Sunday, April 20, 2014

Unbelievable News -- A Sermon for Easter

Mark 16:9-20

If you were reading along with Cheryl, did you notice the brackets around the morning’s passage?  They’re a signal that these verses are a later addition to the Gospel of Mark.  Because most scholars believe that Mark’s Gospel ends with verse 8 and not verse 20, not too many sermons get preached from this text.  I wouldn’t have preached on it either, except I’ve been following an alternative set of readings during the Lenten season and this is the chosen text for Easter Sunday.    

But even if this reading comes from a Second Century addition, could there still be a word from God present in these verses?  After all, for many centuries this addition to the Gospel was considered sacred scripture – even the verses that talk about snakes and poison! 

Mark 16 begins with a group of women going to the tomb to finish the burial process.  As they walk to the tomb they begin to realize that they might have trouble moving the stone covering the entrance, so when they arrive, they’re rather surprised to find that the stone has already been moved.  When they look inside, they discover that Jesus’ body is missing.  But they do find a young man sitting off to the right side of the tomb.  He tells them not to be afraid, but to go and tell Peter and the others that Jesus has been raised from the dead and will meet them in Galilee.  Instead of going to Peter and telling him the news, they go home and keep this news to themselves.  With that the Gospel of Mark ends.  

If the Gospel of Mark does end in verse 8, as most scholars believe, you can understand why someone might want to add an epilogue to it.  Having the women go home without sharing the news leaves you wanting more, doesn’t it?  It’s like when I went to see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.  I found myself unsettled and a bit bewildered by the brevity of the film’s resurrection scene.  We went from the violence of the crucifixion to a passing glance at the empty tomb, and then the credits rolled.  As I sat there, rather numb, I wanted to write a different ending!  And that’s what happened here – someone decided to finish the story by drawing on scenes from the other three gospels.

There is something about this epilogue, however, that is somewhat unsettling.  There are scenes here – like the handling of snakes and drinking of poison – that seem rather unbelievable.  But then isn’t the resurrection itself a bit unbelievable?  After all, people just don’t rise from the dead every day.  For many people, the resurrection sounds like crazy talk.  

Many people have tried to give “proof” that Jesus rose from the dead, but these efforts generally fall short.  There were no cameras to record the event, and even the Gospels don’t say much – they just tell us that he was seen alive by his disciples.  But as a result, their lives seem to have been transformed.  As I shared with a reporter from the Free Press, ultimately we have to take this news about the resurrection by faith.  Not even an empty tomb is sufficient proof.

As we read this epilogue, which was written sometime in the Second Century, to give closure to Marks’s Gospel, we find Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, just like in John 20.  And she goes and tells the disciples, who were mourning and weeping, that Jesus had risen.   But, no one believes her, and why would they?  

Then Jesus appears to two disciples who are on a trip into the countryside.  You may notice some similarities to Luke’s story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus.  Jesus doesn’t break bread with them, but he does tell them to go and share the news with the other disciples.  And once again – no one will believe what seems like unbelievable news. 

Finally, Jesus appears to the whole community, and he gives them a good talking-to.  He asks them why they’re being so stubborn in their unbelief.  Why is this such unbelievable news? 

I like the way our friend Bruce Epperly puts it:
The resurrection will always remain a mystery, hidden from rationalists, Enlightenment-thinkers, and literalists. It is always more than we can ask or imagine.
Too often, when we try to explain the resurrection, we end up domesticating it. And when we do this, we miss the deeper message.  Bruce points us back to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  The White Witch thought she had killed Aslan, but there was a deeper magic that she didn’t understand.  And as a result Aslan is resurrected, and the Witch is defeated.  We may not have all the answers, but something happened that first Easter morning that transformed the lives of Jesus’ followers.  There is a power present in the universe deeper than we can truly imagine, and that power is present in the Risen Christ.   
 Despite the unbelief of his disciples, Jesus isn’t finished with them quite yet.  They may struggle to make sense of the resurrection, like many of us do, but the message of the resurrection is still good news that needs to be proclaimed to the world.  

