Sunday, February 28, 2010

Below is a homily that is offered in the context of a worship service focused on hearing God's call and choosing to say "yes." What the reading of this text is missing is the power of three very personal testimonies and a wide range of power musical elements. It was a great day in worship.

This morning’s worship service is a service of testimony. It is the natural outcome any time we choose to focus on what it means to follow Jesus. This morning we heard from Kathryn, Joey, and Beth, each sharing how they saw God move among the Chin refugees in Malaysia – and how they saw God move in their own lives as a result. We listened to the Sanctuary Choir musically testify about the call of Jesus’ first disciples and how they responded. We lifted our voices together in song testifying to the reality that Jesus still calls and we are beckoned to respond. We heard Bruce sing out his choice to follow Him. We now come to a testimony that arises from the pages of the New Testament. It is a story of one who was not worthy, who Jesus calls as one who would help change the world. Let’s listen to his story in Mark, Chapter 2, verses 14 through 17.

13Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector's booth. "Follow me," Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

15While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the "sinners" and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: "Why does he eat with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" 17On hearing this, Jesus said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."

It can be entertaining listening to the various Biblical scholars try to sort through whether this one in the story named Levi is the brother of another disciple, James, who is also identified as the son of Alphesus or is James – carrying two names like Simon Peter – or whether Levi is also known as Matthew, because Matthew’s call story in another Gospel is virtually identical. I tend to land with the later, connecting Levi and Matthew’s story, and seeing James as the brother. If you remember Peter and Andrew are also brothers called to follow Jesus, as were James and John, the sons of Zebedee. I think we sometimes we have failed to give adequate attention to the natural relationships that are found among the early disciples of Jesus. For some reason it has been easier for people to read these call stories in isolation, seeing them as almost random encounters, where Jesus called and the disciples responded. As I read the stories emerging from the pages of the New Testament and watch the interplay of relationships, I believe that Jesus already knew many of those he first called to follow. When they heard his call, they were ready to lay everything aside to walk with him. They were ready to do whatever they needed to follow him.

The crowd followed Jesus and listened to him to teach as they walked along the lake’s edge. As they came to the toll booth they found Levi sitting there, doing his job. He was not a Chief Tax Collector like we will hear later about Zacchaeus, who would have made outrageous profits from the corrupt exploitation of the people. Levi was much further down the economic food chain, a mere toll collector, but still would have been seen as an outcast, as unworthy, by much of the crowd – and clearly so- by the religious leaders of the day. But Jesus sees people differently than others. He calls out to Levi, invites him to follow and Levi – without hesitation or reservation – got up and followed Jesus. It would be a great testimony if the story stopped right here. Jesus saw one who the world saw as unworthy as worthy of becoming his disciple – not because of the applause of the crowd but because of God’s incredible grace. This is a story we could hear and cheer because it would testify that our task is not to be perfect, but to be faithful in saying “yes” when Jesus calls us to follow – whatever that means for us – wherever it might take us – whether to Malaysia or across the street.

But there is more to the story. We move from the grace act at the toll both to a scene of a grand party staged for tax collectors and sinners, all of those considered religious and social outcasts in the community. The teachers and preachers of that era could not believe it. “What are you doing hanging out with people like this?” they asked Jesus. Jesus tells them, “It would be easy just to call the easy - those living the ‘right’ kind of life. I have come to call those on the outside looking in.” I think the reason I am so moved by this story is that I have to wonder where I would fit if other got to choose who was a religious insider worthy of God’s call. I know that there are many who would challenge my strong support for women in ministry. I know that there are others who would worry about my heart of the poor. I accept that still others would contend that since my everyday conversation is not loaded with religious language that I might not be holy enough. I am pretty certain that if some of the pious leaders of the religious right could decide who was in and who was out, I would probably be banished to a toll box or a party loaded with tax collectors and sinners. The good news is that Jesus shows up in exactly those kinds of places to call us to follow.

Levi is sitting in his toll booth going about his daily routine, then in a moment Jesus changes everything. One becomes a follower in a single moment, but discipleship is born in walking and talking with Jesus over time. Levi’s story begins when he responds to Jesus’ call. He could have never imagined the journey ahead of him. He would spend the next three years listening to Jesus teach, watching him heal the hurting and redeem the broken. He would walk with Jesus and experience the agony of seeing Jesus’ crucified and the joy of the resurrection. When he stood up and stepped out of his tool booth he could have never imagined what it would mean to follow Jesus. He just knew the Jesus called and the only answer he could speak was “yes!”

This morning I want to ask you one question; “is Jesus calling you?”
• If you have found yourself on the outside looking in and need to hear Jesus’ call to follow in faith, what is stopping you from saying “yes” today?
• If you have found yourself spending so much time with the religious that you no longer find yourself at parties of grace designed to welcome the tax collectors, the sinners, and those outside of faith, what is stopping you from joining the party today and extending your hand and your life to others today? Some do this by serving in one of our many community ministries like KidsHope or Good Shepherd. Others respond to God’s call to serve in short term missions overseas. Others respond in service in the ministries of this church. This question is not whether there are opportunities, but rather which opportunity is God inviting you to pour yourself.
• If you have found yourself having said “yes” to Jesus, never left the toll booth to follow Jesus on the road to discipleship, what is stopping you? The word and way of Jesus beckons you.
• If you have found yourself sitting in your toll booth going about your routine of life and have heard Jesus calling you to stand up and step out to follow God into missions or ministry, what is stopping you? It seems that the broader Church has become bashful about asking people to hear and to respond to God’s call to ministry and missions. It is our loss. God has not stopped calling. If you feel God’s call on your life, what is stopping you from standing up and stepping out today?

