Sunday, September 29, 2013

Running on Empty? OnStar (Luke 11:1-4)

Jesus was praying in a certain place.  When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus told them, “When you pray, say:
‘Father, uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring in your kingdom.
Give us the bread we need for today.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who was wronged us.
And don’t lead us into temptation.’”

If you’re just joining us today, we are in the middle of a series of messages called “Running on Empty.”  In these messages, I am giving you real, concrete, practical ways you can experience God’s grace. 

We have already talked about how God gives us grace when we worship, how that is like using the right fuel.  I encouraged you to show up to worship with an open and expectant heart.  We have talked about how God gives us grace in baptism, both initially and when we remember our baptism, and I’ve invited you to remember the grace in your baptism often.  Today, it’s something a little different: the OnStar button.  May we pray.

Those of you with cars equipped with OnStar know that by pushing that button, you are immediately put in touch with someone who can help you.  In the life of faith, prayer is sort of like OnStar – prayer gets us in touch with God.

The followers of Jesus came to him while he was praying and said, “Lord, teach us to pray” (v. 1).  It doesn’t matter how eloquent our prayers are, because prayer’s effectiveness has nothing to do with the qualifications of the pray-er, and everything to do with the qualities of the one to whom we pray.  Prayer isn’t about us, it’s about God.

In our text, Jesus addresses God as “Our Father,” in other words, as our loving parent.  I think of the small child who will fling themselves off the bed or the kitchen counter in the direction of their father as they scream “Daddy, catch!” in sure and certain hope that their father will open his arms and catch them and hold them close.  It is this kind of relationship that is intended between God and us – God who shamelessly and unconditionally loves us, and our experience of that love leads us to unconditionally trust God.  That relationship is nurtured and made real in prayer.

Prayer is the language of our conversation with God, and learning how to pray is much the same as learning a language.  We have several friends with small children, and it is fascinating to watch them learn language – every new word is just waiting to be used appropriately and in context.  It also makes me very careful what words or phrases I use around their children, knowing that they are soaking up and repeating everything, and I don’t want to be the one credited with teaching them some new and colorful word!

As they are learning a language, kids love trying out each new word.  You have to use a language to learn it.  The same is true in our prayer language.  The best way to learn how to pray – to develop the vocabulary and language of prayer – is to start praying.  When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, they didn’t assume that prayer was something only for a special few or some elite group of prayers, but that all of them, as followers of Jesus, were to be people of prayer.

One of my frustrations with our current religious culture is that we have professionalized prayer.  Nine times out of ten, if I am in a group setting and prayer is called for, all eyes will turn to be, because of, course, the pastor in the group is the natural choice to pray – I’m a professional, after all – and my prayers must surely have some extra va-va-voom in them simply by nature of my vocation, right?  I do pray in these situations, but I also don’t mind telling you that I do so somewhat reluctantly, not because I doubt my own ability to pray but because I don’t want to reinforce the idea that prayer is best left to the professionals and only the professionals.  We are all called to pray.

Whether you pray or not is up to you.  Just know that you’re leaving a whole lot of God’s grace untapped if you choose not to pray.  The hymn says, “Oh, what peace we often forfeit, Oh, what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”  Prayer is yet one more way we fill up with God’s grace – and the more we do it, the more grace we receive.

You’d better believe that as soon as you hit that OnStar button of prayer, God is going to be on the other end of the line waiting to answer you.  God is just hoping you’ll call, staring at the phone whispering, “Please call.  Please call.  Please call.”  God wants that relationship with you.  Prayer is the language of our relationship with God, and it fills us with God’s grace.

The first step in learning any language, including prayer, is to listen.  We think of prayer in terms of what we say, but prayer is much more about listening than it is about speaking.

My first grade teacher taught us the importance of listening.  “You have two ears and one mouth,” she said.  “So you need to spend at least twice as much time listening as you do speaking.”  Given my love for talking, I was reminded of this lesson with greater frequency than were others in the class.

Effective prayer, that truly nourishes and responds to our relationship with God, will devote twice as much time to listening to God as it does speaking to God.  It requires the intentional setting aside of our distractions and giving God our full attention, so that everything about us says, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”  The disciples said, “Teach us to pray,” but then they had to be quiet, and listen to what Jesus had to say.  So it is for us.  When we pray, we need some time to simply be quiet and listen for what Jesus has to say – twice as much time listening to God as having God listen to us.

