Monday, March 29, 2010

An Exercise in Humility

Text: Philippians 2:5-11

A little boy was sick on Palm Sunday and stayed home from church with his mother. His father returned from church holding a palm branch. The little boy had been finger painting while his father was at church. When he saw the palm branch in his hand he asked, "Why do you have that palm branch, dad?" "You see, when Jesus came into town, everyone waved Palm Branches to honor him, so we got Palm Branches today." The little boy replied, "Aw Shucks! The one Sunday I miss is the Sunday that Jesus shows up!"

Today, on the first day of Holy Week, we celebrate Palm Sunday. Imagine what it would have been like to be present on that first Palm Sunday when Jesus showed up. The clothes are in the washer. The dishes are in the sink. Yet you hear that parade a comin'. And you don't have time to think. You run outside to catch the sight. You see a man upon a colt. You run back inside your house. You grab a palm branch and a coat. You run and lay them on the street and cheer as he rides by. You know he has come to save you but you don't know exactly why. You notice as he approaches, right there upon his face, is something quite startling, an emotion hard to trace. And then when he gets right up close you see it with your own eyes, why, this man is crying and there are tears upon his face. You don't know why he would be what with all the people who stand and cheer. Yet in his heart Christ knows they soon will stand and jeer.

On his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus suspected he was riding a donkey to his own funeral. So it is that today is called not only Palm Sunday, a day of celebration, but also Passion Sunday, a day to remember Christ's suffering.

Our scripture today is not your usual Palm Sunday text. Rather, it is a selection from Paul's letter to the Church in Phillipi. In this text Paul quotes an ancient hymn of the church. And in this text Paul helps us understand Christ's motivation on Palm Sunday and throughout Holy Week. In our scripture today the Apostle Paul reminds us of Christ's humble service to humanity. Paul describes Christ as follows:

"When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process." (Phil. 2:7)

Christ exercised humility. Humility is not a popular concept in our culture. We view ourselves as strong and self-sufficient. We like to think we can make it on our own. We hold in high esteem the self-made man. Humility is often laughed at in our culture, leaving people with the notion that meekness equals weakness. Yet Paul recommends we follow Christ's example of humble service.

What is Christian humility? Perhaps first we should say what humility is not. Humility is not putting ourselves down or downplaying our skills and abilities. Humility is not a denial of our gifts. We are not to look down on ourselves or put ourselves down. That is not humility.

Rather, Christ is our model of true humility. Christ displayed humility by resisting the temptation to follow an easier calling. Christ humbled himself by refusing to deny his authentic self. Christ humbled himself by claiming his mission from God which was to give himself away to humanity. Humility does not forbid us taking an interest in our own affairs. It simply condemns a selfish preoccupation that ignores or prevents interest in the life of others. Humility finds the good in others. Humility finds the Christ in others.

  1. S. Lewis, the great English theologian, writes,

    "Pride leads to every other vice. It is the complete anti-God state of mind. Pride is spiritual cancer; it eats up the very possibility of love or contentment or even common sense." Pride, you see, isn't just a flaw on the surface of life that mars a man's other virtues. It is the BASIC SIN that underlies ALL evil. The eternal words, "God resisteth the proud and giveth grace to the humble." And here is the principle: pride is the basic sin, because it brings a resistance that stops our growth toward God; and humility is the primary virtue, because it brings receptivity of grace and growth.

During the confirmation class, we talked about sin with a capital S and sin with a little s. Little s sins include lying, cheating, and stealing. Big S sins come from thinking we do not need God. Pride is a Big S sin.

Saint Francis of Assisi had a simple formula for keeping himself humble. When people began to praise his virtue, he used to have a fellow monk sit down with him in his cell and tell him, candidly, everything that was wrong with him. We might observe that if Saint Francis had been married, his wife would have taken care of that task gladly. But, seriously, a good home of kindly, critical people is one of the best devices for keeping us humble, love that is truth, not flattery, where we care enough to cure each other.

The late, great Leonard Bernstein was once asked, "What was the most difficult position to fill in the orchestra?" He thought for a while and replied, "The position of the second violin." It seems that everyone prefers the prestige of the first violin. However, for the musical sound to be complete there is a need for the second violin.

