Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sticks and Stones

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on James 3:1-12
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on September 17, 2006

Sticks and stones may break my bones but words may never hurt me. As children we were taught to say that when someone said hurtful things to us. As an adult, we realize the words should be changed to reflect the truth. Sticks and stones may break my bones but words may really hurt me. Perhaps our deepest wounds in life come from words spoken about us or against us. For spoken words are perhaps the most powerful force on this planet.

Politicians and preachers recognize the power of words. As we begin the Fall election campaign for Congress we anticipate negative campaigns because that is the nature of current politics. Believe it or not American political races may have been even more vicious in the past. For instance, consider the presidential election of 1828. This was the most Presbyterian election in American history in that both candidates -- John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson -- were pew holders at Second Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. This campaign between two Presbyterians who belonged to the same congregation was one of the bitterest campaigns ever waged in American politics. Slander and character assassination were the order of the day. The personal attacks included lurid lies about Andrew Jackson's mother.

When the votes were counted Andrew Jackson won the campaign, but the viciousness of the fight carried over into his first term in office. Historians have noted that most of Jackson's energy during the first two years of his presidency were given over to fighting vicious rumors against the wife of a friend, Margaret "Peggy" Eaton, wife of John Henry Eaton. Rumor said Mrs. Eaton had been involved with her current husband while married to her previous husband, John Timberlake, who had died under mysterious circumstances while serving overseas in the Navy. Like President Jackson, Mr. and Mrs. Eaton were members of Second Presbyterian Church in Washington. So imagine the heartache that they experienced when they learned that their pastor, Rev. John Campbell, was the source of the rumors. Nor would the pastor deny the rumors even when presented with evidence to the contrary and being confronted first by President Jackson in the White House and later by Mr. and Mrs. Eaton in the pastor's study at the church. Poor Mrs. Eaton. Her pastor was the source of vicious rumors against her.

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. (James 3:5-10)

And the tongue can work against the minister as well. A nationally known pastor told a small luncheon group how his daughter had been destroyed by her teacher who intentionally used language to destroy the girl's self-confidence. Unfortunately, the pastor did not realize the nature of the problem until it was too late and the damage was done. The preacher's daughter is now able to hold only a part-time job doing unskilled labor due to the deliberate destruction of her self confidence. The pastor later learned the teacher had deliberately done this to his daughter because she was the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.

We wonder why a pastor would be so vicious as to attack the character of a church member or why a teacher would intentionally damage a student. This does not seem to be rational behavior. We can begin to answer the question by recalling a concept from Psychology 101 as taught in universities across America. There a is a concept called "projection" whereby one person projects onto another person or group of people all the negative traits that the person doing the projecting cannot face in himself or herself. Someone who is obsessed with the behavior and life of the Pope or the General Assembly, a coach or a pastor, may be projecting onto that person or group their own negative feelings about themselves. We feel safer projecting our negative feelings onto someone else rather than recognizing them in ourselves.

Projection causes someone like the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. in 1828 to single out a woman in his congregation as someone who must be destroyed even to the point of telling lies about her. I think the pastor of Second Church projected onto this congregation member because she belonged to a different faction in the political infighting in the denomination in those days. The Old School versus the New School was the debate and most people today do not even know what they were fighting over. And projection is what caused a teacher to focus on an innocent girl whose father was a Presbyterian minister because the teacher had a bad experience with another Presbyterian minister in her past.

Now we are not here today to talk about psychology so let's turn to the spiritual aspect of the damage we do with our tongues. In verse 12, James mentions a fig tree. "Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs?" When James mentions the fig tree we recall Jesus' dramatic encounter with a fig tree. The day before Jesus had set Jerusalem to talking by lowering the boom on money changers in the temple. That night he lodged outside the city in Bethany. Early the next morning Jesus was returning to the city. He was hungry. Seeing a lone fig tree alongside the road, he approached it anticipating a breakfast of figs. When he got to the tree, there was nothing but fig leaves. He said, "No more figs from this tree—ever!" The fig tree withered on the spot, a dry stick. The disciples saw it happen. They rubbed their eyes, saying, "Did we really see this? A leafy tree one minute, a dry stick the next?"  (Matt. 21:18-20) Thus did Jesus illustrate the spiritual principle of the destructive power of the spoken word. The more we mature spiritually the more closely we must watch what we say for our words literally have the power to heal or to destroy.

