Sunday, May 29, 2011

I'll Be There for You -- A Sermon

John 14:15-21

Soon after God created Adam, God noticed that the man was lonely.  Feeling sorry for him, God decided to fix the problem by creating animals and sending them one by one to Adam.  Adam gave them names, but his loneliness didn’t go away.  Not even the dogs, who are our best friends, nor the cats, who can be good companions – just don’t have too many of them – could fill the void that Adam was experiencing.  Interestingly enough, not even Adam’s relationship with the Creator would suffice, and so God decided to create a companion who was perfectly fit for the man.   When Adam saw the woman, he said to God:  you got it right this time.  She’s bone of my bone, and flesh of my flesh.  

This creation story reminds us that deep within us is a need to be in relationship with others like ourselves.  Of course, we’re all different and so the way in which we experience relationships is different.  Some of you are extroverts and you can’t get enough of being with people, and the more the merrier.  Others of you are like me.  You’re an introvert and even though you enjoy the company of others, at some point, you just have to get away by yourself!

Of course we need to find a balance.  I may enjoy being by myself for a while, but not for too long.  I remember spending a couple of months pulling brush on  property that sat  7000 feet up in the mountains and ten miles from the next closest property. Now it was beautiful up there in the mountains.  The main cabin sat on a small mountain lake that lay in the shadow of a much taller peak.  In spite of this great beauty I couldn’t wait to head home for the weekend so I could get a little human companionship.  This need for companionship seems to be instinctive.   Have you watched a little baby reach out for his or her mother?  Isn’t that amazing how we bond with our parents so quickly?    
 Here in John, after trying to comfort the disciples as he faced the cross, Jesus tells them that he wouldn't leave them orphans, but even as he goes to the Father, he will ask the Father to send them another companion – the paraclete who is the “Spirit of Truth.”  This Greek word is really wonderful, because it has so many meanings and nuances.   You’ll find it translated as companion, advocate, counselor, comforter, and even helper.  So how might the Spirit of God be for us an advocate, a comforter, and a helper?  
The Advocate
When you think of the Spirit, do you ever think about Sam Bernstein or Geoffrey Fieger?  Well, they’re advocates.  It’s hard to miss their seemingly omnipresent ads, that promise that if we have a problem they’ll take care of us.  Although I’ll have to take their word for this, that’s essentially what an advocate does.  If Sam and Geoffrey don’t seem like good analogies, what about Perry Mason or Ben Matlock?   I know that my earliest views of attorneys were formed by watching reruns of Perry Mason, who always seemed to get to the truth of the matter.   And that’s what the Spirit is – the defender of the truth, who comes in Jesus stead to fulfill the promise that  "if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous."

The Comforter
Then there’s the word “comforter,” and instead of Perry Mason of Sam Bernstein, maybe the best image is that of a mother who loves her children.  In Isaiah 66, God says to the people:   "I will comfort you there as a child is comforted by its mother" (Is. 66:13).  Isn’t this a wonderful image?  It’s an image that all of us can relate to – though with all due respect to Isaiah, a father’s love can be comforting as well!   But here is this wonderful image of God comforting a child like a mother who is sitting in a rocking chair, gently  rocking her child to sleep after some traumatic incident – whether it’s a scraped knee or the loss of a pet.

Some amongst us might see this as a diminishment of God.  For some people, if we think of God in terms of traditionally feminine qualities, then God may appear to be weak and passive – though it might be good to remember that most of the women of the Bible, from Miriam to Mary were anything but weak or passive.

As you reflect on this name for the Spirit, perhaps the people of Joplin, Missouri comes to mind.  Surely the Spirit is there with the people of that city, walking with those who mourn for their loved ones who perished when that horrific tornado hit the city.  Yes, and surely the Spirit is standing with those who still hold out hope that a loved one could be found alive in the rubble.  Surely the Spirit is there encouraging the people who must start their lives anew.  And if we have experienced the comforting presence of the Spirit in our own lives, perhaps that might lead us to participate with the Spirit in bringing comfort to those who grieve and who hold out hope.  One way of doing this, of course, is to contribute through Week of Compassion.

