Past Sunday Sermons
Belmont UMC—September 1, 2013
Adam Kelchner, preaching
There is a feast set on that table. It is a simple meal of baked bread and the fruit of the vine. And in its simplicity there are deep, mysterious, and sacred characteristics. Some how in the setting of the table, the blessing of the cup and the breaking of the bread, this community of faith discovers the eternal saving grace of God. In our celebration of this feast at the Lord’s table, we live into one of Jesus’ last instructions to his disciples before his death. ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’
Years ago upon the death of my grandfather’s eldest brother, my great aunts, beloved cousins, and I sat around the dining room table looking at old discolored photographs. The particular photo that caught my eye was of a wedding banquet: there were tables stretched end to end across a room as wide as this sanctuary, candelabras adorning the tables every few feet, loaves of bread as big as tree trunks, and finely dressed Sicilian men and women dwarfed by the high backs of the banquet chairs. Indeed it looked like a party to remember-a feast of a lifetime. I doubt anyone went home hungry after that wedding banquet.
As I think back through my childhood and all the times I gathered around table with this extended family of Sicilians, I realize they probably inherited their table manners from aunts, uncles, and grandparents who planned that wedding feast captured in that dusty photograph. Often after dining on salad, homemade buttered bread, olives, cold cut deli meat, lasagna, coffee, delicately crafted cookies from the local bakery, and biscotti, I’d have to insist to my Aunt Rissa and Aunt Mae I couldn’t possibly eat anymore food. And despite my insistence another plate of noodles and sauce would make its way onto my place mat. Around Aunt Rissa’s dining room table I began tasting the fullness of grace. Maybe this is why Jesus spends so much time at dinner parties and ministering with food-indeed the Gospel of Luke has more stories of Jesus and food than Matthew, Mark, or John-these dinner situations can be powerful experiences and signs of the abundance of God’s grace.
So here we find ourselves in the middle of another one of Jesus’ teaching moments while he’s at a Sabbath meal at the home of a Pharisee. The lesson is one on humility and hospitality. After he sees guests jockeying for the place of honor he begins to teach. Don’t assume you should be sitting at the head table-you might embarrass yourself if the dinner host has that place assigned for someone else. Pick a place of low esteem so that you might be lifted up. No need to cause undue embarrassment for yourself.
Then Jesus goes on as he turns to his host to offer a few instructive words. I can just imagine the host’s eyes open wide as he hangs on each word wondering if Jesus is going to criticize the manner in which he prepared the Sabbath meal. Don’t invite the powerful and privileged-that’s self serving. If you throw a fine party and your close circles come, well then of course they’re going to invite you to their next get together. That’s not much more than an insular self serving cycle of private parties.
I’ve dined around many of your tables, sometimes for business and other times for celebration. I know that in the love you have for one another you break bread together often. You generously open your homes and make sure that guests are well fed. You understand the abundance that comes forth from God’s grace and your dinner menus reflect that.
And I suppose that the dining etiquette of Jesus’ contemporaries is not a far cry from the way we still plan who to sit by, what to wear, what to say, what not to say, and how to conduct one’s self at the dining table, when we break bread together as family, colleagues, business partners, fellow Christ-followers, and wedding guests. We do all these things for esteem and so that we might be invited back to dine another day.
But have you ever heard after the fact about a party or a dinner gathering that a close friend held? Perhaps you waited day after day for the invitation for an upcoming gathering but it never came. And you always thought that your relationship with this friend or family member guaranteed you a seat at their table? You know, a table, a meal, an invitation-they have a way of being very effective tools of bringing some people close and keeping others away-in other words, discrimination. This is the underside of a feast as we know it-a guest list that has been carefully culled over means someone isn’t getting an invitation. Our private parties are meant to be exclusionary but Jesus points out so clearly that the Lord’s Table is far from a private party.
Let’s get back to those words Jesus has about the guest list- do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, those who are disabled, the lame, and the blind. As much as Jesus is giving sound practical advice on how to be invited to the place of honor, this teaching points to something much deeper about what God is doing in the world. It’s a strong word to the church about who needs a place set at the table. Who desperately needs an invitation to Christ’s table because they are not welcome at any other table of power and privilege?
