Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Cry from the Margins Nehemiah 5

There were two images that came to mind as I worked through this scripture. The first came from a trip to the grocery store a couple of weeks ago. A little girl, more focused on the candy shelf in front of her than anything else was tugging on a mother’s sleeve. “Mommy, mommy, can you hear me mommy?” The woman looked down and smiled and said, “Wrong mommy.” The little girl rotated back about four feet and began to tug on another sleeve, “Mommy, mommy…..”

The second image comes from my neighborhood. We live in one of the parts of town where hail damage rained down. Construction workers have descended on my neighborhood like a swarm of bees. There are broken windows that need new panes, gutters that must removed and reconstructed, and roofs to be replaced. They buzz about, hammers swinging, nails driven, shingle after shingle set in place. What fascinates is that they all seem to be moving about their assigned tasks oblivious to the people who claim the homes they have come to repair.

When we come to the Book of Nehemiah, our temptation is to become so focused on the huge construction project story of the rebuilding of Jerusalem that we can miss the rest of the story. We tend to so closely tie Nehemiah to the rebuilding of the city and the wall that protected it those we often miss the other things Nehemiah has to say. Nehemiah is more than a construction manager. He provides a remarkable picture of the power of prayer. Every step of the epoch project is bathed in prayer. Nehemiah longed to city the great city reborn. He longed to hear to worship of God rising from the temple. He desperate wanted to see the walls standing again, representing the strength of the city and the presence of God. He knew that this was more than a story of brick and mortar. It required the blessing of God. It has to be done in a way that would bring glory and honor to God. Nehemiah believes everything is on course. The wall is going up the city is under construction; the sounds of rebirth fill the air. Like the construction workers in our neighborhood, everyone is busy at their tasks oblivious to the lives of those around them. Nehemiah is content, until he hears the cry from the margins.

The first six verses of Nehemiah 5 read; 1 now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against Their Jewish brothers. 2 Some were saying, "We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain." 3 Others were saying, "We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine." 4 Still others were saying, "We have had to borrow money to pay the king's tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others. “ 6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry.

While the brick and mortar replaces had moved forward, Nehemiah learns that many of the people had been left behind. In an effort to survive many of those who had been freed from captivity in another land, now found themselves living in economic captivity. They had come home in hope, only to find their lives now defined by despair. They had lost their status as equals. They had stood on the midst of economic collapse. Their children – their future – their very indemnity now belong to others. The grand city of God has become the home to a growing percentage of those who had become poor and the powerless.

The perception is that the faces of hunger and desperate poverty are found somewhere else in the world. This perception was fostered by the pictures of famine in Sub-Saharan Africa broadcasted internationally during the 80’s and 90’s. The region does face significant issues. But it is not alone. The faces of hunger and desperate poverty are also Asian. Nearly half of Asia’s 1.27 billion children live in poverty — deprived of food, safe drinking water, health or shelter. While 600 million children under the age of 18 lack access to one of these basic human needs, more than 350 million are deprived of two or more of these needs. On the corner of 13th and Classen there was a billboard of a kitten with the inscription, “To bad there is not a soup kitchen for her.” In an email communication with the leadership of the OK Humane Society they argued that this billboard was appropriate because the animals did not have an advocate and that the need was simply so great. While I appreciate my pet, there is a quantitative difference between a dog or cat and a human life. Our reality is that one in every five Oklahoma children lives in poverty and is at risk of going to bed hungry. Of the elderly who receive food through Oklahoma's Food Bank System, 32 percent report having to choose between buying food or paying for medicine or medical care.

Nehemiah had two options. The first was to tell them that they poverty was not his problem. His task was to build the wall and help rebuild the city. There was a governmental system in place to deal with the people. He could have simply directed them to the nearest social worker, DHS office, or community ministry organization. He was busy. He had things to do. The easiest answer would have been just to push them along. But, this is not the story. He heard their cries, got angry, and got involved. Like Nehemiah, we have to choose to hear their cries and respond or ignore their need.

