Saturday, January 27, 2007

THE POWER OF LOVE

1 Corinthians 13

Love covers a multitude of sins, or something like that! Love can be romantic, but that’s not always true. When I say "I love Cheryl," hopefully that means something different from saying "I love the San Francisco Giants" or "I love pizza." Because "love is a many-splendored thing" it’s about feelings and emotions, but all too often feelings and emotions can change from one moment to the next. And so love can be fickle and fleeting. Consider the teenager who falls desperately in love, one day, thinking it’s the real thing, and yet more often than not, by the next day they’ve moved on to someone else.

We say "God is love," but do we have in mind an emotion that’s fleeting and dependent on the moment? Our English word "love" has many nuances and uses, but the Greeks had four very precise words for love, which C.S. Lewis placed into two categories: Gift-Love and Need-Love. Lewis wrote:
"The typical example of Gift-love would be that love which moves a man to work and save for the future well-being of his family which he will die without sharing or seeing; of the second, that which sends a lonely or frightened child to its mother's arms."1

1 Corinthians 13 sings a hymn about this gift-love, which Paul places right in the middle of his response to church conflict. Though we use it regularly for weddings, this hymn isn’t simply about emotion, it’s about practical living. It’s a love that calls on warring factions to lay down their arms and embrace each other. Now, that’s powerful love.

LOVE IS ESSENTIAL

The hymn begins in the first person: "If I speak with tongues"; "If I have all prophetic powers"; "if I give away all my possessions"; "if I embrace the flames of martyrdom." But none of this matters, Paul says, if you don’t have love. It’s not that these gifts and abilities and even the willingness to die is a bad thing, but without love they have no purpose or power. They’re nothing more than noise and useless gestures. But when accompanied by divine love, these gifts and abilities and sacrifices, take on power that can change the world.

LOVE IS PRACTICAL

The Greek word used here in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape, a word that’s related to the Hebrew word hesed, which means "steadfast love." Though we tend to think of love in emotional and romantic ways, this kind of love is very practical in nature. It looks outward and seeks the best for others. It’s patient and kind; it isn't jealous, boastful, arrogant or rude. It doesn't insist on its own way, nor does it become irritable or resentful. It protests injustice and rejoices in the truth. As the New Living Translation puts it: "Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance." This kind of love is full of hope and it’s welcoming to all.

Such a love isn’t easy to come by, and yet as we are transformed by the love of God that dwells within us, it can and will take hold. It doesn’t happen overnight, because that transformation requires maturity and commitment. Although none of us will perfectly live out this love, it’s still our calling and purpose as followers of the one we believe perfectly embodied God’s love, and that person is Jesus. As Jesus said to his disciples, "I came not to be served, but to serve" (Mark 10:45).

LOVE IS PERMANENT

This "gift-love" does have an important partner that fits in the category of "need-love," a love that lasts only as long as the need lasts. Despite it’s fleeting nature, it’s not without its value. Lew Smedes, my ethics professor in seminary, says this about Eros:

"Eros flickers and fades as the winds of desire rise and wane. Change is the way of life for Eros. This indeed is part of the power of Eros. Its very fragility creates the possibility of repeated excitement. We could not endure a steady stream of Eros at its highest pitch: we need the valleys to be inspired by the peaks."2

Eros ebbs and flows, it rises with the excitement of newness and dies when that newness fades. That doesn’t make Eros something to be despised, it just highlights its impermanence. As wonderful as it is, agapic love needs Eros, in spite of its limitations. Eros, Smedes writes,

"is the driving power for personal growth. It may not endure unchanged into eternity, but its unrelenting urges move us beyond ourselves in this life. All creativity rises from the need-power of Eros. Eros is a drive created by human need for a share in what is beautiful; it is life's aesthetic power. . . . Eros is a drive rising from human need for personal completion and human communion."3

Eros drives us, but agape transforms us. Eros drives us out into the world, but agape motivates us to serve the leper, the homeless person, the one who is dying, even though we know that no reward is in the offing. It enables us to do what we wouldn’t otherwise consider possible. Consider the love that enables a husband or wife to stand by their spouse through serious and even debilitating illness. It’s the love that allows a parent to keep loving and caring for a rebellious child. Agapic love is what allows us to risk our lives for one another. But this love only exists because of an infusion of God’s grace. Perhaps this is why the older translation of the word is Charity.

