Sunday, June 27, 2010

Duty Calls?

Luke 9:51-62

The Life of Brian, a Monte Python movie from the 1970s, tells the story of a young man who just happens to have been born the same night and just a few houses down from where Jesus was born. Although Brian doesn’t want to be a messiah, he gets taken for one by the crowd, which is looking for a messiah. They’re not just looking for someone to throw out the Romans, after all, “what have the Romans ever done for us,” besides the aqueducts and the roads, they’re also looking for someone to tell them what to do. Even though Brian keeps telling the people that they have to think for themselves and that he’s “not the messiah,” something his mother confirms, telling anyone who will listen, that Brian is really a “very naughty boy,” the crowds keep coming to seek his wisdom. In the end, Brian gets the same treatment the Romans give to other would-be messiahs. He gets crucified – another contribution the Romans gave to Judea!

Yes, even though Brian just wants to be left alone so he can live a normal life – with his beloved Judith – despite trying everything he can to flee his would be followers, they won’t leave him be. In the end, he gets picked up by the Romans and then is crucified, despite his protestations that he’s not a messiah. Well, as his fellow executionees sing to him from their Roman-made crosses, you have to “Always look on the bright side of life.”

Now, if you’re not familiar with Monte Python or the Life of Brian, you probably have no idea about what I’m talking about. Still, even if you don’t know much about the Life of Brian, there’s a connection between that comedic story and our text. You see, unlike Brian, who denies his messiahship and tries to flee his would-be followers, Jesus understands all-too-well the consequences of his calling. But, despite this knowledge, he still sets his face toward Jerusalem. The question for us today is: Do we understand the consequences of our calling? And, are we willing to follow through?

1. Heading to Jerusalem

As Luke puts it, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” With this statement, Luke begins his travelogue, which describes Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. The text picks up soon after Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, that moment when Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah on the mountain to discuss his impending departure, his exodus, from this earth (Luke 9:28-36). According to the text, a cloud envelopes Jesus, and a voice from heaven declares: “This is my son, my chosen, listen to him.” Having heard this divine message, Jesus sets off for Jerusalem, knowing full well the consequences of that decision. At least in Luke’s telling of the story, there will be no turning back. He’s finished with his ministry in Galilee.

This reading from Luke should be read along side today’s lectionary reading from the Old Testament. In 2 Kings 2, Elijah begins the final journey of his life, in the company of Elisha, the one on whom Elijah had placed his mantle. The question that haunts this text is whether Elisha has the wherewithal to stay with Elijah to the end. What is important to understand at this point, is that the manner of Elijah’s departure is very different from that of Jesus. Elijah doesn’t have to suffer death, instead, a chariot of fire sweeps down from heaven, and then carries the prophet off into the presence of God. For Jesus, the path forward won’t be quite so glorious, because it leads to his death, along with the abandonment of him by his closest followers. Still, Jesus stays true to his calling and sets “his face toward Jerusalem,” a seemingly odd phrase that carries with it great importance. You see, to set your face toward something is both a sign of determination and a prophetic stance. He is ready to face those who will oppose his message, beginning with the Samaritans who turn him away when they discover where he’s heading. Yes, there will be no turning back.

2. Excuses, Excuses

Like Brian, not everyone shares Jesus’ determination. One person comes up to him as he was walking south, and tells Jesus: I’ll follow you, wherever you go. To which Jesus replies: unlike the foxes and the birds, the son of man has no place to lay his head. Now, we don’t know what happened with this person. He might have joined Jesus’ band, or maybe, upon further reflection, decided it would be best to stay home. There was another person, whom Jesus encountered. This time Jesus himself put out the call, and the man said – I’d like to go with you, but first I have to bury my father. While we really don’t know if this man’s father was alive or dead, we hear Jesus say, “let the dead bury the dead.” When another would-be follower tells Jesus that he’d like to come with him, but first he has to say goodbye to his family, Jesus says: once you put your hand to the plow, you can’t look back, or you’ll not be fit for the kingdom.

