Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Power of Faith

Mark 5:21-43

Life is full of interruptions, especially in this age of the cell phone. But, even if you don't own one, people will still find you. The phone rings, usually at an inconvenient moment, or maybe someone stops by, and before you know it, the day is gone. Just one interruption after another. Although you intended to finish the job, things got the better of you.

In the gospels Jesus is often interrupted. He’s going somewhere important, but then someone stops him and asks for help or advice. It can be frustrating, but Jesus understood that sometimes the needs of the moment are as important as what’s on the calendar.

But this morning’s text isn’t just about interruptions, it’s also about faith and the risks involved in living our lives by faith. In this text we encounter two interrelated stories of healing. Both Jairus and the unnamed woman take a risk in coming to Jesus, but that is often the way it is with faith. And in taking this risk, they interrupt Jesus’ life, but he understands, because they have come seeking help.


When last we gathered, Jesus was heading across the lake to the Decapolis when a big storm hit, and Jesus saved the day. Last week we learned that the word faith might better be understood in terms of trust – not just trust in God, but trust in each other. Today, we’re returning to Galilee, and faith is again a topic of concern. Once he arrives in Galilee the crowds gather and requests are made. He had intended to teach the people, but he was interrupted by Jairus, who asks for his help with his dying daughter.

Jairus was a man of prestige and wealth, and as president of the synagogue he was both a religious and a political leader in his community. Usually people came to him for advice and help, but on this day he needed the help of this religious and political outsider. You see, his twelve-year-old daughter was dying and the doctors had given up hope. They’d been praying for a miracle, but nothing happened. This didn’t make sense to Jairus, because bad things aren't supposed to happen to good people, especially the children of religious leaders.

When Jairus heard that Jesus was in town he decided, with some hesitation, to look him up. He knew about Jesus’ reputation as a healer, but he also knew that this young and popular preacher was despised by the religious elite. That’s because he challenged the traditions and rules they were supposed to uphold. He didn’t want to go to Jesus, but he also didn’t want his daughter to die. In the end, love won out, but just as he may have feared, Jesus was surrounded by a crowd of people. That would make his request more difficult and risky, but being determined, he pushed his way through the crowd and begged Jesus to come and heal his daughter.

I expect that many in the crowd recognized him, and they may have been scandalized by his pleadings. Still, he did what he had to. The hesitation was gone, and in its place was a heartfelt declaration of trust in Jesus. Seeing the man's faith and willingness to risk everything, Jesus agrees to go with him. They hurry off to Jairus' house, with the perplexed crowd in tow, knowing that time was of the essence if they were to save the little girl.


Although there wasn’t time for interruptions, Jairus wasn't the only one desperate for help. There was this woman standing on the edge of the crowd. She wasn’t wealthy or important, but for twelve years she’d been bleeding internally and had spent everything on doctors. In a way she was the victim of her doctors, for Mark says: "she had endured much under many physicians." We’ve all heard horror stories like hers. The doctors don't know what’s wrong, so they try this and then that, hoping something works. Now, having reached the end of her options, she’s still bleeding and she’s stuck with the bill. Like many in our own society, her medical bills had bankrupted her and she was living on the streets.

We don’t know the name of this woman, but like Jairus, she knew that Jesus was her only hope. Unlike Jairus, she didn’t have anything to offer him in response. So, seeing that Jesus was in a hurry, and unsure of herself, she decided to sneak in, touch the hem of his robe, and hope that this was enough. There was another reason why she didn’t want to be seen – since she was bleeding, by touching Jesus, she would make him ritually unclean. Maybe if no one noticed, she would be healed, and Jesus could go on his way, never knowing that anything had happened.

Unfortunately, Jesus did notice. Mark says he felt healing power go out from him, and he asked: "Who touched me?" Now, in a crowd this size, it would be impossible to know who had touched him, but Jesus insisted that his disciples find out who it was. Finally the woman came forward and confessed her deed, and she apologized profusely for delaying him. But Jesus wasn't angry, he simply wanted her to know that he cared about her. He commended her faith, which not only restored her health, but restored her to the people of God. You see, during those twelve years of illness, she’d been ritually unclean, which meant that she couldn’t worship in the very synagogue over which Jairus presided. In calling her daughter, Jesus let her know that social status doesn’t matter in the kingdom of God. She’s just as important to God as Jairus and his daughter.


After that interruption, Jesus continued on to Jairus’s house, but before they could get there, word came that the little girl was dead. As long as she was alive, there was hope of healing, but now it was too late, and Jesus needn’t bother continuing on. I’m sure Jairus began to think: If only Jesus hadn’t been interrupted his daughter would be well. But Jesus didn’t turn back, he simply said: "Don’t be afraid, just trust me" (vs. 36, NLT),

To everyone’s amazement Jesus ignored the dire news and continued to Jairus’ house, taking Peter, James and John with him. When they arrived, he could hear the unrestrained wailing of the mourners, and then he asked what seemed like a most ridiculous question, "Why all this commotion and crying?" (vs. 39, JB). Why indeed? A little girl had just died. But Jesus wasn’t deterred. He responded: “ She’s not dead, she’s just sleeping and needs to be awakened.” Now, I’m sure that this response brought out a few snickers from the crowd of mourners, but Jesus didn’t let the laughter stop him. He put everyone out of the room, except the parents and his three disciples. Then he said: "Little girl, get up." And, to everyone’s surprise, she got up and began to walk.

Both Jairus and the woman acted out of desperation, but they also acted out of faith. They could have given up all hope, but they continued pressing on, in spite of the odds. The 30th Psalm speaks of this kind of faith:
O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.
O Lord you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the pit (Ps. 30:2-3).

Two lives that in many ways had been intertwined for years found their salvation in Jesus. By taking such a risk, they became exemplars of faith.

This morning each of us comes looking for healing, for wholeness, for meaning, and for purpose. What we seek might be physical or spiritual, emotional or intellectual in nature. Like Jairus and the woman we’re desperate to see God act. We want God to "turn [our] mourning into dancing" and we want him to take off “our sackcloth and clothe [us] with joy, so that [our] souls may praise [God] and not be silent. Then we will cry out: "O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever" (Ps. 30:12).

But, it will take some risk on our part to live a life of faith. And we may not see healing of the physical kind, but our lives can be mended, our spirits restored, our hopes fulfilled. But, we must walk in faith, not knowing what the answers will be. However, that is the nature of faith.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
June 28, 2009

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Don't Be Afraid

Mark 4:35-41

It’s Father’s Day, a day to remember and to honor fathers. As an added bonus, we get to eat pie after church. While our text this morning doesn’t speak of fathers, it does speak of a quality that fathers at their best instill into their children – that quality is trust. Unfortunately trust is easily broken and difficult to regain. But, without it, living, working, and worshiping as a community is impossible.

Our text begins with Jesus’s decision to cross the Sea of Galilee and minister in the largely Gentile region called the Decapolis. Jesus had spent the day teaching, and now, quite tired, he fell asleep as the boats headed across the lake. He’s so tired that he doesn’t even wake up when a big storm hits, threatening to swamp the boats. While he sleeps, the disciples become terrified, believing that they’re going to die. And then, when they discover that Jesus is asleep, they wake him up with perturbed and frightened voices, asking him: “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?” They couldn’t understand why he wasn’t as frightened as they were.

When we read this text we tend to focus on Jesus’ first response to their questions the stilling of the storm – but there’s more going on here than simply a nature miracle. It’s true that his actions leave them speechless – indeed, the King James Version translates their response as they “feared exceedingly” and wondered who he was – but his two questions are even more revealing than the stilling of the storm. He asks them, and he asks us: Why are you afraid? And where’s your faith?

How we answer these two questions says something about how we view God and how we view the church. We may not be out on a stormy lake, but we’re all facing storms that rage all around us. Some of us are facing illness and even death. Others are struggling financially. We all know that Michigan is being hit hard economically – with jobs being lost, homes foreclosed, services being cut. And then, on top of that, we’ve got unsettling news coming out of Iran, and American soldiers bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, the waves are lapping at the boat, and the winds are ripping at the sails, but the question posed to us as disciples of Jesus Christ is this: how are you going to respond to these storms? Is the response one of fear or of faith?

1. Why are you afraid?

Jesus’s first question is a loaded one: Why are you afraid? I can hear the disciples responding: Why indeed? Don’t you see those waves? Don’t you feel the wind? Can’t you see that it’s dangerous out here?

What’s interesting about this exchange is that Jesus’ tone seems to be a bit edgy, even off-putting. We like Jesus to be meek and mild, always gentle, but his question has a bit of a bite to it. It’s not merely – why are you afraid? But, as Eugene Peterson’s translation puts it: “Why are you such cowards?” My first response is to wonder if Peterson has misunderstood Jesus’ intention, because surely Jesus wouldn’t talk that way – even if he was half asleep! But New Testament scholar Walter Wink also translates the question in these terms. So why would Jesus accuse his disciples of cowardice? I mean, I don’t fancy myself as a coward – someone who runs away from things with my tail between my legs, and the word “yellow” hanging over me. Surely that’s not who I am. Or am I?

2. Where is your faith?

The second question is just as stinging as the first: “Where’s your faith?” The second question builds on the first, because in Mark’s mind the opposite of faith isn’t unbelief, it’s fear. In fact, we would be better off using the trust to translate the Greek. That’s because it’s too easy to equate faith with a belief system. Do I believe in God? Of course! Is Jesus my Lord and savior? Of course! But that’s not what Mark has in mind when he records these words of Jesus. It’s not a question of whether we believe the right things. No, it’s a question of whether we’re ready to give our complete trust to God. It’s as William Countryman puts it – “our fear demonstrates that we do not really trust God’s existence, God’s power, or God’s good intentions toward us.”1 So the question remains: As we experience the storms of life – whatever they might be – Who is God in the midst of the midst of these storms?

As we think about this question, our tendency is to hope that God will somehow deliver us from our predicament, kind of like Jesus did here by calming the seas. But that’s not how God normally works. As philosopher John Macmurray writes: “It is important, I believe, to recognize that for Jesus it is fear itself that must be cured, and not the occasions of fear.”2 If we live our lives hoping that God will intervene and still the storm, we will never learn the lesson of this text.

3. Our Response of Faith

As I was reading this passage, I began to think about Jesus’ response when the Disciples woke him up. I also began to think about who was in the boat with him. If tradition is correct, then at least four of them were experienced fishermen, who most likely had been through a storm or two, and had survived. Surely they knew what to do? So, maybe Jesus isn’t just talking about trusting God; maybe he’s also talking about trusting ourselves and each other. As the first question reminds us – the biggest threat to trust and faith is fear.

Although Jesus surely had faith in God in mind, I think he might also have had something else in mind – our trust in each other. Perhaps his tone shows that he’s frustrated with their inability to trust each other enough to work out a solution to their problem. After all, four of them were fishermen – surely they had enough experience to deal with the storm without waking Jesus.

If we take away from this passage the message that when the storms of life hit, we should expect Jesus to rescue us, then this passage probably has little to say to us – except that we probably need to wake God up, when things get tough. But, if his message is one of trusting each other, then it has a lot to say to us!

Although I didn’t plan for this sermon to correspond with our congregational meeting after church, it does seem a bit providential. You will be asked to offer your affirmation to the organ task force’s proposal of a new organ. It’s an expensive project, but it has already received the support of the Trustees and the Council. This Task Force, of which I was a member, spent several months discerning what we should do with the organ. The Council appointed this task force because the organ is not working as it should. This group prayerfully and thoughtfully explored the options, which included repairing it, always keeping in mind our mission and our values. The Trustees accepted the proposal and decided to fund the project with existing capital funds, along with a capital campaign that would replenish these funds. The council decided that before they made a final decision they wanted a letter be sent to the congregation, explaining the proposal and then inviting the congregation to ask their questions at the June 7 congregational meeting. All of this has been done, and the Council has decided to move ahead with the project. While the constitution doesn’t require a congregational vote to proceed, the Council would like the congregation to give its affirmation to the project.

I know that questions remain, but what we’re being asked to do is extend our trust to the leadership of this congregation. Indeed, we’re being asked to trust each other to do the right thing, even when if we as individuals might not understand everything going in. As Fred Craddock put it, as he was describing his own call to preach. At some point he had to decide –even though he didn’t have answers to all his questions!3 What was true for Fred, is true for us. Therefore, if we’re going to be agents of reconciliation, and witnesses to God’s grace, then we need to pray for and trust those who lead us, believing that they will, with God’s guidance, make good decisions.

As I said, I didn’t choose this text because of the congregational meeting. I chose it because it was the lectionary text for today. But, I do think that this text has something important to say to us – not just about this particular decision. No, the message I hear in this text is this: if we live in fear, our witness to the grace and love God will fall short. But, If we live by faith, trusting in God’s leading, then God will use us – even if we’re fallible human beings!

1. William Countryman -- New Proclamation Commentary, Year B, 2003: Easter through Pentecost, (Fortress, 2003), p. 91
2. John Macmurray, "The Philosophy of Jesus," in Resources for Preaching and Worship, Year B, by Hannah Ward and Jennifer Wild, (WJK Press, 2002), p. 173.
3. Fred Craddock, Reflections on My Call to Preach, (Chalice Press, 2009), pp. 116-117.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
June 21, 2009

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Celebrating the Glory of God

Isaiah 6:1-8

We love celebrities. We enjoy reading about them and watching the news reports. Oh, I know, you may not want to admit it, but we’re all at least a little bit interested in the “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” In fact, most of us secretly hope that someday we’ll run into a celebrity. Of course, if we do have such an encounter, it’s possible that we’d become a bit tongue tied or say or do the wrong thing. Now, I’ve had a couple of celebrity sightings and encounters in my life, but for the most part I’ve kept quiet – so as not to say the wrong thing.

On one occasion I was sitting in the surgery waiting room at a Santa Barbara hospital with a family from the church. Looking out the window of the room I noticed John Cleese pacing the hall outside. If you don’t know who John Cleese is, he’s a British actor and comedian who has appeared in Monty Python movies and more recently as Q in some of the James Bond movies. We would soon learn that the reason he was there was that his wife was in surgery. So, here he was a celebrity, but he was also a human being worried about his wife. What should we do?

I’d like to proudly report that our little group behaved appropriately. We said nothing, except to acknowledge his presence and concern for his wife. He was, after all, in the same situation we were in. Now, when he came in to get word about his wife, the volunteer at the desk said, “I’ll try to pretend I don’t who you are,” which meant – I’m going to treat you like I’d treat any family member – even if you are famous. But of course one person did let celebrity overwhelm her. Yes, she confronted him in the hall and asked for his autograph – which he refused. Now, we all said to ourselves, “that was inappropriate,” but secretly, we would have loved to have gotten an autograph ourselves. Indeed, our good behavior was probably due more to self-consciousness than it was to compassion.

I. Approaching the Living God

If we get tongue-tied and a bit overwhelmed in the presence of celebrities, then what happens when we approach God? After all, God is the Creator of the universe, or as Isaiah puts it, The Lord is sitting on the throne of heaven, high and lifted up, with his train filling the temple.

Although Isaiah’s vision is put in very anthropomorphic terms, he has something important to say to us about God, worship, and prayer. While this isn’t the only image of God to be found in scripture, it’s an important one because it emphasizes God’s glory and power. It reminds us that when we come before God, we’re stepping on holy ground, and that ultimately we’re not worthy of being in this place before God. But, not only does this vision speak of God’s nature, it also speaks to how we approach God in prayer and worship.

When we met in February, we discerned that God is calling us to be a worshiping community of faith. Whatever we do as church is rooted in and defined by our worship of God. The question that we must continually wrestle with concerns the way in which we live out this core value. And part of that question has to do with what is appropriate when we worship.

As we listen to Isaiah, it should become clear that we’re not the primary audience of worship, God is the audience. Therefore, when we ask the question of what is appropriate, we need to keep that primary audience in mind. I’m sure that the question of style will come up in any discussion of worship. Then there’s the question of language and vocabulary. Should we use Latin or maybe Hebrew? Should we, when praying, address God with Thees and Thous, just like they did in the days of King James? We might also ask about the dress code? Not so long ago, women wore hats and gloves and men always wore a suit and tie.

I expect that there are as many answers to these questions as there are religious communities. Some communities are very formal and others are quite simple and informal. They range from the quietness of a Quaker meeting to the ornate complexity of a Greek Orthodox service. Some focus on preaching and others on the liturgy, especially the Eucharist. As for us, we fall somewhere in between. One fact that can’t be denied when we have this conversation is that over the past quarter century, not only have musical tastes changed, but the style, language, and attire of our worship services have gotten a lot more informal. Some celebrate this relaxing of the rules, but not everyone is pleased. That debate, however, isn’t my focus this morning!

The word that I believe Isaiah wants to speak to us this morning has to do more with our hearts than either our words or our attire. I do believe Isaiah wants us to remember that when we enter the presence of God, we should be self-conscious about our own inadequacy and sinfulness. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but instead that when we come before God we should do so with humility. Another way to put this is that we are finite beings, while God is by nature infinite in wisdom and in presence. The text, however, doesn’t end there. Having confessed his unworthiness to come before God, Isaiah watches as God dispatches an angel to take a living coal from the heavenly altar and touch his mouth, cleansing him so that he might bear witness to God’s glory.

II. Worshiping the God of the Storm

Keeping with the image of God that is present in this vision, I’m reminded of the thunderstorms that hit Kansas in the early summer months. Having lived all my life on the west coast I’d never experienced anything like a Kansas thunderstorm, but I quickly learned that they could be powerful and awe-inspiring. Back then it seemed like every evening the clouds would begin to build up, coming in from the southwest. At first the clouds were scattered, puffy and white, but before long they gave way to ones that were thick, dark, and foreboding. And then the wind would pick up, whipping tree branches with powerful gusts. Then off in the distance you’d see flashes of light, and hear the rumbling of the thunder. You could sense the power, but the storm was still far in the distance. As the storm moved closer, the flashes of light became lightning bolts, after which we experienced powerful peals of thunder that would shake the house. Finally, the rain would begin to fall – often in powerful torrents.

Something similar happens in the autumn in Palestine. As the long, hot, dry summer gives way to Fall, small, puffy clouds appear off the Mediterranean, which give way to darker, more foreboding ones. Thunder and lightening, and rain all follow. This annual event serves as a backdrop to the 29th Psalm, which vividly describes God's voice in terms of a storm that’s so powerful that it can shatter the great cedars of Lebanon. Now these are no ordinary trees; they symbolized for ancient Israel strength and stability, much as the Sequoias do for us. And this is the God who appears in Isaiah’s vision, inviting us to consider not only how we should worship, but also how we should envision God’s presence, because how we answer the question of God’s presence will influence the way we worship.

III. A Voice of Power and Majesty

Today is what the broader church calls Trinity Sunday. It is a day for us to bear witness to the fulness of God’s presence in our midst as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Isaiah’s vision the focus is on God’s sovereignty, power, and majesty. It’s an invitation to come and worship God, and in his day the proper way to approach God would be to lie prostrate before the altar of God. Indeed, not even kneeling was sufficient when coming into the presence of the God revealed in the Storm. This is a God who requires of us a sense of awe and recognition that we are inadequate to stand before God. Listen to Isaiah as he says “woe is me, for I am a person of unclean lips, and I come from a people of unclean lips.”

As we take in this image, it becomes clear that it’s inappropriate to think of worship as entertainment. That doesn’t mean that worship shouldn’t be joyous or that we shouldn’t enjoy worship. But, ultimately the source of our joy should be God’s presence, not the accouterments of worship. Now, that doesn’t mean that organs and pianos, tables and pulpits, choirs and preachers don’t have their place, because they do – but these are the means to an end, and not the end itself. The point of worship is to be drawn into the presence of God so that God might be glorified and so that we might be transformed by that encounter. Therefore, even as Isaiah confesses: "Woe is Me! I am Lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips,” we also hear him say: “ yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!" This morning we come before God ready to sing with loud but chastened voices: "Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts, and the Earth is full of his glory." And having shared in this divine worship in the presence of God, we hear a call to action. Even as spiritually joyful worship is a core value of this congregation, another core value issues from the other two, that of witness. Listen as God calls out to us: “Who will go for me?” As we hear this call that issues out of worship, with Isaiah may we respond by saying: “Here am I send me.”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
Trinity Sunday
June 7, 2009