Sunday, August 02, 2015

You're the Man -- Sermon for Pentecost 10B

2 Samuel 11:26-12:15

Last Sunday you heard the story of how King David -- who was supposed to be a righteous king and the writer of great spiritual hymns -- took a woman from her husband, raped her, and then had her husband killed to cover up the fact. Bathsheba’s husband was an honorable man who refused to share the comforts of home when his comrades were at the front fighting for the king who had stolen his wife. As I understand it, last Sunday Rick talked about power and how it can corrupt.

We human beings have this tendency, when we accumulate great power, to believe that we’re above the law. We can do whatever we want when we want, and no one can stop us. Sometimes we’re brazen about it. We don’t mind if people see us squishing the little guy. At other times we decide to project an image of uprightness to cover the dark side of our lives. After all, reputations do matter.  

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Time to Celebrate -- Sermon for Pentecost 7B

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19

What religious symbols stir in you an awareness of God’s presence? Is it the communion table? The chalice and the bread that sit on the table? Is it an open Bible or a pulpit? For the people ancient Israel one of the most potent symbols of God’s presence was the Ark of the Covenant. This Ark, according to the book of Exodus, was a wooden box overlaid with pure gold. On that box sat the mercy seat and two cherubs with wings outstretched. This wasn’t a magical box, but it did represent the presence of God to the people (Exodus 25:10-22). 

In modern times this sacred symbol became the centerpiece of a popular action-adventure movie. You may have even seen this movie titled Raiders of the Lost Ark!  The setting of the movie is World War II. Adolph Hitler is trying to collect artifacts that can help empower his dreams of world conquest. One of these artifacts that he wants to find and control is the Ark, which according to the book of Hebrews contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded (Hebrews 9:4). 

According to the biblical story from the time of the Exodus until the time of the exile the ark accompanied the people of Israel. The question is – what happened to the Ark after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple? If you’ve watched the History Channel, you may have run across a show or two that attempts to answer the question. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and his colleagues discover the Ark in an Egyptian temple. Unfortunately, his competitor manages to steal it away from him. From there begins the chase. In the end, Indiana is captured and tied up. Fortunately for him, when his rival tries to open up the Ark and tap into its power, the divine power within destroys the enemy. If you’ve seen the movie, I need say no more! Divine retribution is visited upon those who dared to desecrate this treasure. You might say that the moral of this story is that it’s best not to mess with divine things.

In the reading from 2 Samuel David continues to consolidate his power in Israel. He set up a new capital at Jerusalem, but he needed something else to unite the people. He needed to bring God into the equation. The best way to do that was to bring the most important symbol of God’s power and presence to Jerusalem. So he gathered his soldiers together and they marched to the home of Abinidab the priest, which was where the Ark had been residing ever since the Philistines decided that the sacred relic they had captured from Saul was too dangerous to keep around. So they dropped it off just across the border at Abinidab’s house. Now it was time for the Ark to reside in a place of honor – in David’s capital – where it could serve as a symbol of national unity. 

When you bring such an important symbol to a new home, you have to have a parade. So, David had the Ark loaded on a cart pulled by a yoke of oxen. With David in the lead the people of Israel began to make their way to Jerusalem. All along the way the people celebrated “with all their strength, with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.” In other words, they made a lot of noise.  Everything was going well until they reached the property of Obed-edom. 

The creators of the lectionary decided that it was best to skip over the events at Obed-edom’s house. In the verses we skipped over, an accident occurred and someone got killed. You see, the oxen slipped and the Ark nearly fell off the cart. One of the priests who was accompanying the Ark, a young man named Uzzah, put his hands out, touching the Ark, hoping to keep it from falling into the mud. Unfortunately for him, you’re not supposed to touch the Ark. God got mad and as the King James puts it: “God smote him for his error” (2 Sam. 6:7 KJV). When God says don’t touch, don’t touch! 

