Sunday, February 24, 2013

A Time to Weep -- A Lenten Sermon

Luke 13:31-35

It is written in the book of Ecclesiastes:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: (Eccl. 3:1)
There is, therefore,  “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance (vs. 4).  

We began our Lenten journey with the imposition of ashes, which is a sign of mourning and repentance.  This is a time to weep.  But, we end our journey on Easter Morning with shouts of Alleluia, because Christ our Lord is Risen from the Dead.

    Lent reminds us that the life of a disciple of Jesus is complicated.  There are moments of great joy, but also moments of sadness and even suffering.

The reading from Luke begins with a warning from a group of  Pharisees.  They tell Jesus that Herod Antipas wants to add his head to that of John the Baptist.  Jesus tells the “fox,” as he calls the king, that his destiny lies not in Galilee but in Jerusalem. That’s where prophets go to die.    

In the spring of 1968, Martin Luther King went to Memphis to give support to the city’s sanitation workers, who had gone on strike. He’d just begun expanding the Civil Rights movement into a Human Rights movement that would focus on economic justice. On the evening of April 3rd, he preached his final sermon, because he would be assassinated the next day.  As he preached that night, he seemed to sense that, like Moses, he wouldn’t get to cross the river into the promised land.  He reminded the congregation that while they’d accomplished a great deal, there was much more work left to be done.  In closing, this prophet for social justice in our country declared:  
Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Like Jesus, Dr. King understood that there are forces that resist the love and justice of God.  They resist the creation of the “Beloved Community.”  The question is – Will we follow of the cross or will we be “enemies of the cross” (Phil. 3:18).  These are the ones whom Paul says have made their stomach their God and care only about themselves.  

One of the chief modern prophets of this vision is Ayn Rand, who famously declared that selfishness is a virtue.  Rand has developed a lot of disciples recently, but is she the prophet we must heed today?
In our Gospel today, Jesus takes the role of the parent.  He looks toward Jerusalem, and with deep grief at that city’s continued rejection of God’s love and justice, cries out in lament:    
How often I have wanted to gather your people just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.  But you did not want that (Vs. 34b CEB).   
Isn’t this a powerful image?  Jesus takes on the identity of a hen, and in doing this  Jesus identifies himself and God in feminine imagery.  In your imagination, can you see this mother calling her chicks to herself, so that she can protect them?  What chick would ignore the warning of its mother and not seek protection under her wings?

Looking back on my own childhood, I remember my mother being rather  protective.  Sometimes I thought she was overprotective, but she probably had good reason for her protectiveness.
In his lament Jesus calls us to take cover under the loving wings of God, to find our protection in the presence of God.  But like the younger son in the parable of the Prodigal, many of God’s children have been known to spurn this invitation.  They want to do things their own way, rather than follow the path that leads to the creation of God’s “Beloved Community.”

Dr. King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and many other prophets have heard the call to pursue God’s vision of justice, even to the point of death.  They understood that the cross defines the pathway of Jesus.  It’s not an easy road, but remember it leads to Resurrection.

Another way to describe this calling is found in Paul’s reminder that our “citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20).   This heavenly citizenship doesn’t make us so heavenly minded that we’re of no earthly good.  No, what it means is that we live with a different set of values – heavenly values.  God’s values are reflected in the fruit of the Spirit – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23).  It’s reflected in the command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  It’s reflected in the word of judgment that’s based on how we respond to the least of these our brothers and sisters (Mt. 25:45).

So, how should we go about this work?  Jesus and Dr. King showed us the way.  Building the “Beloved Community” can only occur, if we’re willing to embrace the principles of nonviolent resistance to injustice.  
When Jesus cried in lament over the city of Jerusalem, and with Jerusalem all the cities of the world that have fallen victim to injustice, he did so because he knew that too often we resist this kind of action.  We seem to respect only coercion, but that’s not the way of God.
If Jesus cries for Jerusalem, who should we cry for?

