The Master Plan

On July 6, 1958, a lay preacher named Charles Minton and an elder named Lawrence Calaway officiated at the first meeting of the Riviera Beach Christian Church. The scripture that day was Psalm 122. Today, as on that day, let us hear the word of the LORD:

Psalm 122

Please pray with me. Father, please help us to profess our faith, to proclaim your hope, and to practice the love of your Son, Jesus Christ. For it is in his name that we pray, amen.

You know, this place called Jerusalem was important to the house of Israel. King Solomon had built there the very House of the LORD. It was a gated city high on a hill, and it was a crown jewel of the Middle East. There was a time when the House of Israel would declare God’s love for them with a one word exclamation: JERUSALEM! Verse four calls Jerusalem the Testamony of Israel. It was a testament to God’s covenant with the House of Israel.

When Jesus walked the earth, it was Herod’s rebuilt temple. Saducees were the officials running the temple. Pharisees were the religious zealots insisting on their rights there as well. Merchants flocked to the temple, because it was a curiosity at the crossroads of the Roman world. It was a tourist attraction, a showpiece. And of course, Roman law enforcement was always nearby to referee, and to keep the peace.

Place is a funny thing, isn’t it? As far as Jesus could tell, the Temple had already been destroyed. This showpiece of Herod’s was a hollow shell. It was a poor attempt to insinuate that Herod had restored the covenant as he had rebuilt the Temple.

Jesus knew that shortly after his death and resurrection, the Temple would be completely destroyed, and that the faith of Israel could no longer be pinned to a particular building, or a particular city. He predicted that not one stone would be left upon another. In just a few decades after his resurrection, that prediction had come to pass.

Today Jerusalem is a divided city, and the Temple is closed for business. And are we still praying for the Peace of Jerusalem? Jerusalem remains a beloved city, but it is no longer the best illustration of God’s covenant with humankind.

So do we have a better illustration? Tropical Sands was launched 43 years ago as a missionary church to this area. Certainly, that trailer park rec room was not the picture of what we would become. I understand the next building was a complete disaster. So I look at these walls around us today and I say Praise God and Thank You Lord Jesus. But even at that, I know better than to pin the love of God to my satisfaction level with this building.

In his days on earth, Jesus revealed the Master Plan. The Master must be God Himself, and if there is a plan, its purpose must be to fulfill God’s desire here on Earth.

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well, he revealed to her God’s Master Plan for worship. She said Our fathers worshipped in this mountain; and ye say, that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.

But what did Jesus say? In John 4.21 he said, “Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor at Jerusalem, worship the Father. The hour cometh, and now is, when true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

So the point is not a place. The church of Jesus Christ is not a place. It is more like a club — and I think Jesus would say it is more like a family. We are drawn together not by a place, but by a spirit.

You know, on that day, the woman drew crowds to Jesus, and he made a lot of people happy. He made them happy because he told them that salvation was for Samaritans as well as for Jews. He made them happy by telling them that they did not have to possess the Holy City of Jerusalem, nor even the Holy Mountain, to stay in touch with God. As a Spirit, God is not restricted to a particular place.

So what does it mean to worship in Spirit and in Truth? Now I have not studied exactly what the original text might mean by that, but let me take a layman’s stab at it. A spirit of worship is one that accepts the presence of God. To worship in spirit is to have not just some outward appearance of worship, but an inward sense of it, and a real need to get in touch with God. It is our heart seeking the heart of God. That is worship in spirit.

Now, for truth. What does it mean to worship in truth? I think we can agree that Jesus had a special contempt for hypocrites. Christ was absolutely venomous toward pious religious people who held others to the jot and tittle of ceremony without even tipping a had to service. He called them bad shepherds and blind guides. They could indeed worship, but they did not worship in truth.

A worshipper in truth is one who is actually interested in pleasing God. You might notice that every little thing today is done by someone different. Kim did the children’s moment. Tom Brown wrote the skit. Pearl Callaway has a history for us later. You’ll soon have the best food you ever tasted, after service. We have special music. You know, I didn’t have to beg anyone to do anything. That’s because these people are hear to worship, and they worship by teaching children, and by writing skits, and by helping out with the service.

That is worship in Truth! Worship in Truth is hands on worship! To worship through service to others is to worship in Truth. That is the worship that keeps us connected to one another and to the coming Kingdom of God on Earth.

We have a lot to do today. At the luncheon, we’re going to induct our new slate of officers. Please don’t let that scare you off, with food like this, it will be worth it. And our elders are going to induct a new elder into their ranks today. Tom Brown has agreed to step up to the plate, and he has accepted the call to become an elder in this church. I am very proud of Tom because he is willing to serve as a leader of this church. In becoming an elder, Tom Brown is worshipping in spirit and in truth.

So what is the master plan? It is not about place. It is not about Jerusalem, White Temple, or Southern Trailer Court, or Southwind Circle, or Burns Road. It is about worshipping in spirit and truth. It is about worshipping with a sense of gladness, with a joy that draws others to your Church, and to your Lord. It really is about skits, and food drives, and Sunday School, and elders, and music specials, and covered dish luncheons, and reaching out to the people around us. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in Spirit and in Truth.

Tropical Sands Christian Church was born to be a missionary church. I say that it is still a missionary church, and we are just getting our second wind. The Master Plan is to profess faith, to proclaim hope, and to practice love, and to do so right here, in this community.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tropical Sands Christian Church – July 8, 2001

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The Kingdom of God

Some of the Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come. His answer was, “The Kingdom of God does not come in such a way as to be seen. No one will say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’; because the Kingdom of God is within you.”

–Luke 17:20-21 (CEV)

The map of the entire Human Genome was made public this past Monday. They found a few surprises when they put all the pieces together. Let’s say this pickle jar is a living thing, and this rice is genetic information. It takes about this much rice to make make a fruitfly. Now the pickle jar knows what it needs to know to be a fruitfly. Add just a little more, and it can be a nice, exotic flower. You don’t have to add much more to turn this pickle jar into a living, breathing human being.

