Sunday, October 16, 2011

"Ransomed and Set Free" - Hebrews 9:14-15 - October 16, 2011

If you wandered into my den and found our family watching television you would most likely find us watching the Food Network, History Channel, Discovery Channel, or ESPN. But there is one show on one of the traditional big three networks that has captured my interest. On Sunday nights CBS airs a show called, “Under Cover Boss.” It shows what happens when the leader of a major corporation or organization leaves their desk and goes undercover to see what working on the front lines of their organization or company is like. Last week’s episode focused on the University of California at Riverside’s Chancellor, Tim White. Like most episodes, you see him stumbling as he tries to do the work of others. But, the high point of the show is when he follws the show's pattern and reveals his real identity and does something good for each person he worked beside. But, in this particular episode you meet a student who, like the Chancellor, had a tragic accident that took her father away from the family. Maybe because Chancellor connected with her story, or maybe it was because the depth of pain and the tremendous joy she managed to show in spite of her situation, the Chancellor arranges to have the student’s college debt forgiven, secured funds for a scholarship that would pay for her to finish school, and provided additional funds to help secure a new apartment for her and her mother located nearer to the university. All on camera, and most in my home, had tears streaming down their faces. Over and over again she said that she could not believe that her debt was forgiven, that a weight had been lifted off her shoulders.

Earlier this week the Seattle Times reported that; “British and U.S. forces freed an Italian cargo ship hijacked by Somali pirates in a dramatic rescue Tuesday after retrieving a message in a bottle tossed by hostages from a porthole alerting ships the crew was safely sealed inside an armored area. The crew of 23 on the Montecristo were brought to safety, the Italian Foreign Ministry said. The 11 pirates were taken into custody.” Stories of Somali pirates seizing ships and holding hostages for ransom have become commonplace. Each year millions of dollars of ransom is paid for the release of hostages who tell difficult stories of emotional and physical abuse. They had to wait for someone else to do something for them that they could not do for themselves. With tears and shoots of joy, each celebrates the companies that paid the ransom that let them be set free.

It seems each week as I move toward entering the focal passage for the morning, I echo again that the writer of Hebrews addressed a congregation rising out of the Jewish religious tradition. Our passage this morning carries the hearers back to the temple and the picture of the animal sacrifices that had defined their understanding being reconciled with God. Songs like Psalm 49 would have sung out in their memory. The Psalm sings out: 5 Why should I fear when evil days come, when wicked deceivers surround me— 6 those who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches? 7 No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them— 8 the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough— 9 so that they should live on forever and not see decay.

But Hebrews tells them – and us – that while no one could pay the ransom or redeem the life of another, that God had made the way. Earlier we listened as Steven Brooks read Hebrews 9:11-15. The first three verses replace the High Priest with Jesus, entering in the Holy of Holies, the Most Holy Place, in a perfect tabernacle. Their minds eye would carry to the picture of the Temple on the Temple Mount, but they hear that Jesus moves in a place more wonderful, more perfect than anything they had experienced before. This tabernacle is not crafted with human hands, but is the home of God fashioned by the hand of God. In our time we might say that while this church is a beautiful place of worship, the place he envisions is much more beautiful than these stained glass windows could begin to contain. There, in this perfect tabernacle, the sacrifice of blood is not from sheep, or bulls, or heifer cows, in the symbolic acts of redemption like they had seen before. No, the blood that provides the way to real and eternal redemption – the once and for all redemption - is the blood shed by Jesus Christ. Verse 14 proclaims, How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! Jesus became the means to bridge the wide gulf between God’s holiness and our sinfulness. No one can redeem the life of another or give God a ransom for them because the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough. They could not – and we cannot – buy our way out. It took an act of God to change our story and pay the price for our eternal lives.

