Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Path Through Mighty Waters

Text: Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20

Something bizarre happened at the Westbury Little League ballpark last week. My son's baseball team was playing in a scrimmage game and some of the parents were there watching when one of the mother's was hit in her leg by a foul ball. Several people asked her how her leg was and said they were sorry she got hit. She said it hurt but the baseball hit a muscle so although it was sore it was not a serious accident. Later during the game, when this same mother was walking over the dugout to take some pictures another player hit a foul ball that went high up in the air and landed about two feet from this mother's head. Some parents in the stands who saw it laughed out loud and pointed because it seemed it just wasn't this mother's day. When she returned to the stands she asked if we had seen that second foul ball almost hit her and we said yes! She said when she was stepping into the dugout to take some photos of the children her husband had turned around and accidentally stabbed her in her eye! She said half jokingly, "I must have done something wrong today. What did I do wrong?"

Psalm 77 is for folks who feel they must have done something wrong. Has God completely rejected me? Is God trying to punish me? Am I, like Job, the object of some hidden, celestial game whose rules an objective I may never know? "Has God's right hand lost its grasp? Does it hang powerless, the arm of the Most high?" (NEB, vs 10)

At the beginning of today's Psalm, we find a person who has called out to the Lord, who has worshipped the Lord and yet doesn't hear any answer. The first half of this psalm was composed for use in worship by a person severely depressed, who says: "I cry aloud to God, that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted." (77:1-2) Have you ever been in this situation? Are you in this situation now? You have called out to the Lord, you have cried out, and you remember that, yes, in the past God has answered you, but now there seems to be no response. The skies seem to be solid, like brass, and God is silent, as far as you can hear. If so, this Psalm is for you. Indeed, this Psalm is for every Christian, because I believe all of us do go through such times, although perhaps not as dramatically as this.

The night was dark and foggy. A man walked in the darkness from his house to the cobble-stone street, his step determined and relentless, but his face — had anyone been able to see it in the dark — was tear-stained and weary. As he reached the street, he peered both ways, looking for the tell-take lantern of a horse-drawn, London cab. The man muttered: "Nothing! Am I too late? But no! I must end all tonight! And the river it must be!" Then, in the distance, he espied a hazy light, slowly enlarging. Almost whispering, the man said bitterly: "God, you provided me no solace, but here you provide the cab to take me to my death!" "Where to?" asked the cabby, when he stopped. "London Bridge," the man replied, curtly. "A cold night it is, sir — what sort of business have you at the Bridge at this hour?" But the man said nothing.

The cabby ended his attempt at conversation, and set off toward that well-known destination. But the fog became thicker and thicker, so that the cabby could not see even his horse's nose. What should have been a 20 minute ride lasted an hour, and still there was no sign of the river or the 600 year-old bridge. The cabby peered into the fog, desperately looking for some familiar sign. Suddenly, the fog lifted. The passenger, startled from his morose stare, looked to his right and saw, to his amazement, his own home. The cab, lost in the fog, had circled back to the very place he began the journey.

"My God! You have answered me!" the passenger cried out. Later that night, by his own hearth, this man, William Cowper, one of the greatest of England's 18th century poets, meditated on Psalm 77. That same night, William Cowper penned this great poem:

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants his footsteps in the sea,

And rides upon the storm.

According to a mainstream Biblical scholar, John Hays, the psalms were probably written by members of the temple staff for the use of worshipers. In the latter half of Psalm 77 the priests allowed the worshiper to confront their depression. So the second part of the Psalm, (vv. 11-20) shifts completely away from the particulars of any individual situation. The worshiper and psalmist shift to transpersonal, almost cosmic and mythological concerns, to conditions and situations at the founding of the world and the origins of Israel.

It's interesting to note that in Mesopotamian culture the dentist, when extracting a person's tooth, went through a liturgy that involved reciting a short account of the creation of the world. Such a move may have been a way of distracting the person from the immediate problem or a means of focusing one's faith on God's past and glorious acts so as to assure the person that God was still and always had been in control. Even so, this did not override the necessity of the person to give expression to depression and hostile feelings toward God.

