Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Beautiful Sight! -- An Easter Sermon

Matthew 28:1-10

Over time the cross has evolved from being a means of torture and execution to a fashionable piece of jewelry. Crosses can come in gold or silver, plain or bejewelled, and if you didn’t know better, you’d never believe that this cross that people wear around their necks or on their ears was once one of the most feared and despised forms of execution devised by humanity. Its message was so powerful that the Romans reserved the cross for rebels and troublemakers.

It’s easy for us to forget the meaning of the cross since it no longer functions as a means of tortuous death, which is why it’s important to observe Good Friday before we celebrate Easter. Before we can appreciate the beauty of Easter, we must take in the ugliness of the cross upon which Jesus died. The cross upon which Jesus hung, reminds us of the ugliness is present in our world – war, segregation, prejudice, self-centeredness, anger, and hatred, to name but a few. As we contemplate the cross, we recognize that as Jesus hung on the cross, he was experiencing all of that ugliness that is present in human culture. And, as the prophet wrote centuries earlier:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was on him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Is. 53:5 KJV)

This is the truth that is revealed on Good Friday, and which is given voice in the ancient hymn of Bernard of Clairvaux:

O Sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
now scornfully surrounded with thorns, thine only crown;
how pale thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish which once was bright as morn!
This is the message that gives context to our celebration of Easter.

1. A sign of New Life

With the cross behind us and the empty tomb before us, it’s time to celebrate the triumphant message of Easter. Yes:

The Tomb is empty. Sound the Trumpet.
The Lord is risen! Sound the trumpets!
In this declaration, we hear the good news that death has given way to life.

I realize that there are those who believe that Easter is simply a baptized pagan holiday that celebrates the coming of spring. While it’s true that the word Easter may derive from the name of a long forgotten German goddess, whose spring festival involved eggs and bunnies, that doesn’t mean that connecting spring with resurrection isn’t appropriate, maybe even providential. Spring, after all, does remind us that life emerges out of winter’s deathly grasp. Spring flowers, birds chirping, and squirrels scurrying, all remind us that the promise of the gospel is that life triumphs over death. As Paul put it:

Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came through one too. In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so everyone will be made alive in Christ. (1 Cor. 15:21-22 CEB).
With these images in mind, we come to Matthew's account of the empty tomb. Going back to Good Friday, we remember that after Jesus gave up the fight on the cross, crying out to God: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me,” Joseph of Arimathea got permission from Pilate to place Jesus’ body in his tomb. Now, three days later, the story shifts to that tomb. Two women, both named Mary, go out early in the morning to the tomb, but unlike Mark and Luke, Matthew doesn’t tell us why they went to the tomb. The women of Matthew’s gospel don’t have spices to anoint the body, so we’re not sure why they came. Maybe they wanted to pay their last respects or maybe they came to grieve. Or, maybe, these women went hoping that Jesus’ promise of resurrection was true.

Whatever they expected to find when they got to the tomb, they found the stone rolled away and an angel sitting on top of that stone. As Matthew tells it, an earthquake knocked the stone away from the tomb and an angel appeared from the heavens, with a countenance like that of lightning, and clothes as white as snow. So dazzling was the appearance of the angel that the guards, who’d been posted at the tomb to prevent any skulduggery, fainted in fear and then ran away. But the women, although they may have been frightened themselves, remain steadfast and don't run away. What an interesting contrast between fear and faith!

And then the angel brings them a message: "Don't be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised!" And then the angel says to them, perhaps responding to the kinds of questions that we all have at moments like this: "Come, see where they laid him." Yes, come and see something amazing, something that’s beyond human comprehension! Something grander than the grandest sunset. Come and take in a beautiful sight!

