Sunday, April 30, 2006

Beginning in Batesville

Luke 24:36b-48

Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Have you anything here to eat?" They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things." (New Revised Standard Version)


Beginning in Batesville

A single mother with a child has been standing in line for several hours in the summer heat. She finally gets to the handout counter where a middle-aged woman from Illinois gives her a packet that contains a comb, diapers, toothpaste, toothbrush, hand wipes, soap and a hand cloth. The single mother does not know that the packet was put together by a Presbyterian in Batesville, Mississippi. She does not realize that the woman handing her the package is a Presbyterian volunteer from Illinois who is staying in a tent village provided by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance through the One Great Hour of Sharing offering received by Presbyterian congregations all across the United States. All the single woman knows is that she and her three year old daughter will fall asleep under the stars feeling clean where they live in D'Iberville, Mississippi. This will be the first night in three weeks she will fall asleep feeling clean since Hurricane Katrina took away their home. The year is 2006 and the social gospel is still at work through Batesville Presbyterian Church and other Christians around the world.

Jesus told his disciples, "If I go to my Father then you will do the works that I have done and greater works than these shall you." And we wonder how the disciples will be able to heal the sick like Jesus does; and how the disciples will be able to raise the dead like Jesus does; and how the disciples will be able to preach the good news with authority like Jesus does. And we read in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament story after story about how they did it. Peter, the disciple who had betrayed Jesus three times on the night of his trial before Pilate, preaches to a crowd in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost and 3000 people are converted to the faith.

They were meeting in a well-lighted upper room. A young man named Eutychus was sitting in an open window. As Paul went on and on, Eutychus fell sound asleep and toppled out the third-story window. When they picked him up, he was dead. Paul went down, stretched himself on him, and hugged him hard. "No more crying," he said. "There's life in him yet." (Acts 20:-10, MSG)

Those who put their trust in the Master were added right and left, men and women both. They even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on stretchers and bedrolls, hoping they would be touched by Peter's shadow when he walked by. They came from the villages surrounding Jerusalem, throngs of them, bringing the sick and bedeviled. And they all were healed. (Acts 5:14-16, MSG) The social gospel at work in the lives of Jesus' disciples.

As Mississippians we are blessed here with a sense of place. We have deep roots here. We are grounded here in a way that is deeper than some other Americans in other places. My father tells the story of Sister Josie Andrews. Sister Andrews was a leader of the women's group at the Puckett Baptist Church in Puckett, Mississippi, where my father was reared. Puckett is in Rankin County just south and east of Jackson. Any time the brothers and sisters of Puckett Baptist Church would have a fellowship dinner, a dinner on the grounds as they called it, they would always call on Sister Josie Andrews to say the blessing. And every time Sister Josie said the blessing she would go at it hard and long in her talk with the Lord. And even though the content of her prayer would change each time it always ended the same way. Sister Josie always signed off her blessings like this: "Sister Josie Andrews, Route 3, Box 261a, Puckett, Mississippi." Sister Josie had a sense of place. She knew where she lived and she reminded the Lord of her exact address every time she prayed. We have a sense of place here and that is good.

We know the mindset and we practice it in the church. Our lives revolve around this sanctuary. We come here week after week to worship God. We bring our children here to be reared in the Christian faith. We baptize our babies here, marry off our daughters here, funeralize our dead here. Right here in this place. This is where it happens. God meets us here. The Spirit moves here. Our lives are somehow made right here in this place.

And Jesus takes that concept and turns it upside down. The risen Christ told his disciples they were to do like he did, proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins ... beginning from Jerusalem. And going out from Jerusalem. Out. Out. Out from here! Out from Jerusalem. Into the world. And so Christ says to us in regard to this sanctuary. "I am sending you out from this place to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins ... go and heal the sick, raise the dead, and proclaim the good news. Out. Out of this sanctuary. Out of our comfort zone. Out into the wild and needy world. To bear witness for Christ at the Piggly Wiggly store, at the high school, the daycare center, in our neighborhood, and throughout the world.

Jesus, too, had a strong sense of place. As a Jew his world revolved around the holy city of Jerusalem. Even after Jesus had ascended into heaven the work of the early church flowed out of Jerusalem. Again, we see Jesus turning things upside down. For before Jesus' arrival everything had flowed into Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the temple, the place where every Jew looked as a place of national pride, spiritual strength and solidarity. Three times a year each Jew would make a journey to Jerusalem to worship in the temple there. Everything revolved around Jerusalem. And Jesus took the Jewish sense of identity, their sense of place, and turned it around on them. Jesus told his disciples that up until now Jerusalem has been the place to which we all come to. But from now on Jerusalem will be the place from which we go out into the world in mission. That movement — not to Jerusalem but from Jerusalem — is the same movement the risen Christ is calling on us to make today.

