Bob Cornner

Bob Cornner
Visting St. Andrew's Torrance

Thursday, July 29, 2010

“Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

Have you ever had a friend try to get you involved in a family dispute over money or any other serious matter?

If you have had such an experience then you might understand one reason Jesus opts out of such a request and instead offers a parable that puts a mirror up for all of us to see deeply into our lives. Jesus says to person asking for Jesus to judge the case: “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”

Well, isn’t Jesus promoted as the Judgment Day Judge by many in religion? So, why does he seem to reject this image of him as a judge of us and between us?

Last week’s sermon focused on the “certain place” where Jesus prayed being the place of shame and death which we humans create out of fear and wrath. No one wants to be seen as a mistake, unwanted, reject-able, and the ultimate problem whose exclusion or death is the solution to what is wrong in the world, but Jesus goes to that place to pray. Jesus communicated with his Father from that place because that is where he knew he could most clearly speak and hear.

I would also suggest that this certain place is the place where human beings can speak and hear God in Christ most clearly.

It is that certain place where we were baptized and given new life. It is that certain place where all of our attempts to be independent of God and at odds with our neighbors over this issue or the next are ended. It is the place of reconciliation where we no longer need to fight for our identity, but are given our identity as a beloved child of God and a community whose very existence could only have happened if God in Christ entered the place of shame and death, not as a judge, but as our creator, redeemer, and sanctifier.

The Nicene Creed says that Jesus will come again to “judge the living and the dead,” and our Sunday Gospel reading contains a judgment parable of a rich man getting richer due to an unusually grand bumper crop and having a conversation with himself about how he will handle his new windfall of wealth. Have you ever wondered what you would do if you hit it rich or richer than you are today? What can we learn about the rich man, ourselves, and God as judge from this story?

Jesus was judged by us to be worthy of death and to be condemned to that certain place of shame and exclusion. It is our humanly created hell reserved for those whom we identify as the problem for all that is wrong in the our world and whose exclusion and destruction is the solution that brings peace and unity to those who cast out such problem people. Since Jesus lived and prayed out of that place into which we were soon to cast him, it is we, who in casting him out, are judged by our actions. Jesus will come again and again in our lives as a moment of judgment until the time of our deaths.

Please read the story Jesus tells of the rich fool.

Luke 12:13-21

Someone in the crowd said to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?" And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?' Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.' But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?' So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

What makes this man foolish?

Is it his wealth? He seems to be living the American Dream of self-sufficiency. He will be in good shape well into his retirement and right up until the time of his death. He really has it all. Talk about a defined benefits retirement plan, this guy has to build bigger barns to accommodate his new found wealth. Some might be thanking God for showering such gifts upon them, but not this fellow. He lives his life in isolation from others. His conversation is with himself. He even talks to “his soul” as if he is his soul’s benefactor. There is nothing and no one who seems to be part of this man’s life that matters. As it is said: “It is, after all, ALL ABOUT ME.”

Some might envy this man or at least his wealth. Some might think that they could do bigger and better things with his money such as giving to worthy causes to help those less fortunate, but is that really the question Jesus is trying to ask us through this parable? Is this parable designed to scare us or threaten us with God’s judgment so that we will give to the poor?

Judgment, as human beings have constructed it with a hell of poverty, shame, and death for most people and a paradise of privilege for a relatively few, is not like the judgment of God. When God judges us, we are given a mirror in which to view ourselves or perhaps we see our behavior in a candid camera moment and discover that we have acted rather badly. This parable is just such a judgment candid camera moment offered by Jesus from that certain place of shame and death that is the cross.

It is offered as an extreme example of what paradise lost looks like. The rich fool would never go anywhere near that certain place where Jesus prays. His prayer life is with himself. He is one who is turned in on himself and it really does not matter how much wealth he has or does not have that matters, it is that he does not have a conversation or a relationship with the source of his very life and his final destination. In short, this man is a “dead man walking.”

Jesus must have known that those who were asking him to judge between them over an inheritance issue were somewhat like this rich fool and he tells this story to invite them back into a conversation, a prayer life with God. He invites them to that certain place where wealth, reputation, and even death do not finally matter, but only the conversation with God that will bring them to life again.