We cannot respond out of guilt or a sense of duty, but rather we are called to respond out of an authentic relationship and a strong sense of call. This morning I challenge you to claim kind of relationship with Jesus where when we are called the natural answer is “yes” wherever it might take us. Just like Jesus could not begin to tell Levi about the journey that lay before him, I cannot tell you what lies ahead for you if you choose to hear God's call and choose to follow. What I can tell you is that wherever you go, you will with Jesus.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

How do--and should --churches die? An article of interest

Below is an article that ran on the Associated Baptist Press on Friday that raises some issues that churches need to address if they are to remain vibrant or are going to choose to die. Read on.....

A Time to Die: How do -- and should -- churches die?
By Vicki Brown
Friday, February 26, 2010
(ABP) -- Churches close their doors every day. But is a church’s death inevitable? Who can give congregations permission to die? Should church members feel guilty for closing their facility’s doors?

Peter Bush, author of In Dying We are Born: The Challenge and the Hope for Congregations, believes every church must “be prepared to die” because each will die in one of two ways. Each church must die to “deeply held understandings of life and the purpose of the congregation” or it will close its doors.

Congregations are organisms, subject to an organism’s life cycle -- birth, development, plateau and aging -- and that cycle is inevitable, Bob Dale, author of To Dream Again, Seeds for the Future and Cultivating Perennial Churches, believes.

“Living things don’t live forever, but there are some living things that last a long, long time,” he said.

Les Robinson, vice president of interim-ministry resources for the Center for Congregational Health, also sees the cycle of life. “Churches are human institutions. Why shouldn’t they complete the same cycle?” he asked.

Some point out the Bible reveals the pattern, as well. A kernel of wheat must die before it can produce a plant and new seeds, according to John 12:24. The verse usually is interpreted in the light of Jesus’ death. But the verse has broader application, Bush believes.

“We have tended to read that as an individual ... but I also think it applies to the corporate body,” Bush said. “The pattern of dying and rising is continual.”

Even churches important to the early Christians faced death, Glenn Akins, associate executive director for the Baptist General Association of Virginia, said. The seven churches in the New Testament book of Revelation no longer exist, he pointed out.

Causes of death

What causes a church to die? Akins believes lack of leadership and denial of decline contribute to a church’s demise. “When multiple people are involved, the church doesn’t have to die. But without adequate leadership, without wise decisions, it will die,” he said.

Change -- or failure to keep pace with it -- can be the major factor in church deaths.

“Churches are birthed because of a need,” noted Jim Hill, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri. “On the frontier, churches were birthed as communities sprang up. But some of those communities are gone, and that’s not the fault of the church.”

Communities often change complexion and cultural makeup. Differences in the ways cultural and age groups define the community concept also determine the type of church that will survive.

“Many churches were started with a sense of neighborhood ... a geographical community,” Akins said. “The hitch is with all the cultural changes going on, we don’t find it that way anymore.... Those [churches] that are ‘parish-based’ and have never changed their ministry model will not make it.”

Closure or revitalization

What indicators might signal a church should close or rethink its ministry? What questions might congregations ask themselves as they face change?

Churches most frequently use traditional indicators -- membership numbers and weekly receipts -- to determine success. Congregations should begin to ask hard questions as soon as they recognize decline, Hill insisted.

Robinson agreed that those traditional markers catch churches’ attention. “Money, membership and attendance are usually what get our attention first. Those are the practical things,” he said.

But the more abstract aspects of church life often determine whether a church should close. “We must be very clear about our mission and our vision ... who we are at this place, at this time, at this moment in history,” Robinson said.

Clarity of identity is critical, he believes, emphasizing that today’s congregations can’t hang onto the vision they had in the 1950s and ’60s. “We can’t fulfill that,” he said.

“Sometimes churches lose their identity or their clarity. Churches need to ask themselves on a regular basis to keep their identity clear. That doesn’t automatically eliminate the struggle with the practical, but it helps the congregation be able to look at their future.”

A church’s identity can be expressed in its mission, Dale said. A vibrant understanding of mission can help a congregation determine whether it should close or find a new way to move forward.

One question churches might ask: Is our sense of calling, our sense of mission still alive in this place?” the author said.

Hill also believes congregations must focus on mission first. “Perhaps the most critical questions are: Are there people who need to be reached, and who are not being reached? Can we adapt our ministry to those who are not being reached? Can we build ministry that will help us respond to needs?” he said.

Morale is important as well, Dale noted. Churches often will do what their members “believe they can do,” he said.

Closing with hope

Members and even denominations often view church closure as failure. Baptists do not have a system in place to help churches prepare to die. “We need to do better at helping churches recognize new possibilities or to help them close,” Robinson said.

