Sunday, December 31, 2006

Little Boy Jesus

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 2:40-52

at Batesville Presbyterian Church on December 31, 2006


            Last Sunday we celebrated the birth of Jesus with the full retinue of children dressed as angels, cows and camels. We marked the birth of Jesus with the Advent Candles and sang Christmas carols. Today, on the First Sunday after Christmas, on this last day of 2006, let's look beyond the birth of Jesus and consider the life of little boy Jesus as we consider what became of the baby in the manger.

            The Bible has little to say about little boy Jesus. Yet we do have two stories that shed some light on Jesus' childhood and adolescence. The first story is from the gospel according to Matthew (2:1-12), where we learn that after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, King Herod found some wise men from the East, astrologers, scurrying around Jerusalem asking about the child who had been born king of the Jews, for they had seen his star rising in the East, and they had come to pay him homage. Of course this news sent King Herod into a panic and he immediately called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem with instructions to find this child and let him know when they found him so that he too, could pay him homage. The wise men follow the star and find the holy family but after being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

            After they left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take the child and his mother to Egypt for King Herod would search for the child to destroy him. Joseph and the holy family escape into Egypt. When Herod learns he has been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated and sent and killed all the children in a around Bethlehem who were two years old or under. (Mt. 2:16-18) Today, in Cairo, Egypt, there are Coptic Christians who trace their religious ancestry all the way back to the time when their family embraced the holy family during little boy Jesus' exile in Egypt.

            Beyond the fact that little boy Jesus spent his early childhood in Egypt, the Bible has little to tell us except for the remarkable story present in today's gospel reading (Luke 2:40-52) This story, as told in the Gospel according to Luke, occurred when Jesus was twelve years old. By now the holy family has returned to the land of Israel and reside in the town of Nazareth. The story takes place on the family's annual journey to Jerusalem during the Passover celebration. These were occasions of feasting and enjoyment and men brought their families. But even as a child Jesus' religious consciousness is above the ordinary level of consciousness. For even at the tender age of twelve years, his commitment to God supersedes his obligation to his immediate family.

            That is to say, if one were to ask the twelve year old Jesus, "Who's your daddy?" His answer would be: "God." Even as an adult Jesus calls God, "Abba" which in our idiom may be translated as "Daddy." Already, as a child, Jesus knows he has a divine mission for human salvation. Thus, he explains to his parents what he was doing in the temple, saying: "I must be in my Father's house." Little boy Jesus is in the temple teaching because he must be about his Father's business, even if this appears to impair his relationship with his parents, Mary and Joseph. This tendency toward doing the will of God regardless of the consequences will follow Jesus like a shadow until he sweats drops of blood in extreme prayer the Garden of Gethsemane as he faces the cross. There, as an adult, even as here, as a child, Jesus will say yes to God's will, regardless of the consequences.

            This glimpse into the boyhood of Jesus sets the tone for what is to come. As the years pass, the wisdom that Jesus demonstrated in the temple grows and develops. Everyone seems to love him. He dazzled the teachers in the temple. They were amazed at his understanding and his answers. He is lauded by angels, shepherds, Simeon, Anna and many others in Luke's gospel. Later in Luke's gospel (23:21-22), God's expresses pleasure with Jesus when he comes to be baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan river and the heavens open and a dove descends upon Jesus, and God's voice booms down from heaven, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." And of course we know that Jesus did fulfill his mission of opening the door to God's favor for all people and he did it through an act of suffering that is terrible to contemplate.

            We don't often see Jesus' degree of wisdom or devotion in a twelve year old child. In fact, we may assume it has never happened at any time since then. We can only grasp at straws when we try to think of a modern parallel to the love and devotion to God displayed by little boy Jesus. Perhaps the closest we can get to it is a poem. I regard this poem in light of a terrible scene I witnessed once upon a time in Jerusalem. There is a exhibit with a glass front wall at the Yad Vashem, the Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem. Behind the glass wall is a room full of little wrinkled leather children's shoes. They are the shoes of children who were killed in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. This poem was found by the body of a dead child in the concentration camp called Ravensbrook during the Nazi era:


            O Lord, remember not only the men and women of good will

                        but also those of ill will.


            But do not remember all the suffering they inflicted on us

                        remember the fruits we have bought thanks to this suffering

                                    our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity,

                                                the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this.


            And when they come to judgement

                        let all this fruit which we have born

                                    be their forgiveness.


            This is the loving spirit of little boy Jesus as he demonstrated in his teaching in the temple when he was twelve years old; and this is the forgiving spirit that Jesus demonstrated as he was hanging on the cross, as he said in regard to those who were crucifying him, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Here we see that by continuing to pour oneself out in self-giving love even the darkest evil can be transformed into a scene of incredible love. We can do this ourselves, we can walk this path of self-emptying love, by staying soft instead of hardening our hearts, by not tightening up but by relaxing and letting in the energy of God's love flow into us and spill over into the world, into our families, into the heart of the child in each of us, even the oldest adult. In doing so, we may be more like little boy Jesus, who increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. We may also hear God say of us one day: "You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased."

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Blessed Among Women

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 1:39-55

at Batesville Presbyterian Church on December 24, 2006


            Imagine the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a woman who has been married for many years. She is old enough to be beyond child bearing years. Mary is a recently married woman who is still a teenager. Both of them are kin. Both of them are pregnant. Both of them are ecstatic with joy. Both of them are bearing sons of significance. Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist. Mary is pregnant with Jesus Christ. Both of them are blessed among women.

            When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby in her womb leaped. She was filled with the Holy Spirit, and sang out exuberantly,


   You're so blessed among women,

      and the babe in your womb, also blessed!

   And why am I so blessed that

      the mother of my Lord visits me?

   The moment the sound of your

      greeting entered my ears,

   The babe in my womb

      skipped like a lamb for sheer joy. (The Message)


            And like the babe in Elizabeth's womb, our heart skips a beat from sheer joy. We get this feeling about this time every year. This feeling that something big is happening in the midst of the little ones among us. We get this feeling when we see the innocent children dressed like donkeys and cows, angels and drummer boys, playing their part in the great play of resurrection life that we reenact every year about this time. And we know that Christmas once again has come.

            So we gather in the church sanctuary on Christmas Eve, having overcome many an obstacle just to sit in these pews for less than an hour's time. Hard to get here with the family to feed at home. Presents to be wrapped. Or unwrapped. Food to cook. Phone calls. Laughter. And a few minutes of silent reflection in the sanctuary. Some carols. Some scriptures. Some dressed up children singing. And we know, once again, it is Christmas.

            So we take some time to sit together in the stillness of this day. We join all the faithful of every time and place in anxious terror and hopeful expectation, looking for a baby wrapped in a blanket and lying in a manger. What a relief to know that the child is indeed in the manger. What a joy to see once again that God has indeed been born into human history. How happy we are to have it confirmed: We are not alone. We are not all there is. There is more to existence than material things. Even after we die we get to live again.

            It's all there, wrapped in mystery like the Christ child in the manger. The prospect of human suffering. The reality of death. The celebration of life. Baptism. Death. Resurrection.

            When we find baby Jesus we ponder the miracle with Mary then return to our home like the shepherds glorifying and praising God that in Christ's birth myth became fact.

            The birth of God in human history. We never imagined it would happen this way. But let's not get caught analyzing the hows or whys or wherefores. Let's throw reason to the wind. Get down on our knees. And join the heavenly choir in singing:


 Come, Thou long-expected Jesus,

            Born to set Thy people free;

 From our fears and sins release us;

            Let us find our rest in Thee.


                        Born Thy people to deliver,

            Born a child and yet a King,

Born to reign in us forever,

            Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.


By Thine own eternal Spirit

            Rule in all our hearts alone;

By Thine all sufficient merit

            Raise us to Thy glorious throne.


