Saturday, February 24, 2007

PASSING THE TEST

Luke 4:1-13

We’re tempted to take shortcuts, especially when we feel pressured, vulnerable and weak. The LA Times recently ran a story about the prevalence and the acceptability of cheating among high school athletes. In fact, the survey suggests that coaches are encouraging their student-athletes to cheat and cut corners academically to gain the advantage. When we’re confronted with the possibility of sure success, it’s often easy to rationalize our choices. We say to ourselves, no one’s getting hurt and I’m just helping myself out. You see how easy it is?

Luke tells the story of the day Jesus encountered the Tempter. He asks the question: Who is Jesus and what’s his calling? If he’s the Son of God, then what does that mean? The story picks up as Jesus is ending a forty-day fast in the desert, and the tempter puts the question to him – why not take a short cut and achieve your dreams?

If only all our choices were easy ones – black and white, two equally powerful but strikingly different choices. There’s right and there’s wrong, good and evil, you’re with us or you’re against us. Because we too often think of evil only in terms of violence, terror, and repulsiveness, we forget that often it’s much more subtle. In fact, evil can be very attractive, especially when it promises power and fame. The end, justifies the means, which is why ordinarily good people engage can engage in dirty politics.
The Tests

The tempter asks Jesus three questions; one personal, one political, and one spiritual. First he’s asked: If you’re hungry and you’re the Son of God, why not turn these rocks into a sandwich. That doesn’t sound so bad, you have the power, so take care of yourself. But weak though he is, Jesus declares that God alone is the provider of bread and that bread alone is not enough. It is God’s Word, not bread, that is our sustenance (Deut. 8:3).
Jesus passed the first test, but the second one was more difficult because it asked for a change of allegiance. The Tempter says: Why not join me politically, because as you know, I’m in charge of all earthly kingdoms. If you put your trust in me, I’ll give you power. In hearing this temptation, we’re reminded of Israel's desire to have a king just like all the other nations (Deut. 6:13). As enticing as this offer is, Jesus answers that all power ultimately comes from God, and so you can’t offer me what you don’t really have.
The final test is perhaps the most interesting one, because it seems so modern. Why not achieve your goal by using a bit of theatrics? If you jump off the wall of the temple you know that God’s angels will rescue you, and that will draw a crowd and prove your importance. The tempter says: if you want to quote scripture, I’ve got one for you. After all, Psalm 91 says, that if you fall the angels will come and lift you up so you won't be hurt! There is something of this temptation in the beliefs of the snake handlers, who take the longer ending of Mark 16 as a command to handle snakes and drink poison as a way of proving that God protects his children. Now the longer ending isn’t original to Mark, but that’s not the point, which is: Don’t put God to the test. Jesus helps us understand that God is not a God of the spectacle. To embrace the spectacle is to embrace darkness.

Passing a Different Test

Jesus chose to take a more difficult path, but that path leads not to darkness but to light. Instead of seeking power for the sake of power, he chose the way of the cross. And so, it’s in the cross that we see Jesus as Son of God.

As God's people we face the same temptations. We hear the call to share the gospel, but we also hear the temptation to take the easy way, the way of power and spectacle. The experts tell us we’ll be more successful if we remove the cross and Communion, because they’re just not modern enough. They tell us to give people what they want, but is what they want what they need?
Lent issues a call to self-denial. We hear in its message the call to pick up the cross and follow Jesus wherever he may lead. The road ahead may be longer and more difficult, because we must choose to say no to the world’s offer of power. It is as Henri Nouwen puts it:
In this country of pioneers and self-made people, in which ambition is praised from the first moment we enter school until we enter the competitive world of free enterprise, we cannot imagine that any good can come from giving up power or not even desiring it. (Henri Nouwen, "Temptation" Sojourners, July 1981)
And yet this is what Jesus did and it’s what he calls us to do as well. But the good news is that we won’t be going alone. As Hebrews reminds us: We have a high priest, who can sympathize with our weakness, because he has been tested in every way like us, and yet he is without sin (Hebrews 4:14-15).
Luke tells us that after the tempter "exhausted every way of putting him to the test, [he] left until an opportune moment." The tests didn't end there, in fact, they haven't ended yet. Every day we must say no to the tempter and choose instead the way of the cross. And as we walk the Lenten path, we remember that Jesus passed the test because he kept his trust focused on God. He understood the whole message of Psalm 91:
Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
Yes, our hope lies in the Lord who chose to give up power and take up the cross, because that’s what it means to be the Son of God!
Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, California
February 25, 2007
1st Sunday of Lent

