Sunday, August 29, 2010

Hospitality Tips for Christians

Let’s talk a bit about the significance of meals, group meals or communal meals in the world that Jesus lived in.

A meal, such as this gospel describes, was an important community event. It was literally the vehicle for signaling identity. To sit at the same table with another person was to make a public statement of acceptance and allegiance with that other person. It wasn’t polite. It usually was political. Good people for conscience sake would refuse to sit at table with anyone whose lifestyle or theology was unacceptable to them.

Meals were significant – socially, politically, religiously, economically. The Christian movement would pick up on that later-on by making the Lord's Supper its central act of worship.

The seating order at community group meals was very important. It was socially critical to seat people correctly according to a hierarchical order of their value in the community. There was a place for the most important and the least important and everyone carefully graded in between. The Essene community conducted a formal annual performance review for correct placement. The ladder of seating from highest to lowest was a public declaration of one’s community standing. It was not a matter of individual achievement. Your value was established by the group. And for many, keeping or raising your place was a matter of survival. It was a fearsome thing to lose your place, to be embarrassed publicly, humiliated, having to take a lower place. In the east it is called losing face. It’s hard for an individualistic culture like ours to understand, but losing face was often worse than losing one’s life.

Now it’s a bit tricky to consider how we read this story of Jesus at the synagogue leader’s sabbath banquet. At first blush, Jesus’ words sound like some practical advice, something you might read from the book of Proverbs. Don’t risk demotion. Play it safe. Sit lower so you avoid the risks of embarrassment and increase your chances of being shifted up a notch. At that level of reading, this is just strategic advice to ambitious ladder-climbers. Act humble. It’ll get you far. Pure self-interest.

And then Jesus says something that might look like a piece of spiritual capitalism. If you’ll give your banquet for the poor and crippled, you’ll bank some big time dividend’s in God’s book of accounts. Kind of like covering your futures options by getting saved so you won’t go to hell. Maybe some of you heard a sermon like that when you were a vulnerable ten year old. That’ll get you down the aisle, won’t it?

I don’t think that’s what Jesus was up to. I think Jesus was having some subversive fun with the whole system. "Be careful where you sit. But this whole banquet is a scandal." It’s some more of his radical ‘try winning by losing" message. Try living by dying. He’s upsetting the whole hierarchical apple cart and replacing it with new values. Values about loving and serving for the sake of loving and serving. It’s okay to love yourself, no false humility necessary. Just love your neighbor as your self, no hierarchies at all. And everything grounded in loving and being loved by God.

Jesus tells the party guests, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”

It’s a pretty counter-cultural message today, too. How do we do that? How can we make that happen? Who are the poor, crippled, blind or lame?

Think of someone you dislike--someone you general avoid because his/her presence generates negative feelings in you. Imagine yourself in this person’s presence now and watch the negative emotions arise . . . you are, quite conceivably, in the presence of someone who is poor, cripple, blind, or lame.

Now understand that if you invite this person, this beggar from the streets and alleys into your home, that is, into your presence, he/she will make you gift that none of your charming, pleasant friend can make you, rich as they are. He or she is going to reveal yourself to you and reveal human nature to you --a revelation as precious as any found in Scripture, for what will it profit you to know all the Scriptures if you do not know yourself and so live the life of a robot? The revelation that this beggar is going to bring will widen your heart till there is room in it for every living creature. Can there be a finer gift than that?

Now take a look at yourself reacting negatively and ask yourself the following question: “Am I in charge of this situation or is this situation in charge of me?” That is the first revelation. With it comes the second: The way to be in charge of this situation is to be in charge of yourself, which you are not. How does one achieve this mastery? All you have to do is understand that there are people in the world who, if they were in your place, would not be negatively affected by this person. They would be in charge of the situation, above it, not subject to it as you are. Therefore, your negative feelings are caused, not by this person, as you mistakenly think, but by your programming. Here is the third and major revelation. See what happens when you really understand this.

