Sunday, February 19, 2012

Foxes have Holes -- Sermon for Economic Justice Sunday




Luke 9:57-62; Psalm 82

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, a day when we remember God’s mountaintop affirmation of Jesus’ ministry.  It is a moment in Jesus’ life, when he receives the  mantle of Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophet.  As was true at Jesus’ baptism, God points to Jesus and says – that’s my child, the one who reveals my nature and purposes.  

This is also the beginning of our Week of Compassion emphasis, which invites us to contribute to the welfare of those in need both in the United States and around the world.  Last year, the Motown Mission project at Northwestern Christian Church received a grant from Week of Compassion that enabled the work teams to renovate the church so it can be of greater service to the neighborhood.

Today is also, at least for us, Economic Justice Sunday.  It’s not on the liturgical calendar, but it is an emphasis of the Metropolitan Coalition of Congregations. This Coalition, which Luke Allen will talk more about in a moment, had its birth a year ago in our Library.  I was among the first group of clergy who met with Luke and Bill O’Brien of the Harriet Tubman Center to talk about building a coalition of suburban congregations that would work together to address important social and economic issues facing the residents of Metro-Detroit. Several congregations have already had their Economic Justice Sunday, raising the consciousness of their congregations to the needs of the community around them.  Today is our day to join them.

The focus today is on justice, which is a major concern of the biblical writers, including the Psalmists.  With that in mind, I invite you to listen prayerfully to the reading of Psalm 82.

1 God takes his stand in the divine council;
   he gives judgment among the gods:
2 “How long will you judge unjustly
   by granting favor to the wicked?
                         Selah
3 Give justice to the lowly and the orphan;
   maintain the right of the poor
   and the destitute!
4 Rescue the lowly and the needy.
   Deliver them
   from the power of the wicked!”
 5 They don’t know; they don’t understand;
   they wander around in the dark.
   All the earth’s foundations shake.
 6 I hereby declare, “You are gods,
   children of the Most High—all of you!
7 But you will die like mortals;
   you will fall down like any prince.”
 8 Rise up, God! Judge the earth
   because you hold all nations
   in your possession!

(Psalm 82, CEB)

I invite you to look out across Metro-Detroit with these words in mind.  When we look at the landscape, we see the ravages of time and this economic downturn.  Shuttered auto plants; boarded up schools and homes; vacant lots, often filled with garbage.  But there also signs of hope and signs of life.  Sometimes we miss them because the green shoots lie buried under the debris that covers the surface.  

I tend to be an optimist, but to envision something new requires more than optimism.  It requires hope, and hope is not passive.  It’s active.  It seeks to bring into existence the vision that God casts for us.    

Like many people I was taken in by Chrysler’s half-time ad during the Super Bowl. The ad  featured the gravelly voice of Clint Eastwood, who suggested that Detroit and America stand at half-time.  Although we’ve gone through harrowing times, things are changing, largely because people are working together to make a difference.  And so we see images of once shuttered auto plants coming back to life and families re-engaging their communities.  You had to feel good after watching it.  Things are improving.  We’ve turned the corner.  But, of course, it’s only half-time in America.  

And, if you remember, the New York Giants were down by a point at halftime.  They pulled ahead and turned away a last gasp effort by the Patriots to take back the game.  The second half will likely be full of ups and downs, and so we can’t get complacent.  There’s still lots of work to be done!

Consider with me these realities.  Michigan’s unemployment rate has dropped a couple of points, and the decline of the housing market may have bottomed out.   But for many people, inside and outside this congregation, the good times have yet to roll.  Many neighborhoods in Detroit, Pontiac, and across the metropolitan area continue to suffer the ravages of this Great Recession.  Thousands of residents have left the area, including about 7000 people who moved from Troy.  Not only have people lost jobs, but many have seen a decline in their salaries and benefits.

As the Psalmist declares, God is concerned about justice for the lowly, the destitute, the orphan, the poor.  Although many of our politicians may not be concerned about the poor, including the working poor, they stand at the center of God’s heart.  Knowing this to be true, the Psalmist implores God to rescue all who are caught in the grip of the wicked.   That is, those who use and oppress the poor for their own benefit.

