Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Greatest Gift

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Luke 1:26-38
at St. John's Presbyterian church in Houston on December 21, 2008 (Advent 4B)

Once upon a time there was a little Catholic boy who was very poor. He and his brothers and sisters lived with their widowed mother, who was barely able to feed them all. He worked in a store every day after school and on the weekends. All his clothes were patched and worn. He had only one toy—a little Matchbox car. Even that one plaything was broken: the roof was smashed in on one side, all but one of the windows were gone, and two of the wheels were missing. The little boy loved it very much. Since he had nothing else to play with, it became everything: a race car when he was a sportsman, a tank when he was a soldier, an ambulance when he was a doctor. Almost every moment of happiness he remembered had to do with that car.

It was Christmastime. The family was so poor that there would be no presents, but the little boy was excited all the same. He had always wanted to go to evening mass on Christmas eve, and this year, for the first time, he would be allowed to stay up for it. Everyone had told him how splendid it was: the candle lights and Christmas carols, the fine vestments. And before the mass itself began, there would be the blessing of the creche. It was a very large creche, a representation of the Nativity scene, similar to our living Nativity scene last week, except this one was made of plaster. There were plaster figures of Joseph and Mary, of the wise men with their camels and donkeys laden with gifts, of the shepherds with their sheep and sheepdogs, of the herald angels hovering overhead. And a plaster figure of the baby Jesus, with a halo still more glorious than Mary’s and Joseph’s, lay on real straw in the center of it all. (We have all seen him: He always wears the same bland beatific smile and lies with his arms spread wide, both welcoming his adorers and prefiguring his crucifixion.)

In this parish, it was the custom for everyone who came to evening mass to bring a gift for the Christchild. Before taking their places in the pews, people would lay some offering at the plaster child’s crib. Often these gifts were very fine—splendid chalices for the altar, new clothes for the poor, envelopes full of money. On Christmas morning, it seemed as if the baby Jesus had been visited by many caravans of wise men. The little boy wanted very much to give the Christchild a present.
But what could he give? He gave all the money from his after school job to his mother. He had nothing else. He decided that he would find another job and save enough to buy a present for the baby Jesus, and he did just that. All through Advent he got up before dawn and worked at another store until it was time to go to school. By the time Christmas Eve arrived, he had enough money to leave a good present at the creche. He sat at the table in the kitchen of his tiny house, counting what he had earned. While he was trying to decide whether he had time to buy a gift or should simply leave the money at the creche, his mother returned home. “Oh son,” she said. “What a good boy you are! Now we can have a real Christmas dinner!” And she scooped up the money and hurried off to shop before all the stores closed.
The little boy was heartbroken. He went to his room, trying not to be angry at his mother. He thought of what he had been taught to do whenever he was hurt or disappointed: “Offer it up to Jesus.” On the dresser, he saw his broken toy car. He had not had much time to play for weeks, but it had been waiting for him. And then he realized what he had to offer up to Jesus, and when he had combed his hair and dressed in his best clothes and was ready to set off for mass, the car was in his pocket.

He was going alone because his mother had to stay with the younger children. When he arrived the church was already filling up, and he was almost lost among the adults in their bulky coats. He felt very much alone, for almost everyone else seemed to be with family and friends. He walked up the aisle, genuflected just as he had been taught, and turned to the creche, which was set up before one of the side altars, the one dedicated to St. Joseph. Most of the plaster figures had been in place all week, but tonight, for the first time, the baby Jesus was in his manger. Gifts were piling up before him. Some were splendidly wrapped—perhaps toys for poor children whose mothers were not as fiercely proud as the little boy’s. Some were unwrapped, so you could see how expensive they were. The little boy stood shyly before the creche and laid his car amid all the treasures.

The organ had been playing preludes; soon the service would begin. The little boy squeezed into a pew close to the front so that he could see the prist bless the creche. Almost everyone was in place, and an usher took a last look at the creche to see that everything was ready. What the usher saw made him very angry. “Who would leave a piece of trash like this at Our Lord’s crib?” he said, loudly enough for the little boy to hear, and he picked up the car and threw it across the church, so that it came to rest at the far end of the sanctuary. The little boy could see it, lying on its roof with its two wheels spinning, looking like a wreck indeed. But he could not retrieve it, for the procession had begun and everyone had stood up to sing the first hymn.

The little boy was crying, but he stood up, too. The procession advanced down the aisle. The priests were in their fines robes, and before them were crosses and banners and a swinging censer filling the church with incense. But the procession came to a dead stop when it reached the crossing, and all the singing died away into awed silence. At first the little boy could not tell what had happened, but he wiped away his tears and looked to see what everyone was staring at: the baby Jesus had come to life and was crawling across he cold stone floor of the church. He crawled until he reached the far end of the sanctuary, tucked the broken car under his arm and crawled back to his creche. By this time all the people had fallen to their knees. At last the priest rose, and approached the manger: there, just as before, a plaster child with a bright halo was lying in the straw, but now he smiled like a happy child, and his arms were folded tight around a broken toy car.

That story was told by Brian Ragen, professor of English at Southern Illinois University. He says his father told him the story when he was a child. Mr. Ragen, a devout Catholic, used to think his father was a great hypocrite. He says: ”We went to mass with my father every Sunday morning. He also went to confession every Saturday afternoon. It was just what we were taught to do in our catechism classes. It was, everyone would have agreed, a good thing. I hated him for it. I knew that when he was not passed out, dead drunk, he was often a mean, foul mouthed terror. I was afraid of him and I despised him. I hated the idea that the ogre who darkened my life would be forgiven—and so easily, too.“
But the Professor’s opinion of his father changed over the years. He writes: ”As I think of my father’s Christmas story now, I realize that I cast him in the wrong role. My father was, indeed, not the good little boy who gave his last plaything to the Lord. My father was the smashed Matchbox car with a couple of wheels missing. He had failed in his public life, and he knew that his family considered him an enemy. I often wish I could know all the things that had made him what he was and sort out what was his fault from what was the result of the war and his other misfortunes. Whatever had darkened his life, it had been enough to break him: failure was the essence of his existence. He was a wreck. But despite—or because of—all this, he clearly longed to be cradled in his Saviour’s arms, to have Christ still seek him after he had been rejected by everyone else. And in the end, perhaps he was like the good little boy after all: he kept dragging himself to church and laying that sorry offering before his God, trusting that it would not be refused.

That story leaves us with a question. What will we give to the Christ Child this year? It’s hard to choose a gift for a giggling little baby who is the God’s Son, Light of Nations, Messiah, King of Kings and Lords of Lords, God in human flesh. What do you give him—a Bible (he helped write it)? A crucifix (don’t remind him)? A gift to charity in his honor (that’s a possibility)? But that’s not enough.

What will you give to the Christ child? Your choices are simple and extreme. You can give him nothing. . . Or you can give him everything (your heart, your bank account, your career, your family, your dreams, your sins). We know the choice that Mary made. As we read in our scripture reading this morning, "Then Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.'"

Follow Mary's example. Give Jesus that part of you that no one else knows. Or give him that item that you most cherish. Give him everything (I dare you). He will take you as you are. Bring your broken life and place it by baby Jesus. If you can’t find the courage to get close to the crib, just stand in the barn where he lies. Stand there in the corner, in the shadows and don’t you dare move. Just stand there and pray and wait. When you are ready to give him everything, He will crawl to you. He wants you and loves you that strongly. The greatest gift you can give to Jesus is the gift of yourself: Your soul, spirit, heart. That is what Jesus wants from you this Christmas.

Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, on this Sunday before Christmas, receive the gift of our lives, the good and the bad, for we come to you just as we are right now and offer ourselves to you. Thank you for accepting the sacred gift of ourselves that we give you today, for the gift of ourselves is the greatest gift we may give to you. In Christ's holy name we pray. Amen.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

When He Returns

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from 2 Peter 3:8-15a
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on December 6, 2008 (Advent 2B)

            Edgar Cayce predicted Armageddon will arrive, the earth's axis will shift, and both England and Japan will sink in to the ocean. New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco will be destroyed by earthquakes and floods. And the island of Atlantis will rise from the ocean floor. All of these things were supposed to happen by 2002.

            God's Salvation Church in Taiwan believes Jesus will come to earth in a spaceship during the middle of a nuclear war. Members of God's Salvation Church will climb aboard the spaceship at Lake Street Beach in Miller, Indiana and be saved.

            Evangelist Marilyn Agee predicted that the rapture would happen on Pentecost Sunday in 1999. The rapture, she believed, would trigger various events listed in the book of Revelation, including the war of Armageddon.   (Online:

            These recent illustrations are nothing new. In practically every generation of humans from the time of Jesus until today there have been people and groups of people who have sold all their possessions and moved out into a pasture in the middle of nowhere expecting Christ to return to earth on a particular day of a particular year. Imagine their disappointment on the day after -- when Jesus did not return as they had expected.

