Sunday, September 19, 2010

Seeking the Balm of Gilead -- A Sermon

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Last week we heard a word from the Gospel of Luke about a risk-taking and extravagantly-loving God, who will do everything and anything to restore humanity to fellowship with God and with one’s neighbor. It’s also a word about a God who likes to celebrate this fact with a party. It’s a pretty powerful and wonderful word. But there’s another word to be found in Scripture, and it also needs to be heard. That word is found in today’s lesson from Jeremiah.

1. The Cry of the Wounded Heart

Nine years ago, on the second Sunday after September 11th, I preached from this very text. Like today, it was the lectionary reading from the Old Testament, but it spoke directly to the shock that our nation was still experiencing. It offered a word of consolation to people, trying to make sense of the horrific events of the previous week. As I took to the pulpit that day and preached my sermon, I tried to wrestle with the grief and the anger people were feeling. I reflected on the angry calls for vengeance that I was reading and hearing. These feelings were understandable, but to my mind they were contrary to the gospel of Jesus. I tried to offer a different perspective, one that reflected the nature and character of the God we know and love in Jesus Christ, using this passage from Jeremiah as a lens through which we could look at our situation and make sense of it. What Jeremiah does for us is give voice to the despair that so many were feeling. But, giving voice to our despair isn’t enough. There has to be a voice of hope and consolation as well, and despite the heaviness of this passage there’s also a glimmer of hope and a promise of healing, even in the midst of a word of judgment on a wayward people.

As we have seen in recent weeks, the shadow of September 11th still hangs over our nation. The anger, the despair, and the fear engendered by the events of that day remain with us. But it’s not just 9-11 that casts a shadow over our lives. There are the continuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Katrina, confessions of moral failure on the part of religious and political leaders, the continuing legacy of racism in our land, a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a lingering economic downturn that has cost millions of people their jobs and even their life savings. And these are just the events that touch American lives. As we reflect on our situation in life, the cry of Jeremiah seems to express the feelings of the moment: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” (Jer. 8:18). This cry of the heart isn’t just found in Jeremiah. The Psalmist also cries out:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long?” (Psalm 13:1-2a).

Then there’s that cry of dereliction from the Psalmist that’s found then on the lips of Jesus as he hung on the cross. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).

These aren’t joyous words, and yet they reflect the absence of hope that stands over our lives like a cloud that won’t go away. Sometimes we think we have to put on a smiley face before God and our neighbors, and pretend that nothing is happening to us. But these texts give us permission to cry out to God and ask why.

2. Hearing Words of Judgment

Now, when Jeremiah spoke these words the Babylonians were bearing down on Jerusalem. We don’t hear the full word of judgment that Jeremiah levels against the people in this passage, but it’s there in the broader context. Jeremiah essentially told the people of Judah that since they had broken things, they now owned what they’d broken. They’d gone against God’s word, and so now they were suffering the consequences. The sufferings of the day were the result of God’s judgment on the spiritual sickness that afflicted the nation.

The darkness that’s present in this passage of Scripture should make us uncomfortable. It’s good to remember that while the Scriptures bring us good news, the biblical writers were realistic about the world in which we live. Sometimes we need to be reminded that what we say and do can have a negative effect on our lives and the lives of others. While I don’t believe God sent those planes into the towers of Manhattan, or sent Katrina as a sign of judgment on New Orleans, or the earthquake that hit Haiti, or the floods in Pakistan, events such as these can be a wake-up call of sorts. They catch our attention and cause us stop and consider the presence of darkness in our lives. That may be why many churches saw an increase in attendance after 9-11. Even if this attendance increase was short-lived, it represented the human need to find a word of healing, balm of Gilead that would heal a sin-sick soul.

3. The Balm of Gilead

We come to church hoping to hear a positive word, a healing word. Although there are those who enjoy fire and brimstone, most of us will take a pass on words like that. There’s a reason why preachers like Norman Vincent Peale, Robert Schuller, and Joel Osteen are so popular, they preach a positive message. Unfortunately, their message is too often a partial gospel. Although it’s not my habit to criticize other preachers, at least not in my sermons, I find it enlightening to read that the primary cause of the break between Robert Schuller and his son, which led to the dismissal of the son as pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, was the father’s concern that his son talked too much about the Bible and about Jesus. Apparently, if the Bible and Jesus are the focus, then the message might not be as positive as some people want it to be.

Now, I’m more an optimist than I a pessimist, more Winnie the Pooh than Eeyore, but I’m not naive. I know about the dark side of life, and so if we’re to hear the whole gospel, we need to hear the dark side as well as the bright side of life. Although we might wish things to be different, there is truth in the words of Ecclesiastes: There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to rejoice and a time to grieve (Eccles. 3:1-8). That’s just the way life is. Still, even as Jeremiah brings a word of judgment on his people, he also cries out for healing.

"Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?" "O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!"
Jeremiah recognizes that we can’t go on forever living on the dark side of life. We can’t dwell in the darkness forever, even if the cloud doesn’t want to dissipate. And so, we must go looking for the balm of Gilead, which brings healing to “our sin-sick souls.” The question is – where can we find this balm of Gilead? Where does the physician for our souls reside?

The passage for the day doesn’t give us an immediate answer. We have to continue reading, past the point where the people go into exile. Then and only then do we hear a word of hope. In his letter to the exiles in Babylon, Jeremiah writes:

For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy rears are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill my promise and bring you back to this place. For surely I know the plans I have made for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jer. 29:10-14).

There is, as they say, light at the end of the tunnel, so keep on searching for God. Keep looking for the balm of Gilead.

And as we seek a word of healing, we’re led to Jesus, who is the great physician and the healer of our lives. If we read the gospels, we know that healing stood at the center of his ministry. Wherever he went, he reached out and he touched people’s lives. He restored hope to those who lived without hope. He restored broken bodies and broken lives. We see this promise of healing in his own death and resurrection. Hanging on the cross as he did that day, Jesus tasted the bitterness, the pain, and the despair of humanity. He bore on his body the blows of human anger and hatred, and he offered forgiveness in return. When we hear the cry “Is there no balm in Gilead?” the answer that we hear is that it’s Jesus who brings God’s healing presence to us.

Whether we grieve the loss of one we hold dear or a person we don’t even know who dies as a victim of violence in Afghanistan, Darfur, Congo, Detroit, or even own neighborhoods, the good news is that God is present with us and that God has tasted our sorrow in Jesus. As we hear this message of hope we also discover that we’re to be the agents of that hope. And so in the words of that old spiritual we sing out:

"There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul."

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 19, 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Let's Have a Party!

Luke 15:1-10

There is the “in crowd” and the “not-so-in crowd.” Most people want to be part of the in-crowd, or at least be part of a group. That circle can, however, be difficult to crack. In almost every community, from schools to churches, there are cliques; that is, tight little groups that do their best to limit access to power. Not all of these groups have secret codes or handshakes, but if you’re on the outside you usually know it. When the invitation to the party goes out, and your name isn’t on it, you know you’re not part of the in crowd. Yes, when things happen at school, the workplace, or at church, and you’re not in the loop, you quickly realize that you’re not part of the in-crowd.

It’s difficult to break down these walls, but it can happen, but not without a struggle. Several years ago a movie came out called Hairspray. It starred John Travolta as Edna Turnblad, the obese mother of an overweight but determined daughter named Tracy. Edna watched as her very talented daughter got excluded from achieving her dream of dancing on the Corny Collins Show – a kind of local American Bandstand. Although she was a good dancer, Tracy didn’t fit the image of a dancer, and so the “powers that be” tried to keep her out. Only a slip of fate let her inside the circle, but even then her detractors were merciless. Fortunately her determination and spunk make her a hit and she broke down the walls for others.

There is much to appreciate about this movie, which calls into question our stereotypes and our prejudices, but one of the most important points of this movie is that it affirms the principle that everyone, no matter what they look like or where they’ve come from, has value. Edna, Tracy, Tracy’s somewhat oblivious father Wilbur, and her friend, Seaweed, a young African American dancer, are just as valuable as Velma Von Tussle, a former Miss Baltimore who is now the station manager, or her daughter Amber, who also has all the physical attributes that society values in a star. Societal rules may exclude, but in this version of the story, no one is left behind!

1. No One’s Left Behind.

Now, it’s no fun being left behind or left standing on the outside looking in. This is especially true when you have a stigma attached, a stigma or stain that you can’t get rid of no matter how hard you try. It’s a scarlet letter that marks you as undesirable.

Jesus knew what it meant to be an outsider. He was a Galilean and he was fatherless. He was poor and he hung around with the wrong crowd. The better sort of folk didn’t appreciate his work with the other undesirables, because who you hang around with is indicative of your character. If you spend your time with the riffraff, then you must be riffraff yourself. Image, as everyone knows, means everything.

Jesus, of course, understands the world differently. Like Tracy he wasn’t afraid to identify with the lost and the ostracized, because he was committed to bringing them back inside the circle. And if the shepherd was going to do that, it meant leaving the circle and going where the lost sheep had gone. In fact, Jesus was willing to leave the ninety-nine behind to find the one that was lost. And if someone had been misplaced, like the woman’s coin, he would do whatever necessary to find them.

The message of Jesus and the message of Paul is one of reconciliation – of bringing people together with God and with one another. Jesus believed in second chances and third chances and . . . . Well you know!

The religious establishment, however, didn’t appreciate Jesus’ ministry, and they let him know about it. They grumbled about his work with sinners and tax collectors – the ones they had decided weren’t worth reclaiming.

In the course of three parables, two of which we’ve heard this morning – the third one being the parable of the Prodigal, which is quite well known – Jesus celebrates God’s dedication to bringing everyone into relationship, while leaving no one behind.

One parable concerns a lamb that wanders off and the shepherd that risks everything to find that one lamb. The other parable describes a woman who has ten coins, but loses one coin, which she finds to be so valuable that she frantically searches for it, turning the house upside-down to find it. It’s just a coin, but to her it’s invaluable.

Each of these parables – even the parable of the prodigal – ends with a party to celebrate the return of that which was lost. Indeed, in the parable of the coin, the woman is so excited about finding it that she spends most of the other coins to throw a party to celebrate finding the one that was lost. It may make no sense, but it describes the joy that God has when we who are lost are found.

2. The Seeking God

I don’t know about you, but I find these two parables a bit odd and yet quite enlightening. For instance, why would you risk the 99 to find one lost sheep? You could easily lose a lot more, because you’re not attending to the needs of those already inside the circle. And, why would you get in a tizzy about one little coin and then spend much more than what was lost to throw a party? That doesn’t seem prudent.

So, just what is Jesus getting at? I think Jesus is doing a bit of theology here. In telling these two parables he’s defining God’s identity, and therefore defining his own ministry. In each of these two stories, God is the primary actor. God is the shepherd who risks the 99 in order not to leave anyone behind. God is the woman who isn’t concerned about her own dignity as she frantically looks for the coin and then throws a party when she finds it. God is both committed to finding those who are lost, and willing to be extravagant in sharing the blessings of God’s reign. That’s why there’s a party in each of the stories. If these are important theological statements about God’s nature and character, it would be good for us to stop for a moment and think about how we understand God. There may be only one God, but there are many different views and pictures of God, even among Christians. Some of these views of God are represented by the religious leaders in this story.

There are those Christians who focus on who is in and who is not, and they enjoy drawing the line for God, describing in detail the ways in which God chooses who gets in and who gets left out. The kingdom of God, for them, is an exclusive club, and they take great joy in knowing that they’re on the inside. For others, God is a tribal God, a God of nation and race, a God who blesses some groups of people and curses others. It’s always nice to know that God blesses your country at the expense of the others. It’s a very comforting feeling to know you’ve made it! And if you’re not chosen – well that’s just too bad – maybe there’s a nice spot reserved for you in hell, both here and in the afterlife. Very often this God is described in terms of judgment and wrath, a God who guards his honor very closely, and who might even enjoy inflicting pain on those who disobey.

That’s not the God who is revealed in these parables. It’s also not the God revealed to us in the life and ministry of Jesus. I believe in a big tent, and I believe that we each have the freedom to discern who God is, but that doesn’t mean that all visions of God are equal? Those visions that take joy in the idea that God excludes and punishes don’t fit with the God who takes risks to bring back into the fold those who have strayed, and who doesn’t worry about honor and dignity when throwing a big party when a valued coin is found. This is a God who pursues us and engages us with grace and love. There may need to be some refining in the process of restoring, but I also believe that God is determined to make sure that no one is left behind.

3. The Partying God

There’s one more thing we need to remember – this God we worship likes to party. God likes to party whenever anyone is restored to fellowship. God doesn’t just attend the party, God is the host of the party. Cost is of no account!

This means that whenever we come together as God’s people, we come to celebrate God’s ministry of reconciliation. We do this each Sunday as we come to the Lord’s Table. And when we come to the table the things that divide us are left behind. As Paul reminds us in Galatians – in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female. Ethnicity, economic status, and gender are not bars to joining in the festivities. You can’t crash the party, because everyone has already been invited to attend.

In just a few minutes we will gather at the Table of the Lord. When we gather at the table we remember the cross of Jesus and the death that occurred on that cross. In this act of remembrance we both mourn an act of inhumanity that was directed toward the sign of God’s gracious love. But we also gather to give thanks and celebrate God’s continuing presence with us through the risen Christ. But, as we gather at the table to celebrate with Christ the continuing presence of God in our lives, the God we meet at the Table, we must keep front and center in our minds that this is not a two-person celebration. It’s not just me and Jesus. It’s the community as a whole that gathers together to celebrate the grand feast of the kingdom.

So, let’s eat, and drink, and then dance!!
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
September 12, 2010
16th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Counting the Cost -- A Sermon

Luke 14:25-33

It makes sense to count the costs when deciding to make a big purchase such as a home or a car. Although it would seem prudent to sit down and “work the pencil,” not everyone takes the time to do so. One of the reasons why our nation is in the economic mess it’s in, is that too many people bought houses they couldn’t afford. Many were sucked in by suggestions that ours is an “ownership society,” offers of easy money, and promises that property was going to appreciate year after year, without end. In places like Southern California, Florida, and Las Vegas, everyone wanted to get on the band wagon as housing values increased at an annual rate of 25% to 45%. Many made a fortune, but as we’ve seen many more have lost untold millions. I wonder about how many people counted the cost before they bought?

There was a war that our nation entered into In 2003. We were told that this war would be over quickly and with little sacrifice on our part. Just months after the invasion began, the President announced with much fanfare the end of “major combat operations.” As you may know, just this past week, another President, with much less fanfare, declared an end to combat operations in Iraq -- seven years later, with many lives lost and hundreds of billions of dollars spent. With this announcement a chapter in what is one of the longest wars in American history came to a close. Those who planned this operation might have benefited from reading Luke 14.

When Jesus spoke of counting costs he used analogies that ring as true today as they did two millennia ago. But, Jesus was less concerned about building projects or battle plans than he was about the spiritual costs of being a disciple. At the heart of this passage is the question: What does the Lord require of me?

For those of us who have grown up in a Euro-American context, being a disciple of Christ isn’t all that difficult. For many in our nation, being a Christian means little more than checking a box on a survey or census. That’s why 80% of Americans say they’re Christians, but only about 30% attend church regularly. Since the time of Constantine, we’ve assumed that if you live in Western society, you’re a Christian. Baptism became for many little more than a sign of one’s citizenship. But is that what Jesus has in mind for us?

1. What are the Costs?

Sometimes Jesus can beat around the bush, and at other times he hits you across the forehead with a 2 x4. His parables sometimes enlighten, but at other times muddy the waters. In this passage, Jesus leaves little doubt as to his intentions, and what he says should make us all a little bit uncomfortable.

The message is simple: If you want to be my disciple then you’d better count the costs. It’s an “all or nothing” proposition. If you’re not ready to jump in with both feet, and stay with the journey until the very end, then perhaps its best to stay behind rather than suffer the embarrassment of starting out on the journey and having to turn back before you get to the end.

It’s important to remember, Jesus says to us, if you decide to be my follower, it can cost you your family, friendships, jobs, and your place in society. And that’s the way it was up until Constantine made Christianity a legal religion in the Roman Empire and granted it most favored status. No sooner did this take place than things changed for the church. Not only did it become beneficial to be a Christian, but your life might depend upon it. And so, the churches filled up, but the fervor of the people began to decline. Converts in countries where Christianity still isn’t the majority religion, understand much better than us the truth in Jesus’ statement about the costs involved in being a disciple.

