Sunday, April 13, 2014

Time's Up -- A Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday

John 16:16-33

March Madness should be a fading memory by now, but those of you who pay attention to such things, you know that when the buzzer sounds, the game is over.  If a ball enters the basket before time runs out, it counts.  That last second shot might even win the game.  But, if the ball goes through the basket just a half a second after the buzzer sounds – then it’s of no consequence.  The game is over, and the team with the highest score gets the win.  

In matters spiritual, our Lenten journey has reached the final minutes.  The buzzer is about to sound.  We’ve had our procession.  We’ve sung Hosanna and King of Kings, while waving palm branches.  We’ve even heard the children remind us to be happy in Jesus.  But that is all in the past.  Now we must face a future that is defined by the road to the cross.  You might say -- the clock is ticking.   

By the time we come to the moment recorded in John 16, the meal is over, Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, and now he’s giving final instructions to his disciples.  He’s been telling them that his time is short; that he will be leaving them, but he won’t leave them alone.  He will send the Comforter to be with them.  He understands their reluctance to let go of him.  He understands their grief.  They had high hopes for their future with Jesus, but now Jesus is telling them that he must go away.  His time is up.  The buzzer is about to sound.  

This passage is rich in eschatological meaning.  For John, Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection mark the transition from one age to another.  As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5, the old is gone, and the new has arrived.   But, letting go isn’t easy.  

I’ve been going through some of my books because my shelves are full.  I need to make room for my recent acquisitions, but even if I’ve not read some of these books in years – if I even read them – it’s difficult to let go of them.  Many of us have a lot invested in the old age.  So, saying goodbye is difficult, even if what lies on the other side will bring blessings.  

So, here we are – the game clock is ticking, and we’re out of time-outs.  We’re a point behind, and there’s just enough time to get one last shot off.  If it goes in we win; if not, we lose.  But, as Cub fans put it:  there’s always next year!  

One of the reasons why we hang onto the old is because we’re not sure about what lies on the other side.  We know what we already have, but the future is unknown to us.  So, the temptation is to play it safe and stick with what we know. You remember how the Hebrews, after they escaped slavery in Egypt, began to pine for the old life in Egypt.  It wasn’t a great life – being a slave and all – but freedom in Sinai didn’t seem like much of an improvement.  After all, they were running low on bread and the water.  Better to be a slave than dead in the desert. 

So, you can understand why the disciples aren’t thrilled with the news that Jesus is about to depart from them.  They like things the way they are.  They don’t want to say goodbye, even if they will meet him on the other side. 

You won’t find too many parables in John’s gospel, but John records one in this passage.  It’s a story that some of you can resonate with – it has to do with the painfulness of childbirth.  This isn’t the first time that Jesus has talked about the birth process.  Remember how he invited Nicodemus to be born again?  Do you also remember how Nicodemus struggled to make sense of Jesus’ words?  How is this possible?  He asked.  In John 16, the time for new birth has arrived.

   As a male, I don’t have first hand experience with being pregnant or being in labor.  Although I was there when Brett was born, I didn’t experience Cheryl’s labor pains. But I do know that there is unspeakable joy on the far side of these labor pains. Part of this joy is simply relief from the often painful process of giving birth.  But there is also joy in realizing that a new age is dawning.  Even a father, who hasn’t experienced the pain of child birth, gets to experience that kind of joy.
    Jesus invites us to consider his own death and resurrection to be a moment of new birth.  Even if the process can be painful, there will be joy on the other side.  It’s not an easy path – for Jesus or for us.  The disciples feel comfortable with the way things are.  They still have their questions.  They’re not sure they’re ready to go out on their own.  But Jesus tells them – time is up.  It’s time to leave the old age behind and enter this new age that God has set before us.  When we do this, then we’ll find the answers we’re looking for.  But to go forward involves a great deal of faith.  It requires that we put our trust in God. 

For John, the resurrection of Jesus is the central eschatological moment for the world. The new future begins at the moment of his resurrection.  Having come from the Father, he must return to the Father.  But, Jesus has already given us the promise of the Comforter – the Paraclete – who is always with us – revealing to us what we need to know as the people of God.

