Saturday, August 28, 2010

“A Church Report Card” I Thessalonians 3:6-13

It amazes me how little school buses have changed since my days at Crosby Garfield Sixth Grade Center in Raleigh, North Carolina. The outside is yellow, the seats are vinyl, and the smell sees to remind you of the leftovers from yesterday’s lunch and sweaty gym socks. There was a routine to riding a school bus. You got up at the same time, ate breakfast at the same time, stood in the same spot to wait for the bus, and you sat in the same seat next to the same person day after day. The ride back home was the same process in reverse. But there was one day every nine weeks when the routine was broken. It was report card day. Some of the kids were so excited about their grades that they claimed the front section of the bus, ready to pounce out to share their grades with the parents with pride. There was also a group that claimed the far back of the bus. They knew what their report cards said and were in no hurry to share it with anyone. Let’s be honest, almost all of us fit in one of three report card categories. Some in this room were a part of the front of the bus crowd, ready to celebrate every time report cards were sent home. Odds are good that some of you were probably part of the back of the bus crowd, praying that a brother or a sister would forget tell mom and dad that it was report card day. Still others of you would have been with me in the middle of the bus, OK with the results but not quite ready to trumpet them to the world.

So what do you think a church report card might look like? I think our culture would have some quick and easy answers. It imagine that if we were to take a poll in the streets we would probably hear that the markers of success would be things like attendance, offering numbers, building size, and program diversity. Our cultures mantra calls us to bigger, better, and more – sometimes seemingly regardless of the cost. While I understand the motivation behind cultural markers, they fail to take into account that sometimes people are willing to settle for faith-lite, a faith that asks little of them and offers little to them, and others are willing to replace worship for grand religious entertainment that amuses them rather than calls them to the feet of God.

There is a passage of scripture that gives us a much better template for our report card. It calls us to something deeper and more relational than a casual statistical survey. It is found in a passionate letter that Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica. It is a church Paul loves deeply and longs to be with again. Every time Paul tried to go back to see them something else stood in the way so he finally sent Timothy to bring back a report on how they were doing. Timothy’s report on the church and Paul’s accompanying prayer provides us five critical markers in measuring a church.

Paul was worried about the church in Thessalonica. Those gathered at the church had only been Christians for a short time when he had to leave them and persecution soon followed. Had they stayed strong or fallen away? Paul eagerly awaited Timothy’s return. When Timothy brings his report Paul celebrates. 7Therefore, brothers, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. 8For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord. 9How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? The first marker is a faith strong enough to thrive in adversity. Did you notice that I said a faith strong enough not just to survive, but to thrive in adversity?

We so often think of faith in personal terms. But a church too must be defined by the way the body has expressed itself in faith together. If a church walks together long enough there will be days of great joy and days of angst. There will be moments of grand celebration and moments of grave pain. A vital measure of a church is found not in the seasons of celebration. It’s not often you find a deep theological truth in a television comedy but at the height of one of the great M*A*S*H episodes we hear the sometimes often awkward Father Mulcahy proclaim, “A faith of convenience is a hollow faith.” (1) A hollow faith cannot sustain us in times of agony and angst. So, what happens when convenience gives way to pain? The temptation will be to hunker down and just try to survive. But, some churches will claim live and ministry in the midst of pain. Their faith is forged in the difficult moments and instead of hiding in fear, they choose to become places of refuge and hope for others who walk wounded in their midst. Instead of being defined by defeat they step out boldly in love. I believe one of the reasons this church is experiencing the movement of God in this era is that when downtown was more defined by vacant building than bustling homes, when the agony of the Murrah bombing lay fresh and others chose to leave, this church decided to stay and be faithful in ministry in this place. In a moment following a difficult season of conflict when it might have to find a different church family many committed to stay and minister to this community, even in the midst of their own pain. The hope we experience now was born in the deep waters of adversity. The faith you demonstrated has allowed this church to thrive.

The second marker in measuring a church is a ministry drenched prayer. Paul responds to Timothy’ great report with enthusiasm and tells them that he their ministry has been central in his prayers and the prayers of his ministry companions. “The language here becomes very intense. ‘Night and day we pray most earnestly,’ he says, ‘to see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.' The Greek verb translated as "we pray," is a gentler and more elegant rendition of the term than its potentially cruder translation, "begging." (2) Imagine the picture of Paul and his companions down on their knees passionately begging God in prayer day and night to sustain the church in Thessalonica. I truly believe that one of the reasons for the good news of the Thessalonians strong faith was because their ministry was drenched in prayer.