Celebration can mitigate guilt and help the congregation recognize the church’s contribution to God’s Kingdom.

“Find a time of storytelling. Sharing is the way to celebrate, to look at the ministry as having done what God called us to do,” Robinson added. “That’s success, not failure.”

Hill agreed celebration can help heal, especially if it is followed by rebirth. “Celebrate the ministry, conclude it, and then focus on birthing a church where a new one is needed,” he said.

“Bodies die, but the Body of Christ doesn’t,” Dale stressed. “It may wane in one place but will rise up in another.”

-30-

Vicki BrownThis is associate editor of the Missouri Baptist Word & Way.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Movie Shoot At FBC OKC

The Heaven's Rain production crew will be back at the church today, Monday, and Tuesday for their final filming sessions at FBC OKC. This inspiring feature film is based on the story of Brooks Douglas after the violent murder of his parents and the shooting of he and his sister by two traveling strangers. What begins as a quest for justice takes an unexpected turn toward forgiveness. The movie in not a specifically "Christian" movie, but the key players and the overall theme is born in the waters of faith. You can learn a bit more about the movie at http://web.me.com/gottfred/Heavens_Rain/Movie.html. I am glad that we can open our doors to this production and I celebrate in advance the impact this movie might have on those who will see it.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

In the Face of Temptation Matthew 4:1-11 NIV

This is the sermon from February 21st. Would love to hear your thoughts on the nature of temptation and our response.

This past Wednesday we began a 40 day Lenten and listening experience of hearing the breadth of the New Testament as a part of our preparation for Easter. In an effort to reinforce what we are hearing, the sermons from today through Easter will emerge from the passages we are hearing over the course of the week. My hope is that by paralleling the listening and the proclaiming of the good news from across the New Testament we will find our Easter celebrations so shaped by the story of Jesus and the early followers of the Christ that a fresh movement of the wind of the Spirit will stir amongst us The first stories we have listened to have drawn us into the Book of Matthew. This is familiar terrain for those taking part in the Wednesday night Bible studies on the humanity of Christ. Our listen sessions and Wednesday study now converge as we look at Matthew 4:1-11. It invites us into the Galilean desert with Jesus in the moments after his baptism, when he has heard the grand pronouncement, “This is my Son in whom I am well pleased.” In the baptismal waters Jesus’ intimate relationship with the Father has been affirmed. In the hard desert it will be tested. The ground is as much rock as sand and there is little of beauty to be seen. It is dry and desolate and an appropriate backdrop for the moment that will define Jesus.

Fred Craddock, the great preacher/teacher tells; “Matthew presents temptation not as a private morality game but as a contest about the shape and nature of ministry. Jesus will soon preach good news to the poor and release to captives, relieve the bruised, cleanse lepers, and heal the blind and crippled. Of course, he will be opposed immediately. Forces that traffic in human misery and reap huge profits from the poverty of others will try any means to turn him from such a ministry.” I believe that Craddock is right. We see it not only in the story of Jesus, but in every story when the followers of Jesus respond to the movement of God and dare to stand out and strike out to do the will of God. Almost immediately we can see spiritual opposition and human temptation the calls us in another direction – any other direction – other than following the path that God has laid before us. In the temptation story we see a very human side of Jesus when he has to decide what kind of Messiah he is called to be – and is going to be. So I invite you to join me as we witness the Jesus’ encounter with the tempter. In the process we will learn much about Jesus, and much about ourselves.

The Temptation of Self Reliance Vs. 1-4
As we heard earlier from Abby Miner, the story begins; 4:1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." 4 Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" The first temptation seems simple enough on the surface. It is the temptation for Jesus to use the power of his divinity to fill his hungry stomach. Jesus had been fasting for 40 days and 40 nights and the reality of his very human hunger would have been ever present. You can imagine the stomach pangs. The scripture makes it clear Jesus is hungry! The desert would offer little or no relief. You can hear the sarcasm in the tempters voice. I can almost hear him; “Come on, you know how hungry you are, if you really are the Son of God, why don’t you just turn these ugly old stones to hot, fresh steaming bread that can fill your stomach.”

Some of you may remember the old Flip Wilson line, “the Devil made me do it.” That old comedic line was intended to make you laugh at some crazy thing he had just done. But you hear the same idea in the voices of those who have made a bad choice and say, I just could not help myself.” The reality is that the devil could not make Jesus - or us – do anything. The tempter has his bounds. He can persuade, but the choice is Jesus’. Biblical scholar Brian Soffregen (Faith Lutheran, Marysville, CA) observes that; “Wherever it comes, the tempter/tester does not have the power to make someone do something. Temptation is not coercion. The serpent in the garden didn't make Eve and Adam eat the apple. The devil in our text can't make Jesus turn stones into bread. "To tempt" means to try and convince someone to do something. It means enticing someone to want to do something. Tempters can't make someone do something bad, but try to make the temptee want to do something bad. They don't take away the will. Rather, they try to change one's will.”

