A.J. Thomas serves as the pastor of Morehead United Methodist Church in Greensboro, NC and shares these sermons with you.
You can join the Morehead congregation for worship on Sundays at 9 am (informal/contemporary) or 10:55 am (traditional). We're located in Northwest Greensboro at 3214 Horse Pen Creek Road, 27410.
(On Saturday afternoon, a 16-year-old in our congregation died in sudden and tragic circumstances. In light of that, I scrapped the scheduled sermon and worship service for the next day and wrote what is below. It seemed odd to simply continue with "business-as-usual." My hope was to address some of the pain and questions I knew our congregation would be coming in with, to help us all find some solid ground when everything else seemed to be slipping away, and to point us all in the direction of healing.)
For I am
convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things
present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor
depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the
love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
When tragedy strikes, it
is easy for us to start looking for answers.Why did this happen?Where was
God?Why did God allow this?Why do bad things happen to good people?
The temptation is to rush
in with some sort of response.And if
you’re a person of faith, the temptation is to rush in with some sort of
theological explanation, and my first piece of advice is simply this: “Don’t.”When my Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer,
she put together a list she called “Stupid things not to say to someone who has
cancer.”Several well-meaning Christian
friends suggested that she take comfort in the fact that “everything happens
for a reason,” or “this must have been the will of God.”
It sounds like the right
sort of thing to say, but it’s not comforting.It’s not even true.Far from
being comforting, it only leaves people angry with God.Suffering, unanswered prayers, and the
unfairness of life naturally lead us to question God’s goodness and sometimes
to question God’s very existence.Ask
atheists why they reject the idea of God, and this will be among their answers.
The question often goes
this way: “If God is loving and just, then God must not be all-powerful, otherwise
God would stop tragedies from happening.”Or, “if God IS all-powerful, then God must not be loving and just.”Because, if God is powerful, loving, and
just, God would intervene and stop the suffering and tragedy in our world.
In light of what took
place yesterday, perhaps you are wrestling with these questions.What I want you to know first off, is that God
is the Lord and giver of life.God is not the taker of life.
Should we tell a family who has lost their child: “There, there: God needed
another angel in heaven?”Really?If that’s true, then God sounds like a real
jerk to me.And yet, Christians can be
notorious for saying stuff like that – maybe it’s our way of finding meaning or
sounding noble and pious and all that, but really, all we do is tremendous
harm, and the worst of it is we do it in God’s name.
I feel like every time someone says something like that, God just says,
“Whoa, that wasn’t me!”
In the days ahead, many of you will want to know what you can do to help
Sandy and Tyler and M’Kenzie, and Bill and Judy.The first thing I’d say is to not say things
like these.What happened to Dalton
yesterday was not part of God’s plan, it was not God’s will, it was not for
some reason only known to the mind of God.Don’t promise things you have no control over, either, like saying it
will get better, or they’ll get over it, eventually.This isn’t something that’s going away.It’s something we will all have to carry with
Don’t say those things because they’re not helpful.They’re not healing.They’re not true.They’re more likely to turn a grieving person
away from God than toward God – because if God was the one who
caused the suffering, why would I go to God to comfort me in the suffering?
Friends, when you don’t know what to say, you don’t actually need to say anything.Turns out you don’t have to say much to let
someone know you care.Often, a hug, a
smile, a call, a card, and a simple, “I’m so sorry” is all that needs to be
said.That’s all you need to do.
Someone asked me yesterday where Dalton is now.He is safe and secure in the arms of the
Lord, and I believe that with every fiber of my being because I believe the
promises of the Scripture that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor
things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height,
nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from
the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You got that?God IS Love, and NOTHING – NOTHING shall
separate us from God’s love.Not death
(whether at the hand of someone else or ourselves), not angels (be they of
light or darkness), not powers of depression, not depths within our soul that
drag us down and lead us to a point where we feel we have no alternative.
The darkness of mental
illness is something over which persons have no control. Our understanding of
human psychology and mental illness still has a long way to go, but it’s also
come a long way. I’ve heard well-meaning
people tell depressed people to just “turn it over to God,” as if it’s that
easy.But, even after people seek God,
they may still be very much troubled by feelings of failure, hopelessness, or
being unloved, and God understands the difficulties of those feelings and how
truly overwhelming they can be.
And not only does God
understand, I understand, and I care, and whatever any of you may be going
through, please, know that I’m willing to listen and help in any way I
can.If you’re struggling with
self-destructive thoughts and habits, don’t go through that alone.I promise no shame, no judgment, no guilt –
just a desire to see you healthy and full of life and thriving.
I am well-aware that in a
group of people this size, statistically, it is highly likely that one or more
persons here today are dealing with destructive thoughts that make you feel
like you’re at a dead-end or you’ve got nowhere to go. Listen, if that’s where
you are, I want you to come talk to me this week. In fact, I expect you to come
talk to me.Or maybe you don’t want to
talk to me, and you’d rather talk to someone else, and I’m willing to bet that
there are other people here today who would be glad to talk to you and help you
before you do something that can never be taken back – if you would be willing
for people to talk to you, would you please put your hand up?