            For it is there, at Christ's glorious throne, where we may still find Mary and Elizabeth, blessed among women. There, at the foot of the throne of God, Mary still ponders these things in her heart, ever the mystic mother. And there, by her side, we may imagine, is Elizabeth, the wise old woman whose immortal body shines like the sun and will never fade away. These two women, blesssed among women, point us the way home. Show us the way down the narrow path to salvation. Draw us onward in the inner journey toward the effervescent flaming throne of God that is surrounded by the blazing violet fire of the Holy Spirit. There, at the foot of that throne, is where we want to be on this Christmas Eve.

            Mary and Elizabeth, blessed among women, friends, relatives, strong and loving mothers, show us the way to God's throne, to God's very presence. It is the way that we already know. It is the way that begins with birthing a child in a manger in an obscure town in the Middle East. It is the way that produces one son who lives like a desert hermit and another son who is accused of partying with prostitutes. It is the way that rears one son to be a prophet and another son to be the King of Israel. It is a way of great joy in watching these sons grow in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. It is a way of great sorrow for Elizabeth when her son, John the Baptist, is beheaded by Herod the Great and his head presented on a platter to a woman of power and questionable morality. It is a way of sorrow for Mary as she stands at the foot a crucifixion scene in which her son plays the role victim while he is mercilessly ridiculed by a crowd of religious leaders and foreign soldiers of the occupation forces.

            Mary and Elizabeth, blessed among women, bless us with the joy that come from watching the children grow. Mary and Elizabeth, blessed among women, help us accept the pain that comes from watching our child suffer. Mary and Elizabeth, help us to experience the joy that comes from transcending all human pain and being reunited with God in this life and in the life to come. Mary and Elizabeth, blessed among women, move on over a little bit and let us sit down beside you — there, where you are, at the foot of the throne of the everliving God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — for there is a Christ-child waiting to be born in our hearts today.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Showing Gratitude for God's Sunrise

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 1:68-79
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on December 10, 2006.

Early Wednesday morning as I was walking my dog, Pal, I noticed across the field a beautiful stream of gleaming sunlight break through an opening the thick dark clouds. The hole through which the sun shone looked like an eye in the sky. It seemed as if the eye of God was looking at me and the energy of the light of God's eye filled my being. I was grateful to God for filling me with God's light. Gratitude is the natural response when you see God's sunrise.

Our Bible story this morning is a story of the coming of God's sunrise. The people of Israel had been dwelling in the darkness of oppression and the misery of domination by the Roman government. They were looking for a savior to free them from Caesar's mighty hand. The family of King David in particular were expecting God's salvation to come to the world through their family. They looked forward to one of their kinfolk leading them to salvation. When that savior was born into their family, they would be grateful for God's sunrise dawning upon their nation.

So it was that into the family of King David in Israel were born two young boys: Jesus and John who would later be known as John the Baptizer. These two little cousins were born to families of faith amidst great expectation for the salvation of their people. Today we will ponder the birth of John the Baptist. The story of the birth of John the Baptist is a story of God's sunrise coming into the world.

The story begins with John's father, Zachariah, who worked as a priest in the temple. Let's set the scene. An angel announces to a priest, Zechariah, that he and his wife will have a son. Zechariah laughs at the divine messenger because his wife is too old to conceive a child. As punishment for his lack of faith the angel makes Zechariah mute so that he cannot speak from the next nine months until his son is born.

Finally, Zechariah's son is born and he is brought by his family to his circumcision and his naming ritual. The family and friends gathered for this happy occasion expect the child will be named Zechariah, Jr. or some other family name. But Zachariah's wife says the child will be named John. Zechariah is asked what he wants the child named and he writes on a piece of paper: "John." Then the Lord opens Zechariah's mouth and he breaks forth in a song that is a blessing, a berakah in Hebrew or a benedictus in Latin, the official language of the ruling class.

Now Zechariah takes center stage and breaks forth into song about the birth of his son, John, a child who will come to be known as John the Baptist, the messenger who prepares the way for Jesus Christ. Zechariah's song begins in Latin Benedictus Dominus Deus Israel ("Blessed be the Lord God of Israel"). Thus it is called "The Benedictus" which in Latin means "the blessing."

Listen to Zechariah's blessing upon the naming and circumcision of his son, John, and see if you can feel the sense of gratitude with which it is delivered:

Through the heartfelt mercies of our God,
God's Sunrise will break in upon us,
Shining on those in the darkness,
those sitting in the shadow of death,
Then showing us the way,
one foot at a time,
down the path of peace.

Zachariah was so grateful for the birth of his son. For this child represented more to his father than just the long awaited birth of his firstborn son. This child represented to his father, the temple priest, God's sunrise shining on the people Israel. Zachariah's gratitude was the gratitude of a father for the birth of a son and the gratitude of a priest for the coming of a prophet who would herald the savior Jesus Christ, who was also coming into the world.

Zachariah's son, John, was not the savior. As John would later say of himself, "There is one who comes after me. He is the savior who was promised. I am not worthy to untie his sandal. I baptize you with water but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." John the Baptist knew that Jesus was God's sunrise, God's smile, God's loving forgiveness, spread upon the earth like sunlight from the morning sun.

Gratitude is the key that unlocks the  experience of God's sunrise in our lives. We have much to be grateful for today as individuals and as a congregation. We are grateful to those who serve our congregation with dedication, effectiveness and humility. In particular we are grateful for our church secretary, Marilyn Elliott, who will now be moving on to bless another church with her loving service. We are grateful to those who bless our community such as Robin and Michael Fair who have brought us such pride through their work with the young people on the South Panola football team.

Advent is a season of preparation for God's sunrise in our deepest heart. Yes, Advent is a time for gratitude and we are most grateful for the birth of God's Son, Jesus Christ, who is God's true sunshine that breaks upon us and gives us hope and joy. We come this morning to express our gratitude to those who serve us well. We come to say thanks to Marilyn and Michael and their families. We come to worship God and give thanks. We express our gratitude also through our giving and Advent is certainly the time of year to be giving to the church so that we can pay our bills and meet our responsibilities and continue to serve the God who brings sunshine into our lives.

When we express gratitude we experience God's Sunrise breaking in upon us. May God's Sunrise shine a light into the darkness of our sin, revealing those areas of our heart where we experience lack of awareness. May God's Sunrise shine a light into the darkness of our despair, showing us that we are not alone but that at the center of the universe is the beating heart of God's love which draws us into the light of God's love. May God's Sunrise shine a light on those sitting in the shadow death, illuminating their sorrow and drawing them back onto the path of life.
Then may God show us the way, one foot at a time, down the path of peace. One step at a time is all the light God gives us. We can't see where the path ends. We can't see where the path will take us next year or even next month. But we can see enough light to take one more step. One more step down the path of peace. That is all God asks us to take. One more step. One more step.
We can't jump ahead on this path. We can't solve all the problems of the world in one fell swoop. We can't feed every hungry person. We can't cloth every naked person. We can't give a Christmas toy to every child who has none. But God doesn't ask us to meet every need. God just asks us to take one more step down the path of peace. One more step, give a coat. One more step, give a toy. Give a coat or a toy as a sign of God's coming kingdom. God's kingdom isn't here yet. But it has come in some measure in the coming of Jesus Christ and it will come even more when Jesus comes again. In the meantime, let us take one more step, just one more step down the path of peace.

Our task and our joy is to be presenting God' sunrise through our attitudes and actions. Like Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of John the Baptist, we are bringing God's sunrise into the world through our worship, singing, ringing and service of God in the world. God's Sunrise shines on us and through us. We are showing God's sunrise every moment of every day. Our very being functions as a holographic mirror of God's sunrise.

We are grateful for God's sunrise. We are grateful for women and men like Elizabeth and Zechariah who rear their children in the faith. We are grateful for prophets such as John the Baptist, who pave the way for God's sunrise. We are grateful that God's sunrise breaks through the darkness of our unawareness, mindlessness, and carelessness. God's sunrise comes to us and enlightens our lives. We are grateful for God's Sunrise in the form of Jesus Christ. God's sunrise will shine in our hearts as we show gratitude for all God's blessings and especially as we show gratitude for the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ into our world and into our hearts.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Now or Never

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on Luke 21:25-36
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on December 3, 2006.