Divine love doesn’t replace natural love, as if we must, in Lewis’ words, "throw away our silver to make room for the gold." 4 It’s simply this: that which is natural is transformed by grace into sweet charity. And there’s no better expression of this than the incarnation. As Christians we affirm the mystery that God has become flesh and dwelt among us. In Christ the human and the divine come together to perfectly display the power of love. And it is a love that embraces us and empowers us to love even as he loves.

  1. C.S. Lewis The Four Loves, (HBJ, 1960), 11.
  2. Lewis Smedes, Love Within Limits, (Eerdmans, 1978), 120.
  3. Smedes, 120-21.
  4. Lewis, Four Loves, 184.


Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall

First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Lompoc, CA

4th Sunday after Epiphany

January 28, 2007

Sunday, January 21, 2007

LISTEN TO THE PREACHER

Nehemiah 8:1-10

Legend has it that when I was a very young child I would stand up in my crib and preach. I'd shake my finger and prattle away, speaking to no one in particular. I can't say that I was a great preacher in those days, but I did make an impression on my grandmother, who told my mother: "Someday Bob will be a preacher." Now, I can't confirm this story since my memory doesn't go back that far, but if it’s true, I hope I’ve improved on the quality of my sermons!

It takes a bit of audacity to be a preacher. Barbara Brown Taylor compares the preacher to a tight rope walker:

Watching a preacher climb into the pulpit is a lot like watching a tight rope walker climb onto the platform as the drum roll begins. The first clears her throat and spreads her notes; the second loosens his shoulders and stretches out one rosin-soled foot to test the taut rope. They both step out into the air, trusting everything they have done to prepare for this moment as they surrender themselves to it, counting now on something beyond themselves to help them do
what they love and fear and most want to do. If they reach the other side without falling, it is skill but is also grace -- a benevolent God's decision to let these daredevils tread the high places where ordinary mortals have the good sense not to go.1

There is much truth to this description of the preacher’s daring, because you never know what’s going to happen when the sermon begins. Some in the congregation might be offended and others might decide that what’s said isn’t worth the time given to it. But others might find in these very human words a word of hope from God.

Preaching has always played a central role in the church’s life. So whether it’s long or short; eloquent or halting, we expect to hear a word from God that will encourage, console, challenge or even incite us to action. And if a word from God does emerge, it will carry the power of the God who spoke the universe into existence (Genesis 1). We come hoping that our lives will be transformed by this most powerful of words. As a preacher, I come in the hope that my words will be transformed by the Spirit of God into God’s life changing Word.

THE REQUEST FOR THE WORD

Because a sermon is more than a speech, it involves more than simply a speaker and an audience. A sermon is a communal act that involves preacher, congregation, and God. Though it’s usually delivered as a monologue it can’t succeed if the congregation and God aren’t part of the process. It doesn’t matter if the delivery is eloquent or not, it only matters how it’s received by the people.

The Jewish exiles returned home from Babylon to find their homeland in ruins. When Ezra the priest returned home somewhat later, all he found was a small temple and city walls that were still in disrepair. The people struggled with daily life, wondering if Yahweh even cared. In the midst of their despair they longed for a word from God, a word that would give them hope to face tomorrow. And as they wondered, someone found a scroll containing the Torah. The people begged the priests to read it to them, and so Ezra, the Priest, picked up the scroll and read it to them.

A TIME FOR READING AND INSTRUCTING

Ezra had a wooden platform constructed so the people could hear him, and then, accompanied by his fellow leaders, he began to read from the scroll. The people came and stood there and listened because they believed that this scroll contained something special.

He began reading at 6:00 A.M. and didn't stop until noon. As he read from the scroll, the people listened with rapt attention. No one fell asleep, no one day dreamed, they just stood there glued to the words of the text. They could’ve been from Leviticus or Deuteronomy, Genesis or Numbers. It didn’t matter because the people were so hungry for a word from God that nothing could distract them.

