Saturday, March 22, 2008

It's Time to Celebrate

Jeremiah 31:1-6

It may have come early this year, but today is Easter Sunday. Therefore, it’s time to celebrate. Easter is one of those holidays that combines religious and nonreligious elements, and you get to choose which part to emphasize. For many people, it’s a time to color eggs and hide them; a time to eat chocolate bunnies, and it’s a time to bring out our new spring clothes. Yes, today is a day to wear our spring best; maybe, even put on a new hat.

Back in the day, if you can believe the movies, Easter was the day when people got all dressed up and paraded their new stuff in front of their neighbors. Irving Berlin wrote the music for a movie with the title Easter Parade, starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. Now that musical really didn’t have anything to do with Easter, but apparently they did have fashion parades back in the old days – before any of us were around.

Easter is also a celebration of spring. We celebrate the rebirth of nature, of the flowers and the trees, which are breaking out their leaves and their flowers. It’s a time to plant and expect good things. Yes, Easter is a time to celebrate.

1. Wilderness Time

When it comes to Easter preaching, we expect to hear the gospel stories of an empty tomb and Jesus’ appearances to his disciples. So, why Jeremiah? Well, one reason is that it’s in the lectionary for today and I’ve never preached on it, but the real reason for choosing it is that it catches the essence of the Easter Spirit.

If you read Jeremiah, you know that he understands darkness and wilderness. He preached against his political leaders and got thrown into jail for not being patriotic enough. He watched as his country was conquered and the temple destroyed. He watched as his people were carted off to a strange land. Yes, Jeremiah understands darkness and wilderness.

The image of the wilderness plays a major role in the biblical story. When we think of wilderness, we usually think of mountains and lakes, places where we can hike and camp in the midst of breathtaking beauty. Yosemite and the Sequoia’s, that’s what we think of. But in the biblical sense, wilderness is very different. It’s a place of loneliness, desolation, darkness, want and despair. Think of the desert, a place that’s barren, and where life is difficult. It is full of danger and desperation.

The season of Lent, which ended yesterday, remembers the wilderness. It brings to mind Jesus’ forty day fast in the desert, where he experienced temptation and testing. Those forty days mirror the 40 years of Hebrew wanderings in Sinai. They too were tested and tempted. At times they also felt abandoned and on their own. They had to go on even when they weren’t sure of the direction. But even as Jesus was ultimately strengthened by his time in the desert, so were the Hebrews. They learned, as he learned, to depend on God.

The Lenten stories aren’t meant just to inform us about Jesus’ journeys, they’re there to remind us that we too are tested, that we have our own wilderness experiences, when we feel abandoned. But as we go through these difficult and stressful times, we learn to depend on God.

2. Restoration Time

Jeremiah understood the wilderness, but in this section of his book, we find him speaking a word of consolation and hope to people returning home from exile. He speaks to the survivors who "found grace in the wilderness." They may have lost their homes, their lands, and even their Temple, but now they’re heading home and Jeremiah wants them to know that God is with them.

The word he brings is a word of restoration, and he calls on them to embrace it with a sense of anticipation and joy. Their mood is described in Isaac Watt’s hymn Marching to Zion:


Come, we that love the Lord, and let our joys be known;
Join in a song with sweet accord, join in a song in sweet accord
and thus surround the throne, and thus surround the throne.

We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion;
We’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful City of God
.


The exile is over and its time to rejoice.

For Jesus, Good Friday marked the beginning of his exile. Remember the song we sang Thursday evening as we remembered his last supper. We sang: "We’re you there, when they nailed him to the tree" and then "Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?" But today, we come to celebrate Jesus’ restoration to life. We come to bask in the glow of his resurrection.

And the key to Jeremiah’s Easter message is his promise that God loves us with an everlasting love. There may be times when we don’t feel it, when we feel alone and abandoned, but Jeremiah says to us that God’s "steadfast love," his hesed is the foundation of a covenant God has made with his people.

Later in this chapter, Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant that God is making with the people. It’s a covenant rooted in this love, a covenant written not on tablets of stone but on the hearts of the people. Because it’s written on their hearts, they won’t have to learn it ever again, for they’ll know God’s law from the very depths of their hearts, from the greatest to the least. Here is the promise of that covenant: "I will be their God, and they will be my people."