There are many debates about the resurrection. Is it a physical reality or a vision in the hearts of Jesus’ followers? Marcus Borg and N.T. Wright have had a long back and forth about this issue, but however we decide to define this event, the message is clear: something happened that day that transformed a discouraged band of followers into powerful witnesses to God’s grace and love as it’s revealed in the person of Jesus. However you define the nature of the Resurrection, the good news is that life triumphs over death. The question, then, that Easter poses to us is this: What will you make of the resurrection in your life? What difference does it make in the way you look at life itself?


This encounter with the angel at the empty tomb raises the question – what will you make of life? But that’s not the only point of the story. Not only are we confronted with this message that life triumphs over death, but the angel gave them and us a job. You see, the angel says to them: "Go quickly and tell his disciples, `He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee’." That is, don't just stand there, get busy and spread the news. “Quickly now, go tell the disciples that Jesus Christ is no longer dead, joy to the world, he is risen, alleluia! . . .” At least that’s the way the “Easter Song” puts it, and with this word of guidance, the women head back to the Upper Room, with heads and hearts filled with wonder and grief. They may not totally understand what had happened, but they knew that something truly amazing had just transpired. Yes, mixed in with the fear and the doubt was an overpowering sense of joy. And as they run back toward the Upper Room, with these mixed feelings, they encounter the risen Lord himself.

When the women see Jesus, they respond by falling at his feet and worshiping him. What else could they do? He was dead and now he’s alive. In their joy and maybe a little disbelief they grab hold of his legs and give praise and thanks to God, for God’s gift of life. Yes, this was a beautiful sight, grander than the Grand Canyon, more wondrous than Crater Lake, and more majestic than Mount McKinley.

This is the sight that stirs in our hearts the joy that rings out in professions of faith like the one we opened worship with: "Christ the Lord is risen today, Alleluia!" In this great hymn of Easter, we respond to Charles Wesley 's invitation to all creation, that creation might "raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!"

In coming with the women to the tomb of Jesus, not only do we discover its emptiness, but we also encounter the life-giving presence of our Lord, who calls on us to bear witness to God’s reconciling grace. This discovery should lead us to declare our faith in God with these words:

"Love's redeeming work is done, Alleluia!
Fought the fight, the battle won, Alleluia!
Death in Vain forbids him rise, Alleluia!
Christ has opened paradise, Alleluia!"
Yes, let us rejoice that in Jesus Christ, death has lost its sting, so that neither death nor hate will reign supreme in our lives and in our world. Alleluia!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Easter Sunday
April 24, 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Building on Strong Foundations -- Sermon #9 on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 7:24-29

Remember back when this sermon began – no, not my sermon, but Jesus’ sermon? Remember how Jesus had decided to get away from the crowds that had been coming from as far away as Syria in the north and Judea in the South to hear him speak and maybe be healed? He took his disciples up on the mountain so he could teach them about God’s realm in peace and quiet. As you remember, he began with the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in Spirit, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are meek or are merciful, and so on. At least from the way Matthew seems to tell it, you’d assume that just Jesus and the disciples have gathered on that mountain. But as we come to the end of Jesus’ sermon, the group dynamics have changed. Without so much as a head’s up we hear that “when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teachings . . .” Where did the crowds come from? How did this small group bible study or ministry staff meeting become a convention?

1. Wise and Foolish Builders

Now that the audience has grown from a few dozen into the hundreds, we find Jesus closing out his sermon with a parable about two kinds of builders: wise ones and foolish ones. I don’t know about you, but if I were going to build a house, I’d want to choose the right builder; one who not only had the right credentials, but understood the lay of the land. After all, none of us want to watch as our house gets washed away by the storm.

When it comes to rain, you may have heard the song that claims that “it never rains in Southern California.” In case you’ve never been to California and think that it’s sunny all the time, I can attest to the fact that it does rain, and when it rains in Southern California, it pours. And, when it rains, especially if there have been fires, which are common in Southern California, there likely will be mud slides as well. That means, that if you have live in a house on a hill overlooking the ocean, you had better hope that you’ve hired a wise builder, or your house might end up in the ocean!

