Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Whimper and the Roar of Christmas Day

Luke 2:1-20

2In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

- - -

Some of you with small children had an exciting night last night. Christmas Eve at my childhood home on 7th Avenue in Morton, Mississippi was an exciting time. There were already many presents under the brightly colored tree. We had a live cypress(?) tree with those large colored light bulbs with red, green, blue, orange and yellow lights. My body literally shook with excitement when I thought about my presents under that tree. I had closely examined my gifts under the tree. I gently shook each gift to see if it made a sound. One gift sounded like a board game when I shook it. Hopefully, it was the Risk game or maybe Monopoly. Another gift made no sound when I shook it. It was probably a book, a pretty heavy book, most likely a new Living Bible. Mama had made a cake for Santa Claus and it was time to put it on the table along with a glass of milk. Why, that big, hefty, lovable ole Saint Nick would certainly be hungry when he got to my house, considering all the heavy lifting he would have to do bringing in my gifts, hopefully he would be bringing me a new bicycle, one with the twisted handlebars like a ram's horns. That would be so cool!! And now we were watching Santa Claus on our TV. There he was, right there, making his way across the state of Mississippi. You could see the outline of Santa and his reindeer on the radar right there on the screen. Oh my goodness, there had been another Santa spotting two counties over from where I lived. It was be time to get to bed about now. If we were awake when Santa came with our stuff, we may scare him away. Best to get to sleep and awaken early in the morning to see what he brought us. So off to bed we went. My older brother and me slept in the same bedroom. It was night, night and sleep tight and don't let the bedbugs night. No, no, no. Not on Christmas Eve.

We live in fear with good reason. Death is ever near. There is no guarantee that any of us will make it home alive today or any day. Life is contingent. I was never afraid to die but always afraid to live. Why? Here are three of my fears that are common among many people: I fear will make a mistake. I fear rejection. I fear I will not achieve God's purpose for my life.

Some variation of "Be not afraid" or "Do not fear" occurs 40 times in the New Testament. This theme of do not fear carries over from the Old Testament in texts such as Psalm 23: "Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil." So in our text today an angel says to a group of shepherds, "Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

Banishment of fear is a common thread throughout the synoptic gospel birth narratives. Mary was afraid the first time the angel of the Lord appeared to her to announce she was carrying the Christ child within her. The angel's message to Mary was "Be not afraid." The shepherds were afraid when the angel appeared to them to announce the birth of Jesus. The angels told the shepherds: "Be not afraid."

We are afraid when we become aware of the potential to bear the Christ child within us. The angel says to us: "Be not afraid."

The shepherds and angels bear witness to what God is doing in your life. Think of the shepherds as the human mentors who have guided you through your life. These include parents, teachers, coaches, pastors and friends. The angels are the spiritual entities who accompany your spiritual journey. They have been called guardian angels. The shepherds and the angels in your life bear joyful witness to the birth of Christ within you.

A lost lion was adopted and raised by a herd of sheep. When he was three years old, the lion was bleating in the field with his brother and sister sheep when an older lion found him. The older lion was shocked to find this young lion acting like a sheep. So the older lion said: "Hey, what are you doing?! You are bleating like a sheep. You are not a sheep. You are a lion. Wake up. Get yourself together. Be a lion." The young lion was amazed to hear this and even more amazed to see this older lion since he had never before seen a lion. The young lion did not respond to the older lion but it made him start questioning his identity. A few days later the young lion who thought he was a sheep was standing by a stream when suddenly he saw another lion. It was his own reflection in the stream! And when he saw his reflection in that stream, he suddenly realized that he really was a lion and for the first time in his life, he roared! In a similar way, we have lost sight of our true identity. We have forgotten that we are made in God's image. We are God's children. We are not mere descendants of apes. We now stop acting like apes. We stop living out our animal nature. As we stare in wonder into the eyes of the baby in the manger, we see our own reflection staring back at us. We get in touch with the wonder and innocence of life. We bring that back to the world. Boxes and bows are good. But Christmas is about the gift that's inside the package. Christmas is about the birth of Christ within us.

In the jungle, a middle aged man hears the roar and footsteps of a tiger behind him. He takes off running as fast as he can. Up ahead he sees a precipice that leads to a his sure death if he jumps over it. Yet in his fear of the tiger behind him the man decides to jump over the cliff. As he falls down over the cliff he hits the side of the mountain and grabs hold a blueberry bush. Hanging there between heaven and earth, he notices that the blueberries are ripe on that bush. He reaches out and takes a handful of those blueberries and puts them in his mouth. They are the best thing he has ever tasted! (The stories about the lion and the tiger are adapted from some stories told by Anthony de Mello, a list of whose books are available for sale here.)

In our daily lives, we find ourselves between a rock a hard place. We realize the wonder and joy of life without fear. The man being chased by the tiger finally reached a point of not fear. He didn't cae whether he was eaten by a tiger or whether he was crushed on the rocks below the cliff when he juped. Every day of your life we have a similar choice. Every day we can choose to be not afraid. Thus, every day can be sublime. I have heard more than one story of a person who has been diagnosed with a terminal disease and then, only then, were they able to really live without fear.

Back when Jesus lived 1 out of 4 infants or mothers died in childbirth. Yet, Mary gives birth to Jesus without fear. Your job and mine is to give birth to the Christ within us. Let us do that today, on this Christmas Day, without fear. Do not be afraid of the good news that Christ is ready to be birthed in your heart today.

Early on Christmas morning, really really early, while it was still dark, someone awakened me.

It was my older brother, Tim. "Jon, Jon, get up! It's Christmas morning. Let's go look at our gifts. Let's go see what Santa Claus brought us."

"No. I'm still asleep. You go see what he brought and come tell me," I mumbled, half awake.

"No!" said my older brother. "He might be still in there!! I'm not going alone. You come with me."

"Okay. Okay. Let's go!"

So we fearfully and expectantly crept from our bedroom through the hallway into the living room, hoping that Jolly Ole Saint Nick would not be still in the house or we would scream in fright.

When we got to the living room, hey, no one was in there. We could see from the glowing lights on the Christmas tree a brand new bicycle! A blue one! With ram's horn handlebars!! Wow. Unbelievable! Santa Claus really came through this year! We were thrilled with the mystery and wonder and joy of life on that Christmas morning.

It's hard to put in words what it feels like Christ is born in your heart. Let's just say it feels something like the combination of joy and wonder and dread I felt when my brother and I were creeping down the hallway to peek into our living room to see what Santa had brought us. What is the present you were hoping for today? What is the bicycle you want for yourself? Imagine yourself getting that for Christmas. May such joy come into your life as Christ is born in your heart today.

Your role, like Mary, is to treasure all these words and ponder them in your heart. May this Christmas day be a day of treasuring what God has done in your life. Ponder what God is doing in your life now. The mystery of how Christ gets born in your heart is the greatest mystery in the world. May you, like the young lion who thought he was a sheep, see your own reflection in the eyes of the baby in the manger and may the Christ within you roar!