And we are doing it. We are going out into the world in the name of the risen Christ. We are going out into Panola County when we open our church doors to the Panola County Food Pantry every Tuesday. We are going out into the world in the name of the risen Christ. We are going to the Mississippi Gulf Coast by purchasing hymnals for the Pascagoula Presbyterian Church. We are going out into the world in the name of the risen Christ. We are going out to the world when we send some of our own members on missionary trips to Honduras to distribute Bibles and provide dental help to the people there. We are going out into the world in the name of the risen Christ. We are witnesses of these things.

We are moving beyond our own comfort zone. We are moving outside the walls of this lovely sanctuary. We are moving beyond Church Street in Batesville. We are moving on. Beginning from Batesville. We are moving on.

Our body has to undergo a transformation in order to be habitable in our next destination which is the kingdom of heaven. But until we get to the kingdom of heaven we are to work to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth. This way of thinking is part of the prayer our Lord taught us to pray. "Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed by thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Think about the Lord's prayer. "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." Our job on this earth is to work to bring the kingdom of heaven into play on planet earth. It is a job that we are unlikely to complete in our lifetime. Yet this is our mandate. This is our great commission from the risen Christ.

We fulfill this prayer in a thousand different ways. We fulfill it through giving money to missions. We fulfill it through offering use of our church facilities to various community organizations. We fulfill it through going to exotic places such as Honduras and sharing the gospel there. We do good things all over the place in Jesus name. And what sets us apart in our good works is not so much the quality or quality of what we do but it in the one in whose name we do it.

Like Jesus disciples, we have experienced the risen Christ and we do our good works in his name. Whenever we serve a person in need we are serving the risen Christ. Jesus personalized our service to the world in Matthew 25 when he says,

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.'

We see the same sort of theme in our reading today in Luke 24. The risen Christ appears to the disciples and invites them to look at his hands and feet. "Touch me," he tells them. "For a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." And then he showed them his nail scarred hands and feet. The disciples were blown away, thinking, "This is too good to be true! He is alive!" Jesus says in his best Southern drawl: "Y'all got anything to eat around here?" Feed me! The risen Christ wants something to eat. And friends, he is still hungry today. He is hungry and he wants us to feed him. And they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence. The disciples literally fed the risen Christ. And so do we.

Let's keep feeding the risen Christ by feeding the hungry. Let's keep a roof over the risen Christ's head by giving the homeless a place to live. Let's give some relief to the shivering Christ by clothing the kids who don't own one single coat. Let's encourage the risen Christ by visiting the sick. Let's give hope to the risen Christ by calling on those in prison.

We are good here. Batesville is a good place. This is our home. This is our sanctuary. Even more than drawing people in here — Jesus wants us to go out to where the people are. Even more than giving to meet our church budget — Jesus challenges us to give more to a needy world. Batesville may be our Jerusalem. But Jesus challenges us to move out beyond our base. Out into the wild world. Working to bring the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Reaching the risen Christ by reaching out to others. Beginning now. Beginning in Batesville. Continuing in Biloxi, Baltimore, Beijing and Bangalore. Ending when the kingdom of heaven finally comes to this good earth.

Thanks be to God.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Declare Forgiveness

John 20:19-31 (NRSV)

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you." When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe."

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe." Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!" Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Declare Forgiveness

A sermon preached by Dr. Jon Burnham
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on April 23, 2006.

I declare to you, in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Saying that is one of the highlights of the service for me each week. It is such a relief that get it out in the open. After we've just confessed to sin on behalf of all humanity. Then to hear the blessed words ... I declare to you, in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. And the pastor is not the only one who gets to declare forgiveness. God calls each baptized Christian to declare forgiveness.

More than once someone has confessed to me that they have not done all the sins in the prayer of confession. So they wonder if they are being hypocritical by asking forgiveness for something they haven't done. I do not dispute the fact that some of the sins for which we ask forgiveness are sins that we have never committed. But I know someone, somewhere did commit that offense against and his or her neighbor. As Presbyterians, we understand that during the prayer of confession we are praying on behalf of all humans. We are like priests confessing sin on behalf of all humanity. Perhaps you've heard the term "priesthood of all believers." We believe each baptized Christian is a priest of God. So the prayer of confession is when all the gathered priests of God, all the baptized Christians gathered in a sanctuary on a Sunday, confess sin on behalf of the entire human race. We confess the sin of all humanity because human beings are sinful.

We are sinful in thought, word and deed. Jesus once told some Pharisees who were very careful never to sin by breaking any law that they didn't have to break the law in order to sin. You are as you think, said Jesus. You don't have to commit adultery with a woman in order to sin. Just imagining being with a woman other than your wife is sin enough in itself. You don't have to kill someone to be considered a sinner in God's eyes, Jesus said. Your mere anger toward another person is considered sin in God's eyes. So according to Jesus' viewpoint we are all sinners. We sin in thought, word and deed. We, as individual human beings, are sinners.