            Predictions of the end of the world were rampant even in Jesus' day and time. The resurrected Christ had told his disciples that he would ascend into heaven, but that he would one day return to earth. As we say in the creed, "He ascended into heaven . . . from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead." Almost from Day One the church has believed that Jesus will bodily return to earth. So Christians have waited and waited for the return of Christ and the Day of God's Judgment.

            The delay of Christ's return became an issue for early Christians. We can see movement in the way the Apostle Paul and other writers of the New Testament viewed the issue. For instance, our text today seems to make room for the possibility that Christ's return should not be expected immediately. We read in 2 Peter: "Don't overlook the obvious here, friends. With God, one day is as good as a thousand years, a thousand years as a day. God isn't late with his promise as some measure lateness."  (2 Peter 3:8) Apparently, God is not running late. Even if it sometimes feels that way. Rather, God has a reason for delaying the curtain call of human history. As our text puts it: "God is restraining himself on account of you, holding back the End because he doesn't want anyone lost. He's giving everyone space and time to change." (2 Peter 3:9)

            So here is another way of viewing the question of when Jesus will return. The longer Christ waits the better off we humans are because the extra time gives more people space and time to change. Even so, the Bible does teach that there will come a day of reckoning at some point in history. Perhaps tomorrow, perhaps a million years from now. But there will come a day of God's judgment.

            Some churches focus on that terrible day of God's judgment. And the churches that focus on such verses can produce some hard core preachers who specialize in tough talk.

            Tough talk. We don't hear much tough talk from Presbyterian pulpits. That may be why we worship in the Presbyterian Church. Perhaps, like me, you have heard the tough talk and are glad to get a break from it. Back in high school for awhile my family attended a small Baptist church and every Sunday you could count on tough talk from the preacher. The content of what he said did not matter. It was the tone of voice. The bulging veins in the neck. The red face.

            But while the image of disaster is one image of the final judgment there is another more positive image that accompanies it. It is the vision of a new heaven and a new earth. You see, the final judgment is not about God being so mad at the world that God destroys the whole thing with a ball of fire. Rather, the Bible is very specific about what God is mad at most and that is injustice. God is angry at a world that prospers the privileged and takes advantage of the poor. That will change when He returns. God is angry at a world in which the powerful abuse the powerless. That will change when He returns. In the new heaven and the new earth things will be different. Christ's return will usher in a new  heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

            The prophet Isaiah paints this portrait of the new heaven and the new earth:

The wolf will romp with the lamb,
    the leopard sleep with the kid.
    Calf and lion will eat from the same trough,
    and a little child will tend them. (Isaiah 11:6)

            In the meantime, we are to live in without spot or blemish. We are to lead lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God. And even as we work for God's justice on earth now, during our lifetimes, we appreciate the fact that Christ's return is being delayed. After all, the longer Christ waits the more chance people have to grow into the mystery of God's new heaven and earth.

            In the end, words fail us. There is no way to describe the scope and the wonder of what God intends to do in this world. We are left with mere images. Poetic language may be as close as we can get to the mystery. Poetic language such as this ...

Of every earthly plan that be known to man,
            Christ is unconcerned,
He plans of His own
            to set up His throne
When He returns.
(When He returns. Bob Dylan. Copyright (c) 1979 Special Rider Music)

             Christ will return. We anticipate that event during Advent. The writer of 2 Peter provides an explanation for why it hasn't happened. God's giving everyone space and time to change. Space and time to change. That is God's gift to you, to me, during this Advent season. Space and time to change. What a precious gift God gives us.
            As you think about what you will give to your family and friends, your colleagues and business associates, consider giving them the same gift God will be giving you this Christmas: Space and time to change.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

What are We Waiting For?

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 13:24-37 for Advent 1B
at St. John's Presbyterian Church on November 30, 2008

Mark 13:24-37

"But in those days, after that suffering,

    the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light,
    and the stars will be falling from heaven,
    and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in clouds' with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

"From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

"But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."


            There are some people called singularitarians who anticipate the arrival of a golden age of technology within the next few decades. For instance, they envision a solution to our oil dependence through new solar panels manufactured by nanotechnology. They say these highly advanced solar panels will be able to harness just 3 tenths of one percent of the sun's light every day and that will be more than enough to provide all the energy needs of all humans on this planet. Each of us will have our own solar power plant installed at home. This is just one example of some rather radical changes that lie just ahead as described by Ray Kurzweil in his new book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Kurzweil is a world-class inventor who is called a genius by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

            To appreciate the nature and significance of the coming "singularity," Kurzweil invites us to ponder the nature of exponential growth. He tells the tale of the inventor of chess and his patron, the emperor of China. In response to the emperor's offer of a reward for his new beloved game, the inventor asked for a single grain of rice on the first square, 2 on the second square, 4 on the third, 8 on the fourth, 16 on the fifth and so on with each consecutive square getting double what the previous square got. The Emperor quickly granted this seemingly benign and humble request. One version of the story has the emperor going bankrupt as the 63 doublings ultimately totaled 18 million trillion grains of rice. At ten grains of rice per square inch, this requires rice fields covering twice the surface area of the Earth, oceans included. Another version of the story has the inventor losing his head.

            It should be pointed out that as the emperor and the inventor went through the first half of the chess board, things were fairly uneventful. The inventor was given spoonfuls of rice, then bowls of rice, then barrels. By the end of the first half of the chess board, the inventor had accumulated one large field's worth (4 billion grains), and the emperor started to take notice. It was as they progressed through the second half of the chessboard that the situation quickly deteriorated. Incidentally, with regard to the doublings of computation, that's about where we stand now—according to Kurzweil—there have been slightly more than 32 doublings of performance since the first programmable computers were invented during World War II.

            Kurzweil's observation of the history of technology demonstrates that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense "intuitive linear" view. So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity — technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light. Now that, my friends, is a vision!

            According to the New Testament, Jesus had a similarly radical vision for the future. Jesus' vision was not based on technological progress. His vision was based on the idea of the coming of God's kingdom. A kingdom based on justice. Jesus' vision of the future requires the end of the world as we know it in order to bring in the world as God envisions it. A new heaven and a new earth. How will the heaven and earth be born?

            Jesus suggests this imagery:

"The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken." (Mark 13:24-25) Then they will see "the Son of Man coming in clouds" with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. (Mark 13:26-27)

            Presbyterians have always allowed for a broad range of interpretations of how God's new heaven and new earth will be birthed. But we are in agreement about about the result of the new heaven and the new earth. We agree that it will be characterized by justice.

            Justice is a word we do not use much in our daily lives. On the personal level, justice is the fine line between selfishness and selflessness. Justice is being fair in our dealings with people. Justice means we try to do what is "right." The new heaven and new earth is an image of a place and a time when everyone will be taken care of and loved in a way that is appropriate. All loose ends will be tied together. No more tears. No more sorrow. No more pain. No more death. Everything wrong will be made right. This is the new heaven and the new earth.          

            How can we envision it? Jesus uses the image of a fig tree. The fig tree appears early in the Bible, in the book of Genesis, the first book of the Bible. The leaves of the fig tree were used to cover the nakedness of the first humans, Adam and Eve, after they rebelled against God. The fig tree reminds us of how good humanity once had it in the garden of Eden and how we lost our innocence. I have been told that when you plant a fig tree it takes 3 years for the tree to bear fruit. And you have to pay attention to a fig tree. When the time comes and it finally bears fruit you better be ready to pick the figs before the birds get them. Patience is required. Anticipation is required. And so it with God's kingdom. We anticipate Christ's return which will usher in the new heaven and new earth. We anticipate God's justice which will come in full measure at that time.

We engage in an active waiting by engaging in acts of social justice. We move toward the coming of God's Kingdom when we contribute money or time to Braes Interfaith Ministries to feed the hungry. Or roll bandages to send to hospitals overseas. Or spend time in centering prayer. Such acts proclaim our commitment to Jesus' vision of a new heaven and a new earth where everyone has enough food to eat, the sick are treated with dignity and care, and all people have a meaningful personal relationship with God.

    We work toward God's new heaven and earth but we don't get caught up in calendar gazing and predictions about when it will materialize. We don't get caught up in such thinking because Jesus plainly tells us:

'But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come ... or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.

And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.' (Mark 13:32-35)

            Anticipation. Advent is about anticipation. So, what are waiting for? We are waiting for the return of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We anticipate a new heaven and a new earth. We anticpate God's justice rolling down like mountain streams. We look for these things during Advent.

            I cannot say whether Ray Kurzweil's singularlity will occur in the year 2045 as he predicts. But I can say that I believe in the end everything that is wrong will be made right by God. In the end, divine justice will prevail. This optimistic future vision compels me and other Christians to work for God's justice now. Anticipation does not mean we sit around in the rocking chair waiting for God to get busy and get it done. Anticipation means we are actively engaged in bringing God's justice to the world in our own time even as we await the final culmination of God's justice at a future date that no one knows.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Ode to Joy

Text:  "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice." Philippians 4:4 

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at Willowmeadows Methodist Church for the Southwest Houston Ministerial Alliance for the Thanksgiving Service on November 23, 2008

"Re" means to do something over again. "Re-search" means to search something out again. "Re-discover" means to discover something that has already been discovered. "Re-joice" means to have joy again. We have already rejoiced tonight as we have sung some beautiful music and listened to an inspired and talented choir. We rejoice in the hospitality of Westbury United Methodist Church who hosted this service on short notice. We especially rejoice in the devoted work of Randy Zercher and the staff of Westbury Methodist who produced this wonderful community Thanksgiving service this evening.

Some say they hear music even in the lyrics of a song. Words themselves have a certain musical quality. For instance, you may hear the difference in sound between the word "happiness" and the word "joy." Beyond the difference in sound, there is a difference in the experience of "joy" and "happiness." The difference in quality between "joy" and "happiness" has to do with with the direction of the energy that drives these words. Happiness is egocentonic which means it is directed toward me, myself and I. Joy is theocentonic which means it directed toward Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The difference between happiness and joy is in the direction of the energy pattern. If a positive energy pattern is directed back at myself, as if I were looking in a mirror and seeing my own reflection, that energy pattern is called happiness. Happiness is all about me: How I am feeling, how I am doing, whether I am having a bad hair day or a good hair day. If a positive energy pattern is directed from me toward God and is reflected from God back to me that energy pattern is called joy. Joy is all about God: Worshiping God, recognizing myself as an an adopted child of God, and devotion to God to the point of sacrifice. 

One of the features of the religion of the elite down through the ages has been a fanatical belief in the necessity of maintaining a so-called pure blood line. You may have heard the term "blue bloods" to refer to the elite families of society. Some people do not realize that the current royal family in Britian are not really British, meaning they do not share the same ancestry as the common people of Great Britain. Rather, the British royal family trace their history back to Germany and they NEVER intermarry with the commoners of England. Charles Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgewood as had been common practice in his family for generations for Darwins only married Wedgewoods so as to keep their blood line pure from those they considered to be riff raff. After Darwin's wife died, he married another Wedgewood, his mother's sister. Charles Darwin was practicing genetics in his own life and this practice goes back for thousands of years down through the royalty of the human race. Houston hosts a huge genetic industry and we may think that this is a new, new thing but it is really an old, old thing that goes back to elite breeding patterns.

Now, it is probably safe to say that no one in this room has married into the same family for generations. We are not royalty in that sense. We are not blue bloods by birth. Yet, according to the Bible we are better than blue bloods because we are children of the living God. We are sons and daughters of God. We Muslims, Jews and Christians have been adopted into the family of God and that is the basis of our joy. We have the joy of knowing that we have been adopted into God's family. We do have a place in this world. We deserve to be alive. We belong to a great family. We are spiritually high born. Our Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Our lineage is not of this world but is from heaven. Paul goes so far as to say that our citizenship is in heaven. 

Now heaven is a word we don't hear much about these days. If you look into it, the word heaven comes from the word haven. You see, in the early days of the human race, way back in the mists of time, the priests lived high up in the mountains in caves, far above the common people who lived down in the valley below. Mountain caves served as havens where the priests were protected from the floods down below. Over time, the word haven became heaven and the idea of heaven expanded as well. Heaven became the place up there in the sky to which we all will go some day if we live good lives and keep the rules and especially if we keep ourselves morally pure. In days gone by, religious people practiced delayed gratification as a way get into heaven after we die. Heaven came to be understood as the place where God dwells and to which we may gain entrance by our good works. Now, in this post-Judeo-Christian, post-modern, post-moral age, the idea of heaven seems to lost some of its appeal. Preachers don't preach much about heaven these days. Instead of seeing heaven as somewhere we go to be with God after we die we seem more focused now on a haven, a tax haven. Our culture's idea of heaven today is a Swiss bank account full of millions of dollars of tax free money. We see money in our retirement account as the haven, the safe place, we are looking for. Rarely do we think beyond money when we think of happiness because that is our culture has trained us to view happiness. And that myopic view of happiness as money is being severely challenged as we enter into a financial downturn when stocks are way and thousands of people are losing their jobs.

Fortunately, God offers a way out. A new way of seeing things. An alternative vision of how things are and how things should be. The Bible challenges us to "Re-joice" or to have joy once again. Our text today is very explicit that we are to "re-joice in the Lord." Notice that the direction of this "joy sing" is toward the Lord. Our challenge is to change the direction in which we seek happiness from focusing on ourselves to focusing on God. Re-joice in the LORD! Not in your stocks, not in your bank account, not in your career, car or clothes. Find joy once again in the Lord. The term RE-joice means we've expereienced this before. There has been a time in our life when we were God directed more than me directed. We have had moments of grace when we experienced God's joy as we watched an exquisite sunset over the ocean, felt like we were melting into a tree in the forest, or lost our sense of ourselves as we gazed into the eyes of a lover or a newborn baby. We know the feeling of joy. It is the feeling we get when we are overwhelmed by a sense of God's presence in our lives at this moment. We re-joice by redirecting our energy from ourselves onto God and God beams God's loving energy back upon us. 

The great classical composer, Ludwig Van Beethoven, started losing his hearing in his 20s, and was so depressed, he considered suicide. In October 1802, he wrote a moving letter about how deafness had left him angry and alone: "I was forced to set myself apart at an early age and to spend my life in solitude," he wrote. "And yet I was still unable to say to them: Speak more loudly, yell, for I am deaf."

A loud buzzing would fill his ears, and he'd stuff them with cotton. Ear trumpets - which in those days were hearing aids - helped at first, but not much.

By 1818, he was so deaf, visitors could communicate with him only by writing in small notebooks. He could no longer perform.

Still, he continued to hear wonderful music in his head and he wrote this music down on paper to create symphonies for orchestras; sonatas for piano, violin and other instruments; he wrote trios and quartets.

He believed in brotherhood and equality. He even dedicated a symphony - the "Eroica" - to Napoleon, only to rip up the dedication when Napoleon crowned himself emperor.

His last symphony, the Ninth, features an "Ode to Joy." Beethoven conducted it at its premiere, and when the last notes died away, someone turned him to face the audience. Only then did he realize they were applauding him.

He died in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1827, at age 56.

Ten thousand people turned out for his funeral.

Years later, a lock of his hair was analyzed and found to contain large amounts of lead - which may have accounted for his tantrums, stomachaches and deafness. We can still play the music he heard in his head. (Online: New York Post, Barbara Hoffman: Beethoven: Ode to Joy.)

Beethoven knew joy in the midst of suffering. Paul knew joy in suffering. Jesus knew joy in the midst of suffering. And so may we. This re-joy-sing (singing with joy to the LORD) is not something we do once a week when we go to church or synagogue. Our text today is that we are to "Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS." Re-joicing is to be a constant re-orientation of our energy from ourselves to God. ALWAYS means even in the difficult times. Even in the midst of a financial meltdown. Even when our pension fund is worth 40% less than it was a year ago. Even when a hurricane damages our house. Remember, Paul penned this text from prison. He was in chains when he wrote: "Re-joice in the Lord always." He kept his joy by directing his energy toward GOD even in difficult circumstances. Jesus also knew this secret. He endured the pain of the cross for the JOY that was set before him. There was no happiness in Jesus death but there was the JOY of knowing he was doing God's will even when it hurt, even when it was inconvenient, even when it meant denying his self to the point of death.

Since last we met our city, our community, and our congregations have struggled through Hurricane Ike. Some of our churches and homes are still in need of repair. For example, we were scheduled to have this service at Salem Lutheran Church but the hurricane damaged their brand new beautiful sanctuary and they couldn't host us. But Pastor David says they will host us next year! That is the re-joicing. Beethoven found joy in the midst of his personal tragedy because the energy of Beethoven's soul was directed into the beautiful music he heard in his mind and beyond his mind to the source of all those heavenly sounds, to God. Beethoven wrote "Ode to Joy" even in the midst of his suffering. Let's re-joice, let's show our solidarity with God and one another as we sing this great hymn to joy, written by a deaf composer who suffered from depression. Let us commit ourselves anew to re-joice (to again find JOY) in the LORD -- always -- even in the midst of suffering! We will use this Thanksgiving holiday to once again re-direct our energy from ourselves to God and so rediscover joy. "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Moses Still Speaks: 7. The Death of Moses

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Deuternomy 34:1-12 called "Moses Still Speaks: 7. The Death of Moses"
on November 2, 2008, at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (NRSV)

34Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4The Lord said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there."

5Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord's command. 6He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. 7Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. 8The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
9Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses. 10Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.