Further, if you’re still worried about praying “wrong,” you can’t really mess up because all prayer is basically one of three expressions.  When you boil it down and strip away the fancy words, all prayers are either saying, “Help,” “Thanks,” or “Wow!”  There may be some other sentiments that get mixed in there, but they are simply variations of these three basic expressions.  If you’re worried about what to pray, start by saying “Help,” “Thanks,” or “Wow!”

Let’s start with “Help.”  Help prayers are when we ask God, beg God, or even demand that God do something, either on our behalf or on behalf of someone else.  Help prayers are a good starting place, the Scriptures tell us to bring our needs and the desires of our hearts before God, and so we should.

What I’ve seen, however, is that many Christians get stuck at “help” in terms of their prayer vocabulary – prayer is treated as little more than an opportunity to bring our list of wants, desires, and needs before God – “God, give me this; God, grant me that; God, do such-and-such.”

I know of parents with kids in college who only call when they need something, usually money.  Unfortunately, I also know of many Christians who only call out to God in similar situations.  God is not a vending machine or a granter of wishes – it would be nice for God to hear from us not only when we need something, but because we are interested in a relationship with God.

Help prayers are more effective if we offer them first rather than as a last resort.  Starting the day by saying, “Lord, help me through this day” puts us in a place where we start out by inviting God’s presence into our lives.  This keeps God at the center, keeps the conversation open constantly, and we live as if we really are dependent on God’s grace, rather than only inviting God into our lives in the midst of life’s crises and desperate situations.  Make no mistake, God is still there with us in those crises – yet God doesn’t want to be called in only when we need something.  There’s nothing wrong with “help” prayers and I encourage you – keep bringing your needs before God – but we need to understand that they represent the most basic of prayers; they are sort of like step one, and to deepen our relationship with God, we need to expand our prayer vocabulary.

Here’s where the next type of prayer comes in, when we say, “Thanks.”  This one should be an easy one.  When someone does something nice for you, or helps you out, how do you respond?  You say, “Thank you.”  Saying “Thank you” is a simple way to say, “Hey, you’ve done something for me, and I appreciate it!”  It acknowledges that person and keeps us from taking them or their gift for granted.

Question for you this morning: Has God ever done anything for anyone here?  Truth is, God does even more than we could ask or imagine.  The creative gift of life, reconciliation through Christ, the sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit – all of it a gift from God!  When we realize that God has given freely, generously, and abundantly to each of us, what else can we say but “Thanks”?
Actually, there is one more thing we can say, and that’s “Wow!”  Every night before we go to sleep, Ashley gets out her iPad and reads articles on LiveScience.  A common theme in those articles is discovery – from something in the farthest reaches of space down to something happening in our bodies at a sub-cellular level.  Usually, what we learn in those articles makes us say, “Wow!”

All around us, God’s handiwork is on display, and if we’re observant enough to catch a glimpse of some of that, we say, “Wow!”  It’s why, in the Lord’s Prayer, we say, “Hallowed be your name.”  Hallowed means Holy – because what God does is far beyond our ability, yet displayed in such a way that we are able to appreciate, at least in part, what God is up to.

In the movie Forrest Gump, after he has started to become quite wealthy toward the end of the movie, he quotes his mother, saying, “Mama always said there’s only so much money a man needs; the rest is for showing off.”  Likewise, there’s only so much creativity and power God needs, but the rest is for showing off.  It’s enough to make us say, “Wow.”

Who God is and what God does is more than enough to take our breath away, but the real kicker is that God who is holy has not only invited us to see and participate in the splendor unfolding around us, but has even invited us into a relationship, simply because God loves us. “Wow!”  Our lives become a symphony of constant praise.  Having encountered the holiness of God, we are constantly experiencing and telling the glory of God, and the more we tell of God’s glory, the more we, ourselves, are filled with grace.

Lord, teach us to pray.  Here at Morehead, prayer remains a life-giving and grace-filled priority, and we have several groups that meet at various times throughout the week specifically to pray.  There are folks here early on Sunday morning to pray for the worship services, everyone who will lead them and each one who worships, that the Holy Spirit will move mightily in worship.  There are folks who meet throughout the week at various times to lift up, by name, each person in this congregation, and to pray for the needs of people both around the corner and around the world.  If you are part of one of our prayer groups, would you please raise your hand and raise it high?

I am deeply-appreciative for what they do.  However, you need to understand that they are not doing something special; they are simply doing what all of us should be doing.  I think they would agree that we should not applaud them for praying, but join them in praying.  Before I give the benediction, I’m going to ask all of them to come here to the front, and before you come to speak to me on your way out, I want you first to speak to them about participating in a prayer group.  Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, I’d like to, but I just don’t have time.”  Then make time.  All relationships require our time and attention.  Your relationship with God is important enough to make the time to nurture it.  Prayer is not just something for the professionals or an elite few; we are all called to pray because prayer develops and deepens our relationship with God.

