ARE YOU FREE TO DO IT YOUR WAY?
Jeremiah 28: 5-9
MATTHEW 10: 40-42
July 2, 2023
Today … July 2nd of 2023 marks the start of my eighth year with this church. SEVEN BLESSED years have gone by so quickly … SEVEN years with unexpected challenges and SEVEN years of incredible joy … SEVEN years with laughter … SEVEN years of song and Holy Spirit moments … SEVEN years of an amazingly close connection and yes, SEVEN years of loss and sadness.
Together we start my eighth year at St. Paul’s closer together than ever before because of the realities of life … I start my eighth year here sensing your love even more than I have ever felt it … together we have some real challenges that together we need to take on this year but there is no other church, anywhere on the planet, that I would rather be standing before this morning than St. Paul’s UNITED METHODIST CHURCH of WEST DEPTFORD NEW JERSEY!
I am not sure what was said on July 3rd in 2016 here in this beautiful church … I believe that Dave Fish spoke. Some of you were wearing name tags; I didn’t really know any of you … I was under examination by all who were here. A new pastor was in town. Some of you were trying to figure out my age … and some may have been surprised to discover that your new pastor was only 31. There was a fellowship hour that day with chit chat filled with carefully posed smiles and then … yes, and our relationship began.
And yes … I was checking all of you out too while being transformed by the beauty that is alive here in St. Paul’s Sanctuary, a place where you can sense God if you pause to do so … something that those of you who have only worshiped with us online cannot fully appreciate. Do you remember July 3rd in the year 2016 was before we were connected throughout the world through the Internet and people in Africa, Asia, Europe, New Zealand, and across the United States and Canada could never have been watching that service or anything else from this church live from their homes but today they have watched and do worship with us online both live and using the recorded services.
I don’t recall the church’s worship schedule for that July, and I don’t know what I preached on my second Sunday here because I can’t find a sermon for that date. But, on July 17th in 2016 I asked all of you about your calendars … I asked whether you were busy people?
Now, back in 2016 we did not have a team headed off to the Red Bird Mission … nor were we feeding the numbers of hungry neighbors that Carol and her FOOD PANTRY team help feed every month here in 2023. We had not yet even considered feeding the hungry families in Liberia nor the ICU staff at Inspira who we would feed in the coming years. No solar batteries for Sierra Leone in our plans on that date, a nation we need to pray about because there are now rumblings of civil war after their recent elections, nor any reason to consider sending supplies to the Ukraine.
I rarely, if ever, go back to read a sermon I wrote whether it was from one or two months ago or 7 years ago, but I was curious as today approached as to what I might have said as our relationship began. I was curious as to whether I was challenging you on that date before you even knew who I really was. Before I would hold so many of you in my arms … before I would sit and watch some special people from this beautiful church family move from this life to paradise … before I would do some ‘crazy Pastor Dave’ things like leap up here … from down there or from here down to the floor.
So, the first thing I did when I pulled up my sermon for July 17th in 2016 was to look to see if I had mentioned directly or indirectly something special about our Savior, our Lord, the Son of God, Jesus Christ … I was curious if I had called out to all of you in those early days with great joy the declaration, ‘HE IS RISEN’ <<He is Risen Indeed>> not knowing if that joy-filled response you just shared would echo here in this beautiful sanctuary on that day. But, no I did not call out that specific truth.
I did preach these words, “God gave us Jesus in love … Jesus came to teach us God’s love … we are left with God’s Holy Spirit. I am still in such awe that God could love someone like me that He’d forgive everything … “. And, yes today I am still in such awe friends just like I was in 2016 that God could love someone like me with my faults, which many of you are now well aware of, and my sins but God’s love is truly an amazing love isn’t it? God only calls on us to reciprocate and love God back … to do what we call BELIEVE. BELIEVE and CHANGE and FOLLOW … Jesus.
However, since that day … over the weeks and months and now years we have declared the teachings and history and truth of Jesus Christ together! In today’s Gospel lesson we heard Jesus declare, “those who receive me are receiving the One who sent me” and I truly believe that God smiles down upon this special place called St. Paul’s because we understand what God expects of us!
There is no schematic as to how people of faith are to operate in this world because God while creating us equally out of love also created us uniquely in God’s image. I really love that early Genesis lesson from the very first chapter of the Bible … “God created humanity in God’s own image. In the divine image God created them, male and female God created them. God blessed them; the SIXTH DAY.”
