Saturday, May 30, 2009

Moving Mountains A Crisis to Belief

I remember the first time my father tried to help me to understand the joys of the combustible engine. We walked out to the car, opened the hood and he started pointing at things. He talked about pistons, carburetors, spark plugs, camshafts, crankshafts and an array of other engine parts. He described in great detail about the process I would need to follow to change the oil in my car. I have to confess that his passion for how engines worked and the mechanical language he spoke with such comfort was absolutely lost on me. No matter how hard he tried, the mysteries of the engine escaped me. I heard what he was saying, but just never got it. To this day I still take my car by the shop for every oil change.

It seems that there were times when Jesus wondered if his disciples understood anything he was teaching them. He spoke, they listened, but when it came to the real life every day practice of faith they just kept missing it. They just did seem to get it. We encounter one of these moments in Matthew 17:14-21. Come with me at as we listen in on a crisis of belief. Eugene Peterson begins the story in his interpretative translation The Message this way; 14-16At the bottom of the mountain, they were met by a crowd of waiting people. As they approached, a man came out of the crowd and fell to his knees begging, "Master, have mercy on my son. He goes out of his mind and suffers terribly, falling into seizures. Frequently he (tumbles tco) [is pitched] into the fire, other times into the river. I brought him to your disciples, but they could do nothing for him."

The story starts like many others when a family brings a hurting member of their family to Jesus. Over and over across the sweep of the gospels we see them come to Jesus. They come wanting Jesus to do something – anything – to help their loved one. In this story the see their son twisted by seizures, claimed by a demon, suffering with no end in sight. The boys father comes, falling to his knees, begging for Jesus to help. What makes this tragic scene even more shattering was found it its last line; I brought him to your disciples, but they could do nothing for him."

These words struck Jesus and drew an immediate response. 17-18Jesus said, "What a generation! No sense of God! No focus to your lives! How many times do I have to go over these things? How much longer do I have to put up with this? Since Jesus has sent the twelve out with the authority to heal and caste out demons they had seen him feed the multitude and walk on water. They had listen to Jesus teach and heard Peter’s great confession of faith. In the moments just before our story Peter, James and John had been on the mountaintop and had witness the power and the wonder of the transfiguration. Now, he discovers they have failed a family desperately in need. It sounds as if he can hardly believe it. What more did he have to do? What more did they have to see? What more did he have to say before they would understand the power and authority they had been given as his disciples?

Jesus first had to deal with the matter at hand. He saw the pain of the man and had to respond. Bring the boy here." He ordered the afflicting demon out—and it was out, gone. From that moment on the boy was well. It would be a good story if it ended right here. A boy who was broken was restored; a family who was shattered now experienced joy. It is a great healing story. It is a great act of restoration.

But the moment was not complete. The disciples knew there was a problem and they faced it head on. 19When the disciples had Jesus off to themselves, they asked, "Why couldn't we throw it out?" I imagine the question must have hung in the air. Jesus looks at them and answers; 20"Because you're not yet taking God seriously," said Jesus. "The simple truth is that if you had a mere kernel of faith, a poppy seed, say, you would tell this mountain, 'Move!' and it would move. There is nothing you wouldn't be able to tackle."

The disciples faced a crisis of belief. They knew what Jesus had told them. They knew what they had witnessed. But the somewhere between the word and act the crisis occurred. It is the moment when they know what we are called to do but the seed of doubt blossoms. When they came to this moment they faced the same issue we face every day. We wonder if we have enough strength, enough resources, or even enough heart to follow through on what God calls us to do. Casting out a demon is no walk in the park. It required the disciples to confront evil face to face. It demanded that they become participants in the eternal conflict between God and evil. It would be scary. It would demand great faith. It was more than they could muster.

Jesus wanted them to understand the power of faith. They had the spiritual resources they needed. God has called them. God had commissioned them. God was with them. The presence and the power of God was available to them. Jesus wanted them to know if they took God seriously – if they took God at God’s word – if they claimed the kind of faith he meant for them – then they could do what seemed impossible. He wanted them to understand that it was not about them changing their minds; it was about changing their hearts. It was not about them just hearing and understanding – it was about them believing.

