Sunday, December 26, 2010

God Will Find a Way

Text: Matthew 2:13-23

1st Sunday after Christmas Year A

Amid our celebrations of Christ's birth on this first Sunday after Christmas we run headlong into a horrid story of genocide in the tale of King Herod's proported murder of babies in his attempt to kill baby Jesus. There is no historical evidence for the story of Herod slaughtering the innocents although there are records of plenty of other of his dastardly deeds. King Herod symbolizes Pharaoh in this story. In Exodus 1:22-2:10, Pharaoh commands that every male child of the Hebrews should be thrown into the Nile but God saved baby Moses after his mother hid him in a basket among the reeds o the bank of the river. Ironically, Pharaoh's daughter found baby Moses among the reeds and adopted him as her son so he was raised in the royal family.

Later in the Old Testament story we find a dreamer named Joseph, seventeen years old at the time, who was helping out his brothers herding flocks of sheep. Joseph brought his father bad reports on his brothers and his brothers did not appreciate that. His father loved Joseph more than any of his other sons because he was the child of his old age and he made him an elaborately embroidered coat. When his brothers realized that their father loved him more than them, they grew to hate him--they wouldn't even speak to him.

Then the Old Testament Joseph had a dream. In his dream he envisioned himself sitting on a throne and his brothers came and bowed down before him. After Joseph shared his dream with his brothers they hated him even more. His brothers said, "So! You're going to rule us? You're going to boss us around?" One day Joseph's brothers spotted him off in the distance. By the time he got to them they had cooked up a plot to kill him. The brothers were saying, "Here comes that dreamer. Let's kill him and throw him into one of these old cisterns; we can say that a vicious animal ate him up. We'll see what his dreams amount to." They imprisoned Joseph in a cistern and sold him to some slave traders who took him to Egypt. After many years, many trials and many dreams Joseph became the Vice-President of Egypt. Number One in the Pharaoh's Administration. And when famine had stricken the land and times were desperate God used Joseph to save his brothers and all their family from starvation. Joseph the Old Testament dreamer was part of God's salvation plot.

In a similar fashion, the Joseph in our story today was part of God's continuing salvation plot. When Herod died an angel appeared to Joseph in another dream and told him to take baby Jesus and mother Mary back to Israel. Like his namesake in the Old Testament Joseph was a dreamer. God spoke to the New Testament Joseph through his dreams. The New Testament Joseph is the father figure of the holy family with mother Mary and baby Jesus. God spoke to the this Joseph in a dream and told him King Herod had died and he should now return to Israel. But Joseph was not ready to risk the lives of his family for a dream.

God kept coming at the New Testament Joseph. God can be relentless at times. God spoke to Joseph in another dream and Joseph finally got the message. Joseph took the holy family back to Nazareth. This fulfilled yet another prophecy. God's plan was still on the move. Through thick and thin God was there. Protecting baby Jesus and the holy family. Inspiring them to move back to Israel. So back to Israel they went. Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus.

Between Joseph's dreams and the babies screams lay God's plan for the salvation of humankind. God works in mysterious ways. God works in creative ways. God can use even the cries of a baby. God can use even the dreams of a grown man. There is no stopping God's plan. God is on a roll.

God knows how to manipulate powerful people to get his work done. God can even use unwitting Kings to accomplish His will. A king such as Herod. Or presidents too. No politician can block God out. No trillionaire can deter God's will. No corporate executive is exempt from being used by God to accomplish the divine plan.

No matter who tries to block His plan God will find a way to achieve human salvation. Not even Herod the Great can stop God's yearning for the salvation of all creation. If relentless love is God's way, then our way seems to the way of sorrow.

There is a popular song whose chorus goes: "Love will find a way." That is, I think, the message here. Love will find a way. God is love. And God will find a way. God will find a way to take care of God's children. God will find a way to continue the salvation story. God will find a way to keep His creation alive and growing. This text is an impressive demonstration of God's tenacious love for His human creatures and His whole creation.

Sometimes we feel discarded. Put aside like a Christmas toy that has now grown old. Tossed over in a corner of the room where no one ever comes. Grounded in the dark with the dust mites and other microbial nomads. Forgotten. Overlooked. Ignored. But God hears our cries.

The Apostle Paul puts it like this: "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." (Romans 8:22) God hears the cries of all creation. For freedom. For hope. For a new creation. All creation yells to God for freedom. And God will move heaven and earth to bring salvation to God's people. God's salvation is a process, a work in progress. God is still working toward the new creation. God has not quit. God is not on vacation. God is not taking the week off to bring in the New Year. God is relentless. God will see it through to the end. God will bring salvation to the human race. God is totally committed to this goal. So go ahead and mark it down and consider it done. The baby in the manger symbolizes more than the birth of a God-man long ago. The baby in the manger symbolizes the power of God at work for the new birth of all creation.

Let us do our part to participate in God's regenerative work on behalf of all creation. This work is never easy and it is never finished. Yet we continue on working with God for the liberation of all creation. Even when the powers that be, the King Herods of this world, would try to destroy God's creation. We find in the story of Jesus' birth that God was active in preserving the infant Jesus for his future mission.

One of the great theological revelations that we inherit from our Reformed faith is that God is active in human history. We see it in the story of baby Moses being rescued from Pharaoh's campaign of murder of Hebrew boys. God saved Moses. We see God being active in human history by rescuing baby Jesus from King Herod's slaughter of the innocents.

God is active in human history. That is the meaning of Jesus' name - "Emmanuel" - "God with us." God is with us, active, vigilant, working for the salvation of humankind and all creation. Another great theme from the Reformation is that we are saved to serve. God calls each of us as individuals and all of us as a team to work with God for the salvaiton of our souls and for the restoration of all creation. It's a big job and it won't be finished in our lifetimes. It is a cycle of salvation that God continues from generation to generation.

Today, as we celebrate Christ's birth, we remember that God is active in human history and God is active in our own lives. Our role is to cooperate with God and facilitate the work of the Holy Spirit in our own life. That is what Pharaoh's daughter did when she adopted baby Moses and saved him from Pharaoh. That is what Joseph did when he took on the role of Jesus' father and protected him from King Herod. Each of us has a role to play in God's salvation history. Therefore, each of our lives is crucially important in the grand scheme of things. May we live into God's plan for our lives so we may more fully participate in God's salvation of all creation. With God's help, we will.

Monday, December 20, 2010

God Is Here

Text: Matthew 1: 18-25

When Joseph's life was interrupted by Mary's surprising pregnancy, he sought to be mature. He was not the baby's father, and so bore no personal responsibility for the child, but he still loved Mary. The situation called for a graceful solution, but Joseph was not aware of just how grace-filled things could become. A quick and quiet end to the engagement seemed the best thing to do. He would quietly break off their engagement.

But an angel's voice spoke to Joseph in a dream, suggesting that this situation was part of something much greater. There were signs that pointed to God's careful planning and a promise that the birth of this child was the culmination of an age-old dream of the Hebrew people. And the impending birth contained a commitment of God's continued presence to sustain the miracle. God was using Joseph and Mary to achieve a wonderful purpose. Joseph was invited to join in the miracle. When the dream ended, he had to choose his course of action.

