Sunday, May 27, 2012

Welcoming our Companion -- A Pentecost Sermon

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

Pentecost Sunday has finally arrived and some of us are wearing red or something that suggests the color of fire.  We’ve come to celebrate the arrival of the Spirit of God, whom Jesus promised would come and empower the people of God.  It’s also Memorial Day, so we stop to remember those who have died, whether they are family, friends, or those who have died in service to country.  Perhaps the text for today offers us a sense of connection between the two.  Jesus is about to leave his disciples behind, but he doesn’t leave them alone.  If he goes away, the Spirit will come and be present with them, wherever they go in the world.  

The ways in which we celebrate Pentecost varies from tradition to tradition and from region to region.  I recently learned that in Germany, for instance, Pentecost is a two-day holiday.  It begins with worship on Sunday, but continues on into Monday, when Germans, and many other Europeans, get the day off from work so they can participate in parades and fairs and other kinds of events – sort of like Memorial Day!

Although Pentecost isn’t a national holiday in the United States, it is a day of celebration.  The wait is over.  The Spirit has come.  We are now empowered to fulfill our calling to be God’s missional people, declaring in word and deed the mighty works of God.  

The story of Pentecost is told in great detail in Acts 2, where we find Jesus’ followers waiting patiently in the upper room for the coming of the Spirit.  And the Spirit falls on them at a most serendipitous moment.  The streets of Jerusalem are filled with pilgrims who have come to participate in an ancient Jewish festival that celebrated the giving of the Law to Moses and the people of Israel.   As they mill around the streets, they hear the sounds of people speaking about the things of God in their own languages.  They’re amazed and they want to know what all the fuss is about.  That leads to a sermon – on the part of Peter – that connects Pentecost with the coming of the Spirit on all people at the end of the age.  Since we’re still here, we might want to see Pentecost as the end of one age and the beginning of another.  But as Joel makes clear, when the Spirit falls everyone will be empowered to dream dreams and speak with wisdom and insight about the things of God.  That promise continues to this day, as we open ourselves to empowering presence of the Spirit revealed in such a powerful way on that Day of Pentecost.

John’s version of the Pentecost story is some different.  As we listened to the reading of the Gospel this morning, we found Jesus sitting with the disciples.  The Supper is ended, and they’re talking about the future.  He tells them that his time of departure has come, but he isn’t abandoning them.  He will send to them the Paraclete from the Father.  Depending on your translation, the Greek parakaletos appears as Comforter, Advocate, Helper, or maybe Companion.  Each translation picks up a different nuance of a word that literally means – “to come along side of.”  The Spirit of God, whom Jesus promises to send, will offer them comfort, wisdom, and companionship, even as the Spirit serves as our advocate with God and the world.

Since I’ve been reading the Common English Bible of late, I was again struck by its rendering of the text and find the use of “Companion” to be most helpful.  John writes that God will send them a Companion, who is the Spirit of Truth.    This companion will reveal to them where the world has gone wrong, and help them see their role in changing this world for the better.  Jesus tells them that there are many things still to be revealed, which suggests that, as the UCC slogan declares, “God is still Speaking,” and the Spirit of Truth, our Companion sent from God, will reveal this truth to us, if we’re open to listening.      

I think we can resonate with this image of a companion.  Even the most introverted among us, feels the need for companionship of some type.  It is as God discovered with the creation of humanity – it’s not good for humans to be alone.

In the course of my life, there have been a number of people who have been my companions in life, people who have walked with me as comforter, helper, and advocate.  And for me there has been no more important companion along this way than Cheryl, my companion in life for nearly thirty years.  To me that sounds like a long time, but I know that some of you have been walking together for a lot longer than that!