I don’t know about you, but the message I hear in this text is it’s “all or nothing.” When it comes to following Jesus, you’re either in or you’re not. There’s no middle ground. This is a very demanding message, and I wonder, are we ready to leave behind family, friends, jobs, future plans, holidays, and fun, for the sake of the kingdom?

I want to dwell for a moment on that last word – fun. I know that some of you think I’m a “serious chap.” But, despite my otherwise sober demeanor, I too like to have fun, and I wonder about my ability to find a balance between my calling and my desire to have fun.

This question of having fun came up in an episode of Lost in Space, that we were watching the other night. If you don’t remember that 1960s TV show, you’re probably not missing anything, but in this episode, Will Robinson gets himself caught up in a galactic plan of conquest, after he kisses a sleeping princess – all because the Robot, who knew the story of Sleeping Beauty, told him to kiss her. Later, when he’s told that he is destined to be the consort of the princess, which means he’ll have to marry her, Will responds in disbelief, after all, he says (I’m paraphrasing from memory):

“I’m just a kid. I don’t want to get married. I want to have fun. We all know that once you get married, the fun is over!"
So, am I ready to follow Jesus? Or, would I rather just have fun? Am I willing to put my hand to the plow and not look back?

3. No Looking Back

As we ponder this question, it’s helpful to listen for the allusions in this passage to the Elijah and Elisha stories. For example, when James and John ask Jesus if it would be okay to call down fire and brimstone on the Samaritan village that refused them entrance, they were appealing to the example of Elijah who called down fire from heaven to consume his enemies (2 Kings 1:1-16). Fortunately for the Samaritans, Jesus rejects this advice and continued on to the next village. Then there’s the statement that closes our text, the one where Jesus says: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” This statement points back to the calling of Elisha, for when Elijah first meets Elisha, the successor to his prophetic ministry, he is plowing a field. When Elijah invites him to join him, Elisha asks permission to first kiss his parents and say good bye, a request that Elijah grants. So, after Elisha returns home with his oxen, slaughters them, boils the flesh, and passes out the meat to his neighbors so that they might eat, he joins up with Elijah (1 Kings 19:19ff). In this case, it appears that Elijah is the easier task master. He seems more patient than Jesus, but perhaps Jesus understands that his time is short. He can’t wait for would-be disciples to bury their parents or even say goodbye. There’s a sense of urgency in this passage that reminds us that while there’s room for fun in life, the kingdom of God isn’t a game.

What then should we make of this text? How should we respond to its description of living under the reign of God? Is it a call to live an ascetic life, one of poverty, chastity, and obedience? How does such a calling fit with the fact that the modern church is a voluntary organization? No one has to join and no one has to do anything they don’t want to do. Yes, there are certain expectations placed on Pat and me, but that’s because we get paid for our service. So, what does it mean for members of a voluntary organization like this church to follow Jesus?

Besides all of that, don’t we live under grace? Isn’t our worthiness to be in the kingdom dependent on God’s largesse, not on our efforts? At first glance, it would appear that Jesus is suggesting that we have to earn our place in the kingdom. After all, he says, no one who puts their hand to the plow and then looks back is “fit for the kingdom.” If we take this word “fit” to mean worthiness, then it would appear that Jesus is suggesting that we must earn our place in the kingdom.

But, if we take this word to mean “suitable” or “capable,” then the meaning is different. In this case, Jesus is saying is to us that if you’re always looking over your shoulder, wondering what life would be like if we weren’t following Jesus, then it’s likely you’ll get off track. Or to be truer to the analogy, if you’re always looking over your shoulder, then it’s likely that the rows that you’re plowing will be crooked. Yes, to look back while plowing is a bit like driving while texting!

