Saturday, March 31, 2007

TRUE HUMILITY

Philippians 2:5-11

Athletes are easy targets for criticism. Prancing around and posing for the camera, acting like prima donnas as they do, the antics of contemporary athletes are often amusing. Football players strut across the field pointing their fingers at the camera, home run hitters stop to admire their handiwork, and basketball players try ever more entertaining high wire dunks, But sometimes these acts backfire, like when the ball falls short of the fence, making that would-be home run a very long single; or that power dunk that bounces off the rim and lands in the seats. Why do they do this? Well, it’s because the fans like it. So, should it surprise us that anyone whom we idolize, whether an actor, musician, politician, or athlete, may, on occasion, act as if they’re almost a deity?
How do you stay humble if people idolize you? I mean, what if you rode into town and people started to proclaim you the Messiah? That’s what happened to Jesus the day he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Now the crowds were looking for a deliverer and they thought Jesus might fill the job. Although he came into town as a pilgrim, the people had other ideas. Ironically, at the other end of town Pilate and his band of men were likely riding in as well. The people hoped Jesus would run Pilate out of town, and so they welcomed him with palm branches and shouts of praise to encourage him.

Is it possible that Jesus could have been thinking? "My, but don't they love me! Or, "Maybe I can use this hoopla to my advantage." The people did seem to love him, so all he really had to do was do a little dance in the end zone and they’d go wild.
Henry Milman's hymn begins with the encouraging words, "Ride on, Ride on in Majesty!" But then he changes the focus, just a bit and writes: "as all the crowds hosanna cry; through waving branches slowly ride, O Savior, to be crucified." He takes Jesus from those hosannas off to the cross, helping us understand that the triumphal entry, as glorious as it might be, doesn't tell the whole story.
THE LIFE OF HUMILITY

American culture doesn’t value humility. To be humble or meek, is to be weak. We see ourselves as a Super Power and so many Americans want a warrior Jesus. But Paul has other ideas. The Christian life, in Paul’s mind, begins with humility, and he points us to Jesus and says: he’s our example. It’s the Jesus who emptied himself of his glory and became a slave, even dying on a cross, who will show us the way. Now true humility isn’t the same thing as degrading our selves or pretending that we’re not gifted. This is a false form of humility that’s less than honest.


In fact, this false humility is really a form of self-preoccupation. The late Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, wrote:

"The humility which consists in being a great deal occupied about yourselves, and saying you are of little worth, is not Christian humility. It is one form of self-occupation and a poor and futile one at that; but real humility makes for effectiveness because it delivers a person from anxiety, and we all know that in all undertakings, from the smallest to the greatest, the chief source of
feebleness is anxiety."1


Paul points to Jesus and says: "look at him and do as he does." Indeed, although he was in the form of God, he "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited." Instead of clinging to his divine prerogatives, Jesus embraced his vocation and became a slave, taking on human life and following this calling to his death on the cross. He chose to serve rather than be served, and he let go of the all-too-human preoccupation with the self, a preoccupation that, as Temple reminds us, too often leads to anxiety. It is like catching a ball, If you worry about it and focus on it, you’ll probably drop it. But if you don’t really think about it, and therefore, don’t worry about it, you’ll likely catch it.


Too often we’re worried about how people see us or whether we’ve gotten our due. When we do this, we focus on ourselves, and we end up not able to fulfill our calling to be God’s child. As they say, just relax, and do like Jesus does.


THE EXALTATION

The second stanza of this hymn suggests that God has turned the tables on our human intentions and has exalted Jesus high above all other names. When we think about the cross, it’s hard to imagine that "every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." And yet, this is the message of the Gospel. The road of humility doesn’t lead to failure, it leads to victory, just a victory of a different sort.

The crowd’s invitation must have been tempting, but Jesus ignored them because he understood that this wasn’t God’s calling. While that Palm Sunday crowd offered him a human kingdom, all they offered was an opportunity to rule a little corner of the Roman world. But God offered Jesus the position of Lord of the Cosmos, and because he took the more difficult path, we may go before him, and confess him as Lord.
Paul's hymn reminds us that Easter doesn't come without Good Friday, but before Good Friday comes, he must listen to the invitations of Palm Sunday. At the end of the day, he chooses the way of "exaltation through humiliation"2 over exaltation by way of power.