When we first started dating, I was a little concerned that Cheryl didn’t share my love of theology.  Talking theology into the wee hours of the night wasn’t her definition of fun.  For a budding theologian, this was puzzling, and so I had a conversation with a co-worker at the bookstore.  Patty was a wise and discerning person, and she spoke words of great wisdom to me:  Cheryl, she said, would help balance out my life.  She would help keep me grounded.  And she was correct – Cheryl has kept me grounded, though sometimes that means kicking me under the table!   She has also been my encourager, which was noticed early on by one of my closest friends.  On the night before our wedding Mark and I went for a walk, and he told me how much I had changed – for the better – since I’d met Cheryl.  He noticed a lot more confidence and sense of purpose in me.  Cheryl has been my encourager, my advocate, and my companion, for these many years.

If we hear in this translation of the word parakaletos the idea of the Spirit being our constant Companion, always being there to speak truth to us and through us, then we’ll realize that no matter what happens in life – we’re not alone.  The Spirit is present always.  But as the Pentecost story reminds us, the Spirit doesn’t come upon us simply as individuals.  It is as a community that the people of God receive the Spirit and are empowered to declare the mighty works of God.  Simply because we have received the Spirit as our Companion, doesn’t mean that we don’t need each other.  It is in community that the Spirit speaks to us this word of truth.  

I understand why so many people are abandoning the institutional church and pursuing their own spirituality without benefit of institution.  The institutional church can be a stumbling block to the spiritual well-being of people, especially when it gets caught up in church politics, but we still need each other.  In fact, I believe that most people who seek to experience a relationship with God, also seek to be in relationship with others who share this desire.  They are seeking community.  

As a Spirit-filled and Spirit-empowered community we have the opportunity to support one another’s hopes and dreams, and to bear witness to the love and grace of God.  Listening for the Spirit to speak truth in our midst, we are empowered to speak this same truth to our communities.   John McClure writes this about our witness:  
Witnessing means standing firm for one’s convictions in situations fraught with fear, ambiguity, and instability.  Like the disciples we follow the leadership of the Spirit through the world, plowing our own way through uncharted territory where truth is contested (Preaching God's Transforming Justice, p. 258).  
We don’t know where the future will take us, but we go forward, knowing that the Spirit is with us.  That should give us a sense of confidence – not in our own devices, but in the faithfulness of God.
One way we will be doing this listening for the voice of God in community is through our participation in a Listening Campaign sponsored by the Metropolitan Coalition of Congregations.  A Listening Team, which will be commissioned next Sunday, will be contacting everyone in the church to make an appointment to do what is called a “one-on-one,” which is a 30-minute intentional conversation that is intended to do two things.   First, these conversations are designed to build community within the congregation.  Although we’re a small congregation, that doesn’t mean we know each other well. We hope these conversations will help create new relationships within the congregation.  There is a second purpose for this effort, and that is to discern the community issues that you are concerned about, whether it’s jobs, education, transportation, home values.  After we’re finished with this six-week campaign the members of the team will get back together and share their findings, which we’ll then take to a gathering of participating congregations on August 5th.  On that day we’ll all share our findings with each other and with invited political and community leaders.

It’s difficult to stand firm in our faith when we feel like we’re all alone, but when we live in a community that is empowered and sustained by the Spirit of God, who is our Companion we can, as that old civil rights anthem puts it – overcome some day the forces that resist the justice and love of God.  Indeed, empowered by the Spirit, who is our Companion, on this Pentecost Sunday, we can say:

We shall overcome, we shall overcome, 
We shall overcome some day!
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe
We shall overcome some day. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost Sunday
May 27, 2012

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Overwhelmed with Joy -- Sermon for Ascension

Luke 24:44-53

Luke 24:44-53 

When have you been “overwhelmed with joy?”  What moments in your life were so joyous that you couldn’t hold it in?  These aren’t your ordinary joyful moments; the kinds that are there and then they’re gone.  These are the moments in time that you can’t forget.  These are those definitive moments that stand out and mark your life forever.     

For instance, there was the joy that I felt when the Giants finally won the World Series.  The Giants moved to San Francisco the year I was born, and for the first fifty-one years of my life – they came up short of a championship.  I bitterly remember game six of the 2002 World Series, when they Giants were a mere six outs away from their first championship, and then everything fell apart.  But 2010 was a very redemptive moment.  All the pain and anguish I’d experienced over a life time dissolved into great joy!  You will know what I mean by this when the Lion’s win the Super Bowl!!

