Sunday, January 26, 2014

Embracing the Mission -- Reclaiming a Founding Vision Sermon 3

Acts 1:6-11

Every episode of Star Trek: The Original Series – begins with Captain Kirk narrating the mission statement of the starship Enterprise:
Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its 5-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation appeared twenty years later, the producers made a few changes to the statement. Instead of five years, the new crew was embarking on a  “continuing mission,” and they replaced the words “no man” with “no one.” But, they still had a mission – to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and boldly go to new places.

Although we’re not going into space, the church does have a “continuing mission” to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”  The words I want to emphasize here are “continuing” and “boldly.”  Our mission is rooted in a mission that was established by God long before any of us were born.  It is rooted in the call of Abraham and Sarah, in the ministry of Jesus, and in Jesus’ commission to the disciples, that they should go into the world as his witnesses.  Jesus also tells the disciples to wait for the Spirit, who will give them power – that is boldness.

Yes, ours is a continuing mission, but I like the idea of five-year increments.  My sabbatical this fall marked the end of my first five years of ministry at Central Woodward.  On my return, we begin the next five-year mission together.  In the past five years we have explored new worlds, we’ve sought out “new forms of life,” and we’ve even gone boldly into these new adventures in the Spirit.  But, the mission hasn’t ended.  As we look forward into the future, five years at a time, we can expect God to take us to new places and provide us with new opportunities for ministry in this world.  In taking up this call to mission we accept the designation of “evangelical.”  

For many today, the word “evangelical” designates a conservative religious party that has particular doctrinal and political beliefs.  While there is truth to this belief, the word also has a much broader meaning.  In fact, in Europe the word evangelical means Protestant.

For my purposes I want to lift up the missional dimension of the word evangelical.  But before I do that I need to acknowledge my own Evangelical roots.  After all, I’m a graduate twice over of a leading Evangelical seminary.  Because my spiritual journey has taken me into the evangelical movement, and because I wanted to focus my sabbatical on touching base with “founding visions,” during our trek to Southern California, Cheryl and I spent several days on the campus of Fuller Theological Seminary.  We had dinner with my mentor and his wife.  I attended a class, met with faculty old and new, and reconnected with this important part of my own journey.  In doing this I want to reclaim that part of my own journey, especially the focus of this movement on mission.  

For me, to be an evangelical is to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to the world in word and in deed.  The word evangelical comes from a Greek word that is translated as good news.  Surely that is our calling.  We are bearers of good news to the world.  Through our lives and our ministries, the nations are to be blessed.

In Matthew’s Gospel, after his baptism at the Jordan and his time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus retreated to his hometown in Galilee.  Then, after the arrest of John the Baptist, Jesus went down to the Sea of Galilee and began to preach.  Like John he called on the people to repent, to turn around their lives, and give them to God, because the “Kingdom of Heaven has come near.”

As Jesus went around the region preaching, he invited others to join him in his evangelical mission.  He started by inviting four fishermen to leave their nets and the security of their employment and join him in fishing for people.  Matthew tells us that Jesus and his disciples went around Galilee, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:12-23). That is the evangelical imperative – preach the good news and bring healing to body, soul, and even the community itself.
One of the leading exponents of this vision in the eighteenth century was John Wesley, who with his brother Charles, helped found the Methodist Movement.  Methodism was then part of the Evangelical wing of the Church of England.  During my trip to England I had the opportunity to stop in at the Methodist Central Hall in London.  I even had my picture taken with a life-sized statue of Wesley.  I bring up Wesley because he strongly believed that the church is called to reach out beyond its walls to the people.  He caused quite a stir in his day by going out into fields and even public squares and preached to all who would listen.  For Wesley, the church doesn’t engage in mission, it is mission.  Therefore, a church that focuses on maintenance isn’t really the church of Christ.
When I arrived here in 2008, I came to a congregation that was committing itself to being a missional church.  We studied together Martha Grace Reese’s books Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism and Unbinding Your Heart These studies helped us reclaim our calling to share our faith with the world.  Then in February of 2009, we gathered for a retreat and came up with a core values statement that set us on this missional course.  So, if we’re to be true to our purpose as a congregation, then we will be a missional church.  And therefore, everything we do should proclaim the good news that the realm of God has come near, which means we’re an evangelical church.  
This calling is further defined in Jesus’ final message to his disciples before he departed.  In Acts 1, after the disciples ask him if he’s going to “restore the kingdom to Israel,” he tells them not to worry about such things, instead he gave them a mission.  In verse eight, Jesus tells them that they “will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The Book of Acts is built on this principle.  After the Spirit falls on the church at Pentecost, giving them power and courage, they begin to preach the good news of the kingdom.  They start in Jerusalem, where a church is born.  Before long, the mission takes them to the rest of Judea and then Samaria.  From there the mission extends to the ends of the earth.  Although the Book of Acts ends with Paul in a Roman jail, Luke leaves the story open so that we can continue writing this story.

