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Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Advent Conspiracy: Worship Fully (Matthew 2:1-16)


If I were to say the word, “Christmas” – what other words or images come immediately to mind?

 

I continued a spirit of Thanksgiving on Friday, as we put out our Christmas decorations.  I am thankful for pre-lit artificial Christmas trees that come in three sections, and can be set up and ready to decorate in less than 10 minutes.  I am thankful for Pandora radio playing Christmas music as we decorated.  I am thankful for the good people over at 3M who make all-weather self-adhesive hooks that make hanging the outside lights so much easier than it used to be.

 

I am thankful for the family and friends who will come through our home during the holiday season, and I hope you all will come to our home on Tuesday evening for our annual holiday open house!

 

The season carries with it a certain Norman Rockwellishness – postcard perfect Christmas trees, fireplaces, greenery, rosy-faced children, perfect family meals.  That picture of Christmas will be reinforced in every television commercial, department store display, and Southern Living article.

 

Welcome to the Advent Conspiracy.  It’s that picture perfect version of Christmas we’re going to turn upside-down over the next four weeks.  In that perfect picture, we don’t see the stress and debt hiding just out of sight.  The rampant consumerism.  The families who feel the pain and grief of a loved one who won’t be at their table this year.  If Christmas is nothing more than Clark Griswold light displays and Martha Stewart centerpieces, then friends, that’s not a good thing.  Far from perfect, the real picture of Christmas for many includes pain and brokenness and dysfunction.

 

Then again, the real Christmas story includes its fair share of pain and brokenness and dysfunction.  Consider these words from St. Matthew’s Gospel, the 2nd Chapter, verses 1-16.  Please stand for the reading of the Gospel:

 

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him.”

When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and everyone in Jerusalem was troubled with him. He gathered all the chief priests and the legal experts and asked them where the Christ was to be born. They said, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

You, Bethlehem, land of Judah,
        by no means are you least among the rulers of Judah,
            because from you will come one who governs,
            who will shepherd my people Israel.

Then Herod secretly called for the magi and found out from them the time when the star had first appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you’ve found him, report to me so that I too may go and honor him.” When they heard the king, they went; and look, the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were filled with joy. 11 They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.

13 When the magi had departed, an angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod will soon search for the child in order to kill him.” 14 Joseph got up and, during the night, took the child and his mother to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I have called my son out of Egypt.

16 When Herod knew the magi had fooled him, he grew very angry. He sent soldiers to kill all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding territory who were two years old and younger, according to the time that he had learned from the magi.

 

This is Christmas, not brought to you by Hallmark, but by Herod.  The story begins in a surprising and uncomfortable place.  Quite a start for what is supposed to be “the most wonderful time of the year.”  As I read the final two lines of that passage, where Herod murders all the children under the age of two, how many of you winced and had difficulty saying, “Thanks be to God”?  I know I did.

 

It is an uncomfortable place to begin the Christmas story, but a necessary one.  If the world were as perfect as our family Christmas letters and photos, then there would have been no need for Jesus to come in the first place.  But the world can be a pretty painful and messed up place sometimes – where the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer – and this is the world Jesus came into.

 

King Herod – he was bloodthirsty and power-hungry.  He is paranoid, always looking over his shoulder for someone to come and unseat him from his claim to power.  He has his own wife and several of his sons killed because he perceives them as a threat to his own power.

 

The people suffered under Herod.  The people are tired, hungry, and depressed.  They are oppressed, crushed down by the brutality.  They are in desperate need of hope, hope that seems to be nowhere at hand, hope that seems like a far-away dream, hope that is flickering and fading.

 

You ever been in that place – where hope is all but faded?  You’ve gotten to the end of the tunnel, and there is no light, as promised?  The Christmas story starts in the same place.

 

But then, news of a new king.  A king who will liberate, who will set them free, who will usher in a new regime of peace and justice – the news of this king is the hope they were looking for all along.

 

Herod hears this news, too.  Good news to the people, not such good news to Herod.  A new king?  That’s a threat to his power.  And so Herod sets out to eliminate the threat, namely, the baby.  Better to destroy the baby now than to let him grow up and raise an army against Herod.