      When we think about justice, we often have “law and order” in mind, but for the prophets and the writers of the Psalms, the focus is on God’s desire to bring equity and fairness to society.   This was the reason for the Jubilee Laws that governed property rights and use.  The prophets weren’t always warmly received, and in our day, they likely would be accused of fomenting “class warfare.”

Now that I’ve waded into the political stream, I want to raise a question: How should we, as the people of God, respond to this crisis afflicting our nation and our communities, including suburban communities?  This isn’t just about Detroit and Pontiac.  Just about every community has had to deal with the effects of this economic crisis.  There are some even here in the congregation who have experienced the challenges of this crisis.  So, where is that justice that God is concerned about?

One of the primary concerns today is the foreclosure crisis.  I picked this passage from Luke because it reminds us that Jesus experienced homelessness.  He was an itinerant preacher who, unlike foxes and birds, had nowhere permanent to lay his head.  He lived at the mercy of the people.  As his followers, who seek to emulate his life, are we ready to experience homelessness?  Are we ready to leave all behind to follow him?    

Before Luke Allen comes to talk about the Coalition and its efforts to address the foreclosure crisis, I’d like to give you a bit of background information:
  • More than 1 in 3 Michigan homeowners owes more on their mortgages than their homes are worth.  That includes me, and we’re in pretty good shape.  For many others  there’s little hope that they’ll ever recoup their investment. 
  • The average Michigan home has lost more than $6,000 in value due to nearby foreclosed homes.
  • More than 400 million dollars in federal money earmarked for foreclosure prevention sit unused in the state coffers.  If that money could be released, many homeowners facing foreclosure might be able to stay in their homes. 
  • Many banks refuse to cooperate, including those who’ve received billions of dollars in government assistance.  Many of them seem more inclined to evict than negotiate.  

The question is – what can we do to address this situation?  How can we join God in bringing justice to our land?   Micah writes that God asks us to do what is good, that is, “to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8 CEB).

As Luke comes to the pulpit to talk more about the Coalition and its work in our community, I’d like to point out the insert in your bulletin that lists some of the resources available that can help you or someone you know that is affected by this crisis find some kind of help and relief.

*************************

Handout

Did you know….                     
-That one-third of homeowners may be underwater on their mortgages?
-That many people are hesitant to seek assistance from their faith communities in foreclosure situations?
There are resources to help.

· For information on the foreclosure process and to check your eligibility for special programs, go to www.foreclosuredetroit.org


· Contact a foreclosure prevention counselor through the Michigan State Housing Development Authority at
www.michigan.gov/mshda Click on “Homeownership”


· In Oakland County, contact the Oakland County Foreclosure Prevention Initiative at (888)-350-0900 or www.fightmortgageforclosure.com/oakland


· For homebuyer education and HUD-certified foreclosure intervention counseling to help renegotiate a mortgage, contact the Housing Opportunity Center of Southwest Housing Solutions at (313) 841-9641 or www.swsol.org


· To locate assistance for any health or human service need, call 2-1-1.

“Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” Psalm 82:3-4




These resources were compiled by the Metro Coalition of Congregations, an interfaith organization of clergy and religious congregations working together for transformative change in our communities.

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Preached by: 
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall 
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church 
Troy, Michigan 
Transfiguration Sunday 
February 19, 2012

Sunday, February 12, 2012

From Mourning to Dancing

Psalm 30

There was a time when many churches frowned upon dancing.  That’s because they considered it too sensual.  This was especially true of mixed dancing, which might lead to promiscuity. That’s why we didn’t have dances at my college.  We had “stand up concerts.”  Although they looked a lot like dances, we could pretend they weren’t.  After I graduated, things loosened up, but there was this concern that people might think these Christian college students were up to no good!  

Now, as for me and dancing, you probably won’t catch me out on the dance floor very often.  It’s not a theological thing.  But, as Cheryl will attest, I can’t dance!  My feet and my arms and my body will not move with the music in an appropriate fashion.     

Although Psalm 30 speaks of God taking us from mourning to dancing, the Psalmist isn’t referring to a Valentine’s Dance.  Instead, the Psalmist is calling for us to celebrate a movement from sadness to joy. 

Ours is an embodied faith, as the Psalms so often declares.  And the first great commandment as stated in Deuteronomy calls for us to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength (Deut. 6:4).  Scripture invites us to worship God in dance, and by kneeling, bowing, and lifting our hands before the LORD.   Yes, ours is an embodied faith.  

And as God moves us from mourning to dancing, from sadness to joy, this movement involves our entire being.  So, let us celebrate the God who reaches into our lives, pulls us up, even from the grave, so that we might live.  Yes, as the Psalmist declares: 
You changed my mourning into dancing.

You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy. (Ps. 30:11 CEB).  
The contrast this verse lays out is stark.  God reaches out to us when we find ourselves overwhelmed by darkness.  God reaches out to us when it seems as if we’re in the depths of despair.  I know that some of you have known deep grief and even despair.  There are people, perhaps not here, but maybe people you know, who are so deeply embedded in despair that they can’t even imagine ever experiencing joy again.  
   
And yet, it is in the midst of this darkness that God is at work changing our  mourning into dancing and exchanging our funeral clothes for ones that reflect joy.  

The Psalm begins with a word of thanksgiving:  
I exalt you, O LORD, because you pulled me up! 
Then we hear a word about God’s active presence in our times of darkness:   
Lord, you brought me up from the grave,

brought me back to life from among those going down to the pit.  
The focus is on God’s involvement in restoring us to life when we find a cloud of death hovering over us.  The word we hear is that we can’t manufacture this joy on our own.  It will take God’s active presence to change our situation.   

This is an important word for us to hear, but I also know that we have to stop and recognize that moving from sadness to joy isn’t as easy as saying – Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.  Just saying you love Jesus doesn’t mean everything is going to be okay.  Prayer is essential, but just praying harder may not always make things better.  God heals, but healing may come in forms that are different from we might want or expect.  

This past Friday I attended the Glazer Institute on Judaism at Temple Beth El.  It was the 70th anniversary of a lectureship that began in 1942 when Central Woodward and Temple Beth El were still neighbors down on Woodward Avenue.  Our presenters were  Rabbi Daniel Syme and Heather Irish, who addressed the issue of mental health, especially as it relates to bullying, depression, and suicide.  Heather Irish reminded us that depression and other mental health issues often have a physical/chemical basis that requires therapy and possibly medication.  Now, we don’t like to talk about such things.  There’s a stigma attached to mental health issues.  We sometimes view therapy and medication as a sign of weakness.  And so, unfortunately, we’re not even able to talk about such things in the church.  It’s simply not safe to do so.  Heather said to those of us at the gathering who were clergy – and most of us were clergy – it’s not that prayer isn’t a good thing.  It’s not that God isn’t involved in healing.  But, remember that therapy and medication might be the way in which God chooses to lift us out of the grave and restore us to health.   She didn’t exactly use these words, but using the words of the Psalmist, that’s what I heard her say.  And she is correct. 

Amos Yong has written a wonderful book entitled The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God.  In this book he talks about healing, and as a Pentecostal he believes that God heals.  You can read about people being healed in the Bible, but is it possible that what needs to be healed aren’t the bodies of those we consider disabled, but our attitudes toward them.  Too often our society stigmatizes people based on their perceived ability to contribute to society.  He talks about our tendency as the church to see people with disabilities as needing our ministrations, without being willing to receive the gifts of ministry that people with disabilities bring to our community.  As I read the book, I was reminded that I too am complicit in this reality.  I have been guilty of such perceptions, and that I too am one who requires healing.

    So how do we move from mourning to dancing? 

The answer, according to the Psalmist, is that God will pull us up and  God won’t let the enemy rejoice over us.  We can give thanks to God because God is faithful.  

There is, however, a danger to be avoided.  We can, so the Psalmist suggests, grow so comfortable with life that we begin to think we’ll never stumble.  When the good times roll, we begin to think they’ll never end.  When that happens we tend to rely on our own strength and forget to entrust our lives to God.  After all, who needs God when things are good?   