Raiders of the Lost Ark reminds us that sacred symbols carry great power, and you have to be careful handling them. There are prescribed rituals and ways of doing things, and apparently the priests didn’t follow directions in this case and tragedy struck. 

This story reveals a side of God that isn’t very attractive. This vision of God doesn’t fit very well with our confession that God is love. Surely God isn’t so petty that touching the Ark deserved a death sentence. Passages like this can cause us problems. As for David, he wasn’t too happy with what happened either, and so he decided to leave the Ark where it was. This Ark was too dangerous to be handled. 

After a bit of time passed David began to hear reports that Obed-Edom was being blessed beyond any reasonable expectation. So David decided that it was time to bring the Ark the rest of the way to Jerusalem. This time, however, David took precautions. He abandoned the cart and had priests carry the Ark as the Law prescribed. Priests placed two poles through the rings attached to the Ark, and they carried it the rest of the way to Jerusalem. Then, every six steps, David, who is wearing priestly vestments even though he’s not a priest, offered a sacrifice to God. Not only that, but he dances his way to Jerusalem. 

There is a hymn that fits this scene. We’ve not yet learned it, but it goes like this: 
        I cannot dance, O Love, unless you lead me on.
I cannot leap in gladness unless you lift me up.
From love to love we circle, beyond all knowledge grow,
for when you lead we follow, to new worlds you can show. 
  (Jean Janzen, Chalice Hymnal, 290).

Yes, David dances before the Lord. He’s in a joyful mood. He doesn’t care what people think. He may be the king, but right now, he only has God’s glory in sight. Of course not everyone is pleased by David’s behavior. His wife Michal, who was the daughter of Saul, is a bit perturbed by this display. She doesn’t think it’s dignified for the king to be dancing around in the streets. I’m sure that Michal wasn’t alone in thinking this, and she probably would have supporters in our day. For some reason, it’s easy to cast judgment on people who are seeking to enjoy the presence of God.

When David finally reached Jerusalem, he put the Ark in a tent and he offered sacrifices in thanksgiving to God. He also distributed food to the people. Everyone in the city received a loaf of bread, a date cake, and a raisin cake. This display reminds us that worship and service go together. 

When I started the sermon, I asked about which symbols help you experience the presence of God. When we think about these symbols, it’s good to remember that these ancient Israelites didn’t think that God’s presence was limited to the Ark. After all, while people do try, you can’t put God in a box.

Although people use religious rituals and symbols to manipulate God to do their will, the author of this passage will have nothing to do with such understandings. It’s not that religious symbols don’t have spiritual value, but more important is the attitude of the heart.

We don’t have an Ark of the Covenant, but we do have a Table. We set it each Sunday, placing the cross, the candles, the cup, and the bread on it. While there’s nothing special about either the bread or the juice, these symbols remind us that God is present and active in our midst. 

Eugene Peterson writes this about religious sites and occasions:
Religion – religious sites, religious occasions – is a breeding ground for joyful openness to God. We’re never wholly ourselves until we’re open before God, attending to the reality of God, responding to the action of God in us, receiving the word of God for us. Worship is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. [Peterson, Leap Over a Wall : Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christiansp. 152].
Where then is God moving and shaking in your life? What stirs you to celebrate the presence of God? What will cause you to dance before the Lord? What symbols will turn your head and heart so you can  celebrate in the presence of God?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 7B
July 12, 2015

Sunday, July 05, 2015

The Lord Was With Him -- Sermon for Pentecost 6B

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10 

Life is messy, and as people of faith, we try to make sense of this messiness by seeking God’s guidance and wisdom. When we come to share in worship, we give thanks to God for being present with us through life’s ups and downs. Even when we’re not sure how God is present, we know in our hearts that God is with us. This may be the 4th of July weekend, but the message of Christmas in July is that Emmanuel – God with us – has come in the person of Jesus, so that we might experience that presence anew.

