Wednesday, April 27, 2011

New Life Now

I recently read an inspiring book called Glimpses of Eternity by Raymond Moody, MD. Glimpses of Eternity is about 'shared death experiences' - stories of deathbed moments when entire families may see a surreal light or watch as the room shape shifts. Others tell of seeing a film like review of a loved one's life and learning things that they could never have known otherwise.

One of the book's stories is about a shared death experience of twins. Over their lives they had shared some physic experiences. But what happened when his brother died went beyond anything the surviving twin had ever known.

He and his brother were identical twins and always felt linked. They did things like call their parents at the same time from different locations, and more than once they selected the same card for their mother on her birthday or Mother's Day. Sometimes they even sensed when something had happened to the other, whether it was good or bad. They were very close.

One weekend his twin brother drove with friends to another state for a high-school football game. On the day he was returning, the other twin was lying on the couch watching sports when he suddenly had the sensation of leaving his body and moving toward a bright light. As this happened he flashed back on events that had taken place with his twin brother. He relived several events from their childhood, including some things that were so insignificant that he had forgotten them. These were all memory images, but none of them were daydreams or the same as sleeping dreams. They were so vivid that he really thought he was reliving them.

The young man had no idea how long the episode lasted, but when it was over he found himself back in his body and deeply disturbed. He immediately told his mother what had taken place and sat upon the couch trying to relax. About an hour later, he said, his mother received a telephone call from the police in the other state that her son had been killed in an automobile accident.

Such stories would have met with resistance and doubt from me when I was younger and wiser. Now, I'm more open minded, although I try not to be so open minded that my brains fall out. So now I wonder if we may call the resurrection experience of Peter and the women on Easter day as a shared resurrection story. You remember how it went. The women went to Jesus tomb on Easter Sunday and his dead body was not in the tomb. An angel appeared to them and said Jesus had arisen. Another shared resurrection experience happened with several of the disciples when Jesus appeared on the shore of the Sea of Galilee cooking breakfast for his disciples over an open fire. According to the Gospels, this happened after Jesus resurrection.

Such strange and wonderful stories stretch our scientific view of reality and so does our gospel reading this morning. This story takes place on the first Easter Sunday, three days after Jesus had been crucified. Like Moody's stories of shared death experiences, these Gospel stories are about a spiritual reality beyond physical existence.

Our story today from Luke's Gospel tells about another shared resurrection experience. Here is how Eugene Peterson translates the story in The Message.

Two disciples were walking to the village Emmaus, about seven miles out of Jerusalem. In the middle of their talk and questions, Jesus came up and walked along with them. But they were not able to recognize who he was.

He asked, "What's this you're discussing so intently as you walk along?"

They just stood there, long-faced, like they had lost their best friend. Then one of them, his name was Cleopas, said, "Are you the only one in Jerusalem who hasn't heard what's happened during the last few days?"

He said, "What has happened?"

They said, "The things that happened to Jesus the Nazarene. He was a man of God, a prophet, dynamic in work and word, blessed by both God and all the people. Then our high priests and leaders betrayed him, got him sentenced to death, and crucified him. And we had our hopes up that he was the One, the One about to deliver Israel. And it is now the third day since it happened. But now some of our women have completely confused us. Early this morning they were at the tomb and couldn't find his body. They came back with the story that they had seen a vision of angels who said he was alive. Some of our friends went off to the tomb to check and found it empty just as the women said, but they didn't see Jesus."

Then he said to them, "So thick-headed! So slow-hearted! Why can't you simply believe all that the prophets said? Don't you see that these things had to happen, that the Messiah had to suffer and only then enter into his glory?" Then he started at the beginning, with the Books of Moses, and went on through all the Prophets, pointing out everything in the Scriptures that referred to him.

They came to the edge of the village where they were headed. He acted as if he were going on but they pressed him: "Stay and have supper with us. It's nearly evening; the day is done." So he went in with them. And here is what happened: He sat down at the table with them. Taking the bread, he blessed and broke and gave it to them. At that moment, open-eyed, wide-eyed, they recognized him. And then he disappeared.

 Back and forth they talked. "Didn't we feel on fire as he conversed with us on the road, as he opened up the Scriptures for us?"

They didn't waste a minute. They were up and on their way back to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and their friends gathered together, talking away: "It's really happened! The Master has been raised up—Simon saw him!"