When the disciples of Jesus came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus knew that the best way to learn to pray was to start praying.

You don’t have to live your life on empty.  We are invited into a life-giving, grace-filled relationship with God, and the language of that relationship is prayer.  Let’s learn the language.

May we pray.  Lord, teach us to pray.  Teach us to listen more than we speak.  Teach us to say help, thanks, and wow.  Lord, teach us to pray.  Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Running on Empty? Check Your Fluids (Romans 6:3-6; 1 Corinthians 12:13)

Or don’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life.  If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his.  This is what we know: the person that we used to be was crucified with him in order to get rid of the corpse that had been controlled by sin, that way we wouldn’t be slaves to sin anymore.

We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jew or Greek, or slave or free, and we were all given one Spirit to drink.

Today, we continue in a series of messages called Running on Empty, because too many of us spend too much of our lives feeling empty.  However, we’re intended for something better.  Jesus said that he came so that we might have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10). 

One of the reasons we sometimes feel empty is we don’t take advantage of the opportunities to receive grace.  God’s offer of live-giving grace often sits like a beautiful gift that remains unopened.  In this series, we’re looking at how we open the gift and experience God’s grace.  Our metaphor is the human spirit is like a car, in need of regular maintenance as recommended by our Creator.  This recommended maintenance helps us experience God’s grace and move from empty toward full.

Last week we looked at using the right fuel, and we said that worship is our fuel.  Worship is where we draw our energy, and we are created with an overwhelming need to worship God, but we can worship others things.  Whatever we value most – whatever has our time and treasure – is what we worship.   Worshiping the life-giving Lord fills us up in a way that nothing else can and changes us for the better.

This week’s maintenance tip is simple: check your fluids.  May we pray.

Check your fluids.  This is some of the earliest car maintenance advice I received.  Not only is it generally good practice, but the cars I drove to begin with were in need of some, shall we say, special attention.  One car in particular comes to mind: a 1982 Ford LTD, robin egg blue with a dark blue vinyl top, christened “The Blue Bomber” around the halls of my high school.  This car rode like an old, soft sofa, and it handled like one, too. For some, a car is just transportation, but for others, it is a statement, and as a 17-year-old high school student, this car said a mouthful.

I learned the importance of checking a car’s fluids with this vehicle, because this car developed a hole in the radiator that eventually became the size of a dime, which my dad would not repair because he had bought a newer car for himself, and was done putting money into this car.

Some would be deterred from driving a car with a dime-sized hole in the radiator, but not me.  I discovered you could drive for exactly two miles before you had to stop and refill the radiator, and it just so happened that the distance between our home and my school was 1.8 miles.  Sloshing around in my trunk were two-liter soda bottles filled with water, which were poured into the radiator before every trip to school and every trip back home.  I carried more water in the back of this car than an entire camel caravan crossing the Sahara, until Western New York winter finally set in, and the laws of physics confirmed that water is not a permanent substitute for antifreeze.

You’ve got to check your fluids.  That car needed water to keep going, not unlike a human body.  We need water.  Even with our ingenuity and know-how, water remains one of our most basic needs.  We can go weeks or months without food, but we can only go a few days without water.

Simply put, we need water.  That’s true for us physically, and it’s true in the life of faith – we need water and the Holy Spirit – two things that come together to fill us with God’s grace in baptism.

Baptism is about grace (btw – it’s ALWAYS about grace!)
Here is a picture of me that was taken within a few weeks of my baptism.  I know what you’re thinking, too: “What an adorable kid - what happened?”   When this picture was taken, was I closer to the beginning of my life’s journey or the end of it?  Clearly, I was at the beginning of the journey.  Baptism is a starting point, not a final destination.  Baptism is about what God’s grace is doing within and through us.

Take a look at this picture again.  Do you think I could explain nutrition to you at that age?  Of course not - but that didn’t stop my parents from feeding me - I was obviously well-fed!  Do you think I could have explained the importance of good hygiene to you?  No, but that didn’t stop my parents from bathing me.  Could I have explained love to you?  No, but that didn’t stop my family from loving me.

So let me put that back in the context of faith.  Can small children explain grace?  No, but they can experience it.  Not only that, but they can show grace - often more thoroughly, readily, and effectively than we adults can.  God’s grace is abundant enough to confirm that God is at work in our lives, even when – I’ll even say especially when – we don’t know what we’re doing.  God fills us with grace in baptism, a grace which is for all people. It is that means of grace that starts us on the journey.

