Sunday, February 28, 2010

Living in the Kingdom: Sermon on the Lord's Prayer #2

Matthew 6:7-13; Luke 13:18-21

We live in a modern democracy that enshrines the words:
    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Didn’t the nation’s founders throw off a king in order to gain this independence?   And yet, week after week, we pray that God’s kingdom would be revealed and that God’s will would be done, both in heaven and on earth.  How do we reconcile our prayers with our politics?

    I suppose we reconcile these two very different perspectives, by spiritualizing the kingdom of God.  We live in a democracy here on earth – where we get to run our own lives – and when we get to heaven, well, then God gets to be in charge!  

    Unfortunately, Jesus won’t let us off the hook so easily.  Remember, in the prayer, as Matthew presents it, we commit ourselves to obeying God, both on earth and in heaven.  Jesus also says that the kingdom is already here in our midst.   And, when people asked – where is the kingdom?  Jesus responded:

    “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’  For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:20-21 NRSV).

Now, I should point out that many translations replace the word “among” with “within.”  If we go with “within,” then it’s easier to spiritualize the message of the kingdom.  The kingdom of God simply becomes a matter of our personal relationship with God, and therefore doesn’t have any social or political ramifications.  But, if the kingdom of God is all around us, even if it’s invisible to the naked eye, then the message is quite different.
1.  The Kingdom – the Heart of the Prayer   
    So what do we mean, when we pray for God’s kingdom to be revealed?  As we consider this question, it’s important to remember that Jesus focused his ministry on proclaiming the kingdom of God.  Everything he did, whether he was teaching or healing, revealed to the world the nature of God’s reign.  Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise us that this petition stands at the very heart of this prayer.  Jesus believed and taught that God’s kingdom required that God’s will be done on earth even as it is in heaven, just as the second clause of the petition reminds us.  Everything that we prayed for in this prayer is rooted in the premise that the kingdom of the Holy God is present in our midst.   This includes God’s daily provisions, the request for forgiveness, and the request that God would protect us against the inroads of evil.  All of this is rooted in the assumption that God’s kingdom is truly present in the here and now.    

    Now, when we pray this prayer, we need to be aware that there are other kingdoms that have a claim on our allegiance, just as they did when Jesus taught this prayer to a people living under Roman occupation.  As I pointed out in the last sermon, the Roman emperor considered himself the Great Father, and the people of the Empire were his children.  He promised to provide them with bread and protection, in exchange for their absolute obedience and worship.  So, when Jesus invites us to pray this prayer, we need to remember that God’s kingdom stands in contrast to Caesar’s – whether Caesar is an emperor or a president doesn’t matter.

    Jesus often used parables to describe the nature of God’s kingdom.  Therefore, as we consider what it means to pray this prayer, I’d like us to consider two very brief but powerful parables.  One talks about mustard seeds and the other speaks of yeast.

2.  Small Is Beautiful

    According to the parable of the mustard seed, this seed is among the smallest of all seeds.  It’s so small that it’s difficult to see, and yet the promise of the mature plant is present in the seed.   I expect that when Jesus says that the kingdom is in your midst, his audience was likely looking around, wondering what they should be looking for.  After all, they couldn’t see a throne or an army.  All they could see was a rag tag band of Galileans following a rather young religious teacher. 

    But this is good news, because it reminds us that small is beautiful, and that big things can have small beginnings.  As one commentator suggested, the people expected the kingdom to be like a mighty cedar, like the one promised in Ezekiel, but as Luke reminds us, Jesus’ ministry was similar to that of the mustard seed.  It’s full of promise, but we can’t see the fullness of its presence just yet.  But, when it does arrive in its fulness – it’ll be much like that cedar.  It will grow large enough to host the birds of the air in its branches, just as the prophet suggested (Ezk. 17:22-23).  And that promise of nesting space has been interpreted to mean inclusion of Gentiles into the people of God.     

    When we pray that God’s kingdom would be made known in our midst, we need to change our sense of what this means.  It’s not a matter of spectacles or demonstrations of power.  Instead, it’s about being present in such a way that God’s purpose might be fulfilled on earth. 
    This is good news, because while we might be small and even insignificant by the world’s standards, we have the possibility of making a difference in the community – that is, we can be signs of God’s reign.  Yes, there was a time when we were a large and influential church, but now, as we seek to be a missional presence in our community, our influence will not be determined by our size or our wealth.  Instead, it will be determined by our willingness to allow God to use us for the transformation of the world.