For the past two week our Experiencing God small group studies and the messages on Sunday morning have focused on hearing God’s voice. Our struggle is found in the moment between hearing God speak and choosing to do something about it. It is a quiet crisis of belief. Today you heard Scott share his story of responding to God’s voice. We will hear from stories several others in the coming weeks. I’ve spoken to still others in phone conversations, in small group meetings, and in church hallways over the couple of weeks who have heard God’s voice and shared stories of how they have begun to respond. I believe that God is up to something special in our midst. God is calling people in our midst to new steps in faithfulness. God is speaking into ordinary lives and calling people to take simples steps toward extraordinary faith.

I believe that God is calling us as a church family to continue to reach out into our community and the world in boldness. On Thursday I drove to Texas to meet with the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Arlington, his wife who leads their congregational mission organization, and the great mission strategist Bill O’Brien. In a very ordinary side room at a Braums in Denton we agreed to do something together that could launch a new era in congregational collaboration in missions among Baptist. In November we at FBC OKC will host a meeting of somewhere between 35 to 50 pastors from leading moderate Baptist churches across the nation to look at how we work together to help reach the world in word and deed in the name of Jesus. The potential is extraordinary. We will look at how we come together in faith to move mountains.

I am confident that God is speaking across the life of congregation. For some the call is about giving of your life or your life skills. For others the call is about giving of your resources. For others the call is about joining this congregation and its journey with God. Regardless of what kind of call you might be hearing it is time for us to claim an unapologetic crisis of belief. It is not the kind of crisis that makes us doubt God – but rather that makes us reexamine how we have been living out our lives of faith – to be like the disciples and dare to ask the question “why have we not been able to do all you have asked of us?”. This crisis of belief will demand that we rethink what it means for us to take God seriously. This crisis will make us change our ways to doing life and faith. This crisis of belief will call for us to listen for God’s voice and to respond to God’s call regardless of the price or its seeming impossibility. It is about us accepting that God can and will speak into our lives – to hear – and to allow God to reshape our lives according to His purposes. But, be forewarned. There will be moments when we will join the disciples in fear and trembling wondering if we are up for the task. There will be moments when we will wonder if we have the spiritual resources to sustain us. There will be moments when we wonder if we are more driven by the balance sheet than the voice of God. There will be moments when the task before us will seem bigger than we are. There will be moments. But in these moments we will have to decide if we are ready to take God seriously. We will have to decide if we trust God enough to say “yes” and follow through.

The words of Jesus still hang in the air for me; "The simple truth is that if you had a mere kernel of faith, a poppy seed, say, you would tell this mountain, 'Move!' and it would move. There is nothing you wouldn't be able to tackle." Are we ready to listen and boldly respond?

Saturday, May 23, 2009

God Speaks Again Joshua 6:1-5

There have been moments in my life when I felt the gentle nudging of God’s direction in the depths of my soul. Sometimes it emerged from prayer. Other times it came from Scripture. Still other times it came from the voices of people I trusted. But there have been other times in my life when the call of God was so clear, so unmistakable that I knew exactly what I was supposed to do. My call to ministry late night at the close of my freshman year in college was one of those moments. My call to missions that carried me and my family to Southeast Asia was one of those moments. My call to come to serve as a part of the First Baptist family was one of those moments. Can you think of moments in your own life when God nudged you quietly or stirred you unmistakably? What did those moments feel like to you? How did you respond? These moments and how we respond to them can shape and define our life’s journey.

Our focal passage for the morning comes from Joshua, Chapter Six. You probably remember that Joshua was Moses’ right hand and when it came time for the people to enter the Holy Land God assigned him the task of taking the people in. Joshua’s story is a story listening for God’s voice and following God’s leading. The closing verses of Chapter Five paint a picture of one of those critical moments for Joshua. 13 And then this, while Joshua was there near Jericho: He looked up and saw right in front of him a man standing, holding his drawn sword. Joshua stepped up to him and said, "Whose side are you on—ours or our enemies'?" 14 He said, "Neither. I'm commander of God's army. I've just arrived." Joshua fell, face to the ground, and worshiped. He asked, "What orders does my Master have for his servant?" 15 God's army commander ordered Joshua, "Take your sandals off your feet. The place you are standing is holy." Joshua did it.

