Friday, June 18, 2010

Everyday Heroes

This week the First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City was converted into the site of a high energy Christian music camp experience that invites kids from first to seven grade to learn and perform a musical in just one week. The camp also features Bible studies, recreation, and afternoon fun filled field trips. Kids from within our church walls are joined by kids from across our community for this incredible annual event put together by our music and children’s ministries.

The theme for this year is Everyday Heroes. The kids got to put the theme into practice by spending one of their afternoons working at the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. Over the course of a couple of hours the kids handled 342 cases of food, for a combined weight of 11,457 pounds. They were building Emergency Boxes and help put together a total to 8,813 meals for people in our community. While tonight we will see their grand musical performance these kids have already proven themselves everyday heroes. I could not be more proud of them.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Monday, June 14, 2010

That Woman! Luke 7:36-50

Last night Beth and I went to dinner with the Dooleys at the Queen of Sheba Ethiopian Restaurant. I have eaten food from across the globe but had never eaten Ethiopian before. While I have always trusted William’s palate, I must confess that I entered the restaurant with some trepidation. I did not know what to expect. The end result was better than I had imagined. The food was great! While it may have been my first trip to the restaurant, it is certainly not my last. This morning’s passage invites home for dinner with Simon. I imagine that when Simon found his place at the table he probably thought he knew exactly what they would eat and what would happen. The dinner was the same old fare with the same old friends, just with the addition of this radical rabbi named Jesus. But what he did not know is that when Jesus is at the table one should get ready to have their world turned upside down.

Simon is one of the seemingly endless nameless faceless groups of Pharisees that dot the Jesus story. The Pharisees are an interesting lot. They are blue collar religious conservatives (1) passionate about keeping the Law of Moses – every jot and tittle. They were self righteous and were admitted to sect by pledging the strict observance to the Law in front of three other Pharisees. These are rule driven folks. They played by the rules and expected everyone else to play by the same rules – no exceptions.

As you would expect, we find Jesus at the table. He and the other guest are reclining at a floor height table; eating and talking. I can almost hear the chatter and the occasional burst of laughter. The table was probably lined with the closest friends and family of the Pharisee. In fact, probably several others at the table would have been Pharisees as well.

Luke sets the scene quickly and then adds the one who would have stopped the casual conversation at the table and turns all eyes on Jesus. A woman hears that Jesus is eating in the Pharisee’s home and makes her way to the household. Without invitation and or announcement she enters the dining area. The only thing we really know about her is that Luke tell us that she had lived a sinful life. If you have heard this passage preached before the proclaimer probably tried to explain that she was women of – well how shall we say this - a woman of questionable reputation? They probably contended that since she had a jar of alabaster perfume and would let her hair down, that this had to be the case. But, to be honest, there are many, many other ways we could explain these two parts of her story. The reality is that the word chosen to describe the woman is not the one most often used to describe those in a particular profession. No, all we really know is that her life was defined by sin – what kind of sin really did not matter. But, her identity was shaped by her sinfulness. She knew it. Everyone one from that community knew it. She was the one people probably pointed at when she walked by and whispered harsh words for “that woman!” But there is no mistaking it. There was standing behind Jesus. Now all at the table froze, waiting to see how Jesus would respond.

“As the woman stood weeping behind Jesus, she began to wash his feet with her tears. In a spontaneous act, she let down her hair and began to wipe the tears from Jesus' feet and then anointed them with the perfume. The woman's act expresses love and gratitude, but it also violated social conventions. Touching or caressing a man's feet could have sexual overtones, as did letting down her hair, so a woman never let down her hair in public. Moreover, the woman was known to be a sinner. Assuming she was unclean, she would have made Jesus unclean by touching him.” (2) 39When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner."

Some scholars would like to suggest that this event might have staged by the Pharisee to try to trap Jesus. I believe this is highly unlikely, because the Pharisee’s house would have been deemed unclean by this moment and his reputation in the community would have been impacted by the mere presence of this woman. No, he was just as shocked as everyone else and now found himself sitting in comfortable judgment of Jesus. The fact that Jesus let her touch his feet with her hair violated a host of social norms and religious regulations.

I imagine that you could have felt the tension rising in the room. Jesus looked at his Pharisee host and offered a parable40Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to tell you." "Tell me, teacher," he said. 41"Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?" 43Simon replied, "I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled." "You have judged correctly," Jesus said.

