Wednesday, February 25, 2009

More Than Skin Deep

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

Joel 2:1-17 (NRSV)

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them. They have the appearance of horses, and like war-horses they charge. As with the rumbling of chariots, they leap on the tops of the mountains, like the crackling of a flame of fire devouring the stubble, like a powerful army drawn up for battle. Before them peoples are in anguish, all faces grow pale. Like warriors they charge, like soldiers they scale the wall. Each keeps to its own course, they do not swerve from their paths. They do not jostle one another, each keeps to its own track; they burst through the weapons and are not halted. They leap upon the city, they run upon the walls; they climb up into the houses, they enter through the windows like a thief. The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host! Numberless are those who obey his command. Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed—who can endure it?

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God? Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, "Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'"


This is an evening for looking deep within ourselves. It is an evening for pondering who we are in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. Tonight I ask you to ponder this question: is your faith more than skin deep?

You know, sometimes you come across a new fact or idea that is so amazing, it just makes you sit up and take notice. I recently came across such a fact. Did you know that the average human being grows approximately 1,000 new layers of outer skin throughout his or her lifetime? That's right, we shed and regrow skin cells so often that it is the equivalent of growing 1,000 new skins over the course of a lifetime. I have two questions. What would we do if we didn't shed the old skin. We would be humongous-and not very nice-looking, as well. The second question is, why don't we feel as new on the inside as we are on the outside?

Your physical body is not the same today as it was seven years ago. Your arms, legs, and heart are completely different than it was seven years ago. Regardless of your age—your body is constantly changing.
The skin replaces itself once a month,
the stomach lining replaces itself every five days,
the liver replaces itself every six weeks,
and the skeleton every three months.
To the naked eye, these organs look the same from moment to moment,
but they are always in flux. 
By the end of the year, 98 percent of the atoms in your body
will have been exchanged for new ones.1

Getting a new body would feel mighty good for some of us. But our Bible passage for today is about a more profound and ultimately more fulfilling idea--namely, getting a new mind and heart.

The prophet Joel is speaking to the people of Israel, but he could just as easily be speaking to us today. He is in despair over how the people are practicing an empty form of religion without any heartfelt commitment to God. They observe all the necessary rituals, says Joel, but their hearts are far from God. Their faith makes no difference in their lives. Their sins have separated them from the Lord, and have made them a symbol of hypocrisy among their neighbors. The pagan people who live all around them have heard of the God of Israel--the Lord God Jehovah, the one true God. They hear that this is the Creator God, the Sovereign Ruler over all the Universe. And yet, the pagans can't help but notice that the people who supposedly serve this exalted God are living empty and sometimes even wicked lives. They are no different from everybody else. Their lives lack any higher purpose, and their faith lacks any redemptive power. And so the prophet Joel urges the people to repent, to return to the promises, purposes, and power of the Lord.

"Even now," declares the LORD, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity . . . Blow the trumpet in Zion . . . bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Let the priests, who minister before the LORD, weep between the temple porch and the altar. Let them say, "Spare your people, O LORD. Do not make your inheritance an object of scorn, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, "Where is their God?'" (NIV)

Preacher Vance Havner was once preaching on this passage from Joel 2. Havner believed this message hits too close to home for most modern churches. As he said, "There ought to be enough divine electricity in every church to give everybody in the congregation either a charge or a shock! . . . What do you mean by singing Onward Christian Soldiers' when most of your army has deserted? . . . I agree with Joel," says Havner. "I'm embarrassed when pagans walk by our empty churches, look in on our feeble ceremonies, see us swapping members from church to church, moving corpses from one mortician to another, preaching a dynamite gospel and living firecracker lives." (1)

That stings, but who would deny that he is in some ways right on target? As the cynical philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once asked, "If the Messiah has come, where are his people?"

How about us? Are we "preaching a dynamite gospel and living firecracker lives?" Do we who follow a Savior known for walking on water, changing ordinary water into wine, and raising the dead have any purpose for our lives? And if our faith isn't changing us, then how can we expect it to change the society around us? No wonder unchurched people roll their eyes at us and say, "Where is their God?"

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of being ineffective in my Christian witness. I'm tired of praying at God, instead of communing with God. I'm tired of reading the Bible as an ancient document instead of as the living word of God. I'm tired of coming to church and not expecting to be changed. And most of all, I'm tired of waiting for that good old "bye and bye" when I will see God. I want to see God now, alive and working in my life and in my community and in the world.

So what does it take to get re-connected to the Power? What does it take to restore our souls? The prophet Joel says it takes repentance. "Rend your heart and not your garments," says Joel. "Return to the Lord your God . . ."

