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Sermon transcript for February 22, 2015

Now Is the Time
Mark 1:9-15--First Sunday in Lent
Belmont UMC—February 22, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching

Here we are on the first Sunday of Lent and most of us have had quite a week dealing with ice, snow and cold. Some of us have had some time on our hands to ponder what the Lenten journey means to us. Some of us missed coming on Ash Wednesday for worship and we found guides to use at home and ways to honor that special day that reminds us of our humanity, our frailty and our deep need for God. Some of us are just glad to be able to get out of the house and be here in the fellowship of friends in faith.

This first Sunday of Lent begins with the story of Jesus’ baptism and then being forced into the wilderness by the Spirit. There he is tempted by Satan, he was among wild animals and the angels came to minister to him. As usual, Mark does not give us a lot of details. But Jesus comes out of this 40 day experience to say, “Now is the time! Here comes the kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust the good news.”    

“Now is the time!” The announcement is about the coming of the kingdom of God. The announcement is often translated, “The time is fulfilled,” and I recall a seminary professor saying that the word “fulfill” comes from a word that means “to fill up” as in “to fill up with meaning.” What does it mean for us to fill the time of Lent with meaning? How will be mark the time of Lent so it is meaningful?

The wilderness becomes a metaphor for Lent, our 40 days to journey in faith toward Easter. And how shall we choose to experience this time in the wilderness of Lent?

We might think of all spiritual practices as ways of emptying our lives to make space for God. Shane Claiborne wrote in his blog that he heard a priest say something like this, “During Lent we choose to be a stick in the mud or a flute. A stick in the mud is full of itself, but a flute empties itself so it can make beautiful music.”

As I prepared for Lent I began to think about Lent in this way: it is a time of emptying, a time of laying aside, and a time of ceasing.  It is also a time of filling, a time of picking up new things, and a time of embracing newness.

We make space for God in our lives as we engage the spiritual practices of our faith. We might decide to fast one meal a week and the time that we would have spent eating could be used for study, prayer, and meditation. I recall hearing Reverend Pat Barrett saying Lent is a time of becoming vacant for God.

Some of you will decide to give up or lay aside something for Lent. I’ve heard some folks who are giving up colas, chocolates, breads, desserts and even Facebook. Some have said they will give up ice and snow for Lent. It is about laying aside something that is special or something that takes up a big space in our lives but it also about making a space for God to be welcomed in.

Now is the time to change our hearts! Fitness experts tell us that we need to do something new and different to jar our bodies into a new response. I like to walk and run but my body needs something new to awaken it physically so I get on the bike, do some yoga or do strength training. Our spiritual lives need some new, soul jarring practices that awaken us to be fully available and open to what God has for us.

A few years ago I read Marva Dawn’s book, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, because I thought Sabbath keeping would be a soul jarring practice for a person like me, who was raised with a strong work ethic. She reminds us that the word Sabbath literally means “ceasing.” In her words, Sabbath is to cease from work, “but also from the need to accomplish and be productive, from the worry and tension that accompany our modern criterion of efficiency, from our efforts to be in control of our lives as if we were God, from our possessiveness and our enculturation, and finally, from the humdrum and meaninglessness that result when life is pursued without the Lord at the center of it all.” (p. 3)    

Marva Dawn reminds us that Sabbath is not merely ceasing work, but it is embracing. Practicing Sabbath allows us to embrace intentionality, time, values, our calling, peace, wholeness, and the world itself. Taking time away from our compelling schedules allows us to be attentive to the momentary experiences of grace that we might miss otherwise. Ceasing during Lent will make space in our lives for God and in that practice we are enabled to see what God is doing all around us. We might try a little Sabbath keeping to change our hearts.

In the scripture the wilderness is usually an untamed place of struggle. We picture Jacob, at Peniel, wrestling with God and wrestling with the truth about his self. We picture Elijah, who after defeating the prophets of Baal, runs for his life. Ahab and Jezebel have a contract out on his life. He almost gives up but an angel comes to him and feeds him and he journeys for 40 days and 40 nights until he reaches Mt. Horeb, and there he encounters God in the silence. We picture Jesus, in the wilderness among the wild animals, encountering Satan--those voices that entice us to take the easy road and the road to power and self aggrandizement.

Now is the time for the kingdom to come. The kingdom is for everyone. We find ourselves and our church at a crucial time in its history and its life. It is an important time and one in which I believe the Spirit is moving among us. For us at Belmont I encourage us to use the season of Lent as a time for deep prayer and discernment—a time to truly make space in our hearts for God.