But that is not the end of sin. Sin is like the bird flu we keep hearing about. It spreads from one continent to the next, from one species to the next, and we aren't sure how to stop it. Sin is like that. It spreads from one continent to the next and one person to the next and we don't know how to stop it. We can't stop the spread of sin and we can't keep from getting the infection. And sometimes groups of people commit sin. Nazi Germany sinned, as a nation, against the Jewish people. The South African government sinned against black citizens of that nation through a policy called apartheid. We won't name examples of our own nation's sins but we know there are many. True, there are Christians in our country whose national and political loyalties causes them to overlook or deny our nation's moral failures.  Its injustices.  But we know better.  The realities of collective sin cannot be denied.

There is some good news here. There is some good news about sin. The good news is that Jesus practiced forgiveness of sins. You can see it in our text today. Just three days after he had been crucified on what we now call Good Friday, Christ arose from the dead on that first Easter morning. According to John's Gospel, it was Mary Magdalene who first encountered the risen Christ. And she told the other disciples who were huddled up in a safe house that she had seen the risen Christ. That night, the other disciples got the proof. For the risen Christ appeared to them. And what did the risen Christ say? Did he say, as he had reason to say, "What in the world have you people been doing for the last three days? I was taken captive in the Garden of Gethsemane and you all ran away like a bunch of scared chickens. Then I was tried by Pontius Pilate and you were nowhere to be found. I was nailed to a cross between two thieves and a few of you showed up to cry about it. Is that the best you could do?" No, the risen Christ did not "dress down" the disciples. Instead, the risen Christ built up the disciples. The first word the risen
Christ spoke to the scared disciples was not "Why!" It was "peace." Peace. Peace be with you.

Jesus comes to the disciples and offers the peace that comes from forgiveness. You may have felt that kind of peace before. It's the good feeling you get after an argument with your spouse, one that was your fault, and you ask for forgiveness and she or he says okay. That feeling of peace you get then is the kind of peace the disciples felt on that first Easter evening with the risen Christ.

But even beyond peace the risen Christ gives his disciples another gift.  The Holy Spirit. He breathes Holy Spirit onto them and into them. The comforter. Guide. Deliverer. Teacher. The gift that keeps on giving. The Holy Spirit. Which is the spirit of Jesus Christ. The risen Christ, in effect, gives the disciples his own spirit. He gives them the greatest gift they could ever get. This is three days after they fell asleep while he prayed in the garden. Three days after they denied ever knowing him. Three days after their betrayal. The risen Christ comes to the disciples and he gives himself to them in a deep and real and spiritually mystical way. Now that, my friends, is forgiveness. And that is Jesus. And that is the risen Christ. And that is what we are to declare.

We are to declare the forgiveness of Christ. As if we still haven't gotten it -- as if we may be dull of understanding -- John's Gospel immediately gives us another account that demonstrates the forgiveness of the risen Christ. It is the story of a disciple named Thomas. This story takes place one week after the risen, forgiving Christ, appears to the disciples. Thomas wasn't there when the risen Christ appears to the other disciples. And Thomas is not buying their story. It sounds too good to be true. Thomas thinks he knows better. He won't be taken in. He's thinks he's smarter than the average disciple. So he tells the other disciples, the ones who have seen the risen Christ, "Listen, until I have seen his nail scarred hands and put my hand in his sword pierced side, I don't believe it." Well, the risen Christ must have gotten word about Thomas, so one week later he appears to Thomas. And notice how Jesus responds to Thomas. Instead of renouncing his lack of faith, instead of accusing him of doubt, instead of insulting him for requiring evidence for himself, the risen Christ focuses his attention on Thomas and says: "Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don't be unbelieving. Believe." The risen Christ offers himself, exposes himself, and challenges Thomas to believe.

Thomas said, "My Master! My God!" I wonder if Thomas was more astounded by the fact that Christ was indeed risen or by the fact that the risen Christ forgave his doubt and accepted him as he was.

Jesus said, "So, you believe because you've seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing."

And that, my friends, is where we enter the story. We do not get to see the risen Christ with our own eyes on this side of heaven. But we do get to experience the risen Christ in a myriad of other ways. Through the Holy Spirit. Our conscience. Our spiritual sense. We get to experience the risen Christ when we barely survive an accident that could have killed us. We get to experience the risen Christ when we witness the birthing of a baby.  We get to experience the risen Christ in many ways the disciples never could because the risen Christ is with us through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus walked this earth with his disciples there were times when the disciples were not with Jesus and he was not with them. There were times, such as the time when the risen Christ appeared to the disciples, when all of them were not there. There were times when one of them, such as Thomas, was not present and so did not experience Christ. But now, through the power of the Holy Spirit, whose presence covers this globe like the oxygen we breathe, every Christian has access to the risen Christ 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The risen Christ is present to each of us in a way he could not be when he walked the earth in human flesh. The risen Christ is with us always and every moment of every day. Even to the end of the earth.

The risen Christ is all about forgiveness. And the risen Christ has commissioned us to declare forgiveness to all God's creation. Everything broken will be put back together again. Everything twisted and tied up in a knot will be unloosed by the loving hands of our divine creator. Everything that is cracked wide open will be glued back together, or better yet, transformed into something greater than it was before. That is true for us. That is true for all humanity. We declare forgiveness. We speak it. We breathe it. This is real and eternal life in the way the risen Christ personally revealed it. We'll give it away. It's too good to keep it to ourselves. Declare forgiveness. This the truth that shoves us forward and takes us places we never thought we would go. Declare forgiveness. This is the truth that shows us miracles we never thought were possible. Declare forgiveness.