This is also the promise of Easter. We have gone through our wilderness time with Jesus. We’ve gone with him to the cross and we’ve shared in his experience of abandonment. We’ve heard him cry out, "it is finished." But today we come to bear witness to the truth that God is faithful and that death doesn’t hold the final card. God is faithful and we will be restored. We will experience reconciliation with God and with one another, and all things will become new.

Listen as Jeremiah uses the word "Again" three times. Speaking for God, he says:

  • "Again I will build you, and you shall be built."
  • "Again you shall take your tambourines, and go forth in the dance of merrymakers."
  • "Again you shall plant vineyards of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit."
Indeed, the relationship that was broken is now healed.

3. Celebration Time

When a team wins the World Series or the Super Bowl, they hold a ticker-tape parade. If we’re to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, then perhaps we should have an Easter Parade. I don’t know if you need to go out and buy a new bonnet or hat, but it is appropriate, I think, to bring out that tambourine and do a little dance!

This is the attitude that Mary takes after she sees the risen Lord: She goes and tells the others: "I have seen the Lord" (John 20:18). This isn’t a descriptive statement, it’s a declarative one. It’s a call to celebrate.

In the words of the ancient Eucharistic rite for Easter: We can say:


"Alleluia: Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia."

Indeed, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God, and give thanks. Happy Easter!

Preached by:
Rev. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Easter Sunday
March 23, 2008

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Misreading God's Intentions

John 12:12-19

Have you ever misinterpreted something someone said or did? Anyone who has tried dating knows how easy it is to "misread signals." I’ve done it on many an occasion – just ask Cheryl. Maybe she looks at you in a certain way, and you think: My, she must like me. Later on you discover that she didn’t even know you were there. She was looking somewhere else and missed you in the foreground. Sometimes you get lucky. You’ve misread the signals, or the lack thereof, but you get the courage to go up and talk to her, or maybe make a fateful phone call and invite her on a date. Now, of course, I’m speaking from my own experiences, yours might be different.

Then there are those pesky dreams – you know those visions you get in the middle of the night, which seem to be a sense of God’s calling. When you have those kinds of dreams, how do you know whether its God or not? Maybe the reason you can’t sleep isn’t that God is talking you, but is instead that pizza you ate at 9 P.M.. Sometimes we appeal to our dreams to try to rationalize ideas and decisions. We hope that by baptizing them in pious language, God might just decide to claim them.

1. EXPECTATIONS
When the crowd saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, at least some of the people got the idea that he was about to lead a revolution that would throw out the Roman occupiers. They seemed to think that maybe this was the promised Messiah who would restore Israel to its former greatness. In John’s telling, we must keep in mind the story of Lazarus, which got everyone hoping. And so, when they see Jesus, they begin to shout.

"Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord--The King of Israel!"

This was an auspicious moment for Jesus to ride into Jerusalem. It was, we are told, the beginning of Passover Week. The city was full of pilgrims coming to celebrate God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. And as the city swelled with pilgrims, the Roman governor, always wary of trouble, was entering the city, bringing with him his troops – just in case. Jerusalem was like a forest full of dry brush and timber. It wouldn’t take much to set off a fire.

If you had been there and had seen Jesus entering the city the way he did, what would you have thought? What if you were a Roman authority? Or, a Jewish religious leader? A Jewish nationalistic rebel? A common Jewish peasant? What would your expectations have been? Would you have correctly understood Jesus' mission, or would you have misread the situation?

2. A DEFINING LENS
We all look at life through sets of lenses. If you’ve been listening to the news, you may have heard about a certain pastor’s sermons that are raising questions about a certain candidate. How you hear the message is rooted in how you see the world – that is, the lens you use to see.

Jesus’s fellow pilgrims saw their world through the lens of living in an occupied country. They looked forward to a time of freedom, and Passover helped inspire that idea. There was another lens that may have influenced the way they saw Jesus. Indeed, Jesus likely knew what he was doing when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey that day. You see there was this prophet named Zechariah. You’ll find his words near the end of the Old Testament. This prophet lived after the exile, and he spoke of a triumphant king who would, interestingly enough, enter Jerusalem riding humbly on a donkey, after having triumphed over the chariot and the war horse. What a vision this is, that God’s chosen one would come and take his throne and reign in peace over the nations (Zechariah 9:9-10). Could this, they wondered, be the one? And I’m pretty sure Jesus knew they’d react this way! Though, according to John, the Disciples didn’t understand until after the resurrection. They didn’t understand that the cross lay in the path of God’s victory. They had a different set of lenses.

