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.

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