Sunday, September 14, 2014

Border Crossings, -- A Sermon for Pentecost 15A

Exodus 14:19-31

We cross borders all the time.  Crossing the border into Canada is relatively easy, as long as we have the proper identification.  If you’re trying to cross from Mexico into the United States without documentation, it can be incredibly difficult and dangerous.   The plight of the children fleeing the violence of Central America and the status of young adults who came here with their parents as small children and who have known no other world but America has raised important questions about the nation’s immigration laws. Many are asking whether they are fair and just and appropriate. 

Then there’s the border dividing Detroit from its suburbs.  While no one has to present their papers to cross the divide that 8 Mile Road symbolizes, in the minds of many Detroit and the Suburbs are two different worlds.  In fact, crossing the border can be frightening for many – on both sides of the divide. 

We cross borders every day of our lives as we navigate the ever-changing landscape of our world.  The borders can be economic, cultural, religious, generational, ethnic, gender-related, or related to one’s sexual orientation.  Reaching across these borders can be difficult.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Eating on the Run -- Sermon for Pentecost 14A

Exodus 12:1-14

We have perfected eating on the run.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s running through the drive-thru window at the local fast-food restaurant or tossing a frozen dinner into the microwave!  When it comes to fast food, think about how far we’ve come from the early days of the TV dinner.  If you have to put those aluminum trays in the oven for 30 minutes, you might as well cook a full meal!! 

Although the original Passover meal didn’t go quite as quickly as our modern fast food meals, you might say that the people of Israel were eating on the run the day they left Egypt for the Promised Land.  Isn’t that why they ate unleavened bread? 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Living the Faith -- A sermon for Pentecost 12A

Romans 12:9-21

Sometimes you come across a passage of Scripture that could take several months of sermons to explore.  This is true of today’s reading.  With sentences coming at us in rapid-fire fashion, it demands a great degree of reflection.  Since I’m not planning an extended series at this moment, I will try to refrain from dwelling too long in every nook and cranny of Paul’s message.  

Each statement is an imperative sentence that speaks to what it means to live the Christian life.  It’s fitting that this reading comes on Labor Day Weekend, because it will take a lot of work to fulfill Paul’s expectations.  

The key to this passage is the call to “let love be genuine” (vs. 9).  Everything that follows is an expression of genuine love.  It’s not romantic love.  It’s not just friendship.  It’s Agape love.  When it comes to defining love, I’ve been turning to theologian Tom Oord for help.  His basic definition goes like this:
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. [The Nature of Love: A Theology p. 17].
When it comes to the agape form of love, he defines it as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being.”  This means, do what is good for the other, “in spite of evil previously inflicted” (p. 56).   This is the kind of love that Jesus had in mind when he spoke of loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Opening the Doors of Welcome -- Sermon for Pentecost 8A

Did you see the article in Tuesday’s Free Press about Rippling Hope?  Although neither the Michigan Region nor Central Woodward was mentioned, we can read ourselves into it.  That’s because Carl Zerweck told the reporter that a couple of pastors from the area invited Rippling Hope to come to Detroit. That happened four years ago, and those pastors were Eugene James and me.  The reason why Rippling Hope made the paper and the Channel 7 news was because it was joining up with Arise Detroit’s Neighborhood Day.

Yesterday, I spent much of the day in Detroit, along with Diana Payton, David McCormick, and Kevin Murnaghan – an Irish co-worker of David’s who is on temporary assignment from the company headquarters in Germany.  We joined the Rippling Hope contingent doing some painting, gutter cleaning, yard cleaning, and caulking of windows.  David, Kevin, and I worked on Mr. Zachary’s porch.  It needed quite a bit of work, and while we didn’t get it finished, Mr. Zachary was excited about what his porch was going to look like in the not too distant future.  He even told us that his neighbors were thinking that maybe they should do some painting also.

The block club president told us that because of the work of Rippling Hope, people in the neighborhood had begun to believe that they could make a difference.  Yes, with groups like Arise Detroit and Rippling Hope, there are signs that Detroit is on the rise again.  We didn’t have a large group yesterday, but we were one of more than 200 groups doing everything from yard clean up to offering children’s programs.

This morning’s reading from Romans 9 may look like a lament.  Paul is grieving because his own people aren’t hearing his message.  Although they have all the gifts and blessings of God, they’re not receiving his message of the Messiah, who is over all.

This lament comes right after Paul closes Romans 8 with a crescendoing declaration of thanksgiving for the love of God.
Nothing, neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:37-38).
Paul might be grieving at that moment, but he’s also confident that in the end God’s love will prevail.    