When I came to Michigan five years ago, I sensed that if we’re to be a truly missional congregation, that means being engaged in the transformation of  the city.  Although we’re a suburban congregation, we have urban roots.  We may have left the building on Woodward Avenue, but I believe that the call to love and serve the city is still there.  If we use Acts 1:8 as our guide, our ministry as the people of God extends from this place outward through our communities and into the city and then beyond.  

We’re already doing this in a number of ways.  For instance, we’ve taken a leading role in establishing the ministry that is now called Gospel in Action Detroit.  This ministry has its roots, as Eugene James often points out, in a chance meeting in a hotel elevator outside Chicago that led to a partnership in ministry between an urban and a suburban congregation.  This ministry includes our partnership with Motown Mission that invites Disciples from across the country to come to Detroit to share in the mission of God.  It also involves the partnership with Rippling Hope Ministries, which has helped us create a Disciple-focused ministry in the city of Detroit centered at Northwestern Christian Church.  This spring we’ll have an opportunity to share in a workday in Detroit.  In June we’ll help support the third annual Peace Week at Motown Mission.  And throughout the summer we can join with Gospel in Action Detroit in create a new mission center in the city of Detroit.

       Another sign of our engagement in this work of God is the role we’ve taken in the founding of the Metropolitan Coalition of Congregations.  This afternoon, we’ll be gathering at St. James Catholic Church of Ferndale to officially launch this effort in organizing suburban congregations to pursue justice for all.  We’ve been at the forefront of this effort from the very beginning.  And, I pray that we will continue this work.  Why?  For one thing these are expressions of our missional calling.  For another, they represent God’s love for the world.  They are a means by which Jesus gathers the chicks under her wings.
Will you join God’s work of salvation, which involves sharing God’s love and justice with the world?  Will you join with God in building the “Beloved Community”?   And will you join in bestowing blessings on the “one who comes in the name of the Lord”?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday of Lent
February 24, 2013

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Wilderness Ordeal -- Sermon for Lent 1

Luke 4:1-13

You know how the Temptation story goes.  After his baptism in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit leads a Spirit-filled Jesus into the wilderness.  When Jesus enters this barren wilderness, he fasts and prays for forty days and forty nights.  When this physical ordeal ends, he faces three spiritual tests.  This experience forms the basis of our Lenten season, whether or not we join Jesus in his fast.

Many have followed Jesus into the desert.  They go there to purge themselves of spiritual distractions and sin.  Desert fathers like St. Anthony went into the desert and practiced extreme forms of asceticism, and like Jesus they reported battling with the devil.  It’s just something that happens when you go into the desert by yourself.

  Although many people find fasting to be spiritually liberating, the decision to pursue this kind of spiritual ordeal must be a personal one.  Whatever form our own discipleship takes, whether it includes ascetic practices or not, the question is, will we follow Jesus along the road less traveled, or will we take shortcuts that ultimately lead us away from God’s presence?
  As Luke tells it, after Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights, he was starving.  He needed to eat, but the wilderness was barren of life.  All that was there in front of him were stones.  He could turn stones to bread, but is that the way of God?  Is the way of God self-serving?  From there the tests Jesus faces get tougher and more enticing.

   Who doesn’t want power?  And if you can get it the easy way, why not do it?  All Jesus has to do is worship the devil, and the world is his.  He won’t have to face the cross or any hardship.  Later on in history, Christians were faced with the prospect of venerating the emperor.  Many did, believing it was a mere formality.  Since idols are nothing, burning incense to them is nothing.  But is this true? How often are we tempted to go along with the status quo, even if that means walking away from God’s ways?  How many Christians accepted slavery or Jim Crow?  How often do we go along with the crowd?

Speaking of the crowds, if you can use a spectacle to get people’s attention, why not use it?  Jump off the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels rescue you.  That will be a show worth watching.  But is Jesus just another magician or entertainer?

To each of these temptations, Jesus says no.

So, while we all may know this story, what does it have to do with us, besides being the foundation for the season of Lent?  What message might we hear in this story?  

