Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bursting the Wineskins

Luke 5:33-39

Heraclitus supposedly said: "All things are in a state of flux." In other words, change is part of life. Whether we like it or not, nothing ever stays the same. And to prove his point, that old Greek philosopher pointed to a river and said, you can’t step into the same river twice. Why? Because the water that runs down the river is ever changing. And so it is with life.

You might say that change defines modern life. Fashion and music tastes change from day to day. The same is true of hair styles. We look back at old photos and laugh at the big hair or the big glasses. And as for technology, as soon as you get that computer out of the box, it’s already obsolete. I don’t know if you ‘ve noticed it, but politicians have been talking a lot about change – where they differ is in the kind of change they propose. But this is the year of change!

The church is nearly 2000 years old, so you’d think it might be immune to change, but even in the church change has become the topic of the day. That shouldn’t surprise us, since there’s so much change going on around us. As the world changes in its musical tastes and social attitudes, the church has always had to adapt. Remember that there was a time when Gregorian Chant was considered new.

Change has come to Central Woodward as well. Anytime a new pastor shows up, things begin to change. It’s only natural. After all, I’m not John or Shirley, I’m me – for good or bad! And remember – I come from California. Some of those changes have already taken place, and more are on the horizon.


Sometimes we don’t think about Jesus being a change agent, but he was. He challenged the political, social, and religious status quo. He spoke up for the marginalized and the despised. He wasn’t a traditionalist, and so when the topic of fasting came up – he said: when the bridegroom is here, it’s time to celebrate not fast.

To make his point, Jesus told a couple of parables. One parable spoke of putting patches made from new cloth on old garments. The other one had to do with putting new wine into old wine skins. The point he was trying to make was that putting new stuff in or on old stuff doesn’t always work.
When it comes to wine, most wine today comes in bottles or maybe boxes, but rarely in wineskins. In this story, Jesus points to the danger of taking new wine, which is in the process of fermenting, and placing it in an older wineskin. Fermenting wine is expanding, but the old wine skins are brittle and inflexible. If you put that new wine into inappropriate containers, they’ll break open and the wine will be lost.

Now, I don’t think Jesus was concerned about bringing wine to the market. He was concerned about our receptivity to God’s Spirit. Jesus wants us to know that when God’s Spirit begins to move in our midst, if our structures and practices aren’t flexible they may break under the stress. As you know, there’s a tendency within the church to resist change. Sometimes that’s not a bad thing – not all change is good – but if we’re resisting God’s Spirit, that’s not good. When it comes to resistance, the objections often sound like this: "We haven't done that before"; That’s not the way we do things here; or "This is the way we have always done it." Or, maybe someone will say: "That's the Pastor's job." Statements like these are old wineskins that block creativity, imagination, and ministry.

Because I believe that Jesus is calling us to live and work together in relationship with the living God as a missional people, we must be open to new things.


I know that change is scary. And besides that, when life around us becomes chaotic or difficult, we like knowing that there’s at least one thing that stays the same. For many of us, we expect the church to be that bastion of stability. Besides, as Jesus pointed out, once you’ve tasted the old wine, you’re not likely to appreciate the new wine.

But if we read Scripture and Christian history we’ll discover that even if the character of God is unchanging, the way in which God works does change. When we read the stories about Saul of Tarsus, St. Augustine, Martin Luther, Teresa of Avila, Reinhold Niebuhr, or Alexander Campbell, we find God working in new ways to reach the world with the gospel of love.

If an ever-changing world is to hear the gospel, then the church must learn to communicate that message in the language of the day. Missionaries had to learn this lesson, and so do we. No matter how wonderful things might have been back then, we can’t go back and do things the way they did them in the 30s or the 50s or even the 60s. Just think for a moment about how we communicate today. It’s hard to believe, but email is old fashioned. If you want to connect with a young person, you might have to take up texting or do Facebook.


I believe that God is pouring out the wine of the Spirit upon the church around the world – including this congregation. The question we face is this: How will we respond to God’s call? If God is pouring out new wine, then our first task will be to create new wineskins.

I recently read that before we can change structures, we have to change values. So, over the next few months I’d like to invite you to join me in prayerfully discerning God’s core values for this congregation. If God is calling us to be a missional people, what does that mean for how we do things? That discernment process will help us respond to questions about music, worship styles, outreach ministries, the way we use the building, and even how we interpret the Bible. And as we do this, I believe God will bring new people into our midst. They’ll bring new gifts, new ideas, and new energy – all of which will expand the way we see the things of God. Some of them might be young and others not so young. They’ll come from all kinds of backgrounds. Some of this newness will make us uncomfortable, but that’s okay – it’s natural to feel that way. It’s simply a reminder that we need to listen to each other and to God. And, even in the midst of all this change, some things will stay the same. We remain the Body of Christ. God’s love remains steadfast. We will remain committed to the principles of liberty, unity, and a commitment to hear God’s voice in Scripture.

