Monday, October 31, 2011

Victors United

Sermon text: Revelation 7:9-17

Even though I am the pastor of a Presbyterian Church no one gave me tickets to the World Series this year. Imagine that. Now if we were living in the 1950s or 1960s a Presbyterian pastor would have been more likely to be given those tickets. You see, back in those days Presbyterians had some clout in society. When the President of the United States wanted to hear the concerns of the religious community in America, he would want to speak with leaders from the Presbyterian Church. In contrast, very few people in our pews can tell you name of the current moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Practically no one outside the PCUSA could name the moderator. The Presbyterian Church USA has lost influence in the culture. We have very little clout these days. No one comes knocking on our door wanting to know what we think. So we have self doubts. We have nagging questions. Are we still playing on a winning team? Do we have a chance of making it to the spiritual world series? Or should we put down our spiritual bat and gloves and go home and forget about it? These questions are answered by our text this morning.

Before dawn's early light my family and I met the rest of the little league team at a service station on the edge of town. We filled up our tanks and prepared ourselves for the long drive to Atlanta where we would compete in the Little League world series. We had won our state championship but how would we compare to championship teams from other states? As we joined the convoy leaving town, I put the little white headphones from my iPhones in my ears and listened to a spiritual song. It started with our reading from today in Revelation 7:9-10:

"After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
'Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!'"

As our caravan pulled out of the gas station and onto Highway 6 East in Mississippi, I felt connected to all the other families from all over the country who were starting out on a similar journey to Atlanta that morning. The big drive had begun. We were on our way.

The hotel in which we stayed in Atlanta was not an expensive hotel. It was not in the best part of town. It was clean but not fancy. An Indian family ran the hotel. There was some dissension about the hotel among the team. Some of the folks on the first floor did not feel safe there. They did not feel comfortable. Others of us who were more accustomed to the smell of Indian food liked the hotel. Before the tournament ended, we all moved to a larger, fancier hotel. That did not help us win the game but it made some of the folks feel safer and more comfortable. God's purpose in life is not always to make us feel more safe and comfortable. In fact, sometimes God's purpose is to make us feel less safe and comfortable. This may challenge us to greater growth. The great players in the World Series this week did not hone their skills by practicing what they were already good at. They had coaches that pushed them to develop skills and get better at doing what they were not good at doing. Such pushing beyond our comfort level is what improves their skills and makes them great players instead of just good players. That is the difference between playing in the world series and playing in a little league tournament in Atlanta. The skills of the world series players have been fine tuned by always being pushed beyond their comfort level. God does that to us in our inner lives as well. We find ourselves facing challenges that we feel unable to meet. The old saying "God never gives us more than we can handle" is true. And sometimes we wonder just how far God can push us before we break. That is how spiritual growth happens. That makes us better players. That makes us a better team.

God's standards for us are way higher than we thought. God is not satisfied with mere Sunday worship attendance. Jesus himself was never much impressed with worship attendance. One of his biggest fights with religious leaders came when he was passing through a wheat field one sabbath day. His disciples were hungry so they picked some wheat from the field and ate it. When the religious leaders saw this they felt outraged because picking wheat was considered work and you were not supposed to work on the sabbath day. In our congregation today are folks who grew up in a time when neither work nor play was allowed on the sabbath day. Strict Presbyterian parents required that children be silent and still all day Sunday. If they had to do something they could read the Bible. Other than worship attendance, no other activity was allowed on a Sunday morning.

The Rev. Ted V. Foote, Jr., pastor of the Texas A&M Church told the story of his grandparents generation in central Texas. They had ordered a shipment of special wood to build their sanctuary. The wood arrived on a Monday and they rode their horses out to pick it up. One of the men delivering the wood said it was a good thing they were able to ride all day Sunday or they wouldn't have gotten there on time due to the rain. The Presbyterian elders told the delivery men that they would have to make another delivery of that order and under no circumstances were they to move the wood on a sabbath day for this was holy wood to be used to build a sanctuary. They paid for that wood and took it back to their community where they divided it up among themselves to build barns and outhouses. They would not use wood that had been moved on a sabbath day to build a sanctuary.