One of the gifts Bishop Rueben Job gave the church before his recent death was his contribution to a book, written for the church, Finding Our Way, Love and Law in the United Methodist Church. He sent me several versions of this chapter to me to read as he prayed his way through the writing. The book focuses on the United Methodist Church’s struggle to find unity around the issue of sexual orientation and same-gender relationships.

Rueben’s chapter, “Trust God,” invites the church to find its way through honest prayer--prayer that doesn’t try to tell God what to do, but truly listens. Rueben believed that God wants to do a new thing in the church but we must make space in our hearts for that to happen. As we have found our way over the years to make changes, like ordaining women and overcoming our racism, so may we find our way again. This well loved and respected Bishop believed that Belmont had the potential for leading the way for the rest of the church, and so do I.

This is what he wrote about his beloved church community, Belmont UMC. “This congregation is in many ways like others in the denomination we love and serve. There are similar tensions and questions, but in most cases there is always an honest, robust, gentle, and protracted time of prayer, study, and reflection before any issue is considered ready for decision. Our congregation is extreme in its diversity and equally extreme in its love and welcome for all who gather for worship, study, prayer, reflection, food and community and then are sent out into the world to give themselves for others.” (p. 102)

Rueben used this writing to invite the church to a time of ceasing, but also to a time of honest and humble prayer. He modeled this way for us and during this season of Lent I hear him inviting us to live into it, as well.  

Now is the time for good news! In the wilderness of Lent we do come to terms with some of the truth about ourselves. We see ourselves as God sees us and sometimes this is painful and troubling, because we discover the things of our lives that we need to lay aside in order to continue the journey with God. But there is good news because the most important aspect of our identity is that we are children of God, always loved and always forgiven.

And we do not make this journey alone, but with the God who loves us and meets us everyday and gives us strength. And in the wilderness of this Lenten season we will meet God. Now is the time!


 

Sermon transcript for February 15, 2015

On the Mountain
Transfiguration Sunday--Mark 9:2-9
Belmont UMC—February 15, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching

The Celtic spiritual tradition gives us the concept of thin places—places that give us an opening into the magnificence and wonder of the other. There is a Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three apart but in the thin places that distance is even smaller. “A thin place is where the veil that separates heaven and earth is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.”  (“Where Can I Touch the Edge of Heaven,” by Sylvia Maddox, explorefaith.org)

Rags could not tell me the story of his vision. Every time he tried he became too emotional. His real name was Ragsdale, but everyone had called him Rags since he was a little boy. Rags and his wife, Edna, lived in white framed, neat as a pin, farm house about mile from our parsonage. We loved Rags and Edna and ate dinner with them regularly. They had one son who was away at college and they loved him more than anything on the planet.

Rags could be a little peculiar about things. He believed that the safest place in a thunder storm was his pickup truck and he and Edna would run to the truck at the slightest hint of thunder. I can recall driving by and seeing them huddled together in the cab of the truck.

Rags always kept a harmonica in his front shirt pocket. On Sundays he was apt to get out of his pew and join the pianist in playing a hymn—especially one of the old favorites like “I’ll Fly Away.”  Rags had a heart condition and I would always worry when he played and his face turned beat red and he became a little winded. His heart condition was part of his story.

Rags tried to tell me about his vision for two years but he would break down and cry so hard that Edna worried it would make him sick. “When you’re ready,” I told him.
One day we were sitting on the front porch of the house and he told me about the day of his heart attack and how he’d gone into cardiac arrest in the emergency room. Through buckets of tears he told me about the light that he saw and the river of God and his mother and father waiting for him on the other side. He said it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. While he was having this glorious vision doctors were working to revive him. By the time he finished telling it I had begun to cry with him.

Rags said, “That’s my rags to riches story.” For him this vision was so real that it had changed his life and defined the way he lived. It had given him a certainty and a hope we all long for.

Frederick Buechner describes his own experience as he writes of surprising tears that came to him in a Presbyterian church one day, tears that came after a passionate search to know God and put a face with the mystery that seemed to seek him out. That face was the face of Christ. He writes, “I wanted learn more about those tears and the object of that astonishment. I wanted to know, and be known by, people who knew greatly more about Christ than I did, were greatly closer to him than I was, greatly more aware of what they were about and of what he was about in them.”  (Listening to Your Life, pp. 30-31)

Jesus took three of his disciples up a high mountain to be by themselves, apart from the others. It was not unusual for Jesus to retreat to a quiet place to pray, but on this day something quite remarkable happened. Jesus was changed in front of them and his clothes became extraordinarily white and there appeared with him 2 prominent characters in Hebrew history, Moses and Elijah, persons who had had their own mountain top experiences with God.