3.  A Little is a Lot  
    The second parable speaks of yeast, though it might be better to speak of leaven.  The image here is that of a small ball  of fermented dough, which when added to fresh dough or flour starts the leavening process.  In this case, a woman hides, a small amount of leaven in three measures of flour.  That may not sound like a lot at first, but consider that these three measures equal 50 pounds.  That’s enough dough to  feed 150 people, which makes it a lot of bread!

    As we think about what this parable means for us, it might be helpful to remember that leaven and yeast were often used as metaphors for uncleanness and corrupting influences.  Paul speaks of a little leaven, corrupting a whole batch of dough (Gal. 5:9).  According to Matthew and Mark, Jesus warns the disciples about  the leaven of the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Matthew 16:5-12; Mark 8:14-21).  In this case, however, the leaven has a positive value.  It works in much the same way, but with a different outcome.  Instead of being a source of evil, it becomes a source of good. 

    The early Christian community might have been small in number, and their influence on society may have been initially quite small, but over time, that little bit of leaven, hidden in the flour, produced a lot of loaves of bread.  The kingdom of God may seem hidden, and yet it can change the dynamics of the world’s existence. 

    If we’re willing to be signs of God’s reign, in our words and in our deeds, in the way we interact with others, and live our lives in the world, then we can be change agents in society.  We can change the tone of the conversation and the focus of our culture’s attention.  That is, after all, what yeast does, it changes things.  Paul writes to the Corinthian church and tells them that God has reconciled them in Christ, making them new creations, and therefore God was entrusting to them the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). 

    We live in a time of fear, mistrust, anxiety, and even great anger.  The air is heavy with its presence.  As Walter Brueggemann speaks of journeying to the common good, he points us back to the Exodus story.  In that story we see a people move out of slavery in Egypt to the freedom of Sinai.  He makes a point that I think speaks to our situation.
    Those who are living in anxiety and fear, most especially fear of scarcity, have not time or energy for the common good.  (Walter Brueggemann, The Journey to the Common Good, WJK, 2010, p. 7). 

The message of the kingdom, is this: we no longer need to live in anxiety.  We needn’t fear scarcity, for we live in the midst of God’s abundance.  This is because  the leaven is hidden in the dough.  Indeed, as the next petition reminds us – God is the great provider.  But, too often we miss the signs of God’s kingdom, because we’re too focused on living In Pharaoh’s kingdom or Caesar’s kingdom.  And in that kingdom, there’s never enough.  That’s because no one shares, and no one looks out for the other.  It’s everyone for themselves.  
    In God’s kingdom, things are different.  We can be agents of change, agents of transformation, agents of reconciliation.  Of course, it starts here in this community that we call church.  If we’re not reconciled – if love doesn’t permeate this community or  we spend our time grumbling about little things – then we’ll find it difficult to answer the call to bear witness to God’s presence in the world. 
  As we pray this prayer, that God’s kingdom would be revealed in our midst, let’s remember that this promised reign of God starts small – in a mustard seed and in a ball of fermented dough.  May we hear and respond to God’s will, both here on earth and also in heaven.  Then we’ll be ready to reach out into our neighborhoods and communities, touching lives, so that they too might be transformed and healed.   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday of Lent
February 28, 2010

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Worshiping the Holy God -- The Lord's Prayer Series #1

Isaiah 6:1-8

    Every Sunday we recite the prayer that Jesus is said to have taught his disciples.  It’s a prayer that many of us know by heart.  There is, of course, a debate as to whether this is a model for us to follow or a prayer to be said as is.  There are good arguments on both sides, but my sense is that this really isn’t an either/or situation.  Instead, we will be blessed both by using the prayer as a model and by using it as our own prayer to God. 

    John Calvin suggested that while the form has value, we shouldn’t feel so bound to the form that we’re unable to change a word or syllable.  The point is not the form but the meaning, but still the form has great beauty and meaning.  And so he writes:  

    Truly, no other can ever be found that equals this in perfection, much less surpasses it.  Here nothing is left out that ought to be thought of in the praises of God, nothing ought to come into man’s mind for his own welfare.  And, indeed, it is so precisely framed that hope of attempting anything better is rightly taken away from all men.  (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,  John T. McNeill, ed., Ford Lewis Battles, Trans. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960, 3:20:49.).  

As Calvin puts it, even in its brevity there is such perfection in the prayer that we cannot surpass it.  