This is, ultimately, the Christian way, the way of service and humility. Because Jesus took this road, God honored him and raised him to glory, effectively restoring him to the place he held before his descent into human likeness. This hymn doesn't give us the details of Jesus' life, nor does it say how this all happens, but it does say that in taking the road to the cross, Jesus reveals God’s character and purpose. By exalting Jesus, God vindicates his life and ministry. Morna Hooker rightly says that "it is precisely because he is humble and obedient that he also is Lord. His exaltation is God's triumphant affirmation that in Christ's actions we have the perfect revelation of the love and compassion of God."3

By acknowledging Jesus as Lord of the universe, we accept the humble and obedient one as our Lord. If we truly understand who Jesus is, and if we truly want to follow him, then we’ll know that belief and action are inseparable. That is, to believe in God is to behave like the Jesus who said no to Palm Sunday and yes to Good Friday.
  1. William Temple in The Westminster Collection of Christian Meditations, Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, eds., (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1998), 336.
  2. Carl Holladay, Preaching through the Christian Year, C, (TPI, 1993), 172.
  3. Morna Hooker, "Philippians," New Interpreter's Bible, (Abingdon), 11:515

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Palm Sunday
April 1, 2007

Saturday, March 24, 2007

DYING WELL

John 12:1-8


We don’t like to talk about death. That’s one reason why so many Americans don’t have wills. For some reason we think that if we plan for death then maybe were kind of expecting to die soon. And most of us would rather not die all that soon. So, I guess we just have a problem with death, even we who believe that death isn’t the last word.

After telling us how Jesus raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, John says that Jesus later returned to the house of Lazarus, and his sisters Martha and Mary, for a visit. When Jesus arrived at the house, Martha was in the kitchen fixing the meal, and Mary, as usual, was nowhere to be found. Then while the guests enjoyed the meal Martha had fixed, Mary shows up with a flask of expensive perfume. Getting on her knees, she opens the bottle and pours the contents on Jesus’ feet, wiping the excess off with her hair. I’m thinking she’s doing this to say thank-you to Jesus for bringing her brother back to life.
Now, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that this extravagant act quickly caught the attention of the other guests. It was hard to miss since the fragrance of the perfume filled the entire house. Some guests, including Judas, clucked with disapproval: What a waste, he told Mary! "Don't you know that the master would want us to sell such a valuable item like this expensive perfume and give the money to the poor?"
I expect that by then Mary was feeling kind of self-conscious and embarrassed about what she’d done, but Jesus came to her defense. The same Jesus, who would get down on his knees and wash the feet of his disciples, tells her critics that Mary had acted honorably. Her critics might think that Mary's act of love was wasteful, but Jesus saw it as preparation for his own impending death.

THE REALITY OF DEATH

There are two constants in life: death and taxes. Since it’s tax time, we have pretty good evidence of one constant, but death is also an ever present reality in our lives. But, as Morrie Schwartz says in Mitch Albom’s best-selling book, Tuesdays with Morrie, "Everyone knows they're going to die, but no body believes it." Maybe that’s why the book became so popular, it opened the door for people to confront the reality of death.

Sometimes a death will leave a strong imprint on our lives. For some reason I still remember the shock of hearing that my third grade classmate, Jill Scroggins, had been killed on the way to school, when a train hit their car. I also remember hearing the news during my senior year, that my close friend Becky Smith had an epileptic seizure and drowned in her bath tub. Becky and I not only were members of the same church, we’d grown up together, almost like brother and sister. So, you can understand my grief when I heard about Becky’s death. Death stings, especially when it comes unexpectedly.

Now not every death comes as unexpectedly as these two, but even when we have time to prepare, death still has its sting. We’d rather ignore it, but as Morrie Schwartz said: maybe it’s better "to know you're going to die, and to be prepared for it at any time. That's better. That way you can actually be more involved in your life while you're living."1
Henri Nouwen wrote of "befriending death, "being "the basis of all other forms of befriending." He suggested that "many of our doubts and hesitations, ambivalences and insecurities, are bound up with our deep-seated fear of death." He writes that because "fear of death often drives us into death, . . . by befriending death we can face our mortality and choose life freely."2

DYING WELL

My seminary classmate, theologian Amy Pauw, writes about dying well. She says that "when Christian practices are healthy, dying well embraces both lament and hope, and both a sense of divine judgment and an awareness of divine mercy."3 If we’re going to die well, it isn't enough just to recognize that death is a natural part of life, we must also recognize the complexity of death.

