Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Realm of God Draws Near -- Sermon for Lent 1B

Mark 1:9-15

Each Sunday we pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  What does this request of God mean? What is this heavenly reality that we seek to experience here on earth?

After his baptism and sojourn in the wilderness, Jesus went into Galilee preaching the good news that God’s realm was near at hand? What does Jesus’ preaching mission have to do with you and me? How is this good news?

On the first Sunday of Lent, the lectionary readings from the Gospels focus on Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness where he faced a time of testing before he began his public ministry. While Matthew and Luke are a bit more expansive than Mark, they all tell us that Jesus experienced what some would call an ordeal. In many cultures young people go through some kind of rite of passage. It might simply be a ceremony, like confirmation or baptism, or it might be something more demanding, like going out in the wilderness and facing down a lion. When you return home, you have moved from childhood to adulthood. Now, I’m not saying that these two are completely parallel rites of passage, but the wilderness sojourn reinforced Jesus’ call to ministry that was issued in his baptism.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Circle of Redemption -- Speaking of God Sermon Series

Peter Bruegel, "The Wedding Dance," DIA

Ephesians 1:3-14

During this season of Epiphany we’ve been reflecting on our “God-Talk.” Even though our words are inadequate to the task, we do speak about God.  We use metaphors and analogies and stories to give voice to what lies beyond human understanding. We are like Peter, who came up to Jesus after watching him being  transfigured on the mountain and offered to set up tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He made this offer because “he did not know what to say.”  

Can you identify with Peter?  Do you find it difficult knowing what to say about God?  And yet, we do speak of God.  We speak of God the creator, the God who is love, the God who judges, and the God who saves. As Christians we often point to Jesus and say, whoever God is, God is like Jesus! 

That is why most Christians use the word Trinity to speak of the God whom we experience in Christ and through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Most of us were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It doesn’t matter whether you were dunked or sprinkled. It doesn’t matter if this happened in infancy or later in life, most likely the words Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were spoken over you.  We also give praise to God as Trinity when we sing Thomas Ken’s Doxology or the traditional Gloria Patri.    

This morning, as we conclude this “Speaking of God” series, I would like for us to consider what it means to speak of God using Trinitarian language.  I know that not all of you see yourselves as Trinitarians.  I think one of the reasons why people struggle with Trinitarian language is that it seems so abstract, but in recent years theologians have begun to connect the way we speak of the Trinity with its practical implications.  Among those implications is that even as God’s nature is relational, and not just relational, but equal and mutual, we who are created in the image of God are created to live in mutual and equal relationships with each other.

  One of the most important statements on the Trinity is found in the Nicene Creed, which was developed in the 4th century to resolve a debate about God’s nature. While I grew up reciting that creed, along with the more concise Apostle’s Creed, Disciples rarely if ever recite any creed.  We tell ourselves that we’re non-creedal, and therefore we don’t have to take time out to recite something that’s not part of our tradition. But many Christian communities do recite the creeds and they are often used as the basis for ecumenical conversations and agreements.   

I was going to have us recite the Apostle’s Creed this morning, since it appears in our hymnal, along with several other faith statements, all of which are Trinitarian in form.  But, then I took a look at the Preamble to the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which can also be found in our hymnal.  It also takes on a Trinitarian structure.  Since we rarely recite this statement of faith that helps define our Disciple identity, I’d like to invite you to turn to page 355 in your hymnal and recite with me the Preamble to the Design.

So what do you think? Did it sound sort of like a creed?  If it did, were you comfortable reciting it?  Did it help you better connect with what it means to be a Disciple?

As you think about that, I’d like for us to turn our thoughts to our reading from Ephesians 1, which offers us a Trinitarian formula of sorts. This opening paragraph serves as a call to worship, inviting us to bless the name of God, who is the Father of Jesus Christ, because God has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing. After those blessings are named, we come to a statement about the Holy Spirit, who serves as “the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people.” The grammarians in our midst might notice an abundance of prepositions in this passage, especially the word “in,” which is used multiple times in reference to Christ. It would seem that we are invited to see ourselves living in Christ, and therefore enjoying fellowship with God.