Even Jesus prayed on the
cross, “My God, my God: why have you forsaken me?” Do you know the response
that came from heaven when Jesus prayed those words? Nothing. Deafening
I can’t overstate the
significance of that. Jesus – the son of God, who was himself God – knew what
it felt like to be alone and abandoned and forgotten. Jesus – who was sinless –
knew what it felt like for his deepest and most earnest prayer to be met with
silence. And so when someone feels alone in the world, when they feel
friendless and hopeless, that is a very real feeling that even Jesus himself
experienced. Those feelings don’t make someone a sinner or suggest that they
have some defect or flaw of character, because even Jesus himself struggled
with the very same feelings.
God is well aware that
people are subject to harmful and self-destructive thoughts. That doesn’t make
them wicked people. It makes them ill.Jesus
is the Great Physician – who came to heal all illness, including mental illness
that may lead to people doing things that are harmful to themselves and those
they love.God’s mercy and love and
grace is big enough to cover that.There
are those who leave this life too early, and God has special understanding and
mercy for those who take an incomplete in life.
I just can’t imagine God –
the God of Love, the God whose heart and love and grace is bigger than we can
ever know – I can’t imagine God holding the events of yesterday afternoon
against Dalton.God grades on the curve
– and where mercy and grace are needed, God supplies it all the more.
Was this God’s will for
Dalton?Hell, no.Again, any god who willed this, who wrote
this particular tragedy into Dalton’s life story is a god I would want nothing
to do with.No, this was not the will of
God.The Scriptural witness is clear:
God’s will is ever-directed to his children’s good.Jeremiah 29:11 says, “’For I know the plans I
have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you,
plans to give you hope and a future.’” Jesus promised us that we came so that
we would have life and have it abundantly and to the full (John 10:10).All of this witnesses against God having anything to do with a life tragically cut short
– that when life does end too soon, it was clearly
not the will of God.
Since yesterday afternoon,
I have imagined the conversation God and Dalton had when he arrived in
heaven.I imagine God saying, “Dalton,
you knucklehead, you are here way too soon.This was not what I wanted for you.This was not my plan or will for you.I wanted so much more for your life.This was not the way I wanted your life to end.There was so much more I wanted you to know
and experience, so much I wanted you to do – you’re not supposed to be here,
yet!So yes, I am so disappointed to see
you here so soon, yet, I love you.You
are my beloved child.I know the
difficulties you’ve had, the feelings you’ve had, the mistakes and shortcomings
and decisions you’ve made that I wish you hadn’t.And, my grace is sufficient for you, for this
and every time of need. I am sorry for the pain and torment you went through,
and my love for you is greater than all those thoughts and feelings, and my
grace is greater than even this destructive thing you have done.”
You see, we have a God who
weeps when we do.Who grieves when we
do.God knows what we’re going through –
he lost a son once, too, you know.We
don’t have the promise that God will make the pain go away or shield us from
tragedy, or that if we’re good, godly people, bad things will never happen to
us.I wish, but it doesn’t work that
But the things that break
our hearts also break God’s heart.We
have a God who enters into our suffering and takes it on himself.As his hands and feet, we are called to enter
into the suffering of others and walk with them through it.And I know for the Davis family, you are
already doing that and will continue to do that.
Where is God?God is with us, particularly as the people of
God show up where love and grace is needed the most.
15 “If your
brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone
together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16
But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth
of two or three witnesses. 17 But if they still won’t
pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the
church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. 18
I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And
whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. 19
Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask,
then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. 20 For
where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”
Psychiatrist Scott Peck
wrote that communities often pass through four stages of development. Peck
called the most common, initial stage of building community “pseudo-community”
or “false community.” And sadly, “pseudo-community”
is often the only stage that many communities will know.There are no problems, people mind their manners,
and, when asked, everyone is doing, “Fine.”
But then we find out that,
beneath the plastic smiles and polite pretense, beneath all that sugar-sweet
niceness, dishonest failure to name things leaves untended cavities which rot
out everything under the surface such that just a hollow outer shell remains.It’s not that conflict doesn’t exist in the
pseudo-community, it’s simply swept under the rug and ignored.Like deferred maintenance, the longer you let
it go, the more damage it does.
Jesus, however, calls us
beyond pseudo-community into Christian community.Whereas in pseudo-community, politeness and
proper appearances are the highest goals, in Christian community,
reconciliation and restoration of relationships are the highest goals.
chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus’ blueprint for moving from
pseudo-community into real community.It
doesn’t ignore conflict, but recognizes it as part of life, and even that it
can be a healthy thing that builds the community when it’s handled in the right
Where two or three are
gathered, there is bound to be a difference of opinion.It’s been said that one of the greatest
things about being part of the church are the people!And one of the most difficult things about
being part of the church are . . . the people!Spend enough time with people, and someone will, inevitably, rub someone
else the wrong way.I wish I could
guarantee that if you’re part of a church, that will never happen, but I can’t.
