Sunday, May 31, 2009

Spirit Signs

Acts 2:1-8 (NRSV)

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

Spirit Signs

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Acts 2:1-8

at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2009

There used to be this concept called "family time." Many children today are being raised in families who do not know the meaning of "family time."


Traveling down an interstate on a long car trip used to be good "family time." Anybody remember "The Alphabet Game" where kids and grown-ups could work their way from A to Z by getting the letters off the highway signs? Did any of your families sing together those awful camp songs that have a hundred verses? At the very least the back seat could go to war with the front seat and the jump seats. Fights over what music the whole family had to listen to; explanations as to the answer to the question "Are we there yet?" every two miles—that was the stuff family trips were made of.


Then came the Walkman. Then came built-in DVD players. Now a long-distance trip with a car full of children can be the quietest, most solo experience a parent can have.

-One child is plugged into their iPod, moving to a beat no one else can hear.
-Another passenger is playing a video game—-eyes and ears focused on a scenario that has nothing to do with what is outside the windows.
-Texting on a cell phone while plugged into an MP3 player keeps hands, eyes, and ears connected to friends who are far away, and keeps the rest of the family in the car completely distant.

Try pointing out a funny sign, a beautiful sight, or just asking a question, next time you are the only un-plugged one in the car. See how much response you get. The car might be pulsing with music, video games, cell phone conversations, and movies. But the car hums with nothing but a hush.


There are two ways to know if things are going well—in your world–-be it your family, your home, your office, your church, your community.


1) If things are going well there is a lot of peace and quiet.

2) If things are going well there is a lot of noise and commotion.


Within both the noise and the silence there are the reassuring sounds of community and connection.


In a life of faith there are both days of din and days that are dampered. In a life of faith God appears to us in both the rushing mighty wind and in the still small voice. In song and in silence, in coming together and going apart, in private meditation and in public prayer—-you can hear the voice of God.


The God who grandstanded as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud of smoke by day to the Israelites, also hid out in the "still small voice" that spoke to praying prophets. Jesus spoke to the multitudes, preached to huge crowds, prayed thankfully for food he did not yet have before thousands. But Jesus also wandered into the wilderness, climbed up mountaintops, took stormy sea voyages, just to get away from the noise and the needs of the crowds pressing in on him. Like Jesus, we all need to "come a-part" so we don't' "come apart."


Leonard Sweet points out how the spiritual soundings and Spiritual silence—-the Holy Hoopla and the Holy Hush—are both part of our connection to divine presence and purpose in a sermon called "Are You Pentecost?" This morning's story of Pentecost is the story of stunned, bewildered disciples who re-grouped and waited in Jerusalem for the "whatever" that Jesus had promised would come their way.


Who knows what the disciples envisioned the promised Spirit would bring to them?


Perhaps they hoped for super-hero powers.

Perhaps they dreamed of the perpetual presence of cherubim and seraphim or some other such heavenly creatures.

Perhaps they prayed for some sort of spiritual military mobilization.


So what is it that the disciples finally got? Well, the Big Gift was the Holy Spirit, and with that Big Gift came a lot of other gifts. But how did the Gift of the Holy Spirit come to them?


On this Day of Pentecost, Jesus' disciples received the gift of sound.


Who would have thought?!


First, this was a sound that filled the house in which they were gathered together. This sound, like that of a rushing wind, filled the space between each other where they stood. Next the sound filled the space between their ears. Then the sound filled them up. Finally, this sound poured forth.


When the sound poured forth it took the form not of exploding bombs, whirring rockets, or roaring tanks. This sound took the form of language, the sound of communication, intelligible words, directed out to all the world. There was rush of wind–type sound. There was a rush of words, of multi-lingual confessions and extrapolations upon "God's deeds of power" (v.11).


Yet despite all this "rush," there was a clear and present "hush."  There was the hushing of the disciples' anxieties. There was the hushing of the petty, personal agendas that still drove these disciples. There was the hushing of doubt, filled to over-flowing but blown over by the rush of a Holy Spirit so loud and exuberant that it attracted the attention of the crowds in the streets. The healing, "hushing" of the Spirit became a rush of new words of wisdom that poured out of these once-timid disciples.


