Friday, December 24, 2010

Gloria in Excelsis Deo -- A Sermon for Christmas Eve

Luke 2:8-20

Shepherds are tending their sheep in the hills near Bethlehem, when to their surprise a choir of angels gathers in the heavens and begins singing Gloria in Excelsis Deo. What a treat that must have been! After all angelic visits don’t happen every day, and it can get a bit boring sitting out there in the fields in the cold of night.

In the spirit of angelic visits, J.B. Phillips tells a wonderful story about the day when a senior angel takes a new recruit on a tour of the cosmos. This rookie angel is quite impressed by the grandeur of the cosmos – who wouldn’t -- but then, as they walk through the multitude of galaxies and stars, the older angel points out a small insignificant star and the planet that orbits around it. To the young angel, this "small rather insignificant sphere turning on its axis . . . looked as dull as a dirty tennis-ball.” Why would this senior angel point out this plant? It seemed so insignificant and unimpressive in light of what she had just seen in her tour of the cosmos. In spite of his first impressions, the guide leaned over and said, look closely because this is the "visited planet."

"You mean, visited by . . ."
Yes, the senior angel replies, it has been "visited by our young Prince of Glory."

Now this news made no sense to the young angel. Why would the Prince of Glory stoop to visit this little planet?

The senior angel replies: it's not for us to know the reason, but remember, God isn’t impressed by size or numbers.

"Do you mean to tell me," he said, "that he stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?" Yes, said the senior angel, but God would prefer that you not call them "creeping, crawling creatures."

The increasingly skeptical rookie angel, couldn’t see the wisdom of this, and so the mentor takes the recruit back on a little tour of the past so that the younger angel could witness the glorious event described for us by Luke. As they watched this scene from above, they saw a tiny, but intensely bright, light shine in the midst of the darkness, and then they watched as the light was extinguished. The younger angel turned to the older one and asked, why would these creatures do such a stupid thing as to kill the prince of glory? But, then to his amazement, a bright blazing, radiant point of light emerged on the planet. That, said the senior angel is the resurrection of the prince of glory. What a glorious sight it was to behold, but the story isn’t over yet.

Watch said the older to the younger.

As they looked, in place of the dazzling light there was a bright glow which throbbed and pulsated. And then as the Earth turned many times little points of light spread out. A few flickered and died; but for the most part the lights burned steadily, and as they continued to watch, in many parts of the globe there was a glow over many areas.

"You see what is happening?" asked the senior angel. "The bright glow is the company of loyal men and women He left behind, and with His help they spread the glow and now lights begin to shine all over the Earth."

"Yes, yes" said the little angel impatiently, "but how does it end? Will the little lights join up with each other? Will it all be light, as it is in Heaven?"

His senior shook his head. "We simply do not know," he replied. "It is in the Father's hands. Sometimes it is agony to watch and sometimes it is joy unspeakable. The end is not yet, But now I am sure you can see why this little ball is so important. He has visited it. He is working out His Plan upon it."

"Yes, I see, though I don't understand. I shall never forget that this is the visited planet." [J.B. Phillips, "The Angel's Point of View," in Behold that Star: A Christmas Anthology, edited by the Bruderhof, (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing Company, 1996), 2-9.]
The angels sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo that night because the Prince of Glory has visited our planet. In visiting our planet in the person of the babe of Bethlehem, God brought into the open the promise of peace and joy for all of creation. It is as Isaiah declared:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa. 9:6 NRSV)
But, the end of this story has yet to be written. As the senior angel said, only God has foresight to know where this story is leading. We don’t even have the same vantage point as the Angel, for we can’t look down upon the flow of history from above. All we can do is join with the Prince of Peace in the work of spreading the joy and the love and the peace that is embodied by the Christmas event. It is our calling as followers of the one whose birth we celebrate this night, to participate in spreading the light of God around the globe.

Tonight we will light our candles and sing "Silent Night" and then go into the world as light bearers with the song "Joy to the World" upon our lips and in our hearts. Like that littlest angel, we may not understand the “hows” and the “whys,” of God’s ways, but let us not forget that this is the visited planet, and that God has chosen to visit us in the one who was born the babe of Bethlehem. Therefore let us join the angels and boldly sing boldly: Gloria in Excelsis Deo!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

It's a Boy! -- An Advent Sermon

Matthew 1:18-25

Four Advent candles are now lit, which means that Christmas is close at hand. Except for some last minute shopping, mostly by husbands, all the packages should be wrapped, and either put under the tree or mailed. The kids, of course, are getting anxious. They’re shaking the packages and wondering about what’s inside the box. If it rattles, then it can’t be underwear or socks, and if it does rattle, then the imagination goes wild! Of course, everyone is on their best behavior, hoping that their fondest wishes will be fulfilled. But as you can see there’s still one candle that needs to be lit. The first four candles call on us to live lives of hope, peace, joy, and love, as we prepare ourselves to receive into our lives the full presence of God in the person of the Christ child. This last candle, the Christ Candle, represents the light that shines into the darkness of our world, lighting a pathway so that we might truly experience hope, peace, joy and love that are represented by the candles that we’ve already lit.

1. A MURKY START

As we ponder the meaning of these candles that we’ve been lighting these past four Sundays, and then look over at the Christmas tree, which is enwrapped by a multitude of lights, it should become clearer that part of the message of Christmas is enlightenment. For a moment let your mind drift to your evening drives through the many neighborhoods that we inhabit. Think of all the houses bedecked with Christmas lights. Normally dark streets can come alive with brightly colored lights, shining into the ever increasing winter darkness.

Even as Christmas is on the horizon, so is the Winter Solstice. In just two days, we will reach the point where the darkness of night reaches its fullest extent of the year, before the sun begins to reclaim the day from the darkness of night. It may be true that Constantine merged the Roman observance of the Solstice with Christmas, and that many of our Christmas traditions have their roots in this observance, but maybe that’s okay – as long as we recognize this to be true. Perhaps it’s appropriate that at the point at which the light of the sun pushes back the night, we will be celebrating the coming of the Son of God into the World to push back the darkness that has tried to take hold in our world.

This message of enlightenment is also present in the two gospel stories of Christ’s birth. Luke speaks of the angelic glory that breaks into the night sky, revealing the glory that is God, while Matthew speaks of a star that draws a group of sages from the east so that they might honor the one who is born king of the Jews.

There is much beauty in the traditional telling of the Christmas story, but we can also fall into a trap of romanticizing the story. Carols like “Away in a manger” envision the little Lord Jesus lying sound asleep, without a worry in his head, while Mary and Joseph, are surrounded by shepherds and magi, cooing at the little child. But, the biblical story is a bit more complicated than many of our beloved carols would suggest.

As Matthew tells it, an angel visits Joseph in a dream, and says to him: “Fear not.” Do you remember these words from last Sunday’s Cantata? “Fear not Joseph.” You see, Joseph has something to be concerned about. His betrothed is pregnant, and he’s not the father. By every right he can cast Mary off in shame, but being a good man, he wants to put her away quietly. But the angel, tells Joseph: Go ahead, get married, because this child, which Mary carries, is from the Holy Spirit, and he is a sign to the world that God is with us. In this dream Joseph learns the true message of Christmas: God is present and at work redeeming the world, through a mother and her child. Yes, Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is truly one of redemption, but before Jesus can redeem the world, Joseph must first redeem him and his mother, by claiming this boy as his own and by giving him a name, so he can have a future. Only then can he claim us as his own.

