Monday, September 28, 2009

Moses' Style of Shared Leadership

I heard a sports commentator deliver a great one liner this week. He said: "Be nice to retired people because, remember, they never get a day off." In a sense, that is true. When you do not have to report to work then you do not get a day off from work at the end of the week. Of course, some of us would be willing to make that change even though things would be different.
Whether we are retired or still working for a living, we think nothing of using conveniences that our great-grandparents could never have imagined. Our great-grandparents washed their clothes by hand and hanged them out to dry. We use a clothes washer and dryer. They walked outside to the well to get water. We have drinkable water running inside our homes. They rode on a horse or in a carriage. We ride in automobiles that have the power of well over 100 horses.
Yet we live in a world in which the majority of people still have no clothes washer or dryer, no indoor plumbing and no cars to drive. We live in a world where the majority of people have never made one single phone call. In comparison to the majority who have very little, we have so very much. Yet we still crave more.
We want more money -- more recognition -- more freedom and the list goes on and on. If we piled all our cravings into the sea I suppose we could cross the Atlantic Ocean without a sail boat. Yet our cravings are not unique in the annals of human history. For example, consider our bible story this morning.
In Numbers chapter 4 we read the God's people had a craving for meat and starting whining, "Why can't we have meat? We ate fish in Egypt--and got it free--to say nothing of the cucumbers and melons, the leeks and onions and garlic. But nothing tastes good out here; all we get is manna, manna, manna."
God provided the Israelites with manna for food but what God provided was not up to par in their opinion -- God's provision was a little lacking -- the implication was that God had poor taste -- and God's food was tasteless. God's anger blazed up against this attitude.
Moses saw that things were in a bad way all the way around. Things were bad for the people of Israel because the people were craving and whining outside their tents. Things were bad for God who felt insulted at the ingratitude of the whiners. And things were bad for Moses because he was caught in the middle between a rock and a hard place -- between the whiners and God.
Moses said to God, "Why are you treating me this way? What did I ever do to deserve this? Did I conceive them? Was I their mother? So why dump the responsibility of this people on me? Why tell me to carry them around like a nursing mother, carry them all the way to the land you promised to their ancestors? Where am I supposed to get meat for all these people who are whining to me, 'Give us meat; we want meat.' I can't do this by myself--it's too much, all these people. If this is how you intend to treat me, do me a favor and kill me. I've seen enough; I've had enough. Let me out of here."
The pressure on Moses was unbearable. He was reaching the breaking point. He called on God for relief. And God provided relief. Isn't it good to know when we call on our heavenly father He will answer. When we are doing God's will and find ourselves at wit's end, holding on by the skin of our teeth, and we call on God He will answer our cry. We can trust God like we would trust a reliable and loving parent.
Moses gave his problems to God and challenged God to find a solution and God did provide a solution. God said to Moses, "Gather together seventy men from among the leaders of Israel, men whom you know to be respected and responsible. Take them to the Tent of Meeting. I'll meet you there."
Meanwhile, two elders, Eldad and Medad, had stayed in the camp. They were listed as leaders but didn't leave camp to the Tent as instructed. Still, the Spirit rested on them and they prophesied like the other leaders. A young man ran and told Moses, "Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!"
Joshua, who had been Moses' right hand man since his youth, said, "Moses, master! Stop them!" Perhaps Joshua thought they were attempting to sabotage Moses' leadership.
But Moses said, "Are you jealous for me? Would that all God's people were prophets. Would that God would put his Spirit on all of them."
Here we see how Moses was an inclusive leader. Unlike Joshua who felt threatened by Eldad and Medad, Moses welcomed them as leaders. Moses was happy for God's Spirit to work with the people directly. Moses was happy to share his leadership with any person whom God chose to use. Moses did not feel a need to control God. Moses did not feel a need to control people. Moses trusted God and he trusted the people of God.
The Eldad and Medad part of this story may sound familiar. Once Jesus' disciples came to him complaning about someone who was casting out demons in Jesus' name but this person was not on of Jesus' recognized disciples. Jesus response to this man was similar to Moses response to Eldad and Medad. Jesus welcomed the help, saying, "He is who not against us is for us." Spiritual leadership tends to INclude rather than EXclude. Moses and Jesus welcomed the help and so do we. We welcome those who would join us in making disciples and meeting human needs.
Yesterday the session and Pastor Nominating Committee met with some consultants from the presbytery. We talked about some of the challenges facing our church. One of the issues we discussed was how to structure ourselves as a session. Presbyterians tend to excel at making such technical changes on paper. As Jim Bushong said yesterday, "Once things change they are different." We like the idea of change but get upset when things are different. This is how it was with Moses' people. They wanted things to change. They called out to God to send them a leader. God sent them a leader called Moses. He led them out of bondage in Egypt. But once things changed they were different. The people missed the foods they had enjoyed in Egypt. They craved meat. And so the story goes for this is our story too.
This week, in a presbytery publication called Connections, Mary Marcotte writes about spiritual leadership. She quotes former General Assembly Moderator and pastor, Joan Gray, from Gray's new book, Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers. Joan Gray speaks of a symbol frequently used by the early church: a sailboat. She uses the image of a sail boat to describe spiritual leadership. She says it is important to remember the image is a sailboat, not a rowboat. Our task as leaders, she argues, is to hoist the sail and catch the wind of the Holy Spirit so that the ship is driven where the Spirit is moving, rather than to try to keep rowing faster and chart our own course based on personal desires.
In contrast the wind of the whiners which will make the church lose all sense of direction like a sailboat in a hurricane, God's Spirit provides steady wind force that will fill the sails and drive the church forward in mission.
Mary concludes her article by reminding us of our ordination vows as elders and ministers of the word and sacrament - to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love, saying: "That promise cuts to the heart of spiritual leadership, a leadership which points not to us, but to our amazing Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer."
We are not in this alone. God is in this project with us. God demonstrates in through Moses that if we ask for help we will receive it. Let's not be timid about taking our problems to God. Jesus said: "Ask and you shall receive." I think he was talking about our spiritual cravings. Jesus once told the woman at the well: "I have living water. Drink my water and you will never thirst again." Let's drink of that living water. So may our deepest cravings find eternal satisfaction.

-Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on September 27, 2009; 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Monday, September 21, 2009

Two Kinds of Wisdom

The Epistle of James (3:13-4:10bears witness to two kinds of wisdom: The wisdom from above and the wisdom from below. The wisdom from above bears the fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. The wisdom from below is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. It is the wisdom of the arrogant and the proud. The wisdom from below is human wisdom and it bears the fruit of envy.

Envy is a vicious, stubborn, Hydra-headed monster. For envy, Cain murdered Abel. For envy, Saul tried to kill David. For envy, the Pharisees railroaded Jesus to the cross. (Wallace Fisher, Stand Fast in Faith, p. 98)

Aesop had a fable about two eagles, one envious of the other because the other could soar higher and more elegantly than he could. So the envious eagle would pluck his strongest feathers from his own body and shoot them as arrows, trying to wound or kill the other eagle. It was his own undoing, however. He could not hit the high flying eagle, and he was eventually grounded by his lack of feathers. Envy destroyed the eagle.

There's an ancient Greek legend that illustrates beautifully the destructive power of envy. In one of the important races, a certain athlete ran well, but he still placed second. The crowd applauded the winner noisily, and after a time a statue was erected in his honor. But the one who had placed second came to think of himself as a loser. Corrosive envy ate away at him physically and emotionally, filling his body with stress. He could think of nothing else but his defeat and his lust to be number one, and he decided he had to destroy the statue that was a daily reminder of his lost glory.

