Sunday, March 31, 2013

Looking for the Lord -- An Easter Sermon

Luke 24:1-12

Are you looking for the Lord?  Then, “why do you look for the living among the dead?”  Does the story of Jesus end with Good Friday, or is there another chapter to the story?

On that first Easter morning, five women went to the Tomb expecting to find a body.  They brought ointments and spices to finish the burial process, which was interrupted by the coming of the Sabbath.  It would seem that for the disciples hope died with Jesus.  The women weren’t looking for the living among the dead.  They were looking for their now dead teacher.  Hope had given way to despair.  All that remained to do was finish the burial process.  

Resurrection wasn’t on their mind when they arrived at the Empty Tomb. The message delivered by the two men who greeted them at the Tomb jogged their memory, but I don’t think they were prepared to truly understand what had occurred.  They may have remembered the words of Jesus, but I don’t think they were jumping joy quite yet.

When they returned to the place where the rest of the disciples had gathered, the response of these disciples was less than enthusiastic.  They wouldn’t believe this story.  Surely the women were delirious with grief.

Tom Long, a teacher of preachers of long standing, offers his own take on what transpired that first Easter morning:
It is somewhat reassuring to realize that the first Christian sermon ever preached did not register high on the Richter scale either. When the women came back from the cemetery on Easter morning, they brought with them word of an empty tomb and astonishing news: "He is not here but has risen!" All Christian preaching begins here, and all Christian sermons are reverberations of this Easter news, first announced by the women to the apostles. The response? The translations differ; you can take your pick. The words seemed to them like "an idle tale," "empty talk," "a silly story," "a foolish yarn," "utter nonsense," "sheer humbug."
On that first Easter morning no one was singing “Christ the Lord is risen today.”  No one was sounding the trumpets.  There was simply shock.

  So, if you come this morning full of questions and doubts about this resurrection thing, then you’re in good company.  Reports like these throw us off balance.  They don’t fit with our expectations.  After all, dead bodies are supposed to stay dead.

There may be others of you who don’t have any questions.  You’re okay with taking the story at face value.  You’ve heard the story enough times to buy into the message.  But, how does the story speak to your life?  What difference does the resurrection make to your life?  

Yes, how seriously do you take this Easter story?  Is it just another holiday, which in this case celebrates the coming of spring?  Or, does Easter make a difference in the way you look at God, your neighbor, even life itself?   Do you go looking for the living among the dead, or do you go looking for the Lord of Life?

Even though this spring has been rather cold, and the flowers and trees are taking their time budding, it seems appropriate that Easter coincides with spring.  Since we live in a region where winter takes its toll, we welcome the warm rays and even the warm rains that come with spring.  When we see and hear nature’s reawakening, something reawakens within us.    

Although we’re not singing the hymn “Now the Green Blade Rises,” the words of this hymn speak to the moment.

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain, 
wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
love lives again, that with the dead has been;
Love is come again like wheat arising green.

Yes, love is coming again like “wheat arising green.”  Life reigns victorious over death, which loses its sting in the presence of the risen Christ.

And then the closing stanza goes like this:
When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
your touch can call us back to life again,
fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been;
Love is come again like wheat arising green.

Easter brings with it the promise of a hopeful future.  It invites us to share in the joy that comes from God.

Several of the scripture readings for Lent speak of new beginnings.  In Christ the old is gone and the new has arrived. Good Friday, therefore, is a voice from the past, while the resurrection speaks to us in the present from the future.  Death tried to seize control, but life ended up victorious.
The message of Easter is one centered on life.  And this life that finds its foundation in the risen Christ is sacred.  As Christian ethicist David Gushee writes, life is sacred because God has declared it so.
Human life is sacred: this means that God has consecrated each and every human being – without exception and in all circumstances – as a unique incalculably precious being of elevated status and dignity.  (Gushee, The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World's Future33).  
And if God has declared human life to be sacred, then this “leads to a full-hearted commitment to foster human flourishing.”

The message of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, is that God loves the world.  As the Gospel of John makes so clear – because God loved the world, he sent his son into the world.  At Christmas we celebrate this truth – that God is present with us in the person of Christ.