As Ezra read, the people prostrated themselves on the ground and lifted their hands toward heaven. As the day wore on the people began to worship and the Levites taught small groups, interpreting the text so that the people could understand it and apply it. You see, it’s not enough to read it, you have to also interpret it. Perhaps it was at that moment that the sermon was born.

I’ve always liked the way theologian Karl Barth spoke of a threefold Word of God. He said that God's Word comes first of all in Jesus, the Word of God Incarnate. From this Word comes the second, the Word written, which we call Scripture. It points us back to the incarnate Word. And then there’s the Word of God proclaimed, or the sermon. Barth believed, and I believe, that when the sermon is truly rooted in Scripture it will point us to Christ, the self-revelation of God in human form.

THE RESPONSE OF FAITH

Psalm 19 says that the Law has the power to revive the soul, make wise the simple, cause the heart to rejoice, and to enlighten the eyes. Because it endures forever, it’s more desirable than gold and sweeter than honey. So powerful is this Word that this group of people who hadn’t heard the Law read in generations found themselves listening intently and receptively.

As they listened, they discovered the disparity between who they were and who God wanted them to be. And so they fell on their faces and began to weep. But Ezra wanted them to hear something else. Although they may have gone astray, Ezra wanted them to hear a word of hope. He wanted them to discover the energizing and liberating power of the Torah. And so, rather than telling them to put on sack cloth and ashes, he told them to celebrate with a feast of rich food and sweet drinks. He also reminded them to share their bounty with those who came unprepared. This serves as a reminder to us that our meals as Christ's body are communal. They felt the need to mourn, but Ezra told them that you can't mourn on a day that’s sacred to the Lord. The only proper response is to rejoice that God has reached out to us in grace so as to transform our lives. As we hear our own word from God, may we hear this promise of Ezra to us: "The Joy of the Lord is your strength."

1. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 1993), 76.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 21, 2007

Saturday, January 13, 2007

THE REDEEMED BRIDE

Isaiah 62:1-5

A bride always stands out at a wedding. Even the groom is overshadowed by her presence. To give you a sense of the disparity between bride and groom, let me tell you about a Midwestern tradition called the groom’s cake. Being from the West Coast I’d never heard of such a thing, but in Kansas, it seems that every wedding reception has a groom’s cake. Compared to what has to be called the "bride’s cake," this little cake is humble and nondescript. It’s just a simple ordinary cake – no tiers, arches, or fountains. It’s just cake, frosting, and maybe the groom’s name.

Perhaps the reason why a bride stands out on her wedding day is that she’s simply more beautiful than the groom. No one pays much attention when the groom and his attendants enter the sanctuary with little fanfare, but when the bride's maids begin to enter everyone pays attention. They know that the real show is about to begin. The crowd turns and watches expectantly, hoping to get a good look at the bride as she walks down the aisle in all her glory. Entering with much pomp and circumstance, we "ooh and ah" at her beauty, her splendor, and her radiance. Bedecked in a flowing white gown that she’ll wear only once at great cost to her family, she’s the star of the show.

When the groom sees his beautiful bride, he’s just as impressed as everyone else. He beams from ear to ear, because at the end of the day he gets to go home with this wonder of beauty. Now, I speak of this spectacle from experience, because I too was once a groom, and my bride looked radiant the day she walked down the aisle to meet me at the altar.

A CHANGE OF NAME
This morning’s text celebrates a wedding of great importance. Like an attentive groom God declares his joy at seeing the beauty and splendor of his bride, even though this bride is a scraggly group of exiles wandering home from Babylon to the holy city of Jerusalem, This remnant people returned home to find a wasteland. The temple and the palaces were all destroyed, and so they didn’t feel much like a beautiful bride, but this word from the prophet offers hope. Like Cinderella, who is transformed from a humble maid into a beautiful princess, so God will transform Jerusalem and vindicate his bride.