While it’s difficult to let go of the old, the new beckons us.  What is the old?  It is what theologian Walter Wink called the Domination System – it’s the system of violence and oppression that enslaves the world.  But in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that system – that world – has been conquered.  It wasn’t through an act of violence on the part of Jesus, but the victory came as Jesus overcame an act of violence – for death could not hold him.  In the resurrection Jesus has broken the bonds of death – for him and for us.  And in this there is joy – if we’re willing to embrace it!   

I was on the phone with a friend when the operator broke through and told me I had an emergency call.  I’d never had an emergency call before, but I hung up the phone, and waited for that emergency call to come through.  It was Cheryl’s school.  The person in the office told me that Cheryl had gone to the hospital because she was in labor.  I wasn’t ready for that call, so I insisted that it wasn’t time.  But apparently my clock and Brett’s clock weren’t in sync!  He was ready to come into the world, but I wasn’t sure – as a prospective father – whether I was ready.  But, that’s a story for another day.

The hour has come.  The time of suffering is about to begin.  The disciples will scatter, but Jesus won’t be alone – the Father will be with him.  This too will pass, for Jesus has conquered the world.  

The world presses in on Jesus.  The world, which God loves, causes his son to suffer and die.  But, in the Resurrection, Jesus emerges as the victor.  The Old Age – the Age of the Domination System – is no more.  And, so the invitation goes out: Are you ready to enter the new age of God’s peace and God’s justice that began with the Resurrection?    

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Palm/Passion Sunday
April 13, 2015 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Be Alert -- A Sermon for Lent 6 (Alternative Lectionary)

Mark 13:21-23

A little over a week ago Fred Phelps died.  If you don’t know who Fred Phelps is, he was the leader of a small fringe Baptist church from Topeka, Kansas.  Fred and his church, which is composed mostly of family members, are well known for picketing religious gatherings and funerals, especially military funerals.  They have a two-pronged message –  “God hates fags” and “God hates America.” I first encountered this group when we were living in Kansas.  It seemed like every time we drove to Topeka on a Saturday morning, they were just finishing up their protest march at the local shopping mall.  I’d never heard of them until I got to Kansas in 1995, but since then they’ve become an increasingly visible presence across the country.   They claim to represent God.  But do they? 

Many claim to be prophets, but who really speaks for God?  How do you know who is speaking truth?  Does the message of hate proclaimed by the Phelps family represent the message Jesus proclaimed?  Or, are they simply the most visible expressions of what Martin Thielen calls Bad Religion?

Some of you might recognize Pastor Thielen’s name, since we used his book What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? in our study groups a year or so ago.  Now he has a new book with the title: The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion.

Because the gospel of Jesus gets drowned out by negative and hateful messages offered in the name of God, many in our society find the message of a famous John Lennon song attractive:

Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.
No Hell below us, above us only sky. 
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

If only there were no countries and no religions – then we could live in peace.

But, must we abandon religion if we’re going to live in peace?  Speaking only as a Christian, is my faith defined by the likes of Fred Phelps and others like him?

Jesus warns us about false messiahs who claim to represent God.  He tells us that even if they perform signs and wonders don’t follow them.  Instead, be alert to the voice of God that calls out to us.  In this call for discernment, Jesus tells us that he has already taught us everything we need to know to distinguish between bad and good religion.

In Mark 13 Jesus offers us an apocalyptic vision.  Like the Book of Revelation, this much briefer apocalypse puts things into perspective.  His message to the disciples is simple – don’t put your trust in buildings like the Temple they had been admiring or in nationalistic movements that continually arose in Roman-occupied Palestine. These buildings will be destroyed, and these movements will fail.  Mark even puts in a little note reminding his readers that the Jewish Wars that had occurred not long before this gospel was written had left the city of Jerusalem and its Temple in ruins, while its nationalist messiahs lay dead.  That is not the way of the Gospel.  Yes, Jesus will suffer death, but Easter will also come, and with it comes a new community – an alternative community that will exhibit the values and vision of God’s realm.  

