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Sermon transcript for July 27, 2014

Meditation for Service of Healing Prayers
July 27, 2014
Belmont UMC—Ken Edwards, preaching

Today’s service invites us to a time of healing prayer. This may be new to some of us, even though Services of Healing and Wholeness are a part of our tradition. We’ve offered services of healing prayer during Lent but not on Sunday mornings. This service came out of a period of discernment by the worship staff. And while the idea of coming forward to be anointed with oil, a sign of God’s continuing love for us, and having someone pray with you may seem new to us, prayers for healing are not new.

We are probably more familiar and comfortable with praying for others. I receive numerous prayer requests during each week. I see them in church newsletters I have served in the past, in emails from Sunday School classes and on the Tennessee Conference website. We are glad to offer prayers for others in need. Sometimes prayer for ourselves or those closest to us makes us a bit reluctant. We are always more comfortable being on the giving end than on the receiving end of prayers.

There are many needs for healing in our broken and hurting world. During Holy Week this year, as in every year, the sanctuary was surrounded by Stations of the Cross. In one station stood the cross we recess to the lawn on Good Friday. In front of it were ribbons in many colors. The colors represented different needs for healing and people were invited to tie one of the ribbons on the cross. On Good Friday, when the cross was taken to the front lawn, others tied additional ribbons to the cross. I still have those ribbons in a basket in my office. I took them to staff meeting recently as a visual reminder of the needs of our community and our church. The represent a fraction of the woundedness and brokenness that exist around us all the time.

After Jesus called the disciples and they began to share the good news with others, they became overwhelmed by the numbers of people who were coming to them—so many that they did not have time to eat. At one point Jesus invited the disciples to go away to a quiet, deserted place to rest. But the people kept coming. He said that they were like sheep without a shepherd and he had compassion on them. (Mark 6-30-34) We are often overwhelmed by the enormity of human need and our prayer list grows faster than we can keep up.

We all come here in need of healing of body, mind or spirit. Who among us has not felt a bit wounded by living in this world? Some of are in need of physical healing. Others are in need of emotional healing or healing from painful memories. Some of us know people who suffer the wounds of Post Traumatic Stress. There are broken relationships in need of healing. There are those among us who are struggling under the heavy weight of grief. There are some who suffer from dark bouts of depression.

This past week I read Parker Palmer’s description of the deep depression he experienced in his forties. He wrote of his healing this way. “I felt at home in my own skin, and at home on the face of the earth for the first time.”

What are the areas of your life that are in need of God’s healing touch?

At one church I served we held monthly services of healing prayer. We gathered on Sunday nights. The services were simple and open ended. We read scripture, sang hymns and shared together in Holy Communion. After people took Communion they were invited to kneel for anointing and prayer. The size of the crowd varied depending what was happening in the life of the congregation.

One Sunday morning an older woman named Dot came to me at the end of the worship service and told me that she had been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. The doctors told her that the cancer was treatable but not curable. She was a dear, sweet lady who rarely asked for anything for herself. She was not comfortable telling me about her illness but she asked to be on the prayer list.

Dot came to our Service of Healing and Wholeness the next Sunday and brought her daughter and her two sisters with her. I recall worrying that the service might giver her unrealistic expectations regarding her diagnosis.

After receiving the bread and cup of the Eucharist, Dot made her way to one of the stations where she could be anointed and prayed for. I watched her and said my own prayers for her.

Weeks and months passed and Dot’s health steadily declined. Finally, she entered hospice care at her daughter’s home. The associate pastor and I took turns visiting with her and praying with her. Each week Dot would greet me in a very weak voice, but she would say, “I have some things on my heart that God wants me to tell you.” Each week this quiet and introverted lady would tell me something incredibly profound and prophetic. It was obvious that she and God were communing closely during these last days of her life.

One day she said, “God wants me to tell you to quit worrying so much about you children’s behavior in church. Spend more time playing with them and less time disciplining them and things will go just fine.” I wondered if my family had put her up to that, but I never forgot it.

