Sunday, January 28, 2007

Hometown Hill

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 4:21-30

on January 28, 2007 at Batesville Presbyterian Church


            Last week we learned a little about Jesus first sermon. We learned Jesus delivered this sermon shortly after his baptism and subsequent temptation by the devil in the desert. We learned he went back to his hometown to teach in his home synagogue on the sabbath. He took the scroll and read from the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." (Luke 4:18) We heard how Jesus then sat down and began teaching, saying, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your midst." But last week we did not hear the amazing story of what happened next.

            For as his friends and family listened to Jesus' first sermon in his hometown synagogue, at first the people were full of pride in their hometown boy, this Jesus, son of Joseph the carpentar, son of our own Mary, who is an up and coming prophet in the region. But as they listened to Jesus explain his interpretation of the text they became alarmed. For Jesus was saying what none of them wanted to hear. Jesus was saying something to the effect that Israeli's are  not God's only special people. God loves Syrians too and sometimes Syrians demonstrate more faith in God than Israelis do. Jesus reminded his hometown congregation about how the prophet Elijah did not feed a single Israeli widow during that terrible famine that lasted three and a half years but instead Elijah helped a widow from Iraq.

            I suppose if Jesus had chosen a hymn for the congregation to sing after his first sermon it would have been "God bless the people of every nation" instead of "God bless our home and nation." The hometown congregation was enraged.  They cried: "How dare he sell us short?" They wondered where his loyalties lay, certainly not, they thought, with us. They suddenly did not recognize him anymore. He was not one of them. Even though he had grown up there and played with their kids and worked in their houses he was not one of them.

            Jesus had been away from the community for 40 days and nights and he was no longer one of them. He had spent time in the desert fighting with the devil and he wasn't the same person when he came home. He knew more than he knew before. He knew things about himself and about his family and about everyone he saw. His horizon had expanded and broadened. He clearly saw that God's love and God's grace and God's plan included more than just this, it also included Syrians such as Naaman the Syrian, who received healing grace from God.

            Jesus had crossed a line. The quiet congregation suddenly became a raging mob. They grabbed Jesus and dragged him to the top of the highest hill in town. They were going to throw him off the cliff and kill him but Jesus slipped away. He wasn't that easy to catch and hold onto. Never was. Never will be. Jesus walked away from the hometown crowd and continued his ministry among all God's children. He lasted about three years. Talking this way. Teaching this teaching about God's love. He lasted about three years until he was finally cornered in the Garden of Gethsemane and this time it was the appointed time and Jesus submitted to God's will and he was taken to the hill called Golgotha and there he was crucified, dead and buried.

            We know that is not end of the story. For on the third day God raised him from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. Jesus, you see, was more than his hometown folks could grasp. He is more than we can grasp, too. Perhaps it is better to pray that we may instead be grasped by him. For even when Jesus may not be in our immediate plans, rest assured we are always in his. God never gives up on us. Let's not give us on God. Let's not give up on ourselves.             

            There is hope for us as well. Although God does not love us exclusively, God does love us decicively and if we can ever submit to that or somehow get ourselves attuned to it, we'll learn to replace our resentment with something far sweeter and stronger and more satisfying than the bitter taste of ire. That would be the love of God that includes each one of us along with every person, plant, rock and tree on this and every planet. Let's open ourselves to God's Spirit within. Then we may learn the secret that Jesus learned in the desert. The secret that his hometown never learned. We, too, may discover the secret of the incredibly inclusive and expansive love of God.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Jesus' First Sermon

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 4:14-21

At Batesville Presbyterian Church on January 21, 2007


            This week I received an appeal for help from one of our Elders in the form of an email addressed to me and others. Here is an excerpt from that email.


Dear friends,


This is the story of a grandmother who is raising her three grandchildren. The parents of these children sadly, are both drug addicts and not able to contribute to the welfare of these children.


The grandmother has asked for our help and prayers, too. Two of the children are having medical problems due to their unfortunate birth situation. One of the children was so severely malnourished at the time his grandmother took him into her care that he was terribly underweight for his age.


Before Christmas, the family's house burned down. They lost everything and had no insurance. Things seem to keep snowballing and they are falling deeper into poverty. Currently, they're living in a one room building out on Nash Road. They have gotten a trailer, but can't move into it because they don't have the money to pay for the $2,200 septic tank and installation. Last night the grandmother called me about her situation. She is only receiving $175 a month for the care of all three children, not to mention the fact that they have lost everything that they own. They have become absolutely destitute and she is desperate for help.


