Saturday, May 26, 2007

TURNING BACK THE CLOCK

Acts 2:1-21 ; Genesis 11:1-9

This is the story of the Tower of Babel, and it’s a strange one. A group of people discover how to make bricks and then they decide to build a city with a tower that can reach to the clouds, which is where God can be found. In the bricks they see a way of controlling their destiny. They can protect themselves from outside and they can build a rampart so they can touch the heavens and therefore touch God. For some reason God sees this as some sort of threat, as if this group of mortals will storm the gates of heaven and take over. To keep them at bay, God decides to confuse their languages. And when this happens the people scatter leaving their tower incomplete. And thus the threat to heaven is stopped.

THE PATH TO ALIENATION

At the heart of this story is the problem of hubris, that arrogant sense that we can control everything, even our relationship with God. And the result of this attitude is confusion and even anarchy. Where once there was clarity, now there’s only confusion, and that’s what happens when we find ourselves separated from God, from each other, and even the creation itself. It all happens when we choose to go our own way and refuse to listen for God’s voice.

THE PATH OF RECONCILIATION
What gets confused at Babel is sorted out at Pentecost. When the Spirit falls on the people, they begin to share the good news in languages that everyone can understand. What was confusing, became clear, and the alienation that separates us from God and from everything else began to dissipate. The Spirit becomes for them and for us a sort of universal translator – to borrow an image from Star Trek.

Pentecost is a natural response to Babel, but it’s a culmination of many steps that begins almost immediately after things get out of hand. You see, God begins to set things in order by calling Abraham to be the means of blessing. Through his seed we’re told, the nations of the world will be blessed. And as Christians we believe that this seed is Jesus, and it’s through him that the world will be blessed. Pentecost is the next step, for with the birth of the church and the coming of the Spirit, the process of reconciliation is set in motion. What was lost in the confusion, is restored in the gift of languages.

There’s an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that illustrates how confusion is overcome through the telling of stories. In this episode, Captain Picard finds himself alone with an alien who speaks only in stories, stories that Picard doesn’t know or understand. They need to find a way off the planet, but unless they can communicate that won’t happen. But Picard discovers that if he uses the great stories of his own people, he can find a connection to these seemingly obscure and meaningless stories of his opposite. As he learns the stories, the sense of separation is overcome. What we learn from this is that if we’re willing to learn each others stories, we’ll find a bridge that leads to healing and hope.

I don’t need to tell you that we face a world that’s full of confusion and even chaos. Even as the world seems to get smaller because of air travel and communication devices, we still find it difficult to understand and communicate with each other. We still struggle to find the words, the stories, even the language that will help us bridge the gaps that lead to suspicion and anger.

Pentecost is a sign that the Spirit is present and if we allow the Spirit to work in our lives we can become agents of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19-20). The Spirit provides the language so that we can build the bridge that will bring us together.

BUILDING THE BRIDGE THAT CROSSES THE DIVIDE

The story of Babel is about people trying to find a way to touch God, but the way they do it is apparently inappropriate. Perhaps they weren’t ready or their motives were wrong. Whatever the case God put a stop to it. But with Pentecost the bridge is provided and we’ve been invited to enter into God’s presence. Where reckless ambition led to confusion, now trust in God brings reconciliation.

There’s something else interesting about the story of Babel. In building a city they would have built walls, and we build walls out of fear. In life fear results from a lack of knowledge and a lack of knowledge begins with a failure to communicate. And there’s no better illustration of this failure than the predicament our nation finds itself in today. We find ourselves bogged down in a war because apparently our leaders had no clue about the culture, religion, or history of the people in that region. They made assumptions that proved wrong. In other words, they acted out of hubris and not understanding.