What I can do is invite
and challenge you to deal with those bumps – the misunderstandings, the hurt
feelings, the disagreements, the conflicts – in a Christian way.Not to live as a pseudo-community, but as a Christian community.And here’s the number one rule for dealing
with conflict as a Christian: when
you have a problem with someone, talk directly to them.Don’t talk about them.Don’t talk around them.Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, do not
tell anyone else about it until you have first talked to them, in person,
face-to-face, so the relationship can be restored.
I was thinking of conflict
in the church, and trying to think of an example I could give of bad ways to
handle church conflict.After 34 years
in the church, it’s hard to think of examples that aren’t real examples, and
it’s interesting how the issues that come up in one church are similar to ones
that come up in another.Even if I
change the names and the scenario and the ministry area, even if I completely
made up an example, it could still sound enough like another instance you know
that you’re left wondering if I’m really talking about that situation or about
so-and-so – I’m not.
Here are some unhealthy
ways of dealing with conflict that clearly are not interested in restoring
relationships and fixing what is wrong:
Talking about someone rather than to them. Anyone here
ever talk about someone behind their back?Anyone here ever have someone talk about you behind your back?That’s a pretty universal human experience,
and we all know, first-hand, how frustrating and painful that can be.When we have a problem with someone, it’s
easier to talk about them behind their back, bless their heart, than to their
face, but this provides us with no opportunity to fix the problem and work on
the broken relationship.
Just so you know this is a
made-up story, let’s imagine I’m mad at, say, Lib Joyner for something.I’m picking on Lib because, come on, like I
could be mad at Lib about anything, and I figured she’d be at both services
like usual.So, let’s say Lib did something
that really ticked me off.Maybe it was
on purpose, maybe not.Maybe she knows
she did it, maybe not.Maybe she can
sense how mad I am about it, maybe not.Doesn’t matter.
So, and see if this sounds
familiar, I’m mad at Lib, and I pick up the phone and call four people to let
them know what she did and how upset I am.Then, each of them in turn call four people and say, “Did you hear
what’s going on between Lib and A.J.?” and within an hour, everyone knows some
version of the story, the whole church is talking about it, except for the only
two people who should be talking about it.
According to Matthew 18,
what did I do wrong in that example?If
I have a problem with Lib, who should I talk to about it?Do you see how it’s a problem when I talk to
everyone but the person who is
actually involved?Most conflicts within
the church involve far more people than they need to.
Being a willing audience.Gossip spreads
because there’s a market for it.When
someone comes to you and says, “Let me tell you about so-and-so,” and you say,
“Okay,” you are just as responsible for the spread of hurtful gossip as the
person saying it.You’re working against
reconciliation by giving the person the easy out by telling you about their
beef with someone else instead of doing the hard thing to talk to the person
they have the problem with.If, however,
you respond by saying, “Have you talked with them, yet?If not, don’t talk to me,” you have decreased
the street value of gossip by indicating there is no market for it.
feedback is a way of saying, “I want to say this, but I don’t want to take
responsibility for what I’ve said.”We
have a special file that anonymous notes go into.It’s next to my desk, round, and gets emptied
once a week by the cleaning crew. Not
only is anonymous feedback cowardly, it provides no opportunity for
reconciliation because you don’t know who to seek out in order to fix the issue
and restore the relationship – an anonymous complaint is an unresolvable
Spokesperson for a cause.One that’s a
bit more subtle, but still under the category of anonymous, is when we speak on
behalf of others.We provide feedback
and couch it in terms of “many people feel this way.”When someone tells you how “many people” feel
about something, you have permission to lovingly say, “I am interested in how
YOU feel.Please tell ‘many people’ that
if they want me to know how they feel, then many people’ will need to talk to
Unofficial Meetings.These take
many forms: the meeting before the meeting, the meeting after the meeting, in
the parking lot, in the hallways, in the kitchen.We hold what we really think in the official
meeting, only to share it as soon as the meeting adjourns.Again, do you see how this sort of things makes
restoration and reconciliation impossible?
Disappearing Act.I don’t like
how things are going, I got my feelings hurt, someone said something to me, and
so I either stop coming and/or stop giving.I deal with conflict by taking my ball and going home.Again, rather than dealing with the
difficulty directly, we just walk away, and again, reconciliation and
restoration become impossible with a person who is no longer there.
Christian community always
has reconciliation and restoration at its goal.Where these behaviors break down is that they provide no opportunity for
reconciliation.Our faith is the story
of God restoring and redeeming all that is broken, all that is amiss, all that
is damaged and in need of repair, beginning within us and our relationships
with each other.
