Monday, April 26, 2010

Believe It or Not

Text: Acts 9:36-43

This morning as I drove to church, a large spaceship landed in the parking lot of Westbury Methodist Church. A couple of little green creatures with eyes on stalks got out, took some photographs and then flew back off into the galaxy.

You don't believe me, do you? You think that I'm making a joke of some sort, or possibly that I've been overworking and I've lost the plot. There is probably nothing I could say that would convince you that it had happened, even if it had. And that's OK because it didn't.

But it is interesting that you couldn't bring yourself to believe me, and yet if I stand up here and say that a woman was dead and buried for a few days days, but then she came back to life again, nobody says I've lost the plot. For some reason you'll believe that one.

The story of the raising of Tabitha is one of those stories that we wouldn't believe if it wasn't in the Bible. We've never known anyone to be seriously dead and then come back to life and we would never expect it to happen. Most of us would not seriously think of praying for a dead person to be raised back to life. And so we find a story like this rather inplausible. It can't happen now because in our experience it has never happened before.

But plausability is not necessarily a good criteria on which to judge the value of things. There are lots of things that sound implausible until they happen and we get used to them. When Mrs Lightsey was a girl there was no way that you could have made the microwave oven she now cooks with sound plausible to her. And you don't have to be as old as her. When I was ten years old, the most powerful computer at NASA took up about half a building of space. I now have a computer that is far more powerful than that sitting in my pocket. It's called an iPhone. Totally implausible twenty years ago.

What we need to be careful of then, is that we don't write off the story too quickly just because it has never happened before. Lots of wonderful things that happen have never happened before. Maybe God is doing a new thing.

So who was Tabitha? Tabitha was not a cat, nor a witch, nor a genie. She did not have nine lives, nor twitch her nose, nor live in a bottle. Yet she was used by God, mightily, and ended up, in death, being raised to life again by Peter. So I guess you could say she had two lives!

Brothers and Sisters in Christ we gather here this day to witness to our faith and celebrate the life of Dorcus. We come together in grief acknowledging our human loss but seeking help from God. May God search our hearts that in pain we may find comfort, in sorrow hope, and in death resurrection. Who was Dorcus? She was better known to her friends as Tabitha. To some she was just another good seamstress. She was someone who could skillfully weave thread into a useful or even beautiful cover for the human body. A talent that undoubtedly put her in contact with many influential people.

But to her brothers and sisters of Christ she was more. She was one who openly gave of herself to help the other widows in the church. She was one on whom you could call day and night. She was tireless in her acts of mercy and charity and diligent in her witness to all. To us who were one with her in Christ she was not just a person who provided garments for the body. She was one who helped others obtain robes of righteousness for the soul.

Before Jesus died our he promised us that he would go to prepare a place for us. So we are sure that there is laid up for Dorcus a crown of righteousness. We may mourn her now but we will see one another again. Earth to earth, Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. Henceforth, says the spirit, they rest from their labors and their deeds follow them. Amen.

These are the kinds of words that Tabitha's friends expected to hear from Peter when he came to them. When she died some of her friends realized that Peter the Apostle was near by. Here was one who had seen the Lord. Peter had broken bread with Jesus and had been give the keys to the kingdom. Here was one who personally knew the Lord that she had served in her life.

So they sent for him to come immediately. When he arrived they told him all about her and her loving service to God and her neighbor. The widows showed him the lovely garments she had made and probably given to them. These were physical demonstrations of her willingness to serve like Jesus.

They expected Peter to offer them some word of comfort. They wanted him to speak a word of grace to heal their broken hearts. They wanted him to give a fitting summary of her life in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. They wanted him to put into words their admiration of this woman and the way she had inspired them. This is what they expected from their pastor Peter: a fitting eulogy and funeral service for a Christian saint.

