Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Future of Church

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from 1 Peter 1:3-9 on March 30, 2008
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

    My, how times change. If you had told my mother when she was 16 years old that one day she would be able to put a bag of popcorn in a small box and push a few buttons and a few minutes later have in her hand a steaming hot bag of popcorn she would have laughed in your face. Today my mother can log onto her laptop computer and buy an 800 watt Sharp compact Microwave for $62.99 and will deliver it to her doorstep for free. Forget the lemonade, we are drowning in data. It is estimated that a week's worth of New York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 1800s. More than 3000 new books are published every day. In this era of accelerating change and information overload, we wonder how the church may reach the next generation of Christians. This issue is of vital importance because Christianity is always one generation away from extinction.
   Our outreach population is known as Generation X (also known as Busters, 13ers) who were born between 1961 - 1981; and Millennials (also called Blasters, Generation Y) who were born from 1982 - 2003. People in their mid-40s to early childhood are the target audience for this congregation. While my mother's generation has lived through dramatic changes in society, people who are today in their mid-40s, 30s and 20s are living through a time of exponential change. For example, the amount of new technical information is doubling every two years. For students starting a four year technical or college this means that half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated in their third year of study. By 2010, only 2 years from now, the amount of new technical information is predicted to double every 72 hours. Now that's cooking! Our target audience is this younger generation who are technologically savvy and riding a wave of exponential change.
   In his book The Once and Future Church: Reinventing the Congregation for a New Mission Frontier, Loren Meade suggests we need to "reinvent the church." He says we are in the beginning stages of the greatest transformation of the church for 1,600 years. He says this is the greatest challenge the church ever experienced in America and may eventually make the Protestant Reformation look like a ripple in a pond. Things have fundamentally changed in the church in the last 50 years.
   Meade divides the history of the church into three paradigms based on three time periods. The first period in the church, the time from 0-325 A.D., Meade calls the Apostolic Paradigm. The early church consisted of a group of believers who were a distinct minority within the larger culture. The boundaries between the church and the world were clear during the times of the Apostolic Paradigm. Meade says the second period in the history of the church is the era from 325-1965, which he calls the Christendom Paradigm. This period began when the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and insisted that all his subjects, which included most of the people in the world, should be baptized and become Christians or they would be killed. The boundaries between the church and world were less clear during the Christendom Paradigm. Meade calls the third period in the history of the church "The Time Between Paradigms." This time began in about 1965 and and will continue indefinitely into the future at least throughout our lifetimes and perhaps for several generations.
   In 1965 the Christendom model started to break down. Since the 1960s the Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and all the other mainline denominations have been losing members. Meade says the situation the churches are in is much worse than we have been led to think by leaders whistling in the dark, telling us that the troubles have "bottomed out" or that "we are turning around." He says we will not recover by returning to the simplistic ways we have used before. This is not something we can generate a program to fix. A project to increase church membership will not work. Meade says we are in the midst of a storm that is not likely to blow over in our lifetimes.
   During these turbulent times in the church we turn to the Bible for instruction and encouragement. There is no easy way out for the church today and that was also true for the early church who received the Epistle called 1 Peter. Our text for today talks about being "tested by fire." So are we Christians today. It is time to reclaim our New Testament roots. Meade suggests we emulate Jesus' ministry. Recall how Jesus performed his first ministry at the wedding in Cana. The wedding party ran out of wine. They presented their problem to Jesus and he responded to the need by turning water into wine. So Jesus cooked up a creative response to a real need. Jesus' strategy was to meet specific needs as they arise. That strategy will work for us as well. As chefs in training, we watch how Christ cooks and feeds and meets the needs of people. We learn to cook like Christ.
   In 1692 a catholic monk named Brother Lawrence wrote a book called God-Illuminated Cook: The Practice of the Presence of God. Amid his pots and pans, Brother Lawrence became known for his serenity and joy while he chopped potatoes and washed dishes. Cardinals, theologians, and even the Pope came to learn his secret. What they learned is that Brother Lawrence practiced the presence of God during every moment of every day. He communed with God while chopping onions and cleaning plates. Brother Lawrence demonstrated how to practice the presence of God. We too may practice the presence of God while cooking, driving, working, or volunteering. As we learn to practice the presence of God we come to see our mission field is right under our feet. Our mission field is right here on West Bellfort in Southwest Houston, in our homes, where we shop. Wherever we are God is there with us.
   We at St. John's, along with all Christian churches, face a great challenge. God's message to us is do not retreat! Go forward. Now is the time to dream big dreams. Now is the time to clarify our vision for the future. This church has a bright future. God is doing great work in this congregation and through this congregation. The Spirit moved in the Easter Sunrise Service. The youth and adult leaders did a great job leading that service. We mentor the youth in this congregation. We need to continue that and build on it. We need to refocus our energy on reclaiming the 20 to 40 year old age group. That is the age group that we are lacking here and in most mainline churches today. At the same time we must honor and encourage the great mission work accomplished by the older adults of this congregation. We need the wisdom and wit of our older adults.
   In our scripture today (1 Peter 1:3-9), God offers hope during this time of transition. God is doing a new thing now. Let us go with God's flow in the present moment. Let's practice the presence of God in the kitchen of our daily lives. Imagine Christ as a Cosmic Chef. We may not be certain which recipe the Cosmic Chef is cooking but we know it will be one fine meal, for we have tasted the bread of heaven and the cup of eternal salvation. We have yet to taste the soul food served in heaven. But once we do, we'll never die again. In the meantime, let us feed those who live around us. Let us offer them the bread of heaven and the cup of eternal salvation. The future is unpredictable. That is one characteristic of this postmodern era. So let's be patient with one another as we change with the times.
   As 1 Peter puts it: "The genuineness of our faith is being tested by fire." We know fire burns and fire purifies. Hot grease on the hand makes us howl. Our faith is being tested by the hot grease of God's Spirit. The purpose of this test is not to hurt us but to purify our souls. This church and all churches are being purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit. The purification process is not pleasant. In fact, it is painful. Yet it is necessary. As God purifies the church, we learn to listen to our own inner voice, which is God's voice within us. We work to get our interior kitchen in order. Then we get cooking with Christ. This is a time for moving forward. May God give us the courage to rise to the occasion. May Christ strengthen us for the days ahead. May the Holy Spirit continue to purify us with the fire of the Spirit. The genuineness of our faith is indeed being tested by fire. May it be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Quest for Jesus' Bones