Then the two went over everything that happened on the road and how they recognized him when he broke the bread. (Luke 24:13-31, The Message)

This is a story about Jesus after he had died. It is a post resurrection story. It challenges our usually depressive attitude toward death. Henry Van Dyke has a pointed poem about the dying experience. It too challenges our depressive view of death. Here is how Van Dyke views death.

I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

Then someone at my side says: "There, she is gone!"

"Gone where?"

Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear the load of living freight to her destined port.

Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says:

"There, she is gone!" There are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout: "Here she comes!"

And that is dying.

So dying is a good bye and also a hello. We say good bye to those left behind on earth and we say hello to those who have preceded us into the next life. According to Moody, our deceased family members come to get us and take us home when we die. We are no more alone in death than we are at birth. The Apostle Paul put it another way: "Whether we live or whether we die we belong to the Lord." Let's bear that in mind on Easter Sunday and throughout this Easter season. Some of you have shared with me your own near death experience or a shared death experience and I invite any others who like to share their stories with me. I'll keep it confidential if you wish.

The great relief we experience in our Reformed Theology is a belief that God will take care of us after this life. Knowing that our afterlife is secure, we freely respond to God's love by living a new life now, during this life. And that is where we return to our text for the rest of the story.

Jesus had revealed himself to the disciples he accompanied on the road to Emmaus. When they were breaking bread with him their eyes were opened and they recognized this was Jesus. Then Jesus disappeared. The disciples had to process this experience. Back and forth they talked. "Didn't we feel on fire as he conversed with us on the road, as he opened up the Scriptures for us?"

Then they took action. They didn't waste a minute. They were up and on their way back to Jerusalem. They found the Eleven and their friends gathered together, talking away: "It's really happened! The Master has been raised up—Simon saw him!"

Then the two went over everything that happened on the road and how they recognized him when he broke the bread. (Luke 24:32-35, The Message)

The question for us this Easter morning is whether we will recognize Jesus when he appears to us. He may appear in any number of ways. Jesus may appear to us in the breaking of the bread as he did to these disciples, or through a song on the radio, a YouTube video, a conversation with a friend or family member, a hymn, a sermon, or the sound of a birdsong in the morning. Our challenge and opportunity this Easter season is to attune our spiritual eyes to perceive the risen Christ when he appears to us and to attune our spiritual ears to such a spiritual frequency that when Christ speaks to us we hear what he is saying. Don't expect to see or hear Christ in his resurrected body. That is not likely to happen. But then again, according to our text today, we never know how Christ may appear to us. Sometimes, he comes as a stranger and reveals himself as a friend.

The deepest meaning behind the Easter text is that it's not about there and then but it's about here and now. Every soul will eventually burst through the tomb of an earthly body and soar to new life with God. That is the meaning of Jesus' words to the thief: "Today you will be with me in paradise." We have within us the door to translate into a new realm of being within this lifetime. Eternity begins now. Now is the only time it may ever possibility begin. "Eye has not seen nor ear heard nor has it entered into the heart of man the glory that is about to be revealed." (2 Timothy 4:11)

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011.

Power in the Blood

Text: 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

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Although I've seen a few, I usually avoid scary movies. I avoid the gratuitously bloody ones. I somehow made it through the movie "Jaws" when I was 13 years old and "The Exorcist" when I was 16 years old but that's. Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" foreshadowed the slasher films that would come thereafter but I never ventured beyond Psycho in that film genre. Well, I guess I did watch "Alien" and "Silence of the Lambs" but I never saw "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" or any of the 11 movies in the whole Friday the 13th series now. All with lots of blood.

So if you're wondering why I'd be talking about bloody movies on this Holy Thursday, it's because the scripture passages for this night seem particularly bloody. Even those of us who don't care for blood and gore find ourselves hearing again stories with quite a bit of blood-spattering action.

If we weren't so numbed by the familiarity of the Passover story, if we didn't know the story of Jesus' torture so well, then we might be quite horrified. Imagine telling someone who doesn't know anything about God – someone who has never heard these stories before – that our loving Creator long, long ago saved the children of Israel by killing every firstborn in Egypt, innocent people and not-so-innocent people – from the great Pharaoh to the lowly prisoner languishing in his prison cell to the cows in the field — unless . . . you lived in a home where lamb's blood had been smeared on the doorposts and lintels. (Exodus 12:29) Imagine telling that story to someone for the first time.