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on Christmas Day, 2011, at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035, Phone 713-723-6262 |

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

God's Christmas Wish for You: Experience Miracles Like Mother Mary

You are a walking miracle and you don't even know it. You are blessing people right here in this church and all over the world by being who you are and doing what you do. The difference between a life filled with wonder and a boring so-called life comes down to one word: Perception. Let us see what we find as we look and listen for God's word to us today from Luke 1:26-38.

Text: Luke 1:26-38

1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,

1:27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary.

1:28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."

1:29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

1:30 The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

1:31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.

1:32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.

1:33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."

1:34 Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

1:35 The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

1:36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.

1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God."

1:38 Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

Ramp: Last week I ate some delicious home baked gluten free bread. I put some raspberry jam on it after toasting the bread. It tasted fantastic. My wife had cooked the bread in a little bread oven. She had bought it the day before at the Kroger grocery store. It tasted great.

An American businessman was in a small town in Israel when he came across a Jewish bakery. He first smelled it from a block away. His mouth was already watering by the time he came to the bakery door. He loved fresh baked bread. Put some butter on top of it. Watch the butter spread like sunshine on the bread. So he could hardly wait to get his hands on some of that fresh baked bread he smelled. He could tell it was his favorite kind: Irish sourdough bread. But when the pushed on the door to enter the door did not move. With and a tinge of anger, he noticed the "Closed" sign on the door. He had just missed the deadline and with a sense of great disappointment he kept on walking down the street. A few blocks he later he heard a loud whistle. It was a policeman, standing with one hand behind his back, motioning him to come hither. The surprised man walked to the policeman who took his hand from behind his back and presented him with a loaf of fresh baked bread. The policeman had seen the man standing at the bakery door and could tell he was disappointed it was closed so the policeman talked to the baker and brought a free loaf of bread as a sign of good will for the American tourist. The American businessman sure did enjoy that bread.

Which of those two stories tells about a miracle? In both stories a man gets to eat some delicious bread. But the second story seems more miraculous because of the dramatic delivery mechanism. What makes that story seem miraculous is not the outcome but the process by which that outcome appeared. In the story of the American businessman there is wonderment involved, a sense of something happening that transcends the boundaries of the normal world most of us live in. In short, there is a feeling of the miraculous. What differentiates what we perceive as miraculous from other forms of acquisition, then, is not the results but the process by which the results are achieved. (Spangler, David (2008-10-01). Everyday Miracles: the inner art of manifestation (Kindle Locations 247-250). Lorian Press. Kindle Edition. )

Your birth was full of mystery. If you have given birth or witnessed the birth of a baby you may have felt like this birth was somehow a miracle. A birth gets us in touch with the sacred. Yet there is something about the birth of Jesus that goes beyond even the natural feeling of miraculous that we experience at the the birth of any child.

The miraculous nature of Jesus' birth goes back to the very announcement of her pregnancy. The Angel Gabriel announces that Mary will give birth to a Messiah who will sit upon the Throne of David. Mary wonders how she will give birth when she has never slept with a man. Gabriel tells Mary even her cousin Elizabeth in her old age has conceived a son, "For nothing will be impossible with God." (Luke 1:37)

According to our text today, the Angel Gabriel appeared to a virgin named Mary. She was a young Jewish girl whose fiancee was from the royal lineage of the House of David. Mary allowed God to work a miracle in and through her even though she had 3 strikes against her in the eyes of her culture as a poor, pregnant, unmarried woman. Mary had some things going for her. She was engaged to a man from the royal House of David. She was looking to God. She was open to miracles in her own life. She was open to the "revelation of the mystery." Mary responded to God in faith.

What are the strikes against you? Do people say you are too young or too old? To pretty or too ugly? Too rich or too poor? You can hinder miracles in your life by focusing on the wrong things. You can facilitate miracles in your life by focusing on God.

Members of this congregation are good at looking to God. You are among the most generous people I have ever known. Remember the church with an end of the year if you are able. Rest assured whatever you give to this congregation will be multiplied many times over in vital ministry. If you spent as much time as I do in the church office building, you too would be astounded at all the ministry and outreach that goes on here. The loving energy that passes through this building and out into the world is palpable. And this is but one hub for the ministries that each of you carries out in the fullness of your life at home - listening to a child, caring for a parent, praying for a friend; and at work - dealing with difficult situations, meeting deadlines, being a peaceful presence for your colleagues.

Your life is a gift to God that is expressed in many ways, one of which is in and through a faith community called St. John's. Let me take this opportunity to THANK YOU for your generosity to me, the church staff, this community, this city and the world. You are inspiring people. You are gifted for ministry. You are committed. And you are generous. Do not hesitate to express your generosity with an additional gift to St. John's at this time of year. You may think of it as your Christmas gift to Jesus. No doubt you will a Christmas gift to every other important person in your life. Consider also giving a special gift to St. John's above and beyond your pledge.

Speaking of pledges, if you have not pledged for 2012, cards are in the pew racks and in the church office. If you've never pledged, it is a wonderful spiritual discipline that will help you grow in your faith. If you've never done it, perhaps you may start by pledging a dime a day to support Christ's ministry through this congregation next year. The attitude of commitment to Christ and the desire to be a part of this successful enterprise matters more than the amount of money pledged for those who are new to this spiritual discipline.

Christ's birth may not be acknowledged in the secular world but it will most certainly be acknowledged in our hearts, in our lives, and in the worship and ongoing ministry of St. John's Presbyterian Church. If God has blessed you in such a way that you are able to do so, write an additional check to St. John's today in honor of the baby who was born in a manger long ago and who is reborn in our hearts during this holy season. Think of this additional check as a way of acknowledging the true reason for the season, the birth of Christ our Lord.

Closing: The biggest miracle you may experience is the miracle of learning to view life in a different way: As a gift from God to you. Just because you purchase your daily bread from a local grocery store does not mean it not a miracle. God gave you the money to buy the bread. Use of some of God's bread money to you to feed the world. Get excited by the possibility that God wants to work miracles in and through you. Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her. God's Christmas wish for you is that you will believe that nothing is impossible with God and allow the Holy Spirit to work miracles in and through you.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on December 18, 2011 - Advent 4B, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035, Phone 713-723-6262 |

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Among You Stands One Whom You Do Not Know

It's easy for us to get distracted this time of year. We have coaching changes in college football. There are the important questions of which is better: The iPad2 or the Samsung Galaxy Tab? We have family arrangements to consider. Who will be home for Christmas? What presents will we give them? In the midst of such considerations comes a strange man in weird clothes with one of those off-beat Southern California kind of diets. His name is John the Baptist. His message sounds like it is straight out of a science fiction movie about aliens in our midst. He claims there is one among us whom we do no know.

John 1:6-8, 19-28

1:6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

1:7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

1:8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.

1:19 This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who are you?"

1:20 He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, "I am not the Messiah."

1:21 And they asked him, "What then? Are you Elijah?" He said, "I am not." "Are you the prophet?" He answered, "No."

1:22 Then they said to him, "Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?"

