Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Giving Table -- A Stewardship Sermon

Matthew 26:26-29



It is stewardship season once again. This means that the council members are making out budgets to fund next year’s ministries.  The budget covers things like church maintenance, staff salaries, and funding for the ministries and mission we engage in.

Budget-making requires both realism and faith. We can’t spend more than we take in through pledges, offerings, and endowment earnings, which means that if you’re not up-to-date on your pledge – Wynn Miller would like to see you!  After all, we can’t pay our bills with promises of future income.  At the same time the budget needs to be a document of faith. It needs to tell a story about our vision as a congregation. While we’ve not yet developed what is called a Narrative Budget that focuses more on the mission than numbers, our budget should express a vision for mission and ministry. So, when we write a budget we need to leave some room to grow in our generosity and vision for mission.  

During “stewardship season” I usually preach at least two stewardship sermons.  In the first sermon I usually introduce the topic of stewardship and then at the end preach about thanksgiving.  This year, I’m going to double that number and preach four stewardship sermons, which will be centered around the theme “From Bread and Wine to Faith and Giving.”  These passages of Scripture selected by our friend Ron Allen of Christian Theological Seminary focus our attention on the Table and on the continuing presence of Jesus as we join God in making present the realm of God on earth as in heaven.  

Since this is the first sermon in the series, I thought it might be good to think about why people give to the church.  I expect that some of you give out of a sense of duty.  This is what religious people do! It’s like paying your taxes.  Speaking of taxes, maybe some of you give to the church because you’ll get a tax deduction.  It’s better to give to the church than the government – right?  Maybe you do it because you want to support a certain ministry of the church – like the children’s ministry or the pastor’s salary!  Of course, some might give hoping that by making a contribution to the church you can assuage feelings of guilt and perhaps buy a little grace from God.  Hey, it helped to build St. Peter’s!  Or, perhaps you see it as  buying a ticket to a show – and what a show it is!

I know that the Treasurer and the Stewardship Chair are happy to receive your offerings in whatever form they come – whether with clean or guilty consciences.  But, there has to be something more than these reasons that leads us to give?

The Scripture for today is a familiar one.  It is one of several accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. We hear some form of these words every Sunday as we gather at the Table.

Remember how Jesus gathered his disciples together for a final meal – which probably coincided with the Passover meal.  As the meal came to a close, Jesus took bread and he gave it to his disciples and said to them – “Take eat, this is my body.”  Then he took the cup, and again he gave thanks to God. When Jesus finished his prayer of thanksgiving, he gave the cup to the disciples and he said to them:  “This is my blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.”

Did you catch the words “gave” and “give” in this passage?  Yes, Jesus gave thanks to God and he gave bread and cup to the disciples. As he did this, he connected his actions with the covenant he wanted to make with them.  He told them that as they received these elements representing his own body and blood given on the cross that they would also receive forgiveness of sins.

The Table highlights Jesus’ own gift of himself to further the mission of God.  That mission, according to Richard Rohr was forgiveness and inclusion. He writes:

 Forgiveness and inclusion are Jesus’ “great themes.” They are the practical name of love, and without forgiveness and inclusivity love is largely a sentimental valentine. They are also the two practices that most undercut human violence. [Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality.   [Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 151]  
On the cross, Jesus faces down the powers-that-be who continually seek to exclude and dominate. He overcomes them by giving of himself freely. In his willingness to go to the cross, Jesus turns the Tables and brings into existence a new realm where old debts are forgiven and the world is invited in to share the fruit of the vine and the bread of life.

In coming to the Table we are connected to the power of Jesus’ gift. We are nourished by it so we can continue our journey with the God who has covenanted with us, the God who stands with us and goes with us on this journey.

At the end of the passage Jesus tells the disciples that “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” That sounds like it is off in the distance, but if we understand Jesus to be present with us at the Table, then perhaps he is already sharing the fruit of the vine with us as a sign that the kingdom is already present.  It may not be here in its fullness but as the gathered body of Christ we have the opportunity to share the healing presence of Jesus with the world, so that it might know forgiveness and inclusion.