Can you imagine what this moment must have felt like for Joshua? An angel of God appeared to him and let him know he was not alone. There is a phrase we hear that echoes Moses’ encounter at the Burning Bush. “Take your sandals off your feet. The place you are standing is holy." What made the place holy was that the presence of God. We sometimes of this room as a holy place, but any sense of its holiness is not found because of the beautiful architecture but rather because of the moments we have experienced the presence of God in this place. For Joshua the holy place – the divine encounter was on a roadside outside of Jericho. For those who call this place home. we have come with expectation to this room and God has responded. Our song sings out and God stirs. Thanks God for the experiences from yesterday. Thanks be to God for the experiences that still await us.

But Joshua’s story at Jericho was not done. God speaks again. We hear it in one of those childhood stories with significant adult meaning. 1 Jericho was shut up tight as a drum because of the People of Israel: no one going in, no one coming out. 2-5 God spoke to Joshua, "Look sharp now. I've already given Jericho to you, along with its king and its crack troops." I can almost imagine what Joshua must have been thinking. “What do you mean you have already given me Jericho? Don’t you see the walls? Don’t you see the soldiers? Don’t you see the sad band of wanders I am supposed to lead?” Joshua’s task was a God sized task. It was beyond his capabilities. It was beyond his resources. The only way that Jericho could be taken was for God to act.

There are times when we are clear on God’s call – the direction he has for us to go – but the task seems too big. We can be paralyzed by the fear of failure. The problem is that if God has called us to a task then it is not our reputation at stake. We can find freedom in the fact that it is God who called and that God’s reputation is significantly more valuable than ours. If God beckons us then it is our task to be faithful and God that will empower and respond.

There are other times when we face a God sized task that we can be frozen because we are locked into a theology of scarcity that looks at what we do not have. We focus on the limits of our personal or financial resources. We keep trying to make it work with what we know we have on hand. The problem is that a theology of scarcity simply does find a place in scripture. We are told over and over again that God’s provision is sufficient. If we are called to a God sized task – or any task given by God – then God can and will provide the way.

Our congregation, like countless congregations across the country, is facing a season of economic concern. We see God stirring in so many places. We witness God’s fresh movements in so many ways. We see the evidence that God has called us to the great task of the restoration of this great church. We have been faithful in the renewal of the brick and motor. We have opened the doors of the worship and ministries of the church to our wider community and we see the way God has responded. We cannot allow a theology of scarcity to claim us – or to be frozen by the fear of failure – but must be confident that God can and will respond to us and through us. God’s call is clear. God’s stirring is unquestionable. We will together experience the wonder of God’s provision for us and through us.

God lays out the plan for Joshua; Here's what you are to do: March around the city, all your soldiers. Circle the city once. Repeat this for six days. Have seven priests carry seven ram's horn trumpets in front of the Chest. On the seventh day march around the city seven times, the priests blowing away on the trumpets. And then, a long blast on the ram's horn—when you hear that, all the people are to shout at the top of their lungs. The city wall will collapse at once. All the people are to enter, every man straight on in."

I want you to know that an engineer could tell you that a seven day march around town would not have weakened the support structures adequately to cause the walls the fall. A great jazz musician could tell you that the burst of the trumpets could excite, engage, or even entertain, but music could not cause the walls to fall. The dramatic image of the march and the music might have made those within the walls concerned, but would not have caused the walls to fall. The real story is about the people of God being faithful in doing what God told them to do. God’s people were faithful and God responded. I love this story because it borders on the absurd. Joshua was given an impossible task – a God sized task – and he decided no matter how difficult it seemed the right response was to hear God and go for it.

The rest of the story is just as you would expect. The people marched. The priest played their horns. The walls collapsed. Jericho was given to Joshua and to the people of God just as God had promised. The good news is that God still calls. God calls us to the little decisions that shape our everyday lives and sometimes God calls us as individuals and as a congregation to God sized tasks. The God who was faithful to Joshua is still faithful today. Our task is not to have it all worked out. Our task is to look for those holy places where God stirs, to listen for God’s voice and to be faithful to follow. There are walls to great ministry that wait to be torn down.