Baptism is dripping with God’s grace – given to us before we ask for it, understand it, or even know what it is.  Baptism is not about what we know, it’s about who God is.  And who is God?  God is Love, and it is God’s nature to lavishly pour out grace on everyone.

And so, if baptism is about God filling us with grace, and if grace is not earned, deserved, or merited, and if all people, including children can experience and show grace – that’s why we baptize children and infants and others who cannot answer for themselves.  Baptism isn’t about our choice or our understanding.  It is, first and foremost, about God’s grace, which is available to all.

So, “grace” is the first word you need to remember about how we understand baptism.  The second is “covenant.”

Baptism is a Covenant
A covenant is a binding agreement between two parties, but it is not the same thing as a contract.  For one thing, though we make contracts, covenants actually make us. For example, the covenant of marriage makes me a different person than I was before.  I have different obligations, priorities, and accountability, so my wife tells me.  I don’t define the covenant of marriage; the covenant of marriage defines me.

In the Bible, a covenant is initiated by God, and draws us into a particular relationship with God.  Baptism is a covenant initiated by God.  That’s really important to remember.  Write that down: The covenant is initiated by God.  God started it.  Long before any of us made a move toward God, God was already moving toward us.  Thanks be to God! 

Baptism gives us our identity, it tells us who we are.  Baptism is both the sign and seal that we belong to God – it’s like stamping “property of God” on us with permanent marker in big, bold letters.  Baptism is like God saying, “This one belongs to me.”

Another way covenants are different from contracts is a contract can be broken, while a covenant cannot.  God keeps God’s promises, even if we don’t keep ours.  The grace in the baptismal covenant reminds us that God is like Motel 6 - he leaves the light on for us.  No matter what we’ve done, no matter where we’ve been, no matter how late we’re coming in, God waits with open arms for us. 

God never walks away from us – even if you’ve sinned away all the grace God gave you in baptism, God still promised you an abundance of his grace, meaning that even when our behavior may have been less-than-pleasing to God, the promise of God’s grace in our lives still stands.  When God makes a promise, God always keeps it.  What’s required on our part is to recommit ourselves to the promise of our baptism.  If you find yourself running on empty, I invite you to check your fluids – the grace given to you by water and the Spirit in baptism.

Perhaps you’ve never been baptized and you’re thinking, “I’m missing out on something and I want to be baptized!” - if that’s you, talk to me after worship so we can sit down and talk about baptism and being filled with God’s grace and scheduling a date for your baptism; I don’t want anyone here to miss out on God’s transforming grace that is given to us in baptism.

Remember your baptism and be thankful
(9:00 am only – In a few moments, Parker Dixon will be baptized and sealed in God’s gift of grace.  Then, the rest of us will celebrate a congregational re-affirmation of baptism together.)

(10:55 am only – In a few moments, we will celebrate a congregational reaffirmation of baptism together.)

Those who have been baptized are invited to reaffirm the baptismal covenant.  No one is getting re-baptized today, I need to be clear about that, but today’s re-affirmation is an opportunity to renew your baptism and re-commit your life to Christ, to be filled and re-filled with God’s grace.

For those who have been baptized, whether you were baptized long ago or more recently, in this church or somewhere else, whether you were too young to recall it or can remember it like it was just yesterday, regardless, God’s grace was still made real in your life in your baptism.  Those who have been baptized previously will be invited to come to the front, where Jessica or I will touch the water to your forehead in the sign of the cross, and say, “Remember your baptism, and be thankful.”

Reaffirming the vows of our baptism is similar to couples who renew their marriage vows.
All relationships take work – good relationships don’t just happen – they require constant attention, commitment and re-commitment if they are going to be nurturing and life-giving.  That’s true in our human relationships, and it’s true in our relationship with God.

Re-commit yourself to your relationship with God and fill up with grace by remembering your baptism often.  Every time you come to worship, pause at the baptismal font in the gathering space, thank God for the gift of grace, and open yourself up to the Holy Spirit’s leading for the next leg of your spiritual journey – whatever that may be.

I’m even giving you a chance to remember your baptism at home.  We have two baskets full of these tags that can be hung in your shower, and they have this prayer on them – I have one hanging in my shower, and I pray this prayer every morning.   After you have come forward to remember your baptism today, pick up one of these shower tags and take it home, and make remembering your baptism a daily habit.

