Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Family Business

Luke 2:41-52

    Oh, how they do grow up!  They start out as cute little babies, but before you know it, they’re twelve, and that original cuteness has begun to wear off.  12-year-old kids are liable to speak their minds – even to their parents.  So, would it surprise you to learn that Jesus is no different? 

   When last we gathered on Thursday Evening, we found Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by proud parents and some rather dirty shepherds.  We filled the night with carols, such as O Come all Ye Faithful, the First Noel, and Silent Night.  We sang songs of joy and thanksgiving to the one lying in that manger, all wrapped up in swaddling clothes.  Yes, along with the angels and the shepherds, we sang: 
    “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly, for his bed a cattle stall;
    Oxen lowing, little knowing, Christ the babe is Lord of all.” 

These much beloved songs project an image of a gentle glowing baby, and we all seem to like babies.  Little children like them, as do the oldest among us.  But, like I said, babies do grow up, taking on their own identity, and breaking free of their parent’s grasp.  In most societies this begins to happen around age twelve, and while we have a long period of preparation called adolescence, ancient societies lacked this intermediate period of life.  You went from childhood to adulthood almost over night.
1.  The Maturation of the Messiah

    We don’t know very much about Jesus’ process of maturation.  The gospels are rather silent about his growing up years, with Matthew being the only other canonical gospel that even offers a birth narrative, and he is silent on the years between birth and baptism.  This doesn’t mean that we lack stories about this period of Jesus’ life.  It’s just that these other stories seem rather odd.  They’re more akin to watching Superboy grow up in Smallville, learning to manage his super powers.  These apocryphal gospels depict Jesus as a miracle worker, who uses his super powers mostly to benefit himself.  So, if you cross him, be careful, because this Jesus hasn’t yet learned to rein in his powers, and you just might end up dead!

    What we have before us in this morning’s text is the lone canonical picture of Jesus’ growing up years, and it’s just one snapshot.  The picture comes from a trip south to the annual Passover celebration.  Jesus is twelve and the family had traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem in a caravan.  On the way home, about a day into the trip,  the parents discovered that Jesus was missing.  That sounds sort of odd to us – we would probably report parents like these to Child Protective Services, but this is a different time and place. 

    Upon returning to Jerusalem, the frantic parents finally stumble upon the young Jesus after a three-day search.  He’s just sitting there in the Temple courts, talking theology with the teachers of the day.  Everyone is amazed at his level of understanding.  This is a precocious child!  He might not be turning his clay pigeons into real ones, but he confounds the wise with his own wisdom.  It might be worth noting that Jesus ends his teaching ministry in the same Temple precincts – but his message isn’t as well received. 

    When the parents confront Jesus, he’s rather surprised that they were worried.  As he saw it, they should have expected him to be about his father’s business!   If you read between the lines, it would appear that his tone isn’t all that pleasant.  It almost seems as if he is talking back to his parents.  Maybe he thinks they’ve embarrassed him in front of his new friends –  You know how it is to be age 12.

     But, however the conversation may have gone, in the end, he returns home with his parents, and Luke says that he grew in wisdom and stature, and in both divine and human favor.  And the next time we see Jesus, he’s an adult, who has come to John to be baptized.  But, as Luke tells the story, Jesus doesn’t need to be forgiven his sins – he just needs to be commissioned to take up his life work.      

2.  The Family Business

    In the ancient world you didn’t normally choose a career for yourself.  If you were a male, you followed in your father’s footsteps.  Joseph is said to have been a carpenter or some kind of builder or even a laborer, and so it would have been expected that Jesus would take up the same trade.

    I’m glad things have changed -- Although my father enjoyed history and even preached a little when I was really young, selling specialty advertising isn’t my cup of tea!  And I don’t think Brett is planning to follow in my footsteps either – at least not the preaching part. 

    When Jesus told his parents that he was in the Temple doing his father’s business, he wasn’t talking about doing carpentry or stone work, he meant, talking theology.  In a sense he was redefining his family boundaries.  While he would return home with his parents – Luke says that he was obedient to them – in the course of time he discovers both a different vocation and a different sense of family.  For him, family would be defined by faith and not lineage.  Instead of Joseph being his father, God would be his father, and therefore, his calling would be take up the Father’s business.   

So, what does this have to do with us?  Does it not redefine our own sense of family values?  We’ve just finished celebrating a holiday that tends to be defined by family connections, and yet even as Jesus discovered a new sense of family, the same is true of us.  And like him, we have been called to join in this family business.
3.  Growing in Wisdom and Stature       

    As we contemplate what it means to take up the family business, I hear another word in the text calling out to us.  It’s a call to consider what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. 

    In the verse that precedes this morning’s text, in a passage that bridges the infancy narrative and this story of Jesus’ youth, we hear that the child, living in Nazareth, grew strong and was “filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Lk 2:40).   Then, in the closing verse of today’s text, we hear that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Lk 2:52).  These two verses provide a set of parentheses for the story about the Temple encounter.  They both speak of Jesus growing in wisdom and in favor.   

     The way of discipleship involves growing in wisdom and in the favor of God.   As we prepare to enter a new year, one that is full of new possibilities and opportunities, we hear in this text an invitation to prepare ourselves for taking up the family business – that is the business of the kingdom of God. 

    In thinking about what this means, I turned to a new book by Philip Clayton, in which the author writes that “in recent years Christian churches have been losing the battle of significance.” 1 Part of the reason for this is that we simply don’t know our story very well, which means we have trouble living our lives from this story.  Many Christians find it difficult to say why their faith makes a difference in their lives.  This makes the call to bear witness to the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ difficult, because we’re not certain of our place in God’s vision of the world. 

    Clayton suggests that we need a robust theology, one that is reasonable, inclusive, engaging, and rooted in the biblical story.  In order to gain this confidence, we must grow in the wisdom that comes from our encounters with Scripture, tradition, and in the faith experiences that emerge from our encounters with God and with each other.  In this, we discover a vision of the kingdom of God, one that invites us to work with God “for the salvation of this planet and all its inhabitants” (Clayton, p. 153).   Jesus had that sense of vision, and it was one that he developed as he grew in wisdom and in stature.  

    The church year, which begins in Advent and continues to and beyond Christmas, serves to remind us of the full-orbed nature of the Christian story.  It begins with a promise that bears fruit in the birth of Jesus, and continues on as we encounter God in our daily lives, wrestle with the questions of faith, engage in matters of life and death, and then hear the call to join with the community of faith in the work of God.  This may be circular, but as we tell and retell the story, it becomes part of us, and we discover in this story our connection to the family of God.  And as we find our place in God’s family, we also discover our calling to take up the family business.

1. Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology for Church and Society, (Fortress Press, 2010), p. 152.

Preached By:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
1st Sunday after Christmas
December 27, 2009

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Shepherds on Watch -- A Christmas Eve Sermon

Luke 2:1-20

    When it comes to casting a Christmas pageant, shepherds rank low on the list of desirable parts.  The most coveted roles, of course, are Mary and Joseph.  After that, I expect that the three wise men get top billing.  Being one of the magi is nice, because you get to wear fancy robes and bring gifts to the baby Jesus.  While angels don’t rank with the wise men, at least they have more star power than shepherds. 

    As for the shepherds, they get to wear bathrobes with blankets over their heads – You need to think Linus here.  No crowns and no wings, just blankets and bathrobes.   No gifts and no grand songs to sing.  While the angels hang out in the heavens, broadcasting the good news, they hang out in the hills with the sheep and the dogs.  There’s nothing too exciting about these roles, except that Luke seems to think that they’re important. 

    You might notice that Luke’s birth story doesn’t include wise men, kings, or magi – whatever name you want to give them.  That’s Matthew’s version, and he has a different agenda.  Maybe he knew that Christmas pageants would someday need some staring roles, and so he added them into the mix.  But Luke doesn’t seem impressed with star power, and so instead of the three kings, he has shepherds watching the sheep by night. 

