Sunday, March 29, 2009

Living Into Christ's Reckless Love

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 12:20-33

at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on March 29, 2009 (Lent 5B) 

Years ago, when the Betty Crocker Company first began selling their cake mixes, they offered a product which only needed water. All you had to do was add water to the mix which came in the box, and you would get a perfect, delicious cake every time.  

It bombed. No one bought it and the company couldn't understand why, so they commissioned a study which brought back a surprising answer. It seemed that people weren't buying the cake mix because it was too easy. They didn't want to be totally excluded from the work of preparing a cake; they wanted to feel that they were contributing something to it. So, Betty Crocker changed the formula and required the customer to add an egg in addition to water. Immediately, the new cake mix was a huge success. Unfortunately, many people make the same mistake when it comes to "packaging" or presenting the Christian religion. They try to make the call of Jesus Christ as easy as possible because they're afraid people won't "buy it" if it seems too hard.  

Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard preached the same message the Betty Crocker Company learned. Kierkegaard preached against what he called "cheap grace." This is the idea that God's love is freely given so we place little value on it. No, says Kierkegaard, God's grace is not cheap, for it cost God everything in the death of his son on the cross.

A group of children, confined to a basement play area on a rainy day, decided to "play church." One child was the preacher, another the organist, a couple kids were ushers, and the rest served as the congregation. One little guy said, "What about Jesus? Shouldn't Jesus be in church?" The rest agreed and the child who made the point was made "Jesus."

"What do I do?" he asked. "How do I play Jesus?"

He was told by some of the older children that they would tie him up to one of the support posts in the basement, pretending that it was the Cross. Then the others would call him names, throw things at him, and be mean to him in other ways. The little boy thought about that a minute and then said. "I don't want to play Jesus; let's just play church." Kierkegaard challenges us to play Jesus instead of just playing church.

"Listen carefully," Jesus said, "Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you'll have it forever, real and eternal." (John 12:24-25, The Message) Today Jesus challenges us to follow his example and be reckless in our love.

We live into reckless love when we listen to someone with our ears wide open and our mouths tightly closed. We live into reckless love as we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That may mean putting together sandwiches on a Wednesday night or rolling bandages on a Tuesday morning or seeking justice for children on a Sunday evening. We live into reckless love when we are work hard at an impossible job knowing that our work will go unnoticed except by God.  

Jesus said: "Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also." Find where Jesus is active in the world and join him there. If you wonder where to begin to look for Jesus in the world, remember the hint he gave us at the beginning of his ministry. He spoke to a crowd of home town folks at his local synagogue and told them he had come to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, and bring sight to the spiritually blind. In other words, look for Jesus among the least and lowly and the spiritually lost and blind.  

Next week is the highlight of Lent. We will relive, along with Christians all over the world, the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord. It was the critical moment then for his disciples and it is the critical moment now for all of today's disciples. So I ask you: Do you intend to follow Jesus? Then you must serve. Do you want the secret to a spiritually alive church? It is serving Christ who served us. John Wesley wrote to his people called Methodist the following Rule of Conduct:  

Do all the good you can, 
By all the means you can, 
In all the ways you can, 
In all the places you can, 
At all the times you can, 
To all the people you can, 
As long as ever you can.  

This is the meaning of living into the reckless love of Christ. 

We worship a risk-taking God. When God created the universe, he took risks by creating a world endowed with freedom. God didn't make us robots. God gave us freewill, which meant he risked our rejection, and risked our refusal of Him. Humanity's refusal of God is most clearly demonstrated in the crucifixion of Jesus. The cross is indispensable. For in it we learn of God's love, his willingness to take our sins upon himself, and his willingness to place his righteousness upon us. 

Walter Wangerin has a wonderful story, called "Matthew, Seven, Eight, and Nine" about how he tried to stop his son Matthew from stealing comic books. He tried various uses of the law over several years and continued to fail. Finally, he resorted to something he rarely used: a spanking. He did it deliberately, almost ritualistically, and he was so upset when he finished that he left the room and wept. After pulling himself back together, he went in to Matthew and hugged him. A number of years later, Matthew and his mother were doing some general reminiscing, and Matthew happened to bring up the time when he kept stealing comic books. "And you know why I finally stopped?" he asked. "Sure," she said, "Because Dad finally spanked you." "No!" replied Matthew, "I stopped because Dad cried."  