       A young man wanted to attain spiritual enlightenment so he joined a Zen Buddhist monastery. The rules of the monastery were very strict. The young man's teacher put him in an intense training program as if he were a spiritual athlete, the young man was made to study and meditate for hours every day. Furthermore, the young student was to be silent 24 hours a day and 364 days a year. He was allowed to speak to his spiritual teacher only once a year and even then he was allowed to say only five words.

       At the end of his first year of study and silence the young student finally got to see his teacher. After careful consideration, the student's chose to say, as his five allotted words, "The food here is terrible." His spiritual teacher did not respond and the student returned to his little room for another year of solitude and study. The food did not improve.

       At the end of his second year the student eagerly visited his teacher and spurted out his allotted five words, saying, "My bed it too hard." His teacher did not respond and the student returned to his tiny room for another hard year of silent study. His bed remained hard.

       The third year was very grim for the student and when it finally ended he had his conference with his teacher and he told the teacher, "This regiment is impossible. I can't take it any more! I quit!"

       His teacher replied: "I'm not surprised to hear you say that. All you've done since you got here is complain."

       Imagine limiting yourself to only five words per year and then getting a chance to speak to someone you admire and tell them your five words. Imagine how alive you would feel when you finally got your chance to speak your words. Think of how focused in the moment you would feel. Your hands would be tingling from nervous excitement. Your heart would be aching for the opportunity to finally communicate what you have been thinking for the past twelve months. You would come to that moment with a great sense of anticipation and laser like focus. Extraordinarily gifted athletes and musicians speak of playing in "the zone." You would be in that zone when you came to speak to your teacher. The sense of aliveness you would feel in that moment is what Jesus experienced in every moment of his life and that is what he wants us to experience.

       The young Zen student sought enlightenment. I have recently come to an enlightenment of my own. As if a light had been turned on in my mind, I now understand that I have spent a great part of my life living in unreality. By that I mean I have lived much of my life in a make believe place called "the future." I was rarely able to enjoy the present because I was thinking about the future. However good the present moment may have been I often threw it away and instead put my attention on all the possible problems I imagined I may encounter in the future.

       Other people, perhaps you are one of them, err in the opposite direction. They live their lives in the past. Alabama Coach Mike Shula was having a terrible week after losing to Mississippi State in football this season. The Alabama fans and supporters were questioning  the young coach about losing the game and he was having trouble putting the game behind him. He needed to put the game behind him so he could focus on the upcoming game. In desperation, Coach Mike finally called on his father seeking advice and his father, legendary Coach Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins, told his son, "You can't change the score." Those are words of wisdom for those of us who have trouble letting go of the past. You can't change the score. Whatever it is from the past that keeps you from living in the present -- let it go. You can't change the score.

       Our challenge is to live our lives neither in the future nor in the past but in the present moment. Our state championship football team just ended their fourth consecutive season with a 15-0 record. They accomplished this amazing feat by playing their season one day, one practice, one game at a time. That is the secret to success. Focus on the present moment. What are you lacking in this moment? Nothing. We lack nothing in the present moment. Focus on the present moment. Whatever you are doing do it with all your attention. If you are driving, drive. If you are walking, walk. If you are praying, pray. Only this. Nothing more. That is what Jesus is teaching us this morning.

     As Jesus puts it: "Be alert at all times." Let's begin this practice this morning as we partake of the Lord's Supper. Let us eat this bread and drink this cup fully awake to the presence of Christ in this sacrament. Let us focus our attention like a laser beam on this single moment as a sign of our intention to live each moment in the present tense. As it was for Jesus, so it is with us, it's now or never. We can't change the score. The past is gone and the future is beyond our grasp. All we have is this present moment. We begin the Christmas season with the intention to live each moment in "the zone," wide awake, in the moment, fully open to God. It's now or never. Those are the only two options we ever have. We choose now. We choose now. We choose Christ right now.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Daniel's Vision

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on November 26, 2006

Daniel describes judgement day in the celestial courtroom. An angel brings out a magnificent throne and sets it in place. Then another throne is brought out and set in place. Soon to follow was another throne and another throne after that until finally four thrones are placed in a circle. The thrones are set in place and the elders take their seats. Yet they are not the focal point of this vision. The interplay of light and shadows pulls our eye elsewhere until we notice there in the middle of the circle stands another throne. This one is different from the others. It is ablaze with fire. The throne in the center has wheels like a war chariot. The wheels, like the chariot itself, are burning fire. And as we watch we see an Ancient One take his throne; his clothing is white as snow, and the hair of his head is like pure wool. The color white has always symbolized holiness. God, the Holy One of Israel, as we might expect is dressed in a clean white robe. Even the Lord God's hair communicates holiness for it is white like wool. This Holy one of Israel, He is able to take His seat on the flaming throne of justice.

Now Daniel looks around the celestial courtroom and notices the attendants of the Lord. In his vision, Daniel saw that thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. They are God's holy angels and ten thousand times ten thousands, one hundred million angels await God's command. When the verdict is read, when judgment is pronounced, the angels will carry out the sentence. What a glow of heavenly light there must have been surrounding the twenty-four thrones and the Ancient of Days. What a vision of power. It leaves us flabbergasted.

The scene is now set and the action begins. The court is seated and the books are opened. Envision the Lord God putting a hand on the cover of a book and slowly the book is opened. The book contains the irrefutable evidence of peoples' lives. Not a word has been unheard not a thought has been left unrecorded. Now the vision turns from awe into fear. An awesome God, seated in a flaming chariot, surrounded by powerful angels and he has the unedited book of people's lives. That book will be opened. The evidence will be presented. It will be admitted. Based on that evidence an eternal, non-pardonable, irrevocable verdict will be rendered. At this point we may feel a sense of fear arising in the pit of our stomach. None of us wants to be judged and especially not by God. If that was the final thing Daniel had to say we would leave here in fear and trembling because there is none of us who is perfect. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Just when we are falling into fearful despair another character appears in the vision.

This one looks like a human being and we recognize this person as Jesus Christ our Lord.

When we see Jesus in the celestial courtroom we immediately remember another vision of Jesus before a throne. There are two characters in this vision. There is Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea. And there is Jesus Christ, described in the previous vision as "one like a human being."

Pilate walks back into the palace and calls for Jesus. He says, "Are you the 'King of the Jews'?"

Jesus answers, "Are you saying this on your own, or did others tell you this about me?"

Pilate says, "Do I look like a Jew? Your people and your high priests turned you over to me. What did you do?"

"My kingdom," says Jesus, "is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."

Then Pilate says, "So, are you a king or not?"

Jesus answers, "You tell me. Because I am King, I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice." (John 18:36-37, MSG & NRSV)

We see Jesus on trial before a Roman Governor. And the eternal judge, Jesus, will be tried and sentenced and crucified for our sins so that when we stand before Jesus and he sits on the throne of judgement, and the book of our life is opened, and Jesus calls our name, and we dare to glance up into his eyes, we will see there only love. Only love. And we will walk away free men and free women. The good news of the gospel is that the cards are stacked in our favor. When it comes to judgement day, the Lord God is dealing from a stacked deck and the cards are stacked in our favor. Our judge is named Redeemer!

