BLVD - Week 3: "Three Seats"



Today we're going to continue our sermons series BLVD.  The idea behind this series is very simple:  Christians need to become roads that connect people to Jesus.  We can't be the roadblocks that get in their way.  We need to make the way clear. 

As part of our way of illustrating these sermons, we've been focused on the idea of intersections, and proper directions, but now I'd like to shift gears a bit and illustrate today's sermon a bit differently.  We're still on the road, but let's step into a bus for today while we roll, shall we? 

When I used to live in downtown Chicago, I would take the bus to seminary from time to time.  It was about a thirty-minute ride in traffic with several stops along the way.  Where I got on the bus, there would typically be very few seats available, so I would often have to stand.  

I remember one day I boarded the bus and discovered there was only one open seat, but a woman had placed her bag on it.  

As I started to approach her, she saw me and locked on to me with a stare that would have withered grass.  She put her hand on the bag not to move it, but to tell me in a not-so-subtle way that she was not giving up the seat her bag was on for love nor money.  

I debated whether it was worth a scene to try to make her move it, decided it wasn't and then stood.  I watched as person after person boarded the bus, searched for a seat and then backed off when the woman glared at them.  

Churches have a bad habit of doing the same thing.  Maybe you have experienced that kind of thing in a church before--where you realized that you weren't really expected, and maybe that you weren't all that welcome.  That there wasn's really a seat for you.  

Have you ever visited a church and then had someone tell you that you were sitting in their seat?  I've actually seen this happen before, as I mentioned to you a couple of weeks ago.  

But there was another incident that occurred when I had a friend guest preach for me on Sunday.  His wife attended with him that day, and she sat down in a pew prior to the service only to have a woman arrive and ask her bluntly to move because she was sitting in her seat.  

This happened after years of me preaching about being welcoming, hospitable and open-armed as a church--so much that I actually thought they all had gotten the message.  

Or maybe you were visiting a church and they did something in the worship service that didn't make any sense to you and there was no explanation.  

Dr. Roger Nishioka tells the story of how he encountered a church where the entire congregation would turn their backs on the front of the church and would face the back when they said the Lord's Prayer.  

When he asked the pastor why they did it, the pastor sheepishly told him that years earlier they had a large banner at the back of the church with the words to the Lord's Prayer on it.  It had been up there for decades, but was taken down to be cleaned and got destroyed.  They decided not to replace it.  But they still turned around and faced the wall where it had been every Sunday. 

Or perhaps you came to a church and you couldn't find your way to anything--there was no one posted to help you find directions to the restrooms, children's check-in, or even the Sanctuary.  

I will never forget some years ago when Merideth and I were visiting one of the largest churches in Orlando one Saturday evening.  There were no greeters at the door.  There was no one to help us find the nursery for Jacob.  We finally figured it all out, but by then the service had already started.  

There's a long list of reasons why people say they weren't made to feel welcome in a church.  

Maybe it was in the way that everyone sort of traveled in their friend groups that were quietly closed to outsiders.  

Or maybe it's in the way that they were not made to feel as though their gifts and talents were welcomed.  

I remember an elder at a church I was serving giving a passionate speech about how he didn't think that the nominees for elder we were considering should be considered.  One of them was a lifelong Presbyterian who had been an elder for twenty-plus years in another church, but who had only been a member of ours for two.  The other was a young 35-year-old guy who had grown up in the church.  

His belief was that you needed to be a member of the church for at least five years before serving in leadership and that you needed to be at least 40 because you don't know anything until your 40.  I pointed out to him that I was 39 when they'd called me as the pastor.  

So how do we fix this?  How do become and remain the kind of church that is filled with Connectors who are becoming roads to Jesus? 

I think it comes down to something very simple that we're going to be coming back to throughout this sermon--the one thing I want you to hold on to:  

Connectors aren't afraid to make space for people who are new on the road.  

Today our conversation partner is the Apostle Paul, from his second letter to Timothy chapter 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?  How can we become the kind of community that ensures there is space for people who are new on the road?  

The best analogy I can think of to dig deeper into what I am trying to say is the image of three seats on a bus.  These three seats represent our past, our present and our future. 

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

So why am I telling you all of this?  Because this church has a past.  And because it did, there was a seat 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 either gave or left behind gifts to us when they went to be with the Lord.  

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

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

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 announcements 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 seat right now?  What are you doing to share our vision, to Love God and Love Everybody?  What will you do with your seat?

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

This seat 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.  

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.  

First, you need to Share.  Step fearlessly into generosity as we close out this 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.  

Second, 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.  

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

The first seat 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 seat 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 seat for those who have yet to arrive?  Will those who come next find a seat waiting for them, one prepared in love and readied in grace?  

I hope you'll join me as we fearlessly prepare for the next seat.  When people step on to this bus of ours we need to have a seat ready for them.  

Because connectors aren't afraid to make space for people who are new on the road. 



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