The tempter’s task is to entice Jesus to settle for less that his intended purpose. The first temptation is for more than simple bread, it was to deal with the human hunger to be in control-to be self reliant. It was not about a single loaf of bread, it was about the bread that fills our tables, the want that drives our souls. The tempter was pitching Jesus that temptation of self-reliance. "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus understood that he and we are called to more; as he will teach in the model prayer, that our call to God is to “give us this day our daily bread.” How often do we have to come to terms with the temptation to put more trust in ourselves and what we know we can do, and the things we can buy, rather than to truly trust God? He answers the tempter, 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God”…in other words, We must have more than the bread that we can provide, we have to trust in God and God’s way – it will fill us not for an hour but forever. We hear Jesus explain this further in John 6:31-33 (NIV) where he teaches; 31Our forefathers ate the manna in the desert; as it is written: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'" 32Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. 33For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."

I believe that our church had to deal with this temptation head on regarding our ownership of the cabin at Falls Creek and the lodge at Glorieta. We were proud of what we owned and what we could do for ourselves and others. Only when we were humbled and came to a place where we were going to have to let go of our pride and our possessions were we able to see God move in such a powerful way. When we stood on the edge of economic crisis, God moved. The potential sale of these properties broke my heart because I knew they were special to so many. And then we had a lunch with a potential buyer for Glorieta. I listened and what the buyer offered this is seemed impossible. Could God give us both the resources from the sale and still give us the capacity to continue to use it with for retreats and family getaways in the same way we had always done before? Yes! When we chose to truly rely on God, God moved. Because of your faithfulness and sacrifice and multiple acts of God, the financial picture of this church has dramatically changed in a matter of just a few months. I wonder what God might do it we were to trust God’s provision in every aspect of our lives? The temptation self-reliance puts the focus on us and on what we can do, where reliance on God is a pleasant idea, but where we are confidence that everything will work out because we have the power to make sure it happens. Jesus understood that this was about a lot more than turn stones to bread to fill his stomach. Even in his hunger he knew that he had to rely on the Father’s provision. We too are called to trust God and rely on God’s provision. When we truly rely on God, God gives life – that can change us and change the world.

The Temptation of the Easier Path Vs. 5-7
Our passage continues as we heard Dennis share; 5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: "'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'" 7 Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" The second temptation carries Jesus to the top of the temple. From here they could survey the whole of the city, the symbol of community and authority. The temper came and offered Jesus the opportunity for Jesus to claim an easier path, to use a dramatic act that would endear him to the crowds instantly. If he would choose to fall to the temptation he would instantly have throngs of followers coming to his feet. He could claim a place of popularity that other would give everything for. He offered Jesus the possibility of a moment so dramatic that he would have Hollywood status, with no work or sacrifice, without the pain and difficulty, without the of suffering and death that is his Father’s will? “ What a great short cut. He could have crowds and none of the pain. This is a very human temptation. If we will just go along with what our supervisor says – our friends say – then our path is easier. If we sit quiet when we see an injustice because we do not want to get involved, then our path will be easier. If I - if we- embrace the popular political view because it validates my place in culture and protects my best interests, but fail to follow the harder path of embracing the poor, the alien, and the immigrant, then my path is easier. If I stand by and watch someone in my friend group tear down someone else and remain silent, then my path is easier. You see people looking for the easier path when they line up on a Saturday night to get into the casinos, hoping they will be the ones to win. I know this is a strange thought in a state with an ever growing number of casinos, but they do not build multi-million dollar casinos to lose. They odd are always better for the house. We see the quest for the easier path on basketball courts and football fields when young men chose not to study in their belief that sports is their ticket. The hard reality is that less than 3% of high school basketball players will make it college, and only 1.3% of them will make it to the pros. Those who can make the jump from the high school courts to the pros – less than .03 will make it. When these young men watch NBA players and dream to be one of them, but try to take the short cut around education, the temptation to try to take the easier path leads them only into destruction.

But Jesus understood the opportunity and the price. His task was not to claim the adulation of the crowds – not to be their popular leader but their servant and their savior. His task was not to take the easier path. His task offered no short cuts – no way but the cross and the open tomb. Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" Jesus answered, his task – and ours – is to do the will of God regardless of the response of the crowds.

The Temptation of Power Vs. 8-11
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 "All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me." 10 Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'"
Our scene moves from the sand and stone of the Galilean desert to the world’s mountain tops. The temptation was the promise of power. Jesus could have all the he could see. Can you imagine this temptation – to have everything you see – to have ultimate power – ultimate authority over all the earth. Satan offered Jesus the kind of power that drove the Romans for global conquest that Napoleon long for, that Hitler ravaged Europe for. Satan offered Jesus the power to have a kingdom of the whole of the world. But, Jesus understood his task and his point of authority. His task was not an earthly kingdom, but an eternal one. Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'" With these words the temptation story comes to a close. 11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him. But there is more we need to consider before we put our passage aside. This story is about much more the temptations. It is about what kind of savior Jesus was going to be and by extension, what kind of Christians we will be.

