Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Family Reunion on Judgment Day

A Family Reunion on Judgment Day

Zephaniah 3:14-20

There is a certain tension between Advent hymns and Christmas Carols. Advent songs are somber and sad. Christmas carols are fun and happy. No wonder most Christians prefer Christmas carols instead of Advent hymns. Let's look at the contrast between Advent hymns and Christmas carols. For there lies a truth that is the key to understanding the prophet Zephaniah's message to us today.

First, let's ponder the Advent hymn called "O come, O come, Emmanuel." The first thing we may notice is the somber tune of the hymn. Listen to the tune as I hum the first verse:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

Note the lyrics:

"Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

The rejoicing in this Advent hymn is a muted response to a future tense deliverance.

In contrast to Advent hymns, Christmas carols are fun and joyful in the present tense. Even the tunes are more joyful. For example, listen to this tune: (Hum tune to "Joy to the world!")

Now listen to how the lyrics burst forth with unrestrained joy:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come:

Let earth receive her King;

Let every heart prepare Him room,

And heaven and nature sing,

And heaven and nature sing,

And heaven and heaven and nature sing.

As you can hear, Christmas carols have it all over Advent hymns when it comes to joyful expression of a present reality. I suppose that is why Advent hymns are like the advance party that goes forth into the promised land of Christmas. The Advent hymns are necessary precursors that let us know how bad things really are.

In a similar way, the prophet Zephaniah begins his brief, three chapter prophecy with a sad review of the way things are. I will use Eugene Peterson's Bible translation called The Message for the scripture references this morning. Listen to God speaking about a day of darkness at noon through the voice of Zephaniah in chapter 1.

"The Great Judgment Day of GOD is almost here.

It's countdown time: . . . seven, six, five, four . . .

Bitter and noisy cries on my Judgment Day,

even strong men screaming for help. (v. 14)

I'll make things so bad they won't know what hit them.

They'll walk around groping like the blind.

They've sinned against GOD!

Their blood will be poured out like old dishwater,

their guts shoveled into slop buckets. (v. 17)

Zephaniah begins his prophecy with what sounds to me like an Advent hymn on steroids. Strong stuff. Tough message. Fiery images. No prisoners taken. Hard words of judgment.

That is where Zephaniah begins but that is not where he ends. Somewhere toward the end Zephaniah makes a shift. After one last warning of doom to the rebellious city, the home of oppressors--Sewer City! (3:1), God turns the corner in chapter 3 and says:

So sing, Daughter Zion!

Raise the rafters, Israel!

Daughter Jerusalem,

be happy! Celebrate! (v. 14)

Did you notice God's movement from judgment to hope? It is similar to the movement from Advent hymns to Christmas carols. There is no doubt that Christmas carols are full of joy. And if you listen to the lyrics of the carols you'll hear a hopeful message.

Several Christmas carols focus on the nativity scene. Visualize a nativity scene. There is the manger looking like a small squat house like structure. There are the characters gathered around the stall: Shepherds, wise men, angels, cows, sheep, Mary Joseph and baby Jesus. A nativity scene looks a little like a family reunion. And I think that is a good way to think of a nativity scene -- as Jesus' first family reunion.

Jesus family is made of love and not blood. Think of the nativity scene. Only two of the characters are surely related by blood and that is Jesus and his mother Mary. The other nativity characters are related by their love of Jesus: The angels, the shepherds, the wise men, the donkey, the cow, the sheep, the stars above -- all of creation that is present in the nativity is related by their love of Jesus.

Advent hymns move from expectation and longing to fulfillment and joy in Christmas hymns. Many of the Christmas hymns present a nativity scene full of characters that are united as a family by their love of Jesus.

The truth that Zephaniah would teach us is that on judgment day the family of Jesus, composed of all who love him, will be ... well, let's let God say it in his words, as spoken through the prophet Zephaniah in chapter 3:

On Judgment Day

I'll bring you back home--a great family gathering!

You'll be famous and honored

all over the world.

You'll see it with your own eyes--

all those painful partings turned into reunions!"

GOD's Promise. (v. 20)

Our final family reunion will be one of great singing and rejoicing as all who love Jesus are reunited, forgiven and heavenward bound. God will bring us back home--a great family gathering of all those who love Jesus! We'll see it with our own eyes--all those painful partings turned into reunions! This is God's promise. In the meantime, we have work to do.

The famous "Praying Hands" picture was created by Albrecht Durer, the son of a Hungarian goldsmith. He was born in Germany in 1471 and died in 1528. As is the case with nearly all men of genius, fact and fiction become interwoven and created the legend of the artist as we know him today.

It is said, that while studying art, Albert, as he was called, and a friend roomed together. However, the meager income they earned on the side as they studied did not prove to be enough to meet their needs for rent, food, clothing, and other living expenses. Albert suggested that he would go to work to earn the necessary income for both of them while his friend pursued and finished his art studies. When finished, the friend would then go to work to provide support while Durer would finish his studies. The friend was pleased and happy with the plan, except that he insisted that he be the first to work and that Albert continue his studies.

This plan was followed and in time Albert Durer became a skilled artist and engraver. Returning to his room one day, Albert announced that he was now ready to assume the burden of support, while his friend studied art. But, as a result of his hard labor, hi friend's hands were so swollen that he was no longer able to hold and use the paintbrush with skill. His career as an artist was ended.

Albert was deeply saddened by this disappointment which his friend had suffered. One day when he returned to their room he heard his friend praying and saw his hands held in a reverent attitude of prayer. At this moment, Albert received the inspiration to create the picture of those wonderful "praying hands." His friend's lost skill could never be restored but in and through this picture, Durer felt that he could express his love and appreciation for the self-sacrificing labor which his friend had performed for him. Durer also had another thought that such a picture could inspire a like appreciation on the part of others who may also be willing to sacrifice and give on the behalf of someone else.

The story is now legend. I cannot verify if this is factual or not, but it sounds wonderful. Self-sacrificing is a brand of love that is not too often seen in our too-busy kind of a world. Yes, in the act of sacrificial love we have identity as being part of the family of Jesus Christ, otherwise known as the Church. (Robert Strand, Moments to Give, Day 1)

You may notice Albrecht Durer's painting "Praying Hands" painting is on your bulletin cover. It reminds us of the sacrificial love of Christ for us. That is the same kind of love we are to have for one another. As Jesus said, "Greater love has no man, than a man lay down his life for a friend."

Somber Advent hymns remind us of the darkness and desperation in which we find ourselves in our separation from God. We await the joyful Christmas carols that signal dispersal of darkness as the light of the world is born anew into the world and into our hearts. Christ in us is what ties us to the rest of Christ's family. No matter how grim or drear we will have no fear. For we await a family reunion on judgment day and there will be no tears. Christ has come. Christ is here. And Christ will come again.

- - - 

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on December 13, 2009.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Universal Revelation Guaranteed

This is the second Sunday of Advent.  The season of anticipation.  Waiting, waiting and hoping.  The question is, who is this God for whom we wait?  Who is this Emmanuel, this God with us, for whom we long?  Return to the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Comfort, comfort my people says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Israel needed the word of comfort of hope.  They were in exile from their homeland, suffering in captivity, homeless, homesick, heartsick.  Israel had been defeated by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar and exiled to Babylon which is the land we call Iraq. In the midst of their exile comes a word of hope from Isaiah: "Hey, Israel, lighten up. You've served your time in a foreign land. You are going home!" 