You don’t have to live your life on empty.  Take advantage of the opportunities to receive God’s grace.  God wants to fill you with his grace; don’t leave those gifts sitting un-opened. 

Know that, in baptism, water and the Spirit are God’s gift to you.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Running on Empty? Using the Right Fuel (James 1:19-25)

19 Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.20 This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore, with humility, set aside all moral filth and the growth of wickedness, and welcome the word planted deep inside you—the very word that is able to save you.
22 You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves. 23 Those who hear but don’t do the word are like those who look at their faces in a mirror. 24 They look at themselves, walk away, and immediately forget what they were like. 25 But there are those who study the perfect law, the law of freedom, and continue to do it. They don’t listen and then forget, but they put it into practice in their lives. They will be blessed in whatever they do.

Something I do that drives my wife crazy is letting my gas gauge get very far down before I stop to fill up.  I don’t think the fuel light in her car has ever lit up because she’s never let her tank get that low.  I, on the other hand, don’t even think about filling up until the light goes on – I mean, the light is letting you know that you have a whole gallon left – that’s at least 25 miles, in my car!  Still, she says that it stresses her out knowing that I’m always running on empty.

At least some of the time, many of us feel like we’re running on empty.  Have you ever felt like you are running on empty – physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually?  Running on empty is common to all of us – I don’t know anyone who hasn’t felt that way at least some in their lives.

Today we are beginning a new series of messages called Running on Empty, because God wants something better for us than a life of feeling empty.  Jesus said he came that we might have life, and have it to the full (John 10:10), and over the next several weeks, we’ll be looking at just how we can move from empty to full by availing ourselves of God’s grace any time we can.  Like gifts waiting to be unwrapped, God has given us several ways that we can fill up on grace, and each week we will better understand and experience one of these different means of grace.

So, if things feel empty in your life, what you learn and apply in this series will help you experience a fuller life as God intends.  If things are going well in your life right now, these messages will serve as encouragement to keep it up.  Over the next six weeks, we will experience God’s grace in new ways and find our lives fuller as a result.  May we pray.

If we’re going to move from an empty life to a full life, the first thing we need to do is take a look at what type of fuel we’re using.  Fuel is the source of our energy and even our identity – it’s what drives the whole process – and for our purposes, our “fuel” is worship.

My wife’s car takes premium fuel, which is probably something we should have researched before we bought it, but we didn’t.  It presents us with a quandary when we take a road trip – whose car are we going to take?  Hers uses more gas and the gas it takes is more expensive – but her car is the nicer, smoother, more powerful to drive and more comfortable to ride, so even though it costs us more, guess which one we usually take?  And I don’t mind telling you – the extra is totally worth it – it pays off in terms of the quality of the ride.  It’s not always true, but often, you get what you pay for.

What’s It Worth To You?
That’s true in worship, too – what you “get out” of worship is in direct proportion to what you put into it.  The term “worship” comes from the Old English “worth-ship,” and it literally means “to ascribe value (or worth) to something or someone.”

We may think of worship in terms of our prayers and songs and sermons that glorify God, but the definition of worship is actually a little different.  Did you know that everybody worships?  Everybody assigns value or worth to someone or something – even people who do not profess faith of any sort still worship.  If you want to know what you worship, take a look at your bank statement and your calendar.   In our society, time and money are our two most valuable commodities, so whatever has got the most of your time or your treasure, that’s what you worship, simple as that.

For the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, worship involved the sacrifice of an animal – in other words, giving something of value – to God.  These sacrifices were pure, spotless, healthy, unblemished – the first and the best as a way of saying, “God, you are worth the very best I have to offer.”

It is part of the reason we receive a monetary offering as part of our worship.  Let me bust a popular myth about the offering – we don’t receive it to support the church – yes, the church has bills to pay, it costs money to pay salaries and utilities and fund the ministries that happen through this church, and it’s true that the offering received does go to support all that, but that’s not the primary reason we receive an offering.  Do I have your attention now?

We receive an offering not because the church needs your money, but so you can express what God is worth to you.  In other words, we need an opportunity to be generous!  As people created in the image of God who is generous to us, our offering to God is to reflect the same generosity back toward God.  The offering is the place in our worship where we show God what God is worth to us.  What we give is not a financial issue, it’s a spiritual issue.  Spiritually mature people tend to be generous people.  Giving generously ascribes worth and value – worship – to God.

Again – we all worship.  God knit us together with the overwhelming need and desire to worship him; we find ourselves running on empty when we use the wrong fuel; we find ourselves running on empty when we worship something other than God.