The pastor said today in his community not so far from where his grandparents had lived there are many activities on the sabbath day. Presbyterian elders in his church today have no problem with shopping on the sabbath or having their children play soccer on the sabbath. Yet they still have a sense of propriety at that church. This was recently expressed in a community worship service sponsered in the sanctuary of their church on a Sunday afternoon. It was a service in which many different religions participated included Buddhists, Jews and Muslims. It was a memorial service for the 10th anniversary of September 11, 2001. The pastor said on that day he couldn't help think about the difference between the community of a hundred years ago and the community there today. All the difference races and religions gathered under one roof in a solemn memorial service. He said he thinks Presbyterian elders today still have a good sense of propriety and what is right as we live out God's calling for us in this day and age.

Worship was serious business for those Presbyterian elders of old. So it is in our text this morning. In Revelation 7:11-12, we read:

They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
'Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!' 
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing,
'Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.'

The church universal depicted here has overcome the world. We are part of the church universal. Thus our victory over death is sure. Even though the outcome is sure, we may lose some tournaments along the way. The Batesville Blaze  little league team did not win that tournament in Atlanta. We won some games and lost some games but each player got better. We improved our skills. We created some lasting memories. For a week we learned what it means to belong to a tight nit team. There were arguments among team members about who should get more playing time and who was going to pitch. There were fights over whether the boys should be allowed to go swimming on the afternoon before a big game in the evening. We couldn't even agree on which hotel we should be staying in. Even so, when the first pitch was tossed in each game we pulled together and rooted for our team. We all stood together for a common goal. We were on a on the winning team. That is how it is in Christ's church. We have fights. We have disagreements on little things that sometimes become big problems. Yet we are working together for a common cause of glorifying God by making disciples and meeting human needs. This God project in which you are involved is destined to succeed.

Today, on this All Saints Day, we remember our team members who have gone on to the Big League. They are now on God's home team in heaven. We will join them there one day in the World Series of the ages. In the meantime, we will play in a tournament here in Meyerland, in Westbury, in Houston. We won't win every game. We may not even win this tournament. But we are honing our skills for the Big Leagues. We are preparing for that World Series in the life to come. They say practice makes perfect but that's not really true. Proper practice makes perfect. How we practice is the key to our growth. We must push ourselves beyond what we think we can do. We must work on those skills that do not come naturally. Skills such as how to worship God, how to participate in and lead a small group. We will continue to work on treating one another with patience. We will show more loving kindness to the people who irritate us. We will work on controlling our tongue and what we say and how we say it so that we build people up instead of tearing them down. We will do our daily devotionals to cultivate more love, joy and peace in our lives and in our community. In the end, ultimately, we will win because we are playing on the winning team. With God as our manager, Jesus as our pitcher, and the Holy Spirit as our coach, there is no way we are going to lose the World Series in the skies.

Such is the vision presented to us in our text today from Revelation 7, which concludes with an image of our team, the home team, in our white uniforms.

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, 'Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?'
I said to him, 'Sir, you are the one that knows.' Then he said to me, 'These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

Here is the encouragement of this text and of this All Saints Day. Our people are taken care of. The players who have gone before us into the Big Leagues - into the church universal - are being taken care of. We have a future in heavenly places and in that future our success is ensured. We have a place on God's roster. God will never give up on us. Our retirement plan is ultimately secure. As the revelator closes it out in our reading today from Revelation 7:16-17:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.'

We live with the confidence that as children of God we are on the winning team. So let's focus on building our individual skills so we can contribute to the success of the team. Team work is the key to victory in this life and in the life to come. We are only as strong as our weakest player. Go with the confidence that this is a championship team. Our success is sure. So let's stay focused and let's stay hungry. We are on the winning team. We will win the cosmic World Series. You can count on it. It says so right there in the Bible. Let's act like the winners we are. Show respect for your team mates. We will win not because of who we are but because of WHOSE we are. We belong to God. We play on Christ's team. The Holy Spirit will ensure our success. Go with the confidence of children of God on this All Saints Day.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035 on October 30, 2011.
Phone 713-723-6262 |

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Worship Is Work

Psalm 96:1-13

O sing to the Lord a new song; 
sing to the Lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name; 
tell of his salvation from day to day. 
Declare his glory among the nations, 
his marvelous works among all the peoples. 
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; 
he is to be revered above all gods. 
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Honor and majesty are before him; 
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. 
Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, 
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; 
bring an offering, and come into his courts. 
Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.
Say among the nations, "The Lord is king! 
The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. 
He will judge the peoples with equity.

