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Sermon transcript for September 21, 2014

The Problem with God
Matthew 20:1-16
Belmont UMC—September 21, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

Let me begin today with a parable from my imagination. When I was a teenager I often worked for Mr. Ellis who managed my Uncle’s farm. Mr. Ellis was a small man, who always wore overalls and his face sported stubble of beard. He was rather quiet and usually had a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth. Working with him meant long quiet days of hard labor. He had called me in the heat of late summer and asked me to help pick up hay. I was 15 years old and he was paying $10 for the 6 days and for me at that time it seemed like a lot of money.

Early on Monday morning my Granddad drove me to farm. The mowers and bailers had been there. No one else showed up to help so Mr. Ellis and I worked all day. I would hoist the bales of hay up to Mr. Ellis on the wagon and he would stack them. It’s hard work and by the end of the day my hands were blistered and my neck was sunburned. That night I dropped in bed was quickly asleep.

The next day, couple of other people showed up, poor folks in old Chevy that clanged and smoked when they pulled into the farmyard.  They were the kind of simple, country folks I grew up with—they worked hard and kept to themselves.

Two days later a immigrant family came by; the man and woman helped while one older child kept an eye on a toddler.

Another man who was somehow related to Mr. Ellis showed up on Friday. We were close to being finished, closer to payday, closer to my $60.  We always ended work at noon on Saturday—famers went to town on Saturdays. About 11 AM that day a couple of guys showed up to work—too late. They worked the hour that was left anyway.

At noon we quit work. Mr. Ellis went in his house and came out on the porch with money. The people lined up. The guy who came on Friday, the new arrivals, and the immigrant family were in front of me, and I heard each exclaim, “Wow, $60, thanks.” I was excited. I must be getting a bonus. But then came my turn and Mr. Ellis counted out 6, ten dollar bills. “What’s this?”  

“This is what we agreed on.”

“But those other people!”

“Do you begrudge my generosity? Those other people probably need the money more than you, boy.”

“It’s unfair!” (angry tears filled my eyes). I left with granddad and I did not speak on way home. At home I slammed the door of my room and threw the money on the floor. I did not go into town with friends. I pouted and sulked.” So this is just a parable, but it is a way of putting my self (ourselves) right into the story. How do we feel?

This sounds like Jesus’ parable about vineyard workers. Some worked 12 houis, some 9, some 6, some 3, and some 1 hour. All same wage—20 cents. The ones who worked all day grumbled and complained.  The vineyard owner said, “Don’t I have a right to do what I want with what belongs to me?

Jesus taught in parables. Barbara Brown Taylor says that some parables are like cod liver oil. We suspect they are good for us, but they are still hard to swallow.

In this story we have a problem with God. We are bothered by God’s generosity, God’s unwillingness to play by our rules, God’s failure to follow the link between work done and rewards given. Why, it’s the American way!!

Jonah had a similar problem with God. He fled from God because God wanted him to go to preach to Ninevites. Ninevah was the capital of Assyria, whose armies had destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Jonah ran because he had a sense that God would save the Assyrians if they repented. “That’s why I fled to Tarshish; for I knew that you were a gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” Jonah grumbled about the generosity of God.

The older brother in Luke’s parable of the Prodigal Son had a problem with his father. His younger brother had taken his inheritance and squandered it on reckless living, then he came home, to be greeted by an unreasonably generous father. He gave him a new robe, sandals, a ring, and he killed the fatted calf to throw a homecoming party for the younger son. The older brother came in from working in fields and asked, “What’s all the revelry?”  He was so angry he would not even go in the house. He said, “I’ve been here working all these years and you never even gave me a goat that I might have a party with my friends.” That’s unfair. I deserve (I’ve earned) more.

Why is God so unfair, so generous with latecomers and sinners? The first people to hear this parable had known Jesus or had been followers of the Way from beginning, and these recent converts, mostly Gentiles, some former pagans, had come along to claim their place in the church.