1:23 He said, "I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,'" as the prophet Isaiah said.

1:24 Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.

1:25 They asked him, "Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?"

1:26 John answered them, "I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know,

1:27 the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."

1:28 This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

= = =

One of my favorite sci fi movies is called "They Live." A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to wake up to the fact that aliens have taken over the Earth. The turning point in the movie comes when the drifter wears those special sunglasses for the first time. As he walks along a busy sidewalk in the city, words on signs and magazine covers morph from advertisements into blunt propaganda such as "OBEY." "STAY ASLEEP." "DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY." Money now changes from regular bills to papers that read "THIS IS YOUR GOD." And what's even spookier is that certain people's faces now look like scary reptiles. Clearly, all is not as it seems on the surface. Some of the most successful people are revealed to be reptilian aliens who are in control of the media and politics. The drifter forces a friend to wear the sunglasses and together they seek other humans aware of the situation. They organize a resistance against the powerful aliens from Andromeda and their associates.

Like the drifter in the movie "They Live," so John the Baptist is hard to classify. He's not an Old Testament prophet and he's not one of Jesus' twelve disciples. He is a first cousin of Jesus to whom he was introduced while still in the womb. His mother and Jesus' mother were very close family members. John baptized his followers in the Jordan River preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In the early days after Jesus lived there was a competition between the followers of John the Baptist and the followers of Jesus. Some of the original disciples, such as Andrew, were first disciples of John the Baptist. His followers today, the Mandeans, of whom there are about 70,000 members, still baptize themselves today as a sign of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

John the Baptist shares much in common with Jesus. They are related by blood and faith. They are cousins whose mothers are close. They share a Jewish heritage and the Jewish Bible. John the Baptist dies beheaded by King Herod. Jesus dies crucified by Pontius Pilate. John the Baptist's head is said to be entombed in the Umayyad (meaning "Great") Mosque of Damascus in Syria. It is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world and it is considered the fourth-holiest place in Islam. After the Arab conquest of Damascus in 634, the mosque was built on the site of a Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist which heralds from the time of Roman emperor Constantine I. Back in my seminary days, I had the pleasure of visiting this mosque and seeing the Christian basilica within it that is said to entomb the head of John the Baptist.

In the gospel stories, John the Baptist points the reader to "one who stands among you whom you do not know." That one is Jesus. Jesus is the one we do not know. He is the one who comes to us from God. "He came from God but God's own people did not know him." The unique quality of Jesus is that he is God come down to us in human form.

John's gospel goes to great lengths to show us that John the Baptist is inferior to Jesus. We read in John 1:20 where John the Baptist says: "I am not the Messiah." John the Baptist says of Jesus: "I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal."

John the Baptist refers to Jesus, saying, "Among you stands one whom you do not know." The one he refers to is Jesus. You do not know him, says John. John the Baptist says, "Follow Jesus not me."

The one we do not know is the Christ within us. We are not well acquainted with the Christ within. We either ignore the Christ within or try to subdue it out of fear. We are afraid of letting Christ loose in our hearts. Changes may come. We may become more vulnerable. Getting to know the Christ within can be scary and uncomfortable. It sometimes feels as if the Spirit is shining a light around in the basement of our unconsciousness. Hidden sins are brought to light. This is what John the Baptist was all about, revealing the darkness within us.

A BOY was hunting for locusts. He had caught a goodly number, when he saw a Scorpion, and mistaking him for a locust, reached out his hand to take him. The Scorpion, showing his sting, said: "If you had but touched me, my friend, you would have lost me, and all your locusts too!" [Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop'sFables (p. 16). Amazon Digital Services, Inc.] We fear if we get in touch with our inner John the Baptist we will lose ourself and everything we have worked for but the exact opposite is the truth. As we get in touch with our inner John the Baptist, we discover our true self. As we see our inner sinfulness mirrored back to us in the waters of our baptism we come to know our true nature as sinful human beings. Yet is is precisely sinful human beings whom Christ comes to redeem.

A DOG, crossing a bridge over a stream with a piece of flesh in his mouth, saw his own shadow in the water and took it for that of another Dog, with a piece of meat double his own in size. He immediately let go of his own, and fiercely attacked the other Dog to get his larger piece from him. He thus lost both: that which he grasped at in the water, because it was a shadow; and his own, because the stream swept it away. [Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop's Fables (p. 18). Amazon Digital Services, Inc.] When we fight our inner John the Baptist we fight against ourselves. We waste our energy attacking shadows. We do not realize we are seeing another aspect of ourselves.

A GOATHERD had sought to bring back a stray goat to his flock. He whistled and sounded his horn in vain; the straggler paid no attention to the summons. At last the Goatherd threw a stone, and breaking its horn, begged the Goat not to tell his master. The Goat replied, "Why, you silly fellow, the horn will speak though I be silent." Do not attempt to hide things which cannot be hid. [Translated by George Fyler Townsend. Aesop's Fables (p. 22). Amazon Digital Services, Inc..] Do you think you can hide your inner nature from others? Well, you can't. It's impossible. Some people know you better than you know yourself. Certainly, God knows us better than we know ourselves. And yet, here is the amazing part, God loves us just as we are. Self acceptance is the foundation of charity.

John the Baptist reminds us, "Among you stands one whom you do not know." The one you do not know may be Christ. Or the one you do not know may be yourself. Or the one among you whom you do not know may be the Christ within you, the hope of glory. Get in touch with your inner John the Baptist. The part of us that we try to avoid. The part of us we think is secret but it is there for everyone else to see. The connection to the Isaiah text would be that we are the spiritually oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives who need to released from prisons of our own making. (See Isa 61:1) The one among us whom we do not know is neither John the Baptist nor Jesus: It is we ourselves. We are strangers to ourselves.

A German city was recently evacuated after unexploded bombs from World War II were found in a nearby river. The dramatic story of the defusing of these weapons inspires reflection on the "unexploded bombs" that lurk beneath the surface of so many of our relationships with family members and friends.

As the holidays approach, what bombs will we encounter as we gather around tables for meals and conversation? Alcohol abuse, infidelity, drug abuse, mental illness, sexual addiction?

What bombs will we bring with us? Anger, resentment, jealousy, bitterness? And perhaps the most important question of all: How can we defuse these bombs?

During the Christmas season, we are bombarded by cards, gifts, music, ads and parties. All promise happiness. But many people enter the season feeling hurts, losses, disappointments and grief. How can this pain be acknowledged?

The early disciples interaction with Jesus was experiential. Jesus invited them to "come and see" and they came and saw. They gained insight found only at the level of profound trust. Jesus invites us to experience transcendence for the mystery of our lives is in our midst. Superseding John the Baptist, Jesus invites us to explore the Christ within us. There we may find the "God of peace" that passes all understanding. This Advent may the lyrics of that anthem become our inner battle cry: "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me."

