Monday, June 22, 2009

We Are With You, Lord

Once there was a great teacher by the name of Jesus of Nazareth. He was a real person called "Jesus of Nazareth" because Jesus was his first name and he had grown up in the village of Nazareth. When he became an adult and took on the role of mishal, a wisdom teacher, he made his home in Capernaum, a village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Matt 4:13). Peter, Andrew, James and John were fishermen living in the village. Matthew the tax collector also resided here. Visit Capernaum today and you may still walk through the ruins of the ancient synagogue where Jesus preached. The synagogue made of stone is about half the size of our Fellowship Hall, our original sanctuary. Strange and wonderful things happened in the synagogue in Capernaum.

For instance, once when he was teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath day, Jesus was confronted by a man with an unclean spirit, who cried out: 'What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.'   Jesus shut him up: "Quiet! Get out of him!" The unclean spirit threw the man into spasms, protesting loudly—and got out. (Mark 1:21-27). They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, 'What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.'      

In this same synagogue in Capernaum Jesus gave a teaching that would send some students packing. Jesus told his students: "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them." Now if this sounds strange to us imagine how weird it must have sounded to his disciples. We are supported by 2000 years of Christian theological about the meaning of the Lord's Supper. We have the Bible and 20/20 hindsight. We know how the story ends. Jesus' disciples had none of these advantages. And some them simply could not believe that this man, Jesus, could be all that he claimed. Things were getting too weird and some of the disciples checked out of the Capernaum hotel and went back to their former lives. 

It must have been a terrible disappointment to Jesus when some of his students left. We wonder how his voice sounded when Jesus asked the twelve disciples, "Do you also wish to go away?" The question driving them away is the question that Christians have had to answer for themselves in every generation: "Who is Jesus really?"

In the modern era, Jesus has been understood from one end of the spectrum to the other, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Some Christians during the Nazi regime in Germany tried to turn Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, into an Aryan superhero. Karl Barth recognized the danger and wrote The Theological Declaration of Barmen as reminder that the true Christ is the one revealed in scripture and not the one Hitler's henchmen were hustling upon the church. More recently, theologians such as Gustavo Gutierrez who labor among the destitute of Latin America have spoken of God's preferential option of the poor and see in Jesus as an ally in the struggle for justice for the poor.

On a more personal level, the essence of the gospel, in the words of Herbert McCabe,

is that if you don't love, you're dead, and if you do, they'll kill you.

If you want a quiet life, a life of peace and contentment, then don't follow Jesus. If you want a secure life, a life lived within the margins of safety, then don't follow Jesus.

If you want a life that is all mapped out, a life you can plan and control, then don't follow Jesus.

From a faith perspective, life's ultimate risk is not to risk anything.

"Who is Jesus to me?" In the final analysis this is a personal question. Each of us must answer the question of whom Jesus will be to us.

A student approached a renowned Buddhist teacher, a father like figure, and said he wanted to explore the great mysteries of the faith. The teacher asked the student to tell him about himself while he made them a cup of green tea. The student began telling about himself and the list of his accomplishments and about his spiritual experiences and as he was talking he noticed the teacher pouring the green tea into a cup. The cup was full but the teacher was still pouring tea so the tea was spilling over the tabletop and onto the floor! The student said, "Teacher, the tea, the tea, the cup is full and you are spilling the tea!"

The wise teacher replied, "Yes, the cup is too full to hold any more tea and so you are too full to hold my teaching. There is no more room in your head." And the student left full of the sad understanding that he was too full of himself to harbor any new instruction.

Move beyond your mind. Venture beyond your ego. That is what the Buddhist teacher was saying to the student when he kept pouring the green tea into a cup that was already full. The student's mind was full. There was nothing the teacher could add to it. The only thing left to fill would have been the student's heart. The student did not understand the teacher and walked away. And we can only imagine the joy he left on the table when he walked out the door.      

Jesus, the divine-human teacher, challenges us to repent, to metanoi, to move beyond our mind, to engage life with the intelligence of our heart. This is not an invitation to a romantic feeling. It is an invitation to an altered consciousness. A new way of seeing the world. To move with the Spirit into a realm of intuitive knowing, the kind of knowing we sometimes feel in our very bones. The kind of heart knowing that Peter had for Jesus. The kind of knowing that goes beyond the knowing of the mind and enters the realm of the heart.