Nehemiah dove in and confronted the leaders who could make a difference. He understood that the poor and the powerless had no voice, so he lifted his; So I called together a large meeting to deal with them 8 and said: "As far as possible, we have bought back our Jewish brothers who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your brothers, only for them to be sold back to us!" They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say. Holds them accountable; Helps them to understand the link between their actions and their faith. 9 So I continued, "What you are doing is not right. Shouldn't you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?

Nehemiah saw the cries of those from the margins as social, economic, and religious issue. How the poor were treated in their midst was a reflection of their faith. He argued for and demanded change. He saw their actions born in a spiritual poverty where they saw themselves above the people. He did not want anyone pushing the people away. He did not want anyone to try to pass the buck and the responsibility to another. He wanted and expected action. I have to wonder how often we get so angry at injustice that we get involved and will not take “no” for an answer?

12 "We will give it back," they said. "And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say." Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised. 13 I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, "In this way may God shake out of his house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied! “At this the whole assembly said, "Amen," and praised the LORD. And the people did as they had promised. The impact was immediate. Nehemiah’s message strikes home!

The leaders make an economic decision. They make a religious decision. They make a life decision that ends with the praise of God. Nehemiah’s call for change also became personal. He tells us; But the earlier governors—those preceding me placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that. Instead of joining the pattern of others, he chose to make some changes in his own life that would help him make a more personal impact. The rest of the story tells that he and his family began to share what they had and to open up their table to others. Suddenly the princes and the poor both found themselves welcomed and valued, each bringing the best of who they were to the relationship. He modeled a care for the people that said that we do not do things for the economically or spiritually poor, we walk with and beside, to encourage and to challenge. His model is a transforming model of community born in faith and designed to bring glory to God. When we come to the table together we can hear each other and learn from one another.

In one of my first churches I was hosted by a family who lived in a beautiful home. It has museum quality furnishings and everything was in its place. But, rarely was a word of joy or the sound of laughter found in the home. Several months into the journey I was invited to live with another family. They lived in a single wide mobile home. My room was the fold out couch in the den. But, laughter and joy filled the house, and love enveloped the home. Which family lived in poverty? This week I came to a place where I had to acknowledge that I had failed at a task to raise the money for a scholarship for a young Chin woman living and working in the slums of Rangoon. Our hope was that she could take part in a special two year program held by the Baylor School of Social Work. I had dealt with congregations and people of means, all who were trying to be as conservative as they could because of the uncertain economic climate. So, the BSSW had to communicate to this young woman that maybe – just maybe – in two years we will have the money in hand. One of the students, fifty year old single woman from Malaysia, heard that we could not raise enough money. She came to office at Baylor and told them that she thought it was very important for this young woman to take part in the program. She had been saving to buy a car. She told them that she had decided that this young woman was more important than her car – she could live without it – on offered the $5000 she had. One thing you should know. She has never met the young woman. She just understood the need. No, we still do not have enough money on hand to offer the scholarship, but I could not help but wonder as I thought about these large congregations and wealthy potential donors – and this single woman from Malaysia – who is living faith and who in poverty? In both cases, I have come to the table with those with “less” and found they had much to teach me.

We need each other. We need to learn to walk with the economically poor in authentic relationships born in faith and lift our voices in their behalf. We need to learn to walk with the spiritually poor, to help share with them the wealth of faith through Christ. We need to learn to share our resources with one other and with God with generosity, not obligation, so that God might use our resources and transform them and use them. We need to learn to come to the table and learn to hear and be shaped by each other. Our congregation is in a unique position to hear from and speak across the wide social, economic, and religious spectrum of our community. God has blessed us with the means and the heart to make a difference. The question is – what happens when the cry from the margins moves from being a church story to a personal one? How is God ready to use you? What is God ready to teach you? How is God ready to shape you for the sake of His honor and glory?

Let our prayer be the same as Nehemiah’s. 19 Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people.