The experience was surprising and terrifying for the disciples. Peter says, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make 3 shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” The next sentence is quite human. “He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.” (verses 5-6; CEB) Peter feels a need to speak, to fill the void, to distract them from their fear, to take control of the situation, to make sense of what has happening, or . . .  How like us to feel a need to control that which we cannot explain!

When I was 18 years old I had an experience of spiritual renewal. I was a college student at the time in the early months of my freshman year. There was a place on the college campus where I would go to get away and be alone. There was one hill on campus and on top of that hill was a deserted old brick house. In front of the house was a huge old oak tree that appeared to have weathered many storms. I’d sit on the steps of the house and read and reflect. One sunny, warm day as I was sitting on the steps, I looked down the hill. The limbs from the tree formed a shadow in the shape of the cross and a wonderful sense of peace and assurance flooded me. It was quite stunning and I sat there for a long time basking in the sense that God was very much with me.

I share this story so that you will pause and remember those times when you were surprised by a sense of God’s presence. Those experiences can be filled with wonder and awe or they can be a bit unsettling as well.

When I shared my experience on the hillside with my friends, they all wanted to know what the experience meant. Was it a sign? What are you supposed to do with the experience? Their questions puzzled me. I had been so caught up in the wonder and awe of the experience it had not occurred to me to look for a reason and try to define the experience in any way. When I look back on that day I’m grateful to have moments when I sense God’s reassuring presence and that alone is good enough for me. I suspect our best response to those moments of surprising grace is one of awe and wonder.

Peter’s words on the mountain remind me of something my seminary history professor said once. He said that most of the great spiritual awakenings began among the laity. The clergy and the theologians always came along later and tried to tidy everything up. We seem to have a need to explain these theophanies, to codify them, to control them, to tone them down. Like Peter we fill the silence and the wonder with our talk, because we find the silence disconcerting. Or maybe we are afraid of where they will call us; maybe we know that the Transfiguration story means that the journey to Lent is near.

I remember a Father’s Day weekend when the three sons went with me to Six Flags in Atlanta. It was our youngest son’s first time at a big amusement park. He had been on small rides at the county fair but he’s never seen a roller coaster like the one we boarded as our first ride that day. As the cars made their slow grinding ascent up the first mountainous hill, he said, “But Dad, it’s so slow.”  I replied, “Just wait.” Again he said, “But Dad, it is slow.” I said, “Wait!” He was frustrated by the ascent. But at the top of the hill, the brakes were released and we felt like we were flying downward. I looked over at the little boy’s face to see the look of joy and fear.

We have been making the slow, but steady ascent up the mountain of the Transfiguration, and we are reluctant because we know on the other side of the mountain is the journey to Lent, a journey that can be one of joy and wonder and maybe a little fear—especially if we allow the Lenten journey to speak to us of a closer walk with God.

The Continental Divide is the great watershed divide where all the waters on the west flow toward the Pacific Ocean and the waters on the east flow toward the Atlantic Ocean. The Mount of Transfiguration is that great divide, after which, the activities of Jesus and the disciples flow toward Jerusalem, the cross, and the resurrection. After today we begin our descent to begin the journey of Lent.

In the Gospel story Peter’s suggestion of building shrines is silenced by a cloud and a clear voice from the cloud. The voice is the same voice we heard at the beginning of Epiphany at the baptism of Jesus. The voice says, “This is my son, my beloved, listen to him!” This mountain top experience is about Jesus, about listening to him, about focusing on who he is and what he is saying to us about God.

Today we spend a little time on the mountain with Jesus. Today we hear a clear voice that bids us to “Listen to him.” On Wednesday night we will gather here to begin our journey through Lent. On Wednesday we will be reminded that we are human, and always will be, and God is God, and always will be. On that journey we will be invited to trust God and God’s leading. On that journey, during a time when many voices will compete for our allegiance and following, we will be invited to listen to Jesus! As we listen, we may find ourselves entering a thin place between heaven and earth and we will be filled with wonder and awe!




