Sunday, August 17, 2008

Come Closer to Me

Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Genesis 45:1-15 on August 17, 2008 (OT20a) at St. John's Presbyterian Church

A Buddhist parable will provide an entrance into the story of Joseph's reconciliation with brothers who betrayed him. Along the way we may learn something about letting go of the past, holding steady through the drenching storms of life, and coming closer to God and others. Listen to this parable from Thich Nhat Hahn which warns about our tendency to become enslaved to our ideas and the terrible consequences that may have on ourselves and those we love.

The story goes that a young tradesman came home and saw that his house had been robbed and burned by bandits. Right outside what was left of the house, there was a small, charred body. He thought the body belonged to his little boy. He did not know that his child was still alive. He did not know that after having burned the house, the bandits had taken his little boy away with them. In his state of confusion, the tradesman believed the boy he saw was his on. So he cried, he beat his chest and pulled out his hair in grief. Then he began the cremation ceremony.

This man loved his little boy so much. His son was his reason for being. He longed for his little boy so much that he could not abandon the little boys ashes even for one moment. He made a velvet bag and put the ashes inside. He carried the bag with him day and night, and whether he was working or resting, he was never separated from the bag of ashes. One night his son escaped from the robbers. He came to the new house built by his father. He knocked excitedly on the door at two o'clock in the morning. His father called out as he wept, still holding the bag of ashes. "Who is there?"

"It's me, your son!" the boy answered through the door.

"You naughty person, you are not my boy. My child died three months ago. I have his ashes with me right here." The little boy continued to beat on the door and cried and cried. He begged over and over again to come in, but his father continued to refuse him entry. The man held firm to the notion that his little boy was already dead and that this other child was some heartless person who had come to torment him. Finally, the boy left and the father lost his son forever. (Thich Nhat Hhan, No Death, No Fear)

This tragic story suggests what happens when we are not able to let go of the pain of the past.  The father in this parable could not let go of the false idea that his son had died and so he would not his son come closer to him when he appeared in the dead of night and knocked on his door begging to come in. The parable also has a deeper meaning. What ashes, or idea, do you hold onto at all costs?

The Buddha said that if you get caught in one idea and consider it to be "the truth," then you miss the chance to know the truth. Even if the truth comes in person and knocks at your door, you will refuse to open your mind. So if you are committed to an idea about truth or to an idea about the conditions necessary for your happiness, be careful. Our world suffers so much from dogmatic attitudes. Freedom is above all else freedom from our own notions and concepts. If we get caught in our notions and concepts, we can make ourselves suffer and we can also make those we love suffer. (Thich Nhat Hhan, No Death, No Fear, 9-10, italics mine)

Unlike the father who could not let go of the illusion of his son's death, Joseph let go of the pain of the past and opened himself to a new reality and it saved his life and eventually led him back to reconciliation with his brothers. Joseph persevered in the face of humiliation, treachery, and bullying by his brothers. He resisted seduction by his boss's wife, kept faith while imprisoned for his beliefs, and solved the problem of how to help a mighty nation survive a coming famine. How did he do all these amazing things? I think Joseph had a philosophy that sustained him. Here is Joseph's creed: "What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8) Joseph did justice toward his family, loved kindness in forgiving his brothers, and walked humbly with his God. That is all the Lord requires of us and, with God's help, that is what we shall do and that is whom we shall be: People who do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.

At the climactic end of the story, Joseph is Pharaoh's right hand man and his bullying brothers appear before him begging for food to save their family from famine. Instead of refusing their request, Joseph grants the wish of his bullying brothers, and explains to them, "You meant it for harm but God meant it for good." Then he says to them: "Come closer to me." When Joseph said this to his brothers they came closer and were reconciled. Essentially, Joseph exhibited hospitality. Let us be people of hospitality. Let us be a church of hospitality. We invite people to enter into our lives and into our the fellowship of St. John's by gestures, words, and body language. When it comes to hospitality, the little things really do matter.

Verna Rallings tells this moving story in the book Everyday Greatness.

Some years ago in our rural section of Southern California, a Mexican mother died leaving a family of eight children. The oldest girl, not yet seventeen, was a tiny thing. Upon her frail shoulders fell the burden of caring for the family. Taking up the task with courage, she kept the children clean, well fed, and in school.

One day when I complimented her on her achievement, she replied, "I can't take any credit for something I have to do."

 "But, my dear, you don't have to. You could get out of it."

