Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Coming into the Light

Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:8-20

When you came into the church this evening, you left behind the cold and the darkness of the streets, and you entered the warmth and light of this sanctuary. Upon entering you found friends and family gathered, and you shared Christmas Greetings with one another. In doing this, you experienced God’s light shining onto your life.

Then, as the service started, you began singing the songs of the season, you shared in a Christmas prayer, and you heard scriptures read that declared the good news that God is present in our midst. Yes God has come to us in a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. And, again, you felt God’s light shining onto your life. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what has happened to you this day, God’s light has touched your life.

I know that it’s easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season. You get tired and maybe a bit cranky. There’s the traffic and the crowds. Then there’s the weather. It’s one thing to dream about a white Christmas, and it’s another to drive in it. Beyond the typical distractions, this year we’ve entered the season with the dark cloud of the economy hanging over us. With all that’s going on, it’s not easy to feel joyous.

The darkness might be pushing in on our lives, but tonight we’ve come to worship the source of light and love. We’ve come to bear witness to the one who brings light into our darkness, and as we do this, we begin to see the cloud lift and the darkness dissipate.

Luke’s version of the Christmas story, tells of angels appearing in the night to shepherds out in their fields. They bring them all the glory of heaven, and with it a message of great joy. For in the little town of Bethlehem, the light has begun to shine.

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.

Yes, in a manger in that little town of Bethlehem, lies the savior, Christ the Lord. Through him the light shines in the darkness, and the world will never be the same.

The Angels’ message echoes one proclaimed centuries earlier by the Prophet Isaiah, who told the people walking in darkness that they would see a great light, and when they saw the light, they would rejoice and give thanks. For on that day, an heir to the throne of David would arise and put an end to war and break the "rod of oppression." Yes, there would be justice and peace when the Prince Peace appeared in their midst.

Although the New Testament doesn’t make use of this passage from Isaiah, down through the centuries the church has looked to it for a word of hope. Indeed, George Friedrich Handel found inspiration in these words as he penned The Messiah. And thus, we sing:
"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, The Mighty God, The everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

The shepherds, so Luke tells us, followed the angel’s song to a manger, where a baby lay wrapped in swaddling clothes. They went looking for the one who would bring light into their darkness, and there in that manger they found the Light of the World. Yes, in him there would be found peace on earth and good will to all.

Tonight we have come out of the darkness and into the light to hear these words of hope and peace. We come to give thanks to the Prince of Peace and draw sustenance from his presence as we sing and pray together.

In a few moments we will come to the Lord’s Table, and partake of the emblems that represent to us the body and blood of our savior, the one we call prince of peace. After we take the bread and the cup we will then take candles and encircle the sanctuary. We will send around the sanctuary the light that begins at the table and then ends at the table. In these lights we will find the symbol of God’s presence. When the sanctuary darkens, the light from these candles will bear witness to this truth – God is with us, even in our darkest hour. When we leave this place, we will carry with us this message into the darkness of the night.

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
December 24, 2008
Christmas Eve

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Healing Presence

Isaiah 61:1-11

The day that we’ve been anticipating is at the door step. There are just a few more shopping days and a bit more time for the parties, before Christmas arrives. It’s so close you can taste it and smell it. But, it’s not quite here yet. You may be shaking the boxes and feeling the packages, but it’s not time to open them just yet.

The time for waiting is still with us. I know it’s not easy, but I think that it will be worth the wait. Remember how Jesus told the gathered disciples to wait for the coming of the Spirit. The disciples were probably wondering: Why wait? Why not get going now? The answer: There are still things to do before the Spirit can come in its fullness. What was true for them, is true for us.

As we wait for the time of revealing, we again listen to the words of Isaiah. These words, as we’ve already discovered, were spoken to people living in exile. The exiles were waiting expectantly, hoping against hope, that their day of freedom would come soon.

As we hear these words, what message do they bring to us? What do they tell us about the promised one, whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Eve? Listen to these words that Jesus would centuries later pick up and read in the synagogue at Capernaum:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. . . .

When Jesus finished reading this very same passage that we’ve read today, he said to the congregation: “This is my mission. This is what God has called me to do with my life. God is calling me and empowering me to bring healing and wholeness to a broken world” (Lk 4:16ff).


With these words, Jesus defined his own mission in life. The question is, how do we hear these words? What do they tell us about how we should live in the world? If we’re called to participate in the mission of God, then how might this passage help define that mission?

The promise held out to us is this: God will restore to health a broken and fractured world. Yes, according to the prophet, God will bring good news to the oppressed, the broken hearted, the captives, and the imprisoned. And the news that comes to us is this: While Jesus took the first shift, he has passed on the mantle to us. We are his body, and as his body we carry with us this mantle of hope.

When you’re a child, Christmas is often about receiving gifts. We like to ask for big things: bikes, computers, and I-Pods. No socks or underwear will do. But as we grow older and more mature, we discover that Christmas is also about giving. Better to give than to receive, say the Scriptures. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in an appropriately titled book, To Heal a Fractured World, says that the ones who are happy among us, are the ones in whom “the desire to give is stronger than the desire to have.” *

As we journey through Advent, we bring our offerings of money, of talent, and of time, into the presence of God, and we dedicate them to the healing of our world. We bring clothing and gifts for Head Start, food and money for Troy People Concerned, along with our special offerings for Disciple outreach. Throughout the year we’re called on to look outward and discern what God would have us do in response to the needs of the community and the world. It might not seem like much, but when we give, we know that God is present in the gift, bringing healing to those who are brokenhearted and hurting. Such gifts as these light the fires of the Christmas spirit in the hearts of those touched by God’s love.


While, it’s better to give than to receive, there are times and places, when we stand in need of healing and wholeness. We’ve been called on by God to look outward, and attend to the needs of others, but there’s also a time and place to look within and discover the holes in our lives: A health problem or a broken relationship, loneliness or financial difficulties. It doesn’t matter what it is, when we’re broken we seek to be made whole.

Not only individuals experience brokenness. It also happens to congregations, and to communities. And so Paul prays: May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:23). To be sound of body and spirit is to be made whole, and the message of Christmas is that Jesus came into the world to make us whole. He touched the blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf, the mentally unstable, and he brought wholeness to their lives. That’s what it means to sanctify someone. By touching them, he made them holy.

Now Jesus didn't heal everyone who was physically, mentally, or spiritually broken, and the world is not yet free from disease, hunger, or violence. So, what kind of healing can we expect?

I once heard a good definition of healing, one that might be useful to us: “Curing is bringing back to normal; healing is bringing back to balance.” Healing can take place even as we find the strength to endure, the ability to overcome, and a sense of purpose so we can move on with life.

Grief doesn’t go away easily, but when we walk in the presence of God we find hope. A dark family secret may haunt us, but as we walk with Jesus, we find the strength and ability to put that secret behind us. Cancer eats at our body, and nothing can stop its spread, but still we find a reason to live until tomorrow. It isn’t easy and the pain doesn’t always go away – but in the presence of God we find balance for our lives. When this happens, we become fit for service in the kingdom of God. Yes, healing is for a purpose!


Now, as we wait for God’s healing presence to be revealed to us in the one who is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, we stand ready to walk in a new direction. We stand ready to minister to our community, so that its brokenness might be healed.

But even as we look out into the world, hoping to discern God’s mission for our lives, we also look inward. And, as we look inward, we begin to see that God is at work mending our lives, freeing us from guilt, from worry, and from fear. It’s not that we get to evade difficult times, but in Jesus there is strength and there is peace. Therefore, with all the company of heaven we get to celebrate. And that’s what we’ve been preparing for and waiting for.

We have waited in anticipation of the unveiling of God’s presence in the world. When that day comes, we will break forth in songs of praise, singing:

My whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has clothed me with the robe of righteousness, . . .

