Sunday, July 31, 2011

Wrestling till Daybreak



Genesis 32:22-31

When I was a kid, my mother decided I needed to learn how to defend myself and so she signed me up for wrestling camp.  Although I’d rather have been at basketball camp, for the next six Saturdays I learned to wrestle.  Since I never became a very proficient wrestler, I got knocked out in the first round of the tournament that ended the camp.  Much to my relief!   There’s another kind of wrestling besides the one I learned at camp.  They call it professional wrestling, and in professional wrestling, which I used to watch on Saturday afternoons, neither desire nor proficiency is the key to success.  That’s because the outcome is determined by a script.   

When it comes to wrestling Jacob wasn’t a professional!  No, he was a competitive wrestler, who when challenged would fight to win.  He’d been that way since he shared his mother’s womb with his twin brother.  His parents named him Jacob because he grabbed Esau’s heel and tried to pass him in the birth canal.  It didn’t quite work out as Jacob planned, but he didn’t give up.  He got Esau to trade his birthright for a nice bowl of stew and then tricked his father into giving the blessing by pretending to be Esau.  When he went to his uncle’s house looking for a wife, he ended up taking half of Laban’s flocks through trickery.  Jacob was a struggler, who did what he could to get on top of the situation.

Now he’s decided to return home and claim his inheritance.  Unfortunately he hadn’t reconciled with Esau, and it’s been reported that Esau is heading their way with 400 men.  Although Jacob takes some precautions, such as sending tribute ahead of his party and dividing his people and flocks into two companies, fear starts to set in.  The day of reckoning is at hand, and he’s not sure how it will end   

Having sent his family across the river, Jacob sits there all alone by the fire, unable to sleep, and worrying about the future.  He prayed that God would remain faithful to the promises made to him, that his descendants would be a blessing to the nations, but he didn’t know for sure what would happen next.  

While he was sitting by the fire,  someone attacked him from behind, and a wrestling match began that would last until daybreak.    This wasn’t “professional wrestling” where the ending was already scripted, and so Jacob fought back against his unknown assailant.  When dawn began to break, the attacker pleaded with Jacob:  "let me go because the sun is about to rise.”   Jacob was the winner, but he wouldn’t let go, even when the attacker dislodged his hip from its joint.  He wasn’t going to let go until his attacker gave him a blessing.  That blessing, which he secured by taking up a challenge would change everything.  This blessing involved a name change, and so he went from being the “one who supplants,” to the "one who struggled with God and humans and prevailed."  Yes, Jacob wrestled with God and prevailed, though he would carry a reminder of his struggle – a limp – but his identity was now assured.  Armed with confidence gained through this struggle, Jacob, now Israel, was ready to face his brother.  And the good news is that they would be reconciled! 
It’s an interesting story, but there’s more to it than simply a wrestling match with a divine entity.  Like Jacob and Israel, we too have our wrestling matches with God, through which we seek to discern God’s purpose and live it out in our lives and in our congregation. 

There are those who believe that God is  like a professional wrestler, and so if we get in a match with God the outcome is already determined.  Because God is in control of our destiny, these wrestling matches have been fixed.   But is this true?  Is our destiny already decided? Is it possible for us to wrestle with God and prevail?  Can our decisions and choices influence and affect the way God is present in the world?  It’s not that God’s character changes, it’s a question of whether the future is open or not.   

Like Jacob we all face difficult decisions, and often there are no easy and clean answers, In our struggle to discern God’s direction, we pray and meditate, we read the Scriptures and talk to  friends.  We might even “ask the pastor.”   In many cases we make decisions not knowing how the future will turn out, but in our wrestling matches with God we hear words of blessing and know that God is with us.  
  
There are some who believe that it’s not appropriate to ask questions of God and to have doubts about matters of faith.  Their counsel is to have faith and believe without question.  But Jacob had his doubts and David and Job and Mary had their questions to ask of God, just as we have our questions.  There are times when we have a hard time discerning whether God is present in our time of trial.  We wonder:  If God is love and if God has already determined the present and the future, then why is there so much evil and destruction in our world?  Sometimes our experiences in life cause us to rethink the way we understand the nature and character of God!  Like Jacob, when we wrestle with God, not only do we receive blessings, but we discern a way forward into the future knowing that we’re not alone.  

The story of Jacob’s wrestling match seems to have an invitation.  God says: throw your best punch; ask your questions.  If life doesn’t make sense, then tell God your reasons, whether it’s 9-11, Hiroshima, the Holocaust, the death of innocent children, a hurricane, or AIDS.  I think God is ready for a real wrestling match, not one of those “professional” ones where the ending is already determined.    