It is one thing to say you understand a story, a parable, or a sermon. It is something very different to bring it to life in your way of life. Simon faces that moment. Simon can proclaim the right answer to the parable but has no idea what this means in his life and in this moment. Jesus wants Simon to make the leap of faith required to change his heart. He turned toward the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Then Jesus tells Simon and the others gathered in that room something that would shake their worlds. 47Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little." 48Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." Those gathered in the room tried to understand this great act of divine grace, but for those locked in the prison of a legalistic faith had little room for God to color forgiveness outside the lines.

This is a simple but remarkably powerful story of unexpected mercy. The woman understood her deep seeded need for mercy and grace. She knew that her life separated her from God and others. Her heart was broken and she offered Jesus the best gesture of love and gratitude she could muster. Way too much energy has been given to trying to trying to paint the depths of her sin, but Jesus looked beyond her past and saw her repentant heart. She is the easy character to focus on because most of us gathered in this room are not defined to our community for our sinfulness. We understand that those who are broken need healing. We can see people like this woman needing God. But ultimately this story is not about “that woman.”

Instead this is Simon’s story. It is Simon’s home and it is to Simon that Jesus directs his parable and commentary. I think we have a harder time focusing on Simon because we are much more like him that we might want to believe. He would be one of us. He might be a part of our Sunday School class or sit at the table with us on Wednesday dinners. He might sit on the pew nearby or maybe in your or my very seat. It is easy to so caught up in being religious – righteous…..maybe even self- righteous – that we miss our own need for grace. Simon was clear in his religious status. His church resume’ of committees and seasons as various committee chairs would have been irrefutable. But, when he saw a grand act of contrition and gratitude that did not fit in his box he responded with quiet judgment. It seems that sometimes we forget that it is not our standard that people are supposed to meet. It seems sometimes we forget that it is not enough to claim an intellectual faith of the mind, but that Jesus calls for us to claim a heart of faith that makes the way for others to find grace. It is not enough to understand what it means to follow Christ, we are called to step out and follow. Our words of our lips and the practice of our lives need to be the same. Too many have lived lives of lip service when the call of God was for life service.

The story summons us to take one more step. Jesus asks Simon a terrific and terrifying question, “do you see this woman?” Sometimes we become so caught up in our own religious expressions and obligations we become blind to those who need to be invited to the table. The very woman that Simon worried might besmirch his reputation is the one who finds grace at the feet of God. Maybe instead of worrying about how people would react to the woman – and maybe instead of wondering why Jesus would allow the woman near, he should have invited her to the table to meet Jesus – regardless of the cost – regardless of the risk. The problem is that while the passion for a fundamentalist faith burn hot, the embers of his compassion had long since grown cold. I wonder, have we become like Simon and are so settled with our own friends and so settled into our religious way of life that we miss inviting people who need Jesus to the table with us? As Simon sat only feet from Jesus in self-righteous judgment, he missed his own need for grace. We, as people of faith, like Simon, come with blind spots to our own sin. For Simon it was religious arrogance. For others, their spiritual blind spot is born in is a heart of selfishness or self centeredness, or anger, or greed, or….well, anything that breaks our relationship with God or others. We have subtly decided that we are good enough on our own. It seems that it is tempting to forget that the parable teaches that whether the cost of our sin is the 50 or the 500 denarii, the need for grace is just the same. Have you become so comfortable in your way of life that you have forgotten your own need for God and God’s grace?

You sit at the table with Jesus. Don’t miss the moment. Hear the good news! Grace is available to everyone, even people like ‘that woman!” Hear that God’s forgiveness is big enough, bold enough, and powerful enough to the depth and breadth of our sins. Whether our lives look more like Simon or the “That Woman,” let our song ring out; Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy on me. Jesus stands ready to say into your life, "Your sins are forgiven."

(1) Available online at on June 12, 2010.
(2) R. Alan Culpepper, Luke, New Interpreter's Bible, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 170.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

“Longing for God” Psalm 42:1-8

This is the sermon text for June 6, 2010 at First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City. It calls us to consider what it means to long for God. It also contains the second half of a story where God has turned "no" into a remarkable "yes!" Join us in our journey in longing for God.