As I thought about this question, I was intrigued by David Lose’s suggestion that the devil was trying to sow mistrust.  That’s a message meant for today.  In the case of Jesus, the devil appears to be trying to put a wedge between Jesus and God.  The devil tries to raise doubts about God’s faithfulness.  Jesus is, after all starving and so he’s vulnerable to the question of where’s God?

Lose writes that “our natural insecurity” can lead us to mistrust God, making us open “to the possibility, appeal, and temptation of the proposition that it is all up to us, that God is not able to provide and so we’d better take matters into our own hands.”   Do you ever feel this way?  Sometimes we can even spiritualize it by saying that we are God’s hands and feet, all the while taking upon ourselves our own yoke, not that of Jesus.

What struck me about this idea is that we live at a time of deep mistrust.  There’s a lot of cynicism in our culture today.  Nobody trusts anybody – not the government, not corporations, not even the churches.  Some of this mistrust is well placed, but not all of it.

I see this mistrust played out all the time in conspiracy theories that get passed around, often through emails.  If you’re on email, you probably get a few of these posts forwarded to you.  If you check them out on you will discover that most of them aren’t true, and that many of them have been going around for years – only the names of the players change.  There is, however, a difference between skepticism and cynicism.  I’m a skeptical sort.  I ask questions.  But, cynicism is different.  It’s a perverse feeling that leads to the kind of mistrust that builds barriers between people.  It’s the kind of feeling that leads to racism, homophobia, nativism, and other such ideologies.  

Since I’m on the MCC Gun Violence Task Force, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the debate over gun safety and gun control measures.   This debate no longer seems to be about the right to hunt or even possess a gun for self-protection.  People are buying huge arsenals of assault weapons and truckloads of ammunition because they believe they need to defend themselves against the government.  Or, as the Vice President of the NRA warns, we need to arm against the anarchy that’s coming once the police are gone.  And who should we fear – the people who don’t look like us.

But it’s not just these high profile cases.  We see this mistrust present in all areas of life – from our local governments, to schools, to our churches.  No one seems to trust anyone.  

But, as followers of Jesus, is this the message he offers us?  

Jesus rejects the seed of mistrust, which is rooted in our acceptance of the message of the Empire, which includes idolatry, injustice, poverty, and violence – just to name a few expressions.  In this exchange in the desert, the devil offers power in exchange for worship, but Jesus rejects the offer.  It’s an offer we should reject as well, since it’s said that we resemble the one we worship.  Jesus chooses a different way, and offers to lead us along that path.

As we follow the path laid out for us by Jesus, we discover our True Self.  According to Richard Rohr, the devil’s temptations reflect the “False Self.”  He writes: 
Satan does not tempt you so much to the “hot sins” like greed, lust, and gross ambition. They are too obviously evil and will eventually show themselves as such.  Instead Satan tempts you to proper, defensible, and often admired things, but for cold, malicious, or self-centered reasons.  [Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, p. 46]
In contrast to this false self that leads us away from God, a pathway that Jesus rejects, we can follow Jesus toward the True Self.  We discover our True Self, when we encounter God living within us and around us.  The fruit of this discovery of the True Self is, as Paul lays out, “love, joy peace, patience, trustfulness, gentleness, and self control.”  Against these, Paul says, there is no law (Galatians 5:22).

In his Wilderness Ordeal, Jesus faces the question of whether we will trust God or the Tempter.  As we engage in our own Wilderness experiences, we face the same choices.  Whom will we trust?  In Romans 10 Paul writes that when we trust with our hearts, this leads to righteousness.  That is, when we trust God with our lives, we experience salvation or righteousness.  We become whole and therefore able to do follow the ways of God.    

Although Jesus trusts his life to God, the temptations don’t cease.  Life doesn’t get easier.  But he finds peace, joy, and strength in that relationship, and the same can be true for us.  But, we must let go of our fears and our mistrust, and take the step of faith that leads to hope.