Saturday, February 17, 2007

MOUNTAIN TOP EXPERIENCES

Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-36

I'm not a big mountain climber, but in my youth I climbed a few. Once I climbed Diamond Peak in Oregon. Standing more than 9000 feet above sea level, it wasn’t Everest, but it still wasn’t an easy hike for a thirteen-year-old Boy Scout. When I got to the top, I found a view that was breathtaking. I could see for miles in every direction, from the high plains of central Oregon in the east to the fertile Willamette Valley to the West. Looking north and south I could see the whole spine of the Cascade range punctuated by high peaks. Far below was Crescent Lake, the site of our Scout camp and off in the other direction was Odell Lake, both crystal clear and blue. There’s something truly awe inspiring about great mountains; they remind us of our own smallness and the grandeur of creation. When we stand on a mountain top, we also might find ourselves drawn into the presence of God.

GOING TO THE MOUNTAIN

From the earliest times we’ve gone to the mountains looking for God. From Mount Olympus to Mt. Sinai, we’ve sensed that God is up there. Besides, going to the mountains is to get away from the everyday routines of human life. The mountain offers peace and rest, quiet and serenity. They also allow us to see beyond the confines of our lives.

What takes place on the mountain, however, can happen internally whenever we listen closely for the voice of God. It could be at the beach or the desert or in a quiet room. The place doesn't really matter, the point is finding a place that allows us to get beyond the limits of daily life, a place that allows us to feel, to hear, to smell, to see, and even to taste God's presence.

I remember being in such a place, though I didn't take advantage of it. One summer, I cleared brush in the mountains. I was alone for much of the time, miles from the closest person, kept company only by a dog. The property sat at the 7000-foot level and after I turned off the generator at night, extinguishing the last bit of artificial light, the stars and moon glistened above me. The stars seemed so close that I felt I could reach out and take them from the sky. If I’d known better, I’d have listened more for God’s voice. I didn't have any great visions that summer or insightful revelations, but I can understand why people go to the mountains seeking clarity and a sense of God's presence. On the mountain top the distractions are few and God's presence is more apparent.

EXPERIENCING THE MOUNTAIN

Mountain top experiences can be life changing. That’s why we go on retreats and to camp. Just this week I decided I needed to spend a few hours away from things and so I drove up to the Mount Calvary Retreat Center in Santa Barbara. I needed time away to free myself from the daily grind – and liberation from my blog.
When Moses went to the mountain he had a profound experience of God’s presence. When he returned with the tablets of the law, his face radiated God's presence. So bright was his countenance that he had to put on a veil. Jesus also went up the mountain, accompanied by three of his disciples, to pray. Jesus needed to get away, to be refreshed, and to refocus. Like Moses, Jesus' countenance changed. His clothes turned a dazzling white and his face shined with God’s glory, and as he stood there praying, two figures appeared to him. They were Moses and Elijah; one symbolic of the Law and the other of the Prophets, and each came to bear witness to Jesus’ calling.

The path to the mountain includes prayer, contemplation, perhaps fasting and the reading of scripture. Whatever steps we take, the point is to listen for God's voice and to taste a bit of heaven. We go to the mountain to find rest for our souls, for as Catholic writer Thomas Keating says:

`Rest' implies that we are beginning to experience the mind of Christ, his awareness of the Godhead as infinite mercy, concern for everything that is, and the servant of creation. This rest is our reassurance at the deepest level that everything is okay. The ultimate freedom is to rest in God in suffering as well as in joy. God was just as present to Jesus in his abandonment on the cross as on the Mountain of Transfiguration. [Thomas Keating, Reawakenings, (Crossroad, 1992), 127.]
COMING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN
It’s natural to resist returning to the valley below. But as wonderful as the mountain top is, we can't stay there. We have to return to the real world and the responsibilities that define our lives. Moses returned and Jesus returned. Peter offered to make shelters for the three men, but as God spoke from the clouds, Peter received his answer. You can't stay here, you have to go back down the mountain.

