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

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Sharing the Table -- A Stewardship Sermon for All Saints Day

Mark 6:30-44

When I think of wilderness, I think about dense forests and roadless, mountainous terrain. At least, that’s what we called wilderness when I was growing up in Oregon. In the biblical story wilderness is a desolate place where resources are scarce. 

During our recent journey through Exodus we watched the people of Israel leave the “fleshpots of Egypt” for the Promised Land. To get there, however, they had to travel through the desert. All along the way they complained about their lack of resources, mainly food and water, but God always seemed to provide what they needed. What we learned is that even in the wilderness, there is an abundance – if only we stop to take a look.

According to Walter Brueggemann, there are two types of thinking – scarcity and abundance. To put it a different way, we can look at life in two ways – that the glass is half full or half empty. Risk takers see the glass as half full, while more cautious people see it as half empty. Which kind of person are you?

The disciples were returning from a big mission trip, and they were so excited about their work that they didn’t take time to eat. So, Jesus decided to take them to a more secluded place to rest and talk. But, the crowd saw them and ran ahead. When Jesus saw them, he took compassion on them because, as Mark put it, they were “sheep without a shepherd.” They needed help, and Jesus decided to provide it.   

As dinner time drew near, the disciples got nervous. No one had eaten anything all day, and their stomachs were beginning to grumble. They decided to tell Jesus to bring this teaching session to a close, so he could send them off to the villages before everything closed down to get something to eat.  You know how small towns like to “roll up the sidewalks early.” You can understand their position. When people get hungry, they get restless, and when they get restless they can cause problems. 

Jesus had a different solution.  They may have seen the glass as maybe three-quarters empty, but Jesus looked at the world through the lens of abundance. 

So Jesus directed them to go and see what was available.  They looked at their lunch stash and found five loaves of bread and two measly dried fish. Just enough for the thirteen of them to have a light meal, and no more.  To them, the resources were scarce. This report didn’t deter Jesus. He just told them to feed the crowd of  5000 with their lunch.  

I can only imagine the looks on their faces. If I asked the fellowship department to feed the city of Troy with what they could find in the pantry at five o’clock in the evening, I would hear an earful!  But for some reason, despite their disbelief, they gave Jesus their resources.  And he took them, blessed them, broke  the loaves, and then gave them to the people.  When the meal ends, and the scraps are picked up, everyone has eaten their fill and they gather in twelve baskets of leftovers. 

How did this happen?  Mark doesn’t say. Lots of people have speculated, but to do so is beside the point. As Walter Brueggemann puts it:
He committed an overt act of abundance that broke the scarcity of the place – such an abundance that there were twelve baskets of bread left over, more than enough! [Journey to the Common Goodp. 33].

When we gather at the Table, we take a small piece of bread and a little cup of juice. It’s not enough to satisfy our physical hunger or thirst, but it is enough to satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst. When we share in the bread and wine, we share in the blessings of Jesus’ presence. We too are like sheep without a shepherd, and Jesus comes to us in the meal and invites us to share in the abundance that is God’s realm.

When the disciples asked Jesus to send the people away, he asked them to do an inventory of their resources. He asked them to look at the budget to see what was available. And they came back and told Jesus – it doesn’t look good.  As one treasurer told the board of the congregation I was serving – “if we were a business we would be bankrupt.” But of course we weren’t bankrupt, because we still had plenty of resources. We just had to identify them.

This is week two of our fall Stewardship Season. If you didn’t receive your packet last week, Tim will be looking for you after church. And since I misplaced my packet, I’m hoping he has another one for me! In that packet you will find a letter and some other materials that talk about this year’s stewardship theme along with an estimate of giving card. That card will help you discern what you should share through the church from God’s abundance of resources.

When the council puts together its budget, it will try to discern the resources and allocate them wisely. Sometimes all we see are a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, but I expect that there are sufficient resources present in this congregation that will allow us to gather up twelve baskets of left over bread. 

Although we were once a very large church, with, as I understand it, a number of wealthy individuals, we’re no longer a large church and we don’t have a lot of wealthy members. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an abundance of resources at hand. We just have to do an inventory.

We’ll be working on one of those inventories in two weeks when Kathleen Potter hosts a soup lunch and presents a new project for the church. After the recent floods a number of our people began talking about ways in which we could help out each other in an emergency. The Council then established a new task force that will report to the Elders and be chaired by Kathleen. What she’s going to do is invite you to share the resources you can bring to the cause, so that we’ll be ready when an emergency occurs. 

As some of you know, my mother’s house recently caught fire. Mom and Don are okay, but they’re going to be out of their house for three months. While the insurance will cover most of the costs of getting them back in their house, friends, neighbors, and church members immediately came to their aid with food and clothes, and even offers of places to stay. They found themselves in the wilderness, but they discovered an abundance of resources available to them. 

There are other kinds of resources available as well. I want to call attention to another resource – and that is legacy giving.  Since it’s All Saints Sunday, a day on which we remember all the saints who confessed their faith before the world, but who have now rested from their labors, we can give thanks to God that we are the beneficiaries of their confession and their actions in life as well as in death.  

One of the benefits that some of the saints of God have left to this congregation is a portion of their estate.  We are the beneficiaries of estates large and small.  The return on their gifts provides resources that enable this church to be a blessing to the members of the congregation and to the community beyond our doors.  These gifts enhance and expand our own giving. They allow us to have staff and programming that we probably couldn’t have otherwise. They also enhance our outreach giving. While we are small in numbers, our outreach giving stands at about forty-thousand dollars a year. Cheryl and I are setting up with the Christian Church Foundation a permanent fund that will distribute our legacy gifts after we die, and one of the recipients on that list is this congregation. I know that others are doing the same.

I can’t forget the Edgar Dewitt Jones Scholarship fund that assists seminarians with their education. I’m amazed how often I meet a colleague who tells me how grateful they are to have received this award. What a wonderful testament to the foresight of members now deceased.  We’re still good givers to outreach, but these legacy gifts expand that outreach exponentially.

Jesus said to the disciples – you give them something to eat. They went looking for resources, and they found an abundance. In this season of stewardship, may we do the same. May we look at our resources and return a portion of them through the church as an offering of thanksgiving for the abundance of blessings that God has poured out on us, through Jesus our Lord, and by the Spirit who indwells us as we take the journey of faith through the wilderness and on to the Promised Land.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
All Saints Sunday
November 2, 2014

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