Presbyterians get a chance to experience how the disciples may have felt on that first day of Pentecost during the opening worship service of a General Assembly meeting. I have attended three of these worship services and found them to be full of spirit signs. As you look down to the ground level from high your seat high up in a coliseum, first come the liturgical dancers waving batons with long red streamers to signify the entrance of the Holy Spirit. Then comes the multitude of banner bearers with a banner from each presbytery across the United States. These are followed by many ministers of Word and Sacrament in their various robes and stoles and elder representatives who will be serving the sacrament of the Lord's Supper during the service. The coliseum of worshipers pray aloud the prayer of confession and this is followed by a prolonged, hushed silence. After the scripture readings, someone stands near the preacher and interprets the sermon in sign language for the hearing impaired. The highlight of the service comes after the sermon when a host of missionaries who will be commissioned to service all over the world, taking the message of the Spirit to the people in their own language. The visual and auditory signs of the opening worship service of the Assembly reinforce the theme of diversity and inclusiveness, a priority for our denomination and a sign of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost.


The rush and the hush—-both were gifted to the disciples on the day of Pentecost. The parting of the Red Sea, the breath that raised the dry bones, the power that blew the trumpets and brought down the walls of Jericho: combined with the still, small voice, the nine month silence of Zechariah, the private mountain top meditations of Jesus. Some things are too glorious to keep silent about. Some things are too wondrous to mention. The RUSH and the HUSH are both Spirit signs. In fact, when you are living in the Spirit, the times of greatest rush can be the times of greatest hush.


Here is the promise of Pentecost: Can you live this promise?


"Rush hour" can be "hush hour"-–if you let the Holy Spirit in.

"Family Frenzy" can become "Family Fun"—if you let the Holy Spirit in.

"Off-line, "out-of-service," "unplugged," annoying electronic glitches can become "on-line," "quality-service," "plugged into God's power source," personal commitments—if you let the Holy Spirit in.


The disciples, waiting for a miracle to receive . . . sound that becomes silence, a holy rush that becomes a holy hush, a brassy, brazen message that is at the same time a calm, delicate mystery.


What a heart-stopping "rush, what a heart-filling "hush" Pentecost was . . . and is.


The Spirit of God wants to flood your soul with whatever it needs this Pentecost morning . . . .


-do you need to feel the rush?

-do you need to feel the hush?

-do you sense the spirit signs?

It's yours.


This sermon is adapted from a sermon by Leonard Sweet called "Are You Pentecost?"

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Our Connectional Church

Ephesians 1:15-23

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Our Connectional Church

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on May 24, 2009

Thomas Long tells about one cool September night at Yankee Stadium in New York, when a foul ball was hit into the lower left field stands. It was heading right toward a boy of about nine who had obviously come to the game that night hoping for just such a moment. He had a pair of cheap binoculars around his neck and was wearing an oversized Yankees cap and a small Little League glove which had the hardly-broken-in look of a mitt worn by a kid you let play right field in the late innings of hopeless games.

The foul ball was arching directly toward this boy's outstretched hand, but suddenly, a man of about 35 wearing an expensive knit shirt and horn-rimmed glasses reached over the boy, jostling him aside, and caught the ball. In the jostle, the plastic binoculars were broken, and the boy, despite his mother's comfort, was clearly crushed. Everybody in the left field stands had seen this, and, after a second or two of stunned silence, someone shouted, "Give the kid the ball!" Then another cried, "Give the kid the ball!" A couple of rows joined in unison, "Give the kid the ball!"

Horn Rims shook his head and put the ball in his pocket. That inflamed the whole left field crowd, and with one voice they took up the chant, "Give the kid the ball!" It spread to the center field stands, then to right field, until the whole outfield, including people who did not even know the story, were shouting, "Give the kid the ball!" Players began to glance up from the field to the stands to see what was going on.

Horn Rims remained stubbornly firm. Finally, a man got up out of his seat, walked over to Horn Rims and spoke some words patiently and gently to him. Horn Rims hesitated, then reached into his pocket and handed the ball to the kid. "He gave the kid the ball!" someone exclaimed. Then the whole stands thundered, "He gave the kid the ball!" Applause rippled around the stadium.

Then an even more strange thing began to happen. When another foul ball landed in the left field stands, the man who caught it walked over to Horn Rims and gave it to him. Horn Rims, incredulously, thanked him and took it. The next foul ball was caught by a man in a muscle shirt who was sporting a Fu Manchu mustache. He turned and tossed the ball to the kid, who, to everyone's delight and surprise, caught it. More enthusiastic applause from the crowd, who had come that night to see a baseball game but witnessed instead a city parable about justice and grace.

The city is also a parable of human community. It is in the city that we learn best that everyone is not just like we are. Indeed, it was in the city that the disciples learned that the community of Jesus Christ is broader than we imagined. (Thomas G. Long, Whispering the Lyrics, CSS Publishing)

That sense of connection to the broader world is commended in our sermon scripture this morning. There we read: “I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers.” The love toward all the saints is one of the foundational principles of the Presbyterian Church. It is at the root of the nature of our connectional church.

We are a connectional church in the way we are connected to the Bible. As Presbyterians, we trace our heritage all the way back to Adam and Eve by virtue of our connection to the Bible which is God's word to us. In the stories of the Bible we find our own story. We recognize ourselves in the faith that Abraham and Sarah demonstrated when they left everything they knew to go to a new land God had promised them. Centuries later our spiritual ancestors would leave all they knew in Scotland to travel to a New World called America and establish there the Presbyterian Church.

Gardner Taylor reminds us of how the Bible has a way of connecting to us in every stage of our lives. A young woman reporter has written in a Texas paper of a sudden and serious illness which put her in the hospital for an unforgettable period in her life. She reported that she had always been well groomed, every strand of hair in place, the makeup just right, her body hygiene beyond question, and her nails carefully manicured. And then the hospital: first, there was the indignity of not being on her own. Then her privacy was invaded constantly, and her most intimate bodily functions became semipublic events. The hair could no longer be carefully kept, baths could no be had on whim, and things went sharply downhill. Writing about her experience, this young woman reporter commented on how radically our situation can change, and how our carefully protected beauty, meaning attractiveness, and delightfulness, can be snatched away so quickly.

Along that line, the Bible is not silent. It looks at our human condition in the days of our youthful energy and our early attractiveness. It watches us as we come to the fullness of our vital powers. In the full strength and force of our manhood and womanhood, it smiles at us as we flex our muscles while we carry the loads of life almost casually. The Bible continues to look on us when the first uncertainty as to our permanence and strength brushes up against us ever so slightly. Nothing to be alarmed about, we think, just some quirk, a passing reaction nothing to it.

This old Book does not take its eyes off us and sees us with the early energy reduced, the attractive features marred by lines of care, and the eyes darkened by circles of worry. It pronounces the words upon the departure of our beauty and strength. [Gardner C. Taylor, Edward L. Taylor, compiler, The Words of Gardner Taylor-Sermons From The Middle Years 1970-1980, Vol. 2 (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2000), Pp. 43, 44.]

On this Memorial Day weekend when we remember those who have died in service to our country, we acknowledge the reality of death. Death completes the cycle of our faith that begins with our baptism. Baptism marks our entrance in the church universal. And our baptism is not merely into a particular congregation but into the body of Christ in the church universal. As Christians we are part of the church universal—the church of all times and places. We are part of the church in Palestine in the year 25 A.D. We are part of the church in India in the year 1200 A.D. We are part of the church in Iraq in 2009. This abstract concept of the body of Christ was brought home to me through a story someone told me several years ago.