Having received these revelations about yourself, listen to this revelation concerning human nature. This behavior, this trait in the other person that causes you to react negatively--do you realize that he or she is not responsible for it? You can hold on to your negative feelings only when you mistakenly believe that he or she is free and aware and therefore responsible. But who ever did evil in awareness? The ability to to evil or to be evil is not freedom but a sickness for it implies a lack of consciousness and sensitivity. Those who are truly free cannot sin as God cannot sin. This poor person here in front of you is crippled, blind, lame, not stubborn and malicious as you so foolishly thought. Understand this truth; look at it steadfastly and deeply; and you will see your negative emotions turn into gentleness and compassion. Suddenly you have room in your heart for someone who was consigned to the streets and alleys by others and by you.

Now you will realize that this beggar came to your home with an alms for you--the widening of your heart in compassion and the release of your spirit in freedom. Where before you used to be controlled (these persons had the power to create negative emotions in you and you went out of your way to avoid them) now you have the gift of freedom to avoid no one, to go anywhere. When you see this you will notice how to the feeling of compassion in your heart has been added the feeling of gratitude to this beggar who is your benefactor. And another new, unaccustomed feeling: You actually feel a a desire to seek out the company of the growth-producing crippled, blind and lame people, the way someone who has learned to swim seeks water, because each time you are with them, where before you used to feel oppression and tyranny of negative feelings, you scan now actually feel an ever-expanding compassion and the freedom of the skies. And you can barely recognize yourself as you see yourself going out into the streets and alleys of the town, in obedience to the Master’s injunction, to bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and lame.

Now, let's revisit the dinner table. The evening grows late. Etiquette lessons are over. Jesus stands up, and the one-eyed, crooked-legged, gap-toothed crowd stands with him. They are having a ball, the time of their lives, and they will follow him on because everywhere he is, there is a feast. And there is room for everybody at the table, nobody cares who sits where, and everybody shares in the abundance.

Here’s our banquet table. God has invited us, with all our blindness and brokenness and even elitism too. God has also invited the weary, the poor, and the outcast as well, and if they are under-represented, then we need to improve our invitation process. God has created a fabulous feast, filled with the abundant food that fills and heals, welcoming and accepting who we are, now. All are equal; we are one. Those in the front have the role of the servants, those who serve the honored guests of God. At this table, no one will be humiliated, no one hungry, no one hurt. But Christ’s friendship and hospitality is extended to everyone. Welcome to the banquet. Eat. Drink. Shalom! This is Jesus’ vision of life in God’s realm.

- - -

~Adapted from a sermon by The Rev. Lowell E. Grisham, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, AR with a story by Anthony de Mello.

Pastor Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on August 29, 2010.

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Rule Breaker

Text: Genesis 29:31—30:24

You don't hear Bible characters discussing the need to build more prisons. That's because the leading heroes are often the very ones who break the rules. Breaking the rules is a recurring theme in the Bible. As we will see this morning, Rachel was in good company when it came to breaking the rules.

Throughout the courting season described in today's scripture reading (Gen. 29:31-30:24), Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. Sure, Leah bore Jacob more sons. You might as well say she cooked him more hotdogs. It wouldn't have mattered if Leah bore Jacob 100 sons. Jacob loved Rachel more. Rachel was his first love, the queen of his heart. Rachel is the girl Jacob wanted to marry. We can understand Jacob wanting to marry the woman he loved—even if she was the youngest—and her older sister was not yet married. But that went against the grain in his culture. You see, in 1500 B.C. the oldest daughter got married first. Period. Falling in love was not part of the equation. As is still the case in some cultures today, marriage was all business. The firstborn son inherited the family estate. And the firstborn daughter was the first to get married. That's how you did business back then. But Jacob went against the culture of his time by choosing Rachel over Leah. Jacob chose the younger sister over the older. That's not how you did business back then. Jacob broke the rules. Rachel's story is a story about breaking the rules.