This is a week of transition in America as we elect a new president this Tuesday. I understand there is some anxiety about who will be elected this Tuesday. The question for Americans is not who will be our next president. The question for Americans is what kind of people we choose to be as a nation. Vote on Tuesday and wake up on Wednesday knowing that many of the same people will be still be in charge in Washington regardless of who is elected as president. Some say that Obama is too young to be president and some say John McCain is too old to be president. Yet age should not be the determining factor.
After all, according to the Bible, Moses was 120 years old when he died.

Moses had made it all the way from being rescued from a basket in the river and being reared in Pharaoh's court. 
He was a sheep herder in the desert.
He saw God in the burning bush.
He returned to Egypt to lead the people of Israel out of their slavery.
He wandered with the people for 40 years in the wilderness.

Today we find Moses standing on Mount Nebo where he sees the Promised Land laid out before him in all its glory. The Lord then says to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." (Deut 34:1-4) What a let down that must have been. Then again, when you are 120 years old, how much longer do you want to keep having to deal with the pressure of leadership? Yet, we get the impression from the text that Moses was ready to continue, as we read there that his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.

That reminds me of a story. An elderly man went to the doctor complaining of aches and pains all over his body. After a thorough examination, the doctor gives him a clean bill of health. "Hymie, you're in fine shape for an eighty-year-old. After all, I'm not a magician – I can't make you any younger," said the doctor.
Hymie responds, "Who asked you to make me younger? Just make sure I get older!" [Courtesy of Alan King's Great Jewish Joke Book (New York: Crown Publishers, 2002, page 96)] Younger people tend to underestimate the vigor of older folks.

I wonder how the people of Israel felt at the time of Moses death? Were they energized and ready to claim God's vision and move forward into the Promised Land? Or were they fatigued, worn out from wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, and needing rest and new energy before they could continue to claim the vision? I wonder where St. John's is today? Are we ready to move forward with God's vision or are we exhausted and in need of a vacation before we are ready to move forward? This congregation may be needing some rest, having experienced some heart ache in the past several years, or we may now be ready to move forward. During the recent Vision Brunch, I got the feeling that the congregation is ready to move forward again. I've heard some of you say you are tired of hearing about the New Wind choir. You don't want to hear about how many members the church had 20 years ago. You are ready to move forward.
Moses, in this congregation, is spelled M-c-P-h-a-i-l. Rev. McPhail is the one who brought the people of St. John's into the promised land on West Bellfort. This area was then flowing with milk and honey. Children and young families were everywhere. In the years since McPhail's retirement, the neighborhood around this church has become extremely diversified. It has come to the point now that when I am walking my dog around the neighborhood and I come across another person, I cannot predict which language that person will be speaking.

Last Sunday evening we had a Trunk or Treat party in the church parking lot. Christine and David Nelson did a great job or publicizing and organizing this event. Lots of children showed up  wearing costumes from cute to frightful. Several unchurched families from this neighborhood stopped by and joined in the fun. One thing I noticed about the crowd was the diversity. There were people of many different races at Trunk or Treat. The neighborhood surrounding this church is highly diverse. As we learn to intentionally engage the diversity of the population around us we will become more and more relevant and energized in our ministry. We may be ready to realistically assess where we are as a congregation now, in this time and place, and move forward from here. This congregation is making the transition from the glory days of the 1970's to a mission driven vision of ministry in the diverse climate of 2008.

Moses was replaced by Joshua son of Nun. Joshua was no Moses, but even so the people followed him, because he was the leader whom God had provided for them. Nations and congregations do well when they follow the leadership of the person whom God has called to lead them. So let's move forward together into the vision God has for this congregation regardless of whom is pastor. Let's move forward together into the vision God has for this nation regardless of whom is elected president.

There is one final twist to the story of the death of Moses. The Bible shows us that the death of Moses is not the end of Moses. Let's remember that on this All Saints Day. After his death as recorded in the Old Testament on Mt. Nebo, Moses shows up again in the New Testament on another mountain. Moses appears on the Mount of Transfiguration with the Prophet Elijah and Jesus Christ. So we see that death is not the end of a person. Death is a transition to a new beginning. This election on Tuesday is not the end of this nation, it is the transition to a new beginning. The racial and cultural diversification of the neighborhood surrounding this sanctuary is not the death of this community, it is simply a transition to a new beginning. The question that remains for each of us is whether we will wake up and seize the opportunities that lay before us as individuals, as a congregation, and as a nation. With God's help, we will rise to the challenges before us and lay claim to the new promised that God has placed before us. While it may look a little different than we thought it would, this new promised land of cultural diversity is also a land flowing with milk and honey.

We are moving into a new promised land. Our congregation has an invitation to dinner at the new Turkish community on West Bellfort next Sunday evening. A Ghanian Presbyterian group is worshiping here on Sunday afternoons and they seek a closer connection our church. The Session is exploring what it means to be an intentionally multicultural congregation. Step by step we are moving forward, owning our past, trusting God to show us the next step into the promised land of Meyerland and Westbury and surrounding areas. God has brought us to this time and place. This is our promised land. Let's step forward in faith together. God will meet us half way. God will show us the way forward. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Moses Still Speaks: 5. The Burning Bush

Pastor Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Exodus 3:1-15 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on October 26 (OT30a), Stewardship Dedication Sunday

Exodus 3:1-15 (The New Jerusalem Bible)

1 Moses was looking after the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led it to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
2 The angel of Yahweh appeared to him in a flame blazing from the middle of a bush. Moses looked; there was the bush blazing, but the bush was not being burnt up.
3 Moses said, 'I must go across and see this strange sight, and why the bush is not being burnt up.'
4 When Yahweh saw him going across to look, God called to him from the middle of the bush. 'Moses, Moses!' he said. 'Here I am,' he answered.
5 'Come no nearer,' he said. 'Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.
6 I am the God of your ancestors,' he said, 'the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.' At this Moses covered his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Yahweh then said, 'I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying for help on account of their taskmasters. Yes, I am well aware of their sufferings.
8 And I have come down to rescue them from the clutches of the Egyptians and bring them up out of that country, to a country rich and broad, to a country flowing with milk and honey, to the home of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites,
9 Yes indeed, the Israelites' cry for help has reached me, and I have also seen the cruel way in which the Egyptians are oppressing them.
10 So now I am sending you to Pharaoh, for you to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.'
11 Moses said to God, 'Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?'
12 'I shall be with you,' God said, 'and this is the sign by which you will know that I was the one who sent you. After you have led the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.'
13 Moses then said to God, 'Look, if I go to the Israelites and say to them, "The God of your ancestors has sent me to you," and they say to me, "What is his name?" what am I to tell them?'
14 God said to Moses, 'I am he who is.' And he said, 'This is what you are to say to the Israelites, "I am has sent me to you." '
15 God further said to Moses, 'You are to tell the Israelites, "Yahweh, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you." This is my name for all time, and thus I am to be invoked for all generations.

I always dread the part of the phone transaction where the salesperson asks my name. You see, there are two problems with my name: My first name and my last name. My first name is Jon spelled "J-O-N" instead of the more common "J-O-H-N." So when I tell my first name, John, I have to say, "J-O-N." And they reply: "You mean, J-O-H-N?" "No. I mean J-O-N." The reason for that spelling is that my real first name is Jonathan. "J-O-N-A-T-H-A-N." Thus, "J-O-N" for short. After convincing the person on the other end of the line that I really do know how to spell my first name, we must deal with the matter of my last name. "Burnum." "Is that "B-U-R-N-U-M?" "No. It's spelled like "Burn-Ham." "B-U-R-N-H-A-M." At this point in the conversation I usually find myself envious of the person whose name is "Joe Smith" or "Jane Doe." It really does get old having to explain my name to a stranger on the telephone because I need to check on my phone bill. But we must go through the ritual and they must get my name right or we cannot proceed with our business.

Names are meaningful. The name "Jonathan" comes from the Hebrew name יוֹנָתָן (Yonatan)) meaning "YAHWEH has given." Of all the Anglo-Saxon names to come from Britain, Burnham is one of the most ancient and comes from the Old English words "burna" or "stream," and "ham," or "homestead." (source) Today's story about Moses' encounter with God in a burning bush explains the origin of God's name, “Yahweh,” which means “I AM WHO I AM” or "I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE." God's name, Yahweh, emphasizes God's freedom in the present and future tense.

When I was young, my Uncle James was nearly burned alive but he lived. I remember going to see him when he was in the hospital. I felt so sorry for him. He was all bandaged up and could hardly move. He was in great pain. Due to an accident at work, 80% of his body had 3rd degree burns. Uncle James survived that fire. He had skin grafts. But his life was never the same. No one who gets burned that bad goes back to business as usual and neither did Moses. He is a shepherd, out tending his flock, when he comes across a bush that is burning but it is not being burned up. The bush is burning with Yahweh.

