Sunday, April 28, 2013

Barriers Breached -- Sermon for Easter 5C

Acts 11:1-18

Remember the night the Berlin Wall fell?  What a night of joy it was for the people of Berlin and Germany.  Or what about the wall of segregation breached by the Civil Rights Movement?  That too was a moment of joy, and yet dividing walls continue to exist. Eleven o’clock on Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour of the week.

Not many of you remember 1920 when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution granted women the right to vote, but it was a great victory for women and for American democracy.  Unfortunately many Christian communities still refuse to ordain women and America has yet to elect a woman President.

As we continue this sermon series focusing on transforming encounters with the Risen Christ, we’ve reached the climactic moment in the first half of the Book of Acts.  With Peter’s vision and his report to the Jerusalem Church, the focus of the story shifts to the Gentile mission.  What we see here is that change can be difficult, and barriers difficult to breach. But, with God all things are possible!

The story begins in Acts 10 with Peter up on the roof top praying.  As he prays, he has a vision.  He sees a sheet descending from the heavens containing a variety of animals that he’s forbidden to eat.  When a voice from heaven calls out “Kill and Eat,” he resists the command.  But as he’s doing this, emissaries from the Roman Centurion Cornelius appear at the door.  They ask him to go with them to  Caesarea and share the message of Jesus with the Centurion’s household.

Peter may have gone with them reluctantly, but he got to watch in amazement as the Spirit fell on them as on the Day of Pentecost.  He concluded that if God blessed them with the gift of the Spirit, he couldn’t refuse them baptism.

When Peter returns to Jerusalem, he discovers that not everyone is happy with his visit to a Gentile home.  After all he’d eaten with the uncircumcized.  So, as we’ve heard in the reading from Acts 11, Peter tells them about his vision and how that it led him to go to preach at the house of Cornelius.  He shares with them how the Spirit gifted these Gentiles in the same way the Spirit gifted the believers on the day of Pentecost.  If the Spirit embraced them, then how could he refuse to give them baptism?  After all, whatever God declares clean must be clean!  So who was he to stand in the way of God?  

Peter learned something important about God that day.  He learned that God doesn’t make distinctions between people.  It’s not that God is indifferent.  It’s just that God is concerned about all of humanity.  After all, God is “Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).    

In our Disciple tradition we don’t have creeds.  That’s because our founders believed that even though creeds can be useful, they can also become barriers to fellowship and service.  Still, what we believe about God, Jesus, the world, is important.   Our beliefs can become barriers to the work of God in the world.  

The good news is that the Holy Spirit is very adept at breaching even the highest and strongest barriers.  In telling his story about his visit to Cornelius, Peter reminds us that God decides what’s essential, what’s clean, and what’s unclean.  So, if God declares something or someone to be clean, then who are we to stand in the way?

One of the important threads running through the Book of Acts is the breaching of barriers.  It starts with Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples on the day of his ascension.  He tells them that they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NRSV).  When we come to Acts 10 and 11, we find that the last barrier to fulfilling this calling – the barrier of ethnicity – has been breached.

But if there are other barriers needing to be breached, are we ready to let the Spirit breach them?

Peter knew what the Scriptures and Tradition said about Gentiles.  While there were provisions for conversion, dispensing with circumcision wasn’t part of the deal. But here it seems that God is about to do a new thing.  It took time and a push from the Spirit to get Peter across the line.  But, cross the line – he did!  
Although I believe that Scripture and Tradition are essential to our faith journey, I’m in agreement with Russell Pregeant who writes that “when considering issues of inclusiveness the church needs to look beyond Scripture and Tradition to human experience for signs of the Spirit’s guidance.”   It takes a great deal of spiritual discernment if we’re going to do this. It also takes a lot of trust in God.  

I know that most of us like things done decently and in order. That’s why the church has a constitution and a personnel handbook.  We need these human documents to help us discern wise courses of action.  Scripture and Tradition help us with this process, but sometimes we need a Pentecost moment to help us move forward in a new direction.  And that’s what Peter and Cornelius’ household experienced.  In the moment that the Spirit gifted this household with the power of Pentecost things changed!  Barriers were breached.  And barriers continue to be breached!      

As I’ve come to learn, it wasn’t that long ago that this church selected Mary Lou as our first woman Elder.  And that didn’t happen until after we moved to Troy.  I was there, the day that the General Assembly elected Sharon Watkins as the first woman to lead a Mainline denomination.  Women still struggle to find places of ministry in our churches – but the barrier has been breached.

