Sunday, March 31, 2013

Looking for the Lord -- An Easter Sermon

Luke 24:1-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Several of the scripture readings for Lent speak of new beginnings.  In Christ the old is gone and the new has arrived. Good Friday, therefore, is a voice from the past, while the resurrection speaks to us in the present from the future.  Death tried to seize control, but life ended up victorious.
The message of Easter is one centered on life.  And this life that finds its foundation in the risen Christ is sacred.  As Christian ethicist David Gushee writes, life is sacred because God has declared it so.

Human life is sacred: this means that God has consecrated each and every human being – without exception and in all circumstances – as a unique incalculably precious being of elevated status and dignity.  (Gushee, The Sacredness of Human Life: Why an Ancient Biblical Vision Is Key to the World's Future33).  
And if God has declared human life to be sacred, then this “leads to a full-hearted commitment to foster human flourishing.”

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

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

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

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

Yes, Christ the Lord is risen today!

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

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Time of Waiting -- A Holy Saturday Reflection

I was thinking about what I might say this Holy Saturday as I finish preparing my Easter sermon.  Sometimes it takes a flash of inspiration to stir the mind and heart.  So, I was glancing at my twitter feed, and I glanced upon a tweet by Jesuit James Martin.  He had placed a brief meditation of his own on Facebook.  The title looked intriguing -- "We live in Holy Saturday" --  so I checked it out.

Fr. Martin reminds us that much of our lives are spent in waiting, but the question then is -- what is the nature of our waiting?  

In the closing paragraphs he writes:

    We are called to the wait of the Christian, which is called hope. It is an active waiting; it knows that, even in the worst of situations, even in the darkest times, God is powerfully at work. Even if we can’t see it clearly right now. The disciples’ fear after Good Friday was understandable; but we, who know how the story turned out, who know that Jesus will rise from the dead, who know that God is with us, who know that nothing will be impossible for God, are called to wait in faithful hope. And to look carefully for signs of the new life that are always right around the corner--to look, just like a few of the disciples were doing on Holy Saturday.  
Because change is always possible, renewal is always waiting, and hope is never dead. 
The waiting of Holy Saturday, because we already know the rest of the story, is one of hope.  It is, Fr. Martin says, "an active waiting."  We're not passive victims of fate.  We wait in expectation, ready to hear the call of God.

In Acts 1, Jesus tells the gathered disciples to wait for the Spirit, and then, filled with the Spirit, they will be ready to take up their ministry, carrying the good news to the ends of the earth.  As we wait this Holy Saturday, may we do so full of expectation and hope.

(The image, found on James Martin's page is "The Two Marys Watch the Tomb of Jesus," by James Tissot.) 

Friday, March 29, 2013

Today You Will be With Me in Paradise -- A Word from the Cross

Luke 23:39-43

Luke paints a picture of an innocent Jesus hanging on a cross in the midst of the guilty.  We’ve already heard the first word, one of forgiveness:  “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”  (Luke 23:34).  Now we come to the Second Word, which reaffirms the message of the first:  “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

Sometimes we forget, but Jesus wasn’t alone in his suffering on Golgotha.  There are, according to Luke, two others, who, like Jesus hang from crosses.  Like him, they’ve probably been charged with rebellion and sedition.  Crucifixion was generally reserved for these kinds of cases.  Rome liked to use this form of execution as a warning to anyone who might think about causing trouble – and they believed that Jesus must be a trouble maker.   

These two men have a conversation with Jesus, but their words differ.  The first man joins in with the crowd who are mocking Jesus as a failed revolutionary. It’s possible that he’s hoping to goad Jesus into action.   Maybe Jesus still has power to come down from the cross and gather at the barricades!   Yes, get us down so we can fight.  But such is not the way for Jesus.

The second man seems to better understand the way of Jesus.  First he tells his companion to be quiet – we’re guilty, but he is innocent.  Innocent of what we’re not told, but the innocent is hanging among the guilty. 

And then turning to Jesus, this penitent man, pleads: “Remember me.”

Jesus talks about remembrance in his last meal with the disciples.  Taking bread and cup, he commands the disciples to share in a meal of remembrance:   “Do this in remembrance of me.”  In this case, it’s the penitent man who asks to be remembered: When you reach your kingdom, will you remember me?  Will you welcome me?  I may be guilty, but I want to be with you in your kingdom.  I want to do it your way.  Jesus responds:  “Today you will be with me in paradise.”    

Is this not the promise of God’s shalom, God’s peace?  Is this not the vision of Isaiah, who speaks of a time and place where the wolf and the lamb lie down together? 

    What a wonderful vision this is.  Jesus is going into his kingdom, but he’s not going alone.  He takes with him the penitent one – the man who shares with him the suffering of the cross.  Do we not ask the same question of Jesus?  “Will you remember me?”  