 

But there’s a problem – Herod has heard that a new king has been born, but he doesn’t know which baby is the king.  And he can’t find the baby, because everyone he sends is so moved, so inspired, so changed by their encounter with this baby, this king, this Messiah, this face of God in human flesh, that they don’t return to Herod, because they cannot take part in allowing Herod to destroy something so wondrous.

 

Those who have a chance to see the face of Jesus know they have seen the face of God, and they bow in worship.  The shepherds, the magi, even the angels cannot stop singing God’s praise.

 

Herod becomes increasingly frustrated as no one returns to him to tell him where to find the baby, but hell-bent on destroying the threat to his power, he does what any reasonable, bloodthirsty, tyrant would do – he orders the murder of every child in the region under the age of two, obviously not knowing that Joseph and Mary have fled with the child he so desperately seeks to destroy, ruthlessly slaughtering the innocent children.

 

Why do we begin here?  Because Jesus comes into a pretty messed-up world.  The Christmas story begins in a dark and hopeless place.  Death, pain, illness, anger, frustration, depression, and doubt are very real in our world, and to many of us.  Jesus does not come to a postcard perfect place; no, Jesus takes on the worst this broken world has to offer in order to redeem it, to transform it, and to make something new with it.

 

That is Christmas – God breathing new life into what is broken through Jesus.  Though neither our family nor home should be featured in a magazine, at Christmas, Jesus gives us the chance to say we are imperfect, and it’s ok!

 

Christmas is not a time to fake it ‘til we make it to January.  Not a time to pretend we’ve got it all together, pull off the perfect holiday parties, have the perfect tree, find the perfect gifts.

 

Christmas is a time to recognize how deeply we do need Jesus.  Jesus enters the world at its place of deepest need.  He enters our life the same way.

 

Jesus is born into this mess.  Jesus came into this world and experienced the same pain that keeps us up at night – the same worries, the same fears, the same frustrations.  The things that make us weep cause him to weep to.  Our lack of peace, our lack of justice, things in the world that just aren’t right – Jesus sees, Jesus experiences, Jesus grieves as we do.

 

When we think of Jesus experiencing suffering, we immediately go to the cross, but we cannot forget that his suffering starts in the beginning.  In the back alley of Bethlehem, where an unmarried teenage mother gave birth to him, and had to deal with the shame and stigma that must have carried.

 

Jesus shares in the pain of the mothers and fathers who mourned the loss of their children, simply because Herod wanted him dead, and with mothers and fathers today who mourn the loss of their children.

 

Jesus shares in the pain of injustice.  Jesus shares in the pain of racism and discrimination.  Jesus shares in the pain of homophobia and intolerance.  Jesus shares in the pain of corruption and fear.  Jesus shares in the pain of division and destruction.  It’s all part of the story he came into, and all part of the story he can yet redeem.

 

Advent is a conspiracy because Herod and all those in power know that Jesus is bringing a power that will change everything, and people will no longer reliant on worldly power, or wealth.  An identity not tied up in what we buy or where we live.  Not in our status or schooling, not in our popularity or privilege, not in our rank or rights – Advent is a conspiracy because all those worldly labels and thrones are turned upside-down when we give our lives over to Jesus and find our meaning in him.

 

Like shepherds, like angels, like the magi – we are invited to bow before Jesus, to surrender our lives to him, to give him first place in our hearts and lives.  Truth be told, we do worship fully during Advent and Christmas, but we worship the god of BestBuy and the god of Toys-R-Us and the god of Target.  We worship the god of what’s on sale and the god of what’s for dinner.  We worship the god of what’s under the tree and what’s in it for me.We’ve all looked for hope elsewhere, and we’ve come up short every time. 

 

The Advent conspiracy begins with two words: “Worship Fully.”  This Advent, I invite you to follow the lead of the Magi, and run faster to Jesus than we do to our Christmas trees on Christmas morning.  To find our identity and meaning in Jesus, to allow our lives to be shaped more by him than by what we bought or what we got.

 

We make Christmas about us instead of about Jesus.  Our search for all that perfection, if we’re honest, is about us.

 

Worship is about God.  John Wesley published rules for singing – he had rules for everything, methods, if you will, part of the reason we are people called “Methodists.”  Those rules are printed in the front of our hymnal, and you should take a look at them sometime.  I won’t go into them all today, but rule #5:

 

5. Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this, attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve of here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

 

“Have an eye to God” in all we do in worship. Aim at pleasing God more than ourselves and more than others in worship. Offer our hearts to God continually. That’s worship.