Preparing to die well means that we must recognize our need to lament and grieve. Grief is a reminder of how much we value God's gift of life. It means that we don’t take life lightly, but instead treasure it. Death may not separate us from God, but it does separate us from each another. Our grief honors the depth of our relationships.

And yet, in the midst of our grief, we can find hope. This is why a Christian funeral can and should be a time of sharing our grief and of celebrating a life that was lived. A funeral or a memorial service allows us to remember our loved one, and if this person has suffered in life, we can give thanks that those sufferings have ended. Such a service also reminds us of Jesus’ promise that death doesn’t have the final word.
On his death bed, Jacob Marley tries to confess his misdeeds in life and warn Ebenezer Scrooge that he needs to change his life. Scrooge didn't want to hear this death bed confession, but it reminds us that death involves judgment. Dying well involves taking time to straighten things out with God and with one another. There’s something especially redemptive about coming to terms with one's life and with one’s relationships. There are those who say that the death bed is too late to make amends, but is it really? But, if confession is redemptive, it is so only in the context of God's grace and mercy.

Dying well allows us to die in communion with the God we know in Jesus, and such a death can be faced without fear. By talking about death we don’t give up on life. Instead, we honor life and its gifts. If we allow others room to speak or not to speak of death, we allow them the opportunity to share in God's grace.

As our Lenten journey comes to a close, it is good to remember that Easter is preceded by Good Friday. That is, there is no resurrection without death. Lent reminds us of our finiteness and limitations. As we recognize our limits, we find strength in our faith in Jesus Christ. In Mary's act of anointing Jesus' feet, she affirms life, both the life restored and the life that is to be given. Perhaps unknowingly, she also acknowledges that Jesus's path of servanthood leads to the cross. Like Mary, Jesus isn’t afraid to take on the role of a servant, a role symbolized first by washing the feet of his disciples, and then by his willingness to die the servant's death on a cross.

Hope is found in the confession that death is not the end but only the beginning. Therefore, with Paul we can say: "Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ." That prize, is the transformation of our earthly bodies so that we will be "conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself" (Phil. 3: 13-14, 21).
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1. Mitch Albom, Tuesday's with Morrie, (Doubleday, 1997), 81.
2. Henri Nouwen, "A letter of Consolation" excerpted in Seeds of Hope, Robert Durback, ed., (Image Books, 1997), 190.
3. Amy Plantiga Pauw, "Dying Well," in Practicing our Faith, Dorothy Bass, ed., (SF: Jossey-Bass, 1997), 167.
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Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, California
5th Sunday of Lent
March 25, 2007

Saturday, March 17, 2007

THE HOPE OF RESTORATION

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

I want to tell you a story about Elisabeth. She grew up in a Christian family, the granddaughter and niece of pastors, but during her teenage years she wandered into a spiritual wilderness. Now, her story isn’t that exciting. She didn't get addicted to drugs, engage in criminal activity, or even get arrested for her political activities. In fact, outwardly, she was the epitome of success. No, she went to college, got a good job, and climbed the corporate ladder. And yet, her journey away from God began in a familiar way. She met a young man in high school, fell in love, and in short order her beau displaced God. As their relationship deepened, her faith and her church got pushed further and further away from her heart. Instead, she focused on sports activities, parties, and school, and then on a successful career in the business world.

But then her world began to crumble. After building her life around this young man for thirteen years, even following him from the Bay Area to Southern California, he dumped her for someone else. Heartbroken, she remembered that God had once been the center of her life, and hope began to dawn. The next morning was a Sunday, and she wandered into a nearby Disciples church that I served as associate pastor. She didn't know anything about us, but it was a church, and so on that sunny Sunday Morning, nearly 20 years ago, she went to church again for the first time in many a year, and I had the privilege of representing the Welcoming Father in restoring her to the family of faith.

Of course, her story doesn't end there. She quickly became a significant leader in our church, and in time followed a long suppressed calling to missionary service. Giving up a successful career in business, she followed her heart first to Haiti and then to Taiwan, where she met another young missionary, whom she married. Together they continue to serve in Taiwan.
In spite of the significant differences between Elisabeth's story and the one Jesus tells about the Prodigal Son, but both stories illustrate God’s unconditional and welcoming love. As Don Sarton reminded us last week, it’s a matter of an open hand and not a closed fist. While the moral guardians complained that Jesus’s practice of dining with sinners and tax collectors eroded the moral fabric of his people, he saw it quite differently.

