Sunday, January 30, 2011

Happy People? -- A Sermon on the Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-12

This morning we begin a rather lengthy journey through one of the most powerful sections of Scripture. Although there will be a few breaks in this journey, we will focus our attention, between now and Palm Sunday, on the Sermon on the Mount. In the previous chapter of Matthew, Jesus calls to himself a group of disciples from among the many who came to hear him proclaim the message of the kingdom and bring healing to the body and spirit, giving them a new identity and purpose. Now, Jesus draws to himself this small group so he can teach them what it means to live in God’s realm. As he takes them with him to the mountain, he teaches them that God’s realm is very different in tone and purpose from human realms and empires. It doesn’t matter if these worldly governments are limited or big, democratic or autocratic, they are not the same as God’s realm, and if they are to follow Jesus, then they must give their complete allegiance to God’s reign. And, as Warren Carter points out, if you’re going to live under God’s reign, you ’ll need new instructions and laws, which is what Jesus provides in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Carter writes

When God’s empire, God’s saving empire, comes among people, it claims their lives, disturbs the status quo, creates new priorities and identities, and gives new purpose, commissions people to new tasks, and creates a new alternative community that is going to need formational instruction as in the Sermon on the Mount. [Warren Carter, “Power and Identities: The Contexts of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount,” Preaching the Sermon on the Mount: The World It Imagines. David Fleer and Dave Bland, eds., (Chalice Press, 2007). Kindle Edition. Narrative Contexts.]

Christians have wrestled with how to respond to Jesus’ call for us to give total allegiance to God, even as we seek to live in this world. More often than not we either ignore the message of this sermon, or pick and choose what we like, because this vision is far too radical for most of us to handle. Consider the call to refrain from taking oaths or loving our enemies, what do we make of Jesus’ call to discipleship? What does it require of us?

As we take this journey, we need to understand that Jesus speaks these words to a community with the understanding that it is impossible to live out this call to discipleship outside the community. This is, therefore, not an ethic for individuals to try to live out on their own. There is simply no way for us as individuals to live in the way Jesus describes. That may be why, in Matthew’s presentation, Jesus doesn’t give the sermon to the crowd, but to those who have chosen to follow him. It is to this community that has chosen to follow Jesus that he gives the call to be light and salt in the world.

We begin our journey by attending to what we call the beatitudes – nine statements of blessing. Jesus says to the disciples, blessed or happy are those who are poor, grieve, are humble, who hunger and thirst for justice, who show mercy, have pure hearts, seek to make peace, are harassed because of righteousness, and are harassed and insulted because of their allegiance to Jesus. Stanley Hauerwas calls these gifts to the church. These are the blessings, the kinds of people who inhabit the community. He writes: “to learn to be a disciple is to learn why we are dependent on those who mourn or who are meek, though we may not possess that gift ourselves” [Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, (Brazos, 2006), p. 63.]

This description seems so contrary to the way we tend to define blessings and happiness. Our culture would want us to believe that God blesses some people with success, those who apparently help themselves. Therefore, God helps teams win Super Bowls and National Championships. Of course, one may wonder why God seems to like the Yankees more than the Cubs, and the Packers more than the Lions. Does God really love the winners more than those whom society often considers losers? This idea that God wins games and fills bank accounts is based on a theology of success, but that theology seems very different from the one that Jesus espouses in the Beatitudes?


So what does it mean to be blessed or happy? Studies suggest that religious people are happier than nonreligious people. What is interesting is that this happiness doesn’t seem to be linked to one’s theology, but rather to the fact that religious people tend to be part of a caring community. Rachel Naomi Remen, a Jewish doctor and author of My Grandfather's Blessings, tells the story of a woman who confessed that she didn’t need to reach out to other people because she prayed every day. All she needed, she believed, was God. But, Dr. Remen responded: “prayer is about our relationship to God; a blessing is about our relationship to the spark of God in one another." [Rachel Naomi Remen, My Grandfather's Blessings, (NY: Riverhead Books, 2000), p. 5]. In other words, blessings are relational, and that is because when we are in relationship with one another, we tap into the God who is present in the other person.