One of the most popular movies out right now is Letters to Juliet. The BBC reports that ” Letters to Juliet is the fictional story of a young American woman who travels to Verona in Italy - the city where Romeo meets Juliet - and joins a group of volunteers who respond to letters written to "Juliet" that seek romantic advice. She discovers a letter sent 50 years earlier, then helps its author - played by Vanessa Redgrave - in her quest to find a long-lost fiancé she had left decades before. Is it just Hollywood schmaltz? That will be for viewers to decide. But behind its heavily-beating heart are a number of truths. Firstly, there really is a Juliet's house in Verona, though many historians question whether she actually existed at all.....And secondly, many people do write to "Juliet" every year, pouring out their aching thoughts onto the written page. The letters, which are often just addressed to "Juliet, Verona", are read by a team of 15 secretaries. They are kind of agony aunts (and at least one uncle) who deal in the pain inflicted by love, or the lack of it. "We receive about 6,000 a year, from every corner of the world," said Giovanna Tamassia, who has been replying to the letters for 16 years. "Seventy percent are from women, 30% are from men." Asked what kind of people write, she described them as "sad". "Those who can't find love or have been rejected by it and who need to communicate with a stranger, like 'Juliet'." (1)I think the reason I found this article so interesting was not because of its tie in to the movie, but rather that thousands of people write to a fictional character in hopes of hearing something to encourage them. They so long for the kind of Shakespearean romantic relationship that might mean something that they will seemingly do anything to find it. Can you imagine someone eagerly checking the mailbox each day looking for a letter that might speak to the hole in their heart?

It continues to amaze me the lengths many people will go to try to claim love, but are willing to settle for a relationship with God defined by routine religious rituals, rather than the depth of relationship with God for which they were created. It seems that we can become content nibbling on the crumbs that fall from the table rather than feasting on the banquet of love, grace, and faith to which we have been invited. On Wednesday nights we have begun a study of the Psalms. That study now finds its way into this moment as we hear the Psalter cry out with a longing for God what draws toward the wonder of God’s presence and the depths of God’s love. Join me in looking at Psalm 42, verses 1 through 8. As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. 2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? 3 My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, "Where is your God?" 4 These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng. NIV

The psalmist begins with a compelling image. He sings out that he thirsts for God as a deer thirsts for water in the desert. It is important we do not miss the power of this image. At the time this psalm found its voice in song, deer were very present on the edges of the desert. Like the buffalo on the American west, the deer population along the desert plain dwindled to the almost nothing over time. But the first hearers of the Psalm would have resonated with the picture of the deer coming to the water – panting, almost yelping for water. Imagine a deer looking for water in the heat of a triple digit Oklahoma summer afternoon. The streams or “water brooks” the deer finds are springs which flow continually with cool clear waters from subterranean rivers.(2) The earthy image is that the Psalmist thirsts for God like one desperate and dry- deeply longing for God’s refreshing and renewing presence.

The Psalmist cries out again, My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? When was the last time you longed for a time with God that your soul cried out for it; when you would let nothing stand in your way of being in God’s presence? Can you imagine what worship would feel like if we all rushed in with eager anticipation, celebrating the opportunity to be in God’s presence, rejoicing in the moment we can lift our voice in song, thrilled at the prospect of lifting our hearts in prayers – waiting, wondering, longing to hear God speak? It is too easy to come in to this moment consumed by the distractions of the week and the tradition of moving through the motions.

Part of what helped the Psalmist come to into worship with a thirst for God’s presence – a longing for the living God is the power of memory. He remembers the grand parades to temple and the power of the song and celebrations that that drew him into the presence of God. These memories were so strong and so wonderful that even in difficulty it calls him back toward God. I think we need to stake our claim to some memories that can remind us over and over again the nature of God that can draw us into worship with longing and anticipation.