Former PC(USA) Moderator, Ken Hall, tells a fascinating story about being in a Christian church in Baghdad, Iraq one Sunday. As he looked around the sanctuary there he was startled to see hanging on the wall a Presbyterian Cross. Presbyterian missionaries had played a role in the establishment of that congregation many years ago and today a Presbyterian Cross hangs on the wall in that Christian church in Baghdad as a powerful image of the connectional nature of our church. Presbyterians have a rich history of missionary work and our mission work has born fruit even in Baghdad, Iraq. The missionary work of the PC(USA) has also born fruit in Africa and our congregation is blessed to have some of that fruit in our congregation.

By virtue of our baptism we belong to a connectional church. We are connected to St. John's Presbyterian Church by friends and family. We are connected through our Session to the Presbytery of New Covenant. We are connected through the Presbytery of New Covenant to the Synod of the Sun and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). And we are connected through the Presbyterian Church (USA) to the church universal. All these connections lead to one source, Jesus Christ, who is the head of the church universal. Thanks be to God for our connectional church. May it continue to nurture our faith in Christ, enhance our love for one another, and energize our service of Christ in the world.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bigger Table - Deeper Font

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Acts 10:44-48

on May 17, 2009 (Easter 6B) at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

Acts 10:44-48

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, "Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.


Jesus was very much into feasts. The feasts that Jesus celebrated served as living parables of the diverse community of faith that formed around him. The feasts Jesus celebrated included sinners and tax collectors, fishermen and women, a diverse group of people. They showed that Jesus was calling out a new Israel, a new church, a new group of people. These feasts culminated in Jesus last Supper with his disciples when he said, "This is my body, broken for you ... This is my blood, shed for you ... Do this in remembrance of me." As Presbyterians, we put no fence around the Lord's Table except one. You must be a baptized believer to partake in the Lord's Supper. We get this emphasis on baptism from the Bible. We see it even in our text this morning, a scripture that tells how the Holy Spirit resolved an ongoing argument in the early church.

The early church had a conflict over the requirements for membership in the church. Some leaders of the church such as Peter thought the church should fence off the Lord's table. Only those Christians who had been circumcised should be allowed to partake of the Lord's Supper. On the other side stood the Apostle Paul who argued against fencing off the table from the uncircumcised. Finally, the Holy Spirit was the deciding factor in the question of the requirements for membership in Christ's church as described in Acts chapter 10.

Peter and six Jewish Christians, "the circumcised believers" as Luke calls them (Acts 10:45), had come with Peter to Caesarea. Peter was preaching to the uncircumcised Gentiles. During his sermon the Holy Spirit moved upon the Gentile audience. Peter heard the Gentiles begin praising God. He became convinced these Gentiles had been touched by the Holy Spirit in a real and meaningful way. Now this was not supposed to happen. In Peter's way of thinking, the Holy Spirit was not supposed to move in the lives of uncircumcised Gentiles. Of course, Peter had been wrong before and perhaps he recalled the time when Jesus spoke to the disciples about his impending suffering and death in Jerusalem and Peter had said to Jesus: "This must not happen." And Jesus responded: "Peter, get out of my way. You have no idea how God works." (Matt 16:21-23)

Peter was not going to cross the Holy Spirit like he had crossed Jesus. Since they had already been baptized by the Holy Spirit Philip laid aside the requirement of circumcision for membership and baptized the uncircumcised Gentiles with water. The Holy Spirit got Peter's attention that day and the Holy Spirit wants to get our attention as well. The Holy Spirit gave Peter a new revelation that day and the Holy Spirit wants to give us a revelation as well. The Holy Spirit broadened Peter's vision of the church that day and the Holy Spirit wants to expand our vision of the church today.

I remember one time when the Holy Spirit expanded my vision of the church. I was standing in line with some other American seminary students. We were waiting to gain entrance into the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. As we waited our turn to enter I noticed a contingency of African men dressed in what appeared to be traditional African garb with brightly colored scarves and hats. I wondered what they were doing here outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As it turns out, I learned they own the place. That's right. The Ethiopian Church is part owner and operator of the Church of Holy Sepulchre. We are talking about perhaps the most sacred church building in all of Christendom. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said to be built upon the very rocky hill called Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place where Jesus was crucified. It also is said to contain the place where Jesus was reportedly buried (the sepulchre). The church has been an important pilgrimage destination since the 4th century. And this church is co-owned and operated by several Christian denominations some of which I had never even heard of. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is jointly owned and operated by the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, Roman Catholic Church, Coptic Orthodox Church , Syriac Orthodox Church, and yes, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. So the Africans were there because this is their church. They were not mere tourists like the other American seminarians and me. I found this to be a humbling revelation. They work there. They live there. They own the place. The other American seminarians and I — we were the outsiders at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were the chief Gentiles among all the Gentile Christians gathered there.

