Sunday, January 29, 2012

What is Happening? A Sermon


Mark 1:21-28

Jesus walks into the synagogue at Capernaum, immediately heads to the pulpit, and without so much as asking for permission from the synagogue leaders,  starts preaching.  After that, the place falls into chaos.  

That’s because, no sooner had Jesus started preaching, when suddenly, a man stood up in the sanctuary, and started shouting Jesus.  The man, whom Mark says was possessed by an evil spirit, screamed at Jesus, demanding to know what Jesus would do with “us?”    Are you going to destroy us?  After all, “I know who you are.”  Yes, “you are the holy one of God.”

   Picture yourself in such a congregation.  How would you have responded to all of this commotion?  Would you have been amazed and shaken, as Mark suggests was the case for this congregation?  I expect that like us, this congregation liked things to be done “decently and in order.”  What would you make of both the preacher and the respondent to this preacher?  Would you call the police?

As Mark tells the story, the congregation was first amazed at Jesus’ authoritative teaching, contrasting his teaching with that of the religious leaders.  In hearing this story we must be careful not to read into it an anti-Jewish bias, while recognizing in Jesus a message that is both prophetic and challenging to our own religious and cultural sensibilities.  

There is in this story, a question posed to us – who is this person and how should I respond?    

Although they were amazed at the teaching, they were also shaken by the encounter with the man possessed with evil spirits.  They watch breathlessly, as Jesus demonstrates his authority over the demon by “harshly” demanding that the spirits be silent and then to come out of the man.  We’re told that at that moment, the evil spirit shook the host and with a scream left the man’s body. 

As the people in this congregation, people like you and like me, tried to make sense of the scene, they asked a question: “What’s this?”  What’s happening here?   Surely, we would be asking the same kinds of questions!

Then Mark writes: “Right away the news about him spread throughout the entire region of Galilee.”  Even without Facebook and Twitter, news spread quickly about this new teacher.    

The question of the hour wasn’t just:  What happened here?   A more important question was: Who is this person who has turned everything upside down?   How would you have responded to him and the chaos that he stirred up in that congregation?   What would you be thinking?

We might not be the most formal congregation in the world, but we like things done decently and in order.  That’s why we have a bulletin that lays out the service so that everyone knows where they need to be and do at the appropriate moment.  There’s a time for prayer and a time for song, a time for preaching and a time to gather at the table.  Just so everyone knows their place, the names of the person doing each job is noted.   Sometimes we make adjustments, but there is still a sense of order to our responses to the needs of the moment.  We’re not used to the kind of commotion Jesus caused in that congregation.  

What would happen here if some somebody walked in off the street and headed to the front, took the microphone – probably from the preacher – and starting talking – without permission?   I know I’d be a bit concerned, and I expect the Elders might be  concerned as well.  But then to complicate things, what if someone got into a frenzy, stood up, and started arguing with this strange preacher?   Wouldn’t we also ask the question: “What’s this?”  

I expect that this story could raise a deeper question in our hearts and minds.  As we ask the question: Who is Jesus?  We also ask a related question: What does this Jesus who always seems to be disturbing the status quo want from me?   

Albert Schweitzer, a famous doctor, missionary, organist, and bible scholar, wrote a book more than a century ago about the “search for the historical Jesus.”  He concluded that at the end of the search, the people seeking after the historical Jesus end up looking down into a well and seeing their own reflection.  When they asked who Jesus was, they ended up with a person who looked just like them and thought just like them.  In the end this “historical Jesus” served to validate their own ideas and ideologies.  

So, is Jesus nothing more than a reflection of our own imaginations?   

Last Sunday a group of us went to the DIA and took in the “Rembrandt and the Face of Jesus” exhibit.  Although the exhibit focused on Rembrandt’s paintings of Jesus, the exhibit placed his perspectives in the context of other artistic creations.   

What stood out for me was the revelation that Rembrandt used a young Sephardic Jew living in Amsterdam as his model for Jesus.  This made him unique, because most artists of that day portrayed Jesus as a good northern European man.  This Euro-centric vision of Jesus can be seen in the picture on our bulletin this morning.  For most  Europeans then, and probably most European and American Christians today, Jesus looks like  a good blue-eyed blonde European male – with long hair and a beard!  Rembrandt, however, turned things upside-down by trying to portray Jesus in a way that reflected his Jewish humanity.  

So, who is the real Jesus?  How does he affect the way you live and think?  Does he make you uncomfortable, as he made the attendees of this synagogue?   Does he challenge your sense of identity?  How do you experience his call to discipleship?  Would you be willing to drop everything, like Andrew and Simon, James and John, and follow him on a journey that often is uncomfortable and challenging?

