Thursday, November 10, 2016

FBC Cornelia State of the Church 2016

To all the saints in Christ Jesus known as First Baptist Church, Cornelia, Georgia.  Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  The words of the Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi come to my mind as I write this letter.  

“ I thank my God every time I remember you, 4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from our first day until now. 6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

I am honored to be your pastor and to share in the Gospel story of this church.  One of the greatest days in my life was the Sunday in May 2010 when you called me to serve you.  Over these last 6 years, I have celebrated with you the beauty of life and joys of our church together.  We have laughed often together.  At the same time, we have walked together through the pain of death and hurt. We have cried together too many times. 

Together, we love this big, messy family of Christians called First Baptist Cornelia.  Out of love, I want to spend our moments together this morning, speaking to you about the state of our church.  There are several ways we can measure the state of our church.  

We measure First Baptist Cornelia in relation to the rapidly changing religious culture of our day.  Church researchers tell us that 8,000 to 10,000 churches in America will close their doors this year and 35% of the millennial generation (35 and below) are unaffiliated with any kind of Christian church compared to 11% of us over 70.  Compared to what is happening in culture – our very survival and our thriving children’s ministry is a sign of the dynamic work of God among us.  

We can also measure the state of First Baptist Cornelia in relation to the Global Church.  The fact is that while we don’t see it - God’s Global church is growing faster today than it has in decades.  The Jesus movement is exploding in places like Africa, Latin America, and Asia.  Compared to this radical explosion of the Holy Spirit, our faithful obedience in the same direction looks subdued.  Yet, our partnerships in Santa Emilia, Nicaragua connect us to the energy of the Global Church. 

Finally, we can measure the state of our church through statistics.  Statistics draw the outline of the picture God is painting of First Baptist Cornelia, but they can never provide the color.  For example, we can record the number of people who attend Sunday School each week, but we have to hear the testimonies of individuals to see the true spiritual growth in their lives.  

The greatest change in our traditional church metrics over the last 5 years has to do with church attendance.  15 years ago church attendance numbers gave us an accurate picture of the number of engaged members in a congregation.  This is no longer the case.  

Over the last five years, all churches - new, old, traditional, and contemporary - including ours – have seen the regular attendance in worship drop significantly.  This attendance drop is not due primarily to less members – instead, it has to do with the attendance patterns of our members.  15 year ago, regular worship attenders came to worship 3-4 times/month.  Today, the average engaged, active member of a church attends worship 1-2/month.  This means that in order to maintain the same worship attendance numbers as we had even 15 years ago we must double the actively attending members – just to keep the same worship attendance.  

For example, last year, First Baptist Cornelia had 398 active members and we averaged 175 in attendance on Sunday mornings.  No one is more aware of this trend than I am as I preach each Sunday.  Our staff has been aware of this trend for a couple of years and have worked to engage our membership in new ways to help us get to church.  

So, while the changing culture, global church, and statistics give us an outline of the state of First Baptist Cornelia at the end of 2016, they do not tell us the whole story of God’s movement among us.  

To get a more complete picture of the state of our church, we need to hear the stories of God’s work among us. 

1. Story of Survivors:  
When I look around the sanctuary today looking for stories of God’s work among us, I see a church filled with survivor stories.  The first decade of this century was difficult.  The building of our Family Ministry Center challenged us in ways we often want to forget.  Conflict made it difficult to trust and without trust nothing could be accomplished.  

Yet, in spite of these challenges, you did not give up on God’s future.  Your bravery at calling David Turner to be an intentional interim for four years cannot be overlooked.  Your wisdom in giving your pastor search committee freedom to follow God’s leading and do things differently should be applauded.  And your trust in God to allow a young pastor to lead you into new and uncharted waters is one of your strengths.  

God has been at work among us over the last 10 years rebuilding trust among our fellowship, growing a competent, experienced and faithful staff, and showing us there is nothing we cannot do when we depend on Jesus.  

2. Story of Visionaries
Besides stories of survival, the state of our church story also includes the story of our visionaries.  Beginning in 2012, First Baptist Cornelia began to dream about our future through our Walking by Faith Process.  For over 2.5 years, we sat together in small groups and town halls, in work teams and initiative groups casting a vision for our future.  Vision work is hard work because it invites us to look beyond our present to see a future that is yet here.  Often in those sessions, we used the year 2017 as our target future year.  

As we sit just a few weeks away from 2017, it thrills me to see that our vision for our Unified Mission Offering and Fund has arrived and is already guiding our mission life.  It thrills me to see the new focused ministry of our deacons which we only dream about, but could never imagine 2 years ago.  
First Baptist Cornelia does not wait for the future to arrive.  Instead, we pray and prepare and work for God’s vision to materialize. This story of visionaries is happening right now!  

3. Story of Workers
The state of our church also includes the story of our workers.  I tell prospective members of our church to be prepared to work in God’s Kingdom.  My mom who has been in lots of different Baptist churches throughout her life and always tells people with just a little pride about our church:  “This church works harder than any church I’ve ever been in.”  

It’s true!  From our dishwashers on Wednesday nights to our children’s ministry volunteers today – we are a strong church because of the many ways each of you serve God through First Baptist.  The part I love about this – this is not useless work.  You are working out of your strengths and abilities in places where your efforts matters. 

4. Story of Missionaries
The state of our church would not be complete without the story of our missionaries.  Not the people we support through SBC or CBF channels – but all of you.  Through your hard work, God is transforming Cornelia, Georgia and the world.  I have to hold back my pride when I tell friends about Camp Agape, Camp Mosaic, the Cornelia Soup Kitchen, the Cold Weather Shelter, and our children’s and youth ministries.  

You have heard God’s Great Commission and responded. At First Baptist Cornelia – missions is not something that we do, it is who we are.  This statement is now more reality than dream.   

5. Story of Disciples
Finally, we can’t forget the story of the disciples among us.  FBC is a community of faithful followers of Jesus who have decided to walk a long obedience in the same direction together.  A couple of weeks ago, I had a Sunday School teacher tell me excitedly about his class. The class had struggled together over a certain topic one Sunday.  As they struggled the class gave permission for each person to have their own opinions and ideas.  Rather than the teacher giving all the answers, God worked through the spiritual walks of each man and woman there.  This class is evidence to spiritual growth we see happening in our church.