Jesus invites us to share in the new things of God. And when we get nervous about what that means, Paul encourages us not to quench the Spirit. Instead, he tells us to examine everything and hold to that which is good (1 Thessalonians 5:19-21). Having heard this call of God, may we join together in discerning the path forward as God’s people.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Entering the Promised Land

Joshua 1:1-9

It was really just a few days ago that the family left California and headed East in our two-car caravan for the Promised Land – Michigan that is. We had to travel through Sin City, cross deserts and mountains, rivers and corn fields. We wandered through nine different states and touched the edge of Chicago before we crossed the state line into Michigan. Even then the journey wasn’t over, because we hadn’t reached our final destination. So, we continued driving across the state, entered the Detroit area, stopped in at the Morehouse domain, had dinner and picked up a key to the new house. Only then could we finally cross the threshold and claim our new house in Troy as our own. I could expand on the journey a bit more, but that would take more time than is available. I could also show you some pictures, but that too must wait until another day. The journey east, however, isn’t so much about a new house as it is a new calling and a new ministry. This is, as the hymn reminds, “the day of new beginnings.” And the Promised Land isn’t our new house, but is instead our life together as Central Woodward Christian Church.

1. Wilderness Time

The Hebrews took a journey eastward from Goshen across Sinai toward the Promised Land of Cana. That journey took a bit longer than anyone expected. If you take a look at the map you’ll discover that you can cross Sinai in a matter of a few days, probably not much longer than it took us to drive from California to Troy. But for some reason, according to the biblical text, the Hebrews, under Moses’ leadership, wandered in the Wilderness for forty years. I don’t think it took this long because Moses forgot his compass or because he had hired bad scouts. They wandered in the wilderness because they weren’t ready to enter the Promised Land at the time they began the journey. It took those years of wandering to become a people and let go of habits formed while living in slavery. They also needed to connect with a God they didn’t really know, and yet it was this God who called them out of slavery and promised to give them a new home.

For the past four years, maybe longer, Central Woodward has been wandering around in the Wilderness. I don’t expect that you thought it would take this long to find a pastor. And yet it did. But perhaps there was a reason for the delay. I know that there are plenty of pastors out there looking for a new job. But you weren’t ready – yet. And so you continued to wander in the Wilderness, but this wasn’t time wasted. From my conversations with the search committee and others since then, I’ve figured out that there was just a bit of conflict to deal with and there were some wounds that needed to heal. Perhaps more importantly you needed to seek God’s guidance and discern God’s purpose for this congregation. You needed to wrestle with the congregation’s heritage and what that meant for its future. I expect that this was a difficult period for many in the congregation, and yet I think it was an important opportunity for the congregation to get a sense of God’s vision and calling.

As you wandered at least a couple of guides stopped by, but none of them was as important to the future of this congregation as Pastor Shirley. I know she wasn’t with you for the entire journey, but in many ways she was your Moses. She helped this congregation get a sense of its mission and commit itself to sharing the gospel. She also helped you find your way toward God in prayer. I know that she talked a lot about the need for change and she offered you tools that would help you achieve God’s mission. Yes, God sent Pastor Shirley to lead you across the Wilderness and up to the River’s edge.

In Deuteronomy it’s said that Moses didn’t cross the river. All he could do was climb the mountain and look into the Promised Land. His job was done and another would succeed him. Pastor Shirley took you to the river’s edge, and while she could look across the river, someone else would lead you across the river. Moses had his Joshua; Pastor Shirley had me.

2. Crossing Over Time

Moses appointed Joshua to lead the people when he was gone. According to Deuteronomy, Joshua was “full of the Spirit of Wisdom” (Deut. 34:9), making him ready to lead the people on the next stage of their journey together. When the story picks up in the book of Joshua, Moses is dead and the people stand along the river bank. At that point, according to the story, God re-commissions that “New Guy” – Joshua -- to lead the people into the Promised Land.

The day everyone had been waiting for had finally come, and the remnant got to enter the land. I expect that there was plenty of joy and excitement, but there was probably also a bit of apprehension, concern, and even fear. Some of them might have wondered whether Joshua was ready for the job. Besides they’d heard tales bout the dangers that lay ahead. Whatever the case may have been, it was time to take the next step and inhabit the land God had given them. Now, there’s a lot to this story that we don’t have time to deal with, and some of it isn’t all that savory. But that’s a discussion for another day.