So what’s next?  Could it be the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the church?  Could this be a Cornelius moment?  If so, then what does that mean for us as a congregation?

Some of us have been studying Martin Thielen’s book What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian?  In bringing up this topic he points out that the church at large isn’t of one opinion when it comes to the issue of sexual orientation. He outlines three basic positions present in the church today.  The first group neither welcomes nor affirms gays and lesbians.  Instead, they build walls and post no trespassing signs on them.  I don’t think that’s who we are.

The two other positions include: “Welcoming but not Affirming” and “Welcoming and Affirming.”  Like many denominations and congregations, I believe that both positions are present in this congregation.  Although I believe we are moving toward a Welcoming and Affirming position, we’re not there yet.  The question is – is this change simply a matter of letting our culture determine our beliefs and practices, or is this a movement of the Holy Spirit?  Personally, I believe that it’s the latter.  I believe that God has poured out the Spirit on gay and lesbian Christians, welcoming them into the fold.  By doing this, the Spirit is breaching another barrier.

Now, what does it mean to be “Welcoming and Affirming,” or to use Disciples language, “Open and Affirming?”  I like the way John McCauslin put it in our first study session:  “‘Affirming’ means that we accept you as one of us, just as you are.”

Even as we wrestle with this question as a congregation, so is our denomination.  We’ll be voting on a resolution at the General Assembly calling on us to be a welcoming and hospitable community.  This resolution directly addresses the question of sexual orientation.  If passed, and I believe it will, the General Assembly will call on the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to:    
affirm the faith, baptism and spiritual gifts of all Christians regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and that neither is grounds for exclusion from fellowship or service within the church, but we celebrate that all are part of God’s good creation.  
This resolution calls on the church to be a people of grace and welcome, offering hospitality to all.  So how will we offer welcome and hospitality to persons no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity is?  

As I’ve shared before, my views are influenced by the lives and the stories of gay and lesbian Christians, including my brother.  I’ve learned from them about the difficulties they’ve faced in finding their place in the church.  Not only do many feel excluded, but many gays and lesbians have been brutalized – sometimes physically and often verbally – by the church at large.  As I’ve listened to their stories, I’ve discovered that not only does our society force people to live in closets, but too often not even the church is a safe haven.  But, I believe that things are changing.  The Spirit is breaching another barrier.  So, as followers of the Risen Christ, are we ready for another Cornelius moment?  Are we ready to love one another, as Christ has loved us – so that the world might know that we are his disciples?  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
April 28, 2013
5th Sunday of Easter    

Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Life Restored -- A Sermon for Easter 4C

Acts 9:36-43

This has been a week marked by images of death. It’s not the sort of week that we associate with the Easter season, and it at least changed the context for this sermon.  Our continuing celebration of the Resurrection has been interrupted by the deadly explosions at the Boston Marathon and at a fertilizer plant that devastated a small Texas town.  Four people died in the first event, and at least fourteen in the second.

Events like this week’s two tragedies catch our attention.  We can become engrossed in the stories, which were told and retold countless times during the week.  Friday morning began with news of the death of one suspect in the Boston bombing, and ended the day with the capture of the other.  But what message did we take from these events and others that occurred in the past week?  These events are close to home, so we pay attention.  What about those who died in China in a deadly earthquake on Friday?

     This morning we’ve heard the story of Tabitha, the third of our five transformative encounters with the Risen Christ.  This is the story of a life restored.  It’s a call to remember that Easter is God’s sign that death has met its match.  Paul writes:

For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ (1 Cor. 15:21-22 NRSV).  
This is the word of hope that sustains us, even in times of great tragedy.  In Christ we all have life.  Death has been defeated, which leads Paul to declare:
Where, O death, is your victory? 
Where, O death, is your sting?  (1 Cor. 15:55).
In moments of tragedy, like the ones we’ve experienced this past week, such words may seem unrealistic.  Fear and anger seem like the more realistic responses.  But if we let such emotions have control of our lives, we can fall into despair and even turn to violence.  And so it shouldn’t surprise us that there have been several reports of Muslims being attacked – not because they were involved, but because they were useful scapegoats.

     Perhaps Paul is misguided.  May be death continues to have its sting.  Death does continue to make its case. Like hate and anger, death is powerful.  It’s seductive in its darkness, creating a cycle of violence that isn’t easily stopped.  But this isn’t the message of the Gospel!    

