Monday, November 24, 2008

Ode to Joy

Text:  "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice." Philippians 4:4 

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at Willowmeadows Methodist Church for the Southwest Houston Ministerial Alliance for the Thanksgiving Service on November 23, 2008

"Re" means to do something over again. "Re-search" means to search something out again. "Re-discover" means to discover something that has already been discovered. "Re-joice" means to have joy again. We have already rejoiced tonight as we have sung some beautiful music and listened to an inspired and talented choir. We rejoice in the hospitality of Westbury United Methodist Church who hosted this service on short notice. We especially rejoice in the devoted work of Randy Zercher and the staff of Westbury Methodist who produced this wonderful community Thanksgiving service this evening.

Some say they hear music even in the lyrics of a song. Words themselves have a certain musical quality. For instance, you may hear the difference in sound between the word "happiness" and the word "joy." Beyond the difference in sound, there is a difference in the experience of "joy" and "happiness." The difference in quality between "joy" and "happiness" has to do with with the direction of the energy that drives these words. Happiness is egocentonic which means it is directed toward me, myself and I. Joy is theocentonic which means it directed toward Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The difference between happiness and joy is in the direction of the energy pattern. If a positive energy pattern is directed back at myself, as if I were looking in a mirror and seeing my own reflection, that energy pattern is called happiness. Happiness is all about me: How I am feeling, how I am doing, whether I am having a bad hair day or a good hair day. If a positive energy pattern is directed from me toward God and is reflected from God back to me that energy pattern is called joy. Joy is all about God: Worshiping God, recognizing myself as an an adopted child of God, and devotion to God to the point of sacrifice. 

One of the features of the religion of the elite down through the ages has been a fanatical belief in the necessity of maintaining a so-called pure blood line. You may have heard the term "blue bloods" to refer to the elite families of society. Some people do not realize that the current royal family in Britian are not really British, meaning they do not share the same ancestry as the common people of Great Britain. Rather, the British royal family trace their history back to Germany and they NEVER intermarry with the commoners of England. Charles Darwin married his cousin Emma Wedgewood as had been common practice in his family for generations for Darwins only married Wedgewoods so as to keep their blood line pure from those they considered to be riff raff. After Darwin's wife died, he married another Wedgewood, his mother's sister. Charles Darwin was practicing genetics in his own life and this practice goes back for thousands of years down through the royalty of the human race. Houston hosts a huge genetic industry and we may think that this is a new, new thing but it is really an old, old thing that goes back to elite breeding patterns.

Now, it is probably safe to say that no one in this room has married into the same family for generations. We are not royalty in that sense. We are not blue bloods by birth. Yet, according to the Bible we are better than blue bloods because we are children of the living God. We are sons and daughters of God. We Muslims, Jews and Christians have been adopted into the family of God and that is the basis of our joy. We have the joy of knowing that we have been adopted into God's family. We do have a place in this world. We deserve to be alive. We belong to a great family. We are spiritually high born. Our Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills. Our lineage is not of this world but is from heaven. Paul goes so far as to say that our citizenship is in heaven. 

Now heaven is a word we don't hear much about these days. If you look into it, the word heaven comes from the word haven. You see, in the early days of the human race, way back in the mists of time, the priests lived high up in the mountains in caves, far above the common people who lived down in the valley below. Mountain caves served as havens where the priests were protected from the floods down below. Over time, the word haven became heaven and the idea of heaven expanded as well. Heaven became the place up there in the sky to which we all will go some day if we live good lives and keep the rules and especially if we keep ourselves morally pure. In days gone by, religious people practiced delayed gratification as a way get into heaven after we die. Heaven came to be understood as the place where God dwells and to which we may gain entrance by our good works. Now, in this post-Judeo-Christian, post-modern, post-moral age, the idea of heaven seems to lost some of its appeal. Preachers don't preach much about heaven these days. Instead of seeing heaven as somewhere we go to be with God after we die we seem more focused now on a haven, a tax haven. Our culture's idea of heaven today is a Swiss bank account full of millions of dollars of tax free money. We see money in our retirement account as the haven, the safe place, we are looking for. Rarely do we think beyond money when we think of happiness because that is our culture has trained us to view happiness. And that myopic view of happiness as money is being severely challenged as we enter into a financial downturn when stocks are way and thousands of people are losing their jobs.

