Sunday, May 30, 2010

God Dances in a Circle of Love

Text: 2 Corinthians 13:11-14

"Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty. . . . God in three Persons, blessed Trinity."

"I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

Or as the Apostle Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians: "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all."

For centuries Christians have sung, confessed their faith, prayed, received new members into their community, and gone out into the world to live--with worship of a Trinitarian God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If we want to know the answer to the question: "Who is God?" we must begin with the doctrine of the Trinity, the three in one.

We Western Christians picture the Trinity as a triangle. The Father is on top because He is number one. The Son is at one bottom corner. The Holy Spirit is at the other bottom corner. We think of God as the Supreme Male who stands with unlimited power and control over everything and everyone below "him." God is the number one man. The Big Daddy. The Boss Man in the sky. You don't tug on Superman's cape. You don't spit into the wind. You don't pull the mask off the ole' Lone Ranger and you don't mess around with Him. (To paraphrase Jim Croce's song.)

We tend to think of God the Father as the "number one" top God with absolute power. But there are other ways of thinking about God? Are these other ways worth thinking about? That depends. That depends on how secure we are in our faith. Are we secure enough in our faith to think of God in new ways? I hope we are. I hope we can be open to new ideas--because that is what the 21st Century will be all about--new ideas.

There is yet another way of picturing God. Although this view of God may be new to us, it is not a new idea. In fact, this view of God comes from a Greek theologian, John of Damascus, who lived in the seventh century. This is how the Eastern Orthodox church understands the Trinity.

The concept is called perichoresis (perry-ko-ray'-sis). This Greek word is worth learning because it gives us a lovely picture of God. Peri (as in perimeter) means "around." Choresis means literally "dancing" (as in the choreography of a ballet.) Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like three dancers holding hands, dancing around together in harmonious, joyful freedom. To us Westerners, this image of the Trinity seems to suggest not one but three personal gods. But perichoresis invites us to think in a new way about the very meaning of "one" and "personal." The oneness of God is not the oneness of a distinct, self-contained individual; it is the unity of a community of persons who love each other and live together in harmony.

God--Father, Son, Holy Spirit--dances in a circle of love.

God--dancing? Why not? The English poet, Sir John Davies, wrote:

This wondrous miracle did Love devise,

For dancing is love's proper exercise.

If dancing is love's proper exercise, why should God not dance? God dances in a circle of love. Jesus Christ showed us that God is love. God's circle of love includes the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and God's circle of love includes us. God's circle of love includes the whole world. Even our enemies. Even people we don't like. Even people of different. All are included in God's circle of love? How do I know that? Because I memorized John 3:16 in the second grade:

For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten Son,

that whosoever should believe in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

If God's circle of love includes everyone, so will ours. As we read in 1 John 4:8: "He that loves not, knows not God, for God is love."

God's circle of love includes all people. God invites us to dance in God's circle of love... But that circle is wide--and it includes all people. If we want to dance in God's holy circle, we better get ready to tear down our fences. Because God's dancing partners include creatures of every color, every nation, every time in history, and every planet in every solar system.

I heard a story in a sermon that struck with me, partly because of my own struggle in seminary with Greek participles.

My story concerns a high school student who was seriously burned in a car accident. It was touch and go as to whether he would live or die. The boy's high-school English teacher didn't know how bad his burns were, just that she didn't want him to fall behind in his homework. So she arranged for a tutor to go to the hospital and work with him on what the class was studying: irregular verbs and dangling participles.

When the English teacher finally went to see her student, she was horrified. She found him still in the critical care unit. He was totally mummified in white gauze. He could only move his mouth, and that only barely. She couldn't believe she had been so insensitive to send him a tutor to help him learn "irregular verbs and dangling participles."

But on the way out, the head nurse said: "You've worked a miracle with that boy. You know that, right?" The teacher said, "I'm so embarrassed at what I did…sending him a tutor. How could I have done such a thing?"

"No," the nurse said. "You saved his life. He had been so depressed and unresponsive, we didn't know whether he would live or not. He had given up. He was just lying there, waiting to die. But then the tutor came, and suddenly his attitude changed completely. He started talking. Now he is working with us. He is fighting back, and is beginning to respond to treatment. Now, we believe he's going to make it."