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on December 11, 2011 at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035.
Phone 713-723-6262 |

Monday, December 05, 2011

The Bad News (The System Is Broken) & The Good News (Jesus Offers a Superior System): Here's How We Get It

The Tea Party yelled it two years ago. Occupy Wallstreet hollered it this fall. The Congressional Super Committee who couldn't agree on budget cuts whispered it once again last month. Polls of public opinion tell it time and again. The system is broken. According to Mark, the birth of Christ is going to bring about some big changes in human society. Yet Jesus claims his kingdom is not of this world. Welcome to Jesus' politics of the spirit. Jesus offers a superior system and Mark suggests how we can get it. It all starts with our text today from the beginning of the Gospel According to Mark.

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
'See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
 who will prepare your way; 
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
"Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight" '

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, 'The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.'

The beginning of Mark's Gospel may be read as a political document. Here is a literal translation of the Greek text of Mark 1:1, "Beginning the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son fo God." While that sentence sounds familiar and tame to us it would have sounded like a dynamite explosion to the original audience. The statement sounds like a direct frontal assualt on the Priene inscription that celebrated the birth of Augustus and it was written 9 years before Jesus' birth. The last sentence of the Priene inscription celebrating the birth of Augustus, written 9 years before Jesus' birth, reads as follows. "The birth date of our God, August Ceasar, has signaled the beginning of good news for the world." So the first sentence of Mark's Gospel turns the world on its head by subverting the language of a political/religious document of the Roman world.

This is more than just an interesting historical fact. This is a direct line into the purpose of Mark's Gospel at the time when it was written and a vision of its proper interpretation for us today. Mark is saying that the Realm of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, stands in direct opposition to the Realm of Caesar Augustus, son of Julius Caesar, son of God. That is a bold and risky statement. The rest of Marks' Gospel will attempt to prove that point and bring its readers into an alternative realm - the Realm of God. For according to the testimony to King Pilate by Jesus himself, "My realm is not of this world."

The Kingdom of God is a kingdom outside and other than the current power structure of the world.

  • Our current political system is built on monopolistic greed supported by the rule of law and the power of the military that supports the government.

  • Jesus' Realm is based on going the extra mile in human relations, turning the other cheek, and giving ourselves away while asking nothing in return.

Mark raises the question of citizenship. Whose system are you supporting more: The American Empire or the Kingdom of Heaven? The American Empire is funded by taxation. The Kingdom of Heaven as expressed in our faith tradition is funded by pledges and gifts. Here is an exercise that will help you know where you stand. Sit down and figure out how much money you pay for all your taxes including income taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes. Then figure out how money you pay for all charities including what you pledge to St. John's and other non-profits. Subtract the second figure from the first figure. That number will tell you how much more you are supporting the kingdom of this world than you are supporting the kingdom that is not of this world. Do you feel good about that? What can you do to change it? These are excellent ways to think about our personal stewardship our stewardship season comes to a close.

God's Word challenges us to count the cost and pay the price. Mark presents Jesus as an alternative champion instead of Augustus Ceasar. Yet Jesus as victor is complimented by Jesus as victim. For the birth of baby Jesus is not even mentioned in Mark. It is the political, cosmic implications that are of primary importance. Throughout the gospel Mark will show us how Victor Jesus becomes Victim Jesus. The irony is profound and has implications for our own discipleship.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is concerned with the finer things in life such as joy, peace and love. Isaiah shows us a vision of a peaceable kingdom where the lion will dwell with the lamb without trying to eat the lamb for dinner. This is a world in which the extremely wealthy do not take advantage of the extremely poor. In this world a person's worth is not judged by her bank account by the quality of her sense of purpose in life.

Our political system is broken. The polls say that. The Tea Party says that. Occupy Wallstreet says that. The failure of the Super Committee to agree on how to cut the budget says that. Our political system is broken. What will arise in its place? That is a question for the next decade. According to Marks' gospel, we need a better system, a system that is out of this world. We need a system such as the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed. This is not a kingdom not of greed, corruption and waste like the current system. The Kingdom of God is a kingdom of peace, love and joy. It is a kingdom based on different principles and goals. That is the kind of alternative system proclaimed in the Gospel According to Mark.

The Good News of Jesus proclaimed by Mark is cosmic in scope. Mark's concept of "good news" was not limited to military and political victories. It is deeper than that. In the prophet Isaiah "good news" is transferred to the inbreaking of God's final saving act when peace, good news, and release from oppression will be showered on God's people (Isa 52:7; 61:1-3). For Mark, the advent of Jesus is the beginning of the fulfillment of the "good news" heralded by Isaiah."

Imagine a different political system: One that actually works. This system represents the people. It enables ordinary people to make contact with their elected officials. The elected officials live in the same neighbohood as the people who elected them. Yet they serve on the national level. Imagine instead of the couple of hundred people who serve in congress we instead had 20,000 people serving in congress. Instead of meeting in DC to conduct business they meet online in a virtual hall of congress from the convenience of their own home. Imagine each neighborhood, Meyerland, Westbury, and Bellaire, had their own congressman who lived in that neighborhood year round. They had no need to travel to Washington DC because all their meeting are held in a virtual reality. No longer would our political system be vulnerable to a terrorist attack on one place such as the Hall of Congress in DC. What good would it for a terrorist to take out one congressman if there 20,000 of them? How would rich corporations have such influence over 20,000 people as they have over the 200 we have now? That kind of change will become more possible and more likely as technology and public opinion are refashioned over the decade ahead. Such a large scale change is what Mark has in mind when he talks about the "Good News of Jesus Christ" but Mark's vision is much greater than this. Mark's gospel is like a joke in this sense: It is designed to seduce us into a new way of seeing and experiecing life. The difference is that a joke seeks to seduce us temporarily while Mark's gospel attempts to seduce us permanently. Mark's gospel seeks to seduce us to live our new lives in God's realm, not in the realm of our current, broken political system.

Where do we start to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth? We don't start in Washington, DC or London. We don't start in Tokyo, Moscow, or even Houston. The first place we start is right here, inside of ourselves. We need to change the way we think about success. We need to change the way we live our lives. We need to prepare the way of the Lord in our lives.

Get in touch with the John the Baptist within yourself. Get in touch with the part of you that does not care what the world thinks about the way you dress or what you eat. Get in touch with the part of yourself that hungers more for God than for public opinion. Get in touch with the part of you that says of Jesus Christ, "He must increase but I must decrease." Get in touch with your inner John the Baptist. He will lead you to the renewing waters of baptism in the River Jordan. He will lead you to Jesus Christ who will baptize you with Holy Spirit. The way to prepare for the birth of Christ within you is to let your inner John the Baptist come out. We are talking about more than alternative Christmas gifts here. We are talking about an alternative way of life. We are talking about bearing in your soul the fruit of the spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control. Those are the gifts you can bring to the newborn king: Christ the Lord. Those are gifts fit for a king whose kingdom is not of this world.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on December 4, 2011, 2nd Sunday of Advent, at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035.
Phone 713-723-6262 |

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Very Good News Going Forward: How Additive Manufacturing will Change Our Experience of Church

We stand face to face with the First Sunday of Advent. This new liturgical year heralds a new beginning in our church. Things are going to get very creative over the next ten years as we make the transition to a new system of production. A Renaissance is in the works during our lifetime. The link below presents a brief overview of 3D Printing and will be my source document along with the text of Isaiah 64:1-9. Churches such as ours that intentionally incorporate the principles of additive manufacturing will prosper.