Someone else broke the rules back then, too. Someone else broke the rules of the culture. They broke the rules by choosing the younger son to receive the blessing. That someone is God. The rule was that the oldest son inherited the estate. But God broke that rule. God chose Rachel's husband Jacob instead of his older brother Esau. God chose the younger brother. Later, God chose Rachel's son, Joseph, to rule instead of his older brothers. Yet again God chose the younger brother. God broke the rules! Quick, someone call the Chronicle. Can you see the headlines on the front page of the paper: "God Breaks the Rules: Chooses younger brother." Call the news crew at channel 8. Get it on the radio. Hey! Did you hear? God chose the younger brother. God broke the rules! What? GOD BROKE THE RULES! Did he say God broke the rules?

Of course, it's no big news to us that God broke the rules. We're used to God breaking the rules, at least in the pages of the Good Book. The whole Bible could be summed up in one sentence: "God broke the rules." Do you think I'm off base here? Am I out on a limb? Permit me to cite an example. Look at Jesus. He broke the rules every time he turned around. For example, the Jewish culture in Jesus day said you don't work on the Sabbath. Every business must close. No sneaking around either. Everybody has to stay at home and chill out on the Sabbath day. That's the rule. Don't work on the Sabbath. That's one of the big ten that Moses brought down from Mount Sania—one of the ten commandments of the Hebrew faith: "Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy." (Exodus 20:8)

Then here comes Jesus and his gang of disciples walking across a field picking grain to eat. On the Sabbath! Is he crazy? Jesus is supposed to be a religious leader. Doesn't he know the rules? Doesn't he know the law of Moses?! You don't pick wheat on the Sabbath day. So the religious leaders question Jesus and he cites some obscure Bible passage about David and then says, "Helping people is more important than resting on the Sabbath. Besides, I'm the Lord of the Sabbath, so what's the big deal?" and walks away, eating his sandwich (Mark 2:23-28). You don't work on the Sabbath. That was the rule back then. And here comes Jesus breaking the rule.

In case you were dozing during that one, Jesus broke that rule again. This time he broke it right in the middle of church one Sunday morning—sort of. Jesus was teaching in the synagogue (a Jewish church) on the Sabbath (a Saturday to them, a Sunday to us). Jesus is standing in the pulpit teaching the people on the Sabbath day. In walks a man with a withered hand. What will Jesus do? Do you think he'll break the rules again? He wouldn't heal that man, not on the Sabbath. That's against the rules. Jesus knew what they were thinking, so he said, "Is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath or to heal? To save life or to kill?" Dead silence. No one dared to speak. Jesus got mad. He said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." The man stretched out his withered hand and, my goodness—it straightened out—he was healed! Jesus broke the rules again. The religious leaders of the community stormed out the church doors and called the politicians, saying, how can we destroy this man? (Mark 3:1-6) Go ahead, point your finger at Jesus and wiggle it. Shame on him. Jesus broke the rules.

A Hindu Sage was having The Life of Jesus read to him.

When he learned how Jesus was rejected by his people in Nazareth, he exclaimed, "a rabbi whose congregation does not want to drive him out of town isn't a rabbi."

And when he heard how it was the priests who put Jesus to death, he said with a sigh, "It is hard for Satan to mislead the whole world, so he appoints prominent ecclesiastics in different parts of the globe."

The lament of a bishop: "Wherever Jesus went there was a revolution; wherever I go people serve tea!"

When a million people follow you, ask yourself where have you gone wrong.

Sure, Jesus broke the rules. But he came by it honest. It was in his genes. He inherited that trait from his Father. Not Joseph the carpenter. But his heavenly Father. God taught Jesus everything he knew about breaking the rules. Why, God broke the rules on the very day Jesus was born.

Recall that Jesus was born into the Hellenistic culture. Hellenistic culture was a combination of Greek philosophy and Roman political and military rule. Hellenistic culture prized intelligence, beauty, athletic ability, and military strength. "Might makes right" was the Hellenistic idea. Roman kings were great rules, lords over all the people. Into that culture God sent his only Son, the King of Kings, to be born—not in a princely castle—but in a cattle stall. To be born, not in the capital city of Rome, but in the backwater town of Bethlehem. To be born, not to a royal Roman family, but to a peasant Jewish family. To be born, not like a king, but like a slave. God broke every rule of Hellenistic culture when Jesus was born. God made Jesus break the rules the very moment when he came out of Mary's womb. No wonder Jesus grew up to be a rule breaker.