So what does this have to do with stewardship?

In my mind, when we give our offerings through the church, we commit ourselves – our talents, our time, and yes our finances -- to the work of the kingdom. We invest in that which we believe in. If we believe in Jesus’ work and in the realm he seeks to inaugurate, then we will invest ourselves in that work. In our society nothing better symbolizes investment than money.

I must confess that I’m still growing in my sense of stewardship. It is not easy to set aside money to give to the church. Like everyone we have bills to pay,  and we would like to enjoy the fruit of our labor as well. But giving is a discipline that incorporates us into the life of Jesus.

One of the criticisms of the “institutional church” is that it is always asking for money. After all, don’t we pass the plate every Sunday?  Why not find other ways of supporting the work? Maybe we could turn to a fee for services basis.  If you want a particular hymn sung, that will cost you $50.  If you want a pastoral visit that will be $250.  Maybe passing the plate isn’t that bad an idea!

It is good to note that in our own context the taking of the offering is an act of worship that is connected to the Lord’s Supper.  We gather together at the Table by singing a Communion hymn.  Then an Elder issues the invitation to give. We bring those gifts back the Table by singing some form of a doxology, giving glory to God for the blessings of this life, and then that same Elder blesses the offering.  After we share in this act of giving, we move on to another act of giving.  As we share the Communion, by receiving bread and cup, we receive the benefits of Jesus’ own gift of his body and his blood – offered up that we might receive forgiveness along with an invitation to enter the blessings of God’s realm.

The theme of this stewardship season is “From Bread and Wine to Faith and Giving: A Journey Into the Spiritual Discipline of Generosity Around the Table of Jesus.”  So, let us begin our journey of growing into the generosity that begins at the Table of Jesus.  

 Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
October 26, 2014
Pentecost 20A       

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Arguing with God -- Sermon for Pentecost 19A

Exodus 33:12-23


Is it okay to argue with God?  Moses thought so.  So did Abraham. You might say that to argue with God is to intercede with God. And it seems as if God invites us to bring our concerns into God’s presence.

As we bring our journey through Exodus to a close, the people are about to leave Sinai. They can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  There’s only one problem, God isn’t sure whether to continue on with them.  God has had enough dealing with this “stiff-necked people,” and while God hasn’t unleashed his wrath on them, he’s not sure how long this can continue.  Apparently, that Golden Calf affair was the last straw.

If God isn’t sure whether it’s a good idea to continue on, Moses won’t hear of it.  To Moses, there’s no point going on to the Promised Land without God.

This story pictures God as something of a frustrated parent.  Like parents often do, God has thrown up his hands because these children won’t stop acting up.  So, like many a frustrated parent God wants to tell these belligerent children to leave the house and not let the door hit their backside.  Yes, go get a job. Support yourself.  I don’t care if you’re just six years old.  It’s time to grow up! Of course the nation of Israel is older than a six-year-old!

When Moses hears this, he decides to intervene between a frustrated God and an ungrateful and combative community. In doing this, Moses performs a priestly role.   He does this because he understands that God is the glue that holds the nation together. Their identity is linked to God and so Moses feels the need to reconnect the two.  And, in the end God agrees to go with the people.

Moses did his part, but now he wants something from God. He wants a further sign of God’s faithfulness.  If he has truly found favor in the eyes of God, then he wants to move a step closer to the presence of God. No more clouds and burning bushes.  Moses wants to see the full glory of God. He wants to see God face to face.  

Moses understands that our identity is defined by the presence of God in our midst.  What is the church if not for the presence of God?  Are we just another social group or service organization?  It’s good to socialize and work for the common good, but does that define the church’s identity?  Or, is our life together defined by our common faith in Jesus who reveals to us the face of God?