Our journey through 1 and 2 Samuel had brought us to a turning point in the history of Israel. The civil war that had engulfed David’s supporters and those who had gathered around Saul’s son Ishbotheth, had come to an end, and David was the last man standing.  The elders of Israel gathered at Hebron, and anointed David as their shepherd and ruler.  As Eugene Peterson puts it: “The shepherd boy of Bethlehem becomes the shepherd king of Israel.”   [Leap Over a Wall : Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, p. 141]. It is this shepherd king who is inextricably linked to the most beloved of the Psalms. 

Peterson writes this of David, in light of the 23rd Psalm: 
Every image in this psalm – which is to say, every aspect of David’s life – is God-defined, God-saturated. Everything that David knows about God he experiences – enters into, embraces, takes into himself. God isn’t a doctrine he talks about but a person by whom he is led and cared for. God isn’t a remote abstraction that distances him from the conditions of his actual life but an intimate presence who confirms his daily life as the very stuff of salvation. What he experiences in God doesn’t merely change but matures. [p. 141]. 
Yes, the shepherd boy has now become the shepherd king, and much later early Christians would draw on this image to understand the ministry of Jesus, the Son of David.  As Christians we look to Jesus, the Son of David, to be that shepherd king who leads us through the valley of death into a land of plenty.

David’s reign begins in Hebron, but he quickly realizes he needs a new capital, one that isn’t connected to his tribe or that of his former foes. Our reading this morning tells us how David captured the Jebusite fortress of Jerusalem, which until then had been a neutral site, and made it his new capital, and “David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of Hosts, was with him.” 

There is a word that describes the work of God in the world. That word is providence. It’s a very powerful word. It can even be a very dangerous word. Down through history rulers have appealed to God’s providence as support for their actions. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson appealed to “nature’s God” in support of the American Revolution. Nearly a century earlier, at the time of Britain’s Glorious Revolution, many supporters of William and Mary in their invasion that drove out King James II, appealed to divine providence.  

Supporters of that “Revolution” pointed to the smoothness of the change of government and suggested that God’s hand was involved. This was especially important for those who believed that England’s monarchs ruled by divine right. Only God could change things, and it appeared to many that God had intervened. One of those supporters, Gilbert Burnet, the Bishop of Salisbury, wrote: “with relation to King James, and all the right that was before vested in him, he was, as they thought, a conqueror. By this notion they explained those passages of scripture, that speak of God’s disposing of kingdoms and pulling down and setting up another” (William Gibson, Religion and Society in England and Wales: 1689-1800, p. 23-24). Even as God did for William and Mary, God had done for David, for God was with him in his struggle with his foes.

On this Fourth of July Weekend, where do you see God at work? How does God’s providence or governance fit into your world view?  That is, even if God doesn’t pull every string in your life, how is God present and active? How is God still speaking?  How is God the shepherd who sets the table for you in the midst of your enemies and bathes your head with oil and fills your cup so it spills over?
 Yes, goodness and faithful love will pursue me all the days of my life,
    and I will live in the Lord’s house as long as I live.
 (Psalm 23:6 CEB)
To whom do you look to be your guide and deliverer?  Do you live with the assurance that God, the Good Shepherd, who walked with David as he matured into a shepherd king, is truly with you in every moment of life?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
July 5, 2015
Pentecost 6B

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Mighty Have Fallen -- Sermon for Pentecost 5B

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

On Friday afternoon, the President delivered the eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine members of Emanuel AME Church who were gunned down the week before during Bible study. It is a powerful statement addressing the ills that confront our nation, including racism and violence. It is also a strong statement of the grace that redeems and heals. The President began his eulogy with these words: 
We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith. A man who believed in things not seen. A man who believed there were better days ahead, off in the distance. A man of service who persevered, knowing full well he would not receive all those things he was promised, because he believed his efforts would deliver a better life for those who followed.
After leading the congregation in singing “Amazing Grace,” the President intoned the names of those slain and called on the congregation and the nation to share in the grace that these nine had come to know:
Through the example of their lives, they've now passed it on to us. May we find ourselves worthy of that precious and extraordinary gift, as long as our lives endure. May grace now lead them home. May God continue to shed His grace on the United States of America.
The circumstances were different, but the message David delivered when the news came that Saul and his son Jonathan had been killed in battle, carries with it that same sense of grace found in the President’s remarks.   