    Despite the fact that David was known to be the shepherd king and the 23rd Psalm calls God our shepherd, shepherds lived on the margins of society.  They were dirty, smelly, rough kinds of people.  This may explain why no one really wants to play a shepherd in the Christmas play, although you would think that maybe Pigpen would have made been especially equipped for the role!  It’s too bad that Lucy gives him the role of the inn keeper. Of course, Linus already had a blanket to throw over his head! 

    As we hear this story, I would invite us to step back in time, so that we can share in the shepherd’s night time vigil.  As we’re watching the sheep, making sure that none of them wanders off or gets poached by a wolf, the silence of the night is interrupted by a heavenly song and a great light.  What you hear in this song is the good news that in the city of David, the Savior, Christ the Lord has been born.  Consider for a moment that the news comes first, not to the palace of the king, but to a group of shepherds sitting on the margins of society.  It’s just one more reminder that the ways of God often turn our expectations on their head.    

    As we come tonight, let us remember that not only did good news come to the shepherds, but the news they received tells us that the Creator of all things chose to be revealed to us in a babe, born in a stable’s feeding trough.  In telling the story this way, Luke continues the story he began with Mary’s song about God’s preferential option for the poor, and God’s willingness to bring down the high and the mighty.  This is the news that the shepherds have been called upon to proclaim to the world.

    The angel’s song rings out: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” And it rings out on the lips of the shepherds as well.  And the message is this:

    God’s love made visible!  Incomprehensible!
    Christ is invincible!  His love shall reign!
    From love so bountiful, blessings uncountable make death surmountable!
    His Love Shall reign! 
 (Iola Brubeck, “God’s Love Made Visible!”Chalice Hymnal 171). 

     As we return to our homes this evening and celebrate Christmas over the next day or so – gathering as we shall around trees to open presents, and dinner tables, may we remember who it is we have come to honor.  May we remember that the King of Glory has been revealed to us in a babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, surrounded by lowly shepherds. 

  Remember as well that this is only the beginning of the story. Jesus doesn’t stay in the manger –  lest his cuteness lull us to sleep and cause us to forget the purpose of his coming.  That purpose is to reveal to us God’s work of transformation in the world, a task God has invited us to share in. 

  Therefore, as we come tonight to the Table and share in  the Lord’s meal, may we bear in our hearts this news:  Although the journey begins in a stable it will lead to a cross, and from the cross to the resurrection, for as the words of Iola Brubeck makes clear – “His love shall reign.”   So, as we celebrate this great day, may we join together at the table and “open hearts and pray.  His love shall reign!”  May this be the message the shepherds bring to our hearts this Christmas Eve.   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Christmas Eve 2009 

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Good News for the Humble -- An Advent Sermon

    LUKE 1:39-55

    When Alex Rodriguez signed his ten-year 252-million-dollar contract with the Texas Rangers a number of years ago, baseball fans were scandalized. They wondered – who could be worth that kind of money?  While no baseball player has caught up to him yet, several are nipping at his heels, and his salary doesn’t even compare to what Tiger Woods brought in with his winnings and endorsements – at least prior to his recent scandals, or  Oprah gets from her empire, or the typical Bank CEO receives in compensation.

    If you’re like me, it’s kind of hard to grasp the magnitude of this kind of money.    What do you do with that much money?   How many homes and cars do you actually need?

   Andy Rooney asked just this question in his 60 Minutes commentary last Sunday evening.  Pointing to the recently released Fortune 400 list of richest Americans, he opined: 

    I’ve often wondered at what point spending money no longer is any fun for a rich person.
In other words, when is enough, enough?  I must confess, I’ve not reached that point where I can say that I have everything I want!  But still!

    This morning we near the conclusion of our Advent journey and the text before us turns our world upside down.  As we listen to Mary’s prophetic song of praise, we learn that God has different priorities than the world has.

I.  A Song for the Ages

    Our gospel text is one of the great texts of Scripture. It has inspired works of art, poetry, and music.  Traditionally we know it by its Latin title, the Magnificat.  So beautiful is the poetry that we might forget that the one who gives voice to this prophetic word is a young woman – probably still in her early teens and likely poor.  Not only that, but she is quite unexpectedly pregnant.

    The passage begins with Mary, having been visited by an Angel bearing news about the blessing that would come with her pregnancy, hurrying off to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who lives in the Judean hill country.   We’re not told why Mary would do this,  but if you read this passage carefully, you discover that this isn’t just a meeting of cousins, this is a meeting of prophets, both of whom happen to be pregnant.  One woman is quite young and unmarried.  The other is older, and typically beyond childbearing years.  Both of these women see themselves as blessed by God.
    First we hear from Elizabeth, whose child leaps in her womb.  Moved by the Spirit to speak a word of blessing, she pronounces Mary blessed to be the bearer of her Lord and Savior.  And Mary, for her part, breaks out in song, giving thanks that God would bless her, despite her own life circumstances.  Maybe that’s why she visited Elizabeth.  She needed a word of confirmation.  Fred Craddock helpfully summarizes the message of Mary’s song:  

    She sees God's grace and goodness toward her as but a single instance of the way of God is in the world.  God blesses the poor and oppressed and hungry; and in the final eschatological reversal, God will bring down the proud and rich oppressors and exalt those who have been disenfranchised, disregarded, and dismissed.1

Yes, this God we worship does the unexpected and tends to turn things upside down. 

    There is a danger in preaching this text.  It’s easy to take it with such seriousness that we preachers break out into a harangue, berating the congregation for wasting money on presents and trips.  Here we are, having maxed out our credit cards to buy gifts for family and friends, and the last thing we need is a sermon to make us feel guilty, because we didn’t sell everything and give it to the poor in response to Mary’s prophetic Word.

    I wasn’t intending to preach that kind of sermon, but it’s easy for that kind of message to slip out as we focus on the God who turns things upside down.  Charles Campbell suggested that if we take the message with too much seriousness, our presentation of it can become  “sourly prophetic and angry.”  And that’s not the message we need to hear this morning, as we come to bask in the light of the candle of God’s love.  What we need to hear instead is the message of the feast of the holy fool, a feast inspired by this hymn during the middle ages.2

    Think for a moment of St. Francis.  He was rich and yet he gave up everything, but in doing so he didn’t become dour and solemn.  No, he experienced great joy – just as Mary experienced great joy in her calling.

II.  Turning the Tables on the Proud

    I don’t know how each of us should hear the message of this hymn.  In part that’s because we come to the text from different vantage points.  But what I hear in it is that the God we worship and serve has a tendency of turning things upside down.  It’s not that God is just mysterious.  God tends to act contrary to our socially defined expectations.

    Our culture keeps saying to us that God is on the side of the strong, the mighty, and the proud.  This is a sentiment that we often hear on the lips of the winning Super Bowl quarterback:   “I want to thank God for helping us win this game!”  Indeed, athletes sometimes have some of the most interesting views of God and of Jesus.  They often want to see Jesus as the big winner – and therefore their inspiration.  Consider this baffling picture of Jesus provided by a former NFL lineman: 

    Christ would be the toughest guy who ever played this game . . . If he were alive today I would picture a six-foot six-inch 260 pound defensive tackle who would always make the big plays and would be hard to keep out of the backfield for offensive linemen like myself.
As you can tell the person who made this comment played a few years ago, because today’s defensive tackles tend to be around 300 pounds and run as fast as a running back.  But the point of this is simple:   If Jesus is worth serving then he must be a winner, and a winner must be a  “manly man.” 

  This, however, isn’t the picture that Mary paints.  In her picture, God is the one who has  "looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant,"  and who scatters the rich and the powerful, even as he lifts up downtrodden.  In choosing Mary, God had chosen the one who would bear Emmanuel – God With Us – from among the poor and the marginalized of society.  It’s good to remember, as we celebrate this Advent and Christmas season that  God could have chosen a daughter of Herod or Caesar for this purpose, but God didn't.   God could have broadcast the message from the roof tops, but God didn't.   No, Jesus didn’t come into the world with all the trappings of power and wealth; instead he was born into poverty and insignificance.