They are on food stamps, but this is not enough. As we can only imagine, they need everything. They need appliances - washer, dryer, gas stove, and refrigerator. Also needed are sheets, blankets, and towels.


The family needs clothes, too. They all especially need boots to get through the muddy yard. The grandfather wears a men's size 11, the grandmother wears a ladies' size 8, the third grade girl wears a girl's size 3, and the two little brothers wear boy's sizes 10 and 11 in boots.


The grandmother called me last night on a prepaid cell phone. They have no house phone, and her own cell phone has been cut off and she owes $300 to get it reconnected.


If you or your church could donate to this very needy cause, please let me know - no amount is too small to give. I'm going out to her house either this afternoon or tomorrow to take her some things and talk further with her. To help them, you can give a check to our church labeled "fire victims" or you can write one to the grandmother - Betty Henry - and give it to me.


Thanks so much, Molly


            That email struck me because of the desperate situation of the family it described. It reminded me of the theme of Jesus' first sermon. His first sermon came shortly after he returned from a period of temptation in the desert. The devil had tempted Jesus to act as a breadmaker, a materialist, a producer of consumer goods. Jesus said no. The devil then tempted Jesus to take upon himself a mantle of glory, authority, and political power. Jesus said no to the devil. The devil finally tempted Jesus to manifest his spiritual power, demonstrate his religious authority, control unseen powers, manipulate angels. Jesus said no to the devil and told him to get lost and the devil left him alone.

            Jesus then made the rounds teaching in the synagogues of Galilee until he returned to Nazareth. There we find him in his childhood synagogue, on the Sabbath day. He stands before his hometown congregation and opens the sacred scroll to the prophet Isaiah. He reads the text. He rolls up the scroll and sits down, as was the custom, to teach the text. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

            Here is the sermon text of Jesus' first sermon in his hometown. From the prophet Isaiah:


"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19)


            Jesus says God has sent him to bring good news to the poor. We should not be surprised that ministering to the poor was the first item on his agenda. After all, his mother, Mary, in her magnificat, her song of elation, praises God for, as she puts it:


"He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

(Luke 1:52-53)


            I suppose we could say Jesus takes after his mother in his compassion for the poor. That is a message we don't hear much from pulpits across America today and I think that is a shame. For today, perhaps more than ever, we need to hear about God's concern for the poor. Yes, it is true, as some are quick to remind us, Jesus did say, "The poor you have always with you," at one point in the gospels. But it equally true that he said we will be judged by God according to the simple criterion of whether we visit prisoners, clothe the naked and feed the hungry. (cf. Matt. 25) If we truly believed what Jesus said, that God will judge us according to whether we feed the hungry, then there would be a waiting line of Christians wanting to work at the Food Pantry. Instead, we have trouble finding volunteers for the Food Pantry.

            Contemporary theologian Jurgen Moltmann challenges the church to return to the model of servant leadership portrayed in the Bible in the book of Acts. To make ourselves known as the people who care and demonstrate our charity by our actions, by what we do and how we do it. In some measure, we are doing that. For instance, the appeal I read to you earlier has had some results. Someone responded and had their business donate a septic tank to this desperate family. They still need many things but people have responded to the request. One of the little known facts about Mississippians is that we respond to specific requests for help. Percentage wise, we give more to charity than most Americans. In that respect, we live what Jesus preached.

            Lord, open our eyes so we may notice the desperate people that live all around us. Open our ears that we may hear their cries for help. Help us, like Jesus, to bring good news to the poor. Isaiah said: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor." Jesus said: "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." We say, Lord, we also will bring good news to the poor -- not because we want to -- not because it convenient -- not because it is politically correct -- but because Jesus brought good news to the poor, and because we are followers of Jesus, and because he commands us to do it. We will do it. We will respond to Jesus first sermon. We will continue to feed the hungry through the food pantry. We will continue to bring good news to the poor. That is who we are. That is what we do.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Fearless Followers

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Isaiah 43:1-7

at Batesville Presbyterian Church on January 7, 2007


            Today some of our deacons and elders are making a passage. They are crossing over into a position of leadership in the church. It would be difficult for me to overemphasize the importance of the role of church officers within our Presbyterian form of government. And it would be hard to overstate the responsibility that these new officers will take upon them for the health and life of the congregation. Deacons and elders in this congregation are simply essential for the survival of the church. The pastor and preacher plays a large role in the life of a congregation and the deacons and the elders play an equally significant role.