What Kind of Christian?
So what does this mean for us? What kind of Christians will we choose to be? Will we choose to follow the path Christ calls us to, or will we settle for less? Will we fall to the temptations that our culture – and the tempter –lays before us? We will have our moments of temptation. It is a certainty! The question is how will we respond? There is good news. Hear 1 Corinthians 10:13-14 from the interpretative translation, The Message. No test or temptation that comes your way is beyond the course of what others have had to face. All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he'll never let you be pushed past your limit; he'll always be there to help you come through it. So, my very dear friends, when you see people reducing God to something they can use or control, get out of their company as fast as you can.

We must choose whether we will settle or stand firm. Again from Fred Craddock, “Jesus’ temptations did not end in the desert. Again and again he was tested. "Avoid the cross," said his close and well-meaning friend Simon. And, of course, there was Gethsemane. With the church, the story is the same; testing never ceases. This is why we gather frequently and pray: Our Father in heaven, let your name be hallowed. Your will be done. Give us bread for today. Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from the evil one.” May it be our prayer!

The People of the Book Nehemiah 8:1-12

Below is the message from Februry 14th. Sorry for the delay in posting it.

Long before there was written language; people would gather together and tell stories. Can’t you imagine people gathered by a roaring fire listening intently as someone weave the words that would become the story? This oral tradition was the way the cultural histories and grand stories of faith were shared. As language found its way to text the literate era was born. The invention of the Gutenberg Press in 1454 was a game changer. Books – in particular the Bible – began to find its way into the hands of the common people. But, even in a literate society like ours there is still something special, about hearing the words on the page brought to life aloud. Most of us can claim powerful childhood memories of a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, or librarian reading favorite stories aloud. As they read we could see the characters vividly in our imagination. We knew how the stories would end but it did not matter, there was simply something about hearing the stories read aloud that spoke to a different part of us. Hearing these stories read aloud helped us to remember them and integrate them into our own life story.

This morning we come to a story told in the Book of Nehemiah. This is a book that has grown on me with the passage of years. I think for many it tends to get lost between the grand history books of I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, and first I and II Chronicles and the troubling story of Job and the beloved Psalms and Proverbs. But, within its short pages we find a compelling story of a man driven by a deep desire to see his nation restored. He longed to see the walls of the great city of Jerusalem rebuilt. He longed to see the faith of the people who had returned home from exile in Babylon redeemed. Along the way we see how he encourages people to rise out of their misery and to reclaim the joy of their covenant relationship with God. We head our focal story read aloud in our midst. We experienced a bit of what the people would have experienced that morning – the word was read aloud and found life among the people.

Let me remind you that the story begins; 1 all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. 2 So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 3 He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

The temptation is to quickly translate what we are hearing into a moment like this one, with everyone seated nicely and comfortably, ready and waiting. There are some places where this is true, but man more where the picture would have been dramatically different. The fact that Nehemiah chose the Water Gate for Ezra to read the Book of Law of Moses is important. A gathering at the temple would have quickly broken people up based on their gender and their place in the religious. Like this sanctuary this morning, the Water Gate was a place that everyone would have been welcome. Men, women and children of all classes and religious standing could be included. Nehemiah and Ezra understood that there was power in God’s word. They were about to see it play out before their eyes.

Ah, but there is two major ways this encounter with the Book of the Law of Moses was profoundly different. First, for many whose life had been shaped by the Babylonian exile this would have been the first time they would have heard the word of God spoken through the books written by/through Moses. Second, there were no pews or seats for the people. They would have had to find their place on the ground. Third….did you listen to how long their listened attentively….from daybreak to noon…four to five hours of listen and considering what it meant for them. I truly believe that we have become so locked into the time and structures of worship that we are focused on finishing rather than to hearing – to heading out, rather than to lingering in the presence of the Spirit and the power of God’s word.

Our story continues; 4 Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion. Beside him on his right stood ….and then the passage begins a list of names. There is a part of me that wants to rush past the names, but they are there for a reason. They represent key religious and cultural leaders that together symbolize that the whole of the nation was present to hear the reading of God’s word. What would that list look like in our context? What would we do that we would all understand was so important that EVERYONE made it a priority to be there?

5 Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up. 6 Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, "Amen! Amen!" Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. The hearing of God’s word on its own was so important; the worship of God was so vital; that they lifted their hands and then bowed down to the ground in humility and reverence before God. It is interesting that when people do that within these walls some think it is a break for proper decorum. The people gathered to hear God’s word that morning would have considered it a break in proper decorum to do anything less. Perhaps we have become so trapped in our Victorian understanding of proper social decorum that we have bound ourselves from expressing true joy and authentic humility and reverence to God.

