Sunday, December 24, 2006

Shepherds Watch by Night

Luke 2:1-20

When it comes to casting a Christmas pageant, shepherds rank low on the list of favorite parts. Mary and Joseph are, of course, the prime parts. Then there’s the magi. They get to wear fancy robes bring gifts to the baby Jesus and meet with Herod. Angels don’t rank with wise men, but at least they have more star power than shepherds, who get to wear bathrobes and towels on their heads. No crowns and no wings. No gifts and no songs. Instead of singing about the good news in the skies, they hang out in the hills with the sheep and the dogs. There’s nothing too exciting about these roles, except that Luke seems to think that they’re important.

You might notice that this telling of the birth story doesn’t have any wise men, kings, or magi – whatever name you want to give them. That’s Matthew’s version, and he has a different agenda. Maybe he knew that Christmas pageants would need some staring roles. But Luke doesn’t seem impressed with star power.

Although David was called the shepherd king and the 23rd Psalm calls God our shepherd, shepherds were really outcasts. They were dirty, smelly, rough and tumble men. This may explain why no one really wants to play a shepherd in the Christmas play – except maybe Pigpen and he’s specially equipped for the role! On this particular night, however, their boredom is broken by a great light in the sky and a heavenly song. The good news comes first to this little group of shepherds. They get to hear the good news that the savior, Christ the Lord, is born in the city of David.

When we think about important births, we don’t expect that shepherds will be the first to hear the news or even that shepherds will be the first to share the news. Of course, no one would have expected that the savior would be born in a feeding trough. But that’s the story that Luke tells.

As unlikely as this story is, there’s a message for us in it. It’s a message about the kind of God we’ve come to worship tonight. This morning we heard Mary sing of God’s "preferential option for the poor" and about God’s willingness to bring down the high and the mighty. Now we discover that God is calling shepherds to proclaim this good news to the world.

If it were up to me, and it isn’t, I’d have turned to Larry King, Anderson Cooper, or maybe Neil Cavuto to tell this story. If I was God and I was going to reveal myself to the world, I’d come from the sky riding on a chariot, resplendent in glory, and surrounded by the host of heaven. That would be more impressive, but that’s not Luke’s story. Instead, Emmanuel is born in a manger, surrounded by animals, and a few dirty smelly shepherds. Yes, there are angels singing, but they sing to the shepherds and not to Mary and Joseph or even Herod.

I enjoy a really joyous Christmas, just like everyone else. The more decorations the better. I even dress up for the occasion in a robe and a stole. No shepherd’s cloak for me. Luke’s choice of shepherds to star in this story, however, fits his broader message. As I said this morning, Luke tells us how Jesus went to the synagogue one day and turned to Isaiah. When he read that God’s good news must be proclaimed to the poor, the lame, the imprisoned, and the marginalized, he said to the synagogue: this is my calling. The only time Jesus got to visit Herod or Pilate, he was on trial for subversion. Jesus didn’t take up residence in the Temple, but instead he preached from the hill tops and boats. He hung out with a rough crowd of Galilean fishermen, reviled tax collectors, and most shocking of all, with women.

This Christmas, as we gather around our trees and open our presents, let’s remember whom we’ve come to honor. It’s not the king of glory, but the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, surrounded by lowly shepherds. Remember too that this is only the beginning of the story. We must not leave Jesus in the manger, lest his cuteness lull us to sleep and we forget his purpose in coming.

In a few moments we’ll gather at the Lord’s Table. This Table stands as a reminder that although the journey begins in a stable it must go through a cross. There is no glory, it would seem, without first sharing in suffering. The end result, however, is a transformed life and a transformed world. And so, may the Spirit of Christmas move in our hearts, making us all new persons. Merry Christmas!

Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Christmas Eve, 2006

Saturday, December 23, 2006

GOOD NEWS FOR THE HUMBLE

Luke 1:39-55

Athletes, rock stars, and actors make the big bucks. When Alex Rodriguez signed a ten-year 252-million-dollar contract with the Texas Rangers five years ago, baseball fans were scandalized. No one has yet topped his contract, but they’re getting closer every year. Still, if you think that’s big, entertainers make even more. Don’t you find that kind of money hard to grasp? I wouldn’t have the slightest idea of how to spend that much money. Though it sure would buy a lot of books and the rooms and bookcases to put them in.

Although money isn’t everything, it does tell us what we value most. If athletes and entertainers are worth millions, then why are teachers, nurses, fire fighters, and police officers paid so little? Isn’t what they do more important to our daily lives?

Now that we’ve reached the end of our Advent journey, we’re ready to hear the Christmas message. But the real message of Christmas is quite different from the one our culture tells. Surprisingly enough, Christmas isn’t about raking in as many gifts as possible or making the biggest profit. Instead, it’s about grace, compassion, and humility. Blessed are the poor, Jesus said, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20). And to make sure we understand this truth, God chose an insignificant girl from Galilee to be the instrument of God’s redeeming grace.

THE CONTEXT: THE ANNUNCIATION

When Mary told Elizabeth about her pregnancy, she broke into song. That might not be totally surprising, but her song isn’t what we’d expect to come from an expectant mother, especially one who is living under a cloud of suspicion. Fred Craddock writes that:

She sees God's grace and goodness toward her as but a single instance of the way of God in the world. God blesses the poor and oppressed and hungry; and in the final eschatological reversal, God will bring down the proud and rich oppressors and exalt those who have been disenfranchised, disregarded, and dismissed.1

If we look at the world through Mary's eyes, then we’ll begin to see things the way God sees them. In her song, Mary declares that God will exalt the poor and the oppressed and God will bring down the rich and the proud.

GOD'S VIEW OF THE RICH AND THE PROUD

According Mary, God acts contrary to our expectations. We expect God to be on the side of the winners. Isn’t that what the winning quarterback at the Super Bowl always says? "I want to thank God for helping us win!" And why is "In God We Trust," our national motto? Isn’t it because we believe that God is on the side of the winners and we want to be winners too? Yes, and if God is a winner, then obviously Jesus must be a winner.

Philip Yancey says that some of the most interesting views of Jesus come from athletes. They like to imagine Jesus being the biggest winner of all. One former NFL lineman gives us this baffling picture of Jesus:

Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played this game . . . If he were alive today I would picture a six-foot six-inch 260 pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays and would be hard to keep out of the backfield for offensive linemen like myself.2

Yes, Jesus must be a "manly man." But Mary, the mother of Jesus, paints a very different picture in her song. God, she declares, is the one who has "looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant."

There is strength in the arm of the Lord, but it’s a strength that scatters the rich and the powerful. God brings them down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly and the meek. Samuel’s mother, Hannah, sang a very similar song:

The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. (I Sam. 2:7-8).


By choosing Mary, God chose from among the poor the person who would bear "Emmanuel," "God With Us." God could have chosen a daughter of Herod or Caesar for this purpose, but God didn't. God could have broadcast the message from the roof tops, but God didn't. Jesus didn’t come into the world with all the trappings of power and wealth; instead he was born into poverty and insignificance. Perhaps this is the real scandal of the Christian faith!

GOD'S VIEW OF THE POOR AND POWERLESS

Mary sings about what theologians call "God's preferential option for the poor." This doesn't mean that poverty is God's ideal, but it does mean that God is especially concerned about people who live on the margins of society. Yes, God is concerned about the ones who so often fall through the cracks and are ignored by the powerful. Remember that on the day the savior was born shepherds and not kings attended to him. As an adult, Jesus ministered to the same kinds of people – fishermen, tax collectors, women of ill repute, the sick and the despised. The only time he had an audience with the movers and shakers, they we’re deciding how best to get rid of him. As Luke writes later in his Gospel Jesus defined his ministry in these words of Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:18-19).


This is the message that caused Mary to "magnify the Lord."

Tonight we’ll return to this sanctuary to celebrate the birth of our savior. We’ll sing the songs of Christmas and we’ll share in the Lord’s meal. And as we celebrate Christmas at the Table we’ll remember the Lord who reconciles us to God and to one another by making all things new (2 Cor. 5:17). If we’re going to truly understand the message of Christmas, then we must understand what Mary understood. God has chosen to turn the world upside down so that everything might become new, and God has revealed himself in this Jesus who is born in a stable.

1. Fred Craddock, et. al., Preaching through the Christian Year C, Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 22.

2.Norm Evans quoted in Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Thought I Knew, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 19.


Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church
Lompoc, CA
4th Sunday of Advent
December 24, 2006

Sunday, December 10, 2006

TIME FOR A BATH

Malachi 3:1-4


If you’re planning to have people over during the holidays, you have to get the house ready, which means doing the winter cleaning. Dusting, mopping, vacuuming, and polishing, cleaning the bathrooms and washing the table cloths. Of course, you’ll have to prepare the food, unless you decide to save time and hire a caterer. And once you get all that done, you have to get yourself ready. After all, a good host has to be properly bathed and clothed. To start with you might take a trip to Nordstrom's or maybe Ross to get just the right outfit. Then there’s the hair, always the hair. It has to be cut, curled, and colored! And when everything else is ready, you can go take a shower, because a good host wants to be clean and refreshed. At least that’s what you have to do if you want to throw a successful high society Christmas party.

PREPARE THE WAY!!

This is the second Sunday in Advent, and Advent is a season of preparation. During this season we get ready for Christmas. Now, Malachi, which is the last book in the Old Testament, tells of a messenger who will clear a path and get things ready for the Lord’s appearance in the Temple. We don’t know anything about this prophet except that he lived sometime in the fourth century BC when Judah was under Persian rule. The prophet’s name means "My Messenger" and his message comes in the form of a question: "Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" When the question is put that way, what can you say except: Is anybody really ready to stand before the Lord? The answer, surprisingly, is yes, but you have to get ready first.

THE REFINERS FIRE

If the President of the United States were to visit your home, what would you do? Would you be ready when he knocks on your door? Well, of course you'd be ready, after all, the President of the United States doesn't drop in unexpectedly. The Secret Service is going to make sure you’re ready. After all, the President isn’t just anyone, the President is the leader of the Free World. So, you want to be at your best.

If God is going to pay a visit, don’t you want to be just as ready? The good news is this: God has given us fair warning of his visitation. The messenger even tells how we can get ready. The Lord, Malachi says, is like "a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness." (Mal. 3:2b-3). Amazingly we can get ready simply by being in God’s presence, which is like the refiner's fire that removes the impurities from gold and silver ore. So by being in God’s presence we are transformed into God’s righteousness.

We live in a very casual society, which is okay, except that sometimes we take our casualness too far. We can become too nonchalant and not take life seriously enough. For instance, if I go to a funeral or a wedding in jeans and a tee-shirt, am I properly dressed? I’d say no, but of course, that’ just me!

So what’s the proper attire for coming into the Lord’s presence? White robes? A tuxedo for the men and an evening gown for the women? I don’t think God is all that concerned about what we wear, but God is definitely concerned about what goes on inside of us. And that’s the message of the prophet, God is here to transform us into a new person.

THE MESSENGER REVEALED

So, am I ready? And I don’t mean: am I ready for Christmas? John the Baptist heard God calling out to him while he was living in the wilderness. John responded by going out and preaching the baptism of repentance. Now he might have looked and sounded a bit crazy, and if you had seen him down at the Jordan River, you’d think he was a bit off his rocker. After all, he wore animal skins and ate locusts. But John’s message, like Malachi’s, was a warning that told the people to get ready for the Lord’s coming. John said: Take a bath and wash away the impurities of your life.

When I look inside myself, I see much that needs to be washed away, things that need to face the refiner's fire and the fuller’s soap. I see the covetousness and the lust, the impatience and the anger. If we’re honest, all of us can say the same thing

Luke turned to Isaiah who told of one who would make the paths straight so that "every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God (Is. 40, Luke 3:4-6). I love the mountains and the hills, but the path through them isn’t straight. It’s crooked and windy, full of barriers that must be traversed. But, when the messenger comes, he will prepare a path that looks something like I-70 as it heads across western Kansas. That highway is as straight as an arrow. Whether you’re looking back or looking forward, that road moves straight to the horizon. There are no barriers, no blockages. It’s a strange sensation to drive across the plains, but this is the highway the Lord will take, only it’s internal one. If we’re going to fully enjoy the blessings of God, the blockages and the impurities must be removed.

The gospel message is one of grace. God takes us where we’re at and loves us, but God doesn’t leave us where he finds us. As we experience God’s presence, we are transformed. All that brokenness that’s inside us is healed and we become a new person. In baptism, God’s cleansing grace washes as clean and we are readied to walk with God. Now, this process, which begins in baptism, continues throughout our lives. Every day we experience God’s refining fire and like the phoenix we are reborn.

The message of Christmas is that God will be revealed in a baby born in Bethlehem’s manger. The question is, are we ready to meet that babe who is the incarnation of our creator? The answer is yes. If we let the Spirit of God transform us, we’ll be ready for Christmas and the revealing of God’s holiness and righteousness in that babe born in Bethlehem.

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc
2nd Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2006

Sunday, December 03, 2006

WATCHING FOR SIGNS

Luke 21:25-36

What signs tell you that Christmas is getting close? Is it the ads in the papers, in your mail boxes, and on TV? Is it the decorations that go up in the malls and in the stores days even months before Thanksgiving? Maybe it’s the Salvation Army ringer in front of Walmart, or, perhaps it’s the Christmas music we hear in the background wherever we go. Children are very good at recognizing the signs. Sometimes that means they even behave better, knowing that Santa might be watching. If you look around the sanctuary there are signs that Christmas is getting close, but it’s not here yet.

There’s another sign present in the sanctuary. It’s the Advent wreath. We’ve already lit one candle this morning. This wreath is the sign that tells us to begin getting ready for the revelation of God’s presence in our midst. The Advent wreath points us into the future. It reminds us that God won’t be found in the past. No, God is found in the future, calling us forward so that we might experience the fulness of God’s kingdom.

Douglas MacArthur told the people of the Philippines: "I shall return." That promise might sound like arrogant bravado, and many who heard those words probably discounted them, believing that their destiny lay elsewhere. But others held out hope for liberation in the future, eventually MacArthur did return to liberate the Philippines from Japanese rule. In a more cosmic setting, Jesus has promised to return and liberate us from our own states of bondage.

SIGNS OF THE TIMES

This morning’s text looks more like a George Lucas screenplay than a Christmas text. As you hear these words of Jesus, your mind might drift off to a Death Star or maybe a giant asteroid that’s on a collision course with earth. The strangeness of this text may be a bit off putting, since it sounds more like science fiction than religious narrative. We call this apocalyptic language. It’s kind of foreign to us, but the point shouldn’t be missed. The future is in God's hands!

The first advent took place in a humble stable in a humble town in a backwater nation, but Jesus says that the second advent will be much different. While we must beware of the fanciful interpretations found in best-selling novels, movies, and prophecy guidebooks, we mustn’t lose sight of Jesus' promise that God is in charge. We may experience times of distress, but God is present and active and God will bring things to an equitable resolution. God has heard the cries of the people and the Redeemer will come and bring the fullness of God’s reign.

OUR REDEMPTION DRAWS NEAR

It’s easy to get caught up in the signs, but they’re not the point. So, instead, pay attention to what the signs point to. As Jesus tells it, when you see these things happening, you’ll know that something big is about to happen. But, don’t be afraid, because the redeemer draws near and God will reign over all. The prophets often spoke of a time of peace, a time when lamb and lion would lie down together, but as we all know, life is rarely peaceful. There are wars and rumors of wars. Two generations of children grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation. While that threat, is diminished, it remains with us. Then there’s terrorism and the threat of global warming. Each evening we check the news and discover that the bad news outweighs the good. It’s easy to get discouraged, but we hold on to the promise of redemption.

Science fiction stories are often frightening. The future they envision is anything but hopeful, with nuclear war or an invasion from outer space being a common theme. Remember War of the Worlds? Star Trek offers a hopeful vision of the future, but part of the back story is a time of war and destruction. The first set of signs is meant to get our attention by reminding us that difficult times often come before the good times. The promise of the fig tree, however, is different. It’s a sign of peace and prosperity. The prophet Micah spoke of a time when God would rule and the people would beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. When this happens, people will sit under their "own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid" (Mic. 4:3-4). Jesus says to his disciples: look at the fig tree and when you see the leaves sprouting, you’ll know that summer is near. Summer is the season of peace, but this peace won’t come from human efforts, it comes from God.

BE ALERT

This passage is meant to be a word of hope in difficult times. When difficult times come, Jesus says, watch for the signs, because there will be signs that God’s reign is near. What Jesus is saying here sounds something like the Boy Scout motto – Be Prepared. Be awake and alert.

