Sunday, June 24, 2018

Living in Unity -- Sermon for Pentecost 5B (Psalm 133)

Psalm 133
The 133rd Psalm is one of my favorite passages of Scripture, because it speaks to one of my passions in life. That passion is the pursuit of Christian unity. It’s a blessing to hear the words: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” This is especially true when the course of history seems to be pulling nation and world further and further apart.

The Psalmist reminds us that there is a better way, a way of unity. Perhaps this is why I was moved so powerfully the other evening, as  the Madrigal Chorale brought their concert to a close by singing Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Yes: 
I see trees of green........ Red roses too 
I see em bloom..... For me and for you 
And I think to myself.... What a wonderful world.
Yes, what a wonderful world we live in, a world of God’s creation.
Our Disciple identity statement offers a vision of wholeness taking hold in a fragmented world. This is a movement that begins at the Lord’s Table where all are welcome and extends to the ends of the earth. Our identity statement is another way of describing our polar star, our call to pursue unity not only among Christians, but ultimately with all of humanity. Our calling to unity is rooted in a broader call to join in God’s mission of reconciliation and redemption.

I share this passion for unity and wholeness with Edgar DeWitt Jones, who is in many ways the founding pastor our congregation. He gave a speech many years ago to the International Convention of the Christian Churches (Disciples of Christ) that focused on the Disciples’ relationship to the Federal of Council of Churches. He had recently been elected as President of this Council representing twenty-three denominations, and he reminded his Disciples kindred that “the union of all the churches was, and is, the plea of the Disciples. For this were they born. For this cause they came into the world.” There is a sense of urgency to Jones’ message to the Disciples. He also lived in difficult times. The effects of the Great Depression were still being felt and war with Germany and possibly Japan seemed likely. He believed that the church’s mission in this world depended on its unity. 
Some things have changed since 1938, which have diminished the urgency to engage in the kind of ecumenical work that Jones embraced. Since we’re living in a post-denominational age, denominational boundaries and traditions no longer seem to be important. So, maybe that original vision Jones mentioned has been achieved, and we can move onto other things. That may be true, but the ecumenical vision of Campbell, Stone, and Jones still resonates in my heart.

The 133rd Psalm is numbered among the Songs of Ascent. These are songs pilgrims sang as they made their way to Jerusalem for festivals. Picture in your mind this countless throng of people making their way to the sacred city. In the course of their journey they get to know each other, and begin sharing stories and songs that bring them together in a common purpose. They may have started out alone, but the journey brings them together as sisters and brothers.   

There is a modern parallel to these ancient pilgrimages that goes back to the ninth century. You may have heard of the Camino de Santiago de Compostella. It’s a five hundred-mile route running from France to the purported tomb of St. James in northwest Spain. It takes about a month to walk the route, but it’s not so much about the destination as the journey. I have at least one friend who has made the journey, and Diana recently told me she was interested in making the journey. I’m not sure I’m up to it, but these kinds of pilgrimages have been taking place for millennia. So let us join together in the pursuit of our unity in Christ as “we’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion; we’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.” May we sing songs of praise and thanksgiving along the way. 

The Psalmist not only believes this unity is good and pleasant, but it also brings with it a sense of divine abundance. 
“It is like the precious oil on the head,  
running down upon the beard, 
 on the beard of Aaron,  
running down over the collar of his robes.” 
This is the oil used to anoint Aaron as Israel’s priest, and it’s not just a dab of oil, like we might use to make the sign of a cross. Think of the alabaster jar of ointment that the woman broke open over Jesus’ head as he dined in Bethany in the days before his death on the cross. Not everyone approved of her gift. There were some who thought it was wasteful, but Jesus commended her because she was preparing him for burial (Mk. 14:3-9). The context is different, but both of the Psalm and the woman’s gift are signs of God’s abundance.  

We also see this abundance revealed in the word about the dew of Mount Hermon, which falls on the Mountains of Zion. It’s important to remember that Mount Hermon is located in the north, and Zion in the south of Israel. It’s possible the Psalm is calling for unity between separated nations. How good and pleasant it would be if Israel and Judah were again reunited. There is a similar hope today among the ten million Koreans whose families have been separated since the end of World War II led to the division of Korea into North and South. Many live in hope that peace can be achieved and families and nations can be reunited. Something similar is true of families separated at our southern border. How good and pleasant it is when parent and child are reunited. These forms of unity are signs of divine abundance.

