Monday, November 29, 2010

Be Up and About

Text: Romans 13:11-14

Have you heard how the South African mines were discovered? There was a traveler seated at the door of the village chief's house. He saw the chief's children playing with things that looked like marbles. he picked one of them up and his heart exploded with joy. It was a diamond! so he went to tell the village chief: "My children also play with these stones; they call them marbles. Could I take some of them home with me? I'd be happy to give you tobacco in exchange."

The chief answered, "We have millions of them here. It would be robbery to accept your tobacco, but I'll accept whatever you give me." The man gave him the tobacco, went home, sold the diamonds, came back, bought all that land, and became the richest man in the owlrd. Heres' the point of this story: those people were walking on top of a treasure and didn't know it. Life is a banquet and yet most people are depriving themselves of it. They never discover the treasure

If prayer were suitably practiced and understood, it would provide the wealth that would make things unimportant. "Life is something that happens when we're busy with something else." We're busy trying to impress everyone. We're busy trying to win the Olympics. We're busy being successful. And life passes us by. (Anthony De Mello, Walking on Water, 111-113)

Night comes early this time of year. The dark comes quickly and lulls into a restful sleep. Cooler nights mean sounder sleep for some of us. It is harder to jump out of bed in the morning when the room is cool and the bed sheets are warm. The Christmas season is a time many of us get lulled into a sense of complacency about life. We get distracted by overeating and gluttony. We get distracted by desire for material things and greed. We get distracted by work and family obligations. We get distracted and lulled to sleep in countless ways. In the midst of our stupor Paul wants us to practice what the Buddhists call mindfulness. Paul challenges us to get up and get out of bed, and be up and about! Instead, we distract ourselves in countless, meaningless ways. We procrastinate whenever possible. Indeed, the Christmas season accentuates the procrastinator in us. Some of us put off buying gifts until the last minute because we don't feel good about the gifts we give. What do you get for someone who already has everything they need? And let's face it, most of the people to whom we give Christmas gifts do already have everything they need and most of the things they want. What are we to do?

Paul would say to us what he said to the ancient church in Rome: "Make sure that you don't get so absorbed and exhausted in taking care of all your day-by-day obligations that you lose track of the time and doze off, oblivious to God." (Romans 13:11) Let's not get so caught up in the Christmas rush that we put our spiritual lives on auto pilot and miss the original reason for this season -- the birth of the Christ within our own hearts.

Can we somehow hold on to the idea that Christ is at the bottom of all this? Beyond the egg nog and what nots, the chrismons on the Christmas tree and the glass angel on the mantle, can we guard our hearts against Santa Claus and the god of conspicuous consumption? Paul challenges us to do that. He says: "We can't afford to waste a minute, must not squander these precious daylight hours in frivolity and indulgence, in sleeping around and dissipation, in bickering and grabbing everything in sight." (Romans 13:13)

One other thing as we start to get ready for Christmas. I forgot to ask you this. What are you wearing this Christmas? Have you taken your Christmas clothes out of the closet? Have you got that reindeer tie ready to go? What about that red holly scarf? What will you wear this Christmas? Paul has a recommendation. He suggests this: "Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!"

Dress yourselves in Christ? And what might that look like? Sandals and gown, anyone? I think not. Dress yourselves in Christ. What does that mean? That means to cover yourself from tip to toe in Christ. Put on humility like a garment. Learn to see the world with the eyes of Christ. To see the hungry at our doorstep. To watch out for our souls by watching out for the poor man in our midst. To guard our heart by hearing the cries of the single mother who is working two jobs and trying to pay the rent ... and her car broke down yesterday so she can't drive to work today ... so she won't be able to buy groceries this Saturday ... so her kids will be hungry this Monday ... This is the world we live in. Paul cries out to us: "Get out of bed and get dressed! Don't loiter and linger, waiting until the very last minute. Dress yourselves in Christ, and be up and about!" (Romans 13:14)

It is interesting to note in our text today that the emphasis is upon waking up yourself - not someone else. Perhaps a story from another tradition will help us see the wisdom of this emphasis.

The Buddha said, "There once were a couple of acrobats. the teacher was a poor widower and the student was a small girl named Meda. The two of them performed in the streets to earn enough to eat. They used a tall bamboo pole which the teacher balances on the top of his head while the little girl slowly climbed to the top There she remained while the teacher continued to walk along the ground.