   

Sermon transcript for February 8, 2015

Everyone is Looking for You
Mark 1:29-39
Belmont UMC—February 2-8-12
Ken Edwards, preaching

As I prepared for this sermon I kept coming back to the phrase, “Everyone’s looking for you.” And I kept recalling a visit by a young man named Ben a year or so ago. He had made an appointment to talk about coming to church. He hadn’t been to church for a long time and something was pulling back. He had experienced some hurt and pain in the last church he had attended. People had been unkind and some had asked him to leave. He wondered if he would find a more hospitable place at Belmont. I assured him that he would find that here, but he asked, “How can you be sure?” He hasn’t come to church but I ran into him again in the village one day and he said he was still thinking about it. He’s fearful and reluctant. He is searching and trying to find his way back. Keep that in your mind as we look at this text.

There is a tone of urgency in the Gospel of Mark. Mark skips the details of Jesus’ birth and childhood and moves straight to John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, a brief mention of the wilderness temptation (no mention of fasting), the call of the disciples and then the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And we are still in the first chapter. Mark’s favorite words are “at once” (or “immediately” in NRSV) and the words, which add to the sense of urgency, comes up frequently in the first chapter.

Today’s story needs to be set in this context. The work of Jesus had been focused on the area near Capernaum, which is alongside the Sea of Galilee, the home of the fishermen whom Jesus called as disciples. The people of the area have been astonished by Jesus’ teaching and even more so by his authority over suffering. Mark writes, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” (v. 28)

Today’s text finds Jesus and the disciples entering the house of Simon and Andrew, only to find Simon’s mother-in-law sick with fever. Jesus heals the woman and by evening the whole city has converged outside the door. Jesus begins to heal and restore those who ill. Sometime after midnight Jesus escapes to a quiet place to pray and here in the first chapter we get a glimpse of the pattern of Jesus’ life and the rhythm of service and prayer.

Simon and the other disciples do not understand Jesus’ need for solitude and they go to find him. The verb here has a hostile tone to it, and the Common English Bible translates it best with “they tracked him down.” They have come to tell Jesus, “Everyone is lookking for you.”  

“Everyone is looking for you.” Throughout the gospel stories crowds of people are attracted to Jesus. At one time he was standing beside the water and so many people came to see and hear him that he had to get in a boat and teach them from there. In our minds we can imagine the scene of people pressing in on him. (Mk 4:1-2) Another, more familiar time there were thousands who gathered to hear and see him and Jesus instructed the disciples to feed them. (Mk. 8:1-10)

Who are these people who are looking for Jesus and what do they hope to find?
Luke describes the people during the time of John the Baptist and Jesus as “being filled with expectation.” (Luke 3:15) One of my professors used to paraphrase this and say “the people were on tiptoe with expectation” or “on the edge of their seats” with expectation. They were people who felt the oppression of the Roman government and they longed for liberation. There was a deep longing within them for God to come among them and do something to turn things around. There was a deep spiritual hunger and thirst among the people. “Everyone is searching for you, Jesus!”

They were some people who were physically ill and desperate. In a time when health care was limited and when disease was often associated with God’s judgment, and often meant alienation from community life, there was a longing for wholeness. To be made whole carried with it the possibility of being liberated from suffering and a return to the fellowship of others.

Everyone is searching for you, Jesus! Those words continue to be contemporary. We have gathered here as those who are searching for Jesus. I worked alongside my good friend, David, for many years and he would always greet the church on Sunday morning with, “For whatever reason you find yourself here this morning, God greets you and welcomes you!” We have all gathered here with searching hearts. Yes, I’m here because I have certain responsibilities, but I come here each week searching and longing to be with you, to experience God’s presence in your presence. I come here each week, like you, with a deep hunger for God’s grace.

We may not know what brought us here this day, but we know that all those around us come with some human need. When I took a preaching class several years ago at our Lake Junaluska, NC, our professor took us through a series of exercises before we could begin to write. One of those exercises invited us to spend 15-30 minutes with the question, “Who is in the room?” And by that question he did not mean for us to answer with names, Mary, Bill, John, Amy, etc, but to answer with life situations and needs. Who is in this room? It’s a good question as you begin to look around your well loved seat. Who are the people around you and what are their needs? What are their greatest joys? What are the longings of their hearts? How can we make them feel more welcomed? Everyone is looking for Jesus!