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; 
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it. 
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord; for he is coming, 
for he is coming to judge the earth. 

He will judge the world with righteousness, 
and the peoples with his truth. (Psalm 96:1-13, NRSV)

- - -

You are here because you want to experience something. You want to feel better. You want to feel closer to God. You come here to take a break from your weekday life. Yet worship is work. Worship is work beyond just the business of showing up at a particular place at a certain on a Sunday. The Latin word liturgy from which we get our word liturgist, literally means work of the people. Today we will explore the connection between the inner spiritual work and the worship of God.

The psalmist's description of worship begins this way: "O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth." Singing is a joyful activity in which we forget ourselves and join a community of people in working on a specific task. A church choir has a choir director who leads the singing but the song is not sung for the choir director. The song is is sung to the Lord. The psalmist challenges us to sing s a new song to the Lord. What does he mean by a new song? He gives a hint in the next verse when he says: "Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day." That day to day salvation is the key to this psalm about worship. Daily inner work on our relationship with God is what will electrify our worship service.

And let's face it, everyone wants a more exciting worship service. The so-called worship wars are fought out in congregations across the country week by week. One faction wants the hymn lyrics displayed on screens and another wants the lyrics read from a hymnal like we've always done it. One faction wants contemporary music with electric guitars and lead singers and another group wants traditional music with the organ and a volunteer choir. Some churches get so caught up in the techniques of worship that they miss the point of worship. Regardless of the method of worship employed, the style of music and how the lyrics are displayed, the deeper question is what is going on inside the worshipers.

Jesus told a parable about this very thing. The story goes like this. Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a publican. The Pharisee struck a dramatic pose and prayed like this: 'Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this publican. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.'

And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. Jesus commented, "This publican, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you're going to end up flat on your face, but if you're content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself." (Luke 18:11-14, The Message)

We come to worship just as we are and aware that we are not great. We are not perfect. We are in need of spiritual growth. We need to grow in spiritual maturity. The awareness of our own sinfulness and lack is the proper attitude that leads to our being filled by God's Spirit during worship.

Just in case there is any misunderstanding about what he meant in the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, Luke adds this story immediately after Jesus parable. Luke says, "People brought babies to Jesus, hoping he might touch them. When the disciples saw it, they shooed them off. Jesus called them back. "Let these children alone. Don't get between them and me. These children are the kingdom's pride and joy. Mark this: Unless you accept God's kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you'll never get in." (Luke 18:15-17)
Come to worship as a child who expects something to happen. Children do not come to worship to sit back and judge the performance of other worshipers. Children come to worship open and ready to experience whatever may happen. Come to worship open to experience God.

Jesus said we are to worship God in spirit and in truth. We are not to worship God in a spirit of judgment. How good is the children's sermon? How perky is the preacher? How does the choir sound today? These are not the central questions of worship. The central questions of worship are: Are you ready? Are you ready to worship? Did you come hear today with clean heart and a focused mind? God is the only judge of worship and God is judging your performance during worship.

You may recall the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. Their conversation moved from talking about drinking water to talking about living (spiritual) water. This led to a discussion about worship. The woman says where you worship is the most important thing. Jesus insists how you worship is the most important thing. Jesus says we are to worship God in Spirit and in Truth. Worship is more than attendance at a church service. Worship is a way of life. When we are living worshipful lives during the week Sunday morning worship takes on a whole different meaning. It becomes part and parcel of what we are doing with our lives. Suddenly the lyrics to the hymns touch our hearts. The sermon speaks to our souls. Our minds are focused on what God is saying and doing in our lives and the entire experience glorifies God.

Worship is not a spectator sport. It is not about sitting in a pew and being entertained. It is not meant to be like watching a TV reality show in which we judge the actors based on their performance. Worship is called liturgy because it is the work of the people. It's not the duty of the preacher to make you feel something inside. The preacher has no power to do that. If you come to the service with your mind and heart closed, planning to sit in judgment of the service, you are going to leave empty and dissatisfied. I know how that works. I've done that myself when I sat in on other people's sermons. It doesn't feel very good. What you get from the service or the sermon has more to do with you than it does the preacher. If you expect the preacher to live your spiritual life for you, you will continually be disappointed. The preacher cannot live your spiritual life for you. The preacher cannot break your bitterness. The preacher cannot melt your heart. The preacher cannot make you repent. Only the Holy Spirit can do that. If that needs to happen in your life, your issue is not with the preacher. Your issue is with the Holy Spirit. Your relationship with God is your own responsibility. It is not the preacher's responsibility. The preacher cannot repent for you. Reformed theology talks about the "priesthood of believers" which teaches that each believer is to be their own priest. That means you are responsible for your own spiritual growth.

Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard envisioned worship as the work of the congregation. People in the pews gather not to watch the show but to participate in the play. We are actors in the divine drama of worship. We are not spectators. We are actors. The liturgist is not a performer but a prompter t help you remember your lines. The preacher is part of the production but not the star of the show. God is the audience and the members of the congregation are the performers. God is the audience and will judge your worship performance. How well did you participate? Was your heart really in the performance or were you just going through the motion. Are you sitting in judgement of the actors and performers or focused on your own performance? These are the questions the Holy Spirit has in mind for you during this and every worship service.

Worship flows from a daily lived relationship with God through Christ. Worship is a weekday love affair with God. As the Psalmist says, "Sing to the Lord, less his name; tell of his salvation from day to day." The quality of your relationship with God in Christ during the weekdays will determine the quality of your worship experience on Sunday morning. As Jesus said to the woman at the well: "Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration." (John 4:24)

What would it look like for you to "sing to the Lord a new song" as the Psalmist recommends? What would it take for you to become excellent at worship? It would take more than you think. Nothing comes easy in life. Excellence in worship participation takes constant practice. The mistake we make in churches is the way we lower the bar. Anyone who walks through the door is accepted. The barriers to entry are extremely low. Consider the Mormon church in which young adults are required to sacrifice two years of their life doing missionary work. In contrast, we give our young adults those years off. We don't even expect them to attend worship during their college years. We figure they will come to church later, in the 30s or 40s when they have children whom they want to educate in church school. But they rarely come back to church.
Our expectations are too low across the board in the church. Harvard Business Review published a paper called The Making of An Expert which demonstrates the journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor for the impatient. The development of genuine expertise requires struggle, sacrifice, and honest, often painful self-assessment. There are no shortcuts. It will take you at least a decade to achieve expertise, and you will need to invest that time wisely, by engaging in "deliberate" practice— practice that focuses on tasks beyond your current level of competence and comfort. You will need a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself. Experts are not born they are trained. All the superb performers investigated had practiced intensively, had studied with devoted teachers, and had been supported enthusiastically by their families throughout their developing years. These facts come from more than 100 leading scientists who have studied expertise and top performance in a wide variety of domains: surgery, acting, chess, writing, computer programming, ballet, music, aviation, firefighting, and many others.

Do you want your worship participation to improve? It will take years of concentrated effort. Plan to get up earlier. Learn to meditate. Study the scripture. You may want to practice a spiritual discipline such as fasting. Seek God with all your heart each day during the week. Concentrate on developing your relationship with God. Then your worship experience will improve. You will find the sermon speaks to you. The lyrics of the hymns will take on new meaning. The anthem will seem like a spiritual feast. Worship is the work of the people in the pews. Like any other work, you can't just show up and expect to be an expert at it.

If you do put in the time and effort to improve your worship participation, things will start to come together in a new way in your life. You will begin to "sing a new song to the Lord." This is the Biblical vision for you and me and all of creation. As the psalmist says: "Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth."

God will judge your worship performance. Not how well you sing. Not how much money you put in the plate. God will judge your attitude. God will judge your worship performance not by your Sunday worship attendance but by your Wednesday devotional attendance and how you treat your loved ones on Friday night. Worship is work. It's your job 7 days a week. If you think it's easy, you've been misinformed. Nothing is tougher than the self discipline required for spiritual growth. Nothing is harder than becoming an expert in worship as a way of life. That's what Jesus meant when he told his would be disciples to sit down and count the cost before they started following him. The disciples who did their homework, who did the math, they figured out it cost a lot more than they had figured. Some of them never came back. They were among the most honest of all the disciples.

Worship is not about you. It's not about how you feel or what you get out of the service. Worship is about God. Worship is about how well you open yourself up to the Divine Flame within and without. If you are living a worshipful life during the week then you will have a meaningful spiritual experience on Sunday morning. But ultimately worship is not about us. Worship is about God. So sing a new song to the Lord.