"Both of them had to devote all their attention to maintain perfect balance and to prevent any accident from occurring. One day the teacher instructed the pupil: "Listen, Meda, I will watch you and you watch me, so that we can help each other maintain concentration and balance and prevent and accident. Then we'll be sure to earn enough to eat." But the little girl was wise and answered, 'Dear master, I think it would be better for each of us to watch ourself. To look after oneself means to look after both of us. That way I am sure we will avoid any accidents and will earn enough to eat.'" The Buddha said: "The child spoke correctly." (Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness, 63-64)

The Apostle Paul stated the same truth in a single phrase: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." Perhaps during this Advent season we should not try to change the world. Perhaps it is enough to try to change ourselves. Even better, perhaps we may allow God to change us on the inside. That is the simple but profound shift suggested in our reading today.

Perhaps you would like a suggestion of where to begin? Thomas Keating offers this advice in his book Invitation to Love:

On the spiritual journey, there is usually someone in our family, business, or community whom we cannot endure, someone who has a genius for bringing out the worst in us. No matter what we do, we cannot seem to improve the relationship. The person who gives us the most trouble may be our greatest gift from God. (17)

So, perhaps instead of worrying about saving the world we should focus on showing love to the person we most despise. That would certainly wake us up! Yikes!

A prisoner lived in solitary confinement for years. He saw and spoke to no one and his meals were served through an opening in the wall.

One day an ant came into his ell. The man contemplated it in fascination as it crawled around the room. He held it in the palm of hi hand the better to observe it, gave it a grain or two, and kept it under his tin cup at night.

One day it suddenly struck him that it had taken him ten long years of solitary confinement to open his eyes to the loveliness of an ant.

When a friend visited the Spanish painter El Greco at his home on a lovely spring afternoon, he found him sitting in his room, the curtains tightly drawn.

"Come out into the sunshine," said the friend.

"Not now," El Greco replied. "It would disturb the light that is shining within me."

That inner light is what Paul calls us to awaken to in our text today.

The old Rabbi had become blind and could neither read nor look at the faces of those who came to visit him.

A faith healer said to him, "Entrust yourself to my care and I will heal your blindness."

"There will be no need for that," replied the Rabbi. "I can see everything that I need to."

Not everyone whose eye are closed is asleep. And not everyone with open eyes can see. (Anthony De Mello, Taking Flight, 52-53)

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~The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on November 28, 2010 (First Sunday of Advent – Year A)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Ordinary Time Is Over

Text: Luke 21:5-19

The Longwave Group, an investment firm out of Vancouver, demonstrates four seasons in a lifetime economic, financial and investment map: Spring, summer, autumn, and winter. These seasons are a recurring 70 year cycle so that each person will ideally live through each of the four seasons once in a lifetime. The current season in this paradigm is winter. The winter season began on January 15, 2000 when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was at 11,750 points. That was the peak of consumer confidence. The winter season is characterized by a concern, fear, panic and despair. Money becomes very scarce. There are unprecedented bankruptcies - personal, corporate, and government. Gold bullion and gold equities rise in the face of huge financial and economic crisis. There is a decline into depression. That quick overview of one season of one season in a financial cycle provides an orientation toward the concept of recurring cycles within the market.

In our text today, Jesus speaks of a cycle in the life of the temple in Jerusalem. "When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down." They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" (Luke 21:6-7) Many words have been spilled over the centuries about the temple in Jerusalem and how it was destroyed in the century after Jesus and rebuilt in the past century. Many evangelical and fundamentalist Christian writers focus on the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem as a sign that we living in the end times when Jesus will come again as described in various apocalyptic texts in the Gospels and in Revelation. Jesus himself warned against trying to decipher this cycle when he said that not even he knew when the end time would come but only God knew that. He seems to suggest we just shouldn't go there in trying to decipher that code.

Yet already within the New Testament itself we see the beginning of a tendency to look back, to recall time past in which things had happened. The end times hope, that is, the belief that the last times were at hand, seems to be slackening by the time Luke writes his gospel and the writing of church history begins with the book of Acts. Remembering comes to be almost as important as anticipating even before the first century is done.

So today, instead of going where Jesus himself has warned us not to go but in keeping with the theme of cycles within the Kingdom of God, we will consider the liturgical cycle of Christian worship. The liturgical year is a recurring 12 month cycle of Sundays within the worship services of a church. The church shows what is most important to its life by the way it keeps time. A sense of time is the foundation for Christian worship.

In the early church, Sunday stood out above all other days as the weekly anniversary of the resurrection. Every Sunday witnesses to the risen Lord. Each Sunday testifies to the resurrection. Every Sunday is a weekly little Easter or rather every Easter is a yearly great Sunday. The primacy of Sunday and the resurrection is clear.

As Sunday witnessed to Jesus Christ, so too, the Christian year (liturgical year or church year) became a structure for remembering the Lord. It was, above all else, faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The early church revealed their faith by how they kept time.

Easter was the highlight of the Christian year in the early church because on Easter we glimpse a new landscape--the age to come--and experience a sense of holy awe at the significance of the resurrection for human life. The shape of the age to come reveals a new people of God, a new humanity.