Paul writes in Romans 6 that in baptism we leave behind the old life and are raised to a new life in Christ. I believe this to be true, but when I look at my life I have to ask – what makes me different because I claim to be a follower of Jesus?  When I’m out in the community, how is Jesus forming my vision? Am I operating out of a merely political vision that is linked to a particular political party or to my national allegiance?  Or am I looking at the world through the eyes of Jesus?

In the gospel reading for today, the question of taxes comes up. Jesus asks his opponents about the image on the coin.  Whose is it?  They say Caesar’s.  Then Jesus says – give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s?  And what belongs to God?  It’s not just an offering put in the plate when it’s passed on a Sunday morning.  No, what belongs to God is our very lives. We are, as it is stated clearly in Genesis 1, the image of God.  (Matthew 22:15-23)

Moses understands that without the presence of God the nation of Israel is just another collection of tribes. There’s nothing distinct about them.  So, if they enter the land without God, then the people will eventually disappear.  They will fade into the landscape.

God hears Moses’ concerns and agrees to them, because Moses has found favor in God’s sight.  He has proven himself to be faithful. He has understood that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  The writer of Hebrews commends Moses for “choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (vs. 25).  In other words he traded the glory of Egypt for the trials of God’s people.

Moses understood that the journey would be difficult.  But, in this particular moment, Moses decided to ask for something more.  He also was tired of dealing with this “stiff-necked people,” and so he asked God if he could see God’s glory.  He accepted God’s word about continuing on, but even he needs just a bit more assurance.  He had encountered God in a burning bush and in a cloud, but now he wants to see God face to face.  Moses says to God – “show me your glory, I pray.”

Although Deuteronomy closes by saying that Moses knew the LORD face to face (Deut. 34:10), in Exodus God tells Moses that no one can see God’s face and survive.  So the best that God can do is let Moses catch God passing by, while Moses hides in the cleft of the rocks.  God puts a hand over the eyes of Moses until he has passed by the rocks. Moses gets a quick glimpse, but that’s all.  This peek at God’s back will have to suffice.

Moses got to see the glory of God, but it seems to have cost him something. He gets to see the land of promise, but he doesn’t get to settle in it.  Instead, he died and was buried by God in an unmarked grave in the desert of Moab, just short of the goal.

The message here is that no one can see the face of God and live.  This isn’t, however, the final word.  The face of God is mediated to us in the person of Jesus.  In him we come face to face with what Karl Barth calls the “humanity of God.” Barth puts it this way: 
Jesus Christ is in his one person, as true God, man’s loyal partner, and as true man, God’s.  He is the Lord humbled for communion with man and likewise the Servant exalted to communion with God.  [The Humanity of God, p. 46].
Moses gets to encounter the glory of God, and gets confirmation that God’s presence will continue with the people. It is interesting that as the Exodus story continues, the people build a tabernacle and an ark – at God’s request – to contain the signs of God’s presence.  It appears that going forward, God will be present but God is putting a comfortable distance between the people and himself (Exodus 40:34-37).  As I read the text, I wonder if something else isn’t going on. Even as they made a golden calf to worship, could it be that this tent and this ark are boxes in which God is being placed, so God can be more controllable?

Is this something we do as well?  Do we try to control God’s movements by putting God in a box of our own devising?  Do we expect God to follow our rules and hang out in our building?

The good news is that God cannot be contained in anything we try to create.  God can use our creations, but God can’t be contained by them.  And while leaders are needed for the church to function, the church’s identity isn’t defined by its leaders.  Instead, it is the presence of God, that is made visible for us in Jesus.  In him we see the fullness of God’s presence without being consumed by it.  Instead, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds  (Romans 12:1-2).

