Sunday, January 5, 2014

2014: The Year of Growing in God's Love (Colossians 2:6-7, John 15:1-8)

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So live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught. 

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. You are already trimmed because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. A branch can’t produce fruit by itself, but must remain in the vine. Likewise, you can’t produce fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything. If you don’t remain in me, you will be like a branch that is thrown out and dries up. Those branches are gathered up, thrown into a fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples.

Many people make New Year’s Resolutions – anyone here done that?  We are five days into the new year, have you broken any of those resolutions, yet?  Many people start the new year with good goals, but no plan to bring those goals to fruition.  Someone wants to lose fifteen pounds – a good goal – but doesn’t change anything about their diet and exercise.  It’s vitally important to know where we want to go, but it’s just as important to know how we’re going to get there.  Many goals remain unrealized because no plan was put into place to reach them.  The old saying goes, “A failure to plan is a plan to fail.”

That’s true in the life of faith, too.  The Bible uses a variety of images to describe the Christian journey.  Many of them, like those in today’s Scripture, are agricultural images, and not surprisingly, place a particular emphasis on growing.  Healthy Christians grow.  God wants us to grow, and almost instinctively, we know that’s what we’re supposed to do.  I have never met a Christian who didn’t at least say they wanted to grow in their faith.

I have, however, met plenty who weren’t growing.  Sometimes, we don’t know what it takes to grow in our faith, or we do know, but we don’t actually do those things.  Like New Year’s resolutions, our growth in faith can remain unrealized because we simply don’t have a plan.

Well, not this year.  One of the key components of a pastor’s job description is “Dreamer-in-Chief,” meaning that a significant amount of my time is spent praying, thinking, discerning, and dreaming about where God wants us to go.  Out of hours of this prayer and discernment, our ministry theme for 2014 has emerged: “The Year of Growing in God’s Love.”  My prayerful hope is that a year from now, we look back and celebrate all the ways we have grown in God’s love this year.

Hopefully, you’ll notice that this theme of growing in God’s love is neither radical nor new.  It is something Morehead has been already been doing for the 125 years of our history: numerous times we have been faced with hard decisions, and each time this congregation has responded to do the right thing – not necessarily the easy thing – but the thing that pushed us and stretched our faith, and ultimately, helped Morehead grow in God’s love.

Just look at some of what has taken place in 2013.  You faced a big change when Pastor Bryant retired and I took over.  One of the things I have most appreciated is that you continue to honor and celebrate his ministry, while allowing room for a new chapter to begin.  Your attitude has allowed us to spend significant time together and become good friends.  Now, after six months have passed and we’ve followed proper protocol, I am pleased to officially welcome Bryant and Jackie back into the full life of our congregation.  Now, they have both emphasized to me that they are retired, and I hope you will honor the reality that their ministry will have a different shape than it did before.

In 2013, you made significant progress on paying down the debt was taken out to finish our fellowship hall/classroom addition.  Once that loan is paid off, it will free up about $21,000 a year for additional mission and ministry!  I don’t know about you, but I can definitely think of things we can do in Jesus’ name with that money!  Paying off debt is a good goal, it’s one I personally worked very hard to make happen.  But it’s not our highest goal.  Our highest goal is to continue to provide a place for people to connect to God’s love and grace through Jesus Christ.  If possible, as it is for us right now, it’s good for a church to be out of debt, but friends, ministry comes first, and there are times where a manageable and responsible amount of debt can help us keep ministry a priority, but if we have grown comfortable and complacent, ministry opportunities will pass us by.

In fact, comfort and complacency are the biggest barriers we have to overcome.  When we settle for the status quo, we settle for less than what God desires for us.  It’s not bad, it’s just less.

Further, the only options are either growth or decline.  In the life of faith, whether as individuals or a church, there is no standing still.  Did everyone hear that?  There is no standing still.  What we think is standing still is actually a slow decline.  Think of when you go to the beach and you stand in that spot where the waves are coming in just high enough to cover your feet before retreating.  Try your hardest to stand absolutely still, but you can’t, because the sand under your feet is washing away and you’re slowly sinking.  There is no standing still – we’re either growing or declining.

I name comfort and complacency as our biggest barriers to overcome because of some of the concerns I’ve heard expressed in just six months.  None of these have been brought directly to me, but some of you talk louder in the kitchen, the hallways, and in the parking lot than you realize.

Here’s one concern: haven’t we grown enough?  Let me answer by way of another question: given that God has given the church to the world in order for people to know God, and given that there are thousands of people within spitting distance who are not involved in a church, are we, sitting in this room, right now, all the people God wants to get to know?  We’re done – right here, right now, that’s as many as God wants to know.  But, if you believe, as I do, that God isn’t done getting to know people in our community, then we aren’t done growing.

Here’s another concern: what if we get so big that we don’t know everyone?  Let me answer that in a couple ways.  First, is the purpose of church for us to know everyone, or for everyone to know Jesus?  If you’re thinking it’s for us to know everyone, what you actually have in mind is called a social club, which is something very different from the church of Jesus Christ.

Further, we already don’t know everyone, and that’s okay.  Just knowing someone’s name is not the same as really knowing them.  Put your hand up if you don’t know (I mean truly, deeply, personally know) everybody in this room.  Here’s reality – we could be a small church of 30 people who had been together for decades, and we still wouldn’t know everyone!

The concern about knowing everyone is tied to another myth that gets bandied about in churches – that a church’s friendliness is somehow tied to its size, you know, small churches are friendly, large churches are not.  Not true!  I have been in churches of a dozen people who were unwelcoming and cold as ice, and I have been in churches of several thousand that were the warmest and most hospitable places you could imagine.

What makes a church friendly or unfriendly is not its size, but its heart!  It’s something in the heart and soul of the place, regardless of how many people it has!  Morehead is known as a friendly, warm, inclusive, genuine church – but we’re not that way because we’re a certain size; we’re that way because it’s in our DNA!  Friends, what makes Morehead friendly is not our size, but our heart!

In fact, Morehead is already not a small church.  The average Protestant church in America has 70 people in worship; we have more than twice that!  There’s nothing wrong with being a small-church, but we are not one.  Tell your friends we are a warm, caring, mid-sized church, who loves God and loves other people, and by the grace of God, we are growing in God’s love.

Sometimes we wonder, “Why do some churches grow while others don’t?”  Yes, there are issues of location and leadership, buildings and budgets, plans and programs, ministries and missions – but the real deciding factor in churches that are growing?  An open, receptive spirit among its members to the movements of the Holy Spirit.

One of the common ways the Holy Spirit is represented is as a dove, and I have this picture of that dove circling and circling, just looking for the right place to land. The Holy Spirit is always on the move, always searching out human hearts that are open and ready.  Our responsibility is to be receptive and to welcome the movement of the Holy Spirit when it comes our way.  Make no mistake, if our hearts aren’t open, the Holy Spirit will have no problem passing us by.

But, if we’re open, if we’re willing, if we’re receptive, if we’re on board with the movement of the Holy Spirit, then friends, 2014 is our year.  It is the year of growing in God’s love!

To grow in God’s love as a church, we first need to grow in God’s love as individuals.  We are each responsible!  No relying on “Somebody Else.”  In fact, if you don’t do anything else in 2014, stop relying on “Somebody Else.”  If we need to come back this afternoon and have a funeral for “Somebody Else,” that’s what we’ll do!  “If it is to be, it is up to me.”  Say that with me!

In 2014, I invite you to commit to doing what it takes to grow in God’s love.  There are five components in that, and they’re in the graphic on the front of your bulletin.  I guarantee that if you commit to doing those things this year, you will grow in God’s love.  Put down roots by attending worship, nurture your soil by participating in a smaller group, produce fruit by serving others in the name of Christ, share the harvest by giving 10% of your income to God through this church, and scatter seeds by sharing your faith and inviting someone to join us.  These are the practices that outline the fruitful life cycle of someone who is growing in God’s love.