What if those of us who are regulars here at Belmont treated everyone around us as if they had come here searching for Jesus. Maybe they are here because they are wounded or grieving. Maybe, like Ben, they have been hurt by other churches where they were not welcomed. Maybe they feel uncertain about being here and you are the one who can make them feel at home. Every week we can and do create an environment that is welcoming, grace-filled, and hopeful

It’s hard to enter a new group for the first time. I recall my first weeks at Grace UMC. I had some computer problems and I had no idea how to resolve them. One day the Trustees sent a 15 year old boy came into my office. He said, “Hello sir, my name is Justin and I’ve come to help you with your computer.” He sat beside me and did some magic to clean up my computer and give me some space and speed. Then he showed me how to do things I did not know and he wrote the steps on post-it notes and put them around my screen. I kept those post-it notes for 6 months until I got used to doing what came natural for Justin.

I knew he needed a ride home and it was lunch time so I took him out for a burger. He and his family were new to the church and he said he wanted to go to the Youth meeting on Sunday nights but he didn’t know anyone and he not sure he’d be welcomed. I said, “You know me. I’ll go with you and introduce you to everyone.”

We met at my office on Sunday night at 4:45 and I walked him to the youth meeting and I introduced him. After 30 minutes or so it was clear he didn’t need me anymore. The next year he was playing his guitar in the youth praise band. By his senior year he was the president of the youth council.

How many people come in here and need to find others who will welcome them and make them feel at home in their presence?  Some of us in this room may have come anxious and reluctant, but everyone is looking.  

What about those out there who are looking for a deeper faith? I have a concern about reaching young adults who are moving into the city in large numbers, but are not in churches on Sunday morning. I suspect they are looking for experiences of faith, and some of them want what they find here week after week, but I doubt all of them will come here on a typical Sunday morning. I suspect they will find Jesus in a setting that is different from this. How do we reach out to them? I think about them and pray for them when I’m awake at 2 AM. Everyone is looking for you, Jesus.

Some of us are searching for healing and wholeness. Some of us have experienced brokenness and suffering. Some of us are grieving. Some of us are fearful. Some of us are trying to break free from addictions and unhealthy life patterns. Some of us are suffering from a wounded sense of self and we will have trouble believing that God loves us or that anyone could love us. Some are us on the verge of giving up. Some of us are optimistic and hopeful. Some of us are struggling with doubts. Some of us are joyful and celebrating. Some of us are lonely and isolated.

Who is in the room today? Everyone is looking for you, Jesus!



   

Sermon transcript for February 1, 2015

Nick Baird-Chrisohon
Sermon for Feb. 1, 2015
8:15 a.m. service
“Who is Our Prophet?”

Take a ride through history with me. Close your eyes and imagine the things I tell you:
You are walking down the main avenue of the city you live in.  The sun illuminates the bright, blue sky with little whisps of cloud interrupting the blue hues.  The shop to your right bakes bread; the morning air is laced with aromas of cracked wheat with a little bit of char.  Mmm, you think, that would be good with some honey drizzled on it.  You only take a moment to pause as  the dust of the street blows into your face and brings you back to reality.  “It’s time to eat,” you think.

On your way to get a quick bite, you pass along the shops highlighted by clay pots filled with flowers.  Orange and yellow flashes catch your eye, but you look at the shop owner, and he does not look pleased you are there.  You walk a little faster to get to your destination. The few coins in your pocket are all you carry, and you only carry those to pay for lunch. You walk in the back entrance to the place - darting your eyes left and right before you enter - lest you get the owner in trouble. You walk in.  *sigh* You made it.  Friends of yours covered in the same dust that hit you earlier sit in a long row against a stone wall eating their lunches. You grab your bowl of stew and eat your quick meal before heading to work. These few minutes with a hot meal are the most quiet you will have all day, so you try to enjoy the bliss of being alone.

When I was told that story, I couldn’t quite place where I was.  My professor was describing what it was like to be a Jewish person in a ghetto in New York at the turn of the century.  I, a child of the post-civil-rights era South, assumed it was about an African American man in Alabama.  My friend sitting next to me thought he was experiencing the life of a slave in Egypt or Assyria.  We could all make a pretty good argument as to why we were right, and that may have been my professor’s point.  History tends to find ways to repeat itself, and as much as we want to think otherwise, the basic experiences of living tend to only change in look.

