Sunday, December 29, 2013

Generations -- A Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Christmas (2013)

Matthew 1:1-17

On Christmas Eve we watched as four generations of one family gathered to light the Christ candle. What a wonderful sight it was, because it doesn’t happen all that often.  In fact, largely due to the mobility of our society, our opportunities to gather across the generations has become increasingly difficult.  One of the few places where multiple generations do gather on a regular basis is at church, even if these multiple generations aren’t part of one specific family.
  
This morning’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew is known for its “begats,” because that’s the word the King James Version uses to count off the forty-two generations of Jesus ancestry, stretching from Abraham to David, from David to the Exile, and finally from the exile to the Christ child.  While some of the persons named in this passage are familiar, most are not.

When we read a passage of scripture like this one, our eyes can begin to glaze over and our minds begin to wander.  There are a few names in this list that are familiar, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and Solomon, but many will seem strange and foreign.  You might even find one name rather intriguing, sinci it looks as if a fish made it on to the list!  That would be Salmon, the father of Boaz, but this isn’t a fish it’s a person.  While the name looks like that of a fish, it’s probably pronounced Sall-mon not sa -mon.

These names can easily merge into a long meaningless repetition of words, but each of these names has a story, even if some have never been told.  Some of these persons were faithful to God, while others were not.  But such is the nature of a genealogy – as anyone who has traced their family tree knows, there are always a few skeletons in the closet.

Tracing family trees has become a rather popular pastime.  There are many reasons why we do this, but one of the reasons has to do with our identity.  We want to know who we are and where we come from.  Maybe it’s because our society is becoming so mobile that we feel the need for a sense of rootedness, even if it’s in the form of a genealogy.  Some people are going so far as to trace their DNA to get definitive proof about their ancestry. But, if you do go this route, just be forewarned, you might even discover that besides the typical skeletons in the closet, you may even have a few Neanderthals in the family tree.

I haven’t gone so far as to trace my DNA, but due in part to the efforts of my father, I’ve been able to trace the Cornwall family tree back about fourteen generations.  That takes me back to late medieval England.  Like many, my ancestors served in the American Revolution, and the first Cornwall (or Cornwell, depending on the spelling), came to Boston in the 1630s and eventually helped found the town of Milford, Connecticut.  While it’s difficult to prove, I’ve been led to believe that I might even have some noble blood coursing through my veins.  Of course, since records become sketchy the farther back you go, much of the “evidence” is speculation. That speculation includes the possibility that we Cornwalls are descendants of a certain Wampanoag princess named Mary Hyanno.  That first Cornwall in America, William, is said to have married a woman named Mary in about 1640.  For some in the Cornwall family, this Mary has been linked to an Indian princess.  Of course, we’re not the only family that claims Mary Hyanno as an ancestor!  But, even if these claims to nobility or Native American ancestry are more legend than reality, they make for a good story.  I expect that you might have interesting stories to tell about your family tree!

Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogical statement because he wants to answer the question:  Who is Jesus?  Matthew offers us “a record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.”  That means, whoever Jesus is, Abraham and David are important figures in his family tree.  But, not only is he son of Abraham and son of David, he is also the product of the Babylonian exile.  

Matthew begins by naming fourteen generations from Abraham to David.  Abraham is, of course, the one with whom God covenants and commissions to be a blessing to the nations.  David is the one whom God commissions to be Israel’s king.  There are fourteen generations linking David to the time of the exile, when the monarchy comes to an end.  Finally, there are fourteen generations between the transformative time of exile and the coming of the Christ. There is one specific claim that emerges from this reading, and that is Jesus is Israel’s messiah.  He is the anointed one, who, as the angel tells Joseph, will save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).

While there is a beginning to this gospel, there is also an ending, and the two are related.  The gospel closes with Jesus gathering his followers together for one last word, and he gives them a commission, saying:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.  And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Matt. 28:19-20 NRSV).      
In this commission, Jesus brings his disciples, and us, into a story that extends back to the covenant that God made with Abraham and with Sarah.

These genealogies, as Timothy Sensing notes, “highlight Israel’s greatest moments and expose her darkest days” (Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentaryp. 5). But even the darkest of days cannot keep God from being faithful to God’s promises, which Matthew suggests have come into their fullness in Jesus.

And so we return to the stories behind the names to see how God has been active in the larger story of redemption.

There is much speculation as to the reason why Matthew chose to highlight the four women who figure prominently in Jesus’ ancestry.  One thing we know from the biblical story is that all four were foreigners.  Among the men the stories are also intriguing.  There is Isaac, the one whom God commanded Abraham to sacrifice, and Isaac’s son, Jacob the trickster.  Then there’s Jacob’s son Judah, who has a son by his daughter-in-law, Tamar.  Among the many kings mentioned, some are considered pretty good – Hezekiah and Josiah for instance, but the majority didn’t measure up, and some, like Manasseh, were absolutely evil.  But, in linking Jesus to the royal line, Matthew lifts up Jesus’ royal claims.  Reference to the exile is a reminder that God is faithful to God’s people – for they not only survived the exile but became a new people.  In the end, even if we find  the good, the bad, and the ugly in Jesus’ family tree, we have been given assurance that God’s promise to Abraham remains in force, so that through his descendants the nations will be blessed.

In the closing verses of Matthew’s Gospel, in the Great Commission passage, Jesus includes us, his disciples, his followers, in this family tree.  That is, by faith we are grafted into his family tree, so that in him, we become children of Abraham.  Because we are sons of Abraham through Jesus our brother, we receive the commission, the promise, that the descendants of Abraham will be agents of blessing to the world.

Although Matthew starts out his gospel answering the question – who is Jesus – the gospel concludes with a word as to our own identity.  We are the ones who are called to make disciples and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Since the Christ Candle remains lit this morning, we can take from it a reminder that in Christ, the Son of Abraham and the Son of David, we carry the light of Christ into the world so that it might know the loving presence of God who frees the nations from their exile in the wilderness of Babylon.  

Preached by::
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
December 29, 2013
1st Sunday after Christmas

Note:  This text is taken from Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionarycreated by David Ackerman.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Trust in the Lord -- A Sermon for Advent 4A

Note:  The text for this sermon is taken from an alternative lectionary -- Beyond the Lectionary: A Year of Alternatives to the Revised Common Lectionary (David Ackerman).  