So beware of the scam artists pretending to represent God.  Like those computer-generated calls that tell you that your car warranty has run out and invite you to re-up – just hang up!   If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.  They may perform signs and wonders, but don’t let them fool you.  These are just tricks designed to deceive you.

There is bad religion and there is good religion.

According to Martin Thielen, bad religion is self-righteous.  It’s also chronically negative.  That is, it’s always complaining.  It can’t find anything good to say about anyone or anything.  It’s also arrogant and intolerant.  It’s partisan and nationalist.  As Disciple theologian Joe Jones puts the question:  
Am I an American who happens to be a Christian, or am I a Christian who happens to be an American? Which identity orders which?”  (A Lover's Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Church, p. 31).  
How we answer that question will help determine the nature of our faith.  Finally,  bad religion is nominalistic.  That is – it gives its time to God and church when it’s convenient.

  There are many other elements that we could add to the list, but this gets the point across.  If this is what people see when they see religion, then it’s no wonder they opt out of “institutional religion.”  With religions like that, there will never be peace on earth, and good will to all!

But, is this the only option?  Or is there the possibility of good religion?  Martin Thielen offers a list of elements of good religion that range from engaging in service to having an open mind, from prioritizing love to promoting gratitude.  These expressions of good religion affect the way we live our daily lives – not only on Sunday for an hour or two.

The way to good religion depends on who and what guides our lives. It speaks to the way we make our decisions?  And it defines our witness to our neighbors.

In Mark 13, Jesus tells us that he has given us the instructions we need to live before God.  That message echoes one we find in Deuteronomy 13. 
The Lord your God you shall follow, him alone shall you fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him shall you serve, and to him shall you hold fast. (Deut. 13:4).
There are many voices calling out to us.  Not all of them are specifically religious. But these are competing voices.  The question is – to whom will you listen?

Jesus invites us to be people of discernment.  He invites us to look at our lives through the lens of the Gospel.  It’s not just the religious dimensions of life, but the entirety of our lives – our jobs, our volunteer efforts, the cars we drive, the way we vote.  As we prayerfully seek a way forward, we will need to train ourselves to filter out all the extraneous noise that can distract us from hearing God, who often speaks to us in a still and soft voice.  But Jesus tells us that we have everything we need to discern God’s voice.  We can know the difference between bad and good religion.  We just have to follow the voice of Jesus.

We value diversity of opinion in this congregation.  It is a core value that we trace back to the founding days of the Stone-Campbell Movement.  It is part of our creed – our orthodoxy.  But, this sense of freedom needs to be tempered by an attentive ear to God’s voice that comes to us through Christ our Lord.

Our tradition, as theologian Joe Jones puts it, has often embraced a worldly creed that declares: “Nobody can tell me what I ought to believe; it is my own private decision.”  But, is this true?  Or is Jesus Lord over you lives?  If so, what does that mean in our context?  (Lover’s Quarrel, p. 57).

How we answer the question about the Lordship of Christ will determine whether we embrace a bad form or a good form of religion.  How we answer will determine our witness to the world.  As Paul writes to the Thessalonians:
 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).     

Scripture text appears in David Ackerman's alternative lectionary: Beyond the Lectionary
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
5th Sunday of Lent
April 6, 2014

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Difficult Paths -- Sermon for Lent 4

Mark 10:32-34

Jesus took the lead on their journey toward Jerusalem.  Perhaps he was in a hurry to get there, but the disciples lag behind.  They seem to be caught up in the moment.  It could be that this was their first visit to Jerusalem.  There in front of them was the big city and the Temple.  They’d heard about this Temple many times, and when they saw it in real life, it seemed even grander than they had ever imagined.  Remember they didn’t have cameras back then.  But it wasn’t just the grandeur of the Temple that grabbed them.  There were also the rumors that a violent fate awaited Jesus in Jerusalem.  Jesus had even brought up the subject himself.  So, it’s no wonder that they wanted to take their time getting to Jerusalem.  Because they didn’t know what lay ahead of them, they were filled with mixed emotions – both amazement and fear. 

