Saturday, December 24, 2011

Awaiting the Blessed Hope

Titus 2:11-14

The other day I was asked why we’re reading from Titus 2 on Christmas Eve.   My conversation partner wanted to know what this passage has to do with Christmas.  I have to admit that on the surface it doesn’t seem to fit very well.  It doesn’t say anything about the birth of Jesus, and as far as I know it hasn’t inspired any Christmas carols, but sometimes what we see on the surface is deceiving.  When we look more closely at this passage,  we hear the announcement of “the glorious appearing of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.”   And as the letter writer declares, this is the blessed hope for which we have been waiting.  With Christ comes the grace of God that inspires and empowers us to live into the message of Christmas. 

I imagine that most of us have come here tonight expecting to be drawn into the presence of the God who Scripture says appeared to the world in the babe born in Bethlehem.  Most of us come with hearts full of joy, though some come with a mixture of emotions, hoping  to celebrate this blessed event that ushered into existence a new age of divine blessing.  It’s an expectation that inspires our singing of carols and that calls for us to faithfully observe the wonder of this child’s birth as we listen to the angels declare through song that one has come into our midst, who according to Titus 2, bringing “salvation to all people,” and educating  “us so that we live sensible, ethical, and godly lives” (Titus 2:12 CEB)  

When we read Titus 2 in light of the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth and the powerful words of Isaiah as he declares that a great light shines in the darkness of our world, bringing joy to the nation, perhaps we may understand how this event changes the way we look at life and live our lives in the presence of the God who brings to the world justice and peace and grace. 

As we consider the words of this letter, my thoughts turn to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  While I enjoy Charlie Brown and the Grinch, this story that tells of the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge remains my favorite extra-biblical Christmas story.  Nothing seems to catch the spirit of this season better than this tale set in 19th-century industrializing Britain, at a time when income inequality had reached epic heights.  Dickens used this story to open the eyes of a nation to  the plight of the poor,  the oppressed, and 
the marginalized, and invite them to respond in a way that truly reflected the Christmas story.         

If you’re like me and a fan of this story, you probably have a favorite version of the story.  Personally, I like most of them, from Mr. Magoo to Patrick Stewart, but my favorite portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge remains Alister Sim.  This 1951 version of the story may be in black and white, and the effects may be a bit primitive, but Sim captures  the essence of a man who is cold toward humanity and who is  consumed by greed and self-centeredness.  He also captures the pure joy that comes from discovering that he has a second chance to make things right.  Through his facial expressions and the giddiness he displays as a laughs and dances and even by standing on his head in a chair, which scares the living daylights out of his housekeeper, he shows us how to respond to what I would consider to be divine grace.  But it’s not just fleeting joy, for Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed man. 

    Yes Ebenezer Scrooge goes from being a person for whom Christmas is nothing more than a “humbug,” to someone who seeks to embody the fulness of Christmas – not the Christmas of the mall, but the Christmas that is ultimately rooted in the blessed hope of God.  In the beginning, he can’t be bothered by Christmas, especially if he’s being asked to contribute to the welfare of the poor.  But, he’s also annoyed by the joy of his nephew who invites him to share in Christmas and by the desire of his lowly clerk, Bob Cratchitt, that he have Christmas Day off so he can celebrate with his family, a family that includes Tiny Tim, a boy whose joy and wisdom know no bounds, and yet whose future is dark.   

Grace appears to Scrooge in the form of a warning from the ghost of his long dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who like Scrooge, had hardened himself toward humanity, and who now bore the chains he forged in life.  Marley tells Scrooge that he’ll be visited by three Christmas ghosts, and warns him to pay attention to these revelations, so that his fate might be different.  The lessons are hard, because  Scrooge is forced to relive old and difficult memories, while coming face to face with both the joys and the difficulties of his neighbors in the present, before seeing the future consequences of his actions.  

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t pure gospel, but can we not see in it a call to embrace the transformative nature of God’s grace that comes to us in story of the babe born in Bethlehem.  The question that is utmost in Scrooge’s mind, is whether these shadows of the future can be changed?   And the answer is, as Dickens tells it, yes, the future remains open. We can turn over a new leaf and live godly lives that express the grace and love of God to the world.  
As Dickens puts it  in the closing paragraph of the story:
And it was said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
Indeed, may God bless us, everyone, as we embrace the full message of Christmas, the message that in Christ, we experience the blessed hope of God’s healing presence in our world, and therefore we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives that express God’s love to the world.  Merry Christmas!   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
December 24, 2011
Christmas Eve

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Nothing is Impossible for God -- An Advent Sermon

Luke 1:26-38

Do you feel the tug of Christmas, both it’s sacred and it’s secular elements, pulling at you?  Do you feel like Advent has gone on long enough, and you’re ready to move on and celebrate Christmas?  After all, the presents have been purchased and wrapped.  The Christmas dinner menu is planned  – though I should remind you that we will be meeting for worship on Christmas morning at 11:00 A.M., so plan accordingly!  If you’re traveling, all the necessary arrangements have been made, except maybe filling up the gas tank one more time.   Perhaps you’re like that child who has been poking at the presents under the tree, maybe even picking them up, trying to figure out what’s inside.  There comes a point when you just want to pick it up and rip open the wrapping paper and see what’s inside.   Yes, the excitement of the season, which has been building for some time now, has a tendency to overwhelm all this Advent talk of preparation and waiting that we’ve been hearing these past four weeks.  Are you ready to get on with it?   Well, before you answer, could you hold that thought, because I have another question: Once those presents are opened and the dinner is over, do you feel like you need something more?   The tree is still there, but the presents are gone and the anticipation of Christmas dinner has given way to a week’s worth of leftovers.  So, what’s next?  College Bowl games?  The Super Bowl?   At least from personal experience, I have to wonder if our Christmas celebrations are a bit like a sugar high.  The crash comes quickly!

