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Sunday, August 17, 2014

God's Preferred Future: Growing as Disciples (Luke 10:25-28, 1 John 2:3-6)


25 A legal expert stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to gain eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What is written in the Law? How do you interpret it?”

27 He 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.”

 

This is how we know that we know him: if we keep his commandments. The one who claims, “I know him,” while not keeping his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in this person. But the love of God is truly perfected in whoever keeps his word. This is how we know we are in him. 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 pray.

 

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 are.”

 

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 Jesus.

 

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 every time.

 

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 like Jesus.

 

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 clean ‘em?

 

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 heart. 

 

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.
 
 
 
 
 
Membership at Morehead United Methodist Church
 
Membership 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 these people.”
 
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.
 
What am I committing to if I become a member?
  1. Attend worship at Morehead weekly unless you are sick, out-of-town, or working.
  2. 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.).
  3. Give of your time at least once a year through the ministry of Morehead.
  4. Give to fund the ministries of Morehead in proportion to your income, with the goal of tithing (10%).
 
 
These 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.
 
Growing in God’s grace to become a loving, Christlike person, we ask all members to
  • Be positive and joyful.
  • Seek opportunities to serve others before themselves.
  • Be teachable in all areas.
  • Be slow to speak and quick to listen

 

In all 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.
 

 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

God's Preferred Future: Growing in Grace (Romans 15:5-7, Colossians 3:11-13)

 
May the God of endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude toward each other, similar to Christ Jesus’ attitude. That way you can glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ together with one voice.  So welcome each other, in the same way that Christ also welcomed you, for God’s glory.

 

11 In this image there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all things and in all people.

12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other.

 

People often ask what we as Methodists believe, and I tell them, though we believe a variety of things, what unites us and really lights our fire is grace.  God holding us in grace, us holding others in that same grace.  It’s all about grace.

 If you believe God is more of a loving parent than a strict judge, that being loving is more important than being right, that the highest expression of the Christian life is to love God and neighbor, well, then, you’re probably a Methodist.

We are in a sermon series on the preferred future to which God is calling us as a congregation, the various ways we are called to grow into our future.  Last week, we talked about growing in faith.  Today we’re going to look at growing in grace.  In God’s preferred future, Morehead Church will grow in grace. May we pray.

Through the years, I’ve done a fair amount of consulting work with other congregations.  I’m always trying to gain a sense of who the congregation is, and how they perceive themselves.  One of the first things someone always says is, “Oh, we’re a very friendly church” – I haven’t been to a church yet that didn’t describe themselves as friendly.  My experience and observation, however, is that many churches are friendly the same way your family dog is friendly: affectionate toward members of the family, but with a tendency to bark at strangers.

Everyone thinks their church is friendly, but that’s usually an inside perspective, not an outside one.  Long-established church members experience their church as friendly because their friends go there.  They may be completely oblivious to the needs of a stranger, who is not having a friendly experience, just a few feet away from them.

One of you described a situation to me of worshiping in a large membership church, going to coffee hour to get to know other people, and the fellowship hall was full of little clusters of people who already knew each other, having a great time, but that, as a newcomer, even as an extroverted and outgoing person, there was literally and physically no way to break into one of those groups.

Another friend of ours described walking into a church one Sunday with 18 people in attendance.  As a newcomer, she was definitely noticed, as 18 sets of eyes stared her down.  The message was clear: “Who are you, and WHY are you in OUR church?”  The only person who even spoke to her was the new pastor, well, except for the one woman who came in and rudely informed our friend that she was in this lady’s seat, and demanded that she vacate it and find somewhere else.  Our friend did not go back to that church, despite the fact that her husband was the new pastor.

I’d bet that both of those churches would describe themselves as friendly, but to the experience of a newcomer?  Anything but friendly.

There’s a myth out there that the bigger a congregation gets, the colder and more impersonal it becomes.  Large church, small church – doesn’t really matter.  It’s not a church’s size that determines how welcoming it is – it’s its heart.  Disposition is not a function of size, no, a church is warm or cold because of its heart, not because of its size.

I have experienced large churches that excelled at personal touches for every single person there, and large churches where I felt like a number.  I have also experienced small churches where I was embraced as a member of the family, and small churches where it was made clear that I didn’t belong there because I wasn’t one of them.