When Jesus realizes that a gap was beginning to form, he stops and takes the twelve off to the side.  Then, for the third time, Jesus explains to them that path before them would be difficult.  He doesn’t pull any punches.  Yes, “the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit on him, and flog him, and kill him.”  If you were a disciple and you heard that message – how would you respond? Would you stay with Jesus or would you walk away?  Amazingly they stay with him.  

Perhaps it’s the glimmer of a promise of resurrection that emboldens them to continue, or it may be that they took comfort in their earlier hopes that Jesus would take power in Jerusalem.  

As Mark tells the story, it didn’t take long before the disciples began to dream big dreams.  Remember what James and John asked Jesus for?  They asked Jesus to appoint them to leading posts in his new administration.  “When you take over in Jerusalem could you put us in charge of the Departments of State and Defense?  We don’t want to be the one who gets left back at the office when you go down to the Capitol to deliver the state of the realm address.”  Of course, when the others hear of their audacity, they want to get into the act also.  After all, no one wants to be the last one picked! (Mark 10:35-45).  Yes, they quickly forget Jesus’ warning – after all who is going to sign up for a mission is sure to fail?  And so they clung to their vision of  God’s realm – one in which they got to have the seats of honor.

As I pondered this text and its message for us as a congregation,  I thought about the many difficult paths that members of this congregation have taken in recent months and years.  

Some of you have experienced a death in the family:  A child, a sibling, a spouse, or a parent.  Whether expected or not, death can be a wrenching experience for us.  

For others of you, this difficult path involves a battle with cancer.  Others of you are undergoing tests to see if cancer is present, and if it is then what treatments can be prescribed.  Then there are the chronic illnesses, like Parkinsons.

Others deal with mental health issues, something that we find difficult to talk about openly.   

For others it’s the daily challenge posed by the aging process – including dealing with chronic pain.  

There are others who have found that reaching mid-life has been difficult.  A rough economy has led to job losses, the difficulties finding a new job, and the fear that retirement will bring unforeseen financial challenges.  Besides these challenges, many “middle-aged” folks live sandwiched between concerns about both parents and children.  

Many young adults have found themselves saddled with student debt and a difficulty launching into their careers.  They have their degrees, but jobs are scarce in an age of economic stagnation. 

I think I’ve covered most everyone in this church.  The challenges may differ from person to person, family to family, but as a community of faith, we have faced housing crises, job crises, health crises, and relationship crises.  Some of our families have dealt with multiple issues.  As a pastor, I often stand in awe of the resilience I see in some of your lives.  The answer you all give is that it’s prayer and the support of the community of faith that keeps you going. 

It is in the context of these difficult pathways that are common to us all that I chose to view Jesus’ own path to the cross.  To put it in the words of a Robert Johns hymn: 

In suff’ring love the thread of life is woven through our care,  for God is with us:  Not alone our pain and toil we bear.

And then in the final verse of the hymn:

In suff’ring love our God comes now, hopes vision born in gloom;  with tears and laughter shared and blessed the desert yet will bloom.

In suffering love, God comes to us, bringing hope in the midst of gloom. [Chalice Hymnal, p. 212].

The message that I hear from Mark’s text is that God in Christ understands the challenges we face.  In his own experiences of suffering, Jesus brings healing to our souls.  From the earliest of times the church has interpreted Jesus’ journey to the cross through the lens of Isaiah 53, one of the Suffering Servant songs.

  4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. 5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. 
                                                                                          (Isaiah 53:4- 5).

In embracing the way of the cross, this servant of servants shares in our experiences of suffering.  He bears the effects of our transgressions and our iniquities.  And as he does so, he brings us healing and makes us whole.