The teacher had no idea what the nurse was talking about. But after the boy was released from the hospital, he explained himself why that tutor had made such a difference.

He said, "They told me I would live, but I didn't believe them. I thought they were just saying that because they didn't want to tell me the truth. But when that tutor came in, it made all the difference. I realized that you wouldn't send a tutor to work with a dying boy on irregular verbs and dangling participles!"

In a similar way, it's not the irregular verbs and dangling participles that make up the Trinity. The Trinity is not mental gymnastics such as learning to decline Greek participles. In the end, the Triune God in three persons is not so much a mystery that needs explaining as a reality that needs experiencing. The main point about the Trinity is not whether we envision it as a triangle or a dance. The most important thing about the Trinity is where it is located. The Trinity is located not somewhere up high in the heavens above the earth. The Trinity is located right square in the center of your body. The Triune God dances in a circle of love deep inside each human being. This is the truth that Christianity wants us to experience.

The Bible emphasizes the number three. For example, when Jesus stayed behind at the temple after his bar mitzvah, Mary and Joseph searched for him "for three days." Jesus is said to have had compassion for the hungry crowd because "they continue with me three days." (Mt 15:29-32) His message to that "fox" Herod was that "on the third day I shall be perfected." Three-day symbolism is found all through the Old and New Testaments.

This emphasis on the number three came to humanity through the observance of nature. The ancient sages had observed that the moon, the monthly manifestor of the reflected light of the sun, went through a cycle of twenty-eight days, which always included a three-day period when the sun lit up no part of the orb's surface visible to us from the earth. This critical period of waiting to see the "birth" of the new moon was a symbol of both heavenly and human gestation and dramatic renewal. The full moon was a monthly symbol of the maturation of the divinity, or Christos, in everyone. (Tom Harpur, The Pagan Christ, 106)

They mystery of the Trinity is the mystery of Christ in us, the hope of glory. This Triune God is gestating within us, growing inside our souls. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is maturing within us. As the Apostle Paul recommended, then, let us work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

Let us come to God in prayer...

Loving God--Divine Trinity--Father, Son, Holy Spirit--you dance together in a circle of love. Teach us, your children, to join in this holy circle dance. Give us a new understanding of what it means to be a child of God. Give us a heart of love rather than fear. Give us a heart of forgiveness rather than resentment. Loving God, give us the courage to join you in the dance of love, which is the dance of life. The divine dancers, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dance within our bodies in the secret chamber of our heart, in our very soul. Open us to the Triune God within us, the hope of glory. Amen.

- - -

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on Trinity Sunday, May 30, 2010 at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Pentecost Power

Text: Acts 2:1-11

Everyone showed up on the day of Pentecost. The tragedy of Jesus crucifixion brought them together. The disciples were all together in one place. The first miracle of the day of Pentecost is that the followers of Jesus were all together in one place.

When they were all together in one place, suddenly, out of nowhere, came a sound like a strong wind, gale force--no one could tell where it came from. It filled the whole building. It was loud. It was disruptive. It was terrifying. It was Holy Spirit. Coming down. Descending on the Day of Pentecost. The sound of the wind was the second miracle of the day of Pentecost.

Then, like wildfire, the Holy Spirit spread through their ranks and they started speaking in a number of different languages as the Spirit prompted them. Here was another sound on Pentecost day. It was the sound of different languages. That was the third miracle on Pentecost.

The day of Pentecost happened on what we may imagine as the religious version of Super Bowl Sunday in New Orleans. Pentecost was one of the biggest celebrations of the Jewish religious calendar. So Jews were in Jerusalem from out town, from out of state, even from other countries. The Old City of Jerusalem today looks sort of like Bourbon Street in New Orleans if you can imagine Bourbon Street being 1000 years old. People from all over the world were walking the streets of Jerusalem on that first Pentecost Sunday: Parthians, Medes, and Elamites; Visitors from Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia,

Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene; Immigrants from Rome, both Jews and proselytes; Even Cretans and Arabs!

The assortment of people from different cultures and religions reminds me of the Interfatih Ministries lunch several of us attended last week at a Muslim Community Center off Hillcroft near 59 South. There I learned the difference in polity between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Shia have a more top down polity with an Imam at the head of the church similar to the role of the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church. In contrast, Sunni Muslims are more akin to Protestants in terms of their less top down structured form of religious organization.

We Americans seem to think we are the first people in the history of the world to have to deal with the thorny problem of diversity. We Americans have to deal with diversity like all the rest. This nation is a melting pot of different peoples. Nowhere is this more clear than in this city. We live with greater diversity in this city than any other city except New York City. At our recent multicultural worship service at the last presbytery meeting a dozen representatives of a dozen different cultures led worship in a dozen different languages.

The church of Jesus Christ is alive and well. In fact, Christianity is still the fastest growing religion in the world. But it's growing not in the North and West, but in the South and East. Why the difference? Why is Christianity surging in the South and East and not in North America and Europe?

Because where the body of Christ is growing the people aren't trying to do church. They're doing Pentecost. Leonard Sweet suggests maybe it's time for us as a church to stop relying on our own powers and programs, our blueprints and boilerplates, and start doing what these early disciples did: trust the Spirit and do Pentecost.

When we do church, we're concerned about our protection and position in the church
When we do Pentecost, we're concerned about being out there in the world "hid with Christ in God."

When we do church, we're concerned about decency and order.
When we do Pentecost, we're concerned about fire and glory.

When we do church, we want God to leave us alone;
When we do Pentecost, we want God to order us around.

When we do church, we wear out our lives maintaining an institution.
When we do Pentecost, we set ourselves on fire, blow up evil, and our lives are spent setting off the gospel-dynamite of spirit and fire

When we do church, we worry over human dreams, schemes and appointings;
When we do Pentecost, we worry over divine anointings.

When we do church, it's all about human functions;
When we do Pentecost, it's all about divine unctions.

When we do church, we're organizing;
When we do Pentecost, we're agonizing . . . over a world God loved so much Jesus came to die for it.

It's Pentecost Sunday. Let's DO PENTECOST. It's time the world heard some different sounds . . . the sounds of eternal significance.According to our text, even Cretans and Arabs heard the gospel in their own language on Pentecost Sunday. Speaking the gospel, telling the good news in a way that people can understand it, is one of the "great ends of the church" according to our constitution, the Book of Order. We are supposed to be out there proclaiming the gospel in our community and in the world at large. We are to be out there sharing oru faith and inviting people to join us in church.

There are different ways of sharing the gospel but however we do it we must share the good news in the language of the people. Friends, we are speaking a language every human being can understand. We are speaking the language of H2O. We are spreading the good news of Jesus Christ by providing fresh, clean, potable water all over the world.

We have Living Waters to share with the World. Living Waters for the World provides the miracle of clean water to people who are so poor most of us cannot even imagine how little they have. They don't even have access to clean water. None. Not a drop. And we Presbyterians go into these poverty stricken villages and install clean water filtration systems in schools, churches, orphanages, schools, and hospitals in areas with unsafe drinking and cooking water.

Living Waters for the World is the mission project of the Synod of Living Waters of the Presbyterian Church, USA. The project was first conceived in the early 1990's by Rev. Wil Howie in Oxford, Mississippi. The Synod approved this mission project in Spring 1993. The first water purification unit was installed in Reynosa, Mexico in 1996. From this humble beginning, water systems have been instlled in Latin America, India, Africa, and points throughout the world. The system purifies water in 300-gallon batches, and is ideal for institutional settings such as clinics, churches, schools and orphanages.

After worship today we will hear about the latest water installation in Haiti by our church in partnership with ChristChurch Bellaire. We will also hear about our continuing ministry to orphans in Uganda. I sometimes wonder what the villagers say after they get one of these clean water systems installed in their village. I image they say the same thing that those Cretans and Arabs said on the very first day of Pentecost. I imagine they say: "Those Presbyterians from St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, they're speaking our languages, describing God's mighty works!"

We are being used by the Holy Spirit in our own day and our own time. We are being used in God's own way and with God's own rhyme. We are being used by the Holy Spirit to speak the truth of Jesus' love to people whose language we do not speak but they still understand what we are saying. When the clean water system goes in and the clean water starts flowing out, they know we are saying, "Jesus loves you," because everyone in the world understands the language of love, the language of pure water. That's what I call "Pentecost Power" flowing from this congregation to people all over the world. Sure, we know what Pentecost means. Pentecost means proclaiming the good news about Jesus in ways that people all over the world can understand. That is what we are doing through Living Waters for the World.

~Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas, on Pentecost Sunday, May 23, 2010

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Remember to Love Your Neighbor

Text: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18

Notice the speaker and the intended audience in our text from Leviticus. This text is addressed to the congregation -- to all the congregation -- not to an individual. God speaks to Moses and tells him to say to the gathered congregation of Israel: "Be holy because I, God, your God, am holy." (Lev. 19:1-2) What sets God apart is God's sacrificial love for humanity. Our emphasis in the Presbyterian Church is not on our guilt but on God's forgiving love. Our focus on God's love and how we live out God's love in the world is what makes us holy.

God's love is very practical according to our text from Leviticus. For example, the Lord says,

"When you harvest your land, don't harvest right up to the edges of your field or gather the gleanings from the harvest. Don't strip your vineyard bare or go back and pick up the fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. (Lev. 19:9-10)

God's love is so practical that he expects us to take care of the poor and the foreigner. We are generous people. Americans are generous people. St. John's is full of generous people. We need to continue listening and responding to God's message to take care of the poor and the foreigner.

Today we are honoring our college graduates and I would like to say a word to them. Graduates, don't forget where you come from and don't forget the ones who got you where you are today. And while we are talking about don'ts -- let's glance back at our text from Leviticus because it is chock full of don'ts. Listen to this list of don'ts from Leviticus 19 -- they cover everything from fair business practices to how to treat your neighbor across the street:

"Don't steal. Don't lie. Don't deceive anyone.

"Don't swear falsely using my name, violating the name of your God.

"Don't exploit your friend or rob him.

"Don't hold back the wages of a hired hand overnight.

"Don't curse the deaf; don't put a stumbling block in front of the blind ...

"Don't pervert justice.

Don't show favoritism to either the poor or the great.

Judge on the basis of what is right.

"Don't spread gossip and rumors.

"Don't just stand by when your neighbor's life is in danger.

"Don't secretly hate your neighbor. If you have something against him, get it out into the open; otherwise you are an accomplice in his guilt.

"Don't seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people. (Lev. 19:-11-18)

That's thirteen don'ts for those who are keeping count. It sounds like a mother giving her graduating senior final words of advice before she leaves home for college. There are so many many things not to do and interspersed throughout these negatives is the positive statement: "I am God" (Lev. 19:2, 12, 16, 18) Four times in the midst of the thirteen negatives we have this positive: "I am God." God reminds us that these are God's rules. These are not just suggestions. These are not just religious platitudes to be put hung on the wall like a diploma. "I am God. I am serious about these things," God says. The negative list of don'ts ends with a positive commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself."

"Love your neighbor as yourself." Does that quote sound familiar? Jesus himself said something similar during his last supper with his disciples:

"Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples--when they see the love you have for each other."

(John 13:33-35, MSG)

This must be important because it is among Jesus last reported words to his disciples. Jesus tells them he is giving them a new commandment: "Love one another" -- but we know it is an old commandment -- and it goes all the way back to Leviticus. Why would Jesus say "Love one another" is a new commandment when we know it is an old commandment?

The Protestant theologian John Calvin tackled this question. Calvin reasons that Jesus intended the command to be fresh and novel so that the Christian life should never be allowed to descend to a routine level, something to be forgotten as the heart becomes jaded with familiarity. "Love one another": those are tender and radical words. "Love your neighbor" is not a new idea but each day it must become a renewed commitment in our lives.

One new opportunity to love one another in this congregation will be the new adult Sunday School class I will teach beginning on June 6. I will faciliate the discussion as we consider topics and issues from today's headlines in light of ancient Bible passages. The class will be both "up to the minute" in relevance and "old as the hills" due to the Bible passages against which we will judge today's issues.

Of course, such a free flowing group discussion could turn into a train wreck unless some precautions are taken. So, imagine my excitement when I found Robert M. Price's groundrules for a small group disscussion class in his book The Reason Driven Life. Let me share his 10 Commandments of classroom behavior with you as an illustration of how today's text may be applied to our lives.

First Commandment: Thou shalt get to thy point as quickly and succinctly as possible.

Second Commandment: Thou shalt try to stay on topic at least for awhile.