Of course, we’ve not yet arrived at Christmas Eve, so you can take this all with a grain of salt (or sugar).    In the mean time, maybe it’s worth contemplating the part of Christmas that lasts well beyond the opening of the presents and the eating of Christmas dinner.  

In our gospel reading Luke takes us back to the beginning of the Christmas story, to the moment at which the angel Gabriel visits a young girl named Miriam.  Miriam, which is the Hebrew name for the person we know as Mary, was probably  twelve or thirteen – about the age of a seventh grader – when this Angel  informs Mary that God had chosen to favor her with a special calling.  She will, the angel informs her, bear a child, who  will be called the “Son of the Most High,” and who will sit on David’s throne and rule over Jacob’s house forever.  In other words, she is going to bear the Messiah of God, the one who would deliver God’s people.  

If this were you, how would you respond to the angel’s announcement?  If you were a girl about thirteen, and an angel told you that God had chosen you to be the mother of the messiah?  Would you say – wow – what a great honor?  Or, would you say, thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll pass?  

This story reminds us that God acts in unexpected ways.  It’s not that God is capricious or undependable.  It’s just that God doesn’t operate according to conventional wisdom.  Does it make sense for God to choose a young peasant girl living in a  backwater village in Galilee to be the mother of God’s messiah, the one who will sit on David’s throne and rule over Israel forever?    Furthermore, what should we make of the circumstances surrounding this birth?   Now, Luke doesn’t say much about Joseph’s feelings or concerns about the birth, but it’s likely that Joseph was at least a decade older than Mary, and in making the marriage arrangements, it’s likely that Mary’s parents would have promised Joseph that his young bride was a virgin.   So, an unplanned pregnancy would not have been welcome news either to Joseph or to Mary.  So, it’s no wonder that she asks the Angel – how is this going to work?  

Gabriel’s answer doesn’t go into the details.  Scripture is rather shy about revealing such things, but Gabriel does tell her that the Holy Spirit will come over you, and the child you bear will be holy and he will be called “God’s son.”  Whatever else is said here – Jesus is declared to be holy.  No matter what they were saying in the parking lot when Mary or Jesus walks by – this child and his birth are holy.

And if Mary needs any further proof, all she needs to do is look to her cousin Elizabeth, who had been unable to conceive a child, but is now six months’ pregnant.  Surely Elizabeth is proof that  “Nothing is impossible with God.”

As you can probably tell from the sermon title, I was attracted to this statement. Don’t you find it a rather bold statement?  Do you wonder – what does Luke want us to hear in this statement by the angel?

If you spent last Sunday afternoon attending the theology conversation with Ron Allen, which by the way, Ron really enjoyed, you would likely have wrestled with this question.  Before I had to leave, Ron pointed out that there are two poles of thought about the nature of God’s power.  On one hand there are those who believe that God is “omnipotent.”   That is, God can do whatever God wants to do.  Now this doctrine has a very long history and it’s very attractive, because it holds out the promise that if God so desires, God can do anything – from stopping a storm to healing a loved one.  It gives us confidence in our prayers.  The only problem is, God doesn’t always seem to come through.  Earthquakes and tornadoes hit, killing hundreds if not thousands.  No matter how hard you pray, our loved ones die.  And so people who believe that God is both loving and all powerful often experience a crisis of faith.  They may wonder about where God is in all of this.  And as I’ve witnessed on countless occasions, people praying for the healing of a loved, begin to wonder about their own faith.  They begin wonder – what’s wrong with my faith?

On the other hand there are those who say that God is loving and just, but God might not be all powerful.  There may be limits to what God can do.  That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have power, it’s just that God’s power is different from what we have understood power to be.  According to Process theologians, for instance, instead of using the power of coercion, God uses the power of persuasion to draw us toward that which is good and loving.  As a result, we can be active participants in the work of God.

And so as I think about this word from Gabriel that nothing is impossible with God, these words of our friend Bruce Epperly come to mind.   He writes of Mary and Elizabeth that “ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they are open to God’s revealing in their lives, and then say ‘yes’ to God’s vision for their lives.”

“Ordinary people,” like Mary, “can do extraordinary things,” when they respond to God’s call, as Mary did when she answered God’s invitation to participate in the work of God in the world with the words: “I am the Lord’s Servant.  Let it be with me just as you have said.”   Mary answers God’s call in the same way that the prophets of old had responded.  In her receptiveness and in her faithfulness Mary becomes for us a model disciple of Jesus.

As we continue our Advent journey toward that moment when with the angels of God we can sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo, may we remember Mary’s example of faithfulness to the call of God, who often chooses what appear to be ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan 
4th Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Making the Preparations -- An Advent Sermon

According to Proverbs you should keep an eye on nature, because you can learn important life lessons.  So if you can learn from the ants, what about the squirrels that are always running around my backyard?

Our family enjoys watching the ever-fatter squirrels scurrying across our deck and yard carrying nuts and seeds in their mouths.  While I’m not thrilled with their attempts to  plant trees in the lawn, I understand why they do this, and the show does keep us entertained.  As enjoyable as the show is, what lesson might we learn from their behavior? Is it the fact that they seem to know instinctively how to prepare for the winter long before the first snow begins to fall?  It’s just built into their systems.  They don’t seem to need any training to know that they need to fatten up in the good times and to store up supplies for the winter.   After all, they can’t drive to the grocery store if the fridge gets empty.

We humans are different.  We’re not nearly as instinctive as the squirrels, and so we need to be trained if we’re going to be prepared for life.  And the time of training seems to be getting longer over time!   One place we can probably learn how to prepare for life is through the various Scouting programs.  Now, I can’t say I was a very good Boy Scout – I was just a Second Class Scout after all – but I do remember the Boy Scout Motto:   "Be Prepared."   There are those in the room – the Eagle Scouts among us – who understand this principle much better than me, but as I remember it, a good Scout knows that you have to be prepared for whatever life throws at you.  So, armed with a Boy Scout knife, sufficient food and water, a first aid kit, and appropriate clothing, you should be okay!   And those who don’t learn the lesson – well things may not go well for them!