As we read the New Testament, it is clear that the early Christians connected the cross to our salvation.  This has led some to believe that God punishes Jesus instead of us – sort of like kicking the dog instead of the child when the child misbehaves.  As I read these texts, I see something different.  I see in Jesus, God working to bring healing to our brokenness.  I see humanity throwing everything it can at Jesus, and Jesus overcoming our resistance to his offer of reconciliation. The key to this interpretation is the message of Easter.  Good Friday will have its say, but it won’t have the last word.   

Yes, there are different ways of understanding the message of the cross.  We find one interpretation here in Mark 10, where Jesus speaks of himself as the ransom.  In traditional ransom theologies, Jesus gives his life to the devil in exchange for our lives.  He does this because we sold our souls to the devil. There is something of this theory in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.   Aslan gives himself up to the White Witch in exchange for the life of Edmund.  As you might remember, death cannot contain Aslan, who experiences resurrection. There was magic far deeper than the White Witch knew of.  

It’s interesting that in Mark 10, Jesus doesn’t name a recipient of this ransom payment.  Instead, we’re simply told that Jesus has given his life “to liberate many people” (Mark 10:45 CEB).  

There’s another atonement theory that I think fits our conversation this morning.  Back in the second century, Irenaeus developed what has come to be known as the recapitulation theory. In this theory of the atonement, as Jesus goes through life – from birth to death – he undoes the damage we create in the course of our lives.  In other words, by living faithfully in relationship with God, Jesus overcomes our resistance to God’s promises and expectations.  In his life, as well as his death, Jesus perfects our imperfections – bringing us to maturity of faith.  This is a difficult journey, because it will involve a violent death, but death is part of our journey toward God.  It is the last enemy that must be overcome.  So, in Irenaeus’ vision, by dying on a tree, Jesus reverses the disobedience of Adam who ate from the forbidden tree. [In Cyril C. Richardson, Early Christian Fathers, Macmillan Pub., 1970, p. 389].    

As we make our way down the path of life, we will experience times of great difficulty.  But the good news is that Jesus has walked this path before.  He understands our situation. He knows our suffering, and therefore God knows our suffering.  

But the key to this journey is found in the last half of verse 34: “after three days he will rise again.”  It is this promise of the resurrection that gives us hope.  In the resurrection death has lost its sting.  In the resurrection every tear is wiped away and death will be no more (Revelation 21:4).    This is the promise that sustains us in season and out of season.

Note:  The text for this sermon comes from David Ackerman's Beyond the Lectionary
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 30, 2014

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Time to Weep -- A Sermon for Lent 3

Luke 19:41-44

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.  There is:

A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 NRSV)

For Jesus, as he stood on the hillside overlooking Jerusalem, it was a time to weep.    There is another occasion in the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus weeps over the city of Jerusalem.  When a group of Pharisees comes to warn him of a plot to kill him, he laments Jerusalem’s habit of killing the prophets and stoning those sent to it.  Jesus declares that he wanted to “gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing”  (Luke 14:31-35).

Five chapters later, as the procession into Jerusalem we call Palm Sunday is underway, Jesus stops to take in the view.  There lying in front of him is the city of David.  Standing in the center of the city is the Temple that Herod rebuilt and expanded into one of the ancient world’s greatest wonders, making Jerusalem an important site of pilgrimage and commerce.  Jesus should be happy.  He should be rejoicing.  But as he looks out at the city, he begins to weep, because the city is unable to recognize the presence of God in its midst.  Therefore, they will choose a path that leads not to peace or justice, but destruction.  

By the time that Luke writes this Gospel, the city of Jerusalem and its Temple will lie in ruins.  The wars against the Romans that lasted from 66 to 70 CE ended with the destruction of the city and its Temple.  But, it didn’t have to happen this way. Unfortunately, the people chose the wrong way and suffered the consequences.