In an earlier presidential election cycle, a candidate said that Jesus was his favorite philosopher.  Unfortunately, no one asked him why Jesus was his favorite teacher of wisdom.  What was it about Jesus that informed his world view?   What difference would the teachings of Jesus make in the way he would lead the nation?  

Many of us have a rather domesticated view of Jesus.  He’s our savior and our friend, but not much more.  We tend to ignore what Peter Gomes,  the late chaplain at Harvard, called “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus.”  We know that the gospel must have been scandalous to some, because it upset enough people, that Jesus ended up dying on a cross.     But, what is it about the gospel that can be truly scandalous? 

In Mark, the scandal begins here, in the synagogue at Capernaum, where Jesus’ teaching and actions amaze and shakes up the people.   In Luke’s gospel, Jesus preaches in his home congregation, and causes such a stir that they the people not only chase him out of the synagogue, but they also try to throw him off a cliff (Luke 4:28-30).  

So, who is this Jesus, who causes such a scandal? 

Many years ago, back when I was but a youth, The Doobie Brothers had a hit song.   Maybe you remember it – “Jesus is Just alright with me.”  Is Jesus just all right?  Is he nothing more than a domesticated savior whom I turn to when I need him, but who I ignore the rest of the time?  Is he nothing more than a religious symbol that is useful in supporting an agenda?  Or is his message of God’s realm, a message that is expressed in his words and in his actions, something that changes the way we look at life and live our lives in this world?

     Yes, who is this Jesus?  And when he steps into our midst, what happens to us and to our world?   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday after Epiphany
January 29, 2012

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Passing the Torch




1 Samuel 3:1-10

When Teddy Roosevelt became President in 1901 he was the first President since James Buchanan who hadn’t been directly involved in the Civil War.  Though Grover Cleveland did pay a substitute to take his place in the Union Army.

Bill Clinton was the first post-World War II generation President, and since Barack Obama’s election in 2008, it appears that the torch may be in the process of being passed once again.

Passing the torch of responsibility from one generation to the next is inevitable –   in politics, in business, in sports, and in the church.

At Central Woodward, we’re blessed with members who can remember the earliest days of this congregation, back when it sat on Woodward Avenue.  It’s good to hear your stories, and we’re hoping to get them down on video soon.  But a new day is dawning, and new generations are taking up the mantle of leadership.  And that’s the way it should be.

The story of Eli and Samuel that we heard read this morning is a “passing the torch” story.  In one way it’s a rather sad story, because Eli hoped to pass his priestly mantle to his sons.  Unfortunately, they had failed him and now God was turning to someone else.  The recent bankruptcy of the Crystal Cathedral is a good warning to those who wish to make the church a family enterprise!   It rarely works! But the torch must be passed, and in this case Eli passes it to Samuel.

If we’re to effectively pass the torch from one generation to the next, it’s important that we understand each other.  We sometimes hear about a generation gap, but these gaps exist because we tend not to understand each other’s stories and cultures.  Generational theory is one way to understand these differences.

To give you an example:  Think about the music we enjoy.  I’ve heard it said that until Elvis, everyone listened to the same kind of music.  After Elvis, music became generational.  My mom listened to Engelbert Humperdink, I listened to the Moody Blues, and Brett listens to some Finnish metal band.  This gap not only impacts family life, it impacts the church.  In fact, there have been reports of “worship wars” breaking out in many of our churches.

So, here’s my question:   Since we’re a multi-generational church, how can we effectively pass the torch of faith and leadership from one generation to the next?

I’d venture to say that there are at least five rather distinct generations present this congregation.  There’s the World War II generation, which some call the Greatest Generation.  Then there’s the so-called “Silent Generation,” followed by my generation – the ubiquitous Baby Boomers.  Then there’s the GenXers, a generation that has a rather sparse representation in this congregation.  They are followed by the Millennials – that generation of young adults who are under 30 and are the children of the Baby Boomers.  And now some of these Millennials have become parents, and we don’t even have a name for this newest generation.

Each generation experiences the world differently.  My parents grew up during the Depression, and my father was just old enough to serve in World War II.  When this generation emerged from that War, they started families and joined churches.  As a result, for a moment in time, the churches grew at a fast and furious pace.  But this expansion didn’t last long, because a new generation emerged in the 1960s and 1970s that saw the world very differently.  And unlike their parents this new generation was much less likely to join the church.  