It’s okay to have doubts, to ask questions, to live without certainty.  But that’s different from living with cynicism and mistrust.  As we embark on this Lenten Journey, God is inviting us to join with Jesus in living lives of trust rather than mistrust.  When we do this, then we’ll find reason to celebrate the good things that God has done for us and will continue to do for us, for God is faithful.  Therefore, while we start our journey in the barren desert, we end up with abundant life in the Resurrection.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D.Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
1st Sunday of Lent
February 17, 2013

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Behold the Glory -- A Transfiguration Sunday Sermon

Luke 9:28-36
You may know this chorus from the Messiah, The choir sings boldly:
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed . . .
And all flesh shall see it together . . .
Have you seen the glory of God revealed?  If so, where?  What was the occasion?  And what happened to you as a result?  

We’ve talked about mountain top experiences before – those times and places where we feel especially close to God.  But as wonderful as they might be, they tend to be short-lived.  Once you come down from the mountain, you have to deal with the mundane things of life.  The question is – how did your experience change the way you dealt with the mundane?  Did you leave God behind on the mountain or did you return knowing that God is present with you? 

Moses went up the mountain to meet with God and God gave Moses two tablets containing the Law.  These weren’t mere rules and regulations, they were and are the foundation for God’s relationship with the people of God.  They describe the covenant that God makes with the people.    

When Moses came down from the mountain, his face radiated with light.  Because the people in the community didn’t dare come near to him, he decided to put a veil over his face (Exodus 34).   But how long did that glow last?  According to Paul, Moses kept wearing the veil long after the glow faded (2 Cor. 3:12-4:2), because he was afraid to admit that it was fading.  Paul advises us to turn back to the Lord, so that the veil might be removed, and we can behold the glory of the Lord with unveiled faces – just like Moses did on the mountain.  Then, we will be transformed into the image of the Lord of Glory.  When we do this, then we can live out of the grace of God and pursue the truth of God.  

In our reading from Luke’s gospel we once again hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  Today we bring to a close the season of Epiphany, which speaks of the ways God revealed God’s self to us in and through the person of Jesus.  We began with the story of a star shining in the night, guiding magi to the home of a young family and their child, who had been proclaimed King of the Jews.  Then we celebrated Jesus’ baptism by renewing our own baptismal vows.  In that observance, we remembered how God spoke from the midst of the cloud, and said: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased”  (Luke 3:21-22). 

Now we go with Jesus and his three companions --Peter, James, and John – up the Mount of Transfiguration.  Jesus goes there to pray, and as he prays something amazing begins to occur.   His face begins to radiate light and his clothes turn a dazzling white.  Do you get a sense of the connection with Moses’ experience on Mount Sinai?

Now something else is happening here.  The transformation of Jesus’ person reflects an apocalyptic vision that many Jews of that day embraced, where on the Day of the Lord the bodies of God’s people would be transformed and their clothes would turn a dazzling white.  You see that picture present in the Book of Revelation.  As we stand with Peter, James and John, we get a glimpse of the body we will share when the reign of God comes in its fullness   Not only does Jesus’ countenance change, but Moses and Elijah join him in conversation, reminding us of the continuity of Jesus’ ministry with the Judaism represented by Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets. 

Take a moment and in your imagination, picture yourself standing on the Mount of Transfiguration?  Do you see the glory of God present in Jesus?  Do you see in him a sign of your own future?  

Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest, and in his new book Immortal Diamond,* he writes about the search for our true self.  It’s a search that too often gets obstructed because we become content with our false self.  The false self is like the veil that Moses kept wearing long after the glow wore off.  The false self is simply  the trappings of our ego.  These are the expressions of self that are disconnected from God.  They are mere costumes or masks, and they’re transitory.  They’re not necessarily bad; they’re just diversions.  

But the True self, is the recognition that God is present with us and within us.  Moses got to experience his true self when he went to the mountain, but unfortunately as time went on he let go of that True Self.  The false self is small and narrow.  It’s not welcoming or inclusive.  And too often when we approach Jesus from that perspective, we try to turn Jesus into a clone of ourselves. 