So, wisdom is a necessary quality in a builder, and a wise builder will not only know how to build a house, but the builder also will know where to build it, taking into consideration such things as climate, soil, bedrock, and plate tectonics. Then, when the rain comes, that house won’t fall into the ocean.

2. Two Types of Foundations

This parable has two main elements. The first element is the quality of the builder, but the second element has to do with the foundation, and as we think about the foundation upon which we build our own spiritual lives, I’d like to switch the metaphor from floods to earthquakes. Being from the West Coast, I’ve experienced a few earthquakes and I’ve seen the destruction that they can bring.

Although I wasn’t there when that 6.0 earthquake hit my hometown of Klamath Falls in 1993, I think that it illustrates Jesus’ point very well. That quake, which hit just a few days after we returned home from a visit with my Mother, was pretty good-sized, especially when you consider that quakes don’t hit Klamath Falls very often, and so they weren’t all that prepared for it. Quite a number of buildings were damaged, including the venerable Court House, which had sat for many years on reclaimed lake bed. When the quake hit, it essentially liquefied the soil, and that seemingly well-built stone building collapsed. Ironically, just down the street sits the Baldwin Hotel, which is the oldest building in town. I don’t know how well this unreinforced brick building from the late 19th century was built, but it didn’t suffer any damage at all. In fact, not one thing even moved during that very large and destructive quake, not even a picture sitting on the mantle of the fireplace. You see that builder very wisely built the hotel on solid bedrock. This was a very “firm foundation.”

The Court House was well-built, but it was built on sand, while the rickety old hotel was built on bedrock – two very different foundations, with very different outcomes.

3. Acting on the Word of Jesus

The wise builder builds on a firm foundation, and with this word in mind, we hear Jesus say that “everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” and not on sand – like the foolish builder.

As I reflected on these words after I returned home from yesterday’s Elders Meeting, where Alex led the Elders in a team building exercise to help us reflect on our call to be a missional church, my thoughts went immediately to the scripture that Alex asked us to reflect on from the Letter of James. In this letter we find the words: “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves” (James 1:22ff). According to James, if we simply hear the Word of God, but don’t act upon it, then we’re like the person who looks in a mirror and then goes off and forgets what they look like. When we’re hearers only and not doers, then we fail to practice a religion that is pure and undefiled before God, a religion that involves not just religious acts, but more importantly involves caring for the orphan and widow in their distress.

With this word from James in mind, we hear the word of Jesus who also tells his disciples that if they’re to enter the realm of God, then they must be doers and not just hearers, for that wouldn’t be a wise choice. And, as for what Jesus wants us to not only hear but do, the path forward is revealed throughout his sermon, which we’ve been pondering these past several weeks. And as we’ve been discovering as we’ve been on this journey, this isn’t an easy path to take. There have been many who’ve started out on the journey, only to turn back, but we do have few guides for the journey – people like St. Francis tried and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. And there’s Gandhi who found great inspiration in these words, even if he didn’t find much inspirations from the lives of Jesus’ followers.

The Sermon on the Mount is an invitation to enter the Realm of God. Jesus describes what it means to live under the reign of God, not just in heaven, but on earth as well. But that means living our lives differently, which is what I think James means when he calls on the church to “keep ourselves unstained from the world.” This is also what it means to pray the Lord’s Prayer and ask that God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven. In praying this prayer, we pledge our allegiance to God, so that we might live our lives in such a way that we’ll be salt and light in the world; that we won’t act out of anger or commit adultery; we’ll keep our word without needing to take an oath; and we won’t retaliate against those who hurt us. And, while the Law tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, we will also love our enemies and not make a show of our piety. As for our treasure, we will deposit it in a heavenly bank and not worry about tomorrow, which will take care of itself. If we’re living under the reign of God, we’ll leave the job of judging others to God and not profane that which is holy. To live under the reign of God means doing for others, as we would have them do for us.