One day she said, “I never told you about my healing, did I?”  I was perplexed. She proceeded, “It happened that night at church when those kind people put oil on my forehead and prayed for me. I was so anxious and afraid of facing this journey with cancer and I needed God to give me peace and reassurance. When they prayed for me, peace flooded me and has not left me since. God gave me what I needed and I am so blessed.”

What areas of your life need healing?

God meet us here at the place of our deepest need. We need to come with a posture of openness and a level of vulnerability that we are not accustomed to having.

Parker Palmer said that for years he lived in denial about his depression but it kept following him around shouting at his back, throwing rocks and hitting him until he hurt. One day he turned around and said, “What do you want from me?” In acknowledging this deep need, he began to find wholeness.

At the basic level of why we pray is that we believe in the God who loves us. God meets us here as we come with open hearts.


Sermon transcript for July 20, 2014

“The Lord is in this Place”
Genesis 28:10-19a
Belmont UMC—July 20, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

The Lectionary readings for several weeks have us visiting with a man named Jacob. These passages contain rich stories about this rather flawed Biblical character,
Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebekkah and fraternal twin of Esau (first born). Jacob is favored by his mother but because of being second in birth, he is not in line for his father’s blessing. His name means “heel grabber” because he is born clutching his brother’s foot. And throughout his life, this man who would become the patriarch of a nation, uses dishonest scheming and deceit to grab everything he can, including his brother’s birthright . He cheats his own father and cheats his equally deceitful father-in-law through some unexplained and clever animal husbandry.

As one writer said, “Jacob was never satisfied. He wanted the moon, and if he’d ever managed to bilk Heaven out of that, he would have been back the next morning for the stars to go with it.”  (Peculiar Treasures, Frederick Buechner, p. 57)

The Bible gives us many characters in their true colors. We see their imperfections and flaws: Noah and his indiscretions, Abraham in his lack of faith, Sarah in her jealousy of Hagar, Isaac in his naïveté, Moses in his self-doubting, David in his infidelity, Elijah at the point of giving up, Simon Peter in his impulsiveness and Judas in his betrayal. Today these leaders would have a front team, handlers, speech writers and spinners to help them present a better self.

Barbara Brown Taylor described her relationship with the Bible as a marriage, not a romance, “one I’m willing to work on in all the usual ways.” She writes, “What the Bible isn’t is a collection of stories about admirable men and women who loved and served their Lord. It is an encyclopedia of human life on earth, with a few saints and far more scoundrels who lied and cheated their way into the annals of sacred history. Hearing their stories, I listen for family resemblances. . . But throughout all their stories, which are also my stories, I hear God’s story, and that is something else altogether.” (The Preaching Life, “Bible,” pp. 51-62)

Do we see ourselves in these stories? Do we see ourselves in their everyday struggles with life and faith that may mirror our own experiences?

There are two parallel and comparable stories of Jacob’s encounters with God. The first story is the one we read today. Jacob’s mother has encouraged him to go to her family’s home in Haran to find a wife. She is worried that Esau will kill him and she’s sending him away. He’s running away, running from the consequence of his actions, running from the past, running for his life, and hopefully, running toward a fresh start and a brighter future.

So Jacob runs to a place of rest and he takes a stone to use as a pillow and he dreams. He dreams of a ladder extending into heaven and the angels of God are ascending and descending. And the Lord stood beside him and made a covenant with him. He takes the stone used as a pillow and makes a marker out of it and he names the place Bethel, which means ‘house of God.”

Jacob says, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” He ran away but he ran into the very presence of God.

The story causes us to ask ourselves if we can run away from God. And we can certainly try. We run from our mistakes, our painful memories, we run from our disappointments, our failures and our struggles.

But the Biblical image of God is a pursuing God. God pursues us to reveal God’s love to us and to be in relationship with us. We run away and often find ourselves running into the very presence of this pursuing God of grace.