On this final Sunday of Advent, just days before Christmas, we bear witness to the coming of the one we call Emmanuel, “God with us.” It is he who will bring us the garments of salvation. It is he who will bring healing to our world. And we, yes we, get to join in the celebration. As that old camp song puts it: “it only takes a spark to get a fire going.” I believe that this spark is lit, just as the four candles of Advent have been lit, and before long that fire will take off. So let’s break out in songs of praise, because a fractured world is about to be made whole!

*Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World, (Shocken Books, 2005), 20-21

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
4th Sunday of Advent
December 21, 2008

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Comforting News

Isaiah 40:1-11

To be blunt, this Advent/Christmas season isn’t all that joyous for many of our neighbors. Indeed some of you are wondering what the new year will bring. Will you have a job? Will your retirement benefits be there? Our region stands at the center of America’s economic downturn. There is great suffering in our midst. I wish I could say that everything is going to be okay, that the jobs will be there come January. But I can’t.

Things look bad! And as the President-Elect just said, things may get worse before they get better. That’s not the kind of news that we want to hear just before Christmas, but that’s what they’re saying. We live in a time of great uncertainty.

I. An Anchor in a Changing World

I know that Advent seems to get in the way of the Christmas Spirit, but it’s at times like this that the words of Isaiah, words that we often read only at Advent, speak most clearly to our hearts. This morning we’ve been invited to look at our ever-changing and uncertain world through the eyes of this ancient prophet, whose identity is unknown to us. But the words are both beautiful and powerful. These words are spoken to people without a home and seemingly without a future. All they knew of their homeland was stories that had been passed down to them, stories about a homeland destroyed and a Temple in flames. It is to this people that the prophet speaks a word of comfort. The promise is simple. God will be your anchor in difficult times. You have heard that religion is a crutch. That may well be, but when we are without hope then life loses its purpose and society crumbles.

These words that we’ve read together this morning may be familiar to many of you. George Friedrich Handel looked at these words and found in them the promise of his Messiah. He saw in these words the promise of redemption and a word of comfort and of hope. That hope ultimately rests, he believed, in the glory of the Lord, that will be revealed, and that the people will see it together. For in that day, the Lord will reign over all. The shepherd will gather up the sheep in his arms and carry them when they can walk no more.

And when you’re about to lose hope, consider this: even though the "grass withers and the flowers fade,” God’s word of promise remains the same, ever steadfast in the midst of unrelenting storms. Indeed, life may pass us by with ever quickening speed, but God is there, walking, even running, with us.

II. Signs of God’s Constancy

Where can we put our trust? Who will be there when we need them? I love my country, but I have been frustrated as I’ve watched our leaders dither and dicker about the fate of America’s auto makers. I don’t know what Jesus would have us do? I can’t claim God’s mantle on any particular solution. But I do know that there is great pain and great confusion our midst. Many feel abandoned and without hope. For some of you this is your story. You are living it directly. We would love to see this time pass us by quickly and that the damage done to our lives would be minimal.

So, while I don’t have a solution to our economic problems, I do see in this passage, which we’re considering this third Sunday in Advent, a word of promise. I hear the promise that the Lord is coming. I hear the prophet say to us, make the pathway clear in the desert so that God can come to us. Yes, put away the things that keep you from experiencing the fullness of God’s blessings.

Yet, as we get things ready, as we prepare the way, what we discover is that God is already there in our midst. Trouble may come, but God is never far from us. Our problem is that we’re not always looking for God. But, when we open our spiritual eyes, we begin to see that God is in our midst. And in this there is hope and there is strength. Where is this comforting divine presence to be found? The answer is looking back at you. It is that neighbor who is standing with you and walking with you. It’s the pat on the back and the quiet word of encouragement. It’s the new door that opens when the old one closes. It is that restful spot in the midst of life’s turbulence. The winds blow, but standing together we discover that they lack the strength to break our lives.


We live in a community that needs to hear God’s comforting word. A number is on my mind this morning. That number is 37. According to the statistics I’ve read, about 37% of the people that live in about a seven-mile radius of this church have no religious involvement. Now, that’s about normal for America, but it’s a growing number. It’s not that people don’t believe. They just feel disconnected. They want to hear a voice from God, but they don’t think that church is going to be the place to hear it. Many of them find the voices coming from the churches to be angry, confusing, and inhospitable. They hear voices of exclusion, of wrath, of anger, even hatred. They hear that if you don’t believe just the right way, you’ll be left behind.

But is that the voice that is crying out in the wilderness? Is that the voice that is emerging from this place? I hope that the voice that the world hears from this place, is one that is open, loving, gracious, inclusive, welcoming, and yes, comforting. My sense is that there are untold numbers of people who are waiting to hear a comforting word. They want to hear the news proclaimed by the Prophet: “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.” Why is it that this voice is not heard? Could it be that we have hid our light under a bushel – to quote Jesus?

Today we continue walking through Advent toward the day of revelation, the day when we will see the glory of the Lord revealed in a child lying in a manger. Yes, at that time, we will see God bending down to pick up the lambs and carry them to fragrant pastures. In this there is a comforting word, and that word is this: God is with us. As you listen for God’s voice crying out in the wilderness, offering this word of comfort, remember – God’s voice is our voice.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Third Sunday of Advent
December 14, 2008

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Out of Exile

Isaiah 64:1-9

Pearl Harbor, Katrina, 9-11, Mumbai, Ike, the economic devastation that has hit this state, nation, and world; these are images that have seared our thoughts and memories. When we face catastrophic events such as these, it’s difficult to know how to respond.

Thinking back to Katrina, do you remember watching New Orleans evacuate? Or, more recently, we watched as Galveston and then Houston evacuated in the face of Ike? At least in the case of Katrina, the ones who were left behind were the ones least able to care for themselves. But even those who escaped experienced a sense of exile. And to live in exile is to live with a sense of rootlessness and insecurity. Nature isn’t the only force that pushes people into exile. There are refugee camps around the world, from Darfur to the Palestinian Territories, and beyond. To live in exile is to lose control of one’s life. It is a time when the future is dark, cloudy, and foreboding. In such a situation, it is common to ask: Where is God in all of this?

2500 years ago a group of exiles asked that very question. This group of exiles had watched as the Babylonian invaders swept in and carted off people and treasure, while leaving the nation devastated and the Temple in ruins.

The prophet who spoke these words we’ve heard this morning, speaks to this situation. He speaks to people who want answers, people who want to go home, who want to see God act on their behalf. As they wonder why God has not yet acted, they begin to look inward and ask: what have we done to deserve this? But even as they ask that question, they beg for mercy – don’t be angry anymore. Don’t remember our iniquity forever.

I. Advent’s Call to Reflection

Today is December 7th, a date that Franklin Roosevelt said would live in infamy. It’s a day to remember war, and pray that war would be no more. That memory continues to color this day, even though many of us weren’t alive in 1941. At the same time, this is the month of December, a month of joyous holidays.

The economy may be bad, but it’s still a time for parties and carols – whether it’s Jingle Bells or O Holy Night. Even the sanctuary is all decked out in Christmas glory. All that’s left to add is the baby Jesus. Yes, this is a season of good tidings and great joy.

And yet, there is reason to pause and reflect upon our lives, where we’ve been and we’re we hope to go. Christmas is in the air, but this is only the second Sunday of Advent. We may be ready to move on, but we must continue to wait for the Spirit to move.

It’s never easy to wait, and reflection is difficult. Those exiles, they didn’t want to wait any longer. They were ready to leave. In Acts 1, Jesus told the gathered disciples to wait for the Spirit. I expect that they would have rather just gotten on their way. Why wait? We have things to do. But the word that comes to us, as we begin this new liturgical year with Advent is this: Wait and reflect on where God is at work in your life.

In a sense, this is our time of exile. It’s a time when we have lost control of our lives and our destinies. We cry out, with the exiles, asking that God would act boldly on our behalf.

