Sunday, September 24, 2017

Fair Wages in God's Realm -- A Sermon for Pentecost 16A

Matthew 20:1-16

Jesus’ parables are subversive, because they reveal things about the realm of God. They’re stories we can read in different ways. Sometimes parables clarify things, but they can also confuse things enough that they start important conversations about what it means to live in the realm of God. The realm of God doesn’t operate like other realms, which is  why Jesus told Pilate that “my kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)

Ever since Peter made the Good Confession and received his commission (Matt. 16:13-20), Jesus had been revealing things about the “Kingdom of Heaven” and the Church.  This parable is another contribution to that conversation. There is an important phrase that surrounds the parable: “The last will be first, and the first will be last.” 

The first instance of the phrase brings to a close Jesus’ conversation with the one we often call the “Rich Young Ruler” about what is required to enter the realm of God. That conversation centered around the hold our treasure has on our hearts and minds. In many ways, this parable is a continuation of that conversation. (Matt. 19:16-30)


In the parable of the Vineyard, a landowner goes out early in the morning to hire workers to tend the vineyard. The landowner hires the necessary number of workers, and agrees to pay them the normal day’s wage. The owner has workers, and the workers have a job, at least for one day. Everyone is happy, except that this isn’t the end of the story. The day has only just begun.  

As I read the parable, I thought about the day labor pools that gather in certain locations in Santa Barbara. When you gather at a place like that, you never know what the day will bring. You might work on a construction site one day, and mow lawns the next. It’s quite possible that on some days, you won’t find any work. You may stand there all day, in the sun, hoping someone will come along and give you a job so you can pay rent and provide groceries for the family. Most of the day laborers in Santa Barbara are Latinos, and at least some of them are undocumented. Prospective employers stop by, tell the group what they’re looking for, and how many they need to hire. When they reach the allotted number, the workers get into the vehicles and head off for work. There is a  promise payment at the end of the day, but of course, since most of these workers are paid in cash, there’s no certainty of payment. Besides, there are no benefits and no protections, especially if you’re undocumented. That means the employer has all the power. What I observed in Santa Barbara occurs all across the country, including here.

While it isn’t quite the same, I do have one day’s experience as a day laborer. When I returned home from my first year of college, my mother told me that the local ice house was hiring. Neither of us knew what that meant, but I decided to go down and check things out. When I arrived, I was told to sign in and then join the room full people hoping to get called up, so they could spend the day unloading trains filled with cartons of frozen food. When my name came up, I was told to go down into the freezer, which is where I spent the rest of the day stacking boxes of frozen broccoli that had come off the train. It was hard work and it was very cold in that freezer. At the end of the day, I picked up my wages, and started looking for a steadier job the next morning. Fortunately I landed a  job at the local college working as part of the summer cleaning crew. So, while my brief experience as a day laborer, wasn’t anything close to what I observed in Santa Barbara, it did give me an inkling as to what it means to be a day laborer.

This parable is a story about day laborers. We have an employer who seems generous at first read. We also have a pool of workers seeking a chance to earn a day’s wage. Is this a parable about generosity or is it a parable about fairness? How you interpret the parable may depend on which of these two ideals you use as a lens to read the parable. 

I would suggest that the issue here is not the work, but the payment. Did you notice that only the people hired at the beginning of the day had an agreed-upon wage? Everyone else was hired without any agreed-upon wage. They probably thought they would get  a prorated wage. If you work eight hours for ten dollars an hour, you’ll get eighty dollars. If you only work two hours, you should expect to receive twenty dollars. That seems fair. After all, you “reap what you sow.” But that’s not the way it works in this parable.

When the owner returns at the end of the day to pay the workers, the owner starts with the most recent hires. The group hired at the end of the day, people that may have worked a couple of hours at most, received the full day’s wage. The same thing happened with each group of workers. They seem thrilled, because none of them expected to receive the full day’s wage. Now they had enough money to provide food and housing for their families for at least one more day. Since they didn’t expect to receive the full wage, none of them will complain. 