    Although it may be perfect and complete, the very fact that we recite it every Sunday could lead to it becoming simply rote and stale words that have little or no meaning.  And there is spiritual danger in this, for as Jesus says concerning our prayers, don’t “heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matt. 6:7).   Therefore, so these don’t simply become words quickly mumbled, it is a good thing to occasionally stop and consider the meaning of these words.   With that in mind, for six of the next seven Sundays, including Easter, we will attend to the prayer the Lord has taught us. 

    We will begin our journey with the opening sentence of the prayer: “Our Father, Who Art in Heaven; Hallowed be thy name.”  As you can tell from Luke’s version, which we heard this morning, the statement is briefer. Just, “Father” and “Hallowed is your name.”  Since Jesus tells us to pray in this way, I want to focus on two points this morning – our address of God as Father and the phrase that follows:  “Holy is your name.” 

1.  Our Father

    Although Protestants know this prayer as the Lord’s Prayer, the Orthodox call it the Jesus Prayer and Catholics know it as the “Our Father.”  The question is, what does it mean for us to address God as “Our Father?”

    Sometime ago, much was made of Jesus’ alleged use of the Aramaic word abba.  If you read books on prayer you might find reference to the uniqueness of this usage, and suggestions that Jesus was using an intimate form of address – even that of a young child.  Although I believe that we are invited into an intimate relationship with God, biblical scholars have raised significant questions about this usage, its uniqueness and how we should interpret it.  It’s important to note that the Aramaic Abba is found only once in the gospels, and that doesn’t include either version of the Lord’s Prayer.  In both accounts we will find the Greek word pater, from which we get words like patriarch and patron.  

    So, what does Jesus mean when he teaches the disciples – and us – to pray to God as our Father?    I’d like to start with the word pater or father.  To get a sense of what this means, we might want to think in terms of a patron or sponsor.  Such an idea would reflect well Jesus’ own context.  We’ve been watching Roman history movies lately because of one of Brett’s classes, and one of the themes present in these movies is patronage or adoption into a family.  One needn’t be born into a family to have all the rights and responsibilities of a member of the household.  One can inherit this by adoption.  And in the Roman world, the Emperor was the Great Father of the people.  So, one could say that in praying this prayer, the early Christians were signaling that their allegiance was with God, and not the emperor.  While they would be obedient members of society, that obedience lasted only as long as it didn’t run contrary to the teachings of their faith.  There was, for Christians, only one patron or sponsor, and that was God, who had adopted them into the household of God.   So, as we pray this prayer, let us ask ourselves – to whom do we owe our allegiance?  To God or to nation, family, or some other identity? 

    Although Luke doesn’t include the word “our,” Matthew does, and I think that this word is important, because it signals two things – first our faith has a corporate sense, not just an individualistic one.  Second this word signals that God has invited us to join the family.  When Jesus invites us to pray to “our Father,” he is including himself in that statement. He may be a son by descent, but we are children of God by adoption, and so God is our Father.  And turning once more to Calvin, we are reminded that in praying this prayer as children God, we pray knowing that the one who hears our prayers can be trusted.  Calvin writes:
    By the great sweetness of this name he frees us from all distrust, since no greater feeling of love can be found elsewhere than in the Father.  Therefore he could not attest his own boundless love toward us with any surer proof than the fact that we are called "children of God" (1 John 3:1).  (Institutes, 3:20:36)

    Pushing this a bit further, in his letter to the Romans, Paul says that having been freed from the spirit of slavery we can now cry out “Abba Father,” because the Spirit is speaking through us giving witness to our adoption as children of God.   Yes, it would appear that Paul doubles-down on this relationship by combining the Aramaic Abba with the Greek Pater, to emphasize this change in status.  Therefore, when we address God as our Father – recognizing the gender related problems inherent in that confession, we  give thanks that God has adopted us into the family, making us “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:15-18).  Whatever promises are made to Jesus, our elder brother, are made to us, and we can receive them in trust, knowing that God’s love for us is infinite in character and breadth.   Therefore, we need not be anxious about anything (Phil. 4:6).

2.  Holy Is Your Name

    Having addressed God as “Our Father,” we turn to the first petition of the prayer, asking that God’s name would be made holy in our lives. This petition reflects the commandment, which was given to the people of Israel at Sinai –
    You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. (Deut. 5:11).

The commandment speaks of respect, reverence, and honor, and this sense is present as well in Jesus’ teaching on prayer.  Perhaps this is why he says that we should pray in secret and not think that the wordiness of our prayers will impress God (Matt 6:5-8).  Both the commandment and the instructions remind us that we pray, our focus is directed toward God.  

