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Sermon transcript for December 14, 2014

The Light of God
John 1:6-8; 19-28
Third Sunday of Advent – December 14, 2014
Belmont UMC -- Ken Edwards, preaching

When I was younger, I went to a Ministers Retreat in the mountains. We were given an afternoon of free time and I was invited to join two other people in a rappelling adventure in a nearby mountain. We hiked several miles through the woods to a beautiful cliff with a 150 foot drop, set up our lines and proceeded to rappel to the bottom.

What my colleagues did not tell me—because they knew of my aversion to caves—was that they planned to hike back to the top of a mountain through a cave at the bottom of the cliff. I came unprepared, with no flashlight, or spelunking gear (whatever that might be). I was not happy about this, but after rappelling off the cliff, I followed the two men into the dark cave alongside a stream and then onto a narrow ledge above the stream where we had to crawl to make passage.

My adventurous friends spied a small opening in the side of the cave wall and decided to explore this opening. They asked, “Do you want to join us or wait here?”  I opted for waiting on the ledge. Without a flashlight, and with my friends disappearing into the narrow crevice with the only lights, I discovered that I was in complete darkness. At first it was peaceful and quiet, but after about 10 minutes it became unnerving. What if they did not come back? I lost my bearings and could not remember where the wall of the cave was and where the side of the ledge was. I had no idea which way was out of the cave. I began to panic. I prayed and waited. Finally, I saw a gleam of light coming toward me and I still recall the great relief I felt at the sight of this light. With light comes hope and our world is need of hope during this Advent season.

John the Baptist appears again in our Gospel text for this Sunday. In John’s Gospel he is presented as one who is not the light of God but one that points the way to the light that will shine upon the earth. He is the voice that speaks of a light that will break forth and bring hope to a world that is in darkness.

John did not have much about which to be hopeful. People were going out to him in the wilderness, going out to hear his message, to be baptized, to repent of their sins. But the political leaders did not like John or his words. Eventually he would wind up in prison and later beheaded. It was not a hopeful time for the people of Israel, but John raised their expectations about a light that would come into the world.

Even in the midst of desperate times, John said, “I have come to tell you that a light is coming to this world and that light will shine in our darkness. I am not that light, but I’m going to keep on talking about it no matter how dark things become.” (Edwards paraphrase version) John is a witness to this great light and he gives voice to the ancient words of the prophets.

Advent is about remembering the darkness, and remembering that God came to shine light on all humankind in Jesus Christ.

There is darkness in our world today. It is troubling but true; we would rather not talk about it during Advent. Some of you are troubled by grief and anxiety. While the holiday presents joy and hope to many, it is a time of accentuated grief and sadness for others. Some are living in poverty and oppression.  Some have given up or lost their way. Wars continue throughout our world. There is great unrest in our nation, unrest that will continue until justice prevails. We cannot hide from the darkness of our racism and we desperately need God’s guidance.

There are those in our world who are suffering this Advent and we must not shut our eyes to the suffering. One way the church must give contemporary voice to the light and hope of the prophets is to become bearers of that same hope and light.

Several years ago a young man named David showed up at my office during Advent. He had visited the church where I served as pastor. He was timid, depressed and he felt like giving up. He had lost everything--his job and his home. He had a little gas in his car, the shelter that had become his home. I gave him some warm clothes and some money for food and gasoline. I saw him a few days later and he told me that he bought a sleeping bag with the money because he was so cold at night. There were times during that Advent that I thought we needed David as much as he needed us—he taught us so much about the meaning of the light of Christ.

One of the families of the church adopted him and assisted him in getting to a job in Arkansas. A few days before he left for his new job, I had gone down the hall of the church to get a cup of coffee and returned to my office to find two beautiful cards stuck in the wreath outside our office door. They were from David. They were Christmas cards and thank-you notes to me and to the church. David wrote, “You were the light of Christ in my darkness. Without you I would not have found my way.”

One writer says that “Christian hope does not bury its head in yuletide cheer and artificial lights, but like an Advent wreath growing brighter each week, this hope pushes its way into the brokenness of this world, clearing a path in the wilderness so the true light might burst into the darkness.” (Craig T. Kocher, Pulpit Resource, Oct-Dec 2005, p. 55)

I see the sign of God’s light and hope all around us. I see light in the love shown to Edgehill children in the Brighter Days mentoring program and in the scholarships offered to young men and women of that neighborhood through the ONE/Barnes Scholarship program—young men and women who become leaders in their community.