The context of this parable is this: Peter had said to Jesus,  “We’ve left home and livelihoods to follow you. What will we receive for our efforts?” This was followed by the Mother of James and John who asked that her sons be seated at the right and left of Jesus. Jesus offered Peter a place in his coming kingdom (the same offer he made to a thief hanging on the cross next to him—a definite latecomer), and then he told this parable. Is Jesus saying to the disciples and to us, “You will be rewarded, and so will everyone who follows.”

We are here because of the extravagant grace of God. God’s grace is extended to all of us, whether we’ve been here for 30 years or 30 minutes. While some of us might think it only fair to create a special place for latecomers, that we should be rewarded for our years of service, there should be some hierarchy or points system in the kingdom. God chooses to be equally generous to all.

The economy of God’s grace is not the same as our economy. God is extravagant with grace. Everyone is the recipient of God’s unreasonable generosity. This is not based on a trickle down economy or hierarchical divisions.

This may be a matter of where we are standing in the line or in the order of things.
Those at the front of the line feel favored, entitled. We hurry to get in line and we don’t like to have anyone break in front of us. When I was a child, I went to a day camp where we enjoyed swimming, crafts, games, and the canteen. We’d run to the canteen to get our popsicle snack. We’d run and we would push to be first in line. I liked being at the front. One day our counselor handed out the popsicles from the back of the line and we yelled, “Hey, that’s not fair!” “I’m not trying to be fair; I’m trying to hand out popsicles!”

I stood in line at the Big Box store one day, and the lady in front me turned to me and said, “You are supposed to get in front of me.”

“No, that’s fine, I’m not in a hurry (I felt uncomfortable with her offer of kindness.)

She said, “Look, I’m committed to doing acts of kindness, and you are my first act of kindness today—work with me here.”

As I was leaving, I turned to her and said, “What a great way to begin my day; may God bless you for your kindness.”

In those times of my life, when I’ve been in the back of the line or been the last to show up in the vineyard—meaning I have done nothing to earn or expect the love of God and God has said, “Hey, come up here to the front.”  I don’t gloat, “Hey, look at me.” I feel deep humility and profound gratitude.

The truth is, that is all the time and everyday. We will never earn or deserve the incredible grace of God. It is a gift from God. Like those latecomers, and all of us (including reckless younger brothers and Ninevites), God gifts us with love and grace we will never deserve. God is always saying, “Move to the front of the line.”

Could this parable be about radical hospitality? Was Jesus saying to the disciples, “Go out to the marketplace and invite laborers to join you, and say to them, ‘It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have done, or how late you arrive, God will reward you with more than you could ever earn or deserve. Come and join us as we labor in God’s vineyard.’”

This parable is not about us, but it is about God, who offers us the unreasonable and extravagant gift of love. So we can fold our arms and pout and throw our money on the floor and yell that God is not fair. Or we can throw a party and celebrate in the presence of one who loves all of us extravagantly, generously, even unreasonably.


 

Sermon transcript for September 14, 2014

“Forgiven”
Matthew 18:21-35
Belmont UMC—September 14, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

It was a bright sunny day in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, when a Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 persons. Among them was Julie Welch. Julie’s father, Bud, was devastated and he was angry. He said, “At first, I wanted Timothy McVeigh not even to have a trial, but just to die. But then I saw that I would only contribute to the circle of violence that helped produce Timothy McVeigh.” And so Bud began a journey toward forgiveness.

It’s hard to imagine forgiving such a horrific act. I recall being in a church service not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and hearing a clergy friend offer prayers of forgiveness for the attackers. I knew that this was theologically correct and it was what Jesus would have wanted us to do, but my heart was not there yet.