If happiness and blessedness are relational then perhaps we need to rethink what we mean when talk about our inalienable right to pursue happiness. We often read Thomas Jefferson’s words, as they are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, in a very individualistic way. It’s all about my freedom to get whatever I need to make myself happy. That may be what the Declaration promises, but is the kind of happiness that Jesus desires for us to experience the kind of happiness that could come at the expense of my neighbor?

As we listen to Jesus’ description of God’s blessings, it becomes clear that God isn’t in the business of blessing the arrogant and the proud, the selfish and the self-sufficient. Instead God blesses the poor, the meek, the one who grieves and the one who makes peace, the harassed and the pure in heart. Happiness, therefore, really has nothing to do with living in the lap of luxury.

Rachel Remen knows something about finding happiness in the midst of suffering. For almost half a century she has suffered from Crone’s disease. But in the midst of her wounds, she says, that she encountered “life for the first time.” Her wounds became the source of wisdom and knowledge that enabled her to look at herself and see a “life that is both true and unexpected” (p. 25).

Wounds can either fester into bitterness and anger or bring us insight into what it means to live life and offer hope for the future. A cancer survivor sees the beauty of life and begins to enjoy it more. Spouses see a marriage hit a wall, but wake up to rediscover the love that brought them together in the first place. A spouse dies and the surviving partner begins to die emotionally, only to find in the community new relationships that bring blessings to one’s life.

It’s important that we hear in this text one very important truth: As Jesus defines what it means to be blessed, he is not talking about earning this blessing. He’s not talking about voluntary poverty or seeking martyrdom, it is simply that the community is composed of people like the ones described, and we are blessed by their presence, for they are a gift of God. Even as God is present in their lives, they help bring sustenance and peace to the community.


The Beatitudes serve as the foundation of Jesus’ sermon. They help describe the community that will be salt and light to the world. To those whom God calls blessed belongs the kingdom of God – both in heaven and on earth. These are the marks, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, of “the community of the Crucified. With him they lost everything, and with him they found everything” [Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, DBW vol. 4, (Fortress, 2001), p. 109].

The community, as we will see in subsequent weeks, is a visible one. Those who hear this word of blessing are called to be salt and light to the world. Bonhoeffer points out that the ones whom the world deems “unworthy of living” are the “most indispensable commodity on earth. They are the salt of the earth” (pp.110-11).

Those who are blessed are in turn a blessing to the community and ultimately to the world. Although some of the beatitudes describe a state of being – poverty, humility, and grief, other beatitudes describe a life of action and service. You are blessed, Jesus says, so take these blessings and share them with others, be merciful, seek justice, and be a peacemaker. Again, we need to remember that Jesus gave these instructions not to the crowd or to individuals, but to the disciples. He did this to remind us that this active life of blessing is to be lived in community with an outward vision of ministry in the world.

It’s interesting that to each of the blessings is attached a reward. It’s not that we earn these blessings, but it is a reminder that even as we are called to minister from these blessings that are present in the community, blessings that enable us to love others, we must not lose sight of Jesus’ admonishment – that we love others as we love ourselves. There is therefore, a circular nature to the blessings that come to us.

Rachel Remen tells another story about a man who got a second chance in life. A successful stock broker who developed non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, he survived a horrible year of treatment that included chemo and a risky bone-marrow transplant, in large part because of the love he shared with his wife. But, having survived the cancer, he became convinced that he had to save the world. So, he quit his job and started working with the conservation movement. Before too long he was spending sixty hours a week on this new job, and he was gone so often that he no longer had time to spend with his wife and kids. When his neglected wife left him, Dr. Remen stepped in and told him that although he had been given a second chance in life, that life no longer was full of joy, but instead was just a burden. This reborn stock broker didn't think he had a choice, but his doctor reminded him that if he was going to serve others he had to take care of himself as well. Although he valued life, he failed to value his own life and that of those closest to him (Remen, pp. 20-21). Blessings go out and they return. You can work for justice and peace, you can pursue purity of heart, but unless you experience the blessings of community you will end up in despair - what they call burn out!