My conversation with “Jack” began simply enough. He noticed my church name tag while rode an elevator down to the lobby of a local hospital. “So, what do you do at the church,” he asked? I told him that I was the pastor. He told me that he had been here once, but it had been a long time since he was in church. When I invited him to come and worship with us again, he told me, “You do not know all the things that I have done. You would not want me in your church. In fact, I do not think God would even want to deal with me again.” It seemed that his life story and the choices he had made weighed on him like an unpayable debt. It seemed “Jack” and many like him feel like they are held captive by the consequences of their actions. They do not realize that their debt has been forgiven and their ransom has been paid.

Over the past two months we have hosted a SALT series called, “Our Neighbor’s Faith.” We have heard and responded to voices from Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. This past Thursday I wrapped up the series and invited questions at the end. The question that stilled the room was, “so in the end, do it matter what you believe.” This question gave me an opportunity to share a part of my own testimony of faith and to answer the question with a resounding “yes, it matters!” I think some time we have a tendency to think that everyone that comes to SALT is already a Christian. That perception is wrong. At the close of SALT I had an opportunity to begin a conversation about Christ with one of the participants. He is one of many who now join us who are seeking something real and meaningful. In hearing the presentation on the other faith traditions it was clear that each is either driven by a blind obedience to commandments or a quest for redemption where each person must find the way for their own salvation. While we can respond to those from other faith traditions with respect, the reality is that we can never be good enough and faithful enough to obey every commandment and if we are responsible for our own salvation we will always fail. We listened as the Jewish Rabbi taught that modern Judaism teaches complete obedience to the law. She said that any sense of emotional or spiritual connection with God was a bonus. The task was obedience. I believe we were created for much more. We were created for a real, personal, authentic relationship with God. God made the way through Christ for our reconciliation. The claim of our faith that God acts on our behalf is unique. The fact that we live out of the promise that our debt for our sin has been paid by Christ changes everything!

Verse 15 proclaims, For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant. We hear that theme echoed in Mark 10: 45 "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The old Psalm sings, No one can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for them— 8 the ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough— No, no payment we could ever pay is enough. But through Christ we have been set free. “Jack,” God knows all you have done and has paid the price for your freedom. God has not given up on you. God has made the way for you the weight to be lifted from your shoulders – for your heart and soul to be renewed. God has made the way for you to be forgiven; God has made the way to set you free.

This morning’s message is the heart of the Christian story. It is the Gospel story. It is the Jesus story. You cannot inherent your parents faith. You cannot earn God’s love. You cannot be good enough and you cannot make the way for your own salvation. All you can do is to accept this great gift from God – the spiritual debt of the bad choices you have made has been cancelled; the ransom for your soul has been paid. Redemption awaits you at the feet of God. It is an old story. It is the Gospel story. This morning I invite you to make it your story.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

“A Life of Imitation” - Hebrews 6:9-12 - October 9, 2011

Over the past few weeks I have been asking different people in our congregation to share stories with me about people that have encouraged or inspired them. It has been a great exercise. Let me share some of the names that I have heard. -
• Roxanne Jensen told me about a friend of her from Jenks named Christi. She has been an example to Roxanne in the perseverance of faith she has shown despite so many trials. She is an encouragement as we share our faith in spite of shared trials.
• Pam Williams told me that there were many women who encouraged and inspired her growing up in the church, but she highlighted two. She lighted up Fran Wilkinson, who was her GA leader. She says, Fran “had the most infectious laugh of anyone I know and taught me to take myself less seriously. Fran exemplified Gods love no matter who you were, she made you feel important.”
• She also mentioned Joyce Shelby, who served as youth minister. Joyce encouraged the group to lean on the Savior, but also “instilled a sense of family within our youth group and within the church.”
• My son, Aaron, told me about how Don Miner inspired him as a model of what it meant to be a Christian in the way he did his business and in the way he lived out his life as a husband and father.
• Kim Greer offered three names for me. The first is Lane Davis. She says. “Lane Davis inspires me to look at my life of faith differently. He has experienced such trauma and tragedy in his life but remains fully trusting in God. If Lane can do that, then I can too!
• The second is Scott Ferree. Kim says that Scott “inspires me to live a life of authentic faith. He is mostly unrecognized in his behind-the scenes work and help in music and children’s ministry. Yet he shows up week after week with a positive spirit and generous heart to offer himself to all of us.”
• The third is Laurie Ashford. Kim says she “is another one who made a huge difference in our lives and in IAWL last November and December. She worked tirelessly, putting up with some difficult people and maddening circumstances to make sure our set was right and in place. She makes me want to be faithful in ministering even when nobody else knows about it.”