She paused for a moment, then replied, "Yes, that's true. But what about the have to that's inside of me?" (Verna Rallings quoted in Everyday Greatness by Stephen R. Covey, 144)

Joseph did what he did for his family because of the have to that was inside him. After being sold into slavery by his step-brothers, he certainly didn't owe them anything. Yet, Joseph had the have to inside him that made him take care of his brothers. Isn't it good to know that God has that same have to inside Him? We read in the Gospel According to John: "For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son. God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world, through him, may be saved." (John 3:16-17)

"Scientists say that if you clap your hands it may have an impact on a distant star. What is happening with us can affect a galaxy far away. And the galaxy far away can effect us. Everything is under the influence of everything else." (Thich Nhat Hhan, No Death, No Fear, 85)

When we are under the influence of God we are able to do mighty things. When we are living our lives out of the have to inside us that compels us to care for our weaker brothers and sisters, God's power will be manifest in our lives. We will keep ourselves open to God's possibilities in us for reaching out in love to others.

Kathleen Norris tells this story in her book, Amazing Grace.

One morning this past spring I noticed a young couple with an infant at an airport departure gate. The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, no matter if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking he would respond with absolute delight.

It was beautiful to see. Our drab departure gate had become the gate of heaven. And as I watched that baby play with any adult who would allow it, I felt as awe-struck as Jacob, because I realized that this is how God looks at us, staring into our faces in order to be delighted, to see the creature he made and called good, along with the rest of creation. And, as Psalm 139 puts it, darkness is as nothing to God, who can look right through whatever evil we've done in our lives to the creature made in the divine image.

I suspect that only God, and well-loved infants, can see this way. Peter denied Jesus, and Saul persecuted the early Christians, but God could see the apostles they would become. God loves to look at us, and loves it when we will look back at him. Even when we try to run away from our troubles, as Jacob did, God will find us, and bless us, even when we feel most alone, unsure if we'll survive the night. God will find a way to let us know that he is with us in this place wherever we are, however far we thinking we've run. And maybe that's one reason we worship--to respond to grace. We praise God not to celebrate our own faith but to give thanks for the faith God has in us. To let ourselves look at God, and let God look back at us. And to laugh, and sing, and be delighted because God has called us his own. (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Grace, 150-151)

The place to begin is with the person in the mirror. Now is the time to examine the direction of your life. In the thousands of little decisions you make each day, are you moving away from God or toward God? Our intention sets the direction of our will and the direction of our will is the way we will go. Let us set our will toward the river of God's love that flows through our lives. Let us open our minds, hearts, and arms to the others in our lives. Joseph cried out to his begging brothers, "Come closer to me!" and they did and he was reconciled to his brothers. Let us hear and respond to God's loving voice which whispers to us the same loving invitation, "Come closer to me." Then respond to God's invitation and Joseph's inspiration by saying to the people around us and to all creation, "Come closer to me."

Monday, August 11, 2008

Life Goes On

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28
on August 10, 2008 (OT19a) at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

It has been said that struggle comes to every person. Just live long enough and it will come, perhaps again, to you. But the Spirit is with us in the middle of our struggles, great or small. The great American poet, Robert Frost, wisely said: "In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: It goes on." Yield yourself now to the loving, leading presence of God's spirit, as you listen to God's Word to you today in the story of Joseph and his bullying brothers.

A teenage boy named Joseph heard God speaking to him in his dreams. He dreamed about God and himself and his family. He described his dreams to his brothers. He said, "Listen to this dream I had. We were all out in the field gathering bundles of wheat. All of a sudden my bundle stood straight up and your bundles circled around it and bowed down to mine." Now what do you think about that? His brothers reply, "So! You're going to rule us? You're going to boss us around?" And they hated him more than ever because of his dreams and the way he talked.
Joseph was a mystic and God eventually used Joseph's mystical vision to make him the King of Egypt's right hand man. When Joseph matures, his ability to interpret dreams will save his family and an entire nation after he envisions a coming famine and leads Egypt through the crisis. But here in our text today, Joseph's mystical vision is just dawning, just beginning. Young Joseph was starting to see something inside himself that is inside each of us although we seldom see it. Other mystics have seen it. Here is how a contemporary Christian, Thomas Merton, describes this mystical "something inside us":

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely .... I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere. (A Call to Contemplation, 61)

Joseph had this kind of seeing. His visions came from God shining within. He saw the gate of heaven everywhere. He awkwardly tried to explain this kind of seeing to his brothers. Eugene Peterson has an accessible interpretation of this story in his translation of the Bible called The Message:

 Joseph said to them: "I dreamed another dream—the sun and moon and eleven stars bowed down to me!"