Of course we could all tell  “preparation” stories.  For example, if you want to do well on an exam, you might want to study for it.  Don’t do as I did on the eve of the SAT’s and stay out late having a good time with friends.  You might not get the desired scores you want.  And if you’re going to throw a party at your house, you might want to make sure that everything is planned and ready well in advance.  Oh, and if you’re going to have an event at the church that requires the involvement of the Fellowship Department, don’t wait till the last minute to inform them!  That doesn’t make for happy campers!

This idea of being prepared is a major part of the Advent season.  In our text this morning we hear a word about preparing to welcome the one who brings to the world the baptism of the Holy Spirit, through which God brings to an end this broken age and establishes God’s realm, where justice and mercy and divine love are the defining principles of life.  Of course, none of this comes naturally.  It takes the Spirit, but according to Mark God has sent a messenger into the world to help us prepare for the coming of this new realm of God, which is initiated by Jesus and continued after his death and resurrection through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.    

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t begin his story with Jesus’ birth.  Instead, he starts with John the Baptist calling on the people of Judea and Jerusalem to change their hearts and lives, so that God might forgive them.  This act of repentance is symbolized in the act of baptism, which is understood to wash away the sins of the people. But even as he preaches this message and baptizes all who come to him seeking God’s forgiveness, he also tells the people that there is one who is to come, whose sandals he’s unworthy of tying, who will baptize them not with water, but with the Holy Spirit.

John may be a crazy looking prophet, who looks a lot like one of those street preachers who stand on the corner and yells at us as we walk by, telling us we need to repent or we’ll go to hell, and who eats food that only Andrew Zimmern would enjoy, but his is the voice that calls us to prepare ourselves for the coming of God’s reign on earth.

In telling the story of John’s ministry, Mark reaches back to the words of a prophet who lived and preached to a people living in exile.  This prophet, whose words come to us through the book of Isaiah, sought to prepare a people who seem to have lost hope that they’d ever return home, that the day of their salvation was close at hand.  This prophet came to them as a voice crying in the wilderness, proclaiming:   "Prepare the Way of the Lord."   If you read Isaiah 40 you hear the prophet offer words of comfort and forgiveness, even as he calls for repentance.  The prophet also speaks of God’s faithfulness.  He says:
“The grass dries up;  the flower withers, but our God’s word will exist forever” (vs. 8 CEB).
The prophet says that even if our friends and family, our nation and community, fail us, even as the grass dries up and the flowers wither when the hot dry winds blow, God will not fail us.  When God speaks we can take comfort and confidence that God will be true to God’s promises.  These words of forgiveness and comfort would have been welcome news to this people living in exile.  The word they heard was simple – begin to prepare yourselves to go home.  Get packing, because the day of your restoration is at hand!  

Now John is a man of the desert, a person from the margins.  He’s not the sort of person we would expect to be a successful preacher, but God chooses to speak to us through him.  And according to Mark, everyone in Judea and Jerusalem went to the Jordan to be baptized.  This was a revival like no other.  But it wasn’t the final word, because John’s ministry is one of preparation.  In time he gives way to another – Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.  But, interestingly enough, before Jesus takes up this ministry, he submits himself to John to be baptized.  And as he does this, Jesus receives confirmation of his calling to bring into existence the new realm of God.     As you hear this story of John’s ministry, what do you hear it saying to you?  In what ways will you prepare yourself for the transforming nature of God’s realm?  And if you’re going to put Christ into Christmas, what will be required of you?

As Fred Craddock puts it:  
Advent Pilgrims on the way to the Manger must pass through the desert where John is preaching. [Preaching Through the Christian Year, B p. 13]
In the biblical story the desert is often a place of transformation.  It was true for John, for Moses, for Israel, for Elijah, for Jesus, and even for Paul.  What is the desert for you?  And as you enter this desert what message do you hear God speaking to you through John?  What is it that needs to be laid aside so that God might be encountered in the journey we’re taking toward Christmas?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
December 4, 2011
2nd Sunday of Advent

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Spending the Inheritance

Ephesians 1:11-23

You may have seen a very large RV traveling down the highway.  In the driver’s seat is a senior citizen, and emblazoned on the back of that RV is a bumper sticker declaring that this now retired couple is spending their children’s inheritance.  Now, they have every right to spend their money any way they please, and the kids have no legal means of stopping them from doing this, but this declaration seems rather bold, maybe even brazen!    They have decided to spend the inheritance before it gets passed on to the next generation.   

Warren Buffett, as you may have heard, has decided that the bulk of his fortune won’t go to his children, but rather to charity.  It’s not that the kids won’t get anything, but  most of the inheritance is going to be shared by a much broader group of people. 

Jesus once told a parable about inheritances.  In this parable a son demands his share of the inheritance now.  Why wait until Dad is dead to enjoy the benefits of the inheritance.  Now, this is also a rather brazen demand.  The son is basically telling his father to drop dead.  There’s another part to this story that we rarely hear.  In that day the estate went to the eldest son, who then decided if anyone else would get a share.  So, this younger son was asking for something that didn’t belong to him.  But the father gives him what he asks for and the son goes out and spends it all on drugs, sex, and rock and roll. Before too long it’s all gone and he finds himself on the streets, eating the left overs from the slopped hogs.  You know the rest of the story.  He decides to go home and see if Dad will hire him on.  He knows he has no claim to sonship or the inheritance, because that’s all gone. In the end, however, there is a word of grace that restores this prodigal back to his place in the family.