How may we characterize the God of Rachel as described in our text today? The God of Rachel is beyond our control. The God of Rachel is out of our league. The God of Rachel comes to us in a young minority woman drawing water at a well. The God of Rachel comes to us in a struggle between two sisters who are married to the same man. The God of Rachel comes to us as a God who breaks the rules by choosing the younger sister over the older sister, by choosing the younger brother over the older brother. The God of Rachel comes to us not with a credit card, but with a cross. The God of Rachel comes to us on His own terms. And yet, the God of Rachel does come to us. And the God of Rachel invites us to come to Him.

Will we come to the God of Rachel? More to the point, will you come to the God of Rachel? Will you come to the God who breaks every rule by loving you? Will you come to the God who loves you just as you are? Will you come to the God who God invites you to come just you we are ... without one plea ... just as you are ... Will you come?

- - -

Let us pray: God of Rachel, God of our Lord Jesus Christ, Lord of the church, you break every rule in the book by loving us. You break every rule in the book by inviting sinners such as us to come to you, just as we are, without one plea. Thank you, Lord, for the invitation you have extended. You ask us to come. With the help of our helper, the Holy Spirit, we will come to you. We will come to Your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We will come. Amen.

- - -

Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on August 22, 2010

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Perfection Not Required

Text: Hebrews 11:29-12:2 / 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, the
prophets....Through acts of faith, they toppled kingdoms, made justice
work, took the promises for themselves. They were protected from
lions, fires, and sword thrusts, turned disadvantage to advantage, won
battles, routed alien armies. Women received their loved ones back
from the dead. There were those who, under torture, refused to give in
and go free, preferring something better: resurrection. Others braved
abuse and whips, and, yes, chains and dungeons. We have stories of
those who were stoned, sawed in two, murdered in cold blood; stories
of vagrants wandering the earth in animal skins, homeless, friendless,
powerless—the world didn't deserve them!—making their way as best they
could on the cruel edges of the world. (Hebrews 11:32-38 MSG)

These are some impressive people mentioned in our text today. Since
they are characters mentioned in the Bible we tend to think they must
have been perfect but of course, upon closer examination, they are not
perfect. King David slept with his general's wife and then manipulated
his general into such a position that he was killed in battle. So
chalk up two sins against King David: Adultery and murder. Rahab, the
Jericho harlot is also on this list. I won't go into the details about
Rahab or the others mentioned in this list. The point is that none of
them were perfect. What a relief it is to learn that God does not
require perfection. Even so, we seem to think true spirituality means
being perfect.

People of my generation and younger are these days are increasingly
haunted by the worthy ones who fought in America's wars. The movie
Saving Private Ryan has made many of us think about what we have done
to be worthy of the sacrifices others have made for us. Stephen
Spielberg has taken us on a tour of the cemetery at Normandy, with all
it's little white crosses and Stars of David. We know that we have
never had to prove ourselves in such a way as they.

The old war movies did what this one resisted - they tended to glorify
war heroes as though their worthiness consisted in their being nearly
perfect people. They were merely human though, no more, no less. They
loved life as we do. They most of them did not set out to be heroes or
offer themselves on the altar of national sacrifice. They were called
upon and they answered. They got drafted and shipped out on boats and
planes. They served in ways they would never have chosen themselves.
Some of them were morally upright, some downright immoral. Some of
them were brave, some cowardly. They were, in other words, just like
us.When Ryan is in fact saved and he stands in the presence of the man
who gave his life for him, Captain Miller whispers to him: Earn this.
Earn this.

Those words haunted James Ryan all his life. Standing before the
little cross of that man in Normandy, Ryan tearfully pleaded with his
wife: Tell me I have lived a good life. Tell me I am a good man.

Let me tell you something. You are worthy. You are worthy. Perfection
is not required.

