Monday, November 09, 2009

Fifty-seven Pennies

A country preacher was preaching very pointedly to his congregation one Sunday morning.

He said, Now, let the church walk!"

Deacon Jones said, "AMEN, let it walk!"

The preacher then said, "Let the church run!"

Deacon Jones said, "AMEN, Parson, let it run!"
"Let the church fly!" shouted the preacher.

"AMEN, brother, let it fly!" shouted Deacon Jones.

"Now it's going to take a lot of money to let it fly, brother," shouted the preacher.

"Let it walk, then," said Deacon Jones, "let it walk."

The story goes that while Robert Smith was taking his afternoon walk as part of his therapy in recovering from a massive heart attack, the phone rang and his wife Delores answered. The call was from the Reader's Digest Association Sweepstakes in New York. They were calling to inform the Smith family that Robert had just on $1,500,000 and that in a few days the certified check would be arriving. Well, as you can imagine, Delores was absolutely ecstatic. Now all those dreams would come true!

But then she remembered, her husband was just getting over his massive heart attack and the doctor had said no excitement over anything. Delores was afraid that if she told him they had just won such a large sum, he would have another heart attack and die. What should she do? After some thought, she decided to call their pastor and ask his advice because he had had some experience in breaking difficult news to families.

Delores dialed, "Hello, Pastor Baldwin . . . this is Delores Smith."

The pastor replied, "Hi, Delores. How are you? And how is Bob?"

"I'm fine, thank you. And so is Bob. He's recovering nicely. But, I've got a problem and I need your advice."

"Sure, if I can help, I'll be glad to," the pastor replied.

"Well, Pastor, I just got a call from The reader's digest Sweepstakes informing me that Bob has just won $1,500,000!"

"That's great!" said the pastor, "But what's the problem?"

"Well, I'm afraid that if I tell Bob, he'll get so excited that he will have another heart attack and drop dead. Can you help me?"

"Well, Delores, I think I can. Hold on, I'll be right over."

So in about an hour, Bob is not back from his walk and he and Delores and Pastor Baldwin are in the den having a nice chat. The pastor leans in toward Bob and says, "Bob, I've got a problem and need your advice."
"Sure, Pastor, if I can help, I'll be glad to," Bob said.

The pastor takes a deep breath and goes on, "It's a theoretical situation regarding Christian stewardship. What would a person – take you for instance – do if all of a sudden you found out you had won $1,500,00? What would do with all that money?"

"That's easy," Bill replied, "I'd start by giving $750,000 to the church."

Whereupon, Pastor Baldwin had a heart attack and dropped dead! (Ibid, Day 3)

She was just a little girl, one of those non-persons. Nothing to make her stand out from other little girl. She was not from a wealthy family. In fact she was from a poor family. Fifty-seven pennies were found under her pillow the night she died and this simple act made an indelible mark on the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

This little girl had mad an attempt to become part of a Sunday School in Phailadelphia years ago wand was told she could not come because there was no room for her. She began saving her pennies in order to "help the Sunday school have more room."

Two years later she became sick and in a couple of weeks, died. Beneath her pillow they found a small, tattered book with the 57 pennies and a piece of paper on which she had printed clearly: "To help build the Little Temple bigger, so more children can to go Sunday school."

This little story and the purse with the 57 pennies were brought to the pastor, and if my serves correctly, this was the Rev. Russel H. Conwell, and he told this humble story to his congregation. Then, the newspapers picked up the story and took it across the country. This triggered a spontaneous wave of gifts and giving. Soon the pennies grew and grew and today the final outcome of the humble 57 pennies offering can still be seen in Philadelphia today.

The "Little Temple" church had been replaced by a church which seats 3,300 people with lots of room for Sunday school. There is also a "Temple University" which accommodates and educates thousands of students. And there is also a "Temple Hospital" dedicated to humanity. And it all began with a nameless little girl who set out to do something about a need. Her beautiful, unselfish, dedicated attitude is what started this project. All it really takes in life to begin making a difference is one person with concern and dedication followed by an action. Let's add one more ingredient to this mix and call it love. Little people, in fact, all people are important to the future of the kingdom of God. Don't be discouraged with your little contribution. God can take your action and turn it into something big for His kingdom. Don't give up! I think of the little boy and his simple lunch ... but in the Master's hands it was about to feed thousands and there was some left over. God needs a willing person first and watch it happen, again! (Robert strand, Moments for Pastors, Day 8)

So, in the end, understanding stewardship is a spiritual matter. Many of our people have lost the all-encompassing vision that everything belongs to God. We have been seduced into thinking that what we have is ours, and that we need more.

Stewardship is not making the budget--it is a way of life for all of life. Stewardship is thanksgiving.

There was an old man on the isle of Crete and during his lifetime he loved many things. He loved his wife, his children, and his job, but most of all he loved the land. He loved the very ground he walked on, worked and fought for. When it as time for him to die he had his sons bring him outside his stone cottage and lay him on the hard earth. He reached down, grabbed a handful of Crete's soil and was gone.

He arrived at the gates of heaven and Lord came out dressed in the long robes of a judge and said to him, "Old man, come in."

As the old man moved towards the gates the Lord noticed something in his hand and said, "What are you clutching in your hand?"

He said, "It is Crete. I go nowhere without it."

The Lord said, "Leave it, or you will not be allowed in."

The old man held his clenched fist up and said, "Never!" And he went and sat beside the outside wall of the heavenly city.

After a week had passed, the gates opened again and the Lord appeared a second time, in the guise of a man wearing a hat, looking like some of the old man's buddies down in Crete. He sat down next to the old man, threw his arm around his shoulder and said, "My friend, dust belongs in the wind. Drop that piece of earth and come inside."

But the old man was still adamant. He said, "Never!"

During the third week the old man looked down at the earth he was clutching and saw that it had begun to cake and crumble. All of the moisture of the earth had gone out of it. Also, his fingers were arthritic and could not handle it. The earth began to trickle through his fingers.

Out came the Lord, this time as a small child. He came up to the old man and sat next to him and said, "Grandfather, the gates only open those with open hands."

The old man thought about this, finally stood up, and did not even look as his hand opened and the crumbled dirt of Crete fell through the sky. The child took his hand and led him toward the glorious gates, and as the gates swung open he walked in. Inside was all of Crete.

Now don't build a theology on this story for that is what it is – a story that illustrates a point that many of us must be reminded us now and then. There is nothing here that is worth missing heaven in order to keep. (Robert strand, Moments for Pastors, Day 12)

Our sermon text from Deuteronomy tells how the ancient Israelites did their stewardship dedication.

"When you cross over the Jordan and live in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you, ... then you shall bring everything that I command you to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name: ... your tithes and your donations, ... and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God." (Deuteronomy 12:10-12)

Today we bring our tithes and donations to the Lord our God. And we shall rejoice before the Lord our God. We shall open our hands and let go of whatever it is that is holding us back, and we shall enter into the kingdom of God this very day. We will use our money to further Christ's kingdom on earth and not let our money use us!

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Deuteronomy 12:10-12 at St. John's Presbyterian Church on November 1, 2009 / Stewardship Dedication Sunday / OT32B

Monday, November 02, 2009

Candles and Prayers

"Tears are our first words." So says Leonard Sweet in a sermon by that name. I'd like to share some of that sermon with you this morning.

The beginning way we have of communicating is through tears. Is there anything that gets a baby more attention than tears? Is there anything that can command complete, immediate devotion more than a torrent of tears. Is there anything that can makes adults feel more dismal, daunted, desperate than the wailing of an infant?


Our baby's tears can bring us to tears as well.


In earlier cultures the tears of mourners were gathered into something called a lachrymatory, or "tear-catcher," a specially created container for human tears of grief or sometimes of joy. [In fact, a company is now bringing them back and selling them online. [Here is the website with great images of what some of the early ones looked like:]


Mourning tears were believed to have extreme powers--of solace, of sustenance, of spiritual healing. There were beautiful, delicate lachrymatory tear bottles for women and more masculine cigar-shaped tear bottles for men. Traditionally all were designed with an evaporation chamber. When the last of the gathered tears finally evaporated, the official mourning period was over.


In Roman times women were paid to cry into tear bottles, so that as many filled bottles as possible could accompany the extensive mourning processions that befitted any important, powerful figure. In typical Roman fashion, more was always better--whether one was dead or alive.


Even the most humble burial ceremony involved the presence of paid mourners. In Jewish culture the bare minimum required two flute players and professional wailing woman. Anything less was an insult to the family name. The grief industry in the first century--like that of the twenty-first century--was big business.


Have you noticed that as the economy has fallen, the number of ads for life insurance are on the rise? In the face of an uncertain economic climate, unstable global relationships, and political stalemates, there is always one thing that remains certain . . . death. You can always bank on death showing up. The grief industry never has a down turn.


When Jesus finally arrived at Bethany the first-century grief industry was already well represented. "The Jews" who came down from Jerusalem to "console Martha and Mary" (v.19) undoubtedly included many professional mourners, musicians, and trained tear-producers. The family had purchased a costly cave-tomb to lay Lazarus in. His body had been carefully wrapped with burial linens, and anointed with the oils and spices commonly used to hold the odor of death at bay as much as possible.

Although both Martha and Mary confessed a conviction that had Jesus been present at Lazarus' sickbed he would not have died, both sisters had now resigned themselves to their brother's death. They had given themselves over to grief. They had abandoned all hope.

They were prepared for tears.

They were prepared for separation from their beloved brother.

They were prepared for the finality of death.

They were not prepared for what Jesus was bringing to them.

They were not prepared for a miracle.

They were not prepared for hope.

They were not prepared for resurrection.

They were not prepared for new life.

This October marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That most hated symbol of repression, that most revered symbol of communist power, came down after decades of being one of the most feared symbols in the world. It came down not in a hail of bullets and butchery. It came down through the unstoppable power of hope. Who can forget images of East Germans, mostly young people, standing on top of the wall, waving flags, hammers and screwdrivers and tearing wall down with their bare hands. And when The Wall came down, and the communist regime in East Germany came down, the domino effect seemed to take effect, and the Soviet Union came down and the communist regimes in Eastern Europe came down.

That's right. You heard me. Instead of an underground army of freedom fighters launching guerilla attacks on that concrete barrier, the force that finally toppled the Berlin Wall was made up of nothing more than candles and prayers.

That's right. You heard me. "Candles and prayers."

Before that wall came down ...

No Christian could hold party membership, which meant no Christian could hold a state job.

No Christian could teach.

No Christian could work in hospitals.

No Christian could hold offices in high levels of business and industry.

No Christian parents could send their children to the best schools . . .

Yet in April of 1989 there was an ecumenical assembly in East Germany with delegates from whatever Reformed and Lutheran churches were left. In April 1989 that assembly of Lutheran and Reformed Christians did something that took a huge amount of courage: they demanded freedom. They demanded freedom of religion and speech. They demanded freedom of travel, freedom to form groups and clubs. One of the leaders of that assembly, Bishop Christopher Kahler, says that the ecumenical assembly was the "handwriting on the wall."

Then it began. . . . After work, people started flocking to those few PR churches. There they sang hymns, prayed, lit candles, and then left the church to march silently in the streets. The first march of 15000 people was in Plauen 20 years ago the first of October, when Jörg Schneider types and distributes 120 flyers in Plauen. This inspired other cities like Leipzig to demonstrate...a very risky business in the GDR 20 years ago. (

In Leipzig, at the huge Nikolai Kirche, hundreds and then thousands of East Germans gathered, lighted candles, marched into the town square, filled the streets. Gradually, the crowds grew in size until they filled the road ringing the city. The city of Leipzig was surrounded. The city of Leipzig was under siege . . . by candles and prayers and silence.

A member of the Politburo, Horst Snidermann, said later: "We were prepared for everything, but not candles and prayers." (For more see Presbyterian Outlook, 1 June 2009. Story told by John Buchanan of Fourth Presbyterian Church and editor of Christian Century).

One of the worst, most oppressive regimes the world had ever seen, the communist regime of East Germany, quietly and quickly collapsed.

What was it that member of the Politburo said?

"We were prepared for everything . . . but not candles and prayers."

It had been easy for the East Berlin army to shoot or capture anyone who tried to sneak out to freedom in the West. But candlelight processions and all-night/all-day prayer vigils at the wall weren't so easy to deal with. Candles and prayers undermined the powerful. Candles and prayer unnerved the armed forces. Candles and prayer unraveled the blanket of fear.

The eastern bloc had prepared for riots. The East Germans had prepared for economic boycotts. East Germany had prepared for violence. The Politburo politicians had prepared for outside political pressures.

But they were not prepared for candles and prayers.

By the time the first person finally took the first swing of a pickaxe at that Berlin Wall…

By the time the first piece of concrete crumbled into the crowd . . .

By that time the barrier had already been broken.

The prayers and candles on both sides of the Berlin Wall had reduced it to insignificance, to a non-entity, long before the bulldozers finally cleared away the last of the rubble.

The miracle of the resurrected Christ undermines, unnerves, and unravels the powers of doubt, despair, and death that once defined the human condition.

And we are never fully prepared for the power of the presence of Christ when it breaks into our lives.

The Philistines were prepared for everything . . . . . . . but not a small boy, stones and a sling.

Pharaoh's army was prepared for everything . . . . . . but not a wave of water.

Jericho was prepared for everything . . . but not a marching band and a trumpet.

Martha was prepared for everything . . . but not a brother brought back to life.

Martha would have had Jesus hold his nose to block the stench of death; Jesus had Martha open her arms to receive back her brother in life.

How many of us are like Martha . . . preparing for everything, but not the power of candles and prayers?

I think of a teen who has had a few drinks and calls his parents because he is afraid to drive . . . he is prepared for everything, and he gets a prayer of thanks and hug from grateful parents that he called home rather than drove home.

I think of a husband who arrives unexpectedly on the porch of his estranged wife . . . a wife who is prepared for anger and divorce papers, and instead is offered flowers and floral apologies. What in your life is prepared for the worst … but not candles and prayers?

Baptism tears of joy, death bed tears of mourning, resurrection tears of joy. Baptism, death, resurrection. We celebrate the circle of life today. Like Mary and Martha, we are prepared for everything ... except the resurrection of the dead by our Lord, Jesus Christ.

-The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from John 11:32-44 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, TX on November 1, 2009 – All Saints Day