I don’t believe Jesus wants us to read prophecy books and start making charts of wars, storms, and earthquakes. No, what he is saying is quite simple. Look around and watch for signs that God is at work. Some of those signs may be dramatic, like omens in the sky, but they could just as easily be like the leafing of a fig tree in Spring. The point is to be watching so that when the Lord returns for us, we’re not busy doing things we shouldn’t be doing.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent and Advent is a season of preparation and watchfulness. We need this admonition, because the Christmas season can easily overwhelm us. We can easily miss the point of Christmas if we get caught up in the hullabaloo of the season. Parties, presents, and travel plans, can distract us from the true message of Christmas, and so Jesus says keep watch, be on the alert, because God is at work. This is a word not just for December, but for every season of the year. Our hope lies in front of us. You won’t find your redemption in the past. The past is over, but the future is full of promise.

So, celebrate the season with joy, but make sure to be alert to what God is doing in your midst. Pay attention to the signs, especially the fig tree, which is a sign of hope and peace. That’s our future!

Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc
By Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
1st Sunday of Advent
December 3, 2006

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Sharing the Gift of God

Deuteronomy 16:13-17

What are you thankful for? That’s a question we normally ask on Thanksgiving Day, but since I probably won’t be with most of you on Thursday, I’m asking it today instead. Now before you start responding, I’m asking this rhetorically. I expect that if I opened up for responses this service would never end. That’s why the feast of booths went on for seven days.

So, what are we thankful for? Good health, good friends, shelter over our heads, and having enough to eat. Could it be that we’re thankful for living in a country that allows us the freedom to worship, to speak, and to think as we wish? Is it the freedom we have to vote as we wish? Each of us has something different to add to the list.



A CALL TO CELEBRATE WITH THANKSGIVING

Deuteronomy 16 is a summons. It invites the people of God to gather at festivals of thanksgiving. In ancient Israel, the men came together at least three times a year to give thanks for God’s blessings, and when they came to the feast, they weren’t supposed to come empty handed. They brought offerings to these harvest festivals as a sign of their gratitude, each of them giving "as they are able, according to the blessing of the Lord your God that he has given you" (Deut. 16:17). The feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Booths celebrated the harvest, but they also reminded the people that God had been active in liberating them from bondage in Egypt.

Thursday is our harvest festival and it’s also our celebration of human freedom, something we Americans claim to hold dear. It’s not always easy being true to these freedoms, especially during times of war or when a dark cloud seems to hang over the nation. Too often we let fear get in the way or we let prejudice keep us from seeing the full meaning of our national purpose. History reminds us that there were once walls placed in front of women, Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and African Americans. The Founder’s dreams of liberty took time to bear fruit. Sometimes we forget that Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and many other Founders were also slave owners. Although Thanksgiving has essentially become a secular holiday that has more to do with football games and a big dinner, it’s appropriate that we come here today and give thanks with grateful hearts for all of God’s many blessings.

This spirit of celebration is lifted up in Stephen Schwartz's song "All Good Gifts."



We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand.
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
the breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,
So thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord, for all his love.
We thank thee then, oh Father, for all things bright and good,
the seed time and the harvest, our life, our health, our food.
No gifts have we to offer for all thy love imparts,
but that which thou desirest, our humble thankful hearts.
All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,
So thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord, for all his love.1

THE SOURCE OF EVERY GOOD AND PERFECT GIFT

When children are small, parents try to teach them to say please and thank you and we encourage them to write thank you notes. I must confess that neither our children nor we adults, always follow through on our training, and therefore we need occasional reminders.

Several years ago a letter to the editor appeared in the Disciple Magazine. It lamented the seeming disappearance of this tradition of saying thank you. The letter writer was a Korean pastor who’d come to the U.S. about forty years earlier. This pastor wrote about how impressed he was with the way people would always say thank you, no matter where he went. He wrote:


"I thought it was a beautiful custom. I remember wishing we were more like that in Korea, where I grew up as a child."

But unfortunately, it seemed to him that this wonderful custom had fallen by the wayside. To prove his point he gave two personal examples. The first concerned a wedding gift he and his wife had sent to a young couple. No one ever responded to this gift. Now it’s possible that the gift tag got lost, but his story isn’t unique. Then he told of a funeral he had conducted for the family of former church members. He wondered why weeks went by with no acknowledgment of any kind.
These two stories remind me of the story about how Jesus healed ten lepers, all of whom went away joyfully, but only one of whom returned to give thanks. Pastor Ha makes a wonderful comment about the need to stop and give thanks.




To be human is not only to know how to thank each other, but also to acknowledge God as our creator and give thanks to the giver of all good gifts -- the source of all our blessings.2

Yes, giving thanks is more than proper etiquette; it’s a recognition that we’re recipients of something special. The King James Version translation of James 1:17, says: "every good and perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variableness, neither shadow of turning." Everything good and perfect is God’s gift to us. And so it’s appropriate to stop and give thanks to God for our blessings, and when we come before God we shouldn’t come empty handed. In ancient Israel, the people brought the first fruits of the harvest to the festival. We do the same, as we bring into the storehouse, the offerings of our hearts. They are a way of saying thank you to God for God’s many blessings.

As the song says:



"We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered by God's almighty hand."

Therefore:

"All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above,
so thank the Lord, Oh Thank the Lord, for all his love."



May our gifts be a sign of our gratitude.



1. Stephen Schwartz, "All Good Gifts," in New Wine 2, (LA: UMC, 1973), 9-11.

2. Young Chang Ha, "Don't Forget Thank you," The Disciple (November 2000): 36.


Preached by Robert Cornwall
At: First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc, Ca
Thanksgiving Sunday
November 19, 2006

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Greater Gift

1 Kings 17:8-16; 12:38-44

Although there’s some debate as to the meaning of the law, the recently enacted Federal bankruptcy law makes it more difficult for people to give to charity after they declare bankruptcy. You see the creditors want to be reimbursed first, before God gets paid.

I’m not sure if the two widows described in today’s readings had declared bankruptcy, but they were in bad financial shape when they gave their last pittance to charity. Although these widows have little to commend themselves to our attention, Scripture honors both for their willingness to give. But why give everything away, if death is the result? Of course, maybe that’s the point. They knew they had nothing to lose. So, even though their acts of generosity may seem odd, they are our models of faithfulness.

THE SACRAMENT OF GIVING

Like most preachers, I’m not thrilled about giving stewardship sermons. Talking about money seems self-serving and may even be on the verge of meddling. But money, as they say, makes the world go around. You simply can’t do much in life without it. In our world, the more you have, the better life seems to be. Or, so they say.

There is a counterpoint to this belief. The Bible says that the love of money is the root of all evil. Not money itself, you see, money is benign, but when our desire for money takes hold of us, it can cause a lot of problems. Money can cause problems, but it doesn’t have to be dirty. While I’m not sure that God wants us all to be rich, I’m not sure God wants us to be destitute either. And so, I have to wonder about Jesus commending this widow to us.

There’s a back story, of course, to these comments about the widow. In Mark’s account, Jesus seems to be condemning the Temple, which had been recently destroyed by the Romans by the time Mark was writing his Gospel. Mark also has a negative view of Scribes, who were among the religious leaders of the day. The question is this: Who best represents the faith? The rich religious leader or the poor widow?

Although Jesus was critical of the religious system of his day, he commended this woman for her faithfulness. She came to the Temple and gave her pittance because she saw this as an act of worship. There’s a trend among some churches to get rid of the offering. The idea is that people get turned off by churches always asking for money. I see the point, but there’s another side to this. That weekly offering is also a reminder of whom we owe our allegiance. It’s not always easy to put that offering in the plate, but somehow in this act of giving we experience God’s grace. Besides, even if a church doesn’t take an offering, that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in your money. They just have to find other ways to get into your wallet. Bills, after all, are still due.

If all we’re doing by passing the plate is getting money to pay bills, then probably there are better ways to get the money than passing the plate in worship. We could, and maybe should, set up automatic tranfers or annual billings, maybe we could even take credit cards. But, if what we do in passing the plates has sacramental value and can help counteract our inclination to make money and success our idol, then maybe it is an act of worship.