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 20:1-18

on Easter Sunday, March 29, 2008, at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas


"Where's Elvis?" is a book game for small children. The object of the game is to find Elvis who is hiding inside a crowded background. Mary Magdalene played a similar game when she went looking for Jesus' bones on Easter Sunday. The risen Jesus was standing right in front of her in a dark tomb. Yet Mary had a hard time recognizing Jesus. Even today some people are still searching for Jesus' bones. Let's join them in the quest for Jesus' bones. We may find Jesus bones in this sanctuary today. I think we will.

Some archaeologists claim they have found the long buried bones of Jesus of Nazareth. They presented their findings in a Discover Channel movie called The Lost Tomb of Jesus. They say the bones of Jesus were hidden in a 2,000-year-old tomb containing 10 boxes of bones. In Jesus' lifetime, the dead were left to decompose in a cave. Their family collected their bones a year later and buried them in bone boxes called ossuaries. Archaeologists found inscriptions on 6 of 10 ossuaries in a single tomb. The inscriptions indicate a 1 in 600 chance these are the bones of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and a son, along with other family members.

Not everyone is convinced the archaologists have found the bones of Jesus. Professor Kloner of Hebrew University, who oversaw the original archaeological dig 27 years ago, says: "It makes a great story for a TV film, but it's completely impossible. It's nonsense. Since Jesus was from the Galilee area, there is no way he and his relatives would have had a family tomb in Jerusalem." Hebrew University archaeologist Leah DiSegni said because the names found in the tomb were among the most common names of the day it would be like finding a tomb with the name "George" on it in the future and people asserting that it must have been the tomb of President George Bush." It's not only professors who doubt the movie, an informal survey by the Kansas City Star newspaper found 73% believed the tomb of Jesus had not been found. Moreover, 73% of people surveyed said their faith would not be effected even if the movie were true. The archaologists behind the movie, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, represent a long line of people going all the way back to Mary Magdalene who have been searching for the bones of Jesus.

Mary's quest for Jesus bones started on the first Easter Sunday when she went to search for Jesus' body. As she wept, she knelt to look into the tomb and saw two angels sitting there, dressed in white, one at the head, the other at the foot of where Jesus' body had been laid. They said to her, "Woman, why do you weep?" This is where our Western culture is today. We are weeping because we can't find the bones of Jesus. We do not know how to connect to Jesus Christ in our scientific, postmodern world. We went to college with a pre-rational faith and met professors who challenged us to move toward the rational level of faith. Many of us left behind our childhood, pre-rational faith, in college. But what so many people fail to understand is that there are levels of Christian faith beyond the pre-rational level.

