Sunday, October 28, 2012

Abundant Joy and Overflowing Generosity -- Sermon

2 Corinthians 8:1-12
How do you see the world?  Is the glass half empty or is it half full?  Is the economy getting better or is it getting worse?  Is your consumer’s confidence quotient going up or going down?  Is there an abundance or scarcity?

Jesus was confronted with a large crowd of people.  They were hungry and there weren’t any McDonalds or Krogers nearby.  Jesus’ disciples got worried and told Jesus to send everyone away, before their hunger got the better of them.  But Jesus decided to have his disciples feed the crowd.  So he asked them – what foodstuffs do you have? They  responded – well there seem to be a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish.  Jesus said – that’ll do, and everyone went home satisfied with their meal!  As they Scripture says – With God all things are possible.

  The Macedonian churches were experiencing poverty and distress, but they also were experiencing “abundant joy.”  And as a result, they overflowed with a “wealth of generosity.”  When Paul took up a collection for the Christians in Palestine, they voluntarily and generously gave out of this abundance.  Paul then turns to the Corinthians, and asks – will you excel in your generosity?

One of this congregation’s core values, which we discerned nearly four years ago, states that we shall be a “spiritually joyful” missional community.  To put it in the words of an old gospel song:

It is joy unspeakable and full of glory,
Full of glory, full of glory,
It is joy unspeakable and full of glory,
Oh, the half has never yet been told.

This song has Pentecostal roots, and so do I.  The Pentecostal message is this – God has poured out the Holy Spirit on the church, along with an abundance of gifts – including power, joy, and love. It is out of this abundance of Pentecostal power, joy, and love, that comes to us as the Spirit moves in our midst, that we can reach out and touch the world with healing grace.  It is this same Spirit who produces within us a spirit of generosity.  

The Macedonians gave generously according to their means and even beyond their means, because they had an abundance of joy.  Paul encourages the same Spirit to be present among the Corinthians so that they too might give generously out of this joyful abundance that comes from the Spirit of God.   And as a model of generosity, Paul points their attention to Jesus, who though he was rich, became poor, so that in his poverty – that is, his willingness to become like us -- we might become rich.  Not rich in material things, but rich in joy.

So, “if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have” (v. 12).  The gift isn’t judged quantitatively.  It’s judged according to the way it expresses our relationship with the living God.

As you may know by now, we’re heading into a season of stewardship.  For the next four weeks bulletin inserts, sermons, and testimonies by the elders, will speak of how we can find our joy in the act of giving.

Some wonder why we give tithes and offerings to and through the church?  Is it just about sustaining the institution?  Or, is it an expression of our gratitude toward God.  Although the treasurer will take any gift, joy only comes from giving out of an attitude of joy and trust in God.  

So, keeping with our theme, over the next four weeks you’ll hear about the ways in which we can give generously out of the abundance of God’s giftedness.  
  • We give our days to God in prayer, for each day offers an opportunity to celebrate God’s presence.
  • We give the Sabbath by devoting ourselves to worshiping God, offering up words of praise and thanksgiving.
  • We give our Spiritual Gifts to and through the church.  We don’t keep them hidden in a basket, but instead set them free, so that God can use them for the glory of God’s realm. 
  • We give our money, not only because it pays the bills – including my salary and that of the rest of the staff, upkeep of the building, and to support ministry inside and outside the walls of the church – but because it expresses our trust in God’s abundant provisions. 
When it comes to the gift of money – each of us has to decide what is right and what is appropriate.  Our giving is intended to express our joy and our gratitude, and so it shouldn’t simply be the dollars that are left over when everything else is taken care of.  Our giving is intended to be a spiritual discipline and an act of worship.  It can take a variety of forms – including our regular pledged and unpledged giving, through special offerings, and even through the legacy gifts of estates and trusts.  Darwin Collins, who is here today,  can talk to you about how to make such gifts to the congregation and to the Region, so that your contribution to the ministry of this church can continue uninterrupted even after death.