God calls to Moses from the burning bush. God gives Moses a mission to return to Egypt and bring God's people out of slavery into the promised land. After initially refusing, Moses finally responds to God's call and his life will never be the same. Here is a recurring pattern in the Bible. God calls people. People initially refuse. People finally give in to God's call. They do what God wants them to do and they are never the same.

Moses knows he will need back up on this return mission to Egypt. So Moses says to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”

While this is an ancient story, the Hebrews consider it to be their personal story. They do not refer to their ancestors as "they," but as "we." In the Jewish Ritual of the Feast there is this text: "In each generation, each one must consider himself or herself as having come out of Egypt personally. . . . It is not just our ancestors whom the Holy-One-Blessed-Be-He brought out of Egypt, but ourselves; he delivered us with them." (Leonard Sweet, SoulTsunami, 426)

In the Inquirer's Class we spend one Sunday investigating the Presbyterian story. I show a graph of Presbyterian history that begins at the top of the page with "OT People" and ends at the bottom with "1983 Reunion, forming Presbyterian Church (USA)." Our Presbyterian story starts with the "OT People" meaning the Old Testament people. The Bible is a record of our family stories. The Bible is a story about us.

Religion, Christianity, and church may never make sense to we until you put ourselves into the story. Our story begins with the Old Testament people and continues through the New Testament people and all down through the ages until now. When we present our pledges to God this morning we are participating in our own salvation story. We are connected by faith with Moses, Jesus and Paul.

But you may not be feeling very connected today. In fact you may be feeling disconnected.

I ran aground in a harbor town,
lost the taste for being free.
Thank God He sent some gull-chased ship
to carry me to sea. (Sings Bruce Cockburn)

Perhaps you feel as if your life has run ashore today. You may feel as if you are wandering around in a wilderness with no satisfaction. Or you may feel enslaved inside an empire as the Israelites of old were enslaved in Egypt. Today is a day to break free. Today is a day to find your way back to the sea of God's love. Today is a day to begin again on your journey toward the promised land. Today is the day to re-enter the story.

Here is one way to think about your pledge on this Stewardship Sunday. When you walk forward to place your pledge card in a plate you are buying your way back in to the story. This is something we must do over and over again, not once in a lifetime. We must put ourselves back into the story. You may find your way back into the story with a financial gift, a song, or an act of mercy. However you do it, finding your way back into the story is the greatest journey you will ever make.

The old hymn puts it precisely like this:

This is my story.
This is my song.
Praising my Savior
all the day long.

This is my story.
This is my song.
Praising my Savior
all the day long.

Make it your story today.

Sacred moments shared are one of the joys of serving as the pastor of a congregation. We share memorable moments such as the birth cry of a baby or the last breath of a beloved family member. It is exciting to hear a baby's first cry after birth: “Yaaaah-weh” ... “Yaaah-weh.” And that cry is sometimes heard during the child's baptism as well. Other times we listen to the dying breaths of a family member ..."Yah-waaaaaay” – "Yah-waaaaaay” – "Yah-waaaaaay” is the sound a dying person makes as they inhale and exhale as their body expires. They may make this sound over and over again for several hours and even days as their family listens and waits for the time when they will no longer make that sound or any sound. I have heard that sound in the past year on the lips of some dear members of this congregation.

The first sound a baby makes after birth and the last sound a person makes before death are different pronunciations of the same name: “Yaaaah-weh” and "Yah-waaaaaay” This is the name of God as revealed to Moses: "Yahweh." God's name is our first cry when we enter the world and our last breath when we leave this world. We declare God's name with every breath we take. Whether we feel it or not, we are already inside this story. We never left it. We never will. Yahweh. We pronounce God's name when we enter this life and as we leave it. We pronounce God's name with every breath along life's journey.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Moses Still Speaks: 4. Mysterious Ways

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Exodus 33:12-23
on October 19, 2008 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

We've been traveling through the wilderness with God and Moses and the Hebrew people these last few weeks. This morning we're going to listen in on another fascinating conversation between GOD and Moses. Moses starts by saying to GOD, "Look, You tell me, "I know you well and you are special to me. If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. Don't forget, this is Your people, Your responsibility." Moses suggests to GOD that God is being coy, vague, obscure. Moses wants a road map to the future because he is the leader of God's people.

GOD says, "My presence will go with you. I'll see the journey to the end."

Moses responds, "If your presence doesn't take the lead here, call this trip off right now. How else will it be known that you're with me in this, with me and your people? Are you traveling with us or not? How else will we know that we're special, I and your people, among all other people on this planet Earth?" Moses seeks reassurance from God. A little hand holding. Maybe a hug. Are you traveling with us or not? This is a strange question since God has just told Moses that GOD will go with him and see the journey to the end. It sounds like Moses wants to pin GOD down. Get God to put it down in writing. And no fine print at the bottom.

GOD says to Moses: "All right. Just as you say; this also I will do, for I know you well and you are special to me. I know you by name."

But that's not enough for Moses. Moses wants more from GOD. Moses says, "Please. Let me see your Glory." Moses wants to see the glory. Moses wants to see GOD's blazing brilliance shining like the sun. Moses wants to be dazzled by God. We may think GOD will deny his request. Moses, a mere mortal, requests a personal demonstration of God's glory.

But let's not be too hard on Moses here. This is what we want, too. We want to see GOD's glory! We want GOD to demonstrate some interest on our behalf. We want GOD to go out on a limb for us. Especially when life crashes down on us like a ton of bricks. When a hurricane hits. When test results say the cancer is malignant. LORD GOD, show us your glory please! We need to see your glory because our faith is weak. We need to see your glory because we are creatures with eyes. Seeing is believing. GOD knows our need for intervention.

GOD says to Moses, "I don't you owe you anything. But if it means that much to you, OK, "I'll make my Goodness pass right in front of you; I'll call out my name so You'll know it's me!"

GOD continues, "But you may not see my face. No one sees my face and lives." There GOD goes again, setting limits. I'll go this far with you, Moses, but I won't go an inch further. GOD demands God's space. There is a certain mystery that God will not reveal.

GOD gets very specific about the details of this revealing. GOD says, "Look, here is a place right beside me. Put yourself on this rock. When my Glory passes by, I'll put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with my hand until I've passed by. Then I'll take my hand away and you'll see my back. But you won't see my face."

In his song, Code of Silence, Bruce Springsteen sings:

There's a code of silence,
that we don't dare speak.
There's a wall between us
And a river so deep.
We keep pretending
that there's nothing wrong.
There's a code of silence
and it can't go on.

Some churches break the code of silence by confessing their sins in public during worship. I know, that sounds like a radical idea. I'm not sure I want to go there myself. Yet, somehow, we must tear down the wall that stands between us. We must forge the river that separates us. The code of silence can't go on. One of the things I've appreciated about the Centering Prayer group is the depth of the relationships that are developing. After sitting in silence with God, it feels natural to tell one another our hopes, fears, and disappointments. This is what prayer is all about, developing relationships with God and one another. That group meets at 4:30 PM on Sundays in my office and is open to newcomers. You may break the code of silence between us in several ways in this church: Through a church school class, singing in the choir, playing hand bells, serving on a ministry team, or visiting at a table at a brunch. Church is a place in society where we break the code of silence between ourselves and others.

When I was 13 years old, I wanted to break the code of silence between myself and God. Like Moses, I wanted to see God's face. I remember twirling in the seat of a swing set on the third grade playground of the public school in the small town where I lived. I was alone and I was praying for God to reveal Himself to me. I wanted to see God's face. I prayed with all sincerity. I begged God with all my might. And nothing happened. After awhile I gave up, stepped out of the swing and slowly walked home.

God tells Moses, "You won't see my face." Note the mystery that God maintains. God's design for a divine-human relationship is grounded in mystery. As Paul said, "Now we see God through a mirror, dimly, but when we die we shall see Him face to face. Now we know in part. Then we shall know fully, even as we have been fully known by God." The Bible assures us a fuller revelation about God will come to us after we die.

Until then, James reminds us that faith without works is dead. How we spend our money and our time is a measure of our Christian faith. Whether we pay a pledge or not, and regardless of how much or how little we give, we won't see GOD's face because we don't need to see God's face. The Lord GOD has already given us enough of God's self. Traveling with us through the wilderness to the Promised Land. And above all, coming to us in Jesus Christ, GOD's full revelation. Each Sunday in worship we proclaim our faith. We're saying God has done enough. We have learned trust. We share in the mystery. Remember the old gospel song:

When darkness veils GOD's lovely face,
I rest on GOD's unchanging grace;
In every high and stormy gale,
My anchor holds within the veil.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.

God wants us to learn to trust. To cast our lots with One who requires faith instead of proof. God limits what we can see and know about the divine mystery in this lifetime. GOD will cater to our desires but only so far and no further. Then it's back on us. Sometimes God chooses to withhold the divine mystery. Other times God does make Himself known.