Isaiah 64:1-9

64O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
   so that the mountains would quake at your presence—
2 *as when fire kindles brushwood
   and the fire causes water to boil—
to make your name known to your adversaries,
   so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
   you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.
4 From ages past no one has heard,
   no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
   who works for those who wait for him.
5 You meet those who gladly do right,
   those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned;
   because you hid yourself we transgressed.*
6 We have all become like one who is unclean,
   and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
   and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls on your name,
   or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
   and have delivered* us into the hand of our iniquity.
8 Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
   we are the clay, and you are our potter;
   we are all the work of your hand.
9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord,
   and do not remember iniquity for ever.
   Now consider, we are all your people.

There are two primary ways a sacramental object such as a communion cup may be manufactured. One way is to take things away from it. This is the pottery method of construction. Remove every part of the clay except that which is the form you want to create. The subtractive manufacturing technique is the metaphor Isaiah uses for the relationship between God and God's people when he says, "We are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand." (Isaiah 64:8) Yet there is another form of manufacturing called additive manufacturing and that is what Isaiah has in mind when he talks about a powerfully disruptive experience of God, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence." (Isaiah 64:1) Another other way to manufacture is the tinker toy method. You add this piece to that piece to that piece until you have created the object you desire. This is the additive or 3D method of construction.

The Hanging of the Greens is an additive process. You don't just snap your fingers and the sanctuary is magically decorated. It is a process. First you gather the supplies. Then you put up the greenery. Next you add the decorations to the greenery. Then you put the chrismons on the tree. Hanging the greens is similar to working with Lego blocks. This part adds with that part and another part to make something that was not there before. The green wreaths added with the red bows added with the Chrismon tree creates a beauty that before was not present.

We saw a similar manifestation of this principle in the Community Thanksgiving Service here in this sanctuary last Sunday afternoon. The St. John's Handbell Choir plus the adult choir plus our ladies who produced the reception plus the Cantor from Temple Beth Israel plus the preacher from Westbury United Methodist plus the Director of BIM plus the youth choir that sang plus all the other worship leaders and participants created a sense of unity of purpose in this community that was more than the sum of its parts. It felt so good look around at faces you know and some you've never seen and know that we are united in providing food for the hungry in our community. Additive spirituality creates opportunities and provides results.

Beyond the church in greater society, the way things are made is undergoing a fundamental transition that will lead to a Renaissance in human productive capacity. Yes, that is a big claim but it is true. When you think of transformative technologies you think of the steam engine, light bulb, atomic energy, or the microchip, to name just a few. These technologies transformed our world. Such breakthroughs take decades to develop from the time when they are invented to the time when they become ubiquitous. 20 years ago, I doubt the Defense Department had any idea how the World Wide Web would transform the communications system of humanity. Repeated small, incremental improvements have a big benefit over time. We feel the sense of such a change in our text today as the prophet recalls a time when God "did awesome deeds that we did not expect."

Now another new technology is coming along that will change the world. Additive Manufacturing (AM) is a revolutionary new technology that could change the the way we design and manufacture products from cars to combs. It has massive implications in the world. For instance, production of goods will move away from nations such as China back to the United States.

Additive manufacturing will change the world by adding rather than subtracting. It is amazing what a difference that can make. Say goodbye to assembly lines full of parts shipped from dozens of factories from around the world. Products will be printed on demand at a location near your home. Instead of your car being built in a factory in Detroit or Tennessee, it will be built in a lab in Downtown Houston or even closer to your house.

Today you can email a document from your house to your child in Africa. He can then print a paper copy of your email and hold it his hand. Ten years from now you will be able to email a design to your son in Africa. He will be able to take a copy of that design to his local maker space and they will print a 3D copy of your design. That design may be anything from a new cell phone to a set of legos. Any physical object could be delivered and produced that way. What has happened in terms of words (type anywhere and email anywhere and read anywhere you have internet access) will happen with object (design anywhere, email anywhere, print anywhere).

Let me describe the technique of additive manufacturing then we'll consider the implications of this method for the church. Additive manufacturing adds layer upon layer of material until a final object is printed. Additive manufacturing adds and adds and adds, layer by layer, until a product is complete. For example, in 3D printing you take a raw material such as tiny plastic pellets, load them into the printer, insert a software design of an object you want to produce such as a wrench or hammer, push a button to start the process, and the printer uses the plastic to print the hammer layer after layer until you have a finished project. When the print is finished, remove the hammer from the printer and it is ready to nail a nail. In time you will be able to print not just a hammer but a car or cellphone or computer chip or replacement part for any object in your house or business.

Churches who are able to apply the principles of additive manufacturing will prosper. Here is how this will look in the church. For centuries the church has operated under the idea of subtractive manufacturing. If we are doing one thing in a church - such as hanging banners in the sanctuary - then we cannot do another thing - such as project images on a screen. Subtractive manufacturing led us to believe there are a limited number of things we can do. If you have one wall you can either put a banner on it or project an image on it. It's either - or. This is based on the idea of limitation. Beyond the church this expresses itself in society as the idea of limited resources. Additive manufacturing teaches another way to look at things. In additive manufacturing you add and add and add and add until you get what you want.

Here is another example of the principles of additive manufacturing in the church. In the old way of making a church budget, ten years ago and older, you had a unified church budget. Everyone was asked to give to that budget. Everyone agreed what the budget was going to be for each item and some items were not included (they were subtracted from the budget) because they were not affordable based on the pledges received. The additive model of making a church budget is to say here is what we agree we want and here is how much money we have to spend on that and then here is what we want to do but we don't yet have the money for it. But rather than subtract that from the church we will add it to a "Wish List" and ask people to give for that specific thing. We did that recently with several items from new cribs in the nursery to a new church sign and people gave - in ADDITION - to their regular pledge. This is additive budgeting. Another way we do additive budgeting is through our various memorial funds. We have certain memorial funds such as a college scholarship fund. People may choose to give money to that fund in addition to their regular pledge and offering and those monies will be used That is our version of additive budgeting. Although we primarily rely on pledges, we have income that we receive in addition to our pledges.

Finally, additive technology will vastly multiply our mission efforts. We now take a few months to gather needed materials to build a water system and then have to pack all the parts in an airplane. We then take a week long trip to Cuba or Haiti to install a clean water system. Ten years from we will take a week long trip to install a 3D printer in a village and teach them how to use it. They will then be able to use the 3D printer to build the parts for a clean water system right there on site. In addition to that, they will be able to use the 3D printer to manufacture any number of useful items that will increase their standard of living. Imagine being able to create solar panels right on the mission site. Imagine being able to create dental implants right on site. Or perhaps a surgeon is present and needs a leg implant. She can create is on site on the 3D printer. And someone is there to teach the villagers how to use the 3D printer because it stays behind after we leave. This will multiply our mission efforts a thousand fold for the same amount of money which will be the cost of a 3D printer and plane tickets for the missionaries.