The story continues; 7 The Levites—instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. 8 They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. The Word of God moved from the platform to the midst of the people. Those who had study the Scripture went out among the people to help them understand. While our story focuses on the Torah, those first five books of the Bible, this same power; this same sense of the Word of God for the People of God is true for the whole of the Bible. Sadly, I fear that the greatest stubbing block to the Baptist witness in our nation was the battle over the term “inerrancy.” This term was given centrality in the conversation of evangelical Christians after the production of the Chicago State on Biblical Inerrancy. What saddens me is that fellowships were broken and leaders torn down over a word that does not exists with the bounds of this Book. Even the Chicago Statement is rife with required explanations and clarifying exceptions – so many, including me; find that it has little real value. The result has been a cultural bibliolatry- where people have sought to make this book so high and holy that it is of little earthly good. Hear me clearly, I believe that the Bible is the living Word of God; the central means by which those of us who are the children of God hear from God and are instructed by God. I claim every word for the Bible that the Bible uses for itself. I hear with authority the words from 2 Timothy 3:16 and 17 that tells us that the Scripture is the inspired word of God, breathed by God, and is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and for training in the right way of life, so that the people of God may be competent and capable, equipped to do the task that God has given for them to do. . It is Holy because its author is nothing less than God. It is wholly inspired because every word, every passage, every book is the inspired word of God. But for some the Book itself is seen as so Holy that it is seen on par with God. It is not! God alone is God! For some it becomes a tool of spiritual manipulation and guilt. It is not. It is designed to bring people to God rather than to those who proclaim their view of the word of God. We must have no room for those who would use this Book to place themselves over and above the congregations they serve or the people they speak to through television. We must not make see this Book as so revered that it is distant to our daily lives, nor so common that we miss the power and the presence of God that drips within it. Our task is to be a people shaped by the Book, but first and foremost, the people of God that come to the Book seeking a fresh word from God. Our task is to study and help one another to make it clear and help understand the meaning in a way that shapes us, challenges us, and changes us.

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, "This day is sacred to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep." For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. 10 Nehemiah said, "Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength." 11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, "Be still, for this is a sacred day. Do not grieve." 12 Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. Can you imagine that the mere hearing of the Book of Law of Moses was so powerful that weeping and mourning broke out because they saw the distance between what God called for and who they were. It is easy to get caught in the guilt game. But Nehemiah and Ezra wanted something very different. They told them it was time to throw a party, to celebrate that the Word of God was among them and for them. Hear again; Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. The heart of the message is that when we meaningfully engage in hearing and understanding the word of God we can find greater joy in our relationship with God. For some it is time to dust off the Book and open it again to hear God speak. For others it is a day to choose to be part of a Sunday school class, a small group, or Wednesday Bible study – any of the places where we help each other hear and understand what God is saying to us. For many, today is the day to seize the opportunity to take part in the Its Time initiative, claiming 20 minutes a day to hear the word of God read to you so that you might have a fresh encounter with God’s living Word. This letter from God to God’s people stands ready to speak into your life and invite you into a fresh encounter with God. Let’s throw a party because we have chosen to hear the Word of God – to hear from God – and celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. Amen!

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Live Encounter with the Living Word

Long before there was written language; people would gather together and tell stories. This oral tradition was the way the cultural histories and grand stories of faith were shared. With the invention of the printing press the era of the literate society began. But, there is still something unique, something special, about hearing the words on the page brought to life. Most of us can claim powerful childhood memories of a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, or librarian reading favorite stories aloud. As they read we could see the characters vividly in our imagination. We knew how the stories would end but it did not matter, there was simply something about hearing the stories read aloud that spoke to a different part of us. Hearing these stories read aloud helped us to remember them and integrate them into our own life story.

The same dynamic is true of Scripture. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, in partnership with Faith Comes By Hearing, has created a resource where we can hear the entirety of the New Testament in the 40 days leading to Easter. They are providing this resource free to congregations across the country. Our church has chosen to participate in this great Lenten experience. I truly believe that if the majority of our church chooses to participate, our journey toward the cross and the resurrection tomb will be transformed. The program asks just a little over 20 minutes a day; less than the time most commute to and from work or school. This process will let you hear the Gospels and experience the miracles of Jesus and hear his teaching aloud. We will hear the story of the birth of the Church in Acts and listen to its struggle to find its place in the world in the epistles. We will also hear the prophetic words of John echoing from the isle of Patmos. Each day will pull us deeper into Scripture and invite us to find our story in the midst of The Story. We began the distribution of the program disks last Sunday. More will be available this Sunday and a tech team will be there to help you find the best way for you to use the material in your way of life. You will so find the link to hear or to download the New Testament at our church website (www.fbcokc.org).

Come and join us in a journey of Lent and Listening and be ready for God to speak into your life.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Thursday, February 11, 2010

FBC OKC Impacting its Community

Over the past few weeks a number reports have crossed my desk that combined paint an incredible picture. The picture depicts family of faith that is pouring themselves into face-to-face ministries and relationship with those in our community. I celebrate the thousands touched by the ministries related to First Baptist Church and the thousands of volunteer hours given to make these ministries possible. I believe our passionate engagement in our community and our world is one of the distinctives of First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City.

Let me give you a glance into the kind of ministries and their impact that I am talking about. Our centerpiece is Good Shepherd Ministries. It is a community ministry born out of and housed within First Baptist Church. It operated a medical clinic, dental clinic, food pantry, clothes closet, and referral ministry. In 2009 578 people were served through the medical clinic. The dental clinic saw 288 adults and 86 children. 3,523 were served in by the food pantry and another 3, 616 were served through the clothes closet. There were 5, 906 referenced to other ministries and agencies and we were able to help 294 people with short term needs through our Community Care Offering.

