Sunday, September 20, 2009

Called to Service -- Core Values 2

Matthew 25:31-40

Jesus’ disciples were having an argument about who was the greatest among them. When Jesus heard what they were arguing about he told them that whoever wants to be first, must be a servant. And with that statement, he pulled a child to himself, and said: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Who is the greatest – it is the one who serves the child. Now, this statement would have made little sense to Jesus’ disciples. While our culture places a lot of value on children, they didn’t. Children were at the bottom of society – at least until they became productive. Children, back then, were among the “least of these.” (Mark 9:33-37).

Last week we began a six-week exploration of our Congregational Core Values. These six values help define what it means for us to be a missional church, and the first value we explored was compassion. Now, we move on to a second core value, one that emerges out of compassion. That is the call to be a servant.

Since service, like compassion, defines what it means for us to be missional, it may be helpful to hear another definition of what it means to be missional. Consider this definition given by Douglas John Hall. A missional church is:
“Not only a church with a gospel to proclaim – not only an ‘evangelical’ church; it is also a church that itself tries to understand and conduct itself according to that Gospel.” (The Cross in Our Context, Fortress, 2003, p. 184).

To be a missional congregation we must not only share the good news, we must also live it, for as Edgar DeWitt Jones put it many decades ago:

“The most perplexing problem of Christianity is the discrepancy between the ideals of its Founder and the practice of its Followers.” (Jones, Blundering into Paradise, Harper & Brothers, 1932, p. 13).

He goes on to say that too often, when confronted by this discrepancy, the church buries itself in tending to the institution. He writes that we bury our ideals, and concern ourselves with statistics, and cease worrying “about the failure of Christian teaching to captivate and transfigure society” (Jones, p. 14). So, what does it mean for us to live out our calling to be disciples of Christ? Doesn’t it mean that we should serve the least of these?

1. Serving Jesus, Serving the Least of These.

There is no more powerful picture of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and to answer the call to service, than the picture found in Matthew 25. According to Matthew’s narrative, this scene comes during the middle of Holy Week. Jesus has already entered the city in triumph, riding on a donkey. That argument about who is most important is in the past. Jesus has already cleansed the temple, told parables of the kingdom, and now he begins to speak about the future. The text takes on an apocalyptic tone. The Son of Man is going to come and judge the nations, which have gathered at his feet. The question is, on what basis will he judge them?

Will it be a matter of ethnicity? Orthodoxy? That is, right belief. How about, one’s status in society? No, none of these seem to matter. Instead, the judge asks: Did you feed me when I was hungry? Give me something to drink, when I was thirsty? Did you welcome me when I was a stranger? Did you clothe me when I was naked? Did you care for me when I was sick? Did you visit me when I was in prison? It will be on this basis that the judge will divide between sheep and goats, between the justified and the condemned.

Some in the crowd took the judge quite literally, and wonder when and if they had ever been put in such a position. When was that, they wondered? And the judge answered, you did it to me when you served the least of these my brothers and sisters. That is, when you welcomed the little children, the homeless, the disabled, the working poor, and indeed, those who are struggling with life itself. This call to service is born out of the compassion of God.

2. Service in the Shadow of the Cross.

As we hear the word of judgment, we may be wondering – what would it look like to live this way? To be a servant. To whom might we look for guidance? Is Jesus not the one who reveals to us the nature of God? Doesn’t the Colossian letter say that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and so if we want to see what it means to serve God, then won’t Jesus reveal what that means in his own life? If this is true, then surely the cross defines what it means to serve others. Remember that this passage falls between the triumphal entry and Good Friday. If the discrepancy between the ideal and the reality is to disappear, will we not have to take up the cross and lay down our lives for others?

Clint Eastwood’s powerful movie, Grand Torino, which was filmed on location in Detroit, offers a poignant picture of what it means to serve others. Walt Kowalski, played by Eastwood, is the primary character in this movie. Walt might not be the kind of figure that we would normally equate with Jesus, but, despite the crustiness and the apparent bigotry of this character, there is another side to Walt Kowalski. He is willing to lay down his life for another, so that the other might live. In this he becomes a most unexpected redemptive figure.

The cross reminds us that our God is a suffering God. If Jesus is the “image of the invisible God,” then surely God experiences our lives through his life. Through his suffering, God tastes our suffering. In Christ, God becomes the suffering servant.

Jurgen Moltmann spoke of two crosses, one being the cross of Golgotha. The other is the cross of Constantine. One is a cross of service. The other is a cross of conquest. Too often we choose the second cross, but that is not the cross of Jesus. To bear that cross means living a life of service to the most vulnerable among us. It may not require of us physical death, but it will require of us our lives.

3. Living the Call to Service

As we hear the call to service – whether in the picture of receiving that little child or the picture of judgment – each of us must discern how and where this will lead us. Last week I spoke of two ministries that are already present in the congregation, both of which offer compassionate care to those in need. This morning I’d like to mention two ministries that are in the process of being born.

The first has been under discussion for some time, beginning with a conversation between Pastor Eugene James and me, and then in conversations late last spring that included Diana, Chris, Eugene, another leader from Eugene’s church, and myself. We’ve been talking about a partnership between our two congregations to reestablish a computer center at Eugene’s church. This center would offer the people living in that neighborhood in Northwest Detroit opportunities to learn computer skills, along with access to computers for their own use. Although we’re only at the beginning stages of this project, we have great hopes that this will be a fruitful partnership of service.

The second project has come to light even more recently. From the moment I knew I was coming here to Troy, I’ve had a burden for the city of Detroit. I understand why we moved from the city to the suburbs thirty years ago, but while you can take the church out of the city, you can’t take the city out of the church. While I believe that we’ve been called to minister to the immediate community that surrounds this building, I also believe that a concern for the greater Detroit area is deeply rooted in our ethos as a church. Even as the partnership with Eugene’s church would offer an opportunity to minister to people in need, so would this other new venture.

While I appreciate those who take the time and spend the money to go on mission trips to New Orleans and other places in the country, I’ve wondered why no one seems to be coming to Detroit. After all, Detroit is a city in deep and desperate need of help. It needs to experience some love. What I discovered is that there are ministries to the city of Detroit, and we can, if we choose, partner with them. So, this past Thursday I met with Carl Gladstone, the Director of the Motown Mission, which is housed at Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Detroit. This mission hosts mission trips, just like the ones that go to New Orleans. We talked about ways in which this congregation, our region and Disciples from across the country could partner with Motown Mission to bring a little life and hope to the city of Detroit by rehabbing houses and planting urban gardens, just to mention two possibilities. By doing this, we can help transform the city of Detroit, the city in which this congregation was born.

We discerned that God is calling us to be a people of service. May we discern how best to live out this core value, for if we are to be faithful to our mission, then aren’t we called to serve “the least of these”?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
17th Sunday after Pentecost
September 20, 2009

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A Life of Compassion

This sermon is the first of six that will lift up the six core values discerned to guide Central Woodward Christian Church.
John 11:28-35

When we gathered in February for a retreat, we discerned six core values that define our mission and vision as a congregation. We discerned these values in a context of prayer, worship, and study. We talked about our community and what it means to be a Disciple in the context of this community, beginning with our 5-mile radius, and expanding outward in concentric to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). As we discerned these values, we assumed that we are called to be a missional congregation, and that these values will help guide our practice of mission. It’s been a few months since we met, and with a new season of ministry in front of us, over the next two months we will explore these six core values in a series of sermons.

As we think about these six core values – compassion, service, acceptance, worship, witness, and spiritual joyfulness – we need to remember that there isn’t any particular order or ranking to these values. Each is equally important to our life together. But, since it’s first on the list, we’ll start with compassion, a value that fits well with the new Disciple identity statement, which reads:

We are Disciples of Christ,
a movement for wholeness
in a fragmented world.
As part of the one body of Christ,
we welcome all to the Lord's Table
as God has welcomed us.

1. Jesus is our Model

As I was thinking about how to preach on this core value, I knew I had to choose a text that would fit the theme. The one that came to mind was John 11, where Jesus mourns the death of a close friend, a man named Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. John 11 is well known to many Christians as the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, but we didn’t read that far into the story. Instead we stopped at what is often known as the briefest Scripture text, “Jesus wept” (KJV). I had us stop here, because that verse, and the words that precede it underline the centrality of compassion to the ministry of Jesus and the ways of God. The passage that precedes this word about Jesus weeping tells us that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” What is important here is not that Jesus brought Lazarus back to life, so he could die at a later date, but that Jesus acted from this deep sense of emotion called compassion.

If we affirm the principle that Jesus incarnates the word and wisdom of God, then we should affirm that he reveals to us the heart of God, which is full of compassion. Strangely, even though the Bible is full of texts that speak of God’s love and compassion, traditional theology, which has been deeply influenced by Greek philosophy, makes this impossible. Greek philosophy insisted that emotion was a sign of weakness, and therefore God must be “impassible.” That is, if God is perfect, then God is incapable of change or of feeling.

But is this the God of the Bible or the God revealed in the person of Jesus? Jurgen Moltmann, whom I had the privilege of hearing speak this past week, answered this question with this response: “An impassible God is not God, but a demon.” He went on to say that if God is apathetic, that is, without passion or compassion, then God will be “apathetic toward us.” But as we read here, Jesus was deeply moved, and in this he reveals to us the heart of God, which is compassionate and not apathetic.

2. Compassion and Empathy

There is another word that goes with compassion and that word is empathy. You may have heard this word recently in the news, because there was a lot of debate up on Capitol Hill about it. The context was the Supreme Court hearings, and the question was whether an empathy standard was appropriate for a judicial nominee. I won’t go into that debate, but I do believe that there is an empathy standard for the church.

So what is empathy? According to the dictionary definition, it involves such attitudes and actions as understanding, awareness, and sensitivity. One online dictionary puts it this way:
The ability to understand another person’s circumstances, point of view, thoughts, and feelings. When experiencing empathy, you are able to understand someone else’s internal experiences.
And, interestingly enough, certain psychiatric disorders, such as “autism, antisocial personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder, have been associated with a lack of ability to empathize (or experience empathy).”

While I don’t wish to wade into the political debate, it does appear that empathy is a good thing. In fact, to be without empathy is to suffer from a mental illness. Therefore, if we’re going to be a healthy congregation we must be compassionate, and to be compassionate we must be empathetic, which will allow us to walk in the shoes of our neighbors. We can do this by trying to understand the hearts, minds, and situations of our neighbors, so that even if we’ve never experienced what they’ve experienced, we can still understand what they are experiencing.

3. Living Compassionately

Jesus’ compassion, however, went beyond just walking in the shoes of the other, it led him to act. In this case, according to John, moved by his own grief, he chose to raise Lazarus from the dead and restore him to life. Another text that speaks to the way we might live out compassion is the parable of the Good Samaritan, in which the Samaritan – a person who was despised by most everyone in Jesus’ audience – offered aid to a man who had been mugged. While this story illustrates what it means to be a good neighbor, it also serves to encourage us to act on our compassion (Lk 10:25-37).

The Letter of James also speaks of the centrality of compassion to the life of faith. James defines true religion in terms of caring for orphans and widows who are in distress (James 1:27). James goes on to say that faith without works is dead– that is, without acts of compassion our faith is meaningless (James 2:14-17).

Harvard chaplain Peter Gomes suggests that compassion is both the source and the manifestation of inner strength. He asks the question – “Could it be that what we must do to stand when others around us are falling is to show compassion, to enter into the shoes and soul of the other?” He goes on to say that compassion is the opposite of fear, because love, which is another word for compassion, casts out fear. Indeed, “compassion has to do with the exercise of that inner strength that allows us power in the face of powerlessness and of the powers-that-be” [Peter Gomes, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, (Harper One, 2007), p. 104.]

So, as a missional people who have heard the call to live compassionately, we face the question – How should we live out a compassionate faith? If we were to brainstorm, I expect that we could come up with a myriad of possibilities. But, in the interests of time, I’ll just mention a few, some of which are already occurring in our congregational life.

I’ll begin with our S.O.S, because just about a month from now, we’ll be hosting a homeless shelter for a week. This is an act of compassion because it is a response to Christ’s call to serve and love our neighbor. In this case we will make room for those needing a roof over their heads and a meal to sustain them. Anne will be organizing this ministry – so be sure to see her soon.

The Stephen Ministry program is another place where we can live out compassionate ministry. Stephen Ministers are equipped and released to minister to those experiencing physical, emotional, and spiritual need. If you feel called to such a ministry, I know that there’s a new training session about to begin, so see Flo.

But compassionate ministry isn’t just expressed through organized activities. It occurs whenever we sit and listen to someone who grieves or hurts. It can happen when we mow a lawn or paint a wall for someone who is physically unable to accomplish this task. It might involve providing meals for a person who is hungry. Or, it may simply involve offering a shoulder to lean on. This value should also influence the way we live our public lives, including the way we vote. So, for instance, as you consider how to respond to the ongoing health care debate, it would be important to ask about the role compassion should play in your response? I believe this is why Sharon Watkins, our General Minister, spoke out so strongly for health care reform. And, Michael Kinnamon reminded us at the General Assembly that a commitment to Christian unity should include a call to peace. He asked us how we might bring healing to a fragmented world while engaging in or supporting acts of violence?

Jesus told stories, like the parable of the Good Samaritan, so that we could get inside the hearts and minds of others. As we hear that well-known parable, can we put ourselves into the shoes of the one lying in the ditch, the ones who passed him by, and the one who reached out to him. If we can put ourselves into the parable, then perhaps we can understand what it means to be a compassionate congregation.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 13, 2009

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Missioned for Labor

Acts 18:1-4

Tomorrow we celebrate Labor Day, a day set aside to honor all those who labor with a day of rest or play, whichever they should choose. It’s also, quite unofficially, the final weekend of summer. So even as we rest, we will also play. Of course, college students are already digging into their books, the teachers have been meeting and preparing their rooms, and by Tuesday the kids will all be back to school. Soon the leaves will fall and the temperatures will cool. Baseball will give way to football. But, for a moment, we can still bask in the glories of summer, as we enjoy our picnics and barbecues.

Labor Day isn’t a religious holiday, but then neither is Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, nor Memorial Day. Still, as with those other days, it’s appropriate to stop and consider the meaning of the day. In this case, we want to consider our labor and our work from a theological and spiritual perspective. Indeed, this is a good opportunity to remember our missional calling to bear witness to God’s presence in the world in which we live and work.

I decided to use this brief passage from Acts, because it reminds us that Paul supported himself in ministry by engaging in a trade, at least while he was in Corinth. Most translations suggest that he was a “tent-maker,” like his partners, Priscilla and Aquila, Jewish Christians who had recently migrated to Corinth from Rome. But, perhaps a better and broader translation would be “leather-worker.” Whatever they were doing, they were supporting their ministry through what we might call secular work. Indeed, we often use the term “tent-maker” to describe bi-vocational pastors or missionaries, who support themselves with a “secular” job so they can preach on Sunday. That is what Paul was doing – When he wasn’t making tents, he was preaching in the synagogues. The question is – Was he engaging in ministry, even as he was working with his hands?

This morning, as we reflect on the meaning of our labor, I’d like us to consider how this work of ours, whatever its nature, can be an expression of God’s mission in the world.

1. The Meaning and Value of Work

Today many people derive their sense of worth from their work or employment. When we meet someone new, we often ask: What do you do? By which we mean – How are you employed? Things were different in the ancient world, you didn’t derive a sense of purpose in life from your employment – indeed, work or labor was generally done by slaves; although there were free tradesmen, like Paul. The goal in life wasn’t to get a job; it was to be free of work so you could enjoy conversation and leisure.

Now, the biblical texts place a higher value on work than did the Greeks, in part because God is portrayed as one who worked. For six days God created the universe and its inhabitants, and then God rested from this work on the seventh day. This pattern was promoted and celebrated in Hebrew society, so that one worked six days, and then took off the seventh day as a Sabbath, a day of rest.

Jesus took things even further. He lifted up the servant and the slave, even portraying himself as a servant. He then called on his followers to be servants of God and humanity. In doing this, he turned the world’s expectations upside down. He lifted up those who had been brought down by society.

While many of us long for “days off,” for vacations, or for early retirement, our lives still seem defined by our work. Many of us will work sixty and seventy hour weeks; and to be unemployed in our society is to be without value. As for retirees, I’m reminded of the image developed so vividly in the movie About Schmidt. In this wonderful movie, Jack Nicholson’s character retires after a career as an extremely successful insurance salesman. He’d poured his life into his work, so much so that he didn’t have a relationship with his wife or with his daughter. Once the thing that had given him meaning was gone, he didn’t know what to do with his life. Then his wife, who had been looking forward to the day when she could share life with him again, died suddenly, he was truly lost and alone. Now, life lacked any sense of meaning and purpose.

As we celebrate Labor Day, we must ask the question – is there more to life than our jobs? But, more than that, can this work of ours not only provide food for the table, but also be an arena of ministry? And if so, how might this be expressed? In the coming weeks, we’ll be focusing on our congregational core values. I wonder, how might we live out these core values not only as a church, but in our day-to-day lives?

There was a time, back in the middle ages, when Christians distinguished between spiritual work and secular work. If you really wanted to serve God, then you became a monk, a priest, or a nun. The greatest work of all was to spend one’s day in prayer, cloistered and separated from society. Then came the Reformation, and Martin Luther and John Calvin insisted that we are all priests before God. They broke down the distinction between spiritual and secular. Or, as theologian J├╝rgen Moltmann put it, the
“Reformation was understood not only as the reformation of the church, but at the same time, as reformation of the world, that is, as reform of the working conditions of Christians” (Moltmann, On Human Dignity, Fortress, 1984, p. 45).

Unfortunately we can too easily fall into the trap of separating our worlds into spiritual and secular spheres. What we do at church is spiritual work. What we do outside the church is secular work. At the risk of excusing you from volunteering at the church, I believe it’s important for us to understand that God is at work outside the church walls, and that what we do outside the church walls is service to God and is an expression of God’s mission. We’ve been talking about that 5-mile radius for the past year. Well, even as this congregation has a 5-mile radius, do we, might we, as individuals have our own “5-mile” radius, so that the places we live, work, and volunteer, become our own spheres of mission.

2. Missioned for Labor

We have sensed a calling to be a missional church. Since before I even got here, this congregation was exploring what it means to be missional, and we’re still trying to figure out what that means for us. But, as we observe Labor Day, may we reflect upon the connections between our labor and our mission. Indeed, it might be helpful to remember that the Latin root for the word we use for work, the word vocation, means “calling.” So, the question is, in what way are we, as individuals, called to be missional? In other words, being missional is more than a church thing. It’s a total-life thing. It’s not just about Sunday. It’s also about what we do from Monday to Saturday as well.

What if there wasn’t a distinction between Sunday and Monday, between clergy and laity? What if God had called each of us to ministries of witness and service in the very places we work and volunteer and even play. We don’t have to preach or even proselytize. But, we can bear witness to God’s grace and love and mercy in everything we do, even as we show compassion, acceptance, service and live lives of honesty and integrity. Indeed, we bear witness to God’s grace in the way we treat the people we work with, play with, and live with.

This aspect of being missional hit home as I was reading Gary Nelson’s book Borderland Churches (Chalice Press, 2008). He pointed out that churches regularly commission/ordain/acknowledge people for their church work, whether it’s being an elder, Sunday school teacher, or church officer. But rarely, if ever, do we “mission” people for service in the world. Rarely do we affirm and recognize people’s “secular” vocations as a calling and ministry of God – whether one is a teacher, an attorney, an engineer, or a volunteer in a non-church related area of life.

Nelson writes that maybe the reason we don’t “mission” people is that we “ultimately need them to serve the structures inside the church” (Nelson, p. 112). I think he’s right, because I regularly hear complaints that it’s hard to find volunteers to do church work. There is truth to this. We need lots of volunteers, and there seem to be fewer of them to be found. But, that doesn’t mean that we should devalue what people do outside church as being less than spiritual. It is in this daily work that we bear witness to the reign of God in the World. Gary Nelson writes:

The church becomes both an instrument and a sign of what God wants to do in his kingdom that Jesus brought to earth. The purpose of the church and its mission is to incarnationally point to what it might look like when a community of people becomes alive under God’s reign. By “missioning,” the church is making visible to each member, to the church community, and to the world that God’s people are at work. (Nelson, Borderland Churches, p. 113).

Inspired by this call to mission, not only in the church, but also in the world of everyday life, I invite you to share in a litany of missioning, which you’ll find printed in the bulletin.

Litany of Missioning
God has called each of us to mission.
This mission occurs wherever we live and work and play.
This mission occurs because God is at work in the world, not just in the church.
This mission occurs because we are all priests before God.

Empowered for service to God’s kingdom in the worship, study, and fellowship of the Christian community.

We are missioned by God to be God’s ministers in our work and community volunteer activities.
As we serve God through our work in:

Sales, Medicine, Business, Law, Information Technology, Education, Engineering, Manufacturing, as Students, Finances and Banking, Government Services, Service Industries, Management, Homemaking, Community volunteers, or wherever God places us.

God missions us to bear witness in our words and in our deeds, to the grace and love of God for the World.

God, send us into our work with new resolves.

Help us to work out the problems that have perplexed us, and to serve the people we meet.
May we see our work as part of your great plan and find significance in what we do.
We do not know what any day will bring us, but we do know the hour for serving you is always present.
We dedicate our hearts, minds, and wills to your glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen*

*Prayer taken from Chalice Worship, (Chalice Press, 1997), p. 176.