When I announced last week that we would observe Pluralism Sunday in addition to Pentecost, I did so because I thought there was a connection. Now I’ve not said much about Pluralism Sunday so far today, but I think there’s a relationship between the two. You see Pluralism Sunday is also about building bridges. It calls on us to not just celebrate our differences, but to find ways of hearing God’s voice in the lives and experiences of others whose professions of faith are different from our own.
Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Spirit to empower the church to carry the message of God’s reconciling grace to the world. Pluralism Sunday asks us to listen for God’s voice in unexpected places. For that to happen we’ll need the presence of the Spirit of God to help translate this voice. And if we’re open to the Spirit’s leading then perhaps we’ll discover that we have more in common with people of other faiths than we think.
Babel is about arrogance, but hearing God’s voice in the stories of others requires humility. It takes humility to recognize that we don’t have all the answers to life’s questions, and that God might chose to speak in ways we don’t expect and which we can’t control. But if we trust in God and let the Spirit move in our midst then we’ll begin to hear God speaking to us, and maybe God will speak to others through us. The fact is, even as similar as we might think we are, here in this place, really we’re all quite different. Each of us brings to this service our own sets of experiences, questions, and encounters with God. If we’re going to hear each other then we need a common language. That common language is found in the stories of our faith, in the words and the themes we find in Scripture. If we learn and understand these stories, like the story of Babel and of Pentecost, then we have the foundation for understanding the ideas and beliefs of others. If you’re like me, this is all new territory, but this is our calling from God.
Just the other day I sat down with three other people to talk about ways in which the religious community could be involved in solving Lompoc’s gang problem. I think that if we as people of faith could listen attentively and respectfully to one another, perhaps we could provide gang members a model for resolving their own differences peacefully and productively.
Today we come to celebrate God’s gift of a bridge to understanding. May we hear the this word and take it to heart!

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Pentecost Sunday/Pluralism Sunday
May 27, 2007

Saturday, May 19, 2007

THE ONENESS OF THE MANY

John 17:20-26


The bookstores are full of best-sellers warning us that religion is dangerous. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens have written books that have caught the fancy of people who believe that religion, including Christianity, is at best irrational, and at worst “really does poison everything.” Religious fanatics who fly planes into tall buildings, blow up clinics, protest at funerals, or offer bombastic statements about any number of issues, only give support to these claims. And as for you and me, well, apparently we give cover to the fanatics simply by professing faith in God.

I could try to ignore the critics, but some of their critiques are helpful, because they point out our tendency toward self-righteousness and feelings of superiority. And so when I saw the announcement that Pluralism Sunday would be observed on Pentecost, I decided to look into it and then I signed us up. Pluralism Sunday is sponsored by The Center for Progressive Christianity, and while only a handful of churches have signed up so far, it’s important that we think about the way we live as followers of Jesus in an increasingly pluralistic society.

Fanaticism erupts when we think we alone have all the truth, and fanaticism becomes violent when it feels threatened. Spiritual bullying is more common than outright physical violence, but both are expressions of a faith that has become absolutist and unable to recognize the good in others.
And so, next Sunday, as we celebrate Pentecost, we’ll also think about our place in a diverse and pluralistic world.

1. Our Witness is established by our Unity

This morning we observe Ascension Sunday, the last Sunday of Easter. The Easter season celebrates the presence of the risen Christ with us. But now we must say farewell and begin our journey with the Spirit of God. The ascension stories include the commissioning of the disciples to take the gospel to the ends of the earth, but this morning our text takes us further back to Jesus’ moment of prayer in the Garden. We find him praying for his disciples, asking the Father that they might be one, even as he is one with the Father. He prays this prayer because he knows that if the Disciples aren’t united their testimony won’t bear fruit.

Many years ago I saw a listing of the 100 most influential people in history. You’d think Jesus would be among the top 2 or 3 on the list, but as I remember he barely made the top 20. And the reason given was that Jesus said a lot of good things, but his followers didn’t do as he said or did. That’s unfortunate, but it helps point out why our behavior toward one another either gives or takes away from the credibility of our witness.

In a few minutes were going to sing “They’ll Know We are Christians by Our Love.” It’s a great song, just like another one we could have sung: “We are one in the bonds of love.” These songs make John’s point. Our oneness in love is our testimony to God’s presence in the world. Whenever the 2.6 billion of us, with our many differences in gender, ethnicity, political views, nationalities, and social standing come together, and not only affirm our oneness in Christ, but also live it out, then the unity of Jesus with the Father is made present. Our critics say our faith is dangerous, and when we allow anger, hatred, and divisiveness to spill out from our communities, then they’re right. But it needn’t be that way.