The Real Thing
Worshiping something other than God leaves us empty because deep down, our spirit just won’t accept an imposter.  Our spirits crave authentic and life-changing worship of God, and worshiping something else just won’t give us what we need.  I remember in high school buying those “Designer Imposter” fragrances – cologne that doesn’t have the fancy label, but smells so much like the real thing, who can tell the difference?

Well, as it turns out, everyone can tell the difference, except, perhaps, the teenage boy who is bathed in the stuff.  Again, you often get what you pay for!  Despite what we tell ourselves, there is a huge difference between the genuine article and a fake, between fuel that feeds our soul and so-called fuel that leaves us stranded at the side of the road.  In terms of our worship, there’s a huge difference between the authentic worship of God that satisfies our soul, and the false worship of the things of the world that leaves us empty inside.  Coca-Cola was right – you can’t beat the real thing.

In today’s Scripture from the letter of James, we are given guidelines about sorting false worship from the real thing, from worship that serves only to deceive ourselves, and worship that truly brings glory and honor to God, fills us up with God’s presence, and equips us for service

The Service
Reverend Jenkins came across a young boy who was intently studying a large plaque in a hallway at the church.  “Reverend Jenkins,” he said, “What’s this?”  “This plaque lists the names of all the people from this church who died in the service.”  “Oh, I see,” said the boy.  The two stood there quietly for a moment, when the boy, with all sincerity, said, “Which one – 9 or 10:55?”

“Service” is one of the most mis-used words in the church.  At the end of each worship gathering I say, “Our service of worship has ended, now our worship through service begins.”  The letter of James makes a clear case when it tells us, “You must be doers of the word and not only hearers who mislead themselves” (James 1:22).  Worship sends us into the world to put our faith into action; authentic worship is less a matter of what happens in this room during one hour on Sunday and more a matter of what takes place during the other 167 hours in a week.

Our “service” is not what we do on Sunday morning.  We serve God not by going to church, but by being the church; God doesn’t want us to simply go to church, God calls us to be the church – the leaving, breathing, body of Christ who makes God’s love real beyond ourselves.  This hour of worship equips and empowers us to move beyond this hour of worship, beyond these walls, for we are called to be doers of the word and not only hearers.

Sunday morning is the time to celebrate God at work, to be changed by God through the very words we sing, the prayers we pray, and yes, even the offering we give.  Sunday morning, we give our full attention to God, hearing the word and then going to do the word, so that we do not, as verse 25 says, “listen and forget, but put it into practice in our lives, and we will be blessed in whatever we do.” 

Great Expectations
Some of it is having some level of expectation when you come.  I need to be very clear here: I expect to experience God’s presence in worship.  I expect to be filled with the Holy Spirit.  I count on worship leaving a mark on me, changing me, filling me with grace so amazing I’m not the same person when I walk out as I was when I walked in – and I not only expect that for me, I am counting on it for each and every single one of you.

Not every sermon or worship service is a home run – even I have weeks I know I bombed one and I just want to say, “I am so sorry, please come back next week and I promise it will be better,” and on those Sundays, you are free to say, “I didn’t get anything out of church today.”  But can I let you in on how this works?  For the most part, what you get out of church will be in direct proportion to what you put into it.  If you come looking for things to criticize, you’ll find no shortage.  If you are primarily concerned with the movement of the clock, don’t be surprised if you miss the movement of the Spirit.

For my part, I’m gonna listen to God through the week and hopefully have something worth coming to hear, but friends, you gotta do your part, too!  The more you come to worship with an open heart and mind, and a sense of expectation that you’re going to encounter God here, I promise you’ll experience God’s grace filling you up in ways you have never experienced before or even known were possible. Worshiping God changes us.  Authentic worship makes us doers of the word, and not just hearers; it doesn’t make us better than anyone else, but it does make us better than ourselves. 

To those who feel like they’re running on empty, the first thing I’d say is to use the right fuel.  Your spirit is designed to run on premium, and sure, you can put other stuff in it, but it just won’t run right.  St. Augustine said, “Because, thou, O God, has created us for thyself, our hearts are restless ‘til they rest in thee.”  Maybe you’ve heard this described that God has created us with a God-shaped hole in our hearts, and though we may try to fill it with all sorts of things, only God will truly fill it.

We are created with an overwhelming need and desire to worship God.  You are hard-wired to worship, so just make sure that the altar you’re bowing before belongs to God and not something else.  The human spirit knows the difference, and it won’t accept any substitutes, and authentic worship of the life-giving Lord fills us up in a way that nothing else can.