3. OUR RESPONSE TO GOD'S DREAMS
So, if you had been there, how would you have responded? What lenses would you have been using to interpret what was happening that day in Jerusalem?

On this Palm Sunday morning in Lompoc – I want to push the question a bit. How do you see God’s work in your life? In this community? In this nation? And beyond? Where do you see God at work? And, how do you know it’s God?
It’s not always easy to know what God is doing. We like to think in conventional terms, but God doesn’t always work that way. Jesus understood that his entrance wasn’t the defining moment of his ministry. He knew that he was moving toward a violent and humiliating death. Victory would come, but not without pain.
I mentioned last week that I had been learning about change and that change required pain. If you’re happy and content, you don’t change. Jesus understood this as well. If change was going to happen in the lives of his people, then he himself would have to suffer. He would have to give up his life, so that God might transform the people. Jesus could have chosen an easier route. Free bread, for instance. Surely he could have raised an army to throw out the Romans. But he chose a different route. It was slower, but the change would be permanent and powerful.

So, what kinds of dreams do we have? And are they in line with what God desires for you and for the world? Could you be misreading God's intentions? We all must answer these questions. Indeed, I am asking them these days – very carefully, I might add. My hope is that my dreams are God’s dreams. That my lenses are the right ones.

We like Palm Sunday. It’s a fun day. We get to sing happy songs and wave palm branches. But when you take a look at those palm crosses, you’ll see that the palm branches form a cross. Jesus will triumph, but first we must go through Good Friday. But, the promise of Palm Sunday is that Good Friday doesn’t have the last word. Good Friday is one lens, but it’s not the final lens through which we discern God’s intentions.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Palm Sunday
March 16, 2008

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Life and Death Situations

John 11:1-45

We can try to put it off for as long as possible, but death is part of life. We all have a terminal illness – even if it takes decades to manifest itself. Although there are two things in life that are inevitable – death and taxes – we don’t like dealing with either of them.

One of the reasons we don’t like to deal with death is that it means saying goodbye, and we don’t like to say goodbye. It"s as novelist George Eliot says: "Only in the agony of parting do we look into the depths of love." I realize this isn’t a very happy way to start a sermon, but John’s story is about life and death.
Like the earlier stories in John there are words with double meanings and there are also revelatory statements. Last week we heard Jesus say, "I’m the light of the world." This week we hear another statement, and whether or not he made the statements himself, the statements reveal how the early church, especially John’s community viewed Jesus.
In John 11 we meet Lazarus. He’s the brother of the more famous Mary and Martha, and while he appears only here, it would seem as if he’s a close friend of Jesus. His death makes an impression on him, and causes him to grieve. At the beginning of the story we read that Mary and Martha send word that their beloved brother is sick, hoping Jesus will come and heal him. To their dismay, Jesus delays his visit and Lazarus dies. Only then, when he knows that Lazarus is good and dead, does Jesus go up to Bethany – to wake Lazarus up.
Thomas makes an interesting comment here – he says: "Yeah, let’s go and die too" (that’s a paraphrase). In Thomas’s comments we see signs of the confrontation that is on the horizon.
I. THE PROBLEM OF DEATH
This story is about life and death, and as is true elsewhere in John, there are physical and spiritual dimensions to the story. On the human side of things, we see the grief and the fear that is present in death. The disciples know that in going south they face the possibility of death, while Mary and Martha face the prospect of being alone, without support. In that culture women depended on the men, and now their protector and their supporter was gone. So, its no surprise that they were upset with Jesus.