One of the clear messages of the gospels is that Jesus welcomed sinners into his midst.  In fact he was reviled by some because he dined with sinners and tax collectors.  After all, your character is revealed by the company you keep.  And the company Jesus kept included people like the two men who were crucified with him.  But is this not good news?  Is this not the word of welcome that we desire to hear?   We who are guilty, can find welcome in the presence of Jesus!

Yes, the one who hangs on the tree is the one who remembers and welcomes us into Paradise – the realm of God where Jesus remembers us. 

To borrow from the words of Stanley Hauerwas:

 “Our salvation is no more or no less than being made part of God’s body, God’s enfleshed memory, so that the world may know that we are redeemed from our fevered and desperate desire to insure we will not be forgotten.”   (Cross-Shattered Christ: Meditations on the Seven Last Words
, p. 44).  
This is second word is a word of grace from the lips of the one who asks us to remember him in bread and cup.  Let us hear this gracious word anew:    “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
  • Note:  Today I shared the second word from the cross -- one of seven words shared by seven preachers from the communities of Troy and Madison Heights -- as part of a community Good Friday service held at First United Methodist Church of Troy.  

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Gay Marriage -- for the Love of God

For millions of Christians today is Maundy Thursday.  We will pause this evening to remember the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples before his arrest and execution on the morrow.  At least according to the Gospel of John, standing at the center of this feast (in John this is a pre-Passover meal not a Passover meal) is the command to love one another.   I’d like to pick up on that command – that mandate (Maundy is an anglicized form of the Latin for mandate) and connect it with the important conversation occurring in this nation this week.

                The U.S. Supreme Court has heard two key cases this week.  The first concerned the constitutionality of California’s Prop 8.  Being from California, I have a sense of the political process in that state.  Back in November of 2008, as part of the national election cycle, Californians voted by a narrow majority to overturn a state Supreme Court ruling that overturned a ban on gay marriage.  Prop 8 was later declared invalid by a Federal Appeals Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to resolve this standoff.   At this point it appears that the Court may dismiss the case, leaving the lower court ruling in place, thus allowing gay marriages to resume in California, but not affecting the status elsewhere. 

                The second case will decide whether the Federal Defense of Marriage Act passes constitutional muster.      This statute, which the Justice Department and Obama Administration have chosen not to defend, prevents any federal rights and benefits to be accorded to any gay or lesbian marriage relationship, even if a state has deemed them legal.  From the questioning yesterday, it would appear that there are at least five votes to strike down DOMA.    This would mean that the federal government must treat persons legally married, whether gay or straight equally before the law.  This ruling won’t affect state law, but it might begin to pave the way for more change across the country, as people recognize the disparity that exists between civil unions and marriage.  We’re seeing political figures, especially within the Democratic Party coming out in support of marriage equality.

                So what does this have to do with Maundy Thursday?  I’ve not posted anything as of yet on the issues before the court.  But now that the cases have been heard, the arguments made, I thought it worth my time to comment.   I want to couch me statements in the command to love.  Though stated differently from John, Jesus is on record calling on us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  If my neighbor, or in my case my brother, is gay how do I love that person as I love myself.  What would I want for them that I want for myself?

                In regards to marriage equality, I’ve concluded that my gay and lesbian friends should have the same recognition, rights, and blessings that I’ve enjoyed these past thirty years of marriage.  I can see no harm coming to my marriage as a result of extending the blessings of marriage to gays and lesbians.  Indeed, it would help solidify families – adoptions could be recognized on the part of families rather than individuals.  Children could have the legal benefit of knowing that their parents have society’s full recognition – bolstering their own sense of identity.   In times of sickness and death, a partner is recognized as closest kin.  How horrid it would be for me or Cheryl if one or the other was not allowed to be at the side of one’s loved one. 

               Chief Justice John Roberts, during Tuesday’s debates, suggested that what the opponents of Prop 8 wanted in their call for recognition of full marriage equality was a change of label.  What the Chief Justice didn’t seem to understand was that this label carries a lot of weight.  Even if Civil Unions were raised to the same level as marriage, in the eyes of the populace they are not the same.  As Justice Ginsburg pointed out they are skim milk as opposed to whole milk.  The label matters – to children and families. 