A Quick Web Vote Makes a Difference

A friend of mine named Dexton Shores who works with Buckner (a significant Baptist ministry focused on children and families) posted the following information on how a simple click on a website could make a real difference for some kids in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas. Let me encourage you to read his post offered below and then vote to help build the baseball field. Grace and Peace, Tom

You can make a difference in the lives of at-risk children living in one of the poorest communities in the U.S. and help them get a new little league field by simply taking a minute to cast your vote! If we can get another 2,000 votes by May 31st, they have a chance!, in collaboration with the CBF Rural Poverty Initiatives and a Georgia church had a baseball clinic and has committed to do community ministry/development projects in one of the poorest communities in the U.S. located on the Texas/Mexico border in Presidio, Texas. Presidio suffered a lot of damage from flooding last year and the children of the community need a new little league field. Kellogg's is paying to rebuild 30 ball fields in the United States and the Presidio Little League Field has made the 100 semi-finalist. The top 30 vote getters of these 100 will get a new ball field provided by Kellogg's. We only have until May 31 to vote.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Living Lives that Matter Classen SAS Baccalaureate

Below is the text of the Baccalaureate Sermon that I will offer at the Classen SAS service this afternoon hosted at First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City this afternoon.

You are almost there. It is Sunday, a day to celebrate. But the good news for you is that Wednesday is almost here. Soon you will hear your name called and will walk across the stage to receive your high school diploma. One significant journey will end and another will begin. Today we gather for one more occasion before that graduation walk. We gather in the church that I call home for an afternoon to consider what lies before you. The task I have been given is the Baccalaureate Sermon. The World Book Dictionary tells me that a Baccalaureate Sermon is “a sermon or other address delivered to a graduating class at, or the Sunday proceeding, commencement.” It is the Sunday before – we are gathered here – it must be time.

I confess that I have sat through enough dull sermons and speeches that my goal is to try to make sure this is not just another that you will add to your list. My hope is that you might feel that I am talking with you rather than just at you. I recognize that many gathered in this room come from other faith traditions or have chosen to claim no religious faith at all. While I come unapologetically from a Christian faith perspective, I hope that you will find elements of this message that might strengthen and encourage you as well.

In the main North-South hallway of our church we have chosen to emblazon a particular passage of scripture that I believe helps us claim lives that matter. It is traditionally called The Great Commandment. We hear it in its fuller context 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.'[a] 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'[b] 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

Love 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?”

Have you ever taken a test when you felt that the purpose of the test was for you to fail? For most gathered in the crowd that day, the question the Pharisee asked of Jesus was a question with no answer. In a moment the Pharisee tried to draw Jesus into the popular debate among religious leaders about which of the commandments were the more important and less important of the hundreds of laws the Jews had accumulated. The Pharisees had classified over six hundred laws and spent much time discussing which laws were weightier than others. Some religious leaders tried to distinguish between major and minor laws; some taught that all laws were equally binding and that it was dangerous to make any distinctions.

Jesus wanders in with no fear. He 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. Jesus adds; 38This is the first and greatest commandment.

We live in an era when we are taught to question everything. I think there is some real value in that process. It helps us to distill what is worthy of our time and attention. Jesus wanted the crowd to hear that he was not talking about a blind following of rules and regulations but rather to claim a faith born in passion, in the depths of our souls, and in our intellect pursuits. God is not looking for religious puppets but for those who will test their faith and find its worth – who will wrestle with the big questions and find God worthy.

Love your God
Ø With all your heart – a love born in power and passion.
Ø With all your soul – the nephish – the living spiritual essence
Ø With all of your mind – a love born in passion and intellect. We are not asked to throw our mind away- but to claim it and use it as an act of love.
Ø With all of your strength – energy, power, might.

Jesus tells them that if they want to live lives that matter – then to begin with their love of God.In the coming days your faith decisions will be most profoundly by your own heart and your own decision process. If you want to live lives that matter ask the hard questions and fall in love with God.

Love Our Neighbor
I imagine to the surprise of many listening, Jesus does not stop with the Shema. He takes another step. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

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. 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. I can understand their reasoning. It is easy to look around and see people who have dedicated their whole lives to seeing how much they can get. They measure their value in the size homes they can buy or the brand car that they drive. Our culture is an unabashed in its lifting the rich, the famous, the powerful, or the pretty as our models. But, Jesus did not come to this command with a pessimistic mindset. He wanted the people to understand that the only thing that could lie beside a call to love God was to love the people that God loves. It is about others he tells us.

