Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Faithful Church

Text: Matthew 25:14-30

In 2005, William J. Cummins of Exxon, said: "All the easy oil and gas in the world has pretty much been found. Now comes the harder work in finding and producing oil from more challenging environments and work areas." This idea that all the oil had been found took off in the public consciousness and the "Peak Oil" concept led to a dramatic surge in oil prices.

When I started my ministry at St. John's on August 2, 2007, a barrel crude oil cost $81.27. Eleven months later the price of oil peaked at $157.98 on July 3, 2008 for nearly a 100% increase in price. But over the next 7 months the price of oil plunged by 79% and closed at $49.93 a barrel on February 10, 2009. Financial analyst and Elliott Wave Theorist, Robert Prechert, says this is probably the fastest commodity decline of this size in recorded history. (Robert Prechert, "The Elliott Wave Theorist," October 2010 Issue, p. 3) As the song says, "What goes up must come down." Making money off an investment is not an easy thing to do.

One of the servants in Jesus' parable was keenly aware of just how hard it is to make money on an investment and was paralyzed by his fear. The other two were bold investors and their risk paid off in a big way.

According to The New Interpreter's Bible, the word "talent" entered our language in the Middle Ages as a term for God-given abilities, "gifts and graces" and it came into the English language directly from this parable of Jesus. Yet the talents in this story refer to money. As we read in verse 18: "But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money." (25:18) (NIB, Vol VII, p. 453) Jesus is talking about stewardship of money in this parable.

The master gives different amounts of money to the servants based on their abilities. To one man he gave $150,00; to another he gave $100,000 and to another he gave $50,000. The master left the servants with the idea they would put their money to work in the marketplace and provide the master with a decent return. The modern parallel would have to be investing in the stock market. The assignment to make money in the marketplace was not an easy assignment. Even so, the servant who received $150,000 went off and traded with it and doubled his money to $300,000. The servant who received $100,000 doubled his money to $200,000. But the one who received $50,000 went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. We may assume that the hole in the ground this servant dug was not an exploratory oil well. It was instead a hole into which he put his money for safekeeping. Some people hide cash in their mattress. This man buried his money in the ground.

We know people who bury their money in the ground and some of them may be here among us this morning. Fear paralyzes us. So let's not be too quick to condemn the servant who buried his $50,000 in the ground. Maybe he had heard that only one in a thousand people who invest in the stock market make any money. The rest lose money. By burying his money in the ground at least he didn't lose any money and that is quite an accomplishment for an inexperienced investor. If you can break even your first year of investing you are doing well. Perhaps he buried it in the ground because he was thinking like Mark Twain, who said of the stock market: "October: This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August and February."

But the master did not laugh when the 3rd servant returned his $50,000 to the master. The master was angry with the 3rd servant and called him "a wicked and lazy servant!" He made him give his $50,000 to the servant who had $300,000. The master offered a wise saying then sent the servant who buried his money down there where he buried his money. He sent him to hell. Now that's not a good outcome.

Notice the master didn't give specific instructions about what to do with the money he gave his servants. Sometimes God doesn't give us specific instructions. God just points us in a general direction without a map—just to see what we'll do with it. Faithfulness is not following an instruction book. Faithfulness is active responsibility that takes initiative and risk. Don't be safe! Don't worry about what you don't have. Use what you do have as much as possible. Do something positive. Don't be safe! We Presbyterians need to hear that message: "Don't be safe!"

Has there ever been a time when this church didn't play it safe? I have in my office a copy of the letter some of the founders of this congregation took to the bank in order to secure a loan to build this sanctuary in which we now sit. The business plan these founding elders took to the bank for a loan envisioned an increase in membership from 300 or so such as we have today up to 3,000 or even 6,000 members based on the demographics of Meyerland and Westbury in the 1970s. The people who founded this church had a huge vision for this congregation! They had a passion for this place and built this sanctuary. We know today that their vision of 3,000 or 6,000 members never happened. Here we sit today with 300 or so members and less than 100 giving units. What happened to the vision? What goes up must come down. Remember Peak Oil?