Bud Welch had friends who encouraged him on his path toward forgiveness. It was process within him that had begun in hatred but ended in forgiveness. He found Timothy McVeigh’s father and visited him. He saw Timothy McVeigh’s graduation photo on the mantel. He looked at the picture and he cried, realizing that here was another father on the verge of losing a child, a father with whom he had a kinship through grief. Sympathy and compassion were evoked in him. At first revenge and payback seemed the normal response but at last forgiveness became possible. (Pulpit Resource, Vol. 42, No. 3, Year A, pp. 47-48)

The text today is about forgiveness and it ends a section in the Gospel of Matthew that focuses on relationships in the community, and through this section we hear a call to be in right relationship with each other and to do all we can to foster the bonds of love.

The disciple, Peter, has been listening to Jesus and he wants Jesus to be a little more specific. So he asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive 7 times?” (v. 21)

There ought to be a limit to how many wrongs must be forgiven. Right? And in a world in which we are taught over and over again to get even, to settle the score, Jesus gives us a story about forgiveness. He is telling us today that the church, that Belmont and other churches like us, are to be communities that embrace and model the spiritual practice of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is not easy and it is often elusive. I have to confess that it’s easier for me to preach about forgiveness than to actually practice it.

Over the years we have watched what happens when people are unable to forgive another. There was an older man in one our churches who was angry all the time about something that happened, or he perceived it to have happened, several decades earlier. He did not leave the church. He stayed on to allow his angry persona to punish others. Over the years, the church members simply ignored him. Sadly, he had allowed his life to be defined by unforgiveness and it had taken a toll on his physical and emotional health.

When Kathryn and I first married we became a very young parsonage couple, serving two small churches in Montgomery County. We had some interesting neighbors, an eclectic mix of folks who had moved out our way, to the country, for extra land and for peace and quiet.

We enjoyed the neighborhood children and it wasn’t unusual for them to knock on our door for a visit. We especially adored the little girl next door named Gabi. Gabi had befriended the little girl who moved in next to their house. One day they got into a spat over something minor and they each ran home to tell their mothers. Within the hour the children were ready to apologize and get on with the business of playing together. But the mothers had called each other and exchanged some angry words. The little girls were not allowed to play together and the families remained divided the rest of our time there. We encouraged reconciliation but no one was ready. Children are better at forgiveness than adults.

Jesus tells Peter that he is to forgive, not 7 times, but 77 times, meaning, “Peter, quit trying to keep count.” And Jesus answers Peter’s question with a story about a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants. One servant who is brought before him owes an enormous sum, 10,000 talents--equal to about 1.5 billion dollars in today’s money. There is no way the servant can pay this amount so the king forgives or releases the servant from the debt.

But the servant learns little from this generous act of forgiveness. The servant finds one of his fellow servants who owed him a small sum and he threatens him, violently grabbing him by the throat and has him thrown into prison.

From this parable I am reminded that I have learned to forgive by being on the receiving end of forgiveness. I suspect if you have spent time being my friend, my parent, my spouse, my child, my sibling, or my co-worker, you have probably had to forgive me at some point along the way. I fail, I forget, I falter, I change my mind, and I make many mistakes.

I am keenly aware of how many times I’ve been forgiven. I am keenly aware of the gracious gift of God’s forgiveness in my life. If I am able to forgive another person, that forgiveness is deeply rooted in profound gratitude for the forgiveness of God and of others. And I must never take that for granted.

And in a few moments, we will pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Jesus modeled this forgiveness. He offered it unilaterally to almost everyone he encountered. He did not wait for an apology or for pleading and begging. He said, “You are forgiven.” And from the cross he offered the greatest model of forgiveness, forgiving those who would put him to death.

And if I am able to forgive, forgiveness is a gift from God. I may not find the strength in myself to do so, but God can give me strength and set me on the journey toward forgiveness.

Our friend, Bishop Rueben Job, grows weaker these days and he is unable to stand here and address us but his words will continue to teach us and make live more like Christ.

Hear these words Rueben has given us:  “Forgiveness is a life-and-death matter because forgiveness lies at the very heart of Christian belief and practice. To remove forgiveness from our theology and practice is to tear the heart out of any hope of faithful Christian discipleship, and to drive a stake through the heart of Christian community. . . .