99% of the time,
misunderstandings and difficulties can be cleared up if both parties are
willing to sit in the same room and listen to each other.I’m grateful for people who love me enough to
sit down with me and let me know ways I’ve let them down.I’ve learned things about myself that I’d
never known before, and discovered how I can avoid doing it again.These conversations typically end with one
person saying, “I’m sorry,” and the other saying, “I forgive you.”Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Love means
never having to say you’re sorry,” but if I can channel my inner Bill Cosby for
a minute, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!Love means saying you’re sorry all the time,
not because you have to, but because you realize the pain you’ve caused, and
you want to fix it.
Where two or three are
gathered in his name, Jesus is there with them – but it’s not about the
numbers.It’s about the reconciling
spirit of Christ that brings people together.We may say it to make ourselves feel better when there’s a low turnout
at Bible study, but this verse is an assurance that when there is a conflict in the church that
is resolved, Jesus is involved and present in that agreement. It’s all about
agreement, not attendance.The sincere
agreement of two people is more powerful than the superficial agreement of
Sometimes, that means hard
conversations with each other.Those
conversations are like removing a splinter from your finger.It hurts to dig around and work on getting it
out, even if you’re the one doing the digging.But it hurts even more to do nothing, to leave it there so that it
becomes infected and becomes even more painful and gets the whole body sick.
Conflict needs to be
resolved.And to be resolved, it has to
be named.Not with the goal of
embarrassing one another or finding fault, but so we can do whatever it takes
for the relationship to be restored.That’s hard work.But it’s
faithful work.And it’s necessary.
Reconciliation takes place
on a small stage, usually one-to-one.And if one person is reconciled to another through Christ, you know what
you have?Two people gathered in his
name, the building block of Christian community.
One of the most difficult
things about being part of the church are the people.But, one of the greatest things about being
part of the church are the people.The
people around you are among God’s greatest gifts to you.Don’t take those gifts lightly.In the life of faith, we’re always better
27 “But I say
to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate
you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat
you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one
as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give
to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take
them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to
25 A legal
expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain
replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
responded, “You must love the Lord
your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and
with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said
to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
29 But the
legal expert wanted to prove that he was right, so he said to Jesus, “And who
is my neighbor?”
replied, “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. He encountered thieves,
who stripped him naked, beat him up, and left him near death. 31
Now it just so happened that a priest was also going down the same road. When
he saw the injured man, he crossed over to the other side of the road and went
on his way. 32 Likewise, a Levite came by that spot, saw the
injured man, and crossed over to the other side of the road and went on his
way. 33 A Samaritan, who was on a journey, came to where the
man was. But when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. 34
The Samaritan went to him and bandaged his wounds, tending them with oil and
wine. Then he placed the wounded man on his own donkey, took him to an inn, and
took care of him. 35 The next day, he took two full days’
worth of wages and gave them to the innkeeper. He said, ‘Take care of him, and
when I return, I will pay you back for any additional costs.’ 36
What do you think? Which one of these three was a neighbor to the man who
37 Then the
legal expert said, “The one who demonstrated mercy toward him.”
Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
“Love your neighbor.”Part of the Great Commandment, inseparable
from the command to love God with everything we have.The center of our religious practice,
holiness that is both personal and social, two sides of the same coin in this
command from Jesus to “Love God, Love neighbor.”
Perhaps you’re thinking,
“Easy for you to say, Jesus, – you don’t have to live next to my
neighbors.I don’t even like my
neighbors, how am I supposed to love someone I can’t stand to be around?Someone who leaves their trash bin open and
the wind blows it into my yard, someone who trims the trees on my side of the
line, someone who always borrows my tools, and either doesn’t return them, or
manages to break them before I get them back!This is the neighbor you want me to love?I don’t even know half my neighbors; I
actually like them more than the others!”
Love God.Love your neighbor.Simple to say.Sometimes difficult to practice.
For the last several
weeks, we have been exploring the ways God is calling us to grow as a congregation
as we move into God’s preferred future.We give thanks for where we’ve been, we appreciate where we are now, and
we rejoice that God’s not done with us, yet.As good as our history and heritage is, God is calling us to even better
things in our future.With God, the best
is yet to come.Moving into that future
requires some stretching.Some
deepening.Some growing.Where are we growing?We’re growing in faith.We’re growing in grace.We’re growing as disciples.And, we’re growing as neighbors.May we
I grew up in a city
neighborhood where the houses were built between 1920 and 1950.The houses were close together.There were public sidewalks.People parked on the street.No one had air conditioning, and you could
tell what everyone was cooking for dinner just by riding your bike up and down
the street.Summer evenings typically
found the adults out on the front porch with a glass of tea or some other
beverage of choice.I knew the adults,
kids, and pets of every home within a four-block radius, and they knew me.If my friends and I got into any mischief, my
mom knew about it before I got back home.