   When Jesus weeps over the city, this isn’t merely an emotional response at a perceived loss.  This is a lament.  And according to Fred Craddock:
A lament is a voice of love and profound caring, a vision of what could have been and of grief over its loss, of tough hope painfully releasing the object of his hope, of mixed, of accepted loss but with energy enough to go on[Luke: Interpretation, p. 229).  
As Jesus continued the procession into the city, he ends up in the Temple, where he overturns the tables of the religious marketers hoping to profit off of the people’s piety.  Of course, before long Jesus will be arrested, tried, convicted, and executed.  Thus, another troublemaker will be out of the way.  Except that’s not the end of the story.

The reason that Jesus weeps is that the city seems blind to the presence of sin in its midst and its need for repentance.  He weeps because the residents don’t seem able to recognize God’s presence.  And that inability will have disastrous consequences.

  That was then, but what about now?  What word does Jesus have for us this morning?

  In reflecting on this passage this past week, my thoughts went to the city in which we all live.  And by city I mean the entire metro-Detroit region – on both sides of the divide between Detroit and its suburbs.  Two weeks ago we gathered at First United Methodist Church of Birmingham to participate in the Metro Coalition of Congregation’s Action Assembly.  During this assembly we heard updates and calls to action on the issues of health care, immigration, human trafficking, and regional transit.  We heard stories about real life people caught up in modern day slavery. We  heard stories about a broken immigration system and a health care system that works well for some, but not for many others.  We also heard updates on the efforts to finally create a truly regional transit system for Metro-Detroit.  In our time together, we asked the question – what would God have us do?

  A few days after this assembly, Pastor Louise Ott, Justin Erickson, and I met with Oakland County’s Deputy Executive.  We wanted to get his sense of where regional transit is going.  We wanted to know where the roadblocks are and how we can help remove them.  I’m pleased to say that it was a productive meeting.  We even offered our churches as sites for town halls in preparation for the upcoming SMART millage.

  What I heard from our Scripture this week is that Jesus weeps over the city.  Although Detroit has a grand history, there has long been a dark lining to this history.  Back when Edgar DeWitt Jones first came to town in 1920, Reinhold Niebuhr was serving as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church.  Although Niebuhr would leave Detroit in 1928 for Union Theological Seminary, where he became one of America’s leading theologians and social ethicists, during his time here he spoke out clearly against the presence of injustice in the city.  He also spoke against the complicity of the churches in this injustice.

  During his time in Detroit, Niebuhr kept a journal, which he published after his move to New York.  It’s called Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic  As he served Bethel Evangelical Church, he became disturbed by the inhumane conditions endured by the factory workers building cars for a growing middle class.  He was also disturbed by the unwillingness of the city’s clergy to stand with the unions in pursuing better wages and more humane working conditions.
  He wrote this in 1926:    
I wish that some of our romanticists and sentimentalists could sit through a series of meetings where the real social problems of a city are discussed. They would be cured of their optimism.  A city which is built around a productive process and which gives only casual thought and incidental attention to its human problems is really a kind of hell. Thousands in this town are really living in torment while the rest of us eat, drink and make merry. What a civilization!  [Niebuhr, Reinhold (2013-04-16). Leaves From The Note Book Of A Tamed Cynic. (Kindle Locations 1133-1136).]
Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem because it failed to heed the voice of God.  On this day in March, as we continue our Lenten journey, what is Jesus saying to us?  What responsibility do we have for changing the realities of our neighborhood, so that it is not “a kind of hell” where “thousands in this town are really living in torment?”

The causes of this hellishness might be different today than in Niebuhr’s day, but I believe that Jesus continues to weep over cities, states, nations.  Wherever injustice is present, where war rather than peace reigns, Jesus will weep. So how should we respond?

On another occasion Niebuhr wrote the following –  perhaps in frustration from being at too many conferences where religious leaders talked about doing the right thing, but never moving toward action.
Sermon after sermon, speech after speech is based upon the assumption that the people of the church are committed to the ethical ideals of Jesus and that they are the sole or at least chief agents of redemptive energy in society.
But, Niebuhr complained that too often we stay with general ideas and don’t move toward specifics.  Of course, when it comes to offering specifics:
If that suggestion is made, the answer is that such a policy would breed contention. It certainly would. No moral project can be presented and no adventure made without resistance from the traditionalist and debate among experimentalists.
Niebuhr was a realist.  He was also a doer.  It wasn’t enough to talk about ideals when there’s work to be done.  Yes, there might be resistance.  The preacher might get some flack.  But we must move to specifics.  That was the message that Martin Luther King gave to white clergy as he sat in a Birmingham jail.  Now was the time for action.