The story of Detroit is a good illustration of Paul’s point.  Many believe that Detroit’s best days are behind it.  The future – to them – looks bleak.  But there are others who believe that Detroit will rise from the ashes.  There are a growing number of people who can see something new taking place.  It’s not just in downtown or midtown or along the river front, though much is happening there.  The visionaries in our midst can see signs of new life out in the neighborhoods as well.  That’s where Rippling Hope is working.

Of course, if you drive around the city, you will still see blight.  You’ll see abandoned homes and lots filled with garbage.  But you will also see homes with newly painted porches and cleaned up lots.  Across the city neighborhood groups and their partners are standing tall and taking back the land.  While the bankruptcy and the water shut-offs get the news – especially outside the area – we can help tell a different story.  It’s a story that is expanding every year.  It’s a story in which we have a part.

In Romans 9-11 Paul focuses his attention on God’s desire to open the door of welcome to the Gentiles.  This has always been God’s plan.  Through Isaac, Abraham’s descendants would be named, and these descendants would be the bearers of God’s blessings to the nations.  There was resistance to this vision, among Paul’s people, but he could see the bigger picture.   Even as Israel would be saved, so would the nations.  It was Paul’s belief that God is seeking to heal the breach between Jew and Gentile.  As Paul writes in the Galatian letter, the walls of separation between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free have been torn down (Galatians 3:28).  

We humans can get impatient.  When things don’t seem to be going well, we lose hope.  But, Paul has a word for us. In verse 6 he writes that  “it is not as though the word of God had failed.”  When things look dark; when things look hopeless; stand on the promised of God.  

The reason Paul grieved for his people, is that they had – in his view – forgotten their calling.  They had let their institutions become an idol.  The institution had become an end rather than a means.  The same thing can happen to the church.  We can make the church the end, rather than the means of God’s mission.

While this is true, we’re also living at a time when people are questioning institutions.  It’s not the first time in history, and it won’t be the last.  Because there is a sense of discontent about the value of our institutions – from the church to government – it might be a good time to think about the nature and purpose of the church.  It’s a good time to ask whether our congregation is living out its calling.

Down through history, whenever faith communities get stuck and begin to focus their attention on preserving the institution, the Holy Spirit ignites a new movement that gets the ball rolling again.  My friend Diana Butler Bass wrote about this in her most recent book – Christianity After Religion  In that book she speaks of a new movement of the Spirit that is bursting at the seams of the church and pushing the church out in new directions.

What is happening today has happened before.  Think about St. Francis and the Franciscans, which challenged the status quo.  And when it got overly institutionalized, new movements emerged from within it. The Reformation was another movement that pushed boundaries.  When those communities got overly institutionalized new movements – like John Wesley and the Methodists or our own Stone-Campbell Movement – emerged.  

We can resist the Spirit’s work, but can’t box in the Holy Spirit.  So maybe it’s better to cooperate than resist!  After all, in the end, God’s love will win.

I believe that what we’re doing in Detroit is an expression of God’s work in the world.  It’s an expression of bridge-building – something the Spirit of God is good at – connecting this congregation to its roots in the city.  It’s not our name.  It’s not the furniture in the room.  It’s the work we’re doing now in partnership with groups like Rippling Hope and MCC that connects us to the work that began almost a century ago in Detroit.    

The nature of our work today, however, is different from the previous century.  The context is different.  We’re living in a Post Christian World – to borrow from the title of a new book by Christian Piatt.  When we look out into the future, we don’t know where it will take us.  We don’t know what the world will look like a decade or a century from now.  But this new world offers us new opportunities to walk with the Spirit and live out the message of God’s kingdom.  As Christian Piatt, who is a Disciple serving in ministry with his wife Amy, the pastor of First Christian Church of Portland, puts it:

Our business is to seek with an open heart and eager mind, every day, what it is that we have been created to be.  We will screw it up, more than once, to be sure.  We will hurt one another in the process.  We will have our hearts broken, our fingers stepped on, and at times it will seem as if we’re on the outside of it all.  We will feel like we’re stumbling around in an empty room, surrounded by four unforgiving walls. [Post Christian: What's Left? Can We Fix It? Do We Care?  p. 205] 
And yet, as Christian reminds us, “every so often, when the fog lifts and our path is clearly laid out before us, we take a step, maybe two, and ask, with every tentative move ‘What’s next?’”