We support a wide variety of ministries, both in the local community and beyond, through our giving.  We’ll be highlighting some of these at the East District Assembly in two weeks, but this morning, the Rev. Eugene James, our Regional Minister, would like to share a few words about his recent trip to the Congo, where we have a strong Disciple ministry partner, and he’ll share a word about how they view giving, which parallels the vision of the Macedonian Christians.  So, let’s attend to the message of our Regional Minister.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
October 28, 2012 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Standing Before the Living Word -- A Sermon

Hebrews 4:12-16

We all have a few skeletons in your closet. There are things, secret things,  that we’d rather others not know about.   And, some things are best left unsaid.  

Of course, it’s getting more difficult to keep secrets.  After all, as politicians are discovering, you never know who is recording your words and movements. But sometimes we, ourselves, put out in public things that come back to haunt us. You have to be really careful about what you post on Facebook and Twitter. You may think it’s just your “friends,” who see that picture or that comment, but there’s a whole lot of other people who just might see it as well.  So, as a rule of thumb, if you don’t want the world knowing your business, then don’t make it public record on social media.  You might also remember these three letters:  TMI or Too Much Information!

Because I blog and am on Facebook, Linked-In, and Twitter, I’ve left a bit of a trail.  I’ve tried not to share anything too salacious, but if you have access to the internet you probably can figure out who my favorite teams are, what kind of music I listen to, the books and online newspaper articles I read, and yes, you probably can figure out my politics. But then I can do the same for you!  So, be careful out there!   Early in life our parents teach us to mind our p’s and q’s, because someone may be watching.  Then, in order to cement that lesson, our parents tell us that we should watch out because Santa is always watching.  Yes, Santa keeps his list of who is naughty and who is nice, and on Christmas Eve Santa  checks and rechecks his list to see who gets a delivery.  Of course, Santa isn’t the only one who is watching.  Don’t forget that God can see you too! 

Yes, early in life we learn that someone is always watching, and so when we think about doing something we shouldn’t, unless we’re sociopaths, we stop to think about the consequences.  You may do the deed anyway, but don’t you look around to see who’s watching first?  You know, when you sneak that cookie late at night. If no one is looking then is it wrong?  Or, you push up your speed a little past the  speed limit, if the police aren’t watching, is it okay?  I mean, if no one is hurt, is it really so wrong?  Well, I’ll leave that to your conscience to decide.

But, even if no one is watching, someone is watching.  I know we sometimes think that God is too busy with the big things to pay attention to our little things, but is that true?  Our consciences usually say no!  

As you listened to the reading of scripture this morning, did you hear two different but related messages?  One message suggests that we stand before the Living Word of God, a Word that is active and sharper than a two-edged sword.  Although the rendering of this passage on the bulletin cover suggests that the Bible is the Word that convicts us of sin, the more likely interpretation is that Jesus is the Living Word before whom we all stand.  And as John declares in his Gospel, this Word became flesh and took up residence among us.   

It’s as the Living Word of God that Jesus judges our thoughts,  our intentions, and our actions.  He is the judge who sees deep within us, his gaze penetrating to the deepest parts of our lives, separating soul and spirit, joint and marrow. Yes, we stand before this Living Word “naked and exposed to the eyes of the one to whom we have to give an answer.”  

As I contemplated what it would be like to stand before someone naked and exposed, I thought of an image from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, which I might add, one of our members lent me and told me to read. In the novel, Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist and former prisoner of war is transported to an alien world, where he is put into what is essentially a zoo.  There are windows all around his “cage” so that the aliens can observe how he lives, just like we do when we watch chimps at a zoo living behind a wall of glass.  And in this case Billy is naked and exposed – both literally and figuratively.  There’s no place to hide, no privacy.  As you might expect, it’s not easy living naked and exposed.

That is the story of our lives, according to Hebrews.  We stand before God, naked and exposed.  Every thought, every motive – for good or evil – has been made known.  Yes, someone is watching!  And, knowing this, while it makes us feel self-conscious, also stirs within us a desire to do the right thing!  

But that’s only part of the story.  Don’t give up, the preacher declares,  instead hold fast to your confession of faith, because Jesus isn’t only judge, he’s also the  High Priest who intercedes on our behalf.  As our high priest, he sympathizes, he understands, our weakness.  Like us, he’s been  tempted in all things, yet without sin.  Jesus tasted real life and understands our realities.  He faced temptation, but he stood firm in his confession of trust in God.  

