Sunday, December 28, 2014

Refreshed with Praise -- A sermon for Christmas 1B

Psalm 148

Just a few days ago many of us opened presents that were laid out under a tree or perhaps hanging in a stocking.  So, here’s my question – when you were opening gifts did you show proper gratitude?  Were you exuberant in your declarations or did you mumble a word of thanks, even as you were thinking – “I'm not sure what to do with this sweater? There is a reason why it’s easier to give a gift card than pick out a gift.  Even if you have a list, you could come home with the wrong thing, and that doesn’t lead to much happiness on the part of the recipient!  

Parents often require their children to say thank you for gifts received.  Call Grandma, we tell them, and tell her how much you love that sweater she knitted for you.  You know, the sweater you wouldn’t be caught dead wearing outside your bedroom.  But whether you liked the gift or not you have to muster enough enthusiasm to thank the giver. 

Saying thanks for gifts seem to be something of a lost art in recent years.  Maybe that’s because we don’t send as many cards and letters as before.  But gift givers do enjoy receiving a word of thanks – especially if they’ve gone to some trouble in picking out just the right gift.  It could be an email or a Facebook message or even a text – but some word of thanks is greatly appreciated. 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Reviving Love -- A Sermon for Advent 4B

Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

We have reached the end of our Advent journey.  On Wednesday evening we will light the Christ candle and celebrate the coming of the Rock of our salvation into the world. The advent of Jesus in the world fulfills the covenant promises God made with our spiritual ancestors.  
God covenanted with Abraham and Sarah, promising that their descendants would be a blessing to the world.  God covenanted with Moses to bring to bring order and purpose to the people of Israel.  God covenanted with David, promising, that his throne would be established for all generations.  Yes, as the Psalmist declares, this covenant is a sign of God’s “faithfulness to all generations”  (Psalm  89:1-4).

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Recapturing Joy -- Sermon for Advent 3B

Psalm 126

The theme of this Advent season is “restoration.”  Each week we are hearing a word from the Psalms that speak to God’s work of restoration in the world and in our lives.  If you go to the Somerset Collection this afternoon – if you’re brave enough -- you can go to the Restoration Hardware store.  There you will find many high end home furnishings, from brass doorknobs to fashionable window coverings, to beautify your home.  That’s not what we have in mind this Advent season.  

Instead, the restoration that we have in mind here is the restoration of our relationships with God, with one another, and with creation.  In the Psalm we read the first Sunday of Advent, we hear the Psalmist declare: “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved”  (Psalm 80:3).  This work of restoration is God’s work, not ours.  It is a work of salvation – a word that includes both healing and reconciliation.  During this Advent season we are lifting up God’s work of restoration that mends hearts and minds and spirits and bodies so that we might enjoy the blessing of living in God’s holy presence.  

Restoration is the work of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, but Advent reminds us that God used John the Baptist to prepare the way for the one who reveals God’s work of restoration in the world.  John the Baptist is the one who is charged with removing the barriers to God’s work of redemption and salvation.  

In John’s Gospel, we hear John the Baptist claiming the mantle of Isaiah and declaring that he is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23). In other words, John is the one who points us in the right direction so that we might experience the grace of God moving in our lives through the Spirit. 

In previous weeks we have heard words about hope and peace, and today we’re invited to recapture joy.  I realize that this Advent-Christmas Season isn’t a season of joy for everyone. Wednesday evening’s service of remembrance is a good reminder that there are people who need to do some grief work before they can rejoice in the Lord.  

With that in mind, Psalm 126 invites us to look back to the way God restored the fortunes of Zion.  The Psalmist speaks of those who dreamed that God would restore their fortunes.  Dreams are important, because they help us look forward into the future.  

Martin Luther King had a dream, which he shared with the nation in 1963 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  It’s been more than fifty years and we’ve not yet fully realized the content of that dream, but the dream keeps pushing us forward.  While racial divisions continue to exist in our nation, and much work needs to be done before the divide in our country is healed, there is a dream that can guide us on the journey forward.  

This Psalm looks back to the end of the exile.  It speaks of God’s people laughing and shouting with joy, even as the nations declared that “the Lord has done great things for them.”  Yes, even those looking on from the outside could see that God had been at work freeing the people from their captors.  

In trying to visualize this event, I thought of the joy that must have been present when word came to the slaves being held in the Confederacy that Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  Most assuredly that was a day of joy and even some laughter.    

Of course, even though the people of Judah left Babylon with hearts filled with joy and laughter, they returned to a city and a Temple lying in ruins.  Yes, they were free, but not everything was as it should be.  There were obstacles that still needed to be removed.  The way of the Lord needed to be made straight.  

In verses four through six of Psalm 126, we move from remembrance to imagining the future.  When John cries out from the wilderness, he is crying out from the midst of the Negeb desert.  This is a dry and weary land that needs to experience the life-giving and life-restoring power of water. Yes, the people cry out: “restore our fortunes like the watercourses of the Negeb.”  

As anyone who has spent time in the desert knows, they are rather dry, and the Negeb is one of the driest on earth. After all, it borders the Dead Sea!  But if you go into the desert you will find dry river beds.  While they are dry most of the year, they can become raging rivers in a matter of a few moments.  When rain comes to the desert if often comes in torrents creating powerful rivers that bring the desert to life. What seems to be dead and barren will spring to life, with the desert floor turning into a colorful blanket of flowers.  Pools of water form and quickly teem with life.  Of course, these rivers can prove destructive if you happen to be living in their midst, as many in drought stricken California have been learning in recent days. Yes, it may not rain very often in Southern California, but when it does rain, it comes down in buckets! 