James reminds us of the negative power of words but he also alludes to the positive power for good that words can convey. In our text today James mentions every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature and so reminds us of that the power of the spoken word is a foundational component of creation. In the Genesis account of creation God creates the world with the sound of God's voice. God said, "Let there be light" and there was light. (Gen. 1:3) God's spoken word created the birds, sea creatures, vegetation and finally, human beings. God spoke and created the world. And God said that it was good.

Such a small little part of our body, the tongue, yet it is our primary way of projecting ourselves onto the world. No wonder the number one way to judge the wisdom of a person in the ancient world was how well they were able to control their tongue. As James puts it: "Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check." The tongue is a power instrument for positive or negative energy. Let us use our tongues to produce the positive energies of love. That is the best thing we can do for our own happiness and health and for the happiness and health of the world.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Opening Act

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon
on Mark 7:31-37 at Batesville Presbyterian Church
on September 10, 2006

Tomorrow we mark the fifth anniversary of the tragic events of September 11, 2001. In the days immediately after the horror, we felt united as Americans in a way I had never experienced. I'll never forget the packed worship services on the Sunday after nine eleven. As a people we were tuned to the frequency of compassion. As I look consider where we are today, we seem to have changed frequencies along the way. We are now operating on the frequency of fear instead of the frequency of compassion. The good news is that Jesus can heal the ears of our heart by tuning the frequency back to the compassion frequency. In order to receive such healing we must open ourselves to the Christ within.

Jesus own ears were tuned to the compassion frequency even as he traveled around the northern coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon. Then, as now, these were Gentile cities. Both were heavily bombed by the Israelis in their recent war with Lebanon. As he visited these coastal cities, I wonder if Jesus heard the wind blow on the shores of the Mediterranean. Perhaps he saw a wild flower blooming along the Roman roads he traveled on his way back down to the Sea of Galilee. Somewhere along the way, Jesus encountered a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. They begged Jesus to lay his hand on him and heal him. We don't know if they were the deaf man's friends or family or a crowd that was following him. What we do know is that Jesus heard their petitions because his ears were tuned to the compassion frequency.  Jesus took the deaf man aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, 'Ephphatha', that is, 'Be opened.' And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

Would that we could be healed as well. Would that our ears and tongues were cured so that we could hear and speak with compassion. Of course most of hear well enough with our natural ears. The healing we need has to do with our spiritual ears. The healing we need is an opening of ourselves to hear what I'll call the compassion frequency. A radio can play different frequencies such as A.M. and F.M. Our spiritual ears are also able to tune to different frequencies. For example, we may tune our spiritual ears to the frequency of fear or the frequency of compassion. Sometimes even when we want to change our spiritual frequency we cannot because we are paralyzed by fear. Fear keeps us on a negative frequency. Perfect love casts out fear, giving us the grace to tune our spiritual ears back to the compassion frequency.

Cynthia Bourgeault tells a story about her friend, Hank, who was an old and fierce fisherman in Maine. Shocked describes how his friends felt when they learned tough old Hank had contracted pancreatic cancer. Not long thereafter Hank and Cynthia were engaged in a broad conversation that landed on the subject of fog on the ocean and making passages in zero-visibility conditions. Hank described several techniques for keeping fear at bay and navigating through the fog. Then Cynthia blurted without thinking: "Yes, or else you can just let the fear come up and fall through to the other side ..." And Hank looked at her as if she had pierced him in the side. Over the next few weeks Hank began to die and Cynthia was amazed at how his soul grew large and she could feel the energy of love radiating from him almost as a force field. She says he faced his death with open heart, utterly trusting and utterly serene.