2. Our Unity is rooted in Jesus’ Unity with the Father.

While this prayer probably doesn’t go back to Jesus himself, it does underline an important point. Our unity as the body of Christ is rooted in a relationship with the one who is united with the Father, and this unity gives us strength to overcome our human tendency to go our own way. Unity isn’t something that comes easily. Think only of the stresses life puts on a marriage. We’re supposed to become one flesh, and yet everyone who has been married knows how difficult it is to keep that oneness in place.

This is why it’s important that we gather at the Lord’s Table. The loaf and that cup are reminders, just as a wedding ring is that we’re called to be one body, even as Jesus is one with the Father.

3. Our Unity is Demonstrated by Acts of Love

I recently read a book on evangelism called Unbinding the Gospel. In fact the Elders are going to be reading this book written by a Disciple pastor named Martha Grace Reese. One thing this book does is help us discover the barriers that keep others from experiencing a transforming relationship with God. When we look at our witness we discover that acts of love, not just words are the key to our witness. It’s not just what we say, it’s how we live. And so when we welcome the stranger into our midst and allow them to experience the loving presence of God through our lives, we give evidence of the truth of our words.

We talk about being family and love is the glue that holds a family together. But as we all know, not every family is able to reach out and include. Many families are closed circles, difficult to break into. If you like the image of the family, then consider, as Martha Reese suggests, the prospect of being the new son-in-law at a family reunion. I need say no more.

4. Giving Our Witness to the World

We’ve been called to share our faith with others, but some of us are a bit hesitant to do this. Maybe it’s because we’re afraid of risking a friendship or perhaps we just don’t know what to say. Maybe it’s because of that TV evangelist or street corner preacher that makes you a bit uncomfortable. There is, however, another way. If we live out our relationship with God we will find opportunities to share with others how God has changed our lives, and on occasion an opening will be there to invite others to share in that life-changing relationship.

Sharing our faith with others doesn’t have to be contentious. It’s not about proving that our faith is better than theirs, and it’s not about whether people are going to hell. In fact, it’s not about winning people to Jesus. It’s simply entering a conversation with someone else in a way that’s respectful and loving. As we share how God has changed our lives, that witness may stir in another person the desire to have that same relationship. This is then the foundation of an evangelism that’s appropriate and ultimately effective in an increasingly pluralistic world.

Next week when we celebrate the coming of the Spirit upon the Church at Pentecost, we can stop to consider how the Spirit makes us one, even as the Father and Son are one, in the midst of our diversity of experience and background. And as we do, our God will be glorified.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
7th Sunday of Easter
May 20, 2007

Saturday, May 12, 2007

HEALING OF THE NATIONS

Revelation 21:22-22:5

The final volume in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia is entitled The Last Battle. In that book Lewis picks up on an important theme in Revelation. Evil is a consuming power that lives off pain, suffering, and destruction. In this story, an imposter poses as Aslan, and speaks to the people of Narnia who long to hear Aslan’s voice. The impostor is in the employ of the Calormenes, who serve the evil god Tash, and who wish to control Narnia. Jill and Eustace expose the impostors, but not before Narnia is destroyed. The good news is that Narnia gives way to a new world, the land of Aslan. Those who are faithful to Aslan are invited to enter the kingdom of promise. Interestingly enough, among those going through the door is Ermeth, a Calormene warrior, and Puzzle the donkey, who in his innocence allowed himself to be used to impersonate Aslan.

Like the Narnians, we too live in a land of false promises and broken relationships. Evil resists the justice and mercy of God, and nation rises against nation, people against people. Out of fear, we try to find safety and security in ever tighter groups, and we become susceptible to a message of "us against them." Iraq, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Darfur, Israel/Palestine, Congo, and the gangs of Lompoc, are torn apart by strife.

I know this doesn’t sound much like a Mother’s Day sermon, but I think there is a connection. You’ll just have to wait and see!

A LIGHT IN THE WORLD

The promise of Revelation is that no matter what happens God is present with us. And this morning we hear the promise that healing will be given to the nations who make their way into the New Jerusalem, where God and his Lamb are the Temple and the light.

Here the symbol of evil and disorder isn’t the sea, it’s darkness. We hear the word that the darkness seeks to extinguish the light, but again hear the promise – the light continues to shine in the darkness. Because the light continues to shine in the darkness, there’s no need to fear. In fact, there’s no need for walls and for gates. In this vision hatred and anger, self-centeredness and rebellion are burned away in the refiner’s fire.


GOD'S HEALING PRESENCE

And along the river of life that winds its way through the city stands the Tree of Life, which is sustained by the waters of this river.. The leaves of this Edenic Tree provide healing to the nations, even as the leaves of aloe-vera plant bring healing to our bodies. They are a salve to the wounds brought on by human strife.

Now these nations aren’t just political entities. The Greek word ta ethne gives us the word ethnic, and so we’re not just talking about political entities, were talking about every group, tribe, and race that inhabit this world of ours. Yes, everyone is invited to experience healing in the city of God.

It is, as Paul suggests in Galatians, that there is now neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, for in Christ we’re all made one. Our physical distinctions may not be erased in the kingdom, but these distinctions no longer decide our place or our relationships. There are no second class citizens in the kingdom of God.

TOWARD THE HEALING OF THE NATIONS

The words "the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations" (22:2) are also found in Ezekiel (Ezk. 47:12), and as I consider these words I think about our cities and our neighborhoods which often are ethnic powder kegs, ready to blow at any time. We know about the War in Iraq, but what about the gangs at war here in Lompoc? There’s going to be another Town Hall Wednesday evening, and this time the discussion will be about solutions. How can we be part of the solution? The problem is, although we live decades after the Civil Rights era, too often we remain in our self-imposed ghettos. We live separated into ethnic enclaves and look at each other with suspicion, jealousy, and even hatred: Black, Korean, Arab, Persian, Latino, Chinese, Vietnamese, Anglo, Indian, Jewish, and on and on.

The question then, that continues to face us is: is healing even possible? I for one find a word of hope in this passage of Scripture. I hear in it a call to the church to be agents of healing. And the good news is that we needn’t wait until an undetermined date in the future to experience this peace. We can begin the work of bringing healing to the nations now. As Martin Luther King told moderate Southern whites, in words reminiscent of Martin Niemoller's confession at the failure of the church to act in the face of Nazi oppression, the greatest tragedy of the Civil Rights era wasn’t the "strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people." Indeed:

"No social advance rolls in on the wheels of inevitability. Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals." (Martin Luther King quoted in "And Don't Call Me a Racist!" 141].


And so how does this fit into our Mother’s Day celebration? Well Mother’s Day wasn’t always a big consumer bash. In fact, Mother’s Day can be traced back to a proclamation given by Julia Ward Howe, the author of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," in 1870. And in that proclamation, Howe calls on women to honor mothers by becoming peacemakers. Writing after the end of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War, Howe called for an end to the seemingly endless conflicts and wars that plagued the world. Calling on the women of the world to rise up and join in seeking to bring healing to the nations, she declared:

In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

See, there is a connection between Revelation and Mother’s Day. May we all heed this call to be agents of reconciliation in the world!

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
May 13, 2007
Sixth Sunday of Easter

Saturday, May 05, 2007

SOMETHING NEW IS COMING

Revelation 21:1-6

In the movie The Perfect Storm, a group of fishermen heads out to sea looking for one good catch that will sustain them for the winter. After many days of failure, they finally bring in that big haul and get ready to head home. The only problem is that their ice machine is broken and without ice the catch will spoil. Their only hope is to make fast break home and hope that their small supply of ice holds till then. This strategy is, however, dangerous because a massive storm stands in the way.

If they wait out the storm they’ll lose the catch and needed cash for the winter, but heading home could lead to their deaths. Believing they can conquer the sea, they head home. Their audacity is tested because this is no ordinary storm. This is a perfect storm, a convergence of weather and sea so powerful that there’s no way out – and in the end they’re lost without a trace.