Of course, the words of Jesus remained part of the Christian story, and so even as it became easier to join the church, some in the church, like St. Anthony, decided to head for the desert and live an ascetic life in a cave. Monasticism developed in the church to give the most devout a way of giving up everything to follow Jesus, and over time, they became honored as saints. People treated them with great honor, asking these holy people to pray for them, so that they could continue living as they wanted, with a clear conscience. But is this word that we hear in Luke’s gospel meant only for ascetics like Anthony and Julian of Norwich? Or did Jesus direct this word to us?

What does it mean to take up the cross? What does it mean to sing that old gospel song: “I have decided to follow Jesus – no turning back, no turning back?” Even though the world lies behind me and the cross goes before me, even though none go with me, I have decided to follow Jesus? (Chalice Hymnal 344).

2. What do you mean?  Hate My Family! 

Before he gets to his parable about counting costs, Jesus raises the biggest obstacle to faith – our families. The question that millions of people have faced, down through the centuries, concerns their responsibility to their families. Although we hear preachers and pundits talk about the importance of family values, with Christianity being the supposed foundation for healthy families, we don’t find much support for this view in the gospels.

If Christianity is all about the family, then what do we make of Jesus’ statement:
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.
If you’re like me, you probably wish Luke would have left this statement out of his gospel. It seems so harsh and unrealistic, which is why some translations try to soften the blow. Consider the way the Good News Bible puts it:
"Those who come to me cannot be my disciple unless they love me more than they love father and mother, wife and children, etc."
That doesn’t sound so bad. Surely I can love God more than my family and my friends. Besides, Jesus was known to exaggerate things. Still, the more formal translations stick to the word hate to describe the contrast between our loyalty to God and our loyalty to family. This usage has to make us feel uncomfortable.

If we assume, as I do, that the core message of Jesus is one of hospitality, generosity, and love of God and neighbor, then surely he doesn’t mean for us to loathe and despise our families. Hopefully, this is hyperbole and exaggeration, but even if it is, as the Lord’s Prayer reminds us, our ultimate allegiance is to the kingdom of God, a kingdom that is defined by the cross. If we’re to follow Jesus then we must give over everything to him. And as Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out, it’s a decision that we must make for ourselves. But, “out of fear of such aloneness, a human being seeks safety in the people and things around them. Individuals suddenly discover all their responsibilities and cling to them.” (Discipleship, DBW 4, Fortress, 92). When Jesus calls us to be his disciples, he breaks these bonds, and asks us to trust him and follow him, without ever looking back. And as Bonhoeffer also writes:
“No one can follow Christ without recognizing and affirming that this break is already complete. Not the caprice of a self-willed life, but Christ himself leads the disciple to such a break” (p. 93).
What needs to be acknowledged here is that when Christ breaks these bonds of family, tribe, and nation, it affects not only the one receiving the call, but also everyone in the family and nation as well.

3. Making Tough Choices

What I hear Jesus saying to us this morning is this: Being a Christian involves making choices, and when it comes to making choices, I’m cautious by nature. Just ask Cheryl. She hates to go grocery shopping with me, because I have to analyze all the product codes so we get the best deal. To do otherwise, just wouldn't be prudent!

So, what does it cost us to be a disciple of Jesus? For St. Francis it meant becoming a fool for Christ. For Julian of Norwich it meant taking up residence in a small room attached to a medieval church. For Mother Teresa it meant serving the lepers of Calcutta. And for Dietrich Bonhoeffer it meant returning home to Germany from the safety of a teaching post at Union Theological Seminary to take up the struggle against Nazi tyranny. Bonhoeffer never saw himself being a martyr nor did Mother Teresa see herself as a saint. Indeed, in letters released after her death, she confessed to experiencing spiritual desolation and a sense that God had abandoned her. Despite questions about the wisdom of their choices, they remained true to their calling. As a result, the witness of these women and men have been an inspiration to many. But, if all we do is live vicariously through their stories, then is this enough?

If we are to heed this call to count the costs of discipleship, then we will be wary of those who turn the beatitudes of Jesus into the “Be Happy Attitudes” and the cross of Jesus into a mere piece of jewelry.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
September 5, 2010
15th Sunday after Pentecost