Sunday, October 31, 2010

Reclaiming All Saints Day

Today the global Church calendar claims two distinct points of remembrance. The first is Reformation Day, remembering and celebrating those who lead in the reformation movement designed to empower the people of God. The second is All Saints Day, a tradition that has been lost in many protestant traditions. While we acknowledge the gift of the Reformation, this morning we claim the imagery of All Saints Day to call us to remember and celebrate the witness of those who have walked before us.

We begin with a simple question, “What Makes A Saint?”

The Catholic Church has a rather long and complex process for granting sainthood. It works like this; The Steps of Canonization

Here are the steps that must be followed in the process of canonization:
1. A local bishop investigates the candidate's life and writings for evidence of heroic virtue. The information uncovered by the bishop is sent to the Vatican.
2. A panel of theologians and the cardinals of the Congregation for Cause of Saints evaluate the candidate's life.
3. If the panel approves, the pope proclaims that the candidate is venerable, which means that the person is a role model of Catholic virtues.
4. The next step toward sainthood is beatification, which allows a person to be honored by a particular group or region. In order to beatify a candidate, it must be shown that the person is responsible for a posthumous miracle. Martyrs -- those who died for their religious cause -- can be beatified without evidence of a miracle. On Oct. 20, 2003, Mother Teresa was beatified. She is now known as Blessed Mother Teresa of Kolkata.
5. In order for the candidate to be considered a saint, there must be proof of a second posthumous miracle. If there is, the person is canonized.

These alleged miracles must be submitted to the Vatican for verification. Sister Teresia Benedicta of the Cross was canonized in 1997 after the Vatican verified that a young girl who ate seven times the lethal dose of Tylenol was suddenly cured. The girl's family was said to have prayed to the spirit of Sister Teresia for help.(1)

After the Reformation, many of the emerging protestant church movements set the celebration of All Saints Day aside with other Catholic elements they thought were beyond the bounds of scripture. While I understand their reasoning, today I want to pick it back up for the morning because there is a part of the celebration that is worthy of remembering. It seems that in casting aside a Catholic tradition, we also cast aside remembering those that have walked before us and left us a spiritual legacy. We also lose the Biblical teaching regarding the saints. Biblically, the word is first heard in the Old Testament where it refers to those who are pious or godly – those who love God and do God’s will. In the New Testament the Greek term refers to those who are set apart to God and thus holy. For the most part the term “saint” is used to refer to the church. It is clear that all who are a part of the body of Christ are saints. (2)

This morning we read a list of names of those who have passed from our midst as a church family in the past two year. When I listened to the names I could not help but think of the roles they played in the life of this church family and the lives they touched with their ministry amongst us. They were ordinary people like you and me, who were embraced and shaped by an extraordinary God who loves us and chooses to work in us and through us. Their witness among us calls to be faithful in our walk with God. It is good to remember and to let the season of grief that we experienced at their passing become a celebration of memory that strengthens and encourages us.
I invite you now to look at the list and see the names that are most meaningful to you. Take a moment to remember and then we will join together in a prayer of thanksgiving and celebration. 10/31/10

(1) Posted at http://people.howstuffworks.com/question6191.htm and verified with other internet site references including http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0136.html.
(2) Mitchell G. Reddish, “Saints,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, (Mercer Press: Macon, GA, 1990, 5th prnt 1997), pp. 785-6.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

“A Cloud of Witnesses” Hebrews 12:1-3 October 31, 2010

Before they changed the route the Race for the Cure ran along the front of our church on Robinson Avenue. In my first few years as pastor here, Kathryn Dooley would help organize a church water station and the volunteers to run it. It was great to stand side-by-side members of this church passing out water and cheering for every participant, regardless of how fast or slow they were going. You could see the smiles of the runners (or sometimes walkers) that seemed to appreciate the encouragement. I was particularly moved by how many of the participants were running in honor or memory of someone they loved that had been impacted by breast cancer. I loved that our church was there to cheer them on.

I believe this is the kind of picture the writer of Hebrews had in mind when they penned our focal passage for the morning. He saw us as runners on this great race of faith and wanted us to know that we were not in this race alone. You heard the passage read earlier in our worship service, but let’s take a closer look at it together. The passage begins; Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Eugene Peterson sees this great cloud of witnesses as all these pioneers who blazed the way, all these veterans cheering us on. I can see their faces. They are the men and women who helped birth the church despite profound persecution. They are the men and women who walked these halls and who ministered in Christ’s name over a proud 121 year history. They are the men and women who taught me in Sunday school, who sang in choirs, who encouraged me and helped me to see Jesus and then taught me to walk with Him. I see the face of Judson Cook who prayed with me and encouraged me. I see the face of Marine Hicks, who loved and cared for others with gentility and grace. I see Caleb Spady, who while still a boy brought a witness of strength beyond his years. I see Max Lyall, playing powerful songs of faith. The list begins here, but hardly ends here. It is a great cloud of witnesses that can testify to the power of their faith and to stories of God’s faithfulness. Your list will be different than mine, but claim a moment to look at your cloud of witnesses – those who have loved you, shaped you, and now cheer you on in your life of faith.

