Three Chairs - Promise Sunday Sermon

This Sunday at my church we'll be celebrating what we've affectionately referred to as "Promise Sunday."  Promise Sunday is a day when we invite our members and friends to make a commitment to financially support their church family throughout the coming year.  

We used to call these kinds of commitments, "pledges," but we realized a few years ago that the word "pledge" wasn't strong enough for what we were doing together.  The word "promise" fits our commitments so much better.  We make a promise to God, not to the church.  

In the past, I also used to preach on giving this time of year.  I figured that it made sense because we were asking people to commit to giving money to the church. And then it occurred to me that preaching on giving when we were asking people to give actually diminished the message of giving in the Bible.  

I thought of what it would feel like to me, if I was sitting out in the congregation, and a preacher got up to preach on giving during the end-of-year pledge campaign.  Honestly, it would make me think that the guy was just manipulating the Bible to meet his own needs.  And I would start to be very suspicious of what the Bible actually said about giving.  

So we'll talk about generosity and giving another day.  Because the Bible says quite a lot about it.  Jesus talked more about money than he did about heaven and hell, in fact.  

But what I want to share with you all today is something that has been on my heart for a very long time.  I have been thinking and praying about this message, and it just seemed to me that today was the perfect day to share it.  The sermon today actually dovetails the sermon that I shared last week on the vision of our church--a vision to Know Jesus and Show Jesus. 

Some of you came to me after the service last week and shared how you were inspired by the vision of our church, and wanted to own your part of it.  Today we're going to talk about how you can do just that.  

We're going to start things off today by reading a passage of Scripture from  2 Timothy 1:1-7: 
1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, in keeping with the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, 2 To Timothy, my dear son: Grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord. 3 I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. 4 Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. 6 For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. 7 For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.
First things first, we need to answer a few questions about this passage of Scripture:  Who wrote it?  Who was it written to?  And who are all of these people that are mentioned in the verses?  And what does this have to do with church or following Jesus, or anything that matters to us, right here, right now?

To begin with, this letter is traditionally believed to have been written by the Apostle Paul to one of his proteges, a young man named Timothy who is leading a house church in the city of Ephesus.  Paul planted the church there in one of his missionary journeys, and Timothy took over leadership in his absence.  

There are actually two letters to Timothy in the New Testament, and both have a similar theme: What it takes to lead people to faithfully follow Jesus.  

So in this little introductory paragraph of Paul's letter to Timothy we see Timothy's past, present and future on display, so to speak, and he knew that all three made Timothy who he was.  

Paul knew where Timothy came from.  He knew that Timothy's mother and grandmother were believers, followers of Jesus, who also happened to be Jewish.  Timothy's father is not mentioned here, and is presumed to have been a non-Jewish, non-believer.  His mother and grandmother had nurtured his faith and raised him to become a devout followers of Jesus.  

That sincere faith, Paul wrote, lived in Timothy just as it had in his mother and grandmother.  This was Timothy's present reality as a young leader in a small struggling church full of people who were doing their best to live into the hope of Jesus' resurrection.  

But Paul also encouraged Timothy to fan the flame of his faith, and the gift God that had been given to him by the laying on of hands, namely his role as a pastor and shepherd of his small flock.  This was Timothy's future--to continue to grow in faith and in the power of the Holy Spirit.  

Timothy was brought to faith, he grew in faith and then when it was time he helped grow faith in others.  

So what does this passage tell us about what it means to be the church, a group of believers who are trying to carry on this tradition of following the Way of Jesus?  

Well it tells me that our church has a past, it has a present and it most definitely has a future.  

To which you might reply, "Thank you Captain Obvious!"  I know, I know... It seems kind of the opposite of profound to say something like that in a profound way.  And yet, as easy as these three aspects of our life as a congregation are to gloss over, they are powerful reminders that we are part of something that is far bigger than we are.  

The best analogy I can think of to dig deeper into what I am trying to say are these three chairs.  These three chairs represent our past, our present and our future.  

Let's talk about this first chair.  This first chair was the chair that was here before you got here.  The fact that there was a chair here when you arrived, is a testament to all those who came before you.  

This church has been a part of Eustis for over 130 years.  When our church was founded, the Statue of Liberty had only just arrived from France.  Buffalo Bill Cody's first Wild West Show performed.  The first electric light system designed by Thomas Edison was installed in New Jersey.    

We've been at the corner of Citrus and Center street for over 100 years.  Think about it.  Over 100 years right here in this spot. Our history has been both triumphant and checkered.  We've had great moments and not-so great moments.  

By my count I believe that I am the 22nd pastor in the history of the church. The first pastor was a man by the name of James Hair Potter.  No lie.  He had a beard almost down to his waist.  Potter was pastor for twenty years--longer than any other pastor in the history of the church.  

Our church was known for many years as the church to belong to if you were among the who's who of Eustis.  Among the members of our church were philanthropists, doctors, lawyers, educators, seminary professors, elected officials---people that shaped the history of this community.  

We have supported missionaries all over the world--even sending some of our own to serve in foreign lands. And we did amazing things for our community over the decades.  As a matter of fact, ministries like Partners for Success have been reaching out into our community for twenty years or more.  

Generation after generation of children and young people learned about Jesus here, and some of them returned when they grew older and had children of their own.  I remember one Sunday we had five generations of one family in the house.  Incredible.   

