Monday, August 29, 2011

Stumbling Block

Sermon text: Matthew16:21-28

Jesus wants to give you a gift today. Will you accept it with gratitude or will you turn it down? That is the decision Peter had to make. Peter wanted what was best for himself and thought that was also best for the church. We are like Peter. We want what is good for us. We are not like Jesus. Jesus wants what is best for the church. There is a disconnect between our vision and Jesus' vision for the church and for the world. We pursue our own agenda for our personal benefit not for the greater good. That is the biggest problem in our society. Our very social structure seems to be coming apart because of centralized greed and mismanagement.

John Robb, author of Brave New War, says the Soviet Union fell apart because of centralized greed and mismanagement.. Power was in the hands of a small government elite who made all the major decisions for the entire society. They made the wrong decisions and their system finally crashed. Our current Western system seems to be falling apart before our very eyes. We too have vested in the hands of a small group of government and corporate elites who make all the important decisions for our entire economy. They often make the wrong decisions because they base their decisions upon what is best for them instead of what is best for whole society. In both cases, a small group mismanages the larger group because the goal of the small group is to increase their own power rather than serving the greater good for the larger group. Such a system is not only wrong it is also unsustainable over time. The goals of the small group who makes the big decisions are not the same as Christ's goals. We are all going to face the bad consequences of their selfish decisions.

This is also true on the level of the local church. Our Bible story demonstrates a powerful truth. Our churches are not thriving because every church has a small minority of people who seek to control the church and their goals are not in line with Christ's goals. This was Peter's sin and failure in our text today. There we see that Jesus has set his mind and heart toward the greater good of the church but Peter's vision is different. Peter does not want to hear about Jesus' future suffering. Peter closes his ears to any talk about Christ and the cross. Peter won't have any of that. He confronts Jesus about it and tells Jesus to lighten up and get himself back on track. Jesus comes right back at Peter. He looks Peter in the eye and says: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Wow! What a direct confrontation. That is exactly the kind of honesty and truth we do NOT hear in our churches today. No wonder our churches are in decline. We don't have the guts to confront people who stand against the greater good.

Jesus did. He looked Peter in the eye and called him "Satan!" How scandalous can Jesus get? Pastors don't always set a good example for the church. We don't call a spade a spade like Jesus did. If we did, we fear people would side with the spade rather than the pastor. We fear we would lose our job. So our pastor's are prohibited from following Jesus' example of calling a spade from a spade because we have bills to pay and a family to support. Sometimes the pastor IS the spade who needs to be called out. The church system seems to be set up for failure. No wonder the churches aren't growing. We don't stand for anything. We are FOR everything and everyone. That means we are really for nothing and NO ONE. We have no boundaries. We set no limits on acceptable conduct. Our pastor's goals for personal security are not in line with Jesus' goals for the greater good.

What would happen if we showed real leadership and called a spade a spade? Look what happened to Peter when Jesus confronted him. Peter didn't run away. He didn't quit the church. He became convicted by what Jesus and he changed his ways. It didn't happen overnight. Peter would still make mistakes. He will still get it wrong sometimes. He will still deny he ever knew Jesus three times on the night when Jesus needs his support the most. But Jesus will give him a second chance, and a third chance, and a ninety-ninth chance. After his resurrection, the risen Jesus meets the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He cooks them breakfast of fish over an open camp fire. Jesus as chef: Now there's an image. Then he publicly forgives Peter and commissions him to STILL be a leader in the church.

So we are talking here today about a Lord who will call a spade a spade and yet we are talking about a Lord who will give us another chance after we fail. Today is your opportunity for to change your goals from what is best for YOU to what is best for the church. If you don't do that, you will still have another chance. Today isn't your only opportunity to make this change. But if you go ahead and do it today you will save yourself and this church so much suffering, so many set backs, so much unnecessary heartache and hassles. You will also save yourself so much lost energy and time. You will feel such a sense of relief to lay your burdens down at the foot of the cross. You will learn what it means when Jesus says to take up his cross for his yoke is easy and his burden is light. The easy thing, the natural thing, is to just let it happen today. Change your focus from your goals to Christ's goals. Divert your energy from trying to get your way to letting God have His way. It's such an easy thing to do and yet we make it so hard. We hold on to our deluded dreams of glory and we won't let go. We cling to unhealthy patterns and behaviors even when they make us weak and sick and keep us on the fringe of the community.

This week I read a story about a French waiter in Paris. Here is how author Peter Meyers describes him.

"I once sat in a five-star restaurant in Paris, and watched a waiter working. He moved as if he were on skates, gliding so smoothly, with such balance, that it was a pleasure to watch him. As he put the food down on each table, he said something to the people sitting there. Each diner's face would light up as the waiter spoke. I watched the other waiters, and no one seemed to be having the same impact on the people they were serving. I caught this waiter's eye, and he came over to my table at once. 

"May I help you, m'sieur?" 

"I know this sounds like a strange question," I said, "but I've been watching you, and you seem to be having a huge impact on the people in this room. What are you saying to them?" 

He smiled. "As a young man, when I first came to work in a fine restaurant, I was instructed by the headwaiter to say 'Bon appétit' after I served each table. Because I was in such a rush, I would usually just put the plates down, repeat, 'Bon appétit,' and leave quickly. One day I noticed that there was one second, after I put the plate down, when the diners would look up at me. I found that in that moment, I could look into their eyes, say, 'Bon appétit,' and mean it. I could tell them without words, 'I wish that you have a good meal. I want you to be happy.' Through this simplest gesture, I could make them feel wonderful. It took only a moment to do this, to put the plate down in front of them as if I had cooked it myself. I went from serving food to serving a sacrament. I am the most fortunate of men, m'sieur. What an honor it is to host a meal, to bring nourishment to people, to offer things that brought them joy and delight!"

That's where I learned that with the right intention, you can transform anything into the opportunity to give a gift. (Meyers, Peter; Nix, Shann (2011-07-26). As We Speak (Kindle Locations 180-195). Atria Books. Kindle Edition.)

Today is the day when you give a gift to this community of faith. And in giving that gift to this church you are giving a gift to yourself as well. The gift you give this church today is to stop trying to subvert what Christ is doing in this church. The gift you give yourself is the sense of relief you will find when you lay your burdens down. Because that's what it is that you are carrying around: Burdens. Your burdens are those sins and ways that keep you focused on your own goals and blind you to the harm you do to others.

Lay down your burden and take up your cross. It sounds impossible but it's the easiest thing to do. That is the gift you have to give today to yourself and to this church. This is the best thing you can do for yourself and for all the rest of us. Deny your misguided goals and take up the cross of what is best for the church. You will find that Christ's burden is easy. You will find that Christ's cross is much lighter than you had imagined it would be. This is a hard but necessary lesson. Jesus only taught it to his top leadership prospects. Peter learned this lesson and became an amazing leader in Christ's church. So may you. This is the opportunity Christ gives you today. This is his gift to you. Take it and use it for your own benefit. If you do you will be a blessing to this church and to the world. You can follow you own vision and be a stumbling block or you can follow Jesus' vision and be a leader in the church. Peter chose to follow Jesus even when it seemed hard. So may you and I.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on August 28, 2011.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Peter Principle

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven (in other words, both heaven and hell are here on earth), and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.  -Matthew 16:13-20

While I've been away I attended worship in a few different churches in Houston. One was a mainline church similar to our own. It was a great service and included a wonderful celebration of the Lord's Supper. The other church I attended was a more modern non-denominational type church. The worship space was dark like a movie theater with no windows and three large screens framing the worship area. The screens showed images of the theme of the day which was mercy. I wanted to attend this church because I sometimes drive past it and each time I wonder what do they do in there? What do they believe? Who are they? The only way to answer such questions is by showing up. Jesus told some people when they asked him what he was about, "Come and see." So I did.

So did Jesus' disciples. They came and saw who Jesus was and what he was about. In our text today Jesus wants to know how they perceive him. So he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" Notice Jesus refers to himself as "the Son of Man." That is an interesting phrase. In one of my New Testament classes in seminary, the professor made a big deal out of that phrase. He challenged me and my classmates to go find out what the phrase "the Son of Man" means. I tried and we tried but we never figured it out for sure. It seems the best answer is that "the Son of Man" may be translated as "the human being." So it seems that Jesus was asking his disciples, "Who do people say this person is?" This person in this case means Jesus himself.

The disciples answer Jesus, "Some say you are John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." In other words, they tell Jesus what other people have said. It's always easy to fall back on what others have said about Jesus. What would you say if a stranger on the street asked you who is Jesus? Perhaps your mind would harken back to a childhood church school class or a Vacation Bible School setting and you would respond: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." If so, you would be in good company. Karl Barth was perhaps the most important mainline theologian of the 20th century. He published thousands of pages about the Christian faith. He once said he could boil the whole Christian faith down into one sentence: "Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so." But that's Karl Barth's answer so you can't use that one for yourself. For you see, Jesus is asking each of us, as he asked each of his disciples, "Who do ''you'' say that I am?" This is a rhetorical question, meaning, I don't expect you to answer out loud. But think about it. How would you answer Jesus if he asked you, "Who do you say I am?

Someone recently gave me the book. Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent. It's the story of a 4 year old boy who has an out of body experience during surgery and visits with Jesus in heaven. He describes Jesus in a literal fashion that sounds similar to the way we know him from our kindergarten church school class. Some of us would answer Jesus question: "Who am I?" like the little boy in Heaven is for Real. We would say Jesus is a real person up in heaven who rides around on a white horse and hugs people when they come to heaven for a visit. Yet I wonder if Jesus, being the earthy Jewish carpentar scriptures portray him to be, would not be wanting something different from us when he asks, "Who do you say that I am?"

Here is my own answer to the question: "Who is Jesus?" Jesus is the Christ in me, the hope of glory. That may sound a little New Age to you. My answer does connect myself to Jesus in a very personal manner. Yet, this is the very manner in which the Apostle Paul answered the question. Paul referred to Jesus as "the Christ in me, the hope of glory." That understanding of Christ could be understood as a mystical connection that goes deeper than blood kin.

This makes for interesting conversation but it doesn't answer the question of what's going on in the market today? Is my job safe? Is our country's economy doomed? How did we get to the place where we once again are staring into the abyss? Those are the questions of today. You hear the answers in the media. It's the European Union's fault, especially Greece. It's the S&P's fault for downgrading the rating of the United States. But our question for today is not about the economy it is about Jesus. And no matter how hard we may try to change the subject, we still see Jesus standing there with imploring eyes waiting to hear our answer to his question: "Who do you say that I am?"

After a prolonged silence, Peter pipes up in a moment of divine inspiration and says, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Jesus loves his answer. Thank goodness for Peter! He is seemingly the ADD disciple with attention deficit disorder. He speaks his mind. He does what comes to him. He takes the initiative. Need someone to try walking on water? Peter is your man. Need someone to tell Jesus to lay off talking about the cross? Peter will do that. No wonder a short time later Jesus will tell this same Peter, "Get behind me Satan." This Peter is the rock upon which the church is built. That tells me God never expects or demands perfection in people or in churches. Peter was certainly not perfect but he is the one whom Jesus chose to be an example for the church to follow.

If we are to follow Peter, we will become people of action more than people of speech. We will walk the walk and not just talk the talk. We do that her at St. John's. We are all over the map in missions. We have several new mission initiatives just this summer in the Mustard Seed Grant projects. We are doers of the Word and not hearers only. Peter applauds us for that. So does Jesus. Yet neither Peter nor Jesus expects perfection in us.

Peter was not perfect and he would not have been my choice for leader of the church. He doesn't exhibit the flawless character, the intellectual profundity, the spiritual depth I would prefer in the founder of my church. Instead, I would prefer to have the Apostle Paul as the rock upon which Christ built his church. But Peter gets the nod and I will tell you this: I am really glad to hear that he is the one in charge of heaven's gates! Someone like him may understand someone like me—someone who finds answers hard to come by, who finds it easier and safer to repeat other people's answers—because I have not thought about my own, or because I do not trust God to help me with them. Or someone who goes ahead and says things and then regrets them, or makes brave promises, like, "Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you," (Matthew 26:35) and then loses heart, saying not once but three times, "I do not know the man." (Matthew 26:74)

If Peter is the rock upon which the church is built then there is hope for all of us, because he is one of us, because he remains God's chosen rock whether he is acting like a cornerstone or a stumbling block, and because he shows us that blessedness is less about perfectness than about willingness—that what counts is to risk our own answers, to go ahead and try, to get up one more time that we fall.

The story of Peter's last encounter with Jesus is told not by Matthew but by John. It takes place on a beach, where the risen Lord has just cooked breakfast for his disciples. As soon as the meal is over, Jesus turns to Peter ands asks him, not once but three times, "Do you love me?" Three times Peter answers, "Yes Lord, you know that I love you." And three times Jesus replies, "Feed my sheep" (John 21:15-17), which leads you to think that maybe the final answer Jesus seeks from those who love him is not an answer that is spoken so much as one that is lived, that the real truth about who he is for each one of us shows up not on our lips but in our lives.

The desire to reach out and share is a characteristic of Christian churches. I saw this in the churches I recently visited. Christ the King Lutheran Church in Rice Village hosts a resilient community action group called Transition Houston. The church provides the group with meeting space and the group provides the church with free yard work. Crosspoint Church in Bellaire is starting a new ministry similar to our apartment ministry but more involved as it provides 3 meals a day and a full time volunteer staff person living in a house with the cancer patients. Churches do things. We don't just talk about things. As the Epistle to James puts is, "Be ye doers of the Word and not hearers only."

Maybe that is the meaning of the odd ending of this text. Peter has just proclaimed that Jesus is the Messiah. Then Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. I wonder if Jesus was concerned that the disciples not think that talking about it was the most important thing. I wonder if he meant for the disciples to do something about it. Perhaps Jesus wanted the disciples to build solar water systems in Haiti more than he wanted them to write theological treatises about the Divinity of Christ. Both are important endeavors but Jesus seems to prefer action to words. That's why he chose Peter as the leader of the church but then told them all to keep their mouths shut about it. Actions speak louder than words.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on August 21, 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

Divine Counselor

John 14:15-21

"If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

"I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them."

- - -

In our text today, Jesus is saying good bye to his disciples. He tells them when he leaves them he will not leave them alone. He says he will send them send them some help. In fact, he promises to send them a helper. Here is how Jesus describes the helper whom he will send to his disciples: "I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you." (John 14:15-ff)

We know the term advocate. Some of us serve as advocates for others. For instance, Partners in Educational Advocacy is a ministry of St. John's Presbyterian Church. This ministry was created when some of our members learned about a 12 year old boy who could not read. This 12 year old boy could not identify and give the sounds of all 26 letters in our alphabet but had passed the 6th grade modified state mandated tests. A few of our members took it upon themselves to serve as counselors for this boy and his family and advocates for them in dealing with his dsyfunctional school system.  As one of them said about their experience with that school district (and no, it wasn't Houston Indepedent School District): "I felt like Alice at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party when trying to talk with them."

An answer to prayer occurred last summer when YES Prep opened a campus in that school district serving grades 6 and 9 and adding two grades each year.  This year they will serve grades 6, 7, 9, and 10.  Administrators told our advocates they were very surprised at the levels at which the students performed.  Our advocates worked with the family of the 12 year old boy who couldn't read and got all three of the children from that family enrolled in YES Prep in early June.  It was rewarding to help these parents get their children into a better school where they can learn to read and other vital skills. This is an example of how we at St. John's are serving as advocates to others and meeting their needs. We commit such acts because we are reflecting how Christ works with us. Christ sends us an advocate, a counselor, to teach us the Holy Spirit's ways and means. We reach out to others because God in Christ has sent the Holy Spirit to reach out to us.

There are other ways you can be a counselor. A counselor is a person who listens, guides, comforts and challenges. A counselor may be a friend or a professional. Professional counselors include career counselors at the high school level or counseling psychologists who get paid by the hour. Finding a friend to listen to your ideas and thoughts and confide in about your dreams is an important part of a personal resilience strategy.

In order to find a friend you will need to be a friend. This means you will need to be available to the other person. Spend time with them. Listen to them. Friends who listen are the most cost effective counselors available. You can be a counselor to a friend by developing your listening skills. Active listening is the term used to describe how to listen to someone. The main thing to do is to keep your mouth closed and your ears open while your friend is talking. Do not make moral judgements or jump to conclusions or try to solve their problems for your friend. By practicing active listening you are giving your friend the opportunity to hear themselves think out loud. This in itself is a healing experience. Often just hearing ourselves think out loud gives the speaker a broader perspective or insight about a problem, issue or concern.
In our text today the Holy Spirit is called the Counselor. John, chapters 14-16, is the high water mark in the Bible about the Holy Spirit. If you want to find out about the Holy Spirit, you can read the book of Acts, but an even better place to read about the Spirit is John 14-16. Within these three chapters, the Spirit is called "counselor" five times.

When we think of the Spirit of God as counselor, this means that the Holy Spirit is personally concerned about us. God, our counselor, is not a detached listener who listens politely to us for fifty minutes, asks for payment and then wants us to leave, so the next customer can get in. If the mark of a good counselor is that he/she is personally concerned about our welfare and well being, then God is truly a good counselor. God is truly concerned about what is good for us.

What kind of counselor is the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is a non-judgmental counselor. God, the Spirit, does not judge us for what we say, think or feel. Can you imagine God hearing every word we ever said; listening in on our every thought; seeing our every action? It is embarrassing to think that someone knows that much about us, seeing and hearing our every thought. And God still does not condemn us. Nor does God condone our thoughts and feelings and actions. But God does not condemn us in our humanness, and therefore we are free to tell God more.

The purpose of this Spirit/Counselor is to help us grow towards maturity and wholeness. Our goal in the Christian life is not to reach perfection. Our goal is to reach maturity. Maturity does not mean we do not make mistakes. Maturity means we are more experienced and seasoned and wise in our approach to life. We know that money is not the goal of life. I know people who are striving to make millions of dollars and some of them have. That is fine and good. I have no problem with people making money. But when making money becomes your number one goal in life then you have lost the plot. Go find a way to help a million people make a middle class income. Find a way to create a million good jobs. That is better than finding one job that makes a million dollars only for you.

The Holy Spirit, the Divine Counselor, facilitates growth and maturity within us. We all have blocks that prevent growth. Blocks of sin and imperfection. These qualities block us from becoming what God wants us to be. We have blocks due to the inner scars of childhood conflicts. Blocks due to our birth order. Blocks due to deeply ingrained personality habits. Blocks due to addictions. Blocks due to bad decisions and choices we have made. We all have these blocks within us. What are those blocks in your inner life? What are those qualities which are preventing you from growing into maturity and wholeness? God, the Holy Spirit, helps us see the truth about ourselves, and our blocks that inhibit growth. God guides us into new directions and ways of dealing with our inner blocks.

Some people have the illusion that God, the Spirit, the Counselor, will solve all our problems. That is not true. Like any good counselor, the Spirit enables us to become stronger. Nor does the Spirit/Counselor make decisions for you. Sometimes, that is just what we want; we want God to make the decisions for us, especially difficult decisions. Rather, God is the Spirit/Counselor who comes to our side and gives us the strength and new resources and new insights, so we can make difficult and painful decisions. But the Spirit/Counselor does not solve our problems or make decisions for us. Nor does any good counselor. I like that passage from Philippians where God says that the love in us is to grow and grow and grow so that we will make the best choices. I like that; the focus is on love and wisdom growing inside, whereby we can make the best choices.

It was the evening of Holy Thursday and the disciples were gathered together for the last supper. This was Jesus' last meal with his disciples and he soon was to be leaving them to die. And he said, "When I go, I will not leave you deserted. I will not leave you orphans. But I will send my Spirit, the Counselor, who will live in you and guide you. I and my Father will come to live in you and we will guide you in the truth. We will be your Counselor."

We thank God for the Holy Spirit who is our divine counselor. We praise God for the divine counselor, the Holy Spirit who ...

is a non-judgmental counselor.

will not leave us desolate or orphans.

is personally concerned about us.

is a non-judgmental counselor.

is a facilitator of growth and maturity within us.

helps us see the truth about ourselves, and our blocks that inhibits growth. God guides us into new directions and ways of dealing with our inner blocks.

does not solve our problems or make decisions for us.

who helps us follow Jesus by doing his work (vv. 12-14) and keeping his commandments.

As you may know, I'm going to be away for the next four weeks. While I am away, I am going to leave you with a counselor. Her name is Rev. Linda Herron. She will be available to visit those who are ill, encourage the faithful, support the downhearted, and share the gospel as she sees it in the sermon each Sunday. I trust that for the next 4 weeks you will welcome her into your hearts and into your homes as you have welcomed me. In the meantime, I solicit your prayers for me while I am away. Pray that the Holy Spirit will be a Divine Counselor to me. Pray that the Divine Counselor will encourage and support me, renew my energy and spirit, and guide me back to this congregation with a rekindled faith and vision for how God wants us to engage in mission with this community and our world. Thank you in advance for your prayers and support. I will also use the time to be in prayer for you and for our congregation. May the Holy Spirit be very close to each of us throughout the rest of this summer and on into the fall.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church on July 17, 2011.