Our love for one another and the world grows as our love for Jesus grows.  Simply, we are loving God and loving other more today than we have before.  

When view the whole picture:  The state of First Baptist Cornelia is strong, dynamic, and forward focused.  

Still, we have challenges ahead.  Here are our two most immediate challenges:

1. Facilities Usage
Through the vision, hard work, and sacrifices of many of us, God has blessed this congregation with a beautiful, functional and well maintained church campus.  AND … We are debt free.  

Our next task remains configuring these buildings for our ministry for the next decade.  Our facility, like our church, must be an evolving organism shifting to meet the needs of the next 5 years of ministry rather than the last 5 years.  

At the moment, several committees are meeting together to evaluate some short term solutions to meet the facility needs of children’s ministry.  Our Media Center Ministry team is working to transform our library into a multi-functional space for study and fellowship for individuals and groups.  

Soon, we will begin discussing longer term shifts in our facilities.  While all of this change creates some anxiety – let me assure us - this is a good thing.  We are not rearranging chairs on a sinking ship, we are building a ship to carry us to the future.  First Baptist Cornelia is healthy enough and forward thinking enough to be preparing for the future God has in store for us.  

2. Congregational Systems
The second challenge ahead of us will be building and strengthening our congregational systems – the things we do on a regular basis to communicate, reach out to, and care for one another.  Our new deacon focuses which were outlined in this month’s newsletter is one step in this direction.  Yet, we still have farther to go.

We need a stronger system for active and engaged prayer as a foundation of all we do.  
We need a stronger system for congregational inreach and outreach – letting people know they are loved.  
We need to get better at assimilating new people into our fellowship – helping people find their place.
We need a more defined discipleship process that invites everyone to participate.

Over the next year, we will be working on these systems as we strengthen our programs as a church to help us achieve our vision.  

The state of First Baptist Cornelia is strong, dynamic, and forward focused.  

We are working on the challenges that face us.  Yet – I think there is one more key ingredient for us to reach our full Kingdom potential:  Absolute dependence on the Holy Spirit.  

In the second chapter of Acts, a small remnant of Jesus followers waited and prayed in a cramped house in Jerusalem.  They were hopeful, yet uncertain, of what would happen next.  

When they least expected it, the power of the Holy Spirit rushed into this cramped space like a violent wind.  The spirit filled the entire house and each one of them empowering them to change the world.  When the spirit was done – they left the room empowered by the Holy Spirit preaching about Jesus in multiple languages.  The impossible occurred because they allowed themselves to be empowered for the ministry in front of them.  

This is the Good News for us today:  First Baptist Cornelia will accomplish God’s purposes because we are empowered for ministry.  

God is already doing great things among us through the work of the Holy Spirit.  How much more can God accomplish through us when completely depend on the Holy Spirit.  

I am certain God has even greater things in store for us.  So - let’s keep praying and preparing so that as God moves, we will be empowered for the new ministries set before us.

With much love and gratitude, I am your pastor – 

Eric

Thanks be to God.  Amen  

Monday, October 17, 2016

Balanced Faith

Scripture:  Mark 7:1-30

Recently, I heard a story about a client who fired who fired his therapist.  Over the course of 10 weeks, the therapist listened to the man’s story of greed, fraud, anger, and manipulation in his family and business.  Hatred of others showed in the client behind a smiling face in every session.  

Each week in the same conversations, the client would tell stories of his religious life in his church in the community.  He would brag about the church’s size, his regular religious duties, and his upcoming election as a deacon in the church.   With religious fervor he used scripture to paint his life as perfect and the family conflict that brought him to therapy the result of the rest of his family.  

Finally, the incongruity of the situation had become too much and the therapist confronted the man’s hypocrisy.  The religious portrait he painted of himself masked the true, evil self that abused and mistreated everyone around him.  He was a bully wrapping himself in a Christian flag.  Not surprising, the man never came back to therapy.  Unmasking our real selves from our religious portraits is always painful and difficult.  



In ancient Greece Theater, actors often wore various masks to portray the different roles they impersonated.  The English word hypocrite comes from the Greek word for actor – a person who wears different masks.  The word has come to mean someone who acts a role without sincerity, a pretender.  

This therapist unearthed a hypocrite.  The mask of religion he wore so proudly on the outside did not match the darkness of his life and spirit.  

The client’s faith was out of balance.  The outside didn’t match the inside and the inside didn’t match the outside.  

Out of Balance:  Religious Hypocrisy

In Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees in our passage from Mark 7, Jesus describes the out of balance faith of the religious leaders as hypocrites.  They were pretenders – their outward religious rituals masked a hollow faith.  

The most important religious duty of any orthodox Jewish person in the first century was ritual purity.  Much of the confrontations Jesus had with the religious people of his day involved religious purity and ritual.  For example, healing a person on a Sabbath made one unclean.  Touching a dead person made you unclean.  Touching a person who is bleeding or a woman on her period made you unclean.  Even bringing home food from the market could transfer the uncleanness from the market to a person’s home.  

Because being ritual pure was so important, the religious leaders of the day developed a variety of methods to keep a person clean.  We know this was a vitally important aspect of their religion because archaeologists in the Middle East working from Qumran to Jerusalem to the Galilee have unearth ritual baths called Mikvahs.  In this ritual bath, a person who take off their clothes, walked down into square hole with water and then back up.  It was not for outer dirt, it was for religious dirt - anything unclean that had transferred to their bodies and made them unclean.  Can you imagine the stress this would cause in your life trying to maintain this kind of religious purity – wondering what you had picked up during the day?

Here in Chapter 7, the Pharisees confront Jesus and his disciples over their expectation of religious hand washing.  The Pharisees are not wondering if the disciples have not washed their hands before they eat – something we should all aspire too – especially after shaking everyone’s hand today at church.  No, they are challenging them for not ritually washing their hands before the meal.  In fact, in some pious Jewish families they would have several ritual washings of their hands during each meal.  