The way of the kingdom means taking the narrow path, which is difficult for us to navigate, at least on our own. We could decide, as some have, to simply file this sermon (of Jesus) under the heading – “Not for Earthly Lives – Heaven Only.” I think this would alleviate a lot of guilt, but I wonder if that is what Jesus had in mind. After all, when he contrasted the wise and foolish builders, Jesus seemed to suggest that now is the time to not only hear his words, but to act upon them. This, he says, is to be like the wise builder.

Jesus’ closing words find an echo in a book I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks ago. In his book Falling Upward, Fr. Richard Rohr asks his readers whether they’ve laid a solid foundation for their lives in Jesus Christ, so that the Spirit might help them build upon this foundation and embrace God’s future for their lives, for the church and for the world. This is, he suggests, the path to spiritual maturity, a path that is very much like the one Jesus outlines in the Sermon on the Mount. Like Jesus, Rohr invites us to live a life of wisdom, one that is based on a firm foundation in Jesus Christ, so that we might embrace the mission of God.

It isn’t an easy path, but as our closing hymn declares, having laid a foundation in God’s excellent word, then we can find our strength for the journey in God’s unwavering love, which leads us to declare this word of faith as we sing the final stanza of this great hymn of the faith:

The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to its foes;
that soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake. (How Firm a Foundation)

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Sixth Sunday of Lent
April 10, 2011

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Judgment Day -- Sermon #8 on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 7:15-23

“Judgment Day!” Don’t these words sound ominous? Perhaps suggesting the end is near, they create in us the urge to get our affairs in order, just in case. If Hollywood is any guide, judgment can take many forms. You might remember that the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds caused a nationwide panic as people pondered their fate in the face of a Martian attack. Maybe you remember the 1980s TV miniseries entitled The Day After, which may not have caused a panic, but did reinforce our fear of nuclear annihilation during the height of the Cold War. Then there are the movies and miniseries about earthquakes, volcanoes, asteroids, climate change, and even a Mayan calendar, all themes that are suggestive of divine judgment. And if that’s not enough, when a war breaks out or a major disaster hits, the TV preachers announce that this is a sign of divine judgment. Yes, a certain amount of anxiety over our impending doom seems to continually ripple through our world – whether the cause is of divine or human origin.

When it comes to the issue of divine judgment, there are plenty of biblical texts to ponder. There are texts that speak of divine wrath, judgment, punishment, atonement and more. For those of us who affirm the principle that God is love, this can be a bit disconcerting. Even if we affirm that God is also a just God, all of these texts that deal with wrath and judgment can be a bit overwhelming. So what should we make of these words about judgment and justice?

In our text this morning, which is drawn once again from the Sermon on the Mount, we hear two different, but related words. The first speaks to the importance of discernment. Even if we’re not supposed to take up the job of being a judge over others, we must discern between good and evil, light and darkness. The second word speaks to divine judgment. This is a task that we dare not take up, for we’re not equipped to handle the job. But, Jesus seems to believe that we need to be aware of the judgment of God, and the basis upon which God makes this judgment.

1. The Fruit and the Trees

Although it might not be appropriate for us to be judges – unless we are without sin – that doesn’t mean we should be naive about the world in which we live. There is a place for discernment in the Christian life. As they say, don’t believe everything you hear (or read in an email). For instance, if someone from Nigeria sends you an email asking for you to send a $100 check in exchange for a million dollars, you might want to be just a bit skeptical. And if you get an email from a bank – especially if it’s not your bank, asking for your personal ID, you might want to hit the delete button. And if someone sends you an email suggesting the President was born in Kenya or Indonesia, you would be wise to ignore it as well.

As Jesus reminds us, we live in a world where vicious wolves like to dress up as sheep. Therefore, as he says in another place – “be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). In other words, don’t let yourself be taken for a fool.

The good news is that we can discern the difference between sheep and wolves, false prophets and prophets of God. Jesus says – look at the fruit of their lives. After all, good trees don’t produce bad fruit. So, don’t expect to find grapes growing on thorn bushes and thistles that produce figs. These are weeds that are destined for the fires.

