Sunday, May 5, 2013

To Be Continued. . . (2 Timothy 3:14)

*Before you start reading, this ended up being a much more controversial sermon than I had intended or hoped it would be.  It's a classic case of something not quite engaging between an idea's inception and its execution.  It was the design of this sermon to offer a word of hope and encouragement to a congregation that has struggled with and overcome much - a place where God is clearly on the move and doing some amazing things in the lives of people in the congregation.

I was trying to paint a picture, as a reminder, of where the church once was so that people could look back and say, "Wow, look how far we've come - Praise God for bringing us this far!"  The hope was that this reminder would be, in a season of pastoral transition, a call to press ahead and trust in God as the church moves into its next chapter.  Instead, I think I painted such a robust picture that it came to life and became present reality.

A reminder for us all of the power of words to shape and define our world.  Here is a message I sent to the congregation that afternoon:

Dear friends - 

During this morning's sermon, my hope and intention was to share that God's been up to some amazing, transformative work in this church, and in the last four years in particular, I've had a front-row seat to see what you and God have been up to together.  My hope had been to celebrate that, and acknowledge that God has had, still has, and will have even greater things in store for this church.  All of this is a story that you and God have been working on and will continue to work on, and my intent this morning was to encourage you to keep up the good work.

Going back to this morning's Scripture from 2 Timothy 3:14, "continue in what you have learned . . . You know who taught you."  The last four years are not about anything you've learned from me, but indeed, what you've learned from God.

That was what I had hoped to say this morning - a pat on the back, a celebration of God's good work in our church, and how proud I am of the ways you have grown, and perhaps an earnest plea to continue to be aware of the things that take a church backward (which every church struggles with!!!), that those things not be a hindrance for the bright future I know you have.

However, I am aware that either through my tone, the examples I used, or whatever else today, that message was lost, and in fact, it was possible to receive a message that was the exact opposite of what I intended.  For that, I am sorry from the depth of my being.  My aim and my goal was to encourage you to stay the course with the good and faithful work you are doing with God and that God is doing among you, to not lose heart, and to welcome the next chapter of God's redemption story as it is being written here.

That's what I wanted to come across today - God is doing great things here; keep up the good work.  If I missed getting that message across to you today, I am sorry.  If you'd like to talk further about any of this, let me know and we'll find some time together.


C 2012 Will Vernon
But you must continue with the things you have learned and found convincing.  You know who taught you.