The last week of Jesus' life is called the Passion for this reason. God weeps for the sins of the world. And in his broken body our lives are made whole. Jesus calls us to the same reckless love which he demonstrated on the cross. Let's live into Christ's reckless love this week as we prepare for Holy Week's start next Sunday.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Looking Out Through the Eyes of God

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 3:14-21

at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on March 22, 2009 (Lent 4B)

There was a man who loved dogs. He served as a speaker in various civic clubs to benefit the humane society. He was known far and wide as a dog lover. One day his neighbor observed as he poured a new sidewalk from his house out to the street. About the time he smoothed out the last square foot of cement a large dog strayed across his sidewalk leaving footprints in his wake. The man muttered something under his breath and smoothed out the footprints. He went inside to get some twine to string up around the sidewalk only to discover dog tracks in two directions on his new sidewalk. He smoothed those out and put up the twine. About five minutes later he looked out and the footprints indicated that the dog had cleared the fence, landed on his sidewalk and proceeded as he desired. The man was mad now. He toweled the wet concrete smooth again. As he got back to the porch he saw the dog come over and sit right in the middle of his sidewalk. He went inside got his gun and came out and threatened to shoot the dog and the dog ran away scared. The neighbor rushed over, "Why did you do that?" he inquired, "I thought you loved dogs." The man responded as he cradled his gun in the crook of his arm. "I do, I do like dogs, in the abstract, not in the concrete.


I wonder if it might not be the same with forgiveness. We love it in the abstract, but when we really have something to forgive, we hate it in the concrete. Looking out through the eyes of God means looking at others with the eyes of forgiveness. 

We may think looking out through the eyes of God means looking down on people and that is true but only in one sense. God looks down on people from the perspective of a person who is nailed to a cross. So yes, God looks down, but only from the perspective of a sacrificial love. Jesus himself looked down from the cross not with judgement but with sympathy upon those who crucified him. He said about them, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." 

 Thich Nhat Hahn offers suggests seeing emotions through the eyes of impermanence. When you get caught up in anger at someone, close your eyes and look deeply. Three hundred years from now where will you be and where shall the person making you angry be? Looking at the future, we see that the other person is vey precious to us. When we know we can lose them at any moment we are no longer angry at them. The reason that we are folloish enough to make ourselves suffer and make the other person suffer is that we forget that we and the other person are impermanent. (The Practice of Looking Deeply, 43-44)

Here is a little Zen story that demonstrates how this works.

Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was still falling. Coming around a bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash, unable to cross the intersection.

"Come on, girl" said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.

Ekido did not speak again until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he no longer could restrain himself. "We monks don't go near females," he told Tanzan, "especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?"

"I left the girl there," said Tanzan. "Are you still carrying her?"

(Taken from

What are you still carrying today? Anger? Resentment? Bitterness? Lay it down at the foot of Christ's cross. 

  Often the things that really dominate our lives and our churches are trivial things. Pettiness should have no place at all in our lives or in any church for any reason. Petty people have lost their vision. They are people who have turned their eyes away from what matters and focused, instead, on what doesn't matter. This same petty spirit sometimes takes control of churches and renders them ineffective. It is time for the church to get the focus back to seeing the world through God's eyes of loving compassion.

Charles Shulz, creator and author of the Peanuts cartoon characters often conveys a message in his comic strips. In one strip he conveys through Charlie Brown the need we have to be loved and through Lucy our inability to love one another. Charlie Brown and Lucy are leaning over the proverbial fence speaking to one another: 

CB: All it would take to make me happy is to have someone say he likes me.
Lucy: Are you sure? 

CB: Of course I'm sure!
Lucy: You mean you'd be happy if someone merely said he or she likes you? Do you mean to tell me that someone has it within his or her power to make you happy merely by doing such a simple thing? 