O sing to the Lord a new song; 
sing to the Lord, all the earth. 
Sing to the Lord, bless his name; 
tell of his salvation from day to day. 
Declare his glory among the nations, 
his marvelous works among all the peoples. 
For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; 
he is to be revered above all gods. 
For all the gods of the peoples are idols, 
but the Lord made the heavens. (Psalm 96:1-5)

Let's reach for the stars. Worship starts inside us. That is where the work must start.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on October 16, 2011 at St. John's Presbyterian Church, 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035.
Phone 713-723-6262 |

Monday, October 10, 2011

You've Got a Friend

Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;

for you are with me; your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;

you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

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

and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

- - -

You may have been through some hard times in your life but imagine the life of Viktor Frankl. Frankl is a Jew and a psychotherapist who survived six months in various German concentration camps but his wife did not survive. You may experienced the death of a loved one. You may still be grieving and wondering why you were left behind and they were taken.

Frankl describes how once, an elderly general practitioner consulted him because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Frankl wondered how he could help him? What should he tell him? He refrained from telling him anything, but instead confronted him with a question, "What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?" "Oh," he said, "for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!" Whereupon Frankly replied, "You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it is you who have spared her this suffering; but now, you have to pay for it by surviving and mourning her." He said no word but shook Frankl's hand and calmly left the office. (Viktor Frankl

In such instances, the words of the Psalmist ring down through the ages: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me."

This week the world mourned the death of a great businessman, leader and visionary named Steve Jobs, the founder and CEO of Apple Computers. His vision helped create popular electronic devices such as the iPod, iPhone and iPad. An entire industry sprang up around these devices as software developers created small, specific software programs called "apps" for these devices. These apps covered the gamut from productivity tools to games. This week there was a comic strip showing Steve Jobs standing before St. Peter at the gates of heaven as St. Peter flips through a massive volume of the Book of Life searching for the entry for Steve Jobs in the Book of Life. Steve looks at Peter and says with a twinkle in his eyes, "I've got an app for that." A app for locating people in the Book of Life. That image bridges the gap between life and death, human technology and unseen spiritual dimensions. Bridging that gap is exactly what Psalm 23 does as well.

Purpose in life is the theme of the best known passage from the Old Testament: Psalm 23. The key to the passage lies in the first phrase: "The LORD is my shepherd." The LORD is my shepherd. The key to effective Christian living is our friendship with the LORD, our shepherd. Christianity is not so much a religion as a relationship with Jesus Christ. Our trouble arises when we neglect our relationship with the LORD. As long as we are growing in our friendship with God we will find there is nothing we lack and there is nothing we need.

Psalm 23 describes how our friendship with the Good Shepherd develops until following God's leadership becomes second nature. We luxuriate in the abundance of spiritual sustenance God's provides. We freely eat the bread of heaven and drink the cup of eternal salvation. As the Psalmist puts it: "Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies." We can relax and be ourselves, secure in our friendship with God. Even our peculiarities and blemishes do not diminish the love of our Divine Shepherd. We have nothing to hide and nothing to fear. We are spiritually well fed, watered, and satisfied.

We sleep well at night and awaken refreshed and ready for further service. When our spiritual energy feels depleted, we know how to tap into God's power through prayer, study, and silence. Difficult choices demand our attention but we intuitively know what to do and how and when. The Spirit nudges us to contact someone we haven't seen in months and we find their dog just died and they needed some loving support at that moment. A relational knot that has been tied for years seems to dissolve and unravel before our very eyes. Miracles really do happen when we are following the Good Shepherd along the right path. We move in the flow of the Spirit and God gets all the glory.

Yet even in the midst of our relationship with Jesus, the human side of the equation breaks through in all its dull drudgery. Suffering breaks in upon out of the blue like like a downpour of rain from high on a cloudless day. We cannot get around the cruel concentration camp prison guard, the boss who is a bully, the friend who betrays us, or the relative who cannot seem to get her life together.

Someone sent me an email this week that describes such a scene. It starts, "Here I was sitting at the bar staring at my drink when a large, trouble-making biker steps up next to me, grabs my drink and gulps it down in one swig."

