Sunday, March 29, 2015

Hosanna! Hosanna! -- Sermon for Palm Sunday

John 12:12-16

Everyone loves a parade. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Rose Parade or a Fourth of July parade. We love the floats and the bands and the candy thrown to the kids by the paraders! Maybe you’ve been in the parade. You marched in the band, walking what seemed like miles, trying to play your instrument while keeping your feet in proper motion and your lines straight. Maybe you rode on a float, which in a small local parade might be the back of a pickup, or
simply walked down the street waving a flag.

When a team wins a championship, the city will host a parade so that the people can celebrate their team. The players ride by waving to the screaming fans, while confetti falls from tall buildings. Of course, the joy doesn’t last long, because teams rarely repeat their big wins. 

Most parades send messages. A Fourth of July Parade celebrates patriotism, while a championship parade celebrates the superiority of one’s team over its rivals. As that old song from the 70s puts it: “We are the Champions of the World!”

So, where are you in the parade line up?  Are you staking out your place along the street?  Did you get there early so you could set up folding chairs next to the curb?  Or did you get there late and have to stand on your toes, hoping to get a glimpse of the passing parade? If you have a small child, do you put them on your shoulders so they can see over the crowd?  Maybe you didn’t know there was a parade, but when you heard the band you followed the sound to the parade route. Of course, you could be in the parade!  

People living in the ancient world also loved parades. Think of those triumphal parades in movies like Cleopatra. Caesar comes home in triumph, riding in his chariot, leading his legions in their finery. Behind the legions come the captives and the plunder. And of course there is a band!  You can’t have a parade without a marching band. 

We had a parade this morning. We marched in led by the children. We sang “King of Kings, Lord of Lords.” We waved our palm branches and celebrated Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.  But what is the message of this parade? 

John doesn’t give too many details about how this parade got set up, but it’s clear that Jesus joined the other pilgrims going into Jerusalem for Passover. When the crowd saw him, they gathered around him and hailed him as their king.  They waved palm branches and shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel!”  Then, Jesus found a young donkey, he sat on it, and rode the rest of the way into the city. 
The people hailed him as their king, but what kind of king is this? Heroes ride in on war horses or in chariots. But Jesus rides in on a young donkey.  This animal is so small that Jesus’ feet would have dragged on the ground unless he lifted them up. All that John says is that this was written of him. It might seem an odd way to announce yourself as king, but this is the way it was supposed to be.  John points us to the promise of Zechariah:
Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.
  If we look closer at Zechariah, we hear these somewhat paradoxical words:
“Lo, you king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech. 9:9).
That sounds rather odd – the triumphant and victorious king comes in humbly, riding on a donkey.  We don’t usually put triumphant and humble together, and yet Zechariah does, and John follows up on it.  As for the disciples, they “did not understand these things at first.”  

We come to celebrate Palm Sunday already knowing the outcome. We know where this leads. We live in the post-Easter world. We know that Palm Sunday leads to Good Friday. We also know that Good Friday will give way to Easter. At first glance it might seem like Palm Sunday is a bit of a waste. Why bother if the victory lap is short lived? 

They say that hindsight is 20/20.  We all know this to be true! Because we know the outcome, we may miss the point of Palm Sunday.  Jesus came to Jerusalem to take possession of it, but he didn’t come in the usual fashion. He didn’t ride in on a war horse. He rode in on a young donkey. He didn’t walk softly and carry a big stick. He made some noise, but he came without a stick. The disciples didn’t understand yet. They needed to experience Holy Week in its fullness in order to understand how the way of Jesus differed from that of Caesar. The parades look similar, but when you dig deeper, you see the difference.   

“The disciples didn’t understand these things at first.” Is what was true for them, true for us as well? Do we face questions that don’t offer easy answers? Are there decisions before us that we will find difficult to make or embrace?

    At the 2013 General Assembly the delegates affirmed the resolution: “Becoming a People of Grace and Welcome.” As with most resolutions, it had its share of “whereas” clauses and a few “be it resolved” clauses. The resolution included these important clauses: 
 BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the General Assembly calls upon 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; and 
FINALLY, BE IT RESOLVED that the General Assembly calls upon all expressions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as a people of grace and welcome, to acknowledge their support for the welcome of and hospitality to all. 
The resolution passed by a hefty margin, though not without dissent. Being that General Assembly resolutions cannot be enforced, congregations are free to ignore them. But, this stands as a word from the larger church to all of its expressions, including local congregations as a call to implement its principles in the life of our churches.  

Earlier this week, guided by this resolution, Sharon Watkins issued a statement opposing a new law in Indiana that would allow discrimination against LGBT folks on the basis of religious views. Something similar is in the works here in Michigan. In her statement, she told the governor that if he signed the bill the Disciples would have to reconsider holding the 2017 General Assembly in Indianapolis. Since the governor signed the bill, our leaders will have to decide whether we should move the Assembly. This is a bold move for Disciples. Not everyone in our churches will agree, but Sharon acted on the basis of what is now a core principle of the denomination. 

So what does this word from the General Assembly say to us? It’s common for Disciples churches to ignore the implications of these resolutions. But if we live in covenant relationship with other expressions of the church, can we ignore words such as this? Here at Central Woodward we see ourselves as integral parts of the denomination, so it is not in our DNA to simply ignore a word such as this.  So, what is required of us as followers of the one who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey? How should we live out the call to be a people of grace and welcome in our own policies and actions?  If everyone is welcome at the Table, then what does that mean for every other area of church life? 

Like the disciples, we may not understand everything at first. It might take time before we understand the meaning of something like Palm Sunday. As a denomination and as a congregation we recognize that not everyone is on the same page on the critical issues facing us. We may disagree with each other, sometimes vociferously, but as the early church discovered at the Jerusalem Council, it is in the midst of our debates and discussions that the Holy Spirit often reveals a way forward.  

We may not have a clear understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. As we move into Holy Week, with Good Friday standing between us and Easter, may we begin to see things from a post-Easter perspective. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Palm Sunday
March 29, 2015

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Cross of Glory -- Sermon for Lent 5B

John 12:20-33

Crosses come in all sizes and shapes. They may have religious symbolism or they might just be a piece of jewelry. Pope Francis decided to keep his rather simple cross instead of getting a newer and more ornate cross when he became Pope. My aunt who is a Jehovah’s Witness once asked me if I would wear an electric chair pendant if that was the way Jesus was executed. I was only sixteen and didn’t have a good answer. It is interesting that we’ve made the symbol of a brutal form of execution a piece of  decorative art.  Perhaps that’s as it should be, since God has a tendency to turn things upside down!

I know that Palm Sunday is a week away, but according to the lectionary Jesus is already in Jerusalem. The world is behind him, and the cross lies before him. In that moment, Jesus declares:  “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  Yes, according to John, this is the hour for which Jesus came into the world. It’s not that Jesus is excited about what lies before him.  He confesses that his soul is troubled. He would like for this hour to pass him by, but he’s already crossed the threshold. There is only one way to go and that is forward toward the cross of glory.  

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Path of Salvation -- Sermon for Lent 4B

John 3:14-21

The cover of the February 23rd issue of Time Magazine declares: “This Baby Could Live to be 142 Years Old.”  Doesn’t that sound wonderful? So what’s the secret? It all depends on whom you ask, and the articles in that issue offer some tips for living well past one hundred. Of course, living that long poses interesting complications. As Laura Carstensen writes:   
The challenge we face today is converting a world built quite literally by and for the young into a world that supports and engages populations that live to 100 and beyond. [Time, 69-70] 
I’ve been taking a rather unscientific poll since the article came out, and I’m not hearing a lot of excitement about living that long. We may want to live long lives, but maybe not that long. 

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Concerning the House of God -- Sermon for Lent 3B

John 12:13-25

What does it mean to be the Church of Jesus?  Could that be the question raised by Jesus’ actions in the Temple?  In this story, Jesus makes a rather bold claim on the Temple. This is his “father’s house,” and it’s been turned into a marketplace.  The house of God, which Jesus was claiming for his father, was supposed to be the place where God could be encountered. 

The Temple in Jerusalem was a magnificent building, much like a grand medieval cathedral. Herod the Great had begun rebuilding the Temple put up after the end of the Exile. This replacement for Solomon’s Temple was small and uninspiring. It would never do in an age when grand temples were being built across the Roman Empire. Herod built palaces and fortresses, but he also needed a Temple that could be a showplace to not only impress his subjects, who resented him for being an outsider appointed by the Romans, but also the tourists who passed through the city. The Temple Jesus entered was one of the great wonders of the ancient world, ranking with other edifices such as the Parthenon in Athens and the pyramids of Egypt. Of course he built the Temple on the backs of the people, who were taxed and drafted into work teams. It might have been magnificent, but it was also a burden to the people.

Herod’s Temple may have been a sight to behold from a distance, but when you came closer you would begin to notice its shadow side. That’s what Jesus encountered when he entered the Temple precincts. 

John’s version of the story is different from that of the other Gospel writers. Instead of putting his visit to the Temple during the last week of his earthly life, John puts it right up at the beginning of his gospel, setting up the conflict between Jesus and the authorities right from the start.  But whenever it happened, Jesus was clearly shocked and dismayed by what he saw when he entered the Court of the Gentiles.  This house of worship had been turned into a marketplace where money was exchanged and animals designated for sacrifice were sold. The profits from these ventures helped pay for the upkeep of the Temple, and probably lined the pockets of the Temple elite. In a fit of righteous indignation, Jesus takes a whip and begins overturning tables, dumping out the bags of money, and chasing the animals and their vendors out of the Temple. It is a dramatic scene that appears in every Jesus movie. If you think Jesus is meek and mild, then this picture might come as a shock. John is correct that zeal for his Father’s house will consume him. 

Remember the Occupy Movement of a couple years back.  That’s sort of what Jesus was doing when he entered the Temple.  He was taking possession of it in the name of God. The Temple authorities didn’t appreciate his efforts and demanded to  know by what authority this peasant from the backwaters of Galilee had disrupted business in their Temple.  It would seem that the issue here is who speaks for God – Jesus or the Temple authorities, which is why the Temple officials wanted to see his credentials.  

Jesus sort of turns the tables on them once again, when he declares that if they destroy the Temple then he will rebuild it after three days. They can’t make heads or tails of this – how is Jesus going to rebuild a Temple in three days that took decades to build in the first place.  Of course, Jesus is no longer speaking of the Temple, which by the time this Gospel is written had been destroyed by the Romans, but of his body.  What he is intimating is that the Temple of God – the place where God is encountered – is not a human built Temple but is instead Jesus. They may try to destroy this house of God, but God will raise it up after three days.  Good Friday will lead to Easter.

What does this story say to the church in our day?  Could it be that Jesus is reminding us that the true Temple of God is not a building? It’s not an institution. It is Jesus himself.  He is “Beth El,” the house of God. If Jesus is the house of God then if we seek to be in communion with God, then it is to Jesus we must turn.  

Paul uses a slightly different metaphor, when he speaks of the church as the body of Christ. Again it’s not the building or the institution, but the community in which Jesus inhabits.  

What else does the story of the cleansing of the Temple have to say to us today? Perhaps the message is this; as Hulitt Gloer of Truett Seminary puts it:   “The ways of the world invade the church gradually, subtly, never intentionally, always in service of the church and its mission. Soon the church  is full of cattle and sheep and turtle doves and money changers” (Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Vol. 2p. 95). 

