Sunday, June 24, 2012

Friends Forever -- A Sermon

1 Samuel 17:57-18:5

What is a friend?  In the age of Facebook, that’s not as easy to answer as it was before the advent of Social Media.  I have nearly a thousand Facebook friends, but truth be told I’m not quite sure who many of them are!  Still, I’ve found Facebook to be a wonderful way to reconnect with old friends and make new ones.

  Of course, we’ve always known that there are different levels of friendship.  Some can last for a week at camp and others a lifetime.  Some are extremely close and others are more distant. But this need to make friends is a reminder of what God observes in the Garden – It’s not good for humans to be alone.   
I know that Facebook or Twitter isn’t for everyone, but we all find ways of connecting and reconnecting with others. That’s the reason many go to reunions.  We like to keep rekindling old friendships.  But, it’s not enough to keep old friendships alive, we have continually make new ones, and for introverts like me that’s not always easy!  But maybe being part of a church – the body of Christ -- can help!

Our reading this morning tells the story of one of the most famous friendships of all time.  It’s the story of a very unusual friendship that continually gets tested and yet it thrives.   Jonathan, who is the son of the king and heir to the throne, and David, who is not only beloved by the people but already anointed the next king, develop a friendship that transcends all the challenges.  

Although Jonathan seems to know what is happening around him, he doesn’t seem to care.  Some might criticize him, saying he lacks ambition, but perhaps he shows us a better way, the way that Jesus would later embody.  Here is a man who cares more about the welfare of his friend than about himself.  His actions seem to reflect Jesus’ famous words: “No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:13 CEB).

The story begins shortly after David’s famous encounter with Goliath.  David had traveled to Saul’s military camp to visit his brothers at the front, and after watching as the great Philistine warrior Goliath taunted the Israelites and seeing that no one would face Goliath, he  takes up the cause.  Although young and inexperienced he brings down the great warrior with nothing more than a stone and a slingshot, and as a result, he returns home a hero.  There are shades of this story in the first Star Wars movie, when Luke Skywalker, just off the farm, delivers the fatal blow that destroys the Death Star and saves the rebellion.

  As our hero arrives at court, bringing Goliath’s head as a gift to the king, we’re told that “Jonathan’s life became bound up with David’s life.”  Or, as Eugene Peterson put it in The Message:  
Jonathan was deeply impressed with David—an immediate bond was forged between them. He became totally committed to David. From that point on he would be David's number-one advocate and friend.  (18.1).  
Jonathan and David make a covenant with each other that will transcend every other relationship.  Nothing would come between them, including Jonathan’s increasingly jealous father, who seeks to kill his rival and even on one occasion, sensing that Jonathan was in cahoots with David, throws his spear at his son and heir.  This is a friendship that is constantly being tested, and yet it endures to the end.    
As I think about my own friendships, I have to wonder, am I this committed to the welfare of anyone else?  We probably can answer yes if the other person is our spouse or our children or grandchildren.  But what about someone outside this immediate circle?  If we’re to love our neighbors as we ourselves, how far are we willing to go to live out this calling?  
Of course, we all know stories, whether fictional or real, about sacrificial friendships.  Recipients of the Medal of Honor have often demonstrated such commitment to their comrades, risking their own lives for others.  In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Spock sacrifices his life for the good of his shipmates.  The always logical Spock reminds Captain Kirk that “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few . . . ”

So, what is the true depth of our friendships?  And, how do we reflect our own spirituality though these friendships?  Eugene Peterson writes that 
Friendship is a much underestimated aspect of spirituality.  It’s every bit as significant as prayer and fasting.  Like the sacramental use of water and bread and wine, friendship takes what is common in human experience and turns it into something holy.  [Eugene Peterson, Leap Over a Wall 53.]
There is something holy about this covenant friendship between Jonathan and David.  Like Spock, Jonathan is willing to offer his life and his future for the good of another.  I’m not so sure that David was quite as committed, however, so there is a wrinkle in this story that I can’t seem to resolve.  
Such a sacred form of friendship is deeply rooted in trust.   As we all know, perhaps instinctively, trust is difficult to earn and easy to lose, which makes Jonathan’s immediate bond with David all the more surprising.  But while this friendship is constantly being tested, it never wavers.  

