Sunday, March 25, 2007

Kierkegaard Revisited

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 12:1-8
at Batesville Presbyterian Church on March 25, 2007

The brilliant Danish philosopher and theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, was very close to his father, through whom he encountered profound theological questions at an early age. Kierkegaard's father believed that due to his own personal sins none of his children would ever live beyond the age of 33 years, the age at which Jesus died. This odd idea proved untrue when two of Kierkegaard's seven siblings lived beyond 33 years, but it set the tone of young Soren's sober interpretation of Biblical Christianity. As a young man, Soren fulfilled his father's wishes and attended seminary and became a theologian. In his writings, Kierkegaard proclaimed the shrill message that Christendom had "lost its way" and decried the shallowness of so-called "Christian living" he witnessed in Denmark in the 19th century, a European country whose church was controlled by the state.

I suppose if Kierkegaard had to pick one Bible character to illustrate the radical nature of Christian faith he may have chosen Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, as she is described in John 12:1-8. There we read that Jesus is visiting in the home of his recently resurrected friend, Lazarus. Lazarus's sisters, Mary and Martha, are there along with other guests and disciples of Jesus. Martha is doing the dishes as usual. Mary, ever the mystic, is pleased to be in the presence of Jesus when suddenly she shocks everyone. Mary kneels at Jesus feet and washes his dusty feet with her tears. She then wipes his feet, back and forth, using her hair as a washcloth. Next she takes out a pound of expensive perfume, worth a year's wages, and pours it all on Jesus' feet. The exquisite aroma staggers everyone present as it sucks the oxygen from the room.

Mary used her body, her tears, her hair and her hands, to minister to Jesus by anointing his feet like a servant. Mary's faith moved beyond her mind and into her body. Mary's relationship with Jesus was not a belief in an abstract concept. Mary had a personal relationship with Jesus, this person who was now in her house, which now reeked with the odor of a pound of expensive oil that cost an extravagant amount of money to buy and which she had poured onto the feet of a stunned by appreciative Jesus, her Lord.

Theologian Karl Barth said, "Do not fear the wrath of God. Do not fear the wrath of God. Fear the love of God. Fear the love of God that will strip away everything you ever had." Mary got stripped of everything she ever had. Jesus, like Kierkegaard, liked what he saw in Mary, a heart aflame with desire for God, a faith that left her stripped down by the love of God she found in the person of Jesus. Kierkegaard would approve of Mary's wild abandon, her leap of faith, her abandonment of herself in the presence of Jesus. Mary's wild act of devotion is a fine illustration of what Kierkegaard considers genuine Christian faith.

On the other hand, Judas Iscariot, was in the room and he was not amused by Mary's extravagance. Judas said, "Why wasn't this oil sold and the money given to the poor? It would have easily brought three hundred silver pieces." The texts tells us he said this not because he cared two cents about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of their common funds, but also embezzled them.

Jesus said to Judas, "Let her alone. She's anticipating and honoring the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you. You don't always have me."

I imagine Kierkegaard would see in Judas a metaphor for the Christian church of his day and time in his native Denmark. This was a church that was state run and operated. It was a church that was more concerned with banking money than serving the poor. It was a church that was more a social club for the elite of society than a rescue mission for the down and out. Not so with Judas. To him, the business with Jesus was all about money. Judas pretends concern for the poor but it is an attempt to cover his pilfering. Judas was greedy, it was a fatal flaw in his character and let to his terrible act of treachery. Instead of kissing Jesus' feet in thanksgiving like Mary, Judas will kiss Jesus cheek so the Roman guards know which one to arrest—the ultimate act of betrayal. The spirit expressed by Judas is as small and mean as Mary's was expansive and giving.

To some people Christianity may seem to be a superficial social club but that is not the Christianity of Kierkegaard and and Mary. Kierkegaard wrote: "The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die." Mary discovered in Jesus the idea for which she could live and die. Mary found her truth not in a concept or a religious belief. Mary found her truth is the person of Jesus. He was truth enfleshed. He was truth incarnate. He was truth for which she could live and die.