As we hear this text, the questions are many: Do we have a sense of the urgency of the work of Jesus? Do we understand that being church isn’t a game to be played? Can we answer the question with any certainty, why it’s important to be a Christian? That is, what difference does it make that I’m a follower of the one who set us face toward Jerusalem, and didn’t look back?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
June 27, 2010
5th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, June 20, 2010

A Healing Presence

Luke 8:26-39

What do Aimee Semple McPherson, Katherine Kuhlman, Benny Hinn and Jesus have in common? The answer: They all connected healing with faith. I realize that putting Jesus in the company of these other faith healers may seem inappropriate to many, but I think it will help us think about how Jesus’ healing ministry should be understood. There have always been those who claim to heal in the name of God. Some have been shysters and frauds, but others have brought gifts of grace and healing to the lives of many. Some have used the tools of modern medicine, while others have turned to alternative forms of healing, including prayer and anointing with oil. Jesus is among those who have brought God’s healing presence into our lives in ways that are beyond a scientifically-based medicine. The healing stories involving Jesus are often dramatic, but they also raise questions. If Jesus can heal this demoniac or Blind Bartimaeus, why not me?
People of faith often wrestle with the relationship of faith and healing. While pray for the healing of our loved ones, perhaps hoping that God will do something “miraculous,” most of us also go to the doctor and take our medicine. That is, even while we pray we look to human wisdom for healing. And yet, we also sense that prayer could and should play a role in this process.
In recent years, the scientific community has sensed that spirituality or prayer might play a role in healing, and they’ve done studies to figure out the relationship. Some of these studies seem rather silly, and none of these studies have truly explained how all of this works, which isn’t surprising since people of faith understand that God usually works at deeper levels than can be perceived by science. Still, even if these studies are inconclusive, they suggest that we’re more than the sum of our body parts and that people of faith tend to recover better and faster.
This cautious embrace of spirituality by the medical community is controversial, and a degree of skepticism is always healthy, for we don’t want to fall prey to the quacks and frauds and other purveyors of false hopes. At the same time it’s appropriate to recognize that we are -- to use a medical term -- a psychosomatic whole. Because we seem to be more than simply a mass of carbon-based atoms magnetically linked together, there may be room for God to act in the healing process. Bruce Epperly, who has been writing a series of blog posts for me on the topic of healing makes this point quite directly:
Progressive Christians are challenged to consider the possibility that Jesus was able to achieve what many contemporary holistic and spiritual healers as well as faithful Christians at liturgical healing services regularly experience - the transformation of the whole person through healing touch, anointing with oil, reiki, prayer, or laying on of hands.1

1. Jesus and the Gerasene Demoniac
If we look closely at the gospels we’ll discover that healing forms a major part of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, healing stories, whether physical or spiritual, make up nearly 20% of the Gospel texts. There’s the man with an unclean spirit and Peter's mother-in-law, a leper and a man with a withered hand, there’s Jairus' daughter and the woman with the hemorrhages. Morton Kelsey says that "wherever Jesus went he was simply besieged by the people who wanted to be healed." Even his enemies didn't "contest the fact that Jesus healed; they only tried to cast doubts upon the agency through which he did it."2
This morning we hear the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Gerasene demoniac after crossing the Sea of Galilee into Gentile territory. As soon as he lands, he’s accosted by a naked man who runs out of the cemetery shouting incoherently at him. Obviously this guy’s out of his mind! Tormented and seemingly beyond help, his neighbors have tried to keep him under control by chaining him up, but each time they do this, he breaks loose and hides out in the cemetery – homeless, naked, and forgotten. The man Jesus encounters is of two minds – part of him wants help, but the other resists. He shouts at Jesus: "What do you want of me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?" While Jesus could have turned away from the man, he doesn’t. Instead, he reaches out to the man in compassion and confronts the demons that bind him, releasing him from the hold of “Legion,” which interestingly enough leads to the death of a herd of pigs.
You might be wondering how this text speaks to the question of healing. Well, Luke like many of his contemporaries, made no distinction between healing and exorcisms. To heal was to engage evil in spiritual battle, and therefore Luke understands Jesus’ healings to be signs that the kingdom of God is spreading its influence. These healings are also expressions of Jesus’ own calling to “seek out and save the lost” (Lk 19:10). Healing and saving are really the same thing. They bring wholeness where there is brokenness. Whatever our modern diagnosis might be, this tormented man was experiencing brokenness, and Jesus brought wholeness to his life. The man’s neighbors came and found him to be “clothed and in his right mind.” Interestingly, their response was one of fear, a fear that led them to encourage Jesus’ departure.
2. God’s Healing Presence
It’s clear from the Scriptures that God is the source of healing, but if this is true, then why doesn't God heal everybody? We all know people, people who are close to us, for whom we pray, perhaps daily, hoping for a cure, and yet we don’t see them healed. There are those who say that maybe God healed back in the bible days God doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore. I’m afraid that explanation doesn’t work for me, because it suggests that rather than being present in our lives today, God is absent. Others say that God will heal you, if you have enough faith, but that sounds kind of cruel. Besides this guy doesn’t seem to have all that much faith, and yet Jesus heals him. And, I’ve known people with plenty of faith who never experience physical healing.
Consider the story of my high school youth minister. Steve died a number of years ago from stomach cancer. He was probably in his early 40s then. He had a wife and children, and pastored a church. He believed in healing and his church practiced it and prayed for it. In fact, they prayed intensely and continually that Steve would be healed. They claimed his healing, and as I’ve heard the story told, the church kept everyone away who had doubts about whether God was going to heal him. If all it took was faith, then surely Steve would be alive today.
So what do we do with these biblical texts that suggest that Jesus was involved in healing the bodies and the minds of people? I’m tempted to leave them be, and just rest in the mystery that is God. But to do so, means turning my back on stories that can have a transformative effect on our lives. I may be more of a rationalist than a mystic, but even I believe that God is at work in our lives, bringing wholeness and even healing to them. It doesn’t always happen immediately or in the way we might expect or desire. Sometimes it’s a rather slow and gradual process. Bruce Epperly writes:
I believe that God moves toward wholeness within all things, but most of the time, the divine quest for abundant life is revealed in gradual, almost imperceptible ways. Our health and illness, and the healing process occur in the context of factors such as DNA, physical condition, economics, health care accessibility and treatment, faith, and community support, along with our prayers and the prayers of others and movements of God in our lives. When a cure occurs, God is always the ultimate source, even though God works relationally and persuasively through the many factors of life, from meditation to medication, and contemplation to chemotherapy.
There are times when people are cured, but healing isn’t always about curing. Healing can take place in a number of ways, but as Bruce notes, God is always involved, even if the context of this healing is found in modern medicine, psychotherapy, or other therapies. While not everyone is cured, if healing is understood to mean wholeness, then this wholeness can be experienced in ways that do not always involve physical wholeness. Sometimes it involves finding peace in the midst of an illness or a disability.
In my reading of Scripture, it seems appropriate that we come before God and ask God’s blessing for people who are hurting. It’s appropriate to anoint the sick, the injured, and the dying with oil, as a sign of God’s grace. We do this while praying that the one we love will experience wholeness of body, mind, and spirit, always acknowledging that healing comes in different forms. It could be physical, but it might also be spiritual.
In the early church, when a person was sick, they called for the elders to come and anoint with oil and pray for the one in need. Oil was used in part because it was believed to have medicinal value, but it was also believed that when accompanied by prayer, God would be present in the healing process. Faith and medicine need not be seen as two ships passing in the night. We can embrace both in the pursuit of wholeness of body and spirit. And when we find that we’re whole again – whether or not we’re cured -- it’s appropriate to give thanks and share the good news. After Jesus brought healing to the Gerasene man, he told him to share the good news with his neighbors, who, to tell the truth were a bit disturbed to see this man, whom they had thought was under the control of demons, once again in his right mind. And the same is true for us – when God has touched our lives, we’re called to make that known to the world.

  1.  Bruce Epperly, “Did Jesus Cure Anybody?” Ponderings on a Faith Journey,

  2. Morton Kelsey, Healing and Christianity, (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1995), 45.

  3. Bruce Epperly, “The Gift of Gradual Healing,” Ponderings on a Faith Journey,

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
June 20, 2010
4th Sunday after Pentecost

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Sermon Church?