This table, Christ’s table, is set first for those who are at the greatest social and spiritual disadvantage-you who typically have no table on which to eat your meals, if you eat at all; you who have no place to call home anymore because your families despise you; you whose hands are blistered and calloused from work but still struggle to pay rent and put food on your child’s plate; you who have come to Christ’s table before to experience grace and all you found on the menu were plates full of condemnation and cups full of hatred; you whose sexual identity marks you for discrimination in the church, you who by the color of your skin can’t live and work in places without the weight of discrimination bearing down on you-Christ’s table is set for you. The good news of Jesus the Christ is that if you’ve ever been turned away at another table, it is time for you to come and feast on God’s grace. No one is turned away at this banquet feast. Come and be filled.
Ready and Waiting
Belmont UMC—August 11, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father delights in giving you the kingdom.” (v. 32) With these tender and comforting words Jesus teaches his followers how to be ready and postured to receive the kingdom. By kingdom Jesus does not mean the kingdom of heaven and the sweet by and by, but the kingdom is God’s active reign over all things; the kingdom is witnessed here and now where God’s purposes are being fulfilled among us.
The kingdom is the gift of God. And the tense of the Greek verb here indicates that God has already given us the kingdom, but we must be ready and waiting and attentive to receive the kingdom, to receive what God has already given us--to receive the kingdom when it comes, when we witness the kingdom’s fulfillment, and when we are fully engaged in it ourselves.
Jesus invites his followers to get their priorities straight, to invest in things that last—in spiritual things, in our relationship with God. There are echoes here of last week’s text and the parable about the man who had all these things stored in barns but had not taken care of his spiritual life. We are to make the focus of the kingdom our primary concern in all things. We are to be ready and waiting like those who keep their lamps lit and await their master to return from the wedding banquet.
“Do not be afraid, little flock. . .” But we are afraid sometimes and Jesus’ followers, hearing these passages for the first time, had much to fear as well. They were making their way to Jerusalem, to the seat of power, where evil systems were set in place to attempt to upend all that they were doing and experiencing with Jesus. Jesus knew they were afraid and he was saying, “Focus on those things that the downturns in life and hardships, and even the systemic evils, can never take away from you.”
We are afraid, as well. We are afraid of heightened terror alerts, of raging storms that send us to the basement, we are afraid of the known and of the unknown. When I was very young pastor I visited an older church member who had not been at church for several weeks. I found her locked in her house, trembling with fear. The drapes were pulled and the doors were locked. When I asked her what was frightening her, she said, “Everything!” She had run out of food but was afraid to go out to the store, afraid to drive her car, afraid of strangers, afraid of everything. Her fear had imprisoned her in her little house. I spent a long time with her that day and I had to call her family to come and help her. I never forgot that visit.
A mom sent her six year old son to talk to me. He had become obsessed with, and fearful of death and what might happen if he died. I had no idea how this conversation was going to go and I wish parents would not put me in these positions. As it turned out, the little boy did most of the talking so I was pretty much off the hook.
He said, “I have nightmares about people trying to kill me and I wake up afraid that I might die.” (I suggested to his parents that they monitor his TV use and video games a little more closely.) He said, “I wonder what heaven will be like. When I have nightmares I wake up very afraid and I go and crawl in bed between my parents and I’m not afraid anymore. Maybe that’s what heaven is like. Not being afraid anymore because you feel safe.” Then he got up and said, “Thanks, Pastor Ken, I feel better now.” I learned a lot from that conversation. Maybe the kingdom is that place where we do not have to fear because we can feel safe in the presence of God. “Do not be afraid, little flock. . .”
God has already given us the kingdom.
There is always patient and attentive waiting involved in the coming of the kingdom. We do not like to wait; I do not like to wait. We are the culture of immediate gratification. We do not like the process or the time it takes; we like the goal. Last week on Facebook I saw lots of photos of children ready for their first day of school. One photo was of a pretty, little girl, heading off to kindergarten for the first time. I remember when her parents spent many hours in my office--during the time they worked with Miriam’s Promise to adopt a baby. There were long months of waiting and some moments of disappointment. Their house was ready, diapers were bought, the nursery was ready, their hearts were ready and full to overflowing. But the waiting was unbearable. One day the call came and a beautiful little girl was placed in their arms. And last week the parents held each other and cried when they left her at kindergarten for the first time. Waiting for the kingdom is a lot like that, but at the end of the attentive waiting we are handed the gift of God’s presence and grace.
