Sunday, May 25, 2008

Beyond the Chrysalis

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Matthew 6:24-34
on Memorial Day weekend, May 25, 2008, at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

    Ark Linkletter once asked a boy who was ten, "What do you know about World War Two?"
    "Oh, I know a lot," he replied. "World War Two was fought all over the world and other places."
    "And do you know the countries that fought?" said Art, eager the plumb the depths of this semi-scholar.
    "Sure. America and Great Britain."
    "Right! Against whom did they fight?"
    "Each other. That's how we got our freedom."
    "Yes, I see. Sometimes they also call that the American Revolution."
    "Well, as long as we're talking about that, do you happen to know the cause of the American Revolution?"
    "Yeah. No taxation without recreation." (Bill Cosby, Kids Say the Darndest Things, 114)

    Memorial Day weekend is a time of recreation that marks the beginning of Summer. Memorial Day is also a time of reflection we remember those who died while serving to our country.

We are terrified of death. We don't like to think about death. But death is merely a transition from one form of life to another. Think of the changes a butterfly undergoes as it transforms from caterpillar to winged insect. The caterpillar cannot imagine life as a butterfly. When the caterpillar goes into the chrysalis it dies; in a sense, it ceases to exist as a caterpillar. When it reemerges, it is the same caterpillar that reemerges--and yet it is not the same. it is entirely different. It has an entirely different life, an  entirely different existence. Before it could only slide along the sides of leaves or branches, now it can fly on two beautifully colored wings. The butterfly cannot remember its life as a caterpillar, even though the caterpillar has begotten it. (Adin Stensaltz, Beyond the Chrysalis, in A Man's Journey to Simple Abundance, 405) Death is our transition from our human bodily to a resurrection body. We see this in the Gospels. The resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples many times in his resurrection body. One time he cooked them fish for breakfast on an open fire on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Another time he walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He talked with these two about what had happened in Jerusalem. The big news was that Jesus had died. The disciples did not know they were telling the risen Jesus details about his own death. Only later that evening when they broke bread around the table were their eyes opened and they recognized the risen Christ.

We see this same pattern in adolescents as they mature and come to understand their mother and father.  In his book, Codes of Love: How to Rethink Your Family and Remake Your Life, Mark Bryan remembers his father who wore the uniform. This reading moves beyond stereotypes of men and women who wear the uniform. Their families have the same struggles we all face in one way or another plus the additional strains of serving in the military. Listen for how his understanding of his father changed as he matured through the chrysalis of adolescence into adulthood, as Bryan remembers.

When I was a child, my father's dress white Navy uniform was the most impressive piece of clothing I'd ever seen. I'd watch my father in front of the bedroom mirror as he dressed, his posture straight and elegant as he carefully fastened the gold buttons on the front of the shirt. In his dress whites, sometimes with a gleaming sword strapped to his side, he was someone I honored and respected without a moment of doubt. Our life could be tough at times and the frequent moves caused a lot of stress in our family, but when I saw him in his dress whites the struggle seemed worth it.

By my late teens, that same uniform had become the symbol of every way in which I had failed my father an he had failed me. After our battles of the Vietnam War, I hadn't spoken to my fatter in years. He was a rigid man, a tool of the military establishment. I blamed him for the fact that I had no really close friends and had roamed from place to place, unable to get my life together. Our Navy life had ruined my childhood, I can hear my mother saying, by moving us around so much. I saw that uniform as a straitjacket too, part of the reason he often seemed unhappy. I remembered the time my father, who was working two jobs to keep the family going, was getting dressed for an event and discovered a button was missing on the front of his uniform. Furious, he yanked the shirt open. My brother Jon and I both remember the ping of the gold buttons hitting the walls and the floor as he roared with rage.

As an adult I can see the truth of all those images of my father in uniform. Viewing them from the eyes of a child, of course, I wanted the certainty of having just one. Either there is no truth or there are several truths, but there's never just one when you look at your history with your family. Memory is malleable. We arrange the past in a way that suits our present.