Verses 11-20 combine images and perspectives drawn from the creation of Israel, when God led the people out of Egypt (vv. 14-15), and from the creation of the world, when God triumphed over the chaotic waters and chaos monsters and, amid thunder and lightenings and the trembling and shaking of the earth, God established order and led his people like lambs (vv 16-2). The liturgy seems to ask the worshiper, "In light of such a vision of God's activity, now what was your problem?" No appeals are made; no personal requests are formulated. The worshiper was apparently dismissed to live in the light of the hymn. Hopefully, the worshiper will not go out and wander in the wilderness. Yet, I wonder if that image of wandering in the wilderness does not describe much of life as we experience it.

Neither in the desert wilderness nor in the London fog, this story took place in a snow-covered field in America. Frank Lloyd Wright, the world-famous architect, was born just after Lincoln's assassination, and died in the space age. He did not see an electric light until the 1880s, when he went to Chicago as a young man looking for a job. By the turn of the century, he had revolutionized American architecture and become world famous thanks to his Prairie houses, low-slung family homes inspired by the flat midwestern landscape. Wright told how a lecture he received at the age of nine helped set his philosophy of life. An uncle, a stolid, no-nonsense type, had taken him for a long walk across a snow-covered field. At the far side, his uncle told him to look back at their two sets of tracks. "See, my boy," he said, "how your footprints go aimlessly back and forth from those trees, to the cattle, back to the fence then over there where you were throwing sticks? But notice how my path comes straight across, directly to my goal. You should never forget this lesson!" "And I never did," Wright said. "I determined right then not to miss most things in life, as my uncle had." (ChristianGlobe Illustrations, David E. Leininger, ChristianGlobe Networks, Inc.)

The spiritual life is not a so much a straight path straight up to heaven to God as it a wandering in circles on ever higher planes. It's as if we are walking an upwardly spiraling path up a mountainside where the road winds back around the mountain on the same side as we were before, but this time from a higher elevation. We find ourselves working through the same issues over and over but at a higher level of attainment and challenge. At some point, and especially when we get bogged down in the fog of depression, we need to turn our attention from the path in front of our feet up to the top of the mountain we are ascending. Perhaps that is why in many ancient cultures including the Hebrew culture God was seen as residing at the top of the mountain.

As hurricane season gets underway we have reason to be more concerned than usual. In the first place, the signs say this will be an unusually active hurricane season. In the second place, we have a massive oil spill in the Gulf. Jeff Masters, the NPR "EarthSky" guy, says a hurricane will help disperse the oil spill from the Gulf waters but will put some oil ashore and inland. Psalm 77 reminds me us of that image with these lyrical verses:

The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered;

your arrows flashed on every side.

The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;

your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.

Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters;

yet your footprints were unseen.

You led your people like a flock

by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (vv. 17-20)

Who are the Moses and Aaron's who will lead us through the mighty waters? It is the Christ within, the hope of glory. The Christ within us will lead us through whatever this hurricane season or our turbulent personal lives may hold for us. The hymnic part of Psalm 77 presents the Lord as the God who defeats the waters (v. 16) and leads his people like a flock through the sea. (v. 20) That is what the congregation needs and yearns for. (Interpretation: Psalms by James L. Mays, p. 254)

We live in a world where out of the blue you can wake up passing blood one morning at 5:30 am and the next morning at 5:30 am you find yourself in the hospital awaiting surgery to get a kidney removed from your body. That's what can happen in 24 hours. No wonder some people are uptight. The uncertainties of life put a lot of pressure on us all. Rather than looking above for everything we need I think we need to look within for that is where we will find God. We need to locate and nourish what Paul calls "the Christ within, the hope of glory." That is where we will find the courage and the guidance to navigate a path through the mighty waters of life.