Here at the end of the church year, after living through another cycle of hearing the story of Jesus' life, of being taught by him in miracle and parable, we come to the end of another cycle of the liturgical year. After another year of living our lives, burying our dead, baptizing our babies, struggling and thriving, we bring all of the year's experiences to the climax of this day. We lay it all back at the feet of Jesus, the one who stood trial for us so that when we are judged in the celestial courtroom we will stand a chance. Thanks to Jesus, our King and our Redeemer, we stand a chance we stand before the judgement seat of God.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A Temple in Transition

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 13:1-8
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on November 19, 2006

Stand on the Mount of Olives and look toward the city of Jerusalem. See the ancient stone wall surrounding the city. See the gold dome of the Muslim mosque called the Dome of the Rock that sits on the temple mount and dominates the skyline. Walk down the hill and across the valley, through the stone gates into the city of Jerusalem and find your way to the temple mount. See Orthodox Jews wearing their black suits with beards and black hats, swaying back and forth in their seats as they quietly sing the Psalms before the Wailing Wall which are the only stones left standing from the time of Solomon's Temple when many of the Psalms were written. Walk to the narrow passageway that leads up to the temple mount where the magnificent temple stood in Jesus' day. Notice the young Israeli guards swarming around the area like bumble bees with their submachine guns loaded. Walk up onto the temple mount and see the splendid golden dome and intricate design of the round Dome of Rock. Enter that mosque and there in the middle is a large stone where Mohammed is said to have ascended into heaven riding on a mighty steed.

What you will not see on the temple mount today is the magnificent Temple of Jerusalem that stood on this spot during Jesus' lifetime. Herod had begun remodeling this temple 20 years before Jesus was born and it was finally completed it 64 years after Jesus death. So throughout his entire life, the temple in Jerusalem was a work in progress. It was a temple in transition. This temple was 20 acres of white marble with some single stones 37 feet long several tons heavy. This magnificent temple was destroyed and burned to the ground by the Roman army when they stamped out the Jewish Maccabean Revolt only 6 years after the temple was completed. This magnificent temple was the inspiration for our scripture reading today. As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to Jesus, 'Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!' Then Jesus asked him, 'Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.'

Later, as they are sitting on the Mount of Olives, looking at the temple from a distance, the disciples ask when the destruction of the temple will occur. Jesus replies in apocalyptic language of death and destruction that applies as well to us as it did to them. In the 20th century 180 million people were killed in war. That equals nearly 5,000 per day. So every day during the previous 100 years, a group of people roughly equal to the population of Batesville were killed in war. Every single day. For 100 years. This is death on a scale we can hardly fathom. Jesus tells his disciples there will be wars and rumors of war.

More and more we are experiencing upheaval in nature. Hurricane Katrina recently wreaked havoc on our neighbors on the Gulf Coast. Just this week there was a 8.0 earthquake in Japan. The Darfur region of Africa continues to bleed and starve day by day. Earthquakes and famines. The whole world seems to be coming apart at the seams. We hear from scientists that there are holes in the ozone layer. Even Evangelical Christians are now concerned about the environment. As Thomas Friedman says about America, "Green is the new red, white and blue." That green signifies our need and desire to develop alternative energy sources that are cleaner and do less damage than the ones we have now. Envision our round blue earth as a temple and sometimes it seems as if the temple is being destroyed. Jesus says all these tumultuous events are but the beginning of the birth pangs. Paul will extend this image of birth pangs, saying, "The whole creation groans as it awaits rebirth." The temple of planet earth is in transition.

Jesus uses temple in 3 senses and in each case the temple is in transition. There is the temple in Jerusalem; the temple of the earth and the temple of our bodies. He said once, "Destroy this temple and in 3 days I will rebuild it." Those who heard it thought he was referring to the temple complex in Jerusalem but he was referring to the temple of his body. The Apostle Paul extends this image to include each of us saying, "Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit." There is one thing we know with certainty and that is that death always precedes resurrection. That is true for any kind of temple. Every temple is in transition.

Now don't be led astray by Jesus' apocalyptic language. Apocalyptic language is poetic, not scientific. Jesus is not providing a road map to the future. This is not an a.b.c. timetable of the last days but more a paint by the numbers portrait of the death and destruction that precedes the resurrection of any kind of temple. A retired First Grade teacher tells story of one of her First Grade students who was very proud of the watercolor finger painting he made during class one day. The next day the boy was frowning so hard the teacher noticed and asked him what was wrong. "You've got my picture upside down," said the little boy. That's what Jesus would say to some modern writers who want to factualize the artistic portrait of destruction Jesus paints in our text. "You've got my picture upside down."

Someone said a picture is worth a thousand words. That is the idea behind the spiritual practice of drawing and coloring a mandela. Mandala means mirror in the ancient Sanskrit language from whence it comes. A mandala is a  symbolic circular design that serves as a reflection of our spiritual journey at a particular point in time; similar to a photograph of what is going on in the inner spectrum of our consciousness if such a photograph were possible to take. Each mandala corresponds to a number from 1 - 12 in a circular design that correspond to the numbers on a clock. Each number on the dial signifies a different place in a person's spiritual development. Mandala #5 denotes destruction, completion of a cycle of growth, death. Mandala #6 means rebirth, a new cycle is beginning, resurrection. Jesus is speaking in our text today about Mandala #5, the mandala of death and destruction. This is a painful place to be. If you ever find yourself painting mandala #5 you will be coming from a painful place in your spiritual journey. But take heart, because after the mandala of destruction comes the mandala of new life, more thorough integration, resurrection, the beginning of a new cycle.

We are not painting a mandala today but we are participating in an act of representation. Our pledge cards serve as a type of measurement of where we are in the cycle of our spiritual development. Use this pledge process as a mandala, a mirror into your own soul, a photograph of where you are on your spiritual journey at this particular moment. Know that where you are today is not necessarily where you were this time last year or where you will be this time next year. For each of us is a temple of God in transition from one stage of spiritual growth to another like the minute hand on an old fashioned clock on the wall that passes each number on the dial in a never ending circle of life. If you find yourself today at mandala #5, feeling like your world is coming to an end; take heart, you will not remain in the graveyard of the soul. For after the mandala of death comes the mandala of resurrection. You will be born again to new life in Christ.

Monday, November 13, 2006


Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 12:38-44
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on November 12, 2006

Survey the New Testament and you will find Jesus and money mentioned 30 times in the gospels. The references begin with Jesus birth when Wise Men from the East presented gold to baby Jesus and perhaps were granted the blessed opportunity to hold him and kiss his tiny head. The references to money end when Judas Iscariot receives gold for betraying Jesus with a kiss. Money was an essential ingredient in Jesus' life and teaching.

Consider, for instance, the story of the widow's mite. The disciples and Jesus are in the temple in Jerusalem. They are in the part of the temple called the court of women. A crowd of people are standing in line waiting to put their offering in a trumpet shaped receptacle at the treasury. The scene looks similar to how it will look next week when you are standing in line waiting to put your pledge card in an offering plate on top of the communion table. Now Jesus does something extraordinary. He sits down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Remember that next week when you walk forward to put your pledge down. Jesus sat down in the temple in Jerusalem and watched what people were putting in the offering plate. He saw some rich people put in large sums of money. Then a poor window came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Suddenly Jesus jumped up and in his excitement he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." In short, the widow threw it all away and it made Jesus' day.

It made his day because Jesus practiced the same spiritual path as this widow. He practiced the path of kenosis, the path of self-emptying love. Jesus practiced self-emptying love from the moment of his conception in Mary's womb. In his life, Jesus horrified the prim and proper by dining with prostitutes and sinners, telling parables about extravagant giving; by teaching always and everywhere, "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth." John's disciples disapproved of him for drinking and banqueting; the Pharisees disapproved of him for healing on the sabbath. But he went his way, giving himself fully into life and death, losing himself, squandering himself, "gambling away every gift God bestows." Finally, Jesus practiced kenosis , self-emptying love, when he humbled himself and became unto death, even death on a cross. (For a fuller discussion of kenosis see Cythia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, pp 83-88)

There is another woman in the gospels who practiced the path of kenosis, the path of self-emptying love. Once, when Jesus was at Bethany, a guest of Simon the Leper, while he was eating dinner, a woman came up carrying a bottle of very expensive perfume. Opening the bottle, she poured it on his head. Some of the guests became furious among themselves. "That's criminal! A sheer waste! This perfume could have been sold for well over a year's wages and handed out to the poor." They swelled up in anger, nearly bursting with indignation over her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone. Why are you giving her a hard time? She has just done something wonderfully significant for me. You will have the poor with you every day for the rest of your lives. Whenever you feel like it, you can do something for them. Not so with me. She did what she could when she could—she pre-anointed my body for burial. And you can be sure that wherever in the whole world the Message is preached, what she just did is going to be talked about admiringly."(Mark 14:3-9, The Message)