III.  Lifting up the Marginalized 

    Now, I don’t think we should idealize poverty.  It’s not something we should normally seek out, indeed, it’s not something that I’ve sought out, although I know that there are those who are called by God to live with great simplicity so that they can be in ministry with those who are in deepest need.  And I don’t want to give the impression that unless we’re poor, God won’t love us. I don’t think that’s true.  But, this song does remind us that God will bless those whom society fails to bless.  It reminds us that power and might and money aren’t necessarily signs of divine blessing, nor does poverty mean that one is not loved by God. 

    When I hear Mary’s song, I think of people like Mother Teresa and the recently sainted Fr. Damian of Molokai.  I find it interesting that both of these figures, who have recently been honored by the Catholic Church – one as a saint and the other beatified, which is a step beneath sainthood – gave their lives to ministries serving lepers.  In fact, Fr. Damian contracted the disease and died a leper. 

    When we re-gather on Thursday evening for our Christmas Eve service, we’ll hear a continuation of this story.  We’ll hear the message that on the day the Savior was born, the angels proclaimed the message of his birth not to kings but to shepherds.  Then, if we continue reading the story, as he matured into adulthood, we discover that Jesus spent his time ministering among the same kinds of people –  fishermen, tax collectors, women of ill repute, the sick and the despised.  The only time he had an audience with the movers and shakers of society, they we’re standing in judgment over him, deciding how best to get rid of him. 

While this might not be the kind of message that would stir the hearts of most mothers it led Mary to "magnify the Lord."  As we continue our journey through Advent to Bethlehem’s stable, may we view the world through the eyes of Mary.  And may we give thanks to the God who  turns the world upside down by filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty.  And as we hear this message, may we ask God to reveal to us, how we, who have been blessed with every good and perfect gift, might be a blessing.

1. Fred Craddock, et. al., Preaching through the Christian Year C, Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1994), 22.

2. Charles L. Campbell, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Eds., (Louisville: WJK, 2009), 1:97.

3. Norm Evans quoted in Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Thought I Knew, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 19. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Advent 4
December 20, 2009

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Radical Expectations

Luke 3:7-18

The key to success in life is to lower expectations. If you set the bar low enough, then it won’t take much energy or effort to succeed.

Let me give you an example. If, back in August, you expected the Lions to make the playoffs this year– not to mention the Super Bowl -- you were probably setting yourself up for a big disappointment. After all, it’s been a while since the Lions last had a winning season, and they’ve been to a Super Bowl, not even when Barry Sanders was roaming the backfield. But, if all you expected was an improvement upon last year’s results, well then, this year has been a roaring success. Just think, last year the Lions lost every game, making them the first NFL team ever to do so. But this year, the Lions have not only won one game, they’ve already won two games. I’m not a mathematician, but that’s a 200% improvement. What more can we ask of them?

Quite often what would seem to be bad news can be portrayed as good news – if we set a low bar of expectations. Consider the recent report that GM lost “only” $1.8 billion in the last quarter. Now that may not sound like good news, but it beat expectations, and so GM could hail their loss as a gain – simply because the experts thought they would lose a lot more money.

Yes, if we set the bar low enough, we can all be successful in life! But, what if someone raises the bar? Indeed, what if someone sets up for us radical expectations? How should we handle this? How will we define success?

Well, this is the problem this morning’s Advent lesson poses for us. And, the one who
brings to us this high bar of expectation is none other than John the Baptist -- that locust-eating, scraggly-bearded, crazy man of the desert. It is John who invites us to consider a new path, a new way of living in the presence of God. John says to us, God is going to do a new thing, and so we have to get ready.

1. The Way of Baptism – It Washes Us Clean

I don’t know about you, but I find John’s first question to the gathering crowd a bit disconcerting. At the very least, he’s not very polite. He doesn’t welcome the crowd with open arms. There’s no warm up, no flattery. He just calls them a “brood vipers” and asks who had sent them to be baptized. This isn’t the way to grow a church!

Although John might not have the best marketing skills, he does ask a good question. Why are you here? What is your motive? By referring to them as a brood of vipers, he seems to be pointing back to Genesis 3 and the story of the Fall. It would appear that while they claimed to be the children of God, he saw them as the children of Satan. So the question remains – why have you come to be baptized? Are you willing to go all the way and renounce your allegiance to the evil one? This question was part of the ancient rite of baptism. No wonder the Emperor Constantine delayed his baptism until he lay on his death bed. Apparently he decided that being Emperor and being a baptized Christian weren’t compatible. But, here we are, having been called to be baptized, to be washed clean, so that we can take up the journey that leads for us to Bethlehem’s manger and beyond.

2. The Way of the Spirit – It’s Radical

John announces a way forward that isn’t about a set of doctrines, but a way of life. It’s a way of sharing in God’s presence even as we live in the world. According to John, this way forward involves high expectations.

In the verses that precede this morning’s text, Luke points us to Isaiah’s declaration that on the day of the Lord the path forward will be made straight, the valleys will be filled, and the rough ways made smooth so that all flesh might see salvation together (Isaiah 40:3-5). As you listen to this statement from Isaiah, perhaps you can hear the stirring strains of Handel’s aria “Every Valley shall be Exalted.”

John comes into the picture, with Isaiah’s mantle, preparing us for a journey that will transform the world. This is a tall order, and John wants us to look closely at our motives – why are we here? What is our agenda? He asks this question because baptism initiates us into the way of the Spirit. While we may claim to be children of Abraham, John asks whether we have demonstrated this allegiance with fruit. Advent promises a new direction for humanity, but what does it mean for us to enter this new age that John heralds? What does it require of us?

Harvey Cox, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Harvard, wrote a new book called the Future of Faith. In this book, Professor Cox suggests that we’re stand at the edge of a new age of the Spirit. This new age looks back to an age of faith that existed at the moment of the church’s birth in the first century, but it also will look very different from the one we’ve known at least since the day of Constantine. In this new age of the Spirit, we’ll no longer depend on culture or society to define our faith. Instead, we’ll look to God’s Spirit and the bar of expectation that the Spirit sets for us. In this new age of the Spirit, we will again look at the world through the eyes of Jesus, letting his life, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection define what it means to live before God. This is the new Advent that lies ahead of us, as we journey toward the revealing of the God who comes to us in the babe born in Bethlehem.

3. Living Up to Radical Expectations – Bearing Fruit

John’s ministry involved two things – preaching a message of repentance and offering baptism as the way of receiving God’s salvation. Although John seems to speak harshly to his audience, like Malachi, he assumes that his audience both belongs to the people of God and that they have gotten off track. They need to be washed clean so that they can be made whole.

John invites his audience to participate in a process the ancient church called the “via purgativa.” That is, he invited them to purge their lives of the things that held them back from sharing in the things of God. John invites us to share in the same process, one that might involve fasting or giving of our money or time for the good of another, or it might involve gathering together with a small group of spiritual friends and sharing one’s vulnerabilities. Brian McLaren points out that this process isn’t the same thing as penance, because we’re not paying for our sins. We’re simply practicing humility and service before God.1

In answer to the question – what must we do? John offers his own methods of purging one’s self of the things that keep us from experiencing the fullness of God’s presence. At first, these words might sound rather dismal, but John says that they bear good news. If you can receive them, your life will be changed by the purifying fire of God that sets us free from the things that hold us back from experiencing the presence of God – that is, the chaff of life.
And what are these radical expectations? John tells those who have two coats – and most of us have more than two -- to share one of them with someone who lacks a coat. If you have food, then share what you have with the one who doesn’t have food. If you’re a tax collector then don’t charge more than what is expected, and if you’re a soldier, then don’t use your power to extort money from your neighbors. In other words, love your neighbors as you love yourselves.