Therefore, Easter faith recalls the past, especially the awesome act of God in raising the crucified Christ from the grave. Easter hope looks to the promised future, to that which awaits us. Easter love celebrates the presence of the crucified and risen Christ who is now among us, reconciling us as one people. Resurrection faith asserts that by grace we are born again into the new humanity of Jesus Christ. We are called to new life for God and for neighbors. As representatives of the new humanity we walk in newness of life.

Closely connected with Easter are two seasons: Lent and the long Easter season. Lent was a time of preparation for all Christians, baptized or not. It begins on a day much later know as Ash Wednesday, from the imposition of ashes on the foreheads of all Christians.

Far more important was the Easter Season, the 50 days extending the celebration of Easter through the Day of Pentecost. The great 50 days were at first far more important than the forty days of Lent. It makes you wonder why modern Christians concentrate on Lent, the season of sorrow, rather than on Easter, the season of joy. The resurrection was and is remembered by a day each week--Sunday; a Sunday each year--Easter Day; and a season--the Easter Season. There can be no doubt about the centrality of the resurrection in the life and faith of the early church. Easter was the number one holiday in the early church. Easter ruled.

Skipping ahead in the liturgical cycle, today is the last Sunday in Ordinary Time. In church usage, the term "ordinary" means that which is standard, normative, usual, or typical. For example, ordinary elements of worship such as the Lord's Prayer, the Doxology, and the Apostle's Creed are said or sung week after week. As the standard elements of worship, they are called "ordinaries." They are the elements that are common to worship every Sunday.

In like manner, week after week, Sunday "ordinarily" celebrates the resurrection and the unfolding of the new creation. The standard for worship is the ordinary time of Sunday in the week-to-week progression of time.

Twice each year, however, Ordinary Time is heightened by the extra-ordinary Sundays that intensify our celebration of the birth and death and resurrection of Christ. We call these special seasons the Christmas cycle and the Easter cycle. The Christmas cycle of Sundays is called Advent. The Easter cycle of Sundays begins with Lent, peaks on Easter Sunday, and ends on Pentecost Sunday.

At the beginning and end of each of these periods are transitional Sundays that move the church from what has preceded to what is to follow. The Sundays that conclude this part of Ordinary Time, and especially the final Sunday before Advent, point us toward the Second Coming of Christ. These Sundays move the church toward Advent with its focus on the new age that is to come.

As of today, Ordinary Time is over in the liturgical cycle. Next Sunday--the last Sunday of the church year--is Christ the King Sunday. Then, on the Sunday after next we begin a new church year on the First Sunday of Advent. May God be with us as we close out this church year. It has been a noteworthy year for St. John's. We have shared our dreams and vision for the church in the Desserts with the Pastor. We have refurbished our office building and the sanctuary. We have pledged or time, talents, and money in support of Christ's work through our congregation and presbytery. Just this weekend we successfully hosted a meeting of New Covenant Presbytery.

As we come to the close of this liturgical cycle, God is doing a new work here. The new pattern that God is stitching together has to do with three words: Missional, Connectional, and Incarnational. Our mission will become more hands on and less about giving money to others to do mission for us. Our relationships with others will become more about discovering what needs they have that are unfilled. We will then become incarnational as we meet those needs in the name of and as the representative of Christ. More and more, we will become the hands and feet of Christ serving people in this community and around the world. Less and less, we will be sending money out to other organizations to support them as they do mission for us. This is the new pattern that God is creating at St. John's. This is a new pattern for living out our mission statement of making disciples by meeting human needs. So we see, in more than ways than one, ordinary time is over.

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas, on November 14, 2010 (33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Monday, November 08, 2010

When a Tithe is not Enough

Text: Luke 18:9-14

Our story today is about the spiritual discipline of tithing (or "pledging," as we call it). If pledging is a spiritual discipline, what is spirituality? In the book Walking on Water, Tony De Mello describes spirituality as being awake. Getting rid of illusions. Spirituality is never being at the mercy of any event, thing, or person. Spirituality means having found the diamond mine inside yourself. Religion is intended to lead you there. (122)

A group of tourists is traveling through a beautiful countryside. But the curtains on the train are drawn and they don't see anything. They are all occupied in deciding who will have the seat of honor, who will be appreciated, who is best, who is prettiest or most talented. This continues to the end of the journey. If you can understand this, you will be free, you will understand what spirituality is.

The Pharisee in the temple is like a tourist on the train who compares himself to other passengers. The Pharisee, standing by himself in the temple, says, 'God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector." Such comparisons are not life giving. They are life stealing. They are anti-spirituality. They are anti-Christ.