But as much joy as that event brought me, it pales in comparison with the day that Cheryl walked down the aisle and joined me in marriage.   Then there was the day I became a father.  I was a bit concerned about being a father, whether I had the skills necessary, but when the nurse handed him to me joy flooded my soul, and in an instant I was ready.   These are two of the most joyous days in my life, days that mark my life to this day.  

These were also days of new beginnings.  It wasn’t enough to exchange rings – Cheryl and I have had to live together through thick and thin, but the joy that poured over me that day has continued to nourish my relationship with Cheryl.  And, it wasn’t enough simply to hold Brett that one time and feel like I had accomplished fatherhood.   The joy that I felt at that moment has been the sustaining presence that has nourished my life as a father to this day.  

There are other moments of great joy, moments when I was overwhelmed by the joyous presence of God.  There is, for instance, my baptism as a teenager in a creek.  There is also that moment of my ordination to a ministry, now twenty-seven years back, that would define my sense of vocation from that day on, even if the way in which I would live out that vocation wasn’t completely defined at the moment.  I figured I was going to enter a ministry of teaching, not that of a pastor, but God has a way of changing the direction of our lives.  But that moment in time was one of overwhelming joy from which I continue to draw to this day.   

So, what moments of great joy mark your life?  When has God opened the eyes of your heart so that you might see God’s vision for the world? 

Today we celebrate the Day of Ascension.  If you’re a liturgical purist, you would have done this on Thursday, marking the end of Jesus’ forty-day sojourn with the disciples.  But, since we didn’t have a service on Thursday, we’re celebrating Jesus’ ascent into heaven today.

The story of the Ascension can easily get lost.  There aren’t any major Ascension hymns or special events connected with it.  It can simply be a blip on the screen as we move from Easter into Pentecost; from the Resurrection to the outpouring of the Spirit on the Church.  But, this is an important moment in our story.  It’s the time when Jesus takes his leave of us.  Moments like this can be sad.  It’s hard to say good bye.  Graduation day is a similar kind of moment.  There is joy in the accomplishment, but there’s also the sadness that comes from the sense that you may never see many of your friends ever again.     

The Ascension story forms the conclusion of Luke’s Gospel and the opening word of Acts.  In the Gospel, Luke tells us that Jesus is sharing a meal – the true last supper – and as they eat together, he teaches them one last time about the kingdom of God and their responsibilities to this realm of God.  He opens up the Hebrew Scriptures and shows them that everything that has happened – his death and his resurrection – is in line with this biblical story.  But so is their continuing mission to bring to the world the message of repentance and forgiveness.    

He tells them, in his own way, that if they’re to fulfill their mission, their vocation, then he must remove himself.   Like a mother or father bird who pushes their fledgling chick out of the nest the first time, so that the chick can test its wings and fly, Jesus gives us permission to take up our calling.  He removes himself from their presence, so that the Spirit of God can lift their wings so that they can soar.  This promise, which Jesus gave them, continues on with us.  The wind of the Spirit continues to blow, lifting our wings, so we too can soar and enjoy God’s reign in this world.    

As Luke tells the story, Jesus blesses the disciples and then is taken into heaven.  Unlike the version in Acts, there is no staring into the heavens or gentle reminders from heavenly visitors.  No, what we hear is that they worshiped him, and then they returned to Jerusalem “overwhelmed with joy.”  At least that’s the way the Common English Bible phrases it.  The NRSV, which we read together, renders verse 52 with the words:  “And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”  The difference is slight.  There is great joy in either case, at a moment when we expect sadness, but I’m struck by the use of the word “overwhelmed.”    

They could have been overwhelmed with sadness.  We would understand.  Jesus is leaving them.  They could feel abandoned and even lost and alone. 

