Sunday, September 25, 2011

How Great the Joy -- Sermon

Philippians 2:1-13

During the Christmas season we sing joyous songs that declare in very explicit terms the nature of our joy, which is:  God has visited us in the person of Jesus, the babe born in Bethlehem.  We sing these songs, even if we’re not feeling particularly joyful at that moment.  We can even sing some of them from memory.  So, we sing: 
Joy to the World, the Lord is come!   Let earth receive her king!

Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing, 

and heaven and nature sing, and heaven and nature sing.
I’m not sure that Paul and Silas were singing “Joy to the World” in their Philippian jail cell, nor would he have been singing it in another prison cell as he wrote his letter to the Philippian church.  That’s because Isaac Watts didn’t write it until 1719.  But, Paul did have this sense about what it means to find joy in difficult situations.  

In the first chapter of his letter, Paul expressed his joy at having an opportunity to share the gospel with the whole Imperial Guard (Phil. 1:12).   

But not everything brought him joy.  Prison didn’t get him down, but since he drew strength from the prayers of the churches, he does seem distressed at the possibility that strife and dissension might be present in the Philippian church.  And so he writes, asking them to  “Make my joy complete.”   

As I was thinking about Paul’s request, I began thinking about the signs of joy that we find present in our midst.  Where do we see signs of joy, even in these less than ideal times?

  • Bobby vacuuming the church each Sunday?
  • The new babies in the nursery.
  • Children wherever we may find them – Apparently, this is especially true for grandparents, who as they say, get to spoil the children without having to deal with the consequences!
  • Perhaps joy is found in the fellowship of friends and neighbors.
  • There is joy to be found outdoors in the midst of God’s creation.
  • And as  Bruce Epperly reminded us last weekend, we shouldn’t make a distinction between humanity and nature, because we’re part of nature.  But, each of us has our own symbol of nature’s glory that gives us a sense of joy at being part of God’s creation – from the snow capped peaks of Mount Shasta in Northern California to the Sleeping Bear Dunes of Michigan.  
  • Joy could be found in the Lions winning their first two games of the season, suggesting that maybe this year will be different.    
  • Or, perhaps joy is found in the midst of gifts of the Spirit that are shared with the community.
  • Last Sunday evening as we shared together in our alternative worship experience, which we’ve renamed “The Conversation,” Lance shared with me the gifts he brings to the church, which  are “Maintenance, Music, and Mischief.”  I like that last gift a lot, because we need a little mischief of the good-natured variety.  By the way, I got permission to share that word with you!

This isn’t the first time I’ve preached on this passage.  Although I don’t have a copy of the sermon, which I wrote out by hand, one of my earliest attempts at preaching took up this text.  It’s always appealed to me because it speaks to my long-held passion for Christian unity.   This passion developed, I think, because my own spiritual journey has taken me to a fairly wide variety of faith traditions, from Episcopalian to Pentecostal, from Covenant to Baptist, from Independent Christian Churches to the Disciples.  This journey is one of the main reasons why I ended up a Disciple.   I took to heart Barton Stone’s slogan that “unity is our polar star.”    We may not live out our calling perfectly, but we believe that it’s a goal worth pursuing.

I think the other reason why I liked this passage is that it offered a nice concise sermon outline, and what more could a novice preacher ask for than a straightforward outline.  And so I preached on Paul’s call to be of the same mind, the same love, united in purpose, and then back to being of one mind. 

When we hear a word like this, we might get a bit anxious.  This idea of oneness and sameness may suggest an absence of diversity, but the kind of unity that brings joy to Paul doesn’t eliminate variety and difference, which is a good thing since we’re all rather different in our personalities and perspectives.   But Paul knew that dissension and miscommunication and rivalries can take away our joy, and so he says to us:  Be of the same mind as Jesus, who humbled himself for our sake.  If you follow Jesus, then my joy will be complete.  

At our last Council meeting we watched Sharon Watkins’ Re-Election Speech, where she spoke of the challenges facing the church today.  She spoke movingly of those who have not experienced the love of God. She says:  
The challenge for us today is that so many of our neighbors do not know the love of God. The need of our neighbor is what needs to break our hearts and preoccupy our board meetings. The people we see on the street every day or on our computer monitors – brother and sister human beings – do not know that they are precious – each and every one – in God’s sight. 
She asked us to consider how this message will be shared with those outside the walls of the church if the people inside the walls don’t love each other?  As she spoke of this need, she called to our attention the critique of Christianity offered by comedian and skeptic Bill Maher.  Maher is no friend of the church, but his critique is worth hearing, for he suggests that Jesus has more fans than followers.  The good news, as Sharon noted, was that our very name – “Disciples of Christ” suggests that we are followers not just fans.  