So where are we today? This neighborhood is not the same as it was in the 1970s. There is more diversity and our congregation is richer because of that. This neighborhood is in transition. It is no longer the "coolest place to live" in the Houston area as it was when some of you moved here in the 60s or 70s. Yet, in 10 years or so, it may be one of the "coolest places to live" once again. I have heard Meyerland described as the next Bellaire and Westbury referred to as the next Montrose. Ten years from now the economic outlook will improve in this neighborhood. But not yet. So what do we do in the meantime? Do we just hang on and wait for things to get better? Yes, we do, but that's not all. We keep moving forward. We keep living into our mission statement of glorifying God by making disciples and meeting human needs.

Today we remember those faithful disciples in this congregation who have preceded us in death. They challenge us to be faithful and remind us to take risks with our money in order to support Christ's mission.

In the financial marketplace there is a decisive week before us. We have mid-terms elections on Tuesday. The Fed delivers their most anticipated statement every on Quantitative Easing 2 (QE2) on Wednesday. Will it be $250 billion or $2 trillion? We get the latest unemployment number on Friday. This is a huge week for the market.

And this is a huge week for St. John's Presbyterian Church as we anticipate Stewardship Dedication next Sunday. Remember as you fill out your pledge card this week that this church does not pay taxes and your gifts to this church are tax deductible. On the other hand, this church does not receive one penny of support from the Federal Government or State Government. Our church budget is not supplemented by our presbytery or any other congregation or organization. We do not have a list of 6,000 potential donors. All we have it us. In fact, like Gideon's small band of warriors, we have less than 100 pledge units. So your pledge counts for a lot here. Some of us are unemployed or otherwise unable to provide much support. Others of us will need to step up and give boldly. We have lost many generous givers who have died over the past year. Who will make up the difference? It will have to come from us. No one else is going to do it for us.

Faithfulness is a risky business but faithfulness has its rewards. May we hear on that great judgment day these sweet words: "Well done, good and trustworthy servant; enter into the joy of your Master."

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on October 24, 2010 - 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time - at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Thanks and No Thanks

Text: Luke 17:11-19

Imagine you are riding in your car toward the Mexican border at MacAllen, Texas. Driving south on US 77. Passing through Victoria. Passing just north of Corpus Christi. You finally make it to McAllen. You keep driving and soon see the "Welcome to Mexico" sign. And suddenly you have crossed the border between Texas and Mexico. What do you feel when you cross that border? A tinge of excitement? A sense of adventure? We may feel a heightened sense of awareness when we cross the border into another country.

There seem to be new possibilities when we cross a border. Perhaps we are a little uneasy because no one will know who we are in this other place. It's not home. Or maybe we feel a slight sense of release and exhilaration at the thought of finally being anonymous for a few hours or days, however we will be away from home. We don't have to worry so much about how we look since no one will know who we are. In that sense we can relax. But there is a degree of danger when you are in a place where no one knows who you are. If we don't know them and they don't know us, perhaps we feel a little edgy and a bit more aware of our surrounding. We feel some exhilaration. A sense of relief. Yet edgy and very aware of our environment. I imagine that is how Jesus felt when he was making his way toward the city of Jerusalem as he crossed over the border between Samaria and Galilee.

As he entered a village, ten men, all lepers, met him. Ten lepers. Now there's something you don't run across every day. What do we know about leprosy? We know from Harper's Bible Dictionary that leprosy in the Bible was a disorder affecting houses, fabrics and humans. Leprosy appeared as greenish or reddish spots in some fabrics and houses which sounds like a type of mold or mildew. This mold and mildew was contagious so there were rules that anyone entering a leprous house must bathe and anyone who eats or sleeps in a leprous house must bathe and wash their clothes. People also got leprosy. We are not sure what humans infected with leprosy looked like. We don't think it was the same as modern leprosy, which we call Hansen's disease. However they may have looked people with leprosy were certainly contagious so they were required to live apart from the community. Leprosy, like modern AIDS, was a socially unacceptable disease. Some people considered leprosy a punishment from God for sin. When someone recovered from leprosy, purification rites were performed by a priest. (Harper's Bible Dictionary, 555-556)

Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, had just crossed the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he entered a village, ten men with the leprosy disease met him. The ten lepers kept their distance but raise their voices, calling out, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" So the lepers recognized Jesus by name. They ask Jesus to have mercy on them. This may mean they are asking for a handout. They would need money to survive. Perhaps they were unemployed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statitics, 14.9 million Americans were out of work and the unemployment rate is 9.6 percent as of the end of August. Unemployment brings you down emotionally and financially. The lepers were probably depressed. Contact with other people was not allowed. No wonder they cried out, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"

They may have heard that Jesus had healed people afflicted with leprosy. So perhaps in this instance when the lepers cry out for mercy they are asking Jesus to heal them. We will have an anointing service for healing during worship on October 31, Halloween Day, or All Saints Day as we prefer to call it. Come for prayer and anointing for healing of emotional, mental, spiritual or physical dis-ease. You don't even have to say what you seek healing from or why you want the prayer. Perhaps you are feeling the need for Jesus' healing power like these ten lepers.

Knowing what we know about leprosy and about Jesus, we would expect Jesus to heal the lepers and continue on his way toward Jerusalem. However, remember that Jesus met these ten lepers in a village after he crossed over the border between Samaria and Galilee. Having just crossed the border, perhaps Jesus will be reluctant to attend to these lepers. Jesus may feel a little uneasy having just crossed the border. He may sense some danger here.

But Jesus overcomes any fear he may have faced. He calls the ten men with leprosy over to him. He takes a good look at them. What color is their leprous skin? Green like mold? Or pinkish red like mildew? After taking a good look at them, Jesus said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests."

"Go, show yourselves to the priests?" That would imply they were already healed. Lepers are supposed to show themselves to the priests after they are healed so the priests can perform purification rites. But the lepers have no visible proof that they have been healed. For all the lepers knew Jesus could be brushing them off.

The lepers walked away. What did they have to lose? If he didn't want to heal them they couldn't make him heal them. And if he had already healed them then they may as well go to the priests to be declared cured of leprosy. So they went, and while still on their way, became clean. Notice how the healing was a process. This was not an instant healing. As they were going, after 20 minutes, or 3 hours, or perhaps several hours, they became clean. Their leprosy went away. They were healed! All ten of them were healed! Jesus had healed their leprosy.

One of them, when he realized that he was healed, turned around and came back, shouting his gratitude, glorifying God. How far did he have to go — 20 yards? 2 miles? 20 miles? No matter the distance. One of the lepers was so relieved, so full of joy and so excited that Jesus had healed him that he came back and found Jesus. He shouted "Thank you! Bless you, Master! Thank you, sir! Thank you, Jesus, I appreciate your healing me." Ten lepers had shouted at Jesus, "Jesus, master, have mercy on us." Only one retured to shout his thanks to Jesus for healing him from leprosy. The scene is dramatic: "He kneeled at Jesus' feet, so grateful. He couldn't thank him enough—and he was a Samaritan." (Luke 17:16, MSG)

Say what? A Samaritan? That word Samaritan would sound as icky as a fingernail scratching on a chalkboard to the ears of Jesus audience. Aagh! A Samaritan. Even Jesus seems surprised. He says, "Were not ten healed? Where are the nine? Can none be found to come back and give glory to God except this outsider?" (Luke 17:17-18) The Jews regarded the Samaritans as foreigners. They were ethnic. They were people of color. They were different. Not like us. Not part of our group. The punchline of the story is also the scandal of the story: The outsider, the man who lived on the wrong side of the tracks, the one from across the border, is the only one of 10 lepers who returned to give thanks.

Is it not humbling when those whom we consider ourselves to be better than prove themselves better than us? Is it not humbling when those we call outsiders prove they are on the inside track when it comes to connecting with Jesus? Is it not humbling when those we try to keep from crossing the border into our own country prove by their actions that they are perhaps more worthy citizens of the Kingdom of God than we are?

