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