Saturday, April 21, 2007

KEEPING THINGS STRAIGHT

Revelation 5:11-14

What are your priorities in life? Tragedies like the Virginia Tech shootings can be wake-up calls. For a moment we stop and think about what’s important in life. Tragically such events happen every day somewhere in the world, but usually we don’t take much notice of them. Indeed that same day nearly 200 Iraqis died in four separate bombings.

Now, my sermon today isn’t about what happened in Blacksburg or in Baghdad, at least not directly. But perhaps there are connections to be found. This morning’s text comes from Revelation and ultimately it’s a word concerning allegiance. For early Christians, especially those living at the end of the first century, long before the church received favored status from Constantine, being a Christian was tricky, even dangerous. The emperors didn’t care what you believed as long as you would swear allegiance to them as well. Just call me "Lord" they said, and everything will be okay.

THE CHALLENGE OF THE POWERS

Revelation is full of strange beasts and characters. They’re not to be taken literally – they’re symbolic of the powers that grab for our attention and our allegiance. These are spiritual powers, but they’re also political, cultural, and economic systems and institutions. And very often they become violent when we fail to give them our allegiance.

There are all kinds of powers that seek our allegiance. Since today is Earth Day, it’s appropriate that we recognize those powers that pollute and waste, and often draw us into their activities. Consider the evils perpetrated by the corporation that dumps carcinogens into the river that provides drinking water to people living downstream. Going in a different direction, what of the companies that try to hook kids on cigarettes even though they know that these children will likely die prematurely? Further afield, there’s the dictator, such as Robert Mugabe, who wages war against his own people to keep his hold on power. And closer to home, the politician that sells his or soul for votes. This is, Walter Wink says, "the world of the Powers." Whether good or evil these powers produce an intricate web that we "can neither ignore nor escape." [Walter Wink, The Powers that Be, New York: Galilee Doubleday, 1998, 1-2].

A CALL TO RESPOND
On Easter Sunday, we celebrated Jesus’s victory over the powers of violence and death, and this morning’s reading from Revelation celebrates the victory once more. But historically there’s a time lag between Easter and John’s vision of heaven. This time lag reminds us that while victory is assured, the powers of death and violence aren’t ready to give in just yet. You see, we face what Walter Wink calls the "Domination system," This system demands that we bow down and worship it as it seeks to control our appetites and values.
But we don’t have to bow down and give our allegiance to the "Domination System." Although we hear the drum beat that calls us to bow down to the emperor, we also hear a song coming from the heavenly court: It sings:
"You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power for you created all things and by your will they existed and were created." (4:11)
And as the song rings out we hear a challenge to the rulers of this world and it proclaims the reign of God.
Now, you say, we live in America, and things are different here than in Rome. Ah, but are they? Are we really immune from the demands of the "Domination System?" Are there never conflicts between national values and our spiritual values? Consider those who would question the patriotism of Americans who oppose the war in Iraq. America, we’re told "love it or leave it" But what if things aren’t quite that simple?

Corporate American has also woven a web to trap us. It promises many blessings, and then it bankrupts us with debt. Consider that this young man who took so many precious lives, and then his own as well, seems to have felt shut out of the American dream. We don’t know his whole story, but we know he felt alone and discouraged. And the choice he made was to lash out in violence. Unfortunately it’s a choice made by far too many people in the world when they feel left out.

WORTHY IS THE LAMB

If violence isn’t an appropriate response to the Domination System, what is the right response? Should we simply give up and let be, what will be? I think that John, like Paul, would point us in a different direction. His solution is spiritual and it starts with acknowledging God to be Lord rather than the emperor.

Yes, we’re tempted either to lash out violently or simply give up, but John calls on us to change our allegiance. Rather than bow down to the Domination System, he points us to the Lamb who was slain. I think John, like us, would prefer a Lion to a Lamb, but it’s the Lamb who is our guide. The way of the Lamb requires sacrifice. We must give up some things for the greater good of creation. It might be what we drive or what we wear, how we spend our money and where we spend it. It probably involves the way we vote. And as we vote, we must remember that our ultimate allegiance isn’t to party or to a candidate, it is to the common good of all God’s creatures. This is what it means to give allegiance to God.

John takes us on a trip into the heavenly court and there we see the heavenly chorus singing.

To the one seated on the throne and to the lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!

The early Christians suffered great indignity and even death, because of their faith. These words from John encouraged them to keep the faith. Yes the Lamb has been slain, but the Lamb also reigns – not by violence, but by laying down his life. And while the Emperor’s reign is temporary, the Lamb of God rules forever. Yes, evil will have its day, but it will not ultimately succeed.

When we take the way of the cross, we discover that Jesus doesn’t just change the rulers, he changes the rules and values of the past. Not my will be done, but thine be done, that’s what Jesus said to the Father, and so must we!

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Third Sunday of Easter
April 22, 2007

Saturday, April 07, 2007

RESURRECTION POWER

1 Corinthians 15:19-26

Easter is here in all its glory! Colorful baskets of eggs and chocolates, along with an Easter bonnet or two, help us celebrate the coming of Spring. These accouterments of our annual Easter celebrations remind us that something even more important is at hand. Our Easter celebration lifts up the victory of life over death, a victory that’s embodied in the resurrection of Jesus.