We are being that light through our gifts to the Christmas Miracle Offering as we imagine a world free from malaria. We have an opportunity to save many lives with these gifts.

There is light and hope in the 170 Christmas stockings for Grundy County children and in the gifts shared with our Golden Triangle Children. Grundy County is the poorest county in Tennessee and you made Christmas happen for these children.

I see light and hope in food shared with a family going through a medical crisis and in the simple and quiet gestures of love and kindness we witness around here every day. Our family has been on the receiving end of ministry during a time of grief and your love and kindness have been so generous. You brought light to the darkness of our grief.

We will be witnesses of the great message of hope and light this evening at the Feast of Lights. I can’t wait.

This is not shallow optimism and positive thinking, but a real and lasting hope that shines in the midst of darkness.

I recall hearing some friends tell of a trip to Europe and spending time in a small town. They told us of their overnights in a quaint Bed and Breakfast Inn and all the interesting people they met. On a Sunday they had walked through the village and found a beautiful church. The sign outside the church indicated that a service would be held in the evening and they decided to attend.

That night after dinner they made their way to the church and took a seat near the back. They were the first ones to arrive (visitors are often more eager than the rest of us). The sun was going down and they noticed that there were no lights above them. The church had not been wired with electricity. As other worshippers arrived they came with lanterns which they hung on hooks suspended above the pews. Everywhere a worshipper sat, there was light. The rest of the church was dark.

Everywhere we go, we take the light of God with us. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Where are the places of darkness calling out to us to bring the light?  

The prophet Isaiah said, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (9:2)

Jurgen Motmann wrote, “The message of the prophet is a message for the people, a message sent into the camps of the exiled, and into the slums of the poor. It is a word against the captains of the arms industry and the fanatics of power. If we really understood what it means, it bursts the bonds of Sunday worship. For if this message really lays hold of us, it leads us to Jesus, the liberator, and to the people who live in darkness and who are waiting for him—and for us.”  (The Power)

This Advent may we hear our call to be witnesses to that light and hope that came to us in Jesus Christ. In Christ light and hope have come into our dark world.

 

Sermon transcript for December 7, 2014

Through Wilderness—Toward Home
Mark 1:1-8; Psalm 85-1-2; 8-13
Belmont UMC—December 7, 2014
Second Sunday of Advent
Ken Edwards, preaching

One writer imagines what would happen if John the Baptist were to set up preaching camp in the middle of the modern day shopping mall:

“Now imagine this: in comes John, right into the mall. It’s deep winter but he’s wearing sandals on his bare feet, and, yes, he’s wearing his camel’s hair coat, tied with a leather girdle. Now he strides through the double doors of the mall and comes out into the open space near the fountain, and he’s crying, ‘Repent!’

Unreal! What’s this awful man got to do with Christmas? Get him out of here, so we can get our shopping done! But wait; imagine this:  John is a powerful preacher, and the adults cease their frantic shopping and start to gather round him. The teens stop their wandering to laugh, but then they find themselves listening. The children hear him and leave Santa’s line, tugging on their parents’ coats and asking questions: ‘What is he doing?’ What’s he saying?’ ‘Why is he here?’

He’s crying out:  ‘Repent! Turn around! Change your lives!’

And John is such a powerful preacher that the lights, the carols, the crèches, the shopping, the seeing, even Santa’s line—all are forgotten, and the people begin to ask, ‘What shall we do?

And John says, ‘Repent, and be baptized.’ Then he begins to baptize them, right there in the beautiful mall fountain.”  (by Donna Ross, other source material unknown)

On the second Sunday of Advent we always encounter John the Baptist. He is a prophet in the tradition of those Old Testament prophets, like Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos and Isaiah. He’s eccentric like those prophets. His hair is wild and uncombed, honey drips from his beard and his breath smells of crunchy locusts.

He has set up camp way out in the wilderness near the Jordan, away from Jerusalem, away from the center of religion and the center of power. But the people were going out to him—amazing really. Some have suggested that it had been 300 years since God had spoken this clearly and people were going out to the wilderness to hear.