Friends, you and I were made to worship.  But what we worship will determine whether we find ourselves empty or full.  The first step toward a full life is to give glory and worth to God and God alone; that’s what you and I were created to do.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Rearview Mirror and a Clean Windshield (Philippians 3:4b-14)

If anyone else has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more:
5 I was circumcised on the eighth day.
I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin.
I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews.
With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee.
6 With respect to devotion to the faith, I harassed the church.
With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.
7 These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. 8 But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ 9 and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ. It is the righteousness of God that is based on faith. 10 The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the participation in his sufferings. It includes being conformed to his death 11 so that I may perhaps reach the goal of the resurrection of the dead.
12 It’s not that I have already reached this goal or have already been perfected, but I pursue it, so that I may grab hold of it because Christ grabbed hold of me for just this purpose. 13 Brothers and sisters, I myself don’t think I’ve reached it, but I do this one thing: I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me. 14 The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.

Today we celebrate 125 years of ministry as a congregation.  125 years as a faith family joined by grace, 125 years of growing in God’s love.  125 years of ministry and mission.  125 years of God transforming human hearts to build up this little corner of God’s kingdom we call “home.”

Today is a day to look back and reflect and remember.  We remember pastors who have come and gone, each one leading and shepherding in their unique way.  We remember years of faithful and dedicated ministry by the men and women who served diligently and sacrificed generously of their time, talent, and treasure to create a home for generations they would never even meet.  We remember them, and we know that we are standing upon the shoulders of spiritual giants.

We remember potluck suppers and Christmas programs and youth trips, Bible studies and mission trips.  We remember Brunswick Stew and BBQ and Sunday School picnics and hot dogs.  We remember births, baptisms, weddings and funerals.  We remember the people of this church standing as a rock in the storms of our lives, and the ones with whom we have celebrated life’s greatest joys.
We remember all of those things that have been woven into the fabric called Morehead United Methodist Church.  We look back upon all those things, we remember, and we are grateful.

But today, we are not only looking back; we are also looking ahead.  Today we stand at the intersection of “where we’ve been” and “where we’ve yet to go.”  As we give thanks for all that God has seen us through, let us also faithfully express confidence that God isn’t finished with us yet.  As we remember our wonderful history and rich heritage, we look forward to an even brighter future, to the glory of God.

To remember that balance, I want you to remember the rearview mirror in your car.  On this journey called “following Jesus,” we make necessary and even frequent glances in our rearview mirror to see what is behind us, but our focus remains on the road ahead we can see through a clean windshield.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in what’s happening behind us that we lose sight of what is happening in front of us.  Consider the lady who went to our local Christian book store and bought a ‘Honk if you love Jesus’ bumper sticker.

Here’s her story: “I was stopped at a red light at a busy intersection, just lost in thought about the Lord and how good He is, and I found that lots of people love Jesus! While I was sitting there, the guy behind started honking like crazy, and then he leaned out of his window and screamed, ‘For the love of God! Go! Go! Go!’ What an exuberant cheerleader he was for Jesus!

“Everyone started honking! I just leaned out my window and started waving and smiling at all those loving people. I even honked my horn a few times to share in the love!

“I saw another guy waving in a funny way with only his middle finger stuck up in the air. I asked my grandson in the back seat what that meant. He said it was the Hawaiian good luck sign. Well, I have never met anyone from Hawaii, so I leaned out the window and gave him the good luck sign right back. My grandson burst out laughing. Why, even he was enjoying this religious experience!!

“A couple people got out of their cars and started walking towards me. I bet they wanted to pray or ask what church I attended, but this is when I noticed the light had changed. So, grinning, I waved at all my brothers and sisters, and drove on through the intersection. I noticed that I was the only car that got through the intersection before the light changed again and felt sad that I had to leave them after all the love we had shared. So I slowed the car down, leaned out the window and gave them all the Hawaiian good luck sign one last time as I drove away. Praise the Lord for such wonderful folks!!

Always looking behind us can keep us from seeing what is ahead of us, and even create an obstacle to others around us.

So it was for the apostle Paul in words we read from Philippians 3, as he recalls a proud past and a rich heritage.  He basically says, “Now, I’m not going to take up your time bragging about all my accomplishments, but if I were going to brag, here are some of the things I could tell you.  I’m not going to tell you what a big deal I am, but if I were, here’s what you would need to know.”