But what happens when you begin to stumble?  What happens when you begin to feel that God is hiding from you?  Do you feel, as the Psalmist suggests, not just dismay, as the NRSV renders verse 7, but you’re terrified?    

But, of course, when we find ourselves in such a situation, then we begin to cry out to the LORD and beg for mercy.  Maybe we will join the Psalmist in reminding God that God has nothing to gain from our spilled blood or from our taking up residence in Sheol.  And so we cry out:   Rescue me, LORD.  Restore me to your presence.  

As we cry out to God, we begin to feel the healing hands of God lift us up.  And as God lifts us up we begin to dance with joy.  

There is a hymn, which we’ve yet to learn, and maybe we’ll never learn, that expresses this point well:   
I cannot dance, O Love, unless you lead me on.

I cannot leap in gladness unless you lift me up.   (Chalice Hymnal, 290).
The one who loves and leads is God, and we can’t dance or can leap unless God is the one who leads us and lifts us up.  

This Psalm is often used during the season of Easter. Its emphasis on restoring people to life, is reflective of the Resurrection message that proclaims Christ risen from the grave and confirms in us the hope of our own resurrection.  We hear in this message a word of hope for our lives.  

So, are you ready to dance?  Are you ready to exchange your funeral clothes for ones that are appropriate for a party?  But if you’re ready to dance, are you also ready to invite others to experience God’s healing presence, which breaks down barriers and enables them to experience the joy of the LORD forever?!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
February 12, 2012

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Who are We In Christ? A sermon

1 Corinthians 9:16-23


Rene Descartes declared these famous words – in Latin of course – Cogito ergo sum.   That is, “I think, therefore I am.”   According to this famous philosopher the ability to reason and to think defined human identity.  Many people, especially today, would find his definition rather limited, because it seems to exclude a lot that makes us who we are.     But who are you?  What makes you, you?   

I can’t answer this question for you, but I can say something about my own identity.   I do like to think, but I’m more than my ability to reason.  

I am a middle-aged, well-educated, middle-class European-American male, who has been happily married for going on twenty-nine years and who is a father of one adult child who also happens present in the room.  My maternal grandfather was an immigrant from Holland, while ancestors on my father’s side came to Massachusetts’s Bay Colony not long after its establishment.  I’m a Christian, a pastor, a historian, and a writer.  I was born in LA and grew up in Northern California and Oregon.  Except for a short period spent in Kansas, before we moved here, I lived my entire life on the West Coast.   I’ve been an Episcopalian, a Pentecostal, a Presbyterian, and a Baptist.   I’m a San Francisco Giants fan, and I like the music of Neil Young and Miles Davis.  Of course, I enjoy all things Star Trek and Big Bang Theory.  I love pizza, Mexican food, and of course, I like pie!!   I could add to this list but you’‘d get really bored!  

Last week I asked the question: Who is Jesus?  This week our scripture asks a related question: Who are you in Christ?   That is, what difference does Jesus make to who you are as a person?     

Paul answers this question in terms of his vocation.  He declares:  I preach the gospel, not out of choice, but out of obligation.  Therefore, I have no reason to boast, and the reward I receive comes from the fact that I preach without charge.  As you can see this is a very dangerous passage for those of us who preach and get paid, but I think we understand the point.

What Paul is most concerned about is that the good news of Jesus gets preached.  This is his passion and it defines his identity to such an extent that he says that he’ll do whatever is necessary to recruit Jews and Gentiles, strong and weak, into the body of Christ.  Therefore, he will become “all things to all people, so that I can save some by all possible means”  (1 Cor. 9:22).   What guides him in this course of action is the Law of Christ, which Jesus identifies as having two planks:  love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as you love yourself. 

Paul has offered his answer to the question of who he is in Christ?  But the question for us is: who am I in Christ?  What is Christ compelling me to be and to do?    

Knowing who you are as a person helps answer the question of who you are in Christ.  Paul has a strong sense of purpose.  Perhaps that Damascus Road experience imprinted on him a sense of calling that he couldn’t get away from.  