Hear the word “overwhelmed” as it’s used in the 61st Psalm.  This time, however,  we hear it through the voice of the King James Version:
Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer. 
From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
 For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy.   (Ps. 61:1-3 KJV).
Whether we’re overwhelmed with sadness, fear or with joy, the Psalmist reminds us that our hope is rooted not in our own devices, but in God.  As the Book of Hebrews reminds us – “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1 NASB).  

The disciples have not yet experienced the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit that is to come upon them at Pentecost.  They’ve watched as Jesus has left them behind as he ascends to the right hand of God, but instead of feeling abandoned, instead of feeling overwhelmed with sadness, they are “overwhelmed with joy,” and they return to Jerusalem where they can be found in the Temple, continuously praising God. 

.   Do you feel this overwhelming joy washing over you this day?  What is it that warms your heart and leads you into joyous worship of God?   What is it about God’s presence that stirs you to live your faith with boldness?  

We face many challenges today.  Some here may feel lost and alone.  Maybe you feel like God is absent.  Maybe there are financial challenges that you must deal with.  Maybe it’s a loved one who is deceased, whom you miss greatly.  For many of us Jean’s death leaves us with that sense of loss.  Or maybe it’s a physical situation that keeps you from living as full a life as you would like.  

Whatever is the case in your life or mine, where is there joy?  What nurtures your spirit in such a way that you can joyfully celebrate and sing the praises of God, from the depths of your toes to the tops of your heads – whether those heads are covered with lots of hair or not?   That is the question of the Day of Ascension!     

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Ascension Sunday
May 20, 2012


Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Duty to Love? -- A Sermon

John 15:9-17

Even if we’re not mothers ourselves, we’re all daughters and sons of mothers.  That means that we all have stories to tell about motherhood.  This is especially true of our newest mothers (and fathers, of course).    

When we think of mothers, whether it’s Mother’s Day or not, what comes to mind might be that special intimacy that seems to exist between mother and child, which  begins at birth.  Or, perhaps it begins even earlier, during that long period when a child begins to take form in the womb.  This relationship is often complex but it’s also very powerful.  

Although Protestants have struggled to find a place for Mary in our faith story, she remains an important contributor to that story.  Catholics, on the other hand, have tapped into the image of Mary the Mother of God, and seek Mary’s intercession with Jesus.  Catholics don’t pray to Mary because she is divine, but because of a belief that since she is Jesus’ mother, she has special access to her son.  As you know, sons often have a hard time saying no to their mothers!  So, when you see those pictures of Madonna and child, think of that intimate relationship that exists between mother and child, which expresses a deep and abiding love.  

I may not be a mother, but I am a parent.  Like many of you,  I’ve shared in both the joys and the travails of parenthood.  Yes, I know that being a parent isn’t always easy.  We parents love our children, but they can test our patience. 

While we tend to think of Jesus being a perfect child, even he seems to have caused his parents some grief.  Luke tells a story that should be required reading on both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.  You see, Jesus was about twelve when the family took a trip to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.  When the family was heading home, Mary and Joseph discovered that Jesus wasn’t with the group.  So, they went back to Jerusalem and they finally found him in the Temple talking theology!  

As you might expect Mary was a bit distressed at Jesus’ disappearance, and she reprimanded him:   “Child, why have you treated us like this? Listen! Your father and I have been worried. We’ve been looking for you!” (Lk 2:48b).  Jesus, being a good twelve-year-old boy, gave her what he thought was a perfectly good answer, but I’m not so sure, she was satisfied.   After all, he could have asked permission!  

But, Jesus seems to have learned his lesson, because when they returned to Nazareth, Luke says that he was obedient to his parents, and he matured in wisdom, and his neighbors grew to respect him.

As I look back on my own life, I can safely say that I too gave my mother a few headaches.  I too wandered off on occasion, though my parents didn’t find me sitting in the Temple.  More likely they found me in the toy department.  On one such occasion, after I disappeared at Portland’s Lloyd Center, I went to bed without dinner!   