The KidsHope USA mentoring program is one of my favorite ministries. For the school year 2009-2010 we are mentoring 18 kids with 18 mentors, 11 trained substitute mentors, 26 prayer partners, and 1 director. I celebrate these 74 adult volunteers who are actively involved in Kids Hope.

About three years ago, FBC OKC language an ESL Language Center. In 2009 approximately 70 students were served by 30 volunteers in 2009. This volunteers can celebrate new jobs, people achieving their US citizenship, and an improved quality of life for the refugees and recent immigrant emerging from their investment of time and energy.

The church continues in active participation in the Mobile Meals program. This ministry primarily provides meals for senior adults whose life situation makes cooking and travel difficult. 23 volunteers served through this ministry venue in 2009, accumulating a combined 12 volunteer hours. The volunteers serving through this ministry provided meals to 33 people ever week, totalling 832 meals by years end. A second senior adult focused ministry is found in our partnership with AARP to provide tax help to those who need it. Last year 2 volunteer preparers and 6 "receptionists" served 103 people from our community. In addition, one of our church members hosts monthly birthday parties for the residents at Wesley Village, a secion 8 housing complex for senior adults in the shadows of our church. Sam involves others and creates a welcoming atmosphere for some at Wesly Village that would have no other birthday recognition otherwise.

First Baptist Church hosted a neighborhood party in the park as our 2009 ShareFest project. McKinley Park, in the Classen 10 Penn community served as the the location and approximately 250 volunteers and community members participated. We served over 300 hot dogs, chips popcorn and cookies. We had art projects for the children, face painting, and games for all. The Fire Department showed up and was able to show the children firsthand what it looks like inside and on top of a Fire Truck. Children from the group “Quires Formar Parte Del Grupo Folklorico” performed traditional Mexican dances. The best part of the celebration was that the neighborhood worked with us to make it such a success.

The 20Something department hosted a grand Easter Egg Hunt and cook out for refugee children living in the city. The young adult department could boast 30 to 40 volunteers and over 50 kids and their parents took part. The FBC Music Ministry and Children's Ministry tag teamed for another community focused children's experience. The 2009 Kids Off Broadway one week musical experience engaged 50 kids. We had daily 23 volunteers, plus active support from other members of the church staff and kitchen volunteers.

The kitchen volunteers also help facilitate a Study and Lunch Together Bible study experience on Thursday's in the Fellowship Hall at FBC OKC. On an average, over 100 a week come to participate. Over the course of the year, that 100 a week represents hundreds of different people and their unique life stories. Our own Chad Fetzer leads this study focuses on touching the downtown business community and others who find this their best forum for a fresh encounter with Scripture.

This list does not include the growth and development of the Chin congregation that is a vital part of our church family or the launch of a bilingual Hispanic ministry to reaching into this growing part of our community. It also does not include the several hundred kids and parents from Wilson Elementary School who claim our gym as home for their basketball league, or the youth and coaches from Harding Fine Arts girls volleyball and basketball teams who used our gym for practice, or the teachers' training event we hosted for two different schools, or the graduation event we hosted for OBU's downtown MBA program, or the baccalaureate service we hosted for Classen School of Advanced Studies, or..............One of the questions you have to ask when you evaluate the life and health of a congregation is "if the church were to close tomorrow, would anyone outside the walls notice?" I am glad we can respond with a resounding "YES!'

Next week I will take a look at global impact the church is having.

I celebrate the opportunity to serve among this great church family.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Monday, February 8, 2010

In Storms and Fire Isaiah 43:1-7

Below is the draft text for yesterday's sermon. The message focuses on the assurance that God walks with us in the midst of joy and difficulty. While this is a core faith principle, it seems hard to live out of when we face pain, grief, and confusion. Read on....
A 4- year-old girl was making her first trip to Disneyland, and she couldn't wait to get on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Accompanied by her mother, she was whisked through the crazy rooms, into the path of a speeding train, and through walls that fell away at the last second. Desperately, she clutched the little steering wheel in front of her. When the ride was over, she turned to her mother and said, a little shakily, “Next time, you drive. I didn’t know where I was going.”(1)

I think all of have times in our life when we wished someone else could drive for a little while, when the road proves hard and the journey complex, when we are really not sure where we are going. This is not unique to us or our era. One of the reoccurring themes in Scripture is God speaking to humanity in the midst of our loss, confusion, and misdirection. Over and over again we hear God try to tell us that we do not walk alone. The great hymn writers throughout the ages have seized on this theme. Beyond the hymns and choruses chosen for this morning, in worship planning Bruce and Kim also noted that we could have just as easily included; All the Way My Savior Leads Me, I Must Tell Jesus, It Is Well, Just a Closer Walk, Precious Lord, Jesus Is All the World, Out of My Bondage, I Need Thee Every Hour, Close to Thee, He Hideth My Soul, Praise You in the Storm, Praise You in the Fire, and Shelter in the Time of Storm. I believe the reason that scripture comes back to this theme so often, and the reason the hymn writers draw us to this theme in music again and again, is that it speaks to a heart issue that touches all of us. I cannot imagine that there is a person in this room who has not claimed somewhere in their life a moment of woundedness, a time of grief, a season of brokenness, the cold feeling of isolation and fear, or grip of confusion. In those moments we want to know that we are not alone. In the times of life’s storms and flames, we long to know that God is with us, making a way for us. One of the passages where we hear God’s response with remarkable clarity is Isaiah 43:1-7. In the New International Version it reads;

1 But now, this is what the LORD says— he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. 3 For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I give Egypt for your ransom, Cush [a] and Seba in your stead. 4 Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give men in exchange for you, and people in exchange for your life.