So in preparing to work with this Sunday’s scriptures, I could not get my mind away from the news and how we continually seem to hear the same stories throughout our lives to the point we think nothing changes.  We just celebrated the life of Dr. King a few weeks ago, yet the conversation of race and class continues to be on our minds and in our hearts. I hear the same headlines of crime, traffic, and celebrity gossip that I heard when my mother drove me to school. That feeling of continuity and familiarity occurs when I read the Bible sometimes, so I attempted to hear these readings with fresh ears.  How can we continue on the righteous path of bringing heaven to earth?  What can we do to honor King’s work and legacy?

I read the first passage in Deuteronomy and stopped at the word “Prophet.”  The word is almost always ascribed to Dr. King, some have also ascribed the title to the current and some previous popes, many argue figures like Ghandi, Howard Thurman, various writers, thinkers, and activists, and others in recent history who they think deserve the term.  And, to be fair, for some it really should stick.  I felt it would be good if we asked ourselves, “who is OUR prophet today?”

We as Methodists love, for good reason, to point to our church’s founder John Wesley.  He and his brother formulated our polity, our hymnody, and our understanding of God’s love and grace that supersedes all.  But is either Wesley a prophet? What about people who work in the religious world now?  We have academics who devote their life’s work to understanding the language and intent of God’s Word, would that make them prophets?  What about pastors who put their credit and reputation on the line to stand with and even live with the marginalized peoples of the world.  Are they prophets? How do we know who is on the cusp of seeing God’s next move?

I think we are safe with King.  Letters from a Birmingham jail and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, along with countless others I am remiss to name individually, point to a world that need not be like the one we have.  He goes after the exact problems he sees and names them and says, “NO MORE!”  I think we could borrow the practice of naming our problems from our extended family in the black churches of America.  They know how to say what needs to be said.

Those who we call prophets go to great lengths to show our mixed up and sometimes sinful values in real ways.  I’ll admit I do not get the full effect of Ezekiel cutting off all of his hair and dividing it, but I do understand Ghandi literally standing against the British until the empire left.  Both suffered by pushing against the taboos and mores of their culture, and that is how we know they were willing to fight for the cause of the just.  God’s name may not always make an appearance in their words, but I believe in the mystery of our faith that says God moves in ways that we know in our hearts.

The sad reality is prophets by nature are on the leading edge of what God is doing in the world.  From what I know of history, most people we give the title of prophet were not seen as prophetic by the wider world of their day.  Prophets are tasked with swaying society back toward what God wants, and what we want often is in direct conflict with that.  The Bible tells us to share what we have with others, but the world tells us not to enable those who take charity for granted.  “Love your neighbors,” Jesus said, “…unless they try to steal from you,” the world adds, “then they deserve what’s coming.”  God’s will is often different from our will.  Our will usually has something to do with our wallets. God works in the currency of infinite love and grace.

When we look to Deuteronomy, the writer makes clear where our prophets will come from.  They don’t originate out of nowhere and they certainly cannot name themselves as such.  Verse 18 says, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people;…” For one, the prophet will have authority, because not everyone was versed in the law of the Pentateuch – the Jewish law from which Deuteronomy comes.  To know the law, one must have wisdom and patience to understand God’s will.  Similarly, that person will come from within the community.  No one who does not know the community can speak for it.  

1 Corinthians warns us that we must also be vigilant in discerning what is good for us.  When we hear someone speaking on our or God’s behalf, we must be mindful of what they say and do.  While this passage concerns food specifically, it talks about how we should know what is good for us.  We can have all the knowledge in the world but it is not good unless it serves love of God and love of neighbor.  Otherwise, knowledge runs the risk of ego.

Knowing who our prophets are sits well in the context of food and community.  I am a firm believer that you really get to know someone when you share a meal with them.  Community is based on what we do together.  It is no surprise that our two major sacraments of communion and baptism are both deeply personal actions – eating and washing – that are done in the presence of others.  Paul warns the community in Corinth to be mindful of what they do just as Deuteronomy asks we be mindful of what God wants for us.  This morning, while we celebrate communion, I ask that you take a moment to show appreciation for the God who loves you always and finds various avenues for you to be reminded that you are loved and cared for.

So, when we speak of prophets coming from amongst us, how can be sure we have found someone whom God has anointed to speak?  My first instinct is to point to the Gospels.  We see Christ as being so much more than a prophet, but he was still a prophet of his time.  He told people that empires did not dictate the ways of the world; God does.  The same laws passed through history were taught to Jesus as a boy.  He came from a Jewish family.  Given he was a craftsman, I can’t vouch for his education and knowledge of the law, but I think our faith in his Son of God status has a wisdom component.