In the Psalm for today, people are sowing the seeds of grain in tears, but they reap the harvest with shouts of joy.  Yes, joy often begins in sadness and tears.  Talitha Allen puts it this way:
This is no jingle-bells joy brought about with a swipe of a credit card.  The seeds of this joy have been planted in sadness and watered with tears.  This is the honest joy that often comes only after weeping has tarried the night. [Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1p. 58].
On Wednesday the city of Detroit exited bankruptcy.  As you know, this was the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history.  The city and the region entered this process with great anxiety and many tears.  There was great fear that people’s lives would be destroyed and that the city’s treasures would be plundered to pay off debts.  While not everyone is completely happy with the result, for the most part the exit from bankruptcy is a moment of joy for the city and the region.  It has given the city the opportunity for a clean start.  With the exit from bankruptcy the people of the region have the opportunity to dream new dreams.  The city might not return to what some remember as its glory days, but together the city and suburbs have the opportunity to create something new and exciting.    

Downtown Detroit is alive with business.  The M-1 light rail project is well underway.  Abandoned buildings are being re-purposed or removed not only along the Woodward Corridor, but also out in the neighborhoods.  Streetlights are being replaced and relit.  The police and fire departments are responding more quickly.  There is work being done on developing a high quality regional transit system that can get people to work and to school, to the doctor and to places of entertainment.  They might even get people to church!  While Detroit is far from being fully restored, we can see things moving forward.  Life-giving waters are coursing through the deserts.

As a congregation we are not simply observers of this work of restoration.  We’re playing a part in it.  Through MCC, we’re involved in the development of the regional transit system.  Through the work of Gospel in Action Detroit and Rippling Hope we are engaged in rebuilding neighborhoods.  It might involve mowing a field or picking up garbage or painting a porch.  It might seem small, and yet if you’ve participated in this work, you know that these gestures bring joy to the lives of those living in these often neglected neighborhoods.  

Yes, “the Lord has done great things for us and we rejoiced” (Psalm126:3).  For, as Paul told the Thessalonians:  
16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Reimagining Peace -- Meditation for Advent 2B

Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

1 Lord, you were favorable to your land;
    you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
2 You forgave the iniquity of your people;
    you pardoned all their sin. Selah
8 Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
    for he will speak peace to his people,
    to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.
9 Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him,
    that his glory may dwell in our land.
10 Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
    righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
11 Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
    and righteousness will look down from the sky.
12 The Lord will give what is good,
    and our land will yield its increase.
13 Righteousness will go before him,
    and will make a path for his steps.

We have been blessed this morning with offerings of music.  These gifts stir the soul and point us onward to the coming of the Promised One, whom Isaiah names “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).  This last name calls our attention to the message of the day – for this is Peace Sunday.  Because we have been blessed with such a wonderful array of music, I only have a few moments to reflect on the message of the Psalm for the day, which reveals God’s vision of salvation.

 In Psalm 85, the Psalmist reveals that God’s gift of salvation is found where steadfast love and faithfulness meet, and “righteousness and peace kiss.”  This vision of peace speaks not only of the absence of violence or conflict.  This peace – the shalom of God – has a much broader meaning.  This peace is a vision of wholeness that embraces justice for all creation.  

These past few weeks we have witnessed great unrest due to differences over whether justice was served when grand juries failed to indict white police officers whose actions left two unarmed black men dead.  These differing perceptions remind us that we have not yet come to a point in this nation where justice and peace have embraced each other.  Too often we think that peace is a return to normalcy, but true peace will only come when we allow the Spirit to help us listen to each other and experience through Christ our Lord, restoration of right relationships with God and with one another.

     The Psalmist reminds us that this will only come when we recognize that God is the source of steadfast love, faithfulness, justice, and peace.  The good news is that the way is being prepared.  Yes, as the Psalmist declares: 
Righteousness will go before him, and will make a path for his steps.  
Having heard this wonderful gift of music, as we move toward the Table of Reconciliation, may we reimagine God’s peace, so that all of creation might experience health and wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and community.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Abiding with Christ at the Table -- A Stewardship Sermon

Altar at Bath Abbey

John 6:53-59

This morning we celebrate both Christ the King Sunday and Thanksgiving Sunday.  We are also bringing in the harvest of our stewardship conversation.  During the offering you will have the opportunity to share your estimate of giving cards so that we might celebrate the commitment that we are making as a community to support the ministry of this church.
Christ the King Sunday brings to a close the liturgical year that began on the First Sunday of Advent.  The liturgical year begins with a word of hope and anticipation. We move through the year lifting up stories of how God is present with us in Christ and through the Spirit.  On this day we celebrate the coming of Christ’s reign in its fullness on earth as in heaven. We will continue repeating the cycle until the Day of the Lord comes.  

This Thursday has been set aside by presidential decree as a day to give thanks for the abundance given to us.  Although Thursday has become synonymous with turkey, football, and now shopping, we will have two opportunities this week to join with others in the community to offer thanksgiving for the blessings that have come to us.  You can join me this evening at Big Beaver United Methodist Church for the annual Troy-area Interfaith Group celebration. Then on Tuesday we will be hosting the Troy Clergy Group Thanksgiving Service, which will feature a joint choir. Both services will help us focus on the call to give thanks.  As the Psalmist declares:
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
  (Psalm 100:4-5).  
The theme of our stewardship season has been “From Bread and Wine to Faith and Giving.”  In each of the sermons I have been trying to connect the call to stewardship with the call to the Table.  One of the ways in which we name what happens at the Table is the word Eucharist, which comes from the Greek word that means “to give thanks.”  

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Community of Sharing -- A Stewardship Sermon

Acts 2:42-47

Back during my days teaching at Northwest Christian University, a couple of my students asked me what I thought about them living as a group of students in community. I remember acknowledging their interest in this arrangement, but since one of the students involved had just gotten married, I suggested that they might want to take it slowly and cautiously. While they decided not to pursue the venture, one of those students ended up forming just such a community. That community in Eugene is part of a movement that has come to be known as the New Monasticism. This movement builds off the teachings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who called on Christians to live together in community and pursue life lived under the guidance of the Sermon on the Mount.  

