Scriptures: Mark 4:26-34; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17
I’m not the same person I was twenty years ago. I’m not the same person I was ten years ago. Or five years ago. By God’s grace, I’d like to be able to say that I’m not the same person I was a year ago. And hopefully, I’m not the same person today that I’ll be a year from now. The same is probably true for each of you.
It was around 1994/1995, and it was the second year of my first appointment. The membership of that congregation hovered around 1,000 and by all standards was considered a large church. The sr. pastor and I were appointed there at the same time. I from seminary, and he from serving on conference staff in one position or another for the previous seventeen years. By our second year, it was clear that he was struggling in his position as sr. pastor. As my friend and colleague’s struggles became more apparent, people began to delicately come to me—kind of like the way Nicodemus came to Jesus—and share their thoughts and concerns. And while I always did my best to direct them back to the sr. pastor so as not to get triangled, I’ll confess that a part of me enjoyed it. Because the truth was I, only two years out of seminary serving a 1000-member church, had allowed myself to think that I could do his job better than him. It was a classic case of pride.
Well, later that year I personally discovered the truth of Proverbs 16:18, which rightly states, “Pride goes before disaster, and arrogance before a fall.” You see, the Lord knew my prideful heart and so he orchestrated an opportunity for me to try on and wear the sr. pastor’s shoes for three months while he was away on a medical leave. My stint as the temporary sole pastor of a 1000-member church with a large staff began in the fall. What takes place in the fall? The following year’s budget has to be put together. The annual church conference has to be organized. The fall programming for hundreds of children gets underway. And Advent has to be planned well ahead of time. Of course, overnight I went from having to prepare a sermon only once a month to doing it weekly. Up until then, I’d only attended a couple of the administrative committees, and as the associate my participation only peripheral. But now as the lead pastor, albeit temporarily, I stepped into a leading role on all the administrative committees. And it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone here that at that point in my illustrious career I had very little to no experience with church budgets and staffing personnel issues and worship planning.
And so, I discovered that fall that I didn’t have the wherewithal to lead a church of that size. When the sr. pastor came off of his medical leave, I gladly and humbly returned those reigns of leadership to his hands. By now, my whole attitude had been transformed. I’d been humbled on account of my own struggle to lead in his place. And so, even though he struggled with same issues he had before his leave, I no longer held that against him. In those three short months I learned a lot about myself as a person, as a pastor, as a leader of people, and I’ve never forgotten the lesson God taught me that year. Through that humbling experience, I grew quite a bit.
Likewise, my second appointment also provided me lots of opportunities to grow. One such opportunity happened not too long after my arrival. I’d been appointed to The Church of the Straits in Mackinaw City. One church member would sometimes comment, “all road in Michigan lead to Mackinaw City.” The result of this was that we received an unusually high number of calls from people who were passing through town and needed help. Most often, they were looking for fuel for their car or a night’s lodging.
Early on I was told that I’d be getting a lot of these kinds of requests, and that most of them would be, shall we say, well-practiced in the art of telling their story. I was also warned ahead of time that most of them have learned which carrots to dangle in front of pastors. They would often begin their story by stating they were a born-again follower of Jesus Christ. They could often tell me when and where they were baptized. They wanted me know that I was working with a fellow brother or sister in Christ. Ultimately, my church members encouraged to be compassionate, but to also be wise and a bit wary for the fact that not everyone will tell me the full truth when they tell their story.
One man in particular pulled the wool over my eyes, and after I realized what I’d actually done in my attempt to be a Good Samaritan, I had to laugh at my naiveté. But I also grew a lot from it.
Here’s what happened. I received a call at the church one afternoon from a man who needed help and wondered if he could stop by and explain himself. To my surprise, he was remarkably candid with me about his role in getting himself into the situation in which he found himself. Ninety percent of the people who wanted our help either had an excuse for the pickle they were in or were quick to lay blame on someone else. Rarely was it their own fault. But this guy was different. He freely admitted that he’d lost all his money at the casino in St. Ignace, which is located on the other side of the Mackinac Bridge. He took responsibility for his losses and even let me know that he wasn’t looking for a bus ticket back home or even a night’s lodging. The only thing he needed was a ride. He explained to me that the promotion he’d purchased included meal vouchers, and that he had a voucher for one more meal and wondered if I’d be willing to drive him over to the casino in order to get his meal before moving on. And since he didn’t have a car, that seemed fair enough. So, I drove him back to the casino and bid him farewell when he got out of my car.
Later that week I related all of this to my next-door neighbor, who was a member of the church and one of those who’d impressed upon me the importance of being wise in my ministry to those persons passing through town in need of help. He listened all the way through my story, but as soon as I told him what I’d done, he began laughing. Confused by his reaction, I asked why he was laughing so hard. That’s when he said, “OK, Drew, let’s just think about this for a second. According to him, for the previous day or two he’d been at the casino in St. Ignace, which is across the Bridge, where supposedly he lost all his money. Then somehow without a car he makes his way across the Bridge and comes to Mackinaw City. And he leaves the casino without having used his last meal voucher. At this point, he says that he wants to return to the casino, where he’d been all along until he came to Mackinaw City for some reason, just so that he can eat a meal.” And as my neighbor reflected back to me what I’d just told him, I realized what I’d actually done. He’d not been at the casino in St. Ignace prior to calling me. He was trying to get to the casino. He didn’t a car and he knew walkers aren’t allowed on the Bridge. What he needed was a way across the Bridge and he figured a soft-hearted pastor was his best bet. So, in the end, I personally chauffeured that guy to the front door of the casino so that he could gamble.
Well, after that experience I became a bit more discerning. Not to say I was never hoodwinked again; I think that just comes with the territory of helping strangers. But I did grow in my ability to listen beneath the surface.