Daniel 6:16-27

When we last visited the story of Daniel, he was interpreting ‘the writing on the wall” for the Babylonian king Belshazzar.  As you might remember, the news wasn’t good.  Now, there’s a new king in town named Darius the Mede. Even though Belshazzar promised Daniel the number three position, Darius is hoping to make Daniel his Prime Minister.  That would be number two in the kingdom.  Unfortunately for Daniel, not everyone is happy with his promotion.  A group of his colleagues, who seem to think that Daniel is an interloper, begin plotting against him.  But, when their private investigators can’t turn up any dirt on him, they decide to use his religion against him.

Knowing that kings like to be flattered and that Daniel will only pray to his own God, the plotters suggest that Darius issue an edict commanding the people to worship him, and only him, for a period of thirty days.  It didn’t take long before Daniel’s enemies had enough evidence to convict Daniel.  Although Darius realized the error of his ways, he didn’t have any choice but to follow through on the threat and throw Daniel to the lions.  On the day of his execution, the king is both grief stricken and hopeful. Even as the stone to the den is being rolled into place, he tells Daniel: “Your God – the one you serve so consistently – will rescue you.”

The next morning, when the king goes to the lion’s den he calls out for Daniel, who replies: “Long live the king!  My God sent his messenger, who shut the lion’s mouth.” In rescuing Daniel, God affirmed both Daniel’s innocence and his faithfulness.

As is often true in biblical stories, there is a dark side to this story. Daniel might be saved, but his accusers and their families suffer the fate intended for him. For those who are experiencing oppression, it may seem appropriate to rejoice in the misfortune of your enemies.  It’s understandable, but I don’t it think it fits with the nature of a God who is defined by love and grace.

But, getting back to our story, Darius, who is exceedingly glad that his prime minster has been restored to him, issues another command.  Instead of worshiping him, the king, the people of his realm must now “fear and revere Daniel’s God because: He is the living God.” It’s Daniel’s God who stands firm forever, whose reign is indestructible and will last until the end of time.  It is he who “is the rescuer and savior.”

What does the story of “Daniel and the Lion’s Den” have to do with Advent and Christmas?  The link can be found in these words of Darius: the God of Daniel “is the rescuer and savior.”

There is a similar message in the opening verses of the Gospel of Matthew.  Joseph is sleeping – somewhat fitfully, because he’s trying to figure out what to do with Mary, who happens to be pregnant.  An angel appears in dreams, and reveals to him a name that he is to give to this child that will be born to Mary. “You are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21 NRSV).

The message of Christmas centers on this: that God is our “rescuer and savior,” and it is through Jesus that God will accomplish this task. This promise gives us hope and invites us into a life of faithful service.

This Advent season reminds us that in Christ, God turns the tables on human empires and begins to reveal the true nature of the kingdom of God.  We see this same message revealed in the story of Daniel, which was written during a time when Israel lived under an oppressive regime that threatened to stamp out every vestige of Israel’s faith. In this story, the reader is taken back to another time when Israel’s future looked bleak. The message that Daniel offers is this: while empires come and go, God “stands firm forever,” and that God’s “kingship is indestructible.”  Yes,  “God’s rule will last until the end of time.”  Daniel remains faithful, because he believes this promise is true.  He goes into the lion’s den believing that God can rescue him, even as God rescued his friends from the fiery furnace during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar.  But, the point isn’t that God will deliver us from the mouth of the lion or the fiery furnace simply because we have sufficient faith.  This isn’t the prosperity gospel. It is simply a recognition that God will be faithful to God’s promises.

In a few days we’ll gather to hear Luke’s version of the Christmas story, where the one whom the angels declare will bring peace and good will, will be born not in a palace but a stable.  It is important to remember that God often reverses things.  God does the unexpected. As followers of God, we must always keep this truth in mind.  

In thinking about all of this, I thought about life in Nazi Germany.  Some of you may remember those horrific days when Hitler claimed to be the messiah.  His supporters portrayed him as a semi-divine being who demanded their complete allegiance.  Those who failed to worship him could find themselves in prison and even executed, just like those who failed to give Darius “all glory, laud and honor.”

It’s important to remember that while many people hailed Hitler as their savior, many others, like Daniel in this story, remained faithful to the gospel and resisted this evil force.  Some who resisted Hitler did so through their preaching.  They refused to trade the Jewish Jesus for an Aryan one.  They refused to hail Hitler as the messenger of God.  They challenged the government’s decrees, especially when it came to disposing of those the government decided were a drain on society and a threat to the purity of the race.  Some who resisted were imprisoned, others faced exile or were banned from their pulpits, and some we executed.

I recently read a collection of sermons from that era entitled Preaching in Hitler's Shadow.   In this book you’ll find sermons by Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Niemoller, one of whom was exiled, one imprisoned, and the other executed. But while these voices are important, they weren’t alone.  Each of the preachers featured in this book knew that their words of resistance could lead to their death, but they chose to be faithful to the Gospel, knowing that God’s realm is  indestructible and will last forever.

One of those preachers was the theologian Rudolph Bultmann. Although Bultmann’s resistance to Hitler isn’t as well known as that of Barth, Bonhoeffer, or Niemoller, he spoke out clearly against the darkness that was Hitler’s regime in his sermon  on the Great Banquet (Luke 14:16-24).  In his sermon Bultmann calls on the congregation:
To be ready for God’s future, means to go into the darkness comforted and ready, ready for that which God has planned for our future (p. 154).
Daniel was ready for God’s future and therefore he entered the darkness, “ready for that which God has planned for our future.”  As we bring our Advent journey to a close, with Daniel we are invited to go into the future, knowing that God is faithful.  That God’s realm is indestructible.  That God is our rescuer and savior.  As Bultmann reminds us in his sermon –
“The future of God does not meet us only at the end of our days; rather, whoever hears this call is permitted always and again to experience something of it, how God makes it purer and stronger, quieter and more cheerful: how God answers the prayer: ‘make me simple, profound, detached, tender and still in Your peace!”  (P. 154).
There are only a few more days before Christmas.  This reading from Daniel invites us to stay faithful, even when we walk through the shadows, because we know that God is faithful and wll, through Jesus, save his people from their sins.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday of Advent
December 22, 2013

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Writing Is on the Wall -- Sermon for Advent 4A

Daniel 5:1-7, 17, 25-28

It’s been a while since I last preached.  Now that I’m back – as I promised I would – I have much to say!

On this third Sunday of Advent we lit the candle of Joy.  But what does it mean to be joyful?  At Christmas we sing “joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare him room, . . . “

”Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare him room.”  We’re not singing that carol this morning, but what does it mean to receive the King, to prepare our hearts by leaving room to receive him?

That key word here is “prepare.”  God has promised to be present in our lives.  That is the basic plot line of Scripture.  But, are we ready to receive God into our lives?  Have we made room?  Or, have we stuffed our garages and our closets so full of junk that there’s no room for God to fit?

