Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Ultimate Security

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Romans 8:26-39 on July 27 (OT17a) at St. John's Presbyterian Church

We are all aware of the rising price of basic foodstuffs such a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. A few weeks ago, The Guardian newspaper in London featured a satirical story about a G8 gathering of global elites. The purpose of their conference was to address the global foot shortage and mass starvation of humanity. The article from Tuesday July 8, 2008, read:

As the food crisis began to bite, the rumblings of discontent grew louder. Finally, after a day of discussing food shortages and soaring prices, the famished stomachs of the G8 leaders could bear it no longer.

The most powerful bellies in the world were last night compelled to stave off the great Hokkaido Hunger by fortifying themselves with an eight-course, 19-dish dinner prepared by 25 chefs. This multi-pronged attack was launched after earlier emergency lunch measures - four courses washed down with Ch√Ęteau-Grillet 2005 - had failed to quell appetites enlarged by agonising over feeding the world's poor.

The G8 gathering had been seen as a "world food shortages summit" as leaders sought to combat spiraling prices of basic foodstuffs in the developed world, and starvation in the developing world.

But not since Marie Antoinette was supposed to have leaned from a Versailles palace window and suggested that the breadless peasants eat cake can leaders have demonstrated such insensitivity to daily hardship than at the luxury Windsor hotel on the Japanese island of Hokkaido.

After discussing famine in Africa, the peckish politicians and five spouses took on four bite-sized amuse-bouche to tickle their palates. The price of staple foods may be soaring, but thankfully caviar and sea urchin are within the purchasing power of leaders and their taxpayers - the amuse-bouche featured corn stuffed with caviar, smoked salmon and sea urchin, hot onion tart and winter lily bulb.

They have told their people to tighten their belts for lean times ahead, but you feared for presidential and prime ministerial girdles after the chance to tuck into further dishes including milk-fed lamb, roasted lamb with cepes, and black truffle with emulsion sauce. Finally there was a "fantasy" dessert, a special cheese selection accompanied by lavender honey and caramelized nuts, while coffee came with candied fruits and vegetables.

Leaders cleverly skated around global water shortages by choosing from five different wines and liqueurs.

Earlier, the heads of state had restricted themselves to a light lunch of asparagus and truffle soup, crab and supreme of chicken served with nuts and beetroot foam, followed by a cheese selection, peach compote, milk ice-cream and coffee with petits fours.

Fresh from instructing his population to waste less food, it can only be hoped that Gordon Brown polished off every single morsel on his plate.

Andrew Mitchell, the shadow secretary of state for international development, said: "The G8 have made a bad start to their summit, with excessive cost and lavish consumption. Surely it is not unreasonable for each leader to give a guarantee that they will stand by their solemn pledges of three years ago at Gleneagles to help the world's poor. All of us are watching, waiting and listening." (Patrick Wintour and Patrick Barkham, The Guardian, Tuesday July 8, 2008)

We are watching, waiting and listening for something that will never happen. The elite globalists who would rule our world have no sympathy for common people and no intention of helping the poor. In this sense, although they be fabulously wealthy, they have no class. Compare their self serving attitude to these stories about the attitude and behavior of some people whom the global elites would consider to be so-called commoners.

Booker T. Washington struggled against deep-seated white prejudice to establish his Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. One day, as he passed the mansion of a wealthy woman to whom he was just another black, he heard her call out, "Come here, boy, I need some wood chopped."  

Without a word, Washington peeled off his jacket, picked up the ax and went to work, not only cutting a pile of wood but carrying it into the house.

He had scarcely left when a servant said, "That was Professor Washington, Ma'am." Abashed, the woman went to the Institute to apologize. Replied the educator: "There's no need for apology, madam. I'm delighted to do favors for my friends." The woman became one of Tuskegee's warmest and most generous supporters. Washington refused to be disturbed by insult or persecution. (Clarence W. Hall in Everyday Greatness by Stephen Covey, 345)

Here is another story of a person the globalists would consider a "commoner" who displays some uncommon wisdom. This story is cited in the book Everyday Greatness by Stephen Covey. This anonymous story teller relates how his mother solved a difficult conflict with her neighbors.