The two generations that have followed after the Baby Boomers – the GenXers who are children of the Silent Generation, and the Millennials who are the children of the Boomers, are even more likely to absent themselves from the church.  That’s one of the reasons why so many churches struggle to attract young families with children.  

Since I’m the parent of a Millennial, I’m sort of aware of how they view the world. These young adults who are now ready to take up leadership roles in the church have grown up in a world that never knew a black and white TV, a record player or even an 8-Track player.  Instead of a typewriter, all they’ve ever known is the computer and the internet.  And they’re children may look at the computer in the same way they look at a typewriter.

Now, although this generation is increasingly uncertain about the relevancy of the church to their lives, they are very open spiritually and they’re interested in finding places of worship and community that are authentic.  They don’t just join the church for the sake of joining.  There are simply too many options available to them.  

Still, like Samuel, many of them are hearing God’s call on their lives.  But they’re hearing this call at a time when growing numbers of people are losing confidence in institutions.  Like the world into which Samuel was born, many younger adults are struggling to hear the voice of God.

The good news is that God is still speaking, to borrow a slogan from our UCC friends.  The question is – are we ready to help these new generations hear that voice?

    Eli is one who recognizes the importance of passing on the torch to a new generation, and so he helps Samuel tune in the voice of God.  You see, according to the story, Samuel didn’t know the LORD’s voice, and so he didn’t know how to answer.

  Although it took Eli three times before he figured out that God was speaking to Samuel, once he figured out that Samuel was hearing God’s voice he helped Samuel train his ear so he could respond to God’s calling.

Eli was Samuel’s mentor, and mentors see leadership potential and invest themselves in the lives of these emerging leaders.  In order to take up this role, Eli had to let go of power.

A major reason why things went bad at the Crystal Cathedral was that Robert Schuller couldn’t let go of power when his son became the pastor.  As a result his son failed and so did the church.  

In our congregation more members are over sixty-five than under sixty-five, and so the day is coming, and is already here, when leadership must be passed on to younger generations.

Passing the torch isn’t easy.  But then, letting our children go out into the world on their own isn’t easy.  We want to hang on as long as possible to the umbilical chord, but eventually it has to be broken.

As for the “children” – they’ve already cut the chord.  They’re taking up leadership.  They’re hearing the call.  And to give two examples of young adults and youth who have heard the call – I’ll point to Alex, who serves on the Young Adult Leadership Team for the Disciples, and Heidi, who serves on the Disciple Youth Leadership Team.  These are only two of our under 30 members who have heard God call their names and have answered: “Here I Am.”

So, where do you fit in this story of Eli and Samuel? Are you called to be a mentor or are you being called into leadership?

Just a word of warning here: Newer and younger leaders may do things differently.  They may want to sing different songs or engage in different kinds of mission.  In fact, they may stir things up a bit.

Yes, the time has come for a new generation to take up the mantle of leadership by serving as elders, officers, teachers, leaders, and mentors.   This passing of the torch, if it’s to be successful will take prayer and patience and openness.  But, even as we see the torch being passed, that doesn’t mean that the mentor generations get to retire – there’s too much kingdom business for us to be involved with, for anyone, young or old, to retire!

William Willimon said that he always identified with Samuel, until he was about fifty, and then he began to identify with Eli.  Tongue-in-cheek, Willimon says that in Hebrew Samuel means "a person who is from infancy to about forty."   [William Willimon, Pulpit Resource, 28 (January, February, March 2000), 13.]

In other words, when we reach age forty or thereabouts, our youthful exuberance and idealism begins to give way to the temperings of  maturity and experience.

As a pastor, I’m now well past forty, and so I too am one of the Elis.   Who are you?

Is God calling you to take up the mantle of leadership?  Or, is God calling you to begin mentoring the next generation of leaders?

How will you answer when God calls your name?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
January 15, 2012


Sunday, January 08, 2012

In the Beginning . . . A Sermon for Epiphany



Genesis 1:1-5  


“The end of something is better than its beginning.” (Ecclesiastes 7:8 Common English Bible) 

  I thought you’d want to hear this word from Ecclesiastes, since we’re moving into a new year.  Beginnings are important, but endings are even more important.  A few years ago the Lions won all their preseason games and everyone expected good things, and then they lost the next sixteen in a row.  This year, the Lions had an up and down season, but they ended up in the playoffs – that was a much better conclusion.    

Each of us has a story of beginnings to tell, what we don’t know is how things will turn out.   My own life began on March 3, 1958 in Los Angeles.   Five years later, I began my formal schooling as kindergartner in Mt. Shasta.  From then on,  for the next seventeen Septembers, I would begin a new school year.  After taking off two Septembers, I restarted school in January 1982, when I began my seminary career.  Of course I didn’t just start school, I also began a new phase of life on a Summer day in July when Cheryl and I were married.  There was another day of beginnings in June of 1985, when I was ordained.  Then, there was that day in April of 1990, when I became a parent.   These are just some of the beginnings of my life experiences.  I’ve had some endings, but there are still many of these beginnings that have yet to reach an ending.

Genesis 1 begins with the words, “In the beginning,” a phrase that is picked up  by the Gospel John, who declares:  
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The Word was with God in the beginning.  Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being.  (Jn 1:1-3a CEB).
The Gospel of Mark starts with the words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”  And in Revelation Jesus declares:  “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End” (Rev. 21:6), while Paul writes:
So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation.  The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived! (2 Corinthians 5:17 CEB)
A time of beginnings, whether new or not, is a time when we begin with a clean slate.  Whatever happened in the past, for good of for bad, is in the past.  Now, however, is the time to move into the future, embracing all the opportunities the future presents.   And if God promises to be with us in the beginning, then surely we can expect God to be with us until the end of all things.  Although the end is better than the beginning, the writer of Ecclesiastes cautions us to be patient.   

Before we get to focused on the end of things, perhaps we could return to the beginning of the story – with the opening lines of Genesis 1.  

Do you hear a difference between this more traditional translation of the opening line of Genesis -- “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”  – and this more recent translation:  “When God began to create the heavens and the earth?”  

Did the universe emerge fully formed in a single moment?  Or is creation a process that is even now unfolding?  Is God finished with the work of creation and living in retirement?  Or is God still at work bringing order out of chaos and bringing light into the darkness?  

Since I’m not a Deist, I’ll cast my lot with the God who is still at work bringing order out of chaos and light into the darkness.  Because we live in a world where both chaos and darkness are still present, I find hope in the promise that God is still at work.  What is, is not the final word.      

We have experienced the Alpha, but not the Omega.

      If step back to look at the full picture of creation – from beginning to end – perhaps we can see why God declares the creation to be good.  It is full of potential.  But, as we look closer we see that things are not yet complete.  Disorder is still present and darkness remains.  Where is God in the midst of this disorder and chaos?  Is God too weak to bring order to creation?  Or is the power of God expressed differently than we’ve often been led to believe?  

May we say that God is at work, but not as the omnipotent miracle worker, who reaches and fixes things when their broke, but the one who comes to us in the revealed in and through the cross of Jesus?  

And where do we fit in the story?  If you continue reading Genesis 1, you will come to the creation of humanity, and you will hear God give humanity stewardship over the creation.  In doing this, God entrusts us with co-responsibility for this creation.  Mixed into this story, however, is the continued presence of chaos and darkness.  The biblical story gives us two words – God’s creation is good, but evil is real and it is present in our midst.  As we read on we discover that humans can get caught upon this darkness, but we also hear the promise that God has made provision in Christ to bring us back into the light.  This is the good news – the word of liberation. 

We know that in this time and place there are those who are experiencing a moment of darkness.  May we become light bearers in their moment of darkness.  There are also those who are experiencing chaos.  It could be the crisis of foreclosure, the loss of a job, or simply a loss of hope.  May we be instruments of God’s ordering of life.      

As we ponder this calling to join with God in bringing order and light into the world, may we also remember that even as we seek to respond to this invitation, we too need light and order in our own lives.  We are not free from complicity in the chaos and darkness of this life, for the ending is not yet upon us.

Perhaps we can hear a word of guidance in Mark’s story of Jesus’ baptism by John.  In this account, Jesus joins with the throngs of people coming to John to be baptized, as a sign that the desire to change their hearts and lives.  Jesus submits to this baptism, identifying himself with the sinners of this world.  But, as Jesus emerges from the waters of the Jordan, the heavens open, the Spirit of God descends like a dove upon Jesus, and then a voice from heaven declares: “You are my Son; whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”  

Yes, there is happiness to be found in the one through whom and in whom order and light comes into the world.  That same Spirit that descends upon Jesus is the same Spirit who hovered above the waters at the beginning of creation, when life itself began. This same Spirit fell on the Day of Pentecost upon the disciples, empowering them to share with God in this work of bringing order and light into the world.    

Although the end may be better than the beginning, may this be a day of New Beginnings. 


Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
1st Sunday after Epiphany
January 8, 2012