Thanks be to God.


Sunday, April 16, 2006

Relationship and Resurrection

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

There is an old Arab parable about a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to the market one day. Before very long, the servant returned, white and trembling with fear. There was great agitation in his voice as he said: "Master, down in the market place I was jostled by someone in the crowd. When I turned around, I saw that it was Death who had jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Master," he said, "please lend me your horse, for I must hasten away to avoid Death. I will ride to Samara and there I will hide, and Death will be
unable to find me."

The merchant lent his horse and the servant galloped away in a great hurry. Later, the merchant went down to the market place and saw Death standing in the crowd. He went over to Death and asked: "Why did you frighten my servant this morning? Why did you make a threatening gesture?"

"That was not a threatening gesture," Death replied. "It was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight in Samara." (Five Minutes After Death, on-line sermon by Robert L. Allen)

Each of us has an appointment in Samara. We all realize that death is a realistic fact that comes to everyone. It comes to the king in his palace ... to the beggar beside the road ... and to the animal hiding in its hole. But what happens to us after death? Are we like candles blown out in
the wind? What happens to us after this life?

We talked about heaven during the Confirmation Class. In fact, the course began with a simulation game. One person got to sit in a special seat called the "throne of God" and pretend he or she was God. The rest of us got to ask God questions. It felt good when I got to pretend to be God. But I was relieved when I got to get off the "hot seat" and stop answering those hard questions. Hard questions such as why do some teenagers die in a car wreck? Why do some babies die during childbirth? Hard questions with no easy answers. Especially the
questions about death.

Today's words to us by the apostle Paul do not pretend to answer these hard questions. But they do put all such questions within the context of our Easter affirmation. Paul is talking about the
resurrection of Jesus Christ. He gives us a litany of people to whom Christ appeared after he died. Paul says the risen Christ appeared to Cephas ... then to the twelve ... then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time ... then he appeared to James
... then to the apostles ... and last of all, the risen Christ appeared also to me.

Thank God for that little phrase: Also to me. That is the key phrase for our Confirmation Class, and for us as well.That is the key phrase for us as well, because, it is good to know that Christ appeared to Cephas ... and I'm glad to know that Christ appeared to the twelve disciples ... I'm sure they needed some reassurance after all they'd been through. And I'm astounded to learn that the risen Christ appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time
... and I'm not surprised to hear the risen Christ wanted to spend some time with his brother, James, before he ascended into heaven.

This is encouraging and uplifting information. But Christianity is not primarily about information. Even when that information is about the risen Christ. No. Christianity is about a relationship with the risen Christ. So the key part of our text today is when Paul says the risen Christ appeared also to me.

Friends, let me be candid with you. I have experienced those words of Paul. The risen Christ has appeared also to me. I have experienced the risen Christ on more than one occasion. I've had that feeling you get when you know someone else is present even though you can't see them with your eyes. I've had that feeling. The certainty I sometimes get that the risen Christ is present as I sing a hymn or listen to the organ during worship. Those are some also to me moments. Or how about those moments during morning prayer when I sit in quiet solitude listening for Christ to speak and he says nothing but I feel his love warm my heart and that says everything. So yes, friends, Christ has appeared also to me. And here is our Easter affirmation. Christ has
appeared also to you.

One of the things we notice about the appearances of the risen Christ is that it takes awhile for the people to realize that they are communicating with the risen Christ. Take Mary Magdalene. She searches Jesus' tomb three days after his death and she cannot find the body.

Suddenly she sees someone with her in the tomb and she thinks it is the gardener. The gardener asks her: "Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?" She, thinking that he was the gardener, said, "Mister, if you took him, tell me where you put him so I can care for him." Jesus said, "Mary." Turning to face him, she said in Hebrew, "Rabboni!" meaning "Teacher!" Mary Magdalene didn't recognize the risen Jesus at first. But when he spoke her name she realized who he was.

How often has there been a stranger in our lives. Someone we gradually got to know. Someone who taught us more than we knew. Someone who showed us the way to God. Then, at some point, our eyes are opened and we realize that the risen Christ has visited us through
this person.

That was certainly Paul's experience of the risen Christ. Saul, that was his real name, back when he was terrorizing the Christians. Saul was on his way to Damascus to stir up trouble against the Christians there. Suddenly, as he traveled on the road, he saw a blinding light brighter than the sun. When he got to the outskirts of Damascus, he was suddenly dazed by a blinding flash of light. As he fell to the ground, he heard a voice: "Saul, Saul, why are you out to get me?" He
said, "Who are you, Master?"

"I am Jesus, the One you're hunting down. I want you to get up and enter the city. In the city you'll be told what to do next." And over the course of time Saul was changed to Paul and he is the same Paul who writes in our text today that Jesus appeared also to me.