The Helper
Then there’s this idea that the Spirit of Truth might be our divine helper.  In the words of that powerful opening hymn of Martin Luther, we declare:

A mighty fortress is our God,

a bulwark never failing;

our helper he amid the flood
of mortal ills prevailing.
And when God created a companion for the man, according to Genesis 2, God created a “helper fit for him.”  This “helper” was to be  a partner who would share life with Adam, not only sharing the chores in the garden, but sharing life itself with him.

I’ve used this text from Genesis in many a wedding because it’s so descriptive of the partnership that marriage is intended to be.  But, this text speaks of more than marriage, because it speaks to our need for human companionship, whatever the nature of that relationship.  But here, it’s the Spirit who brings completion to humanity.  It’s the Spirit who is our spiritual partner in life.      

Again as Luther put it in his hymn, God is "our present help amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing," so that when we’re about to falter, the Spirit of God comes  alongside us and lift us up, much like the mother eagle, who when she’s teaching her chicks to fly, lifts them up by the power of her own wings.  

This morning we come to worship knowing that around the world there are people who need defending, and comforting, and help in life’s journey.  We come remembering the people of Joplin; we also come knowing that this is the day before Memorial Day, when we as a nation stop to remember those who have died, especially those who have died in service to their country.   As we hear this text from John’s Gospel, how do you hear the promise that God will not leave us orphans?  How do you hear and respond to the promise that Jesus has asked God to send to us the  Spirit of Truth who is our Advocate, our Comforter, and our Helper?  How do you hear these words today?  What do they call you to do with your life?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
6th Sunday of Easter
May 29, 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Trusting the Good Shepherd -- A Sermon

Psalm 23

Today Bryan and Felicia are following the example of Joseph and Mary, who brought Jesus to the Temple to be dedicated. But, not only are they dedicating Eric to God’s care, they’re also dedicating themselves to being faithful Christian parents in the hope that Eric will grow in “wisdom and years, and in the favor with God and with people” (Lk 2:52 CEB). And, not only are they dedicating their child, but they’re also asking that we their family and their church will walk with them in this journey.

In preparing for this service of dedication, may we attend to the words of this most beloved of scriptures, which I’d like to read again, this time in the King James Version. If you’ve committed this passage to memory, you might even say it along with me.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.


Keeping in mind this Psalm, which we often read at the end of life, I wonder: what word does it offer us at the beginning of life? What promises does it make?

As you meditate on these words, I invite those of you midst who are parents to remember the joy you felt the first time you held your baby. Do you remember the hopes and dreams that you felt that day? Do you also remember the day that you came to the church and committed yourself to raising your child in the Christian faith?

And since we’re remembering these events, let’s remember the defining moments of a child’s life – the first words and first steps. Remember that first day of school and maybe graduation day. Perhaps you remember the day a child got married and had their first child. Yes, remember the joys that have come as you’ve taken this journey of faith with your children. These are the memories that Bryan and Felicia have and will experience as well.

And whether or not we are parents, as church we’ve walked alongside our families, encouraging and supporting them as they have tried to live faithfully before God. Yes, as church, we’ve watched as our children have been baptized or confirmed in the faith. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, we have committed to our memory these events and have considered them carefully (Lk. 2: 19).

A Culture of Trust

As joyous as this moment is, the Psalmist reminds us that life often involves walking through dark valleys, even valleys over which hangs the shadow of death. Everyone here has faced challenges of one sort or another. Maybe it’s been a financial issue or a broken relationship. Maybe it’s involved doubts about God’s faithfulness, or maybe just that feeling of being lost and alone. We don’t always feel the presence of God in these moments, but the Psalmist reminds us: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

I know that many of us are experiencing a dark time, a time when dark clouds hang over our families and our communities. One of those dark clouds is the overwhelming presence of “distrust.” All around me I see expressions of distrust – from questions about the President’s faith and birthplace to the continued questioning of the integrity of the local city council. It’s said that many young people distrust the institution of marriage, because so many of them have, like me, grown up in broken homes. Why enter an institution that no longer works? There’s the banks and the oil companies, and even the church. As we dedicate this young child to God’s purposes, I wonder – what kind of world are bequeathing to him? What kind of world will he experience when he’s reached maturity? Will there still be dark clouds hanging over the world?