Over the course of the past few weeks we’ve met Samuel the Prophet, who anointed Saul as king, even though neither God nor Samuel were thrilled with this prospect. Over time, Saul proved to be a less than reliable ruler, so God had Samuel anoint David as his replacement. In the lectionary reading we skipped due to last week’s celebration, David proved his mettle by facing down the champion of the Philistines – Goliath. While the lectionary readings don’t reveal how the relationship of Saul and David began to sour, even as David’s relationship with Saul’s son and heir, Jonathan, began to blossom, these stories lie behind the words that David shares with his community. 

When word came to David that Saul and Jonathan had died in battle, David knew that he was now the king. Although had been living in exile, waiting his turn, now he needed to rally the people of Israel. To do that he needed to reconcile himself with Saul’s supporters. This eulogy is meant to be that statement of reconciliation. David and Saul may have been rivals, but now that the mighty have fallen, the rivalry must give way to unity among the people.

Saul and Jonathan fell in battle with the Philistines. Unless the nation came together as one people they would be easy prey for the militarily stronger Philistines. If they sensed any sign of weakness, the Philistines could attack and destroy the kingdom. So, you can see why David wouldn’t want to let the Philistines gloat about their victory. This might be a time of sadness and uncertainty, but they couldn’t let the Philistines know. Israel needed to grieve the loss of these two mighty warriors, but it was politically expedient for David to draw the people’s attention to his words of praise for Saul and Jonathan. Saying it was politically expedient doesn’t mean that it wasn’t deeply felt.   

Three times in this song of lament, David declared that “the mighty have fallen.” Even if David and Saul were estranged from each other, David recognized that God had called Saul to be king, and he refused to touch God’s anointed one. As for Jonathan, he was David’s closest and dearest friend. Jonathan had been put in a difficult situation. He wanted to be loyal to his father, and David acknowledges that loyalty, but Jonathan also loved David and wanted to be loyal to him as well. Jonathan even seems to have recognized that David would be the next king, ceding his own inheritance to his friend. These two are the mighty ones, warriors who defended the nation, but even as they stood together in life, they also stood together in death. 

In our day, there is a sense that death is something to avoid. Over the years that I’ve served as a pastor, I’ve had conversations with funeral directors who have confirmed my own observations that we’re uncomfortable with our grief. Tom Long and Tom Lynch wrote a book titled The Good Funeral that makes this point. We often turn moments of grief into moments of celebration, so we don’t have to deal with the reality of our loss. This may be understandable, but maybe not helpful.

Eugene Peterson writes this of David’s song of lament: “A failure to lament is a failure to connect.” He adds that this song is part of a story, in fact David is part of Saul and Jonathan’s story. Being part of this story, Peterson suggests, “means that we mustn’t get ahead of the plot – skip the hard parts, erase the painful parts, detour the disappointments. Lament – making the most of our loss without getting bogged down in it – is a primary way of staying in the story” [Peterson, Leap Over a Wall : Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christiansp. 121].  

While we are often uncomfortable with our grief that doesn’t mean that it goes away. We may want to avoid dealing with difficult issues, because conflict, like that which divided Saul and David, upsets us. We like things to stay on an even keel, but of course life doesn’t always work out that way. In our families and in our church, we experience times of sadness and grief. We feel the need to offer words of lament, but society tells us to keep that proverbial “stiff upper lip.”