William Stringfellow wrote that our giving has "little to do with supporting the church." That might seem like an odd statement, because the money we give pays the bills. A church after all is an institution. But he says this because he believes that the "the church's mission does not represent another charity to be subsidized as a necessity or convenient benevolence, or as a moral obligation." Therefore, the offering is "integral to the sacramental existence of the church, a way of representing the oblation of the totality of life to God." This means that our offering is a confession of faith, a statement that "our" money doesn’t belong to us, even as our own lives don’t belong to us, but instead, our money and our lives belong to the world itself.1 In their own ways, these two widows, the one who gave her last bit of food to Elijah and the widow who gave her last few coins to the treasury, recognized that what little they had, belonged to God.

SACRIFICIAL GIVING

If our act of giving is a sacrament, then how should we give? Jesus criticized those who made a show of their giving. As big as their gifts were, they came out of their abundance. But the widow gave everything she had. Once those coins were dropped in the treasury, starvation wasn’t far away. Now, two pennies worth of bread won't stave off starvation for long, but her willingness to part with everything she had has great symbolic power. She didn't give so the Temple could run more effectively, she gave to honor her God.

There’s a flip side to these two stories about widows who gave their all. Remember what James wrote: "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world" (Jms.1:27). That’s the message of the prophets as well. Scripture speaks quite clearly about how we’re supposed to care for those who are in distress.

We know how easy it is for people to fall through the cracks, and when they do, we rarely miss them. This was true then, and it’s true now. Back then the only social security available to a widow was a male head of the household. That’s why Naomi sent Ruth to Boaz. If Ruth didn't find a husband, she and Naomi would starve. The widow from Zarapeth was in a double bind. Not only was she a widow but she faced a severe drought and had a young son to support. It seems presumptuous of Elijah to ask her for bread when she didn’t have enough to feed herself or her son. But, she acted in faith and God provided for her needs even though she wasn’t a worshiper of Yahweh.

Mark’s widow also gives sacrificially, but we don’t know what happens to her. I wonder whether she went off to die of hunger or whether the people listening to Jesus went and cared for her in her distress. The answer to these questions must be left to the imagination, but hopefully it will encourage us to respond to those in need.

These two incidents remind us that what we have is not our own. Although I can't promise you that God will multiply your gifts a hundredfold, because that would be presumptuous of me, if our giving is a sacred act then surely we’ll be blessed. Because where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also. These two women in their own ways laid up treasure in heaven, because that’s where their hearts were (Mt. 6:19-21).


1.William Stringfellow, quoted in Pulpit Resource, 28 (October, November, December 2000): 30.

Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lompoc, CA
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 12, 2006

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Journeying Together


Ruth 1:1-18

If you look closely at Matthew’s genealogy, you’ll find four women listed -- Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, and Ruth. Have you ever wondered why these particular women are mentioned? If you know their story, you know that each story has a dark side. But, despite the dark edge, each woman plays an important role in the biblical story.

This morning we read about Ruth. Her story begins when a Hebrew woman named Naomi moves to Moab with her husband and two sons to escape famine in Israel. It’s strange that they’d go to Moab, since the Hebrews believed that this nation was cursed by God for not helping them when they wandering in the wilderness. But that’s where they went, and during their sojourn, Naomi’s husband dies and her two sons marry Moabite women.

Do you see a problem brewing? I do! And the problem is, good Hebrew men didn’t marry Moabite women! But these men did just that! And then tragedy struck again when Naomi’s sons die leaving her alone, destitute, and with two daughters-in-law to support. With no husband and no more sons to support her or give her grandchildren, Naomi cries out in despair.

Realizing she had no future in Moab, Naomi decided to go home. Knowing she couldn’t provide for Orpah and Ruth, she tells them to return to their families. Orpah tearfully obeys, but Ruth remains committed to Naomi. Although she would be an outsider in Israel, she pledges her undying loyalty and service to a woman who could give her nothing, a woman in need of her own redemption. Although Naomi tries to dissuade her, Ruth persists and declares: "where you go, I will go" And "your God will be my God." With this, Naomi and Ruth begin a journey of faith together, a journey that started with little promise, and yet it’s a journey that leads to the redemption of Naomi, Ruth, Israel, and in the end, humanity. You see, the story of Ruth is a story of conversion, covenant, and community.

Conversion

We usually think of conversion in relationship to God, but in this story conversion begins with a commitment to another human being. Ruth, the Moabite, commits herself to Naomi, the Hebrew. Her conversion to Yahweh only begins after she sees Yahweh in Naomi’s life, and in committing herself to serve Naomi, she also declares her allegiance to Naomi’s God. Now the question is: Why would a Moabite woman leave behind her own gods and embrace the God of Naomi, especially, when it seems like Naomi’s God had failed to take care of her? Despite everything Naomi had gone through, Ruth saw something worth embracing in Naomi’s life.

I think that’s the way conversion often happens. It doesn’t start with intellectual arguments, it happens when we see the grace and compassion of God in the life of another person. And when that happens, when we see the light of God present in this other person, we embrace it. That’s what evangelism is really about. It’s about sharing the life we know in Jesus Christ with a person who wants to have that relationship with God themselves.

Covenant

In her conversion to Naomi and to God, Ruth makes a covenant: "Where you go, I’ll go. Your people will be my people, Your God will be my God," In making this covenant, Ruth commits her life to the service of her mother-in-law. Now, we’ve all heard lots of mother-in-law jokes, and I suppose some mothers-in-law can be a problem, but that doesn’t seem to be true here. There’s a love here that can’t be broken, even by death, and that’s what a covenant relationship is all about.

When God made a covenant with Israel, God said, in effect, I’ll stay with you through thick or thin. And God did! When Jesus made a covenant with humanity, he said: I’ll never leave you nor forsake you. In our baptisms, we accept that covenant with God for ourselves, and in doing so we commit ourselves to serving God by loving our neighbor.

Ruth exemplifies living in a covenant relationship. Although Naomi worried about providing for Ruth, in marrying Naomi’s kinsman, Boaz, Ruth redeemed Naomi, by reversing Naomi’s fortunes. Then, Ruth became an ancestor, first of David, and then of Jesus, and in doing this she reversed the fortunes of Israel and of humanity.

Community

As Christians who live in a covenant relationship with God, we commit ourselves to being part of a community that’s concerned about the welfare of others. Naomi probably told her daughters-in-law to go home, because they would be a burden to her. It’s also possible that she would be embarrassed that her sons had defied the Law and married Moabite women. Whatever Naomi’s reasons, Ruth made it clear that now she was part of Naomi’s community: "Your people are my people. Where you’re buried, I’ll be buried."

Covenant commitment is the foundation of Christian community. In the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, we see that the Christian journey of faith isn’t an individualistic trek, but instead it’s one we take together. Ruth understood this truth better than Naomi, but in the end Naomi came to see that their futures were connected. No matter what might come their way, they were in it together.

Our journey, as Christians, is much the same. The church is more than just a religious organization, it’s a community of people committed to sharing life together in the name of Jesus. Instead of being nomads our spiritual tourists, we can become pilgrims who take the journey of faith in the company of others.* Traveling alone might seem quicker and even easier, but Ruth understood that the easy way might not always be the best way. In the end, both Ruth and Naomi found blessing in each other’s company. Ruth would gain a husband and a child, while Naomi got the child she wanted to carry on the family name. And then there are Ruth’s descendants, David and Jesus, who would in their own ways reverse the fortunes first of Israel and then humanity.

With Ruth I invite you to make your covenant with God and with God’s people. No matter where we go, no matter what happens to us, in Jesus, we’re linked together. With Ruth as our guide, we hear the call to commit ourselves to serving one another. As Jesus himself said, the reign of God is based on two commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. As we sing our hymn of invitation, "I Am Thine O Lord," let us say to each other: Where you go, I will go. Your God will be my God!

*I take this image from the title of the book – From Nomads to Pilgrims, edited by Diana Butler Bass and Joseph Stewart-Sicking (Alban Institute, 2006).

Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
November 5, 2006

Sunday, October 29, 2006

We're Growing in Grace

Psalm 116:12-19
"There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;
There’s a kindness in God’s justice, which is more than liberty."
(F.W. Faber, Chalice, 73)

This is good news. We serve a God who is gracious and compassionate and we get to celebrate that grace and compassion, that mercy and kindness, as we come together for worship.