Perhaps you still cannot relate to the idea of exile. The opening fantasy did little to excite you. The talk of Babylon seems irrelevant to your life. But exile is not so strange a concept as all that. Perhaps you are like one of the older members of this congregation who talks about how much Houston has changed in the last 50 years. "It's not the same place it used to be," she says. "It's changed beyond all recognition." It is possible to live in the same place your whole life and still be living in exile.
I sometimes feel an urge to return home. The problem is that home as I knew it no longer exits. I drive by the house where I grew up at 640 7th Avenue, Morton, Mississippi. The house is still stands but my family doesn't live there anymore. I walk over to the old high school gym. It is abandoned. I walk over to church I grew up in and everything has changed. There is a new pastor. The faces are unfamiliar. I walk over to my first grade playground. The slide that seemed 3 stories high when I was a First Grader now stands just a couple of feet higher than my head. The slide is the same but I am different. I look around the empty playground. Where are my childhood friends? They don't live here anymore. I go home only to discover that my childhood is gone. And so is yours. I have some idea of what it means to live in exile and so do you.  

Search engine giant released their 2009 list of Top 10 Searches. With all the news about the economy, collapse of the world's reserve currency, a massive stock market decline, the subsequent largest bear market rally in history, geo-political tension, terror threats, health care, cap & trade, and tea parties, this year's list may come as a surprise to some. 

1. Michael Jackson
2. The Twilight Saga
3. WWE  (World Wrestling Entertainment)
4. Megan Fox
5. Britney Spears

Roughly 80% of Top 10 queries on the internet are related to the entertainment industry, with sports fans  (Nascar and WWE) driving the remaining 20%. It's official. No one really cares about reality. The majority of the population seem to be lost in the wilderness of mindlessness. 

Others of us are searching for answers. Google's proprietary keyword research tool gives us a glimpse of how many people out there are looking for certain types of information or products. The 'searches' amount is based on Google search queries initiated in October 2009. 

Unemployment Searches:11,100,000 
Health Care Searches: 11,100,000 
Inflation Searches: 2,240,000 
Survival Searches: 3,300,000 
Economic Depression Searches:40,100 

To those searching for answers to such questions God speaks tenderly. A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed."

God is coming to find us—in the wilderness. So get ready for action. The earth must be terraformed to prepare the super highway. The valleys must be built up with dirt. The mountains and hills must be leveled out. The swamps must be bridged. The potholes must be filled. For God is coming to the wilderness. And He's not coming alone. He's coming with the armies of heaven. 
There was a time when our nation was living in a wilderness. The time was 1861. The occasion was the Civil War. A woman named Julia Ward Howe visited a Union Army camp on the Potomac River near Washington, D.C. Here is the song Julia Ward Howe wrote that morning in the early days of the Civil War: 

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave, 
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave; 
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of wrong His slave, 
Our God is marching on. 
Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! 
Our God is marching on. 

We may be wandering in the wilderness of mindlessness or hopelessness but God is coming to find us in the wilderness. Advent is the time of anticipation of God's arrival. Advent is the time to build a super highway for God—a highway that runs from heaven to our hearts. But Advent is about more than that. Advent is a season when we anticipate the time when Jesus comes back to earth. And this time he won't be coming as a baby in a manger. This time he'll come as God's judgement upon the unrighteous and as God's redeemer for the righteous.  

Why do we have trouble believing Christ will come again? We seem to have no trouble believing that the God who created the world loved us so much that God humbled Himself and took the form of a fetus in the womb of a Jewish woman in Palestine 2000 years ago. We have no trouble believing this baby was born to Mary, named Jesus, worked as a carpenter, taught with authority, healed the sick, raised the dead, took upon himself the sins of the world, suffered and died on a cross. We have no trouble believing that no the third day God raised him from the dead and that he is now seated at the right hand of God in heaven. Every Sunday after the sermon we stand up and say we believe he will come again to judge the quick and dead.  

So why do we have trouble believing that Christ will come again to judge the world? After all, the second coming of Christ will be a gravy train for Christ compared to the first coming. Because this time he's not coming to sow he's coming to reap that which he has already sown. His second coming will be bad news for the unrighteous but good news for the righteous. 

This is the new deal. Christ is coming to the wilderness to save us from our mindlessness and hopelessness. Christ is coming to us in the wilderness to set things right. See the heavenly armies marching toward us in the wilderness. When Christ returns, it won't be as an obscure baby born out in the sticks. When Christ returns it will be as the king of glory.

When Jesus Christ comes to earth this time everyone will know who he is and why he is here. Everyone will know the game is over, the curtain is coming down. Everyone will recognize that this is the last act of history. The unrighteous He will judge. The righteous He will reward. It will be plain as day. Everyone will understand. And every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. 

Isaiah describes the end result: "Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all eyes will see it, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." Universal. Revelation. Guaranteed. 

- - - 
-Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Isaiah 40:1-11 on December 6, 2009 (Advent 2C) at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Potter's Clay

One of the first steps in creating a clay pot is to pick up a lump of clay. Hold it up over your head. Throw it down on the table as hard as you can. Pick it up and throw it down. Mash it. Smash it. Work it with your hands until it is softened. Only after it has been beaten into submission is the clay ready to be made into something new and beautiful such as a little Christmas ornament. First you have to work with the clay to soften it up. You have to get the clay ready to become something new.

The prophet Isaiah says we -- you and I and all other earthlings -- are the divine potter's clay. We are like clay in the hands of God. We sometimes feel like clay in the first stages of deconstruction. We feel thrown down, smashed, beaten up, worked over in an unpleasant sort of way. Then we lay in disarray. We wonder what we have done to deserve such foul play. We become keenly aware of our limitations. One little illness can remind us of our mortality. One quick fall and our independence is called into question. We may even wonder where God is when we feel like a beaten up lump of clay. 

It happens to most of us. We go through periods in life when God appears close at hand, but we also experience periods when God seems very far away in the heavens and even cut off from the earth. It is at this point of paradox and darkness that Advent becomes an ever-present need in our lives. Just as ancient Israel under Isaiah's guidance hoped that the Exodus-Sinai events in her memory would be reenacted so life could begin again as it began in the days of Moses, so do we focus our imagination on the evergreen wreath hoping that our collective memories of the coming of Christ to the world so long ago will be reenacted in our midst so life can begin again for us.

Isaiah says, "We all fade like a leaf." (v. 6c) The faded leaf is but one side of the paradox of Advent. To refuse to embrace the dying of the physical, the social, and even the religious, is to ignore the real ministry of the darkness and its rest. Indeed, all our faded leaves of existence and personal darknesses remind us that all the schemes, expectations, and goals we have set -- for ourselves, our world, and our religious organizations -- have yet to be redeemed. There's more that needs to come. We, too, join the longing of Isaiah, Mary, and John for God to break into our isolation. We place our wreath of hope alongside the darkness of our faded leaves. Perhaps the paradox of Advent becomes ultimately our one great hope. It is an irrational, apocalyptic hope, which informs our waiting.

For people like us -- ever thoughtful, ever reasonable, and ever realistic -- the evergreen wreath of Advent, the special music, the candles, the flowers, and the best efforts of the preacher are necessary. All our hopes twisted together make enough hope to live by, hope enough to see beyond the faded leaf and give us the courage to wait for more.

We all fade like a leaf. The mystery of faded leaves being transformed into evergreen wreaths is symbolic of the power of God transforming darkness into light in human lives. This transformation spans the whole sweep of biblical history. Abraham, the unbeliever, becomes the obedient servant of God. Jacob, who cheats his father out of something that wasn't his, becomes the loving father of Israel. Moses the angry murderer becomes Moses the patient father of a nation. Peter -- the cursing, redneck, abrasive fisherman -- becomes the tolerant leader of the church.

At the personal level we vacillate between the evergreen wreath and the faded leaf. Physically our lives march toward the faded leaf instead of the evergreen wreath. The human body has its seasons commensurate with spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The advancing years take their toll. The eyes dim, the hearing wanes, the hair grays, and the muscles lose their tone. The body becomes as fading as the leaf which will one day fall from the tree. We begin our journey this year with the evergreen wreath and words from Isaiah about a faded leaf. We wait for more.

