Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Beloved Calls -- Sermon for Pentecost 14B

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Every generation since the beginning of recorded human history has had its love songs. You might have a favorite and I might have mine. It’s likely that our differences of generation will influence our choices. Our scripture reading this morning is itself a love song, or at least a small portion of one of the great epic love songs ever written.

As I was thinking about this song, a tune from my teen years came to mind. It’s one of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles hits, and I think it fits the moment. The first stanza goes like this: 
You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs

I look around me and I see it isn't so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that?
I'd like to know
'Cause here I go again
I love you, I love you
I love you, I love you.
Yes, what’s wrong with singing silly love songs? 

There’s another song from those years that also speaks of love, but in a somewhat different way than McCartney’s song. And it goes like this: 
What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It's the only thing that there's just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No not just for some but for everyone

So, as McCartney so profoundly puts it: “Love isn’t silly at all.”  No, everyone needs to experience a bit of love. For as Paul put it: “Faith, Hope, and Love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

The Song of Solomon is a love song that became sacred scripture. In many ways it’s a rather erotic poem that allows two people to share their passion for each other. But, because it’s in the Bible it must be more than simply another silly love song. In fact, these words of deep passion carry within them a word of revelation. This is true even though the poet never mentions God. While there’s nothing in this song that is explicitly religious, it is still sacred scripture.

So how should we read it? What message does it carry? How can it convey to us a word from God?

You could take it out of its scriptural context and read it as simply another love song or piece of ancient erotic literature. That’s probably how it was originally written. If we read it in the context of scripture, what we have is a sacred celebration of the power of human sexuality. 

Down through time many interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have taken a more spiritual view of this book. These interpreters may have been trying to avoid dealing with the erotic aspects of the song, but surely there is more to this than simply the desire to avoid talking about sex in church.

Stephanie Paulsell points out that interpreters such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Teresa of Avila “recognized their own yearning for God. They heard in the verses of the Song so much that was true about their own search for God’s presence. . . .” She goes on to say that the way in which these interpreters read it wasn’t a “rejection of the erotic quality of the Song, but a recognition of the erotic quality of life with God” [Lamentations and the Song of Songs: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible)p. 175]. We might not think of God in that way, but readers of this song have recognized God’s passionate embrace of humanity. 

So, on one level it’s completely appropriate for us to read this poem as a poetic conversation between two human beings who are passionately in love with each other. We hear this passion in words that describe a lover “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills . . . like a gazelle or a young stag.” And then we hear him call out to his beloved: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

On the other hand, the great mystics of the past and present have read this poem allegorically and found in it a powerful statement about God’s love for the church. So, when we hear the words, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away,” it is God who is calling out to us, inviting us to enter into a deep and abiding relationship. This way of thinking about our relationship with God might sound strange to Disciples, since we’ve emphasized the rational side of the faith, but maybe faith involves more than simply the mind.  

The lover tells the beloved that winter is over and spring is at hand. “The voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” So, it’s time to leave the house and go off on an adventure.  Yes, it’s time to open the boxes we place ourselves in and embrace the uncertainties that the life in God presents. After all, love is always risky. When we give ourselves fully to another, we risk being hurt. We risk being let down. And yet, this seems to be the kind of relationship God invites us to partake in. Of course, God takes a risk as well in loving us!  If nothing else the cross is a reminder of that risk! 
Now, I’ve been talking about love, but what is love? After all, there’s a difference between saying I love the Giants and the Tigers, and saying I love Cheryl! The ancient Greeks had several words that we translate as love, the most prominent being eros and agape. While the Song of Solomon was written in Hebrew, when it was translated into Greek the translators used the word agape, which we think of in terms of unconditional love. But, when we read the text, it seems as if the better word would have been eros. It’s just a guess, but I think that the translators might have been a bit skittish about using the word eros in a text like this.  