So there they are cheering for us – but wait, there is a problem, sometimes we are so loaded down with baggage it is hard to run the race. (Pull out suitcase, makeup kit, small satchel, and rolling ice chest. Use them as props as you speak.) We pack away grief and guilt, aggravation and frustration, secrets and shame and our bags get heavier and heavier. We add the weight of overwhelming obligations and schedules packed so tight that we can hardly breath. We pack away our moments of envy, or feelings of insecurity, our quiet rage, and our self doubts and our baggage seem to multiply out of control. So there we are loaded down. You know the feeling, wanting to move forward boldly with God, but seemingly stuck where we are. The cloud of witnesses cries out, “Throw off everything that hinders you and is weighing you down. You have go light. You have to be nimble. Sin will spring up link vines and ensnare you – sin can be like quick sand that pulls you down – all that baggage will make it impossible. Throw everything off you can and run!”

Just a couple of weeks ago we played host for the Ride for Refuge. Your response was amazing. You rode, you volunteered, and you pledged your support to some very important Kingdom causes. Do you remember the clothing the bike riders wore for the Ride for the Refuge? They were sleek and smooth, aerodynamic so even the wind would cut across them as they shot across the course. Do you remember what they were riding? Their bikes were stripped down; no basket up front or baseball cards attached by clothespins on the spokes. They do not want anything to hinder them. There is a race to be run. “Go light” I hear the cloud of witnesses calling, “and run the course that God has marked out for you.”

The writer of Hebrews makes it clear that we have someone to follow who can show us the way. Our passage continues; Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Peterson’s contemporary version words it this way; Keep your eyes on Jesus, who both began and finished this race we're in. Study how he did it. Because he never lost sight of where he was headed—that exhilarating finish in and with God—he could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever. And now he's there, in the place of honor, right alongside God. I love this picture – of running the race of faith with Jesus showing me the way. Sometimes the path can be confusing. When I come to a folk in the path, do I take a right or a left? Do I follow the well worn path or do I try to follow Jesus down this lesser used more difficult path? Jesus seems to be calling me forward. Doesn’t he know that it is easier to run with everyone else – not to challenge myself too hard – but to run the race nice and slow? I hear the cheers of the cloud of witnesses. The call me and you to keep pace and move onward with Jesus. They tell me he made the course and knows where he is taking me. They remind me that his path was not easy and that the race may get hard – but the finish line carries me - and carries you - to the feet of God. They just keep cheering. “Go light and run the course that God has marked out for you….God was faithful to us. God will be faithful to you.”

The writer of Hebrews is a fellow runner on this race of faith and encourages us along the way. He tells us; When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (A blend of verse three from the NIV and The Message.) He knew that there would be times we would get tired – tired of running –tired of struggling to do the right thing – tired of doing things God’s way when sometimes it would be easier to do otherwise. He knew that sometimes we would be tempted to lose heart – to give up or give in – to just quit. This race of faith is long and challenging, but our fellow runner points us back toward Jesus. He tells us that when we are tired and ready to lose heart to remember Jesus’ story and the race he ran for us. There were a lot of obstacles and a lot of opposition to Jesus’ grand redemptive mission that makes it possible to go to God in the first place. Let Jesus’ story energize you. Don’t let the obstacles or the failures you encounter stop you. Remember why you run. You run this race of faith because of the love Christ has for you. You run this race of faith because it invites you into the very presence of God. You run this race not on your own, but through the power of God. It is not a race of misery, but a call to joy – real joy! The cloud of witnesses join him, echoing out, “Go light and run the course that God has marked out for you….God was faithful to us. God will be faithful to you.”

Today we remember those who have run the race before us and we claim their witness for our lives. Let their stories of faithfulness remind us to let go of all that hinders us, to be wise to see the sin that can entangle us, to follow Jesus all the way to the feet of the Father. Get ready; there is a race to run. Run the race boldly, following Jesus wherever it takes you, Run the race with passion, knowing that it calls you to joy. Run the race without apology and let your witness touch all those around you. Run and do not grow weary or lose hope. Run, keeping your eyes singled focused on Jesus. Run, but know you do not go alone. Let’s go together.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Visions, Dreams, and Preaching Joel 2:23-32/Acts 2:14-21 October 24

It happened in the weeks just before Beth and I were to head out to the mission field. I was closing out my time as church planter/pastor of Westwood Baptist Church in Cary, North Carolina. It was a small but vibrant new church. The service had concluded and almost everyone had cleared the building. Aaron had made his way back into our makeshift sanctuary and had pulled out the small stool I used for children’s sermons and scooted it behind the pulpit. With a smile he stood on it, and began to act like he was preaching. One of remaining folks saw the scene and asked, “Wouldn’t it be great if your son followed you in to ministry.” While I smiled at Aaron playing preacher I could not help think about the infant daughter I held in my arms, and looked back at him and asked, “Do you think people would be as excited if the one who is called turns out to be my daughter rather than my son?” While I believed in the idea of women in ministry before that day, after that moment it became personal. It was important to me that no one put any limits on what God might do in the life of either one of my children – and by extension – anyone else’s either. But you need to know that my beliefs are not just founded in a father’s love for his children, they emerge for the Biblical account of the birth of the church. Take a look at Acts 2, verses 14-21 with me and I believe we will hear that God’s plan is to use all of us – men and women, young and old – lift our voices as witnesses to the world.