Our family of eight had a nice plot with a vegetable garden bordered by lilac bushes. A tenement in back of us was populated by folks who used to throw their trash--old shoes and socks, an assortment of things--into our garden. My older brothers and I thought that these people--they weren't called polluters then--should be told off.

Mother, who had never got beyond grammar school in the Old Country, and who had never heard of "psychology," told us to go out and pick lilacs. Then, she directed us to give each of the dozen families in back a bouquet, and say our mother thought they might enjoy them.

Somehow, a miracle happened, no more pollution. (As told to Leo Aikman, Atlanta Constitution, cited in Everyday Greatness by Stephen Covey, 345)

That story illustrates the benefits of following what Christians call the golden rule. Jesus said: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." In other words, if you want some respect, show respect to others. And if you can manage to show a little love, that is even more powerful. For love is the most powerful weapon of all.

Raised in an abusive home, a young woman felt bitterness toward her parents. But when diagnosed with breast cancer, she determined to love them in spite of the past.

Each morning as she left for work she'd tell her mother she loved her. Her mother never answered.

Then one day, after about three months, the daughter was late for work and rushed out of the house. Her mother hurried to the door. "You forgot something," she yelled. "What?" the young woman asked. "You forgot to say I love you." they embraced. They cried. They healed. (Bernie S. Siegel, Prescriptions for Living, 349)

If we want to address the powers that be, speaking a word of justice, we must also get our own house in order. One of  love's finest rewards occurs when enemies are made into friends.

He drew a circle that shut me out--
heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.  (Edwin Markham, cited in Everyday Greatness by Stephen Covey, 345)

     The question before our congregation is how we will show hospitality. Are we drawing a circle that shuts people out of our fellowship? Or are we drawing a circle that takes people into our church family? Hospitality is the key ingredient in this recipe. We show hospitality when we greet the visitor. We show hospitality when we let people be who they are even as we challenge them to become more than that through Christ. Let's intentionally draw circles that take people in.
    I saw an example of this kind of community support for the individual at the Lafabah celebration. Lafabah is an organization of West Cameroonian tribe members now living in Houston. They celebrated their 20th anniversary in Houston on Friday evening in a ballroom in the Crowne Plaza West hotel. As I watched the crowd of 200 or so Camerooni and other African expatriots, I witnessed a community where children were welcome and supported, the women and men support one another and the children and young people. As part of the ceremony, a tribe member flew in from Paris, France, to present an award to St. John's Presbyterian Church for our support of the tribe. I was honored to receive this plaque on behalf of our church. Some of you may recall that Lafabah used our church facilities for a conference in which they jump started a medical university in Cameroon. Leonie and other members of our congregation are part of Lafabah. Their energy, creativity and sense of community are an example of the ultimate power of love.
    It's not: "I think, therefore I am." It's not: "I shop, therefore, I am." It's this: "I am loved, therefore I am." This sense of community goes against the grain of our consumerist culture where each person is weighed and measured according to how much tax income they will provide the government or how much they produce and consume in the society. We are human beings made in the image of God. That is what we must remember and demonstrate if we are have any hope against a global elite who views us as sheep to be manipulated for their own personal gain.
    The current attitude of the global elite toward ordinary people is nothing new. The Ceasar's and Senate in Paul's day was corrupt and showed disdain for ordinary people. When he wrote his letter to the Romans, some in Rome, which in Latin in Roma, thought of themselves as living in the city of love, since "Roma" spelled backwards is "Amore," meaning "Love" in Latin. Ancient Rome envisioned herself as a city that embodied love, perhaps seeing herself as a god named love. But her attitude and actions toward the people in the streets provided little evidence of love. In such a place, Paul's message of being loved by the one true God made him a dangerous citizen. Paul's brand of Christianity elevated slaves and common women and men as children of God.
    When we live out the radical love of God for us, we too, may become dangerous citizens. We may become dangerous to the global elite, the G-8 clubbers, who lavishly feast while admonishing us to fast and while millions of humans die of starvation. Authentic Christian discipleship is as counter cultural today as it was in ancient Rome. When we find ourselves by losing ourselves in loving service for others, the powers that be do not know how to handle us. We become less open to the brainwashing of the media. We find ourselves turning off our TV sets and tuning into serving others. We find ourselves less swayed by the immoral dictates of a top-down culture. Yes, Christianity is dangerous to the elite globalists who would run our world.
    That is a scary thought for American Christians. We are not accustomed to being in opposition to our would-be rulers. There may even be some danger for us in this adventure. But God will be will us. As Paul puts it in Romans chapter 8: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (v. 38-39)
     This is a challenging time to live. Many millions of humans face the prospect of physical starvation. Other millions seek spiritual nourishment. However, I am bullish about the future of humanity and the future of this church. As we continue to reach out to love the world from the Christ within us, our future is secure. Our recipe for success is based on a feeding a starving world with a heaping helping of God's love. God's love is the ultimate security for our world, for our church, and for ourselves. Let us not be deceived into seeking security anywhere else but in God's loving embrace. Divided, we fall. United, we stand. Community is the key to the survival of our species. Community is the key to our survival as a church. Community is the key to our survival as individuals. We must support one another and all human beings. This is the love's dictate. This is our ultimate security.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Why We Go to Church