In this scene on the Mount of Transfiguration, we get a glimpse, if only for a moment, of the unveiling of God’s presence in the person of Jesus.  For just a moment the veil is lifted and we glimpse the full union of Jesus’ humanity with the presence of God.  It’s as if a doorway into heaven is opened, and Jesus is enveloped in the light of God’s heavenly presence.  That union between heaven and earth that we pray for each time we share the Lord’s Prayer is made known.

In many ways this event on the mountain is also a foreshadowing of the resurrection.   And as we stand with Peter, James, and John watching all of this activity in front of us, do you see your own future, your own destiny.  Do you see your own True Self as you experience union with God? 

Listen to these words from Richard Rohr concerning the Risen Christ:
The Risen Christ is the standing icon of humanity in its final and full destiny.  He is the pledge and guarantee of what God will do with all our crucifixions.  At last, we can meaningfully live with hope.  It is no longer an absurd or tragic universe.  Our hurts now become the home for our greatest hopes.  Without much implanted hope, it is very hard not to be cynical, bitter, and tired by the second half of our lives. (P. 84). 
As we stand there observing this unveiling of God’s glory present in Jesus, do you find your own sense of hope?  Are you ready to experience the healing of the gospel, where we are restored to relationship with God through Christ?  This is the message of salvation.  This is what it means to be born again, to use the language of the Gospel of John.   
Like many of us, Peter, James, and John find it difficult to understand what is happening in front of them.  Peter offers to build three shelters or shrines for Jesus, Moses and Elijah.  Like many of us, when we’re not sure what is happening around us, we distract ourselves with busyness. 

At that very moment, a cloud envelopes them.  Moses and Elijah leave, and a voice from the cloud declares: “This is my Son, the Chosen One.  Listen to Him.”  Once more God makes a claim on Jesus and invites us to pay attention to him.  If we want to find our True Self; if we want to experience union with God; if we want to find a hope that lasts, then we must listen for this voice and behold God’s glory that has been revealed in Jesus.  Yes, the voice points us to Jesus, the one whose True Self has been unveiled in our midst, because he has the Word we need to hear.      

The word Jesus brings is one of love, of grace, of welcome.  It’s a message of freedom. Having gone to the mountain with Jesus, we have beheld the Glory of God, and if we are willing to let Jesus pull off the veil, we will see that glory present in our own beings.  Then, when we come down from the mountain, having beheld the Glory that is God, and having recognized that glorious presence within our own selves, then love, which is God, will finally win – even over fear and death. 

Turning again to Richard Rohr’s message, he writes that the Lenten journey begins on Ash Wednesday with the imposition of ashes on foreheads, which is accompanied by words taken from Genesis 3:19: “Dust you are, and unto dust you shall return.”   But that’s just the first part of the message.  We should he says, “be anointed (“Christed”) with holy oil on Easter morning” with this message:
Love is always stronger than death, and unto that love you have now returned. (P. 186)  

*Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for Our True Self  (Jossey-Bass, 2013).

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Transfiguration Sunday
February 10, 2013

Sunday, February 03, 2013

My Word Is Your Word -- A Sermon

Note:  We celebrated the life of one of our church members in worship this morning.  I've decided to share the bulk of the sermon, but I've removed the section where I recount the life of our beloved church member.   

Jeremiah 1:4-10

There are few callings in life as risky and dangerous as that of a prophet.  Remember how  Jesus told the folks in Nazareth that prophets aren’t always welcome in their hometowns (Lk 4:24).  Moses found out the hard way that even if God sends you to deliver people from slavery, they may resist your efforts.  So, Jeremiah may have had good reasons to question his calling to be a prophet to the nations.  It didn’t even matter that God had made the choice in the womb, which is why Jeremiah told God –  “I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child.”  No one is going to listen to me.  I’m too young and inexperienced.