I would like for us to stop describing ourselves as “a friendly church.”  Instead, I’d like us to describe ourselves as “warm-hearted.”  “Friendly” is a moving target, largely dependent on whether or not your friends are already here. “Warm-hearted,” however, is a disposition no matter who is around us, such that we are positioned to welcome and rejoice over the presence of others, whether we have known them our whole lives or are meeting them for the first time.

Morehead is a warm-hearted congregation.  It’s what we’re known for.  It’s one of the things I always hear from guests and newcomers.  Folks, that warmth has nothing to do with our size; it has everything to do with our heart.

Sylvia LeClair invites everyone she meets to come to worship with us.  Many of you are here as a result of Sylvia’s invitation.  God help you if you are her neighbor, because she has made it her mission to bring her entire community to Morehead, and I think eventually, she’s going to do it.

I asked Sylvia how she does it.  She laughed and said, “I say, ‘If you come to Morehead and you don’t feel the love, I will buy your dinner.’  And I haven’t bought a dinner yet.”

That warm-heartedness is in our DNA, it’s not going to go away, which is why in God’s preferred future, we will be warm-hearted, no matter what size we become.

Answer me this: can you imagine a congregation that includes someone like Sylvia ever becoming a cold and unwelcoming place?  Not just Sylvia, but so many of you who have such a naturally warm-hearted disposition that welcomes and cares for others as Christ welcomes us – that’s just part of who we are, and it brings glory to God.

We average about 150 people in worship in both services.  Here’s what I know – we could have 500 people in worship and be just as warm and welcoming as we are now, because it’s a function of our heart, not our size.

Sometimes I hear our congregation described as a place where everyone knows everyone, but in order to really be and remain a warm-hearted congregation, I need you to let go of the idea that we’re a congregation where everyone does or is supposed to know everyone.

Why?  We only have room in our minds for a finite number of people we can know.  Most of us can consistently remember about 150 names and faces; 200, if you’re really good.  Beyond that, the average human mind just doesn’t have the file space to remember more.

So long as we think everyone needs to know everyone, we’ve created a church culture that can accommodate about 150 people.  How many people, on average, did I say we had in worship, again?  About 150.  Do you think it’s any coincidence that, for the last several years, any time our worship attendance gets a bit beyond 150, it always settles back?

Describing ourselves as a congregation where everyone knows everyone actually works against us – imagine you’re a person who has only worshiped with us a short time, and you keep hearing that everyone knows everyone, and you’re looking around thinking, “Gosh, I don’t know everyone, I must be doing it wrong, everyone knows everyone, except for me, maybe I don’t fit in here.”

By trying to have a culture where everyone knows everyone, we are inadvertently sending the message that our church is already full, no more room for new names and faces, which, when you think about it, is quite the opposite of being warm-hearted.

And see, even at 150, that’s actually too big for everyone to know everyone.  You can keep 150 names and faces straight – 200 if you’re really good – but even that doesn’t mean you actually know those people.  50 is more like it, which means we need to get rid of about 100 people so everyone can actually know everyone.  So I figured today, let’s go ahead and start a list of the 100 people we need to get rid of so we can be a church where everyone knows everyone – whaddya say?  Who’s in?  Who’s out?  Who are we gonna have to cut loose?  Whose name is going on the list?

Can’t do that, can we?  Wouldn’t be very Christlike to do that, would it?  Maybe more like the Pharisees, but certainly not like Jesus!  We wouldn’t be able to do that and still call ourselves warm-hearted, would we?  And so, in order to be warm-hearted, we need to let go of thinking everyone is supposed to know everyone.

But instead, let’s be a place where everyone is known by someone.  Our desire to know everyone is actually the desire to be known ourselves.  We don’t want to get lost in the crowd.  We don’t want to be a church where you’re just a face in the crowd or a number, and we won’t – so long as we commit ourselves to making sure everyone is known.

And that doesn’t happen just in the worship service.  It happens primarily in Sunday School classes and Bible studies and other small groups where we get to know one another and encourage each other in our Christian journey.  In fact, the larger the church grows, the more important those smaller groups become, because we may not know everyone, but everyone is known by someone.