Jesus pushes back against this out of balance faith.  This stressful view of ritual purity was not in the Torah – in scripture.  Instead, these kinds of purity rituals had been developed over the centuries by rabbis and religious leaders.  This oral law which Jesus calls the tradition of the elders was written down in the Mushing.    Jesus challenges their notion of religious purity by focusing on Judaism’s out of balance faith.  

Jesus said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; 7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’  

Jesus calls the Pharisee hypocrites because their outside actions did not match their inside life.  There are out of balance.  

The Pharisees believed that the outside world defiled them and kept them from being pure.  Jesus reverses their understanding of faith and says our inside life defiles outside.  Look at what Jesus says to the disciples when they question him – v. 18 - 23
“Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. 21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Out of balanced faith produces religious hypocrites.  

Faithful discipleship balances our inner and outer lives and extends God’s Kingdom.

I’ve been thinking this week about where my faith is out of balance.  Where does my inside life fail to match my outward actions and where do my outward actions fail to meet my inward faith?  
How would this passage from Isaiah describe our out of balance faith?  Perhaps it would say … 
“You say your prayers before meals in restaurants so others see your religious actions, but your hearts are far from me.

In vain you show up to worship once a month, checking off your religious duty, yet you abandon the purposes of God in daily lives.”

Have you ever realized that Jesus saves his most harsh and critical statements about sin for the religious people of his day?   “Then he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!” 

““Listen to me,” Jesus says all of you, and understand: 15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

The Message paraphrase is even more graphic:  ““Listen now, all of you—take this to heart. It’s not what you swallow that pollutes your life; it’s what you vomit—that’s the real pollution.”
 Out of balance faith leaves the world barren, hollow and desolate.  It builds unhealthy family, unhealthy churches, and unhealthy communities.  The most dangerous part is that it gives off the appearance of faith while polluting everything around it.  

Is your faith out of balance?  Do you fight to display the 10 commandments – yet fail to follow them?  Do you post scripture verses on your Facebook wall, then, work hard to tear down friends who look at the world differently than you or have a different opinion or voting preference?  Do you teach your children that Jesus loves the little children, then speak gossip or hatred towards others?  

In a way all of us are hypocrites – we still sin and struggle.  Jesus wants us to know we will never correct our out of balance faith by trying to change our behavior, by trying harder.  Correcting the balance in our faith doesn’t come from without – it comes from transformation from within.  

In Balance:  Faithful Discipleship

In balance faith comes from inside us through faithful discipleship.  Look at the story of the young mother whose child has a sick spirit inside her beginning in v 24.

Geography is important in this story to grasp the drastic difference between out of balance and in balance faith.  

Jesus confronts the Pharisees on the North Shore of the Sea of Galilee.  This region is completely orthodox Jewish.  Everyone looks exactly the same and speaks the same language.  Everyone eats by the same rules.  Everyone follows the ritual.  AND these Pharisees are from Jerusalem.  Jerusalem is the heart of the Jewish faith.  It houses the temple.  These are the most religious, wisest, most respected, most schooled religious leaders in all of Judaism.  The people with the out of balanced faith are the most outwardly religious people you could meet.  

Then in v. 24, Jesus leaves Jewish Galilee goes to a place called Tyre, a non Jewish, Gentile - Roman province. No one here eats the same Kosher foods as the people in Galilee.  They don’t speak the same language.  And they definitely have different rituals and traditions – and don’t know or follow the religious rituals as those religious scholars from Jerusalem.

Jesus brings his entourage of Jewish disciples to Tyre.  We see that his fame follows him when a young mother, a Canaanite, a Gentile, comes to Jesus and falls at his feet.  In the eyes of Pharisee she is completely defiled – there is nothing clean or pure or religious about her.  Yet, like other people Mark highlights as true disciples of Jesus – the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ coat, Jairus, the Jewish leader – this woman’s faith – her inside, not her outside - touches Jesus.  She begs him to heal the evil spirit in her daughter’s life.  She has a beautiful back and forth conversation with Jesus where she acknowledges his mission to the Jews and his openness to the Gentiles as well.  Jesus sees her faith – and says:  “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

Then – see what happens:  “So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.” The woman has such faith that she takes Jesus’ word as authority, believes him and walks home expecting her daughter to be healed.

The woman’s faithful discipleship balances her inner life and her outer life and extends God’s Kingdom.  Her faith spills out to impact her actions. Her actions mirror her faith.  This is the kind of faithful discipleship Jesus expects from his followers.  The Gospel writer Mark sets her up as an example of discipleship for the disciples, for the early church, and for us.  

In these two stories – one in Jewish Galilee and the other in Gentile Tyre, the person with the most in balance faith looks differently than the most religious.  

Purity does not come from the outside – it comes from the inside.  Faithful discipleship balances our inner and our outer life and extends God’s Kingdom.  

Our culture today needs to see Christians with in balanced faith.  Over the last 25 years too many out of balanced religious lives have been on display as representatives of our evangelical world and institutions.  Televangelists preaching against sin have been exposed in their sinful behaviors.  Religious politicians claiming to protect religious values have been exposed in actions against those values.  

Our world today to see real faith in action.  I saw this several years ago when I took Sarah to the Museum of Natural History in New York City.  This museum is full of replicas and models of natural and historical events – but very little of it is real.  The dinosaur skeleton in the lobby is a model – not real dinosaur bones.  Even as a middle school Sarah had an adverse reaction to these non-real museum pieces.  In an effort to counter act her aversion, I saw the museum had an Easter Island Head Statue.  I knew this must be real so we struck out through the labyrinth of the museum to find it.  Finally – there, in a prominent place at the back of a room, sat this large, ancient stone piece carved into a dark head.  We both we amazed and awed at its size and beauty.  Then, Sarah touched the huge stone pillar – it was hollow. It too was a fake.  Face with another forgery, Sarah wanted nothing else to do with the museum.  I couldn’t get her to stop to see the items that we were real.  For her, nothing was to be believed.  