 

It is so easy for us to become consumers of worship just like we consume everything else. It’s easy for us to slip into a “the customer is always right” mindset when we’re worshipping, where we’re the customers and God is the salesclerk. Of course, I want you all to find our worship time together meaningful and engaging.   But, not just because you “liked” the music, or “liked” the sermon.

 

The goal of worship to be a place where God can transform our hearts and souls, where God can invite us into a life of discipleship and you can learn to be ready to respond, “Yes.” Worship is for God.  When worship is about something other than giving our hearts to God, it is just another kind of idolatry. Worship is saying yes to God.

 

This Advent, I invite you to worship fully.  When the magi worshipped Jesus, when they came face-to-face with God-in-flesh, they were so overcome that something within them changed.  They changed.  Everything about them changed.  They even went home by a different route – they changed their plans and changed their path because of Jesus!

 

That’s what it is to worship fully – to come face to face with the holy and to be changed as a result.  To choose another path.  To go another way.  This Advent, how is your life different because of Jesus?  How have your plans and the path of your life changed because of Him?

 

How can your life be different from now on?
 
 
 
 
How can you worship more fully, instead of coming to worship out of a sense of duty or obligation, but with your heart and mind prepared for a life-changing encounter with Jesus?  How can your concept of worship move beyond what takes place for an hour or two on Sunday morning, and instead become a lifestyle of seeking and surrendering to Christ?

 

This Advent, seek Jesus like you never have before.  Worship Fully.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Signs of the Kingdom (Matthew 25:31-46)


31 “Now when the Human One comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right side. But the goats he will put on his left.

34 “Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’

37 “Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? 38 When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

40 “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Get away from me, you who will receive terrible things. Go into the unending fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 I was hungry and you didn’t give me food to eat. I was thirsty and you didn’t give me anything to drink. 43 I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. I was naked and you didn’t give me clothes to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and didn’t do anything to help you?’ 45  Then he will answer, ‘I assure you that when you haven’t done it for one of the least of these, you haven’t done it for me.’ 46  And they will go away into eternal punishment. But the righteous ones will go into eternal life.”

 

In Disney’s The Lion King, young Simba dreams about what it will be like when he is king.  Doing whatever he wants, everyone listening to him, running the show, being in charge, giving orders.  This is what life is like for the king, is it not?

 

My first grade class put on a play called The Trial of Mother Goose.  Old King Cole, played by yours truly, brought Mother Goose up on charges for spreading lies about the subjects in my kingdom in her latest, scandalous, tabloid of “Fairy Tales” – Georgie Pordgie, Jack Spratt, Little Miss Muffett, and the Old Woman who technically took residence in a boot, not a shoe.  As King Cole, one of the stories I really objected to was Humpty-Dumpty, as Mother Goose insinuated that all my horses and all my men were incompetent and incapable of putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again after the whole falling off the wall incident.  I also took issue with her description of me as “Old King Cole,” when I was only 39, and I was not a “merry old soul,” but was, as it turned out, quite grumpy.

 

My costume consisted of a long purple robe with fur trim around the edges and a Burger King crown, with tin foil strategically positioned over the logo as if no one could figure out where it came from.  I took to wearing that costume around the house both before and after the play.  When I put that costume on, I became the king, and let me tell you – it was good to be king, as I gave orders to my parents and my older sisters, and would bark things like “Off with their heads” when they failed to comply with my fickle commands.  I’ll let you guess how well that went over with my family.

 

There is more to being the king than simply giving orders and getting one’s one way all the time.  Yes, the king is in charge and has authority, but how they use their authority tells us what sort of king they really are, what sort of kingdom they rule.  Some kings use their authority selfishly – amassing wealth and power and prestige for themselves, their families, and their friends; others use their authority for the good and betterment of all.  May we pray.

 

Today is Christ the King Sunday, on which the Church remembers and celebrates the all-inclusive authority of Christ as Lord over all that is, ever has been, and ever shall be.

 

Today’s Gospel lesson comes from a very late section in Matthew’s Gospel – final teachings from Jesus in the days leading up to his passion and crucifixion.  The scene shows Christ in glory sitting upon his heavenly throne, separating the multitudes into one of two categories – sheep or goats.