I recently reread sections of Ann Lamott’s book, Traveling Mercies, in which she describes her spiritual journey. As an adult she found herself living near San Francisco, writing some to pay her bills, but mostly drinking to escape, to run from her past, her fears and insecurities.

On Sunday mornings, still dizzy and hung over, she would find herself wandering around a flea market near her home.  One day she was drawn toward a little Presbyterian Church near the market. The sweet sounds of music appealed to her in her weariness. The sounds of hymns sung by older women floated through open windows and the sounds  of music drew her in.

One day she entered the church and stood in the back and listened to the singing. She repeated this on many Sundays, always careful to leave before the sermon. She would sing along with the hymns, writing, “I could sing better there than any where else.” The people did not push her. They loved her and gave her room to find her way. Through their love Lamott found healing and transformation.  Ann Lamott continues to be a part of this congregation to this day.

I often wonder who may enter this place, like Ann Lamott, on a Sunday morning, needing to hear the music of God’s grace, needing to find their way, and needing our love and gentle encouragement to find healing. In this place, that may be a running away place, may we come to discover God’s presence and say, “Surely the Lord was in this place and we did not know it.”

The second story comes on the eve of Jacob meeting with his brother, Esau. He’s afraid and he goes to place by himself to be alone. There is a man there, a mysterious representative of God and the two of them wrestle all night long. At the end of the night the man blesses Jacob with a limp and a new name, Israel, which means “one who strives with God.” Jacob names this place Peniel or “the face of God.”

Jacob wrestles with the man, but he also wrestles with the truth about himself. He is wrestling with his faith in God. We must do the same spiritual work as we become honest about who we are. This can be painful and difficult work.

Years ago I saw a cartoon of 2 little boys who were looking through an anatomy book and seeing drawings of internal organs. One little boy says, “It’s not very pretty but it’s who we are on the inside.” We try to put up a good front. We avoid being vulnerable. We are afraid of what people will think of us. But to encounter God, we must be honest and confessional.

We wrestle with our faith, where there are no pat answers to the difficult questions of life. We work through our faith with fear and trembling, but God is there to help us. This is a good place to wrestle with our faith and find people who will love us and walk alongside of us and give us room to question and learn and grow.

These Jacob stories are about places, but they are not merely geographical places or places where Jacob has run to hide, but they are places where Jacob is surprised by the presence of God. They are sacred places where God turns the ordinary into something holy.

They are the places where Jacob is able to move forward in this covenant with God. Each encounter changes him and moves him forward in his faith and prepares him to be the leader of a nation. The stories invite us to remember and revisit those places, those moments, those turning points, which moved us closer to God.

There is a lot of grace in these Jacob stories. If we had met Jacob at his running away places, we would have given him a good tongue lashing, but God meets him there and gives him a blessing and a promise and a beautiful vision of ascending and descending angels.

Grace always surprises us! Maybe we came here this morning expecting judgment and condemnation. Maybe we felt we deserved that. But we were surprised to find God in this place and our God meets us here with love, grace and forgiveness. It is in God’s extravagant grace that we find healing and transformation.

Maybe we came here as ones who are running away and were surprised to run right into the very arms of God.

Maybe we came here wrestling with some truth about ourselves or we are wrestling with issues of faith (or doubt). We found a safe and grace filled place to be honest and vulnerable. We found blessing and hope for new way forward. We found God and said with Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place!”


Sermon transcript for July 13, 2014

A Sower Went Out to Sow
Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
Belmont UMC—July 13, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

I watched my Dad load the seeder filled w/ bags of seed. As a boy my job was to sit beside him on the tractor and watch the machinery being pulled by tractor. If it clogged, jammed, I was to tell him to stop.

I asked lots of questions: “Why so many seeds?”

Dad answered, “It takes a lot of seeds for a big field, and some won’t come up.  