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In writing this sermon, I found John Hayes interpretation of Psalm 77 helpful, as it appears in Preaching Through the Christian Year C, pages 314-315.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Deliverance from Demons

Text: Luke 8:26-39

            I want to acknowledge my debt to Tom Harpur and his book Water into Wine in this sermon. Many of the references and illustrations come from that helpful book and I'll admit I needed help in preaching about the topic today.

Demonology isn't something we talk about much less study anymore. But we can't escape talking about demon possession after reading a text like today's gospel lesson about the Gerasene demoniac.

              Think "demon possession" is a relic of a pre-scientific age when mental and physical illnesses were attributed to evil spirits? The fact is we live in a culture that suffers from a "legion" of possessing spirits, as toxic and traumatic as those that came raging forth from the Geresene demoniac.

              The spew from one of our most destructive demons is even now washing up in greasy globs all along the coastlines in the Gulf of Mexico.

              We are possessed by a greed that puts profits before protecting people and the planet.

              We are possessed by an insatiable desire for "more stuff" — and the cost of that "stuff" is increasingly deadly.

              When Jesus banished the evil spirits from the Gerasene demoniac, he filled the man with a new identity and a new mission. Long before Saul became Paul on the Damascus Road, Jesus had sent a missionary to proclaim the good news to the Gentiles. Because the healed man felt God's power and presence so fully in the person of Jesus, he became a new person in Christ.              

              The text of Mark, the oldest gospel, and the one upon which Matthew and Luke are based, presents Jesus primarily as an exorcist, driving out demons from people on every side. The first chapter of Mark, verse 39, sets this out most clearly: "And he went throughout the Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons."

              Only the crudest of literalism down the ages has, with often terrifying results, interpreted this as an actual expulsion of statanic forces. What is pictured or symbolized by these demonic influences are precisely the same drives, influences, complexes, obsessions and compulsions that we have in mind when we speak metaphorcally of a perons's inner "demons" distracting, wasting or paralysing his or her life. As spiritual beings enmeshed in matter, with all the weaknesses that flesh is heir to, we are often too eaily caught up in currents and forces that threaten to take control or turn us into courses of thought or action which disrupt our inner harmony and spill over into our behaviour towards others. Without healing, these forces can at times break out into antisocial or even criminal behavior. History is full of the horrors made possible when individuals or even whole nations succumb like a herd to the grip of the lower animal instincts within us all. Anybody who has never faced the reality of the shadow in their own life and psyche would do well to read Carl Jung's slim volume The Undiscovered Self which says that a mere change in the neuronal workings in the minds of a few key leaders could easily plunge the world into a nuclear night.

              The story of the demoniac who said his name was Legion, "for we are many," vividly told in chapter eight of Luke, illustrates in a powerful way just how encountering the Christ can transform an individual--or an entire society.

              The chief points of the story are these: the man was utterly out of control; he lived among tombs, which is to that, like many religionists today, he surrounded himself with the bones of the past; he was a danger even to himself -- "he was always howling and bruising himself with stones." Significantly, Jesus cofronts him with a blunt question: "What is your name?" We know that, in many cultures, naming something was often thought of in the ancient world as the first step in gaining mastery over either an object or, indeed, another person. The fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin is an illustration of the same idea. The elaborate tale, which originated in Germany, comes to a happy conclusion when the queen discovers the dwarf's name and so wins release from a promise made under duress to give him her first-born child. The sick man in our story is also compelled to face his illness, to put a name on it before he can be healed. What is revealing in the symbolism of what follows is that the dispossessed evil spirits are made to come out and depart from the man beside a body of water, and that they should ask to be freed to enter animals considerd to be gross and unclean. "And the unclean spirits came out an entered the swine; and the herd . . . rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea."

              It is worth observing in passing that while Luke says "a large herd of swine"--Mark expressly says there were "about two thousand" pigs in the great herd that dashed themselves down into the sea. In the Eleusianian mysteries, according to Freke and Gandy's The Jesus Mysetries, a crowd of some two thousand initiates on one occasion were required to bathe in the sea with a herd of swine. The purpose of the ritual was to transfer any taint of animality and evil from the initiates over to the pigs. The pigs were then sacrificed by being driven over a cliff into the waters. The neophytes were at once declared pure and totally renewed.