Greed is what Jesus warns us against. Greed, a desire for more and more stuff, when we lack the one thing we need really need, a relationship with God. The conversation with God begins when our treasure is not calculated in possessions, but in relationships with God and with others. The judgment of God is our judgment of God and others. What survives death, reputation, and wealth (fool’s gold) is communion with the One the world judged to be rubbish, garbage, and worthy of shame and death in that certain place to which Jesus calls us to join him in prayer.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


For many people prayer can be a boring and tiresome waste of time. For others it is something that religious phonies do to get attention and to pretend they have more power with God than the rest of us. Others find prayer quaint and harmless.

Of course, when we are in trouble or someone we love is in trouble and we don’t seem to have a way to humanly extricate ourselves from these troubles, we desperately take up the practice of prayer. But is prayer only something we do when we are in trouble? We are told to pray in such circumstances and if we read through the Psalms, we discover all manner of prayers offered by those who are in trouble.

Perhaps a comparison to something we know better will be of help in understanding prayer. Suppose you are in relationship with someone, but you have not actually spoken to that person for years except times when that person is in need of help.

Parents sometimes experience teens who don’t listen to them, but who rush to seek help from Mom or Dad when life gets too overwhelming for them to handle. At such times, the teen seems to revert to a younger age and becomes totally dependent on the parent for help in bailing them out of whatever jam they have gotten themselves into. In fact, sometimes teens seeking help from their parents remind us of when they were infants or young children and could not deal with what life was bringing them.

I know this scenario well having seen it repeated almost daily during my 31 years in public education and afterwards. If prayer is simply a conversation between God and us and does not include a relationship of trust and maturity born of a long time of relationship, I can see why most people see this as boring and irrelevant.

And to be honest, most of us do not experience grave difficulties on a regular basis and so, if prayer is simply calling out for help when we are in trouble, it does not really seem to constitute a mature, loving, and trusting relationship that flows out of daily conversation nor does it comprehend God as anything other than a super charged and all powerful bailer outer Mom or Dad. So did Jesus offer a different understanding of prayer than simply crying for help to someone we barely know or even like?

When and where we you first taught to pray?

I have been praying most of my life. I can remember around the age of 8 or 9 expanding beyond the bedtime prayers and graces at meals that we practiced as a family to include quiet times of conversation with God. These other times might have been considered daydreaming by the casual observer, but for me they were intimate times of quiet during which I asked questions and sat in unhurried anticipation of some response from God. For some reason, I was okay with whatever responses came my way during the process. I really had a sense of deep peace and the presence of someone who loved me and would hang with me.

Aside from these quiet times alone, the family dinner table, and the side of our beds, I was not aware of any other way or locations for praying. But once I became an Episcopalian at the age of 8, I discovered that the church was a place where I could join in prayer with everyone else in a common conversation with God.

We sang our prayers, we said our prayers, we stood up, sat down, and kneeled as part of our praying together. As a small boy, I came to love the places of prayer in my life. Of course, they were associated with people. My Mom and Dad at our dining table and mostly my Mom at our bedside were my teachers. At church, there were so many adults who helped me learn to pray from the priests, the lay readers, the Sunday School teachers, and sometimes the helpful adult sitting next to me in the pew when I could not find my place in The Book of Common Prayer. And I never lost that very special sense of sitting alone with God in a one on one conversation.

I wanted to learn how to pray when I saw my parents and others doing it. I am sure Jesus’ disciples may have been similarly motivated by watching Jesus pray. Being adult Jews, I can’t imagine that their parents and the synagogues in which they grew up did not teach them how to pray. So much of our prayer life as Christians comes from this remarkable Jewish heritage of prayer.

So, why would they need to ask Jesus for lessons on how to pray? How many Christians spend their lives praying and still feel that they do not know how to pray? From my experience over the years, many Christians have a sense that they are not praying as well as they think they should or could. Is it a matter of a learned technique or memorizing the right words, or assuming a prayerful posture that makes us better as people of prayer?