When we get roughed up by life's circumstances we may feel like the potter's clay. First comes the initial thumping. Then we get put on the shelf. Finally, the potter uses a light touch to make us into more than we ever imagined we could become. The prophet Isaiah said it well: "We are the clay, You are the potter, we are all the work of Your hand." (v. 8)

As we begin this Advent journey, may we join with Isaiah in presenting ourselves to God, saying:

Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!

Thou art the Potter, I am the clay.

Mold me and make me after Thy will,

While I am waiting, yielded and still.

Let us heed Jesus' words from the Gospel of Luke and "Be on guard" during this Advent season. Let us "Be alert at all times" to what God may be doing in our lives and in the life of the world. The circle of the wreath reminds us of the round sun that sustains life day after day. Let us awaken then to the Word of God planted in our hearts. As Jesus says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will not pass away." It is that Word of God that will gestate in our souls during this Advent season.

The Rev Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Isaiah 64:1-9

on November 29, 2009 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

Monday, November 09, 2009

Fifty-seven Pennies

A country preacher was preaching very pointedly to his congregation one Sunday morning.

He said, Now, let the church walk!"

Deacon Jones said, "AMEN, let it walk!"

The preacher then said, "Let the church run!"

Deacon Jones said, "AMEN, Parson, let it run!"
"Let the church fly!" shouted the preacher.

"AMEN, brother, let it fly!" shouted Deacon Jones.

"Now it's going to take a lot of money to let it fly, brother," shouted the preacher.

"Let it walk, then," said Deacon Jones, "let it walk."

The story goes that while Robert Smith was taking his afternoon walk as part of his therapy in recovering from a massive heart attack, the phone rang and his wife Delores answered. The call was from the Reader's Digest Association Sweepstakes in New York. They were calling to inform the Smith family that Robert had just on $1,500,000 and that in a few days the certified check would be arriving. Well, as you can imagine, Delores was absolutely ecstatic. Now all those dreams would come true!

But then she remembered, her husband was just getting over his massive heart attack and the doctor had said no excitement over anything. Delores was afraid that if she told him they had just won such a large sum, he would have another heart attack and die. What should she do? After some thought, she decided to call their pastor and ask his advice because he had had some experience in breaking difficult news to families.

Delores dialed, "Hello, Pastor Baldwin . . . this is Delores Smith."

The pastor replied, "Hi, Delores. How are you? And how is Bob?"

"I'm fine, thank you. And so is Bob. He's recovering nicely. But, I've got a problem and I need your advice."

"Sure, if I can help, I'll be glad to," the pastor replied.

"Well, Pastor, I just got a call from The reader's digest Sweepstakes informing me that Bob has just won $1,500,000!"

"That's great!" said the pastor, "But what's the problem?"

"Well, I'm afraid that if I tell Bob, he'll get so excited that he will have another heart attack and drop dead. Can you help me?"

"Well, Delores, I think I can. Hold on, I'll be right over."

So in about an hour, Bob is not back from his walk and he and Delores and Pastor Baldwin are in the den having a nice chat. The pastor leans in toward Bob and says, "Bob, I've got a problem and need your advice."
"Sure, Pastor, if I can help, I'll be glad to," Bob said.

The pastor takes a deep breath and goes on, "It's a theoretical situation regarding Christian stewardship. What would a person – take you for instance – do if all of a sudden you found out you had won $1,500,00? What would do with all that money?"

"That's easy," Bill replied, "I'd start by giving $750,000 to the church."

Whereupon, Pastor Baldwin had a heart attack and dropped dead! (Ibid, Day 3)

She was just a little girl, one of those non-persons. Nothing to make her stand out from other little girl. She was not from a wealthy family. In fact she was from a poor family. Fifty-seven pennies were found under her pillow the night she died and this simple act made an indelible mark on the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This little girl had mad an attempt to become part of a Sunday School in Phailadelphia years ago wand was told she could not come because there was no room for her. She began saving her pennies in order to "help the Sunday school have more room."

Two years later she became sick and in a couple of weeks, died. Beneath her pillow they found a small, tattered book with the 57 pennies and a piece of paper on which she had printed clearly: "To help build the Little Temple bigger, so more children can to go Sunday school."

This little story and the purse with the 57 pennies were brought to the pastor, and if my serves correctly, this was the Rev. Russel H. Conwell, and he told this humble story to his congregation. Then, the newspapers picked up the story and took it across the country. This triggered a spontaneous wave of gifts and giving. Soon the pennies grew and grew and today the final outcome of the humble 57 pennies offering can still be seen in Philadelphia today.

The "Little Temple" church had been replaced by a church which seats 3,300 people with lots of room for Sunday school. There is also a "Temple University" which accommodates and educates thousands of students. And there is also a "Temple Hospital" dedicated to humanity. And it all began with a nameless little girl who set out to do something about a need. Her beautiful, unselfish, dedicated attitude is what started this project. All it really takes in life to begin making a difference is one person with concern and dedication followed by an action. Let's add one more ingredient to this mix and call it love. Little people, in fact, all people are important to the future of the kingdom of God. Don't be discouraged with your little contribution. God can take your action and turn it into something big for His kingdom. Don't give up! I think of the little boy and his simple lunch ... but in the Master's hands it was about to feed thousands and there was some left over. God needs a willing person first and watch it happen, again! (Robert strand, Moments for Pastors, Day 8)

So, in the end, understanding stewardship is a spiritual matter. Many of our people have lost the all-encompassing vision that everything belongs to God. We have been seduced into thinking that what we have is ours, and that we need more.

Stewardship is not making the budget--it is a way of life for all of life. Stewardship is thanksgiving.

There was an old man on the isle of Crete and during his lifetime he loved many things. He loved his wife, his children, and his job, but most of all he loved the land. He loved the very ground he walked on, worked and fought for. When it as time for him to die he had his sons bring him outside his stone cottage and lay him on the hard earth. He reached down, grabbed a handful of Crete's soil and was gone.

He arrived at the gates of heaven and Lord came out dressed in the long robes of a judge and said to him, "Old man, come in."

As the old man moved towards the gates the Lord noticed something in his hand and said, "What are you clutching in your hand?"

He said, "It is Crete. I go nowhere without it."

The Lord said, "Leave it, or you will not be allowed in."

The old man held his clenched fist up and said, "Never!" And he went and sat beside the outside wall of the heavenly city.

After a week had passed, the gates opened again and the Lord appeared a second time, in the guise of a man wearing a hat, looking like some of the old man's buddies down in Crete. He sat down next to the old man, threw his arm around his shoulder and said, "My friend, dust belongs in the wind. Drop that piece of earth and come inside."

But the old man was still adamant. He said, "Never!"

During the third week the old man looked down at the earth he was clutching and saw that it had begun to cake and crumble. All of the moisture of the earth had gone out of it. Also, his fingers were arthritic and could not handle it. The earth began to trickle through his fingers.

Out came the Lord, this time as a small child. He came up to the old man and sat next to him and said, "Grandfather, the gates only open those with open hands."

The old man thought about this, finally stood up, and did not even look as his hand opened and the crumbled dirt of Crete fell through the sky. The child took his hand and led him toward the glorious gates, and as the gates swung open he walked in. Inside was all of Crete.

Now don't build a theology on this story for that is what it is – a story that illustrates a point that many of us must be reminded us now and then. There is nothing here that is worth missing heaven in order to keep. (Robert strand, Moments for Pastors, Day 12)

Our sermon text from Deuteronomy tells how the ancient Israelites did their stewardship dedication.