Everyone thought we were a lot more complicated than a fruitfly. And we are. A fruitfly gene does its thing by making a protein, at just the right time. One human gene might make five or six proteins. If you think like a computer programmer, you might say that God did not write a bigger program for humans than for fruitflies. Instead, he wrote a smarter program. If you’re a watchmaker, you might say God made a Rolex using parts from a Timex.

Another surprise is how alike we are. If this is you, then 99 percent of this information is exactly the same as for everyone else on earth. That last one percent is what makes you unique as a physical specimen.

Scientists are calling this information “The Book of Life.” I won’t go that far. But I do think we are reading the penmanship of God. The human genome holds every physical instruction required to make a human being. And the last percent of information is so flexible that no two people are exactly alike. Each combination is one in a billion, and one wrong move can make the whole set fall like a house of cards. You think God doesn’t love you? Think again.

So if this is the handwriting of God, why isn’t it perfect? Here’s a genetic marker for asthma, a flaw on chromosome number five. What’s with that, God? Oh, that, God says. You know, if you could just take one day in six off, like I suggested, and not light so many fires on the Sabbath, that one wouldn’t have gone bad.

And what about this one, God? Isn’t this one a carrier for cancer? Well, God says, I started you out on clean food and fresh air, but you had to get greedy and chip away at the ozone. It took a few generations for that one to go south, but you guys just kept hammering away at it.

Radiation, chemicals and micro-organisms can literally alter genetic material. It happens in cancer cells, and genetic mutations. They find that we have about 500 genes that were inserted by some bacteria, eons ago. That’s probably where we started breaking some critical dietary laws. We have been careless caretakers of this fallen planet, and in a million ways we have accidentally smudged the handwriting of God. Without God’s merciful hand to support all life, the reckless sins of our forefathers would have doomed the human race many centuries ago.

So, let’s add these black beans to our pickle jar. These beans are everything that has been done to you, and everything you have done to yourself. These environmental factors might have more to do with how you turn out than those genetic instructions, anyway. And what about this one, God? Here’s a gene that points to depression. What broke this one? And God says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” I know, it’s a hassle. That gene is easy to break. But I have redeemed this condition. Put it back.”

Blessed are the poor in spirit. Why? Our pew Bible makes Matthew [5:3] say, “Blessed are those who KNOW they are spiritually poor …” I object. It sounds like work, something to learn, something everybody experiences. If you aren’t poor in spirit, that’s okay. You can be a peacemaker instead [5:9], and get your blessing there. You don’t have to be poor in spirit to be blessed. But Jesus said the poor in spirit are blessed for “theirs is the kingdom of God.”

I think the poor in spirit are just what that sounds like. The poor in spirit are people with that depression gene, or their depression gene got knocked crooked, or their environment is suppressing the feel good genes. The poor in spirit might be people who are sad, melancholy, gloomy. Why is theirs the Kingdom of Heaven?

I think I know why. The poor in spirit are not satisfied with this world. The poor in spirit have no trouble believing that they are strangers in this world. No friendship seems to reach deep enough to cure the loneliness of the poor in spirit.

The poor in spirit know what a cold and lonely planet this world can be. The poor in spirit also know how bright the light of the World can be. They know how dark the world really is. The poor in spirit don’t need a disaster to drive them back to God.

The poor in spirit are hungry for God. And when you want to know God and his comfort like a starving man wants food, you learn to live in the Kingdom of Heaven. There are many people who are poor in spirit who are living wonderful lives because they do not live in the ordinary world. They walk and breathe and find their reasons for living in the Kingdom of God itself. They really are blessed. Theirs IS the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’ first public declaration was “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near.” [Matt. 4:17] He sent his disciples out to preach “The kingdom of God.” Matthew says “Kingdom of Heaven,” a euphemism, where Luke and Mark say “Kingdom of God.” What is the Kingdom of God?

Is it Heaven? Certainly Paul and other Christian writers used the Kingdom of God to mean Heaven itself. And Jesus referred to the sudden appearance of the Kingdom in the last days. But in today’s scripture, Jesus talks in the present tense, not about the future. Jesus told the Pharisee that “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Ah, now there’s something else in there. The Kingdom of God is in there! Jesus told the Pharisee that the Kingdom of God is within the Pharisee. What is this Kingdom of God?

Jesus said to seek it above all else. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, he said, and all these things will be added to you – these things being food, clothing, shelter. So where do we look? Look within, Jesus said. The kingdom of God is within you.

In Matthew chapter 13, Jesus gave us a number of parables to help us understand the kingdom of God. [21-22] He said the Kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is the smallest of all the seeds planted in the garden. But when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out great branches where the birds can nest.

What does that mean? It means the kingdom of God is like something that starts very small and grows very large. He said it was like a lump leaven; where a little changes the whole loaf.

Here’s a funny one. [24-30] Jesus said the kingdom of God is like a farmer who plants wheat, and the enemy comes at night and plants weeds in with the wheat. The landlord tells his workers – that would be us – to let the weeds and the wheat grow together, and we’ll sort things out at the harvest. Don’t worry about the weeds, he said, just water the field. Justs bless them all and let God sort them out.

He said the Kingdom of God was like a man who sold everything to buy a field with hidden treasure [44], or one costly pearl [45] . That’s how important it is to be.

In Chapter 25, [14-46] He said the Kingdom of God was like a landowner who left his servants 10 talents, and five, and one, then took a long journey. “But look, Lord. Wanda and Fred have all of the musical genes. Jana and Gina got all the smart genes. What do I have?” The parable says it isn’t what you start with, but what you accomplish with it. The servants who multiplied the talents, such as they were given, all received their reward.

Once a scribe asked Jesus for the greatest commandment. Jesus said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself. When the scribe agreed, Mark [12:34] says that Jesus saw that he answered discretely and said, “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” After that, it said, no one dared ask him more questions.