CB: Yes! That's exactly what I mean! 
Lucy: Well, I don't think that's asking too much. I really don't. [Now standing face to face, Lucy asks one more time] But you're sure now? All you want is to have someone say, "I like you, Charlie Brown," and then you'll be happy? 

CB: And then I'll be happy!
Lucy: Lucy looks at Charlie Brown, turns and walks away, saying, I can't do it! 

What Lucy cannot do, because of her sin, God does. What Charlie Brown needs, lost and alone as he is, God supplies. 
The famous theologian Karl Barth wrote massive volumes of theological reflection about the Christian faith. He was the kind of intellect who understood far more than the average person. A reporter once asked him what was the greatest theological idea. He was expecting something equivalent to Einstein's E=MC2, the theory of relativity, or some other esoteric concept that hardly anyone could understand. But Barth simply replied, "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so." 

As someone once said, "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." What is the main thing? Not only did Jesus tell you, but every preacher and Sunday School teacher and Youth leader you ever knew told you: in the language of the old King James Bible that many of us memorized, "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life." 

In an old Dennis the Menace cartoon, Dennis and his little friend Joey are leaving Mrs. Wilson's house, their hands full of cookies. Joey says, "I wonder what we did to deserve this." Dennis answers, "Look, Joey. Mrs. Wilson gives us cookies not because we're nice, but because she's nice." (Billy D. Strayhorn, Cross Road: For God So Loved) Even so, God forgives us not because we're nice, but because God is love.

By the grace of God we can use forgiveness as a positive, creative force bringing light into a darkened world. Nobody does that kind of thing better, of course, than God. Who could imagine 2,000 years ago that the symbol of the Christian church would be a hangman's noose, an electric chair, a guillotine? Those analogies may be necessary for us to keep from being too sentimental about "the old, rugged cross." A cross is a terrible thing. It was indeed a symbol of suffering and shame. Humanity nailed God's own Son on a cross. What barbarity! What unspeakable evil! Yet God turned that cross into the means by which you and I may find our salvation. That is what God can do with forgiveness. What can you do? (ChristianGlobe Illustrations, King Duncan, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc.) 

God looks at people not with snake eyes of evil intent but with loving eyes brimming with compassion. Looking out through the eyes of God means viewing the world with a compassionate vision. We may do so right now. As the old song says ...

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

Look full in his wonderful face;

And the things of earth will grow strangely dim

In the light of his glory and grace. (Helen H. Lemmel, 1922)

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Christ's Unforgivable Sin

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 2:13-22 on March 15, 2009 (Lent 3B) 

A terror stricken town left him to face four killers, single handedly at high noon. Time was his deadly enemy. With every swing of the pendulum, with every second, a man's life ticked away. Never have so few moments held such excitement. A shoot out on main street. A fist fight in a horse stall. Retiring Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) insists on defending his town from a gang of hooligans who are due on the noon train -- but he faces the task alone as the cowardly townspeople flee like rats from a sinking ship. Director Fred Zinnemann creates an incredibly tense Western (rightly considered one of the true genre classics) that unfurls in real time -- as the clocks on the wall constantly remind us. The film is called High Noon and it is a Western Classic.

Our Bible story today may be the closest thing to a Westerner we have in the New Testament. Like a rodeo cowboy, Jesus rounds up the bad guys and whips them into shape. Or at least he casts them out of the temple. Picture Jesus, the meek and mild, taking a whip and slapping it over the head of some temple banksters as he yells at them to get out of Dodge. He overturns their money tables and sets the stage for a later confrontation in which he will be on the receiving end of the death penalty, Roman justice style, crucified on a cross, between two criminals.
We ordinarily think of this dramatic scene happening during Holy Week when Jesus comes into Jerusalem for the Passover. But John places this story in the beginning of his gospel. And Jesus proclaims to all who witness his cleansing of the temple: "Destroy this temple and I will build it again in three days."
The temple cleansing is a dramatic act that follows Jesus' miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. Out of the ritually pure water of Judaism Jesus creates the new wine of human salvation. Then Jesus appears at the central focus of the Judaic religion: The temple. There at the temple Jesus presents himself as the new site of God's revelation. Through the symbolic acts of creating wine from water and presenting himself as the new temple, Jesus embodies what is new as replacing the old. (Adapted from Abingdon Commentary, The Displacement of the Temple, John 2:13-22)