It’s so critical, because people are important.  Too important to lose in the crowd.  Too important for us to cut any loose.  People are important, valuable, precious, if for no other reason than each and every person is created in the image of God and therefore a person of sacred and inestimable worth.  Growing in grace provides us with the opportunity to recognize each person’s worth in the eyes of God, that everyone – everyone – is lovingly created by the God who is Love, who creates us all in love, by love, and for love.  Just as we wouldn’t cut other people loose, neither would we deny them a place to experience the love and grace of Jesus Christ and his church.  And so, as we grow in grace, we will be a safe and welcoming place for all people who want to come and sit at the feet of Jesus.

Andy Langford is the pastor of Central United Methodist Church down in Concord, NC, and his church was being picketed by a group who, for whatever reason, thought it was their God-given purpose in life to point out what everyone else was doing wrong.  Andy was walking into the church one day, when the head of the group got up in his face and said, “Pastor, did you know you have sinners in your church?”  Andy thought the guy was joking and said, “No kidding, how did you know?”, but then the guy reached in his pocket and pulled out a list of, I kid you not, the sinners in the church.

That sort of picking and choosing is a behavior more akin to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day than to anything Jesus actually did, said, or told us to do.  They were always drawings lines of distinction between the righteous people and sinners so as to include some and exclude others.  Unfortunately, that’s a story as old as religion itself.  Andy said the list of sinners should have included the entire membership, because we’re all sinners.  I’m a sinner, you’re a sinner, every one of us!

But see, Jesus came for sinners.  Good news for sinners like you and me!  Jesus is one who made room at his table for flawed people, people with issues and baggage and drama.  Jesus had a special place in his heart for imperfect people, thank God!  Jesus kept drawing the circle wider and wider, to include those previously excluded, to let them know how much they mattered to him and were loved by God and were just as an important part of God’s story as anyone else.  Jesus’ ministry was a reconciling ministry, breaking down the barriers that so often get built up between people, particularly walls of religion that divide people into categories of insider and outsider, saint and sinner.

And yet, how is it that we, the church, the followers of this same Jesus, fall so easily and often into the temptation to draw the very lines of separation and division Jesus worked so hard to erase?  The arms of Jesus are always open wide – wide enough to embrace all.  Anytime it’s less, we are the ones who shortened his reach.


Friends, we can do better.  We must do better.  And as a people shaped by and growing in grace, we will.


Our own Bob Sawyer frequently says, “Our doors are open to all and closed to none.”


As we look upon people through the eyes of grace, we move from exclusion to embrace, the indelible image of God upon every person becomes increasingly recognizable, and we realize the sacred worth of every person.  I hope and pray that we will have the warm hearts and open arms that welcome and love without distinction.  Christ has graciously welcomed us; will we not welcome others in the same way?


If you want to sit at the feet of Jesus, you’re welcome to do that here.  There are no bouncers at this church.  We don’t have a list of who gets in and who has to stay out.  I don’t care you who are, what you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going, if you want to sit at the feet of Jesus – the same Jesus who was criticized for being a friend of sinners because he welcomed and ate with the marginalized and outcast of his day; the same Jesus in whom there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female, rich or poor, insider or outsider, saint or sinner; the same Jesus who came into the world to save the world not condemn it, if you want to sit at the feet of that Jesus, consider this a safe and welcoming place to do so.


We are a people of grace.  We will continue to grow in grace.  We will welcome others as Christ has welcomed us.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

God's Preferred Future: Growing in Faith (2 Timothy 11:1-13, Hebrews 11:1)


11 This saying is reliable:

“If we have died together, we will also live together.
12         If we endure, we will also rule together.
        If we deny him, he will also deny us.
13 If we are disloyal, he stays faithful”
    because he can’t be anything else than what he is.

 

Faith is the reality of what we hope for, the proof of what we don’t see.

 

In my first few months in ministry, I was talking with a pastor 20 years my senior.  This pastor shared with me that he entered ministry responding to a call to take part in transforming hearts and lives with the love of God in Christ, only to find out that the people in his congregation were perfectly happy and proud of themselves just as they were.  He said, “I signed up to change the world; turns out I wasn’t allowed to change anything.”  He looked at me with a sad and knowing smile and said, “I remember when I was young and idealistic.  Full of energy and ideas and ready to lead the revolution.  Don’t worry, a few years in the church will beat that out of you, too.”

 

This year marks my tenth in pastoral ministry; I am still getting patted on the head as people say, “Oh, you still believe you can make a difference.  Isn’t that cute, you still have hopes and dreams.”