Anthony de Mello says: "Some are born holy, others achieve holiness,
others yet have holiness thrust upon them" and he tells this story.

An oil well caught fire and the company called in the experts to put
out the blaze. But so intense was th heat that the firefighters could
not get within a thousand feet of the rig. The managements, in
desperation, called the local volunteer fire department to help in any
way they could. Half an hour later a decrepit-looking fire truck
rolled down the road and came to an abrupt stop just fifty feet away
from the devouring flames. The men jumped out of the truck, sprayed on
another, then went on to put the fire out.

The management, in gratitude, held a ceremony some days later at which
the courage of the local firemen was commended, their dedication to
duty extolled-and an enormous check was presented to the chief of the
fire department. When asked by reporters what he planned to do with
the check, the chief replied, "Well the first thing I'm going to do is
take the fire truck to a garage and have the dog gone brakes

De Mello tells other stories about what it means to live as an
imperfect Christian. Let me share some of them with you. I hope we
will laugh together and learn together that God accepts and loves us
even though we are not perfect.

An old rabbi was lying ill in bed and his disciples were holding a
whispered conversation at his bedside. They were extolling his
unparalleled virtues.

"Not since the time of Solomon has there been one as wise as he," said
one of them. "And his faith! IT equals that of our father Abraham!"
said another. "Surely his patience equals that of Job," said a third.
"Only in Moses can we find someone who conversed as intimately with
God,' said a fourth.

The rabbi seemed restless. When the disciples had gone, his wife said
to him, "Did you hear them sing your praises?"

"I did," said the rabbi.

"Then why are you so fretful?" said his wife.

"My modesty," complained the rabbi. "No one mentioned my modesty!"

He was indeed a saint who said, "I am only four bare walls--with
nothing inside." No one could be fuller.

A man walked into a doctor's office and said, "Doctor, I have this
awful headache that never leaves me. Could you give me something for

"I will," said the doctor, "but I want to check a few things out
first. Tell me, do you drink a lot of liquor?"

"Liquor?" said the man indignantly, "I never touch the filthy stuff."

"How about smoking?"

"I think smoking is disgusting. I've never in my life touched tobacco."

"I'm a bit embarrassed to ask this, but--you know the way some men
are--do you do any running around at night?"

"Of course not. What do you take me for? I'm in bed every night by ten
o'clock at the latest."

"Tell me," said the doctor, "this pain in the head you speak of, is it
a sharp, shooting kind of pain?"

"Yes," said the man. "That's it--a sharp, shooting kind of pain."

"Simple, my dear fellow! Your trouble is you have your halo on too
tight. All we need to do for you is loosen it a bit."

The trouble with your ideals is that if you live up to all of them,
you become impossible to live with.

The Master was in an expansive mood, so his disciples sought to learn
from him the stages he had passed through in his quest for the divine.

"God first led me by the hand," he said, "into the Land of Action, and
there I dwelt for several years. Then He returned and led me to the
Land of Sorrows; there I lived until my heart was purged of every
inordinate attachment. That is when I found myself in the Land of
Love, whose burning flames consumed whatever was left in me of self.
This brought me to the Land of Silence, where the mysteries of life
and death were bared before my wondering eyes."

"Was that the final stage of your quest?" they asked.

"No," the Master said. "One day God said, "Today I shall take you to
the innermost sanctuary of the Temple, to the heart of God himself.'
And I was led to the Land of Laughter."

"Prisoner at the bar," said the Grand Inquisitor, "you are charged
with encouraging people to break the laws, traditions, and customs of
our holy religion. How do you plead?"

"Guilty, Your Honor."

"And with frequenting the company of heretics, prostitutes, public
sinners, the extortionist tax-collectors, the colonial conquerors of
our nation--in short, the excommunicated. How do you plead?"

"Guilty, Your Honor."

"Also with publicly criticizing and denouncing those who have been
placed in authority within the Church of God. How do you plead?"

"Guilty, Your Honor."

"Finally, you are charged with revising, correcting, calling into the
question the sacred tenets of our faith. How do you plead?"

"Guilty, Your Honor."