People in the U.S. feel
less-connected to their neighbors now than they did fifty years ago.It’s not that people are less-friendly than
they used to be, it’s that our lifestyles have changed so that we interact with
other people less and less.Look at the
way we’ve built our homes and neighborhoods.Public, tree-lined streets with sidewalks gave way to cul-de-sacs in
gated communities.Big front porches
gave way to private backyard patios and decks.Attached garages became the norm.Air-conditioning sent everyone inside to escape the summer heat.Thanks to technology, you can buy gas, shop,
and bank without ever having to interact with another human being.Our world is much more convenient than it
used to be, but there is a high price for all that convenience – a loss of our
sense of community and connection.
Human beings are social creatures.We are hard-wired with a need to connect with
other people, a need which increases as our social space decreases, and in a
world in which our neighbors feel less and less connected, the church is
presented with an opportunity to fill that void, and be the place in our
community where significant connection among neighbors happens.For the people of God, being a good neighbor
is part of who we are.It’s intrinsic to
being a follower of Jesus.
Consider the story of the
Good Samaritan we read a few minutes ago.A legal expert and Jesus are sparring back and forth on what is
essential in the life of faith, and they eventually settle that it is to “Love
God and Love neighbor.”But the legal
expert, as lawyers are prone to do, starts looking for a loophole, and asks,
“But who is my neighbor?,” a definition which would necessarily define some as
“not my neighbor.”The lawyer is
essentially asking, “Who don’t I have to love?”
Jesus tells the story of a
man who is robbed, beaten, and left for dead on the side of the road.I imagine that man praying, crying out to God
to send someone to help him.Two
respected religious officials come down the road, first the man’s pastor, then
his favorite Biblical scholar – surely, one of these trusted, Godly men will
stop to help.But both avert their eyes,
quicken their pace, and cross to the other side of the road as they pass by the
But then along comes an
enemy – the most hated and despised person imaginable, and the half-dead man at
the side of the road knows the situation is about to go from bad to worse.Sure enough this enemy stops over the man –
what evil trickery is he about to commit?He looks at the wounded man for a moment, thinking to himself, and then
reaches in his cloak, and pulls out the best antiseptic medicine he has and
starts to apply it to the beaten man’s wounds.He carefully takes the man into the next town, finds him a room, and
calls a doctor to look after the man until he comes back in a few days.
Oh yeah - he was a
Samaritan – a people group who were more hated than you can imagine.Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which one was the
neighbor?” and the lawyer is so disgusted by the story he can’t even bring
himself to say “The Samaritan,” and can only mumble, “The one who showed
It’s easy to love your
neighbor when your neighbors are lovable.What if the term “neighbor” also extends to those you despise the most?
When my Dad sold his house
in New York, I went up to help move him down here.I was cleaning out the garage, when a neighbor
from up the street came by.“So, your
Dad finally sold the house.These people
who bought his house, what kind of people are they?”
Now, I’m not dumb.I’ve known this neighbor most of my life, and
know that he is one of the most prejudiced, racist people anyone could ever
meet.When he said, “What kind of people
are they?” he was asking, “What color are they?Are they white like me, or are they something different?”
I said, “You know, I don’t
know.I haven’t met them.Dad went to closing on his own.I do know that the color of their full cash
offer is green, and that’s good enough for me.”Like it or not, we have no control over who our neighbors will be.So we may as well make up our minds to love
our neighbors, regardless of who they are.
It’s not only individuals
who are called to be good neighbors.Churches are also called to be good neighbors.I drive around and see churches who look very
unwelcoming: chains across the parking lots, or condescending messages on their
marquees that the church members probably think are clever but everyone else
finds cheesy or offensive, but each of those things are a signal about their
engagement with outsiders.They send messages
that repel their neighbors rather than draw them in.
A Methodist church in Charlotte
had been established 70 years ago, in a thriving mill neighborhood.Eventually, the mill closed, the neighborhood
changed, but the church remained.Most
of its members moved out of the neighborhood, but continued to drive in for
church, but fewer each year, and so the church was dwindling further and
further down.The church looked less and
less like its neighborhood, and became increasingly fearful and eventually
hostile of the people who now lived within walking distance of their church.
They organized a backpack
packing event at back-to-school time on a Saturday afternoon, and low-and-behold,
half a dozen people from the community showed up to help.The next morning, 20 first time visitors
showed up in worship.They were all a
different color than the established church members, and the church members sat
on one side and the guests sat on the other, and no one from the “church” side
crossed the aisle to greet anyone on the “guest” side.
None of the visitors came
back, and the church was slated to close later that year.The DS came for a meeting with the church
members, who were angry that he was closing their church.He had heard about this incident of not
welcoming the people from the neighborhood, and said, “I’m perplexed.You say you want to save your church, you
want to grow, you want new people.20
people walked in, and you did nothing to welcome them, in fact, you made them
feel unwelcome.Help me understand why
you did that?”