There is a rational level of Christian faith and even a post-rational level of Christian faith. Many of us left behind our pre-rational view of the world when we became adults. We no longer find meaning in playing the "Where's Elvis" game in regard to Jesus. The challenge and opportunity of our Christian journey is to evolve into ever deeper and broader levels of faith. Centering prayer helps Christians move onward toward their next level of faith. Centering prayer acts as an escalator that takes us toward our next level of faith development.

Mary Magdalene moves to a higher level of faith on Easter Sunday. She enters Jesus tomb at the rational level of faith and leaves the tomb at the post-rational level of faith. She stands inside a tomb looking for Jesus' bones. She sees someone with her in the tomb and she thinks it must be the gardener who tends to the tombs. "They took my Master," she said, "and I don't know where they put him." After she said this, she turned away and saw Jesus standing there. But she didn't recognize him. Jesus was standing right there in front of her but she didn't see him. Let me reread that line from the Gospel According to John so we don't miss it. This is the key sentence: "Jesus was standing right there in front of her but she didn't see him."

Jesus asks her, "Woman, why do you weep? Who are you looking for?" She was weeping because she couldn't recognize Jesus even when he was standing right there in front of her. She was talking to him but could not perceive that is was Jesus. Sadly, we have the same problem. We search for Jesus bones in the Bible, in the church, and in the sermon. Yet we don't recognize Jesus even when he is standing right in front of us because, like Mary Magdalene, we don't expect to see Jesus standing right in front of us. We come to worship on Easter but we don't expect to meet Jesus here. Jesus is standing right here in front of us and we don't recognize him.

Where's Jesus? He is right here in front of us if only we have ears to hear him and eyes to see him! We have seen Jesus in the scuttling feet of the children coming down the aisle for the children's sermon this morning. We have heard the voice of Jesus as the choir as they sang the anthem. Jesus will be riding with us on our way home. When we look at ourselves in the mirror we will see him. According to the Apostle Paul, you and I are the body of Christ. We are the bones of Jesus! Look around this sanctuary this morning and you will see the bones of Jesus inside the people in these pews. We are the body of Christ. We are the bones of Jesus. Look at your own hands and you will see the hands of Jesus. Look at the face of the person who is sitting beside you and you will see the face of Jesus. We are the bones of Jesus!

All our lives we have been on a quest to find the bones of Jesus. All this time he was standing right there in front of us and we didn't recognize him. We never expected Jesus would be hiding within the bones of our family, our friends, our neighbors but he is there. We never imagined we could look beneath our skin and find the bones of Jesus. Yet we are the bones of Jesus. We don't need an ancient ossuary or a movie to help us find the bones of Jesus. For those with eyes to see, he is right here in our very midst today. Mary Magdalene is not the only person who has seen the risen Christ. You and I have seen him too on this Easter Sunday!

Now if tomorrow or the next day we forget what the risen Christ looks like; Or if we begin to doubt we really saw Jesus here this morning, all we need to do is go stand in front a mirror and look ourselves squarely in the eyes and say, "These are the eyes of the risen Christ!" Let's recognize in ourselves the risen Christ for truly he lives in us. When we look with the eyes of our heart we see the risen Christ in ourselves and others. Then we go share the good news! We have found the bones of Jesus! All this time they were right in front of our eyes: Hidden beneath the cloak of our skin.

We are the bones of Jesus. So let's use Jesus' bones in our hands to heal the sick. Let's use Jesus' bones in our fingers to feed the hungry. Let's use Jesus bones in our feet to bring good news to the poor. We do these things because that is what Jesus did with his bones when he walked this earth 2000 years ago. And that is what Jesus wants to do with our bones today. Jesus is counting on us to do these things for him and take care of his business on earth. We are the only bones he has available now. We are the bones of Jesus on earth some 2008 years after that first Easter Sunday. Let's use his bones in our bodies to continue his work in the world today.

Today we join Mary Magdalene, saying: "I have seen the Lord." And we do what Mary Magdalene did on Easter Sunday. We go tell everyone we know the good news that we have seen the risen Christ. For now we have completed the quest for Jesus bones and discovered a great mystery. We have learned the post-rational truth that we are the bones of Jesus. We are the body of Christ. Let's live into that truth in the Easter season that spreads before us. We are the bones of Jesus!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

I Thirst

Jon Burnham delivered this meditation on John 19:28 for the Tre Ore Service on Good Friday at Salem Lutheran Church in Houston, Texas on March 21, 2008.