 

Part of the message here is fairly clear and straightforward.  Obviously, it is better to be counted among the sheep in this passage than the goats.  Better to be on the right than the left – that’s not a political statement – better to be headed toward life than punishment, better to be a sheep than a goat.

 

Yet, to get caught up in whether we are a sheep or a goat is to miss the point entirely, as are speculations about the sheepishness or goatiness of others, such as the man who spent every Communion service carefully watching the people going forward, trying to determine for himself who were, in his words, “the real Christians and the fakers.”

 

Friends, that job has already been filled.  Christ is upon the throne, not us.  The seat of judgment is not yours or mine.  Jesus will sort it all out, which means we don’t have to, and thank God, because I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that responsibility.

 

That’s a hard job, one above my paygrade, partly because the world is not so neatly divided between good and evil as we might prefer.  It’s not as easy as we might think to separate the good people from the bad people, for the reality is that forces of good and forces of evil swirl around within each of us constantly.  One of the puzzles of humanity is that we can be quite noble, or we can be the deadliest and most destructive force on the planet, and each of us are capable of both.

 

At the end of time, Jesus, not us, will separate the sheep from the goats, but in the meantime?  A quick Google search on sheep and goats will show them living together as one herd, eating the same grass, led by the same shepherd, subject to the same weather, giving birth in the same peril, dying under the same conditions.

 

We’ve always known we live together in a very mixed herd.  Every Thanksgiving table holds what Garrison Keillor calls the family who are unhappy to be there, the rock-ribbed conservatives and the dedicated liberals, meat-eaters and vegans, the elder brothers and the prodigals, the prosperous and the unemployed, the ornery and the addled.

 

The sheep and goats live together, presented with the same opportunities, challenges, and temptations. 

 

Lest we still feel the need to rush to separate the sheep from the goats ourselves, notice in the passage that both the sheep and the goats are surprised to be counted where they are.  The sheep don’t know they’re sheep!  The goats don’t know they’re goats!  The sheep say, “Lord, when did we . . .?” and the goats say, “Lord, when didn’t we . . .?”  Both capture surprise and, shock, even, when Jesus commends or condemns their behavior.

 

The kingdom of God is full of surprises.  But what exactly are they surprised by? That they acted either in a righteous way by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned or, on the other hand, in an unrighteous way by neglecting to do the same? Interestingly, no. Neither group denies their behavior. Rather, they are surprised by their failure to recognize Jesus. Or, more to the point, they are surprised by where Jesus, the King, hangs out.

 

Neither the sheep nor the goats expect to see Jesus in the faces of the poor, the outcast, the marginalized.  No one was looking for the King of Kings to be among the weakest, most vulnerable, and needy in society.  Who looks for the Lord of Lords among the least of these?

 

Surprising, except that’s where Jesus has been showing up from the beginning.  If we’ve been paying attention to the Jesus story, that theme has been there all along.  His willful choice to leave the splendor of heaven and enter into human existence.  His birth in the barn.  His preference to eat with sinners.  His humble entrance into Jerusalem.  His message of love and service.  His execution as a common criminal, his burial in a borrowed tomb.  It’s all there, and I don’t know which is more surprising: that Jesus identifies with the lowest of the low, or that we, who have read the story, are surprised when we find him there, despite the fact that that’s where he’s been all along.

 

Sure, I would prefer Jesus to espouse values of power, and privilege, and prestige, and prosperity, because such a worldview would be much more conducive to my own comforts and convenience.  But friends, that’s not the Gospel.

 

We live in a world that sends us the constant message, “If you’re not first, you’re last.”  The Gospel of Jesus invites us into a different reality, where strength is made perfect in weakness, and where the road to life is paved with self-sacrifice.  Living under the Lordship of Christ challenges our preoccupation with being the first, the best, or the most – such superlatives are the places we are least likely to find Jesus.  No longer can we equate material prosperity with evidence of God’s presence; this passage undermines our tendency to look for God in places of power and prominence.

 

Those who have given yourselves in Christian service, whether down at Greensboro Urban Ministry or across the state or halfway around the world, can testify that Jesus is found most fully in the places of greatest need.  It is foolish for us to think when we go to serve that we are taking Jesus somewhere – how typically ego-centric of us!  I remember the first mission trip I went on, arrogantly thinking that I was about to take Jesus somewhere, only to discover that Jesus was already alive and well before long before I got there, and that the people I thought I was going to serve seemed to know Jesus far better than I did.

 

When we love and serve our neighbor, whether that neighbor lives around the corner or around the world, we are not trying to be Jesus; we are trying to see Jesus.

 

If we want to experience God’s presence fully, deeply, and truly, then let us go to the places of greatest need, including our own.  Because Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the one who is enthroned above, in whom all things on earth receive their frame, who is the Alpha and Omega, the one who has all, and is all: Jesus has chosen to humble himself among the lowest of the low.

 

Yes, it is true that Jesus is all-powerful, all-just, all-wise, all-knowing and all that.  It is easy and tempting to get lost in the vast cosmos of those descriptions and lift Christ to so lofty and distant a throne that we fail to remember God’s kingdom is realized in the smallest and practically imperceptible acts of kindness and compassion.

 

Someone much wiser than I said that a society’s greatness can be measured by how it treats its weakest members.  Whatsoever we do unto the least of these, we do unto Christ.

 

That might surprise you, but Jesus has been in the habit lately of surprising us and showing up where we weren’t expecting him, just like the sheep who said, “Lord, when did we see you in need and help you?”

 

They had no idea that their good deeds meant that they were inheriting the Kingdom prepared for them. They weren’t trying to earn God’s favor.  The sheep weren’t fending for themselves, desperately trying to avoid punishment and earn eternal rewards for themselves.

 

This is what loving our neighbor as ourselves is about.  We might try to have it both ways, looking out for ourselves and loving our neighbor at the same time.  Many of us can identify with the little boy who was given two dollar bills, one to buy candy and one to put in the church's offering plate. He ran down the street and in his enthusiasm he lost a dollar down the storm drain. Standing there, he was heard to say, "Well Lord, there goes your dollar." It is rarely the convenient or easy thing to help the least, the last, and the lost.  It will cost us in time, money, and worry, and so be it.  Discipleship is costly.  Such will be the cost of following our King, serving and loving him as we serve and love our neighbor.

 

The sheep just saw people in need, and they served them. They were just living their lives of faith the way that they always did. They were living their lives focused on God and the needs of others instead on themselves and their own needs.

 

Our King – the creator of the cosmos and the author of life – invites us to meet and be met by God, not in places of power, but among the lowest we can find.  Our King takes us by surprise, upsets our expectations, and disrupts our plans.

 

Following King Jesus invites us into a life that isn’t motivated out of the fear of Hell or the hope of heaven.  Our King is calling us to a life driven by an authentic, selfless, sacrificial love.

 

The life of compassion inherits the kingdom, and the kingdom isn’t as far away as we so often think.  It’s as close as the face of the next person in need.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Loving Neighbors into God's Family (Matthew 28:16-20, Luke 19:10)


16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. 18 Jesus came near and spoke to them, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth. 19  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.”

 

10  The Human One came to seek and save the lost.

 

Opinions are like belly-buttons: Everybody has one.

 

Nowhere is that truer than in the church.  Everybody has an opinion about a great number of things.  My email inbox testifies to the reality that you all have opinions.  Come to a committee or Church Council meeting, and you will see with your own eyes that people have opinions.  Opinions about a great many things, from issues large to issues small, we can be an opinionated bunch!

 

Many of those opinions are quite good and worthy of serious consideration – not all of them, but I won’t name names – but really, many of the opinions expressed are good.  The tricky thing is to discern among those many good opinions which opinion gets the most serious consideration.

 

Growing up, we had a neighbor who had opinion about everyone else’s house on the block.  “I think you should paint your house or your trim this color.”  “I think you should re-do your front porch in this way.”  “Your yard would look so much better if you planted this and trimmed it like that.”  He had all sorts of opinions about what everyone’s house should look like and what everyone should do, but there was one big problem.  His neighbors owned those houses, not him.

 

What about the church?  Who owns the church?  To whom does the church belong?  That’s a question with only one right answer.  It belongs to Jesus.  He is its owner.  He is its Lord.  The church belongs to Jesus.

 

The church doesn’t belong to the pastor.  Even if the pastor is the founding pastor or has been around for decades, the church doesn’t belong to the pastor.

 

The church doesn’t belong to any group within the church: not even the trustees or the Church Council or the leadership team.