Jesus shows us that God’s word and will can often be hidden like the parables.  Sometimes God is as plain as “love God, love neighbor.”  God’s will can hurt our plans as the rich, young ruler learned.  God also knows when we are poor and blesses us with loaves and fish.  If you ever need to know what a prophet looks like, I would recommend brushing up on the Gospels and look for the good news that God loves all of us, wants us to love each other, and is in the business of seeing the world serve for goodness for all and not just for some.  The Gospels and the Living Christ still challenge us to hear God’s words fresh and new.

Jesus offers us a litmus test for knowing who our modern day prophets are.  They must be willing to be honest yet unyielding to naming and ending injustice. They must achieve justice without violence or manipulation. They will be one of us.  Prophets will come and go, but those who will lead us to a new tomorrow will look a lot like Christ, because they have God on their side.

If you are looking for our prophet, start by looking around you.  Belmont serves a single community in a single city, but its members are doing some good things.  Who is to say OUR prophet for today is not sitting in a pew here this morning or at the 10:30 service. We are a community striving to love God and neighbor as best we can by opening our doors to people who need love.  I say this community, and communities all around Nashville, Tennessee, and the world, are building up their members to do great works in the name of God.  May we be so blessed as to find our prophet.  Amen.

   

Sermon transcript for January 25, 2015

Come, Follow Me!
Mark 1:14-20
Belmont UMC—January 25, 2015
Ken Edwards

The obvious question that comes from the Gospel text this morning is why these men follow Jesus without question. He speaks to them, “Come, follow me,” and right away they follow him. The Gospel of Mark begins with a flurry of things happening. There is no long birth narrative and here in the first chapter Jesus is baptized, spends time in the wilderness with the wild beasts and then begins calling disciples.

What motivates these four to become disciples? The two sets of brothers: Simon and Andrew, James and John, are all fishermen. Some wonder how successful they were. We see them mending worn out nets and casting nets into the shallow water on the wrong side of the boat. The only time they seem to catch fish is when Jesus shows them how.

In another place James and John have the nickname, Sons of Thunder. One has to wonder how they got that name. I picture them in preschool, a whirlwind of activity in the corner of the classroom, destroying all the other kids’ toys. I heard Tony Campolo say he could imagine them riding into Capernaum on Harley Davidsons, wearing black leather jackets, with the words, Sons of Thunder, emblazoned on the back.

Some have suggested that they were disciples of John the Baptist and already had some interest in the teachings of Jesus. What motivates them to be Christ followers?  

What motivates us to be Christ followers? When I was a child, fear was a motivator. I recall going to revival services in which the preachers could paint some rather scary pictures of the consequences of not following in the way of Jesus. It doesn’t appear that Jesus uses fear to motivate these four brothers.

When my older sons were in youth group they came to my office one Sunday and asked if they could go to something called Judgment House at a nearby church. Judgment House is what I would call a “Christian” haunted house, set up around the time of Halloween each year. I brought the boys in and told them that Judgment House was a series of fictional scenes that depict teenagers who have made some questionable decisions, got killed in an accident and wound up in the torments of Hell. I said, “You are not going. If you are going to become followers of Jesus, I want you to be loved into that decision, not scared into it.” They agreed.

Fear is not a very good motivator and it doesn’t have a lasting impact on our lives.
Neither is guilt. A lot of us were raised on unhealthy doses of guilt. It can move us to fulfill obligations but not because we want to but because we want to avoid feeling lousy about ourselves. Guilt doesn’t have a lasting impact on us either.

But love does. The Jesus that Andrew, Peter, James and John decide to follow is the one who heard God say at his baptism, “You are my child. I love you. In you I find happiness.” These four and many more after them will hear God say the same thing to them and so do we. Love is a powerful motivator.

Parents of preschoolers meet with disappointment on weekend mornings when they hope to sleep a little later. But their children wake up early and need their attention. It’s usually not a good idea to allow these young children to have free run of the house.

One morning when our oldest was about 4 years old he got up early on a Saturday morning. His mother and I did not hear him and we slept through the whole thing. He appeared beside our bed, which is a high four-poster bed and all I could see was his little face, which was smiling from ear to ear. He said, “Daddy, I made you some breakfast.” And though I grew up on a farm where big breakfasts were served, I am not a fan of breakfast. I like to get up early, drink a couple of mugs of coffee (preferably in silence), get some exercise, and then eat some yogurt, or if I’m really hungry, I’ll eat some fruit as well. I eat because I’m told I need to, not because I want to.

