Wednesday, August 19, 2009

A Wish for Wisdom

Jesus encouraged us to be as wise as snakes and as gentle as doves. Wisdom. It is a virtue that has gone out of our vocabulary. Wisdom, to acquire it, takes too much time, too many failures, too many hard knocks, too much listening, too much being still and watching. You cannot download wisdom from some third party vender, so we prefer to move and do without. But Paul warns that if we are careless we will miss opportunities. Every day we are bomb barded with choices and wisdom is required to make the most of them.

For example, some people have been having to decide whether to take the $4,500 offered by a government program to trade in their old car and buy a new one. A headline in the New York Times last Thursday tells the bad news: "Despite 'Cash for Clunkers,' Retail Sales Decline in July." In my opinion cars haven't changed enough in the last hundred years and that, in addition to the current recession, may have something to do with their slow sales. As in the early days, cars still need to be repaired.

In the early 1900's automaker Henry Ford asked electrical genius Charlie Steinmetz to build the generators for his factory. One day the generators ground to a halt, and repairmen couldn't find the problem. So Ford called Steinmetz, who tinkered with the machines for a few hours and then threw the switch. The generators whirred to life. Later that week Ford got a bill for $10,000 from Steinmetz. Flabbergasted, the rather tightfisted carmaker inquired why the bill was so high. Steinmetz's replied: For tinkering with the generators, $10. For knowing where to tinker, $9,990. Ford paid the bill.

Steinmetz had what the repairmen lacked-an understanding of how the machines were put together. They had knowledge; he had wisdom. They knew how to repair generators; he knew how to build them. It takes time, and failures, and disappointments to learn how to build something but there are always greater opportunities in being the author.

Instead of doing the hard work of acquiring wisdom, so often we want to take the easy way out. A man is walking down the beach and comes across an old bottle. He picks it up, pulls out the cork and out pops a genie.

The genie says, "Thank you for freeing me from the bottle. In return I will grant you three wishes."

The man says "Great! I always dreamed of this and I know exactly what I want. First, I want one billion dollars in a Swiss bank account." Poof! There is a flash of light and a piece of paper with account numbers appears in his hand. He continues, "Next, I want a brand new red Ferrari right here." Poof! There is a flash of light and a bright red brand-new Ferrari appears right next to him. He continues, "Finally, I want to be irresistible to women." Poof!

There is a flash of light and he turns into a box of chocolates.

The man who gets the wishes in this story is a fool according to Scripture because true wisdom seeks God first -- not cars, money or sexual gratification. Jesus says, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be added unto you." The Bible says Solomon was a wise king because he sought God first.

We are to be wise seeking the most of every opportunity. We are to be sober otherwise we will miss many opportunities. And wherever we are, whether making or missing those opportunities, we are to be thankful. As Paul says, whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, therein we should be content. It's like the story of the man who goes to his rabbi and complains, "Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?"

The rabbi answers, "Take your goat into the room with you." The man is incredulous, but the rabbi insists. "Do as I say and come back in a week." A week later the man comes back looking more distraught than before. "We cannot stand it," he tells the rabbi. "The goat is filthy."

The rabbi then tells him, "Go home and let the goat out. And come back in a week." A radiant man returns to the rabbi a week later, exclaiming, "Life is beautiful. We enjoy every minute of it now that there's no goat -- only the nine of us."

It's all a matter of perspective isn't it? We can be grateful or we can be bitter. We can seek wisdom or we can live as fools. We can be sober learning what the Lord's will is or we can fill ourselves with wine. What are you looking for in life? Whatever it is I am sure you will find it.

There are two birds that fly over our nation's deserts: One is the hummingbird and the other is the vulture. The vultures find the rotting meat of the desert, because that is what they look for. They thrive on that diet. But hummingbirds ignore the smelly flesh of dead animals. Instead, they look for the colorful blossoms of desert plants. The vultures live on what was. They live on the past. They fill themselves with what is dead and gone. But hummingbirds live on what is. They seek new life. They fill themselves with freshness and life. Each bird finds what it is looking for. We all do.