Micah says that God requires three things from us: justice, kindness and humility. The Law says, love God and love your neighbor and you will fulfill the entire law. That second commandment, though, has a second part to it: Love your neighbor, as you love yourself. There are blessings galore. There are enough to go around. Be blessed and be a blessing. Then as Jesus says: You will be a light to the world!
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday after Epiphany
January 30, 2011

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Of One Mind and Purpose -- A Sermon

1 Corinthians 1:10-18

If you go to Beijing, you’ll find the body of Chairman Mao nicely entombed, and if you’re in Moscow, you’ll find Lenin’s body on display, although he’s not as popular as he once was. Back at home, there aren’t any Presidential corpses on display, but depending on your political affiliation, the names FDR and Ronald Reagan may stand out in your pantheon of Great American Heroes.

It would seem that many seemingly larger than life figures, both living and dead, get elevated to almost divine status. Today’s living pantheon includes sports heroes, politicians, super models, film stars, media celebrities, and even big time preachers! Although there are those who relish in tearing down society’s idols, often sharing the most intimate details of these “heroes’s” lives in the various tabloids, we seem to enjoy basking in the glow of knowing even just a little bit about these larger than life people. If we get the chance to meet them, we do so with a great deal of shyness. Our palms get sweaty, our voices stammer nervously. It’s almost as if they’ve reached divine status – at least in our minds.

Now, back in St. Paul’s day, the members of the Corinthian church knew all about this reality. You see, the Roman Emperors were experts at cultivating personality cults, and so to be a Christian often meant choosing sides. By declaring Jesus to be Lord, you were declaring that Caesar wasn’t lord. Paul might have told the Romans to obey the authorities, but he didn’t give the Roman church permission to worship the emperor. And in 1 Corinthians 1, Paul tells a badly divided church to not create personality cults and parties that celebrate their heroes. Instead, he tells them – be of one mind and purpose. But, what does this mean for us?

1. It’s not about Me

The reason why Paul takes up the issue of unity is that the Corinthian Church had gotten tangled up in factional fighting. It had gotten so bad that one group in the church – the people affiliated with Chloe – sent Paul a letter, telling him that factionalism was brewing. Apparently some in the church claimed Paul as their mentor, while others hailed the name of Apollos, and still others Cephas or Peter. And then there were the purists, who claimed only to follow Christ.

As I read this litany of names, my thoughts go in two directions. First, I’m reminded that this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Disciples have made unity a hallmark of our identity, and so this is something worth lifting up in prayer. But even as we pray that the church might experience unity, I’m equally aware of the religious partisanship that has always challenged this call to unity of mind and purpose. Instead of Paul and Apollos and Cephas, I hear a different pantheon: “I’m for Aquinas; I’m for Calvin; I’m for Luther; I’m for Aimee Semple McPherson: I’m for Campbell or I’m for Stone! Who is your hero?

Isn’t it interesting that Paul also adds in Christ -- just in case someone wants to take the “high road” and claim that they we’re not part of any party, we’re just followers of Christ. Yes, we’re the purists. We don’t just go back to Calvin or Aquinas; we’re going all the way back to Jesus! As Disciples, we need to hear this word from Paul, for we have a tendency to see ourselves standing above the fray, representing no particular party, and we hold it over our brothers and sisters who take their names from famous founders. Yes, we’re not Lutherans, Calvinists, or even Baptists. Instead, while “We’re not the only Christians, we’re Christians only.”

The truth is, personalities can mess things up and get in the way of unity. It doesn’t have to be a famous theologian or founder; it could just be a clique that emerges in a congregation that seeks power over the life of the congregation. Sometimes this factional fighting starts off rather benignly – different people have different opinions and interests. Things go awry when we decide that our way is the only way.