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Genesis 28:10-19a
on July 20, 2008 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

Benjamin Franklin used a certain technique to make significant decisions. He divided a sheet of paper in half and wrote "Pro" on one side and "Con" on the other side. Then during three or four days consideration, he put down under the different heads a short hint of the different motives, that at different times occurred to him, for or against the measure. When he had the columns filled in he weighted one against the other and started scratching out a "pro" one on this side if it was balanced by a "con" on the other side. Eventually it would become clear which side of the "pro" or "con" list was the strongest. He then would make his decision. Franklin called this technique "moral or prudential algebra."  You may want to use Franklin's moral algebra if you face a difficult decision.

Our hard choice this morning is what to make of this character named Jacob. Let's try Franklin's moral algebra on Jacob. Imagine two columns on a sheet of paper with one side being pro and another side being con. Now list Jacob's traits. Pro: Tenacious, clever, aggressive, industrious. Con: Deceitful, greedy, liar, thief, unethical in both business and personal affairs, untrustworthy, possible psychopathic.

And the "Con" list continues. Jacob is the joker who burned his brother out of his birthright. Jacob is the joker who tricked his father-in-law out of most of his fortune. Pretty soon we see that in judging Jacob's character the "con" side of the equation wins hands down. We then wonder how this scoundrel named Jacob ever became a hero in the Hebrew Bible. Although the balance of his life came down in the "con" category, Jacob still gets God's blessing. We don't know why this happened. Here is what we do know from this text. We know that Jacob was a morally compromised person and we know that God met with Jacob. Jesus said he came to seek and save sinners, and the God of Israel sought and saved this sinner named Jacob. This world is a place of meeting with God.

Writer Ann Lamotte describes an event where she met God, as she says ...

It's funny: I always imagined when I was a kid that adults had some kind of inner toolbox, full of shiny tools: the saw of discernment, the hammer of wisdom, the sandpaper of patience. But then when I grew up I found that life handed you these rusty bent old tools--friendships, prayer, conscience, honesty--and said, Do the best you can with these, they will have to do. And mostly, against all odds, they are enough.