But what about us and our sense of death. Millie’s recent death is a reminder of how difficult it is to say goodbye. And the older you get the more aware you become of the possibilities of death. I don’t think about it much, but in turning 50 the other day, I realized that I could be well past the halfway point in my life – unless I live to be 100. When I look back fifteen years, I see a person aged 35. I had a young son and armed with a Ph.D. I was looking for that elusive first teaching position. Although I wasn’t getting any younger, the future was bright. Looking forward fifteen years, what I see is retirement. I might even be a grandfather by then. When you look at life that way, you realize that time is rather short. I realize that many of you think I’m a young whippersnapper, but it’s a matter of perspective.
My generation – the Baby Boomers - - will do everything we can to put off the inevitable. And while it’s likely we’ll live longer than previous generations, death is still real. Of course, we’ll go out kicking and screaming. As Woody Allen is alleged to have said on his fortieth birthday:

I shall gain immortality not through my work but by not dying.1

II. THE PROMISE OF LIFE
In her conversation with Jesus, Martha is focused on the present, physical situation. But Jesus wants to take her beyond the physical to the spiritual. And in another of those self-revelatory statements Jesus says:

I am the Resurrection and the Life.

You look forward to the resurrection, and I am it – if only you’ll believe, if you’ll trust your life to my care. In me death loses its sting because it no longer has power over you. Then Jesus says to Martha: "Do you believe this?" Then in tones reminiscent of Peter and Thomas, Martha declares her faith, confessing Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and the one who is coming into the world. I believe Lord, I believe.
That is the climax of the story, though we read on to watch as Jesus, moved by the two sisters’ grief, goes to the tomb, begins to weep, and asks that the stone be rolled away. Then Jesus calls into the tomb:

Lazarus Come Out!

In response, Lazarus comes forth, and Jesus asks that the people unbind him.

This story, which appears no where else, comes just before the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday. If you’ve ever watched The Greatest Story Ever Told, that 1960s movie version of Jesus’ life, the news of Lazarus’ resurrection goes out into the cities and towns, accompanied by the Hallelujah Chorus. One event leads to the other, and so we can see why some in Jerusalem and in Caesarea could be nervous when a man rides into the city on a donkey, with the crowd shouting hosanna.

What is the message of the story of Lazarus? I don't think that it promises us deliverance from physical death. Instead it points us further onto that other resurrection, the resurrection of Jesus. The raising of Lazarus has its value, but our hope lies not in it, but in that of Jesus. It is the spiritual not the physical that has preeminence.

Death is very real, but in the grand scheme of things, when we look at things with spiritual eyes, we discover that death has lost its sting, and so we don’t have to fear it. We don’t have to chase after it, because life on this planet has great value. But it’s not the ultimate thing. There is sadness in death, because we must say goodbye. But in the promise of the resurrection, we find hope to sustain us. Jesus says to Martha: "Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die" (Jn. 11:25-26).
In the end, not even death can separate us from the love of God! Whatever the loss, as deep and great as it might be, today is a day of resurrection. It is a day of new beginnings! So, let us rejoice!
1. Quoted in Larry Platt and Roger Branch, Resources for Ministry in Death and Dying, (Nashville: Broadman, 1988), 38-39.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Fifth Sunday of Lent
March 9, 2008

Saturday, March 01, 2008

BLINDNESS

John 9:1-41

I went to the eye doctor the other day, and after she looked into my eyes, she told me that a cataract was in its early stages of forming. Now, I’ve had bad eyesight since I was a kid, but that bit of information was unexpected. I asked her: how long? She said 3 to 5 years. I said: aren’t I little young? And she said – well, a little young! Of course the good news is that if I have cataract surgery I might end up not having to wear glasses!

Now, I’m not blind, but without my glasses everything is blurry. In fact, if I was living in the first century I might be considered blind. And so, even though I’m not legally blind, I can sympathize with those who are, because without my glasses I’d miss out on a lot – things like the beauty of the mountains or the sea. I couldn’t drive or watch a baseball game. Life would be very different.
I. Who's at Fault?
As we’ve wandered through John’s gospel these past few weeks, we’ve noticed that John likes to use words and ideas that have double meanings. The physical is always put in parallel with the spiritual. And so, here we have both physical blindness and spiritual blindness. As John tells it, the former is easier to deal with than the latter.