                In the name of love, a love that seeks the best for one’s neighbor, I stand in support of marriage equality.  I believe it’s the right thing to do, and I believe it is in accord with the spirit of my Christian faith.  Yes, there are biblical texts that appear to oppose homosexual relationships.  But Jesus was not averse to challenging traditional views in the name of love and of justice.  I believe that what we are seeing today is a move of the Spirit.  As the voice from heaven tells Peter:  “What God has made clean you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15).  We are, I believe, at just such a moment in time.  God has, in my estimation, called for us to bless what God appears to be blessing – the union of loving and committed same-sex couples.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Entering the Age of Resurrection -- A Lectionary Reflection for Easter

Isaiah 65:17-25

1 Corinthians 19-28

Luke 24:1-12

Entering the Age of Resurrection

            We are all destined to die.  We may die young or at a very old age.  But the day will come when death takes us from this earth.  There are those who try to evade death’s call, but not even cryogenics can prevent this reality.  Death may be inevitable, and we might not be able to completely wall ourselves off from it, but is death ultimate?  Belief in an afterlife continues to be widespread, even if one cannot provide definitive proof. 

            At Easter we celebrate the blessed assurance of Christ’s resurrection, which according to Paul is the first fruits of a harvest that leads to the death of death.   Living as we do in a scientifically sophisticated world, there are many reasons to cast doubt on this long held belief in an afterlife.  As David Hume was known to say, where is the evidence that dead people rise? (my paraphrase).   Hume was fond of pointing out that dead people rarely if ever come back to life.   Yes, there are those Near Death Experiences that some want to use as proof (or at least that’s what a spate of recent books would have us believe), but is this really proof?  Since resurrection isn’t part of our normal experience, why should we trust statements made nearly two thousand years ago?  Is there enough to go on to even act in faith? 

Despite the many challenges, the Christian community continues to celebrate the sacred event of Easter (Resurrection Day).  While some celebrate with few if any doubts, many who gather for the celebration do have their questions.  So, whether we come ready to embrace the entirety of the story or not, is it possible for us to embrace the life-changing message of resurrection?    And for those of us who preach, can we do so without becoming complacent in our own proclamation.  Are we ready to hear something new in a story we’ve been rehearsing, possibly for years?      

As we begin our celebration, the first word we hear comes to us from Isaiah 65.  Likely emerging out of the post-exilic period, after Cyrus had released the captives and Israel could begin to hope for a new day, this word promises a new heaven and a new earth.  The painful memories of their captivity can now give way to a new day, when Jerusalem will again be place of great joy and gladness.  In this new age there will be no need for weeping and crying.  The sting of death seems to have been removed.  Even if death doesn’t appear to be completely eliminated, the life span will be almost eternal.  At the very least, no longer will babies live for just a few days – infant mortality will be a thing of the past.  Indeed, if one passes on at age one hundred, that will be way too soon.  Beyond this promise, in this new age, people will build their own houses and live in them; they’ll plant vineyards and eat the fruit of the vine.  In this new age of abundance, there will be enough for all to enjoy the blessings of life.  And in a truly eschatological manner, we can look forward to watching as the wolf and lamb graze together, while the lion eats straw.  The day of predation is over.  Unfortunately for the snake, it will eat dust (but then the snake has gotten a bad reputation).  In this vision we seem to be returning to Eden, to a utopian vision of equality and blessing.  This vision is powerful, but it can be dangerous.  So, we must treat it with great care.  Trying to “restore” Eden could lead us astray, unless we keep focused on the guidance of the Spirit. 

Isaiah promises a new eschatological age of abundance and peace.  In the Christian proclamation, that eschatological message is caught up in the promise of resurrection.  With the resurrection, we see the triumph of life over death.  For Paul, everything hinges on the resurrection.  If Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation is in vain, we are without hope, and thus deserving of pity for our adherence to such an unfruitful belief.  Paul doesn’t neglect the cross, but without resurrection death triumphs.  Paul is unwilling to let that occur.  Paul isn’t offering a stoic embrace of suffering – he looks forward to seeing death lose its grip and its sting, and that can only happen if life reigns triumphant. 

Paul links the resurrection of humanity to that of Christ, who is the first fruit of the harvest.  If we belong to Christ, then we will share in his resurrection.  In him we die and rise again, when the last enemy – death – is defeated.  Then God will be all in all. 

Paul’s message has a cosmic tone.  He places the resurrection at the center of a cosmic battle that pits the power of death against the power of life.  It would seem that to this point death has had the upper hand, but the day is coming – signaled by the resurrection – when the tide will be turned.  Death will not have the last say.  Instead, life will prevail.  So the question then becomes – how do we respond?  If God is on the side of life, what side should we be on?  I realize that any conversation about life and death has political and cultural attachments.  In our culture to be pro-life is to be anti-abortion.  But surely to be pro-life is a much broader category.  I will confess to my own ambivalence on the question of abortion, but does not the message of resurrection suggest that life is sacred and precious?  It isn’t that we should prevent death at all costs – leaving people on machines for years on end (Teri Schiavo) – but that we should seek to end war and work to enhance the quality of life for all people.  It is interesting to me that some who oppose the biological theory of evolution have no problem supporting laissez-faire capitalism, which is an expression of Social Darwinism. Is such a vision truly pro-life?  Paul asks us to consider what it means to live in the power of the resurrection.  What difference does it make? 

