Inaugural Sermon | June 18, 2017

*Editors note: I realized I have posted every other sermon I have preached except this one. So, while posted out of order, it is available here for viewing and is archived on the new sermon archives page. -Ted

Based on Psalm 100

Dana and I are so grateful to you. It’s fair to say that our hearts are “strangely warmed,” as John Wesley would say, because we have experienced the power and joy of the Holy Spirit through your hospitality. The preparations of the parsonage, the constant attention to detail, the help with unloading, the joyful reception at vacation bible school; all of it has communicated that we are desired and welcomed here, and we are deeply grateful.

Deeply grateful and overwhelmingly excited. We’re so glad to be here, so glad to be with you.

Back in December, I had a meeting with our Bishop, Lawson Bryan, and our DS, Rick Lanford. At that meeting, as we talked, the bishop asked about what kind of appointment I envisioned in my future. Those of you who are connected to the Annual Conference won’t be surprised to know that the bishop said to me, “where do you see yourself most alive in Christ?” Here’s what I described to him:

A county-seat church in a small town where I can invest myself simultaneously in the community and the church, where I can help lead the church to further its support of the community, looking for the intersection of the church’s strengths and the community’s needs.

When our DS, Rick Lanford, described Eastman First to me, I knew he and the bishop had listened deeply, for I have the distinct sense I have been appointed to the very kind of appointment I described; the appointment of God’s dream for my life. I’m so thankful for the chance to live the dream!

And so I resonate with our scripture this morning that calls on us to make a joyful noise to the Lord, out of deep thanksgiving and gladness to God for what God has done. Indeed, I entered the gates of this court of the Lord this morning with deep praise in my heart and in my mind. My entire soul yearns and groans for the work that we begin together here at Eastman First. For here, as pastor of this church, I have the opportunity to live out my passions! Nothing could be of greater value in vocation, and I am deeply grateful to God for calling me into ministry.

This is an exciting time in the life of the church! Indeed, in this moment, my soul sings with the Psalmist in our morning scripture when he said, “The Lord is good, his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” Let the redeemed of the Lord say so.

[Pause]

The story of my life is a story of God’s redemption and my experience of God’s steadfast love. I resonate with our scripture this morning in a deep way because I know what it is to not know unconditional love, the kind of love we receive from God. I know what it is to be separated from the church, for I spent the better part of ten years an agnostic. I know what it is to discover the warm embrace of a church that shows God’s love, for it was through Martha Bowman UMC in Macon that I rediscovered relationship with God, felt God’s unconditional love afresh and anew, and found my imagination enlivened.

Since the day I joined Martha Bowman UMC in 2010, my imagination hasn’t stopped. God called me to ministry and just two years later, I was a pastor while attending seminary at Emory full-time. I found in those experiences the yeast through which God gave rise to deeper faith; faith that inspires me and serves as the core from which all of my life operates.

That faith has instilled a passion: a passion for Christ’s church, but particularly a passion to reach folks my age who have left the church, for I was once one of them; and a passion to see the churches I pastor become essential to the communities that surround them. The dream God has given me, a dream I bring with me to Eastman First, is a dream to see this church full of folks, once outside of the church, now pursuing the journey of faith, who also serve this community such that the city of Eastman, and Dodge County, can’t imagine itself without Eastman First Methodist.

This is who I am: I’m a dreamer. And I’m the kind of dreamer that has the right drive and dedication to make those dreams into reality. Dreams usually come to me on my runs. In spiritual practice, I’m a contemplative, and dreams come to me while I’m running and simultaneously engaged in contemplative prayer. A song lyric or a sight or just being in communion with God through exercise and contemplation will yield some dream. And then, after thought and feedback from others, I start to work toward that dream so that I can do great things for God.

I’m a visionary leader; it’s in my bones, it’s in my DNA. It’s a major driver of ministry for me, it’s a true joy and passion to live out those dreams, for it implants within me great ideas of things I can do for God.

Indeed, I love to think that I can do things for God.

But that, it turns out, is a problem.

[Pause]

Throughout my time in ministry, I have thought often about the things I can do for God, all the ways I can have a Kingdom impact. And this is only natural, right? We’re here, in church, because we want to make a difference in the world. We’re here, worshipping God, because we believe God’s love and guidance are the best vehicles to realize the world we desire for ourselves and our children. That’s what I mean by a Kingdom impact: it’s what we seek as a people.

In fact, building the Kingdom of God is central to how I understand my call as a pastor. I took more classes in Evangelism, focused on Kingdom building strategies, than any other topic while in seminary. The words of Bishop Mortimer Arias often ring in my head, “Announc[e] the Reign of God.” We exist as a church to be the living presence of the Kingdom of God on earth, announcing to the world that our God reigns, let the earth be glad! We are ambassadors of the Kingdom, announcing wherever we go that we have the good news that God is with us, that God’s steadfast love endures forever; his faithfulness to all generations. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble.

For we have all known trouble in our lives. Great pains, great difficulties, whether personally, as a family, or even as a nation. We grieved together just this week over the shooting at the ball park in Alexandria, Virginia, that targeted members of the House of Representatives. We also experienced trepidation when two inmates escaped a prison. We know trouble, which is what makes the church so essential to the world: for we are to announce the Reign of God, that the Kingdom of God is here and now, such that we can know release from our troubles and discover the peace and joy that characterize life with God.

This is what drives me as a pastor; announcing the Reign of God, building the Kingdom of God, it’s the center from which I operate in my leadership of churches. And it’s what led me, in my ministry efforts in the past, to seek to do things for God.

And that was just the problem.

[Pause]

This is my third draft of this sermon. I am rigorous and disciplined in my sermon prep. Every day of the workweek, the sermon is the first thing I work on when I get to the office. And that rigorous prep, full of research and deep thought, yields what’s usually a decent sermon in the first draft. I edit it on Wednesdays and tweak it on Thursdays and get it ready to preach. My habit, my discipline, is that I do not leave the office on Thursday for my weekend until I have a sermon for the following Sunday.

But this sermon proved elusive. I couldn’t figure it out. I wrote a draft. I read it. It was junk. I wrote another draft. I read it. It, too, was junk.

Frustrated, I left it to go to Annual Conference. On Monday evening of Annual Conference, I attended the Ordination Service to support and celebrate with my close friend, Jack Varnell, who got Ordained that evening. Before Bishop Bryan commissioned and ordained those on stage, he preached a sermon on the miracle at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. In the course of the sermon, he repeated this phrase: pour the water.

In the story of the miracle at Cana, the host pours the water in belief that Jesus will do what needs to be done for the guests. And Jesus does, the water is turned into wine and the party continues; the day is saved.

Bishop Bryan’s point was that our job as Christians, both laity and clergy, is to pour the water, letting God do with the water whatever needs to be done. We cannot turn the water into wine ourselves; in other words, we cannot make miracles happen on our own; we cannot do what only God can do.

In hearing Bishop Bryan preach about pouring the water, the Holy Spirit spoke a distinct phrase into my life, one Bishop Bryan never said, but one that rang true to the sermon. I bet you’ve had that experience in your own lives, where you hear something from the sermon that the preacher never said. That’s the power of the preaching moment; the Holy Spirit at work, speaking into our lives in holy moments like this.

And the Holy Spirit spoke into my life that night. It said, loud and clear, “Ted, you cannot do things for God.”

You cannot do things for God.

[Pause]

Suddenly, upon hearing the Holy Spirit’s word for me, our text for today made sense. Verses 1-2 and 4-5 are all about the glory of God, the worthiness of God, and why we should worship our God. They’re beautiful verses that speak of who God is and remind us of the greatness, glory, honor, and love of our great and beautiful God whom we all adore.

It’s verse 3 that’s the problem. Earlier we read it this way:

“Know that the Lord is God.

It is he that made us, and we are his;[a]

we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”

But other translations of this verse read, “Know that the Lord is God, it is he that made us, and he didn’t need our help to do so.”

To know that the Lord is God, and didn’t need our help to make us, is a call to submit to God. The key to true worship, the key to following God, is submission. Submission of the entirety of our lives, including our dreams, to God. Or put another way, submission is knowing that we cannot do things for God.

That’s the lesson that’s central to this Psalm: true worship comes from submission, of knowing our limits, of understanding that we are human and God is God; in other words, of accepting that we cannot do for God.