Nothing new or radical there, folks.  In fact, if you are a member of this church, you have already promised to do these things!  Everyone who joins this church makes a public commitment, a vow, a promise, to support and participate in the ministries of this congregation through their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  Those sound an awful lot like the practices outlined on the front of the bulletin!  Everyone who is a member of this church has already promised to do these things, and my assumption here is that you all are the kinds of people who keep your promises.

Let me be abundantly clear here: I am not inviting you to commit to these practices out a sense of duty or obligation to support the church.  I am asking you to commit to these practices as the joyful expression of a heart that desires to grow in God’s love.  This is NOT about what you need to do for the church; it’s about what you need to do as a follower of Jesus who desires to grow in God’s love.

So let’s look at the practices real quick.  If you want to grow in God’s love this year, I invite you to attend worship every Sunday, unless you are sick, out-of-town, or working.  Yes, I realize I’m saying that to the people who are here, so you all make sure that those who aren’t here today get the invitation.  There’s an old joke among preachers that we expect most of our congregation will show up, most of the time, as long as nothing better is going on, as long as it’s not a holiday weekend, as long as the weather isn’t too bad OR too good, and as long as the senior pastor is preaching.

I want you to be here even when I’m not the one preaching, even when you’ve looked at the preview of your bulletin and realized we’re singing a song that you don’t know or like.  I want you to be here even and especially on Sundays where “you just don’t feel like it.”  If your plans keep you from attending the service you normally come to, come to the other one, even if you won’t know anyone, even if it’s not your style.  Remember that while worship is for you, it isn’t about you, it’s about God, and regularly attending worship is a great way to be reminded of that.

If you want to grow in God’s love this year, I invite you to participate in at least one activity designed to help you grow in your faith beyond worship.  Maybe that’s a Sunday School class, a Bible study, a prayer group, or some other small group designed for Christian formation and fellowship.  Dorothy Klass and Shirley Dean are starting another session of “Experiencing God” next Sunday, a session of Disciple Bible Study is beginning at Flat Rock UMC in Stokesdale, my Wednesday night Bible study will resume when we resume weekly dinners.  We have prayer groups that meet at times throughout the week.  If you’re part of one of those groups, recognize how difficult it can be for a new person to join a group that’s already established.  Invite them in, sit with them, don’t use insider language that a newcomer would find difficult to understand, and maybe even be willing to start a new group, that’s easier for new folks to join. Find a place to grow deeper.

If you want to grow in God’s love this year, I invite you to serve others in the name of Christ though the ministries and missions of this church.  Maybe that involves being willing to start and lead a new Sunday School class, Bible study, prayer group or other group.  Maybe that means teaching children or youth, or working in Vacation Bible School.  Maybe that means joining the choir or praise team.  Maybe it means serving in worship, or volunteering at Weaver House or Out of the Garden.  Maybe it means becoming an usher, or greeter, or parking lot attendant, or prayer partner.  Maybe it means going on a mission trip.  Find a place to serve.

If you want to grow in God’s love this year, generously give a percentage of your income to God through this church, with the goal of tithing, 10%.  The size of your income makes little difference, whether you make $500 this year or $500,000, generously giving a percentage of that to God shows your priorities and where you want your heart to be.  There’s a saying that we are God’s bank account – that God has all sorts of things God wants to accomplish in the world, but the money to accomplish those things is sitting in our wallets. Jesus told us that where our treasure is, there our heart will be too.  Place your treasure in God’s hands, and find your heart in the process.

If you want to grow in God’s love this year, share your faith with those outside our church, and invite someone who doesn’t already have a church home to give Morehead a try.  Many people we know would love to be part of a warm, welcoming family of faith like ours; they’re just waiting for someone to love them enough to invite them inside.  This is the year to do that.  They’re waiting for you.  They’ll thank you.  And you’ll grow closer to God, as God’s family grows.

Friends, welcome to 2014.  It’s the year of growing in God’s love.

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