When he told it to his father and brothers, his father reprimanded him: "What's with all this dreaming? Am I and your mother and your brothers all supposed to bow down to you?" Now his brothers were really jealous; but his father brooded over the whole business.

Joseph's father then sent him off on an errand to visit his brothers. Joseph took off, tracked his brothers down, and found them in Dothan.

They spotted him off in the distance. By the time he got to them they had cooked up a plot to kill him. The brothers were saying, "Here comes that dreamer. Let's kill him and throw him into one of these old cisterns; we can say that a vicious animal ate him up. We'll see what his dreams amount to."

Reuben heard the brothers talking and intervened to save him, "We're not going to kill him. No murder. Go ahead and throw him in this cistern out here in the wild, but don't hurt him." Reuben planned to go back later and get him out and take him back to his father.

When Joseph reached his brothers, they ripped off the fancy coat he was wearing, grabbed him, and threw him into a cistern. The cistern was dry; there wasn't any water in it.

Then they sat down to eat their supper. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites on their way from Gilead, their camels loaded with spices, ointments, and perfumes to sell in Egypt. Judah said, "Brothers, what are we going to get out of killing our brother and concealing the evidence? Let's sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let's not kill him—he is, after all, our brother, our own flesh and blood." His brothers agreed.

By that time the Midianite traders were passing by. His brothers pulled Joseph out of the cistern and sold him for twenty pieces of silver to the Ishmaelites who took Joseph with them down to Egypt.

Joseph was bullied by his brothers. Some of us know the feeling. We have been bullied at home, at work, or at school. Here is the story of one teenage boy who was bullied in high school, as described in the book And Words Can Hurt Forever.

    Nathan never goes to his high school library. When Nathan was a freshman, he made his way to the library on several occasions with the good intentions of a new student beginning his high school career. He knew that good grades were important to his parents, to himself, and for his future. On each and every occasion, he was met outside the doorway by a group who claimed that spot as their territory in the building. They owned it; they had power there.

    To get into the library, Nathan had to first get through a series of taunts about being a nerd, then get past a volley of objects being thrown at him. Nathan was an athlete; he was capable and strong on the field. But he was not "strong enough" to deal with the ridicule and bullying of his peers, so Nathan stopped using the library. The culture that denigrated him for trying to do his best infiltrated the rest of his high school experience. Though he was quite bright, Nathan's low grades reflected this poisoning of his social experience at school.

    Where were the teachers, staff, and other administrators when Nathan was facing this emotional abuse ? Why was this g group of bullies allowed to prevail, making each student run an emotional gauntlet before reaching the inner sanctum of the library? The answer is that Nathan attended a very large high school, and the staff at this school did not consider hallway supervision as apart of their "professional role."

    In their work about keeping school safe, Ron Avi Astor, heather Mayer, and William Behre while at the University of Michigan focused on the ways in which schools have many "unowned spaces"--places that are not supervised by adults or occupied by positive, community-minded students. Students are all aware of where the dangerous places are in the building and on the campus, and some take advantage of the opportunities to bully others. Children are particularly vulnerable in the hallways.

    Most kids will bear up under this kind of emotional violence. But some children who are not as resilient will experience psychological damage. The damage can include (but is not limited to) shame, lessened self-esteem, impaired self-image, and learned helplessness. The basic components of learned helplessness are the beliefs that one has no control over what is happening, that  a bad event will continue to recur, and that nothing can effectively happen to change the situation. As a result of these damaging perceptions, kids begin to make important choices that hurt  them academically and socially, perhaps in ways that affect the rest of their lives.

    As we see in the case of Nathan, kids who are ridiculed by peers for their attempts academically may begin to make choices that result in lower grades or reduced academic interest. Kids who are degraded by their peers can end up with shaky self-confidence, damaged self-image and self-esteem. It is not easy to buck the culture of your peers if you are being tormented for being different.

    As adults, sometimes we tend to thinks, "Students, especially teenagers, should stand up for themselves. They need to fight for what is important to them." While that sentiment has some merit, we must always be humble about matters like this. How difficult is it for adults to stand up or to stand out? On some job sites, the eager or quick workers are told by the rest, "Slow down. You're making the rest of look bad." How can we expect children to do something that most adults cannot do? Adults will tolerate racists or sexist comments at work, even when they find them offensive, because the social costs of objecting are high. Do we expect more of our kids than we do of ourselves? (And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence, James Garbarine and Ellen deLara, p. 24-25)

Dorothy E. Minck describes a childhood experience when she learned a bit of wisdom from her grandmother.