When the Egyptians arose before dawn that morning after that first Passover, there were screams and cries from every single residence and stable "for there was not a house without someone dead." (Exodus 12:30)

This was the last of the infamous ten plagues. You might remember that the plagues started with blood when the River Nile became red with hemoglobin. (Exodus 7:19-24) And the plagues ended with blood, as it was smeared blood on the door frame with a bunch of hyssop - a wild bush used for sprinkling liquids in religious rituals - that very first Passover. (See Lev. 14:4 & Numbers 19:6)

And blood factored into this story long before the exodus. At one point, when Moses is returning to Egypt to help bring the children of Israel out of slavery, Moses was apparently attacked by the Lord who tried to kill him and his wife, Zipporah, took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin, and touched Moses' feet with it, and said, "Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!" (Exodus 4:24-26) And so he was.

As Christians, we don't sing "the blood hymns" much anymore. At least Presbyterians don't.

There was a time when churches everywhere loved the Blood Hymns. Does anyone here remember There's a Blest Fountain of Blood?

There is a blessed fount of blood,

It flows from Jesus' side;

And I have plunged my guilty soul

Beneath its cleansing tide. (Lyrics by Daniel O. Teasley, 1911)

Picture yourself literally plunging your soul into a tide of Jesus' blood. It makes for a very earthy relationship with our Savior, doesn't it?

Or how about this one:

Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing power?

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?

Are you fully trusting in His grace this hour?

Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb? (Lyrics by Elisha A. Hoffman, 1878)

Or this one from 1772 which was popular at First Baptist Church of Morton, Mississippi, where I was reared:

There is a fountain filled with blood,

Drawn from Immanuel's veins,

And sinners plunged beneath that flood

Lose all their guilty stains. (Lyrics by William Cowper, 1772)

The imagery of washing in anyone's blood sounds like something out of a horror movie. But it's a part of our heritage.

And the blood is not just something we bathe in. We also drink it.

We are numb – to a certain extent – regarding this notion of drinking the blood of Jesus. Whether you consider this a symbolic act (like most of us and most of our other Protestant brothers and sisters) or a literal act (like most of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters), we forget that the first Christians were often charged with cannibalism - what with all this talk of eating flesh and drinking blood. (From Minucius Felix, Octavius, R. E. Wallis, trans. in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Buffalo, N. Y.: The Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887), Vol. 4, pp. 177-178, quoted in a sermon by Jan Edmiston at Fairlington Presbyterian Church & Fairlingon United Methodist Church)

It's not known when our Jewish brothers and sisters stopped smearing lamb's blood on their door posts. After that first Passover, Moses said, "You shall observe this rite as a perpetual ordinance for you and your children." (Exodus 12:24)

But while the Jews continue to observe by eating unleavened bread they have not perpetuated the ritual of smearing blood on their doors.

There is no record of blood-smearing after that first Passover in Egypt. And we are probably happy about that. It's messy and it's disgusting and who would want a neighbor who practices a faith which involves painting the porch with blood every spring?

Generally speaking, we don't like messiness. We don't like the sight of blood.

We certainly don't like the idea of human torture, except for the few who still believe that it's an effective tool to use on suspected terrorists. I pray there are fewer and fewer of those.

We like tender stories, nice stories – like the one about Jesus washing the feet of the disciples. There was water and there was a loving Jesus with a towel tied around his waste washing the feet of the disciples. He even washed Judas' feet.

And whether you believe the Gospel of Judas which contends that Jesus and Judas were best friends or not – it's still true that Judas betrayed his LORD. But Jesus still washed his feet, knowing that Judas would betray him.

We like the words about service and love. "Love one another," Jesus said. And we like that. It's so much easier to take than the image of an innocent man tortured and hanging on a cross. But the truth is that life is messy. We are messy Christians – at best. Messy disciples.

I hear people say – all the time – "I don't pray enough." "I almost never read my Bible." "I feel really uncomfortable talking about my faith." "I'm not a very good Christian."

Michael Yaconelli, former editor of The Wittenberg Door wrote a book a few years ago called Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People.

The basic message is this: Our messes are God's opportunities.

Debt. Broken relationships. Bad decisions. Poor choices. Terrible priorities. These are the things that make our lives a mess. Maybe not a bloody mess, but a spiritual mess to be sure.

And here's the kicker: The Bible is full of messy people and God forgave them if they turned to God and asked for help.

"Spirituality is not about being fixed" so that life isn't messy ever again. "It is about God's being present in the mess of our unfixedness." (Yaconelli, Michael. Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People. Zondervan: Grand Rapids) 2002, page 13.)

We might be repelled by the sight of blood. We might even turn our eyes away from the sight of our Savior bleeding and dying on a cross. "But Jesus is not repelled by us – no matter how messy" we've made our lives. (Ibid, 12)

Jesus loves us and asks that we love each other. That's really it.

We are supposed to love each other even when it's difficult, even when it's messy, even if it involves some kind of bloody sacrifice – and I use that term in the British sense – although that might mean I'm swearing and I try not to swear from the pulpit. I mean no disrespect.

What I do mean is that this is Maundy Thursday. On this Thursday the 13th, perhaps we could begin to live out a series of loving moves in the name of the One who calls us to serve as he served, to love as he loved.

This is the blessing and Good News of Holy Week.

May this Maundy Thursday be the beginning of something clean and pure and beautiful.

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on Maundy Thursday (Year A), April 21, 2001.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Servant's Assistants

The Servant's Assistants

Philippians 2:1-13

On this Palm Sunday let's step back from the immediate action and take a broader perspective on what is going on in this drama. Down there we see Jesus parading into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. Children and grown men and women are waving palm branches and casting their clothes in his path as Jesus receives his culture's expression of a red carpet welcome. They cry, "Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." It is a welcome fit for the king of the Jews and ironically that is the title that will hang above his head before the week is up as Jesus hangs from a cross: "King of the Jews" reads the sign. You can almost hear the devil snicker at that one.

But how did Jesus come to this point in his own life's journey? Truly this is a cosmic tale and the trajectory of the story is not from rags to riches but from riches to rags. From heaven's heights he came down to earth. From being in God's likeness he took on human form. "And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross."

If I had to put into one word what this story says to me it would be the word humility. Instead of envisioning humility as a shy person who's afraid to ask someone to dance at a party, let's think of humility as it's described in A Testament of Devotion by Thomas R. Kelly describes humility as a holy blindness, "like the blindness of him who looks steadily into the sun (36)." If you have ever looked directly into the sun you know that wherever you turn your eyes you will see only the sun. Holy blindness. Perhaps Jesus experienced a case of holy blindness as he rode the donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He was living totally in the moment — seeing the crowds — hearing the shouts of "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" Yet looking beyond the crowd into the sun Jesus focused his full attention on the God whom served in radical obedience. Humility is a kind of holy blindness.

In our text today Paul recommends that same kind of holy blindness, or humility, to each of us. Paul quotes the lyrics of an early Christian hymn to describe the humility of Christ Jesus, saying:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

(Phil 2:5-8, NRSV)

The humility of Christ is evident throughout his life from his birth to his death. We clearly see Christ's humility during Holy Week.

We see the humility of Christ as he rides a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem and hears the crowds welcome him as King of the Jews.

We see the humility of Christ when he gets down on his knees like a servant and washes his disciples feet on Maundy Thursday.

We see the humility of Christ when he is taken prisoner by Roman soldiers later that night in the Garden of Gethsemane and tells Peter to put down his sword.

We see the humility of Christ as he endures the ridicule of Roman soldiers who found the crown of thorns they devised to be hilarious.

And we the humility of Christ as he hangs naked and exposed on a cross and struggles for breathe under a sarcastic sign that pegs him as "King of Jews" written in three languages so no one will miss the joke.

Jesus Christ practiced humility and if we imitate him as Paul recommends then we too will practice humility. Is there a place for humility in our world today? Is there a place in our world for humility?

Our challenge as Christians today is to use humility in ethical questions. An attitude of humility would help our politicians in Austin and Washington, DC as they debate budget cuts. Where is Christian humility? I suppose it has never been a popular concept. Not in Paul's day and certainly not in ours. However, it's easy to point out the speck in the other's eye when we have a board sticking in our own eyes. This text is written for Christians. This challenge is for this congregation.

Specifically, the text speaks to our life together in Christ. Paul says we are to "think the same" and we know from the Greek verb Paul uses in Philippians 2:2, phroneo, that he is speaking not about having the same intellectual thoughts but about having the same attitude. Paul does not say all Christians must reach intellectual agreement on every ethical issue but he does insist that we all have the same attitude as Christ and that is the attitude of humility. I told the Session members last Wednesday that it likely that an amendment opening the door for the ordination of gays and lesbians will be approved by a majority of our presbyteries by the end of this month. Some of us will rejoice at this outcome and others will be dejected. We learn from our text today that we don't have to agree on whether gays and lesbians should be ordained as Ministers of the Word and Sacrament. Our challenge as contemporary Christians is to have enough humility to allow one another room to disagree about how we answer such questions. Humility could go a long way in healing the divisions among Christians in our nation today.

As I mentioned in an email this week this church is not competing with neighboring churches. That is thinking too small about our mission. We are not even competing against mega-churches such as Lakewood Church in Houston. That too would be too limiting for our vision. Our competition is against the forces of darkness in this world. Rather than competing against other Christians we are to work alongside them in the struggle against the forces of darkness in this world. If you want an example of the forces of darkness in this world think of the people who profit from using other human beings as slaves. Exploitation of humans by other humans is an example of the forces of darkness at work. As you can see, our plate it full, we have plenty to do. We do not have time or interest in fighting amonst ourselves or with other Christians. Our primary concern is networking with other Christians, Jews, and yes even Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists to work against the forces of darkness in this world.

Paul challenges us to imitate Christ but he does not spell out exactly what that means in every circumstance. Instead, he says, "... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." That is what we Presbyterians have been doing for hundreds of years and that is what we shall continue to do during the Holy Week that lies before us. Paul says, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling." Imitate Christ and so practice humility. That sounds like a reasonable suggestion for we who are called by God to be servants of the servant.

Paul says, "Stop imitating others. Stop desiring things that will not bring you peace. Instead imitate Christ." No existence is free from imitation. The question of life is not whether we will imitate someone. The question of life is whom will we imitate? Paul exhorts us to imitate Christ. In order to imitate Christ we must first learn the meaning of humility. We think of humility as a virtue but it was not considered to be such in the Greek world in Paul's generation which was one generation after Jesus Christ. In the Greek world humility was regarded as servility. Women whose people had been defeated in war became servants to the male victors. They were considered spoils of war. There is a thin line between humility and humiliation. So Paul's converts may have been surprised to hear him recommending humility as he does in this text. "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit," Paul says, "but in humility regard others as better than yourselves (Phil. 2:3 NRSV)."


Will you join me in a time of prayer ...

Loving God, teach us the secret of humility.

Teach us to wage peace instead of committing violence against one another.

Teach us to imitate Christ rather than our neighbors.

Teach us to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

In Christ's holy name we pray.


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~The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on Palm Sunday, April 17, 2011.

Monday, April 11, 2011


Ezekiel 37:1-14

This week I heard from a friend who had heard from another friend a first hand account of the deconstruction in Japan. This man lives in Sendai, a city of a million people, about the size of Fort Worth. After the recent earthquakes and tsunami the country from Tokyo north is in a daily survival mode. There is one 7-11 convenience store that is stocked with things to buy. It's 17 miles away. That's the only store open. No one is working. There is nothing to sell. The highway to Tokyo is open but there is a $100 toll to use it. He told of a a woman from Sendia who is going to pay the $100 toll to drive her sedan on that highway and go to a store on the edge of Tokyo and fill up her car with sugar and flour and such necessities. Everyone north of Tokyo is in a post-apocalyptic survival mode. What will they do? For perhaps 8 years they won't be able to grow crops due to the radiation leaks from the nuclear reactor on the Northeast coast. The towns you see on TV are towns of 10 or 20 thousand on the coast. Those that were saved had 3 minutes to get to the high point. They even have towers built for this purpose. There has been no shooting or looting. Everyone is looking out for everyone else. Everybody's bones are still intact but it's like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. A Japanese political leader proclaimed this is the worst catastrophe to hit Japan since World War II. We are talking about that level of destruction.

That is the level of destruction of a society envisioned in our reading today. Ezekiel's visit to this valley of dry bones is framed in context of the economic and spiritual survival of Israel in his time. The prophet's words concern the crisis of 587 B.C.E. in Jerusalem and the subsequent season of slavery and seduction in exile. (Walter Brueggemann , An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination). Ezekiel himself was in exile, taken from the land of his birth following the Babylonian siege of Judah. After years in which the nation and particularly the city of Jerusalem were under siege, the people are returning to the scene of the crime.

This sense of something being wrong is becoming commonplace today. We see it in the near shut down of the federal government as politicians wrangle over the federal budget. We see it again in the Texas state government's show down over the state budget. Harris County health care providers would lose more than $2 billion in Medicaid funding under the Texas House budget that passed Sunday night, according to an Austin think tank. Medicaid funding for Harris County hospitals, doctors, nursing homes and other providers would be reduced by 38 percent from the amount spent on such care in 2009. "That would certainly be a body blow for the county, one I'd expect it to try to make up through tax and fees," said Vivian Ho, a Rice University health care economist. "As private practice doctors get out of Medicaid, I'd also worry about the spillover effect at hospitals, like Texas Children's, that provide care to low-income and privately insured patients."  Our present situation gives us some inkling of the sense of abandonment by God and the whole world experieneced by the exiles. You see, Ezekiel's people in exile were full of despair. They were no longer economically viable. They were no longer at home. They were living in a strange land, with spiritual practices that were different from what they knew. The people in Israel living in exile and they said the same thing the people of Japan are saying, "Ain't no use jivin', ain't no use jokin', everything's broken." (Bob Dylan, Everything's Broken)

I learned about spiritual cycles of growth and development at a retreat I once attended. One of the exercises had participants paint a picture to illustrate where we were in our spiritual lives. I drew my picture as did the other participants and then we laid them on the table to look at them. Wow! Mine looked so different! The other pictures were of green, verdant hills and valleys. There were blue skies. There were some stick people representing family members. And then there was my black and red abstract painting with no borders or recognizable objects. The retreat leader pulled out a reference book and began to look at our paintings and diagnose where we were spiritually. My painting was so different from the others. She asked me if I was at a difficult time in my spiritual life. I said yes. She said my painting is a good illustration of a person who is at 6 o'clock on the dial. If you think of the different seasons of spiritual development as a clock with 12 hours or stages, I was at stage 6 or 6 o'clock on the clock which is a stage of deconstruction. The retreat leader encouraged me that after the deconstruction of stage 6 comes the reconstruction of stage 7 at a higher level of complexity. So I was just around the corner from reconstruction. That is where the people of Israel were in Ezekiel's vision today in the valley of dry bones. It is the same place the people of Japan are in today.

Yes, we can more close to home than Japan when it comes to reconstruction. Remember Hurricane Ike a few years ago. Each of us has our stories to tell about that destructive hurricane. Our house ended up with a tree on the roof in the front yard and in the back yard. I'll never forget slowing stepping outside my front door the day after that long night when the hurricane swept through like a freight train. Through the front door was a surrealistic scene of matted tree branches, fallen trees, standing water, and complete disarray. The next few days were like a nightmare in a way as we began to clean up the yard one branch at a time. Over the next several days our neighbors came over and helped us get the trees off the roof and pick up the debris from the yard. That was when we really got to know our neighbors. The family across the street finally got their power restored a few days later and brought us some warm food in the evenings since our electricity was still not on. I'll never forget that time of deconstruction and reconstruction. It brought people together. With all the power lines down, you could walk the streets at night and look up at night and see the stars. People seemed friendlier and less rushed. It was really a sacred time. And the reconstruction continues. We had 9 people from St John's go to Galveston yesterday to help rebuild houses destroyed by Ike. The reconstruction there is ongoing. We are part of that reconstruction effort. The seven o'clock on the cycle. The period after the deconstruction. Then you go on to eight o'clock and greater reconstruction. The cycles of life.

That is what we have in this wild vision of dry bones reconstructed by God's Spirit into living beings as described in Ezekiel 37:1-14. This story symbolizes the cycle of deconstruction followed by reconstruction that occurs as a natural process in communities. This is a spiritual as well as economic reality. The main message, however, is not to our own spiritual development but to the congregation as a a whole. Where are we seeing signs of new life in this congregation? One place I am seeing God's reconstruction of lives here is through new ministries such as Partners in Educational Advocacy This new ministry takes people who are in the deconstruction stage of life and helps move them toward the reconstruction of their lives. This ministry helps people on the fringe who get lost in the system. They are like debris scattered on the tsunami blasted farmland of a Japanese city street. Our people take these broken down people and carry them to where they can be recycled. They walk them from stage 6 to stage 7 on the circle dial of spiritual development.

Ezekiel's vision foreshadows the events of Good Friday and then Easter Sunday. The risen Christ and the dry bones reconstructed in Ezekiel shows us reconstruction is more than a resurrected corpse.

Sometimes the world comes crashing down and you feel like dry bones. Your live through your own version of the crucifixion. You are then closer to resurrection than you believe. For you must die before you can be resurrected. We are closer to God when you are closer to death. I heard this week about a lady who experienced resurrection. She says, "I've seen it. When my husband walked out on me I was a walking zombie. I lost my life. I died on the inside. My life was nothing but dead end dry bones. But with my faith in God and the coaxing of a friend I slowly came back to life. I believe in miracles. Especially resurrection. I've lived it already." This story is about new life not when you die but today, if we are ready to step out of our dry bones.

Resurrection is about reconstruction of our very understanding of God. God stuck with the people of Israel.

Then the Lord s said to Ezekiel, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.'

Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.

And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.

I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act," says the LORD. (Ezekiel 37:11-14, NRSV)

God will never abandon Israel. God will never abandon Japan. God will never abandon Galveston. Our God is not a God of abandonment. Our God is a God of reconstruction. This reconstructing God rebuilds nations, congregations, and individuals. And God calls us to participate in this reconstruction. That may mean helping a disadvantaged child in the Third Ward of Houston navigate the public school system or hammering nails in the wall of a washed out home in Galveston. We are the children of a Reconstruction God. Let us continue to rebuild our own lives, the lives of others, and the life of this world.

~The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston on April 10, 2011 (Lent 5A)

Sunday, April 03, 2011

The Wisdom of Uncertainty

Text: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

April 3, 2011 / Lent 4A

It was election year in Israel. Israelite kings were not on a four year cycle like American presidents today. There were no primaries—no electoral college—no negative campaign advertising. An election is ancient Israel consisted of a majority of one—God made a decision—and a prophet made it known. No wonder the prophet Samuel was a little nervous when God told him it was time to anoint a new king—the present king was still alive and had no intentions of giving up his throne. Samuel was reluctant to risk his life by naming a new king but that is what God demanded. It was a volatile situation. God was planning a coup. We don't know the actual details of the political background of David's struggle for the kingship. All we have is this story from the Bible that wants to teach us the wisdom of uncertainty.

Prophet Samuel was not a young man and neither was King Saul, the first king he had anointed some years earlier. But God now told old Samuel to name a youngster named David as the next king of Israel. David was the most unlikely candidate for king. David's own father—his own brothers—thought David was childish. It is possible to see some ageism here if you read between the lines. Perhaps Samuel thought David was too young to be king. After all, he had very little experience of life so Samuel wondered if David would be able to handle the back room bargaining that comes with the position.

Hokusai, the great Japanese woodblock artist, began life as a prodigy—he could draw proficiently from the age of 6—but he tells us that he was not satisfied with his skill until he turned 70. Looking further ahead, he predicted that "at 80 I shall have considerable talent, at 100 I shall be sublime, and at 110 I shall render life to a single line, a single point." Hokusai did not live to be 110—he died in 1849 as he was turning 90—but however old he was, he believed that the best was yet to come.1

Perhaps the Prophet Samuel was thinking about the wisdom that comes from age when he looked at young David. Samuel thought David was too young to be anointed king but Samuel obeyed God and anointed David anyway. Samuel knew his perception was limited. Being human means we can see only so far. Being human means we can imagine only a few of the infinite possibilities in any situation. Samuel was learning the wisdom of uncertainty. Samuel was learning the ways of God.

A rabbi in Russia once summoned all of the Jews of his town to assemble in the main square the next day at noon. He had an announcement of the greatest importance to make. He ordered all the merchants to close their shops, all nursing mothers to bring their infants. Everyone, no exceptions, should be there. The people wondered what the announcement could be. Was a pogrom imminent? Would there be a new tax? Was the rabbi going to leave? Or was he perhaps seriously ill?

At noon the entire community was present. Everyone waited with baited breath. Precisely at twelve, the Rabbi rose and said, "I, Levi Yitzhak, son of Sarah, have gathered you here today in order to tell you ... that there is a God in the world."

At first the people were perplexed. Was this the big announcement that they had left their homes and closed their shops to hear? Had the rabbi convened them only to tell them something that every school child already knew? But then, as they thought about it, they began to say to themselves, "Hey, what could be more important than to know that there is a God in the world."2

Yes! There is a God in this world and that gives us hope. But the God of the Bible is a God whose ways are not our ways. We do not always know how God thinks. We do not always see know what God sees. We are not always sure what God may be calling us to do. According to our story today, whatever God is calling us to is more than we would ever have imagined. That is certainly true for the little shepherd boy named David whom God would anoint as King of Israel.