We join the Biblical narrative in the moments after the Holy Spirit has been poured out on the disciples gathered in the Upper Room. When we experience something that we have never seen before we struggle to describe with the words and images we know. If you had never seen a porcupine before how might you describe it to some else? If you had never seen a baseball game or played golf before how comical might it be to hear you try to explain these game to others? In the first few verse of Acts 2 we read the description of a violent wind coming from heaven, of tongues of fire floating above each of those gathered in the room. These strange and otherworldly images are Luke’s best attempt to explain what happens when the very presence of the Spirit of God fills the room and empowers God’s people. Should we be surprised that something dramatic happens when the Spirit of God moves? The disciples move from the Upper Room into the streets and begin to speak to the masses gathered from all over the world in Jerusalem for a religious festival. This band of fishermen, tax collectors, and other assorted followers were a part of something incredible. They had spoken Aramaic their whole lives. Now, empowered by the Holy Spirit, they listened as other languages tumbled from their lips. The crowd was bewildered – confused – even shocked – because they saw these simple Galileans speaking to them in their own language. How could these folks know all of these languages? What was happening? Scripture tells us that they were amazed and perplexed and they asked one another, “What does this mean?” Some nickered from the sidelines and speculated these followers of Jesus must be drunk. Peter claimed center stage and tried to explain what is going on. He started with an obvious observation – but one that was directly to the point – folks, he argues, it is only 9 in the morning – it’s simply too early for them to be drunk. But then he takes a moment of mockery and turns it into a pronouncement on what God was up to in their midst. He cites the prophetic pronouncement of Joel.
"'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.'”

Those gathered in the streets would have heard this prophetic promise in synagogue schools when they gathered around the rabbi for instruction. This prophet Joel described a coming climatic moment in history when the very presence of the Spirit of God would be poured out in their midst. In the time of the prophets and even in the rabbinical teaching of that era they understood that God poured out his Spirit on a select few, prophets and priests who would speak to God for the people and speak for God to the people. The prophet promised a moment when God would no long speak to and through a select few – a mere handful – and would begin to speak through all of the people. The Baptist Old Testament scholar J. Hardee Kennedy describes it this way; “The intimacy with God which hitherto had been confined to exceptional individuals will be shared by all of his people. Not scantily, but in abundant measure, the Lord will pour out his illumination and power.” It was an incredible prophet pronouncement because it meant that the mission of God in the world would then be invested in all of God’s people. The Spirit of God is poured out - not sprinkled on - but more like a flash flood where everything and everyone is saturated - filled up - over flowing - so that the world could be changed. In essence of what Peter wanted the crowd to understand is that the incredible – remarkable – almost unexplainable scene that they are witnessing is the promise of the pour out of God’s Spirit upon the people fulfilled. The moment they have been waiting for was here!

It is interesting to me that this incredible pronounce of the fulfillment of one of God’s great promises seems to have been lost in the margins of development of the church. Richard Halverson, former Chaplain to the US Senate made an interesting observation about the development of the church. He states; In the beginning the Church was a fellowship of men and women who centred their lives on the living Christ. They had a personal and vital relationship to the Lord. It transformed them and the world around them. Then the Church moved to Greece, and it became a philosophy. Later it moved to Rome, and it became an institution. Next it moved to Europe and it became a culture. Finally it moved to America, and it became an enterprise. We've got far too many churches and so few fellowships. I believe he is right and with every step the church seemed to find new ways to create boundaries that once again seemed to teach that God poured out his Spirit in a select few, once again separating the people of God – people like you and me – from the fulfillment of the promise of an abundant outpouring of the Spirit on our lives. It once again invested the capacity for God to speak to and through to a handful, when it was intended for all. Hear me clearly that these boundaries are a man-made creation rather than the plan of God.

Our Western European cultural and faith heritage proclaims the male centered worldview. Even after over a century of efforts, in most places men still hold the keys to power and influence. This worldview has overflowed into the life of the church and our cultural norms shaped how we have read scripture and the roles we have assigned to men and women. Globally our view of scripture and the distinctive roles are sometimes consistent, but more often are dissident to the living expression of the growing Church. Across Africa and Asia we often see women serving as Senior Pastors of leading congregations; we hear women teach and women teach, and witness me and women alike bringing people to the feet of God in worship. Joel was clear, in this new era when the Spirit of God is poured out on all people both the sons and the daughters will prophesy. In old fashioned Southern, “your sons and your daughters, they are goin’ to preach!” I recognize that some across the conservative Christian landscape would argue with me and would try to leverage Paul’s instruction to young congregations to justify the boundaries. But Paul was speaking into specific situations where cultural abuses triggered a need for direction and situational correction. But Paul’s instructions cannot undermine the power and significant of this grand declaration that the Spirit of God has come and all the old boundaries are to fade away. When Peter invokes the these prophetic words from Joel he is clear that a new kind of Kingdom has been born and the Spirit of God has been set loose not on a select few, but in lives of all believers. The boundary of gender is shattered and the expectation is that God will use both men and women to proclaim God’s word.

