Sunday, August 27, 2006

We Are With You, Lord

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on John 6:56-69
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on August 27, 2006

A student came to a great Buddhist teacher and asked if he would teach him the great mysteries of the faith. The teacher asked the student to tell him about himself while he made them a cup of green tea. The student began telling about himself and the list of his accomplishments all about his spiritual experiences and as he was talking he noticed that the teacher was pouring the green tea into a cup and the cup was full but the teacher was still pouring tea so the tea was spilling over the tabletop and onto the floor so the student said, "Teacher, the tea, the tea, the cup is full and you are spilling the tea."

The wise teacher replied, "Yes, the cup is too full to hold any more tea and so you are too full to hold my teaching. There is no more room in your head." And the student left full of the sad understanding that he was too full of himself to harbor any new instruction.

Once there was a great teacher by the name of Jesus of Nazareth. He was a real person called "Jesus of Nazareth" because Jesus was his first name and he had grown up in the village of Nazareth. When he became an adult and took on the role of mishal, full-time wisdom teacher, he made his home in Capernaum, a village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Matt 4:13). Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen living in the village. Matthew the tax collector also resided here. Visit Capernaum today and you may still walk through the ruins of the ancient synagogue where Jesus preached. The synagogue made of stone is about half the size of our Fellowship Hall, our original sanctuary. Strange and wonderful things happened in the synagogue in Capernaum.

For instance, once when he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath day, Jesus was confronted by a man with an unclean spirit, who cried out: 'What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.'   Jesus shut him up: "Quiet! Get out of him!" The unclean spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out. (Mark 1:21-27). And the unclean spirit, throwing him into convulsions and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, 'What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.'      

In this same synagogue in Capernaum Jesus gave a teaching that would send some students packing. Jesus told his students: "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them." ( Now if this sounds strange to us imagine how weird it must have sounded to his disciples. We are supported by 2000 years of Christian theological about the meaning of the Lord's Supper. We have the Bible and 20/20 hindsight. We know how the story ends. Jesus' disciples had none of these advantages. And some them simply could not believe that this man, Jesus, could be all that he claimed. Things were getting too weird and some of the disciples checked out of the Capernaum hotel and went back to their former lives. 

It must have been a terrible disappointment to Jesus when some of his students left. We wonder how his voice sounded when Jesus asked the twelve disciples, "Do you also wish to go away?" The question driving them away is the question that Christians have had to answer for themselves in every generation: "Who is Jesus really?"

In the modern era, Jesus has been understood from one end of the spectrum to the other. From the sublime to the ridiculous. Some Christians during the Nazi regime in Germany tried to turn Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, into an Aryan superhero. Karl Barth recognized the danger and wrote "The Theological Declaration of Barmen" as reminder that the true Christ is the one revealed in scripture and not the one Hitler's henchmen were foisting upon the church. More recently, theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez who labor among the destitute of Latin America have spoken of God's "preferential option for the poor" and see in Jesus as an ally in the struggle for justice for the poor.

"Who is Jesus to me?" In the final analysis this is a personal question. Each of us must answer the question of whom Jesus will be to us.

"Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them." This image of eating and drinking Christ is at the heart of the Christian sacrament of the Lord's Supper. It is a basic question of nourishment. Jesus says "I am the bread of life" and the bread image does move us much, we who live in a world where there are reportedly more people overweight than people starving. We live in a land of abundance and we are not completely convinced we need the bread Jesus offers us. If we don't have a taste for that spiritual bread then Jesus' next question to us is this: "Do you also want to leave?"

We have often heard the word repent interpreted as if it means we are to be sorry for our sins but that is not what the Greek word metanoi, which we interpret repent, literally means. To repent is not to feel guilty for what we done or not done. Neither does metanoi mean to turn our lives around and go in a different direction. The literal meaning of the word metanoi is meta which means beyond and noi which means mind. So metanoi, to repent, literally means to move beyond our mind.

Move beyond your mind. Venture beyond your ego. That is what the Buddhist teacher was saying to the student when he kept pouring the green tea into a cup that was already full. The student's mind was full. There was nothing the teacher could add to it. The only thing left to fill would have been the student's heart. The student did not understand the teacher and walked away. And we can only imagine the joy he left on the table when he walked out the door.      

