Sunday, September 27, 2015

No Cause for Stumbling -- Sermon for Pentecost 18B

Mark 9:38-50

It seems as if scandals are breaking out all around us. It’s true that scandal sells, so the media will share the news. You can’t blame them. If inquiring minds want to know, then they will give them what they want.  

Speaking of scandals, here in Michigan we got a front row seat as one of the more seedy political scandals unfolded right before our eyes. It’s rare that a legislature gets so embarrassed that it decides to kick out two of its own, but when these two state representatives not only had an affair while in office, but tried to cover it up using tax payer money, you can understand why action had to be taken. What made this scandal even more noteworthy is that these two legislators ran on a “family values” platform. So, the real scandal was their hypocrisy.

But, if the news hour doesn’t provide you with enough scandalous news, there are other options, including a highly regarded TV show simply titled Scandal.  I’ve not watched it, but I understand that it’s about politics. That probably should not surprise any of us!  Then, if you’ve been scandalized enough, you might decide to throw up your hands, declare pox on all houses, and retreat to a more pleasant state of being. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Welcome the Children -- Sermon for Pentecost 17B

Mark 9:30-37

When Christmas Eve rolls around we celebrate the coming of the Christ child into the world. Some of the carols we sing that night and throughout the season seem a bit sentimental. Consider the opening verse of Away in a Manger: 
 Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
It’s a comforting picture, but does it reflect Jesus’ own reality? 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Way of Discipleship -- Sermon for Pentecost 16B

Mark 8:27-38

Who am I? That’s the question Jesus posed to Peter, the rest of his disciples, and us.  It really doesn’t matter what other people are saying; “who do you say that I am?” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus asked this identity question in the region of Caesarea Philippi. That’s because it’s not only an identity question; it’s a question of allegiance. Is Jesus Lord or is Caesar Lord? That’s a question that continually confronts us, because it’s so easy to confuse our allegiances. Allegiance to country isn’t the same as allegiance to Jesus!

Peter makes the good confession – you’re the messiah – but I’m not sure that Peter completely understood his confession. That might be one reason that Jesus told him and the disciples to keep this under their hats. You see it seems as if Peter thought in political and maybe military terms. He thought of power in terms of the ability to coerce. Maybe he was even hoping to get a cabinet post in Jesus’ new administration. But Peter totally misunderstood Jesus’ vision of God’s realm, and he got so upset with Jesus that he rebuked him. Peter told Jesus that he had gotten things totally wrong. So, until they got these issues settled, there wasn’t any reason to say anything publicly. 

Sunday, September 06, 2015

The Lesson Jesus Learned -- Sermon for Pentecost 15B

Mark 7:24-37

If Jesus is the Son of God, then he must know everything. After all, he lived in perfect communion with God and  had access to sources only Commander Data might have available. If that’s true, then when he was a child he wouldn’t have to study before a test. He probably knew the answers before the questions were created! Or did he?  What did he know? And when did he know it?

As we return to the Gospel of Mark, it’s good to remember that Mark’s Jesus appears out of nowhere at the Jordan River where he’s baptized and then receives his commission from God. Mark doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ upbringing, but Luke does offer us a peak into Jesus’ childhood. Remember how Jesus took a trip to Jerusalem with his family at the age of twelve and ended up talking theology with the religious leaders in the Temple. Luke’s Jesus is a bit precocious and perhaps even something of a handful, but after the family returned home, it’s written that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:22-39). Perhaps Jesus still had lessons to learn. Maybe he even had to overcome a natural ethnocentrism that seems to afflict us all. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Beloved Calls -- Sermon for Pentecost 14B

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Every generation since the beginning of recorded human history has had its love songs. You might have a favorite and I might have mine. It’s likely that our differences of generation will influence our choices. Our scripture reading this morning is itself a love song, or at least a small portion of one of the great epic love songs ever written.

As I was thinking about this song, a tune from my teen years came to mind. It’s one of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles hits, and I think it fits the moment. The first stanza goes like this: 
You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs

I look around me and I see it isn't so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that?
I'd like to know
'Cause here I go again
I love you, I love you
I love you, I love you.
Yes, what’s wrong with singing silly love songs? 

There’s another song from those years that also speaks of love, but in a somewhat different way than McCartney’s song. And it goes like this: 
What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It's the only thing that there's just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No not just for some but for everyone

So, as McCartney so profoundly puts it: “Love isn’t silly at all.”  No, everyone needs to experience a bit of love. For as Paul put it: “Faith, Hope, and Love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

The Song of Solomon is a love song that became sacred scripture. In many ways it’s a rather erotic poem that allows two people to share their passion for each other. But, because it’s in the Bible it must be more than simply another silly love song. In fact, these words of deep passion carry within them a word of revelation. This is true even though the poet never mentions God. While there’s nothing in this song that is explicitly religious, it is still sacred scripture.