II. The Obstacles to Faith

Christmas is all about faith. It takes faith to believe that God will act on our behalf. It takes faith to believe that God will set aside our trespasses, even as we set aside the trespasses of those who have offended us. Indeed, it takes faith to believe that God would come to us and dwell with us in the person of a child born in an insignificant corner of the world. And yet it’s in this story that we find our reason for hope revealed.

Christmas is about faith, but that faith doesn’t come without obstacles and challenges. Of course, it’s easy to believe when things are going well, but what if you find yourself living in exile? When it comes to faith there are many barriers and challenges that keep us from fully embracing God’s call on our lives.

It could be a severe illness or a chronic one; the death of a loved one or maybe it’s an intellectual challenge. It could be the hypocrisy that we see in our neighbors or in ourselves. It could be a broken relationship or simply the devastation that nature can wreak on earth. Maybe it’s guilt, whether deserved or not, that gets in the way of our relationship with God. Perhaps you’re thinking: I’m just too tired to believe anything anymore. I don’t know what the barriers are to your faith. But, we all face them – whether we’re new to this journey or we’ve been on it for years.

As difficult as these challenges may be, they can have a positive side. Consider Israel – in many ways their sense of peoplehood, their sense of national identity, indeed their understanding of God, was forged during the exile. Much of the Old Testament emerged during or shortly after this period. Some of the greatest passages in Scripture, such as the later chapters of Isaiah, were written at about this time in Israel’s history. Exile may have been distressing and dispiriting, but for the nation as a whole, it was an opportunity to draw closer to God.

III. The Cry of Faith

What then should we do? How should we live in this time of exile? How do we keep moving forward? It’s easy to stop and complain. We could cry out: You’re ignoring us God! In fact, it’s like you never knew us! (Is. 63:19). Or we could request that God act on our behalf.

Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend, and make the mountains shudder at your presence – As when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot boil – To shock your enemies into facing you, make the nations shake in their boots! (Is. 64:1ff – Message)
Yes, Lord, make them shake in their boots. Go get them! Show them you mean business.
Of course, if we’re going to ask God to act on our behalf, perhaps we should look inside and see if there is anything we should confess. As the prophet puts it: “We’re all sin-infected, sin-contaminated. Our best efforts are grease stained rags.” Now, we Disciples aren’t much for confession. We’ve always tried to keep things positive. But there is a time and a place for confession, to put things right. If we’re going to ask for rescue, then it’s appropriate to acknowledge our own responsibility for the predicament we’re in. Indeed, it’s likely that when we look inward, we’ll find a few skeletons in our closets. But the good news is that when we repent and ask for forgiveness, God is faithful to forgive.

IV. Submission to God

As we contemplate our future, this time after exile, having cried out to God for rescue and made our confession, the final step is to submit ourselves to God’s leadership.

Isaiah invites us to share in this prayer to God, even as we await for the one who is coming:

“You are our Father. We’re the clay, and you’re our potter.”

We’re yours because you have made us. We’re your handiwork, which means that we have a purpose in life. Because you are a God who loves, we know that you love us. In the Christmas Spirit that is upon us, we say: Because you are our Creator, we know that you have gifted us for service. Indeed, on the horizon is a new day for us.

Yes, it’s time to get ready to leave exile and join our Savior in the work of redemption. We have a job to do. It will take time and energy, but with this calling comes a sense of new birth and new opportunity. What was is no more. There is only what is to come. That’s the message of the day. Prepare yourselves for the day of God’s coming. On that day God will act with boldness. It’s just a little bit longer, and then the day will come – Can you wait with me?

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday of Advent
December 7, 2008

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Make a Joyful Noise

Psalm 100

The news is bad. Jobs are being lost, homes foreclosed, there are wars on two fronts – of course gas prices have gone down. Things have gotten so bad that this might be a good year to cancel Thanksgiving. I mean, how do you give thanks when the world seems to be crumbling in around you? And yet, giving thanks is something we should do only when the news is good?

Whether or not we feel in the Thanksgiving mood, the holiday is upon us and we’re being asked to give thanks. The truth is, if we’re willing to pay attention to our lives, I expect that every day produces something for which we can give thanks. Consider this statement by Jimmy Carter:
When we wake up in the morning, when we meet a friend, when someone lends us a hand, when one of our children or grandchildren expresses love, when we go to a job that is gratifying, when an unanticipated opportunity arises, when we see a beautiful sky, or when we have any kind of exciting experience -- all of these are opportunities to give God the credit and acknowledge God's greatness. It's a good habit to develop.1


The 100th Psalm begins with a command:

"Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!"
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come into his presence with singing.

The invitation is clear and bold. Come and join with all of God’s creation in giving praise and thanksgiving to God. And what better way is there to give praise than to break out in song? Perhaps, with Isaiah, we could join with "the mountains and the hills [that] will break forth before you and all the trees of the field will clap, will clap their hands" (Based on Is. 55). Today and every day, we can join with the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the streams, the deer and the antelope, the elephant and the mouse, in giving praise to God
“We may plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the ground, but it is God who feeds and waters them by sending snow in winter and warmth to swell the grain.”
We give thanks today, because “all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above.”2

It is true, there is a time for silence, but today is not that time. Today is the day to make a joyful noise before God. To paraphrase the 150th Psalm, let’s not just shout out our songs, but let’s break out the trumpet and the trombone, the lute and the harp, the guitar and the saxophone, the drums and the cymbals, the organ and the piano, because, the Psalmist says "let everything that breathes praise the Lord!" (Ps. 150)


But again, things aren’t going so well, so why should we make a joyful noise? Here is the answer from the Psalmist: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his” (Ps. 100:3). We come to give thanks because God is our creator. He is the potter and we’re the clay. We’re the sheep of God’s pasture and we live under God’s care. We may be free, but true freedom is found not in self-fulfillment but in submission to God. As Paul said:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; Therefore, glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

As we worship and give thanks to God, we are acknowledging God's claim on our lives. Worship reminds us that we must trust our hopes for the future to the care of another who is the creator of all things. In worship we acknowledge that God is the source of our identity. Or, as Augustine said: “our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in God.”


The reason we come today to give thanks to God is that God is faithful. As the Psalmist puts it: “God’s steadfast love will endure forever.” As we’ve been hearing lately, God’s timing might be different from ours, but God is faithful to God’s promises.

To put this another way, consider the parable of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to go out and look for the one that has strayed. Why would the shepherd do this? I think that the reason is that the shepherd doesn’t want to lose even one lamb. This lamb needs to be brought back into the fold so that the flock can be made whole once again (Matthew 18:10:14). In another place Jesus says that God sends down the rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). What does that mean? Doesn’t it mean that God is faithful and that wherever there is life, God is already present. In this there is blessing and a reason to give thanks.


The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks: “What is humankind's chief end? “ In other words, what’s our purpose in life? The answer is simple, yet profound: “The chief end of human kind is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Nothing else takes precedence over our calling to glorify God and enjoy God’s presence forever.

I like to think of the Christian life in terms of a journey. To be a Christian is to set out on an adventure, an adventure that can be challenging, but rarely boring. It has its quiet moments, of course, but it’s a journey into lands unknown. At times this journey can be a bit overwhelming, but the promise of God is this: Despite the odds, we won’t be tested beyond God’s abilities.

For this we give thanks. It is, as theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it: We should give thanks for the Christian community in which we find ourselves, “even when there are no great experiences, no noticeable riches, but much weakness, difficulty and little faith.” And, if we complain that life is miserable, that it doesn’t measure up to our expectations, then “we hinder God from letting our community grow according to the measure and riches that are there for us all in Jesus Christ.” 3

The good news is this: As we take this journey of life, a journey that can be both dull and overwhelming, we travel in the company of the community of faith. This community, can and will support us and encourage us along the way. In the moment that we understand this truth, we can break out in songs of praise and thanksgiving. As we do this, we will begin to recognize the movement of God in our midst.

