Sunday, December 27, 2015

After Three Days -- Sermon for Christmas 1C

Luke 2:41-52

This seems to be a season of anniversaries, and believe it or not, it’s been twenty-five years since Macaulay Culkin spent Christmas Home Alone. If you saw that movie, an eight-year-old boy somehow got left behind when the family headed out for Christmas. Fortunately, due to the ingenuity of this child a home invasion is foiled. The movie raises the question: how do you leave your child behind? 

This morning we’ve heard another left behind story. The child in question is, of course, Jesus. According to Luke Jesus and his family have traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. When the family returns home to Nazareth, Jesus stays behind. It’s not until a day later that the family realizes that Jesus isn’t in the caravan. So, they head back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days of searching the city, Mary and Joseph finally find their lost child sitting in the Temple talking theology with the theology faculty.   

It probably would be a good idea to stop for a moment and catch our breath. Isn’t this the first Sunday after Christmas? Shouldn’t we be back in Bethlehem with baby Jesus? What happened to sweet and cuddly baby Jesus?  Before we knew what was happening he’s become a Tweener. He’s no longer a child, but he’s not quite an adult. He’s in between.

It seems that Jesus is intent on discovering his identity. That happens around age twelve. We start thinking about what it will be like when we grow up. So, maybe it wasn’t an accident that Jesus got left behind.

But, his parents aren’t quite ready to let go of the reins. They’ve been worried sick about their oldest child. After all, they come from a small town where everyone knows everyone else. Growing up as I did in small towns, I remember how our parents didn’t worry too much about us, because our parents were in cahoots with all the other parents. If Mom wanted to know where I was – at least until I could drive – she could just call around the neighborhood.  That seems to be the pattern of this traveling group. As long as Jesus was with the group, Mary and Joseph had nothing to worry about.  Unfortunately, Jerusalem is the big city. No one knows your name. That’s worrisome. You can imagine how anxious Mary and Joseph must have been about the safety of their son. But this isn’t a story about getting left behind. It’s a story about discovering identity.

The story itself is the only canonical story about Jesus’ life between birth and his baptism. It is the only snapshot we have of his growing up years. Today we fill Facebook with pictures of our children. We might even share old Christmas pictures of ourselves when we were children. So, just imagine having pictures of only one event? 

A while back I was thinking about my Confirmation experience at age twelve. I was the same age as Jesus, and in the Episcopal Church back then this was the time to become a full communicant in the church. On Confirmation Sunday the Bishop would lay hands on us, and confirm us in the faith.  Now we could take communion just like all the adults.  As I was thinking about Confirmation, I realized I didn’t have any pictures. So I asked my friend Kim if she had any pictures. But she didn’t pictures either. How could that happen?

When we read this passage it’s easy to get scandalized by the scene, but that’s not the point of the story. Luke isn’t critiquing the parenting style of Mary and Joseph. What he wants us to remember is that the child whose destiny is revealed in the birth story, is in the process of discovering what that means. You might call this a moment of enlightenment or awakening.  Once again we get to watch this through Mary’s eyes. 

In Luke it is Mary who is the primary witness to these earliest moments. She’s the one who receives the news that she will bear a child who will grow up to be David’s heir. When she goes to the house of Elizabeth, she receives another word of encouragement. Mary is blessed because of the child she is bearing. We heard another word of celebration from the shepherds in Bethlehem, and then later from Simeon and Anna on the day Jesus was taken to the Temple to be circumcised. Luke wants us to know that Jesus is the chosen one of God, and Mary is taking all of this in. Luke wants us to know that Jesus has begun to realize his life purpose as well.  

When his parents find him, they let him know that he’s caused them a lot of heartache. They’re not at all happy with him. Their reaction is understandable. When I got lost at the big mall in Portland during a Christmas trip when I was about that age, my parents were not at all happy with me. But Jesus wasn’t concerned at all about all of this. He was where he belonged – in the Temple.  When his mother scolds him for causing the family great anxiety, Jesus simply says – why did it take you so long to find me? That’s my paraphrase? In essence Jesus wonders why they didn’t start with the Temple. Didn’t they know that this was where he would be?  After all, this is his Father’s house. Yes, Joseph might be his human father, but God is his true Father. Jesus identifies himself fully with the work of God. In the King James Version translation of verse 49, Jesus says that he’s engaged in his “Father’s business.”  Jesus returns home with his parents. He remains faithful and obedient. But he’s also discovered his true calling, his true identity. And once again, Mary “treasures all these things in her heart.” 

So what happened in Jerusalem? While his parent’s might not have fully understood what was happening, his teachers saw something in him. And he began to see something different in himself. It’s good to remember that Jesus grew up in a rather devout family. We see this revealed in the family’s annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover. Yes, these are good parents who want their child to grow up into a faithful Jewish man.

What can we take from this story? We must first of all acknowledge the witness Luke gives to Jesus’ identity. Luke wants us to remember that Jesus is the one through whom God will bring peace and salvation. We see Jesus express this vocation at age twelve. He still has more to learn, but already he has a good sense of who God is and what God desires of him. 

But what of us? Could we not consider the importance of faith in our own family dynamics. There is no guarantee that a child will grow up to be a follower of Jesus. But, that doesn’t mean that we don’t introduce our children to our faith. Mary and Joseph might not have fully understood the true nature and calling of their son, but they gave him the opportunity to discover his calling. Yes, they made it possible for him to do his Father’s business. As a result, we find him sitting in the Temple amazing the teachers with his wisdom and knowledge. 

Yes, they do grow up fast!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
December 27, 2015
Christmas 1C

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Treasured Words -- A Sermon for Christmas Eve 2015

Luke 2:1-20

For the past fifty years many of us have chosen to watch the Charlie Brown Christmas special. As you may remember, Charlie Brown is struggling to understand the true meaning of Christmas. The commercial side of the season doesn’t hold any meaning for him. Finally, and after his failure to find the “proper” Christmas tree ends his attempt at directing the Christmas pageant, he cries out in near panic: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”At that point Linus the Theologian takes center stage and recounts the Christmas story as told by Luke. After coming off the stage, Linus says to him:  “That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”

We’ve come here tonight because we want to take hold of this message shared with us by Linus the Theologian. Like Charlie Brown, we want to know what Christmas is really about.

Luke offers us the most recognizable version of the Christmas story. He tells us about a very pregnant Mary who accompanies her husband Joseph on a journey to Bethlehem. When they arrive, they find that there is no room for them in the inn. So, they take up residence in a stable, and it’s there that Mary gives birth to her first born child. As our creche scene reminds us, Jesus wasn’t born in a palace, surrounded by servants. Instead, this little child, whom Isaiah calls the Prince of Peace, is surrounded by shepherds bearing witness to the message shared with them by the Angels. 

These shepherds are the first evangelists. God sends them to the Holy Family, reminding Mary and Joseph that this is no ordinary child. This is the one who brings peace and good will. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of the power of what takes place in the manger, reminding us that “it is God himself, the Lord and Creator of all things, who is so small here, who is hidden here in the corner, who enters into the plainness of the work, who meets us in the helplessness and defenselessness of a child, and wants to be with us” [God is in the Manger, p. 66].  After the shepherds give their witness, Luke says that everyone who heard the news was amazed, and “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

For a moment let us put ourselves in Mary’s place, and view this event through her eyes. What does it mean to us this very evening to treasure this story in our hearts? How will this story change our lives?

When I watch people of all ages approach a mother and her newborn child, offering words of encouragement and blessing, I imagine that these mothers and fathers are a bit like Mary. They treasure the moment. They find blessing in the words of their friends. Mary must have felt a bit overwhelmed by all the commotion, and yet it is this witness that opens our eyes and heart to God’s blessings revealed through her to the world. 

What Mary brings to the story for us, I think, is the sense of wonder at the reality of the incarnation. God is in Christ drawing us into the new creation. This is the one through whom God promises to bring peace and good will. As Isaiah declares: “For unto us a child is born  . . .  [the] Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there will be endless peace . . .” (Is. 9:6-7). It is on this promise that Mary invites this evening to ponder and meditate.

In a few moments we will gather at the table and receive signs of Jesus’ presence. In these signs we’re reminded that God is with us. It is in this presence that we find peace, even if we are experiencing chaos in our lives. Indeed, it is good to remember that a stable and a group of shepherds don’t present a very tidy and peaceful space, and yet I believe Mary found peace in this moment. May we, slow down for a moment and take in the blessings that come to us in the message of a child born in Bethlehem. And as we move from the Table to the edges of the sanctuary bearing lights, may we join Mary in treasuring these things and then continue the work of the shepherds, telling  the world that the Prince of Peace is in our midst.

For that is what Christmas is all about!

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2015

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Out of Nowhere -- A Sermon for Advent 4C

Micah 5:2-5a

O Little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

These words written long ago by Phillips Brooks have long been a favorite of carolers. In our mind’s eye we imagine a small quiet town, where not much is happening. It’s not a place where you would expect something momentous to occur. And yet, the carol declares that the everlasting Light shines in its streets.

As Advent moves quickly toward its culmination in Christmas, we begin to see signs that the Everlasting Light is about to shine. We’ve been preparing these past several weeks for this day, and wait in hopeful expectation for the full revealing of this Light of God.

Although Bethlehem was a small town, it was also the hometown of King David. Therefore, in times of trial even in its smallness Bethlehem served as a beacon of hope.  This was the case when Micah began to preach. The mighty Assyrian army had laid siege to the capital, where David’s descendants now reigned. Micah had been telling the people that they had gotten themselves into this mess because of their wickedness. For several chapters, Micah had been telling the people of Jerusalem that God was using the Assyrians to discipline them. But, then in much the same way as we saw with Zephaniah last week, the mood shifts. Micah still isn’t finished offering words of correction, but for a moment he stops to give them a word of hope. 

Micah points toward the little town of Bethlehem. He tells them that a child is about to be born, who will shepherd the people and defend them, even as David had done centuries before. This ruler from God will give them a sense of security and bring universal peace. 

You can understand why early Christians wanted to connect Jesus to Bethlehem. They proclaimed that Jesus was the promised child born in Bethlehem, who bring fulfillment to this promise of peace.  We continue to embrace this vision as we celebrate Advent and Christmas – both the hope and the fulfillment. 

The phrase “little clans of Judah” caught my eye, as it did for Phillips Brooks. One of the wonders of life is that God doesn’t follow conventional wisdom. God doesn’t choose the powerful and the mighty – such as Assyria or Babylon – to accomplish God’s purposes. No, God chose Israel and Judah. And it was seemingly out of nowhere that David came to power. Remember that he was the youngest child in Jesse’s family. Jesse didn’t even bother to call him home when Samuel went looking for a replacement for Saul. Yet, God called David to be king.  Wonders of wonders!

When Mary went to see Elizabeth, carrying her child, she heard Elizabeth declare: “Blessed are you among women.”  These words lead Mary to sing a song of praise to God. In that song of praise, she asks the question:  Why me? Who am I that God chose me? (Luke 1:39-55). That’s the thing about God. God chooses to work with the most unlikely persons. So, whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem or Nazareth, he was born in a little town of no real economic or political significance. So, while Herod lived in Jerusalem, serving as Caesar’s vassal, God was planting a seed in a small town, so that the true ruler of Israel might be revealed. 

As we move toward Christmas and into a new year, I thought we might reflect for a moment on littleness, even as our culture celebrates bigness. We shop in big box stores; flock to big churches, and watch as politics is dominated by big money. All of this may be true, but it’s the little of Bethlehem that produces the ruler who will bring universal peace.  

This got me to me to thinking about how God uses what is small in the eyes of the world to do good things. Indeed, I believe God is using us, and we’re a small congregation.  

To give one example:  In November the Metro Coalition of Congregations celebrated the good work we’ve done over these past five years. MCC is merging into a new entity called DRIVE, which is a new regional community organizing effort that will combine our efforts in the suburbs with those in the city. While this new entity takes shape, we gathered at Serenity Christian Church one last time as MCC to remember and celebrate the good work we’ve been doing in the broader community. Although we were never a large and powerful group, we became a powerful force for good. We began our work by addressing the foreclosure crisis. Our biggest win was helping persuade MSHDA to get the funds made available to them by the Federal Government out to people in need. We also helped turn a crucial vote that lead to the creation of the Healthy Michigan health insurance plan that benefits low-income working families. We took a lead in confronting the ongoing tragedy of human trafficking. We continue to be at the forefront of the efforts to create a sustainable regional transit system. From the very beginning, Central Woodward has been a major participant in this work. While we never got very big, we have been a persistent voice of hope in our region. Why have we been powerful even though we were small in number?  I believe it is because God has been in this venture.  

There is another God-directed and empowered venture, which we helped launch. Last year over Gospel in Action Detroit project that is managed by Rippling Hope did home repair on hundreds of homes in Detroit, along with cleaning up vacant lots and boarding up abandoned homes and businesses. This mission had its origins in a conversation in an elevator in Chicago not long after I arrived in Michigan. You see, I had a conversation with Eugene James about working together in ministry. That conversation led to a partnership between Central Woodward and Northwestern Christian Church. From this beginning we forged a partnership with Motown Mission and then with Rippling Hope. This has led to many blessings for the community and for those who participated in the work. 

Neither of these efforts are big and powerful entities. Nevertheless, we’re doing good work. We’re bringing God’s peace to communities hard hit by the ravages of time. We’re bringing hope to those who were afraid that all hope was gone.   

Now, Micah’s vision is not yet complete. We still see violence and decay in our midst. Universal peace is not yet achieved. But the promise remains: We who follow Jesus have been called to participate in the unfolding of God’s peace in the world. There is much work to be done, which is why we have heard the call to be a missional congregation. We as a congregation might not be rich and powerful. We may only be a small congregation living in the shadows on a big street in the suburbs. The many thousands of cars that pass by each day, probably never stop to consider what resides on this corner. Nevertheless, God has called us to be a witness to God’s peace. That’s why the Peace Pole that we planted last year is such an important symbol. 

If you go out and meditate on the  symbolism of the peace pole, the cross, and the rock, which dominate the circle, perhaps you will be reminded of God’s empowering presence that moves us toward the fulfillment of God’s vision of shalom. The promise of peace has yet to reach fulfillment. But we continue to live in faith that God is true to God’s promises. The one who comes to us from Bethlehem serves as our guide into the future. 

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin, and enter in; be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our God, Emmanuel.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
December 20, 2015
Advent 4C

Sunday, December 13, 2015

God Is in Our Midst -- Sermon for Advent 3C

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Peter Bruegel, The Wedding Dance -- DIA

Each Sunday of Advent we process into the sanctuary, led by a child carrying a lantern.  This year we’re singing “Emmanuel,” a song that reflects on a name that means “God with Us.” Advent is a lot like the season of Lent, because it forces us to slow down and look for God’s presence in our midst. This is an especially difficult task at this time of year, because there are lots of distractions. For instance, the Christmas buying season begins earlier each year, and the radio stations go all Christmas on Thanksgiving Day if not before. Then there’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday, office parties and holiday concerts. Yes, there is much to do, and so little time to do it. So why bother with Advent? Why not go directly to Christmas? 

Since this is my first opportunity to preach during the Advent season, I decided to bring us up to date. Because I’m preaching from the prophetic books of the Old Testament, I thought we might look back at the lectionary readings from the prophets chosen for the first two Sundays of Advent.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

He's Coming Back -- A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday

Revelation 1:4b-8

Over the next few days we’ll have an opportunity to consider the blessings that have been poured out upon us by God. It really doesn’t matter where we gather. The important thing is to stop and offer words of praise to God, “from whom all blessings flow.” We’ll have at least two community opportunities to share in words of Thanksgiving before Thursday. Tonight the Troy-area Interfaith Group is hosting a service at the Islamic Association of Greater Detroit in Rochester Hills. Then on Tuesday evening the Troy Clergy Group is sponsoring a service at Northminster Presbyterian. We also have the opportunity this morning to offer up symbols of gratitude to God through signs of our commitment to the life and ministry of this congregation.

These celebrations occur under the shadow of the recent terrorist attacks in Mali, Beirut, Nigeria, and Paris, that have raised our anxiety levels. Fear seems to be taking hold of many in our midst, and there are people and groups who are making use of this fear for political ends. Even as people flee the violence in the Middle East, political leaders from across the country, including close at home, are shutting the door of welcome to those fleeing this violence. The good news is that other voices are being raised within the faith community reminding us of our calling by God to welcome the stranger.  Disciples and United Church of Christ leaders have issued a statement calling on the nation to live up to its better nature and welcome those who flee violence. Week of Compassion and Church World Service are providing support for refugees that reflect the vision cast in the closing words of this statement by our leaders:
We are called to be a merciful and caring community; to seek justice and to honor every person; and to stand up and shout out when such a vision is challenged or violated. We urge caution and caring in our discourse and in our actions, so that we all may hold ourselves to a higher standard and ideal.
We’re hearing similar statements from across the religious spectrum – conservative, liberal and in between. The president of the National Association of Evangelicals made this statement:  “We are horrified and heartbroken by the terrorist atrocities in Paris, but we must not forget that there are thousands more victims of these same terrorists who are fleeing Syria with their families and desperately need some place to go.” 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

What Matters Most: Provision -- A Stewardship Sermon

1 Kings 17:8-16

What matters most? And how do you measure that? These are the questions that our stewardship theme raises. We’ve heard a word about generosity. We’ve heard a word about money. Now we hear a word about provision. 

When Jesus told the man to sell everything and give the proceeds to the poor, the man walked away because he had too many possessions. He wanted to enjoy the presence of God, but apparently his possessions stood in the way (Mark 10:17-31). Like many of us, he was a hoarder who found it difficult to walk by faith.

This morning we have heard part of the story of the prophet Elijah, who had gotten himself into trouble with the king of Israel. Even if you’re a messenger of God, getting in trouble with a king is dangerous. Elijah got in trouble because he told King Ahab and his wife Jezebel that since the king had set up altars to the Phoenician storm god Baal, God was going to stop the rain from falling. When a drought fell upon the land, Elijah had to leave. What is interesting and maybe even ironic, is that Elijah headed toward the Phoenician city of Sidon. Here was a prophet of Yahweh seeking refuge in the land of Baal. 

Sunday, November 08, 2015

What Matters Most: Money -- Stewardship Sermon

Mark 10:17-31

Van Gogh - Wheat Fields with Reapers (Toledo Museum of Art)
How do you measure what matters most? That is, how do you determine the  value of something, especially if you’re going to make an investment? If you’ve ever watched Antique Road Show or American Pickers, you know that everything has a price.

Go to an art museum like Cheryl and I did last weekend, and you’ll see pieces of art that are all considered valuable. But what makes art valuable? Is it not what a person is willing to spend? What goes for art goes for baseball cards. Consider the 1910 Honus Wagner card. It recently sold for more than two million dollars. That’s a lot of money for a piece of cardboard with a picture on it. I have a baseball card collection, but none of my cards are worth that much. Apparently age, rarity, and condition, along with personal interest can give a piece of cardboard with a picture on it a premium value. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Who Is God . . . Really? A Sermon for Pentecost 22B

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

We’re only exploring a few passages from the book of Job, but even so you may be feeling a bit unsettled by what we’ve heard so far. The God we’ve met appears to control everything, and that means God is responsible not only for the good things but the bad things. Though it does appear that God uses a hired hand, The Adversary, to do the dirty work. At the same time, we’ve been hearing from Job, who has been suffering greatly despite his claims to be innocent and righteous before God. The question we’ve been hearing all along is: “why me?” And that question leads to another: Who is God?

 The Bible is a sacred text, but it is also a very complex book. At times it seems to argue with itself. In many ways the message of Job offers a counter weight to the message of Proverbs. The message of Proverbs is quite simple. If you do the right thing, good things should happen. If you do bad things, then you will reap what you sow. When we read Job, we hear him crying out: “But what about me?” I try to do the right thing, but bad things have happened. His friends have been telling him all along that he must have done something wrong or he wouldn’t be in this predicament. Even God seems to be against him on this topic.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Questions From God -- Sermon for Pentecost 21B

Job 38:1-7, 34-41

For thirty-seven chapters Job and his friends have been debating the question: “why me?” That’s a question that many of us ask at one point or another. Bad things happen and we want an explanation. Sometimes, as is the case with the answers provided by Job’s friends, the answers don’t make sense. Sometimes we even want to take up the conversation with God, but we’re not sure we’re up to the task. 

Last Sunday we listened to Job as he challenged God to appear in court and answer his questions. He believed he was innocent, but he was also terrified of the possibility that God might actually show up. One of Job’s friends assures Job that he needn’t worry about God showing up. God was too busy to bother with his futile questioning. 

Elihu is the fourth “friend” to enter the debate with Job. In many ways these four friends, demonstrate the principle that with friends like this, who needs enemies! Elihu feels the need to defend God’s honor. He tells Job to “stop and consider the wondrous works of God.” Just look around at creation, and take in the wonder that is creation. When you take in the grandeur of creation, you’ll know that God’s concerns are much larger than your complaints (Job 37:14, 23).  

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Questions for God -- A Sermon from Job 23 for Pentecost 20B

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.  
6 One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. 7 The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 8 The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” 9 Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord. (Job 1:1, 6-12)
And so the story of Job begins. I offer up these opening verses to set the stage for Job’s appearance in today’s reading from the lectionary. Between this heavenly conversation and Job’s bitter questioning of God, righteous Job loses everything he valued and possessed, including most of his family. As Job sat down to ponder what had happened, a group of friends stopped by. Like good church members they want to offer words of comfort and support. At first they sit silently, but after awhile they get frustrated with Job’s complaints. Yes, Job isn’t as patient as we’ve been led to believe. After Eliphaz has his say, telling Job to repent and turn to God because God will hear the penitent sinner, Job cries out to God in bitterness. Why me? What have I done? Why won’t you listen to me? 

Eliphaz thought he was speaking a word from God when he told Job to “agree with God, and be at peace” (Job. 22:21). Eliphaz meant well, but his words came across as condemnation and not support. Job remained convinced that he had nothing to repent of. In his eyes, the calamity that had befallen him was unjust. 

Why do bad things happen to good people? That’s the title of a famous book by a Jewish rabbi that is based on Job’s story. It’s also a story that often resonates with many of us as we look out at the world.

Consider the mass shooting in Roseburg. Nine people died, and nine more were wounded. Why? It seems that the perpetrator wanted to make a name for himself, and the more people he killed, the better known he would be. Yes, we grieve and wonder why such things happen. We ask God: Why do the good die young?

When I was a child – just eight or nine years old – one of my classmates, a little girl named Jill Scroggins, died when the vehicle she was riding in was struck by a train. This tragic accident occurred just a block from our elementary school. As I remember the story, for some reason her father didn’t fully clean off the windows of the car and couldn’t see the train that was coming down the tracks.  Both Jill and her father were killed. It’s been nearly fifty years since that event, but her death remains with me. I didn’t see the crash. I didn’t go to the funeral. Maybe it was because I had a boyhood crush on her, but that first experience of losing someone you know to death is not easily set aside. I look back and I ask why?

Job wants to have his say in the heavenly court. He wants to make his case known to God. He wants God to answer his questions about why this horrific reality was visited upon him and his family.  He believes in his own innocence. He believes that if he can get God in the dock, then he will get an answer. Whatever he had done -- and his friends assured him that he must have done something wrong -- he wanted to see the evidence against him. Otherwise, he wants an acquittal.   

You can understand Job’s bitterness. He had tried to live a righteous life. He offered sacrifices on behalf of his children. Surely God knew his heart. God had to know that he was a righteous and honorable man. So, how could such tragedy befall him? If only God would answer him, then he could prove his case. But God appears to be in hiding, and so he finds himself in darkness.

Job’s friends play an important role in the story. They represent a certain theological viewpoint that is often present in communities of faith. Theologians call this the “retribution dogma.” More popularly some speak of  karma. That is, you reap what you sow. If bad things happen to you, then you must have done something wrong. It makes sense on the surface. Do the right thing, and good things will happen to you. That’s the message of that we find in the Book of Proverbs. There is wisdom in doing the right thing. The only problem with this theology is that things don’t always work out the way we think they should. 

Why did Jill die? Why the students in Roseburg? Why did the two students from Manhattan Christian College “have to die” back when I was teaching there? You see their van went off the road during a summer road trip they were taking on behalf of the college. The student who was driving the van fell asleep, and the van went off the road. Two of those students were killed. Their deaths hit the college hard, but none of us was as grief-striken as the student who survived. She had to deal with the loss of her friends and survivor’s guilt. Why did she survive while her friends didn’t?  

I had another student at MCC. His name was Eric. He was my TA and he was like a member of the family. He was a lot of fun, which made him a popular youth minister. But a few years after graduation Eric developed a brain tumor that took his life. He was only in his thirties. He left behind a wife and children and a community that loved him.  Yes, why do the good die young? 

Job wants an answer. Job wants to know where God is hiding and what God is up to. At the same time the thought of actually getting the chance to stand before God terrifies him (Job 23:15). Who am I, Job must be thinking, that I can actually challenge the wisdom of God? And yet, I still have my complaint!

Job wants to disappear. He wants the darkness to cover his face. Perhaps what Job is looking for is what Eric Elnes calls the Dark Wood. The Dark Wood is  “A place where the good, the bad, and the ugly in our lives can be embraced and explored rather than avoided.” Eric writes that if we learn to live in this Dark Wood then “eventually we are able to look back over the path we’ve trod and make an affirmation that is unthinkable when sticking to the Adversary’s broad streets of certainty and highways to success.” (Gifts of the Dark Wood, p. 142). 

The Dark Wood can be a place of learning about who God is and who we are in relationship to God and to one another. That doesn’t take away the sting. It doesn’t lessen the challenges. But perhaps it can be a place of grace? 

Job tried to live a righteous life. He did everything that was expected of him. We might even call him a saint. And yet that didn’t keep him from experiencing a “dark night of the soul.” 

As Christians we profess belief in a loving and gracious God. At least that’s the message I try to preach. It’s the God I profess to follow. It’s the God I see revealed in Jesus and witnessed to by the Holy Spirit. The God whom I seek to follow is the God of what Eric calls “Unchanging Love.” And yet, there are events that make little sense to me. I struggle with the conflict in Syria and the forced migration of thousands of people. I can’t figure out why people, usually young men, go to schools and theaters with the intent to kill. I wish I had an answer to the challenge, but I don’t. 

Job raises difficult questions. He makes it difficult to assign blame or find easy answers. Sometimes when a child dies suddenly we want to offer words of compassion, but the words we utter are often anything but compassionate. I really don’t think God needs another angel. I don’t know that the little child is in a better place. Yes, that child might be in the arms of God, but that doesn’t mean they’re with us. So, so we grieve. We wonder, even years later, what is God is up to. 

We enter the Dark Wood seeking a fuller answer to our questions. We seem to know that a fuller understanding remains beyond our grasp, but we still have lots of questions. That is true even if all we can do is walk in grace, seeking the peace of God for all.    

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 20B
October 11, 2015  

Sunday, September 27, 2015

No Cause for Stumbling -- Sermon for Pentecost 18B

Mark 9:38-50

It seems as if scandals are breaking out all around us. It’s true that scandal sells, so the media will share the news. You can’t blame them. If inquiring minds want to know, then they will give them what they want.  

Speaking of scandals, here in Michigan we got a front row seat as one of the more seedy political scandals unfolded right before our eyes. It’s rare that a legislature gets so embarrassed that it decides to kick out two of its own, but when these two state representatives not only had an affair while in office, but tried to cover it up using tax payer money, you can understand why action had to be taken. What made this scandal even more noteworthy is that these two legislators ran on a “family values” platform. So, the real scandal was their hypocrisy.

But, if the news hour doesn’t provide you with enough scandalous news, there are other options, including a highly regarded TV show simply titled Scandal.  I’ve not watched it, but I understand that it’s about politics. That probably should not surprise any of us!  Then, if you’ve been scandalized enough, you might decide to throw up your hands, declare pox on all houses, and retreat to a more pleasant state of being. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Welcome the Children -- Sermon for Pentecost 17B

Mark 9:30-37

When Christmas Eve rolls around we celebrate the coming of the Christ child into the world. Some of the carols we sing that night and throughout the season seem a bit sentimental. Consider the opening verse of Away in a Manger: 
 Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head.
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.
It’s a comforting picture, but does it reflect Jesus’ own reality? 

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Way of Discipleship -- Sermon for Pentecost 16B

Mark 8:27-38

Who am I? That’s the question Jesus posed to Peter, the rest of his disciples, and us.  It really doesn’t matter what other people are saying; “who do you say that I am?” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus asked this identity question in the region of Caesarea Philippi. That’s because it’s not only an identity question; it’s a question of allegiance. Is Jesus Lord or is Caesar Lord? That’s a question that continually confronts us, because it’s so easy to confuse our allegiances. Allegiance to country isn’t the same as allegiance to Jesus!

Peter makes the good confession – you’re the messiah – but I’m not sure that Peter completely understood his confession. That might be one reason that Jesus told him and the disciples to keep this under their hats. You see it seems as if Peter thought in political and maybe military terms. He thought of power in terms of the ability to coerce. Maybe he was even hoping to get a cabinet post in Jesus’ new administration. But Peter totally misunderstood Jesus’ vision of God’s realm, and he got so upset with Jesus that he rebuked him. Peter told Jesus that he had gotten things totally wrong. So, until they got these issues settled, there wasn’t any reason to say anything publicly. 

Sunday, September 06, 2015

The Lesson Jesus Learned -- Sermon for Pentecost 15B

Mark 7:24-37

If Jesus is the Son of God, then he must know everything. After all, he lived in perfect communion with God and  had access to sources only Commander Data might have available. If that’s true, then when he was a child he wouldn’t have to study before a test. He probably knew the answers before the questions were created! Or did he?  What did he know? And when did he know it?

As we return to the Gospel of Mark, it’s good to remember that Mark’s Jesus appears out of nowhere at the Jordan River where he’s baptized and then receives his commission from God. Mark doesn’t tell us anything about Jesus’ upbringing, but Luke does offer us a peak into Jesus’ childhood. Remember how Jesus took a trip to Jerusalem with his family at the age of twelve and ended up talking theology with the religious leaders in the Temple. Luke’s Jesus is a bit precocious and perhaps even something of a handful, but after the family returned home, it’s written that Jesus “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:22-39). Perhaps Jesus still had lessons to learn. Maybe he even had to overcome a natural ethnocentrism that seems to afflict us all. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The Beloved Calls -- Sermon for Pentecost 14B

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Every generation since the beginning of recorded human history has had its love songs. You might have a favorite and I might have mine. It’s likely that our differences of generation will influence our choices. Our scripture reading this morning is itself a love song, or at least a small portion of one of the great epic love songs ever written.

As I was thinking about this song, a tune from my teen years came to mind. It’s one of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatles hits, and I think it fits the moment. The first stanza goes like this: 
You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs

I look around me and I see it isn't so
Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs
And what's wrong with that?
I'd like to know
'Cause here I go again
I love you, I love you
I love you, I love you.
Yes, what’s wrong with singing silly love songs? 

There’s another song from those years that also speaks of love, but in a somewhat different way than McCartney’s song. And it goes like this: 
What the world needs now is love, sweet love

It's the only thing that there's just too little of
What the world needs now is love, sweet love
No not just for some but for everyone

So, as McCartney so profoundly puts it: “Love isn’t silly at all.”  No, everyone needs to experience a bit of love. For as Paul put it: “Faith, Hope, and Love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

The Song of Solomon is a love song that became sacred scripture. In many ways it’s a rather erotic poem that allows two people to share their passion for each other. But, because it’s in the Bible it must be more than simply another silly love song. In fact, these words of deep passion carry within them a word of revelation. This is true even though the poet never mentions God. While there’s nothing in this song that is explicitly religious, it is still sacred scripture.

So how should we read it? What message does it carry? How can it convey to us a word from God?

You could take it out of its scriptural context and read it as simply another love song or piece of ancient erotic literature. That’s probably how it was originally written. If we read it in the context of scripture, what we have is a sacred celebration of the power of human sexuality. 

Down through time many interpreters, both Jewish and Christian, have taken a more spiritual view of this book. These interpreters may have been trying to avoid dealing with the erotic aspects of the song, but surely there is more to this than simply the desire to avoid talking about sex in church.

Stephanie Paulsell points out that interpreters such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Teresa of Avila “recognized their own yearning for God. They heard in the verses of the Song so much that was true about their own search for God’s presence. . . .” She goes on to say that the way in which these interpreters read it wasn’t a “rejection of the erotic quality of the Song, but a recognition of the erotic quality of life with God” [Lamentations and the Song of Songs: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible)p. 175]. We might not think of God in that way, but readers of this song have recognized God’s passionate embrace of humanity. 

So, on one level it’s completely appropriate for us to read this poem as a poetic conversation between two human beings who are passionately in love with each other. We hear this passion in words that describe a lover “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills . . . like a gazelle or a young stag.” And then we hear him call out to his beloved: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.”

On the other hand, the great mystics of the past and present have read this poem allegorically and found in it a powerful statement about God’s love for the church. So, when we hear the words, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away,” it is God who is calling out to us, inviting us to enter into a deep and abiding relationship. This way of thinking about our relationship with God might sound strange to Disciples, since we’ve emphasized the rational side of the faith, but maybe faith involves more than simply the mind.  

The lover tells the beloved that winter is over and spring is at hand. “The voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.” So, it’s time to leave the house and go off on an adventure.  Yes, it’s time to open the boxes we place ourselves in and embrace the uncertainties that the life in God presents. After all, love is always risky. When we give ourselves fully to another, we risk being hurt. We risk being let down. And yet, this seems to be the kind of relationship God invites us to partake in. Of course, God takes a risk as well in loving us!  If nothing else the cross is a reminder of that risk! 
Now, I’ve been talking about love, but what is love? After all, there’s a difference between saying I love the Giants and the Tigers, and saying I love Cheryl! The ancient Greeks had several words that we translate as love, the most prominent being eros and agape. While the Song of Solomon was written in Hebrew, when it was translated into Greek the translators used the word agape, which we think of in terms of unconditional love. But, when we read the text, it seems as if the better word would have been eros. It’s just a guess, but I think that the translators might have been a bit skittish about using the word eros in a text like this.  

While the translators used agape, I think eros might be the better word. In thinking about the nature of love I often turn to theologian Tom Oord for guidance. He writes about the different forms of love in Scripture and in human experience. When it comes to defining the word eros, Tom suggests that it involves “acting intentionally, in response to God and others, to promote overall well-being by affirming and/or seeking to enhance value.” The key phrase is “enhance value,” which Tom suggests means that eros “affirms what is good, beautiful, and valuable, and seeks to enhance it.” [The Nature of Love: A Theologyp. 83.] 

So when the lover calls for the one he loves to come away with him, he does so because he sees something of value in the beloved. He desires to experience her company. He enjoys spending time with her. There’s no other place he’d rather be than in her arms. When we take this vision into the spiritual realm, Tom writes: “Just as God loves creation because of its value, so we ought to love others and ourselves because of the value God gives. Affirming God-given value may be one of the most important things those with a poor sense of self-worth needs” (Oord, p. 84).

When God invites us to “come away” it is because God has found value in us. God desires to be in relationship with us. If this is true, then we can affirm God’s love  by loving ourselves and loving our neighbor. We express our love for God by affirming the beauty and value that belongs to the whole of God’s creation, and by joining God in enhancing the value that is God’s creation – and doing it with passion and not just as duty!

It is as St. Teresa of Avila suggests in her meditation on the Song of Songs:
Oh, my Lord, my mercy, and my Good! And what greater good could I want in this life than to be so close to You, that there be no division between You and me: With this companionship, what can be difficult? What can one not undertake for You, being so closely joined? [Tessa Bielecki, Teresa of Avila: Mystical Writings (The Crossroad Spiritual Legacy Series)p. 156.]
We come today to worship the God who calls out to us: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Are you ready to embrace the passion of God and experience the fullness that is God’s presence?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 30, 2015
Pentecost 14B

Sunday, August 23, 2015

No House for God - Sermon for Pentecost 13B

1 Kings 8:22-30, 41-43
Having a house is a good thing. It doesn’t matter if you’re buying or renting, whether it’s big or small, it’s good to have a roof over your head. Soon we’ll be hosting SOS, and I expect that during that week many of us will pause to give thanks for our homes. Home ownership has its challenges, but it is good to have a home. 

We can give thanks that as a congregation we have a roof over our heads and a fairly comfortable space to gather for worship, for fellowship, and for study. Since this building has been around for more than thirty years, it’s easy to take this blessing for granted, forgetting that it takes a lot of resources to keep up the place. 

This morning’s reading from 1 Kings forms part of a story about a house built for God. We meet up again with Solomon, that wise king whom Susan introduced last week. He’s standing before the altar of the newly constructed Temple in Jerusalem, getting ready to deliver his prayer of dedication for the house he built for God. Maybe he did this because he was feeling guilty about living in a big house while God’s Ark rested in a tent. He had permanent lodgings, but God had to make do with an impermanent abode. So he built a Temple and now it’s time to dedicate it. Solomon stands before the altar and invites God to take notice of the building. I expect that Solomon was proud of his achievement and he hoped God would be pleased. 

Our building might not be as  big or magnificent as the cathedral Edgar Dewitt Jones built on Woodward Avenue in the 1920s, but it’s still a pretty nice house. We have an organ, a piano, a pulpit, and a table. Surely God is happy with this home we’ve built as a place to worship God. Yes, “surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.” But in his dedication prayer, Solomon raises an important question: Does God need a house? Does God even want a house?

Maybe you learned a little Sunday school exercise when you were a child. Remember how the teacher asked us to put our hands together with fingers intermingled, except the index fingers, which served as a steeple, while the thumbs served as doors. Here is the church, and when you open the doors you can see all the people. What message do you hear in that little exercise?

What I hear is that people come and go, but the buildings live on. If you’ve been to Europe you know what I’m talking about. There are lots of big churches, very old churches, that have been there for centuries. They’ll be there long after we’ve left the scene. But is this the church?  Or is the church the people whom God calls to God’s self? 

As I read this prayer this week, I noticed an interesting thing. Solomon isn’t quite sure whether he did the right thing. What I heard in this prayer was a plea to God to bless what Solomon believed was a “gift” he had offered to God. He thanked God for being a loving and covenant keeping God. After all, he stands there as a sign of God’s blessing. God had promised David an heir so that his dynasty could continue, and Solomon was the fulfillment of that promise. And while David, the warrior king, couldn’t build a house for God, Solomon was in a different position. Things in the neighborhood had quieted down. He didn’t have to go into battle like his father. Because he was a peace-time king, he could invest the “peace-dividends” to build a home for God. That’s one explanation, but I think there’s another part to the answer.

Did Solomon build God a house because God needed a home, or did Solomon decide to build a monument for himself? He knew that his father never got to build a lasting monument, but he could. Palaces are imposing, but Temples and Cathedrals are always a more important legacy. And so Solomon had a Temple built for God, but perhaps also for himself.

In reading the sermons and letters of Dr. Jones I get the feeling that part of him wanted to build a lasting monument in Detroit that would reflect his own importance to the community and the denomination. He’s not alone. I think all preachers want to leave a legacy, and that includes me. I hope that years from now people will look back to my ministry with fondness and appreciation. I may not have built a building, but I did have a pulpit built!

Still, there’s this nagging question that keeps popping up in this passage. Does God really need a house? Solomon knew the answer to that question. He says to God: “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” He knew that no house could contain God, no matter how magnificent it was, but perhaps God would take note of the Temple anyway and bless it. I hear Solomon crying out to God: Won’t you at least take a look? Won’t you own it, even if you don’t live in it? When your people gather in this space or pray toward this space, won’t you hear their prayers?  Yes, will you place your name in this place?

When I was in England, I got to worship in two cathedrals. One was large and magnificent and the other was relatively small and intimate. And even though I believe I experienced God’s presence in both spaces, I know that God can’t be contained in these sacred spaces. Still, as Choon-Leong Seow suggests of the Temple:  
“It is a place at which the needs of the petitioner coincide with the willingness of the deity to respond. The Temple is not the place where the person of God is; rather it is merely the place where God’s presence may be known, where the authority of God is proclaimed” [New Interpreter's Bible Volume III, p. 75]. 
God doesn’t live in the Temple or in this building, but God is willing to meet us  wherever we gather in the name of Jesus.  

In today’s lectionary reading from the Gospel of John, Jesus concludes a lengthy conversation about eating his flesh and drinking his blood. This conversation follows the feeding of the 5000. He tells the people that if they eat his body and drink his blood – in the signs of bread and wine – he will abide in them and they will abide in him. In answer to the question of where God is present, Jesus points to himself. If we have communion with Jesus by ingesting the elements of bread and wine, then God will abide in us (John 6:56-69).

I don’t believe that the body and blood of Jesus are literally present in the elements of bread and wine, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the Lord’s Table and its importance to our faith. Some of you may have heard that we have a task force working on a worship grant proposal. The theme we’re working with has to do with the connection of our experience of God at the Lord’s Table with our missional calling. In a recent meeting of the task force we came up with the idea of the Table being a crossroads where worship and mission come together. I see that message present in this prayer. 

Solomon not only asks God to hear the prayers of Israel, but also the prayers of the foreigner, the immigrant, the person who isn’t from Israel but who seeks God by praying toward the Temple. Solomon asks God to hear these prayers and act on them so that the peoples of the earth “may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.” (Vs. 41-43). I like what Ron Allen and Clark Williamson say about this part of the prayer. They write that “it assumes that God is the God of all peoples everywhere. Israel’s faith gave it to understand that Israel and the Gentiles were to be a blessing to each other.” (Preaching the Old Testament: A Lectionary Commentaryp. 179). This building, this Table, is not dedicated to the comforts of its inhabitants. Rather, it is a place of blessing to all, especially those who live outside the building. 

The message of Scripture is that God can’t be contained in buildings, idols, or even the earth itself. God is the God of all peoples, not just our people. And so mission and the Table intersect. For some the Table is a place of spiritual sustenance. For others it is a place of grace. For all it is a place of blessing.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
August 23, 2015
Pentecost 13B

Sunday, August 02, 2015

You're the Man -- Sermon for Pentecost 10B

2 Samuel 11:26-12:15

Last Sunday you heard the story of how King David -- who was supposed to be a righteous king and the writer of great spiritual hymns -- took a woman from her husband, raped her, and then had her husband killed to cover up the fact. Bathsheba’s husband was an honorable man who refused to share the comforts of home when his comrades were at the front fighting for the king who had stolen his wife. As I understand it, last Sunday Rick talked about power and how it can corrupt.

We human beings have this tendency, when we accumulate great power, to believe that we’re above the law. We can do whatever we want when we want, and no one can stop us. Sometimes we’re brazen about it. We don’t mind if people see us squishing the little guy. At other times we decide to project an image of uprightness to cover the dark side of our lives. After all, reputations do matter.  

Sunday, July 12, 2015

A Time to Celebrate -- Sermon for Pentecost 7B

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12-19

What religious symbols stir in you an awareness of God’s presence? Is it the communion table? The chalice and the bread that sit on the table? Is it an open Bible or a pulpit? For the people ancient Israel one of the most potent symbols of God’s presence was the Ark of the Covenant. This Ark, according to the book of Exodus, was a wooden box overlaid with pure gold. On that box sat the mercy seat and two cherubs with wings outstretched. This wasn’t a magical box, but it did represent the presence of God to the people (Exodus 25:10-22). 

In modern times this sacred symbol became the centerpiece of a popular action-adventure movie. You may have even seen this movie titled Raiders of the Lost Ark!  The setting of the movie is World War II. Adolph Hitler is trying to collect artifacts that can help empower his dreams of world conquest. One of these artifacts that he wants to find and control is the Ark, which according to the book of Hebrews contained the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar of manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded (Hebrews 9:4). 

According to the biblical story from the time of the Exodus until the time of the exile the ark accompanied the people of Israel. The question is – what happened to the Ark after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple? If you’ve watched the History Channel, you may have run across a show or two that attempts to answer the question. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and his colleagues discover the Ark in an Egyptian temple. Unfortunately, his competitor manages to steal it away from him. From there begins the chase. In the end, Indiana is captured and tied up. Fortunately for him, when his rival tries to open up the Ark and tap into its power, the divine power within destroys the enemy. If you’ve seen the movie, I need say no more! Divine retribution is visited upon those who dared to desecrate this treasure. You might say that the moral of this story is that it’s best not to mess with divine things.

In the reading from 2 Samuel David continues to consolidate his power in Israel. He set up a new capital at Jerusalem, but he needed something else to unite the people. He needed to bring God into the equation. The best way to do that was to bring the most important symbol of God’s power and presence to Jerusalem. So he gathered his soldiers together and they marched to the home of Abinidab the priest, which was where the Ark had been residing ever since the Philistines decided that the sacred relic they had captured from Saul was too dangerous to keep around. So they dropped it off just across the border at Abinidab’s house. Now it was time for the Ark to reside in a place of honor – in David’s capital – where it could serve as a symbol of national unity. 

When you bring such an important symbol to a new home, you have to have a parade. So, David had the Ark loaded on a cart pulled by a yoke of oxen. With David in the lead the people of Israel began to make their way to Jerusalem. All along the way the people celebrated “with all their strength, with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals.” In other words, they made a lot of noise.  Everything was going well until they reached the property of Obed-edom. 

The creators of the lectionary decided that it was best to skip over the events at Obed-edom’s house. In the verses we skipped over, an accident occurred and someone got killed. You see, the oxen slipped and the Ark nearly fell off the cart. One of the priests who was accompanying the Ark, a young man named Uzzah, put his hands out, touching the Ark, hoping to keep it from falling into the mud. Unfortunately for him, you’re not supposed to touch the Ark. God got mad and as the King James puts it: “God smote him for his error” (2 Sam. 6:7 KJV). When God says don’t touch, don’t touch! 

Raiders of the Lost Ark reminds us that sacred symbols carry great power, and you have to be careful handling them. There are prescribed rituals and ways of doing things, and apparently the priests didn’t follow directions in this case and tragedy struck. 

This story reveals a side of God that isn’t very attractive. This vision of God doesn’t fit very well with our confession that God is love. Surely God isn’t so petty that touching the Ark deserved a death sentence. Passages like this can cause us problems. As for David, he wasn’t too happy with what happened either, and so he decided to leave the Ark where it was. This Ark was too dangerous to be handled. 

After a bit of time passed David began to hear reports that Obed-Edom was being blessed beyond any reasonable expectation. So David decided that it was time to bring the Ark the rest of the way to Jerusalem. This time, however, David took precautions. He abandoned the cart and had priests carry the Ark as the Law prescribed. Priests placed two poles through the rings attached to the Ark, and they carried it the rest of the way to Jerusalem. Then, every six steps, David, who is wearing priestly vestments even though he’s not a priest, offered a sacrifice to God. Not only that, but he dances his way to Jerusalem. 

There is a hymn that fits this scene. We’ve not yet learned it, but it goes like this: 
        I cannot dance, O Love, unless you lead me on.
I cannot leap in gladness unless you lift me up.
From love to love we circle, beyond all knowledge grow,
for when you lead we follow, to new worlds you can show. 
  (Jean Janzen, Chalice Hymnal, 290).

Yes, David dances before the Lord. He’s in a joyful mood. He doesn’t care what people think. He may be the king, but right now, he only has God’s glory in sight. Of course not everyone is pleased by David’s behavior. His wife Michal, who was the daughter of Saul, is a bit perturbed by this display. She doesn’t think it’s dignified for the king to be dancing around in the streets. I’m sure that Michal wasn’t alone in thinking this, and she probably would have supporters in our day. For some reason, it’s easy to cast judgment on people who are seeking to enjoy the presence of God.

When David finally reached Jerusalem, he put the Ark in a tent and he offered sacrifices in thanksgiving to God. He also distributed food to the people. Everyone in the city received a loaf of bread, a date cake, and a raisin cake. This display reminds us that worship and service go together. 

When I started the sermon, I asked about which symbols help you experience the presence of God. When we think about these symbols, it’s good to remember that these ancient Israelites didn’t think that God’s presence was limited to the Ark. After all, while people do try, you can’t put God in a box.

Although people use religious rituals and symbols to manipulate God to do their will, the author of this passage will have nothing to do with such understandings. It’s not that religious symbols don’t have spiritual value, but more important is the attitude of the heart.

We don’t have an Ark of the Covenant, but we do have a Table. We set it each Sunday, placing the cross, the candles, the cup, and the bread on it. While there’s nothing special about either the bread or the juice, these symbols remind us that God is present and active in our midst. 

Eugene Peterson writes this about religious sites and occasions:
Religion – religious sites, religious occasions – is a breeding ground for joyful openness to God. We’re never wholly ourselves until we’re open before God, attending to the reality of God, responding to the action of God in us, receiving the word of God for us. Worship is the strategy by which we interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves and attend to the presence of God. [Peterson, Leap Over a Wall : Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christiansp. 152].
Where then is God moving and shaking in your life? What stirs you to celebrate the presence of God? What will cause you to dance before the Lord? What symbols will turn your head and heart so you can  celebrate in the presence of God?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
Pentecost 7B
July 12, 2015