As he hanged upon the tree on that Good Friday, Jesus felt the terrible thirst of dehydration that comes to all who suffer from crucifixion. Being the good Jew that he was, even in his deathly delirium, Jesus' mind churned through the Hebrew Bible. He remembered the Psalm of David when was in the Desert of Judah, "O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water." (Ps 63:1-3)

Then the lyrics from Psalm 69 seared his broken heart:

Scorn has broken my heart
       and has left me helpless;
       I looked for sympathy, but there was none,
       for comforters, but I found none.

 They put gall in my food
       and gave me vinegar for my thirst. (Verses 20-21)

From childhood he recalled these lines from Psalm 143:

I remember the days of long ago;
       I meditate on all your works
       and consider what your hands have done.

 I spread out my hands to you;
       my soul thirsts for you like a parched land.      
  Answer me quickly, O LORD;
       my spirit fails.
       Do not hide your face from me
       or I will be like those who go down to the pit. (Verses 5-7)

His racing heart then skipped on to the Prophet Isaiah:

"Come, all you who are thirsty,
       come to the waters;
       and you who have no money,
       come, buy and eat!
       Come, buy wine and milk
       without money and without cost. (Isaiah 55:1)

Finally, his parched throat silently moaned this Lamentation:

Even jackals offer their breasts
       to nurse their young,
       but my people have become heartless
       like ostriches in the desert.

Because of thirst the infant's tongue
       sticks to the roof of its mouth;
       the children beg for bread,
       but no one gives it to them.

Those who once ate delicacies
       are destitute in the streets.
       Those nurtured in purple
       now lie on ash heaps. (Lamentations 4:3-5)

With a sense of irony, Jesus remembered how he had told the woman at the well, "Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again. But no one who drinks the water I give will ever be thirsty again. The water I give is like a flowing fountain that gives eternal life."" Funny how things can sometimes get turned around. Right now his fountain felt dried up. Right now those words he had said made no sense to him. It is hard to be rational when dehydration sets in. Now the only flowing fountain he had to offer was his life blood that was spilling onto the ground.

There are many kinds of thirst and Jesus experienced them all as he died upon the cross. He thirsted for human compassion. He thirsted for God. He thirsted for a sip of water. Instead of giving him water, a jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. That's all he had coming on Good Friday. That's all the consolation he received. May God have mercy on us all.

The Terrible Joy of Holy Week

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 18:1-11
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on Maundy Thursday
March 20, 2008

During his gospel music phase Bob Dylan wrote a song called "In the Garden." Here is the chorus: "When they came for him in the garden did they know? When they came for him in the garden did they know? Did they know he was the Son of God? Did they know he was the Lord? Did they hear when he said to Peter, "Peter, put up your sword?" Peter's sword was to him a symbol of security. Our cultural symbols of security are the brand of car we drive. We find consolation in driving a late model car. We like to be identified with a particular brand of automobile. We are Lexus people. Or Honda people. Or good old Ford folks. Jesus tells Peter to put his sword back in its sheath. Jesus tells us to lay down our false sense of security. Cultural symbols of security do not hold much sway when you are standing with Jesus in the garden and the soldiers and the guards have come to take him hostage.

This garden was well known to Judas because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers and police and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. The scene is set for a violent confrontation. Jesus knew why they were there. He knew their plan. Jesus was aware of the betrayal of Judas. So Jesus, being the fearless leader he was, came forward and asked them, "Whom are you looking for?" They answered, "Jesus of Nazareth." Jesus answered, "I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go." Jesus, the Good Shepherd, protects his sheep, the disciples. Then Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest's slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave's name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, "Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me?"

Alexander the Great once approached a great walled city with only a handful of soldiers and demanded the inhabitants surrender to him. But the people inside the city just laughed at him and his pathetic army.

So Alexander had his men line up in single file and begin to march towards a nearby cliff. Alexander guided his soldiers directly to its edge, and one by one they stepped over it and fell to their deaths on the rocks below, as the people in the city watched in horror. At a certain point Alexander halted the march and ordered the rest of the men back to his side. They responded without any sign of fear, relief, or panic. This is the kind of dedication Christ showed. When faced with the cross, Jesus did not run away. He faced his fears and pushed forward to do his Father's will. Jesus showed courage and determination. He did not turn away from his destiny even in the face of death.