“Why won’t they come up?”

Dad answered again, “Some are bad, some are old and won’t sprout, some will fall on soil that won’t grow anything, some will get eaten by birds, weeds will choke out some, and so we overplant to get a good yield. Why do you ask so many questions?”

Two weeks later we would revisit the field and Dad would scratch in the dirt to look for signs of germination, of sprouting corn. He would take off his cap and rub his head and try to offer a verdict on the year’s crops.

I’ve watched him replant small patches of fields with an old canvas hand seeder strapped onto his chest. He’d turn a grinder—he always looked like one of those organ grinders you see on the streets in old movies.

Seeds intrigue me. I’ve been around the planting of crops all my life. Even now, with flower beds filled with perennials and annuals from the youth flower sale, I have to sow some seeds to enjoy the process.

Seeds come in all shapes and sizes. Some are long and narrow, some are miniscule, and some are round flat seeds. But all seeds are dry and lifeless. No one would give them much of a chance on first glance. Seeds need warm, moist, dark earth to germinate. I’ve planted old seeds that I found in the cupboard and they surprise me with new flowers in the garden.

Sowing seeds can be fascinating and delightful or frustrating and disappointing. Some farmers on television were complaining of too much water and of seeds rotting in the earth. Some were complaining of drought and of seedlings that had dried up and died.
Jesus said that a farmer went out to scatter seeds—full of anticipation—he’d done it many times. The farmer broadcast seeds all over the place, because he knew that some seeds won’t make it.

It seems wasteful to me--all those seeds that won’t produce anything but compost or bird food. I don’t like to waste things. I pick up paper clips off the floor, and I save rubber bands until they dry rot in my desk. I pick up pennies along the road when I’m running and walking. I find lots of interesting things on the road—things that have fallen off of trucks. I once found a huge ball of twine and I picked it up and ran home with it. The most unusual thing I ever picked up was an axe. I ran home carrying an axe, not calculating how strange that might look to passersby.

John Wesley discouraged us from wasting time and to use it wisely—I carry a book and note cards with me everywhere I go. I find a way to write a letter or read a chapter. I don’t like to waste seeds. I place them in the garden with great care.

A farmer went out to sow and some seeds fell on the path. I pictured a cow path when I read this.  Cows like to walk over the same place repeatedly and they create cow paths in the field--paths of dirt that are packed and hard from the abuse and weight of cows. My folks used to refer to stubborn people as cow paths. You can’t plant seeds on a cow path. Jesus said some people are like that—you can throw seeds at them all year long, but nothing will grow.

I don’t like to waste seeds on cow path people. They are not bad people, just resistant. They can sit in church on Sunday morning, tears welling in the eyes of people all around them because of the wonderful choir anthem or because taking the bread and cup of the Eucharist means so much to them, and there they are, the cow path people, thinking about the pot roast in the oven or planning on shooting bottle rockets in the back yard. You can offer the seeds of God’s word and nothing grows--no love or justice, no hope of transformation, no compassion, and no desire to reach out to anyone.

Some of the farmer’s seeds fell on rocky ground.  Why do we have to spread seeds on rocky soil? I planted some flower seeds on the rocky side of my house one year and they sprang up and looked promising for a week or so and then started to fade.
Those rocky soil people get so excited for awhile, joining the church, volunteering for everything that comes up. There they are every time the church is open. They will say, “Pastor, we love it here, nothing could be better.” Six months later they are sleeping in on Sunday mornings or eating brunch at the newest restaurant in town but can’t find the energy for church. And we wonder why we wasted so much time on those folks.

And then there are those thorns—outside forces (hopefully not inside forces) that choke and kill the spirit of people who would otherwise be disciples for Jesus Christ. There are thorns like tragedies, being excluded, injustices, weird and harmful theology, depression, life-defeating experiences, and poverty. The list is long. A lot of us carry the wounds caused by life thorns. On July 27 our worship will be a Service of Healing and Wholeness and we’ll have time to pray for our woundedness.