Why not? Here they were, not far from the Kingdom of God. Did they want to find that Kingdom? Well, maybe, and maybe not. Maybe they could see it from where they were, and maybe they didn’t want to go there. Throughout the scriptures, we are told that Jesus was preaching the Kingdom of God. He sent his disciples out to preach the Kingdom of God. Repent, they said, for the Kingdom of God is near.

Some writers of scripture referred to the Kingdom of God as that final reward for the saints, after death and upon the Lord’s return. But I think Jesus was talking about something even bigger, something closer. His parables actually make it easier for us to understand the Kingdom of God.

What is a Kingdom? It’s a dominion; a region of rule. We might think of the British Empire, or Saudi Arabia. But consider the Gypsies, a wandering race that was targeted by the Nazis along with the Jews. Gypsies have no land, no place or borders, but they have kings and a royal family. Gypsies are organized as a kingdom. That kingdom is defined not by territory, but by loyalty.

So, too, is the Kingdom of God. It is a kingdom defined not by land, but by loyalty. I live in the Kingdom of God if I give God himself dominion over my life.

Now all the parables fit. God’s dominion over my life may start small, like the mustard seed or a lump of leaven, but it can grow into something mighty, something that leavens the entire loaf of my life. God’s dominion over my life is something to be pursued, a precious commodity like a treasure in a field, or a pearl of great price. And like servants who were expected to invest their talents, God’s dominion over my life can be expected to bear fruit.

And Jesus tells us a lot more about this Kingdom. Whomever would be greatest here is the servant of all. The worker who began at the last hour is rewarded just like the worker who labored all day. The ruler of this Kingdom is a shepherd who leaves his flock to find the lost sheep. Those who do not humble themselves and receive this Kingdom as little children will no way enter in. Jesus said all that about the Kingdom of God.

Luke 12 is where Jesus said, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you.” He goes on to say, “Fear not, little flock; for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

Are we seeking the Kingdom of God? Are we looking for those areas in our lives where God does not yet reign as King? Is the lordship of God ruling our time? Our finances? Our friendships? When we pray, “Thy Kingdom Come”, do we mean it?

With the scribe, we might say, “Well said, Master. To love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And with that knowledge, Jesus says, we are not far from the Kingdom of God.

So here you have it, the stuff of life. One grain of rice is all it took to make you black or white, tall or short. Half a grain made you male or female. It’s the same dust that God used to make fruitflies and fruit.

You have blessings and curses all stirred up in that stuff, and while science marches on you’ll still find it hard to add an inch to your height or a day to your life just by worrying about that stuff. You have all these beans and rice, all the stuff that happened to you and all the stuff you’re made of.

But there’s something else in you, and although it is a very small thing, it can make a bigger difference than all of your beans and rice put together.

You have that mustard seed, the Kingdom of God, within you. In fact, let’s add that now. Here we have your basic black beans and rice. Toss in that mustard seed and Bam! Up a notch! Now we have something special. Now, we have gumbo!

If I shake that jar long enough, that little mustard seed will touch everything. If I cook it, it will flavor everything. You were born with that mustard seed of faith, and now that you know it’s there, you have a decision to make. Do I let God rule over this area of my life? Do I trust God to make good use of this talent, or to help me live with this handicap? Can I grow a mustard tree in there with all those bean sprouts? I think you can. It can grow huge, if you let it. It will grow in ways you never imagined, if you just let it happen. The birds of the air will nest in its branches, and you’ll probably have a bumper crop of good beans.

There was a food fight in the early church – a dispute about dietary law. Paul settled it by saying that the Kingdom of God is not about meat. Paul would say you are NOT what you eat. I say it isn’t about your beans and rice, either. God loves you, and that is true whether this stuff is carefully crafted to be you or just a miraculous crap shoot. There is not one spec of that stuff, there is not one thing about you, that God wouldn’t love to redeem.

Like leaven, the Kingdom of God affects the entire loaf. Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is near. You are not far.

Jesus is not teasing us with something we can’t have. The spirit is not Repent, or here comes trouble; the Kingdom of Heaven is near. I think it’s more like Repent, and grab it while you can! Repent means turn around! Go a different way! Stop mourning and start celebrating! Jesus was giving a word of hope to the poor in spirit, to those hungry and thirsty for righteousness, and to everyone who truly loves the Lord God. It matters, and the Father does love you. Yours is the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom is ours for the taking. It is God’s good pleasure to give it to us, with all of the privileges of citizenship – all of the hope, comfort and courage that the life of faith provides. The Kingdom of God is wherever willing subjects of God give God full reign as Lord and King. The Kingdom of God is within you.

Delivered at Tropical Sands Christian Church
(Disciples of Christ) – 
February 18, 2001

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The Father’s Heart

Well, today is Fathers Day. This can be a tricky day to preach, because some people don’t have Fathers, and some have Fathers but wish they didn’t.

At the end of the Hebrew Bible, which we call the Old Testament, the prophet Malachi could see the difference between what God wanted from Fathers and what Fathers themselves wanted in Malachi’s day. Let us hear the Word of God:

(Malachi 4)

All I really needed was the last two verses, but I just couldn’t resist using all of it. In this short chapter, Malachi shows us two aspects of God, a God who hates pride and evil, but also a God who rewards faithfulness with freedom and happiness. But look at that last prophesy. The prophet Elijah will come, he says, to bring fathers and children together again. Other translations say he will turn the hearts of the fathers back to their children, and the hearts of the children back to the fathers.

That tells us where God wants our hearts to be. It tells us where a Father’s heart should be. It also tells us that human hearts have not always been where they should be. Way back in Deuteronomy, Moses sang of God as the Father of his people. “The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just, yet his degenerate children have dealt falsely with him. Is he not your Father, who created you, who made and established you?”

Centuries later, Malachi has the same complaint. “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Then why do we break our promises to each other?”

Throughout the scripture, God is a loving, patient parent trying to direct rebelous children to the Promised Land.

But the worst part is that those rebelous children become parents themselves, and we are less-than-perfect copies of the original.

