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