One man stood up, crossed
his arms, and said, “Because, they were the wrong kind of people.”
The Golden Rule is not
conditional: “Treat others as you wish to be treated – only if you like them and
they’re similar to you and you approve of their choices and it won’t put you
out too much and they’re the right kind of people.”Loving our neighbor does not hinge on who our
neighbors happen to be, how much we like them or don’t before we know anything
about them.The question is whether we
will commit to loving our neighbors no matter who they are.
Love God, and love your
neighbor.We ask, but who is my
neighbor?What kind of people are
they?It doesn’t matter.Jesus reminds us that our neighbor is anyone
This story is more
offensive than we sometimes realize.The
words “good” and “Samaritan” had never been uttered in the same sentence, other
than saying that they were “good for nothing.”The story was as shocking in Jesus’ day as if he had told it as “The
Good al-Quaeda” or “The Good Hamas” or “The Good ISIS” or “The Good Taliban” in
our day.I’d be offended if Jesus said
that, today!But, our offense highlights
the significance of what Jesus says.
Whoever you think, “the
wrong kind of people” are, that’s who the Samaritan would be.It would have been bad enough to tell the
story as if the Samaritan were the one beaten and subsequently helped, but to
make one’s most bitterly-hated enemy the hero of the story?That was too much.It’s not only that our enemy is our
neighbor.The enemy has seen us as neighbor, responding with grace
and compassion toward us.
If the person we despise
most, one of the “wrong kind of people,” can see our sacred worth as a child of
God and love us as a neighbor, might we rethink how we see and love
others?If grace has been granted to us,
will we not grant it to others?
Growing as neighbors means
that we have an increasingly positive impact on the lives of those outside our church.Sometimes people ask, “Shouldn’t we just
focus on who is already here?” “No.”The problem with that question is in the
word, “just.”Because, we should focus
on who is already here.We need to
nurture the faith and relationships of the church family, we need to build the
body up, support and encourage each other.But we don’t do “just” that.
Growing up, there were
things we did together to build and support and nurture each other, things we
did inside the home to grow as a family.We also did things outside the home to grow as neighbors.It wasn’t one or the other; it was both.We didn’t “just” take care of the family, nor
did we “just” look after the neighbors.It was both.As church, growing
as a family and growing as neighbors are not mutually exclusive.We are called to do both.
It’s sort of like
breathing – you have to breathe in AND breathe out.What happens if you only breathe in?You get so puffed up and full of your own hot
air you eventually pass out!And what
happens if you only breathe out?You
give out everything you have to give until you eventually pass out!There’s a rhythm to it, of internal and
external – staying healthy requires both.
John Wesley famously said,
“The world is my parish.”By that, he
was called to minister to those outside the church walls, to take the message
of God’s love and grace to the people who hadn’t darkened the church’s
doors.He didn’t open the door and hope
a few wandered in.The early Methodists
took the message beyond themselves, freely sharing God’s love with anyone and
everyone.Methodists have been in
mission since the very beginning.It’s
who we are!By focusing not only on
themselves, but on those around them, they were putting their love of God and
neighbor into action.They were known as
In our corner of the
world, our parish, how is Morehead Church known?My prayer is that the people who live within
our parish, our neighbors, the people God has entrusted to our love and care, whether
they are members or not, whether they have ever darkened our door or not, will
know us a good neighbor.They will know
us as warm-hearted and genuine, a people who share freely and generously of
what we have, a people who give ourselves for others as Christ has given
himself for the world, that we are more concerned with what we can do for them
than what they can do for us.With the
help of God, we are called to be good neighbors.
Where are we growing?What is God’s preferred future for Morehead
Church?We are called to grow in
faith.We are called to grow in
grace.We are called to grow as
disciples.And we are called to grow as
May our neighbors know us
as good neighbors.Once they do, watch
how many become part of the family.
25 A legal
expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain
26 Jesus replied,
“What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”
responded, “You must love the Lord
your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and
with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 Jesus said
to him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live.”
3 This is how
we know that we know him: if we keep his commandments. 4 The
one who claims, “I know him,” while not keeping his commandments, is a liar,
and the truth is not in this person. 5 But the love of God is
truly perfected in whoever keeps his word. This is how we know we are in him. 6 The
one who claims to remain in him ought to live in the same way as he lived.
Did anyone have a place growing up where you measured your height from time
to time?Maybe at your house or
grandma’s – a bedroom or closet door, the wall inside the pantry – somewhere in
the house with your name and a series of dates that tracked your growth?
What if we did that in church, too?What if there was a doorway somewhere with our name on it, where,
periodically, God measured our spiritual growth and compared it to where we
were a few months ago, a year ago, a decade ago?Would God say, “Wow!Look at how far you’ve come!Look at how much you’ve grown!”