Detroit is in trouble, but so are the suburbs.  The trouble may not seem immediate out here, but we’re all in this together.  One of the possible bridges to a new day for the people of Metro-Detroit is the creation of a truly effective and affordable public transit system.  It will benefit young adults who want to live in the city.  It will also help residents of both the city and the suburbs get to their jobs in an efficient and effective manner.  It’s even friendly to the environment.  The question is – are we listening to each other and as we listen to each other, are we recognizing the presence of God in our midst?  And if we do, are we willing to follow God’s pathway to peace and justice in our world?  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday of Lent
March 23, 2014

Sunday, March 16, 2014

No Signs for You -- Sermon for Lent 2

Matthew 12:38-42

When I plan out my sermon schedule, I decide upon a text and then try to come up with a good title. Then, when I actually sit down to write the sermon, sometimes a few months later, the direction the sermon takes may have changed.  So, when I read this passage, a famous phrase from Seinfeld came to mind.  Remember the Soup Nazi?  He made great soup, but he was very particular about how you ordered the soup.  If you ruffled his feathers, he would say: “No soup for you!”  

In reading this passage some months ago, I heard Jesus saying to the religious leaders in his audience, who came to him asking for a sign, “No signs for you.”  What I originally heard in this text was the demand that many make on people of faith to prove the existence of God.  That can be a very intellectual pursuit.  Theologians and philosophers from Anselm to Aquinas to Kant, have expended a lot of energy trying to prove that God exists.  And when they’re done, the God they offer us can be abstract and lifeless.  It’s hard to have a relationship with the “Ground of Being.”  

In this case, the religious leaders weren’t demanding proof that God exists.  They wanted proof that Jesus spoke for God.  They wanted confirmation, which would include miraculous deeds like healings.  It’s not that Jesus didn’t offer them signs, they just weren’t satisfied with the ones he’d given them.   Since Matthew isn’t shy about offering up miracle stories, I can hear in this passage an impatient Jesus asking these inquisitors: “What more do you want?”  Only an evil generation keeps coming back wanting more evidence.  You have enough evidence, so make your choice – will it be God or not?

That is part of the story, but there’s more to it than that.  Jesus points us to two biblical stories. First, there’s Jonah and Nineveh.  Then there’s the story of the Queen of Sheba.  Jonah is the reluctant prophet who ends up in Nineveh, preaching to a people he despises, only to see them repent and follow God.  As for the Queen of Sheba, she comes to Solomon, seeking wisdom - a wisdom Solomon’s own sons reject.  Now, standing before them is a person greater than either Jonah or Solomon.  If Nineveh answered the call and the Queen of Sheba answered the call, why can’t they heed his voice?  

Once again, we need to be careful in how we read this passage.  It’s very easy to read it in an anti-Jewish manner.  We can find ourselves blaming the Jews for not believing in Jesus, while Gentiles embraced him.  So, if we can steer clear of that kind of interpretation, this passage may have something important to say to us.  

Last week we talked about self-examination.  That is an important part of our Lenten journey – looking inside, underneath the masks we all put on.  In this reading, we hear a question about our ability and willingness to hear the voice of God.  Can we, as Christians, become complacent and fail to heed the voice of God?  Or, are we looking for signs in the sky? 

Jesus isn’t interested in engaging in “apologetics” – trying to prove God exists.  Arguing with the likes of Richard Dawkins isn’t a pressing concern.   While there still are plenty of “cultured despisers” out there, the more pressing concern today is whether the church has something valuable to say about God.  