            Thanks be to God, no one person is responsible for everything in Christ's church, for as the Apostle Paul reminds us, we are all members of the body of Christ and each of us has a role to play. If the hand says to leg, "You are not necessary," then the hand does not understand how the body works. If the eye says to the nose, "You don't do much around here," then the eye does not understand how the body works. And if anyone should say to the head, "Let me make that decision," then that person does not understand that Christ is the head of the church.

            These deacons and elders are here today to be ordained and installed because God chose them for this responsibility. As the prophet Isaiah says in our text today: "Thus says the LORD, he who created you ..., he who formed you ...: 'Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.'" We are here today because God has redeemed us and called us by name. As Paul says, "Whether we live or whether we die; we belong to the Lord."

            The story is told of a young fool, a mentally retarded man, went to a Buddist monastery to be enlightened. Some of the young monks told him to go sit in the corner for awhile and then they threw a stone and hit him and said to him, "You've now reached level one of enlightenment." Then they told him to go sit in the other corner and they threw a stone and hit him and said, "You've now reached level two." Then they told him to go sit in the other corner and he did and they threw a stone and hit him and said, "You've now reached level three." Then they told him to go sit in the final corner and he did and they threw a stone and hit him and said, "You've now reached level four." The young monks looked at one another and said and said, "This fool believes us." And the fool looked at the young monks and bowed and said, "Thank you, I'm now enlightened." And he was! The fool's faith had made him enlightened. The only ailment ailing us today is lack of faith. Our lack of faith is expressed as fear. Our fear is what Isaiah addresses in our text today.

            God's message to each of us today is this: "Do not fear." The Lord says: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you." We are not in this alone. And our soon to be ordained and installed elders and deacons are not in this alone, either; for God will be with them. When troubles arise in their lives -- sickness, death, uncertainty, insecurity -- God will be with them. When conflicts arise in the church, the Lord will be with them. The great news about taking on the role of leadership in the church is that we have higher powers who are working with and for us in the process of leading the church. God the Father establishes the church, Christ our Lord serves as head of the church, and the Holy Spirit guides and nurtures the church. Thank God we are not in this alone.

            Those who will be ordained as leaders of this congregation are also being ordained as leaders in the church universal, which is the church of all times and places. We are branches on the vine of mother church. Presbyterians have always displayed humility and openness to Christians of other brands and stripes. We know our history. We know that for the first thousand years of the church's history there was but one church and that is the common root to which all Christians belong. We know that God speaks to people in various ways at different times in history. That is why we recognize the need to continually update our Book of Confessions. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a denomination of some 2 million people across this great United States of America. We are a people of some political and theological diversity. We are a people of some humility. We are part of the larger church, the body of Christ, called the church universal. 

            The Lord says, "Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give .. for you, ... for your life." The calling to serve is a personal calling to each person from God. God's call flows forth from God's love. This call is not a call to be held in greater honor than others. Let us remember today Jesus' saying that when we are invited to a sit-down dinner we should not take the seat of highest honor but the seat of lowest honor. Not because we have low self esteem but because we have high God esteem. We know without God we never would have been invited to dinner in the first place. We are here by invitation and the invitation has come to us from God.

            God's word to each of us this morning is this: "Do not fear." This is the message God gave to the exiles from Israel. Do be afraid! That is the message the angel gave to Mary when he came to tell her she had been chosen to bear the Messiah. Do not fear! That is the message the angels gave the shepherds when they appeared to them proclaiming the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Do not be afraid. So said the angel in the empty tomb to Mary and the women when they came looking for Jesus' body after his crucifixion. Do not be afraid. That is God's message to each of us today. Do not fear! You elders and deacons whom God has called to serve as church officers and leaders.

            And we respond with the Psalmist, who says in Psalm 23:


Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.


Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:

thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.


Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:

and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. (vs 4-6, KJV)


            Let's be fearless followers of Christ. God has called us by name. God has created us for God's glory. God has formed us and made us. We are intimately known and loved by God. We are safer than we have ever dared believe. We are safe in the ultimate sense. We are safe in the eternal sense. And we are safe in the present tense. We are like a mountain that cannot be moved. "If God be for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31) We have reason to be fearless and fearless we shall be.