Sunday, December 26, 2010

“Heirs of Hope” A Communion Homily Titus 3:4-7 December 26, 2010

On Thursday I read an article on a large and historic First Baptist Church in Grand Falls, New York who are coming to a moment of decision. They are down to an average attendance of 80 in worship. They have come to the place where they know they cannot keep doing what they are doing and survive. They are pondering three options; close, merge with another congregation, or try to transform into something new. The article was fresh in my mind when I walked down the main hall between The Commons and the church offices and looked at the pictures that decorate the walls. There are pictures from grand worship experiences, the S3 community outreach week, KidsHope mentors at work, Malt Shop Memories, a mission trip to Malaysia, work in the Language Lab, and a wide range of other congregational events. What amazed me was what I saw in the pictures. The pictures depict a diversity of generations working together side-by-side and a diversity of complexions and cultures laughing together, working together, and ministering together. The pictures also show a diversity of languages and tradition in worship together. They are pictures of a historic downtown congregation who have already made choices for transformation; not for institutional survival but for missional purpose. What would motivate a church like this one to rise up and claim a new life and a new season of ministry?

Yesterday I witnesses something that was rather ordinary on the surface, but extraordinary when you looked a little closer. Yesterday Aaron, Elizabeth, and I joined the Sudanese Christian Fellowship for Christmas dinner held downstairs in the Coffee Shop. The food was different than that that had graced our table on Christmas Eve and for lunch earlier yesterday, but it wonderful in its own right. But it was not the food that made the event special, but rather the fact the meal was shared with Sudanese and their Eritrean guests. You see, historically there have been great tensions between the Sudan and Eritrea. There is a certain boldness for the Sudanese to try reach across cultural bounds to attempt to create a witness and a community with the Eritrean community. But for the Sudanese church leaders this seemed to be the only right thing to do on Christmas. What would motivate a people to risk reaching out to those others might call enemy?

For weeks we move with a slow but sure path to the Christmas manger. We sing songs of hope and expectation and we celebrate the birth of the Christ child. But now we gather in the hours after Christmas. We move from the service of carols and candlelight back to the rhythms our everyday. The good news is that while we will soon remove the trappings of Christmas from this room, the power of the gift of Christmas goes with us. Titus 3 offers one of the most succinct descriptions of the power of the gift we find in Scripture. In three short verses we hear the heart of the gospel story.
Verse 4 describes the power of a divine act of mercy. It reads; 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. This appearance of God’s kindness and love is found in the birth of the Christ child. The Savior came, not because we earned the right but in as a dramatic act of God’s mercy. This idea of mercy is a strong one. Mercy can only be given by the one with the capacity to change the story. The only one with the capacity to forgive us and offer us God’s mercy is God Himself. The power of the Christmas gift is born in God’s mercy. When judgment and justice would condemn us, mercy sets us free.

God’s mercy is not random; it is given with a purpose expressed in an act of renewal and rebirth. Verse 5 continues; He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior. The reason a church can be reborn; the reason a people can reach across cultural boundaries; the reason generations can connect with one another; the reason the boundary of language can give way to a sense of family; the reason those who are apart from God can become children of God; the reason everything can change with the movement of the Spirit is that we are reborn and renewed through this amazing generous act of God expressed in Jesus. Faith in
Christ becomes the bridge between each other and God. This faith becomes our inheritance of hope- a real and lasting hope. Our passage sings; 7so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. The power of the gift of Christmas is the incredible inheritance of life with God now and for all of eternity. This gift is born in God’s love and mercy and is made real in the renewal and rebirth we experience in and through Christ. This is an inheritance we are not entitled to or did anything to earn. It is a grace gift of God for all who believe. This hope tears walls down and open hearts to one another.
There is nothing new or original in these words. They are the story the church has shared generation to generation. It is the story that has changed the life of each who has claimed it as their own. The great Baptist preacher of the last century, George W. Truett put it this way; "Christ was born in the first century, yet he belongs to all centuries. He was born a Jew, yet He belongs to all races. He was born in Bethlehem, yet He belongs to all countries." It is the story born out in the testimony of those that have gone before us and is proclaimed in the images on the hallway walls and at a Christmas dinner. It is the story that begins at a manger and carries us to the cross. It is our inheritance story of hope that calls into worship and invites us to the table to remember the power and the price of the great gift of God.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