To move from being a fan to a follower involves having the mind of Christ, who though in the form of God, thought nothing of this status, and took the form of a servant, even dying on a cross.  Yes, God did exalt him and every knee will bow at his name, but I don’t think that this reward was the reason why he became one of us.   

The realities of life remind us that real joy can’t depend on the circumstances of life.  Paul knew what it meant to suffer, and yet he found joy.  Jesus knew what it meant to suffer, and yet he found joy.  

I’m not an advocate of martyrdom or intentionally seeking out suffering.  I’m a rather cautious sort, which is why I don’t indulge in reckless sports such as skiing, whether on land or water!   But, down through the ages, there have been those who have stood firm in the face of suffering, and found joy in the midst of the situations.  This was true of Paul and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many others, including people we know so very well, such as Jeans Sims.  These are people who despite their situation in life, found it possible to share the message that their neighbors are precious in God’s sight.  

Although I never really watched The Waltons back in the day, the message of that series seems to fit with Paul’s message, for according to the story line, this family, finding itself living in the midst of the Depression and then a World War, found joy in their commitment as a family to pursue the common good of all. 

I expect the Philippian church was a lot like modern churches.  It was full of real people – like us.  Like them we have differences of opinion on matters such as politics and theology.  We’re different in age and experience.  But, with all of our differences, and the challenges of working together, we still find joy in the unity that comes as we follow Jesus.  In doing so, we become signs of God’s presence in a world that struggles to find peace, security, economic stability, and hope for the future.  In our lives we declare to the world that there is joy, because the Lord is come!   And we are the witnesses of this good news!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
15th Sunday after Pentecost
September 25, 2011   


Sunday, September 11, 2011

Revisiting 9-11: A 10 year anniversary sermon

1 Timothy 1:12-17

A lot of preachers have been wondering what to say this morning about September 11th.  There are those who believe that it’s best to say nothing, but most of us believe that this particular anniversary can’t pass by unnoticed.  That day is seared into our memories, and many among us have found it difficult to move on.  Fear remains.  Anger remains.  Grief remains.  In the days after 9-11 the word rang out: “Never Forget.”  But does this mean that we can’t move into the future?    

As we wonder about how to move on, the past remains vivid.  Have you pondered the question of where you were when you first heard the news about the planes hitting the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and then the news about another jet crashing into a field in Pennsylvania?    This event question ranks with the news about Pearl Harbor, the Oklahoma City Bombing,  the assassination of John Kennedy, his brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King.   These kinds of events can be defining moments in one’s life, and so it is appropriate for us to stop and consider that day ten years ago when the “normalcy” of our lives was shattered by this set of attacks.  And as we reflect on that day, we face questions about how our lives have changed as a result.  Am I different?  Is the nation different?  Is the world different?  And the answers are likely to be  both positive and negative. 

Let me tell you my story, because ten years ago today, I was the pastor of First Christian Church of Santa Barbara, which is  three hours later than the east coast.  Back  then  Cheryl was teaching and would wake up early to get ready for work, but at  6:30 A.M. she would turn on the radio as a signal for Brett and me to wake up.  On that morning the usual morning show banter was replaced by news of this attack.  Cheryl called me to the TV, where we watched as the two towers were engulfed in smoke.  What looked like a made-for-TV disaster film had become a deadly reality.  And soon after we heard news of the attacks on the Pentagon and then the crash of a plane in a Pennsylvania field.

   As the day wore on, we watched as the buildings in New York imploded, burying fire crews, police, rescue workers, and people who had yet to evacuate the buildings.  The nation was alarmed and fearful, as the FAA ordered all flights canceled across the nation.  None of us knew what to expect next, and so we all began to ask the question: Could this happen in my community?  We also began to wonder who was responsible.   

Of course, we also wondered when life would return to normal.  Ten years later, life hasn’t returned to a pre-911 normal, and so we wonder.  So, is this the new normal?   

But that was only the beginning of the day.   After getting Brett off to school, I went to breakfast with three men from the church.  It was our Tuesday morning ritual to have breakfast at Cajun Kitchen.  I had to break the news, because none of them had yet heard what had happened. 

When I got to the office at around 9:00 A.M., which was noon here in the East – I got a call from my Methodist colleague  LLoyd Saatjian.  He called because I  was the President of the Greater Santa Barbara Clergy Association, and LLoyd, who was wise in such matters, asked:  What are we going to do?

