I choose love…

I choose love…

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, 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.

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

Ephesians 3:14-21

Every now and then, throughout my 24+ years of ministry, I’m told that I preach and teach about love TOO much.  For the most part, the critique is based in a desire to hear more explicit condemnation of sin from the pastor and the pulpit.  And, for the most part, I suspect they want me to preach about other’s sins, and not necessarily their own.

I believe their critique is based in the false notion that preaching about sin is more truthful, while preaching about love just implies God loves everyone – which is true – and that sin doesn’t really matter, which is false.  Sin does matter.  And, God’s response to sin is love.

“God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Romans 5:8

Over, and over, and over, despite the naysayers, I’m drawn back to love.

God’s love is THE primary theme of the Bible.  Jesus identified love as the greatest commandment.  God’s own self-definition is love, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

As Moses received the Ten Commandments, the Lord said, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands,and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”  Exodus 34:6-7

The Psalms speak of the Lord’s love over 125 times, repeating over and over, The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.”  Psalm 145:8

Even in the Prophets, where you find the most judgment and condemnation of sin, God’s desire is to love and be loved by his people, “‘Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,’ says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”  Isaiah 54:10

Of course, Jesus, and his sacrificial death, is the ultimate expression of God’s love for us.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t think God is soft on sin.  Neither Christ’s death or an authentic life of Christian discipleship is easy.  Personally speaking, the Lord certainly hasn’t been soft on the sin in my life, as he continues the difficult work of conviction, refinement, and growth to maturity.  It would be SO much easier if God would just love me, and leave me as I am!  But, God doesn’t work that way!

Here’s what I know.  The more I love God, the closer I’m drawn to him.  The closer I’m drawn to God, the more I see the work still left to be done in me.  But, when I feel guilty or ashamed, I tend to hide from God, hiding my sin in the shadows, even from myself.

I suspect – no, I know – the same is true for others.

“Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?”  Romans 2:4

Scripture affirms it.  Jesus embodies it.  The Lord commands it.  The saints cherish it.  God is love.  In all that God is and all that God does, God is love.

My only desire, as a pastor, is for people to know God’s love as deeply and as personally as possible.  My theory is that love draws, judgement shuns.  Love embraces, judgement pushes away.  Love accepts, judgement condemns.  Love pursues, judgment turns it’s back.  Love is unconditional, judgement only sees conditions.  Love is warm, judgement is cold.  Love is truth, judgement is a lie.  Love extends, judgement narrows.

I don’t intend to use guilt, or fear, or condemnation to draw people to God, or to turn them away from God, God forbid!  I choose love.

And, I suppose, I share this because I’m increasingly convinced we all could use a lot more love – for God, for one another, for our enemies, and even for ourselves.

The apostle Paul, often referenced by those too quick to condemn, wrote that his prayer for the Christians in Ephesus was, “…to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge.”  Perhaps you see the same “contradiction” I do.  Paul says God’s love for us “surpasses knowledge,” and yet he prays for the power to grasp its width, length, height, and depth.  In other words, when we’re spiritually stretched beyond any capacity we can imagine to comprehend the vastness of God’s love, we’re still only scratching the surface.

God’s love is greater still.

Perhaps it’s too obvious and unnecessary to point out that Paul does NOT pray for us to know the vastness of our sinful depravity!  Paul teaches about sin.  Certainly.  But, not nearly as much as he emphasizes love.

So, I commit myself again, today, here and now, more and more and more, to the boundless, endless, fathomless love of God; to teach, to preach it, to write about it, and to hopefully – with God’s help – live it and give it.

And, if you don’t like it… well, God loves you anyway.

I’ll try to love you too.

To love and be loved…

To love and be loved…

“Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all. You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.”   St. Augustine of Hippo

As I was praying, this morning, I sensed God saying, “Your calling is to love and be loved.”

When I “hear” things from the Lord, in prayer, I’ve learned to simply receive, as humbly and gratefully as possible, without too much skepticism, over-confidence, or over-analysis.  I try to be equally open to the possibility God has actually spoken to me, and that I might just be talking to myself.  I try to pay attention, listen, and receive.  Time tends to reveal what is of God, and what isn’t.

But, this morning’s word, “Your calling is to love and be loved,” feels like something God would say.  I wasn’t praying about “my calling.”  The words just came.  When a word comes, that clearly lines up with Scripture and Truth – like the Great Commandment, say – why wouldn’t I accept the possibility God has spoken?

But, God took it further.  As I heard it and received it, I first assumed God was talking about people – love and be loved, by people.  Let’s be honest, that’s not always easy.  Some people are easier to love than others!  And, some days, I don’t feel very loving.  But, God wasn’t talking about people.  He was talking about my relationship with him.