So what did Peter say? He said, "Tabitha, cum." "Tabitha, arise." They were expecting a funeral and Peter gave them a resurrection! My mind can't help but to go back to the Gospels and Jesus raising the daughter of Jarius. You remember the story, Jesus is called to heal the dying daughter of a leader in the synagogue named Jarius. He is delayed and in the mean time the girl dies. When Jesus gets there the people say he is too late. But Jesus said, "She is only sleeping" and then he says, "Child arise," which in Aramaic is "Talitha, cum."

"Talitha, cum"-Child, arise. "Tabitha, cum"-Tabitha, arise. Is it just a coincidence that Peter's words at raising Tabitha are so much like Jesus' words at raising Jarius' daughter? Is it also a coincidence that someone went to get Peter just as someone had gone to get Jesus? It is just a coincidence that Jesus put them all out of the room except a few when he raised Jarius' daughter and likewise Peter put them out of the room when he raise Tabitha? Of course Peter had seen Jesus raise Jarius' daughter, but there is more to it. There is an economy of words in the Bible. The Bible uses just enough words and no more to make its point. Every word has meaning and a purpose.

These similarities between the raising of Jarius' daughter and the raising of Tabitha are no coincidence. These similarities show us that while Peter was saying the words it was Jesus who was speaking through him telling Tabitha to arise. In Peter, God's servant, the life giving power of Jesus was still present. Yes, Jesus had raised Jarius' daughter and Lazarus and others, but Jesus had ascended into heaven. This story demonstrated that even after Jesus had gone to heaven his power was still at work in and through those who believed in him.

So, who was Dorcus? She was a first century Christian who made her living by sewing. She served the Lord well, and sometime around 35 AD she died. A few days later Jesus at work through Peter brought her back to life. But Dorcus is more than an historical figure. She is a symbol of new life. She shows us that in this age Christ is still amongst us giving new life.

Jesus said to Jarius' daughter, "Talitha, cum" - "Child, arise," and she came to life. Through Peter Jesus said to Dorcus, "Tabitha, cum" - "Tabitha, arise," and she came to life. And so Jesus is saying to you today, "Talitha, cum" - "Child, arise." The same life giving power present in Christ and in Peter is present here today. We have all sinned and the wages of sin is death. Jesus is here to bring new life, not only to our bodies at the resurrection, but to the deadness of our souls here and now. To speak a word of resurrection to sin dead souls. To speak a word of life to those in hopeless situations. To say arise to those who have fallen morally and spiritually.

Surrender yourself to the power of God at work in Christ. Ask Jesus to come into you and to resurrect the deadness of your life. Confess your need for him and repent from your attempts to save yourself. Allow him to enter your heart and bring new life into you and make you alive again. Allow yourself to hear Jesus' voice saying to you "Child arise!"

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Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on April 25, 2010.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

I Saw the Light

Text: Acts 9:1-19a

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The headline said "Blasts Rattle Cricket Fans in South India" by Jim
Yardley. At least 15 people were wounded yesterday by two explosions
near a crowded cricket stadium in Bangalore as thousands of spectators
were arriving for a match in India's popular professional league.
The police told Indian news media that the low-intensity explosives
detonated near an outer wall of the stadium. The blasts took place
less than an hour before the scheduled 4 p.m. match in India's Premier
League, during a week when the authorities had warned about a rising
threat of terrorist attacks in India.

By Saturday night, the police had not yet determined whether the
explosions were acts of terrorism, and no one had claimed

We hear alot about terrorists these days. We wonder what motivates
these individuals to commit such violence. What we don't hear much
about in the media is how governments may also use terrorist acts
against their own citizens. For instance, crucifixion was a state
sponsored terrorist activity in the day of Jesus and the early church.
Crucifixion was a way for the Roman state to use a human body as a
poster that they would nail to a wall and leave there. Attached to the
body of the crucified victim would be a sign saying what crime he or
she had committed. There was no burial in a normal crucifixion. The
naked body of the crucified hanged there like a warning sign saying:
"Don't do this." Our reading this morning is about an individual
terrorist by the name of Saul.