 Our family of origin is the chrysalis in which we are formed. Before it becomes a butterfly, a caterpillar goes through a growth stage during called  "chrysalis." On the surface it may not look like much is happening, but the delicate chrysalis process changes the fuzzy caterpillar into an awesome butterfly with wings of intricate designs and intense colors. "Chrysalis" symbolizes the spiritual growth that is essential between adolescence and adulthood. That growth is as crucial for youth as the cocoon is for the caterpillar. It is that precious time of nurturing a person's faith for discipleship. Chrysalis conveys the transformation our youth and young adults may experience this Summer.

Youth is but a fleeing moment in a person's life. And too many young people have died and continue to die in war. Memorial Day commemorates U.S. men and women who have died in military service to their country. It began first to honor Union soldiers who died during the American Civil War. After World War I, it was expanded to include those who died in any war or military action. Hermann Melville authored the great novel Moby Dick and also wrote poetry, including this one from April, 1862, called Shiloh:A Requiem:

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
      The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
      The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
Through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
      Around the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
            And natural prayer
      Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
      Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
      But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
      And all is hushed at Shiloh.

The average age of the Civil War soldier was 25 years old; in Vietnam: 23 years old; in Iraq: 27 years old. Those swallow swooping down over Shiloh remind us of the birds Jesus mentions in our text today. Jesus says, "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today." We long for all of our young people and young adults to be able to live in a world without war. We long for them to live today and to live tomorrow. Yet, too often, we who have the opportunity to live today and to live tomorrow do not appreciate the fragility of life.

Edgar Guest wrote a poem titled "Tomorrow." It goes like this:

He says he's going to be all a mortal could be, tomorrow ...
None would be braver and stronger than he, tomorrow ...
A friend who was troubled and weary he knew and needed a life and wanted on, too
On him he would call to see what he could do, tomorrow ...
Each morning, he'd stack up the letters he'd write, tomorrow ...
He thought of the friends he would fill with delight, tomorrow ...
It's too bad indeed he was busy today, hadn't a moment to stop on the way, more time I'll give to others, he would say, tomorrow ...
The greatest of workers this man would have been, tomorrow ...
The world would have known him had he ever seen tomorrow ...
But, the fact is he died and faded from view
And all that he left here when living was through
Was a mountain of things he intended to do, tomorrow.

      Tonight, tell everybody in your family how much you love them. And just before you got to bed tonight, thank God for every person who have given their life in the service of their country. As Christ said: "Greater love has no man than this: That a man should lay down his life for a friend." Service. That is what is means to be in the military. That is what it means to be a Christian. Don't wait. Lock on to that new resolve to be the best you can be.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Actions Speak Louder

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Matthew 28:16-20
on Trinity Sunday, Year A, May 11, 2008, at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

    Bill Cosby asked a boy of nine named Peter: "Do you try to do the things that Jesus told you to do?"
      "He didn't tell me to do nothin'," Peter fervently replied.
    "I mean things like turning the other cheek."
        "What's that mean?"
    "If somebody hits you, you don't hit him back."
        "Jesus said be a wimp?"
    "No, not a wimp, a lover of peace."
        "It don't sound too smart. Why don't the guy who hits me love peace first?"
    "Well, that's the whole point of Jesus' message: You have to be bigger than the other person."
        For a moment, Peter fell into fervent reflection.
        "If you're bigger," he then said, "you should definitely him him back."
    Cosby concludes, "Not all Peters are saints. (Kids Say the Darndest Things, 21)

    There was a man who was not bigger than the others but he was not afraid to hit someone back. Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay Jr.) is a retired American boxer and former three-time World Heavyweight Champion and winner of an Olympic Light-heavyweight gold medal. In 1999, Ali was crowned "Sportsman of the Century" by Sports Illustrated and the BBC. Mohammad Ali is remembered as much for his showmanship as his boxing. He says he got his showmanship from a championship wrestler named Gorgeous George, whom he met when doing a radio program. After his encounter with Gorgeous George, Ali started shouting, "I am beautiful. I am the greatest. I can't be beat, I'm the fastest thing on two feet, and I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. If you talk jive, you'll fall in five ..."

    He started writing poetry for the first time when he fought Archie Moore:

When you come to the fight
Don't block the aisles
And don't block the door
For you all may go home
After round four.