The ancient Israelites held great Fall festivals to give thanks for God’s wondrous bounty and sing songs like the one in Psalm 116. They thanked God for the bounty of the harvest and for hearing their cries when they were going through difficult times, like when death and anguish were their lot in life. These songs remind us that God is the giver of every good and perfect gift. And so, we join the Psalmist in asking: "What can I give back to God, for the blessings he’s poured out on me?" (116:12 MSG).

Growing Faith and Giving Thanks

Giving back to God takes faith, and faith, as Hebrews says, is "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). Abraham left Haran and headed for a new home trusting that God would provide that home. Moses did the same. They acted in faith because they believed that God had promised them a share in the inheritance of the saints.

Paul prayed that the Colossian church would "be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power," but he also prayed that this church would be prepared to "endure everything with patience" (Col. 1:11). Paul understood that faith is about growth in the Spirit. It calls on us to take difficult steps into the unknown, trusting that the God who has been with us in the past, will also be with us in the future.

Growing Faith and A Testimony to God’s Grace


Because we don’t know the future, walking by faith holds great risk. The stock market could collapse or a disaster could strike. And so the choice is simple: Do we live in fear or by faith? As individuals and as a church, we grow spiritually when we step out in faith and accept the risks involved. As we grow in faith and give of ourselves, that fear that plagues us begins to dissipate, and we’re able to take another step forward.

As we look forward into the future as a congregation, much remains unclear. And yet there are patterns and possibilities already taking shape. Maybe you can envision with me that new sanctuary full of people, both young and old. Your ideas might be different than mine, but we can share the vision. Perhaps you see an active youth ministry or a tutoring program that touches the lives of children throughout the community. Perhaps you see a Hispanic congregation forming. The patterns are there because we’ve talking about them.

As we talk about dreams, we discover that these dreams are related to our vision of stewardship. We ask: what can I return to God? How can I be a good steward of what God has given me? You see Stewardship isn’t about duties or even support to church ministries. Stewardship is about being faithful with the good gifts God has given us and then giving thanks to God with a grateful heart. Yes, stewardship is about taking care of the things of God, which means we act on God’s calling. The Spirit is leading, are we willing to take the step of faith to embrace that call? When we walk by faith we discover the spiritual wisdom that enables us to "lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work." (Col. 1:10-11).

Knowing that God is gracious and merciful, the Psalmist calls us to do three things: pray, keep our promises, and offer a thanksgiving sacrifice. So, in response to this call:

1. I’ll Pray

Paul said: "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thess. 5:17-18). Jesus prayed in the Garden and on the cross and found strength in God’s presence. Prayer doesn’t happen only when we address God in words; prayer happens whenever we stop to acknowledge God’s presence and listen for his voice. It can happen in formal settings or on the run. It can happen at work or at play. Prayer is that constant conversation we have with God, even if we can’t seem to find the right words to say. When we can’t find the words, Paul says, the Spirit will pray for us, with groans too deep for words (Rom. 8:26).

2. I’ll Keep My Promises

As we grow in faith, we find strength to keep our promises. It’s easy to say, I’ll do this or that, but in the doing there’s difficulty. When we live in a community of compassionate faith, however, we find strength to keep our promises. This is the message of the Psalmist who writes: "I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do, and I’ll do it together with his people." When I made my baptismal vows, I promised to love and serve God, with all my heart, soul, and mind. That’s a difficult promise to keep, but with the community standing with me it’s possible.

3. Finally, I’ll offer the Thanksgiving Sacrifice

In ancient Israel, the thanksgiving sacrifice was a grain offering. Leviticus directed the pilgrims to bring unleavened loaves, cakes and wafers made of grain mixed with oil. These gifts were products of their hands, of their labor, and they brought them to God, like we bring our tithes and offerings, as a way of saying: Thank you for giving me life. It might not be easy, but it is good.

Our offerings to the church are more than simply dues paid to support the work and ministry of the church. They are expressions of faith. They stretch us and remind us that what is ours is really God’s. We’ve been entrusted with good things. Our giving through the church is an expression of that trust. And the congregation as it stretches itself to enter into new forms of ministry, which happen to be supported by these gifts, takes a step of faith and offers thanks to God. Let’s offer a testimony of thanksgiving to the God who hears our supplications and inclines his ear unto us.

Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc, CA

21st Sunday after Pentecost

October 29, 2006

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Opening the Bible

2 Timothy 3:10-17

Books are meant to be read, and if we read the Bible we put ourselves in a position to hear God speak from its pages. Although the Bible is the best-selling book of all time, it may also be the least read best seller of all time. People buy Bibles for all kinds of reasons. I’ve heard they make nice decorations and good gifts. Back when I was in seminary, working for a Christian bookstore, I sold Bibles. Now, selling Bibles was easier twenty-five years ago than it is today. That’s because there were fewer translations and fewer editions of those translations to offer people. Now there are probably thirty or forty different options for the New International Version alone.

While I enjoyed selling Bibles, I’ve been known to talk people out of buying them. It’s not that I don’t want people to own Bibles, I’d just like them to get a Bible they’ll use. On one occasion a lady came into the store looking for a white Bible. I asked her why she wanted a white Bible, and she said that she wanted to give it to a baby girl. I told her that all our white bibles were King James Version and that they weren’t all that easy to read, especially if you’re a baby. I tried to convince her to get a Bible the little girl would use when she got older, but she insisted on a white bible, because well it was for a girl.

Psalm 19 and 2 Timothy 3 celebrate the usefulness of Scripture. They say that Scripture has a purpose and that it "shapes us for the tasks that God has given us" (2 Tim. 3:17 MSG). These Scriptures help revive the soul, make wise the simple, enliven the heart, and enlighten the eyes. But if the Bible is going to make a difference in our lives, we must read these words with open eyes, open minds, and open hearts. In other words we must read them reverently but critically.

Receive the Living Word

In Genesis 2, God took a lump of clay and breathed life into it, creating humanity. In 2 Timothy 3 God takes human words and breathes life into them. Scripture carries with it the life-giving breath of God, so that when we read these seemingly human words reverently but critically, we can hear God’s voice declaring to us: I love you and this is how I want you to live.

Scripture doesn’t answer every question under the sun, because it’s an ancient book that addresses ancient issues. And yet, in its pages we read about the wonders of a Creator who created us to be in a relationship. This God then became incarnate in Jesus so that we could more readily experience that relationship. Scripture also calls us to be a faithful community of compassion, mercy, and of service. If we hear and receive this Word then our hearts and our minds will be revived and enlightened and we will discover the wisdom of God.

The Useful Word

Some people read Scripture as if it were a jumble of theological and moral propositions that need to be organized. But others find in this collection of poetry, songs, stories, sermons, essays, and commandments a call to celebrate the God who created humanity for a reason. The Biblical story begins with the creation of something wonderful and goes on to tell the story of why God’s crowning achievement chose to go it alone and then how God, like a shepherd, went looking for the sheep. Scripture tells us that Jesus is the shepherd who draws the lost sheep back into the fold. Scripture also shows us how God’s people ought to live in relationship to each other. James Dunn says that Scripture is designed "to produce well-instructed and disciplined adults, proficient and well-equipped in the graces and skills required for a positive role in church and society." In other words, Scripture shows us how to love God and how to love our neighbor. It also gives us plenty of examples of what not to do! Consider for a moment Cain and Abel!

And so we read in 2 Timothy that:

  1. Scripture is Useful for Teaching
    How will you know about God if no one teaches you? We believe in Jesus, and declare him to be our Lord, but how do we know this unless we hear a word about him. Nature may declare that God is glorious and skillful in creating. Experience may suggest that there’s more to life than what we see. But there’s so much more to know, and when we read Scripture with open hearts we find answers to our questions. We discover that God wants to be our guide, our redeemer, and the sustenance of our lives. Scripture brings to our minds and our hearts the truth that sets us free, a truth that lays bare our anger and our bitterness, and points us to a better way, a way of service to others. Jesus says: Even as you do to the least of these, you do to me. And we know this truth from Scripture.
  2. Scripture is useful for Reproof and Correction
    Now I don’t really like this aspect of Scripture. I’d rather not be disciplined and have my rebellions exposed, but, Jesus calls us to be his disciples, and like a parent will do, Scripture reminds us that when we’ve moved away from the things of God, God will correct us
    When we get lost, we need a map and directions to get back on track. The Law is like that map. It’s a means of correction, even though it doesn’t make us right with God. It reminds us of the way we’re supposed to be going when we’re walking with God. Though the Scripture this passage is talking about is the Old Testament, it’s the story of Jesus, his life and teachings, his death and his resurrection, that guide us on our way back into the fold.
  3. Scripture is Useful for Training in Righteousness
    According to this letter, Scripture teaches us how to live God’s way. In Romans Paul says, God has made you right with himself in Jesus Christ. But he also says: "don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind " (Rom. 12:1). James says, the way we show our love for God is through the way we treat the widow and the orphan. It’s the way we welcome the stranger, and the one who is poor, that shows us how much we love God. James asks: Do you show favoritism to someone because he or she seems wealthy or powerful? Well, not if you’re in Christ! How’s your tongue? Does it destroy with criticism and gossip? Or does it build up and encourage?

