Pilgrimage Sermon Series – Entering God’s Promised Land – Philippians 2:1-11

Entering God’s Promised Land
Philippians 2:1-11
Today we are on the last leg of this Pilgrimage.  If you remember six weeks back, on Epiphany, we started this journey towards God’s Promised Land.  Over the weeks we have learned and discussed a lot here in worship and in the Bible Study on Monday nights.  As we enter into this last sermon, let me recap very quickly where we have been before we can get to where we are going.
The first week, which seems so long ago, we talked about Jesus praying for us in the garden of Gethsemane.  There Jesus gives us the vision and mission of his disciples.  His mission for his disciples, US, is that we are sent out into the world as representatives of God’s love and in the love of God.  This never changes, is always the same, and is always constant.  Jesus’ vision is that we are united with his heart, have joy which is found in his love, and grow and be formed by the truth. 
In the second week we talked about Israelites hearing the reports from the 12 spies.  10 said that the Promise Land was full of giants and they shared with everyone a vision of perceived reality, one based and found in fear.  Caleb and Joshua gave a report from an envisioned reality, or a reality based on faith in God.  Then we talked about overcoming the giants in the land.  We have to have faith that God can get us through anything.  Two weeks ago I preached about asking the right questions and that we need to be asking questions that lead us to God’s Promised Land and not to boost our own agendas.  Last week we discussed the invitations of Jesus which move us beyond ourselves and beyond our own walls to the people out there that need to know God.
Today we take the final leg of our Pilgrimage.  Today we will be talking about Entering God’s Promised Land.  What is interesting is in the story of Moses and the Israelites, Moses never enters the Promise Land.  He brings them to the edge and they decided to follow the reality of the ten spies.  They show lack of faith in God and because of that, they are sent into the wilderness for 40 years.  40 years later they come back to the edge of the Promise Land.  As the waters part in the Jordan the God’s chosen people enter the land he promised to give them.  Moses is on a mountain top watching and that is where he dies.  He sees the promise land, he watches his people enter it but never does. 
Why?  Why does Moses, a man of God, who has followed God’s call to lead his people not enter the promise land?  That story goes back to Numbers 20.  They are in the Desert of Zin and Miriam, Moses’ older sister who watched him in the basket on the river from the reeds, has just died.  The people of Israel are thirsty, so very thirsty.  They once again grumble against Moses and Aaron and blame them for their situation.  Moses and Aaron go to the Tent where God’s presence is and fall down on their faces.  God tells them to gather the people and water will spout out of a rock so everyone will have enough to drink.  Moses does this and strikes the rock twice and when he does water comes out.  Then God tells Moses “You did not trust in me enough to honor me. You did not honor me as the holy God in front of the people of Israel. So you will not bring this community into the land I am giving them.” (Numbers 20:12)
Moses did not trust God enough.  Moses lost sight of God’s grace and power.  Moses isn’t the only one who battles with this.  There are countless people in the Bible that do not trust God and end up paying the consequences.  Jonah thinks he knows better than God and attempts to run away but instead he finds himself in the belly of a fish and spat out three days later.  Peter is walking on water with Jesus and then sinks as he sees the wind and waves.  The early churches all struggle with their faith in God and they seek help from Paul, who writes to them to encourage and build them up.
That is where we get the message today.  The churches in Philippi are the first churches in Europe.  They are the congregations that made it possible for us to be here today.  But in Paul’s absence others were seeking to push their own agendas and so Paul writes them to make sure they understand their purpose and their calling as a congregation of Disciples of Jesus Christ.  We see this envisioned reality named by Paul in the first four verses, “Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort in love, any sharing in the Spirit, any sympathy, complete my joy by thinking the same way, having the same love, being united, and agreeing with each other.  Don’t do anything for selfish purposes, but with humility think of others as better than yourselves.  Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”
Once again we hear the echo of Jesus’ second invitation we talked about last week.  We are to die to self for the sake of the Kingdom of God.  If we want to enter the Promise Land of God then we need to forget about ourselves, our agendas, our desires and concentrate on others.  We have to have this type of attitude as individuals and as a congregation to be able to enter the Promised Land God is calling us into.
When I was in High School my Sunday School teacher, Dave, was one of the coolest guys around.  He had a Jeep Wrangler AND a Mazda Miata.  He had a house on Lake Norman and worked in the South Park area making a 6 digit salary.  To a High School youth, he was living the life we had all dreamed of and wanted.  Then in my senior year we learned he was giving it all up.  Over the years he had started a ministry called, “Operation Warm Up.”  It took winter clothes that were donated in Charlotte up to the hollers of West Virginia.  Youth would pack up into teams of mini vans and head into the mountains passing out free clothes.  My senior year we learned that he was giving up his life here in Charlotte and moving to Gary, WV to live and work with McDowell Missions.  He would work for free.  This astonished us youth because he was living the life we thought we all desired but in reality he was giving up one life for the one we should really desire.  Dave had a better understanding of what God’s Promised Land looked like and it led him to the cold mountains of West Virginia, to one of the poorest places in the United States.
Daniel Fogarty is another person who decided God was asking him to leave his job as a political campaign manager and to pursue another path.  The other path led him to a couple of men who decided they wanted to help poor people in Charlotte.  They had come across families who could not afford furniture.   These families would spend all their money on rent and utilities so they would have a roof over their heads but nothing to sleep on.  These men found out that kids were sleeping on piles of clothes and that the only dresser they had to store their clothes in were plastic garbage bags.  Now he runs a ministry called “Beds for Kids.”  They take gently used furniture and furnish families houses with them.  The cost to the family is only $30 but the results from the children actually sleeping on a bed instead of the floor is amazing.  The majority of them increase their grades by one letter grade only a couple months after sleeping on their own bed, some for the first time in their lives.
The Apostle Paul was also understood too well what it meant to live into this attitude of Christ.  Paul lived a life that mirrored Christ’s dedication and love.  When he writes to the Philippians in verses 5-11 he gives them the attitude of Jesus.  Verse 7-8 says, “But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave and by becoming like human beings.  When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  Paul understood this all too well because he was writing this letter to the churches in Philippi while he was in prison.  Paul was in prison because he was awaiting trial for preaching the gospel of Christ.  Paul is taking the second invitation of Jesus seriously and is willing to do whatever it takes to build up the Kingdom of God.
Philippians 2:5-11 is known as the kenosis [Ken-o-sis] hymn.  Kenosis is the Greek word that means self-empting, which makes this the self-empting hymn.  It is important to remember this hymn because it is the blueprint for what we as Jesus’ disciples are supposed to live out but also what we as a church are to strive for as the Body of Christ.  Jesus made a deliberate choice to walk down the path to the cross.  He didn’t have to but his love for us truly gave him one option.  Now we are to let our love for him overpower our agendas, desires and ideas and model that same love for the world.
But it is hard to empty one’s self when there is so much pain involved.  It is hard to move beyond a past that can consume us, burden us, and hold us back.  Moses was held back by his struggles with his leadership abilities.  He always doubted, in the back of his head, that he could not live up to what God was asking him to do.  That is probably part of the reason that he was not let into that Promise Land.  He lacked the faith in God.  The thing is God believed in him, God knew he made the right choice when he talked to Moses in the burning bush, and God was going to give him what he needed to succeed.  It still meant that he had to work hard, but God was behind him all the way. 
We have some things in our past to get over.  As the Bible Study meets on Monday nights we have been talking about such things.  We have discovered that in our past there has been dysfunction, conflict, and distrust.  If you need proof let me show you something.  (hold up pictures of what the new church was projected to look like)
What is this?  The way some of you are moving right now it is a source of discomfort and it is emotional.  This was the plan for a new church project.  It was done five years ago.  Five years ago this place had two services that averaged about what we have here.  Things were hopping and moving forward.  People were excited and energized.  Then the bottom fell out of the economy and so did the wind in the sails of this vision.  I am not showing you this to point fingers. I’m not placing blame, I am only naming a reality in our past we will have to get over.  This is a picture that many believed was our congregation’s Promised Land, but we didn’t make it. 
Does that mean we give up?  Does that mean we stare at this giant in our way and simply go back to Egypt?  No, we have to name our currently reality, look to the past and then move beyond it.  Here is the good thing (flip board over).  What does this look like? 
To me this is the picture of God’s Promised Land for us here at Indian Trail UMC.  It is full of potential and the sky is the limit for what it could turn out to be.  What it is, is not yet revealed.  It is not drawn out for us yet.  I believe though that there is something God is calling us towards.  There is something that can come to light on this board.  This is the future of our congregation.  All we need to do is simply have faith God can bring it into being and work hard to make it happen.
We have giants to face.  We have debt to take care of, a parsonage that needs drastic attention, a fellowship hall that isn’t much better, and many other issues.  We are going in the right direction.  People are excited.  But we need to be in constant prayer with God to figure out what that future should look like.  How are we as a congregation living into the mission and vision of our Savoir?  What is our mission and vision for us as a congregation?  What are our goals?  What is our being called to do for Jesus Christ in Indian Trail?
Paul celebrated his struggles because he knew he was living into the Promise Land God was calling him to.  When we have an answer all those questions I just mentioned, we will be living into that Promised Land as well.  Our journey is not over today, but the hard work is just beginning.  The only way we will enter is if we have faith in the one who has brought us this far; the one who emptied himself for our sake, and only demands we do the same for him.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