5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. 6 I will say to the north, 'Give them up!' and to the south, 'Do not hold them back.' Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth- 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made."

So, through the voice of the prophet Isaiah we hear God speak into the woundedness, brokenness, and chaos of our lives. We hear the powerful words, Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. God begins by reminding us that we do not have to fear, that we belong to God; that God is in the saving business. Intellectually, even spiritually, we can embrace this core faith concept that God loves us and saves us; the problem is that it is easier to say than to live out. We hear this, even say this, but we still feel wounded, hurt, lost, in grief, or in confusion. God speaks again; When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.

In two sentences God joins us in the midst of the storms of life and the flames of pain. To be honest, most of us would prefer the storms and fires simply go away. We would like God to fix it. Down deep inside we do not want to have to go through the waters, the storms and the fires. The hard reality is that they are a part of the human condition born in the gift of free will born in creation. We know this, but we would like to change the story.

Maybe if we could make people behave like we think they should, the impact of their bad decisions might not hurt us as much. Maybe if we can legislate the moral behavior of others to a point that their way of life makes ours more comfortable? What if we could make people love us like they should maybe they would quit hurting us. What if we could get our parents to finally listen to us, to bless us, and to be the kind of parents we hoped for maybe it would be OK. What if we could make our children love and respect us maybe they would quit hurting us and would love us like they should. What if the irritating co-worker or boss would finally find a heart, or the bully that pushes his or her way into our life might finally find compassion….what if we could cure every disease so we did not have to face our death of the death of loved one…..what if we could learn to control the weather so that people might not die because of storms and earthquakes….what if we could learn to help nations get along and religions stop fighting and killing in the name of God….what if we could control the economy so that there are no more downward swings to destabilize our economic condition…..what if we could look in the mirror and finally be satisfied with what we saw…..what if the pain would just stop….what if we finally felt like we fit in….what if the pain of grief would quit throbbing in our heart….what if….what if….what if? The spiral of the “maybes” and “what ifs” can leave us cynical and lead us toward a crisis of faith. This spiral is made more pronounced because of the preaching that if we only do the right things that God will have no choice but to bless us. This path leads us toward overwhelming guilt, thinking that if we had only done better then storms and fires of life might have been avoided. Equally troubling is its parallel teaching that if we give to God or the ones who claim God's anointing in a particular way that God will have to bless us. These are both heretical. They do not have meaningful grounding in scripture. Those who proclaim them claim bits and pieces of scripture to justify their view, but they fall short of truth found across the breadth of Scripture. Any preaching or teaching that implies that we can make God do anything makes God less than God. God does not promise we will not experience the storms and fires, but God does promise to that they will not destroy us and we will not have to experience them alone. God walks with us in love and strength.

Listen to how Eugene Peterson interprets the first four verses in The Message. 1-4 But now, God's Message, the God who made you in the first place, Jacob, the One who got you started, Israel: "Don't be afraid, I've redeemed you. I've called your name. You're mine. When you're in over your head, I'll be there with you. When you're in rough waters, you will not go down. When you're between a rock and a hard place, it won't be a dead end—Because I am God, your personal God, The Holy of Israel, your Savior. I paid a huge price for you: all of Egypt, with rich Cush and Seba thrown in! That's how much you mean to me! That's how much I love you! I'd sell off the whole world to get you back, trade the creation just for you.

God loves us enough to make the way for us to survive the torrent of life’s waters, the storms of our difficulties, and the fires of our pain. God loves us enough to pay the price that we might find redemption in our brokenness, healing in our pain, salvation in our confusion. The God that formed us, that calls us by name, walks with us – in good day and difficult ones – our challenge is to let go of our fears and our desire to control and trust God to care for us and carry us through.

We hear God speak; 5 Do not be afraid, for I am with you; I will bring your children from the east and gather you from the west. 6 I will say to the north, 'Give them up!' and to the south, 'Do not hold them back.' Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth- 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made." We began this service at the communion table, the visual testimony of God’s grand sacrifice of grace that we might be made whole and find redemption. It reminds us that of the great lengths God was willing to God through that we might find our place again as children of God, children called by His name.

When we see the storms clouds coming or feel the heat of the fire, we do not have to fear. God is there with us. When we feel broken and broken hearted, we do not have to fear. God is there to love us. When we feel wounded and confused, we do not have to fear. God is there to redeem us. When we wonder and we doubt, we do not have to fear. God is there to reclaim us. Yes, there are times when our lives feel like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, but fear not, we can trust God to drive. "Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. 3 For I am the LORD, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior....

(1) Animating Illustrations tied to “Godspeed Living” referenced online at http://www.homileticsonline.com/subscriber/btl_display.asp?installment_id=93000304