Both returned to difficult situations. Moses led a stubborn people and Jesus faced the cross. We go to the mountain searching for refreshment, but once we’re refreshed we must return to the business of life. What’s true of the mountain is true of our experiences of worship together. We come to this place to worship God, to hear the word spoken, and to share in the sacrament of communion. Worship opens the door of heaven, and yet we can't stay here. We have jobs and family and responsibilities that require our attention. The way forward may not be easy, but we don't go alone. When Jesus and the three disciples returned to the valley below they found the other disciples trying to relieve a young girl of spiritual oppression, but they couldn't seem to get it done. No, they hadn't learned enough, they hadn't been to the mountain, and they weren't ready.
We return from the mountain top gifted and prepared servants of God's kingdom. As we come down from the mountain, we’ll be asked to address the needs of those who mourn. We may not have all the answers, but we do have peace to share. We needn't run away from those in need, because God is with us.

It’s rare to see something on TV that reflects spiritual values, but sometimes something pops through. Several years ago an episode of ER told the story of how God’s presence can be experienced in the midst of pain. It told about an encounter between a young Croatian doctor who’d lost his family in the Balkan wars. He’d been carrying his guilt and his grief because he couldn’t save them. He lost his faith, but then he encountered a Catholic Bishop who was dying. At the end of the program the bishop got Luka to share his story and then just before dying himself, the bishop gave Luka absolution. The bishop had been on the mountain and was at peace with God, and though death was at his door, he found the strength to share a bit of peace with a young troubled man.
We can't stay on the mountain forever, though we’re tempted to remain above the fray and remain in the safe confines of the mountain. But we can take that mountain top experience with us into our daily lives and share that transforming joy with our families and our friends and our neighbors so that they too can taste the healing joy of God's presence.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church
Lompoc, CA
February 18, 2007
Transfiguration Sunday

Saturday, February 10, 2007

THE WISDOM OF CREATION

Proverbs 8:22-31

When you see the Grand Canyon, a Hawaiian sunset, or Crater Lake for the first time, I doubt that science questions will pop into your mind. You’ll probably say something like, "wow, isn’t that beautiful!" And then, after taking in the sights for a bit and likely taking a few pictures, you may finally stop to think about how these things of beauty came to be. The first reaction is aesthetic and even spiritual; the second is scientific. Science deals with the how and faith deals with the wow!

Those two different reactions suggest that there’s more than one way to look at things. Neither one is right nor wrong, they’re just different. The scientific angle is extremely important, and it should be honored. But it doesn’t always tell the whole story. That’s where faith comes in. They’re not competitors, they’re complements.

For centuries now people have been arguing about the relationship of religion and science. Some people believe they’re opposed to each other, which means you can’t believe in science and be a good Christian at the same time, or you can’t believe in God and be a respectable scientist. There are also people who want to merge the two, by letting religion determine what is scientific. And then there’s the belief that science and religion are two different ways of looking at things. Both are valid, but they’re very different.

I’m not a scientist, but I’m interested in science. I also believe in God, so I’m interested in matters of faith. I’ve become very concerned about a growing skepticism about science that’s developed in our country and find it disheartening that much of this skepticism is rooted in religion. I’m concerned that this skepticism can hinder important research that would benefit our world. There are important medical issues at stake and environmental ones as well. Solutions to these problems will come from the scientific community. Because I believe in the importance of knowledge and the intellectual credibility of my faith, I’ve also become very concerned about a growing anti-intellectualism that’s developed among many Christians.

These concerns about scientific research and intellectual credibility are why I’m preaching about Evolution Sunday once again.

The Anthropic Principle

If you read Genesis 1 closely, you’ll discover that when God created the heavens and the earth, God said that it was good. Genesis doesn’t tell us how, it just tells us that the end product is good. There’s a scientific theory called the "anthropic principle." This principle says that our planet is perfectly suited for human life. If things had been just a bit different, life wouldn’t be possible. And so the question is: Is this a happy accident of some kind or is it an act of divine providence? Without going into detail about this principle, let me say that my belief in God the Creator, makes me comfortable saying that this was no accident. That is of course a statement of faith, not a statement of science. Still, as physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne says, this suggests the possibility of "an inbuilt potentiality to creation." (Faith Science and Understanding, p. 68). It is of course suggestive only and not definitive. It doesn’t preclude further study of the mechanisms of creation, but in my mind it does cause me to stop and give thanks for God’s good work.