A famer went out to sow, knowing full well the risk of sowing. It takes a lot of patience—you can wait a lifetime to see some seeds sprout and some you will never live to see.

A young woman came up to me at Annual Conference a few years ago and introduced herself to me. I knew her name but did not recognize her. She had been a teenager in a church I had served years ago. She proceeded to tell me how my presence in her life had helped her. She quoted some things I had said in sermons and told me that I had made a huge difference in her life. I had no memory of saying or doing any of those things.

Her words reminded me that the sower must be faithful—in bad years and in good years—she still heads to the field to sow those seeds.

Remember we are called to be faithful not successful—we are the sowers of the seed of God’s word. We go out to sow the seeds of grace, justice, and forgiveness--faithfully going out to do what God has called us to do.

So what are the lessons from this parable?

We do not get to be selective--sowing one seed here and one over there. We are called to share the seeds of God’s word everywhere, never knowing where they will fall or how they will be received or what will happen.

Don’t give up on anyone. I used to be a cow path! You could throw seeds at me all day long and nothing would grow. I could not hear the gospel. Maybe some of you were like that—or you were shallow, rocky ground and had a false start of faith. Or the thorns of life choked out the possibility of a life with God. Somehow the seeds finally took hold and sprang into life. Don’t give up. Someone kept sowing the seeds of grace in our lives and here we are today because of their persistence.

Fortunately, soil can be amended, gardening term. I have an earth machine from public works that is making good compost. We not only sow seeds, but we amend the soil with things like forgiveness and grace and prayer. Our job as a community of faith is to create an environment that is rich enough for something transformative to happen in people’s lives.

The Parable is not all bad news—this amended soil brought forth grain—some a hundred fold—some sixty—some thirty (depending on who was counting—the pastor or the ushers).

Every now and then we hear of someone we never dreamed would change, turning their life around. Stony hearts have been transformed. Cold hearts that now serve the poor or get fired up on issues of justice. Cow paths turned into fruitful fields. Thorn-choked lives finding hope and joy in God. Because the sowers went out to sow and did not get discouraged and give up!

The first gift my wife ever gave me was a plaque “Your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” It’s from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. She was a student and did not have a lot of money and the gift meant so much to me. I hear that phrase in my mind a lot.

And the farmer goes out to scatter seeds, and God has promised a harvest--a gracious, abundant, and surprising harvest.

Pastoral prayer by Gwen Purushotham:

O God
You scatter your Word like seeds--
intentionally and recklessly,
it lands on all kinds of soil--
On paths where it has no chance to grow;  
On rocky ground where it cannot take root;
Among thorns where it is short-lived;
And sometimes, only sometimes . . .
On good soil where
your Word of love and truth, the Kingdom
takes hold and produces
a hundredfold.
We confess that this challenges our notions of success and failure.  
We prayer for persons everywhere who are foolish and wise enough to . . .
Scatter seeds of Love in the most desperate of places and under the most impossible conditions . . .     
Among Israeli and Palestinian communities
In the Ukraine and Russia
In Syria
In a planet faced with the crisis of climate change
In a world where loneliness, poverty, hatred, and the fear of death threaten  
to undo us.
O God, in these times
when the measurements for the health and vitality of the church
are based on productivity and consumerism,
transform us into reckless, risk-taking sowers of your Word,
and make us signs of your presence in the world you so love.
In the name of Jesus, the Christ, who taught his disciples to pray . . .


Sermon transcript for July 6, 2014

Romans 7:15-25
Year A 4th Sunday After Pentecost
July 6, 2014 - Chris Allen, preaching
"Thanks Be To God"

Wow. At first glance, the biggest hurdle to understanding Paul’s words to the Romans is the tongue twister that it is.