With this carol we proclaim that “He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love.”

Today and next Sunday we’re going to be visiting the Book of Daniel.  It’s not a book we regularly visit, but as children many of us learned the stories about  Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego, whose faithfulness to God puts them into the fiery furnace.  Then there’s the story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den, which we’ll look at next week.  But in today’s reading, we hear the story about a mysterious hand “writing on the wall” of a Babylonian palace.

When you hear the phrase “the writing is on the wall,” you know that bad news is coming.  For instance, with Detroit’s recent bankruptcy ruling we all knew “the writing was on the wall.”  Whether you agreed with the decision or not, I doubt anyone was by surprise.  As the judge said – there was no other way.

Of course, what is written on the wall can be a prelude to good news.  So, if someone asks if you want to hear the good news or the bad news first, you might as well get the bad news over with, so you can find out what the silver lining is!

In the book of Daniel We’re transported back to the sixth century B.C.E.; to a time when the Jewish people were living in exile.  Remember how the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquered Judah, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and then carted off the leading citizens to Babylon?  But that wasn’t the end of the story.  It might seem like God had abandoned the people of God, but here in Daniel 5 Babylon gets its due.

In Daniel 5, Nebuchadnezzar is long dead and a later king named Belshazzar decides to throw party to celebrate his power.  He invites all the Lords and Ladies to his palace.  Then he tells his servants to get the holy vessels that Nebuchadnezzar took from the Jerusalem Temple so that they could propose toasts to their gods using vessels that were dedicated to the worship of the God of Israel.  In doing this Belshazzar and his guests desecrate the holy vessels, just like the Seleucid rulers desecrated the second Temple in Jerusalem in the 2nd Century B.C.E.  This was when Daniel was written.  

“Immediately” after this, a human hand mysteriously appeared and begins writing on the wall.  As you might expect, Belshazzar nearly faints with fear.  The author writes: 
“Then the King’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs give way, and his knees knocked together.”  (vs. 6 NRSV).
After all, when there’s “writing on the wall” the news can’t be good.

Belshazzar then calls in his religious advisors and demands that they interpret the meaning of these strange words.  Unfortunately, they don’t know what to say.  The king is increasingly frustrated, but then the Queen Mother remembers a man named Daniel who had interpreted the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar.   Perhaps he could interpret this ominous message.  When he hears this, a very frightened Belshazzar, agrees to bring in Daniel.  The king even promises to give Daniel the number three position in his administration.  Daniel agrees to interpret the message, but he tells Belshazzar to keep the gifts and honors – and with good reason, because Daniel could read the writing on the wall.  

The message consisted of three words, the first of which is repeated once:  Mene, Tekel, and Parsin.  What do these words mean?  According to Daniel the first word, Mene, means “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end.”  Why is this?  The answer is found in the second word, Tekel. Daniel says, “you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.”  In other words, God has audited your books and you failed the audit.  As for the third word – it is the penalty phase.  It’s no wonder Belshazzar was terrified.  He was standing before the divine judge.

This third word, which is parsin or peres, means that your kingdom is to be divided.  The banks might be too big to fail, but that’s not true of the Babylonian empire.   Belshazzar is about to lose his job, and in this case there aren’t any golden parachutes.  It’s interesting that when Belshazzar hears the news he decides to push the rewards and honors on Daniel.  I guess he thinks this will delay the inevitable.  But such is not the case.  The Babylonian kingdom will soon give way to the Persian Empire, and the exile will end.  But that’s another story all together!

As we celebrate Advent, what message do you hear in this story about the writing on the wall?

Perhaps we should consider the ministry of John the Baptist, who is born with a calling to prepare the way for the realm of God. He is, according to Luke, Jesus’ advance man.  He gets things ready.  He reads the “writing on the wall,” which is the call to repentance.  

Belshazzar wasn’t paying attention to God.  He wasn’t prepared.  So, when Daniel interpreted the message, it was already time for him to face the bankruptcy judge, and receive what he was due.  His kingdom was to be no more.

As we continue this Advent journey, we are reminded that there is one coming who will inaugurate the realm of God.  This divine realm, according to Scripture is very different from human kingdoms like that of Belshazzar, Antiochus IV, and Caesar.

According to Daniel, when we compare human kingdoms – even nations like our own – with God’s realm, they will be found wanting.  They will come and they go.  These human kingdoms can be evil and oppressive.  That was the case with the Babylonians and with the Seleucid kings.  And even if, like the Persian Empire, or our country, they are more agreeable, they fall well short of God’s realm.  The good news, the news that follows what is written on the wall, is that the realm of God is defined by the character of God.  Therefore, in God’s realm, there is peace, there is joy, there is love, and there is true justice for all.  

On this third Sunday of Advent, the day in which we light the candle of joy, where do you see God’s realm present?  Do you feel as if these human realms  have the upper hand, or do you see signs that God’s realm is pushing these realms aside, bringing to this world and to you as a person hope?    

In Daniel 5 we hear the promise that God is present and active. Human realms come and go, but God’s realm endures for ever.  

In the story that follows in Daniel 6, which we’ll look at next week, we hear a different question.  If God is faithful, will you be faithful?  Are you ready and willing to entrust your life to God’s care by preparing room to receive God’s realm?  In this, there is joy!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
December 15, 2013
3rd Sunday of Advent


 

Sunday, August 25, 2013

I Shall Return! -- A Sermon for a Sabbatical

Leviticus 25:1-12

When Douglas MacArthur retreated from the Philippines in the face of the Japanese invasion early in World War II, he boldly declared: “I shall return.”  And he did!  While we’re not facing invasion as a congregation, and though I’m not fleeing for my life, this phrase popped into my mind when I was thinking about what to say in my final sermon before leaving on my sabbatical.  Now, I could have gone with another famous quote; one that was uttered by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the movie The Terminator:   “I’ll be back!”  Either one works, because even though I’m saying good-bye – I’ll be back before you know it!

So, by the end of this coming week we will be entering this season of rest and renewal that we call a sabbatical.   Now, I must admit that it’s not going to be  easy for me to do this, because I’m not very good at resting.  John McCauslin is already worried about this!

Now, I do take a day off most weeks and I take my vacations – as some of you have noticed!  But I often fill this time off with what looks like work – that is, my writing projects.  You see, I need to be doing something!  Perhaps this sounds familiar.  After all, retired people continually complain that they don’t have enough time in a day to get everything done.  I thought retirement meant that you had lots of free time!  Apparently this isn’t true.