One night God did answer my prayer. I was at a prayer meeting at someone's home. It was New Year's Eve. I consented to God's presence and action within with no expectations that anything would happen. But something did happen. That evening I shared in the mystery of God's love in energetic waves that seemed to spread from me to all eternity in both directions -- past and future. That experience changed my life forever. It removed my fear of death. For I know that when that final mystery is unveiled, I will find myself once again broken open to God's divine love that is stronger and deeper than any ocean on this planet. That night I did not see God's face. But if I had, I believe His warm smile would have welcomed me back into the arms of divine love. For when our baptism is complete in death, we are only falling back, back into the arms of God's love.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Moses Still Speaks: 3. The Golden Calf

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Exodus 32:1-14
on October 12, 2008 (OT28a)

When I graduated from college I worked for several months as the Interim Director of Christian Education at Fondren Presbyterian Church. That employement whetted my appetite for further work in the church. In order to move forward in Christian Education, I felt I needed to continue my education. The pastor recommended the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, but I couldn't afford to go there. I had too many college loans. But there was an elder in the church who responded to God's nudge and opened his wallet and gave me a scholarship. Thank God that elder interceded for me. Without him, I don't know where I would be today.

What about you? Who helped you get where you are today? Your parents? A teacher? A mentor? If we had the time, we could around the sanctuary and each of you could share your story of who helped you get where you are today. But we don't have time to do that today, in fact, this is an abbreviated service and sermon so we can get over to the vision brunch and share our dreams for St. John's. But before we leave here, let me tell you a story. 

Moses was taking forever up on Mount Sinai where God was giving him the Ten Commandments. The people finally got tired of waiting for him. They called on Moses' assistant, Aaron, to provide them with a real god on the spot. Aaron demanded everyone give him their gold rings and bracelets and ear rings. He took all that gold and melted it down and made it into a golden calf. Then he proclaimed a feast day. The people worshiped the golden calf and things got pretty wild. Just then Moses showed up carrying the Ten Commandments. When he saw what was going on with the people he was so mad he threw down the stone tablets, thus becoming the first person in the history of the world to break all ten commandments. God was not amused. God was so mad at the people that God wanted to destroy the people. 

Moses began to negotiate with God on behalf of the people. Moses told God, "This is terrible. This people has sinned—it's an enormous sin! They made a god of gold for themselves. And now, if you will only forgive their sin ... but if not, erase me out of the book you've written."

God said to Moses, "I'll only erase from my book those who sin against me. For right now, you go and lead the people to where I told you. Look, my Angel is going ahead of you. On the day, though, when I settle accounts, their sins will certainly be part of the settlement."

The people gave up on Moses but Moses did not give up on the people. God gave up on the people but Moses did not give up on the people. Moses brokered a deal between the people and God.

After church on Sunday morning, a young boy suddenly announced to his mother, "Mom, I've decided I'm going to be a minister when I grow up."
"That's okay with us," the mother said, "But what made you decide to be a minister?"
"Well," the boy replied, "I'll have to go to church on Sunday anyway, and I figure it will be more fun to stand up and yell than to sit still and listen."

Perhaps you can sit still long enough to hear this story. I promise not to shout. 

Next to the entrance of the public library on Stella Link there is a statue of a green calf. plastered with black dollar and cent signs. It reminds me of the golden calf the Israelites made while Moses was up on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. If we constructed a calf to worship today it would be green instead of gold. It would be green because that is the color of money. And yes, it would probably be covered with black painted dollar signs and cents signs like the green calf at the public library. We live in a scientific world where everything is measured including each of us. From an early age, we are taught to measure people by how much money they have, by what kind of car they drive, and by the cost of their clothes and their house.

I wonder about the meaning of that green cow statue at the public library. Was the artitist who made it trying to point out how we humans give a monetary value to everything in our world, even the animals? This cow is worth this much money. This part of the cow is worth this much money. That part of this cow is worth this many dollars and that much cents. That system has served us most of our lives. What do we do when that system seems to be faltering as it seems to be doing now? Is there another way to measure the value of a cow? Is there another way to measure the value of a person? Jesus had the radical idea that our value as people comes not from WHO we but WHOSE we are. We have been adopted into God's family. Our Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills. 

To a large extent, the Christian religion is built on the concept of interceding. We pray in the Lord's prayer, "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." Thank God someone forgave my debts and provided a scholarship for me to go study Christian education. If that Presbyterian elder hadn't paid that debt for me, I don't know what I would be doing today. In those moments when we make decisions about what we will say or not say; what we will do or not do; what we will give or not give, we are making history. We are determining the future of ourselves and of those whom we enable or deny. Moses stood up for his people even when they turned against him. God had mercy on the people of Israel because Moses had mercy on the people of Israel. In the end, it all comes down to mercy. Who gives it? Who gets it? Money is the currency of the physical world. Mercy is the currency of the spiritual world. 

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Moses Still Speaks: The Ten Commandments

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on October 5, 2008 (OT27a)

While many people agree that the Ten Commandments are important, few people can remember all ten of them. So Co-Pastors Bruce & Carolyn Winfrey Gillette developed a way that children as well as adults can learn the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), using their ten fingers. Let's quickly review them.

Start with your hands together in prayer. This reminds us that God heard the prayers of the Hebrew people when they were in slavery in Egypt and freed them (Exodus 3:7, 20:2). The commandments are a way for us to show our gratitude for God's love in our lives and to further just and  peaceful relationships in God's world.

The first 4 commandments are given to foster our relationship with God.

1. "I am the Lord your God; you shall have no other gods before me." Hold up one index finger for the number one. We worship one God.

2. "You shall not worship idols."  Idols, false gods, are not only things like statues, but anything in which we place our ultimate trust and allegiance-- for example, money, possessions or weapons. Hold up two fingers. Should we worship more than one God? No, two is too many! One of them must be an idol, and we should not worship it!

3. "You shall not take the Lord's name in vain."  Use three fingers to form the letter "W' which stands for "words." Watch your words! God wants us to use his name in loving, caring ways, as we pray and as we talk about him, not in swearing or in anger.

4. "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy."  Hold up four fingers, and fold your thumb under to let it rest. The thumb has the right idea. It's the Sabbath, and the thumb is following the commandment to take a day of rest. God does not want anyone to overwork or be stressed, so we need a day to rest, to be at peace, and to worship with others. God also gave us the Sabbath so that working people would not be taken advantage of by their employers (Deut. 5:14)

The other 6 commandments give us boundaries meant to facilitate our relationship with other people.

5. "Honor your father and your mother."  Hold up all five fingers on one hand as if you are taking a pledge, to honor your parents. God wants there to be peace and love in all our family relationships.

6. "You shall not kill." Pretend the index finger on your second hand is a gun, shooting at the first five fingers. God's sixth commandment teaches us not to do anything that would hurt another person unfairly.

7. "You shall not commit adultery."  Or, as one child thought he heard it, "Thou shalt not admit adultery." Hold one hand out flat. The five fingers and hand become the floor of the church. Two fingers on the other hand are the man and woman to be married, standing in the church, making promises to each other. This seventh commandment calls for couples to keep the marriage promises they make.

8. "You shall not steal."  Hold up four fingers on each hand, for the eighth commandment. If you stretch out your fingers slightly, these become the prison bars, which hold someone who was been arrested for stealing. Our Presbyterian Church (USA)'s Study Catechism says "God forbids all theft and robbery, including schemes, tricks or systems that unjustly take what belongs to someone else." (Question # 112)

9. "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor." Hold up all five fingers on one hand and four on the other. Fold your second thumb under and turn your hand around, so the thumb is hiding. It is secretly going around telling the other four fingers on that hand lies and rumors about the five fingers on the other hand. It is "bearing false witness," as it talks behind people's backs, spreading gossip, criticizing others without talking directly to the people involved. Dietrich Bonhoeffer set up a Christian community in Germany during the Nazi regime. One of the rules of the community was this: "No one may talk about any other member of the community unless that person is present." As one of the community members later said, "Of course we didn't always keep that rule but the very idea of having it as a goal completely changed the nature of our community." I wonder how our church fellowship would change if we followed the ninth commandment.

10. "Do not covet what belongs to your neighbor." Hold out your hands, palms up, and wiggle all ten fingers to show that they've got the "gimmies." Your fingers are saying, "Gimmie what belongs to my neighbor. I want all those things my neighbor has."  This is not the way God wants us to live.

John Calvin encouraged Christians in his day to sing the Ten Commandments followed by "Lord, have mercy" after each commandment. End with your hands together in prayer, asking that, by God's grace, we may live out these teachings in our everyday lives and expressing thanks that the God of peace is with us all (Philippians 4:9). This educational resource for remembering the Ten Commandments was adapted by Bruce & Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (co-pastors of Limestone Presbyterian Church, in Wilmington, DE)A Christian Primer: The Prayer, the Creed, the Commandments by Albert Curry Winn (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990) is an excellent resource for personal and small group study.