In the two previous sermons in this series, along with the sermon I preached before I left for the Sabbatical, I linked our continuing mission as a congregation to the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah. In taking up this calling to be Jesus’ witnesses from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, we participate in this covenant of blessing.

Bringing Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8 to the present, I have previously compared Jerusalem to the people living in a five to ten-mile radius from the church, especially the community of Troy.  This is the starting point.  From there we move outward into Metro Detroit and the state of Michigan – our Judea and Samaria.  From there we join in a ministry that takes the good news, the blessings of God, to the ends of the earth.

Wherever it is that God has placed us, we have the opportunity to embrace God’s mission.  In doing this we reclaim our founding vision, and in doing this we become  evangelicals – in the broad sense, not the party sense.

I want to bring this message to a close by sharing the words from a  Charles Wesley hymn.  It’s not one of his more famous hymns, and so you won’t find it in most hymnals.  The words might even sound a bit dated, but I think they capture the evangelical spirit to which we’re called to embrace: 

When first sent forth to minister the word,
Say, did we preach ourselves, or Christ the Lord?
Was it our aim disciples to collect,
To raise a party, or to found a sect?
No; but to spread the power of Jesus' name,
Repair the walls of our Jerusalem
Revive the piety of ancient days,
And fill the earth with our Redeemer's praise.

[Quoted in Paul Wesley Chilcote. Recapturing the Wesleys' Vision: An Introduction to the Faith of John and     Charles Wesley, (p. 99). Kindle Edition.]

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
3rd Sunday after Epiphany
January 26, 2014

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Reset-- Reclaiming a Founding Vision Sermon 2

Revelation 2:1-7

We are inheritors of a tradition that has been passed down to us from generation to generation.  Over
time this tradition has been adapted and amended.  Some of these adaptations have helped preserve the core message, while others have obscured it.  That message is rooted in the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah that through their descendants the nations would be blessed. The message contained n this covenant was renewed in the ministry of Jesus and then passed on to us.

Whenever this calling gets obscured, God finds a way to call us back to this founding vision.  In our reading from Revelation, the angel of God invites the Ephesian church to “remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first” (Rev. 2:5).  This call to repentance is a call to reset our lives to the original vision.  

To use a computer analogy, whenever the system gets overly corrupted, it’s time to reset the system by restoring the system to its original factory settings.  And so it is with the church.  When we forget who we are and what we’re called to do, then it’s time to hit the restore button.

If this computer analogy doesn’t work for you, then picture in your mind an old church building whose walls were once covered with vibrant colors and designs.  But, over time the congregation decided that things needed to be modernized so they painted over the designs with a rather dull coating of paint. Then one day when the church decided that the sanctuary needed a new coat of paint to replace the dirty and faded paint that covered the walls, the crew stripping away the old paint discovered this long forgotten original design lying underneath.  As they made this discovery, they knew they had to restore the building to its original glory.