As I go out on my sabbatical I’m going to try to find a balance between resting and activity.  I will be doing a bit of traveling – including my long awaited trip to England in just two weeks.  There are books to read.  Writing to get done.  And, because winter will be on the horizon – I have yard work to do.

But why do I need to take a sabbatical?  Why do I need this time of rest and renewal?  Well, this is intended to be a time of preparation for the next phase of our ministry together.   One reason why  pastors take sabbaticals is that it helps sustain a long-term pastorate, and that is important because churches tend to do better with long-term pastorates.  

You might be wondering which aspect of my ministry I’m look most forward to resting from!  That would be – meetings!!  Yes, for the next three months, I don’t have any required meetings!

Since this is my last sermon before I head out on the sabbatical I decided to reflect on the purpose of Sabbaths.  I chose Leviticus 25 because it speaks of the Sabbath year.  And while I’m not taking a year off – I am taking off a prolonged period of time.

In ancient Israel there were three kinds of Sabbaths, but each of them was rooted in the day of Sabbath, which according to the Ten Commandments we’re to keep holy.   
   
In Leviticus 23, the Lord gives Moses instructions about Israel’s festivals, the first of which is the Sabbath.  
Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation.  You shall do no work: it is a sabbath to the Lord throughout your settlements.   
So what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy by not doing any work?  Well, first of all, you can’t cook – but neither can your servants or your neighbors.  You can’t do yard work.  I don’t think you can even play golf!  And, of course, you can’t blog.  So, do any of you ever break this commandment?

Now Jesus did, on occasion,  break this commandment – but he did it for a reason.  He wanted to remind people that the Sabbath was designed for the good of God’s people, not to make life dull and boring.    

If you want to know the meaning of Sabbath-keeping you might look back at the Puritans. They went to church every Sunday morning and listened to the preacher talk for maybe three hours.  Then, they went home, ate lunch and read their bibles, prayed.  When evening came, they returned to the church and listened to the preacher for another two or three hours.  Doesn’t that sound fun?

Now, King James I of England, whose name graces a very popular Bible Translation, didn’t seem to enjoy this kind of Sabbath, so he  issued an edict known as the Book of Sports.  The Book of Sports decreed that on Sundays the English people should dance around the Maypole and play games.  Yes, James I probably went golfing on the Sabbath!  He was from Scotland, after all!

While the Puritan form of the Sabbath might not sound all that appealing, there are benefits to the Sabbath.  John Calvin, who influenced these Puritan Sabbath enthusiasts, suggested three specific benefits.

      First, when we lay aside our own work, we leave room for God to work within us.   Friday evening I went down to Serenity Christian Church to hear Dr. Frank Thomas preach.  He preached from Joshua 9:14, which when read from the New International Version states:  “The Israelites sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord.”  How often do we go off and do our own thing in the name of Jesus, and never stop to “inquire of the Lord?”  The Sabbath is intended to provide us with the opportunity to “inquire of the Lord.”

The second reason to keep the Sabbath is so that we have the opportunity to “hear the Law and perform the rites, or at least to devote it particularly to meditation upon his works.”  And finally, it provides us with an opportunity to rest from our labors [Institutes 2:8:28].

The reason I chose Leviticus 25 instead of Leviticus 23 is that it mentions the other kinds of Sabbaths – the one that occurs every seven years and the one that occurs on the fiftieth year,  the Year of Jubilee.  This passage focuses on the use of the land, which is supposed to lay fallow every seven years.  No planting; no tending to the land.  The land will do whatever it will do.  Now there is an expectation that the people will prepare for these Sabbatical years.  You don’t just wake up one morning and realize that the  farm is going to shut down for the next year, starting today.

     To get a sense of the meaning of the Sabbath, we might turn to the story of God’s provision of the manna in the Sinai.  As the people traversed across the wilderness, they gathered manna twice a day, taking just enough for that meal.  You couldn’t hoard because the leftovers spoiled before the next morning came.   But on the sixth day of the week, the people were to gather an extra amount to get them through the seventh day, when no manna was available.   In this case, the Lord tells Moses – “Whatever the land produces during its sabbath will be your food.”  In other words, God will provide.

I believe that there is a word from the Lord here about the Sabbatical season.  We have done our part to prepare – hopefully inquiring of the Lord along the way.  Now, we get to put our trust in God, who promises to provide.  The Lord tells Moses that “it will be a year of special rest for the land.  Whatever the land produces during its sabbath will be your food. . . .”  (Lev. 25:6).

Over the next three months, while I’m away, the leadership, the members, and the friends of the church will step forward and fill gaps that I might normally fill.  But this isn’t just a time to “step up.’  It’s also a time to put our trust in God’s provision.  I need to hold on to this promise as much as you might – because if I’m going to experience rest and renewal, I can’t be worrying about what’s happening back at the church.  

So, maybe I mistitled the sermon.  Perhaps I should have entitled the sermon –  “I am here.”  Why?  Because wherever we go, we go in the empowering presence of God’s Spirit, who is our comforter, our advocate, and our tutor. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 25, 2013
14th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Reclaiming a Founding Vision -- A Sermon


Genesis 12:1-9

Back in the 1970s millions of Americans watched a family’s story unfold in a TV mini-series that went by the title Roots.  Maybe you watched it.  It told the story of a young African man who was taken into slavery by the name of Kunte Kinte and his descendants.  It was and remains a powerful story, one that encouraged many other families to trace their own family origins.  After that people seemed to really get into their genealogies.  I know that some of you are hard at work tracing your own family histories.  Perhaps your interest in your roots was inspired by Alex Haley’s family history. 

 In just two weeks, I’ll be heading out on my three-month sabbatical.  Back when we were working on a grant proposal to fund the sabbatical I had to come up with a theme.  So,  I chose the theme – “Reclaiming a Founding Vision.”  Over the past year, even after we didn’t get the grant, I’ve been reworking this theme.  So as I go out on my sabbath journey, I plan to explore my own spiritual roots.  I also plan to spend some time considering Central Woodward’s spiritual roots.

Because I was born and raised an Episcopalian, I’ll be taking a look at my Anglican roots.  That will include a trip to England.   I’m also going to spend time in Southern California, where I plan to touch base with both my evangelical and my Pentecostal roots.  I’m also planning to pay a visit to the Episcopal Church where I was baptized as an infant.   I’m also taking a trip to Nashville, where I’ll be spending a few days reading through the papers of Edgar DeWitt Jones, which are housed at the Disciples of Christ Historical Society.   

When I come back, I hope to bring pictures and stories about my roots and the congregation’s roots.  The question I plan to ask during this three-month period is:  How does our current reality and our future find roots in our founding reality?  I think I know where this leads, but we’ll have to see how this plays out.

As you might expect – these past several weeks have been focused on getting ready to go on the sabbatical.  Yesterday, we had a retreat where we did some thinking about what the next three months will look like.  The staff and some of the leaders of the church shared how they will be involved.   Even before we gathered yesterday, we’ve been busy making plans.  We’ve scheduled our preachers, our special events, and organized the ways in which we’ll provide for the pastoral care and administration of the congregation in my absence.  

We’ve been reaching out to the preachers and getting them set up.  Rick and the rest of the team seem to know what their doing.  We’ve been planning some exciting events that include visits from Scott Seay and Darwin Collins in October and Ron Allen in November.  We’ve got a study series set for Sunday after church and Wednesday afternoons.  I believe that you will find these three months to be spiritually uplifting, so that when I return in December, we’ll all be ready to begin the next phase of our life together as a congregation seeking to share in God’s mission in this world.

My prayer for the congregation is that during this time of sabbath, you will also have the opportunity to explore your own spiritual roots.

As we take this journey – apart and together, it is helpful if we have a biblical story to guide our journey.  As I’ve been meditating on this very topic, I thought I would go to the book of Acts, but in the end I discovered that the best starting point is the story of the call of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12.  In this chapter and the chapters that follow, we find God calling a childless couple to leave their homeland and travel to a new place so that they could be channels of God’s blessing to the world.  

God says to Abram – his name hasn’t changed yet – “I will make you a great nation and will bless you.  I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing.”  Yes, in Abram and Sarai, “all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.”  

In the chapters that lead up to this event in the life of Abraham and Sarah, we see a world break away from God’s intention.  They fall into confusion and discord.  This isn’t God intention for creation, so God chooses to do a new thing by returning creation to its founding vision.  That vision is one of wholeness.  

I appreciate the way that biblical scholar John Holbert puts it.  
This passage is the Bible’s lynchpin  because the remainder of the biblical story will be one attempt after the other to reconstitute a broken world; God will be persistent and creative with divine ideas that God hopes will lead at last to shalom.”
From that point on, God will work through the descendants of Abraham and Sarah – both  biological and spiritual – to bring wholeness to a broken world.  This is the blessing that God promises to Abraham and Sarah and to us.  It is a blessing that is transmitted to us through the person of Jesus, who is, for Christians, the seed of Abraham.  As Paul writes to the Galatians, if in baptism, “you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”  (Gal. 3:29 NRSV).  

Yes if we are in Christ, then we are Abraham’s children and heirs of the promise made to him and to Sarah, that through us God would bless all the families of the earth.

When I arrived five years ago, Central Woodward was already talking about being a missional congregation.  In February of 2009, we gathered for a retreat and discerned a set of core values that would guide us as we pursued this calling.  From that time to the present we’ve been working on living into this missional calling, which I believe is rooted in the call of Abraham and Sarah.  Their calling was a missional one.  As one writer put it – Abraham’s calling functions as a Great Commission, which means that the mission of God to which we’ve called doesn’t begin in Acts 2 or Matthew 1; it begins here in Genesis 12.  

Yes, ours is an ancient calling.  It finds expression in different ways throughout history.  As followers of Jesus we have discerned at different times different aspects of this calling, but throughout the years God has been hard at work reconstituting a broken world.

It’s fitting that our Disciple identity statement calls on us to be “a movement of wholeness in a broken world.”   In making this statement, we don’t presume that we’ve achieved wholeness.   We simply hear the call that God first issued to Abraham and Sarah, which was an invitation to join with God in being agents of God’s blessing to the world.

We can call this blessing by a number of names.  We can call it wholeness.  We can call it reconciliation.  We can call it salvation.  We can call it shalom or peace.  But, in the end, it is God’s blessing that is poured out on the world as a whole, so that all of Creation might be restored to God’s founding vision.

As we venture out in this time of sabbath, I would ask that you consider how God might use you to be an agent of blessing.  As you ask this question, you will reclaim God’s founding vision for the descendants of Abraham.  It is a vision that is truly missional in nature.  Why?  Well, a blessing can’t really be a blessing if it isn’t shared.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
13th Sunday after Pentecost 
August 18, 2013

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Never Giving Up -- Sermon for Pentecost 11C

Hosea 11:1-11

Children will try the patience of their parents.  It’s simply inevitable.  Even Jesus caused his parents a few headaches – that is if Luke’s account of the family visit to Jerusalem can be believed.  I know that some people think their children are perfect, but this idea must be a figment of the imagination.  We might wish for the perfect child, but to this point no such child has emerged.  

Because I’m both parent and child, I’ve had the opportunity to see the parent/child relationship from both sides.  I’ve tried the patience of my parents, and had my patience tried by my son.

If you were to ask my mother, she would tell you that I was a wonderful child growing up.  But she would also be lying, because I wasn’t always a wonderful child.  Yes, if she were honest, she could tell you that I tried her patience on many an occasion.

In a scene reminiscent of Luke’s story of Jesus getting left behind in Jerusalem, I was accidently left me behind in the toy section of the J.C. Penney’s at Lloyd’s Center in Portland.  You need to understand that at the time, Lloyd Center was one of the largest shopping centers in the country, and we were visiting from our small hometown.  Getting “lost” during the Christmas season at Lloyd Center wasn’t a wise thing to do.  I don’t know why my parents didn’t assume I was in the toy section, doing my own business, but they were none too happy when we finally met up.  Needless to say – I suffered the consequences of my actions – going to bed that night rather hungry!

I won’t tell you any stories on Brett, because he will turn off the mic if I do!  But, if he’s honest, he’ll tell you that he’s tried his parents’ patience a time or two.  It’s just the way things are.

One of the most powerful biblical stories about parent-child relationships is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  A son goes to his father and demands his share of the inheritance so he could strike out on his own.  The father agrees to the demand and off goes the son.  Well, you know how the story goes.  This younger son has a good time, spends his inheritance, and ends up feeding the pigs.  He suffers the consequences of his actions, but then the story ends with the son reconciled with the father.  Although the father welcomes him back with open arms, I wonder if at first the father was a bit miffed at the way his son acted toward him.  But in the end, when the son is restored to him, he’s overjoyed.  Isn’t that the way it is when parents and children become estranged and then are reconciled?

There is another parent-child story in this reading from the Prophet Hosea.  This time it appears to be a mother-son relationship, and this passage has great beauty and great power, reminding us of God’s unconditional love.