We live in a country where there is a growing gap between the haves and have-nots. The temptation is to become numb to the presence of those struggling with poverty or abuse – to look over them rather than into their lives. But the story is not all dark. We also live in a country where there are ever increasing opportunities to stake your careers – your lives in the service of others. In a moment not unlike this one, news achor Tom Brokaw told a group of seniors; “You are educated. Your certification is in your degree. You may think of it as the ticket to the good life. Let me ask you to think of an alternative. Think of it as your ticket to change the world.” I would add, if you want to change the world – then decide to love others with the same passion you love yourself – look out for the interest of others with the same passion you look out for your own interest – care about the success of others with the same passion you care about your own success.

Jesus would model a self-sacrificing love of others on a hillside outside of Jerusalem and celebrate it with an empty tomb on Easter morning. He told his followers that they should be known by how the loved each other and cared for others. He lifted up those who were willing to give of themselves for the sake of others and set aside those who claimed for position, place, or power.

On a dirt road on the edge of town some two thousand years ago, when asked what was the greatest commandment, he set aside the quest for religious rules and regulations and told them it was about loving God and loving others. If you want to live lives that matter, the call is still the same.

God Speaks Philippians 2:12-18

Each year I have come to the Senior Recognition Sunday and watched the eyes of parents as they celebrated this pivotal moment in the life of their son or daughter. But, in those same moments I also caught the hint of sadness in their eyes found in acknowledging the babe they once held in their arms was now ready to head off into the world. This week I come with a different appreciation of that moment because one of those high seniors is my own.

Over the years I have heard a seeming endless stream of baccalaureate sermons and graduation speeches. Most seem to waffle somewhere between the ridiculous and the profound. It seems the speakers have each wanted to take their shot at saying something, anything, that the graduates might remember. Our focal passage this morning seems to carry that same sense of urgency. Beth read the passage earlier in our service. You can find it printed on the front page of our worship guide. What we hear is that Paul wanted to both challenge and encourage the church in Philippi. He had helped to start them and he had come to place where he was not sure he would get to see them again. When you read through Acts and read just beneath the surface of the other letters of Paul found in the New Testament, it would be my best guess that the church at Philippi was his favorite church. This is one of the churches that emerged from his following his Macedonian call. This is the church that starts with Lydia and those praying along the riverside. It is where he was imprisoned and God shook the earth and broken open the doors of the prison. It is where the jailer and his family responded to the worship witness of Paul and Silas and came to Christ. I tell you this because I want you to know when Paul challenges this church it is born in the deep love and affection he has for them. He knows that they are at a pivotal moment in their journey.

So our focal passage begins in verse 12; 12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, Paul reminds them that they have chosen to claim a faith that has sustained them and guided them in good days and difficult ones; in days when he was there to encourage them and the days when they were on their own. He challenges them with words that are hard to hear; continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, In Baptist life we are quick to talk about the eternal nature of salvation – and it is true. But here, Paul wants them to understand that the redemption does not stop at the moment of faith, it is a continuing journey of choosing to give yourself –your joys and your failures – to God. With fear and trembling we continue to come before God to acknowledge that we sometimes blow it (OK often blow it) and need God’s forgiveness – a fresh taste of his love and grace. He wanted them to keep listening for the voice of God and to seek God’s stirring in their lives. Many of you we have recognized this morning will be leaving this city and leaving this church to find your way into your next season of life. It is our hope that we will have helped you to discover and strengthen your foundation of faith. As you go, I encourage you to continue work at your faith – to continue to claim the power of redemption – to keep seeking God’s way. The temptation to his the snooze button will be strong when you are on your own. You will have to choose to continue to work out your salvation.

This afternoon I am doing Classen School of Advanced Studies Baccalaureate Service. In doing some of my homework for the event, I ran across what has become one of my favorite graduation speech quotes. It comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He offered: “What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.” We hear this theme when Paul finishes his sentence. He says, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. This phrase has always stopped me in my tracks. Paul wanted them to understand that God was at work in them and through them. What lies inside is more than the accumulation of our knowledge or the breathing expression of our dreams. God is at work in you and me. God wants to speak to us and through us. He is at work in our lives with an amazing purpose.