There is one group of workers, however, who began to expect a bonus. Since they had worked all day in the vineyard, wouldn’t it be fair for them to receive more than the person who worked for just a few hours. After all, agricultural work is difficult, backbreaking work. The vineyard can be hot and even dangerous. But, when the owner gave them their pay, they discovered that they had received the same wage. The owner may claim to be generous, but they felt used. They were upset. Jesus concludes the parable with the words: “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”

How should we read this parable today? Traditionally, it has been read as a story about divine grace. It serves to answer the theological question: What must I do to receive eternal life? Read that way, the parable suggests that everything is up to God. Your status in heaven doesn’t depend on whether you’ve been a good Christian all your life, or you said yes to Jesus on your death bed. In heaven, we all get the same reward. 

When it comes to the question of getting into heaven, I vividly remember the conversations we had in the theology class I taught at the college. We were discussing universal salvation, and some of my students didn’t think it was fair for them to live a Christian life, if everyone got a free pass into heaven. In other words, why bother living a Christian life, when you could be out having fun with your non-Christian friends? So, is the Christian life that burdensome, that you would complain if someone got in on God’s grace without first living a “good Christian life?”  

That’s one way of reading the parable. It simply speaks to the next life. But, what if we read the parable through the eyes of the poor? What if the realm of God has this world implications? When we read the parable in the light of social and economic contexts, what is fair and just?

With that question in mind, Catherine and Justo Gonzalez write that “justice looks different to those who are employed than to those who seek work and do not find it” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 402]. So, if we think of the realm of God having this world implications, what are fair wages? Which side in this conversation should we take? Should we stand with the workers hired at the beginning of the day? Or should we commend the owner for making sure that everyone had enough money to pay their bills? According to Catherine and Justo Gonzalez, “the end of the parable shows an employer who holds each worker as deserving of a wage that supports life. Even time spent waiting for work was in itself work” [Preaching, p. 402]. So, what is just and what is right? 

If  the realm of God exists on earth as it does in heaven, then what does this parable have to say to us about how we live in this world? How does it affect the way we vote, shop, use electricity, or drive our cars? What are the implications for employment and immigration status? What might this parable say about income inequality? What if this is about more than who gets into heaven?

At the end of the parable, Jesus declares: “So the last shall be first, and the first will be last.” At the end of the day the parable seems to speak of God’s realm in terms of radical equality. In the realm of God, everyone deserves to be treated with respect and honor, because everyone is equal in the eyes of God. Yes, the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI 
September 24, 2017
Pentecost 16A

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Forgiveness -- Journey to Generosity - Sermon for Pentecost 15A


Matthew 18:21-35

We pick up our journey to generosity on the road with Jesus. After Jesus gave the disciples a lesson on conflict resolution, Peter raises a question about forgiveness in the context of the church.  He asks: If someone in “the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?” Is seven times enough? While that may seem generous to us, Jesus decided to raise the ante to seventy-seven times. Isn’t that a bit extreme? How is anybody going to keep track of that many offenses?

If we’re honest, we all keep a list of people whose offenses against us we would rather not forgive. Truth be told, we would like to take our revenge against them. But, if we follow Jesus’ word of wisdom here, that won’t happen. Vengeance is off the table. 

This morning we have a convergence of themes in the service. We have a word about forgiveness, a word about stewardship, and a word about peace. How might these three themes fit together? What do forgiveness, stewardship, and peace have to do with Jesus’ vision for the church and for the world?

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Gathering in the Name -- Sermon for Pentecost 14A


Matthew 18:15-20

What does it mean to gather in the name of Jesus? What does it mean to say that all are welcome, and all means all? Are there no boundaries? No qualifications? No form of accountability? Are there protocols we should be aware of? Who decides what these protocols might be?   
As Disciples, we pride ourselves on our theological openness. We don’t have a creed. There are no theological grounds for excommunication. Instead of focusing on boundaries, we focus on our center, which is our common confession that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Even that confession allows for breadth of interpretation. But, does that really mean that anything and everything goes?

The word we’ve heard this morning from Matthew 18 is a challenging one. It’s also unique to Matthew’s Gospel. This suggests that there’s something afoot in Matthew’s community. Someone or some group is causing problems, and Matthew wants to set up a process to handle the problem before it gets out of hand. 