I could talk about the way Neal and Ann Brown’s deep faith in God despite the pain of loss, touches me deeply. I could talk about how Jay Allen’s servant heart inspires me, or about how Larry Fitch’s sense of strength encourages me, or about how Nellie Christian’s heart for others moves me. I could go row by row, person by person, story by story, and seemingly never run out of names of those who inspire and encourage me.

The power of these stories is that let us see where what people believe and how they live their lives come together. They are witnesses of a faith of both word and deed. Earlier in Hebrews 6 we read as the writer challenges those who are spiritual deserts, resistant to the word and way of God. As we transition into our focal passage the tone changes completely. The New Living Translation proclaims the second half of verse 9 with, We are confident that you are meant for better things, things that come with salvation. The words that follow provide a profound word of encouragement and a faith life challenge. The passage beckons the listener to a life and faith worthy of imitation.
First, hear the word of encouragement. Verse 10 sings out; God is not unjust; he will not forget your work and the love you have shown him as you have helped his people and continue to help them. Hebrews proclaims that God will not forget the work and love you have shown him as you have helped his people. There is something I want to make sure we do not miss when we look at this verse. God celebrates the work and love we have shown HIM as we help his people – and keep on helping them. The motivation for service others is not because we have a benevolent heart or because we are good people, but is instead is to be a reflection of our love for God.

We are accustom to hearing the words of Jesus in Matthew that proclaim, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” This passage reinforces this truth with the picture of God cheering for us and celebrating our help for others because God sees it as the direct reflection of our love for Him! This means every time we help others through Good Shepherd, or the Furniture Bank, or KidsHope, or through home renovations in South Texas, or our work with refugees in Kuala Lumpur or Ottawa, or a host of other missional expressions, we are engaged in living acts of love and worship of God. In the face of the child, or the hungry, or the hurting, or the struggling gives us a glimpse at the face of God. Let me try one more time from a different angle – our motivation for missional engagement is not be out of economic or social guilt, or a sense of religious duty, or out of a benevolence spirit, but instead what should trigger us to get up and pour ourselves into others is that every moment and every act is an act of love for God.

Our passage continues, 11 We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, so that what you hope for may be fully realized. 12 We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised. The expectation was not that they would do “good” as an act of their love for God, but that they would be “diligent,” and keep doing “good” as an ongoing expression of their love. This is enforced in the next verse when he tells them “We do not want you to become lazy.” I am not sure when we hear the word “lazy” we really get the heart of the message. Other translators choose other words like; “dull,” “sluggish,” “apathetic,” and “disinterested.” The writer was not worried about them kicking up their feet, but rather losing their heart in the task of loving and helping people when they faced rejection and mounting persecution. It is reminiscent of what we hear in Galatians 6:9 that proclaims; Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. I know that it might seem that we are always pouring ourselves out in ministry and sometimes it seems like the options and opportunities will never end. Part of the struggle is that too many Christians and too many churches are self-focused leaving a mountain of need untouched. But, our task is not to focus on what others should be doing. Our task is not to grow weary, or lazy, or sluggish, or apathetic, or disinterested, but to keep on helping others as a reflection of our love affair with God who first loved us.

Ultimately this passage in Hebrews tells its hearers the way to get this right is to imitate those who live lives of authentic faithfulness. It is a picture of faith is that is both doing good and living as witnesses of faithfulness, or in other words, proclaiming what we believe and acting like we believe it. We are blessed to have people in our lives to encourage and inspire us. We see in them people who serve others out of their love of God. We see in them people that have persevered because they knew they could rely on God. I celebrate those who encourage and inspire us, but I want you to know is that for others, that person is you. Choose to live a life of faith worthy of imitation. Let the words of your mouth and the actions of your hands sing out of your love for God.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Forgotten Center in Baptist Life - Revised

There are times I feel alone. I did not use to feel this way. I used to feel a part of a family with a wide tent, big enough to hold a wide diversity of folks who all called themselves Baptist. It seems that Baptist have followed our national political trend of polarization. Those on the right seem to keep drifting further right. There seems to be little room in their world for anyone that might disagree with anything they think. Their truths and opinions (often they do not seem to be able to tell the difference) are absolute. Those on the left are equally entrenched. It seems that it is not enough to be given the freedom to believe as they will – to practice their faith as they will. But, they are so sure that they are right that their truths and opinions (often they do not seem to be able to tell the difference) are absolute. Those on both sides will not be satisfied until everyone embraces their way of thinking – their way of interpreting Scripture – their way of dealing with the politics of nation – their way of living life. Those on the right were so demanding that they drove many of us out of the tent seeking a new home. Now those on the left are so insistent that their agenda is highlighted and featured in conferences that the tent that I moved to now seems progressively less comfortable, progressively less like “home.”

There is a part of me that yearns for the absolute certainty of those who live on my left and right. It is easier to live in the absolutes. You do not have to think as hard or work as hard because everything is clear cut. My problem is that I that I live at the center/center-right of the Baptist spectrum. I claim the strong faith statements of traditional Baptist theology. I also claim the reality that Paul proclaims in I Corinthians 13, For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. I want to live in the balance of a ministry of Word and deed. I am a faithful follower of Jesus that with equal passion taught and healed, preached and feed. I want to serve as a witness of a gospel that speaks both of law and grace, of justice and mercy. I want to be a Jesus person; both where that blesses and where that offends. It can be difficult to live in the theological center because it demands that I give great care to working through what the whole of the Bible says about an issue, and that I take the interpretation of the Bible seriously. I cannot allow my culture to so shape, from either perspective, what I read that I misread the Word of God. It means that my task is not driven by a poll of what one generation thinks about homosexuality, abortion, gun control, the death penalty, immigration, or a hundred other political and social hot buttons of the day; but rather what God has said to His people across the generations and across cultures. It means that when I come to preach and teach I come with the certainty of a God who was from the beginning and shall be forever; that God that is unshakable and is my refuge and strength. I teach and preach about a God that is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I teach and preach from a Bible that is the divinely inspired Word of God, not in part but in whole. But, I also bring the frailty and the fallibility of my own perspective – worldview – and faith walk.

As I talk to other pastors and church leaders from across the nation they tell me that I am not alone. They tell me that they too are theological centrists in Baptist life. They tell me that they have also felt alone and forgotten in the emerging Baptist landscape. They tell me that they felt out of place in one tent, and progressive equally out of place in another. They tell me that their answer has been to dive in and focus solely and wholly on their local church’s mission and ministry. They are at home in the local church context and disconnected from the institutions and organizations that shape the Baptist landscape. They are old and young; graduates of the six historic Baptist seminaries and from the newer ones that have emerged over the last twenty years. They are ministers and they are laity. They long to feel connected. They long to work side-by-side others. They long to find community that is not drawn left or right by the latest poll, the quest for financial survival or the latest political wave. They are weary of seminars that are agenda laden and publications that seem to echo single points of view. They are the forgotten center in Baptist life. I wonder where and how they might fit together and work together in the days ahead? Any thoughts?