Whatever you want to say about the dysfunctional nature of the Corinthian church, its strength was its diversity. Corinth was a bit like LA or New York. It was the crossroads of the Roman Empire. Ships from the east stopped there to transfer their loads to ships heading west to Rome, and the same was true of ships going in the opposite direction. And yet, despite the differences, they were sisters and brothers in Christ, but as we all know, sometimes siblings can fight with the best of them! As Kathleen Norris puts it:

The Corinthians remind me of my niece and nephew in their younger days when they fought ferociously over things both large and small. One afternoon as they raged over the question of who would sit in the front seat as Mom drove them home on the daily commute, I asked, “Is there anything you two won’t fight about?” The shouting stopped as both children looked at me. Beaming, they happily declared, “No!” and resumed their squabbling. Of course they love each other, and always have. (Christian Century, January 15, 2008, p. 23).
Norris thinks that Paul was hoping that this could be true of the Corinthians – that they would ultimately find unity in their common heritage of faith, in spite of their differences. Because ultimately, it’s not about me, but you O Lord.

2. Unity in Our Diversity

One way to achieve unity in the church is to make sure everyone thinks alike, talks alike, and looks alike. And you know what? It works! Not long ago church growth experts told us that birds of a feather flock together, and so the quickest way to build a church is to find your niche. And so we developed churches and worship services for the young and the old, for the wealthy, the middle class, and the poor, black churches, Hispanic churches, Korean churches, and of course white churches. They called it the homogeneous principle, but the problem is that ultimately this principle undermines the message of the gospel by keeping the people of God separate from each other. It may alleviate a lot of “problems,” but the question is: Is this what God really wants for the church? Does God want uniformity or does God want us to find unity within our diversity? In other words can the organ crowd live together with the guitar crowd? Just to give an example! I hope so, because we’ve already begun heading down that road.

But stylistic differences are one thing – what about ethnic and cultural differences? Last Sunday we hosted the Martin Luther King Service, which is sponsored by the Michigan Disciples Black Minister’s Caucus. We got asked to host this event, because the sponsors wanted to bridge the gap that separates our churches. It was a wonderful event, but it’s one thing to gather for a special event. It’s a very different thing to become a truly multi-ethnic congregation.

We often talk about becoming more diverse, but moving from talk to reality is, as they say, a long and winding road. The first step in taking this road is to recognize that being multi-ethnic involves more than adding a few people of color to a congregation. No, from what I’ve read a multi-ethnic congregation is one that has more than 20% of its membership that is different from the majority culture. And second, getting to that point is not easy.

You see there are cultural, social, political, and theological differences that have to be negotiated. Too often when we think about becoming more diverse, we just assume that the people who come to us will simply assimilate themselves without making any real changes in the way we live together as God’s people. But that’s not the way it happens. The good news is that we may have already begun to take some of the steps necessary to get to that point. For instance, there are the little things we’ve done to broaden the worship style to include both traditional and non-traditional forms. We’ve launched an alternative worship service that is planned and led by young adults, but which is not simply a “young adult” service. We’re reaching out and building partnerships with predominantly African-American congregations and we’ve joined in the work of rebirthing Detroit through our involvement with Motown Mission. We’ve become more involved with congregations outside the denomination and we’ve taken an increasingly larger role within the local interfaith movement. These are first steps that God is blessing.

3. Rooted in the Cross

The way forward will require us to embrace the unity that only the Spirit of God can bring to us. When we hear that voice within us saying: Why should I accommodate myself to the needs of the other? When we find ourselves saying: If they want to come here, then they need to learn to assimilate and be like me, then we need to hear the call to embrace the cross of Christ. And we do this because how we respond to this calling will affect the way the gospel is heard in our community.

The way relate to each other influences the way the message of Jesus gets heard. And that message is simply this: “Change your hearts and minds! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Mt. 4:17).