    He won the fight in the fourth round, as he predicted he would. And over the years, 17 out of 21 of his predictions came true. He started making predictions to sell tickets and his predictions started coming true.
    Ali had his critics. They said his poems were terrible. They said they were the ravings of a madman.
    He told those critics that his poetry would be quoted and published more than any of the poems written by poets they liked. He never paid much attention to his critics about anything negative.
    He says, "Every time I opened my mouth, I could back it up." He says, "The critics only made me work harder."

    Jesus also had his critics. Open any page of the gospels and you are likely to find Jesus being attacked by his critics, the Pharisees and Sadducees. Inspite of the criticism, Jesus persevered with his mission in life. Finally, in the last chapter of Matthew, in the final scene, Jesus is with his 11 disciples in Galilee. They are down to 11 disciples because Judas has already betrayed Jesus which set the stage for his crucifixion. On the third day, God raised him from the dead. Now, after his resurrection, Jesus and his 11 disciples are up on a mountain. The disciples see the risen Jesus and worship him. But some doubt him. Even after his resurrection Jesus had doubters among his 11 disciples! So we shouldn't be shocked if we have some critics. We shouldn't be surprised if some people doubt us. Jesus experienced critics and so shall we. The key to the kingdom is how we handle our critics. Like Jesus, we should persevere in the face of our critics. We should stand tall in the presence of our doubters. Like Mohammad Ali, our critics should make us work harder.

    The story is told that when a much-publicized Texas highwayman and train robber died, his brother went to a local pastor to persuade him to preach his brother's funeral.
    Fearing the possible bad publicity, the preacher politely declined. The brother offered the preacher $10,000 to officiate at his brother's funeral. "Why do you offer so much money for what is normally a routine church function?" asked the pastor.
    "Because you are a respected man of the cloth in West Texas and I have a special request. I want you to call my brother a saint" replied the brother. Badly in need of funds for repairs on the church where he was pastor, he reluctantly consented.
    On of the day of the service, the house was full of mourners. The pastor said, "We are here to pay our respects to 'Six-shooter' Henry Jones. Now we all know Henry was a thief, and a murderer, but, compared to his brother, Henry was a saint!"
(Bill Cannon, Treasury of Texas Humor, 44-45)

    We compare ourselves to others. We tear them down to build ourselves up. We play that game even though it leads to frustration. I wonder if there was still bickering among the 11 disciples after Jesus' resurrection. We know there had been conflicts among the 12 as the Sons of Thunder called down their mother upon Jesus to beseech him to give her boys thrones to rule over all. The mother suggested one son could sit on Jesus right hand and her other son could sit on Jesus left hand. Her suggestion did not go over well with the other disciples. Finally, Jesus called them all together and told them things were different in his world. In his world, those who were first would be last. Those who were last would be first. The ruler of all would be the servant of all. This blew their minds. We still have a hard time with the concept of the servant leader. Our culture trains us to work the angles for our own good. Our culture encourages us to to strive to get ahead of our neighbors. Our whole economic system is based on the underlying belief that humans will do whatever they can to get ahead. What if we proved them wrong? What if we proved Jesus right? On some occasions we follow Jesus' golden rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Other times, we stumble over our pride and fall down and look foolish.

    Woody Allen once wrote an obituary for a fictional character named Mr. Needleman. Here is one paragraph.
   At the opera in Milan with my daughter and me, Needleman leaned out of his box and fell into the orchestra pit. Too proud to admit it was a mistake, he attended the opera every night for a month and repeated it each time. Soon he developed a mild brain concussion. I pointed out that he could stop falling as his point had been made. He said, "No. A few more times. It's really not so bad." (The Insanity of Defense: The Complete Prose, 213)

Poor, Needleman, his pride would not let him admit he made a mistake. In order to prove his falling  out of the orchestra pit at the Opera was not an accident, he repeats his mistake each night until he gets a mild concussion. Even then he is reluctant to admit the foolishness of his ways. We laugh at Needleman. Yet, in our own small ways, we repeat his his mistake when we are willing to sacrifice a relationship rather than lose an argument. As Paul said, "I do not do what I want to do. Our spirits are willing but our flesh is weak." This is the human dilemma.