Our world today desperately needs in balanced people of faith leading consistent, authentic lives of discipleship.  This is what wants for you and me.  Our lives don’t need to be perfect or pure or overly religious – we just need to be in balance, hopeful, and faithful.  

This week in your efforts to follow Jesus faithfully, ask Jesus to reveal to you the out of balance places in your life.  Focus less on trying to do the right behaviors to match what you think a Christian looks like and invest your time in becoming the person Jesus most desperately wants you to be – a faithful disciple.  The more you become a faithful disciples, the more your actions will reflect it.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.  


Thursday, October 13, 2016

Empowered

Like many of us, I’ve been thinking about hurricanes this week.  Because I’ve spent most of my life on the Georgia and South Carolina coast, I’ve been glued to the weather channel and Facebook all week.  The first reports from Savannah and Beaufort tell of fallen trees and damaging flooding in the barrier islands with 8-10 feet of storm surge coming in on high tide.  There will be much to clean up and much to work to do in the coming days and weeks to get life back together there.  For some of my friends, the challenge of returning to normal life may seem just impossible.  

Tests:  Impossible circumstances

I can picture the impossible.  

In the fall of 2005, another destructive and deadly hurricane hit the United States.  The name Katrina still sends shivers down the backs of anyone touched by her powerful winds and waves.  

While most of the attention on Katrina’s impact was focused on New Orleans and the failures of its levies, Katrina’s massive storm surge also impacted the small beach towns of Southern Mississippi.  Marcia and I were living in Beaufort when Katrina hit.  As a small coastal community, we were especially sensitive to the impact the storm had on these small towns.  A few days after the storm, the city of Beaufort sent a convoy of volunteers with chain saws, supplies, and healthy backs to work in the community of Long Beach, MS.  With so much destruction, these volunteers filled the gaps when other disaster response teams were deployed elsewhere.  A bond between our two communities grew out of this week of service.  

After the team returned, the mayor of Long Beach reached out again to Beaufort with a strange request.  Storms like Katrina and Matthew disrupt people’s lives, he said.  As he looked over the lives of his community – he realized how far from normal everyone’s life had become.  They were focused on shelter, food, clean water, insurance and survival.  The mayor asked Beaufort to bring some joy to their community.  The mayor of Beaufort after seeing the work of our church in our community, asked my church to lead the effort – and I was recruited to be the leader.   

We decided to host a fall festival for the entire Long Beach community at the end of October.  At the same time, our church had just produced the bluegrass musical – Smoke on the Mountain – so we decided to bring the show on the road to Long Beach.  

The challenge of putting on these two events in a disaster area proved to be impossible.  That’s what it felt like as we began planning.  We had no idea where we could stay.  We had no idea how we could get supplies there.  We had no idea if we would have electricity.  From the moment that we said yes to hosting this event, to the moment the day arrived – the whole idea felt impossible.

Let me give you an idea of what we were dealing with.  Long Beach experienced a 30 foot storm surge that washed a mile inland from the ocean.  Here are just a few pictures of these disaster.   

Katrina and Matthew created impossible circumstances – impossible circumstances test our faith.  
In our two Biblical stories today – we find the disciples facing impossible circumstances which also test their faith. 

[Scripture Passage  Mark 6:33-56]

In the first scripture story in Mark 6:33, thousands of people have gathered on the green hills just north of the Sea of Galilee.  Hour after hour Jesus has been teaching and healing.  Hour after hour, more and more people have been drawn from towns and villages near and far to experience the Kingdom authority of Jesus.  Men with their prayer shawls and women in their dresses hold their children tight while trying to get closer to hear Jesus.  Eventually, the sun moves closer to the horizon and the disciples grow worried about managing all the people.  With this many people gathered, what will they do when they grow hungry and tired?  Fears of violent outbursts bring them to Jesus.  

When the disciples bring their fears to Jesus and suggest he dismiss the crowd back to their homes, Jesus gives them an impossible task: “Jesus answered them, “You give them something to eat.” Jesus asks the impossible from them.  

The second scripture story in this passage occurs the night after this large gathering on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus sends the disciples by boat back across the Lake.  There’s a strong, gusty, hard wind blowing down from the mountains and the disciples strain against the oars in the boat trying to move.  There’s little success.  It’s an impossible task Jesus has asked them to do.  

When was the last time you faced an impossible circumstance in your life?  A mountain too large to conquer?  A hurricane.  A winter storm.  A fire.  A job loss.  A failing grade.  A debilitating injury.  A load of work, not enough time.  I think about all of the impossible circumstances that show up on our church door steps every Tuesday and Thursday as family after family comes asking for assistance with power bills, water bills, doctor’s bills.  The future feels impossible to them.  

The same is true when we look at what’s happening in our culture and church.  We see all of the negative things happening all around us.  The changes in culture.  The changes in community. The changing morals.  We see how church is changing – fewer people on Sunday mornings.  Less people interested in Jesus.  Fewer people holding to biblical truth or following Jesus.  This too feels impossible.

Failures:  Attempting the Impossible on our own.

Most of the time when we face impossible circumstances, we try to solve them on our own.  That’s what the disciples do.  And their feeble attempts only lead to failure.

Looking across the fields of people – thousands and thousands of them – the disciples see an impossible task of feeding them and fail when they try to solve it on their own.   Look at what they say when Jesus tells them to give the crowd food.

“Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii [200 days hard labor] worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?”

What Jesus is asking them to do is impossible.  They see the test before them with realistic, rational eyes – the way you or I would see it.  These disciples don’t have the money to feed this many people; they don’t have time to go to a town to order food to feed them.  [Ask any of our folks who work at the Cornelia Soup Kitchen – feeding lots of people takes careful planning].   When the disciples attempt the impossible on their own – they fail.  

The same is true of when they cross the lake – straining hard against the wind.  They are attempting the impossible the best way they know how – the muscles of their backs.  Tackling the impossible with their own willpower and strength is the only resource they think they have at their disposal.  

And then, when help does show up, they forget all they know about Jesus and react in fear. 

While they are straining in the boat, Jesus walks by them in the pitch blackness of the night – walking on water.  V.  “But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; 50 for they all saw him and were terrified.” 