“Are You the One?” Matthew 11:1-6 December 19, 2010

The grey of the day was broken in a way I could have never have anticipated. I was in Moscow visiting one of the CBF missionary families and we headed into to the subway station to shoot over to another part of the city. I began to hear them before I could actually see them. This amazing sound echoed from the subway corridor. It seemed most walked by unaffected by the sound or the scene, but I was drawn to its sound. The music drew louder and more incredible with each step I took. As we rounded a corner we encountered a small stringed ensemble playing a grand classical piece. I had heard subway musicians before, but nothing like this. Word cannot adequately describe the skill of the players and the beauty of the music. I stood there. I did not care where we had to go, I just wanted to stay and listen to every note. “Who are they,” I asked my hosts. I was shocked to discover that they were musicians with the USSR State Symphony Orchestra. They did not make enough money playing for the symphony, so they played in the subway station for the tips thrown in a hat to survive. Here in front of me were musicians that played for heads of state; musicians that we welcomed in some of the greatest performance halls in the world; musicians that we featured on albums and played as a part of major music events that were broadcasted across Europe. Here in the rush of the crowd and in the most unexpected place -in a subway corridor that desperately needed to be swept out - I heard the most amazing concert I have experienced. In the midst of the commonplace I experienced indescribable beauty.

The two cousins, Jesus and John the Baptist, are inextricably woven together. Before either is born their mothers celebrate together the promise that God will use their sons for something important. As the story moves forward we encounter John, dressed in rugged simply, in the style of the prophets, preaching the coming of the Kingdom of God. The people come from the cities, repent, and are baptized by John in anticipation that God was about to do something that would change everything. On one of those hot afternoons Jesus emerges from the crowd and asked John to baptize him. In dramatic fashion John resists – telling Jesus that he does not consider himself worthy of baptizing Jesus. Jesus insists, is baptized as an act of faithfulness, the dove decides, the Father speaks, and heaven is torn open. God is ready to move.

We see the gospel story from this side of Easter. Most of us know how the story ends. Many can tell you about the ministry of Jesus, about a cross on a hillside just outside of Jerusalem, and an empty tomb that paved the way for to become children of God through faith. Some of us have heard the stories of Jesus since before we could read or write. But John the Baptist was a player in the middle of the story. He had witness the grand moment of Christ’s baptism, but now found himself sitting in a dungeon waiting on his death. He began to wonder. He began to doubt. He, it seems, like many others assumed the Messiah would deal the Romans and the corruption that infested the Jewish royal ranks. He was now its victim and longed to know how the story would end. Was Jesus the Messiah or had he been wrong? If Jesus was the Messiah, would he deliver him? John’s followers left his side and went to Jesus with a question that echoes from that moment to ours. They come to Jesus and asked; “Are you the One?” and then in what I imagine is offered in whispered voice they asked; “or should we expect someone else?”

We ask these two questions, sometimes subtly, and sometimes more directly, when we come the moment of faith decision. You hear it when people ask, “if there really is a loving God, why is their pain and suffering in the world?” You hear it when people try to explain faith away. You hear it when people make choices that place something else, someone else, in place of God. You hear it when doubt seems stronger than faith. You hear it when explore the world’s great religions seeking the authentic face of God and you hear it from others when they say that all religions are the same. In each of these questions and moments people are trying to see if Jesus is any different than the cultural icons or religious symbols that clutter our world. Jesus could have simply said, “Yes, it’s me, I am the one.”

But Jesus takes another path. He knows the heart of the question and the pain that lies behind it. He knows the quiet doubt that ripples in their words. He knows that they have come looking to hear if the time is soon when he will fulfill their expectations and become the military Messiah that brings justice to that place, that moment in time. Their pain, their doubt, their broken expectations would make any words insufficient – for them and for us. Hear again Jesus reply; “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” I keep thinking of the way that unexpected music in that Moscow subway station stopped me in my tracks and opened my ears to something beyond my wildest expectations for that time and place. My friends could have tried to prepare me for the moment, they could have tried to explain the situation, but I do not think their words would have been enough. It was something I had to see, to hear, to experience. Jesus wanted the disciples of John the Baptist to see what was going on and to understand, not because he told them it was true, but because they could see lives transformed. He wanted the picture of the transformed lives to shatter the veil of their pain, the doubt, and their broken expectations and let them see the transforming power of a Messiah who would not just change things in one place and one time, but was doing something that would change the story of eternity.