Three days before the end Cynthia went for what turned out to be her last visit with Hank. Hank was curled in bed, his body totally broken yet somehow radiantly powerful. They hugged each other and said farewell. And then his last words to her--so muffled and unexpected that she did not catch them at first: "Are you fearless yet?"
"Not yet, Hank, " she said. "I'm trying."

Then came Hank's last words to Cynthia, words that it took her another ten years to fully understand. Hank said: "Fall ... fearless ... into ... love." (The Wisdom Way of Knowing, 68-71) The Christian life is a process of falling fearless into love. Hank experienced this as a human being at the time of his death and all of nature seems to know this basic truth of life.

Consider the flower. The flower seed is planted into the ground like a dead body. The seed is cracked open and out of it springs forth new life. It grows up through the soil. It opens to the sun and receives energy. It opens to the soil and receives nourishment. It opens to the wind and receives exercise. It opens to the rain and its thirst is quenched. All this opening makes the flower strong. The power of the flower is in its opening. So it is with us. We open our mouths and eat food and drink water and our bodies are nourished. We open our hearts and receive love and our emotional life is nourished. We open our ears and receive truth and our souls are nourished. All this opening makes us strong. For, as the psalmist says, "Our strength comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth." Lord, open us, like a flower, to the softening of your Spirit so we may be strengthened to carry your Word into the world. Give us the courage to fall fearless into love. Grant this grace to our country and grant this grace to us as individuals. The grace to fall fearless into love.

The baptism of Warren, infant child that he is, reminds us of the mystery of human birth. From among the millions and millions of possibilities for human life only one solitary sperm survive a difficult journey and implant an egg. So each of us and every human being from the moment of conception is literally one in a million. In the recently rediscovered Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "I choose you, one from a  thousand, two from ten-thousand, and you will stand to your own feet having become a single whole." (The Gospel of Thomas, Logion 23) I think Jesus could have said that to this man whom he had just healed. He chose this man, one among many, one among thousands, to heal and make whole. He opened his ears so he could hear. He fixed his tongue so he could speak. The healed man could now stand on his own feet. Jesus had made this man a single whole.

Jesus wants to say that to us, too, each one of us. "I choose you, one from a thousand, two from ten-thousand, and you will stand to your own feet having become a single whole." That is God's desire for each of us--become a single whole. United within and without. Healthy in body, mind and soul. Wealthy in love and rich in relationships. Secure and safe. The Christian life is a continual opening to the Christ within. 'Ephphatha', that is, 'Be opened.'

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sowing the Seeds of Happiness

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from James 1:17-27

on September 3, 2006 at Batesville Presbyterian Church


            Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames , talks about "watering the seeds of happiness." He suggests the importance of watering the seeds of happiness especially in our family relationships, husband and wife, parent and child. We water the seeds of happiness when we value and compliment the positive aspects of those whom we love. Instead of trying to change them we love them as they are and bring out the best in them. We encourage the good in one another. We emphasize what they excel at. Promote the positive within them.

            This is what Mrs. Young did for me when I was a student in her 5th grade math class, and this is what she did for me when I visited her home, and this is what she did for me when she led my youth group at church. She watered the seeds of happiness in me. Mrs. Young is the mother of a good friend. She recently died and as I conducted her funeral I remembered the ways Mrs. Young had watered the seeds of happiness in me.

            I remember the 5th grade classroom where she taught. It was a clean, well organized room. And she came to class to do business. She wasn't marking time on the pay clock. She meant for math to be learned and I must say that I learned in her classroom.

            Mrs. Young will always be associated in my mind with my home church where she and her family were active in the church. She helped rear me in the faith. She and her husband, led the Sunday night Training Union class for the youth when I was in the youth group. The Young's were good youth leaders. They kept us straight. They put up with us. I always felt safe when they were in charge because I knew things would not get out of hand. I wouldn't have to do anything too stupid or embarrass myself in front of the gang as long as Mr. and Mrs. Young were in charge because there wasn't going to be any kind of radical silliness going on in the room. Mrs. Young watered the seeds of happiness in me through her leadership in the youth group at church.