The shaken residents of the city surrendered to Alexander the Great at once, realizing that defeat was inevitable from the hands of a leader who commanded such loyalty. [Tom Finley. The World Is Not Enough. (Ventura, Ca.: Regal Books, 1986)]. Jesus showed that degree of commitment to God. Jesus was sold out to God. When we see his commitment and loyalty to God, we are inspired to surrender our lives to Christ.

Don't get wrong here. To surrender does not mean to become passive. Surrender is one of the most courageous actions a person can take. When I think of a person who has surrendered their life to Christ I think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In Memphis he made his famous speech, "I have seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I have seen the promised land." Was Martin Luther King, Jr. passive? No. He was active in his resistance of evil systems in the world.  How did he put it? "We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart ... A third way is open in our quest for freedom, namely, nonviolent resistance, that combines toughmindedness and tenderheartedness and avoids the complacency and do-noghingness of the softminded and the violence and bitterness of the hardhearted... God has two outstretched arms. One is strong enough to surround us with justice, and one is gentle enough to embrace us with grace." (Martin Luther King, Jr. "A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart," in Strength to Love. New York: Harper and Row, 1963, 2, 6.)

King was effective in his action because he had surrendered his life to Jesus Christ. He lived in the Spirit and not in the flesh, although yes, he struggled in the flesh even as we all do. To surrender does not mean to quit everything. It means to give up control to a higher power that we call God, Christ, the Holy Spirit. To surrender is to relinquish control of our lives and place our destiny in the hands of Jesus Christ.

In the summer in the Smoky Mountains a drama called Unto These Hills is presented for the tourists by the Cherokee Historical Association. It depicts an episode in the 1830s when the white man secured, through deception, the lands of the Cherokees. Tsali, an Indian leader, in anger killed a white soldier, and then fled to the hills with thousands of his people who feared massacre.

General Scott sent word to Tsali that if he and his kin surrendered, he would have to face trial, but the government would grant his people permission to live in the Great Smokies. If he refused, the soldiers would hunt down all Indians one by one. Tsali and his sons came down from the hills, surrendered themselves, were sentenced and put to death by the military tribunal, but the Indian reservation was given to his people.

What a fool Tsali was. He was safe in the hills. He had a chance to live, for he knew the woods better than the white soldiers. Why didn't he stay in the hills instead of returning to his certain death? He returned because he loved his people so much! He had a commitment to them that would not let him do anything else. He was a fool for his people's sake because he loved them, yet he was full of the joy that comes from surrendering ones life to a higher cause. ("What Kind of Fool Am I?" by C. Thomas Hilton, THE CLERGY JOURNAL, February 1995, p. 21.)

This is what our Lord did when he put down his life for us by willingly submitting to death on the cross. Jesus showed us the way to surrender. Tonight we feel the terrible joy of Holy Week. Tonight we feel the terrible fear of surrender. On this Maundy Thursday we remember Jesus' last supper with his disciples. Even as he ate the bread and drank the wine on this night, Jesus knew his moment of surrender was drawing nigh. Jesus is about to walk right into the terror of the crucifixion. We must take the first step toward Jesus. We must follow Jesus into the terror of the cross. The joy of resurrection lays beyond the grave. With God's help, we will walk with Jesus during this Holy Week.  May God grant us the grace to get up off our knees where we have been bowing down to the false gods of more and better and faster and me. May God give us the wisdom to bow our knee to Christ alone. May God give us the courage to surrender.

Tonight we experience the terrible joy of Holy Week. We feel terrible because Jesus was taken from the garden and delivered up to his death on the cross. Yet we have the joy that comes from knowing that on the third day God will raise him from the dead. Lord, give us the grace to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. May God give us the grace to surrender our lives to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Dark Night of the Soul

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Matthew 21:1-11
at Batesville Prebyterian Church on Palm Sunday, April 1, 2007

We are looking out the window of a tour bus in Cairo, Egypt. There is a man riding a small cart being pulled by a donkey. Next to him is a family in a late model Mercedes Benz. The bus stops so a man herding sheep may cross the busy street. Welcome to the post-modern Middle East. Long ago, Jesus rode a donkey in a bustling Middle Eastern city called Jerusalem. Hosts of his disciples shouted "Hosanna, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" Later in the week a crowd will be screaming, "Crucify him." Holy week is a bumpy ride for Jesus and for us. Holy Week starts with Jesus riding a donkey down the sloping hill of the Mount of Olives. The Holy City, Jerusalem, stares back from below. We descend upon Jerusalem with Jesus.