As we saw last week, the people chose the tangible, the Golden Calf to represent for them God. This wasn’t the God who spoke to them through Moses. This was a god whom they created and sought to control.  Even Moses struggled with this. He understood more than most of his fellow travelers what it means to walk by faith rather than sight, but he too wanted assurance.  It is a normal request, but the journey forward is one we take by faith and not by sight. As we go forward in the presence of God, we get to participate in creating the future God envisions.  As Brian McLaren puts it:
The road of faith is not finished.  There is beautiful land ahead, terra nova waiting to be explored.  It will take a lot of us, journeying together, to make the road.  I hope you’ll be part of the adventure.  The Christian faith is still learning, growing, and changing, and so are we. [ We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation,  p. xiv].
Let us, therefore, continue the journey toward the Promised Land in the presence of God, so that we might be transformed by that journey into the people whom God has envisioned us to be.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 19A
October 19, 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

God Under Control -- Sermon for Pentecost 18A

"The Adoration of the Golden Calf” – Nicolas Poussin (1633-4)

Exodus 32:1-14

Last Sunday Rick preached on the Ten Commandments – the biblical ones, not the movie! According to the Exodus story, these commandments define God’s covenant expectations. In making the covenant with Israel, God said to them – I will bless you, but this is what I expect of you in return. The commandments begin with this proclamation:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Ex. 20:1-4).
The point being – there is just one God, and don’t make images of God.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Where Is the Water? -- Sermon from Exodus 17 for Pentecost 16A


Exodus 17:1-7

The Psalmist cries out:

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
    my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
    as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.  (Psalm 63:1)

Here in Michigan we don’t live in a “dry and weary land where there is no water.” No, we live in a state that is surrounded by 20% of the world’s fresh water.  So, thirst isn’t at the top of our concerns – is it?  

But, if you’ve ever traveled through the desert, you’ve seen a “dry and wear land.”  Just looking out the window at the desolate landscape can make you thirsty.  You might even begin to get an uneasy feeling, fearing what would happen if the car stalled. What would you do?  Did you bring enough water with you?  While many plants and animals that have adapted to the desert, human beings aren’t quite so well equipped.

As we think about the importance of water, perhaps we can look farther afield – to outer space.  I was listening to Science Friday on NPR and a University of Michigan scientist was talking about the possible discovery of water on a planet 170 light years away. That’s exciting because the presence of water means that life might be present there. Without water life can’t exist, so scientists look for it when they’re exploring the stars and planets.  In fact, it’s good to remember that our bodies, on average, are composed of about 65% water.  Some of us have more than others, but if you take away the water, we won’t exist.

So it’s no wonder water plays an important role in the biblical story.  If we go back to the beginning, we find that the Spirit hovers over the waters of chaos (Genesis 1:2).  God will divide these waters to form the dry land upon which we human beings will live.  Water gives life, but as the story of Noah reminds us – it can also take life.  Drought brought Israel to Egypt and then Israel escaped Egypt by marching through the Sea and into the desert, where they finally experienced freedom.  

Water also appears in the New Testament story.  John baptizes with water as a sign of repentance, and Jesus begins his own ministry in the waters of baptism.  Jesus will walk on the water and calm the sea.  On the Day of Pentecost those who follow Jesus are baptized – as is the household of Cornelius, welcoming the Gentiles into the community of faith.

This morning we get another snapshot of Israel’s journey from slavery to the Promised Land and water figures prominently in this episode.  When they set up camp at Rephidim they discover that there isn’t any water, because this is a “dry and weary land.”  They begin to complain – so loudly that Moses starts fearing for his life.  They cry out: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”  They understood that without access to fresh water, they would die and so they had begun to wonder where God was leading them, and if God was even with them.  Once again it seemed as if Moses was leading them to their deaths – and they weren’t happy about it.  Even Moses begins to wonder what God is up to.

Moses may be impatient – I would be impatient – but God is patient with this people whom God is molding into a community.  It seems as if God is testing their resolve.  But, apparently God had seen enough, and so God directs Moses to strike a group of rocks with the staff he struck the Nile with.  When he does this, the water begins to flow and the people are saved.  Now they have all the water they could want.  The question is – do they trust God to provide?  

It is good to remember that once again God taps into nature’s abundance to sustain the people. God doesn’t create water out of thin air.  Instead as Terence Fretheim suggests, “God’s actions enable their hidden creative potential to surface” [Exodus: Interpretationp. 190]. What is needed is guidance, and God provides it.  Is this not true for us as well?