That question led to a powerful community interfaith service of remembrance on Sunday evening.  The Methodist Church overflowed with people, and when the clergy processed into the sanctuary  the community rose in applause, and we knew why – for in the company of the clergy was the Imam, who spoke to the gathered congregation, together with the Rabbi, and a Christian clergywoman.  We also shared prayers and music.  It was an evening I’ll never forget.

Before we gathered that evening, however, we worshiped at First Christian, and I shared my own thoughts in a sermon that took as its text  the passage we read from 1 Timothy.  As has been my habit, I had planned the Sunday service on Monday, and except for the sermon I left things as they were, but this passage from I Timothy did have something to say to us, because in it we find a word of grace and mercy.
When I preached that sermon ten years ago, it came in the midst of feelings of shock, of despair, and calls for revenge and retaliation.  There were those who were already taking matters into their own hands.  Therefore, Muslims and Arabs across the country received death threats, and many were concerned that they might be rounded up and thrown into detention camps.  Police in Rhode Island stopped a train and arrested Sikh passengers because they were wearing turbans.  Later we would launch two wars that continue to this day, while airport security has made flying an ordeal rather than an adventure.  

We’ve heard read the text for September 16, 2001, but a similar message to this word about grace is found in the gospel reading for this week.   I’d like to share this reading from Matthew 18:21-35.  

As you listened to this reading, what did you hear?  Do you hear Peter’s question about forgiveness?  How many times Lord?  Isn’t seven times enough?   Depending on your translation, Jesus multiplies Peter’s 7 by either 11 or 77.  Whatever the number, it’s hard to keep count!  

Then Jesus tells a parable about the king who called in his slaves so as to settle accounts, and one of these people owed more money than Warren Buffett has in his  bank account.  When the king demanded payment, this slave begged forgiveness, and received it.  Oh, what joy he must have felt, because the alternative was prison!  

But, as this one who’d been forgiven much exited the court,  he saw a fellow slave and he ran over and demanded immediate payment of a debt that amounted to about three months’ wages.  This debtor asked for the same grace period as the first, but though the first man had been forgiven much, he was unwilling to extend grace to the other, and so had him thrown into prison.  Of course, as you would expect, when the king  found out, he  angrily threw this unforgiving hypocrite into prison.  And Jesus said: “So my heavenly father will do to everyone of you, if you do not forgive your brothers or sisters from your heart.”

As we wonder about the future, with our memories formed by those events of ten years ago, where does forgiveness come into play? 

In the letter to Timothy, written in the name of Paul, the author confesses to be a "blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence."   Such was Paul’s story, prior to his conversion.  He understood the attraction of violence in the name of religion, and therefore could claim to be "a man of violence."    But he had tasted grace, and unlike the man forgiven much, he took to heart this word of grace and chose to embrace a call to reach out to others with a word of grace.  

John Newton knew something of violence.  He had been a slave trader before his conversion.  His own confession is written in words we have all sung in worship, and the hymn I had chosen for that service ten years ago:   "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see."   And –   "'Twas Grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed."  

Ten years have passed, and the question remains – can we move to something different?  Is not the answer to be found in the grace of God that heals our wounds and allows us to forgive others.  The memories will not die, the pain may not subside completely, but the message of the gospel is this: Grace is sufficient.  Yes, "the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus."   

In a moment we will come to the table, and at this table we will taste the signs of our own inhumanity to each other.  There we will also find the emblems of peace and our reconciliation.   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
13th Sunday after Pentecost
September 11, 2011

Sunday, September 04, 2011

In Debt to Love

Romans 13:8-14

There has been a lot of talk these last few months about debt and how to reduce the nation’s deficit.  Not long ago politicians said that deficits don’t matter, and now everyone is in a dither about them.  So, at the very last moment, with the nation looking at the first default in its history, Congress held its collective nose and passed legislation that raised the debt ceiling and established a super-committee, which is composed of people on both sides of the aisle committed to not compromising with the other side!  Of course the Federal Government isn’t the only entity struggling with debt.  The national consumer debt – that’s the debt we as citizens owe, minus mortgage debt, stands at 2.4 Trillion dollars, or about $7,800 per person.  What this means is that many of us are borrowing a lot of money to pay for our chosen lifestyles.  Of course, in a consumer driven economy, where jobs depend on spending, perhaps that’s the way it’s supposed to be.   

Of course, not all debt is the same.  For instance, if you borrow money to buy a house, that may not be a bad thing, as long as you can afford the payments.  But if you borrow money to go on a big trip, well that probably isn’t as wise an investment.   

If you happen to be in debt, and I expect most of us owe something to somebody, you will either have to cut back on spending or get another job to increase revenue – or both, which is called a “balanced approach.” 

When it comes to debt, Paul could be heard as saying no to taking on any kind of debt, with one exception.  Paul says that if you’re going to be in debt, there is one kind of debt to incur, and that’s the debt of love.   The King James Version opens our passage with these familiar words:   
“Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.”          
I like the way the Common English Bible has translated this verse:  
Don’t be in debt to anyone, except the obligation to love each other.  
Here is one kind of debt that it’s okay to incur, and its one that would seem impossible to pay off early!   I mean, is there a point at which you don’t have to love one another?    

It’s a bit like that discussion Jesus had with Peter about forgiveness.  Peter asks Jesus, how many times do I have to forgive my neighbor?  Is seven times enough?  Peter thought that seven was a rather large number.  It’s more generous than the state of California, which throws you in jail for life after the third felony infraction, even if it’s shop lifting a pack of gum.  But it wasn’t anything close to what Jesus had in mind, because Jesus upped the ante to seventy times the seven that Peter offered. 

Since we often have difficulty knowing what to do with commandments such as love your neighbor as yourself, Paul gives some examples, which he takes from the Torah.  Since we all want detailed information as to how we can fulfill this debt of love, Paul points us to the Law.   What is love of the neighbor?   Well, don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and while you’re at it, keep all the other commands.  If you do this, then you’ll love your neighbor as yourself.  And if you love your neighbor, you’ll keep the commandments. 

This morning we have the opportunity to celebrate this call to love one another.  Yesterday we joined together in blessing the marriage of Mike and Marie.  Marriage is for us a relationship of love that is guided by law, whether religious of secular.  We also come today to celebrate parental love.  In a moment Tim and Kate will bring Sylvie before the church to offer her to the Lord’s care, inviting us to share in that calling to love this little girl into full maturity.  The reason parents bring their children before the church is because they recognize that parenthood is a covenant relationship.  It is a sacred obligation rooted in God’s love for humanity.  As with marriage, there are legal requirements that relate to parenthood.  If, for instance, you neglect your child or hurt them, there are penalties that you will pay.  But, that’s the negative side, because if you love your children as you love yourself, then you will fulfill the law.    Of course, the way we live out these obligations evolves over time.  Parents today do things differently than we did when Cheryl and I were starting out, and we did things differently than our parents, and I expect they did things differently than their parents.  Still, parents understand the nature of this obligation that is rooted in love. 

But, it’s one thing to love our family members, but what about those standing outside the bonds of family?  Who is the neighbor that I’m called to love?  This is a question that goes back to biblical times!   If the neighbors we are to love are like the Grays, the family  who lived next door to my family in Mt. Shasta, well that’s an easy questions to answer in the affirmative.  The Grays were like family.  In fact, they were probably closer to us than many of our own family members.   Mr. and Mrs. Gray were there for us in ways I probably don’t even know about.  In fact, Bob Gray was like a surrogate father to me, which is probably why I wanted to be a forest service officer like him rather than an advertising salesman like my father.    And their two children who were close in age to me were like brothers.  Yes, they were easy to love, because they loved us.  But what about those who stand outside that ring?

Remember, or instance, how a young man asked Jesus to identify the neighbor that he was to love as he loved himself?   Jesus answered him with a parable about this man who stopped to help another person who had been waylaid by bandits?  Remember how in the religious leaders, people like me, for instance, stopped, assessed the situation, and then moved on without helping.  But then this Samaritan comes along and not only helps the wounded man, but goes to great lengths to help this person.  Jesus asks – who was the neighbor?   (Luke 10:25-37).

Who might this neighbor be today?  Could it be the man from New Mexico who risked his life and the possibility of deportation to rescue a little girl who had been kidnapped and taken away in a van?   Antonio Chacon, the man who saw this abduction take place, could have decided to not get involved.  After all, he was an illegal immigrant.  He was married to an American citizen, but he had stopped trying to get legal residency because of the cost involved.  He might not have had legal residency, but that didn’t stop him from getting into his car and chasing after the van and forcing it to crash into a light pole, which allowed him to rescue the little girl and return her to her parents.   Could Antonio Chacon be a modern day Good Samaritan?  Is he the one who owes no one any debt except the debt of love?  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
12th Sunday after Pentecost
September 4, 2011