I am so excited about the prayer retreat that Brad has put together for our church. It will be held in just a matter of weeks. The retreat is entitled. “Abandoned to God.” If you have not signed up yet, you may want to catch Brad after the worship service. I think this retreat will prove to be meaningful for everyone who chooses to take part. This retreat was inspired by the youth prayer retreats and is a powerful symbol of the growing passion for prayer emerging in the life of our church. I am thankful for the many ways you are engaged in prayer already. But I pray that our prayer life my move from a beautiful stream to a might river. I dream of a movement of prayer across the life of our church where we are begging God on our knees for the missions and ministries of our church and for one another.

The third and fourth measures of a church lay side-by-side. They are witnessed in an overflowing love for one another and others. We hear these two markers in one breath from Paul’s prayer. He prays for them; 12May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. I love the way that Eugene Peterson captures the heart of this image with his interpretative translation, The Message. He describes this first part of Paul’s prayer this way; And may the Master pour on the love so it fills your lives and splashes over on everyone around you, just as it does from us to you.

Paul prays that they will have an overflowing love for one another – a love that splashes all over each other. Jesus tells us that his followers will be known by how they love each other. This kind of love is not forced or contrived. It is an authentic reflection of how we love and care for one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. As we continue to grow we will have to be unapologetic in our choice to embrace those who come to be a part of our church family. There is no room for isolated clusters, we are called to have open hearts and open lives for each other. We are called to splash all over each other with an overflowing love born in God’s love for us.

Side-by-side their love for each other, Paul prays that they will have an overflowing love for others – a love that splashes all over those they encounter and minister among. This morning I celebrate how our church family has expressed itself in its love for others. It is witnessed in the ministries of Good Shepherd, seen in the faces of those who served as a part of the S3 community ministry outreach, and expressed one-on-one in the service of the KidsHope mentors and their prayer partners. We see it lived out in our ministry among side of refugees and in the new churches born to reach out to new people in our area. We also see it demonstrated as we send mission teams across the state lines and national boundaries in the name of Jesus. God is moving in us and through us as we splash God’s love on our community and the world. Let us not grow weary in doing good.

The fifth marker is expressed in passage is a passion for holiness. We hear it as Paul prays, 13May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones. This marker stands in sharp contrast to the cultural version of faith lite. A passion of holiness invites us into a way of life and faith that beckons us deeper in our relationship with God and calls us to become a living reflection of the holiness – of the way - of God. It carries us from this moment until the return of Jesus. This transforms the way we approach Bible study, becoming central in our desire grow in our spiritual lives. It transforms the way we approach worship, claiming it as moments in the presence of God. This means that we leave no one on the edges as casual participants, but beckons us all -together-to fully invest in each other and in this grand Kingdom enterprise.

I believe if we claim these five markers for the measure of the church we will claim a healthier, more Biblical model of what it means to be church.

• I believe that if we are the church that God calls us to be then cultural markers like attendance numbers, offering dollars, and ministry scale will fall away and allows us to focus on seeing God working in us and through us in transformative ways in our community and our world.
• I believe if we are the church that God calls us to be then God will bless us and others will come and join us serving at our side.
• I believe that if we are the church God calls us to be then God will provide us the resources we need to fulfill His will for us.
• I believe that if we are the church God calls us to be then we, all of us together, will claim a spirit of generosity that will invite us to share our gifts and talents and fiscal resources faithfully so that we may see our ministry together respond to the opportunities that God places before us.

As I look at our church I am thank for the hopeful picture that emerges. It is a report card that allows us to join those on the front of the bus, ready to pounce out of the door to share the good news. I am excited to see where we are now, and can hardly wait to see what God will do in our midst in the days ahead.