Not long ago I was driving Sam and his friend Josh over to Josh's house where the boys were going to spend the night. But out of the blue, Josh changed his mid about wanting Sam to stay over. "I'm tired," he said suddenly "and I want to have a quiet night with my mom." Sam's face went white and blank; he has so little armor. He started crying. I tried to manipulate Josh into changing his mine, and I even sort of vaguely threatened him, hinting that Sam or I might cancel a date with him sometime, but he stated firm. After a while Sam said he wished we'd all get hit by a car, and Josh stared out the window nonchalantly. I thought he might be about to start humming. It was one of those times when you wish you were armed so you could attack the kid who has hurt your own child's feelings.
    "Sam?" I asked. "Can I help in any way? Shall we pray?"
    "I just wish I'd never been born."
    But after a moment, he said yes, I should pray. To myself.
    So I prayed that God would help me figure out how to stop living in the problem and to move into the solution. That was all. We drove along for a while. I waited for sign of improvement. Sam said, "I guess Josh wishes I had never been born."
    Josh stared out the window: dum de dum.
    I kept asking God for help, and after a while I realized something--that Josh was not enjoying this either. He was just trying to take care of himself, and I made the radical decision to let him off the hook. I imagined gently lifting him off the hook of my judgment and setting him back on the ground.
    And a moment later, he changed his mind. Now, maybe this was the result of prayer, or forgiveness; maybe it was a coincidence, I will never know. But even before Josh changed his mind, I did know one thing for sure, and this was that Sam and I would be going to church the next morning. Mary Williams would be sitting in the back near the door, in a crumpled hat. Sam would hug her; she would close her eyes and smell the soft skin of his neck, just below his ears.
    What I didn't know was that Josh would want to come with us too. I didn't know that when I stopped by his house to pick up Sam the next morning, he would eagerly run out ahead of Sam to ask if he could come. And another thing I didn't know was that Mary Williams was going to bring us another bag of dimes. It had been a little while since her last dime drop, but just when I think we've all grown out of the ritual, she brings us another stash. Mostly I give them to street people. Some sit like tchotchkes on bookshelves around the house. Mary doesn't know that professionally I'm doing much better now; she doesn't know that I no longer really need people to slip me money. but what's so dazzling to me, what's so painful and poignant, is that she doesn't bother with what I think she knows or doesn't know about my financial life. She just knows we need another bag of dimes, and that is why I make Sam go to church. (Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, 103-104)

I thought about that story this week during Vacation Bible School as I considered why people come to church. Church attendance is no longer a cultural expectation as it was in the 1950's. No one is expected to come to church in 2008. But some people still come. I wonder what they find here. I wonder if they find something similar to what Anne Lamott finds in her church: A spiritual family. Lord knows none of us is perfect. And then I think back to that story of Jacob. I remember how God came down and met with this schemer, this manipulator, this wheeler - dealer, less than honest, clever man named Jacob. And I start to wonder whether the story of Jacob is supposed to tell us more about who God is and what God is like than it is to tell who Jacob is and what he is like.
I came across a riddle this week.

It's greater than GOD.
More cruel than devil.
The poor have it.
The rich need it.
And if you eat it, you'll die.
What is it?

The answer is: nothing.

'Nothing' is greater than GOD.
Nothing is more cruel than devil.
The poor have nothing.
The rich need nothing.
And if you eat nothing, you'll die.

When I reflected on Jacob's story, I finally realized it meant nothing. It meant nothing, that is, unless I put myself into the story. Once I put myself into the story, it made sense. For you see, I am Jacob. And so are you. We have our dreams and visions. We have our faults and sins. But most of all, we have one an other. And in the midst of our broken lives, God comes and meets us here in this place. Once a week. Every Sunday morning. We gather here to support one another. When the people of God come to the church, God meets us here. Someone once said, "Christians aren't perfect. Just forgiven." And that is why we go to church. Today some of our congregation left on a Mexico Mission Trip. Let us keep them in prayer as they undertake this meaningful and significant pouring out of themselves in service to others. Let us pour ourselves out in prayer for them so that they may pour themselves out in service to others.

Our Mexico Mission Team will learn what they have to offer to the church and the world. They will learn that it takes all kinds of people to make a successful mission trip. Some people may tend to be like me: Soft-hearted, reflective, cautious, and idealistic. Others may be more hands-on, forceful, decisive, and candid. Some of them, like Jeanne, are organized, factual, detailed, and scheduled. It takes people with different strengths to make an effective mission team. And that's what we are as a church. We are a mission team. We need people like me who can generate ideas and concepts and we need people who support and manage change. We need people like Bob who take action and get things done. We need people like Shirley who are organized and detailed. And we need newcomers too. We are always open to what new people bring to the mix. Each one of us is needed here. Each of us has an important role to play in this blended family. We are a spiritual, blended family who have been brought together by God to fulfill a mission in the world. We find here people who accept us for who we are. We find here a blended spiritual family where we may use our God-given gifts and talents to bless God's world. That's why we come to church.