This is the new way of the Spirit, which does set the bar exceedingly high. And, remember that Jesus told the rich man – if you want to be saved, then sell everything you have and give it to the poor (Luke 18:18-30). While these may be difficult words for us to hear, they do set for us a goal, a way of living life in the presence of God that will change not only our lives, but the world itself.

Although the road forward involves high expectations, we go forward lifted up and carried by God’s grace. We go forward knowing that in our own strength we will fall short, because the bar is set so high. But remember that the refiner’s fire doesn’t destroy, it purifies. And the one who baptizes with fire, simply removes the chaff, not the grain. It is, as theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote many years ago:
In its profoundest insights the Christian faith sees the whole of human history as involved in guilt, and finds no release from guilt except in the grace of God. The Christian is freed by that grace to act in history; . . .2

And this is the good news of Advent: We have been set free by God’s grace to pursue the upward call of God, which will transform not only our lives, but the world in which we live.

1. Brian McLaren, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), pp. 156-157.

2. Reinhold Niebuhr in Reinhold Niebuhr: Theologian of Public Life, Larry Rasmussen, ed., (New York: Harper-Collins, 1989), p. 252.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
Advent 3
December 13, 2009

Sunday, December 06, 2009

House Cleaning Time

Malachi 3:1-4

If you’re planning to host a holiday party, you’ll have to get the house ready. That may mean doing some much needed winter cleaning. Dusting, mopping, vacuuming, polishing, cleaning the bathrooms, and washing and ironing those table cloths. Of course, you also have to prepare the food, unless you decide to save time and hire a caterer. Once you get all that done, you still have to get yourself ready. After all, a good host has to be properly bathed and clothed. At least that’s what you have to do if you want to throw a successful high society party. But, what if your anticipated guest is the Lord of creation? How should you prepare for such a visit?


This question of preparation is central to the season of Advent. Although, too often this is a season that gets swept aside by all the commotion of the season that follows. When it comes to Advent, we really don’t know what to do with it. We don’t know the hymns, beyond “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The lectionary texts, well they sound so cranky and judgmental that not even interjecting the idea of hope can salvage the season. So, with all this talk of repentance and penitence, waiting and preparing, it’s no wonder everyone wants to skip over Advent and get on with Christmas. At least with Christmas, we know the songs. Still, Advent does have an important message to impart. It reminds us that we’re not perfect, and that we stand in need of God’s grace – the grace that comes with the promise of Christmas.

This morning’s text comes from Malachi, the very last book in the Hebrew Bible. This prophet speaks to Jews living after the exile. Their country is a province of the Persian Empire, the original Temple is gone, replaced by one that lacks the magnificence and grandeur of the earlier Temple. Many who hear these words, long for something they never saw or experienced. Still, what they now have before them, reminds them of what has been lost.

Malachi understands their feelings, but he wants them to understand that they can’t dwell in the past. Instead, they must look forward to what God is going to do in their midst. He tells them someone is coming who will restore their fortunes, but before that happens they have to get ready, because "who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" (Mal. 3:2)


We relish hearing messages about grace, mercy, and love, but there are also messages in scripture that speak of justice and righteousness. They tell us that the God of love is also a God who judges, and this message of judgment is prominent in the texts of Advent. Indeed, you will find strong messages about social justice, concern for the poor and the outcast. If you continue reading this third chapter of Malachi, you will hear a word of judgment against adulterers, those who bear false witness, and those who oppress the worker and the alien in our midst. This isn’t a message we like to hear, especially not at this time of year. I must confess. It’s not the kind of message we preachers like to give. But here it is, so how do we respond?

What I hear in this passage is a call to look inside ourselves and discover the obstacles and barriers that hinder God’s work in our lives – the things that keep us from truly experiencing the love of God and neighbor.

I also hear a question regarding what I believe about God? Is it possible that in my desire to embrace a God of love, I end up domesticating or taming God. While, we want God to be safe, is God safe? There’s a line in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, that fits here. It comes in a conversation about Aslan. Mrs. Beaver tells the children:
'If there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they're either braver than me or else just silly.'

'Then he isn't safe?' asked Lucy.

'Safe?' said Mr. Beaver. 'Don't you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.'

If the Lord of heaven who is coming into our midst is good and yet not safe, then how do we get ready?

Malachi’s advice for getting ready to meet God, may seem rather harsh. He speaks of the Lord coming in judgment like"a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness." (Mal. 3:2b-3).

Did you notice that reference to Levi’s descendants, the ones who give offerings to the Lord? Malachi seems to be concerned about the behavior of the Temple’s priests. We could take this as a message for clergy, and clergy do need to hear it, but if we read this from a New Testament perspective, it’s important to remember that we’re all priests of God. Therefore, each of us stands in need of purification, if we’re going to stand in the presence of God.

Paul says in Romans that we all sin and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), and so even though God created us to be in relationship, there are impediments that mar this relationship. Reinhold Niebuhr, who was a pastor in Detroit before going to Union Seminary as a professor, wrote that true peace comes only as we recognize our own need for forgiveness.

Reconciliation with even the most evil foe requires forgiveness; and forgiveness is possible only to those who have some recognition of common guilt. The pain of contrition is the root of the peace of forgiveness. [Larry Rasmussen, ed., Reinhold Niebuhr: theologian of public life. (New York: Harper Collins, 1989), p. 133.]

Advent invites us to put our lives into the hands of the one who judges with refiners fire. That sounds ominous, but consider that the refiners fire doesn’t destroy, it simply removes the impediments – so that gold and silver can emerge from the ore. The message of the refiners fire is, therefore, one of transformation – and therefore it’s good news.


Like Malachi, John the Baptist also spoke of the need for repentance in preparation for the Lord’s coming. But what is required of us? Do we have to believe correctly or behave or dress in a certain way in order to belong to the community? If that’s true, then can any of us belong?

The prophet speaks here in a way that suggests that we belong to the community before we can either believe or behave appropriately. It’s not a question of whether we belong, but rather whether any of us are ready to be transformed by our encounter with the living God. The journey of faith, the progression from an infant’s milk to an adult’s meat, isn’t easy. In the course of our journey we will go through the refiner’s fire and be washed with fullers soap.

Although the news here doesn’t sound that great, if we listen closely we will hear a word of redemption and grace. We will hear a word of unconditional love. But, this love will not leave us as it found us. Our encounter with God will lead to changed lives, healing of brokenness, and power from the Holy Spirit to embrace God’s future. This process begins in baptism, where God begins to wash as clean. Then, as we leave the waters of baptism, we’re able to start our journey with God, a journey that is sustained by our gathering at the Table. Although we need to be cautious in how we use this text, Paul speaks of the transforming power of suffering. He says:

[S]uffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom. 5:3-5).

While some among us have experienced more than their share of suffering, this word can remind us that even in the most difficult of circumstances, God is there renewing our spirits.
May we this morning, as we continue our Advent journey, answer the call to prepare to meet the God who is revealed in Bethlehem’s manger?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Generosity is the Hallmark

1 Kings 17:8-16

Julianna Claasen, in reflecting on today’s text, wrote:
Sometimes God’s provision comes in the most unlikely of places and by means of the most unlikely of people. 1
Or, to put it another way, “God works in mysterious ways!”

The story of the prophet Elijah’s encounter with the widow of Zarephath is a perfect illustration of this principle. Think about it, God sends the prophet, who is fleeing from the wrath of Queen Jezebel, to a foreign land to find shelter with an impoverished widow and her son. What is more, not only was this widow poor, she wasn’t even a worshiper of Yahweh. Being from Sidon, she would have been a worshiper of Baal, the same god worshiped by Jezebel. And yet, it was this most unlikely woman who provided food and shelter for a stranger, even though her resources were few. But in the midst of her scarcity, God found abundance.