Down through the years many Christians have experimented with living in community as described in Acts 2 and Acts 4. This community, according to Luke, gathered for the Apostles Teaching, for fellowship, for prayers, and to break bread.  You can see a pattern here that is relived in our worship services.  In liturgical circles this is called the service of Word and Sacrament.  Bonhoeffer wrote:
 “All Christian community exists between word and sacrament.  It begins and ends in worship.  It awaits the final banquet with the Lord in the kingdom of God.  A community with such an origin and such a goal is a perfect community, in which even the material things and good of this life are assigned their proper priority.”   [Discipleship (DBW, Vol. 4), 233]
Community exists between word and sacrament – preaching and sharing at the table. Within the bounds of this definition come prayers and fellowship.  

The word we translate as fellowship is the Greek word koinonia.  Koinonia is not the coffee hour.  It is instead the life described here in Acts 2 and again in Acts 4.  Fellowship describes living in community in such a way that everyone’s needs are addressed. As Luke puts in Acts 4,  “the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32-35). This decision to share goods was a voluntary one. One who embodied this life of generosity, was Barnabas who shared generously his abundance with the community.  Of course there is that other story, about a couple who pretended to give generously but didn’t.  You may know them as Ananias and Sapphira.  While Barnabas goes on to serve as Paul’s co-worker in his first missionary journey, Ananias and Sapphira have a rather unhappy ending to their story as seen in Acts 5.

Even if Luke’s account is an idealized memory of a short-lived experiment, we still catch a glimpse of life in the Realm of God. Instead of focusing on personal salvation, these early Christians came together as a community and shared life together as followers of Jesus.  As a result, due to the generosity that each shared, no one was in need.  Everyone contributed what they could to the welfare of the entire body. 

Last week Carol Howard Merritt called on us to be a People of Hope. As we return this morning to our series on stewardship, we again hear a call to be People of Hope.  We hear a call to share gifts and talents with the community so that all might share in God’s abundance.  Because of their commitment to living in community under Jesus’ guidance, Luke reports that they broke bread with “glad and generous hearts.”   The attitude expressed here parallels Paul’s description of the church as the Body of Christ.  Each of us has different gifts, and each of us contributes to the working of the body.  The eye can’t say to the ear that it is more important.  Every part of the body is needed.  Every part contributes. The body is blessed, so it can be a blessing

I was just reading about how preachers in the Social Gospel Movement pointed to baseball as a good analogy of what Christian community should look like. In baseball, teams will be successful when every part is working together toward a common goal.  You can have the best player in the league and still not win. You need a full team that includes a quality bench and a steady bullpen.  If you watched the most recent World Series, you might remember that the Giants may not have had the best players in the league, but when crunch time came they played as a unit and prevailed.  Yes Bumgarner and Panda played key roles in winning the series – but where would they be without the contributions of Jeremy Affeldt, Juan Perez, and Joe Panik.  

And so it is with the community of the faithful.  Each of us plays an important role in the life of the congregation.  We each bring our gifts to the Table.  They might be financial. As Bob Simmonds reminded us last week, the church as an institution has bills to pay, and so we as members of the community had best not procrastinate when it comes to fulfilling our stewardship commitments.  But the community needs more than money if it is going to be used by God. 

Last Saturday we talked about how many people choose not to attend church because they don’t have any funds to share.  In essence, money becomes the barrier to participation in the community.  But as we see in Acts 2, the people gave generously in any way they could.  It might be money, but it might be some other form of giving.  

Immediately following the service Kathleen Potter is hosting a soup supper. At that supper she is going to invite us to fill out a little form.  On that form we can put down the ways in which we can be of service to members of the congregation and the community at large in times of need.  Maybe that would involve taking someone to the doctor or baby-sitting a child.  It might mean mowing a lawn for one of the older members or helping a person clean out their basement after a flood.  This new program, which Kathleen is instigating, will report to the Elders who will try to match needs with gifts.  This is, I think a good example of what it means to live in community under Christ’s leadership.  It involves being a good steward of the gifts of the Spirit of God, so that we might share them for the benefit of the community, as we move toward the full revelation of God’s realm. And everyone, no matter how old or young, no matter one’s physical or financial situation, we all have something to share.  

A passage like this one is a bit daunting. You might be wondering whether you have to sell everything and give it to the church if you’re going to follow Jesus.  After all, didn’t Jesus tell the wealthy ruler that if he wanted to inherit eternal life he would have to sell everything and follow him? Remember how that man walked away in sadness?  He had kept all the commandments but in his heart he served another master.  Then Luke reports: 
24 Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”   [Luke 18:18-30]
And no there wasn’t a gate in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus that was called the Eye of the Needle!   

When we read passages like these ones, we can get a bit worried about our eternal welfare.  But it is good to remember that we live in a different context.  Luke lived with the expectation that the current age would end soon. But as you know we’re still here two thousand years later.  We have a responsibility to provide for our families.  And yet, we are part of a community and therefore we do have responsibilities to each other.

   When we gather at the Lord’s Table we remember not only Jesus’ final meal with his disciples, but we also remember the meals shared by the disciples as they lived in community.  Even as they worshiped in the Temple, they gather in their homes and broke bread daily.  And like we saw with the feeding of the 5000, everyone ate their fill and no one was left behind. Yes, this early Christian community gathered for the Apostolic teaching, for prayers, to share community, and break bread.   

As we come to the Table this morning, with the call to stewardship on our minds, may we come with “glad and generous hearts.”  Next week we will bring in the harvest of our commitments to the ministry of this church, and may we do so with hearts filled with thanksgiving. 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
November 16, 2014

Pentecost 23A

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Sharing the Table -- A Stewardship Sermon for All Saints Day

Mark 6:30-44

When I think of wilderness, I think about dense forests and roadless, mountainous terrain. At least, that’s what we called wilderness when I was growing up in Oregon. In the biblical story wilderness is a desolate place where resources are scarce. 