Listen to the second half of our passage that starts in verse 14, 14Do everything without complaining or arguing, 15so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe 16as you hold (on to) the word of life. Paul wanted them to get past the petty stuff we do, like complaining, bickering, and arguing so that we would stand out in contrast to those around us –so that we would be the kind of children of God we were intended to be. Complaints and argument begins the moment when we feel we are more right than others. It is all about us. Paul reminds them of this by claiming verbiage that would have immediately taken the hearers of the letter to Israel’s murmuring and grumbling against God in the desert in the Exodus story. There were words that would have struck them deeply. Paul wanted them to understand that these kinds of self focused moments took them away from where God wanted them to be. Instead, Paul tells them that God’s desire was for them to shine like stars in the universe. I think I came to understand this picture one night when I was driving in West Texas somewhere between Nowhere and Notthereyet. The road was empty, the surroundings were remarkably still, and the sky had never seemed so big in my life. There were no street lights – or even other car lights – on the horizon – only the stars in this big black sky. The stars shined so bright. Each was unmistakable from the others. Together they lit the sky. God’s purpose is at work in our lives – redeeming and renewing us – so that we might be like the stars – shining in the darkness of broken lives and shattered spirits. We are suppose to shine so bright we can point others the way.

But Paul understood that they could not shine like stars on their own. He tells them that they are to shine 16as you hold (on to) the word of life or maybe better understood as you hold onto "the message that brings life." If they were to fulfill God’s desire they had to be tuned into God’s voice so that they could hear God speak. In my early teen years, in an era long before Ipods, I had a cool little AM/FM radio. Football and basketball games in our area always seem to land on AM stations. You could not just punch in their station numbers you would have to fiddle with the dial, to get through the static and carefully tune into the channel. I think sometimes all the things going on in our lives are like that old AM static. We have to figure how to tune out the static and tune into the message that brings life. The question is not whether God is speaking to us, but whether we have positioned our lives to hear.

Paul wanted the church in Philippi to succeed – to shine like stars in the universe because they were the living reflection of his ministry. He tells them that he wants this for them not only for their sake but also in order that I may boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor for nothing. 17But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. 18So you too should be glad and rejoice with me. He wanted to know that his life and ministry made a difference in their lives. He had been faithful to hear God speak and his willingness to be faithful when he heard God speak and call him to Macedonia. He longed for his favorite church to listen for God’s voice and respond.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Big News in Missions

I am very excited about the news that the Atlas of Global Christanity is ready for release. Attached is the promotional flyer and information how you can order this great resource for your personal library.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Sunday, May 10, 2009

"Love and God's Invitation" John 14:19-24

The title for this morning’s message emerges from this week’s Experiencing God session. The sermon seeks to walk along side our of small group encounters. But, if I were dealing with this same focal text in another context I probably would have entitled the message, “At Home with God.”

Our text emerges from one of Jesus’ conversations with his disciples where he was trying to help them understand what their life and faith would be like on the other side of the resurrection. We hear their struggle. We feel their fears. We stand on this side of the story. We know how the story ends. They stood in the days before – the days when the words of promise must have felt more like mystery than certainty. John would place these words in the hours before Gethsemane –Upper Room words designed to comfort his disciples and to prepare them for what waited just ahead for them. Come, and listen in on the conversation with me. In John 14:19-24 we hear Jesus saying;
19Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him." 22Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, "But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?"

23Jesus replied, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.

Jesus wanted the disciples to understand that even when he was no longer with them in body that they would be at home with God – that God would be present with them. They are invited into a unique love relationship. Jesus is inviting them to become a part of his love relationship with the Father. But, the invitation comes with the expectation that they will love God, be obedient to the word and way of God, abide in their relationship with God – to BELONG to God.

Jesus understood the doubts of his disciples. He also understood that their doubts are the doubts many deal with every day. Her name is Helen, but she us not quite sure where she fits. She made some bad decisions early in her life. She deals with a quiet discomfort every time she comes to church. She wonders if anyone knows about her past. She wonders if someone around her sits in silent judgment. She wants to belong – to feel like she belongs to the church – and to feel like she belongs to God. She goes through the church motions. She sits and wonders if she will ever really belong.