Creation by Persuasion
I believe in a Creator, but as I try to understand the mechanism of creation, I don’t turn to the Bible, but to science. I have great respect for the work of the scientist, and that’s why I’m comfortable with the theory of evolution. There is near unanimous agreement among biologists that we are a product of evolution through the process of natural selection. That’s the scientific explanation and there’s a lot of evidence to back it up.

But like I said, there’s more than one way to look at things. Theology doesn’t replace science, but it does offer a different perspective. Traditionally Christian theology has taught that God spoke everything into existence, although Genesis 2 offers a slightly different take on things. We’re used to thinking in a top-down way about creation. God is something like a CEO who orders things to get done and they’re done, Fed Ex style! Evolutionary theory suggests that things are a bit more complicated than that. And so I’ve begun to think about God not as commander-in-chief, but as persuader-in-chief.
Proverbs 8 says that the first act of creation was the creation of Lady Wisdom. Wisdom then served as God’s assistant "like a master worker," whose work brings great delight to the Creator (Prov. 8:30). Proverbs 8 seems to suggest that creation is a process that takes time to develop.

In a somewhat related way, theologian Jurgen Moltmann talks about "the energies and potentialities of the Spirit" through which the Creator is present in the creation (God in Creation, pp. 9-10). Instead of Creation being a top-down, outside-in kind of job, it’s an inside-out job. Instead of God standing on the outside giving orders, God acts from within creation through the agency of Wisdom or the Spirit, seeking to persuade the very atoms and molecules to work together for the common good. Now sometimes the atoms and the molecules decide to do their own thing, but whenever they work together good things happen. And in the end the universe comes into existence. In fact, it’s still coming into existence, because, God’s not finished creating quite yet. Now that’s a bit simplistic, but it suggests a way of thinking about creation that might be a bit different.

Therefore, Let’s Celebrate

Whatever theological description we give to creation, I think that at the end of the day, what our faith does is call us to celebrate God’s good gift of creation. Theology, which is rooted in Scripture, doesn’t explain everything, but when we take science and theology to be complementary descriptions of reality, we can celebrate the beauty of this world but also understand it’s complexity. There are things that I find difficult to reconcile, things like earthquakes and such. I think that Moltmann might be right that creation requires redemption and reconciliation. But that’s for another day.

The writer of this proverb has it right: God does delight in Wisdom’s handiwork. When we look at the big picture, we find balance and purpose to this world of ours. Science tells the story in its own way and faith in its own way. I’m amazed at what I read in the science book, but I’m also left wanting more. I want to have a conversation with the one who brought this universe into existence. And with Isaiah I want to join trees of the field in declaring God’s glory. When I see a beautiful sunset, a magnificent mountain peak, or the grandest of canyons, I do want to know how this came to be, but first I want to stand in awe and give thanks to the one who is revealed in its glory. But the point of Evolution Sunday is this: Science and faith aren’t enemies, they’re two ways of telling the story of the universe. Because Scripture talks about meaning and purpose, it serves to remind us that this world belongs to God and not to us. We are called to be good stewards, not careless users.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Bob Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
6th Sunday after Epiphany/Evolution Sunday
February 11, 2007

Saturday, February 03, 2007

KINGDOM BLESSINGS

Luke 6:17-26

Today is Super Bowl Sunday, the biggest day in football and in advertising. Americans must choose, Bears versus Colts. Payton Manning or Rex Grossman. Lovie Smith or Tony Dungie. The nation will stop for a few hours and pay attention only to football and to advertisements. At the end of the day, someone will give thanks to Jesus for helping him achieve his dream! I can make this prediction with some degree of confidence, because it happens every year. For some reason, God seems especially interested in who wins the Super Bowl.
While God is caught up in deciding the outcome of the Super Bowl, there are other questions begging for an answer. Like the AIDS epidemic wreaking havoc on sub-Saharan Africa. Genocide in Darfur, war in Iraq, or the aftermath of Katrina. Poverty in our country and around the world. Global warming and the extinction of species. Corporations giving CEO’s multimillion dollar bonuses, severance packages, and retirement gifts, even while they lay off thousands of workers to save money.

We’ve been raised to believe that good things come to those who are good. We tend to equate wealth and righteousness. In fact, if you read Deuteronomy 28, you’ll discover a list of blessings given to those who obey the Law. But there are other voices. Read Job for instance or listen to Jesus.