We often struggle to make sense of our grief. Part of us wants to let go and get on with life. There is a time and a place when we do need to let go and move on, but as David’s song reminds us, we must first address the cause of our grief. By doing this publicly, David reminds us that we don’t have to face our grief alone. We can face our challenges together as a community. 

I believe that David’s lament serves as an invitation to the community to embrace those moments when public sharing of grief is appropriate. When Peterson speaks of the importance of not skipping over the hard parts, I think he’s putting his finger on an important issue for us as individuals and as a church when it comes to death. 

When someone close to us dies, we will grieve. We need to grieve. It’s only natural.  Sometimes there is a desire to skip over the painful parts, but we can’t. Now in this song David doesn’t focus on the things that divided him from Saul. He simply remembered Saul and Jonathan as Israel’s mighty ones. He mourns for Saul, but he feels distress at Jonathan’s death. Saul’s death had made it possible for him to gain the throne, but Jonathan’s death struck at his soul. So, whatever joy he felt at that moment was overwhelmed by his grief at the loss of someone so close to him.

   We live in an age that seeks to avoid death. We work hard to prolong life, even when there is no real hope of recovery. We have the machines that can keep the body functioning, even if the brain is dead. But when the spirit is gone, all that remains is flesh. What is resurrected is not the flesh, but the spirit. Dealing with grief isn’t easy. It doesn’t go away over night. While a funeral service won’t resolve every issue, it does allow the community to come together and share in the grace of God that sustains us during the difficult moments ahead. So, when the mighty have fallen, we cry out to God, “take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.” 

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

June 28, 2015

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Divine Criteria -- Sermon for Pentecost 3B

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Do you know what it feels like to be the last person chosen for the team? Neither team captain really wants you, but you have to go somewhere. While it’s not fun being in that position, maybe you’ll surprise your doubters! 

Let’s consider, for example, the annual NFL draft.  Each year teams covet certain players because they’re sure they’re going to make a difference. Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn’t. I think most of us will agree that Matthew Stafford has worked out pretty well for the Lions, but Cleveland can’t say the same for last year’s first round choice of Johnny “Football” Manziel, who might already be on his way out of the league.  There are always first round picks who end up as flops, while players picked in the later rounds, or even as undrafted free agents, can go on to be stars. I know that the Michigan fans in the room will remember a guy named Tom Brady. He went to the New England Patriots in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. Six quarterbacks, none of whom did much of anything in the NFL, were drafted ahead of him. For some reason teams didn’t think that Tom Brady had much potential for greatness.  Who knew?

Last Sunday we met up with King Saul, who looked like a king. Unfortunately there was something missing on the inside. Several chapters later, with things in Israel going from bad to worse, both Samuel and God find themselves regretting the choice. Saul might have been a mistake, but surely God can fix things.

God did hatch a plan. Why not send Samuel on one last big assignment to find a suitable candidate in the town of Bethlehem?  Samuel wasn’t too sure about this new assignment, since if Saul found out he could end up dead. Not to worry. God has just the thing – a little ruse to fool Saul. God told Samuel to take a heifer with him and then invite Jesse of Bethlehem to join him in offering a sacrifice. Then, after that Samuel could identify and anoint the new king from among Jesse’s sons. 

After Samuel and Jesse offer the sacrifice, Samuel asks Jesse to bring his sons before him. I’m not sure whether Jesse had figured out what Samuel was up to, but he did as he was told. He lined up his sons so that Samuel could review them. Since this was a patriarchal culture, which assumed that power and privilege always goes to the oldest son, Jesse first presented his oldest son – Eliab – to the prophet. Samuel expected that this would be the one, after all, Eliab looked the part, but God said no.  Before you know it, Samuel has reviewed seven sons, and none of them meets with God’s approval. There’s nothing wrong with them.  They’re just not the right fit for the job.

