Sunday, July 27, 2014

Strange Customs -- Sermon for Pentecost 7A

Genesis 29:15-28

This summer I had the privilege of officiating at the weddings of two  of our couples.  I’ve done a few weddings in my time, so I’ve got a bit of experience with these sorts of things.  It’s clear to me that wedding customs have changed somewhat since Cheryl and I were married thirty-one years ago.  I think things were a bit simpler back then, or at least that’s the way it seems to me and others my age.  But, that’s the way life is – things tend to change.

The reading from Genesis this morning tells an interesting wedding story. It’s part of a larger story that goes back to when Jacob tricked his brother Esau out of his inheritance.  From the very beginning of the story, we learn that Jacob, who is one of the heroes of the Bible, is also a  trickster who gets by on his wits. But sometimes tricksters get tricked, and that’s what happens here. 

What stood out to me as I read this passage is how different our customs are from those in the ancient world.  If things have changed since Cheryl and I were married, they’ve changed even more since biblical times!

This summer I’ve been working on a bible study guide.  It focuses on what the Bible might have to say about marriage, since a lot of people are wondering how it applies to today’s realities.  As I read this passage, I realized it would make for a great first chapter to the book.      

The story begins when Jacob’s mother, who didn’t like the local choices when it came to a marriage partner for her favorite son, asked her husband to send Jacob to see her brother.  You see her brother Laban had two eligible daughters, so surely one of them would prove to be a good wife.  I’m sure that such meddling by parents would go over well today!

When Jacob arrived in Laban’s neighborhood, he came upon a well, and it was there that he met Laban’s daughter Rachel.  Apparently, it was love at first sight.  When Laban heard that his nephew was interested in obtaining a wife from him, he was thrilled.  He proposed a deal.  If Jacob worked seven years for him, he would give Jacob his daughter as a wife.  Jacob agreed to the terms, and he worked hard for seven years.  He was so in love with Rachel that it seemed like only days when the time came for him to claim his prize – Laban’s beautiful daughter.  When the big day came, Laban threw a big wedding party.  He invited all the neighbors to the celebration, and then when the time came for the exchange – Laban switched brides.  Instead of sending Rachel into Jacob’s tent, he sent his older daughter, Leah to Jacob.  Apparently it was dark, and Jacob didn’t know the difference until morning.  When he realized that his new bride wasn’t Rachel, he was furious.  The trickster had been tricked! 

When Jacob confronted Laban about this trick, Laban replied in a way that I think is important for us to hear.  Laban said to Jacob: “This is not done in our country – giving the younger before the firstborn.”  Apparently Jacob didn’t know the rules, so Laban used them for his own benefit.  Because he knew that Jacob would do anything to get Rachel for his wife, Laban made another deal.  If Jacob would spend a week with Leah – doing his duty – then he could have Rachel as his wife in exchange for another seven years of labor.  Jacob didn’t  have to wait seven more years to receive his payment.  He just had to promise to fulfill his obligation.      

So how do you feel about this story and these characters?  Do you think we should go back to doing things this way?  Fathers of daughters, do you wish you could exchange your daughters for free labor?  And before you begin to feel sorry for Jacob, what about Leah?  There’s something in this story that reminds me of a song from my growing up years, which declared: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”  For a week, Jacob, did just that.  He did his duty with Leah, but he was looking forward to exchanging her for Rachel.  

Yes, Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, and Leah knew it.  But so did God.
When the LORD saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb; but Rachel was barren.   (Gen. 29:31).
As time went on, Leah gave birth to six children, before Rachel ever had her first child.  It created a bit of sibling rivalry, which included the sisters giving Jacob their handmaidens as surrogates.  In the end, Jacob had four wives and twelve children.

   Interestingly, even though Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah, it was Leah’s sons who would be ancestors of Moses, David, and Jesus.  Isn’t it interesting how things work out?  

I entitled the sermon – strange customs.  Do you think it fits the story?  Does it help make sense of the divide that lies between those times and our times?  Does it raise questions about the ways in which we think about marriage today?  What should we make of the changes in customs over time?  What does it mean for us to be faithful to God as we live our lives in changing times?  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
July 27, 2014
Pentecost 7A


Sunday, July 13, 2014

Mind of the Spirit -- Sermon for Pentecost 5A

Romans 8:1-11

I’ve been preaching from Paul’s letter to the Romans these past several weeks.  In Romans Paul contrasts two paths – the way of death and the way of life, the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit.  That theme continues in Romans 8, where Paul begins with an important announcement: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  To live in union with Christ means being set free from the guilt we often carry with us in life.  That guilt can include the things we’ve done, and the things we’ve left undone.