    This sense of holiness and awesomeness, which is present in the prayer, is also picked up in our opening hymn.  This hymn reflects the heavenly worship described in Isaiah 6 (Isa. 6:1-8) and again Revelation 4 (Rev. 4:8-11). The hymn speaks of rising early in the morning to declare one’s allegiance to the God who is merciful and  mighty, and to whom we bow in worship.   

    To get a sense of what is meant by this phrase, we might turn to Isaiah 6, where we find the prophet being overwhelmed by his vision of God’s throne.  As the prophet envisions the heavenly scene, all that’s on his mind is his own unworthiness to stand before God.  Or, as the hymn puts it – only God is holy, and whatever holiness we might attain is derivative, coming forth from our relationship with this living God.

    As we consider the prayer and what we mean by these words, the phrase “holy is your name,” helps qualify our sense of being in relationship with God.  I do believe that God desires an intimate relationship with us, for God is Love.  But, this relationship also is rooted in God’s holiness.  Consider that when God appears to Moses in Sinai in the form of a burning bush, God said  to Moses 

    “Come no closer!  Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place in which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex. 3:4-5).

That is, not only is the heavenly realm holy, but since God dwells amongst us, the very ground we tread is holy ground.  It is, as Michael Crosby, a Catholic priest, puts it:

If God’s name is going to be made holy on earth as it is in heaven, the consecration of God’s presence or name must begin in the ground of our being.  In the power of this name everything in our house – be it at the individual, interpersonal, and infrastructural level – must be honored; everything that profanes that name must be resisted.  Such is the task of those who belong to the household of that God whose holy name is revealed in the I Am. (Michael Crosby, The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us, Orbis, 2002, pp. 61-62)

God’s name is made holy, not just in our words, but in our very lives.  It is for this reason, that even though our relationship with God might be intimate in nature, it isn’t one of equals, lest we seek to take advantage of God’s name and profane that name in the way we live.       

    With the prophet, we may my cry out to God, seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness, so that we might live anew this petition, that God’s name might be hallowed in our lives. And if God’s name is made holy, then with the prophet we may experience great joy and find our calling in life.   With this as our starting point, we can continue the journey through this prayer, contemplating its meaning for our lives.     

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
First Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2010

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Have Mercy on Me

Psalm 51:1-17

    A biology professor enters a faculty meeting, sits down, and then suddenly stands up and begins shooting.  By the end of the shooting spree, three lie dead and a number of others are critically wounded. Why?  Apparently, a faculty committee had denied a tenure appeal.  We wonder, sometimes, why such a  thing could happen, especially when the perpetrator is well educated.  Surely, I wouldn’t do such a thing?   Surely, I’m not capable of doing that which is evil?  And yet, this is the question we face as we come here tonight to have our foreheads smeared with ash. 

    Among the texts that we read this evening was one that focused in  on the question of guilt. While this text calls for repentance, it also offers hope of forgiveness and a new beginning in life.  That text is Psalm 51.  Traditionally, it’s supposed  to be David’s prayer of contrition, which he offers to God, after Nathan rebukes him for his rape of Bathsheba, and his complicity in the death of her husband (2 Sam. 11-12). 

    Now, we don’t usually think of David’s “relationship” with Bathsheba in terms of rape.  Neither 2 Samuel nor the Psalmist uses this word, but unless we use the word, Bathsheba comes off as a seductress and David is let off the hook.  Maybe that’s the way we’d like it to be.  After all, David is supposed to be a man after God’s own heart.  How could such a godly man commit such an evil act?  Still, this isn’t the story of an affair between two consenting adults, because David was, after all, a person of power.  He got what he wanted, and what he wanted was Bathsheba. 

    As the story goes, when David is confronted with the enormity of his sin, he pleads with God not to cast him aside or remove the Holy Spirit from him, as God earlier had done with Saul.  Although,  David was likely concerned about his throne, this prayer of confession goes on to ask God for a clean heart, one that wasn’t infected by the sin that drove him to these acts of violence.

    Ash Wednesday tends to be one of the more uncomfortable services in the church year.  That maybe why it’s not among the best attended of services.  This could be due,  in large part,  to the focus on introspection.  Texts like Psalm 51 force us to consider the possibility that  if David could do this, then what about me?  If you’re like me, looking for skeletons hiding in the dark closets of our hearts doesn’t sound appealing.  And yet, even if I’m not a murderer or an adulterer – at least not in the physical sense –  am I any freer of sin than was David?  Beyond that, there are those difficult questions about my complicity in economic, political, and social systems that oppress others.

    Commenting on this text, Peter Marty suggests that we often make two missteps when talking of sin.  First, we tend to delight “in the deliciousness of other people’s sins.”  That is, we like to focus on the sins of our neighbors, either enjoying their comeuppance or clucking with self-righteousness, because we’ve not committed as heinous an act as they have, all the while neglecting to admit that we too  are sinners. 

    The second misstep is related to the first.  We tend to look at sin as if it’s primarily an external action.  It’s something bad, which we have done.  But, according to the Scriptures, sin starts in the heart  (Matthew 5:17ff).  Therefore, as Peter Marty points out, if we want to understand the reality of sin, then we might want to think of in terms of  cause and effect.  Sin, which is internal, is the cause, while sins, which are externals, are the effects.  Sin, therefore, is the underlying condition to our behaviors, which we often call sin. (Peter Marty in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, WJK, 2009, 11, 13).

    To this point in the service, we’ve heard the Word read and we’ve reflected upon that Word.  Ahead of us lies the marking of the forehead and the confession of sin.  This can be unsettling – in part because we’d rather not mar our appearance with a bit of dirt, and also because it requires that we admit that we’re sinners.  Consider the Psalmist’s refrain: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (vs. 3).  Indeed, the Psalmist confesses, “I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me” (vs. 5).  

    Fortunately for us,  the Psalm doesn’t end on this note.  It allows us to confess our sins and recognize our complicity in the evil that’s present in the world – both personal and systemic.  This recognition can be unsettling, unless there’s a word of liberation and forgiveness. Having made confession of our sins – even if we don’t publicly name them –  we put ourselves into position so that God might create within us a clean heart and right spirit.  The end result is, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5, we get to participate in the new creation that emerges out of God’s reconciling love.  Both the Psalmist and Paul understand that the only way we can  break free of the rat race we find ourselves running, is for God to reboot our lives – and this takes an act of grace.

    Having been marked with ash, and having confessed our sins before God, pleading for a new heart and new spirit, we may look forward to receiving in the ash a sign of forgiveness and restoration.  While we’re still bearing on our bodies the marker of our sin, we will go forth  from this place, embarking on the journey called Lent, with broken and contrite spirits,  giving praise and thanks to the Lord our God, who has shown mercy on us.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Ash Wednesday
February 17, 2010

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Were You There? – In the Beginning

Job 38:1--11

    The liturgical calendar may say that today is Transfiguration Sunday, and the social calendar might say that it’s Valentine’s Day, but I have another calendar that says that it’s  Evolution Sunday.  As you can see from the service, I decided to go with the latter calendar!  For the  fifth consecutive year churches and synagogues from  across the country will be focusing on the relationship between science and our confessions of faith.  

    Evolution Sunday and Weekend is observed on the weekend nearest Charles Darwin’s Birthday.   We  don’t do this because Darwin was a saint, or because  he had special spiritual knowledge that we need to pass on.  But, Darwin is important to our conversation, because he personifies the ongoing debate that has rocked our churches and society for decades if not centuries.  Although the debate started long before Darwin – just ask Galileo -- the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species changed the conversation between science and theology forever.

      I’ve been participating in this observance since its inception, even though I’m not a scientist, nor even well-trained in the sciences.  I do believe very strongly, however, that this conversation has important implications for both church and society. Issues like climate change, stem sell research, end of life, and human sexuality all have both scientific and theological implications.  If we’re going to make good decisions about the future of our world, then we need to listen to both voices.  This won’t happen, however, if one side sees the other as the enemy.   So, how can we have a fruitful conversation about science and faith, when the two sides seem so far apart?      Well, that’s why this observance was born!

    As we consider how faith and science relate to each other, I’d like us to reflect on Job 38.  But, before we get to our reflections, I’d like to read it  again, this time from  The Message. 

    1 And now, finally, God answered Job from the eye of a violent storm. He said:
         2-11 "Why do you confuse the issue?
        Why do you talk without knowing what you're talking about?
        Pull yourself together, Job!
           Up on your feet! Stand tall!
        I have some questions for you,
           and I want some straight answers.
        Where were you when I created the earth?
           Tell me, since you know so much!
        Who decided on its size? Certainly you'll know that!
           Who came up with the blueprints and measurements?
        How was its foundation poured,
           and who set the cornerstone,
        While the morning stars sang in chorus
           and all the angels shouted praise?
        And who took charge of the ocean
           when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb?
        That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds,
           and tucked it in safely at night.
        Then I made a playpen for it,
           a strong playpen so it couldn't run loose,
        And said, 'Stay here, this is your place.
           Your wild tantrums are confined to this place.'

I should point out that is a conversation that begins in these eleven verses goes on for two whole chapters.  Aren’t you glad we just read the opening round? 

    If you go back to the preceding chapters in this book, you’ll discover that Job has a problem with the way the way God is running the universe.  He doesn’t curse God, but he does complain about the unfairness of his plight.  He also doesn’t appreciate the fact that his friends have accused him of being a sinner.  Now, we get to watch God’s response to Job’s outburst.  As we read this passage, it’s almost as if God is trying to pummel Job into submission with unanswerable questions.   I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly care for this portrait of  God.  I find the God present in much of Job to be capricious, angry, self-centered, and a bit of a bully.  And yet, I believe that we can find  a word of wisdom in this passage that will speak to the questions of our day. 

1.  Were You There?  A Matter of Perspective   
    As I read this passage, I thought of the song “We’re You there, when they crucified my Lord?”  It’s not that the song speaks to the question at hand, it’s just that opening line – were you there? – sounds like the question God asks of Job.   You’ve questioned my fairness, so here’s a couple of questions for you.  You seem to have all the answers, so where were you in the beginning?   You talk big, but do you have all the facts?  When this barrage of questions ends two chapters later, Job had no choice but to answer,  no I wasn’t there and so I can’t answer all your questions.

    Although it might seem as if God is beating up on Job, God’s question does raise the issue of perspective.   This passage reminds us that our vantage point as human beings is limited.  We can’t know everything there is to know about the universe.  It’s simply too vast.  But that doesn’t mean that there are no answers or that we should stop asking our questions.

    I appreciate the point made by Daniel Harrell, a pastor who is trained in the sciences.  He writes that science has an easier time dealing with the questions of nature, because, “science has more clear-cut boundaries than does theology.”  He goes on to say:

    Science limits itself to the natural, measurable world, while theology expands to include the immeasurable too.  Everything science investigates is subject to scrutiny and testing, but when it comes to God, our posture is to be one of deference and obedience.1
In other words, theology explores areas that ultimately require from us a confession of faith.

2.  Get Ready to Debate

    Our text speaks of perspective, but it’s also a call to pursue the truth, no matter where it takes us.  I realize that the  ferocity of God’s questions, seems to shut down the conversation.  If you look at the beginning of chapter 40, it appears that Job had decided that it might be better not to ask any more questions.  And yet, hidden inside this series of seemingly unanswerable questions, is a challenge to pursue our questions no matter where they lead.  God tells Job: “Gird your loins, be a man, stand tall, and answer my questions.”  Is this not an invitation to pursue the questions on our hearts and minds?

   As I think about this question, I find myself turning to that statement of Augustine about   “faith seeking understanding.”  As I understand Augustine, we shouldn’t see faith as our answer of last resort.  Instead, it’s our starting point, upon which we build understanding of the things of God – and that includes nature.  As Jesus reminds us, the  Law calls on us to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind.   Faith, therefore, gives us the freedom to explore our doubts and questions without fear of what we might discover.  
    The New Atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, talk about people of faith as if they don’t think and they’re gullible.  Dawkins talks as if theology is simply a collection of old worn-out fairy tales.  Unfortunately, there’s some truth to the charge.  The polls tell us that large numbers of Americans believe that the earth is only 6000-years-old and that  evolution is a Satanic plot.  So, maybe the critics can be forgiven for the skepticism that there is another way of looking at things. 

    If we’re going to have a fruitful conversation about the relationship of faith and science, then people of faith, like us, should respect science and its contributions to the conversation.  We shouldn’t act as if Genesis or Job offers a scientific explanation of the way things are.  If we’re willing to do this, then perhaps a skeptical scientific community will be willing to engage us in this important conversation. 

3.  A Call to Humble Adoration  

    In my mind, theology tells us a lot about the meaning and purpose of the universe.  Genesis tells us that this world of ours is good, and that we’ve been entrusted with its care. Job reminds us that the universe is God’s Temple, and we’ve been invited to worship the God who both creates and inhabits this Temple.  What theology doesn’t do  is fill in the gaps of our science.  If we use God to fill in the gaps, then if science finds an answer, then God’s place in the universe becomes smaller.  So, instead of looking for God in the Gaps, perhaps we can, as Stephen Barr suggests, find God present in the “beauty, order, lawfulness, and harmony found in the world that God had made.”   Or, as John Calvin puts it:  

    “God [has] manifested himself in the formation of every part of the world, and daily presents himself to public view, in such manner, that they cannot open their eyes without being constrained to behold him.” And, “[W]ithersoever you turn your eyes, there is not an atom of the world in which you cannot behold some brilliant sparks at least of his glory. . . . You cannot at one view take a survey of this most ample and beautiful machine [the universe] in all its vast extent, without being completely overwhelmed with its infinite splendor”2

While I would agree that there is also evidence of disorder and chaos in the universe, I think we can agree that nature does bear  witness to God’s eternal presence and ongoing work of creation – whether it’s a beautiful sunset or a glorious snow-capped mountain. 

     As we observe Evolution Sunday, may we again see science and faith, not as enemies, but as partners in an ongoing conversation about the world in which live and work and have  our being.  And as people of faith, who respect the findings of the scientist, may we also stop to give thanks to God for the wondrous gift of nature.

1. Daniel Harrell, Nature’s Witness: How Evolution Can Inspire Faith, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), p. 67.

2. Stephen Barr, “The End of Intelligent Design,” First Things, ( 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Evolution Sunday
February 14, 2010

Sunday, February 07, 2010

First Things First

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Those of you who’ve been part of the God is Green study know that we’ve been talking about the ways our lives impact the environment. Although God may have given us a beautiful world to live in and the job of being good stewards of this gift, too often we’ve muddied the waters and trampled down the pastures (Ezk: 34:18). As we’ve been talking about our impact on the environment, a troubling question has emerged: “How much is enough?” That is, if our pursuit of bigger and better has a negative impact on the environment, what am I willing to live without? What would I be willing to sacrifice?

That’s one way to ask the question of priorities, but we could ask it in other ways. For instance, since we seem to be in an ongoing economic crisis, one that grips our nation, our state, and our local communities, including the city of Troy, we might ask the question: what services do we consider important and essential?

1. Back to Basics

I’m not sure that Paul’s letter to the Corinthians answers either our environmental or our economic questions, but it does raise the question of which beliefs and practices are essential. In this chapter of his letter, Paul focuses on what defines the Christian faith?

Now, Paul is writing to a congregation that he founded, and so he feels a certain sense of ownership and responsibility for them. From the letters he’s been getting from church members, he’s concluded that they’ve gotten off track. Since his last visit they’ve become embroiled in bitter disputes over matters of sexuality, food, idolatry, spiritual gifts, worship, and more. You name it and they’ve raised the question? And so in his attempt to get them back on task, he calls them back to basics.

Two hundred years ago, a Presbyterian pastor living on what was then the American frontier – Washington, PA – encountered people without a shepherd, who seemed hopelessly divided over what this pastor considered minor issues. You see, as people crossed the mountains from the East, they left behind their spiritual homes, but brought with them their spiritual baggage. Now, living on the frontier, they often found themselves without a community like the one they left behind, and so many of them simply gave up on their faith. Thomas Campbell decided to help them, but in doing so, he got in trouble with his superiors. That’s because he tried to provide this very diverse lot a place to call home, by going back to basics. He decided to emphasize what he believed where the common threads of the Christian faith, and no more. It was on the basis of this simple faith that he invited people to the table of the Lord.

2. Paul’s First Things.

Paul was trying to do something similar with the Corinthians. In trying to respond to their questions, he laid out for them what he believed were first principles of the Christian faith. This was the gospel that had been delivered to him, and it’s the gospel he had passed on to the Corinthians, so now it made sense to call them back to these basics.

Paul’s gospel has three basic elements: The death, the burial, and the resurrection of Jesus. He tells the Corinthians to hold firmly to this confession of faith that focuses on events that transpired over a three-day period – from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.

Now you might disagree with Paul’s list of essentials. You might think it’s a bit too narrow. Maybe you’d like to add some points between Christmas and Good Friday. And that’s okay, but remember Paul is dealing with a very conflicted bunch, and he needs to get them on the same page. If they’re going to tackle all of these divisive issues that were confronting them, then they would need to agree on some first principles, and these are the ones Paul had laid out for them from the beginning.

At the heart of his message is the risen Christ. It might be worth noting that this passage could be the earliest written witness to the resurrection tradition. He wanted them to know that the one who had died on the cross was alive and present in and with the church. He goes on in the verses that follow to emphasize how important the resurrection is to his gospel. If Christ is not raised, he says, then their faith and their hopes are in vain. Paul was writing this because, some of the people had gotten the impression that this life was all there is, and so you could live however you pleased. And, of course, things had gotten a bit ugly. Hoping to bring them back together, he reminded them of the basics, that simple straightforward faith that he had passed on to them at an earlier time.

So what does Paul’s gospel have to say to us? What are our first principles? What binds us together and guides us when things get difficult? While we might disagree on the color of the carpet, the styles of music, or what goes up on the walls of the sanctuary, at the end of the day it is our faith in God as revealed to us in the risen Christ that binds us together.

As we consider this question of what is essential, consider for a moment the story of the one whom Brennan Manning calls the Man of Sorrows in his book Patched Together. We first meet the man of sorrows when a young Mexican boy named Willie Juan tries to give water to a figure hanging on a crucifix in the church. He quickly discovers that this is a carving, but he will reencounter this Man of Sorrows many more times in life, and in those encounters this boy, whose body and spirit are scarred, finds hope and healing. He discovers that it is the Man of Sorrows who bears our griefs and our scars, and in return offers healing. The healing that he receives is a gift freely given, and it is life changing, but it also requires something of him and of us – a willingness to put our lives into the hands of another.1 Paul offers the risen Christ to us as the basis of our oneness, so that we might find wholeness. If we can do this, then perhaps we can boldly sing the words of Brian Wren that are found in our opening hymn:

Christ is risen! Raise your spirits from the caverns of despair,
Walk with gladness in the morning. See what love can do and dare.
Drink the wine of resurrection, not a servant, but a friend;
Jesus is our strong companion. Joy and peace shall never end.
(Chalice Hymnal, 222).

3. Our Witness: The Practice of Faith

As Paul shares his gospel, he invites the Corinthian church – and us – to share in his witness. As you listen to his invitation, you may get the sense that there have been other voices claiming their allegiance, and its these voices that have gotten them off track. In defending his own mission, he starts with an apology. He is, he writes, one who is untimely born. Unlike the twelve, he’d never had the opportunity to walk with Jesus in life. He wasn’t among the five hundred, nor was he James, who by then led the Jerusalem church. In fact, while those he named were receiving visitations from the risen Christ, he was trying to destroy this new faith that he now proclaimed. He was, by his own admission, the least of the Apostles. And yet, despite all of this, he too had received a visitation from the risen Christ, and it was out of that revelation of grace that he now wrote these words to this congregation.

This morning we gather as servants of the risen Christ. We come as those who have been called to bear witness to the Man of Sorrows, who has born our griefs and brought wholeness to our lives. It’s out of this encounter with Christ that we’ve become, like Paul, apostles. We are now witnesses of God’s love, mercy, and grace.

Therefore, as followers of the risen Christ, how should we bear witness to his presence in our lives? Is it simply believing the right things? Or does it involve the way we live our lives? Last Sunday we spoke of the power of love, and as we left the building we sang – “they will know we are Christians by our love.” In what way are we living out this affirmation?

In deciding to follow Jesus, we’ve embrace a way of life. As John’s gospel puts it, Jesus said to the people “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). That is the message of the resurrection, and so as we ponder the question of what this means to our lives, I’d like to add a note from Dorothy Bass’s book Practicing our Faith:

A way of life abundant: this is God’s gift in the midst of the ordinary stuff of existence. This way of life – abundant not in money and possessions but in mercy and hope – is given not only for the sake of those who are its members. It is given that these might live for the sake of others, and indeed for the sake of all creation. The challenge is to discern how to live this way of life within a specific context, at your moment in history.2

So, how shall we live, as we embrace the call to follow the risen Christ? In her book Dorothy Bass, along with a series of other writers, introduces us to twelve practices that range from hospitality to dying well. Each of these practices can help us live fully into God’s grace.

Another way to live into our witness to the gospel of the risen Christ, is to be begin making ethical consumer decisions. As Julie Clawson puts it, in her book Everyday Justice, this involves the principle of ethical consumption. Ethical Consumption “implies that we will apply our moral values and ethical standards to our consumer habits. We don’t opt out of a necessary system, but we redeem it by trying to live by a more consistent ethic.”3

So the questions of the day are these: Who is the Risen Christ, and what does it mean to be his follower?

1. Brennan Manning, Patched Together: A story of my story, (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010).

2. Dorothy Bass, Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People. 2nd ed., (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2010), p. xiii.

3. Julie Clawson, Every Day Justice, (Downers Grove, IVP, 2009), p. 26. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
February 7, 2010
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany