Launch Sunday: Prepared for Growth

The Parable of the Barren Fig Tree

Then Jesus told this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, “See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?” He replied, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig round it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.” ’

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

Jesus said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’

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The Parable of the Yeast

And again Jesus said, ‘To what should I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Nearly four years ago, I received a call from my District Superintendent, offering me the position of Lead Pastor at Grace UMC. We were living in Allen at the time; I served as the Senior Associate Pastor at Custer Road UMC in Plano. The move would require us to sell our home and relocate to Grayson County; Christy and I lived here before, when James was a toddler and Miles was still in the womb! When I told the boys about the move, they resisted; no kid likes to move. But when I articulated to James that Allen High School had not lost a game in three years, while Sherman High had not won a game in two years, he understood. We promised he would spend all four years at Sherman High.

We were in.

So Christy and I ate dinner with the District Superintendent and his wife at the Olive Garden, then we made our way over here. She and I were dispatched to the choir room, awaiting the moment when we would be introduced to the Staff/Parish team as Grace's new pastor. The confidential meeting was held in the ultra-secret hallway just on the other side of those doors! Wait; there isn't a room large enough for a dozen people? And what were those wires running along the ceiling? After the meeting, Christy was so excited. We have a new church home! The boys are going to love it! The people were amazing! "What did you think?" she asked me. "Yeah, I said, and the building needs lots of work."

Incredulous, she said, "What is the matter with you?"
As news started trickling, and then roaring, around the conference, I began to hear from colleagues. Lots of congratulations, and a couple of comments like, "Well they have great ideas but little follow through" (this was not from any of Grace's former pastors, I promise). When I arrived here I heard a refrain from some members that still pops up here and there:
"We are a lay-led church."

 OK... as the pastor I'm not sure what that means but we'll figure it out together!

Soon after I started I was approached by our former District Superintendent, who encouraged Grace to participate in the Healthy Church Initiative. I thought it was a good idea, because I saw the church as overly busy with little focus, but I knew it would be a large task, and I wanted lay support, so I approached several key leaders. Most thought it was a good idea as well, especially since there was no financial cost at the beginning; but more than a few had reservations.

We've done that sort of thing before, and nothing came out of it.
Enough leaders were on board, so we decided to accept the invitation. We formed a study team of about 10 lay people. I would also meet with a coach with a group of pastors going through the process. We all read six books over half a year. We would meet to discuss issues from the books and how they related to Grace UMC. Following Phase I, our Administrative Council voted to continue in the HCI process. By the way, the word process was intentional; this was not a quick fix. There was no formula. And none of this meant that Grace was unhealthy.

Phase II ended with a weekend-long Healthy Church workshop where we dreamed for the future of the church. About seventy people participated, including many faces new to the church. We received five prescriptions to guide us going forward, and teams were created to address them. The vision team produced a Vision: Embrace All + Engage with Jesus + Expand the Kingdom. A church growth team tackled demographic projections and changes to the church leadership structure, recommending a change to a Single Board model. The bridging team created opportunities for the church to connect to the community. A team worked to trace members' discipleship growth; and a facilities team addressed issues we heard from the congregation and mystery guests who visited. If you were a part of any of these groups, from the new members to the workshop to the prescription teams, would you stand and be recognized?

This is how I have come to understand the "we are a lay-led congregation" theme. There is one of me, but look at all of these laity who brought us to the point where we are today. We also made significant strides in areas beyond the Healthy Church Initiative: we were the only congregation I know of north of Collin County to address the General Conference of 2019 in any official way. And we did it in a welcoming, aspirational way. Seeing the profound human need at the border, our Mission Board organized a Ports and Courts trip next month to see first hand, minister to, those seeking asylum in America. Our Administrative Council established priorities, which help us to evaluate every ministry of the church so that what we do, and where we invest our funds, are consistent with the vision of the church. The Building Committee used these priorities to direct our vision for the Renew Campaign. Those priorities will guide the use of this refurbished building, and the construction of the new Ministry Pavilion on the seven acres.

By the way, just a reminder: the vote to accept the HCI prescriptions was 53-1, or 98%. I have no idea who that 1 is, but I hope they are feeling led to call for a re-vote after all we have accomplished! The vote to purchase the seven acres across Canyon Creek Drive was 73-9, nearly 90%. For a congregation with a somewhat "been there done that" approach to outside consultation, a church seen by outsiders as filled with ideas but little follow-through, even a few "we tried that before and it failed" comments about master planning several years ago, Grace UMC has made incredible strides to learn, grown, listen, discern, and step out into its future. I am so proud to be your pastor! Can we just stop for a moment and give thanks to God for this indescribable gift of grace?

Our purpose today is to give thanks to God, who has given us boldness, unity, and confidence. I love that the church is worshiping together this morning, although I am aware than some are not with us today for various reasons. I am sorry they are missing out on the feeling of togetherness. Each Sunday during the Renew capital campaign will have a theme. Today is prayer, October 27 is vision, November 3 is faith and money, and Nov 10 is Commitment Sunday. You'll see throughout the building beautiful images that illustrate the vision that began three years ago. The physical structures are not the vision; they are tools to help us see the vision. The vision is about connection, ministry, and changed lives for Jesus Christ.

When does vision become reality? When walls are moved, foundations laid, and paint is dry? No. Vision is realized when we sense God's presence moving among us as we do the work God has called us to do. Vision is realized when we make decisions from faith, rather than fear. Prayer is answered when the tree bears fruit. The landowner in the parable is not a person of vision or prayer. Fig trees are supposed to produce figs; this one isn't doing its job. "Cut it down!!" he screams at the gardener. The gardener, however, is a person of wisdom and vision. "Let's wait a year," he says. "Let me fertilize it, giving it the nutrients it is lacking." This is how prayer works. What was the very first thing we asked of the congregation when we began this process three years ago? Prayer. What's the first thing we are asking for as we begin the Renew campaign? Prayer. After three years of prayer and listening, we are fully fertilized and ready for growth.

The mustard seed is tiny, but when planted, Jesus preaches, it is transformed into a large tree. Like the building project of the campaign, the tree has a purpose beyond itself; it doesn't exist by itself, but for others. Birds and other animals find shelter from the hot sun in the shade provided by the tree. Our prayer for the building projects we are proposing is for them to be used not only by the existing congregation, but by those seeking connection and community.

In the final parable, Jesus speaks of a breadmaker kneading yeast with three measures of flour to produce bread. What we miss in our modern sensibilities is how much flour we are considering. It's not like a cup. Each measure of flour is enough to make twenty pounds of cake. Multiply that by three! That's hospitality! It's a super-abundant amount of grace. More than can ever be consumed by one person. It's meant to be shared.

So it is with the Renew campaign. Our congregation has asked for a large gathering space for many years. This space we are worshiping in today was meant to be temporary when it was built in 1990. It would become a gathering space when the congregation built a permanent worship space. Thirty years later, spiritual needs have changed. The Ministry Pavilion will allow us space to gather, but it's big enough to be shared with the community as well. The entire project is a super-abundant space with the potential to serve the existing congregation and our neighbors in new ways we haven't even considered yet.

"The kingdom of heaven is like..." by the way, what's the last part of our vision? Expand the kingdom. Gotcha. Ok. The kingdom of heaven is like something small that is nurtured and allowed to grow into something large and purposeful. It's like a mustard seed that grows into a tree when given enough care. It's like flour that becomes giant cakes to be shared after the breadmaker does her faithful work. Don't cut down the fig tree yet; give it the attention it needs. Give it time. We've given our vision three years to grow, ferment, and produce fruit. Now it's time to share a bountiful harvest in the name of Jesus Christ! Amen!