Healthy growth is very important. From the moment of conception onward, we hope and expect to see growth in a person. From newborns gaining weight and growing bigger to people in their 80s learning how to Zoom, growth is an important part of our human experience. Obviously, as we get older, growth in the usual sense slows down and may even seem to reverse course. But even then, on some level it’s still a type “forward movement” toward the end of earthly life. Right up to our final breath, we’re still becoming the person God created us to be in Christ, and he doesn’t receive us into glory until we’ve achieved his plan and purpose for us.
In regard to growing spiritually, the Scriptures tell us that our growth begins the moment we pass over from being spiritual dead to being spiritually alive. That, of course, happens when we say yes to Jesus. The Apostle Paul equates this change in one’s spiritual condition with being reinvented, if you will. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 he says, “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation.” It’s important to know that the Greek word for ‘creation’ implies something that’s created out of nothing. So, it doesn’t imply a transformation of sorts; it’s not a matter of the old becoming new. Rather, we are made brand new when we come to faith in Christ. Paul attempts to drive home this very point in his next statement: “The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived” (v. 17b). The old didn’t become new, it completely went away. The old was replaced by the new.
And so, in Christ I am a brand new me. In Christ you are a brand new you. And it’s from that point on that we grow and mature spiritually. Again, the moment we say yes to Christ is to born anew. And then, to remain in Christ is to grow and mature in our relationship with God, with others, and with self. All of this is to say that from the moment we say yes to Jesus we’re growing into the “new creation” that we’re call to be in Christ.
So, how do we normally talk about growing? Isn’t it through telling stories? Those who are raising kids often find themselves telling stories about the latest thing, the latest mischief, the latest accomplishment that their child has gotten into. I’d suggest that we need stories to help us see what living as a disciple is like. This morning, I shared with you two stories from my early years as a pastor. Both of them were stories of something that happened to me which helped me to grow and stretch as a pastor and a leader of people. Through those experiences, both of which happened to be a little humbling, I learned something new about myself, and I grew in my walk of faith.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus told two short stories. Both were intended to teach a truth about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is like…and then he references a common scenario with which those listening to him would have been familiar. But it’s interesting to note that he never explained the meaning of his parables to the crowds. Yes, a few times he later on provided an explanation to his disciples, but in most cases, he simply let the story, or parable, speak for itself. He let the parable itself be the teacher of the truths about God’s kingdom. Those who listened and understood the lesson grew in their faith.
I remember well a very powerful personal testimony of a young single mother in my first church who was in the Disciple Bible Study I was teaching at the time. She shared with us how she’d always known about the practice of tithing (returning to God 10% of one’s income), but never felt it was something she could do, especially as a single mom working a job that didn’t pay a lot. But something happened during that Disciple Bible Study, and she sensed God strongly convicting her to step out in faith and tithe, even though she saw no way of being able to do it. She kept hearing God say, “Trust me.” And so, she did.
Well, it was many months later that she shared her story with us about how she decided to step out in faith and trust God by tithing and still, somehow, continued paying her bills in full. Every expense she had she continued to meet. The only difference was that by now she’d dramatically increased her giving to the church. Now, she didn’t have to break out her budget sheet and show us line by line the gory details of her spending. She didn’t have to explain how it all happened, but only that it was happening, that God was providing for her, admittedly to her own surprise.Her story alone was powerful and inspiring enough that I’m sure others who heard it felt challenged in their own giving, some of whom I have to believe stepped out in faith just as she did.
What are your stories? For you, what’s it been like to be made a new creation? In what ways has walking with Jesus (for as long or as brief as you have) changed your life? When did you experience God’s love and forgiveness, or the love and forgiveness of another person? What challenges have you faced and gotten through by God’s grace? When and how did you feel pushed by God to trust him in new ways, and he proved himself faithful to his promises? What glimpses of the God’s kingdom have you seen in your daily life and what ways have you been or experienced the sheltering shade of the branches of faith?
Every one of us can talk about how God has worked in our lives. Some are big stories, some are small, even seemingly insignificant. But as the old hymn goes, “We [all] have a story to tell to the nations.”
Unfortunately, I fear that many of us are too afraid to tell our stories, or we think we don’t really have anything to say. By and large, we United Methodists have gotten away from standing up in front the congregation and sharing a “testimony” of a God-experience. But the truth is, the spread and growth of the Christian faith wholly depends upon the people, not just the pastor, telling their stories.
If tomorrow you were enjoying a cup of coffee with a friend who’s not a Christian, and in the course of the conversation they asked you why you “go to church,” what would you tell them? Not why you go to this church (although that’s a fair question and we should all be able to say what it is about this church that keeps us coming back), but why go to church at all? Could you tell them why you’re connected to a church community? If they asked you why you’re Christian, what would you tell them? If they told you about a very negative experience they had of the church, or of another Christian, and shared about the pain they still carry around as a result of that experienced, and even expressed their own misgivings about being a Christian or being a part of the church–is there anything out of your own experiences that you could share with them which might be encouraging?
If you’re not someone who’s used to sharing your faith with others, something you might at least consider doing is writing out your response to the statement, “Why I’m a Christian.” Or, “The difference Christ makes in my life.” Or even, “How I’ve experienced God working in my life.” Most of us know experientially how God’s worked in our lives and the difference knowing Christ has made for us, but we’ve never stopped long enough to actually put it into words. The truth is, you’re not the same person you were in the past. And that’s because God’s been working on you ever since you said yes to Jesus. I think that identifying those moments of growth and being able to share them with others is an important part of discipleship.
How powerful is a personal story? Just ask the young pastor who, having listened to a stranger’s personal “testimony,” was moved enough to naïvely drive him to the front doors of a casino. Your story is a powerful means of discipleship.