Monday, February 22, 2010

The Creator's Benefits Plan

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Romans 10:8b-13

at St. John's Presbyterian Church on February 21, 2010


Rom. 10:8b-13

But what does it say? "The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); 9because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame."

12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved."


More and more people are losing their jobs in this poor economy. When they lose their jobs they lose their benefits, including health care. The politicians in Washington have been having a health care debate. In our text today, the Apostle Paul talks about the Creator's benefits plan. "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." In that one word, "saved," Paul describes the creator's benefits plan. Our challenge is how best to share the Creator's Benefits Plan with others.

Paul feels obligated to preach to Gentiles (Rom. 1:14). Jesus describes salvation in a parable in which servants compel people to come to a banquet (Luke 14:23). The life of faith compels us to love others. Grace is so extraordinary; it has been known to compel people to do extraordinary things, to do things that fill one with dread, to go to places one would rather not go—like church.

In this church we do not focus so much on whether we are saved. We consider that to be God's business. Our business is to serve. We are saved to serve. Serve is what we do well here at St. John's. We have more effective outreach programs and projects per member than any other church I have known. Where we fall short in this church is in the area of making disciples by sharing our faith.

When you find something that brings pleasure into your life, you want to share it. A new place to eat, a good place to buy clothes, an excellent movie. We share with our friends that which improves our lives. So it is with our faith. When we have the love, joy and peace of Christ residing in our heart, we want to share it. And that is how the Christian community continues to expand. Word-of-mouth. We can do all the advertising in the world, but research shows that two-thirds to three-fourths of all new church members in this country responded because a friend or family member invited them. In fast growing churches, the range is two-thirds to seven-eighths, and in very rapidly growing churches invitations from friends or family members account for more than 90 percent of new members. (Schaller, September 3, 1975). " George G. Hunter, III, TO SPREAD THE POWER, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987).)  Perhaps we fall short in sharing the faith because it is not a priority in our lives.

I read about an executive hirer, a "head-hunter" who goes out and hires corporation executives for other firms, who once said, "When I get an executive that I'm trying to hire for someone else, I like to disarm him. I offer him a drink, take my coat off, then my vest, undo my tie, throw up my feet and talk about baseball, football, family, whatever, until he's all relaxed. Then, when I think I've got him relaxed, I lean over, look him square in the eye and say, "What's your purpose in life?" It's amazing how top executives fall apart at that question.

He continued, "Well, I was interviewing this fellow the other day, had him all disarmed, with my feet up on his desk, talking about football. Then I leaned up and said, 'What's your purpose in life, Bob?' And he said, without blinking an eye, 'To go to heaven and take as many people with me as I can.' For the first time in my career I was speechless." Too many of us are speechless when it comes to sharing our faith.

One way we can share our faith is by showing hospitality to visitors. Our Evangelism Committee has been having a discussion about how to do that. We talk about how we can be a more friendly congregation. The assumption is that if our church was more friendly then we would be growing in our membership and mission and spiritual life together.

Mark Galli recently wrote an article in Chrisitanity Today titled: "Should Churches Be as Friendly as Bars?"  He notes, after home, churches still rank as the "friendliest place in town." Then come restaurants and bars, followed by grocery stores and coffee shops.

Gallis says we all recognize how much cultural clout the church has lost in the last century. The reasons for that are broad and complex, but he wonders if one reason is that too many churches strive to be perceived as friendly.

Think of any vital, critical institution in our country, and the representatives of that institution. Are we primarily looking for friendliness in our bank teller? In our senator? In our therapist? In our oncologist? It's a bonus if they are nice, but what we really want from the emergency room or Congress or our bank is an institution that is competent and which takes us seriously.

Gallis suggests that the culture no longer takes the church seriously because we don't take ourselves seriously? Could it be that the more we strive to be as friendly as a bar, the more we'll be viewed as seriously as people view a bar?

Galli interviewed The Message translator and spiritual theologian Eugene Peterson a few years ago. They were talking about the extraordinary efforts some churches make to be user-friendly, to be accessible, to be warm and inviting. Peterson said that he believes that visitors don't come to church to be entertained or to have people fawn over them. More than anything, he said, people want leaders in the church to take them seriously.

More than anything, they want to meet with other people who also struggle with life's deepest questions. They want to be with people who also know they are loved by a God who died for them. They want to join a company whom the Father in Heaven steadily draws closer to himself. They want to join a company of the committed who want to do more than be entertained at church or meet people in bars, who want to give themselves to a hurting world, even if it hurts.

When you belong to the fellowship of Christ, to the company of the committed, comfort is not the word that will describe your life.

