Saturday, April 26, 2008

I'll Be There for You

John 14:15-21

There’s something almost instinctive about our need for companionship. It starts at birth, when we seem to know that we can’t make it on our own. It doesn’t take us very long to bond with our parents, especially our mothers. But that longing for connection that begins at birth never goes away. Although most biblical images of God are set in a masculine tone, there are a few feminine images available. While these occasions remind us that God transcends gender, they also tend to affirm a sense of bonding and connection between God and us. Consider the Deuteronomy 32:1, which pictures God as a mother eagle hovering over her children, protecting and caring for them. It’s an image picked up in the hymn "The Care the Eagle Gives Her Young."
In the second stanza, the author, Deane Postlethwaite writes:
As when the time to venture comes, she stirs them out to flight, so we are pressed to boldly try, to strive for daring height.1
While mothers may push us out of the nest, they don’t abandon us. They watch over us and encourage us as we take those first steps on our own. And when we struggle, God is there to lift us up on eagles wings – as we hear in the third stanza:

And if we flutter helplessly, as fledgling eagles fall, beneath us lift God's mighty wings to bear us, one and all.

In John’s gospel we find Jesus in the garden telling his disciples that although he was going away, he wouldn’t abandon them. Even as he left, God would be sending them another Paraclete.

I don’t usually spend much sermon time focusing on Greek words, but this word is so rich it deserves our attention. If you look up the passage in different English translations, you’ll discover that it can be translated in different ways. Each translation picks up a nuance that help us understand who and what the Spirit is.

I. The Advocate
If you look at the New Revised Standard Version, you’ll notice the word Advocate. The RSV and the NIV have a similar word – Counselor. Both of these words – Advocate and Counselor – speak of the legal profession. Think of a court of law, being represented by a skilled attorney, maybe someone like Perry Mason. If you remember him, you’ll know that he always found a way of getting to the truth of the matter. He never failed in his job because he never gave up his quest for truth.

In the same way, the Spirit stands before God and the World to defend us. This Advocate intercedes with the words we don’t have the courage to say to God. We get a sense of what this might mean in the first letter of John, which says that "if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous." In 1 John, Jesus is the Advocate, but in both cases – whether it’s Jesus or the Spirit – there is one who will defend us and will bring reconciliation to our lives.

II. The Comforter
The second translation is Comforter. That’s the choice of the King James Version, and you get a sense of what John is after if you listen to Isaiah 66, where God says: "I will comfort you there as a child is comforted by its mother" (Is. 66:13). Since God is specifically identified with a mother comforting her child, it’s appropriate to envision God holding and rocking her young child, trying to calm it after some traumatic incident. Perhaps it was a scraped knee, the loss of a pet, or a high fever.

The image of God as comforter could make God seem passive and weak, which is how many people think of women. But if you look at the women of the Bible they were neither weak nor passive; most were active and strong-willed. As the divine Comforter, the Spirit of God is acting for us, intervening on our behalf, providing the care we need when in trouble. Theologian Michael Welker speaks of the Spirit as being the Comforter who gives us "strength in unfamiliar situations, and acts out of them for my benefit." Not only that, but the Spirit empowers us to bring strength and steadfastness to others who are "distant, foreign, even hostile."2 Thus, having been comforted by the Spirit, we can comfort others.