We have this theory that way back when, families were perfect. I don’t know when in history that was. Moses had to warn the children of Israel not to sacrifice their own children by fire. Apparently, that was a practice among some surrounding tribes.

The books of Kings and Chronicles show the failure of one king after another as each follows the poor example set by his father. A King of Moab sacrificed his own son in the heat of battle just for the shock value. The enemy retreated in disgust.

So there are better and worse parents, and it has always been this way. Fathers and Mothers leave, they die, they go off to war. They work too much, or not enough. We call on Moms and Dads to fill that God-shaped hole in our souls, and even the best of them will fall short.

Jesus proposes a new approach for the soul in search of God. We have a tendency to see this Human-to-God relationship as struggle to reach an awesome power, like an explorer in a blizzard. Jesus proposes that we instead approach God with loving anticipation, like a child running to the embrace of a parent.

As far as we can tell, Jesus himself was not a father in the human sense. His earthly father Joseph was apparently deceased before Jesus started his ministry. We know so little for certain, but we have no indication that Jesus was ever married, or a father. What can this bachelor tell us about a Father’s heart?

You know how the kid in trouble always seems to get the most attention? And isn’t that exactly how a Shepherd should react to a lost sheep?

Isn’t the forgiving Father to be praised for looking for the prodigal son? “If your child asks for bread, do you hand over a stone? Or a serpent, when the child wants a fish? If you,” Jesus said, “being evil, know how to give good things to your children, doesn’t your heavenly father know how to provide for you as well?”

I’ll never forget my orientation sessions with the Seventh Day Adventists. They were doing OK I guess until they got to the part about remaining a family throughout eternity. Now I was a sophomore in college, just out on my own, and when they said, “Wouldn’t you love to live with your father and mother and brother and sister forever, as a family, throughout eternity?” I had to tell them that I did not find that prospect particularly appealing. That, in a nutshell, is why I am not a Mormon.

But Jesus clearly meant for us to see God as not just a parent, but as an all knowing, infinitely loving and perfectly merciful parent. He launched his ministry with the concept that God is our loving Father. In the sermon on the Mount he said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they will see your good works and praise your Father in Heaven.” Jesus did not just declare himself the son of God, but he declared us his followers to be children of God as well.

Now that’s a proud lineage. Jesus was humble, but he took great pride in his father. He was zealous for his Father’s house, and conscientious about saving his Father’s lost sheep.

“I and the Father are One”, Jesus said. What’s this parent God like that Jesus was showing us? Did Jesus threaten us with his big bad pappa? His warnings to the scribes and Pharisees reveal that Jesus knew about the stern face of an angry God. But that is not the face of God as revealed to his children.

Let me address that one. All of the prophets, from Moses to Malachi to Jesus himself, had stern warnings for evil people. You are NOT evil people. Are you hear to lead someone astray? Are you trying to do damage to someone, and laughing about it? Or, are you regretful of those few sins you still can’t shake, and doing your best not to hurt anyone. That’s most of us, I think.

We aren’t perfect, but we are not evil people. We really are the children of God, and God is a loving parent. All God wants to do this morning is to give you a hug.

You’ve all met my Father, Ray, and my Grandfather, the Reverend Roy. God knows how I love those men! Dad is one of those guys who’ll wash your car when you come home to visit, and fill the tank with gas before you leave. Mom’s always been great in the same way, always eager to help. I know I’ve been truly blessed with my parents.

But if my parents were not alive and kicking, I might admit that I frankly do not feel infinitely blessed in that relationship. Like I said, we use a parent size peg to fill a God sized hole, and something’s still missing. We want our parents to make us feel important, make us smart and successful, feed us well, clean our rooms, put us through college, get us a car and leave us alone! I certainly did.

I see my kids in the congregation this morning. That is such a blast. I have been far less than a perfect parent, and for the most part, I thank God that my children are NOT like I was!

ButI do know a little bit about being a Dad. I know what it’s like to want to provide for your children, when you know what they need. But I do NOT always know what they need.

My daughter Traci is singing a special this morning. I had a copy of the background tape, but I lost it. I spent hours looking for that tape. We drove all over town yesterday looking for another copy. God would do that; he’d gladly drive all over town to find your background tape, just like a parent. But unlike this IMperfect parent, God would never lose the tape to start with.

Does God ever fall down on the job? We might think so. Maybe our Fathers fell down on the job at one time, and now we wonder if having a father is such a good idea. Maybe we CAN see God as a Father – and maybe that doesn’t help us get any closer.

We are imperfect. But God is perfect. We have a narrow view. But God sees everything. We are imperfect Fathers and Mothers, rebelous children, lost sheep. God the Father is not surprised. God does have the patience it takes to raise rebelous children to responsible adulthood, to lead them to the Promised Land.

God is not the imperfect earthly Father we knew. Earthly Moms and Dads may give us a glimpse of God’s glory. They may show great wisdom, or astounishing mercy and sacrifice. But they are Parents. They are not God. And this may come as a shock to some of you. Being a parent myself, I’ve discovered that parents actually do not want you to see them as Gods. It’s too much work, and it’s an impossible standard to live up to.

My relationship with my mother and father took a quantum leap forward when I stopped expecting them to do what only God can do. Dads can wash your car, and Moms can drive you around town, but only God can save your soul. An ordinary parent may teach you to fly, but only God can give you wings.

Throughout the Bible, the name of God is considered sacred. The sacred name of God is so shrouded in mystery that we still don’t know how to say it. But Jesus invites us to use His favorite name for God: Abba. In the Garden Christ cried, Abba, Father. A child’s cry to a parent. Paul said the spirit of adoption in us moves us to cry Abba, Father.

Don’t you want to say it? Don’t you want to say that the very God of the universe is your beloved parent? Pappa? Abba? That’s the spirit in you that wants to cry Abba! You are a child of the Most High God, through Christ your Brother! That IS the gospel! You want to cry Abba, Father! Jesus understands, and he urges us to follow the cry of our souls, to embrace God the Loving Parent.

Knowing you’re a child of God, that you actually have this super-loving, super-resourceful, super-Parent, is like a little leaven … A little leaven enlarges the entire lump of dough. A little sense of your divine Parent enlarges everything in your life. You start to see that we are just passing through this world, and that makes the journey all the more exciting.

So what is the father’s heart? Jesus is our window into the Father’s heart. The God revealed in Christ is not threatening us. That God does not want to see his children fretful or frightened. Jesus showed us God the Father down on one knee, smiling down at His children. “Fear not, little flock,” he says. “It is your father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” That’s a parent at his or her best. That’s a perfect parent.

Listen up, brothers and sisters. Our heavenly Father says rejoice, and fear not. It is his good pleasure to give us the very Kingdom itself. Let us live in the glorious Kingdom our Father has prepared for us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tropical Sands Christian Church – June 17, 2001

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State of the Church Union

Let’s see. What time does that football game start?

This has been a stormy 12 months for the Tropical Sands Church family. We’ve had devastating illness, serious injury, deficit spending and economic uncertainty — and that was all before September 11.

And yet, we’re still together. The state of our union is strong. What is the bond that holds us together, like a cord of many strands that is not easily broken? Let us hear the word of the Lord:

“Those who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons. For the Spirit that God has given you does not make you slaves and cause you to be afraid; instead, the Spirit makes you God’s children, and by the Spirit’s power we cry out to God, “Father! My Father!” God’s Spirit joins himself to our spirits to declare that we are God’s children. Since we are is children, we will possess the blessings he keeps for his people, and we will also possess with Christ what God has kept for him; for if we share Christ’s suffering, we will also share his glory.”

(Romans 8:14-17)

It was just about one year ago, on February 11, 2001, that I gave my first sermon to this congregation. I wonder how many of you were here on that occasion.

Let’s see. Jim, you were not here for that sermon. I wish you had been here, but I’m certainly glad you’re here today. Let me say today that as I said on that occasion, that I am proud to call Jim Burton my pastor.

Most of the faces I see today are the same faces I saw out there last year, and that is very nice. I also see a lot of old friends, and a lot of new faces as well.

I note with sadness some of those who are no longer with us. Jan Hunter was here for that first sermon. I think that was her last day in this church. We also lost Marcella Hutchinson during this past year. Seems like they’ve been gone for such a long time, doesn’t it? Our legacy is that those dear ladies brought their friends and family into the church, people who strengthen our service to God to this day.

We have a lot of new faces, too. You’ll forgive me for not catching all of them, but I know Sula wasn’t here. Or Cheri. Or Fred and Evelina. Or Chris and Gayla. Or Sheryl. What I want to know is, how did so many people get to be pillars of the church after less than a year? How did we last so long without Fred’s cooking?

Well, it’s been a good year, but we have seen trouble. Sometimes, we’ve had bad news, even the worst possible news. How many people lose hope over less? But you know what? We have not lost hope! On the contrary, I have seen miraculous demonstrations of courage and dignity, miraculous demonstrations of determination and strength, miraculous healing and recovery. For these, let us give glory to God, and to God alone.

Most of us have seen the movie “The Invisible Man” in one version or another. Now we can’t see the invisible man, unless he walks through smoke, or fog, or rain, or dust. Then, we can see his outline. I think trouble is the smoke that lets us see the invisible man of faith. Trouble is the dust that lets us see the sunbeam. Trouble is the rain that reveals the rainbow.

The Bible is a book about the strength of family. Israel was originally a man named Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. Israel became the father of a nation, just as Abraham was the father of many nations.

Abraham taught us that YahWeh is God. But another 42 generations would pass before anyone dared to suggest that people should relate to that God as “father”. The only crime Christ ever committed was to call God his Father. You and I know that Jesus took it a step further. He said that we should call God our Father as well, and treat one another as brothers and sisters.

In today’s scripture, Paul tells us that our hope is a spirit given to us by God himself, a hope that cries out to God not in fear, but in love. Jesus often referred to my heavenly father, but he was just as quick to call him your heavenly father. Your heavenly father knows that you have need of these things… Jesus shows us the father, and in doing so, he reveals our common ground, our family ties.

The practical side of this gospel is in what this means to our relationship to one another. We are brothers and sisters. We are children of a common father. By this, Jesus said, they will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. And when asked, who is my brother, Jesus told the story of a chance encounter between a Samaritan traveler and an injured Jew.

This is the bond that holds us together: We not only dare to believe that there is a God, but we dare to believe that he actually loves us, like a father loves his children. And the Gospel of Jesus is a Gospel that says as God loves us, so should we love one another.

That is the foundation of our union, and the state of our union is strong. I once thought the role of a pastor was to make the church union stronger, as if a person could do such a thing. So I’ve tried to help promote some of the good ideas floating through the church, with mixed success.

I tried to help Jane Gillette and Doris Sifford develop more small group meetings. We have a few more home Bible studies now than before; we have three, and we can still make more. If you want to be in a casual study group, please do let us know. And if you want to be on a committee, we can work that out, too.

We spent some time trying to revisit our church charter, to bring it up to date and reduce some of the paperwork. I thought by now we’d have fewer committees and fewer meetings. We actually have more meetings, and the various committees and task groups are doing great work. You know, if we’d just call them small groups instead of committees and task groups, we could call it a success and move on.

If the church does business at all, it must be the business of serving God by serving other people. It is always good to review your processes against that standard. The Joel 2:28 group has done the heavy lifting on that job. My assignment was to review their plan, write a pastoral response and recommend next steps. Forgive me, I am late on that assignment. We need prayer, patience and persistence to finish this task in a way that will best serve the congregation and glorify God.

So if a year of part-time preaching has taught me anything, it has taught me that this pastoring business is a lot harder than it looks. Thank God we have professional help. Jim and Ann Burton need and deserve all the love and support we can give them. If Jim’s going to be your little energizer bunny, you’re going to have to keep his batteries charged.

As for me, let me simplify my ministry goals this year. We are called to make disciples of all nations, and yet Jesus said the best example of discipleship is our love for one another. So, what can I do to increase the love here at Tropical Sands Christian Church?

You’ve heard of low-hanging fruit, or the 80-20 rule. That says roughly that you can reap 80 percent of the benefit from the first 20 percent of effort on a project. So if I focus on that 80-20 rule today, I might get you out of here in time for the big game.

So let’s get to it. Here’s my three-point plan to make our church union even stronger.

One: Wear your name tag. Yes, I know, we’ve all known you for years, and we all have perfect memories, and we really should know your name by now. To all this I say, please have mercy on your brothers and sisters. Help us attach your name to your face. Have pity on us when our memory fails. We all have name tags, but most of us do not wear them. Please, wear your name tags. It is a loving thing to do.

Two: Look for the lonely. As much as we might love each other here, somebody feels left out. Somebody just quit showing up to see if we would notice. We forgot someone’s birthday, and they thought it was intentional. We had a guest, but we didn’t really notice, and they never came back. The lost sheep isn’t bad, just out of the fold. Find the lost sheep. Look for the lonely.

Three, practice forgiveness. Forgive us if we forget your birthday, or your name, or your announcement. Forgive yourself if you lose your cool. Forgive your friends if they miss coffee house tonight for some silly football game. Forgive that person who just rubs you the wrong way. Jesus tells the story of a father who forgives his wayward son for every wrong, and welcomes him back with open arms. Jesus teaches us to forgive others their sins, but also to forgive their appearance, or their circumstances, or how they measure up to our standards. In so many ways, Jesus says that love IS forgiveness.

Peter was certainly a beloved follower of Christ. Imperfect, but beloved. In a letter to the church, Peter said above all else, practice fervent love, because love covers a multitude of sins, and he’s right. We’ll never be perfect. Our own strength, our talents, our efforts — these are wonderful things, but they are a shaky foundation to build anything on, much less a church and certainly not the kingdom of God.

But there is a firm foundation, and because Jesus Christ is the foundation of the church, the state of the Tropical Sands Christian Church union is strong. Our strength is your strength, and you don’t have to be perfect, or get it right, or work harder to fit in here. All I ask you to do is to wear your name tag, look for the lonely, and practice forgiveness.

If you hear my voice, then you are not the exception. Of course you’re supposed to be here; this is your father’s house. And that person, fill in the blank, is okay by me, so play nice. That’s your sister. That’s your brother. And if my father loves them, then I can, too.

God help us love one another like Christ loved us. God Bless Tropical Sands Christian Church.

In the holy name of Jesus, let his Gospel be proclaimed.

Amen.

Tropical Sands Christian Church
 – February 3, 2002

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On Doormats and Kitty Litter

My grandfather, age 92, sometimes draws sermon topics from dreams and visions. At twice my age, I guess it’s only natural that he has had more dreams and visions than I have. My inspiration comes from more common sources. This week, I am inspired by doormats and kitty litter.

If a doormat does its job, it gets messy. I’ve seen people toss doormats out, saying they are nothing but dirt collectors.

I had a friend in the mat industry. They’d collect dirty door mats from busy business locations, replace them with clean mats, launder the old mats and repeat the cycle. In door mats, quality is measured by how many pounds of dirt it can hold, and how well it holds up in the laundry. It’s a huge service industry. Businesses pay big bucks to keep those dirt-collectors in place.

A doormat is designed to get dirty. The dirt that a doormat collects is dirt that doesn’t make it farther into your house.

As Martha Stewart would say, it’s a good thing. And, as Dr. Joyce Brown says, dirt is matter out of place; it’s hair in the butter or butter in the hair. And that brings us to kitty litter.

If you ever spilled kitty litter on the floor, you know how messy kitty litter is. When you mop your floor, the dirt in the water is dirt off the floor. The last thing you want to do is to spill the mop bucket on a clean floor. Well, that’s exactly what I did.

If that ever happens to you, here’s a helpful hint. Pour (clean) kitty litter on the floor. You sweep it one way, and a flooded floor is now just damp. Sweep it across the floor again, and a damp floor becomes dry! All of a sudden, that messy kitty letter turns out to be a great cleaning aid. It’s the same stuff that factories pour on indoor oil spills to dry them up quickly.

So, how does that relate to the trouble in our lives?

I’m not one to suggest that God is responsible for the trouble in our lives. Some of it we bring on ourselves, and some of it gets spilled on us by everyone else. It’s a fallen world, and that means trouble. But sometimes, what we call trouble is really God’s end-run around bigger problems that we could have had down the road.

An innoculation might not be pleasant, but it helps avoid sickness. An operation might seem like trouble, but a successful operation is a blessing. And people are always praying for a “good report” from medical testing; what they actually want is an accurate report, cause if there’s trouble, you want to find it now.

Peter’s first epistle told early followers that they were “begotten … unto a lively hope … to an innheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven … Whereby ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations (NRSV: many trials) That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ … ”

They were, in other words, undergoing “trouble” that was actually a testing (development, training) of their faith, to the glory of Christ.

God’s ways are above our ways. We are told that we will have trouble in this world. But, if we trust that there is a loving God who has our well-being at heart, we can trust that God will work good from the trouble we face. We should always bear in mind that what looks like trouble might actually be a blessing from a God far wiser than we are.

 

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Not So Fast!

The New Century Version of the Bible is written with childlike simplicity. In that version, “Fasting” is translated simply, “go without eating”. Some people place great significance on “Fasting” and consider those who practice it to be going above and beyond the call of duty. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, fasted two days a week, and advised all of his ministers to do the same. Jesus started his ministry with by fasting for 40 days in the wilderness.

There is not one word about Fasting in the law of Moses. If the children of Israel went without eating, it was because they had no food, and not with any spiritual intent.

The first reference to intentional fasting in the Bible is in Second Samuel is where David fasted in hopes of saving the child of his adulterous affair with Bathsheba. It did not work. The child died anyway.

But fasting is in the Bible, so it must be a good thing, right? The Bible’s second reference to fasting, and the first officially declared fast in the Bible, was in the book of First Kings. It was declared by the evil queen Jezebel. In that declaration, she made false accusations against Naboth the Jezreelite. This time, the fast had its intended effect; Naboth was killed, and Jezebel’s husband Ahab was able to take his land to make a garden.

If you remember the story, Jezebel was punished for declaring that fast. She was thrown from the city wall and eaten by dogs. When Ahab saw it, he humbled himself and fasted; for that, the Lord spared his life. And that was the first reference to a fast that was actually honored by God.

Already, there is a pattern here. David fasted to avoid punishment from God; and Jezebel declared a fast to deceive the people. No good came from the fasting of David and Jezebel. Ahab’s fast saved his life, because God paid attention to it. But it was Ahab’s newfound humility, his repentence, and not his fasting that saved his life.

So fasting is not a practice given by God to the Hebrew people, nor to Christians. This search of the scriptures seems to say that it was a pre-historical practice. By itself, it is no better than a superstition, like throwing salt over your shoulder. We know that as early in history as King David, people thought Fasting would cause God to hear and honor prayer. In that early reference itself, we see that fasting does not work that way. And in the example of Queen Jezebel, we see that fasting can be evil if it is done for the wrong reasons.

Jesus fed the 5,000 because he didn’t want to send them away fasting. Their fasting was not an act of worship; it was simply that they had no food. Later, there was a mob of Pharisees intent on killing the apostle Paul, so they swore they would fast until he was dead. Again, a fast with evil intent.

Maybe the simple New Century Version of the Bible is right. Maybe fasting means nothing more than, “to go without eating.”

The prophet Isaiah talked about a fast with wrong intent. “Why have we fasted,” the people were saying, “and God doesn’t see it? Why have we afflicted our souls, and God doesn’t honor it?”

Isaiah answered that they were fasting for pride, and fighting about it. God will not honor such a fast. “I did not choose this fast,” God said through Isaiah. “I did not ask you to afflict your souls. All of your scraping and sackcloth and ashes mean nothing to me, God said. It is not an acceptable fast.

Fortunately, God also told Isaiah what IS an acceptable fast. “Isn’t this the fast I have chosen,” said God, “To loose the bands of wickedness, to undo heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to feed the hungry, and house the poor, and be kind to your relatives? Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your health will be restored. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer. If you break the yoke, and stop gossiping about each other, and stop bragging, and feed the hungry, and comfort the suffering, then the LORD will hear you.”

I’m not making this up! That is what God says about fasting through the prophets. By itself, there is nothing good about fasting. Now, some of our young people have fasted for the last 24 hours, to raise money for Week of Compassion. The fasting does not make them holy. No, it is their caring for the poor that makes them holy.

Now, some of our youth are NOT fasting. Their little bodies just do not hold enough energy to keep them going for 24 hours. But they did help raise pledge money. Some of them helped us feed the poor last week in a local soup kitchen. THAT is the fasting that God wants; not to hurt yourself, but to help other people.

The young people in our church, without exception, are caring, and humble, and eager to please God. That is true for those who fast; it is also true for those who do not fast. They are precious, and holy, and righteous in the sight of God. I have heard them talk about God and Christ with great sincerity, and with love, and with respect. I am extremely proud of them, yes, each and every one of them.

Our youth group will be joining us for Communion today. For some of them, that little flake of bread will be their first solid food in more than 24 hours. I ask that you do not ask them which ones fasted and which ones didn’t. That is not important to God, and it should not be important to us, either. What is important is that they care about the poor, and about our church, and about each other.

If fasting is a part of your worship, so be it. That is between you and God. He who sees your fast in secret will reward you openly. But there is no shortcut to God’s heart. God does not honor our ceremonies. Instead, He sees the desires of our heart. The question is not do you fast, do you pray, do you honor the Sabbath. The question is, do you care? Do you help others? Do you honor God with your very life?

I think that John Wesley thought of God every time his stomach growled during those two days of fasting. His fasting left more food for his family and his community, and that is good. You do not have to fast to get close to God. All you have to do is to love his children.

Your children, our children, are the children of God. Let us pledge to love them, to guide and protect them, and to encourage their concern for others. God does not honor them because they fast. God honors them because they care. And as we care about our children, as we love one another, as we love our enemies, as we love those who are homeless, hungry, discouraged and oppressed, God will honor us as well. That is the fast that God wants.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

Tropical Sands Christian Church – March 2, 2003

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Must Be Present To Win

As you probably know, there are two ways to read the Bible. One way is to read it for information and inspiration, to take what it says and use the information to live a better life. The other way is to make up our minds what we want it to say, then go looking for scriptures that will back up our point.

The first way, reading for information and inspiration, is the proper use of scripture. It is one of the ways God speaks to us. The second way, reading to make a point, is the wrong way to read the Bible.

Unfortunately, most preachers are guilty of the second method, that is, deciding what they want to say and searching the scriptures to back it up. It is the wrong way to read scripture because while we are looking for scripture that makes our case, we are ignoring those verses that make the opposite point.

For example, I have read essays by our church founders that prove without a doubt that baptism must be accomplished by total immersion. They use real scripture verses to make their point. We are buried with Christ in baptism, thus sharing in His death. In this corner, we will ignore that the body of Christ was never buried, but rather was placed in a cave.

I have also read essays by preachers and theologians that make the opposite point. Those essays are equally convincing that baptism involves pouring – as when the spirit is poured out upon us – or sprinkling – as when we are cleansed by the sprinkling of the blood of Christ.

You’ll find similar arguments throughout church history about communion — some churches are convinced that it must be celebrated at every service, and just as many are convinced that it deserves special occasion treatment. Some churches say it is for all believers, while others reserve it for those with just the right membership, age, or spiritual status.

