Sunday, January 18, 2015

Perfect Love Embodied -- Speaking of God Sermon Series

1 John 4:7-12

When I was in high school, we often sang a song in Bible study that drew from the Song of Solomon.  It went like this:

I am my beloved’s, and he is mine.
His banner over me is Love. (Song of Songs 6:3; 2:4)

Who is the beloved whose banner over me is love? If you read the Song of Solomon in a straightforward way, you’ll discover that this is a most explicit love song. But, down through the ages, Christians have read this song allegorically to describe Christ’s relationship with the church. Christ is the Beloved, and those over whom the banner of love flies belongs to him.     

In one of the weddings at which I officiated, the Scripture text was taken from the Song of Solomon. Among the words shared that day were these:

Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. 
Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it 
(Song of Songs 8:6-7).

Two people in love, committing themselves to a life together as partners in marriage, can surely sing this to each other.  But can this song also describe our relationship with God? Is the love of God so strong that nothing, not even flood waters can quench it? Is God’s love for us even stronger than death itself?

In 1 John 4, we are called to love one another, “because love is from God.”  Not only is love from God, but God is love itself. Therefore, if you are one of God’s beloved, then love should define your life. In fact, if love isn’t present, then you don’t know God (1 John 4:7-12). So what is love?  

If you’ve been to a wedding lately where I’ve officiated, you probably heard me use a definition I took from theologian Tom Oord.  Tom has done a lot research on this subject and he has determined that love is multidimensional. But, he’s also developed a very concise and helpful definition of love. 
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote over-all well-being. [The Nature of Love: A Theology, p. 17]

These are the key points of this definition. First, love is intentional, which means that it is more than an emotional response.  Second, as a response to God and others, it promotes over-all well-being. 

The second definition is similar. Theologian Paul Tillich writes that “Love is the drive towards the unity of the separated” [Love, Power, and Justice, p. 25]. That definition fits God’s nature very well, for the witness of Scripture is clear – God is seeking to heal that which is broken (2 Cor. 5:19).

Our task during this season of Epiphany is to do something that seems impossible. We are exploring ways in which we can speak of the God who is incomprehensible. St. Augustine said that if we think we understand God, then what we have understood is not God. But, even if we can’t fully understand God’s nature, there are metaphors and analogies that allow us to speak of God, even if we do so imperfectly. 

The witness of Scripture is that God is love, and if we claim to know God, then our lives will be marked by love. Even if our definitions of love are imperfect, and God exceeds those definitions, something of God’s nature has been revealed in our own experiences and expressions of human love. Whatever God’s love is, it cannot be less than human love.  While the definitions of love that I drew from Tom Oord and Paul Tillich may seem a bit abstract, they point us in the right direction.

If you look at the sermon title, you will hopefully see a connection between it and the message of 1 John 4. I have in mind the confession that Jesus is the one who embodies God’s perfect love.  John tells his readers that the nature of God’s love has been revealed in God’s decision to send “his only Son into the world so that we might live through him” (v. 9).  

We’ll talk more next week about the ways in which God is revealed to us, but for John, this love is revealed to us when we live in Christ. For John this is expressed in  Jesus becoming the “atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 

Now there is too much to unpack in this statement about the atonement to explore here, but the message I hear in this passage is this – God loves us so much that God is willing to risk the life of the Son to bring healing to the rift that exists between God and humanity and within the created order itself.

Although Christian tradition has primarily described God in terms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the over-use of Father and Son language can lead us, as we discovered last week, to think of God as being a male. But the symbolism here is important – not in terms of the maleness – but in terms of the relationship of parent and child. In this context, we should think in terms of adult relationships between parents and children. In this case, the relationship is between equal partners.  A mother-daughter relationship could just as easily express this vision of a parent-child partnership of equals.  However this takes place, God has intentionally taken steps in partnership with Jesus to promote the over-all well-being of God’s creation.

As we consider what it means for God not only to love, but to be love itself, then we will want to use relational terms to describe this love. One of the first things we need to recognize is that God in God’s self is not a solitary being. One of the reasons why I hold on to the confession that Trinity is the proper way to name God is that it expresses this sense of relationship. Therefore, even as love is the defining characteristic of God’s own nature, the witness of Scripture is that if we know God then we have been drawn into this fellowship of love. 