The message that comes through to us in the Resurrection declares that life is sacred.  This sacredness, as David Gushee points out, is a conferred value.  It’s not intrinsic or inherent to human life.  Instead, it’s a gift of God.  He writes:
Human life can be described as sacred insofar as the majesty, holiness, presence, love, and care of God touch it, are related to it, and are directed toward it.  To honor human life and treat it with reverence is an appropriate theological, spiritual, and ethical response to God’s character and actions. [The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World's Futurep. 400].  
This is the word we hear in the story of Tabitha.  Although she has died, God restores her to life through the healing ministry of Peter.  Tabitha is a disciple living and serving in the community of Joppa.  Luke uses the Greek word mathētria to describe her.  This is the only place it’s used in the New Testament, and when translated literally, it comes out as “woman disciple.”  This singular usage seems to suggest that Tabitha holds a place of honor among the disciples of Jesus.  At the very least, she’s well known for her faith and for her work on behalf of the community.

Although the community sends for Peter, it’s too late for him to save her life.  But this doesn’t deter Peter, who goes to Tabitha’s room, where the widows of the community have gathered.  They show Peter the clothing she’d made – not because they were trying to impress him with Tabitha’s creative handiwork – but because these clothes demonstrated her importance to their lives.  Perhaps their own lives depended on the sale of these clothes.  She was, Luke reminds us, known for her “good works and compassionate acts on behalf of those in need.”

After he gets this report, Peter sends everyone out of the room and speaks to Tabitha’s body, telling her to get up. When she opens her eyes, Peter takes her hand, helps her up, and then goes out and presents her alive.   As a result of this action, “many put their faith in the Lord.”

Now, as with Lazarus, this isn’t a story of resurrection.  Tabitha must still face physical death, but the story does speak to the triumph of life over death in Christ.  Her story is an invitation to honor and respect life.

While death continues to beckon us, should we not seek to promote the flourishing of human life – like Tabitha was known to do?  This is the message that our friend Bruce Epperly  lifts up when he speaks of the power that overcomes a “death-full” life.
Acts 9 and Psalm 23 give witness to a power that can overcome the “death-full” life and enable us to face finitude, threat, and mortality with hopeful and life-transforming liveliness.  God’s spirit is resurrection spirit, inviting us to “practice resurrection” (Wendell Berry) by courageously facing, embracing, and transforming the powers of death, physical, psychological, spiritual, and political in our midst.  
Even if we don’t see people being brought back to life on a regular basis, do you hear the message of resurrection present in this story?  Does it reinforce the message that life is precious and sacred?  Does it call you to embrace God’s promise of healing and wholeness?

It’s clear from the story that Tabitha is an important member of her community.  Her restoration to life surely proved to be a blessing to her community.

Although this story raises as many questions as it answers, perhaps that’s the point. We can become complacent about life.  We can even become numb to death, especially when it comes in large numbers.  It’s hard to fathom the death of six million Jews or the genocide that decimated the original inhabitants of the Americas.  It’s still difficult to consider the devastation wreaked on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima by just two bombs.  Now we tend to treat the threat of nuclear war with a shrug of our shoulders.  But when tragedy strikes, it tends to “wake us up.”  But for how long?

It was only a few months ago that a gunman murdered twenty-six children, teachers, and school staff.  Their deaths caught our attention for a moment, but then this past week, perhaps under the cover of other tragedies, the Senate chose to reject a simple law  requiring background checks on gun purchases made online or at gun shows.  How soon we forget.

But if we hold to the message of the resurrection and affirm the sacredness of human life, then can we forget when life is taken away in such fashion?

As we honor human life as sacred to God, doesn’t God hold all of creation to be sacred and worthy of our concern?  After all, we are part of God’s creation, and to us God has entrusted the ministry of stewardship.

Tomorrow is Earth Day -- that annual reminder that we live in a fragile world needing our attention.  This is a world that God creates and loves.  Not only is it our home,  but it’s also the home we share with millions of other species.  And remember – we share DNA with these other species!

So what shall we do?  As one of our beloved members often reminds us – the answer to most questions can be found in the two great commandments.  So, if we’re to love our neighbors, shouldn’t we care about the world in which our neighbors live?

As David Gushee puts it, “Far from setting up environmental concern as a conflict of interest between babies and polar bears, we must instead show the ways in which the same problems, such as climate change, hurt both babies and polar bears” (Gushee, p. 400).  Yes, we’re all in this together.