              Water itself signifies the watery domain of the physical or material body, as do the pigs. The realm of the human is to be ruled by the Christ Spirit; the activities of primodrial lusts and instincts were relegated to their true abode. It is significant to recall at this point that in the final Egyptian tableau of judgment in the Hall of Judment, any person who failed to pass the high ethical standards requried was immediately delivered over to the Typhonian beast -- a composite of pig, crocodile and hippopotamus. This signified rejection for that moment or cycle as the soul was forced to descend back into the body of the animal to gain further experience before ultimate deliverance or "salvation."

              There are at least two high points in Mark's account here. The first is when the swineherds run off and return with a crowd from the "city." They came to Jesus "and saw the demonicac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind." The healing was complete. The second is the ending where the former demoniac begs to be allowed to remain with Jesus but "Jesus refused, and said to him, 'Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.' And he went away and began to proclaim . . . how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed." There is a great truth there. Nobody who has come to the realization of the Christ within, and who has expereienced the power of that inner consciousness to drive out the "demons" and restore true healing, can refrain from making it known--certainly not by pious preaching to or cajoling of others, but by a quiet and radiant wintess day by day. There is nothing at all wrong--and indeed much that is right--in being eager and able, when called upon, to give "a reason for the hope that is in you."

              What is being said in this brief story is that we must find our true spiritual core and allow it to overflow within. Otherwise its place will eventually be taken over by other "spirits" -- the spirit of raw ambition, of lust for material possessions, the spirit of false and misleading doctrines, of cynicism or even despair. Right now in the Western world the old gods are being driven out. And they need to go. The burning issue is what will rush in to fill their place. It's a personal issue, but it is also societal, and ultimately global as well. It has particular relevance for the churches.

Our PC(USA) General Assembly begins two weeks from now. Let's pray that the commissioners may find a unity of spirit through the indwelling Christ. May all other spirits be driven out of that body so they are free to move within the matrix of the Holy Spirit. May the spirit of competition be cast out of that body and may the spirit of unity be allowed free reign.

  We are no different from that Gerasene demoniac. We are all possessed by demons. Maybe your demon comes in a bottle. Maybe your demon comes on a card table or a food table or a one-armed bandit. Maybe your demon comes in a shopping mall or a porn site. This is a culture haunted by demon possession. Well, listen, Jesus casts outs demons. Let's name our demons and submit them to the same treatment as Jesus gave to the demons in our story today. By the power of the Christ within, let us cast them out and thus restore our soul to greater health and harmony. That would be a memorable Father's Day gift both to ourselves and to those we love.


Monday, June 14, 2010

By Faith

Text: Galatians 2:15-21

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C


An old legend says that when Adam was expelled from the Garden of Eden he lay down under a tree and slept, his soul beside him. While he slept the four spirits - Earth, Water, Air, and Fire - stole man's soul and carried it away.

Then the four spirits looked about for a place to hide man's soul so that he could never find it again. The spirit of Earth said, "I will hide it in my depths." The spirit of Water said, "I will sink it into the deepest waters of the sea." The spirit of Air said, "Let me hide it beyond the farthest star."

But the spirit of Fire objected to all these suggestions, saying, "Let me burn man's soul in my flames." To this all the spirits agreed. But in a short while man's soul emerged unscathed by the flames. Then at length the four spirits agreed upon this plan, saying: "We will hide man's soul where he will never find it; we will hide man's soul within man himself." And so they did, so the legend says.

Well, in whatever way man's soul got where it is, God knows it is there. The problem is that sometimes we don't. We let our souls get lost within us. Running in dizzy circles around life's outer edges, we sometimes lose touch with what is at the center.

Here in worship today let's try to find our souls, wherever they are within us. Let's strip aside all the overgrowth that holds them down and keeps them where the shadows are. Let's try to open up ourselves to let some of God's light in, and some of his love. And we may discover inward treasures we never knew were there.