Garrison Keillor, on his "Writer's Almanac" on National Public Radio reminds us that Father's Day goes back "to a Sunday morning in May of 1909, when a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd was sitting in church in Spokane, Washington, listening to a Mother's Day sermon. She thought of her father who had raised her and her siblings after her mother died in childbirth, and she thought that fathers should get recognition, too. So she asked the minister of the church if he would deliver a sermon honoring fathers on her father's birthday, which was coming up in June, and the minister did. And the tradition of Father's Day caught on, though rather slowly. Mother's Day became an official holiday in 1914; Father's Day, not until 1972. Mother's Day is still the busiest day of the year for florists, restaurants and long distance phone companies. Father's Day is the day on which the most collect phone calls are made. Let's make a collect call to our Father God today. He is sitting with cell phone in hand waiting for His phone to ring with a call from you and from me. And when we do call in God will want to know what our intentions are in regard to our relationship with our Father who art in heaven.

Jesus asked his disciples, "Do you also want to leave?" We hardly know how to answer Jesus. Thankfully, Peter speaks for us, saying to Jesus for us: "Master, to whom would we go? You have the words of real life, eternal life." We are with you, Lord. We're not always sure where you are leading us but we are with you. We are not sure what you are trying to do in us but we are with you, Lord. We are not sure what you are trying to do through us but we are with you, Lord. Even so, Lord, stay with us. Abide with us. Show us the way and we will follow you — one day at a time — always living in the now — into a new way of perceiving God, ourselves and the world. Then we will open our minds and open our hearts and open our mouths and join with both Simon Peter and the demon possessed man whom Jesus cured in the synagogue in Capernaum, confessing to Jesus, "We have come to know that you ... are the Holy One of God."

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on John 6:56-69

at St. John's Presbyterian Church on June 21, 2009

Monday, June 15, 2009

Love Trumps Fear

Psalm 111

Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.

Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.

Full of honor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever.

He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful.

He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.

He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the heritage of the nations.

The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.

They are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.

He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever.

We know plenty about fear and all of it is bad. Fear has a profoundly negative effect on our world. So how strange it sounds to our ears when we hear from the Psalmist: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom." That sense of dissonance begins to disappear when we learn that the term "fear of the Lord" is a technical term that means we are to "respect" and admire and feel a positive attraction, a fascination, for God.

A positive attractive to the Lord was the drawing card for a woman with an illness that made her bleed. She came seeking help from Jesus. When she found him he was surrounded by a large crowd. The woman's desire to be healed was so strong that she touched his garment and she was healed. The garment of the Lord is an allegory for the liturgy that surrounds the Lord in our worship. We approach the Lord with desire and through our worship liturgy we are able to touch the Lord and so be healed. Rather than discouraging us, the Lord cheerfully invites us to come, saying, "Come unto me all you who are weary and I will give you rest." Our healing comes from the Lord. We can touch the Lord's garment through our hymns, our prayers, and our affirmations of faith. We can touch the Lord's garment and we can be healed. The "fear of the Lord" refers to our desire to touch the Lord and to be healed. We praise God in the church and it is in the worshipping community among the people of God that we learn that love trumps fear. We learn that love transcends fear by studying the works of God, by touching the Lord in our liturgy and in our relationships with God's people.

We seek a relationship to the Lord because, like the Psalmist, we too are fascinated by the works of the Lord, God's wonderful deeds. We sing with the psalmist about the wonderful works of our gracious and merciful Lord. The Lord provides for our physical needs and keeps covenant with us. God shows us the power of God's works. The works of God's hands are faithful and just; they are trustworthy. They are established forever and ever, performed with faithfulness and uprightness. God sent redemption to God's people, God commanded God's covenant forever. Again and again, the Psalmist reminds us of God's faithfulness to the covenant. Then we get the final thought and it sounds out of touch with what we have just heard: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Joan Chittister defines "fear of the lord" as "holy astonishment, complete wonder and awe at what God does in my life and the life of everyone around me."

I had a sense of wonder and awe as I arrived in a basement room at Sacred Heart Monastery on the first day of a centering prayer retreat this Summer. There were 22 ecumenical retreatants and only four of us were ordained ministers. Centering prayer is a prayer of profound silence and silence is what we all expected as we sat in a large circle and began our first 20 minute prayer session together. But the silence was rudely interrupted shortly after we began when someone quickly scraped their sandaled feet against in a sound that solicited a similar response as someone scratching their fingernails down a chalkboard. I had to take a peek and see who it was and was surprised to see it was one of the ministers in the group. He looked like Walter Mattheau and breathed like Darth Vader. The next several days required each of us to learn to deal with the distraction of the loud prayer in our midst. Some of us wanted to kick him out of the retreat. He was that distracting. Others, including the retreat leader, insisted we must let him continue with us because he was in a fragile emotional state as he was grieving the recent death of a close friend. In the end, the Walter Mattheau slash Darth Vader minister stayed and by the end of the retreat was an accepted part of the group. As I think back on that retreat I realize that each of the retreatants in effect made a covenant with one another before the retreat that no matter who showed up we would accept them and pray with them. In the end, some of us may have lost some quality prayer time but we kept our unspoken covenant with one another.