If we look closely at Christian history, we’ll find many examples of reform movements that emerged at just the right time to call the church back to its original vision. One of those movements was our own Disciples tradition, which has strong restorationist elements.

Thomas and Alexander Campbell believed the church had strayed from Jesus’ original vision and felt called to take the church back to the Bible by peeling away the accumulated “stuff” that now obscured the church’s sense of purpose. Of course, we Disciples aren’t the only restoration movement on the block.  There have been many others as well. 

One of these restoration movements is Pentecostalism.  Like our Disciple ancestors, Pentecostals looked to the Book of Acts for guidance, and when they read this book, they saw a people empowered by the Holy Spirit who did miraculous works.  They decided that the modern church needed this spiritual restored, if it was going to be faithful to the calling of Christ.    

During our visit to Southern California in October, Cheryl and I stopped in at Angeles Temple, which Pentecostal evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson built in the early 1920s, so I could reconnect with another part of my spiritual journey.  During my high school and college years, after I was an Episcopalian and before I became a Disciple, I was a member of the denomination Aimee founded. That denomination is known as the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.  

There is a famous sermon that Aimee preached that expresses her restorationist vision.  It’s called “Lost and Restored.” She believed that over time the church lost its moral and its spiritual power, but beginning with the Reformation what was lost was gradually restored.  Then at the beginning of the twentieth century, the miraculous power of the Spirit was, she believed, restored to the church at the Azusa Street Revival.  But even if what was lost has been restored, the church hasn’t yet reached perfection.  So, she declared:
Do not stop short of God’s best. If you lay down your crown, another will take it up, the number will be complete, none will be missing, only those who have pressed on all the way to his standard will be caught up.  If you have been doubting God, doubt no longer.  He is waiting to restore all the years that have been eaten, and cause you to stand forth in that glorious perfect tree company, ready and waiting for Jesus. [The Foursquare Gospel, compiled by Raymond L. Cox, (Los Angeles: Foursquare Publications, 1969),  p. 38]
Aimee’s theology is different from mine in many ways, but her restorationist vision, which she shares with our Disciple ancestors, is a call to let God reset and restore the church to its founding vision.   

Aimee’s vision does look back in time, but because it is an eschatological vision, it also looks forward. Merely pining for what was, is nothing more than nostalgia.  Like the Campbells and Barton Stone, she understood that the work of restoration needs to move us into the future so we can experience full communion with the living God.  That is, I believe, what she meant by pushing on toward the perfect.  The goal set before us is to participate in the blessings of God as the realm of God is revealed to us.   

In Revelation 2, the Son of Man, standing in the midst of the seven lamp stands, representing the seven churches of Asia, speaks this word of hope to the angel assigned to the church in Ephesus: “to everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God” (vs. 7).  That is, if we hold firm to God’s calling we’ll eat of the Tree of Life standing in the center of the Garden.    

Although the Son of Man commends them for their hard work, he also brings a word of warning.  Yes, these are good, hard-working people who resist evil and don’t even get weary from their work.  This is a faithful community, but something important is missing and so they’re in danger of having the light of the Spirit removed from their lamp stand.  What is missing – is their first love. 

Yes, they “abandoned the love [they] had at first.” We’re not told how this happened, but they’re told to repent and return to the works of love that originally marked the community.  In other words, the Son of Man was telling the angel of this church to press the reset button.   

We might not have the details, but I think anyone who has been in a long-term relationship knows that the ardor of love can diminish over time. When you’re in the early stages of your relationship you bring gifts to each other and spend as time as you can with each other.  But as time passes, you might begin to take your partner for granted.  You do the expected.  You might send flowers on a special occasion like an anniversary, but rarely if ever do you send flowers just because you want to say I love you.  

Cheryl might remember a young man showing up on her doorstep, bearing a flower – most likely a carnation because a rose was too expensive for that poor seminarian – even though this young man should’ve been studying for his finals.  Yes, young love will do that kind of thing to you.  