Jesus healed 10 lepers and only one of them returned to expressed his thanks and the scandal is that the one who returned was a Samaritan. Sometimes we learn the most important lessons from those from whom we expect the least. If only we could listen to the people who have no voice. If only we could observe the people who are invisible. If only we had eyes to see life as a gift from God. Perhaps then we would say "Thanks" more than "No Thanks." And then Jesus would say to us what he said to the Samaritan leper who returned to give thanks: "Get up and go. Your faith has healed and saved you."

How often do we look and not see the lepers in our midst? Those whom no one wants to be around. Those who turn us off. Those who bring us down. Jesus wants to heal them, too. I think he wants to use us to bring healing to them. The remarkable truth is that if we open ourselves to be instruments of healing to the lepers among us, we find we have been as well. Perhaps we didn't realize we were even ill. Our illness is well concealed. No one can see the leprosy inside us. Sin is easy to see in others and harder to recognize in ourselves. I wonder if Jesus would say to us this morning what he did not say to the lepers whome he healed? I wonder if he would say to us, "Go and sin no more." I wonder if we would reply to Jesus, "Thanks, but no thanks."

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on October 10, 2010 (28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C) at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Relationships form the Christian

Text: 2 Timothy 1:1-14

On their golden wedding anniversary, a couple were kept busy all day with the celebrations and the crowds of relatives and friends who dropped in to congratulate them. So they were grateful when, toward evening, they were able to be alone on the porch, watching the sunset and resting after the tiring day.

The old man gazed fondly at his wife and said, "Agatha, I'm proud of you!"

"What was that you said?" asked the old lady. "You know I'm hard of hearing. Say it louder."

"I said I'm proud of you."

"That's all right," she replied with a dismissive gesture. "I'm tired of you, too."

No wonder relationships are hard. Frequently, alas, we don't even hear what the other is saying. (Anthony De Mello, The Heart of the Enlightened, 119)

Or, I'm reminded of the woman who said to her husband, who was absorbed in the newspaper, "You can stop saying "uh-uh, honey." I stopped talking ten minutes ago."

Anthony De Mello says:

"Perfect listening is listening not so much to others as to oneself. Perfect sight is seeing not others so much as oneself.

For they fail to understand the other who have not heard themselves; and they are blind to the reality of others who have not probed themselves. The perfect listener hears you even when you say nothing." (Ibid.)

Johnny was a sturdy, robust kid of three. He made friends with a billy goat next door. Each morning he would pull up some grass and lettuce and take them over as breakfast for Billy. So deep was their friendship that Johnny would spend hours in Billy's pleasant company.

One day it occurred to Johnny that a change of diet would do Billy a lot of good. So he went to visit his friend with rhubarb instead of lettuce. Billy nibbled a bit of the rhubarb, decided he didn't want it, and pushed it away. Johnny caught Billy by one of his horns and attempted to get him to each the rhubarb. This time Billy butted Johnny away, gently at first, but as Johnny grew persistent, quite firmly, so that Johnny stumbled and fell with a thump on his backside.

Johnny was so offended by this that he brushed himself off, glared at Billy, and walked away, never to return. Some days later when his father asked him why he never went over to chat with Billy, Johnny replied, "Because he rejected me."

The surest way to kill a relationship: Insist on having things your way. (De Mello, The Heart of the Enlightened, 121-122)

Those are a few stories about how we wound one another - even unintentionally - in our relationships. We live with the aftermath of relationships that are out of tune in our homes, schools, jobs, and churches. Relationships are so important - they are worth investing in. Relationships make the Christian.

In our text today, we learn that Timothy received the faith from his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice. Some of us have had similar experiences. Our parents took us to church on Sunday morning. We said the blessing around the dinner table at home. We celebrated the Lord's Supper when it was served at church. Many of us, like Timothy, were reared in a Christian home where our family relationships were also faith relationships. Like Timothy in our text today, we also had spiritual mentors. Timothy had a strong spiritual bond to the Apostle Paul. They had served Christ together through thick and thin. Paul was a spiritual mentor to Timothy. Our scripture reading from 2 Timothy demonstrates how relationships form the Christian.