When we gather for Easter, we look forward to hearing the story of resurrection as told by the Gospel writers.  Each Gospel narrates the resurrection story in different fashion.   But they are in agreement on this – on the first day of the week the tomb was empty.  The stone had been rolled away, the body was gone.  What then is the meaning of this revelation?

In Luke’s telling of the story, “the women” go to the tomb.  They don’t go in expectation of resurrection, but expecting to anoint the body of Jesus for burial.  They go to the tomb expecting to find a body.   Whatever Jesus may have said about resurrection, it hadn’t sunk in – at least not until two men (angels) in dazzling clothes brought the promise of their resurrection to their attention.  The men ask a pointed question:  Why are you seeking the living among the dead?    Then they answer the question that must have been on the minds of the women who find the tomb empty – “He’s not here, but has been raised.”   To further prod their own experiences of Jesus’ teaching they’re directed back to what Jesus had taught them – in the form of a faith confession:  the son of man (human one) would be handed over, crucified, and on the third day rise again.  Don’t you remember?  Obviously not! 

When the women return to the larger community bearing news of Jesus resurrection, it’s clear that they hadn’t heard the message either.  These disciples now consider the message they’re hearing to be foolishness.  They perceive the women to be delirious.  In their grief they’d imagined seeing these angels.  But, remember dead people stay dead.  Resurrection breaks all the rules, and this group of disciples, most assuredly suffering tremendous grief, will not abide with such nonsense.  Doesn’t it sound like nonsense to you?  In this regard, David Lose writes:

Resurrection, in other words, throws off the balance, upsets the apple cart, and generally turns our neat and orderly lives totally out of whack. Which is why I think that if you don’t find resurrection at least a little hard to believe, you probably aren’t taking it very seriously!  
Unfortunately, for most of us who know this story well, we don’t even blink at its seeming implausibility.  But in doing so, we fail to let the story shape our vision of God and the world.  Of course, Luke does say that Peter ran to the tomb to check it out, so maybe he wanted the story to be true -- and when he found the tomb empty he returned home wondering -- as do we!   

         Whether or not we’re troubled by the idea that Jesus might expect resurrection, are we ready to embrace the message of life?  Are we content seeking the living among the dead?  Or are we ready to envision a new cosmic reality, where life triumphs over death?  Are we ready to let the message of resurrection transform the way we live in the world?  Are we willing to let the stones speak to us of God’s message of transformation through the stone that has been rolled away from the door of the tomb?  In other words, are you ready to enter the new age of resurrection -- the age when God's realm embraces us all?

Theologizing with Tickle 1 -- Celebrating Hyphenation (Bruce Epperly)

It is the middle of Holy Week.  We look toward the celebration of resurrection that comes with Easter.  As Bruce Epperly reminds us the early Christians found a way of connecting the celebration of resurrection with the rites of spring -- in a pagan observance called Easter.  In this first of three conversations with Phyllis Tickle's latest book Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Mattershe takes up Tickle's point about hyphenated Christianities.  There is a welcoming of the resources of global spiritualities that are enriching the Christian experience.  Since Bruce is one who has not only welcomed this, but led the way, his reflections on celebrating hyphenation should prove informative and full of wisdom.  Since I've not yet read Phyllis' book (it's on my shelf), I am reading these three pieces with interest.


Theologizing with Tickle – Celebrating Hyphenation
Bruce G. Epperly

Phyllis Tickle’s Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters reflects on the cultural background and current realities of emerging and emergent Christianity.  She notes that many emergent and other seekers self-describe themselves as spiritually hyphenated .  They participate in more than one religious movement within or beyond the Christian faith.  These spiritual pilgrims may be congregational leaders and practice Zen meditation, belong to a mainline church and also attend charismatic or Pentecostal worship services, participate in Christian liturgical healing services and also give reiki healing touch, and lead worship on Sundays and channel healing energy through Qigong.

Some may criticize such multiplicity as examples of the “spiritual smorgasbord” or “heretical syncretism” or “cafeteria Catholicism,” but I think something much deeper is at work and this involves the dawning of new forms of global spiritual experience and practice to match the spiritual and cultural diversity of our world.  Whether we describe this phenomenon as integrative spirituality, global Christianity, or inter-spirituality, there is no doubt that people from virtually every community of faith or pilgrim perspective are experiencing holiness through joining the insights of many faith traditions. 

Today, I write these words on the first day of spring, the vernal equinox, and feel a spiritual solidarity with the wisdom of Earth-based or pagan spiritualities.  As a follower of Jesus, I too celebrate the good Earth and the seasons of life, embodied in the rhythms of nature. The word “pagan” is no longer a derisive epithet; initially it meant nothing more than “people of the countryside” and we urban dwellings can learn much from the rhythms of the seasons and the spiritual beauty of nature. 

Many people who worship the sky God – all transcendence and no immanence – eschew spiritualities of the earth as demonic and antagonistic to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  But, Christians have consistently shared in the wisdom of their Earth-oriented companions, whether in the dating of Christmas and Easter, in the recognition of sacred places, both natural and human-created, and in the honoring of holiness in the non-human world.  Psalm 148-150 describe an enchanted world in which God’s Spirit speaks through the spirits of the non-human world.  The Psalms end with a startling affirming, scandalizing to dualists and worshippers of the transcendent sky God, “let everything that breathes praise.”  The whole Earth, as Isaiah discovers in his mystical experience in the Temple, is filled with God’s glory.  To paraphrase the question, “what is it that you don’t understand about ‘everything’ and ‘whole’?”  Remember, you who scorn the angels of nature, that in Jacob’s dream of a “ladder of angels,” angels ascend from Earth prior to descending from heaven.

The pathway to vital global Christianity, constantly emerging in dialogue with pluralism, runs through hyphenated spiritualities.  Many Christians are discovering African Yoruba spirituality, Aboriginal spirituality, energetic (chi oriented) spirituality, Native American spirituality, not to mention the wisdom of spiritual guides such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh.  Many have benefited from the writings of Deepak Chopra and the insights of Taoists and Sufis.  We celebrate diversity as we make it up as we go along – creating new spiritual pathways -  just as our parents in faith did two thousand years ago in bringing together the insights of Hebraic spirituality and Greek philosophy to understand and proclaim the global message of Jesus Christ.

This is not watering down the faith but rather widening and deepening our experiences of God in the world.  The omnipresent God, seeking abundant life in all things, speaks in and through all things.  To turn our back on the varieties of spiritual experience is to turn our back on God’s creative wisdom.  We can be Christians, deeply devoted to Christ, who also pray with Pentecostals, chant with Roman Catholics, meditate on icons with Orthodox Christians, read scripture with evangelicals, and protest injustice with progressives; we can also experience the divine in reiki healing touch, Buddhist walking prayer, Zen meditation, Hindu yoga, Sufi dance, traditional Chinese medicine, Native American medicine wheels, and celebrating the seasons and the Earth with aboriginal peoples.  This is what it means to grow in wisdom and stature, seeing God in all things and all things in God.  We can grateful for a generous God, who provides various pathways for various peoples and invites us to lively creative spiritual synthesis in our time.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty four books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living,  Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality in the Postmodern World.His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventerous Theology for a Missional Church.He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary.  He recently served as Visiting Professor of Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology and Claremont Lincoln University.   He may be reached at for lectures, workshops, and retreats.  His latest book is Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel (Energion).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Thank God It's Thursday (William Willimon) -- Review

THANK GOD IT'S THURSDAY: Encountering Jesus at the Lord's Table as if for the Last Time.
Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 2013.  X + 110 pages.


By whatever name you know it – Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or the Eucharist – Christians have from the very beginning of their existence as a community gathered at the table to share bread and cup.  Our names for this event, we call a sacrament, differ as do our theologies and even practices. Some observances are highly formal and others informal.  Some believe that clergy are needed to make this meal sacred, others do not.  Still, the meal is sacred because it connects us to Jesus.  

On the Thursday prior to Easter, many Christians will gather for Maundy Thursday and remember Jesus’ final meal with his disciples.  We call this the Last Supper, and the synoptic gospels, along with Paul, tell us that Jesus instituted this meal of bread and wine as meal of remembrance of a body broken and blood shed.  The Gospel of John also has a final meal before Jesus goes to the cross.  John’s chronology is slightly different – his meal falls on the eve of Passover, while the others place it on the Passover.  But that’s not the only difference.  Instead of commanding the disciples to take bread and cup, Jesus commands them to love one another, and then he demonstrates this love by washing the feet of the disciples.  From there, Jesus begins a lengthy – five chapters – set of teachings on important faith matters.

            With Maundy Thursday on the horizon, I found a copy of William Willimon’s new book entitled Thank God It’s Thursday in a stack of books.  Abingdon had sent a review copy, but I’d placed it on a different pile and didn’t see it until late last week.  Providentially, I found it.  I realize that Willimon is United Methodist, and so we mustn’t take this in a Calvinist way, but the timing was impeccable.