III. The Helper

A third translation of parakletos is Helper. It’s the choice of several translations, including the Good News Bible, the Contemporary English Version, and the New American Standard Bible. But what does it mean for God to be our helper? Genesis 2 could offer us some insight. In that passage, God sees that it’s not good that Adam is alone, and so God creates a "helper fit for him." This "helper" is a partner who would complete Adam by helping him tend the garden and share his life. Although the passage has implications for marriage, it also speaks of a more general need we have as humans for companionship. In this context the Spirit is the one who brings completeness to our lives and provides companionship so that we’re never alone. What our families, our spouses, our closest friends provide us at a human level, the Spirit provides us at a deeper spiritual level.
The Spirit or Paraclete, is the one who comes alongside us, to guide us, nurture us, and empower us for service to God and humanity. As Martin Luther wrote in his hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is our God," God is "our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing." Just when it looks as if we will falter, God's Spirit comes alongside to hold us steadfast. Like the mother eagle, teaching her chicks to fly, lifting them up by the power of her own wings, the Spirit holds us up as we learn to use our spiritual wings.
As we go forth from here this morning let us think of the ways that our mothers have served as our advocate, our comforter, and our helper. As we do this, let us then think of how their actions may help us understand the ways in which the Spirit acts for us in those same ways. And when we feel alone or discomfited, let us remember that Jesus promised us that we would never be alone. As the "Footprints" poem reminds us, when we find only one set of footprints, that is when God has carried us. Even when we think we are alone, let us remember that God is there with us, serving as our advocate, comforter, and helper!
1. R. Deane Postlethwaite, "The Care the Eagle Givers Her Young," in the Chalice Hymnal, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995), 76.
2. Michael Welker, God the Spirit, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 226.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, California
Sixth Sunday of Easter
April 27, 2008

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Chosen Ones

1 Peter 2:2-10

I knew an older gentleman who lived on the property at the Santa Barbara church. He had served as a kind of property manager, but by the time I met him, he was around 80 and had slowed down just a bit. Still, I was amazed at how he could take junk and turn it into something useful. Indeed, in Harold’s eyes, it seemed, nothing was useless. All you needed was a little imagination.

The world is full of people, communities, and even nations that feel useless. We call it low self-esteem. It plays havoc on people’s lives, and in some cases even pushes people into violence. Just think about the young man who went on a killing spree just a year ago at Virginia Tech or the boys who shot up Combine High School several years back. In both cases the perpetrators believed that they were worthless and had nothing to live for. While these are extreme examples, the anger and humiliation that they felt afflict many in our world.
Peter writes to people on the margins of society and tells them that although the world might not be paying attention to them, God is. In fact, he tells them that they are God’s chosen ones. In this passage, Peter uses a number of images to express this sense of chosenness.

I. THE LIVING TEMPLE
Peter begins by describing God’s people as living stones, which God is using to build the new temple. And while we’re the living stones, Jesus is the cornerstone, a stone that the world itself rejected and tossed aside. But, God has reversed this verdict with the resurrection, so that what the world has rejected God is using to build his wondrous new Temple.

This imagery has a number of implications. First of all, it suggests that we’re all part of a building, and therefore we don’t stand alone. Who we are, and what we do, as the people of God, affects the lives of others. Paul uses similar imagery when speaking of God’s people as parts of a body, with each member being important. As Paul reminds us; We each bring different gifts to the community, without which the body is diminished.
The use of the temple imagery reminds Peter that Temples have priests. So, even as we are the living stones, we’re also the priests who serve this temple. In this capacity as priests, we come before God offering up worthy sacrifices that bring honor to God. But, we’re not just called to be priests, we’re called to be part of a royal priesthood. Even as we serve as intercessors for one another before God, we’re also heirs of God’s kingdom and called to share in God’s reign. To be called a priest and a member of royalty suggests that we’re somebody important.
II. CHOSEN RACE, HOLY NATION
If we’re part of God’s Holy Temple, both as its foundation and as its royal priests, we’re also called to be part of the chosen race and holy nation. Here he picks up on the idea that God has chosen the Jewish people to be his own. That is the message that begins early in the Old Testament. We watch as God chooses Abraham and Sarah and promises to make their descendants a people of purpose. Through them God will bless the nations. What Peter does here is expand that calling to include not only the Jews, but Gentiles as well. It’s not that God rejects Jews in favor of Gentiles, it is simply the next stage in God’s work of reconciliation is beginning.
To be chosen, Peter says to us, is to be made clean. We’re not just a chosen people, we’re a holy one as well. Since it appears that this letter is addressed to those being baptized, it would seem that Peter is suggesting that in our baptism God washes us clean, making it possible for us to start life anew. As Paul would say, the old is gone and everything is made new. Indeed, God can take what seems like junk and make it something of value. As a result there’s no one person, who’s without value in the eyes of God.