The word Trinity is the name that Christians have used to make sense of our monotheistic inheritance from Judaism, along with our recognition that God is present to us in Christ and through the Holy Spirit. In the fourth century, as Christian leaders wrestled with the question of Jesus’ identity, they came up with a formula to explain how Christians should understand who Jesus is. One of the reasons why they had this conversation is that a priest from Alexandria, Egypt named Arius was teaching that while Jesus was more than a human being, he didn’t think Jesus was equal to God.  There was another priest in Alexandria named Athanasius, and he felt that Arius’s God couldn’t save us, because Arius’s understanding of God put a barrier between God and humanity. Athanasius insisted that if we are going to be in relationship with God, there has to be a point of contact. Athanasius believed that since God took on flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus, then we have access to God.  

Theologian Catherine LaCugna captures this vision quite well:  “He is who and what God is; he is who and what we are to become” (God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Lifep. 296).  In other words, Jesus is the intersection where God and humanity meet, and because of this meeting we experience salvation. We experience reconciliation. We experience redemption. As for the Spirit, the Spirit is the one who seals our inheritance. The Spirit in the ever-present pledge who reminds us that we are ultimately God’s children, chosen “before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.”  That is our identity.  We are God’s adopted children, and Jesus is the one in whom and through whom God has chosen to adopt us, making us sisters and brothers of Jesus.  
When it comes to speaking of how there is can be one God and three persons, theologians turned to a Greek word to explain the connection of the three persons in the Trinity, and that word is perichoresis.  This is a great word because it speaks of interrelationship and interdependence.  It speaks of community and communion.  It speaks of fully sharing in the life of the other.  

One way of understanding this relationship is to use the metaphor of a dance – especially a folk dance.  While they aren’t directly related, there is a connection between the word perichoresis, and the word choreography. Since this is Valentine’s weekend, what better time than today to think of God in terms of a dance?

Catherine LaCugna puts it this way:  
Not through its own merit but through Christ’s election from all eternity (Eph. 1:3-14), humanity has been made a partner in the divine dance.  Everything came from God, and everything returns to God through Christ in the Spirit (God for Us, p. 274).
  So, let’s envision a folk dance. Think about God as three persons sharing in a dance. They circle each other and they weave in and out. As you watch, you begin to notice a pattern and a rhythm.  Maybe you start to clap along as you catch the rhythm, and then the Spirit begins to pull you into the dance. Now, you’re involved. You’re circling and weaving and you find yourself a part of the holy community that is God. This is the circle of redemption. 

We often talk about God being in us, but in this metaphor of the dance, we find ourselves in God.  And because we are in God, we find that our lives are being transformed.  This is salvation.  As we live in Christ, our relationship with God takes on a new form, but so does our relationship with our neighbors.  Where there has been brokenness, we begin to see wholeness. This invitation to wholeness is mediated to us in Christ, in whom humanity and divinity meet.  Yes, this is the circle of redemption and of love – One God, Blessed Trinity.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Transfiguration Sunday
February 15, 2015

Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Wisdom of Creation -- Speaking of God Sermon Series

Proverbs 8:22-31

“In the beginning was the Word, . . . All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1, 3).  And Holy Wisdom declares:  “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago . . . then I was beside him, like a master worker” (Proverbs 8:22, 30).  Both Word and Wisdom are expressions of God’s nature and are partners with God in the work of creation.   

Some in our society believe that one cannot be both a Creationist and an evolutionist. They say that we have to choose – God or science. For the past ten years I have been involved in an effort to counter that belief. For ten years I have invited the congregations I served to observe Evolution Sunday on a weekend near the birthday of Charles Darwin. While we didn’t get a birthday cake for Charles, we are joining hundreds of faith communities across the country and beyond by worshiping with Charles Darwin.  

It is appropriate – might we say providential – that Evolution Sunday is falling  right in the middle of my “Speaking of God” sermon series.  After all, how can we talk about God without talking about God as Creator?  

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Revelation of God Embodied -- Speaking of God Sermon Series

John 1:1-5, 14-18
Rembrandt's Jesus -- DIA

The Psalmist asks: “Who is the King of Glory?” The answer: “The Lord of hosts, He is the King of Glory” (Psalm 24:10).  These past few weeks we have been asking the question: How do we speak of God?  We’re asking this question rather than who is God, because God’s essence remains a mystery to us. But, if we speak of God we do have some idea about God’s identity. Of course, as Christian Piatt reminded us on several occasions last weekend, whatever our conceptions of God, we should hold them loosely. Instead of seeking certainty we live by faith. 

The Gospel of John begins with this declaration:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  John later tells us that this Word “has become flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son” (John 1:1, 14). So, “who is the King of Glory?”  It is, John believes, the God revealed in the person of Jesus.  

I know that theology is often rather abstract and complex. That’s why we usually leave it to the professionals.  Since I have the requisite credentials to be a theological professional, it shouldn’t surprise you that I enjoy exploring the more intricate questions of theology.  That’s why the names of people like Augustine, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and more recently Elizabeth Johnson pepper my sermons and my bible study lessons. You might call me a theology geek! 

As Christian Piatt also reminded us last weekend, belief and faith aren’t necessarily the same thing. Belief tends to rely on certainty, while faith involves trust and hope. When we have faith in God, we’re not simply agreeing to a creedal statement. Instead, we’re entrusting our lives to the hands of a God whom we cannot see, but whom we confess to be revealed in the person of Jesus. 

Although faith and belief aren’t one and the same, the way we think of God does have implications for the way we live in this world. Christian spoke of a three-legged stool, which involves ortho-doxy, ortho-praxy, and finally ortho-pathy.  He suggested that right belief and right action emerge out of right heartedness. I think he’s right.  It starts in the heart  and then moves to the way we think and then to the way we act.  Marcus Borg puts it this way:  “How we image God shapes not only what we think God is like but also what we think the Christian life is about.” [The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith, p. 57].

   So how do you picture God? While the Bible prohibits creating idols, the biblical authors use a variety of metaphors and analogies to speak of an incompressible  God.

   In Psalm 24 God is the triumphant king, who reigns over the world.  That is a common image, but it can give rise to imperialistic visions on the part of God’s people.  Remember how James and John asked for seats next to Jesus when he came into his kingdom?  On the other hand, Jesus speaks of God as a woman who lost one of her ten coins. When she discovers that the coin is missing, she lights her lamp, sweeps the floor, and searches until she finds that lost coin. When she finds it, she uses it to throw a party (Luke 14:8-10). Did you notice the difference in the pictures?  Do they each say something different about God?   

Even if we can’t see God, do we not trust that God is present with us? In our prayers and songs, we confess that God has been revealed in Jesus and is present with us through the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Spirit bears witness to the one who has seen God, the one “who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (vs. 18). 

John says that Jesus is closest to the heart of God, and that Jesus reveals to us the nature and purpose of God. In this regard, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “The living Christ is the Christ of love who is always generating love, moment after moment. When the church manifests understanding, tolerance, and living kindness, Jesus is there” [Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 57].   
John uses the word Logos to describe Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God in the flesh. When we attend to this understanding of God, we tend to focus on the mind. There is another word that is applied to Jesus – that is Wisdom or Sophia in the Greek.  According to Paul, Christ is the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). You might say that Word and Wisdom, Logos and Sophia, are two sides of the same coin. Both Word and Wisdom are embodied in Jesus.  While Word speaks to the mind, Wisdom or Sophia speaks to the heart, and it is out of the heart that understanding emerges.  As it is said of Wisdom in Proverbs: “All the words of my mouth are righteous; there is nothing twisted or crooked in them.”  We are also told: “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold; for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her” (Proverbs 8:8, 10-11).

It would seem that when think about God, it is important to remember that God exceeds our comprehension, and that should be freeing to us. We can’t nail God down. Therefore, it’s good to expand our vocabulary when we speak about God. If we confess that Jesus stands closest to the heart of God, then our practice will reflect that understanding of God.  As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in reference to the church: “make the effort to bring the Holy Spirit in by living deeply the teachings of Jesus” (Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 69).  In this there is wisdom, whom Proverbs 8 declares to be the first act of God’s creation. 

In concert with Holy Wisdom, God brought all things into being, therefore, Holy Wisdom is close to the heart of God. Of Holy Wisdom it is said: 
“Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates, waiting beside my doors. For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD; but those who miss me injure themselves; all who hate me love death” (Prov. 8:34-36). 
So how do we encounter this God whom we cannot see?  John suggests that we can know God by knowing Jesus, who shares in an intimate relationship with God. We can do this through the Spirit who dwells within us and around us. We encounter the Spirit through a process the Buddhists call mindfulness.  I’m not good at being contemplative. I find it difficult to calm mind and body. But I appreciate the message of our Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who writes that “when you practice mindfulness, you touch the Holy Spirit and become peaceful and solid” (Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 130). It is through the Spirit that we draw close to the one who stands closest to the heart of God, and by drawing close to Jesus through living out his teachings, we draw close to God. 

When we speak of God, we are often left in the position of saying what God is not. But in doing that, we may begin to find words that allow us to speak of God in ways that make sense to us and help us live transformed lives. We may be left with metaphors and analogies, but they seem sufficient, even if they lack certainty. Faith is sufficient, because it gives us a sense of assurance that as we live in the Spirit we are walking in the presence of God whom we know in Christ – the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Epiphany 4B
February 1, 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Perfect Love Embodied -- Speaking of God Sermon Series

1 John 4:7-12

When I was in high school, we often sang a song in Bible study that drew from the Song of Solomon.  It went like this:

I am my beloved’s, and he is mine.
His banner over me is Love. (Song of Songs 6:3; 2:4)

Who is the beloved whose banner over me is love? If you read the Song of Solomon in a straightforward way, you’ll discover that this is a most explicit love song. But, down through the ages, Christians have read this song allegorically to describe Christ’s relationship with the church. Christ is the Beloved, and those over whom the banner of love flies belongs to him.     

In one of the weddings at which I officiated, the Scripture text was taken from the Song of Solomon. Among the words shared that day were these:

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. 
Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it 
(Song of Songs 8:6-7).

Two people in love, committing themselves to a life together as partners in marriage, can surely sing this to each other.  But can this song also describe our relationship with God? Is the love of God so strong that nothing, not even flood waters can quench it? Is God’s love for us even stronger than death itself?

In 1 John 4, we are called to love one another, “because love is from God.”  Not only is love from God, but God is love itself. Therefore, if you are one of God’s beloved, then love should define your life. In fact, if love isn’t present, then you don’t know God (1 John 4:7-12). So what is love?  

If you’ve been to a wedding lately where I’ve officiated, you probably heard me use a definition I took from theologian Tom Oord.  Tom has done a lot research on this subject and he has determined that love is multidimensional. But, he’s also developed a very concise and helpful definition of love. 
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote over-all well-being. [The Nature of Love: A Theology, p. 17]

These are the key points of this definition. First, love is intentional, which means that it is more than an emotional response.  Second, as a response to God and others, it promotes over-all well-being. 

The second definition is similar. Theologian Paul Tillich writes that “Love is the drive towards the unity of the separated” [Love, Power, and Justice, p. 25]. That definition fits God’s nature very well, for the witness of Scripture is clear – God is seeking to heal that which is broken (2 Cor. 5:19).

Our task during this season of Epiphany is to do something that seems impossible. We are exploring ways in which we can speak of the God who is incomprehensible. St. Augustine said that if we think we understand God, then what we have understood is not God. But, even if we can’t fully understand God’s nature, there are metaphors and analogies that allow us to speak of God, even if we do so imperfectly. 

The witness of Scripture is that God is love, and if we claim to know God, then our lives will be marked by love. Even if our definitions of love are imperfect, and God exceeds those definitions, something of God’s nature has been revealed in our own experiences and expressions of human love. Whatever God’s love is, it cannot be less than human love.  While the definitions of love that I drew from Tom Oord and Paul Tillich may seem a bit abstract, they point us in the right direction.

If you look at the sermon title, you will hopefully see a connection between it and the message of 1 John 4. I have in mind the confession that Jesus is the one who embodies God’s perfect love.  John tells his readers that the nature of God’s love has been revealed in God’s decision to send “his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (v. 9).  

We’ll talk more next week about the ways in which God is revealed to us, but for John, this love is revealed to us when we live in Christ. For John this is expressed in  Jesus becoming the “atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 

Now there is too much to unpack in this statement about the atonement to explore here, but the message I hear in this passage is this – God loves us so much that God is willing to risk the life of the Son to bring healing to the rift that exists between God and humanity and within the created order itself.

Although Christian tradition has primarily described God in terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the over-use of Father and Son language can lead us, as we discovered last week, to think of God as being a male. But the symbolism here is important – not in terms of the maleness – but in terms of the relationship of parent and child. In this context, we should think in terms of adult relationships between parents and children. In this case, the relationship is between equal partners.  A mother-daughter relationship could just as easily express this vision of a parent-child partnership of equals.  However this takes place, God has intentionally taken steps in partnership with Jesus to promote the over-all well-being of God’s creation.

As we consider what it means for God not only to love, but to be love itself, then we will want to use relational terms to describe this love. One of the first things we need to recognize is that God in God’s self is not a solitary being. One of the reasons why I hold on to the confession that Trinity is the proper way to name God is that it expresses this sense of relationship. Therefore, even as love is the defining characteristic of God’s own nature, the witness of Scripture is that if we know God then we have been drawn into this fellowship of love. 

The question is – how do we speak of this loving relationship? One way is to look for metaphors and analogies that speak of intimate relationship and care for the other.  One of the most powerful images is where Jesus stands on the hill overlooking Jerusalem and laments its fate. He wanted to reach out to Jerusalem and save it, even as it careened toward destruction.  So, he cries out: “How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Matthew 23:37-39).  Yes, Jesus described himself as a mother hen seeking to protect her children by gathering them up under her wings.

Or consider the image found in the Song of Moses – where God is compared to a mother Eagle. 

“Like an eagle that rouses her chicks
    and hovers over her young,
so he spread his wings to take them up
    and carried them safely on his pinions.” (Deuteronomy 32:11 NLT).

Even though the New Living Translation uses masculine pronouns for God, it recognizes that it is the mother eagle who bears her children up on her wings, both to protect them and to teach them to fly.  God in this image is seeking to protect us and to teach us so we too can fly. God’s intention, like the Mother Eagle, is to promote our over-all well-being.

Who is God?  God is love.  Whatever we imagine love to be, God is both that and more.  When we use analogies to speak of God, we not only make an affirmation, we also offer a negation, which allows us to make a further  affirmation.  While we might not be able to offer a precise definition of love, if we love one another, then we are expressing the love that is God who dwells within us by the Holy Spirit. 

In closing I want to share this word from theologian Elizabeth Johnson, whose book She Who Is, is proving to be very helpful in my own reimagining the God who is for us. Drawing from St. Thomas Aquinas, she writes:
Divine love is similar to human love in the sense that it is a binding, unitive force, always tending toward the ones loved and willing the good for them.  Unlike human love, however, which is a response to goodness already there, God’s love creates goodness, making the creature lovable. [She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discoursep. 142]. 

Therefore, while “no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). Yes, in Christ God’s perfect love has been embodied.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Epiphany 2B
January 18, 2015