Paul speaks of the depth of his own commitment to the lives of the people who inhabited the Corinthian Church, despite their tendency to resist his leadership, recounting  the many struggles and difficulties he had encountered in the course of his ministry – beatings, imprisonments, and the like – and he did it because “there are no limits to the affection we feel for you” (2 Cor. 6:12).  

But, even as we celebrate this friendship, we need to again recognize that it seems somewhat one-sided.   Jonathan seems to give up everything for David.  We see this in the way that he takes off his robe and gives it to David, along with his armor, his belt, his bow, and his sword.  In other words, he’s abdicating the throne.  And what does Jonathan get as a result?  Like I said, there are wrinkles to this story, but it appears that even though the relationship may be somewhat unequal, there is a bond here that can’t be broken.  There are no limits to the affection felt for the other, not even when tested by other relationships.

If we’re willing to invest ourselves in the lives of others, as these two men invested themselves in each other, our relationships will be tested.  It may be another relationship that demands our loyalty or it may be a growing difference of opinion about life in this world.   Like Jonathan you may be forced to choose between your friend and your family.   This often happens if you have been raised in a bigoted family and you make a friend who is from a different ethnic, religious, social or racial background.  What would you do?   Who do you choose?  It’s not any easy question, but it’s a question that people face every day.

   For example, there are many stories about Israelis’ and Palestinians getting together and trying to overcome the animosity that exists between their two peoples.  These attempts at friendship put them at odds with their families, their clans, and their nations.   Sometimes it even costs them their lives, but they persist because they’ve entered into sacred and covenantal relationships.

As you know, we are in the middle of a listening campaign.  Our listening team is making appointments and having conversations with as many of our members and friends as possible.  We’re doing this for a couple of reasons, but among the most important is simply to get us talking with each other.  You may have been part of the congregation for years, but how much do you know about each other?  There are some other elements to this, but the most important is creating deeper relationships.

  This morning, as we move toward the Lord’s Table, think about your friendships, especially the deeper ones.  Ask yourself: What is the nature of these friendships?  Do I love the other as much as I love myself?  Am I willing to lay down my life for that person? Do I consider any of these friendships to be sacred?

I think we can all say that even within the church, our relationships can get tested.  We may not be all that big a church, but we’re pretty diverse in our theologies and our politics, our music preferences and many other things.  It’s not always easy living with each other, but we’re living in covenant with each other.  So,  let us take heart in Jonathan’s last words to his friend:
Go in peace!  The two of us have vowed friendship in God’s name, saying, “God will be the bond between me and you, and between my children and your children forever!”  (1 Sam. 20:42, MSG)
Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday after Pentecost
June 24, 2012

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Bringing Things into Focus -- A Sermon

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1  
The Hubble telescope has brought into focus the vastness of the universe.  It allows us to see the universe in ways never before thought possible.  But, when it was first deployed they discovered a flaw in the lens that left this new view somewhat fuzzy.  But, NASA launched a shuttle that went out and repaired the telescope, and now we can see the wonders of the universe with a clarity never before possible.  What was fuzzy is now clear.

But, you don’t have to go to the Hubble telescope to know the importance of bringing things into focus.  Every morning, when I wake up, I put on my glasses, because without them the world is a complete blur.  In an earlier age, I would have been, for all intents and purposes, blind.  

In the Gospels, Jesus occasionally heals a person of blindness.  On one occasion, when he was Bethsaida, a man who was blind was brought to him.  Jesus spit on his eyes and then laid hands on the man.  Then Jesus asked him: “Do you see anything?”  The man replied:  “I see people. They look like trees, only they are walking around.”  Jesus then put his hands on the man’s eyes, and then the man’s eyesight was fully restored, and what was once fuzzy was now brought into focus (Mark 8:22-25).   