During our recent journey through Exodus we watched the people of Israel leave the “fleshpots of Egypt” for the Promised Land. To get there, however, they had to travel through the desert. All along the way they complained about their lack of resources, mainly food and water, but God always seemed to provide what they needed. What we learned is that even in the wilderness, there is an abundance – if only we stop to take a look.

According to Walter Brueggemann, there are two types of thinking – scarcity and abundance. To put it a different way, we can look at life in two ways – that the glass is half full or half empty. Risk takers see the glass as half full, while more cautious people see it as half empty. Which kind of person are you?

The disciples were returning from a big mission trip, and they were so excited about their work that they didn’t take time to eat. So, Jesus decided to take them to a more secluded place to rest and talk. But, the crowd saw them and ran ahead. When Jesus saw them, he took compassion on them because, as Mark put it, they were “sheep without a shepherd.” They needed help, and Jesus decided to provide it.   

As dinner time drew near, the disciples got nervous. No one had eaten anything all day, and their stomachs were beginning to grumble. They decided to tell Jesus to bring this teaching session to a close, so he could send them off to the villages before everything closed down to get something to eat.  You know how small towns like to “roll up the sidewalks early.” You can understand their position. When people get hungry, they get restless, and when they get restless they can cause problems. 

Jesus had a different solution.  They may have seen the glass as maybe three-quarters empty, but Jesus looked at the world through the lens of abundance. 

So Jesus directed them to go and see what was available.  They looked at their lunch stash and found five loaves of bread and two measly dried fish. Just enough for the thirteen of them to have a light meal, and no more.  To them, the resources were scarce. This report didn’t deter Jesus. He just told them to feed the crowd of  5000 with their lunch.  

I can only imagine the looks on their faces. If I asked the fellowship department to feed the city of Troy with what they could find in the pantry at five o’clock in the evening, I would hear an earful!  But for some reason, despite their disbelief, they gave Jesus their resources.  And he took them, blessed them, broke  the loaves, and then gave them to the people.  When the meal ends, and the scraps are picked up, everyone has eaten their fill and they gather in twelve baskets of leftovers. 

How did this happen?  Mark doesn’t say. Lots of people have speculated, but to do so is beside the point. As Walter Brueggemann puts it:
He committed an overt act of abundance that broke the scarcity of the place – such an abundance that there were twelve baskets of bread left over, more than enough! [Journey to the Common Goodp. 33].

When we gather at the Table, we take a small piece of bread and a little cup of juice. It’s not enough to satisfy our physical hunger or thirst, but it is enough to satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst. When we share in the bread and wine, we share in the blessings of Jesus’ presence. We too are like sheep without a shepherd, and Jesus comes to us in the meal and invites us to share in the abundance that is God’s realm.

When the disciples asked Jesus to send the people away, he asked them to do an inventory of their resources. He asked them to look at the budget to see what was available. And they came back and told Jesus – it doesn’t look good.  As one treasurer told the board of the congregation I was serving – “if we were a business we would be bankrupt.” But of course we weren’t bankrupt, because we still had plenty of resources. We just had to identify them.

This is week two of our fall Stewardship Season. If you didn’t receive your packet last week, Tim will be looking for you after church. And since I misplaced my packet, I’m hoping he has another one for me! In that packet you will find a letter and some other materials that talk about this year’s stewardship theme along with an estimate of giving card. That card will help you discern what you should share through the church from God’s abundance of resources.

When the council puts together its budget, it will try to discern the resources and allocate them wisely. Sometimes all we see are a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish, but I expect that there are sufficient resources present in this congregation that will allow us to gather up twelve baskets of left over bread. 

Although we were once a very large church, with, as I understand it, a number of wealthy individuals, we’re no longer a large church and we don’t have a lot of wealthy members. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an abundance of resources at hand. We just have to do an inventory.

We’ll be working on one of those inventories in two weeks when Kathleen Potter hosts a soup lunch and presents a new project for the church. After the recent floods a number of our people began talking about ways in which we could help out each other in an emergency. The Council then established a new task force that will report to the Elders and be chaired by Kathleen. What she’s going to do is invite you to share the resources you can bring to the cause, so that we’ll be ready when an emergency occurs. 

As some of you know, my mother’s house recently caught fire. Mom and Don are okay, but they’re going to be out of their house for three months. While the insurance will cover most of the costs of getting them back in their house, friends, neighbors, and church members immediately came to their aid with food and clothes, and even offers of places to stay. They found themselves in the wilderness, but they discovered an abundance of resources available to them. 

There are other kinds of resources available as well. I want to call attention to another resource – and that is legacy giving.  Since it’s All Saints Sunday, a day on which we remember all the saints who confessed their faith before the world, but who have now rested from their labors, we can give thanks to God that we are the beneficiaries of their confession and their actions in life as well as in death.  

One of the benefits that some of the saints of God have left to this congregation is a portion of their estate.  We are the beneficiaries of estates large and small.  The return on their gifts provides resources that enable this church to be a blessing to the members of the congregation and to the community beyond our doors.  These gifts enhance and expand our own giving. They allow us to have staff and programming that we probably couldn’t have otherwise. They also enhance our outreach giving. While we are small in numbers, our outreach giving stands at about forty-thousand dollars a year. Cheryl and I are setting up with the Christian Church Foundation a permanent fund that will distribute our legacy gifts after we die, and one of the recipients on that list is this congregation. I know that others are doing the same.