If you ever can get beyond the continual personal comparisons, you may discover what reality is, who God is, for you will see yourself detached from one of the greatest illusions: the illusion that we have to be appreciated, beloved, successful, that we must have prestige, honor, power, and popularity. There is only one necessity! That necessity is loving. When you discover that, you are transformed. When life becomes prayer, spirituality overflows into what we do. (Ibid, 124)

That is how transformation comes. Then after the transformation we can engage in a spiritual discipline such as pledging with a completely different attitude. Giving back a percentage of our income becomes a flowering of our own inner life. Pledging becomes a spiritual discipline without any of the negative connotations of the word "discipline." We don't like the word "discipline" because is sounds too much like personal limitations, prison, or punishment. Discipline is when the principal spanks the rowdy child and that is no longer politically correct because we frown upon that kind of discipline.

Appropriate discipline is merely boundary setting which is healthy. No child or adult can prosper if he or she does not know what the boundaries are. A football game cannot be enjoyed if nothing is out of bounds. If you eliminate the goal line and the out of bounds lines on the sides that would denigrate the game of football. So it is with pledging. Pledging provides a boundary for our spiritual lives. It keeps us grounded in reality in the world of money and matter. It keeps us human. Without such grounding our spirituality would have no context, no field, no rules. Rules and disciplines keep us honest. Pledging helps keep us honest in our spiritual life.

Our giving, our tithing, comes from what Thomas Keating calls our "true self." Cynthia Bourjeault says of the true self, "Whatever 'true self' may look like when described theologically, operationally it involves the shift to a different kind of consciousness (called non-dual or 'unitive' in classic Christian terminology), which flows out from that deeper place within us. (Bourjeault, Centering Prayer, 104)

In contrast to the true self, the Pharisee in today's reading speaks from his false self. "The false self is always wounded; it comes into being specifically as a defense mechanism against perceived threats and deprivations during infancy and early childhood (and even in the womb). According to Thomas Keating, the false self arises out of what he calls 'the energy centers': woundings in the three core areas of security/survival, esteem/affection, and power/control. These woundings in turn set in motion a vortext of attractions (things a person requires in his/he life in order to feel safe and affirmed) and aversions (things that 'push his/her buttons). Keating's false self is not just egoic functioning per se, but a particularly maladapted egoic function in need of proper diagnosis and treatment." (Ibid, 103)

The Pharisee in our story sees himself as separate, as different from others. As he puts it, I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

Yet, as Thich Nhat Hahn points out, such separateness is an illusion. I can't say it better than him, so here is how he says it in his book called Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames.

"Who do you think you are? You are the other person. If you get angry with your son, you are getting angry with yourself. You are wrong to think that your son is not you. Your son is you. Genetically, physiologically, scientifically, your son is your continuation. That is the real truth. Who is your mother? Your mother is you. You are her continuation as a descendant, and she is your continuation as an ancestor. She links you to all those who came before, and you link her to all the future generations. You belong to the same stream of life. To think that she is a different entity, to think that you can have nothing to do with her is sheer ignorance. When a young man says, "I no longer want to have anything to do with my father, that is sheer ignorance, because the young man is nothing but his father.

As a mother, pregnant with your child, you had this insight, that your child is you. You ate for your baby, you drank for your baby, you took care of your baby. When you took care of yourself, you took care of your baby. You were very careful, because you knew that the baby was you. But by the time your child reaches the age of thirteen or fourteen, you begin to lose this insight. You and your child feel separated, less connected. You don't know how to improve your relationship, to make peace after a fight. Soon, the gap between the two of you grows bigger and more solid. Your relationship becomes very difficult and full of conflict.

It may seem like you are two separate entities, but if you look deeper, you will see that you are still one. So settling the dispute, restoring peace between you both, is like restoring peace within yourself, within your own body. You are your child are of the same nature, you belong to the same reality. (121-122)

The Pharisee couldn't make that connection between himself and others. He did not know that when he looked into the eyes of other people, even thieves, rogues, adulterers, or tax collectors, he was looking into the eyes of Christ. This is what Christ is - the great equalizer of people. This is what Christ does - makes us recognize our own connection to others. The giving of the pledge, when done by the true self, is a placing of ourselves into the ocean of life. It is returning energy back into the source from which it came to us.

So this tithing, or pledging as we call it, is nothing more than this: A sign of our connection to Christ, Christ's church, and one another as the people of Christ. It is a spiritual discipline that defines the boundaries between those who are playing on the field at this present time and those who are not. There are other ways to play on the field as well but today we are talking about the spiritual discipline of tithing, or pledging, because this is Stewardship Dedication Sunday. May the Spirit continue to guide each of us into all truth. May we continue to respond to the Spirit with our pledges, time, gifts and graces.

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon on November 7 - 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Stewardship Dedication Sunday) at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas.