Saturday, January 26, 2008

Not Me, But You O Lord

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

If you go to Beijing, you’ll find the body of Chairman Mao nicely entombed. And if you go to Moscow, you’ll find Lenin’s body on display, although he’s not as popular as he once was. Many seeming larger than life figures, both living and dead, have been elevated to seemingly divine status. Back when Paul was writing this letter to the Corinthians, his audience knew all about personality cults. The Roman Emperors were experts at cultivating them.
In our day, we have a different set of idols. They may be sports heroes or celebrities. Although there are some who relish tearing down society’s idols, sharing the most intimate details of their lives in the various tabloids. But for most of us, these people – human as they may be – seem larger than life and almost unapproachable. If we get the chance to meet them, we do so with a great deal of shyness. Our palms get sweaty palms, our voices stammer nervously.
Interestingly enough this can happen in the church, and it’s not just the big time preachers who get this treatment. Sometimes even small church pastors get put on a pedestal. You might not get sweaty palms, but you know what I mean! Yes, personality cults come in all shapes and sizes! There’s a flip side to this, of course, life has a way of knocking idols off their pedestals.

1. It’s Not About Me
Being a pastor, I sometimes struggle with the way people see me. I must say I’m flattered when you all say nice things about me. I do feel the love! But I have to keep things in proper perspective – because it’s not about me. Nor is it about Bill or Dee or Norma or any one person. It’s not about party or faction. At least that’s what Paul seems to be saying to the church in Corinth. For some reason they had gotten all tangled up in factional fighting. And so Paul says – It’s not about me, or Apollos, or Cephas. Interestingly he even adds in Christ – just in case someone wanted to take the “high road” and claim that they were just doing it the way Jesus wanted. As a pastor, I hear Paul saying – it’s not about me – and I think, yeah that’s right, it isn’t about me, it’s about you O Lord.

And the truth is, personalities can mess things up and get in the way of unity. It doesn’t have to be the pastor; it could be any number of people in the life of the church. This stuff often happens because we’re all different in our thinking, our interests, and more. And whatever you want to say about the Corinthian church, you can say this: it was diverse. And not only was it diverse, but like a couple of siblings, it could fight with the best of them. Kathleen Norris writes:

The Corinthians remind me of my niece and nephew in their younger days when they fought ferociously over things both large and small. One afternoon as they raged over the question of who would sit in the front seat as Mom drove them home on the daily commute, I asked, “Is there anything you two won’t fight about?” The shouting stopped as both children looked at me. Beaming, they happily declared, “No!” and resumed their squabbling. Of course they love each other, and always have. (Christian Century, January 15, 2008, p. 23).

Norris thinks that Paul was hoping that this would be true of the Corinthians – that they would ultimately find unity in their common heritage of faith, in spite of their differences. Because ultimately, it’s not about me, but you O Lord.

2. Unity in Our Diversity

One way to make sure there’s unity in a church is to make sure that every one thinks alike, talks alike, and looks a like. It wasn’t that long ago that church growth experts were telling us that birds of a feather flock together, so the quickest way to build a church was to find your niche. So, you have churches for the young and churches for the old, churches for the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor. You have black churches, Hispanic churches, Korean churches, and white churches. They called it the homogenous principle, but the problem with this is that ultimately this principle doesn’t allow for diversity. Oh, it may alleviate a lot of “problems,” but the question is: Is this what God really wants for the church? Does God want uniformity or does God want us to find unity in our diversity. In other words can the organ crowd live together with the guitar crowd? Just to give an example!
I’ve just started reading a book about forming multi-ethnic/economically diverse congregations. I got this book because this is the kind of church I want to be part of. I enjoy being with people who are different. The author of this book says that the era of the mono-ethnic congregation is coming to an end. The question, then, is: What do we do with our diversity? (Mark Deymaz, Building a Healthy Multi-Ethnic Church, Jossey Bass, 2007).

3. Rooted in the Cross
Again, we hear Paul say to us: It’s not me, but you O Lord. But as we say this, we hear a voice say to us: Why should I accommodate the needs of the other? If they want to come here, why can’t they assimilate and be like me?