Additive manufacturing teaches us to say, "Yes, and this ..." rather than "Either this or that." There is a profound difference between those two. It is as profound as the difference between subtractive manufacturing and subtractive manufacturing. This slight shift is transformative in the life of a church.

Subtractive thinking says that each person - each member - must participate in each activity. So if we don't have a sizable crowd at a particular activity then that activity is considered a failure. On the other hand, additive thinking says that each person is not expected to participate in each activity. So if we have an activity in which only a few people participate we may still consider that activity a success.

One of our members who returned from a mission trip to Cuba was struck by all the activities they have going on at a very small church. There are guitar lessons during the daytime, English lessons at night, choir practice, lectures, mission projects, the church building is always buzzing with activity. That is an example of additive thinking. Not every participates in every activity in that small church and that is okay with them. By having a large number of small and smaller groups they add up to a total number of people blessed than if they had fewer activities that were attended by a large group of people.

We are moving toward the additive model here. Look at what happened last Sunday morning. We had several church school classes at 9 am last Sunday. There was a Session meeting to receive the confirmands at 10 am. The choir and handbell choir were practicing at 10 am. During worship we recognized the confirmands, remembered Lee Shoemake and then had a reception for the confirmands. The choir had a prayer of dedication for Lee's brick in the columbarium after worship too. Then at 4 pm we hosted the Community Thanksgiving Service here. The church was literally packed with people. After the service we hosted a reception for the community. The day before several people had spent time preparing for the reception and the Harvest Sunday and everything else. Sound exhausting? If you participated in every event it could have been. But the way it works with additive thinking is you add and add and add activities and then let people pick and choose which ones they want to participate in. Then you don't judge success by numbers. If an activity has 3 people involved but it transformative for those three people then it is a success.

What we don't want is to wear people out with too much activity but that will happen only if people feel like they have to participate in every event offered.

This is the most energetic, creative church I've ever been around. We have SO many great ideas. Each of them is free to live and prosper if someone makes it happen. Our challenge is how to be free and creative and additive in nature and still do things "decently in order" as is our Presbyterian inclination. The foundation for that is TRUST. The more we build trust within this congregation the more additive we can be and the more successful we will be at making disciples and meeting human needs.

The additive process is a trend in the Presbyterian Church (USA). You can see it in the new Book of Oder that was passed. The book is shorter and meant to provide for greater flexibility in how we operate. We are already moving toward the model of additive manufacturing in church and society. Once this technology takes hold in the world we will all benefit beyond our dreams. Truly, additive manufacturing is a game changer for the good in both society and the church. Let us embrace it and prosper. For you see, God is not out to get us. God is out to change each of us, the church and all human society for the better through additive manufacturing.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on November 27, 2011 at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035
Phone 713-723-6262 |
 | November 27 - 1st Sunday of Advent / YEAR B

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Christ's Church in Transition: Moving Beyond People and Place

One of the topics we cover in our Confirmation Class each year is "What is a Christian?" We often answer that question in one of two ways. We say the church is the people of God or we say the church is the facilities where the people of God gather. According to modern theologian Jurgen Moltmann, there is third way of viewing the church. The church is the body of Christ. It sounds esoteric but it has practical implications. You will learn more about his view of the church today and how it changes everything. Now let us turn our attention to the reading and hearing of God's word to us today, from Ephesians 1:15-23.

I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

When I was a child we would drive an hour in our brown station wagon to go to Grandaddy's house on Thanksgiving Day. When we arrived there were many cousins, aunts, uncles, dogs, cows, chickens, squirrels and crickets on my grandaddy's farm. The food would fill a three big tables to overflowing. Grannie's chicken and dumplings were always a big hit and her black bottom pie for dessert was unstoppable. Before lunch the women would be preparing the table while the men sat in the living room and watch the Dallas Cowboys play the Detroit Tigers. No one cared who won the game. There was not much small talk. Just an occasional, "Look at him go!" Or "Did you see that?!"

After lunch the men would get their guns and go tromping off into the deeply wooded forest in search of squirrels. A couple of squirrel dogs would be set loose to tree squirrels and let us know where to look. I felt proud to be walking with this group of cousins and uncles. One Thanksgiving Day when we were walking through the deep woods I saw large pieces of tin that had flown off the chicken house miles away and wrapped themselves around an oak tree. Other trees had fallen there where a tornado had touched the group. The power of that tornado on display made a big impression on me.

We Christians tend to think of the church as being the hunters in the woods or the trees themselves. But really, in this analogy, the church is to be found in the tornado. Gods Holy Spirit gives life like the very air we breath. Sometimes that air is stirred up into an overwhelming storm that causes destruction wherever it touches down. Yet that power that caused the damage in that storm is often only evident in retrospect. So it is in the church. We come to this sanctuary and see the evidence that God has been here before. Yet we have lost contact with the power of God which is the very church. So Moltmann would say the Church exists in the power of the Spirit. Wherever the Spirit of Jesus is moving, there is the church. So let's never get puffed up thinking that WE are the church. We are NOT the church. This building is not the church. The power of the Holy Spirit is the church.

Just like that forest that was damaged by a tornado, so you've been through tough times that changed the way you viewed the world. That is what the church is going through now. This is nothing new. Israel went through a transition in how they viewed themselves after they were exiled into foreign countries. The Old Testament prophets helped Israel understand God in a new way in that time of transition. Today, in this time of transition for the church we have theologians who are leading the way in helping the church re-imagine who we are and who God is during this time of transition and decline. One such theologian is Jurgen Moltmann. His book, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, shares his understanding of the church.

Jesus said God's kingdom is not of this world. Moltmann says the church is not of this world. The power at work in the church is the power of God that raised Christ from the dead and exalted him to heavenly places. Do you see what this shift does? It changes the question for the church. We no longer question why the church as an institution is losing influence in society. Instead, we wonder how we can get ourselves into alignment with Christ because Christ is the church. That is what we mean when we say the church is "the body of Christ." We know what happened to the body of Christ. The body of Christ was ripped and torn and crucified on the cross. So the present decline of the church becomes a symbol of the suffering Christ bore in his own body. Moltmann's view helps us reconstruct our image of the church in a way that fits with our exile from influence in society.

You belong to something greater than yourself when you belong to this church. You will see this principle in even greater detail at the Community Thanksgiving Service this afternoon. God is at work in this community through Salem Lutheran Church, Westbury United Methodist Church, Southwest Church of Christ, Temple Beth Israel, Willow Meadows Baptist Church, Corpus Christi Catholic Church, St. John's Presbyterian Church and all the other churches that compose our Southwest Houston Ministerial Association. God is at work among the people of this community. We are part of God's work in this place. That is what we will celebrate this afternoon.