In John’s story, we read that Jesus and his disciples run into a blindman. The disciples ask Jesus who’s at fault – him or his parents? Now, this isn’t a question about genetics, it’s a question about divine judgment. Back in the first century physical disability was considered to be a mark of divine punishment, so this is a good question. Fortunately for us, Jesus rejects this theory of cause and affect, and he suggests that this might be an opportunity for God’s glory and compassion to be revealed. And so, Jesus reaches down, picks up some dirt, spits into it, makes a salve, puts it on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash his face in the Pool of Siloam. The man does as he’s told and in the end he’s healed – but in time he runs into problems when his neighbors and then the religious authorities begin to question him about how this happened.
As I said, John’s not content with telling us about physical things. He always likes to dig deeper into the spiritual dimension of things, and in this case it’s spiritual blindness. This kind of blindness is more problematic than the physical kind, because it’s deeply rooted in the heart. In this story a man’s healing is seen as a challenge to the rules, and God’s act of compassion is missed by those who should have seen it. Unfortunately, standing behind this text is the unfortunate split between church and synagogue. This split colors the way the story is told, and so the Pharisees and the Jews come off pretty badly. If we can acknowledge this factor, then perhaps we can discover the truth that is in this passage of scripture.

II. The Light Is On
The image of blindness that’s present here is wrapped up in another image – that of light. The images of darkness and light are prominent in John’s works, and here to be blind is to live in darkness. Now, if you’ve ever experienced total darkness you can understand the image. Maybe you’ve been in a cave or a windowless building when the lights have gone out. You quickly discover that your eyes are useless – that you are in fact blind.

Early in this chapter, Jesus tells the disciples: "I am the light of the world." The point is this: Jesus is the light that shines in the darkness, which is our blindness to the ways of God. The question that arises here is: What form does my spiritual blindness take? There are a number of possibilities. Things like hatred and prejudice, racism and sexism, anger and self-centeredness. These attitudes blind us to God’s presence and to God’s creation.
Now, we’d just as soon that no one shine the light into the darkness that plagues our hearts, because we’d rather not have to acknowledge that such things are possible. But they are. We’re all susceptible. And sometimes these attitudes can lead us to act in violent and unseemly ways. Consider the recent story of a junior high boy in Oxnard who took out a gun and shot a classmate, because that other boy’s sexual orientation -- the way he dressed and talked -- made him uncomfortable. For some reason the darkness took hold and he decided to get rid of the boy. This is a matter of spiritual blindness. It’s an extreme case, but the attitude that led to the shooting is rooted in our hearts. And it can infect every aspect of human existence, including the church. Down through the years the church has often been on the side of bigotry and oppression – we’ve let ourselves be blinded by the darkness that’s present in our world. When the light has shined into our darkness, we’ve tried to extinguish it, but God won’t let that happen. The light keeps shining.
There are two kinds of blindness. As William Willimon puts it: The physical kind, "is a tragedy, but one which can be overcome, in great part, through courage, determination, and education." The other kind of blindness, the spiritual kind, "can be overcome only through the exuberant, extravagant grace of God in Christ. Most of us are one and not the other. Jesus heal us!"1
III. Spiritual Eyesight
We come today to experience our own healing, and as Jesus heals us of our blindness, he also gives us spiritual eyes so that we can see the world as God sees it. This involves seeing the world through the eyes of faith and hope. Friday evening, I heard Jim Wallis speak at Westmont College. The point of his message was that real change in the world takes faith. Faith, he said, leads to hope, and hope leads to action, and action to change. Faith is defined, by the author of Hebrews as the "the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). It takes spiritual eyes to see what God is up to, and spiritual eyesight requires a good deal of training and discipline if its to be effective in our lives.

There was a man named John Newton. He lived in darkness – not physical darkness, but spiritual darkness. He was a slave trader and as a slave trader he failed to see the humanity of the African men and women he helped transport to the New World. But one day, his eyes were opened and he saw things in a new way. The light shined upon the world and he saw the humanity of the very people he had helped enslave. That was a moment of conversion and it changed his life and the lives of many others, including a man named William Wilberforce. Wilberforce would one day become the chief advocate for ending the slave trade in England.

In just a moment we’ll sing that great hymn of the faith that was written by John Newton. Amazing Grace! expresses clearly the impact of seeing things with spiritual eyes. Yes, John Newton had been the captain of one of those infamous slave ships, but as his spiritual eyes were healed, he found it possible to sing: "I once was lost, but now I am found; was blind, but now I see!"
1. William Willimon, Pulpit Resources, 27 (Jan, Feb., Mar., 1999), 45.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 2, 2008