Like Jacob our futures are uncertain.  Some of us face health issues that require difficult decisions.  Others face financial uncertainty, especially if you’re dependent on Social Security and you don’t know if checks will go out this week.  Some of us have theological questions.  We wonder about the character and purpose of God.  Maybe we struggle with a seeming lack of justice in the world or the traditional definitions of God no longer work for us.    As a congregation we face the reality that our demographic is older than the norm and we wonder how to draw in younger adults and children. 

These are the kinds of questions and issues that God embraces.  Our God is not a passive spectator.  God is an engaged participant in our lives.  Since God doesn’t act coercively, maybe the wrestling analogy has its limitations.  But, in the struggle, it appears that our lives are transformed by our engagement with God.  

On August 27th we’ll have an opportunity to engage God and each other in a conversation about our church, its mission, and its future.  In our all-church retreat that Alex will be leading, we’ll be learning some important skills that will help us work together to accomplish God’s purpose in the world.  In this retreat we’ll be revisiting our core values and we will wrestle with them as we seek to discern our future. Then in September Bruce Epperly is coming to lead us in a conversation about how we might more deeply root our missional work in God’s life. These are important events, because they will help us wrestle with our sense of calling.   Standing before us are important questions like whether we’re ready to nest an intentional Christian community that could lead to a new congregation?   There are issues of diversity in age and ethnicity, and as our General Minister, Sharon Watkins, reminded us at the General Assembly we must  face the question of whether we’re willing to truly welcome our Gay and Lesbian brothers and sisters into  our churches.

So, as a church, we stand at the river’s edge, able to see some of the future unfolding before us, but knowing that the future is not yet complete.  Having wrestled with God, we face the question of whether we’re willing to cross the river with boldness, ready to embrace the future that God is preparing for us.  We’ve already made great strides toward becoming a truly missional church, but this is an ongoing journey, with many rivers to cross and therefore lots of wrestling matches to endure.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 31, 2011

Sunday, July 24, 2011

If God Is For Us . . .


Romans 8:26-39

On a hot and humid evening this past week, as we watched the Tigers play the Oakland A’s, John Balogh asked me whether I would be preaching a baseball-themed sermon?  Being a lifelong baseball fan,  I couldn’t let a request like that get away, and so I began thinking about how baseball might fit with this morning’s sermon theme.      

In Romans 8 Paul poses a question:  “If God is for us, then who can be against us?”   Now, if you’re a Tiger’s fan, could you see God’s hand at work during the game Tuesday evening?  Because they won big, surely God must be on the side of the Tigers!   Of course, not everyone saw things this way, because two members of our group wore caps of the then first place Cleveland Indians.   And while I donned a Tiger’s hat and rooted them on as they played the hapless Oakland A’s, just few weeks earlier I wore a San Francisco Giants cap to the Giants-Tigers game and rooted for my boyhood team.   So, on that night I was one of the few in the stadium who went home happy. So, if God is a baseball fan, whose side is God on?    And, if victory is a mark of God’s support, then surely God must be a Yankee fan, because  no team has accumulated as many championships as they have.  I’m sure most of you will agree with me that God could not be a Yankee fan! 

So, what does it mean for us to claim that if God is for us, then no one or no thing can stand against us?   Being that this is the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War and because Cheryl and I happened to stop at Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky on our way home from the General Assembly, I wondered how this great American President would answer the question.  Lincoln said something in his Second Inaugural Address that seems to pertain to this question.  

Lincoln may not have been a church member in good standing, but he had a keen theological mind, and he was well aware that both sides in this horrible conflict that took nearly 700,000 lives were praying that God would bless their cause.  Both sides seemed to believe that “if God is for us, then who can be against us.”  I have my own thoughts as to whose side God favored, but Lincoln recognized the difficulties involved in claiming God’s blessings.  And so, in his Second Inaugural Address, as he tried  to prepare a fractured nation for reunion once the war ended, he spoke these words: 
Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.
Although Constantine believed that God gave him the cross as a sign of conquest, Lincoln was a much better theologian when it came to such matters.    

But it’s not just about war or God’s favoring a particular nation with blessings.  If God is for us, then where is God when atrocities like the massacre in Norway occur?  Or, when a natural disaster like the quake in Haiti strikes?   These are not easy questions to answer, and yet they are asked regularly.

Perhaps we can begin to find answers in the opening verses of our text from Romans 8, where Paul tells the Roman church that if you don’t know how to pray, then the Spirit, who knows our hearts, and God’s heart, will plead “our case with unexpressed groans.”   Although we may be impressed by long and eloquent prayers, God isn’t so obsessed with the quality of our words, and is more concerned about what is going on in our hearts.  So, even if all we can do is offer God our unexpressed groans, God will hear them and respond.    

