Sunday, August 28, 2011

Mindful of Divine Things

Matthew 16:21-28

Yesterday, at our retreat, which Alex led with great wisdom and wit, we “played” a few games, and after each game our  facilitators had us debrief our experience.  We talked about how felt and what we learned, with a special focus on what these experiences said to us about the way the church works.  We actually did this several times, and each time we would talk about our feelings and our insights about the way we communicate with each other and as a church.   One of the important lessons learned had to do with listening, and to listen we have to stop talking!   For some of us, that’s not easy to do!   But as the Psalmist wrote: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).  

Jesus would debrief his disciples on occasion, especially after a big event, like feeding a few thousand people with a couple of loaves of bread and a few fish.  He would  also gather them up after a teaching session.  

So, as Jesus was closing out his Galilean ministry, he gathered his disciples together at a spot near the northern Galilean city of Caesarea Philippi.   The town lay at the base of Mt. Hermon, in what is today the Golan Heights.  You might think of this as a mountain retreat, a good place to stop and reflect about where they’d been and where they were going next.  

Jesus began the conversation with a question: You’ve been out among the people for some time now, what are you hearing?  What are they saying about me?   One disciple said, “well I heard a few people suggest that you might be John the Baptist risen from the dead.”  Another disciple said, “I was talking to some people and they were wondering if you might be a prophet like Elijah or Jeremiah.”  And Jesus said, “hmm, that’s interesting.  But what do you think?  Do you agree with them, or do you have other ideas?  After all, you’ve been with me from the beginning of this ministry.  Whom do you think I am?    This is where a debriefing gets dangerous – when you have to answer for yourself!  

But Simon was willing to offer his assessment.  And you know what he said?  Of course you know.  He gave the Good Confession, the statement that we give when we join the church:  “you are the Messiah, the son of the Living God.”  

Now, in the church, when we make that confession, we can usually expect a visit from the chair of the nominating committee to sign us up for a committee assignment!  But Jesus had something even more important in mind.  He said to Simon – I’m going to give you a new name.  From now on you are Peter.  You are the Rock, and you Chevy lovers know what that means!  You are the one on whom I will build my church.  You are the foundation stone, and not only that, you get a set of keys, the keys of the kingdom.   

What a day that was for Simon  the fisherman.  Now known as Peter, the Rock, he had reached the pinnacle of success.  Jesus had just appointed him to be the first head of the church of Christ on earth.  What greater honor could be bestowed on a person than this.  Of course, the higher you climb, the farther you will fall! 

The next day, as Jesus opened the morning session of this retreat, he told them he had new orders.  They were going south, to Jerusalem.  Although the Galilean campaign had been a great success, it was time to head into the Lion’s Den.  Yes, it was time for Jesus to suffer and die at the hands of the religious leaders – you know the ones who worked for the Empire. 

Well, you know how you can be the hero one moment and be the goat the next?   Let’s say you’re Miguel Cabrera, and you come up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the  score tied and two outs; oh, and you’re playing the Cleveland Indians.  Well, Cabrera hits this monster walk off home run and the team and the town celebrates him as the big hero.  The next night, Cabrera comes up to bat, it’s two out in the ninth, the bases are loaded, and the Tigers are down a run.  They need one run to tie, and two to win.  This time, however, the previous day’s hero strikes out on three straight pitches.  In fact, he watches that last strike go by without a swing.  

    And so it was for Peter.  He went from being “like a rock” to the “stumbling block.” You see, Peter knew what a messiah was supposed to be like.  Everyone knows what a successful messiah is supposed to be like.  He knew it, you know it, and I know it.  A successful Messiah is a conquering king!  So Peter isn’t prepared for what Jesus had to say.  Just the day before, after much thought, and with divine revelation guiding him, Peter had declared Jesus to be the Messiah, and he didn’t mean that Jesus was going to be a dead one.   He didn’t sign up for that kind of duty!   And so Peter grabs Jesus by the lapels.  He shakes him and shouts at him: “God Forbid!”   Yes, I’m not going to let this happen!! 

After all, you said I’m going to be the rock on which this church is built, and I went to a church growth workshop and I even did this webinar on the six ways to promote the messianic kingdom, and not once did I hear any thing about suffering and death.  I did hear about handing out free I-Pads, but none of this suffering and death stuff.  You have to be mistaken!  

