Saturday, January 31, 2009

Liberty in Love

I Corinthians 8:1-13

"Give me liberty or give me death." While this statement may sound extreme, this declaration by Patrick Henry has inspired generations of Americans to believe that death is preferable to living under tyranny. Patrick Henry had political freedom in mind, but is this the only kind of freedom there is in the world? When Paul says "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom" (2 Cor. 3:17), he’s speaking to people living under Roman rule, and Rome was not a democracy. So freedom must be more than a political state of affairs.

In a classic Peanuts comic strip Linus is holding a snowball and looking sheepishly into the sky, as Lucy walks by. She sees the snowball in his hand and says to him:
"Life is full of choices! You may choose, if you wish, to throw that snowball at me. . . . You may also choose, if you so wish not to throw that snowball at me . . . Now, if you choose to throw that snowball at me, I will pound you right into the ground!"

But, "If you choose not to throw that snowball at me, Your head will be spared." A dejected Linus tosses the snowball away and says: "Life is full of choices, but you never get any."


We think of freedom in terms of individual choice, but often our choices in life are limited. Complete freedom, without any constraints, is called anarchy, and so while we may value our liberty, few of us want to be anarchists. We may push the envelope and bend the rules on occasion, but ultimately we take comfort in structure and boundaries.

While liberty is good, liberty without understanding can be dangerous – as Linus discovered! The Corinthians put great value on freedom. When they heard that Jesus had liberated them from superstition, they ran with the message. They cast off all restraints and indulged themselves. If these idols aren’t really gods, then why not start dining at the local temples – after all that’s where the best meat could be found. Now, Paul didn’t disagree with their sentiment about idols, but he did have concerns about their response to this news. He told them, that maybe not all of their brothers and sisters understood this idea, and so by exercising their freedom, they confused their fellow believers and caused some of them to lose faith. While he affirmed their freedom, he also asked them to consider whether their brother’s or sister’s relationship with God was worth more than a good steak dinner?


I don’t think we have to worry about where our meat comes from – at least not on a religious level, but as Linus discovered, not every choice is a good one. Or, as George Bernard Shaw put it: "Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it."

While freedom is good, unfettered freedom can have dangerous consequences. Paul says elsewhere in this letter that all things may be lawful, but not all things are profitable or beneficial (1 Cor. 6:12). With that in the back of his mind, Paul tells them that "while knowledge puffs up, love builds up" (vs. 1). That is, the key to true freedom isn’t knowledge, but love. Knowledge and understanding have their place, but as Paul says the greatest of all virtues is love (1 Cor. 13:13).

When love is the guiding principle of our lives, it puts self-imposed limits on our expressions of freedom. Love tempers our freedom by reminding us of our neighbor’s presence.


Our Disciples tradition doesn’t have a lot of rules and regulations, which gives us a lot of freedom. And I like that a lot! It’s part of the reason why I’m a Disciple. But, while we value our freedom very highly, we’re not without out rules or boundaries. One of those rules is quite pertinent to the way we express our freedom. It says: “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” This rule reminds us that no matter how free we are, we need to keep in mind how our decisions and actions impact the physical, spiritual, and emotional well being of our neighbors.

I’ll give you just one example today of how this might work. I think it might be more pertinent to our lives today than discussing where we get our meat, especially since this is Super Bowl Sunday! What is this issue? Why, it’s the question of drinking alcoholic beverages

Although in the very recent past Disciples were likely to be nondrinkers -- In fact, many Disciples were active in the Temperance movement, with Carrie Nation and her famous hatchet being our chief representative – I would venture to say that it’s not a major issue for most Disciples. But, it might be a big deal for some of our brothers and sisters. So, even if it’s not a theological issue, it may be a personal one, which makes it a spiritual concern.

When it comes to drinking alcohol, there are no scriptural prohibitions, beyond warnings against drunkenness. Indeed, Jesus is said to have made wine from water at a wedding, and from what John says, it was really good stuff! Then there’s Timothy, who’s told to take a little wine for medicinal purposes. We can add to that testimony, the findings of modern medicine, which suggests that drinking a little red wine could have important health benefits. I think most of us today, would consider moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages to be a matter of opinion and not one of faith, which means that if you decide to have a beer while you watch the Super Bowl – that’s probably okay. But just watch it! Don’t go overboard. Still, having said that, what if exercising my freedom damages the faith of my brother or sister? What would Paul suggest that I do?

Paul’s answer is quite clear: While you may be free in Christ, be sure to consider the spiritual well-being of your brother or sister in the faith. And so, whether it’s my choice of movies, reading materials, and even food, Paul says – let of love of neighbor be your guide. Yes, idols may be nothing, but consider the weaker brother or sister, before you indulge your freedoms. It’s a simple rule, but it has tremendous long term benefits!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
February 1, 2009
4th Sunday after Epiphany

Saturday, January 24, 2009

A Big Fish Story

Mark 1:14-20

I know that some of you here today, maybe Lance or Elmer, could tell some really good fish stories. You could talk about dragging a shed out onto the ice and doing some really fun ice fishing; or maybe you could tell us about going out on Lake Huron and catching a really big bass. Something like that. Alas I can’t join you in telling such tales. I’ve lived my life near rivers and streams and lakes and oceans, but I’ve only caught one small fish, and that was when I was but a child. Since I can’t tell a good fish story, I’m going to rely on a famous author.

In The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway told the story of Santiago the fisherman. Santiago was an old and experienced fisherman, but at one point he’d gone out to sea eighty-four straight times without catching a thing. He would have given up, except this young boy kept cajoling him and encouraging him to keep going in the hope of making that last big catch. Yes, it was that boy’s faith in his fishing abilities that pushed him further out to sea, far beyond the usual boundaries, in the hope of success. As the story goes, one day Santiago’s luck changed. He hooked a great and mighty marlin, but when he tried to reel the great fish in the Marlin had other ideas. It didn’t jump or dive, it just headed further out to sea, with Santiago’s boat in tow. But, after what seemed like days, that marlin decided it was time to dislodge the hook and its baggage. That’s when the great battle between man and fish began. That marlin began to jump and dive and attack the line. But as it circled the boat, Santiago patiently reeled it in. It took a lot of time to reel it in, but finally the marlin gave up, having earned the respect of its opponent.

Unfortunately the prize marlin was bigger than the boat, and so Santiago lashed it to the side of the boat, hoping to get it into port before the sharks got to it. That was not to be, and so all that remained of his catch was the head, the skeleton, and a magnificent tail. Though the struggle sapped his strength, Santiago didn’t have time to mourn the loss of his fish. That’s because the boy said to him: "You must get well fast for there is much that I can learn and you can teach me everything."1

1. The Calling

Mark tells a different kind of fish story. He tells us that after Jesus was baptized by John and had experienced the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus went back to Galilee and began to preach the good news: “Repent,” he declared, because the kingdom is at hand. In the course of his travels, Jesus encountered two sets of brothers sitting along the Sea of Galilee, mending their nets. Jesus said to Peter, Andrew, James, and John: “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” I’m not sure why they would want to do such a thing, but they obeyed, dropped their nets, and began following this wandering preacher in search of human fish. It makes no economic sense – fishing was after all a really lucrative business – but they went with him anyway.

Jesus has come into our lives, preaching the good news that God’s reign is near at hand. He says to us: Drop your nets and join me on a fishing trip. You may be wondering why you should do this, but Mark offers no clear answers – only that Peter, Andrew, James, and John heard the call and followed. They didn’t seem to know why or where they’re going, but they heard and followed. When we hear Jesus calling us to follow him, we don’t always know where that will lead. Often there are no firm guarantees. Santiago went out time after time, seeking a catch, but returned home empty. Still, he persisted, and eventually, after going well beyond the borders of his fishing comfort zone he found his catch.

2. The Uncertain Places

We preachers often use this passage to encourage our congregations to engage in evangelism. Jesus, we’re told, wants us to save souls, to reel in the fish, and to grow the church. Something like that. Now I believe in evangelism – after all we’re about to undertake a major evangelism emphasis in the coming months – and I also believe this text speaks of evangelism. But, I also believe that it speaks to more than simply the need to reel in the catch. More than that, I believe that through this text Jesus is calling us to move outside our comfort zones and move into uncertain and perhaps inconvenient places. That is, I think what Santiago did when he went far out to sea in search of his fish, and that’s what the four disciples did when they followed Jesus and began preaching the good news of God’s reign.

One of the reasons why I’ve not been very successful in my fishing ventures is that I’ve not done much fishing. If you don’t cast a line, you’re not going to catch anything. That’s my story, but there are other stories to be told. Some of us keep returning to the same fishing hole, even though we don’t find anything there anymore. Apparently, this hole has been over fished, but we’ve not paid attention. Sometimes it’s our methodology. We keep doing the same thing, hoping that it will eventually work. After all, it used to work just fine. The problem is, the fish have caught on to our act and won’t bite! When it comes to evangelism, it’s not that our neighbors aren’t spiritually hungry, it’s that they simply don’t think that we have much to offer.

Ultimately evangelism isn’t about tracts or heavy-handed tactics. It’s not about programs or brochures. Fishing for people, if we want to use that image, involves relationships. It requires us to get involved in the lives of our neighbors, and to begin living with them a life of grace and peace. We Disciples have embraced a new motto: “A movement of wholeness in a fractured world.” I like that message, but how will we live out that message?

I’m reading a book by Gary Nelson called Borderland Churches. It’s a book about missional living, and it talks about living our faith in the neighborhood, of moving beyond the walls of our churches and our houses to becoming part of the community. In a sense, we’re to become leaven in the community. A borderland church, which is what I believe God is calling us to become, understands that it’s called to live “a life of virtue together” while being “willing to pour themselves out to the world. As borderland churches we recognize that there is no boundary between sacred and secular, because “all territories are sacred places where God is at work.”2

3. Bringing in the Fish

That old man needed a lot of patience to reel in his prize marlin, and the same is true of our fishing responsibilities. People will test us. They’ll want to know if our faith is true and if our love is enduring. Many of our neighbors have been hurt by churches, so they’re wary of what they’ll find here.

So, what’s the message of these fish stories? I think the message is this: Jesus is calling us to leave behind the safety and convenience of our lives up to this point, and embrace a new adventure. I don’t think that Jesus is calling us to leave our jobs and become traveling evangelists. It doesn’t mean that religious vocations are more important or holier than nonreligious ones.

But Jesus is calling us to go somewhere with him, and as we do this we will leave behind the old model of evangelism and church life, which can be described in two words: “Come to.” For centuries, really, we’ve followed the adage: "If you build it they will come." So we built buildings and created attractive programs, and then we waited for the people to come to us. And for many years they did just that. In fact, they came from miles around to share in the life of the congregation. That day, however, is gone. That “Come To” model no longer works.

What we hear Jesus saying to us today is this: Drop your nets and follow me on an adventure. Let’s cross the river and live our lives in the borderlands and share life with our neighbors. Let’s invest in them. It’s not enough to get to know them, but we have to build relationships with them. And to do that, we will have to leave behind the comfort of our favorite fishing holes and start casting the line where the fish are living!

As we follow Jesus out into our neighborhoods, we’ll encounter people who are afraid and uncertain, people with questions and concerns. But, as we live out our faith in our neighborhoods, we’ll carry with us a love that comes from the heart of God. It’s not a panacea, but it offers wholeness to a fractured world. Jesus says to us today: Come, join me, in a new fishing venture!

1. Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea, (Scribner Paperbacks, 1995), passim.

2. Gary V. Nelson, Borderland Churches: A Congregation’s Introduction to Missional Living, (Chalice Press, 2008), p. 59.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
January 25, 2009
3rd Sunday after Epiphany

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Taking Care of the Temple

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

I don’t like to meddle in people’s lives, that is, unless, of course, they’re family members. That’s a whole different story! The reason I don’t like meddling from the pulpit is that when you start pointing fingers at the moral and ethical lapses of your church members, they’ve been known to point fingers back at you. So, when it comes to things like sex and food and drink – I try to leave things well enough alone. Of course, Paul doesn’t have any of my qualms. He’s quite happy to point fingers, and he isn’t afraid of having them pointed back at him. Alas, he’s braver than me!

1. The Personal: Sex, food, and Other Addictions

The Corinthian letters, one of which we’re dealing with today, deal with a lot of moral and ethical issues. It seems that this church had more than its share of problems, with and sex and food right at the top of their list of concerns. It shouldn’t be surprising to us that this congregation struggled with what we would call addictive behaviors. That’s because Corinth was the Vegas of its day. As they said back then: “What happens in Corinth, stays in Corinth.” Like Vegas, its “temples” specialized in prostitution. So maybe it’s not surprising that Paul’s message of grace and freedom was misunderstood and misapplied.

The Corinthians were well known for their slogans. “All things are lawful” and “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.” But Paul said: “All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial.” He also told them, “I will not be dominated by anything.” Paul’s point, I think, is that even good things can be misused and abused.

Paul’s instructions to this church suggested that they focus on moderation and remember that the physical body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit. That body of ours, he says, is holy and sacred, and worthy of being treated with honor and respect. Be careful about what you put in and how you treat it, because it is a gift of God.

2. The Church – Taking Care of the Body of Christ

What Paul says about our physical bodies has implications for another body. Remember that Paul believed that the church is the body of Christ. It is, like the physical body, a Temple of God. I am reading Rob Bell’s book Jesus Wants to Save Christians, where he talks about God looking for a body. The reason God doesn’t need images or idols to represent him, is that God has us. God chose Israel to be his people so that the:
“world will know who this God is. God’s reputation is going to depend on them and how they ‘carry’ God’s name.”1

This body of God is sacred, holy, and worthy of honor. Unfortunately, it’s possible that we might abuse this body, even as we abuse our own physical bodies. Bell points out that the Ten Commandments were designed to teach the people how to be a new kind of human being. Like us, they didn’t always do a good job of living out their calling.

Later on in the Corinthian letter, Paul talks about the connectedness of the body. Each of us, he says, has a gift to be used to build up the body and minister to the community (1 Cor. 12:12ff). In the body of Christ, there is great freedom, but while all things might be lawful, not all things are beneficial. The church isn’t, Paul reminds us, a disembodied spirit. Because it has flesh and blood, it can be hurt. So, take care of it and nurture it, so that it will fulfill its purpose.

3. The World – Tending to the Temple of Creation

I want to extend this image just a bit further, so that we can think beyond our own individual lives and beyond the walls of this congregation. Rob Bell talks about living in covenant with a “God who hears the cry of the oppressed and liberates them.” Every commandment, speaks, he says, “to this new found liberation.”
“God is inviting, God is looking, God is searching for a body, a group of people to be the body of God in the world.”2
As the body of God in the world, we listen to the cries of the oppressed and the marginalized, and as God’s missional people we seek to respond.

The week that is ahead of us is full of historic implications for us as individuals, as the people of God, and as citizens of this nation.

On Tuesday the world will watch as a new President takes the oath of office. Whether or not you voted for him, it is an historic event in the history of our nation. A man of African descent will become our leader. It is historic because within Barack Obama’s own lifetime, the struggle for dignity, civil rights, and voting rights has occurred. When he was born, in a number of states it was illegal for his own parents to be married. Theaters, restaurants, schools, and yes churches were segregated. People of color were prevented from voting. So, much has changed, though even with this historic moment, the struggle is not yet over.

Barack Obama takes office at an ominous moment. There are great expectations and many pitfalls in front of him. There is an economy that’s experiencing great distress, while international conflicts swirl around him. There is little time to relax and very little room for error. Whatever our politics, it’s appropriate that we should pray for him and for our nation. In doing so, we serve as priests and provide care for that Temple which is God’s creation.

It seems fitting that this historic inauguration would take place while the nation is celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many of us remember him for a dream – though his ministry was much more than a dream – about a day when our nation would be free of racism, poverty, and war. This inauguration is partial fulfillment of that dream, but much remains to be done. As we saw during the election cycle, racism still lives. And Dr. King was concerned not only with racism, he was also concerned about poverty, oppression, and war – things God is also concerned about. His life gave direction to the church and to the world. He helped us understand what it means to take care of the body – which is God’s creation. He prophetically pointed out that the way we treat the body expresses our understanding of that body. It was his calling to remind us that too often we as a people have prostituted ourselves to a culture of violence, bigotry, hatred, and conceit.

And so at this historic moment, I am both hopeful and concerned. I’m hopeful because we as a nation did choose a man of African descent to be our president. I think Dr. King would be pleased.

While I’m hopeful, I’m also concerned because I see in our land a growing intolerance and incivility – especially toward the immigrant and the “alien.” I’m concerned because in difficult economic times the poor often get left further behind and communities set themselves up against each other. I’m worried as well about a war that has many fronts and that could continue on without an end.

The good news is that God has a body – and we are that body. Prophets, like Dr. King and Jeremiah and Amos and Isaiah, continually remind us that it’s important to take care of the Temple – which is the body.

As God’s missional body, we’ve been called on to be Jesus’ holy presence in the world. That calling begins with our very persons – that is, the way we treat the Temple, which is our body. It extends further into the community of faith that gathers together to live out God’s promises. Finally, it extends out further into the community, the nation, and the world, which is the Temple of God’s creation. This isn’t just a dream. It’s a calling from God.

1. Rob Bell and Don Golden, Jesus Wants to Save Christians (Zondervan, 2008), p. 34.

2. Bell and Golden, p. 34-35.

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
January 18, 2009

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Baptism Barrier

Acts 8:26-38

What’s the scariest thing you can think of? Is it a monster under the bed? Probably not – unless you’re very young. Could it be jumping off the high dive into a swimming pool? Possibly, but I’ve done that – I’ve even jumped off a cliff into a creek. But I was younger then. Or maybe it’s skydiving. Now that’s scary! Jumping out of an airplane at I don’t know, 3000 feet, with nothing standing between you and the ground except a lot of air. Yes, there’s that parachute on your back, but what if it doesn’t open? I think I’ll pass! Just thinking about it is scary enough!

Now, here’s my question for the day: Would you put evangelism on that list of scary things? Is evangelism the terrifying “E-word?” I mean, is this word – evangelism -- so terrifying that you’d rather we not talk about it?

For some reason telling people our faith story is frightening. Perhaps it’s because our relationship with God is personal and we’re not sure how to talk about such things – openly. Or maybe it’s because we’ve had a bad experience with someone trying to push their religious beliefs on us and we don’t want our friends to think we’re that kind of person. It’s not that we don’t believe in God, or that we don’t think that our faith is important. It’s just that we don’t know how that other person is going to receive our story, and we’d rather not put up barriers between ourselves and others. So, we keep quiet.

1. Taking the “E-Vent” Journey”

In the coming weeks we will set out on a journey together. We’re calling it an “E-Vent” because it’s an evangelism event. Whether or not you like the term “e-vent,” I think you’re going to find this journey enriching and transforming. This is a journey that we’re going to take together. We’re going to put pretty much everything else on hold for about six weeks while think through our relationship with God and with the world. We’re going to talk about prayer and evangelism.

It’s possible that this journey will take us outside our comfort zones, but then that’s what it means to be missional. For centuries the church has operated with a “build it and they will come” understanding. We’ve expected that people will come to us if they’re spiritually inclined. But the world has changed and what was once considered “Christendom” is now a mission field. Instead of operating with a “come to” understanding, it’s time to start thinking “go to.” We have heard God’s call to go to where God is at work – and as we go we share our faith in both word and in deed.

2. Baptism – the beginning of a journey

Our journey begins, as it did with Jesus, in baptism. According to the gospels, his ministry began with his baptism by John. At the moment that he emerged from the water he heard the voice of God say to him: “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22). From that moment on Jesus began to preach, teach, and heal. And as he did this, he revealed God’s presence in the world.

But Jesus isn’t the only person who begins ministry in baptism. If you turn to the book of Acts, as we’re doing in Bible Study, you’ll find baptism front and center in the story. It begins with Pentecost, where 3000 believed and were baptized. Later on Philip baptized the people in Samaria, and Peter baptized Cornelius and his household, opening whole new vistas of God’s work in the world. Of course, Paul did a bit of baptizing himself. And then there’s this story, the one we read in Acts 8, where Philip gets another chance to do some baptizing. Luke says that the Spirit whisked Philip away and set him down in the middle of a deserted road, where he encountered a man from Ethiopia. This man was heading home from Jerusalem, reading from the book of Isaiah. Philip started up a conversation, jumped up into the chariot, and began to share the good news of Jesus with this man.

What’s interesting about this particular man is that he was a eunuch. Because he had been castrated, he got an important job, but as far as the religious community of his day was concerned, he was an outsider. He wanted to enter the circle of the faithful, but a barrier stood his way. Like many in our own day, he was looking for a community, but couldn’t find his way inside. St. Francis is well known for saying: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use Words when Necessary.” In this case deeds aren’t enough. This man needs to hear words, words of grace and invitation.

I don’t think this Ethiopian man is unique. I think he represents great numbers of people in our own community. They’re seeking for God and they’re seeking a community that will surround them, encourage them, embrace them, and empower them. But they need to hear an invitation first, because they don’t know where to look. That’s because there’s a barrier that has been put up between them and their goal.

In this story, Philip lets the man know that Jesus is in the business of welcoming everyone into his family. And so when the man saw a pool of water along the road, he said to Philip: “Hey, what’s keeping me from being baptized?” And Philip said, stop the chariot! When the chariot came to a halt, they got out, went down into the pool, and Philip baptized him in the name of Jesus, and then Philip sent him on his way so that he too could share the gospel message himself, in both word and deed. On that day, as he was baptized, he crossed the barrier and began his ministry.

Indeed: The man said what prevents me? And Philip said, “why nothing!” And so it is.

3. Evangelism – Opening the Door

Like I said, there are a lot of people out there, who are just like the Ethiopian eunuch. They want to know and experience God’s presence. They’re looking for a community that will welcome them. But they don’t know where to look!

The other day I was doing some demographic research, and I discovered that within our 5-mile radius, 40% of the people are not involved in a faith community. That’s a huge number, and I expect that many of them are just waiting for someone to invite them into a community that is welcoming, compassionate, honest, nurturing, and willing to listen to their questions and concerns. I believe that we can be just that sort of community.

We’ve committed ourselves to being a missional congregation. We may still be learning what that means for us, but at the very least it means this: We’ve been called by God to open the door, step outside the walls, and share in God’s work in the world – both in word and in deed. Evangelism is nothing more than opening a door so that someone else can walk through it and begin enjoying the presence of God. We don’t have to have all the answers to everyone’s questions. We simply need to open the door by sharing our story and then loving that person with a love that flows from the heart of God. People will have questions, and in time they will get the opportunity to explore those questions with us, but in the beginning, it’s just a matter of taking down the barriers that keep people from experiencing the grace of God.

4. Unbinding Our Hearts

On February 22nd we will begin our forty-day Lenten emphasis on prayer and evangelism. We will be using Martha Grace Reese’s book Unbinding Your Heart as our guide. There will be sermons and studies and opportunities for prayer using a forty-day prayer guide. As we take this journey together, I expect that we will draw closer to God through prayer and we will learn how to share our stories of faith with people who are yearning to experience God’s presence.

In a moment Christine Michael will give you some instructions about how you can get involved. Today is Sign Up Sunday, which means you get to sign up for a small group where you can study and pray together during our six-week Lenten season. Before Christine comes up and talks more about the sign up process and the book we’ll be reading together, I want to introduce the rest of the team. Anne McCauslin and Nancy Barnes are heading up the prayer focus. Tim Morehouse and John McCauslin are overseeing the formation of small groups, Diana Payton is working with our young adults, youth, and children. Of course, Christine is chairing this E-Vent!

So, to Christine I turn for more information!

Preached by:
Rev. Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
January 11, 2009
1st Sunday after Epiphany