Sunday, July 15, 2012

Did You Get What You Wanted? A Sermon

Mark 6:14-29

It’s your birthday and you’re really hoping to get a special present.  It could be a new bike, a red wagon, a doll, a new Ford Fiesta.  You’ve left lots of hints, and you’re hoping that you’ll get your heart’s desire.  So, did you get what you wanted?   Or did you get something else?  And if you got what you wanted, is it what you hoped for? 

Herod Antipas was the king in Galilee, which is where Jesus hailed from.  When his birthday approached, he decided to throw himself a party.  You can do that if you’re the king.  As Mel Brooks put it in History of the World, Part 1:  “It’s good to be the king!”  So, Herod sent out to the invitations to all the movers and shakers from the neighborhood and invited them to a big banquet.  His wife, Herodias, who was also married to his brother, offered up her daughter whom tradition names Salome – as the entertainment.  

You may know Salome’s name, because legend, works of art, and Hollywood portrayals, have suggested that this dance was rather erotic.  Whatever the nature of the dance, it got the attention of the king, who offers this young dancer anything she wants, even half the kingdom.

   As you might expect, Salome goes and checks in with Herodias, who had a specific plan in mind when she sent out her daughter to dance for the king.  Whether or not Salome wanted the big prize of half the kingdom, her mother wanted the head of John the Baptist on a platter, and that’s what Salome asked for.  

Salome is but a pawn in a game of power, and in this game Herodias appears to win.

   As for John the Baptist, his fate was that of many who speak truth to power.  Martin Luther King spoke truth to power and he died as a result.  The same is true of Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran Archbishop who was shot and killed in his own cathedral.  Jeremiah and Jesus also spoke truth to power and died as a result.    

Although she doesn’t die in either the book or the movie version of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen faces the wrath of those in power when she defies them by refusing to play their power game.  

According to Mark, Herod is horrified when Salome makes her request, but since he’d made this promise in front of all his friends, he felt obliged to honor it.  With no other recourse, he ordered his guards to bring the head of John to the party.  I’m not sure that’s the present that either Herod or Salome wanted to receive, but that’s the way things often work, don’t they.   This story about a birthday party that ends with a beheading is part of a larger story, and that story has to do with Jesus and the kingdom he is seeking to inaugurate.  In telling this story we see the contrast between two realms – the heavenly and the earthly.  It’s a story about two kinds of power, the one that’s built on either brute force or manipulation.  Herod derived his power from Rome, but he used brute force and fear to impose his power on the people. Herodias didn’t have that option, but she did know how to use manipulation, which is a more subtle form of power, but it’s often just as effective.    

Their understanding of power stands in contrast to the vision offered by both John and Jesus.  They come proclaiming the reign of God.  John’s message is repentance and forgiveness in preparation for the coming of God’s reign.  Jesus builds on this message and proclaims in word and in deed a message of healing and mercy.  There is power in this new realm, but it’s not the power of fear, but rather the power of love.     

If we turn to Ephesians, we hear a message of adoption.  We read that God has adopted us as God’s children through Christ, and with adoption comes redemption, forgiveness, and the revelation of the mysteries of God, which entails bringing unity to heaven and earth under the reign of Christ.  (Ephesians 1:3-14)

We’re living through a political season, and the politicians and their allies have a message for us.  Whatever the party, they’re offering us the promise of gifts in return for our loyalty.  They ask us – what do you want?  And they appeal to our self-interest.  But as we all know, they often fail to come through on their promises.  That’s just the way politics work.  And if they give us what we ask for, are we satisfied? 

God is a giver of gifts also, and as James puts it:
Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.  (James 1:17 CEB). 
God gives good gifts.  We see them described in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12, but God also expects something of us.  
He has told you, human one, what is good and  what the Lord requires from you:
       to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.(Mic 6:8 CEB)
Did you get what wanted?
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
7th Sunday after Pentecost
July 15, 2012

Sunday, July 08, 2012

Dealing with Thorns -- A Sermon

2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Do you remember the story of Androcles and the Lion?  It’s one of Aesop’s Fables that often appears in children’s books.  Remember how Androcles escaped slavery only to face a lion in the forest?  It’s as if he was jumping from the frying pan into the fire.  Thinking the lion would kill him, he begins to run away.  But as he does this he hears the lion moaning in pain.  So, he turns around and discovers that the lion has a thorn embedded in its paw.  What to do?  Does he remove the thorn and risk death, or does he turn his back on the suffering lion?  In spite of his fears, Androcles pulls the thorn out of the lion’s paw.  As for the lion, he joyfully licks the face of his savior, and from that moment on they become good friends.  Now, their friendship will get another test when both get captured and face each other in the arena.  When the lion refuses to kill Androcles, the emperor is so amazed that he pardons Androcles and frees the lion.  And they live happily ever after!

Paul had a thorn of his own, but there wasn’t an Androcles around to remove the thorn.  Paul asked God three times to remove his thorn, but God appears to refuse his requests, and so he decides that the thorn, which he describes as a “messenger from Satan sent to torment” him, must be God’s means of keeping him humble.

When you read a letter, you only get one side of the conversation.  But, there’s always a narrative standing behind the letter, and if you dig into the back story, you get the bigger picture.  It seems clear from Paul’s two Corinthian letters, that this is a rather dysfunctional church.

Although Paul planted this church, the surrounding culture had negatively influenced its development.  While Paul preached an egalitarian message, certain players in the church were rather adept at playing power politics.  They tried to bring a social caste system into the church that would give them power.  It also led to conflict within the church and resistance to Paul’s leadership. They didn’t seem to think much of Paul, and so they became a thorn in his side as well.  That is, in addition to whatever physical issue afflicted him!  

It’s clear from the letters that these issues were both economic and spiritual. Paul’s opponents seem to come from the wealthier caste, and they demanded to have power and authority in the church.  Perhaps thinking that their wealth was a sign of divine blessing, they saw themselves as spiritual giants.  They had come to see themselves as standing on a higher plane than the rest of the people,  including Paul.  Perhaps Paul’s decision to support himself by making tents contributed to this perception.

So, even if Paul was an apostle, they were, in their own estimation, “super-apostles.”  They bragged about their visions and ecstatic experiences.  Look at me, they said, we’re more spiritual than the rest.  Paul knew how to mix it up with the best, but he replied not by bragging on his own spiritual experiences, but by focusing on his own weaknesses.

Now, he did know the story of someone who had been caught up in paradise some fourteen years earlier.  He’ll brag on that person, instead – though it would appear that he and this person are one and the same!  But, he resists putting the focus on his own experiences, which rivaled anything his opponents could muster.   In reading today’s text, my thoughts went back to my teen years, when I was active in Pentecostal churches. These churches emphasize ecstatic spiritual experiences, such as speaking in tongues and prophetic utterances, and I remember people taking great pride in their prowess with such spiritual experiences.  They enjoyed telling their stories because it brought attention to them, and gave them power over others. It’s  easy to get caught up in this, even if you didn’t have the same spiritual experiences.  Just being around spiritual giants gave you a sense of importance.  Yes, I got caught up in it too!

But, you don’t have to go to Pentecostal Churches to find people who find power and glory in telling their spiritual stories.  They might find glory in their ability to quote scripture or maybe the eloquence of their prayers.  They hold themselves up as spiritual exemplars, and try to exploit their persona to gain power over others.  Paul had to face this, as did Jesus.  Remember that Jesus’ primary opponents were members of the religious establishment, who saw themselves as spiritually better than their neighbors.  Like Paul’s opponents, they became thorns in Jesus’ side!

Although his opponents liked to trade stories of their spiritual triumphs, Paul refuses to go along.  Such actions only make people look foolish, so instead of bragging about how spiritual he is – and he has had plenty of ecstatic experiences to take pride in – he simply rests in the grace of God, which he deems sufficient.

People want power, but for Paul “power is made perfect in weakness.”   While the “Super-Apostles” are bragging on their ecstatic experiences, Paul will brag “about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me.”

Yes, as Paul says in Philippians, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).  The grace of God, which Jesus shares with his followers, is sufficient for us all.  We don’t have to use our spiritual experiences as fodder for our efforts to gain power over others.  Instead, as we find power perfected in weakness, we find the power necessary to do the work of the kingdom.    