Despite the cultural expectations, God isn’t impressed with this group of young men and God doesn’t seem to be bound by the assumption that the first born son gets the spoils. With a few modifications, including a change in British law that allows the first born child rather than the first born son to become heir to the throne, the British crown still goes to the oldest child of the current monarch. So, someday the throne of England should pass from Elizabeth to Charles, and then from Charles to William, and from William to George. If something happens to George, then Charlotte is next in line. Poor Harry, every time Will and Kate have a child he gets knocked down another peg. But, according to British law, this is the proper order of things.

While patriarchy still ruled, some traditions weren’t so sacred that Yahweh couldn’t change the rules. Of course, it’s good to remember that monarchy wasn’t God’s idea in the first place. So, if God wants to mess with it, who is going to object? 

But why did God pass over Eliab and the other six sons of Jesse? When Samuel raised the question, God replied:  “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7 CEB). God isn’t going make the same mistake twice. This time it’s heart over appearance.

What is interesting about the biblical story is that God often goes against the grain. Remember how God honored Abel’s offering over Cain’s, even though Cain was the oldest. God chose Jacob rather than Esau, even though Esau was the older brother. God does strange things. Part of this story has to do with the very choice of Israel. Israel was never a major power. It was always caught in between the intrigues of the larger empires – Egypt on one side and the Assyrians and then the Babylonians on the other. God could have chosen the mighty and the powerful, but that’s not the way God works. 

In fact, that seems to be Luke’s point in placing Jesus’ birth in a stable. The one whom God sent into the world to redeem it, isn’t born in a palace, but is instead born out among the animals. So it shouldn’t surprise us if God continues to change the rules set in place by our culture.   

Back to the story at hand, Samuel is clearly frustrated. Jesse had presented his sons, and none of them fit the bill. So finally, he asks Jesse if there’s anyone else. A bit embarrassed perhaps, Jesse confesses that there’s another son, but he’s out tending the sheep. Someone had to do it, and usually that means the youngest child, who is, after all, expendable. 

When I was reading this, I thought about what happens during the President’s State of the Union Address. All of the President’s cabinet members are in attendance — everyone except one cabinet secretary, who stays behind just in case somebody takes out the government. Now usually the person who stays behind heads up one of the “lesser departments.” You know the one whom no one would miss at the party! That’s David in this story, and yet he is the one whom God chooses to anoint in place of Saul. 

Now there is a bit of hitch in this story. Did you notice how the narrator describes David’s appearance? The translators of the New Living Translation put it this way: He’s “dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes” (1 Sam. 16:12 NLT). Aren’t we back where we started, with a focus on the externals? David might be the youngest, but he still looks like a king – and as we learned last week: “It’s good to be the king,” unless of course you’re Saul!  But could that be the point, no matter what you look like on the outside, what counts is what is on the inside?   

Now, it’s good to remember that David isn’t without his faults. He’s as human as Saul, but something is different about him. That difference is David’s loyalty to Yahweh. Unlike Saul and unlike most of his successors, David tries not to do what is right in his own eyes. So, when Samuel anoints him as the next king, the “spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (1 Sam. 16:13).  In other words, Yahweh was with him and would stay with him, through thick and thin.

There’s a connection between this passage and the parable Jesus tells in Mark 4 about the sower who scatters seed on the ground, but finds it a mystery why these little seeds become grains of wheat. The sower can only see what’s happening on the surface, but not what’s going on below. It’s easy to rely on externals to make decisions, but that might not be the best way. Apparently, that’s not the way God works either.

Maybe you were the last player chosen, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not a person of value or that you don’t have gifts to share. Everyone here has value. As Paul told the Corinthians, every part of the body is important. Every gift is important. David had the qualities that God was looking for in a king. He wasn’t perfect – as we’ll see as the journey continues – but he had a heart for God. As a result, when Samuel anointed him, the Spirit came upon him with power.

May we learn to follow the lead of God and look not on the surface, but seek to discern what lies behind and beneath the surface, so that the realm of God might make itself known in our midst.  
Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 3B
June 14, 2015