 

The church doesn’t belong to the denomination, even though they own the building, even though we are proud of our theological heritage, the church doesn’t belong to the denomination.

 

And lastly, the church does not belong to the members, not even the founding members.  That doesn’t change the fact that members sometimes act like they own the church, such as the lady who said to me one time, “I was here before you, and I’ll be here after you,” which was apparently her reasoning for why we should do what she wanted to do, and I replied, “That’s true, but there is someone who was here before you, and he’ll be here after you, and his name is Jesus.”

 

Every church has only one owner – Jesus.  And unless we’re clear on that, we’ll always struggle about what we’re supposed to do and how we’re supposed to do it.  You see, our opinions and desires need to be informed by Jesus – his desires, his wishes, his will for the church.

 

Ultimately, the church belongs to Jesus.  He is its owner.  He is its Lord.  We don’t own the church, but it’s been entrusted to us by its owner – we are here to do what Jesus wants us to do.

 

And what does Jesus want?  Look at the Scriptures we’ve read today.  He wants the church to make disciples.  Why do we exist?  To make disciples.  What is our purpose in being?  To make disciples.  Do you have a different opinion?  That’s nice, but this church belongs to Jesus, so we are going to do what Jesus wants – which is to make disciples.

 

The Scripture from Matthew 28 we read is called, “The Great Commission” – it’s where Jesus gives marching orders to the fledgling church about what their mission will be after he returns to Heaven.

 

Sometimes we get this idealized picture of the early church – a golden age of the perfect group of Jesus followers who were super-spiritual and effective at their mission, but they were deeply-flawed and prone to bickering and confusion – like us.  That realization gives me some hope that if they could do it, maybe we can, too.  Just look at the text:

 

Eleven disciples, worshiping and doubting

It starts out by saying “The eleven disciples went to Galilee.”  Not the 12 Jesus called.  Not the 12, that number of perfect, symbolic harmony and completion.  Nope, 11 – not altogether with it, not perfect, flawed.  11 – a reminder of the  betrayal of Judas against Jesus that took place within their midst.

 

Some worshiped, and some doubted.  Clearly, they weren’t all on the same page, they weren’t in agreement about who Jesus was and what their next steps were, some were all-in and ready to move ahead, others were still questioning everything and holding back – sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  The church then wasn’t that different than the church today.  Jesus didn’t wait for them to all come around, rather, he gave them their marching orders, their reason for existing, which was – to make disciples.  Jesus trusted his life’s work and mission of seeking and saving that which was lost to this flawed, imperfect group of believers and doubters.  Sometimes, not everyone is going to come along or get on board with where the church is trying to go, but again, our opinions, enthusiasm, or lack thereof doesn’t change the mission.  We don’t change the mission based on opinion polls or surveys or to suit the needs of skeptics and doubters.  Jesus commissioned his flawed and imperfect church to make disciples, and that’s what they did, and what we’re still doing, today.

 

Go, and Make Disciples

Jesus told them to, “Go, and make disciples.”  He didn’t say, “Sit inside a building, make sure the doors are unlocked, and if any happen to wander inside on their own, make sure they learn about me.”  No, he said, “Go.”  Get up, get moving, take the initiative.  Build relationships with people who are not part of any church and invite them here.  Tell them about your faith.  Tell them the difference Jesus makes in your life.

 

Maybe you’re thinking, “Everyone I know goes to church!” In fact, the longer you’ve been a Christian and part of a church, the more likely it is that most of your relationships also go to church. If that’s you, then it’s time to meet some folks who don’t.  Join a bowling or golf league.  Join a garden or hiking club.  Get involved in some sort of community-based organization.  Get to know your neighbors.  There are all sorts of people all around us who don’t have a church to call home; we just need to get to know them.

 

We also need to let go of the idea that “everyone” goes to church, because “everyone” doesn’t.  Across North Carolina, right here in the buckle of the Bible belt where many counties report having more Baptists than people, any given weekend only 22% of the population is in church.

 

78% of the people around us are not regularly engaged or connected with a faith family. Some folks see that as a travesty, but I see an opportunity, not one that’s rocket science, either.  Churches who reach those people in their communities have three major things in common.

 

First, they are crystal-clear that Jesus is in charge of the church, and Jesus wants the church to make disciples, and they stay on target with that, no matter what.