For the last several weeks, we’ve been looking at the ways we are called to
grow as a congregation as we move into God’s preferred future.We’ve already looked at growing in faith and
growing in grace.Today we build on that
– in God’s preferred future, Morehead Church will grow as disciples.May we
In one of my college applications, we were asked to write an essay on this
topic: “If you were to have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would
it be, and why?”It was supposed to be a
way to let the admissions committee know who your influences were, who were the
people you admired most.I couldn’t
think of who to write.It’s not that I
couldn’t think of someone, I thought of so
many people, it was hard to narrow it down to just one.
Maybe I should have taken the easy route and written “Jesus.”Who doesn’t admire Jesus?Everyone admires Jesus.Jesus is consistently ranked as one of the
most admired people in history.
Admiration has its place.Much of
worship is admiration. However, it is easy and convenient for us to admire
Jesus from a distance.We can admire his
teaching, his works, his example, his influence – without having to get too
close, without having to consider how his life might affect our lives.
It is easy for us to admire Jesus like some sort of holy fan club, but Jesus
isn’t looking for fans; Jesus already has more than enough fans.No, Jesus is looking for followers.
A disciple is one who follows something or someone else.An old blessing that was often given to
disciples at the time of Jesus was, “May you follow your Master so closely, you
are covered with the dust of his feet.”I
love that image – walking so close to Jesus, literally in his footsteps,
following his lead, growing more and more like him every day such that we
eventually become like him.
That’s a tall order, isn’t it?To
become like Jesus?Yet, I am called, you
are called, we are all called to be like Jesus.Frederick Buechner said, “Where your feet take you; that is who you
But here’s what I find, and maybe this is true for you, too: my feet have
trouble finding the footsteps of Jesus.My feet take me a lot of different places, many of them very good
places, and sometimes I think it’s that desire to go everywhere that keeps us from getting anywhere.
So, let’s keep a singular focus on sticking close to Jesus.
One of the trends across American Christianity right now is that young
adults – Generations X and Y, the Millennials, my generation and those younger
– are leaving the Church and staying away from the Church in record numbers.
There has been a ton of research on why so many are opting out of church,
and there are some excellent resources you can pick up: unChristian by Dan Kimball and Gabe Lyons, When Christians Get it Wrong by Adam Hamilton, They Like Jesus, But Not the Church by Dan Kimball.
Before you start to shake your head and say, “What’s the matter with kids
today?Why, in my day . . .”Before you do that, much of the research
shows that emerging generations rate higher in terms of openness to
spirituality and particularly to Jesus than previous generations.They love Jesus!They just find that, often, the Church is
driven by agendas and conversations that aren’t about Jesus – they see Jesus
acting and talking one way, and the Church acting and talking another.
Perhaps it’s not “What’s the matter with kids today,” but an invitation to
re-center our lives around Jesus, to lay down other agendas that are simply a
distraction, and to whole-heartedly, single-mindedly, authentically focus on
How many of the great religious movements throughout history have been a
call back to authenticity, and how many of those movements were started by
young people?Methodism began among a
bunch of college students at Oxford University.Martin Luther was 33 when he sparked the Protestant Revolution.Even Jesus was in his early 30s for his
public ministry, and his disciples were mostly young men, including at least a
few in their late teens.
It isn’t a generational thing.It’s
a Jesus thing.Perhaps these young
people who are opting out of church are providing us with an opportunity to be
who we claim to be, growing up to become more like Jesus.
And yes, growing up can be hard.Growing
up, becoming a mature person comes with certain responsibilities.I remember being in a big hurry to grow up,
especially to get my license and therefore secure my independence.I hadn’t banked on very grown-up things like
car payments, gas, tires, insurance, oil changes – responsibilities that came
along with growing up.
Happens in our faith, too.Sometimes
we’d prefer to have a Peter Pan faith – one that doesn’t grow up.The Church can reinforce that, too.“We don’t want to burden people with a lot of
expectations and responsibilities.We
can’t ask too much of people. We should
just be happy that anyone showed up at all!”
I’ve heard that from church leaders, before.Not here, thank God, but I’ve heard it.Way to set the bar high, right? Talk about creating a culture of mediocrity!People will rise no higher than the level to
which they are challenged.Expect
mediocrity, and people will give you exactly what you asked for.Expect excellence, and people will dazzle you
Take a look at our membership expectations in the bulletin (see bottom of post).We have a culture of excellence here.Being a disciple of Jesus, one who follows
him so closely we are covered with the dust of his feet, allows no less.I’m okay putting responsibilities and
expectations on you, because I want you to grow as a disciple.It’s my job to help you grow as a
disciple!I want you to have a grown-up,
mature, Christlike faith; not a Peter Pan faith. Those membership guidelines – they aren’t
about what you’re going to do for the church, they’re about what you’re going
to do for yourself as you grow deeper in your discipleship!We’re making and forming disciples here,
folks – that’s important work – important enough that if we really want it, we
should be willing to put a bit of time and effort into it.