            This small, fast moving, book is vintage Willimon.  It cuts to the quick and invites us to consider the meaning and purpose of this celebration.  Willimon chooses to look at this meal through the eyes of John.  Therefore, the picture is somewhat different than what we may be used to, but I think the reader will find it enlightening and challenging.  Willimon is a Progressive Mainliner, but he’s a Barthian kind.  He has little interest in sentimentality – whether it’s the sort peddled by Schleiermacher or Rick Warren.  The Jesus we meet at table is open and welcoming, and challenging of the status quo.   

            Willimon chooses John’s portrayal of the Last Supper to base his exploration of Maundy Thursday, because of its theological richness.  He speaks of John’s Gospel as being “supremely eucharistic.”  It is a “table –talk Gospel in which Jesus saves some of his best stuff until the end when he settles down at the dinner table with his twelve best friends (who are also his worst betrayers) and unpacks his significance for them, having a bite to eat with them just before he is tortured to death for them” (p. viii). 

            Willimon explores the meaning of Maundy Thursday in five chapters.  In the first of the chapters, entitled “Uncomfortable Supper,” he lays the framework for the conversation.  He provides context – the purpose of the meal – exploring the elements of this story that give birth to our sacramental practice.  There is, of course, in John’s rendering the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.  He comments on the shallowness that passes for much of worship today and suggests that centering worship in the Table might move us from a spectator sport to a more participative experience.  In this meal, Jesus not only tells us the good news, but he also “enacts his gospel” with basin and towel.    Jesus’ act of washing feet is a sign of humility and service, but it is also a sign of divine love.  Willimon notes that Jesus washes the feet of all the disciples, even those of Judas.  Jesus embraces sinners too!

            Taking this conversation further, in a chapter entitled “Making an Example of Jesus,” Willimon points out the movement from bread and wine in the Synoptics to basin and towel in John.  In both cases there is the command to “do this.”  He invites us to follow his example and wash each other’s feet.  It is a call to an embodied faith.  Willimon writes that many of us would be glad to settle for Jesus dying on the cross for our sins, and leaving it at that, but the message of Jesus is that we too must take up a cross.  Jesus isn’t only the worker of salvific ministry, he is the exemplar for us.  If the entire Gospel is sacramental, then John 13 shows us how to live into that theology. 

            Continuing to build on this theme, in the third chapter he reminds us of the meaning of the night – that word Maundy is an anglicized version of the Latin word for mandate – the mandate being – love one another (John 13:34).  Willimon writes that this is a command not a suggestion.   Love is to be the “defining characteristic of [Jesus’] followers.  And the love we’re called to embody is a cruciform one, defined by the cross of Jesus.  Driving deeper, he connects the Great Commandment with the Great Commission.  The greatest impediment to the Gospel, he reminds us, is the church.  While he acknowledges that John’s love command seems restricted to those inside the community, this needn’t limit us to a parochial vision.  At the same time, he points out that it’s not easy loving other Christians:  “It is tough to love fellow Christians, especially when engaged in fierce disagreements with fellow Christians about doctrine or social issues” (p. 49).    Indeed, he writes that as a bishop, he’s found that clergy don’t quit the ministry because Jesus is too demanding, but because of the folks they deal with in the church.  This brings us to the spiritual but not religious trend:
“Spirituality” is all the rage – feeling religious, sort of, without the bother of having to be religious with people who are not as vaguely spiritual as you.  Spirituality is Jesus without the messiness of having to live with the people Jesus loves! (pp. 50-51). 
But Jesus doesn’t call us to love because it’s easy, but because it is the nature of God.  Jesus defines the nature of God’s love, which is more than a feeling – that is, Schleiermacher may have gotten it wrong.  Love isn’t a feeling; it’s an act of the will.

            The fourth chapter, “Truth at the Table,” begins with an explication of the words “it was night,” which are found in John 13:30.  We prefer the sunniness of the daytime for our worship, but with these words we’re reminded that we often live in the darkness of night.  It’s not all fun and games.  Remember that mixed into this story is betrayal – on the part of Judas, but others as well.  Truth must be spoken, and communion, that event instituted in this time at table, is, Willimon believes, “the ideal locale for ‘prophetic’ preaching” (p. 68).  Darkness is a time when we meet Jesus most fully and powerfully, because in the night we become vulnerable. 

            In the final chapter, “Bread from Heaven,” Willimon deepens our understanding of the meal by connecting it to John’s sacramental teachings in John 6.  Willimon speaks of John 6 as “one of the most revelatory chapters in the Gospel of John” because it speaks of the feeding of the crowd, Jesus walks on water, and then Jesus engages the crowd in a conversation about bread afterward.  What we learn here is that with God there is abundance – not just enough bread, but plenty of leftovers.  Jesus also enlists his disciples to help him, inviting them and us to imitate him in this effort.  But this isn’t all, Jesus gives definition to the experience by pointing them to the food of eternal life – himself.  But, lest we think that the message here is that Jesus – the bread of life – is the solution to our problems, Willimon steers us in a different direction.  The Bible may answer some questions, but not all of them.  But it also raises questions.  As we encounter the questions, we have been given, as Jesus declares, the Paraclete, who will lead us into the truth, including the meaning of those difficult words of Jesus about eating his body and drinking his blood.  It is a difficult message, and few can abide it, but where else do we go?