I read recently that the ancient Mayan language has over 80 metaphors involving the heart. Everything from repentance, love, comfort, and fear is expressed using the image of the heart. To comfort someone is to "shape their heart." A shaken heart represents a state of anxiety. Repentance is expressed by such phrases as "my heart grows small," "my heart withdraws," or "my heart becomes two." And in the ancient Mayan language, to be at peace is expressed with the phrase, "My heart is seated." (2)

The prophet Joel, speaking in behalf of God wants us to look deep within our hearts--to see if there is any emotion or any attitude that is destructive to our relationship with God and our relationship with one another.

To experience God's power in our lives requires repentance.

Your first reaction to this statement might be to say, "Hey, I confess my sins all the time, but it doesn't seem to make any dramatic difference in how close I feel to God. What's all the excitement about?" Maybe we don't understand what repentance is all about.

Christian writer William Temple puts it this way, "Repentance does not merely mean giving up a bad habit. What it is concerned with is the mind; get a new mind. What mind? To repent is to adopt God's viewpoint in place of your own. There need not be any sorrow about it. In itself, far from being sorrowful, it is the most joyful thing in the world, because when you have done it you have adopted the viewpoint of truth itself, and you are in fellowship with God." (3)

What does it take to feel new again? Get rid of your old mind. Get rid of your old heart. Get rid of the self-centered attitudes and emotions that separate you from God.

In 1992, Professors Gloria Clayton and Leonard Poon published their results of an intensive study of centenarians--people who live to 100 years old, or more. One of the men they studied was Jesse Champion, 102 years old, who was active in his local church. In his interview, Mr. Champion said, "I know I've been born again." Then he added, "My hands look new. My feet look new. Yeah, he changed my heart. I had a hard heart, but he changed it." (4)

Can you imagine being able to say, at the age of 100, that everything about you is new? That's truly a person who has found the abundant life that Jesus promised us. What's the first step in discovering that abundant life? Giving up the old life. This is the one evening in our church year set aside for the express purpose of looking deep within our hearts and asking if we really have the heart of Jesus Christ. "Rend your heart and not your garments." Is this the appointed time for you to draw closer to God than you have ever been before? It can happen if you are ready for a new heart and mind.


This sermon is adapted from a sermon by King Duncan.

1. Vance Havner, In Times Like These (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell, 1969), pp. 71-76. Found in Robert J. Morgan. From This Verse (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998).

2. "One From the Heart" by Victoria Dawson, Smithsonian, Feb. 2003, pp. 25-26.

3. William Temple, "Christian Faith and Life," Library of Anglican Spirituality, 1931, p. 67, The Clergy Journal, Feb. 2002, p. 32.

4. Hugh Downs. Fifty to Forever (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Listen to Him

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 9:2-9
on February 22, 2009 (Transfiguration, Year B)