There are also hints of this redemption story encrypted in Matthew’s genealogy. Genealogies are fun, especially when we find skeletons in the closet. Those skeletons can be just as exciting to us as the family’s shining stars. Over all, this list that links Joseph to David and Abraham is unremarkable, except for the four women it mentions. Yes, four important but unusual women, appear in Jesus’ genealogy. Although Matthew doesn’t say anything about them, if we know their stories then we get a fuller picture of this one whose birth we’re about to celebrate. One of these women, Tamar, seduces her father-in-law, Judah, because he failed to provide for her. Rahab is the Harlot from Jericho who saves the Hebrew spies, while Ruth is a Moabite woman, a foreigner, whose great-grandson is none other than David. Finally, there’s Uriah’s wife, who bears David a son. Each woman plays a significant role in the life of God’s people and each woman, as is true of Mary, is claimed by God for a purpose. Yes, the Christmas story is one of redemption, Had Joseph not claimed Jesus as his son, then Jesus would have been born with a stigma. Fortunately, Joseph listened to the angel and took away that stigma, even as Jesus takes away ours by claiming us as his own. The story of Christmas reminds us that God doesn’t stand above the fray, untouched by human emotion and tragedy, No, even though darkness may surround us, God is present as the light that cannot be extinguished.

2. THE WORD OF SALVATION

Matthew says very little about Jesus’ birth, but he does emphasize the naming of Jesus. Unlike today, names back then carried meaning. When we name our children we don’t think about what these names mean, we simply choose names that are either popular in our culture or represent a family relationship. Since most parents want to make sure that their kids don’t have odd names, unless, of course, they’re from Hollywood, so today we see a lot more Jacobs and Isabellas in the nation’s nurseries than we do Gertrudes or Homers. As all parents know, picking out a name for a child isn’t easy, but in this case the parents had help from an angel, who tells Joseph to name the child, who is to be born to Mary, Yeshua, which means "he will save his people from their sins." By giving him this name, Joseph affirms God’s call on the life of Jesus, who will bring healing to a fragmented and broken world. Yes, in him the world’s pain, suffering, disappointment, and terror will be replaced with hope, peace, joy, and love. Because of him, the darkness that lays claim to our world will begin to dissipate and lose its hold on our lives. In giving him this name, Joseph is affirming God’s choice to redeem us, even as God chose to redeem and work through Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah’s wife, better known to us as Bathsheba.

3. EMMANUEL IS WITH US

As we consider Matthew’s presentation of the Christmas story, we find ourselves standing on a river bank, looking across the water, into the Promised Land. While we can see Christmas on the horizon, Advent isn’t finished with us yet. Remember the words of our opening hymn: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God to appear. " Is this not the cry of our hearts, that God’s realm would come in its fullness bringing to our land hope and peace and justice? If we’re willing to join with God in this work of redemption by living into the realm of God, we’ll be ready to join in singing the chorus of this hymn: "Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!"

Yes, as the angel said to Joseph, you shall call him “Emmanuel” for God is with us, binding our wounds and setting us free. This hope is well stated, as the hymn continues: . "O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven's peace."

Although we live in a world torn by war and strife, our own lives need not be torn by bitterness and disappointment, for Emmanuel has come to “bind all peoples in one heart and mind” and fill the world with “heaven’s peace.” The choice is ours – will we accept this offer to live into God’s realm? Are we willing to cross the river into the Promised Land?

When we gather Friday evening to celebrate the coming of Emmanuel into our world, we will light the Christ Candle and gather joyfully to sing the songs of the season, before sharing together in the sign of Christ’s everlasting presence at the Lord’s Table. As we move through this week, may we prepare ourselves to hear a proud father named Joseph cry out to all who would listen: “It’s a boy.” And when we hear this proud father shout out in joy, we can offer our reply by singing: “come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ, the new-born King” (Angels, from the Realms of Glory, refrain).
 
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
4th Sunday of Advent
December 19, 2010

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Someone's Knocking at the Door -- An Advent Sermon

Matthew 3:1-12


Someone’s Knocking at the Door, Somebody’s Ringing the Bell
Someone’s Knocking at the Door, Somebody’s Ringing the Bell
Do me a favor and open the door and let em in. (Paul McCartney, “Let em in,” 1976)

I realize that this isn’t your typical Advent hymn, but Paul McCartney’s tune from the 1970s does catch well the message of the day. The question is: If there’s someone knocking at your door; shouldn’t you go let them in?

But, if you do open the door, you could be in for a surprise. That’s because the person could be, none other than John the Baptist, dressed in skins and toting a lunch pail full of locusts and honey. The reason he’s at your door is because he has a message for you: "Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!” (Vs. 2, CEB). This is a message about preparation – clean up and get ready, for the Lord is coming. Yes, this time it might be John, but next time it’s likely to be the Christ.

1. THE SPIRIT OF THE KING.

It is Advent, and John the Baptist figures prominently in the Advent story. That’s because this man of the wilderness serves as the advance man of God’s kingdom. To get an idea about what John is up to you might consider what happens when the President of the United States comes to town. Members of his staff will go ahead of him to make sure everything is ready. The Secret Service checks out the security, other handlers make sure the President has a place to stay, and they set up all the speaking opportunities. Nothing is left to chance.

As Jesus’ advance man, John wants us to be ready when he comes to visit. And that means, cleaning up our lives, so that we’ll be ready to welcome him into our midst. That is well and good, but maybe you have questions of your own about this coming king. Maybe you’d like to know what kind of king is coming, and what his reign will look like. After all, history has unveiled all kinds of rulers. Some have been benign, and others have been evil. So, what should we expect? John answers our questions by telling us that he is not worthy of even tying the shoes of the coming Messianic King, the one we’ve been waiting for, and that he will baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire, instead of water.

As we consider what kind of ruler Jesus might be, Isaiah offers us some possible answers. According to the prophet, this hoped for ruler will come bearing gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. With these gifts in hand, the one who is coming will rule wisely and justly. He’ll judge not by sight nor by what he hears, because these senses can be easily corrupted. In fact, human judgments can be skewed by riches and power, but neither of these enticements will impress the coming judge who will rule on behalf of the poor and the meek. (Isaiah 11:1ff).

John’s message to us is this: Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths. Because, when the messiah comes, things will be different! Yes, I know, you’ve heard that one before. Politicians always come making promises that they rarely deliver upon. It’s not that they’re evil people, it’s just that making promises is easier than keeping them! But could this be the time when things are different?

2. THE BLESSINGS OF THE KINGDOM

The message of John is this – when the kingdom of heaven breaks into our world, it will bring a reign of peace, something we all long for. Indeed, as we lit the Peace candle this morning, we declared this to be our hope for the world. In lighting this candle, it is appropriate that we lift up in prayer those who live in areas that know not peace: Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Congo, Mexico, Columbia, Israel and Palestine. And, there is that desire to see peace come to our own streets, homes, and even congregations.

True peace, Isaiah says, comes as the wolf lies down with the lamb, the leopard with the kid, the lion with the calf, and when the little child leads them. A little child comes to us with innocence, trust, gentleness, and friendship. Aren’t these the qualities we wish for ourselves? What a contrast there is between this image of the child king and the tyrants of history – Bin Laden, Hitler, or Stalin. And if we think Americans are immune from violence and hatred, just think back a few years to Abu Graib. You might want to also remember that the United States incarcerates more people than any other nation in the world.

In the midst of this reality, we hear John calling out to us: The king is coming, so get ready! Change your hearts and your lives.