"When you cross over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you, ... then you shall bring everything that I command you to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name: ... your tithes and your donations, ... and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God." (Deuteronomy 12:10-12)

Today we bring our tithes and donations to the Lord our God. And we shall rejoice before the Lord our God. We shall open our hands and let go of whatever it is that is holding us back, and we shall enter into the kingdom of God this very day. We will use our money to further Christ's kingdom on earth and not let our money use us!

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Deuteronomy 12:10-12 at St. John's Presbyterian Church on November 1, 2009 / Stewardship Dedication Sunday / OT32B

Monday, November 02, 2009

Candles and Prayers

"Tears are our first words." So says Leonard Sweet in a sermon by that name. I'd like to share some of that sermon with you this morning.

The beginning way we have of communicating is through tears. Is there anything that gets a baby more attention than tears? Is there anything that can command complete, immediate devotion more than a torrent of tears. Is there anything that can makes adults feel more dismal, daunted, desperate than the wailing of an infant?


Our baby's tears can bring us to tears as well.


In earlier cultures the tears of mourners were gathered into something called a lachrymatory, or "tear-catcher," a specially created container for human tears of grief or sometimes of joy. [In fact, a company is now bringing them back and selling them online. [Here is the website with great images of what some of the early ones looked like:]


Mourning tears were believed to have extreme powers--of solace, of sustenance, of spiritual healing. There were beautiful, delicate lachrymatory tear bottles for women and more masculine cigar-shaped tear bottles for men. Traditionally all were designed with an evaporation chamber. When the last of the gathered tears finally evaporated, the official mourning period was over.


In Roman times women were paid to cry into tear bottles, so that as many filled bottles as possible could accompany the extensive mourning processions that befitted any important, powerful figure. In typical Roman fashion, more was always better--whether one was dead or alive.


Even the most humble burial ceremony involved the presence of paid mourners. In Jewish culture the bare minimum required two flute players and professional wailing woman. Anything less was an insult to the family name. The grief industry in the first century--like that of the twenty-first century--was big business.


Have you noticed that as the economy has fallen, the number of ads for life insurance are on the rise? In the face of an uncertain economic climate, unstable global relationships, and political stalemates, there is always one thing that remains certain . . . death. You can always bank on death showing up. The grief industry never has a down turn.


When Jesus finally arrived at Bethany the first-century grief industry was already well represented. "The Jews" who came down from Jerusalem to "console Martha and Mary" (v.19) undoubtedly included many professional mourners, musicians, and trained tear-producers. The family had purchased a costly cave-tomb to lay Lazarus in. His body had been carefully wrapped with burial linens, and anointed with the oils and spices commonly used to hold the odor of death at bay as much as possible.

Although both Martha and Mary confessed a conviction that had Jesus been present at Lazarus' sickbed he would not have died, both sisters had now resigned themselves to their brother's death. They had given themselves over to grief. They had abandoned all hope.

They were prepared for tears.

They were prepared for separation from their beloved brother.

They were prepared for the finality of death.

They were not prepared for what Jesus was bringing to them.

They were not prepared for a miracle.

They were not prepared for hope.

They were not prepared for resurrection.

They were not prepared for new life.

This October marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That most hated symbol of repression, that most revered symbol of communist power, came down after decades of being one of the most feared symbols in the world. It came down not in a hail of bullets and butchery. It came down through the unstoppable power of hope. Who can forget images of East Germans, mostly young people, standing on top of the wall, waving flags, hammers and screwdrivers and tearing wall down with their bare hands. And when The Wall came down, and the communist regime in East Germany came down, the domino effect seemed to take effect, and the Soviet Union came down and the communist regimes in Eastern Europe came down.

That's right. You heard me. Instead of an underground army of freedom fighters launching guerilla attacks on that concrete barrier, the force that finally toppled the Berlin Wall was made up of nothing more than candles and prayers.

That's right. You heard me. "Candles and prayers."

Before that wall came down ...

No Christian could hold party membership, which meant no Christian could hold a state job.

No Christian could teach.

No Christian could work in hospitals.

No Christian could hold offices in high levels of business and industry.

No Christian parents could send their children to the best schools . . .

Yet in April of 1989 there was an ecumenical assembly in East Germany with delegates from whatever Reformed and Lutheran churches were left. In April 1989 that assembly of Lutheran and Reformed Christians did something that took a huge amount of courage: they demanded freedom. They demanded freedom of religion and speech. They demanded freedom of travel, freedom to form groups and clubs. One of the leaders of that assembly, Bishop Christopher Kahler, says that the ecumenical assembly was the "handwriting on the wall."

Then it began. . . . After work, people started flocking to those few PR churches. There they sang hymns, prayed, lit candles, and then left the church to march silently in the streets. The first march of 15000 people was in Plauen 20 years ago the first of October, when Jörg Schneider types and distributes 120 flyers in Plauen. This inspired other cities like Leipzig to demonstrate...a very risky business in the GDR 20 years ago. (

In Leipzig, at the huge Nikolai Kirche, hundreds and then thousands of East Germans gathered, lighted candles, marched into the town square, filled the streets. Gradually, the crowds grew in size until they filled the road ringing the city. The city of Leipzig was surrounded. The city of Leipzig was under siege . . . by candles and prayers and silence.

A member of the Politburo, Horst Snidermann, said later: "We were prepared for everything, but not candles and prayers." (For more see Presbyterian Outlook, 1 June 2009. Story told by John Buchanan of Fourth Presbyterian Church and editor of Christian Century).

One of the worst, most oppressive regimes the world had ever seen, the communist regime of East Germany, quietly and quickly collapsed.

What was it that member of the Politburo said?

"We were prepared for everything . . . but not candles and prayers."

It had been easy for the East Berlin army to shoot or capture anyone who tried to sneak out to freedom in the West. But candlelight processions and all-night/all-day prayer vigils at the wall weren't so easy to deal with. Candles and prayers undermined the powerful. Candles and prayer unnerved the armed forces. Candles and prayer unraveled the blanket of fear.

The eastern bloc had prepared for riots. The East Germans had prepared for economic boycotts. East Germany had prepared for violence. The Politburo politicians had prepared for outside political pressures.

But they were not prepared for candles and prayers.

By the time the first person finally took the first swing of a pickaxe at that Berlin Wall…

By the time the first piece of concrete crumbled into the crowd . . .

By that time the barrier had already been broken.

The prayers and candles on both sides of the Berlin Wall had reduced it to insignificance, to a non-entity, long before the bulldozers finally cleared away the last of the rubble.

The miracle of the resurrected Christ undermines, unnerves, and unravels the powers of doubt, despair, and death that once defined the human condition.

And we are never fully prepared for the power of the presence of Christ when it breaks into our lives.

The Philistines were prepared for everything . . . . . . . but not a small boy, stones and a sling.

Pharaoh's army was prepared for everything . . . . . . but not a wave of water.

Jericho was prepared for everything . . . but not a marching band and a trumpet.

Martha was prepared for everything . . . but not a brother brought back to life.

Martha would have had Jesus hold his nose to block the stench of death; Jesus had Martha open her arms to receive back her brother in life.

How many of us are like Martha . . . preparing for everything, but not the power of candles and prayers?

I think of a teen who has had a few drinks and calls his parents because he is afraid to drive . . . he is prepared for everything, and he gets a prayer of thanks and hug from grateful parents that he called home rather than drove home.

I think of a husband who arrives unexpectedly on the porch of his estranged wife . . . a wife who is prepared for anger and divorce papers, and instead is offered flowers and floral apologies. What in your life is prepared for the worst … but not candles and prayers?

Baptism tears of joy, death bed tears of mourning, resurrection tears of joy. Baptism, death, resurrection. We celebrate the circle of life today. Like Mary and Martha, we are prepared for everything ... except the resurrection of the dead by our Lord, Jesus Christ.

-The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 11:32-44 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, TX on November 1, 2009 – All Saints Day

Monday, October 26, 2009

Take the Taste Test

Remember the A-B-C song? It goes like this: "A-B-C-D-E-F-G, H-I-J-K-L-m-n-o-P, Q-R-S, T-U-V, W-X-Y and Z. Now I said my A-B-C's. Next time won't you sing with me." Psalm 34 was written as an A-B-C song. Although it is not apparent in the English translation, the first letter of the first verse of Psalm 34 begins with the Hebrew letter A. The second line begins with the Hebrew letter B. The third line begins with the Hebrew letter C. And so on it goes with each line beginning with the next letter in the Hebrew alphabet. So in this way, it is a little like our American A-B-C song through which we teach our children the English alphabet.

Psalm 34 is also like a children's song in the way it intends to teach to children (v. 11) the "fear of the Lord": Proper speech, departure from evil and doing good, and the pursuit of peace. Today, this message sounds counter cultural. Our culture teaches the good life consists of driving the classiest car, being surrounded by beautiful people, carrying the proper credit card, drinking the right beverages, and generally enjoying oneself to the fullest every moment of the day and night. Millions of advertising dollars are spent ever day to try to convince us that life does consist in the abundance of possessions in direct contrast to Jesus, who said: "Life does not consist of the abundance of things." (Luke 12:15). Of course, we only hear Jesus message proclaimed once a week or so whereas we hear the culture's message proclaimed hundreds of times a day. We are trained from birth to be good consumers.

In striking contrast to our culture, Psalm 34 proclaims life begins with respect for God and God's ways. Life is a gift from God for which God makes gracious provisions (Psalm 34:8-9). Our culture fosters greed, but the psalmist fosters gratitude (Psalm 34:1-3). By permitting us only to show our happy faces in public our culture denies us the full experience of being human. Is it a crime to be sometimes sad about our human experience? The psalmist thinks not. He wants to break us out of our cultural prison and let us run free into a new life with God. The psalmist wants us to be able to withstand the onslaught of evil that is perpetrated against us and the rest of humanity. While the New Age religion says "Don't worry, be happy!" - and proclaims positive thinking as the solution to every illness, listen to the psalmist: "This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble." (Psalm 34:6)

The psalmist experiences life amid suffering, not beyond it. The psalmist's faith is the kind Jesus embodied. It's a faith that knows the paradox that to lose one's life for God's sake is truly to find it (see Mark 8:35). This is a consistent stream of thought in the Bible. The psalmist seeks to sober us up, saying, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all." (19) The psalmist suffers, Jesus suffers, and so did the Apostle Paul. We know how Jesus suffered on the cross. Paul describes his suffering like this:

Five times I have received 39 lashes. 3 times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. 3 times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28)

Despite his incredible suffering, Paul still says: "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:37-39) Like Paul, the psalmist challenges us not just to take his word for it, but to take the taste test: "O taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are those who take refuge in him." (34:8) The psalmist seems to say, "God delivered me from my fears. Take the taste test yourself. Seek the Lord and see if God will not deliver you from your fears."

This summer my family and I took a rafting ride down the Colorado River. Before we started one of the guides strongly encouraged to pack light for the trip. "If you don't have to have it, don't put it in the canoe," he said. At one point, the guides took all the rafters off the river. We climbed ashore and they showed us a tiny log cabin that was once used to board lodgers on the wagon trail who were waiting their turn to cross the river. That old abandoned cabin seemed to be full of old stories to share.

Lloyd C. Douglas tells the story of Thomas Hearne, who, "in his journey to the mouth of the Coppermine River, wrote that a few days after they had started on their expedition, a party of Indians stole most of their supplies. His comment on the apparent misfortune was: 'The weight of our baggage being so much lightened, our next day's journey was more swift and pleasant.'

Hearne was in route to something very interesting and important; and the loss of a few sides of bacon and a couple of bags of flour meant nothing more than an easing of the load. Had Hearne been holed in somewhere, in a cabin, resolved to spend his last days eking out an existence, and living on capital previously collected, the loss of some of his stores by plunder would probably have worried him almost to death."

How we respond to "losing" some of our resources for God's work depends upon whether we are on the move or waiting for our last stand. (Lloyd C. Douglas, The Living Faith.)

During this stewardship season our challenge is to take the taste test with our money. Stewardship Dedication Sunday will arrive on November 8. This is a taste test in the sense that you can hear all the sermons in the world but you must take the taste test and try tithing for yourself.

Life is complicated. The righteous have plenty of troubles (15, 17). Faithfulness to God will mean anything but a carefree life! So the good news is not that if we tithe to the Lord then the Lord will spare us from pain and disappointment. Rather, the good news is that God is with "the brokenhearted" and the "crushed in spirit" (18). So, "life" will be experienced in the midst of suffering, not beyond it. Indeed, God will be experienced in the midst of suffering. Fear of God is rewarded not in a material, mechanistic sense but with nearness of God. To take refuge in God is to belong to God and that is what it means to live. To separate ourselves from God is the essence of wickedness and that is what it means to die. To be a servant of God (22) means to recognize God's sovereign claim on one's life. Thus to be a servant of God is to live in dependence on God, which is the essence of righteousness.

Tithing is not an insurance policy against going to hell after we die. Neither is tithing provide us a guarantee that we will not experience suffering in this world. Tithing is simply a spiritual discipline, a way to kneel before God and claim our dependence on God for all we have. Giving a percentage back to the Lord is a way of acknowledging that 100% of what we have comes from God and that we are continually dependent upon God's grace in order to survive.

I would like to take the psalmist challenge and make it more specific to this church at this time. I challenge you to take the taste test: Give a tithe to the Lord by pledging to support the ministry of Christ's church. If you take the taste test by tithing to the Lord, what you will perceive is that God is good. When we entrust our lives to God, we find we are, in the psalmist's language: "Radiant," "happy," and "fully provided for." (8-9)

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Psalm 34 on October 25, 2009 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Doing What Successful Churches Do

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church 

on October 18, 2009; 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time. Sermon Text: Mark 10:35-45

During our session meeting last Thursday we talked about how our numbers seem to be down. Worship attendance membership numbers are down just a little and that is also true for other churches in our neighborhood. This downward trend is a national phenomenon. When I started in ministry in 1987 there were 3.2 million members of the PC(USA) and today there are 2.14 million members. Last year the PC(USA) recorded the steepest membership loss since reunion in 1983. Churches today feel like the man in the TV commercial who is on a ladder cleaning out the gutter on his house. We see his ladder start to slide off the house as he waves his arms in panic. We Christians are waving our arms in panic mode. We wonder what is wrong with the church? 
Your session discussed that question and here are some of our responses. Our church needs to have a unified vision. The session needs to come together as one and be leaders. This church needs to be a place that is so special to our own members that they want to invite others to come join in the movement. Each one of us needs to become a missionary in our own neighborhood, in our workplace, and with our family, friends and colleagues. Those are some of the session's responses to the question: "Why is our church declining in membership?" I wonder how Jesus would answer that question? Fortunately, in our gospel lesson Jesus does answer that question.
There we read how, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus and said to him, "Teacher, we need a favor from you." Rather than rehash the story let's put ourselves into this story. Imagine a few St. Johners and a few members of other area churches are part of Jesus crowd of disciples. There are some members of Willow Meadows Baptist, Westbury United Methodist and Salem Lutheran Church. And imagine the two St. Johners approach Jesus and say, "Teacher, we've got a favor to ask you."
Jesus responds to the two St. Johners, "What is it you want me to do for you?"
"Let St. John's Presbyterian Church be the most successful church in this community."
"Clarify what you mean by 'most successful church,'" Jesus replies.
"We mean we want our church to be the most respected church on West Bellfort. We would like to have the best kept lawn, newly remodeled buildings, a big all color LCD screen on our church sign. We'd like to see our congregation grow to 1000 members. Furthermore, we want ours to be the most powerful church in Southwest Houston. We want to have the most effective church staff, the most talented choir, the biggest youth group, the most babies, a vital Christian Education program for all ages, active young adults and generous older adults who leave lots of money to the church in their wills."
Jesus keeps staring at them blankly so the other St. Johner now pipes in, saying: "Jesus, we want our church to have the highest status of any church in the community. We'd like to add a gymnasium to our facilities so that we have the most to offer the upper middle class couples with children in Meyerland, Bellaire, and West University. We want more members than Lakewood Church and more prestige than First Presbyterian."
The other St. Johner agrees, "Yea. What he said. That's what we want from you."

Jesus looks sad and says to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink?"

The cup Jesus mentions represents his suffering and death on the cross. When he was in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night when he was arrested by the Roman soldiers Jesus prayed to God that he might be spared the cup of suffering if it is was within God's will. But Jesus was not spared the cup of suffering. He had drink it all. He had to drink it all.

"Are you capable of drinking the cup I drink?"
"Sure," the St. Johners answer. "Why not?"
Jesus said, "Come to think of it, you will drink the cup I drink. But as to making your church the most so-called successful, that's not my business. There are other arrangements for that."
Now when some members of Willow Meadows Baptist, Westbury United Methodist and Salem Lutheran Church heard what the St. Johners had asked Jesus they lost their tempers with them. They were mad that the St. Johners had beat 'em to the punch and became loudly self-righteous in their anger. Things were getting out of hand among the members of the four churches, accusations were flying, voices were raised, things were getting ugly real fast.
So Jesus called them all together to settle things down. He scheduled a town hall meeting in the sanctuary of Temple Beth Israel – chosen by Jesus as a neutral site. When the meeting started, Jesus said: "Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. I came to serve, not be served."
We tend to think of ways the church can serve our members better. But Jesus challenges us to ask how our church can better serve people outside the church. We look around the sanctuary and think this is our mission field. But Jesus challenges us to develop an X-ray vision that see beyond the brick walls of this sanctuary into the homes of the people of this great city for Jesus came to seek and to save the lost.
There was another TV commercial this week about a place in Alabama called "Victoryland." I just caught the end of it and wasn't sure but it looked like it may be a Christian theme park. Fewer and fewer churches today are feeling like "Victoryland." Some theologians say the idea of the church triumphant no longer fits the present situation of the church in the world. Instead, we must re-imagine the church as a suffering servant in the world. Our questions must change from how can we increase our power, prestige and status -- to how can we become servants of Jesus, the suffering servant? We in the church should be asking How are we serving the unemployed? How are we serving the poor? How are we serving the hungry? That is how Jesus defines a successful church. According to Jesus way of thinking, Braes Interfaith Ministries (BIM) food pantry and consignment shop are right up there at the top of Jesus agenda. How right and fitting it is that BIM draws together the members of different congregations to serve the poor. 
Let's not fall into the trap of "My church is better than your church" with other churches in this community. Let's not strive for the most members or the biggest building of any church in town. Instead, let us be the first one to say yes to any worthy service project that is going to help someone who can never pay us back. Let us be the church that says yes to the poor. Let us be the church that says yes to whomever wants to join us in service to others. Let us drink the cup of Jesus suffering by pouring ourselves out in loving service to others.
I love to read our church newsletter, The Beacon because it tells so many stories of how St. Johners are reaching out to the community in Jesus' name. The Mustard Seed Project involved so many of us in loving service to those whom Jesus loves. Our new Advocacy Program for special needs children is taking root and bearing fruit. Here are some of the other outreach projects listed in this month's Beacon: Blood Drive; "Wonder Team" sandwich makers; Crop Walk; Prayer Groups; Mission Trips to Haiti and Uganda; Living Gift Market; addressing human trafficking; gift boxes for the Seafarers Ministry, and even a dragon boat race to fund cancer research. Of course, there are many more. We St. Johners understand what it means to be a successful church according to Jesus' definition of being successful. We will continue to measure success in terms of those whom we serve.

This week you will receive a stewardship letter from this congregation. You may read it and realize that this congregation is facing some financial challenges right now. Consider your financial giving as a spiritual discipline for that is how we Presbyterians view it. Jesus definition of success is how well we serve the people in our city – not how we serve ourselves. So give big -- not to a budget -- but to the vision of serving others in Jesus' name. As a pastor of a neighboring church said of his congregation: "We may not be gaining members but we are still providing a valid ministry to the community." With God's help we will continue to be a successful church according to Jesus definition of success which is pouring ourselves out in service to others. This congregation excels in doing that. Therefore, according to Jesus' definition of success: We are doing what successful churches do!

Monday, October 12, 2009

Faith's Rough Edges

Text: Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon 
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on October 11, 2009

Not to bore you Bible scholars, but for the benefit of those who missed that day in Sunday School, the book of Job comprises 42 chapters in the Old Testament. Job is presented to us as the richest man in the Middle East, deeply religious, "blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil."(Job 1:1) As the story opens, Job is the subject of a conversation between God and Satan (not the Satan of pop theology with horns, a pitchfork and a tail, but this one tantamount to a celestial prosecuting attorney). God says to Satan, "Where have you been," and Satan responds that he has been checking things out on the earth.

God asks if he had noticed Job and his unfailing faithfulness. Satan replies No WONDER - Job has it made! "Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face."(Job 1:10-11) So God and Satan strike this strange deal with poor Job in the middle - Satan gets to give Job the shaft just to prove the point. In six short verses, the man loses everything: Children, barns, livestock. Despite it all, Job is philosophical. "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised."(Job 1:21) Cheer up, Job, things could be worse...and, sure enough, things got worse - Job is struck down by a hideous skin disease. In utter misery, Mrs. Job advises, "Curse God and die."(Job 2:9) Not Job. He kept the faith. Miserable... but faithful. "I will complain in the bitterness of my soul...I loathe my life."(Job 7:11, 16) 

Meanwhile, our hero's friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, hear about the horror story Job is living through, and, just as you and I would probably do, they come to the house to offer assistance. "Is there anything I can do? Anything at all?" 

To their credit, they did not come in with pious platitudes or explanations about how this would somehow be "all for the best." As the scripture reports it, "They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great." They just SAT with him.

But sitting in silence soon proved to be more than even the ancients could bear and the legendary "patience of Job" which has become a cliche in our culture we find is a bit overstated. Job is VERY unhappy, and he says he regrets that he was ever born. 

Have you ever felt that way? Probably. If you did, I hope you had friends who offered comfort and counsel, but I hope they did a better job than Job's pals. First, Eliphaz courteously suggests, "Job, you must have brought this on yourself." Then Bildad suggests that perhaps Job is suffering because of the sin of his children; if Job will only pray, the Almighty will intervene and make everything right. Friend Zophar finally says this misery is simply the sentence after a guilty verdict. In their own ways, each tries to explain Job's suffering on the grounds of the justice and righteousness of God and the orderliness of the universe. This could not have just "happened;" Job had to have done something or someone near and dear had to have done something for him to deserve his pain.

Cause and effect. 

We understand that thinking. Some kinds of suffering CAN be explained. Life-long smokers get lung cancer; people who drink to excess get cirrhosis of the liver; deaths on the highway are caused by drunk drivers.

But there is another side to that coin. People who have never smoked get lung cancer; people who have never touched alcohol get liver disease, drunk drivers kill the innocent along with themselves, and natural disasters take their toll on all of us. 

For his part, Job is not satisfied with his friends' explanation. At this point in the story, Job is just as much convinced of the justice of God as his friends. In his own situation, he is convinced that God has made a mistake, that's all. What he wants is his day in court. He wants to brief his case before this righteous judge and get the sentence overturned. But the problem is this: as the lectionary text has it, "if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him." God is gone - east, west, north, south, look where you want - God is gone. How can you present your case when the judge is nowhere to be found? 

When we get to the bottom of the pit we may look around in the darkness and feel as if we are the only person who has ever felt this way. We forget that God has already been in this pit. God came down, entered humanity and saw and felt it all. He was lonely, tired, hungry, besieged by demanding crowds, persecuted by powerful enemies. His friends and family questioned his sanity. Those who followed him were a motley crew of fishermen and peasants, among whom that migrant farmworker would have felt very much at home. Then at the end, the bloody death - an execution quite unlike the quick, sterile lethal injections or gas chambers we know today, one that stretched on for hours in front of a jeering crowd. family, by friends...even "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 

Without question, the cross of Jesus has become the most common image in the Christian faith. That cross is proof that God cares about our suffering and pain. Christ died of it. Today the image of that ancient executioner's rack is coated with gold and worn around the necks of beautiful girls, or is polished bright and worn on the chest of preachers, a symbol, not only of our faith, but also of how far we can stray from reality. And perhaps that is where our problem lies - we wonder where is God in our pain, but we might wonder less when we recall that, in the midst of ultimate pain, God was right there...hanging on that tree. For you. For me.

When God is gone. Yes, there are indeed times when that seems to be the case. For Job. For you and me as well. All the "Why?" questions remain. But the good news I bring to you this morning is more than, because of the cross, God knows and understands pain and suffering. The good news is that the cross is not the last word. Remember, after the cross, there is resurrection, new life. (Adapted from the sermon When God Is Gone by David E. Leininger.)

William Hinson relates the experience of seeing a baby owl in his front lawn as he went out to get the morning paper. He said he did not know what to do about it, so he called a naturalist. The naturalist said, "Don't do anything to that baby owl. If you look up, somewhere in a tall tree you will see he is not alone. His mother has told him to sit very still in order that he might not be seen by a cat or anything else. It takes about two dark nights for a baby owl to spread his wings and fly. In the meantime, if you will look up, you'll see his mother."

William Hinson said he and his wife went out into the yard and looked up into the top of an oak tree and there they saw the mother owl with dark, unblinking eyes fastened on the baby owl and everything and anything that came near him.1 When we feel alone and it seems that God has moved out and left no forwarding address, be assured that God knows where we are and God can reach us when God gets ready.

 (William Hinson, A Place to Dig In, Abingdon, 1987, pp. 27-28.)

Why should I feel discouraged, Why should the shadows come, Why should my heart be lonely and long for heaven and home. When Jesus is my portion, my constant friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me. (Charles H. Gabriel, "His Eye Is On the Sparrow," Songs of Zion, Supplemental Worship Resources 12, (Abingdon, 1981), p. 33.) 

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

A Gift of Generosity

Text: Genesis 2:18-24

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

October 5, 2003; World Communion Sunday: Genesis 2:18-24


In our Bible story from Genesis this morning we find that God gave a generous gift to man. God noticed that Man was alone and decided to make him a helper, a companion. So God formed from the dirt of the ground all the animals of the field and all the birds of the air. He brought them to the Man to see what he would name them. Whatever the Man called each living creature, that was its name. The man named the cattle, named the birds of the air, named the wild animals; but didn't find a suitable companion.

God put the Man into a deep sleep. As he slept he removed one of his ribs and replaced it with flesh. God then used the rib that he had taken from the Man to make Woman and presented her to the Man.

The Man said, "Finally! Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh! Name her Woman for she was made for Man."

Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and embraces his wife. They become one flesh. God's generous gift reminds me of the fabled hospitality of Brigid of Ireland.

Long ago in the land of Ireland there lived a woman named Brigid. Brigid was baptized in the mid-fifth century during the lifetime of St. Patrick of Ireland. Brigid became a preacher and bishop who ruled as high abbess of an immense monastery — a foundation that admitted both men and women. The name of the monastery was Kildare which translated means "Church of the Oak."

You may learn more about Brigid in Thomas Cahill's fascinating book How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. In keeping with the man and woman theme of our scripture this morning (Gen. 2:18-24 ), let me tell you about the attempted marriage of Brigid of Kildare.

Following Brigid's conversion, her father, an extremely wealthy man, was appalled to find his beautiful daughter giving away his stores to beggars. Quite out of control, he threw Brigid into the back of his chariot, screaming: "It is neither out of kindness nor honor that I take you for a ride: I am going to sell you to the King of Leinster to grind his corn." Arriving at the king's enclosure, the father "unbuckled his sword, leaving it in the chariot beside Brigid, so that—out of respect—he could approach the king unarmed." No sooner had the father gone off than a leper appeared, begging Brigid for her help. Since the only thing handy was her father's sword, she gave it to him. Meanwhile, the father was making his offer to the king, who must have smelled something fishy, and insisted on meeting the girl before accepting. When king and father came out to the chariot, the father noticed immediately that his sword was missing and demanded to know where it was. When Brigid told him, "he flew into a wild rage" and began to beat her.

"Stop," cried the king, and called Brigid to him. "Why do you steal your father's property and give it away?"

"If I had the power," answered Brigid, "I would steal all your royal wealth, and give it to Christ's brothers and sisters." The king quickly declined the father's kind offer because "your daughter is too good for me."

It is not surprising that, after she escaped from her father and became abbess, Brigid's monastery was famous for its hospitality. I would like to share with you a table grace associated with Brigid's name. It seems an appropriate prayer for all Christians on this World Communion Sunday. Here is Brigid's prayer:

I should like a great lake of finest ale

For the King of kings.

I should like a table of the choicest food

For the family of heaven.

Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith,

And the food be forgiving love.

I should welcome the poor to my feast,

For they are God's children.

I should welcome the sick to my feast,

For they are God's joy.

Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,

And the sick dance with the angels.

God bless the poor,

God bless the sick,

And bless our human race.

God bless our food,

God bless our drink,

All homes, O God, embrace.

(Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization:

The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, 172-174)

Some two hundred years after her death Brigid's monastery in Kildare would be laid waste by Vikings raiders. How humble we would be if we understood how brief is our time on this earth and how little impression we leave behind. How devoted to God we would be if truly we understood that this life is but a preparation for the life to come. Like a seed planed in the ground, each of us will one day return to the earth from which we came. In the meantime, let us treat one another with abundant hospitality and generosity of spirit.

Of course Brigid is not the only figure in history to display lavish generosity. The story is told that one day a beggar by the roadside asked for alms from Alexander the Great as he passed by. The man was poor and wretched and had no claim upon the ruler, no right even to lift a solicitous hand. Yet the Emperor threw him several gold coins. A courtier was astonished at his generosity and commented, "Sir, copper coins would adequately meet a beggar's need. Why give him gold?" Alexander responded in royal fashion, "Cooper coins would suit the beggar's need, but gold coins suit Alexander's giving." (Source unknown.)