Theologian Karl Barth spoke of the “humanity of God.”  He writes:
s it not true that in Jesus Christ, as He is attested in the Holy Scripture, genuine deity includes in itself genuine humanity?  There is the father who cares for his lost son, the king who does the same for his insolvent debtor, the Samaritan who takes pity on the one who fell among robber and in his thorough going act of compassion cares for him in a fashion as unexpected as it is liberal.  And this is the act of compassion to which all these parables as parables of the Kingdom of heaven refer.   (The Humanity of Godp. 51).
Here is the full-orbed message of Jesus – from Christmas through Good Friday and on to Easter morning – God loves the world that God creates.  We see how God loves the world in both Jesus’ teachings and in his actions.  Good Friday represents the world’s attempt to extinguish this light, but this morning we come to celebrate the good news that the light of God present in Jesus can’t be extinguished.

The women may have gone to the tomb looking for the dead, but they come back with the message that the one they assumed was dead, is in fact risen from the dead.  They proclaim this message to a group of disciples who aren’t ready to receive it.  Peter goes to check it out, but he goes away wondering what had happened.  The disciples traveling toward Emmaus have heard the news, but they’re not ready to receive it.  In fact, they won’t be ready until Jesus reveals himself in the breaking of bread.

Having heard the message of resurrection?  Are you ready to receive it?  Are you ready to embrace the abundant life available to us through the resurrection of Christ?  Are you ready to affirm life and celebrate its potential?

For those of you who have seen Les Miserable, you will know the story of the redemption of Jean Valjean.  Having been given a second chance at life by a kindly Bishop, who gives him the silver he was trying to steal.  From that point on a transformed Jean Valjean, taking an alias, devotes his life to the care of others.   This is the message of resurrection.  Having died with Christ in baptism, we are raised to new life with Christ (Rom. 6:4).  Therefore, let us rejoice and be glad, and share together in God’s provision of life in its abundance!  Let us go forth from this place, taking with us the message that in Christ, life is not only sacred, it is the gift of God.

Yes, Christ the Lord is risen today!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
March 31, 2013
Easter Sunday

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Witness of the Stones -- Palm Sunday Sermon

Luke 19:28-40

Concerning the sermon title – this isn’t a sermon about the Rolling Stones!  They may have something to say, but I don’t think it’s connected to Palm Sunday!

When you drive into the church parking lot, do you notice those two gargoyle blocks of stone sitting on the circle?  Do you ever wonder why they’re there?  I think they come from the old church, and they serve as a reminder of our connection to that former place of worship and service.  We don’t talk about those stones, but they do have a story to tell.

Stones might be inanimate objects, but they do tell stories.  

When I go to England next fall on my sabbatical, I plan to visit Stonehenge.  That stone structure draws visitors from all over the world, and everyone wonders who built it and why.  These stones have a story to tell, but we must use our imagination to hear it.      

Or, what about the stone monuments in Washington, D.C.?  Consider the marble graves of Arlington or the stark black marble of the Vietnam Memorial Wall.  What stories do these stones tell?  

The Vietnam Memorial Wall was controversial when it was built, but it has become a place of pilgrimage.  Fifty years after that war began, people go to the wall, and rub the names of friends and loved ones, honoring their memories and remembering their stories.  

In Scripture, there are also stones that tell stories.   Remember when the people of Israel crossed the Jordan River after their escape from Egypt?   The Lord told Joshua to select twelve men from each tribe, and have them take a stone from the middle of the Jordan.  Then he told the men to pile the stones at the place where Israel camped that first night.  Joshua told the tribes that when the children asked the meaning of the stones, they should tell the story of how God cut off the waters of the Jordan so that the people, led by priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant, could pass through into the Promised Land.  The stones may appear silent, but they tell a story (Joshua 4:1-7).
As we gather to celebrate Palm Sunday, we join in Jesus’ festal procession into the city of Jerusalem.  In the words of the Psalmist, perhaps you can hear Jesus, standing above the city and crying out:   
Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. (Psalm 118:19).
Then, riding on the colt that his disciples had borrowed, Jesus heads down from the Mount of Olives into the City of Jerusalem, so that he could worship in the Temple.  And as he does this, his disciples throw their cloaks on the ground in front of him and they shout:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” 
Luke’s version of this story may be more subdued than what we read in the other Gospels, but the signs that this is prophetic moment are present even here.  If you know the words of Zechariah 9:9, you will recognize the meaning of a man riding into the city on a donkey or a colt.  It’s clear, at least to some, that Jesus is making a messianic claim.  He is the promised king.  