Jesus shortened the 10 Commandments down to 2: Love God with all your heart and mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself. (Mark 12:28-34) Love God and love your neighbor. Have you ever known a person of integrity who loved God and neighbor?

I know a person of integrity, a Presbyterian elder named George. The first time I met him was when I met my new congregation at a church picnic in a previous call.  After the meal, this man named George proudly introduced me to his family and then he starting talking to me. He told me story after story. Maybe I was too self conscious since this was my first time to meet with this new congregation, but this man seemed to be totally unselfconscious almost in the way a special child is unaware of himself. He acted as if he had known me his entire life although we had only just met.

Over the course of the next several years I came to greatly respect this elder for his judgment and his integrity. Whenever he agreed to take on a job he saw it through. He did his work with diligence and attention to detail. He knew how to work with people. I never heard him say one word against anyone in the church except one time. He had served on the Personnel Committee and one of the church employees needed to be reigned in and George tried to do it with tolerant respect. He gave the employee time and many opportunities but the employee never responded with respect. George finally and reluctantly led the Session through a process of ending the church's relationship with that employee in a way that was  very generous to the employee and his family. This was a delicate situation because this church employee had family members in the church who were active leaders in the choir and other areas of the church. I remember the Session meeting when George finally said it was time to move on without this employee. He did it with such grace and dignity toward the employee and the church. In time I came to realize that George had a genius for dealing with people. He was the radio announcer for the high school football team in his small home town. He could talk to anyone in any walk of life from the homeless person to the president. His father had been the town doctor for many years. George said his father, a surgeon, had told him George would never be able to make a living with his hands so he would have to make a living with his head. George graduated from law school and eventually went into politics. Today George is a State Supreme Court Justice and he hasn't changed a bit.

We know integrity when we see it in a person. It shines. It illuminates. It attracts. Jesus was a person of integrity. He was the light of the world. He trimmed the 10 commandments down to 2: Love God and love your neighbor. Here is how the New Testament puts it according to a modern translation:

If anyone boasts, "I love God," and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won't love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can't see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You've got to love both. (1 John 4:20-21)

On this World Communion Sunday as we gather around the Lord's table with Christians in Houston, Africa, and all around the world, we remember that we have in common the Ten Commandments of Moses and the two commandments of Jesus to love God and love our neighbor. May God give us the grace to be people of love and integrity today.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Moses Still Speaks: 1. Manna from Heaven

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Exodus 16:2-15 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on September 28, 2008 (OT25a)

This was an interesting week as Washington negotiated a $700 billion bail out for Wall Street. Pundits proclaim this is the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression. They do not report the fact that robber barons similar to those on Wall Street today looted the United States three times in a row before the Great Depression back in the 1800s. Our children don't learn about that part of our American history because the people who run our education system are the same ones who did the robbing. It's sad to witness them doing it again right now, especially as we continue to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Ike.

Let it be known that the wealthy elites of this world are complainers. Like the Israelites of old, they complain and they get results. Meanwhile, the poor folks who are living on the street today because they defaulted on their mortgages are not supposed to complain. According to our New Age religion, these people are supposed to live "in the now, in the present moment" and be grateful for what they have. Never mind they and their families may now be homeless. The poor unfortunates are not supposed to complain. Only the rich elites have the right to complain. It's enough to make you wonder if the rich elites created the New Age religion and use it as a means of controlling the poor masses.

Singer Leonard Cohen describes the situation in his song, "Everybody Knows."

        Everybody knows that the dice are loaded
        Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed
        Everybody knows that the war is over
        Everybody knows the good guys lost
        Everybody knows the fight was fixed
        The poor stay poor, the rich get rich
        Thats how it goes
        Everybody knows  

Put our present situation into the Bible story today and we notice a snug fit. This sermon is the start of a series about Moses. Everybody knows how the world works but no one knows the true identity of the mysterious Biblical figure named Moses. I'm leaning toward agreement with scholars who think he a mythical figure representing the Egyptian Pharaoh, Akenaten. We are on shaky ground to claim if we claim these stories about Moses are historically accurate or literally true. What is undeniable is that these stories fashioned the identity of the Jewish people for many hundreds and thousands of years and still shape our Christian lives today. So let's listen to these stories and let them teach us about God, ourselves and the world system in which we live. We may learn from these ancient stories that not much has changed. The poor stay poor. The rich get rich. That's how it goes. Everybody knows.

In our story today we find Moses again in the desert as when God first appeared to him in a burning bush and challenged him to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt into the promised land.

Moses surrenders to God's call even though it requires personal danger. He agrees to do it only if God provides a co-leader, which God does in the person of Aaron. Moses and Aaron work through the problems to get the enslaved Hebrews safely out of Egypt and finally escape into freedom in the desert. As they sigh in relief they hear the people moaning as they grumble against Moses and Aaron, saying: "You have brought us out into this desert to starve to death this entire assembly." Now, isn't that the way it goes? After all Moses and Aaron had been through in this national liberation project, including risking life and limb, the freed Israelites claim they have finally figured out their leader's motivation. Moses and Aaron plan to starve them to death in the desert. The Israelites grumble against Moses and Aaron and they groan out a chaotic chorus that throws all logic to the wind. The amazing thing about this story is not that people grumble. That happens all the time. The amazing thing is that this story does not say complaining is wrong. It says that complaining works. Complaining gets results.

We haven't had to look very far to find something to complain about around here lately. No power. No air conditioning. No TV. Sweat but no internet. Traffic signals don't work. Or, I should say, half the traffic signals work and half of them don't, which is even more dangerous because it is not always clear whether one should act as if a working traffic signal is now functioning as a stop sign or a traffic light.  And that's just what's happening in Houston. On the national stage, negotiations among our so-called representatives are about to achieve the biggest handover of wealth from tax payers to wealthy bankers in the history of the world. American taxpayers are once again victims of financial blackmail sponsored by Wall Street and the US Government.

No wonder we want to complain. According to our story today, complaining gets results. The Israelites complain they are hungry and God sends them manna or bread from heaven. Notice the pattern: Problem; Complaining; Solution. It's as simple as manna from heaven. Is that not the formula Wall Street has followed this week? Problem: They can't pay their bills. Complaining: They complain to the US government that they $700 billion to cover their bills. Solution: The US government gives them manna from heaven in the form of a $700 billion bailout. Problem. Complaining. Solution. That's how it works for the big boys. How does it work for us here at St. John's?

The teacher was going to explain evolution to the children.

        The teacher asked a little boy:
        "Tommy do you see the tree out side?"
        "Tommy, do you see the grass out side?"
        "Go out side and look up and see if you can see the sky."
        "OK." He returned a few minutes later and said, "Yes, I saw the sky."
        "Did you see God, Tommy?"
        "That's my point. We can't see God because God isn't there."

        A little girl spoke up and wanted to ask the boy some questions. The teacher agreed and the little asked the boy:
        "Tommy, do you see the tree outside?"
        "Tommy do you see the grass outside?"
        "Yessssss," said Tommy, who was getting tired of the questions by this time.
        "Did you see the sky?"
        "Tommy, do you see the teacher?"
        "Tommy, do you see the teacher's brain?"
        "Does that mean she doesn't have one?"
        Tommy remained silent. Tommy was a good politician.

Is the Lord among us or not? That is what the people of Israel wanted to know way back then and that is what we at St. John's want to know today. Will God hear our cry when we are desperate?

A Presbyterian woman is on top of a roof during a great flood. A man comes by in a boat and says "get in, get in!" The Presbyterian woman replies, "No! I have faith that God will grant me a miracle."

Later the water is up to his waist and another boat comes by and the guy tells him to get in again. The Presbyterian woman responds that she has faith in God and God will give her a miracle. With the water at about chest high, another boat comes to rescue him, but she turns down the offer again saying, "God will grant me a miracle."

With the water at chin high, a helicopter throws down a ladder and they tell her to get in. Complaining, with the water in her mouth, the Presbyterian woman again turns down the request for help because of her faith of God. She finally drowns and arrives at the gates of heaven with broken faith and complains to Peter, "I thought God would grand me a miracle and I have been let down." St. Peter chuckles and responds, "I don't know what you're complaining about, we sent you three boats and a helicopter." You refused to be helped.
The danger for us is not in the complaining. We Presbyterians are competent complainers. The danger for us is that we will refuse to receive manna from heaven when God sends it to us. For example, some of us were distraught earlier this year because we lost a staff member in the area of Christian Education. Like the children of Israel some of us complained to the Pastor and the Session of this church. Like Moses and Aaron, the Pastor and the Session took your complaints to God. I am here today to report that God has heard your complaint and has answered your prayers in the person of Mary Sterner. She is God's manna from heaven to St. John's. She is evidence that God has not forgotten about St. John's needs, hopes, and dreams. Today we receive Mary Sterner into our congregation as evidence that God has heard our complaint and answered our prayer and sent her to us as manna from heaven. Thank you, Lord, for sending Mary to us as manna from heaven. You heard our complaint and answered our prayer and sent her to us as manna from heaven.