    Transfiguration requires change but change is not always a good thing. For instance, when I was in high school the curriculum was changed to teach the "new math." The new math meant the teacher no longer taught math. She handed you an algebra book at the beginning of the year. You were to read the book and figure out how to work the problems. If you had a question, you asked the teacher. Otherwise, a typical class consisted of the teacher talking about his favorite rock and roll group while the class members did whatever they wanted to do as long as they stayed inside the room and did not get loud enough to disrupt another class. Needless to say, only the brightest students learned algebra because they could learn it on their own. Most of us didn't learn anything except how to manage stress. The new math was not a good change. It contributed to what some people refer to as the dumbing down of America.
    I recently viewed the 1967 film "Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back" which documents Dylan's tour of England. Most of the film consisted of the young rock star smoking cigarettes and babbling about nonsense with other intoxicated young people. In the scenes where he diddles around on the piano or guitar or harmonica it is obvious he's not a very good musician. He phrasing is good but his singing voice is not. His lyrics are interesting in a Jack Kerouack or Allen Ginsberg copy cat kind of way. Mainly he lopes around with long disheveled hair or peers outside his limousine window through dark sunglasses. Yet he was presented as the great artiste of the moment when he played in Albert Hall in London. He crooned, "The times they are a'changin'." But not all change is good.
    In a former pastorate I had a church member who literally became a rock star while I was a pastor of the church where she was reared. Her parents still attended the church and her mother was a leading elder and soloist in the choir. Every year the new rock star came home for Christmas. She attended the Christmas Eve musical program and then everyone went to her parent's house for a Christmas party after the service. Whenever I saw her, I found it hard to speak. My mouth dried up. One time I mustered the courage to say, "What have you been up to?" She said, "Oh, I've been touring Latin America with Elton John. He gave me this expensive set of antique china. He's so generous with his friends." I said, "Wow" or something to that effect. How would you respond to a statement like that? Here was a young lady whom I knew through church who had recently won Grammy awards and she is standing in front of me in her own childhood home on Christmas Eve.
    Peter was feeling some celebrity shock when Elijah and Moses joined Jesus on the mountain top. Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain. His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. His clothes shimmered, glistening white, whiter than any bleach could make them. Elijah, along with Moses, came into view, in deep conversation with Jesus. So what did Peter do in the midst of this incredibly holy event? Peter interrupted Elijah, Moses and Jesus. Imagine the nerve. He interrupted their conversation. Why did he interrupt them? What did he have to say that was so important that it could not wait? He said, "Rabbi, this is a great moment! Let's build three memorials— one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah." He blurted this out without thinking, stunned as they all were by what they were seeing.
    Peter, James and John, the three disciples Jesus took with him up the mountainside in today's story, were not well known in their own lifetimes. We know them as three of the twelve disciples of Jesus. They are famous to us now but in their own lifetimes they were just ordinary people. They weren't particularly spiritual, they didn't understand very much and they weren't even particularly reliable. For although they were the three singled out after the Last Supper to watch with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, they all failed to stay awake. And along with the other disciples, they all deserted Jesus when the crunch came.
    So although they had this amazing mountaintop experience of transfiguration, and heard God speaking to them from a cloud, nothing much changed for them initially. It was only years later, after Jesus had died and had risen again, that those early experiences came into their own and Peter, James and John became the acknowledged leaders of the early church.
    Some people today enjoy mountaintop experiences, where they have an overwhelming spiritual revelation of some sort. But just as only a quarter of the disciples experienced the glory of the transfiguration, so not everybody has mountaintop experiences.
    Many of us muddle along in a bit of a cloud, not quite knowing exactly where we're going, and not able to see the way ahead very clearly. And most of us experience clouds from time to time. But they're not necessarily white, fluffy clouds. The clouds which gather over human lives are often dark and ominous and threatening.
    So it's worth remembering that no matter how glorious the transfiguration experience, God didn't speak at all during it, but spoke afterwards from the cloud which followed it and which overshadowed them.
    And God didn't give a particularly earth-shattering message, but simply repeated the words used at Jesus' baptism, "This is my beloved son, listen to him."
    Perhaps when we're overshadowed by cloud, we sometimes expect God to give very specific directions, telling us exactly what to do and how to do it. But if we're expecting that, maybe we fail to hear the quiet voice and the gentle message which simply says, "Listen!"
    Or maybe we apply an often used technique called "Selective listening." Many of us have selective listening, don't we? We hear what we want to hear. Many of us certainly know people who have selective listening. Some of us are probably married to someone who practices selective listening. 
    Listening is important in our relationship to God and in our relationships with our family. A recent survey by Cynthia Langham at the University of Detroit found that parents and children spend only 14.5 minutes per day talking to each other.  She says that many people are shocked to hear the 14.5 minutes statistic.  But once they take a stopwatch to their conversations, they realize that she is right.  Tragically, that 14.5-minute statistic is actually misleading since most of that time is squandered on chitchat such as, "What's for supper?" and, "Have you finished your homework?" True, meaningful communication between parent and child unfortunately occupies only about two minutes each day. Langham concludes, "Nothing indicates that parent-child communications are improving.  If things are changing, it's for the worse."
    She points to two major reasons for this breakdown.  First is the change in the work force.  A few decades ago the dinner table was a forum for family business and communication.  But now, Dad's still at work, Mom is headed for a business meeting, and Sister has to eat and run to make it to her part-time job.  Even when everyone is home, there are constant interruptions to meaningful communication.
    The second reason for poor parent-child communication is television.  A recent study reported a forty-year decline in the amount of time children spend with their parents, much of the recent loss due to television. [Leslie Barker, "We Never Seem to Talk Anymore,"  [DALLAS MORNING NEWS, 25 Sept 1989, C. Cited in J. Kerby Anderson, SIGNS OF WARNING, SIGNS OF HOPE (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), p. 33.]  Our challenge is to slow down and listen to one another.
    We had a very productive Session retreat yesterday which focused on community building and learning to listen. The retreat leader shared a technique that I found helpful. When we have an issue between us and another church member, we may put that issue into a cooker. He showed a slide of a big outdoor grill with a grilled chicken in it. He suggested using that mental image to put away a divisive issue into a safe place so that we can listen to one another without hearing everything that is said through the filter of the divisive issue. I like that idea and plan to use it. I suggest it to you.
    Learning to listen can lead to positive change – the kind of change that transfigures us – as the caterpillar is transfigured into a butterfly. My intuition tells me this church is about to experience a positive transfiguration. I don't know what it will look like or when it will happen but it will be a positive change when it does happen.
        Listening can transfigure lives. Although it wasn't immediately apparent, those ordinary disciples listened sufficiently to God's voice in the cloud to enable their lives to be transfigured at a later date. Perhaps if you want your life to be transfigured, you simply need to listen to God when the clouds overshadow you. As we read in Mark's version of Jesus transfiguration: "Just then a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and from deep in the cloud, a voice: "This is my beloved Son. Listen to him." 