Sunday, September 03, 2017

What's With the Cross? A Sermon for Pentecost 13A


Matthew 16:21-28


Many years ago, as a teenager, we were visiting my aunt and uncle, who happen to be Jehovah’s Witnesses. I don’t remember how the conversation started, but my aunt asked me why I was wearing a cross? At least I think that’s what she asked me, before asking me if I would wear an electric chair around my neck? Now, there’s a long and involved story about how Jehovah’s Witnesses understand the cross, but my aunt did raise a good question. Since crosses are a popular form of jewelry even among non-Christians, what meaning does the cross have for us as Christians? What does it mean for us to have as the symbol of our faith an implement of execution?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Who Do You Say That I Am? -- A Sermon for Pentecost 12A


Matthew 16:13-20

Maybe a pollster has called you wanting your opinion on a product, issue or politician. Politicians don’t want their approval numbers to dip under 50%. There’s a problem when your numbers dip below that mark. 

Jesus once took a different kind of poll. What he wanted to know was what people were saying about him. Who did they think he was? The disciples reported that based on what they were hearing, most people thought he was a prophet, like John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah. It’s interesting that Matthew chose these three prophets, because they all had run-ins with the authorities. John was executed, Elijah was chased out of the country, and Jeremiah was sent into exile. That put Jesus in dangerous company! 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Come . . . Why Do You Doubt? -- Sermon for Pentecost 10A


Matthew 14:22-33

On a day after White Nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a Confederate monument and declared their intent to take back American for white people; a day after violence broke out in that city leading to the death of one and the injuring of others, when a car rammed into a crowd of counter-protesters; in a week when it seemed as if we are on the brink of nuclear war with North Korea, we gather to worship the God who stands firmly against hate, racism, violence, and the destruction of life. We come here needing to say no to white nationalism and nuclear war. We also come to hear Matthew  invite us to use our spiritual imaginations so we can embrace the “impossible possibilities” of the Bible’s miracle stories, so that we can, as Brian McLaren suggests, “play a catalytic role in co-creating new possibilities for the world of tomorrow” [We Make the Road, p. 97]. It is in the midst of all of this that we attend to the story of Jesus walking on water and calming stormy seas. 

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Everyone Ate Their Fill -- Sermon for Pentecost 9A

Matthew 14:13-21

When we gather at the Lord’s Table each week, we pause to remember the last meal Jesus shared with his disciples, and continues to share with us through the Spirit. Although this meal stands at the center of our faith tradition, the Gospels are filled with stories about Jesus sharing meals with others.  One of these stories involves a meal with more than five thousand guests, who dined on five loaves of bread and two fish, and still everyone ate their fill. 

The “Feeding of the 5000" is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels. It’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of the miracle. Enquiring minds want to know how Jesus did it. Was it a magic trick? Was it a spontaneous potluck? Is it a myth? Despite our inquisitiveness, Matthew doesn’t give any details. Could that mean that the details are irrelevant? Miracle stories, like parables point beyond themselves to the kingdom of God. So, what Matthew wants us to hear is a message about the reign and realm of God. If this is true, then, what is this miracle story saying to us about the realm of God? 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Groaning of Creation - Sermon for Pentecost 7A

Romans 8:12-25

There are seven parables in Matthew 13. I preached on the parable of the sower last Sunday, and next Sunday Naomi will have five other parables to choose from. That leaves the parable of the Weeds, which is this week’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Even though I’m focusing most of my preaching this Pentecost season on the Gospel of Matthew, this morning we’re taking a short break and attending to a word from the book of Romans.