If you were watching this unfold from the sidelines, especially if you were part of the power structure in Jerusalem, this scene would have to make you nervous.  Even as Jesus enters the city through the eastern gate, it’s likely that  Pilate is leading Roman troops into the city through the western gate.  With pilgrims pouring into the city to celebrate Passover, Jesus’ actions were sure to stir up trouble.  

And so a group of Pharisees goes to Jesus and asks him to make the disciples stop.  Not long before a group of Pharisees warned Jesus to stay clear of Jerusalem, but he ignored their warnings.  He seemed to know that his destiny lay in the city of Jerusalem.  This was to be his moment.

So when the Pharisees warn him to silence the disciples, Jesus answers:  
“I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.”
Preaching on the Palm Sunday story isn’t easy, because we know that the triumphal entry doesn’t seem to end in triumph.  Jesus doesn’t take power from the Romans.  Instead, he is executed for sedition.  He will be accused of pretending to be the King of the Jews, and the Romans couldn’t allow that to happen.  They decided who was to rule – and Herod was the puppet king of Galilee, while Pilate represented Caesar in Judea.  When push came to shove, they had to get rid of Jesus!

But the stones can’t be silenced.  They will have the last word. In Luke’s version of the Easter story, we hear these words:
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.  They found the stone rolled away from the tomb.
The women who had come to the tomb were then asked by two men in dazzling clothes: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but has risen.”  (Luke 24:1-5).

Next Sunday, when we gather to celebrate Easter we will consider the meaning of a different stone – the stone that has been rolled away from the door of the tomb.

But what is the meaning of Jesus’ words here?  In what way do stones declare the glory of God if the disciples remain quiet?

Fred Craddock writes that “some things simply must be said; the disciples are expressing what is ultimately and finally true: God will provide a witness though every mouth be stopped; opposition to Christian witness cannot succeed and the truth will come out” (Luke: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preachingpp. 227-228).  If we don’t tell the story, God will still find a way to make it known – even if it’s the stones that do the preaching!

One of these stones, which preaches is the “stone that the builders rejected.”  According to Psalm 118, this stone will  “become the chief cornerstone.”  The very stone that had been rejected as having no use or value, becomes the cornerstone.  Why is this important?  Well, in ancient buildings, the cornerstone or the capstone was the key to the building’s stability and completion.  If you take it away, the building collapses.  God has chosen the stone humanity rejected to be the cornerstone for God’s realm.

    According to the witness of the disciples, Jesus is that cornerstone.  In 1 Peter 2, we read that Jesus is the “living stone” whom we humans rejected.  But the very stone we rejected is  precious in the sight of God.  
Peter writes: “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).

We are these living stones, who must declare:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!”  (Luke 19:38)
What is the story that you and I must share?  How do we become these living stones that declare “peace in heaven and glory in the highest heaven?”

The Psalm that is read on most Palm Sundays is Psalm 118.  It begins by giving thanks for the goodness of Yahweh, whose steadfast love endures forever. If you experience this steadfast love, how do you not share this good news?

Back in early 2009 – four years ago – we gathered for a retreat to discern our core values as a missional congregation.  One of those core values is witnessing.  In response to that realization we participated in a congregation wide study of Gay Reese’s book Unbinding Your Heart.   And some of you had read her earlier book – Unbinding the Gospel – even before I arrived.  It’s been a while since we read these books, but it’s good to remember Gay’s point about our  reticence as mainline Protestants to share our faith stories.  She wanted to help us break our silence about our faith stories so that we can proclaim the goodness and love of God to the world.  As living stones, when asked the story of lives, we can give our witness to the transforming presence of Jesus in our lives.  

And remember what Craddock said – there are some things that just have to be shared.  If we don’t share the good news, then surely God will use stones!!  On this Palm Sunday, may we be the living stones that declare to the word that God’s steadfast love endures forever!  
  Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Palm Sunday
March 24, 2013

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Loss Is Gain -- A Lenten Sermon (5c)

Philippians 3:4b-14

We live in a culture of success.  The more you have and the bigger you build, the better.  Look at sports teams.  The Yankee’s payroll annually stands above 200 million.  They might not always win the World Series, but the owners are willing to pay whatever it costs to win now.  The Dodgers are trying to do the same thing in the National League.  We’ll see if it works out for them.  Or think about Apple.  It’s net worth is greater than that of many countries.  Not only that, but it  currently sits on 137 billion dollars in cash – and growing rapidly.   

Jesus points us in a different direction.  For Jesus, life doesn’t consist in an abundance of possessions. Remember the parable he told about the Rich Fool? He told of a man who reaped a huge harvest.  Since his barns couldn’t hold it all, he tore them down and built new ones, so he could sit back and eat, drink, and be merry.   Unfortunately, he dies in the night and all that stored up grain did him little good (Luke 12:13-21).  And Jesus concludes that it’s better to be rich toward God than rich in possessions.

In our reading for this morning Paul says something similar to what Jesus says in the parable.  He starts by noting that if anyone could put their confidence in the flesh, it was Paul.  Although he doesn’t focus on material possessions, he does lift up his religious achievements.  He had checked all the important religious boxes.  Not only had he been circumcised on the eighth day, he was a Pharisee and blameless before the Law.  He had every right and reason to brag about his righteousness.  But in comparison to knowing Jesus, all of this was rubbish.  He would place his confidence in Christ and not the flesh, which leads us away from God.
As I was reading this passage from Philippians, I couldn’t help but think about the election of a new Pope for the Catholic Church.  The Pope is the most powerful religious leader in the world, so it doesn’t matter what your religion is, when a Pope is elected, you pay attention.   We immediately want to know what kind of person this man is.

Although it’s still early, Pope Francis seems to be a very different kind of Pope.  There is a sense of humility and simplicity that marks his manner.  We’ve heard all kinds of stories this past few days about how he waved off the papal car and took the bus with the other Cardinals back to the hotel.  The next day he took a trip to the hotel where he stayed before the conclave began to pick up his belongings.  He even paid the bill himself.  But this isn’t something new for him.  As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he lived in a small apartment rather than the palace that was afforded to him.  He traveled by bus and cooked his own meals.  This isn’t the way we expect leaders of his stature to act.  

Then again, perhaps his choice of a papal name gives us a clue as to how he intends to lead his church.  St. Francis of Assisi was known for his humility and his grace.  St. Francis didn’t cling to the privileges that were afforded him as the son of a wealthy merchant.  Instead, in response to God’s call to rebuild the church, he gave up everything for Jesus. 

Now, we can honor St. Francis and even Pope Francis, but how do we live for Jesus?  After all, Jesus’ teachings seem to be rather idealistic. It would be nice if we could live according to the Sermon on the Mount, where the poor in inherit the kingdom of heaven and the meek inherit the earth, where the hungry and thirsty are filled?  But surely that’s just a dream.  Or is it?  

Perhaps what we need, is what Glen Stassen calls a “Thicker Jesus.” To be a disciple of Jesus is to let Jesus be Lord over our lives.  When we do this then we can engage in “transformative initiatives” in the real world that allow us to  “confront power and injustice nonviolently but forcefully” (Stassen, p. 191).  But this requires, letting go of our prerogatives, religious or otherwise.

  When Paul lists the things that he now counts as rubbish, he doesn’t completely erase his Jewish heritage.  What he does is refuse to let this heritage limit his ministry.  He doesn’t cling to past accomplishments, but instead he draws resources from the past, so he can participate in the work of God in the world. I think that this is what Pope Francis did in choosing a papal name. 

He decided to take the name Francis, after his friend, Cardinal Humes of Brazil, embraced him and told him to remember the poor.  In taking this name, he chose to follow St. Francis’ example in seeking to embody in his own ministry the person of Jesus.

We can do the same.  We can take hold of those resources that will allow us to look toward what Bruce Epperly calls the “transformative power of the future.”   Paul warns against putting our trust in the flesh, which is hostile toward God.  If we put our confidence in our own abilities, then we won’t recognize our own limitations.  According to Paul, Christ’s faithfulness is the foundation of our righteousness.  We can’t attain to righteousness by observing religious rules and regulations.  

Lent is a season of renunciation.  Even if we don’t fast, we’re continually reminded by the texts and hymns of the need to let go of the things that hold us back from following Jesus.  This includes, for Paul, putting our trust in external rituals.  It’s not that baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or giving offerings to the church is a bad thing, but if we turn these gifts into personal accomplishments, then we put up barriers to experiencing a transformative relationship with God.  When this happens, our religious accomplishments become rubbish. 

Down through history the church has always struggled with keeping things in perspective.  Too often we make externals – buildings, vestments, choirs, organizational structures, or style of worship -- into essentials.  We fight over the color of a rest room wall or the style of music used in the church.  When we do this, we lose sight of the call to pursue the righteousness of God.  Paul says that none of this “stuff” matters, at least in comparison with the blessings that come from knowing Christ.  

Paul doesn’t believe he’s reached perfection.  He’s not reached the goal of knowing God in God’s fullness.  He still sees things as in a mirror darkly.  But, he also believes that Christ has grabbed hold of him so that he might experience the righteousness of God.  

So, where is Paul headed?  He writes that “I forget about the things behind me and reach out for the things ahead of me.”  As Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5, God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self, and as a result the old is gone and the new has come.  This message reflects the word we hear in Isaiah 43, where Yahweh declares:

Don’t remember the prior things;
don’t ponder ancient history.
Look! I’m doing a new thing;
now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it?
I’m making a way in the desert,
paths in the wilderness.  (Isaiah 4318-19 CEB)

The goal, Paul declares, is to pursue the “prize of God’s upward call in Christ Jesus.”

In thinking about what this involves, I’m drawn to another statement made by the new Pope.  
"We have to avoid the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church. It's true that when you get out into the street, as happens to every man and woman, there can be accidents. However, if the church remains closed in on itself, self-referential, it gets old. Between a church that suffers accidents in the street, and a church that's sick because it's self-referential, I have no doubts about preferring the former."
As we near the end of our Lenten Journey, let us ponder where God is leading us.  How might our loss be a gain as we pursue “God’s upward call” as  disciples of Jesus in the modern age?  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
5th Sunday of Lent
March 17, 2013  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

New Creation -- A Sermon for Lent (4c)

2 Corinthians 5:16-21

What if you could live your life over again?   Wouldn’t it be great to fix all your mistakes and repair the broken relationships?   Of course time travel is nothing more than a science fiction dream, so this doesn’t seem possible.  And yet, St. Paul writes that in Christ all things can become new.   Or, as Brian Wren’s hymn puts it: 
 “This is a Day of New Beginnings; time to remember and move one, time to believe what love is bringing, laying to rest the pain that’s gone.”
Many of us have a favorite passage of scripture, and this is one of mine.  I’ve turned to it time and again for guidance and assurance. I’ve preached from this passage several times before, because it’s a wonderful summary of the gospel message.  It also defines our role in the work of God.      

Another reason why I find this passage to be so powerful is that it speaks of new beginnings, of second chances, of new opportunities.  Although I’m a historian, and love to study the past, we can’t live in the past.  The roots of our faith are found in the past.  After all we read from a book that in its newest parts is nearly two thousand years old, including this particular passage.  Our faith is rooted in events that took place long ago, but we won’t find God by going back to the past.  This is because God is a God of new beginnings.  God is the one who inaugurates the New Creation, the God who makes a new covenant written on the heart rather than stone tablets. 

Paul invites us to embrace the New Creation, but letting go of the past isn’t easy.  To be honest, the past continues to haunt many of us.  Maybe it’s a parent who told you that you wouldn’t amount to much.  Or it’s a broken friendship or a job that was lost.  These things gnaw at us.  But there is good news.  God has promised to heal this brokenness – if only we’ll let the Spirit move in our lives.

So, how do we enter this new creation of God?  

Perhaps the starting point is the way we look at things.  Do you look at things from a “human point of view?”   Or, better yet, do you look at things “according to the flesh?”  That might be a better translation of the Greek words kata sarka.  

Paul says he once looked at life “according to the flesh.”  In fact, he once looked at Jesus this way.   Now, what does it mean to view things “according to the flesh?”  After all, don’t we all live in flesh?  

The answer to this question can be found in the way Paul uses the word “flesh.” He doesn’t use it the same way we do.  He doesn’t have bodies in mind.  No, this flesh Paul speaks of is a power that is completely opposed to the Holy Spirit.  As Paul writes to the Romans:  
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.  For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law – indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Rom 8:6-7).  
Paul was once caught up in this way of hostility, but now he lives according to the Spirit.  

This change occurs when we allow God’s work of reconciliation in Christ to heal our brokenness.  When the relationship with God is healed, then we’ll find that our relationships with our neighbors are healed as well.  That’s why the command to love God is paired with the command to love our neighbors – they go together.  They’re the evidence of the new creation.  

We see this reality played out in Scripture.  It begins in Genesis 3 with the breaking of the relationship between God and humanity.  It continues on in broken relationships within the human family.  Remember the stories of  Cain and Abel, Hagar and Sarah, Jacob and Esau.  These stories remind us that when our relationship with God is damaged, other relationships suffer as well.   But then there’s the good news – God is in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self.  God has taken the first step in reversing this brokenness.  This is the story of the incarnation.  Remember what John writes – God loved the world enough to send the son into the world, so that the world might experience salvation.  That is – healing.  It starts with God and the reaches beyond to the rest of humanity and the rest of creation. 

We can all tell reconciliation stories about broken relationships that have been restored.  I know of one story unfolding right now – the story of a broken relationship that is being healed by the gracious power of God.  I’d love to share the story, but I need to keep confidence.  Still, it is wonderful to witness the handiwork of God in our midst – as relationships between parents and children, siblings, friends, church members are knit and sewn back together.  These are signs of the New Creation in Christ.   
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most powerful reconciliation stories in the Bible.   You know the story of a son who demands his portion of the inheritance so he can go off and enjoy the “good life.”   The father complies, and the son heads off to a far away land.  Unfortunately for this younger son of the father, the funds dry up rather quickly, ending all the fun.  

After all the money was gone, he found himself unemployed and homeless, and so he took a job slopping hogs.  This was, for a Jew, the most humiliating of life experiences.  But things got worse – he began to envy the hogs, who ate better than him.   Having hit bottom, he remembers that his father treated his servants much better than this employer, so he decides to return home.  He doesn’t expect to be welcomed back into the family, but at least he could get a job.  He memorizes a speech in which he apologizes and asks forgiveness and a job.  It’s rather humiliating to return home in this fashion, but he doesn’t have any choice.  

What the younger son doesn’t realize is that his father had been searching the horizon for this lost son, ever since the son departed.  When the father spots the son on the far horizon, he begins to run toward the son.  When they come together, the father stops the son before he can deliver the speech and calls for his robe and his ring.  He places the robe and the ring on his son, welcoming him back into the family.  This is more than the son could have ever expected, but that’s not the end of the story.  The father also orders that the fatted calf be slaughtered so they can have a feast to honor the son’s return.   

Of course, not everyone is happy.  The older brother is incensed.  He’s stayed faithful from day one.  He doesn’t appreciate the welcome being offered his rather disreputable brother.   After all, he’s the faithful one.  He’s gone to Sunday School all his life.  He even has perfect attendance awards to prove it.  He’s sung in the choir and even won the prizes for  memorizing Bible verses.  Yes, he’s been faithful, but no one ever honored him for his faithfulness.  

When he goes to complain to his father, the father reminds the older son that he’s grateful for the faithfulness of the older son.  But, this other son was lost and now he’s been found.  You have to celebrate something like this.  

We get to celebrate and we get to tell the story to our neighbors.  To each of us God has entrusted the ministry of reconciliation.  We’re ambassadors of this new creation.  We get to join with God in this work of setting right broken relationships, even as God has healed our own relationships with God and with our neighbors.  

This work of God takes many forms.  Whatever form it takes, it is an expression of God’s love for the world.  We get to share in this new vision for life.  It’s a vision that’s open, welcoming, hospitable.  It’s a vision that we get to take out into the world, which means it’s a missional vision.  It’s a vision that we see embodied in Jesus, who is the revelation of God in human form.  Because of this, we can become the righteousness of God. 

When this happens, the way of the flesh gives way to the way of the Spirit.  What is old and broken gives way to what is new and whole – in Christ.       

 Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
March 10, 2013
4th Sunday of Lent

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Where's The Fruit? A Sermon for Lent (3)

Luke 13:1-9
I’m not a gardener.  I do try my best to keep the flowers blooming, the grass growing, the hedges trimmed, and the weeds at bay, but, I’m not gifted with a green thumb.  But, whatever my deficiencies as a gardener, I do know that if you plant a fruit tree, you expect it to eventually bear fruit.  So, if it doesn’t bear fruit, shouldn’t you pull it up and replace it? 
Jesus told a parable about a fig tree that was three years old.  Since it hadn’t produced any fruit, the impatient land owner told the gardener to replace it.  He was tired of waiting for his fruit.    

This parable follows after a conversation about sin and repentance.   I realize that these aren’t topics that we enjoy discussing, but they’re part of the biblical story.  Jesus is talking to a group about whether the end is near.  Just like today, people were quite sure that the world is so corrupt that God might as well blow things up and start over.  Of course, time rolls on, and Judgment Day continues to get put off till later.      

Sometimes tragedies stir up these conversations.  People wonder whether an earthquake or a flood is a sign of divine judgment.  They try to find spiritual meaning in the attacks of 9-11 or Hurricane Katrina. Here in  Luke 13, Jesus gets asked about a group of Galileans whom Pilate’s soldiers massacred as they worshiped in the Temple  He asks the group whether these Galileans were greater sinners than other Galileans?  Or, for that matter, what about the eighteen who died when the Tower of Siloam collapsed?  Were they greater sinners than anyone else living in Jerusalem?  Jesus’ answer is simple – no, but you should repent of your sins, unless you want to perish as they did.   

I’m not sure Jesus’ answer makes us feel any better about sin and the need to repent, but it does raise important questions that maybe we should consider.  I think the idea of repentance makes us feel uncomfortable because too many of us have suffered through fire and brimstone sermons.  Just yesterday, as Brett and I were driving home from the funeral, we spotted a car with a big sign urging us to repent of our sins.  But we don’t have to look at repentance in this way.  For Judaism and early Christianity, repentance is a positive action.  It involves turning back to God so we might bear fruit that expresses our covenant community. 

Repentance isn’t focused on toeing some moral line.  No, it’s focused on restoring broken relationships with God and with neighbor.   The reason Jesus talked about sin and repentance is that he understood that until we recognize the power of sin in our lives and in our culture, we won’t be in a place to let God begin to mend our lives and our world.  We need what ethicist Glen Stassen calls an “honest realism about our own conscious and unconscious self-defenses and their power over us” (A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Agepp. 124-125).  This involves letting go of ideologies that make us complicit in injustice.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of sin’s six dimensions.  The sixth dimension seems to fit here.  This is our tendency to evade responsibility and to place the blame on others.  You know, like Congress, which can’t seem to solve problems and so they point fingers instead.  You also see this in the biblical story of Cain and Abel.  You know --Cain doesn’t want to take responsibility for his brother’s murder.  It’s God’s fault for not accepting Cain’s sacrifice – or its Abel’s fault for offering a better sacrifice.

And so we come back to the parable of the Fig Tree.  A landowner plants a tree and for three years he comes expecting it to bear fruit.  By the third year he’s thoroughly frustrated.  He’s invested time and money and land so he could harvest figs, but there still wasn’t anything to show for his investment.  So, why not start over?

If you were the land owner, what would you do?  Would you let the tree continue to take up valuable space?  Or would you root it up and plant a new tree?    

The owner decides it’s time to move on, and so he tells the gardener to replace the tree.  Interestingly enough, the gardener asks for more time.  Just one more year?  After all, if we replant now, it’ll take time for the new tree to bear fruit. With a little love and affection – that is digging around in the soil and laying out manure – perhaps the tree could be coaxed into providing the expected fruit.  So, won’t you give the tree one more chance?  Then, if it doesn’t work, we’ll pull it up.  There is grace in this message, but there’s also judgment.  That’s the way it is with God.  

Before we leave the parable, we might want to identify the characters in the story.  As you heard the parable, did you think that God is the land owner and Jesus is the gardener?  That’s how most people read it.  We tend to think of Jesus being the gracious one and God the judge. But is this the picture of God that Jesus offers us?  Is this the same God whom Jesus identifies with the Father who scans the horizon looking for the Prodigal Son, and then welcomes him back with open arms?

As we think about how to envision God and God’s responses to our own lack of fruitfulness, perhaps we might re-envision the character of the gardener.  David Lose suggests that God “is this peculiar gardener, the one so partial to unyielding fig trees.  God, that is, isn’t beneath loosening the soil around us and even spreading manure in the hope that we may bear fruit.  Why?  Because God loves us and wants what’s best for us.”  

So, where’s the fruit we’re to bear?  After all, God is a busy gardener, preparing us for this purpose.  Or, as the Ephesian letter puts it:
For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.  (Eph. 2:10 NRSV).
This fruit -- these works – is an expression of God’s grace.  They’re not a burden to be evaded.  They’re gifts to be received.  They are expressions of the call to love God with our entire being and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  

May we use this Lenten season to ponder the question of whether or not our faith is truly fruitful.  The message of the season is simple – let go of those things that keep you from drawing near to God, those things that hinder fruitfulness.  This is, I believe the true call to repentance – a call to return to God’s presence with an open heart ready to let the Gardener prepare us for Good Works!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
March 3, 2013
3rd Sunday in Lent