I can’t forget the Edgar Dewitt Jones Scholarship fund that assists seminarians with their education. I’m amazed how often I meet a colleague who tells me how grateful they are to have received this award. What a wonderful testament to the foresight of members now deceased.  We’re still good givers to outreach, but these legacy gifts expand that outreach exponentially.

Jesus said to the disciples – you give them something to eat. They went looking for resources, and they found an abundance. In this season of stewardship, may we do the same. May we look at our resources and return a portion of them through the church as an offering of thanksgiving for the abundance of blessings that God has poured out on us, through Jesus our Lord, and by the Spirit who indwells us as we take the journey of faith through the wilderness and on to the Promised Land.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
All Saints Sunday
November 2, 2014

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Giving Table -- A Stewardship Sermon

Matthew 26:26-29

It is stewardship season once again. This means that the council members are making out budgets to fund next year’s ministries.  The budget covers things like church maintenance, staff salaries, and funding for the ministries and mission we engage in.

Budget-making requires both realism and faith. We can’t spend more than we take in through pledges, offerings, and endowment earnings, which means that if you’re not up-to-date on your pledge – Wynn Miller would like to see you!  After all, we can’t pay our bills with promises of future income.  At the same time the budget needs to be a document of faith. It needs to tell a story about our vision as a congregation. While we’ve not yet developed what is called a Narrative Budget that focuses more on the mission than numbers, our budget should express a vision for mission and ministry. So, when we write a budget we need to leave some room to grow in our generosity and vision for mission.  

During “stewardship season” I usually preach at least two stewardship sermons.  In the first sermon I usually introduce the topic of stewardship and then at the end preach about thanksgiving.  This year, I’m going to double that number and preach four stewardship sermons, which will be centered around the theme “From Bread and Wine to Faith and Giving.”  These passages of Scripture selected by our friend Ron Allen of Christian Theological Seminary focus our attention on the Table and on the continuing presence of Jesus as we join God in making present the realm of God on earth as in heaven.  

Since this is the first sermon in the series, I thought it might be good to think about why people give to the church.  I expect that some of you give out of a sense of duty.  This is what religious people do! It’s like paying your taxes.  Speaking of taxes, maybe some of you give to the church because you’ll get a tax deduction.  It’s better to give to the church than the government – right?  Maybe you do it because you want to support a certain ministry of the church – like the children’s ministry or the pastor’s salary!  Of course, some might give hoping that by making a contribution to the church you can assuage feelings of guilt and perhaps buy a little grace from God.  Hey, it helped to build St. Peter’s!  Or, perhaps you see it as  buying a ticket to a show – and what a show it is!

I know that the Treasurer and the Stewardship Chair are happy to receive your offerings in whatever form they come – whether with clean or guilty consciences.  But, there has to be something more than these reasons that leads us to give?

The Scripture for today is a familiar one.  It is one of several accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. We hear some form of these words every Sunday as we gather at the Table.

Remember how Jesus gathered his disciples together for a final meal – which probably coincided with the Passover meal.  As the meal came to a close, Jesus took bread and he gave it to his disciples and said to them – “Take eat, this is my body.”  Then he took the cup, and again he gave thanks to God. When Jesus finished his prayer of thanksgiving, he gave the cup to the disciples and he said to them:  “This is my blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.”

Did you catch the words “gave” and “give” in this passage?  Yes, Jesus gave thanks to God and he gave bread and cup to the disciples. As he did this, he connected his actions with the covenant he wanted to make with them.  He told them that as they received these elements representing his own body and blood given on the cross that they would also receive forgiveness of sins.

The Table highlights Jesus’ own gift of himself to further the mission of God.  That mission, according to Richard Rohr was forgiveness and inclusion. He writes:

 Forgiveness and inclusion are Jesus’ “great themes.” They are the practical name of love, and without forgiveness and inclusivity love is largely a sentimental valentine. They are also the two practices that most undercut human violence. [Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality.   [Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 151]  
On the cross, Jesus faces down the powers-that-be who continually seek to exclude and dominate. He overcomes them by giving of himself freely. In his willingness to go to the cross, Jesus turns the Tables and brings into existence a new realm where old debts are forgiven and the world is invited in to share the fruit of the vine and the bread of life.

In coming to the Table we are connected to the power of Jesus’ gift. We are nourished by it so we can continue our journey with the God who has covenanted with us, the God who stands with us and goes with us on this journey.

At the end of the passage Jesus tells the disciples that “I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.” That sounds like it is off in the distance, but if we understand Jesus to be present with us at the Table, then perhaps he is already sharing the fruit of the vine with us as a sign that the kingdom is already present.  It may not be here in its fullness but as the gathered body of Christ we have the opportunity to share the healing presence of Jesus with the world, so that it might know forgiveness and inclusion.

So what does this have to do with stewardship?

In my mind, when we give our offerings through the church, we commit ourselves – our talents, our time, and yes our finances -- to the work of the kingdom. We invest in that which we believe in. If we believe in Jesus’ work and in the realm he seeks to inaugurate, then we will invest ourselves in that work. In our society nothing better symbolizes investment than money.

I must confess that I’m still growing in my sense of stewardship. It is not easy to set aside money to give to the church. Like everyone we have bills to pay,  and we would like to enjoy the fruit of our labor as well. But giving is a discipline that incorporates us into the life of Jesus.

One of the criticisms of the “institutional church” is that it is always asking for money. After all, don’t we pass the plate every Sunday?  Why not find other ways of supporting the work? Maybe we could turn to a fee for services basis.  If you want a particular hymn sung, that will cost you $50.  If you want a pastoral visit that will be $250.  Maybe passing the plate isn’t that bad an idea!

It is good to note that in our own context the taking of the offering is an act of worship that is connected to the Lord’s Supper.  We gather together at the Table by singing a Communion hymn.  Then an Elder issues the invitation to give. We bring those gifts back the Table by singing some form of a doxology, giving glory to God for the blessings of this life, and then that same Elder blesses the offering.  After we share in this act of giving, we move on to another act of giving.  As we share the Communion, by receiving bread and cup, we receive the benefits of Jesus’ own gift of his body and his blood – offered up that we might receive forgiveness along with an invitation to enter the blessings of God’s realm.

