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.


Tropical Sands Christian Church
 – February 3, 2002

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