Opening the Doors of Welcome -- Sermon for Pentecost 8A
Did you see the article in Tuesday’s Free Press about Rippling Hope? Although neither the Michigan Region nor Central Woodward was mentioned, we can read ourselves into it. That’s because Carl Zerweck told the reporter that a couple of pastors from the area invited Rippling Hope to come to Detroit. That happened four years ago, and those pastors were Eugene James and me. The reason why Rippling Hope made the paper and the Channel 7 news was because it was joining up with Arise Detroit’s Neighborhood Day.
Yesterday, I spent much of the day in Detroit, along with Diana Payton, David McCormick, and Kevin Murnaghan – an Irish co-worker of David’s who is on temporary assignment from the company headquarters in Germany. We joined the Rippling Hope contingent doing some painting, gutter cleaning, yard cleaning, and caulking of windows. David, Kevin, and I worked on Mr. Zachary’s porch. It needed quite a bit of work, and while we didn’t get it finished, Mr. Zachary was excited about what his porch was going to look like in the not too distant future. He even told us that his neighbors were thinking that maybe they should do some painting also.
The block club president told us that because of the work of Rippling Hope, people in the neighborhood had begun to believe that they could make a difference. Yes, with groups like Arise Detroit and Rippling Hope, there are signs that Detroit is on the rise again. We didn’t have a large group yesterday, but we were one of more than 200 groups doing everything from yard clean up to offering children’s programs.
This morning’s reading from Romans 9 may look like a lament. Paul is grieving because his own people aren’t hearing his message. Although they have all the gifts and blessings of God, they’re not receiving his message of the Messiah, who is over all.
This lament comes right after Paul closes Romans 8 with a crescendoing declaration of thanksgiving for the love of God.
Nothing, neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37-38).
Paul might be grieving at that moment, but he’s also confident that in the end God’s love will prevail.
The story of Detroit is a good illustration of Paul’s point. Many believe that Detroit’s best days are behind it. The future – to them – looks bleak. But there are others who believe that Detroit will rise from the ashes. There are a growing number of people who can see something new taking place. It’s not just in downtown or midtown or along the river front, though much is happening there. The visionaries in our midst can see signs of new life out in the neighborhoods as well. That’s where Rippling Hope is working.
Of course, if you drive around the city, you will still see blight. You’ll see abandoned homes and lots filled with garbage. But you will also see homes with newly painted porches and cleaned up lots. Across the city neighborhood groups and their partners are standing tall and taking back the land. While the bankruptcy and the water shut-offs get the news – especially outside the area – we can help tell a different story. It’s a story that is expanding every year. It’s a story in which we have a part.
In Romans 9-11 Paul focuses his attention on God’s desire to open the door of welcome to the Gentiles. This has always been God’s plan. Through Isaac, Abraham’s descendants would be named, and these descendants would be the bearers of God’s blessings to the nations. There was resistance to this vision, among Paul’s people, but he could see the bigger picture. Even as Israel would be saved, so would the nations. It was Paul’s belief that God is seeking to heal the breach between Jew and Gentile. As Paul writes in the Galatian letter, the walls of separation between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free have been torn down (Galatians 3:28).
We humans can get impatient. When things don’t seem to be going well, we lose hope. But, Paul has a word for us. In verse 6 he writes that “it is not as though the word of God had failed.” When things look dark; when things look hopeless; stand on the promises of God.
The reason Paul grieved for his people, is that they had – in his view – forgotten their calling. They had let their institutions become an idol. The institution had become an end rather than a means. The same thing can happen to the church. We can make the church the end, rather than the means of God’s mission.
While this is true, we’re also living at a time when people are questioning institutions. It’s not the first time in history, and it won’t be the last. Because there is a sense of discontent about the value of our institutions – from the church to government – it might be a good time to think about the nature and purpose of the church. It’s a good time to ask whether our congregation is living out its calling.
Down through history, whenever faith communities get stuck and begin to focus their attention on preserving the institution, the Holy Spirit ignites a new movement that gets the ball rolling again. My friend Diana Butler Bass wrote about this in her most recent book – Christianity After Religion. In that book she speaks of a new movement of the Spirit that is bursting at the seams of the church and pushing the church out in new directions.
What is happening today has happened before. Think about St. Francis and the Franciscans, which challenged the status quo. And when it got overly institutionalized, new movements emerged from within it. The Reformation was another movement that pushed boundaries. When those communities got overly institutionalized new movements – like John Wesley and the Methodists or our own Stone-Campbell Movement – emerged.
We can resist the Spirit’s work, but can’t box in the Holy Spirit. So maybe it’s better to cooperate than resist! After all, in the end, God’s love will win.
I believe that what we’re doing in Detroit is an expression of God’s work in the world. It’s an expression of bridge-building – something the Spirit of God is good at – connecting this congregation to its roots in the city. It’s not our name. It’s not the furniture in the room. It’s the work we’re doing now in partnership with groups like Rippling Hope and MCC that connects us to the work that began almost a century ago in Detroit.
The nature of our work today, however, is different from the previous century. The context is different. We’re living in a Post Christian World – to borrow from the title of a new book by Christian Piatt. When we look out into the future, we don’t know where it will take us. We don’t know what the world will look like a decade or a century from now. But this new world offers us new opportunities to walk with the Spirit and live out the message of God’s kingdom. As Christian Piatt, who is a Disciple serving in ministry with his wife Amy, the pastor of First Christian Church of Portland, puts it:
Our business is to seek with an open heart and eager mind, every day, what it is that we have been created to be. We will screw it up, more than once, to be sure. We will hurt one another in the process. We will have our hearts broken, our fingers stepped on, and at times it will seem as if we’re on the outside of it all. We will feel like we’re stumbling around in an empty room, surrounded by four unforgiving walls. [Post Christian: What's Left? Can We Fix It? Do We Care? p. 205]
And yet, as Christian reminds us, “every so often, when the fog lifts and our path is clearly laid out before us, we take a step, maybe two, and ask, with every tentative move ‘What’s next?’”
And that is the way it is for us – when the fog clears, we can begin to see a pathway ahead. When we see this path, we continue our journey. We do this, not because we’ve built a great institution. We do this because God has adopted us as God’s children. Therefore, to us has been given all the gifts and the covenants, which we share in partnership with, the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah and Rachel. Having received this calling, let us stand on the promises of God and join with the Spirit of God in opening doors of welcome to all those who would come in and share this life with us.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
August 3, 2014