There’s another way of putting it – from now on, we don’t have to live with regrets.  No more – I wish I’d done that; or, I wish I hadn’t done that.  And we all have a treasure trove of regrets to let go.  In fact, we’re seeing this play out right now as LeBron James returns to Cleveland.  He has regrets about how he handled his move to Miami, and the owner, Dan Gilbert has regrets about what he said and wrote after LeBron left.  But, they’ve talked it over, and it’s all water under the bridge.  It’s time to move on to a new chapter.  And so it is with us – from now on, as we embrace Jesus and live in the Spirit, we can experience God’s present and God’s future blessings.

As we’ve been walking through Romans, we’ve been encountering a number of terms that probably need definition.

First, Paul speaks of the flesh.  When he uses this word, he’s not talking about our physical bodies.  Instead he’s talking about a way of living that is focused on the self rather than on God.  Or perhaps even closer to the truth, it is a life lived in fear of the self, which makes it difficult to love God and neighbor.
He also speaks of sin.   It’s often said that sin is missing the mark.  God sets standards, and when we don’t meet those standards, we sin.  The problem is this easily leads to a harsh moralism.  Instead of finding freedom, we end up piling guilt upon ourselves – or on top of others.  Perhaps it is better to think of sin as a power present in our midst that disrupts and distorts our relationships with God and with our neighbors.  It’s like that shingles virus we talked about last week, which has the tendency of popping up and getting us off kilter.  

That leads us to the word Law.  Paul actually talks about two kinds of law – one is the law of sin and death, and the other is the Torah, the revelation of God’s intentions for us.  Paul affirms the goodness of the Torah.  He can embrace the words of the Psalmist: “Your decrees are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them.  The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.”  (Psalm 119:129-130).   The Law is a light on our pathway, but the Law can also be a burden.  And when that happens, we need the grace of God to lift us up so we can continue the journey.  This gift of grace comes to us through the Holy Spirit who dwells within us as we are united with Christ in baptism (Romans 6:1-11).

   These are all theological terms.  They’re good terms to know.  But what do they mean in the real world.  Pastor Karen Chakoian points us to the principles of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. For AA there are two choices one can make – death or life.  While there are twelve steps to that program, three of them fit our conversation.  The first step of AA, and any twelve step program, is to acknowledge that you are powerless when it comes to alcohol or any other addiction.  You can’t change until you recognize this fact.  The second step is to put your trust in a power greater than yourself.  By recognizing that you can’t overcome this addiction by yourself, you find a new a source of strength that allows you to let go of the thing that binds you.  We do this by turning our lives and wills over to God, which is the third step.  Chakoian then writes:  “So it is for the Christian.  Substitute the word ‘sin’ for ‘alcohol,’ and you have the crux of this passage.” [Chakoian, in Feasting on the Word: Year A: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16),  p. 235].

The promise is this – turn your life over to God and by the Spirit you will experience union with Christ, which brings the power to live a new life before God.

There is another way of looking at what Paul is doing.   In presenting us with this choice between life and death, it would seem that choosing life would be the better choice.  But that path looks rather narrow and difficult.  It looks a bit like the road to Hana on Maui.  It’s narrow and windy, but from what I’ve heard the destination is worth the trip.  There is another bit of good news here – God has promised to be our companion on this journey.  So even if the pathway looks difficult, we’re not going it alone.

There is further good news here – the pathway that Paul lays out before us leads to eternal life.  Whenever I’m called upon to officiate at a funeral or a memorial service, I am expected to offer words of comfort and consolation.  People want to hear the promise of the resurrection.  They want to take solace in the promise of eternal life.  So, I often turn to John 14, where Jesus speaks of the many mansions that God is making available for God’s people.  What Jesus means by this metaphor is that there is room for all of us in God’s inn!

None of us knows what lies beyond the grave.  Scripture doesn’t tell us very much, which leaves much to the imagination.