Although the Ephesians seemed to be doing the right things, the love that they had been known for in the beginning was now missing. In the beginning their faith was expressed in love for God and for their neighbor.  But now, it seems to have disappeared. They had lost their focus.  They had forgotten the truth that Paul had shared with the Corinthian church.  That is, without love we gain nothing.  Only love endures, and therefore it is the better way (1 Cor. 13).  Despite all their hard work and their attempt to be faithful, they had missed the point of their calling.  They were religious, but not spiritual.  

   To put it a bit differently, in her book on worship, Ruth Duck writes:  
God alone is holy and worthy of our glory and praise.  All the good things that can come of worship – education, church growth, cultural relevance, social change – seem to disappear the moment they become the primary goal, though each may be an outcome of worship truly done. [Worship for the Whole People of God, p. 266].
By resetting or restoring the church to its founding vision, we turn our focus back to the God who first loved us, so that we might love one another.  In this, the nations receive their blessing, which is to taste the fruit of the Tree of Life.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
2nd Sunday after Epiphany
January 19, 2014

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Continuity of Vision: Reclaiming the Founding Vision 1 (sermon series)

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Before leaving on my sabbatical, I preached a sermon from Genesis 12 entitled “Reclaiming a Founding Vision.”   In Genesis 12 God covenants with Abraham and Sarah, promising to bless the nations through their descendants. That is, I believe, our founding vision.  In Christ we become children of Abraham so that we might be a blessing to the nations.  

Sometimes we get so caught up in the business of religion that we forget our calling.  Fortunately, God remains faithful to this covenant, and has a way of rekindling that vision  in our hearts.  The title of that sermon, “Reclaiming a Founding Vision” served as theme of my sabbatical.  Since pastors are tempted to get focused on the mechanics of the institution rather than the vision that guides us a congregation, the sabbatical provided me the opportunity to remember and reclaim that vision for my life, so that I can lead this congregation in fulfilling our calling to be a community of blessing to the nations. 

For the next seven Sundays I’m going to share insights that I gleaned from my sabbatical journey. The first two sermons will lay the groundwork for what follows.  This week the focus is on the way in which this founding vision gets passed on down through the ages – from Abraham and Sarah, through Jesus, and on to us.  Next week the focus will be on resetting our compass when we lose sight of that original vision.    

Although Protestants tend to resist the idea of “Tradition,” it is through Tradition that the vision gets passed down from generation to generation.  The problem isn’t Tradition.  It’s “traditionalism.”

   You may have heard me share Jaroslav Pelikan’s distinction between the two:   “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.” The danger that Tradition presents is that it can easily become an idol, and it becomes an idol “when it makes the preservation and the repetition of the past an end in itself” (The Vindication of Tradition p. 55).  You’ve heard it said – “we’ve never done it that way before.”  Or “this is the way we’ve always done it.”  That’s “traditionalism.” Tradition, on the other hand, is a treasury of encounters with the living God, which have been passed down to us through scripture, through story, through liturgy and sacraments, through art, and even in stone.  Tradition is a living witness to God’s covenant of blessing, made first with Abraham and Sarah and then passed on through time to us. 

During my sabbatical I had several opportunities to connect with these life-giving Traditions. I’ll be sharing some of these encounters with you in the sermons and also at our February 22nd retreat.  

The first stop of my sabbatical adventure took me to England.  Since my scholarly interests and my spiritual roots are connected to the Anglican Tradition, I decided to start there.  Among the highlights of my trip was the opportunity to explore ancient churches and cathedrals.  I got to step back in time and experience the rich heritage that is encased in stone.  Some of the churches I visited go back to Anglo-Saxon days – back before the Eleventh Century.  One of the things you notice as you walk through these churches are the  monuments to people long since deceased.  At Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, where I worshiped on four occasions, you’ll find many of these monuments. There’s a marker for the burial site of the philosopher John Locke.  There is also a marker reminding us that John and Charles Wesley were ordained to ministry in that church.  As I contemplated the monuments and the shrines, I felt the presence of the great company of saints joining with us in the worship of God.  And when I went to the altar to receive communion in Oxford and at St. Paul’s, I took a journey that thousands of others have taken down through the centuries. 