We first meet the terrorist named Saul as he assists in the public
execution of a Christian disciple named Stephen (Acts 7). Stephen had
been commissioned by the apostles to a board of deacons who were
responsible for settling conflicts between the Jewish Christians and
the Greek Christians. The deacons were specifically in charge of
distributing groceries to the widows in the congregation. Stephen
became a sort of spokesman for the deacons and this led to Stephen
being singled out for termination by the leaders of a rival religious
group. Stephen was put on trial and after an eloquent speech against
the rival religious group a riot erupted.

Yelling and hissing, the mob drowned Stephen out. Now in full
stampede, they dragged him out of town and pelted him with rocks. The
ringleaders took off their coats and asked a young man named Saul to
watch them.

As the rocks rained down, Stephen prayed, "Master Jesus, take my
life." Then he knelt down, praying loud enough for everyone to hear,
"Master, don't blame them for this sin"—his last words. Then he died.

Saul was right there, congratulating the killers. (Acts 7:57-60)

Yes, I suppose we could say that Saul was a terrorist. Saul had a
contract against Christians in Damascus. He was on his way to deliver
the hit when he got hit by a blinding light that knocked him to the
ground and blinded him. Then a voice from heaven says, "I'm Jesus, the
one whose disciples you are terrorizing." Saul wasn't waving his
finger and threatening anyone now. In fact, he was so blind his
compatriots had to lead by the hand into Damascus.
In the next scene we see a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The
Lord spoke to Ananias in a dream and said to him: "Get up." "Get up
and go to Straight Street and find a man named Saul." That sounds like
an easy request the Lord placed on Ananias. But it was not easy
because Ananias knew that Saul was a terrorist. Ananias knew Saul
threatened murder to the disciples of the Lord. Ananias could picture
Saul wagging his finger and threatening both women and men who
followed Jesus saying he would put arrest them and bring to Jerusalem
to face trial. We all know how such trials can end — recall Jesus
trial by Pilate in Jerusalem — they could end in the crucifixion of
the accused. Ananias was terrified to confront the terrorist named
Saul. But God told Ananias in a dream to get up and go confront Saul
for the Lord had chosen Saul for a special mission to the Gentiles and
kings and Saul would learn the true meaning of what it meant to suffer
for the Lord. The Lord said get and go and Ananias got up and went.

Ananias found Saul the terrorist laying blind in a bed in a house in
Damascus. Ananias placed his hands on the terrorist named Saul not to
kill him but to pray for him and said to him: "Brother Saul, the Lord
Jesus, the one who blinded you on the road, sent me so you may see
again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something
like scales fell from Saul's eyes and he saw again and he got up and
was baptized. The Lord Jesus had knocked down and blinded the
terrorist Saul and now the Lord Jesus restored his sight and Saul got
up and was baptized. So was the transformation of a terrorist named
Saul into a Christian apostle named Paul. Paul was baptized and ate a
meal and regained his strength.

The Greek verb anastos which is translated as "get up" or "arise"
occurs three times in the story of Saul's conversion on the road to
Damascus. The third time is when Saul's eyes are healed and he gets us
and is baptized. The second time is when Ananias overcomes his fear
and gets up and goes to meet Saul face to face. The first time anastos
appears is in verse 6 when the voice from heaven, the voice of Jesus,
tells Saul to get up off the ground and enter into the city of
Damascus and listen there for further instructions. Saul was laying on
the ground after getting knocked down to the ground by a heavenly
light that blinded him. Saul fell to the ground — knocked down by
heaven light — and heard Jesus voice say to him: "Get up." And Saul
got up and went into the city of Damascus where he would be
transformed from an anti-Christian terrorist into an apostle of