            In our desire to get the story straight, we often prioritize the Synoptics over John.  Some might find John’s theology otherworldly and thus not connected sufficiently to the real world.  Others may not like aspects of his theology.  However, in Willimon’s skillful hands we discover the riches embedded in John’s description of that final Thursday evening.  We are led into Jesus’ call to love and serve and recognize in this portrayal of the Supper and the teachings attendant to it the true presence of Christ in our midst. One warning-- Willimon doesn't pull punches.  He calls it like he sees it, so beware -- he likely will step on your toes!  But, if you want to understand Maundy Thursday, this is a good place to begin!  

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Myth of Persecution (Candida Moss) -- Review

THE MYTH OF PERSECUTION: How Early Christians Invented a Story of Martyrdom.  By Candida Moss.  San Francisco:  Harper One, 2013.  308 pages.

            Charges fly on a regular basis that President Obama is leading a war on religion, especially Christianity.  Religious groups complain that ObamaCare is a threat to religious liberty.  There is also that annual “War on Christmas,” which involves rules requiring employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”  The idea that the religious sympathies of the majority culture are being threatened seems, to many including me, to be a rather ridiculous idea, but it’s a popular sentiment among many.  Much of this persecution complex reflects the fear and disappointment among those who mourn the loss of a Christian hegemony in the West.  They find it difficult to adapt to the new pluralist realities and so lash out at perceived slights.  Many who make these complaints believe that from the beginning Christians have been a persecuted minority, and they take solace and encouragement from the stories of earlier martyrs.  After all, they see themselves imitating Christ, who died on a cross and warned his followers that they too would suffer as a result of their faith. 

            Candida Moss, a professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, seeks to disabuse us of the idea that Christians have been from the very beginning uniquely oppressed by their opponents.  An expert in martyrdom – she has devoted her academic study to this question, she argues rather vociferously that Christians invented the idea of martyrdom to substantiate their own claims to be the purveyors of truth.  She seeks to respond to those who believe that only Christians can be martyrs and suggest that the deaths in support of causes that aren’t Christian don’t qualify as true martyrdom.  
            In response to these claims, Moss sets out to show how that Christian martyr stories often fall short of the truth and in many cases are merely recasting of earlier Jewish and even pagan stories of noble deaths.  In support of her quest she seeks to point out the any parallels to Christian martyr stories and those of persons like Socrates or the Maccabean martyrs.  In the interest of disproving the claim that persecution of Christians wasn’t constant, but only intermittent, she offers a very narrow definition of persecution.  For her it must be empire-wide and Christian specific.  Thus, she discounts the Decian persecution, suggesting that since Decius didn’t target Christians specifically, that the deaths of those who refused to offer signs of allegiance that they perceived to be in conflict with their faith didn’t qualify as martyrdom.  If one accepts her definition of persecution, the only true examples came later in the third century under Valerian, and then under Diocletian, during the early fourth century.   The Romans might have been hostile to Christianity, but Christians had proven themselves to be secretive and obstinate – something that the Romans didn’t like.  Still, prior to Decius, she finds no active persecution.  Instead of persecution, Christians faced prosecution, and that was sporadic and local.  She doesn’t dispute the fact that Christians may have died, but she is hesitant to accord them martyr status, since it’s not clear they were prosecuted for their religion, but rather on political terms.  The Romans, she suggests, were relatively tolerant of religions, but they expected people to assimilate into the broader society, and Christians tended not to go along and get along, and thus they posed a threat to the empire’s security.

            Moss disputes the reliability of most of the early martyrdom stories.  She suggests with an almost fundamentalist zeal that since many of the early stories are edited and embellished we can’t be sure they reflect the actual words of the martyrs.  Therefore, since we can’t be sure of their veracity, they have little value.  In reading through her exposition of the martyr stories, you get the sense that this is in part an intra-Catholic debate, since the cult of the saints is not part of the Protestant experience.  Even more important is the all or nothing interpretation.  Either we have the exact records of their words, or we must throw out the entire story.  But, if we take her standard and apply to the gospels, then we’re left with little of value.  For those who follow the Jesus Seminar, this may seem viable, but for those of us who seek to hear a word from God even if we don’t have the whole story, this becomes problematic. 