As the Psalmist says: "The Revelation of God is whole and pulls our lives together." As I heard spoken yesterday, "we should take the Bible seriously, but not necessarily literally." There is great value to be gained from reading its pages, but we must do so both reverently and critically. So let’s open the Bible and see what it has to say, so that we might be proficient in the things of God and equipped for every good work so that together we might enjoy the glory of God.


Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Lompoc, CA
20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 22, 2006

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Eye of the Needle

Mark 10:17-31

Time magazine recently ran a cover story that asked the question: "Does God want you to be Rich?" Apparently a growing number of preachers are giving this question an affirmative answer. Houston’s Joel Osteen is just the latest preacher to promise prosperity to those who will just believe. But, the question is: What am I supposed to believe in? God or money? I remember going to a rally at a church many years ago for a certain unnamed soap distributor. The organizers hoped to get us all jazzed up to sell and buy products by promising us more material blessings. And so we shouted out words of praise to money.

So what does God want for us? Apparently 61% of us think God wants us to be rich and prosperous, which may be why Osteen and his fellow preachers are so popular. Just believe and you’ll be healthy, wealthy, and wise. Now, I believe that attitude is important and that a positive attitude will take you a long way in life, but that’s different from equating belief in God and material prosperity.

God wants good things for us. Why? Because that’s God’s nature. God isn’t some kind of despot sitting on his heavenly throne looking for ways to spite us. The problem with prosperity teaching isn’t the promise of happiness or blessing. The problem is the assumption that if we believe the right things we’ll be healthy and wealthy. My experience tells me that it takes hard work, some natural ability, and a whole lot of breaks along the way to achieve success in life.

There’s another problem with this message and that’s the message it gives to the poor and marginalized of society. What it says is simple: Because things aren’t going well for you, God is either punishing you or God doesn’t care about you. During Katrina did God care less about the people who lived in the 9th Ward? Did God care more about the patients in the upscale private hospital who were airlifted out, while the poor patients in a neighboring public hospital were left behind?

Though the Time poll says that most people reject the idea that material wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, if God want’s me to prosper then poverty must say something about God’s priorities. Although I’ve heard prosperity teachers tell people they didn’t get what they wanted because they didn’t have enough faith, I don’t remember hearing Jesus say that.

The Rich Man’s Question

Jesus dealt with this issue of prosperity, but I don’t think you’ll like his answer. One day a devout but wealthy man came up to Jesus and asked him what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answered by pointing him to the commandments, and more specifically the commands that deal with the way we deal with family and neighbors and not the ones that deal with our relationship with God. I don’t know about you, but I find that interesting.

The man answered: I’ve kept them all from childhood. Just when he thought he was safe, Jesus dropped the other shoe: "Well, you lack just one thing, go and sell all you have and give it to the poor." Now, I don’t think that’s what he expected to hear, because it’s not what we expect to hear. This seems a bit drastic – to inherit eternal life you have to become poor. Jesus isn’t just saying that you can’t take it with you, he’s saying you can’t have it now if you want to be his disciple. When the man heard this, he realized that the demands of following Jesus were more than he could accept. Turning around, he sadly walked away, his head hung low, all because he had so many possessions.

The Hold of our Possessions


Though the pharaohs thought they could take it with them, I think most of us know we can’t do it. Still, that doesn’t keep us from trying.

Although 61% of us believe that God wants us to be prosperous, I think many of us have a suspicion that this might not be true. It seems that 48% of us recognize that Jesus wasn’t rich and that Jesus wants us to follow his example. It seems that many of us are a bit conflicted about this question. We want it all, but we realize that our material possessions tend to get in the way of following Jesus. Still, like the rich man our possessions have a strong hold on us.

The Eye of the Needle

The disciples were dumbfounded when they heard Jesus saying that it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom. If the rich can’t make it, who can? I mean, if God want’s us to be rich what do we do with Jesus?

There have been many attempts at explaining this difficult saying away. One story suggests that there was once a gate in Jerusalem called the "eye of a needle" gate. It was said that a camel could only get through it if it was relieved of its burden and then crawled on its knees through the gate. In other words, you can have everything you want in this life, but you can’t take it with you. Unfortunately that gate never existed, so we’re left with a message about rich people not making it into the kingdom. Now, fortunately for me, I’m not rich, so I should be safe. Or am I?

I may not be rich by Donald Trump standards, but I sure have a lot of possessions. If you don’t believe me, ask Cheryl and she’ll tell you all about the boxes of books in the garage. If only I had a bigger house, I could put in more shelves and have room for them and more. Though I want to believe that I’m part of the kingdom of God, am I ready to give it all up for him?

Are there any Practical Implications?

And yet, there are some important practical implications to this call to poverty. In fact, there's a huge flaw in Jesus' argument, because if we take Jesus at his word and give everything to the poor, then we’ll be poor and that will make us a burden on society. St. Francis took this literally and gave up everything and became a beggar, but if everyone becomes a beggar, that could be a problem!

I don’t know how to cut through this Gordian knot, but I think Jesus is reminding us that where we put our treasure, we also put our hearts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about "costly grace," and maybe this is what he was talking about. God’s grace does come at a cost, to God and to us. The passage softens all this by promising blessings in this life to those who give up everything and follow Jesus. I appreciate this promise, but I’m still wrestling with this other issue about giving everything to the poor. Does that mean that God wants me to do something about poverty? Is there something to Jesus’ statement that where we put our treasure we also put our hearts? Muhammad Yunus just won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to set up a micro-lending bank that has lifted millions of poor out of abject poverty. Maybe that’s what Jesus was talking about.

Preached at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc
19th Sunday after Pentecost
October 15, 2006

Monday, October 09, 2006

Brokenness

Mark 10:2-12

We’re broken people living in a broken world. That’s not a message we like to hear, but it’s true. Marriages, families, relationships, communities, nations, the world itself, seem to be broken. Like a virus that eats away at our inner being, every aspect of human life is vulnerable to this malignancy of the human spirit, including the most intimate of human relationships.

It’s no secret that marriage is an institution in distress. Divorce rates continue to rise, while young people either delay marriage or give up on it entirely. By today’s standards the twenty-three years Cheryl and I have been married is a long time. Of course, that’s nothing compared to those of you who’ve been married fifty years or more. I doubt I have any words of wisdom to offer anyone about how to keep a happy marriage, but I do know that every relationship, even the best ones, have their bumps in the road. I wish I could tell you with a straight face that Cheryl and I have never argued or disagreed, that we’ve never hurt or disappointed each other, but if I said that, none of you would believe me!

DIVORCE AND THE IDEAL MARRIAGE
Divorce might not seem like an appropriate subject for a sermon, but it’s a subject Jesus dealt with, and so here we are! It seems that even back then divorce was a touchy subject, and the local religious authorities were divided on how to deal with it. Some of them took a hard line, and others were more lenient, but both groups wanted to know where Jesus stood on the issue. But, instead of getting involved in their debate, Jesus decided to focus on the ideal. He basically said, the Law might allow divorce, but that’s not God’s ideal.

Jesus reminded them of what it says in Genesis; that "from the beginning of creation `God made them male and female'." And, "for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." One flesh, for life, that’s what marriage is supposed to be.

This is a wonderful ideal, but what does it mean? I’m pretty sure that Jesus doesn’t mean that we should go find that perfect soul mate who will fulfill our every need. That search tends to get people in trouble, because we quickly discover that our partner isn’t perfect. But that doesn’t stop people, especially since the coming of the internet. If you go to Match.com or E-harmony they’ll help you find that perfect person. You know, it’s funny how people got along pretty well before the coming of the computer. I guess we just didn’t have such high standards back then!