Ultimately, it has to do with our witness to the Gospel. If we want people to hear the message of the love of Jesus, then we need to think about how people perceive us. Paul says, it’s ultimately not about me or my eloquence, because if it’s about me then the cross is emptied of its power.
Our unity in the midst of diversity can only be found in the cross. The scandal of the cross, according to Paul, is that it’s a sign of humiliation and weakness. To die on a cross is to experience complete powerlessness. To experience unity in the midst of diversity, we must be willing to let go of our need to be in power – and that word goes to the pastor as well as the members of the church.
I haven’t seen The Golden Compass movie, but I did read Philip Pullman’s trilogy that provides the basis for this controversial movie over Christmas vacation. I read it because I’d heard so many Christians condemning it as an atheist manifesto written for children (Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials, Yearling, 1995-2000). I don’t know if reading it will make you an atheist – it didn’t convert me to atheism, but it’s an interesting read.

The point I want to make has to do with the nature of power, and how in these stories it’s a boy and a girl, nearing puberty, who save the day. I won’t go into the story, but the question arises – why children? Donna Freitas and Jason King offer an answer. They try to reinterpret the books from a Christian perspective, and they say that in the books it’s not that children are especially innocent that they are more capable of being compassionate than adults, it’s instead because they have little access to power that they’re more likely to rely on love (Donna Freitas and Jason King, Killing the Imposter God, Jossey Bass, 2007, p. 93).

Be like little children, Jesus says to us. Paul says to us, in your dealings with one another; follow the way of the cross. Then the gospel will have power to change lives and we’ll find unity in the midst of our diversity.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Following the Lamb

John 1:29-42

We usually think of sheep as dumb, harmless animals. If you go to a petting zoo, you’ll find sheep and not lions and tigers. That’s because zoo keepers think they’re safe. So when we hear John telling us that Jesus is the Lamb of God, our tendency is to see him as that nice cuddly lamb in the petting zoo. But that’s not what John has in mind

While this title – Lamb of God – might sound strange to us, first century Jews would have understood. Because lambs played an important role in their worship and in their Scriptures, what they heard was a reference to the Passover Lamb that symbolized their deliverance from the bondage of Egypt. They would also have had the message of the Suffering Servant in their minds. The Servant, who like a lamb led to the slaughter and a sheep standing before its shearers, suffers for the people living in exile so that they might find freedom from their sins that keep them in bondage.
Jesus is proclaimed here as the one who liberates us from the sins of the world.
I. THE PASSOVER LAMB REVEALED
We hear the message of God’s lamb here at the beginning of the story, but if we keep reading we encounter the Passover Lamb again in John 18. In this passage we find Jesus dying on the cross at the same moment that the priests are sacrificing the Passover Lamb in the Temple. This isn’t coincidental, because in this Gospel Jesus is the Passover Lamb who is sacrificed for us. Although the Passover Lamb wasn’t a sin offering, John interprets it in this way.

Jesus is the Lamb that is sacrificed not just to deliver us from slavery’s bondage, but to atone for the sins of the world. Something similar is found in 1 Peter 1, where Jesus is the one who ransoms us from the evil one by offering his precious blood, "like that of a lamb without defect or blemish" (1 Pet. 1:18-19). Our tendency is to see this sacrifice as an appeasement of the wrath of God, but my sense of who God is, leads me in a different direction. Jesus’ death doesn’t appease God’s anger at our sins, but his death does change things. That word atonement is a good one, for it suggests that we who are divided are made one in Christ. We are estranged from God, and by way of this sacrifice that estrangement is ended. We are estranged from one another, but now we are reconciled.

II. THE SUFFERING SERVANT

There’s another image standing behind this text, and that’s the Suffering Servant of God (Isaiah 53). Isaiah speaks of the innocent one, who like a silent lamb is made a sin offering for us, bringing an end to the brokenness that dominates our lives. Back then it was exile in Babylon, but for us it’s a different form of exile. It’s that sense of alienation that colors all of our relationships – with God, with our spouses, with our children, our co-workers, and our neighbors. Nowhere is it more present than in the politics of our nation, a politics that divides us and keeps us from working together to build a better world. That’s our exile, but Isaiah tells us that this Servant is standing with us, the transgressors, pouring out his life for us, bearing our wounds and our sins, making intercession for us so that the exile might come to an end.

III. FOLLOWING THE LAMB
The question that stands before us is the one John posed first to Andrew and through Andrew to Simon – will you follow this Lamb of God? Having realized that Jesus was the Messiah who would free them from the bondage to sin that defined their lives, Andrew went and got Simon. Then, the two of them went to Jesus and offered themselves to him as his followers. Oh, they didn’t know what they’re getting into, any more than do we, but they do know that this is their destiny.

To follow the Lamb of God is to lay down our lives for the other. This is the way of love, which brings reconciliation with God and with neighbor. This is a fitting message for today, since this week is called the "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity." This is an annual event that calls us to as Christians to put aside our differences and our divisions and see in each other the presence of God. As we do this, we discover our calling to work together as God’s one flock to bring the message of freedom to the world. When we’re divided, our message is lost in the confusion, but when we stand together we can embody God’s love in the very places we live and work. That’s a tall order, but it is our calling.
This is also Martin Luther King Weekend, and Dr. King understood what it meant to be a follower of the Lamb of God. Oh, at first, he probably didn’t fully understand, any more than did Andrew or Peter, but over time he discovered that following the Lamb of God meant joining with others in liberating African-Americans from the bondage of prejudice and the poor from their bondage of poverty. And, as he followed in the footsteps of the Lamb of God, he became himself a Suffering Servant. He’s not the Christ, but he understood that to follow Jesus could mean suffering and even dying for others. He understood that true discipleship is costly.
Tradition says that Peter died upside down on a cross, while Andrew, his brother and the patron saint, so to speak, of the Disciples, died spread eagle on a sideways cross, like the one that marks the Disciples’ chalice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who himself, died for others, wrote that "when Christ calls, he bids us come and die." This is what it means to follow the Lamb of God. In a very real sense we die to ourselves, but we are reborn as servants of the Servant King. As his servants, we bear God’s love to the world so that it might be liberated and transformed. As we do this, we draw close to the heart of God.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
January 20, 2008

Saturday, January 12, 2008

FOR EVERYONE'S EARS

Acts 10:34-43

I know you’ve all been in a situation where someone tells you something "important" and then tells you – this is for your ears only. Don’t tell anyone. It’s just between us. It might be something about the job or a family situation, but whatever it is you’re sworn to secrecy. That kind of thing happens all the time, and often for good reason. Though, it’s tempting to tell others. When I’m told something like that, I often will try and clarify it. Is it okay to tell Cheryl? Or something like that. But the reason we’re told to keep it under our hat is that some things just need to be kept quiet and private – for the good of all.

There are some things we just love to share – whether it’s the latest gossip or news of a friend or family member who has done something interesting or even heroic. We especially like to talk about our kids – if we have them. You know, like: Brett has received his acceptance letter to Cal State Northridge!

1. UNBINDING THE GOSPEL

But there are other things, things we could talk about, but we don’t. Some things, we say, should just be kept private. Interestingly, one of those things we tend to keep private is our faith. For some reason, we feel compelled to keep things quiet. Perhaps it’s for a good reason. Poll after poll tells us that those outside the church look at those inside the church and don’t see much that’s appealing. The words people use to describe Christians aren’t ones like compassion, love, or graciousness. Instead, they use words like arrogant, narrow-minded, and most common of all – hypocrite. It’s no wonder we tend to keep our mouths shut – who wants to be identified with such a lousy group? Especially when there’s a lot of truth to the charges.

Even I sometimes find it easier not to speak of my faith – and I’m a professional Christian. At times I feel a bit leery about telling people what I do, because that can easily put up walls of defensiveness or end conversations. It’s easier to talk about politics than religion!

The best policy, so we are told is to keep our faith private. And many of us have heeded the call.

There is a great new series of books written by a Disciples pastor that challenges that idea. Gay Reese has written a powerful book called Unbinding the Gospel, which the Elders are reading. In the past month she has published two more books – one for church leaders called Unbinding Your Church and another one for the church as a whole called Unbinding Your Heart. As you can see, each book talks about the process of unbinding or unleashing something.

The other day, in her victory speech, Hillary Clinton said: "I listened to you and I found my voice." I think that this statement has something to say to us. I’m not going political, so don’t worry. Whether or not you like Hillary, that sentence has something to say to us. The world is saying to us – something is missing, and Gay Reese says to us – we need to find our voice. She talks about how we Mainline Protestants have been reluctant to tell the stories of our faith in God. We’ve been reluctant to share the stories of our journey with Jesus. It’s one of the reasons why our churches haven’t grown – we’ve discovered good news, but we’ve kept it to ourselves.

2. A UNIVERSAL GOSPEL

Peter knows how we feel. Before Cornelius’s messengers knocked on his door, he too was reluctant to share his story. At least he was reluctant to tell the story of Jesus to non-Jews. He just assumed that the message of Jesus was meant for the ears of only a few, but God has a way of changing things. God can find ways of redirecting our thinking as happened with Peter, who received a vision that opened his eyes to a new reality.
In this vision, Peter discovered that God shows no partiality. That is, if God declares something clean, then it’s clean, and God told Peter that Gentiles were clean too. Indeed, everyone who does right knows God. Everyone who believes in Jesus and names him Lord is forgiven. Not just a few, but everyone. That’s because this is a Universal Gospel.

There are no boundaries – it doesn’t matter how old or young, how rich or poor, your race or your gender, your sexual orientation or your marital status. The good news is for all. Now Peter needed some convincing. He just assumed that God loved his people, and his people alone. But he had to learn that Jesus was Lord not just of his own people, but all people.

3. THE CALL TO SHARE THE STORY

When Peter answered Cornelius’ invitation, he responded by telling them about Jesus. He begins with the baptism by John and then he moves on to stories about Jesus’ life and ministry and teachings – how he went about doing good things and healing the sick. Peter then told how his enemies put him to death and how God redeemed Jesus by raising him from the dead. Finally he tells Cornelius that Jesus had appeared to him and to others and made them witnesses of the Gospel. Now, after his vision, Peter understood that this was a message that should go to all people. In responding first to God’s vision and then to Cornelius’ invitation, the Gospel had been unbound.

We are called by God to share our story, but the story of Cornelius reminds us of how important it is for us to listen for the invitation to share that story. Too often, when people tell the story of Jesus they do so in a way that’s coercive. They make you feel like if you don’t say yes you’re going to hell. They focus on the wrath of God, rather than the love of God.

Peter does talk about the judgment of God and he talks about forgiveness of sins. That’s a central theme of his message, but he shares it in a way that invites a free response. Such is our calling as well. We are being invited today to let God unbind our hearts so that we might unbind the Gospel that has changed our lives.
This morning we began singing a new song. I first sang it at the General Assembly. We sang it as well at the Regional Gathering. It was written by Bill Thomas, the music minister at Church of the Valley. I hope that this song will ring in your hearts:

"I see a church with a vision;
I see a church on a mission."

"I see a church who has made her mind up,
and she’s building her hopes on things eternal.
She’s holding to God’s unchanging hand."

Indeed, that is the church that I see as well! It is the church that God is inviting us to be.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
January 13, 2008
1st Sunday after Epiphany

Friday, January 11, 2008

ALL IN THE FAMILY

A Guest Sermon -- First Christian Church of Lompoc
© David L. Matson 2003
John 17:20-23; 2 John 7-11; 1 John 2:18-19



Boy the way Glen Miller played
Songs that made the hit parade.
Guys like us we had it made,
Those were the days.

Didn’t need no welfare state.
Everybody pulled his weight.
Gee our old LaSalle ran great.
Those were the days.

And those were the days. Those were the days when they were indeed “all in the family.” Archie and Meathead living under the same roof. Edith and Gloria trying their dead-level best to keep peace in the family. If you were like me growing up in the Seventies, you tuned in to this very popular television show every Saturday night to watch this dysfunctional family battle it out before your very eyes. “Stifle, Edith!” we could hear a domineering and chauvinistic Archie exclaim. “Gloria!” we could hear a frustrated and an about-to-explode Michael implore. It was not always pleasant. It was not always serene. But, you have to admit, it was all in the family.

I want to introduce you to another family today. It is actually a family of churches in the first-century CE that shared a common heritage going back to the same spiritual father. That father was known simply to them as “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (or the “Beloved Disciple,” for short), who was an eyewitness of many of the important events in Jesus’ earthly ministry and whose teachings and testimony came to be embodied in what we know today as the Gospel of John. In John 13, the Beloved Disciple is reclining next to Jesus at the Last Supper; in John 19, he is standing at the foot of the cross receiving the care of Jesus’ earthly mother; in John 20, he is outdistancing Peter to the empty tomb; in John 21, he is the first to recognize the resurrected Lord while fishing with Simon Peter. Is it any surprise, then, that the Gospel concludes on this reassuring note: “This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true” (21:24)?
The use of the word “we” here is striking. The “we” to which the author refers is none other than the community of the Beloved Disciple—the “school” or “family,” if you will, that he inspired and which eventually produced the Gospel and letters of John. So closely did they come to identity with their beloved teacher that they came to share his language, his insight, and his perspective as if it were their very own. I remember when I was a student at Pepperdine University. I had a teacher that I admired so much that I found myself subconsciously reflecting his thoughts and imitating his style in my own teaching. Finally one night at after a Bible Study that I taught my wife Mary kindly pointed this peculiarity out to me. I had not even realized the extent of my teacher’s influence! And that is something of the way it must have happened with the community of the Beloved Disciple. So profound was his influence that his thoughts became their thoughts; his experience their experience. Through the eyes and ears of the Beloved Disciple the entire community could affirm the opening words of 1 John: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life” (1:1).
But something happened to the Beloved Disciple that eventually happens to us all—he died. And when he died, it left a tremendous void in the lives of his followers. Gone was the living voice of their authoritative teacher. Gone was the gentle hand who could steer the ship and guide the controls. Now the community was left to carry on without their beloved figure; now the community was left to fend for itself under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the “Paraclete” (14:16,26; 15:26; 16:7). So unfathomable was the thought of the Beloved Disciple’s passing—so preposterous was the idea—that a rumor had begun to spread that the Beloved Disciple would never die at all (21:23).

But die he did. And when he died, the family began to experience conflict. Some in the family liked what the Beloved Disciple had to say about Jesus’ divinity: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn. 1:1); “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9); “Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn. 8:58). In fact, so enamored were they with Jesus’ “high” status before God—indeed, he was God himself!—that they came to believe that his human, earthly existence was not very important at all. Some were becoming self-styled “progressives” in their theology, believing that Jesus had never really come “in the flesh” (2 Jn. 9), the catch-phrase that the another group of Christians in the Beloved Disciple’s community used to stress the importance of Jesus’ true humanity. This second group could point to aspects of the Beloved Disciple’s teaching that stressed Jesus’ full humanity: “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn. 1:14); “Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well” (4:6); “I thirst” (Jn. 19:28). Jesus may have been fully divine, but he was almost certainly fully human as well.
For a while the community of the Beloved Disciple lived under the same roof (or, perhaps, we should say, “roofs”) as it struggled with these two very different trajectories in the Beloved Disciple’s teaching. But then things started getting nasty. The group that believed Jesus did indeed come “in the flesh” began regarding those who didn’t as “false prophets” (1 Jn. 4:1) and as “antichrists” (1 Jn. 2:18; 2 Jn. 7), a term, it seems, invented specially for them. The author of the letters of John began to disallow anyone who was sympathetic with the “other” side from donning the doors of the church and worshipping together in the same house (2 Jn. 10). His opponents no doubt were engaging in heated name-calling as well and acting just as inhospitably towards the other side (cf. 3 Jn. 9). Things were going south fast. Where was the Beloved Disciple when they needed him?! And need him they did. The community of the Beloved Disciple was in danger of being torn apart at the seams.

And so this family of churches, sharing the same Lord, the same Gospel tradition, and the same spiritual parentage, did something that many marriages unfortunately do when trouble escalates and conflict sharpens beyond the point of no return: they got a divorce. By the time the letter of 1 John was written (2 John, in my view, reflects an earlier stage in the conflict), we learn that some had already “moved out”: “They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us” (2:19). These sad and tragic words, as one scholar has noted, represent “the first known instance of disagreement among Christians leading to formal separation—the beginnings of a long and weary path in Christian history” (Houlden, 3). No longer were they the one church for which Jesus prayed in his high-priestly prayer of John 17: “I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one” (v. 23); no longer were they “all in the family.” It was now “we” versus “they”; “us” versus “them.” The divorce was as messy and as ugly as a National Enquirer headline. It was a good thing that the Beloved Disciple was not alive to see this sad and acrimonious parting of the ways; he surely would be turning over in his grave.

I tell you this sad story today—historically reconstructed as it is—to draw some interesting parallels to our own history and our own experience as heirs to the Stone-Campbell Movement. Our Movement began in the nineteenth-century on the American frontier as a unity movement within the wider church, calling Christians to put aside their denominational differences and return to that “simple” form of Christianity embodied in the New Testament (although we know now that it was not so simple). These early followers of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell called themselves “Christians” or “Disciples” (using universal and biblical names) and had unity as their “polar star.” During that first generation when Campbell was still alive, the Movement flourished and grew, but after his death the second generation began to experience turmoil and conflict, disagreeing over matters of theology and what was to be considered “essential” to the restoration of “New Testament Christianity.” Two groups would eventually emerge, each claiming to represent the truest and best thought of the Movement. Unfortunately, the kind of Christian tolerance that Stone and Campbell were able to extend to one another (despite the fact that they disagreed on such “minor” matters as the Trinity and the substitutionary death of Christ!) was replaced over time with more dogmatic attitudes and theological rigidity, exacerbated, unfortunately, by the aftermath of the Civil War. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the divorce papers were final, and there were now two laying claim to the same theological heritage: the Disciples of Christ, and the Churches of Christ.

But, as the commercial says, “But wait! There’s more! The early decades of the twentieth century saw the rise of Darwinism and the influx of European higher biblical criticism in Disciples’ universities and seminaries, and the third-generation heirs of the Stone-Campbell Movement found themselves divided once again, this time between “liberals” (called “infidels” by conservatives), who made their peace with progress and scientific discovery, and “conservatives” (called “fundamentalists” by liberals), who militantly defended what they considered to be “the faith once delivered to the saints.” Campbell, the beloved disciple, was long since dead, but both groups could cite him as a source to justify their respective positions. The two groups lived very uneasily with each other for the next forty years or so, eating and meeting together from time to time but not enjoying it very much. The divorce finally became official in the 1960s when both groups decided to go their separate ways. This separation produced yet a third division, and now there were three groups laying claim to the same theological heritage.
As this brief look at our history reveals, we were, at one time, “all in the family.” Like the original community of the Beloved Disciple, we believed in a common Lord, we read from a common book, we shared a common meal, we even looked to our own “Beloved Disciple” for direction and guidance. But we got a divorce. In fact, we got more than one. I stand before you today as one who hates divorce. I stand before you today as one who wants to put the marriage back together again. It will never happen so long as we insist that “we” are right and “they” are wrong. It will never happen so long as there is the temptation to move out of the house when we disagree. It can only happen when we agree to disagree in love. As the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple declares, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:35). Only then can those other words of Jesus in the Beloved Disciple’s Gospel stand a chance of ever coming true: “I in them, and you in me, that they may be completely one” (Jn. 17:23). Ah, those were the days.
Preached at:
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. David L. Matson
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
Hope International University
Epiphany Sunday
January 6, 2008