"What is your name, prisoner?"

"Jesus Christ, Your Honor."

Some people are just as alarmed to see their religion practiced as
they are to hear it doubted.

We take away from the stories in the Bible and the stories of Anthony
de Mello the same truth: God does not require perfection. What a
relief. That is good news if I ever heard it. ~All stories taken from
"Taking Flight: A Book of Story Meditations" by Anthony de Mello,

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's
Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on August 15, 2010.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Faith Journey

Some of us have recently returned from vacation trips. We packed everyone and everything into the car and headed for the mountains or the sea. We journeyed to distant relatives, or we drove to the Hill Country to get some fresh air. Some of my fondest memories as a child are of our family's vacation journeys. Those were the times when being in our family became an adventure. We left the humdrum routine of the ordinary and ventured forth into unknown regions. We sampled strange food, encountered memorable people, and one time we even had a bear come right up to our car in the Smoky Mountains. Parents, who spend most of their time enforcing the rules, keeping us on schedule, making sure that everyone has done his or her chores, became fellow adventurers, explorers. It's great to be on these summer journeys.

And, when you think about it, so much of the Bible is concerned with people on a journey. When the Bible begins, in Genesis, it begins with settled life in a good garden. But a couple of chapters later, Adam and Eve must leave the garden and the journey begins. Human life, it appears, is not all wrapped up and settled down. Noah ventures forth over the dark water in an ark. Abraham leaves the city of Ur and travels to a "promised" land. The gospel writers organize their thoughts about Jesus as an extended travel story. Jesus is always on the road, always on the move to somewhere else. He says something, his words fall upon the ears of the crowd, and then he moves on. Jesus is always traveling. He is always on a journey.

Our scripture this morning is about two people on a journey. Abraham and Sarah venture forth, as today's Epistle reading puts it, "not knowing where they were going." (11:8). They venture forth, not only geographically, to a different location on the map, but also spiritually, to a different location in their spiritual lives. As Kierkegaard said: "Faith sees best in the dark."

Abraham and Sarah knew the risks inherit in starting a journey. God had promised this old childless couple that they would have a son. Their son would be a new beginning. A new beginning in the midst of their transition from the past to the future, from one place to another. And God fulfilled that promise. They bore a son named Isaac which means "Laughter." God got the last laugh on Abraham and Sarah. For from their son came a nation called Israel who would become "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore."

How could they do it? How could Abraham and Sarah survive the uncertainty? How could they leave a city in which they had succeeded in search of a dream? They journeyed on because they were seeking a homeland -- a heavenly homeland. They were following the God of stardust and sand. They were fast on the trail of a God who creates new things.

Maybe this old couple can teach us something. This old couple who left it all behind. This old couple who found a way to make a new beginning. This old couple who were not afraid to face the time of transition. This old couple who was not afraid of change.

What can we learn from Abraham and Sarah? Faith. Here is faith. Faith in action. Faith that walks. Faith that makes the journey. Faith that is not afraid to risk everything in order to follow God. Faith that carries on in spite of disappointments. Faith that continues even when understanding fails. Faith that walks on and lets God work out the details. Faith that sees beyond this world. Faith that realizes that our time on this planet is a gift. Faith that knows we are only visiting here. The kind of faith that makes us fully awake in our spirits even as caffeine makes us fully awake in our mind. The kind of faith that is aware that God is with us on the journey.

Abraham and Sarah are the proverbial parents of the Jewish people. Speaking of the Jews, I am reminded of Goldstein, aged ninety-two, who had lived through pogroms in Poland, concentration camps in Germany, and dozens of other persecutions against the Jews.

"Oh, Lord!" he said, "isn't it true that we are your chosen people?"

A heavenly voice replied, "Yes, Goldstein, the Jews are my chosen people."

"Well, then, isn't it time you chose someone else?"