The passage, at first, reads like a brag sheet about everything he has already accomplished in a decorated past.  Just about the time you’re ready to give him the Hawaiian good luck sign for being so full of himself, he goes in a completely unexpected direction.  After waving his religious resume in front of everyone, he crumples it up and throws it into the trashcan, and says, “Oh this?  It’s worthless.  Everything I’ve ever done, everything I’ve worked for, means nothing compared to knowing Christ, becoming like him, growing in his love, experiencing new life in him – THAT’S what this whole thing is all about.”

His choice was to put all his energy into preserving what he already had, or trusting Jesus and boldly stepping out into an unknown future.  Friends, each and every day, we choose whether we are going to spend more time gazing longingly into our rear view mirror, or whether we are ready to look out through a clean windshield at the open road ahead, put our life in gear, and get moving.

Paul chose the open road.  Paul chose a life-giving journey with the living Lord.  It wasn’t that his past no longer mattered, it was that his future was now defined by new life in Christ, and that new definition was so joyous and hopeful that the rest of it seemed, by comparison, like small potatoes.

Hear me carefully: I’m not saying the past is bad, or that it needs to be forgotten.  Traditions and memories and history are important – they are like postcards that remind us of the places we’ve been.  But perspective is key. Bishop Lawrence McClesky once said, “A church can believe its best days are behind it, or it can believe its best days are ahead of it.  Either way, they’ll be right.”

So, do we believe our best days are somewhere behind us, or somewhere ahead of us?  Is the best gone forever, or yet-to-come?  Are our best days lost for good, or just waiting to be discovered?  Which way are you looking – in the rear view mirror, or through the windshield?

Friends, we have a great history here.  I’m proud to be the pastor of a church with a heritage so rich, and a future so bright.  The first 125 years have been great, but by the grace of God, the next 125 will be even better.

You know how people will often say they want their kids or their grandkids to have more than they did?  One of the best ways to honor the contributions of those who have come before us is to build on the foundation they have laid.  As it’s said, the broader the base, the taller the tower.  With the base we have, let us reach for the stars and nothing less.

It has been said, “A growing church is one whose dreams are greater than its memories.”  We have some great memories, but let’s work on dreaming some greater dreams.  The prophet Joel said that when God’s Holy Spirit is poured out, “old men will dream dreams and young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28).  As your pastor, that’s my primary role here – dreamer-in-chief.  As the spiritual leader of this church, it’s my job to stay in tune with the Holy Spirit, to listen, to dream big dreams about who God is calling us to be, and to challenge you to dream some big, God-sized dreams yourselves, and then get in gear to make those dreams a reality.  If anyone here says about me, “That kid is just a dreamer,” I will thank you for the greatest compliment you can give me.

So let me tell you what I’m dreaming.  I’m dreaming that we will be a church that does exactly what Jesus established the church to do: to love God and our neighbor, and to go make disciples of Jesus.   From the founding of this congregation, loving God and our neighbor, making disciples of Jesus Christ is the sole reason we exist – the difference from 125 years ago is that we have a lot more neighbors to love now than we did then.  This week, some of you found out that within 3 miles of our location, there are currently how many people – do you remember?  39,000.  Not only that, but within the next 10 years, that number will grow to 49,000.

Of those 49,000 people, how many of them are people created in God’s image?  Of those 49,000 people, how many of them does God love?  How many of those people does God want a relationship with?  How many of them need to hear that they are loved by God and welcomed into a Christian community where they can grow as followers of Jesus Christ?

So here’s the question: if we don’t tell them, who will?  If we don’t reach out to them with the love and light of Christ, who will?

Do you think there might be any correlation that, smack in the middle of 49,000 of God’s beloved people, there happens to be a church whose sole purpose is to make disciples of Jesus Christ?

I can already hear the objections: What if we get too big, or what if we don’t know everyone anymore?  Let me ask you this: is the purpose of church for us to know everyone, or is it for everyone to know Jesus?  If you’re primarily worried that you won’t know everyone anymore, then you’re not dreaming big enough.

Or, what about the money or the building or other logistics?  If you’re worried about any of those, then you’re not dreaming big enough.  The God who owns the cattle on a thousand hills doesn’t have a cash flow problem or any limit to the resources we need to accomplish what God wants us to do.

My dream is that this church is so in love with God and so in love with our neighbors – all of them – that we stop at nothing to tell them how much God loves them and invite them to follow Jesus with us.  My dream is that we won’t rest until every single one of our neighbors knows Jesus – I’m dreaming it like it’s my job.

Today, we stand at the intersection of where we’ve been and where we’ve yet to go.  Today we remember and we dream.  Our faith is not simply reflected in the rear view mirror.  It is experienced on the open road, following Jesus and sharing his light along the way.  Knowing Jesus, the best is yet to come.