At the same time, it is helpful to be reminded that there are considerable problems with the efforts of Constantinian era writers such as Eusebius, who created many stories to bolster his vision of orthodoxy and to ground the authority of the church of his day in those stories.   That many, if not most, of the martyr stories appeared after Constantine embraced Christianity, and were used for the aggrandizement of the majority position, and the seeming morbid enjoyment of watching the martyrs get revenge on their opponents needs to be acknowledged and addressed.  In addition, it is good to be reminded that Christian martyrs placed as much hope in the promise of eternal rewards as any other tradition – including modern fundamentalist Muslims.  Expositions like this demonstrate that there is great value in Moss’s work.  She has done us a tremendous service in revealing the inconsistency with which some Christians read and use these stories for their own benefit.  She is correct, it’s not helpful to use them to divide and conquer – that is,  dividing humanity into two camps -- the good and the evil. 

            I want to like this book.  I think that much of what Moss tries to do can be helpful.  If we think that Christians have been uniquely targeted for their faith, then we must recognize that many have died for causes other than the Christian faith.  I agree too that we must be careful about assigning demonic motives to those who disagree, especially if this leads to suppressing other groups.  It is tragic that in the post-Constantinian era those who were considered heretics or failed to embrace the new faith were treated in the same manner as experienced by Christians during the reign of Diocletian. 

            While agreeing with her outing of the “us versus them” mentality that these stories can engender, the problem is that she treats everything in monolithic terms.  It seems that Christians believe these things and are engaging in dangerous behavior.  This may be true of some Christians, but is this true of all?  Besides this, as I noted earlier, her concern about the veracity of the stories that supported the development of the cult of the saints, is something that might be of concern to Roman Catholics, and maybe Orthodox Christians, but likely few Protestants would be caught up in this.  In fact, most Protestants find the reverencing of relics to be distracting from the biblical story.  And while she does acknowledge that some martyr stories can inspire Christians to positive actions, such as standing against slavery, resisting tyranny, serving others, she sees this as a more the exception than the rule. 

            In the end, I found this to be a rather frustrating book.  Moss writes with too broad a brush, and in the end, I’m not sure how successful her venture will be.  Since her goal is to encourage us to abandon the persecution narrative so that we can pursue a common good, she might have been better served by writing in a more nuanced fashion.  In her near polemical rejection of martyrdom, she cuts off from our consideration those modern martyrs, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar Romero, and Martin Luther King.  In each case death came not just for “religious” reasons, but because they stood for justice as Christians.  Can we not honor them, even as we reject the persecution narrative that is used by some to marginalize those whom one disagrees with?  Indeed, is there nothing in their own life, or the example of Jesus for that matter that we shouldn't emulate?  Even if we should not pursue suffering, is there no value in suffering for that which one believes is right?  For a faith that holds the cross to be of sacred value, to say otherwise seems to deem the message of Christianity to be of no value.  So, while I find much here that is of value, I also feel as if it is  marred by its tone.  I say this in all due respect to those who have praised the book, including some who are friends and are historians I greatly admire.  

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Witness of the Stones -- A Palm Sunday Sermon

Luke 19:28-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Scripture, there are also stones that tell stories.   Remember when the people of Israel crossed the Jordan River after their escape from Egypt?   The Lord told Joshua to select twelve men from each tribe, and have them take a stone from the middle of the Jordan.  Then he told the men to pile the stones at the place where Israel camped that first night.  Joshua told the tribes that when the children asked the meaning of the stones, they should tell the story of how God cut off the waters of the Jordan so that the people, led by priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant, could pass through into the Promised Land.  The stones may appear silent, but they tell a story (Joshua 4:1-7).  

As we gather to celebrate Palm Sunday, we join in Jesus’ festal procession into the city of Jerusalem.  In the words of the Psalmist, perhaps you can hear Jesus, standing above the city and crying out:   
Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. (Psalm 118:19).
Then, riding on the colt that his disciples had borrowed, Jesus heads down from the Mount of Olives into the City of Jerusalem, so that he could worship in the Temple.  And as he does this, his disciples throw their cloaks on the ground in front of him and they shout:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!

Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven.” 
Luke’s version of this story may be more subdued than what we read in the other Gospels, but the signs that this is prophetic moment are present even here.  If you know the words of Zechariah 9:9, you will recognize the meaning of a man riding into the city on a donkey or a colt.  It’s clear, at least to some, that Jesus is making a messianic claim.  He is the promised king.   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    According to the witness of the disciples, Jesus is that cornerstone.  In 1 Peter 2, we read that Jesus is the “living stone” whom we humans rejected.  But the very stone we rejected is  precious in the sight of God.  

Peter writes: “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).  

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

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

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

And remember what Craddock said – there are some things that just have to be shared.  If we don’t share the good news, then surely God will use stones!!  On this Palm Sunday, may we be the living stones that declare to the world that God’s steadfast love endures forever!    

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Palm Sunday
March 24, 2013