And that was the lesson for me. Submission to God means submitting, yielding, my dreams, my visions, my plans, to God’s dreams, God’s visions, and God’s plans; to wait, with patience, for God to give me God’s dream, vision, and plans for my leadership, my stewardship, of whatever corner of the church I’m appointed to. Bishop Bryan’s sermon made clear what this Psalm had been saying all along: the call on my life; indeed all of our lives, is not to do for God, but to do with God.

Not to do for God, but to do with God.

[Pause]

That’s what I plan to do here at Eastman: not do for God, but do with God. Let me explain for a moment what I mean by that.

God has a dream for this church, God has a dream for us and for our community. The task before us is to “Know that the Lord is God;” we are not God, we cannot make the decisions about what our dream is as a church. No, we must actively seek the inspiration of our hearts for God’s dream for us as a church to build up the Kingdom of God, so that we can do with God what God has in mind for us.

As your leader, that means I will spend my initial time with you doing much listening, doing much praying, doing much observing, to get to know you and get to know this community. This means I will do very little changing of things initially. Having said that, I must ask for grace from you, for this church, like all churches, I’m sure has some sacred cows. There’s a high probability that I will accidentally slaughter a sacred cow or two. I ask for your forgiveness ahead of time, for I promise I have the best of intentions!

For I have never been a dictatorial leader, but rather I am naturally a collaborative leader, both collaborative with you but even more so collaborative with God. I will seek to work together to craft a common vision that arises first from our collective prayer life as a church and second from our conversations and experiences together. A vision that is built not upon fixing our weaknesses, but rather building upon our strengths, for this church, I am already convinced, has some remarkable strengths and has much reason to celebrate its current life. I understand my role, here and now, to be the best steward of those strengths that I can be, pointing in the direction that God will give us, together, for our future.

For this is the church God has entrusted to me for a time, and I take that word entrusted very seriously. This is your church; it was here before I got here and it still will be when I leave. My job is to build upon the work of your previous pastors to grow this church organically; built upon its existing strengths.

I have no grand plans, I have no ready-made visions, I have no multi-step processes. I have only prayer and my desire to get to know you, to weave myself into the fabric of this community and discover there, within the various threads that hold this community together, God’s desire, God’s dream, God’s plan for this church.

That’s the difference in doing for God or doing with God.

So, this morning, I invite you: let’s do with God together. All it requires is that we say, as our forebears Abraham, Moses, and Samuel said, “Here I am, Lord.” It’s a powerful phrase, for rather than saying “Here’s my plan, Lord,” we instead simply offer ourselves, we submit ourselves, to God’s plan, saying “Here I am, Lord. What’s your plan?”

I say in front of you this morning, in submission to who God is and mindful that I am God’s, “Here I am Lord; pastor of Eastman First Methodist. What’s your plan?”

For the work before us is tremendous. People are leaving the church. Worship is a foreign experience for so many. Churches all around us are declining and the ones that are growing feel like competition, rather than the partners they, in fact, are. It’s tempting in this time of church decay and decline to say we’re going to do for God by coming up with grand plans, by watering down our worship, by trying to be like other churches that are growing.

I say to you this morning, let’s do church differently than that. Let’s build the Kingdom differently than that. Let’s announce the Reign of God to our neighbors, to our families, to Eastman, and to this country not through our own might and will, but rather by submitting our might and our will, all that we are and all that we have, to God, prayerfully saying, “Here we are, Lord, Eastman First Methodist. What’s your plan?”

Pray that on a daily basis. Write it down so you won’t forget. Pray that in your hearts as we sing our final song/hymn. If you feel the stirring of the Holy Spirit to do more than that, I invite you to join a prayer team I’m forming that will simply pray for God’s dream and direction for our church. Either come forward to the altar during our final hymn or send me an email to volunteer to be part of that prayer team.

For God has a plan for us. A plan that God wants to do with us. All we need to do to discover our way forward, our next faithful step, our plan for growth, is to say “Here we are, Lord, Eastman First Methodist. What’s your plan?”

When we ask that simple question, God will be faithful to deliver an answer. And for that, we have much reason to praise!

Let the redeemed of the Lord say so! For the Lord is good, his steadfast love endures forever, his faithfulness to all generations.

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

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