Third Commandment: Thou shalt avoid politics like the plague!

Fourth Commandment: Thou shalt give heed unto the person talking. Neither shalt thou merely wait til they're done so that thou mayest launch into thine own planned soliloquy.

Fifth Commandment: Thou shalt esteem individual persons above their opinions and beliefs. In this manner thou mayest abstain from personal enmity and avoid waxing wrathful.

Sixth Commandment: Thou shalt not fracture the group discussion into two or more. But thou shalt all have one conversation going on until the informal aftermath of the main event.

Seventh Commandment: Thou shalt not grandstand.

Eighth Commandment: Thou shalt not aim to convert the group to thine own faith or opinion.

Ninth Commandment: Thou shalt make sure all present know that they are not expected to speak, though their participation is most welcome.

Tenth Commandment; Thou shalt not interrupt thy brother or thy sister!

We will adhere to this 10 commandments of classroom behavior in this new adult Sunday School class to which you are all invited. Let me know if you are interested in coming or learning more about it. Whether or not you come to this new class, these 10 commandments are good operating instructions for daily life. They will know we are Christians by how we listen.

In a quest for church unity, our Session recently wrote a behavioral covenant that has three parts: Our promises to God, our promises to the staff and congregation, and our promises to one another as Session members. In the section on our promises to the staff and congregation, one section of the covenant says:

WE PROMISE to be visible, transparent and accessible to all members of this congregation and

  • to listen actively and non-judgmentally,

  • to respect all individuals,

  • to create an environment where

          joys are celebrated,

          healing is facilitated,

      open and constructive communication is promoted, questions and concerns are welcomed,

      misinformation is quelled, and

      an atmosphere of trust and respect is fostered. 

This is our Session's promise to the congregation. We will listen. There is a lot of listening going on the Desserts with the Pastor. I invite you to come and share your thoughts and hopes and dreams for St. John's. I read a quote this week that says it well. "Patience with God is called faith. Patience with one another is called love."

Today is a day of endings and beginnings. The school year will soon end and summer break will soon begin. Seniors graduate and say good-bye to old friends and hello to new friends. Wherever we are in our spiritual journey and wherever we may go there is one rule that sums up all the don'ts in the vast biblical literature. There is one positive rule that guides our actions: Love your neighbor as yourself. When we follow that rule it will make our spiritual lives as rich as gold. Perhaps that is why it's called "The golden rule."

/ * /

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on Ascension Sunday, Year C - May 16, 2010 on a day when college graduates were celebrated.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

No More Night

Text: Revelation 21:22-22:5 / 6th Sunday in Easter, Year C

It seems a bit ironic that the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) was held in Houston this week. This is, after all, a week of terrific strain on that industry as they struggle to bring under control the environmental disaster unfolding in the Gulf off the Louisiana coast. You didn't want to be driving around Reliant Stadium this week as 135,000 or so OTC participants crowded the streets, parking lots, hotels and restaurants from Galveston to the Woodlands.

The massive, and so far unstopped, oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is an environmental and economic disaster with consequences that could last for decades. That's the conclusion of biologists and earth scientists as they consider the likely effect of the growing oil slick that is moving into the coastal wetlands and onto the beaches of the states along the Gulf.

Engineers from oil company BP are scrambling to find a way to contain oil gushing from a well on the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico. BP has met problems with a containment box it tried to lower over the blown-out well in order to funnel the leaking oil to the surface. Oil has been spilling into the Gulf at the rate of 210,000 gallons a day since a drilling rig exploded on 20 April. Balls of tar have begun washing up on a section of beach in Alabama.

We humans like to think we are in control of our environment. However, there is a certain volcano in Iceland and now a certain oil spill on the Gulf Coast that remind us that we are NOT in control of our environment. How will we respond to our lack of control?

Professor David Buttrick tells the story about the African American woman deep in the bayous of Louisiana who had raised over a dozen children, most of them adopted and foster children. When a newspaper reporter asked her why she had done this, she replied, "I saw a new world a' comin."

She saw a new world a'comin'. What do we see? Of course, we all see the things that are obvious, like the beautiful stained glass windows in this church. But can we see the unseen things? Can we see a new world a' comin'? Can we see beyond the walls of this building, to the world outside?