A group of children, confined to a basement play area on a rainy day, decided to "play church." One child was the preacher, another the organist, a couple kids were ushers, and the rest served as the congregation. One little guy said, "What about Jesus? Shouldn't Jesus be in church?" The rest agreed and the child who made the point was made "Jesus."

"What do I do?" he asked. "How do I play Jesus?"

He was told by some of the older children that they would tie him up to one of the support posts in the basement, pretending that it was the Cross. Then the others would call him names, throw things at him, and be mean to him in other ways. The little boy thought about that a minute and then said. "I don't want to play Jesus; let's just play church." Kierkegaard challenges us to play Jesus instead of just playing church.

As the Lenten season draws to a close and we confront once again the Crucifixion of Jesus, we are reminded of the cross each of us is asked to take up and bear in the name of Christ. To leave out the Cross is just to play church. That is what Kierkegaard wants us to remember. That is why Jesus praised Mary. She was completely committed to him as her ultimate truth and she was preparing his body for burial. The cost of discipleship is very high. Let's not settle for what Kierkegaard called "cheap grace," the idea that God's grace is free. God's grace is not free. It cost Jesus a lot. When he saw Mary's perfume running down his feet perhaps Jesus envisioned his own blood that would soon be pouring from his feet. That's what happens when your feet get nailed to a cross.

Jesus showed us the cross is a requirement in our faith journey. It is not an option. It is a prerequisite. Christian faith carries a cost. For Mary, that cost was a year's wages worth of expensive oils poured out upon the sacred feet of Jesus in a moment of passionate devotion. For Kierkegaard, that cost was to set himself apart from the church of his day and to stand up as a prophet to them, and to us, to call us task for not counting the cost, for not taking up the cross of Christ, and for thinking that God's grace is cheap. God's grace is not cheap. Let's not pretend the Christian faith is easy. Go back and read the gospel story. Christ's death on the cross always precedes his resurrection on Easter Sunday. It's right there in the book's Kierkegaard wrote and it's right there in the gospel according to John.

During one period in my childhood, as perhaps in yours, my favorite game was hide and seek. I would close my eyes and count to ten while everyone ran to hide. Then I would open my eyes and have to go find them. When we become adults we still play that game with ourselves and others, and we even play it with Jesus. When we get frustrated looking for him and feel like we'll never find him, Jesus breaks the rules of hide and seek. He comes right out and let's us know where he is, calling out to us:

If your first concern is to look after yourself, you'll never find yourself.

But if you forget about yourself and look to me, you'll find both yourself and me. (Matthew 10:39, MSG)

We too may find Jesus if we forget about ourselves and look to him as did Mary. When she found Jesus she found herself. When we find Jesus we will find ourselves as well. May we, like Mary, find the truth for which we can live and die. May we, like Mary, find ourselves, in the person of Jesus Christ, during this sacred season. This is the place. Now is the time.

Notice Mary on the floor at Jesus' feet. Perhaps we can manage to get down there ourselves one time during Holy Week. Surely our pride is not too great to manage that simple posture. Kierkegaard will applaud our appropriate pose: Kneeling at the feet of Jesus. If we get down there we may even help Mary pour the precious oils on Jesus feet. We may help her prepare his sacred body for death. It's the least we can do for him now. Look at Jesus standing there. He is so humble. His sheer integrity is overwhelming. I think he needs us now. Let's try to show some respect for him. For heaven's sake, let's try to show him some respect.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Sin You Can't Keep a Lid On

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
on March 18, 2007 at Batesville Presbyterian Church

This superb parable is actually three parables: the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the parable of The Elder Brother  and the parable of The Forgiving Father. We'll concentrate on the Elder Brother, which is far less popular and less widely known that the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

The elder brother could not stand the reception his brother received. After all, his younger had blown it. He had wasted his inheritance chasing prostitutes, embarrassed the family name, and hurt the family business. When his younger brother returned home, the elder brother resented the way his younger brother was received. Why did the elder brother take offense? It was the party that was so offensive. The older brother has a point, of course. Let the penitent come home. Both Judaism and Christianity provide for the return of sinners, but to bread and water, not to the fatted calf; to sackcloth, not a new robe; to ashes, not jewelry; to kneeling, not dancing; to tears, not merriment. The elder brother resented that party.