Just as Spring frees nature from the bondage of Winter’s grip, the Resurrection signifies the liberation of human life from the bondage of death. And if we look around we discover that signs of death are all around us. It’s in the news, in our TV shows, and in the movies. Yes, it’s especially prominent in the movies. Although modern medicine may delay death’s call, our culture seems to be fascinated with it, and the more violent death, the more intrigued we become. Consider for a moment the Oscar winning movie The Departed. The title of the movie says it all, for in the end almost everyone, good or bad, lies dead. There is a theme that runs through the movie – life is cheap and if getting ahead requires your death, then so be it. As Stalin said, "one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic."
In the biblical story, the Empire put Jesus to death, and in so doing it gave its no to Jesus’ message of liberation and grace. Th Empire’s message dominates Good Friday, but with Easter, we hear God’s resounding NO to the Empire’s attempt to silence God’s call to freedom. And the message God sent to Imperial Rome, God sends to every empire, including our own, that would choose death over life.

This Easter message of liberation is rooted in another biblical story, the story of the Jewish Passover. Passover celebrates the liberation of the Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt. In many ways, Jesus is the New Moses, the one who leads us out of our bondage to death and leads us into the promised land. If we heed this call to freedom, we will discover a call to embrace life, not in an afterlife, but right now.

A VAIN FAITH?

The Easter Message is so central to our faith that Paul says that without the resurrection there is no Christianity. Paul doesn’t mention an Empty Tomb or any of the specifics about Easter Morning, but he does insist that everything hinges on this one thing: If Jesus is dead, then our faith is in vain, and everything we believe and teach is worthless. Because, if Jesus is dead, then so are we!
Back in Paul’s day, not everyone was excited about the idea of a resurrection. Unlike today, the issues weren’t so much scientific, it was more philosophical. You see Paul’s Greek audience didn’t have a high regard for the physical realm. That might sound strange, considering all the statues that seem to affirm the glories of the body, but most educated Greeks believed that the body was kind of a nuisance that entrapped the soul. Better to be a "free spirit" than a grounded body. Talk of a physical resurrection, therefore, wasn’t that appealing to people who looked forward to being freed from their bodies.

Now, Paul doesn’t go into detail about the nature of this resurrection experience. He talks about a spiritual body, which appears to be related to but not identical to our physical bodies. By doing this, Paul brings Spirit and Body together in such a way as to say – body and spirit, they’re one and the same, and they are good. By affirming resurrection, we affirm life.

THE ESSENCE OF RESURRECTION FAITH

Easter’s message is that death doesn’t have the last word. God has won the victory, snatching apparent defeat from death’s grasp. Like Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones that are knit together and reanimated, the Easter message is one of renewal and restoration (Ezk. 37:1-15). The good news is that this message of resurrection doesn’t wait for our natural deaths to occur. We can claim now the promise of resurrection, by embracing life in its fullness.

Theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann says that the resurrection of Jesus is a process that we’re invited to participate in. It’s a process that transforms us from the inside out and makes us new. It’s a process that liberates us and frees us to serve. It’s a process that empowers us to live for God and to live for one another. In fact, Moltmann says that resurrection happens every day, as we experience God’s liberating presence afresh (Jesus Christ for Today’s World, Fortress, 1994, 80-81).
And what does this resurrection life look like? What does it mean for the dry bones to live? It means saying no to poverty and enslavement, to war and to violence, to hatred and stereotype, to the misuse of our environment and to the abuse of power over people’s lives. Resurrection is ultimately a process that brings new life, and not just in some future state, but now. It’s not a panacea that keeps us happy with a promise of a better day, it’s the promise of the power of love that overcomes death and enables us to live now.

The essence of the Christian message is summarized in this confession from an ancient communion service: "Christ has died; Christ is Risen; Christ will come again." We come today to affirm the one who died on Good Friday, the one who was raised on Easter Morn as Lord and Christ, and the one who will come again, indeed, has come again, in our hearts, to empower us for the work of the kingdom. Good Friday represents the Empire’s last gasp attempt to thwart the coming of God’s kingdom. Easter declares that this effort has failed and that the kingdom of God is here, and with it the culture of death has been defeated.
Although physical death remains a natural part of human existence, and it’s something we’ll all share in at some point, we needn’t fear it. That’s because Christ has overcome death and has invited us to participate with him in reclaiming life. Paul confesses that in the symbol of Adam, we find our common fate, which is death. In Christ, however, we are made alive. "Death has been swallowed up in victory." And so, together, we can say: "where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" As Paul writes: "thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."

This is why we began worship this morning by boldly singing: "Christ the Lord is Risen today, Alleluia." And it is also why we can affirm that God has exalted Jesus above all others, and that God has "crowned him with many crowns!" This is the message of Easter: God has triumphed over death and we get to share in lives of joy and service to the king of kings.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Easter Sunday
April 8, 2007