"There is a church in the Northeast with a stained-glass window problem. High above the chancel, set in glass, is a picture of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, dipping out of clouds toward the earth. Some of the church members want to tear the window down: 'it is,' they claim, 'too otherworldly.' Well, perhaps they're right. After all, with terrorism and the soaring price of gasoline, we've enough on our hands without hankering after some make-believe town in the sky. Perhaps like the stained-glass window, we should dump the book of Revelation and stick to the here and now. Yet, there's something about the vision that grips us: 'And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down...from God...And I heard a loud voice ... saying ..., "Death will be nor more; mourning and crying and pain will be nor more."' What a wonderful vision...

A wonderful vision! The vision speaks to our deepest longings. Is there anyone here would not wish an end to death and pain and crying? For we live in a world where pain is fact, where salty tears stream down every cheek, where the mortality rate stills runs at 100 percent. Yet, we can't help dreaming, dreaming of a day when everything will be right and bright and good and glad: "A new heaven and a new earth," that's the picture.

Of course, there's more to the picture than mere escape from personal pain; Revelation envisions a world at peace. For the Holy City has many gates, and the gates stand open day and night. And through the gates shall stream kings and conquerors, nations and races, all joining together as children of God. Do you know the American primitive painting entitled The Peaceable Kingdom? It shows a lion lying down with a lamb, a barnyard cow and a grizzly bear nuzzling each other, while in among the animals children laugh and play. The picture's a little romantic for our tastes. Apparently the artist had never heard of Al Queda or torture prisons. Perhaps the lion and the lamb will declare a truce, but what about the Middle East? The fact is we live in a world of power politics, not in zoological society! So at least the Bible is realistic; the Bible knows there can be no peace until national power—including American power—bows down before the throne of God. Then, and only then, will we see a new heaven and a new earth and a many-gated city of God.

Is Christian faith a mirage, that will never come? If so, then like the stained-glass window, let's tear it down, and settle for the hard reality of here and now.

Yet, we can't. Dimly we know that human beings cannot live without hope. Hope makes human life possible. If life is nothing more than a prison cell in which we twitch and squirm until an unseen executioner arrives, then what's the use? Struggle is senseless, striving vain. Without hope we are absolutely paralyzed. Albrect Durer has a famous woodcut. He pictures a woman sitting dejectedly on dry ground. in the distance is a city waiting to be built, and beside her is a box of tools for building, but she doesn't move. She has no hope. Without hope, nothing is possible, and therefore, nothing attempted. Maybe that's what happened to us in America. We dreamed an American dream. But then there were two World Wars, plus Korea, Vietnam, and Watergate. Now have we lost all hope of changing the world? Listen, without hope nations do perish. So do people. We cannot live without hope.

Of course, it all depends on what hope you have, on what kind of vision you cherish. The trouble with most of us at the beginning of the 21st century is that our hopes have turned to dust. The Communist dream of a proletarian state and the American dream of a technological messiah, both have foundered on the hard fact of human nature. For what's the use of a utopian dream if we're stuck with the same old men and women? Unless we can be changed we'll dream a Holy City but end with death and pain and a warring of nations, everytime. "A new heaven and a new earth"? My God! What we need is nothing less than a whole new human race.

Well, now do you see why the Holy City must come down from God? The city must come from God because we can't build it on our own. And do you understand why the book of Revelation hears a great voice from heaven shouting, "See, I make all things new!"? Left to ourselves all we can do is remake the old, trade in the stone ax for the B-2 bomber (Whatever good that will do!). Left to our own devices we'll dream a Holy City and build Babel every time. But, "See," cries the voice of God, "I make things new!" Well, God better, because we can't. God must shape a new heart for loving a new will for living, and a whole new humankind. A new people of God; that's what the Bible promises. What's more, now after Easter, we know what God can do. The resurrection means nothing less than God has power to overcome old chaos and dying, mass evil and humanity's impossible cruel streak, and to make something new—a risen Christ and a new humanity. Listen, the Easter message is not simply news of personal survival. Easter is God's shout down through history, "See, I am making all things new."

Now, do you want to know a secret? Making new: that's what's going on in the world; that's what's happening. The Holy City is not future perfect, it's present tense. (Check out the Greek verbs in the text!) Now the Holy City is descending. Now God is making things new. Right now God is wiping tears and easing pain and overcoming the power of death in the world. Now! There's nothing otherworldly about the vision; it's happening now in the midst of our worn, torn, broken world. And, with eyes of faith, you can see it happening.