Like Tabitha, we can be restored to life through our own encounters with the Risen Christ.  We needn’t die physically to experience resurrection life.  If we embrace the message of Resurrection, then shouldn’t we practice it in daily life?  Shouldn’t the message of Easter be the basis of all our relationships – with each other and with creation? And if we embrace this message, shouldn’t we participate in God’s acts of healing creation –  whether this involves human or nonhuman life – as well as the habitat which we share with the rest of creation?

In the Resurrection, it is clear, death has lost its sting, life reigns victorious. Will you join me in taking hold of this gift of God?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
April 21, 2013
4th Sunday of Easter

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Life Reclaimed -- A Sermon for Easter 3

Acts 9:1-20; John 21:15-19

In Brian Wren’s Easter hymn Christ Is Risen!  Shout Hosanna!  we sing:
Christ is risen!  Earth and heaven nevermore shall be the same. Break the bread of new creation where the world is still in pain. Tell its grim demonic chorus: “Christ is risen!  Get you gone!” God the first and last is with us.  Sing Hosanna everyone!  (CH 222)
Yes, let’s sing hosanna because heaven and earth “shall not be the same.”  Because God is in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self, we are now part of God’s new creation.

This morning we take the next step in our journey through the Book of Acts, focusing on how encounters with the Risen Christ transform lives.  

This morning I’d like us to consider two important stories about people whose lives were dramatically changed because of their encounters with the Risen Christ.  There’s the story of Saul’s Damascus Road encounter, which we’ve already heard read.  Then there’s John’s story of Peter’s life-changing encounter with Jesus.  In each story a life is reclaimed and a call to ministry is issued. 

I’d like to share part of the reading from John 21, where Jesus reclaims Peter and commissions him for service.  As the chapter opens, Jesus’ disciples have gone fishing on the Sea of Galilee.  They’ve been at it all day, but haven’t caught anything.  Then, at the end of the day, Jesus shows up and tells them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat.  Low and behold, the nets are filled with fish.  It’s amazing what happens when you throw your nets on the other side of the boat!  

After they have their fish dinner, Jesus turns to Peter and speaks to him about love and service.    
15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.”
Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.” 19 He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”  (John 21:15-19 CEB)
When you think about the founding figures of the church, aren’t Peter and Paul up there at the top of the list?  And yet, both of them must be reclaimed if they’re going to fulfill their calling. 

If either of them put their papers before the Commission on the Ministry, the Commission might have some serious questions about their viability as candidates for Christian ministry.  Their resumes suggest that they might be damaged goods – not the type we’d send off to seminary.  And yet, both of them experienced life-changing encounters with the Risen Christ.  

In hearing these two stories, do you sense a stirring of God’s call in your own life?  Is the Risen Christ speaking to you about love and service in God’s realm?  
Jesus confronts Peter three times, asking him: “Do you love me?”  When Peter answers yes to each question, Jesus then tells him to feed his sheep.  When Jesus asks Peter the third time, John suggests that this saddened Peter. He was hurt by Jesus’ continuing questioning of his love for Jesus. But, there might be a reason for this.  Remember how Peter denied Jesus three times on the night before his death? Maybe, Jesus is reversing the wound that limits Peter’s ability to respond to the call to service.  Having denied Jesus three times, he now declares his love three times.  After this, he’s ready to receive his call to feed Christ’s sheep.    

As for Paul – known here as Saul -- he burns with a passionate zeal and heads toward Damascus “still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1 CEB).  Like many who fear that their way of life is in danger, Saul turns to violence to protect his community.  In his mind, there’s a virus attacking the community, and he feels called to eliminate it.    

But before he can reach his destination, the Risen Christ reaches out and reclaims him for the new work of God.  A bright light in the sky blinds him and knocks him from his horse.  Then, a voice from heaven calls out to him: “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”  Because Saul isn’t sure who is speaking to him, he asks:  “Who are you Lord?”   And the voice answers back: “I am Jesus, whom you are harassing.”  With this revelation, Jesus tells Saul to get up and head for Damascus, where he’ll receive further instructions. 

A man named Ananias brings these instructions to Saul, telling him that Christ had chosen him to be his agent to carry the name of Jesus before Gentiles, Kings and Israelites.  After delivering this message, Ananias baptizes him.  Then filled with the Holy Spirit, Saul goes right out and begins to preach about Jesus.  Saul is still filled with zeal, but now Jesus re-channels it so that he can deliver a message of grace to the world.