Look around this church … look around the grocery store … look around Citizens’ Bank Park at all the people … and realize how amazing God must be because we are all created in God’s image not to be robotic … not to be slaves who must align exactly with every other human in our looks, our dress, and our hair stylings but unique and wonderful humans who are loved by God with the capabilities of doing amazing things for God when we return our love to God. And, yes BELIEVE … CHANGE and FOLLOW JESUS CHRIST.
Each and every human no better nor worse than another because of God’s design … unique to ourselves but part of God’s family. “Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open the doors and see all the people.” And, this church I discovered early on … this church, St. Paul’s UNITED METHODIST CHURCH of WEST DEPTFORD gets it … understands that the love is all encompassing … I was definitely curious about all of you when I arrived and I made sure that some of my friends visited here early in my ministry to check your reactions to a young black man with dreadlocks riding a Harley … to a family with the most ADD kids I have ever known one of whom is now serving our nation and on our prayer list … to individuals with tattoos and piercings … to the millionaire couple in their Mercedes … to the couples who love Jesus Christ and each other who happen to be the same sex … and these friends of mine … these human beings created by God in God’s image … these people who were strangers coming through those doors I watched as the church family of St. Paul’s loved them all and welcomed them all equally.
Last Sunday I delivered a few challenging words, which is my way from the pulpit but they were addressing an ongoing reality amongst those who like the Christian identifier for their resumes but want to escape the responsibilities of faith. They want to be free to live life their way but still note that once upon a time they took the bold step to raise a hand or step forward, which in their minds made them a Christian.
It’s funny how so many of those focused on numbers use John 3:16 as the verification of the raised hand or of their step forward allows adding Christian to one’s name but really do not pay attention that Jesus told Nicodemus YOU MUST BE BORN AGAIN … in other words you must change; take up the cross; get in line behind Jesus; actually, discover Jesus’ teachings and then do your best to live up to them. James teaches us that one cannot really have faith if their life doesn’t reflect the faith through their actions and words. Jeremiah said that it is easy to prophesy peace but peace only occurs when you put it into action.
We have before us the Lord’s Table … our table here at St. Paul’s is a beautifully simplistic wood table. I have seen the Communion elements laid out on ornate tables and picnic benches. Communion is important to me as a prayer-filled reflection of our faith-connection to God. That’s why during COVID I added a weekly service of Holy Communion for all of you on Wednesday mornings and frankly, it is for me as much as it is for you. We stream it online … and I know it is a sacrifice to come to church in the early mornings on a day other than a Sunday but Jesus said whenever you gather eat the bread and drink from the cup … we and many other churches have just streamlined the Sacrament into a once a month thing.
I always pray hard on the first Sunday of the month that the Communion table and the Holy Spirit really really touch all of you in a special way. That you are listening for where God wants to take you in the coming days because I can tell you this … the Lord God, creator of the universe has a plan for each of you to use your gifts at this point in your life for the good of the church … for the good of the Kingdom … to bring others to know Christ … we each just have to listen and then act. As today’s Gospel lesson indicated it might merely be “giving a cup of cold water to little ones” at Vacation Bible School … it might be saying yes to RED BIRD next year so we can have an awesome hymn sing on the road … it might be stepping up to lead a MEN’s BIBLE STUDY and then calling guys to get them to come to it.
So, on that Sunday in 2016 I asked a question that I can ask again today … HOW BUSY IS THE WEEK AHEAD? St. Paul’s needs you to take on leadership roles, to help Elaine and Mary Ann with Vacation Bible School, to get kids to VBS, to join next year’s Red Bird trip, to make sure our finances are strong, to bring friends to church, to welcome all, and to live as Christians! Free to be you but using the person you are to build up God’s church through your love of God and Christ. Dream a dream and bring it to us!
Jesus told the overly distracted Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary.” That friends is to hear Jesus out … make Jesus part of your life.
I am so thankful that the Bishop made the decision that I was the right person to become your pastor in 2016 because St Paul’s definitely was the place I needed to go and I pray that I have been a blessing here and that together out of love we will shine Christ’s light over the next days, weeks, months, and hopefully a few more years. AMEN