Isaiah had predicted a messenger would come, a messenger who would make the mountains low and the valleys raised up and the path made smooth. This messenger would not draw attention to himself but to one who was to come.

John did not have all the details yet, but he pointed his boney finger toward one who would come, not with John’s cold Jordan baptism, but a Holy Spirit baptism that would usher in a whole new world, a whole new way of thinking and being. John said, “He is coming and you have to get ready!”

Every Advent we meet John the Baptist again and we are not going to get to Christmas without going head to head with John and his message to get prepared.

And so we will spend a little time in the wilderness with John. The wilderness is that barren place where our sight lines are clearer. The wilderness is that place where the sheer silence enables us to hear the beating of our own weak and fearful hearts. The wilderness is that place of knowing and perspective. The wilderness is the place where we see the truth about ourselves and even without John’ preaching, we would know that we need to change. We would know our deep need for God. We know our deep need to cry out to God for help--for forgiveness.

Frederick Niedner describes the wilderness this way, “Precisely here, however, in the wordless void, where over and over our theologies get tested, fail, and disintegrate, God meets up with us.” (Sundays and Seasons, Year B, p.7)

We might like to shut our eyes to this wilderness experience, but we only need to turn on the news and read the morning paper to know that we are a world in need of God, and that we need to repent and turn things around. We are broken and lost. We are territorial and exclusionary. We are self-interested and too self-assured. We are filled with hatred and racism.

In my undeserved privilege I do not know what it is like to live under the ugly shadows of racism, but racism is real and persistent and we must confess those times when we have been complicit in it. When I was a little boy, living in the country on a gravel road, my Mom would visit a Doctor here in the city. She never liked to travel alone so she would take me with her to the Benny Dillon building downtown. She’d give me some money to walk down the street to a lunch counter where I’d buy a piece of apple pie and a cup of coffee (I started drinking coffee when I was a toddler). I thought this was the best thing in the world, but I was completely unaware of how many Nashville citizens could not sit at that lunch counter with me because of the color of their skin.

In the wilderness let us confess our failures as human beings, failure to see each other as God sees us, failure to value and respect one another, failure to see that all people matter, and failure to see our need for God.

Here in the wilderness we might want to offer this traditional wilderness confession:  “Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy. Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

We decided on the theme “Imagine Peace” for this Sunday long before Ferguson and Staten Island and today we may be wondering how we can imagine peace for a world where hatred breeds violence.

But John the Baptist is not asking us to linger long in the wilderness, wallowing in our lostness and self-pity, but he is pointing the way to the one who is to come, the one who helps us see God and know that God has a better way for us to live.

And the prophets do not invite us to stay in the wilderness forever. They invite us to move on toward a home with God, to imagine that future where truth springs up from the ground, and people put down their weapons and live in peace with one another, where war and hatred and racism are no more, where flowers bloom and bring beauty to the desert places, where water gushes up into life in the driest of places, and where justice rolls down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.

   

Sermon transcript for November 30, 2014

Imagine: Hope
1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Sunday, November 30
Chris Allen, preaching

Have you ever been to a Christmas Party where there is a White Elephant Gift Exchange, Dirty Santa, or whatever else you may call it - I'm talking about the exchange where you bring a inexpensive gift to a party, an order for opening the gifts is established, and when it's your turn you have the choice to open a wrapped gift or steal one of the already opened gifts. We'll even have one this coming Saturday when the Belmont youth group gathers for our Christmas party.

I am going to let you in on a little secret of mine. If I am ever involved in a White Elephant gift exchange I am going to do one of two things:

1. I will steal an already opened gift or
2. I will open the gift that I brought to the party.

I cannot stand the unknown of what may be inside the wrapping paper. I have been doing this for as long as I remember. I like the certainty of knowing what I am getting. I don't want to be deceived by the pretty wrapping paper or how big the box is. Who knows what could be inside? Sure you can pick up the package and shake it around to hear what rattles around but that will only get you so far. Why take on that risk when I can go for the unwrapped gift?