THE WILDERNESS ROUTE

Christians, like those moral guardians, sometimes have problems with things like sin and grace. We like things black and white, so that if you break the law, you should be punished. But again, Jesus has different ideas. He tells a story about a Dad and two brothers, the younger of whom is the lead character. The younger brother can’t wait to get his inheritance, because he wants to get on with his life and have some fun while he’s still young enough to enjoy his life. So, he asks his Dad to divide the inheritance now, before his Dad dies.
In many ways this was an unthinkable request, because first-century Jewish sons didn't ask their fathers for an early distribution of the estate. To do so meant telling your father: I wish you were dead. Sons just didn’t say those kinds of things, at least not without getting disinherited really quickly. But to our surprise, the father agrees to the request, and so, like a college student heading out on a spring break trip to Acapulco, this youngster headed off to a distant land to have the time of his life. He threw caution to the wind and quickly squandered everything. Unfortunately, famine hit that country, which isn't a good thing when you’re broke and homeless. With nowhere to go and too embarrassed to return home, he hired himself out to a pig farmer. Now, you might say, "good for him, he took the initiative and got a job." But, to a Jew, taking a job tending pigs was worse than death. And then things got even worse. Because the job didn’t pay well enough to put food on the table, he began to covet the pods the pigs ate.

He had finally hit bottom, and so, sitting there in the pig sty, with his stomach grumbling, he remembered that his father's hired help was better off than he was. So he decided to return home and ask for forgiveness and a place among the day laborers.

THE RETURN

He’d struck out in search of his fortune, but he returned home like a dog with his tail between his legs. He’d humiliated himself, and now at best he could expect probation, so that if he worked hard for several years, his Dad might welcome back into the family. But that was a long shot. Still, what else could he do? So, he began to rehearse a great apology and a request that his father hire him as a day laborer.
If you were hearing this story for the first time, you might expect his father to make him grovel and beg for forgiveness. But to the son's utter amazement the father is standing at the gate waiting for his return. When he sees the son coming up the road, this father throws convention to the wind, picks up his robes, and sprints toward his son, and then throwing his arms around the startled young man, the father kisses the son. He doesn't wait for the apology or the request. He doesn’t ask where the son has been or what he’s been up to. Instead, he sends for his best robe, ring, and a pair of shoes, to place on this disreputable son. Then he ordered that the fatted calf be slaughtered and a party be held in honor of this son’s return.

Now this reception didn’t please everyone. Like the religious authorities who criticized Jesus for eating with sinners and tax collectors, the older son, who has been hard at work in the fields, is furious. You really can't fault him. It doesn’t seem fair or just. After all, he’d stayed home, worked hard, and devoted himself to his father, but now his father was restoring his brother to the family, which meant that his own inheritance would now be even more diminished. When he heard the music and smelled the food, he felt humiliated and used. He was so angry that he refused to go to the party, even after his father pleaded with him. In fact, he rebuked his father for his scandalous behavior. And wouldn’t you?

His father simply answered, "Everything I have is yours, but we have to rejoice now that my lost son has returned." Though it may seem unfair, God's grace is deep and wide. God loves the devoted ones, but as Jesus says in the parable of the lost sheep: "There is more joy in heaven over the sinner who repents than over the ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance" (Lk 15:7). This is the good news: God’s arms are always open wide and welcoming to all who would return!


Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, California
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2007

Saturday, March 03, 2007

BEARING GOOD FRUIT

Luke 13:1-9

I’m not a gardener. In fact, I have what they call a brown thumb. I wouldn’t know when to prune a bush or to fertilize the flowers. I water the lawn when I remember, but too often I forget. So, I can’t comment on Jesus’ parable of the fig tree from a gardener’s perspective. But, it’s the conversation that happens before the parable that catches my eye.

It’s human nature to try to figure out why things happen to people. There’s got to be a reason, or, so we think. When Katrina hit, certain preachers, blamed the residents of the region for their moral laxity. The same thing happened on 9-11 – Our nation was reaping what it had sown. For some reason there’s a tendency to think that suffering is God’s punishment for our sins. That’s the message Job’s friends brought him when things went bad.