There is another story about a widow. Although this story is a bit different, it also features a widow who gives sacrificially. In fact, she gives her last penny to the Temple. You may have heard this story before, but I’d like to read it. Don’t worry it’s brief: Read: Mark

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ (Mark 12:41-44)

As you listen to these stories, do you hear echoes in the words of our opening hymn?
Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home; all is safely gathered in, ere the winter storms begin; God our Maker, does provide for our wants to be supplied; come to God’s own temple, come, raise the song of harvest home
(Chalice Hymnal, 718)
Do you hear in these stories and in this hymn, a call to trust in God’s provisions and to give thanks for God’s abundance?

In both of these stories, there is the background of scarcity. The widow of Zarephath is facing famine and the other widow simply faces the reality that her resources have come to an end. Their stories are reflected in many stories of our day, for we live in difficult times – when news about foreclosures, job losses, climbing unemployment rates, dominate our conversations. This news is serious, and we shouldn’t take it lightly, but is there another word that we should hear at this time of Thanksgiving? Can we not pause to reflect on our abundance and give thanks for God’s provisions?

1. Seeing God’s Abundance

While it’s difficult to talk about abundance when the times are so stressful, can we not find signs of grace in our midst? The widow of Zarephath didn’t have much, but she did have some grain, some oil, and a few sticks of wood. As we see from the story, this was sufficient for her to be a blessing to a stranger – and in the end she was also blessed.

Over the past week or so, I’ve watched several of our members post daily words of thanks on Facebook. These words of thanksgiving are reminders that we have been blessed beyond measure. After reading these for several days, I even set up a discussion forum on our Facebook fan page so we could offer words of thanksgiving in a more public fashion. Not too many of you have visited this forum, but there’s still time to share our thoughts about God’s abundance.

When we look at the biblical stories, we find many examples of God’s provision for humanity, starting with the Garden and moving on to the manna God provided in the wilderness. There’s the feeding of the 5000 and this story of the widow who shared what she had with Elijah, and received God’s blessings as a result. We needn’t be Bill Gates, Oprah, or Warren Buffett to experience abundance, so the question is – what are the signs of God’s abundance in your life? Finding an answer to that question, requires that we look at our lives prayerfully.

2. Generosity as a Way of Life

This biblical story reminds us that we can find abundance in the least expected places, but it also encourages an attitude of generosity. In the devotional readings for this week the message is one of generosity as a hallmark of one’s life – a message reflected in the title of this sermon. Therefore, as we hear this call to be generous with God’s abundant grace, we also hear a call to bring in and dedicate our pledges of support for the ministries of this church. We do this for at several reasons.

First, we give to the church as a sign of commitment to living in a covenant community of faith. If we wish to have a place to worship and serve, then it will take money to pay the bills – including salaries, utilities, and program costs. If we are to be a missional church then the church must have financial viability. Therefore, each of us must decide, prayerfully, how much should be given for this work.

Second, we take the offering in worship as a sign of our gratitude – because as the Psalmist puts it: “The Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 100:5). Yes, God has blessed us with every good and perfect gift, and so we respond by returning a portion to God’s house.

Third, by making these pledges and bringing in these offerings, we recognize that everything belongs to God and that we have given access to it as a trust from God. Or, as Mark Powell puts it: biblical stewardship is about “giv[ing] all to God by letting Jesus Christ be lord of who we are and what we have.”2 Yes, by making these gifts through the church we affirm God’s lordship over our lives – including our money. I think we can all agree that it’s difficult to let go of our finances. That’s why some people attach strings to their giving, even in death. But by putting those funds into the plate, we give up control. Yes, we trust they’ll be used wisely, but once we let go, those funds no longer belong to us.

Now, I don’t talk much about amounts or percentages, because I believe this is a decision that must be guided by God’s Spirit, as we prayerfully consider what to give. In this I tend to follow Paul’s lead. He doesn’t talk amount or percentage – instead he talked about cheerful and proportionate giving. In his second letter to the Corinthian church he writes:

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly, will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:6-8).

I believe this word is sufficient guidance – some among us will give more sacrificially than others – but my hope is that we will all recognize God’s abundance, and respond accordingly.

3. Offering a Word of Thanksgiving

Because this is not only the final day of our stewardship campaign, but it is also a day of Thanksgiving, I want to close with a word from Jimmy Carter that I have returned to on more than one occasion. He writes:

Almost every day is filled with opportunities to be grateful. 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.3

As the story of Elijah’s visit with the widow reminds us, we can never know exactly how blessings will be shared, but God’s steadfast love endures forever – and in that promise there is hope for tomorrow.

As we pause to give thanks, let us remember an occasion where blessings were shared and received. Just a few weeks back, as we hosted SOS, I know that many of you were blessed, as were those who received care during that week. I know that many who stayed here were grateful for the blessings of meals and beds. Some expressed their thanks quite openly. Others, were quiet. After all, it’s not easy being in such a difficult situation. But I did hear words of thanks from them. I also heard words of thanksgiving from those who served as volunteers for the blessings they received in their opportunity to serve.

Therefore, on this day of thanksgiving, may we give thanks for the abundance of God’s blessings that never end.


2. Mark Allan Powell, Giving to God: The Bible’s Good News about Living a Generous Life, (Eerdmans, 2006), p. 77.

3. Jimmy Carter, Sources of Strength: Meditations on Scripture for a Living Faith, (New York: Times Books, 1997), pp. 168-169.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Thanksgiving Sunday
November 22, 2009

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Provoked to Love

Hebrews 10:19-25

Imagine for a moment that you’re watching two men talking. You can’t hear what they’re saying – they could be talking about football, politics, the best place to get burgers, and maybe even religion. At first the discussion seems fairly congenial, but then it gets a bit heated, and you see one man put his finger into the chest of the other, and shouts: “Don’t provoke me!”

It would seem that this word -- “provoke” – carries a lot of negative baggage. When we hear it, we hear argument, heated discussion, or even a fight. Wars start with provocations, and in Ephesians parents are told not to “provoke [their] children to anger” (Eph. 6:4). Now, I wish the message had been -- children, don’t provoke your fathers to anger, but that’s not what it says. Oh, by the way, if you turn to 1 Corinthians 13, you’ll find Paul saying that love isn’t “irritable,” which is the same word in Greek as provoke. And, who wants to be irritable?

So, from what I can tell, it’s safe to say that it’s not polite, indeed, it could be irritating, to provoke people! And yet, here we have the author of Hebrews telling us to provoke our neighbors –not to anger -- but to “love and good works.” So, maybe being provocative isn’t always a bad thing!

I. Stir Things Up

But, since the word “provoke” has so much baggage, we could try using a different word or phrase – something like “stirring things up” – and, in the context of our passage this might make sense. The author of Hebrews tells us that because Jesus has purified us, we can enter God’s sanctuary with confidence and boldness. Jesus has opened the way for us to enter God’s presence by taking down the curtain that separates us from the Holy of Holies.

With that kind of wind at the back, we needn’t be timid in our praise of God or in our relationships with each other. Now that Jesus has washed us clean, we are in a position where the Spirit of God can push us beyond our comfort zones and open our eyes to the needs of the world. The Spirit also stirs things up by making us aware of our neighbor’s gifts, talents, and abilities, and so we can encourage them to take up the good works God that has already prepared for them (Eph. 2:10), so that they might use these gifts and talents for the glory of God and for the benefit of their neighbors.

II. With a Word of Encouragement

There is another side of being spiritually provocative, besides stirring things up. It also involves offering words of encouragement. If we’re going to be a true community, then the ministry of encouragement must stand at the heart of who we are as a congregation. We’re not just a group of unrelated individuals, filling pews for an hour on Sunday morning. Instead, we’re a community of people living in relationship with each other, or as the speaker made clear last week at the Stephen Ministry retreat – the flip side of me is we.

Peter Gomes, suggests that a word of encouragement provides “that positive, affirming force that is so often missing in the routine of life.” A word of encouragement says to a person: you are important; you have purpose, you are loved and needed! Without these words of encouragement we will perish, maybe not physically, but certainly spiritually and emotionally. Although there are plenty of self-help books for sale, Gomes reminds us that we can’t “encourage ourselves.” Therefore, it is, “our spiritual obligation to encourage one another” (Christian Century, Nov. 5, 1997). And that only happens in community, which is why the author of Hebrews chides those who are “neglecting to meet together.”