In the end, we are all broken, imperfect Jacobs, grasping for God, hoping he shows up when we need him. Some of us have learned the truth of that old gospel song: "I need thee every hour; teach me thy will; and thy rich promises in me fulfill." We come to church and God meets us here. That's why we come to church. If you have been attending this church often, or if today is your first time, consider joining our spiritual family. Speak to me after the service to learn how to join the church. Or, you may want to continue coming for awhile before you take the step of officially joining the church. Whatever you decide, know that you are welcome in this blended spiritual family called St. John's Presbyterian Church.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Good Soil Bears Fruit

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Matthew 13:18-23 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on July 13, 2008

    There has been so much death this week in this church and this community. On Monday, Abel DeSouza died. On Tuesday, the father of one of the children on my son's baseball team died. The father was about my age and his son was in the 3rd grade. On Friday, I conducted a memorial service for a beloved church member, Ruth Davis. Today, I read in the Houston Chronicle about the death of a beloved physician in Houston.  Dr. Michael Ellis DeBakey, internationally acclaimed as the father of modern cardiovascular surgery — and considered by many to be the greatest surgeon ever — died Friday night at The Methodist Hospital in Houston. He was 99. It's been one of those weeks when it is hard to catch your breath. Yet, even in the midst of grief, there is reason for hope.

    Have you hard the story of Teddy Stallard? Teddy Stallard certainly qualified as "one of the least": disinterested in school musty, wrinkled clothes, hair never combed; one of those kids in school with a deadpan face; an expressionless, glassy, unfocused stare. When Miss Thompson spoke to Teddy he always answered in monosyllables. Unattractive, unmotivated, and distant, he was just plain hard to like.

    Even though his teacher said she loved all in her class the same, down inside she wasn't being completely truthful. Whenever she marked Teddy's papers, she got a certain perverse pleasure out of putting Xs next to the wrong answers, and when she puts the Fs at the top of the papers, she always did it with a flair. She should have known better; she had Teddy's records and she knew more about him than she wanted to admit. The record read:

1st Grade: Teddy shows promise with his work and attitude, but poor home situation.

2nd Grade: Teddy could do better. Mother is seriously ill. He receives little help at home.

3rd Grade: Teddy is a good boy but too serious. He is a slow learner. His mother died this year.
4th Grade: Teddy is very slow, but well-behaved. His father shows no interest.

    Christmas came and the boys and girls in Miss Thompson's class brought her Christmas present. They piled their presents on her desk and crowded around to watch her open them. Among the presents there was one from Teddy Stallard. She was surprised that he had brought her a gift, but he had. Teddy's gift was wrapped in brown paper and was held together with Scotch tape. On the paper were written the simple words, "For Miss Thompson from Teddy." When she opened Teddy's present out fell a gaudy rhinestone bracelet, with half the stones missing, and a bottle of cheap perfume.

    The other boys and girls began to giggle and smirk over Teddy's gifts, but Miss Thompson at least had enough sense to silence them by immediately putting on the bracelet and putting some of the perfume on her wrist. Holding her wrist up for the other children to smell, she said, "Doesn't it smell lovely?" And the children, taking their cues form the teacher, readily agrees with "oohs" an d"aahs."
    At the end of the day, when school was over and the other children had left, Teddy lingered behind. He slowly came over to their desk and said softly, "Miss Thompson ... Miss Thompson, you smell just like my mother ... and her bracelet looks real pretty on you, too. I'm glad you liked my presents." When Teddy left, Miss Thompson got down on her knees and asked God to forgive her.

    The next day when the children came to school, they were welcomed by a new teacher. Miss Thompson had become a different person. She was no longer just a teacher; she had become an agent of God. She was now a person committed to loving her children and doing things for them that would live on after her. She helped all the children, but especially the slow ones, and especially Teddy Stallard. By the end of that school year, Teddy showed dramatic improvement. He had caught up with most of the students and was even ahead of some.