This is a powerful word, but there are aspects of the book of Hosea that should trouble us.  Carol Howard Merritt recently wrote an essay reminding us that in this book God commands Hosea to marry a prostitute as parable of Israel’s unfaithfulness.  And Hosea gives their children horrific names that are intended to o symbolize God’s disgust with Israel’s bad behavior.  The idea that God is involved in the buying and selling of women should trouble us, so I’m glad Carol brought this to my attention.  And yet there is a powerful word of grace present in this prophetic book.  
In the eleventh chapter, the relationship of the abandoned husband and unfaithful wife gives way to that of a caring mother and her not always faithful son.  Perhaps, Gomer takes on a different role in this chapter, moving from being an unfaithful wife to faithful parent, and in doing so comes to represent God’s relationship with God’s people.  That is, of course, nothing more than speculation.
The chapter opens with these words:  “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.”  When Israel was a child, I loved him.  That is the voice of a parent, but so is the voice that follows. This is a voice of frustration.  In spite of the love poured out on the beloved child, the child spurns the mother’s embrace.

There is frustration, but the mother remembers how she taught her child to walk, and how she picked him up in her arms and healed his wounds.  Yes, she has led Israel with love and kindness.  She picks up an often ungrateful child as if she were bringing an infant child up to her cheek or bending down to feed her child.  

Isn’t this a beautiful picture?   Those of you who are relatively new parents, especially the mothers amongst us, can probably identify with this voice.  But as a father – I can say that fathers also feel this tenderness toward their children.

Before you get too comfortable, the voice again changes.  The voice of frustration returns, because the child has pursued unwise ventures – including military alliances that will lead to the nation’s undoing.
  
We know that Hosea was written some time near the end of Israel’s life as a nation.  It appears that this passage was written after the nation’s exile had begun.  As Hosea shares this word, the people cry out to God, but they receive word that God won’t raise them up.  God isn’t going to intervene.  They’re on their own.  They’ve made their bed, and now they have to sleep in it.  If you’re a parent – have you ever felt that way about your children?

Of course, this internal divine conversation hasn’t come to an end.  God looks down at this beleaguered people, and while acknowledging their disobedience, God simply can’t let them fall away completely.  God says to God’s self:  “How can I give you up?”  After all, “my heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.”  

Historically speaking the nation of Israel is destroyed, never to appear again.  So, maybe God didn’t follow through.  Maybe God did give up.  I can’t say for sure why this nation disappeared.  Maybe Hosea wrote this in the hope that his nation would be restored.

Despite the history behind the story, do you hear a word for today in this story?   What does it say to you about God?  What does it say about God’s love? God’s commitment to you and to this world we live in?  

Turning to the practical:  what message does this passage offer parents?  Does it resonate?    What does it say to us about the way we live out our relationships as families?  And as you think about family remember that family can take on a variety of forms.  Indeed, the church, the body of Christ, is a family.  It’s not defined by biology, but it’s still family.  Remember what Jesus said when his family came looking for him, wanting to take him home because he was embarrassing them.  Jesus said that those who follow him are his mother and his brothers and his sisters (Luke 8:20-21).

As a parent, I can identify with God’s desire to protect God’s children.  There’s something within me that wants to protect my child, even if he’s all grown up!  It’s not always easy to know when to step in and solve the problem and when to sit back and let your child go it alone.  And if your child doesn’t live up to your expectations – what happens then?  These are the dilemmas parents face!

We all know stories of parents who for whatever reason can’t accept the imperfections of their children.  There are parents who cut their children off, if, for instance, they come out of the closet to reveal that they’re gay or lesbian.  There are parents who will accept nothing less from their children than an A and berate them if they fail to come up to par!  But is that the way it is with God?

God can get frustrated with us.  And yet, I believe God stays true to the relationship.  We may break covenant, but God remains ever faithful.  Isn’t that good news?

Preached by: 
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 4, 2013
11th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ask, Seek, Knock -- Sermon for Pentecost 10C

Luke 11:1-13

The theme for this year’s General Assembly emerged from this very passage of Scripture – “Lord, Teach Us to Pray.”  It was a good theme for us to take up as we entered once again into important but often difficult conversations.  It is always good to bathe our conversations in prayer.  After all, we come together as followers of Jesus who seek to be in relationship with the living God.  Sometimes we forget that this is true.  Our prayers become perfunctory rituals.  We offer a quick word to God, assuming God is paying attention, and then we get on with business, often forgetting that we’ve invited God into the conversation.    

The Disciples come to Jesus and they ask him to provide them with a distinctive way of praying – just like John did for his disciples.  And Jesus complies.  The result is a prayer that in one form or another we’ve been offering up to God for two millennia.  

Luke’s version is a briefer than the one in Matthew, which is closer to what we pray today.  But the basics are there, even if the words change here or there.  What do you see in this prayer?  If we’re to look to it as a model for our own prayers, what’s the take away?  

Do you find that this prayer, as a model for our own prayers, both public and private, is both simple and honest?  As Wilma Bailey of Christian Theological Seminary puts it: “In this text Jesus wants the disciples to understand that simple prayers are as efficacious as long complex ones” [Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year Cp. 333].

I think this is a good observation.  I know that many Christians, including some of you, are afraid to pray in public because they don’t feel like they measure up.  Maybe you’re feeling intimidated by prayers that seem eloquent and pious.  The good news, as I hear it in this passage, is that all God wants to hear is the confession of our hearts.  Simplicity and honesty, not eloquence or the pretense of piety, is what matters.

Yes, it’s okay if your prayers are simple and even halting.  Paul writes to the Romans and tells them that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26 NRSV).  The Spirit of God knows our hearts and interprets them to God.  That is indeed good news!

Not only does Jesus invite us to offer up prayers that speak from the heart, but he also invites us to be persistent in our prayers. 

As I read this passage, the character of Sheldon Cooper, from The Big Bang Theory, came to mind.  If you’ve seen this sitcom, you know that Sheldon has a rather distinctive way of knocking on doors.  Let’s say he wants to talk with Penny, who lives across the hall from the apartment he shares with his colleague and friend Leonard Hofstadter.  When Sheldon knocks on the door he’ll knock, say “Penny,” and then repeat this until Penny comes to the door.  It doesn’t matter if it’s mid afternoon, or the middle of the night, when Sheldon wants to talk he knocks on the door until it’s opened.  And you’d better respond, because he won’t go away until you do!  They call this persistence! 

That’s the kind of persistence I perceive in the first parable.  Like Penny or Leonard, Howard or Raj, this neighbor gets up and provides the requested loaves of bread, not out of love of neighbor, but so he can go back to bed.  So, if this is true of your neighbor, who gives in to your knocking, because of your persistence, what will God do when we come in prayer?