    Jesus knows all about the human dilemma, having lived as a human being himself. Jesus' approach to making disciples was to model the kind of life he wanted his disciples to live. If the disciples ever wanted to know what to do, they would ask themselves, "What would Jesus do?" They had been with him long enough and seen him in so many different kinds of situations that they intuitively knew the answer to that question. They knew what Jesus would do.

    How we live our lives is our best advertisement for the Christian faith. Presbyterians have always known this. Instead of talking about the importance of higher education we established colleges all over this country, such as Trinity University in San Antonio. Jesus challenges us to go and baptize, make and teach disciples. We are doing that at St. John's. We baptize believers. We teach disciples. And we meet human needs. We do all of this in Jesus' name. For we know that actions speak louder. Actions speak louder than words.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

New Life!

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Acts 2:1-8 on May 11, 2008 (Pentecost & Mother's Day)
     The state of Texas is large enough to hold every human being on the planet with 1000 feet per person. This is a diverse state and Houston is the most diverse city. For instance, Meyerland has a large Jewish population. None of us will live forever. All of us are offered new life in Christ. It is appropriate to celebrate Pentecost on Mother's Day. For on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit birthed the church. And if we don't pay attention the Holy Spirit may give us new life on this Pentecost Sunday.

    There are many folks, particularly those from outside our state, who have the opinion that Texas is one flat prairie. Perhaps this story will convince them that we have some pretty steep hills also. The story appears in Bill Cannon's book, Treasury of Texas Humor.

    It is said that one beautiful little Texas town, which is the county seat of a Hill Country county, sits at the foot of one of the state's longest hills on an interstate highway. The hill has such a steep grade that one staying in nearby motels can hear the big eighteen-wheelers grind their gears trying to come into town at a safe speed! At the top of this hill, and a few hundred feet off the interstate, in a small stand of trees is the Mt. Pisgah Missionary Baptists Church. One if its longtime members, Sister Ludi Mae Simpson, had died and her funeral was planned at the church with burial in the small town.

    After the last three verses of "Rock of Ages" were sung, Sister Simpson's coffin was loaded in the back of a hearse to be driven to the cemetery. The hearse had to cross a small bar ditch between the churchyard and the highway. The sudden jolt caused by crossing the ditch resulted in the rear doors of the hearse coming unlocked.

    After pulling out on the interstate, the vehicle lurched into motion. The movement sent the coffin bearing Mrs. Simpson out of the hearse where it landed flat on the pavement and squarely on the white line in the middle of the interstate, as if director there by the Almighty, Himself! The steep slope of the hill was such that the coffin started sliding down the interstate in the direction of the county seat about half a mile below. As the coffin continued downhill it began to pick up speed, slowly at first and then faster and faster until it reached a speed of 75 to 80 miles per hour.

    At this speed it didn't take long for Mrs. Ludi Mae to reach the city limits! The pine coffin was smoking slightly by the time it ran through the town's only signal light, which hung from poles at the intersection by the town square. fortunately for the speeding corpse, the light was green when she flashed through at a speed quite a bit above the speed limit! the coffin whizzed by the Confederate statue on the courthouse lawn. Fortunately, by this time the coffin had lost most of its speed. It crossed the street around the square doing only about 30 mph, when it jumped the curb and hit the double doors or Rexal Drugs. It crashed through the doors, flew past the front register, past the candy display and flew past the cosmetic counter.

    It came to an abrupt stop when it hit the prescription counter. The sudden stop caused the coffin lid to fly off and Ludi Mae, who was know to all, to sit straight up in the now immobile coffin. Wilburn Moody, who had been the druggist at the store for nearly twenty years, said the same thing he had said daily since he started working there, "May I help you?"

    To this Mrs. Simpson gave a perfectly legitimate reply, "Can you please give me something to stop this coffin?"