Remember the Triumphant Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He did not ride into the city inside a taxi cab or a limousine. He rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Small children threw palm branches on the path before him. Old men and young women threw their cloaks on the ground to pave the wave for his entry into the city. Yet three days later this same crowd who welcomed him with open arms will vote to have Jesus arms stretched out on a cross, naked, on public display. Remember the suffering of the King of Jews. That is the key to understanding Christ's Kingdom that is not of this world. This is a kingdom where suffering leads to glory. This is a kingdom where it is better to give than to receive. This is a kingdom where those who mourn will be comforted. This is a kingdom in which those who are persecuted will rejoice. This is a kingdom which is not of this reality. This is an alternate reality to which we belong. We must learn to view reality with the eyes of Christ. This is a different way of seeing. It takes practice to see things in this way. It does not happen overnight. We must develop our spiritual eyesight through spiritual practices such as prayer, study, meditation, and service to others in Jesus' name.

Last Monday my wife's van needed to have the wheels aired up and rotated. We drove to a repair shop and left her van there. We wondered whether the tires would need to have an alignment. The mechanic said you'll know you need an alignment on your car when it starts veering off course. Have you ever had your tires go out of alignment on your car? You find your car veers to the right or to the left when you are driving on the freeway. When your wheels are out of alignment you can set your steering wheel straight ahead and remove your hands and your car will move off of dead center and start veering to the left or the right depending on how your wheel is out of alignment. You take your car to a mechanic and he will put your wheels back into alignment. You want to get your wheels back into alignment because driving when your tires out of alignment is dangerous and costly. It is dangerous because by veering off course the car could cause a wreck. It is costly because a tire that is out alignment requires more gasoline to make it run. An out of alignment tire will also wear out a tire faster. Our role as Christians is to align ourselves with Christ. When we get in alignment with Christ it takes less energy to get more done in the church. When we get in alignment with Christ we are all going in the same direction as Christ. There is no veering off course such as happens when we are out of alignment. Moltmann wants to get the church back into alignment. Confirmands, and all Christians, keep your life in alignment with Christ and you will stay in alignment with Christ's church.

As our text tells us, right here in Ephesians 5:22-23, "the church is Christ's body." To the extent that our lives are in alignment with Christ, then we are part of the church. To the degree that our lives are out of alignment with Christ, we are not part of the church. Even when we are in alignment with Christ, we do not own the church. To think that we somehow "own" the church is to think that we somehow "own" Christ. Of course, that is a silly thought. We do not own Christ. We do not own Christ's church. Christ is the head of this church. This church is Christ's body. If you are joined to Christ, you are part of Christ's church. Today we celebrate three young people who are wanting to live their lives in alignment with Christ's vision and mission. Take this service as you invitation to rededicate yourself to following and obeying Jesus.

The image of the church as the body of Christ relieves us of the responsibility of saving either the world or the church. That is beyond our ability to accomplish. Yet it leaves us with a clear responsibility. We must follow and obey Jesus. We live our lives in alignment with the vision and mission of Jesus. That is how we know we are part of the church. Those who make the daily effort to obey Christ are the Church. Your efforts at following and obeying Christ are either sincere or they are not. Today let us rededicate our lives to Christ. Thus will we be joined with the suffering body of Christ, the Church.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on November 20, 2011 at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035.
Phone 713-723-6262 |

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Wield the Power of Life and Death - Stewardship of the Tongue

You recognized the sound of  your mother's voice while still in your mother's womb. The sound of her voice spurred your growth and accompanied your birth into this world. The tongue is a powerful force that may be used to bring death or life. Jesus demonstrated the power of the tongue to kill when he destroyed a fig tree with his words. God demonstrated the power of speech when God created the world through speaking it into existence as described in Genesis. Our text today challenges us to use our tongue for building up rather than tearing down. Listen for that message in this reading from 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11:

Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.

So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

- - -

Frank is sitting in his car in a large mall parking lot, and nobody is coming near him because he's holding a shotgun to his throat. The SWAT team and the hostage negotiation team are called in. The SWAT team takes positions behind other cars and vehicles, trying to not agitate the man. As they wait, they fill in the background details.

They're looking at a man in his early thirties who lost his customer service job at a large electronics store six months earlier for yelling at customers and coworkers. He'd interviewed for several jobs, but didn't get any of them. He was abusive verbally to his wife and two young children. A month earlier, his wife and kids moved in with her parents in another city. She told him that she needed a break, and he needed to get his act together. The landlord of their apartment kicked him out at the same time because they hadn't paid the rent. He moved into a shabby room in a poor section of the city. He stopped bathing and shaving and ate next to nothing. The last straw was the restraining order he'd received the day before he ended up at the mall parking lot.

Now the lead negotiator is talking calmly to the man. "Frank, this is Lieutenant Evans, I'm going to be talking with you, because there is another way out of this besides hurting yourself. I know you don't think you have any choice, but you really do."

Frank exclaims: "You don't know anything. You're just like everyone else. Leave me alone!"

Lieutenant Evans replies: "I don't think I can do that. You're here in the middle of a mall parking lot with a gun to your throat, and I need to help you find another way out of this situation."

"Go away! I don't need anyone's help!" Frank replies. And so the conversation proceeds for an hour, with stretches of silence lasting several minutes or more.

As the information about Frank comes in, it becomes clear that he's not an evil person, just a very disturbed and angry one. The SWAT team is poised to "take him out" if he threatens anyone else with his gun, but everyone except Frank would like to end this peacefully. However, the odds of that don't look so good.

After an hour and a half, another negotiator, Detective Kramer, arrives. Kramer is a graduate of one of the hostage negotiation training sessions I've delivered to police and FBI hostage negotiators. Detective Kramer's been briefed about Frank's background and the status of this negotiation and offers Lieutenant Evans a different suggestion: "Here's what I want you to say to the guy: 'I'll bet you feel that nobody knows what it's like to have tried everything else and be stuck with this as your only way out, isn't that true?'"

Evans replies, "Say what?"

Kramer repeats the suggestion: "Yeah, go on, say this to the guy: 'I'll bet you feel that nobody knows what it's like to have tried everything else and be stuck with this as your only way out, isn't that true?'"

Evans complies and when he says that to Frank, Frank too replies with: "Say what?" Evans repeats it to Frank, who this time responds: "Yeah, you're right, nobody knows and nobody cares!"

Kramer tells Evans, "Good, you got a 'Yes'; now you're in. Let's build on that." He adds a second question for the lead negotiator to ask: "Yeah, and I'll bet you feel that nobody knows what it's like to start every day believing that there's more chance that something will go wrong than go right, isn't that true, too?" To that, Frank replies: "Yeah, every single day! The same thing happens."

Kramer tells Evans to repeat what he's heard and get an additional confirmation: "And because nobody knows how bad it is and nobody cares and because nothing goes right and everything goes wrong, that's why you're in your car with a gun wanting to end it all. True?" "True," Frank replied, his voice showing the earliest signs of calming down. "Tell me more. What exactly has happened to you? When was your life last okay, and what's happened since then to turn it to crap?" Evans invites. Frank starts to recount the events since he was fired from his job. When he pauses, Evans responds with: "Really . . . tell me more." Frank continues describing the problems he's had.