In the Presbyterian Church we make a more formal covenant that includes vows taken in a public worship service. It happens each year when we install elders and deacons. As part of that ritual the church officers take vows. I took similar vows when I became an ordained minister in 1994. One of the vows taken by deacons, elders and ministers is a vow to remain faithful to the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination into which we are ordained. We make these vows in front of God and this congregation. Beware of any minister, elder, deacon or church member who encourages you to consider breaking your vows to this denomination. As for me, I have no desire or intention of breaking the vows I made to the PC(USA). I am not interested in serving with church officers who entertain the notion of breaking the vows they have made.

This is why I am so pleased that our church officers have not gotten caught up in the latest round of hand wringing and big talk that predictably followed the last meeting of the General Assembly. Such talk distracts us from the mission of our church which is to be an inclusive church that is constantly opening our hearts to new members and to new ways of serving Christ together in this community.

Unfortunately, there are a few congregations in our presbytery who have been led astray by their pastors and who are now facing painful divisions within their fellowship. I will never lead this congregation toward division. I will never lead this congregation to break the vows we have made to the Presbyterian Church (USA). I will never do this because I have too much respect for God, for you and for myself. Such respect is one characteristic of "the fear of the Lord" that is the beginning of wisdom.

God never gives up on us and we should never give up on one another. The demands of love are rigorous. There is no question that by taking vows to remain faithful to a particular denomination we are restricting ourselves. Love is about restrictions. When we make marriage vows we are restricting ourselves as well. We are saying, "This one and no other." Love makes stringent demands and offers lots of opportunity for the hard work of patience, endurance and forbearance.

Mutual forbearance is characteristic of the Presbyterian tradition. Mutual forbearance means we stick it out with one another even during times of disagreement or turmoil. Mutual forbearance means we focus on the 80% of things we agree upon instead of the 20% of things we don't agree upon. Our disagreements in the Presbyterian Church, the 20% on which we are conflicted, are not essential matters. We believe in the sovereignty of God. We believe in the Lordship of Jesus Christ. These are essentials. On these we agree. That is what matters. The other 20%, the non essentials upon which we disagree, these call for mutual forbearance.

I resonate with Paul's vision for the church in Ephesians 5:18-20 where he writes, "Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts; giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." That is what we are doing today and what we do each Sunday when we gather for worship. One of our elders at the last Session meeting shared an idea he got when he had several out of town family members here for the baptism of his granddaughter. He suggested we make a CD of our choir and sale it and give the money to the youth group. These are the kinds of positive ideas we can build on.

My vision for St. John's Presbyterian Church is nothing fancy or glamorous. I envision a future of singing together, giving thanks to God and working together with respect for one another and for God. Let's keep the covenant we have made. Let's bear with one another. As the Psalmist so eloquently puts it: "Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation." We praise the Lord with all our heart in the congregation. That is enough for the Psalmist and that is enough for us as well.

-Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Psalm 111 on June 14, 2009 at St. John's Presbyterian Church

Monday, June 08, 2009

Resurrection Life

Resurrection, El Greco, 1584-94. CGFA.

A rich official approached Jesus one day and asked what he had to do in order to follow him. One may imagine Jesus' disciples feeling flattered that a rich official wanted to know how to join their cause. Judas, as the money manager of the group, must have been delighted at the prospect. So imagine the disciples feelings when Jesus told the rich official, "Sell everything you have and give the money to the poor then come and follow me." The disciples, dumbfounded, may have looked at one another with bulging eyes of disbelief. Not surprisingly, the rich official deferred from such a demanding offer. The price was too high. (Cf. Luke 18:18-30)

Perhaps the rich official was like that ultimate American icon, a self-made man. Perhaps he'd made his money the old-fashioned way - he'd earned it. We don't know how he got his wealth for the Bible doesn't say. The Bible does say the man was morally pure. Yet the issue between the rich official and Jesus went deeper even than money or morality. The issue went as deep as the mystery of a joyous God who offers resurrection life to any who are willing to give up everything to obtain it.

To paraphrase what Jesus told his disciples before sending them out as missionaries around the countryside, "If you can't fit it in a backpack don't take it with you." Jesus put this requirement on the front end of the deal in his encounter with the rich official. Jesus welcomed the rich official provided he packed light.