Joseph's story reminds us that the Christmas message is always a surprise. According to the gospels, the real father of Mary's baby was God. While we've moved on to different debates in the past 50 years, the question of the virgin birth of Jesus was controversial 100 years ago.

Tom Harpur points out the theological meaning of the virgin birth of Jesus in his book Water into Wine. By openly declaring that Joseph was not the actual begetter of Jesus, the Evangelists are saying that what mattered was not so much the natural side of Jesus' humanity, but the divine side. What it says at the most profound level is that each human being's birth is a miraculous happening. We have a physical-psychical nature from our mother's womb, because we are also begotten of God. We have a divine origin or a latent divinity within ourselves as a result of direct divine descent. As it says in the Book of Acts, 'We are all God's offspring." This higher or more spiritual meaning is directly expressed in the prologue of John's Gospel, where he says: "That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world" (King James Version).

Thus, for example, Joseph Campbell sees the mythic meaning of the virgin birth as the coming to full awareness by each individual person that he or she is more than a human animal concerned merely with reproduction and material things. It is the "birth of the spiritual as opposed to the merely natural life," he says; the recognition that there are higher aims and values in living than self-preservation, reproduction, pleasure, the acquisition of money and things, and the struggle for power or status. It's a birth in the heart, or the idea of being spiritually "born again" that Jesus spoke of and which has been so misunderstood by fundamentalists today.

So the question posed to us by the virgin birth is not, "Do you believe this literally?" but, "Have you truly experienced your own divinity within? Are you claiming your inheritance as more than a human animal--as a fully human being?" To put this another way: "Has the Christ principle been born in the manger of your consciousness?" As Campbell points out, this kind of virgin birth within is well expressed in St. Paul's statement Galatians, "I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me."

In order for the story to have any power it must be real in and for us.

The whole allegory of the humble but royal birth in a cave or stable was based upon the archetypal idea of the kingly nature of the crowning of our evolutionary development by the advent of self-reflective consciousness. As the Apostle Paul puts it: "Christ in you; the hope of glory."

Thus, all the rites and practices of the churches at Christmastime are truly efficacious and meaningful only if the birth of the "Savior Jesus" is understood as a symbol of the glorious "virgin" birth within ourselves. The joyful message is that Transcendence has broken into history and become part of every one of us. What we need is to have the eyes to see this glory within and all around. It is when we truly recognize who and what we really are that we are born again.

This Christmas holiday engenders great expectations. We have a vision of how it should be—the perfect Christmas. We know exactly how we want the tree to look, which presents we should like to receive, which of our family members should do what, what each person should say to us, how the food should taste, how it all should be. But it never is. Christmas never lives up to our great expectations. The rolls get burned. The new skirt is the wrong size. The brother-in-law says the wrong thing.

How can we bridge the gap between our great expectations and the commonplace reality of Christmas? Make a commitment with me today. Say with me, "Today I will allow myself and those around me the freedom to be as they are. I will not rigidly impose my idea of how things should be." Will you agree to do that today, on Christmas Eve? Will you allow yourself and those around you the freedom to be as they are? Will you refuse to rigidly impose your idea of how things should be during Christmas? Let go of your notions of how things should be this Christmas. Let go and see what God will do. The Holy Spirit is very creative. Who knows what new things God has for you this Christmas?

Joseph determined to dismiss Mary quietly, without a fuss. But God fussed. An angel was dispatched to Joseph with a dream of a special child, ". . . and you shall call him Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins."

No matter who you are what your station, life does not always run smoothly. When you want to run a quick errand before work, there are no checkout clerks available. The new school years starts with promise but that comes to a halt over your failure to understand the technical words in one of your textbooks. Business trends turn against even the best management, and companies are forced to lay off good workers. Marriages may go along well for years, then suddenly fail under unexpected stress. Mature people learn to deal with these situations in responsible ways. That is what Joseph did and that is what God calls us to do.

Jesus is not the product of human effort but of divine intervention. God intends to become part of our lives and will take the most amazing route to do so, even that of saving us through our problems, redeeming us in the midst of adversity. Prophecy does get fulfilled, signs do point to a miraculous intervention and God is unexpectedly here. God is here in the birth of a baby in a manger.

Author Dennis Covington recalls that on long summer evenings when he and his buddies had been out fishing or playing ball, each boy's mother would call him home in a different way. Most mothers would lean out the back door and yell for her child. "Frankie! Danny! Stanley! Come home!" Some mothers had big cowbells outside the back door, and they would ring the cowbell to call a child home. But Dennis' dad was always the one to call him home. And Mr. Covington didn't just stand on the porch and yell for Dennis. He wandered down to the lake and softly called "Dennis." And father and son would walk home together. As Covington writes, "He always came to the place I was before he called my name."(Dennis Covington. Salvation on Sand Mountain (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Longman Publishing Company), 239-240. Cited in John Kramp. Getting Ahead by Staying Behind (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1997), p. 168.)

And that's exactly what God did for us. In Jesus, He came to the place we were before He called us. He came for you. He is "Emmanuel — God with us." And God is with us. That is the mystery, the majesty and the meaning of Christmas. God is with us. God is here. God is here.

Loosen up and let God move in your heart today. Open your heart to God's love. Open your mind to God's truth. Open your eyes to what God is doing in your life, in your family, in this church. God is here. Here inside. Inside of me and inside of you.

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on December 19, 2010, Advent 4A

Monday, December 13, 2010

How to Handle Criticism

Introduction to the reading ...

In the 11th chapter of Matthew's gospel, one can feel the pressure of Jesus' opposition building. John the Baptist has been arrested by King Herod. In verses 16 and 17, Jesus says that people are like children: "I invite them to play like we're having a wedding; in other words, to play a happy game, but they refuse. So I invite them to play a sad game, like we're having a funeral, but they don't want to do that either. People are just contrary, critical, hard to please."

Here is Matthew 11:1-19 ...

Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?' Jesus answered them, 'Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.'

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: 'What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone* dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,

"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way before you."

Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came; and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!

'But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
"We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
   we wailed, and you did not mourn."

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, "He has a demon"; 19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, "Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!" Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.'


It is impossible to go through life without being criticized. Have you noticed that? If you try to accomplish something, you will be criticized. If you are satisfied to loaf, you will be criticized for that. I heard about a department store that made a big fuss over its millionth customer. The store president made a speech in her honor. She was given gifts. Her picture was taken for the paper. After these ceremonies, the customer continued to her original destination - the complaint department.

If anyone ever received lots of criticism, surely it was Jesus. The religious establishment called him a blasphemer. He was accused of being a glutton, a drunkard, a Samaritan, and a friend of sinners. The Bible refers to him as "despised and rejected of men." His own family thought he was acting irresponsibly. In the 11th chapter of Matthew's gospel, one can feel the pressure of Jesus' opposition building. John the Baptist has been arrested by King Herod. In verses 16 and 17, Jesus says that people are like children: "I invite them to play like we're having a wedding; in other words, to play a happy game, but they refuse. So I invite them to play a sad game, like we're having a funeral, but they don't want to do that either. People are just contrary, critical, hard to please."