 

Second, they discover something about who they already are that lends itself to making disciples.

 

Third, they create a culture of invitation among their members.

 

Friends, I believe with every fiber of my being that Morehead Church has the potential to be one such church.  We have the potential and the ability, if we are also willing.

 

First, from this day forward, let us be resolute in the conviction that the church belongs to Jesus, and is here to do what Jesus wants.  Regardless of our personal opinions, let us be firm in the knowledge that Jesus wants us to make disciples.  From this day forward, let there be no argument that this church belongs to Jesus, and we exist for the purpose of making disciples.

 

Second, what do we have to offer?  We have a reputation for being a warm, welcoming, inclusive church.  We have a reputation for being like family in the best sense of the word.  We are the family of God!  78% of the people around us are not regularly connected to a church family – that means we have the opportunity to be their church family, if we are willing to do the third part: create a culture of invitation.

 

This is one we need to work on.  All of us.  We have a culture of welcome down pretty good.  When folks show up, they feel the love.  What we need to do is move from being welcoming, which is good, to also being invitational.  Morehead Church is one of the best-kept secrets in town, and friends, it doesn’t need to be kept a secret any longer.  Every person here is part of getting the word out, as each of us invites people to be part of this family of faith.

 

We’re not trying to be obnoxious or pushy, we’re not trying to shove religion down people’s throats, but hopefully our experience as being part of this family of faith is beneficial to us, and we want other people to experience the joy and meaning we have found.  News of new life in Christ, and the acceptance we find in this church is too good to keep to ourselves.  News like that is meant to get out as we love people into the family.

 

In fact, if all those pieces come together, that’s a good description of what we can, should, and will be as a church: loving neighbors into God’s family.

 

Friends, that is what I believe we are called to do.  It’s a vision that brings together Jesus’ desire that we make disciples, and the best of who we already are as a church: a faith family.  The only thing that’s really missing is that culture of invitation, but here are some tools to help you out in that regard.

 

The Morehead bumper sticker – I want to see one of these on every car in the parking lot.  It’s a simple way you can let people know you are proud to be part of this church.  It raises awareness and visibility of the church every where you go, and you never know the conversations it might open up.  I have also found I am less rude as a driver with that thing back there – it’s hard to cut someone off in traffic, with the name of our church staring back at them as I do.

 

These “join us” cards.  We’ve got stacks of these lying around all over the church.  I find it can be easier to invite someone to church if you have something in your hand when you do, and these little cards give you that.  Give them to a neighbor, people you work with, wherever.  Sylvia LeClair uses these in the drive-thru: she hands this card to the cashier as she pays for the order of the car behind her, and says, “Give this card to the people behind me and let them know that the people of Morehead Church love them.”  If you see Sylvia pulling in the drive-thru lane, it’s a good idea to get in line behind her.

 

From time to time, we put together postcards advertising a special event or sermon series, such as these advertising our upcoming Advent series.  These can also be handed out to invite people – it gives you something tangible to offer them, and something they can hold onto if they’re interested.  Again, we have stacks of these all over the church – pick a few up and give them away.

 

Never under-estimate social media, either.  Don’t be afraid to post things that are happening at church, invite people to them, or share what you appreciate about this church family.  I’ve seen great conversations open up that resulted in an invitation to church, all because you put up something about what you appreciate about this church.

 

Be prepared that not everyone is going to accept every invitation.  You may have to invite 7-10 or even more people before one accepts your invitation.  You may also have to invite the same person 7-10 or even more times before they accept your invitation.  Again, don’t be rude or pushy about it, and at the same time, don’t be disappointed when they aren’t ready yet.  Every no you receive is just getting you one step closer to a yes.

 

Above all, be genuine and heartfelt in your approach.  You’re not trying to “sell” anybody anything.  You’re simply speaking from your own experience – considering what you value and appreciate about being part of this church family, and the difference this church makes in your life.  As part of this part of God’s family, that should come easy.

 

You and I may have opinions about what the church should be doing.  Opinions, after all, are like belly buttons – everybody has one.  So let’s put our opinions to the side, because Jesus, the one to whom the church really belongs, has asked us to make disciples by capitalizing on the best of who we are – a family of faith.

 

Why are we here?  What are we doing? What’s our purpose?  We’re loving neighbors into God’s family.