Pilgrimage Sermon Series – Beyond and Within – Mark 8:34-37

Beyond and Within
Mark 8: 34-37
I hope this sermon series has been a little eye opening for you.  Next week we will finish this Pilgrimage Journey as we then go into the holy season of Lent.  I hope that you have learned some things, I know I have.  This series has been eye opening for me to preach and teach.  I too have learned some things along the way. 
One of those things is that Jesus really gives two invitations to his disciples.  I had heard and knew both of these passages but never really connected the dots until this week.  The first invitation that Jesus gives his disciples is found in Mark 1:16-20.  It says, “As Jesus passed alongside the Galilee Sea, he saw two brothers, Simon and Andrew, throwing fishing nets into the sea, for they were fishermen.  “Come, follow me,” he said, “and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”  Right away, they left their nets and followed him.  After going a little farther, he saw James and John, Zebedee’s sons, in their boat repairing the fishing nets.  At that very moment he called them. They followed him, leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired workers.”
Many of us have heard that phrase in this scripture, “Follow me and I’ll show you how to fish for people.”  Another translation which is not gender inclusive says, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”  This is Jesus’ first invitation.  All the disciples drop everything they are doing and follow Jesus.  It is the beginning of their journey.  It is the start of this three year pilgrimage which will lead them from being disciples to apostles; from learning the faith to growing it and sharing it with the world.  In the terms of Wesleyan theology this was a moment of Justifying Grace.  It was a time when Simon and Andrew, James and John, agreed in their hearts to follow Christ.  Here in the south it may be referred to as “being saved.” 
We have similar moments in our Christian walk.  I can still remember when I was in 16 and in high school I was attending a Lay Witness Mission at my church.  We had mapped out our walk with God on paper and I could see right there in front of me the Prevenient Grace of God in my life.  I could see where God had reached out to me, desired me to follow and where I turned away.  We were in an outdoor chapel and at the end I knew I had to commit my life to God.  I made a determined walk from the outdoor chapel, through the education building, and to the prayer rail in the sanctuary.  It is there, on my knees, with tears flowing that I prayed to God and I told him I was ready to follow him.  That was my moment of Justifying Grace, or the moment I felt God’s grace work inside of me.
As Jesus walked the shores of Galilee he offered this opportunity to Simon and Andrew, James and John.  They all dropped what they were doing and decided to follow him.  This first invitation of Jesus changed their lives.  But the second invitation would be a little harder for them and to be honest it is the one that hardest for me and maybe you.
Haywood UMC is part of Central UMC in Asheville, NC.  They are doing some amazing ministry to the people of that town.  What they are doing really lives into Jesus’ second invitation.  What this video about them and you may see why.
As the disciples are following Jesus and they are deep into their ministry together Jesus realizes that the realities of their ministry are changing.   This is when he offers them the second invitation which is today’s text, Mark 8:34-37.  Here Jesus tells his disciples, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross and follow me.  All who want to save their lives will lose them.  But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.”
This is the second invitation of Jesus.  Once again we hear the familiar words, “follow me.”  The first time it was on a journey, on an adventure to fish for people!  This second invitation to follow Jesus doesn’t sound as exciting.  First invitation, a bunch of fishermen agree to go fish for people.  Seems to be right in their wheelhouse doesn’t it.  This second invitation isn’t in anyone’s wheel house.  We are supposed to lose ourselves, carry OUR cross, lose our lives for the sake of Jesus and the good news?  This sounds very self-sacrificing and the opposite of what our culture tells us to do.  I bet there are no Super Bowl commercials on tonight that tell us if we want happiness, if we want satisfaction, if we want purpose, than we need to forget about ourselves and follow Jesus.  Nope, they will probably say this can all be found in a can of Budweiser or on GoDaddy.com.
There is a story of a church in a fast growing suburban community.  They were running out of room and needed more parking.  They did a Capital Campaign and raised enough funds to purchase a piece of land and create a new parking lot.  When it was finished the parking lot was warm and inviting.  It wasn’t just inviting to the people who came to worship but also the local teenage skate boarders.  The fresh pavement was too much for them to pass up and soon they would gather to skate on the new parking lot.  Like a good UMC a Trustee meeting was called to deal with the problem.  They all cried out “What! Skateboarders on the new pavement!”  What are we to do?”  They did have some options.  They could put up NO Trespassing sings to hopefully keep the youth off the pavement.  They could set up patrols to make sure the parking lot was secure at all hours.  How were they going to protect THEIR church?
One of the Trustees was a retired, lifelong athlete.  He said he would talk to the skaters and see what came up.  One day he approached them and had a conversation with them.  The result from the parking lot conversation was interesting.  Instead of the church shunning this group, they welcomed them.  A weekly Bible study was started that included time to skate on the new pavement.  Later on the group took trips to different skating locations around the area and bam, a youth ministry was born.
There is a biblical principle entitled Beyond and Within.  What this idea is revolves around the two invitation with Jesus.  The first one is an invitation to build yourself up from within.  To understand, feel and agree to follow Jesus.  The second invitation is to go beyond yourself, to give yourself up, for the sake of Christ and the Good News.  We are to move beyond ourselves and focus outside instead of inside.  We are to lose ourselves or die to self in order for people to come to know the God we worship.  We look at our current reality and we know if we want it to change, if we want to be transformed into the mission and vision that Jesus has for us than we have to move beyond a vision that focuses inward and one that moves us beyond and within; Beyond the walls and within the lives of those out there.
John Wesley organized his movement into classes and bands all throughout England.  They are exactly what many churches now call life groups or small groups.  Within these groups John Wesley had two focuses, personal holiness and social holiness.  Personal Holiness was the act of sanctifying grace, the work that God does through you to become more Christ like in this world.  He also believed in Social Holiness too.  Actually he said you cannot have one without the other.  He believed that Christians could not have authentic personal holiness without social holiness.  In other words, unless you accept the second invitation of Christ, the one that moves us beyond and within, you may not be as faithful as you think.
On Haywood Street in Asheville, people give of themselves, open themselves up to reach out to the least of these in their community.  They welcome the smelly, addicted, and funny looking homeless people to worship on a Wednesday.  They feed them, know them, pray with them and for them.  They are transformed themselves by this interaction and sharing of love.  The church that opened their freshly paved parking lot to skateboards did the same thing.  Instead of seeing them as ‘one of those’ they opened their hearts to be transformed by accepting them, making room for them, and letting themselves be changed because of them.
Too many times we think church is for us.  Unless we like the music; feel connected to the sermon; are greeted by the right people; acknowledged when we feel we should be, we feel like church was a bad experience.  Then when change happens, when new people come and start to make suggestions.  Or when you get older and new people come into leadership and they don’t do what was always done, things don’t feel quite right.  What we are doing though is making these few hours a week that we come together about us.  It is all about my experience, my class, my pew, my seat, my friends.  Yet worship is not supposed to be anything about us.  We aren’t here to prop each other up and pat each other on the back.  We are here to praise God, glorify the creator, worship the savoir and be touched by the Holy Spirit.  Have you done that yet this morning?
On my first Sunday I passed out those index cards and asked you to tell me what your hope and dreams are for this church.  Almost 90% of them came back and said you wanted Indian Trail UMC to grow.  There will only be one way that truly happens.  If we really, REALLY want to see growth in this church we need to make sure we are doing it for the right reasons.  It can’t be that if we bring in more people we will have more money.  It can’t be so our choir may get bigger or that we will have more volunteers.  The only way we will see growth is if we truly feel, in every fiber of our body, that we want to grow because there are too many people in this world that need Jesus.
Our focus has to be on the second invitation of Christ.  We have to be transformed by the principle of Beyond and Within.  We have to realize it is not about us.  There is nothing in the being a disciple of Jesus Christ that says it is about us.  Listen to the scripture again today, “After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.  All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good  by CouponDropDown”>news will save them.  Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?  What will people give in exchange for their lives?”
You want this congregation to be transformed and enter the Promised Land of God?  Then you come down during communion and you knee before him and ask, “What can I do?  How can I lose myself for your sake Lord Jesus?”  Only if we take this second invitation seriously will we get to that promise land.  Only if we are ready to die to self, take up our cross and truly follow Christ will we find the life we hope for, dream of, and desire deep in our hearts.