Sunday, May 23, 2010


While doing some research online yesterday I ran across a couple of images of old postcards of the earlier life of First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City. The one on the left depicts the church's White Temple facility. It was the congregation's home for about six years just after the turn of the last century. The church sold the building to the Masons and moved to its current location on Robinson Avenue. The second postcard shows the Robinson Avenue facility early in its development. The sanctuary on the left side of the post card became the congregation's home in 1912. The building on the right is an education building that Dr. William's led the congregation to build in the height of the Great Depression. The building carried his name until it was renovated and renamed for one of FBC's most famous pastors, Dr. Hershel Hobbs. But, when I look at these postcards it is not the history lesson that comes to mind. I think about the people who would have worshipped as a part of the church family in these earlier eras. I think about their hopes and dreams and the investment they made to the life of the church. I think about the hours they would have volunteered in service to others and each other. I think about the songs they would have sung and the prayers they would have offered. I think about them because I am clear that we stand on their shoulders. Their faithfulness serves as our spiritual legacy.

Many things have changed since these postcard were first published. Additional buildings were added and new missions and ministries were born. A seemingly endless parade of others have been baptized, married, had babies, and have been buried as a part of the rhythm of life at the church. We see a new era emerging, one defined my our service to our community and our mission to the world. We see KidsHope mentors loving and caring for kids at Eugene Field Elementary. We have witnessed the dramatic expansion of Good Shepherd Ministries. We have welcomed refugees from across the globe into our midst and sent people out in mission tasks in North America, South America, Africa, and Asia. Our worship reaches across generations and calls us into God's presence. God is at move in our midst. But, while I celebrate all that God is doing in our here and now, I cannot help to pause to thank God for those who claimed their place as a part of the First Baptist family in these earlier eras. It is my prayer that the congregation we are becoming honors the church we have been. I am glad for these postcards and the gentle reminder they offer me that we are part of a grand story of God's work in and through First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City. I can hardly wait to see what God will do next.

Grace and Peace, Tom

With One Voice Genesis 11:1-9, Acts 2:1-21

Two stories, set thousands of years apart, yet inextricably linked together by the hand of God. The first Biblical story is tucked between the epoch story of Noah’s Ark and the defining story of God’s call of Abraham, beginning the journey between God and God’s people. It is the story of the Tower of Babel. It is a story of a grand construction project to build a tower. The tower was not built to be a home lifted from the ground for safety nor a temple, lifted above the earth to draw people closer to God. No, the function of this brick tower was very different. “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches into the heavens to make a name for ourselves.” They could not be content being a people that belonged to God. The built a tower to reach into heaven, not to encounter God but to become like God. God acts. God acts to protect humanity from itself. God acts and in a moment the people are scattered and the language that once drew them together now became like Babel – they were virtually unintelligible to each other. Language now divided and confused them.

We celebrate the second story each year on Pentecost Sunday. Today, in churches that are more formal and liturgical in their traditions, the day will be filled with some dramatic visual imagery born in church history. You might encounter red streamers on long bamboo poles waved about furiously to represent the gift of the tongues of fire. Others might experience a cloud of white and red balloons, representing the presence of the Holy Spirit. Still others might taste the sweet taste of birthday cake, offered to celebrate the birth of the church. There is one musical symbol that I want to claim for our experience this morning. Nod to Steven. Pipe organ to LOUDLY sound trumpets for several measures of “Holy, Holy, Holy.” The sounding of the trumpets represent the rushing wind and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

The reason the Church has added these elements to worship has been in an attempt to help all who worship put their hands around some of the sights and sounds of divine chaos those early disciples experienced in the wild rush of the coming of the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. When Shari read the Biblical story, could you feel the unadulterated power rushing winds? As she read, could you see the glowing tongues of fire? It is hard for 21st Century Christians like us to imagine ourselves in that Upper Room. This is the same room where they shared the Last Supper with Jesus. This is the same room where they huddled in fear in the hours after the crucifixion. This is the same room where Jesus appeared to them and where Thomas touched his nailed scarred hands in the days after the resurrection. Now this room becomes the place with the power and presence of God descends on them and the history is changed forever.

This band of fishermen, tax collectors, and other assorted followers experience something incredible. They had spoken Aramaic their whole lives. Now, empowered by the Holy Spirit, they listened as other languages tumbled from their lips. I am not sure that they understood what was happening to them, but the scene moves from the Upper Room to the streets. Jewish from across the globe walked the streets, drawn to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple as a part of one of the grand religious celebrations. The crowd was bewildered – confused – even shocked – because they saw these simple Galileans speaking to them in their own language. Can you imagine how the disciples must have felt? “The Spirit-powered mission and the message of the church are clearly evident in the outpouring of these other languages. God’s action through Christ on behalf of the world is a proclamation that must be spread, to all people, in all languages, even to the ‘the ends of the earth.’” The command they heard from Jesus on a hillside in Galilee to take the gospel “to the ends of the earth” suddenly was being realized before their eyes.