We can find hope and strength, Paul says, in knowing that “in all things God works for good for those who love God.”  Do you hear in this statement an invitation to join with God in pursuing that which is good in this world?  Do you hear an invitation to join with God in bringing blessings, not just to one nation, but to the whole of creation?  Remember our Disciple motto:  “We are a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.”   We have experienced this partnership of blessing this summer as we shared in the launch of our Motown Partnership and our partnership with Rippling Hope Ministries, two exciting expressions of our Missional calling.  And these ministries have been infused by the Spirit, whom we have encountered as we’ve made ourselves available to God so that we can be a means of blessing to our world.  

As we hear in Romans 8 words about being part of the elect, the called ones, there are echoes of the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah, where God  promised that it would be through their descendants that the peoples of this world  would be blessed.   We could hear this promise in very deterministic ways, in which God has already determined who is in and who is out, and therefore the ones whom God has chosen to be blessed will make it through to the end.  But, is this how we understand the promises of God? 

As we consider this question, maybe we should look to the Chicago Cubs for a good analogy of the way in which God is with us in the world.  If we see God as the big Yankee fan in the sky, then we must judge God on the number of “championships” won.  But, if we picture God as a Cubs fan, knowing that it’s been decades since they were last in the World Series, let alone having won one, then we can understand God not as the great decider, but as the beloved companion who remains faithful in all things and shares in our sufferings and partners with us in bringing healing and hope to all of creation.      

This text and it’s promise that God is for us raises questions about our understanding of the nature and character of God.  If you’re like me, you grew up with the idea that God is an all-powerful being who sweeps in and takes care of us when needed, sort of a like a divine Mr. Fix-It.   Indeed, we tend to give thanks when something wonderful happens to us or to a friend, but what about all of those times in which God doesn’t seem to intervene?  That is, if God is love as we believe, and if God is all-powerful, then why didn’t God stop that gunman in Norway from taking the lives of eighty-four people at a camp, most of whom were children?   

Over the years I’ve had to rethink the way in which I understand how God is for us and with us.  The traditional understanding of God, which speaks of God as this all-powerful being who knows all things and can do all things, no longer makes sense of the world in which I live.  Although I haven’t gotten it all figured out yet, instead of seeing God as the great Yankee in the sky, I’ve come to see God as the one who walks with us in our suffering and invites us into partnership so that together we can bring hope and healing and justice to our world.  Maybe this is a view of God that a Cubs fan, and maybe a Lion’s fan, can appreciate.   

Our text begins with a promise that when we can’t figure out how to pray or what to ask, then the Spirit will pray on our behalf, and it ends with another promise.  That promise is an important one because it touches on one of the greatest fears that we have as human beings – that we might find ourselves alone and unloved.  The promise is that nothing – not adversity, illness, or even political powers – can separate us from the love of God.  

One of the things that has struck me about the Harry Potter series of books and movies is its emphasis on the importance of love, friendship, and loyalty.  While much responsibility is placed on Harry’s young shoulders, since he is the one everyone is looking to for their deliverance from the clutches of the evil one, he doesn’t take on this responsibility all by himself.  There are times when he feels alone and even abandoned, but throughout this series of stories his beloved friends, Ron and Hermoine, always have his back, and they’re not the only ones who are standing with him as he takes up this battle with the powers and principalities of this world. 

The promise is that God is for us, and therefore, nothing can stand against us.  The point is not that we’ll never experience suffering or tragedy, but in the midst of everything that happens in our lives, nothing separates us from the love of God, which we know and experience in Jesus Christ.  In this there is victory and there is hope. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 24, 2011   

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Divine Wisdom -- A Sermon


Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

John the Baptist was a spoil sport who wouldn’t dance when the band played and didn’t wail with the mourners at funerals, and so they decided he had to be demon-possessed.  Then, along comes Jesus, who hangs out with the wrong crowd – sinners and tax-collectors – so he must be a drunkard and a glutton.  As they say, you can’t win for losing!   Now, John wasn’t really demon-possessed – though he did dress in camel skins and eat a diet of locusts.  But, just because you’re an eccentric, that doesn’t mean you’re demon-possessed.   As for Jesus, I doubt if he really was a drunk or a glutton – though he did make wine from water (though that’s a different Gospel)  and of course he did go to lots of dinner parties, but he did hang out with the wrong sort of people, and as they say – you can know the character of a person by the company they keep.  But that’s conventional wisdom, and divine wisdom is often different from conventional wisdom.   As Jesus says “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”  

Since it’s “4th of July Weekend,” it’s worth bringing Benjamin Franklin into the conversation.  Franklin was well known in his day for dispensing  “conventional wisdom,” some of which continues to be passed on today.   One piece of this conventional wisdom suggests “God helps those who help themselves.”   Although many Christians believe that this piece of “wisdom” can be found in the Bible, it was coined by a 17th century British writer and then passed on by Franklin to his readers.  It’s a popular bit of conventional wisdom, but does it fit with divine wisdom?  