    God has often chosen people we deem to be broken to make known God’s message of love and peace.  Although not everyone has a Damascus Road experience, many have had powerful encounters with Christ that have changed their lives and empowered them for service in God’s realm.

Consider the story of John Newton, the author of one of the most beloved hymns of the church.  Before he encountered Christ, he was a slave trader, but Christ reclaimed him and he devoted the rest of his life to Christian service.   

Then there’s Bartolomé de Las Casas, a Spanish priest serving in the New World.  Like many of his colleagues, he received an allotment of Native American slaves.  But over time he began to realize that he couldn’t preach the gospel and enslave fellow human beings.  Not only did he release his slaves he became one of the most important advocates for the human rights of Native Americans of his day.

Although it’s fiction, the movie Gran Torino tells a powerful story of redemption.  In this movie, Clint Eastwood portrays Walt Kowalski, an angry, bigoted man, who refuses to leave his home, even though his Detroit neighborhood is changing.  He’s recently widowed, and he’s lonely, frightened, and increasingly bitter.  But something happens to him when the Hmong family that moves in next door begins to befriend him.  It takes a while, but in time his life is reclaimed.  As the movie nears its conclusion, Walt allows himself to be killed by a gang so that their reign of terror might be put to an end.  He becomes, in a way, a Christ figure himself.

These stories – biblical, historical, and fictional, tell of lives reclaimed by God.  But, what about you and me?  How has your encounter with the Risen Christ changed your life?  Or to put it a bit differently, if you hadn’t met the Risen Christ what would your life be like? 

I’ve never had a Damascus Road experience, but I truly believe that had I not experienced a relationship with the Living Christ, my life would be very different.  Although I’ve never lived outside the church, back during my teen years, I struggled with who I was as a person.  I didn’t know where my life was going.  I largely stood on the sidelines during my early years of high school.   When people thought about who in my group would become pastors – I wasn’t at the top of the list.  I may have gone off to Bible College, but I wasn’t first string material.  But, something happened to me and in me that changed who I was and who I would become.  I believe that I am a reclaimed person.  I believe that I’m here today, because of my own encounter with the Risen Christ.  

Like Peter, I heard Jesus ask me – “Do you love me?”  When I said yes – with a great deal of hesitancy -- he said, “feed my sheep.”  What I discerned – over time – was a call to use the gifts of God that had been provided me by the Spirit, to pursue the upward call of God and live my life in service to the realm of God on earth as it is in heaven.  This is my story in brief – what is your story?

That is, if heaven and earth are never the same after Christ’s resurrection – how is your life different because of your encounter with the Risen Christ? 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday of Easter
April 14, 2013

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Tough Choices -- Sermon for Easter 2

Acts 5:27-32

This morning we continue our Easter celebration with a reading from the Book of Acts.  It’s the first of five readings from Acts that focus on what I want to call “Transformative Encounters.”  Over the next five weeks I’ll be offering a sermon series  that explores how encounters with the Risen Christ transform lives.

This morning we begin our journey with a reading from Acts 5.  We find Peter and John standing before the Council a second time.  They’ve been arrested because they won’t stop preaching about Jesus.  The last time they were thrown in jail, angels liberated them.  But, this time, they must face their accusers, who according to Luke, are rather upset.  They hoped that after Jesus died, his followers would disappear, but for some reason they were still hanging around.  They were becoming pests and the authorities wanted to see them to go away.  
Peter steps forward, and answers their demand that he and the rest of the community stop preaching about the risen Christ.  He boldly declares:   “We must obey God rather than humans!”   It took a lot of courage to tell the authorities that they owed their allegiance to a higher authority.

Where did this courage come from?  According to Luke it was Pentecost that empowered them.  Of course Pentecost is a few weeks off, so let’s turn to the Gospel of John for some insight.   John tells us that on Easter evening, while a group of frightened Disciples hid behind closed doors, Jesus appeared and said to them:  
“Peace be with you.  As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.”  Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  (Jn 2:21-22 CEB)
It is this Holy Spirit that gifts and empowers Peter and John and the rest of the disciples to preach the good news that Christ the Lord is risen!