But this breaking of boundaries is not just about gender, Joel sees that young and old will both be empowered by the Spirit for ministry. The young will see visions, and the old will dream dreams –both ways we see God speak with authority throughout the breadth of the Old Testament. Far too often we quietly devalue our young telling them that they must wait until they are grown to find their place in ministry. The great prophet Elisha was called to begin his work in his youth. King David was called when he was hardly more than a boy. Deborah and Ester were in their teens when God called them to action. There was no waiting until – the expectation was that God would speak to and through his people even in their youth. We need to be attentive to creating opportunities for our young to lift their voices and let us hear God speak to us through them. Likewise Joel does not envision a retirement age for faithfulness. Our culture sometimes devalues those who are in the December of their lives. It is our loss. Those who claim hair of grey have much to teach us. Without apology God speaks to and through those both in their youth and in their maturity. Let us destroy any boundary of age that devalues people and might limit how anyone of us might be used an instrument of God’s Spirit.

It is also important to be clear that Joel’s prophesy, and Peter’s sermon, were not design to serve as political rhetoric or social commentary on the nature of relationships and the desire for an equality for all. It was much more than that. The core pronouncement of this prophetic utterance was that in the last days God will empower everyone for to participate in God’s redemptive purpose. The redemptive mission of God that was born in creation and fulfilled in Jesus now becomes the mission of the Church God’s agenda is so big that there can be no boundaries that hold anyone back from offering their voice, the visions, and their dreams as instruments of God. The mission is young and old, male and female to join God in making it clear to everyone that there is a way to restoration, redemption, and a right relationship with God. Peter cries out, the day is here, the Spirit of God is poured out on everyone who is a child of God, regardless of their age, or their gender, or their social statues, so that the whole of the people of God will lift their voices in witness so that all who call on the name of the Lord might be saved. You have a place in the work of God. The Spirit of God is poured out for you. God stands ready to make us a part of his redemptive plan is we are willing – available – open for God to work in us and through us. The prophet promise of Joel is fulfilled in you! Let us claim our place in the mission of God. Amen.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

“Refuge” Ruth 2 October 17, 2010

Like so many before them a young Middle Eastern couple sets out on their own. They left the comfortable bounds of “home” to begin their life in a neighboring land. While the place they were headed made others shake their heads in disgust, they thought there would be opportunities for them. The found their spot and began their family and had two children, both boys. That afternoon she could just sense something was wrong. When her sons came in from the fields alone she knew her beloved had died. While she had lost her husband, her culture told her that she would be OK; her two sons would care for her. In due time her sons married girls from the neighboring villages. She loved her new daughter-in-laws, and for a while all was good. The woman could not help but notice the passage of time as she looked down on her once young hands that had begun withered with age. Her long flowing hair was now gray. The routine was the same day after day. The boys –now men- tended to the flocks and the fields. They did not have much, but it was enough. But in a moment everything changed. The woman who had buried her husband was now forced to bury both of her sons. With the pain of grief hanging in the air the three, the old women and her two daughters-in-law faced a haunting reality. The little land and the herds they had survived on would be passed on to other men in the community. As women they had no right to own property, in fact they were seen as property. The future that awaited them was grim. With no husband and no sons the elder woman knows that there is no one to provide for her and she has no way to take care of herself. A slow and certain death awaited her if she stayed where she was. Where do you turn to when you are in a crisis? Where do you go when there seems to be nowhere to go? This story and these questions could be lifted from the life stories of tens of thousands of people on the move from one place to another in desperation. Theirs are stories of a people who need help, who need refuge.

While this story could be the story of many, it is actually a story born in scripture. There is more we need to hear. The elder woman sits and ponders and decides to make the hard journey back home. She thinks to herself that maybe, just maybe, one of her relatives would let her live on the scraps left in their fields after harvest. It would be a hard life, but there was no other way. Lovingly but sternly she tells her daughters-in-law to go back to their villages – to remarry – a build a new future for themselves. One reluctantly agrees. The other tells her “no,” that she will make the journey with her. The younger woman understands it is a journey into hunger and profound poverty – and even death, but she will not let the elder woman go alone. The younger woman understood that while her elder will be going back to the familiar, for her it will all be foreign. She will be seen as a refuge, and because of a long history cultural conflict, many – if not most - will see her as an undesirable, an outcast, unworthy. Despite the costs, despite the risks, the young woman knew the elder needed her. She took her by the hand and told her, "Please do not ask me to go back to my village or to turn my back on you and leave you here on the road alone. Wherever you go I will go too, and where you stay I will stay there also. We are in this together. Your people may reject me, but I will call them 'my people' because of what they mean to you. And your God I will claim as my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD punish me severely if even death separates you and me."(A creative interpretative translation of Ruth 1:16-17.) So the two begin their journey. There is no plane, no train, or even a car for transportation. They have to walk. With each step the old woman wearies. By the time they reach their destination the elder woman cannot stop telling everyone she encounters that she had left her homeland with everything, and now goes back empty handed, but loaded pain and bitterness. The elder woman seems to have forgotten the moments of joy, and is simply seized by her grief and the desperation of her situation. Joy has given way to bitterness. Hope has given way to hopelessness. Where do you turn to when you are in a crisis? Where do you go when there seems to be nowhere to go?

The younger woman found her way into the fields and finds a job. It is not much of a job – in fact it would pay far less than minimum wage. Her job was that she was allowed to go into the fields behind the harvesters and claim what little they had left behind. This was not without risk. The landowner could stop her at any moment – and the harvesting crews were not always kind and gentle to woman like her. But then, someone stepped up. The landowner told her; From now on don't go to any other field to glean—stay right here in this one. And stay close to my young women. Watch where they are harvesting and follow them. And don't worry about a thing; I've given orders to my servants not to harass you. When you get thirsty, feel free to go and drink from the water buckets that the servants have filled." She dropped to her knees, then bowed her face to the ground. "How does this happen that you should pick me out and treat me so kindly—me, a foreigner?" Where do you turn to when you are in a crisis? Where do you go when there seems to be nowhere to go? When we find ourselves at the midst of crisis – with seemingly nowhere to go – we know that something has to change. We need for someone to step into our story.

