Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Turn Around -- A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:1-2, 12-19

Perhaps you’ve driven down a road to nowhere. You think you know where you’re going, but then the road runs out, and you find yourself sitting in a field. You’ve taken a wrong turn, and now you’re lost. At that point, you don’t have any other choice, except to turn around and retrace your steps, hoping that you’ll find your way home.

When we hear these words of Scripture from Joel, what we hear is a wake up call. Joel says to the people of Israel on behalf of God:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming it is near — (Joel 2:1).

As we begin our Lenten journey tonight, we start with an invitation to reconsider the direction of our lives. Joel calls on us to think about whether or not we’re heading in the right direction. And then, should we discover that we’re heading in the wrong direction, we find ourselves being called upon to turn around and head the other direction.

It’s appropriate that we come together on a rainy evening to observe Ash Wednesday, because it casts a dark shadow over our lives. It marks us with a sign of death, grief, and repentance. It’s a call for change and transformation. This journey of transformation and change continues on through Good Friday to the glories of Easter Sunday. We get to enjoy Easter Sunday, but we have a difficult journey ahead.

This is a time of reflection and repentance. Like Jesus, we will be tested in the deserts of our lives, and as we face these tests we are forced to look inward, and as we do, we again hear Joel’s wake up call.

When Joel spoke these words, Israel was in a difficult situation. They were suffering, probably from a drought, and Joel suggests that their sufferings are the result of the choices they have made. They chose this path, and now it’s time to reconsider and return to God. As dark and foreboding as this message is, there is within it a word of hope. It’s not too late to change course.

Yet even now return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and
with mourning; rend your hearts not your clothing
(Joel 2:12-13a).

Joel says to them and to us: If you want to experience God's restoring grace, then first take responsibility for your lives. Don't blame your problems on someone else. Rending your clothes, however, won’t cut it. Without a change of heart, no ceremony or gesture will resolve the problem. Ceremony without true heartfelt repentance won't solve the problem. But, if we will turn around, take responsibility, and embrace the ways of God, then our hearts will be unbound and we will experience God’s grace and mercy and we will be "abounding in steadfast love.” Then we will know that God has relented from his word of judgment. (Joel 2:13b). We may suffer the consequences of our actions, but in the end we will be restored to right relationship with God and with one another.

We have come here tonight to stand before God, even if we continue to break our covenant, knowing that God is faithful and that God will not abandon us or reject us. But first, we must turn around, and return to the fold. We do this tonight, as we receive this sign of the ash, confess our sins before God and each other, and receive God’s forgiveness, knowing that as we do we might experience a day of new beginnings.

Preached by:

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Ash Wednesday
February 25, 2009
Image from Jan Richardson, Artful Ashes

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Paul Problem

Acts 9:1-19

Religion is a very personal thing that reaches down to the center of our being. Because it’s often hard to put what we believe into words, telling our faith stories can often be difficult. Not only that, but sometimes we can be intimidated by other people’s much more dramatic conversion stories.

Charles Colson has it easy – after all he went from being a notorious political hack who ended up in prison to being a major religious leader. Then there’s St. Paul. Now, he had a story to tell. He started out as a major heresy hunter, breathing down the necks of Christians from Jerusalem to Damascus. That is, until the day Jesus knocked him off his horse and blinded him with a bright light. That’s a story that’s hard to beat. What are you supposed to say if you’ve been a Christian all your life, or even if you came to faith later in life, your story still isn’t as dramatic as Paul’s? Besides, since religion is personal, why can’t I just keep it to myself?

1. Witnessing – A Value to Embrace.

Part of the answer to that question can be found in our own congregational core values, which we discerned at our Congregational Retreat. One of those values calls on us to be a “witnessing church.” This core value goes well with our calling to become a missional congregation. To be missional involves going into the neighborhood, wherever that neighborhood might be, and begin sharing the good news of God’s love with our neighbors in both word and deed.

St. Francis said: “Preach the gospel always, and when necessary use words.” I like that statement because it reminds us that our lives are signs of God’s presence, but sometimes we forget that words are often necessary. This is especially true today, when so many people in our neighborhood know little about God. So, using words is becoming increasingly necessary if we’re to be faithful witnesses.

2. Why Evangelism?

This morning we began a special Lenten emphasis. For the next six weeks we will be exploring evangelism in small groups, in sermons, and in our daily devotions. We will be reading and discussing Martha Grace Reese’s book Unbinding Your Heart. Gay Reese’s book, which forms the basis of our effort, addresses our hesitancy, as mainline Protestants, to share our faith with others. There are a number of reasons why this is true. Part of our hesitancy is due to our belief that faith is personal and therefore private. Another reason why we may not say much is that many of us grew up believing that most people were religious and therefore all we had to do was put up a church and the seekers would find us. But there’s another reason – many of us have been put off by hard-nosed evangelists, like the ones who knock on our doors or push tracts in our hands as we walk down the street. It’s hard to shake that example, and we’d rather not do anything that would offend our friends and neighbors. Hey, I sometimes feel that way, and I’m a pastor!

As you read Gay Reese’s book, you’ll discover that evangelism can be and should be a natural part of our relationship with God. If you have a vital and life-changing relationship with God, even if it’s not dramatic, you have something wonderful to share. It’s just like with other areas of our lives – we talk about the things that are most important to us. For instance, when Brett was born, I was so excited that I told everybody I knew about my new son. I even took a little packet of pictures with me wherever I went, and I would show them to friends, colleagues, and sometimes even to strangers. I did this because Brett’s birth was so life changing that I couldn’t help but let everybody know that I was a new father. If you’re a parent, you understand. If you’re a child, please forgive us your parents, and someday maybe you too will understand!

3. What Difference Does Jesus Make?

Ultimately evangelism is simply telling our faith stories – telling friends and neighbors how Jesus changed our lives. And if, as I expect, your church has played an important role in your faith development, it’s natural to invite people to share in that experience with you. Each of us has our own story to tell. Some of us may have exciting stories, but most of us probably don’t. Still, if we have a vital relationship with God, we have something to share.
One of the problems we face as a more progressive mainline church, is that we often don’t have a great sense of urgency about telling our stories. You might call it a lack of fire in the belly. That is, since we don’t embrace a “fire and brimstone” theology, or insist that we alone have the truth, it’s sometimes difficult to get going and share our message. If, however, we believe – as I do -- that the God revealed to us in Jesus, is a God of love, mercy, and compassion, a God who forgives us even when we don’t show any real remorse, then what will motivate me to share the gospel? I think the answer goes back to our relationship with God. If it’s important enough, I’m going to say something!

For example – I’m a San Francisco Giants fan and I don’t have any trouble talking about how Tim Lincecum was voted Cy Young Award winner. I’m even open to talking about Barry Bonds. So, if I’m so willing to talk about a sport’s team, why not talk about God?

Over the next few weeks we’ll be talking a lot about both prayer and evangelism. We’ll be thinking about our own faith stories and how we might better share them. You’ll even be hearing testimonies from members of this congregation. They will tell their stories in their own words. Each story will be as different as the person telling them.

I’ve invited Elmer Morehouse to be the first person to share his story of faith. In fact, I asked him to speak to a very specific issue – how he and Joanne passed on their faith to their children, grand children and now great grand children. We like to joke about how the Morehouse clan makes up nearly half the congregation, but the fact that we can talk that way says a lot about Elmer’s and Joanne’s faith. They have instilled in each generation a sense of faithfulness that we need to honor and celebrate. So, I introduce to you the patriarch of the Morehouse clan! [Show and Tell – Elmer Morehouse] Thank you Elmer!

4. Taking those first steps of evangelism

Stuck inside Paul’s conversion story is the account of Ananias, a believer living in Damascus, who had a vision. In that vision he learned that he was supposed to go and witness to Paul. Now, like most of the Christians in his community, he’d heard about Paul and his mission. He was a bit unsure about going to Paul, because it could be a trap. Still, despite his hesitancy, he went to Paul, prayed for his healing – both physical and spiritual. And, Luke says that Paul’s blindness disappeared and he was filled with the Holy Spirit and was baptized in the name of Jesus. Ananias took a big risk, and yet because he trusted in God, he got to participate in Paul’s call to take the message of Jesus to the Gentiles.

Sharing our stories isn’t always easy, and sometimes it can be sort of risky! But, as the examples of Ananias and Elmer remind us – there is great benefit when we share our stories – with family, with friends, with co-workers, and yes, even strangers. As we begin our journey together, I hear a question forming in our minds: Where is Jesus sending me today?

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

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Happy Birthday Chuck!

Colossians 1:15-20

I want to begin this morning by giving a big Happy 200th Birthday cheer to Charles Darwin. In case you missed it, on Thursday Darwin joined Abraham Lincoln in celebrating his 200th birthday. Now neither of them was around on Thursday to share in the festivities, but we can recognize and celebrate their legacy anyway.

Now, one of my more famous predecessors as pastor here was a big fan of Abraham Lincoln. As I understand it, Edgar DeWitt Jones hosted an annual Lincoln Lecture, because the study of Lincoln was one of his passions. So in the spirit of my predecessor, I invite you to share in one of my passions by observing Evolution Weekend on the Sunday following Charles Darwin’s birthday. This year the number of churches, synagogues, and mosques participating has grown to about 1000.

This event was born four years ago as an outreach of the Clergy Letter Project. That project produced a letter, which you will find in your bulletins this morning. The letter, which was written by Dr. Michael Zimmerman and then signed by over 11,000 clergy and theologians, including me, is entitled “An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science.” By signing this letter we declared our belief that Christians can believe in God and also affirm the scientific truthfulness of evolution.

I realize that many Christians would disagree with that statement, and I’m sure they would find it not only odd but sacrilegious for a church to observe the birthday of Charles Darwin. After all, in the minds of many he was the spawn of Satan, and an enemy of the church. Obviously, I don’t share that sentiment. It’s true that Darwin’s theories have posed a challenge to our faith, and they have forced us to reconsider some of our traditional readings of the Bible, but even though Darwin was an agnostic at his death, he was never an enemy of Christianity or of the church. In fact, he remained a member of his family’s church and contributed to it until his death – in honor of his wife’s deep faith.

The reason why I introduced this observance to the Lompoc church, and now here, is that I believe that something very important is at stake in this debate over the relationship of faith and science. Indeed, I believe that the intellectual integrity of our faith and our witness to the world is at stake.

1. Jesus, Darwin, and the Spiritual Mind

Although the gospels record Jesus saying that we should love God with our heart, soul, and mind (Mt. 22:37), there is much anti-intellectualism within the Christian community. Many Christians seem to be afraid of what they’ll discover if they start asking too many questions about the meaning of the bible or their own faith tradition. Better not to ask questions, and if people start asking questions, it’s best to change the subject.

The reason why I’m so passionate about this issue is that I believe very strongly in the principle that “all truth is God’s truth.” If this is true then I believe we must, as Christians, be willing to pursue that truth no matter where it takes us, even if it takes us down paths that we find uncomfortable or challenging. The good news is that we don’t have to take the journey alone. We can go on this journey together in the company of God’s Spirit.

By taking this pathway, we will be true to our heritage as Disciples of Christ. The Disciples have been, from the beginning of our movement , committed to the life of the mind. Sometimes we can be overly rational, but the point is, as important as the mystical and the experiential may be to our spiritual welfare, our minds are important as well. Indeed, when we come to church we shouldn’t have to leave our brains at home!

The problem we face today as Christians is that there are too many partisans on both sides of the issue telling us that we have to choose: It’s either God or Evolution. You can’t have both. As for me, I reject that demand. Like many Christians, who unfortunately have been quiet of late, I want to declare my firm belief in God the Creator and at the very same time affirm the teachings of modern science concerning the manner in which this world emerged.

2. Interlude: Jesus Loves Darwin

There’s this bumper sticker, which features two fish kissing. Maybe you’ve seen it. On one fish the name of Jesus appears, and on the other one, the one with legs, you’ll find the word Darwin. If you go to our church Facebook page and then check out the invitation I sent out for today’s service, you’ll be able to see it. I used that symbol because I think it’s very appropriate for what we’re trying to do today.

That bumper sticker has a very ancient lineage. You see, the fish has been a Christian symbol since the first century CE. The fish reminds us that some of the earliest church leaders were once fishermen, and Jesus himself invited them to join him in fishing for humans. Of course, there’s another reason they used the fish – it makes for a very nice acrostic that carries with it an important theological message: You see, the Greek word for fish is ichthus, and if you take each letter of that Greek word you can get this statement of faith: Jesus Christ, God, Son, Savior.

In recent years lots of fish decals have sprung up. When you see one you expect that the person driving the car is a Christian. So, because Jesus and Darwin are supposed to be at war, it’s not surprising that the “other side” came up with their own similar decal. Their fish, however, has legs, reminding us that the first land animals descended from fish, and instead of Jesus’s name, you’ll find Darwin’s name on it. By bringing these two fish together, we declare our belief that religion and science aren’t enemies.

I realize I can’t speak for everyone here today, but I would like to affirm this three-part premise: As followers of Jesus, who believe firmly that God is our creator, we can also affirm three important scientific premises: 1) Our universe is very old; 2) Humans share a common ancestor with all living things; and 3) natural selection is the currently accepted scientific explanation for how all of this has taken place. I realize that there’s a lot more that can be said here, but I think that’s a good start for now.

3. Jesus, Creation, and Redemption

You might wondering – what about that scripture text that we read today – where does it come in? That passage, the one from Colossians 1, speaks clearly and powerfully of Jesus’ role in creation. It is, in fact, a hymn, a song of praise to Jesus, declaring to all that he is God’s partner in the work of creation and redemption.

As to the first point, this hymn boldly declares that Jesus is the first born of creation, and that in him, and through him, and for him, all things, whether in heaven or on earth, have been created. Not only that, but he is before all things and in him all things hold together. Indeed, he is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega. And then the hymn moves on to the second point. In Jesus, God chose to dwell and in him and through him God has reconciled all things. That is, in and through the cross of Jesus, God has brought peace to earth and to heaven.

The language of this hymn not only soars, but it’s cosmic in nature. Everything, not just our existence, is taken up into Jesus, so that everything that exists might find its purpose in God.

This passage, whether written by Paul or not, reflects in hymnic language the biblical confession that God is creator and that what God creates is good and has purpose. At the same time, it reflects the biblical confession that brokenness has crept into this creation. Indeed, as Paul himself writes in Romans 8, the whole of creation is groaning in labor pains, anticipating the freedom and the wholeness that it will gain together with the children of God at the appointed time (Romans 8:22ff). Now that’s not a scientific statement. It’s poetic and theological, but nothing in that statement is at odds with science.

It’s my belief that both science and theology have something important to say to us. Each bears witness to important truths, but they do so from very different perspectives. We get into trouble when we try to turn the Bible into a science book. And, while science has much to say to us as Christians, there are truths that are beyond even it’s insights. It doesn’t make either of them deficient – just different. We can learn from both and celebrate both. And that, I believe is the point of Evolution Weekend! So, since Jesus loves Charles Darwin, we can wish him a very happy birthday!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Evolution Sunday
February 15, 2009

Monday, February 09, 2009

Finding our way home

The reflection below was written and shared by Emily Hill, member of the Christian Church of Birmingham/Central Woodward Christian Church Youth Group as part of a youth led worship service at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). It is a wonderful reflection, which I would like to share with you.

Dr. Bob Cornwall


Luke 15:11-32

Hi. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Emily, and I’m a junior in high school. Let me explain to you what being a junior in high school implies. It means a heavy academic schedule. A load of extracurriculars. ACT and SAT prep classes. College visits and research. Late nights. A reduced social life. The beginning step of your future. And while not necessarily everything I just said applies to all high school juniors, it’s not uncommon that two or three of them would.

Recently at my school we had our finals week. It was a week of hectic studying and last minute cramming. I had a few late nights that week, and it made me wonder some things. Like, why is life so difficult? We only have one shot at it, so why aren’t we trying to make the best it possibly could be? Why is it that people stick with their dead end nine-to-fives? Why is it that we spend our childhood and adolescence chomping at the bit to grow up, but then when we finally do get some responsibilities, we want to go to when we didn’t? And most importantly, when did we abandon our passions?

We tire so much of our daily duties, but yet accept them blindly. I don’t so much question my teachers assigning me six or seven hours of homework anymore. I just accept it as a responsibility to my academic career. In doing so however, I think I lose my way. I think that I forget that I’m only 16 and that life has so much more to offer than just homework and tests. And while I’m grateful for my opportunity at an education, sometimes I think that people get wrapped up in trying to be the best. It’s still so hard to be who you are, so we play these parts because the show must go on. We become so engulfed in preparing for the future, that we fail to live in the present. I wonder what this world has become, that we now start the rest of our lives in our adolescent years.

It is my belief that children are sent out into the world the same way that soldiers are sent into war. The world has become a harsh formality of competition. People do things that they’re not proud of just to get ahead. There’s this imaginary notion that hardships and pain are beautiful and can be used as devices of healing. Some people find it poetic and romantic. They find that suffering through something can lead to some grand revelation about life. In that time however, they fail to live their life, and they cease to believe the good in life. But those are the same people who declare love to be an option, or something to be handled with caution. But the day that you shun love and the greater things in life is the day that a part of you deceases.

So at this point you’re probably thinking why is a 16 year old standing up here telling me about things that are probably way beyond her years? She’s only a teenager; she probably hasn’t even seen the brute of it yet. And you’re probably right, I haven’t seen the worst of it, but there are some days that I’ve felt pretty low. Those days when the work piled up and I felt tired and trapped and like it wasn’t worth it anymore. I wondered what I was doing, and I wanted to come home.

After I read this last Sunday at CCB, a woman came up to me after the service and started tell me how she thought I was overreacting to the whole situation. She said to simply look at it from the perspective that I was investing in my future. Well she may be right; I am investing in the future. But when are some of those investments going to pay off? And when will the future become the present? Some of those “investments” that I’m making right now will never pay off. For example, I sit in pre-calculus for 90 minutes every other day learning about things that I will probably never need to know beyond a test. I will never find the skill of being able to graph imaginary numbers in rectangular form on an argand diagram useful. They’re imaginary numbers, and as far as I’m concerned, I live in the real world and use real numbers in my everyday life. Why does a teenager like me need to know that?

So what does this have to do with the prodigal son? Well, the truth is I think we do become lost along our journey in life. We yearn to see what’s out there. We’ll stand vigilant until we do. We want to measure ourselves against others. We want to get out and explore in hopes of finding something better, and we do get out there. We may find fortune and love, or we may find destruction and heartache. If it’s the latter, we’ll adopt the expression, “home is where the heart is”. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because there will always be someone or something that welcomes us when we return with crushed hopes and deflated spirits. Sometimes I think we forget that there’s always a place that we can go home to. We’re so determined to seek out pleasure and success that we don’t want to go home and admit our failures, but at the end of the day, that’s where we’ll be accepted and welcomed. It’s where our light can shine and mingle with the light of others. While we may not be thrown a party, we can ensure that as long as we’re happy and content in our minds, everything else just might fall into place, and even if it doesn’t, at least we’re reconciled with ourselves. When that happens, it makes it easier for us to see the more optimistic side of life, and we can also encourage others to do so too. So I think that if we can find what makes us warm inside, or something that makes our light shine bright, we could save the world. I know I’m only 16, and I know that I still retain some innocence, but I truly believe that there’s something out there for all of us. If we happen to fail, we can always take solace in our family, friends, passions, because those will hold on indefinitely. I believe in mankind. I believe in our ability to change and save the world. The light is what brings us home, and we need to let our light shine to guide others, and in doing so, we’ll find ourselves.
Preached by:
Emily Hill
Member, Congregational Church of Birmingham/Central Woodward Christian Church
Youth Group
February 8, 2009