While the translators used agape, I think eros might be the better word. In thinking about the nature of love I often turn to theologian Tom Oord for guidance. He writes about the different forms of love in Scripture and in human experience. When it comes to defining the word eros, Tom suggests that it involves “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being by affirming and/or seeking to enhance value.” The key phrase is “enhance value,” which Tom suggests means that eros “affirms what is good, beautiful, and valuable, and seeks to enhance it.” [The Nature of Love: A Theologyp. 83.] 

So when the lover calls for the one he loves to come away with him, he does so because he sees something of value in the beloved. He desires to experience her company. He enjoys spending time with her. There’s no other place he’d rather be than in her arms. When we take this vision into the spiritual realm, Tom writes: “Just as God loves creation because of its value, so we ought to love others and ourselves because of the value God gives. Affirming God-given value may be one of the most important things those with a poor sense of self-worth needs” (Oord, p. 84).

When God invites us to “come away” it is because God has found value in us. God desires to be in relationship with us. If this is true, then we can affirm God’s love  by loving ourselves and loving our neighbor. We express our love for God by affirming the beauty and value that belongs to the whole of God’s creation, and by joining God in enhancing the value that is God’s creation – and doing it with passion and not just as duty!

It is as St. Teresa of Avila suggests in her meditation on the Song of Songs:
Oh, my Lord, my mercy, and my Good! And what greater good could I want in this life than to be so close to You, that there be no division between You and me: With this companionship, what can be difficult? What can one not undertake for You, being so closely joined? [Tessa Bielecki, Teresa of Avila: Mystical Writings (The Crossroad Spiritual Legacy Series)p. 156.]
We come today to worship the God who calls out to us: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Are you ready to embrace the passion of God and experience the fullness that is God’s presence?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 30, 2015
Pentecost 14B

Sunday, August 23, 2015

No House for God - Sermon for Pentecost 13B

1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43
Having a house is a good thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re buying or renting, whether it’s big or small, it’s good to have a roof over your head. Soon we’ll be hosting SOS, and I expect that during that week many of us will pause to give thanks for our homes. Home ownership has its challenges, but it is good to have a home. 

We can give thanks that as a congregation we have a roof over our heads and a fairly comfortable space to gather for worship, for fellowship, and for study. Since this building has been around for more than thirty years, it’s easy to take this blessing for granted, forgetting that it takes a lot of resources to keep up the place. 

This morning’s reading from 1 Kings forms part of a story about a house built for God. We meet up again with Solomon, that wise king whom Susan introduced last week. He’s standing before the altar of the newly constructed Temple in Jerusalem, getting ready to deliver his prayer of dedication for the house he built for God. Maybe he did this because he was feeling guilty about living in a big house while God’s Ark rested in a tent. He had permanent lodgings, but God had to make do with an impermanent abode. So he built a Temple and now it’s time to dedicate it. Solomon stands before the altar and invites God to take notice of the building. I expect that Solomon was proud of his achievement and he hoped God would be pleased. 

Our building might not be as  big or magnificent as the cathedral Edgar Dewitt Jones built on Woodward Avenue in the 1920s, but it’s still a pretty nice house. We have an organ, a piano, a pulpit, and a table. Surely God is happy with this home we’ve built as a place to worship God. Yes, “surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.” But in his dedication prayer, Solomon raises an important question: Does God need a house? Does God even want a house?

Maybe you learned a little Sunday school exercise when you were a child. Remember how the teacher asked us to put our hands together with fingers intermingled, except the index fingers, which served as a steeple, while the thumbs served as doors. Here is the church, and when you open the doors you can see all the people. What message do you hear in that little exercise?

What I hear is that people come and go, but the buildings live on. If you’ve been to Europe you know what I’m talking about. There are lots of big churches, very old churches, that have been there for centuries. They’ll be there long after we’ve left the scene. But is this the church?  Or is the church the people whom God calls to God’s self? 

As I read this prayer this week, I noticed an interesting thing. Solomon isn’t quite sure whether he did the right thing. What I heard in this prayer was a plea to God to bless what Solomon believed was a “gift” he had offered to God. He thanked God for being a loving and covenant keeping God. After all, he stands there as a sign of God’s blessing. God had promised David an heir so that his dynasty could continue, and Solomon was the fulfillment of that promise. And while David, the warrior king, couldn’t build a house for God, Solomon was in a different position. Things in the neighborhood had quieted down. He didn’t have to go into battle like his father. Because he was a peace-time king, he could invest the “peace-dividends” to build a home for God. That’s one explanation, but I think there’s another part to the answer.

Did Solomon build God a house because God needed a home, or did Solomon decide to build a monument for himself? He knew that his father never got to build a lasting monument, but he could. Palaces are imposing, but Temples and Cathedrals are always a more important legacy. And so Solomon had a Temple built for God, but perhaps also for himself.

In reading the sermons and letters of Dr. Jones I get the feeling that part of him wanted to build a lasting monument in Detroit that would reflect his own importance to the community and the denomination. He’s not alone. I think all preachers want to leave a legacy, and that includes me. I hope that years from now people will look back to my ministry with fondness and appreciation. I may not have built a building, but I did have a pulpit built!

Still, there’s this nagging question that keeps popping up in this passage. Does God really need a house? Solomon knew the answer to that question. He says to God: “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” He knew that no house could contain God, no matter how magnificent it was, but perhaps God would take note of the Temple anyway and bless it. I hear Solomon crying out to God: Won’t you at least take a look? Won’t you own it, even if you don’t live in it? When your people gather in this space or pray toward this space, won’t you hear their prayers?  Yes, will you place your name in this place?

When I was in England, I got to worship in two cathedrals. One was large and magnificent and the other was relatively small and intimate. And even though I believe I experienced God’s presence in both spaces, I know that God can’t be contained in these sacred spaces. Still, as Choon-Leong Seow suggests of the Temple:  
“It is a place at which the needs of the petitioner coincide with the willingness of the deity to respond. The Temple is not the place where the person of God is; rather it is merely the place where God’s presence may be known, where the authority of God is proclaimed” [New Interpreter's Bible Volume III, p. 75]. 
God doesn’t live in the Temple or in this building, but God is willing to meet us  wherever we gather in the name of Jesus.  

In today’s lectionary reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus concludes a lengthy conversation about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This conversation follows the feeding of the 5000. He tells the people that if they eat his body and drink his blood – in the signs of bread and wine – he will abide in them and they will abide in him. In answer to the question of where God is present, Jesus points to himself. If we have communion with Jesus by ingesting the elements of bread and wine, then God will abide in us (John 6:56-69).

I don’t believe that the body and blood of Jesus are literally present in the elements of bread and wine, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the Lord’s Table and its importance to our faith. Some of you may have heard that we have a task force working on a worship grant proposal. The theme we’re working with has to do with the connection of our experience of God at the Lord’s Table with our missional calling. In a recent meeting of the task force we came up with the idea of the Table being a crossroads where worship and mission come together. I see that message present in this prayer. 

Solomon not only asks God to hear the prayers of Israel, but also the prayers of the foreigner, the immigrant, the person who isn’t from Israel but who seeks God by praying toward the Temple. Solomon asks God to hear these prayers and act on them so that the peoples of the earth “may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.” (Vs. 41-43). I like what Ron Allen and Clark Williamson say about this part of the prayer. They write that “it assumes that God is the God of all peoples everywhere. Israel’s faith gave it to understand that Israel and the Gentiles were to be a blessing to each other.” (Preaching the Old Testament: A Lectionary Commentaryp. 179). This building, this Table, is not dedicated to the comforts of its inhabitants. Rather, it is a place of blessing to all, especially those who live outside the building. 

The message of Scripture is that God can’t be contained in buildings, idols, or even the earth itself. God is the God of all peoples, not just our people. And so mission and the Table intersect. For some the Table is a place of spiritual sustenance. For others it is a place of grace. For all it is a place of blessing.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 23, 2015
Pentecost 13B

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