Church people aren’t perfect. We may grate on each others nerves, say things we shouldn’t, but in the course of the relationships we build in the church – if we allow the Spirit room to move – we lift each other up. So, if our provocations are to be positive – not negative – then the focus has to be on we and not me.

III. Provocative Steps

How, then, do we get from this word of encouragement to a word that provokes? I think we can start by recognizing that our text doesn’t give us permission to manipulate people to “do the right thing.” It does, however, tell us to live our lives in such a way that people will be enticed, that is, provoked, to live their lives in love and service to others. As Paul tells the Thessalonians -- you have become such good examples of what the gospel is, that wherever I go, people know of your witness, and therefore, I have “no need to speak about it.” Of course, that didn’t keep Paul from speaking about the gospel, but their lives made his job a whole lot easier.

But, if we’re going to get to the point where our lives entice people to enter the kingdom of God, then our work must start with prayer. That’s because, if you pray for someone, you will put that person’s welfare front and center in your mind. Then you’ll be in a position to more clearly recognize that person’s needs, gifts, and talents. At the same time, when we pray, we will discover the words that encourage.

Then, as bearers of this word of encouragement, we can come alongside people who are struggling and speak words that give hope. As we get to know a person, we will also begin to recognize their gifts and talents, and then we can encourage them to make use of these gifts -- whether that means picking up a musical instrument or singing a song, painting or sculpting, speaking or dancing. It might involve stirring up a sense of compassion for the poor or the homeless. Whatever it is, this word of encouragement is deeply rooted in a relationship with the one who has broken down the wall that separates us from the presence of God.

As we consider this ministry of provocation and encouragement, we need to again hear the admonition: don’t forsake the gathering together as some do. I understand why some people stay away from church. Many have been hurt and don’t find the church to be a safe place to live or explore their faith. Some find it irrelevant. I’ve been asked on more than one occasion if going to church is necessary – to be a Christian. While I always say – it’s not absolutely necessary, in the end it’s very difficult to grow in faith and understanding, to learn to love and share in good works, if we’re not involved in a community of faith. And again, as the Stephen Ministry presenter made so clear, relationships are based on a movement from me to we – and so as we gather in community – not always agreeing on every thing, often provoking each other to something other than love – we put ourselves in a position to be provoked to love and good works. And this is our calling as God’s people. This is especially true, since the Day of the Lord is fast approaching!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
November 15, 2009

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Faith is the Foundation

1 Peter 4:7-11

Do you ever put yourself in the biblical story by asking whether your life story fits into the sacred story? If so, have you ever seen yourself in the story of Abraham and Sarah? In this important biblical story, God calls a couple to leave their homeland and move to a new place. I sort of resonate with this story, though not to the degree that we see described in Hebrews 11, which says that they set out on this journey, “not knowing where he was going.” At least, we had a house when we got here. They had to live in tents for several generations! But, they dwelt in this new land and “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect is God” (Heb. 11:8-9).

This is what faith is all about. It’s about trusting someone with your life and your future, even though you don’t know what that future holds. Harvey Cox calls this a “deep-seated confidence.”1 It’s a quality that comes to us as a gift from God and lets us step outside the box and take risks when necessary, so that we can accomplish the things that God has set out for us. That is, faith lets us take hold of the manifold grace of God so that we can be all that God would have us be!

You may wonder – why trust my life and my future to the hands of God? Shouldn’t I take responsibility for myself? Perhaps the answer to that question can be found in the one who Paul says, emptied himself, took on the form of a slave, and humbled himself by dying on a cross (Phil. 2:6ff). It is Jesus who defines God’s true nature for us, and provides for us the works that are “to be our way of life” (Eph. 2:10). Faith lets us take hold of this calling.

1. Stewardship as an Act of Faith

For the next several weeks our focus will be on the call to stewardship. The annual stewardship packet, which includes both a pledge card to be returned by Thanksgiving Sunday – November 22 – and a daily devotional, has already been distributed to members and friends of the congregation. We’re being asked to prayerfully consider the ways in which we will support of the ministries of this church for the coming year, even as our ministry groups are prayerfully planning their budgets for the coming year. All of this is being done, with faith as our foundation.

As we listen for God’s voice in this process, it’s important that we bring our congregational core values into the conversation. In many ways our call to stewardship is simply a continuation of the conversation we’ve been having in worship over the past two months. Stewardship is itself an important core value that can be listed alongside those we discerned as a congregation last winter -- compassion, service, acceptance, a joyful spirituality, witness, and worship. Our acts of stewardship under-gird everything we do as a congregation. As Rick Rouse and Craig Van Gelder write in their book The Field Guide for the Missional Church:

“A congregation that wants to move forward in mission will find it necessary to practice stewardship as it builds financial viability.”2

Central Woodward is fortunate to have a corps of strong givers and a legacy of capital and endowment gifts that make it possible for the ministry of this church to flourish as we walk with God into the future. This practice of stewardship is an act of faith – an act of trust in God’s provision for our lives. We give our money and our time and our abilities, even though we could be doing something else – perhaps even important things – but we seem to know that our stewardship of God’s gifts is a sign of trust in God’s provisions. By acting in faith, we put this church, and its ministries, in a position of financial viability even in a time of financial challenges.

Our text this morning, which is taken from 1 Peter 4, calls on us to be both serious and disciplined, for the sake of our prayers. It also calls us to be constant in our love for one another and in showing hospitality. Finally, we’re told to be “good stewards of the manifold grace of God,” by serving “one another with whatever gift each of you has received.” Therefore, if you speak, remember that you are speaking the words of God, and if you serve, do so in God’s strength, so that God might be glorified.

2. Four Zones of Stewardship

The message is clear. We’ve been given the gift of God’s abundant grace. Or, to quote Bruce and Kate Epperly, this is a “lively resurrection faith” that “calls us to experience life and ministry in terms of abundance rather than scarcity.” Although our culture is focusing on scarcity and telling us to hoard our gifts, because we don’t know when the other shoe will drop, that’s not the biblical story. Even in difficult times, God calls us to live by faith. The Epperlys point out that:
As the biblical tradition constantly asserts, even in the most desperate situations, God is constantly doing a new thing, bringing worlds into being and imagining alternatives to present situations of suffering and injustice.3

As we consider this call to be good stewards of God’s grace, we do so with the biblical story in mind. And, if faith is our foundation, then we will make good use of God’s wondrous gifts, not by hoarding them, but by putting them to work for the kingdom of God – because our God is a God of abundance, not scarcity.

We tend to think of stewardship in monetary ways, but if you take a look at the front of the bulletin, you’ll see four words – time, talent, treasure, and terrain. These four words, taken together, define for us the zones in which we’re called to exercise stewardship of the “manifold grace of God.”

  • Time
The first zone is time, and if you’re like me, you waste a lot of it. By being good stewards of our time, we’re reminded that time is precious, and that it should be used for the glory of God. It’s not a matter of God getting a percentage of our days, while we control the rest. No, time belongs to God, and we’re called to use it all for the glory of God. So, whether it’s our involvement in the life of the church, time with family, or time at work or even at play, we should use this gift wisely and for the glory of God.

  • Talent
The words “abilities” and “gifts” define what we mean by talent. While Peter’s list is brief, Paul’s much more expanded list in 1 Corinthians 12, which ranges from prophecy to healing, and from teaching to service, reminds us that whatever our abilities – whether it’s the ability to sing, listen, write, sew, lead, or teach – we’re called to be good stewards of these gifts, and use them to build up the body of Christ and to love our neighbors as well.

  • Treasure
Jesus said, where your treasure is, there your heart will be as well (Mt. 6:21). That’s about as simple and straightforward as you can get. We can argue about percentages, but the question each of us must ask is: Where does my treasure lie? That’s because wherever we put our treasure, that’s where we’ll find our hearts. By making a financial pledge to the ministries of this congregation, we show ourselves to be good stewards of the manifold grace of God and we invest ourselves in the work of God from this community to the ends of the earth.