Jesus’ word to us is simple – ask, seek, knock!  Ask and you’ll receive.  Seek and you’ll find.  Knock, and the door will open.  These words appear as present tense verbs, which speaks of an ongoing action.  So, it’s asking, seeking, and knocking.  Persistence, it seems, leads to action.

Now, there’s a problem with this passage that needs to be acknowledged.  As you know, not all prayers are answered in ways we might like or desire.  I’ve spent time in groups that teach that if you have enough faith, then God is obligated to do what you ask.  Experience has shown me that it doesn’t work that way.  So, maybe we need to look at this asking, seeking, knocking in a different way.  

Paul writes these words that help expand on what Jesus is saying here:
 16 Rejoice always. 17 Pray continually. 18 Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  (1 Thess. 5:16-18 NRSV).  
What does it mean to pray continually?  Is Paul suggesting that we should continually mouth prayers to God?  Or, is Paul thinking about our attitudes and demeanor.  Does the way we speak and act represent an attitude of recognition that God is present in every moment of every day?  That’s a rather scary idea, don’t you think?   

When we gathered in Orlando, we had some difficult conversations to take up.  They were difficult because for some they were being asked to take on a vision they weren’t entirely comfortable with.  They were also difficult because some in the room were impatient, ready to move on, get busy, end the discussion.  That’s why when the time came to have this difficult question about sexual orientation and the church, Sharon Watkins came out and prayed for us. And the question is – did the way in which conducted ourselves give evidence that we are or were a people of prayer, a people committed to being in relationship with the living God.  Was it a perfunctory act, or was it one of faith?  

The second parable raises the question of whether a father would give his child a snake if the child asked for a fish?  Or, would a father give his child a scorpion instead of an egg?   Yes, we know the horror stories – there are parents who would give their children snakes instead of fish and scorpions instead of eggs, but I don’t think we’d call them model parents!  No, when Jesus talks here about the parent-child relationship, he’s assuming that a parent will be concerned about the welfare of their child.  Yes, if we who are “evil” – how do you like that description? – know how to give good gifts, then surely God is faithful to do the right thing!   

Getting back to prayer, the point of the conversation isn’t getting things, but rather pursuing a relationship with God.  Even if we can’t see God – or at most see God’s backside, as Moses did in the Wilderness of Sinai, God allowed Moses to see his goodness, but not his glory (Ex. 33:17ff) – there are ways of discerning God’s presence and voice.   

That’s important because relationships require conversation.  My relationship with Cheryl would suffer if we didn’t talk with each other.  It’s not the length of the conversations.  It’s not always even the substance of the conversations that matters.  What matters is that the conversation is taking place.  Relationships begin to falter when we stop talking.  Well, the same is true of our relationship with God.

And so we come to Jesus, and we ask him – “Lord, teach us to pray.”  That is – help us be both simple and persistent in our conversations with God.  May this be true when we talk publicly or privately.  

And the Lord says to us – Ask, seek, knock.  Because if you do this, you will find me. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 10C
July 28, 2013 
 

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Clearing Away the Distractions -- Sermon for 9th Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 10:38-42

We’ve been hearing a lot about distracted drivers lately.  Everyone is talking on their cell phones or texting.  We thought that hands-free devices would make us safer, but apparently, they’re just as bad.  It’s not about the hands, it’s about where we place our attention. 
  
Of course, sometimes we become distracted by worrying about distracted drivers.  The other day I was driving home from the church along Wattles.  I noticed that the young woman in the car next to me was texting.  I got to thinking – that’s illegal. It’s dangerous.  She should stop that immediately!  But when I turned my head and mind back to the road ahead I discovered that the traffic had slowed down, and I nearly hit the car in front of me.  Yes, we can get distracted by worrying about the distracted ones.

There are many kinds of distractions in our world, some of which are spiritual in nature.

On the opening night of the General Assembly, my friend of many years and a college classmate, Glen Miles, was the preacher.  It was a fine sermon, a powerful sermon.  In this sermon, Glen, who is serving as Moderator of the Disciples for the next two years, called on the Church to be passionate and courageous about the things of God. In doing this, he diagnosed a spiritual malady that hinders our ability to hear God’s Word to the Church.  It’s called SADD or Spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder.   

According to Luke, Jesus and his disciples entered a village and a woman named Martha welcomed them into her house.  As soon as they enter the house she gets busy in the kitchen preparing a meal.  Luke doesn’t say anything about how elaborate a meal she tries to fix, but after a time she comes looking for her sister Mary, who is sitting at the feet of Jesus.  She has taken up the position of a disciple and is listening closely to Jesus’ teachings.  This is a rather radical thing to do, because Rabbis didn’t generally allow women to become disciples.   

You know the story – when Martha discovers that her sister is sitting with the disciples, listening to Jesus, she gets rather upset.  She goes to Jesus and demands that he send Mary back to the kitchen so she can help with the meal.  

As you can see, Jesus didn’t go along with Martha’s request.  Instead of telling Mary to got to the kitchen, he commends Mary for choosing the better way.  It’s not that Martha is doing anything wrong, or that showing hospitality is inappropriate, but Jesus wants Martha to understand, that in her busyness – because she has allowed herself to be distracted by the details of the meal – she’s not able to hear the Word of God.

 Yes, Martha is suffering from Spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder.

In his sermon, Glen talked about our tendency to live in the shallow waters, the safe waters, where we easily become distracted by little things.  He challenged us to take the boat out into the deeper waters and let down the nets so that we can dive into the deeper things of God.  He reminded us that too often we get distracted by little things, which we quarrel about, and in the midst of our quarrels, we fail to hear the Word that God is speaking to us.    

As you may know, later in the week, the General Assembly took up a resolution that called on the church to become a people of Welcome and Graciousness to all – no matter their race, their gender, their economic status, or their sexual orientation.  Time and again we heard the message that the Table of the Lord, at which we gather, it is open to all.  And we also heard throughout the week that “all means all.”  

The conversation about who is welcome at the Table isn’t a new one.  When it comes to sexual orientation, this debate has been going on for at least four decades.  So, when we cleared away all the distractions, what was it that God saying?  By a sizable majority, the General Assembly answered – we were hearing God say to us – let us be truly welcoming and gracious to all, and that means all!  I know that not everyone was in agreement.  It’s rare for that to be true.  There were those who wanted us to simply drop the subject in the name of unity.  But, it seemed clear to many of us that God was saying – now is the time to act so that everyone will experience the welcoming grace of God.  