If you read earlier in Romans, you will recall that in the previous chapter, Paul’s straight talk to the church in Rome could be summed up as, “Come one now, you’re baptized. You are raised with Christ in conquering sin and death. Now start acting like it.” Now in chapter seven it seems that Paul is in need of his own advice. Its as if Paul is now floundering in excuses. "It is not me, it is sin's fault!"

Let’s take a moment and retrace Paul’s argument from chapter six. First, Jesus is victorious over sin and death. Paul makes this point clear. Second, at our baptism we are given the power to experience freedom from sin and death because of the work of Christ. This should sound familiar to our baptismal covenant when the candidate or sponsor is asked, “Do you accept the freedom and power God has given you to reject evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Paul will go on in chapter eight to call this acceptance of freedom and exercising your power in Christ over sin and death, “life in the Spirit.” Life in the Spirit is where we welcome, experience, and delight in God’s law in our innermost being.  

Paul says, “I don’t do what I want to do. Instead I do the thing I hate.” The struggle that Paul describes is the reality of our actual experience. The persons we have been and the habits we have kept keep us from knowing, much less delighting in the law of God. We’ve been patterned by sin to respond in certain ways without even knowing. The pervasive power of sin in our lives forms us to seek revenge when we want reconciliation. The conditioning of sin deafens our ears to the cries of those who are in need. We’ve got a lot of unlearning to do.  

This isn’t just a you problem or problem for me. This is an all of us problem. These words from Paul in Romans chapter three can be unsettling but they are true. All have sinned and fall short of God’s God (Romans 3:23).  These words can be a tough pill to shallow but they’re true. It’s true about your life. It’s true about my life.

But, are you going on to perfection?  This is a question that is asked of all the candidates at ordination as part of what is known as “the Historic Questions." Ken, Linda, Pam, Susan and many others in this room have all been asked this question. Heather, Adam, and I look forward to the day when the Bishop asked this question. It is a question that goes all the way back to John Wesley. This question was not reserved to candidates for ordination as it is reserved today. (REPEAT). Wesley asked this question to all the women and men who served as leaders in the Methodist societies. These were the lay people, no just clergy, who lead Bible studies, prayer meetings, watched over the finances, visited those in prison, fed the hungry, and clothed the naked.

So are you going on to perfection? Notice that the question is not “Are you perfect?” it asks, “Are you going on to perfection?” If you are not going on to perfect, then where are you headed? The destination of the life of Christian discipleship is marked by loving God with all of heart, with all of your being, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength. Loving other people with the same love that God has shown to you marks the life of discipleship. The life of Christian discipleship is moving toward the love of God within each one of us becoming a visible reality of God in the world we live. It is unlearning the habits of sin and being formed by the Holy Spirit with the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If this is perfection, who doesn’t want to move towards that? What might the world look like if all of us are fully committed to going on to perfection?

There is a fancy Methodist word used to describe this movement towards perfection and it is called sanctification. It is word you probably don't use much in conversation. Sanctification is the ongoing process by which we are drawn into the likeness of Christ, into that full relationship with Jesus. The sanctification of our lives is truly by the grace of God, that sweet amazing grace that finds us when we are lost, guides us through the many dangers, toils, and snares, and never gives up to lead us home.

Sanctification is beautiful part of our tradition, the Wesleyan tradition. In the final verse of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” Charles Wesley wrote these words.
Finish, then, Thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in Thee.

Charles is talking about sanctification. Sanctification is not some otherworldly process. It is has happening right here and right now.  And I’ve seen it…

I’ve witnessed it in the lives of Kim Hawkins, Lori Pearce, and bunch of young women. Kim and Lori co-led the middle school girls small group for the past two years.  The on-going process of sanctification, of growing into the likeness of Christ, is at work in this group as they’ve studied scripture together, prayed for each other, and served alongside one another. I know God’s sanctifying grace is at work in this group of women because Kim and Lori have both come to me after youth group on Sunday night and said, “I just don’t know the answers anymore to the questions they are asking now asking me. I need to go home, read more scripture this week, and do some research.” You see, the grace of God loves us so enough us to meet us where we are. The good news is that God’s amazing grace doesn’t leave us there. God’s grace loves us so much as to transform our way of being into the likeness of Christ.  

