Monday, January 31, 2011

What God Is Looking For

Text: Micah 6:1-8

I have a recurring nightmare in which I have to take a test for which I have not studied. It is a terrible feeling to know that I will fail the test. I am unprepared. I forgot we were having this test. Some of us live that nightmare in our conscious lives because we feel we are failing God's test. We feel as if God is subjecting us to some mysterious test and we don't know how to answer the questions. We may not even be able to read the questions. So of course we have no hope of passing God's test. What DOES God expect of us?

Today's lesson from the Prophet Micah answers that question. The prophet provides some relief from by providing us with the right questions and the right answers. Today's text is like taking a Pre-SAT class in which we learn not only which questions will be on life's most important test but also what the right answers are. We may think of this as a spiritual Pre-SAT preparation test. In this case, let's make the letters S-A-T to mean Spiritual Aptitude Test. So let's begin our Pre-SAT class in which we will learn the kind of questions that will appear on God's Spiritual Aptitude Test and also the right answers to the questions.

And right off the bat, wouldn't you know it, it looks like the Spiritual Aptitude Test will be similar to the academic test required for entrance into law school. How appropriate, we should have known, God's SAT would be similar to the law school aptitude test. After all, our Presbyterian denomination was started by a French lawyer who later became a pastor and theological writer. John Calvin loved the Old Testament and especially the ten commandments. He said the purpose of the ten commandments - the purpose of the law - is to prove to us that we will never make it without God's help. That is also the message that Micah proclaims in our text today.

We often hear about how we live in a litigious society. We hear there are too many lawyers and too many lawsuits as if this is some historical abberation. I wonder if it was ever any different? Perhaps in ancient times? In our text today we have a startling dramatization of God's lawsuit against Israel. Yahweh - the prophet's name for God - brings a "prophetic covenant lawsuit" against Israel. Yahweh begins with a self-defense, saying: "What have I done to weary Israel?" Yahweh then recites a history of saving actions on behalf of God's chosen people. Yahweh rescued Israel from Egypt in the exodus, provided Israel with leaders such as Moses, Miriam, and Aaron; preserved Israel with manna in the wilderness, and led Israel into the promised land. Yahweh implies that Israel has forgotten what Yahweh has done and therefore whose she is.

The first section of the text (Micah 6:6-8) is priestly instruction. (Cf Ps 15; Isa 1:10-17; Amos 5:21-24; Hos 6:1-6). In a liturgical responsive reading similar to our call to worship, the liturgist asks "What does the Lord require?" What does it take to restore and maintain one's relationship with God, given acknowledgement of sin (v. 7b). The liturgist wonders what kind of sacrifice does it take to please Yahweh? Is the normal sacrifice of burnt offerings and calves a year old good enough? If not, how about thousands of rams? Would that be enough? Or perhaps God demands ten thousand rivers of oil? Would that make Yahweh happy? The liturgist then sarcastically asks if Yahweh demands child sacrifice? I say sarcastically because the Israelite liturgist knows that Yahweh does not want child sacrifice. In Genesis 22 we learn in the story of God's challenge to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac that at the last minute God pulls the plug on that experiment and tells Abraham not to do it. So when Micah's liturgist asks if God demands "My firstborn child?" it is a rhetorical question. He already knows the answer is no. Such sarcastic questions arise because it takes a lot of emotional energy from some of us as we try to decipher just what it IS that God wants from us. Why are we here on this earth? Why did God put us here? What does God WANT from us?

Within a poetic liturgical setting in this text, the liturgist wants to know what does God require? The priest does not respond to all the scenarios listed but does answer the question. Here is what Yahweh requires.

First, Yahweh requires mishpat. Mishpat means to do justice. It means to establish law in the courts. It means to care for equity in all human relationships and in all aspects of human relationships. What does mishpat look like?

  • Misphat is working as a volunteer at BIM and seeing the Christ in the clients who come for food.

  • Misphat is making sandwiches for underprivileged youths while silently praying that God will feed their spirits as well.

  • Mishpat is cleaning up an apartment so that another cancer can come stay there at reduced rates during their treatment in your city.

And it's doing so in a certain way with a certain spirit or elan.

To a social worker the Master said, "I fear you are doing more harm than good."


"Because you stress only one of two imperatives of justice."


"The poor have a right to bread."

"What's the other one?"

"The poor have a right to beauty." (Anthony de Mello, Awakening: Conversations with the Master, 140)

Seeing the divine nature of the poor in spirit is a key to serving them with integrity. The idea is not to just give them a break by handing them some food but to give them a break by realizing that you could one day be the one asking for bread. So give bread to them with the same spirit in which you would like to receive bread from them one day if your roles were ever reversed. I know, that would never happen to you for a myriad of reasons you may think are true. Even so, just imagine it could possibly happen and act accordingly.

Secondly, Yahweh requires hesed. Hesed means to love kindness. Hesed means to show mercy. Hesed refers to steadfast love. It means being faithful in a covenant relationship. Hesed means paying attention to the human slaves in your own city and yes, even in your own neighborhood. Our neighborhood pastor's association was talking about this issue at our January meeting. There are houses not far from here where human slaves are housed. As you may know, Houston is the number one city in the United States for human trafficking. There is something about our location as a port city near an international border with a population that is extremely diverse that makes our city a distribution point for human slavery. We often back away from this reality, thinking, "Yes, I know about that but there is nothing I can do." But Yahweh will not let us off the hook. Misphat means we must work for justice for these human slaves. Hesed means we cannot look the other way. This is what God requires of us according to the Prophet Micah.

Another example of hesed is what happens when you take a thread of a prayer quilt and offer up a prayer for healing for the recipient of the prayer quilt. The tying of the prayer knot in a prayer quilt is an act of hesed in that it suggests keeping solidarity with others including those in need or trouble. The giving of a prayer quilt is an act of hesed. The receiving of a prayer quilt with a thankful heart is also an act of hesed. Hesed is loving kindness in action.

Finally, the prophet gives not a third requirement of what God wants but instead a summary of the first two. Yahweh wants Israel and the church and you and me to walk humbly with our God. We may not have a casual relationship with God. That is not possible. Yahweh requires that we acknowledge the Lordship of God. Yahweh requires that we submit our will to the will of God. Yes, we have Christ within us. We are children of God ourselves - a combustible blend of animal and divine natures. We humans are a little lower than the angels and a little higher than the animals. The hard work we have during our brief stay on this planet in this lifetime is to focus on integrating our two natures into one. The modern Buddhists have the idea that we are God who has intentionally forgotten that we are God. This is an old concept that was popular among the early Christians who were called Gnostics. Our task is to unmask the divinity within us. We are called to perform this monumental task in an insanely short period of time, usually less than 100 years. That is how long we get in this realm of existence.

What happens after we die? I have often wondered if our experience on this earth was not some kind of school in which we are trained in certain subtle arts such as developing compassion which is also known as hesed. The purpose of our hard lessons here are not for God's amusement but for our own purification. As Paul said, "We are refined by fire as gold is refined." (Text?) So I wonder what happens after we die and have processed all our life experiences and rested up for awhile? It doesn't seem right that all this effort would be required just for our own development. I wonder if there are not other planets or realms to which God may send us on missions after this lifetime. Perhaps all our inner work here is preparation for a future mission. I'm not sure but that's what I suspect.

There is one thing of which I am reasonably sure. It's clear as a bell right here in our lesson from the Prophet Micah today. Here it is in a nutshell. Genuine piety is seen in doing justice and loving mercy. That is the clear message of the Bible. We will do well to take it to heart if we really want to be the people of the Bible we claim to be. We will do well to practice mishpat and hesed if we want to pass God's Spiritual Aptitude Test. How we do on THAT test may determine our next assignment in the life to come. Let's get this one right. The answer comes from within. As Jesus taught so well, it is what comes from the inside of a person that corrupts a person or makes them holy. In this test and in this life, intention is everything.

- - -

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on January 30, 2011.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How to Fish for People

Text: Matthew 4:12-23

As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

The Sea of Galilee is a fishy place. There you smell the earthy scent of fish in the wind. The water is green and rugged. The Sea of Galilee is really a very large lake. You can see all the way across it - barely. There in the distance is the other side of the lake. That is where we are going today, to the other side of the lake. We are going to learn to fish for people.

There is something special about this large lake called the Sea of Galilee. Mark's account of Jesus' message says, "The time is fulfilled" (1:15), but for Matthew the place is fulfilled, "Galilee of the Gentiles" (v. 15). Matthew raises the issue of the mission to the Gentiles when he introduces the wise men from the East. (2:1-12). Jesus mission to the Gentiles is the theme of this story that is set among the green, gently rolling hills that undulate around this side of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus is here to fish for people who are fishermen by trade. Before he leaves these sacred shores, he will have caught two fishermen whom he will make fishers of men.

Growing churches today have one thing in common. They teach their newcomers how to be fishers of people. By that, I mean they teach them how to go out and reach other people and get them to come to church with them. That is good as long as it is done "decently and in order."

Yet when Presbyterians here this "fishing for people" language it doesn't smell right to us. It smells fishy in the negative sense of that term. We don't want to get manipulative in "fishing for people." We don't want to sit around at meeting figuring out what bait shall we use this time? What are the young families biting on these days? Where are the children schooling? Is the church a business? Do we need to market ourselves to the community in order to attract new members. Judging by our church budget the answer is no. The amount of money we spend on outreach compared to evangelism is somewhere around 50 to 1 for outreach. Yet we wonder why St. John's remains a well kept secret like a fishing story that never gets told. The very phrase "fishers of men" is a familiar phrase but is not endearing in application. It sounds off flavored today due to lack of inclusive language: "Fishers of MEN." Even from earliest times the church never warmed to this phrase: "fishers of men." The shepherd analogy became more popular.

We have our suspicions about evangelism. We do not want to be manipulative. We don't want to play the politics of the left versus the right to haul in an unsuspecting catch. Perhaps some churches grow their membership by emphasizing issues on the left wing or right wing of the political spectrum but St. John's does not cater to either the left or the right wing. Such political calculations are not what Jesus had in mind when he called out to Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee, "Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of people."

On the other hand, Jesus was having a conversation with fishermen. Fishing was their business. It was their bread and butter. That is how they paid their bills. They were professionals. They fished for a living. So of course Jesus talked to them about fishing for that is what they knew. No wonder Jesus said to these fishermen, "Follow me and I will make you fish-for-men."

That is the way Jesus is. He comes to us where we are and meets us there. He takes us where we are and adjusts us a bit. He makes use of the job skills we already have and builds on them.

I've been imagining some other calls Jesus may have extended. How about these?

Follow me you retired folks and I will employ you in an everlasting project of eternal significance.

Follow me you senior citizens and I will multiply your remaining days in service to others.

Follow me you teenagers and I will make you cool and wise in the ways of God's compassion.

Follow me you loan modifiers and I will make you modifiers of the spirits of human beings.

Follow me you architects and I will make you builders of my kingdom.

Follow me you teachers and I will make you symbols of truth.

Follow me you artists and I will help you draw the best out of people.

Follow me you musicians and I will make you instruments of good news.

Follow me you business women and I will make God's kingdom your primary business.

Follow me you engineers and I will help you figure out how to make a difference in people's lives.

Follow me you accountants and I will help you store up treasures in heaven.

Jesus meets us where we are and takes us to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. This sounds like a great place to be as a faith community. How do we get there? Our text today gives us a hint. Jesus gathers crowds of people from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan (v. 25). This demonstrates that Jesus' teaching is for everyone -- even for people who are not currently members of the church. Jesus wants to teach us how to be a blessing to all those who are living outside of an experience of God's love.

Yesterday we had our new year "kick off" weekend at the church. This was the annual "All Committee Day" and first Session meeting of the year. The theme of the day was how our congregation may make a few small "shifts" that will make a big difference. These shifts come from Reggie McNeal's book Missional Renaissance. We learned about this book from the Presbytery council who used it as a study guide last year. This year the presbytery is offering grant money to congregations who will study the book and develop a strategy to implement the shifts recommended by the book. Here are those shifts as described by New Covenant Presbytery.

Shift #1: Internal focus to an external focus
The shift is from the church at the center to the Kingdom of God at the center.  Ask yourself if
this particular ministry will "bless the world."  Will this ministry, as it is lived out, reveal God's
heart for the world?  Is it bigger than the church in your place?  In this shift, the church is no
longer seeing the ministry as a way to attract new members, but rather as a way to point back to
the church's mission in the world.  The mission is beyond the individual church. We already practice that here. How may we be more intentional about it? That is the question.

Shift #2:  Program development to People development
This mission is beyond well-conceived programs.  The church is not looking for another well
received program.  The mission should attract people in the church and also beyond the church.  "We should feed the hungry people; but when their stomachs are full, we should also teach them or mentor them or find them work, whatever we can do to elevate their capacity to provide for themselves."  The ministry should move the church from a participation mindset to a mindset that encourages spiritual maturation.  Let us create ministries that move to the development of individuals and their lives. Growth through service! That is already a familiar theme at St. John's.

Shift #3:  Church-Based to Kingdom-Based Leadership
The shift here would be from the old model of the church which is institutional, maintenance-
oriented, positional, pastoral, church-focused and highly controlled to Kingdom-oriented
leadership where words such as organic, disruptive, personal, prophetic, kingdom-focused,
empowering can be used.  Those who participate in this ministry will, in all likelihood, have a
focus on the kingdom and how to draw individuals into a ministry.  This shift no longer looks at
the leadership of the church as directors, but rather producers.  Training is to move the
individuals out! Jesus gathers crowds of people from Galilee, Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and beyond the Jordan (v. 25). We should gather crowds from Meyerland, Westbury, Bellaire, Houston, Harris County, and Texas.

We are already doing some of these things at St. John's. In fact, I would say we are already 85% or so ahead of other congregations in implementing these shifts. Our challenge now is how to be more intentional about doing more of them. I wonder how your committee or small group at St. John's may make one or more of these shifts? That is a worthy question for this new year. Perhaps we may be like those fishermen, Simon and Peter, and become "fishers of people" in a way that is relevant to our society and faithful to our heritage.

You may recall another gospel story that happened here in the Sea of Galilee. Simon and Andrew and some of the other professional fishermen had been fishing all night but they had caught nothing, not one single fish. Jesus was standing on the shore and called out to them as they were coming in to shore, "Hey, take the boat back out and throw the nets on the other side of the boat." This seemed like nonsense but they had tried everything else with no success so they decided to humor Jesus. These fisherman took the boat back out and cast the net on the other side. And the haul of fish they brought in was so great they could barely pull them all in the boat without breaking the nets!

That subtle shift - casting the net on the other side of the boat - made all the difference in the outcome. So it may with St. John's in 2011. As we begin this new year, let's make a few small shifts that may make a huge difference in how many people we bring in to join us. We want them to join us not so we can brag we have some new members. We want them to join us so we may continue and expand our mission to this community.

Where do we begin? It's not as hard as you might think. Christ always starts where we already are. Let's take a deep breath…and follow.

- - -
The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on January 23, 2011.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Wildcat Religion

Text: Matthew 3:13-17

I've always liked Mark Twain's take on his Presbyterian faith. At one point, in a an article from March 4, 1866 called "The New Wildcat Religion," Twain blasts spiritualism as "wildcat religion" and then wryly compares that to the rationality of a Presbyterian worship service. By "spiritualism" Twain meant the belief that the spirits of dead people can communicate with people who are still alive (especially via a medium). As Twain puts it: "Loyalty to my Presbyterian bringing-up compels me to stick to the Presbyterian decision that spiritualism is neither more nor less than wildcat."

For our purposes here today, I'd like to change our definition of Wildcat Religion from Twain's spiritualism to my own experience of emotionalism in religion. Our Presbyterian faith is based on a healthy love of the mind. But I sometimes wonder if we haven't lost out on what John Calvin tried to proclaim. For in addition to an intellectual faith, Calvin also tried to engender in his followers a warm heart as well.

As Christians, we strive for balance between our heads and our hearts. I know something of this struggle from my personal journey. You see, I grew up in a modern day version of emotional based religion. The onus was on the believer to keep himself "worked up in the spirit" so to speak. Gifts of the Spirit such as speaking in tongues and healing were the coin of the realm. Without such spiritual gifts, your commitment to Christ was not evident.

Perhaps you have been involved in such Wildcat Religion yourself or have seen it on TV at least. Such was the religion of my teenage years after my baptism by immersion at age 8 years of age. Wildcat Religion as I am defining it - "emotional religion" - has some good points. There were close relationships formed among the believers. A religion based on emotions was a good match for me in my dramatic adolescent years. This form of religion also stressed knowing and memorizing the Bible. But Wildcat Religion was not emotionally sustainable for me.

When I graduated high school and moved off to a college, I met Christians who called themselves Presbyterians. I knew very little about Presbyterians at that time except that they were rumored to believe in Predestination. This is the idea that God knows and preordains everything that happens, including whether a person will be saved or damned. That sounded harsh to me and I didn't see the merit in it. After studying Calvinism in the Christian Ministries Department at Belhaven College I fell in love with it. The beauty of the doctrines was in the way they made sense to me. I had found a religion of the mind that encouraged studying and using one's brain as well as one's heart. This intellectual attraction plus my personal experience singing in the choir of a Presbyterian Church led to my becoming a member of the Presbyterian Church, USA.

Now what did I find in the Presbyterian Church USA? In a word, sanity. Yet, even sanity has its constraints. For instance, let's return to Mark Twain's commentary on "Wildcat Religion" and listen to his deadpan description of a Presbyterian worship service. Twain writes:

You never heard of a Presbyterian going crazy on religion. Notice us, and you will see how we do. We get up of a Sunday morning and put on the best harness we have got and trip cheerfully down town; we subside into solemnity and enter the church; we stand up and duck our heads and bear down on a hymn book propped on the pew in front when the minister prays; we stand up again while our hired choir are singing, and look in the hymn book and check off the verses to see that they don't shirk any of the stanzas; we sit silent and grave while the minister is preaching, and count the waterfalls and bonnets furtively, and catch flies; we grab our hats and bonnets when the benediction is begun; when it is finished, we shove, so to speak. No frenzy - no fanaticism - no skirmishing; everything perfectly serene. You never see any of us Presbyterians getting in a sweat about religion and trying to massacre the neighbors. Let us all be content with the tried and safe old regular religions, and take no chances on wildcat.

Now I appreciate Mark Twain's depiction of a Presbyterian worship service. And I applaud his admonition that we should avoid spiritualism. But I wonder what are we to do with our heart? You see, the struggle for me ever since renouncing Wildcat Religion and joining the Presbyterian Church has been how to find a balance between my head and my heart. I found that as my mind became more engaged over the years my heart became less engaged. It was as if I had lost something precious when I renounced the emotional aspects of my relationship with God.

I spent many years wondering if I would ever recover the warm feelings of religion and if so how would I do it? Years later, the answer came to me in a very unexpected manner. It was when I began practicing centering prayer that I was able to reestablish the connection between my head and my heart. I do not assume that centering prayer will have the same effect for everyone, but for me, it was the answer I had been seeking, a spiritual discipline that reconnected my heart my God.

As you may know, centering prayer is a method of silent prayer. Silence is maintained for 20 minutes. Any thought that arises during that time is acknowledged and then let go. This is a method of setting our intention to allow God to move in our inner lives. The result is a more profound engagement with the world. Centering prayer is a means to living a contemplative Christian life. It is a means to living a Christian life that includes, as Thomas Keating's book is titled, an "Open Mind and Open Heart."

I believe Jesus practiced some type of centering prayer and hinted at such as he suggested, "When you pray, enter the private chamber of your heart and God will meet you there." In the gospels, we find Jesus often getting up before dawn and going away to a mountain in solitude to pray. The constant repetition during centering prayer of letting go of whatever thought arises is a living parable of how Jesus lived. Jesus' life was a continual pouring out of himself in sacrificial love.

It all started for Jesus with his baptism. Jesus came to John the Baptizer and asked to be baptized. Knowing his divine origin, John was hesitant, and replied, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" Jesus said, "Yes, I want you to baptize me." So John did. Jesus' baptism was a demonstration of his obedience to God and the way he would pour himself out in service to the world.

Baptism is a sacrament rich in symbolism. Let me offer you one that may be new to you. Baptism is a symbol of the union of the head and heart in the life of a believer. The water symbolizes information or the life of the mind. The water is poured upon the head to symbolize the purification of the mind and the cleansing of the heart from anything that would separate us from God. In baptism, we find a symbol of the proper Christian attitude toward God of an open mind and open heart. The Christian religion is not about rules and regulations. It's not a "get out of hell free" card either. The Christian religion at its best is a unification of the mind and the heart as we glorify God by making disciples and meeting human needs.

We are here today because of the promise of a relationship between ourselves and the God who created heaven and earth. This same Christ that we read about in the scripture dwells within us. If we could grasp for one second the joy of living a life of obedience to God we would be glad to be laughed at or ridiculed or shunned by the world because nothing else would matter. Nothing else does when you hear God's voice calling your name, saying, "You are my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." That is what Jesus heard in his baptism. That is what I found through the practice of centering prayer. We are profoundly loved by God. This is a statement of fact and also an experience we may have. May God grant us in our personal lives the union between head and heart that John Calvin wished for all believers. I don't think that is what Mark Twain had in mind when he talked about Wildcat Religion but that is what it means to me.

- - -

The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on January 9, 2011, (Baptism of the Lord, Year A)

Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Mystery of Christ Revealed

Introduction to the reading:

As we gather here on the first Sunday of the new year, we may wonder what 2011 will bring. We humans are curious creatures especially when we feel our own welfare is at stake. Since we don't have a crystal ball, we will have to wait and see. In the meantime, let's wonder together today about the mystery revealed in Christ as expressed in the Gospel According to John and in Paul's letter to the Ephesians.

Listen for what the Spirit is saying to the church in Ephesians 3:1-12

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given to me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow-heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God's grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ, and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.

- - -

Strangely enough, the first mystery with Paul's letter to the Ephesians is the question of whether or not Paul actually wrote the letter. Most scholars think he did not. It was common in Paul's day for students of a great teacher to ascribe their writings to their teacher. The literary device of pseudonymity was a way of showing deference for the teacher and showing others to which school you belonged.

It would be as if I wrote a song in the style of Bob Dylan and named him as the author of the song. That would not work in our contemporary culture because not only would Bob not appreciate that but he would also perhaps sue me. In contrast, such a practice was accepted and widely practiced in Paul's day. Then again, perhaps Paul did write Ephesians since it is so similar to Colossians. We will leave the authorship question hanging and consider the content with the caveat who is the author is the first mystery of this text. (Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Hawthorne, Martin & Reid, editors, 240-242)

Paul speaks to the Ephesians about the mystery of Christ was revealed to him. The mystery concerns how the Gentiles have become sharers in the promise in Christ through the gospel. This is the mystery hidden for the ages in God.

Upon further investigation, we are not surprised to find that Paul speaks of mysteries since Paul was born in Tarsus, a major center for the Pagan Mysteries. He often uses terms from the Mysteries in his letters. He even calls himself a "Steward of the Mysteries of God," the term for a priest in the Pagan Mysteries of Serapis. (The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, 173)

Paul preaches that Jesus' passion is not an event in the past, but perennial mystical reality. Through sharing in Jesus' death and resurrection each Christian initiate may themselves die to their lower self and be resurrected as the Christ.

Paul writes: The secret is this: Christ in you! This is the indwelling presence of the divine (Incarnation) in every human being. The story of Jesus is also the story of every person. As Kuhn says, "The gospels are the stories of our souls."

When Paul describes his famous vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus it is significant that he doesn't' say "God revealed his Son to me," as we would expect. Rather, he writes, "God revealed his Son in me." This indicates an inner mystical vision rather than an external event. Kuhn says, "Paul had striven to describe and color in the most graphic language available., which evidently he judged to be phraseology of the Mystery Religions,the only Christ he knew, the power and the grace of the Christ of the inner chamber of human consciousness." (Quoted by Tom Harpur, The Pagan Christ, 173)

Today we celebrate Epiphany and this is the celebration of a mystery.

Instructed by the king, the magi set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.

In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country. (Matthew 2:9-12, The Message)

The magi, the "wise ones," came from the ends of the earth and thus are symbols for all time of genuine seekers of the truth. Jesus' divinity is manifested to the magi. This is symbolic of Jesus' divinity being manifested to everyone, even the Gentiles like us. This is the mystery that Paul proclaims.

I see the mystery of Christ revealed through the prayers of the faithful here at St. John's. We have three prayer groups who pray for God to be revealed in our midst. The Saturday morning prayer group, the Centering Prayer Group, and the Hour of Power prayer group. Some of our members have the spiritual gift of intercessory prayer. Like the wise men who bowed before baby Jesus, they bring their gift of intercessory prayer and lay it before Christ.

How can we measure the effect of such prayers? I have heard an elder in this church talk about a spiritual experience she had during a surgical procedure. It was out of the body experience. She was looking down on her body while her spirit experienced the rapture of being caught up and carried away by the loving Spirit of God. Like the Apostle Paul, she had been caught up into heaven in a mystical experience of God's overwhelming love.

I had a similar experience at a prayer meeting when I was a young person. It seemed as if waves and waves of divine love were pouring over me. I was lost in the ocean of God's love for a couple of hours. It was a mystical experience that fashioned my understanding of God's profound love for me and for all humankind.

Paul writes of his own mystical experience in 2 Corinthians chapter 12, saying of himself: " I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. (2 Corinthians 12:1-4)

On the other hand, there are faithful Christians who go their entire lives without experiencing anything remotely similar to this. And even for those who do have mystical experiences, Paul says there is a greater way. This the way of love as described in 1 Corinthians chapter 13, where Paul writes: "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing." (vs 1-3)

Or, as Christian songwriter Larry Norman put it in his song "Righteous Rocker:"

You could be a wealthy man from Texas,

or a witch with heavy hexes,

But without love, you ain't nothing without love

Without love you ain't nothing, without love.

The mystery of Christ has come to the Gentiles. The mystery of God's love has been revealed even to goyim such as you and me. Divine love is ours in superabundance. This is the light that is revealed as the gifts of the Magi, symbolizing the inner treasures of the Christ are opened up. All these gifts are ours right now, in the sacraments of the Lord's Supper. The new wine of the Spirit is being served. (Thomas Keating, The Mystery of Christ: The Liturgy as Spiritual Experience, 33)

At the end of the story, the mystery is revealed to be God's love in action through the Christ in us. We are called to follow the example of our servant leader, Jesus Christ. On the night before he was betrayed he Jesus knew that the Father had put him in complete charge of everything, that he came from God and was on his way back to God. So he got up from the supper table, set aside his robe, and put on an apron. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the feet of the disciples, drying them with his apron. Then he said, "Do you understand what I have done to you? You address me as 'Teacher' and 'Master,' and rightly so. That is what I am. So if I, the Master and Teacher, washed your feet, you must now wash each other's feet. I've laid down a pattern for you. What I've done, you do. I'm only pointing out the obvious. A servant is not ranked above his master; an employee doesn't give orders to the employer. If you understand what I'm telling you, act like it—and live a blessed life. (John 13, The Message)

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on January 2, 2010 (Epiphany Year A).