There were skeptics in those streets of Jerusalem, of course. There always are. The divine confusion was too much for them. They could not image this grand act of God. They wondered aloud if the disciples just might be drunk. It is funny how some people always doubt when God moves. But, God still moves. We begun to experience a taste of God’s movement in our own midst. I believe that what we are experiencing as a congregation in this moment is a living Pentecost. No, we have not suddenly been empowered by the Spirit to speak the languages of the world; God has brought the world into our midst and is remaking and reshaping us. The Chin, the Zomie, the Karen, the Kachin, the Sudanese, and those from the Hispanic community are bring the world into our midst and we get the opportunity to witness the amazing work of God. Others beyond our midst have begun to notice what is happening here and wonder if they too might be called to be a people of the Pentecost.

As we look at this great story it seems in this moment in the streets of Jerusalem the confusion of the story of Babel is replaced with the gospel pronouncement of grace. “Notice, however, that Pentecost does not really reverse Babel. It is not the case, that at the end of Pentecost all the earth—or even all believers—have one language and the same words. The miracle of Pentecost is that even though there are still many languages and diverse words people are able to understand each other.” In this second story these languages given by God becomes the bridge to bring people together. It speaks to the reality that while we are still a scattered people, what brings us together as children of God is born in our relationship with God and our worship of God. It is God who gives us One Voice that we might praise Him and proclaim Him.

Peter stands above the crowd and speaks to both the amazed and the skeptics. Now, folks, these men are not drunk. It is too early in the morning for that kind of foolishness. What you are witnessing is the fulfillment of what the Prophet Joel promised a long time ago. God is pouring out his spirit on all people. The young and the old, men and women, will proclaim the good news of God – and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. The Holy Spirit was and is what pushes the church out from behind those closed Upper Room doors and into the marketplace – and into streets, the public square and corporate boardroom. Because Pentecost happens…the Church and the Church’s evangelistic message is born.” The great promise of salvation found in Jesus was intended for us and our salvation. It was equally intended for us to become the unapologetic carriers of this message of salvation. The Pentecost story is not a story of chaos and confusion, but rather of a dramatic act of God that empowered the disciples and empowers the Church through the presence of God. It is God alive in us, express through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

I fear that we have allowed our own apprehension about the charismatic movement to cheat us from claiming this reality and living out our lives of faith in the empowerment of the Spirit. We witness their take on the gift of the Holy Spirit, we see the emotionally driven worship, and hear the conversations of heavenly languages and quickly turn away. Our fears of an unrestrained religious experience can lead us view the idea of a faith empowered by the Holy Spirit with suspicion. I would contend that they have misinterpreted God’s grand act at Pentecost. It was and is not about a personal religious experience, it was and is about an empowered witness in the world.

I fear that our responses to the interpretative abuses of others have created an apprehension to claiming a faith and witness empowered by the Holy Spirit. We can claim the Holy Spirit as a means for comfort, encouragement, and even spiritual direction. But, it seems that the idea of embracing a Holy Spirit that empowers is just too much. For some this has spawned a timid Christianity content in the confines of the Upper Room and stained glassed sanctuary rather than in the street where the people of the world walk. Our fears of how the skeptics might react to us leave us huddled in our comfortable relationships rather than stepping out in the power of the Holy Spirit and the presence of God. The haunting question that echoed on the streets of Jerusalem that morning was “what does this mean?” This is a worthy question to ask again this morning. I believe that we are meant to be a bold people of the Pentecost – a people of an empowered witness that can draw people toward the worship of God. This calls us into intentional authentic relationships with those who do not yet know Jesus. It calls is to speak words of witness to those who have not yet come into a worshipping relationship with God. For some, this will call then to step beyond their regular rhythms of normative Christian relationships and begin to engage with people who live apart from Christ. As a church, we will be looking for new opportunities and venues where we might have the opportunity to be a gospel witness of word and deed. We are the scattered people given One Voice for worship and witness. Can you feel the rushing winds of the Spirit? Can you see the tongues of fire given for witness? God is moving. Are you ready to respond?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

At What Price? Acts 16:16-34

Core sermon text for May 16th. What value would you put on spiritual freedom?