When Jesus heard that Pilate massacred a group of Galileans worshiping peacefully in Jerusalem, he raised the question of why. Were they worse sinners any other Galileans? And, what about the eighteen killed when the Tower of Siloam fell on them. Were their deaths divine punishment? Were they more sinful than anyone else living in Jerusalem? I’m sure Jesus got a few yeses to those questions. But Jesus said, no, they’re no worse than anyone else, though he does add a bit of a warning – if you don’t repent you’ll end up like them. But, the message I think Jesus wants us to hear, is that bad luck doesn’t mean you’ve done bad things. Bad luck isn’t divine punishment, it’s just the way life is.

URGENCY OF THE MOMENT
If suffering isn’t divine punishment, then what should we take from these examples? Perhaps they tell us that life is unpredictable and that despite our best laid plans we can't be sure about tomorrow. Therefore, when it comes to the things of God, don’t put them off until tomorrow. Don’t wait until tomorrow to get things straightened out with God and with your neighbor, because you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. There is, it seems, a sense of urgency.

THE TIME FOR REPENTANCE

While suffering isn’t divine punishment, it does get our attention. Repentance isn’t just saying you’re sorry, it’s deciding to live life differently. Sometimes when bad things happen, we stop and examine our lives, and as we do this, we discover that there are things that need changing in our lives. William Willimon, following St. Paul, suggests that repentance is a four-part process (Willimon, Pulpit Resource, 29 (Jan., Feb., Mar. 2001): 46].
  • First, "True repentance means comprehension that wrong has been done." They say that you can't help an alcoholic until they realize they have a problem. That’s the point of the Law. It doesn’t reconcile you to God, but it does help point out the problem.
  • Second, you have to make some effort to change things.
  • Third, is a renewed longing to be in God's presence. Although God never leaves us, we can ignore God’s presence. But if we turn to face God, like a piece of metal that gets near a magnet, we’ll find ourselves drawn to God.
  • Finally, we discover that our lives have changed. True repentance leads to good fruit. As Willimon aptly says, repentance "is considerably more than a feeling." It’s a transformed life.

THE CONTEXT OF GRACE

As I watched the documentary Jesus Camp the other day, I saw the dangers that are inherent in the call to repentance. This film is about a group of Fundamentalist Christians who try to rally children to their cause. Unfortunately they used guilt as a way of manipulating these children into joining their cause. Calls for repentance easily fall into those kinds of bad habits that lead to guilt trips, depression, and even hopelessness.

Martin Luther’s story is a good example. He tried to please God, but found himself feeling depressed and inadequate. He prayed and studied; he served others and he deprived himself of pleasure. But he didn’t find any relief from his guilt. Then he began to hate God, That is, until the day he discovered God’s grace, and that grace freed him from guilt and it changed his life.

The parable of the fig tree is a counterpoint to this discussion about repentance. Fig trees were considered signs of God's favor, and so a tree that doesn't bear fruit is a problem. In this story, the landowner comes every year to see if the tree is bearing fruit, and each year he goes away disappointed. Finally, after doing this for three years the landowner decides to tear it out and plant something else. Like a typical network executive who yanks a TV series if it doesn't bear immediate fruit, that is, good ratings, this landowner demands results.

The parable begins with a word of judgment: That tree must go. But the gardener responds: "Please Mr. Landowner, don't pull the tree out just yet; I think can get it to bear fruit." This is the word of grace. God is like the gardener who has patience with his people. Life’s events may lead us to reconsider our lives, but transformation comes from God’s gracious activity in our lives.

Anti-crime enthusiasts tell us that long prison sentences and the death penalty are deterrents to crime, but in spite of longer sentences and overcrowded prisons, a growing prison population suggests otherwise. If this was such a good deterrent, why do we continually need more prisons? It would seem that fear isn’t the best context for repentance. Willimon writes that "when a parent stands over a little child and says `Now Johnny, tell me honestly, did you steal those cookies from the cookie jar?' that parent shouldn't be too surprised when the child looks up at the threatening parent and answers, `No.'" (Pulpit Resources, p. 46)

As we take this Lenten journey toward Good Friday and the Easter, Jesus reminds us that we are sinners needing to repent, but he also reminds us that there is grace sufficient to transform our lives and restore our relationship with God and with one another. Lent calls us to confess our sins, but it also offers a word of forgiveness.

Consider for a moment the grace that took a slave trader like John Newton and transformed him into a man who helped end the slave trade in England and who wrote one of the church's most beloved hymns. We don't know what tomorrow will bring, and so repenting today is probably a good idea, because the end result is a new life with God! And as we do this, we will bear good fruit.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, California
March 4, 2007
2nd Sunday of Lent