"Well, whatcha' gonna do about it?" he says, menacingly, as I burst into tears.

"Come on, man," the biker says, "I didn't think you'd CRY. I can`t stand to see a man crying."

"This is the worst day of my life," I say. "I'm a complete failure. I was late to a meeting and my boss fired me.

When I went to the parking lot, I found my car had been stolen and I don't have any insurance.

I left my wallet in the cab I took home.

I found my wife with another man and then my dog bit me."

"So I came to this bar to work up the courage to put an end to it all, I buy a drink, I drop a capsule in and sit here watching the poison dissolve; then you show up and drink the whole thing!

But enough about me, how's your day going?"

Everything is fine and dandy until we enter the dark valley. We see the shadow of death on the canyon walls and our knees feel weak. We stand beside another hospital bed and pray with a fearful family facing late stage cancer. Or perhaps we are the one laying in the hospital bed, learning for the first time the feeling of vulnerability and lack of control that comes with the term "patient." Or perhaps we are staring into the pit of financial ruin or the destruction of a long term relationship. Even in such desperate circumstances, we fear no evil. As Martin Luther wrote of the evil one, "One little word shall fell him." (Hymn: "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God")

Fear is the opposite of love. Our friendship with God is not based on fear. In fact, many of us must overcome fear of God as we begin our friendship with God. When we overcome our fear of God and enter into friendship with God, no other fear may conquer us. We become fearless with God at our side. We trust God. We have experienced God's discipline and support. We know God will defend us from all evil. The Good Shepherd imparts courage and comfort in times of need.

God sets a table before us as our enemies gaze and glisten. We feast without worry knowing our friend , the Good Shepherd, has our back. That rod and staff is God's big stick and God knows how to use it in our defense. From this place of friendship with God, we are able to defend the friendless, welcome the stranger, and minister to the sick and dying. Safe in God's loving embrace, we offer a supportive shoulder for others to cry on. Having been anointed with God's Holy Spirit, we have plenty of Spirit to share with others. The life force inside us overflows the boundaries of our energetic field and embraces all whom we encounter.

When wolves and robber barons discover God has our back they lose interest in pursuing us and seek out easier targets. We are then pursued by goodness, mercy, and love. As the Apostle Paul put it: "If God be for us, who can stand against us?" Our ultimate security is good for this life and the life to come. Again, Paul says, "Who shall separate us from the love of God? For whether we live or whether we die we belong to the LORD." Our friendship with Christ, the Good Shepherd, provides the foundation for spiritual health, abundance, sustenance, and help, in this life and in the life to come.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will 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 runneth over.

According to Viktor Frankl, "We can discover this meaning in life in three different ways:

  1. by creating a work or doing a deed;
  2. by experiencing something or encountering someone; and
  3. by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering" and that "everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances."

Frankl's three ways of finding meaning in life resonate with John Calvin's teaching. We can discover meaning in life by experiencing something or encountering someone. John Calvin said: "We are saved." Christian life is a kind of salvation from meaninglessness through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Frankl says we may find meaning in life by creating a work or doing a deed. Steve Jobs found meaning in life by creating a corporation called Apple that will survive long after his death. John Calvin says you and I may find meaning in life through service to others. As Calvin put it: "We are saved to serve." Through serving Christ by serving other humans we may find meaning in life. I was reminded of disciples who do that last Thursday evening. Braes Interfaith Ministry had a dinner celebrating our years of partnership with other churches as we feed the hungry in this community. As I looked at the crowd of BIM volunteers at that dinner I saw people who had found purpose in life by serving others.

Yet even serving others does not protect us from suffering. Let's face it. Life is tough. It's not easy being a human being. Each day brings new challenges. We fall down and have to get back up on our feet. Suffering is unavoidable. Yet our attitude toward suffering is always our own choice.

As Jesus faced the suffering of the cross, in his last meal with his disciples, Jesus told them, "Listen to me, you are no longer just disciples, you are my friends." Jesus needed friends at that moment and Jesus needs friends now. We are the hands of feet of Jesus on this planet at this time. Jesus is counting on us to continue his work in the world. Jesus final message to his disciples is the same message as Psalm 23. Jesus says "You are my friends."