It goes on and on. Is Christ so strong that once saved, we can never escape salvation, or are we so free that we can walk away at any time? Is the blood of Christ so pure that it can forgive every sin – past, present and future – or is God so holy that we must live pure lives, free of sin and filled with good works? Is every word of scripture an historical fact, or is it a divine alegory that can only be understood by the Holy Spirit? Do all people have equal access to the Holy Spirit, or has God uniquely gifted certain individuals to lead His church? Does the church need restoration to its original New Testament state, or does it need to change with the times to draw more people into faith? Did God’s inspired protection end with the King James editors, or did it also fall on the committee that brought us the New International Version?

These are the very reasons that we have so many denominations. Within the church of God, these debates cause some groups to consider themselves the one true church and all others heretics. We can get very serious about our theology. After all, we don’t want to offend our Lord, do we? I mean, we all want to be the very best Christians we can be. But while we debate the details of our faith, all the outside world sees is a fight.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “If you love one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.” It looks like the church has spent the last 2000 years looking for excuses to separate. That is why Tropical Sands Church looks for ways to break down the walls between churches. At our Saturday Night Log Cabin worship and our monthly Sunday Night Coffee House, we set aside our differences and encourage worshippers from all denominations.

In our own history, our founders split from the Presbyterians, then joined and split from the Baptists, then split itself into three churches : The Churches of Christ, the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ and the Christian Churches. The Churches of Christ then split into a capella and instrumental branches. So a church founded 200 years on the concept that there are no denominations is now no less than five denominations.

Christ told the early church to go into all the world and preach the gospel. That church was concentrated in Jerusalem, until persecution sent them running in all directions. The persecution that was meant to destroy the church instead served God’s purpose of spreading the Gospel.

In one missionary journey, the apostle Paul split with Barnabas over whether Mark should be with them. In doing so, the gospel spread in two directions instead of one. Again, something bad, in this case, an argument between friends, served God’s purpose, to spread the Gospel to all the world.

I think our church splits have served much the same purpose throughout history, and will continue to do so. If you are looking for a church that follows Jesus Christ, you can have as much or as little ceremony as you like, just by choosing one church or another. You can find a church with screaming electric guitars, or one that has no musical instruments whatsoever. You can worship in silence, or you can shout amen with every breath, just by choosing one church or another.

The church may have divided for all the wrong reasons, but those divisions might still serve God’s purpose, today as in the book of Acts. We have not only preached the gospel to all nations, but to every mindset, age group and cultural divide. The fractured church does something that one denomination alone could never accomplish. The fractured church takes the message of one God and one Lord to all corners of our fractured society.

Our scripture from Hebrews tells us to continue meeting together, in order to encourage one another in love and good works. We do not attend church only to be fed, but also to feed one another. We sometimes feel like we are here to be encouraged by the preacher and inspired by the choir. But our scripture says we are here to encourage one another.

Peter said that scripture is not a matter of personal interpretation. My ideas about what the Bible says are one perspective, but your ideas are also valid. When we share these ideas, even if we disagree on the details, we both have a broader perspective on God’s word. How many times has someone made a point about prayer, or worship, or witnessing, and we say, “Well, I never thought about it that way.” That is how we grow in understanding. That growth cannot occur in a vacuum. We need one another.

This church thing is not supposed to be a purchase, but an investment. As a purchase, we deliver long speeches, entertainment and newsletters, and you buy those things by dropping money in the collection plate. In an investment, you give your time and talent, and yes, some of your money, to make the church stronger. And, since you are a part of the church, making it stronger makes you stronger, too.

I know people who say they are Christians, but they do not go to church. It is true that going to church does not make us Christians. But it is also true that Christ wants us to join with other Christians to work for His kingdom.

People say, “I don’t go to church because it is full of hypocrites.” To that I say, “But if you go to church and take your friends, it will be filled with people like you.” People say, “I don’t go to church because I don’t agree with the preacher.” To that I say, “Then you better get in there and set him straight.” People say, “I don’t go to church because the people are so judgmental.” To that I say, “You should go to church and set a better example.”

In the Kairos prison ministry, people often shout, “Who is the church?” To that, all the inmates respond, “We are the church!” The church is people, not a building. A church can meet in a home, a sanctuary, a tent or an open field. But this much is certain, a church is not a church if it does not meet. A church is not a church if it is not people working and worshipping together. One person is a part of the body of Christ, but no one alone is Christ Himself.

The church needs you. We need you at worship, and in the men’s group, and in the women’s group, and in Sunday school. We need your perspective, but we don’t have it if you don’t show up.

A person does not have to come to this church, but every Christian needs a church. If you have more than one church, that’s ok if you are really part of several churches. And if you cannot go to church, if you are truly too tired or too sick to attend, the church can come to you. But to that, I have to ask: Who is the Church? [We are the church!]

So, every sermon should include a call to action. Mine has three parts. One, come to church. Be a part of the church. I used to wonder what I would do or say when visiting the sick or those in mourning. Jim Burton taught me that ours is a ministry of presence; the important thing is to show up, and God will do the rest. Part of your ministry to God’s church is a ministry of presence. The church is not whole when you don’t attend.

Two, encourage others to attend church. You have this church to offer, but if that does not work for them, encourage them to attend some other church. There is no such thing as a lone wolf Christian. Every Christian needs to be a part of a church.

Third, BE the church. Who is the church? [WE are the church!] You are our missionaries to the world. You are our outreach to those who cannot attend. If the job of “being church” falls on the pastor, the pastor gets stretched pretty thin.

We can’t run the race if we don’t make it to the starting line. We can’t run the race if we aren’t on the track. Church is a fundamental need of every Christian, and every Christian is a vital element of the church. Please don’t let our differences hide our common goal, to serve God under the lordship of His Son, Jesus Christ. The church needs us, and we need the church.

Part of your ministry is a ministry of presence. You must be present to win.

Tropical Sands Christian Church – August 17, 2003

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