My calling is to love God, and be loved by God.

That probably sounds pretty obvious.  Truth usually does!

My calling is my vocation, my life’s purpose, my destiny.  My calling is how I am to use my time, energy, talents and abilities.  My calling is giving all I am to all God has given me to be and to do.  My calling is my first priority.

So is your’s.

“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.”  (Matthew 22:37-38)

I think it’s easy to forget that.  If we care about love, and I think we all do, I suspect most of us focus more on how much, or how little, we love or feel loved by others.  And, if we don’t love, or feel loved, by people, we might assume God doesn’t love us much either.

We might wonder why certain people don’t, or can’t, love us.  We might show love to others, and feel rejected when they don’t love us in return.  We might try as hard as we can to love certain people, and feel like failures when we don’t.

But, if our first love is God, and we allow ourselves to be loved by God, the degree to which others do or don’t love us becomes less important.  If we can grasp how much God really loves us, that’s enough.  Thankfully, others – some others – will love us, too.  And, that’s wonderful.  And, I truly believe God often loves us through the people who really love us.  But, dare I say human love is just a bonus, if we already know how much God love us?

And, if I really love God, in return – with all of my heart, soul, and mind – am I not more capable of loving the people God loves?  Do I not have a greater capacity to love as God loves, even if they are hard to love, or don’t love me in return?

If my first task is to love God, and be loved by God, and I am faithful to that task, won’t my heart gradually become more and more like God’s?

As I pastor, I think about my calling a lot.  Calling is a pastor’s modus operandi.  But, I tend to associate my calling, primarily, with a particular role, or place, or mission, or set of pastoral tasks.  Those are not insignificant.  They are part of how one responds to a particular calling.  But, I am realizing they are secondary.

My primary calling is to love God, and be loved God.

St. Augustine writes,“To fall in love with God is the greatest romance; to seek him the greatest adventure; to find him, the greatest human achievement.” 

I suspect love is your calling, too.

 

 

Who is My Enemy?

Who is My Enemy?

My day began, preparing for my Friday morning Bible Study.  We’re currently studying the Sermon on the Mount, and our passage today was the end of Matthew 5, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”

Included in that group of teachings is the instruction to love our enemies, which raised the question, “Who is my enemy?”

I’ve been chewing on that question all day.  The Greek word for enemy, used in the New Testament, is “echthros,” which means someone who is openly hostile, hateful and actively seeking to do me harm.  With that definition in mind, “Who is my enemy?”

A few moments ago, I had an unexpected visit from a family from New York, who are members of a Bruderhof community.  Members of Bruderhof communities are Christians, living in community, sharing all things in common.  Their purpose is to live as close to the values and ways of the New Testament Church as possible.  Bruderhof communities began in Germany, but now exist all over the world.

This particular family is here, in Coral Springs, to serve our community in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy.  Their primary message is the need for love and forgiveness.  Can you imagine traveling across the country, giving more than a week of your life, to share about forgiveness?

So, my day has been bookended by two common themes – “Who is my enemy?” and forgiveness.

I know I’m not everyone’s favorite person, and that some may not like me at all.  But, I sincerely hope no one thinks of me as an enemy.  Though I’m the target of an unfriendly word from time to time, I know that comes with being a pastor and a leader… and being an imperfect human.  But, the messenger, no matter how harsh the message, is not my enemy.  As the New Testament defines “enemy,” I’m grateful to say I don’t have any that I’m aware of.

You’re not my enemy if you disagree with me.  Your’e not my enemy if you yell at me.  You’re not my enemy if we vote for different candidates.  You’re not my enemy if we have different theologies, or interpretations of Scripture.  You’re not my enemy if you leave an angry reply to this post, or any other.  You’re not my enemy if you leave something distasteful on my social media (though, I’ll likely delete it).  You’re not my enemy if you cut me off in traffic… well, maybe…

Jesus, undeniably had enemies.  They crucified him.  The earlier Church had enemies.  They were persecuted.  Though I’m not always popular, I’m thankful I’ve never experienced having an enemy, actively seeking to do me harm.  At least, not yet.

But, forgiveness, is a different matter.  I need to be forgiven, for a lot.  There are lots of people I need to forgive, that aren’t necessarily my enemy.  I need to forgive family, friends, co-workers, brothers and sisters in Christ.  I need to forgive people I love.  I need to forgive some people I don’t particularly like.  I need to forgive myself.  I may even need to forgive God.

And, I wonder if the longer we don’t forgive someone, the more likely we may begin to see them as an enemy?  I wonder.

