Sermon transcript for January 5, 2013
God in Our Neighborhood
Belmont UMC—January 5, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
Today we have heard another Christmas story. But if this was the only Christmas story we had in the Gospels, there would be no Christmas pageants with angels, shepherds, stables and mangers. Why, there would be no Joseph or Mary or even a baby wrapped in cloth. There would be no nativities displayed in our art exhibit area and there would be no wise men showing up on Epiphany.
“The word became flesh and made his home among us.” That’s the Christmas story for today.
And yet, we find one or our central ideas of faith in this Christmas story. “The word became flesh and made his home among us.” Marcus Borg writes that “this is the central meaning of incarnation: Jesus is what can be seen of God embodied in a human life. He is the revelation, the incarnation, of God’s character and passion—of what God is like and of what God is most passionate about. He shows us the heart of God.” (The Heart of Christianity, pp. 80-81)
As we look at the Bible as a whole, the idea of God coming to us in the flesh (that’s what incarnation means), seems surprising and even scandalous. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures, the God who spoke creation into being, the God who is full of wonder and awe, the God whose name cannot be spelled or spoken but only breathed (Yahweh is a sound, possibly the sound of breath), now comes into the world and lives among us. The word that was from the very beginning of time, the word that creates, becomes the word in our midst.
Another word kept showing up in my thoughts this week and this is a word that became a bigger part of our vocabulary during the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The word is “embedded.” Some people report the news of the war from behind desks in studios, but others were embedded with the troops, right alongside of them, in harms way, experiencing the war as the soldiers experience it, but armed not with weapons, but with recording devices and cameras. I sometimes find myself praying for Richard Engle because he’s always reporting from some place where guns are being fired and riots are breaking out. God has come among us; God is embedded with us.
I like other versions of this text. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into our neighborhood. We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son (or like Parent, like Child), generous inside and out, true from start to finish.”
God is moving into our neighborhood! Do we hear how disturbing, transforming and vulnerable that sounds as we say it? Do we want God to be that close by? Some would say, “There goes the neighborhood!”
I carried the idea of God in our neighborhood as I walked my 4 and ½ mile trek through our subdivision this past week. We live on a quiet dead end street. In fact, there are 5 dead end streets within a fourth mile of our house. People get confused when driving in our neighborhood. When I’m out walking or running and a car pulls up next to me and the window is rolled down, I know what the question will be, “How do I get out of here? How do I get back to the main road?” We like our quiet neighborhood.
This week I encountered Jimmy, whose wife died suddenly in June. His family came to encourage him over the holidays but he’s having a difficult time with his grief. We walked together for a bit and talked. I saw Carolyn out on her deck. She was quiet ill two years ago but she’s making a great comeback. We wave to each other. I stopped and helped Kurt move a heavy piece of furniture into his parents’ home. I used to be his pastor and he put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Happy New Year, Ken. We miss you.” I found it comforting to think of God being with us, loving us, knowing us.
One of my seminary professors translated it this way, “The word became human and pitched his tent in my campsite.” The Greek word in the text literally means “pitched tent.” The professor would point out that God pitched God’s tent right in the middle of our campsite, not in the campsite next to us. God likes to be right in the midst of things.
What does this mean for us? It means that God, who has come to live among us, knows us, understands us, and experiences what we experience. It means we are not alone. It means that when we suffer, God suffers with us; when we grieve, God grieves with us; when we despair, God understands our desperation. I know more and more people who live under the weight of deep depression and they feel completely cut off from everything, but they are not alone and God knows the depth of their hurts and God comes alongside of them to be the Word of hope in flesh for them.
What does this mean for us as a church, as people of faith? Emilie Townes is the new Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School and she used to teach her seminary students that being in ministry means being more than being a tourist (that’s true for lay ministers, as well). Tourists come to visit, take snapshots, buy trinkets and go home. Those of us in ministry must be pilgrims who “pitch tent” with the people--learning about the lives and traditions and experiences of those around us.
Where do we hear God calling us to pitch tent? How many of us have taken time to know and understand the needs of our neighbors from the Golden Triangle Fellowship, mostly Burmese refugees who are worshipping the Community Center this morning? I want to challenge you to get to know an individual or a family from this community. How can we pitch our tents next to theirs and come to know them and love them and be in shared ministry together?
As the Word comes to pitch tent with us, we must asked ourselves, where are the places God is calling us to pitch tent? Who are the ones we need to come alongside and bring the present reality of this loving knowing God? We’ve spent a lot of time asking the question, “Who is our neighbor?” They are refugees and immigrants; they are young and old, and they college students. They live in nice homes down the street, in dormitories and in Edgehill public housing. Some have no place to live and will be at risk of freezing this week. Now is the time for us to come alongside our neighbors, bearing the love of the ever present Word, with hope and healing.
I believe that we are called to incarnate, make flesh, make real, the God we have come to know and love. As the church it is not enough for us to preach love; we must become love, we must incarnate love. It is not enough for us to tell people to cheer up, we must incarnate hope for them. It is not enough to talk about peace, we must embody peace making.
Today, we come to this table once again to eat this bread and share in this cup, symbols of God’s coming among us in the flesh. As we share this holy meal, may we hear the call of God to go out into the world to share the love of God with others.