            She also watered the seeds of happiness in me when I visited her home to play with her son, Phil, a close friend. This play was always educational for me because Phil is smarter than I am and I usually learned something new when I visited Phil. Mrs. Young had the good sense to make presence known when I arrived at the house and then to generally stay out of the way so Phil could educate me on the symphonies of Beethoven or the finer points about what made Napoleon the greatest general in the history of warfare. And of course there were the war games we played, usually created by Phil which meant that half way through the game, just when I was getting my momentum going and had finally figured out how to beat him and made my big move Phil would nearly always say with a contrived, disappointed look on his face, "You can't do that."

            "What? What do you mean you can't do that? I'm doing it!"

            "No. You can't do that. That's against the rules."

            The best thing about making up your own games is that you get to write the rules and if they're not working for you can always change them if you need to. Seriously, I was never going to beat Phil in a strategy game and I knew and he knew it too. That's why he was always happy to see me come over. My friendship with Mrs. Young's son watered the seeds of happiness in me.

We water the seeds of happiness in our children, our friends, and even among people whom we've never met.

            The writer of the epistle of James wants us to water the seeds of happiness in others even God waters the seeds of our own happiness. I love Eugene Peterson's translation of James 1:21,  "In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life." God waters the seeds of happiness by landscaping up with the divine Word, making a salvation-garden of our lives.

            We sometimes make the mistake of limiting God. Sometimes we in the church put religion in a box. Some of us got this message from the church when we were growing up: Jesus is nice and he wants us to be nice too. How surprised we are then when later in life we find the Holy Spirit moving us to acts of charity beyond our wildest imagination.

            That is what happened to Rev. Rick Warren. Rick is the pastor of a mega-church in California and the author of a book called The Purpose Driven Life that has sold over 20 million copies. One of his passions is training pastors and one of his wife's passions is working for healing the millions of women and children in Africa who are victims of AIDS. Mr. and Mrs. Warren recently went to South Africa where she was attending a conference on AIDS and he was training pastors. After his seminar, Rick took a tour out into the bush country and visited a small church of less than 100 members. This congregation was so poor they met in a run-down tent. They had none of the material things we associate with a successful church. And in that run-down tent this small congregation was taking care of 20 AIDS orphans. I saw Rick Warren tell this story on the Charlie Rose Show. Rev. Warren said that one little side-trip to a small church out in the bush country had changed his life and his ministry. He was completely humbled to learn that this poor little church that took full-time responsibility for the care and education of 20 AIDS orphans. This poor, tiny church in rural South Africa was doing more the loveless and homeless of the world than Warren's 20,000 member church in prosperous Southern California. Rev. Warren returned to his church in California and set about organizing his 20,000 member congregation to water the seeds of happiness among AIDS victims around the world. We never know how God may use once we open up our lives to the Holy Spirit and allow God to begin watering the seeds of happiness in others.

            We can being watering the seeds of happiness by doing what James suggests: "Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear." (James 5:19) Learning to listen is a vital first step. Learning to lead with our ears. Learning to control our tongues is also necessary. Someone has said "Silence is God's first language" and we should learn to speak that language well. Converting our anger into positive energy for spiritual transformation is another step along the way. In a recent sermon, I spoke about the power of the "Welcome Prayer" to transform anger into quantum spiritual growth. We welcome God into our anger and work it out that way.

            Let's follow the program James lays out in our reading today and we will learn to sow the seeds of happiness. "Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear." Let's use our ears for listening and so begin watering the seeds of happiness in others. Let's use our tongue for blessing, encouraging and laughter to water the seeds of happiness in others. And let's let anger straggle along in the rear. We never know where such sowing may lead. James makes it very simple for to understand, saying: "Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight." (James 1:27) Sowing the seeds of happiness is about more than being nice. It is an intentional form of spreading God's love in a dry and thirsty world. Let's water the seeds of happiness in others as a demonstration that our religion is real.