Have you ever watched Antique Roadshow? It has become one of my favorite shows. People bring their “treasures” from home and a battery of professional appraisers help them understand more about their item and what it was worth. There were two moments that recently caught my attention. One was an older gentleman who brought in a teddy bear that belonged to his daughter. As he told his story it seems that at one point a dealer had suggested that it might be worth three or four thousand dollars and that he would sell it for him for a percentage. He decided to keep it, and the appraiser told him that he had made a good call – that the bear was actually worth about $40,000. A woman brought in two Native American pieces that a distant relative has gotten in Alaska some hundred years ago. She quiet asked what they might be worth. I wish you could have seen her eyes when the appraiser told her that the combined value of the two pieces was somewhere between $250,000 and $350,000. It is funny how we value things. Sometimes it seems, things that look so ordinary can have great value, and things that look highly valuable are simply colored glass. How do you value others? What price would we assign to their spiritual freedom? Do you think that their complexion or social status would impact their value?

The morning’s focal scripture emerges from the chaos and confusion of a Middle Eastern marketplace. The sellers we eagerly pitching their wares and the dust of the day filled the air. Luke tells us that Paul and Silas and the team had been preaching in Philippi. Day after day they went into the heart of the vital Roman colony to talk to the people and to tell them the story of Jesus. Day after day the young slave girl followed close behind them shouting "These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved." Day after day, hour after hour, minute after minute there she was, shouting. Paul was apparently frustrated by the constant badgering and turns and casts the demon out of the young girl. "In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!" he commands. And at the very moment he spoke the spirit left her.

Normally we would celebrate a grand act of grace and freedom that that the crowd witnessed when Paul casts the spirit out of the girl. But, this is no ordinary story because Paul’s act not only changed the life of the slave girl, it hit the wallets of her owners. You see, she was a soothsayer – a fortune teller – and she made her owners a lot of money. Her spiritual freedom was too expensive for her owners – without the demon within her, her capacity to tell the future was gone. “Thanks to Paul's annoyance and the power of the name of Jesus, the slave girl who was caught in the grip of demon possession becomes free, "Yet no, she is not free. She is a slave, someone who is not a person but a piece of property".(1) Are her owners free enough to rejoice in her healing? No way. “When the owners realized that their hope of making money by exploiting this slave girl was gone they were furious. They seized Paul and Silas and took them to the authorities. The crowd in the market followed along. The slave owners were going to make Paul and Silas pay. While they could not get financial reimbursement for the loss, they could get revenge. I can only imagine that the crowd thought they were in for quite a show. They drug them into the center of the market so everyone could witness what was about to happen.

There they stood; Paul and Silas in hand and they told the magistrate the two things that would demand his response. They started with the race card. These men are Jews, they told Roman magistrate. They are not one of us! I can imagine the murmuring in the crowd. “Yes,” the crowd might have sounded back. Isn’t amazing how quickly one can rally a crowd with us and them kind of language? The owners were not through, they followed with the patriot argument, pointing at Paul and Silas they pronounce, “and they are throwing our city into an uproar 21by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice." Did you “notice, however, that their indictments fail to mention one key piece of evidence: the loss of the unnamed slave girl's services in a lucrative endeavor!” (2)That argument would give the slave girl value. That argument would have shown their selfish agenda. That argument might have turned the crowd against them. Instead, 22The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. 23After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. 24Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

The second half of the story raises the same question, “at what price is a soul?” You know that the jailer must have been feeling pretty good about his assignment. Paul and Silas were locked in chains and locked in the inner cell. No one was getting to them, and there was no way they were getting out. But, just like in the case of the slave girl, an act of God changed everything. 25About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. 26Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody's chains came loose.

Can you imagine the terror the jailer must have felt when he woke up and saw the doors of the prison standing wide open? He drew his sword and prepared to take his own life. Paul apparently sees what is going on and calls out to him. "Don't harm yourself! We are all here!" 29The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. Most scholars contend that the reason that the reason the jailer was considering suicide is because of the prevailing legal implications of the jailer –Roman law made a guard responsible for the securing the prisoners at his charge at the cost of his life. New Testament scholar Robert Wall moves a very different direction. Wall argues that the jailer’s response was more probably a response born in his religious conviction rather than his response to Roman law. An earthquake was seen as a symbol divine judgment from which his salvation was unlikely. (3) This perspective makes his response to Paul and Barnabas more powerful. In terror – but also with hope – he goes to Paul and Silas. He brings them out and asks "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Paul and Silas respond with words of grace. 31They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household." 32Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family. This is a grand moment, but do not miss the risk the jailer was taking, the price he was willing to pay. He takes the two to his home so that his whole household can hear. He is at great risk for making this decision, but decides that it is worth the price to be at peace with God. The man who had been afraid that his prisoners would escape now leads them out of jail himself. After washing their wounds, he lets Jesus wash his, in baptism. And his household, which may have been shaken, is now set on a new foundation, seen in the hospitality he extends to those he had imprisoned.(4) “The God who saves the jailer from the executioner’s sword is the same God who forgives him and his household of their sins.” (5)

The question echoes out, at what price is redemption? In the Mark’s gospel we encounter the story of the rich young ruler who comes asking; "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. 19You know the commandments'"……20"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy." 21Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 22At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. For some, the price of salvation is too high. The rich young man had too many things between him and salvation. He was not willing to pay the prices and went away sad. The young slave girl’s owners found the price of her redemption too high; it hit them in their wallet. In their exploitation of the young slave girl for profit they had lost a sense of humanity. Their greed stopped them from rejoicing in the slave girl’s newly found spiritual freedom. The jailer decided that he would do anything, risk anything, for the sake of salvation for him and his family. There was no price too dear and not act too bold to stand between him and the gospel. By the end of the story, those who sought who were willing to exploit others found themselves as spiritual captives, and those who reached out, at any price, for the sake of the gospel were free.(6) How about you? What stands between you and the kind of relationship with God that will offer you real freedom? What holds you back from acting boldly for God? What prevents you from doing whatever it takes for you and your family to live lives of faith? How is God calling you and how will you respond?

(1) William Willimons, “Acts,” Interpretations, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 139.
(3) Robert W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, commentary, and reflections, Volume X, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 234.
(4) Paul Bellan-Boyer,“Shaken to the Foundations," City Called Heaven, 2010 available at on May 13, 2010.
(5) Wall, 235.
(6) Willimon,140.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

“In the Shadows of the Tomb” John 14:23-29

The following was the core of the sermon text for Sunday, May 9, 2010. It is a sermon of assurance that God will walk with us on our path of faith.

We spent 40 days moving toward Easter, preparing ourselves for a fresh walk through the streets of Jerusalem, our journey to the cross and the empty tomb. We are an Easter people, forever shaped by the story of the crucifixion and defined by the resurrection. But these weeks after find us living in the shadows of the tomb. The echo of “He is risen!” still rings in the air, but we have slowly but surely begun to find our way back to the regular routine of church life – and our faith life. “Easter is not the end after all. Easter is not the final destination for the disciples, and not the final destination of the soul. Nor is Easter the final destination of the church. Easter begins the transition between one reality and another. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit cannot take place in that outer garden where Jesus has not yet ascended to the Father, where he has presence and voice, wounds open to the touch, where he is the risen Lord of a hot breakfast and a marvelous catch of fish. The disciples must once more taste emptiness and detachment, and open again the once-broken heart yet to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Only then will they go to ‘the ends of the earth.’” (1)

But before we move from the shadows of the empty tomb there is a word we need to hear that will give us strength and power for the journey that await us. It is no secret that the walk of faith can be difficult. There are moments when we are uncertain what lies ahead; when we feel under stress; when we wonder if we can make it on our own. Jesus knew that his disciples would face these same kinds of feelings. He knew the challenges and the persecution that they would face. He knew that the Church would be born in a cauldron of conflict and pain. He knew that they – and we – need to know that while the path may twist and turn, they – and we - are not alone. They could be confident in their relationship with God and empowered by God for the journey that awaited them.

Our scripture for the morning draws us back to the table at the Last Supper. Jesus had washed the disciples feet and had offered them the bread and wine, and claimed them as symbols of the sacrifice he was about to become for the sake of the world. After he spent time at the table with them; teaching them, encouraging them, and preparing for what lie ahead. In the midst of the moment the disciples continued to struggle to understand what was happening around them. 22Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, "But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?"

It is clear that those gathered in the Upper Room continued to be so focused on their own journey that they could not fathom that the promises of Jesus were not just for them, but for everyone. It was clear that they continued to struggle to grasp what kind of Messiah Jesus was called to be. They continued to expect Jesus to walk with them, to lead them, and to guide them each step of the way. One more time Jesus speaks to them. 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 heard Judas’ question and as he did so often, turned the question toward a vital moment of instruction. Jesus begins, “if anyone loves me” – did you hear that Judas – anyone – not just those in this room, but anyone – if anyone obey my teaching the Father will love him and WE – yes, Judas, we – the Father and me as One – will come and make our home with you and anyone who obeys my teaching. The journey from here – just like the journey to here – is based in our relationship. Judas, hear me, these words are not just mine – they also belong to the Father who sent me. Do you get it?

Jesus continued; 25"All this I have spoken while still with you. 26But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Jesus tells them that, “I am telling you this while I am still with you – there will be a time when I am not – but the Father will send you the Holy Spirit in my name – did you get this, though I am not in the room with you, through the Holy Spirit, the Father and I are still with you and in you to remind you of all of the things that I have done – and said – and promised. You will not be alone. You will never be alone in this journey. The Father and I are at home with you and the Spirit will be there to guide you.

I can imagine Jesus sweeping the room with his eyes, making sure that everyone in the room was hearing him. He wanted to make sure that none of them – and none of us – missed this. Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. It is not the temporary fading kind of peace the world can give you – this is different. It is the same peace that the Father has given the Son. It can sustain you in good days and difficult ones. I think that these are words that are heard for you and me to hear because it is so easy to get caught up in the stress of expectations, family demands, and economic uncertainty. I do not think we claim a peace that can relieve our stress and release us into the arms of God. This is more than the bumper sticker, “Let Go and Let God.” It is a let go because we live in the midst of God. Jesus reinforces this; Don’t let your heart be troubled….Do not be afraid.
Do you worry about that as a kid? Was it monsters in the closet or what might happen in the dark? How about now? Does the mere mention of spiders or snakes make you squirm? Our world can be a scary place. Jesus understood that it would be very scary for those who would go out in His name. One of the realities is that any time a church or even a person is doing great things for God there is almost the certainty that spiritual opposition will emerge. For many in our world persecution is still very much a reality. In fact, there were more people martyred for their faith in the last 100 years than the previous 1900 years combined. (2)Jesus wanted his disciples then – and now – to understand that even though they would face difficulty, they did not have to be afraid. God was with them regardless of the outcome.

28"You heard me say, 'I am going away and I am coming back to you.' If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29I have told you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe. The tension of the promise of Jesus is that we are to claim unapologetically life now…..and life eternal. We live in the promise that God is at home with us now, comforting and encouraging us. But we also hear with equal passion that God is preparing a place for us….a place in the eternal presence of God. It seems that in our current religious climate that is less conversation on the promise of Christ’s return and eternity. I think that this is contributing factor to why we have moved from a medical mantra of “do no harm” to “extend life as long as you can -seize every moment of breath medically possible” There seems to be a pervasive fear of what comes next, even from the bounds of the Christian community. We need to be clear that for those who claim faith in Christ the same God who promises us life now in Him, also promises eternity with Him. Just as we need not fear what we will encounter on the other side of this minute or the other side of grave.

Don’t let your heart be troubled….Do not be afraid, God is with us for our journey of life and faith, in good days and in difficult ones. Don’t let your heart be troubled….Do not be afraid, God is with us in life now and we will be with God for eternity. We do not need to fear the path that lies ahead us nor languish in the stress of our lives. God is with us and is will be there to comfort and guide us. We also do not need to fear what happens when the world around us seems uncertain or when our life moves toward its end. We are not alone. We will never be alone. God is with us and we will be with God. The Jesus who came that we might see God face-to-face, will come again to claim us forever….just as he said.