And all God’s people said…Amen.

Pilgrimage Sermon Series – Asking the Right Questions – Sermon

Mark 9:30-35
Pilgrimage – Asking the Right Questions
In the Gospel of Mark there are a lot of questions.  Jesus himself asks 47 questions.  We received one of those 47 here in the passage today.  As the disciples are traveling from Galilee to Capernaum they start to argue about who is the greatest among them.  Jesus asks them “”What were you arguing about during the journey?”  In another translation the question is stated, “What were you discussing on the way?” Either way the question is a reflection of the conversation between the 12 as they journeyed. 
Jesus’ questions are not the only questions in Mark’s gospel.  There are twelve different questions that come from the religious leaders, seven that come from a crowd or an individual, five that come from Pilate, and two that come from unclean spirits.  The whole gospel is filled with questions.  The first one in Mark’s gospel is actually from an unclean spirit.  Jesus is in the same area, Capernaum, in a synagogue teaching when a person with an unclean spirit walks in and questions him.  The evil spirit screams “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?” 
This differs from the other first questions in the other gospels.  In Matthew the first question comes from the magi.  They ask, “Where is the child born King of Jews?”  In Luke the question comes from Zechariah as he learns that Elizabeth is pregnant with their son who will be known as John the Baptist.  He asks the angel, “How can I be sure of this?”  In John the religious rulers ask the first question to John the Baptist.  They ask him, “Who are you?”  In Matthew, Luke and John the first questions reflect a need to understand and searching.  But in Mark, as in most of the questions in this gospel, the question the unclean spirit asks is an attempt to question Jesus’ authority and power.
Remember the question the evil spirit screams? “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?”  With that simple question about coming to destroy the spirit is attempting to corner Jesus’ power as one who is coming to destroy but in reality Jesus has come to redeem.  How a question is asked is important because how we ask will lead to how we are answered.
If you have ever asked the question, “So, how was school?”, what was the normal response?  (Fine.)  This is what as a closed-ended question.  Too easily students learn they can give a one word response to their parent’s question.  When the parents are seeking to find out what happened in their child’s life at school all they usually get is fine, good, okay.  That is if they get any words at all and not just a smirk and shrug of the shoulders.  Instead of asking a closed-ended question, how would the response change if you asked an open-ended question?  A type of question that would lead to more than one word response?  What would happen if you asked a question like, “Can you tell me about your day?” or “What was the topic of your English class today?”  These lead to a conversation because they demand more than one word. 
What type of questions we ask are extremely important for our own faith and journey to grow as individuals and as a congregation?  There are right questions and there are wrong questions to ask.  The wrong questions to ask are ones that lead to accusations, labeling and destruction of community and relationships.  The evil spirit was looking to peg Jesus as a destroyer not a redeemer.  There was a purpose behind the closed-ended question he asked.  Jesus did not take the bait though and cast the spirit out.  No matter how clever we think we are, we can never trap Jesus in a corner.
Here is another example of a wrong question.  When Campbell was two years old I walked into our living room to find her jumping on our recliner.  Now this could go bad in many ways.  The recliner was right next to a class French door, so if she fell off she could go through the window.  She could go the other way which would lead to her head hitting a coffee table.  I was concerned with her safety.  Plus I was attempting to teach her the rules of the house which are you don’t jump on furniture.  Being the wise father I am I raised my voice and asked her, “What are you doing?”  She stopped jumping and looked at me, “I’m looking for trouble.”
I know a minister who is a senior minister of a very large church and has many staff people under his leadership.  It came out that two of his staff people where having an affair with one another.  He invited them into his office to sit down and talk out the ramifications of this affair.  As he discussed their termination and other consequences they were confused about why this was happening.  The minister looked at them and asked, “How did you think this was going to work out well for either of you?”  This was a far better question to ask in this situation because it was more of an open-ended question that could lead to dialogue and understanding.  My question was more closed-minded, or the wrong question to ask at that moment.  This pastor did a better job asking the right question.
A right question is one that leads to a conversation, to a deeper understanding, and strengthening of a community or a relationship.  It is something that will build up rather than tear down.  Many of the questions in Mark’s gospel vary from right questions and wrong questions.  One of the questions the religious rulers ask of Jesus is to question his authority.  In the second chapter of Mark, Jesus is once again in Capernaum and a paralyzed man is brought to him and Jesus forgives him of his sins.  The legal experts see this and the question they ask is, “Why does he speak this way?”  They were questioning his authority, his power to forgive sins.  They demanded an answer and so Jesus answers them with a couple questions of his own.  He asks them, “Why do you fill your minds with these questions?  Which is easier – to say to a paralyzed person, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take up your bed, and walk’?  But so you will know that the Human One has authority on the earth to forgive sins” – he said to the man who was paralyzed – “Get up, take your mat and go home.”
The legal experts questioned Jesus authority and there was a power struggle going on.  The legal experts wanted to make sure the power of their society rested with them.  But if Jesus was walking around forgiving sins, healing people, their power was threatened.  The same was true for the first question in Mark’s gospel from the evil spirit.  The spirit’s power was threatened and he wanted to know if Jesus was here to destroy.  But Jesus came to earth not to destroy but to redeem.  He came not to limit us to the law but for us to be free from it.  He came to forgive sins, to heal the broken, and to take the sins of the world upon himself. 
Jesus had told the disciples about this task in the early part of our scripture today.  He told them that he would be crucified and would die.  In verse 31 it says, “He said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be handed over to men. They will kill him. After three days he will rise from the dead.”  He told this to the disciples but they did not understand.  What question did they ask to get clarification on what he told them?  They didn’t.  The scripture says, “But they didn’t understand this kind of talk, and they were afraid to ask him.”  What questions are you afraid to ask Christ because you don’t understand or you really don’t want to know the answers to?
Power is extremely important to people.  People love to have power.  It could only be the power to change the channel on the TV so they hoard the remote.  Or it could be they want to be the one in charge, the director of what is going on.  There is a story I read in a book called Ten Temptations of Church: Why Churches Decline and What to Do about It.  It is a story about a declining church.  It had been losing its members and worship attendance.  As it did leaders came up and started to fill in roles that needed to be filled.  They got so use to those roles they kept them for years, decades even.  In the story the authors focus in on Bill.  Bill was the head of trustees and the head usher.  He sat on the finance committee and memorial committee.  His family had donated a lot of the art work for the church and they had been there for three generations.  If the doors were opened Bill was there.  Members of that church said, “Bill is the face of our church; nothing gets past him.  It’s been that way as long as I can remember!”  The pastor the church then asked the right question, “How long has the church been in decline?”  A church member asks, “As long as I can remember.” 
The point of the story isn’t to point at Bill and say that he is the source of the church’s decline.  No, that isn’t right.  But there is a hidden benefit to Bill to keep his church in decline.  The more his church declines the more it will depend on him.  The more power he ends up having.  This probably happened completely by accident and without Bill really knowing it.  The truth in this story though is that it will be really hard on Bill as the church moves out of decline because as they do he will have less power, less control.  How will Bill react to this?
As churches decline and seek to be revived there is a thought that only through death can a resurrection happen.  Now this is true.  Jesus had to die to be able to rise again.  But how did Jesus die?  Well that may be the wrong question to ask at this moment.  A better question would be, “Why did Jesus die?”  The disciples struggle with this a lot as they follow Jesus.  In Mark 8 Jesus asks another, very vulnerable question.  He asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am.”  Peter answers correctly by saying, “You are the Christ.”  Then Jesus starts to teach them about his death.  He says, “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected by the leaders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.”  Peter doesn’t like this and scolded him.  Jesus has none of this and says, “Get behind me Satan.”
When faced with reality that Jesus had to die Peter decided to control Jesus, or have power over him, and told him differently.  Yet if Jesus is going to be the Christ, the Messiah, the Savior of the world, he will have to die.  God knew this when he sent him to grow in Mary’s womb.  But the disciples had a hard time with this but this is because they hadn’t figured out the lesson that Jesus is attempting to teach them once again in verse 35; “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant to all.”
Bill was a servant to that church as it declined but as it would be resurrected would he be fine losing some of that power?  Would he be okay with the fact he would have to step out of the lime light, away from some of his leadership roles to let other people move in with possibly new ways of doing things and new ideas?  That is hard to do when you have been the one people look to for the decisions of a church for so many years, but if the church is not going the way it should maybe the right question to ask is “am I getting in the way of this church growing?”
To go back to Jesus’ original question, “What were you arguing about during the journey?”  The disciples were arguing about who had the most power.  Throughout the whole journey from Galilee to Capernaum they argued about who was the greatest.  In Galilee they heard once again Jesus predict his death and resurrection.  They could have been talking about that.  They could have been trying to figure out what that has to do with being a disciple but instead they argued about who was the greatest, who had the most power.
Many church keep asking the same question and it is one that we here at Indian Trail UMC must have to face as well, “Do we have a future?”  Are we going to stand around and argue about who has the most power, who the greatest is, or are we going to follow Jesus instead?  Are we willing to be a servant to all and the least of all for the greatest of all, Jesus Christ?
I am glad to know that some of you are taking the reading through the New Testament seriously and are doing well with it.  I know this because some of you have emailed me questions about what some of the scriptures mean.  I enjoy that, so keep them coming.  But as I wrote this sermon this week one of those questions came back to me and it fights right into Jesus’ calling for his disciples, his calling to us.  Matthew 10:29 says, “Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.”  The person who asked this question was wondering what it meant.  It echoes just what Jesus says here, “Whoever wants to be first must be least of all and the servant of all.”  We must follow Jesus’ example which leads to the cross.
If we are truly wanting to live into that mission and that vision that Jesus calls us to in John 17, then we will have to be comfortable with being the least and the servant.  “Why did Jesus go to the cross?”  He went because he loved us so much that he took our sins upon himself and died for our sake.  Yes he rose again.  Yes we love Easter but to get there we have to be willing to go through Good Friday.  The question we have to ask ourselves is, “Am I willing to die to self in order for God to be glorified?”  “Am I willing to put God’s will above my own?”  “Am I willing to serve no matter where or when in order to do the will God has laid out for this church?”  “Am I willing to do what it takes, even if it leads to my own cross, if that is what God’s will demands?”
The last question in the gospel of Mark is asked by Mary Magdalene as she approaches the tomb she laid Jesus in a few days before.  She asks, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”  The difference between that question and the first question from the evil spirit is remarkable.  To quote the book I am using for this series, “The first question by the unclean spirit is an attempt to confine the power of the Holy One of God.  The last question asked on Easter morning opens our lives to the reality of the empty tomb and the power of the Holy One.”  Mary’s question was the right question because it opened her up to the power and truth of the God she loves.  Are we asking the right questions that open us up or are we asking the wrong questions which will simply lead to death?
And all God’s people said…Amen.  

Pilgrimage Sermon Series – Overcoming Giants – Numbers 13:30-14:9

Numbers 13:25-14:9
Pilgrimage – Overcoming Giants
I can still remember, in vivid detail, being in 9thgrade English class at Ranson Middle School.  We were reading through one of Shakespeare plays, I’m not sure which. I had dodged reading aloud for a couple of days.  I would slink behind the person in front of me to be missed by the teacher’s eye, but not that day.  Nope, I was caught in her sights and given one of the main characters to read.  My fear had become a reality.  I had stumbled through the class reading my part to the best of my ability.  I missed words.  I mispronounced others.  The whole time I was in a cold sweat and my heart was pounding.  I hated reading in public, still do.  That was one of my giants in life.  It took me a long while to get comfortable talking in front of a crowd.  God and I had long talks as I went through college and seminary.  I told him I would be willing to do anything but be behind a pulpit.  But here I am.  Not by my own choice, but by God’s will. 
What I have found is as I have followed God’s calling in my personal life my giant has become smaller.  I am still nervous almost every Sunday.  Being the one heard, the one speaking, the one preaching was never my dream but it is my calling.  The giant I had to face was my fear of speaking in front of people, reading in front of people, messing up words, or saying the wrong thing.  But through lots of practice and mainly because of the grace of God, I stand behind this pulpit today to bring you this message God has laid on my heart.  Anything is possible with God.
The scripture I read today is the last half of the scripture I read last week.  The reason we are covering it twice is because it is so important to understanding how we as individuals and us as a congregation can move forward into God’s Promised Land.  What we hear today is the ten spies describing to the people who lived in the Promise Land.  They tell them they are giants.  This is the “Grasshopper Report.”  The reason they give this report is because of fear or, as we called it last week, perceived reality.  The task of going into the promise land, a land full of milk and honey, seemed too much.  There were too many people and too many fortified cities.  All they could see was death ahead of them.  In verse, 14:3 is says, “Why is the Lord bringing us to this land to fall by the sword?”  For the ten spies and for the community of Israel the future looked too bleak, too difficult.
For Caleb and Joshua though they had what is called “remembering encouragement.”  They looked back and they had seen what God has brought them through and they were convinced God would be able to do the same.  They came from a place of faith in God, or envisioned reality.  They believed God would bring them into the Promise Land because that is what God had promised. 
What is interesting is that Caleb and Joshua never went against the idea of the giants.  They never argued that there weren’t giants in the land.  Instead they simply said that God could get them through it, no matter what.  They realized there were some big hurdles that lay ahead of them.  They saw fortified cities and people who have lived in this land for generations, but their faith told them that anything was possible with God.
What giants do we face?  What huge hurdles do we have to get over in order to be in the Promised Land of God?  How can we live into that mission and vision that Jesus prayed for us back in John 17?  To do so will take lots of work and also recognizing the giants that will have to come down in the process.
There are two basic giants in our world, the general and the specific.  First let’s talk about general giants.  These are the giants that everyone faces in our culture.  We share them as a nation and a society.  There is no escaping them because they are what they are.  The book I am using defines these general giants are worldviews, technology, and expectations.  Let’s start with the worldviews.  They quote Walter Wink’s book, The Powers that Be, who says there are five major worldviews to define God and the created order through humanity’s history.

1.      Ancient Worldview – This view of the world links the spiritual world and the physical world together.  These two realities mirror one another.  We can see this in Genesis where humanity is made in God’s image.  If something happens on earth it is in relation to what happens on  the spiritual realm.
2.      Spiritualist Worldview – This worldview separates the spiritual and earthly realities.   It states that anything spiritual is good and anything earthly is bad.  It completely separated the two and attempted to keep them separate.  Think of monasteries.  These were places where people would attempt to shake off the physical world and live in a spiritual world, thus shaking off the bad and putting on the good.
3.      Materialist Worldview – This world view became popular during the Age of Enlightenment.  This worldview ignored the spiritual realm and only concentrated on the physical.  It stated that the spiritual realm is simply an illusion and life is only a process of chemical reactions and made up of atoms.  It concentrated on science as the source of truth.
4.      Theological Worldview – This worldview attempted to counter the Materialist.  It stated that the earthly reality could be defined by science but theology defined the spiritual realm and could not be proven through science.  One of their more famous quotes to describe the physical and spiritual realities is “Science tells us how the world was created and religion tells us why.”
5.      Integral Worldview – This view is currently emerging.  It states that everything has an inner and outer aspect.  Heaven and earth are the inner and outer aspects of the same reality.  There is no separation between the spirit and the flesh, the spirit is the inner aspect and the flesh is the outer.

What makes these five worldviews giants is explained by a quote from Walter Wink.  “The important point here is that we may be the first generation in the history of the world that can make a conscious choice between these worldviews.”  For the first time in history we can choose which ones of these worldviews to believe, follow and frame the way we view the world around us.  Which one we choose will tell us a lot about how close we will get to the Promised Land.
One other general giant is technology.  It is that dreaded thing we love and can hate all at the same time.  It allows us to do so much more than past generations.  Now we can communicate and stay in touch with anyone and everyone around the world.  On my Facebook page this week I watch status updates from friends all over North Carolina getting ready for snow while at the same time some friends who live in England do the same thing.  Technology has shrunk our world but it also has increased the speed of it.  Now once you purchase a new cell phone it almost automatically goes out of date.  Technology is always changing and it does so at an ever increasing pace.  The struggle is to keep up with it in order to stay relevant. 
Anyone heard of Moore’s Law?  “Moore’s law is the observation that over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximnately every two years.”[1]  This means that around every two years technology doubles its abilities.  So in two years our cell phones and computers will have twice the amount of memory and be twice as fast.  Two years after that it will be twice as fast as that year.  What Moore’s Law demonstrates is that the speed at which technology changes and changes our culture happens at an extremely fast rate.  This is a huge giant in our culture because it is always changing and we are becoming more reliant on it as a culture.
The last general giant is the Giant of Expectation.  As technology changes it promises, whether out front and honestly or in our own minds, to make life easier, create more meaning and add purpose.  Beyond that we all have expectations about how life is supposed to go and where we are to find purpose and meaning.  There are generational differences.  What is important to an older generation may not have as much relevance to a younger generation.  There are institutional expectations.  Our District Superintendent has some expectations on what I am to do as a pastor for this congregation and he has some expectations for you all as a congregation within the Metro District.  Add all those to the expectations Christ has for us.  If we look back to John 17 we understand a little better what those expectations are, to go out into the world, be representatives for God’s love, and go in God’s love.  We all have expectations on where we will find meaning and purpose in our lives and how, where, and why are all huge giants.
These are three general giants in our current reality that we face as a society, as a church, and as individuals.  We all share them.  But there are some giants that are more specific.  Let’s talk a little bit about Indian Trail.  If you open your bulletin you can see some of the statistics about our fair town.  Here are some of the realities we are living with at the moment.  We are the largest populated town in Union County.  Yes, we have more people than Monroe.  In 1990 there were just under 2000 people living in Indian Trail.  Now there are over 38,000.  In the next ten years, we are predicted to have over 60,000 people.  If we had 60,000 people in Indian Trail today, that would make us the 15th largest city in the state.  Currently we are the 25th.  Let that sink in for a second. 
What is happening in our town is that we are moving from a country, rural part of North Carolina into a major suburb of Charlotte.  We are the fastest growing city in North Carolina and that doesn’t look like it will stop anytime soon.  The giant that we face as a town is how are we going to make that transition.  If we truly wanted to get really specific, how are we as a church going to survive that transition as well?  What will we have to do stay relevant, up-to-date and accessible to an ever change community?
Another giant we will face is how we, as a congregation, are going to survive.  We have aging buildings, financial issues, and an average worship that the conference states is not sustainable.  The conference states that a church needs to average 125 in worship on a Sunday to be able to pay all their bills, pension, healthcare, and apportionments with money left over to make an impact through missions in their community.  An average of 125 in worship.  I am filling out End of the Year reports and the average I have for this year in our worship is 80.  We need to increase our Sunday Worship Attendance average by 45 to be sustainable.  That is a huge giant that we face.
There are others.  We were able to pay $8,000 of our pension and healthcare costs for 2012.  That still left us $16,000 short for the year.  When you add that to the amount we owed from 2011, which was around $18,000, we are in a fiscal hole to the tune of $34,000.  There are some ideas that the Finance Committee is coming up with to help us cut into that debt but we have a ways to go.  There are other giants that we need to face and we will be naming some of them tomorrow night in our Bible Study, which I would love for everyone to come to.
We are right there with the Israelites, right on the edge of the promise land.  As we name the general and specific giants we cannot forget who brought us here.  We have to take the perspective of Caleb and Joshua.  We have to interpret our current reality with the eyes of an envisioned reality.  If we do we have a future.  If not we will be pushed out into the wilderness for 40 years. 
I told you the story of me being afraid to read in public because it is my personal testimony to God’s power and grace.  I am sure I can ask some of you to tell me the story of your lives and we can hear even more stories of God getting us through things in life, defeating the giants that are in front of us and bringing us to the Promise Land.  Our future is bright when it is found in the light of Christ, the source of truth and hope.  But that doesn’t mean we won’t face giants.  They are out there and whether they are real or imaginary we will have to battle with them.
I am reminded of a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.  He once said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”  What does our future look like?  I don’t know yet.  Will God guide us there and see us through, helping us to defeat our giants?  I believe what Caleb and Joshua said, “If the Lord is pleased with us, he’ll bring us into this land and give it to us.  It’s a land that’s full of milk and honey.”  
If you need more proof, hear again what the youth sung to open our worship this morning.
            Oh what I would do to have the kind of strength it takes to stand before a giant
            With just a sling and a stone.
            Surrounded by the sound of a thousand warriors shaking in their armor
            Wishing they’d have had the strength to stand
            But the giant’s calling out my name and he laughs at me
            Reminding me of all the times I’ve tried before and failed
            The giant keeps on telling me time and time again.
            “Boy you’ll never win! You will never win”
            But the voice of truth tells me a different story
            The voice of truth says, “Do not be afraid!”
            And the voice of truth says, “This is for My glory.”
            Out of all the voices calling out to me
            I will choose to listen and believe the voice of truth.
And all God’s people said…Amen.

Pilgrimage Sermon Series – What Reality Do You Choose – Numbers 13:17-14:9

Numbers 13:17-14:9
What Reality Do You Choose?
We live in a very affluent society when you look at the rest of the world or even to the not so distant past of our own.  One of the dreaded questions I know our family faces daily, and the same may be true for your family, is this question; “What is for dinner?”  Back in the 1800s I have a feeling this was an easy questions to answer in Indian Trail.  You ate whatever was available.  You ate whatever meat, baked goods and home grown vegetables.  “What’s for dinner?” wasn’t a hard question because there weren’t a lot of options. 
Skip to today and that question gets a little harder.  Now in our refrigerators, freezers, and pantries there are probably a half a dozen meals that could possibly be made.  Now which one do you want to make becomes a little harder.  Then there is the option if you don’t eat at home.  If you go out where will go?  Do you go to one of the umpteen fast food chains, or the local restaurants, or the ones in Monroe, or Waxhaw or Matthews?  Instead of one option now there are actually hundreds and so the question gets even harder when we are asked daily, “What’s for dinner?”
Think about it another way.  If someone asked you to pick them up some shampoo at the store what would you pick up?  There may have been two or three options 70 years ago, but not there are whole isles in the grocery store that give you 30 some odd options for shampoo, let alone conditioner.  Does the person want one that smells fruity or like coconut?  Do they want one boosts the volume of their hair, helps fight dandruff, or leaves a nice shine.  You couldn’t even say, “Could you pick me up some Pantene because there are about 12 different varieties of Pantene on the store shelves.  With the amount of choices we have in our society it is a challenge if not a nuisance to make decisions.
It is always nerve racking meeting a new church for the first time.  You don’t know who you are meeting.  You don’t know what agendas you are going to be met with.  You don’t know the truth about a lot of the situation before you get there and dive in.  A friend of mine received a call from her DS and was told that she was going to her next appointment.  After trying to figure out where that church was and where the town was, she asked about the church situation.  The DS informed her that they have had a couple of interim pastors until they could appointment her there.  This peaked her interested and she asked more about why they needed two interim pastors.  The DS told her that the pastor had been sick. 
Some weeks later she met with the Pastor Parish Relations Committee Chair and the Lay Member to Annual Conference.  During the conversation she asked them about their recent history and why they needed two interim pastors.  They looked at each other and then at me and they looked embarrassed.  She told me she was thinking to herself, what is there to be embarrassed by your pastor getting sick?  But then they finally opened up a little and shared their story.  Come to find out their pastor had an affair with the music director.  The pastor confessed everything to their DS the right before Christmas.  The church was rocked to their core and had been dealing with all the feelings that come with a pastor being removed from their appointment, spending Christmas with no pastor, and then two interim pastors who came in to lead the congregation until she was appointed.  As this pastor moved into this appointment reality started to sink in as she talked with key leaders and other laity.
What was interesting was finding out later that they still do not like talking about that incident.  They feel ashamed and scared to admit what had happened.  It wasn’t their fault, they didn’t do anything.  It was something that the pastor and the music director did but the congregation members were the casualties.  As the PPRC Chair stood to read a letter from their now former pastor the Sunday of Christmas Eve and the congregation was faced with a new reality they had a choice to make.  They could have folded up, melted down, and ran or they could pull together as the Body of Christ and rise above the fray. 
In today’s scripture we have a major decision happening.  The Hebrew people had left Egypt and they have traveled from Egypt, across the Red Sea, through the wilderness to the edge of the Promise Land.  They are camped on the outskirts and ask 12 spies to venture in and see what they can see.  He asks them to , “inspect the land.  What is like? Are the people who live in it strong or weak, few or many?  Is the land in which they live good or bad?  Are the towns in which they live camps or fortresses?  Is the land rich or poor?  Are there trees in it or not?”  Moses is walking with over a million people and he wants to make sure things are okay when they decided to move into the land that God promises.  They are right there but they had to do some research first.
So the 12 spies go in and explore for 40 days.  They see a fertile land and plenty of grapes growing.  They take a cluster with them on their journey to prove how nice the land is.  When they come back all 12 spies agree that this land is full of milk and honey and show the fruit as proof.  They are honest about the people they saw too and the huge fortified cities.  They list the clans they saw and the areas they lived in.  Worry starts to creep through the people and people start to panic.
Put yourself in the shoes of the people.  They follow Moses out of slavery in Egypt and through this strange land to the place where their leaders promised was from God.  When they get there they find it full of people but also potential.  Now they are faced with a decision to make and two options come up.  Ten of the spies, give one option and two of them give another.
How we define reality is extremely important.  The spies did a great job when they first returned.  They named the land correctly saying it was full of milk and honey and people in fortified cities.  They named their current reality well.  The church I spoke about earlier had to name the reality that their congregation when through a hard time and went through trauma.  When we are faced with choices or those moments in our lives when we know a decision has to be made, naming the reality we live in is extremely important.  All 12 spies do an excellent job in this.
The problem arises when they interpret that reality in light of the decision they have to make.  There are two options available to the Hebrew people.  They can run away from the promised land because they task seems to big or they can move forward into what God has promised.  They can make this decision from two places, out of fear or out of faith.  Ten of the spies give their recommendation from a place of fear or perceived reality.  This perceived reality leads them to give us Numbers 13:33, “We saw ourselves as grasshoppers, and that’s how we appeared to them.”  The task of going into the Promise Land was so big that the people living there turned into giants.  The ten spies said they were grasshoppers when compared to them.  Fear got a hold of their reality and turned normal people into giants. 
The “Grasshopper report” came out of a place of fear.  The fortified cities, the population that already existed, the Hittites, Jubusites, Amorites and Canaanites were all too much and so the rumors were spread that these people were giants.  You can start to get a sense of the fear involved.  The other thing involved was the murmuring.  “Murmuring is the language of perceived reality.”[1]  God’s chosen people love to murmur.  That is true today as it was back in Moses’ time.  It didn’t take them long to start either.  They had just left Egypt, just walked across the dry ground through the Red Sea.  They were simply three days into their journey when Exodus 15:24 records their first account of murmuring, “the people murmured against Moses.”  When things get scary the people of God complain, whisper, gossip.  But this is all the language of perceived reality, the reality defined by fear.
“Murmuring is the word that describes life in churches that allow fears of the present and future to be coupled with a desire to cling to the past.”  Focus is moved from hope in the future to fears of the future.  The ‘what ifs’ creep in and taint the dream or callings God is laying on the people.  This is when the “Back to Egypt Committees” rear their heads.  When things got bad for the Hebrew people they suggested that they leave Moses and go back to Egypt.  At least there they knew where they would get their food and where they would sleep.  This is true but they tended to forget that this is also when they were being brutally oppressed as slaves.  But that is the issue with perceived reality, the past, even though it may not be as good as the present, still looks better than the unknown future.
Now that things are getting tough again, “the entire community raised their voice and the people wept that night.”  They laid all the blame at their leaders feet.  It is all Moses and Aaron’s fault!  “Let’s pick a leader and let’s go back to Egypt.”  Now I am sure this never happens in modern day congregations.  I am sure there has never been people who blamed the pastor, the Chair of a Committee, or a Committee as a whole as being the source of their problems.  I am quite certain that never has happened here at Indian Trail United Methodist Church.  I am certain you all understand sarcasm.  It is really easy to place blame on leaders or on the pastor.  But once again that is a symptom of perceived reality or of a murmuring congregation.  As the book I’m using for this sermon series says, “People live out the behavior pattern of murmuring as they cling to the perceived security of the past even when the past has the power to enslave them in the present.”
Now if perceived reality is bad what is the better way to interpret the reality we are in?  For that we go to Caleb and Joshua.  They are the two spies that spoke up and gave a different perspective.  How they interpreted reality is called Envisioned Reality.  Do you remember what they reported to Moses and Aaron.  We find this in Numbers 14:7-9.  They say, “The land we crossed through to explore is an exceptionally good land.  If the Lord is pleased with us, he’ll bring us into this land and give it to us. It’s a land that’s full of milk and honey.  Only don’t rebel against the Lord and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. They are our prey. Their defense has deserted them, but the Lord is with us. So don’t be afraid of them.”  They came from a place of faith in God not of fear.  They realized that if God brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, provided for them during their journey, guided them with pillars of fire and smoke, they why wouldn’t God lead them triumphantly into the Promise Land like God promised?
That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be hard.  To defeat the current inhabitants and take over the land would be very difficult.  Yet, Caleb and Joshua encouraged the congregation of Israel to face the giants without fear.  The other ten spies had a “Grasshopper sized” perception of reality whereas Caleb and Joshua had a “God sized” perception.  They made their recommendation from a place of faith in God instead of fear.  They knew that if the vision of the future, the calling of God, is real then the people will succeed no matter how great the task.
What we are faced as a congregation journeying towards the Promise Land is where we will make decisions from, perceived reality or envisioned reality?  Will we make decisions from a place of fear or a place of faith?  Here is an important question we need to consider, “The question a local church must answer as it plans its ministries is the following: will we plan our ministries based on memories of the past, or will we plan ministries formed by the promises of Jesus Christ?”
We know that both reports regarding the Promised Land became true.  The people decided to first follow the words of the ten and because of their lack of faith God sent them to spend 40 years in the wilderness.  He said no one from that generation would get the privilege to enter the land he promised.   When we do not have faith in God and what God promises there are consequences and there is judgment.  When we live and make decisions through faith we experience and envisioned reality.  A reality that is filled with God’s grace and love.  It doesn’t promise to be easy but it is the Promised Land.  So the question we are left with today and the one we will discuss tomorrow night is this: “As we consider the Promised Land Jesus envisioned (last week’s sermon), what vision of reality will we choose to live into?”
And all God’s people said…Amen.

[1] Does Your Church Have a Prayer?, Participant’s Workbook, p. 23

Pilgrimage Sermon Series – Jesus Prayed for You – John 17:1-5-13-26

John 17:1-5, 13-26
Jesus Prayed for You
Today we start this Pilgrimage to God’s Promised Land.  Like I have stated in the newsletter, a pilgrimage is a journey or search for some sort of spiritual significance or sacred place.  In the first six weeks of 2013, Indian Trail UMC will be taking a pilgrimage to discover how and where God is calling us.  I hope this happens on two levels.  On a personal level I hope you will be asking God to give you personal direction, a personal Promised Land.  I hope you will pray and ask God to shed light on where God is calling you.  We are not all called to professional ministry, although some of you may be, but we are all called to be ministers of Jesus Christ’s love in this world.  We are all called, as followers of Jesus, as Christians, to go out into the world and be the love of Christ.  But how that is to be lived out is as individual as each of us.  But we all are called and I hope you will take time to pray and listen for God to answer.
The other level is on a congregational level.  I want to help us, Indian Trail UMC, figure out where God is calling us.  I know God is calling this congregation to do something for this community.  I know there is a Promised Land for us as a congregation but I don’t know what it looks like.  I have some ideas of how God is asking me to lead and directions to go, but I have learned that I’m not the only one that receives ideas from God about.  Some of the best things I have done in ministry was hearing God’s calling through other people and taking that and running with it.  That is how a renovation happened at one church and a third floor mostly used for storage was turned into a quality space for youth and young adults.  That is how a congregation came together to make meals for hungry children in Kenya and then two people actually traveled over there themselves.  Those ideas were not mine.  They weren’t the pastor’s.  They came from the laity who were simply shared, “I think God is calling us to do this.” 
Through the weekly sermons and the Bible Study I pray that God will reveal what he has in store for us as a congregation, through you and me.  The only way we can get to the Promise Land is if we share a common vision and mission.  If it only comes from one person, it won’t get far at all.  We will need to work together, pray together, listen together.  That is what this Pilgrimage is all about.  So with that said, who is ready for the journey?
When I was a youth I went through this 36 hour spiritual retreat called Chrysalis.  It is the youth version of Walk to Emmaus.  If you have never heard of these Spiritual Retreats, let me tell you they can be life changing.  They are deep, emotional, and fulfilling weekends.  There is a Walk to Emmaus and Chrysalis community in our area so if you are interested I would encourage you to go on a walk or flight and I would be happy to make that happen for you.  In Chrysalis each table gets to make up their own name.  I sat the table of the Out-of-tuned Mashed Potatoes. (Remember we are youth)  There are many memories that come to mind when I think about that weekend but on in particular is receiving letters from all over about people praying for us while we were on this spiritual journey.  For some reason one that sticks out the most is an Emmaus group from Alaska that sent us a letter and a drawing to hang in our room that said, we are praying for you.  I think it stuck out in my head because I remembered thinking, Alaska?  There are people praying for me, by name, in Alaska?
Prayer is a powerful tool and what is amazing is that it can be felt.  When we were doing the 5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations series I remember reading about a church who had prayer pagers.  I know PAGERS.  But what they would do would be to give out these pagers to people in their congregation who needed prayer.  They would publish the who had what pager number and people in the congregation would pray for that person.  When they would pray for them they would then call the pager.  The pager would go off and all the person knew was that at that moment someone was praying for them.  How amazing would that feel to know you were being prayed for?
Did you know that Jesus prayed for you, and for me and for this congregation?  It is right there in the scripture I read.  Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane.  This is a time of prayer that is enshrined in many stain glass windows.  Usually we think of the other gospels though.  We think of the Jesus’ prayer from Matthew, ““My Father, if it’s possible, take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want.”  But in John we get another side of Jesus.  In John Jesus is thinking about his disciples, those that will come after him that believe in what he is doing.  He is praying for his disciples, his followers.  Jesus is praying for us.  In his last prayer before his crucifixion he is praying for you and he is praying for me.  He has us on his mind in the moments before he is taken to be killed for our sins.  WOW!
When we think of it that way we start to feel the weight of prayer on our shoulders.  What does it feel like to think of Jesus praying for you and your faith journey?  Jesus wants his followers, his disciples to understand the vision and mission of what he is doing in his crucifixion and resurrection.  He is praying that the twelve that are following him and all those that follow, even us gathered here this morning, will ‘get it.’
But what should we get?  Let’s break down a little bit of this prayer.  But let me define for you a little bit more what the difference between a mission and a vision is.  In leadership and church circles this can get very confusing about which is which.  Is the vision that drives the mission or the mission that drives the vision?  Which one stays the same and which ones changes? 
The mission always stays the same.  A mission statement is the driving force behind the purpose of a group.  It is what we rely on to push us forward.  A vision is what the future can look like if we follow through with the mission.  A vision changes to adapt to the current realities we face.  A mission stays the same. 
So what is the mission that Jesus lays out in this prayer for us.  There are three major foundations to this mission.  Verse 18 says, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”  The first foundation is that we are sent into the world.  Our mission is not confined to this sanctuary but out there.  Jesus sends us out into the world just as he was sent out.  There was something in our church culture, something in the past that has trained generations of people to think that the church is here for them.  The Church is like a gym membership where you hope to get the most out of what you pay in.  But Jesus doesn’t pray that we will get our needs filled or the use of the fellowship hall at a decent price.  No he says, “so I have sent them into the world.”
The second foundations comes out of verses 22-23; “I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one.  I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me.”  “The second foundation is Jesus’s disciples living as witnesses of God’s love so that the world may believe that God sent Jesus through the lives of Jesus’ disciples.”[1]  We represent God’s love to the world.  That is huge to think about.  When people think about or experience God’s love it comes from us.  You are a representative of God’s love to the world.  The way we love the world is the way people will know why God sent Jesus.  Think about the way you live out your daily life and think that everything you do demonstrates God’s love.  When you shower an elementary school with angel tree gifts that shows God’s love.  When you are cut off on 74 and you demonstrate your appreciation with the one finger salute that shows God’s love.  Because you are a follower of Jesus, everything you do represents God’s love for the world.
The third foundation is found in verse 25 and 26.  “Righteous Father, even the world didn’t know you, but I’ve known you, and these believers know that you sent me.  I’ve made your name known to them and will continue to make it known so that your love for me will be in them, and I myself will be in them.”  This foundation states that we are people “sent in the same sending love that led Jesus to the cross.”[2]  You are sent out into the world with the same love that sent Jesus down to earth and to the cross. 
Those are the foundations of Jesus’ mission for his followers.  We are sent out into the world, representatives of God’s love, and in the love of God.  This never changes, is always the same, and is always constant. 
Jesus’ vision for us is laid out in the earlier parts of the prayer.  Once again it has three foundations.  The first foundation is found in verse 17 and 19; “Make them holy in the truth; your word is truth.  19 I made myself holy on their behalf so that they also would be made holy in the truth.”  Jesus’ vision is us to growing and being formed in the truth of God.  This truth is found and revealed in Jesus Christ.  It is through Jesus that we know the truth, experience the truth, and understand the truth.
“The second foundation is a vision of joy as Jesus’ disciples focus their lives on the love that guided Jesus to the cross.”[3] It is found in verse 13;  “Now I’m coming to you and I say these things while I’m in the world so that they can share completely in my joy.”  Jesus wants us to be joyful as we bask in God’s love.  Joy moves beyond happy.  Joy moves us from this place to a sacred place.  It moves us outside just feeling good to a place where we have inner peace and understanding of God’s love being ever present in our lives.  That is what Jesus wishes and envisions for all of us.
Verses 20-21; “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word.  I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me.”  This is the third and final foundation of Jesus’ vision for his disciples, that we are united in God’s love revealed through Jesus.  Jesus wants us to all be one, the body of Christ, the Church.  United together and united in God’s heart.  He wants all of our hearts to be one with his own.  If we are one with God we will have joy and we can grow and be formed by the truth.  This is Jesus’ vision for us, his followers.
It is in the mission and vision of Jesus that we start this pilgrimage.  We start this journey towards the promise land by reminding ourselves what Jesus’ prayer is for us.  He wants us to be united with his heart, have joy which is found in his love, and grow and be formed by the truth.  We can achieve that vision if we follow his mission. The mission is to go out into the world as representatives of God’s love and sent by that same love.  This is empowering, moving and a great reminder that no matter where we are on this journey, this pilgrimage, God is with us, sends us, and sustains us.
We find that in the meal we are about to receive.  We feel it as we partake in the body and blood of Christ.  As you feast at this heavenly meal may you be reminded of the vision Jesus has for us and the mission we are put on.  May this meal sustain you as the Holy Spirit works through you to spread, share, and be God’s love for the world. 
And all God’s people said…Amen.

[1]Brown, Marc, Merry, Kathy, & Briggs, John. Does Your Church Have a Prayer? Discipleship Resources, Nashville, 2009, p.110.
[3]Ibid, p.109.

5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations – Intentional Faith Development – Sermon