What I’d like to talk about is Central Woodward’s calling to serve as God’s agents of reconciliation and transformation in Troy and its surrounding environs. That is, what we need to focus on is our calling to become a missional people, who will live out the gospel in these communities in such a way that they might be transformed.

3. Be Strong and Courageous

As we look to cross the river, I believe that God has a word for us. It’s the same word God gave to the Hebrews: “Be strong and courageous.” The writer of Joshua uses this phrase three times in nine verses. I think the writer has a message for us, and that message is quite clear: you’ve arrived at the river, but taking possession won’t be easy. Getting this far is exciting, but there will be many pitfalls ahead. There will be areas of disagreement and even resistance -- both from within and from without the congregation. Things won’t always go the way we want. But, if you are strong and courageous, then you will find the strength to say no to the fears and yes to the energizing presence of the Holy Spirit. And as a result we will make a difference in the community; we’ll share the good news that God is in our midst and wanting to transform lives and communities. So, be strong and courageous, for if you are, then your way, our way, will be prosperous and successful.

4. God is with us on the Way

There is no better day than today to cross the river. God issued the call and I showed up to help you taken possession of the land. We can do this because God not only tells us to be strong and courageous, but God also tells us that we don’t go out alone In our text this morning we hear the promise that: “The Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” It is God’s presence that makes it possible for us to accomplish our mission. Indeed, God’s promise is unequivocal. I will be with you, and “I will not fail you or forsake you.” That is God’s promise and it’s unconditional. But, God does have some expectations of us.

We also hear in this morning’s text these words: “Be careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you.” It also says: “do not turn from it to the right hand or the left.” And then we’re told not to let the Law “depart out of your mouth,” but instead “meditate on it day and night.” The analogy here is that of the cattle chewing its cud. Finally, we’re told “to be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it.”

Each of these commands reminds us that if we’re going to succeed, we need to listen to God and follow God’s directions. The question is: how will we listen for God’s voice? And the answers are several. God’s voice will be heard as we gather to pray and as we pray in our own private places. It will come as we study together. It will come in our holy conversations. All of this will take discernment, and it takes time to learn to be discerning. But we already have some of the tools needed.

I’m excited that members of the congregation have been reading and discussing the book Unbinding the Gospel. I’m excited that the Council has decided to order copies of the congregational study book, Unbinding the Heart. These are books that deal with evangelism. They help us understand how we can effectively share the message of faith in a way that is appropriate and helpful. One of the things that is present in Unbinding the Heart is a 40 day guide to prayer. It’ll likely be sometime before we start that program, but it will be an important part to our efforts to listen for God’s voice.

The river is lapping at our feet, so let’s enter the land.

Preached by:

Rev. Dr. Robert Cornwall

Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Troy, Michigan

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

July 20, 2008

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Marked for Service

Matthew 17:1-9

We’ve all had life defining experiences. They may not be Damascus Road, Mt. Sinai, or the Mount of Transfiguration types of experiences, but whatever they might have been, they helped define our lives and transform us into the persons we are today. If we look back on them, even years later, we can remember the event vividly.

There are historical and public events that define us – events like Pearl Harbor, the assassination of Martin Luther King, or 9-11. These events define generations and eras. Those of you who grew up during World War II see things differently than we who grew up during Vietnam or the first Gulf War. Because they’re public events, we share them with the multitudes, and so even strangers can find a connection through them. There are also very personal events that mark us as individuals. We may share these events with a few people, but the circle is much smaller and deeply personal. I’m talking about events like a marriage, a birth, a divorce, a death, a graduation. If we’re willing to listen closely I think we can hear in these events the voice of God calling out to us. What we hear is God making a claim on our lives.

1. Personal Markings

Because this is my first Sunday and my first sermon as pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church I wanted to say something autobiographical. I wanted to share with you a couple of events in my life that define me and have shaped me into the person I am today. I could have chosen other events, perhaps events that seem more spiritual, but these are the ones that reveal my identity as a person. In sharing these events, I assume things like my confession of faith and my baptism – they are the foundation upon which these are built.

The first date is July 9, 1983. That was the day 25 years ago, that Cheryl walked down the aisle in her white lace wedding dress and joined me at the altar in marriage. I can say that I was truly enraptured that day by her beauty, and as I stood there at the altar hands in hands, my life was changed forever. We celebrated the 25th Anniversary of that event this past Wednesday with a visit to a furniture store and then Starbucks!