I am much more attentive to the question of disability and healing since reading Amos Yong’s book The Bible, Disability, and the Church.  The way in which we use the language of disability and wholeness can diminish the personhood of people who have disabilities.  Still, the imagery of blindness is important in the gospels, because many of Jesus’ critics could not see how God was present and active in his life.  They didn’t seem to have a proper focus on what God deemed important, and so like the Hubble telescope or my glasses, they and we need some corrective lenses, so we can understand what God believes is important.

Using your spiritual corrective lenses, what is important to you?  What do you believe are the defining marks of life?  What makes you, you?  Is it education?  Family?  Your job?  Friendships? Material wealth?  Faith in God?  Service to humanity?  These are some of the questions that you will be asked to think about during the next six weeks of our Listening Campaign.  

When we have truly intentional conversations with people, we often discover how easy it is for our conversations to stay at a surface level.  We can know people for years and never really get beyond pleasantries.  We talk about the weather or maybe the Tigers.  We ask each other – “how are you doing?”  And more often than not we answer: “I’m fine.”  Deep down inside we may be hurting, but we stay at a very surface level, because it’s safer.   Sometimes we do this even in our families, and too often it’s the way we live before God.  

Bringing life further into focus, there is the question of God’s place in our lives. Where does God fit?     

After 9-11 there was a lot of talk about emphasizing the important things in life, especially relationships.  For a moment people became more introspective.  Some people became more involved in serving the community.  Some joined the military to serve their country.  There was, for a moment, an up tick in church attendance.  But, how long did this last?  

Tragedies have a tendency to bring life’s important things into focus.  But, our attention to these things can quickly fade.  Before long we want to our lives to get back to normal.  

World War I not only caused a lot of death and destruction, but it also undermined the sense that things in life would continually get better.  Woodrow Wilson’s dream of establishing a forum that would lead to world peace was rejected as a nation tried to get back to normality.  Warren G. Harding won the 1920 presidential election with the slogan: “Return to Normalcy.”  You could say that the 1950s were also a decade of “normalcy,” even though there was great dissent and disillusionment brewing.  The 1960s served to bring all of these issues into focus.  

In our text from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church, we read:  
We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen.  The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal.  (2 Cor. 4:18 CEB).
Now Paul isn’t denying the value of the material world.  He affirms the resurrection of the body – both of Jesus and us.  But, there is a difference between what we can see and what we can’t.  We often see things at a surface level, but miss what’s going on inside.  We can also get stuck in either the past, which we remember, or the present, which we can see, but we find ourselves unable to envision the future.  That’s because the future is unknown.  It’s unseen because it hasn’t yet occurred.

Here in this passage, Paul calls for us to focus on the things that are eternal, on the things that truly last.  Jesus speaks of placing our treasure in heaven, “where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them.”  Where we store our treasures, Jesus says, we will find our hearts (Mt 6:20-22 CEB).  The saying goes – you can’t take it with you, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t try.  Unfortunately, when we put our focus on obtaining material wealth, that which is most important – relationships – gets lost.  Remember the story of King Midas.  He was given the gift of the golden touch.  It was great for a while, but when he touched his beloved daughter and she was turned into gold, this “gift” became a curse.   
In the past six weeks we have opportunity to reflect on the important things of life, as we’ve seen three of our beloved members pass on.  Each in their own way, Jean, Bob, and Anna Mae have left their mark on this church and on the world itself.   Although some things will return to dust, what really matters -- the eternal things – will remain with us, even as they now join the company of the saints.  

One way in which death brings things into focus is that it reminds us that life is fragile and it is often vulnerable.  Paul speaks here of our bodies breaking down on the outside as we age.  We can try to stave off the process with exercise and nutrition, but unlike in the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons, none of us, not even those little ones who look so cute and cuddly now, will ever get any younger.  

But, even as death reminds us that life on this planet is fleeting and that our bodies will break down, that doesn’t mean that life is without hope or purpose.  Paul speaks here of the inner person that is renewed daily.  We endure what Paul calls “temporary minor problems,” that if we’re willing, can “produce an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison” (vs. 17).    The obstacles we face in life, and Paul seems to have faced his share, from shipwreck to prison, produces within us character and endurance and hope.  