At some point, with guidance from Kramer, Evans says: "And all of that's caused you to feel angry? Or frustrated? Or discouraged? Or hopeless? Or what exactly?" Evans waits for Frank to pick the word that best fits how he feels. Frank finally owns up to: "Fed up." Evans follows up with: "So you felt fed up and when you got that restraining order, that was the breaking point?" "Yeah," Frank confirms. His voice, once hostile, is quieter now. In a few sentences, Frank's gone from refusing to communicate to listening and beginning to have a conversation.

What just happened? The most critical step in persuasion—the step I refer to as "buy-in"—has begun. That's the step where a person goes from resisting to listening and then to considering what's being said. What caused Frank to start listening and begin to "buy in" to what Lieutenant Evans was saying? That shift was no accident. The secret lay in saying the words that Frank was thinking but not saying. When the lieutenant's words matched what Frank was thinking, Frank leaned into the conversation and began to say, "Yes." [Goulston M.D., Mark; Keith Ferrazzi (2009-09-15). Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through toAbsolutely Anyone (p. 5-7). AMACOM. Kindle Edition.]

Our role is to encourage one another in Christ. We are to build one another up. We do that through our words and deeds. How we speak and what we say are the ammunition we use to strike one another or the power we use to heal one another.

Jesus demonstrated the negative power of the tongue when he cursed a fig tree that did not produce good fruit and the fig tree withered and died. So did he symbolically illustrate the power of the spoken word to have effect on material objects.

On the positive use of the tongue, in Genesis we read God created the night and the day and God said that it was good. We try to escape the night, the darkness, our shadow selves. But there is much power there inside us. Our shadow selves may be binding us. Our shadow selves may cause us to sleep walk through life unaware of what is going on in our lives or how. For example, share story of my mom and dad laughing when I asked why they needed another child other than me? They thought it was a funny question from a child but I took their laughter as mockery which is not how they meant it. That moment was a significant one in my development and left a scar in my shadow self that only recently have I been able to recognize and heal. The little things we say and how we say them are the things that will replay before our eyes when we see our life relived before we die. So let us be mindful and awake to how our words and actions effect other people. That is the message of our text.

On this Stewardship Sunday the most significant gift we may give God is control of our tongue. No other body part may be used for such good or such evil. No other body part is harder to control than our tongue. Self control is a foundation for Christian living. We cannot encourage one another is we do not have control of our tongues.

Jesus once told a crazy parable about a wedding banquet. A king invited his courtly, wealthy friends to his son's wedding banquet and none of them showed up. So he sent his servants out to invite people from the streets, anyone they could find, to come to the wedding banquet. Then when these common people showed up, pulled in from the street, and they were having a great time eating and drinking. Then the king spotted a guest who was not wearing the proper attire and he went ballistic. He demanded this inappropriately dressed guest be thrown out of the banquet feast.

This is a parable about us. We come to church dressed in our church clothes because we know on Sunday morning that is what we are supposed to wear. We come to church with our Sunday language and nice words to each other. Then we go home and deconstruct every conversation and encounter we had with someone at church that morning, what the preacher said or did that was wrong, any mistakes we noticed the liturgist make, any wrong note sung by the choir or the person in the pew next to us in singing a hymn. And Jesus says to us, that is wrong. You are not getting it. You are missing the point. You must wear the right clothes at all times in all places. The right clothes refers to your tongue and how you use it as an instrument of healing or destruction.

You must wear wedding clothes every day all day means you must use positive words that build up rather than tear down every day all day. Otherwise, just because you show up on church on Sunday morning and use nice words from 9 am until noon on Sunday does not mean you belong here at the wedding banquet of the king's daughter. It is insane to think that every person on the street should wear their finest wedding banquet clothes every single day just in case the king should on the spur of the moment invite them to his son's wedding banquet. That is absurd. And Jesus uses that absurd image to make his absurd demand that every moment of every day at all times we must be aware, awake, and using our best language to build people up rather than tear them down. That is a tall order. It is just about as hard to do that as it would be to wear your finest dress clothes around your house all day just in case President Obama calls you up to come attend a wedding banquet in the White House. But we must be prepared to get such an unlikely call because that "staying on your toes" attitude is the one that Jesus is after. That is the key to the kingdom. Paul said he was always prepared to preach the gospel whether in a boat or in a jail, whether in winter or summer, in season or out of season, in Rome or in Jerusalem. This is a radical interpretation of the Boy Scout motto: Always be prepared.

Jesus is more interested in what we say than what we wear. He scolded so-called religious people who wore the proper clothes but did not use their tongues to build people up. Remember Jesus in the temple with the publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee cut the publican down but the publican used his tongue to repent. Jesus approved the publican and castigated the Pharisee.

Our text today says we are to encourage one another. In the New Testament book of James we read the tongue is a raging fire that can get out of control. We also find this advice: "Be slow to speech." I took that literally when I was in Junior High School. That is why I speak so slowly today. We are to think before we speak. That is good advice for everyone.

In 1996, Powell was the keynote speaker at a national conference for a leading residential real estate company's top producers. By that point, he'd achieved tremendous popularity with the American public and was being considered as a presidential nominee. General Powell had the audience in the palm of his hand. He urged the audience to give back to their communities. He spoke passionately of his gratitude for his family, childhood, and friends. And he exhorted us all to "do well by doing good." At the end of his talk, he called for questions. Still feeling the warm glow of his inspiring words, we were totally unprepared for what happened next. "General Powell," the first questioner said, "I understand that your wife once suffered from depression, had to take medicine, and was even in a mental hospital. Do you want to comment on that?" You could hear all 8,000 people in the auditorium gasp at the inappropriateness—not to mention the cruelty—of the question. In the silence that followed, we all wondered how Powell would react to being blindsided. Edmund Muskie had thrown away his presidential hopes years earlier when a reporter asked about his wife's sanity, and he started to cry. What would Powell do under similar circumstances? Here's exactly what he did. He looked at the questioner. He paused for a moment. And then he simply responded: "Excuse me—the person you love more than anyone is living in hell, and you don't do whatever you can to get her out. Do you have a problem with that, sir?"

He reached everyone in the audience and touched them to their core. And I have no doubt he reached the questioner just as powerfully as a fist in the face would have—without having to lift a finger to do it. That's poise under pressure. And if you can achieve that same poise, it'll get you successfully through any stressful, high-stakes encounters that life hands you. [Goulston M.D., Mark; Keith Ferrazzi (2009-09-15). Just Listen: Discover the Secret to Getting Through toAbsolutely Anyone (p. 35). AMACOM. Kindle Edition.]

Watch what you say and how you say it so that you are building people up rather than tearing them down. Wield the power of life and death with subtlety and wisdom. Practice stewardship of your tongue.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on November 13 - 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - Stewardship Dedication Sunday at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035
Phone 713-723-6262 |