Sunday, September 18, 2016

Go and Do the Same: Choose Wisely -- A Stewardship Sermon

Luke 16:1-13

What do you think about the manager’s behavior in this parable we just heard? Do you think the manager would be a good model for Christian behavior? It is true that the Prodigal Son was forgiven for squandering his father’s estate, but what about this squanderer? Do you think he deserves forgiveness?  

This is a most unusual parable, which most scholars can’t seem to crack. Every time you read it, you’re left wondering why Jesus told a story like this! But Luke seemed to think that it merited inclusion in his Gospel. So, it must have something to say to us. But, is it the right passage to be used in a stewardship sermon? The answer to that is simple – the people at the Center for Faith and Giving, including Ron Allen, thought it would be a perfect stewardship text. 

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Fearfully and Wonderfully Made - Sermon for Pentecost 16C

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Over the summer we visited the Psalms on several occasions. We heard in poetic fashion the call to pursue a life of faith with vigor and diligence. We heard messages of judgment and hope. This morning, even as we look forward to a busy fall, we return one more time to the Psalms. The word we’ve heard this morning is a most edifying one. It is a call to praise God “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” 

These are powerful words that remind us that God is not only the creator of the universe, but God formed our inward parts and knit us together in our mother’s womb. Therefore, our lives matter to God. This reminder that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” isn’t an expression of the “power of positive thinking.” It is an expression of God’s declaration that all human life is sacred to God. That declaration is affirmed in the person of Jesus, who according to John’s prologue, is “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:14). Therefore, as David Gushee writes, because the Word became flesh, “no human life can be seen as worthless” (Kingdom Ethics, p. 157). This is a good word to hear as we enter the fall, especially with all the political rancor we are experiencing. While all lives do matter, it is important that we name those lives that too often are pushed to the margins.

The Medieval Jewish commentator Rashi expressed the message of verse 14 of this Psalm in this way:   “I shall thank You for in an awesome, wondrous way I was fashioned; Your works are wondrous, and my soul knows it very well.”  Indeed!

It is in the spirit of this Psalm that we hear God’s message to Israel delivered through Jeremiah: “Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so you are in my hand, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 18:6b). While Jeremiah makes this point while delivering a word of judgment on Israel, the thread I want to pull from this passage is Jeremiah’s description as God as a potter.  There is in Jeremiah and in this Psalm a sense of intimacy and action on the part of God. God is the one whose hands get dirty in bringing life into existence.  

The Psalmist reveals a picture of the God who searches us and knows us, whether we’re sitting down or standing up. I know this idea that God can even discern our thoughts from far away can be a bit disconcerting, but it can also be reassuring to remember that God knows us better than we know ourselves. That’s because God formed our inward parts and knitted us together in our mothers’ wombs.

As I read this psalm this past week, and began to prepare to share this sermon, I was taken by the fact that this Psalm the lectionary offered fit this weekend like a glove. 

There is a word here for all who are preparing to go back to school.  Starting a new school year can be intimidating, especially if you’re not an extrovert. This might be especially true for those who go off to college for the first time. I was fortunate to go to a small college, accompanied by good friends, even so, moving into the dorm that first September of my freshman year was a bit intimidating! So the good news is this: God is there with you. God knows you and loves you. Don’t be afraid of what is coming! You are fearfully and wonderfully made! 

Of course this weekend not only marks the unofficial “end of summer,” but it also offers us the opportunity to honor all those who labor. Once again, the lectionary coincides nicely with this occasion. If you take a look at the verbs in this passage, you will discover that the Psalm celebrates the God who works. God searches and knows and protects. God forms us and knits us. God makes us and weaves us. Of course, as the first creation story reminds us – God worked for six days and then rested on the seventh. Labor Day may be a secular holiday and not a feast day of the church, but since almost all of us work at some point in our lives, it’s a good thing to honor all those who work even as we remember that God shares in our labor. 

It is fortuitous, I suppose, that I’ve been reading a newly published book about the relationship of faith and labor. The book is titled Unified We Are a Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities. One of the authors, Joerg Rieger is a theologian, and the other, Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger, is a labor organizer. According to the Riegers since we’re all laborers at least at some point in our lives, whether we’ve earned a wage or not, work and labor shape our lives. As the authors put it: “spending the bulk of our waking hours at work influences who we are as individuals and communities, shapes the images of our cultures and faiths, and defines us in more ways than we can count.” 