I’m not sure there is such a thing as a perfect match, and even if there is, it still takes hard work. A marriage relationship is a living thing. It is, Walter Wangerin says, like a baby. It starts out small, weak, and cuddly, but in time it grows and becomes stronger. A couple’s oneness demands everything from them, but marriage is more than a merging of two people. That relationship itself is a distinct entity, which is God’s gift to a couple. That’s why Jesus says: "What God has joined together, let no one separate." If you’re in a relationship, invest yourself in it. Nourish it and respect it. Because it’s a living entity, just like a baby.1

THE THREAT OF BROKENNESS
When Cheryl and I got married in 1983 we promised "to love and to cherish [each other] from this day forward -- in times of poverty and times of prosperity, in times of sickness and times of good health -- to love and to enjoy until death shall separate us." Now that promise is easier to make than to keep, because reality often clashes with the ideal.

Every couple that stays together for the long haul has to work through difficult times. Because we’re broken, we bring our brokenness into the relationship. Walter Wangerin tells how his own marriage was touched by brokenness. He wasn’t unfaithful or anything, but in trying to be a good pastor he neglected his relationship with his wife, and as time passed she became angry and bitter. After carrying this bitterness inside herself for months and letting a wall of silence develop, she let him know what was going on. This didn’t end the silence. They continued living together, but without either love or forgiveness. Wangerin confesses that his wife couldn’t forgive him, because his "sin was greater than her capacity to forgive, had lasted longer than her kindness, had grown more oppressive than her goodness." His sin, he writes, was the "murder of her spirit, the unholy violation of her sole identity -- the blithe assumption of her presence, as though she were furniture."2

This relationship experienced rebirth and she found the strength to forgive him, but unfortunately there are relationships that become so distorted that there is no way to repair the damage. The only option is divorce, and when this happens, it’s kind of like a death. Except that in this case it’s not the couple that dies, it’s the relationship. The only thing you can do at this point is grieve the loss of something precious and then let God's grace heal you.

Though I strongly believe that marriage is for a lifetime, I also recognize that things don’t always work out the way hope. Maybe that comes from being the child of divorce. I’m hopeful, but I’m also realistic. Our brokenness can so badly mess up a relationship that it can’t be put back together, and when that happens, all we can do is trust in God’s grace and receive healing and newness in Christ.

Jesus’ words sound kind of harsh, but I think he offers couples a word of encouragement. He calls on them to take their relationship seriously and to nurture it. Never take it for granted, because this relationship is a gift from God. And to those who have experienced the brokenness of divorce, Jesus offers a message of healing. It’s not the way things are supposed to be, but sometimes that’s the way it is, and God’s grace is sufficient to bring wholeness to our lives. It might not undo the past, but it does offer a way forward that brings healing and wholeness to our lives.

1. Walter Wangerin, As for Me and My House, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), 44-46.

2.Story told in passim in Wangerin, pp. 65-91.

Preached at First Christian Church, Lompoc
18th Sunday after Pentecost
October 8, 2006

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Broadening the Circle


Mark 9:38-41

Cheryl grew up a Giants fan, but during college she succumbed to the ways of darkness and became a Dodger fan. I don’t know how this happened, but it did. After we started dating, we went to a Giants-Dodgers game at Dodger Stadium and each of us wore a different cap. She wore her Dodger cap, and I wore my Giants cap. It’s amazing that a relationship could blossom in such a situation. I mean, how can a Giants fan and Dodger fan live together in peace? Now I must say that in time Cheryl repented of her sins and returned to the fold and now she’s once again a Giant fan. But in the beginning, who would have thought that I could fall in love with a Dodger fan?

After 9/11 President Bush drew a line in the sand and said: "You’re either with us or you’re against us." Apparently the President of Pakistan took that to mean. If you’re not with us, we’ll bomb you out of existence. Whatever the truth is in that exchange, it seems true that in the war on terror there isn’t any middle ground. You are on either the side of good or the side of evil. There’s no being neutral. Now, this message resonates with a lot of people. It seems to make sense, because it’s clear and to the point. It lets everyone know where you stand, and with everyone on board you can accomplish your goal of ridding the world of terrorism. At least that’s the idea. >I see the value of such a clear cut, black and white perspective, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it. It’s a vision of the world that can easily lead to fanaticism and violence. It’s what Robert Jewett and John Shelton call "zealous nationalism." [Captain America and the Crusade against Evil, 2003] And, it’s the same message that Osama Bin Ladin preaches to Muslims. You’re either with us in our struggle with the West or you’re on their side. There’s no middle ground.

When we see the world in such black and white terms, we draw our circle of relationships very narrowly. Birds of a feather, as they say, flock together, but is this the way that Jesus looked at the world?

If they’re not against us, they’re for us.
Jesus' disciples said much the same thing when the Spirit fell on some men who had begun to prophesy. Joshua told Moses to make them stop, because they weren’t part of the leadership team, but Moses said: "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!" (Num. 11:29). It seems that God sometimes has a bigger picture in mind than we do.


World Communion Sunday
Today is World Communion Sunday. It was established decades ago by the Federal Council of Churches as a call to Christian unity at the Lord’s Table. Though we celebrate communion every Sunday, this isn’t true of every church. But today churches from around the world gather at the table to remember Jesus and his call to unity. One loaf, one cup, one body of Christ.

I think it’s also appropriate that we’re receiving the Reconciliation Offering this morning. This offering helps fund ministries that are designed to overcome racism in America. Since World Communion Sunday is a call to build bridges and tear down walls, this seems quite fitting.

Time for Cooperation
There are lots of barriers to cooperation. Some are theological and some are political. Some are cultural and others are ethnic or gender related. When we look at other churches in the community, we sometimes see them as our competitors rather than as our partners in ministry. But, maybe we’d be more successful in our ministries if we were working together.

In this morning’s scripture we hear Jesus reminding us that God doesn’t operate territorially. God doesn’t favor any one country or any one church. As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson put it: "The power of the divine realm does not operate only in sectarian circles."1

We’ve been learning about this in some of our recent activities. We held our retreat at the Presbyterian Church, and we shared in an annual picnic and worship service in the park with Valley of the Flowers Church. We’ve invited Valley of the Flowers to join us in our ministry at the Convalescent Care Center and in the anti-graffiti effort. And assuming the Board approves, we’re going to co-sponsor a City Council Candidates forum with the Presbyterians And this is just the beginning! We could try to compete with other churches, but I think more good will get done this way. And besides the world is looking at us.

Jesus offers us a new model of living together that challenges our tendency toward exclusivism. Instead of closing the circle, he calls us to broaden it by living graciously and generously with one another. The model he uses is a simple one, but it’s ingrained in ancient society. If someone offers you a cup of cold water, they will be blessed because they’ve blessed you. We’re called to do the same as we share the bread and the cup with any who would come and dine at the Lord’s Table. No barriers, no boundaries, just an open circle of God’s love.



1.Ron Allen and Clark Williamson, Preaching the Gospels without Blaming the Jews, (WJK, 2004), 529.

Preached at First Christian Church of Lompoc
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
October 1, 2006

Who’s the Greatest?


Mark 9:30-37

Who’s the greatest? Is it Tiger Woods or Barry Bonds, Terrell Owens or LeBron James? Muhammad Ali said: "I am the Greatest; " But, hockey fans called Wayne Gretzky "The Great One."

History calls leaders who aren’t content to live within inherited borders "the Great." They go out and risk what they have to get more. Alexander the Great was only twenty-one when he became king of Macedonia, but before he died of malaria twelve years later he’d built the greatest empire the world had ever seen. Along the way he defeated the mighty Persian empire and marched to India, planting cities and spreading Greek culture as he went. So, whether on the field of battle or on the floor of the stadium, the great ones are winners. If we’re honest, we want to be great too.

Fame can be intoxicating and we love it when people tell us how great we are. It won’t do any good to deny it – we love the applause! Unfortunately fame can be fleeting. You can win the Super Bowl one year and fall to last place the next. Alexander was defeated not by an army but by a bug.


REVELATION OF THE PASSION

Heading home to Capernaum, Jesus began telling the disciples about their future together. He warned them that death lay in his future. For some reason they didn’t hear the warning, because as the Phillips translation puts it, they were "completely mystified by this saying." And so, instead of asking Jesus what he meant they moved onto a more fruitful argument, that is, who’s the greatest?