And so as we hear this word from Paul that begins with an affirmation of resurrection, what must we bring into focus?  How does this word call forth from us a sense of purpose?  How does the eternal help clarify what is important in life?  You might ask – how does the eternal define how we live our lives and even how we die?   Will I die with fear upon my heart, or with joy at the opportunities that God has afforded me in this life?  And as far as life goes, am I willing to live it with boldness, knowing that no matter what comes my way, there is an eternal weight of glory standing before me?  

For Paul, who derives his confidence from the knowledge that the one who raised Jesus from the dead will also raise us from the dead, draws upon the Psalmist and declares:  “I had faith, and so I spoke.” The aging process may ultimately slow us down physically, but it can’t stop the work of God in our lives.

I take some comfort in the story of Jamie Moyer, who at the age of 49 became the oldest pitcher to win a game in the major leagues.  Although he was released by the Rockies on June 1, he continued to pitch long after the players he came up with had retired.  As he got older, Moyer didn’t win games because of his physical abilities.  Instead, he used the wisdom that he gained along the way.  Rather than trying to power a fastball by a hitter, he had to outsmart the hitters and hope that he could induce them to get themselves out.

The way forward requires that we focus on that which God has laid before us – that which is eternal, and as Paul noted in an earlier letter, that which abides is faith, hope, and most of all, love.  May the Love of God be your polar star as we continue our journey with God, always bringing the things of life into focus through this lens – of faith, hope, and love!

Preached by: Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
June 10, 2012

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Night Visit -- A Sermon for Trinity Sunday

It’s easy to get lost in the darkness of night.  It’s hard to get your bearings when familiar landmarks disappear into the background.  You think you know where you’re going and end up somewhere else.  It happens to me with some regularity.  

I remember one evening, back when I was in college, I ended up driving my car into a field.  I was, at the moment, on a date, and after my date’s futile attempt to help me stay up on roller skates, we decided to take a drive out to Bonanza, a very small farming town east of Klamath Falls.  Now,  I really didn’t intend to end up in that field, but under the cover of darkness, I didn’t know where I was going.   And no, nothing happened!  I was a perfect gentleman, or better – I was rather shy! 

Nicodemus didn’t end up driving into a field, but you could say that in a spiritual way, he got lost in the night.  According to John, Nicodemus, a religious leader and teacher, visited Jesus under the cover of darkness.  He may have wanted to avoid being seen by colleagues, but in John’s gospel there is always a deeper meaning to the words and actions of those present in the story.   Therefore, the image of the night speaks of his spiritual confusion and his misunderstandings of the nature and the purpose of God. 

As we hear this story, we do so on Trinity Sunday.  Trinity Sunday is one of six major festivals in the church year, and though Disciples are a non-creedal people and don’t necessarily emphasize this description of God’s nature, it does offer even Disciples an opportunity to reflect on the ways we understand God.   

The story before us suggests that Nicodemus is confused about who God is.  I think it’s safe to say that Nicodemus isn’t alone in this.  Many Christians also find the traditional description of God to be not only confusing but even downright bewildering.  How can God be one and yet three?  Our attempts to answer this question can leave us with three different Gods or as unitarians, but certainly having no clear understanding of the Trinity.   I’m not going to try to sort all of this out this morning, but perhaps we can reflect on the way in which we envision God and the ways in which God sees the world.  

Nicodemus comes to Jesus and says – we know that you are a teacher who comes from God – how else could you do all these signs?  But as soon as Jesus starts to talk with him about the things of God, we see that Nicodemus doesn’t really understand how God is present in and through Jesus.   He thinks he knows how God works, but Nicodemus ends up trying to put God in a box that can’t make sense of Jesus and his message. 