Rather than look to the philosophers, we might want to look at someone like Pope Francis.  He just celebrated the one year anniversary of his election to the papacy, and over the past year he has changed the face of the Catholic Church.  It doesn’t matter what your religion is – Francis has inspired people with his warmth, his compassion, his humanness.  

There is a lot of concern in Christian circles about the decline of the church.  Increasing numbers of people, especially younger people, have either left the church or ignore it.  Most of the folks who fit into the category that survey-takers call “the Nones” don’t reject the idea of God’s existence.  Many of them are quite spiritual in orientation.  They just don’t see the value in religious institutions, especially ones that they think exclude people because of their ethnicity, their socioeconomic status, their gender, or their sexual orientation.

  Forty years ago, church growth gurus declared that conservative churches were growing because they had very definite doctrines and expectations.  It is true, that many conservative churches grew by making very clear distinctions about what was true and what was false.  But, that’s changing.  It’s not that liberal churches are growing, but conservative ones have begun to see decline in their numbers, especially among people under forty.  

Why are the churches experiencing decline?  Well, liberal churches fell into the trap of privatizing their faith so they wouldn’t offend anyone.  They embraced the idea that religion, like politics, isn’t appropriate in polite company.  Conservative Churches have begun to decline because their message no longer resonates.  Many people simply aren’t attracted to places that claim to have all the answers, deny scientific truths, limit the roles of women, and exclude people because of their sexual orientation. 

One of the reasons why Pope Francis is so popular, especially among younger people, whether Catholic or not, is because he exudes a sense of openness to the world.  His decision to live in a monastery rather than the papal apartments, or his decision to wear ordinary shoes rather than red papal shoes are signs that he gets the concern about hypocrisy among Christians. 

 I recently finished reading a book by Ken Wilson entitled A Letter to My Congregation.  Ken is the pastor of the Vineyard Church in Ann Arbor.  What is important about this book, and Ken’s ministry, is that he has come to the conclusion that the church is called to fully embrace gay, lesbian, and transgender people.  What makes the book and the ministry somewhat unique is that he is an evangelical. He came to this understanding in large part due to his pastoral work, which led him to rethink his interpretation of scripture and beliefs about gay folk.  He began meeting with parents whose children are gay and lesbian, as well as gay and lesbian Christians.  They wanted to know – does God love me for who I am?  Besides the pastoral side of things, there was the missional element.  He realized that his congregation, though it did pretty well reaching out to younger people – it’s very contemporary in its worship – the congregation was aging.  He realized that in a place like Ann Arbor, having a policy that excluded people who are gays undermined the mission of the church.  Wilson concluded:
Causing an unnecessary disincentive to follow Christ is a serious offense, at least as serious as failing to uphold a moral good.  It would be easy to ignore or dismiss this concern if I didn’t think it had substantial merit. [A Letter to My Congregationp. 50.]
The way the church treats LGBT people is only one issue among many.  There is also the issue of science and climate change.  There’s the place of the poor, the immigrant, and the disabled. 

Years ago the movie The Elephant Man made a significant impression on me.  The movie tells the story of John Merrick.  Like many films this one takes considerable license, even changing Merrick’s name from Joseph to John.  One of the most compelling moments of the film came when Dr. Treves, who had come to examine this man who society saw as a freak and even a monster, overheard John reciting Psalm 23.  What made this remarkable was that Dr. Treves believed that John was so intellectually disabled that he couldn’t speak.  What was the message that I heard?  It was that a man whom society considered expendable and an object of disgust was in truth a man of great intelligence and compassion.  Therefore, I heard the message that we should always value people, no matter their intellectual capacity, their looks, or their ethnicity.  It would take me much longer before I could add sexual orientation to that list.

     Although there are those who struggle with intellectual questions about the Christian faith, more often than not, the questions that inquirers have on their hearts and minds have more to do with our behavior.  As Stacey Simpson Duke, another Ann Arbor pastor, puts it: “We do not need more evidence; we are the evidence.”  It is “our regenerated lives” that “are the sign of Jonah: Christ crucified and raised” [Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1,  1:336].  Yes, that is the only sign we need!!