    The coffin symbolizes the reality of death. We cannot stop that coffin. That is the challenge of being human. Although we cannot stop the reality of our own death, perhaps we can use it to our advantage. Consider the conquering generals of ancient Rome. When they would return home victorious, gigantic parades were staged to honor them. Displaying the treasures that they had won, and the defeated people that they had turned into slaves, the conquerors paraded, riding in their war chariots. Riding with them was always a slave whose job was to whisper in their ear: "All fame and glory is but transitory. All fame and glory is but transitory. All fame and glory is but transitory." Some people who come to terms with their imminent death display an otherworldly peace in their countenance. They shine. They seem to shimmer with new life. Confronting the reality of our own death offers the possibility of living a fuller life on this earth.

    Let's not forget today is Mother's Day.

     Bill Cosby once asked a girl of six named Laurie: "What does your mother do?"
    "She's in charge of everything." Laurie said.
    "And what does your father do?"
    "I can't remember."
    "Isn't he in charge of anything?"
    "I'll have to ask  my mother."
    "Why not ask him?"
    "Oh, he wouldn't know."    (Kids Say the Darndest Things, 70) Some fathers today are perhaps more involved in their children's lives than ever before in human history and get less credit for what they contribute than ever before in human history. Yet in eyes of some children, even such committed fathers pale in comparison to their mothers.

    Rabbi Lawrence Kushner in Jewish Spirituality for Christians, challenges us to remember where we came from, saying:

In the family album, or in one of those little frames that stands upright on an end table in your mother's apartment, is a photograph of you when you were a child. You have come a long way since those days, in many beautiful ways and in a few disappointing ways. If you were given a time machine, is there anything you would like to tell the child in the photo who once was you? Just looking at who you were seems to awaken the possibility that you could go back to that time and, if not relive your life, at least begin again. Teshuva is the Jewish concept of "return" -- as in going back to who you meant to be, returning home, returning to your Source. Teshuva is the possibility that even the most degenerate sinner can be reunited with God. Indeed, according to tradition, someone who has strayed and made teshuva is more beloved by God than someone who has never sinned. Jewish spirituality teaches that the world endures because of this ever-present yearning and gesture of returning. (Kushner, 88-90)

    We are all capable of experiencing and giving away new life. Even after we think we've blown our chance. When the chips were down, Peter denied he knew Jesus. Peter must have replayed that scene over and over in his mind a thousand times. On Pentecost, God's Spirit gave Peter new life, a second chance. He preached the gospel and 3000 people were converted. Peter was back with a passion. Peter reminds us that new life is possible for each one of us. Even after we commit what we may consider to be an unforgivable sin.

     Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach visited a prison in upstate New York. He had been invited by the Jewish chaplain, who asked that he perform a Hanukkah concert for the Jewish inmates there. It was a schlep, three hours each way. "No problem!" said Shlomo cheerfully.

    The concert was a huge success, and Shlomo made the event into a real Hanukkah celebration, but that was only the beginning. When the party over, Shlomo turned to the chaplain and said, "Please ... I would like to visit with the rest of the inmates here. Could you get permission?"

    Shlomo went into every cell, where he hugged, kissed, and talked with each inmate. Then he went into the dining room, into the recreation room, into the kitchen, into every possible nook and cranny of the prison where he was permitted to go, not satisfied until he had ferreted out every prisoner, making certain that no one had been overlooked. Finally, he was ready to leave, and as he walking down the hall a big, burly inmate with a scarred, pitted face started running after him. "Rabbi, Rabbi," he shouted. "Please wait." We stopped immediately, and Shlomo turned to beam at him. "Yes, my holy friend?" he inquired sweetly. The man began to shift in embarrassment, almost as if he regretted his impulsive act, and then, finally gathering courage, blurted out,
"I just loved that hug you have me before! Would you mind giving me another one?" Shlomo gave him the most radiant smile in the world, and then tenderly enfolded him in his arms. Thy stood clasped together for a long time.

    Finally, the inmate broke away and heaved the deepest sign in the world. "Oh Rabbi," he said. "No one, no one, ever hugged me like that before." And then tears began to stream down his face.

    "You know, Rabbi," he sobbed in remorse, "if only someone would have hugged me like that ten years ago, I surely wouldn't be here in this prison today." (Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum, in Jewish Soup for the Soul, 38-39)

   Thank God that tough prisoner did not die having never experienced a loving embrace. Mother Teresa said: "We can do not great things; only small things with great love." Just this is teshuva, is returning to our Source. God's Spirit gives us new life for one purpose: To share it. Let' share the Pentecost spirit. Let's hug someone like Rabbi Shlomo. Let's love our neighbors like our mothers love us. Let's acknowledge we will take a ride in a coffin one day and let that vision propel us to live a new life. Let's preach the gospel like Saint Peter. Let's be the church that was born on the Day of Pentecost.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Going Through Trouble

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from 2 Corinthians 4:8-9
at Bayou Manor Assisted Living on May 4, 2007

A Marine Colonel on his way home from work at the Pentagon comes to a dead halt in traffic and thinks to himself, "Wow, this traffic seems worse than usual, nothing is moving."

He notices a police officer walking back and forth between the lines of cars, so he rolls down his window and asks, "Excuse me, Officer, what seems to be the hold up?"

The officer replies, "The President is just so depressed that Hillary has moved to New York, and may leave him altogether that he just stopped his motorcade in the middle of the Beltway, and he's threatening to douse himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. He says his family absolutely hates him and he doesn't have the $33.5 million he owes his lawyers for that whole Monica and Paula thing. So I'm walking around taking up a collection for him."

"Oh really? How much have you collected so far?

"So far about three hundred gallons, but I've got a lot of folks still siphoning."

Bill Clinton is one man who knows something about going through trouble. One of the things he learned is that there are people watching you. We get that same idea in Hebrews 12:1-2 except instead of watching us to catch us doing something wrong these people are watching us to cheer us on in our lives. We read ... "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us ..."  That scripture passage reminds us that we are not alone. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. They are cheering for us. They want us to succeed in our earthly mission. To use a sports metaphor, we have the home field advantage because God came down to this planet. God became human. God has claimed planet earth through creation and redemption. Wherever we go we are never the visiting team. We are always the home team. We always have home field advantage, even here at Bayou Manor. Momentum is on our side.

We also gain momentum from the cloud of witnesses that cheer us on as we run the race of life. This cloud of witnesses is found in our families, our congregations, our neighborhoods and the society at large. We are all greatly indebted to the persons who raised us, guided us, taught us and protected us. We repay those debts by doing whatever we can to better society by passing on some of their love to others, by reaching out and listening to the cries of those who have fallen through the cracks of life. We reach out to others because somewhere along the way someone reached out to us in God's name.

Professor Paul Brown is one person who reached out to me. Paul served the church as professor of preaching and worship at Memphis Theological Seminary. I got to know him when he taught one of the seminars in my Doctor of Ministry program. Paul then became my advisor for the final paper I had to write for that degree. He was a great editor and mentor and we became close friends. I had been preaching for several years by that time but I still was not comfortable writing a sermon. In fact, I did not know how to write a sermon. Paul graciously consented to teach me. Over the course of a couple of years, each week I would email my sermon in progress to Paul and he would comment on it and help me edit it. He always challenged me to focus in on one idea and stick with that theme for the entire sermon.

After a few years, I remember one week when I thought I finally had gotten the hang of sermon writing and I no longer needed to send my sermons to Paul for his review. I sent it to him anyway out of habit. Strangely, he did not immediately respond to my email as he usually did. In fact, he did not respond for several days. I thought he must be having computer problems and that is why he hadn't responded to my email. That had happened before. Finally, after two weeks of no response, I called his house and talked to his wife. She said, "Jon, I'm sorry. Paul died last week. He was in a car wreck on his way to preach in Arkansas. He was at a stop sign and there was an 18 wheeler approaching and he thought he could beat it across the road but it ran right into him. He struggled in the hospital for several days but he never regained consciousness. Last Monday he died in the hospital." In the midst of my shock, I told Paul's wife how he had been a mentor to me and how we had been emailing one another every day and how he helped me learn how to preach. She said she had heard similar stories from several people since he had died.