There once was a young painter who had purchased his master teacher''s painting brush. He now would be a master painter himself. After he completed his first painting with the master''s brush, he took it to the curator of a famous museum. The man said, "You don''t need the master''s brush, you need the master''s spirit and mind." To be a servant of the Lord, you need His spirit and His mind.

You want to imitate Christ? Paul wanted to, and he had a struggle with it, because he knew his weakness, his pride. He said to the Philippians and to himself, "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being God himself, did not grasp at the prerogatives of his divine nature, but humbled himself and became a man: And being formed in fashion as a man, he humbled himself further, and became obedient unto death, not only to death, but obedient to the death of the vilest criminal - death upon the cross. Wherefore, God hath highly exalted him and given him a name which is above every name."

Dr. John Killinger of Samford University shares the story of a woman from the Shenandoah Valley who was painting at her easel in the woods one day when she was struck by rifle shots. When she came to she was in a hospital room, her body suspended above the bed in a sling.

She had lost so much blood and was in such a state of shock that the doctors were afraid to operate immediately to remove the bullets; they waited nearly a week to see if her condition would stabilize. Most of the time she lay hovering between life and death, in a state of semi-consciousness.

There was one important thing she remembered. People from the church she belonged to--though she did not attend regularly--cared for her. They came in shifts and sat in the room with her, praying for her.

She could not speak, and they did not know she was aware of their presence. Later she said, "I lay there in my sling blissfully aware of their coming and going. I felt as if I were gathered up in a cocoon of love. It did not matter if I lived or died. I was part of the beloved community."

That woman showed humility by receiving the support of her church family. Sometimes it is harder to receive than to give. Receiving with grace is a sign of humility.

Let this mind be in you. "Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you, in due time."

- - -

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on March 28, 2010.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Let's Not Pretend

Text: John 12:1-8

In our gospel reading today, Mary presents a sensuous gift to Jesus as a way of offering thanks for Jesus' resurrection of her brother, Lazarus. She wets Jesus' feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with them with very expensive perfume. Like a pouting child Judas Iscariot objects by pretending he would have preferred that the perfume had been sold and the profits given to the poor – maybe even a street person. That sounds good but Judas didn't mean it. Judas was what used to be known as an Indian giver. In today's lection, John could have been soft on Judas, saying he was "ethically challenged" or lacked "honesty enhancement," but he didn't. He called Judas a thief—exactly what he was. No need to pretend otherwise.

Judas' pretended concern was an attempt to cover his pilfering. As the Gospel narrator points out, it was pure pretense. Judas was greedy, it was a fatal flaw in his character and let to his terrible act of treachery. Instead of kissing Jesus' feet in thanksgiving like Mary, Judas will kiss Jesus cheek so the Roman guards know which one to arrest—the ultimate act of betrayal. The stingy spirit expressed by Judas is as small and mean as Mary's was expansive and giving. It's okay to be extravagant in our generosity. That's what Mary was doing. It was a beautiful act of sacrificial generosity.

Some years ago, there was a small tribe of Native Americans who lived in the state of Mississippi. They lived along the banks of a very swift and dangerous river. The current was so strong that if somebody accidentally fell in, they would likely be swept away to their death downstream. One day this tribe was attacked by another hostile Indian tribe. They found themselves literally with their backs up against the treacherous river. They were greatly outnumbered. Their only chance for escape was to cross the current, which would mean sure death for the children, the elderly, the weak, and the ill and the injured and likely death for many of the strong.
The leaders of the tribe huddled up to devise a plan. The logical thing, the reasonable thing, the expedient thing, the sensible thing was to leave the weak ones behind. They were going to be killed anyway why risk losing the strong in a futile effort to save the others? That was the rational answer but they couldn't do it! Instead, they chose to be extravagant in their generosity and they decided that those who were strong would pick up the weaker ones and put them on their shoulders. So, the little children, the elderly, those who were ill or wounded, were all carried on the backs of the stronger. With great fear, they waded out into the rapid waters of the river and they were met with a great surprise. To their astonishment, they discovered that the weight on their shoulders enabled them to keep their footing through the treacherous current and to make it safely to the other side. Their own extravagant generosity saved them. What they did was not the reasonable thing to do, but it was the right thing to do. The point is: If we who are strong and comfortable and well-fed, will reach out in generosity and help somebody in need, we will be surprised to discover that the life we save may also be our own.