His name is Keith and he finds himself frustrated. He wants to believe all this Jesus stuff, but he wonders if it is like his father said, that religion is a sign of weakness. He longs to know if God is real. He longs to feel God’s love. He sings the hymns and dresses in his best. He sits and wonders if he will ever really belong.

Jesus wants the disciples to understand that their relationship with God is born in obedience. We hear Jesus say; 20On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. It seems that as soon as we hear the word “obey” and “commands” we make the rapid jump to the Ten Commandments and leap into a faith driven by rules and regulations. When Jesus talks about obeying his commands we need to let go of our preconceptions and listen to Jesus. We hear Jesus tell us that the great commandment is to love our God with all our heart, our soul, and our might and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We hear Jesus to come to the table and to claim the images of the broken body and shed blood in remembrance of him. The kind of commands that Jesus drives us toward are relational. They push us toward giving ourselves wholly to God and meaningfully to each other. It measures us not in how we follow the rules – but how we act out in love. Jesus tells us; He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him." I wish those that call themselves Christian would spend less time trying to erect monuments to the Ten Commandments and spend more times focused on the living out of the greatest commandment….loving God and loving their neighbor because of their love of God.

The kind of obedience Jesus speaks of beckons us to a different kind of relationship with God than one built on rules and regulations. He will model it with the ultimate act of love and sacrifice. Back to the conversation; 22Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, "But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?" 23Jesus replied, "If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Jesus was inviting them into the kind of relationship with God where God is at home in our lives – in our hearts – in our souls. It calls us the kind of relationship with God where we do not stand at a distance in fear of what God do to us, but rather where we are drawn so close to God that where the will and way of God ends and ours begins is inseparable. It is the kind of relationship where we can allow ourselves to experience the love of God – to see God stir in our lives. It is about allow ourselves to linger in God’s love – to hang around in the midst of God presence. It is about slowing down long enough – to put the distractions aside – to still the cell phone – to turn off the television – to pause our hectic schedules - and allow ourselves to experience what it means to have God at home within us. If we are willing to believe and obey then we will discover that God has been taking the initiative all along – that God has been making the way – and that God will come and make His home with us.

The passage closes with strong words from Jesus; 24He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. Jesus wanted them to understand that their lives would be defined in how they lived out the call to love God and to love others. He wanted them to understand that these words were not just his words – but were unapologetically given by the Father. He wanted them to understand that these words belonged to the Father – the Father that sent him – and would soon send them. I bring you good news – because of God’s great love – and because of God’s initiative that call us to him – we are invited to be at home with God. You belong. You have a place. You fit. God invites you to a relationship that is up close and personal.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Hard Numbers to Hear on Human Trafficking

“Trafficking in human beings is now the third-largest moneymaking venture in the world, after illegal weapons and drugs. In fact, the United Nations estimates that the trade nets organized crime more than $12 billion a year” (Victor Malarek The Natashas: Inside the New Global Sex Trade).
It grieves me to think about how many people choose to live their lives and make their livings exploiting others. Join me in praying for those who find themselves being treated as disposable products rather than people created in the image of God.
Grace and Peace, Tom

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A Love Relationship I John 3:16-20

The sermon draft text below speaks to the theme from the third week of Experiencing God, "A Loving Relationship." It is offered in the context of a multilingual worship experience with music ranging from preschoolers, the Chin, and our Sanctuary Choir. It will also feature a relational testimony and the sharing of the Lord's Supper.

I hardly know where to begin this morning. My task is to help us look at the third week’s theme in Experiencing God focused on claiming a love relationship with God. My struggle is that although we find ourselves within the walls of this historic church, I am speaking a foreign language to many. In some recent reading Nolen Dunaway ran across something that speaks meaningfully to our conversation this morning. He reports; According to the Barna Research Group, a majority of people who attend church leave without felling that they truly had experienced God's presence. Less than one-third of the adults feel as though they truly interacted with God. Stunningly, one-third of adults who regularly attend worship services say that they have never experienced God's presence at any time during their life. According to George Barna, "The research shows that while most people attend church services with a desire to connect with God, most of them leave the church disappointed, week after week. Eventually people cease to expect a real encounter with God and simply settle for a pleasant experience."[i]
I long for you to know so much more than a pleasant experience. I long for you to know the power and the joy found only in the depths of a real and meaningful love relationship with God. You heard Carlos read our focal passage earlier in our worship service. Hear it again; 16This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. 17If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? 18Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. 19This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence 20whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