So where do we see this power in weakness present?  Well, consider a phrase we often use:  “From the mouths of babes.”  Children don’t have power or influence, and yet in their seeming innocence and even powerlessness, they can speak words of great wisdom and vision; that is, if we’re willing to listen for God’s voice in their words.

  Then there are those whom we deem disabled – whether it is physical, emotional, or intellectual.  There are many people whom our society deems weak, and yet they too can be used by God.

  In September we’ll have the opportunity to hear theologian Amos Yong speak on The Bible, Disability, and the Church.  In his book on this topic, Dr. Yong shares the story of his younger brother who has Down Syndrome.  Although Dr. Yong has become a well-regarded theologian, he shares how his brother has become an equally important spiritual blessing to so many people.  What some would see as a weakness, in God’s grace becomes a strength.

So, who in our midst is able to glorify God through what society considers to be a weakness?  

Part of the problem afflicting the Corinthian church is that Paul’s opponents think that there’s a scarcity of spiritual blessings, and they take pride in gathering up as much of this “blessing” as possible.  Just as they failed to share their food when the community gathered, they tried to hoard spiritual power as well.

Paul offers a different view of things.  He finds power in weakness.  His thorn, whatever it might be, doesn’t keep him from fulfilling his calling.  That’s because God’s abundant grace is sufficient for all.  What looks like weakness is an opportunity for God to work powerfully.

To put it a different way, even though we’re a small church that lacks the programs and media savvy of much larger congregations, that doesn’t mean God can’t use us to bless the community.  It’s a bit like the small grocery store I worked for during high school.  We couldn’t compete with the Safeway across the street in terms of price or quantity of products offered, but we could offer quality service.  And that’s how we competed.  

So, what weaknesses are present in your life that give God the opportunity to perfect God’s grace?  Where are you weak so that God might be strong?  What are the thorns in your life that keep you humble so that God can use you?

Jesus went home to Nazareth, and the people were amazed at his ability to teach.  They were also offended by it.  After all, they said: we know this guy.  We know his father, who is nothing more than a handyman, and we know his mother and his siblings as well.  And Jesus responded – “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives, and in his own home” (Mark 6:1-4).

And Paul responds “when I’m weak then I’m strong.”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
6th Sunday after Pentecost
July 8, 2012

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Great is thy faithfulness -- A Sermon

Lamentations 3:22-33

I don’t think I’ve ever preached from this book of poems called Lamentations that sits between Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke for God during the time of exile, offering both words of judgment and hope.  Although tradition suggests that Jeremiah is the author of these poems, that’s rather unlikely, but it’s clear that they were written during the exile.  They speak of that day when the people of Judah watched the Babylonians destroy the city of Jerusalem and  its Temple, and then carry off its king and the leading members of society into exile. These were trying times and so a book of Lamentations seems appropriate.  

Although we may not use words like “lamentations” or “lament” very often in our daily speech, because they have a variety of meanings they can be useful words.  

Lament can mean “I’m sorry.”  I’ve done my share of this kind of lamenting.

It can also refer to mourning or grieving, which we do on occasion.  Just this past week we have grieved our loss of a beloved member of this congregation.

It also refers to the act of complaining, which most of us have been known to do on occasion.  

Although we find all three versions of this word in these poems, we also find a word of hope.  That word of hope can be found in this morning’s reading.  But before we get to that word, it would be wise to hear the word of lament so we can get a sense of what the people who sang these songs of lament were feeling as they endured exile.  The first poem begins:  
1 Oh, no! She sits alone, the city that was once full of people. 
Once great among nations, she has become like a widow.
Once a queen over provinces, she has become a slave. 
2 She weeps bitterly in the night, her tears on her cheek. 
None of her lovers comfort her.  
All her friends lied to her;   
they have become her enemies.  (Lam. 1:1-2 CEB).
Do you hear the grief and contrition present in these words?  Things have gone horribly wrong.  They used to be part of a great nation, but now they sit alone and abandoned.  Their enemies have lied to them and there’s no one left to console them. 