So my inclination is to go for the gift I can easily identify - it either has to be already unwrapped or the gift that I wrapped myself. I don't want any surprises even though there very well may be a better gift still wrapped up, a gift that is better than I can currently see. But I just can't bring myself to take that risk. I have a hard time imagining the hope in the wrapped gifts. And at a gift exchange I don't want to get stuck with a gag gift.

Needless to say, I am settling. But that's exactly what Paul is telling the Corinthians they are doing. The Corinthians find themselves in a place like the third servant in the "Parable of the Talents" who buries the master's money. There are two things that Paul identifies here as gifts among the Corinthians - knowledge and communication. However, what's not clear at this point in Paul's letter to the Corinthians is the way they are using these two gifts have got them into some trouble.

While Paul is giving them high praise for their knowledge and communication, he will rebuke them in later chapters for the misuse of their gifts. This is to say that there are some in the Corinthian church who are full of themselves because of their knowledge about God and are now unintelligible in communicating the Gospel. They're now sitting on their gifts and seem to have forgotten the reason God gave them these gifts. They forgot they were living in the in-between times as they wait and hope "for the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." They become satisfied about the way things were. They were ready to settle for the unwrapped gift. The Corinthians were complacent.

Complacency is part of human condition called sin that causes us to become complacent, to be okay with a half-hearted attempt, to be satisfied with the way things are. But hear the good news, even when we are complacent and satisfied with the status quo God rips off the wrapping paper and bursts into the world. Today, we begin the period called Advent, the first season in the church year, where we are keenly aware we are living in-between the coming of Christ in a manager and Christ's second coming. The scandal of grace begins with Jesus coming to dwell among us. How scandalous that God would come among the creation!

God ripping off the wrapping paper, tearing open heaven, and bursting into the world threatens our status quo. Jesus coming among us threatens the status quo of each one of us on a personal level. To confess with your mouth that Jesus - the human one who died on a cross - is Lord of your life is to say that you open your life to being turned upside down and inside our by God's grace. There are often the testimonies of faithful Christians people who tell about how their life was a wreck until they encountered Jesus, but my story has been that I felt like I had life figured out until I read the gospels and it wrecked me forever with the story of God's grace.

Not only does Jesus threaten each of us individually, Jesus coming among us threatens the status quo of our whole society. Just ask King Herod. In Matthew's gospel there is the story that as the news of a new king born in Bethlehem spreads, the government grew fearful at this threat to the status quo so they allowed the systematically killing of all the young boys living in their community. Doesn't this sound familiar?

So how do we imagine hope? In today's Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus gives us this apocalyptic scene of the sun and moon becoming dark and the earth quaking. Then Jesus says that no one but God knows when all this will happen and there is no use in trying to figure it out. However, there is one thing that Jesus does tell us to pay attention to and that is the fig trees. Jesus says when you see the new spring growth summer is near - those early, sweet-tasting figs will soon be appearing. Those early figs are our foretaste to what the fullness of God's kingdom will be like at Jesus' second coming.

Let me make this a bit clearer for you. Do you remember when you were younger and helped out in the kitchen and got to lick the spoon? I remember helping my grandmother out in the kitchen when I was a kid. She makes the best pound cake in the world. She would mix together the eggs, flour, sugar, and butter with her electric beater. When she was done, she would pour the cake batter from the mixing bowl into cake pan. As the cake was being put into the oven, she would offer me the cake batter covered spoon to lick and allow me to scrap any of the remaining batter out of the bowl. And boy did this taste good but it was just a foretaste of what was still to come. While I am licking the spoon the best pound cake ever is still in the oven. That's what it's like to imagine hope as wait for the coming of Christ among us again.

To imagine hope is to imagine God's future breaking into the now, our present reality. Imagining hope is what we do when we pray the Lord's Prayer and say "on earth as it is in heaven." Imagining hope is in police officers welcoming demonstrators with coffee and hot chocolate. Imaging hope is what I experience each Wednesday morning when I walk down to Eakin Elementary to tutor in Mrs. Jackson's class. When I step in the room I am greeted by a chorus of "Hello Mr. Chris." Spending an hour each week with these fourth graders is a foretaste of the kingdom that is to come. They are reminder to me that God is with us.