This was certainly true for me. Like Timothy, I was blessed by being reared in a Christian home where prayer and Bible study and church going were part of the fiber of my life. Beyond my parents, I have been blessed by spiritual mentors along the way. I could name many such mentors who have helped me along my spiritual journey as Paul helped Timothy. One of my first spiritual mentors was a burly business man by the name of Sappo Moore, Jr.

Mr. Moore taught my second grade church school class. He was a muscular young man who had played football for Mississippi State University and he appeared to be as big as a bull as we sat around a small table in an elementary church school class. What drew me to Mr. Moore is that he seemed to like us boys in his class. He developed a relationship with each one of us. Sometimes he would even take us out of town on fun trips.

Once, when Mr. Moore was going to take us to a baseball batting range, a few of the boys and I arrived at his house early. He wasn't ready yet so some of us boys climbed a tree to pass the time. We were having a great time playing in that tree when suddenly I fell and broke the bone in my left wrist. I was embarrassed to have to knock on Mr. Moore's door and tell him I had fallen out of a tree and broken my arm. He took me home and I missed getting to go to the batting range with the boys. That really hurt. Even today, after four decades, I still carry that wound in my left wrist. I am connected to my mentor, Mr. Moore, by that wound and when it gets a bit painful from time to time, I think of him and his dedication to the boys and me.

Such relationships form the Christian. We don't often acknowledge what some of us have experienced. The truth is that relationships leave wounds. We unintentionally wound one another by an unkind word, a look, a gesture, often without even intending it to happen. We hurt one another. It happens. In a strange sort of bonding experience, we are connected by the wounds we inflict upon one another.

Timothy's mentor, Paul, uses the image of a body to show how we are all connected to one another and to Christ. This image inspires us to look beyond our congregation and to include the church universal on this World Communion Sunday. Paul uses the metaphor of a body and says some of us are legs and some of us are arms in the body of Christ.

If he were writing today, Paul would likely say we are all cells in the body of Christ. We are as deeply embedded in the church, the body of Christ, as the millions of cells in your body are connected to you. And we aren't the only cells in Christ's body. All Christians of all times and places are cells in the mystical body of Christ. Just one look at the disjointed nature of Christ's church today demonstrates how we are connected by the wounds we inflict upon one another in the body of Christ. Those wounds bind us together.

Christ himself bore witness to this truth. Christ bore the wounds of all humanity in his body on the cross. He bore your wounds, my wounds, and the wounds of all humanity. As Isaiah says of Christ, "He was wounded for our transgressions and by his stripes we are healed."

When the disciple we call Doubting Thomas wanted evidence that Jesus had risen from the tomb, the risen Christ invited him to do something very intimate. He invited Thomas to touch his nail scarred hands and to put his hand in Christ's sword pierced side. The risen Christ invited Thomas to touch his wounds. For the risen Christ knew that by touching his wounds Doubting Thomas would be reconnected to him in faith.

Talking about wounds does not come natural to us. We are not entirely comfortable talking about the wounds of love we have inflicted on others nor about the wounds others have inflicted upon us. We'd rather skip over the painful parts of our Christian lives and only mention the glory. Yet, the glory of resurrection life never comes without the little deaths we receive and give in painful experiences through our rleationships with others.

We remember our connections today. We remember our grandparents, our parents, and our church school teachers. We remember our spiritual mentors who have helped us in our spiritual journey. We acknowledge how we are connected by our wounds. Especially, today I give thanks to God for the opportunity to form relationships with each of you in this local church expression of body of Christ. As we develop our relationships you will fashion me as a Christian and I will form you as a Christian and we may wound one another from time to time. Such wounds are a natural part of relationships. Such relationships form the Christian.


The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on October 3, 2010 (27th Sunday in Ordinary Time)