In the 1970s, when the gasoline shortage was at its height, any possible proposal for increasing the miles-per- gallon ratio was taken up with enthusiasm. One popular, but not terribly effective, scheme was to tuck your own car right up behind any large truck barreling down the highway. The conventional wisdom was that the tremendous draft created by the truck would help "drag" your own vehicle along reducing the air friction on it and thus increasing your own gas mileage. Following in the wake of the truck took some of the effort to move forward off of your own car.

For many Christians, following "in Jesus' steps" has become its own kind of spiritual coasting, riding in the wake of Jesus' own first-century actions and reactions in order to relieve some of the responsibility for making our own 21st- century responses. We are not called to follow "in his wake." The risen Christ who lives today wants to make, through us, new waves with our faith. Jesus was not simply a good man and an outstanding moral teacher whose past actions we may continue to follow like a law. Jesus is an indwelling, living presence, ready to live today and act in new and creative ways in this always-changing world.

There was a woman in a community who was well known for her simple faith and great calm in the midst of many trials. Another woman who had never met her but had heard of her came to visit one day. "I must find out the secret of her calm, happy life," she thought to herself.

As she met her she said:" So you are the woman with the great faith I've heard so much about." "No," came the reply. "I am not the woman with the great faith, but I am the woman with the little faith in the great God."

Can we say the same?

              Faith comes from the Latin word fide, which is a translation of the Greek word pistis.  It can be used in two senses: In the first, faith is a quality or attitude, as in such a statement as "So and so is a person of faith."  In the second use, faith may mean the contents or set of beliefs a person holds.  Such as in saying, "So and so believes in the Christian faith."  In the first use, faith is a verb; in the second, it is a noun.

                 The first use is the most proper and is the meaning contained in our text today.  Faith is an action, a means to an end--not the end it-self.  By faith is a process, an exercise of one's will, a putting into practice one's trust in God, rather than belief in certain doctrines or mor-alisms.  This is the upshot of Paul's statement about being justified by faith in Christ alone and not by legal or ethical works.


              For you see, faith is more than belief. Faith is more than intellectual agreement with the words of the Apostle's Creed, or even mental assent to the Bible. When we speak of faith, we are talking not so much of propositions to be understood, as of a relationship to be established. Jesus does not say, "Believe that ..," but "Believe in...." Above all, believe in me. We make a shift from belief to trust, from a matter for the head to a matter for the heart.

              We have to believe a person before we trust him or her, but when we arrive at trust, we are at a different level of relationship than mere belief. Even then we have not plumbed the depths of faith.

              There is one more step. Faith is that to which we trust our lives. We move, then, from the business of the heart to the business of the gut--to commitment. Commitment is the key word.

              Faith and commitment are experienced by all who swim or parachute. On person writes of parachuting, "The first time evertything in me resisted. I had listened to lectures. I had mastered the techniques. I had practised under simulated conditions. But I don't think I honestly believed that that frail piece of silk would hold me up. But nothing in the world compares with the thrilll expereienced when I leaped into the sky, pulled the cord, and found that the whole thing was actually true. I worked!"

              Christian faith is the leap of commitment to Jesus Christ. Though our minds may still be filled with quesitons, even doubts, ourlives are lived in response to his words, his example, his style, his spirit. They soak into our lives until we are saturated with them.

              No instruction manuals can make us parachutists nor swimmers. in each, we must dive in and allow ourselves to be supported by the elements -- air, water -- or, with Christ, "presence." God has put these elements in place for our support. That is faith. It is not something we hold. It is eomthing we are held by.

In Superman: The Movie, Superman first reveals his powers to the world with a dramatic rescue of Lois Lane. Lois is dangling from a cable high above the Daily Planet building. She is screaming at the top of her lungs. Just as she begins her long fall toward earth, Superman changes into his power suit and swoops up to catch her in midair. "Don't worry, Miss," he says. I've got you."

"Thanks," says Lois. "But who's got you?"