 

Friends, can I let you in something?  I have hopes and dreams, but they’re not min; they’re God’s.  And for those who love God, who are walking with God, who are closely following God, God’s dreams become our dreams.  God’s hopes become our hopes.  God’s vision becomes our vision.  And we call that faith.

 

Today, I invite you to respond to God’s call to grow in faith, because in God’s preferred future,  Morehead Church will grow in faith.

 

We will grow in faith because faith is never finished.  We never “arrive” at faith or “graduate” into faith.  We’re never “done” - faith is always growing – calling us, pulling us, stretching us.  Every milestone you reach only opens up more road waiting to be traveled and discovered, and while we celebrate each milestone, we don’t rest there for very long.  I hope that, for as long as live, I am never done growing in faith; I hope that for each of you, as well.  May we pray.

 

You ever watch Ice Road Truckers?  They are driving these fully-loaded tractor trailers through the frozen wilderness, and at several places, the ice road goes across frozen lakes.  Every time a driver comes to one of these ice crossings, it’s an act of faith.  The outcome is unknown – but the driver has to trust – have faith – in the ice to uphold the entire weight of the truck.

 

In the same way, we are called to lean into God with everything we have.  The difference is that God is not thin ice.  God is never thin ice.  We can place our trust in God because God has proven faithful and reliable time and time again.  As the Scripture we read today told us, it is God’s very nature to be faithful; we may let God down, but God is never going to let us down.

 

Learning to walk by faith is much the same as learning to walk as a child.  Children start to take their first steps with a tight grip on their parents’ hands.  They are wobbly and wonky, their center-of-balance is off, they don’t know how to take a proper step, and it if weren’t for the strong grip and guidance of their parent, they would fall flat on their face.

 

Learning to walk by faith is the same.  Spiritually, we are wobbly and wonky on our own – no center, no balance – we need the strong grip and guidance of our heavenly parent.  But as we take those first, wobbly steps of faith, we do so with the confidence that God is with us, and the steps we take are not in our own strength or ability, but in God’s.

 

In the family of faith, it’s not only God who helps us walk in faith – but the rest of the family, as well.  Spiritual aunts and uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters may offer us a hand, give us some guidance, and cheer us on.   Just as a child learning to walk captures the attention of the whole room, so, too does a person learning to walk by faith gain the attention and effort of the whole family of faith – the steps they make are a victory for us all, and cause for each one of us to celebrate.

 

Whatever happens to one of us affects all of us.  One grieves, we all grieve.  One rejoices, we all rejoice.  As a family of faith – I am part of you and you are part of me and we are all – all of us – interconnected with each other.  The reality is that we never come to God alone, but as part of a community, a family.  I remember feeling a sense of shock when I realized Grandma was not mine alone; she was also my cousins’ Grandma!  I thought she was just mine!  In the faith, none of us has the exclusive rights to a walk with Jesus; as we look around we realize countless others are walking with Jesus and growing in their faith at the same time, and they are walking and growing with me, and I with them.

 

Friends, it’s why we need the church.  Our relationship with God grows in the context of relationships with other people.  No coincidence that Jesus said the greatest commandment was to “Love God and Love neighbor.”  It’s not one or the other – it’s both – you can’t go at it alone.

 

Sometimes people tell me, “You know, I don’t need to attend church because I can commune with God just fine by myself in nature – you know, I find God in sunsets at the beach and walks in the woods and by a babbling stream on a fall day and on top of a mountain,” and they tell me like it’s some spiritual revelation they’re letting me in on.  It’s often all I can do to not roll my eyes and say, “Oh, you find God in nature?  How original!  You’re like the first and only person who has EVER found God in nature – how did you ever stumble upon this incredible secret?”

 

But finding in God in nature – folks, that’s step one.  That’s the most basic level of spirituality.  You don’t have to be Christian to find God in nature – newsflash: EVERYONE finds God in nature!

 

It’s easy to get along with God when you don’t also have to learn how to get along with other people.  Growing in faith, distinctly Christian faith – means not only learning how to love God, but how to love other people!  Look around the room – some of you are going to be really difficult to love!  But that’s what Christian people do.  That’s one way we grow in our faith.

 

You find God in nature?  Whoo hoo!  Good for you – anyone can do that.  Finding God in the faces of other people?  Particularly people who are difficult to love, people you don’t like, even an enemy – that’s going to be more difficult.