Although you may not have had a Damascus Road experience, or like Augustine heard a voice saying to you:  “Pick it up and Read,” which led you to pick up Paul’s letter to the Romans, perhaps a still small voice has spoken to you, inviting you to respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and you have responded – Here I am, send me. 

As we think about this question of identity in Christ, I’d like to suggest four possible markers of identity.  Although I’m not a fan of using acronyms and acrostics in sermons, I think that the words Disciple, Inclusive, Sharing, and Healing are good defining words of Christian identity.  So, when you think of your identity – think DISH.  

I realize the word DISH has no theological meaning, but maybe it will help us remember this definition of our identity: We are Disciples of Jesus who seek to be inclusive of all people as we share the good news of Jesus Christ and engage in healing ministry.  

We are DISCIPLES of Jesus

We are disciples of Jesus, which means that we are marked by our allegiance to him.  As the revelation of God for us, he defines who we are and what we do through his life and teachings.  We may not have had the luxury of personally walking with Jesus, but the gospels serve as our guide, and the Spirit of God empowers us to live this life of discipleship in the world. 

Who Seek to be INCLUSIVE of all people

It’s possible that I’m stretching this phrase “all things to all people,” but I hear in it a call to be inclusive of all people. Exclusive groups build walls and set rigid criteria for membership, while inclusive groups focus on people.  They put out the welcome mat and treat people with honor and respect, whether they are rich or poor, male or female, young or old.  Ethnicity is not a barrier nor is what we consider to be disability.         

An inclusive community is hospitable, open minded, willing to learn and grow, to forgive, and when necessary to forget.  Although it is open, it’s also tethered to Jesus.  Like astronauts taking a walk in space, in our freedom we remain tethered to the gospel.  An inclusive community focuses on what holds us together rather than on what divides us.  Now as we know, this isn’t easy.  As one of our own pointed out in a meeting this past week: “Worship is easy, Church is hard.”  
 
 As we  SHARE the good news of Jesus

As disciples of Jesus who form an inclusive community of faith, we are called to share the good news in all its forms.  In his sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus defined the good news as a word to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19).  This is a message of reconciliation that can change lives and liberate our creativity and imagination.  

We may not have a program for every issue, but we can love people with the love of Jesus. The world outside these walls isn’t looking for an institution to join, it’s looking for a community that loves God and loves all that God loves.   

      I remember going with high school friends to a bible study, not because I felt separated from God or because I was looking for answers to questions.  I went because I was lonely and needed a place to belong.   I found that and more, and it changed my life.  I’ve continued to grow and change over the years, but that was an important starting point on a very interesting journey with Jesus.
And engage in HEALING Ministry

Healing has a variety of definitions and as followers of Jesus we may be engaged in a variety of healing ministries.  It can mean touching bodies, minds, spirits, and relationships.  Healing means to making whole that which is broken, and our focus as God’s people is engaging in ministry that leads to reconciliation and wholeness in all of its dimensions.   

On one occasion when I was making a pastoral visit at a nursing home a woman wheeled herself into the room I was visiting.  She asked me:  Are you a minister?  I said yes.  And when I told her the name of the church, she told me that many years before she had been a member of that church, and from that day on I became her pastor.  What’s more, through her I gained the opportunity to minister to her friends in that nursing home.   Isn’t it amazing what God does when we’re just out and about in the community?  Without expecting it, we can become instruments of God’s healing presence.  

As disciples of Jesus we’re called to include the excluded, share the good news, and be God’s instruments of healing.  We don't have a magic wand that can instantly take care of everything, but if we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit, things will happen.

And as we hear from Isaiah, when we get tired God is there to lift us up and empower us:   
Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary. His understanding  is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted. Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; but those who hope in the LORD    will renew their strength;  they will fly up on wings like eagles;  they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.  (Isaiah 40:28-31 CEB).  
Who are you as a disciple of Jesus Christ?  What is your calling?  What is your passion?  Where is God leading you?  What is, that is, your identity?  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Fifth Sunday after Epiphany
February 5, 2012