Across the centuries countless babies have been born in conditions like the manger. Across the centuries countless men has walked and talked and gather followers around them. Across the centuries countless people have been persecuted or killed for their ethnic identity, religious beliefs, and for politically expedient reason. Even in the time of Jesus there were others who tried to claim the mantle of messiah. Even in the time of Jesus and the years soon after there we people that the crowds tried to proclaim as messiah in hopes of they would rise and destroy their Roman occupiers. The story of Jesus was more than a dramatic birth story in a second rate Middle Eastern village. The story of Jesus is more than a religious epic that draws our attention at Christmas and Easter. The story of Jesus is more than the words of an itinerant preacher or healer. It is the story of one who is The One.

The story of Jesus is rooted in the testimony of transformed lives – of those who can now see the face of God – of those who are untouchable who are now cleansed and are called the children of God. It is the story of those who can now hear the voice of God and have become a people of resurrection and good news. The witness of the work of Christ flies from the pages of scripture and from the bounds of the plastic manger scene the neighbor down the street plugs in each night – and finds life in the testimonies of changed people and changed lives. The disciples of John the Baptist, and many like them across the passage of time, came with a question. Jesus wanted them to leave with a testimony that could sustain them in the hour of doubt and despair and change their lives forever. He wanted them know – He wants us to know - He wants the world to know that He is the One. We do not have to look for another.

Our Christmas witness is more than enjoying Linus reading the Nativity narrative on “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” It is more than having a beautifully decorated house. It is more than sending a pretty Christmas card. Instead, it is found when we share the story of how the babe born in the manger has changed and transformed our lives. We are the living testimony Jesus points to. We who have been changed are the demonstration of good news. We are the proof that the Christmas story is not a pleasant religious story but instead is the answer for those who seek the face of God.

It’s time to celebrate! Let the songs ring out! The babe born in the manger is the promised One of God! Come and see – not the manger where he lay – but the lives that have been transformed by His love and grace. Come and see – and then share the good news – that Jesus Christ is born and all of eternity is changed because of him.

“It’s A Wonderful Life” I Peter 2:9-10 December 12, 2010

I fell in love with Frank Capra’s movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the first time I saw it. The characters were simple, but powerful and the theme called George and the viewers from darkness to hope and celebration. I loved the movie, but the musical version that Bruce and Keith Ferguson put together make the message even more meaningful to me. When I think about the laughter and cheers, applause and tears I witnessed in the audiences over the past two nights, it is obvious that I am not alone in my perception. The incredible music brought the nature of the characters to life and gave tune to their emotions. Nowhere was that more clear than George’s prayer of desperation sung from the iconic image of the old steel bridge.

(First George solo from the bridge.)

This prayer in song captures the pain of wondering if his life had meaning; if his life brought more joy than pain to those around him. The weight of responsibility, expectations, and broken dreams seems more than he can bear. You know people like George; in fact many of you are probably a lot like him. People knew that they could count on George. He is dependable. He is someone you could share your struggle with, the kind of guy that you can go to when things seem dark and difficult. George is a fixer. Give him a problem or a task and he is on his way to addressing the issue – to fix the problem – to address the injustice – to be a voice for the little guy – before you have even finished explaining the situation to him. He has a big heart and broad shoulders. He seem to care about other people more than he does himself; and will give you the shirt of his back, even if he does not have another shirt. We like people like George.

But if they are not careful – if we are not careful – there is a dark side to the story. It creates moments like the one of the bridge. You see, the temptation for George – and for many gathered in this room this morning – is that we try to do it on our own. We become the center of the story and our hard work, our quick wit, or gifts and our skills are supposed to be enough. We are struggle to juggle all the balls in the air and try to make sure that we do not drop any of them. We work as hard as we can, as long as we can, trying to fix the problem – to come up with the solution – to address the issue – until that moment of darkness comes. We are out of energy, out of solutions, out of ideas, out…..of everything and on the edge of crashing. I have to confess that sometimes I struggle with being a George –putting too much weight on my shoulders – claiming too much of the pain and struggle of story as mine. But this really is not the way God has planned for us.

