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