A modern movie, Babette's Feast, illustrates the principle of kenosis . Babette is a famous chef in Napoleon's Paris when she has to flee the country due to being caught on the wrong side of a political debate. She flees to Denmark where she takes up residence with a couple of older widow women. These women run a small church of about 20 members that has been continually declining since their father, who had been pastor of the church, died. Babette gets involved with the little church and finds it to be full of bickering, dissension and unrest. One day Babette gets notice she has won the lottery back in France. Shortly thereafter she receives a check for one million dollars. She uses the money to throw an elaborate feast and cook up the finest food available on the planet. The conflicted congregation slowly melts into the moment and over the course of Babette's exquisite seven course meal a healing takes place between the members of the congregation. After the feast, the congregation assumes she will be leaving them since she is now rich. Babette says, "What? Leaving? Rich? I don't have any money. I blew it all on that feast I threw for you all. I'm not going anywhere." Thus does Babette practice the path of kenosis, self-emptying love, throwing it all away in service of others. This is the kind of extravagant giving Jesus practiced. Giving that is way beyond expectations. Beyond the call of duty. All encompassing giving. Time and talents and money. Cheerful giving. Radical giving.

We will each have the opportunity to bring the gospel to bear on our money in the coming wee. You will receive a letter from the church this week. The letter explores our stewardship theme, Noah's Ark, and asks for your commitment via the enclosed pledge card. As you consider your response to Christ's invitation to give, remember the widow in the temple. As you fill out your pledge card and bring it next Sunday for our stewardship dedication. Pray about your giving this week. Ponder the story of the widow in the temple. Remember the story Babette's Feast. Remember that hymn we sometimes sing, "Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe." Then you'll know what to give. It will be very clear to you.

Monday, November 06, 2006


Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 11:32-44
on November 5, 2006 at Batesville Presbyterian Church.

They were away from Bethany when Jesus told his disciples, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him." The disciples said to him, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right." Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, "Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was no there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him." Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." (John 11:10-15) So began a journey that would lead to the awakening of Lazarus.

The awakening of Lazarus was a life and death issue in more ways than one. First, of course, Lazarus was dead. He had been in the tomb for four days. This was not a case of a near death experience. He was so dead that his sister Martha was worried about the stench they would encounter if the tomb was opened as Jesus had ordered. Secondly, the scent of death was in the air in regards to Jesus and his disciples. For if Jesus did indeed raise Lazarus from the dead, such a public miracle only two miles from Jerusalem would be the last straw for the powers that be and they would almost certainly decide that Jesus must be killed if he took this fateful step.

So when Jesus makes it onto the scene, four days after the death of his good friend Lazarus, and after he cries with Lazarus's sister Mary, Jesus calls for the mourners to roll back the stone that covers the cave where Lazarus has been wrapped up like a mummy and laid to rest. This is a risky situation for Jesus. For if the stone is rolled away and Jesus calls Lazarus to rise from the dead and Lazarus does not come back to life then Jesus will look like a cheap magician who has lost his touch and who may then be discounted as a has been. On the other hand, if the stone is rolled away and Jesus does in fact raise Lazarus from the dead and does this on the home turf of his fiercest critics then that will likely be the last straw -- strike three -- and Jesus is likely to be murdered by the people in charge who will feel he has become too powerful and threatens their place in the sun. So Jesus is faced with a terrible double bind. Whatever he does will have negative consequences in some way. Jesus chooses to raise his dead friend back to life. He puts his friends concerns ahead of his own. This is typical of the way he lived. After Lazarus walks out of the tomb where he has been dead for four days, wrapped up like a mummy, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped with kerchief, Jesus says to them, "Unbind him, and let him go." Jesus takes the situation of his own double bind and uses it to unbind his friend Lazarus.

Many of the Jews standing there believed in him. But some of them went to the religious authorities and reported what Jesus had done, thus demonstrating how they were dead to the power of God as powerfully demonstrated through Jesus' bringing Lazarus back to life. The religious authorities called a meeting of the council, and said, "What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our temple and our nation." The religious authorities felt threatened by Jesus. They had some justification for their feelings. Jesus brought more to the game than they could handle. And, strangely enough, I think this is the key point of the text.

Roaches scatter when we turn on the light in the storage shed. They scatter because they fear the light. So some of the witnesses of the resurrection of Lazarus scattered after the event. They ran away from the light. Fear drove them away from Jesus and into the hands of the authorities. They were not awakened to the reality of God's power in Jesus. We wonder how such people could be so unaware and recalcitrant in the face of the power of God in Jesus. We wonder why the religious authorities turned against him. We wonder why the Romans crucified him. And as we wonder, we can hear Jesus speaking through his pain on the cross saying, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." They were unaware and Jesus recognized that and asked God to forgive them for that.

Think of the resurrection of Lazarus as being a parable in motion. This time instead of speaking a parable Jesus enacted it. He lived it out. Before beginning the journey to Lazarus's tomb Jesus told his disciples, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him." Jesus knew Lazarus was dead and plainly says so a few verses later. But his purpose, beyond literally raising Lazarus from the dead, was to enact a parable of awakening so that we would recognize the power of God available to us through Christ.

Jesus wants to awaken us. You may argue that we are already awake and you would be correct up to a point. We are awake enough to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, our Savior. But being awake is more than a belief that we come to hold. Being awake is an attitude that we take toward life. Being awake is a way of experiencing the world. It is a world-view. People can be asleep in the sleep of disbelief or the sleep of fear and so need to be awakened. And this awakening is not a one time shot. It's not that we awakened once and joined the church, were baptized, and from now on we are awake. There are different levels of being awake. There are different stages of understanding about God and ourselves and the world. Christian theology has a broad term for this unfolding of the spiritual life into ever greater spirals of love and devotion. Sanctification is our term for this awakening to Christ.

Today as we welcome new members into our congregation, we acknowledge their sense of spiritual awakening and we join them in opening ourselves to the power of Christ within. Also this morning, as we remember our dearly departed loves ones on this All Saints Day, we realize that our time is limited, our days are numbered, and we gain a sense of urgency in the great task of sanctification. We don't take life for granted. We awaken to the precious quality of life. Jesus went to Bethany for the specific purpose of awakening Lazarus. When Jesus called his name, Lazarus came forth from the tomb. Listen carefully this morning and you may hear Jesus calling your name and challenging you to come forth from the tomb in which you have been sleeping. Our appropriate response is clear. Like Lazarus, all we have to do is respond to Jesus voice, awaken from our slumber, and walk out of the tomb. Jesus is standing there waiting for us. Let us not make him linger.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Blind Recognition

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 10:46-52

at Batesville Presbyterian Church on October 29, 2006


            A blind beggar sat on the side of the road just outside the ancient city of Jericho with a cloak over his shoulders and a cup in his hands. The cloak was for warmth and the cup was for begging. The blindness was for his sins. Or so thought his family, his village and his people. He was considered to be cursed by God. Blind. Beggared. Thrown away. Alone. The system was not working for Bartimaeus son of Timaeus. But Bartimaeus did have two things that served him well. He had faith and he had hope.

            Bartimaeus was ecstatic when he learned Jesus would be passing his way. He had heard about Jesus perhaps from a member of Jesus family. He knew Jesus was from the royal family, the lineage of King David of old. And Bartimaeus had heard that Jesus was not only a member of the ancient royal family of the Hebrews but that he was the very one, the very Messiah that the prophets had foretold. This Jesus was the Son of David, the ruler of Israel, the one who would return the downtrodden nation to glory. As the Hebrews of old who were enslaved by Pharaoh in Egypt, so the Hebrews of Jesus' day were calling out to God for deliverance. And just as God had heard and answered their prayer by sending them Moses to deliver them from Egypt and Pharaoh so God was hearing their prayer now and sending them Jesus to deliver them from Rome and King Herod. The blind man would love to join the cause of the Messiah, to march with him in the great stride toward triumph over Rome. If it meant his death in battle, little did he care about that. For he had suffered these many years the disdain and disgrace of blindness which in his culture and to his people meant that Bartimaeus had sinned against God and was worthy of the punishment of blindness. Only later would Bartimaeus learn that Jesus was a different kind of king than he had imagined.