In my grandmother's garden a rosebud seemed such a long time unfolding that I grew impatient, wanting to see its color and beauty. I thought we should do something about it, and appealed to Grandmother. When she told me to unfold the petals, I was thrilled. But after the petals were unfolded there was no beautiful full-blown rose such as I had visioned. I had destroyed its beauty, and the rose quickly withered and died. Grandmother then explained that it was thus with all things--we must let them unfold in their own way and in their own time. (Dorothy E. Minck, cited in Everyday Greatness: Insights and Commentary by Stephen R. Covey)

Nathan was bullied and he lost touch with his dreams. His spirit was stunted like the beautiful rose whose petals were picked too soon and quickly withered and died. In contrast, like a beautiful rose, young Joseph persevered in the face of bullying and his inner beauty unfolded in its own way in its own time. Joseph plodded along even when his brothers bullied him. For Joseph saw what Nathan could not see. Joseph saw that God was with him and within him. He kept on going with God and it eventually took him higher than anyone would have expected him to go. Thanks to Joseph's perseverance and God's grace, Joseph's dreams manifested in reality.

"The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing," said Marcus Aurelius. Joseph knew how to wrestle and he knew how to dance. More than anything, Joseph was a dreamer. May God give our young boys and girls visions and our older men and women dreams. May God grant us the courage to face bullies and the hope that even in the face of struggle, life goes on. For we know from the story of Joseph that even if we are bullied by our own family, we shall overcome some day.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Shop at Spirit Surplus Store

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Matthew 14:3-21 on August 3, 2008

Herod had arrested John, put him in chains, and sent him to prison to placate Herodias, his current wife, who his brother Philip's former wife. John had provoked Herod by classifying his relationship with Herodias "adultery." Herod wanted to kill him, but he was afraid because so many people revered John as a prophet of God. But at his birthday celebration, he got his chance. Herodias's daughter provided the entertainment, dancing for the guests. She swept Herod away. In his drunken enthusiasm, he promised her on oath anything she wanted. Already coached by her mother, she was ready: "Give me, served up on a platter, the head of John the Baptizer." That sobered the king up fast. Unwilling to lose face with his guests, he did it—ordered John's head cut off and presented to the girl on a platter. She in turn gave it to her mother. Later, John's disciples got the body, gave it a reverent burial, and reported to Jesus. King Herod the murderer takes the life of John the Baptist. Rulers rule by division and subtraction. They take away life. Check the books and you may notice how we have lost so many civil rights since 9-11. Our liberties are being taken away. That is what rulers have always done and that is what they are doing today.
When he got the news about Herod's murder of John the Baptist, Jesus slipped away by boat to an out-of-the-way place by himself. But unsuccessfully—someone saw him and the word got around. Soon a lot of people from the nearby villages walked around the lake to where he was. When he saw them coming, he was overcome with pity and healed their sick. Immediately we notice the contrast between Jesus and Herod in Matthew's gospel. Herod kills. Jesus heals. That is the first principle here. Another is to follow in the story now.

Toward evening the disciples approached him. "We're out in the country and it's getting late. Dismiss the people so they can go to the villages and get some supper."
But Jesus said, "There is no need to dismiss them. You give them supper."
"All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish," they said.
Jesus said, "Bring them here." Then he had the people sit on the grass. He took the five loaves and two fish, lifted his face to heaven in prayer, blessed, broke, and gave the bread to the disciples. The disciples then gave the food to the congregation. They all ate their fill. They gathered twelve baskets of leftovers. About five thousand were fed.
Jesus, the compassionate one, gives life. Jesus feeds over 5,000 people. Here is the second principle in the story. Herod rules by division and life taking. Jesus rules by multiplication and life giving.

Our challenge is to be compassionate like Jesus. We are his representatives on this earth. Our compassion should include both material and spiritual bread. We are to feed people's bodies, minds and souls. We are to give them a sense of community. We are to let them into our community. There are so many people within a 20 minute drive of this church. People who are starving for what we have to give. Let's open our hearts to those in need. Let's feed their bellies and their souls. Jesus gives us the food. We are merely distributors, as his disciples distributed the bread and fish to that crowd so many years ago.