Prayer is conversation that leads to a relationship with God and Jesus spent a great deal of his time in conversation with the One he called “Father” or “Daddy.” Just as we learn about other people through conversation, so we learn about God through our conversations with him. I guess the disciples saw something in Jesus’ conversation with his Father that they wanted in their own lives.

I imagine this scene from the Gospel as the disciples watching Jesus in conversation with God and slowly moving towards Jesus to overhear the conversation. I know that I have certainly found myself standing next to wise and learned people who are conversing with one another to just hear where their conversation is going and to learn something new.

So, too, did the disciples listened in, as Jesus prayed and when he finished, they asked if they could be part of the conversation too. What words might one use to break into the conversation between God the Father and God the Son, to share with them in the divine human conversation that builds that relationship of love? Jesus says clearly that when they pray they should begin by saying:
Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial."

In Luke, Jesus does not say “our” or “my” Father. He simply says “Father.”

When addressing God as Father, Jesus is saying that there is but one Father and that God’s uniqueness is not shared with our earthly parents or any other deity that might claim the title of Father in heaven or on earth. In beginning our conversation with God, we make it clear to whom we are speaking.

When I worked as a chaplain at the Charter Pacific Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center in Torrance, one of my great joys was to help those who were trying to get and stay sober make contact with their Higher Power. Alcoholics Anonymous is brilliant in allowing each person to define for themselves who such a Higher Power might be. Does that lead to a belief in a multitude of gods? Some might think so, but in reality, most alcoholics who get sober probably could say that they turned their life and their wills over to the care of whatever Higher Power there is who can get and keep them sober.

Just so, for Christians we ask God as Father to make Himself known clearly as the only one whose kingdom we desire to become our way of life in order for us to live in healthy and joyous relationship with ourselves and others. That is what “hallowed be your name,” means to me. We are asking God as Father to be the very One who can deliver our heart’s deepest desire for a life that is forgiven, restored, joyous, and of service to others. In A.A, some might call that living a sober life after having had a spiritual awakening as a result of following the 12 Steps of the program.

In our conversation with God, Jesus leads us to ask for our daily bread. Have you ever wondered why there are so many people who starve to death in our world? Consider this simple phrase from the conversation Jesus teaches us to have with the Father whose abundance has somehow not managed to flow to every person. To pray for daily bread is a confession of sorts. We confess that while we may have more than enough to meet our needs and the needs of our families we fall short of sharing God’s abundance with others. The Lord’s prayer challenges us to question how much is enough to meet our needs for today and challenges the assumption that there is not enough of God’s abundance for everyone to be given their “daily bread.”.

As Jesus takes his disciples and us through his conversation with God, we hit upon our need to be forgiven the ways we violate others. A daily inventory of things said, done, or left undone is important, but Jesus is also speaking of the macrocosm of sin, the many ways our institutions and beliefs about money, possessions, and the stewardship of God’s creation intentionally or unintentionally disrespect the boundaries of others. Is my wealth somehow connected to someone else’s inability to provide daily bread for his or her family? Jesus understands the way the world works and calls us to live by his Father’s ways.

While in our daily conversations with God as individuals or as a church, we will fail to become the very prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” The disciples failed over and over again to allow God’s ways to become their ways. Throughout the telling of the Gospels, we read of in-fighting between the disciples over who is the greatest among them. We read about their negative response to Jesus’ command to feed hungry people claiming that they did not have the resources. We know that as Jesus goes to Jerusalem and then to the cross, these disciples will end their side of the conversation with God. Their prayers will cease.

Jesus taught them to follow him. Jesus taught them to pray a certain way. Jesus became the prayer that bears his name. It is the great I AM prayer. It is the conversation between God the Father and all of creation, including us, as it is spoken through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

If prayer is boring to you, perhaps you might want to join in with Jesus as he prays all of creation into the Kingdom of Heaven. Will that change you? How can it not? Be the prayer.

Luke 11:1-13

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial."
And he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.' And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.' I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

"It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand."

Mark Twain


O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Do you ever really wonder what God expects of you?