We are flying in an airplane over the Atlantic ocean. This flight goes from New York City to Amman, Jordan. On board is the President of my seminary, 25 seminary students and 3 seminary professors. The seminary president is a short man with a booming voice. He is an experienced traveler. After the flight is underway he puts on a pair of ear plugs and covers his eyes with a blinder and reclines his seat. Within minutes he is laying with his arms spread out over his head, snoring loudly. He knows the importance of timing on a long journey. He knows the time will come to stare in wonder at the tomb of Christ in the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. But now is not that time. Now is the time to relax and rest. So I relax my grip on the magazine and trust the Lord to keep us safe and sound on this flight and on this trip. My fear is deeper than the fear of flying. My fear is that I am not in control. I am a passenger and not the driver. I am really afraid because this trip may change the way I view the world and my faith. No one who journeys to Jerusalem comes back as the same person. Jesus will never be the same after this donkey ride into Jerusalem. He will exit Jerusalem from his own tomb.

I am walking through Manhattan on a Sunday morning in August. I am 25 years old. The walk begins at the Statue of Liberty. There are many people there. A juggler entertains us as we wait in line to climb up into the Statue of Liberty. My turn comes to climb the stairs, one by one, going up to the top of Lady Liberty. From the crown of the Statue of Liberty, I look across at Manhattan Island. It shines like a diamond across Hudson Bay. I climb down the Statue of Liberty and begin walking up Broadway Street through Manhattan heading toward Central Park. The sun is out and it is hot and humid. The concrete sidewalk and empty streets intensify the heat of the sun. Even the skyscrapers seem to be heaping heat down on my head. The soles of my feet are burning from the hot pavement. The streets are nearly deserted except for a stray car here or a taxi cab there. I walk alone in silence infected by intense heat. Something clicks. I have achieved some unspoken goal. I feel my self confidence rising with the heat.

Jesus walks alone on a Friday. On his back he carries a cross. He winds his way down the Via Dolorosa. He straggles up to the hill of the skull. He is so hot. He feels the heat of all the sin, fear, guilt and dread of the human species throughout all history. He feels the heat of hell summoning him down to where he would willingly go after his death on the cross. He descends into hell, as we say in the Apostle's Creed. Jesus is intimate with suffering. He walks alone when he has to do it. He walks from Pilate's quarters to Golgotha. As the great spiritual song says, "Nobody else could walk it for him. He had to walk it by himself."

There comes a time in our lives when we must walk alone. The crowds no longer support us. Our friends provide no consolation. We must walk alone through the valley of the shadow of death. Our family and friends may stand with us during the funeral service but there comes a time when everyone goes back home and we are left alone in the house without our loved one who has died. Or perhaps the problem is that we feel apathetic toward life. Or we may feel spiritually numb.

Gerald Mays explore such times in his book, The Dark Night of the Soul. He says we grow spiritually when what we were formerly doing no longer brings us any satisfaction. Such times are called "dark night of the soul" because God's presence is obscured. It is hard to see at midnight when the lights are all turned off. During times of spiritual obscurity, when the way before us in unclear, the Spirit may be maturing our faith. Certainly Jesus' solitary walk on Good Friday was an experience framed by poor vision. His eyes were swollen from the beating he had taken at the hands of the Roman soldiers who mocked him. There was blood and sweat in his eyes from the crown of thorns on his head as the heat of the day beat down upon him. He vision was blurred. Surely that solitary walk on Good Friday caused more growth in Christ's faith than the joyous journey on the donkey's back down Mount Olives into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

We all long for the spiritual high of Palm Sunday but are less enthralled to experience the pain of Good Friday. Yet we grow more during the Good Fridays of our lives than we do on the Palm Sundays. Part of our growth may involve not knowing what God is doing in our lives. God sometimes works in obscurity. According to Mays, it is not so much God does not want us to know what God is doing in our lives. Rather, God is able to lead us further when we do not know where we are going. During the dark night of the soul, during the times when we are unsure where God is or what God is doing in our lives, God may be purifying our soul and cleansing our spirit. Good Friday was for Jesus an experience of the dark night of the soul. From the depths of his soul, he cries from the cross , "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

The question we have during the dark night of the soul is the same question everyone asked when Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem: "Who is this?" We do not always know the answer to that question. God's presence is sometimes unknown and unseen in our lives. We do not always understand who Jesus is or what he wants from us. This is especially true during the dark night of the soul. The key to spiritual growth is obedience to God even when we do not know who God is. We do not recognize the dark night of the soul when we are experiencing it. Later we may recognize a slightly noticeable change in our attitude and behavior. We have more inward freedom. Wehave more compassion for others. We have a broader perspective. These are the fruits of the dark night of the soul.