Nicodemus has a very narrow view of how God works.  He’s a literalist.  So, when Jesus tells him that if he wants to see the kingdom of God, then he must be born anew, this doesn’t make sense.  How can a grown man climb back into his mother’s womb and then be reborn?  How indeed?  Of course, Jesus isn’t thinking along these lines. 

Jesus tells Nicodemus that we have to be born of water and the Spirit.  We can take this statement in a number of directions, but I would suggest that Jesus is speaking of physical birth and spiritual birth.  Nicodemus gets stuck on the physical – how can I return to my mother’s womb so I can be reborn?  But Jesus wants him - and us – to understand that if we’re born again or born from above, then we can see things differently.  That is, we can see things with spiritual eyes.  When that happens we begin to change the way we live in this world.  But, that means getting above the forest so you can see the trees.  

When we were living in Santa Barbara, I enjoyed spending time at an Episcopal monastery that sat up in the hills behind the city.   The view was amazing.  You could see the entire coastline for miles on end, but you could also look down on the city and appreciate all the bustle going on below.  It was a different kind of view than the one at the bottom of the hill, which was limited by trees and buildings.   
If being born from above means seeing the world as God sees it, how does God see the world?   

John gives us a couple of clues, which Nicodemus struggles to understand, largely because he doesn’t seem to understand who God is.  He doesn’t understand the freedom of God or the love of God.     

Here in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that the Spirit of God, blows wherever it wishes.  As much as I love the hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, that image may be too static.  According to John, the Spirit is dynamic and not like an immovable rock.  The Spirit can’t be boxed in, for God must be free.  

Nicodemus also struggles to understand the breadth of God’s love, a love that is expressed through the giving of the Son as a sign of God’s love for the Kosmos.   This love is expressed so fully in words found in of one of the most beloved passages of Scripture:
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life.  (Jn. 3:16 CEB).  
The question we must ask is this – what is the nature of this world that God loves to send his only Son to reveal the love of God for this world?  Well, as David Lose reminds us, in John’s gospel this “World,” or the Kosmos, is almost always hostile to God.  This means that God is sending his beloved Son to reconcile and reclaim a world that is hostile to God.  John says here that when we entrust our lives to this Son, then we experience eternal life – that is, life fully present with God.  Yes, God loves the world and seeks to save it.  The purpose of God isn’t judgment but reconciliation, so that the world might reflect the Glory of God. 
Like Nicodemus, many of us find our selves walking in darkness, stumbling around, unable to truly understand the nature and purpose of God.  Like him we can’t understand the freedom of God, and so we box God in, but then God becomes small and insignificant.  Our encounters with this God fail to transform our lives.  

As we contemplate the wondrous complexity that is the God revealed through the Trinity, we ask the question: In what ways have I been born from above?  In what ways do I see the world that God loves so much? In what ways am I a different person because of my encounter with God?  

As the Gospel of John continues, we meet Nicodemus on several occasions, and it would seem that he was changed as a result of this night visit.  It appears that he emerged from the darkness of night into the light of day, even as he was born from above.

In Isaiah 6, a passage that celebrates the full glory of God, the prophet finds himself overwhelmed by his encounter with God.  He cries out – woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips who lives among people of unclean lips, but as he does so, one of the creatures that serves the Lord of Glory takes a coal and places it on his lips, cleansing him.  So, when the Lord asks – who will go and share my message?  Isaiah answers – Here I am, send me!  

In a book entitled  How the Church Fails Businesspeople (And What Can Be Done About It), John Knapp suggests that the church has failed to help businesspeople make a connection between their faith and their vocations.  We do a much better job of lifting up religious professions and volunteer ministry through the church, but don’t do a very good job of helping businesspeople see how God is present with them in their daily work as businesspeople.  This can have a devastating effect on the way Christians go about their jobs.  Many Christians have been left with the belief that, Christian ethics play no part in the business world, that justice and love are irrelevant.  In response, Knapp calls on Christians to look to Micah 6:8 as a good moral or ethical guide for how we should live and work in a world that God loves enough to send his only Son.  So: 
“What does God require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Trinity Sunday
June 3, 2012