This Thursday is Thanksgiving Day. I don’t know what your plans are. Maybe you’ll stay home and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade or watch a few football games. Or, maybe you’ll head downtown and take in the 82nd America’s Thanksgiving Parade. Perhaps you’ll be gathering at a table for some Turkey and Dressing. Whatever you decide to do on Thursday, won’t you join me in giving thanks to God with a joyful heart. Why? Because God is faithful and will be present with us.

As you break forth in praise, maybe you’ll begin singing the Doxology – which is after all a song of Thanksgiving.

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye Heavenly Host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

1. Jimmy Carter, Sources of Strength, (New York: Times Books, 1997), 168-69.
2. Stephen Schwartz, “All Good Gifts,” in Chalice Praise, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 110.
3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 5:37.

Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Thanksgiving Sunday
November 23, 2008

Saturday, November 15, 2008

A Full Life

Luke 2:25-35

What makes for a full life?

The film The Bucket List, starring two of my favorite actors, Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson, explores this question in a humorous and yet poignant way. Two men from the opposite ends of the social spectrum and yet both suffering from terminal cancer, share a hospital room. One is white and rich and self-absorbed. The other is Black, blue collar and extremely well read. Despite their social differences, they share a common fate. Death will come sooner than later. Their conversation is sparse at first, but after a while and a bit of annoyance – Morgan Freeman’s character has a lot more visitors – they begin to talk, and the conversation drifts to the meaning of life. Freeman’s character, Carter Chambers, mentions a bucket list. A bucket list is a list of the things you want to do before you “kick the bucket.” Carter is working on his, knowing that he has neither the time nor the money to do everything on the list. Edward Cole, Nicholson’s character, may not have much time, but he does have the funds. And so they begin to work on a joint bucket list, and then slip out of the hospital and begin a grand final journey. In the end, they discover that the most important thing in life is relationships – including the friendship that develops between them.

This morning we read about a baby and an older man. They have little in common – and yet their story raises the question: What makes for a full life?

1. Delayed Gratification

As we ponder the question of life’s meaning and purpose, we must acknowledge that we live in an age of instant gratification. Ours is a world of fast food, microwaves, and the cell phone. We know what we want and we want it now.

I’ve found many of the responses to the recent election very interesting. Already, even before Barack Obama has taken the oath of office, people are lining up and laying out their demands and expectations. They want solutions and they want them now – even though he’s not yet President. It would seem that his leash is short. But, in an age of instant gratification, should we expect anything else?

Last week’s text talks about a groom that was late to his wedding. That parable reminds us that the things of God come in their own time. This morning’s text is out of place – it belongs after Christmas. I know that the Christmas shopping season has begun, but are we ready for a post-Christmas message?

In this passage we find the holy family offering the purification sacrifice in the Temple. As they leave, an elderly man comes up to them and asks to hold the baby. This man’s name is Simeon, and many years before Simeon had received a vision that he wouldn’t die until he saw the “consolation of Israel.” He had lived his life in anticipation of this event, and as Luke tells the story, on this particular day, the Holy Spirit led him to the Temple and to the baby Jesus. In this baby, he comes face to face with his savior.

His long wait was over. The one major item on his bucket list could be checked off. His hope had been fulfilled – he could say that he’d truly lived a full life. Although it would be many years before this child could fulfill his own destiny, for Simeon, this was enough. He could go to his death in peace, knowing that he had seen the salvation of Israel and of the world.

2. A Broad Vision

As Simeon takes the baby Jesus in his arms, he offers a word of blessing. This child, he proclaims, will be “a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” But there is a dark side to this word of promise – for as Simeon tells the parents of this child – He will be God’s means of salvation, but the world will oppose and resist him, and that will be like “a sword [that] will pierce your own soul too.” This is the way life is – it’s full of difficult turns and delays. Be forewarned: very often the journey of life will be difficult. There is no fullness without a struggle.

Despite the delays and the difficulties, Simeon offers us a broad vision of God’s work in the world. This baby is both Israel’s messiah and a “light for revelation to the Gentiles.” In him there is salvation – that is, in him we find reconciliation, healing, and hope. For Jesus, this is the beginning of a journey that will lead to his death, but death leads to resurrection – and in this there is hope. This is the missional journey that we have been invited to join.

3. The Implications for Stewardship

This is supposed to be the final week of our stewardship campaign. Like the passage that we read the first week of this campaign, the Magnificat of Mary, at first glance this text seems to have little to do with stewardship? There isn’t any talk here about money, no message about cheerful giving, or even giving up everything you own to follow Jesus. And yet, it has something very important to say about stewardship.

This passage speaks to stewardship because it raises the question of values. As we look at Simeon’s dedication, we’re asked the question – what do we value most? What are we willing to give our lives to and for?

This morning we come to offer up our purification sacrifice. In a few moments you will be invited to come forward, bringing your offering and your annual pledge. We come today, led by the Holy Spirit, to discern what God would have us do, what commitments we’ve been called to make – whether it is money or time or talent. Ours is a missional journey that leads to a full and vigorous life. The world may not see this as the full life, but as we take the journey together, even as Carter and Ed took their journey, we will discover what it means to live a full life.

Over the past four weeks we’ve heard from members of this church about the meaning of giving – both of money and time. We’ve been told how stewardship can be a blessing to our lives, and we’ve been reminded of how important it is to support the work of this church. We bring this effort to a close this morning, even as we ponder what it means to live life fully.

Simeon’s own journey reminds us that what lies ahead is rooted in what has come before. It’s rooted in a heritage, in the actions and the gifts of others who believed in God’s purpose. We are the beneficiaries of their gifts and calling. But the story doesn’t end with the gifts of yesterday. Simeon himself understood, that God’s blessings didn’t end with him. God called him to bear witness to a ministry that would bring light to the world. We continue to bear witness to that light that come to us in the person of Jesus.

To live fully in the presence of God is to bear witness to God’s work in the world. This witness comes in many forms – and it involves both our time and our money. It is a calling that will takes us beyond these walls to invest in God’s work here in Troy, in Greater Detroit, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). As we consider our own call to stewardship, the question is this: At the end of our days, may we be able to say with Simeon: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace?”

Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
November 16, 2008

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Wedding Bells

Matthew 25:1-13

It’s important that you not be late to a wedding, especially if it’s your own. If you’re a bridesmaid, and you’re late, you might as well go home!

Over the years I’ve been to, been in, and presided over many weddings, so I have a few tales to tell. On one occasion I was sitting in the office with the groom and best man, waiting for the bridal party to arrive. You see this bridal party had decided to get ready at home and come in the limo dressed to go! Well, after some delay word came that one of the bride’s maids had gotten sick, and the limo had returned to the house. We finally got the wedding started, about an hour late. I’ve had to chase down fathers’ of the bride, groomsmen, and even brides maids. It’s not pretty when things go wrong! Fortunately, Bryan and Felicia’s wedding came off without a hitch – in spite of the rain!

1. The Kingdom of God is:

Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God, or as Matthew puts it, the Kingdom of Heaven. Both phrases refer to the same thing. Jesus came, Matthew tells us, to proclaim God’s reign in all of its fullness. Jesus often uses parables to describe God’s coming reign.

In this parable, Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a wedding that’s been delayed. In this case it’s the groom who’s late, and the bride’s maids are ready and waiting for his arrival. Unfortunately, the groom is delayed, not just an hour, but hours upon hours, and as the night dragged on, the bride’s maids fell asleep. I must say, that’s not the kind of wedding I want to perform!

If you’re like me, you probably don’t like delays. We get antsy when an airplane flight gets delayed, especially if we have to make connections. Waiting for the doctor is no fun and when we’re hungry, a delay in serving dinner can make us quite grumpy. Delays can cause complacency and even sleepiness. The longer the delay, the more distracted we get, which is why military units can’t stay on high alert for long periods. After awhile, they lose their edge, their cohesiveness, and their attentiveness. At some point they have to stand down and relax.

The kingdom of God, however, is like a wedding that’s been delayed indefinitely. And yet, the groom could arrive at any moment and we must be ready when he arrives.