This is so true. Think for a moment about meeting someone new. What questions do you ask to get to know them? Isn’t one of our first questions: “What do you do for a living?”  If work and labor help define our lives, then, as the Riegers write just a few paragraphs later, “work is what allows people to use their abilities (as well as their disabilities!) in productive fashion for the common good, which increases the welfare of the community and of the planet as a whole” [Unified We Are a Force, pp. 16-17].

The authors also remind us that Scripture often speaks of God as one who works for a living. God is a craftsman, potter, garment-maker, gardener, farmer, shepherd, and tentmaker. Therefore, Judaism and Christianity don’t lack images that can help us value work and workers, “particularly the kinds of workers that are often discounted and belittled” (Unified, p. 117). 

Not only does Scripture speak of God as a worker, but the Gospels remind us that Jesus himself was a laborer. We read in the Gospel of Mark that the people of Nazareth derided him because he was simply a carpenter, and therefore they weren’t inclined to listen to his spiritual wisdom (Mark 6:3). Yes, Jesus was, apparently, a common laborer, a construction worker, which means that like God he got his hands dirty! 

Although I have what many call a white collar job, which doesn’t require me to get my hands too dirty, as I was thinking about God’s dirty hands, I thought about going down to Detroit and working with Rippling Hope. If you’ve worked with me, you know I tend to get my hands dirty. It might be paint or it might be simple dirt, but I get it on myself. So I might as well wear it as a reminder that I am “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the image of the God with dirty hands!

There is no better metaphor for this reality than the message of Genesis 2. In the second creation story, God takes some dirt and fashions the first human being from that dirt. Yes, we are the product of God’s decision to get dirty with work. Therefore, as the people of God, let us celebrate this work of God by standing in solidarity with all who labor. 
In the words of the hymn “Those Who Love and Those Who Labour,” let us pray:
Those who love and those who labour, follow in the way of Christ;
Thus the first disciples found him, thus the gift of love sufficed.
Jesus says to those who seek him, I will never pass you by;
Raise the stone and you shall find me;
cleave the wood, and there am I.
In a moment we will honor all who labor, by sharing in a litany that allow us to stand in solidarity with all those who, like Jesus, are counted among those who labor.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 16C
September 4, 2016

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Go and Do the Same: Make Room -- A Sermon

Luke 14:1, 7-14

When I was a child, my mother tried to teach me proper etiquette. She taught me to wait before I began eating until everyone was not only seated at the table but served. She also told me to chew with my mouth closed and not talk with my mouth full. I know there were other rules, but these will suffice for now.  

Where you sit at the Table also can be a matter of proper etiquette. The host sits at the head of the table, and the guest of honor sits at the host’s right hand. The rest of the seating chart is defined by social status. The higher your status the closer you’re seated to the host and the guest of honor. So, if you go to a dinner party, and you think you’re someone special, you’ll want to be seated as close to the host as possible. But it’s not up to you! So you might as well wait to be seated before choosing a seat. You don’t want to make the mistake of choosing the wrong seat, and suffer the humiliation of being moved to the back of the room. So wait for the host to seat you.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

May God's Face Shine Upon Us -- Sermon for Pentecost 13C

Psalm 80:1-2, 8-19

“Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel . . . Stir up your might and come to save us!” In ages past, the Shepherd of Israel took a vine out of Egypt and planted it in a new land. This vine spread out covering the land from sea to river. It grew strong and powerful. Unfortunately, over time the vine lost its luster. For some reason the Shepherd had failed to properly care for the vine, or at least that’s the view of the Psalmist, who asks God to repent and look down upon God’s people and restore the vine to its former glory. Yes, Lord, make your face to shine upon us once again!

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Taking the Right Path - Sermon for Pentecost 12C

Psalm 50:1-8, 22-23

This morning we again read responsively the Preamble to the DesignThe Preamble invites us to consider who we are as Disciples. What beliefs and practices bind us together as a covenant community? Since we’re not a creedal people, we don’t require anybody to sign off on a lengthy statement of faith. But, we are bound together in our common commitment to be followers of Jesus. That means we’re part of a much larger body of Christ, and the Preamble gives voice to some of the beliefs and practices we hold in common as a covenant people.  

I want to focus our attention on the third affirmation of the Preamble
We rejoice in God, maker of heaven and earth and in the covenant of love which binds us to God and one another. 
If you watched the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, you heard the President of the IOC point to the Olympic ideal of unity in diversity. That is our calling as Disciples. We are, as part of the larger body of Christ, bound together as one people in all our diversity, so that we might live in eternal fellowship with God our creator, and with the rest of God’s creation.