Our collect for this Sunday asks God to grant us the ability to know and understand what things we ought to do. Mark Twain's quote above may be interpreted several ways.

Here is the way I read it. What I don't truly understand does not really bother me. At some point we all reach our intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and physical limitations and what lies beyond these limits remains incomprehensible and perhaps awe producing, but seldom bothersome or troubling.

For example, I have long since stopped trying to understand the more complex realities of electricity. I have settled for knowledge that allows me to turn the light switch on and off and to change a light bulb when required.

We accept that there are just some things that we are not capable of understanding. Of course such limits vary from one individual to another. There are intellectual giants who wrestle with the mysteries of the physical universe while others simply benefit from the work of such giants. Throughout our lives we all surrender to our limits and live humbly and unbothered within them.

From this perspective, I understand where Twain was coming from. But, what about the parts of the Bible that he did understand? What were those parts all about?

My first read of this quote brought to mind those stories and teachings of Jesus that invite us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (July 4th proper) and then this week the Gospel from Luke presses us to define what a neighbor is.

Jesus is not presenting us with any major intellectual challenge in asking us to judge who our neighbor is as he recounts the story of the Good Samaritan. Almost anyone who viewed how the Samaritan cared for the beaten, battered, and robbed man on the side of the Jericho road would probably answer as the attorney did who asked Jesus for a working definition of the term, “neighbor.”

What is bothersome is how such a story shines a light on who I consider to be my neighbor and who I am willing to reach out and help. I understand that Jesus is saying that neighbors are people who help others who are in need regardless of whether they like the other person or the group that such a person comes from. But am I willing to trust that Jesus’ direction is worth traveling?

It is a nice thought, but in the “real world” we might say that such openness to assisting those who are our enemies or unknown to us is unworkable or just too idealistic.

Before we go too far in our objections to Jesus’ path, consider that the Samaritans and the Jews were sworn enemies. From Jerusalem to Jericho (the road on which this story takes place), there were many travelers all at risk of being beaten, robbed, or even murdered by highway bandits. The Samaritan acts out of a sense of deep pity for this stripped and half-dead victim of violence and robbery. The word used to describe his response to this victim is the same word used to describe Jesus’ response to a person he heals.

Emotions move us to action. Pity is a strong emotion which allows a person to identify so deeply with the victim that he or she responds as if they were coming to the aid of themselves or someone they dearly love. Neighbors are people who can see themselves in the random, unknown, and perhaps hostile victims they find on their path from here to there.

To understand this idea of pity and what it means to be a neighbor is bothersome because it denies us our sanctuary of prejudice about others. Jesus used a Samaritan in this story to throw light on his interrogator’s inner world and external attitudes towards others, including Jesus. For a moment, consider that Jesus finally was labeled a sinner on par with the Samaritans and yet in all that he did in his work on earth he did it in response to his pity on the victims that are scattered along the world’s highways and backstreets. Jesus saw himself in every victim, he was moved by mercy.

So, as we prepare to hear the story of the Good Samaritan this Sunday we might ask ourselves this question: “Am I bothered by my clearer understanding of what God wants me to do?” The promise of the power to carry out what we know to be what God wants of us may be that same power which filled Jesus and the Samaritan to reach out in love and compassion for the victims in our world without prejudice or bias or malice. Am I moved by the pity born of seeing myself, like Jesus, in the victims of our world?

The Good News about being bothered by what we understand is that it shows we are hearing God speak to us in the stories and teachings of Jesus. May we always be bothered and empowered to do God’s will. May God’s mercy move us all to become good neighbors.

Luke 10:25-37

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. "Teacher," he said, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He said to him, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" He answered, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself." And he said to him, "You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live."

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity.

He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, `Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.' Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed him mercy." Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."

Thursday, July 01, 2010


A person or a nation that does not honestly remember their past cannot take action in the present to change what will be in the future.

Happy Fourth of July!!. “Born in the USA, I was.” Although Bruce Springsteen's popular song by this name does not describe my experiences growing up in the United States,but it does capture a time and a place during our history that defined and impacted many people of my generation.