When it comes to discerning the good fruit from the bad, we might want to use the Beatitudes as a guide – think of the kinds of people who grieve, are humble, merciful, peacemakers, and more. We might also look to Paul’s description of the fruit of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. On one hand there’s the flesh or our selfish desire, which lead to hate, violence, immorality, jealousy and drunkenness. On the other there is the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against these signs of the kingdom, Paul says, there is no law (Gal. 5:16-26). If we attend to these qualities of life, then we’ll know the difference between light and darkness, good and evil.

2. Divine Judgment

Even if we’re called to be discerning but not judges, God does have the job of being the judge. Scripture has a lot to say about judgment, though as we learned last week, we can trust in the judgment of God because of God’s character. We start with the premise that God is love and that God is good.

As we consider this word from the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus say that on that day – judgment day – not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a prophet or a preacher or that you cast out demons in the name of Jesus – if you don’t obey the will of the Father, then on the day of judgment you’ll hear the words: “I never knew you: Go away from me you evil-doers.”

The basis of this judgment isn’t revealed in this passage, but we can turn to Matthew 25 to find out more about divine judgment. In that passage, we hear Jesus speak of God dividing sheep from goats based on how they treated the least of Jesus’s brothers and sisters. Did they feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, or visit those who are sick and in prison? It’s on this basis that Jesus decides who enters the realm of God and who experiences punishment. We may not like this word, but it’s there for us to wrestle with.

When it comes to the matter of divine judgment, the Scriptures often focus on social structures and relationships. Even when the focus is on sexual immorality, it seems quite evident that the issue is one of exploitation of the other. Sometimes we dwell on the idea of punishment, but that’s not the point of divine judgment, which is focused first and foremost on reconciliation. Rather than focus on satisfying God’s honor, the focus is on setting things right, what some call restorative justice. Consider this word that Jeremiah gives to the son of Josiah:

He (Josiah) judged the cause of the poor and the needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? Says the Lord. But in your eyes and heart are only your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence. (Jer. 22:16-17).

According to Jeremiah, King Josiah understood that his primary role as king was to protect the weak, the poor, and the marginalized, but the son of Josiah ruled through oppression and violence, something God would not bless.

If the ultimate purpose of divine judgment, is focused on setting things right and reconciliation, then our call as Disciples to be “a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world,” fits this calling very well. We may not be judges, but we can participate in God’s work of healing and reconciliation, an effort that extends beyond this world to the cosmos itself. As theologian J├╝rgen Moltman puts it, God is concerned about the “universal reconciliation of human beings and the bringing again of all things into the new eternal creation.” This is because, as Moltmann puts it: “otherwise, God would not be God.” [Jurgen Moltmann, The Sun of Righteousness Arise! (Fortress, 2010), p. 141] Since God is intent on reconciling all things to God’s self, we needn’t fear the day of judgment. Even if we don’t know how or when all of this will happen, we can live in the hope that God will reconcile all things to God’s self. But not only that, but we get to participate in this act of God by being Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation. Our primary calling in life is to bear witness to the world in our words and deeds that God is present in our midst working out our salvation, which is what it means to be reconciled (2 Cor. 5).

None of this is easy. This path is full of twists and turns, which is why we’ll be tempted to either take the easy way or simply give up. If we wish to participate in this work of God in the world, then we must keep focused on Jesus. That’s because he knows the way and is willing to reveal it to us – that is if we’re willing to discern the will and purpose of God.

The biblical picture of judgment day might not be as dramatic as the typical Hollywood production, but it’s a reminder that God is committed to making things right. So, when judgment day does come, if we’re paying attention, then we can join with all of the creation in praising God, shouting out:

Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!
The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.
He will judge the peoples with equity.’
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord; for he is coming,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth. (Psalm 96:1-13)

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
5th Sunday of Lent
April 3, 2011