This story could be that of the Narcisse children. Following the earthquake in Haiti many families were given special visas to reunite aboard. The eldest sister, Esther had moved to Canada several years earlier to attend school. Now a senior she didn't expect to be taking in the rest of her siblings without notice. Their mother arranged through the Canadian Embassy for the children to relocate to their sister's home in Ottawa. That's all she knew; somewhere in Canada there is safety for my children. So here they came; 19, 17, 15 and 10 years of age all living in a one bedroom apartment near the university. The Matthew House Ministry Team learned of this overcrowded need and has stepped in to help this college student provide better housing and care for her brothers and sisters. The Matthew House Ottawa was one of the causes we help support through yesterday’s Ride for Refuge.

This story could emerge from the life of one of the young college aged teachers working with the Chin Student Organization who is helping to educate the Chin refugee kids living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Chin kids are not allowed to attend a government school because the government does not recognize them as a part of the community. So, the refugee community asked its best and brightest to work with no pay and at some real risk to help teach the kids. “We organized because no one is coming to help us. The burden is too heavy. We cannot do it ourselves.” Yesterday teams from our church took part in the Ride for Refuge to raise funds to help the CSO in providing a simple lunch for these hundreds of refugee kids.

This story could have emerged from the life of the persecuted church in Sudan, where uncertainty is a way of life. Yesterday teams from our church took part in the Ride for Refuge to help provide funding for some Sudanese refugees to return home and for struggling churches in the Nuba Mountains to have the resources to build something stronger than churches constructed of mud and straw.

There are two sides to the Biblical story and the stories engaged with as a part of yesterday’s event. I am thankful for the great work Brian, Gary, Jerry, Sherri, Kathryn, and countless others did to make the Ride for Refuge possible. But the great miracle is not just the money that has been raised; it is how the money will be seen by those who receive it. We have seen the efforts of those with whom we are partnering and will bless their work and bless their walk with God by coming to their side. By now many of you have realized that our Biblical story comes from the book of Ruth. We did not read the focal passage in advance or reference it verse by verse because I did not want our Sunday school versions of the story that play in many of our minds get in the way of the real power of this story. It is a story we tell to the children, but it is not a children’s story. It is a call for us who know the power of God’s refuge in our lives become instruments of refuge in the lives of others. We need to make sure we are investing ourselves in the lives of each other and those around us so that know that they do not face times of crisis alone. We need to be willing to invest our lives in those around us, who need us, fully knowing the price. We need to make a way of others to claim lives of dignity in the times where they feel that their dignity is gone. It is about the people of God acting out of who we are as God’s children and pointing people to find the strength they need not just from our actions, but from the real refuge they find in the love and the comfort of God. Ruth hears this from the landowner Boaz when he tells her in Chapter 2, verses 11 and 12, "I've been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. 12 May the LORD repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge." May we become instruments of God’s refuge.

Where do you turn to when you are in a crisis? Where do you go when there seems to be nowhere to go? The second side of the story is equally important and sometimes profoundly personal. We see it in Ruth’s part of the story. She was a woman who loved beyond expectation but who desperately needs to find refuge – a safe place – a safe place for her wellbeing and a safe place for her soul. Hear the good news, God is our refuge. That promise offers us and others the security of knowing that even when others fail us and when the struggles of life seem grand, God is with us and will see us through. God offers us the warmth of His embrace and the strength of his love for us that we might be able to face whatever we encounter. God is with us –and is going ahead of us – even when we feel like we are on the outside looking in, or when we feel burdened and wonder how we will make it – when we are in a crisis and need somewhere, no someone to turn to – when we think that there is nowhere to go – God is there, making the way for us, becoming our refuge. May we race to the feet of God who will see us through.

Where do you turn to when you are in a crisis? Where do you go when there seems to be nowhere to go? Where does our help come from? It comes from God, the maker of heaven and earth - and from God’s people; the people who have found the power of God’s refuge who become God’s instruments to change the story of others. Amen!

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Team to Lead Missionary Youth Needed for Conference in Thailand

A friend of mine recently asked for some help. He needs a team of 4 or 5 from the US to work with missionary kids during a meeting in February that will be held in Chiang Mai, Thailand. His note tells me that the travel costs to/from are about $2000 and "once they are there, it would cost about $55 per day per person, sharing a room. That is, a couple would pay $110 for their room. This cost would include room, breakfast and lunch. Supper would be on their own and costs are reasonable with everything from Thai food to Starbucks and Burger King . Of course, as people go out together we would love for the youth team to tag along.

I am hoping we can have a real sharp team who really knows how to put together a program. Of course, they could also have 'field trips' such as elephant rides, or the 'through the rain forest canopy' kind of things."

This is a really great opportunity to help those who are impacting the world and for people to experience a land and a culture that is remarkable. If you think you might have 4 or 5 people who would like to take on this opportunity, please let me know and I will help make the connections happen.

Grace and Peace, Tom

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Above All Colossians 1:15-23

There are some great hymns that some have heard or sung so often that there’s no need a worship guide or hymnal to queue the words – they are there within us. We only need to hear a few notes and songs like “Amazing Grace,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and “How Great Thou Art“ and words flow from our lips, and images of other places and other moments when those songs spoke with power into our lives fill our mind. Some more recent music is beginning to find this same kind of footing across the life of the global church. Songs like “Majesty,” “I Love You Lord,” and “Above All” are so common in some congregations that they have become a part of the people’s worship language. These hymns and choruses are a testimony that music can speak into our lives with a power that the spoken word only begins to approach.

As our worship service began we heard the choir offer a grand music gift that set the tone for the whole of our worship experience. If you look the words of the song, you will discover that they emerge directly from our focal passage this morning. It is no accident that we bring these words to you in musical form because they were first heard as one the earliest Christian hymn. Many scholars believe that Paul lifted these words directly from the worship of the church to highlight the power of their message. There is a unique beauty to the way this hymn that becomes Scripture tells the Gospel story. Steven Baugh sees these words as a dramatic medieval tapestry in two panels, one proclaiming Christ as the First Born of Creation, the other, proclaiming Christ as the Firstborn of the Dead. I love his imagery. I can see the grand hand-woven tapestries handing on a dramatic stone all in a grand hall or an ancient monastery. But, I think the reword the panels just a bit. The first would surely read the Firstborn of Creations, but I believe second panel would be better understood as the Firstborn of Eternity. So I invite you to come with me as we hear the words of this early hymn. Come with me as we look at the two grand tapestry panels and the cross that ties them together. Come with me as we hear the gospel story.

Firstborn of Creation vs. 15-17 The hymn begins; 15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. The words of the song sing out that Jesus is the Firstborn of creation, the hand of God as all things are made. In our current Western culture we live in a duality that is foreign to scripture and much of the rest of the world. The duality is the core belief in a separated natural world and the supposed but suspect supernatural realm. Our dominant culture has bought into a view creation on its own, separated from the work of God and the presence of God. Some have claimed that science claims this realm, and religion is relegated to a conversation on the heavenly realms. It’s funny, while the intellect awash in science says one thing to our minds, our heart cries out another. Major movie productions that define generations like: Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and Twilight, along with television series ranging from Touched by an Angel to The Vampire Diaries, draw from supernatural fantasy to try to speak into our inner belief that there is more than hard cold facts. We long to know that there is something spiritual going on –that this is more to all of this than what we can touch or define. We are hungry to know that the creation and the creator are connected. Science has great value and contributes much to our lives, but it cannot displace God at the center of the story. It cannot remove God as the hand of creation. It cannot replace Jesus as the Firstborn of Creation. Science can struggle to explain the how of creation. It is the presence of God that explains the why. Our perceived boundaries between the natural and the supernatural, the created and the creator, is only a cultural myth.

This first Christian hymn begins with the beginning and pronounces with confidence that 16For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. With faith and confidence these early believers sang out that when it all began Christ was there. The face of God that would walk among us, the plan of God for reconciliation for, was already in place at the moment of creation. Their song is not a desperate act of explain the how of creation, but rather a faith affirmation that God is at the center creation and as the created their story with God begins at the beginning. They saw the power of God in the majesty and beauty of creation. They saw the handiwork of God all around them. God was not far away, but close by. God was not distant but involved; loving, leading caring from the beginning. Jesus was not a teacher or a prophet, but the Firstborn, the very incarnation of God. Jesus was the face of God that loved His creation so much that God was willing to pay an incredible terrible price to make the way for reconciliation for a broken people and a broken world.

The first panel of the grand tapestry would be claim images from across creation. I imagine it would display birds and fish, deer and buffalo, mountains and flowing streams. And, at the center it would offer faces like yours and mine, gathered around the Firstborn of Creation, Jesus Christ.
Firstborn of Eternity vs. 18-19 The song sings out; 18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him. When we hear these words we stumble when we hear the image of Christ as the Firstborn from among the dead. Despite the grand advances in medicine, and perhaps because of them, in our culture death is no longer viewed as a normal natural process for humanity. Somehow it has become seen as failure, as final, as the ultimate defeat. This is far from what the young church would have had in mind as it sang. Instead these words would have been words of comfort and promise. Their song sees Christ as the head of the body, the church, a new community born in love and grace. Their song sees Christ as the Firstborn of those among the dead – as the one who claims supremacy even over death. Their song is a song of the promise of eternity – and eternal life found in the promise, the person of Jesus. Their song understood the power and the price of the cross that redefined the eternity that awaited those for whom death was as natural as birth. Their song understood that the Firstborn of Creation; the one that was before time; was also the Firstborn of Eternity; the one who would be after time and space had passed away. The fullness of God which is the Alpha – the beginning - is also the Omega – the God of the end - is seen in the one named Jesus. This second panel in the grand tapestry would not claim the dark colors we associate with death, but would instead claim the vital colors of hope and promise. And, at the center it would offer faces like yours and mine, gathered around the Firstborn of Eternity, Jesus Christ.

