Friday, January 30, 2009

Living In the Midst of the Commandment Matthew 22:34-40

The message below was offered as a vision message for the coming year of our congregational life. Several have asked for me to post this one specifically.

I. Introduction
The second Sunday in January marks the anniversary of my installation as your pastor. Today we begin my fifth year with you. Memories of these first four years fill my mind and flood my heart. There is a white notebook in my office that holds every email and every document that was shared in my conversations with the Pastor Search Committee. Over the past few days I read through the notebook and remembered the profound sense of God’s presence and God’s movement that was evident throughout the process. I was not looking for a new opportunity and I was not among the resume’s the Search Committee had in hand. In a remarkable fashion God brought us together and worked through the process. Now, four years later, I simply can not imagine being in this place and serving as your pastor. I do not think I could have ever fathomed how much I would come to love you as a church family. I am deeply thankful for the opportunity you have given me to love you and to serve beside you. On that first Sunday morning I tried to look back to see where God was moving and lay out a vision where I thought God was next calling us together. And, each anniversary Sunday I have done the same. This morning’s message comes as no exception. We are in a very different place than we were four years ago.

We have witnessed a significant transition in our church staff and have gathered leaders from amongst the congregation, from the cold of Boston to suburban Dallas, from the environs to Ardmore to the hallways of Truett Seminary at Baylor. I am thankful for the leaders that have served this church throughout its history and who cared for this congregation in the days before I arrived. But I also celebrate the church staff members who have joined us over the past four years and for the others who have continued long seasons of ministry amongst us. I celebrate the diversity of gifts and skill that they bring us. I am thankful to call them colleagues and even more thankful to call them friends.

Our church facilities have also seen tremendous change. Our Renew First campaign is allowing us to restore this grand lady and return her to full usefulness again. The result is new Sunday School classes and new ministries in areas of the our building that had once stood silent. This grand facility is reclaiming her luster and her place in our community. I want to thank the leadership team for Renew First and celebrate your faithfulness in giving to make the renovations possible.

The face of our church has also changed. To be more direct, many, many of those in this room this morning were not yet a part of the First Baptist Church family when I preached my first sermon as pastor four years ago. I used to keep a little chart of those who had joined since I came as pastor. I quit when the paper I was using had no more room. Janice tells me we had 57 additions in 2008. We have already begun 2009 with five new members. The laughter of children again fill our hallways. We again see those in their 20’s, the 30’s, and young families finding their way in our church life. We again worship with those from the four corners of the globe. We again claim a choir loft that is full and represents the wide range of ages and life setting that call First Baptist home.

The temptation is for a pastor to try to claim some of the credit for what is happening, but to do so would be foolish. What we are witnessing is the movement of the Spirit of God. Hear me clearly, we can celebrate what God is doing but the honor and the glory is God’s alone. I am thankful to be a witness of God’s grace. I am thankful to be able to be in this place and a part of this church family and see what God has done. I can hardly wait to see what God will do next.

There is a passage that I believe defines our next season of ministry. It is found in Matthew 22: 34-40. It reads; 34Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:
36"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
This passage claims its place as “the greatest commandment.” Jesus claims two Old Testament commands and brings them together to define the heart of the law, the heart of what it would look like to be faithful to the word and way of God.

We have now emblazoned the heart of this passage on two walls of the North-South hallway. On one wall we read; “Love the Lord your God with all you heart, with all your soul, and with your mind.” On the opposing wall we read: and love your neighbor as you love your self.” As we come into and out of our church we walking in the midst of these words. It is a fitting image, because as a people of God we are called to live in the midst of the commandment. What would it look like for our mission and ministry to be defined by our love of God and our love of our neighbors? Look closely with me at our focal passage and consider what God might have to say to us this morning.

II. Loving God
The passage finds its place among a series of roving religious interrogations, first by the Sadducees, and then picked up by the Pharisees. They were trying to trip Jesus up, trying to find a place to accuse him of heresy. First they asked claimed the controversial political question of whether a good Jew should pay taxes to Caesar. Then they asked about the emotional issue of marriage at resurrection. When Jesus had dealt with these two, a Pharisee, identified as an expert in the law, raised a question that spoke from the breadth of scripture. He asks; “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus begins with the great Hebrew confession of faith called the Shema from Deuteronomy. Mark’s gospel quotes it directly. It reads; “Hear O Israel, the Lord God is One. You shall love your Lord your God with all of your heart, all of your soul and with all of your might.” Every faithful Jew standing in the crowd would have recited the Shema daily. You can almost hear their nodding with approval.