Martha probably had a right to complain, but then maybe she was trying too hard to impress.  Remember.  Jesus doesn’t seem too interested in fancy banquets.  Like the current Pope, Jesus preferred the simple things.  Besides, Jesus had found a way to feed the multitude with a few loaves of bread and a few fish. More important, as we hear Jesus say in the Gospel of John:  
I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh (John 6:51 NRSV).     
As Church we can allow ourselves to suffer from SADD and get distracted from the mission of God.  Martha was doing a good thing, but Mary had chosen the  better way.  She has chosen the way of the disciple, the way of God’s realm.  Which way will you choose? 


Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
9th Sunday after Pentecost
July 21, 2013

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Embracing the New Creation -- A Sermon for Pentecost 7C

Galatians 6:1-16
How can we embrace God’s New Creation?  Or, what does it mean to live in God’s Realm?  And how do we know we’re living in this realm?  What marks or brands us, so that we know we’re part of this realm of God?  
     
Is it circumcision?  Apparently some Christians in Galatia thought so, but Paul disagreed.  We’re not really sure who was making this argument, but Paul didn’t think circumcision was a necessary marker.  He does write about baptism being the  means by which Christians clothe themselves with Christ.  Ultimately, it appears that what matters most, the thing we can boast about, should we need to boast, is the Cross of Christ.  It is the cross that marks the entrance to the New Creation. That is, instead of a physical mark on our bodies, what matters most is our living a life defined by the cross.
As we hear this final chapter of Paul’s Galatian letter read, did you hear him take up a number of themes.  Like some of his other letters, the final chapter serves a catchall.  Paul lifts up a number of issues that need attention.  As a preacher I’m tempted to address them all, but my training tells me not to cover too many issues in one sermon.  So, I’ll try to behave!  

In dealing with each of these issues, Paul reminds us that as children of God, we’re not to deal with them according to human standards.  Instead, he calls on us to look at things from the perspective of the New Creation.  Having prayed that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven, we’re to look at life from a kingdom perspective.  Instead of majority rule, it’s the wisdom of God revealed in the cross that guides us.

One of the themes present in this chapter has to do with how we should live as members of a community of faith.  According to Paul if we live according to human standards, our lives are defined by the desire to “look good.”  That is – selfishness and the need to be at the center of attention.  
  
As Paul speaks to the question of what it means to embrace this New Creation, he tells the Galatians to carry each other’s burdens, while at the same time carrying their own load.  Having to choose a focus, I’m going to take a look at this pairing.

So, how do we bear each other’s burdens while being told to carry our own?  If we treat this question from a human point of view, which means looking at it through the lens of partisan politics, don’t we have to choose one or the other?   Either we’re on our own or society owes us the good life.

Paul isn’t given to either/or positions.  He’s open to both/and.  According to Paul we’re all in this together, and each of us has a role to play.  In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul uses the analogy of the body to describe the church.  The church is Christ’s body, and God has arranged each member of the body as God chooses.  And according to Paul, every member of the body has its place and is important to the health of the body (1 Cor. 12:14-26).  

Paul doesn’t appeal to this analogy in Galatians, but he does insist that having been clothed with Christ in baptism, we are made one in Christ (Gal. 3:27-28).  Here in Galatians 6, Paul says something similar to what we find in 1 Corinthians 12 – we have responsibility for each other, but we also have responsibility for ourselves.  In this case, Paul seems to be concerned that some members of the community aren’t taking responsibility for their own lives.  In fact, you get the sense from reading this passage, that some members of the community were busybodies, who wanted to make sure everyone else was doing their share, while falling short themselves.  They liked being supervisors, not workers!

Paul’s word to this group of people is very direct – don’t think too highly of yourselves.  Instead, test your work, be happy with it, and carry your load.  Why?  Well, as Paul puts it – we reap what we sow.  
“Those who plant only for their own benefit will harvest devastation from their selfishness, but those who plant for the benefit of the Spirit will harvest eternal life from the Spirit” (vs. 8 CEB).
When each of us takes responsibility for the community and for our own self, then we will carry each other’s burdens.

Although our American system isn’t the same thing as God’s realm, there is something of an analogy between what Paul is talking about here and our political system.  Over time Americans have tried to balance individual freedom with the recognition that we must take care of one another, especially the most vulnerable among us.  Our system is not perfect, and there are those who try to push us to the extremes at either end, but at our best we seek to find a balance between responsibility for the other and responsibility for one’s own self in a way that doesn’t let selfishness define our relationships as a community.

Marriage is another institution that illustrates this idea of balance.
Even as I’m aware of our nation’s blessings on this 4th of July Weekend, our upcoming celebration of thirty years of marriage on Tuesday is a good reminder of what one can learn from marriage about balancing personal responsibility with responsibility for the other.  

When Cheryl and I were dating, I had just become enlightened about the principle of mutual submission in marriage.  According to this understanding, marriage is the partnership of equals who give not just 50% of themselves to the relationship, but 100%.  Yes, having gone off to seminary, I had become enlightened!

Now, I must admit that I don’t always live up this enlightened vision of marriage, which Cheryl is happy to remind me of.

What excited me about this discovery was that it seemed so different from what I’d observed growing up.  Back then, the man was supposed to be the head of the house, which was his castle.  The wife and children were supposed to obey and serve.  I didn’t want that kind of relationship.  I wanted to live in a partnership of equals, who shared life’s burdens fully.

Besides, I know that if I’m hungry at lunch time, I can’t just sit down at the table and expect food to magically appear.  In order to take care of my hunger, I’ll have to fix my own lunch!  That is, I have to carry my own burden.  At the same time, Cheryl and I have formed a team.  We’re partners, who carry each other’s burdens, which, I think is the point of Genesis 2.

You don’t have to be married to understand that it’s not good for a human being to be alone.  There are other ways in which we fill this need for companionship, but I do believe that the marriage relationship is rooted in this reality.  We need each other, even as we take responsibility for ourselves.

The greatest threat to this balance that defines the New Creation is selfishness.  Paul tells the Galatians not to think too highly of themselves.  Don’t be  concerned about whether the other person is doing their fair share.  Just make sure you’re doing your best job and be happy with that.  Now, I didn’t say that this is easy – it’s just that this is the way of the kingdom – no matter what kind of community you’re a member of – from family to church.  
Although we have freedom in Christ that freedom is tempered by our  responsibility to each other.  In Galatians 5, Paul warns the Galatian church not to use their “freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.”  In doing this we fulfill the law to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and this is the key to finding the right balance  (Gal. 5:14-15 NRSV).

As we hear this call to embrace the New Creation, we also hear this closing word from Paul:  
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.  (Vs. 18 NRSV).
Yes, it is God’s grace that enables us to embrace the ways of the New Creation.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
July 7, 2013
7th Sunday after Pentecost