God suffers with us in the bad times and rejoices with us in the good times. We don't have to be always in control. We can relax. God is leading us onward even when we find no evidence of God's active presence in our lives. During the season in our lives when God's activity seems faint and shadowy, we may be experiencing the liberating power of the dark night of the soul. One thing we know for certain and we take hope in this fact. After every dark night there comes the dawn, and after every Good Friday comes Easter Sunday.

We journey with Jesus through his Passion. We take it one day at a time during this Holy Week. We wax warm in the glow of Palm Sunday. We wane before the mystery of the dark night of the soul on Maundy Thursday. We cry at foot of the cross as Jesus dies on Good Friday. We are surprised by joy at the resurrection Jesus on Easter Sunday. Holy Week is a spiritual passage that commemorates Christ's dark night of the soul. We are making that journey now.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

A Light, An Attraction, and a Power

Jon Burnham preached this Lent 4A sermon from Ephesians 5:8-14
on March 2, 2008 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston.

Even in this post-modern, scientific world, our lives still revolve around light and darkness. We have not transcended the animal aspect of our human nature to the extent that we may disregard the circadian rhythm of our bodies. We must still sleep in the darkness of night and rise in the light of day. This basic aspect of existence has been well understood for thousands of years and often used against the human species by priests and nobility. Our human nature is a yin and a yang of light and darkness. As we read in our text today, "For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light." That progression from past darkness to present light in the Lord is what we will explore in our time together this morning. Far beyond a mystical, esoteric mystery, the interplay of light and dark within us defines how we experience ourselves, others, God and our very existence in this world in which we live and move and have our being.

An ancient priesthood ruled the world for hundreds and thousands of years by manipulating the human perception of light and darkness. They knew astrology in minute detail and used that knowledge to scientifically manipulate the commoners into paying them big bucks to keep the sun rising each morning. The sun, in ancient times, was believed to sail across the ocean of the sky. The only way to guarantee that the sun kept sailing was to pay the priests to perform ceremonies that would resurrect the sun each morning. For you  see, the priests told the people that the sun died each night and must be raised from the dead each morning. The job of the priests, according to the priests, was to resurrect the sun each morning and thus provide light to the land and the people. But if the priests were not well paid, they could not guarantee the people that they would continue to perform this valuable service of raising the son from the dead each morning so it could sail across the ocean of the sky. Now the priests knew this was a great hoax they were playing on the people but it worked for them for thousands of years. The common people were kept in ignorance and were illiterate. All they knew was what the priests and the royalty told them. Thus did the priests and the royalty live good lives at the expense of the downtrodden people whose minds they controlled. In ancient mystery religions the term "the dead" referred to people who did not know the sacred truths which was considered the real reality.

The phrase "raised from the dead" is still used in today's secret societies. For instance, the often discussed Skull and Bones Society at Yale University has been brought to our attention over the past decade as two of our Presidents and one nominee for President are members of that secret society. I am referring to President Bush Senior and Junior and Senator John Kerry. The defining ritual in the Skull and Bones Society finds the candidate for membership laying inside a casket. He must tell the other boys in the fraternity every sexual experience he has ever had including names and dates. The candidate for membership is then raised from the casket, symbolically raised to new life or resurrected from the dead. This is the society's ritual to signify being born again as a member of the Skull and Bones. So whenever a member of the society is asked if he has been born again he can honestly say he has been born again, although it may not be in the way in which the person asking the question is thinking.