Forgiveness is not only a preposterous gift; it is unbelievably difficult and costly. To offer forgiveness to our national enemy today will most likely be branded as unpatriotic and to extend forgiveness to another is often branded as being soft and unrealistic. But the forgiveness Jesus taught is neither soft nor unpatriotic. But it is extremely costly and laden with a mother load of grace for those who practice it.” (When You Pray, pp.189-191)

The parable reminds us that the root meaning of the word “forgive” is a word that means “release” or “let go.” The king released the servant from his debt.  It suggests letting go of something we have held onto for a long time. What is it that we hold so tightly but we need to release? We have all been wounded, abandoned, abused, and betrayed. We all need God’s grace.

I want to invite us to join in a spiritual practice this morning. I invite us to close our eyes, if we will. Clench our fists as tightly as we can. Imagine that in our clinched hands we hold onto something we have refused to let go. What is it? See it. Is it a broken relationship, anger, hatred, a deep woundedness, resentment? Let’s spend a moment being honest about our lives and what we hold so tightly.

Let’s now ask God to help us be on the journey toward forgiveness. Let’s ask God to help us let go of that which we hold so tightly. Slowly begin to open your hands as you pray and visualize releasing what is held in your hand.

This exercise does allow us to instantly experience forgiveness, but it sets us on a journey, a slow journey sometimes, a costly journey sometimes, but one that allows us to experience, in the words of Rueben Job, “the mother load of grace.”


   

Sermon transcript for August 31, 2014

Get Going    
Heather Harriss
August 31, 2014

Moses was taking care of the flock of sheep for his father in law, Jethro.  Moses led the flock out to the edge of the desert, out to the place they called God’s mountain.

The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush.  Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up.  Moses said to himself, “My day just got more interesting!”

When God saw that he had Moses’ attention, God called out from the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
Moses responded, “I’m here.”
God said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals you are standing on Holy Ground.  I am the God of your father and mother, of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel.  Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I’ve seen my people oppressed in Egypt, I’ve heard their cry of injustice, I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey.  A place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites all live.

“So Get Going.  I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites out of Egypt.”
Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
God said, “I will be with you.”
“But” Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and they ask me to tell them the name of the God who has sent me to them, what am I supposed to say?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am” So say to the Israelites, “I Am has sent me to you.”

God tantalizes Moses with this glimpse of divine presence, giving him a moment of glory shining through the driest and most barren of deserts.  However, by the conclusion Moses has more questions than answers.  He has been given a job that he has no idea how to do, he turns back to his sheep stunned by this very unexpected turn of events.

When I worked as a hospital chaplain the first thing we did when we arrived for our shift was to get report from the chaplain that was leaving.  He told me that during the night a young woman had been brought to the emergency department, she had attempted suicide, but she had survived the night.  The nursing staff thought she would be regaining consciousness this morning and they wanted a chaplain to be with her when she woke up.

Taking a deep breath, I started to her unit, the long brightly lit hallways like walking to the edge of the desert. At the nurses station they still don’t know anything about the young woman, no family has yet been identified.  Stepping into her room the clicking and beeping of the machines is in sharp contrast to her stillness. Tucked into the sheets, she sleeps on.  I put my hand on hers and slow my nervous breathing to match her steady breath in and out. As I stand, I silently pray asking, “What am I going to say? What has happened in her life that led to this?” “Who am I to be standing here?”

Her eyes open and meet mine, a spark of wonder flies between us, with surprise and delight we smile at each other awash with amazement.
A pause.  
“What should I say?”
“What should I do?”
“I’m Heather, I’m one of the chaplains here at the hospital.”
She whispers, “I am…” her throat too sore to finish,

We gaze at each other, my hand in hers, she drifts back to sleep. I leave her room having shared a moment of God’s glory.  In the midst of being inadequate to the task, in the thick of pain and despair, into our hopelessness God speaks and says, “I Am.”