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lepers Healed

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from 2 Kings 5:1-14
at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on February 15, 2009


How many of you here this morning have flown on a plane this past week?

Anyone here been this week on a bus or a subway or a train?

How many of you this week entered a public building and had to push or pull open the door?

Let me try this: anyone recently ridden an escalator or taken a stairway, and held the handrail?

How many of you have pushed a grocery cart this week?

I think we got just about everybody, and some of you we got multiple times.

All of these actions, just normal everyday living, put you up close and personal with the same thing: dirt, germs, microbes, bacteria, or the stuff that really might make you sick.

Before people figured out that it is bacteria and viruses that spread disease, getting sick was a scary, unknown, unexpected event. Who got sick, why they got sick, why they got well, or didn't . . . it all was a mystery. The ravages of leprosy, the bubonic and pneumonic plagues, influenza, tuberculosis, polio, and most recently AIDs, have all infused us with fear, even after we figured out the cause, the effect, and the even the cure.

The only way to way to ward off infectious disease before the discovery of bacteriology was isolation. Today we practice isolation by keeping our children home from school or making ourselves stay home from work. We also isolate ourselves through the wonder of chemicals.

I want to do a little experiment this morning. How many of you have a pack of antibacterial wipes in your pocket, or purse? Take them out. Yes, if you have a little squeeze bottle of "Purel" on you, that counts as well. Can you hold them up? Let's see what percentage of us are "isolationists."

It looks like some of us are isolationists. I know of one church where the pastor had to ask the people please NOT to use the Wet-Wipes after the Passing of the Peace. It was too disruptive of the liturgy that followed, and too disparaging of the liturgy that preceded it.

With all this isolationist bathing in anti-bacterial products, why are we still so "germy"?

Environmental scientists are now beginning to admit that it seems the more we try to isolate ourselves from bugs and baddies, the more we end up making ourselves more susceptible to them. In fact, some pediatricians now are actually recommending that parents let their kids eat dirt regularly. When you see your child playing in the kitty litter, eating in the dog bowl, don't jump up and rescue them. Let them get "down and dirty."

Too many antibiotics for sniffles and plugged ears . . .

Too many hermetically sealed households that don't let air in and don't let air out . . .

Too many antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiallergenic substances . . .

All end up making us bulls-eyes for bugs.

You heard it right: Wet-Wipes are making us bulls-eyes for bugs.

What's that about?

We are really healthy, until we aren't?

Until one stray bad bug enters the atmosphere.

Suddenly an immune system that has been coddled and protected, kept clean and pristine, encounters a real, live bad guy. Without a stockpile of immune responses to draw from, without the kick-back reflexes of a body that has regularly come under assault and learned to fight back against day-to-day germy stuff, we make ourselves sitting ducks.

Our Bible story today is the story of a powerful man with a socially unacceptable disease.

Imagine if General Colin Powell took a break from his briefings about Iraq to announce that, on a personal note, he was sorry to announce that he had AIDS. What a scandal that would be! Once upon a time, the commander of the Army of Syria, General Naaman, made such an announcement. At the peak of his career he contracted a deadly and socially unacceptable disease called leprosy. Naaman traveled a hard road to get his healing. He had to take advice from a slave girl from another country. Naaman needed healing from the scourge of leprosy.

The prophet Elisha was not on General Naaman's radar screen until his name was mentioned by a slave girl as a prophet who could heal Naaman's leprosy. To Naaman, Elisha was an unknown prophet from another country. Elisha did not share Naaman's religion. Elisha did not worship Naaman's god. After Naaman humbled himself and visited Elisha at the prophet's home, Elisha insulted Naaman by refusing to come out of his house and talk to him. Elisha wouldn't even shake the General's hand. Instead, Elisha sent his servants to Naaman and told him to go take a bath in a dirty river. In essence, Elisha suggested Naaman stank and needed to take a bath.

Still, Elisha's insult held out the possibility of Naaman's healing. Naaman was infuriated at what he perceived to be the prophet's insult. But he finally calmed down enough to heed the advice of his hired hands. The hired hands convinced Naaman to give healing a chance. They told him that if the prophet had required him to go to war and bring back the scalps of 1000 enemies, he would have been willing to take the risk for healing. But the prophet required something much easier, the prophet required only that Naaman go wash himself 7 times in the Jordan River. Naaman heeded the advice of his hired hands and followed the prophet's orders. And guess what happened when Naaman gave in and did the simple, stupid thing? God healed Naaman from his leprosy

Naaman's healing is a story of the healing of one person by unlikely means. In the gospel reading today Jesus also heals a leper but his method is much more personal. Instead of telling the leper to go away and wash in a river for healing, Jesus does something more endearing, he touches the leper. Notice that Jesus did not stereotype the leper who came seeking healing from him. Jesus always met men and women on the level of their need, regardless of who they were or what they had done. This was not easy in his culture. Stereotypes were as powerful then as they are now. Once a label is placed on a person the human being vanishes. Many labels were given to people in the New Testament -- such labels as tax collector, Samaritan, Roman soldier, prostitute, rich young man, Pharisee, sinner or publican. They all appear in the gospel narrative, and every time Jesus completely ignores the label and deals with the person. This is certainly true of his encounters with Matthew, Zacchaeus, the traveler on the Jericho road, the centurion, Mary Magdalene, and Nicodemus. David H.C. Read points out that "Jesus knew the ugly side of society -- the brutality of the occupation, the corruption of the tax system, the racial prejudices, the economic injustice, the religious hypocrisy, and the sexual degradation. But never once did these factors blind him to the reality of the human being, the unique son or daughter of God he saw before him." (John A. Stroman, God's Downward Mobility, CSS Publishing Company) Jesus did not stereotype the leper. He reached out and touched the leper.

Many young parents today understand this principle and make it a practice to massage their infants. That's a wise practice. We all have a need to be touched. Studies have shown that touching has physiological benefits--even for adults. One researcher made numerous studies on the effects of the practice many Christians recognize called "laying on of hands." She discovered that when one person lays hands on another, the hemoglobin levels in the bloodstreams of both people go up, which means that body tissues receive more oxygen, producing more energy and even regenerative power. (King Duncan,

Friends, church is a place where we come to be touched. We come to be touched by the Christian fellowship and support we find here. As Bruce Springsteen sings:

You might need somethin' to hold on to

When all the answers, they don't amount to much

Somebody that you could just to talk to

And a little of that Human Touch (Bruce Springsteen, Human Touch)

We are here this morning seeking that human touch from one another and from Jesus. We came here this morning to be touched and healed by Jesus. We all need physical healing. But we need spiritual healing even more. Each of us has some spot on our soul that needs to be healed. None of us are clean on the inside. We all need Jesus' touch.

How did Paul put it: ALL of us have "fallen short" of the glory of God. All of us. No exceptions. We're all hypocrites.

But it's more than that. We're all lepers. . . .

What's your leprosy?

In Mark's text Jesus let slip his divine nature by curing the leprous man of his disease. Only the divine, only God can cure leprosy. For leprosy is more than a mere disease. It is an unholy, uncleanness that must be dealt with by the Holy One.

That which is leprous within each of us can only be cured in that same way. By the Holy One. It takes the divine touch, the hand of God, to transform cratered flesh into new creation flesh.

Leprosy is a tough disease to eradicate. When Naaman, a mighty warrior and commander of King Aram's army, came to the prophet Elisha to be healed of his leprosy he was convinced that the prophet would cure him instantly. But Elisha commands Naaman to go to the Jordan river and wash in it seven times. The water would wash Naaman clean, the prophet promised, but only if he kept at it, he must bath seven times. At first Naaman rejected Elisha's simplistic "shampoo bottle" instructions. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

But it was only after the big, strong warrior did something so simple as to let the waters of the Jordan run over him again, and again, and again, did his transformation occur. The power of God's word ran through that water, washing, cleansing, purifying Naamun of his disease. (2 Kings 5).

What leprosy does God want to cure you of this morning? What part of yourself are you afraid of? What part of you are you hiding from?

You say "servant," but Jesus says "friend."

You say "leper," but Jesus says "lover."

You say "unforgiveable," but Jesus says "forgiven and cast into the depths of the sea."

May each of us experience the healing touch of Jesus, so that we also may say, "He touched me, and made me whole." And then may be we find our way outside these walls into the highways and byways of this great city to touch others in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Decisions In The Wilderness

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 1:29-39  on 8 Feb, 2009 (OT5B)

At around 4:00 or 4:30 A.M., without disturbing anybody else in the house, he got up, pulled some extra clothing around him for warmth, and went out beyond the edge of town to what the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible calls "a deserted place."

That translation, however, does not do full justice to the word heramos. The heramos is not simply an isolated place; it is a place where crucial decisions are made. It is the word often translated "wilderness," and "wilderness" catches something of the atmosphere of danger and crisis which heramos contains.

It is out in the heramos that John the Baptist calls people to repentance, a turning around, a radical change in direction. He is the one whom the prophet Isaiah had described as "a voice crying in the heramos."

It was out in the heramos that Jesus had done battle with the Tempter at the outset of his ministry. He had been enticed with three forms of ministry, all of which held more promise of success than the one to which he concluded that the Father was calling him.

It was a battle which he had to fight over and over. On the last night of his life, he fought it until sweat poured down his face. If there was ever a place which could be called heramos, it was the Garden of Gethsemane where the final cost of the ministry he had accepted was clear. "Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me," he prayed. "Yet, not my will, but yours be done."

Between the beginning and the end, he was having to fight the battle again at 4:00 o'clock in the morning in the lonely place, a wilderness, the heramos outside Capernaum.

Get into his situation. The whole town was in a state of excited enthusiasm over him. He had preached like no one they had ever heard. He had brought a resurgence of health and wholeness to people who were crippled up by a variety of physical and mental illnesses. He was the talk of the town and the toast of the town, and they wanted him to stay there and be their teacher and preacher and pastor.

That is how most rabbis lived. They settled down and had a place and a people to whom they were committed. And they developed friendships and a lifestyle closely interwoven with the lives of others, and their ministries permeated the lives of people with the passage of time.

It was a deeply appealing possibility for Jesus. When he went to bed at the end of that tremendous day in Capernaum, he was moved by what had happened. He woke up long before dawn to go out and pray about whether to stay. Simon and others found him there in the heramos and simply reinforced his desire to stay. "Everyone is searching for you," they said excitedly.

What was the alternative there in the wilderness outside Capernaum? The alternative was a very different kind of life, an uncertain life, and it was the one which he believed God meant for him. It was the one he chose.

"Let us go on to the next towns that I may preach there also," he replied to Peter, "for that is why I came out."

As we follow Christ in service in the world we may find ourselves entering into the heramos. When we are standing in the interval between the calling of the question and the taking of the vote on the complicated or controversial issue, and we are trying to decide which way to vote, we are in a lonely place where it is often very difficult to know which way to go.
When you are trying to keep peace in your family, but you feel that God is leading you to express a feeling or raise a question which is likely to ignite anger, you are in that wilderness place where battles are won and lost.

When fifteen-year-old Lisa sat cross-legged on the bed staring at nothing and told her friend, Tracy, that she was so unhappy she wouldn't really care if she died, Tracy was suddenly in the heramos. On the one hand she wanted to give her friend a pep talk and tell her that everything was going to be okay. It worried her when Lisa was like this. But a more compelling voice drew her in the direction of a more difficult alternative, the alternative of listening and saying very little.

In his book, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life, Henri Nouwen has this to say in reflection on Jesus' rendezvous with his Father at 4:30 A.M. in the heramos outside Capernaum: "…the secret of Jesus' ministry is hidden in that lonely place where he went to pray…. In the lonely place Jesus finds courage to follow God's will and not his own; to speak God's words and not his own; to do God's work and not his own."

You do not really have that option, because you are not Jesus. Your words and your deeds will always be your own. But you can accept that fact and still live with decisiveness and courage if you believe that in every heramos of life, in every lonely and tempting place . . . you are, in fact, not alone.
The story is told of a little boy and his father. They were walking along a road when they came across a large stone. The boy looked at the stone and thought about it a little. Then he asked his father, "Do you think if I use all my strength, I can move that rock?"

The father thought for a moment and said, "I think that if you use all your strength, you can do it."
 That was all the little boy needed. He ran over to the rock and began to push on it. He pushed and he pushed, so hard did he try that little beads of sweat appeared on his forehead. But the rock didn't move — not an inch, not half an inch. After a while, the little boy sat down on the ground. His face had fallen. His whole body seemed to be just a lump there on the earth. "You were wrong," he told his dad. "I can't do it."

 His father walked over to him, knelt beside him, and put his arm around the boy's shoulder. "You can do it," he said. "You just didn't use all your strength. You didn't ask me to help."
 The world in which we live tells us that it is all up to us. It tells us that we have to be strong and independent. It tells us we can't and shouldn't count on anyone or anything else. And yet, what faith tells us and what Jews and Christians have known forever is that we have a ready resource in God, strength for those who ask.

Jesus found strength through spending time alone in prayer with God, whom he called "Abba" meaning "Daddy." His relationship to his Divine Father was precious to Jesus and he set aside time to develop that relationship. Jesus had a special relationship with his Abba and so may we.

A father took his small son with him to town one day to run some errands. When lunchtime arrived, the two of them went to a familiar diner for a sandwich. The father sat down on one of the stools at the counter and lifted the boy up to the seat beside him. They ordered lunch, and when the waiter brought the food, the father said, "Son, we'll just have a silent prayer." Dad got through praying first and waited for the boy to finish his prayer, but he just sat with his head bowed for an unusually long time. When he finally looked up, his father asked him, "What in the world were you praying about all that time?" With the innocence and honesty of a child, he replied, "How do I know? It was a silent prayer." (Our Daily Bread, Adapted.)
Let's enter into the heramos together as we take a moment for silent prayer and reflection.

Loving God, we are all making decisions day by day, week by week, year by year.

We are making decisions about how much of our free time to spend on ourselves and how much to spend in service to others through our church and community organizations.

We are making decisions about how much to intervene and how much to remain detached from the problems of persons whom we love.

We are making decisions about how much to let our political commitments be influenced by what we know of your will and how much to let them be influenced by our own natural proclivities.

We are making decisions about whether we will keep on doing the work that is ours to do day by day or whether we will change course and do something else.

We are making decisions about how we will manage our spiritual lives and our sexual lives and our social lives.

It both encourages us and makes us uneasy to know that we are not alone in this decision making.

It encourages us because we know that even if we make decisions which turn out to be unwise, you are still our strong companion as we recollect ourselves and move on.

But your presence in our lives intimidates us because we know that you are looking for us to reflect, as best we can, your will and your way in the decisions we make. And that often pulls us in directions contrary to ways we want to go. We know that in some, very specific instances, you are calling us to do or say things we would rather die than say or do and are calling us to stop doing things we would rather die than stop doing.

The only problem is that we know the way to fullness of life lies in our being willing to accept when necessary the death to which you are calling us.

Grant, dear God, that we may embrace you more completely with our hearts that we may enter more fully into the deep joy you have in store for those who love and follow you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*This sermon and prayer is adapted from a sermon by Rev. J. Harold McKeithen.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Astonishing Power

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 1:21-28
at St. John's Presbyterian Church on February 1, 2009 (OT4B)

Rev. Thomas G. Long is perhaps my favorite preacher and I thank him for the insight he has given me into our text for today. Long notes that some people are masters of understatement. They are able to communicate the size, power, or importance of something, not by flapping their arms wildly and loudly piling one hyperbolic adjective on top of another, but by the slight arch of a single eyebrow and the deft choice of a muted phrase. Masters of understatement.

There are, for example, people we know in the South who still describe the American Civil War, a war of immense destructiveness and tragic proportions, by pursing their lips and speaking of "the recent unpleasantness." Masters of understatement.

The Great Zacchini was, for many years, a feature attraction at countless carnivals and county fairs. He had one stunt, but it was a dramatic one. As the human cannonball, he would be shot from a cannon across a field and into a waiting net. The blast of the cannon would rattle windows for some distance and clouds of sulphurous smoke would drift across the astonished crowds. Near the end of his career, he was asked by a newspaper reporter how it felt to be shot from a cannon nearly every day of his adult life. The Great Zacchini squinted into the sun, scratched his chin, and replied, "Oh, it's about like anything else."

Some people are masters of understatement. Take, for example, the people who were there in the synagogue at Capernaum the day Jesus was the preacher. They made what surely must be one of the great understatements of all time. What happened, according to the Gospel of Mark, was that Jesus showed up at the synagogue on the Sabbath and preached an unusually powerful sermon. Rather than leaving the congregation bewildered by spending his time parsing Hebrew sentences, splitting theological hairs, and quoting fifteen other rabbis, each quoting someone else, Jesus simply looked them in the eye and preached from the heart. Mark tells us that the congregation was "astonished," but that's not the understatement. It was the congregation who made the understatement, and it came after what happened next.

Right at the end of Jesus' sermon, just as people were leaning over to whisper to each other that it would surely be nice to have preaching like that every week, the spell was broken by the appearance of a demon-possessed man squarely in the middle of the congregation. Where he came from, God only knew. Mark doesn't say. Mark just uses one of his favorite words: immediately. "Immediately there was in their synagogue," he says, "a man with an unclean spirit," which is Mark's way of sweeping his hand across the literary table, knocking off whatever was on there before and saying, "You think that was something; look at this!"

So the people couldn't waste too much time thinking about that good sermon, because they had an "immediately" on their hands, and, in this particular case, the "immediately" was a raving man in the middle of church shouting vague threats at the young preacher who had just done such a fine job with the sermon.

"I kno-o-o-w who you are," howled something deep within the man. "You're the H-o-o-o-l-y One of God."

"Shut up," said Jesus. "Come out of him!" Things were getting curiouser and curiouser that Sabbath day in Capernaum. The man fell to the synagogue floor, his arms beating wildly at the air, his legs thrashing out so that people moved back to give him a wide circle, froths of foam and strange cries coming out of his mouth. Then the man became strangely calm and lay very still. Slowly he picked himself up off the floor, his face now tranquil, his eyes clear, his voice measured and composed.
Now comes the understatement. The people in the congregation, having witnessed a scene to rival anything in The Exorcist, looked around at each other and said, "What is this? A new teaching!" A new teaching? If this had happened in any congregation I know, they may have sat for hours in stupified silence, they may have rushed to the altar in sudden repentance, or they may have leapt out of the church windows in terror, but the last thing they would have done was to comment on how this casting out of a demon constituted an innovation in Christian education. A new teaching? Indeed.