What about the church with the stained-glass window problem? "Too otherworldly," the people complained. Well, they decided to keep the window after all. For they discovered that through the years the glass had faded so that through the golden image of the new Jerusalem they could see the towers of their own town; one city seen through the vision of another. We are meant to live in the world with a vision of God's promises, judging injustice with hard truth, but taking hope where hope is sure, and trusting the power of God that raised up Jesus. See, our God is making things new! The vision of the new Jerusalem, that Holy City, is our guiding light. Let's march on—toward the guiding light--until the time comes when God makes all things new and there is no more night.

Let us pray ...

O God, we pray for the Gulf Coast, that the oil spill won't devastate a people and a region already devastated by so much. Grant your comfort to the families of those 11 lost at sea. Help us to protect this earth of yours. Teach us how to live in a world that we can not control. Give us hope for the new heaven and new earth that You envision. Help us to bring it about in our own small ways each and every day. In Jesus' name. Amen


Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on May 9, 2010.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Astonishment and Joy

Text: Acts 11:1-8

A month from today, on the first Sunday of June, I will begin teaching a Sunday school class.
We will use a curriculum called "The Wired Word." Each Thursday I will get an email from
"The Wired Word" with the lesson for the week. The lesson will be a current event in the news. I
will get a synopsis of the event or issue plus some Bible passages to consider in light of that
current event. I will then email the lesson to the class members so they can read it and go deeper
before our discussion on Sunday morning. As class facilitator, I will ensure no one dominates the
discussion and that we address the issue in light of what the Bible has to say. If we had done the
lesson for today, it would have been on the topic of immigration.

As you may know, on April 23, Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona signed into law the toughest bill in
the nation against illegal immigration, unleashing a flurry of protest and opposition from people
who see its provisions as an open invitation for harassment, discrimination and racial profiling
against Hispanics. The law makes it a state crime for illegal immigrants to be in Arizona and
gives police the right to demand proof of legal status from anyone they might suspect of being in
the country illegally.

Arizona residents have reason to be concerned about illegal immigration, as their state has
proven to be the busiest gateway for unauthorized entrance into the country and a major entry
point for illegal drugs. Reportedly, more than 60 percent of all undocumented workers come into
the United States through Arizona, and an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants currently live in
Arizona. While many tend the yards and do home repairs for citizens or hold other jobs, some
also commit crimes, though at no greater rate than the legal population, according to police

The murder of Arizona rancher Robert Krentz on his own property in March by a suspected
smuggler contributed to the movement to pass the bill through the Arizona legislature.
But other concerns contributed as well, including a worry that illegal immigrants receive social
welfare services and add to the drain on tax dollars and that they take jobs from Americans.
Others argue, however, that many of the jobs illegal immigrants take are those that Americans
don't want to do. And several studies have shown that two-thirds of illegal immigrants pay all
taxes, Social Security and Medicare, in part to establish a record. Whatever the reality, however,
the concerns exist.

At minimum, opponents of the new Arizona law see it as going too far and as a violation of civil
liberties. Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of
Arizona, said, "If you look foreign, you are going to be subjected to never-ending requests
[from] police to confirm your identity and confirm your citizenship."

Still others see the measure as mean-spirited and even treading on basic human rights. Cardinal
Roger M. Mahony, Archbishop for the Catholic diocese of Los Angeles, said the authorities'
ability to demand documents was like "Nazism." Jim Wallis, head of the Christian social justice
group Sojourners, describes the bill as "a social and racial sin."

According to those who study immigration, of all the immigrant workers in America, 75 percent
are here legally. Another 10 percent have entered the country legally but have overstayed their
visa. Only 15 percent of all immigrants are here illegally. They are working not only in Arizona,
but in Florida, California, New York, Maine, Minnesota, Michigan and elsewhere. They are
virtually invisible to us, but we get the benefit of their cheap labor in the price of our food and in
the service industries.