As a sign of hope, God changes the bride's name. Although things seem to be changing in our culture, tradition suggests that a new bride will take on her husband's name. This signifies a change in relationship. Though Cheryl isn’t a traditionalist, she did take on my name. And, so on July 9, 1983, Cheryl ceased to be simply Cheryl Otis, and from that point on she became Cheryl O. Cornwall.
In this wedding ceremony described by the prophet, God says to his bride: from now on you will be a "crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand" of God. And your name will change from "Forsaken" and "Desolate" to "City of God's Delight" and "Bride of God." God changes the name of a devastated Jerusalem to signal that the city's situation has changed. Yes, the prophet declares: The "Lord delights in you" and "your land shall be married."
THE JOYOUS GROOM
When I saw Cheryl standing at the doorway of the sanctuary, my heart jumped with joy. To think that someone that beautiful would marry me, the poor seminarian, was more than I could take in. Now I know when Cheryl was growing up, she never envisioned marrying a seminarian or a preacher. But on that sunny day in July, she seemed happy to be taking the plunge with me. And so, I was blessed!

The prophet writes: "as a bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you." This is no ordinary joy; it’s a joy that can’t be contained. God's joy at seeing his bride isn't halfhearted, it's absolutely jubilant. And as God takes Israel to be his bride, God transforms her. Where once she was barren and forlorn, now she bears God's radiance and splendor.

THE BRIDE OF CHRIST
The New Testament says something similar about the church. It speaks of the church as the bride of Christ. This image speaks of the sense of intimacy that exists between Christ and the Church. Jesus says to us, you are my bride and I rejoice over you. As recipients of this promise of transformation, we move from being forsaken and desolate to being the object of God’s delight. The book of Revelation, often mixes the metaphors of bride and New Jerusalem, and it lifts up the beauty of the Lamb of God’s bride. It declares that Christ and the church will live together in intimate union, so that the church might be adorned with God's glory and radiance (Rev. 21:9-14).
When Ephesians 5 urges husbands to love their wives, even as Christ loves the church, we hear the voice of the gushing groom of Isaiah 62. Seeking to present his bride to the world as holy and full of glory, Christ washes the church with "water by the word," and he makes sure that the bride is without spot or wrinkle. Everything is in place, so that the bride’s beauty might declare the glory of God to the world.
I must admit that there is at least a hint of patriarchalism in all of this. That’s to be expected of a text that dates from a patriarchal age, but hopefully the point comes through. We have been invited by God to enter an intimate relationship with God through Jesus. God promises to bless us and care for us. Because of this relationship we will be transformed and we’ll become agents of transformation. Our task is simple: We are called to invite others to share in an intimate relationship with God so that they too might be transformed. Our calling is to participate in God’s work of transformation. The goal of this work of transformation is the birth of a world that includes rather than excludes, a world that shares rather than hoards, a world where the color of one’s skin no longer matters, a world where love rather than fear is the guiding premise of life. This was also the dream of another prophet named Martin Luther King, whose memory we honor this weekend.

Preached by
Dr. Bob Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church of Lompoc
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
January 14, 2007

Saturday, January 06, 2007

A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS

Matthew 2:1-12

You thought that Christmas was over, but here in the church the Christmas decorations remain. There’s a reason for this. We have one more thing to do – we have to put the wise men into the story. As everyone knows, a complete manger scene needs wise men. A complete set has Mary, Joseph, shepherds, angels, a few animals, and of course three kings. There’s only one problem with this set up. Luke doesn’t have magi or a star and Matthew doesn’t have a manger or shepherds.

On Christmas Eve we heard one story, now we hear the other, and as we listen to this story we transition from Christmas to Epiphany. Matthew really doesn’t have a Christmas story, instead he tells an Epiphany story. An epiphany is an appearance of God and such an appearance is often a moment of enlightenment. Since the magi represent the east, maybe we could use a Buddhist term here: – a word like "mindfulness." The Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh defines mindfulness as the "kind of energy that helps us to be aware of what is going on inside of us and around us, and anybody can be mindful."