We call this the doctrine of election. This doctrine suggests that we will find the key to our identity in our relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s not our family, jobs, education, places of birth, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, or even our ethnicity. What defines us is Christ. Everything else might be important, but they’re secondary to this relationship. As Paul wrote in Galatians, "there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise." (Gal. 3:28-29). It’s fine for us to celebrate our heritage and our accomplishments, but no matter whether we’re Hispanic, Ukrainian, African-American, Irish, English, Italian, Korean or Japanese, ultimately we are who we are because we’re chosen by God. When we see each other in this light then the differences disappear into the background, and we discover that we’re one people, one nation, and that we’re created by and loved by God.
III. CHOSEN FOR A PURPOSE

Chapter 2 begins with the admonishment to "get rid of all malicious behavior and deceit" (vs. 1, NLT). Why does Peter call on them to put away such things? For one thing, Peter wants them to know that their character proclaims the mighty acts of God to the world. William Willimon tells of a young girl who displayed this sense of purpose:

Everyone else in her group at school left the new girl to herself at lunch. She was new, from another part of the world. She never spoke in class and when she did, few could understand her, with her strange way of talking, her accent.

So when she got up and moved over to her table in the cafeteria at lunchtime, people looked up and noticed. Later, when one of the others asked, "what you doin' actin' so nice to that weird new girl?" She responded, "It just seemed like the right thing for me to do."

"Why?" persisted the other girl.

"I'm, I'm trying to be a Christian," she said in reply.

Without words, this young girl raised the banner of God's kingdom by attempting to include an outsider.

Willimon comments further:

In this world of conformists and people who "go along to get along," it is rather amazing that there's anyone who stands up, stands alone. Yet such are the gifts of God. Our gifts to God.1

We have been chosen by God to embody God’s love for the world. In order for this to happen God has made us to be the living stones of his temple so that we might "proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." Let us, therefore, seek to embody God's glory and love for the world God has created. To do so will expand the borders of God’s kingdom so that others might enjoy that relationship with God that we have discovered. And when we do this, we bring honor and glory to the one who has created us with a purpose.
1. William Willimon, Pulpit Resources, (April, May, June, 1999): 25.
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church
Lompoc, CA
5th Sunday of Easter
April 20, 2008

Saturday, April 12, 2008

TRUSTING THE SHEPHERD

Psalm 23
Who do you trust? I expect we’ve all discovered that trust is easily broken and difficult to regain once it’s broken. That distrust is the foundation of all kinds of political and religious division. Nations distrust nations, neighbors distrust neighbors, spouses distrust spouses. Sometimes this distrust leads to silence and at other times it leads to violence. Distrust is often the result of broken promises. A husband tells his wife: "I love you" and then has an affair. A fellow employee, who seems like a friend, goes to your boss and accuses you of things you didn’t do. A doctor promises that a certain medicine or surgery will cure what ails you, but the treatment fails to deliver the cure. A stock broker promises good things from a company, but then the company goes bad not long after you buy the stock. It’s things like that which undermine our faith in other people.

I. REALITY CHECK

The idyllic statements about green pastures and still waters may seem a bit unrealistic, given the realities of our lives. We like the Psalm but we wonder if the psalmist promises more than can be delivered. Is the real world like this? What about racism and oppression, persecution and pollution, war and murder, or the painful death of a loved one? When we take a look at the world in which we live, it’s easy to give in to fear or cynicism. But if we pay close attention we’ll discover a reality check in verse four.

Though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me . . .

The Psalmist understands that there will be dark valleys to go through. The flip side of this equation is that we don’t go through the dark valleys alone. If we put our trust in the Good Shepherd then we don’t need to fear the evil that is present in our lives – even in the darkest of moments.

This isn’t a Forrest Gump kind of moment. You know Forrest Gump; he’s that simple-minded man who goes through a random series of events, some of which are history-making, and despite constant tragedy and heartbreak, he never seems fazed by any of it. He fights in Vietnam, loses his best friend in battle, meets JFK, gets and loses the girl he loves, goes into the fishing business and loses everything in a storm. Despite all of this bad news, it doesn’t affect him, because, as he says: "Life is like a box of chocolates." – You just never know what you’ll get!

The Psalmist has a different take on life. Our writer understands that tragedy and darkness are part of life, and he doesn't promise that God will keep us from experiencing it, only that God will be with us as we walk through these times of darkness.