Then during my high school days, when I really got religion, and left the church of my upbringing, and embraced what I thought was “true Christianity,”  my zeal for my new found faith led me to some unfortunate exchanges with my mother.  You see, I was known to occasionally offer my condemnation for her version of the faith, which I deemed to be rather unspiritual.  For some reason, she put up with my zealous and rather unloving attempts to convert her, and through all of this, her love for me and my brother never failed, even though these were rather difficult times for our family.  So, why did she love me?  Was it her duty?  Or is there a deeper reservoir of love from which she drew?

In our gospel reading today, we find Jesus sitting with his disciples.  They’ve finished the meal, he’s washed their feet, and now he’s teaching them one last time before he goes to the cross.  Jesus says to the disciples, “As the Father loved me, I too have loved you.”  Therefore, “remain in my love.”

 Perhaps a more appropriate word here is “abide in my love.”  Now, as I was reminded the other evening during worship at the Academy of Parish Clergy meeting, we don’t use this word “abide” very often. Still, it might be the most appropriate word to describe the relationship that Jesus is inviting us to share in. 

Although Jesus talks about commandments, which makes it sound as if love is a duty, is this what Jesus really has in mind?  Is there some kind of quid pro quo that requires our obedience before we experience the love of God?  We can read this passage in that way, but is this the way we ought to read it?  

Think about a parent’s love – at its best.  Do we earn that love, or is it given to us without qualification?  If our answer is – no a parent’s love, at its best, is unconditional – that doesn’t mean that a parent always likes us or approves of what we do.  And yet, our behavior isn’t a barrier to a parent’s love.   

I realize  that there are lots of imperfect family situations.  My relationship with my father, for instance, wasn’t of the same order as my relationship with my mother.   Many grow up in dysfunctional homes that are emotionally cold and loveless, and this coldness can be perpetuated from generation to generation.  Still, at their best, our interactions with our parents teach us what it means to love.  And if we become parents, and abide in this love, we can love as we have been loved.     

Yes, we love, because God first loved us.   Jesus says to the disciples – you didn’t choose me, I chose you.  That sounds a lot like family.  We don’t choose our family of origin.  It chooses us.  And Jesus says, because I have chosen you and loved you, you can now produce fruit that will last.  Whatever you ask in his name, the Father provides.  There is, in Jesus, an abundance that we can draw upon as we live our lives in the presence of God.  

In that first sentence of this passage, John reminds us that love cannot be experienced or learned in isolation.  If we’re to abide in love, we do so in community.  In the family relationship, for instance, a child learns to love by abiding in the love of one’s parents.  We also learn to abide in love in the church, as we share in relationships that are rooted in the love that flows from Father to Son to the people of God.   

This sense of connectedness is underscored in Jesus’ claim to be the “true vine.”  The fifteenth chapter begins with Jesus saying: I am the true vine, and you are the branches.  As the gardeners among us know – indeed even those of us who are not proficient at trimming and pruning know – when a branch is cut off from the vine it dies.  But, when it is  connected, there is life and fruitfulness.  Jesus speaks of obeying the commandments, but the commandment to love is not an onerous duty.  It is, instead, a calling that flows out of our relationship with God.  We love each other, when we abide in Christ’s love.  

There’s another image in this passage that expresses this point.  Jesus says to the disciples – you are no longer servants.  Instead, you are my friends, and in the First Century, when relationships were defined in hierarchical ways, for a master to call his disciples friends, meant raising them up to a level of equality.  Jesus says to them – from now on you are my friends, and what the Father shares with me, I will share with you.  Nothing will be hidden.  You will now be in the know! 

Not only that, but Jesus shows us that true friendship is rooted in a willingness to lay down one’s life for the other.  It is a relationship of interdependence, where the focus is on our mutual responsibility to each other, rather than seeking control or power over the other.

By keeping the commandments to love God and neighbor, we abide in Christ’s love.  This love may not always be reciprocated in the ways we desire, but if we abide in it, it will continue on from generation to generation.   

Do we love out of duty?  Or do we love because we abide in the love that the Father shares with the Son, and through the Son to us by the Holy Spirit?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
6th Sunday of Easter
May 13, 2012