Our culture also is obsessed with light and darkness, even now, when our technological advancements allow us to flip a light switch to "on" any time of day or night so that we no longer have to restrict our activity to the hours of daylight. Even so, we want more daylight to conserve energy. The purpose of the Spring time change is to lengthen the amount of light. The highest levels of our Federal Government voted to change the schedule of daylight savings time in order to squeeze more light out of the day. So this coming Saturday we will move our clocks forward by one hour for Daylight Savings Time. We want more light for more energy. Futurist and Inventor Ray Kurzweil, who has received 15 honorary doctorate degrees and been recognized by three presidents, says 20 years from now most of our energy needs around the world will be provided by solar energy. He thinks the break even point between solar energy and oil is only five years away. After that break even point, solar energy will begin to become cheaper than oil year after year after year. Kurzweil claims the sun provides enough energy to earth each day to provide all the energy needs of every human being on the planet 10,000 times so if when we are able to use nanotechnology to proficiently extract solar power we will need to extract only one ten thousandth of the energy of the sun each day in order to meet the energy needs of every human on the planet. The point Kurzweil is making is that the sun provides 10,000 times more energy than humans need. In a similar way, the light of Christ provides 10,000 times more energy than we need to propel us forward in our spiritual journey. The question for us spiritually, as for the solar engineers, is how we secure the light of Christ and use it for spiritual energy. That is the question that is raised in our text today. Children of Light is the phrase used here. Children means we are growing, evolving, developing, dependent, and trusting. Light means we are reflectors of our source as the moon reflects the light of the sun. As Joni Mitchell so beautifully sings, "We are stardust, we are golden, and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden..."

I was blessed in my childhood in that the food I ate was mostly vegetables from my father's back yard garden. Those vegetables were eaten straight from the garden in the Summer and plenty of them were put in the freezer for the Winter months. Those vegetables kept me going even through the high energy sport of football. When I was in high school I played quarterback on the football team. Our team had some good receivers and I was a decent passer but our offensive line was small and skinny. Beyond that, we were a small school and most of the teams we played came from schools that were at least three times the size of our school, so they had much larger, stronger and faster players on their roster. No wonder then, that on the Friday afternoons before home games, when we players would lay around the gym resting and mentally preparing for the game, I spent my time in fervent prayer, praying that I would not get killed or paralyzed during that night's game. I was smart enough to know that injuries were part of the game. I knew that all it would take was a broken neck and I would be dead or paralyzed. I felt this fear acutely as we took the field each Friday night. I knew this could be my last game. It gave each moment of the game a highly intense, almost surreal quality. During the game, I would calm down only after being hit for the first time. Then I could settle into the game. On the day after the game, on Saturday morning, I awoke early to go bag groceries at the grocery store. That was my weekend job, and although I may have been sore, I was always happy to be there at the grocery store because it meant I was still alive. When I awoke each Saturday during the football season I felt as if I had risen from the dead and I gave thanks to God for my life. I felt Christ shine on me each Saturday as I bagged groceries and delivered them to the cars of friends, neighbors and strangers in the small town in Mississippi where I lived. Each Saturday during football season was a time when I seemed to rise from the dead. As our text this morning puts it: "Rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you."

We are much more powerful and capable than we ever imagined. As Marianne Williamson wrote, "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us." (Beyond Change Management Advanced Strategies for Today's Transformational Leaders, Dean Anderson Linda S. Ackerman Anderson, 96)  Our text tells us how to turn on the light of Christ within: "Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord." Traditionally, Christians have tried to find out what is pleasing to the Lord through Bible reading and prayer. When we read the Bible we find we are encouraged to immerse ourselves in prayer. Paul said, "Pray without ceasing." Jesus said, "Seek and you will find the kingdom of God within you." When we immerse ourselves in prayer, we notice the Spirit starts shining a search light into the darkest recesses of our being. The Holy Spirit's search light shines on our selfish motivations and reveals that we are seeking God for our own gratification. We find we are filled with spiritual pride. We notice lust and greed that we thought we had put aside. The light of the Spirit makes us notice how we treat other people and encourages us, as it is put earlier in Ephesians, to put away from us all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and to be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven us." (Eph 4:31-32) This process is called spiritual purification and while it is not a pleasant experience it is a necessary one.

French contemplative Lucie-Christine experienced Christ as a light, an attraction, and a power. She envisioned Christ as a light that showed her how she belonged completely to God alone in this world. She saw Christ as an attraction by which her heart was subdued and delighted. And she experienced Christ as a power which inspired her with a generous resolution that somehow placed in her hands the means to carrying out her desire to live as a child of light. (Journal Spirituel de Lucie-Christine, p. 11) During this Lenten season, which may be for us a season of spiritual detoxification, may we too experience Christ as a light, an attraction, and a power. Therefore it says, "Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." May we join the azaleas and budding trees during this Spring season as we unfold on the inside light, the attraction, and the power of Christ at work within us. Then we will live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.