If we can look forward for a moment, we’ll discover in due time that this promised ruler will come to us in a most uncommon way. He’ll not be born in a palace in Jerusalem but rather in the little town of Bethlehem. Although there isn’t a manger in Matthew, perhaps it’s appropriate to imagine that setting for a moment. It helps us realize that this king won’t come into our lives in the same way as Caesar or Alexander, with armies and fearsome weapons in hand. Instead, this new born king comes bearing the message of Isaiah: the nations will beat "their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks," so that there might be peace on earth (Is. 2:4).

Does such talk seem unrealistic? Perhaps. And yet, this is the message that Jesus brings to us. It is the message he seeks to embody. It is a message of peace, hope and reconciliation. Bishop Desmond Tutu wrote: "violence provokes more violence and really solves nothing." Gandhi said, "an eye for an eye leaves the world blind." And Jesus said: love your enemies, even as the angels sing: “Peace on earth and good will to all.”

3. TRAVELING LIGHT

I realize that the lure of Christmas is difficult to ignore, even as we come to church for an Advent service. The bells are ringing and the songs are in the air, and would just as soon skip the preliminaries. And yet every journey requires preparation, and Advent is a season of preparation. It requires a bit of discipline in the face of our impatience.

If we will heed the call of the prophets, whether Isaiah or John the Baptist, and step back and consider the one who is coming, then we’ll be better able to heed his message of peace. And preparation for the coming king, according to John, requires of us repentance.

I realize that repentance isn’t one of our favorite words. Not only does it mean saying you’re sorry, it also means changing the way you think and live, and that requires us to do a bit of self-examination. But, if we’re willing to follow John’s lead, we will be ready to receive into our lives the one who is coming, the one who calls upon us to abandon lives of violence, anger, hatred, dishonesty, slander, while embracing God's peace, love, and grace. William Stringfellow wrote that this message of repentance is "no private or individualistic effort, but the disposition of a person is related to the reconciliation of the whole of creation." (William Stringfellow, "The Penitential Season," in Watch for the Light, (Farmington, PA: The Plough Publishing Company, 2001).

And remember the other part of John’s message – the one who is coming will baptize with fire and the Holy Spirit. Fire is the refiner of our lives, burning off the chaff, the parts of our lives that do not honor God or serve as a blessing to our neighbors. And having been refined by God’s fire, which goes beyond the cleansing waters of John’s baptism, we are then ready to receive the Holy Spirit, the one who empowers and guides us on the journey, a journey that we’re better able to take, because we no longer carry with us all that baggage that weighs us down and keeps us from enjoying God’s presence.

Consider for a moment the Dickens tale, where Marley tells Scrooge that the chains he bears are the chains he put on in life. According to the ghost of Marley, in death he carries the weight of his disregard for humanity. As we prepare for Christmas, like Scrooge, we’re invited to let go of the things, the attitudes, the grudges, that keep us from experiencing the joy of the kingdom. Travel light, is the advice that both Jacob Marley and John give us as we prepare to welcome the coming King.

In Revelation, we hear Jesus say to us: “Listen, I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come into you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20). On this second Sunday of Advent, we hear this word from a former President, Jimmy Carter: “We are always in the presence of the Holy Spirit, as my sister Ruth seemed to know. Whether the door is open or closed is our decision” (Partners in Prayer, Advent 2004, Dec. 3, Chalice Press).

Yes, “someone’s knocking at the door,” will someone let him in?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Please and Thank You -- A Thanksgiving Homily


Luke 17:11-19

We’ve gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing and to give thanks for the bountiful gifts of God. Giving thanks is deeply rooted in our faith tradition, going all the way back to our Jewish ancestors who heeded the Psalmist’s call to make a joyful noise, worship with gladness, and come into God’s presence with singing, because the Lord is God. Yes, we’ve heard the call to “enter the gates with thanksgiving, and the courts with praise . . . For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever and his faithfulness to all generations.” (Psalm 100 NRSV).


1. Being Thankful

Thanksgiving is a national holiday, but it has a strong spiritual dimension. For some this is simply an expression of civil religion that can be quickly dispensed with before watching the game and digging into the feast. For some Thanksgiving will offer a rare opportunity to gather as family or with friends for a time of merriment and sharing, that may or may not have any spiritual dimension. But, it also could provide an opportunity to stop and give thanks for the blessings of life, even if done briefly. We’ve come here because we believe that giving thanks has a broader, more spiritual sense to it.

Tonight we gather as a Christian community, but I’d like to link this observance to another gathering that some of us participated in this past Sunday evening. That event was interfaith and it reminded us that ours is a diverse nation, made up of people who share many different faith traditions. That event reminded us to give thanks for the freedoms provided by this nation to people from a multitude of religious traditions to safely gather together for prayer and worship and service in a way that is appropriate to that tradition. Our gathering this evening may be a Christian one, but it shares in this broader dimension of freedom. Therefore, as we gather in the name of Christ, let us give thanks for the freedoms we share with fellow citizens whose beliefs are different from ours, knowing that around the world there are many who do not share in the protections of our nation’s Constitution.

But, whether or not there is government sanctioned freedom to worship, we still can give thanks that God is present in our midst. Our ability to give thanks doesn’t ultimately depend on such freedoms. Therefore, we gather to give thanks to the God we know in Jesus Christ for the steadfast love of God that endures forever, not just for Americans but for all of creation. And in that spirit, we’re able to sing the words of a Thanksgiving hymn:

Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done, in whom the world rejoices,
who, from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today. (Chalice Hymnal, #15)


2. The Meaning of Thanksgiving

If our calling is to give thanks, then we must ask – what does this involve? As I considered this question, I realized that it would be easy to fall into a discussion of niceness and politeness. That is, I could focus my attention on the importance of saying please and thank you. Like many of you, I was taught as a child to even say thank you to Aunt Martha for that hideous sweater that you would never, ever wear in public. You see, if you use these words with practiced efficiency, you’ll be successful in life. Although, there’s nothing wrong with being polite or saying please and thank you, even to Aunt Martha for that sweater, I don’t think that is the point of this season of Thanksgiving?

I raised this question of politeness because tonight’s gospel reading for tonight is a bit odd. If we’re not careful, we could end up with an Emily Post kind of interpretation and use it to reinforce the principles of proper etiquette. But if we did that, we’d miss Luke’s point.

In this story, which appears only in Luke’s gospel, there are ten people with skin diseases, making them spiritual and social outcasts, who came to Jesus as he was wandering along the border regions of Galilee and Samaria. Wherever this village was located, it appears to be one of those places where Jew and Samaritan mingled, and where disease seems to have transcended ethnicity and religious observance. They cry out from a distance, because they knew that it wasn’t appropriate to approach people who weren’t infected: “Have mercy on us!” We’re not sure what they wanted. It could have been money, or maybe they’d heard rumors that Jesus was a healer and hoped he would heal them. Whatever the case Jesus simply tells them to go and show themselves to the priest, directions that they chose to obey. Now, the reason Jesus sent them to the priest, was that priests served not only as religious functionaries, like we clergy do, but they were also public health officials. Since the Temple was far off, maybe they headed off to a branch office to get their all-clean report, and in the moment that they left to see the priest, they were healed. And as Luke notes, while nine of them continued on, one returned to give thanks. That one person who turned back to Jesus was, Luke says, a Samaritan and a foreigner. When the Samaritan returns to Jesus and offers his word of thanksgiving, Jesus wonders out loud where everyone else had gone, even though they were doing what he had told them to do. Could it be that this man returned to give thanks to Jesus because he was a Samaritan and didn’t have anywhere else to go?

What should we do with this text? Should we use it to reinforce proper etiquette, using the Samaritan as our model citizen? Or do we take it a step further and deeper, and hear in this story a call to give thanks to a God whose love is inclusive, a God who reaches out and touches the lives of citizen and foreigner alike? It matters not to God whether, one is Jewish or a Samaritan, God’s bounty is poured out on both without discrimination. It’s this indiscriminate love of God, which draws us from the margins back into the center, that calls forth words of thanksgiving. It matters not to God, why society chooses to exclude us, whether it be disease, ethnicity, or religious differences, for God’s love covers us all, and therefore we can and should give thanks to God. And what better words to use in closing this meditation than the doxology, which so many of us sing each Sunday:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.


Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service
Lutheran Church of the Master of Troy
November 23, 2010



Sunday, November 21, 2010

Give Thanks for God's Bounty -- A Sermon

Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21

We began our journey through the Stewardship Season on Halloween, and we end it today on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. The first holiday suggested that stewardship might be a bit spooky! But, we haven’t let this spooky feeling keep us from hearing testimonies about the importance of stewardship. Each voice challenged us to consider the blessings God has poured out on us and they called on us to respond through the sharing of our lives and resources with others through the church. The Stewardship team led by Felicia sent out letters that invited members and friends to consider how they might give to the congregation’s ministries during the coming year. And, now it’s time to bring in the harvest!

A month ago, in that “spooky sermon,” I talked about God’s abundance that has touched our lives. I pointed out that this year’s stewardship theme is “More than Enough.” Of course, in these difficult economic times, not everyone feels like there’s “more than enough.” There’s a lot of anxiety out there, even if the stock market is up, the economy is growing again, and Michigan can expect to add more jobs than it loses for the first time in a decade. For many among us these continue to be lean times, and so it’s difficult to affirm the idea that there is really “More than Enough.”

Despite this sense of anxiety, this congregation has maintained a strong giving record. We’re holding our own, in part because we’re careful about what we spend, but also because you are faithful givers. And even as the pledges remain fairly steady, the amount of unpledged income has grown. That may mean that there are new people in the house who are contributing to the church’s ongoing ministry. All of this means that not only can we continue to maintain our ministries, but we can even expand them. We’re able to do this, not only because you believe in this ministry of this place, but because you also believe that God has blessed you and you want to offer a sign of your gratitude to God.

Yes, there is a practical reason for our annual stewardship “campaign.” We all know that there are bills to pay and that the Council needs to know how much income to depend on in the coming year. So, because you are faithful in your giving and others had the foresight to remember the church in their estates, we can pay salaries, maintain the building, offer programming for all ages, and engage in missional outreach, here in Troy, in Metro-Detroit, in Michigan, in the United States, and around the World. That’s the practical side of things, but that’s not the whole story. We take up the offering in the context of worship, because giving is an act of worship.

We bring this stewardship season to a close on the eve of a national day of Thanksgiving, but we also gather to bring closure to a liturgical year that begins anew every year with the first Sunday of Advent. Therefore, next Sunday, we’ll turn the page, and restart our journey with an Advent celebration that includes decorating the church in preparation for Christmas. But, before we do all of this, we need to first celebrate what is often known as Christ the King Sunday. We started this celebration of the reign of Christ with our opening hymn – “Rejoice the Lord Is King!” Listen again to the first stanza:

Rejoice, the Lord is King! The Risen Christ adore!
Rejoice, give thanks, and sing, and triumph evermore:
lift up your heart, lift up your voice
Rejoice, again I say, rejoice! (Chalice Hymnal, 699)
This message of thanksgiving comes through clearly in Psalm 145. The verbs are clearly stated: Extol, Bless, Praise, Laud, and declare. These are strong, active, verbs, but there is another verb that may not seem so active, but it’s the foundation for our ability to offer praise and thanksgiving to God. That word is “meditate.” As we meditate on the things of God, we’re able to discern God’s blessings, which in turn leads to praise and thanksgiving. Let us, therefore, look at three important verbs that emerge from this Psalm: Extol, Meditate, and Bless.

1. Extol

The Psalm begins: “I will extol you, my God and King” The verb “extol” carries the meaning: “to praise highly.” That is, when we extol someone or something, we’re not just offering half-hearted praise. No we’re offering the highest forms of praise, worship, and thanksgiving that is possible for us. Some of the synonyms for this word include to bless, to glorify, and to laud. Think of that Palm Sunday Hymn: “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.”

All glory, laud, and honor, to you, Redeemer king,
to whom the lips of children made sweet hosanna’s ring!
You are a child of Israel, Great David’s greater son;
you ride in lowly triumph, Messiah, blessed one! (Chalice Hymnal 192)
When we come to the 3rd verse in this Psalm, we get a sense of what the psalmist is after in extolling his God and King:

Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, his greatness is unsearchable.
And that declaration leads to this one:

One generation will laud your works to another, and declare your mighty acts.
Each of these sentences gets at the heart of worship. We come into this place, not primarily to fellowship, or learn, or enjoy good music, though we do all of that. No, we come to this place to declare before the world that our God is great and wonderful, and we promise to pass this on from one generation to the next. Everything we do “in church” and “in life,” is caught up in this call to extol our God and King who provides us with “More than Enough!”

2. Meditate

We make this declaration – that the Lord our God is Great and that God’s acts are mighty -- because we have first meditated upon God’s “glorious splendor,” majesty, and wondrous works. If you go back and read the verses that we omitted from this Psalm in today’s reading you’ll find other reasons for giving thanks to God. These include Grace and mercy, God’s slowness to anger and steadfast love, as well as God’s goodness and compassion for all.

“All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, . . . They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power.” (Vs. 10-11).
We offer thanks to God, because God’s dominion endures forever and God is faithful, even lifting up those who are falling and those who are bowed down. Yes, “the eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season” (vs. 15). We give thanks to God, because we have meditated on the bounty that is God’s gift to us.

As you begin reading this psalm, your mind may drift off to a throne room scene. There, with the people singing out “All Glory, Laud and honor,” sits the King, high and lifted up. Every knee is bent and every head is bowed, for great is the Lord and greatly is God to be praised. And yet, we’ve also been asked to meditate upon this: “The Lord is near to all who call on him.”

If we were to use theological terms to describe these two very different visions of God, we would use the words transcendence and immanence. More often than not, our theologies ask us to choose between these understandings, but here in this Psalm we’re reminded that the great and wonderful Lord of all Creation, the one who sits upon the throne of heaven, is also present in our midst, sharing with us the bounty of creation, and if truth be told, this God is also sharing in our times of grief and suffering. Therefore, if we’re willing to attend to this message, if we’re willing to meditate on it, to chew on it, as some might say, then we’ll begin to recognize that not only is there “more than enough” to go around, but we’re also in a position to share our bounty with others. We can do this because God in Christ has already shared with us the abundance of heaven, providing us with the opportunity to share freely this abundance with our neighbors. Upon these things, do we meditate, day and night, so that our hearts might be transformed.

3. Bless

We started by extolling God because of God’s many great works, then we meditated upon God’s blessings, and now at the end, we stop to offer God a word of blessing. To bless is similar to extol. But, just maybe, the act of blessing someone or something, carries with it not just a sense of words expressed, but also actions directed toward the other.

In both word and deed, which includes our giving through the church, we offer a blessing, a word of thanksgiving, that extols God’s greatness. And we don’t do this alone. As the closing verse makes clear:

My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and all flesh will bless his holy name for ever and ever!
Stewardship is an act of worship that brings blessing not just to God nor just to the individual, but it also brings a blessing to all flesh. Yes, we gather together in the presence of the living God, the God who is our creator, our provider, our protector, and yes, even our fellow traveler, to offer a blessing and in doing so offer praise to the Lord forever and ever.

May we meditate upon these things and then act in accordance with the leading of God. For as Paul says, “God loves a cheerful giver!” Yes, “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.” (2 Cor. 9:7-8).
 
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Thanksgiving Sunday/Christ the King Sunday
November 21, 2010

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A New Creation -- A Sermon

Isaiah 65:17-25

When I opened up my Bible on Monday and turned to Isaiah 65, the message of this text leaped out at me. What I heard from this prophetic text was our missional calling to join God in ministry in the world. My thoughts quickly ran to a book that I’d just finished reading that talks about the future of Detroit. The book is called Reimagining Detroit, and it’s written by Free Press journalist John Gallagher, who lays out some of the directions that the city and people of Detroit could take if they hope to experience a renaissance or rebirth. I also thought about the conversations we’ve been having about Motown Mission. As my thoughts ran back and forth between this text and the world in which we’re living, I saw in a clearly stated fashion the biblical foundations of our call to ministry. In reflecting on this conversation between the text and our world, I heard this message: God is about to do a new thing in this world and we get to participate in that new thing.

Now, when I came to Michigan two and half years ago, I assumed that my job was to pastor a suburban church that needed to engage its suburban community. I still believe that this is part of our missional calling, because the key to our growth as a congregation is being a transformative presence in the city of Troy and its environs, what we’ve called the “five-mile radius.” But our ministry as a church doesn’t end at the boundary of this five-mile radius, and not just because many of you live outside that radius. If Acts 1:8 offers us a guiding principle for missional engagement, and I believe it does, we need to remember that the Holy Spirit pushed the church out beyond the city limits of Jerusalem, so that it would minister in Judea and Samaria, and then from there move out to the ends of the earth. If Troy is our Jerusalem, then perhaps metro-Detroit is our Judea and Samaria, and if this is true, then our participation in the work of Motown Mission is just one way in which we are engaging in ministry beyond Jerusalem’s borders. 


1. The Future is in the Dream

If Acts 1:8 defines the “boundaries” of our ministry, Isaiah 65 offers us a vision of what God is doing in the world. It is a vision of new creation, where the old things are no longer to be remembered, but we are to rejoice in what is about to happen. Our hope is found in the vision that God has laid before us, and it is a vision that can be summarized in a quotation from Eleanor Roosevelt:

So, what is the dream that guides our future?


“The Future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

When I came here two and half years ago, I didn’t see how ministry in Detroit would fit into our missional calling. But, somewhere along the line something happened. First there were the conversations I began to have with Pastor Eugene James not long after I got here about building a partnership in ministry between our congregations. Then, there was what could be called a vision that occurred in the midst of a conversation about ministry in the region at my first regional clergy retreat. Some Christians might speak of what happened that day in this way: “The Lord laid it upon my heart.” On that day I asked the question: Why aren’t there any Disciples mission teams coming into Detroit? The answers I got were varied, but the one that stuck out to me was that many of our Michigan churches would rather send their youth to New Orleans than to Detroit, because Detroit is so dangerous. What I heard from them was that Detroit was beyond redemption, but that wasn’t what I was hearing in my own heart. Now, mind you, I still didn’t know what this would involve, or if it would even involve me or this church. But I was deeply uncomfortable with that sentiment.

Then, while I was contemplating all of this, “I stumbled upon” Motown Mission. I began with a conversation with Carl Gladstone, and that led to conversations with Diana and with Eugene James, and then that led to conversations with other people from the region and also with representatives of the General Church. Oh, and in the meantime God seemed to be laying something similar on Alex’s heart. As Alex shared with the East District meeting, her experience with City Year not only expanded her sense of call to ministry, but it gave her an arena in which to do ministry. As you all know, Alex grew up in the suburbs, but as she worked in Detroit, God opened the eyes of her heart to the needs of the city and then laid it upon her heart to begin building bridges between the city and the suburbs. You see, God is at work doing a new thing, and we’ve been invited to participate. And this vision is making itself felt, beyond the walls of this church. As Nancy Zerban, our Regional Moderator, shared in her letter to the East District Assembly, our participation in Motown Mission is one of the new things God is doing in our Region.

2. Naming the Vision

Isaiah 65 is the work of an anonymous prophet living in post-exilic Judea. The prophet is doing ministry in the midst of a land that is desolate. The city of Jerusalem lies in ruins. Its walls have been torn down and its Temple destroyed. There may be plans to rebuild, but nothing has happened yet, and the people are getting discouraged. What we need to hear in the background of this text is these are not good times for Jerusalem, and the people are crying out to God in despair. Where, they wonder, is God in all of this?

The prophet brings a word of hope to a discouraged and fearful people, and that word is this: Be glad and rejoice, because God is about to recreate Jerusalem as a joy and its people will become God’s delight. Times maybe tough and there may be very little that suggests that there’s hope to be found, but in the midst of this despair comes the promise that something new is about to happen. When God brings into existence the new heavens and the new earth, the people will no longer weep or cry out in distress. In that day infants will no longer die prematurely and the aged will live out full lifetimes – indeed to die at 100 will be considered dying as a youth.

And then as we move through this passage we come to the kinds of work that groups like Motown Mission engage in. According to Isaiah, the people will build houses and they’ll inhabit them. Could this be a word about the foreclosure crisis? And they’ll plant vineyards and eat of the fruit of the vine? Do you hear in this a word about urban gardening? One of the chapters in John Gallagher’s book talks about the possibilities and the problems that go with urban agriculture. While there are many issues to be resolved, the fact is, Detroit, and many cities like it, are food deserts. So, could urban gardens that are scattered across the city provide nutritious food for the people of the city, and maybe even jobs and income? Only time will tell, but the possibilities are there.

And I hear a word too about the educational system in the city. Isaiah says that the people won’t labor in vain or bear children for calamity. Instead, they shall have offspring that are blessed by the Lord. One of the projects that we’ve discussed is partnering with Northwestern Christian Church to reestablish a computer lab at the church. We live in age when computers are essential to the future well-being of younger adults and children. If people living in the city are on the wrong side of the digital divide it will make life more difficult, but here is a possibility that God has laid upon our hearts to create a space for people to learn how to use computers as well as find access to them.


3. A Dream of Peace

One of the first projects that we have embraced as part of our Disciples partnership with Motown Mission is the sponsorship of Peace Week. This will happen during the first week of the Motown Mission’s summer season, and as we’ve talked about what should happen it has become clear that our focus should be on racial reconciliation. We hope that partnerships will emerge between the suburbs, as well as rural areas, and the city. Someone asked a question at the East District Assembly about why Disciples can’t seem to work together? Well, here is an opportunity for us to begin building those relationships as we work side by side.

As we consider our calling as a people to engage in these new ministries, we don’t know how everything will work out. There will be difficulties to overcome, but our text ends with a vision of God’s future for the world. The prophet speaks of the Lion and the Lamb feeding together, with the Lion eating straw like the ox. No one, the prophet says, will be hurt or destroyed on God’s holy mountain. If Detroit is, for us, the place in which God is at work doing a new thing, then it is a dream that will be life-changing. The barriers between suburb and city can be torn down, and we’ll be able to dine together, for as the author of Ephesians puts it – the “dividing wall of hostility” will be torn down (Ephesians 2: 14). And as Paul puts it in the second Corinthian letter:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; . . .” (2 Cor. 5:17-19a).

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
25th Sunday after Pentecost
November 14, 2010

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Resurrection Living

Luke 20:27-38

In our opening hymn we remembered the saints of God, “who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy name O Jesus, be forever blest!” Because today is the Sunday after All Saints Day, it’s appropriate for us to stop and remember all the saints of God who no longer walk this earth, including those who have impacted our own lives in powerful ways. Each of us can name a saint of God, whose life has exemplified the grace, mercy and love of God.

Therefore, I would like to remember the Rev. LLoyd Saatjian, who served for many years as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Santa Barbara. LLoyd died in July of 2009, but in life he was my colleague in ministry, friend, and mentor. He encouraged me to become a leader in the local faith community and stood by me when I experienced difficulties in my ministry in Santa Barbara. After I left that pastorate, he continued to stand with me, helping me to consider what my call to ministry might look like as I moved into the future. Perhaps the most powerful memory I have of LLoyd was his willingness to make space in the worship of service at First Methodist for me to pin Brett with his God and Country award at a time when I was between churches. LLoyd is one of God’s saints who in life stood strong in his confession of faith and in his love for all God’s people, and who now rests from life’s labors. Having shared my memory of LLoyd, who is it that you would name today as a saint of God?

As we remember God’s saints, we come to hear the message of the Gospel, which declares to us that our God is “God not of the dead, but of the living.” This powerful statement comes to us from out of a conversation between Jesus and a group of Sadducees. If you remember the discussion from Ron Allen’s lectures, the Sadducees were religiously and socially conservative, and didn’t believe in the resurrection. They also controlled the priesthood and the Temple, and their Scripture was limited to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. When they looked into their Bible, they claimed not to find the resurrection, but they were also of the mind that this doctrine, which Jesus shared with the Pharisees, wasn’t all that reasonable either. I mean, imagine what would happen if a woman who had married seven brothers and hadn’t produced a child for any of them? If there is a resurrection, then to whom would she be married? In his response to their question Jesus suggested that maybe we’re not married in the next life, but more importantly, Jesus offers an answer out of the very text of Scripture that they affirmed as being authoritative. He reminded them that when God appears to Moses in the Burning Bush, God claims to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Therefore, if God is the God of these three patriarchs, then surely "he is God not of the dead, but of the living."

The debate over the resurrection continues to this very day. Although many find it a compelling doctrine, there are many others who find it rather unscientific. Instead of focusing on offering a defense of the doctrine of the resurrection, however, I’d like to consider how the message of resurrection affects the way we live our lives in the present.

1. THE PURPOSE OF LIFE?

As you read this text and hear Jesus speak of the resurrection, what does that mean to your daily life? That question came up several years ago when I was invited to speak about the beliefs of Mainline Protestants to a class studying World Religions at San Marcos High School in Santa Barbara. That wasn’t an easy assignment, since we’re a fairly diverse group. But, I did my best, and when I told the group that most Mainline Protestants are moderate to liberal in their theology, someone asked me about salvation. I told them that there are many Mainline Protestants that believe that the only way of salvation is a direct confession of faith in Jesus as savior. There are others, I told them, who are universalists. That is, these Christians believe that in the end God will reconcile all of humanity to God’s self. Now, this answer didn’t sit well with everyone, including one student who asked me: Why then are we even alive? That is, if God saves everyone in the end, then what is our purpose in life?

This student, who was more conservative in her theology, believed that we’re on the earth to be tested. Either we pass the test, which involves confessing Jesus as savior, or we don’t. If we don’t pass the test then surely there has to be some sort of punishment. I mean, if everyone passes then what’s the purpose in life? In fact, if everyone makes it into heaven and there’s no punishment in the offing, then why even bother being good? So what should conclude? If God is going to save everyone anyway, then maybe we can follow the way of the Epicureans, and “eat, drink, and be merry!



2. RESURRECTION LIVING

What then is the purpose of life? I believe that our text has the answer, and that answer is found in the resurrection. Although the resurrection from the dead remains a mystery to us, because it’s not something we can test scientifically, it continues to stand at the center of the Christian confession of faith. I say that the resurrection is a mystery, even though we’ve all heard stories of people coming back to life and telling about a white light and maybe even seeing loved ones who have already died. Some find these stories compelling, and others don’t, but in the end, we must receive the message of resurrection in faith. As we receive this message, we can find strength in Jesus’ words: God is a God of the Living and not the Dead. Although this message offers hope that there is more to our existence than this life, we must ask the question – does the resurrection have anything to say about life here in this time and this place?

When Jesus answers the Sadducees’s challenge by reminding them that God is the “God of the living and not the dead,” he was saying that life is important to God. That is, God values life, all life, and therefore, we should value life as well. Even if death is a natural part of our existence in this world, God doesn’t rejoice in death and neither should we. If we’re called to embrace the principle of resurrection living, then we should begin to live out the values of resurrection in the present.

To give you an example of what I mean, listen to what Garrison Keillor said at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco sometime after 9/11.

. . . if we want to really understand the truth of this event, we should look to all the men and women who saw that death was near, who called home on their cell phones. And not to express anger or fear or bitterness but, simply, to say "I love you, take care of the children, have a good life." In a moment of great clarity at the end, they called amidst smoke, and confusion and panic to give us their benediction. And we should accept it. Love each other, take care of the children, have a good life. And give thanks to the Lord with our whole heart for his steadfast love and faithfulness and beseech him that we may have a quiet and peaceful life in all godliness and dignity and that in every place men and women should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument. Amen.  [Garrison Keillor quoted in "The Most Important Things," by Russell Peterman, The Wellspring: The Newsletter of Sandy Springs Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), 3 (October, 2001): 4.]

I do think that this is a good description of resurrection living. It answers the question – why are we alive? It’s about living in relationship with God and with our neighbor. It’s a reminder that as the people of God we should value life so much that we don’t think about getting revenge, but instead we would embrace each other and give thanks for the opportunity to be alive, even in the presence of death.

Now, we live in a time of great uncertainty, and many are asking why we’re even alive. What’s the purpose? We seem to be struggling with marriages, jobs, families, and we ask: What do these things mean? Jesus says to us as we ask these questions: Our God is God not of the dead but of the living!

The prophet Haggai spoke to people asking very similar questions after they returned from exile in Babylon. As they looked around they saw that their Temple was gone, and the foundation stones for the new temple, which had been sitting there for years, suggested this temple wouldn’t be nearly as grand as the one the Babylonians destroyed. They wondered – so, what's the point? What they had known before, was now gone. But Haggai responded: Remember, what you build now is a foretaste of what is to come. Take courage and start to build. God said to the Judeans, Take courage and work on the Temple "for I am with you." Yes, remember the promises I made to your ancestors when they came out of Egypt. "My spirit abides among you; do not fear" (Haggai 2).

What does it mean to experience resurrection living? It means that when we’re in the presence of God we don’t have to live in fear and in regret. Indeed, by embracing the resurrection we’re free to love and to live boldly before God.



Sunday, October 31, 2010

Don't Be Spooked: Stewardship Isn't That Scary

2 Corinthians 9:5-15

Considering that today is Halloween, and because the sermon title has a Halloween flavor, I suggested to Pat that the choir might want to sing “The Monster Mash” as an anthem. And in keeping with the spirit of the day and the sermon’s emphasis, I even thought about dressing up as a “TV evangelist.” After all, what’s more spooky than a TV Evangelist with that slicked back hair and smiling face asking everyone in TV land to fork over the big bucks so that God might bless the giver, while TV Evangelist adds another luxury car to an already crowded garage.

Alas, Pat didn’t think this anthem choice was a great idea, so he sent me an email suggesting that we might want to reconsider the idea, since he still needs employment. And so, as you heard, the choir sang something other than “The Monster Mash!” And without the Halloween anthem, there didn’t seem to be any reason to dress up in a costume.

But, in all seriousness, perhaps it’s fitting that we’re launching our month-long stewardship emphasis on Halloween. After all, stewardship can seem like a rather spooky topic, especially during these difficult financial times. Despite our uneasiness with talking about this topic, stewardship is an important spiritual practice. How we view our money has spiritual implications, as is seen in this week’s lectionary text from the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells the story of Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus the Tax Collector. That encounter proved to be life-changing. On that day Zacchaeus essentially gave up everything he owned and either gave it to the poor or paid it back in restitution, and Jesus said of Zacchaeus: Today salvation has come to his house (Luke 19:1-10).

Our reading from 2 Corinthians 9 has a different emphasis, but it also speaks of giving from the heart. In this case, Paul gives the Corinthian church direction, so that they can take up an offering to provide relief to the believers in Judea. He couches this call to give in spiritual terms, terms that remain helpful to this very day. The message is simple. The act of setting aside a portion of our income to give to the church is an act of spiritual discipline and an act of thanksgiving. It may seem like a spooky topic but really it’s not!



1. A God of Abundant Blessings

Every stewardship emphasis seems to have a theme, and this year’s theme isn’t Halloween-related. Instead, the theme is “More Than Enough,” which responds to the question: “How much is enough?” Our culture suggests that whatever we have now, is not enough. In fact, because we have a consumer-based economy, our income depends on people not being satisfied with what they already have. Now, I’ll admit that even though I’m a pretty frugal person, I can’t say that I’m completely satisfied with what I have. If nothing else, my book list continues to grow, and I really want Santa to bring me a Kindle for Christmas. Maybe that’s why we fall victim to what Walter Brueggemann calls the “narrative of scarcity. He writes in his book Journey to the Common Good:

The narrative of scarcity leads us to conclude that if you have something, then it must have come to you at my expense. And if I have something, then I’m going to protect it at all costs. This attitude makes it difficult for us to commit ourselves to the common good, since we’ve been led to believe that there’s never enough to go around. Therefore, since I have mine, I have no interest in helping you get yours.
It is our propensity, in society and church, to trust the narrative of scarcity. That is what makes us greedy, and exclusive, and selfish, and coercive. Even the Eucharist can be made into an occasion of scarcity, as though there were not enough for all. Such scarcity leads to exclusion at the table, even as scarcity leads to exclusion from economic life (Walter Brueggemann, Journey to the Common Good, WJK, 2010, p. 34).


There is, however, another narrative – the narrative of abundance. This narrative is deeply embedded in Scripture, including this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church. As I suggested earlier, Paul is heading toward Judea, but has planned to stop in Corinth, because he would like the Corinthians to make an offering to the believers in Judea. In part this gift will provide relief to people in need, but it will also cement a relationship between two very different congregations.

To get an idea of what Paul is up to, think in terms of getting a letter from Amy Gopp, which informs us that she’ll be in the neighborhood in the next week or so and that she’s taking up a collection for the people of Indonesia, who’ve suffered again from the combined effects of an earthquake and a tsunami. Her word of advice is that she’d really like it if we would have the offering ready when she arrived so that she doesn’t have to cajole us into giving. She wouldn’t want to turn to extortion to get some money out of us.

One of the key points in this passage is Paul’s appeal to the abundant blessings that God has poured out on this church. It’s not that this was a wealthy congregation, but he writes to remind them that “God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance” (v. 8) This statement is echoed in Ephesians 1, where the author of that letter says that the “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” . . . “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3) In fact, we’ve not only been blessed with God’s abundance, but we are heirs of God in Christ (Eph. 1:11). Yes, our God is a God of abundance and not scarcity, and we are the inheritors of that abundance.



2. Therefore: Share the Abundance and Be Enriched

So, what should be done? It’s telling that Paul doesn’t say anything about how much the Corinthians should give. There are no formulas here, just words of encouragement that they should “give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” What you decide to give is between you and God, but it’s important to God that this gift is an expression of our love for God and God’s people. Although he doesn’t give a formula, he does suggest that if we sow sparingly, we’ll reap sparingly, but if we sow bountifully, then we’ll reap bountifully.

What does this mean for us? I think it’s an invitation to move from the narrative of scarcity to the narrative of abundance. It’s a reminder that there really is “more than enough” if God is involved with our lives. Therefore, if we’re willing to let go of the abundance that God has entrusted to our care, our lives will change for the better. For instance, we’ll probably become more aware of others around us. We’ll begin to see ourselves as part of a community and not as isolated individuals. When that happens, we’ll begin to let go of our fears and begin to live lives of faith and trust. Giving to the ministries of the church won’t make you rich financially, no matter what the TV evangelists tell you. But your lives will be enriched because you’ll begin to make connections with others and experience the blessings of working toward the common good. Yes, God has given us the seed and the bread to share, so that we might be a blessing, and as a result, as Paul makes very clear, we’ll be enriched by our generosity. As I said, it might not be financial riches that come our way, but we will be enriched.


3. Thanks Be to God!

Our text this morning ends with the words: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” This sentence serves as a reminder that whatever we give, whether in terms of time, talent, or finances, when done cheerfully, and not reluctantly or under compulsion, it is an act of thanksgiving. Therefore, it’s appropriate that when we end this Stewardship season a month from now, it will be on Thanksgiving Sunday. At that time, we’ll bring into the storehouse the commitments that we’ve made. Hopefully these commitments will be made in the context of prayer. Now, between this Sunday and Thanksgiving Sunday you’ll hear testimonies from members of the church about what stewardship means to them. You’ll receive a letter with an estimate of giving card from the Stewardship Ministry Group. You’ll likely read some articles about stewardship in the newsletter. And then, at the appropriate time we will bless these signs of our commitment to the common good with prayers and songs of Thanksgiving.

Stewardship is a spiritual discipline, but it is also a practical one. When we give of our finances to the church, we expect that these offerings of thanksgiving will be used wisely. These gifts may come out of God’s abundance, but that doesn’t mean the church should be wasteful. That’s why we have a budgeting process, and we have church leaders who are entrusted with keeping watch over their part of the budget. Let us then, commit ourselves to prayerfully considering the manner in which God is calling us to give to the ministry of the church. You may want to use as a goal the principle of the tithe. A tithe is traditionally understood to be the first 10% of one’s income. In ancient Israel, this tithe was brought to the Temple as an offering of thanksgiving. This is a good goal to pursue, but whatever you decide to give, remember that ours is a God of great abundance, and that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavens (Eph. 1:3ff). Therefore, whatever we give comes out of God’s largesse.

So, is that spooky or what?
 
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward (Christian Church)
Troy, Michigan
23rd Sunday after Pentecost
October 31, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Proficient and Persistent -- A Sermon

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

    A moment ago we commissioned two of our own to do the work of the ministry.  We shared together in the commissioning of Alex and Rial to be Stephen Ministers, a ministry of pastoral care and service to this community of faith.  According to information I found on the Stephen Ministries website:
    The Stephen Series is a complete system for training and organizing lay people to provide one-to-one Christian care to hurting people in and around your congregation.
With their commissioning, we have recognized and affirmed the gifts and calling of these two people to take up this caring ministry in the congregation.

    Perhaps it’s providential that this service of commissioning occurred on the day that we begin observing the Week of the Ministry.  Each October our churches observe The Week of the Ministry in order to lift up the call to ministry, both in its lay and clergy forms.  This year, fortuitously, the emphasis is on “Many Gifts, One Spirit.”  The message is simple; although our gifts maybe different, there is but one Spirit who empowers and equips and calls forth the ministries of God’s people. 

    Not only have we commissioned Alex and Rial to be Stephen Ministers, and have begun our observance of the Week of the Ministry, but even the lectionary reading from the Epistles focuses its attention on ministry.  In this second letter to Timothy, a letter that is attributed to Paul, advice is given to a young pastor who is experiencing some troubles in his church.  Although most scholars don’t think Paul wrote this letter, if you go back a few verses, to verse 10, you will find “Paul,” or someone writing in his name,  talking about his own experiences in life and in ministry, and he suggests to his charge, that he should follow this example and heed the teachings that have been handed down to him by his mentor. 

    It’s not surprising that Timothy is having some difficulties – he’s young and not everyone respects his calling to the ministry.  He’s doing his best to preach the gospel, but some in the church are looking elsewhere for answers.  Yes, the mentor pastor notes that there are those in the congregation who have “itching ears” and are looking for teachers who will “suit their own desires.”  Isn’t it good to know that such a thing would never happen here?  I mean, I take great comfort in the knowledge that everyone in this congregation agrees with me 100% on every issue.  Yes, I take great joy in knowing that whatever I say, you believe and will do, without question!!  Okay, you can stop laughing!   But all kidding aside, this passage of scripture has two important points to make that are essential to the way we understand ministry in the church.  Christian ministry requires proficiency and persistence.

1.  Proficient   

    In this passage proficiency has to do with proper preparation for ministry, and the mentor pastor asks Timothy to remember who it was who taught him the scriptures and prepared him to live according to these scriptures.  I wonder, can you picture in your mind who it was who introduced you to the Christian faith?  Maybe it was your mother or father who shared with you the basic message of the Christian faith.  Or maybe it was a Sunday school teacher, who was there for you, Sunday after Sunday, teaching in both word and deed the good news of Jesus. 

    I can’t remember when I first heard the message, after all I’ve been the church all my life.  But I can picture two men who exemplified for me the Christian faith, and both were at one point or another my Sunday School teachers – Paul Sabo and John Harmon.  I can’t remember exactly what they taught me, but I remember that they modeled what being a Christian was like.  I also remember that they stood with me, even after I left the Episcopal Church.  They loved me and cared about me.  John even surprised me by flying down to LA to be at our wedding.  I also remember my youth ministers at the church I attended during most of my high school years – Steve, Del, and Ray.  Although I may look at the scriptures today in a very different way from what they taught me, I can say that they cemented within me a love for the Scriptures that continues to this very day.  I could go on and name my teachers in college and seminary, who helped me understand more fully the Christian faith and the Scriptures that stand at the heart of this faith, people like Herb Works, Dennis Helsabeck, Jim Butler, Scott Bartchy, Colin Brown, and Jim Bradley.  Each of these teachers helped prepare me for the journey that I have taken to this point. 

    The message of this passage reminds us to pay close attention to the things that were passed down to us. Remember what you were taught, because, as the New Living Translation renders verse 14 – “You know you can trust those who taught you.”   There is, the author reminds us, a relational component to the way in which we experience the teachings of our faith.  

    Deeply rooted in this passage is a reminder that if our faith is to have any impact on our lives and the lives of others, we must be fully instructed in the substance of our faith – and not just doctrinally, but also in terms of the foundational Christian practices, including loving God and loving our neighbor.  It might be instructive to remember that Alex and Rial didn’t just decide one day to be Stephen Ministers and then the next day received their badges and authorization in the mail!  No, they went through lengthy and rigorous training.  Right now Alex is also beginning her seminary training, which is a reminder that the call to pastoral ministry requires lengthy training as well. 

    In this text we discover that  the foundation for every form of ministry is a proper grounding in the Scriptures.  The mentor pastor commends Timothy for his commitment to understand and live out the teachings of the Scriptures, which in his case would have been what we call the Old Testament.  According to this letter, Scripture is inspired by God and useful for the purposes of God.  Yes, these sacred writings are theopneusto.  That is, they are, as the Greek makes very clear, God-breathed.  That doesn’t mean that God verbally dictated the words of Scripture, nor does it mean that they are necessarily inerrant or infallible.  But this passage does suggest that when we attend to the words of Scripture, when we wrestle with them, and seek to understand and live out the message that is found in these words, God promises to be in them and with them, so that we might be taught, corrected, and trained in righteousness.  As you hear this litany of possible uses, it’s clear that the author has in mind the full body of a person.  The Scriptures are useful to instruct our minds, but they also help form the way we live in the world, and that is because the Spirit is present in them and with them as well as being in us and with us. 

2.  Persistent   

    Therefore, being proficient in the things of God, we are ready to proclaim the message of God to the world.  But, this will take persistence, which isn’t the same thing as stubbornness.  I know first hand about stubbornness, for I have been known to be stubborn!  So, persistence doesn’t mean doing the same thing year after year, even though all the evidence suggests that it might be time to try something new, which might work a lot better!  It’s good to remember that church leaders sometimes get a burr under the saddle and can’t seem to get rid of it, and so they beat that old proverbial horse until it can’t move any further.

    But, as the author of this letter makes quite clear, the call to ministry isn’t always a bed of roses.  This young pastor, as I mentioned earlier seems to be feeling abandoned by his people, who are chasing after the latest spiritual fads.  Although Paul is probably not the author of this letter, he would have understood what Timothy is going through, because when we read his undisputed letters, we discover that he faced untold difficulties with the churches he planted.  Paul told the Corinthians, for instance, to bear for a moment with his jealousy for them, because he was perturbed by their willingness to entertain views of God that were contrary to his teachings, which led him give a litany of his own sufferings for the Lord.  After all, he’d been imprisoned, flogged, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and set adrift at sea, along with facing the dangers of bandits and floods (2 Corinthians 11).  Despite the odds, Paul remained faithful.  That is, he was persistent in his calling.

    And if you need a more contemporary lesson in persistence, just think about the thirty-three Chilean miners who spent nearly ten weeks underground.  What a joy it was to watch them emerge from the mine the other day. But that moment came only because the people involved were persistent.  The miners decided that they would survive, and so they worked together to accomplish this goal, while above ground a team of people – engineers, psychologists, physicians, miners, and more -- joined forces to not only bore a hole in the ground so that the trapped miners could be pulled to safety, but they continued to provide words of inspiration and encouragement to them, much like this pastor did for Timothy.

    With the examples of Paul and the Chilean miners in our minds, like Timothy, we hear a call to remain true to our gifts and calling, which God’s Spirit has poured out on the church of Jesus Christ.  Some are teachers and some are prophets, some assist those in need, and others listen attentively to the concerns of others.  Some give financially beyond measure so that the ministry of the church can proceed and God’s name might be proclaimed.  Yes, we are being encouraged to stay true to our calling, even when things get difficult and we feel abandoned.  The reason we can do this is that God remains faithful.  Even when we feel alone, we can take heart in the promise that God remains present with us in season and out.   So, be persistent in your ministry – convince, rebuke, encourage others with utmost patience.  And, perhaps, like Timothy, you will hear a reminder to do the work of an evangelist.  But, whatever your calling, be proficient and persistent in carrying out your ministry in its fullness.    

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
October 17th
Ministry Sunday