Christ's light struck down Saul and Paul rose up a different person.
He was no longer an anti-Christian terrorist. Now he was ready to
become an apostle of Christ.
Thirty years ago I played quarterback on a high school football team.
I hear Brad Urquhart played wingback for the Princeton University
football team back in the day. The secret to playing football is to
get back up off the ground after you've been knocked down. When you
get knocked down you have to get back up on your feet as quickly as
you can. You can't play football when you are laying on the ground.
You've got to be standing up on your feet to play football. And the
same is true in life. Our challenge in life is to get back up after we
get knocked down. Throughout our lives we will find ourselves over and
again getting knocked down by illness, financial trouble, relational
irritations or any number of challenges. But after we get knocked down
we have to get back up again. You may have noticed that "getting back
up" is a recurring theme in the story of Paul's conversion. "Getting
back up" is an underlying theme in this story.

But friends, there will come a day when we will get knocked down in
such a way that we will not be able to get back up. That day came for
Jesus when he was crucified in a state sponsored Roman terrorist act.
Jesus died on the cross and he could not get back up. They buried him
in a tomb. But on the third day God did for Jesus what he could not do
for himself: God raised him up from the dead! And the good news for us
is that when the time comes that we get knocked down in such a way
that we cannot get up — when the day comes for us that we die — then
God will get us back up and lead us into the kingdom of heaven. Then
we will be received into the arms of God's mercy, into the blessed
rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints
in light. So you and I will one day be able to sing with the apostle
Paul — "I saw the light, I saw the light. No more darkness. No more
night. Now I am so happy. No sorrow is in sight. Praise the Lord. I
saw the light." And so have you. Let's go share God's light with a
terrified world this week.

Hide it under bushel, no! I'm gonna let it shine. Hide it under a
bushel, no! I'm gonna let it shine. Hide it under a bushel, no! I'm
gonna let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Peace Be with You

Text: John 20:19-31

Later on that day, after Jesus' crucifixion, the disciples had gathered together, but, fearful of the Jews, had locked all the doors in the house. Jesus entered, stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you." Then he showed them his hands and side.

The disciples, seeing the Master with their own eyes, were exuberant. Jesus repeated his greeting: "Peace be with you. Just as the Father sent me, I send you."

Everything was great now. Jesus had just appeared to the disciples in his resurrection body after his crucifixion. The disciples were joyful except for Thomas who wasn't there when it happened.

Thomas was a disciple of great faith. He had earlier described Jesus as, "My Lord, and my God." Not teacher. Not Lord. Not Messiah. But God! It is the only place where Jesus is called God without qualification of any kind. It is uttered with conviction as if Thomas was simply recognizing a fact. You are my Lord and my God! These are certainly not the words of a doubter.

Yet Thomas was not with the other disciples when the resurrected Christ appeared to them. The other disciples told him, "We saw the Master." But he said, "Unless I see the nail holes in his hands, put my finger in the nail holes, and stick my hand in his side, I won't believe it." Here Thomas doubts not only Jesus but the testimony of the other disciples.

We may well wonder what Jesus response to such a bold question will be? Jesus has earlier said: "Ask and you shall receive," but was he talking about asking questions that seem almost sacrilegious? Let's look at the rest of the story for more information.

Eight days later, his disciples were again in the room. This time Thomas was with them. Jesus came through the locked doors, stood among them, and said, "Peace be with you."

Then he focused his attention on Thomas. Jesus did not blame Thomas for doubting. So often the church's handling of doubt is to couple it with disbelief and squash it. But Jesus never condemned Thomas. Perhaps he understood that once Thomas worked through his doubts, he would be one of the surest disciples in all Christendom.

Any person who places himself beyond doubt, places himself above Christ himself. On the cross Jesus cried out, "Father, why have you forsaken me?" At a given time in history, even Jesus had doubts.

Many Christians think the great believers of the faith never doubted. They know about the faith of the famous Christian leaders, but not about their inner struggles. We sing Martin Luther's great hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God," and we suppose he never questioned his faith, but he once wrote, "For more than a week, Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy against God." The founder of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, John Knox, wrote of a time when his soul knew "anger, wrath and indignation, which is conceived against God, calling all his promises in doubt." In our own time, Mother Teresa was plagued by doubt for much of her adult life and seldom experienced the peace of Christ but she was still used by God in her life of service to the poor.

I think doubt is a normal part of the spiritual life. In a sense, doubt serves as the fertilizer of faith. My experience has been whenever I have doubts about God or Jesus or the Bible they may lead to a period of disorientation but I come out on the other end with a stronger, surer faith. So I have come to see doubt as a necessary part of faith.

Jesus took seriously Thomas's doubt and in answering him challenged him to come as close to Jesus as he dared. Jesus said to Thomas: "Take your finger and examine my hands. Take your hand and stick it in my side. Don't be unbelieving. Believe."

Thomas said, "My Master! My God!"

Jesus said, "So, you believe because you've seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing." (John 20:19-30)

Like Thomas, we must move beyond doubt to faith. It is all right to doubt, but in our discipleship we should move beyond doubt. Jesus admonished Thomas, "Stop doubting and believe." Unbelief is a normal part of the spiritual life cycle but it is not healthy to get stuck in unbelief. In the early days of John Wesley's ministry he was racked with doubts and uncertainties. So he went to his old friend and mentor Peter Bohler and laid his soul bare. Bohler told Wesley: "Preach faith till you have it, and then, because you have it, you will preach faith." In other words, act as though you have already moved beyond doubt to faith and because you are acting it out it will eventually come to you.

A little boy, growing up in a community where his father served as a Methodist minister was outside playing. He was doing all of the things that a little boy does. He was climbing trees. He was swinging on the swing set and jumping out. He was rolling and playing with his dog. His mother called him for dinner and all of the family gathered at the table. His mother looked at him and said, "Young man, let me see your hands."

There was some rubbing of his hands on his blue jeans before he held his hands up. His mother looked at them and asked, "How many times do I have to tell you that you must wash your hands before you eat? When your hands are dirty, they have germs all over them and you could get sick. After we say the blessing, I want you to march back to the bathroom and wash your hands."

Everyone at the table bowed their heads and the father said the blessing. Then, the little boy got up and headed out of the kitchen. He stopped, then turned and looked at his mother and said, "Jesus and germs! Jesus and germs! That's all I ever hear around here and I haven't seen a one of them."

Jesus told Thomas, "So, you believe because you've seen with your own eyes. Even better blessings are in store for those who believe without seeing."

As a friend poetically put it: "By and by, from the stumble comes the agile, in the fumble lives the catch, the letting go is giving back." (Gari Hatch 04-05-2010) Letting go of our faith is giving it over to God. As many people do, I experienced doubt while I was in college. I gave my doubt over to God, saying, "You handle this, I don't know the answers anymore." As I look back at it now, giving my doubt to God was an act of faith. Over time, God gave me back my faith and it was a more mature and nuanced and subtle faith. I think doubt may lead to greater authenticity in our lives.

The letting go of our faith is giving it back to God and God will take it and bless it and give it back to us. Ginger Smith describes the missional life as "Letting people see, letting people touch, even smell the stench of your sin; all the while communicating the seemingly unfathomable grace of a loving God. This is living a missional life." (Ginger Smith, Online: Jesus meets us wherever we are in our faith journey and invites us to come as close to him as we dare.

Wherever we are in our spiritual lives today, Jesus has a word for us. Whether we are living through a period of great faith or struggling through a time of terrible doubt, Jesus has a word for us today. Jesus message to us is the same one he gave to the disciples who believed and the disciple who had doubted. Here is what Jesus wants to say to you and to me today: "Peace be with you." May you experience the peace of Christ that passes all understanding and all doubt.

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Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on April 11, 2010