(1)In the episode “A Holy Mess" broadcasted in 1982
(2)Michael Joseph Brown, “Commentary on Second Reading” originally dated November 29, 2009, available at on August 26, 2010.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Never on Sunday! Luke 13: 10-17 August 22, 2010 FBC OKC

I was shocked at the amount of air time and print space given to a Facebook announcement, but somehow it seemed to strike a chord with the media and deep in our cultural conversation. Best selling novelist Anne Rice told the world that “she remains committed to Christ, but she is quitting Christianity. The “Interview With The Vampire” author, who in recent years has spoken publicly about her faith and written a series of novels tracing the life of Jesus, wrote on her Facebook page Wednesday that she was finished with organized Christianity.’ For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to "belong" to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outside. My conscience will allow nothing else.’” (1)Her motivations was her rejection of the “anti” positions related to homosexuality, feminism, science, the democratic party, and a host of other positions maintained by conservative Catholic leadership and evangelic Protestant denominations. Hours later, Rice posted a quote by Mahatma Gandhi, who reportedly once said “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” (2)

I think the reason that her announcement created such a firestorm of positive and negative attention was that many inside the Church stood up and defend the role and the positions of the Church and those outside the Church claimed the moment to condemn the Church and it’s perceived of hypocrisy. While I strongly disagree with Anne Rice’s position, to be honest, some of the comments made were so vitriolic, so angry, so wrapped up in hyper-religious language and legalism, to me they ended up sounding much more like the Pharisees and religious elite of Jesus’ era then they did Jesus.

Earlier in our worship service you head William Dooley read our focal passage for the morning. It is a powerful story where Jesus confronts religious tradition for the sake of grand act of love. Let’s look closer at the story together. 10On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." 13Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

We are invited in a special moment. We witness an amazing act of love. So often we listen as people call out to Jesus, demanding his attention, begging to be healed. This is a very different encounter. This nameless women had not said anything – had not done anything. Jesus sees the women, has compassion on her, and reaches out to her. It was an amazing personal encounter.

In his commentary on Luke, Hershel Hobbs points to something worthy of our attention in verse twelve. The Greek term for this healing moment uses the perfect tense reflects a completed action – a permanent act. (3)For 18 years she had been bent and crippled, struggling in every move in every moment. Then, in a word her world was changed. When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. She was surrounded by her friends and community of faith – you would think everyone would rejoice with her. But, a voice of objection calls out.

14Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath." In a single sentence the leader of the synagogue transforms what should have been a grand moment of worship and celebration into a moment when religion comes in conflict with love, when law and tradition gets in the way of an encounter with the living Son of God. William Barclay reminds us that, “The president of the synagogue and those like him were people who loved systems more than people. They were more concerned that their own petty little laws should be observed than that a woman should be helped.” (4) Have you ever known anyone more concerned about the rules than people?

I can relate to this story on a very personal basis. After four years in Christian schools spread across my middle school and high school years I chose to leave the Church. I had become so weary of the markers of being a good Christian being tied to thinks like the length of my hair, the shade of blue in my blue jeans, and other meaningless external expressions. They were so focused on how I behaved they missed who I was. They were so focused on their rules and regulations that forgot to care about me as a person. At the close of the fourth school year I told my mother that I was not going back to the school and I was not going back to Church. I told her that the legalism that defined these people seemed far from Jesus to me and that I had enough. I know my words concerned her, but she trusted me and trusted God. While I never went back to the school, after a matter of months I found myself missing something - something important. I missed the heart, the grace, and the love of God. God called me back in spite of those who had been so busy behaving like they thought they should that they missed the heart of God.

“The synagogue ruler, indignant over a healing on the Sabbath, makes his appeal to the people: there are six other days in the week for healing, but not on the Sabbath. His words are an indirect attack on Jesus and a strong reprimand of the people as accessories in the violation of the law because they came on the Sabbath for healing.” (5)He was angry. He probably thought that it was fine for Jesus to heal people – but not on the Sabbath!!!! In our context his call would be “Never on Sunday!” Jesus was interrupting his carefully planned worship service. In his mind, Jesus did the right thing at the wrong time – which made it the wrong thing to do. The leader of the synagogue was so caught up in the religious rules he missed the heart of God.

15The Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?" 17When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. This is not the first time Jesus had to deal with doing the right thing at the wrong religious time. There are other times in scripture we see him deal with this issue. His understanding of the Sabbath was bigger than the leadership of the synagogue. The leader of the synagogue understood that you could care for the need of your work animals on the Sabbath – that you could deal with an emergency need. But, apparently did not see the bent and crippled woman as worth of a Sabbath act. I guess he figured that if she had suffered for 18 years that another day would not hurt her – after all this healing moment was a clear interruption of their formal traditional worship experience.

To help the leader of the synagogue and the crowd to understand the scope of the insanity of the moment, Jesus uses a specific term for the woman; he calls her a “daughter of Abraham.” Piper tells us that “Those words, ‘daughter of Abraham’ are intended to carry a message to the synagogue leaders. The message goes something like this: On top of all the other reasons why you should care more about a suffering person than a thirsty ox, is the fact that this woman is a fellow heir of the blessing promised to Abraham. You pride yourselves in saying, ‘We are the children of Abraham.’ Well, she too is a child of Abraham. You hide from the warnings of John the Baptist by saying, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ Well, she too has Abraham as her father.” (6) So, Jesus makes it clear – a valued child of God was bound and wounded – the right act is love and compassion – regardless of time or place. In the book of John, chapter 13, verses 34-35, Jesus tells is followers, "A new command I give you: Love one another . As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (NIV) A Christ like love becomes the marker – the sign – the seal of those that choose to follow.

This story of a Sabbath healing is a gospel story that makes me nervous. It makes me nervous because I know how easy it is to get trapped in the traditions of religion and miss those who walk among us who are wounded and need to be healed by Jesus. It makes me nervous because I know how easy it is to go through our Sunday morning motions and missed God moments in our midst. I know how easy it is to live and worship comfortably with our “Christian” friends and close our eyes to others who live outside of faith and are still consumed by the evil that haunts their lives.

But the intent of this gospel story is not condemnation but rather is offered as a challenges to us to be a people who chose to be a part of a celebration of someone who was lost who is now found, someone who was captive who is now set free, someone who was apart from God who is now a child of God. We are to be a people of redemption rather than self-righteousness; a people of healing rather than heralds of the law; a people of grace, loving and caring for the God places in our midst. We have taken many significant steps on that journey and I celebrate it with you. Recently one of our summer interns told the staff of an encounter she had when she was on the SNU campus handling some business. She ran into a casual friend who in the course of the conversation asked her where she went to church. When she told him she went to FBC OKC, he responded, “oh, the Jesus church.” She asked him what he meant and he explained that we were the church that worked with the homeless and refugees, that really cared for people...that we were a “Jesus church.” While I am glad for the historic moniker of “the lighthouse on the corner” being described as a “Jesus church” thrills my soul. Being called a “Jesus Church” touches me and challenges me. It draws me to this story with a passion to make sure that I am – that we are – not so consumed by “doing church” we forget to “be church” for the wounded and weary walking among us.

Lord, help me; help us, to choose to be so faithful to love like Jesus that perceived bounds religious rules and regulations fade away. Help me; help us, radiate the love of Christ to all we encounter and never miss a moment of your work in our midst.

(1)Available online at on August 19, 2010
(2)Available online at on August 19, 2010
(3)Hershel Hobss, An Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1966), p. 216.
(4)The Gospel of Luke. 2000, c1975 (W. Barclay, lecturer in the University of Glasgow, Ed.) (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. The Westminster Press: Philadelphia
(5)Craddock, F. B. 1990. Luke. Interpretation, a Bible commentary for teaching and preaching . John Knox Press: Louisville, Ky.
(6)John Piper, “Jesus, Women, and Men,” available online at on August 24, 2007.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Call to Holiness I Peter 1:13-16

On the streets of Bangkok and Beijing, in the markets in Hong Kong and Houston, and in the back alley ways of New York City and Los Angeles you can find makeshift sales spots offering watches bearing names like Rolex, Bulova, Tag Heuer, Gucci, and more. These watch brands that would cost your hundreds, if not thousands, in retail stores can be yours for $20 or less. Now I should tell you that the crystal cover may be cut glass or plastic instead, and the mechanisms inside my actually be produced in a nameless factory in rural China rather than in Switzerland, but the savings are impressive. Nearby you can find Hermes, Louis Vuitton, and Channel purses and handbags – now the leather may be pleather and the logos may be just a little off, but the price will be pennies on the dollar. And, if you have a favorite brand of shirt, give the young women a minute or two and she can have any logo you want sewn onto the shirt of your choice, and the savings will be dramatic. In moments we have toured the black market sale stalls where low end knock offs do their best imitation of the real thing.

Peter comes to our focal passage this morning with a call to holiness where he expected the followers of Christ to become the real deal reflection of God rather than a back street poor imitation. He sets the bar pretty high, but the payoff is the kind of faith that draws you toward the kind of authenticity and authentic relationship with God that can change your life and shape the witness of the Church. Earlier in the service you heard Joe Hodges read our scripture from the New International Version translation. Let me read it again from the New Revised Version. Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’

The heart of what Peter is trying to say is that “A holy God demands a holy people, just as a God of hope creates a hopeful people” (1)We hear this clearly in Peter’s quotation from Leviticus 11 in verse 16 . It is a critical concept. He wants them, and us, to understand that the call to holiness is not a call to self-righteousness or a holier-than-thou mindset. He wants us to understand is a humble, hopeful, meaningful expression of what it means to be the children of God. To make his point, Peter leverages this teaching of Moses to the people “of Israel and applies them unapologetically to the early Christians and to us.” (2)

Let’s dive in and take a closer look. Therefore prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed. Peter’s call to holiness was centered on a way of life where we choose to live our lives in the certainty that we know how the story ends. First he tells them to prepare their minds – to get ready – and then tells them to discipline themselves. The older translations claim a great word that has lost much of its meaning in our current context. He tells them “live soberly.” No, he is not just talking about no drinking too much alcohol, he is talking about designing their lives in a way where they use good judgment, make good decisions; live a life that is not guided by the whims of passion, but one where they are in control of their decisions and actions. The second thing he tells them is that this way of life is built in the hope of grace. Hear me; this is not the “I wish” kind of hope. It is the divine certainty. He wants them set their lives on the promise of the grace that Christ brings – now – and for the forever that awaits them. In other words, live like you know the end of the story, God’s grace triumphs, we are a people of a sure future.

The letter continues; Like obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires that you formerly had in ignorance. I love how Eugene Peterson describes this in The Message. He writes; Don't lazily slip back into those old grooves of evil, doing just what you feel like doing. You didn't know any better then; you do now. As obedient children, let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God's life. The easy path would be to jump on the parent-child imagery and talk about obedience in that context, but honestly those under 18 are probably weary of claiming that picture every time we talk about what it means to be obedient to God. So, let me try another angle. Obedience is not a blind following of commands, it is the life choice – the every moment kind of choice – to do things the way that God wants us to because of the love we have for God. “Obedience and a life of holiness is not produced from passivity but demands that we each individually make an active choice to cultivate the attitude and initiate right thinking and right actions that lead to holy living.”(3)Obedience is not born in the response to a stern look or the threat of punishment; it emerges from our honest and passionate desire to please God. The central question then becomes whether or not we want to live the kind of lives the please God? Peter tells the crowd hearing the reading of this letter, don’t live the kind of lives you did before you came to Christ and did not know any better,
let yourselves be pulled into a way of life shaped by God's life.

Our focal passage concludes; Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’ As children of God we are called to live lives that are a good reflection of the way of God. Back to the picture of the black market watches, hand bags, purses, and shirts. We are supposed to be holy in response and in reflection of God’s holiness. Really, it is the only way we can claim holiness. You see the idea of being holy is exclusively an attribute of God. Our capacity to live the kind of lives that draws us toward holiness is only possible in our relationship to God as the children of God through faith in Christ. It seems some have forgotten this and claim a way of life where they think they can stand over and above others – that holiness is somehow a reflection of their own nature. Their self-righteousness is not turns people away from the church, it has no Biblical basis. They have deceived themselves. Holiness begins and ends with God – our task is to resist the temptation to be a cheap knockoff or poor imitation and instead become a reflection of God’s holiness because our way is shaped by God. Back to Eugene Peterson’s creative take on this verse. He says that we are to
live a life energetic and blazing with holiness. God said, "I am holy; you be holy."

Can you imagine what it would look like to live the kind of live where its energy emerges from the holiness of God? Can you image what it would be to be blazing with holiness because of your relationship with God? Peter tells us how; live life as the victorious people of God knowing that God’s grace forgives, redeems and renews you through Christ. Live the kind of lives born from a desire to please God. Live the kind of lives where you draw so close to God that you can reflect God’s holiness.

It is our choice and it is a choice we make in every moment and in every decision. We can choose the way that pleases us for the moment, but pushes us further and further away from God and the way of God. Or we can choose to live the kind of lives that invites us to become a living reflection of God. So, are we going to be a cheap imitation, a poor knock off, or will we be the authentic – the real deal – reflection of God’s holiness?