My revelation when I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is that there are Christians of whom I knew not who have big responsibilities in important places in the Kingdom of God. This religion called "Christianity" is more inclusive than I had ever imagined. I belong to it but I don't own it and I don't even know the half of it. I serve here at the bidding of the Holy Spirit. And if the Holy Spirit says someone belongs here too, even if it be someone of whom I may not approve, I'm going to do like Peter. I'm going to call for the water. I'm going to baptize them in the name of Jesus Christ. And then we're all going to sit down and eat. And I hope you will join us at the table. Let's think of a name to call this party we'll have. Let's make it a theme party. We don't have be original, let's call it what the Bible calls it: The Messianic Banquet. And we'll invite everyone we know. And lots of people we've never met will be there. People from different cultures and different colors who speak different languages. Jesus himself will host the party and he will sit at the head of the table and serve the bread and the wine. Everyone is welcome at this party — even people like you and even people like me. We will need a bigger table for the Messianic Feast. A bigger table to seat the great multitude of people from every tribe and nation. A bigger table to feed them with the bread and the wine of the Lord's Supper.

This vision of a big feast in the kingdom of heaven is as old as the Bible so it is not a new concept to us. Some of us sang the song in Vacation Bible School when we were children. "Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world." Jesus loves the little children. Even the Gentile children such as us. Even the uncircumcised children. Jesus was a carpenter but we never hear about him building one single fence. Jesus was a carpenter and he seemed more interested in building bigger tables and deeper fonts. Bigger tables to feed more people and bigger fonts to baptize more people.

St. John's Presbyterian Church is an inclusive congregation. We open our hearts invite others to join us in Christ's mission. And we will continue to be an inclusive church. Our membership is composed of people who have come to Houston from all other cities and states and nations. We work together to glorify God by making disciples and meeting human needs. Today we welcome Shannon and Mark DeSouza into the church and next Saturday we will celebrate their wedding in this sanctuary.

St. John's Presbyterian Church will continue to be an inclusive congregation. We will continue to grow and baptize believers. We will continue to eat the bread and drink the wine. We will continue to worship God and proclaim the gospel. We will continue to reach out in mission to this community and to the world. And if we grow so much that we need a bigger table and a deeper font, well, we may just have to remodel the place. Some folks already think we could use a good carpenter around here. A carpenter who knows how to tear down walls to make room for more people. A carpenter who knows how to build a bigger table and a deeper font. A carpenter like the one from Nazareth.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Seeker, Spirit, Speaker

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Acts 8:26-40

on May 10, 2009 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston

(Easter 5B / High School Graduates honored today)


In an old Peanuts strip, Peppermint Patty and Violet are reflecting on being a grandmother. After Patty declares that she would like to be a grandmother, Violet agrees and says it would be nice because all they have to do is "sit and rock" (not quite the case, is it?) The girls then decide that the trouble with being a grandmother is that first you have to be a wife and then a mother and Violet sighs, "I know it it's all those preliminaries that get me!" (Adapted from Peanuts. Original strip run March 13, 1950. Reprinted in 2004 in The Complete Peanuts: The Definitive Collection of Charles M. Schulz's Comic Strip Masterpiece 1950-1952.)

Sometimes we have trouble responding to what our mother tells us to do. So imagine the act of faith it took for Peter to respond to the angel of the Lord who told him to get up and take a wilderness road. A wilderness road is a road to nowhere. Even so, Philip does what the angel tells him to do. This story is a couple of thousand years old. Today, we don't often hear from angels who speak to us. In fact, if one of the Presbyterian ministerial candidates we heard speak at presbytery yesterday had said that an angel had spoken to her and directed her to speak to someone else some questioning eyebrows would have been raised by that statement. Yet our Bible story today begins with the Spirit sending an angel of the Lord to speak to Philip. The preliminaries in our story today has to do with an angel of the Lord speaking to Philip.

Angels are messengers in the Bible and Philip is a messenger in our Bible story today. So the word goes from our angel messenger to a human messenger. And the message from the angel to the human messenger is that Philip is to speak to a spiritual seeker who is unnamed but clearly identified as an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Queen of Ethiopians. So we have so far the seeker who is the eunuch and the speaker who is Philip.

Let's consider the eunuch. As the person in charge of the Queen's entire treasury, the eunuch is an important man. He is described as an Ethiopian. The eunuch has a powerful position in the court of Candace, queen of Meroe, a Nubian realm along the upper Nile.

The eunuch has been to Jerusalem to worship God in the Jewish temple and he is now traveling home by chariot and he is reading as he rides in the chariot. Reading was what people then did during travel since neither the miniature DVD player nor the Game Boy Advance system had yet been invented. The eunuch was open to the Holy Spirit and was ready to receive guidance. The eunuch is a seeker.

The Spirit speaks to Philip through an angel and tells him to head South from Jerusalem to Gaza. This is a wilderness road. The Spirit often sends messengers first to the wilderness to test and purify them. For example, the Spirit sent Jesus to the wilderness immediately after his baptism. To the wilderness to be tested by the devil. The Spirit calls us to be messengers like Jesus and like Philip. And like them, the Spirit sometimes sends us out into a spiritual wilderness to be tested and purified. The Spirit may use a bully at school or work to grow in us the fruit of the Spirit: Patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. The Spirit works in mysterious ways in our lives and in the life of the eunuch in our Bible story today. The Spirit uses other people, even strangers, to teach us spiritual truths about Jesus. Notice how the Spirit speaks to the eunuch through a stranger named Philip. The Spirit finds a way to communicate with spiritual seekers such as the eunuch.

The Spirit told Philip, "Climb into the eunuch's chariot." What a strange suggestion the Spirit gives Philip. The Spirit's suggestions often sound strange but if we obey the Spirit then miracles may happen before our very eyes. The Spirit told Philip, "Climb into the eunuch's chariot. "Running up alongside, Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, "Do you understand what you're reading?"

The eunuch said, "Tell me, who is the prophet talking about: himself or some other?" Philip grabbed his chance. Using this passage as his text, he preached Jesus to him.

As they continued down the road, they came to a stream of water. The eunuch said, "Here's water. Why can't I be baptized?" He ordered the chariot to stop. They both went down to the water, and Philip baptized him on the spot. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God suddenly took Philip off, and that was the last the eunuch saw of him. But he didn't mind. He had what he'd come for and went on down the road as happy as he could be. (Translation from The Message) The Spirit used a speaker to connect to a seeker.

Seekers are all around us. The teenager who has questions about science is a seeker. The college student who has questions about God is a seeker. The mother who is about to bid farewell to her son who is leaving for college is a seeker. Seekers surround us. Our challenge is not finding seekers. Our challenge is to hear and obey the Spirit as Philip did. The Spirit works to draw people to Christ. The Spirit asks us to cooperate in this process. We cannot save anyone and we are not responsible for the salvation of anyone. But we are called by Christ to cooperate with the Spirit as Philip did. To speak when the Spirit urges.

Friends, we live in a broken world. People are hurting out there. People have questions about Jesus. People have questions because the Spirit is working in their lives. Let us not be afraid to speak for Jesus. We may not be Biblical scholars. We may not be eloquent speakers. We may not even know what to say. But if we open our mouths in faith the Spirit will speak through us. The challenge to our graduating senior is the challenge to us as well: “Be a seeker and be a speaker.”

There are many ways to speak and the Apostle Paul told us about the most eloquent way to speak, in the language of love, in 1 Corinthians chapter 13, which is called “the love chapter.” Let me share you a paraphrase of that passage adapted for mother's day by an unknown author.

If I live in a house of spotless beauty with everything in its place, but have not love,

I am a housekeeper--not a homemaker. If I have time for waxing, polishing,

and decorative achievements, but have not love, my children learn cleanliness -

not godliness. Love leaves the dust in search of a child's laugh. Love smiles at the tiny fingerprints on a newly cleaned window. Love wipes away the tears before it wipes up the spilled milk. Love picks up the child before it picks up the toys.

Love is present through the trials. Love reprimands, reproves, and is responsive.

Love crawls with the baby, walks with the toddler, runs with the child, then stands aside to let the youth walk into adulthood. Love is the key that opens salvation's message to a child's heart. Before I became a mother I took glory in my house of perfection. Now I glory in God's perfection of my child.

As a mother, there is much I must teach my child, but the greatest of all is love.

I hope our graduating seniors take something from their experience in this congregation. I hope they take from here the importance of sacrificial love, selfless giving, expecting nothing in return. They have seen selfless giving demonstrated in this congregation in many ways: Through church school teachers who show up even when no one else does, from youth group leaders on mission trips, through prayerful support for their families. Our graduates have also seen sacrificial love in countless acts of kindness from their mothers and fathers. The kind of love a mother has for her child is the kind of love we are called to share as Christians.

Let's speak out for Christ in the language of love as did Philip. The results may be immediate and astounding as in our story today with Philip and the eunuch. More likely, we may never witness the results. That doesn't matter. We'll leave the results to the Spirit. All that really matters is that we speak a healing word. We do not have to hear from an angel before we speak to seekers. Thanks be to the Spirit who gives us the language of love and helps us to eloquently speak that language to seekers.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Secret of the Shepherd

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 10:11-18 

at St. John's Presbyterian Church on May 3, 2009

My granddaddy kept cows on his land in Harrisville, Mississippi. To get to the cow pasture you walked through the small back yard and then through a narrow gate into the expansive pastures ringed with large pin oak trees. Beyond the trees was a creek with a brown mud bed. I walked into the cow pastures with Granddaddy and followed him as he made his rounds. He knew each cow by name. "Good evening, Sandy. Hope you had a pleasant day," He'd say. "Hey now, Brownie, did you behave today? There's little Stump," he said to me as he pointed to a little calf. "Just born three days ago. Hasn't missed a meal since then." I was listening to my granddaddy and looking at his cows. And in the back of my mind I was repeating a psalm I had recently memorized. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want ..."

As a child I memorized Psalm 23 ... "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want." And I came to know Jesus as the good shepherd of the sheep. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. So we sang at church school and Vacation Bible School. I understood myself and the other children as persons who were loved by Jesus. Jesus took care of us. Jesus protected us from harm. Jesus fed us with spiritual food and drink. But I didn't understand then that the other children and I, the spiritual sheep, were also an investment. We, God's children, all of us, are, in a sense, God's investment. God made the payment for our salvation through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is indeed our good shepherd. What I did not comprehend as a child is that I was an investment. Christ had made an investment in me.

It is small wonder that the image of the shepherd was frequently upon the lips of the savior. It was a part of his heritage and culture. Abraham, the father of the nation, was the keeper of great flocks. Moses was tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, when God called him into a special service. David was a shepherd boy called in from the fields to be the King of Israel.

The imagery of the shepherd was also imprinted upon the literature of the day. The 23rd Psalm is frequently referred to as the shepherd psalm. "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside still waters." 

When Isaiah spoke of the coming of the Messiah he worded it by saying: "He will feed his flock like a shepherd! He will gather his lambs into his arms." Yes, the tradition of the shepherd was very much a part of the heritage of Christ.

This picture comes more clearly into focus in the New Testament. Jesus once told a story about a shepherd who had 100 sheep, but one of them went astray. In our way of thinking a 99% return on our investment would be most desirable, but not this shepherd. He left the 99 to go in search of that one lost sheep. Later, when Jesus was speaking to a great throng of people, Mark tells us that he had compassion upon them because they were "as sheep without a shepherd." 