More than just showing up. Sitting
in a church doesn’t make you a disciple any more than sitting in a garage makes
you a car.It takes more than showing
up.It takes spiritual commitment,
adopting the practices that will help grow up and mature as a disciple and become
Last week, we talked about growing in grace, having a warm welcome and
embrace for all people as wide as the arms of Jesus himself, because all people
are loved by God, created in the image of God, and therefore are of sacred and
inestimable worth.We welcome others
because Christ has welcomed us.
This business about growing and becoming like Jesus, that’s another aspect
of God’s grace working in us.Ann Lamott
says, “Grace finds us where we are, but it doesn’t leave us there.”Grace first welcomes us, but it’s not done
with us there.Sitting at the feet of
Jesus should make us different, changed, somehow.Grace welcomes us to Jesus, and then grace
continues to transform us to become like Jesus.
Perhaps you’ve heard of the couple who were celebrating their 65th
wedding anniversary, and a reporter was sent to interview them.He said, “Wow, 65 years!Tell me, sir, what’s your secret to staying
married to the same woman for 65 years?”The man said, “You idiot, it’s been 65 years – she’s not the same woman
now she was when we got married!”
Our relationships change and grow over time, don’t they?Our relationship with God is no different.Spending time with Jesus changes us.It changes our priorities.It changes how we spend our time, talent, and
treasure.It changes our attitudes, our
habits, our actions to grow us more like Jesus.
Go back to our membership guidelines.You’ll see that we set a high bar here, we ask a lot of our members, we
expect a lot because it takes a lot to become like Jesus.Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t do all of
these things,” or “Very few of our members do these things,” yet we don’t lower
the bar.If you want to be an olympic
athlete, there’s a high bar for that, same is true for being a disciple.We keep the bar high.God expects you to give your best.God expects excellence and we are giving you
an opportunity to shine.It takes a lot
to grow and mature as a disciple.It
takes a lot to become like Jesus.
Maybe as you’ve looked over those membership guidelines, the Holy Spirit
has already convicted your heart of where you need to grow.Things you need to do, things you need to do
more of, maybe things you need to not do.Maybe you have attitudes and behaviors you need to let go of so you can
grow and mature to become more like Jesus.
A word on that – sometimes people will say things like “We need some sermons
on gossip, because there’s some people around here who need to hear a sermon on
that, like old so-and-so.”It’s tempting
to point at the shortcomings of others and diagnose their sins and tell them
all the ways they need to repent.Yet,
God does not work in all hearts alike.Whatever is a barrier in someone else’s spiritual life is between that
person and God.They may ask us to help
us with that thing, and it’s a holy privilege to do so.As people grow in their faith and draw closer
to God, God will reveal the things in their life that separate them from God
and other people, the things that keep them from growing and flourishing in God’s
love.How about we catch ‘em and let God
How?What I want you to do today is
commit to growing where you need to.Don’t worry about where your neighbor needs to grow, focus on where God
wants you to grow.I don’t need to tell you; you already
know.God has already put it on your
As Dorothy comes to play, spend the next few moments praying about how you
are being called to grow, making a plan to grow, and then committing to that
plan.Wherever you are, take a next
step, because I hope we will all have a mature, grown-up faith. Don’t settle for being just a fan of
Jesus.Be a follower. Follow Jesus so closely, you become like him.
Morehead United Methodist Church
is a way of saying, “Morehead Church is my church! I believe in what God
is doing here, and I want to grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ here, with
You do not
have to be a member to participate fully in the life of Morehead United
Methodist Church. Everything we do is open to you whether you are a
member or not. We consider you part of the Morehead family from the moment you
walk in the door. So why join? Membership is an important act
of commitment as you grow deeper in your faith. Membership at Morehead
United Methodist Church is an expression of your commitment to the ministry
happening in and through this faith community.
I committing to if I become a member?
Attend worship at Morehead weekly unless you are sick, out-of-town, or working.
Participate in at least one activity each year designed to help you grow in your faith (Sunday School, Bible study, accountability group, small group, spiritual retreat, etc.).
Give of your time at least once a year through the ministry of Morehead.
Give to fund the ministries of Morehead in proportion to your income, with the goal of tithing (10%).
commitments are not stringent requirements to be “enforced” or used
punitively. Rather, they demonstrate practices that are consistent in the
lives of people who wish to grow as deeply-committed followers of Jesus
Christ. We believe that persons who commit to these practices will grow
in their relationships with God and with each other.
God’s grace to become a loving, Christlike person, we ask all members
Be positive and joyful.
Seek opportunities to serve others before themselves.
Be teachable in all areas.
Be slow to speak and quick to listen
relationships with others inside and outside the church, we ask all members to
Demonstrate respect and grace.
Accept differences and value diversity.
Publicly support other members, church leaders, staff, and the pastor.
Avoid damaging words and actions toward others, including gossip.