So, how did Jesus respond?  He yells right back at Peter and says:  “Get behind me Satan.”  Now isn’t that a bit harsh?  But Jesus wasn’t finished – he said – remember that name I gave you?  I called the Rock, well now you’ve become the stumbling block.  You’re standing in the way of the kingdom.  And the reason why is that you’re listening to human voices instead of God’s voice.  You’re listening to your culture and not to me.  

Yesterday, we talked a lot about communication.  And as we know, good communication requires listening, and listening requires us to stop talking.  Alex had the participants pair up during lunch and talk about five people who had influenced them and six emotions they had experienced in their lives.  And the instructions were these: You have to listen to the person, until their done sharing their story.  You can’t hear unless you listen, and you can’t listen if you don’t stop talking.  That goes for interpersonal communication and communication with God.  

It does help if God comes to us in a burning bush and speaks to us in an audible voice.  That worked, as you know, quite well for Moses.  But I’ve not seen too many burning bushes that talk.  I have a couple of those burning bushes in my back yard, which get really red in the fall, but they never talk to me. 

Peter thought he knew what it meant to be a messiah, and Jesus seemed to be that person, but suffering and death – that didn’t make sense.  But Jesus said to Peter, and to  us: If you want to be my disciple, then take up your cross and follow me.  If you want to find your life, then you must lose it.   This is, Jesus said, what the voice of God is saying to us.  This is the way of the kingdom, for the kingdom requires of us that we lay down our lives for others.  And that’s not easy, especially when the other is a stranger. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is known to many of us for his opposition to Hitler, which led to his eventual execution.   In the mid-1930s Bonhoeffer wrote a book called the  Cost of Discipleship.  In this powerful book, Bonhoeffer called on the German Christians, who he believed had become beholden to their culture, to heed the call of Christ instead, even if that led to death.  As I’ve read Bonhoeffer’s books and biographies through the years, I’ve always wondered which path would I have taken?  Would I have taken the difficult path, the one that leads to suffering and death, or would I just go along to preserve my life?  Would I allow myself to be coopted by my culture?   As I look at my life and its comforts, I wonder, how would I respond?  

As the Psalmist put it: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).  Buddhists speak of mindfulness, which as  Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh puts it,  is: “to know what is going on within and all around us.”*   To be mindful is to listen for the voice of God.     Am I mindful of the things of God?  Am I listening for that still small voice that often calls us to take a narrow path?   Indeed, if God doesn’t normally speak to us out of burning bushes, how am I to know if I’ve heard the voice of God?  

And Jesus said:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, "Love others as much as you love yourself." All the Law of Moses and the Books of the Prophets are based on these two commandments.  (Mt. 22:37-40 Common English Bible).  
   This is the way of the kingdom, which the Messiah of God will inaugurate.   

*Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, (New York: Riverhead Books, 1995), p. 14.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
11th Sunday after Pentecost
August 28, 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Reunion -- A Sermon

Genesis 45:1-15

From what I hear family reunions can be a lot of fun.  There’s food, and games, and conversation.  You get to catch up on the latest gossip and tell stories about long-ago exploits.  For some of you this is an annual occurrence.  I can’t speak with any authority on such matters because our family is small and scattered, and we just don’t have such things.  But I trust that the stories I hear are true!

Of course, family reunions can also be uncomfortable and awkward. There might be a family feud going on or someone may have been hurt by what someone has said or done.  There may be empty seats, left by those who felt excluded from the family.  While some family members receive the invitation with eagerness and joy, others receive it with dread and wish they could find a way to skip the event.   

If modern families can be dysfunctional, the biblical families weren’t any better off.   I chuckle when I hear people extol biblical family values.  What values are they talking about?  

Could it be the values that led Cain to murder Abel?  Or, the values that led Abraham to cast his second wife and her son into the desert?   And what about the family values that existed in Isaac and Rebecca’s house?  Remember how Jacob and Esau started fighting for supremacy in the womb, and didn’t stop until Jacob had to run for his life?  

This morning we hear the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Remember how Jacob gave Joseph that special coat with sleeves, and how Joseph had these dreams that suggested that he would rule of his brothers?  They were so upset by Joseph’s behavior that they decided to kill him, but then they decided they would be better off selling Joseph into slavery and then just tell Jacob that wild animals had devoured his favorite son.  Now, those are family values!

So, this reunion with their long lost brother must have come as a great surprise, and in fact may have been a rather uncomfortable reunion.  The text says they were terrified when Joseph revealed himself to them.  I expect they were also feeling a bit of guilt at having sold their brother into slavery and then telling their father that Joseph had been eaten by a wild animal.  Wouldn’t you? 