When Christian Piatt was here a few weeks ago, we talked about what it means to live in a “post-Christian” age. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the collapse of Christendom, which involved the merging of the church with the dominant culture. When Constantine embraced Christianity, it seemed like a good thing for the church. Persecution ended. Christians could emerge from the shadows and worship out in the open.  They were even given a seat at the table with the powers that be. And the cross went from being a symbol of disgrace to a symbol of imperial power.  As church and state merged, people wondered where one ended and the other began. Ever since that “Constantinian Shift,” church and state have jockeyed for power. 

A good example of this jockeying for power is found in the eleventh century story of the contest between the German Emperor Henry IV and Pope Gregory VII. Henry wanted to control the church in his realm. Gregory believed that the state served the church. Henry wanted to appoint bishops loyal to him, while Gregory believed that Henry’s secular authority was a gift of God given through the papacy, Henry tried to get his way by imprisoning Gregory, who in turn told the German church to stop providing services to the people.  In the end Henry gave in, and as a sign of his submission crawled through the snow on his knees before Gregory. Of course that didn’t end the contest. Church and Empire continued their efforts to get power over the other.  While the church sometimes got control of things, it usually resulted in the corruption of the church. And when the state got control, the church simply blessed whatever the state wanted to do.   

There is a warning here about getting too cozy with power, but what other message do we hear in the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple? I’ve heard this passage used in discussions about whether it is appropriate to sell things like  books and coffee in the church. I’m not sure that this is what Jesus has in mind, except when selling books and coffee and other products becomes our purpose as a church.  That is, when the church becomes a commercial venture selling religious wares and services, then we had better take heed.  

What Jesus often does in the Gospels is refocus our attention on the things of God. He reframes the conversation, turning our attention to the grandeur of Herod’s Temple to his body. They can destroy his body, but God will raise it up after three days.  Buildings and institutions have their place, but they don’t define what it means to be church. To be church is to be the Body of Christ, which can’t be destroyed.

One commentator suggested that this passage should make all of us a bit queasy. We can point fingers away from ourselves and at others, but since Jesus addresses religious folk, his finger is probably pointing at us. In cleansing the Temple he calls on us to rethink our priorities and loyalties. The vendors and the money changers were simply raising money to support the institution.  It was for a good cause – the upkeep of God’s house. Don’t we do the same?  The question is, when do we cross the line and  move from being the Body of Christ to being a commercial venture?

As we continue through Lent, perhaps Jesus is calling us to do a bit of soul-searching. In the midst of our reflections perhaps we’ll be called upon to let go of the things that keep us from walking with Jesus on a journey that will take us through Good Friday before we get to Easter. As we ponder that journey, it is fitting to remember that yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of Bloody Sunday in Selma. What does that journey mean to us today as the Body of Christ? 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
March 8, 2015
Lent 3B

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Decision Time -- Sermon for Lent 2B

Mark 8:31-38

We’ve all faced the prospect of making life-altering decisions.  Where do I go to school?  What kind of job should I pursue?  Whom should I marry?  Should I get married? What about children?   Oh, and will I be a follower of Jesus?     

We started our Lenten journey last Sunday with Mark’s brief introduction to the beginnings of Jesus’s ministry. We watched as Jesus was ordained at his baptism, received his orientation in the wilderness, and then returned to Galilee to start preaching the good news of God’s kingdom.  That story has moved along quite a bit in our reading today from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has had some success as a preacher and as a healer. He’s gathered a group of disciples, healed the sick and the injured, fed the multitudes, and he has caught the attention of the people.  If Twitter existed back then, news of his exploits would be trending.  

When we catch up with Jesus in Mark 8, he is explaining to his disciples what was about to happen with his ministry.  This conversation takes place not long after Jesus had received an update from the disciples about what people were saying about him. As part of that earlier conversation, Peter boldly declared that Jesus was the Messiah.  It would seem that Peter had been paying attention, and he believed he was on the winning team. But now, Peter’s hopes and dreams are shattered because Jesus starts talking about suffering and death. That’s not what he had signed up for, or so he thought.