We are called to be ready and alert. Jesus wants us to be able to recognize the kingdom when it comes. What does the kingdom look like? We have to have some idea of what the kingdom is like to see it when it comes. It might surprise us or catch us off guard. United Methodist Communications has this promotional theme called “Rethink Church.” I like the concept but for some of us rethinking church does not come naturally. When I think of church I think worship like this, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, church camp, and many traditional models of church life. But we need a broader vision of those places where God comes to us and reveals the kingdom.
Jim Wallis speaks of one of his “lesser known” mentors, an old Pentecostal woman named Mary Glover. He writes, “She taught me more about the call of Jesus to the poor than any seminary professor I ever had.” Mary Glover volunteered in the weekly food line and she was so poor herself that she, too, needed one of the bags of food handed out there. Mary often said the prayer before we opened the doors each Saturday morning because she was the best pray-er. “Mary was one of those people who pray like they know to whom they’re talking. You got the sense that she’d been carrying on a running conversation with her Lord for a very long time.”
Mary’s prayer was pretty much the same each week and Wallis loved to be present for this prayer. She always began by saying something like this, “Thank you, Lord, for waking us up this morning! Thank you, Lord, that our walls were not our grave and our bed was not our cooling board! Thank, you, Lord!” Then she would always pray the same words as the long line of people waiting outside, “Lord, we know that you’ll be coming through this door today, so Lord, help us to treat you well.” (God’s Politics, p. 217)
God’s kingdom might come to us in the middle of the week instead of 8:15 or 10:30 on Sunday morning and God’s kingdom might come in the form of the poor, or a stranger, or in the presence of someone who would not feel comfortable joining us for worship or Sunday School, but God comes and we must be ready and alert and able to recognize it in whatever form it comes to us.
What does the kingdom look like? The text presents an image that is quite countercultural. The head of the home returns late at night, he does not threaten or judge, but he dons the apron of a servant and prepares and serves food to those who are alert and ready. It looks like a banquet table full of comfort foods and God is the host and server. There is so much beautiful grace in this passage.
A few years ago I read the book, The Shack, (by William P. Young) because a lot of folks were reading it and kept asking what I thought about it. Though I did not enjoy the book as much as others did, I did love the image of God as one who fries up bacon and eggs for the weary and grief stricken traveler. She speaks to the traveler with honesty and tenderness and you can almost hear her say, “Do not be afraid, little one. . .”
Use your imagination here. Last week I visited my parents in Springfield. It was a few days after my Mom’s birthday and I took a wonderful pot roast and some sides to share with them for dinner. We sat at their small kitchen table and enjoyed the food, food that was simple delicious and familiar.
As we were eating my Mom said, “Your brother came one afternoon last week and around dinner time he offered to take us to dinner, but I didn’t want to go out. I told him that I had some white beans that had been cooking on the stove all day. We didn’t have much, but we made a little meal. I did make some cornbread to go with the beans and I cooked up some fresh corn from the garden. We did have some yellow squash and I found some turnip greens in the freezer because your brother loves turnip greens. We didn’t have much, just a little light supper.” I think I had a religious experience just listening to her description of this little meal.
The kingdom looks like folks gathered around a table, all kinds of people from every nation, every tribe and walk of life. We look like a motley group, a hodgepodge of weary, reluctant and fearful travelers settling down to receive the gifts of God, to eat God’s food that comforts us: there is fruit from the first garden and cake made from manna scooped from the floor of the wilderness, there is bread made from the last oil and flour of a widow in Zarepheth and a bowl with morsels of food brought by ravens to a hungry prophet, there are loaves and fishes (tilapia from the Sea of Galilee) shared from a little boy’s lunch box up on a hillside at a Jesus’ teaching session, there is a breakfast foods cooked by Jesus alongside that same Sea a few days after the resurrection.
And there is wine from Cana and from Elijah’s cup, the wine of joy and forgiveness.
And there are pitchers of water drawn from Samaria’s well, water that springs into eternal life.
We share this food, and we share our stories and together we find strength to journey on. Jesus is there with the towel of a servant around his waist, to serve us and teach us to serve others, and he begins the meal with grace, saying, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father delights in giving you the kingdom.”
Rich toward God
Belmont UMC—August 4, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
I visited with Frank on a Monday afternoon in his hospital room. When I walked in he became tearful and I said, “Every person I’ve visited today has cried. Is there something about me that makes people cry?”