This passage demands that we understand that love is more than a fleeting emotion. It is the living and breathing expression of our faith relationship with God. It is a love modeled in Christ. We hear that the way we know what love looks like is that Jesus laid down his life for us. In a few short words the passage carries to the foot of the cross and the moment of divine sacrifice. For much of my life it seemed that the cross of Christ was almost exclusively an instrument of guilt. The pastors of my childhood seemed determined to make me feel the agony of every strike of the anvil – they wanted me to understand my place, my responsibility in the crucifixion of Christ. It made it first and foremost my story. I believe that they were wrong. First and foremost the cross of Christ was an act of God, an act of choice to make the way of redemption. I have my place at the cross, but we must first see the cross as the ultimate symbol of love. It is a place where God takes the initiative. It is the consummation of the John 3:16 promise that God so loved the world – so loved you and me -that he sent his son. In a few minutes we will come to the table to once again celebrate Communion. It reminds us that the reason for the broken body and shed blood is to bring us into communion – into an intimate relationship with God.

Our passage then turns the tables. It tells us that the love we discover at the feet of God is supposed to become love in action. When we know the love of God it should change everything for us. It calls us to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of others, to be more focused on their needs than your wealth or wants. I am not talking about a social gospel that drives us to do good for others out of our desire to be good or benevolent. It is not a top down – let those who have look out for those who don’t. It is about caring for others because the love of God so stirs within us that we see people the way God sees them – that we love them because God loved them. We love because they are a part of us – those whose lives are defined by God’s love. It is the kind of love relationship we heard testimony to earlier in our worship experience. It is the kind of relationship that Betty and Nuam share. It is a love relationship born in the willingness of both to open their lives to each other. 18Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

The passage concludes by reminding us that this love relationship with God is a matter of the heart. It paints the picture of our hearts finding rest in God’s presence. Can you imagine the kind of love relationship with God where we can find freedom from the stresses and the fears that so often consume us? Can you imagine the kind of relationship with God where God leads us by the stirring of our hearts? This kind of a relationship with God gives us a glimpse into the nature of God’s love for us For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.

I sometimes wonder if we forget that the desire of God is that we claim the kind of relationship where we can experience God’s love – a transforming and redeeming kind of love- and in turn we love God and each other with the same kind of love. I wonder if we forget that the intention of God from the creation was an authentic two way relationship. In our study series we hear Henry Blackaby tell us; “A love relationship with God is more important than any other factor in your life.”[ii] It is not just about us singing songs, listening to sermons, our even analytically studying our Bibles – it is also about allowing ourselves to experience God’s love and God presence. Our goal is not to settle a pleasant experience at church, but to experience an intimate loving relationship with God that changes everything in our lives and our walk with God.

OK, you are probably thinking, this sounds good and sounds like a lot of good church talk, but how do I make it real in my life?
*It begins by making the choice to accept God’s love for you. God initiates the relationship by making the way for a relationship through Christ.
*It calls us to allow God to move in our heart and life. It is about opening our will and our way to the kind of love we see modeled in Christ and lived out in action.
*It beckons us to see that this love relationship with God is to be the most important factor in our lives. It is about seeking God’s face – listening to God’s voice – claiming the two way relationship where we allow God to love us and in turn pour ourselves into loving God – doing whatever it takes to connect with God.
*It is about claiming moments like this one and seizing a way of worship where we move from observers and spectators to become active participants – diving in, lifting our voices, opening our hearts, listening for God’s voice, letting God stir us and move us – letting ourselves rest in God’s presence and lingering in God’s love.

I bring you good news. God loves you and wants an intimate personal relationship with you. Are you ready to experience the love and the presence of God? You don’t have to settle. It’s time!

[i] Beard, Steve, Power, Holiness and Evangelism: Rediscovering God's Purity, Power and Passion for the Lost, an article cited by Nolen Dunaway in a communication with his Experiencing God small group.
[ii] Blackaby, Henry, Experiencing God, Revised and Expanded, (Lifeway Press: Nashville, 2007, Third Printing 2009), p.54