The history of resentment, says Leo Madow, professor at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, is the history of Humankind. If we really feel steamed about something (as we rightly express it), we can go from zero pressure to over 500 lbs. per square inch within a short time. The target can be a friend, a spouse, a child, a neighbor, a co-worker—even the person who promised to fix the vacuum cleaner. It can be a woman with two children, whose husband left her for another woman, and now she faces the full financial support of the family. She's resentful. Or a woman who resents her husband's boss and company so much it is destroying what could be one of the better homes around. Or a person with a chronic illness, now facing the prospect their condition will never get better. Or a person nearing retirement, watching their retirement go up in smoke because of bad investments by the fund trustees. Or a high school student who didn't make the team ... or cheerleader ... or first chair band ... or the leading role in the school play. Resentment. You can't keep a lid on it.

   Resentment pops up early in the Bible—with the two sons of Adam and Eve. Cain and Abel are a prototype of the two brothers in today's parable. Cain resented Abel because Abel received more favorable treatment. His offering was acceptable to the Lord and Cain's wasn't. Resentment was kindled (as the Bible puts it) in Cain, until it exploded and he summoned his brother out into a field and killed him. Murder is the ultimate destructive manifestation of resentment. This story is speculative, but  some time probably passed between the start of resentment to the eruption, what we call today "repression."  But repression doesn't solve; it only postpones. Resentment—you can't keep a lid on it.

     How does one rid oneself of resentment?  It is difficult, extremely difficult, but the answer is very much in this Parable of the Elder Brother. The meaning of the parable lesson is simply that God loves the world—the common, mixed-up, moral-immoral, world. Jesus' mission expresses that love. His joy is that sinners respond to his message and are brought back into fellowship with God.

Like the Elder Brother, proper, religious folk have a rightful claim to legitimacy. However, like him, they sometimes show an incapacity to forgive on the basis of mere repentance. Resentment arises when those who "follow the rules" perceive it as unfair that those who do not "follow the rules" suddenly are welcomed into the mainstream of "good" society without, seemingly, "paying their dues."  This perceived unfairness fosters resentment.

God's saving love goes out to sinner and self-righteous alike. If only the "elder brothers" of the world would forget themselves!  If only they were not so resentful, so selfish, so petty, and uncharitable, so lacking in humility, in compassion, and the desire to serve, they could rid themselves of resentment—and get a party like the prodigals get.

What about us—are we like the Elder Brother—are we resentful? Let's open our hands and our hearts—let go of our resentment and enjoy the celebration today. We have so much to be thankful for—two weeks ago we had a wonderful Kirkin' o' the Tartans service; our church is growing; the Session has started a new Helping Hand fund for those who come to our church seeking emergency assistance. We celebrate together what God is doing in our midst and we support one another in the midst of grief. The Holy Spirit is at work in our church. When our hearts are full of gratitude to God there is no room in our hearts for resentment. Let's let go of our resentment and join in God's great celebration.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

God's Windows Vista

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on Isaiah 55:1-9

at Batesville Presbyterian Church

on March 11, 2007


            The next time you buy a computer chances are it will come with an operating system called Windows Vista. This is the new computer operating system from Microsoft that looks better and is more secure than its predecessor. Each of us human beings also run an operating system. From birth, we are trained to use a dualistic operating system. Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault noticed this even in her 4 year old grandchild who learns to sing this song watching Sesame Street: "One of these things is not like the other, not like the other, not like the other." We are taught from early childhood to make distinctions and to notice differences. We define ourselves by the color of our skin, what model of vehicle we drive, the size, location and style of our house, and so on and on it goes.

            We constantly upgrade our things because that is what we are taught to do running the binary operating system that we use. If we buy a brand new high definition television this week we know as we carry it out of the store there will be one twice as good as this one for the same price or less twelve months from now. We buy it and before we get it installed it already dated. Having satisfied our desire for a new television, we move on to some other item of interest, perhaps a new cell phone. You get the picture. One day we wake up and we find our identity crowded out by all the stuff in our house, in our life, in our head.

            Into the den of our despair, into the wasteland of our devices, we hear an otherworldly voice:

 Why do you spend your money on junk food,

   your hard-earned cash on cotton candy?

Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best,

   fill yourself with only the finest.

Pay attention, come close now,

   listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words.

   (Isa. 55:1-5, MSG)


            Scientists tell us that our taste buds change every seven years. Of course, they are changing each moment, as some cells die and others take their place. But this system of constant turnover runs its course in such a way that every seven years we find our mouths populated with a brand new set of taste buds. This is why turnip greens that tasted horrible when we were 5 years old may taste great when we are 55 years old. Our taste buds change and so can our operating system. The Apostle Paul challenged the church in Corinth, saying:

Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ.

I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. (1 Cor. 3:1-2)

This biblical concept of maturing in the faith by graduating from drinking milk to eating solid food, is fleshed out by Dr. James W. Fowler III in his delineation of the stages of faith consciousness. Fowler's stages follow along the lines of the stage-theorists Jean Piaget , Erik Erickson & Lawrence Kohlberg. Based on his interviews with over 5000 people, Fowler has described seven distinct stages of faith development from the primal faith development of an infant to the universalizing faith reached by some adults. Fowler's stages of faith development help us understand that growth in our Christian faith is a process that is never complete. Today I am using the metaphor of upgrading our operating system as a metaphor for how it is possible to grow in Christian faith. We can upgrade the operating system of our computers and we can upgrade our spiritual operating system. God says clearly in our text from Isaiah:

 "I don't think the way you think.

   The way you work isn't the way I work."

 "For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts..

            (Isa 55:8-11, MSG)

            Let me describe how the world may look if we upgrade our spiritual operating system to God's Windows Vista. Look around you and you will see many different people in the pew in front of you and in the choir loft. Notice the difference hair colors and styles and even the fact that one person is a female and another one is a male. Now, imagine you are sitting on an airplane several thousand feet directly above the place where we are now. You look out the window of the airplane and look down, way down, at this sanctuary which is below you. You see from the airplane this sanctuary is but a speck in size. You can see no individual people inside the sanctuary but you can see for miles around the sanctuary in every direction. Your vision is exceedingly broadened as you look down at this sanctuary from several thousand feet up in the air. If your airplane were a space shuttle and carried you a thousand miles above this planet and you looked down you would not be able to distinguish this sanctuary and the people in it. All you would see if a round, blue orb called earth. This is how God sees us using God's non-dualistic operating system. God does not focus on the differences between us. We are but part of the whole. When we upgrade our spiritual operating system we notice new patterns that show us God's imprint in all aspects of creation. We notice a growth in the fruits of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience and kindness. These are the fruits of upgrading our spiritual operating system.

One of the best ways I've found to upgrade my operating system is through the spiritual practice of centering prayer. This ancient form of Christian prayer predates any schism or heresy and it works. I have found centering prayer to be the most effective way of upgrading my operating system from my own version of Windows, let's call it "Jon's Windows XP" to God's version of Windows Vista. I encourage you all to take advantage of the introduction to centering prayer workshop that will be held in the Recreation Room of our church on the Saturday after Easter. Come experience centering prayer and see how you can upgrade your life's operating system to God's Windows Vista. So mark your calendar for the Introduction to Centering Prayer Workshop. Come learn the secret that Isaiah was referring to when he described God's Windows Vista using God's own voice: "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

God's Windows Vista is a profound operating system. Like a person looking out the window of airplane in flight, God's Windows Vista gives us a broader view of the world . God's Windows Vista does not destroy our current operating system. We can upgrade our operating system to God's Windows Vista. Centering prayer helps us do that. We can upgrade our home computers to Windows Vista and we can upgrade our mental, emotional and spiritual operating systems to God's Windows Vista. Isaiah challenges us to upgrade our operating system to God's Windows Vista. Centering prayer is an installation program that helps us upgrade our mental, emotional and spiritual operating system. Think about upgrading your operating system. This is not for everyone. It will require some time and some effort. It takes some time to learn how to run a new operating system but the result is worth the effort.