The wisdom of uncertainty is evident even in the scientific realm. Scientists in quantum physics tell us about the uncertainty principle. The Heisenberg uncertainty principle posits that both position and momentum cannot be simultaneously known to arbitrarily high precision. That is, the more precisely one property is measured, the less precisely the other can be measured. Published by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, the principle implies that it is impossible to determine simultaneously both the position and the momentum of an electron or any other particle with any great degree of accuracy or certainty. This is not a statement about researchers' ability to measure the quantities. Rather, it is a statement about the system itself. (For more about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle see wikipedia online:

In other words, precise knowing is neither possible nor required in order to conduct fruitful experiments in the field of quantum mechanics. This theory would have a profoundly liberating effect if we applied it to our own lives. We don't have to know everything there is to know about who we are, why we are here, or where we are going. In fact, once we fall into the trap of thinking we do know such matters we find God comes along and does something so unexpected it makes our jaw drop. That is what happened to the Prophet Samuel when God told him to anoint a young shepherd boy named David as King of Israel. That is the meaning of this story.

If you think you have already seen the future of this church—look again! If you think our future is dull compared to our past—look again! God took a chance on young David. God may take a chance on us. What if we were like young David—called by God to greatness! That may be God's message for us in Lent, 2011. God may have plans to anoint our heads with oil; to make our cups overflow. We don't have to know with precision where God is leading us or how to get there. We may be sure that God will lead us by the hand into the future. We don't have to know exactly where we are going in order to benefit from the journey. In fact, as you may have heard before, it is true that the journey is the destination. That is worth remembering in the uncertain times in which we live.

It seems that everything is in a state of flux these days. For instance, a recent study reported at the American Physical Society meeting in Dallas, Texas claims that religion is on its way to extinction in Australia, Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland. These are the findings of a survey based on mathematical analysis of census data reaching as far back as a century. The study was conducted by researchers from Northwest University and the University of Arizona. Using an analysis technique called nonlinear dynamics and a model of human interaction that posits that social groups that have more members are more attractive to join, the researchers concluded that religion was on the way out in the nine countries studied.

Dr. Richard Wiener, one of the researchers, explained, "In a large number of modern secular democracies, there's been a trend that folk are identifying themselves as non-affiliated with religion; in the Netherlands the number was 40 percent, and the highest we saw was in the Czech Republic, where the number was 60 percent." The idea is that as the non-affiliated group grows, it becomes the more attractive group for others to join for social and utilitarian reasons.

While this study is new and applies to religions of all stripes, previous research has concluded that young adults are leaving the church today at a higher rate than in previous years. A 2009 study from the American Religious Identification Survey found that the percentage of Americans claiming "no religion" almost doubled in about two decades, climbing from 8.1 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.

Some observers point out that Christianity's appeal has always gone through cycles of decline and revival. And others argue that models based on statistical probabilities are not nearly as reliable when applied to human systems where conditions cannot be controlled.

Still others mention that while Christianity may be declining in some parts of the world, it is experiencing great growth in places like Africa and Asia.

Yet for many of us, Christianity's vigor elsewhere in the world is not a comfort if our own congregation is in decline or if our loved ones raised in the church have chosen to leave it. We are uncertain about the future of the church. Yet even in the midst of our uncertainty we have faith in God. In fact, during such times of uncertainty as this – when religion is in decline and with all the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East and Northern Africa and with Japan wading its way through nuclear fallout after a massive earthquake and tsunami – we turn once again to the ancient text which has guided our way in times past. There we find a song, a psalm, attributed to King David, that soothes our souls and helps us deal with the wisdom of uncertainty. The lyrics to this song are familiar and supportive especially in the translation some of us learned it by called the King James translation.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures;

He leadeth me beside the still waters, he restoreth my soul.

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil;

for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff—they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies;

thou anointest my head with oil; my cup overfloweth.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. (Psalm 23—A Psalm of David, King James Version)

When it came time to choose a new king, God told Samuel, "Looks aren't everything. Don't be impressed with his looks and stature. God judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; God looks into the heart." (v 7, The Message) God looked into David's heart and saw something on the level of quantum physics. It was something that was not visible to the naked human eye.
Samuel took his flask of oil and anointed him, with his brothers standing around watching. The Spirit of
God entered David like a rush of wind, God vitally empowering him for the rest of his life.

Samuel left and went home to Ramah. (v 13) In other words, Samuel didn't stick around to see what happened. To do so may have been hazardous to his health considering King Saul was still alive and kicking. There is always a risk to following God's orders. But then, there is also the risk of going our own way. Life is full of risk. Such is the wisdom of uncertainty.

1Deepak Chopra, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, pg. Harmony Books, 1993.

2Norman M. Cohen, in his sermon "There is a God in the World," printed in The American Rabbi, Feb., 1993.    

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The Rev. Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on April 3, 2011.