Jesus, the divine human teacher, challenges us to repent, to metanoi, to move beyond our mind, to engage life with the intelligence of our heart. This is not an invitation to a romantic feeling. It is an invitation to an altered consciousness. A new way of seeing the world. To move with the Spirit into a realm of intuitive knowing, the kind of knowing we sometimes feel in our very bones. The kind of heart knowing that Peter had for Jesus. The kind of knowing that goes beyond the knowing of the mind and enters the realm of the heart.

"Do you also want to leave?" We hardly know how to answer Jesus. Thankfully, Peter speaks for us, saying to Jesus for us: "Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life." We are with you, Lord. We're not always sure where you are leading us but we are with you. We are not sure what you are trying to do in us but we are with you, Lord. We are not sure what you are trying to do through us but we are with you, Lord. Even so, Lord, stay with us. Abide with us. Show us the way and we will follow you — one day at a time — always living in the now — into a new way of perceiving God, ourselves and the world. Then we will open our minds and open our hearts and open our mouths and join with both Simon Peter and the demon possessed man whom Jesus cured in the synagogue in Capernaum, confessing to Jesus, "We have come to know that you ... are the Holy One of God."

Monday, August 21, 2006

Love Trumps Fear

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Psalm 111
on August 20, 2006 at Batesville Presbyterian Church

We know plenty about fear and all of it is bad. Fear has a profoundly negative effect on our world. So how strange it sounds to our ears when we hear from the Psalmist: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom." That sense of dissonance begins to disappear when we learn that the term "fear of the Lord" is a technical term that means we are to "respect" and admire and feel a positive attraction, a fascination, for God.

A positive attractive to the Lord was the drawing card for a woman with an illness that made her bleed. She came seeking help from Jesus. When she found him he was surrounded by a large crowd. The woman's desire to be healed was so strong that she touched his garment and she was healed. The garment of the Lord is an allegory for the liturgy that surrounds the Lord in our worship. We approach the Lord with desire and through our worship liturgy we are able to touch the Lord and so be healed. Rather than discouraging us, the Lord cheerfully invites us to come, saying, "Come unto me all you who are weary and I will give you rest." Our healing comes from the Lord. We can touch the Lord's garment through our hymns, our prayers, and our affirmations of faith. We can touch the Lord's garment and we can be healed. The "fear of the Lord" refers to our desire to touch the Lord and to be healed. We praise God in the church and it is in the worshipping community among the people of God that we learn that love trumps fear. We learn that love transcends fear by studying the works of God, by touching the Lord in our liturgy and in our relationships with God's people.

We seek a relationship to the Lord because, like the Psalmist, we too are fascinated by the works of the Lord, God's wonderful deeds. We sing with the psalmist about the wonderful works of our gracious and merciful Lord. The Lord provides for our physical needs and keeps covenant with us. God shows us the power of God's works. The works of God's hands are faithful and just; they are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, performed with faithfulness and uprightness. God sent redemption to God's people, God commanded God's covenant forever. Again and again, the Psalmist reminds us of God's faithfulness to the covenant. Then we get the final thought and it sounds out of touch with what we have just heard: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Joan Chittister defines "fear of the lord" as "holy astonishment, complete wonder and awe at what God does in my life and the life of everyone around me."

I had a sense of wonder and awe as I arrived in a basement room at Sacred Heart Monastery on the first day of a centering prayer retreat this Summer. There were 22 ecumenical retreatants and only four of us were ordained ministers. Centering prayer is a prayer of profound silence and silence is what we all expected as we sat in a large circle and began our first 20 minute prayer session together. But the silence was rudely interrupted shortly after we began when someone quickly scraped their sandaled feet against in a sound that solicited a similar response as someone scratching their fingernails down a chalkboard. I had to take a peek and see who it was and was surprised to see it was one of the ministers in the group. He looked like Walter Mattheau and breathed like Darth Vader. The next several days required each of us to learn to deal with the distraction of the loud prayer in our midst. Some of us wanted to kick him out of the retreat. He was that distracting. Others, including the retreat leader, insisted we must let him continue with us because he was in a fragile emotional state as he was grieving the recent death of a close friend. In the end, the Walter Mattheau slash Darth Vader minister stayed and by the end of the retreat was an accepted part of the group. As I think back on that retreat I realize that each of the retreatants in effect made a covenant with one another before the retreat that no matter who showed up we would accept them and pray with them. In the end, some of us may have lost some quality prayer time but we kept our unspoken covenant with one another.