Whatever your suffering today, however your pain may sit in your soul or your body, know that Jesus considers you his friend. Imagine Jesus saying this to you for this is how he feels about you, from the lyrics of the pop song, You've Got a Friend:

When you're down and troubled and need a helping hand
and nothing, no nothing is going right.
Close your eyes and think of me and soon I will be there
to brighten up even your darkest night.
You just call out my name and you know, wherever I am,
I'll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer or fall all you've got to do is call and I'll be there
You've got a friend.

Let us renew our friendship with Jesus, the Good Shepherd, so that we may join with the Psalmist and with the faithful of every age and say:

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

and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

The Rev. Dr. Jonathan L. Burnham preached this sermon on October 9 - 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time  - at at St. John's Presbyterian Church , 5020 West Bellfort Ave, Houston, TX 77035 | Phone 713-723-6262 |

Monday, October 03, 2011

Timing Is Everything

Psalm 80:7-15

Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved. You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.

Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted.

You may be like Jack today. Jack is discouraged. He is broke and lonely. One day his luck changes for the better. A fairy gives a penitent a hatful of magic beans. Jack soon passes by with the family's bouncy bovine, which he trades for the beans. Back home, Jack's mother throws the beans into the middle of the garden in disgust. That night, as Jack sleeps, the fairy causes the beanstalk to grow, visits Jack's room, and sends him sweet dreams. When he awakens, he sees the beanstalk and climbs toward the sky as his mother, friends, and villagers cheer him on. At the top of the beanstalk, the fairy again guides him to the home of a wealthy giant, whose maid hides Jack. As the giant sleeps, Jack steals gold and a magic fowl; the giant wakes, grabs his cudgel, and gives chase. Jack escapes from the giant and cuts down the vine. He takes home the gold and marries his beloved and is rich and happy for the rest of his days.

Jack in the Beanstalk is a fairy tale. Vines don't really grow up into the sky overnight. But that's the way we remember the past sometimes. Like the Psalmist in our text today who remembers the good old days and says to God:

You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it.

You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.

The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches;

it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the River.

The psalmist recalls a time of expansive growth in Israel's past. The people had just come into the promised land and were growing like the vine in Jack in the Beanstalk fair tale, taking over the land. Israel, God's vine, experienced fairy tale like growth. But as the psalmist notes, that was then and this is now and now the growth now is slim to none and slim left town last week.

So the psalmist laments:

Why then have you broken down its walls, so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit? The boar from the forest ravages it, and all that move in the field feed on it. Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted.

We can relate to the disappointment of the psalmist. Times are hard. Unemployment is up. The economy is down. Growth seems elusive. Some of us are old enough to recall a time of dramatic growth in our churches back in the 1950s and 60s. Since then church membership has steadily declined all across the United States. We cry out with the psalmist, "Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand planted."

Discouragement is the problem we must address in a time of economic recession and religious decline. In these hard times be careful how you use your time. Isn't this ironic? Despite time-saving devices like email or online shopping, most Americans say they're spending less time with their loved ones these days. This comes from a poll administered by USA Today on how people manage their time. This poll was originally done 23 years ago and was updated in 2008. They tested more than 2,000 people in a web based survey. They found that the majority of Americans feel very busy. 92% say I'm somewhat to very busy. One one hand they say we're happy, we're healthy, BUT we're busier than ever. Last year was busier than the previous year. People say "I wish I was less busy." And they spend an enormous amount of time and money on time saving devices and nothing makes a difference.

You've got to take time for yourself to maintain your strength. Exercise your body and refresh you soul by taking a sabbath day of rest every 7 days. Our bodies and our souls need time for rest and reflection when we are hid away with God and allow God's face to shine upon us. A vine needs sunlight to live, and we need God-light to live. To deny ourselves what we need in order to survive would be suicidal. Develop the self-discipline to give yourself time off every week. We need the rest because real vine growing requires patience. Unlike in fairy tales, vines do not spring up overnight in real life.

Sometimes you may feel like you are not growing at all. Sometimes you may feel like your vine has been cut back. Perhaps a spouse has died and you feel like your heart has been cut out of your chest. Or a relationship has ended. A job has been lost. You may feel like God has cut back your vine. God may cut us back sometimes like a good gardener cuts back on a vine. This is how God prepares us for further growth. It is called pruning. We experience it as painful, as damaging, but sometimes it's the best thing that can happen to us.