I Peter 2:9-10 tell us; But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession…….that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light……Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God….once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. God’s plan is to turn our cry of desperation and isolation into a song of celebration.

Peter claims the language of choseness, or priesthood, of being a holy nation to make it clear that our story is supposed to be immersed in God’s story. He tells us that we are God’s special possession. What an incredible phrase! It means that God is not our fall back plan when we cannot do it on our own, but instead God is supposed to be our primary plan. We belong to God all the time and are valued and special to God all the time. It is easy to be fooled into believing that God loves us and sees us as special when we are doing something heroic or grand. But the reality is that God claims us and calls us special in our moments of grandeur and our moments of utter failure.

Peter says it this way, that we are claimed as God’s special possession or people so that we/you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. God’s plan is to love us so that the darkness of desperation and isolation will be stripped away and be replaced with the God’s redeeming and sustaining light. We are not meant for moments like George’s on the bridge. We get to those places on our own. We get to those places where we depend on ourselves. We get to those places when we make the story our story. We get to those places of darkness and desperation and God calls us out. As sure as Clarence lead’s George through the town to show him what it would have looked like without him so that George could find joy again, God leads us out of the darkness into the light. He does this by making us one of His. Peter cries out, Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God. God does this by binding up our woundedness, by forgiving our sin, by redeeming our lives, by filling us with His mercy. Peter cries out, once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. God’s mercy rains down – lifting us up and setting us back on our feet. Hear the good news, we can care for others – we can be a shoulder that they can cry on – we can become a voice for the little guy – we can be a good and faithful friend – but we do not have to do it on our own strengthen – but rather we serve and we care out of the bounty of our relationship with God. It is God who moves the mountains. It is God who brings light into the darkness. It is God who brings mercy. It is God who helps a way for those on the outside – those living in darkness, distress, and despair – to become whole again – to be special possession of God – a child of God. The way to a wonderful life is trusting God, even in the difficult moments.

George has a second moment on the bridge when his prayer turns from despair to celebration. Hear what he says to God. (Second George solo from bridge)

Are you ready to claim the wonderful life that God has in store for you? Are you ready to trust God with every part of your life and let God work in you and through you to change your story – and the story of those you touch – to a song of celebration? But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession…….that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light……Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God….once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. An incredible life with God awaits you.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Heading to the House of God Isaiah 2:1-5 December 5, 2010

I have always been impressed by those who run with perseverance. I know that Bruce gets up and runs miles every day. Steven McConnell’s Facebook entries often record with glee the number of miles he has run with a friend. I remember that when Steven was still new in his relationship with us he ran the Memorial Marathon half marathon, finished the race, grabbed a quick shower, and was in place at the organ for worship. Steven now runs marathons all over the country. Early in my story here I was amazed to listen to Jerry Barnett and Jamie Stephenson talk about their preparations to run the Memorial Marathon. I recently asked Jamie to tell me about his experiences. Hear a part of what he said;

“With the Memorial Marathon in OKC, there is not only the race itself, but the focus on why the race is being held, and the remembrance of the lives lost in the Murrah bombing. One of the most moving experiences of race day is the 168 seconds of silence just before the race begins, honoring the 168 lives lost. Another vital and memorable aspect of the race is the incredible support of so many along the way. Thousands of supporters and volunteers throughout the 26.2 mile course are there to offer encouragement, sustenance and entertainment.
While the focus and reason for the marathon are inspiring and the words and actions of so many along the way are uplifting and encouraging, after about 15 to 20 miles, even with all the hard work and preparation, the body starts to say that this is not fun! For a good portion of the last several miles, even with the encouragement of others, it becomes as much a test of will as fitness and endurance. Coming down Classen, then winding through Mesta Park and Heritage Hills, small victories are won not by the number of miles run, but by reaching the next traffic light, intersection, or parked car.