Dr. Charles Garfield tells a story about one man who found a place to stand, saying:

    Late one morning in 1984, headed for lunch in San Francisco, I drove toward one of the toll booths. I heard loud music. It sounded like a party, or a Michael Jackson concert. I looked around. No other cars with their windows open. No sound trucks. I looked at the toll booth. Inside it, the man was dancing.
        "What are you doing?" I asked.
        "I'm having a party," he said.
        "What about the rest of the these people?" I looked over at other booths; nothing moving there.
        "They're not invited."
        I had a dozen other questions for him, but somebody in a big hurry to get somewhere started punching his horn behind me and I drove off. But I made a note to myself: Find this guy again. there's something in his eye that says there's magic in his toll booth.
        Months later I did find him again, still with the loud music, still having a party.
        Again I asked, "What are you dong?"
        He said, "I remember you from the last time. I've still dancing. I'm having the same party."
        I said, "Look. What about the rest of the people . . . "
        He said,, "Stop. What do those look like to you?" He pointed down the row of toll booths.
        "They look like . . . toll booths."
        "Nooooooo imagination!
        I said, "Okay, I give up. What do they look like to you?"
        He said, "Vertical coffins."
        "What are you talking about?"
        "I can prove it. At 8:30 every morning, live people get in. They they die for eight hours. At 4:30, like Lazarus from the dead, they reemerge and go home. For eight hours, brain is on hold, dead on the job. Going through the motions."
        I was amazed. This guy had developed a philosophy, a mythology about this job. I could not help asking the next question: "Why is it different for you?? You're having a good time."
        He looked at me. "I knew you were going to ask that," he said. "I'm I'm going to be  dancer somebody." He pointed to the administration building. He pointed toward the administration building. "My bosses are in there and they are paying for my training."
        Sixteen people dead on the job, and the seventeenth, in precisely the same situation , figures out a way to lie. That man was having a party where you and I would probably not last three days. The boredom! he and I did have lunch later, and he said, "I don't understand why anybody would think my job's boring. I have a corner office, glass on all sides. i can see the Golden Gate, San Francisco, the Berkeley hills; half the Western world vacations here . . . . and I just stroll in every day and practice dancing." (Dr. Charles Garfield, A 2nd Helping of Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 More Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit, 175-177)

We have everything we need here for this church to grow and grow. All that needs to change is our attitude. The growth of our church begins with our own perceptions of what we are doing here. Are we learning to dance? Or are we putting in our time until we check out at the end fo the day?

Marianne Williamson writes: 
Miracles are available in any moment when we bring the best of ourselves forward. It isn't the amount of our years that will determine the life we live now, but the amount of our love. Our future isn't determined by anything that happened 20 years ago, 30 years ago, or even 10 minutes ago. It's determined by who we are and what we think, right here, right now, in this moment. Almost every hour of every day, we'll find ourselves in a situation where we can be now who we weren't before, because we know now what we didn't know before. And from this newness in our being springs fresh opportunities we could never have imagined. God specializes in new beginnings. (The Age of Miracles, p. 60)

In times of need we go to the Spirit Surplus Store to find what we need: More love, more light, more peace, more joy, more fullness of life. As we take this bread and drink this wine, we shop at the Spirit Surplus Store and God gives us all the supplies we need. We have been blessed with a surplus of Holy Spirit. God calls us to give it away. The more we give away the more abundance we receive. We can never out give God. That will never happen. The rulers of this world want to divide, subtract and kill but God calls the church to unite, multiply and birth God's kingdom on this earth.

Let's take one last backward glance at Jesus' feeding of the 5,000 and notice the result, according to Matthew's gospel. The story ends without amazement at the miracle. There is no me mention of Jesus' fame spreading throughout the region. Why? Was this miracle not considered impressive enough? No. Biblical scholars suggest this story is an inside story. This is a church story. This is a story about us! This is how God wants to multiply us! This story was recited when the early church gathered at the Lord's Table.

As we gather for the Lord's Supper today, remember how Jesus fed the 5,000 men plus women and children and know that there is more than enough here to feed us and thousands and thousands and millions and billions more people. Jesus gives this congregation enough to feed many more people than we are feeding now. Jesus multiplies what we have. We have more than enough to share. There is no oil shortage in this congregation. We have more than enough Spirit to last us for the next 50 years. Let's go shopping at the Spirit surplus store. There is more Spirit in stock there than we will ever need and it is free for the asking. Pick up some extra love and deliver it to your friends and neighbors. We will never run out of God's love no matter how much of it we give away. That is the promise of the feeding of the 5,000. That is the promise of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.