In Romans 8, Paul speaks of two kinds of obligation. According to Paul we owe a debt either to the flesh or to the Spirit. We call the first obligation selfishness, and it leads to death and destruction. The other possible debt or obligation leads to freedom from fear and abundant life. If we embrace the Spirit, we will be adopted as children of God. If we’re children of God, then we are joint heirs with Christ of all the promises of God. That means that we can, with Jesus, address God as “Abba, Father.” 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sowing the Word - Sermon for Pentecost 6A


Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The closest I ever get to sowing seeds is laying down grass seed to fill in the gaps in the lawn. I can’t say I have any expertise in this, or much success, but I try. When I sow the grass seed, I try my best to get the soil just right. I go to the store, pick up top soil or even planting mix. I dig out the weeds and rocks, and put down a layer of that specially prepared soil. I try to buy grass seed designed to sprout quickly and has a long life span, though it rarely works as promised. As Cheryl can attest, I do what I can to make the front yard look nice, but I confess that I don’t have a green thumb. 

Sunday, July 02, 2017

A Welcoming People - A sermon for Pentecost 4A


Matthew 10:40-42


We gather each week at the Lord’s Table. We proclaim that this is an open table, because Jesus welcomes everyone to the Table. We gather this morning outside in this circle, which includes a cross representing Jesus and his mission, a peace pole inviting us to embrace the shalom of God, and a rock that honors the memory of a child who did not get to experience our world. In the gospel of Matthew, the rock represents the Good Confession that Peter made, upon which Jesus builds the church.  

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Harvest Time - Sermon for Pentecost 2A


Matthew 9:35-10:8

Last Sunday we heard Jesus issue the Great Commission: “Go into the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This morning we hear another commission, but it’s more localized. We find ourselves on the far side of the resurrection, and as Jesus travels through Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and proclaiming the good news of God’s realm, he realizes the people of Israel are “like sheep without a shepherd.” Because he has compassion for them, he tells the disciples that while “the harvest is plentiful,” the “laborers are few.” The metaphors are agricultural—shepherding and harvesting—but the point is simple. There is work to be done, which means more laborers, more shepherds, more harvesters, are needed. 

Jesus responds to this situation, by asking the disciples to pray that “the Lord of the harvest” would “send out laborers into this harvest.” As the reading continues, we discover that the answer to the prayer is this group of disciples, whom Jesus has gathered around him. Jesus is about to send them out into the world, to the lost sheep of Israel, to begin the harvest, because it is plentiful. 

Sunday, June 11, 2017

I Will Be With You Always - Sermon for Trinity Sunday (Year A)

Matthew 28:16-20

Today is, according to the church calendar, Trinity Sunday. On the matter of the Trinity, Disciples of Christ are not of one mind. Thomas and Alexander Campbell were Trinitarians, and Barton Stone was not. One of our important second generation Disciple leaders was Isaac Errett, who served as pastor of the Jefferson Avenue and Beaubien Street Church in Detroit during the 1860s. He wrote a pamphlet titled Our Position. In that pamphlet he wrote that while Disciples accept the biblical statements about the “trinity of persons in the Godhead, we repudiate alike the philosophical and theological speculations of Trinitarians and Unitarians, and all unauthorized forms of speech on a question which transcends human reason, and on which it becomes us to speak ‘in words which the Holy Spirit teaches’” [Historical Documents Advocating Christian Union, pp. 297-298].  In other words, we’re going to stick with Bible terms! Of course there are some among us, including me, who like to delve into “theological speculations,” including speculations about the nature of God, whom a majority of Christians confess to be “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” 

Sunday, June 04, 2017

One Body, One Spirit -- Sermon for Pentecost Sunday


1 Corinthians 12:3-13

I have a funny story to tell. Somehow, as I was laying out my sermon plans, when I got to Pentecost, I decided to go with the lectionary reading from 1 Corinthians 12. But, for some reason I put down 1 Corinthians 13 instead. Then, when I sat down to do worship planning, I used 1 Corinthians 13 as the guide. I also began contemplating how this message of love fit with Pentecost. It didn’t dawn on me until Tuesday morning that I had the wrong text. When I read through the lectionary selection, I thought it was odd that the lectionary would omit the first two verses. Now, the creators of the lectionary have their reasons for omitting verses of a passage, but what is it about speaking in the tongues of mortals and angels that would be controversial. So, I turned to a lectionary commentary to see why these verses had been omitted. To my surprise, I discovered that I had the wrong text.  Now everything made sense, including the title of the sermon. That’s how we got to 1 Corinthians 12 this morning, instead of 1 Corinthians 13. But, we’re still going to sing “They’ll know we are Christians by our Love” as our closing hymn!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Waiting -- Ascension Sunday (Acts 1)