The question is – how do we speak of this loving relationship? One way is to look for metaphors and analogies that speak of intimate relationship and care for the other.  One of the most powerful images is where Jesus stands on the hill overlooking Jerusalem and laments its fate. He wanted to reach out to Jerusalem and save it, even as it careened toward destruction.  So, he cries out: “How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Matthew 23:37-39).  Yes, Jesus described himself as a mother hen seeking to protect her children by gathering them up under her wings.

Or consider the image found in the Song of Moses – where God is compared to a mother Eagle. 

“Like an eagle that rouses her chicks
    and hovers over her young,
so he spread his wings to take them up
    and carried them safely on his pinions.” (Deuteronomy 32:11 NLT).

Even though the New Living Translation uses masculine pronouns for God, it recognizes that it is the mother eagle who bears her children up on her wings, both to protect them and to teach them to fly.  God in this image is seeking to protect us and to teach us so we too can fly. God’s intention, like the Mother Eagle, is to promote our over-all well-being.

Who is God?  God is love.  Whatever we imagine love to be, God is both that and more.  When we use analogies to speak of God, we not only make an affirmation, we also offer a negation, which allows us to make a further  affirmation.  While we might not be able to offer a precise definition of love, if we love one another, then we are expressing the love that is God who dwells within us by the Holy Spirit. 

In closing I want to share this word from theologian Elizabeth Johnson, whose book She Who Is, is proving to be very helpful in my own reimagining the God who is for us. Drawing from St. Thomas Aquinas, she writes:
Divine love is similar to human love in the sense that it is a binding, unitive force, always tending toward the ones loved and willing the good for them.  Unlike human love, however, which is a response to goodness already there, God’s love creates goodness, making the creature lovable. [She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discoursep. 142]. 

Therefore, while “no one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). Yes, in Christ God’s perfect love has been embodied.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Epiphany 2B
January 18, 2015

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God (Speaking of God Sermon Series #1)

Luke 12:4-7  

Several decades before the American Revolution, a preacher got up to preach a sermon that has lived on in infamy.  Some of you may have read it as a high school student.  Perhaps you liked what you read, but I expect that it didn’t resonate with most of you. That preacher was named Jonathan Edwards and the context was the First Great Awakening that shook the American colonies in the 1740s.  It was titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

You might think that a sermon like this was preached by a backwoods fire and brimstone preacher.  The fact is, the person who delivered this sermon is one of America’s greatest intellects.  It was an expression of a revival that swept New England, dividing the region’s Congregationalists into Old Lights and New Lights.   The question of the day was whether the people and even their spiritual leaders were actually Christians.  Although Jonathan Edwards did speak of God’s mercy, what we remember is the description of God’s wrath and judgment that stands over the unconverted.   

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Refreshed with Praise -- A sermon for Christmas 1B

Psalm 148

Just a few days ago many of us opened presents that were laid out under a tree or perhaps hanging in a stocking.  So, here’s my question – when you were opening gifts did you show proper gratitude?  Were you exuberant in your declarations or did you mumble a word of thanks, even as you were thinking – “I'm not sure what to do with this sweater? There is a reason why it’s easier to give a gift card than pick out a gift.  Even if you have a list, you could come home with the wrong thing, and that doesn’t lead to much happiness on the part of the recipient!  

Parents often require their children to say thank you for gifts received.  Call Grandma, we tell them, and tell her how much you love that sweater she knitted for you.  You know, the sweater you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing outside your bedroom.  But whether you liked the gift or not you have to muster enough enthusiasm to thank the giver. 

Saying thanks for gifts seem to be something of a lost art in recent years.  Maybe that’s because we don’t send as many cards and letters as before.  But gift givers do enjoy receiving a word of thanks – especially if they’ve gone to some trouble in picking out just the right gift.  It could be an email or a Facebook message or even a text – but some word of thanks is greatly appreciated. 

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)