  • Terrain
The fourth zone of stewardship -- that of terrain – may sound out of place. Indeed, the use of this term in this place, is a new one for me as well. In fact, Felicia introduced the idea to the Stewardship Group as she took leadership of this ministry. Felicia had in mind, at least in part, the stewardship of our church property. And we should be good stewards of this gift, but we can expand on this idea – and I’m sure that Felicia would agree with this expansion – to include the care of all of God’s creation. Besides, even though the use of the term terrain in a stewardship context might be new to us, it’s really as old as Genesis 1, where we find God giving humanity a commission to take care of this new creation (Gen. 1:27-28). And, once again, when we hear 1 Peter call us to be good stewards of the manifold grace of God, we should keep in mind our responsibility to care for the earth and all its inhabitants. This is, of course, not only a matter of stewardship, it’s also a matter of justice and compassion, making it an expression of honor to God and an expression of our love of our neighbors. Therefore, but being stewards of this terrain, we fulfill both of the Great Commandments – to love God and to love our neighbor.

I invite you to prayerfully consider this morning’s text, meditating upon it over the next three weeks, as you consider the ways in which God is calling you to a life of stewardship of God’s bounteous gifts.

1. Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith, (San Francisco: Harper One, 2009), p. 3.

2. Rick Rouse and Craig Van Gelder, The Field Guide for the Missional Church, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2008), 110.

3. Bruce and Katherine Gould Epperly, Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry. (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2009), p. 25

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
November 8, 2009

Sunday, November 01, 2009

Worship: Job 1 -- Core Values # 6

Note: This is the sixth and final sermon in my series on our congregational core values.

Psalm 95:1-7a

O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and the dry land, which his hands have formed.

O come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand.

It’s All Saints Day, and so today we join with all the saints in heaven and on earth in singing “Holy, Holy, Holy,” to the Lord our God, the Almighty. We do this because, as the prophet Isaiah declares, “the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3). We sing praises to God, because as Augustine said, it’s part of who we are. It’s almost instinctive. At the very beginning of his Confessions he writes: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds it’s rest in you.”1 Augustine’s confession echoes the Psalmist invitation to do what we were created to do – that is, sing to the Lord and “make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation.” We come into God’s presence with thanksgiving, because we understand that the depths of the earth, the heights of the mountains, the seas and the dry land, lie in God’s creative hands. Therefore, “let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker” (Ps. 95:7).

It’s appropriate that we should conclude this six-week exploration of our congregational core values by giving attention to worship. It is, to borrow a phrase from an old ad, our job one. And if, as Augustine suggests, worship is our human destiny, then worship should define what we do together as church. And, each of the five other core values help define the nature of that worship. That is, if our worship isn’t compassionate; if it doesn’t call us to a life of service or make us more accepting and welcoming of others; if it’s not spiritually joyful or doesn’t bear witness to God’s love, grace, and mercy, then our worship will be hollow. But, if these five other core values define our worship, then we will be ready to embrace our calling to be a missional congregation.

According to Jesus and the Torah, there are two commandments that we must follow. We must love God with our entire being and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. These two commands sum up all that is in the Law and the Prophets. And, it is in our worship that we must directly express our love and gratitude toward God. But, if we truly worship God, then we will also express it by loving our neighbor. Therefore, as a missional congregation, our worship centers us in the one who called us into being. It reminds us that we belong not to ourselves, but to God, and that whatever ministries we engage in, we engage in through the power and presence of the Lord, our Maker.

1. What is Worship?

So, if worship is our job 1, and if it defines our missional calling, then what does it mean to worship? If I tried to answer this question by taking a survey of the congregation, I’d get a lot of different answers. For some, worship is centered on the Table. For others, it’s the music, and for others maybe the sermon. Some focus on the vertical dimension – the God-human relationship, while others focus on the horizontal relationship we have with each other as the body of Christ.

Whatever worship might involve, it is first of all the work of the assembled body of Christ. That means worship isn’t something that Pat, the choir, or I do for the congregation. Because it’s not a performance, the presiders and leaders of worship are called out from the congregation to assist the community in its worship of God, so that they might be formed into disciples of Jesus Christ. And what we do in this space, as we offer praise and thanksgiving to God, prepares us to live missionally outside these walls. Kimberly Long suggests that:
[S]inging praises becomes not just an element of worship, but also a way of life. All of worship, at its heart, is doxological and, rightly lived, so is all of life. We practice praise, so that even in the face of death we know what to say to God, even if we do not feel it – for the God who formed our inward parts, the God who claimed us in baptism, the God who sustains our every breath, does not leave us to our own devices.2

Worship can involve many elements, from prayer to singing, from sharing at the table to hearing the Word read and proclaimed. At times it’s joyous and celebrative, but at other times it can be reflective and confessional.

Ultimately, worship draws us into the presence of God. While we’‘re not Orthodox Christians, if you’ve been in an Orthodox church, you may have noticed that they tend to be rather ornate, especially by Protestant standards. The reason for this is that they pattern their worship after the heavenly worship pictured in the fourth chapter of the book of Revelation. For them, to worship is to be caught up in heaven. I think we can learn something from this way of worshiping. It reminds us that worship isn’t a lecture or a business meeting. When we come to worship, we should come expecting to join together with the heavenly choir in singing:
You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
For you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created. (Rev. 4:11).

2. Worship as our Missional Calling

As a missional church, the focus of our ministry will be outside the walls of this building, but what we do within the walls, especially what we do on Sunday morning is not irrelevant to that ministry. It’s important to remember that we’re not a service club or simply a nonprofit agency. We are the body of Christ that is called together for the express purpose of worshiping the Lord our Maker with songs of praise and thanksgiving.

So, when we talk about worship in a missional context, the issue isn’t style – whether it should be traditional, blended, or contemporary. It’s not enough to simply jump on the contemporary worship band wagon in pursuit of the elusive younger generations. Nor does it mean that we should defend to the death the old ways of doing things in the name of being true to our heritage. But, what it does it mean is that our worship should be incarnational. That is, we need to be attentive to what we say and what we do, so that we include rather than exclude. While relevance is important, being relevant doesn’t mean copying Letterman or Colbert, U2 or Neil Young. What it means is that God is calling us to be authentic in our worship, as well as being attentive to the community around us.

We have chosen to create a blended style of worship that includes both contemporary and traditional elements. We have an organ and guitars. We sing praise songs and hymns – both old and new. Because we’re Disciples, we gather at the Table every week, in season and out. We also baptize by immersion on profession of faith. And because we believe that Christians should be reasonable and thoughtful, we put a lot of emphasis on the proclaimed Word. But as we continue our journey into the future, new elements will be added, and maybe even additional services offered, which will reflect the new gifts and new people that come into this community of faith.

Some have wondered how an organ fits into our missional calling. It’s a good question, and the answer lies in part in how the organ is used. Those of us who served on the task force continually asked this very question – how might this organ support not only what we do on Sunday morning but expand our ministry into the world? We were very intentional about making sure that the new organ would support not only what we have done, but what we might do – and that includes supporting contemporary forms of worship and supporting a ministry of music that would bring beauty to our community.

As we think about what it means to worship in a truly missional way, it’s important to remember that what we do in worship isn’t just about me and my needs. If we believe that our worship expresses love for God, then that love will reach out to embrace the world that God already loves in Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. This kind of worship isn’t about escaping the world, but embracing the call to join God in transforming the world that God loves and inhabits. This understanding is reflected quite explicitly in a Fred Pratt Green hymn we sang a few weeks back:
When the church of Jesus shuts its outer door,
lest the roar of traffic drown the voice of prayer,
may our prayers, Lord, make us ten times more aware
that the world we banish is our Christian care.

And at the end of the hymn’s second stanza, we sing:
Lest our hymns should drug us to forget its needs,
forge our Christian worship into Christian deeds.