Sermon transcript for December 29, 2013
First Sunday of Christmas
Audio - MP3
Today is the now the 5th day of Christmas. Christmas morning has come and gone. The weeks of waiting expectantly for Christmas morning are over. The days of preparing, baking, shopping, and decorating are behind us. All of the Christmas gifts have been opened. Luckily, for most of us, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh came with a gift receipt so we can exchange it. Without a doubt, the holiday cheer is dissipating. The Advent wreath is put up. A return to normal life is creeping back in. The houseguests have all returned home. The shepherds have returned to the fields to tend their flocks. The magi made a detour and returned to the East by another way.
In our scripture today, we find the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph, and Jesus – in this post-Christmas morning lull. The months of expecting are now over. The baby shower has been thrown. A child is born. Now what are they to do?
Well the harsh realities set in for this exulted, yet, lowly king. Joseph has a dream and he is told of Herod’s impending plot to kill baby Jesus. What happened to all that joyful and triumphant stuff? The angel tells Joseph, “You must take your family and escape to Egypt.” Christ’s birth, God’s presence among God’s people does not simply rid the world of evil. This reminds me of how with the help of the entire congregation the youth group was able to send over 300 deodorants to the women of Grace Place UMC in order to give Christmas presents to their fellow inmates at Mark Luttrell Prison in Memphis. After the Christmas season is over, in the New Year the Tennessee Department of Corrections is scheduled to execute two persons for the first time since 2009.
We still find ourselves living in a world of brokenness, dysfunction, pain, and oppression. Where young parents must flee their homeland as political refugees to live as aliens in a foreign land. We have to look no further than our Golden Triangle brothers and sisters. There still are tyrants who rule with an iron fist. There is still military occupation in Afghanistan. There are still mothers in Sudan weeping for their murdered children. There are still feelings within ourselves just like Herod’s to protect what we think is rightfully ours.
Can you believe in a matter of the first eighteen verses of chapter two, Matthew has introduced us to these the magi following a star, bringing gifts, falling on their knees and then before you know it Matthew has quickly moved on to the bloodshed of children. These first 18 verses of Chapter Two highlight our human condition: Our deepest desires to praise and adore the presence of God in our midst and, yet, our stubbornness to be moved by God’s grace. God does not cause the about face and horrendousness of this Christmas story. It is our humanly reaction to God with us, God coming to be among us that threatens our sense of ourselves.
My wife and I have made it a tradition since we’ve been in Nashville to go to the Belcourt Theater the week before Christmas to see a screening of It’s A Wonderful Life. My favorite part is the closing scene at the home of George Bailey, where his daughter is at the piano bench playing Charles Wesley’s “Hark The Herald Angel Sing.” She plays as the people of Bedford Falls unexpectantly pour into the Bailey home with handfuls of money to generously save George from the plot of Mr. Potter. The Bailey home is filled with laughter, generosity, singing, and voices of children. This is where I want the Christmas story to end. Today’s reading is a reminder of our own destruction and havoc.
So where is the good news in this Christmas story? It is the Lord appearing to Joseph telling him it safe to take his family back to Israel because Herod has died. The good news is the Herods, the powers of this world will not prevail. Sooner or later they die. Sooner or later they lose their grip on control. The gospel tells us the final victory has already been decided and the Herods of this world are not going to be victorious. Beginning at resurrection, when the all of the disciples had gone home, God again is victorious over the death dealing powers of Herod and Caesar. We now continue to look for Christ’s presence among us.
I am indebted to Jim Harnish for sharing this story this past week. In an edition of the Upper Room, James Martin tells of his experience returning from a trip to the Holy Land. He waited in the security line at the Tel Aviv airport. It finally came time for his inspection and the security officer carefully examined his bag. To James’s surprise, the officer unpacked and unwrapped each figurine of an olive wood nativity set he picked up when he visited Bethlehem. After this hand examination, each piece was sent down the belt through the x-ray machine. No piece was spared, not even Baby Jesus.
I imagine James was a bit bewildered by the meticulous attention given to this innocuous nativity set. As he watch the pieces pass through the machine, the security officer explained, "We must be very careful to make sure there is nothing explosive in them."
All of the figurines passed the security inspection and made it home to his children. James later reflected on this experience and realized that the nativity is indeed history's most explosive event. Jesus' birth sparked a radical change that even Herod sensed. God's love became visible in fleshly form. Jesus' message continues to transform the lives of those who believe its explosiveness.
Take a look around you. There is a lot more elbow space here this morning then there was on Tuesday night. Churches everywhere fill up again and again each year on Christmas Eve. For many people it is the one time each year they venture into a church. They come again and again each year on this one night to hear the one story they know, a story of hope. Hearing the Christmas story each year gives all of us comfort in the familiar carols and the message of hope the Christ child brings. Those new faces that joined us on Christmas Eve came to recount the story of hope in world of distress. In hearing the story again, we all hope that the explosive events of the nativity scene, God with us, will transform our individual lives and our world. The world is waiting to hear the radical change sparked by Jesus' birth.
Howard Thurman says:
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
The Christmas story is not only the happy parts of holiday cheer. We have the ability shine Christ love on a longing world with the brightness of the Star that drew the Magi to Bethlehem and the capacity to illuminate our stubbornness on center stage. God with us gives us life and threatens everything we think we are. Go into the world to share Jesus’ explosive birth to a world longing to be transformed by God’s love.
Howard Thurman, “The Work of Christmas” in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985).