And to give us a sense of urgency, I think it’s important that we hear what the pollsters are telling us. Even though most church people are happy with the way things are, the general public doesn’t hold the church in high regard. This is especially true among the young. Even though religious people are, by and large, more generous than non-religious people, and while they’re more likely to volunteer than non-religious people, religious folk are also perceived as being more intolerant of others. In fact, it appears that the more you go to the church, the more intolerant you tend to be. We say we seek to be an accepting or welcoming congregation, but what does that mean? And how do we change this perception that the world has of the church?

The key, according to Paul, is found in the cross. You see the cross is scandalous, because it’s a sign of humiliation and weakness. To die on a cross is to experience complete powerlessness, and Paul suggests that if we’re going to experience unity in the midst of our diversity, then we must be willing to let go of that drive to gain power over others. To be of one mind and purpose, as Paul suggests, requires that we take a position of humility that is exemplified by Jesus’ death on the cross. It’s not that there is no place for leadership, but it is a question of how we wield that leadership. Do we use power to benefit ourselves or to benefit others? This is the question that Paul poses to us as we pause to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 23, 2011

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Behold the Lamb of God -- A Sermon

John 1:29-42

In the final scene of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, as John tells the story, the Roman Governor turns to the people, and says, “Behold the Man” (Jn. 19:5 KJV). Or, as the Latin Vulgate renders it: “Ecce Homo.”

This phrase loses something in its modern renditions. “Here is the man” doesn’t carry near the power of “Behold the Man.” When you hear this phrase in the King James, you can feel the tension in the crowd. There he is, the governor, standing before the people, holding in his hands the power of life and death, and turning to the people, as if he’s presiding over the arena and inviting them to decide: Thumbs up or thumbs down? Which is it?

It is only the Second Sunday after Epiphany, and we’re still contemplating the revelation of God’s presence in the world. Good Friday seems so far off, and yet this Good Friday scene stands behind the testimony of John the Baptist. Even as Pilate shouts out with all the imperial might behind him – “Behold the Man” – the Baptizer also points to Jesus and says “Behold, the lamb of God who taketh away the sins of the world.” Again, I use the King James, because it adds drama to this testimony.

Both the Baptizer and Pilate bear witness to the centrality of Jesus to the mission of God. Here in our text this morning, we hear John call out: There is the Lamb of God. He is the one we’ve been waiting for. He’s the one who bears the Spirit of God, the one who existed before me, and therefore, is greater than me. My ministry, the Baptizer says, must now recede into the background, as Jesus picks up God’s mantle. He is, as Isaiah proclaims, the servant of God who not only redeems Israel, but offers “a light to the nations, so that [God’s] salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” (Is. 49:6).

Because God’s presence has been made manifest in our midst, we are invited to join the Baptizer and even Pilate in bearing witness to this light that’s shining in the darkness. With them, we can declare to the world – “Behold, the Lamb of God.”


When we hear John the Baptist speak of the Lamb of God, what comes to mind? Does your mind go to Psalm 23, where the Good Shepherd brings the sheep safely through the dark valleys into the safety of the meadow? Or, do you think of the parable, where the Good Shepherd goes off looking for the lost lamb and then brings it back to the safety of the flock? These are comforting images that are deeply ingrained in our minds and hearts, because they speak of God’s compassionate care for the people of God. But these aren’t the images present in this particular case. No, when John points out Jesus and calls him the Lamb of God, he has in mind the Passover Lamb, which is sacrificed as a reminder that God spared the Hebrews so that they might become the people of God.

So, when John points out Jesus and calls him the “Lamb of God,” he want us to understand that Jesus is the one whose sacrifice provides the way of salvation. This might be a disturbing image for some, even though it’s long been part of the Christian testimony that stands behind our Table Fellowship. We come to the Table each week to take part in the Passover celebration, knowing that Jesus is the Passover Lamb through whom we are made one with God.