His lyrics describe how a young man from a tough neighborhood experienced coming of age in the United States and then going to Viet Nam where he lost friends in the war. Returning from war without his “brother” who was killed there, he finds no real consolation at the V.A, but takes his place among the workers of America.

Bruce Springsteen and I are close to the same age. Our lives span 27% of our nation’s 234 year history and it is from that perspective and with a love for our nation that I write. The celebration of our independence day, the birthday of a new nation whose founders sought to do things differently than the sometimes despotic homelands from which they had come is very important.

This new land was to be a proverbial place of “milk and honey.” Those early colonists had to survive some very difficult hardships in order to start a new life in America. They were not perfect, but they hoped that in their new home they would find something very different from what they had left behind.

As colonial life improved and self-governance at the local levels emerged, the colonists began to develop a new identity. There was great suspicion of kings and queens and royalty and religious hierarchy among the early founders of this country. They were people of the Enlightenment who saw great value in the freedom of the individual to rise above the ranks into which they had been born.

In distancing themselves from the “old country,” they sought to divorce themselves from the very history that had given rise to these new ideas of freedom and individual rights. When we deny the reality of our past, as a nation, a church, a community, a family, or an individual, we may just be closing the door on the very sins, forgiveness, and grace we need to “form a more perfect union.” In Alcoholics Anonymous, it is said that without the ability to be honest, it is almost impossible to get and stay sober.

AA’s insight is a gift of Judeo-Christian spirituality. Consider the bloody and often difficult to understand texts of the Old Testament. There are many people who think that the history of Israel as it is presented in the Jewish scriptures is so filled with lies, murder, hypocrisy, duplicity, greed, infidelity, and all manner of corrupt things that it is of no spiritual value to us. Such criticism fails to understand that an honest telling of our story (confession) is the prelude to spiritual growth as a human being and as a community or nation.

In fact, there was a movement early in our history as a church to dump the Old Testament because it did not represent the true God of love and peace we have come to know in Jesus Christ. But the church, led by the Holy Spirit, rejected this movement. Even at the time of the founding of our nation, Thomas Jefferson created his own version of the Gospel by excluding all but Jesus’ more ethical teachings rather than deal with the historical setting in which those teachings stood in sharp contrast.

Failure to be honest and open about this history is symptomatic of our unwillingness to look at our own history as individuals or the history of the nation and the world. Jesus preached repentance as did John the Baptist and all of the prophets of Israel. They understood that without a “Searching, Fearless, Moral, Inventory” the coming of God’s Kingdom is delayed. Jesus’ life and our rejection of him are part of our human history. This singular event sums up, anticipates, and comprehends all of the ways we act that result in a world that is not as our hearts truly desire it to be.

To get from where we are to the Kingdom of Heaven requires honesty, humility, compassion, and God’s grace. We must be willing to be open to the parts of our history which are not flattering or which are downright horrible. Sins that are not confessed turn our quest for the Kingdom of Heaven into a circular path of denial and repeated and predictable movement away from God. We are blessed in our country to have a few historians who seek to tell our story in an honest and balanced way.

They, like our Jewish brothers and sisters who faithfully told their story, seek truth that can set the nation free from a false sense that the past is always better than the present day. It is the vocation of the church to face our own dark past and to confess our complicity in evil against our brothers and sisters. As long as we are engaged in denying such evil, we are in some way or another engaged in perpetuating it.

Is the United States the Kingdom of Heaven? The answer to this question is found in the very founding document of our nation. I believe that God’s Kingdom is “the more perfect union” that is spoken of in the Declaration of Independence. God’s Kingdom is about the universal kinship of all people; justice for the poor and strangers in our land; peace without violence and exclusion and prosperity that overflows in generosity and sharing.

Are we willing to do our part to move this nation towards God’s vision of a humanity that can confess our sins and amend our lives? Can we, as a nation, be as honest about our past as the people of Israel were in confessing their sins and seeking God’s will? Each year we celebrate this special birthday of our nation, I hope we will all consider our vocation as Christians and as citizens of the United States of America.

Happy Fourth of July! God bless America.