faith.  But, what about the others, who never left the boat in the first place?  The others couldn’t let go of the safety and security of the boat – of what seemed solid and reliable.  Walking on water never even crossed their minds.

I have friends who love to bungee jump, and to jump out of airplanes.  They love the experience of free fall, and they love the adrenaline.  I think they’re nuts.  The only way I’d jump out of our perfectly good airplane is if it was on fire and going to crash – and even then, I’m not sure!  The bottom line is that I don’t trust the bungee cord or the parachute enough to jump.  The thrill for me is not worth the risk.

I think that’s a wise choice.

But, spiritually, a lack of trust can be crippling.

Let me ask you a question – what’s your boat?  If a boat represents the tangible things that give us security, and if faith is in unseen things – like a man walking on water – what are the securities you cling to?  A job?  Your health?  Your savings or retirement plan?  Your spouse?  Your connections?  Your government?

What’s your boat?

Don’t get wrong.  There’s nothing wrong with working hard, or saving for the future, or investing wisely, or growing in your career, or having people you can rely on.  But, they do become a problem when we trust them more than Jesus.  Listen to me – nothing in this world is more trustworthy than Jesus.

And, Jesus doesn’t call any of us to only live lives of safety and security.  Jesus invites us to confront our fears and take leaps of faith, that require faith in him and not in ourselves.  Jesus invites us to stick our toes into waters that are scary and may seem dangerous.  Jesus challenges not to give into our fears and phobias, and to trust him.

So, if water represents danger, fear and risk – what are you afraid of?

Pope John 23 said, “Consult not your fears but your hopes and dreams. Think not about your frustrations, but about your unfulfilled potential. Concern yourself not with what you tried and failed in, but with what is still possible for you to do.”

The Partial Credit Club

            It seems a little unfair to me that Peter doesn’t get more credit for trying.  Just stepping out of the boat was courageous, even if he sank.

My High School Algebra teacher was Hank Pfingstag.  I actually ended up becoming his pastor later.  I really like Hank, and really liked him as a teacher.  He was funny, and kept us interested and entertained.  But, he was hard.  It wasn’t unusual for most of the class to fail his tests.  As he handed out our test scores, he would say, if you had a higher “F” than others, “Congratulations – you got a good F!”

Mr. Pfingstag made us show all of our work.  Most of us did “most” of the work right, and “almost” got the right answer.  After every test, a group of us would argue for “partial credit” – desperately pleading to get out of the “F” zone.  Mr. Pfingstag called us the Partial Credit Club – but he never once changed our grades!

I think Peter deserves to be in the Partial Credit Club.  I’d like to believe that I deserve to be in the Partial Credit Club, sometimes, spiritually speaking, for at least trying to live by faith.

What about you?

I want to leave you with two images this morning.  Imagine God has a great promise for you – a Promised Land, if you will.  But, to have it, you’ll have to cross a river of fear.  Are you going to go for it?  Or, are you going to stay on the safe side of the river, missing out?  Imagine Jesus reaching out his hand to you, but you have to walk on the water to reach him.  You can do it, with faith.  Are you going to step out on the water, or are just keeping your seat in the boat?

It’s time to get out of the boat!

 

 

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.