The risen Christ appears to us and we often do not even know it is him. Sometimes the veil is lifted and we recognize the risen Christ in the eyes of a stranger, a teacher, a lover, a friend. Sometimes the risen Christ appears to us through a tree, a flower, or a creek. Sometimes through a movie, a play, a work of art. Yes, my friends, it is true. The risen Christ appeared to the twelve disciples, and more than 500 disciples at one time, to Paul .... and also to me. And also
to you.

We have experienced the risen Christ and that experience helps us stand up to death. We can now look death in the eye and says, "Death, you have been overrated; your power has been
overestimated; your influence has been miscalculated. You can't squelch my ultimate identity; you can't destroy what is essentially me; you can't kidnap me from God. From you I will not
run. Do to me what is yours to do, because you will not be my undoing. Death, where is your victory? Grave, where is your sting?"

As Paul puts it elsewhere: "I'm absolutely convinced that nothing--nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable--absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us." (Rom 8:38-39, MSG)

Yes, the risen Christ has appeared to many Christians throughout the ages. And also to me. And also to you. And also to our Confirmation Class members. A Christian is someone who has a personal relationship with the risen Christ. Our personal relationship with the risen Christ inspires us and helps us make sense out of life on this earth. And our personal relationship with the risen Christ gives us hope as we face the reality of our own death. For whether we live or
whether we die we belong to the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

Jesus Turns the World Upside Down

John 13:1-17, 31b-35 (NRSV)

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean." After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. When he had gone out, Jesus said, "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, 'Where I am going, you cannot come.' I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Jesus Turns the World Upside Down

I saw an interview with Ted Turner once and he explained how the PTL ministry worked. Of course, the PTL Club aired on Turner's cable network and Turner said he and Jim Bakker divided the money 50/50 after every show. Once a week Jim and Tammy Faye would pull up in their new Cadillac at Turner's office and Ted and Jim would pour all the checks onto the table and divvy them up ... half for you ... half for me. I read recently a revealing story about televangelist Jim Bakker when he was still riding high as the head of the PTL television ministry. I say "riding high" because, at the time his daily program was generating more than four million dollars a month for his electronic religious empire. I read this week that after one of his shows, Jim Baker retired to his luxurious dressing room. There he took off his shoes and socks and placed his feet on a glass table. Bakker then demanded a foot rub from aides and staff members gathered before him.

Contrast that with Jesus. On Thursday of Holy Week, the day we call Maundy Thursday, Christ told his disciples to take off their sandals. Then he went around the room and one by one he washed their feet like a servant. He then commanded them to go out and follow his example.

Once upon a time Billy Graham was returning to Charlotte after a speaking engagement and when his plane arrived there was a limousine there to transport him to his home in Montreat. As he prepared to get into the limo, he stopped and spoke to the driver. "You know," he said, "I am 87 years old and I have never driven a limousine. Would you mind if I drove it for a while?" The driver said, "No problem. Have at it." Billy gets into the driver's seat and they head off down the highway. A short distance away sat a rookie State Trooper operating his first speed trap. The long black limo went by him doing 70 in a 55 mph zone. The trooper pulled out and easily caught the limo and got out of his patrol car to begin the procedure. The young trooper walked up to the driver's door and when the glass was rolled down he was surprised to see who was driving. He immediately excused himself and went back to his car and called his supervisor. He told the supervisor, "I know we are supposed to enforce the law but I also know that important people are sometimes given certain courtesies. I need to know what I should do because I have stopped a very important person."

The supervisor asked, "Is it the governor?"

The young trooper said, "No, he's more important than that."

The supervisor said, "Oh, so it's the president."

The young trooper said, "No, he's even more important than that."

The supervisor finally asked, "Well then, who is it?"

The young trooper said, "I think it might be Jesus - because he's got Billy Graham for a chauffeur.

Now that sounds more like it. Billy Graham serving as Jesus' chauffeur. And Billy Graham would be proud to do it, too. But Jesus does not seem like the kind of person who would entirely comfortable riding in the back of a chauffeur. I say that based on the way Jesus acts in our scripture reading from John's gospel. We read there the story of how Jesus turns the world upside down on Maundy Thursday.

  • Jesus turns the world upside down when he gets up from the table,takes off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.
  • Jesus turns the world upside down when he pours water into a basin andbegan to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel thatwas tied around him.
  • Jesus turns the world upside down when he says to Peter: "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me."
  • Jesus turns the world upside down when he says: "If I, your Lord andTeacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet."
  • Jesus turns the world upside down when he says: "I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you."
  • Jesus turns the world upside down when he says: "Servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them."
  • Jesus turns the world upside down when he says: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."
  • Jesus turns the world upside down when he says: "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

But Jesus doesn't stop with Maundy Thursday. He continues on through the Garden of Gethesemane. He continues turning the world upside down when he is crucified on a Roman cross between two thieves. Jesus turns the world upside down when he dies and they lay him in the tomb. And Jesus most certainly turns the world upside down when God raised him from the dead on the third day.