The heart of the Shema and of the first half of the Great Commandment focuses on Loving God with every aspect of our lives. We emblazoned this first half of the commandment on the wall that leads into The Commons that acts as the threshold into our educational wing and the primary entrance into the Sanctuary. The picture that I hope you capture is that as we come into Bible study and into worship our reason for being is to show and grow in our love for God. The modern understanding of love is an emotion or sense of affection. The scriptural understanding of our love for God is much stronger. It is depicted as a heart, soul, and mind commitment to the way of God. It is my fervent hope that the coming year will be defined by our choice as a congregation to grow in our deep and abiding love for God. There are some specific opportunities we will claim to try to help us in this journey.

· Beginning January 21st,on Wednesday evenings. we will walk through a ten week study of the Book of Acts, to help us better understand how God moved in the life of the early church and how the early church responded to the remarkable movement of God.
· In the weeks following Easter we will facilitate a church-wide encounter with the Experiencing God series. We will claim Sunday mornings and Wednesday evening from large group study and offer a wide range of small group options for those ready to dig deeper.
· In the fall we will host a regional prayer retreat in cooperation with several area congregations. This retreat will give us the opportunity to discover with others ways to strengthen our prayer life and personal devotions.
· We will continue to birth new Sunday morning Bible study classes and small group Bible study experiences to give you more options for finding your unique place for growth.
· As a critical part of this process I have asked Brad Stewart to take the staff leadership function and Gary and Pam Williams the lay leadership role to help us strengthen our discipleship ministry.
· In addition, you can be confident that we will continue to place a primary focus on designing worship services that will empower your worship and challenge you to experience God in fresh ways.

III. Loving Our Neighbor
Jesus claimed the second half of the greatest commandment from Leviticus 19:18 where the initial edict is to love a fellow Israelite or resident alien. Jesus dramatically expands this concept. In the story of the Good Samaritan he makes it clear that our neighbor is all who are in need. Jesus tells us that as in our care for the naked, the hungry, and the imprisoned- that as we do it until the least we also do it to Christ. This love of our neighbor is very inclusive. You will find it emblazoned on the wall we see as we leave Bible study and worship and go back into the world. If we have truly come before God in love and adoration, then the natural response will be to love the people that God loves.

Many more pessimistic pastors across the nation proclaim that this has become the forgotten commandment. With joy I can say that is not true here. When you look at those who volunteered: through Good Shepherd Ministries: with the Kids Hope mentoring program at Eugene Field Elementary School: through the Language Center: as a part of ShareFest: at the Labor Day of Love at the Boys Ranch Town: in a HisNets distribution in Ghana: at a orphanage in Guatemala: with street children in Peru: with disaster victims in Texas: as a part of the KidsHeart home reconstruction and outreach in the Rio Grande Valley: as a part of the Indonesia mission team: in the Middle East with seminary students: in Cohoma, Arkansas as a part of the Youth Mission Team; and a host of other projects: the percentage of our congregation that serve in hands-on missions is remarkable. In addition we gave the resources to buy teddy bears, clothes and toys for children, and other resources required in the ministries we claim as partners. All totaled we gave and spent over $125,000 in missions. We proclaim that we are “In the Heart of the City with a Heart for the Word.” You have shown it to be true. In the coming year we will continue to look for significant ways we can touch our world.

But, we will also have a greater focus on giving you the tools you need to love your neighbors. Listen closely and in the days ahead you will hear about training events as well as single day and short term experiences where you can grow in finding your place in loving our neighbors. Listen for the announcement as Jay Allen invites you to join him in the development of a disaster response team. Listen as we begin to offer opportunities to engage in hands-on opportunities in the Classen-Ten-Penn community – a place in the shadows of our steeple where struggle and desperation has become the norm. Listen for times when the Bible study group are invited to claim a Monday evening of service at Good Shepherd as we seek to expand it’s the hours of the food pantry and clothes closet for those working hard just to get by. Listen and claim your place and your way to love you neighbor.

Talk about what happens in the hallway and the opportunities it poses for us. In the end, what this year will look like in your life- whether you grow in your love of God and your love of neighbor will be your choice. My prayer is that you as an individual, and that we as a church family together, will choose to be people who live in the mist of the commandment and discover the kind of relationship with God and others we were created to have.

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