There were once two young men working their way through Leland Stanford University. Their funds got desperately low, and the idea came to one of them to engage Paderewski for a piano recital and devote the profits to their board and tuition. The great pianist's manager asked for a guarantee of two thousand dollars. The students, undaunted, proceeded to stage the concert. They worked hard, only to find that the concert had raised only sixteen hundred dollars. After the concert, the students sought the great artist and told him of their efforts and results. They gave him the entire sixteen hundred dollars, and accompanied it with a promissory note for four hundred dollars, explaining that they would earn the amount at the earliest possible moment and send the money to him. "No," replied Paderewski, "that won't do." Then tearing the note to shreds, he returned the money and said to them: "Now, take out of this sixteen hundred dollars all of your expenses, and keep for each of you 10 percent of the balance for your work, and let me have the rest." The years rolled by--years of fortune and destiny. Paderewski had become premier of Poland. The devastating war came, and Paderewski was striving with might and main to feed the starving thousands of his beloved Poland. There was only one man in the world who could help Paderewski and his people. Thousands of tons of food began to come into Poland for distribution by the Polish premier.

After the starving people were fed, Paderewski journeyed to Paris to thank Herbert Hoover for the relief sent him. "That's all right, Mr. Paderewski," was Mr. Hoover's reply. "Besides, you don't remember it, but you helped me once when I was a student at college and I was in a hole."

(Edward W. Bok, Perhaps I Am.)

As we celebrate World Communion Sunday today, we recall the brief but shining life of Brigid of Kildare. We remember her total commitment to Jesus Christ. We emulate her extravagant hospitality in the name of Christ. May Brigid of Kildare call to our remembrance all the women and men who have been faithful to Christ's call down through the ages. For we gather at the table on this World Communion Sunday not only with all believers who are alive today but also with all those believers who have come before us. As the great hymn says:

For all the saints who from their labors rest,

Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,

Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest.

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Thou wast their rock, their fortress, and their might;

Thou, Lord, their captain in the well-fought fight;

Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true light.

Alleluia! Alleluia!

O blest communion, fellowship divine!

We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;

Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Music: From the English Hymnal, 1906. Used by permission of Oxford University Press.

-Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on October 4, 2009.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Moses' Style of Shared Leadership

I heard a sports commentator deliver a great one liner this week. He said: "Be nice to retired people because, remember, they never get a day off." In a sense, that is true. When you do not have to report to work then you do not get a day off from work at the end of the week. Of course, some of us would be willing to make that change even though things would be different.
Whether we are retired or still working for a living, we think nothing of using conveniences that our great-grandparents could never have imagined. Our great-grandparents washed their clothes by hand and hanged them out to dry. We use a clothes washer and dryer. They walked outside to the well to get water. We have drinkable water running inside our homes. They rode on a horse or in a carriage. We ride in automobiles that have the power of well over 100 horses.
Yet we live in a world in which the majority of people still have no clothes washer or dryer, no indoor plumbing and no cars to drive. We live in a world where the majority of people have never made one single phone call. In comparison to the majority who have very little, we have so very much. Yet we still crave more.
We want more money -- more recognition -- more freedom and the list goes on and on. If we piled all our cravings into the sea I suppose we could cross the Atlantic Ocean without a sail boat. Yet our cravings are not unique in the annals of human history. For example, consider our bible story this morning.
In Numbers chapter 4 we read the God's people had a craving for meat and starting whining, "Why can't we have meat? We ate fish in Egypt--and got it free--to say nothing of the cucumbers and melons, the leeks and onions and garlic. But nothing tastes good out here; all we get is manna, manna, manna."
God provided the Israelites with manna for food but what God provided was not up to par in their opinion -- God's provision was a little lacking -- the implication was that God had poor taste -- and God's food was tasteless. God's anger blazed up against this attitude.
Moses saw that things were in a bad way all the way around. Things were bad for the people of Israel because the people were craving and whining outside their tents. Things were bad for God who felt insulted at the ingratitude of the whiners. And things were bad for Moses because he was caught in the middle between a rock and a hard place -- between the whiners and God.
Moses said to God, "Why are you treating me this way? What did I ever do to deserve this? Did I conceive them? Was I their mother? So why dump the responsibility of this people on me? Why tell me to carry them around like a nursing mother, carry them all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people who are whining to me, 'Give us meat; we want meat.' I can't do this by myself--it's too much, all these people. If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me. I've seen enough; I've had enough. Let me out of here."
The pressure on Moses was unbearable. He was reaching the breaking point. He called on God for relief. And God provided relief. Isn't it good to know when we call on our heavenly father He will answer. When we are doing God's will and find ourselves at wit's end, holding on by the skin of our teeth, and we call on God He will answer our cry. We can trust God like we would trust a reliable and loving parent.
Moses gave his problems to God and challenged God to find a solution and God did provide a solution. God said to Moses, "Gather together seventy men from among the leaders of Israel, men whom you know to be respected and responsible. Take them to the Tent of Meeting. I'll meet you there."
Meanwhile, two elders, Eldad and Medad, had stayed in the camp. They were listed as leaders but didn't leave camp to the Tent as instructed. Still, the Spirit rested on them and they prophesied like the other leaders. A young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!"
Joshua, who had been Moses' right hand man since his youth, said, "Moses, master! Stop them!" Perhaps Joshua thought they were attempting to sabotage Moses' leadership.
But Moses said, "Are you jealous for me? Would that all God's people were prophets. Would that God would put his Spirit on all of them."
Here we see how Moses was an inclusive leader. Unlike Joshua who felt threatened by Eldad and Medad, Moses welcomed them as leaders. Moses was happy for God's Spirit to work with the people directly. Moses was happy to share his leadership with any person whom God chose to use. Moses did not feel a need to control God. Moses did not feel a need to control people. Moses trusted God and he trusted the people of God.
The Eldad and Medad part of this story may sound familiar. Once Jesus' disciples came to him complaning about someone who was casting out demons in Jesus' name but this person was not on of Jesus' recognized disciples. Jesus response to this man was similar to Moses response to Eldad and Medad. Jesus welcomed the help, saying, "He is who not against us is for us." Spiritual leadership tends to INclude rather than EXclude. Moses and Jesus welcomed the help and so do we. We welcome those who would join us in making disciples and meeting human needs.
Yesterday the session and Pastor Nominating Committee met with some consultants from the presbytery. We talked about some of the challenges facing our church. One of the issues we discussed was how to structure ourselves as a session. Presbyterians tend to excel at making such technical changes on paper. As Jim Bushong said yesterday, "Once things change they are different." We like the idea of change but get upset when things are different. This is how it was with Moses' people. They wanted things to change. They called out to God to send them a leader. God sent them a leader called Moses. He led them out of bondage in Egypt. But once things changed they were different. The people missed the foods they had enjoyed in Egypt. They craved meat. And so the story goes for this is our story too.
This week, in a presbytery publication called Connections, Mary Marcotte writes about spiritual leadership. She quotes former General Assembly Moderator and pastor, Joan Gray, from Gray's new book, Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers. Joan Gray speaks of a symbol frequently used by the early church: a sailboat. She uses the image of a sail boat to describe spiritual leadership. She says it is important to remember the image is a sailboat, not a rowboat. Our task as leaders, she argues, is to hoist the sail and catch the wind of the Holy Spirit so that the ship is driven where the Spirit is moving, rather than to try to keep rowing faster and chart our own course based on personal desires.
In contrast the wind of the whiners which will make the church lose all sense of direction like a sailboat in a hurricane, God's Spirit provides steady wind force that will fill the sails and drive the church forward in mission.
Mary concludes her article by reminding us of our ordination vows as elders and ministers of the word and sacrament - to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love, saying: "That promise cuts to the heart of spiritual leadership, a leadership which points not to us, but to our amazing Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer."
We are not in this alone. God is in this project with us. God demonstrates in through Moses that if we ask for help we will receive it. Let's not be timid about taking our problems to God. Jesus said: "Ask and you shall receive." I think he was talking about our spiritual cravings. Jesus once told the woman at the well: "I have living water. Drink my water and you will never thirst again." Let's drink of that living water. So may our deepest cravings find eternal satisfaction.

-Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on September 27, 2009; 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time