So how should we read it? What message does it carry? How can it convey to us a word from God?

You could take it out of its scriptural context and read it as simply another love song or piece of ancient erotic literature. That’s probably how it was originally written. If we read it in the context of scripture, what we have is a sacred celebration of the power of human sexuality. 

Down through time many interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have taken a more spiritual view of this book. These interpreters may have been trying to avoid dealing with the erotic aspects of the song, but surely there is more to this than simply the desire to avoid talking about sex in church.

Stephanie Paulsell points out that interpreters such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Teresa of Avila “recognized their own yearning for God. They heard in the verses of the Song so much that was true about their own search for God’s presence. . . .” She goes on to say that the way in which these interpreters read it wasn’t a “rejection of the erotic quality of the Song, but a recognition of the erotic quality of life with God” [Lamentations and the Song of Songs: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible)p. 175]. We might not think of God in that way, but readers of this song have recognized God’s passionate embrace of humanity. 

So, on one level it’s completely appropriate for us to read this poem as a poetic conversation between two human beings who are passionately in love with each other. We hear this passion in words that describe a lover “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills . . . like a gazelle or a young stag.” And then we hear him call out to his beloved: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

On the other hand, the great mystics of the past and present have read this poem allegorically and found in it a powerful statement about God’s love for the church. So, when we hear the words, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away,” it is God who is calling out to us, inviting us to enter into a deep and abiding relationship. This way of thinking about our relationship with God might sound strange to Disciples, since we’ve emphasized the rational side of the faith, but maybe faith involves more than simply the mind.  

The lover tells the beloved that winter is over and spring is at hand. “The voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” So, it’s time to leave the house and go off on an adventure.  Yes, it’s time to open the boxes we place ourselves in and embrace the uncertainties that the life in God presents. After all, love is always risky. When we give ourselves fully to another, we risk being hurt. We risk being let down. And yet, this seems to be the kind of relationship God invites us to partake in. Of course, God takes a risk as well in loving us!  If nothing else the cross is a reminder of that risk! 
Now, I’ve been talking about love, but what is love? After all, there’s a difference between saying I love the Giants and the Tigers, and saying I love Cheryl! The ancient Greeks had several words that we translate as love, the most prominent being eros and agape. While the Song of Solomon was written in Hebrew, when it was translated into Greek the translators used the word agape, which we think of in terms of unconditional love. But, when we read the text, it seems as if the better word would have been eros. It’s just a guess, but I think that the translators might have been a bit skittish about using the word eros in a text like this.  

While the translators used agape, I think eros might be the better word. In thinking about the nature of love I often turn to theologian Tom Oord for guidance. He writes about the different forms of love in Scripture and in human experience. When it comes to defining the word eros, Tom suggests that it involves “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being by affirming and/or seeking to enhance value.” The key phrase is “enhance value,” which Tom suggests means that eros “affirms what is good, beautiful, and valuable, and seeks to enhance it.” [The Nature of Love: A Theologyp. 83.] 

So when the lover calls for the one he loves to come away with him, he does so because he sees something of value in the beloved. He desires to experience her company. He enjoys spending time with her. There’s no other place he’d rather be than in her arms. When we take this vision into the spiritual realm, Tom writes: “Just as God loves creation because of its value, so we ought to love others and ourselves because of the value God gives. Affirming God-given value may be one of the most important things those with a poor sense of self-worth needs” (Oord, p. 84).

When God invites us to “come away” it is because God has found value in us. God desires to be in relationship with us. If this is true, then we can affirm God’s love  by loving ourselves and loving our neighbor. We express our love for God by affirming the beauty and value that belongs to the whole of God’s creation, and by joining God in enhancing the value that is God’s creation – and doing it with passion and not just as duty!

It is as St. Teresa of Avila suggests in her meditation on the Song of Songs:
Oh, my Lord, my mercy, and my Good! And what greater good could I want in this life than to be so close to You, that there be no division between You and me: With this companionship, what can be difficult? What can one not undertake for You, being so closely joined? [Tessa Bielecki, Teresa of Avila: Mystical Writings (The Crossroad Spiritual Legacy Series)p. 156.]
We come today to worship the God who calls out to us: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Are you ready to embrace the passion of God and experience the fullness that is God’s presence?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 30, 2015
Pentecost 14B