My concern is that all of this distrust is undermining our commitment to the common good. But, then as I listen to the words of this Psalm, I hear a different future. Do you hear a word of hope in these words: “I will fear no evil, for thou art with me?”

I know that trust is easily lost and very difficult to restore, but it’s not impossible. We build trust by being in relationship with each other, even if this mobile society of ours conspires against strong relationships. And as much as I enjoy all of my Facebook friends, I know that most of them don’t go deep enough to create a climate of trust. I’m not sure whether I’m ready to risk my life into their hands!

But perhaps the starting point is to be found in the image of the shepherd and the sheep. Do you remember that passage from John 10, where Jesus says: "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (vs. 11). Now that’s the kind of depth of relationship that will sustain us.

Building Trust by Breaking Bread

From the dark valley the Psalmist takes us to the table that the Lord sets for us in "in the presence of my enemies." Although danger lurks all around us, there’s no need to fear, because the Lord has set the table. Here’s where the conversation changes and a culture of trust begins to emerge. By eating together we build relationships, and by building relationships we build trust.

Do you remember the story of Holy Thursday? Remember who was at the table with Jesus? There was Judas, the one who would betray him. Did Jesus exclude him? And then there’s Peter. Remember how, after Jesus’ arrest Peter denied him three times, but Jesus didn’t exclude him. And remember how on that day of darkness, all of the disciples fled in fear? And yet Jesus continued to dine with all of them. He didn’t exclude them, but instead offered them hope and healing.

When we gather around the Lord’s Table, we do so as Republican and Democrat, Independent and just plain uncertain about politics. We’re theological liberals, moderates, and conservatives. We don’t all agree on everything under the sun, and yet, we find our unity and our peace at this table that the Lord has set for us. In a time of distrust, might this table that the Good Shepherd has prepared for us become the foundation of trust?

As we come to this place to dedicate Eric and his parents to God’s care, promising that we will walk with them every step of the way, may we find strength in these words from the Psalmist: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever. Amen!"

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday of Easter
May 15, 2011

Sunday, May 08, 2011

A Mother's Wisdom -- A Sermon for Mother's Day

Proverbs 1:8-9

8 Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.
9 They are a garland to grace your head and a chain to adorn your neck. (NIV, 2011)

Today is Mother's Day, which celebrates a very special relationship between mother and child, and by extension - children and parents. Mother's Day, along with Father's Day, celebrates the importance of family, and it's a good thing to celebrate these relationships. But we should also remember that Jesus had a broader vision of family than do most of us. Do you remember what he said when his mother came looking for him? He pointed to his disciples and said:

"Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." (Matthew 12:49-50).
As we take to heart this word about family, we can then listen to the wisdom we find in Proverbs, which calls on us to listen to our parents and follow their instructions so that life might be good. It's a message that's also present in the commandment to "Honor your Father and Mother." Of course, if children - whatever their ages -- actually listened to their mothers, that would make for a very happy Mother's Day!

1. The Dangerous Ideal

Although we're not all mothers, we all have mothers: Biological and adoptive, room moms and dorm moms, good mothers and not so good mothers. There are happy moms and sad ones, stay-at-home moms and working moms; moms by choice and moms by accident.

If you want to know how to be the ideal mother (and wife), then read Proverbs 31.

10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm,all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships,bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.  (NIV, 2011)
This chapter can offer a liberating word for women, after all, the writer affirms their industriousness and intelligence.  But, the downside of this chapter is that it seems to suggest that you have to be Superwoman to be a good mother and wife. The ideal woman is one who works and works night and day making sure the house is run well, the poor are tended to, and her husband has the freedom to sit at the city gates and talk politics with the other city leaders. As you listen to these words, you quickly realize that this is an unattainable ideal. If you tried to attain to this standard, you would end up exhausted. And yet, despite the unattainable nature of this ideal, this ode to the ideal woman, reminds us that mothers play an important role in the life both of the family and beyond the family. If we take to heart this message, then both mothers and fathers hear a call to be loving guides to their children, who provide instruction from the heart.