So why am I telling you all of this?  Because this church has a past.  And because it did, there was a chair here for you when you got here.  Someone made a place for you by serving in this church... giving to this church... inviting people to attend this church... and some of them made a place for you by leaving a legacy.  

Almost all of the buildings we enjoy, and all of the refurbishments of those buildings were made possible because people who loved this church left behind gifts to us when they went to be with the Lord.  

This first chair--the one that was here before you--is our connection to our great history, a history that made space for every single one of us in the present.  

Which brings us to the second chair--the chair where you are sitting now.  This chair is our present.  It represents where our church is and what you are doing with the chair that you took over when you got here.  Most of us tend to sit in the same chair, the same pew or the same table every Sunday, don't we?  So this makes sense in a very real way.  

I talked a lot last week about our church's vision and I also shared why I love our church so much.  It's hard to believe how many things are happening right now in, around and through this great congregation--things that are absolutely bringing the kingdom of God right here to earth.  

I am just going to take a quick tour through our church bulletin to make this point, if you don't mind.  

Can you believe this?  It blows my mind, to be honest?

So what are you doing in your chair right now?  What are you doing to share our vision, to strengthen our church family, to be fearless?  I challenged our church members and friends last week to step up, to get involved and to share their gifts for the glory of God.  How will you make that a reality?  What will you do with your chair?

Finally, we need to talk about this third chair--the chair you are preparing for someone else.  

This chair represents our future--where we are going and what we believe God is doing.  I have to tell you that I have never been so excited about the future of our church as I am right now.  

This past year we bought that little cottage across the street, and before we could even get the permitting, and figure out exactly what we were going to do with the space---we already had missions and ministries lining up to move in there.  Our Clothes Closet will be moving in there, along with several of our Bible study groups, and one day there will be another pastor whose office will be in the cottage, too. 

Next year we are looking forward to where God might be leading us with our Teen Mops program as we are discovering just how incredible the needs are in our community for people to come alongside teen moms and support them with love and grace. 

We've begun working on plans for a mission trip to Cuba, and we'll begin raising funds for that trip very soon.  Some of you will be a part of that trip, and I know that it will change your life.  

In 2016 we are planning a marriage conference, new Bible studies and small groups so that our members can strengthen their faith, their families and their relationships with God and one another.  

Our children's ministry is set to grow by leaps and bounds next year.  Our new Mom's Morning Out program will be launching in January, and we anticipate that our Preschool will also be launching next year as well.  Add to that all of the great programs and outreach opportunities that we have planned for children and families---it's going to be an incredible year for children and families.  

I could seriously sit here all day long and share with you all of the incredible things that we feel God is leading us to next year.  Instead, I just have one question:  How will you make space--how will you prepare a chair for someone else?    How will you invite and serve and give and leave a legacy like those who came before you? 

Well, I have some thoughts.  

Our word for this year--the word I believe God has given our church--is Fearless.  So I believe this is how you can fearlessly prepare for the next chair, the people that will be coming to us in the coming year and beyond.  

First, you need to Testify.  I am serious.  You need to testify like Jake and Elwood Blues from the Blues Brothers.  Why wouldn't you?  Are you so bent on keeping all of the joy of this awesome place to yourself that you don't want to tell anyone about it?  Why wouldn't you want the same joy for the people you care about?  

Second, you need to Invest.  Step fearlessly into generosity this new year.  Give generously.  Share your time.  Invest your gifts.  Don't hang on to all of the awesomeness that you have inside of you, let it all out.  We desperately need you to do this.  And when you invest in your church, you will find that the return on your investment is so much more than you could ever imagine.  When it comes to God's work, you definitely get out much more than you could ever put in, but you do have to put something in to feel the incredible rush of joy that comes from experiencing God's blessings.  

Third, you need to Invite.  This is quite simply the easiest thing that you can do.  Go out of your way to share this family of faith.  Do everything you can do, everything in your power to tell the stories of what God is doing here.  Don't be shy.  Become a fanatic.  Scare people with how passionate you are about your church.  I told you guys last week that one of our members kept inviting her friend over and over again---for six months--until it paid off.  

Fourth, you need to Welcome.  And by this I mean you need to be open, flexible, ready for the new, not afraid of change and ready for others to be a part of the family.  We are better when we have new perspectives, new voices, new members of the family to make us better than we were.  Pastor Joel Osteen shared that one of the main reasons why his church is so full of life and energy isn't because there are fifteen thousand people a service--it's because of the way his members welcome new folks.  They practice something his parents taught him, "Unconditional Hospitality."  

I've worked in churches that were afraid of the new.  The people in those churches didn't want the church to grow, didn't want to add anyone new to the mix.  They were so worried that someone would take their place, kick them out of power...  And slowly, over time those churches began to wither, and shrink and eventually they started to die.  

We have these three chairs before us.  The chair that was here before you got here--our history our tradition, the legacy left behind that we all enoy.  The chair where you are sitting right now---our present, full of life and vibrant joy.   The chair you are preparing for someone else--our future, full of hope and fearless optimism.  

The first chair was decided for you--it was already prepared when you arrived.  The questions remain for all of us today---First, how will we fill the chair where we are?  Will we just occupy it?  Will it become a placeholder, or a symbol of life and light?  And Second, what will we do to prepare a chair for those who have yet to arrive?  Will those who come next find a chair waiting for them, one prepared in love and readied in grace?  

I hope you'll join me as we fearlessly prepare for the next chair.  We have a chance to do great things this year.  Let's dedicate ourselves to this next great adventure. 


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