The problem for the rich official and for each of us is our difficulty in letting go of those things that are most valuable to us. If you've recently moved, you know what I mean. There are precious memories associated with our possessions. We have invested ourselves in personal effects. We face a similar challenge when we have to clean out the house of a parent of relative who has died. We are reluctant to be parted from that special chest of drawers in the master bedroom – the one our grandmother gave us. Physical objects help us feel planted securely in the soil of a particular place.

We all share a human need for shelter and a sense of being loved. We seek security in our investments whether they be financial, physical or spiritual. We crave security especially in our relationships. The blessing and tragedy of family life is the unconditional love we sometimes experience and the love we sometimes lose. Our deep need for love goes beyond reason into our very subconsciousness and it is at that deeper level where Jesus meets us. Jesus meets us at the level of our deepest needs for security and unconditional love.

In the sacrament of baptism we enact our need for supportive relationships and God's unconditional love for us. The baptismal ritual reminds us of the give and take of Christian discipleship. Recall these questions for the baptismal candidate.

Do you renounce all evil,

and powers in the world

which defy God's righteousness and love?

I renounce them.

Do you renounce the ways of sin

that separate you from the love of God?

I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ

and accept him as your Lord and Savior?

I do.

Will you be Christ's faithful disciple,

obeying his Word and showing his love,

to your life's end?

I will, with God's help.

In our baptismal ritual we enact the challenge Jesus presented to the rich official. The rich official was denied discipleship because he was unwilling to make the necessary renunciations. We all face the choice Jesus gave the rich official. This choice is incorporated into our baptismal liturgy. We say "Yes" to Christ only after saying "No" to the old way of life. Resurrection life comes after death to the old way of life.

The Apostle Paul understood this concept. In our text for today, Paul's letter, as translated by Eugene Peterson, reads, "So don't you see that we don't owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There's nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God's Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!" Paul calls our new life in Christ "resurrection life." Resurrection life is what Jesus offered the rich official and resurrection life is what Jesus offers us. And we take it! We take this resurrection life like a poor beggar grabs a $100 bill. We are desperate for a deep experience of God. We are as ready to journey with God into resurrection life as a small child is ready to go on vacation to Disneyland with Mommy and Daddy.

Yet, even in Disneyworld, all is not fun and games. It is hot and humid in Orlando in the Summer and in the Magic Kingdom even a ham sandwich for lunch costs nearly ten dollars. Resurrection life is not constant parades with Mickey and Minnie. Resurrection life is the daily decisions that come so fast we hardly have time to think. Hard choices. Costly choices. Resurrection life is paying our pledge to Christ's church when we'd rather upgrade to a smart phone or buy a high definition television.

Resurrection life is not all miracles and glory and it never goes on sale at 40% off. Resurrection life is being patient with tedious people and loving those whom we consider unworthy of our affection. Resurrection life is being open to the Spirit and ready to roll whenever and wherever God leads. As Jesus demonstrated in his challenge to the rich official, the price of admission to resurrection life is extraordinarily high. Renunciations come before profession. Good Friday comes before Easter Sunday. Crucifixion comes before resurrection.

Scott Libby, a traveling minister for a Presbyterian church in Iowa, was to preach for a vacationing minister one Sunday. He decided to get to church early and become familiar with the order of service. Going down the hall, he passed the nursery and saw one child there all by himself. He paused a minute and the child said, "Hi, my name is Tommy."

Dr. Libby replied, "My name is Scott."

Tommy said, "I'm all by myself in this big room."

Dr. Libby repeated, "So you are all by yourself in this big room?"

"Yes," said Tommy, "and I'm lonesome."

"Well, I'm sure somebody will come shortly and be with you, Tommy."

With this, Tommy pulled up to his full stature, looked Dr. Scott in the eye and asked, "What about you?"

Well, what about us? What about you? What about me? We may have only one talent, we may be only one note on God's musical scale, but without us the music will not sound right, the job will not be done well. (On Living Before You Die, Edward Inabet, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc.)

Jesus challenges us to give up whatever holds us back from living the resurrection life. Pray about this and see if the Spirit shows you the price of discipleship in your own walk with Christ. Count the cost. Run the numbers. You may find that resurrection life is worth the investment. As Paul reminds us, we go through exactly what Christ goes through. The agony of the cross precedes the glory of the resurrection life. If we go through the hard times with him, then we're certainly going to go through the good times with him! With God's help, we will get what's coming to us -- an unbelievable inheritance.

Resurrection life is not cheap but it is available right now. Let's live the resurrection life today. You see, resurrection life does not begin in the sweet by and by when we meet on that beautiful shore. Resurrection life begins right now, today, in the present moment and in each moment of our lives.

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Romans 8:12-17

at St. John's Presbyterian Church on Trinity Sunday, June 7, 2009