My commitment to the cause of unity is rooted in my diverse religious background. As I’ve shared before, I’ve been Episcopalian, Pentecostal, Independent Christian Church, Baptist, Presbyterian, Evangelical Covenant, and finally Disciple. Back when I was a student at Northwest Christian College, I first learned about the Disciples and its plea for unity from my history professor, Dennis Helsabeck. Dennis introduced me to the Campbells and Stone and their vision of unity. He also introduced me to the Restoration plea, but that’s for another day. Ever since I was introduced to the Disciple commitment to Christian unity I’ve been drawn to the vision Thomas Campbell laid out in the Declaration and Address: 
That the Church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one; consisting of all those in every place that profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him in all things according to the Scriptures, and that manifest the same by their tempers and conduct, and none else; as none else can be truly and properly called Christians.
Campbell recognized that the church exists in “particular and distinct societies,” but he believed that there shouldn’t be any “uncharitable divisions among them.” This is a grand vision that we’ve struggled to fulfill, but it’s still worth pursuing. This is where Barton Stone’s vision of unity being our polar star comes in. It sets the course for us to follow.

I once preached a sermon for an ecumenical gathering that took this passage as its foundation. We were celebrating the inauguration of Christian Churches Uniting in Christ, which is the successor to the Consultation on Church Union. We gathered  to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as one community in Christ, without denominational distinction. Unfortunately CUiC’s witness has faded with time, but the cause of unity is still with us. This cause can take different forms, one of which is the call to face the challenges of our nation’s racial divide. This is one of CUiC’s core principles, and it’s one that’s needed in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and the uptick in anti-immigrant nativism in our country.

We can take this vision a step further. Derek Sunderman, in his commentary on this passage, connects the words of Psalm 122:6, which is a prayer for the peace of Jerusalem, with Psalm 133. He writes: “We pray for the day when Jewish, Muslim, and Christian inhabitants may say together ‘how very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity.” [Fortress Commentary on the Bible, Kindle loc. 19256-19267]. To that, I say amen! It will be very good and pleasant when we live together in unity, whether in Jerusalem or here in the United States.

 Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
June 24, 2018
Pentecost 5B

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Harvest Time - Sermon for Pentecost 4B (Mark 4:26-34).

Mark 4:26-34

We just finished studying the Gospel of Mark in the Wednesday afternoon Bible Study. Our group discovered that Mark is full of surprises. His gospel proclaims the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1), but for some reason Jesus tries to keep this news a secret.  Even though the disciples spend their days and nights with Jesus, only the demons seem to recognize him for who he is.

When you read Mark, it’s difficult to set aside stories from Matthew, Luke, and John. We want to read into Mark’s story what we know from the other gospels, but if we do this, we won’t hear Mark’s version of the story. There is one word that stands out. That word is “immediately.” Mark’s story moves quickly. He rarely stops to let Jesus catch his breath. He starts with the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan at the hands of John the Baptizer. Mark doesn’t have an infancy narrative. His family appears only once and they come to take home, because they thought he had lost his mind. Jesus’ story starts at the Jordan, where he hears the voice of God declaring: “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” This is where the good news of God’s realm begins. This is where a seed gets planted that in time will bear fruit. It starts small, but it will grow over time. Then, you have to be ready to put the sickle in and take the harvest. 

Since Mark is more interested in action than words, we rarely hear Jesus’ voice. While Mark tells us that Jesus spoke only in parables, there are only two collections of parables in Mark’s Gospel, one of which is found in Mark 4. That chapter has four parables, three of which are seed parables, while the fourth parable warns against placing your lamp under a bushel basket. This morning we’re focusing on two parables, the Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed. While we didn’t read the  “Parable of the Sower” (Mk 4:1-9), it sets up our parables. If we’re going to understand these two parables we need to know how Jesus uses the word “seed” in these three parables. After he tells the “Parable of the Sower,” he explains it to his disciples, and he tells them that the “seed” is the “Word” of God. 

We’re fortunate that Mark gives us this key, because without it we might be just as confused as Jesus’ original audience. Now that we know what the sower sows, we can look at the other components of these two parables. The first question has to do with the identity of the sower. Then you have to deal with the soil and the harvester in the first parable. Then, there is the matter of the Mustard Seed, which starts small and grows large enough to provide safe shelter for the birds. 

When it comes to the identity of the sower, we have several options. The Sower could be God, or it might be us. There could be other options as well. For our purposes, I’m going with the idea that each of us is the  sower. The task of scattering the seed upon the land belongs to each of us.

Then there is the matter of the soil, which plays an important role in the first parable. If you look at verse 28, you will hear Jesus telling us that the “earth produces itself.” The NRSV uses the word produces to translate the Greek automate. Isn’t that interesting? It seems that Jesus is telling us that when the sower sows the seed, which is the Word of God, upon the soil, it will automatically start fulfilling its purpose. Even if the sower doesn’t understand how this happens, nature takes its course. At some point, the stalk emerges, and then the head, and then finally the mature plant emerges. Amy Jill Levine points out that when it comes to the  “when” and the “where” of the kingdom of God’s arrival, we need to understand that “the when is in its own good time—as long as it takes for the seed to sprout and dough to rise. The where is that it is already present, inchoate in the world. The kingdom is present when humanity and nature work together, and we do what we were put here to do—to go out on a limb to provide for others, and ourselves as well” [Short Stories by Jesus, p. 182]. When the plant ripens, the harvester needs to go out and “immediately” put the sickle to the plants, and bring in the harvest. Don’t wait. Get out and take in the harvest. In Mark’s view, there is no room for procrastination.     

Even though Mark tells us that the seed represents the Word, there is more than one variety of seed in the world. Different seeds produce different plants. Pine cone seeds produce pine trees. Cottonwood seeds produce cottonwood tries. Corn produces corn. Maybe that applies to the realm of God. Different seeds produce different facets of God’s realm. When it comes to the mustard seed, it might be the smallest of all seeds, but given time it will grow into the “greatest of all shrubs.” According to Jesus, it fulfills its purpose when it puts forth branches so that the birds can make nests in its shade. It might start out small, but it has a purpose, and that is to provide safe nesting space for the birds. Yes, small seeds can become great things.  It just takes time. 

If each of us sows seeds, what kind of seeds are you sowing? Are they gospel seeds? Do they reflect God’s values? The good news is that the  soil is ready to receive the seeds we scatter upon the land. These seeds will bear fruit, but the fruit depends on the seed. 

We live in challenging times. Even though the economy seems to be getting better, and the nuclear threat seems to be diminished, we still seem unsettled. For one thing, there is a growing coarseness in our society. Seeds of discord and hate are being sown in our midst. It’s easy to get sucked in, but we don’t have to play that game. We have in our hands, seeds of the kingdom, ready to be sown. These seeds produce a message of love, mercy, justice, and peace. I believe that the soil is ready to receive the message. People are crying out for a different word, and I believe that Jesus has given us that word.

One seed being sown this week concerns the government separating children from  their parents at the border. Religious leaders have been speaking out, letting the government know that these are immoral actions. When the Attorney General tried to justify his policies by quoting from Romans 13, people of faith from the Roman Catholic Church to Southern Baptists to Disciples of Christ, have let him know that this is a misinterpretation that can lead to evil things. Yes, a seed of the kingdom has been sown.

Rick mentioned another seed last Sunday at the Table. He mentioned that June is Pride Month. He reminded us that many LGBTQ folks and their families have found themselves excluded from the Table, and many have heard hateful messages coming from Christian communities. It shouldn’t surprise us that many have concluded that churches aren’t safe spaces for everyone, but I believe our decision, which wasn’t easy, to become an opening and affirming congregation has sown a seed of hope. It may take time for that seed to fully mature, but I do believe the soil is producing something special. We see this emerging plant symbolized by the rainbow flag flying by our sign. John McCauslin planted that seed, which I believe is a sign that a seed of the kingdom has been sown in our community. It signals that this is a place of welcome to everyone who has experienced exclusion. It is a seed of welcome, which is an expression of God’s realm.

These are but a few of the seeds that have been sown. Other seeds might include a kind word spoken to a person who feels alone and abandoned. Recently I was walking with a friend who is running for political office. We were doing a bit of canvassing in a Troy neighborhood, and one of the people we talked to was an older man who spends his days and nights caring for his bedridden wife. He shared with us how being a care-giver can be lonely. He spoke of his concerns about the price of medicine. Maybe all we accomplished was listening to his concerns, but I believe that a seed of hope was planted in his life. There are many varieties of seeds that we have at our disposal to scatter across the land so that the Gospel might take root. We just need to let them fall on the soil, and the soil will do its part. At least that’s what Jesus says!

The communion hymn for today is “Seed, Scattered, and Sown.” It reminds us that when we gather at the Table, and share in the Bread and the cup, we share in our Lord. The Lord’s Table is a sign of God’s realm. It is a reminder that seed has been scattered and sown, and now stands ready to be harvested and turned into the “Living Bread of God,” which is itself a sign of God’s realm on earth as in heaven.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
June 17, 2018
Pentecost 4B

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Give Thanks with a Grateful Heart - Sermon for Pentecost 3B

Psalm 138

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a brief introduction to the Book of Psalms. He titled it The Prayerbook of the Bible, because he believed that these prayers form the foundation for all our prayers, especially when we offer them in the name of Jesus. This is what he wrote:  
God’s speech in Jesus Christ meets us in the Holy Scriptures. If we want to pray with assurance and joy, then the word of Holy Scripture must be the firm foundation of our prayer. Here we know that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, teaches us to pray. The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God. [Life Together/Prayerbook of the Bible, DBW, 5:156].
We approach God with prayers and hymns drawn from Scripture, offering words of praise and thanksgiving, as well as lamentation and complaint.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Lord of the Sabbath -- Pentecost 2B

Mark 2:23-3:6

The Fourth Commandment of the Law revealed to Moses declares: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” Are you a sabbath-keeper who keeps it holy?

The Puritans were committed Sabbath-keepers. They believed that the Sabbath should be devoted to worship and living as sinless a life as possible on that day. Sabbath-keeping included refraining from profane speech or intemperate behavior. The best way to keep the Sabbath holy is to stay away from any worldly activities. In fact, you should refrain from even talking or thinking about worldly things. Instead, be sure to keep your mind on the things of God, and nothing else. So, are you a sabbath-keeper? 

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Voice of God -- A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Psalm 29

Have you heard the voice of God lately? Did you hear it in the “still, small voice” that spoke to Elijah? (1 Kings 19). Did you hear it coming out from a burning bush? Did you hear it in the thunder and lightening of the recent storms? Do you hear God speaking through Scripture or maybe through conversations with people of wisdom and grace? 

Last Sunday we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit, who empowers and inspires the church for mission. We listened to the words of Romans 8, hoping to hear a word from God. In that passage, Paul writes that when we don’t have words to speak, the Spirit interprets our groans and sighs to the Father (Rom. 8:22-27). That must mean God hears our voices. That is good news, but what about us? How do we hear God’s voice? 

As we gather this morning on what the liturgical calendar calls Trinity Sunday, we are invited to contemplate the very nature of God. We are invited to ask the question: Who is God? As we ask that question, we can also ask how God, who is unseen, speaks to us? 

One of the reasons why I like to celebrate Trinity Sunday is it reminds us that God is greater than we can imagine. God’s nature is complex and even mysterious. As theologians have discovered, God is known only as God chooses to reveal God’s self. That is the message of the incarnation. The Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us so we might know God (Jn 1:14). As theologians down through the ages have learned, knowing God starts with faith, and faith involves trust, and then it moves toward understanding. This is a life-long process.

 This morning we have heard the words of Psalm 29, which may be one of the oldest passages of the Bible. It addresses one part of the divine complexity. Seven times the psalmist speaks of the “the voice of the Lord,” which is powerful and full of majesty. The Psalm begins with an invitation to “ascribe to the LORD glory and strength,” and to “worship the LORD in holy splendor.” This invitation comes with a word about the “voice of the LORD” that thunders across the waters and the dry land. This  voice of the LORD “breaks the cedars of Lebanon” and “flashes forth flames of fire.” This is no “still, small voice.” This is something much bigger and more powerful. In fact, it has the character of a hurricane. 

We experience severe storms here in Michigan, but they never get to hurricane strength. At least that’s true since I’ve lived here. But, the Psalmist clearly has a hurricane in mind. Even if we have never experienced a hurricane, we know from watching news reports how powerful they can become. While I don’t believe that God sends hurricanes, which destroy and kill. Psalm 29 envisions the voice of God in terms of the hurricane-force storms that brew up on the Mediterranean Sea, and then strikes violent blows against the coast of Lebanon, and then move inland into the wilderness. These powerful storms wreak havoc all along the way, stripping bare the trees and setting the forests ablaze. Yes, the LORD shakes the wilderness. This storm metaphor is the counterpoint to Elijah’s “still small voice.” It reminds us that God is sovereign over all things and exhibits overwhelming power.  

There are, of course, other visions of God present in scripture, including the declaration that God is love (1 Jn 4:7-8). That image offers another component to our understanding of God’s nature. God is love and God is power, and both are true. This morning we are invited to embrace this seemingly contradictory message as a way of celebrating the fullness of God’s nature, where love and power come together in creative and redemptive ways.  

In his reflection on this Psalm, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “Psalm 29 allows us to wonder at the fearful power of God in the thunder, and yet its goal lies in the power, the blessing, and the peace which God sends to God’s people” [Works, 5:163]. So, while the psalm begins by celebrating God’s power and glory, it ends with the promise of peace. Putting this in Trinitarian terms, we might say that the God of Israel is at work bringing salvation to God’s creation through Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

As we attend to this Psalm, we’re invited to join the heavenly beings who gather in the presence of God to ascribe to the LORD “glory and strength.” Earlier this morning we sang “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God almighty!” These words are drawn from Isaiah 6, where the prophet stands before the throne of God and is overwhelmed by what he sees and hears. Isaiah not only sees the face of God, but he hears the voice of God asking: “Whom shall I send?” Although he feels unworthy to even be in this place, when the call comes, Isaiah answers— “here am I, send me.” (Isaiah 6:1-8).

Both the Psalmist and Isaiah remind us that God speaks to us. That is, If we’re open to hearing God’s voice. Iwan Russell-Jones puts it this way:
Psalm 29 bears witness to a God who speaks—creatively, articulately, and meaningfully—and who draws human beings into the conversation. It points to the Trinitarian God who is transcendent and immanent, revealed in the earthquake and the still, small voice, present at Sinai and Bethlehem, the Lord of heaven and earth. [Feasting on the Word, p. 36].  

Russell-Jones emphasizes the word and, because the word and reminds us that God transcends our definitions. The Psalm reminds us that God reigns from on high, but Scripture also reminds us that God is present with us, by the Spirit, in every moment of every day. God is both present in the storm that demonstrates God’s power, but God is also present in that still, small voice that Elijah heard, which nudges us and encourages us to partner with God in God’s mission in the world.

One of the reasons why I embrace the doctrine of the Trinity as a way of speaking of God, is that it reflects that dynamic tension between power and love. Even though I put my emphasis on love, Scripture also calls us to remember that we are not God. We are not the creator or the redeemer or the sustainer of all things. We have been invited to be partners with God, in God’s work of establishing the kingdom, but we are not the architects. 

As we reflect on the nature of God, and the ways in which God speaks to us, this Psalm calls forth a sense of awe. Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote that “awe precedes faith; it is at the root of faith. We must grow in awe in order to reach faith.” [The Wisdom of Heschel, loc. 351]. That is the message we hear in Psalm 29, and in Isaiah 6, where the prophet falls on his face after seeing the throne of God. He is so overwhelmed by what he sees and hears, that he cries out: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts” (Is. 6:5). Even though he feels unworthy to stand before God, it’s at that moment that one of the seraphim, the heavenly beings serving before God, takes a living coal from the altar and touches his lips, cleansing him so that he can speak on God’s behalf. After this, he is ready to answer the call of God: “here am I, send me!”  What was true for Isaiah is true for us, as we stand in awe before the throne of God. 

Psalm 29 focuses on God’s transcendent power. It’s not the only voice that speaks to us, but it is an important one. It reminds us that “our God is an awesome God,” and that the Lord is enthroned forever. It is from that throne that God blesses the people with strength and peace. We, like Isaiah, have been called by God to bear witness to this promise. 

And with the hosts of heaven we sing out praises to the God whose glory is revealed in Jesus, our Savior, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, bringing peace to our lives.

Together with the hosts of heaven, we sing:
Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name in earth and sky and sea;
holy, holy, holy! Merciful and Mighty; 
God in three persons, blessed Trinity! 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Trinity Sunday
May 27, 2018