A plan took shape in his mind, which he began cautiously to implement. Late each night, when everyone was sleeping, he went to the statue and chiseled at the base hoping to so weaken the foundation that eventually it would topple. One night, as he was chiseling the sculpture in violent and envious anger, he went too far. The heavy marble statue teetered on its fragile base and crashed down on the disgruntled athlete. He died beneath the crushing weight of the marble replica of the one he had grown to hate. But in reality he had been dying long before, inch by inch, chisel blow by chisel blow. He was the victim of his own stressful, competitive envy. (Lloyd J. Ogilvie, Making Stress Work For You, Waco, Texas: Word Books, Publisher, 1984, pp. 101-102. Copyright 1984, Word Inc., Dallas, Texas.)

Jame's negative view of envy was a widespread belief in his day and among the great philosophers of the age. Socrates described envy as "the ulcer of the soul." Aristotle referred to envy as "a certain sorrow" that is experienced because someone has something that we do not.

Once Jesus caught his disciples arguing among themselves about who was greatest. The disciples do not understand this wisdom from God because the disciples are operating under human wisdom. Peter envies John because he is the beloved disciple. Thomas envies Peter because he thinks Peter has more faith. And round and round they go as each disciple envies the other. Jesus responds to his disciples envy contest with a dramatic gesture. He took a child and put it in the middle of the room in the house where they were gathered. Then cradling the little one in his arms, Jesus said, "Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me." The humble child was too young to know the ways of the world  the ways of human wisdom. The meek little child was better equipped to choose the wisdom of God over the wisdom of the world.

The disciples were full of envy and it led to arguments and discord among them. Show me a church that is full of arguments and strife and I will show you a church with disciples that are suffering from the ulcer of the soul: envy. Both James and his brother Jesus claim that we must choose between the wisdom from above and the wisdom from below. It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody.

Augustine, a man in the 5th century who became Bishop of the church and a saint in history, originally lead a life of sin giving himself over to whatever pleasures presented themselves. His mother had earnestly prayed for him his entire life that he would give his life to the service of Christ, but Augustine persisted in his sins until one day he sat with a friend on a bench weeping over the state of his life. It was at this moment that he heard a boy or girl--he says he does not know which it was--singing a song. The sound was coming from a neighboring house. The child was chanting over and over: "Pick it up, read it; pick it up; read it." 

Augustine stopped crying and wondered what kind of children's game would produce such a song. He could not remember ever having heard the like. So, holding back the tears, he got to his feet, thinking he had heard a divine command to open the Bible and read the first passage he came to. So he quickly returned to the bench where Alypius was sitting, for that is where had put down the apostle's book. He snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which his eyes first fell: "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lust thereof." He wanted to read no further, nor did he need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in his heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away. This is how Augustine was converted from following the wisdom from below to following the wisdom from above.

James claims we need conversion every day from the wisdom from below to the wisdom from above. The wisdom from below is not easy to abandon or avoid because it saturates the environment in which we live. The wisdom from below is what we see in TV commercials. It is the basis for business decisions. Even after our conversion to Christ we continue to live in the world and every day we must face the wisdom from below and we make comprises and we make excuses even after our initial conversion to faith. Conversion is an ongoing process, for we are all a work in progress.

A grapevine is a most productive plant. Spreading out its branches, each is intended to bring forth fruit. No vine grower is foolish enough to invest his time and effort in cultivating vines merely for the foliage on its branches. He looks for results. Fruits! As the branches of Christ in the Kingdom of God, we are expected to produce the fruits of spiritual life. And we're not speaking of spiritual apples, grapes, pears, or peaches this morning. We're talking of what's going on in the orchard of your life. What are you producing?

The Apostle Paul lists the fruits of the spirit. He says, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." How's that for a fruit basket? A good list for the cultivation of life's orchard. With these fruits in mind, what's going on in your orchard? The wisdom that comes from above produces the fruit of the spirit.

James puts it like this: "Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you." (James 3:13, 4:7-8) 


-Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B on September 20, 2009 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, TX