            Even though he was blind Bartimeaus reconized the identity of Jesus as the Messiah. So when he heard Jesus was coming down the road he began to shout and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Bartimaues begged Jesus for mercy.

            Last week a middle-aged man whom I had never met walked in the church and caught me in the hallway. I could tell from his body language he wanted something even though it was not a good time for me. It was lunch time and I was headed out the door when he caught me in the hallway and demanded some attention. The man said he was seeking money for a doctor. He had been getting treatment for his back at the emergency room but was now getting scolded for doing so. He needed to be under the care of a physician but without $80 or $100 he could not get in to see a doctor. He had applied for disability but it would not come through until next year. He had no insurance. He had no money. He had no doctor. He had no access. The system was not working for him.

            I told him our church offers two things and two things only: Gasoline or food. I could send him to Rascal's gas station if he needed gas for his car or he could come to the food pantry if he needed food. He said he did not need gas and he had already been to the food pantry earlier that morning. Like blind Bartimaeus this man was begging for help and like Bartimaeus he was crying out to me, a representative of the church, a disciple of Jesus, "Have mercy on me."

            I wanted to hush him up like the crowd wanted to hush Bartimaeus. We do not want to hear from people whose lives are not working for them. We think of poverty as a curse from God and we wonder what these people did to be so damned by the divine. We do not want to know about people for whom the system is not working.

            So it was for Bartimaeus that, as he shouted loudly, many in the crowd tried to hush him up, this blind beggar, this man whom God had cursed, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" This was his one chance in life and he would not be denied an audience with Jesus. His faith and his hope rose like a powerful wave that crashed over his tongue and he cried out as loudly as he could: "Son of David, have mercy on me!"

            Jesus stopped in his tracks. He crowd stopped in their tracks. There was a hushed silence as the sound wave from the shouts of the blind man cleared the air. "Call him over" said Jesus.

            They called him. "Get up old man. This is your lucky day! Get up! He's calling you to come!"

            Bartimaeus leaped to his feet and threw off his cloak. He would find it later with his own two eyes. He came to Jesus with eager expectation.

            Jesus said: "What can I do for you?" Although it seemed obvious that the man wanted to be healed of his blindness, Jesus wanted to hear his intention. If he was cured then he could no longer be a beggar. Some people become habituated with their role in life even if it is the role of a beggar. They fear change and do not want to be cured. 

            The blind man said to Jesus, "Rabbi, I want to see." He knew the implications. He was aware of the potential downside of even such a positive change as being cured of blindness. He wanted it anyway. He wanted to see.

            "Go on your way," said Jesus. "Your faith has saved and healed you." Jesus saved him from his shame by restoring his dignity in the eyes of the community. Jesus healed him by curing his blindness.

            In that very instant he recovered his sight and followed Jesus down the road. This was what Bartimaeus wanted. He wanted to be able to see so he could join the cause of the Messiah. He followed Jesus down the road ready to live or die for him.

            Bartimaeus recognized Jesus. He knew his true identity. Even though he was blind he could see clearly that Jesus was the Son of David, the Messiah promised of old. Bartimaeus recognized Jesus. And Jesus recognized Bartimaeus. Jesus stopped walking when he heard Bartimaeus' cries. He heard him crying out for the Messiah as God had heard the children of Israel crying out for a savior in Pharaoh's Egypt. Jesus recognized Bartimaeus. Here was a true believer. Here was a person of hope. Here was a person of faith. Here was a person who could see without eyes.

            My encounter with the man seeking money for a doctor did not come to such a dramatic conclusion. I did not solve his problem. I did not cure his illness like Jesus cured Bartimaeus. But I did recognize the man who came to the church seeking help. I did recognize him as a human being like me. I did recognize him as a child of God. I saw Christ within that man. And from the way he looked me in the eyes, I think he knew that I recognized Christ in him. And I think he recognized Christ in me. So even though he did not receive money for a doctor he was recognized by a person who represented Christ to him. And that may have been miracle enough for him for that one day. I hope it was. I pray it is.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Moving on Up

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 10:35-45
 at Batesville Presbyterian Church on October 22, 2006.

One day two disciples approached Jesus to ask a favor. James and John had reason to believe Jesus would consider their request for they, along with Peter, were the elite among Jesus' disciples. James and John were brothers, sons of Zebedee, whose family could afford to hire servants. (Mark 1:20) Jesus had nicknamed the brothers "Boanerges," meaning "sons of thunder."(Mark 3:17 ) Only Peter and they were present at some key events in Jesus' ministry such as the raising of Jairus's daughter (Mark 5:37) and in the Garden of Gethsemane with where Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss (Mark 14:33). Only Peter and they joined Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration where they saw their Master transfigured before their very eyes and witnessed him discoursing with Moses and Elijah. (Matthew 17:1-3) Only Peter and they had witnessed these things. James and John belonged to the inner circle of Jesus' disciples.

Now these sons of thunder, James and John, were ready to move on up so they tested the limits of what Jesus could offer. The sons of thunder made their move for authority over the twelve disciples and this included dominance even over Peter. Their ambition reached way beyond the group of Jesus' disciples and included all the angels in heaven and all human beings in heaven and on earth. They had their eyes on the prize and as children sometimes shout to one another, "That's mine; I called it first," they beat the other disciples to the punch. Their request to Jesus was simply this: "Arrange it so that we will awarded the highest places of honor in your glory--one of us on your right, the other at your left."

I have in the past considered the disciples as rustic fishermen who were not too bright. They are often portrayed in such a negative light in the gospels. But I have lately come to appreciate the disciples as very advanced beings who were chosen by Jesus because he recognized their spiritual potential. Their level of commitment was complete. Each of the twelve disciples had left everything behind to follow Jesus. Yet sometimes even spiritually advanced persons must find the edge through experience, through trial and error. The sons of thunder requested this from Jesus: "Arrange it so that we will awarded the highest places of honor in your glory--one of us on your right, the other at your left."

Jesus plays the adult to the disciples childish grasping for ultimate power. Jesus said, "You have no idea what you are asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink, of being baptized in the baptism I'm about to be plunged into?"

"Sure," they said. Why not? And they were telling the truth. James was martyred by decapitation at the command of Herod Agrippa I. (Acts 12:2) We are not sure how John died but his commitment to Christ is beyond question. They were indeed capable of drinking the cup of suffering that Jesus drank and of being baptized into his death and resurrection. They were ready to suffer for Christ. Even so, Jesus hesitated.

Jesus said, "Come to think of it, you will drink the cup I drink, and be baptized in my baptism. But as to awarding places of honor, that's not my business. There are other arrangements for that." They were asking for more than even he could give.

When the other ten disciples heard of this conversation they were outraged and they confronted James and John. How dare you single yourselves out? Who chose you as our ruler? Jesus got them all together to settle things down. Then he used this teachable moment to share his vision of moving down in service to others.

"You've observed how godless rulers thrown their weight around," he said, "and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It's not going to be that way with you." This is a hard truth that seems to work against the very fiber of our existence. We want the best seats at the football stadium. We want the head table at the charity ball. We want to be the queen in the homecoming parade. Moving on up. That is what we have been trained to do and moving on up is a natural human desire. We want more and Jesus is not against our having more. He once said: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things you desire will be added unto you." (Matthew 6:33) He also said whoever wants to be great must become a servant and the greatest of all will be the servant of all.

Jesus demonstrated the balancing act between moving up and moving down. His very birth, his incarnation, his coming down from heaven to be born as a human being, is the ultimate example of moving down in service. We remember during the season of Advent how Jesus moved down from heaven into human birth on planet earth. We remember during Lent Jesus' ministry of teaching and healing and feeding as a demonstration of moving down into servanthood. In the Apostle's Creed we say of Jesus, "He descended into hell." His servant nature took Jesus all the way down into the desperate depths of human experience. Jesus moved down as a servant of humanity.