Let me share a memory that I am now claiming that will continually remind me about the incredible God I serve. Last week I stood in this moment and shared a story of a personal moment of failure. I had been trying to raise the money needed 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 told you that 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. I then shared that one of the students, a 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. I told you that there was one more thing you should that you should know – that the woman had never met the young woman. She just understood the need. I then pronounced with sadness - No, we still do not have enough money on hand to offer the scholarship. I thought the story was over, but God was not through. A couple of people in our congregation offered to join the effort with personal pledges. We still had a long way to go, but God still seemed to be at work. I shared this word with the folks at Baylor and they were moved. Emails began to fly and a meeting of key leaders was called. These leaders stopped everything else and looked for any possible solution. Did you hear that – key leaders stopped everything on behalf of one student! Clearance was given for the Development Office to reach out to see if they could find someone, anyone, who might make up the difference. If God was going to do anything it had to happen quick because the visa application timeline was within hours of coming to a close. God moved!!!!!! A woman in Texas stepped forward with a pledge of $10,000 to finish off the required monies. When I saw failure, God moved! Last Friday the BSSW wrote Biak Sung to tell her “no, not now.” 48 hours ago they sent a second letter that began, ”God has moved in amazing ways this week in your behalf. Through diligent work and effort by many, we are pleased to let you know that there is available scholarship funding for the 2010/2011 academic year. Therefore, you have been accepted as a Global Mission Leadership Scholar for the 2010/2011 academic year.” Biak Sung will arrive at Baylor in a matter of weeks. Our “no” became God’s moment to say “yes.” This grand act of God makes me long to be in God’s presence in worship. I can hardly wait to stand before the God that turns “no” into “yes” and answers my prayers beyond my wildest expectations.

This is not the only great story of the movement of God’s hand this week. You might want to ask Joe Hodges about how God has started to move in his life and ministry. Or maybe you might want to talk to Merlyn Sweet about what it meant to her to be a part of a team that saw 1500 patients in just a handful of days in Haiti. Our maybe you could come by this afternoon and talk to one of our youth about how God spoke to them as a part of this weekend’s Youth Prayer Retreat. Or maybe we should call Jay Allen on his cell phone and hear how God is moving this morning at the grand opening worship service at the new church facility for the Cowboy Country Church in Chickasha. I wonder what God might be doing in your life that might that would invite you to come into the presence of God with longing and anticipation? Have you so crowded your life that you miss seeing God’s hand? Have you gone through the motions so long that you have forgotten the memories that defined your early walk with God? It is time to create a spiritual memory book – a virtual photo album of great moments with God that will call you back to this place – that will call you back to worship – that will create in you a longing to claim more time in the presence of God.

The heart of the second half of the Psalm reads again; 5 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and 6 my God. My soul is downcast within me; therefore I will remember you from the land of the Jordan, the heights of Hermon — from Mount Mizar. 7 Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls; all your waves and breakers have swept over me. 8 By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life.

Perhaps the best known waterfall for most of us is Niagara Falls. Did you know that “With more than 6 million cubic feet of water falling over the crest line every minute in high flow, and almost 4 million cubic feet on average, it is the most powerful waterfall in North America?” (3)I vividly remember my moment on the Maid in the Midst boat at the base of the waterfall. You could feel the awesome unadulterated power of the water. The Psalmist feels the pain of despair – but again memory calls him back. The image of the gentile stream in verse 1 is now replaced with the Deep Roar of the waterfall – with its rush of water filling every place of angst. 8 By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me — a prayer to the God of my life. The Psalmist’s longing for God has given birth to a faith strong enough to sustain him in the midst of difficulty. It is a faith strengthened as it endures the fire of real life. But, hear clearly, God’s does not desire for us to languish in the desert of despair – but to be fill the cool, refreshing waters of hope. The Psalmist last words sing out; 11 Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. The first word and the final word is hope – born in an authentic personal relationship with God.

This morning I want to invite you to claim the kind of faith that leads to a longing for God – the kind of history with God where the memories sustain you – the kind of worship of God that refreshes and renews your depths of your– the kind of relationship with God that fills your heart and calls you to sing in God’s praise. Are you ready to let go of your comfortable religious routines and instead discover a longing for God that will call you to lead the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving? You do not have to write a fiction character in another land and wait for an aunt of agony to respond. The living God awaits you. This is exactly what you were created for. Don’t let anything stand in your way.

(1) available online on June 3, 2010
(2)Williams, D., & Ogilvie, L. J. 1986. Vol. 13: The Preacher's Commentary Series, Volume 13 : Psalms 1-72. Formerly The Communicator's Commentary. The Preacher's Commentary series . Thomas Nelson Inc: Nashville, Tennessee
(3)“Niagara Falls” Wikpedia, available online at on July 22, 2007.