The manna from heaven principle works on the macro level and on the micro level. For big Wall Street financiers their manna from heaven is a $700 billion bail out from US taxpayers. We little people have smaller demands. For some of us here today, manna from heaven came to us when electricity was restored in our homes. We complain about not having power and our scripture today says nothing against complaining. There are other Biblical texts that speak against complaining but not our story today. This story describes the way our system operates. The one who complains gets rewarded. This is particularly true if the one who complains already has money, status and power. Those who do not have money, status, or power are told not to complain but to live in the now, grateful for the air they breath, which, at present, is still tax free, but the United Nations is working on that one too, and will shortly have us all paying a carbon tax in addition to all the rest. That's how it goes. Everybody knows.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Jesus Calms Chaos

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 4:35-41 after Hurricane Ike 
on September 14, 2008 (OT24A)

Wow. What an ordeal we've been through with Hurricane Ike. And we are still going through it. We have learned a lot about ourselves these past several days. We've learned to appreciate our neighbors. We've been reminded of our reliance upon electricity for all phases of our lives. And we've been reminded that during the storms of life, Jesus is there. Jesus calms chaos.

And boy, do we have some chaos going these days. We face chaos on the international level. We are afraid we are running out of oil. We are afraid of climate change. We are afraid Iran may develop a nuclear bomb. We are afraid we may lose our retirement savings as stocks gyrate like a pine tree in a hurricane. And we are still trembling from the effects of Hurricane Ike. The world is awash in a sea of fear. 

We face chaos on the national level. We are afraid to pull our troops out of Iraq. We are afraid not to pull our troops our of Iraq. We watch Fox News or CNN and it provides a backdrop of fear for our lives. Fear interlaced with meaningless trivia. We read the headlines and tremble with fear. Dozens killed in Pakistan attack. Bush defends US debt rescue plan. Brittany Spears likely going to trial next month. Street clashes erupt in Germany. We are afraid on the national level. 

We are afraid on the personal level. We are afraid of being outclassed. We are afraid someone looks better than we do. We are afraid we will get fired and find ourselves living on the street. We are afraid of getting old. We are afraid we are running out of time. We are afraid we will die.

Fear is a natural reaction to our chaotic world. Just when we think things are going our way the bottom falls out, the hurricane hits, the car wreck happens, we lose our job, we lose our health, the list goes on and on. There is an endless list of possibilities for disaster. No wonder we are afraid.

And in the midst of this sea of fear we seek for the steady hand of Jesus. And sometimes, like the disciples who were onboard the boat with Jesus when the storm hit, we find to our consternation that Jesus is not standing where we thought he would be. Instead of being present on the deck, ready for action, Jesus was asleep in the stern of the boat. The disciples were appalled. And afraid. The storm on the sea was more than they could handle. Some of them were experienced fishermen but they had never seen a storm so severe. Even the experienced ones were afraid. They finally located the Master. He was laying on a cushion in the stern of the boat, oblivious to the storm, sound asleep.

We come to Jesus in the midst of our storm only to find him asleep. Taking rest. Oblivious to our concerns. On another level. Out of touch. Even though Jesus may be missing in action in the midst of our personal storms we know how to find him when we need him. We all know how to pray in a crisis. We know how to find Jesus in times of desperation. Like the disciples on the boat in the midst of a storm at night we rummage around in the dark. Probing here. Peaking there. Stumbling. Falling. Waving. Shouting. Looking for Jesus. Seeking him out in the middle of a storm.

Then, thanks be to God, we finally locate Jesus. We are shocked to discover he is asleep. We hate to wake him up. We feel sorry that it seems we only look for him when we are desperate. When our child is sick. When our mother is dying. When we are facing surgery. When we are listening to the howling winds of a hurricane at 2 AM in the morning. Yet we cannot help but wake him up. He is our only hope for survival. So we reluctantly touch his shoulder. "Jesus. Master. Wake up." He doesn't budge. We put our fingers on his shoulder and move them. "Jesus. Get up. We're in a storm." He is still sound asleep. Finally, in desperation we put both hands on his shoulders and shake him and cry, "Jesus. Get up! Help! Help! We're dying here!"

Jesus starts to wake up. He rolls over. He moans, "What?! What?! What do you want?!"

We say, "Jesus, I'm sorry to awaken you but we are about to die at sea. The storm outside is like nothing we've seen before. You're just down here sleeping through it. Don't you even care that we're going down?!"

Jesus rolls over on his hands and knees and stretches himself aright in the tossy turvy boat. He tries to stand up but the boat suddenly pitches to the right and he falls down. So he starts crawling. Crawling across the floor to the hatch that leads to the deck. We watch him and don't know what to do. He shouldn't go up on that deck because he may get thrown overboard. But we want him up there where the trouble is because he is the only one who may be able to handle the situation. Crawling. He makes it to the deck. He climbs up on the wet surface of the rocking deck. It is dark. Other disciples are stumbling around, hanging on, cursing and crying. Not even aware Jesus is now on deck.

Awake now, Jesus speaks to the wind as if it were a dog barking in the night: "Be quiet! Pipe down." And then he addressed the storming sea: "Stop it. Settle down!" The disciples looked out at the wind and sea as if to say, "Yea, take that!" The boat kept rocking from the waves but not as hard. The pitch was not as high. The hurricane force wind immediately became quieter. The deck of the boat slowly rocked from right to left until it stood still. The wind ran out of breath; the sea became smooth as glass.

Jesus reprimanded the disciples: "Why are you such cowards? Don't you have any faith at all?"

They were in absolute awe, staggered. "Who is this, anyway?" they asked. "Wind and sea at his beck and call!"

That's the way it goes. When crisis strikes our memory fails us. When tragedy hits our courage flees. We think this time is not like last time. This time it is different. This time we will not survive. This time the deficit is too high, thinks the Session, we'll never make up the deficit in the church budget before the end of the year. We'll never find someone to replace that church staff member. We're done for now. 

But Jesus is still here. He hasn't left us. We may wonder where he is in the midst of a crisis. We will find him if we look. Seek and ye shall find, said Jesus. Knock and the door will be opened unto you.

"Don't bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn't a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we're in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? You wouldn't think of such a thing. You're decent to your own children. So don't you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?" (Matt 7:6-8, MSG)

"Someday after mastering winds, waves, tides and gravity, we shall harness the energies of love," writes Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. "And then, for the second time in the history of the world, humanity will discover fire."

The opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear is love. "My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love

comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn't know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can't know him if you don't love." (1 John 4:7-8 MSG)

Let us burn with the love of God. Let us burn with love for one another. We are a community of faith. We take care of another. We reach out to the world in Jesus' name.

I wonder what Jesus' disciples learned from their experience at sea when Jesus calmed the storm. I wonder if in their desperate struggle to keep their boat afloat they learned to appreciate one another in a new ways. They learned that Peter is the best one with the nets. James is reliable in times of danger. He can bring in the sail. John is good with security. He can get the anchor secured and get it overboard in seconds flat when time is of the essence.

You learn a lot about someone when you go through a storm together. You learn you neighbor Doug is good with a chainsaw. He can help you cut down the tree limbs that are broken. You learn your neighbor Margaret is a good cook and she is generous in sharing with you what she cooks on her gas stove when you are hungry and your electric stove is useless. You learn your neighbor Shawn is a hard worker who will climb up on your roof and sweep it off if you are too scared or too feeble to do it yourself. It is truly amazing what we learn about our neighbors during a storm.

I think this community will learn something about us through this storm. I think they will learn that we are a generous people. We are a resilient people. We are an open people. It is so good to have the Bethel Presbyterian Church worship with us today. Thank you, Pastor Ebenezer, and congregation. You remind us today, on this first Sunday of worship after Hurricane Ike, that we need one another and we can rely on one another when the storm hits hard and heavy.

Thanks be to God we have one another to help us through the storm. And thanks be to God we have Jesus to help us, too. He may seem to be asleep when the winds are heavy and the storm is long, but he is still here. Let's wake him. Jesus! We need you here today! We have been through a terrible storm. We are still going through the aftermath. Please, Jesus, come and calm the chaos in our lives, in our church, community, in our city.

When Jesus wakes up a new day will dawn. When Jesus wakes up there will be justice in America. When Jesus wakes up the winds will be breathless. When Jesus wakes up the waters will be still. No storm is too strong for Jesus. No wind is too high. No waves are too wild. Not even Hurricane Ike is too hard for Jesus. The chaos is our lives is not beyond his reach. Jesus calms chaos. Let him calm yours today.