Supporters of the measure say that it was necessary because the federal government has not done
enough to control immigration, but getting immigration regulation through Congress has thus far
been an elusive goal. The Arizona bill passed the state legislature with only Republican support
and was signed by a Republican governor. But on the federal level, even when Republicans were
in the majority in Congress, Republican President George W. Bush's attempt at comprehensive
immigration reform did not succeed when his own party split over the issue.

Many observers predict that the Arizona action will move immigration reform higher on the
agenda of the current administration and Congress.

The immigration question is one we must face as a nation and as a congregation. As a
nation of immigrants and a congregation of immigrants, one question is ever present like a
white elephant that no one will mention: "Who will we let in?" This crucial question is as old
as the apostles according to our text today.

Reared in the faith of the Jewish synagogue, Peter was clear in his own mind that there were
certain rules for followers of Jesus Christ. One of the rules was that a follower of Jesus could not
eat barbecue. Pork was an unclean food and thus off limits to Jews and Christians. Or so Peter
thought before the Holy Spirit gave him a vision of what God intended for Christ's church.
The vision provided to Peter by the Holy Spirit first blew his mind and then changed his mind. In
the vision, God made it clear that God's requirements for membership in the church were less
restrictive than Peter's requirements for membership in the church. The vision showed Peter that
was doing a new thing. God intended to include unclean people in Christ's church. As Peter said
to someone about his vision: "The Spirit told me ... not to make a distinction between them and

Peter's vision sounded charming but did not convince other Christian leaders that God's will
included letting unclean people into the church. But what could they after the Holy Spirit broke
into their midst and filled some unclean people right in front of their faces? The Holy Spirit
showed the leaders of the early Christian church that God was the boss and not them. The
Christian leaders responded with astonishment and joy.

The question that Peter faced was the same question we face: "Who is in and who is out?" What
are the boundaries for citizenship and membership? Christian leaders such as Peter had some
clear ideas on the topic. But Peter and the other church leaders were about to learn that the Holy
Spirit did not pay much heed to their ideas about who was eligible to be a member of Christ's

I wonder if any of us could get up before the congregation and say, with Peter: "The Spirit told
me ... not to make a distinction between them and us."

Just as the Jews in Peter's day needed to know that the Gentiles were also welcomed in
God's plan of salvation, so too we need to break through the barriers that prevent us from
carrying the good news to those who are outside of the household of faith. There are men
and women whom we reject every day who are searching for meaningful experiences in
their lives.

After Peter had heard about God's plan to include those he had planned to exclude, Peter
asked, "Who am I to hinder God?" We could ask the same question of ourselves. Who are
we to stand in God's way?

Peter and the apostles refused to remain in the box that others wanted them to stay in. Peter came
out of the box to bring a message of love, power, and justice to people who didn't share his views
which included Jews and Gentiles.

I wonder if that's what the church needs to do today? Perhaps we need to come out of the box of
spiritual confinement. Come out of the box of safety and comfort. The Holy Spirit calls us as
individuals and as a congregation to come out of the box of spiritual limitation and solitary
confinement. We are called to spread the Good News of Christ to all people and not simply stay
within the nice, neat little boxes we have fixed for ourselves or that others have forced us into.
Peter and the apostles refused to stay in the box. Paul refused to stay within the box of his
cultural and religious programs.

Jesus refused to allow hatred, prejudice, class, race, age, ethnicity, money, power, influence,
sickness, affliction, trouble, sorrow, pain, or death to keep him in a box. Jesus came and died and
rose so that we would come out of the box. The box of narrow-mindedness and provincial
thinking, the box of limited vision and opportunity and the box of the seven last words, "We
never did it that way before," all kill the forward movement of the spirit's power and presence.
Jesus calls us to come out of the box. The empty box is the empty tomb. Jesus is out of the box
and we as disciples of Christ should come out of the box too!Christ was crucified and
resurrected so that we could come out of the box of our cultural and religious programming.

Christ commissions us to go into the world to preach, teach, and reach others for Christ; to come
out of our little boxes to spread the Good News of Christ. We can do it when the Holy Spirit
comes upon us. Then we can come out of the box. We no longer have to allow things to box us
in and keep us from taking a message of hope to all people. Let's come out of our boxes and give
him the glory! Then we may experience the astonishment and joy that fell on Peter and the
others when they realized God's vision is bigger than they had imagined.

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Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Acts 11:1-8 at St. John's Presbyterian Church on May 2, 2010.