In Ephesians 1 we also hear a word about an inheritance. 
I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, 19 and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.  (Eph. 1:18-19a CEB).
This is a prayer that our eyes would be opened so that we would see the “richness of God’s glorious inheritance.”   The promise is that we get to share in this inheritance, which by rights goes to the eldest son, whom the scriptures declare to be Jesus the Christ.  The promise here is that we have been called to share in this inheritance.  That means we can spend the inheritance – hopefully wisely!

Back in the 1980s a Danish movie came out entitled Babette’s Feast.  I’ve never seen the movie, but I’ve heard the story, and it has stuck with me – though I had to go online to reacquaint myself with the details.   Maybe you know this story about two sisters who are living in a small Danish village.  They’re the daughters of a pastor, and while both had opportunities to leave the village, both women spurned their suitors and returned to their village, living together without ever marrying.  As they reached old age, a French woman who has fled political turmoil in France comes to the door and offers her services as housekeeper in exchange for a place to live.  She serves in this capacity for fourteen years, until word comes that she has won the lottery, which would bring her 10,000 francs.  That’s enough money for her to return home and live fairly well the rest of her life.  

Instead of using the money to return home, she decides to throw a feast for the two sisters and the village’s small congregation on the 100th birthday of the founding pastor.  The sisters agree, though as the meal is being planned and the food begins to arrive they become uncomfortable with the extravagance of it all.  Although they agree to the meal, they decide as a group to say nothing about it, lest they seem to be indulging themselves in luxury.  There is one other guest at the table – a Swedish general who had once sought the hand of one of the sisters.  Unlike the other guests, he feels free to speak admiringly of the food, explaining each course, and declaring  that he’d not had a meal like this since he had dined years before at the famed Café Anglais in Paris. 

Although no one says anything about the food, something wonderful begins to happen in the community.  They not only seem to be enjoying the food, but they’re lifted up spiritually.  As they eat, they begin to forget about old wrongs, and old loves are rekindled.  Indeed, something mystical and redemptive begins to settle in on the group.

After the meal is finished, Babette tells the sisters that she was the chef at this famed restaurant.  While they assume that Babette will  return home now that she has these lottery winnings, Babette tells them that there’s nothing left of these winnings.  She had spent all 10,000 francs on the dinner, for such was the cost of a meal for twelve at Café Anglais.  In gratitude for the welcome these two sisters had provided her, she had given of herself to them with great extravagance, spending all that she had to bless them and their congregation.  It is a story of sacrifice and blessing, but it is also a story of Thanksgiving.  

This is, of course, the story of Jesus as it is shared throughout the New Testament.  In Philippians 2 we’re told that while Jesus shared equality with God, he humbled himself and took on the form of a servant, going so far as to die on a cross.  Here in Ephesians 1 we hear a word about an inheritance, which is shared with all those who are destined to receive it.  They are marked by a seal, which is the Holy Spirit, who is given to them as a pledge of this inheritance that Christ as the elder brother has chosen to share with the body of Christ.  

We are invited to share in the riches of this inheritance, which has been been witnessed to in the power of God that raised Christ from the dead and seated him at the right hand of God, far above all authority on earth.    

Don’t you think that the folks who brag about spending their children’s inheritance  may have more in common with the prodigal than with Babette, whose act of self-sacrifice brought blessings to others?   Now this was her choice, but she didn’t regret it.  And the message of the gospel is that in the interests of the reign of God, the Son became a human being, so as to share our lives that we might experience the blessings of God.  That is, so that we might share in the inheritance of God.  

As we hear the message of Jesus’ willingness to share the inheritance with us, so that we might experience the full redemption that comes from being part of the body of Christ, we stand on the eve of Thanksgiving.  On the Day of Thanksgiving we are invited to offer up expressions of gratitude, both in word and deed, for the blessings of God’s gifts to humanity.  In the words of one of my favorite songs from Godspell: we sing:
All good gifts around us 

Are sent from Heaven above

So thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love . . . 
This song reminds us that while we may plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, it is God who feeds and waters the seed so that it brings forth life.  For this we give thanks.  

Babette, like Jesus and the widow, gave all of herself for others, and she did this as a sign of thanksgiving.   As we gather in the harvest of commitments made in support of the ongoing ministry of this church, the request made here isn’t that we give all our money to the church, but rather that we give ourselves fully to Christ, who shares with us the riches of God’s inheritance.  Even as we bring in this harvest, as saints charged with giving generously, we are also invited to spend this inheritance for the glory of God.  We do this in order to see the reign of God made visible on earth as in heaven, even as relationships are restored, justice is established, and beauty is rediscovered.  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
Christ the King Sunday
November 20, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Good Investments -- A Sermon

Matthew 25:14-30

Have you ever watched Jim Cramer’s CNBC show Mad Money?  If you don’t know who Jim Cramer is, he’s a wild-eyed stock picking guru who wants to help you make money in the stock market!   The motto of the show is that “there is always a bull market somewhere, and he wants to help you find it.”   Jim Cramer, it appears, believes in the principle of abundance over scarcity.  In his mind, somewhere there is an investment that will make you a profit, you just have to look for it, and he’s willing to help you make that discovery.   Now, I don’t spend much time watching his show, since  a little goes a long way, but I’m intrigued by his ability to pick good places to invest.  He seems to know his stuff!  

But money isn’t the only thing we have to invest.  We also have our lives to invest, but the question – where will you invest?      

We’re nearing the end of the liturgical year, and the lectionary texts are featuring passages that lift up the Day of Judgment.  In the passage that follows immediately after the Parable of the Talents, which we heard read this morning, we hear Jesus describe the Day of Judgment.  God is sitting on the judgment seat, surrounded by the sheep and the goats.  God divides the sheep from the goats, sending the goats to condemnation and the sheep to God’s rest, and the basis of this judgment isn’t whether you prayed the prayer of salvation, but rather how you treat the “least of these.”  