I attended Paul's memorable funeral service. The funeral preacher knew him well and did him justice. The church was full of people whose lives Paul had touched over his years as a seminary professor, preacher and community activist. The casket was in front, closed, with a beautiful white pall over it. And I knew Paul, antsy as ever, was skipping up in heaven. I felt in that moment as if Paul had passed a part of himself on to me. It was akin to the feeling I got when I ran in the 400 meter yard dash in high school. I was on the second relay of that race. The first sprinter would carry the baton half-way around the track. I timed my start to when he reached a certain place on the track. When I was running at full sprint the first relay runner would hand the baton to me. I carried the baton half way around the track and then passed it on to the next relay runner. Paul Brown is now among my cloud of witnesses. He is sitting up there in heavens bleachers cheering me on. You see, when he died, Paul Brown passed the preaching baton to me.

You have your own stories you could share. Stories about people who have made a difference in your life. Stories about people who passed the baton of faith to you. Their early race is done and now they cheer you on from the heavenly bleachers.

Former presidential hopeful John Edwards drifted away from his faith when he left home to attend college. His faith became a matter of routine. He attended church, but had no personal , vibrant, resonant faith. Then, tragically, his 16 year old son died. Afterward, his faith in God "came roaring back" and hasn't left him since.

I know some of you have similar stories. Stories of pain and loss. Sometimes struggle makes us aware of just how much we depend on God: "God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble." (Ps. 46:1)

Whatever trouble we're going through, God is always with us. Paul himself was "perplexed" as to why he was suffering, but he knew that he could have faith (trust) in God. Since Jesus suffered, as followers of Jesus, we too will sometimes suffer, for "no servant is greater than his master" (John 13:16). How great a promise God gives us that he will never abandon us!

A couple had two little boys, ages 8 and 10, who were excessively mischievous. They were always getting into trouble and their parents knew that, if any mischief occurred in their town, their sons were probably involved.

They boys' mother heard that a clergyman in town had been successful in disciplining children, so she asked if he would speak with her boys. The clergyman agreed, but asked to see them individually. So the mother sent her 8-year-old first, in the morning, with the older boy to see the clergyman in the afternoon.

The clergyman, a huge man with a booming voice, sat the younger boy down and asked him sternly, "Where is God?".

They boy's mouth dropped open, but he made no response, sitting there with his mouth hanging open, wide-eyed. So the clergyman repeated the question in an even sterner tone, "Where is God!!?" Again the boy made no attempt to answer. So the clergyman raised his voice even more and shook his finger in the boy's face and bellowed, "WHERE IS GOD!?"

The boy screamed and bolted from the room, ran directly home and dove into his closet, slamming the door behind him. When his older brother found him in the closet, he asked, "What happened?"

The younger brother, gasping for breath, replied, "We are in BIG trouble this time, dude. God is missing - and they think WE did it!"

Sometimes our imaginations run wild and we get stuck in a negative mode of thinking. What is troubling you today? Our natural instinct is to obsess over the "why?" question. Instead, why not try to focus on the "What?" question: "What shall I do next?" Then leave the rest to God, who is our refuge, gives us strength in times of trouble, and gave His life so we will live.

Several people have told me their favorite Bible verse is from Philippians 4:13: "I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me."

As the prophet Isaiah says in our text today: "Thus says the LORD, he who created you ..., he who formed you ...: 'Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.'" We are here today because God has redeemed us and called us by name.

God's message to each of us today is this: "Do not fear." The Lord says: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you." We are not in this alone. As Paul says, "Whether we live or whether we die; we belong to the Lord."

God's final word to each of us when we are going through trouble is this: "Do not fear." This is the message God gave to the exiles from Israel. Do not be afraid! That is the message the angel gave to Mary when he came to tell her she had been chosen to bear the Messiah. Do not fear! That is the message the angels gave the shepherds when they appeared to them proclaiming the birth of Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Do not be afraid. So said the angel in the empty tomb to Mary and the women when they came looking for Jesus' body after his crucifixion. Do not be afraid. That is God's message to each of us today. Do not fear!

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

Let's pray ... Lord, help me today to trust You and leave the "why" with You and move on to the "what?". Please help me to see what You would have me do next. Thank you. I trust You to guide me. In Jesus' name, Amen.

Crack the Code

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Ephesians 1:15-23

at St. John's Presbyterian Church on May 4, 2008.

Before performing a baptism, the pastor approached the young father and said solemnly, "Baptism is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?"

"I think so," the man replied. "My wife has made appetizers and we have a caterer coming to provide plenty of cookies and cakes for all of our guests."