To be enlightened is to be mindful of God, yourself, and your neighbor. Many of you know I grew up Episcopalian, and each year our church celebrated Epiphany with a service called the Feast of Lights. I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember that we would darken the sanctuary, and then we’d light lots of candles to mark the light of God coming into our lives. Of course, being that I was a kid, what I most remember is the party and the cake we had afterwards.

In Matthew’s story a light appears in the darkness in the form of a star, which appears in the sky. The magi, who are really astrologers, follow the star’s light westward to the Christ child so that they might experience enlightenment. You may have heard the slogan: "wise men still seek him." I guess that’s kind of the point. When you truly seek out Jesus you will become enlightened and wise.

Signs and Wonders

The ancient world looked for signs. If they saw a comet or an eclipse, they would try to find meaning in these events. These portents could signal good times or bad, depending on how they were interpreted. And so, when a fiery meteorite hit Switzerland in November 1492, the Emperor Maximilian went out to see it. Not knowing what to make of it, he checked with his counselors who told him this was a sign from God, signaling God’s favor on the Emperor. The Emperor was so pleased with this interpretation that he had the rock displayed in the local church. (from Owen Gingerich, God's Universe, Harvard, 2006, 43-44).

Two Kingdoms
A point of light has appeared and it’s a sign that God’s kingdom is present among us. That holiday favorite, "We Three Kings," kind of gets things mixed up. Since Matthew’s visitors were really astrologers and not kings, there really are only two kings in this story. There’s Herod, who is the reigning king of Judea and representative of Caesar. But the light in the darkness pointed elsewhere, to Jesus, the little boy who lived in Bethlehem.

Herod and Jesus represent two very different kinds of king. It’s not surprising that the magi went to Herod first looking for the new born king. Where else would you look besides a palace? They thought they were coming to see Herod’s heir, but Herod saw things differently. You see Herod didn’t like challengers, even if they were little boys living in his own palace. In Matthew’s story Herod has all the little boys in Bethlehem murdered, just to be sure there would be no challengers.

Herod represents human authority run amuck. He represents "the powers that be" and the "rulers of this world." His is a kingdom of brute force and dominating power. Much has been made of Saddam Hussein lately, and Herod was a lot like Saddam. But Herod and Saddam are just the extreme forms of this domination system. They represent the kind of top-down, take-no-prisoners, power for the sake of power, kind of rule. You can find such attitudes even in democracies like ours, only you have to look harder to see the evidence.
Not finding their king in Jerusalem, the Magi head for Bethlehem where the signs in the heavens pointed to the little house of Joseph and Mary. There they find a different sort of king and a different sort of kingdom. This is a kingdom of light rather than darkness, it’s one of love instead of domination. Instead of enslaving us, it sets us free. In fact, it’s the kind of kingdom described in the Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, the ones who hunger after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peace makers and the persecuted. This sort of kingdom is very different from the one represented by Herod.

In his homily at President Ford’s state funeral, Robert Certain, the late President’s pastor, spoke of Gerald Ford as an exemplar of the Beatitudes. From what I know of him, I think I would agree. He was gentle, merciful, gracious, and he was a peacemaker. He didn’t seek power nor did he seek to hold on to it. And he represented a night and day difference from his own predecessor.

Signs of God’s Kingdom in the Here and Now
So, where do we see signs of God’s kingdom in the "here and now?" If you’re looking for lights in the sky, you’re looking in the wrong place. Since I’ve already mentioned one former President, why not another. Remember when the older President Bush spoke of "a thousand points of light?" He was talking about voluntarism, but on this Epiphany Sunday, as we celebrate the coming of God’s light into the world, I think it’s an apt phrase.

You will find the light of God present wherever you find people at work in the world, caring for the poor, teaching, feeding the hungry, building homes for the homeless, giving a shoulder to cry on, standing up for those who are persecuted or oppressed. Next weekend we’ll celebrate Martin Luther King’s Birthday. I think Dr. King is a good example of a point of light in the world. The good news is that each of us, can be a point of light, a sign of God’s presence in the world. The key is to be mindful of God’s presence in us and around us.


Preached by:
Dr. Bob Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
First Sunday after Epiphany
January 7, 2007