Even in his illness Frank could not resist a wisecrack, “Ever think it might be your face,” he said. Thanks a lot, Frank.
Frank proceeded to tell me that his doctors had just been in the room and they told him that they had done all they could. He was advised to call his children to talk with them. I knew his 3 grown children well; we’d spent many hours together in surgical waiting rooms over the past 2 years of Frank’s illness. Both Frank and his wife were faithful to church and well-loved throughout the church and the community. They lived in a modest brick house around the corner from our parsonage and they took great pride in their rose garden.
Frank asked if I could come back the next day at 11 AM; the time he expected his whole family to gather in the hospital room for a meeting. I assured him I would be there. There would be more tears to come.
The next day all of us gathered around Frank’s bedside. He was feeling strong and seemed glad to have everyone there. The faces of his family were solemn at best. He turned to me; it seemed easier for him to address his speech toward me and allow his children to overhear what he had to say. He began, “As you know by now, I’ve been very blessed in my life—especially by these children and my wonderful wife. These young adults have been raised to love God, to love each other, to care for those who are less fortunate, and to live with integrity. Each of them is making a difference in the world in some way. We never had a lot of money but we had enough. We invested what we had in their education and did what we could to help them fulfill their dreams. But we are rich, rich, rich! Pastor Ken, these 3 children are our legacy and as I prepare to depart this earth for better housing, I leave them to you and to your care.”
And then Frank got that gleam in his eye, turned toward his children and said, “And if you don’t live the way I taught you, I’ll ask for permission to come back to straighten you out.” A little humor helps when things turn too serious. I never read this parable from Luke without thinking of that day in Frank’s hospital room.
Jesus told a parable about a man who had lots of investments—his portfolio was full to overflowing. His money seemed to beget more money so he opened more accounts to hold all of it. And the man was happy with all he had. He sat back in his recliner with his favorite beverage and said, “Life is good—it doesn’t get any better than this.”
But God said to the man, “You are a fool. Tonight you could fall over dead. What will all these accounts do for you then?” So it will be for those who store up treasures for themselves but forget to be rich toward God. (This is the Revised Edwards version.)
The parable calls us to ask ourselves some questions: How much are we really worth? What is the real measure of our lives? What kind of lasting investments are we making? How rich are we in the things of God?
Jesus is not suggesting that we ignore financial planning. We need to be wise with the resources that we have, but he is speaking to us about our priorities, our potential greed, our investment in things that last, things of God.
Jesus is saying that the best of life is not what we store in a barn or a garage or a bank account, it’s likely what we cannot see and measure. It’s the spiritual treasures, the relationships, the love and joy and peace, the ability to make a difference in the world. It’s the stuff that does not end when we come to the end of our lives—it’s eternal and lives on with God and in the lives of those we have loved and taught and cared for. That’s really living.
We were in Chatham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, a few years back. We were in an antique store and the owner asked me if we had been to the Chatham dump. “They have a lot of good stuff out there. People around here are rich and they throw a lot of good stuff away. At the dump they have a shed where they keep all the good stuff and you can go there and get it for free. I saw a man throw away a brand new set of golf clubs the other day. He said he had used them twice and he had not scored well with them so he threw them away. I have them now and I don’t even play golf.”
They say junk yards are theologically rich places, because everywhere you look you see the stuff that did not last, that people wanted and then decided to discard—things that people once treasured and now they are only fit for the dump. We all have these things but the question is, “How much do we have in our lives that will last forever? How rich are we in the things of God?”
Those who are rich toward God have made the decision to share their resources, not hoard them. I recall a story from Mr. Ackerman’s world history class in college. He was a fascinating lecturer and he told a fabled story about Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who assisted George Washington and the colonists in their quest for freedom during the Revolutionary War. Lafayette came from wealthy family, owning numerous estates.
In 1783 the grain harvest was poor which meant that the peasant farmers and their families suffered great hunger. But Lafayette’s managers till managed to fill their barns with grain. The price of wheat skyrocketed and the managers urged Lafayette, “Now is the time to sell.” But Lafayette, thinking about the peasants, said, “No, now is the time to give.” And he released the stores of grain to the peasants. Giving did not make Lafayette poor; it made him rich—rich toward God.
Those who are generous with what they have—those who give instead of hoard are those who are rich toward God! Look around this room today, friends! Look at the faces of your friends in faith. See what we have in our shared lives together. We are very rich, my friends! Rich, rich, rich!