THE THREAT OF CHAOS

The ancient world feared the power of the Sea. Homer’s Odyssey is a good example of a story of the dangers of the Sea, and the Sea figures prominently in the Old Testament as a symbol of mystery, danger, and Chaos. The subtle tones of our English translations of Genesis 1 cloud the clash between order and disorder that fill the opening lines of the Creation Story. But, if we look carefully, we’ll catch a sense of the danger inherent in Creation, as God acts to bring order to chaos, by separating dry land from the waters and light from darkness.

We see something similar in Job, where God says to Job:

Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? -- when I made the clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it and set bars and doors, and said, "Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped?" (Job. 38:8-11).

Although God sets the boundaries against the sea, the sea continually pushes back, seeking to erode the barriers so that it can overwhelm the land. Yes chaos seeks to overcome order. Think only of Katrina, and you have a sense of what is happening on a spiritual level. Chaos, the Scriptures tell us, is always there seeking to get past our defenses, causing us to fall.

This message can overwhelm us and push us into a life full of fear. But there is hope. Chaos surrounds us, but into the midst of this disorder, comes the New Jerusalem from heaven. By the time John wrote Revelation, the old city of Jerusalem stood in ruins, the victim of its rebellion. But unlike the old city, this new one will live up to its name and become "a city of peace." Of course this city is a metaphorical one, and not a literal city. And so, the question is – Where is this city of Peace?

A VISION OF NEWNESS
To those who feel abandoned by God – those who cry out: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me" (Ps. 22:1), comes this vision of hope. Yes, Chaos is afflicting us — sickness, death, joblessness, divorce, war, terrorism – but the New Jerusalem has come down to us. And in this new world "The sea was no more." Now, not only is Chaos held in check, it is gone. In this holy city violence, hatred, anger, intolerance, oppression, harassment, all are done away with, and in their place there are beauty and peace and joy.

To give us a sense of this beauty and joy, John mixes his metaphors and compares the New Jerusalem to a bride on her wedding day. Like a bride adorned for her husband, so the new city appears in our midst. Every groom who has waited at the altar for his bride can understand this image. As we take hold of John’s vision, we see the joy that comes with the unveiling of the bride in all her glory and beauty, and such is the beauty of the coming of the Lord into our midst.

This short passage is full of grand metaphors – the Sea, the City, the Bride. But there’s another metaphor – the water of life. Although the Sea symbolizes the danger of Chaos, the spring reminds us that we can’t live without water, and what is true physically is true spiritually. In this vision Jesus says to us:

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
The sea, which symbolizes death, destruction, and chaos is replaced with a spring, from which flows the water of life.

GOD IS WITH US
Too often we read such visions and we think of them pointing beyond this life, as if this life is without hope. I’m no utopian who thinks we can build a perfect society on earth, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change the circumstances of life in this realm.

We can be agents of change precisely because God is with us. That’s the message John hears from the throne of heaven:

See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples and God himself will be with them. (Rev. 21:3).

As you hear these words, don’t you hear an echo of John’s Gospel?

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14).

In Christ God became incarnate and dwelt among us. Now, in the New Jerusalem, God is present among us. If you look closely at this passage, you’ll discover that there isn’t a temple in the New Jerusalem. To borrow an image from Paul, we are that temple in whom God dwells.

Therefore, if God is for us, who can be against us? And if we’re that Temple, in whom God dwells, our lives have purpose and they have hope. We needn’t fear the threats of Chaos, but instead we can be at work in the world bringing hope to the lives of others. Through us God will wipe away every tear and bring death to an end.

Our society tells us to submit to Caesar. It tempts us to live lives of complacency and passivity. But in this vision we see God’s city of peace "where right and justice prevail." If we think that this must wait for the other side of death, then we misunderstand the message. The truth found here is this: Because God is present with us, we’re empowered to be agents of truth and justice, and God’s way in the world. Maybe you thought I was going to say "the American way," but God’s way and the American away aren’t always the same (Eugene Boring, Revelation, Interpretation, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989, 217-18]. Let us therefore, embrace God’s call to be Christ to the world so that the hope for truth and justice and compassion may prevail among us.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, California
Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 6, 2007