We know all about replacing the old with the new. That is a common theme these days. We have a new president. We have a new congress. We have a new economy. We even have "New Age" religion and politicians from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to President Obama talk about the need for a New World Order.
Just this week, NPR had this to say about the new replacing the old:
The universe may be expanding, but just about everything in it is shrinking. The economy, hopes for a quick financial turnaround, plans for the future, prospects for jobs, home prices — all shrinking. Interpersonal communication is getting shorter. E-mails are shorter than letters; Twitter is briefer than e-mail — each tweet must be 140 characters or less. Advertisers are experimenting with 15-second TV ads. Miller Brewing even ran a one-second spot during the Super Bowl. Companies are downsizing. Newspapers are tinier. So are magazines and cell phones and digital media players. The notebook computer has been shortened — in size and name — to the netbook. (The Amazing, Shrinking Everything! by Linton Weeks; online)

The trend toward miniaturization makes one wonder about our destination. It's amazing how the technology keeps "dumbing us down" in the sense of allowing less and less verbiage. Perhaps eventually we'll get down to the computerized version of "yes" "no" or "1" or "0" logic, we're either "on" or "off" like a computer circuit and only able to blip blip blip after we all get the brain chip and become THE BORG.

The early church in the years just after Jesus lived was a close knit human community. Their community was not based on technology but on spirituality. They wanted to answer the question: "Who is Jesus?" The church today has a more practical question question: "WWJD? -- "What Would Jesus Do?" When confronted with the injustice of banksters running the temple, Jesus drives out the day traders. He overturns the tables of the merchants, and according to today's reading from John's gospel, made a whip for the very purpose of driving out the money-changers. Considerable violence. No wonder they hated him and sought to crucify him, for it seems violence almost always breeds violence.
    Ultimately a violent event lies at the very centre of our faith. A very violent cross. Some people find the cross an offensive symbol, because of its violence. But perhaps the cross is actually the violence that ends all need of violence.
    The cross kills. If I was really able to take up my cross, to face anything which has such a hold over me that it's crushing the life out of me, perhaps then I'd learn how to handle conflict, but find the need for violence had largely disappeared.
    We could change the question from WWJD to WWJF: "What Would Jesus Find?" What would Jesus find in our churches today? Although he probably wouldn't find cattle or sheep, would he find the same attitude -- religious rituals being just a business? Is the church building simply a place where people and God take care of business? Can worship become centered on the things we do, rather than the God who is present giving to us and forgiving us in Word and Sacrament? How can we change faulty worship attitudes?
    Can "church as business" be a problem for the "professionals" in the church? Can leading worship for the clergy become simply a job for which we are paid? Does the laity sometimes think that they are "paying" the minister to do the worship for them -- thinking, "We pay them to do this for us"?
    Do we think of God more as a vending machine -- put in our sacrifices or offerings or good deeds and out comes blessings? Do we misuse our (supposed) obedience to the Ten Commandments as bargaining chips with God?
    Why the whip (only mentioned in John) and the harsh actions? Wouldn't it have been more diplomatic and have caused fewer problems to sit down with the church leaders and discuss the problem? When are swift, harsh actions needed rather than diplomacy? When should a pastor just do what he believes is right, or go through the session or other governing board? (Brian Stoffregen, Questions)
    We can never permit buildings, symbols, signs, organizations, traditions, customs, liturgies, or any features of church life or worship to become substitutes for our real devotion to our Lord himself. All these things in themselves can become too important. We know how difficult it is to introduce a new book of worship, a new liturgy, a new hymn, or a new custom into the church, because people make idols of their traditions. Ask presbytery officials also how difficult it is to close down a church building where only a handful still come to worship. When we worship God in spirit and in truth we know his Real Presence in us and among us is the Risen Christ, who is our Real Temple, our Real Altar. We worship him and adore him when we receive all that he offers to us by grace. We dramatize that when we come together for worship, and we gather him to ourselves when in faith we receive him.
    There is a story about a man who visited a church. He parked his car and started toward the front entrance. Another car pulled up nearby, and the irritated driver said to him, "I always park there. You took my place!" The visitor went inside and found that Sunday School was about to begin. He found an adult class, went inside, and sat down. A class member approached him and said, "That's my seat! You took my place!" The visitor was somewhat distressed by this rude welcome, but said nothing. After Sunday School, the visitor went into the sanctuary and sat down in an empty pew. Within moments another member walked up to him and said, "That's where I always sit. You took my place!" The visitor was troubled, but said nothing. Later, as the congregation was praying for Christ to be present with them, the visitor stood, and his appearance began to change. Scars became visible on his hands and on his sandaled feet. Someone from the congregation noticed him and cried out, "What happened to you?" The visitor replied, "I took your place."
    Some things that happen in church are silly. Some things are down right scandalous. Some things may even be sacrilegious. But the Church is still the body of Christ and it was for the Church that Christ died. (B. Richard Dennis, Over My Dead Body!)
    So where does that leave us? The Cosmic Christ, resurrected Son of God, will come riding back into town one day: ETA – TBA (Estimated Time of Arrival to be Arranged by God alone. In the mean time, as technology continues shrinking us down in the everlasting process of miniaturization, let's keep our hearts big and as wide open as the vast expanse of the wilderness in those old Western movies.    Jesus' unforgivable sin was to stand up to the power structure of his day and present himself as the salvation solution. Although not as dramatic as Christ's temper in the temple, we also will take a stand for justice. We will stand up for justice for children. Lent throws us into the mystery of Jesus Christ. Lent shoves us down on our knees in submission to Jesus Christ, the king of king and Lord of lords. That's not a bad position to be in come high noon on Good Friday.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Showing Jesus

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Mark 8:31-38 on March 8, 2009 (Lent2B) at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

You might remember comedian Yakov Smirnoff. When he first came to the United States from Russia he was not prepared for the incredible variety of instant products available in American grocery stores. He says, "On my first shopping trip, I saw powdered milk--you just add water, and you get milk. Then I saw powdered orange juice--you just add water, and you get orange juice. And then I saw baby powder, and I thought to my self, "What a country!"

Smirnoff is joking but we make these assumptions about Christian Transformation-that people change instantly at salvation. Some traditions call it repentance and renewal. Some call it Sanctification of the believer. Whatever you call it most traditions expect some quick fix to sin. According to this belief, when someone gives his or her life to Christ, there is an immediate, substantive, in-depth, miraculous change in habits, attitudes, and character. We go to church as if we are going to the grocery store: Powdered Christian. Just add water and disciples are born not made.

Unfortunately, there is no such powder and disciples of Jesus Christ are not instantly born. They are slowly raised through many trials, suffering, and temptations. A study has found that only 11 percent of churchgoing teenagers have a well-developed faith, rising to only 32 percent for churchgoing adults. Why? Because true-life change only begins at salvation, takes more than just time, is about training, trying, suffering, and even dying (adapted from James Emery White, Rethinking the Church, Baker, 1997, p. 55-57).

Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked him. Peter believes the kingdom of God can be obtained instantly by force. Peter has a worldly view of the Kingdom and Jesus is speaking about a heavenly kingdom. For a moment I would like you to listen to this story with new ears and see Jesus through the eyes of Peter and the rest of the disciples. Get rid of all your notions about who Jesus is. Take away from your mind Jesus as the Son of God. Strip from your memory that he died on the Cross and that he did that for your sins. Forget that Jesus ever said love your enemies or love your neighbor.

Now I want you to think of Jesus only as a military leader. Imagine that your country has been invaded and is being ruled by godless men. Sense, now, that the tension is mounting and you are about to go into battle. That you are about to conduct a coup d'etat. That you and this band of ruffians are going to attempt to overthrow this government by a sudden violent strike. That the odds are stacked against you but you have a very strong belief that God is on your side despite the overwhelming odds.

Now you are thinking like Peter. Jesus comes before his disciples and lays out his military strategy. Look at verse 31. Jesus says, "We are going to march into Jerusalem you, the soldiers, are going to lose your lives and I, your General, will suffer many things. Furthermore, we are not going to get any help from our Jewish brothers the Elders. Even the Chief Priest and the Sadducees will not join us. Our government, the Sanhedrin, is corrupt and can be of no help to us. We are going it alone and I will die in this battle."

On this day Jesus spoke plainly to his disciples about the events soon to transpire and even though it was plain language it was not plain enough. Peter was not able to shake his understanding of Jesus as his General so he pulls Jesus aside and rebukes him. He says, "Sir, this is not a very good military strategy. You are not going to die, don't say that. It's not good for morale. We are going to be there with you and we will fight to the end and we will throw these godless Romans out of Israel, you will ascend to the throne in place of Herod, and we will be at your right and left hand as the new leaders of Palestine.

It is fascinating to note that just before Jesus rebukes Peter he turns and looks at his disciples. It is as if Jesus is putting two and two together and realizes the disciples have put Peter up to this. It is a perilous moment in the life of Christ. He must dispel this error from their minds and teach them the meaning of his mission. So, he rejects Peter outright calling him a tool of Satan and says, you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.

Jesus is up against a formidable foe. And in the end this foe may posses more power then he. But the foe is not Peter and it's not the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate, or Rome. This formidable foe is not even Satan himself. The powerful enemy of Jesus is our quest for positions of rank and status.

To address the confusion Jesus pulls his disciples together and brings them before a crowd. And in front of the crowd he corrects the disciples' aspirations for privilege, rank, and power and he gives them this simple little directive: You must take up your cross and follow me.  What does it mean forsake all and to take up the cross and follow Jesus? For one thing it means helping the needy and the outcast. That is not to say that the needy are easy to help.

    Jesus has a definite mission. He spelled it out at the beginning of his ministry:  to preach good news to the poor; to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18,19, RSV) We misrepresent the gospel when we limit Jesus' mission to getting people into heaven.  He did that, of course, but his mission had far more to do with getting heaven into people!
    I expect we will have a big crowd in worship on Easter Sunday when we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord from the dead. But I expect we will have a small crowd at the Maundy Thursday service when we remember Jesus last supper with his disciples in anticipation of his death on the cross. Someone got it right when they said: "Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die." No wonder Jesus rebuked Peter when Peter didn't want to hear Jesus talk about he would undergo suffering, be rejected, and be killed before he rose again from the dead.       
    Christian worship is important as an end in itself and as a means of preparing us for serving the world outside. There are some groups that measure Christian discipleship in terms of how often people go to church. Well, going to church is important. Corporate worship is not optional for followers of Jesus. But worship is a minimal act of commitment. As the old story about the Quaker church goes: "The service begins when the meeting is over." A poem has been circulating titled I See Jesus. It is attributed to Summer Waters, age 11:

    I saw Jesus last week. He was wearing blue jeans and an old shirt. He was up at the church building; He was alone and working hard. For just a minute he looked a little like one of our members. But it was Jesus . . . I could tell by his smile.
     I saw Jesus last Sunday. He was teaching a Bible class. He didn't talk real loud or use long words, But you could tell he believed what he said. For just a minute, he looked like my Bible teacher. But it was Jesus . . . I could tell by his loving voice.
     I saw Jesus yesterday. He was at the hospital visiting a friend who was sick. They prayed together quietly. For just a minute he looked like Brother Jones. But it was Jesus . . . I could tell by the tears in his eyes.
     I saw Jesus this morning. He was in my kitchen making my breakfast and fixing me a special lunch. For just a minute he looked like my mom. But it was Jesus . . . I could feel the love from his heart.
     I see Jesus everywhere, Taking food to the sick . . . Welcoming others to his home, Being friendly to a newcomer . . . and for just a minute, I think he's someone I know. But it's always Jesus . . . I can tell by the way he serves. (WIT AND WISDOM,

         I am glad you are in worship today. But I hope you know that the real test of your commitment to Christ is not how well you sing the hymns or how well you listen to me speak.  The real test happens when you walk out the door. There are so many people in our society with fat bank accounts and empty souls. There is a better way. It is to get involved in the mission that Jesus began of reaching out to the least and lowly. It is forsaking all, taking up a cross and following Jesus.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Mister God's Neighborhood

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Genesis 9:8-17 on March 1, 2009 (Lent1B)

Even if you're not Irish, and the most Irish thing you've ever done is eat Lucky Charms, you know all about leprechauns. The thing everyone knows about leprechauns is they love gold. The thing everyone knows about gold is that in Irish tradition pots of it languish at the "end of the rainbow." At the end of every rainbow, guarded by a leprechaun, is a legendary "pot of gold."

Sounds like easy pickings, no? Except for one teeny, tiny flaw in that equation no one can ever FIND the end of a rainbow. Ever try to follow a rainbow from one end to the other? The "end" always "moves," shifting onward, westward, eastward, somewhere. No one ever finds leprechaun gold, because no one can ever find the end of the rainbow.

Rainbow ends are "movable eats." As you come closer and closer to what looks like is going to be the end point, that shiny summit keeps shifting. Light, reflections, the curvature of the earth, keep transmitting that "end" perpetually forward. The global nature of our world, the roundness of the earth, keeps the end point from ever become a final "end point."

The rainbow is the only celestial body given divine importance, a divine imprimatur, in the Old Testament. And the rainbow is also the only celestial, "heavenly" event that begins and ends upon this earth. The rainbow is the divine, heavenly symbol that intentionally bonds itself to this world, both at its beginning and at its end.

The first Sunday of Lent is usually devoted to looking down the long journey to the still obscured (but we know it is glorious) miracle of Easter. No matter how intentional our Lenten days of prayer, no matter what we may "give up" for Lent, no matter how focused we may be on the tragedy of the crucifixion, we still know we are looking forward to Easter morning, to colored eggs, spring mornings, and the transforming joy of the Resurrection. It is hard to pretend we don't know the ending to Christ's story.

But the fact is, even though we may know the "end," most of us don't even consider the "middle" of this journey. We don't know the story that drives the plot to its glorious conclusion. Here, at the beginning of the Lenten season, is the time to look at the heart of this divine drama.

In the Apostle's Creed it comes to us in these four words that are seldom commented on: "he descended into hell." There are, of course, no first hand accounts of the depths Jesus encountered on that day when he "descended into hell." Traditionally "Holy Saturday" a.k.a. "No-Name Saturday" has been taught as the "day" when the crucified Jesus journeyed into the depths of death. In the Christian tradition we envision those depths as "hell," that agonizing separation from God branded with fire and brimstone. But in Judaism and in Jesus' day that place between heaven and earth was known as Sheol, a dark, shadowy, not-living but not-torturous "place" at the center of the Earth. It was a kind of "waiting room" for souls, not a fiery pit, but definitely deep in the scary bowels of the earth, not part of the heavenly sphere.

It was into this dark, dismal, scary space, a space defined by the ugliest kind of segregation (separation from God's presence) that Jesus voluntarily ventured.

It wasn't over for Jesus after he was crucified. He still had this part of his journey to make. Jesus had to go down before he could go up. The grace of God's redemption was not contained by his death on the cross. Jesus' sacrifice involved much more.

There is no lack of horrific tales of death in human history. Dying on the cross was the science of torture taken to its most artistic limits. But Jesus went beyond death. He journeyed down into the bowels of the earth, to the roots of Sheol, to eradicate that horrible halfway house and enable all souls to journey back to the loving longitudes of God's Lordship.

What Jesus embraced with his birth, with his life, he also embraced with his death. Jesus embraced the world. Jesus embraced the Earth. Jesus was born as an earthly child. He lived as an earthly man. He died, as an earthly criminal. Jesus' life and mission and death as the Second Adam were wholly tied to this Earth, this garden planet.

At the very beginning of this Lenten season, as we just begin to contemplate the significance of the next forty days, the first biblical symbol we read about in lectionary is the rainbow. The rainbow is the sign from God that goes from earth to earth, the prism of light that seems to spring from out of the world and then, just as a dolphin leaps up and over, returns to this world. Where does this rainbow come from; where does this rainbow end?

In both cases the answer is somewhere beyond our human experience, yet still part of our earthliness. The rainbow comes out of, and returns to, the earth, even as we do. But the "end of the rainbow" cannot be found by human means anymore than the "ends of the earth" can be found. The "ends of the rainbow" reach below the bounds of the crust of the earth.

Here is the radical nature of the Incarnation. When God came down to earth, God came all the way down. In death, on Holy Saturday, Jesus was still not beyond the bounds of this world. In Sheol, in the shadowy world of death and separation from God, Jesus brought the redeeming, the re-creating God down into those depths and re-seeded the very heart of the Earth with resurrection energies.

"Down into death he has penetrated," wrote theologian Karl Rahner.

"He let himself be overcome by death so that death would gulp him down into the innermost depths of the world in this way, having descended to the very womb of the earth, to the radical unity of the world, he could give the earth his divine life forever. In death his sacred heart has become the pulse of the innermost heart of the world. And down here, the earth, in her continual development in space and time, sinks her roots into the power of all-mighty God. Now, it is an earth that is transfigured, an earth that is set free that is untwisted, that is forever redeemed from death and futility."

The Prince of Peace took the beauty of God into the very living room of the Prince of Darkness, and there forever redeemed the original beauty of creation.

There was a famous man by the name of Fred Rogers, also known as Mister Rogers. You may have seen him on TV in Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Mr. Fred Rogers is a Presbyterian minister. Did you know that? Every child was a friend in Mister Rogers Neighborhood.     Every child was safe in Mister Rogers neighborhood. Is every child safe in Mister God's neighborhood? That is the question our text, Genesis 9:8-17, seeks to address. Is every child safe in Mister God's neighborhood? We know the answer the to that question.

During the next several weeks St. John's will focus on Justice for Children. The focus will begin with a display of pictures of children, prayers for children and articles about children posted around the church. This will be followed by three Sunday night presentations/panels and dinners on April 19th, April 26th and May 3rd. Featured guest speakers include: Robert Sanborn, President of Children at Risk; Barbara Best, Chairman of the Texas Chapter of the Children's Defense Fund; Evan Harrel, Executive Director of Small Steps Nurturing Center; plus six other prominent spokespersons from the areas of child advocacy, child health, education and juvenile justice. The emphasis will include a special project called the Mustard Seed Project. Members of St. John's will be invited to covenant to do something loving and meaningful for a child(ren). These acts of kindness will be documented and shared as we watch the planted seeds grow for the benefit of God's children.
All members of the Presbyterian Community are invited to participate in our Justice for Children emphasis led by the Outreach Ministry Team.
Mister Rogers began each episode of Mister Rogers Neighborhood with the same song. The song is called "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood." God put a rainbow in the sky as a way of saying to Noah and every living creature on earth what Mister Rogers says in his theme song. Imagine these words being sung, not by Mister Rogers, but God. Imagine these words being sung to every living creature on the face of the earth. Imagine God saying to us all:

''It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood,
a beautiful day for neighbors,
would you be mine, could you be mine?

Jesus committed his life and his death to the glory of God and to the glorification of God's creation, which is God's earth. In fact, on the cross Jesus did not so much show us how to be a new kind of Christian, but how to be a new kind of human, the original kind of human God created Adam to be. Jesus is your best shot at being human.

What kind of human are you? Are you a Jesus kind of human? Then let's work toward justice for all the children in Mister God's Neighborhood.

    Let us pray: Almighty God, creator of the universe, we are humbled to know that you ask us to be your neighbors. Almighty God, we want to be your neighbors. Thank you for the beautiful neighborhood you created. Thank you for the opportunity to be your neighbor. Bless our efforts to work for justice for all the children in Mr. God's neighborhood. Amen.

This sermon was adapted from Collected Sermons, Leonard Sweet, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc., 2009, 0-000-1415