In the Presbyterian Church we make a more formal covenant that includes vows taken in a public worship service. It happens each year when we install elders and deacons. As part of that ritual the church officers take vows. I took similar vows when I became an ordained minister in 1994. One of the vows taken by deacons, elders and ministers is a vow to remain faithful to the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination into which we are ordained. We make these vows in front of God and this congregation. Beware of any minister, elder, deacon or church member who encourages you to consider breaking your vows to this denomination. As for me, I have no desire or intention of breaking the vows I made to the PC(USA). I am not interested in serving with church officers who entertain the notion of breaking the vows they have made.

This is why I am so pleased that our church officers have not gotten caught up in the latest round of hand wringing and big talk that predictably followed the last meeting of the General Assembly this Summer. Such talk distracts us from the mission of our church which is to be an inclusive church that is constantly opening our hearts to new members and to new ways of serving Christ together in this community.
Unfortunately, there are a few congregations in our presbytery who have been led astray by their pastors and who are now facing painful divisions within their fellowship. I will never lead this congregation toward division. I will never lead this congregation to break the vows we have made to the Presbyterian Church (USA). I will never do this because I have too much respect for God, for you and for myself. Such respect is one characteristic of "the fear of the Lord" that is the beginning of wisdom.
God never gives up on us and we should never give up on one another. The demands of love are rigorous. There is no question that by taking vows to remain faithful to a particular denomination we are restricting ourselves. Love is about restrictions. When we make marriage vows we are restricting ourselves as well. We are saying, "This one and no other." Love makes stringent demands and offers lots of opportunity for the hard work of patience, endurance and forbearance.

Mutual forbearance is characteristic of the Presbyterian tradition. Mutual forbearance means we stick it out with one another even during times of disagreement or turmoil. Mutual forbearance means we focus on the 80% of things we agree upon instead of the 20% of things we don't agree upon. Our disagreements in the Presbyterian Church, the 20% on which we are conflicted, are not essential matters. We believe in the sovereignty of God. We believe in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. These are essentials. On these we agree. That is what matters. The other 20%, the non essentials upon which we disagree, these call for mutual forbearance.

I resonate with Paul's vision for the church in Ephesians 5:18-20 where he writes, "Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts; giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." That is what we are doing today and what we do each Sunday when we gather for worship. One of our elders at the last Session meeting shared an idea he got when he had several out of town family members here for the baptism of his granddaughter. He suggested we make a CD of our choir and sale it and give the money to the youth group. These are the kinds of positive ideas we can build on.

My vision for Batesville Presbyterian Church is nothing fancy or glamorous. I envision a future of singing together, giving thanks to God and working together with respect for one another and for God. Let's keep the covenant we have made. Let's bear with one another. As the Psalmist so eloquently puts it: "Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation." We praise the Lord with all our heart in the congregation. That is enough for the Psalmist and that is enough for us as well.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Welcome Prayer

Be angry but do not sin;
do not let the sun go down on your anger,
and do not make room for the devil.
Ephesians 4:26-27

Some of us are brought up in homes in which it is considered inappropriate to express anger. In contrast to what some of us learned at home, Jesus expressed anger on more than one occasion. When Peter said to Jesus in regard to the cross, "This must happen to you!" Jesus responded in what I imagine was an angry tone of voice: "Get behind me, Satan." Another time Jesus was angry at the money changers in the temple. In his anger he threw stuff around in the temple. Of course, there are good theological reasons that Jesus acted this way, but these do not dismiss the reality of his anger. And with Jesus, when the situation is over, so is the emotional response. His emotions were appropriate responses to the present moment with its particular contents. Jesus practiced the seemingly impossible admonition we read in our text today, "Be angry but do not sin." Jesus did that and so can we.

Welcome anger. Welcome anger. Welcome anger. I never thought I would be saying it but that is what I'm saying these days. Don't get me wrong. I'm not welcoming anger. The "welcome" is an invitation the presence of God within me. When I say "anger" in the welcome prayer, I am naming of an emotion that I am experiencing in the present moment. So when I say, "Welcome, anger," I am welcoming God, welcoming the Holy Spirit, inside my body to mix with my feelings of anger until the feelings are transformed into energy for spiritual renewal.