Yesterday our worship at Central Woodward Christian Church included both Word and Sacrament.  There was music (the choir finished out the year with style and verve) and there was prayer, but standing at the center was Word and Sacrament -- a sharing in the reading of Scripture, a sermon, and the Lord's Supper.  The Disciples are a Table-Centered church.  But we are also a Word-Centered church.  Even if there isn't a sermon per se, there will be something that brings the Word to the community.  It might be simply the reading of Scripture with a few comments.  It might be a sharing of testimony, or the sharing of the word through song.  But in some way or form the Word is presented, for without the Word the Table loses context and meaning.  You see, we Disciples have a rationalist streak in us so we want to understand what we're doing.  We're okay with a bit of mystery, but within "reason."

I offer this up as a way of introducing a posting by my friend Keith Watkins.  Keith has been biking (human-powered version) his way up the East Coast, and shares observations that emerged from a conversation with a woman who is Presbyterian and experience at a Disciples Church where he worshiped while on his journey. 

Keith notes that while this woman's Presbyterian church is a sermon church, the same can be said for the Disciples tradition.  Note Keith's observation:

To my surprise, I heard the kind of sermon my cycling companion from the big city may have had in mind. It was grounded in an important text from the Sermon on the Mount–Matthew 5:21-43–and was imaginatively adapted to contemporary times. Instead of being an exhortation telling people that their church had to change, this sermon was in the indicative mood. It included a careful explanation of what it means for all of us to live in a post-modern, post-Christendom period of time.

It was refreshing to hear such a constructive set of important ideas in an ordinary sermon, on an ordinary Sunday, in an ordinary church. It was twenty-one minutes long, delivered with animation from a manuscript, a little rough around the edges, but for me, at least, a compelling message.

Especially interesting is the fact that this preacher was also a young woman who obviously believes that serious preaching about important ideas still has a place in churches that want to appeal to a post-modern generation living in a post-Christendom world.

Keith concludes by saying that while the congregation might not see itself as a "sermon church," that is what it was for him that day. 

With Keith's comments as context I'd like to raise the question of the role of the sermon in worship.  Should we be a "sermon church"?  Some would say that the monologue that is a sermon is a dying art form, and thus ought to be abandoned in favor of other forms.  Indeed, many "contemporary" churches have taken the lead of Letterman or the latest motivational speaker, and have abandoned the traditional sermon.  

As we consider the role of the sermon, who does it relate to worship and to the Sacrament of Communion?

Also posted at Ponderings on a Faith Journey

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Table Grace

Luke 7:36-50

H.L. Mencken described a Puritan as a "person with a haunting fear that someone, somewhere is happy."1 Unfortunately that description could apply to many Christian communities. Churches are often places of discord, abuse, and fountains of hate, even though this stands in contrast to Jesus’s message of grace, love and forgiveness. This attitude is often enabled by a legalism that is contrary to Jesus’ message of freedom, healing, and acceptance.
Unfortunately, this reality has led large numbers of people to conclude that the church of Jesus Christ is the last place to go if you’re looking for a word of hope or happiness. The word on the street is that churches are places of ostracism, exclusion, and condemnation, where no one dares to laugh, lest they offend God and their neighbor. I hope that’s not true here, but that’s the reputation we must deal with!

This reputation of legalism and exclusiveness isn’t new. You see it on display in the attitudes of Simon the Pharisee and his friends, who are sharing a meal with Jesus, as they responded to a woman who enters their meeting without an invitation. But, not only wasn’t she on the guest list, but she was a known sinner; a woman who lived across the tracks and down the back alley. It’s possible that some of the people in that room knew her by more than reputation, but they would never admit to it. Yes, whatever it was that she had done in life, she now lived as an outcast. She was a persona non grata – a person without grace.
When she entered the room, she went over to where Jesus lay at table and knelt before him. As she knelt down, she began to weep uncontrollably, bathing his feet with her tears. Then, perhaps unconsciously, she unloosened her hair, something no woman did in polite company, and began to dry his feet with her hair. Finally she began to kiss his feet and anoint them with the costly perfume she had brought with her in an alabaster jar. These actions, not just those of the woman, but those of Jesus as well, scandalized Simon. How could Jesus, he wondered out loud, let this sinner, this unclean person, touch him like that? It was unseemly, even obscene. Here, he was supposedly a prophet of God, allowing himself to be touched by an unclean woman. Surely no self-respecting prophet would let such a thing happen.