Jesus turns the world upside down. He did it 2000 years ago. He does it still today. Tonight we open our hearts to Jesus once again. We open our hands to take the bread and dip it in the cup. We open our mouths to take the bread and wine that represents Jesus' body and blood. We open our lives to the possibility that Jesus will turn our
world upside down tonight.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Copy the Servant Leader

A sermon preached by Dr. Jon Burnham at Batesville Presbyterian Church on April 9, 2006

        Walk the streets of Damascus, Syria today and you see posters of the face of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Go inside a restaurant or hotel and his portrait will be staring at you from the wall. After a few days there you get the uneasy feeling the ruler is always watching you, aware of what you are doing. We in the West accomplish the same thing with different technology. We use screens instead of framed portraits. Watch Fox News or CNN awhile and notice the recurring images of  President George Bush. The practice of projecting images of the ruler is nothing new. It dates back at least to the time of the Roman emperors.
       Caligula is one Roman emperor who was obsessed with projecting his image across the populace. He wanted to show his political dominance and to convince the people of his divinity. Caligula would dress up in elaborate costumes as various gods and goddesses. Perhaps one day he would dress as the majestic Jupiter, ruler of the gods. And another day he may appear dressed as the god Mars, the god of war. The ancient author, Suetonius, who wrote Lives of the Caesars in 121 A.D., tells us that Caligula ordered the most famous and admired statues of gods to be brought from Greece. He then had their heads removed and his own likeness installed. He established a temple to his own divinity where his golden statue was dressed daily in the same clothes he himself wore (Caligula, 22.3-4).                                                                                                                  As you may imagine, Caligula was not popular among Christians in the years 12 A.D. to 41 A.D. The early church wanted to carve out their own identity within the Roman Empire.  So they wrote a hymn that described their leader, Jesus Christ, as being different than the Roman Emperor, Caligula. This hymn, which Paul quotes in Philippians 2, presents a stark contrast between Caligula and Jesus Christ:

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross, 
(Phil. 2, NRSV)

The humility of Christ stands in stark contrast to Roman rulers such as Caligula. When Roman rulers such as Caligula or Pontius Pilate entered a city after a war campaign they made a strong impression. They would trot into a city riding a noble white charger. Their bodies would be covered with gleaming armor. Behind them marched mighty armies. The armies forced along a procession of humiliated captives and lavish displays of the spoils of war. In contrast, notice how Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He borrows a humble donkey and leads a procession of scruffy fishermen and loose women laughing and dancing in some peasant street theater along the same route Pontius Pilate might have used in his procession of might.

Jesus was not obsessed with his image. He did not worry about appearances. The irony is that only a small percentage of people in the world today have ever heard the name Caligula. Yet billions of people today bow their knees in worship of Jesus Christ. In the lyrics of the early Christian hymn:

9Therefore God also highly exalted him
   and gave him the name
   that is above every name,
10so that at the name of Jesus
   every knee should bend,
   in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue should confess
   that Jesus Christ is Lord,
   to the glory of God the Father
. (Phil. 2, NRSV)

The greatest of all became the servant of all, just as he instructed his followers: "Whoever would be greatest among you must be the servant of all." Whoever wants to be the leader of people must be the servant of people.

Jesus' idea of servant leadership has become popular in business circles in the last 25 years. The modern concept of Servant Leadership started with Robert Greenleaf, who published his essay, "The Servant as Leader" in 1970. The "servant leader" concept of business leadership prizes collaboration, trust, empathy, and the ethical use of power. The purpose of leadership is to better serve others not to increase our own power. The leader tries to help others develop their full potential. The servant leader concept applies to all aspects of our lives – home as well as work.
        Whether it is a mother running a business or a father washing dishes, servant leadership is strong leadership. When Jesus told his followers to humble themselves, he was not telling them to be wimps. He was not telling them to be spineless. Who among us could admire a coward? Jesus was no coward, and he would not want his followers to be
cowards either. Only a brave man or brave woman gives his or her life for something noble, something lasting.
       When Dave Maurer was about seven years old, a strange man moved into his neighborhood.  The man had a disfigured hand and a lame leg.  His physical differences caused quite a stir among the neighborhood children.  They came up with all kinds of stories about how he had injured his hand and leg.  At all costs, they tried to avoid their new neighbor.
       But one day, the lame man came by and invited the kids to his house. Not wanting to appear "chicken," Dave and his friends accepted. They were as scared as puppies when they walked into his house. They expected the lame man to pull out a monkey brain or electrodes or some other weird object. Instead, the man brought out some pictures to show the boys.  They were glossy photos of a dashing young Navy pilot posing in front of a shiny, silver jet.  He told them the story of his Navy career, and how it was cut short by a horrible crash landing during a storm.                                                                       From that day on, Dave reports, the neighborhood boys treated this man as a hero.  They brought their friends to see him.  And they never tired of his story.  As he writes, "The wounds and injuries we once shunned took on an entirely new dimension once we understood the story behind the scars." (Dave Maurer, Out on a Whim, Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2001, pp. 141-144.)
       They were the scars of a strong man who had made a heroic sacrifice. The same kind of sacrifice that Christ made on the cross of Calvary. Servant leadership is a call to sacrifice. It is a call to lay down something important--not for your own gain, but for the gain of all.
      Today, in this room, Christ is looking for people who will live strong, sacrificial lives. Christ is searching this congregation for people who will be servant leaders in our community, in our state, in our nation. Not weak people. Not spineless people. But people willing to live heroically and at the same time sacrificially.
       Here is your cross: Jesus is calling you to stand up and be counted for justice and righteousness. Jesus is calling you to do the decent thing, the loving thing, even when it might make you unpopular. Jesus is calling you to give, to share, to sacrifice--even though we live in a me-first society. Jesus is calling you to be a servant leader in a world where there are far too few heroes. Forget Caligula and Pontius Pilate. On this Palm Sunday we will heed Christ's call. We are strong enough to say "Yes" to Jesus Christ's call today. We will copy the servant leader in the Holy Week that lies ahead.       