But then something pretty remarkable happens. In my experience when the going is toughest, I mentally focus on making that left turn onto 12th Street, heading east to run by the church parking lot, then turning right on Broadway to first glimpse the finish line. Particularly in my first marathon in 2004, having a number of church members providing encouragement and support as I went by is something I will always cherish and remember. “

Thank you for sharing your story, Jamie. I think part of why I particularly appreciate your story this time of year is that for many it seems the Advent season becomes a marathon of shopping excursions, parties, and friend and family commitments. There seems to be little time for moments of silence to remember why we run the race; few voices of encouragement to call us forward. In fact yesterday in the Penn Square Mall parking lot I watched people offer words and gestures to one another, but they were clearly not one of encouragement. If we are not careful the fatigue and frustration can make us miss the joy of running the race and running it well. The prophet Isaiah envisioned a day when God’s Kingdom would be established and people would begin the race to the house of God. Hear Isaiah’s vision and its Advent call. 2:1 The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.2:2 In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.2:3 Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.2:4 He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. 2:5 O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD! In birth Christ we see this prophet vision fulfilled. Advent invites us to join the race heading to the House of God.

The tree sits in the same spot, with the same lights, and the same ornaments. You do not really have to think about how to decorate your mantle or which wreath will hang on your door. You will do it as you always have. You know the Christmas story by heart. You do not even need to look in the hymnal or at the worship guide for the words of the Christmas carols. You have sung them so often they are a part of the seasonal memory and the words just flow. You walk through the placement of the manger scene with a well established mental check list: Mary - check; Joseph - check, babe in manger -check, three wise men, one shepherd boy, one camel, one donkey, one cow, a scattering of small sheep –check. Angel on an odd ledge on the upper left of the manger scene -check. When you combine the marathon of expectations and the established routines of the season, it is easy to forget the incredible promise of God realized with the birth of Jesus.

This passage from Isaiah speaks to the power born in simplicity. The prophet knew that when the Kingdom of God came to earth we would have the opportunity to hear the teachings of God’s way and we would be summoned to follow His path. Isaiah knew that when the Kingdom of God came down that everything would change; that the sword and the spear– the symbols of power, would be replaced by the plowshare and the pruning hook, the symbols of servanthood. He knew that when the Kingdom of God came down God would offer a different kind of peace – that the way of war would be replaced with a sense of community that would transcend the boundaries that had so long separated people one from another. We are the living testimony of that community with worshippers in our midst from North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. This is an incredible display of the movement of God, and powerful reflection of the global way of grace. Hear that the coming of the Kingdom of God expressed in Christ is no ordinary event, no holiday tradition, and no religious routine. It is an invitation to see God up close and personal, to see God change everything by coming and walking among us to show us the way of God.

I have to believe that Isaiah’s vision was shaped by the grand processionals of worshippers coming to the temple. He would have experienced the powerful moment when the horns blared out beckoning the worshippers forward. In Jamie’s story he described what it meant for people to cheer him on. This too was a part of the worship processionals. It is the reason we hear the Psalms like the one we heard read earlier in our worship service and will hear sung in the moments ahead. It seems that Isaiah understood that when the Kingdom of God came down an even grander, more global call would go out. He envisioned the cry going out, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. This is the Advent call, the hope of what is possible in and through Christ. It is this Advent call that beckons us to the manger to see the face of the Kingdom of God that has come down to change the story of sin and judgment to a story of redemption and grace.

It is time to stop spending our energy running to the mall or working to make sure that our home is decorated in a fashion worthy of a newspaper spread. It is time to stop running place to place, event to event, trying to meet everyone else’s expectation. It is time to stop worrying about whether the gifts are wrapped to perfection. It is time to stop and remember that we are called to come and see the Kingdom of God that has come down.

It is time for us to join the journey to the manger in earnest. Come to the journey, not out of habit or tradition, but out a sincere need to have a fresh encounter with God. Part of what I love about Jamie’s story is that it makes it clear that although he ran as a part of a crowd of thousands, the race was very personal. The prophet Isaiah also was clear that although the invitation was to all, those in this race, this grand parade to the house of God would be defined by the people who took the journey. We must not be so captivated by going through the motions of tradition we forget why we celebrate. We must not be some consumed by the calendar demands that we forget where we are heading. It is a choice we must make together as a church family, and individually as worshippers of God. Join me in the grand march of the worshippers heading out to experience the presence of God. What we will experience is not a static manger scene but a live encounter with the living and loving God. Come and go with me to the mountain of God, to the house of the God of Jacob, the manger of the babe named Jesus. Come and walk in the light of the Lord and let nothing stand in the way.