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.