In this parable that leads into this judgment scene, Jesus tells the story of the master who goes on a trip and entrusts his property to three of his slaves.  To one is given five talents, to another two, and to the third is given one talent, each receives according to their ability to handle the responsibility.  The master doesn’t tell them what to do with the money, and this isn’t a small amount of money, since one talent is equivalent to about fifteen years’ wages, but the first two slaves seem to understand that they should invest these funds on behalf of the Master. 

When the master returns, he asks them to give an accounting, and the first two slaves tell the master that they’ve doubled this amount.  As a result, they receive the master’s commendation, for they are “good and faithful servants.”  

As for the third slave, well, things don’t go so well for him.  He lives his life in fear of the master and so he decided to go and bury his talent in the ground, and now he returns that one talent to his master.  The master is a bit perturbed and asks the servant why he didn’t at least put the money in the bank and earn some interest, after all it is insured by FDIC.  Do you remember when a pass book account earned 5% and you probably thought that wasn’t a very good return?  Today, if you put money in a basic account, it doesn’t earn much more than what you would get by burying it in the back yard.  Of course, that’s not the point.  The master asks this servant why he did what he did, and he answers – well I know you’re a harsh master and you reap what you don’t sow, so I’m giving you back what you gave me.  No more and no less, so don’t I get a reward for not losing anything?  

How does this servant look at the world?   Is it a half-empty glass or a half-full glass?  Does this servant operate from the principle of scarcity or the principle of abundance?  Is life a zero-sum game, so that if you have something, then it must have come at my expense?  

Doesn’t it seem as if the point of the parable has more to do with what we make of what we’re given than the amount we start with?    This third person, who receives a word of judgment, seems to not understand how precious this gift he’s been given really is, and so he buries it.  

So, what to do?  How should we live in the world with the gifts that God has entrusted to our care?  It’s not a question of what we deserve or what we earn, but what God has given us to use for the kingdom.  Do we play it safe, or do we take a risk?  Do we walk in faith or in fear?  

Are we willing to take the risk of failure in order that the gifts of God might be used?  The first two servants appear to have taken some risks, and they were rewarded.  They went out and invested aggressively, and doubled their money.  But the third servant let fear get the better of him, and so he cautiously buried the money in his back yard.  The master received back what was his in the beginning, so no harm, no foul, right?  But is that what God expects of us?  In football terms, do we go into a  prevent defense before we even score a touchdown, believing that a zero-zero tie is better than a loss?   

Martin Luther famously called on Christians to "sin boldly."  He believed that we shouldn’t live timid and fearful lives, but instead, we should depend on God’s grace and live life boldly.   It’s better to try and fail, than sit back and do nothing, because there is no reward in doing nothing.   

The gifts of God are not treasured heirlooms that need to be put behind glass-enclosed cabinets with signs that say “don’t touch.”   The Christian life isn’t a museum of sanctity and piety.  Rather it is an invitation to share in the gifts and calling of God.

When Brett was young, we gave him a set of toy pistols that had belonged to his uncle.  They were in perfect condition when he got them, which leads me to believe that they hadn’t gotten much use.  But because Brett and his friends played with them, before too long they were in sad shape.  The plastic bullets were missing, the holster was mangled, and the handles were broken.  Although these toys survived intact for forty years, they were destroyed almost overnight.  Oh, it would have been nice if they had been treated with greater care, but that’s not what always happens when we use our gifts. Sometimes things get broken when we use them, which is why Luther told Christians – if you’re going to sin, then "sin boldly."  

It’s okay then if you mispronounce a word while reading scripture.  It’s okay if one person’s prayer isn’t as eloquent as another.   You may not know what to say when visiting at the hospital or the nursing home, but the person being visited will still be blessed by that visit.  Sometimes we make mistakes, but when we live boldly, we experience God’s grace and forgiveness.  

To each is given a different talent and a different gift.  These are expressions of God’s abundant grace.  There’s no scarcity to worry about, so if the master reaps where he doesn’t sow, then so be it. 

This parable isn't about stewardship, but it does have stewardship implications.  And since this is stewardship season, it's appropriate to point out these implications.   Our giving through the church – whether it is our tithes or our gifts to the various special offerings; the  time given through the various ministries of the church or time spent in learning experiences such as the series on Islam – these are ways in which the work of God is extended into the world.   They are the means by which we invest the gifts of God.   

We are disciples of a risk-taking God, a God who chose to create the world and entrust it to our care.  It is a gift to be cherished, but these gifts are also to be used for the good of all.  It may involve change and doing new things – like our involvement in Motown Mission, the Perry Gresham Lectures, the series on Islam, a service of remembrance during Christmas, or an organ recital that brings beauty to the community.  We’ve been blessed with an abundance of grace, and we’re invited to invest these gifts of grace in the work of God’s realm.  If we follow this calling, when the master returns, we’ll hear the words:  “Well done good and faithful servant, because you have been faithful with a little, I will put you in charge of many things." 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
November 13, 2011

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Saints Living Generously

1 Corinthians 16:1-4
Although many churches are observing All Saints Day today, we’re going to observe it next Sunday with a special litany of remembrance of “all the saints, who from their labors rest.”   Even though we’re launching our annual stewardship campaign instead, it’s not too early to start remembering the people who have influenced our lives and have shown themselves worthy of being imitated.  These people could  be parents or teachers, preachers or friends, long time church members or the other saints of history, whose stories continue to inspire.  As the hymn “For All the Saints” declares, this is a “blest communion, company divine!”  And together, we form the one body in Christ and the communion of saints.  

Although there are saints who have rested from their labors, there are also living saints. In fact, according to Paul, we all could be among the hagious or saints of God.  So, do you feel like you’re one of God’s saints?  And what does it mean to be a living saint? Does it mean that you and I must live perfect lives?  I hope not!  But perhaps this quote from Albert Schweitzer is worth pondering: “A man does not have to be an angel to be a saint.”  

So, saints of God are you ready to talk about stewardship?  And as our theme material suggests, we’re to be   “Saints Alive! Living Generously.”   Of course this theme only works if we’re ready to accept the calling to be living saints who live generous lives.  
Generosity, as I’ve learned through life, is a spiritual discipline that requires consistency of practice.  I like what Katie Hays, a Disciple pastor and a wonderful preacher who I met last spring, has to say about stewardship.  She says that “stewardship is about the long-term, lifetime habit of deliberate generosity.”   The principle of tithing, whether or not you give 10%, is the basis of such a practice, and I know that many of you practice this spiritual discipline.  You don’t wait for emergency appeals.  You just give in season and out of season, knowing that generosity is part of being a follower of Jesus.  You don’t use your giving as leverage in the community, but you understand that it reflects your commitment to the common good of the community of faith and beyond. 

As you ponder this definition of stewardship, did you notice the tree that seems to be growing out of the back window of the sanctuary?  Felicia and Debbie “planted” it.  And did you notice the different colors of leaves?  This seems appropriate to this autumn season, doesn’t it?   

Now, these three different colors represent three kinds of givers.  They represent those who gave in the past, those who are giving in the present, and those who will give in the future – perhaps in the coming year and beyond.  These leaves are all connected to each other by branches, a trunk, and roots, which represents the church, while the different leaves represent the saints of old, the saints of today, and the saints of tomorrow, who give generously through this church.  Do you see the connection between the relationship of the leaves to the trees and our relationship to God through the community of faith?  Even as a leaf can’t live apart from the tree, is it possible for us to live spiritually apart from the community of faith?  

While I’m not an expert on tree science, I do know that even as the leaves draw life from the tree itself, the leaves are the means by which the tree breathes, drawing in energy and expelling energy.  In our relationship to the church are we not in the same position?  And is not our giving part of this relationship so that through each of us the presence of God flows in and out to the world? 

As we read the passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church, did you hear his request that the church take up a collection for the saints in Jerusalem who were suffering from poverty?  Did you also hear him mention the example of the Galatian church?  They’d been setting aside funds on first day of the week – the day of worship – so that when Paul arrived they would be ready.  They did this deliberately and consistently, and if you read some of Paul’s other letters you’ll find similar instructions in them.  

When you hear this request, do you hear echoes of one of Amy Gopp’s Week of Compassion requests?    If you’re on her email list, you probably get one these requests every week, which is a reminder that there are needs throughout the year – an earthquake in Turkey and a famine in Africa, a tornado in Missouri and a flood in Iowa.  Amy issues the request, asking the saints of God to give generously so as to touch the lives of others, perhaps people we’ll never meet.      

Why should they do this?  In writing to the Roman church Paul says that the Gentile churches, which had received spiritual blessings from the Jerusalem church, owe their brothers and sisters in Judea a portion of their material blessings as a sign of gratitude  (Rom. 15:27).  As you read the letters of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles you see and hear a call to be one body, to gather across time and space as saints of God, and consider the needs of others.   These gifts are signs of our connectedness with each other.

So, as you listened to this passage did you hear an appeal to our competitive spirits?  Are you surprised that Paul might create a bit of competition between the churches?  What do you think about this appeal?  You’ll find even more of this in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, where he tells them that they need to have their offering ready to go because he’d been bragging on them to the Macedonian churches, which has stirred in the Macedonians a zeal to give.  So Paul tells them – don’t embarrass me or yourselves by not having the check ready!!   (2 Cor. 8:1-5). 

Returning to that definition of stewardship as being a long-term, lifelong, and deliberate act of generosity, and thinking about the leaves on that stewardship tree, where do you see yourself?   Are you a past giver, a current giver, or future giver?  Or are you all three?  

When you leave church this morning, the stewardship group will be passing out packets that will help you discern your giving levels and your commitment to financially underwrite the ministry of the church.  As you take these packets home and read through the information in it, you’ll have an opportunity to prayerfully consider what you would commit yourself to giving through the church. 

While you do this remember too that some of the people that these leaves represent are the saints who no longer live amongst us, but whose gifts continue to sustain this church’s ministry as it moves into the future.  Consider the legacy of those whose past gifts to purchase land and to build buildings, whose gifts to the endowments and capital funds, help sustain this ministry now and into the future. Remember that the interest and dividends from these funds help provide an important foundation for our annual budget.  They don’t replace our giving, but they do amplify the effects of our giving.       

Besides the endowment funds and capital funds that support our general fund and outreach giving, there is the Edgar Dewitt Jones Scholarship fund that supports Disciples seminarians in their studies.  I met someone at the General Assembly who had been a recipient of this scholarship and she expressed her deep appreciation for it, because it helped sustain her studies at a crucial point in time.  And another recipient of this scholarship, Beau Underwood, who graduated from the University of Chicago Divinity School, where Alex is now studying, now serves on the staff of National City Christian Church and on the staff of Faith in Public Life, where he works to organize congregations to make a difference in our society.  These two ministries and countless others are a legacy of these gifts that continue to express the generosity of those saints, who are resting from their labors.      

Generous giving in the past, the present, and the future, helps sustain the ministry and mission of this church.  We are blessed by many saints who have taken to heart this call to be lifelong, deliberate, and generous givers to the body of Christ and the communion of saints.  So aren’t you glad you’re one of the living saints living generous lives? 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 29, 2011 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Words Matter -- A Sermon

1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

On more than one occasion Rial has said that “Words Matter.”   I think that what he means is that a word has a definition and we should pay attention to it.  I agree, but words also have nuances, and context often determines meaning, especially in the English language.   Now, I realize that you didn’t come to church today to get a lesson in English grammar, but I believe that Paul has something important to say about words in our text.  It’s not an issue of grammar or definitions, but whether our lives match our words.  

Because Paul was a traveling preacher, he was something of a talker, but unlike many other contemporary preachers of his day and ours as well, Paul was a straight-talker.  He said what he meant and meant what he said, and so people could have confidence in his message.  Paul’s own confidence in God’s calling on his life gave him confidence in his message as well.  Therefore, he had the courage to proclaim the good news of Jesus, even in the face of opposition, because he aimed to please God, not mortals.  

In doing this, Paul followed in the footsteps of Jesus, who also spoke with boldness and authority.  Both Paul and Jesus consistently confounded their critics, because whenever they tested them, they would walk in defeat or in anger.    

Paul’s confidence comes from his own sense of integrity.  He writes that when he spoke, he did so without deceit, flattery, or insincerity.  Because he had been tested by God, he didn’t fear any human being, and so the Thessalonians could trust his word.

As I think about Paul’s story, I can’t help but think of modern politicians, who have learned an important lesson.  They’ve learned that if you want to get elected or stay elected you have to tell people what they want to hear.  I don’t think most politicians are necessarily evil or deceitful people, but they learn quickly that we will reward them with our votes if they tell us what we want to hear.  So, if a politician tells you that they can keep the library open seven days a week at no extra cost, even if the librarian tells you that there’s not enough money in the budget to sustain that kind of service, many will believe the politician rather than the librarian.      

And, don’t you find it interesting that while only 15% of Americans like the way Congress is doing its job, we keep reelecting the incumbents?  Why is this?   I guess it’s because we seem to think that the problem is with the other representatives, not ours.    

Politicians who speak honestly, often are sent packing for home rather than head off for Congress.  That’s just the way it is.  Although people sometimes remember with great fondness Harry Truman’s alleged straight talk, as I remember from my reading of American history, he wasn’t all that popular in his own day!
Of course, what happens in politics happens in other areas of life – including church life.  It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that prophets weren’t especially popular folks.  From Isaiah to Hosea to John the Baptist, prophets had a hard life, especially when they spoke truth to power.  I doubt Nathan was all that popular with David, after the prophet confronted him about his affair with Bathsheba and his complicity in the death of Uriah.  And you know what happened to John the Baptist and to Jesus.  No, we don’t reward those who speak boldly, especially when they say things that make us feel uncomfortable. 
Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to say whatever comes to mind.  There are some things best left unsaid.  But, integrity is important.  Paul is comfortable enough with his own integrity that he feels comfortable offering himself up as an example.  This isn’t ego or bravado or arrogance.  He seems to have what one writer on leadership development calls “true self-confidence.”  In Paul’s case that was an inner sense of who he was before God.  It was this self-confidence that led people to trust him and his message.  Although he could have used his position for his own benefit, he chose not to do so. 
As I was thinking about what Paul was saying to the Thessalonian church, a slogan from my childhood came to mind.  Remember those Texaco commercials about trusting your car to the man who wore the star?  Now, I wasn’t driving back then, so I can’t give a testimony to the integrity of that slogan, but the idea is clear.  When you pull into a Texaco station, you can trust that attendant or the mechanic will do the right thing.  Well, Paul seems to be saying the same thing about himself.  

In making his claim for their attention, Paul offers us a look at the flip side of things.  Not only does he tell us who he is, he also tells us about what he’s not.  And there’s a word that sticks out in this letter.  It’s the word flattery.    

We all know what it’s like to flatter and be flattered.  We learn early in life that flattery will get us a lot of things.  Perhaps it will get us everything!  While this word is useful, I like one of the synonyms for flattery even better.  Don’t you love the word “obsequious?”   Doesn’t it sound absolutely slimy?  Even if you don’t know the meaning, you know it’s not a good thing to be obsequious.    

Flattery and obsequiousness are all about power.  We use flattery in order to get something we want, often by pretending that we like something or that we want to be friends.  In the end, however, we’re more concerned about gaining power than we are about that person.  Flattery is really about manipulation.  
In years past, before the women’s movement took hold, women weren’t allowed to have overt power.  In some places that’s still true.  But even though they couldn’t have overt power, many women gained power by manipulating the men in their lives  with their “feminine wiles.”    Remember that phrase – the “power behind the throne?”   In other words, you don’t have to be out front to have power, if you know how to play the game.  And what many women were taught is that men have three weaknesses.  They like to eat, they enjoy sex, and they need to have their egos stroked.  If you can cook, can offer them pleasure, and tell them how wonderful they are, then you can control a man, and get whatever you want in life.  

The textbook for this kind of “power” was written back in the 1970s by Marabel Morgan.  Some of you may remember her book, The Total Woman, which gave instructions on how to gain power through manipulation. One of her most famous suggestions to wives was that they might want to greet their husbands at the door wearing nothing but cellophane.   Well, my suggestion is that you better know who is at the door, if you decide to try this at home!    

It’s interesting that this book came out at the same time as the Women’s Movement was gaining steam.  It appealed to women who were afraid that equality might jeopardize their power.  This fear led many women to oppose women elders and women clergy.  If we all agreed that women and men are equal, then we’ll have to play by a different set of rules.   So if words matter, does the way we live give integrity to these words of ours?   As we consider this question, may we hear Paul’s appeal, his word of encouragement, and his plea that we live lives worthy of the God who called them and us to live in God’s kingdom and glory.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
19th Sunday after Pentecost
October 23, 2011

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Rejoicing in God's Strength

Philippians 4:1-13

Many of us, when we were children, learned stories about what we might call the heroes of the Bible.   If you’re like me, a male who grew up with Superman and Batman, you may have liked the ones about Samson, Gideon and David.  These guys are like super heroes who do great and wondrous things, often with seemingly superhuman strength, only they do it with divine power and not superpowers.  

Samson does great things in the name of God, but he’s also morally challenged.  He does bring down a temple with his bare hands, though he died in the incident.  As to the secret of his success, he apparently was the Fabio of his day, because his secret had something to do with his hair!

As for Gideon, he doesn’t have superhuman strength, but somehow he’s able to defeat the Amalekites whose troops numbered in the thousands with a small team of just 300 fighters.   Apparently God wanted Gideon’s enemies to understand that God was in the fight.

Then there’s the story David and Goliath.  David may have been too young to join the army, but he brought down the giant Goliath with nothing more than a sling shot.  In my memory, the pictures of Goliath make him out to be a Paul Bunyan-like figure, though the most reliable biblical texts put him closer to 6 foot 9.  That’s tall, but closer to Magic Johnson than Paul Bunyan. Still, that’s quite a fete for a young shepherd boy.

There are also women who figure prominently in the biblical story.  They may lack brute strength, but they possess courage and wisdom and they too accomplish great things.   There’s the story of Deborah who judges Israel and leads them in battle during a critical time when no man would step forward.  There’s Miriam, the sister of Moses and a prophet in her own right, who helps lead the people across the desert.  And Esther risks her life and her position in the court of the Persian king to protect her people.  They too act with the power of God within them.

The message in all of these stories is simple – extraordinary fetes can happen when one is acting within the power of God.   Or, as Paul writes to the Philippians:  “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”

Not only that, but Paul, writing from prison, can say to the community“rejoice in the Lord always.”  Although Paul isn’t claiming superhuman powers, he does invite us to live joyfully even during difficult times.  But, in spite this call to live joyfully in the Lord, many of us adopt the philosophy of the Stoics.  There are probably lots of Stoics in our world – perhaps you’re a Stoic and you didn’t even know it.  You could describe a Stoic as a person who has learned to endure life troubles.  That is, they have learned to “grin and bear it.”  They will endure, but there will be no joy.  Is that you?

Stoics are realists, but they’re also not the most pleasant people to be around.  Of course we may prefer them to the person who whistles a happy tune while pretending that nothing bad is happening to them or to the world around them.  We sometimes speak of such a person as one who’s living in denial.  Is that you?

Then there’s Chicken Little who is always complaining that the sky is falling.   Nothing good is ever going to happen in life.  Our best days are behind us and so we might as well find the bomb shelter and hide out until the end.  Is that you?

Paul is a realist, but he’s not a Stoic, doesn’t live in denial, nor is he a complainer.  What he is, is a person who can find joy in life even while being in prison.  Paul was no stranger to calamity, experiencing everything from shipwrecks to  beatings.  And if that isn’t enough, he tells the Corinthians that God has afflicted him with a “thorn in the flesh” that keeps him grounded after receiving visions and revelations (1 Cor. 12:7).

Paul knows what it’s like to live with nothing and with plenty, but he has also found a way of being content with where he’s at in life.  This is the source of his joy.  He has found his contentment in God’s presence.  Therefore, he can rejoice in all things and at all times, and can tell the Philippians not to be anxious, but instead take their concerns to God in prayer with thanksgiving – even when things aren’t going so well – sort of like what’s happening in our country right now.

I’ll make a confession here.  I struggle with this passage.  As much as I’d like to rejoice at all times, I get anxious about things and while I’m a fairly happy person, I have my moments.  I’ve known good times and not so good times, and I’ve come through okay, but I’m not always content nor do I rejoice at all times.  But then, I expect I’m in good company.

There’s a book that’s titled Flunking Sainthood.   Does that sound like you?  Have you tried yur best to be holy, to pray unceasingly, and take every problem to God in prayer with thanksgiving?  Are you an A+ or even a B+ student in sainthood?  Or, like me, do you struggle with your halo?  When it comes to sainthood, unless the bar is set really low, I think I fail to make the grade.  There are times, too many to count, where my mind focuses on things that are less than honorable and that aren’t necessarily commendable or excellent or worthy of praise.  

Whether or not we’ve reached perfection in this calling, Paul invites us to find joy even in the midst of difficult times and to do this we must think about life differently.  And the key seems to be moving away from a theology of scarcity to a theology of abundance.

When I talk about a theology of abundance, I’m not talking about a prosperity gospel where we name it and claim it and our dreams come true.  But, in a theology of abundance we stop thinking that there are limits to God’s presence, that there’s not enough of the Spirit to go around, so if you have some thing then there might not be enough for me.  This is true of power, money, and food.

There are a lot of hungry people in the world.  We’ll meet some of them when SOS comes to the church next weekend.  We know that people are hungry, but many of us throw away food or we eat more than our bodies can process?   Why is that?  Evolutionary biologists would tell us that this is part of genetic makeup, and we’ve not evolved enough to get beyond this fear of not having enough.  So, when we think that there’s not enough power or money to go around, we pull inward, and hoard what we have, and we ignore the common good.  But in this there is no joy.

Bruce Epperly spoke to this issue in his sermon a few weeks back.  More recently, in comments made about this passage, he has written:
Faith opens us to new dimensions of reality, in which we have all the resources we need to face the challenges of each day.  Amid bottom lines and apparent marginalization, faith sees evidence of God’s providence: a mustard seed becomes a great plant, five loaves and two fish can feed a multitude, and persecutors can become proclaimers.
So, when you look at the world through the eyes of faith, what do you see?  Do you see God at work opening up new possibilities?  Do you see the Spirit empowering people to do great things – maybe not superhuman fetes of strength, but great things?  Do you believe that there are enough gifts and resources present in this rather small congregation so that we might affirm the word that Paul gave to the Philippians from his jail cell?  “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”

In a moment we’ll dedicate the third of our new little ones.  We don’t know what the future holds for her.  There may be difficult times ahead.  But that’s life.   There will also be great opportunities for her to experience God’s presence and to live into God’s vision for her life.

And as for the rest of us, what will be the legacy we leave her?  What will be our witness?  Will it be one of abundance or scarcity?  Will we model for her and others a vision of reality that is full of joy and thanksgiving?  The choice is really ours.  If we take up God’s invitation, Paul says there will be peace and there will be joy in abundance!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
17th Sunday after Pentecost
October 9, 2011