When faced with the impossible, we will fail every time we attempt it on our own.  

This was the challenge for our team from Beaufort as we planned for our mission trip to Long Beach, MS.  I remember sitting in one of our planning meetings about 2 weeks before we left for MS.  I led the meeting by trying to answer as many questions for everyone as I could.  Someone asked – what will our sleeping arrangements be like – I don’t know.  Another – how will we get electricity to the football field for the fall festival – I don’t know.  Will there be people to help us when we get to MS – I don’t know.  How will we cook the hot dogs and hamburgers – I don’t know.

Eventually, my friend, Ron, a gruff, former Marine staff sergeant blurted out – “Well, preacher, what do you know?”  
I smiled and said, “Ron, right now this task seems impossible to both you and to me.  There are more questions than answers.  Yet, I have a feeling that God is in this.  And if you trust me, and we both trust God, we might just experiencing something extraordinary.”

Well – Ron, didn’t really like that answer – it was a little too preachy.  But he said – “well, we’ll just have to see about that.”  We both knew that every rational look at this endeavor said we would fail in our attempt.  

You see, when we attempt the impossible on our own, we fail.  When we try to solve all of our country’s problems with a new politician – we fail.  When we try to fix all of the challenges at church with our own ideas – we fail.   Something else must take place.  

Solution:  Act on the empowerment of God for Ministry.  

The secret … the solution … to impossible circumstances comes through the empowerment of God.   

Here’s what Jesus did … “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. 42 And all ate and were filled.”

I’m always amazed at this miracle and think about what it would have been like as a disciple participating in the miracle.  Jesus gives you a piece of one of the loaves of bread and small portion of fish and sends you to your first group of 50 people sitting on the green grass.  You pass a basket around – watching as each child and mother and farmer take a piece of bread and fish and pass it to another.  You watch expecting to run out of food, but instead, you have just enough to start at the next group.  And when they are done - Still you have just enough.  

Jesus doesn’t accomplish the impossible automatically.  The miracle happens when each disciple has just enough faith to walk to the next group to see what might just happen.  And when they are done – not only has everyone eaten their fill, there are baskets of food left over.  The disciples did think they were accomplishing the impossible, they were just following the instructions of Jesus – empowered by him for the ministry in front of them.  

The same is true with the disciples in the boats.  Faced with the impossible, the wind, and the inconceivable – Jesus walking on the water – the disciples welcome Jesus into the boat.  When Jesus sits among them, the wind suddenly ends and suddenly they are moving again.  

This was my greatest spiritual lesson of our time in Long Beach, Mississippi.  From the moment we attempted the impossible for Jesus, Jesus provided just want we needed when we needed.  The impossible became possible only because God empowered us for ministry.  To this day, I still cannot explain it – I can only describe it.  


When we needed a place to stay, the city offered us cots and a shower.  When we needed a place to hook up RV’s the city provided a parking lot.  When we needed a large moving truck to get all of our supplies to MS, someone in town called and offered us one.  When we needed pumpkins for Halloween, a vendor in Mobile donated them to us.  When we wondered if we had enough food, the Red Cross showed us and started serving steak dinner.  When we wondered if anyone in town would show up, over 3000 people came to the football field in Halloween costumes and enjoyed being a community together, playing fun games, eating carnival food, and thinking about something other than survival.  

That night, when we were done and the lights on the football field were turned off, we gathered our volunteers from Beaufort, and I read them this story of Jesus feeding the 5000.  My friend, Ron, looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “I saw Jesus tonight.  Jesus did the impossible.  He empowered our hands for the task.  Thank you for allowing me to be a part of it.”  

FBC Cornelia has seen God’s empowerment of God for ministry too.  We saw God show up when we decided to open our first cold weather shelter.  It was an impossible task – but God provided all that we needed just when we needed it.  

The same is true when our church decided Cornelia needed a soup kitchen in Cornelia.  We said, let’s start to work, and God provided what we needed when we needed it.  And now there is this great place in our community where anyone can eat whose hungry.  

Why do we forget God’s empowerment when it comes to our church or to our lives?  When we see the impossible, we think rationally.  We think about all of the reasons why something can’t work instead of what Jesus wants to do.   Jesus is already here empowering each of us and this church for the things we see as impossible.  

God doesn’t see impossible.  God sees the opportunity for you and me to participate in the Kingdom.  
Don’t be discouraged. Don’t focus on the negatives of your life.  Don’t listen to the doomsayers.  Jesus invites you and me to “Take heart; do not be afraid. Because he is here empowering us for the day ahead.” 

Thanks be to God!  Amen.  

Monday, June 20, 2016

Lessons from our Dads

The stories of our lives have much to teach us about life, faith and the Way of Jesus if we take time to listen.  This week, I invited our church and my social media friends to share stories
and lessons from their fathers.  You amazed me at how quickly your stories came off your tongues.  It was as if you were waiting simply to be asked.  And the stories you shared included everything from practical lessons to stories of depth and vulnerability. 

When we tell stories about our fathers, we start with the funny stories.  It seems one thing fathers have it common is the ability to embarrass their children or tell a joke. 

And this is where I want to start with a few jokes from my father.  Like Jack Boozers preach father, Claude Boozer, my father was a humorist too.  They both were quick to tell a funny story or relate a funny experience in their sermons to drive home a point to help one remember the lesson they was emphasizing.  They both loved to tell a joke and to hear one and always had smiles on their faces.
  This week as many of you were sharing your stories, I went through the preaching files I inherited from my dad.  So, to help me get this sermon on Lessons from our Dads started, here are a couple of jokes about fathers from my dad’s file called “Little People Church Humor.”

“One summer evening during a violent thunderstorm a mother was tucking in her small boy into bed.  She was about to turn off the light when he asked with a tremor in his voice, “Mommy, will you sleep with me tonight?”  The mother smiled and gave him a reassuring hug.  “I can’t, dear,” she said.  “I have to sleep in Daddy’s room.”  A long silence was broken at last by his shaky little voice:  “The Big Baby.” 

Here’s one more:
A father was reading Bible stories to his young son.  He read, “The man Lot was warned to take his wife and flee out of the city, but his wife looked back and was turned to salt.” His son listened, scrunched up his face, and finally asked, “Well … what happened to the flea?”

Bible Exposition
Our Bible passage today comes from Hebrews 11 – the Faith chapter.  The chapter starts with this definition of faith:  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  To describe this faith for his readers – to show what this faith looks like in real life – the writer of Hebrews tells stories of faith that had been told in his community for centuries.
·       By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain’s.
·       By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death
·       By faith Noah, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save his household.
·       By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance

These stories of faith reveal the deeper truth of the spiritual life:  As followers of Jesus we will always be strangers and foreigners on the earth.  We are the People of God seeking a new homeland.  If the people of faith who came before us had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they – like us - desired a better country, that is, a heavenly one.” when people of faith choose to live for God’s better country – God’s kingdom – we have this promise:  “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.”

The stories of our fathers and mothers of faith point us to a land beyond this world, a better land.  These stories invite us to live differently because our lives matter to God and to us 

Thesis
The same is true in the lives of our fathers.  A friend wrote this poignant paragraph this week in response to my question:  “Father power is an awesome responsibility! God is only perfect Father...the rest of us are merely trying to be the best we can be for our children. We face two key questions as fathers and parents:  What kind of legacy do you want to leave your children? What will they say about you when you are gone?”

Father power is an awesome responsibility.  First, let’s acknowledge the power fathers have in our lives. 

·       Fathers have the power to hurt or to heal.
·       Fathers have the power to nurture or steal our childhoods
·       Fathers have the power to teach both lessons to build a life or lessons to destroy a life. 
·       Fathers have the power to love or to hate.

With great father power comes a great and awesome father responsibility.  There is a reason that fathers often grow quiet and reflective and a little scared in that debilitating moment when the doctor hands us our first child in the hospital:  The power and the responsibility overwhelms us and we wonder if we are up for the challenge. 

How we wield this power and responsibility in the lives of our children will determine the legacy we leave on our children.  Like the lessons of faith the writer of Hebrews departs in chapter 11, let me share with you a few lessons on fatherhood that demonstrate fathers who have gotten this balance of power and responsivity right.  And in so doing, they have molded the lives of some incredible people who have never forgotten the lessons they learned.
 
Lesson 1:  Fathers teach us the practical ways to live in this world.  Here are a few of the practical ways fathers have taught us to live:
1.    You're only as good as your word.
2.    Whatever you do, do it well.
3.    Family is everything.
4.    Pay your bills
5.    Keep a good credit rating
6.    Never pay the sticker price for a car!
7.    One friend said:  “He taught me how to shoot a gun, drive a car, tie a tie, do basic electrical and plumbing repairs.”
8.    Another said, “My father taught me fiscal discipline. He didn't spare his success stories on investments and savings from his daughters! I am grateful because he was raised in a time when a woman's retirement plan was to marry well. He told me that "Americans buy everything on sale except stocks. If you sell when the price is dropping, you guarantee your loss." As I grew older, I realized that this advice was also a lesson on perseverance and identifying for ourselves what has value.
9.    One friend told me this story about how his father taught him to fish and trust him: “After serving four years in USAF with three years served in Chateauroux France in WW2, my dad took me fishing his second day home from the war.  He gave me his rod & reel with an old six inch lure with three triple hooks. I was thinking what fish would bite this old lure.  Dad said go ahead throw it as close as you can by an old stump sticking up above the water. The lure disappeared and I had a bite.  After several minutes - which seem like a life time - I got the fish close to the bank and dad used a dip net to bring in the fish. I still have the picture with that two pound and another four pound fresh water bass from that day.  Needless to say I never doubted him again.”

Lesson 2:  Fathers teach us how to treat other people. 
Story after story I received this week had some version of this lesson.  It seems our children pay attention to how we treat other people – both those we know and those we don’t.  For example. 

A friend from Oklahoma wrote:  One year, my dad received an expensive pair of insulated overalls for Christmas. After opening gifts and having breakfast together, he began wrapping up the coveralls.  I asked what he was doing. He explained that he had coveralls but a friend- another farmer- was in need of coveralls. Instead of giving away his used coveralls, he gave away his Christmas present so his friend would have a new gift. That life lesson in how to treat other people was seared in my mind and heart!

A friend from Missouri wrote:  My Dad has always taught me not to judge anyone by their external appearance. Growing up my Dad would give stranded people rides, provide them with gas from the farm tank or bring them in and feed them. He grew up with nothing and never forgot it.
Helen Bryson told me this story about her Daddy in NC:  I remember this preacher that lived far back in the mountains and walked to the community on Saturday where he would preach on Sunday. We lived on a river and the bridge was visible from our front porch.  He told us at my daddy’s memorial service:  “I knew that Sam Gibson (Helen’s daddy) sat on the porch and watched for me to come in sight and would always find a reason to come along shortly and provide a ride home.”

It’s not just any person though – our fathers teach us how to treat our mothers.  One friend from Florida wrote:  “My dad’s two big rules growing up were...1. Watch your attitude 2. Don't talk back to your mom.”

Another friend from Savannah said:  My dad always said:  "Don't forget to listen to your mama!”

Dads – how we treat our wives teaches our children how to treat the women around them.

Lesson #3:  Father’s Demonstrate Love for us. 
Finally, of all the powerful stories I received – the ones that came in long narratives in my inbox with the many ways our fathers demonstrated God’s unconditional love in our lives most impacted me.  Here are just a few examples:

A friend who grew up in Virginia wrote:  “My dad taught me what unconditional love looks like. For him and me it was driving 8 hours from Richmond, Virginia to Bristol, Virginia, watching a 45-minute peewee football game and driving back to be at work the next day. Unfortunately, I did not realize it early enough to thank him.”

A boy I grew up with in Savannah wrote this about his dad who died a couple of years ago:  “My dad taught me through his actions and words, over and over again, that Christianity is about love. The action of loving one another. But he also taught me to love football!”