Simon’s outburst, led to a brief story. Jesus responded to Simon by telling him a parable about two debtors. One man had been five-hundred denarii, which was a lot of money, and the other had received fifty denarii. Now, fifty is quite a bit of money – maybe two months’ salary, but it’s nothing in comparison to the 500, which might be equal to a couple of year’s salary. When it came time to repay the debt, neither of these borrowers could repay, and so the lender forgave the debts rather than casting the men into debtors’ prison. Then, Jesus asked Simon: "Which of them will love him more?" With reluctance Simon admitted that it was the one who owed the most who loved the most.
Yes the woman was a sinner, but so was Simon. The only difference was that she recognized this fact, perhaps because her sins might have been more obvious. So, it would seem that since she had been forgiven more, she loved more. Simon, believing he was sin-free and pious, had little use for the woman or forgiveness. And therefore, unlike her, he had no need to show gratitude to God or anyone else.
The woman’s actions seemed scandalous, but not only were they acts of gratitude, they contrasted strongly with the actions or lack thereof of Simon. You see, Simon had invited Jesus to dinner, but he failed to act as a proper host. That’s because a proper host greets the guest with a kiss and anoints with oil. The host also makes sure that the guest’s feet are washed. Simon didn’t do any of this for Jesus, but this “sinful” woman did what Simon refused to do.
You see, Simon’s problem was that, like us, he had different categories of sin. So, he concluded that whatever sins he might have committed, they were nothing compared to the sins of this woman. She was impure, perhaps even a woman of ill repute. But Jesus responded to his unspoken sentiment by saying: "those who are forgiven little, love little" (vs. 47).

Well, I’ve been in the church all my life, and I’ve seen the “good, the bad, and the ugly” in the church. I’ve seen families disown their children in the name of God, and I’ve heard Christian leaders utter racial slurs and speak hatefully of others. I’ve seen churches split over such little things as the color of the carpet or the doors. I wish I could say that I wasn’t part of the problem, but I know I’m as guilty as anyone else. Certainly, God is weeping at seeing us fight, gossip, and defaming others. Perhaps we’ve not yet understood the message of grace. Perhaps we’ve not understood the depths of our own sinfulness, and the promise of forgiveness. And, so because we think we have little to be forgiven of, we show very little love to others, especially those who are different from us.
As we come to the Table of the Lord this morning, it’s appropriate to confess to God that we are sinners in need of forgiveness and grace. It’s also important to remember that the table isn’t just for the saints. It’s also for sinners. If this isn’t true, then none of us would have the right to come to the table.
The good news is that the Table of the Lord is truly a place where sinners gather to receive a word of grace and comfort. Bread and Cup are signs of Jesus' body and blood, which beckon us forward so we can find peace, hope, and joy. This is a table of grace that’s open to anyone who recognizes the need for that grace. It doesn't matter what you’re wearing or how you look or even how much money you make. In welcoming both the woman and Simon, Jesus welcomes all of us into his family.
It may sometimes seem like we’ve heard this message of forgiveness one too many times. Shouldn’t we have already gotten the message, so that we can move onto bigger and better things? Simon’s response to this woman, who entered his home without an invitation, reminds us that we can never hear this message too often. Indeed, it is this message of forgiveness and grace that will allow us to live out our core value of acceptance. As a church we’re able to accept others, because we’ve already been accepted by God.
This is a message that requires more from us than mere assent. It is, as William Willimon writes:
For Jesus, forgiveness is not some doctrine to be believed; rather, it is a feast to be received, a party to which the outcasts are invited, a gift to be received with empty hands. So Jesus not only tells a parable at the table, he becomes a parable, a sign to us of what God is up to in the world. In Jesus, God is busy inviting the whole world to the table.2
The invitation has been given to everyone who will hear and receive it: Come to the table and enjoy the bounteous grace of God, for your sins are forgiven, and you have been saved. Go in peace.

  1. Quoted in Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing about Grace? (Zondervan, 1997), 29
  2. William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, 29 (April, May, June 2001): 53. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 13, 2010