I looked down at the large bowl in my little boys hands. He said, “I made you a salad; I know you like salad.”  I do like salad but I do not like salad at 6 AM on a Saturday morning. In this bowl there was unwashed lettuce, crude chunks of carrots that were neither peeled nor washed, some whole radishes and a few things I could not identify. On top he had poured a pint of blue cheese dressing. I like blue cheese dressing but not at 6 AM on a Saturday morning.

I pulled myself up in the bed and took the bowl from the little boy. I patted the bed beside me and he climbed up and sat there. I put my arm around him and drew him close and said, “I love you so much, son.”  “I love you, Daddy.”  And I proceeded to eat the entire bowl of unwashed, disgusting food because of one thing: love. Love like that will make you do some foolish things. It might even make you put down your nets and follow a stranger.

So the Gospel text is not about what motivates these 4 persons to become Christ followers. Rather the Gospel is about what motivates God to call us in the first place and the answer is love. For God is love. (1 John 4:7)  God calls each of us God’s child. God loves each of us and God finds happiness in us. I will follow a God who loves me that much.

The other question that comes naturally out of this text is: Who is this Jesus that we are asked to follow? I’m not sure the disciples fully understood who they were following. And we have to confess that we fall into the temptation of recreating Jesus in our own image. Jesus is 62 year old white man who doesn’t like dirty salad covered in blue cheese dressing given to him at 6 AM. Jesus is a Democrat or a Republican. Jesus is my buddy who has all the same habits and traits I have. Jesus is easy-going and predictable. This Jesus we have recreated in our image is not very challenging or threatening to our status quo and we like it that way.  

This Jesus who calls us to follow him is the image of God. I recently sat at my desk and reread the little book, Three Simple Questions, by Bishop Rueben Job. At Rueben’s memorial service last Sunday I spoke of his stewardship of words. And in just a few short paragraphs, Rueben tells us who we are asked to follow in Jesus, the Christ. Listen to his words.

“The God Jesus reveals shatters all our little ideas about God and reveals a God who is author and creator of all that is. In Jesus we see a God who reverses the values of our culture and turns upside down our scheme or priorities, leaving us gasping at the sight of such bone-deep love, justice, and mercy. In Jesus we see such bold and radical truth that we tremble in awe and then cry out for help as we try to practice the faithful way of living he demonstrated so splendidly.”

“In Jesus we see a God who does the unexpected and the unpredictable. We see Jesus choosing to be the friend of sinners and being just as comfortable with the very wealthy as he is with the homeless beggar. We see a God who refuses to accept the boundaries that culture establishes and who moves with ease among scholars, religious leaders, soldiers, prostitutes, farmers, fishermen, tax collectors and demon-possessed men and women—inviting them all into a new way of seeing the world, a new way of living, a new kingdom.”

In Jesus we see a God who is not swayed by popular opinion, loud adulation, or noisy rebellion. In Jesus we see a God who is not controlled by any ideology, philosophy, concept, force, or power. In Jesus we see a God who is never under our control. . . . Jesus reveals a God who is always and forever beyond us, completely other than we are, yet who wants to come and dwell within us. Jesus reveals a God of love.” (pp. 21-22)

I was in Junior High School and I was sitting on the back row of church with a bunch of other young people. Our District Superintendent was preaching. We were passing notes to one another and giggling. Several times we got that scolding look from our parents as they turned and glared at us.

The District Superintendent was a kind and gentle man and I kept hearing him use the word love. He repeated, “God loves each of us.”  “God is love.” He kept saying it and I found myself listening, against my better judgment. He looked at us and said again, “God loves you.”  I knew this. We sang, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” in Vacation Bible School. I heard it in Confirmation, but on that day it was like I was hearing it for the first time. The Holy Spirit was delivering this message to my heart and my mind and I found myself transfixed.  

The sermon ended and the preacher invited persons who wanted to pray to come forward during the hymn. We were standing and all of sudden I realized that I was walking, walking down the aisle and toward the chancel. I fell on my knees at the kneeler. I came face to face that day with the One who has said to me all my life, “I love you. You are my child. You make me happy.”

Kneeling there, I heard Jesus say, “Come, follow me.”


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.

   

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