Thanks be to God.                                                                                                                  


Monday, April 03, 2006

A Modified Mission

Text: John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

"Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.


A Modified Mission
A sermon preached by Dr. Jon Burnham at Batesville Presbyterian Church on April 2, 2006.

When Will Willimon was in the pastorate, he almost caused a church to split.  All he did was to suggest to one of his members, an amateur woodcarver, to carve a processional cross.  What he had in mind was something simple.  Modern and clean.  Something light that the teen aged cross bearer could carry in during the processional.  But what he got was something else.  What he got was a dramatic, heavy cross with a realistic Jesus hanging from it, blood and everything.

Some in the church managed to like it because a nice person had made it.  One of their own had crafted it.  But as it came down the aisle on that First Sunday of Lent, some worshipers in the congregation gasped.  They were upset.  The cross was too graphic.  Or it was "gory and depressing."  Or it was "too Catholic."

But it wasn't supposed to be that way.  "If I am lifted up from the earth," Jesus said, "I will draw all peoples to me."  And in case we might not understand, John explains.  "He said this to signify what kind of death he would die."  Jesus on the cross, the suffering, bleeding Jesus, was supposed to draw people to him, not drive them away.

But it's hard for us to see that.  And not only at Northside United Methodist Church.  It was hard for people that day in Jerusalem to accept it too.  They objected.  Just came right out with it.  "We've been taught since Day One that the Bible says just the opposite.  That the Messiah will live forever.  Reign triumphantly forever.  So how can you say you will be 'lifted up' in death?" What are we to do with a bloody cross? That is the challenge we face as we move toward Holy Week next Sunday.

And the question of the cross is not a new issue for Christians. For Jesus and his disciples are struggling with what to do with the cross in our reading this morning in the twelfth chapter of the Gospel According to John. There we read that some Greeks came to a disciple named Philip and formally asked to see Jesus. This is a big deal coming, as it does, after Jesus triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The question before the disciples and Jesus is this: "What are we going to do with this movement?" They could go international at this point. They could move beyond the quaint small towns surrounding Lake Gennaserat where most of their ministry has occurred until this point. For some time now Jesus has been reluctant to enter Jerusalem. Perhaps he still remembers the fate of his cousin John the Baptist who was imprisoned and gruesomely killed by King Herod. Jesus knows Jerusalem is a dangerous town for him and his disciples. The possibility of violence is very real and provides the subtext of our story today.

Philip was perhaps aware of both the dangers and the possibilities implied in the Greeks request for a formal audience with Jesus. So he does the very Presbyterian thing of consulting with someone else before making a rash decision on his own. Philip runs the Greek's request by Andrew and together they go and share the intriguing request with Jesus. The scripture doesn't mention this but I somehow smell the smoke of a fire cooking fish in the pit as Philip and Andrew and Jesus discuss the Greek's request for an audience. Against the pungent odor of smoking fish and the sound of a crackling fire Jesus lays out the game plan for the days that lie ahead.

Jesus does not mention the Greeks directly but instead refers to this time, these precious minutes in Jerusalem, as a time of great opportunity. The time has come, says Jesus. The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. And then he throws out one of those parables that he loves to tell. A parable whose meaning seems deep and dignified yet obscure and haunting.

"Listen carefully," says Jesus, "Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal."

Why does he do this? Think the disciples. Why does he talk about burying a grain of wheat in the ground? Sprouting. Reproducing. Holding on to life. Destroying life. Letting go. Reckless in your love. Having life forever. Real life. Eternal life. The disciples do not understand the meaning of Jesus' parable.