Missional worship doesn’t offer us an escape from the world. It’s not about rescuing the perishing. Instead, it’s about living into the reign of God, so that we can put into practice what we pray each week as we repeat the prayer Jesus taught us: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I can’t think of a better way of putting it than this. Therefore, in this spirit, let us
worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our maker. For he is our God, we are the sheep of his pasture, the sheep of his hand. (Ps. 95:7)

1. Augustine, Confessions, Henry Chadwick, trans., (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 3.

2. Kimberly Bracken Long, The Worshiping Body, (Louisville, WJK Press, 2009), p. 109.

3. Fred Pratt Green, “When the Church of Jesus,” Chalice Hymnal, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1995), number 470.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
All Saints Day
November 1, 2009

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bearing Witness to the Good News -- Core Values #5

Number 5 in a 6 sermon series on Central Woodward Christian Church's congregational core values.


Acts 1:6-14

There’s a little old song that we’ve all probably sung, and it goes like this:
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.

When we sing this song, we know that it’s not talking about lighting candles or turning on flashlights when the electricity goes out. This little light that we’re supposed to let shine is our own life that serves as a sign of God’s presence in the world. It reminds us that what we do and what we say bears witness to the grace and love of God. And as Jesus said, don’t hide your light under a bushel or in a cellar – instead, put it on a lamp stand where it can be seen (Luke 11:33; Mk 14:21; Mt. 5:15).

Back in February as we discerned God’s missional calling for this congregation, and laid out six core values, one of those six was the call to be a witnessing congregation. What we heard that day, was God call us to take the lamp out of the cellar and put it back on the lamp stand, so that whether by word or by deed we would be witnesses to the good news of God’s healing and reconciling presence in the world. Right after we discerned this call, we participated in the Unbinding Your Heart study, where we worked on sharing our faith stories.

Today we rekindle this calling by attending to the guidance found in the book of Acts as to what it means to be a witnessing congregation. Our text this morning -- Acts 1 – commissions us as a church to bear witness to the good news in the power of the Holy Spirit, while being undergirded in prayer.

1. A Witness to the Ends of the Earth

Acts 1:8 is the foundational passage for the missional church. It says to us: Be my witnesses, beginning in Jerusalem, and then continue on until you reach the ends of the earth. Now, if the book of Acts is to be our guide, then the question is: what constitutes Jerusalem and then what constitutes the ends of the earth?

I’ve come to believe that if Acts 1 is to speak to our church life, then we must see our mission field as three concentric circles, beginning with our church and personal neighborhoods as the starting point for our ministries. One of the things we’ve learned from the missional church movement is that the mission field isn’t just out there. It’s also close to home. But, as important as this home mission is, we can’t lose sight of our connections beyond the inner circle of mission. Therefore, moving outward to the next circle, we see a call to embrace ministry in our Judea and Samaria, which could be seen as metro-Detroit, and then further out to the ends of the earth. The point is that we are called to engage in a ministry of witness wherever God is at work in the world – and according to Acts, that would extend the vision to the ends of the earth.

I believe it’s instructive that Acts 28 ends abruptly, without ever telling us what happened to Paul. It’s unfinished nature encourages us to continue the work begun by these early witnesses in our own contexts. And as we read Acts missionally, we will discover that being a witness to God’s transforming presence requires us to cross borders and boundaries, some of which are dividing walls of hostility that have to be taken down (Eph. 2:14). Consider for a moment that on the day of Pentecost the good news went out in the languages of all the nations, bringing to an end the confusion of Babel. Then Philip preached to the Samaritans, a community that lived on the other side of a wall of hostility from the Jewish community, and then Peter preached – with some hesitancy -- to Cornelius, opening the doors to the Gentile world. Paul took that ball and planted new mission stations across Asia and Greece. And in the end, with Paul in a Roman prison, we find ourselves invited to write the next chapter of the story.

As I was thinking about what it means for us to be a witnessing congregation, a couple of examples quickly came to mind, largely because they occurred this past week. Coming first to mind was our hosting of the SOS shelter with CCB. Whether you were in the kitchen, served as a driver, gave resources, or sat and ate with our guests, you were bearing witness in a very real way to God’s love for the world. This annual event, which pulls together the entire congregation, is truly a witness of God’s love that flows out into the community. And, it all runs like clock work – everyone knows their job – and everyone does it with a sense of joy, which is something we talked about last week.

Even as our church was ministering to a part of the community experiencing a deep sense of need, I was asked to speak at a community rally here in Troy. The organizers invited representatives from different parts of the community to speak to the financial crisis affecting the city. I was asked to represent – as best I could – the faith community. The message I shared with the group was a call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and invited us to concern ourselves with the common good of all. These are but two ways in which we as a congregation let the light of God shine in the community. There are, however, many other possible ways that we can and do bear witness to God’s presence – at work, at play, in the store, and as we volunteer in the community. Wherever we are present, we can shine forth the light of Christ’s love for the world, whether verbally or not.

2. A Witness Empowered by the Holy Spirit

Now, before Jesus leaves the disciples and sets them on their way, he promises them that the Holy Spirit will come and empower their witness to the world. In saying this, Jesus makes it clear that we do not undertake this task on our own. Its success doesn’t depend on us, but on the Spirit who goes with us. That doesn’t mean that we can sit back and do nothing. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take care in what we say and what we do. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t prepare for whatever it is that we’re called to engage in. But it does mean that the Holy Spirit is the one who moves us, pushes us, empowers us, and corrects us when needed. This mission belongs not to us, but to God. Or, to quote Beverly Gaventa, Acts reminds us, “especially in times of malaise and crisis, that [the church] does not belong to itself, but to the God of Israel, the God who raised Jesus from the dead, and the God whose witness continues within, outside, and even in spite of the church.”1

According to Acts 2, this promise was fulfilled at Pentecost, which was a festival that celebrated both the harvest and the renewal of God’s covenant with Israel. On that day, the Spirit descended upon the church, as was promised through the prophet Joel. The Spirit fell on everyone, young and old, male and female, rich and poor, which suggests that there are no barriers that can keep us from proclaiming the good news that God is present and active in the world, except perhaps the ones we erect. For as Peter put it, everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.

3. A Witness Undertaken in Prayer

Although the disciples first response to Jesus’s disappearance was one of shock, even bewilderment – they stared up into the sky until the heavenly messengers reminded them of their calling – as soon as they remembered Jesus’ command and promise, they returned to the upper room and did two things – they prayed and they filled a spot in their leadership team. That is, they returned home and prepared themselves for what would come next.

They may have been unsure of themselves, maybe even frightened of the consequences of their allegiance to Jesus, but they understood that Jesus was not finished with them yet. So, maybe they weren’t as surprised by Pentecost as we tend to think.

The question for us this morning is: What kind of prayer did they engage in? That is, if they are to be our models for mission, then we should pray in a similar way and for similar things. Although Luke doesn’t tell us exactly what they prayed for or how they prayed -- just that they prayed constantly -- I believe we can read behind the lines here.

It would appear that they prayed with receptive hearts. As Anthony Robinson reminds us, we can’t give what we’ve not received. Therefore:
Before the church is an instrument of grace, it is always a receiver of grace. Thus, we go into the world and encounter others as persons who have like ourselves stood in need of God’s grace and of the Spirit’s power. This imparts a necessary humility to the task of “being my witnesses.”2

And even as we pray expectantly with humble and receptive hearts, we must also pray, as J├╝rgen Moltmann reminds us, with open eyes. That is, if we’re to bear witness to God’s presence in the world, if that light is going to shine in the darkness, then we must keep our focus on what God is up to in the World, and therefore we must pray watchfully. If we do this, then surely we will be a witnessing congregation that is empowered and guided by the Spirit of God.

1. Beverly Gaventa, Acts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), p. 54.

2. Anthony B. Robinson and Robert W. Wall, Called to be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 206), pp. 46-47.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2oth Sunday after Pentecost
October 25, 2009