That is the essence of Paul's teaching: In life, there are two birds. The one bird looks for foolishness and stupidity, the other looks for wisdom. The vultures seek to fill themselves with the rotting flesh of drunkenness and debauchery, the hummingbird sobriety, freshness, and the Spirit. In the desert of this world you have your scavengers who are angry and ungrateful, but you also have those who hum a grateful hymn of thanksgiving. The irony is that you find what you are looking for.

In our Epistle reading this morning from the fifth chapter of Ephesians Paul outlines proper behavior for good living. In our short passage he admonishes his readers to be careful how they live. He is brief and to the point. Three things we must do: Be wise, be sober, and be thankful. It's a short list but if we can orient our daily lives around these three-be wise, be sober, be thankful-we will transform not only our lives but also the lives of our family, friends, church, and neighbors. Before we start transforming others we must transform ourselves by seeking God. (From the sermon "Be Careful How You Live" by Brett Blair et al.)

The beginning of wisdom, the fist step in the wisdom journey, is seeking God. In the words of the Hindu Yogi, Paramanhansa Yogonanda:

Humanity--so variegated in its own eyes!--is seen by a master to be divided into only two classes: ignorant people who are not seeking God, and wise people who are. (Paramahansa Yogonanda, Autobiography of a Yogi, 154)

The wise person seeks God first.

The account of Solomon's experience makes clear that his wisdom was not something that he acquired through his own efforts. Nor was it an innate quality he was born with. Rather, wisdom was given by God upon Solomon's proper response to God's invitation.

The distinctive feature of Christianity is found in our insistence that Jesus Christ is the wisdom of God in a way that no other religious figure ever was or ever will be. As the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians:

"... Christ Jesus ... became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.' (1 Cor. 1:30)

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on August 16, 2009.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Spiritual Leadership

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.

 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?

  For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.

 So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each.

For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.

Spiritual Leadership

       I'm glad to be back with you this morning after a vacation. My thansks go to those colleagues and leaders who filled the breach in my absence. It's good to be back home. I am excited about what God is doing in this church and glad to be part of it and with God's help and your support I plan be part of God's work here for many years to come.
       Churches and pastors come together, a little awkward at first. Over time, they learn to work together like stage actors and produce a beautiful work for the audience, who is God. Then the pastor leaves and is followed by another pastor. The relationship begins again, awkward at first, and the cycle continues. That's the view from the pastor's side, anyway. Church members may have another view of the process. As a layman who was a faithful church member once remarked: "Preachers come and preachers go - Praise God from whom all blessings flow!"
       So it was that Paul came to the church in Corinth. Paul was probably anxious about how things would work out - his ministry had been cut short in in Thessallonica and Phillipi. But to his profound relief, things worked out well with the church in Corinth and Paul stayed for eighteen months. Paul then left the Corinthian church - he left the stage. And after a period of wondering what came next - a new actor appeared on the stage. His name was Apollos. Apollos started out awkwardly, perhaps, fumbling his way around as he and the church came to know and trust one another. Over time the church in Corinth learned to respect Apollos. Apollos stayed for some time, had an effective ministry there - then exited - stage right. First Paul, then Apollos, like two actors on the stage, came to the church in Corinth, awkward at first, after some time leading the church in performing for God - hit their stride, then left the stage. Even in the early church, some twenty years after Jesus resurrection, preachers came and preachers went - and the church remained.
       The church in Corinth survived both Paul and Apollos. Life continued on - but all was not well in the Corinthian church. Factions arose in the church. The factions were most obvious at celebrations of the Lord's Supper. You see, the rich came early and partied down, the servants always arrived late - after finishing their chores. When the poor servants arrived, all they found were crumbs - no bread. The poor servants were insulted - and rightly so. Divisions arose between rich and poor in the Corinthian church. The divisions burned deep because the one church in Corinth was really a series of small house churches.
Small groups of Christians met together for worship and fellowship in the home of a rich patron of the church. The house churches split over the issue of leadership. Some claimed Paul was their favorite apostle. Others liked Apollos better. The "Paul" group and the "Apollos" group learned to distrust one another. And so it goes. Perhaps you've seen how it works. I sometimes wonder if the conflict in congregations over the pastor is not really a conflict about something else, some deeper struggles for control. For example, consider this conversation from a committee meeting.