Grace and Peace, Tom

Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Savior and Priest" - Hebrews 4:14-16 NLT- October 2, 2011

In a few minutes we will come to the table for a Lord’s Supper experience. It carries us to the moment when Jesus lifts ordinary elements on the Passover dinner table and they became symbols of the extraordinary. When we come to the table and hold the element of the bread, we pronounce “the body of Christ given for you.” The bread serves to remind us of Jesus’ incarnation; that moment when God took on flesh and made His home among us. It reminds us of Jesus’ ministry when he walked and talked, preached and healed, feed and cared. It reminds us that Jesus was tried, beaten, and crucified on our behalf. When the bread touches my lips I remember the gift of the body of Christ, given for you and for me.

Likewise, when we hold the element of the wine, we pronounce “the blood of Christ shed for you.” This pronouncement is scandalous for me. It reminds me that the shed blood of Christ is the dear price required for my redemption. It reminds me that Christ, who was sinless, took on my sin – and your sin – that we might find forgiveness in this incredible act of God’s grace. When the sweet taste of the grape juice, representing the wine, touches my lips, it leaves a bittersweet taste. The bitterness is not because the grapes have spoiled, but instead is born in the reality of the bitter price paid for each time I made choices that damaged my relationship with God or others. But the sweetness reminds me of God’s sweet choice to act on my behalf, to extend grace to me and to you when we did not deserve it. Every time I taste the sweet taste of juice I remember the gift of the blood of Christ, given for you and for me.

We come to the table with great regularity in obedience to Jesus’ command, “Do this in remembrance of me.” But there is a temptation every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper that we focus on what Jesus did on the cross as if it was the end of the story. While the story of the cross plays a central role in our faith narrative, if the story ended there our faith would be built on a martyr’s story rather than the Savior’s story. We are an Easter people. While grace is finds its foundation at the feet of the cross, it is made complete in the moment of resurrection. But, our story does not end there. It is not just about what Jesus DID for us, but also of what Jesus DOES for us as a people of faith.

Earlier in our service you heard Betsy Stewart read our focal passage from the New International Version. I would like to share it again, but this time from the more contemporary New Living Translation. I think it puts in terms we can best understand. It reads, 14 So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. 15 This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.

You may remember that when I began this sermon series on Hebrews a few weeks ago, I told you that the audience for this book was believers who had come out of Judaism. The writer unapologetically uses images and language that would have been familiar to them. In this passage the writer seized the image of the High Priest, the one who was to be the people’s advocate God. This image would have grabbed their attention. It would have immediate meaning for them. But, in a quick twist they hear that Jesus is that ultimate High Priest. It is Jesus that leads us to the throne of God. The writer wanted them to understand that Jesus understood them. He had dealt with the same temptations and testings that they, and we, face. Jesus understood their and our weakness because he had walked beside them, and walks besides us still. This scripture tells us that Jesus, who is Son of God, the very face of God, is at the same moment our High Priest and Divine advocate. It tells us that the Jesus who acted on our behalf on the cross, still acts on our behalf so that we can come boldly God’s throne and find mercy when we need it most. God is a God of second chances. You can start your life with God again. You can find the grace and mercy you need to be renewed and restored. You have an advocate – a High Priest. Your heart cry matters to God! This Scripture reminds me that my testimony sings out both what God did for me and what God continues to do in my life.

Where can you specifically identify where God is active in your life? Claim it and celebrate it! What is going on in your life where you need to move boldly to God’s feet to find God’s mercy and grace? Jesus understands what you are going through. God stands ready to act.

Today, I invite you to celebrate what God has done that we might find forgiveness, grace, and a personal relationship with God. Today, I invite you to run with boldness to God throne knowing that mercy awaits you. Today, with equal passion, I invite you to sing out what God is doing in your life. In Jesus we have a Savior and a Priest, our Lord and our advocate.

(Homily followed by Lord's Supper by intinction at five stations located throughout the sanctuary.)