(1) Guthrie, Suzanne, “The Turn in the Path,”The Christian Century, 2001. Religion Online, available at on May 5, 2010.
(2) McAtee, Brian. Based in research from the World Christian Database

Monday, May 3, 2010

Living Pentecost

The sermon for this week was more seen than spoken. Hear what we are witnessing together at FBC OKC in an entry entitled; "Living Pentecost." It paints the picture of a remarkable movement of God in our midst and shared some of the seen sermon from our first Sunday in May............

On May 25th the global Church will celebrate Pentecost Sunday. This day remembers the moment reported in the 2nd Chapter of Acts when the Holy Spirit empowered the early disciples to leave the safety of the Upper Room to go into the streets of Jerusalem to preach to “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.” The gift of the Spirit was that each person was able to hear the gospel story in their own language.

For many the story of Pentecost Sunday is powerful, but distant from their experience. First Baptist Church of Oklahoma has found itself living in a flavor of Pentecost that shapes the character and the complexion of the church. This story began quietly when a former missionary and gifted educator began an English language center in 2006 to help strengthen the language skills of refugees, immigrants, and those from international settings that now called Oklahoma City home. A map in the Language Center marks the diversity of the home nations of the students and the church became its journey in ministry with the world in its midst.

In June 2008 our church learned of a small group of Christian refugees from Burma needed a place to call home. The church learned that this small band of Baptist emerged from the Chin State in Myanmar, a state that lay just along the border with India. Their story was defined by persecution and difficulty. The original group of 16 served as the foundation of what has now become the United Myanmar Baptist Church. Recently UMBC embraced a larger mission and choose Burmese as their language of worship so that they could also include other refugee groups from Burma including the Kachin and Karen. Burmese is the second language to the seven distinct languages that call UMBC home. In this same moment, one the of the Chin language groups, the Hahka, stepped out to begin worship in their own language. This new group has named their gathering the Lai Baptist Church.

In a conference room just across the hall from the church offices the sounds of Spanish emerge. The Hispanic Bible Study was launched to touch the growing Latin community that live within easy reach of the church. This Bible study represents somewhat of a rebirth of a Spanish speaking ministry that long lived within the church’s walls. One of families who are members of the Bible study were a central part of the earlier ministry and returned “home” when they heard the news about this new ministry endeavor.

In the past few weeks a new body has found a sense of home alongside the First Baptist family. The Sudanese Christian Fellowship, composed of Arabic speaking Christians from Southern Sudan have began meeting at and with FBC OKC. Like the Burmese refugees, the Sudanese story is rife with persecution and abuse. They came to FBC OKC because they had heard that the church had a heart for people from other parts of the world.

In many congregations these various churches and fellowships would be content to worship and serve apart from one another. FBC OKC has chosen to embrace another model. While we are distinct congregations we are one church family together. The first Sunday of each month the congregations worship side-by-side in a service that now includes elements from the five shared languages the congregations use in their unique worship services. A grand example of this living Pentecost was witnessed in worship yesterday. The worship yesterday began with a baptism of five young adults, four from the UMBC and one from the Lai Baptist Church. The service continued with the parent-infant dedication of eleven children and their families that represented a wide spectrum of the shared congregations. The service closed with a college student from the church coming forward to announce his call into world missions. The student will spend his summer serving beside Baptist missionaries living and working in the Middle East. It seems the boundary between world missions and regular congregational life have so blended that where one ends and the other begins is unrecognizable.

If you listened closely, at the close of the worship service you could hear the diversity of the congregation speaking to each other in one of the dozen heart languages that have found a sense of family together. We have learned together that while the complexion of our skin, the language of our hearts, and the nature of our cultures are different, our faith in Christ makes us one. While the church bounds do not yet include people from every nation under heaven, our version of living Pentecost has so shaped us that it taken us from the streets of Oklahoma City and carried into ministries across the globe. It has also given us a little glimpse into what God is doing in the global Church and a small taste of what it means to be a part of the Kingdom of God. I am glad for the movement of the Spirt and for the opportunity to serve in the midst of a living Pentecost.

Grace and Peace, Tom