9.14.13: Making The Grade

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Reflection / Notes / Summary


  • This was my absolute first sermon or major public speaking event ever.
  • When I get nervous, I fly through text. I blew through a 25 minute sermon in….fifteen minutes max. But, I learned something about myself.
  • When I get nervous, I’m also rocker. I sway side to side like an ocean ship. Many people told me during this first sermon that I did this. Believe me, I’m now aware.
  • It was after this sermon that a mentor poured into me regarding writing as a discipline and as a spiritual gift…we were reviewing the manuscript before I gave it and we had a long conversation about it.

Summary: This sermon was given right around the time people/kids/grandkids were going back to school, so it was fresh in their minds. This was a sermon aimed at getting the congregation to focus on the spiritual disciplines the church outlined weekly. All of these disciplines being universally important in all believers’ lives (attendance / study / small group / tithing / serving).

Sermon: Making The Grade

Good Morning, Church! In case you haven’t noticed. I am NOT Pastor Richard. Don’t adjust your dials; you’ll be back to your regularly scheduled preaching next Sunday. It would be smart for me to tell you a little bit about who I am. First, I should tell you a little bit about how I know Pastor Richard. We met at church around three years ago. I had just started to rekindle my fire for God and he was already an inferno. We hit it off and he almost instantly took me under his wing. He’s been a great mentor to me over the past few years on my journey to draw closer to God and I can definitely tell you guys that you’re in good hands.

A little bit about me: My name is Dennis, most call me Denny. Funny childhood fact: My parents knew I wanted to be a pastor before I was even born…why else would they give me a middle name “Clarence?” If “Dennis Clarence Freeland” doesn’t sound like it should have the word “Reverend” in front of it, then I don’t know what does? That being said, I want to take a minute to thank both Richard and you guys for letting me be here today. This is the first time I’ve ever been given the opportunity to be a guest speaker at a church…what’s so awesome about that? It also means that, by default, this is the BEST sermon I’ve ever given as the guest speaker of a church.

My early church story was pretty typical. I became a Christian when I was around fourteen. My family actually didn’t go to church at all, but I just happened to have had a really good friend that made it his mission to get me plugged in. From there, I met my old youth pastor. My old youth pastor had such a passion for introducing kids to the gospel that he picked me up after school every Wednesday for months to disciple me. He taught me about who Jesus was, he taught me about God’s grace, and I was led to Christ. Of course, I was just a little kid then. I didn’t know what to DO with most of that information. I learned a lot about the Bible but fell way short on becoming anything close to an actual disciple…

When I went to college, I fell away from the church and I fell away hard. I never got into drugs, but I definitely got into all of the other all-too-typical ‘college activities’…I’m sure I’m the only person in the history of the church that’s happened to so no one here can relate, right? Lucky for me, God has a funny way of bringing his people back to Him. This whole thing is still amazing to me. If you would have told me five years ago that I would be standing up here getting ready to talk to people about God, I would have laughed in your face. Now I’m here in front of you guys, and I’m still blown away more and more every day by God’s grace and love.

Before we get into the teaching today, I’d just like us to join together in prayer. (Prayer).

We have been in a sermon series, “back to school,” and I have to ask, why is it that we go to school to begin with? (Never mind the fact that our parents made us and would be arrested if we decided we weren’t going to go). We go to school in order to grow and develop skills that we will use for the rest of our lives. Our goal should always be to move forward, to work on getting to the next grade, to be one step closer to meeting our goal. Now, I’m not talking about the people who manage to get pushed through “the system”, the guys hanging out under the bleachers after class smoking pot and stirring up trouble. Anybody can do that. I’m talking about real progress. I’m talking about people who dig in, who want to do the work so that they can grow and move on to better things. People who can’t ‘settle.’ Those people are life-long learners, and even after they graduate, they will spend their entire lives thirsting for knowledge.

One of the most important things I’ve learned on my Christian journey is just that. It’s a journey. Church, let me tell you a little bit about Paul. To me, Paul is one of the coolest people in the Bible. He had a rough start but Man after he came around, he was AWESOME, wasn’t he church? I mean the dude ended up writing most of the New Testament, and if we could just follow his letters, our lives would be almost PERFECT, wouldn’t they, church? PAUL HAD IT TOGETHER! Can we agree that if there’s ANYBODY who should be an AUTHORITY when it comes to how to live for Jesus, it’s Paul? Well, listen to what Paul says in Philippians 3:

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Wait…I DO NOT CONSIDER MYSELF TO HAVE YET TAKEN HOLD OF IT?  Church! If PAUL isn’t at that point, then how are WE ever supposed to get to that point? That brings up the first point on your outline: Being a follower of Christ is a LIFELONG LEARNING PROCESS.

I can remember when I was a baby Christian, learning how to serve Jesus. I thought it would be cool to go out, buy a bunch of Bible Tracts and walk around downtown Dayton passing them out. I had no idea it would be the most awkward Christian experience of my LIFE. Urban Billy Graham I am NOT. I’d have a better shot at making the Olympic Gymnastics team.

Here’s the thing though. Even though I failed horribly, I was way too proud of myself for even trying it. Trying to live up to Matthew 6:3 (You know, “When you give to someone in need…don’t let the left hand know what you’re right hand is doing.) I went to pretty much everybody I knew; proudly talking about how awesome I was for doing it. I should have just climbed on top of the church roof with a megaphone screaming “Hey everybody, look how humble I am.” Can we all agree that I still had a lot of growing to do?

As lifelong learners we have to realize something very important about the way we learn. It’s not JUST about learning, it’s about the way we learn. There are many teachers that we will have throughout our lives, but as point two on your outline says, there are many teachers, but the HOLY SPIRIT is your guide! When Jesus is preparing to take up the cross for us, he is having a conversation with the disciples. His disciples are confused and lost, trying to cope with the fact that Jesus is about to be taken from them, and it is here that he promises the Holy Spirit. In John 14:25-26, Jesus himself says: 25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.” The exact same Holy Spirit that is promised to the disciples is the Holy Spirit that lives within us today. People will come and go, but the Holy Spirit is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Pastors and elders in the church are equipped to help us grow in our walk with Christ, but they are being led by the same Holy Spirit that exists within you! As a lifelong learner it is so important to realize the power of the Holy Spirit in your life. The Holy Spirit guides us, empowers us, transforms us. It encourages us, it can amplify our gifts, and it is the still small voice in the back of our mind.The Holy Spirit gives us guidance and discernment, and plays such a huge part in helping us learn and discern what’s going on around us and in us.

We are supposed to be lifelong learners. What does lifelong learning look like? Lifetime learning looks a lot like sanctification. I know you guys have talked about sanctification before, but just in case you are new I’ll give a little refresher course. Regardless of where you’re at in your journey, whether you believe this or not, God’s love for you is radical. There is nothing you could do to make God love you any less than unconditionally. Once you accept what Jesus did for you, then you accept God’s gift of grace. Anything you have ever done or will ever do is forgiven. Jesus wrote a blank check for your sin. You are perfect in God’s eyes. That doesn’t mean you have to stop trying to be better, it just means that you are totally forgiven for anything that you have done or will do. Sanctification is what we should strive for after accepting the gift that God’s given us through Jesus. John Wesley (the founder of the Methodist Church) described Sanctification as being “habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor.” Paul says: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.” To me, sanctification can be summed up in this sentence: “I’m still not like Jesus today, but I’m one step closer than I was yesterday.”

Point number three on your bulletin: If you want to make it to the next grade, you have to do the homework. Acts 2:42 says: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” I know what you’re thinking. Good luck, buddy. I work fifty hours a week, I have kids, I have deadlines, I have a family. I’m already running on six hours of sleep a night. Imagine being Eli Manning, getting ready to walk on field for the first game of the season and the ONLY “practice” you’ve had for the past year is listening to the coach talk about the plays for half an hour a week. You know what’s going to happen? You are going to walk on the field and get CRUSHED. But…is that not EXACTLY what we do in church if we don’t do the homework?

We connect through God through prayer and his word, and if you miss this, then you are missing SO MUCH. Here’s the thing, though. If you do miss a day, don’t feel guilty over it. Pick up where you left off and move on. God’s not going to smite you if you miss your Wednesday reading, but He’ll love it when He gets to spend a little bit of extra time with you on Thursday morning. These spiritual disciplines are the foundation in which spiritual growth happens. Like any other discipline, these things take PRACTICE, but the payoff is huge. If I’m in the game, then I want to know the plays. Don’t you think that’s a good idea, church?

