Sunday, October 25, 2009

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

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


Acts 1:6-14

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

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

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

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

1. A Witness to the Ends of the Earth

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

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

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

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

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

2. A Witness Empowered by the Holy Spirit

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

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

3. A Witness Undertaken in Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Becoming Spiritually Joyful and Joyfully Spirital -- Core Values Sermon 4

Core Values Sermon 4

Philippians 4:4-7

When someone always seems to be happy, don’t you suspect that they may be hiding something? Something just isn’t right? Life simply isn’t that wonderful! This is especially true when it comes to religion. I won’t mention any names, but some of those TV preachers, and their imitators, promise us a great life, with little cost – except for what they’d like you to send in to support their “ministry.” And yet, even if faith in God isn’t the pathway to riches and fame like they promise, surely there has to be a bit of joy in this journey of ours.

This morning we’re continuing our conversation about the congregation’s core values, and today we focus on joy. There is another word involved in this core value – the word spiritual. But no matter whether you put it first or second, if our faith in God – that is our spiritual life -- is without joy, then something is wrong. That doesn’t mean that we should be happy every moment of the day. It doesn’t mean that we should expect a life without pain, sickness, suffering, questions or doubts. It doesn’t mean that we can expect to be cheerful at all times and in all places. That’s simply not the way things work. Not even Disneyland – or World – is happy all the time!

So, what does this core value mean, and why does Paul say: Rejoice in the Lord always? Well, to be begin with, we’re not talking about happiness. As James Evans points out that while we can pursue happiness, which is something the Declaration of Independence promises us as our right, we can’t pursue joy. That’s because joy is something that overtakes us while we’re walking in the ways of the Lord. It’s something that happens from within a deep and abiding longing for God, which is why Paul can make this claim even as he is sitting in a prison cell, not knowing what his future holds. Our spiritual joy is not dependent on our circumstances. It’s not something that can be provided for in a pill or even a song. It must come as we walk consistently in the presence of God, even during life’s difficult moments. 1

1. What do we mean by spiritual?

Although I want us to focus on joy, we need to first identify what we mean by spiritual. The word spiritual is quite popular today, and many people contrast spiritual with religious, by which they mean institutional religion. They usually have in mind a sort of do-it-yourself spirituality – a little of this and a little of that.

Although we Disciples are non-creedal, and our list of essentials is few, the spirituality that we’re talking about today is defined by Christ. It’s defined by a gospel that proclaims that God was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s self (2 Corinthians 5). It’s grounded in a relationship with the one who “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6ff). It’s a spirituality that allows the Spirit to “will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). It’s a spirituality that embraces the Holy Spirit’s work of breaking down the dividing walls of hostility that exist between insiders and outsiders (Eph. 2:14), like what we saw just two weeks ago, as we shared together in the Great Communion. It’s as Clark Williamson puts it:
The Christian life is one of eucharist, gathered regularly around a table where we give thanks for the love of God and neighbor so graciously given to us.2

We discover joy as we taste this life of grace that has been given to us by God. This joy is a fruit of our relationship with the living God, especially as we participate in acts of loving-kindness.

2. Living Out a Joyful Spirituality

As we reflect on this walk of faith, this Christ defined spirituality, we can now ask the question – what about this joy that Paul speaks of? In reflecting on this passage, James Evans offers three themes that make a lot of sense. I believe that these themes speak directly to who we are and where we’re going as a congregation.3

  • Joy brings Patience
We live in a society that’s increasingly uncomfortable with delayed gratification. We simply don’t want to wait for anything. That’s why we embrace fast food. But it’s not just our food. We want our political leaders to deliver now, not later. And think about the TV shows we watch. If a TV show doesn’t break through in a matter of weeks, it’s off the air – even if some of our best and most enduring shows, such as Seinfeld, Cheers, and the Waltons, took time to attract an audience. But, with the joy of the Lord comes patience. That’s because, as James Evans puts it, joy has the “character of longing.” That is, it’s a “waiting filled with wanting,” and it’s a spiritual virtue because it requires us to trust in God, not just for the moment, but for the long haul.

Last spring we shared together in a study of Gay Reese’s Unbinding Your Heart. We didn’t add huge numbers of new members and attendees as a result, but I do believe that this event made a major difference in the life of this congregation, even if we haven’t yet seen all the fruit. That’s because congregational transformation takes time. It doesn’t happen over night. Indeed, as Gay Reese points out in her newest book, Unbinding Your Soul, Bill Gates is known to have said something like:
People overestimate what can be done in one year and underestimate what can be done in ten.

How often do we try something once or twice, and when we don’t see immediate results we move onto the next thing? If we rest in the joy of the Lord, then we will have the patience to see God work in our lives, transforming us from the inside out. And, if we return to the passage that defines our missional calling -- Acts 1:8 – the one that gives us our commission to minister in the world, from our neighborhoods, to the ends of the earth, we need to hear the promise that goes with the commission – wait for the Spirit.

  • Prayer is the answer to anxiety
Prayer is the answer to our anxiety, because prayer requires that we trust in God. We don’t do this by coming to God with a long wish list, but by coming to God in a posture of humility and gratitude. When we do this, we put ourselves in a position to experience the joy that comes from God. This is why Paul can say “Don’t worry about anything, just pray.” I know that when we hear this verse, in the back of our minds we hear that old song from the 1980s: “Don’t worry, be happy.” Got worries, Bobby McFerrin sang, don’t worry about it, just be happy. Just pretend that there’s nothing to worry about. I don’t think that’s what Paul has in mind. After all, he is writing from a prison cell, and he knows that there are troubles brewing in the Philippian church.

So, when he says – don’t worry, just pray, he’s asking us to do what Jurgen Moltmann calls praying with open eyes. When we pray, we should pray watchfully, and when we watch the world, we should do so prayerfully. Moltmann notes that when we pray, we usually close our eyes, fold our hands, and look inwardly. But this isn’t praying watchfully. It’s not a posture of prayer that lets us see the world and bring that world into our prayers, so that we can see the world as God sees the world. But if we pray with open eyes, with supplication and thanksgiving, we can find joy, even when our circumstances are less than perfect. That’s because our trust is in God and not in our own devices. 4

  • Joy brings Peace
When we walk in the Lord, and trust that God will be true to God’s promises, then joy will mark our lives, and with this joy comes peace. This is the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.” It’s not peace as the world conceives of it. That is, it’s not an absence of conflict or suffering, but rather it is a confidence that God is with us, no matter the circumstances. This is a peace that comes when we walk together in pursuit not of joy, not of happiness, but pursuit of a relationship with the living God. This is a peace that lies beyond human comprehension. Ultimately, it’s a peace that we will never completely experience in life. That’s because our relationship with God is a life long pursuit.

Therefore, as we seek to live into this core value, that our missional life together will be a life full of the Spirit of God, and therefore one that is full of joy, let us embrace this promise that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).

1. James H. Evans in Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., (WJK, 2009), pp. 62–64.

2. Clark Williamson, Way of Blessing, Way of Life, (Chalice Press, 1999), p. 248.

3. Evans, in Feasting on the Word, p. 66.

4. Jurgen Moltmann and Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendell, Passion for God: Theology in Two Voices, (WJK, 2003), pp. 62ff.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
October 18, 2009
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 04, 2009

A Place of Acceptance: Core Values 3

Jonah 4:1-11

If you want to insult a chef or cook, tell them that the dinner was “fine.” Why? Because the word “fine” means: “it was edible, but I’ve had better.” Yes, the word “fine” means “tolerable” or “acceptable.” It could have been worse, but it also could have been better.

When you hear the words accept or accepting, do you hear the words “fine” or “tolerable”? Do you hear a sigh of resignation in these words? If you do, hopefully that’s not what you hear in the core value that we focus on today. Hopefully, what you hear in these words is something positive and dynamic. Instead of resignation and toleration, I hope you hear words like including, welcoming, and embracing.

1. What a Day to think about being an Accepting Missional Congregation:

It may be fortuitous that today is both World Communion Sunday and Reconciliation Sunday. To top it off, we will also be celebrating the 200th anniversary of Thomas Campbell’s Declaration and Address, a document that launched a movement of Christian unity, by participating this afternoon in the celebration of the Great Communion. In this service, we will be sharing at the table with brothers and sisters not only from other Disciples churches, but also brothers and sisters from the Churches of Christ and the Independent Christian Churches. The message of Thomas Campbell is that not only is the church one, but we should embrace each other as Christ has embraced us, and not let anything divide us from one another. Certainly this message is something to lift up and celebrate.

World Communion Sunday carries a similar message, but it points, beyond our own movement to the breadth of the Christian community around the world. As we gather at the table, we remember that whether we’re meeting in mud huts or grand cathedrals, homes or store fronts, when we gather at the Lord’s Table, we share together in the oneness that Jesus proclaimed in the Garden – that even as he and the Father are one, so are we (John 17).

As we take the Reconciliation offering today, we remember that as Disciples, we have been called to be an “anti-racist, pro-reconciling” church. As we consider acceptance as a core congregational value, let us reflect on the theme of this year’s offering: “Many Members, One Table.” And the text for this year’s offering speaks directly to our conversation today about being an accepting, welcoming, embracing, inclusive community of faith. Hear the words of Paul from 1 Corinthians 12:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:12-13)

What Paul is saying here is that it doesn’t matter what your ethnicity or your economic status, in Christ, there is but one body. And although Paul only lists two pairs of relationships, we could add some more – male and female, young and old, gay or straight – in Christ we are one body.

2. God’s Way or Jonah’s

As we consider what it means to be an “accepting” church, in the light of the confluence of this day’s observances, there is another story to consider – the story of Jonah and his “ministry” in Nineveh. I expect that most of us know at least part of this story about God sending Jonah to Nineveh to preach. As you may know, Jonah didn’t want to go, and so he got on a ship and headed off in the opposite direction. But, God kept after him, and when a storm came up the crew of his ship threw him overboard, he got swallowed by a big fish, and ended up in Nineveh anyway. Knowing he couldn’t evade God’s call, he, quite reluctantly, called on the Ninevites to repent, which they did, and then God relented from punishing them. This is exactly why Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. He didn’t like the Ninevites and he wanted God to destroy them, but he knew that God is gracious and merciful, and that if they repented, God would spare them. In the final chapter of the story, we find Jonah sitting glumly looking at the city, upset that God didn’t destroy Nineveh.

So what does Jonah have to say to us? In this story, I hear two ways of looking at the world. One is narrow and the other is open and inclusive. Jonah took on his job reluctantly, because, unlike God, he wasn’t willing to embrace the Ninevites as his brothers and sisters. He ran away, though, because he understood that God saw things differently. As Jonah says to God:

“I knew you were a gracious God, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).
I knew you were a welcoming, gracious, and loving God – but that’s just not me. So, as we look into the future, the question is: which of these models will be our guide? Jonah or God? Jonah represents a world view that is focused on one’s self, while God seems concerned about the welfare of the other – like the ones in Nineveh, that great city where the residents didn’t know right from left.

3. Being a welcoming church

The Disciples identity statement suggests that we are a “movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.” It also suggests that the Table of the Lord is the place at which this wholeness will be experienced – we who are hurting, divided, estranged, separated, can become one in Christ.

The story of Jonah is a parable about ethnic and religious superiority. It speaks to a view of the world that wants to build walls rather than bridges. And too often, the church gets caught up in wall building, rather than bridge building. The story of Jonah reminds us that God is in the bridge building business. As Paul writes, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” and God is calling us to be agents of that reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-20).

Therefore, as a missional church, I believe God would have us build bridges to a world that is broken and crying out for healing. As a missional church, I believe that God is calling us to embrace new people and new ideas. It is a call to put out the welcome mat so that the world might come to the Table and experience the oneness that is Christ.

In order for us to take up this calling, we have to be comfortable with differences. It requires that we recognize that we live in a very pluralistic world. And so, in order to live out this call to be a place of acceptance, then we must become what Wesley Wildman and Stephen Chapin Garner call – “liberal evangelicals.” We are evangelical because our faith is centered in Christ, who reveals to us the fullness of God’s love for the world. It is liberal, because it is “radically inclusive.” Whatever our differences or disagreements, they become secondary to the message of God’s love and grace. (See Wildman and Garner, Found in the Middle!, Alban, 2009).

This is, of course a Disciple message, for we are called to visible unity, even if we don’t all agree. Rather than coming together to judge or to impose our views on others, we concern ourselves with the welfare and good of the other.

As we consider our calling to be a missional community that is intentionally inclusive and welcoming, perhaps we can find encouragement in the words of Rusty Edwards’ hymn “We are all one in mission.” This hymn may not be in our hymnal, but surely it speaks to who we are as a “place of acceptance”:

We all are one in mission; We all are one in call,
Our varied gifts united by Christ the Lord of all.
A single great commission compels us from above
To plan and work together that all may know Christ’s love.

We all are called to service, to witness in God’s name.
Our ministries are different; our purpose is the same:
To touch the lives of others with God’s surprising grace,
So every folk and nation may feel God’s warm embrace.

Now let us be united, and let our songs be heard;
Now let us be a vessel for God’s redeeming Word.
We all are one in mission; we all are one in call,
Our varied gifts united by Christ, the Lord of all.
Rusty Edwards, Hope Publishing, 1986

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
World Communion Sunday
October 4, 2009