Another way of describing conventional wisdom is what some call “common sense.”  Trust your senses and you’ll know the truth.  So, when you experience a rather cool and rainy spring, you may find it difficult to believe the scientists who keep telling us that we’re experiencing global warming.   Since what you’re experiencing doesn’t seem to fit with what the scientists are saying – they must be wrong.  

Then there’s something that may look like wisdom, but is really nothing more than conspiracy theory.  Something that some politicians like to share with us to get our support for their cause, or that bit of wisdom that our “friends” share with us in emails that need to be checked out on Snopes.com.  On matters such as these, the wisdom of Mark Twain certainly fits!    "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so."  

On the other hand, Jesus says that there is a wisdom that God reveals not to the wise and intelligent of this age, but rather to infants.  It’s the sort of wisdom that suggests that if you want to follow Jesus you might want to sell all you have and give it to the poor.  That certainly doesn’t sound very much like common sense, but as you know, Jesus told one young man to do just that.    

Divine wisdom is different from conventional wisdom or even common sense wisdom, but “it will be vindicated by her deeds,” which Jesus says is revealed in his invitation to those who are weary and carry heavy burdens to go to him and let him take on this heavy load.  All that we have to do, Jesus says, is take upon ourselves his yoke, which is easy and light.  

In preparing for this sermon I discovered something I hadn’t seen  before, or at least I hadn’t really paid much attention to before now.  What I discovered was that this invitation to lay down our burdens and take up the yoke of Jesus, that sign of servanthood, is rooted in a passage from one of the deuterocanonical books called the Wisdom of Sirach, and in Sirach, Wisdom, who is described in feminine terms, invites the weary and the heavily burdened to let go of these burdens and worries and take upon themselves the yoke of wisdom.

18My child, from your youth welcome education, and you will continue to discover wisdom until you are gray-haired. 19Approach her like one who plows and one who sows, and wait for her good fruits.When cultivating her, you will labor a little, but you will eat her produce soon.   20Wisdom is rugged terrain to the uneducated, and the fainthearted won’t persevere with her.  21The will be like a heavy stone that tests them, and they won’t hesitate to throw her aside.  22Wisdom is like her name, and she won’t be visible to many.  23Listen, my child, and welcome my opinion. Don’t reject my advice.  24Put your feet into her shackles and your neck into her collar.  25Bend your shoulder down and carry her, and don’t chafe at her bonds.  26Come to her with your whole being, and keep to her ways with all your strength.  27Track her down and seek her, and she will become known to you.When you get possession of her, don’t let her go.  28In the end, you will find rest in her, and she will turn to you and make you happy.  (Sirach 26:18-28 CEB)
This discovery has proven very helpful in understanding what Jesus is doing in this passage of Scripture.  You see, without ever giving attribution to Sirach, Jesus suggests that he is the embodiment of divine wisdom, the kind of wisdom that comforts, sustains, and supports us.   Jesus seems to be saying that if you want to know true wisdom, then you must know me and follow me, because God has handed down this wisdom to me, and to those to whom I reveal it.  So, come and follow me by putting on the collar and shackles of wisdom, then you will find rest and happiness – not as the world understands it, but as God understands it.     

And this is good news, for many of us carry many burdens.  Some are sick, some mourn, some  are angry, some struggle with their faith, and some are anxious about their lives and their futures.   We’re weary and having sought help in many places, not knowing where to turn, we receive this word of wisdom from the one who embodies wisdom: Come take my yoke and I will give you rest from all your burdens.  This wisdom the writer of Proverbs says is more desirable than anything the world has to offer, including gold, silver, or even fine jewels.  It was the first manifestation of God’s creativity, and through wisdom, God has created all things, which makes divine wisdom, as opposed to conventional wisdom, the fount of life and divine favor (Prov. 8).   And it is found, Jesus says, by letting go of our need to control life and embrace his invitation to be a servant of God.   And, “wisdom will be vindicated by her deeds.”  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
July 3, 2011