He also moved up. He referred to the cross as being lifted up, saying: "When I am lifted up on the cross I will draw all people to me." He was lifted up he ascended into heaven. And that ascending into heaven part is what James and John, the sons of thunder, had in mind when they asked to sit at his right hand and his left hand in his glory.

As we begin this stewardship season our desire is for our church to move on up. We would like to upgrade our facilities, hire a full-time Director of Christian Education, provide programs for our children, youth and adults. But as we're desiring for our church to move on up, Jesus reminds us of the need to move on down. Down to where the need is -- beyond the hallowed walls of our sanctuary and out into the community. "Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave." And he didn't just say it, Jesus lived it. He came to serve, not to be served -- and he demonstrated the meaning of serving others in both his life and his death.

Let us follow the exampls of our Lord by moving on up in our relationship with God and moving on down as servants of others. This balance between moving up in spiritual development and moving down in service to others is one of the keys to life in God's realm. May God grant us the wisdom to find the balance between improving our own situation and serving the needs of others.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Utter Surrender

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 10:17-31
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on October 15, 2006.

       We're rich! I discovered I was rich a few years ago when I came across a British website soliciting funds for charity. There was a place on the website to input your annual salary and see where you fit in financially compared to everyone else in the world. Imagine my surprise when I typed in what I considered to be my modest annual salary and clicked the "enter" button and discovered I was richer than 99.2% of all people in the world! The numbers were staggering. There are 5,947,438,586 people poorer than me. Close enough -- let's call it 6 billion people who are poorer than me. Even allowing for the possibility the numbers may be off a bit you get the point. (And the point is not, as one woman said when I mentioned this in a Bible study: "Jon, we pay you too much!" The fact is that many of you make more money and have more assets than me.) The point is you and I are among the richest of the rich in the world. We are richer than 99% of the world's population.

I make this point to help us avoid the first mistake we usually make when we hear the story for today. Jesus starts talking about the how hard it is for the rich person to enter God's realm and we immediately start thinking of people who have far more money than we do – millions of dollars more than us -- and we admire Jesus for showing them where it's at. Let's not make that mistake today. This is a text that speaks directly to each one of us. So let us listen carefully and hear what Jesus will say to us in this story.

       As Jesus is setting out on a journey, a man runs up and kneels before him, and asks him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" At the end of the story we  will learn he  is a rich man. This man is not trying to trick Jesus as is sometimes the case with some other questioners. He is sincere. I think he knows enough to realize that eternal life is here and now, where one is, not in some future time or place. And this eternal life is what he seeks.

       Jesus replies to the man's question about eternal life: "You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.'"

The rich man tells Jesus: "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." Envision this man's inner and outer life as a castle he has built by the strength of his will. Everything inside him makes sense. His actions are wed to his beliefs. His convictions are manifest with concrete actions. This man is a sincere seeker. He has lived right and done well his entire life but something is still missing. His life is off center. Something is slightly askew and he is spiritually sensitive enough to feel this imbalance in his very joints and bones.              

            Jesus, looking at him, sensed a kindred spirit. Jesus, too, had kept all the commandments since his youth and he knew the level of dedication it takes to keep the commandments not only in actions but in intentions. Jesus looked him hard in the eyes--and loved him. He recognized the dedication in this man. He saw his sincere desire to love and serve God. He sensed a kindred spirit.

       In answering his question about how to inherit eternal life, it is significant that Jesus says nothing about the man's beliefs. Sometimes we miss the mark when we conceive Christianity as primarily a matter of right belief. We think if we can say the Lord's prayer and the Apostle's Creed and really mean it then we've got Christianity under control. But Jesus says nothing about beliefs. This is not a mental challenge. It is deeper than the mind can take us. The challenge is to a practice not a belief. Jesus says: "You lack one thing. Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor. And come follow me." (Mark 10:21)

      Aside from the obvious challenge of organizing a garage sale of all his possessions and giving the proceeds to the poor, Jesus is asking the rich man to surrender his inner vision of reality. Jesus challenges him to tear down his interior castle and start with nothing in the  bank, nothing held in reserve through complete and utter surrender to Jesus.

       This dramatic story reminds me of another spectacular story told in a book called The Golden Legend. Here is the story.


Saint Dionysius, first bishop of Paris, was beheaded with the sword before the statue of Mercury, confessing his faith in the Holy Trinity. And at once the body of Dionysius stood erect and took his head in its hands; and with an Angel guiding it and a great light going before, it walked for two miles, from the place called Montmartre to the place where, by its own choice and by the providence of God, it now reposes. (Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda aurea; trasl G. Ryan and H. Ripperger, The Golden Legend, New York, 1948, pp. 620-621; quoted in Meditations on the Tarot, Anonymous, 9-10)


            This remarkable story reminds me of the rich man seeking eternal life from Jesus. In both stories, someone needs to lose their head before they can get where they need to be. The rich man refuses to lose his head. He is caught up in his egoic consciousness, his sense of "I" and "me" and "mine" and he can not get beyond the mental level of consciousness to the more subtle level Jesus requires. The rich man cannot get beyond his mind. If only he could have figuratively chopped off his head like Saint Dionysius and stood up and walked under the power of the Spirit then he could have followed Jesus into the realm of God within. But the rich man could not. So his face clouded over and he walked away with a heavy heart. He was holding on tight to a lot of things, and not about to let go.

            Looking at his disciples, Jesus said, "Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who 'have it all' to enter God's kingdom?" The disciples couldn't believe what they were hearing, but Jesus kept on: "You can't imagine how difficult. I'd say it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to get into God's realm." (vs. 23-25)

            Now we understand, of course, the rich man did not sell all he had and follow Jesus and we sympathize with the rich man. Yet, as Peter points out, this is exactly what he and the twelve disciples had done. As Peter puts it to Jesus: "We left everything and followed you." If we, like the disciples, could move beyond our minds and be guided by the inward compass in our hearts, we could find our way to a place to lay down and die to our false selves so that our true selves could be birthed into the realm of God within. Then we could follow Jesus' directive to utterly surrender ourselves and all we possess and go follow Jesus.

            Death to the false self by the relinquishment of desires is the way into God's kingdom – God's realm within. The realm of God is here, now, within us. As Cynthia Bourgeault puts it: "The kingdom of God is not later but lighter." It is not "pie in the sky when I die" but a way of living our lives in this world. The realm of God is hard for us to enter because we are always distracted by our desires. So he says, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God -- God's realm within you -- and all these things will be added unto you." (Matthew 6:33) The realm of God within is a place few Christians manage to find. It is especially hard to find for rich people like us. So now we know the meaning of Jesus hard to swallow statement: "Many are called but few are chosen." (Matthew 22:14)

Remember the story of the man named Job in the Old Testament. He had everything including a beautiful wife, children, land and wealth and he sacrificed it all on the altar of God. After the trial, God restored everything back to Job and then some. Likewise, Jesus says to Peter and his disciples, "Mark my words, no one who sacrifices house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, land—whatever—because of me and the Message will lose out. They'll get it all back, but multiplied many times in homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and land—but also in troubles. And then the bonus of eternal life! This is once again the Great Reversal: Many who are first will end up last, and the last first." (Mark 10:28-31, The Message)

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Angels In-Between

Dr Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on October 8, 2006.

The seminary assignment was not unusual -- write a paper on a topic assigned by the professor -- but the topic was more personal than usual. "Do pets go to heaven when they die?" Our sources were a book assigned by the professor and the Bible. Using the book and the Bible I concluded that pets do indeed go to heaven when they die. It was a pass or fail course and I passed. As children we wonder what happens to our pets after they die and we wonder what happens to us after we die. We are told that we go to be with God in heaven with Jesus and the angels. From the Bible we see that heaven and earth are not so far apart for even here on the earth there are angels that make appearances.