As I was meditating on this passage, I began to think about all the ways in which water functions in our world.  Too much water can destroy – as a number of you experienced during the recent flooding.  Not enough water – as is true in California and Oregon – is also dangerous.  After seven years of drought, the fire season continues unabated, and the people are facing severe water restrictions.  While less visible, scientists are discovering that global temperatures are rising, glaciers are receding, and sea levels are rising.  The question is – how will we respond to these realities?  Will we take the steps necessary to slow down climate change so that life can continue to flourish?  

More visible to us have been several interesting events that remind us that even in our region, where water is abundant, access to water can be an issue.  Remember when the algae blooms on Lake Erie shut down Toledo’s water system?  Despite the abundance of water, because agricultural runoff spurred the algae blooms, the water that sustains Toledo and Monroe and other places along the western shores of Lake Erie didn’t have safe drinking water.

Then there is the debate over the development of a regional water system, which the county executives have agreed to and the Detroit City Council has approved.  All that is needed now is the approval of the three county commissions. Tied up with this debate is the question of whether access to water is a human right or a privilege.  If it is a human right, then should water be turned off, especially if people are too poor to pay their bills?  There has been a lot of debate over all of this, but once again the importance of water to life has been highlighted.  It’s one thing to water a lawn in the desert and another to have safe drinking water in a city with an abundance of water surrounding it.

Water is so central to life that many of the world’s conflicts, especially in places where water is scarce, centers on who gets control of the water.  It is, for instance, a key component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Getting back to the people of Israel camped out at Rephidim.  This is a thirsty people.  They’re wondering about their survival.  They’re wondering whether God has their best interests in mind.  Maybe, just maybe, Moses is little more than a magician serving a malevolent deity out to get them.  Isn’t that how God is pictured in Job?  Besides, maybe this isn’t really the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Maybe this God is little more than a mirage!  Yes, where is God now that they’ve entered the heart of the desert?  
The question of God’s absence is an important one.  If we’re honest, we have all experienced that sense of absence.  Some people more so than others.  We might find ourselves crying out with Israel “is the Lord among us or not?”

After Mother Teresa died, we learned that for much of her life, despite her holiness and service to others, she experienced the complete absence of God’s presence.  Even as she cared for the sick, the hungry, the dying, she felt like she was alone in the darkness. Yes, she was thirsting for God in a “dry and weary land, where there is no water,” and she never found relief.  Still, she remained faithful to her calling.

As the people of God we are on a journey, and sometimes that journey takes us into the desert.  So, with the psalmist we thirst for God, about whom the Psalmist declares:

15 He split rocks open in the wilderness,
    and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
16 He made streams come out of the rock,
    and caused waters to flow down like rivers.  (Psalm 78:15-16).

So, when we find ourselves camped in a spot where there appears to be no water available, and when we find ourselves thirsty and wondering whether God is present, the Psalmist promises us that God will be faithful.  The question is – do we thirst after God, “as in a dry and weary land, where there is no water?”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Pentecost 16A
September 28, 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

God Provides the Meal -- Sermon for Pentecost 15A


Exodus 16:2-15


When you are hungry, a good meal is always welcomed.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  It just has to be filling.  

I remember back to my early days living in the Pasadena YMCA.  I didn’t have a lot of money, so I lived on a daily ration of a micro-waved frozen poor boy sandwich and cupful of imitation kool-aid.  I kept the poor boys and the gallon jug in the little fridge at the bookstore where I worked.  You can imagine how I felt when Peggy, the store’s assistant manager, would invite me home for a meal and the opportunity to wash my clothes.  It was like manna from heaven.

As we continue our journey through the Exodus story, the thrill of freedom confronts the reality of hunger.  The people begin complaining – again –  “Did you bring us out here to the desert to starve to death?”  If only we’d stayed back in Egypt where we could enjoy the “fleshpots of Egypt.” Yes, perhaps slavery is better than starvation.