Fortunately, God offers a way out. A new way of seeing things. An alternative vision of how things are and how things should be. The Bible challenges us to "Re-joice" or to have joy once again. Our text today is very explicit that we are to "re-joice in the Lord." Notice that the direction of this "joy sing" is toward the Lord. Our challenge is to change the direction in which we seek happiness from focusing on ourselves to focusing on God. Re-joice in the LORD! Not in your stocks, not in your bank account, not in your career, car or clothes. Find joy once again in the Lord. The term RE-joice means we've expereienced this before. There has been a time in our life when we were God directed more than me directed. We have had moments of grace when we experienced God's joy as we watched an exquisite sunset over the ocean, felt like we were melting into a tree in the forest, or lost our sense of ourselves as we gazed into the eyes of a lover or a newborn baby. We know the feeling of joy. It is the feeling we get when we are overwhelmed by a sense of God's presence in our lives at this moment. We re-joice by redirecting our energy from ourselves onto God and God beams God's loving energy back upon us. 

The great classical composer, Ludwig Van Beethoven, started losing his hearing in his 20s, and was so depressed, he considered suicide. In October 1802, he wrote a moving letter about how deafness had left him angry and alone: "I was forced to set myself apart at an early age and to spend my life in solitude," he wrote. "And yet I was still unable to say to them: Speak more loudly, yell, for I am deaf."

A loud buzzing would fill his ears, and he'd stuff them with cotton. Ear trumpets - which in those days were hearing aids - helped at first, but not much.

By 1818, he was so deaf, visitors could communicate with him only by writing in small notebooks. He could no longer perform.

Still, he continued to hear wonderful music in his head and he wrote this music down on paper to create symphonies for orchestras; sonatas for piano, violin and other instruments; he wrote trios and quartets.

He believed in brotherhood and equality. He even dedicated a symphony - the "Eroica" - to Napoleon, only to rip up the dedication when Napoleon crowned himself emperor.

His last symphony, the Ninth, features an "Ode to Joy." Beethoven conducted it at its premiere, and when the last notes died away, someone turned him to face the audience. Only then did he realize they were applauding him.

He died in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1827, at age 56.

Ten thousand people turned out for his funeral.

Years later, a lock of his hair was analyzed and found to contain large amounts of lead - which may have accounted for his tantrums, stomachaches and deafness. We can still play the music he heard in his head. (Online: New York Post, Barbara Hoffman: Beethoven: Ode to Joy.)

Beethoven knew joy in the midst of suffering. Paul knew joy in suffering. Jesus knew joy in the midst of suffering. And so may we. This re-joy-sing (singing with joy to the LORD) is not something we do once a week when we go to church or synagogue. Our text today is that we are to "Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS." Re-joicing is to be a constant re-orientation of our energy from ourselves to God. ALWAYS means even in the difficult times. Even in the midst of a financial meltdown. Even when our pension fund is worth 40% less than it was a year ago. Even when a hurricane damages our house. Remember, Paul penned this text from prison. He was in chains when he wrote: "Re-joice in the Lord always." He kept his joy by directing his energy toward GOD even in difficult circumstances. Jesus also knew this secret. He endured the pain of the cross for the JOY that was set before him. There was no happiness in Jesus death but there was the JOY of knowing he was doing God's will even when it hurt, even when it was inconvenient, even when it meant denying his self to the point of death.

Since last we met our city, our community, and our congregations have struggled through Hurricane Ike. Some of our churches and homes are still in need of repair. For example, we were scheduled to have this service at Salem Lutheran Church but the hurricane damaged their brand new beautiful sanctuary and they couldn't host us. But Pastor David says they will host us next year! That is the re-joicing. Beethoven found joy in the midst of his personal tragedy because the energy of Beethoven's soul was directed into the beautiful music he heard in his mind and beyond his mind to the source of all those heavenly sounds, to God. Beethoven wrote "Ode to Joy" even in the midst of his suffering. Let's re-joice, let's show our solidarity with God and one another as we sing this great hymn to joy, written by a deaf composer who suffered from depression. Let us commit ourselves anew to re-joice (to again find JOY) in the LORD -- always -- even in the midst of suffering! We will use this Thanksgiving holiday to once again re-direct our energy from ourselves to God and so rediscover joy. "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Moses Still Speaks: 7. The Death of Moses

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Deuternomy 34:1-12 called "Moses Still Speaks: 7. The Death of Moses"
on November 2, 2008, at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

Deuteronomy 34:1-12 (NRSV)

34Then Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, 2all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, 3the Negeb, and the Plain—that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees—as far as Zoar. 4The Lord said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there."

5Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord's command. 6He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. 7Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. 8The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of mourning for Moses was ended.
9Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses. 10Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. 11He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, 12and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.


This is a week of transition in America as we elect a new president this Tuesday. I understand there is some anxiety about who will be elected this Tuesday. The question for Americans is not who will be our next president. The question for Americans is what kind of people we choose to be as a nation. Vote on Tuesday and wake up on Wednesday knowing that many of the same people will be still be in charge in Washington regardless of who is elected as president. Some say that Obama is too young to be president and some say John McCain is too old to be president. Yet age should not be the determining factor.
After all, according to the Bible, Moses was 120 years old when he died.