 We don’t bury people within the walls of this church.  There are, of course, little monuments to people whose lives are connected to this congregation, but do you feel the presence of God’s saints now departed standing with us as we worship together in this space? 

When we gather for worship each Sunday we share in an inheritance passed on through time.  Margaret Bendroth puts it this way in her book The Spiritual Practice of Remembering: 
When twenty-first century Christians gather to sing and pray, when they practice the sacraments of baptism and communion, they are not making up those forms on the spot.  All of those are an inheritance from centuries of Christian belief and practice. (The Spiritual Practice of Remembering, p. 9).          
In a few moments we will gather at the Lord’s Table.  Written on the Table are the words: “In Remembrance of Me.”  As we take bread and cup, we are invited to remember that God is revealed to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  This service of the Table isn’t a funeral. The one we come to remember isn’t dead.  Instead, Jesus seeks to meet us at the Table so that we might be nourished and fed for the journey ahead, a journey that brings blessing to the nations.  

The text for today comes from Deuteronomy 6.  It is also a call to remember.  In this passage we hear the  Shema pronounced.  The Shema is the confession of faith that every Jew is to take to heart.  There is but one God, and you shall love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” 

The people of God are directed to not only remember this confession of faith, but they’re to pass it on from generation to generation.  
Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.
In other words, don’t just send them off to Sunday School, but make these commands the centerpiece of your lives together as a family.  Help your children incorporate this faith tradition into their own lives, so that they too might come to know the living God.

  As I thought about this passage, a song from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young came to mind.  You might know it – it’s called “Teach Your Children Well.”  One of the verses offers us this word of wisdom: 

Teach your children what you believe in.
Make a world that we can live in.

There is a rather constant refrain that I hear among Disciples, and many other Progressive Christians.  That refrain is that beliefs don’t matter.  From my experience, however, beliefs do matter.  Beliefs matter because what we do in life reflects what we hold to be true.  Our beliefs express our sense of trust in God.  So, “teach your children what you believe in.”  If you’re a Disciple and a follower of Jesus, then teach your children about Jesus, so that you might “make a world that we can live in.”    

Unfortunately, many Baby Boomers didn’t heed the words of this song.  When it came to matters of faith, many parents decided to let their children decide for themselves.  In other words, they didn’t make any effort to recite these commands to their children.  As a result, many younger adults have had little exposure to the Tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation.  So it’s no wonder that the fastest growing religious group in America is one that chooses not to state a preference.  Now I’m not encouraging coercive parenting, but it is important to share that which is most dear to our lives with our children.

   That’s the bad news.  The good news is that God is faithful.  There is a Tradition that continues to be passed on from generation to generation, even if it is being left to a remnant. That’s okay, because that remnant has the opportunity to reclaim the founding vision.  

It’s a bit like medieval Europe, during that time when literacy began to fade.  The monks kept busy copying ancient manuscripts, including biblical texts, so that later generations might have access to these riches. We are the inheritors of these traditions.  They needn’t become idols.  Instead, they can be and are witnesses to the ongoing presence of God in our midst.  

And as Paul puts it in 2 Thessalonians – 
For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.  (2 Thess. 2:14-15 NRSV).
Or as Ruth Duck puts it: “‘tradition’ is not an unchanging heritage but a never ending process of passing on faith in ever-changing ways” (Worship for the Whole People of God: Vital Worship for the 21st Centuryp. 265).

As we come to the Table this morning, may we look back to that founding vision that God planted with Abraham and Sarah.  It is a vision that God rekindled in the ministry of Jesus.  It is a vision that has been passed down to us through the ages, so that we too might share in this ministry of blessing to the nations.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
1st Sunday after Epiphany
January 12, 2014