As we listen to this parable, what is Jesus telling us about the kingdom? I hear three things: Be ready, be prepared, and be engaged.

2. The Kingdom of God Requires of Us:

  • Be Ready
Fires don’t usually occur at convenient times. They can start just as easily at 3:00 A.M. as 10 A.M.. That means that fire fighters have to be ready to go no matter what time it is when the bell rings. They can sleep and play games, but when the bell rings, they had better be ready to go. I’ve known some fire fighters, and they tell me that their life is kind of like the bride’s maids in this parable. It’s all hurry up and wait. But, when the action comes, it will come without warning! And that’s the way it is with the kingdom of God. When God calls, we need to be ready!

  • Be Prepared

Getting back to the wedding for a moment, if you’ve ever planned and prepared for one, you know that it can be a time-consuming and complex process – especially if the prospective groom wants to get into the action. You have to pick out the dress, the tux, and the clothes for the attendants. There’s the wedding and reception sites to book. Honeymoons have to be planned, and invitations must be ordered and mailed. None of this happens overnight, unless you decide to elope to Las Vegas. And since this is Michigan, even that takes some planning! So, if the groom is late, someone’s going to pay!

In this wedding story the groom is delayed, but we’re not told why. In fact, we don’t even know where the bride is. Not only that, this wedding is so delayed that the bride’s maids fall asleep. A funny thing, though, some of the attendants plan ahead and bring extra oil for their lamps. So, when the groom arrives, they can light their lamps. But the others didn’t plan so well, and when the groom arrived, they couldn’t light their lamps. I don’t know what the first group knew about the groom, but they were prepared. What is interesting is that both the wise and the foolish bride’s maids want to be at the wedding, but only the ones who are prepared get to go in. The message – be like the Boy Scouts, and be prepared.

  • Be engaged

I don’t know about you, but I find this parable a bit disturbing. For one thing, it threatens my theology of inclusion. I hate to hear about people getting left out, especially if they really want to be there. I don’t have a good answer to why they’re excluded. I’ve looked for answers, but the experts are as stumped as I am!

But for a moment I’d like us to set aside that question and focus on what Jesus seems to be saying in this parable and the ones that surround it. All of them seem to say: be prepared, stay ready, and keep your trust in God, so that on the day of judgment you’ll be found worthy. One of the parables talks about how we use our money, and another one talks about signs and warnings that seem strange and yet so common. I think the message here is this: Things will look normal until the very end, so don’t procrastinate, just be ready when the time comes.

As I read this parable, I must ask myself: Am I wise or am I a fool? I suppose how I answer that question depends on the day and the hour. Some days are better than others. Another parable asks the question: Are you a faithful servant whom Jesus will find at hard at work when he returns? I wish I could answer that question with certainty, “why yes, I’ll be busy with the Lord’s work when he returns.” But, can I answer in that way?

By the time this gospel is written, it’s been half a century since Jesus walked the earth. The people had been waiting expectantly, hoping and praying for the kingdom to arrive. They assumed it was just around the corner, and yet here they were, still waiting. Some of them had given up hope and let the flame burn out. But others remained faithful – waiting patiently for the kingdom to arrive in its fullness.

Well, it’s now been 2000 years and counting, and the groom hasn’t arrived. Everything’s ready – the cake and band – even the bride is ready, but the groom has yet to arrive. It’s getting late, and we’re getting sleepy. That cake doesn’t look quite as fresh as it did earlier, and the flowers are starting to wilt. The band is distracted. And yet, everyone is still hoping that the wedding will take place.

Maybe the oil is the key to this passage. It’s the lack of oil that gets one group of bride’s maids in trouble. What did the ones who were prepared know that the others didn’t, and why wouldn’t the wise ones share?

Maybe part of the answer can be found at the end of this chapter, in a parable about sheep and goats. In that parable we hear the goats say to the judge: “Lord, Lord,” but the judge ignores them. Why? Because they failed to take care of Jesus when he was in need. The goats say: “wait a minute, when was that? When did we find you in need and didn’t take care of you?” Jesus answers: You failed when you ignored the cries of the least among you (Mt. 25:31ff.).

Could the oil in this parable be the acts of compassion that God seems to require of us? You can’t just go out and buy acts of compassion at the end of the day. They have to be part of who you are as a person. As James puts it, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:14-17). It’s not enough, James says, to have faith, true faith must be engaged in acts of compassion.
In thinking about this somewhat troubling parable, I started thinking about ministries that truly express God’s compassion. I thought about a ministry sponsored by First Christian Church of Tucson called Humane Borders. Among other things, Humane Borders puts water out in the desert so that migrants crossing the border won’t die of thirst in the desert. I know that our nation’s border policies are controversial, but the reality is that people are crossing the border looking for a better life, and many of them will die of thirst in the desert heat. Is this not what Jesus is talking about in the parable of the sheep and the goats? You don’t have to agree with why these migrants are crossing the border to understand how offering a cup of water not only saves a life, but ministers to Jesus.

When I hear this parable in the context of a theology of inclusion, I hear good news. I know that we preachers tend to moralize, and that it’s easy to lay guilt trips on people. That’s not what I want to do today. But I do want us to hear the sense of urgency in this call to engage in compassionate ministry. When the groom arrives, will we be ready and found worthy?

Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
November 9, 2008

Saturday, November 01, 2008

God and Politics: Oh My !!!

Matthew 22:15-22

Cheryl and I recently attended the Troy Community Coalition’s annual Celebrity Dinner , and were seated next one of Troy’s City Council members. When one of our table companions realized that there was a politician and a preacher at the table, he said: “I guess we can’t talk about religion or politics tonight.”

As you know religion and politics are forbidden topics in polite company, but I love to talk about both of them. I don’t have a choice about the one – I’m a preacher after all – but I’ve been interested in politics for as long as I can remember. My childhood dream wasn’t to grow up a be a preacher, it was to grow up and be a politician. As you can see, I didn’t fulfill my dream of being a Congressman, but I still love politics.

Unless you’ve already voted, I expect that most of us will be going to the polls on Tuesday. The issues before us are many. There are ballot measures, local and state races, and of course there’s that historic presidential election. I must confess, that part of me wants to tell you how you should vote on Tuesday. But, don’t worry, I’m not going to do that, and it’s not just because the IRS might take away our tax exempt status. Still, even if it’s not the place of the church to tell you how to vote, shouldn’t our faith have some role in how we vote?


History suggests that it’s not a good idea to mix religion and politics. It’s bad for religion and it’s bad for politics. That’s why our nation’s founders were smart to put some boundaries between the two. First, they rejected religious tests for public office. And when they drew up the Bill of Rights, the very first amendment protected our right to freely exercise our religious faith. To make sure that this happened, they also rejected state establishment of religion. Over the years these boundaries have been tested, as candidates and political parties, on the one hand, and religious leaders and groups, on the other, have pushed the envelope. For the most part these efforts at merging church and state have failed, and even when they succeeded, they usually ended badly – damaging both church and state. I believe that faith has a place in the public square; the question is: what is the nature of that place?

As biblical people, we look to Scripture for guidance. But, when it comes to religion and politics, Scripture doesn’t always give clear and consistent answers. Part of the problem is that the contexts are very different. The Old Testament speaks of theocracy and monarchy, while Jesus and the early Christians always seemed to be getting in trouble with the law. Although Paul fared better than most, even his Roman citizenship didn’t keep him alive in the end.

Although we have to be careful in how we interpret and apply the biblical text to our own situation, both Jesus and Paul had interesting things to say about religion and politics. Most of us are probably familiar with Paul’s advice in Romans 13. He told his followers to obey the law and keep their heads down. Submit to the authorities, he wrote, because they come from God, and so if you resist them, you’re resisting God (Rom. 13:1ff). That sounds good in theory, but remember that Paul wasn’t talking about a democracy, he was talking about a totalitarian state. Besides, if you apply Romans 13 literally to American history, we could still be a British colony.