2. A Child Listens for the Mother's Voice

In speaking of the blessings that come from listening to the voice of our parents, the writers of Proverbs describe a relationship that mirrors the one that Jesus speaks of when he talks about the relationship between the shepherd and the sheep. That is, even as the sheep hear and follow the Master's voice, so the child hears and follows the mother's voice. Jesus says that the sheep know the shepherd's voice because the shepherd spends time with the sheep. This is what we call bonding, and if you watch a mother and a baby together, you'll see how that bond is built from the very beginning of a baby's life!

Parents build relationships with their children by attending Scout meetings, band concerts, swim meets, football games, and helping with homework - when they can. Sometimes it involves going to the hospital and parent-teacher conferences. Parents read stories to their children and maybe even engage in tickle fights. They eat together and go to museums and zoos. Kids don't always show it, but deep down most of them are grateful for this relationship.

I will confess that I didn't always heed my mother's voice, but I always knew she was there for me. Because she took the time to build a relationship with me when I was very young, I have always known that I could count on her being there when I was in need.

3. A Mother Stands and Protects Her Children.

Good parents, like good shepherds, don't run away when danger strikes. That is, they don't abandon their lambs to the wolves. No, when danger is present, they stand firm, even at the cost of their own lives.

Parents seem to have this deeply planted innate concern for the welfare of their children. It's not just human parents. It's also true of the animal kingdom. That's why you had better not ever approach a bear cub playing alone. It's very likely that an extremely protective mother is standing close by, ready to jump in and defend her cub. So don't tempt fate by getting too close! This attribute is so innate to mothers, human or not, that we find it incomprehensible when we hear about a mother killing or abandoning her children. It's just not natural. Now, I will admit, sometimes mothers can be a bit overprotective, but you have to understand where they're coming from!

4. Mothers as Models of God's Presence 

As we contemplate the relationship of mothers and their children, it's appropriate to also consider the feminine images of God that are present in Scripture. We're used to addressing God as Father and imagining God in masculine terms. We address God as Father when we pray the Lord's Prayer and when we sing the Gloria Patri, which describes God in Trinitarian terms as God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But these aren't the only ways we can address God.

If we listen closely to the Scriptures, we find numerous examples of God described in feminine and even motherly terms. For instance, in Deuteronomy we read about the "God who gave you birth" (Deut. 32:18), and in Isaiah, Israel describes God as the one who bore Israel from birth and carried Israel from the womb (Is. 46:3). Hosea speaks of God's relationship with Israel in especially motherlike ways, saying: "I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them" (Hos. 11:4). In Isaiah 66 we read: "As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you . . . " (Isa. 66:13). Then there is that passage in Luke where Jesus describes himself as a mother hen desiring to gather up her chicks (Luke 13:34). Then there's Holy Wisdom, which is understood as describing God in feminine terms, while the Hebrew word for Spirit - ruach - is a feminine noun. God is also described as a mother eagle and a mother bear and as a woman seeking after a lost coin. Each of these images and ideas remind us that if we think of God solely in masculine terms then we've missed part of the biblical understanding of God.

So, as we celebrate Mother's Day, if you've not already done so, perhaps this is a good time to expand your vision of God's nature, so that we might truly understand how humanity expresses the image of God as both male and female (Gen. 1:27). And as we do this, let us give thanks for God's gift of mothers and then think about the qualities that are present in our mothers, which reflect the nature of God.

While we're doing this remembering and celebrating, we might want to remember that Mother's Day can be a difficult day for many. It might be a day of grief for those who remember a beloved mother who has died. It might also be a time of remembering a child who has died. Then there are the women who have found it impossible to bear a child. We need to keep them in our hearts and honor their grief.

If we can do this, then we can also give thanks for the love and grace that God expresses to us in and through our mothers. We can also remember that God comes to us not only as Father, but also as Mother. This is the vision laid out for us in the words of a hymn written by Ruth Duck.

Womb of Life, and Source of Being, home of every restless heart,
in your arms the worlds awakened; you have loved us from the start.
We your children, gather 'round you at the table you prepare.
Sharing stories, tears and laughter, we are nurtured by your care.
May we honor our mothers and receive from God, God's nurturing care so that we might find rest for our restless heart.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday of Easter
May 8, 2011