You see, God is responsible for the growth of the vine and God is an active gardener in our lives. Our job as God's vine is to take root and grow in the light of God's care. Sometimes your spiritual growth seems to come as fast as the fairy tale vine in Jack and the Beanstalk. Other times you can't even tell you have a spiritual life. God is present in your life both in times of dramatic growth and in times of pruning and cut backs.

You may be familiar with the famous marshmallow study conducted by Dr. Zimbardo and a colleague at Stanford University. A group of four year olds were given one marshmallow and told they were allowed to eat it immediately. They were told if they could wait to eat the marshmallow after being left alone with it for awhile then they would be given an extra marshmallow to eat. Most eat the marshmallow as soon as they are left alone with it but some other children are able to resist temptation. Those children who ate the marshmallow right away are considered to be oriented toward the present. Those who resist the temptation have an orientation toward the future. When the children were interviewed years later when they were 18 years old, there were amazing differences between the children who were able to delay gratification and those children who couldn't resist the immediate.

  • The present oriented children tested as being moody, over reacts to frustration, indecisive, prone to jealousy and envy.

  • The future oriented children scored 250 points higher on the SAT. They were described as cooperative, works well under pressure, self-reliant and confident.

The marshmallow experiment is a classic study of how a person's ability to delay gratification even at the age of 4 can predict many significant future outcomes. The experiment and its implications are described in Philip Zimbardo's book The Time Paradox. There he describes what this experiment has to do with you. Your own relationship to time plays a significant role in your personal happiness. Whether you are looking for a better understanding of the world at large, from religion to politics to business or want a better understanding of yourself, The Time Paradox teaches you how to recognize your own attitude toward time and how your everyday decisions are influenced by your personal time orientation. It will help you overcome the hidden mental biases that keep you too attached to the past, unhealthily obsessed with future goals, or too focused on immediate gratification. You can improve your personal success, happiness and psychological health. The Time Paradox will show you how. It's only a matter of time. Making time work for you.

Timing is everything in the church as in life. Let's not lose ourselves in the past as we fantasize about a Jack in the Beanstalk fairy tale of the vine that grew up to the sky overnight. Let's not foster an unhealthily obsession with future goals by always being disappointed that the church is not yet all that is could be or will be. And let's not get too focused on immediate gratification like the four year child who would rather eat one marshmallow now than have two marshmallows later.

The benefits of future orientation also apply to gardening. We have witnessed the resurgence of home and community gardening but they are also discovering that gardening can be a lot of work. Weeding may quickly evolve into a full time taking the fun out of gardening.

Enter Slow Gardening. Inspired by Slow Food, an international movement that promotes local food systems and biological and cultural diversity, the slow-gardening approach can help us enjoy our garden more by taking more of a future orientation to the project.

Gardending expert, Felder Rushing, offers a practical yet philosophical approach to gardening that will help you slow down, evaluate your yard, and follow your own fancy in creating and maintaing a garden. His book, Slow Gardening, will inspire you to rest in the rhythm of the seasons and take more joy from your garden. The future orientation of waiting for the desired outcome - like waiting for that second marshmallow - is what makes this work.

In a similar fashion, God is slow gardening God's people, the church. Perhaps God is now pruning God's church for future growth. I know St. John's is growing down in the roots of prayer because we do have some prayer warriors in this congregation. Such prayer fertilizes the root system of this vine called St. John's Presbyterian Church. Prayer provides the spiritual nourishment we need for further growth. Pray for this church. Do not be discouraged by what you see. God has not forsaken us. God is with us still. You have been praying for this church and have gotten discouraged. You have forgotten that God is the sun and the soil in which we are planted. Therefore, our growth is assured. Often spiritual growth occurs in secret, down under the soil where the roots grow. We are growing strong roots here in this church. Be encouraged. God is still gardening here.

As in the church, so in your life, your spiritual growth may be so deep down in the roots of your life that you see no evidence of anything growing inside. Even so, God is still gardening in your life and in this church. God may be pruning us now for future growth. How shall we respond in the meantime? What is a healthy attitude toward time? Celebrate the past. Anticipate the future. Focus on the present moment which is the only time we ever really have. The Prophet Isaiah put it well: "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint." (Isaiah 40:31) Teach me, Lord -- teach us, Lord -- to wait.

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