In words and action, Jesus taught us that sometimes it's O.K. to be extravagant in our generosity. Speaking of generosity, I heard about a woman who was a "reverse tither." She lived on ten percent of her income and gave away 90% to worthy causes to her church and to religious schools and colleges, and orphanages and hospitals. She was extravagant in her generosity and she was one of the happiest persons you'll ever meet.

In a city church the pastor was confronted for the umpteenth time with the presence of a street person. A woman. At the end of the day. A busy day. He was heading home. But he was dedicated. It was not within his power to dismiss her, all bent and worn, war-wounded from the city front. She wanted a handout. That much was clear. But maybe she needed more, a place to sleep, perhaps. And were the shelters full? He knew they were. He was tired and wanted to go home. But he took seriously his calling and her presence as God's child needing a Christ-like touch. If only he could, he prayed silently and quickly. If only he could mediate such a touch. How many times he had prayed such prayers. How many times did it seem that they fell on deaf ears. If only once he could see result, some decisive and long-lasting life change. He greeted her. She looked at him, said she wanted the minister. He was trying to remember how much he had in his wallet; he would like to giver her at least a ten; he was hoping she would not need a place to stay as his resources were depleted, and the regular shelters he knew were full. All this flashed through his mind as she told him what she wanted. "Pray for me." Said she wasn't hungry. Said she had a place to stay. Said she had a bag full of "stuff." "Pray for me." He never saw her again after that day. Her only request was "pray for me." Physical appearance aside, she wanted prayer. She wanted anointing. She wanted a rich, fragrant spiritual blessing to drench her head to toe. "The poor you always have with you," the Master taught. And the Christ we won't have if we forget the fact of the Spirit. The most decisive work is done when a desperate life is drenched in the presence of Christ, by God's grace, in the Spirit with eternal hope. In this case it was through a simple prayer.

What about you--do you need a spiritual blessing? Do you need a prayer? Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead--that's why Mary anointed his feet--it was an act of thanksgiving. Christ has the power to renew your life. Don't pretend that prayer is meaningless. Don't pretend that you are so insignificant that Christ has no miracle for your life. God loves you. Surrender your heart to the love of Christ. Let the Spirit of Christ anoint your life with a fragrant spiritual blessing. Open your eyes and see how Christ has blessed you. Then walk on in thanksgiving for what God has done.

A third grader went home and told her mother she was in love with a classmate and was going to marry him. "That's fine," said her mother, going along with the gag. "Does he have a job?"

The little girl replied, "Oh yes. He erases the blackboard in our class."

Don't pretend that your job is unimportant. God has called you to serve God in the world. That means you are called to live a Christian life where you work--in the home, in the office, on the factory floor, in the school-house, on the farm, on the open road. Wherever we work, we represent Christ to the people around us. When they look at us, they see Christ. Don't pretend your job is unimportant. God has put you where you are for a purpose: To serve God where you live and where you work.

A group of children, confined to a basement play area on a rainy day, decided to "play church." One child was the preacher, another the organist, a couple kids were ushers, and the rest served as the congregation. One little guy said, "What about Jesus? Shouldn't Jesus be in church?" The rest agreed and the child who made the point was made "Jesus."

"What do I do?" he asked. "How do I play Jesus?"

He was told by some of the older children that they would tie him up to one of the support posts in the basement, pretending that it was the Cross. Then the others would call him names, throw things at him, and be mean to him in other ways. The little boy thought about that a minute and then said. "I don't want to play Jesus; let's just play church." As the Lenten season draws to a close and we confront once again the Crucifixion of Jesus, we are reminded of the cross each of us is asked to take up and bear in the name of Christ. To leave out the Cross is just to play church. Let's not pretend otherwise.