Yes, he was tempted like us in all things.  He was, as John declared, the Word made flesh.  Whatever temptation is common to us all, he faced.  That was, I think the point of that very controversial film of several years back – The Last Temptation of Christ.  There are a number of reasons why it was controversial, but I think the most controversial point was that Jesus actually faced real temptations.  Not just the three in the wilderness, but daily temptations. And these temptations weren’t necessarily evil, they just were the kinds of things that get in the way of living in God’s kingdom.  

As for the last temptation –  I think we can all identify with it.  At the end of the movie, Jesus is on the cross and he begins to dream about living a normal life with a wife and kids. There’s nothing evil in this temptation, except that it suggests walking away from his calling.  The movie leaves us with a question – did Jesus climb down from the cross, return to Galilee, get married, and have kids, or was it simply a dream – a temptation experienced, but finally rejected?   

According to Hebrews 4, Jesus, the Living Word of God, stays the course, and finishes the job. He doesn’t give up the calling, but he does understand why we make the choices we make.  

He is the one who sees and judges our every move, but he’s also the one who  has been tempted, and therefore sympathizes with our choices.  Knowing this, Hebrews invites us to “draw near to the throne of favor with confidence so that we can receive mercy and find grace when we need help.” (Vs. 16 CEB).  

This is the good news.  God knows our every deed.  We can run, but we can’t hide.  Still, there is a word of grace.  God’s favor allows us to come before God with confidence, knowing that we will find mercy and grace.  Now, we shouldn’t take this reality  for granted.  It’s not a “get out of jail free card.”  Thinking that way cheapens God’s grace.  But the offer is real and it transforms our lives, so that we can live lives of power, of grace, and of love.

Knowing that we stand before the one whose penetrating gaze is sharper than a two-edged sword, we recognize the times and places where we fall short in our walk with God.  But, we also know that God’s grace is sufficient.  

Knowing how grievous were her sins, at least in her own mind, St. Theresa of Ávila writes of her conversion:  
His compassion, I think, worked in me abundantly, and in truth He showed me great mercy in allowing me to be with Him and bringing me into His presence, which I knew I should not have entered had He not so disposed it.*
And this is God’s invitation to us – to stand before the throne of the Living Word of God with confidence in Gods grace.  As we consider this invitation, hear this prayer I learned growing up in the Episcopal Church.  Although this translation by Thomas Cranmer dates to 1549, it goes back much further in time.  
Almighty God, unto Whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from Whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of Thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love Thee, and worthily magnify Thy holy Name: through Christ our Lord. Amen. 
*In Finding God: A Treasury of Conversion Stories, Edited by John M. Mulder, (Eerdmans, 2012), p. 45.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
20th Sunday after Pentecost
October 12, 2012 

Sunday, October 07, 2012

It's Not Good to be Alone -- A Sermon

Genesis 2:18-24

In the film Cast Away, which is a modern day retelling of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, a FedEx plane goes down over the South Pacific.  The only survivor is a FedEx executive named Chuck Noland (played by Tom Hanks).  He tries to stay alive long enough to get rescued.  He survives, in part because he develops a friendship with a volley ball with a face drawn from us blood, and whom he calls  Wilson.  Wilson becomes his conversation partner and companion, and the message in this seems to be that it’s not good to be alone.  Now, after months of trying to get the attention of ships and planes, Chuck builds a raft, loads all the packages he had saved from the wreckage of the plane, and heads out to sea hoping that he can reach the shipping lanes so a passing ship can spot him.  Everything works out – sort of.  He does get rescued, but during the voyage a storm comes up and Wilson is lost at sea.  This loss devastates him, because Wilson had become a beloved companion, someone who in his own mind was like him.  Wilson may have been a volleyball, but he gave hope to Chuck who didn’t feel quite so alone.  

In the beginning, when God created the garden and placed the first human in it, God made an important discovery.  Although the Human could talk with God, this relationship wasn’t enough to sustain the Human.  Something was missing.  Unlike every other step in the creative process, God didn’t pronounce on this act of creation:  “It is good.”   No, God declares: “It’s not good that the human is alone.”  And when God makes this discovery, God says:  “I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.”  Yes, it’s not good for humans to be alone – not even if you’re an introvert.  And amazingly, even talking to God isn’t enough to sustain us.