Acts 1:1-11

The wedding party was standing with me at the front of the sanctuary. The processional music was playing. Everyone was ready to begin. The only problem was that the bride was still standing there in the entrance to the sanctuary. As I stood there at the front of the sanctuary, in sight of the bride, I began to wonder whether my future father-in-law was trying to talk Cheryl out of going forward with the wedding at the last minute. Perhaps he was telling Cheryl: “Surely you can do better than this poor seminary student!” Now, there is a good reason why Cheryl stood there, not moving toward me that had nothing to do with cold feet or parental obstruction, but the delay was unnerving.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Acts 2:14a, 36-47


Brett will often ask me “what’s going on in church-land today?” Even if his question is job-related, it is a good question. What is happening in church-land? What does it mean to be church? To use the words of a song by Bill Thomas, do you “see a church with a vision; ... a church with a mission?” [Chalice Praise, 133.]

Although we are still in the season of Easter, the reading from Acts 2 takes us to the Day of Pentecost and beyond. Easter is awe-inspiring, because it invites us to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. It invites us to take hold of the promise that in Christ life conquers death. But the story of resurrection continues in the life of the new community which was commissioned to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the world, as Jesus directed on the day of his ascension(Acts 1:8), and then formed into a dynamic missional church by the Spirit on Pentecost. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Breath of the Spirit -- Easter 2A


John 20:19-31

Seeing is believing. Mary Magdalene saw Jesus on Easter morning, and she believed, and then she told the rest of the disciples “I have seen the Lord.” Later that evening, Jesus appeared to the disciples who had locked themselves in out of fear of the authorities. He came to them in the darkness of night, which in the Gospel John serves as a symbol for unbelief. At the beginning of his Gospel, John declares that the Word of God “was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn. 1:4-5). Jesus came to them that evening as light shining into their darkness of unbelief. 

Mary prepared them for what came next, but I’m not sure they were completely ready when Jesus suddenly appeared in the room. He said to them: “Peace be with you,” and then he showed them the wounds in his hands and side. Then the disciples “rejoiced when they saw the Lord,” moving them from darkness into the light. But that’s not the end of the story, because Jesus gives them a commission. He told them: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then he breathed on the disciples and said: “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  

Sunday, April 16, 2017

I Have Seen the Lord -- Sermon for Easter A


John 20:1-18

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb” (Jn. 20:1). This morning as you come to the tomb, what do you see? Is it an empty tomb? What does an empty tomb say to you? As I read this passage, I noticed that the word “saw” kept appearing and wondered what this word says to us about the meaning of Easter morning?

When Mary came to the tomb, she saw that the stone had been rolled away from the entrance. That’s not what she expected. When Peter and the Beloved Disciple, heard Mary’s report, they ran to the tomb, and looked inside. They saw the linens that had wrapped the body of Jesus neatly folded and lying on the bench where his body should be, along with the cloth that had covered his face. While, the Beloved Disciple let Peter enter the tomb first, when he finally went into the tomb “he saw and believed.” While we know what he saw, we don’t know what he believed, because the disciples still didn’t “understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Eating on the Run -- Meditation for Maundy Thursday


Exodus 12:1-4, 11-14

We gather tonight around the Lord’s Table to remember Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. During that meal Jesus took bread and wine, blessed them, and gave the elements to his disciples. He told them to continue sharing this meal in remembrance of him until he returned (1 Cor. 11:23-26). The roots of this meal of remembrance are found in the Passover celebration. The reading from Exodus 12 describes the origins of that meal, which celebrated God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. 

According to Exodus 12, this meal featured three items—roasted lamb, unleavened bread, and bitter herbs. It’s a fairly simple meal, which took some time to prepare, but once the meat was cooked and the bread baked, it could be eaten on the run.