Next Sunday we will enter into Holy Week. It is a week when Jesus demonstrated the greatest generosity possible. As he himself put it: "No greater love hath a man than this, that he lay down his life for a friend." Now, that's the kind of generosity Christ wants from us. Christianity is not an easy religion. This is not a child's game we are playing. Real lives are at stake. Real sacrifices are required. Let's not pretend otherwise.

- - -

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on March 21, 2010.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Sin You Can't Keep a Lid On

Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

The Director of Christian Education was reading this story of the
Prodigal Son to her class, clearly emphasizing the resentment the
older brother expressed at the return of his brother. When she was
finished telling the story, she asked the class, "Now who was really
sad that the prodigal son had come home?" After a few minutes of
silence, one little boy raised his hand and confidently stated, "The
fatted calf." Well, that may be true but we're not going to talk about
the fatted calf this morning. Istead, we are going to talk about the
elder brother.

Sir Noel Patton was a renowned artist. He was known for his exquisite
and beautiful paintings of birds and flowers and children at play. But
in each of his paintings he would always put in the very corner some
grotesque object, such as a serpent, or an eel. This is what Christ
the master painter has done with this portrait. We see this loving
scene of the father and the prodigal in one another's embrace. But in
the very corner of the painting we see the grotesque face of the elder
as he is watching what is happening.

You see, Christ is trying to tell us that there are really two
prodigals in this story. There is the sin of the younger son is that
plain for all to see. Then there is the sin of the elder brother. His
sins are more subtle but nonetheless real. His is the sin of

Some say the mind is like a computer. When the elder brother heard
about the party planned for his brother, the prodigal son, that did
not compute. After all, his younger had blown it. He had wasted his
inheritance chasing prostitutes, embarrassed the family name, hurt the
family business. When his younger brother returned home, the elder
brother resented the way his younger brother was received. Why did the
elder brother take offense? It was the party that was so offensive.
The older brother has a point, of course. Let the penitent come home.
Both Judaism and Christianity provide for the return of sinners, but
to bread and water, not to the fatted calf; to sackcloth, not a new
robe; to ashes, not jewelry; to kneeling, not dancing; to tears, not
merriment. The elder brother resented that party. His resentment
created a war against his brother in his mind.

The history of resentment, says Leo Madow, professor at the Medical
College of Pennsylvania, is the history of Humankind. If we really
feel steamed about something (as we rightly express it), we can go
from zero pressure to over 500 lbs. per square inch within a short
time. The target can be a friend, a spouse, a child, a neighbor, a
co-worker—even the person who promised to fix the vacuum cleaner. It
can be a 43-year-old woman we know of, with two children, whose
husband left her for another woman, and now she faces the full
financial support of the family. She's resentful. Or a woman who
resents her husband's boss and company so much it is destroying what
could be one of the better homes around. Or a person with a chronic
illness, now facing the prospect their condition will never get
better. Or a person nearing retirement, watching their retirement go
up in smoke because of bad investments by the fund trustees. Or a high
school student who didn't make the team ... or cheerleader ... or
first chair band ... or the leading role in the school play.
Resentment. You can't keep a lid on it.

Resentment pops up early in the Bible—with the two sons of Adam and
Eve. Cain and Abel are a prototype of the two brothers in today's
parable. Cain resented Abel because Abel received more favorable
treatment. His offering was acceptable to the Lord and Cain's wasn't.
Resentment was kindled (as the Bible puts it) in Cain, until it
exploded and he summoned his brother out into a field and killed him.
Murder is the ultimate destructive manifestation of resentment.

Robert A. Schuller, young Robert, tells of getting into an argument
with his older sister when he was eight. "You're a pig!" he screamed
when she refused to give him one of his own toys. Their dad,
television preacher Robert H. Schuller, heard what was going on. He
came into the room and said to young Bob, "Robert, don't you ever call
your sister a pig again."

"But, Dad, she is!" he objected.

"If you call her a pig, Robert, you're calling me a pig, too!" said
the older Schuller. Young Bob had to think about that for a while. He
certainly didn't think his dad was a pig. His father could tell that
he didn't fully understand what he was saying. "Robert, if your sister
is a pig, then I'm a pig. She is my child! I can't have a pig for a
child unless I'm a pig. When you insult your sister, you're insulting
me, too. When you mock or belittle yourself, you're doing the same
thing to me. You're my son.

"The same thing is true for you and God or for your brothers and
sisters in the human race and God. When you belittle yourself, you're
belittling God. When you insult your neighbor, you're insulting God."
Young Robert said he never forgot that lesson.

It's a lesson all of us need to learn. Can't we all get along? We can
if each of us will open our hearts to the love of Jesus Christ.
(ChristianGlobe Illustrations, Robert A. Schuller, Getting through
What Your Going Through, quoted by King Duncan, ChristianGlobe
Networks, Inc.)

Pete Richards was a lonely and bitter man. His life had started out in
such a promising way. Despite his growing up in a poor family in New
York City, Pete Richards was a shining star on the basketball court.
God had given him a gift that Pete used to get a full scholarship to a
big eastern university. While in college, Pete Richards not only made
his team a winner, but he established himself as a fine student with a
very promising career ahead of him in business.

And then came Viet Nam. Because Pete had been in the ROTC in college,
he graduated with a Second Lieutenant's commission, and after just six
months of additional training, Pete found himself in the jungles of
Viet Nam responsible for a rifle company. One night while on patrol,
Pete Richards' dreams were suddenly shattered by a land mine.
Miraculously, he survived, but it meant the loss of both legs, and
nearly 18 months in a veteran's hospital.

For Pete Richards, there would be no more basketball, no promising
career on Wall Street, and as far as he could see, no more life worth
living. He became withdrawn from even his family and friends, and it
was clear that each day, the bitterness in his soul was taking his

Too proud to take the assistance offered to him by his family, Pete
became one of the hundreds of faceless men on the streets of New York
asking passersby for a handout. He had found a great spot just outside
the steps leading into St. Thomas' Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue.
After all, he reasoned, those rich churchgoers owe me something for my
time in Viet Nam.

It was on a day when Pete was feeling particularly sorry for himself,
that a young man about Pete's age stopped by his wheelchair, and said,
"Hi! Mind if I sit down by you for a while?" "It's a free country,"
said Pete, "suit yourself." The stranger introduced himself as Dan
Ferris, and Pete was startled when he took out a thermos of coffee and
some deli sandwiches, and offered them to the hapless man in the
wheelchair. At first, Pete refused the kindness, but he was really
hungry, and the food mellowed him so that he and Dan began to talk.
Pete actually enjoyed their conversation about growing up in the City,
their experiences in college, and the nightmare they shared in Viet

The next day, Dan was back with more sandwiches and coffee. Slowly, he
began to gain Pete's confidence, and their meeting by the steps of the
church became a daily ritual. One day, Dan told Pete about a friend of
his who was starting a course to train people to use computers. He
asked if Pete would be interested. At first, Pete's old bitterness and
resentment put up a wall of resistance, but Dan's loving insistence
finally won out. The next day, Dan came to Pete's single room, helped
him get shaved and dressed, and they set off for the computer school.

Pete Richards turned out to be a computer genius, and today he lives a
fruitful and productive life. No matter where he goes, Pete never
tires of telling anyone who will listen about a man he met on Fifth
Avenue whose love gave him back his life. "(56 Stories For Preaching,
CSS Publishing, Lima, Ohio, 1993, 1-5567-3636-3)

In this parable, Christ challenges us to reach out to those who are
lost in the sin of resentment. And if we should find ourselves
torturing ourselves with resentment like the elder brother in the
parable, Christ challenges us to LET IT GO.

Warning, Remembrance and Hope in God

Text: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Radio preacher and best-selling author Chuck Swindoll once spoke to a group of pastors. He told about a man who was mountain climbing in the Sierra Mountains of California. In one particularly difficult section of his climb, he pulled himself on to a ledge only to find a six foot timber rattlesnake looking at him with his mouth open and tail rattling. The man froze. The rattler struck. The man moved so that the snake's fangs barely missed grazing his neck. Still, the snake's fangs got caught in the man's pullover sweater. He could feel beside his neck the snake trying to get loose, so the man reached back to grab the rattler's head.

Unfortunately, this caused him to lose his balance and fall back, rolling down an incline with the six foot rattler still attached to his sweater. His progress came to a halt on a ledge against a little bush. Finding himself leaning over a precipice with a large rattlesnake wrapped around his head, he got a death grip on the snake's head and began to squeeze. He said later he could feel the hot venom dripping down his neck from the snake's fangs that were still caught in his pullover. He squeezed for a long time until he was sure the snake wasn't moving anymore. Keeping his death grip on the snake's head, he began to work the fangs out of his pullover. He unwound the snake from his head and kept squeezing. He squeezed so hard that his hands seized up and he was forced to walk down the mountain with the snake still in his grip. When he got back to camp, his buddies had to pry his fingers off the snake.

After telling this story Swindoll looked around at this group of pastors and said, "There are some of you pastors right here who are feeling the hot venom on your neck right now. You have played with sin, and it is about to take you down." (1. Tommy Nelson, The 12 Essentials of Godly Success (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005), p. 76.)

That's powerful storytelling. You might think a group of pastors would not need to be reminded of the power of sin. You would be wrong. To be a human being is to be tempted.

In today's lesson from I Corinthians, St. Paul is speaking to people who are, for the most part, recent converts to Christ. They have come out of a decadent culture, much like our own. He is reminding them of how easy it is to slip back into the old ways. He takes them back to the story of the Exodus from Egypt. While Moses was on the mountain the people slipped back into the idolatry and sexual immorality that had been part of their life in Egypt. Their backsliding, according to Exodus 32, offended God and their punishment was severe. Paul writes, "The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry. We should not commit sexual immorality," Paul continues, "as some of them did and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the Lord, as some of them did and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us . . . ."

Strong stuff just like Swindoll's story about the snake. Still, many of us need to heed the warning.

To be human is to be tempted to sin. Even Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, though without sinning. If the only perfect man who ever lived could be tempted, none of us is exempt.

At the zoo in Forth Worth, Texas is a building where tropical birds are kept. The hallway where the people walk is dark; the birds are in lighted cases of glass. All along each side of the building is a long case that looks like a tropical rain forest. It has a miniature waterfall, a pool, trees, and all sorts of plants. Among the trees and rocky ledges the small, brightly colored birds fly. As people watch this, they eventually become aware that there is no glass between them and the birds. They could reach in and touch the birds if they chose. Why don't the birds fly out? A sign above the cage explains that the birds are afraid of darkness, and when it gets dark, they go to sleep. They love the light and will not deliberately fly from the light into the darkness.

That's a major difference between tropical birds and humans. Given the right circumstances we will wander into the darkness. (

No one is immune to temptation. Paul writes, "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall! No temptation has seized you except what is common to [humanity] . . ." Paul was writing to church people who had gotten the idea that because of their commitment to Christ, they were somehow immune to the temptations that vex the rest of humanity.

A Facebook friend posted a photo of an exotic monkey in a small cage. Here is what he wrote about the photo. "Some 20+ years ago, while visiting St. Thomas (one of the US Virgin Islands), a local offered to give my group a private tour of some of the island's hidden treasures. One of the places he took us was a building courtyard filled with makeshift cages housing large primates, cats and reptiles. At the time, I thought it was really cool to see such wild animals up close. It wasn't until I was much older (and hopefully a little wiser) that I realized that he had taken us to a facility that was part of an illegal, black-market ring trafficking exotic animals." That is the way temptation works on us. It seems cool at the time but it entraps us as the traffickers trapped that monkey. This is true for both Christians and non-Christians.

We are all tempted. We are all tested. No one is exempt. Yet, Paul tells us, "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it." -1 Cor 10:13

Thomas Keating tells a story about how such monkeys are trapped. He says a monkey in the forest came across some sweet meat inside a trap. The trap was set so that the monkey could get his hand inside the trap and grab the meat but he could not withdraw his hand from the trap as long as he held on to the meat. While holding the meat with his hand inside the trap the monkey became aware of a several hunters coming toward him. The monkey could let go of the sweet meat and withdraw his hand from the trap and escape the hunters but he could not bring himself to let go of the sweet meat that so tempted him. Soon the monkey was easily trapped and became sweet meat for the hunters as was the custom in their culture. So it is with us and sin. When we can't let go of the sin that entraps us we may soon find that we have lost it all. No wonder Jesus taught us when we pray to say, "Lead us not into temptation." That ought to be part of every believer's prayer.