The Incredible Terrible Inheritance vs. 19-23a The song sings out; 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. The language of the Firstborn was something that these early Christians would understand without pause. The firstborn son held a unique place in the culture. It was assumed that this firstborn would claim the inheritance of leadership and identity of the family. He would receive the greatest share of all that the Father could offer to make sure the work of the family would continue. The song sings of the incredible terrible inheritance that Jesus claimed as the Firstborn of Creation and the Firstborn of Eternity. The inheritance of the Firstborn of creation is the fullness of the creation and all who are within it. The inheritance changes its shape with the pronouncement of the role of the Firstborn of Eternity. The inheritance becomes the redemption of the creation; the embrace of the reconciling work of God that leads to a cross and the peace found in the shed blood of sacrifice. This early hymn saw the Jesus’ cross not as something that happened to Jesus, but as something chosen by the Firstborn as the means of reconciliation for people like you and me. The Firstborn of Creation could not settle of a people alienated from the creator and defined by death. Instead Paul tells us in verses 21, 22, and 23 21Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. 22But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel. While the inheritance of the cross has cosmic and eternal consequences, it is intensely personal. The Church – the community of faith – you and me – are the beneficiary of Christ’s claim of the inheritance of the cross. He did what we could not do for ourselves. His shed blood of sacrifice paid the price for our sins against God and one another. This incredible terrible inheritance claimed by the Firstborn of Creation and Eternity, made the way to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. Through the cross, those like us, who were hopeless, become the people of a gospel of hope and promise; we who were enemies of God because of sin, now through a relationship with Christ become God’s beloved, the loved and the forgiven children of God.

In the mist of creation there is Jesus. With the promise of eternity there is Jesus. Creating the way for reconciliation –for forgiveness – for peace with God and one another there is Jesus. I join Paul this morning as he proclaims; This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant. The gospel story is not a grand religious drama or inspiration for the lyrics of a song. It is my story. I am a witness that my life is changed because of Jesus. The Firstborn of Creation and Eternity has become my Savior and my Lord. Hear the good news.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Ride for Refuge OKC Coming Next Weekend

Next weekend Oklahoma City will witness its first edition of the Ride for Refuge. It is a event that is born in Canada and is now staged across Canada and the United States. It raises funds for the work among refugees and those most vulnerable in our society. The Oklahoma City event is staged with our Oklahoma City Refugee Coalition partners - a group that crosses organizational and denominational boundaries who share a common heart and work among the refugees in our city. While teams can choose what the ministry they are raising funds for, all of the FBC OKC teams have decided to focus their efforts to raise monies for ministries among refugees. Our relationship with the Chin, the Zomie, the Karen, the Kachin, and the Sudanese, have opened our eyes not only to those in our midst but also the needs of refugees and displaced peoples across the globe. These are people who have had to leave their homes and homelands because of persecution, war, or natural catastrophe. Sometimes they find themselves in places of saftey, but other times they have been forced to flee into settings where they are not welcomes and everyday is a struggle for survival. While most people will claim next Saturday as a time to snuggle in for a day for watching college football, many of our church family are choosing to either ride as a part of this event or serve as volunteers to help facilitate the event. There are registration tables to be manned, water/break stations to be set up, a special track for smaller participants and unique "wheels" to be laid out on church grounds, and a grand celebration lunch to be prepared and served. I am thankful for each person who will give of their time and effort to make this day successful. While this first ride event is smaller in scale than longer tenured major events, the money it will raise will make a huge impact. If you would like to sponsor a rider or are close enought to OKC to lend a hand beside the volunteers, go to www.rideforrefuge.org and join in. By the way, I am looking for some sponsors - I've joined our youth team to help raise money for Matthew House in Ottawa Canada. I would love your help....

Grace and Peace, Tom

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Live Lives Worthy I Thessalonians 2:10-12

This sermon is preached as a part of a multilingual worship service at FBC OKC.

I love the first Sunday of each month when we, who emerge from many different cultures, speak many different languages, and worship in several different church fellowships, reach across the boundaries and come together as one church family. While there are moments when each of us may struggle to understand the words of Scripture or song we hear in moments like this one, the struggle is worth it. If we take the time to seek to hear one another and to find the common ground of our faith that unites us then we can help to shape one another’s walk with God. While our life stories are different, God speaks into each of our stories, meaning each one brings to the other the witness that God is at work in our midst.

Today we add the witness that Merlyn Sweet brings to our worship born in her time in mission in Haiti. Merlyn, will you come and join me for a few minutes? {shift to two stools on stage left, take mic for Merlyn} Meryln, the images of human suffering following the devastating earthquake in Haiti filled our television screens this summer. Many people were content giving to churches, religious organizations, or humanitarian organizations as their part of the response to this human tragedy. You made the choice to get on an airplane and join the efforts on the ground.
Q.1. Who did you go to Haiti with and what did you do? (Baptist Medical Dental Fellowship, medical team)
Q.2. What motivated you to go?
Q.3. Our church was able to provide a grant to help pay for a significant part medicines the team used. What kind of things were the medicines used for?
Q. 4. You were working in concert with other Baptists from across the globe. How do you think that a ministry that met basic needs shaped the Christian witness of your team and the teams that followed?
Thank you for sharing your story with us, Merlyn. I am thankful for your heart for others.

Earlier in our worship service heard a reading of I Thessalonians 2, verses 10-12. Rather than claiming the text as a matrix to describe what it means to live lives worthy of God call, I believe we are better served to hear what it says about Paul and his relationship with the church in Thessalonica. Their relationship empowers this passage and I believe suggests three expressions of Paul’s ministry that can serve as a constructive model for our own ministry here and now. You heard glimpse of it in Merlyn’s story. I also believe this way of ministry is strong reflection of how we see Jesus love and care of people as he walked among us.

The first of these three expressions is found in Paul commitment to an incarnational ministry. In our focal passage this morning Paul reminds the young church in Thessalonica of his story among them. Paul reminds them boldly; 10You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. To be honest, I would be pretty bashful about using Paul’s kind of language when speaking of my own spiritual journey. I would want to add all kind of qualifying statements so my letter might read; You are my witness, and so is God, of how I tries to live holy; I tried to live the right way, God’s way; and I tried to not shame God nor my family in anything I did while I served among you. But Paul does not feel the need to qualify his words or his way to those receiving this letter. We hear in scripture that while Paul was in Thessalonica he worked with the folks in the church at their side “night and day.” (vs.9) He He had poured himself into the work they shared and to the ministry that they began together. They knew him not as a distant proclaimer of a dogmatic theology, but rather as a friend and cherished voice in their lives. Earlier in the letter he tells them; We continually remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. Having earlier claimed the imagery of a nourishing mother, he now claims the voice of their spiritual father. He says, 11For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, 12encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. Paul’s investment into the lives of the people invited him to speak with truth and to encourage them in the walk with God. He showed up, settled down, and made his place among them. He invested in them day and night.

[optional based on time] -- In a meeting with college students at Clemson University several years ago I asked what they thought was the most important characteristic for a missionary. They offered a wide range of spiritual descriptors. They talked about the person having a deep faith, a constant prayer life, and a passion for the peoples of the world. While all of these characteristics are good, the right answer was that the people needed to be available. I know that this is a simple idea – but if someone is not willing to show up and invest themselves in others, all the rest of the characteristics are nice, but not really helpful. -- Real ministry cannot be done at a distance. It requires us to show up, to roll up our selves and to choose to invest in people face-to-face. This incarnational model of ministry is a reflection of the nature of God, the Immanuel, God with us, who became flesh and pitch his tent among us. It is the “go” of the Great Commission. It is the reason we do S3 and going into the heart of our community and why send mentors to Eugene Field Elementary; the reason we send short term missions teams and why that although we partner with global Christians partners that we still send missionaries. It is the reason we call out ministers and why we start new churches of all kinds; and it’s the reason we reach out to the person sitting in the pew next to us regardless where they are from in our community or from across the globe.

Second and the third ministry expressions are inseparable. Paul sought a balance in his ministry of Word and Deed. This is the kind of ministry that is both lived out and spoken. We hear Paul echo this when he tells the church the gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. It was the proclamation of the gospel with words and more. It was a gospel born in the power of the Holy Spirit where the word is heard and the deed is lived out in ministry at their side. It seems that too many have forgotten this balance. The religious right is so focused on proclaiming the word that it often forgets the power of the deed. The religious left is so focused on doing the good deed that it often forgets the power of the word. They both miss something essential. We serve in the name of a Jesus who preached and fed, taught and healed. The Jesus that offers the Sermon on the Mount also makes sure stomachs of the 5000 are fed with bread and fish. This Jesus who raised Lazarus from the tomb is also the Jesus who taught at the water’s edge. He met both the heart needs and the physical needs of the people who came to him. We are called to do the same. [James 2:13-17 teaches; 14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.] The model is of a ministry that marries the word of faith with the action that illustrates it, all born in the work of the Holy Spirit. We need to be the people with an authentic passion for ministry that lives out in the power of both the word and the deed.

One of the places where I see an opportunity to be shaped by this model of incarnational ministry of word and deed is in and through the work at Good Shepherd. Cathy Manuel is incredibly gifted in her care for others. She takes the time not just to serve people, but to hear their stories. But she needs others to join her. I am so thankful for volunteers that help in the food pantry, serve in the clothes closet, and work in the medical and dental clinics. They invest themselves in meeting the needs of others. But these tasks are demanding and are so focused on meeting the human needs that we leave little or no time for the witness of the word. Symbolically, if we offer a cold cup of water to satisfy their thirst and faith to introduce them to the Living Water, then we have fallen short. To bridge this gap we have a critical need for people with willing ears and an open heart. There are several other ministries where we vitally need for people who are willing to invest and come and hear the life stories and to pray and share with those we serve. When we invest in people’s life walk, we earn the opportunity to bring our voice of witness.

On the other hand, when we worship and study together, if we fail to listen for how we might need to meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of those beside us, we will have again fallen short. It is only when the words of our lips and the acts of hands come together we create the kind of ministry relationships where the power of God is alive in us and through us. It is a way of ministry that marries heartfelt evangelism with divine compassion.

God is doing an amazing work in our midst, but our story is still young. If we continue in our journey toward a ministry that is incarnation and lives in the tension between a ministry of word and deed that we will be amazed to see what God might do in us and through us next. We will see lives changed in the short term and for eternity. Let’s go together into our tomorrows together knowing that we go in the power of the Holy Spirit and with a faith born in deep conviction. If we do, I believe we will find ourselves in the kind of relationships where we find ourselves 12encouraging, comforting and urging others- and one another- to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory. Let’s not settle for less.