You can see how John’s witness ties together with Pilate’s. Both are saying something similar – here is the one whom God has chosen to be the Passover Sacrifice, and in John’s theology, this is a sacrifice of atonement. That is, through his death, Jesus brings God and humanity back together into a relationship that had been damaged by human sin. Or, as we read 1 Peter 1, Jesus is the one who ransoms us from the evil one by offering his precious blood, “like that of a lamb without defect or blemish" (1 Pet. 1:18-19).

Although we don’t have time to go into depth here about what this means, I need to say up front, that we must let go of the idea that Jesus dies on the cross to appease the wrath of God, even if that is an image that has been passed down through time. But if Jesus doesn’t appease God’s wrath through his death on the cross, then how should we understand this image of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world?


One way to interpret this text is to go back to the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah. In Isaiah 53, the prophet speaks of the innocent one, who like a silent lamb is led to slaughter. He becomes, the prophet writes, a sin offering for us, so that through his righteousness, the many are made righteous, and the Servant does this by making intercession for the transgressors.

In context, the prophet is speaking of the Jewish people who suffered greatly during the exile, but out of this exile God forged a new people. The alienation that existed before the exile is taken away, so that a new relationship can emerge. And so, Jesus doesn’t die to appease God’s wrath, but instead he dies because we lay our own iniquities upon him. We make him, to change the image slightly, the scape goat, who carries our transgressions, and in the midst of this, the Lamb of God intercedes for us, that we might be reconciled with God and with one another.


If we will receive this word from John that the Lamb of God is present with us, seeking to restore our relationship with God and with one another, even if we struggle with some of the language, how then should we respond?

The answer, I believe, comes in the closing verses of our text. The Baptizer points Jesus out to two of his disciples. He tells them – there’s the Lamb of God, the one we’ve been waiting for, and without asking for permission, these two disciples leave John behind and go to Jesus.

One of these two disciples of John is Andrew, the brother of Simon, who quickly realizes that his old team is folding and he needs to join the new one. There is no time to waste, and when he comes to Jesus, he asks: Where are you staying? Jesus knows that Andrew isn’t just curious about where the Lamb of God lives, and so he responds: “Come and see” where I am staying. That is, come and join with me in the work of God, and Andrew, who is the patron saint of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – so to speak – joins with his still unnamed companion in following Jesus. But this isn’t the end of the story.

You see, Andrew has a bit of witnessing to do himself. Having seen the light, he goes and gets his brother and says – “We’ve found the Messiah.” And so Simon follows his brother’s lead, and comes to Jesus, who says to Simon: Your name was Simon, but now it will be Cephas or Peter. Because you have chosen to follow me, you will have a new identity. It’s interesting that in John’s gospel, it’s Andrew who makes the good confession, but it’s Peter who gets the call.

What then does it mean for us to hear the Baptist’s witness? Will we join Andrew and Simon in following Jesus? And if so, what does it mean for us to join up with the Lamb of God?

Could it mean that God is calling on us to follow in the footsteps of the Lamb of God and lay down our lives for our neighbors? And if so, what does that mean? What I hear in this call of God is an invitation to experience “agape love,” as it’s defined by theologian Tom Oord. He defines agape as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being.” That is, “in spite of the evil done, agape responds by promoting good.” Therefore, even though the death of Jesus results from an evil act, God has chosen to use this act to promote that which is good. (Thomas Jay Oord, The Nature of Love: A Theology, Chalice, 2010, p. 56).

In trying to understand what this means for us, I think it’s appropriate that this is Martin Luther King Weekend. Dr. King was a prophet, whose tragic death at the hands of an assassin, issued in a call for the people of America to tear down the walls that divide us – whether these walls are defined by ethnicity, color, or poverty. Dr. King seemed to understand what it meant to be a follower of the Lamb of God, and he also understood that if he continued in his ministry of reconciliation, his life might be taken. But he was willing to take that risk, because he understood that this is the way of Christ, the Lamb of God. Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was murdered while celebrating Mass in his Cathedral is another person who bears witness in his own life to the reconciling presence of the Lamb of God, who take away the sins of the World. Dr. King, Archbishop Romero, Andrew and Peter, all understood what it meant to walk in the footsteps of the Lamb of God, and in doing so, they too became suffering servants in whom the Light of God shines brightly in the world.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who himself experienced suffering and death in service to his Lord, put it "when Christ calls, he bids us come and die." What then does it mean to testify to the one who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? Perhaps our response should be that expressed in the Episcopal liturgy of my youth. After the priest consecrated the bread and broke it, the priest would lift up the broken bread and say: “Christ our Passover has been Sacrificed,” and we would respond: “Alleluia, Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us! Alleluia.” In making this statement, we recognize that we who have experienced estrangement from God and from one another, have been reconciled through the Christ, who is our Passover Lamb. Therefore we can shout “Alleluia.”
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
January 16, 2010

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The Servant's Call -- A Sermon

Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9

What is your calling in life? That is, who are you at your core? And how do you know this to be true? What were the signs that confirmed this sense of calling or vocation? Pushing this even further – Where does God fit into your sense of vocation?

There are those, mostly hyper-Calvinists, who believe that God plans every moment of our lives, while others believe that God doesn’t play any role at all – it’s all up to you. I imagine that most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes. We believe that God is present in our lives, guiding our choices, but we also believe that we have freedom to choose. So, given this freedom, how do you discern God’s call on your life? How do you know when God takes delight in what you’re doing with your life?

1. Epiphany, Baptism, and the Call of Jesus

I raise these questions with you as we begin our observance of the season of Epiphany. This is a season that allows us to acknowledge the light of God, which has been manifested in our world through the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. The journey actually began Thursday, January 6, which marks the Day of Epiphany. In most Eastern Christian traditions, January 6 is actually Christmas Day. But for us, Western Christians, January 6 marks the end of Christmas, and the beginning of a new season of the Christian year. Epiphany begins with the story of the Magi, who bring gifts to the child Jesus, in acknowledgment that God has chosen him for a specific task – to be the light of God in the world.

Now, we’ve decided to leave up the Christmas Tree for one more service. I will admit that there’s a practical reason – we simply didn’t get around to taking it down. But this fact gave me an idea. By leaving the tree up and lit, we remind ourselves that the one whose life we honor in this season of Epiphany is the light-bearer of God. Jesus is the one whom God has chosen to make God’s self manifest in the world. Last week the text for the day was John 1, which declares that “the Word (of God) became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). Now we get to see how this Word made flesh reveals God to us in the life of Jesus. So, the tree remains up, and the lights remain on, but at the end of the service, Pat will pull the plug on the tree, and the lights will go out. But do not fear, even though the tree grows dim, the light of God is not extinguished. We become the light bearers.

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, for we must hear the story of Jesus’ own call, which is set in the context of John’s ministry of baptism. In the verses that precede our text, we discover that God has called John to prepare the way for the Lord, who is to come baptizing not with water of repentance, as does John, but with Holy Spirit and Fire. That is, he’s called to prepare the way for the one who, to borrow from John Dominic Crossan, will introduce the “Great Divine Cleanup of the World,” or as it’s better known – the Kingdom of God.

To understand this morning’s text, we need to understand that John is waiting expectantly for the Promised One to be revealed, and so he’s taken aback when Jesus comes to him and asks to be baptized. You see, John immediately recognizes Jesus to be the one he’s been preparing the nation to receive. Although John initially refuses, he relents when Jesus tells him that this is what God desires, so that they would fulfill all righteousness. Then, as Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, he hears God speak from the heavens: “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I’m pleased.” In that moment, Jesus had his calling affirmed and sealed.

I don’t know how many of you have heard God’s voice speaking from the heavens during your baptism, but perhaps even without this your baptism serves as the sign and seal that God has called you, gifted you, and empowered you, to join with God in this “Great Divine Cleanup” that Jesus proclaimed and lived.

2. The One In Whom God Delights

As we consider Jesus’ calling, as well as our own, I’d like us to consider the words of Isaiah 42, a passage of scripture that comes from the time of the Babylonian exile. The prophet speaks of the Servant, in whom God takes delight, and whom God has chosen to receive the Spirit and bring justice to the nations (Is. 42:1). In many ways Isaiah 42 stands behind Matthew’s description of Jesus’ baptism. Remember that Matthew makes it clear that the Spirit of God fell on Jesus, the one whom God calls “my Son” and with whom God is “pleased.” He is the one, as Luke makes clear, whom God has called to bring justice and healing to the nations (Luke 4:18-19). That is, the one in whom God delights is the one who has received the Spirit and brings a light to the nations, opens the eyes of the blind, and brings the prisoners out of their dungeons of darkness. And what is true of the Servant called Jesus, would seem to be true of those who seek to be his followers.

3. The Way of the Servant

I began this sermon by asking the question – what is your calling in life and how do you know this to be true? If, as our texts suggest, we are called to be Servants of God, what does that mean for our lives?

Isaiah suggests that the way of the servant is the way of humility, of peace, and justice. The servant of God doesn’t bark angrily in the streets or even quench a dimly burning wick, but instead brings “full justice to all who have been wronged" (NLT). And Jesus offers us the model of what this calling looks like. As we look at his life and listen to his teachings, we see a man who didn’t force himself on others, didn’t seek political or military power, nor did he trod underfoot the powerless in this world.

If Jesus manifests God’s presence in the world, as the season of Epiphany suggests, then the picture of God that emerges from the life and ministry of Jesus is very different from the distant, unfeeling, self-absorbed God that many of us grew up with. This is not the God whose anger at humanity is expressed through thunder and lightening, earthquakes and floods. Instead of an imperial deity, like the one Constantine envisioned blessing his conquests, the God we meet in Jesus is the fellow sufferer who walks by our side, encouraging us, empowering us, and gifting us. I realize that many people aren’t comfortable with this kind of God, because such a God seems too weak and not worthy of our praise. But, this is the God whom Jesus envisions and reveals in his own life, and he invites us to join in this life of God

As we think of people who have tried to live out this kind of servanthood that Isaiah and Jesus envisioned, perhaps there’s no better example than Henri Nouwen. Nouwen would be the first to say that he wasn’t perfect and might not want to be pictured as an exemplar of the way of the servant. But, what can we say about a man who was a well-known and respected theologian, academic, writer, lecturer, but who in the prime of his career left an important academic post at Yale University to serve the mentally disabled. Yes, this is the way of the servant.

4. The Call to Servanthood

In our baptisms we, like Jesus, receive our calling to be servants of God, who are given the responsibility to “bring forth justice to the nations.” If we will take up this mantle, then we’ll receive the promised Spirit of God, who will not allow us to “grow faint or be crushed” until “justice is established in the earth” (Is. 42:4). If we take up this calling to be God’s servants then we’ll participate in God’s work of bringing light to the nations, open the eyes of the blind, and bring those who are caught in darkness out of their imprisonment.

Before I close this sermon with a call to remember our own callings, I need to remind us all of the tragic events of yesterday in Tucson, Arizona. As most of you know, a gunman shot and nearly killed Gabrielle Giffords, a Congresswoman from Arizona, at a meet the constituents event at a local Safeway, something she has done regularly. Although it appears that she’ll make it, several others in the crowd, including one of her aids, a Federal judge, and a nine-year old child were killed, and several more were wounded. This act of violence is a reminder that we have much work to do to restore a sense of civility to our rhetoric and end the threat violence in our land.

The way of the Servant, which leads to transforming the world, isn’t an easy calling, especially in times like this. Remember, however, that Jesus did say that the way of God is narrow and difficult. So the question of the day is this: Having been baptized into the Name of Jesus, are you ready and willing to affirm your calling to be a servant of God? Does this calling define your sense of who you are as a person? And to push this further, is this our calling as a church? That is, is this our mission – to be beacons of light in the world so that the justice and peace of the God who is love might reign?
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
1st Sunday after Epiphany
January 9, 2010