Perhaps what the folks at Capernaum said strikes us as incongruously understated because of the almost automatic connection we make between teaching and blandness. Ask the average person to picture a teacher and what will come to mind is a portrait of a rather plain woman with her hair pulled back into a bun, an apple on her desk, a sharpened number two pencil in her hand, and a pair of dark-framed spectacles creeping toward the end of her nose. Or maybe it will be an owlish man in a rumpled tweed jacket bringing traffic to a screeching halt as he obliviously crosses the street on a green light, his face buried in a book of Elizabethan sonnets.

Such images are stereotypes, of course, and those of us who are teachers ourselves complain about their inherent unfairness. But the fact is that most of us have spent enough time suffering through endless vocabulary drills, protracted exercises on factoring equations, and tedious lectures on the Code of Hammurabi to know that the word "teaching" is rarely dynamic enough, inspired enough, or exciting enough to embrace anything as overwhelmingly provocative as what happened that day in Capernaum. A new power, a new revelation, a new event, a new charisma perhaps ... but a new teaching? A masterpiece of understatement.

But even though their description of what happened in worship that day seems almost amusingly understated, the congregation at Capernaum may have been on target nonetheless. To call that dramatic event "a new teaching" may have been, when all is said and done, just the right phrase.

If the truth be known, we all hunger in our hearts for somebody to teach us something which will transform our lives by its power. We suffer from the separation of event and knowledge. We attend events, from basketball games to wedding showers, and leave amused but no wiser. We sit at the feet of teachers and gather knowledge, from the value of pi to the theories of economics, and we leave informed but unchanged. We yearn to be a part of an event which leads, not to diversion, but to wisdom. We long to know the truth which does not merely set us thinking, but sets us free.

And in the deepest sense possible, that was exactly what happened that day in the synagogue in Capernaum. An event of startling significance happened before the very eyes of the congregation. The demonic powers were subdued. A human life was restored. Jesus was shown to be Lord over all that seeks to spoil and destroy. And the congregation knew that this was not an event merely for the watching. They could not fold their bulletins after the benediction and walk away. This event was not a mere spectacle, but a lasting command. This event contained a truth which made a claim on their lives. Event and wisdom were bonded together that day. What is this? A new teaching!

Christians are always discovering that Jesus Christ is this kind of teacher. He acts powerfully in our lives, giving us overwhelming experiences of grace and love. But warm and exciting religious experience is not the totality of Jesus' impact on our lives. Every action of Christ brings truth, every experience of Christ forms wisdom in our hearts, every encounter carries an enduring claim upon us to live in new ways. Every time we sing "Amazing Grace" we can also sing "This is a new teaching!"

Since New Year's Day 1984, the family of Sam Todd has been looking for him in vain. A seminary student, Sam left a New Year's party in New York City, wandered off into the city streets, and disappeared. The family has been following every lead, tracing every clue. Their sad and futile search has led to hospitals, shelters for the homeless, and morgues. What would one expect the family to feel under these circumstances? Weary despair? Yes. "The irony is that you're hoping to find something terrible that would at least give the comfort of an explanation," said Sam's brother John. One might even expect to find some rugged hope, and that's there, too. But this is a family who has experienced Jesus Christ, and in that experience Jesus has been their teacher. They have learned from him that personal suffering joins us to the suffering of others, and so Sam's father has said:

We are a family of faith. We believe in a loving God who knows where Sam is. Sam is in his care, and we are, too. We live in a world where much more awful things happen all the time; where people living under autocratic governments have "disappeared" and we've known several of them personally. Sam's disappearance is an awful thing for us, but it's pretty mild compared to that, and this sometimes makes us feel humble. (From the New York Times, January 5, 1985. The account of Sam Todd's family first appeared in Thomas G. Long, "Homiletical Notes for Eastertide," Journal for Preachers, Vol. VIII, No. 3 (Easter, 1985) pp. 6-7. This material is used by permission.)

A family who has lost a son, but who is able, in that experience and through their faith in Jesus Christ, to have compassion on others who suffer. What is this? ... A new teaching!

Let's take a moment to reflect on what we have read and heard this morning and then we will continue with the service ... (Pause 30 seconds)

Loving God, in the silence of this moment, we take to heart your new teaching for us and for this congregation. Red and yellow black and white, Jesus said, "Let all God's children come to me." So we come to you this morning, asking you to show us hospitality by accepting us just as we are here today. We thank you for confronting our demons here this morning in this sanctuary and for casting out fear of the other who is red, yellow, black or white. Thank you for casting out the demon of fear from our minds and hearts. Give us a heart for you and for one another as we take to heart Jesus' new teaching ... to love one another as he has loved us. In Christ's strong name we pray. Amen.


I acknowledge my debt to my favorite preacher, Thomas G. Long, for this sermon which is taken from a sermon called An Understated Masterpiece published in Shepherds And Bathrobes by Thomas G. Long, CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 1987, 0-89536-869-2