Cynthia Bourgeault describes how the welcoming prayer works in her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. First we focus and sink in. To focus means to feel an emotion as a sensation in your body. We know how to feel a pain in our bodies such a sore tooth. We can also learn to feel anger in our body. We feel our jaw clench. Our stomach is in knots. Our breath gets shorter. Stay present to these feelings as they happen. You've got to pay attention here because if you've been brought up in a family where it was inappropriate to express anger, you may be able to whisk it away into your unconscious so quickly you never even register that you are angry. Then the unrecognized anger goes right back down into your body, where it becomes more sludge in the pipes blocking the free flow of your being. Keep a firm grounding in physical sensation, feel your anger, focus on the feelings and sink into them.

Now comes the strange advice. Sitting there, stewing in the upset of your anger, begin to say, ever so gently, "Welcome, anger." Common sense tells us to get rid of feelings of anger. But by welcoming it instead, you create an atmosphere of inner hospitality.
There is a wonderful fantasy novel by Ursula LeGuin called A Wizard of Earthsea. A young wizard named Ged is training to become a sorcerer. One day, horsing around with his friends, he inadvertently conjures up a minor demon. The demon proceeds to haunt him throughout the book. As he grows in power and influence, it grows right along with him. Gradually it turns very dark and begins to stalk him; he flees in terror. He runs to a city by the sea, but it follows him there. He hires a boat and rows out into the sea, but it follows him there. Finally he jumps into the water, but the thing is till right on his back. Finally, with all escape routes blocked, he does the only thing left to him: He turns to the demon and embraces it. At which point it vanishes, integrated back inside him as the shadow he is finally willing to own.

Ged's experience of liberation illustrates the power in the Welcoming process. By embracing the thing you once defended yourself against or ran from, you are actually disarming it, removing its power to hurt you.

A couple of important qualifications are in order here. First of all, what you are welcoming is the physical or psychological content of the moment only, not a general blanket condoning of a situation. For instance, a woman who just learned she had colon cancer said, "I tried to work with Welcoming Prayer but colon cancer is a hard thing to welcome." Again, you can spot her error. What was on her plate in that moment was not cancer, but the fear of cancer. That was the situation she needed to be working with. It was not "Welcome, cancer," but "Welcome, fear." Welcoming a feeling is the second movement in the welcoming prayer. We feel an emotion rising. We sink in and focus on the feeling. We welcome God into the feeling. And then we let go.

Letting go is the third step in the welcome prayer but don't get to this step too quickly. The real work in the Welcoming Prayer is actually accomplished in the first two steps. Stay with them--sort of life kneading a charley horse in your leg--going back and forth between "focusing" and "welcoming" until the knot begins to dissolve of its own accord. When you are ready to let go, you simply say something like "I let go of my anger," or, if you prefer, "I give my anger to God."

Mary Mrozowski is the founding genius behind the Welcoming Prayer. Mary was a New Yorker with an "in your face" kind of pizzazz. Mary practiced the welcoming prayer in her own life with emotions ranging from anger to pain. For instance, on her long-awaited first trip to Italy, her expectations were suddenly turned completely upside down when a car hurtling out of control ran up on the sidewalk, slammed into her, and pinned her against a wall. In the midst of intense pain and a madhouse of confusion, she was able to keep saying, "Welcome, pain, welcome pain, welcome pain," and to recite the litany, "I let go my desire to change the situation." Her calm was not only amazing but actually contagious; the crowd began to calm down. The Welcome Prayer helped Mary to survive that terrible accident.

The welcome prayer provides opportunities for quantum spiritual growth by working with common emotions such as anger, fear, pride or pain. Again, there are three steps to the Welcome Prayer. First, we become aware of an emotion rising within us and we focus on the feeling it brings. We determine which emotion we are feeling. Name it. Now welcome God into the feeling. If the feeling is anger, say, "Welcome anger. Welcome anger. Welcome anger." Stay with the emotion you are feeling--sort of life kneading a charley horse in your leg--going back and forth between "focusing" and "welcoming" until the knot begins to dissolve of its own accord. When you are ready to let go of the feeling, say something like "I let go of my anger," or, if you prefer, "I give my anger to God." The Welcome Prayer is a spiritual technique that helps us fulfill Paul's admonition: "Be angry but do not sin."

For more information see "The Welcoming Prayer" written by Cynthia Bourgeault in the book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2004, pg. 135-152.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Everlasting Bread

Everlasting Bread
John 6:24-35

       Last Thursday I went to Kroger to buy some groceries. One thing I needed was a loaf of bread. There were several types of bread from which to choose. I picked one called "Baker's Inn: Sliced Bakery Bread." It is 100% whole wheat. I put in the shopping cart, paid for it at the check-out stand and took it home. Last night I ate a piece of bread with my soup. The bread tasted good.
         It is hard for me, as a well fed American, to understand the importance of bread unless I turn on a TV and watch what is going on in some parts of the world today. I wonder how much a loaf of bread would cost today in bombed-out South Beirut, Lebanon. A simple loaf of bread in certain parts of the world means life itself.
         The Bible recognizes the importance of bread. The key event in the Old Testament was the Exodus event--the trip from Egypt to the Promised Land. A drought in the land of Israel had led to famine. There was no bread in the land. This lack of bread led the people of Israel to Egypt where there was a surplus of bread. Later, when Moses led the Jewish slaves to freedom in the Promised Land they were facing starvation in the wilderness and God rained down bread from heaven in the form of manna. Manna. Daily bread from God. Daily bread is no joking matter to a starving person. But for well fed people like us an obsession for bread can sometimes seem humorous and perhaps even enlightening.
       There is a bit of Jewish humor that goes like this: An old man goes to a diner every day for lunch. He always orders the soup du jour. One day the manager asks him how he liked his meal. The old man replies, "It was good, but you could give a little more bread. Two slices of bread is not enough." So the next day the manager tells the waitress
to give him four slices of bread. "How was your meal, sir?" the manager asks. "It was good, but you could give a little more bread," comes the reply. So the next day the manager tells the waitress to give him eight slices of bread. "How was your meal today, sir?" the manager asks. "Good, but you could give a little more bread," comes the reply. So . . . the next day the manager tells the waitress to give him a whole loaf of bread, 16 slices with his soup. "How was your meal, sir?" the manager asks, when he comes to pay. "It was good, but you could give just a little more bread," comes the reply once again.
         The manager is now obsessed with seeing this customer satisfied with his meal, so he goes to the bakery, and orders a six-foot-long loaf of bread. When the man comes in as usual the next day, the waitress and the manager cut the loaf in half, butter the entire length of each half, and lay it out along the counter, right next to his bowl of soup. The old man sits down, and devours both his bowl of soup, and both halves of the six-foot-long loaf of bread. The manager now thinks he will get the answer he is looking for, and when the old man comes up to pay for his meal, the manager asks in the usual way: "How was
your meal TODAY, sir?" The old man replies: "It was good as usual, but I see you are back to serving only two slices of bread!"
     Bread. Daily bread. Manna. This was on the mind of the Jewish crowd that found Jesus in Capernaum. Like the old man in the diner, they wanted some more bread. But Jesus does not respond to them like the manager of the diner responded to the hungry old man. Instead of feeling responsible to give them a memorable dining experience Jesus puts the responsibility back on the crowd as he challenges the crowd to make a deeper commitment to him.
         The crowd waffles: "Show us what you can do. Moses fed our ancestors with
bread in the desert. They called it manna. It says so in the Scriptures: 'He gave them bread from heaven to eat.' Show us what you can do. Got any manna for us today?'"
         Jesus responds, "Forget the manna. Let's get real. The significance of that Scripture is not that Moses gave them bread from heaven but that my Father is right now offering you bread from heaven, the real bread. The Bread of God came down out of heaven and is giving life to the world."
         They jumped at that: "Master, give us this bread, now and forever!"
         Jesus said, "I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever."
         We are hungry like the crowd that came to Jesus seeking bread. We are starving for security and stability. We are starving for affection and esteem. We are starving
for power and control. We go to great lengths to satisfy our hunger. War. Lust. Greed. Like the old man in the diner who never gets enough bread for lunch we never get enough. We try to satisfy our hunger in various ways. We seek to make the best grades, die with the most toys, or even attend church more than our neighbor. All the while we are grasping for bread that will never satisfy our deepest hunger, the mother of all hungers, which is the hunger for God's approval, God's peace, God's love. Our problem is not a lack of bread but a lack of the experience of God's love.
     There is only one bread that can satisfy our deepest hunger -- the hunger for God. That bread is Jesus Christ our Lord. The one who referred to himself as the Bread of Life. This is my body, broken for you. The body of Christ. The bread of salvation. Feed us, Lord, for we are hungry for an experience of God. Feed us Lord, for we are hungry for you. Feed us, Lord, with the Bread of Life -- everlasting bread. And then we shall feel fully accepted and loved by God just as we are in this present moment. This everlasting bread is eternal life. It is available right now. Jesus offers it to us. Let's eat.