Moses had made it all the way from being rescued from a basket in the river and being reared in Pharaoh's court. 
He was a sheep herder in the desert.
He saw God in the burning bush.
He returned to Egypt to lead the people of Israel out of their slavery.
He wandered with the people for 40 years in the wilderness.

Today we find Moses standing on Mount Nebo where he sees the Promised Land laid out before him in all its glory. The Lord then says to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." (Deut 34:1-4) What a let down that must have been. Then again, when you are 120 years old, how much longer do you want to keep having to deal with the pressure of leadership? Yet, we get the impression from the text that Moses was ready to continue, as we read there that his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated.

That reminds me of a story. An elderly man went to the doctor complaining of aches and pains all over his body. After a thorough examination, the doctor gives him a clean bill of health. "Hymie, you're in fine shape for an eighty-year-old. After all, I'm not a magician – I can't make you any younger," said the doctor.
Hymie responds, "Who asked you to make me younger? Just make sure I get older!" [Courtesy of Alan King's Great Jewish Joke Book (New York: Crown Publishers, 2002, page 96)] Younger people tend to underestimate the vigor of older folks.

I wonder how the people of Israel felt at the time of Moses death? Were they energized and ready to claim God's vision and move forward into the Promised Land? Or were they fatigued, worn out from wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, and needing rest and new energy before they could continue to claim the vision? I wonder where St. John's is today? Are we ready to move forward with God's vision or are we exhausted and in need of a vacation before we are ready to move forward? This congregation may be needing some rest, having experienced some heart ache in the past several years, or we may now be ready to move forward. During the recent Vision Brunch, I got the feeling that the congregation is ready to move forward again. I've heard some of you say you are tired of hearing about the New Wind choir. You don't want to hear about how many members the church had 20 years ago. You are ready to move forward.
Moses, in this congregation, is spelled M-c-P-h-a-i-l. Rev. McPhail is the one who brought the people of St. John's into the promised land on West Bellfort. This area was then flowing with milk and honey. Children and young families were everywhere. In the years since McPhail's retirement, the neighborhood around this church has become extremely diversified. It has come to the point now that when I am walking my dog around the neighborhood and I come across another person, I cannot predict which language that person will be speaking.

Last Sunday evening we had a Trunk or Treat party in the church parking lot. Christine and David Nelson did a great job or publicizing and organizing this event. Lots of children showed up  wearing costumes from cute to frightful. Several unchurched families from this neighborhood stopped by and joined in the fun. One thing I noticed about the crowd was the diversity. There were people of many different races at Trunk or Treat. The neighborhood surrounding this church is highly diverse. As we learn to intentionally engage the diversity of the population around us we will become more and more relevant and energized in our ministry. We may be ready to realistically assess where we are as a congregation now, in this time and place, and move forward from here. This congregation is making the transition from the glory days of the 1970's to a mission driven vision of ministry in the diverse climate of 2008.

Moses was replaced by Joshua son of Nun. Joshua was no Moses, but even so the people followed him, because he was the leader whom God had provided for them. Nations and congregations do well when they follow the leadership of the person whom God has called to lead them. So let's move forward together into the vision God has for this congregation regardless of whom is pastor. Let's move forward together into the vision God has for this nation regardless of whom is elected president.

There is one final twist to the story of the death of Moses. The Bible shows us that the death of Moses is not the end of Moses. Let's remember that on this All Saints Day. After his death as recorded in the Old Testament on Mt. Nebo, Moses shows up again in the New Testament on another mountain. Moses appears on the Mount of Transfiguration with the Prophet Elijah and Jesus Christ. So we see that death is not the end of a person. Death is a transition to a new beginning. This election on Tuesday is not the end of this nation, it is the transition to a new beginning. The racial and cultural diversification of the neighborhood surrounding this sanctuary is not the death of this community, it is simply a transition to a new beginning. The question that remains for each of us is whether we will wake up and seize the opportunities that lay before us as individuals, as a congregation, and as a nation. With God's help, we will rise to the challenges before us and lay claim to the new promised that God has placed before us. While it may look a little different than we thought it would, this new promised land of cultural diversity is also a land flowing with milk and honey.

We are moving into a new promised land. Our congregation has an invitation to dinner at the new Turkish community on West Bellfort next Sunday evening. A Ghanian Presbyterian group is worshiping here on Sunday afternoons and they seek a closer connection our church. The Session is exploring what it means to be an intentionally multicultural congregation. Step by step we are moving forward, owning our past, trusting God to show us the next step into the promised land of Meyerland and Westbury and surrounding areas. God has brought us to this time and place. This is our promised land. Let's step forward in faith together. God will meet us half way. God will show us the way forward. Thanks be to God. Amen.