There is a moment, about 45 minutes into an hour-long season finale, in which you realize there’s no possible way they’re going to get the episode wrapped up in the remaining 15 minutes.  The episode will end with three ominous words: “To be continued . . .”
It makes you wonder, “What happens next?”  “Now what?”  Whatever happens next is up to whatever is going on in the minds of the writers, the vision of the director, the go-ahead from the producer, and the ability of the actors.
Monday morning, you all began to find out that I will be leaving at the end of June and a new pastor will come to lead you.  Perhaps it was something of a “To be continued” moment - in one way or another, you probably wondered, “Now what?”
As my tenure as your pastor comes to a close and you prepare to welcome your new pastor, my prayer for you echoes the advice from a teacher to his student found in today’s scripture reading from 2 Timothy 3:14: “But you must continue with the things you have learned and found convincing.  You know who taught you.”
In this Scripture, the real teacher is Jesus, and his course of instruction is the experience of new life in him.  Whoever wrote this is not saying, “Follow me,” but rather, “Follow Jesus.  Learn from Jesus.  Walk with Jesus.  You know who taught you - not me, but Jesus.”
The prayer of this verse encourages the timid to do one thing: keep making progress in the same direction like the redemption of the world depends on it - because it does.  God’s redemption story is a masterpiece in the making, but what does the next chapter look like?  
The verse joins us, mid-spiritual journey, with someone who has already been on their road for awhile, but who still has some way to go.  Could that not describe each of us individually, and indeed, could it not describe us as a congregation?  We have been on this journey for some time, but God isn’t finished with us yet.  Our journey is only partially complete, our story is still a work in progress; and the terrain of the next mile, the tone of the next chapter hinges on your hearts being open to God’s direction, that your mission and ministry may not shrivel up and die, but continue to unfold and blossom in the sunshine of God’s delight.
So, do just that: continue to be a church that seeks to be the heart of this thriving neighborhood, so that there’s not a person nearby who doesn’t know that God wants nothing more than to gather each and every one of them in the loving embrace of a faithful parent.  That’s not a new story!  It’s the same one we’ve been working on for the last four years together, and indeed, it’s the story God has been writing since the very beginning.
By the grace of God, may you, Pastor Carol, and God work together to write, not a brand new story, but a continuation of the same story we have all been working on together for the last four years, which is but a small part of God’s grander story of transformation.
Continue in that story.  Allow God to write the story indelibly on your heart.  Write the next chapter, and keep the story going.
Over four years, I have been privileged to be a front-row witness to God’s transforming work in this church.  God has moved you from a place where you were literally struggling to survive to where you are today: full of hope and health and vitality.  In some ways, it’s hard to remember where this church was four years ago, but let’s see if we can’t try.
When I received the phone call to let me know that I would be appointed here, this church was described by the District Superintendent as “a unique and challenging opportunity.”  By the way, you never want to be described as “a unique and challenging opportunity.”  That’s code - it means, “God bless, and good luck!”
In short, things were not good here.  Scott Ferebee, one of the elders whose wisdom and experience I have been grateful for in my time here, said this church was “dying on the vine.”  Your own Staff-Parish Relations Committee described the church as “stuck in a decades-long spiral of decline.”  If things didn’t change for the better, and if they didn’t change soon, it wasn’t going to be long before the doors of this church were closed forever.
Side-note here: The Conference doesn’t close churches.  Churches close themselves – through their own attitudes and decisions.  I came across an article last week called Autopsy of a Deceased Church, which outlines some of the most common characteristics you’ll find among dying churches.  I’m not going to go into detail on that here, but I’ve left copies of the article in the narthex for you.  I encourage you to take a look at the warning signs in that article, and see how many of them could have described this church four years ago, and how close we really were to closing down.
But here’s the good news: God is not done with this church yet, and no one is thinking about closing this church’s doors now.  You are not the same church now that you were even four years ago!  “Continue with the things you have learned and found convincing.”
Four years ago, how many children were part of this church?  Zero.  For six months, Jack Waynick faithfully came and sat on these steps with me for children’s messages, because we had no children.  Today, look at how many beautiful children and their families are growing in their faith here.  Praise God.
Four years ago, how many young adults in their 20s and 30s were regularly and consistently involved in the life of this church?  Not many.  Today, we have a vibrant group of young adults who not only worship here, but are involved in all aspects of congregational life and have moved into key leadership positions, including Lay Leader, Finance Chair, and Outreach co-coordinator.  Praise God.
Four years ago, this church’s finances were in poor shape, as well.  Not only were you not paying your district and conference apportionments in full, you hadn’t paid them in full  for 19 consecutive years - that’s going back to when Clyde Penry was pastor, FYI.  Today, you have paid 100% of your apportionment for the last three years.  Praise God.
Four years ago, this church had a reputation among pastors in the conference, and it wasn’t good.  This church was not a desirable appointment.  In the first year I was here, when other pastors found out where I was appointed, their first reaction was, “Oh, I’m sorry.”  Your reputation was that a handful of this church’s members made it their purpose in life to chew up and spit out pastors, and then start licking their chops to sink their teeth into the next one. 
I heard some wisdom this week about dealing with difficult people that seems appropriate here: “Don’t let yourself get sidetracked by people who aren’t on track.”
Several of those pastors who were mis-treated while they were here joined us in last Sunday’s Homecoming celebration; their presence here is a sign of God’s healing in their lives.  Today, your next pastor is a bright, passionate, gifted young woman with a beautiful family who is excited and eager to get here, and wants to lead you for a long time.  Praise God.
Four years ago, how many new people were being welcomed into the life of faith as lived out through this church?  Not many.  If, over the last four years, you have started attending this church, re-attending this church, or grown deeper in your walk with Christ, would you please raise your hand?  Praise God.
Keep ‘em raised for a minute.  When I see the raised hands of people whose hearts have grown closer to God’s heart through the ministries of this church, I see that, despite ourselves, we must have been doing something right here.  Despite whatever failures or shortcomings or mistakes we have made, God is still at work among God’s people, and God’s great redemption story is still being written.
And so, I reiterate my prayer for this church in this season of transition: continue with the things you have learned and found convincing.  You didn’t learn those things from me.  You learned them from Jesus.  God isn’t finished with you yet.  That’s a great story.  It’s time to move forward, and write the next chapter.  I can’t wait to see what you and God come up with.

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