But Joseph isn’t out for revenge, and so this story that could have turned out very badly becomes a story of forgiveness and reconciliation, and isn’t that a word that’s needed today? 

We also live at a time when there are a lot of dysfunctional families.  Maybe we’re all part of dysfunctional families!   Divorce rates are high, many young adults are either delaying marriage or simply deciding to live together rather than face the prospect of getting divorced.  There are parents and children who fight, and siblings who fight – especially when their parents die and they have to split the estate.  

But it’s not just families.  Lots of churches are dysfunctional.  And, so are our communities, states and nations.  Just a little over a week ago we watched as Congress took the nation to the brink of default before passing legislation that no one seems to like to raise the debt ceiling.  The vote was bipartisan, but the aftermath has been little more than a bout of finger-pointing, with each side trying as hard as possible not to own the results.  

Is there any hope of having a positive reunion with these kinds of relationships? 

Of course this isn’t the first time that our nation has been at loggerheads.  This year, after all, marks  the  150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War.  That war took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, more than in all of America’s other wars combined.  When that war that divided a nation ended four years later, the combatants faced a dilemma.  Could the sides reconcile and once again be a family? And if they did, what would this family look like?  History shows that we spent at least a century trying to resolve these questions, and we may still be trying to live together as one nation. 

It was to this dilemma that faced the nation as the war come to an end that Abraham Lincoln spoke in his Second Inaugural Address:    
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
 Is this not the message that Joseph had for his brothers?

Although his brothers were terrified, knowing that they had wronged their brother and that their brother held their lives in his hands, Joseph wanted to host a family reunion.  He might be the Prime Minister of Egypt, but he is also part of this family and he wants to see these broken relationships restored. 

Now Lincoln wouldn’t live to see this dream fulfilled, but Joseph had the opportunity to bind up the wounds of his family.  Instead of seeking revenge as so many of us try to do, he invites his family, including his father, to come to Goshen for a big reunion.  

Why did Joseph do this?  Could it be that he saw God at work in the world? Remember what Joseph said to his brothers.  Don’t be upset or angry yourselves, because God sent me here to save lives.  God has used me in this place to rescue you from this famine, and with you all of Egypt.  

Now, I know that there are Christians who read this passage in such a way that God is said to have caused all of this to happen – from the selling of Joseph into slavery to the famine and even the rise to power.  This is, as a famous Christian author puts it, Joseph’s “purpose driven life.”  But what kind of God is this who does evil so that God can happen?  

Maybe there’s another way of reading this story, where we have freedom to choose how we’re to live our lives, but where God is active in our midst, inviting us, as good invites Joseph, to be a partner in doing something good for the world.  Joseph could have chosen differently, but he discovered that God was inviting him to a family reunion that would bring forgiveness, reconciliation, and hope to a broken family, his own family. 

There is another story about a family reunion that may have a bearing on our conversation.  It’s a different kind of story, but it carries a message of reconciliation.  You may know this story.  It’s about a man named Ray Kinsella, who decided to mow down his cornfield and build a baseball field on his land, because he heard a voice say to him:  “If you build it, he will come.”  

I’m sure all of us hear voices like this!  Don’t we?  

If you hear a voice tell you to build a baseball field, or maybe pack up your family and move half way across the country, what should you do?  Are you ready to throw caution to the wind and follow the lead of this voice?  

There is an important question  that permeates the movie Field of Dreams.  That question is: who is “he?”   Is it Shoeless Joe Jackson, the disgraced baseball player?  Is it writer Terrance Mann, who would rather be left alone than reminded of his fame?  Is it Moonlight Graham, the now deceased doctor who had made it the majors, but never got to bat?  

Not only does the voice say “if you build it, he will come,” but it also says:     “Ease his pain.”   But whose pain is going to be eased by building this field of dreams?  As the movie closes, the ghost of Shoeless Joe points to Ray and says – it’s your pain that is to be eased.  At that moment Ray spots his long dead father, from whom he had been estranged from his youth, as a young man with a dream of a major league career.  In a conversation that has brought tears to the eyes of many a man, Ray says to this version of his father he had never known:   “Hey Dad, . . . You wanna have a catch?”  And his  father says, “I’d like that.”  In that moment a family reunion is held and the pain of both men is eased and reconciliation occurs. 

On the day of Pentecost, after Peter finished his sermon, the people responded:  How can we be saved – that is, how might we experience healing and wholeness in our lives?  And Peter said – repent, be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And on that day there was a really big family reunion! 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 14, 2011