Mirroring the message of Matthew 28, Jesus gives the disciples their commission: “Go into all the World and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”  That is the key point in this passage.  We have a message to share with the world.  It might sound unbelievable to some, but it will be life changing for others.  William Barclay offers four points of relevance in this passage for us today.   First, “the church has a preaching task.”  We have a duty, he says, “to tell the story of the good news of Jesus to those who have never heard it.”  The second point is that “the church has a healing task.”  Remember that Jesus tells the disciples that they will “lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”  We see this happen on numerous occasions in the Book of Acts.  It’s clear from Scripture that God isn’t just concerned about minds and souls.  God is also concerned about bodies.  Third, the “church has a source of power.”  We can easily get put off by references to snakes and poison and speaking in tongues, but as Barclay puts it – “at the back of this picturesque language is the conviction that the Christian is filled with a power to cope with life that others do not possess.”  Finally, “the church is never left alone to do its work.”  There is a promise here that “the Lord of the church is still in the church and is still the Lord of power.”    [Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (The New Daily Study Bible), pp. 370-371].  Therefore, there is no need to fear!

We began the service with an announcement of the Resurrection.  In that announcement, he heard the promise that “Our story is an invitation to insurrection.”  And  you responded: “Christ has risen!  Christ has risen indeed!”  And the announcement closed with the proclamation: Christ has risen!  Let the resurrection insurrection begin!  You responded: Christ has risen Indeed!  

The news of the resurrection might seem unbelievable, but if we’re willing to take a risk and follow the risen Christ into the heart of God, then we will get to participate in an insurrection that can change the world!  
Alleluia – Christ the Lord is Risen!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Time's Up -- A Sermon for Palm/Passion Sunday

John 16:16-33

March Madness should be a fading memory by now, but those of you who pay attention to such things, you know that when the buzzer sounds, the game is over.  If a ball enters the basket before time runs out, it counts.  That last second shot might even win the game.  But, if the ball goes through the basket just a half a second after the buzzer sounds – then it’s of no consequence.  The game is over, and the team with the highest score gets the win.  

In matters spiritual, our Lenten journey has reached the final minutes.  The buzzer is about to sound.  We’ve had our procession.  We’ve sung Hosanna and King of Kings, while waving palm branches.  We’ve even heard the children remind us to be happy in Jesus.  But that is all in the past.  Now we must face a future that is defined by the road to the cross.  You might say -- the clock is ticking.   

By the time we come to the moment recorded in John 16, the meal is over, Jesus has washed the disciples’ feet, and now he’s giving final instructions to his disciples.  He’s been telling them that his time is short; that he will be leaving them, but he won’t leave them alone.  He will send the Comforter to be with them.  He understands their reluctance to let go of him.  He understands their grief.  They had high hopes for their future with Jesus, but now Jesus is telling them that he must go away.  His time is up.  The buzzer is about to sound.  

This passage is rich in eschatological meaning.  For John, Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection mark the transition from one age to another.  As Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5, the old is gone, and the new has arrived.   But, letting go isn’t easy.  

I’ve been going through some of my books because my shelves are full.  I need to make room for my recent acquisitions, but even if I’ve not read some of these books in years – if I even read them – it’s difficult to let go of them.  Many of us have a lot invested in the old age.  So, saying goodbye is difficult, even if what lies on the other side will bring blessings.  

So, here we are – the game clock is ticking, and we’re out of time-outs.  We’re a point behind, and there’s just enough time to get one last shot off.  If it goes in we win; if not, we lose.  But, as Cub fans put it:  there’s always next year!  

One of the reasons why we hang onto the old is because we’re not sure about what lies on the other side.  We know what we already have, but the future is unknown to us.  So, the temptation is to play it safe and stick with what we know. You remember how the Hebrews, after they escaped slavery in Egypt, began to pine for the old life in Egypt.  It wasn’t a great life – being a slave and all – but freedom in Sinai didn’t seem like much of an improvement.  After all, they were running low on bread and the water.  Better to be a slave than dead in the desert. 

So, you can understand why the disciples aren’t thrilled with the news that Jesus is about to depart from them.  They like things the way they are.  They don’t want to say goodbye, even if they will meet him on the other side. 

You won’t find too many parables in John’s gospel, but John records one in this passage.  It’s a story that some of you can resonate with – it has to do with the painfulness of childbirth.  This isn’t the first time that Jesus has talked about the birth process.  Remember how he invited Nicodemus to be born again?  Do you also remember how Nicodemus struggled to make sense of Jesus’ words?  How is this possible?  He asked.  In John 16, the time for new birth has arrived.

   As a male, I don’t have first hand experience with being pregnant or being in labor.  Although I was there when Brett was born, I didn’t experience Cheryl’s labor pains. But I do know that there is unspeakable joy on the far side of these labor pains. Part of this joy is simply relief from the often painful process of giving birth.  But there is also joy in realizing that a new age is dawning.  Even a father, who hasn’t experienced the pain of child birth, gets to experience that kind of joy.
    Jesus invites us to consider his own death and resurrection to be a moment of new birth.  Even if the process can be painful, there will be joy on the other side.  It’s not an easy path – for Jesus or for us.  The disciples feel comfortable with the way things are.  They still have their questions.  They’re not sure they’re ready to go out on their own.  But Jesus tells them – time is up.  It’s time to leave the old age behind and enter this new age that God has set before us.  When we do this, then we’ll find the answers we’re looking for.  But to go forward involves a great deal of faith.  It requires that we put our trust in God. 

For John, the resurrection of Jesus is the central eschatological moment for the world. The new future begins at the moment of his resurrection.  Having come from the Father, he must return to the Father.  But, Jesus has already given us the promise of the Comforter – the Paraclete – who is always with us – revealing to us what we need to know as the people of God.

While it’s difficult to let go of the old, the new beckons us.  What is the old?  It is what theologian Walter Wink called the Domination System – it’s the system of violence and oppression that enslaves the world.  But in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that system – that world – has been conquered.  It wasn’t through an act of violence on the part of Jesus, but the victory came as Jesus overcame an act of violence – for death could not hold him.  In the resurrection Jesus has broken the bonds of death – for him and for us.  And in this there is joy – if we’re willing to embrace it!   

I was on the phone with a friend when the operator broke through and told me I had an emergency call.  I’d never had an emergency call before, but I hung up the phone, and waited for that emergency call to come through.  It was Cheryl’s school.  The person in the office told me that Cheryl had gone to the hospital because she was in labor.  I wasn’t ready for that call, so I insisted that it wasn’t time.  But apparently my clock and Brett’s clock weren’t in sync!  He was ready to come into the world, but I wasn’t sure – as a prospective father – whether I was ready.  But, that’s a story for another day.

The hour has come.  The time of suffering is about to begin.  The disciples will scatter, but Jesus won’t be alone – the Father will be with him.  This too will pass, for Jesus has conquered the world.  

The world presses in on Jesus.  The world, which God loves, causes his son to suffer and die.  But, in the Resurrection, Jesus emerges as the victor.  The Old Age – the Age of the Domination System – is no more.  And, so the invitation goes out: Are you ready to enter the new age of God’s peace and God’s justice that began with the Resurrection?    

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Palm/Passion Sunday
April 13, 2015 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Be Alert -- A Sermon for Lent 6 (Alternative Lectionary)

Mark 13:21-23

A little over a week ago Fred Phelps died.  If you don’t know who Fred Phelps is, he was the leader of a small fringe Baptist church from Topeka, Kansas.  Fred and his church, which is composed mostly of family members, are well known for picketing religious gatherings and funerals, especially military funerals.  They have a two-pronged message –  “God hates fags” and “God hates America.” I first encountered this group when we were living in Kansas.  It seemed like every time we drove to Topeka on a Saturday morning, they were just finishing up their protest march at the local shopping mall.  I’d never heard of them until I got to Kansas in 1995, but since then they’ve become an increasingly visible presence across the country.   They claim to represent God.  But do they? 

Many claim to be prophets, but who really speaks for God?  How do you know who is speaking truth?  Does the message of hate proclaimed by the Phelps family represent the message Jesus proclaimed?  Or, are they simply the most visible expressions of what Martin Thielen calls Bad Religion?

Some of you might recognize Pastor Thielen’s name, since we used his book What's the Least I Can Believe and Still Be a Christian? in our study groups a year or so ago.  Now he has a new book with the title: The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion.

Because the gospel of Jesus gets drowned out by negative and hateful messages offered in the name of God, many in our society find the message of a famous John Lennon song attractive:

Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.
No Hell below us, above us only sky. 
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

If only there were no countries and no religions – then we could live in peace.

But, must we abandon religion if we’re going to live in peace?  Speaking only as a Christian, is my faith defined by the likes of Fred Phelps and others like him?

Jesus warns us about false messiahs who claim to represent God.  He tells us that even if they perform signs and wonders don’t follow them.  Instead, be alert to the voice of God that calls out to us.  In this call for discernment, Jesus tells us that he has already taught us everything we need to know to distinguish between bad and good religion.

In Mark 13 Jesus offers us an apocalyptic vision.  Like the Book of Revelation, this much briefer apocalypse puts things into perspective.  His message to the disciples is simple – don’t put your trust in buildings like the Temple they had been admiring or in nationalistic movements that continually arose in Roman-occupied Palestine. These buildings will be destroyed, and these movements will fail.  Mark even puts in a little note reminding his readers that the Jewish Wars that had occurred not long before this gospel was written had left the city of Jerusalem and its Temple in ruins, while its nationalist messiahs lay dead.  That is not the way of the Gospel.  Yes, Jesus will suffer death, but Easter will also come, and with it comes a new community – an alternative community that will exhibit the values and vision of God’s realm.  

So beware of the scam artists pretending to represent God.  Like those computer-generated calls that tell you that your car warranty has run out and invite you to re-up – just hang up!   If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.  They may perform signs and wonders, but don’t let them fool you.  These are just tricks designed to deceive you.

There is bad religion and there is good religion.

According to Martin Thielen, bad religion is self-righteous.  It’s also chronically negative.  That is, it’s always complaining.  It can’t find anything good to say about anyone or anything.  It’s also arrogant and intolerant.  It’s partisan and nationalist.  As Disciple theologian Joe Jones puts the question:  
Am I an American who happens to be a Christian, or am I a Christian who happens to be an American? Which identity orders which?”  (A Lover's Quarrel: A Theologian and His Beloved Church, p. 31).  
How we answer that question will help determine the nature of our faith.  Finally,  bad religion is nominalistic.  That is – it gives its time to God and church when it’s convenient.

  There are many other elements that we could add to the list, but this gets the point across.  If this is what people see when they see religion, then it’s no wonder they opt out of “institutional religion.”  With religions like that, there will never be peace on earth, and good will to all!

But, is this the only option?  Or is there the possibility of good religion?  Martin Thielen offers a list of elements of good religion that range from engaging in service to having an open mind, from prioritizing love to promoting gratitude.  These expressions of good religion affect the way we live our daily lives – not only on Sunday for an hour or two.

The way to good religion depends on who and what guides our lives. It speaks to the way we make our decisions?  And it defines our witness to our neighbors.

In Mark 13, Jesus tells us that he has given us the instructions we need to live before God.  That message echoes one we find in Deuteronomy 13. 
The Lord your God you shall follow, him alone shall you fear, his commandments you shall keep, his voice you shall obey, him shall you serve, and to him shall you hold fast. (Deut. 13:4).
There are many voices calling out to us.  Not all of them are specifically religious. But these are competing voices.  The question is – to whom will you listen?

Jesus invites us to be people of discernment.  He invites us to look at our lives through the lens of the Gospel.  It’s not just the religious dimensions of life, but the entirety of our lives – our jobs, our volunteer efforts, the cars we drive, the way we vote.  As we prayerfully seek a way forward, we will need to train ourselves to filter out all the extraneous noise that can distract us from hearing God, who often speaks to us in a still and soft voice.  But Jesus tells us that we have everything we need to discern God’s voice.  We can know the difference between bad and good religion.  We just have to follow the voice of Jesus.

We value diversity of opinion in this congregation.  It is a core value that we trace back to the founding days of the Stone-Campbell Movement.  It is part of our creed – our orthodoxy.  But, this sense of freedom needs to be tempered by an attentive ear to God’s voice that comes to us through Christ our Lord.

Our tradition, as theologian Joe Jones puts it, has often embraced a worldly creed that declares: “Nobody can tell me what I ought to believe; it is my own private decision.”  But, is this true?  Or is Jesus Lord over you lives?  If so, what does that mean in our context?  (Lover’s Quarrel, p. 57).

How we answer the question about the Lordship of Christ will determine whether we embrace a bad form or a good form of religion.  How we answer will determine our witness to the world.  As Paul writes to the Thessalonians:
 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise the words of prophets, 21 but test everything; hold fast to what is good; 22 abstain from every form of evil.  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-22).     

Scripture text appears in David Ackerman's alternative lectionary: Beyond the Lectionary
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
5th Sunday of Lent
April 6, 2014