 And that is the way it is for us – when the fog clears, we can begin to see a pathway ahead.  When we see this path, we continue our journey.  We do this, not because we’ve built a great institution.  We do this because God has adopted us as God’s children.   Therefore, to us has been given all the gifts and the covenants, which we share in partnership with, the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel.   Having received this calling, let us stand on the promises of God and join with the Spirit of God in opening doors of welcome to all those who would come in and share this life with us. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan 
August 3, 2014
Pentecost 8A  

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Strange Customs -- Sermon for Pentecost 7A

Genesis 29:15-28

This summer I had the privilege of officiating at the weddings of two  of our couples.  I’ve done a few weddings in my time, so I’ve got a bit of experience with these sorts of things.  It’s clear to me that wedding customs have changed somewhat since Cheryl and I were married thirty-one years ago.  I think things were a bit simpler back then, or at least that’s the way it seems to me and others my age.  But, that’s the way life is – things tend to change.

The reading from Genesis this morning tells an interesting wedding story. It’s part of a larger story that goes back to when Jacob tricked his brother Esau out of his inheritance.  From the very beginning of the story, we learn that Jacob, who is one of the heroes of the Bible, is also a  trickster who gets by on his wits. But sometimes tricksters get tricked, and that’s what happens here. 

What stood out to me as I read this passage is how different our customs are from those in the ancient world.  If things have changed since Cheryl and I were married, they’ve changed even more since biblical times!

This summer I’ve been working on a bible study guide.  It focuses on what the Bible might have to say about marriage, since a lot of people are wondering how it applies to today’s realities.  As I read this passage, I realized it would make for a great first chapter to the book.      

The story begins when Jacob’s mother, who didn’t like the local choices when it came to a marriage partner for her favorite son, asked her husband to send Jacob to see her brother.  You see her brother Laban had two eligible daughters, so surely one of them would prove to be a good wife.  I’m sure that such meddling by parents would go over well today!

When Jacob arrived in Laban’s neighborhood, he came upon a well, and it was there that he met Laban’s daughter Rachel.  Apparently, it was love at first sight.  When Laban heard that his nephew was interested in obtaining a wife from him, he was thrilled.  He proposed a deal.  If Jacob worked seven years for him, he would give Jacob his daughter as a wife.  Jacob agreed to the terms, and he worked hard for seven years.  He was so in love with Rachel that it seemed like only days when the time came for him to claim his prize – Laban’s beautiful daughter.  When the big day came, Laban threw a big wedding party.  He invited all the neighbors to the celebration, and then when the time came for the exchange – Laban switched brides.  Instead of sending Rachel into Jacob’s tent, he sent his older daughter, Leah to Jacob.  Apparently it was dark, and Jacob didn’t know the difference until morning.  When he realized that his new bride wasn’t Rachel, he was furious.  The trickster had been tricked! 

When Jacob confronted Laban about this trick, Laban replied in a way that I think is important for us to hear.  Laban said to Jacob: “This is not done in our country – giving the younger before the firstborn.”  Apparently Jacob didn’t know the rules, so Laban used them for his own benefit.  Because he knew that Jacob would do anything to get Rachel for his wife, Laban made another deal.  If Jacob would spend a week with Leah – doing his duty – then he could have Rachel as his wife in exchange for another seven years of labor.  Jacob didn’t  have to wait seven more years to receive his payment.  He just had to promise to fulfill his obligation.      

So how do you feel about this story and these characters?  Do you think we should go back to doing things this way?  Fathers of daughters, do you wish you could exchange your daughters for free labor?  And before you begin to feel sorry for Jacob, what about Leah?  There’s something in this story that reminds me of a song from my growing up years, which declared: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”  For a week, Jacob, did just that.  He did his duty with Leah, but he was looking forward to exchanging her for Rachel.  

Yes, Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, and Leah knew it.  But so did God.
When the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.   (Gen. 29:31).
As time went on, Leah gave birth to six children, before Rachel ever had her first child.  It created a bit of sibling rivalry, which included the sisters giving Jacob their handmaidens as surrogates.  In the end, Jacob had four wives and twelve children.

   Interestingly, even though Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, it was Leah’s sons who would be ancestors of Moses, David, and Jesus.  Isn’t it interesting how things work out?  

I entitled the sermon – strange customs.  Do you think it fits the story?  Does it help make sense of the divide that lies between those times and our times?  Does it raise questions about the ways in which we think about marriage today?  What should we make of the changes in customs over time?  What does it mean for us to be faithful to God as we live our lives in changing times?  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
July 27, 2014
Pentecost 7A