Are you earnestly striving after it? So you say you are going on to perfection and you believe it can happen here and now, so what are you doing about it? Grace invites us to respond. This is where the rubber meets the road. Its one thing to look up on Google Maps how many miles Dallas is from Nashville but it’s quite a different thing to jump in your car actually make the drive to Dallas. So what are you doing to move in the direction of Christian perfection?  

The are a number of opportunities to help you move in that direction, no matter if you are still exploring the faith, just getting started, or seeking to take the next step to deepen your faith. Throughout the history of the church there have been certain practices that lead us towards perfect love such as studying scripture, prayer, community, service, and worship. If you are just starting out maybe its just join us again next week for worship or becoming a part of one of our affinity groups. If you are seeking to take a deeper step, I invite you to be apart of one of the upcoming Covenant bible studies groups or be a mentor to the young people of our congregation through our youth and children ministries. As we gather around this table today, may the spirit work within all of us, no matter where we are on the journey, knowing that God’s grace leads us home.

1 Unlearning the pattern of sin is a term borrowed from L. Gregory Jones in Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis.
2 Book of Discipline 2012, ¶336.
3 Steve Manskar, “What’s Christian Perfection got to do with Leadership?” http://wesleyanleadership.com/2010/03/15/whats-christian-perfection-got-to-do-with-leadership/


Sermon transcript for June 29, 2014

A Cup of Cold Water
Matthew 10:40-42
Belmont UMC—June 29, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

During our college days, Kathryn, my wife, and I participated in a sociology class project with a number of other students. Our project involved volunteering for the county health department and doing a health needs survey of a poor pocket of the county. We were given a list of questions and a road map of the area we were to survey. We were told to expect rejection because the people in that area of the county were wary of strangers.

On several Saturday mornings we set out to see how many households we could survey. We did meet with quite a bit of rejection. People were suspicious of us and of government programs and they did not want us meddling in their lives.

One very hot sunny morning we parked our car on the side of the road and looked at the house in front of us. It was very run down, bushes were overgrown all around the place, the grass had not been mowed for a long time, paint peeled from the siding, gutters hung loose from the roof line. We would have assumed the house to be abandoned, except for the smoke coming from the chimney.

We went to the front door and knocked—no answer. We knocked again and louder and we waited. Finally, an older disheveled woman peered out the glass in the door frame. “What do you want?” she asked. We explained who we were and that we had a few questions to ask. She said, “I’m  not going to do that.” Then she cracked the door and said, “Wait a minute; I have to get my cornbread out of the oven before it burns.”

We waited a long time and almost decided to leave, when she returned to the door. She had a tray in her hand with three wedges of cornbread and three glasses of sweet ice tea (Southerners make their tea so sweet you could put it on your pancakes if you ran out of syrup.)

There were no chairs so the three of us sat on the edge of the porch with our legs hanging over the side. She told us she didn’t like to be asked a lot of questions, but we looked hot and she wanted to give us some tea and cornbread. She explained that she cooked on a wood cook stove, because the food tasted better than food coming out of those electric stoves. She told us that her husband was sick with cancer and resting or she would invite us in the house. She told us much of her life story and somehow over the course of the next hour she inadvertently answered all the questions we would have asked.

In a act of surprising hospitality the walls between us came down and the three of us began to feel very much at home with one another.

The Gospel text today comes on the heels of Jesus sending the disciples out to share the good news. He sends them warnings about the consequences of being a Jesus follower. They can expect rejection and they can expect division and name calling. He reminds them of how important they are to God, every hair on their heads counts to God.