Maintaining a sense of belonging is not easy. You will find yourself worshiping with people who irritate you, people with whom you disagree, people you find difficult to forgive at times. But the very reason you put up with their flaws and stupidities, and they with yours, is that you both belong to a family you cannot escape.

Furthermore, you don't really belong to a group until people feel free enough to tell you what they really think of you and free enough to talk about the deepest, most troubling realities.

In a place where people really belong, they are free to talk about the most uncomfortable things—sin and salvation, hate and forgiveness, suffering and hope, death and life. And they learn the fine art of forbearance and forgiveness. Merely friendly churches avoid such unpleasantness. But churches that take people seriously cannot avoid it.

God forbid that we would become cold, aloof, and rude to one another! And what a delight it is to walk into a church and to be greeted with warmth and befriended in practical ways. May our church be known for our hospitality—but also so much more.

It is startling, in fact, how little emphasis the Bible puts on friendliness as such. One of the few times the idea comes up explicitly, Jesus says this: "There is no greater love than that a man should give up his life for a friend." (John 15:13)

You cannot take another more seriously than that.

We need to learn to perceive one another and our guests as children of God. Look at another person and see the Christ in them. Then Paul's message begins to make sense, when he says, "For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'" (Romans 10:12-13)

The Creator's Benefits Plan is our salvation. Let's also make it our proclamation.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Observations Upon Braving a Gargoyle

Isaiah 6:1-8

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham

at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on Feb. 7, 2010

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (after Ephiphany), Year C

This week I was blessed to attend the Winter Lecture Series at Austin Theological Seminary. The event preacher was Brian Blount who is the new president of my alma mater, Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Listening to him preach reminded me of my first days at the seminary. Those were days of struggle and study and preparation for the ministry of Word and Sacrament to which God had called me. Believe me, it wasn't easy.

Have you ever braved a gargoyle? That is what I had to do at seminary. The gargoyle sat atop one of the Victorian Gothic style academic buildings called Watts Hall on the seminary campus. Watts Hall served as the administration building for the seminary and also contained several classrooms. It stands as the first building one encounters upon entering the seminary campus. And one of the remarkable features of Watts Hall is the gargoyle perched atop the left corner of the roof. This gargoyle was a fearsome creature that signified to me the terror of my first few weeks as a seminary student. In particular, that gargoyle lurking atop Watts Hall symbolized a horror called "Hebrew School."

"Hebrew School" is the name given the first course a student may take upon entering seminary. It is a six week crash course in the Hebrew language. You have to pass Hebrew school in the summer in order to enter the seminary as a full time student in the fall.

How well I remember my apprehension on the first day of Hebrew School in August of 1992 as I passed beneath that gargoyle who stared down at me with a look of disdain. In response to God's call to seminary, I had left a full time job as Director of Christian at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Tennessee. My wife, Jana, and I had packed a U-haul van and moved our belongings 740 miles from Jackson, Tennessee to Richmond, Virginia. We crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains on what seemed to be the hottest day of the decade. About midnight, we finally stopped at Charlottesville, exhausted from the heat, the driving and the stress of moving. The next morning we arrived at our seminary apartment. I went to Watts Hall (under the gargoyle) and got a key to our apartment on campus. I unlocked the door and Jana and I collapsed on the floor in the living room. Our brief respite was interrupted by the shocking realization that the tiny apartment was too small. It would not hold all the stuff in our tightly packed U-Haul. About 10 a.m. several seminary students arrived and offered to help us unpack. Somehow, to our great relief, everything did fit in the tiny apartment. That was a good thing because the next day I started Hebrew School.

Dr. Carson Brisson was the professor of Hebrew at Union Seminary. Although still a young man, Dr. Brisson had spent a couple of years studying Hebrew in Jerusalem. His good sense of humor helped me overcome some of my anxiety. But that anxiety was soon to return as I got my first look at the Hebrew alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet looks like a series of squiggly lines with some dots placed around at seemingly random intervals. The alphabet had to be memorized the first night because we would be tested on it the next morning. Beyond the alphabet, the next startling revelation I learned about the Hebrew language that first day is that the letters of the words run from right to left instead of from left to right as in English. So not only would I have to learn the alphabet of squiggly lines but I would have to read the language backwards, from right to left.

That first day of Hebrew School confirmed the fear I had felt about entering seminary. To be honest, I was not sure I could pass the class. I had talked my wife into moving 740 miles in order for me to be a full-time student for two years. If I failed, everyone would know it--everyone from those 650 church members in Jackson, Tennessee to my mother and father and brothers to my wife and friends. If I could not pass Hebrew school, I would look like a fool. The fear of failure would haunt me for the next six weeks as I struggled with Hebrew school. Every day as I trudged to class through the heat of summer the gargoyle atop Watts Hall kept a beady eye on my progress. The gargoyle reminded me that failure was always a possibility. Some days that gargoyle sneered at me and said that failure was inevitable.