As any engineer probably knows, it’s one thing to recognize the problem and another thing to figure out a solution.  In this case, it takes a while before  God gets it right.  Do you see how God does some experimenting?  First God forms animals and birds from the ground and from the sky, and brings each of them to the Human, hoping that one of these creations will do the trick.  But that wasn’t to be the case.  The human gives them names, but none of these creations is a fitting companion.  

I realize that dogs and cats and even rats can be good companions, they still don’t take the place of another human being.  So, when the Human fails to find a suitable companion, God tries something radical. After all, God won’t be content until God is able to declare creation to be completely good.

This time, instead of pulling materials from the ground or the sky, God decides to take the material directly from the Human.  Maybe this material will do the trick.  So God puts the Human to sleep, takes a rib – remember this is metaphor so if you’re male don’t try looking for a missing rib – and fashions that rib into a woman.  God brings the woman to the Human and presents her to him.  And the Human instantly recognizes that this is the perfect companion, the helper fit for him.

The Human is so overjoyed to have a companion who is like him and equal with him, a person with whom he can share life, that he cries out  in joy and in gratitude:     
This one finally is bone from my bones and flesh from my flesh.

She will be called woman because from a man she was taken. (Vs. 23 CEB)  
Finally, God can say  “It is Good.”  

In making this declaration, the Human recognizes that the woman shares his identity, his humanity.  They belong together.  And so we belong together.  As the  passage comes to a close, we hear these words that have been spoken at many a  wedding down through the ages: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:28 NRSV). 
Although this passage has its place in wedding ceremonies – and I regularly refer to it in the weddings I perform – I think it has a much broader meaning than simply speaking to marriage.   Even this last word about being one flesh, though it has sexual connotations, can have a broader meaning.  It speaks, I believe, to our own incompleteness if we cut ourselves off from relationships with those who share in our humanity.   

I could use this passage to talk about marriage, but I want to focus on our inherent need for community.  Like that Human who was alone, we need companions who are fit for us.  Even those of us who are introverts need companions.  Being an introvert myself, I have to get away from the crowd, but while I enjoy time alone, it doesn’t take long to get lonely.

I think I’ve mentioned this story before, but it fits nicely here, so I’ll tell it again!  After college I spent a month or so working up in the mountains in eastern Oregon.  With just a few exceptions, I spent Monday through Friday tucked away high up in the mountains, miles from the closest human being.  I wasn’t quite as desperate as Chuck Nolan, but then I wasn’t stranded on an island for what appears to be years.  Still, I was glad to return to civilization and human companionship each weekend!   Yes, it’s not good for humans to be alone!

As we ponder this text and what it says to us, we come to celebrate World Communion Sunday.  The Lord’s Supper is truly an act of community – even if it’s two people gathered in a hospital room or a nursing home room taking a piece of bread and a cup of juice in memory of Jesus.  There is communion that takes place with God but also with each other.

Now, we gather at the Table, at least once every Sunday, so in many ways there’s nothing special about today.  Every Sunday we break bread and share in a cup in memory of Jesus’ death on a cross.  But it’s good to stop and consider what this meal really means.  It’s a meal of memorial, but it’s also a meal of fellowship.  In the earliest days of the church the Lord’s Supper was remembered as part of a larger meal – an agape meal – where the people of God remembered Jesus’ death and resurrection and celebrated the fact that they were, and we are, the one body of Christ.  In Christ, what is separated becomes one flesh.  

As one of our communion hymns declares – there is “one bread, one body, one Lord of all, one cup of blessing which we bless.  And we, though many throughout the earth, we are one body in this one Lord.”  When we take bread and cup together, we bear witness to this oneness we share in Christ.  Yes, in him we become one flesh.

As you look around today, ask yourself – is it good for humans to be alone?  Or do you need to be in relationship with others?  Do you see an extension from what we do at the Table in the Sanctuary to what we do at the Tables in Fellowship Hall?  Do you see a connection between what we do at the Table and the meals you share each day with family, with friends, with co-workers, and even with strangers?   And as you reflect on what we do at the Table do you find yourself in agreement with God’s declaration that “it’s not good for the Human to be alone?”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
World Communion Sunday
October 7, 2012