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

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Storing Up True Riches

1 Timothy 6:6-19

The Beatles said it best – “Money can’t buy me love.” That’s right –

Say you don't need no diamond ring
And I'll be satisfied
Tell me that you want those kind of things
that money just can't buy
For I don't care too much for money
For money can't buy me love
Now, I realize that diamond rings are helpful when it comes to love. After all, I’ve bought a few in my time for the one I love, but no matter how costly these trinkets may maybe, they can’t buy lasting love. And, despite what the Pharaohs, who built great pyramids in Egypt, thought, you can’t take it with you either! No, their bodies remained a moldering in the grave, while grave robbers and archaeologists took all those goods. Sometimes we forget this fact of life, but even as we didn’t bring anything into the world, we can’t take anything out of it either.

So, if “money can’t buy me love” or even happiness in the next life, can’t it at least buy me a little happiness in this life? I realize that it takes at least some money to live in this world, but how much is enough? Paris Hilton, Tiger Woods, and Lindsay Lohan, all have millions of dollars at their disposal, but are they happy? Bernie Madoff made a lot of money, but in the end he found himself in prison, and he also made a lot of other people unhappy by stealing their money. Madoff’s antics seem to prove the point of a famous statement that first appeared in this letter. Yes, the author of this letter said quite boldly that money is the root of all manner of evil. Therefore, he said – beware of the temptation to make the pursuit of riches your goal in life. It will only bring evil upon you. Of course, the fact that the author mentions the possibility that the pursuit of riches might have a negative effect on the spiritual life of the wealthy, suggests that there were at least a few wealthy people in the church, and that they were being tempted to abandon their faith.

1. Futility of Chasing the Money

We read this passage of scripture at a time of economic crisis. The gap between the richest and the poorest members of our society is as great as it has ever been in our history. The middle class, which is the backbone of modern society, is shrinking and is in danger of disappearing. Many in our society wonder if the American Dream is still possible. The other day I heard an economist say that not only is the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest greater today than at any time since 1929, but the most recent economic expansion was built largely on the use of credit cards and borrowing from the equity of homes. Now that the housing bubble has burst, there isn’t much left to stimulate the economy. We simply don’t have enough money to make the kinds of purchases that would spur job growth, and so the American Dream is in danger of extinction.

It’s in this context that we hear this word of warning written by an experienced pastor to a younger one. The author suggests that happiness will be found in contentment rather than in the pursuit of riches. After all, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10).

I realize that in the grand scheme of things, I’m pretty well off. I may not be wealthy by worldly standards, but when compared with much of the rest of the world, I’m pretty rich. So, maybe I ought to be grateful for these blessings that come my way.

Now, the love of money may be the root of many kinds of evil, but having no money can be just as destructive to the soul as having too much. Speaking in the 19th century, before the end of slavery, Frederick Douglass declared that "the want of money is the root of all evil to the colored people." As Ralph Wood writes of Douglass’ observation:

He saw that humiliating, hopeless poverty reduces human beings to bestial creatures. Even black freedmen, he declared, "were shut out from all lucrative employments and compelled to be merely barbers, waiters, coachmen and the like, at wages so low that they could lay up little or nothing. Their poverty has kept them ignorant and their ignorance kept them degraded." ("A Passion for Lesser Things," Ralph Wood, The Christian Century, 1995).

Although this text was part of last week’s lectionary reading, it’s appropriate for consideration on Reconciliation Sunday, because it reminds us that there are all kinds of barriers and walls that separate us from each other. Some of these barriers are ethnically and culturally imposed, but others are economic in nature.

As I reflected on this text and the day upon which we read it, I thought of the invisible wall that runs along 8 Mile Road. There’s an invisible barrier that separates one of the poorest cities in the country from one of the richest counties in the nation. That wall has been in place for at least a generation, but isn’t it time for it to come down?

2. Seeking True Riches

If money can keep neighbors apart, is it possible that the love of money can be a barrier to discipleship? As we observe both Reconciliation Sunday and World Communion Sunday, where does a message of contentment fit? Should we all hear the message in the same way?

Consider for a moment the way in which this passage may have been heard in an earlier day, such as the Middle Ages. Back then people believed in what was called the “Great Chain of Being,” where everyone’s place in society was predetermined. If you were nobility, then that’s who you were, so you might as well enjoy the benefits. If you don’t, know one else will! But, if you were born a serf, then that’s what you were called to be. You couldn’t change your status, because God had already predetermined your fate. So, in that setting, the message was, be content with your lot in life, because you can’t change it. That’s just the way things are. Or, is it?

Maybe the point isn’t being content with one’s lot in life, but instead to recognize the spiritual dangers of pursuing worldly wealth. Verses 6-10 and 17-19 contain a word of warning about the impermanence of wealth. It is also a meditation on the spiritual dimension of the way in which humans try to accumulate and use wealth. The danger is that in pursuing riches, our hearts can grow cold toward God and toward our neighbors.

Now, this passage isn’t all that radical. Unlike Jesus, this early Christian leader doesn’t tell us to give away everything we have to the poor in order to be disciples of Christ. Instead, he warns us about being held captive by its attractiveness. Despite its lack of radicalness, the message is powerful, because our culture continually tells us that we should want more and seek more, in part because if we don’t the economy will collapse. So, even if money can’t buy me love, a trip to the jeweler will considerably enhance my relationships and maybe even aid the economy!

3. Fighting the Good Fight

Standing in between verses 10 and 17 is a call to “fight the good fight of the faith.” You can skip verses 11 through 16 and not miss a beat. But, what this middle section does is refocus our attention on the things that really are important. These verses lift up the true riches in life – righteousness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. These are the things that really matter to God. By attending to these values we will find happiness and contentment in life. These traits enable us to build what Martin Marty calls “cultures of trust.”

In order to build cultures of trust, we need to find ways of counting on each other. It means recognizing that we’re not in this alone, but we must be willing to risk our lives into the hands of God and our neighbors. That calling is undermined when we pursue our own agendas at the expense of others. This is, I think were our Disciples identity statement fits in. According to this statement, we are called to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.” We have been called to join together in creating true community, to pursue justice, and to develop a deeply-rooted spirituality. Another way of putting this is that we have been called to attend to the common good, and this commitment to the common good is rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which we’ve been called upon to live out and proclaim.

So how can we pursue true riches and make a difference in this world, which God loves so much that God sent his son into the world? Well, we can start by contributing some of our wealth to the Reconciliation Offering, so that the walls that divide us can be removed. This offering is used to promote our Church’s commitment to being an “Anti-racist, Pro-reconciliation” movement through education and by funding development opportunities. As Sharon Watkins reminded us at the Pastor’s Conference, this is our calling as a church. But, even though this offering is a first step in the right direction, it’s not the last step.

We can live out this calling every day when we consider the words we use to describe others or when we reflect on the barriers that divide us and then work to remove them. Those of us who participated in the revival at Northwestern Christian Church had an opportunity to do this very thing when we shared in worship with this Black Disciple church in Detroit. Our participation in Motown Mission is another way we can break down the walls that separate communities from each other. And in a couple of weeks Heidi Michael will share with the congregation the fruit of her time in Washington, D.C. In that presentation, Heidi will share ways in which we can build bridges and tear down walls. I know that she is very excited about having this opportunity to share what she learned while in the Nation’s capital.

The message of the Gospel is one of salvation, but salvation isn’t simply about what happens in the next life. Salvation includes the life lived now, because salvation is about reconciliation. And, the message of reconciliation affects the way we live with God and with our neighbors. In Christ the old attitudes and stereotypes have been washed away, and now we have the opportunity to look at the world through new eyes. And although money can’t make you whole, if we’re willing to part with some of it in our Reconciliation Offering, we can participate in making the world whole, which is the point of World Communion Sunday!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
World Communion Sunday
October 3, 2010