Sunday, September 28, 2008

Moses Still Speaks: 1. Manna from Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The teacher was going to explain evolution to the children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Jesus Calms Chaos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Disappearing Act

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Matthew 
at St. John's Presbyterian Church on September 7, 2008

Sometimes I wonder ... what ever happened to the devil? These days, no one seems to know where he's hiding. I'm talking about Satan, Lucifer, Prometheus, the personification of evil. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, most people do not believe the devil exists. Those who do believe in the devil operate in the shadows in secret societies. But every once in awhile one of them will unveil their identity in a public setting. For example, on February 17, 1988 , Michael Aquino appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. Aquino's appearance on Oprah is described, with commentary, in the book America: The Sorcerer's New Apprentice.

Michael Aquino is both a self-proclaimed Satanist and a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army. "The Army has known about my religion of the entire span of my Army career, which began in 1968," says Aquino," [and] has paid very little attention to it, as it would . . . any other slightly unusual religion today." Mr. Aquino appeared on Oprah with his wife, Lilith (the name, in occult mythology, of Adam's demon-wife before Eve). Oprah was clearly surprised by the Aquinos' description of Satanists as "very decent, very law-abiding people with . . . a very high set of personal ethics . . . who have nothing to do with evil."

"It's just difficult for me to understand that the devil is a good thing . . . that Satan isn't evil, which is the opposite of what everybody in this world has been taught," responded Opera Winfrey, obviously perplexed. "In every state of the nation authorities are investigating some form of what they call Satanic activity . . . The list of bizarre stories goes on and on."

Oprah's surprise reflected a basic inconsistency in popular thinking. If, as today's culture generally accepts, there are no moral absolutes, then calling Satanism just as moral as any other belief system is not surprising at all. In vain one searches the New Ages "states-of-consciousness" cliches' and hype about "spiritual values" for any basis of evaluation. In fact the mere suggestion that there ought to be some definite standard of right and wrong is rejected out of hand as narrow-minded. (Heaven forbid we should be called narrow-minded, that would be an insult worse than death.)

New Agers are especially vulnerable to the popular belief that has dominated American universities for decades: that the one virtue is openness to everything and the refusal to be against anything. It is this very openness which makes the New Age so appealing. As Richard Blow points out in The New Republic, "The New Age way is not to deny differences between people, but to deny that they matter." (234-236)

As her conversation with Aquinos continued, Winfrey seemed surprised. "Well, the way you explain this," she said, "is very much the way a lot of people who are into metaphysics now and the New Age movement and New Age thinking, they say the very same thing. Are you saying that it's the same?"

There was no hesitation in Aquino's response. "Yes, except that I would say we [Satanists] have a more precise grasp of . . . this quality of the human psyche or the human soul. . . . . We would say that we understand what's actually happening a little better than many New Agers."

Who is this entity called Satan who is worshiped by some and feared by others?

The Hebrew prophets declared that Satan was the most beautiful, wise, and powerful being that God had created; but, deluded by pride, he had aspired to become a "God" himself. It was the ultimate rebellion, in which a multitude of angels-turned-demons apparently followed him. Mankind also chose to join in this high treason against the Lord of the universe. Satan's all-consuming pursuit of this ambition has made him the personification of evil and perversion. That the biblical Satan and the god of Satanists are one and the same, even as to their influence upon mankind, is clear from what Aquino told the television audience. (Ibid)

The Bible leaves no doubt about the reality of Satan and his demons. In the New Testament we find story after story of Jesus casting demons out of people. Granted, some people have been abused by manipulative presentations of Satan and others try to get out of personal responsibility by claiming, "The devil made me do it," which is another way of saying, "I refuse to take responsibility for my actions." But surely that is no reason to dismiss the Satan of the Bible. There, he is not so much to be feared as resisted and is one who flees before those who submit to God while counting his days before he is crushed beneath them. Rather than deny the existence of Satan, it seems a better strategy would be to focus on his definitive defeat. (This paragraph is adapted from J.R. Dodson, The University of Tübingen)

In his great book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis claims the greatest tool Satan has in his work in human lives is his ability to remain undetected. When we see Satan in action we are well on our way to binding him and casting him out. But as long as Satan remains hidden, he is free to work on us without hindrance.

Even though we haven't seen him, we have seen the fruit of Satan's work in the decline of our churches. Forty years ago, the Presbyterian Church (USA) -- PC(USA) for short -- had 4.25 million members. Today, we have 2.2 million members, a loss of nearly 50%. And things aren't getting any better. The PC (USA) lost 57,572 members in 2007, the worst decline in decades, according to the official statistics released by Stated Clerk Clifton Kirkpatrick on June 21, 2008. The 2007 loss is the equivalent of nearly 300 congregations with memberships of 200 -- about the average size for a PCUSA congregation. That leaves our denomination with 2,209,546 members. Kirkpatrick's office projects even higher losses in 2008 and 2009. Sounds like Satan's been busy defeating the church in the last 40 years. He's done it by using an old tactic he loves to employ: Divide and conquer.

The devil knows that Presbyterians are Protestants -- "protest ants." We are fighters by nature. But ever since the devil went into hiding we have no common outside enemy to focus on, so now we fight ourselves and it is consuming us. The most contentious issue during these past 40 years has been the ordination of gays and lesbians as Elders and Ministers of Word and Sacrament. This is a perfectly divisive issue because both sides are correct in their own way and neither side is willing to compromise. If we could remove his cloak of invisibility, perhaps we would stop fighting amongst ourselves and start fighting the devil.

Some of us are feeling uncomfortable with this conversation because we have been taught that sophisticated people do not believe in the existence of Satan. Yet, every Sunday we repeat the Lord's prayer, which asks God to "Deliver us from evil." I am suggesting we identity evil, name it, bind it, and with God's help, defeat it. Instead of denying the existence of Satan we should acknowledge his existence and do as Jesus suggests in our text today, as he says:

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Matthew 18:15-20

According to Jesus, instead of denying Satan we should be binding Satan. These ideas are nothing new. Our ancestors in the faith knew all about fighting the devil. This is a part of our heritage that we need to reclaim. We sang "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" this morning. Listen to the lyrics in that hymn.

A mighty fortress is our God,

a bulwark never failing;

our helper he amid the flood

of mortal ills prevaling.

For still our ancient foe

doth seek to work us woe;

his craft and power are great,

and armed with cruel hate,

on earth is not his equal.

In this verse God is stronger than the devil and God helps us identify Satan, who is the premier power on earth. Verse 2 explains the role of Jesus Christ in our confict with Satan and boldy proclaims that he must win the battle.

Did we in our own strength confide,

our striving would be losing,

were not the right man on our side,

the man of God's own choosing.

Dost ask who that may be?

Christ Jesus, it is he;

Lord Sabbaoth, his name,

from age to age the same,

and he must win the battle.

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Text: Martin Luther Trans. by Frederick H. Hedge 

Jesus Christ is on our side and will help us win the battle against Satan. Belief in the devil and belief that we shall overcome evil is common in the Bible, in the Lord's prayer, and in the great hymns of the church. We need to reclaim our orthodox Christian heritage, stop denying Satan, and start binding Satan. The devil has been involved in a disappearing act for the last 40 years and so has the church. It's time for the disappearing act to come to an end. It is time for us to open our eyes and see the world through the eyes of Jesus. He is the one who cast out demons. He is the one who prayed to be delivered from evil. He is the one who once referred to his disciple Peter as Satan. May God rescue us from our bondage to thought patterns that deny the existence of evil. It is impossible to fight against something you do not believe exists.

May God deliver us from the evil we cannot see or choose to deny. May God give eyes to see the evil in this world and the courage to stand against it. Then we may join our ancestors in the faith, singing in a confident voice;

And though this world, with devils filled,

should threaten to undo us,

we will not fear, for God hath willed

his truth to triumph through us.

The Prince of Darkness grim,

we tremble not for him;

his rage we can endure,

for lo, his doom is sure;

one little word shall fell him.

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Text: Martin Luther Trans. by Frederick H. Hedge