II. A MATTER OF TRUST
But back to the matter of trust – which after all is what faith is. Because we live in a world full of distrust – whether of family, neighbor, co-worker, or the government - we’re desperately looking for someone or something to trust. But, who should we trust? The answer is simple — the Lord our Shepherd. It is as Susan Nelson puts it: according to the Psalmist, "any other source of security ultimately will fail to lead in the right paths, to root out our fears, and to fill our cups to overflowing. Rather, they will leave us wanting." So, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."1

Trust is earned and learned in relationship to others. We must take the risk to know another person, if we’re going to trust them, especially if we’ve experienced someone breaking our trust. I will confess – there are people I trust and people I don't. But we can’t go through life not trusting anyone. That only leads to isolation.
The images of the sheep and the shepherd remind us that trust in God comes from a relationship with God, a relationship that’s built by spending time with God. In John 10 we read:

The sheep follow [the shepherd] because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.

Jesus says "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (vs. 11). The relationship Jesus cultivated with his disciples allowed them to trust him, and as they got to know him they knew the difference between his voice and that of the thief who breaks in to steal the soul.

Although it would be great if this could all happen instantaneously, but it doesn't. It takes time and effort. Cheryl and I have been married for almost twenty-five years, and we’re still building our relationship. The same, I think, is true with God. We have to regularly spend time in God's presence if we’re going to know God, and we must go through times of trouble with God if we’re to learn to trust God. It would be nice if God would deliver us from difficult situations before we ever get into them, but that’s not what God has promised to do. Instead, God is promising to walk with us through the difficult times. Oh, we may get scarred, but we won't be destroyed.

III. THE MEAL OF HOPE
Perhaps the best picture of trust in this passage is that of the dining table in verse 5. Here we read that God has set the supper table "in the presence of my enemies." The image is of a dinner party where two warring sides sit down for a meal and not feel any sense of fear. Danger lurks all around them, but it doesn’t affect their conversation. In this there is hope for tomorrow.

My hope comes from my belief that the Good Shepherd has invited me to sit at the table with my enemies and know that "goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life." Every conflict – whether it’s between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland, Palestinian and Israeli, Republican and Democrat, Sunni and Shia, Tibetan and Chinese, husband and wife – will continue as long as we refuse to sit down at Table with the Good Shepherd as our host.

As we walk with the shepherd and guardian of our souls, we’ll discover that God does comes through – in God’s time and in God’s way. So let us trust in God and not let fear overwhelm us.
1. Susan Nelson, "Sermon Ideas for Psalm 23 Part 1;" (www. sermon mall.com/The Mall/02/apr02/042102m.html).
Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church
Lompoc, CA
Fourth Sunday of Easter
April 13, 2008

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Looking into the Promised Land

Deuteronomy 34:1-9

At the end of my junior year our swing choir, of which I was a member, was singing at the senior assembly. The song we sang was The Way We Were, which goes like this:

Mem'ries, Light the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories of the way we were
Scattered pictures, of the smiles we left behind
Smiles we gave to one another, for the way we were

Can it be that it was all so simple then?
Or has time re-written every line?
If we had the chance to do it all again
Tell me, would we? Could we?

It seemed like everyone in the choir got a bit teary-eyed as we sang. Our emotions were a bit divided, of course. The seniors amongst us looked forward with excitement to the new opportunities that graduation would bring, and yet they also knew that their journey might mean never seeing good friends again. And, as for us juniors, while we looked forward to finally being seniors, we weren’t quite ready to let go of our senior friends. And so for a moment, at least, sadness took hold of us. We knew that change was in the air, but we would just as soon postpone it if we could.

1. At the Edge of the Promised Land
In this morning’s text we watch as the wilderness journey is about to end. Years earlier, as the biblical writers tell the story, Moses and Aaron had led the Hebrews out of Egyptian slavery into the freedoms of the Sinai desert. Now, if they’d just gone straight across the desert, they could have gotten to Canaan in a matter of days, but in this story it takes 40 years. The trip took longer than they had planned because they had so much work to do together before they would be ready to go into the Promised Land.