So Jesus gives the interpretation: "If any of you wants to serve me, then follow me. Then you'll be where I am, ready to serve at a moment's notice. The Father will honor and reward anyone who serves me." (MSG, John 12:24-26) This is not sounding good. It sounds like Jesus is stalling when he should be pressing forward. The Greeks want to speak to Jesus. The whole world is waiting at the door. And all Jesus has to do is open the door to the world. Say the word and all the world can be ours, thinks Andrew and Philip agrees. This is the way of the world. This is the way we want it to be. The church triumphant. The church all glorious. Conquerors for Christ. Conquistadors for Jesus. Taking over the world in Jesus' name. This is missions as we knew it. This is not missions as we know it today. Jesus is talking about missions as we know it today. You see, missions today means sacrifice. Mission means giving. Giving money to people we will never meet in order to satisfy a need we will never see. Mission means giving. Giving our time in going to the Gulf Coast and sweating our way through the days and tossing our way through the nights. Mission. There is nothing glamorous about the word mission today.
I wanted to be a missionary when I was five years old. I wanted to be the Tarzan figure swinging through the trees and helping the native peoples in the jungle. Jane right there by my side. And that was the vision of the mission field 40 years ago. An exotic place of passionate service for the Lord. The glorious sacrifice. As usual we get caught up in our own thoughts. Thoughts about ourselves. We'd like some glory here, Lord, if you don't mind ... we think. What about us? We ourselves and I ... we think.

And Jesus responds to the disciples and to us saying, "Well, what about me? My soul is troubled. What do you want me to say, 'God, don't let me suffer? No, this is what I am about. This is why I am here. This is my mission." The cross. We don't like to hear it. The cross. We don't like to think about it. The cross. That is why Jesus came according to him.

Then drama ... a voice from heaven. God speaks. It only happens on auspicious occasions in the gospels. An angel announces Jesus birth to shepherds in the fields. The voice of God speaks at Jesus' baptism. God's voice again at Jesus' transfiguration. And here. On this occasion. Just after the triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The donkey is still over there in the stall. And God's voice comes thundering down from heaven. God says, "I have glorified my name, and I will glorify it again ... on the cross." And that is not what we want to hear. And that is not what the disciples want to hear. But that is what God says.

The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said an angel had spoken to Jesus.
Jesus answered, "Look, I don't need this. I don't need to God's voice from heaven. This voice has come for your sake, not mine." And yes, God spoke to us about the cross. At this moment the world is in crisis. Now the ruler of this world will be thrown out. And I, when I am lifted up on the cross, will draw all people to myself.

Why did he say this? Why couldn't Jesus just talk to the Greeks and get them on board and open little franchise churches all over the Roman Empire. No blood. No sweat. No tears. Why can't we hold onto our vision of the church triumphant? Jesus, you are bringing us down, here.

Rev. Joel Osteen is pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, which is now perhaps the largest congregation in the world. According to one newspaper report Osteen's credo is "Eliminate the negative, accentuate prosperity." There is a globe hanging in the sanctuary of Osteen's church but you won't find a cross there. The cross doesn't sell. Some people may find it offensive. It reminds us of suffering. It reminds us of pain. It speaks of humiliation.

We want Jesus to be like Joel Osteen. We'd like Jesus to eliminate the negative and accentuate prosperity. We want to hear Jesus say to the disciples and to us, "Carpe diem. Seize the day." But instead of telling the disciples and us the plan. Instead of telling us how we are going to conquer the world in Jesus' name. Instead of giving us a game plan and telling us how to live it out and make it work ... Jesus talks about the kind of death he was to die.

Where do we go from here Jesus? The crowds are tuned into your message. The whole world is gathered with us here in Jerusalem. The Greeks want to speak to you, Jesus, they may want to join our movement. And instead of going up Jesus goes down. He talks about a seed falling into the dirt and dying. For if it dies, it will be reborn. It will bear fruit. It will become something more than any old dirty seed could ever hope to become. A grain of wheat gets planted into the ground and it grows up how many thousands of times taller ... and it can feed people ... lots of people ... but first the wheat must go underground. And first, so must I, says Jesus. And first, so must you, says Jesus. And first, so must we. We must go underground first. The death of life. Then comes the resurrection.

All of us want to go to heaven but none of us wants to die. But die we must if we would be reborn into something new, something better, something bigger than ourselves. For if we would follow Jesus then we, like he, must go underground. We must be planted into the earth before we can fly with wings of angels. We must lay down our lives before we can take them up again with renewed vigor and clarity of vision and singleness of mission.

The message today is both simple and hard. Die. Die. Die to your notions of what it means to be a success. Die to your notions of what it means to be a triumphant Christian soldier. Lay down your cares. Lay down your burdens. Lay them down at the foot of the cross. And then, over time, know that new life will transform you into something more than you ever imagined. Such change is possible. God's plans for you are bigger than anything you have every imagined. But first we have to die our own ideas of success.

"You are thinking too small." That is what Jesus was saying to Andrew and Philip. They wanted to talk about the Greeks. But Jesus wanted to talk about something more. Something deeper. Something more real. It is there for you and me today. This something more. This reality beyond scientific fact. God's love is stronger than death. We take up our cross with Jesus. We lay down our life with Jesus. And God will most assuredly raise us up from the dead on the third day.

Thanks be to God.