The secret to resisting temptation is to stay connected to God and to stay connected to other believers. Besides making us want to run from God, sin also makes us want to isolate ourselves from other believers. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: "Sin demands to have a man by himself. It withdraws him from the community. The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more disastrous is this isolation. Sin wants to remain unknown. It shuns the light. In the darkness of the unexpressed it poisons the whole being of a person."

Leadership expert John Maxwell put it this way, "Sin pushes the person out of the community of believers, and being away from other Christians prevents us from receiving the benefit of accountability. It's a vicious cycle. As the saying goes, prayer prevents us from sin, and sin prevents us from prayer. If you're harboring sin in your life, confess it now and receive God's forgive­ness. Clear away what's preventing you from connecting with God." (Partners In Prayer, Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996, pp. 53-54.)

Kent Crockett, in The 911 Handbook, puts it like this: "The alcoholic never dreamed he would end up in the gutter when he took his first drink. But he could remember saying, 'One drink never hurt anyone.'

"The man who cheated on his wife never dreamed he would lose his wife and children because of yielding for one fleeting moment. But he could remember thinking, 'Who will ever know?'

"The fish who took the bait never dreamed a hook was inside and he would end up in a frying pan. But he couldn't see the man standing on the shore with a fishing pole at the other end of the line." (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997, pp. 32-33.)

Some of you will think that, in the words of the old joke, "I've quit preaching and gone to meddling." But families are being torn apart, lives are being ruined and even being lost by the oldest vices known to humanity. And it doesn't have to be. Flee from temptation. Stay connected to God and your church family. Much is at stake, perhaps even your very soul.

There is a way out of sin. Confess it. Repent. Take another path. This is possible no matter what sin you my face. As Paul puts it in our text today: "No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it." (1 Cor 10:13) As the old children's song says, "I am weak, but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so."

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from 1 Cor 10:1-13 on March 7, 2010 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Stay on Track

Philippians 3:17-4:1

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.

I love maps. One of my favorite maps is an upside down map of the world. It was made upside down to remind the viewer that when looking at planet earth from outer space there is no such thing as north or south. North and south are mere perspectives that help orient us inhabitants of planet earth who are stuck here by the force of gravity or God's will or perhaps both. We humans have a strong impulse to locate ourselves in the universe. Sometimes we use statistics to determine where we are on the map. Presbyterians rely on statistics to determine where we are are on the map and how we are doing.

This is the time of year when each congregation must turn in the Annual Statistical Report to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The statistics say we have a older congregation. We have 138 members over 65 years. We have 120 members between ages 45 and 65 years. We have 34 members under age 45 years. Nearly half of our members are older than 65 years. We have a mature congregation. This is true of very many Presbyterian congregations. While we benefit from the acquired wisdom and reliable support of the older members, we also look to the future with a sense of concern.

In the Houston Belief paper last Thursday, Kate Shellnut discussed "Five facts about race and faith: Houston's struggle for church diversity." She notes Lakewood Church with 43,000 attendees is a third white, a third black and a third Hispanic, and says megachurches are more likely to be diverse because minority groups find comfort in the large number of fellow members. She also lauds the diversity of Willcrest Baptist with more than 40 nationalities represented. Its congregation has gone from nearly entirely white back in the early '90s to a mixed, multiracial ministry with an active program for international missions. Shellnut says a decade ago, just 7 percent of all religious congregations in America could be considered diverse. Attending diverse churches has the greatest effect on white people, who tend to change their general views on race relations, immigration and interracial marriage as a result.

I think we do a good job of including all races in the leadership of this congregation. With 290 active members, we need just a couple more black or Hispanic members to reach the 20% required to be termed a "diverse congregation." Here at St. John's we have 236 white members, 50 black members and 6 Hispanic members. We have several African nations represented in our membership inlcuding Cameroon, Congo, Nigeria, Sudan, and Uganda.

Paul was keeping track of a congregation he had started in the city of Philippi. He wrote them a letter to thank them for their support of his ministry and to tell them he was sending them his colleague in ministry, Epaphroditus. That letter is now know to us as the book of Philippians in our New Testament.

Phillippians gets its name from the city of Philippi. Lets map the city of Philippi as it was in the days of the Apostle Paul nearly 2000 years ago. Philippi was a city in Macedonia just across the Mediterranean Sea north of Africa and east of Italy. Philippi in Paul's day was a city of 10,000 people. Agriculture was the chief business and especially the production of grain and wine. There was no significant Jewish population there. The most influential group were the Italian aristocracy. The city flourished under Roman administration, discipline and culture. As a Roman colony Philippi enjoyed special privileges such as not having to pay taxes to Caesar. Latin was the official language and the cult of the emperor had a strong presence in the city. The mixed population of Philippi meant that various religious cults would have been practiced in the city, alongside the official cult of the emperor. So Paul's reference to Jesus as "Lord" in his letter to the Philippians may have been intended as a deliberate challenge to the loyalty they were expected to give to the Roman emperor as Lord.

Both Paul and the Philippian congregation had been through some tough times together and had developed some inside jokes. Paul may have been making an inside joke in Philippians 3:20 when he writes: "We're citizens of high heaven!" Citizenship had been a big issue when Paul was starting the church in Philippi. While preaching in the city Paul had been accosted by a fortune telling woman possessed by an evil spirit. Paul cast the evil spirit out of the woman and thereafter she was no good in telling fortunes. Her owner claimed Paul had damaged his merchandise (the fortune teller whom he owned) and had Paul thrown in jail. While in jail in Philippi Paul demanded his civil rights as a Roman citizen which included entitlement to a just trial. In his later letter to Philippi Paul refers to his citizenship being in heaven. We can almost hear the congregation muttering, "That's not what you said when you were in jail here — you claimed then to be a citizen of Rome!"

Paul says our citizenship is in heaven but Paul's vision of heaven is broader than just a place we go after we die. Paul envisions heaven as something that will be brought down to earth. Paul sees God's salvation in Christ as encompassing everything in creation that was lost when Adam sinned. This includes the ground that was cursed, the trees, the animal kingdom and humans. Even 2000 years ago, Paul presents a holistic view of salvation.

Paul believes planet earth is still on God's map and God is charting a course toward salvation for our entire planet. God is not abandoning space ship earth but God is still working to transform this planet and to restore what was lost when sin entered the world. God is still active on our planet working for the salvation of everything that exists.

And we are to work with God for the salvation of the world. Teresa of Avila said: "Christ has no body on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion is to look out to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now." God is working for the salvation of all creation and calls us to work with Him on this grand project.

Presbyterians are very intentional about keeping track of our membership. I appreciate when you will help me, as your pastor, keep track of who needs my attention by telling me when we have people in the hospital or people who need to be added to the prayer list. It is vital that we keep track of one another spritually, emotionally, and health wise. In this congregation, we do a good job of keeping track of one another in those respects. Paul admonishes the Church in Phillippi: "Keep track of those you see running this same course, headed for this same goal." Maybe Presbyterians get their penchant for statistics from the Apostle Paul.

Paul says God's map of the universe includes the salvation of the entire planet earth. Let's broaden our map of God's salvation to include planet earth and the entire universe. Let's chart a course for how we can cooperate with God in achieving the salvation of all creation. So let's keep track of one another and stay on track as we cooperate with God's plan of salvation for all creation. That was Paul's invitation and challenge to the church he founded in Philippi 2000 years ago. And this is Christ's invitation and challenge to St. John's Presbyterian Church today.

We keep track of one another by weeping with the one who weeps and laughing with the one who laughs. Paul's message to the church members in Philippi is Christ's message to this congregation: "My dear, dear friends! I love you so much. I do want the very best for you. You make me feel such joy, fill me with such pride. Don't waver. Stay on track, steady in God." Christ wants us to keep track of one another and to stay on track.


Pastor Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on 28 February, 2010 (2nd Sunday in Lent, Year C)