Just to let you know, this sermon was more directed and personal than most sermons I give. Our church is at a crossroads and I felt God leading me to share this word to challenge the folks at our church to move beyond business as usual and to see where we could grow.
Where are we going?
I think no matter what, whether as a church, in our work, or in our personal lives, we need to ask ourselves this question from time-to-time, “Where are we going?” If for no other reason than to reevaluate where we are from where we want to be. Because when we don’t take the time to look at our situation, we run the danger of getting stuck or worse going around in circles. Believe me I know from personal experience. This literally happened to me when I first moved to Georgia. I know people often say literally when they mean figuratively, but this LITERALLY happened to me. When I got hired by SunTrust banks, they paid for my entire move. They sent a packing company to get my stuff, they gave me a plane ticket to get me to Atlanta from LA, and they paid for my car to be transported across the country so it wouldn’t have to get a bunch of wear and tear. Now, I don’t know what route that transportation company took, but I got to Atlanta about two weeks ahead of my car. It might have been longer. I just know that I was going stir crazy waiting for it. When it finally arrived, I just wanted to GO! I just headed out on the highway and figured I would eventually turn around and come back. But the weirdest thing happened. I started seeing the same buildings a second time. I thought at first it was a coincidence, but then I noticed I saw the same off ramps, too. Turns out that this particular highway I was on was a loop. A loop! It just circles around all of Atlanta. I finally realized what was going on and headed home.
Without a plan that’s what our life ends up being like – driving on a circular highway.
We just keep going around and around in circles until we run out of gas. Or we miss out on opportunities because we didn’t plan ahead. When was the last time you went on vacation and said, “Oh, I don’t have to book a hotel. I’ll just find a place when I get there?” When we booked out trip to Aulani on the big island of Oahu, I had to call at exactly 6am every morning seven months before our trip to make sure we could reserve a room through Disney Vacation Club. At that time, they would book so fast you wouldn’t be able to get in otherwise. But boy was it worth it! Without planning ahead, we would have missed out on one of the most incredible vacations we’ve ever gone on. But it took time to plan out where we were going and then take the steps necessary to get there. To do that, need a clear vision of where you’re headed and then you have to put that vision into action. There’s an old Japanese proverb that says, “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.” Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare. This reminds me of what David wrote in the book of Proverbs when he wrote, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” We have to know where we are going and then plan for how we are going to get there.
When Jesus returned to his disciples (after he, you know, died), he had a plan.
He wasn’t with them long, but long enough to convince them he was real and share with them what he needed them to do. If you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone would you please go to Acts 1:1-11. Acts 1:1-11. Luke recalls for us what happened in those days after Jesus returned. I have to admit, this is one of those sections in the Bible I wish someone had taken time to write more about. Luke covers his entire return, convincing his followers he’s real, sharing his vision and plan, and then leaving in this one tiny section. I’m sure entire books could have been written about what happened, but for Luke the important part wasn’t the miracles Jesus performed that convinced his followers he had returned. After all, they already covered that with Thomas. Instead it was about the miracle that came afterward that brought thousands upon thousands of people to faith in Christ. But this passage does have something to say to us about vision and planning.
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
He had a vision. He had a plan. And then the disciples carried it out.
In this small section we see how Jesus laid out for them what it was they were supposed to do. First in verse 3, Luke tells us Jesus spoke to them about the Kingdom of God. He was casting his vision for what he hoped to see would happen. And then he gave them instructions. Wait for the Holy Spirit. Go and be my witness in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In one small sentence, Jesus defines our mission field. Jerusalem – those in our community; Judea – those in our extended community (our state or country); Samaria – mission work to those on the outskirts of society like the homeless, those in prison, etc.; and the ends of the earth – international mission work. But what I found really interesting was what happened after he left. They just stood there. Like little kids watching a balloon fly away. And suddenly two angels appeared and basically told them to get going. “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” they asked. “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” Why do you stand here? I think for many of us we reach a certain point where we are not sure what to do next. So we end up staring and doing nothing. Or we do the same things over and over. We get stuck in a routine. Has that ever happened to you? Have you suddenly felt lost and alone? I remember after my first girlfriend and I broke up, I felt like I was walking in a fog for nearly a month. I just felt numb. Directionless. But I had friends who looked out for me and kept inviting me out. I was blessed to have people in my life who cared about me enough to jolt me out of my doldrums. Sometimes that’s exactly what we need. Sometimes we just need people around us to snap us out of our reverie to get us to do something different. For me at that time, it was my friends who kept tabs on me and kept inviting me out. But we need that from time to time. Someone to come along and just give us a little kick in the pants. A little shove out the door.