In fact the Bible resounds with angel appearances. Whomever wrote the epistle to the Hebrews assumed readers were familiar with angels. As Bible students we know angels are spiritual beings from heavenly realms who serve as God's messengers to humans on earth. They appear in both the Old Testament and New Testament. For instance, an angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar and told her she would give birth to Ishmael who would be the progenitor of the Arab peoples from when comes Mohammad and the religion of Islam. An angel appeared to Abraham and prompted him to leave behind his current life and travel to the Promised Land and become the progenitor of the people of Israel.

We are accustomed to the thought of angels appearing within the Bible. The psalmist sang: "The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them." (Psalm 34:7) And again the psalmist sings: "For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways." (Psalm 91:11) In the book of Job we learn that angels served God before the creation of earth. At some point there was an angel rebellion led by a beautiful and intelligent angel named Lucifer. Many angels joined Lucifer's rebellion and he tricked other angels into following him into the darkness. The angels that remained with God in the light continued to worship God and work for God.

We read about angels in the New Testament. Jesus and his family was acquainted with angels. An angel appeared to his mother, Mary, and told her she would conceive a son who would be the savior of the world. An angel of the Lord appeared to his father in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit." (Matthew 1:20)

Angels helped Jesus to accomplish his mission on earth. When Jesus faced his darkest hour on the night before his crucifixion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed: "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done." An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:42-44) It was an angel that rolled back the stone of Jesus tomb and angels appeared to the women who were looking for Jesus in his tomb. The angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen." (Matt. 25:31) The Bible, both Old Testament and New Testament, acknowledges the existence of angels.

We acknowledge their existence in certain hymns of the church. We sing about cherubim and seraphim (these are types of angels), falling down before Him, God in three persons, blessed Trinity. We tend to think of angels as being higher than us and while we are on earth they are. But in the heavenly realms to which we are going we may be higher than the angels by virtue of our family connections. As Hebrews tells us, through our connection to Christ, we are members of the family circle of the Trinity. Christ considers us humans as brothers and sisters. So, by virtue of our adoption into God's immediate family, humans are higher than the angels.

Jesus Christ is also higher than the angels. That is the point our text wants to make. Our text today uses angels as a comparison device so we can appreciate the superiority of Christ. Christ is mentioned by various titles 23 times versus 10 mentions for angels. In this text, angels are described as winds and flames who worship God. Angels are spirits in the divine service, sent to serve human beings who are to inherit salvation. (Hebrews 1:14) But God did not put angels in charge of human salvation. That job belongs to Christ.

We humans wander through our earthly lives like wayfaring strangers. We are for a time lower than the angels but we are destined for glory and honor and all things will be subjected to humans. Of course we don't see it yet, we don't see everything under human jurisdiction, but according to scripture this will come to pass in due time. The human transition from our lowly status as earthlings to our exalted status as rulers in heaven is made possible through our family connection to Christ. We adopt creatures called pets into our family and we take care of them and they become a member of our family. God has adopted us into the family of the divine Trinity and we are members of the family of God.
We are members of God's family and we have tremendous power available to us. Power to heal our deepest hurts. Power to help us find the guidance we seek. Power to accomplish the mission for which we have been sent to this earth. Whether children, youth or adults, the power behind all creation stands ready to help us. We may call on a God when we need assistance, saying with the Psalmist: "O God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me." If we ask for their assistance, the angels stand ready to help us as well.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Zero Degrees of Separation

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 9:38-50
on October 1, 2006 at Batesville Presbyterian Church

       When the disciples told Jesus about an unauthorized person who was casting out demons in his name Jesus said, "Do not stop him. Whoever is not against us is for us." Jesus saw zero degrees of separation between his authorized and unauthorized disciples. The mistake of disciples then and now is to think we have a copyright on the powerful name of "Jesus." Christians are constantly struggling to determine the boundaries between who is "in" and who is "out" and Jesus is constantly redrawing the boundaries to include everyone. For Jesus sees zero degrees of separation between humans and God.
       Jesus challenges disciples to seek the same union with God he experienced. This union with God is a treasure that any person may seek and find but it is not an easy path and in fact it is very costly. We must be totally committed to this path to obtain union with God. So Jesus tells his disciples,

"If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed  — to obtain union with God in this lifetime with one hand missing — than to have two hands and live in hell — a state of separation from God.

And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life in God's kingdom lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell — to live in a state of separation from God in this lifetime.

And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for to achieve union with God in this lifetime with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell. For in hell — in the state of separation from God in this lifetime — the fire of your ego is never quenched.

     We can see the hell to which Jesus refers all around us: War, violence, greed, and destruction of the earth for profit. These are the way of hell on this earth. Jesus calls us to another path. He calls us to follow the inward path to the kingdom of God which is union with God in this lifetime. Much has been made of Jesus statements to cut off our hand or foot or cut out our eye. They sound like such radical solutions to a problem that we rarely experience. The cure is radical but so is the disease of following the ego. But the goal is so wonderful — union with God in this lifetime — that the level of commitment Jesus challenges us toward seems like it may be worth it. Imagine achieving a state of union with God in this life. Imagine living your life and experiencing each moment a sense of zero degrees of separation between yourself and God. That is the kingdom of God. That is what we are challenged to pursue.
       Now when we hear Jesus challenge us to a level of commitment that would cut off our hand if it held us back from union with God our ego kicks in and we resent the idea that Jesus would challenge us to such a high level of commitment. The ego feels threatened. By ego I am referring to the false self that abides in each of us. The ego — the false self — is the source of the thoughts that run constantly through our heads. The thoughts in our head come from our ego, not our soul. Jesus calls us to go deeper than our minds — to go down deep into our bodies — to the level of the soul. The ego — our mental jabber — will do anything to keep us from moving beyond it and going deeper into ourselves. The ego will keep us distracted from the deeper self by focusing on anything it can find — our past, our future, even the present moment if it can get us to find something to complain about in the present moment. The ego, our mental jabber, loves to complain about other people and also situations. We think we don't want to be where we are in life. We want to be somewhere else. Or perhaps we want to be someone else. We craze to be
recognized, acknowledged, remarked upon.
       Many people are always waiting for the next thing to react against, to feel angry about. Their anger and outrage is like a drug. They need a fix several times a day in order to satisfy their craving. This too is hell on earth for the person who lives it and for those who must live and work with this person. Complaining and craving for anger like a drug — this is our ego and this is what Jesus calls us to move beyond if we would enter what he calls "the kingdom of heaven" which is the realm of God tha lies within us.
       In contrast the cravings of the ego, Jesus calls us to walk the path of humilty. Humility is the key to power in the realm of God within us. In one of his parables, Jesus says, "When you are invited, go and sit at the lowest place ... for everyone who humbles himself will be exalted." Instead of trying to be a mountain, teaches the ancient Tao Te Ching, "Be the valley of the universe." In this way, you are restored to wholness and so "all things will come to you." (Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth, 216) Humility is what the disciples lacked in our lesson today. They felt themselves superioer to the unnamed disciple who cast out demons in Jesus' name. They rebuked him but Jesus encouraged him. The disciples got trapped in their ego and cut off from the power of humility.
       Humility is our lesson for the day on World Communion Sunday. As we join with disciples of all races and denominations from all over the globe we come to the communion table we acknowledge we do not have a trademark on truth. We do not have an exclusive contract with God. Jesus sees zero degrees of separation between East and West, Catholics and Protestants, Greek Orthodox and Syrian Coptic, Pentecostal and Presbyterian. Zero degrees of separation.        
       Jesus saw zero degrees of separation between his authorized and unauthorized disciples. Jesus sees zero degreees of separation from us and other Christians. Jesus offers to all the same bread and the same cup. Some religious leaders once asked Jesus to condense the entire Old Testament into one sentence and Jesus said this. Love God with all your heart and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. That means see yourself when you see your neighbor. For in the kingdom of God — in God's realm within — there is literally zero degrees of separation between any two human beings and between any human being and God. Zero degrees of separation.