Whose your enemy?  Who do you need to forgive?

 

 

“Rights” vs. “Righteousness”

“Rights” vs. “Righteousness”

Inevitably… predictably… another mass shooting has inflamed the gun “rights” debate.  Again, politicians and pundits are debating the “rights” of gun-owners, guaranteed by the U.S. constitution, versus the “rights” of the innocent victims of gun-violence.

I must confess, I don’t like guns.  I don’t own a gun.  I don’t want a gun.  I’ve never fired a gun.  I’ve never, once, needed a gun.  I don’t hunt.  I haven’t felt the need to defend myself.

That being said, I respect that our laws allow others, who do have the need or desire, to do so.  And, law is the issue.

Humans create laws.  We decide what is legal, or illegal.  We decide, by creating (or amending) laws, who can sell, own, carry, or use a gun, and under what circumstances it is legal to do so.

Some argue that gun ownership is a “right,” guaranteed by our Constitution.  And, legally, they are correct.  But, for a moment, I would like to reflect on the word “rights.”  What are my rights, and what are my rights based on?

The Declaration of Independence says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Inspiring words, penned by Thomas Jefferson.

“Unalienable rights” is a political/philosophical concept attributed to the “Creator.”  But, on what basis is such a claim made?

We have a “Bill of ‘Rights’,” that guarantees certain freedoms, and limits the powers of the government in specific ways, including the “right” for U.S. citizens to legally “keep and bear” arms.  The original “Bill of Rights” was written by James Madison, and approved by the United States Congress in 1789.  Numerous additions and amendments have been made to it over 200+ years.

The Congress – men and women elected by the people of the United States – have determined our rights for us, on our behalf.  Courts of law have defended those rights.  Hypothetically, those same laws can be amended by the same process.

What does God say about our “rights?”  To answer that particular question, Christians turn to Scripture as the primary authority for what God says, or doesn’t say.

You might be surprised to discover that the Bible has VERY little to say about “rights.”  Having “rights” is not a biblical concept.  Certain “rights” in marriage and inheritance are mentioned, which are mostly archaic.  The Prophets spoke of the “rights” of the poor, the widow, and the orphan to mercy and justice.  The Apostle Paul talks about having the “right” to food and drink, to being paid for his work, to having a wife – and yet, he didn’t demand his “rights,” for the sake of those he was called to serve.

Throughout the Bible, the word “right” appears primarily in two ways.  Repeatedly, the Bible talks about “doing” what is “right,” according to godly principles.  And, more importantly, the Bible talks about being “righteous” as God is “righteous.”  A “right,” biblically speaking, has nothing, whatsoever to do with what I am allowed or entitled to.  “Right,” biblically, is about correct, godly action.  Doing “right,” or being “right,” has to do with loving God and neighbor in thought, word, and deed.  “Righteous” living is godly living, which calls for obedience, faithfulness, and self-sacrifice for the sake of others.

That bears repeating.  Being “right” biblically means sacrificing my “rights” for the good and well-being of others.  “Demanding my rights and freedoms,” is inherently un-biblical, when it places my rights above another’s needs.

Let me be very clear.  “Liberty,” as in a Constitutionally-guaranteed freedom or right, is a political concept, not a biblical one.  The laws of the United States of America guarantee her citizens certain legal “rights.”  The Bible doesn’t.  That doesn’t make “rights” wrong or bad – they’re just not biblical.

Ultimately, whether or not laws are changed regarding gun ownership will be determined through a legal process of bills, debates, and votes – which may, or may not happen.  My point is this: Christians are called to “righteousness” – to do what is right, for the sake of others – not to defend our own “rights.”  My “right” as a U.S. citizen to “bear keep and bear arms” does not take precedent over God’s expectation of righteousness.  As a Christian, when demanding my legal “rights” supersedes my call to righteous living for the sake of others, I am not “right” with God.

Ultimately, my point – my opinion – really isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of gun ownership.  A “righteous” Christian can own a gun, and still be righteous!   I am NOT against responsible gun “rights” or laws, even if I don’t choose to exercise that “right.”  My point, Christian brothers and sisters, is that we must seek a “righteous” solution to gun-violence, based in biblically principles, not just legal ones.

We must offer a “righteous” perspective and voice into this legal debate.

Are we willing to sacrifice some degree of our legal rights, in order to make our children and our schools safer?  Are we willing to forgo some degree of our legal rights, to protect the innocent?  Are we willing to relinquish some of our legal rights, for the sake of righteousness?

Do we care more about our “rights” or our “righteousness?”

 

“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?