Jesus may have said that his kingdom is not of this world, but he also made some interesting political statements. In fact, he even had something to say about taxes, a topic that is central to the current presidential race. But when it comes to taxes, I don’t know that Jesus had to say is going to be very popular.

In our text this morning, some community leaders, both religious and political, come to Jesus and ask him if it’s lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. This was a tricky question to answer, because if Jesus said yes, he’d look like a Roman stooge. But, if he said no, he could be charged with treason. So, like a good politician, Jesus asked for a coin, pointed to it, and asked: “Whose image is on it?” They said, Caesar’s, and he answered: Then give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.

That may sound simple enough – Pay your taxes and pay your tithes! But was he saying something more? As we ponder this question, we may begin to see some important implications for how church and state should relate to each other. In many ways it would seem that he is keeping them separate. History has shown that Christians have often tried to merge the two, with disastrous consequences. Martin Luther and Henry VIII tried to resolve the tension between church and state, by putting the church under the state. Catholics of that era, liked it the other way around, but even they found it difficult to resist the power of the government. Martin Luther King, on the other hand, saw things a bit differently. He believed that people of faith were called to speak truth to power. Stirred by his faith he became a leader in the Civil Rights movement, and because of his leadership, which was rooted in his faith, he helped change America for the better.


I want to go back to what Jesus said to the religious and political leaders who came to test him. Remember what he said abut the coin – whose image is on it? The answer is Caesar’s. As we get ready to cast our votes on Tuesday, perhaps Jesus would invite us to pull out a dollar bill to see whose image is on it. I think you’ll find that George Washington’s face is on that bill.

Although the question is left unstated, when Jesus said that we should give to God, that which is God’s, he was asking about where the image of God could be found. I think it would be appropriate for us to remember on Tuesday, that humanity bears God’s image. Therefore, even though we may owe taxes to Caesar, we owe our lives to God. When it comes to ultimate loyalty, Caesar doesn’t rate, and as we’ve been learning in our study of Acts, when human authority conflicts with God’s, we must obey God.

Of course, it’s not always easy to know where to draw the line. We may not all agree as to when and where God and Caesar are in conflict. Because we live in a pluralistic society, we can’t impose our religiously inspired views on everybody else – but our thoughts and actions should be guided by our faith.

How then should we approach this election as followers of Jesus? It is my belief that we must start by recognizing that if our first loyalty is to God, then we must first of all be loyal to those who bear God’s image. That means that our first loyalty is to humanity, and only then to family, tribe, and nation. I’m proud to be an American; I’m even wearing a patriotic tie this morning. But, my first loyalty isn’t to the nation, but to all of God’s creation. If this is true, then what should we do on Tuesday? Here is my answer, though I must borrow from Paul and say: I don’t have a firm word from God, but here is my opinion!

1) Go vote on November 4th. Neither Jesus nor Paul had a choice in their governing authorities, but we do! I know that not everybody agrees with me on this, but it’s my personal belief (and again, I don’t have any word from God on this), that if you don’t vote – don’t complain!

2) Vote Your conscience, informed by your faith. Again, I know that we don’t all agree on how we should vote on the candidates or the issues. Although I’ve made my choice, I can’t tell you how you should vote. Neither can I, nor should I, bar someone from serving in this church or taking communion because they vote differently from me. Therefore, this is my suggestion – as you decide how to vote, remember the second great commandment: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Then, as you vote, consider your neighbor’s welfare, and also remember that Jesus had a very broad definition of the neighbor. You might even go further, and remember that Jesus said: Love your enemies and do good to those who despise you. As we’re pondering the meaning of these statements, we should ask: how do these statements of Jesus speak to the issues of today, whether they be stem cells, war, health care, jobs, bail outs, immigration, and taxes, just to name a few? I don’t know how Jesus would vote, but as I vote, I can take into consideration his teachings and the way he lived.

3) Put loyalty to God above loyalty to the nation. God isn't an American, and so even if God does bless our nation, then shouldn’t we be good stewards of those blessings and use them to benefit all of God’s creation.

4) Recognize the prophetic nature of the Christian faith. When the church gets too cozy with the governing authorities – whether they’re Republican or Democrat, Conservative or liberal – we lose our ability to speak prophetically. In ancient Israel, there were two kinds of prophets. Those that worked for the government and those that didn’t. Usually it was the independent prophet who spoke for God.

I’m not going to tell you how to vote on Tuesday. I’m not even going to tell you, at least not from the pulpit, how I’m going to vote on Tuesday. But when I go to the polls, I will go as a Christian living in an increasingly pluralistic America. I will try to vote my conscience, hopefully guided by the commandment to love my neighbor. And, I will also remember the distinction that Jesus made between God and Caesar.

Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
November 2, 2008

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Blessings of God

Luke 1:39-46

If case you hadn’t noticed, the world is in a deep financial crisis. The politicians and the pundits keep telling us that this is the worst it’s been since 1932. I wasn’t around back then, but from what I’ve heard, it was pretty bad. So, Just like it was back then, the stock market is crashing, banks are closing, jobs are being lost, and credit lines are frozen, and, people are both scared and angry. At least that’s what I’ve heard on the news!

With all of this bad financial news swirling around us, maybe this isn’t the best time to launch our annual stewardship campaign. No matter how you sugar coat it, asking for money when the economy is in the tank is dangerous! Despite my reticence, and maybe my better judgment, the Stewardship Committee wants to press on anyway! Apparently they have to plan a budget, and to do this they need to know how much you’re going to give.

Despite all this bad economic news, or maybe because of it, this just might be a good time to talk about money. After all, money is on our minds. Like the pundit said: “It’s the economy stupid!”

Like most pastors I’d just as soon not talk about money. For one thing, I know that your offerings pay my salary. I also understand that money, like sex, politics and religion, is a personal, even private thing. Now, when it comes to religion, I don’t have any choice. It’s my job to talk religion. But, talking about money, like talking about sex, seems just a bit meddlesome. And yet, money plays such an important role in our lives, we can’t avoid talking about it.

I’ve heard it said that the Bible talks a lot about money. And if you read the Scriptures, you’ll discover that it does have a lot to say about money. But I warn you, you might not like everything you read! Some parts might even sound un-American. So, as we begin this annual consideration of our call to stewardship, the question that stands before us is this: What would God have us, as followers of Jesus, do?

As we seek to answer that question, we turn to a familiar text, but it’s one that seems oddly out of place. This is an Advent text, something I might preach on in about a month from now. But if we listen for God’s voice in this text, then perhaps we’ll hear something about what God is up to in the world. Maybe we’ll find some guidance in the way that Mary responded to God’s activities in the world. And finally, perhaps we’ll discover what Jesus would have us do.

1. What is God up to?

When times get tough, we often ask: Where is God? It’s a question that we don’t ask quite as often when things are going well, but it’s an important question nonetheless. In this conversation between two pregnant women we hear a witness to God’s presence in the world. Elizabeth tells Mary, a young woman who is pregnant and yet unmarried: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (Luke 1:42). Why? Because Mary was an agent of transformation. God was at work in the world, and she would be a partner with God. Therefore, she was blessed.

What is God up to? Listen to Mary as she sings God’s praises. God will bring down the rich, the powerful, the proud, and the satisfied. And, God will lift up the poor, the powerless, the hungry, and the humble. In other words, God is turning the world upside down. No longer would conventional wisdom hold true. While there might not be a “biblical economic system” that we can or should implement, it does seem, from this text, that God has certain priorities, and those priorities might differ from the world’s vision. But, it is in this work of God, that we will find blessing.

2. Mary’s Response to God’s Blessings

This morning we sang Andrae Crouch’s song: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.” This is a powerful statement of faith. God has done great things and so we come to bless the name of the Lord. This morning, the person who leads us in this song of praise is Mary. Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a young woman, probably no more than 13 or 14. She came from peasant stock and lived in the backwater Galilean village of Nazareth. She was pregnant but not married. She was neither rich nor powerful. And yet, God had chosen her to be an agent of transformation. In response to this blessing, Mary sings out a song of praise and thanksgiving.