Think of Jesus initial investment in his twelve disciples. Contrary to the message of the recently uncovered Gospel of Judas, I think Judas was a washout. Judas was in a sense a bad investment. But all in all Jesus did very well in terms of return on investment in his disciples. For those first dozen disciples have multiplied into an estimated 2.1 billion adherents alive on planet earth today, making Christianity the world's largest religion. []

And the estimated 2.1 billion Christians alive today do not include a multitude of Christians who have lived in other times and other places in our world over the past 2000 years. According to my calculations, if we estimate there have been 3 billion Christians since Jesus ascended into heaven 2000 years ago, and we divide those 3 billion Christians by the original 12 disciples whom Jesus shepherded while on this earth, then Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has realized a return of over 250 million percent return on investment. These are amazing returns.

But the real power of Christianity is not in the macro-economics but in the micro-economics. The real power of Christianity is the way the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of each Christian. Changing us for the good. Making us more compassionate. Making us less self-centered. Making us more focused on the common good. We hear a great deal from some quarters about the harmful effects the Christian religion has had over the history of humanity but I must politely disagree. Christianity has a positive force for humanity for the past 2000 years. Yes, we have sinned. The Crusades were inexcusable. The Conquistadors and their missionaries brought deadly pestilence to the native peoples. But the overall effect of the Christian faith has been overwhelmingly positive throughout human history.

Speaking of God's economy, we are God's investment, dear people. God has adopted into God's own family. Someone once asked me why Psalm 23 is so often said at funerals. It is true that the 23rd Psalm is a common reading at funerals. Perhaps we turn to the 23rd Psalm because it familiar to us from our childhood. Or we may use it because of the way it own up to the reality of death. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and they staff they comfort me." But overarching image of Psalm 23 is the image of a wandering journey with the Lord through the green pasture of life on this good earth. We are Christ's sheep and Christ walks through life with us, managing us like a stock broker manages his client's investment. Keeping a close eye out to make sure we are growing and increasing in all good things.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, made an initial investment in his twelve disciples. He taught them about God, showed them how to live, loved them with all his heart, invested himself in them. Then he let them go. And they did remarkably well. Today there are over 2.1 billion Christians. Each of them is a return on Jesus' initial investment in his twelve disciples. Perhaps we should examine the balance sheet of our lives. Find out how we are adding to God's bottom line. Discover ways we may be having a positive or a negative impact on God's investment in us.

We are God's investment. God made the payment for our salvation through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, our Good Shepherd. Let us live as sheep live. Secure in the love of our Good Shepherd. Safe. Warm. Fed. Loved. And let us not consider it a crime when the time comes for us to be sheared. For us to contribute. For us to give something back to the Good Shepherd for the excellent care he provides.

There are many ways we express good stewardship. Last August we had a "Blessing of the Backpacks" service for children and teachers who were returning to school. We started the school year off by renewing our covenant to be supportive shepherds for our children and youth. As the school year ends, we have focused on "Justice for all Children" and have learned some disturbing facts such as these: 

Texas is #1 in the USA in uninsured children.

The USA ranks 29th in the world on infant mortality - tied with Poland and Slovakia, and behind Cuba.

Houston is the hub for human trafficking in the USA.

Being a shepherd means we get our hands dirty in the nitty gritty issues of people's lives. Some of our folks did that yesterday when they spent some time working to beautify Shearn Elementary School. We have many opportunities to be good shepherds. A couple of weeks from now, on May 17, we will have a "Stewardship of Time and Talents" volunteer sign up opportunity after worship. You 

Stewardship is something we do in the Fall with our money and in the Spring with our time and talents survey. Stewardship is something we do every year, every month, every week, every day, every minute, every second. Every single choice we make has implications for our stewardship. Let us learn the secret of the shepherd which is the secret of letting go. Letting go of pride. Letting go of control. Letting go of money. Stewardship is the secret of the shepherd. We know it. We live it. We give it.