The theme of this stewardship season is “From Bread and Wine to Faith and Giving: A Journey Into the Spiritual Discipline of Generosity Around the Table of Jesus.”  So, let us begin our journey of growing into the generosity that begins at the Table of Jesus.  

 Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
October 26, 2014
Pentecost 20A       

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Arguing with God -- Sermon for Pentecost 19A

Exodus 33:12-23

Is it okay to argue with God?  Moses thought so.  So did Abraham. You might say that to argue with God is to intercede with God. And it seems as if God invites us to bring our concerns into God’s presence.

As we bring our journey through Exodus to a close, the people are about to leave Sinai. They can see the light at the end of the tunnel.  There’s only one problem, God isn’t sure whether to continue on with them.  God has had enough dealing with this “stiff-necked people,” and while God hasn’t unleashed his wrath on them, he’s not sure how long this can continue.  Apparently, that Golden Calf affair was the last straw.

If God isn’t sure whether it’s a good idea to continue on, Moses won’t hear of it.  To Moses, there’s no point going on to the Promised Land without God.

This story pictures God as something of a frustrated parent.  Like parents often do, God has thrown up his hands because these children won’t stop acting up.  So, like many a frustrated parent God wants to tell these belligerent children to leave the house and not let the door hit their backside.  Yes, go get a job. Support yourself.  I don’t care if you’re just six years old.  It’s time to grow up! Of course the nation of Israel is older than a six-year-old!

When Moses hears this, he decides to intervene between a frustrated God and an ungrateful and combative community. In doing this, Moses performs a priestly role.   He does this because he understands that God is the glue that holds the nation together. Their identity is linked to God and so Moses feels the need to reconnect the two.  And, in the end God agrees to go with the people.

Moses did his part, but now he wants something from God. He wants a further sign of God’s faithfulness.  If he has truly found favor in the eyes of God, then he wants to move a step closer to the presence of God. No more clouds and burning bushes.  Moses wants to see the full glory of God. He wants to see God face to face.  

Moses understands that our identity is defined by the presence of God in our midst.  What is the church if not for the presence of God?  Are we just another social group or service organization?  It’s good to socialize and work for the common good, but does that define the church’s identity?  Or, is our life together defined by our common faith in Jesus who reveals to us the face of God?

Paul writes in Romans 6 that in baptism we leave behind the old life and are raised to a new life in Christ. I believe this to be true, but when I look at my life I have to ask – what makes me different because I claim to be a follower of Jesus?  When I’m out in the community, how is Jesus forming my vision? Am I operating out of a merely political vision that is linked to a particular political party or to my national allegiance?  Or am I looking at the world through the eyes of Jesus?

In the gospel reading for today, the question of taxes comes up. Jesus asks his opponents about the image on the coin.  Whose is it?  They say Caesar’s.  Then Jesus says – give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s?  And what belongs to God?  It’s not just an offering put in the plate when it’s passed on a Sunday morning.  No, what belongs to God is our very lives. We are, as it is stated clearly in Genesis 1, the image of God.  (Matthew 22:15-23)

Moses understands that without the presence of God the nation of Israel is just another collection of tribes. There’s nothing distinct about them.  So, if they enter the land without God, then the people will eventually disappear.  They will fade into the landscape.

God hears Moses’ concerns and agrees to them, because Moses has found favor in God’s sight.  He has proven himself to be faithful. He has understood that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).  The writer of Hebrews commends Moses for “choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (vs. 25).  In other words he traded the glory of Egypt for the trials of God’s people.

Moses understood that the journey would be difficult.  But, in this particular moment, Moses decided to ask for something more.  He also was tired of dealing with this “stiff-necked people,” and so he asked God if he could see God’s glory.  He accepted God’s word about continuing on, but even he needs just a bit more assurance.  He had encountered God in a burning bush and in a cloud, but now he wants to see God face to face.  Moses says to God – “show me your glory, I pray.”

Although Deuteronomy closes by saying that Moses knew the LORD face to face (Deut. 34:10), in Exodus God tells Moses that no one can see God’s face and survive.  So the best that God can do is let Moses catch God passing by, while Moses hides in the cleft of the rocks.  God puts a hand over the eyes of Moses until he has passed by the rocks. Moses gets a quick glimpse, but that’s all.  This peek at God’s back will have to suffice.

Moses got to see the glory of God, but it seems to have cost him something. He gets to see the land of promise, but he doesn’t get to settle in it.  Instead, he died and was buried by God in an unmarked grave in the desert of Moab, just short of the goal.

The message here is that no one can see the face of God and live.  This isn’t, however, the final word.  The face of God is mediated to us in the person of Jesus.  In him we come face to face with what Karl Barth calls the “humanity of God.” Barth puts it this way: 
Jesus Christ is in his one person, as true God, man’s loyal partner, and as true man, God’s.  He is the Lord humbled for communion with man and likewise the Servant exalted to communion with God.  [The Humanity of God, p. 46].
Moses gets to encounter the glory of God, and gets confirmation that God’s presence will continue with the people. It is interesting that as the Exodus story continues, the people build a tabernacle and an ark – at God’s request – to contain the signs of God’s presence.  It appears that going forward, God will be present but God is putting a comfortable distance between the people and himself (Exodus 40:34-37).  As I read the text, I wonder if something else isn’t going on. Even as they made a golden calf to worship, could it be that this tent and this ark are boxes in which God is being placed, so God can be more controllable?

Is this something we do as well?  Do we try to control God’s movements by putting God in a box of our own devising?  Do we expect God to follow our rules and hang out in our building?

The good news is that God cannot be contained in anything we try to create.  God can use our creations, but God can’t be contained by them.  And while leaders are needed for the church to function, the church’s identity isn’t defined by its leaders.  Instead, it is the presence of God, that is made visible for us in Jesus.  In him we see the fullness of God’s presence without being consumed by it.  Instead, we are transformed by the renewing of our minds  (Romans 12:1-2).

As we saw last week, the people chose the tangible, the Golden Calf to represent for them God. This wasn’t the God who spoke to them through Moses. This was a god whom they created and sought to control.  Even Moses struggled with this. He understood more than most of his fellow travelers what it means to walk by faith rather than sight, but he too wanted assurance.  It is a normal request, but the journey forward is one we take by faith and not by sight. As we go forward in the presence of God, we get to participate in creating the future God envisions.  As Brian McLaren puts it:
The road of faith is not finished.  There is beautiful land ahead, terra nova waiting to be explored.  It will take a lot of us, journeying together, to make the road.  I hope you’ll be part of the adventure.  The Christian faith is still learning, growing, and changing, and so are we. [ We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation,  p. xiv].
Let us, therefore, continue the journey toward the Promised Land in the presence of God, so that we might be transformed by that journey into the people whom God has envisioned us to be.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 19A
October 19, 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

God Under Control -- Sermon for Pentecost 18A

"The Adoration of the Golden Calf” – Nicolas Poussin (1633-4)

Exodus 32:1-14

Last Sunday Rick preached on the Ten Commandments – the biblical ones, not the movie! According to the Exodus story, these commandments define God’s covenant expectations. In making the covenant with Israel, God said to them – I will bless you, but this is what I expect of you in return. The commandments begin with this proclamation:
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth (Ex. 20:1-4).
The point being – there is just one God, and don’t make images of God.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Where Is the Water? -- Sermon from Exodus 17 for Pentecost 16A

Exodus 17:1-7

The Psalmist cries out:

O God, you are my God, I seek you,
    my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
    as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.  (Psalm 63:1)

Here in Michigan we don’t live in a “dry and weary land where there is no water.” No, we live in a state that is surrounded by 20% of the world’s fresh water.  So, thirst isn’t at the top of our concerns – is it?  

But, if you’ve ever traveled through the desert, you’ve seen a “dry and wear land.”  Just looking out the window at the desolate landscape can make you thirsty.  You might even begin to get an uneasy feeling, fearing what would happen if the car stalled. What would you do?  Did you bring enough water with you?  While many plants and animals that have adapted to the desert, human beings aren’t quite so well equipped.

As we think about the importance of water, perhaps we can look farther afield – to outer space.  I was listening to Science Friday on NPR and a University of Michigan scientist was talking about the possible discovery of water on a planet 170 light years away. That’s exciting because the presence of water means that life might be present there. Without water life can’t exist, so scientists look for it when they’re exploring the stars and planets.  In fact, it’s good to remember that our bodies, on average, are composed of about 65% water.  Some of us have more than others, but if you take away the water, we won’t exist.

So it’s no wonder water plays an important role in the biblical story.  If we go back to the beginning, we find that the Spirit hovers over the waters of chaos (Genesis 1:2).  God will divide these waters to form the dry land upon which we human beings will live.  Water gives life, but as the story of Noah reminds us – it can also take life.  Drought brought Israel to Egypt and then Israel escaped Egypt by marching through the Sea and into the desert, where they finally experienced freedom.  

Water also appears in the New Testament story.  John baptizes with water as a sign of repentance, and Jesus begins his own ministry in the waters of baptism.  Jesus will walk on the water and calm the sea.  On the Day of Pentecost those who follow Jesus are baptized – as is the household of Cornelius, welcoming the Gentiles into the community of faith.

This morning we get another snapshot of Israel’s journey from slavery to the Promised Land and water figures prominently in this episode.  When they set up camp at Rephidim they discover that there isn’t any water, because this is a “dry and weary land.”  They begin to complain – so loudly that Moses starts fearing for his life.  They cry out: “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”  They understood that without access to fresh water, they would die and so they had begun to wonder where God was leading them, and if God was even with them.  Once again it seemed as if Moses was leading them to their deaths – and they weren’t happy about it.  Even Moses begins to wonder what God is up to.

Moses may be impatient – I would be impatient – but God is patient with this people whom God is molding into a community.  It seems as if God is testing their resolve.  But, apparently God had seen enough, and so God directs Moses to strike a group of rocks with the staff he struck the Nile with.  When he does this, the water begins to flow and the people are saved.  Now they have all the water they could want.  The question is – do they trust God to provide?  

It is good to remember that once again God taps into nature’s abundance to sustain the people. God doesn’t create water out of thin air.  Instead as Terence Fretheim suggests, “God’s actions enable their hidden creative potential to surface” [Exodus: Interpretationp. 190]. What is needed is guidance, and God provides it.  Is this not true for us as well?

As I was meditating on this passage, I began to think about all the ways in which water functions in our world.  Too much water can destroy – as a number of you experienced during the recent flooding.  Not enough water – as is true in California and Oregon – is also dangerous.  After seven years of drought, the fire season continues unabated, and the people are facing severe water restrictions.  While less visible, scientists are discovering that global temperatures are rising, glaciers are receding, and sea levels are rising.  The question is – how will we respond to these realities?  Will we take the steps necessary to slow down climate change so that life can continue to flourish?  

More visible to us have been several interesting events that remind us that even in our region, where water is abundant, access to water can be an issue.  Remember when the algae blooms on Lake Erie shut down Toledo’s water system?  Despite the abundance of water, because agricultural runoff spurred the algae blooms, the water that sustains Toledo and Monroe and other places along the western shores of Lake Erie didn’t have safe drinking water.