My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor
on the lowliness of his servant. (Luke 1:46b-48a).

Mary sang out with a loud voice, giving praise to God, because God had blessed her. God blessed her, because she offered herself up for God’s use in the world.

This morning we come to consider what God would have us do with our lives, including our finances. Perhaps we can find some guidance in Mary’s response to God. First of all, she responded to God’s call with deep humility. She gives thanks that God had looked upon her and considered her worthy to be used by God. Everything about her suggested that she wasn’t a candidate for God’s work of transformation. She was young, pregnant, unmarried, poor. But she made herself available to God. Doesn’t this very fact say to us: God can use you – Your gifts, your abilities, your resources, to fulfill God’s purposes in the world. Yes, what you already possess is sufficient for God’s purposes. All that you need, you already have.

Sometimes we don’t think we have much to bring to the table. And yet we may have much more than we think. Because of that, God is, I believe, calling us to be good stewards of the gifts we’ve been given by God. Mary may not have had much in the way of financial resources, but she did have her life to give for God. And she made herself available – body, soul, and spirit.

3. What Would Jesus Have Us Do?

Mary responded to God’s call by giving her entire being to God. Her story has many echoes in the gospels: Some are positive and others not so positive. We see a widow who gave her last penny to the Temple. It wasn’t much, and yet it was more than the rich man gave, because it was all she had. On there other hand, there’s the young man, whom Jesus told, if you love God, then sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, and come and follow me. Unfortunately, he could not follow Jesus. Of course, would we have followed him? And then there’s the message found in Matthew 25: What you do to the least of these, you do to me.

A few years back, we heard the question posed: “What Would Jesus Do?” Peter Gomes, writing in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, suggests a different question. Rather than ask what Jesus would do, perhaps we should ask what Jesus would have us do? Because our lives and situations are different, might it not be better to ask: What would Jesus have me do in this moment in time?

The Bible says that there are two primary commandments – love God with your entire being, and then love your neighbor as you love yourself. Mary seems to have understood this premise, and so she gave herself completely to God’s service out of love for God and love of neighbor.

In the coming weeks we will be asked to make a financial pledge to the ministries of this church. You will hear testimonies and read some others. This invitation focuses on our financial contributions. This is important, especially in this time of economic upheaval. Our decisions will be an expression of our faith in God. As we consider what to pledge we will be asked to think through how we approach money. As Jesus said, where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also (Luke 12:24). But it’s not just about money. We’ve been asked to be good stewards of all that God has blessed us with, our money, our time, our abilities. And so, as we prayerfully consider God’s call on our lives, we will be seeking to invest these gifts of God in the ministries of the church. As we do this, we will be guided by our calling to be a missional church, a church that looks outward and asks of God: What would you have us do as you work to transform our world? And as we ask these questions, we will get to share in the blessings of God, even as Mary did, so many generations ago! And when we share in them, then we can also magnify the Lord and rejoice in God’s blessings.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
October 26, 2008

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Disciples Values: The Ministry Principle

1 Thessalonians 5:15-21

I doubt that many of you would recognize the names Gary Wells or Brett Younger, but both of them were once my pastors, and I have great respect for them. I expect that each of you could name a pastor or two who have been an exemplar of Christian ministry, a pastor who has especially touched your life.

October has been designated by someone or some group the month of the ministry. It’s one of those Hallmark occasions when you’re supposed to send out cards to your pastor. The month is waning, and I’ve yet to receive any of these cards, which means that Hallmark is not happy! But seriously, ministry is an important part of Christian life. In fact, ministry is much more than something that a pastor is or does. Indeed, ministry is something that we all do. So to be fair, I should be sending out cards to all of you!

This is the final chapter in our six week series on Disciple Values. And ministry is a central Disciple value, but only when we define ministry broadly. At her installation as General Minister, Sharon Watkins said that Disciples don’t do hierarchy very well, and she’s correct. In fact, Alexander Campbell was known to condemn a "hireling ministry." With that in mind, what is ministry for us as Disciples?


Things have changed a bit since the days of Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. Unlike the early days of our movement, most Disciple churches today have seminary-trained pastors. Back at the beginning of the movement, however,Alexander Campbell believed that every person was a minister. That’s why Campbell founded Bethany College. He wanted everyone in the church to be fully educated in Scripture, not just pastors. For Campbell, elders not only gave spiritual leadership, they were the pastors who ruled, taught, and preached. And, unlike modern pastors they usually emerged from within the local congregation. This is why the Disciples were such big hits on the frontier. Churches didn’t have to wait for a preacher to come to town before starting a church.

After the Civil War things began to change, and Disciples began to look at their neighbors, and decided that they wanted trained pastors for their churches, just like everybody else. But, when in 1862 Isaac Errett, then the pastor of a Detroit church, accepted the title Reverend, he received considerable flack from other Disciples. No, we don’t do hierarchy very well.

Nevertheless, over the years, as the frontier gave way to cities and towns, our churches decided that they needed properly educated pastors to lead, guide and care for them. Colleges and seminaries began to spring up across the country to train future preachers, and the churches called these newly trained young men – they were young men back then – to fill their pulpits and look after their people. It was a natural change, but it did offer a challenge our understandings of ministry.

In time more changes would come. Women, for instance, began to take on greater and broader roles in the church, and today we have a woman serving as our General Minister. I think Alexander and Barton would be a bit surprised with all the changes, but in the end the Disciple principle of ministry remains intact. Ministry is still something we all do, whether we’re clergy or laity, whether inside or outside the walls of the church.


Today we’ll baptize Heidi Michael. Her baptism not only seals her confession of faith in Jesus and invites her into membership in the church, it also serves to ordain her to Christian ministry. In baptism we’re equipped and empowered by the Holy Spirit for service in the kingdom of God (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor. 12:7).

Baptism reminds us that biblically there’s no difference between clergy and laity. That’s because we’re all part of the part of the Laos or people of God. While some among the Laos (laity) are called to specialized forms of ministry that require education, training, accountability, and professional standards, each of us is called to a ministry that involves caring for our neighbors through prayer, acts of compassion, the sharing of our faith, and a commitment to justice. Each of us has been called to be an ambassador of reconciliation, and each of us have been called to use our gifts and abilities to serve God in our communities. Ministry is a shared vocation that emerges from within the congregation, and therefore, the congregation, which is the body of Christ with Jesus as its head, is the fountain of all ministerial authority. Jesus doesn’t just speak through preachers, Jesus speaks through the congregation. Although congregational government may not be the most efficient form, Disciples believe it’s the one that allows Jesus to speak most freely.


If ministry is, for Disciples, a shared vocation of all God’s people, as I’ve been saying, then what role do pastors play in the life of the church? What about ordination to pastoral ministry?

It’s true that Disciples haven’t always been comfortable with the idea of an ordained clergy, but over time we discovered that our mission requires that we set aside some from among us to perform specific tasks of ministry – especially the tasks of teaching, preaching, and leadership. We also discovered the need for standards. Once churches began to look beyond the congregation for leadership, they needed to have confidence that the people they were calling were up to the task. In the beginning, the focus was largely on education, but in time other questions emerged. In fact, the Jim Jones episode, helped spur on this development!

One study of ministry among the Disciples defined three fundamental tasks of pastoral ministry: The report said that Pastors should:

1. "Act in obedience to God's commandment of love in self sacrifice on behalf of others and in a servant life in the world;"
2. "Proclaim the gospel by word (teaching and preaching); by sacramental actions (Baptism and the Lord's Supper), and by deed (mission and service);"
3. "Oversee the life of the community in its worship, education, witness, mission, fellowship, and pastoral nurture."1
In one sense every Christian can fulfill these tasks, including that of oversight. But pastors serve the church in a representative way. It is as representatives of the whole church, that pastors give leadership to the church’s ministries, but even then pastors don’t act alone.

