Sunday, December 21, 2014

Reviving Love -- A Sermon for Advent 4B

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

We have reached the end of our Advent journey.  On Wednesday evening we will light the Christ candle and celebrate the coming of the Rock of our salvation into the world. The advent of Jesus in the world fulfills the covenant promises God made with our spiritual ancestors.  
God covenanted with Abraham and Sarah, promising that their descendants would be a blessing to the world.  God covenanted with Moses to bring to bring order and purpose to the people of Israel.  God covenanted with David, promising, that his throne would be established for all generations.  Yes, as the Psalmist declares, this covenant is a sign of God’s “faithfulness to all generations”  (Psalm  89:1-4).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Recapturing Joy -- Sermon for Advent 3B

Psalm 126

The theme of this Advent season is “restoration.”  Each week we are hearing a word from the Psalms that speak to God’s work of restoration in the world and in our lives.  If you go to the Somerset Collection this afternoon – if you’re brave enough -- you can go to the Restoration Hardware store.  There you will find many high end home furnishings, from brass doorknobs to fashionable window coverings, to beautify your home.  That’s not what we have in mind this Advent season.  

Instead, the restoration that we have in mind here is the restoration of our relationships with God, with one another, and with creation.  In the Psalm we read the first Sunday of Advent, we hear the Psalmist declare: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved”  (Psalm 80:3).  This work of restoration is God’s work, not ours.  It is a work of salvation – a word that includes both healing and reconciliation.  During this Advent season we are lifting up God’s work of restoration that mends hearts and minds and spirits and bodies so that we might enjoy the blessing of living in God’s holy presence.  

Restoration is the work of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, but Advent reminds us that God used John the Baptist to prepare the way for the one who reveals God’s work of restoration in the world.  John the Baptist is the one who is charged with removing the barriers to God’s work of redemption and salvation.  

In John’s Gospel, we hear John the Baptist claiming the mantle of Isaiah and declaring that he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23). In other words, John is the one who points us in the right direction so that we might experience the grace of God moving in our lives through the Spirit. 

In previous weeks we have heard words about hope and peace, and today we’re invited to recapture joy.  I realize that this Advent-Christmas Season isn’t a season of joy for everyone. Wednesday evening’s service of remembrance is a good reminder that there are people who need to do some grief work before they can rejoice in the Lord.  

With that in mind, Psalm 126 invites us to look back to the way God restored the fortunes of Zion.  The Psalmist speaks of those who dreamed that God would restore their fortunes.  Dreams are important, because they help us look forward into the future.  

Martin Luther King had a dream, which he shared with the nation in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s been more than fifty years and we’ve not yet fully realized the content of that dream, but the dream keeps pushing us forward.  While racial divisions continue to exist in our nation, and much work needs to be done before the divide in our country is healed, there is a dream that can guide us on the journey forward.  

This Psalm looks back to the end of the exile.  It speaks of God’s people laughing and shouting with joy, even as the nations declared that “the Lord has done great things for them.”  Yes, even those looking on from the outside could see that God had been at work freeing the people from their captors.  

In trying to visualize this event, I thought of the joy that must have been present when word came to the slaves being held in the Confederacy that Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  Most assuredly that was a day of joy and even some laughter.    

Of course, even though the people of Judah left Babylon with hearts filled with joy and laughter, they returned to a city and a Temple lying in ruins.  Yes, they were free, but not everything was as it should be.  There were obstacles that still needed to be removed.  The way of the Lord needed to be made straight.  

In verses four through six of Psalm 126, we move from remembrance to imagining the future.  When John cries out from the wilderness, he is crying out from the midst of the Negeb desert.  This is a dry and weary land that needs to experience the life-giving and life-restoring power of water. Yes, the people cry out: “restore our fortunes like the watercourses of the Negeb.”  

As anyone who has spent time in the desert knows, they are rather dry, and the Negeb is one of the driest on earth. After all, it borders the Dead Sea!  But if you go into the desert you will find dry river beds.  While they are dry most of the year, they can become raging rivers in a matter of a few moments.  When rain comes to the desert if often comes in torrents creating powerful rivers that bring the desert to life. What seems to be dead and barren will spring to life, with the desert floor turning into a colorful blanket of flowers.  Pools of water form and quickly teem with life.  Of course, these rivers can prove destructive if you happen to be living in their midst, as many in drought stricken California have been learning in recent days. Yes, it may not rain very often in Southern California, but when it does rain, it comes down in buckets! 

In the Psalm for today, people are sowing the seeds of grain in tears, but they reap the harvest with shouts of joy.  Yes, joy often begins in sadness and tears.  Talitha Allen puts it this way:
This is no jingle-bells joy brought about with a swipe of a credit card.  The seeds of this joy have been planted in sadness and watered with tears.  This is the honest joy that often comes only after weeping has tarried the night. [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1p. 58].
On Wednesday the city of Detroit exited bankruptcy.  As you know, this was the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.  The city and the region entered this process with great anxiety and many tears.  There was great fear that people’s lives would be destroyed and that the city’s treasures would be plundered to pay off debts.  While not everyone is completely happy with the result, for the most part the exit from bankruptcy is a moment of joy for the city and the region.  It has given the city the opportunity for a clean start.  With the exit from bankruptcy the people of the region have the opportunity to dream new dreams.  The city might not return to what some remember as its glory days, but together the city and suburbs have the opportunity to create something new and exciting.    

Downtown Detroit is alive with business.  The M-1 light rail project is well underway.  Abandoned buildings are being re-purposed or removed not only along the Woodward Corridor, but also out in the neighborhoods.  Streetlights are being replaced and relit.  The police and fire departments are responding more quickly.  There is work being done on developing a high quality regional transit system that can get people to work and to school, to the doctor and to places of entertainment.  They might even get people to church!  While Detroit is far from being fully restored, we can see things moving forward.  Life-giving waters are coursing through the deserts.

As a congregation we are not simply observers of this work of restoration.  We’re playing a part in it.  Through MCC, we’re involved in the development of the regional transit system.  Through the work of Gospel in Action Detroit and Rippling Hope we are engaged in rebuilding neighborhoods.  It might involve mowing a field or picking up garbage or painting a porch.  It might seem small, and yet if you’ve participated in this work, you know that these gestures bring joy to the lives of those living in these often neglected neighborhoods.  

Yes, “the Lord has done great things for us and we rejoiced” (Psalm126:3).  For, as Paul told the Thessalonians:  
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Reimagining Peace -- Meditation for Advent 2B

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

1 Lord, you were favorable to your land;
    you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2 You forgave the iniquity of your people;
    you pardoned all their sin. Selah
8 Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
    for he will speak peace to his people,
    to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
    that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
    righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
    and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12 The Lord will give what is good,
    and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness will go before him,
    and will make a path for his steps.

We have been blessed this morning with offerings of music.  These gifts stir the soul and point us onward to the coming of the Promised One, whom Isaiah names “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).  This last name calls our attention to the message of the day – for this is Peace Sunday.  Because we have been blessed with such a wonderful array of music, I only have a few moments to reflect on the message of the Psalm for the day, which reveals God’s vision of salvation.

 In Psalm 85, the Psalmist reveals that God’s gift of salvation is found where steadfast love and faithfulness meet, and “righteousness and peace kiss.”  This vision of peace speaks not only of the absence of violence or conflict.  This peace – the shalom of God – has a much broader meaning.  This peace is a vision of wholeness that embraces justice for all creation.  

These past few weeks we have witnessed great unrest due to differences over whether justice was served when grand juries failed to indict white police officers whose actions left two unarmed black men dead.  These differing perceptions remind us that we have not yet come to a point in this nation where justice and peace have embraced each other.  Too often we think that peace is a return to normalcy, but true peace will only come when we allow the Spirit to help us listen to each other and experience through Christ our Lord, restoration of right relationships with God and with one another.

     The Psalmist reminds us that this will only come when we recognize that God is the source of steadfast love, faithfulness, justice, and peace.  The good news is that the way is being prepared.  Yes, as the Psalmist declares: 
Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.  
Having heard this wonderful gift of music, as we move toward the Table of Reconciliation, may we reimagine God’s peace, so that all of creation might experience health and wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and community.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Abiding with Christ at the Table -- A Stewardship Sermon

Altar at Bath Abbey

John 6:53-59

This morning we celebrate both Christ the King Sunday and Thanksgiving Sunday.  We are also bringing in the harvest of our stewardship conversation.  During the offering you will have the opportunity to share your estimate of giving cards so that we might celebrate the commitment that we are making as a community to support the ministry of this church.
Christ the King Sunday brings to a close the liturgical year that began on the First Sunday of Advent.  The liturgical year begins with a word of hope and anticipation. We move through the year lifting up stories of how God is present with us in Christ and through the Spirit.  On this day we celebrate the coming of Christ’s reign in its fullness on earth as in heaven. We will continue repeating the cycle until the Day of the Lord comes.  

This Thursday has been set aside by presidential decree as a day to give thanks for the abundance given to us.  Although Thursday has become synonymous with turkey, football, and now shopping, we will have two opportunities this week to join with others in the community to offer thanksgiving for the blessings that have come to us.  You can join me this evening at Big Beaver United Methodist Church for the annual Troy-area Interfaith Group celebration. Then on Tuesday we will be hosting the Troy Clergy Group Thanksgiving Service, which will feature a joint choir. Both services will help us focus on the call to give thanks.  As the Psalmist declares:
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
  (Psalm 100:4-5).  
The theme of our stewardship season has been “From Bread and Wine to Faith and Giving.”  In each of the sermons I have been trying to connect the call to stewardship with the call to the Table.  One of the ways in which we name what happens at the Table is the word Eucharist, which comes from the Greek word that means “to give thanks.”  

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Community of Sharing -- A Stewardship Sermon

Acts 2:42-47

Back during my days teaching at Northwest Christian University, a couple of my students asked me what I thought about them living as a group of students in community. I remember acknowledging their interest in this arrangement, but since one of the students involved had just gotten married, I suggested that they might want to take it slowly and cautiously. While they decided not to pursue the venture, one of those students ended up forming just such a community. That community in Eugene is part of a movement that has come to be known as the New Monasticism. This movement builds off the teachings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who called on Christians to live together in community and pursue life lived under the guidance of the Sermon on the Mount.  

Down through the years many Christians have experimented with living in community as described in Acts 2 and Acts 4. This community, according to Luke, gathered for the Apostles Teaching, for fellowship, for prayers, and to break bread.  You can see a pattern here that is relived in our worship services.  In liturgical circles this is called the service of Word and Sacrament.  Bonhoeffer wrote:
 “All Christian community exists between word and sacrament.  It begins and ends in worship.  It awaits the final banquet with the Lord in the kingdom of God.  A community with such an origin and such a goal is a perfect community, in which even the material things and good of this life are assigned their proper priority.”   [Discipleship (DBW, Vol. 4), 233]
Community exists between word and sacrament – preaching and sharing at the table. Within the bounds of this definition come prayers and fellowship.  

The word we translate as fellowship is the Greek word koinonia.  Koinonia is not the coffee hour.  It is instead the life described here in Acts 2 and again in Acts 4.  Fellowship describes living in community in such a way that everyone’s needs are addressed. As Luke puts in Acts 4,  “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32-35). This decision to share goods was a voluntary one. One who embodied this life of generosity, was Barnabas who shared generously his abundance with the community.  Of course there is that other story, about a couple who pretended to give generously but didn’t.  You may know them as Ananias and Sapphira.  While Barnabas goes on to serve as Paul’s co-worker in his first missionary journey, Ananias and Sapphira have a rather unhappy ending to their story as seen in Acts 5.

Even if Luke’s account is an idealized memory of a short-lived experiment, we still catch a glimpse of life in the Realm of God. Instead of focusing on personal salvation, these early Christians came together as a community and shared life together as followers of Jesus.  As a result, due to the generosity that each shared, no one was in need.  Everyone contributed what they could to the welfare of the entire body. 

Last week Carol Howard Merritt called on us to be a People of Hope. As we return this morning to our series on stewardship, we again hear a call to be People of Hope.  We hear a call to share gifts and talents with the community so that all might share in God’s abundance.  Because of their commitment to living in community under Jesus’ guidance, Luke reports that they broke bread with “glad and generous hearts.”   The attitude expressed here parallels Paul’s description of the church as the Body of Christ.  Each of us has different gifts, and each of us contributes to the working of the body.  The eye can’t say to the ear that it is more important.  Every part of the body is needed.  Every part contributes. The body is blessed, so it can be a blessing

I was just reading about how preachers in the Social Gospel Movement pointed to baseball as a good analogy of what Christian community should look like. In baseball, teams will be successful when every part is working together toward a common goal.  You can have the best player in the league and still not win. You need a full team that includes a quality bench and a steady bullpen.  If you watched the most recent World Series, you might remember that the Giants may not have had the best players in the league, but when crunch time came they played as a unit and prevailed.  Yes Bumgarner and Panda played key roles in winning the series – but where would they be without the contributions of Jeremy Affeldt, Juan Perez, and Joe Panik.  

And so it is with the community of the faithful.  Each of us plays an important role in the life of the congregation.  We each bring our gifts to the Table.  They might be financial. As Bob Simmonds reminded us last week, the church as an institution has bills to pay, and so we as members of the community had best not procrastinate when it comes to fulfilling our stewardship commitments.  But the community needs more than money if it is going to be used by God. 

Last Saturday we talked about how many people choose not to attend church because they don’t have any funds to share.  In essence, money becomes the barrier to participation in the community.  But as we see in Acts 2, the people gave generously in any way they could.  It might be money, but it might be some other form of giving.  

Immediately following the service Kathleen Potter is hosting a soup supper. At that supper she is going to invite us to fill out a little form.  On that form we can put down the ways in which we can be of service to members of the congregation and the community at large in times of need.  Maybe that would involve taking someone to the doctor or baby-sitting a child.  It might mean mowing a lawn for one of the older members or helping a person clean out their basement after a flood.  This new program, which Kathleen is instigating, will report to the Elders who will try to match needs with gifts.  This is, I think a good example of what it means to live in community under Christ’s leadership.  It involves being a good steward of the gifts of the Spirit of God, so that we might share them for the benefit of the community, as we move toward the full revelation of God’s realm. And everyone, no matter how old or young, no matter one’s physical or financial situation, we all have something to share.  

A passage like this one is a bit daunting. You might be wondering whether you have to sell everything and give it to the church if you’re going to follow Jesus.  After all, didn’t Jesus tell the wealthy ruler that if he wanted to inherit eternal life he would have to sell everything and follow him? Remember how that man walked away in sadness?  He had kept all the commandments but in his heart he served another master.  Then Luke reports: 
24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”   [Luke 18:18-30]
And no there wasn’t a gate in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus that was called the Eye of the Needle!   

When we read passages like these ones, we can get a bit worried about our eternal welfare.  But it is good to remember that we live in a different context.  Luke lived with the expectation that the current age would end soon. But as you know we’re still here two thousand years later.  We have a responsibility to provide for our families.  And yet, we are part of a community and therefore we do have responsibilities to each other.

   When we gather at the Lord’s Table we remember not only Jesus’ final meal with his disciples, but we also remember the meals shared by the disciples as they lived in community.  Even as they worshiped in the Temple, they gather in their homes and broke bread daily.  And like we saw with the feeding of the 5000, everyone ate their fill and no one was left behind. Yes, this early Christian community gathered for the Apostolic teaching, for prayers, to share community, and break bread.   

As we come to the Table this morning, with the call to stewardship on our minds, may we come with “glad and generous hearts.”  Next week we will bring in the harvest of our commitments to the ministry of this church, and may we do so with hearts filled with thanksgiving. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
November 16, 2014

Pentecost 23A