ARGUMENT ABOUT GREATNESS

In reading about this conversation, I can’t help but think about the football player who celebrates a good play even though his team is down by three touchdowns. It’s clear that the disciples didn’t understand who Jesus was. They had their own ideas about what the kingdom of God would be like, and it didn’t involve anybody dying, especially Jesus.

Like most of us, when we hear things that don’t fit our way of thinking, they ignored Jesus and began to argue about who was going to sit next to him when he got his throne. Everyone, it seems, wanted to be Prime Minister, even though Jesus wasn’t taking any applications.


THE FIRST SHALL BE LAST

When they got to Capernaum, Jesus asked them what they had been arguing about. It was kind of like a parent asking the kids why they were fighting in the back seat of the car. And, like children caught with their hands in the cookie jar, the disciples became totally quiet. They quickly realized that their argument didn’t fit with what Jesus had been talking about.

Now, Jesus didn't reprimand them, but instead, like a good teacher, he gathered them together and offered them a different definition of greatness. The kingdom of God, he told them, isn’t like a human kingdom. In this kingdom greatness is defined by servanthood. The first will be last and the last will be first, which makes the kingdom of God the polar opposite of human kingdoms. It’s really a matter of apples and oranges, because in the kingdom of God there are totally different categories for defining winning and losing, success and failure.

WELCOMING THE CHILDREN


To get his point across, Jesus grabbed a child and placed her in the middle of the circle. Though, we don't know anything about the child, for some reason I think Jesus chose a little girl, maybe one about five years old. Now we think Jesus did this because as Art Linkletter said, "Kids say the darnedest things.” But, things were different back then. First century teachers didn't use children to illustrate their points, because children were nonentities, especially girls. You see, until a person reached maturity, they didn't count. At best they were ignored and at worst they were little more than slaves. Childhood was often horrific, with 30% percent of children dying at birth and 30% of those who did survive dying by age six. By age sixteen 60% of the children who survived birth had died of famine, disease, or dislocation. You see, it wasn't fun being a kid back then! And so, kids weren't the best examples of innocence. I mean, to call someone a child was considered a "serious insult."*

The reader of the gospel would have expected Jesus to put the little girl away, annoyed at having been bothered. But, Jesus took the child into his arms and said, "whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me." Jesus didn't say, isn't this child just wonderful, isn't she so cuddly and loveable? That’s how we hear it. Oh God loves us because were cute and cuddly. But that’s not how the disciples heard it. What they heard was: when you receive the lowest of the low, you’re receiving God. Now, this isn’t the way we think of children. At least in principle we value children and we react in horror at stories of abuse and neglect. So, maybe if we’re going to hear Jesus’ point, we need a different illustration. Could Jesus be talking about a homeless person? Or, maybe an undocumented immigrant? Jesus says, how we treat such a person is how we treat him, and the way we treat him is the way we will treat God.

So, what does it mean to be great? Does it mean succeeding at football or business? Are Alexander the Great, Douglas MacArthur, Muhammad Ali and Barry Bonds exemplars of true greatness? Or, perhaps someone else would be better, someone like Mother Theresa, Father Damian, or Mahatma Gandhi? We’ve grown accustomed to equating greatness with power and strength, but Jesus offers us a different paradigm. In the kingdom of God, the one who wants to be great will be a servant. Of course if you’re a servant you won't be concerned about greatness. You’ll only be concerned about the other person. And that’s the mark of greatness according to Jesus!



*Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh quoted in Tom Long, "Why a Child?" in Pulpit Resources. (July, August, September 2000): 51.


Preached at First Christian Church of Lompoc
16th Sunday after Pentecost
September 24, 2006


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

All Are Welcome! or ?

James 2:1-10

Punctuation makes all the difference in the world. A period says one thing, a question mark says another. That’s why English teachers will ding you for poor punctuation. They know how important punctuation is to good communication.

This morning’s sermon title, includes two different forms of punctuation. It’s not that I don’t know which one to use. I did it to make a point. The meaning of the sermon title changes depending on which form of punctuation I use. An exclamation mark says something like: Come on in and enjoy the water. A question mark says something like: "I’m not sure you should join us. Someone might not think it proper." One message is inclusive and the other is not.

PEW RENTS AND THE SYRO-PHOENICIAN WOMAN
In search of safety, human beings tend to be exclusive. We like boundaries. But James says: don’t show partiality. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, black or white, a mansion dweller or a street person, if you come to church, you’re welcome. That’s because everyone has equal value in the eyes of God.

Once upon a time churches rented out their pews. I guess they forgot to read James, because the more you paid the better the pew, and if you couldn’t pay the rent you sat in the back, or in the balcony. Of course, this practice solved the age-old problem of coming to church and finding someone sitting in your place. But, James wasn’t the only one to deal with this problem. Paul had to deal with potluck dinners in Corinth. Now you ask: how can you mess up a potluck? Well, what happened was the rich people brought a feast but didn’t share with the poor. That meant that some of the people went away stuffed and others went away hungry. Paul told them it might be better if they didn’t have potlucks if they couldn’t share.

Now, Jesus preached a message of inclusion, but it took an encounter with a Syro-Phoenician woman for him to see Gentiles in a positive light. He met the woman while dining in the Syrian city of Tyre. This woman barged into the house and pleaded with Jesus to come and heal her daughter. Now it took a lot of guts to do this and Jesus’ response seems absolutely cruel. He basically told her to get at the back of the line, because "the children get fed first. If there’s anything left over, the dogs get it" (Mk. 7, MSG). I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know and love. As harsh as it might sound, that’s the way Jews saw Gentiles and Gentiles saw Jews. Despite his words of rejection the woman persisted, and she convinced him to heal her daughter. By doing this she helped break down the barrier between Gentile and Jew. Paul later summarized this principle in Galatians 3:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no
longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28).
This is a message of welcome. There is no question mark here. Unfortunately Christians have been slow to learn the lesson. Too often we listen more to our culture than to Jesus. This is even true in America, where Christianity has had a significant influence on culture and society. Remember that it took a Civil War to abolish slavery, and a lot longer before African-Americans got the right to vote in a large part of this country. Women didn’t get to vote in federal elections until the 1920s. Even today most churches refuse to ordain women and many keep them from having leadership in the church. So, I guess we’re still learning what it means to be a place of welcome.

A Different Sort of Church
Two thousand years ago the church was born as a Jewish sect., but Jesus broke down the barriers between Jew and Gentile. It took a lot of pushing and shoving on God’s part, but in time people caught on. From Peter’s encounter with Cornelius to Paul’s journeys, the Spirit broke down walls and invited the world into the church. At first the church spread north and west, following those famous Roman highways, and more recently the church has spread east and south. Many experts say that by mid-century only 20% of Christians will be non-Hispanic whites. I think Paul would be pleased to see all this diversity in the modern church. But, we’ve still got a long way to go before we can say that all the walls have been torn down.

Becoming a Welcoming Church
We decided at our retreat that our church should be a place of welcome, and it’s now one of our five core values. But what does it mean to be a place of welcome? I think it means more than we’re a friendly place where everyone knows your name. Being a place of welcome starts with warm hospitality, but it’s more than that.

The call to be a welcoming place begins at the Lord’s Table. Because it belongs to the Lord it’s not our place to decide who eats and who doesn’t. But, that’s only the beginning. The reason I put in the question mark is that I wonder if there are any limits to our hospitality. Does it matter which language a person speaks, or the color of their skin? Does age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or economic status matter? When we say with Paul that we’re all one in Christ, what does that mean?

It’s going to take time for us to truly understand what it means to be a welcoming place. And just because we put out the welcome mat doesn’t mean everybody is going to come knocking on our door. Not everyone will be comfortable with our message of inclusion or with the freedom we give to interpret the Bible. Some will be offended because we have women elders and the president of our denomination is a woman. They may want us to be clearer about what we believe on certain political and even theological issues. Still, I believe that God wants us to put out the mat and then learn what that word means.

As we learn what it means to be a welcoming church, it will be good to remember one of the foundational principles of our Disciples heritage: "In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity." Because our unity is rooted in Jesus Christ, we needn’t break fellowship over matters of music, worship style, politics, social class, or even our interpretation of the bible. This can make things kind of messy at times, but that’s what it takes to be an exclamation point kind of church!

Preached: September 10, 2006
15th Sunday after Pentecost
First Christian Church of Lompoc