However, I wish I could say it was an easy week to imagine hope. There seemed to be more bitter tastes in my mouth as I watched the news cycles of injustice, arson, and looting in the city where I spent my college years. Maybe you felt a little hopeless this week as well. Maybe your Thanksgiving meal didn't turn out like you had planned. Maybe you find yourself closer to hopeless than hopeful as you will celebrate your first Christmas without a loved one. Or maybe you find yourself worried about how you are going to pay for this year's Christmas gifts.

If you are having a hard time imagining hope right now, let me tell you that's okay. That's what Advent is for, that's what we are doing here. Advent is a chance to pause and admit that we can no longer hope in ourselves, our government, that deal of a TV we got on Black Friday, or that pill or bottle to save us. We are here to essentially say we are out of hope.

Our hope must be in someone out there who comes to us. We can imagine hope only because Jesus tears into our world and gently leads us home. If you remember nothing else about the sermon this morning what I want you to hear this: On this first Sunday of Advent, know that Jesus is coming into the world, tearing open the heavens to be among us. This is our hope. This is the foundation from which we imagine hope. Among the pain of our lives, in the midst of the many injustices in Ferguson and deaths from a preventable disease like Malaria, there is still a gift we have not fully unwrapped, God bursting into world. It is coming in the small things like the new growth of a fig tree. This season, watch for the foretastes and know that God is faithful.

   

Sermon transcript for November 23, 2014

The Face of Christ
Matthew 25:31-40
Belmont UMC--November 23, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

It was during the holidays last year and I was standing in line at the grocery check-out with a few things that we needed. In front of me was a young man wearing a nice suit and he was holding a basket of groceries and waiting his turn. In front of him was a young woman with her little boy. The boy was sitting in the seat of the grocery cart and he was enjoying smiling at people while his mother checked out. The mother’s cart was pretty full and it was obvious that she was concerned. She was looking at the items on the conveyor belt as they moved toward the scanner. She watched the totals adding up on the screen in front of her and she looked at the money in her purse. When everything was totaled she sighed and looked at the clerk and said, “I don’t have enough for all of this; let me put some things back.” The clerk rolled her eyes and looked impatient. The young man in front of me, without hesitation, said, “Of course, you have enough.” He put his items on the conveyor belt and said, “Put her purchases on my bill.”

I watched the man. He was very relaxed about what he had done. He smiled at the little boy. The young mother, who had tears in her eyes, offered thanks. The man said, “You know, it’s really not that much for me to do for you” and then he looked away as though he wanted to preserved the dignity of the woman, or because he did not want her to see the tears that had formed in his eyes.

It was a brief moment but it was beautiful and rich and I’m sure I saw the face of Christ in all of them—in the earnest face of a young mother, in the smiles of a little boy, in the generosity of the man and in the surprise on the face of the clerk. And these words went through my mind, “And when was it that we saw you hungry, Lord, and gave you something to eat?”

Our Gospel text for today is a familiar one and every time I read it I find it more compelling, radical and profound. Everyday I encounter some of the “least of these” of whom Jesus speaks and every time I’m tempted to close my eyes and walk away, I hear Jesus saying, “Here are the least of these.” They are the persons who are vulnerable, strangers, hungry, weak, poor, voiceless, and imprisoned. Jesus did not say that we were to help those who appear to be deserving or more grateful, he said simply the “least of these.” What Jesus is saying is that we are to look into these human faces and to see his face in there’s.

Dorothy Day struggled to connect her faith to her social conscience—a struggle that gave birth to the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933. It started as a newspaper, but became a house of hospitality for the homeless and the poor. The first house of hospitality was Day’s own apartment because she could not turn away a homeless woman who read her newspaper article and came looking for her help. One hundred and seventy-five Catholic Worker houses were established under her guidance.

Day said that the core of her life was her experience of ultimate beauty—Christ’s face hidden in the faces of America’s human cast-offs. She once said, “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”

The Gospel text teaches us something radical about God. To quote John M. Buchanan, “The God of Jesus, the God of the Bible, is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe. Jesus said, God is here, in the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, particularly in your neighbor, in the one who needs you. You want to see the face of God? Look in to the face of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A. Volume 4, p. 334)

I occasionally attended a Disciples of Christ Church when I was in college. In the narthex of the church was a print of a famous painting, “The Presence.” The original painting is in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland. The painting depicts the sanctuary of a beautiful cathedral. The light of the painting draws your eye toward the magnificent high altar, the candles, and all the altar ware. The sanctuary appears to be empty, but upon closer inspection you see a woman in the back of the sanctuary, kneeling in the shadows. She appears to be a poor woman who has come in off the streets. And behind her Jesus is standing reaching toward her to offer his help. Jesus is not standing in the spot light of the high altar, but in the shadows among the vulnerable one in need.