    She didn't hear from Teddy for a long time. Then one day, she received a note that read:

Dear Miss Thompson:
    I wanted you to be the first to know. I will be graduating second in my class.
    Love, Teddy Stallard

Four years later, another note came:

Dear Miss Thompson:
    They just told me I will be graduating first in my class. I wanted you to be the first to know. The university has not been easy, but I like it.
    Love, Teddy Stallard

And four years later:

Dear Miss Thompson:
    As of today, I am Theodore Stallard, M.D. how about that? I wanted you to be the first to know I am getting married next month, the 27th to be exact. I want you tom come and sit where my mother would sit if she were alive. you are the only family I have now; Dad died last year.
    Love. Teddy Stallard

Miss Thompson went to that wedding and sat where Teddy's mother would have sat. She deserved to sit there; she had done something for Teddy that he could never forget. (Author unknown, Submitted by Bertie Synoweic and Chuck Dodge to A Second Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul, 216-128)

    Miss Thompson found the secret of joy through serving children in her role as a teacher. She became a mentor to her students after her experience with Teddy Stallard. in regard to Miss Thompson, Jesus said: "This is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty." (Matthew 13:23)

    We tend to think when good things happen to us we are happy and when bad things happen to us we are sad but Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert disagrees and claims to have evidence that proves otherwise. Here is what he says in his book, Stumbling Upon Happiness:

    Forget Yoga. Forget liposuction. And forget those herbal supplements that promise to improve your memory, enhance your mood, reduce your waistline, restore your hairline, prolong your lovemaking, and improve your memory. If you want to be happy and healthy, you should try a new technique that has the power to transform the grumpy, underpaid chump you are now into the deeply fulfilled, enlightened individual you've always hoped to be. If you don't believe me, then just consider the testimony of some folks who've tried it:

          o "I am so much better off physically, financially, mentally, and in almost every other way."
    (JW from Texas)
          o "It was a glorious experience." (MB from Louisiana)
          o "I didn't appreciate others nearly as much as I do now." (CR from California)

    Who are these satisfied customers, and what is the miraculous technique they're all talking about? Jim Wright, former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, made his remark after committing sixty-nine ethics violations and being forced to resign in disgrace. Morese Bickham, a former inmate, made his remark upon being released from the Louisiana state Penitentiary where he'd served thirty-seven years for defending himself against the Ku Klux Klansmen who'd shot him. And Christopher Reeve, the dashing star of Superman, made his remark after an equestrian accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, unable to breathe without the help of a ventilator. The moral of the story? If you want to be happy, healthy, wealthy, and wise, then skip the vitamin pills and the plastic surgeries and try public humiliation, unjust incarceration, or quadriplegia instead.

    Uh-huh. Right. Are we really supposed to believe that people who lose their jobs, their freedom, and their mobility are somehow improved by the tragedies that befall them? If that strikes you as a far-fetched possibility, then you are not alone. For at least a century, psychologists have assumed that terrible events--such as having a loved one die or becoming the victim of a violent crime--must have a powerful, devastating, and enduring impact on those who experience the. But the fact is that while most bereaved people are quite sad for a while, very few become chronically depressed and most experience relatively low levels of relatively short-lived distress. Indeed, studies of those who survive major traumas suggest that the vast majority do quite well, and that a significant portion claim that their lives were enhanced by the experience. I know, I know. It sounds suspiciously like the title of a country song, but the fact is that most folks do okay when things go pretty bad. That fact is that negative events do affect us, but they generally don't affect us as much or for as long as we expect them to. (Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, 165-168)

     Country Music star, and Texas icon, Willie Nelson, says: "Sixty years ago, if I'd had the opportunity to lay out my life just the way I wanted it to happen--whatever I would have planned would have paled in comparison with what's actually happened. And all I can say about that is . . . 'Fortunately, I wasn't in control.'" (Willie Nelson, The Tao of Willie, 93) Well said, Willie. Fortunately, you weren't in control of your own life. And fortunately, neither are we. Some folks think we should pray because we need to change God's mind. Wrong. We pray because God needs to change our mind. And one of the things God needs to change our mind from is the idea that we are in control of our lives. Not only are we not in control of our lives, we are not in the world. Once again, that distinction belongs to God alone. What a relief it is when we finally realize that we are not God and we are not in control of our own life and we are not in control of the world.