There is another part of the story that needs to be mentioned. Not only did God direct the people to prepare a meal, but God told them to take some of the blood from the slaughtered lamb and put it on their doorposts. This blood would serve as a sign to God, so that God would pass over that house when the angel of death struck down the first born of Egypt, because of the hardness of Pharaoh’s heart.    

The Lord’s Supper is similar to the Passover meal, because both meals invite us to remember that God has redeemed us from bondage, whether that bondage is slavery in Egypt, or the bondage of sin. Both involve the shedding of blood as a promissary note, guaranteeing that God will fulfill God’s promises. Both meals are meant to unite the community in a common purpose. Both are intended to be celebrated as a perpetual ordinance. 

As I read this passage, something caught my eye. It has to do with the instructions given in Exodus for eating the meal:
This is how you should eat it. You should be dressed, with your sandals on your feet and your walking stick in your hand. You should eat the meal in a hurry. (Ex. 12:11 CEB).
In other words, Passover isn’t a nice leisurely meal. It’s intended to be eaten on the run. It’s supposed to sustain a community that’s about to march toward Zion. There’s no time to waste, because Pharaoh might change his mind and chase after them. 

Jesus’ last meal has a sense of urgency as well. He knew that the days to come would be difficult, and that he needed to prepare them for what was to come. In preparing them for the future, he established a meal that would help them, and us, to remember God’s promise of redemption revealed in Jesus.

The meal we celebrate this evening speaks to the urgency and the danger involved in God’s mission. Walter Brueggemann put it this way: “leaving Egypt is a dangerous anxiety-ridden business” (NIB, 1:777). The same is true for us as Christians, as we head out into the world bearing the good news of Jesus. Brueggemann helps us understand the connection between the two meals and the urgency of these two missions. He writes: 
Christians like Jews are children of these marked doorposts, marked for safety in the midnight of chaos and crying. Christians like Jews, are Children of this hurried bread, postured to depart the empire, destined for freedom outside the norms and requirements of the empire. [NIB, p. 779] 

What does it mean to be “children of this hurried bread?” What does it mean to live outside the norms and requirements of the empire? Are we ready to take the journey to true freedom that God offers us and the world? Are we ready to eat on the run? 

By: Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
At: Northminster Presbyterian Church
Troy, Michigan
Maundy Thursday
April 13, 2017

Sunday, April 09, 2017

A Humble and Triumphant King -- A Sermon for Palm Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11

This is probably the most confusing day in the church year. Some churches celebrate Palm Sunday by waving palm branches and shouting hosanna to the king of kings. Other churches observe Passion Sunday, with its emphasis on Jesus’ death on the cross. But maybe these two emphases belong together, because they reflect the tension that exists between how humans view power and how Jesus viewed it.  The reading from Matthew describes Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which suggests that we’ll be focusing on the triumphal part of the story. But, there is a catch, because Jesus’ vision of triumph is different from the way most humans understand it. 

The story begins with Jesus and his disciples drawing near to Jerusalem, which will soon be celebrating Passover. When the group arrived at Bethphage, near the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent out his advance team to locate a donkey and her colt, and then bring the animals to him. When the animals arrived, Jesus mounted them and headed into the city. As he rode that donkey and her colt into the city, a crowd began to gather. Some of them spread out their cloaks on the road in front of him, while others cut down branches and laid them in front of him. The crowd began to shout “Hosanna to the Son of David!” And, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!” It would seem that the crowd sensed that something special was afoot. Perhaps the promised Messiah had arrived to save them from their oppressors. 

Sunday, April 02, 2017

Dry Bones Live! -- Sermon for Lent 5A


Ezekiel 37:1-14 

God grabbed the prophet Ezekiel and dropped him into the middle of a valley filled with bones that had been bleached by the sun of any sign of life. They were so dry that even the marrow was gone. Then, as Ezekiel took in this sight, God posed this question: “Can these bones live?” How would you answer that question? 

I know that part of me would have answered with a tinge of sarcasm, “are you kidding?” But hopefully, I would follow Ezekiel’s example and simply say: “O Lord God, You  know.” That is a prayer of faith that allows for God to do what I may think is impossible. 

Each of the Lenten lectionary readings from the Old Testament, speak of acting in faith. Sometimes, the texts describe situations, like in the Garden, where the people  demonstrate a lack of faith in God, but there are other texts that tell a different story of faith, like the story of the call of Abram and Sarai to migrate to a strange land so that they and their descendants could be a blessing to all the families of the earth. This morning, scripture takes us into the exile so that we can hear a prophet bring a word of hope to these exiles.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Don't Judge By Appearances -- Sermon for Lent 4A

1 Samuel 16:1-13


You’ve heard it said: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” There is great truth in this. I have first hand experience, because one of the reviewers of my first book, which was a revision of my dissertation, did just that. He made disparaging remarks about the book’s cover, and said next to nothing about its contents. Now, I will admit that the book’s cover is a bit odd, but I had nothing to do with the cover design. This lead me to think that he judged the book by the cover, and never read a page of what lay inside. 

It’s easy to judge people based on their appearance. We do it all the time. But when we judge by appearances, we often get things wrong. I once took a man whom I knew fairly well to the ER. He looked dirty and disheveled, and was dressed in the blue overalls a car mechanic might wear. The ER staff looked at him and asked if he was homeless. I told them no. In fact, he probably had more money than all of us in the room. That’s just the way he lived. On the  other hand, there was a homeless person who would come to the church for help, and he always wore a white shirt and a tie. Appearances can be deceiving.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Seeds of Blessings - Sermon for Lent (Genesis 12)


Genesis 12:1-4

The word “bless” is found in some form nearly 600 times in the New Revised Standard Version. When I looked up the words we translate bless, blessed, and blessing in my Bible dictionary, I discovered that the Hebrew words speak of health, longevity, and fertility. I also discovered that it can be translated as flourishing. So, if you say “I’m blessed,” or “what a blessing,” is this what you mean? 

When Bruce Barkhauer was with us, he spoke of a "thread of hope" running through Scripture, linking creation to new creation. I believe that there is also a "thread of blessing" running through scripture that connects the call of Abram to Jesus, and through Jesus we are connected to the realm of God. 

This morning we heard God call Abram to leave his homeland and migrate to a new land so that God could make him and his descendants a great nation so that all the families of the earth would be blessed in him or because of him. All he had to do was pack up his family, and head out toward a new and strange land. We might call this a true Lenten journey, because Abram had a lot to lose if he took up this vocation. He also had much to gain, but that would take a leap of faith. 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Eating with Jesus Again in the Realm of God - A Sermon (Eating with Jesus)


Matthew 26:26-30

Since today is Transfiguration Sunday, we celebrate the glory of God revealed to the world through the ministry of Jesus. On this Transfiguration Sunday we also bring to a close my “Eating with Jesus” sermon series. Throughout this series we’ve been meditating on what it means to be a missional congregation that gathers for communion with Jesus at an open table.   

We began this conversation in Genesis, on the day the Lord met Abraham and Sarah in the persons of three strangers, whom Abraham and Sarah welcomed to their Table (Gen. 18:1-8). We were reminded that it’s possible to entertain angels without knowing it, which means that it’s important that we show hospitality to everyone (Hebrews 13:2), including sinners and tax-collectors. Yes, Jesus ate with “those kinds of people” as well. We’ve been to the wilderness, where Jesus fed the 5000. We’ve contemplated the meaning of Jesus’ words about his body and his blood. We’ve also considered what Paul meant when he wrote about eating the supper in a worthy manner. 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Eating Worthily? -- Sermon (Eating with Jesus)


1 Corinthians 11:27-34

When we are young, we learn our table manners. They may be culturally defined, but there are some things that you do and some things you don’t do. That makes cross cultural dining an adventure, because when you go into a different culture you may not know the proper etiquette! 

As for me, when I was a child I learned that I shouldn’t talk with my mouth full of food. I also learned a proper way of holding the fork and the knife. And, I was taught to wait until everyone was served before I began eating. Whether we obey the rules or not, they have a purpose!