We don’t usually face situations like the one Peter and John faced.   American Christians might not dominate society like we did back in the 1950s, but we still have a lot of freedom.  Schools can’t force children to pray Christian prayers and the courts frown on putting creches on Court House lawns, but no one is breathing down our backs in America.

The biggest danger we face as Christians in America is the same one Christians have faced since Constantine decided to embrace Christianity.  We face the temptation to  merge  our faith with our culture.  We’re tempted to go along to get along.  We ask God to bless our nation, often forgetting that God is the God of all people, not just Americans.

When Peter stands up to the authorities, he invites us to rethink the way we look at our relationships with those in power.  His actions remind us that we owe our ultimate allegiance to God and not to any human authority.

In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, we pray: “Father hallowed be your name.  Your kingdom come” (Luke 11:2). This is our pledge of allegiance.  While it’s easy to say this prayer, it’s far more difficult to live into it.    
When the governing authorities in Germany ordered Martin Luther to recant his teachings, it’s reported that he responded with words that parallel those of Peter.  “Here I stand, I can do no other.”   
When you face difficult choices, how do you -- to borrow a phrase from the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade –  “choose wisely?”

Very early in life, we learn about   “peer pressure.”  That is, we face the temptation to go along to get along.  But going along can have significant consequences.

Back in the 1930s many German Christians went along with the Nazis.  Being good Christians, they took very seriously Paul’s instructions in Romans 13.  According to Paul – and Luther’s reinforcement of that teaching – Christians should be “subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God.” (vs. 1).  But what if the authorities are unjust and demand that we act unjustly?  Christians have been wrestling with this dilemma since at least Jesus’ arrest.
Very few Christians stood up to Hitler.  One who did was Martin Niemoller – though he was cautious – at least at first.  You may know his famous statement of complicity in Hitler’s reign of terror.  Since today is Holocaust Remembrance Day, this statement takes on even more importance.  Although there are several versions of the statement, this one will suffice:  
First they came for the socialists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.  
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.  
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. 
Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

Niemoller’s list is representative, so we can add to it.  Whom might we add today?   Muslims, immigrants, Persons with disabilities, Gays and Lesbians?   If we fail to speak for others, why should we expect someone to speak on our behalf?

I want to close with the story of Oscar Romero, the martyred Archbishop of San Salvador.  You may have heard his name mentioned in the news since the election of Pope Francis.  In 1980 he was assassinated while celebrating the Eucharist by a gunman linked to government-sponsored death squads.  Romero upset members of the government in El Salvador because he spoke out in support of the poor and the oppressed in his country.  His opponents accused him of being a communist, and during the Cold War that was akin to being called a terrorist.  They threatened his life, but he refused to stop speaking out.  In his final homily, delivered just moments before he died, he spoke these words:
“God’s reign is already present on our earth in mystery. When the Lord comes, it will be brought to perfection.” That is the hope that inspires Christians.  
We know that every effort to better society, especially when injustice and sin are so ingrained, is an effort that God blesses, that God wants, that God demands of us. MARCH 24, 1980  [Oscar Romero. The Violence of Love (Plough Publishing House), p. 219], 
And in a homily given earlier in his ministry as Archbishop, Romero declared: 
To be a Christian now means to have the courage to preach the true teaching of Christ and not be afraid of it, not be silent out of fear and preach something easy that won’t cause problems. DECEMBER 5, 1977 [Romero, p. 30]  
In that sermon he told the congregation that the courage to speak came from the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit who inspired Peter and John, Luther, Niemoller, Bonhoeffer, and many others who chose to obey God rather than human authorities.  Oscar Romero reached this pinnacle of power in the church by going along.  It wasn’t until he became Archbishop that he truly saw the injustice occurring in his country.  He could have stayed silent, but he didn’t.

We all face tough choices in life.  For instance, when someone tells a derogatory joke or speaks of another in a disparaging way, isn’t it easier to go along than speak up?  Isn’t it easier to ignore injustice than do something about it?

When it comes to making tough choices, I take comfort in Paul’s message that  we’re all sinners who rest in God’s grace.  Grace isn’t an excuse for inaction.  Instead, it is the foundation for acting boldly when God calls us to act.  So, will you choose wisely?  Grace is the foundation for acting boldly in response to the call of Jesus, to follow and be his disciples.

When it comes to tough choices, are you ready to stand with Peter, who was transformed by his encounter with the Risen Christ, and say to those  who demand your allegiance: “We must obey God rather than humans?”    

 Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday of Easter
April 7, 2013