"I don't mean that," the pastor responded. "I mean, are you prepared spiritually?"

"Oh, sure," came the reply. "I've got a keg of beer and a case of whiskey!"

As the sheriff said in the movie, "What we got "he-ah" is a "fail-ya" to communicate." The pastor is speaking on one level and the young father is hearing on another level. If only we could crack the code, transformation would be possible. For the "heavenlies" as described in our text today is not so much a location as a symbol of the transformational power of God through Christ. Never doubt the power of God to transform a person or a congregation.

Christopher Flett wrote a book called What Men Don't Tell Women about Business: Opening Up the Heavily Guarded Alpha Male Playbook. There he describes the two ways to make partner at a law firm. One may make partner by generating a ton of money for the firm thereby making one's departure painful for the bottom line of the firm. Or one may make partner by being a strong ambassador or the company so that one's leaving would have a negative impact on the company. If you want to make partner, make yourself indispincible at St. John's, generate new members or significant income for the church.

In his book, Transforming Church, Kevin G. Ford claims we need to crack the code of St. John's. Here are some clues. This church does not have a nice little women's parlor with antique furniture. We've got serviceable rooms with simple chairs and tables. There is no fancy Session Room here. The Session simply uses a Church School classroom with no frills. In fact, this is a no frills congregation. We are more interested in giving away than holding back. We are more interested in helping others than helping ourselves. We have a reputation among those who know us as an unselfish congregation. Unselfish giving is part of the code of St. John's Presbyterian Church.

On January 7, 2002, Walt Kallestad suffered a nearly catastrophhic heart attack. His treatement set a record at a Phoenix hospital: the first six-bypass surgery. His doctors were stunned he survived. As Walt came back to consciouness from a morphine dream, he understood what was to become a defining metaphor of his new journey: His heart needed to be miraculously healed. (Ford, 36) Now that is transformation. Or, as the author of Ephesians put it: " ... With the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you." The challenge we face in the church today is a challenge of the heart, not the head. We do not need more facts. We need more compassion. We do not need more studies. We need more commitment. We do not need more statistics. We need more tears. Tears of disappointment. Tears of joy. We need more tears. We need more passion. With renewed passion we will rediscover the hope to which God has called this congregation.

Some churches have cracked their own code and have experienced transformation. What is the code of St. John's? Who are the heroes of this church? One hero of this church is the founding pastor, Rev. McPhail. He got out in the community and recruited members to join this church in the early days. So part of our hero's code of conduct involves bringing people into the church. Be an ambassador for St. John's. Invite people to worship. Tell them what this church has done for you.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a bottle of wine they lay down for the night, and went to sleep.

Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend awake. "Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."

Watson replied, "I see millions and millions of stars."

"What does that tell you?" Holmes questioned.

Watson pondered for a minute.

Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke.

"Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!"

That is the problem in the church. Someone has stolen the tent of our joy. To find our tent, to rediscover our joy, we need to dream again, to have a vision for the church. Flett's advice to women in business is good advice for the church:

A. Have a main plan.

B. Have a Plan B!

That is what your Session is working on.

The Session's Ministry Teams are dreaming up a "Vision Budget for 2009." The vision budget may be introduced to the church in the early Fall. The Session will challenges the congregation to support the vision budget. That is the main plan. If the congregation doesn't respond to the Vision Budget then we go to Plan B. Plan B is to scale back our vision to what we can afford to do. The good news here is that we are beginning to dream again! We may have misplaced our joy but we have not lost our hope!

Today we have remembered Rev. McPhail as a symbol of our need to invite others to worship here. We have heard about some dreams that are being birthed by the Session. We have faith for the present moment. We have hope for the future. Going forward, we will find the joy! As the Proverb wisely proclaims: "Without a vision the people perish." This is fun stuff. Let's acknowledge our excitement instead of working against it. Today is the day to ascend into the heavenlies. Today is the day to participate in God's transformation of this congregation. We will cooperate with God in the transformation of this congregation. That is our pledge to God and to one another on this Ascension Sunday. We have begun to crack the code of St. John's Presbyterian Church. We will continue until the job is done.