So I ask you again, “Where are we going?”
When I first got here, we were struggling. First UMC was in serious financial difficulty and Palm while not quite in the same boat was getting close. Palm had to rely on the income it got from renting the church and the parsonage to make ends meet and neither church could afford a full time pastor with benefits. After long talks, many meetings, and hard work on the part of both churches, we finally came together officially at the beginning of the year. And since that time, we’ve been worshipping together and the church feels more full. We’ve sold the First Church building, we’ve donated money to New Church Development, and we’ve been able to do some much needed remodeling work on the building. And thanks to our friends from Reedley Japanese Fellowship, we were also able to do some beautiful landscaping. And in just a few weeks, we will rededicate our church as the new Palm UMC. But now what? But now what? Now that we’ve been able to catch up on payments, now that we’ve worked on fixing up the building, now that we are about to rededicate our church and the work we are doing for God, now what?
Because unless we do things differently, nothing is going to change.
I shared this quote with you before. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I didn’t make that up, that’s an old saying that’s been around for years. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So what are we going to do different? I’d hate to think that we spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars to fix up this building only for us to have a pretty place to come on Sundays. Because if that’s the case, we’ve wasted the gift that God gave to us. I know you. I know you people and I know that you truly love God. I also know that you want for our mission work to succeed. But how willing are you really? I ask you this because it’s been about nine months since Rev. Debra and Rev. Bener came and visited with us. It was there that as a group you decided to focus on bringing older people in our community to the church. But what have you done? Rev. Bener suggested that you start volunteering at the local senior center. He suggested you start Bible studies in your homes. Some of you suggested starting a ministry to folks at some of our retirement homes in the area. But as far as I know, none of that has happened. And it’s been nine months. We are only growing older and things will only get more difficult. If this is it for us, I want us to go out in a way that honors God and honors all the work that has been done within these walls. If we are done, then let’s go out the way WE want to and not the way dictated to us by our circumstances. But if we’re not done, we need to show it now.
There has been a lot of resistance to change.
And I totally understand that. Because I’m resistant to change. We all are. But we are at a critical point in our ministry. We have a real opportunity to do things differently. We have a remodeled building. We have one church where once we had two. We have more energy in worship. But we won’t have that opportunity for long. Right now we can afford to try new things and try different ways of approaching how we do church together. But it might cost significant amounts of money and you might doubt if that will be money well spent. It might require doing things differently, doing worship differently, finding creative ways to engage in worship together and it might be something you are not used to or that you may not even like. And so far, there has been a real resistance to change. Some of you would like more people to come to church, but don’t want to change how we do it. But ask yourself, if it hasn’t been working for nearly the past twenty years, why will it suddenly start working now? Obviously, we can’t do the same thing over and over and expect different results. BUT if it meant that we might bring more people to Christ or to a deeper walk in their faith, would you be willing to try that? If not, that is completely okay, but then we need to move in a new direction. As we approach the coming of our rededication, I want to know if this is the path you want to take or if we should seek another path to doing God’s work in our community. So pray about it. Pray about the direction our church is headed and what our part will be in it. One of my favorite movies is Dead Poets Society about a teacher and his students and there’s one line in there that always stands out to me. It’s when Mr. Keating, the kids’ teacher gathers them around him in class and says to them, “To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.