TRADING PLACES

Jesus once told a story about a rich man and a poor man. The rich man is dressed in the finest purple cloth, the color of royalty, and he puts on grand feasts each and every day so that his friends can bask in his glory. He’s a man of power and prestige and by any standard of measurement, he has been blessed. The other person in the story is a beggar named Lazarus, who sits by the rich man’s gate hoping that someone would take pity on him and throw him a few crumbs from the banqueting table. The rich guy is too busy to notice Lazarus, and to make things worse, dogs would come and lick the sores on Lazarus’ body.

As fate would have it, both men died the same day. Being poor, Lazarus wouldn’t have been buried. Instead, someone would have thrown his body in a ditch to be devoured by the dogs and the vultures. The rich guy, on the other hand, would’ve had a grand funeral and a proper burial.

They say that death is the great equalizer, and that is true in this story. Poor Lazarus ends up in paradise with Father Abraham, where he finds the rest and sustenance he’d been denied in life. The rich man, however, ends up in Hades, the place of the dead, and instead of the expected blessings, he finds himself in torment. When he sees Lazarus sitting at Father Abraham's side, this rich guy, who in life never lifted a finger to help Lazarus, calls out to Father Abraham: won't you please send Lazarus down to give me some water to quench my thirst? Won't you have him do for me what I never did for him? After all, I am a man of wealth and dignity! Don't I deserve some consideration? Father Abraham replies: you had it good in life, while Lazarus suffered. Now things have been reversed. Besides there’s a great chasm separating you from us, and no one can cross it. You made your bed, and now you must lie in it (Luke 16:25-26).

BLESSINGS AND CURSES

In this morning’s text Jesus says something that sounds odd to our ears:

"Blessed are you who are poor . . . ; blessed are you who are hungry now . . . ; blessed are you who weep now . . . ; blessed are you when people hate you on account of the Son of Man . . ."

These words sound odd to us because we want to believe that the richer you are the better you are. But, Jesus says, no it’s the other way around (Luke 6:20-26)

But how can this be? Our culture tells us to pursue success; our religious leaders tell us to embrace the "be happy attitudes" and to pray with Jabez that God will extend our territory (1 Chron. 4:10). The preachers of the prosperity gospel tell us to dream big and you’ll get what you want. But that’s not what Jesus says. He says to the rich folks: Woe to you, because you’ve received your reward. Once you were full, but now you’re hungry; you used to laugh but now you weep.

WHERE DO WE STAND?

So, what should we do with words these words? Aren't we supposed to better our lot in life? Isn’t America blessed by God? Surely we must be better than those poor people stuck in Africa or Iraq, Bolivia or India? I will admit that Jesus was known to exaggerate things a bit to get his point across, but Jesus was serious about God’s concern for the poor and the oppressed.

The Kingdom of God is no respecter of wealth and power. I know people try, but you can’t buy your way into heaven. It’s not that Jesus wants us to be poor or hungry, but his words stand as a warning: don’t put your trust in your wealth and don’t forget about your neighbor who is in need.

Though most of us don’t think of ourselves as wealthy, by many standards we’re quite rich. I will confess that it’s easy to forget about the poor and the sick among us. Frederick Buechner has written:

The trouble with being rich is that since you can solve with your checkbook virtually all of the practical problems that bedevil ordinary people, you are left in your leisure with nothing but the great human problems to contend with: how to be happy, how to love and be loved, how to find meaning and purpose in your life. (Buechner, Wishful Thinking, rev. ed., Harper-Collins, 1993, p. 98).

And what is our purpose in life? It is the welfare of our neighbor.

Jeremiah said: "Blessed are those who trust in the Lord; whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit." (Jer. 17:7-8). These are the kingdom blessings, the fruit of trusting our lives to the care of our God. And when we trust our lives to God’s care, we can extend our vision to the Lazaruses among us.

In a few weeks time we will take an offering for Week of Compassion. This offering will provide for the poor among us around the world. In a month or so we’ll have the opportunity to participate in the Empty Bowls fund raiser for the Food Bank. Participating in events like these serve as expressions of our trust in God, and they lead to kingdom blessings.


Preached By:
The Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
5th Sunday of Epiphany
February 4, 2007