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Sermon transcript for November 16, 2014

“Entrusted With the Gifts of God”
Matthew 25:14-30
Belmont UMC—November 16, 2014
Ken Edwards

We recently had a call from the broker who manages a modest IRA account for us. She likes to ask what our risk tolerance is. Can we make high risk investments without staying awake at night? Are we more comfortable with a lower risk and possibly lower yield investment?     

As I read this parable again I reflected on a few years back to 2008. I had been here about a year and the church had borrowed money to build the Community Center and to update this building. There was construction noise and dust everywhere and the stock market was going down dramatically. I’m sure the Belmont folks wondered if the new pastor was bad luck or they wondered why they would have a pastoral change in the midst of a building program and a global economic crisis. At that time we seem to have been entrusted with a lot of responsibility but the results were out of our control.

Jesus’ parable is about a rich and powerful master making the necessary arrangements for a long trip. He calls three servants together and gives them portions of his property depending on their abilities. He is entrusting everything he has to them.

This is a stunning thing for a master to do and he is treating the servants with unusual and surprising honor and respect. He offers them different measures of talents or  valuable coins. A talent is a huge measure of wealth. Charles Bartow writes, “There is a master who turns over to his slaves enough of his own wealth to scare half to death even the most confident Wall Street money manager.” (God’s Human Speech p. 154 quoted in Pulpit Resource, Oct-Dec, 1999, p. 28) A talent was worth between 5,000-6,000 denarii or about 15 years of wages. The amount for which they assumed responsibility was enormous. It was like a CEO mega bonus.

Jesus said two of the slaves took their money and doubled it. But the one slave, the one who was given only one talent, buried it in the ground. This was not unusual for the time. There was a long-standing rabbinic tradition that anyone who buried money in the ground is no longer liable for its safety. He had taken the safe, prudent course of action. Upon the return of the master, two slaves were rewarded with more and received the joyful affirmation of the master. The one slave lost everything and received the harsh judgment of the master.

This text in the lectionary cycle comes to us every third year in the fall of the year, at the time when many churches are conducting stewardship campaigns. It often gets tied to those well used stewardship sermons about using our talents. I’ve preached a few of those sermons myself. But this parable is about more than that—more than using the talents God has given us. It’s about what we do with all that God has given us—like a master who entrusts everything to the servants. It’s about our entire response to God’s incredible generosity.

God has entrusted us with so much--with the grace and love of God, with the powerful message of good news, with the work of the kingdom, with many gifts for service, with resources to share with others, with the resources of creation and the environment, with the gift of God’s self in the life of God’s son, with time and energy, with strength, courage, and resolve to serve and with the gift of the church, our community of faith friends. It sounds like a thanksgiving litany as we name all that God has entrusted to us.

And the reality of these gifts with which God has entrusted us, compels us to respond, summons us out of our complacency and comfort zones to use what we’ve been given. How can we do anything other than respond?

But some respond by playing it safe! People play it safe because they are afraid. They bury their heads, hearts, hands and the gifts of God in the sand. Fear paralyzes them and undermines the accountability that God wants from them. They don’t respond to being entrusted with the gifts of God because they are afraid of failure.

There is an old saying in baseball that “you can’t be charged with an error unless you touch the ball.” Some are afraid to touch the ball.

I’ve known churches that were afraid to respond to what God had entrusted to them. It’s too risky and they rest on their past achievements, lose their spiritual vitality, institutional maintenance is about all they can muster and begin to die. I’ve challenged churches to quit ringing their hands in fear and take some risks. When those churches said, “You’re right!” and began to take risks, then I was afraid we would fail. It is human nature.

The church is to be about the work of Jesus and the work of Jesus is often not safe or comfortable work. The work of Jesus will create some tension and it will seem fearful at times, but it is the work to which we are called.

In the 1960’s Connell Memorial faced the issue of racism head on. The pastor at the time was a civil rights activist and planned to go to the march on Washington. Many of the well-heeled members were angry asked for a meeting. They planned to leave the church if they did not get their way. Older members told me how afraid they were, but agreed that they must be faithful to the equality of all persons. At the meeting, the faithful would not back down, and the well-to-do members left the church. But God had faithfully blessed the church by the time I arrived many decades later. They believed that God had blessed them because they had used what was entrusted to them.

People play it safe because they have underestimated the value of the gift of God. Only one coin? Better play it safe! But Matthew’s parable is about the enormity of each coin—everyone is given a lot. We live with that scarcity mentality. We are the culture that looks into a full pantry and finds nothing to eat. We look into a full closet and find nothing to wear.

We forget what God can do with willing hearts. We forget who has entrusted us with these gifts. We forget what God can do with a few loaves and fishes. We forget what God can do with fishermen, tax collectors, and everyday folks who were given the responsibility as Christ’s followers.

People play it safe because they have become complacent.
This parable may be another jab at the complacency of Israel. Jesus is trying to drive his hearers out of a spirit of complacency, because complacent people accomplish very little. The status quo is not enough for the followers of Jesus Christ. It is not enough for this Christian community. We must move beyond being satisfied with things as they are or as they have always been.

Bishop Willimon has written about the Grimke sisters of South Carolina, courageous ante-bellum anti-slavery activists and leaders of the early women’s movement in America. The two sisters grew up in privileged household in Charleston, South Carolina. They were raised to be cultured, but uninvolved upper class ladies. The great challenge in Angelina Grimke’s life came when she heard this parable read in church. She went home, sat in her chair and asked herself, “What have you done with the talents committed to your care?” That question led her to a dramatic change in her life, a change which helped transform a nation.    

The last line of this parable is surprisingly harsh.
It alludes to the judgment of outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth. When we read this in our staff meeting, we said, “Wow!” It’s hard to remember anything else about the parable. Jesus seems very harsh with the little guy who got only one talent.

But the real shocker is the first line. “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. . .” Who would entrust slaves with everything? It is the surprise of grace!



As we make our financial commitments….as we prioritize our ministries…as we seek to be faithful in loving God and one another let us imagine communities where all God’s children are cherished, honored, and loved; where all God’s children are fed and clothed and live in safe homes; where all God’s children experience and know the love of Jesus Christ.

 

Sermon transcript for November 9, 2014

“When God Comes”
Matthew 25:1-13
Belmont UMC – November 9, 2014
Ken Edwards

There are signs along the highway that read, PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD!  We probably read those signs as something ominous, like a God of judgment who is going to sweep down in a great moment of wrath. The bold letters of the signs convey urgency and warn us that God is coming, but the signs are true. If we believe that God is coming into our lives, more in moments of grace than anger, will we be prepared to meet God, to greet God, to welcome the God who wants to come into our lives?

“Prepare to meet thy God” could be the theme of this interesting little parable in Matthew. The Gospel paints a picture of a Middle Eastern wedding at the time of Jesus. We aren’t sure about all the customs of these weddings, but it is often assumed that these were events that took place over several days and involved the whole community. Weddings and wedding feasts are found throughout the teachings and stories of the Gospels.

It was the job of the bridesmaids to attend to the bride until the groom came for her. Although someone was supposed to come into the street and shout, “The Bridegroom is coming!” it was not known when that would happen. The wedding could take place at any time and part of the fun was the surprise.

In the story there are 10 bridesmaids, 5 who are ready with oil in their lamps and 5 who have run out of oil. Five wise bridesmaids who were prepared with extra oil and five who were foolishly ill prepared. In Vacation Bible School we used to sing, “Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning, burning, burning—burning until the break of day.”

This eschatological story reminds us that the people of the early church were preoccupied with the coming of the Lord, which they believed to be eminent. They wanted to be ready and many were weary of waiting for this anticipated event. Many were suffering persecution; many saw Christ’s coming as relief from their present suffering. Many scholars believe that this story arose out of the early church’s need for patience and preparation.

There are many people today who are preoccupied with the second coming of Christ, the parousia. Jesus was expected to return on a particular day in 1988. Books were written about it; people gathered to wait. Jesus did not return. When I was a young Christian, so many people were talking about this that I read the Revelation of John before I read the Gospels. I thought “I need to know more about this.” I must confess that I was much more confused after reading the Revelation of John.

But most of us are not sitting around wondering about the second coming, and we wonder to what to make of these stories for our modern age. The truth is the stories still speak a powerful word about being prepared, not so much for that Great Day of the Lord but for the times when God comes into our lives in moments of wonder and grace.

PRACTICES
A few years ago we began asking two questions: Where did you see God at work? Where is God calling you? Simple questions, but the first assumes that we believe that God is coming into our lives in profound ways. Or that God is always at work in our lives and we must learn to see it. Many groups in our church, including our youth, staff and many of our committees have begun to follow the practice of beginning or ending meetings with these simple questions. Our staff now reflects on where we see God at work in the  realm of our core values of diversity, hospitality, mission and nurture.

“How do we know when God comes?” someone asks recently. For me this has meant learning to be attentive, attentive to the moment, and this is an ongoing learning experience. I’m distracted. On my morning walks I’ll plan to focus on one thing, like the sounds of birds or the variations of red colors in autumn leaves. I’m good for about two blocks, then I start wonder if I locked the back door, or turned off the coffee pot or returned an email that came two days earlier. As Christians we have begun to incorporate spiritual practices that help us to be attentive to the moment. The Quakers call this the state of “all-thereness,” living fully in the moment God has given us, giving ourselves fully to the moment. The foolish bridesmaids were not there at all. And much of the time we are not either—we are focused on the next thing or we are distracted.

I attended a meeting that Bishop Carder was hosting, a large group had assembled. In the back of the room sat a woman with a young child, a child who was at the age when children learn to make little sounds with their voices. The little one was making sweet sounds, not angry or sad sounds, and Bishop Carder stopped and asked us all to listen. “Listen to that little one,” he said. He did not ask the woman to leave or ask her to quiet her child. He said, “My friends, that sound is the sound of God.” He turned what could have been a distraction into a sacred moment.

Practices such as centering prayer, quiet reflection, prayerful meditation, lectio divina, Sabbath keeping, and spiritual journaling have sharpened our skills of attentiveness in a hectic and busy world.

DEEDS OF LOVE AND MERCY
The oil or “having oil” represents deeds of love and mercy in our allegorical story as it often does in Hebrew literature. We experience the presence of God in acts of love and mercy. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, counted deeds of love among the means of grace, or means by which we experience God’s grace. (Wesley named other means of grace, such as the sacraments, study of scripture, Christian conferencing, giving alms, etc.) He believed that we always experience God’s grace and presence when we serve the needs of others.  How many times have experienced God while offering ourselves in service to God?

Room in the Inn began on Friday night here at Belmont. We welcomed homeless guests into our church for a warm meal and a warm place to sleep. We believe that those who welcomed the homeless were welcoming God into their presence.

EXPECTATIONS
I think this has a lot to do with living with expectation. Expect God to come into your life with wonder and grace!

When we have those experiences they surprise us like a bridegroom coming in the night. Recently, I was speaking with some friends who had returned from a two week retreat, focused on Mindful Practices. They said, “It was an amazing time. We are always talking about being in the present moment. And when we experienced it on retreat we thought, ‘so this is what we’ve been talking about.’ It surprised us.”

When I was in seminary I led a Bible study at the home of our pastor. We were part of a new church and we held home Bible studies on Wednesday evenings all over town. There was a woman who came to our Bible study and one night she was deeply distressed when she arrived. At one point she began to cry. She confessed to being depressed and troubled and I offered to pray for her. When I prayed, persons got up out of their chairs and circled her and put their hands on her shoulders. After our prayer she confessed to feeling such blessed relief that it surprised her—and us as well. We certainly were not prepared for God to answer prayer so quickly.

I have enjoyed the writing of Reynolds Price. I’ve read most of his novels. But in his autobiographical book, A Whole New Life, he writes of a vision of meeting Jesus, Jesus baptizing in the Jordan, a vision that Reynolds was given one night during the depth of his bout with cancer. In the vision Price is invited into the Jordan where Jesus poured water over his spine, the place where cancer had been located. He always wrote and spoke of this vision with a kind of certitude that surprised people. I recall hearing him interviewed by Terri Gross, on NPR’s Fresh Air. She asked Price the obvious question, “How did you know it was Jesus?” Price answered, “I recognized him from his pictures.”

He said he was once questioned about the vision in a New York television program. He answered, “Look, I’m from North Carolina. Maybe that explains it. When you grow up in that part of the world, you just naturally get the impression that Jesus cares about you and that one day he will get to you. So, I just thought to myself, ‘Well, here it is.’ I was ready for it, being from North Carolina.”

Should we not live in a spirit of expectation--expectation of the coming of God into our lives? Fred Craddock said, “All of my life I wake each morning with the possibility of being surprised, not only in my own life, but in the life of someone I had not even noticed. God is working now and so am I.”  (Craddock Stories, p. 77)
God is coming. Prepare to meet thy God!



As we make our financial commitments….as we prioritize our ministries…as we seek to be faithful in loving God and one another let us imagine communities where all God’s children are cherished, honored, and loved; where all God’s children are fed and clothed and live in safe homes; where all God’s children experience and know the love of Jesus Christ.

   

Sermon transcript for November 2, 2014

“Remember”
Matthew 5:1-12; 1 John 3:1-3
All Saints Sunday—November 2, 2014
Belmont UMC—Ken Edwards, preaching

Sometimes a sermon begins with one word and the preacher lives with that word for some time before it forms the words of a message to be delivered. As I thought about this service today, the word that drifted through my thoughts over the last few weeks is “remember.”

“Remember” has a different meaning to me as I age a bit and I find myself trying to remember simple things. I walk into the utility room to get something but once there I cannot remember what it was. As soon as I leave the utility room in frustration the item pops into my mind. I cannot remember the name of the book I recently read, much less the author and I find this frustrating.

The idea of remembering has a different meaning in today’s culture. Four years ago this Thanksgiving, my grandmother died at the age of 102. Her childhood friend and former Belmont pastor, Reverend Farris Moore, and I spoke at her funeral. Farris grew up at a time when people memorized long passages of poetry and scripture. At the time of the funeral, Farris was close to being 101 years of age. His eyesight had grown weak over the years and he could no longer see the words in his Bible and he was physically weak. Before the service began, Farris asked me what texts I was using for the message and he proceeded to quote several chapters of scripture and a couple of poems from memory. He always amazed me in that way.

In ancient culture the narrative of the people was carried in memory and told and retold. I recall that closing scene in the book Roots, by Alex Haley, a story that has its roots in the tribes of Africa. Haley chronicles his family from the time of slavery and he visits the native tribe of his family in Gambia. An old man of the village, the griot, (story teller or keeper of stories) who carries the genealogy of each tribe family in his memory, begins to quote years of genealogy of the family of Kunta Kinte, Alex Haley’s great, great, great, great, great grandfather, who was brought to America as a slave. (p. 678)

The people of Israel remembered their story and retold it in times of despair. That story usually begins with Abraham, “Our father was a wandering Aramaen. . .” and recounts the stories of God’s faithfulness.

Today we don’t have to remember anything because we have Google. Last year my wife and I were invited to join some friends on July 4th. These friends are people who love music and almost everyone there brought an instrument to play and a song to sing. We sang songs from the 1960’s and 70’s and some of us struggled to remember the words. So out on the porch, the I Phones came out and glowed in the dark as people had googled the words of the songs. I loved the sight of these 50-60 year olds trying to read the words off of tiny screens in the darkness.

The word “remember” comes to me from several places on this All Saints Sunday. The first comes to me from this table. The communion table of my childhood had these words carved into the front of it, “In Remembrance of Me.” When I was a child, our family sat on the front row of New Chapel UMC in Springfield, Tennessee and those words became important to me. During long, boring sermons when my mind would drift away, I’d look around the room at the stained glass windows, and I’d see those words and wonder what they meant.

Later, during Confirmation Class we talked about Holy Communion and our pastor showed us a stole he’d been given by the last church he had served. He said, “The church gave this to me on my last Sunday and they said, ‘When you wear this, you will remember us.’ On the table are the foods Jesus gave to his disciples and he told them, ‘When you eat this bread and drink from this cup, remember me.’ Jesus is telling us the same thing. Remember me.” This table and the food on it represent our collective memory of all that Jesus means to us.

We remember the saints whom we name today and we remember others we carry in our hearts and minds. We remember their stories and the way in which our lives intersected in meaningful ways. We remember and tell stories about their lives, their idiosyncrasies, their gifts and their graces. We remember and sometimes the memory makes us laugh out loud and at other times it causes us to cry out in grief. We remember that we are better people in so many ways than we would have been had we not known them. Who are the saints you remember and how have they affected your life?

Because we remember them, we will be moved to live in ways that are more meaningful, in ways that will make a difference in the world. They cause us to ask ourselves, “How will we be remembered . . . by our children, our peers, our friends?”
Will they remember us because we worked long hours and were very goal driven? Will they remember us because of our accomplishments? I suspect they’ll remember things like integrity and personhood and genuineness. They’ll remember when we took the time to sit with them and share our stories. They’ll remember acts of kindness and selflessness, and how we treated the poor and marginalized. They’ll remember that we were with them at the darkest moment in their lives. How will we be remembered?

And as we come to this table we will know that God remembered us. The idea of God remembering us is found throughout the scripture. The Psalmist expresses dismay that God has turned God’s face away from him (Psalm 30), or so it feels that way. Life feels that way sometimes, but in the end the Psalmist expresses faith in the God who has turned sadness into dancing. In Psalm 105 the people of Israel hear the retelling of their story from the days of wilderness wandering, “The people asked and God brought forth quail; God filled them full with food from heaven. God opened the rock and out gushed water—flowing like a river through the desert! Because God remembered his holy promise to Abraham his servant.” (verses 39-42) God remembered.

We hear the cries of a criminal dying of a cross next to Jesus. Another criminal mocked Jesus, but one said simply, “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom.”  

God remembers us. In the words of First John, “See what kind of love the Father has given us that we should be called the children of God, and that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1 CEB)

We come to this table to remember. We come to meet again the God who loves us; the God who remembers and is always faithful.


As we make our financial commitments….as we prioritize our ministries…as we seek to be faithful in loving God and one another let us imagine communities where all God’s children are cherished, honored, and loved; where all God’s children are fed and clothed and live in safe homes; where all God’s children experience and know the love of Jesus Christ.

   

Sermon transcript for October 26, 2014

Loving God’s Children
Matthew 22:34-46 and I Thessalonians 2:1-8
Belmont UMC—October 26, 2014
Susan Groseclose, preaching

Today, we conclude our financial campaign by celebrating Children’s Sabbath. We celebrate the presence and ministry of children that fill our hallways. We celebrate the children in our communities and around the world. We celebrate all of God’s children young and old.

Much of the violence today is targeted at children. Our nation allows millions of children to be hungry, homeless, uninsured, abused, and at high risk for a violent death. The Children’s Defense Fund compiles shocking facts about the devastation in the lives of America’s children. Among them are:

■ Persistent Hunger – day after day, hope-draining hunger affects the lives of 8.3 million        American children.
■ Deep Poverty – the humiliations and pains of abiding need haunt the lives of 7.1                million children in our rich nation.
■    Gunfire Violence – suicides, accidents, and homicides take the lives of seven children a        day.

For some, our tendency is to respond to these facts with apathy or despair. As people of faith, we can dare to comprehend the scope of injustices our children face because we know that, with God’s help, we can address them. We can help to bring about change and restoration. Today as we celebrate Children’s Sabbath we not only turn our attention to the needs of children but also affirm God’s call to use our resources, our skills, and our commitment to love all of God’s children.

A lawyer asked Jesus, “”Which is the greatest commandment?” Jesus answered, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind.   This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians reminds us that being an apostle - being a disciple - is to deeply care for one another like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  As infants depend on their mother, we also depend on God - loving God with our entire being. It is through our dependency and love of God we care and love one another. We are called to care for one another….bringing forth righteousness, wholeness, and harmony.

What does it mean to love God with our entire being? In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus illustrates loving God with our entire being - our heart, our soul, our strength, and our mind - by telling a story about his friends, Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42). Martha was busy welcoming Jesus into their home. She was probably washing the guests’ feet, providing a drink of water, preparing a meal, and all the other responsibilities of caring for the guests. Her sister, Mary, sat and listened to Jesus. Martha became upset with Mary for not helping with the work. However, Jesus told her that Mary was showing her love for God by sitting and listening to him.

For me personally, it is easy to to be a Martha - to be caught up in the day-to-day responsibilities but I know for my ministry to be faithful and fruitful, I must find ways to live out the Mary in me. I find that by making it a priority for personal devotion, reading, and prayer. I find the Mary in me through weekly worship - rarely do I participate in 8:15 worship leadership because that is the time for me to worship without thinking about logistics and to receive the gift of Holy Communion each week. I find the Mary in me by participating with 5 other sisters in Christ in a covenant discipleship group where we hold one another in love to our walk with Christ.

When we are rooted in God’s love, we are able to know and believe in God’s faithfulness. We are able to withstand the difficulties, disappointments, grief, and uncertainties in life because we trust and believe that God walks with us. When we are completely enveloped in our love for God all our thoughts, all our actions, all our decisions flow from our love of God.

When we are rooted in God’s love, we can trust God’s loving presence in the tragedy of a young man killed in the Edgehill community. We can believe that all God’s children, young and old, are of sacred worth and welcomed here at Belmont. We can welcome visiting families with a safe, loving, and nurturing place to worship and grow in our faith. We can work through our differences in communication, values, and customs to celebrate our diversity and our common ministry with the Golden Triangle Fellowship. We can proclaim that families who have a child with a disability will find a nurturing, caring, loving place where they can grow and share their gifts in ministry. When we are rooted in God’s love, we can open our hearts to receive and love those who are homeless in our midst with bus passes, food, and shelter. We can share out of our abundance to partner with Eakin Elementary to provide food for children’s backpacks, we can provide resources for young children and the oldest of God’s children at Bethlehem Centers, we can fill Christmas stockings for children in Grundy County, we can collect peanut butter and jelly for Community Care Fellowship,  and we can move out of the walls of this church in ministry and service in the community whenever we tutor, build relationships, and advocate for justice. 

It is a holy privilege to live out of our love for God as a witness of God’s love.

As we love God through our devotion and worship, we are moved to respond to God’s love by loving one another and responding with justice. God’s love propels us to go out into our communities, into our schools, into the prisons, along the streets of Nashville, and as far away as Mexico and Malawi. As we experience loving God and loving one another we deepen and transform our relationships with God and with others.

Our loving God and loving one another is rooted in the Wesleyan Way of Life. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, believed that persons grow in their faith following a rule of life. There are three simple rules, or principles of a Christian life:

First: Do no harm.
Second: Do all the good you can.
Third: Stay in love with God through the public worship of God; ministry of the Word; the Lord’s Supper; family and private prayer; reading and studying the Bible; fasting or abstinence.

Through this General Rule of Discipleship – we love God through our devotion and worship and we are a witness to Jesus Christ’s love in the world through our acts of compassion and justice. We all practice and learn to live as Christ lived, to forgive as Christ forgave, to serve as Christ served, and above all to love as Christ loved.  As we learn and grow in our faith, others see and experience the love of God through, with, and in us.

Think for a minute about the children and families in our day who are suffering, powerless in the face of overwhelming political forces, displaced and feeling abandoned. We want every child to be comforted in the assurance of God’s presence with them through the affirming and loving times of their lives as well as the scariest, most difficult times in their lives. How do we as Belmont UMC congregation communicate not only through our words but more importantly through our actions that all children are precious in God’s sight - that they are honored and that they are loved? How do we love our own children and children around the world? How can we help children from their earliest days have nurturing and supportive experiences at home, in school, at church, and in our communities?   

Justice is more than loving another person. It is becoming aware of unjust issues and learning the deep causes for the injustice. It is being a voice for those who are voiceless or marginalized by society and standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves.  It is changing our own behavior or encouraging others to change their behavior toward another. It is serving others, speaking out on behalf of others, and acting in ways that restore community so that all creation is treated with fairness, respect, and dignity. It is standing alongside the oppressed and restoring each other’s dignity and sacred worth.

As people of faith, we are called upon to make a different choice. We are called upon to persevere in the face of injustice, and to stand strong while we address the violence of our own day. We are called upon to proclaim our Christian conviction in God’s final victory of justice over evil. When we resolve to persist, we are empowered to seek out the injustice that afflicts our communities and replace it with just and merciful options. As God exposes the failures of our society, our trust in God allows us to use the tools of truth and justice to act as agents of restoration.

As we make our financial commitments….as we prioritize our ministries…as we seek to be faithful in loving God and one another let us imagine communities where all God’s children are cherished, honored, and loved; where all God’s children are fed and clothed and live in safe homes; where all God’s children experience and know the love of Jesus Christ.

   

Sermon transcript for October 19, 2014

Thank God for All of You
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Belmont UMC—October 19, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

Paul usually begins his letters to the churches with gratitude for the people, even in those letters where he proceeds to take them to task for something they’ve done wrong. But he had a deep love for the people of Thessalonica and he prayed for them and longed for them, especially in their struggles and persecution.

And as I read this passage again, and as we looked at this passage and others from the Pastoral Letters a few weeks ago in Covenant Bible Study, I was touched by the phrase, “Thank God for all of you.” As I look out at all of you this morning that phrase goes through my mind, “I do thank God for all of you.”

On Monday and Tuesday of last week, I was at gatherings of clergy from the Memphis Conference (West Tennessee) and then the Tennessee Conference (middle Tennessee) and I received such warm greetings from so many friends gathered over the course of several decades of ministry. I even received some warm hugs. As I looked out over that group, people so different in so many ways and yet bound to the same call to serve, I thought, “I thank God for all of you.”

I was telling a young clergy friend recently that I still get anxious before preaching. He asked, “What do you about that?” My answer, “I look at the people and the anxiety is dispelled.” That seems counterintuitive to some folks but looking at the people who I have come to know and love, helps calm any fears I have about what I am about to do. “I thank God for all of you.”

I like the theme for our operating campaign, “Joy in Giving” but it’s in this shared community, this community of people who love one another and serve alongside one another, that we find that real joy, that deep gladness in giving.

Community, church, and family have always been important to me. It’s how I was raised, surrounded by family, church and the simple traditions that accompany them. I knew every acre of our farm when I was a kid, but I knew every acre of all my cousins farms as well. We worked on all those farms and shared meals in all those farm houses. We were surrounded by family and friends. Holidays meant being around lots of those folks and eating some delicious food.

We were in California in September, visiting our son and daughter-in-law in Berkeley. We had a conversation about Thanksgiving and holidays away from family. I knew that Lars and Laura would not be coming home for Thanksgiving so I asked about their plans. They have a group of friends, friends who also live far from their families, and they share holidays with them with pot luck dinners. These are the people who give them rides to the airport or take care of their pets and plants when they are away. These are the people who step in and do the things that families normally do.

In our mobile world we see the development of makeshift families. The church often has a role in these new communities of friends.

In The Shelter of Each Other, Mary Pipher writes, “When I speak of families, I usually mean biological families. There is a power in blood ties that cannot be denied. But in our fragmented, chaotic culture, many people don’t have biological families nearby. For many people, friends become family. Family is a collection of people who pool resources and help each other over the long haul. Families love one another even when that requires sacrifice. Family means that if you disagree, you still stay together.

Families are the people for whom it matters if you have a cold, are feuding with your mate or training a new puppy. Family members used magnets to fasten the newspaper clipping about your bowling team on the refrigerator door. They save your drawings and homemade pottery. They like to hear stories about when you were young. They’ll help you can tomatoes or change the oil in your car. They’re the people who will come visit you in the hospital, will talk to you when you call with a dark night of the soul and will loan you money to pay the rent if you lose your job. Whether or not they are biologically related to each other, the people who do these things are family.” (pp. 21-22)

Friends become like family in some of these settings. They become communities that support and care for one another. I recently spoke to a group of United Methodist young adults who meet in the Nashville area on Tuesday nights. They are called Anchor and they agreed that their lives reflect that quote from Mary Pipher.

And we also agreed that there are two ingredients to building that kind of community. One is food. There is an old saying that “A friend is someone who has eaten a peck of salt with you.” That’s a lot of salt but it means you’ve eaten a lot of meals together. I still believe that something wonderful and sacred happens when we sit down at a table and share a meal together. Something happens in that setting that doesn’t happen anywhere else. We recently shared a meal together with some clergy friends. We’d each brought something to add to the meal. Our conversations were light-hearted but our time in each other’s presence was beautiful and holy. I looked around the table and thought, “I give thanks for all of you.”

The other ingredient to build community is our stories. We learn each other’s stories, where we were born, how we were raised. We learn about struggles and successes. We share our faith stories. We talk about our children or our siblings and our crazy old Uncle Harold. To really know someone we must know their story.

Is it no wonder that the center of our faith is this table, where we share the food that Jesus gave us to share and to remember him by. And when we come to this table we retell our story and God’s story. And we look around and think to ourselves, “Thank God for all of you.”

I believe we need these communities of friends. We were created to live in community. Yes, we need private space and solitude, but even the introvert among us needs to know that there are people who care about them, love them and will be there for them.

I like social media and find it to be an efficient way of connecting with lots of people.  I like having Facebook friends, even if the definition of friend there is very loose. But we need personal, face to face, encounters, like sitting at Fidos over a cup of coffee in the late afternoon, sharing stories and laughing until your face hurts. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The church is one of those special communities and I’m not sure I know how to live without it. We are not perfect but we can do some amazing things together as a community. We believe that it’s in the presence of community, where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus that we experience something holy, something beyond ourselves.

Bishop Ken Carder used to tell a story of his seminary days. He was an excellent student but he had gotten a paper back and he’d been given a “C” and he thought he deserved a better grade. He wanted to talk to the professor but he couldn’t find the words. One day he saw the professor walking across campus. The professor spoke to him but Ken ignored him. The professor stopped him and asked, ‘What’s wrong?” Ken told him and the professor could see that Ken was tearful and hurt. The professor literally put his arms around Ken and held him and said, “I gave you that grade because you can do so much better.” Ken Carder said, “He held me and he held me accountable.” For Ken Carder that was a metaphor for the church.

This is the place where we hold each other. We love each other. We express this love in many ways. Our doorbell rang one afternoon and there were several men and women standing at my door with covered dishes in their hands. They were at the wrong house but the food in their dishes smelled wonderful. The house on the cul de sac up from our house has a similar address and we often get their mail and deliveries by mistake. The woman who lived there had cancer and these folks were members of her Sunday School Class bringing food to support the family.

We hold each other accountable. We need people who will tell us the truth in love and help us be better people. We need to hang out with folks who are better at keeping their spiritual disciplines, who understand the joy in giving, and who pray for us. There are people in this church who will cause you to be a better disciple just because you hang out with them. And in this place we grow to understand the words of Paul, “I give thanks for all of you.”

Look around this morning. Look into the faces of these dear friends. Remember their stories. And give thanks.

   

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