    We don't always understand why things happen. Why does a young child lose his mother or father when he is in third grade? Why do so many people die from cancer? How can a widow ever recover from the death of a beloved spouse? In the face of such hard questions, Jesus speaks the parable of the good soil. Good soil bears fruit. Good soil represents a fertile inner life in which the seed of God's Word takes root . As Jesus put it: "This is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty." The good fruit is the fruit of the spirit that grows inside us: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self control. The irony is that when we treat others with love and respect the fruit of the spirit grows within us.

No matter where we are in our lives today, even in our times of grief, we trust that God is still in control, and believe the grace of God is still at work in us.  As Jesus said in another parable, "A seed cannot grow unless it dies and is planted in the ground." May the grief that we all experience plant a seed of hope within our hearts. For as the Apostle Paul put it: "Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord." There is more to existence than our physical bodies. We don't know the half of it. Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord. This is not a mushy religious sentiment. This is a fact.


Sunday, July 06, 2008

Growing Pains

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Romans 7:15-25a
on July 6, 2008 (OT14a) at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas

    George Burns, himself Jewish, describes a childhood experience that led him to a short-lived desire to join a  Presbyterian Church. He begins:
    Unlike my father, my mother was a very practical lady. Nothing ever flustered her. No matter what the problem was, somehow she knew how to handle it.
    A perfect example happened when I was seven years old. I was singing with three other Jewish kids from the neighborhood. We called ourselves the Peewee Quartet. Now, there was a big department store, Siegal & Cooper, that threw an annual picnic, and the highlight was an amateur contest with talent representing all the churches in New York. Right around the corner from where we lived was a little Presbyterian church. How it got in that neighborhood, I'll never know; it certainly didn't do big business.
    Well, they had no on to enter in the contest, so the minister asked us four boys to represent the church. We jumped at the chance. So that Sunday, there we were, the Peewee quartet--four Jewish boys sponsored by a Presbyterian church --and our opening song was "When Irish Eyes are Smiling." We followed that with "Mother Machree" and won first prize. The church got a purple velvet altar cloth, and each of us kids got an Ingersoll watch, which was worth about eighty-five cents.
    Well, I was so excited I ran all the way home to tell my mother. When I got there she was on the roof hanging out the wash. I rushed up to her and said, "Mama, I don't want to be a Jew anymore!"
    If this shocked her, she certainly didn't show it. She just looked at me and calmly said, "Do you mind me asking why?"
    I said, "Well, I've been a Jew for seven years and never got anything. I was a Presbyterian for one day and I got a watch." And I held out my wrist and showed it to her.
    She glanced at it and said, "First help me hang up the wash, then you can be a Presbyterian."
    While I was hanging up the wash some water ran down my arm and got inside the watch. It stopped running, so I became a Jew again. (Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul, 88-89, George Burns)  Invite your friends to join us for Vacation Bible School which starts next Sunday evening. Perhaps they will want to join St. John's Presbyterian Church -- at least until their watch stops working.  

   A Jewish proverb says: "A mother understands what a child does not say."  In The Teen Whisperer, Mike Linderman describes a conversation between a mother and her daughter.
    The other day I walked into the kitchen, where my wife, Helen, and my daughter, Alicia, were having a conversation. They were just catching up on their day, and all was going well. Alicia was also leafing through a catalog. She turned the magazine to my wife and said, "This top is cute."
    Helen looked at the photograph and said, "But where could you wear something like that?"
    Alicia shrugged her shoulders. "Anywhere. Why?"
    Helen pursed her lips and looked away for a moment. "It's just kind of, I don't know . . . . It's not something I'd think you'd wear, that's all."
    "And just what do you think I'd be likely to wear? A frumpy sweater? A raincoat?"
    "Alicia, honey, all I'm saying . . ."
    "Jeez, mom, you don't have to tell me what you're saying. I KNOW what you're saying. You are so critical all the time of every single thing I do, I say, I wear."
    "Please don't exaggerate. You always do this. You don't have to be so sensitive about every little thing I say."
    'Oh, so that's another one of my faults?"
    "That's not what I'm saying. All I'm saying is I don't think that top is cute, that's all. End of story."
    "Why didn't you just say so?" Helen flips to another page, "I like it, but it's not anything I would want or wear."
    "Have you thought about what you might want to do for your birthday."
    "I have an exam in chemistry, and I haven't had a chance to review a single thing in the last chapter." (Mike Linderman, The Teen Whisperer: How to Break Through the Silence and Secrecy of Teenage Life, p. 208) This strained conversation reflects Paul's conflicted feelings in Romans, Chapter Seven, where he describes the struggle we all experience. We want to communicate one thing but end up saying something else..