A college friend wrote:  “Hi, Eric, I cannot pass up this opportunity! My dad was always so cool and understanding with us two girls....when I was 16 I had two car wrecks in two weeks! In the first, I ran into a stop sign (because I was trying to kill a mosquito) and scraped the whole side of the car. In the second, I backed into another car in a parking lot and took off the other car's entire back bumper (that car belonged to a young man). After the second one, I thought for sure my dad would be furious with me. He followed me home from that wreck, and I was so upset.  I just knew he was going to yell at me. When we got home, however, he stood in the garage with me and said, "Well, Kendra Leigh"....(a sure-fire notice that a well-deserved punishment was coming my way) and I braced myself "Yes, sir?

He then said, "There are better ways to meet guys." and walked into the house. I stood in the garage for a long time wondering if I was in trouble! That was a great example of a dad who knew his daughter well, that I had beat myself up all the way home, and would not ever do anything so stupid again. He knew there was nothing he could say to me that I had not already said to myself, and worse.

Finally, a friend became very vulnerable to me when told me the story of coming home to her very exacting father to tell him she was pregnant.  She had rehearsed her speech all the way home – just like the prodigal son as he came home empty handed and smelling like swine.  Finally, she stood before her daddy who wondered why she was at home.  After taking a deep breathe, she said, “Daddy, I’m pregnant.” 

To which he responded:  “Every child is a gift from God.”  There was no judgement or screams, no scene, just grace.

That is the greatest gift a father can ever give to his children:    God’s unconditional love, given as the free gift of grace. 

This is how our children will learn the concept of a Heavenly Father – because they have seen the Father’s love in our eyes and hands and our words.

Father power is an awesome responsibility, Indeed!  How we balancing the power and responsibilities God has given you and me for the Sake of our children, our families and our world will determine the legacy we leave with our children. 

This is how we change the world – one father, one mother, one family at a time! 

Thanks be to God!  Amen!
 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Captured By Love

Let me tell you my love story. 

The story starts in the early 1960’s when a young preacher boy at Mercer University catches the eye of a beautiful secretary and fellow student.   When they marry, the preacher and the teacher dream of a family together.    






The couple spends their newlywed years pastoring a country church.  They learn how to love and be loved among these farmers, doctors and house wives.  These lessons shape their lives. 

In those days, preachers worth their salt attended seminary.  Soon, the honeymoon is over and the bride teaches in a big city school and the groom attempts to master Greek and Hebrew.  Life fills with school and friends and eventually another country church on the weekend.  As the years pass, they watch friends welcome little ones into the world … and they keep teaching, studying and preaching. 


Tests and doctors, questions and fears follow.  Years rolled on.  The world keeps moving.  Soon, something shifts.  Questionnaires and case workers, hopes and dreams develop.  Weeks and months roll together.  The world keeps moving with a skip in its step. 

On Monday, February 10th, 1969 a baby boy bounces into the world loved more deeply than anyone will ever know.  On this day, a young, unnamed, single college student gives the world a lesson in love.  She loves that boy enough to place him in the hands of a nurse and drive away. 






On Wednesday, February 12, the young couple sits down for a birthday meal.  It is their 7th celebration together and still the chairs around the table sit empty.  The phone rings.  A yell ensues.  A baby boy waits for their love.  The bride exclaims with tears in her eyes, “It’s my best birthday gift ever!”

On Friday, February 14, the couple receives a true Valentine’s Day miracle … a deep, intense love moves into their lives with the arrival of a gurgling, smelly, baby boy.  Love invested becomes love received. 

As the adopted son, I have been captured by love in so many ways:  by the sacrificial love of my birth mother, by the invested love of my parents, and by the never doubted knowledge that I am loved. 


Jesus describes God with similar language.  “God loved the world so much, God gave God’s one and only son, so that whoever believes in him, will not perish, but shall receive eternal life.” I grasp this love because it captured me the moment I arrived in the world.  Thanks be to God.  Amen  

Monday, October 26, 2015

Seeing

Series:  Believe Week 7:  Humanity
Scripture:  Philemon

Date:  October 25, 2015

When I was a little boy, one of my favorite children’s books was called - Fortunately and unfortunately.  The book followed a young boy name Ned who fortunately received an invitation to come to a surprise birthday party.  Unfortunately, the party would be held in Florida and Ned was in NY.  Fortunately, a friend loaned him and airplane.  Unfortunately, the motor exploded.  You get the picture.  Unfortunately, looking back on the book now, I can’t believe all of the harrowing circumstances Ned found himself in.  Fortunately, for me – as a child – I loved each page. 

[Here's the short book if you want to read it too.  :)

          This week as we have been reading our Believe scripture passages on building a biblical theology of Humanity – the back and forth rhythm of my favorite childhood book came back to me.  Here’s why:  I am stuck by discrepancy between how we see other people and how God sees people.  We want God to see certain way and others differently.  These discrepancies point a mirror into our lives and make confront today’s Key Question:  How does God see us?
          Join me for a few moments with a little back and forth between how we see people and how God sees people as we examine – poke and prod our theology of humanity.

 We See:  Evil, desperate, sinful people
We read the papers and watch the news and see stories of mass murder and school shootings.  We are horrified by the actions of humans in war.  We see people denying God’s existence, living sinful, damaging and corrupt lives and wonder what could God ever do with them.  What value are they?

Fortunately, God Sees:  all Humans created as in God’s image.
          In every sinful, desperate, evil person – God sees a man or woman wonderfully knitted, formed and loved into God’s image.  Genesis 1:26 says:  Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image and likeness. And let them rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the tame animals, over all the earth, and over all the small crawling animals on the earth.”
          Each person on this planet is created for a purpose, loved and valued by the Lord God. 
On the opposite side: 

We see:  Good, hard-working neighbors.
          You know, these are kind of people who don’t steal, don’t make loud noise, look after your dog when you are gone, vote regularly, bring casseroles when you are sick, work hard to make a living.  We see these friends and think – they have done everything right.  They are good people.  Surely, they are the kind of people who God desires.