Paul recognized the importance of this kind of ministry, and so he appealed to the church at Thessalonika: “to respect those who labor among you, and have charge of you in the Lord and admonish you, esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thess. 5:12-13). In other words, the church is called on to affirm, support, and work with those whom God has called to be leaders, teachers, and care givers.

Our views of ministry may have evolved. We may have been influenced by the needs and issues of the day. Indeed, we have been influenced by our relationships with other traditions, but Disciples still start from the premise that ministry is a shared vocation of all God’s people. So, my question is, as we bring to a close this series of sermons on Disciples values, are you ready to answer the call of Jesus? Are you ready to affirm your own ordination to ministry through your baptism, even as Heidi comes today to receive her ordination to ministry in Christ’s church?

1. "Word to the Church on Ministry," in D. Newell Williams, Ministry among Disciples: Past, Present and Future, (St. Louis, Christian Board of Publication, 1985), 111

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
October 19, 2008

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Disciples Values: The Sacramental Principle

Acts 2:37-42

“A picture is worth a thousand words.” Look at a picture of a smiling young man in a tuxedo, standing hand in hand with a young woman dressed in a flowing white gown, and you know what’s been happening. You don’t need any words. The picture tells the story.

You enter the church and you see a table set with a chalice and a loaf of bread, and you probably know what’s going to happen. These ancient symbols bring to mind an ancient story about God’s love for humanity, a love that was most fully expressed on a cross. Words may be shared, but the symbols themselves carry the story.

This picture of the table set, or a picture of a baptistry filled, call to mind a sacred covenant that God has made with us. They’re reminders that we, though flawed human beings, may rest in peace while standing in the midst of God’s grace. We know this to be true, because these symbols continue to speak to us, from one generation to the next.

I. Why Sacraments?

These sacred signs of grace are often called sacraments, and a sacrament is by common definition an “outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible work of grace.” The word comes from the Latin, and it once referred to a sign of loyalty given to a military or political leader. In time the word took on a broader, deeper meaning. It continued to convey a sense of loyalty, though in this case, the object of this loyalty is God, but it went deeper. The external act became the sign of God’s gracious work of transformation, which happens internally. Over the years Christians have debated over which signs most explicitly carry this witness, and we Disciples follow Protestant practice and claim only two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. It’s possible to expand the number, but these two stand out.

Despite the long usage of this word, Disciples haven’t always been comfortable with it. Alexander Campbell, for instance, didn’t think it was biblical enough, so, he chose an equally non-biblical word, “ordinance.” But, even though Campbell didn’t use the word sacrament, he did believe that these two acts of the church were ordained by Jesus to be signs of God’s grace. And thus, today most Disciples are comfortable with claiming these two acts as sacraments of God’s church.


It is Disciple practice to baptize by immersion upon confession of faith. We’ve been doing this ever since Alexander Campbell decided not to baptize his infant daughter and instead asked a Baptist preacher to baptize him, along with his father and their families. Like most of his fellow Christians of that day, Campbell had been baptized as an infant, but after reading the New Testament he decided that believer’s baptism by immersion was the clearest practice of the early church, and therefore it should be our practice.

As important as that example was, even more important was the meaning he found in baptism. Looking to Acts 2:38, he found the key to understanding baptism. In this passage Peter answered the question: What must we do to be saved? His answer was simple and straightforward:

"Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Walter Scott, another of our founders, turned this passage into an evangelistic formula that he called the “5 Finger Exercise.” What Campbell heard in these words was a promise – if we repent and are baptized, God will be faithful to forgive our sins. It’s not that the waters of baptism have magical powers. It’s just that Campbell believed that God would faithfully act in response to our repentance and our willingness to enter the waters of baptism with an offer of forgiveness. He took comfort in that promise, because he didn’t have to rely on religious experiences or feelings – which can be fickle – to tell him he was part of God’s family. His baptism was all he needed to remember that he was a forgiven child of God. But not only that, even as God is faithful to forgive, God will also faithfully empower us by the filling of the Holy Spirit so that we might walk boldly the path of faith.

Beyond this witness in Acts we find other passages that deepen the meaning of this sacrament. Paul speaks of baptism being the place where we symbolically share in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection. That is, even as we die to our old lives as we’re buried with Jesus in the waters of baptism, we become a new person when we rise with him from the waters of baptism (Rom. 6:1ff). John calls this being born again (Jn 3:1ff).

Baptism can be a life changing experience because it so powerfully symbolizes the transformation that is happening within us when we choose to follow Jesus and receive both forgiveness and the empowerment of the Spirit. It’s true that we may stray from our commitments, but the memory of that event reminds us that God will never stray from us, and in that there is great joy!

I must add something to this statement, however, for while we practice believer’s baptism by immersion, we also affirm the baptisms of all Christians. Therefore, we don’t require people to be rebaptized if they’ve been baptized as infants. That’s because we don’t presume to restrict God’s work in the lives of Christians whose baptismal experience differs from our own.


We refer to the other sacrament, the one we faithfully observe each week, as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or the Eucharist. As with baptism, we find this sacrament described in Acts 2. It would appear that when the early Christians gathered for worship, besides listening to the teachings of the Apostles, sharing in community and in prayer, they would also break bread. Disciples have tried to follow this biblical pattern by coming to the Lord’s Table each Sunday. This practice is kind of unique in Protestant circles, which is why we chose a chalice to be our denominational symbol. It reminds us that the Table, more than anything else, defines us as a people. Because we are a people of the Table, Dick Hamm summed up our church’s mission as: "The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) inviting the World to Christ's table." And our new denominational identity statement puts it this way:

We are Disciples of Christ,
a movement for wholeness
in a fragmented world.
As part of the one body of Christ,
we welcome all to the Lord's Table
as God has welcomed us.
But what does this mean?

Just as with baptism the Lord’s Supper has a number of meanings. For instance, as we gather together at the table we remember that Jesus also broke bread with his disciples, with sinners, and with tax collectors. Indeed, Jesus invited everyone to his table. We also gather in remembrance of all that he was and is. We remember his life, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection. We do this because he called on us to share in the bread and the cup in remembrance of him.

But we don’t simply come to remember, we also come to the table to experience Christ’s spiritual presence. He may not be with us in the flesh, but surely he is with us in Spirit, for as he said to the disciples: “where two or more are gathered in my name, I will be in their midst” (Mt 18:20). But there are also other elements to this witness. We see and hear in this meal a call to unity, for as Paul put it, because there’s one bread and one cup, there’s one body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17). And just as we are called to remember his earthly life and death, we’re also called to anticipate a final messianic banquet, what John the Revelator calls the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9).

We have a tendency to approach this meal with great sobriety, and for good reason. It is a sacred meal and a remembrance of a life given for others. As we gather at the table, we remember his sufferings on the cross, and surely that is sobering. But, because of the Resurrection, we should also come to the table with a sense of joy and celebration. Death isn’t the final word, so as we come to the table, we’re able to sing: “I come with Joy, a child of God, forgiven, loved and free, the life of Jesus to recall in love laid down for me, in love laid down for me.” Indeed, as we share in this meal, we become “new community of love in Christ’s communion bread.” (Chalice Hymnal, 420).

Alexander Campbell understood the sacredness of this meal, but he also recognized the need for joy at the table, and so he wrote that “with sacred joy and blissful hope (we) hear the Savior say, ‘This is my body broken -- this my blood shed for you’." It is this joy, and this hope, that moves us to embrace one another in love. Indeed, in this call to the table we hear a call to love the world, even as Christ loves the world.

We are indeed, a sacramental people who celebrate God’s grace by sharing in the waters of baptism and in Christ’s messianic feast. These are visible signs of God’s kingdom that is already in our midst. As Disciples, this is a principle worth embracing.

1. Richard Hamm, "Address to the Assembly", General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), (Cincinnati, October 10, 1999).

2. Alexander Campbell, Christian Baptist, 3 (Aug. 1, 1825): 175 [Reprint, College Press, 1983].

Preached by:
The Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
October 12, 2008