The second date is June 9, 1985. On that warm Sunday evening hands were laid upon me, ordaining me to the ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Although I didn’t anticipate being a pastor at that point, it was this event that gave direction to my life work. It would be 15 more years before I heard the call to be a pastor, and even then I wasn’t sure, but God had long before placed a mark on my life.

The third event came during the evening of April 3, 1990. I won’t go into the details, but that was the day, 18 years ago, that Brett was born. Up until the very moment of his birth I wasn’t sure whether I was ready to be a parent – and I was already 32 years old! But when the nurse placed him in my arms for the first time, I was so enthralled that a sense of confidence replaced the fear I had felt. Of course, that was only the beginning, and other fears would set in over time, but for the moment I sensed God’s calling and I was transformed.

The final date is June 15, 1991. On that day I received my Ph.D. It was the culmination of many years of study, but in receiving that degree I sensed God’s call to be a scholar in the service of God’s kingdom.

Each of these events has marked me for service -- as a husband, a father, a pastor, and a scholar. They are markers of God’s grace and they helped mold me into the person I am today. What is true for me is also true for you. Your markers might be different, but God has placed a claim on your life as well.

2. Mountain Top Experiences
We call these kinds of life events mountain top experiences. This metaphor has deep roots in human experience. There’s something mysterious even mystical about standing on the top of a mountain. It can be the view or may be the thinness of the air, but for some reason you feel closer to God. We call these thin places, because the boundary between God and us seems much thinner up on the mountain.

Ancient peoples, including biblical people, understood the spiritual power of the mountain. In our text this morning we see Jesus going to the mountain. Moses went to the mountain, as did Abraham. We still talk about God being in the heavens – up there above us. This need to go to the mountains was so strong that some people built artificial mountains if they lived too far from real ones. Just think about the ziggurats of Mesopotamia or the pyramids of Egypt, Mexico, and Central America. The story of the Tower of Babel is a good reminder of this need to get close to the heavens – though in the case of Babel, the people wanted to draw close to God on their own terms.

When Jesus went to the mountain he was transfigured. The scriptures say that his countenance changed and he heard God’s call on his life. Like Moses before him, he became a new person. Moses became the Law Giver and Jesus the Redeemer of humanity.

3. Experiencing Transformation

I told you a little of my story, but each of us has our own story to tell. These are the events that marked me for service, but you have also been marked for service. Some of the markings might be similar to mine, but others will be quite different. In this we’re all much like Moses, Paul, and Jesus – we’ve been to the mountain top and we’re not the same because of it.

As important as these defining moments are, we also need to experience God’s transforming grace as we live our lives on the valley floor. Remember both Jesus and Moses had to return home. While there are many ways that we can experience God’s grace, let me suggest just a few for your thoughts.
  • In Prayer and Worship
Time spent regularly in prayer and in worship is one of the most important aspects of living faithfully on the valley floor. This can happen privately or corporately; in church, on a retreat, or in the bedroom. Even if our experiences aren’t dramatic, God’s grace and love washes over us, empowering us for service. And, it’s important to remember that each of us will experience God’s presence differently. For some it will be a song and for others the Lord’s Table; it could be a sermon or maybe a prayer simply spoken; whatever it is, we hear God speak to us. Whatever it might be, that moment will be unique to the individual.
  • Service
Worship and prayer is about being – being in the presence of God. But the Christian life is about more than being, it also involves doing. God can and is encountered not only in our worship and prayer; God is also present in our doing.

God was just as present with Moses and Jesus when they got to the valley floor and had to deal with the mundane issues of life. After Moses came down from the mountain he found the people in rebellion. Jesus found his disciples struggling with a botched healing. As glorious as the mountain top experiences might be, they had work to do, and so do we.

In the coming months we will be being and doing. We will stop and listen closely for the voice of God in our prayer and worship, but we’ll also be working on any number of projects. The important thing is to keep things in balance and in perspective.

And what will we be doing? That’s to be determined. It might be serving a meal to the homeless or tutoring a child. It could involve driving an older person to the doctor or sitting with someone in great pain. Maybe we’ll be building a home or advocating for peace and justice in our world. And as Brother Lawrence discovered, as we do these things we’ll “practice the presence of God.” As we do these things our lives will be changed.

Let us then, go to the mountain top and experience the enrapturing presence of God and then return to the valley refreshed, empowered, transfigured and marked for service to the kingdom of God.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
July 13, 2008