Point four on your outline: If you want to make it to the next grade, you need to build solid, Godly relationships. What does this look like? It means that every follower of Christ needs a Paul, a Barnabas, and a Timothy. Everybody needs a mentor, an associate, and apprentice. A ‘Paul’ should be someone wiser and further along in their walk than you. Maybe a pastor or maybe a friend, but someone you can trust with your spiritual growth. A ‘Barnabas’ should be someone on the same level…an accountability partner. And last, everyone should have a Timothy: someone not quite as far along in his or her walk who needs a mentor. Proverbs 27:17 says “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” Who do you have in your life that you can really trust to hold you accountable? Here’s the thing, I’ve been in places in my life where I have totally BLEW IT and if I would have had an accountability partner to pick up the phone and call, I would have responded to every one of those situations differently. Church! An accountability partner can be the difference between taking one step forward or three steps back.

So, you do your homework and you have a strong group of Christian friends. That’s good? Right? You can call it a day. No chance. Let me ask you since we’re on the subject of Back to School: What was one of the coolest things you could have in high school? Beside a car and a smokin’ hot girlfriend, of course? A varsity jacket. Did anybody here have your varsity jacket? Big ol’ letter on the back! I may not look like it now, but believe it or not, in high school, I earned my varsity jacket. Got the jacket my sophomore year and the letter my junior year. Yep. Proud owner of a varsity jacket. Sure, that jacket may have had “Marching Band” written on the back of it in huge letters, but that’s not really the point I’m driving home here.

If you want to make it to the next grade, you have to learn to serve others. That’s your last point. If you want your varsity jacket, you need to dig deep and get your hands dirty. You have to intentionally invest in other people with your time and resources. That may mean radically stepping out of your comfort zone from time to time.

Why should we step out of our comfort zones to serve others? We serve others in order to glorify God and to show His love for all people. During the sermon on the mount, Jesus says in Matthew 5:14-16 14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” In the early Acts church, the people in the church SELL EVERYTHING THEY OWN to give to the needy. So, what I’m trying to say is that Richard brought me here today to announce the first annual Lewisburg United Methodist Church garage sale.

Actually, this is the point I can tell you the second part of my story. I mentioned earlier that I fell away from God in college. Obviously something happened that brought me back to Him. I prayed and prayed that God would show me a new path, a path that He had for me. What’s funny is that I remember specifically praying, “God, I’m pretty hard-headed. So, if you could make it pretty obvious what I’m supposed to do, then that would be awesome.” Basically, “God, I don’t respond to gentle nudges, please just hit me over the head with a sledgehammer.” Well, God made it very clear that He wanted me to go to on a mission trip. Specifically, to Haiti. I didn’t want to do anything ‘that’ crazy, I was thinking like serve in a soup kitchen for a weekend or sell Christmas Trees, not go to one of the most impoverished countries in the world. I tried to reason with God. “Look, God I’m a 6’2” 400lb pasty white kid. I don’t exactly, how do you say, ‘fit in’ over there.

But, I gave in, God knows a bit more about what I need than I do, and the trip ended up being the best thing that ever happened to me. Ten days. I gave God Ten days of my life and He rocked my world. I went to Haiti a disenfranchised engineering student and came back wanting to spend the rest of my life changing the world for Jesus. It was the first time in my life I learned truly sacrificial, God-like love. It was the first time in my life I have been able to love, or serve, without having an ulterior motive. Up to that point, I only knew love on a transactional basis. “I will love you, but what’s in it for me? What’s the catch? There’s gotta be a catch. Nothing is free, not even love.” God used the people on that trip to completely change my worldview. Before I left for Haiti, I had a dream that I never came back. I was absolutely petrified, but I couldn’t back out. What I didn’t know is that the dream would be true. The Denny that went to Haiti wasn’t the same guy that came back to America.

God has something like that in store for ALL of you. God wants nothing more than for every one of you to advance His kingdom and keep moving forward. Maybe it is a mission trip, maybe it’s something as simple as starting a bible study or starting a new ministry. All I know is that from my own experience, all it takes is a single step of faith for God to radically change your world. We’ve talked about three areas of growth today and I ask that you try to find your weakest point, whether it’s service, fellowship, or study, and to make a commitment take ONE STEP to grow in this area. I ask EVERY ONE of you here this morning to pray to find God’s plan and purpose for you, and that you take steps to grow so that you can radically build his kingdom. I pray with every inch of my being that you try to find out what this is.