We are having a summer marked by pain and despair.  Wars, border disputes, oppression and retaliation.  Our ears ring with reports from the Ukraine, Russia, Iraq, Syria and ISIS, Palestine and Israel, and more. In our own country we are reeling from the events in Ferguson, Missouri stunned by the depth of racism that continues to exist in our nation. We are overwhelmed, paralyzed by fear, by guilt by having no idea what to do. Like Moses we wonder, “Who am I to go?”
We are saddened by the death of Robin Williams, reminded that the ravages of mental illness are just as debilitating and lethal as those of physical illness. In the face of such overwhelming loss and endless needs, we seek order in the chaos.  We attempt to quantify needs, match resources, narrow the focus and find ourselves at the edge of the desert, where the flame of fire in the middle of a bush reminds us suffering is suffering.
God says to Moses, “I’ve seen my people oppressed in Egypt.  I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters.  I know about their pain.” Seeing the injustice, seeing the pain, what does God do?  God says, I’ve come down to rescue them, to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hiites and the Jebusites all live.  And how is God going to do this?  He says to Moses, “Get Going.”  

Moses does not want to get going.  We like Moses have unlimited reasons to not get going.  We’re tired, weary, too busy, We’re afraid,  doing just fine, thank you very much.  We’re judgmental, we don’t have an opinion, we’re angry, sad.  too shy, too overbearing, too loud, too timid…it’s pretty easy to keep going with these.  But to each of our protests, God says, “I will be with you.” And Moses says, and we say, “But…”
God says, “I Am.”
Get Going.
If we want a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites the Perizzites the Hittites all live, you can substitute here the groups of people you feel it will be the biggest challenge to live together, it is time to get going.

Recently as a church we went through a very lengthy and involved strategic planning process.  A huge effort was made to get input from as many individuals and ministries as possible to help us discern as a faith community what God is calling us to do now.  As a staff member, I have a confession to make.  I was counting on ONE clear purpose to emerge.  I wanted one initiative towards which we would put all of our collective prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  I thought this made perfect sense, it is logical, other churches do this to great effect.  I was praying that we were going to get clarity on the one ministry Belmont is called to in this time and place.  

This was not the outcome!  Guess what, the process to discern our strategic plan revealed, not only is Belmont not called to focus on one ministry, we are called to be engaged in many varied and diverse ministries, and we are a congregation that is also called to start new ministries.  In the collective wisdom of this body, our strategic plan has provided us with the map we need to be the church in this time and in this place.
We are amazingly blessed here at Belmont, because you need to look no further than the person beside you to learn a new way to get going.  In our community of faith, we have members who are making a difference in the world, in countries in Africa; Congo and Malawi; in Mexico. In our community through tutoring programs, Project Transformation, the SEE Program, Our ministries of nurture, Homebound Visitors, Care Partners Faith Companions and the Alzheimer’s Dementia Caregivers Support group. Ministries of transportation, of fellowship and hospitality and welcome.  Sitting beside you is someone who advocates for positive change in our local systems and in our global community.  In front of you is a Sunday school teacher, a choir director, a partner in ministry to our youth.  Behind you is a greeter, a collector an usher, a preparer, a storyteller.

In the crackle and hiss of a burning bush God speaks to us and says, “I Am.” In the chaos of revolution when we hear the steady beat for justice, we hear God say, “I Am” In the embrace of another in a time of grief, God sighs, “I Am.”

Like Moses, when we experience the mystery of God’s presence, at the edge of the desert, God tells us to get going, to enter into the fray.  When we worry that we are inadequate to the enormous task before us, God says, “I will be with you.” We are God’s people, rescued from the wilderness, let us have eyes that see flaming bushes, ears that hear, “I Am.” And hearts and minds ready to get going.

May it be so, AMEN

   

Sermon transcript for August 24, 2014

Be Transformed
Romans 12:1-21
Belmont UMC—August 24, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

It was the first Administrative Board meeting at the new church to which I had been appointed. There was the usual business and reports given at Board meetings. And then someone made a motion that we have the Pepsi machine in the fellowship hall removed and replaced with Coca Cola machine. The discussion that proceeded was heated and had been going on for almost 45 minutes, when someone said, “Let’s ask the new pastor and see what he thinks.”

The new pastor did not drink colas very much and the new pastor had been sitting there thinking, “This discussion is ridiculous and I doubt it’s about Coke or Pepsi but about a church that has lost its way and has other underlying tensions. What have I gotten myself into?”

Everyone turned toward me and I smiled and stood up. I said something like, “I’m a little concerned that we have spent so much time talking about something that has little to do with our mission as a church. You are very fine people so I’m going to suggest that I offer a prayer and that we adjourn and all go home and talk to Jesus about what it means to be a church.” The place grew quiet. I prayed and everyone walked sheepishly to their cars.

Over the next months we began each board meeting with a reading of Romans 12. We read from different versions and I offered a time of centering around portions of the chapter. It helped us to focus on our true identity as followers of Jesus and as a community of faith.

The chapter begins with a call to give our lives to God and to find transformation in the process. I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases the opening verses, “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you:  Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him (God). . . . You’ll be changed from the inside out.”  (The Message)

When we give our lives to God without reservation, it changes us, it transforms us. It changes the way we think about God, about the world and all those who are in community with us. We see things through a new lens, God’s lens.

After the opening paragraph of Romans 12, Paul paints a picture of what this transformed church looks like. We prefer our image of what church should look like.
We carry around an image of the perfect church and there are lots of folks who have been shopping for the perfect church for a long time.
We have acquaintances who always like to tell us about the church they are attending. It’s always the best church, but it’s always a different church from the last one they told us about.

Who among you has left church on Sunday and said, “I wish they would. . .” I wish they would sing the hymns I like best. I wish Ken’s sermons were twice as long. I wish they’d put a cappuccino machine in the foyer. I wish the church could be more entertaining, less demanding. The Properties Committee wishes for a building where nothing ever breaks or needs updating. The Finance Committee wishes the offerings were so large that meetings were held to discuss ways to deal with the surplus in a responsible way.

Pastors have their own ideas of the perfect church. Some of my friends in the Holston Conference asked me to transfer to their Conference in East Tennessee. I said, “Tell your Bishop to find me a church that pays well, has a light work load and is located near hiking trails and waterfalls.” That was a decade ago and I never heard back from them.

I suspect we’ve made an idol of the Perfect Church. Our images of the Perfect Church are often exclusionary and self-interested.

Paul describes a church that is not perfect but is transformed into a new way of being. It is a place where each person discovers their gifts of ministry and uses them for the glory of God and the good of the community.

Again Peterson’s paraphrase, “If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else. If you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching, if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aide to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face.”

And this new transformed community embraces a new way of treating each other and a new way of relating to the world around us. This transformed church is a place of authentic love—no pretending—and out of that love flows mutual affection for one another. In chapter 13 the encouragement is to “owe no one anything except to love one another.” It sounds simple but it requires a transformation to a new way of seeing and being. Paul does not say that we have to agree with one another, but we must love one another with genuine love.

We live out that love by honoring one another—yielding to our pet agendas, not being afraid to play second fiddle (The Message), remembering that second fiddles can still make beautiful music.

The transformed church is a place where people have a firm grasp on what is good and right and just. The do not give up easily when they are serving God and God’s purposes.

It is a place of prayer and hope, a place where we try hard to make sure no one is lacking anything—we help each other during times of need.

Adam Kelchner and I visited with the principal of Eakin Elementary School on Thursday. Dr. Tim Drinkwine seems like a fine person who cares about the students of his school. When one of the students was acting out on Monday morning, he brought him into his office and talked with the young boy. He discovered the boy’s problem—he had gone home on Friday to a place where there was nothing to eat for two days. We are going to partner with this school and help Eakin fill their food pantry so they can send food home with children in need on Fridays.

The transformed church is empathetic. We rejoice at celebrations and weep with each other in times of sadness. We sacrifice for each other when homes are burned or flooded. We invite you to be members of our family, especially when your family lives far away.

The transformed church has a new way of interacting with the world. We are hospitable with strangers. We bless our enemies. We do all we can to live in peace and harmony with one another. We avoid retaliation. We take the high road of good, not the low road of evil.

So the church that argued over Pepsi versus Coke began to see their role in the world in a new way. They began to love each other again with authentic love. They laughed more and joy in being together. They began to look beyond their walls and seek places of service. They started to let go of their personal agendas and ask where God was calling them as a church.

Today, I invite each of us to take our every day, ordinary lives, and give them to God without reservation. Are we willing to do that? If so, we need to brace ourselves for change!

   

Sermon transcript for August 17, 2014

Have Mercy on Me, Lord
Matthew 15:10-28
Belmont UMC—August 17, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

If we were reading today’s Gospel text like we were reading good fiction and we came to the words, “Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon,” we would brace ourselves for what would come next. These words introduce us to a turning point and we would know that some shift in the story was about to occur. Jesus has moved into the land of Canaanites, Gentiles, outsiders. Jesus has gone where he has not gone before.

Sure enough, in this new land Jesus encounters a woman and we are given this odd and perplexing interchange in today’s lectionary reading. Smart pastors who are preaching from the lectionary today read this and decided to preach from the Genesis passage where we find a nice story of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. But I was drawn to this passage, this passage that leaves us scratching our heads and wondering.

In this land Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman who comes to him and begs him to heal her daughter. She pleads with him to have mercy on her and her daughter. “Show me mercy!”  “Have mercy on me!” It is a prayer that is repeated throughout the Gospels. It is the prayer we pray when we cannot think of other words. It is the prayer we pray at the point of our greatest vulnerability. We sing this prayer, “Kyrie eleison!”--words found in ancient Greek language of the Bible. It is the prayer I use in the middle of the night and when my thoughts are racing and I cannot go to sleep. It becomes a breath prayer, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on _________.” I let names come to the surface of my thoughts and I say the name. Some of those names are your names, some are names I haven’t thought of for a long time and I wonder why they are given to me at 2 AM, but I know we all need the mercy of God. A Canaanite woman needs mercy!

And the woman calls Jesus, “Son of David,” the name reserved for one who is the Messiah. It is surprising throughout the Gospel stories that the Gentiles, the physically ill, the outcasts and even the demons know who Jesus is but the disciples seem clueless to his identity. He has to be impressed by her words.

But he does not answer her. She is shouting; he is silent. And the disciples want him to respond by sending her away. He responds, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He tells the disciples something like this in chapter 10, also. The sheep of Israel may be lost but they don’t act like they want to be found.

Jesus draws a line. It appears to be a line between who is in and who is out. This surprises us because we see Jesus crossing lines all the time. It surprises us because he has walked intentionally into Canaanite land and seems surprised to encounter a Canaanite. Canaanites are considered unclean outsiders.

Or maybe he draws a line because he needs a break. People have been very demanding. Everywhere he and the disciples have gone and Jesus’ reputation has preceded him, the crowds, the needy crowds show up and they can’t catch a break.

I mentor young clergy and I often say to them to set boundaries, take a day off, and seek places of Sabbath. I feel hypocritical sometimes because I’m better at saying it than I am at doing it. We need rest. We need space to recoup our energy and prepare ourselves for ministry. We need to turn off the phone and walk in the woods. We need quiet places.

But I also tell these young clergy that sometimes the phone rings and you have to go, because the needs trump your boundaries and your need for rest. When that phone call comes, most of us do not think twice about heading out the door.

Jesus draws a line but the woman is persistent. She kneels in front of him and pleads, “Lord, help me!” The woman, the outsider, the outcast, knows Jesus, and knows he can help her.

Then Jesus says what we wish he had not said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did he really call her a “dog?” It wasn’t unusual for Gentiles to be called dogs, but it was an insult.

She is undeterred because this is about a sick child, her sick child. I recall that Oscar winning scene in the movie, Terms of Endearment, where the character played by Shirley McClain asks for pain medication for her daughter, who is dying of cancer. She is told that it’s not time for the medication and the mother goes into a tirade so fierce the nurses give in. We do that for our children.

She responds, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” “Just a crumb then--I’ll take a crumb.”

Then something happens, something shifts. We can feel it happening, even if we don’t fully understand it. It’s the shift that happens when the compassion of God clicks into place and we begin to feel differently and see differently all that is going on around us.

Steven Covey used to tell a story to describe a paradigm shift. He was on a train heading out of New York City. A man with three small children got on the train the children were terribly unruly and they were running round bothering people. The man sat with his head down, ignoring the behavior of his children. Finally, Covey said something like, “Sir, you may want to attend to your children; they are bothering people.”

And the man said, “I’m so sorry. We just came from the hospital. My wife died suddenly today and I’m trying to take it all in.” And the man began to weep.

Steven Covey said he went from begin irritated to feeling deep compassion for the man and his children. He put his arm around the man and tried to comfort him.
Some scholars have suggested that this story represents a huge shift in Jesus’ ministry. This Canaanite woman appeals to something deep inside of him and he is pulled across the line by the compassion of God. He tells the woman, “Your faith is great.” And he heals the woman’s daughter.

This story would have been important to the early church and to those Gentiles and Canaanites and outsiders who became a part of the church. It is interesting that Matthew includes this story in a Gospel that was written for Jewish Christians. It is a clear call to erase the lines we have drawn around us. And at the end of this Gospel we hear Jesus call the disciples to go out and make disciples of all nations.

In the passage that precedes this story, Jesus reframes the boundaries of what is clean and unclean. Jesus declares that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and what comes out of the heart determines what makes one clean. What comes out this woman’s heart is faith—faith that Jesus has the power and compassion to heal all of Israel and enough to save her Gentile daughter, as well.

We draw lines around our lives whether we admit it or not. We make assumptions about who is in and who is out. We’ve watch those lines form around racial tension in Ferguson, Missouri this week. The hatred and violence soared out of control. Then one man, Captain Ron Johnson of the Highway Patrol, took off his flak jacket and helmet and crossed the line, walking into the community and was embraced by the residents there. And for a time the tensions eased and all of humanity felt a little healed.

During this season let us remember that we journey with a God who is in the business of entering new territory and breaking down boundaries and this calls us to the same work. We hear God calling us to the welcome the outsiders and offer them, not just a crumb, but a place at our table.

Hear this call to serve by Barbara Brown Taylor:
“Let go! Step out! Look a Canaanite in the eye, knock on a strange door, ask an outsider what his life is like, trespass an old boundary, enter a new relationship, push a limit, take a risk, give up playing it safe! You have nothing to lose but your life the way it has been, and there is lots more life where that came from. And if you get scared, which you will, and if you get mad, which you probably will too, remember today’s story. With Jesus as our model—and our Lord—we are called to step over the lines we have drawn for ourselves, not because we have to, and not because we ought to, or even because we want to, but because we know that it is God’s own self who waits for us on the other side.”
(The Seeds of Heaven, “Crossing the Line,” p. 67)


Petition prayer for Ferguson
written by Rev. Matt Miofsky, lead pastor at The Gathering UMC in St. Louis, MO.

Call & Response Prayer

For those who have seen their lives torn apart by violence of all kinds           
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For the family of Michael Brown, his friends and his community. For all those who grieve the loss of life tragically ended.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who believe the only response to violence is more violence,
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those people of faith willing to step out and to lead in times of trouble.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who look at a situation from a distance, neglecting to get involved or too easily passing judgment.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those in positions of power who work for reconciliation and justice.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who hold places of authority but have abused that power towards unjust ends,
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For the people of Ferguson and of St. Louis, city and county—north and south, east and west,
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

And for us, Lord—your body the church, that we may be agents of your reconciliation, peace and justice.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.  Amen.

   

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