Unfortunately,God Sees:  Sinners fallen short of the glory of God.
          We want to make people’s outward appearances and actions take the place of their inward relationship with God.  Yet, while God sees a person created and formed in God’s image – God also sees each person’s sin of betrayal and it separates them from the life God designs for them. 
          Romans 3:23 says:  Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard.
          I love this phrase that has stuck with me most of my life:  the ground at the cross is level.  While we see good people and bad people – God just sees people, God’ creation.  And while we want to set some people above others – God never does.  It is only through the cross that we come into a relationship with the Lord.   
When we are subdividing people – creating our own version of the caste system, we often base our theology of humanity on our own world view.  For example: 

We see:  A broken world divided by barriers of language and borders.
          As much as we hate it, we each carry our own prejudices about people in the world. We divide people by the languages they speak or don’t speak, the ways they dress, the color of their skin, the depth of their education, or the borders that they cross.  We fear people who are different.  We break people down by stereotypes and titles.  We call other human people illegal and we loosen our tongues and forget that the words we use actually describe people loved by God.  Our way of looking at the world becomes the only way to look at the world.

Fortunately, God Sees:  A unified, wonderful world where all are loved.
          Recently, I have been following the photographs of astronaut Scott Kelley who is living for a year on the International Space Station.  Each day, Captain Kelly posts pictures to his Instagram of pictures of the earth – from North America, Europe, South America, Asia.  Unlike our common maps, these pictures show no borders or countries.  We see beautiful mountains and rivers and deltas, cities lighting up the night, and this week a monster hurricane.  I imagine this is more like how God sees the world:  a unified, wonderful creation full of his most prized creation – you and me. 
          The Gospel writer John puts it this way:  “God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him may not be lost, but have eternal life.”  This was our memory verse for this week.  The verse demonstrates how God’s love breaks down the barriers of our broken, divided world.

Unfortunately, when we see a divided world, we cannot see beyond it.  For example, often:

We see:  Ornery, hard to love people who are against us.
          You know what I mean.  These are the people in our families that drive us nuts.  The employee that continues to complain to the boss about us.  The neighbor who called the police on our kids.  The girl at school who we thought was our friend who told our most private secret to people at school.  The friend who has bi-polar disease or the addict who has burned all of his bridges.  We don’t have to go too far to see people by what they do and how they treat other people. 

Fortunately, God sees:  God’s children.
          As prickly and ornery and spiteful as some people can be in our lives – God still sees them as his children.  God’s creation.  And God still calls us to treat them in the same way we would treat the people who are kinder and friendlier and easier to be around.  Jesus says this in the Sermon on the Mount:  “But I say to you who are listening, love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you,”
          God’s Way in the world takes our ways of looking at the other people and turns us on our heads.  Here’s one more example.  

We see:  Brilliant and gifted people who have achieved success in politics, business, and entertainment.
          If you are like me – these people stand out in the world for all that they have achieved.  We gawk at and look up to these people.  We get giddy when we come into their presence.  I’ve not been in the room with too many celebrities, but when I have I know that the intensity in the room changes.  We say – “hey, do you know who is here?”  We might ask for an autograph or a selfie these days.  We increase our standing by being close to one of these brilliant, successful people as we tell our stories of encounter. 

Fortunately, God sees people differently.

God Sees:  Little children with crusty faces, active bodies and curious minds. 
          In a lesson on greatness, Jesus brings a first century, child into the middle of his teaching circle and uses the child as an object lesson for greatness in the kingdom of God.  He says in Matthew 18:3:
Then he said, “I tell you the truth, you must change and become like litt   le children. Otherwise, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
          This is how Jesus views humanity – not by what we can achieve or provide or the extra ability of giftedness that we have – but through our humble ability to trust completely in the Lord of Creation. 
          How does God see us?  God sees us his wonderful creation formed in God’s image who have sinned and need Jesus.  God sees us as one humanity, loved deeply in spite of our ornery natures. And God values us not by what we accomplish but by the faith we exhibit.  This is theology preaches and changes lives and churches and communities. 

A practical theology of humanity can be found in one of the shortest books in the Bible – Paul’s letter to Philemon.  In this short book, Paul challenges all of us to see each other – not as we see – but as God sees.

The simple story is this.  Paul is in prison in Rome.  In prison he meets a runaway slave name Onesimus.  Through the friendship of Paul and the grace of God, Onesimus commits to follow Jesus.  Paul loves Onesimus and wants him to serve as an associate with him in the service of the gospel, but he had neither a moral nor a legal right to retain him.
Legally, Onesimus belongs to a Christian man named Philemon in Colossae.  Philemon is an active believer and spiritual leader.    He hosts a church in his home.  Paul knows Philemon – most likely because Philemon heard Paul preach in Ephesus. 

The theological question that faces us faces these three men:  How does God see us? 

To Philemon - Onesimus is a runaway slave, a piece of property who most likely stole from his master when he left.

To Paul, Onesimus is a brother in Christ.  The barriers between slave and Roman citizen have been broken by the love of Jesus.  So – Paul sends Onesimus back to Colossae with this letter for Philemon. 

I, Paul, an old man now and also a prisoner for Christ Jesus, 10 am pleading with you for my child Onesimus, who became my child while I was in prison. 11 In the past he was useless to you, but now he has become useful for both you and me.

Paul is challenging Philemon to see Onesimus no longer through his human eyes – as a slave – but through God eyes, as a useful child of God. 

[he is]16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a loved brother. I love him very much, but you will love him even more, both as a person and as a believer in the Lord.

When Onesimus shows back up at Philemon’s door with this letter from Paul - Unfortunately, from the human perspective, nothing has changed.  Onesimus is still a runaway piece of property and a thief.

Fortunately, from God’s perspective everything has changed. Onesimus is no longer a slave, he is a brother in Christ.

When we begin to release our way of seeing and receive God’s eyesight, today’s key idea becomes a bold experience of God’s grace and glory. 

Key Idea:  I believe all people are loved by God and need Jesus Christ as their Savior.

I am convinced when we allow this belief to settle from our heads to hearts – it will have the greatest impact in how we live our lives as any of these beliefs.  The virtue of gentleness will no longer exist in patches around our lives – but will settle into a new way of existence on our daily living.  What a glorious and marvelous day that will be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.