 

It’s also going to be more Christlike.  And it’s going to require you to grow in your faith.

 

Faith has a future component to it.  When we are growing in faith, we believe that God always has even greater things in our future than in our past.  We may not know what’s on the other side, but we believe, if it’s of God, it’s going to be infinitely better than what we already know.

 

It’s no small thing that the cross is the central symbol of the Christian faith.  The Christian faith is built on death and resurrection.  And so, you have this awful thing, followed by this better thing.  Life taken from one in Christ’s death, life given to all in his resurrection!  Faith IS the assurance of things hoped for, as Hebrews 11:1 tells us.  The risen Christ gives us the assurance that the worst thing is never the last thing – something better is always coming.

 

Everyone longs for a better day when you’re having a bad day; who longs for a better day when you’re already having a good day?  I find it requires greater faith to press toward a better future when things are already good, than when things are bad.  When things are good, the urgency for them to be better simply isn’t there.

 

Put on your fuzzy slippers for a minute; this might step on some toes.  I am concerned our past and current success could hold us back from moving into an even better future.  Because, we do have it good here!  Extremely good!  The congregation has doubled in size in the last decade, we’ve added onto and remodeled most of the building, we’ve paid off debt, added staff – things are good!

 

It would be easy and it is tempting to look at how far we’ve come, congratulate ourselves for coming this far, sit back and bask in the success.  It’s tempting to think we’re done, this is it, and trade in an active and growing faith for the comfort and complacency of thinking we’ve arrived and there’s nothing more to be done.

 

Friends, I didn’t come here to oversee a church that has arrived, or be the caretaker for a ministry that’s finished.  I celebrate all the things that you and God have done together before I arrived, I am grateful for them, I honor them, but we’re not here to rest on them – we’re here to keep building upon them.  God isn’t finished with us, yet!  Better things are yet to come!  As good as things are now, and yes, they are exceedingly good, growing in faith gives us the hope and confidence that God always has even greater things in our future than in our past!  Amen?

 

Further, when we are growing in faith, we seek to do God’s will above our own.  Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s will to be done, not ours.

 

Human beings are, by our very nature, a selfish and self-centered bunch.  When you live for God and grow in your faith, your priorities will shift.  Your life will be less about you.  C.S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”

 

As you grow in faith, you’ll find that you want to give God more of the things you value most – more of your time, more of your talent, more of your treasure.  Jesus told us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be, also.”  If you want to see what you love, look at the two most valuable commodities you have – your time and your money, your calendar and your checkbook.

 

How will you know if you’re growing in faith and seeking God’s will above your own?  Well, who are you living for?  Yourself, or for God?  Whoever’s got your time and treasure, that’s who you’re living for.  That’s who you love.  If you want to grow in your faith, give more of both over to God.

 

Why should you?  Because there’s an indescribable freedom that comes from the shift from self-centered living to Christ-centered living, and I know for me, there’s been something incredibly peaceful and well, just right, about not keeping score of what God is doing in my life, and instead giving myself over to be a participant in God’s life – something that makes my life fuller and richer than I ever could have imagined.

 

Finally, when we are growing in faith, we trust God daily to lead and provide beyond our expectation.  J.B. Phillips wrote a great little book entitled, Your God is Too Small, and I find he scratched into something really important here: sometimes our expectations about who God is and what God can do just aren’t big enough.  Here we have the God of Infinite Love, the Alpha and Omega, the very Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of life itself, and we’re asking for something so trivial as a parking space at Target.

 

Sometimes, God doesn’t do much because we neither ask nor expect God to do much.   So as we grow in faith, let’s grow to the outer limit of our expectation of what God can do, and then let’s trust God to provide even beyond our expectation.

 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t come to church to do things I can do perfectly well on my own.  I could stay at home and do that.  But in the community of faith, I’m part of something bigger than myself, bigger than any of us.  Here, we place our sometimes timid but eager footsteps of faith into God’s strong and guiding hand.

 

In God’s preferred future, we will grow in faith.

 

As an act of faith and commitment, I invite you to join me in praying the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, this is one of those prayers that, if you really mean these words when you pray them, be careful, because they could totally change your life:

 

I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me employed by thee, or laid aside for three,

Exalted for thee or brought low for thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things

to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and Blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

Thou art mine, and I am thine.

So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

Let it be ratified in heaven.  Amen.