But Jesus said to them, “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me.” Those are powerful words. Today, across the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences, pastors are experiencing their first Sunday in a new appointment. There couldn’t be a more appropriate text for this new beginning. I remember being in that place 7 years ago, standing before you for the first time. I was nervous and I written the word “BREATHE!” at the top of my notes for feat that I would forget. I had a dream the night before that my cincture fell around my ankles and I fell down the chancel steps. You were so gracious to this stranger among you and you welcomed me and my family, and in welcoming us you were welcoming Jesus.

Jesus said, “I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” He did not say give them cold sweet tea, but it would still work.

This text is about how we receive others in the name of Jesus. It echoes the call for genuine hospitality, the kind of hospitality that breaks down barriers and creates a space for relationships to form.

We are called to the ministry of hospitality—all of us. This is not the responsibility of The Inviting Team of Belmont UMC; it is the work we are all called to do. It is one of the 4 core values of our church. From the Hebrew Scriptures where God reminds the Hebrew people to “welcome the immigrant, because you were once immigrants in Egypt (Deut. 10:19) to the Gospels where Jesus models the gift of hospitality, especially toward those who are not being welcomed by others, we are hearing this call. Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Paul implored the people to welcome the stranger (Romans 15). And the writer of Hebrews gave us this: “Do not neglect to welcome the strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (13:2)

Henri Nouwen noted that contemporary Americans are nomads, “a world of strangers estranged from their own past, culture, and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God.” He proposed that “if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality.” Hospitality is the creation of free space “where strangers can become friends.” (Reaching Out)

Genuine hospitality is not always easy. It means stepping outside our comfort zones. It means radical inclusivity. It means offering the welcome of Christ to persons who are different from our selves, persons of different classes, life choices, races, political parties, and cultures. Many of the people of our church have come from refugee camps in Burma. They feel at home and safe in our church. That’s what they tell us. Many of them do not speak English but they will understand a friendly greeting that comes with a warm smile.

Jesus’ disciples were not always comfortable with the boundaries he crossed. They were uncomfortable with his conversation with a Samaritan woman, with children and with persons who had diseases that made them ritually unclean. Jesus modeled this kind of genuine hospitality, reaching out to those who were marginalized and unwelcomed in their own culture an by their own places of faith.

Genuine hospitality is transformative to both host and guest. Nouwen wrote, “When hostility is converted to hospitality, then fearful strangers can become guests . . . and the distinction between host and guest evaporates in the recognition of newfound unity.” (Reaching Out)

Diana Butler Bass says, “Hospitality is not a tame practice.” She tells of being at Cornerstone UMC in Naples, Florida, a church with a rich practice of hospitality and watching a preppy retired man chatting with a man covered in tattoos, a Haitian man chatting with teens, and 3 black-clad teenage girls with pierced noses and Goth makeup approach an elderly lady in a wheelchair. One by one they bent down and kissed her and asked how she was doing.”  (Christianity for the Rest of Us, pp. 77-87)

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” Jesus said to his disciples. In hospitality we see Christ and we offer Christ to a hurting world. We are too often apologetic for being the church and reaching out to others in evangelism. We have forgotten what it has meant for us to be here, among this wonderful community of faith and how much it has meant to our lives.

We sometimes forget that the people who come through these doors are people in need. Look around you on Sunday mornings. Chances are we have no idea of the needs represented in this place. Some have come here seeking and they may not know what they are seeking—only that there is an emptiness that the rest of life is not filling. The people sitting around you may have huge struggles to face. They do not expect us to meet all their needs. And all they need from us is a warm welcome, a welcome gracious enough that they feel at home in our presence and in this church.

Everyone here is in need. Everyone here is in need of God’s grace. Everyone here needs to know that God loves them and values them. Everyone here needs forgiveness. And they will find what they need if we give them a hospitable space in which to find their way to God.

Let us live with these words this summer and see where they take us:  Put things in order, respond to my encouragement, be in harmony with each other, and live in peace.  

Then Paul says, “Then the God of love and peace will be with you.”



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