What does God say in response to Jeremiah’s questions – he simply says –  “my word is your word.”  I’ll give you the words to say, so don’t worry about the rest – just go and proclaim my word to the people.  Just because you’re young and inexperienced doesn’t matter to me!  I’ve called you – so go and speak my word.

You may be wondering what Jeremiah’s story has to do with our desire to remember the life of Imogene.   A simple answer is that this is one of the lectionary texts for today and I’d decided to preach on it before Imogene’s death.  But after we decided to bring the memorial service into our Sunday service, I decided to keep the text and title, because – it just seemed right.   It seemed to fit the person I’d come to know since my arrival here in Troy.  

In many ways Jeremiah’s story is very different from Imogene’s.  In this passage Jeremiah is a young man who isn’t sure about whether he’s cut out to be a prophet of God. For her part, Imogene lived a long and fruitful life, dying less than two weeks shy of her 98th birthday.  So how are these two lives related?

I think the answer to this question can be found in a line from Imogene’s obituary, where it says that she’s survived by two sons, four grandchildren, and five great grandchildren, who “carry on Imogene’s legacy of individualism, honesty, candor, and toughness.”  If you’ve gotten to know Imogene, even a little, you’ll see her in these words.  She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, to share what she believed was right, true, and just.  That is the prophetic spirit.

I’ve been trying to find a word that fit this woman I’ve come to know, and I decided that the best word to use is  “feisty.”  It was only in the final weeks of her life that I began to see that spark drain away.  Even though she faced many challenges in life,  she was always a feisty and candid individual, who lived life fully and did so with a strong reliance on God’s presence.

But, you say, well, Jeremiah was young and inexperienced, but Imogene almost made it to 100, so how are they related?

Well, I’ve learned something else about Imogene.  As far as I remember, she never spoke harshly or condescendingly of young people.  When I would visit her,  she’d tell me that her great grandchildren had visited, bringing with them their young friends.  Young adults don’t bring their friends to visit an older person, if they don’t believe that they will be warmly received. I think she would have been okay with Jeremiah, despite his youth!   No, she would’ve received his word as God’s word.

There’s another line in the obituary that confirms this observation.  It reads that “her greatest role in life was probably as ‘Granny’ as she became known to one and all.”  In this Imogene reminds me of my own great aunt.  Although she never had children of her own, she was known to everyone as “Auntie Grace.”  If people outside your family speak of you in familial terms, then you know that you’ve lived well.

As we consider the ministry of Jeremiah and the legacy of Imogene Thorpe, I hope you will see in her one of God’s beloved children – even if she was at death an older child of God!

[In the interest of privacy, I’ve removed the eulogistic information that I shared at this point in the sermon]

As Imogene neared the end of her life, after she had moved from the Fountains to the assisted living center in Troy, she asked me to come for a visit.  She told me – I don’t want people pray that I’ll be healed.  She simply asked that we pray that she would find peace, and that was the prayer I would share in each of my visits. 

Imogene would not have us mourn, because she has been ready to go home for sometime.  She was at peace with her life.  She knew that she was counted among the Beloved. She’d accomplished what she’d set out to do in life.  She had raised her sons to be strong and resilient men and watched as a family blossomed to life, creating a legacy that couldn’t be denied!  

These final months of life weren’t easy for her.  She lost the freedom she cherished, but that spark remained present.  So, whether or not you knew her, I invite you to honor with me the memory of one God’s saints, and we can do this by following her lead in living out our faith with boldness, candor, honesty, and grace.

Before we close, I’d like to point to one of the other lectionary readings for today.  You’ll find an excerpt on the bulletin cover.  It speaks of a love that’s committed to the welfare of the other.  That was Jeremiah’s message to his people, and  I believe that Imogene embodied that same understanding of love, as she gave of herself for family, friends, neighbors, and the broader community.  Let us be glad this day that Imogene has found her peace in the loving arms of God, and is now numbered among God's saints. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday after Epiphany
February 3, 2013