Over the course of those six weeks in the summer of 1992, I learned to stare back at that gargoyle. I defied the gargoyle. I faced my fear. I braved a gargoyle that signified to me the fear of failure. Fear of failure is an enemy common to us all. We have all faced the fear of fear and the embarrassment of looking foolish in the eyes of those we admire. This fear is common to human nature--so common that it fills the pages of the New Testament.

For example, the disciple we know as Peter faced the gargoyle of fear of failure. Peter braved a gargoyle once. You can read all about it in the fifth chapter of Luke. Jesus was teaching as he sat in Peter's boat on the Sea of Galilee. (In this story, Peter is called Simon because that was his name before Jesus called him to be a disciple and renamed him Peter.) When Jesus finished teaching the crowd from his seat in Peter's boat, Jesus told Peter to put out into the middle of the lake and throw out the nets for a catch of fish. At that moment, Peter faced a gargoyle called fear of failure. Remember that Peter and his business partners had fished all night and not caught a single minnow, much less a Philistine catfish. So Simon knew good and well the fish weren't biting.

Peter did not want to embarrass himself and Jesus by going through the routine of rowing to the middle of the lake, letting down the huge commercial fishing nets, pulling them up and hearing Jesus say, "What have you there Peter?" And Peter did not want to say, "Nothing. Not a single thing, master." Such a spectacular failure would embarrass Peter and make Jesus look silly. Peter faced the gargoyle of the embarrassment of failure. But he somehow found the courage to try. He accepted Jesus' challenge. He rowed his boat to the middle of the lake and threw out the commercial fishing nets. And it worked! Big time. Two boats nearly sank hauling in all the fish they caught. I can almost hear Jesus shouting with glee.

But Peter reacts to this miracle in a strange way. He and the other fisherman are so totally awed by the power of Jesus as a five-star fisherman that they stand in the boats with their mouths agape and fear in their eyes. Peter is so overcome by the power of the Lord against the gargoyle of failure that he falls at Jesus feet and says: "Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man." Jesus smirks a minute (or what that a giggle I heard from him?) and says, "Do not be afraid. From now on you will be catching men." With that they brought their boats to land, left everything, and became his followers. (Luke 5:1-11)

Fear is a common reaction when you brave a gargoyle. Fear was my feeling as I faced Hebrew School. Fear was Simon's reaction after he braved the gargoyle of failure. And fear was Isaiah's reaction after he braved the seraphim before the throne of God. Those seraphim may have looked like gargoyles to Isaiah. The serpentine creatures called seraphim were stationed above the throne of the Lord like that gargoyle that sat atop Watts Hall. The seraphim cried to one another: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!" At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke. Then Isaiah said, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am in over my head! I am a sinful human standing in the presence of the holy God of the universe." Isaiah was filled with fear as he braved the real-live gargoyles called seraphim.

What happens next? Then one of the seraphim flew to Isaiah, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched Isaiah's mouth with it. "See," he said, "now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged." What an amazing situation! A real-live gargoyle told Isaiah in so many words, "You have what it takes because of what I have given you."

Finally, what is the purpose of braving a gargoyle? What was the result of my braving the gargoyle at Union Presbyterian Seminary? What was the result of Simon Peter's braving the gargoyle in the waters of Lake Genesserat? What is the result of Isaiah's braving the gargoyle in the heavenly courtroom of God? The result is the same in every case. The one who has braved the gargoyle is sent out to serve God. I became a Presbyterian minister after braving the gargoyle. Peter became a disciple of Jesus after braving the gargoyle. Isaiah became a prophet after braving the gargoyle. As Isaiah says, "Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, 'Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?' 'Here I am,' Isaiah said; 'send me!'" (Isaiah 6:1-2a, 6-8)

At some point in your life, you will be called to brave a gargoyle. The name of that gargoyle may not be Hebrew School or go fishing or seraphim. The name of that gargoyle may be cancer, depression, addiction, or graduate school. The name of your gargoyle will be whatever challenge you must face in order to survive and fulfill your mission on earth. God has a plan for your life. To accomplish God's plan for you, you may have to brave a gargoyle. You may fear the embarrassment of failure. But if you have faith in God and believe in your heart that you are pursuing God's will for your life, you will find the courage to brave the gargoyle. And after you succeed in braving the gargoyle, God will send you out to fulfill your mission in the world.