Over the course of the journey a people is formed, laws are given, and they come to know and depend on their God. Throughout the journey, Moses is their leader, but now, as they reach the edge of the promised land, Moses climbs the mountain and looks in.
Standing at the edge of the Promised Land, Moses knows that he and the generation that had come out of Egypt forty years earlier couldn’t go in. Now quite elderly, Moses’ time of leadership is about to come to an end. He has already given his blessing to the tribes and has passed the mantle onto another. But, having reached the point of entrance, he has the opportunity to look into the land flowing with milk and honey, and look back at what has been. There are, of course, sad memories here, but many happy ones as well. The times may have been difficult, but they have grown strong in faith and as a community.
2. Can’t Cross the River
Moses got to look into the Promised Land, but he didn’t get to go in.
For the past four years we’ve journeyed together. In many ways this has been a wilderness time for us. Although we look back fondly, there were difficult times and decisions. But at the end of this leg of the journey, we can say that we are stronger as a people. We have a better sense of who we are and where we should be going. While I wouldn’t claim to be Moses, and I’m not planning on dying anytime soon, I know that my time as pastor of this congregation is coming to an end. Like Moses I’ve been given the opportunity to look into the Promised Land. I’ve been given a sense of the good things God has in store for this congregation. But I also know that I won’t be going with you into the Promised Land.

When I came here, nearly four years ago, I didn’t expect to stay so long. I figured you’d find a pastor and I’d figure out what I was supposed to do with my life. Things changed and I stayed for another three years. My title changed and in many ways my role in this congregation changed. I went from interim to be pastor, always knowing that a time would come when we would have to discern God’s direction. That time of discernment has come, and in recent weeks it became clear to me that I wouldn’t be going into the Promised Land with you. As the congregation’s search committee began its task of discernment, my name went out to congregations across the country. I was happy to stay here, but in the end I heard a compelling call to take up a new ministry in a place far from here.

For some of you this announcement will come as a surprise, while others of you have known that this was about to happen. Next Sunday, at a congregational meeting, the members of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan, will vote to confirm a previous vote by its search committee and board to call me to be its pastor. I will begin this new ministry in July, after Brett and Cheryl finish their school years. Although Brett was accepted at Cal State Northridge, he has decided to come with us. That decision on his part has made our decision to go much easier. Last weekend, while in Michigan we met the congregation and even bought a house. We are excited about this new ministry, but we will be sad at leaving this place.
In the weeks between now and our move to Michigan, I will return to my original role. For a short time I will again be the interim. There is work to be done so that you’ll be ready when the next person comes.
3. Waiting for Joshua

I think verse 9 is an important verse. I personally hear it in two different ways. In one sense I become the Joshua for Central Woodward. They have been in a time of wilderness themselves, but now they’re ready for someone to lead them into the promised land. At the same time I believe that God has a Joshua for this congregation.

After Moses comes down from the mountain, dies and is buried, "Joshua son of Nun" who is "full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him," steps forward and takes up the mantle of leadership. God hasn’t left the people leaderless. There is a changing of the guard, but God has readied Joshua for this task. Now that Moses is gone, the people embrace his leadership – just as Moses had commanded them.

I don’t know who your Joshua is. Even the search committee doesn’t yet know who that person is. She might be a woman or he might be a man. This Joshua could be young or not so young, experienced or perhaps not so experienced. But unlike the last time the search committee went to work, this congregation isn’t divided and its not hurting. It has a sense of purpose and identity. That sense of purpose and identity will give the search committee strength as it discerns who to call. It’s possible that this person might not be ready to come on July 1. There may be an interim period, hopefully not long, as the choice is made.

I want to say thank you for your love and support during this time of ministry. When I came to you, I was hurting and I didn’t know what my calling was. I needed to heal, and that healing has taken place. And as a result I’m ready to take a new challenge in a new place. I will be a better pastor because of my time here. I will miss you and I will often think of you – especially when it gets down to zero at night!

But take courage, because God is with you. I believe that the same Spirit that led me to Central Woodward, will lead another to this place. I look forward to hearing the reports of new ministry taking place here in Lompoc. And, so "If we had the chance to do it all again, tell me, would we? Could we?"

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Lompoc, CA
3rd Sunday of Easter
April 6, 2008