Just the other day, I had a conversation about this very topic with a member of the congregation.  We were talking about some of the recent books that tell stories about people dying, going to heaven, and returning to life.  Maybe you’ve read one of them.  It seems, from the reports, that everyone who has this experience encounters a bright light.  Some of them run into family.  Others run into Jesus.  They’re usually told by Jesus or a deceased family member – but not Peter – that their time has not yet come.  They have work to do, and so they have to go back.  These books are comforting to some, and not so comforting to others.  I can report that both of us are a bit skeptical about these stories.  And yet, their popularity suggests that even in a scientific age, people want to believe that death is not final.  While I’m skeptical about whether people go to heaven and return to life, there is one thing I do find compelling.  With a great number of these stories, there comes the report that their lives have been changed dramatically.  Many people who have had this experience, see it as a second chance in life.  It is for them, a day of new beginnings.

While I do believe that there is something on the other side of death, I also believe that the message of eternal life begins in this life.  Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God being near at hand.  We may not experience it in its fulness, but the seeds have been planted – or perhaps better – they’ve been scattered across the land (Matthew 13:1-9).

Probably the best way to understand what Paul is doing here in Romans 8, is to think in eschatological terms.  We need to look forward into the future.  There, on the horizon, what we now see only partially revealed, is what we call eternal life.

Theologian Kathryn Tanner, who teaches at the University of Chicago Divinity School, offers this definition that I think is helpful to understanding the meaning of eternal life.  She writes:
Eternal life is not the endless extension of present existence into an endless future, but a matter of a new quality of life in God, at the ready, even now infiltrating, seeping into the whole. Eternal life is less a matter of duration than a matter of the mode of one’s existence in relation to God, as that caliber of relations shows itself in a new pattern for the whole of life.  (Kathryn Tanner, Jesus Humanity and the Trinity, p. 111).
Eternal life is infiltrating and seeping into the whole.  With time, it reclaims our lives for God.  It empowers us to share in the work of God.  We no longer face condemnation, because in Christ we have been transformed.

Yes, this is the good news that Paul has been sharing since he introduced baptism in Romans 6.  We have already crossed the threshold.  Eternal life has already begun.  It’s infiltrating our present reality.  It is creating in us the opportunity to love God and love our neighbors. The question is – will we embrace it?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
July 13, 2014
5th Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, July 06, 2014

I'm So Confused -- A Sermon for Pentecost 4A

Romans 7:15-25a

“We know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh.”  Those words come right before our reading from Romans.   According to Paul, it’s difficult to do the right thing, even when you know what the right thing is! Does that seem to describe your reality?  Could it be that there is a war going on inside us? Paul seems to think so, which is why I titled the sermon: “I’m so confused.”

In Romans Paul talks a lot about how difficult it is to keep the law of God. While the Law reveals God’s desires for our lives, it doesn’t have the ability to help us fulfill these desires.  The Law is good.  As the Psalmist puts it:

The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.  (Psalm 19:7-10).

From experience, however, Paul has discovered that as wonderful as the Law might be, he struggles to keep it.  It’s as if there’s a virus, like the shingle’s virus, that is present in his system.  Every once in a while it kicks in, throwing him off course.  He knows where he’d like to go.  He has his map and his G.P.S., but for some reason the G.P.S. has an error embedded that leads him astray.

Long after Paul wrote this letter, St. Augustine had a debate with another monk named Pelagius.  Pelagius believed that if we work hard enough we can live without sin.  He was righteous man, but like the Pharisees that Jesus encountered, he laid on people expectations beyond their capacity to keep.  His religion was a rather harsh one.

Augustine, on the other hand, knew from personal experience that the more he tried to please God the more depressed he became.  Martin Luther had similar issues.  In his Confessions, Augustine tells the story of how he and a group of young men came upon a pear tree.  They decided to cart off a load of fruit, not because they were hungry, but simply because it was there.  He writes of this escapade: “Perhaps we ate some, but our real pleasure consisted in doing something that was forbidden.” [Confessions (Penguin Classics), 2:4,  (Penguin Books, 1961), p. 47].   Augustine knew the difference between right and wrong, but there was something inside him that made the forbidden fruit too enticing to avoid!

Has that ever been true for you?  I know it has been for me.

Augustine seems to understand what Paul meant when he confessed:  “Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?”  John Newton also understood what Paul meant by this statement.  Newton had been slave ship captain, before becoming an Anglican priest.  Now, on a different path, he took solace in the grace of God: “Amazing grace!  How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me!  I once was lost, but now am found; was blind but now I see.”   Before we get to grace, it’s good to think a bit more about that virus present in our system.

Since it’s the Fourth of July Weekend, it’s appropriate to turn to our own national history for examples of what Paul meant by his statements about sin and the ability to overcome it.  Would you think with me about our nation’s founding documents?  Think about how we as a nation have struggled to live up to the aspirations present in these documents.  When Thomas Jefferson sat down and penned the Declaration of Independence, he established a powerful call to equality.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These are words to take delight in.  They’re worthy of being celebrated with parades and fireworks.  But, we’re still learning what these words mean.
On Thursday, we observed – rather quietly – the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  This act of Congress guaranteed full civil rights to every citizen in America, male and female, no matter one’s ethnicity.  This law declared that legal segregation would no longer be tolerated.  But, the struggle for the hearts and minds of the people wasn’t over.  Businesses still discriminated against women in the workplace.  States found ways of keeping people from voting, which led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, guaranteeing every citizen in American the right to vote.  By the way, the President who had the courage to pursue these two landmark pieces of legislation was a Disciple – Lyndon Johnson.  The Declaration of Independence laid out a principle of equality, but the nation – even the Founders themselves – resisted the implications.  It would be more than a century before women got the right to vote.  It took a Civil War to end slavery.  It took another century before Jim Crow was overturned.  Knowing what is right, doesn’t mean we always do what is right.
Paul understood this quite well.  The Enlightenment vision that caught the attention of the Founders of the American Republic and the denomination of which we’re members, had a blind spot.  They seemed to forget that there’s this virus present in our members, ready to wreak havoc at any moment’s notice.  While I want to believe that I’m incapable of engaging in the kinds of horrific activities attributed to Hitler, Stalin and Mao, that’s not necessarily true.  Sin, as Paul suggests is at war in me and in society as a whole.  As Ron Allen and Clark Williamson put it, sin is “a power in which individuals, groups, and nations can become ensnared, like fish caught in a net” [Preaching the Letters without Dismissing the Law: A Lectionary Commentary, p. 73].  And we all get caught at some point in our lives.

At the Regional Assembly we had a presentation on the Congo.  Things are bad there, but that’s nothing new.  The current situation is just an extension of what’s been going on in the heart of Africa since King Leopold of Belgium went looking for an empire in the late 19th century.   Because Disciples have a connection to that nation, I decided to do some reading.  I started with King Leopold's Ghost,  which tells how Leopold took control of the Congo basin and began extracting everything he could from the land and the people, while portraying himself as their protector.  He fooled a lot of people – though not the people who lived in the Congo.  One of the things that stands out in this story is how people who went to the Congo to work quickly got sucked into the evil morass that was his empire.  As I read this history, I was enticed to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a novel that became the basis of the movie Apocalypse Now. The novel, which is set in the Congo, tells the story of one man’s encounter with the way in which evil can take control of a person and people.  Before long they were engaging in behavior that they should have considered abominable.

You can know what is right.  You can delight in the Law of the Lord, but you can also be easily corrupted.  Think about peer pressure.  Think about the way people get drawn into bullying a person.  They know it’s wrong, but they don’t want to disappoint their “friends,” and so they join in.

The pictures on the wall tell the story of LGBT clergy who have faced discrimination and exclusion because of who they are.  The pictures in the fellowship hall share the stories of families who look a little different from what we’ve understood to be traditional.  They face many challenges – often at the hands of religious people.

   I’ve been sharing a rather disheartening story.  But fortunately it’s not the end of the story.  Although Paul confesses that he is a “wretched man,” he concludes with this declaration:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  What the law cannot do, God can do through the amazing grace that John Newton sings of.  What we cannot accomplish, God can accomplish by grace, extending to us the love that is God through Christ.
Now grace doesn’t just cover our deeds.  Grace takes hold of our lives and begins the process of transformation.  Later in Romans, Paul writes: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).  It’s by grace that we’re empowered to walk with Jesus.  And when we’re walking with Jesus, God makes us whole.  Then, through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, we’re able to join God in being “a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world.”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
July 6, 2014
Pentecost 4A