According to the Apostle Paul, we Christians are that someone else. Having been grafted in God's family tree, Abraham and Sarah are our spiritual parents, too. And the story of Abraham and Sarah is the story of a faith journey like our faith journey. For we, too, are on a faith journey even as we sit here on Sunday in our bolted-down pews. No wonder some people get the impression that the purpose of the church is to bolt things down, so to speak, to get fixed, settled, to attain "firm and unshakable faith," as we sometimes say. But no, the writer to the Hebrews reminds us that being a disciple of Jesus is a good deal more exciting than that. The Christian life is an adventure, a pilgrimage, a journey. We come here on Sunday, not to settle down, settle in, and end our search. We come here to eat spiritual food that will energize us so that we may step out in faith and serve God in the world.

What is faith? Ironically, faith is knowing we don't know. Faith is knowing nothing and loving everything. The Apostle Paul says, "Make no mistake about it, if there is anyone among you who fancies himself wise, he must become a fool again to gain true wisdom. If anyone thinks he knows, he knows nothing yet in the sense of true knowing." (1 Cor. 3:8)

If we want to experience what Paul calls 'the peace of God that surpasses all understanding" and what Plotinus calls 'the Presence beyond all understanding,' then we must be willing to go beyond understanding. (Freke and Gandy, Jesus and the Lost Goddess, 182-183)

We start out on the spiritual quest because we don't know who we are or what life is. Having filled our heads with all sorts of fancy ideas, as the realization of faith deepens it dawns on us that we knew the answer in the first place. We began searching for meaning because life didn't make sense and we were right. Life doesn't make sense. It's an absolute Mystery.

Yet as we progress on our journey something changes. We begin our search because we are terrified by the fact that we don't know what is going on. Through the process of awakening we discover something wonderful - the source from which life originates and towards which it is evolving is more perfect, more beautiful, more loving, than words can possibly communicate. Life is essentially Good.

This can sound like glib positivity, but it is not. Faith is not about avoiding the fact of suffering and retreating into wishful thinking. It is expressing our natural compassion by doing all we can to heal the terrible suffering we encounter, yet at the same time know that, despite appearances, all is well. It is understanding that everything arises from and is returning to the Good. It is trusting that ultimately, therefore, good will come from bad, and choosing to play an active part in that process.

We can't understand the Mystery of Life but we can comet to trust it, and this transforms everything.

The essence of the Christian gospel of faith could not be more simple. It is so simple and so obvious, in fact, that it can years of philosophical exploration before we finally understand that the 'good news' it brings is all we really need to know: Everything is okay. (Freke and Gandy, Jesus and the Lost Goddess, 183-184)

An atheist fell off a cliff. As he tumbled downward, he caught hold of the branch of a small tree. There he hung between heaven above and the rocks a thousand feet below, knowing he wasn't going to be able to hold on much longer.

Then an idea came to him. "God!" he shouted with all his might.

Silence! No one responded.

"God!" he shouted again. "If you exist, save me and I promise I shall believe in you and teach others to believe."

Silence again! Then he almost let go of the branch in shock as he heard a mighty Voice booming across the canyon. "That's what they all say when they are in trouble."

"No, God, no!" he shouted out, more hopeful now. "I am not like the others. Why, I have already begun to believe, don't you see, having heard you r Voice for myself. Now all you have to do is save me and I shall proclaim your name to the ends of the earth.
"Very well," said the Voice. "I shall save you. Let go of that branch."

"Let go of the branch?" yelled the distraught man. "Do you think I'm crazy?"

It is said that when Moses threw his wand into the Red Sea the expected miracle did not take place. It was only when the first man threw himself into the sea that the waves receded and the water divided itself to offer a dry passage to the Jews. (Anthony de Mello, Taking Flight, p 62)

Let's be like that man who stepped into the sea. Step out in faith, regardless of whether you feel like you believe or not. Step out in faith and see what God will do. Let's step out in faith like Abraham and Sarah, our spiritual parents. Let's take a leap of faith.

What do you need to let go of today to move forward in faith? What is holding you back? What is tying you down? Whatever it is ... let it go.

We can afford to take the risk because ultimately we are safe. St. Teresa of Avila said it best: "All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well."

~Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon from Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 on August 8, 2010 (OT19C) at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.