5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations
Intentional Faith Development
Acts 2:42; Philippians 3:12-14; 2 Corinthians 5:17
Acts 2:42:  The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.
Philippians 3:12-14: 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.  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.  The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.
2 Corinthians 5:17: So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!
I wanted to start this morning with a story from Bishop Schnase’s book.  “Carol joined a United Methodist Church, attended worship and Sunday school, and volunteered with various week-to-week projects and programs of the church.  One turning point in Carol and her husband’s faith journey was joining with a Volunteers-in-Mission work project overseas.  Then she joined DISCIPLE Bible Study.  In the small, supportive community of her class, she encountered truths and insights she had been searching for.  More than that, she found God calling her to radically change the direction and priorities of her life.  She eventually offered herself to full-time Christian service, changed jobs, and now works as lay mission coordinator, focused on international ministries.  “Bible study messes with your life!” is her good humored but serious way of telling others about her faith journey.  Learning in community helps people explore possibilities that God may have for them that they never would have considered on their own.”[1]
“Bible Study messes with your life!”  We hold our lives in pretty high esteem.  We protect our lives and cherish normalcy.  So why would we participate in something that will mess with it?  Why are we willing to disrupt our weekly lives to disjointed and disorientated?  Why can’t we keep doing what we are doing at the level we are doing it for as long as we can?  The truth is there is only one thing for certain in this world, only one thing that always stays the same, and that is change.  There is always change happening in life.  You cannot stop and freeze life, life keeps moving.  The question is are we stuck or are we willing to be messed with, transformed, changed to face the future that is ahead of us.
One way we move forward is by something Bishop Schnase calls Intentional Faith Development.  This is how he describes this practice: “Intentional Faith Development refers to all the ministries that help us grow in faith outside of weekly worship, such as bible studies, Sunday School classes, support groups, and prayer teams.  Congregations who practice Intentional Faith Development offer opportunities for people to learn in community for people at all stages of faith.  They offer ministries that help people grow in grace and in the knowledge and love of God.  Intentional refers to deliberate effort, purposeful action, and high priority.”[2]
How deliberate are you with nurturing your faith and building up your relationship with God?  Relationships take work.  To have a good relationship with your spouse takes dedication and hard work over the years.  To have a relationship with a friend takes work, you have to connect with them on the phone, in person, or in other ways to tap into the benefits of friends.  Could you call someone your best friend if the last time you saw or spoke to them was ten years ago?  They may have been your best friend ten years ago but not now.  How many times do we say that we have a friend in Jesus yet we haven’t personally talked with him in years?  How can you work on your own faith if you don’t tap into the resources that God gives us to grow our faith?  The truth is you may not know God as well as you think  you do if you don’t take dedicated, purposeful, and deliberate time to grow your faith over they years.  Intentional Faith Development adds a deeper spiritual aspect to our faith that simply attending worship cannot.  It can make our relationship with God even more personal, intimate and communal.  It takes the aspects we do here in Passionate Worship and it magnifies them on a personal scale.
The scriptures today point to the early church and how they kept the stories and lessons of Jesus Christ going.  The verse in Acts says; “The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers.”  If we look at what we do as a church I am sure we would say the same thing.  We gather for worship, we eat together as much as we can and we lift each other up in prayer.  The early church is doing what we do, they were being Church.  They also devoted themselves to the apostles’ teachings.  They made sure they were learning what Jesus taught them so they could pass it down.  Back then they didn’t have Nooks and Kindles.  Even books were extremely hard to come by.  The stories and lessons of Jesus were passed down by oral history.  They were told to people who told it to people who told it to people.  There were letters starting to fly around from Paul and some of the other apostles.  But even the first evidence of a written gospel of Jesus Christ in our cannon is the Gospel of Mark.  Scholars argue when it was written but it looks like it was probably between 50-70 AD.  That is 20-40 years after Jesus’ death.  In those days that is almost two generations of people passed before something was written down.  The stories of Jesus, the teachings and lessons of Jesus had to be passed down from generation to generation before they were written down.  This took many devoted hours of storytelling but it was what the first Church devoted themselves too.
Quick pop quiz: how many of each animal did Moses put on the Ark?  It is a trick question because it wasn’t Moses that put anything on the Ark, who built the ark?  Noah.  The only way the next generation will know that is a joke is if we teach them.  This week the Pew Research Center came out with a staggering statistic.  They were researching the religious affiliation of Americans.  “In the last five years, the unaffiliated have increased from 15% to 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics, as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation.”[3]  That is 46 million people who have no connection the Christian faith and they will be raising a generation of children who do not know the basics of Christianity or the major Biblical stories.  There is only one way we can make sure these lessons and stories of Jesus will be passed down, if we learn them ourselves and if we then teach others.  All of this comes out of Intentional Faith Development. 
In Philippians 3 Paul is telling the Philippians that they have to continue to grow in their faith.  He has not been perfected yet but he pursues it.  This is Paul, the great missionary, the person who was knocked off his horse and blinded by Jesus himself.  He had to continue to pursue his relationship with Jesus.  I love the phrase that is used in the Common English Bible, “I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me.  The goal I pursue is the prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”  We should be reaching out for the things ahead of us.  We should be striving to move forward in our knowledge and relationship with God.  As we do this we get to the 2 Corinthians’ verse.  We are made new in Christ as we get to know him better.  We are part of that new creation that is happening right now through the transformative power of our Savior Jesus Christ.  The old things go away and the new have arrive as we let God mess with our lives and break us free to what is really important in life, which is our relationship with God and each other.
To quote Bishop Schnase again, “Through the personal practice of Intentional Faith Development, we do the soul work that connects us to others, immerses us in God’s Word, and positions us to grow in grace and mature in Christ. We place ourselves in the most advantageous circumstances to learn and grow in our following of Christ.  We cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our own spiritual maturation.  We learn in community.”  We need each other and we need to lift each other up.  When we participate in a Sunday School Class, small group, life group, home group, whatever you want to call them.  When you surround yourself other people there is a natural accountability that takes place.  There is a natural group that supports each other, prays for each other, and replicates what Jesus did with the twelve.  He called a small band of people to gather around him, learn form him and then go out to spread his gospel.
We are called, as Christians to take our faith seriously and devote ourselves to learn as much as we can for as long as we can.  Jackie Boles was my first funeral at my last appointment.  She dedicated herself to a life long learning and was instrumental in starting a weekly Bible Study.  The group surrounded her as she went through Pancratic Cancer.  We held Bible Study groups in her house and then at Hospice.  Even though she had just been diagnosed with cancer she still went out and had purchased a new Bible, that put all the books in the Bible in chronological order.  She was so happy and showed me her new Bible.  She wasn’t able to get too far into it before she passed away but that love of learning, that desire to continue to grow even after getting the diagnoses, is a testament her faith development.  There is an old saying that the more you learn the less you know.  That was the case with Jackie and her walk and that should be where our walk goes as well. 
How does Indian Trail do with Intentional Faith Development?  Bishop Schnase states that congregations should have about 50% of their church active in different faith development groups.  I went back and I looked at our numbers in September and the first week in October and we average 65% retention rate from our worship service and Sunday school.  That means that 65% of the people who attended the worship service stayed for Sunday school, which is our only small groups at the moment.  That is wonderful and we should be proud of that.  I am very impressed that Sunday School follows worship and so many people stay.  That is an asset of our program here and of our dedicated teachers who strive to build that up. 
But that also means that 35% of the people go home and don’t continue to build on their faith.  I am wondering why?  Is it the timing and location?  Is it the classes that we offer?  Is it the space we meet in?  If we were able to know those answers it would be pretty enlightening to us as a congregation. 
Bishop Schnase also tells a story about a middle size church that was living out radical hospitality.  They did great things to bring in new people into the church.  They had an excellent way of taking new members and welcoming them in to the general membership.  But then they noticed a trend.  The new members would stay for a while but then they would eventually drift away after several months.  They finally were able to get to the bottom of what was happening.  They new members felt a sense of belonging and warmth in worship but when they tried to get involved in the small groups in the church they found them cold and unwelcoming.  “One woman said, “Before I moved here, I was the kitchen chief in my old church for years.  I didn’t expect to do that again here, but I hoped to join the cooking team.  When I showed up to help with a dinner, they handed me napkins and told me to put them on the tables, and then I just stood around by myself the rest of the evening.  I felt like they didn’t need me or want me.”  What this church realized was it had a ‘middle door problem.’  They were great at getting people in the front door but soon they slipped out the back.[4]
I am not saying that we have a middle door problem, actually being the new guy here I am just through the front door myself and I couldn’t tell how many middle doors we have.  But this is great question to ask because how are we at ITUMC at making people feel welcomed in the different groups that meet outside of worship?  Could new people join without much effort on their part and feel welcomed, able to help, and needed?  Another great question is could our middle doors turn into other front doors?
The Church (with a big C, meaning all Churches) in America has to rethink how people come into church.  The old model stated that people go involved in church in a liner pattern.  They were invited or showed up on Sunday for worship.  They liked it and then they came back again and again before they joined the congregation.  Once they joined the congregation they started to look for a Sunday school class or small group to get active in.  But now things have switched and things are a little different.  What churches are find out is that what use to be their middle doors are now turning into front doors.  One church decided to start small groups.  They asked if 6-8 people who lived in a similar area or neighborhood wouldn’t mind starting a small group in their house.  About three groups started at three different locations and with 6-8 people in it.  They wanted the groups to be between 10-12 people in each but they left space in each group on purpose.  They did so because each of those 6-8 members who were starting the group knew some people in their neighborhood who may have wanted to come.  The new trend is that people are more likely to join a small group in a person’s house rather than join them at worship.  The same is true for missions but we will get into that next week.  What this specific church found out as these three small groups gained outsiders to round out their group was that people desired intentional faith development and it can be an avenue for reaching people that would never show up in their worship services.
The other old model is that church small groups are supposed to meet at church on Wednesday or Sunday evening and the pastor is supposed to lead them.  The truth is the most effective small groups out there now are led by trained laity and located at people’s house or other sites away from the church.  I am so happy to know that we have 65% of our congregation participating in Sunday school but I am wondering, “what could we start that would move that number up even higher?”
The scariest place to be for a Christian is comfortable.  When you are comfortable with your faith you stop learning, you stop growing and you hope the world will stop changing because your faith and your life are perfect at that moment.  But if you remember the only thing that is constant is that everything changes.  We have to continue to grow in our faith to stay in good relationship with our God.  We have to continue to learn about who he is until we meet him face to face.  We will never know everything about God but that doesn’t mean we try.
And all God’s people said….Amen.

[1]Schnase, Robert, Five Practices of a Fruitful Congregation. Abington Press, Nashville, 2007, p.63.
[4]Schnase, p.67