The first criticism of Jesus in this text comes from John the Baptist. This was the person who earlier had said of Jesus, "I am not worthy to wipe off his sandals." But John has now been suffering through an episode in Herod's prison system and he's not thinking straight. Perhaps the conditions were as bad as some of the prison systems today such as the LA County, California prison system where there are 6 people to a cell but there are only bunk beds for 4 so 2 of them have to sleep on the floor which is drenched with seepage from the cell toilet. In such conditions disease runs rampant. Perhaps John the Baptist has some illness that led him to be confused about Jesus so he finally sent an emissary to ask Jesus is he really was the Messiah. Jesus responded by telling him to judge him by his actions: The poor have the gospel preached to them and the sick are healed. Yes, said Jesus, I am the Messiah. John's question was so much a criticism as a question of doubt and Jesus was secure enough not to be blown away by John's question as to his identity.

Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me." (vs 5-6)

Yet there were others who took offense at Jesus. In fact, according to our lesson today, the crowd took offense at Jesus.

We know from many other Gospel stories the religious leaders, the Pharisees, took offense at Jesus. Many mainline scholars today would say the Pharisees are a literary device employed by the gospel writers to portray the conflict in the early church between Peter's followers in Jerusalem who were more Orthodox Jews and Paul's contingency in Antioch who were more Gentile Christians.

Read between the lines in the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament and the confict between Peter and Paul and their followers becomes clear. Conflict between Christians has been characteristic of the experience from the very beginning. The issues change but the conflicts continue. In the early church a big issue was whether or not a Christian must eat kosher food. That issue was resolved by saying no we do not have to eat kosher food and the church probably lost members over it.

Beyond that issue was the question of whether Jesus was a myth or an actual historical figure. The Gnostics, who were a large group in the early church, said that Jesus was a myth. The orthodox Christians said Jesus was a historical figure. The orthodox Christians won that argument.

Then in the early year 1000 the conflict in the church was over the issue of what role the Holy Spirit plays in the Trinity. Is the Holy Spirit subordinate to the Father and the Son? The Roman Catholic Church thought so but the Greek Orthodox Church thought not and the church split.

In the early 1900s debate raged as to whether Jesus mother was a virgin or not. That question split the church between the fundamentalists who said yes and the neo-liberals who said no.

In the 1970s there was a conflict over whether women could be ordained as Elders and Ministers of the Word and sacrament. It was a heated debate. As you can tell from the leadership of our church, the women won that one in the PC(USA).

Today the conflict centers over whether gays and lesbians may be ordained as Elders and Ministers of the Word and Sacrament. This debate has been raging since 1974 and is still hotly debated as attested at the presbytery meeting we hosted last month. When this issue is finally settled, I imagine some Christians will be disappointed and leave the church and then we will move on to another issue.

So in the big scheme of things the Christian church has been characterized by the beginning by conflict and we follow a leader who was criticized and in fact was a controversial figure. This is Jesus whom we follow. The Bible says that if the spirit of Christ lives in you, you will produce the following fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control. Are you seeing those fruits in your life? If you are a fruit-producing tree, don't worry unduly about criticism.

As my mother used to always say, "If it's not one thing, it's another." I learned early in my pastoral ministry that criticism comes with the calling. Any experienced pastor who is honest will tell you that. Why should we consider it would ever be any different, considering the criticism Jesus received. The religious establishment called him a blasphemer. He was accused of being a glutton, a drunkard, and a friend of sinners. The Bible refers to him as "despised and rejected of men." His own family thought he was acting irresponsibly. As Jesus told his disciples, "A disciple is not greater than his master." So we should expect no different treatment than Jesus received.

Let me suggest a second way to keep criticism from immobilizing you; sift each criticism for precious grains of truth, even as a prospector sifts through creek sand looking for gold. A caring, constructive critic can be your best friend. Perhaps the first time you hear a particular criticism you may shake it off as invalid. But if you hear it a second time, especially from a second source, you better take it more seriously. The ancient Jewish rabbis had a saying that went like this: "If one man calls thee a donkey, heed it not. If two men call thee a donkey, get thee a saddle." And I'm certain that they didn't used the word "donkey" in the original saying.

We live in an unpredictable world. This is a world where perfectly good people get cancer and suddenly die. Some people are unjustly accused and sent to jail like John the Baptist. The crowd questions the intentions of those who come in peace.

So of course there will always be low times. In fact, there will be times you get so far down that you cannot remember up. But when those times come, remember this: you are not alone. You've got a friend, one whom scripture says sticks closer than a brother - Jesus Christ. This same Jesus extends an invitation that reaches down to us no matter how deep in the pit we are and says, "Come unto me, all you that are weary... all who are carrying heavy burdens... guilt, pain, despair, strained relationships, burned out hearts ... come unto me and I will give you rest."

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on December 12, 2010 (Advent 3A)

Monday, December 06, 2010

Polished Up For Christmas

Text: Matthew 3:1-12   

Last Sunday we celebrated a baptism and next Sunday we will do it again. The sacrament of baptism goes back a long way and is not the sole property of Christians. In the first century the Jews took a bath called a mikvah in order to be ritually pure for worship. John also called people to cleanse themselves but not simply to prepare themselves for worship. John called for an inner change of heart and mind (repentance), which is to produce a pure and holy life.

The sacred ritual of baptism by water can be found dating back millennia in many places around the world, including and especially in Egypt. As a source of life, particularly along the Nile, water figured prominently in the spiritual imagery of ancient Egypt. Along with the concept of holy, living water in Egyptian religion comes its use for purification in actual baptism, with immersion into water or sprinkling of water. As for our Christians baptism, so with the Egyptians, their baptism was a ritual of purification for regeneration and a remission of sins.

Egyptologist Gerald Massey explains the two different types of Egyptian baptism and their relationship to Christian doctrine:

There was a double baptism in the ancient mysteries: the baptism by water and the baptism by spirit. This may be traced to the two lakes of heaven at the head of the celestial river in teh region of the northern pole, which were also repeated as the two lakes of purification in Amenta. The soul says, "I purify me in the southern tank, and I rest me at the northern lake." They will account for the two forms of baptism mentioned in the Gospels, John baptizes with water, Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Massey, AELW, II, 795, quoted in Christ in Egypt by D. M. Murdok, 247)

Thus, in our text today, John the Baptist says in reference to Jesus: "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

This is quickly getting "heavy" and that seems so out of synch with the holiday spirit. Instead of being baptized with water and fire, our market economy is concerned with how much consumers will pay for Christimas gifts considering 70% or so of our economy is based upon consumer spending.

The baptism our market seeks is a baptism of greenback dollars onto the retail counters of America. What is the Christian response? Certainly we want the economy to do well because when the economy does well we do well and so does the church and the mission of Christ. Some of us give from our excess and the more excess we have the more we may give. This, too, is a "heavy" thought, whether or not consumer spending can resurrect our economy.

Beyond the baptism mentioned in our text and the baptism of dollars the market wants from the consumer this time of year we also have the baptism of the winter solstice. This is the season when the winter sun seems to die by staying at the same angle in the sky for a few days before it makes its upturn on the third day which symbolized the resurrection of the Sun God to the ancients. So this time of the year is drenched with symbolism and has been since the dawn of time.

It may come as a surprise to some to learn that the ancient Egyptians held a candlelight service on December 24 each year in celebration of the winter solstice. The service included hymns and special music. I find such facts inspiring because it connects our religious practice to times and places beyond what we even knew.

So it was in days such as these that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." John was the one who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'"

Lord knows we could use some straight paths in our society what with all the financial scandals we have endured lately. Here in Houston Enron immediately comes to mind. Being from Central Mississippi I also think of Bernie Ebbers at MCI and all the investors who lost money through that bankrupt company. Such are the ghosts of Christmas's past coming back to haunt us in these difficult days.

While we can't solve the world's economic problems there are some things we can do during this Advent season. Let's begin with this question: Are there some changes you need to make in your life? Be honest with yourself. Is there some resentment you need to let go of? A relationship you need to examine? John calls for us to look within, to search ourselves and to deal with problem areas in our lives before they get out of hand.

One thing we know about John the Baptist is that he was not trapped in the desire for approval. When you wear animal skins, eat locusts, and live alone in the desert you are not a slave to public opinon. I wonder if we have the same freedom as John the Baptist? Do you think Jesus Christ was controlled by what people thought of him or said about him? Of course not. People who are awake do not need the drug called approval.

Think about politicians. Often politicans don't see people at all. They see votes, and if you're not a help or a threat to their getting votes, they won't even notice you.

Some business people see only money. They don't see people, only business deals.

Do you want to be liberated from the need for the drug called approval? Try a little of John the Baptist's formula. Die to the need for people's approval. Savor your mind. Appreciate your work. Enjoy nature. Send the crowds away and you will be completely alone. Then love will be born in solitutde. Anthony De Mello says, "You reach the country of love by passing through the country of death." (Walking on Water, 119) Your heart will take you to a vast desert such as the one John the Baptist lived in. At first you will feel lonely. You aren't used to enjoying persons without depending on them.

At the end of the process you will be able to see people as they truly are. Then you will see that the desert is suddenly transformed into love. And music will fill your heart. You will hear a song such as "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" and you will know that you are at home in your body on this earth. Only for a short time, perhaps, but you are home none the less. Then you will be ready to celebrate Christmas.

Advent is not simply a time of preparing for Christmas. At its best it is a time of preparing for Christ. It is not Christ's birthday that matters most, really, but our birthday the day we are born into the kingdom of God as we open ourselves to the coming of the indwelling Christ. Has that happened in your life? Have you consciously prayed, "Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, be born in me today?"

John's purpose was to prepare people's hearts for the coming of the Messiah. He did it in the only way he knew how. "Repent," he cried, "for the kingdom of heaven is near." It is near for those who are willing to look within and examine their lives, for those willing to reach out with Christ's love to others, and to those who will open their hearts to the indwelling Christ. We can be truly prepared for Christmas if we put those things on our "to do" list and get them done.

May we get wet this Christmas season with the purifying baptismal waters. May our sins and our shame be washed away in the river of God's forgetfulness. May we stumble through the Jordan River intoxicated with the liberation of not needing the approval of others. May we fall at the foot of the cradle under that natal star and recognize that we are part of a procession of people that stretches back further than we knew and connects us to the dawn of humanity. Seeking and finding God. That is the task at hand. Jesus said, "Seek and ye shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened unto you." You know which door I'm talking about. It's right there in the center of your chest. It's the door to the inner chamber of your heart. That is where the rivers of God's purifying love will flow.

I love the Beatles song, "Someone's knockin' on the door. Someone's ringin' a bell. Someone's knockin' on the door. Someone's ringin' a bell. Do me a favor. Open the door. And let 'em in."

Open the door. And let 'em in.

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on December 5, 2010 (Advent 2A).

Monday, November 29, 2010

Be Up and About

Text: Romans 13:11-14

Have you heard how the South African mines were discovered? There was a traveler seated at the door of the village chief's house. He saw the chief's children playing with things that looked like marbles. he picked one of them up and his heart exploded with joy. It was a diamond! so he went to tell the village chief: "My children also play with these stones; they call them marbles. Could I take some of them home with me? I'd be happy to give you tobacco in exchange."

The chief answered, "We have millions of them here. It would be robbery to accept your tobacco, but I'll accept whatever you give me." The man gave him the tobacco, went home, sold the diamonds, came back, bought all that land, and became the richest man in the owlrd. Heres' the point of this story: those people were walking on top of a treasure and didn't know it. Life is a banquet and yet most people are depriving themselves of it. They never discover the treasure

If prayer were suitably practiced and understood, it would provide the wealth that would make things unimportant. "Life is something that happens when we're busy with something else." We're busy trying to impress everyone. We're busy trying to win the Olympics. We're busy being successful. And life passes us by. (Anthony De Mello, Walking on Water, 111-113)

Night comes early this time of year. The dark comes quickly and lulls into a restful sleep. Cooler nights mean sounder sleep for some of us. It is harder to jump out of bed in the morning when the room is cool and the bed sheets are warm. The Christmas season is a time many of us get lulled into a sense of complacency about life. We get distracted by overeating and gluttony. We get distracted by desire for material things and greed. We get distracted by work and family obligations. We get distracted and lulled to sleep in countless ways. In the midst of our stupor Paul wants us to practice what the Buddhists call mindfulness. Paul challenges us to get up and get out of bed, and be up and about! Instead, we distract ourselves in countless, meaningless ways. We procrastinate whenever possible. Indeed, the Christmas season accentuates the procrastinator in us. Some of us put off buying gifts until the last minute because we don't feel good about the gifts we give. What do you get for someone who already has everything they need? And let's face it, most of the people to whom we give Christmas gifts do already have everything they need and most of the things they want. What are we to do?

Paul would say to us what he said to the ancient church in Rome: "Make sure that you don't get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God." (Romans 13:11) Let's not get so caught up in the Christmas rush that we put our spiritual lives on auto pilot and miss the original reason for this season -- the birth of the Christ within our own hearts.

Can we somehow hold on to the idea that Christ is at the bottom of all this? Beyond the egg nog and what nots, the chrismons on the Christmas tree and the glass angel on the mantle, can we guard our hearts against Santa Claus and the god of conspicuous consumption? Paul challenges us to do that. He says: "We can't afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight." (Romans 13:13)

One other thing as we start to get ready for Christmas. I forgot to ask you this. What are you wearing this Christmas? Have you taken your Christmas clothes out of the closet? Have you got that reindeer tie ready to go? What about that red holly scarf? What will you wear this Christmas? Paul has a recommendation. He suggests this: "Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!"

Dress yourselves in Christ? And what might that look like? Sandals and gown, anyone? I think not. Dress yourselves in Christ. What does that mean? That means to cover yourself from tip to toe in Christ. Put on humility like a garment. Learn to see the world with the eyes of Christ. To see the hungry at our doorstep. To watch out for our souls by watching out for the poor man in our midst. To guard our heart by hearing the cries of the single mother who is working two jobs and trying to pay the rent ... and her car broke down yesterday so she can't drive to work today ... so she won't be able to buy groceries this Saturday ... so her kids will be hungry this Monday ... This is the world we live in. Paul cries out to us: "Get out of bed and get dressed! Don't loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute. Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!" (Romans 13:14)

It is interesting to note in our text today that the emphasis is upon waking up yourself - not someone else. Perhaps a story from another tradition will help us see the wisdom of this emphasis.

The Buddha said, "There once were a couple of acrobats. the teacher was a poor widower and the student was a small girl named Meda. The two of them performed in the streets to earn enough to eat. They used a tall bamboo pole which the teacher balances on the top of his head while the little girl slowly climbed to the top There she remained while the teacher continued to walk along the ground.

"Both of them had to devote all their attention to maintain perfect balance and to prevent any accident from occurring. One day the teacher instructed the pupil: "Listen, Meda, I will watch you and you watch me, so that we can help each other maintain concentration and balance and prevent and accident. Then we'll be sure to earn enough to eat." But the little girl was wise and answered, 'Dear master, I think it would be better for each of us to watch ourself. To look after oneself means to look after both of us. That way I am sure we will avoid any accidents and will earn enough to eat.'" The Buddha said: "The child spoke correctly." (Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, 63-64)

The Apostle Paul stated the same truth in a single phrase: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." Perhaps during this Advent season we should not try to change the world. Perhaps it is enough to try to change ourselves. Even better, perhaps we may allow God to change us on the inside. That is the simple but profound shift suggested in our reading today.

Perhaps you would like a suggestion of where to begin? Thomas Keating offers this advice in his book Invitation to Love:

On the spiritual journey, there is usually someone in our family, business, or community whom we cannot endure, someone who has a genius for bringing out the worst in us. No matter what we do, we cannot seem to improve the relationship. The person who gives us the most trouble may be our greatest gift from God. (17)

So, perhaps instead of worrying about saving the world we should focus on showing love to the person we most despise. That would certainly wake us up! Yikes!

A prisoner lived in solitary confinement for years. He saw and spoke to no one and his meals were served through an opening in the wall.

One day an ant came into his ell. The man contemplated it in fascination as it crawled around the room. He held it in the palm of hi hand the better to observe it, gave it a grain or two, and kept it under his tin cup at night.

One day it suddenly struck him that it had taken him ten long years of solitary confinement to open his eyes to the loveliness of an ant.

When a friend visited the Spanish painter El Greco at his home on a lovely spring afternoon, he found him sitting in his room, the curtains tightly drawn.

"Come out into the sunshine," said the friend.

"Not now," El Greco replied. "It would disturb the light that is shining within me."

That inner light is what Paul calls us to awaken to in our text today.

The old Rabbi had become blind and could neither read nor look at the faces of those who came to visit him.

A faith healer said to him, "Entrust yourself to my care and I will heal your blindness."

"There will be no need for that," replied the Rabbi. "I can see everything that I need to."

Not everyone whose eye are closed is asleep. And not everyone with open eyes can see. (Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight, 52-53)

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~The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on November 28, 2010 (First Sunday of Advent – Year A)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ordinary Time Is Over

Text: Luke 21:5-19

The Longwave Group, an investment firm out of Vancouver, demonstrates four seasons in a lifetime economic, financial and investment map: Spring, summer, autumn, and winter. These seasons are a recurring 70 year cycle so that each person will ideally live through each of the four seasons once in a lifetime. The current season in this paradigm is winter. The winter season began on January 15, 2000 when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was at 11,750 points. That was the peak of consumer confidence. The winter season is characterized by a concern, fear, panic and despair. Money becomes very scarce. There are unprecedented bankruptcies - personal, corporate, and government. Gold bullion and gold equities rise in the face of huge financial and economic crisis. There is a decline into depression. That quick overview of one season of one season in a financial cycle provides an orientation toward the concept of recurring cycles within the market.

In our text today, Jesus speaks of a cycle in the life of the temple in Jerusalem. "When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" (Luke 21:6-7) Many words have been spilled over the centuries about the temple in Jerusalem and how it was destroyed in the century after Jesus and rebuilt in the past century. Many evangelical and fundamentalist Christian writers focus on the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem as a sign that we living in the end times when Jesus will come again as described in various apocalyptic texts in the Gospels and in Revelation. Jesus himself warned against trying to decipher this cycle when he said that not even he knew when the end time would come but only God knew that. He seems to suggest we just shouldn't go there in trying to decipher that code.

Yet already within the New Testament itself we see the beginning of a tendency to look back, to recall time past in which things had happened. The end times hope, that is, the belief that the last times were at hand, seems to be slackening by the time Luke writes his gospel and the writing of church history begins with the book of Acts. Remembering comes to be almost as important as anticipating even before the first century is done.

So today, instead of going where Jesus himself has warned us not to go but in keeping with the theme of cycles within the Kingdom of God, we will consider the liturgical cycle of Christian worship. The liturgical year is a recurring 12 month cycle of Sundays within the worship services of a church. The church shows what is most important to its life by the way it keeps time. A sense of time is the foundation for Christian worship.

In the early church, Sunday stood out above all other days as the weekly anniversary of the resurrection. Every Sunday witnesses to the risen Lord. Each Sunday testifies to the resurrection. Every Sunday is a weekly little Easter or rather every Easter is a yearly great Sunday. The primacy of Sunday and the resurrection is clear.

As Sunday witnessed to Jesus Christ, so too, the Christian year (liturgical year or church year) became a structure for remembering the Lord. It was, above all else, faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The early church revealed their faith by how they kept time.

Easter was the highlight of the Christian year in the early church because on Easter we glimpse a new landscape--the age to come--and experience a sense of holy awe at the significance of the resurrection for human life. The shape of the age to come reveals a new people of God, a new humanity.

Therefore, Easter faith recalls the past, especially the awesome act of God in raising the crucified Christ from the grave. Easter hope looks to the promised future, to that which awaits us. Easter love celebrates the presence of the crucified and risen Christ who is now among us, reconciling us as one people. Resurrection faith asserts that by grace we are born again into the new humanity of Jesus Christ. We are called to new life for God and for neighbors. As representatives of the new humanity we walk in newness of life.

Closely connected with Easter are two seasons: Lent and the long Easter season. Lent was a time of preparation for all Christians, baptized or not. It begins on a day much later know as Ash Wednesday, from the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of all Christians.

Far more important was the Easter Season, the 50 days extending the celebration of Easter through the Day of Pentecost. The great 50 days were at first far more important than the forty days of Lent. It makes you wonder why modern Christians concentrate on Lent, the season of sorrow, rather than on Easter, the season of joy. The resurrection was and is remembered by a day each week--Sunday; a Sunday each year--Easter Day; and a season--the Easter Season. There can be no doubt about the centrality of the resurrection in the life and faith of the early church. Easter was the number one holiday in the early church. Easter ruled.

Skipping ahead in the liturgical cycle, today is the last Sunday in Ordinary Time. In church usage, the term "ordinary" means that which is standard, normative, usual, or typical. For example, ordinary elements of worship such as the Lord's Prayer, the Doxology, and the Apostle's Creed are said or sung week after week. As the standard elements of worship, they are called "ordinaries." They are the elements that are common to worship every Sunday.

In like manner, week after week, Sunday "ordinarily" celebrates the resurrection and the unfolding of the new creation. The standard for worship is the ordinary time of Sunday in the week-to-week progression of time.

Twice each year, however, Ordinary Time is heightened by the extra-ordinary Sundays that intensify our celebration of the birth and death and resurrection of Christ. We call these special seasons the Christmas cycle and the Easter cycle. The Christmas cycle of Sundays is called Advent. The Easter cycle of Sundays begins with Lent, peaks on Easter Sunday, and ends on Pentecost Sunday.

At the beginning and end of each of these periods are transitional Sundays that move the church from what has preceded to what is to follow. The Sundays that conclude this part of Ordinary Time, and especially the final Sunday before Advent, point us toward the Second Coming of Christ. These Sundays move the church toward Advent with its focus on the new age that is to come.

As of today, Ordinary Time is over in the liturgical cycle. Next Sunday--the last Sunday of the church year--is Christ the King Sunday. Then, on the Sunday after next we begin a new church year on the First Sunday of Advent. May God be with us as we close out this church year. It has been a noteworthy year for St. John's. We have shared our dreams and vision for the church in the Desserts with the Pastor. We have refurbished our office building and the sanctuary. We have pledged or time, talents, and money in support of Christ's work through our congregation and presbytery. Just this weekend we successfully hosted a meeting of New Covenant Presbytery.

As we come to the close of this liturgical cycle, God is doing a new work here. The new pattern that God is stitching together has to do with three words: Missional, Connectional, and Incarnational. Our mission will become more hands on and less about giving money to others to do mission for us. Our relationships with others will become more about discovering what needs they have that are unfilled. We will then become incarnational as we meet those needs in the name of and as the representative of Christ. More and more, we will become the hands and feet of Christ serving people in this community and around the world. Less and less, we will be sending money out to other organizations to support them as they do mission for us. This is the new pattern that God is creating at St. John's. This is a new pattern for living out our mission statement of making disciples by meeting human needs. So we see, in more than ways than one, ordinary time is over.

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas, on November 14, 2010 (33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Monday, November 08, 2010

When a Tithe is not Enough

Text: Luke 18:9-14

Our story today is about the spiritual discipline of tithing (or "pledging," as we call it). If pledging is a spiritual discipline, what is spirituality? In the book Walking on Water, Tony De Mello describes spirituality as being awake. Getting rid of illusions. Spirituality is never being at the mercy of any event, thing, or person. Spirituality means having found the diamond mine inside yourself. Religion is intended to lead you there. (122)

A group of tourists is traveling through a beautiful countryside. But the curtains on the train are drawn and they don't see anything. They are all occupied in deciding who will have the seat of honor, who will be appreciated, who is best, who is prettiest or most talented. This continues to the end of the journey. If you can understand this, you will be free, you will understand what spirituality is.

The Pharisee in the temple is like a tourist on the train who compares himself to other passengers. The Pharisee, standing by himself in the temple, says, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." Such comparisons are not life giving. They are life stealing. They are anti-spirituality. They are anti-Christ.

If you ever can get beyond the continual personal comparisons, you may discover what reality is, who God is, for you will see yourself detached from one of the greatest illusions: the illusion that we have to be appreciated, beloved, successful, that we must have prestige, honor, power, and popularity. There is only one necessity! That necessity is loving. When you discover that, you are transformed. When life becomes prayer, spirituality overflows into what we do. (Ibid, 124)

That is how transformation comes. Then after the transformation we can engage in a spiritual discipline such as pledging with a completely different attitude. Giving back a percentage of our income becomes a flowering of our own inner life. Pledging becomes a spiritual discipline without any of the negative connotations of the word "discipline." We don't like the word "discipline" because is sounds too much like personal limitations, prison, or punishment. Discipline is when the principal spanks the rowdy child and that is no longer politically correct because we frown upon that kind of discipline.

Appropriate discipline is merely boundary setting which is healthy. No child or adult can prosper if he or she does not know what the boundaries are. A football game cannot be enjoyed if nothing is out of bounds. If you eliminate the goal line and the out of bounds lines on the sides that would denigrate the game of football. So it is with pledging. Pledging provides a boundary for our spiritual lives. It keeps us grounded in reality in the world of money and matter. It keeps us human. Without such grounding our spirituality would have no context, no field, no rules. Rules and disciplines keep us honest. Pledging helps keep us honest in our spiritual life.

Our giving, our tithing, comes from what Thomas Keating calls our "true self." Cynthia Bourjeault says of the true self, "Whatever 'true self' may look like when described theologically, operationally it involves the shift to a different kind of consciousness (called non-dual or 'unitive' in classic Christian terminology), which flows out from that deeper place within us. (Bourjeault, Centering Prayer, 104)

In contrast to the true self, the Pharisee in today's reading speaks from his false self. "The false self is always wounded; it comes into being specifically as a defense mechanism against perceived threats and deprivations during infancy and early childhood (and even in the womb). According to Thomas Keating, the false self arises out of what he calls 'the energy centers': woundings in the three core areas of security/survival, esteem/affection, and power/control. These woundings in turn set in motion a vortext of attractions (things a person requires in his/he life in order to feel safe and affirmed) and aversions (things that 'push his/her buttons). Keating's false self is not just egoic functioning per se, but a particularly maladapted egoic function in need of proper diagnosis and treatment." (Ibid, 103)

The Pharisee in our story sees himself as separate, as different from others. As he puts it, I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

Yet, as Thich Nhat Hahn points out, such separateness is an illusion. I can't say it better than him, so here is how he says it in his book called Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames.

"Who do you think you are? You are the other person. If you get angry with your son, you are getting angry with yourself. You are wrong to think that your son is not you. Your son is you. Genetically, physiologically, scientifically, your son is your continuation. That is the real truth. Who is your mother? Your mother is you. You are her continuation as a descendant, and she is your continuation as an ancestor. She links you to all those who came before, and you link her to all the future generations. You belong to the same stream of life. To think that she is a different entity, to think that you can have nothing to do with her is sheer ignorance. When a young man says, "I no longer want to have anything to do with my father, that is sheer ignorance, because the young man is nothing but his father.

As a mother, pregnant with your child, you had this insight, that your child is you. You ate for your baby, you drank for your baby, you took care of your baby. When you took care of yourself, you took care of your baby. You were very careful, because you knew that the baby was you. But by the time your child reaches the age of thirteen or fourteen, you begin to lose this insight. You and your child feel separated, less connected. You don't know how to improve your relationship, to make peace after a fight. Soon, the gap between the two of you grows bigger and more solid. Your relationship becomes very difficult and full of conflict.

It may seem like you are two separate entities, but if you look deeper, you will see that you are still one. So settling the dispute, restoring peace between you both, is like restoring peace within yourself, within your own body. You are your child are of the same nature, you belong to the same reality. (121-122)

The Pharisee couldn't make that connection between himself and others. He did not know that when he looked into the eyes of other people, even thieves, rogues, adulterers, or tax collectors, he was looking into the eyes of Christ. This is what Christ is - the great equalizer of people. This is what Christ does - makes us recognize our own connection to others. The giving of the pledge, when done by the true self, is a placing of ourselves into the ocean of life. It is returning energy back into the source from which it came to us.

So this tithing, or pledging as we call it, is nothing more than this: A sign of our connection to Christ, Christ's church, and one another as the people of Christ. It is a spiritual discipline that defines the boundaries between those who are playing on the field at this present time and those who are not. There are other ways to play on the field as well but today we are talking about the spiritual discipline of tithing, or pledging, because this is Stewardship Dedication Sunday. May the Spirit continue to guide each of us into all truth. May we continue to respond to the Spirit with our pledges, time, gifts and graces.

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on November 7 - 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Stewardship Dedication Sunday) at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Faithful Church

Text: Matthew 25:14-30

In 2005, William J. Cummins of Exxon, said: "All the easy oil and gas in the world has pretty much been found. Now comes the harder work in finding and producing oil from more challenging environments and work areas." This idea that all the oil had been found took off in the public consciousness and the "Peak Oil" concept led to a dramatic surge in oil prices.

When I started my ministry at St. John's on August 2, 2007, a barrel crude oil cost $81.27. Eleven months later the price of oil peaked at $157.98 on July 3, 2008 for nearly a 100% increase in price. But over the next 7 months the price of oil plunged by 79% and closed at $49.93 a barrel on February 10, 2009. Financial analyst and Elliott Wave Theorist, Robert Prechert, says this is probably the fastest commodity decline of this size in recorded history. (Robert Prechert, "The Elliott Wave Theorist," October 2010 Issue, p. 3) As the song says, "What goes up must come down." Making money off an investment is not an easy thing to do.

One of the servants in Jesus' parable was keenly aware of just how hard it is to make money on an investment and was paralyzed by his fear. The other two were bold investors and their risk paid off in a big way.

According to The New Interpreter's Bible, the word "talent" entered our language in the Middle Ages as a term for God-given abilities, "gifts and graces" and it came into the English language directly from this parable of Jesus. Yet the talents in this story refer to money. As we read in verse 18: "But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money." (25:18) (NIB, Vol VII, p. 453) Jesus is talking about stewardship of money in this parable.

The master gives different amounts of money to the servants based on their abilities. To one man he gave $150,00; to another he gave $100,000 and to another he gave $50,000. The master left the servants with the idea they would put their money to work in the marketplace and provide the master with a decent return. The modern parallel would have to be investing in the stock market. The assignment to make money in the marketplace was not an easy assignment. Even so, the servant who received $150,000 went off and traded with it and doubled his money to $300,000. The servant who received $100,000 doubled his money to $200,000. But the one who received $50,000 went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. We may assume that the hole in the ground this servant dug was not an exploratory oil well. It was instead a hole into which he put his money for safekeeping. Some people hide cash in their mattress. This man buried his money in the ground.

We know people who bury their money in the ground and some of them may be here among us this morning. Fear paralyzes us. So let's not be too quick to condemn the servant who buried his $50,000 in the ground. Maybe he had heard that only one in a thousand people who invest in the stock market make any money. The rest lose money. By burying his money in the ground at least he didn't lose any money and that is quite an accomplishment for an inexperienced investor. If you can break even your first year of investing you are doing well. Perhaps he buried it in the ground because he was thinking like Mark Twain, who said of the stock market: "October: This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February."

But the master did not laugh when the 3rd servant returned his $50,000 to the master. The master was angry with the 3rd servant and called him "a wicked and lazy servant!" He made him give his $50,000 to the servant who had $300,000. The master offered a wise saying then sent the servant who buried his money down there where he buried his money. He sent him to hell. Now that's not a good outcome.

Notice the master didn't give specific instructions about what to do with the money he gave his servants. Sometimes God doesn't give us specific instructions. God just points us in a general direction without a map—just to see what we'll do with it. Faithfulness is not following an instruction book. Faithfulness is active responsibility that takes initiative and risk. Don't be safe! Don't worry about what you don't have. Use what you do have as much as possible. Do something positive. Don't be safe! We Presbyterians need to hear that message: "Don't be safe!"

Has there ever been a time when this church didn't play it safe? I have in my office a copy of the letter some of the founders of this congregation took to the bank in order to secure a loan to build this sanctuary in which we now sit. The business plan these founding elders took to the bank for a loan envisioned an increase in membership from 300 or so such as we have today up to 3,000 or even 6,000 members based on the demographics of Meyerland and Westbury in the 1970s. The people who founded this church had a huge vision for this congregation! They had a passion for this place and built this sanctuary. We know today that their vision of 3,000 or 6,000 members never happened. Here we sit today with 300 or so members and less than 100 giving units. What happened to the vision? What goes up must come down. Remember Peak Oil?

So where are we today? This neighborhood is not the same as it was in the 1970s. There is more diversity and our congregation is richer because of that. This neighborhood is in transition. It is no longer the "coolest place to live" in the Houston area as it was when some of you moved here in the 60s or 70s. Yet, in 10 years or so, it may be one of the "coolest places to live" once again. I have heard Meyerland described as the next Bellaire and Westbury referred to as the next Montrose. Ten years from now the economic outlook will improve in this neighborhood. But not yet. So what do we do in the meantime? Do we just hang on and wait for things to get better? Yes, we do, but that's not all. We keep moving forward. We keep living into our mission statement of glorifying God by making disciples and meeting human needs.

Today we remember those faithful disciples in this congregation who have preceded us in death. They challenge us to be faithful and remind us to take risks with our money in order to support Christ's mission.

In the financial marketplace there is a decisive week before us. We have mid-terms elections on Tuesday. The Fed delivers their most anticipated statement every on Quantitative Easing 2 (QE2) on Wednesday. Will it be $250 billion or $2 trillion? We get the latest unemployment number on Friday. This is a huge week for the market.

And this is a huge week for St. John's Presbyterian Church as we anticipate Stewardship Dedication next Sunday. Remember as you fill out your pledge card this week that this church does not pay taxes and your gifts to this church are tax deductible. On the other hand, this church does not receive one penny of support from the Federal Government or State Government. Our church budget is not supplemented by our presbytery or any other congregation or organization. We do not have a list of 6,000 potential donors. All we have it us. In fact, like Gideon's small band of warriors, we have less than 100 pledge units. So your pledge counts for a lot here. Some of us are unemployed or otherwise unable to provide much support. Others of us will need to step up and give boldly. We have lost many generous givers who have died over the past year. Who will make up the difference? It will have to come from us. No one else is going to do it for us.

Faithfulness is a risky business but faithfulness has its rewards. May we hear on that great judgment day these sweet words: "Well done, good and trustworthy servant; enter into the joy of your Master."

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on October 24, 2010 - 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time - at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Thanks and No Thanks

Text: Luke 17:11-19

Imagine you are riding in your car toward the Mexican border at MacAllen, Texas. Driving south on US 77. Passing through Victoria. Passing just north of Corpus Christi. You finally make it to McAllen. You keep driving and soon see the "Welcome to Mexico" sign. And suddenly you have crossed the border between Texas and Mexico. What do you feel when you cross that border? A tinge of excitement? A sense of adventure? We may feel a heightened sense of awareness when we cross the border into another country.

There seem to be new possibilities when we cross a border. Perhaps we are a little uneasy because no one will know who we are in this other place. It's not home. Or maybe we feel a slight sense of release and exhilaration at the thought of finally being anonymous for a few hours or days, however we will be away from home. We don't have to worry so much about how we look since no one will know who we are. In that sense we can relax. But there is a degree of danger when you are in a place where no one knows who you are. If we don't know them and they don't know us, perhaps we feel a little edgy and a bit more aware of our surrounding. We feel some exhilaration. A sense of relief. Yet edgy and very aware of our environment. I imagine that is how Jesus felt when he was making his way toward the city of Jerusalem as he crossed over the border between Samaria and Galilee.

As he entered a village, ten men, all lepers, met him. Ten lepers. Now there's something you don't run across every day. What do we know about leprosy? We know from Harper's Bible Dictionary that leprosy in the Bible was a disorder affecting houses, fabrics and humans. Leprosy appeared as greenish or reddish spots in some fabrics and houses which sounds like a type of mold or mildew. This mold and mildew was contagious so there were rules that anyone entering a leprous house must bathe and anyone who eats or sleeps in a leprous house must bathe and wash their clothes. People also got leprosy. We are not sure what humans infected with leprosy looked like. We don't think it was the same as modern leprosy, which we call Hansen's disease. However they may have looked people with leprosy were certainly contagious so they were required to live apart from the community. Leprosy, like modern AIDS, was a socially unacceptable disease. Some people considered leprosy a punishment from God for sin. When someone recovered from leprosy, purification rites were performed by a priest. (Harper's Bible Dictionary, 555-556)

Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, had just crossed the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men with the leprosy disease met him. The ten lepers kept their distance but raise their voices, calling out, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" So the lepers recognized Jesus by name. They ask Jesus to have mercy on them. This may mean they are asking for a handout. They would need money to survive. Perhaps they were unemployed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statitics, 14.9 million Americans were out of work and the unemployment rate is 9.6 percent as of the end of August. Unemployment brings you down emotionally and financially. The lepers were probably depressed. Contact with other people was not allowed. No wonder they cried out, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"

They may have heard that Jesus had healed people afflicted with leprosy. So perhaps in this instance when the lepers cry out for mercy they are asking Jesus to heal them. We will have an anointing service for healing during worship on October 31, Halloween Day, or All Saints Day as we prefer to call it. Come for prayer and anointing for healing of emotional, mental, spiritual or physical dis-ease. You don't even have to say what you seek healing from or why you want the prayer. Perhaps you are feeling the need for Jesus' healing power like these ten lepers.

Knowing what we know about leprosy and about Jesus, we would expect Jesus to heal the lepers and continue on his way toward Jerusalem. However, remember that Jesus met these ten lepers in a village after he crossed over the border between Samaria and Galilee. Having just crossed the border, perhaps Jesus will be reluctant to attend to these lepers. Jesus may feel a little uneasy having just crossed the border. He may sense some danger here.

But Jesus overcomes any fear he may have faced. He calls the ten men with leprosy over to him. He takes a good look at them. What color is their leprous skin? Green like mold? Or pinkish red like mildew? After taking a good look at them, Jesus said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests."

"Go, show yourselves to the priests?" That would imply they were already healed. Lepers are supposed to show themselves to the priests after they are healed so the priests can perform purification rites. But the lepers have no visible proof that they have been healed. For all the lepers knew Jesus could be brushing them off.

The lepers walked away. What did they have to lose? If he didn't want to heal them they couldn't make him heal them. And if he had already healed them then they may as well go to the priests to be declared cured of leprosy. So they went, and while still on their way, became clean. Notice how the healing was a process. This was not an instant healing. As they were going, after 20 minutes, or 3 hours, or perhaps several hours, they became clean. Their leprosy went away. They were healed! All ten of them were healed! Jesus had healed their leprosy.

One of them, when he realized that he was healed, turned around and came back, shouting his gratitude, glorifying God. How far did he have to go — 20 yards? 2 miles? 20 miles? No matter the distance. One of the lepers was so relieved, so full of joy and so excited that Jesus had healed him that he came back and found Jesus. He shouted "Thank you! Bless you, Master! Thank you, sir! Thank you, Jesus, I appreciate your healing me." Ten lepers had shouted at Jesus, "Jesus, master, have mercy on us." Only one retured to shout his thanks to Jesus for healing him from leprosy. The scene is dramatic: "He kneeled at Jesus' feet, so grateful. He couldn't thank him enough—and he was a Samaritan." (Luke 17:16, MSG)

Say what? A Samaritan? That word Samaritan would sound as icky as a fingernail scratching on a chalkboard to the ears of Jesus audience. Aagh! A Samaritan. Even Jesus seems surprised. He says, "Were not ten healed? Where are the nine? Can none be found to come back and give glory to God except this outsider?" (Luke 17:17-18) The Jews regarded the Samaritans as foreigners. They were ethnic. They were people of color. They were different. Not like us. Not part of our group. The punchline of the story is also the scandal of the story: The outsider, the man who lived on the wrong side of the tracks, the one from across the border, is the only one of 10 lepers who returned to give thanks.

Is it not humbling when those whom we consider ourselves to be better than prove themselves better than us? Is it not humbling when those we call outsiders prove they are on the inside track when it comes to connecting with Jesus? Is it not humbling when those we try to keep from crossing the border into our own country prove by their actions that they are perhaps more worthy citizens of the Kingdom of God than we are?

Jesus healed 10 lepers and only one of them returned to expressed his thanks and the scandal is that the one who returned was a Samaritan. Sometimes we learn the most important lessons from those from whom we expect the least. If only we could listen to the people who have no voice. If only we could observe the people who are invisible. If only we had eyes to see life as a gift from God. Perhaps then we would say "Thanks" more than "No Thanks." And then Jesus would say to us what he said to the Samaritan leper who returned to give thanks: "Get up and go. Your faith has healed and saved you."

How often do we look and not see the lepers in our midst? Those whom no one wants to be around. Those who turn us off. Those who bring us down. Jesus wants to heal them, too. I think he wants to use us to bring healing to them. The remarkable truth is that if we open ourselves to be instruments of healing to the lepers among us, we find we have been as well. Perhaps we didn't realize we were even ill. Our illness is well concealed. No one can see the leprosy inside us. Sin is easy to see in others and harder to recognize in ourselves. I wonder if Jesus would say to us this morning what he did not say to the lepers whome he healed? I wonder if he would say to us, "Go and sin no more." I wonder if we would reply to Jesus, "Thanks, but no thanks."

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on October 10, 2010 (28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C) at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.