Bishop Ken Carder visited prisoners regularly on death row. He said once, “I thought I was going to the prison to take Christ, but when I arrived I discovered that Christ was already there.”

I like the Greek word for the Holy Spirit that is often translated in Comforter or Advocate in the Gospel of John. The word, parakaleo, literally means “the one who is called alongside of us.” That is where we find God—where people are, especially people in need.

Scholars remind us that this passage is the only description of judgment in the New Testament. And as such, it says something pretty radical about religious practices. A friend and I spent some time talking about different denominations and ways of understanding things like the sacraments recently. I told him about my many visits to the Church of Christ as a child and I was very aware that I was not allowed to take Holy Communion because of I was a United Methodist. And as United Methodists we have our own ideas of about theology and we feel pretty strong about those.

At our All Church Retreat this year Father Charles Strobel told us the story of a homeless man who was a very difficult and contrary man. Charles’ mother told him that the man would be his ticket into heaven. Charles said that he had to learn to love this man and when he did the man’s demeanor changed, because Charles had changed. Father Strobel brought up the issue of baptism to the man several times and the man refused baptism. When the man was dying, Father Strobel asked him again and the man shook his head and was adamant about not being baptized.  And Father Strobel said in passing, “That’s okay because God is bigger than baptism.” That line has stayed with me ever since the retreat.

I told Father Strobel, “We will be up here on this mountain interviewing candidates for ministry in March of next year. We will want to hear them articulate a proper theology of baptism or we will not approve them for ordination.” He smiled and said, “That’s because we care more about baptism than God does.”

Don’t misunderstand me. I think baptism is important and it is a beautiful experience of God’s grace. Every time we gather around this font for a baptism, I sense the presence of the Holy Spirit pouring God’s love all over us.

But here deep in the Gospels in the only passage about the judgment, there is only one criterion for being invited to inherit the kingdom. It is not baptism or denominationalism or orthodoxy or creeds or theology, “it is this whether or not we saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not we gave ourselves away in love in his name.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 336) That is all.

“When you have done it for one of the least of these members of my family, you have done it for me.” Seeing Christ in others, seeing Christ in those in need is revolutionary. It changes the way we interact with the world and it requires a conversion, a changed heart, a new way of seeing the world around us. And when we are changed responding becomes second nature to us.

Many see the needy as intrusions, as lazy or losers. Some think they deserve their unfortunate positions, especially among the poor. So seeing them different requires a new way of seeing things—it calls us to see as God sees. And it is not easy. It is frustrating at times.

There was a young man named Scotty who came by Grace UMC when I served there. He seemed earnest and he had a way about him that was likeable. He always needed something. He worked as a house painter but he never seemed to have enough to make ends meet. His money always ran out before the end of the month, and over the years I had given him money, food and gasoline. I had bought some car parts so he could keep going to work. He did not always make good decisions. I would get hopeful that he could do better. One day I said, “You know Scotty, I think God has a better plan for you than the one you are living.”

One day I got a letter from Scotty. It came from the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, where he had been incarcerated for stealing. I was so angry and disappointed. He was asking me to help his family out for Christmas. The letter came when I was working on a sermon about this passage and I heard these words in my mind, “When you have done it for one of the least of these members of my family, you have done it for me.” My heart was changed and I knew what God wanted me to do.

So I sat down and wrote Scotty a long letter. I told him that I was disappointed in him but I loved him and I wasn’t giving up hope for his life. I told him that I saw Christ in him when we visited. I told him that we would send a gift card to his family so they could have Christmas gifts and food.

“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink. And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

We see the face of Christ all around us everyday. Everyday we are presented with the opportunity to give ourselves away in love in the name of Jesus.





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 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.

   

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