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Eating the Bread of Life - Eucharist Sermon (Eating with Jesus)


John 6:25-40

After his baptism, Jesus went out into the wilderness and fasted for forty days and nights. By the time the fast ended, Jesus was famished. Then the tempter came and said to him: “If you are the Son of God command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Though Jesus was very hungry, he told the tempter that “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt. 4:1-4). 

In the Gospel of John we find Jesus facing another temptation. On the morning after he fed the multitude, the crowd followed him across the lake, hoping that he would feed them once again. Jesus left the crowd behind the day before because he realized that they wanted to take him by force and make him their king (Jn. 6:15). Clearly his withdrawal didn’t deter them, because they hoped he would be a new Moses who would provide manna from heaven. Jesus responded to their requests by telling them that he was the bread of life. He was the bread from heaven that God desires to provide.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Eating in the Wilderness - A Sermon (Eating With Jesus)


Matthew 14:13-21

After Israel crossed the sea to freedom, they began to complain that Moses had led them into the desert to die of starvation. Slavery was bad, but starvation was worse. God had compassion on the people, and promised to give them bread from heaven (Exodus 16:1-4). Then, the morning after God made this promise, the people looked out and found a white substance covering the ground. They gathered it up and made bread from it. They called it manna. This manna sustained the people of Israel during their journey across the desert (Exodus 16:13ff). 

As we continue with our “Eating with Jesus” sermon series, we hear Matthew’s report that Jesus has retreated to a deserted place after Herod Antipas had John the Baptist beheaded. Most likely he went into the wilderness to pray about his future. Would his fate be the same as John’s? It was there, in the wilderness, that Jesus shared bread from heaven with hungry people caught in a deserted place. According to Tradition, Jesus retreated to a spot near the town of Tabgha, just north of the Sea of Galilee. There’s a reconstructed stone church there that dates back to the fifth century. Much of the church is relatively new, but laying before the altar is an ancient mosaic that reminds us that it was here that Jesus fed the five thousand. The mosaic is brown and white and “depicts two fish flanking a wicker basket filled with a few loaves.” [Martin, Jesus, p. 256]. Whether or not this is the spot where Jesus fed the multitude, the shrine reminds us that Jesus made an impact on the lives of everyone he encountered. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Eating with Sinners -- A Sermon


Matthew 9:9-13

With whom did Jesus eat? That’s one of the questions we’re exploring in this sermon series. We started with Abraham and Sarah, who welcomed God to their table by showing hospitality to three strangers. Strangers are one thing, but what about sinners? What are the rules and regulations? By the second century, it’s clear that only the baptized could come to the Table. Later on, Alexander Campbell had to get a token from church elders before he could take communion. Apparently he passed their test, because he got the token, but then he decided not to use it. Like his father, he realized that having too many rules kept people from experiencing Christ’s Table. It seems that the rules were designed to make sure that only the righteous could gather with Jesus at the Table, but is this what Jesus had in mind when he commissioned the disciples to break bread in remembrance of him? 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Eating With Strangers - A Sermon


Genesis 18:1-8

Today we begin a conversation I call “Eating with Jesus.” It’s my contribution to our emphasis on the relationship of an Open Table to our call to Mission, which is being underwritten by a Vital Worship grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. While most of the sermons in this series will draw from the New Testament, I thought it might be good to start with a story from Genesis about the day that Abraham and Sarah welcomed God to their Table. To give a bit of New Testament support to my thesis, consider this word from Hebrews 13: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:1, CEB).

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Don't Withhold the Water - Sermon for Baptism of Jesus Sunday


Acts 10:34-48


Today is Baptism of Jesus Sunday. According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus journeyed from his home in Nazareth to the Jordan, where John was baptizing. Jesus got in line, and when he got to the front of the line, John asked Jesus to baptize him. But, Jesus insisted on being baptized, so John buried him in the waters of the Jordan. When Jesus emerged from the water, the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended, and a voice from heaven declared: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:13-17). 

In receiving this baptism, Jesus not only set an example, but his experience reminds us that when we are baptized we should expect to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the message that Peter delivered on the Day of Pentecost, and it’s the message we see revealed in the experience of Cornelius and his household.