26 From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. 27 On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.
Some sermons are days in development, others weeks, but this morning’s message is months in the making. It finds its footing in a host of interviews, a wide range of cities, some amazing books, some remarkable places, and experiences with congregations making a difference in their community and the world. The passage the invites us into this moment invites us into the halls of Antioch. This great missional congregation has sent Paul and Barnabas out at the calling of the Holy Spirit. With the first season of their work completed, the two have come home to report on what they has seen and experienced and how they had witnessed God at work in the world. I come with a similar heart at the close of this three month sabbatical experience to share with you that God is still very much at work in the world and that we can learn from and be shaped by how God is moving among his people that are facing similar challenges and opportunities to the ones God has laid before us in this place.
While I experienced tremendous support for taking time for a sabbatical experience, I recognized that some wondered why do a sabbatical and what might come from it. I can tell you that I come back to you a better man, a better follower of Christ, a better minister, and a better pastor for this experience. I come back refreshed and renewed, with a new passion for who we are as a church family and a new hope for what God can and will do in our midst in the days ahead. While the planning team had worked with me to carefully to put in place a meaningful sabbatical plan, I do not think any of us could have anticipated the powerful way God would work in me and speak to me. We could have never have imaged the truly remarkable people that God would put in my path nor could have conceived of the kinds of experiences that would allow me to see God at work in new and creative ways. I am changed because of this sabbatical journey – shaped for the better. Thank you, church family, for allowing me to take the time for this sabbatical journey. Thank you to Bobby Kelly, Mack Roark and Paul Calmes for standing in my stead in this pulpit for these weeks, bringing strong messages of hope and promise from God. Thank you to our incredible church staff, my friends and colleagues, for taking on additional responsibilities that I might have the freedom to step away in the full confidence all was in good hands.
Yes, I can celebrate what I have experienced during this sabbatical time, but I have also been listening to the remarkable way God has been at work among you this summer. It is clear that you have seen our staff step forward in new ways and seen new gifts and strengths among them. It is clear that God has moved and I celebrate that there have been 24 professions of faith in Jesus Christ over these summer months. I cheer at the word that over 100 different people participated in the house prayer meetings and many took part in one than one of the house prayer meetings. I shout for joy for the countless volunteers served as a part of Kids of Broadway, acted as summer camp sponsors, worked with Good Shepherd, passed out back packs and school supplies at McKinley Park, and a took part in a wide array of other ministries and events. I can testify that God was at work in my life in my sabbatical experience, it is also crystal clear that God was at work among you, making us all stronger for this next season of ministry together. So we prepare to begin a second season of ministry together. It will not just be the same song second verse. It will be a time for us to experience God moving and shaping us in new ways for new days.
Most of you know that a critical part of my sabbatical plan was to do research on how other congregations are responding to the challenges and opportunities of reaching people from other nations and from across the diversity of their communities. In New York City we meet with a vital community ministry leader and a pastor doing innovative ministry in an urban context. In Boston, and other cities within its reach, I met with pastors, church leaders, others that were doing some remarkable things in intercultural ministry. I was deeply moved by the level of commitment and sacrifice I witnessed among these leaders and their congregations. Little did I know I had only just begun to see the face of what God was doing. We shifted to England and begin to meet with pastors, Baptist leaders, and congregation members who are leading the way in multicultural ministries. There we saw old congregations that have become new – struggling congregations that have found life and vitality – small congregations that have large scale impact in their communities and the world. I bring you good news. We are on the right track. Over the next weeks and months we will be working on enhancing some of aspects of our work with those from other nations and other cultures. But, this summer we have already taken the first and most important steps of moving our ministry from a ministry to those of other cultures toward a ministry model where we serve side by side. We will invite their way and walk with God to impact us and shape us as well. There are several tools that I saw and things that I learned that can help us, but we are already heading the right way. It is also encouraging to know that we are not walking this path alone. There are other churches that are eager to walk with us as together we learn how to be the congregations God calls us to be. It is important to hear though, that the path is not always comfortable and will often grow and stretch us to reach beyond our comfort zones. But in our stretching and growing we will have the opportunity to see and experience God as never before.
I left expecting to deal with congregations struggling to come to terms with how to respond to the challenges and opportunities of multicultural ministry; but nothing could have adequately prepared me for a season in a culture where the Church has been pushed so far to the sidelines that for most it is irrelevant. People are not antagonistic toward Christians; they simply do not matter enough for most to care. We visited grand cathedrals and beautiful village churches that now act as historical markers of the place people of faith once held. But now, in times of worship, these buildings are almost empty – sad shadows of what they once were. Most of the cathedrals now charge admissions to visitors and the village churches post pleas for donations for passersby for their upkeep and survival. I listened as a church member in the small Baptist church in the village where we lived for the summer told the story of running across another Christian in the cafe’ in a major department store in Oxford and her complete shock to find another believer in the crowd. For her, the idea of running into another Christian in a public setting had become a foreign idea.
Moments like this are hard for us to imagine here in Oklahoma City, but it is already the case in many of the major US cities that dot our map. This is not a doomsday prediction or a “someday over the rainbow” kind of gaze into the future. It is the emerging religious reality even within our nation. But in the midst of this context we found churches that were alive and vibrant, making a difference in the lives of people in the name of Jesus Christ. They are worthy models for us to consider because it is clear that homogenized suburban evangelical Christianity that demands little from you and offers little spiritual depth in return is the not answer. It is equally clear that pathetic public displays like the Chic-fil-A Appreciation Day where the churches tried to show their political muscle and make a political statement by eating a chicken sandwich is not the answer. We are meant for more and will have to live for more if we want to have a transformational impact in people’s lives. There are others who have gone before us and can show us the way. We will be talking more about them and what we can learn from them in the weeks and months ahead. We are a great church now, but I believe that God is preparing us to be the church we need to be for the days ahead – a church of faith, a church of substance, a church that will continue grow together and strive together to touch our community and the world in the name of Jesus Christ.
A vital part of my personal journey toward spiritual renewal was the time I spent in a number of great books and a diversity of Biblical passages focused on hearing and responding to God’s voice. These times of reading and study filled my heart and soul and helped me draw closer and closer to God. Coming out of these readings and times in study I will begin a twelve parallel Wednesday night and SALT Bible study series on Hearing the Voice of God the first week of September. I do not remember begin so excited to share what I have learned with you. I am hopeful that this study series will give you a glimpse into the many ways God can and will speak into your life and into the life of our church family.
There is something that came out of my time of reading, study and prayer that I want to share with you this morning. It is a image that describes how I think God is leading me to guide us as a congregation. We are called to be a spiritual greenhouse where people discover the seeds of faith that God has planted in their hearts, find root, and flourish to become all that God has for them to be. We will find our life in the love and grace of God expressed through Jesus Christ. We will be called to send some out to new fields to and cast new seeds that others might also come to know and experience life with God. This picture helps me to get my hands around who I think God is calling us to be and will help shape how I serve as your pastor in this next season together. It is the picture of a discipling church; a Christ-centered Church calling us all to live Christ-centered lives. Based on those highlighted passages I have four pages of implications for my own life and ministry, including the fact that Beth will become much more a partner in ministry with me in this coming season.
In verse 28 of our focal passage we hear; And they stayed there a long time with the disciples. There are so many more things I want to tell you about what I saw, what I experienced, and what I learned. This is my journal that I wrote over the course of my sabbatical. It numbers almost one hundred pages. Over my final two days in England I printed the whole of journal and highlight the key things I heard from God and the key lessons that I learned. I also have five pages of bullet points of possible implications for ministry for our church family. But hear me clearly, I am not coming home with an impossible list of new ministry ideas that will drown us in good works. I have a list of tools that I believe we can use, in the right time and in the right season to help make us stronger. I am much more concerned with the path that we take and the way that we get there than the specifics of any plan or idea. While I could spend hours telling you more, the good news is that I do not have to share it all today. We have time. One of the clear words I heard from God was the reaffirmation that my place of ministry is and will be First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City. We have time to dream together, to grow together, and to serve side by side. A little over seven and a half years ago during my installation service as pastor Marv Knox stood in the pulpit and told you to put on your track shoes that I would keep you running. I want you to hear today to put on your walking shoes; we have a long path and sure path to walk together. I can hardly wait to see what God will do in us and through us.