Just then a helicopter that has been parked on the edge of the building starts to fall straight toward them and the crowd below. But Superman simply grabs it with his one free arm and gently sets both it and Lois safely back on the landing pad. When he turns to leave, Lois stammers out the words, "Who are you?"

Superman says, "A friend" and flies off just before Lois faints into a heap.

That's how we would like Christ to come to us. And that's why we often aren't paying attention when he comes in less spectacular ways.

Paul says, "Christ lives in me." He doesn't say "Christ shows up at the last minute like Superman and rescues me from disaster." He says, Christ lives in me every moment of every day. Christ is an ongoing presence within us, as near as our own heartbeat and just as vital for our survival.


Paul says, "Christ lives in me. I live by faith in the Christ within, the hope of glory." Let's live by faith in the Christ within.

If now is one of those times in your life when you just don't feel like you have any faith, act like you have faith anyway. If we act like we have faith, we will find that we do indeed have faith. It was there all along. Not like some Superman Superhero but in the quiet, steady presence of the Christ within. As we get back in touch with the Christ within us, we will get back in touch with our faith.

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on June 13, 2010

Monday, June 07, 2010

Change Is Possible

Text: Galatians 1:11-24

Children know all about change. They go with the flow. They live in the moment, in the NOW. Over time and many years of schooling and jobbing and parenting or not we change. Hopefully, we become, as Jesus puts it, "wise as serpents and gentle as doves." When were are at a baseball stadium, a bar, a church, a school, or at home, we sometimes wonder whether change is possible. In the end, real change is a gift from God that comes from what Paul calls "the Christ within, the hope of glory." Truth be told, we all could probably use a little remodeling on the inside.

A woman bought a piece of needlework at a craft fair. On it was stitched these words, "Prayer Changes Things." Proud of the handiwork, she hung it up above the fireplace in the family room. Several days later she noticed that it was missing. She asked her husband if he knew what had happened to it. "I removed it," he replied. "Don't you believe that prayer changes things?" she asked, mystified. He responded, "Yes, I do. I believe in prayer. In fact, I believe that it changes things. I just don't happen to like change, and so I took it down." (Source unknown.)

Some people don't like change. And the principle thing most people don't like to change is themselves. How many people caught in a troubled marriage refuse to seek counseling? They would rather lose a good marriage than change. How many people caught in the cycle of chemical abuse feel desperate about their lives? Still, they won't seek help because it might require change. How many people, unhappy with their lot in life, try frantically to find happiness? But they won't take the one step necessary to change themselves.

Change is difficult, but it is possible. The Apostle Paul is the best evidence of that. According to our text today, Paul had been a fierce persecutor of the Christian community. Suddenly, he became its most eloquent spokesperson. His story has been repeated millions of times throughout history. People can and do change. However, there is usually a progression.

There are thousands of members of Alcoholics Anonymous who can tell you that change is possible. But you have to want to change. Few people even attempt change unless staying like they are is more painful.

In order for a change to come, you have to see it first in your mind's eye. For instance, some of us have been envisioning new paint on the walls in the hallway and bathrooms of the church office building. But it didn't happen overnight. The walls didn't get painted. Then this week several elders took the initiative and painted the hallway and restrooms in our church office building. That's a change for the good. That gift of time saved us about $2,500. That's more than many of us pledge to the church in a year's time. Others cleaned up the ground. Let's keep it going and we will continue to see good things happening here.

There is a scene in the original Karate Kid movie that is quite striking. The main character, Daniel, is befriended by the wise and elderly maintenance man, Mr. Miyagi. Daniel goes to see Mr. Miyagi and finds him trimming a delicate bonsai tree. Daniel is fascinated by this, so Miyagi tells him to try his hand at it. Daniel replies that he doesn't have any idea how to do it. Miyagi encourages him to try. First, he tells Daniel to close his eyes. Then Miyagi tells Daniel to picture in his mind the way he wants the tree to look when he is finished. Daniel concentrates fixedly on every single detail of the tree. Miyagi asks him if he has got the tree in his mind. "Then," Miyagi says, "open your eyes and begin." Daniel starts slowly to trim the tree. Every move is deliberate and focused. Then he stops, unsure, and asks, "How do I know if my picture is right?" And Miyagi replies, "If the picture comes from your heart, then it must be right. Just trust your picture."

People who study human behavior tell us that visualization is a powerful tool for people who want to change. If you can see yourself as being slender, then you can probably become slender. If you can see yourself as successful, that picture will guide you to making better choices. Of course there are limits to this. Visualizing yourself seven-feet tall will not make it so. Still, seeing ourselves as we might be - or as God created us to be - can motivate us to change.

That's why every follower of Jesus ought to have in mind a picture what Paul calls "the Christ within, the hope of glory." I don't mean Christ's appearance, but the kind of being he was. His gentleness, his patience and acceptance, but also his willingness to stand for his convictions.

His willingness to lay down his life for others. It is this picture of Christ that has caused millions of people to rise to new levels of humanity. "Lord, I want to be like Jesus," says the old spiritual, and that is a key to a changed life. Picture the Christ within and become like that energy.

Perhaps Saul was ready for a change. As he held the Apostle Stephen's robe while the mob stoned Stephen to death, perhaps Saul knew deep down that Stephen was right and he was wrong. We know after his blinding vision he had a mental image of the Christ emblazoned within, because he urges us to be conformed to that image in our own lives. The important thing about Saul's life is that he experienced the Christ within, the hope of glory. His conversion was so complete that his name was changed from Saul to Paul. Such a dramatic change wasn't simply a product of a New Year's resolution, or a naive desire to somehow live a better life. It was unconditional surrender to the Christ within, the hope of glory. And that's the way complete change occurs over time.

It is said that when Earl Weaver was manager of the Baltimore Orioles he would charge at umpires shouting, "Are you gonna get any better, or is this it?" Maybe God is asking us the same question. Maybe we're asking ourselves. Are you going to change or is this it? We can change if we really want to. We can change if we fix our eyes on the Christ within. We can change if we are willing to surrender our lives completely to the Christ within.

Why would Christ tell people to be born again, if there were no chance that such a phenomenon could occur? Why would the Scriptures time after time urge us to repent if repentance is really not possible? Can people change? Yes they can. But not necessarily overnight.

It is interesting to note that after his conversion, Paul did not go immediately to Jerusalem. Instead he went away to Arabia and then returned to Damascus. It was three years before he went to Jerusalem to confer with Cephas (Peter) and the other Apostles. Evidently Paul needed time to assess what had taken place in his life.

No wonder he needed time. Change is a process that takes time. To paraphrase Mark Twain: Habits can't be flung out the window; they have to be coaxed downstairs, a step at a time.

At a certain school board meeting, one of the prime targets of discussion was the untidiness and sloppy appearance of the janitor. The consensus was that he should be fired. However, a kindly older lady on the board pleaded on his behalf. "I hate to see the old fellow fired," she said. "He may be a little dirty and unkempt on the outside, but I'm sure he's clean and pure on the inside. Do we really have to discharge him?"

"Either that," replied the president of the board, "or turn him inside out." Maybe that's what some of us need. We need to be turned inside out. Any real change in our lives is not easy. And most of us fight such changes tooth and nail. The primary reason we are not everything Christ calls us to be is that we really would prefer to stay where we are as we are. Change is possible, but it is not easy. That brings us to the last thing to be said on this matter: REAL CHANGE IS A GIFT FROM GOD.

St. Paul ends this passage by writing: "And I still was not known by sight to the churches of Christ in Judea; they only heard it said, He who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.' And they glorified God because of me." Notice that they did not glorify Paul. They glorified God because they knew that real change comes as a gift from God.

Real change is a gift from God. Very few programs for rehabilitating human nature get very far along unless they recognize and facilitate the Christ within. If we do get in touch with the Christ within and allow Christ to be part of the change process, almost anything is possible.

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on June 6, 2010