Now the residents of the city face homelessness, even as the city  “remembers all her treasures from days long past.  When her people fell by the enemy’s hand, there was no one to help her. Enemies saw her, laughed at her defeat” (Lam. 1:7 CEB).  They suffer the bitterness of nostalgia of what was, along with the derision from their enemies.  Now they are nothing more than the laughingstock of the neighborhood.  

Not only did their enemies laugh at them, but it seems that God may be responsible for their plight.  It is YHWH who commanded their enemies to surround them and cause them to suffer.  Do you hear an echo of Job’s complaint in these words?  Why has God done this to them?  The poet answers this question on behalf of the nation “I have sinned.”  We have brought this act of judgment on ourselves, because we have put our trust in ourselves rather than in God. 

So how do you feel about this idea that God might stand in judgment?  How do you square this idea with our confession that God is love?    

When we read the words of the prophets, such as Jeremiah or Ezekiel, we hear words of judgment.  They make it clear that God will not abide our arrogance or injustice.  If you’re like me, the prophetic word can make us uncomfortable.  

The prophets were never very popular in their own day.  Many of them died rather horrible deaths.   Walter Brueggemann has suggested that the prophets spoke of two narratives – one narrative is God’s narrative that focuses on justice and compassion, especially for the poor and the outsider.  The other narrative, which he calls the “Dominant Narrative,” can be defined as “therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism” [Brueggemann The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, p. 4].   This narrative speaks of self-sufficiency.  It’s the narrative of selfishness where we declare our independence from God and from our neighbor.  It’s a rather attractive narrative because it leads us to believe that we can control our own destiny, but as the poet reminds us, such thinking is rather short-sighted.   

Do you find this to be a rather ironic word for the Sunday before we celebrate Independence Day?  On Wednesday we’ll celebrate our freedom as a nation with parades and fireworks, but what is the nature of our freedom?  Are we really free to do whatever we please with no thought of God or neighbor? 

Of course we hear these words at a time when many people living in our country are experiencing distress.  All the polls suggest that a majority of Americans don’t think that the nation is going in the right direction.  There’s a lot of fear and frustration.  Indeed, there’s a lot of lamenting going on, but is it complaining or is it a word of contrition?  Do we see ourselves as part of the problem or is it the other person?  

One the questions that the Listening Team, which gathered the other evening to give an interim report on our Listening Campaign, is asking is – what community concerns do you have?  We’re hearing concerns about health care, the economy, and the state of the church – not just this church, but the church in general.  Although we’re not living in exile, we seem perplexed about the way things are.  

When it comes to figuring out who is responsible for all this bad news, who do you think is responsible?   Are you responsible or is it someone else?  

Yes, there’s a lot of lamenting going on in our midst, and we might be among the lamenters.  But, even as we hear this word of lamentation, we also hear a word of hope. I know you’ve been waiting for this word to come.  But it doesn’t come until the middle of the book, after the word of judgment and lamentation is heard.  But then, seemingly out of nowhere we hear this word about God’s faithfulness and love.  The poet declares:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. (Lam. 3:22-23 NRSV).
Just when you thought God had abandoned you, we hear that God is indeed faithful.  And this word has inspired one of the great hymns of the faith, which we’ve already sung this morning.
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father, 
there Is no shadow of turning with thee; 
Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not; 
as thou has been thou forever wilt be.
Yes, God is faithful and loving.

The question is – are you ready to embrace this faithful God?  Are you ready to trust your lives to God?  To whom do you give your allegiance?  

Judah had suffered destruction and exile because it put its trust in its military rather than in God, and they suffered the consequences when the Babylonians marched into the city.  Will this be our story?  

Or will you entrust your lives to the God who is faithful?  Can you sing:
Great is thy faithfulness!  Great is thy faithfulness! 
Morning by morning, new mercies I see;
all I have needed thy hand hath provided -- 
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
The poet invites us to sit and wait in silence for God’s deliverance, because even though things might look bad, surely God “won’t reject forever.”  

God may cause us grief, but God will also show us compassion, because God doesn’t enjoy inflicting suffering on us. If that was true, this God of ours would be a rather sadistic god, who wouldn’t warrant our worship and service. Instead, the God who is just is also the God whose steadfast love never ceases.  Is this not the answer to our lamentations? 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2012