     In Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul, Amy Lederman describes her relationship with her grandmother, Edna Wolf.
    "Born in the small Russian town of Lust in 1887, Edna Wolf left Russia at eighteen months and sailed to America with her two older sisters, her brother and her father. Her mother was forced to stay behind because she could not leave her own blind mother alone. When she was finally able to come to America, she traveled with nothing but the clothes on her back. "But she tricked them," Grandma would tell me with a twinkle in her eye. "She hid our Sahibs candlesticks in the lining of her winter coat and never took that coat off until she landed in New York."
    Those candlesticks were a testimony to a way of life; they were the triumph of a broken family fighting to find their way back to one another in a land that promised everything.
    Grandma lit those candlesticks every holiday and each Shabbat. She would close her eyes and mumble while swaying back and forth in front of the dancing flames. As a young girl, I thought she knew everything, that the power of the world rested in those small, freckled fingertips that spread the warmth of the candle's light. I saw her as the source of our family tradition, the ultimate word on what we should all do and be.
    I will never forget the day I visited her in the nursing home just a few months before she died. She had become diminished, not so much by age but by the bitter ironies of her life. She seemed happy when I told her about my two children, my home, my husband. But my law career and the many aspirations I had were of no real interest to her. She held my hand on the small sofa, and I stared at the big, brown freckles that covered her skin. She needed so much reassurance now, to know that her life had been meaningful.
    I painted her fingernails while we talked, and she reminisced about the old days. Of her sisters and the hours they spent laughing together in the kitchen, sharing secrets, when they all lived together in the house on Fair Street. Of my father and what a "prince" he had been but how he never understood her anymore. I sensed in her ramblings that she was in another time and place entirely.
    As I got ready to leave, she slowly got up from her chair. She walked towards me and then, changing her mind, headed directly toward the hutch that contained the few remaining items she kept from the old days. She took down the beautiful brass candlesticks that I had loved since I was a little girl. "My darling girl," she said with tears in her eyes, "you have always been filled with the love of your Jewishness. May you find joy and meaning in whatever you chose to do with your life. But remember, nothing you do will be more important than your family." She handed me the candlesticks and said, "It is only right that these should belong to you now."
    It has been almost four years now since my grandma died. it seems that all I need is the scent of cinnamon or a jar of Ponds Cold Cream to bring her back to me. But I know that as time passes she will become harder to recall. I am certain this is why she gave me her candlesticks. For each time I light the candles, I feel her love for me gently burning in the flames and bestowing upon me the power and inner-strength to create a life of meaning and purpose. And in doing so, I have come to understand the legacy of her life and the meaning of her blessing. (Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul, 204-206, AmyHirshberg Lederman ) "The mother's heart is the child's schoolroom," said Henry Ward Beecher. And I think we can add to that, "The grandmother's heart is the grown child'ssafe-house."
    Growing pains begin when we make the journey through the birth canal and continue until make the journey into the world to come when our baptism is complete in death. In the meantime, from the cradle to the grave, we all experience growing pains. Jesus, himself a Jew, experienced growing pains. So did Paul, another Jew. So do you. So do I.
    Growing pains are not fun and they do not make us happy. But growing pains are signs that we are maturing in God's grace. Live into your growing pains this week. Feel them. Acknowledge them. Confess them to God. Pray with Paul, saying: "Who will rescue me from this body of death?" Then rejoice with Paul, saying: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" All things are possible with God. A Chinese proverb says, "There is only one pretty child in the world, and every mother has it." You are God's pretty child. The only one She has. Remember that truth and live on into your growing pains.