"Look, any time you start listing the names of all the people who helped in the project, you run the risk of leaving someone out." The remark was that of a member of the committee planning for the dedication of the new education building at a particular church.

"Well, I still think we ought to recognize those who were shakers and movers in getting this education building built. You know, give them some credit. It can't hurt anything," words from still another member of the committee.

And so it went for a while. "Why recognize anyone in particular?" another one asked. "Why not just give a general thank you to everyone who participated?"

"You know that won't fly with some people," the first speaker responded. "There are some in this congregation who are large contributors, and while some of these folks couldn't care less if they get any credit, others want to know that they are appreciated. Hey, it's just saying 'the Joneses did this' or 'the Smiths did that.' Give credit where credit is due."

"I don't think that's the whole story," another speaker broke in. "Some people like to see their names in print, especially in connection with something they've done for the church."

"So what should we say?" number two speaker asked half seriously, "Jack Thomas was most important to the project because he gave the most? Or that Mrs. Stemple should get top billing...?"

"Well, that's kind of facetious ..." someone started.

"No, I'm serious," the other countered. "Are we going to give credit to specific individuals or families? If so, let's name them. Maybe we should say who we think was the most important to the project. If it were up to me, I'd say don't name anyone."

A woman who had said nothing up to this point now spoke up. "Let's get back on the track of what we're supposed to do," she invited. "This whole business of massaging someone's ego because of what they've done for the church is rather silly, isn't it? And it's certainly not
according to Scripture."

Everyone sat quietly for a moment digesting what she had said. Then she continued, "I'm sure we all realize that in the final analysis God is to be thanked for all the good that has been done in this church. Let's thank God for the wonderful blessings we have. And let's plan
our dedication program." (Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit, Cycle A, Merle G. Franke, CSS
Publishing Company, Inc, 1995, 0-7880-0527-8)

We are actors on the stage and as actors in a production so we have to learn how to work with one another. And to continue the theatre analogy, consider that God is the audience. But sometimes God gets inspired and then God becomes the Director. And sometimes when we actors forget our lines God the Director whispers our lines from backstage. . . "Forgiveness." "Peace." "Hope." But sometimes that is not enough. Sometimes even with the right lines the actors still cannot manage to make the play work. And then God does something wonderful - God becomes an actor, too. God takes the stage name "Jesus Christ" and becomes an actor on the stage of human history. Jesus Christ became human and lived as we live, breathed as we breathe, and died a terrible death. But on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sitteth on the right hand of God the Almighty. From thence, he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. . . The resurrection of Jesus symbolizes that all things are possible . . . even unity among Christians.

       When we are stuck in the pits of life, with boredom, envy, and bitterness on every side . . . When we are flat on our back in a hospital room, staring at the ceiling with an uncertain future. . . when are sitting in church worshipping with people whom we know and love . . . or even mistrust deeply . . . we hear a word. It is a simple word that encompasses all that we dream, think, and imagine. It is one word. We have always heard this word but never understood it. It has always been the first word and it shall also be the last word. And here is that first word: "GOD." If it were up to you and me, we
might not make it, folks. Fortunately, that is not the case. The radical claim of the Christian faith is that Jesus Christ is the spiritual leader of the church. Not you and not me. And the radical claim of Jesus Christ is that with God, all things are possible. So there is hope for you and for me and there is hope for this congregation.

-The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on August 9, 2009 (OT10B)