Then there is the debate over the development of a regional water system, which the county executives have agreed to and the Detroit City Council has approved.  All that is needed now is the approval of the three county commissions. Tied up with this debate is the question of whether access to water is a human right or a privilege.  If it is a human right, then should water be turned off, especially if people are too poor to pay their bills?  There has been a lot of debate over all of this, but once again the importance of water to life has been highlighted.  It’s one thing to water a lawn in the desert and another to have safe drinking water in a city with an abundance of water surrounding it.

Water is so central to life that many of the world’s conflicts, especially in places where water is scarce, centers on who gets control of the water.  It is, for instance, a key component of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Getting back to the people of Israel camped out at Rephidim.  This is a thirsty people.  They’re wondering about their survival.  They’re wondering whether God has their best interests in mind.  Maybe, just maybe, Moses is little more than a magician serving a malevolent deity out to get them.  Isn’t that how God is pictured in Job?  Besides, maybe this isn’t really the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Maybe this God is little more than a mirage!  Yes, where is God now that they’ve entered the heart of the desert?  
The question of God’s absence is an important one.  If we’re honest, we have all experienced that sense of absence.  Some people more so than others.  We might find ourselves crying out with Israel “is the Lord among us or not?”

After Mother Teresa died, we learned that for much of her life, despite her holiness and service to others, she experienced the complete absence of God’s presence.  Even as she cared for the sick, the hungry, the dying, she felt like she was alone in the darkness. Yes, she was thirsting for God in a “dry and weary land, where there is no water,” and she never found relief.  Still, she remained faithful to her calling.

As the people of God we are on a journey, and sometimes that journey takes us into the desert.  So, with the psalmist we thirst for God, about whom the Psalmist declares:

15 He split rocks open in the wilderness,
    and gave them drink abundantly as from the deep.
16 He made streams come out of the rock,
    and caused waters to flow down like rivers.  (Psalm 78:15-16).

So, when we find ourselves camped in a spot where there appears to be no water available, and when we find ourselves thirsty and wondering whether God is present, the Psalmist promises us that God will be faithful.  The question is – do we thirst after God, “as in a dry and weary land, where there is no water?”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Pentecost 16A
September 28, 2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014

God Provides the Meal -- Sermon for Pentecost 15A

Exodus 16:2-15

When you are hungry, a good meal is always welcomed.  It doesn’t have to be fancy.  It just has to be filling.  

I remember back to my early days living in the Pasadena YMCA.  I didn’t have a lot of money, so I lived on a daily ration of a micro-waved frozen poor boy sandwich and cupful of imitation kool-aid.  I kept the poor boys and the gallon jug in the little fridge at the bookstore where I worked.  You can imagine how I felt when Peggy, the store’s assistant manager, would invite me home for a meal and the opportunity to wash my clothes.  It was like manna from heaven.

As we continue our journey through the Exodus story, the thrill of freedom confronts the reality of hunger.  The people begin complaining – again –  “Did you bring us out here to the desert to starve to death?”  If only we’d stayed back in Egypt where we could enjoy the “fleshpots of Egypt.” Yes, perhaps slavery is better than starvation.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Border Crossings, -- A Sermon for Pentecost 15A

Exodus 14:19-31

We cross borders all the time.  Crossing the border into Canada is relatively easy, as long as we have the proper identification.  If you’re trying to cross from Mexico into the United States without documentation, it can be incredibly difficult and dangerous.   The plight of the children fleeing the violence of Central America and the status of young adults who came here with their parents as small children and who have known no other world but America has raised important questions about the nation’s immigration laws. Many are asking whether they are fair and just and appropriate. 

Then there’s the border dividing Detroit from its suburbs.  While no one has to present their papers to cross the divide that 8 Mile Road symbolizes, in the minds of many Detroit and the Suburbs are two different worlds.  In fact, crossing the border can be frightening for many – on both sides of the divide. 

We cross borders every day of our lives as we navigate the ever-changing landscape of our world.  The borders can be economic, cultural, religious, generational, ethnic, gender-related, or related to one’s sexual orientation.  Reaching across these borders can be difficult.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Eating on the Run -- Sermon for Pentecost 14A

Exodus 12:1-14

We have perfected eating on the run.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s running through the drive-thru window at the local fast-food restaurant or tossing a frozen dinner into the microwave!  When it comes to fast food, think about how far we’ve come from the early days of the TV dinner.  If you have to put those aluminum trays in the oven for 30 minutes, you might as well cook a full meal!! 

Although the original Passover meal didn’t go quite as quickly as our modern fast food meals, you might say that the people of Israel were eating on the run the day they left Egypt for the Promised Land.  Isn’t that why they ate unleavened bread? 

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Living the Faith -- A sermon for Pentecost 12A

Romans 12:9-21

Sometimes you come across a passage of Scripture that could take several months of sermons to explore.  This is true of today’s reading.  With sentences coming at us in rapid-fire fashion, it demands a great degree of reflection.  Since I’m not planning an extended series at this moment, I will try to refrain from dwelling too long in every nook and cranny of Paul’s message.  

Each statement is an imperative sentence that speaks to what it means to live the Christian life.  It’s fitting that this reading comes on Labor Day Weekend, because it will take a lot of work to fulfill Paul’s expectations.  

The key to this passage is the call to “let love be genuine” (vs. 9).  Everything that follows is an expression of genuine love.  It’s not romantic love.  It’s not just friendship.  It’s Agape love.  When it comes to defining love, I’ve been turning to theologian Tom Oord for help.  His basic definition goes like this:
To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. [The Nature of Love: A Theology p. 17].
When it comes to the agape form of love, he defines it as “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being in response to that which produces ill-being.”  This means, do what is good for the other, “in spite of evil previously inflicted” (p. 56).   This is the kind of love that Jesus had in mind when he spoke of loving our enemies and doing good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27).