Sermon transcript for October 5, 2014
The Most Important Things
Belmont UMC—October 5, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
As we were thinking about today’s worship service for World Communion, our worship staff talked about global concerns. One of those concerns is the growing numbers of refugees, persons who have had to flee their homes because of threats of violence or natural disasters. Statistical information about the current refugee crisis is all over the place but most sources agree that the current refugee population is in the tens of millions and that is the largest number in modern history.
I’ve been thinking about what it means to have to flee your home and leave most of your belongings behind. We were in California a few weeks ago. We drove from Southern Oregon down Interstate 5, through the mountains, near Mt. Shasta, a beautiful mountain peak. It is surrounded by Lake Shasta, which is currently at about one-third of its capacity because of the drought. We drove through the town of Weed, California—only in California would you find a town named Weed. The sign at the edge of town reads, “Weed Like to Welcome You.”
A week or so after we left California the town of Weed was in the path of a huge forest and brush fire that consumed thousands of acres and about 200 homes. There was another huge fire east of Sacramento along another route we had traveled to and from Yosemite National Park. I was watching the news footage on television. A woman was standing beside her minivan and she was telling reporters that she and her family had been given 30 minutes to evacuate their home. She said, “We started grabbing everything we thought we couldn’t live without and throwing it into the van. We are not sure if we’ll have a home when we return.”
We’ve seen similar scenes with persons in the path of hurricanes. We see the faces of refugees fleeing Syria. They have traveled with their meager belongings to refugee camps.
Many of our Belmont members from the Golden Triangle Fellowship have dramatic stories of fleeing their homes in Burma for safety. As we think about Joy in Giving during this season, remember that your gifts to the church are allowing us to be in ministry with, and alongside of, refugees throughout the world and here in Nashville.
What would you take with you if you had to flee your home? What are the most important things that you could not live without—your computer, important papers, clothes, or photographs of your family?
What are the most important things?
There are times in our lives when we are forced to answer that question. There are serious times. What if the doctor walks into your hospital room with a grim look on her face? She says, “The news is not good. You’re probably going to want to get your affairs in order.” You are forced to reflect on what is most important in your life.
Or it could be more subtle experience (if we can call guilt a subtle experience), that can force us to think about what is most important. You were cleaning the garage and your child walks up to you and says, “Dad, I thought you were going to spend some time with me today?” What are the most important things?
Our staff in another church received a threat from someone who was suspected of arson. It’s a complicated story, but we were advised to remove anything we valued from our house. We did a video inventory of our contents, but we did not remove a lot from the house—mostly photos of the children and a couple of small things that had belonged to our grandparents. We realized that the most important things in our life could not be put in boxes.
The Apostle Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians from prison near the end of his life. He was under house arrest. In that setting he was forced to think about the most important things in his life. When you is at the end of your life, you tend to do and say the things that mean the most to you. The result is a beautiful little letter full of doxologies and affirmations.
Paul knows what was once most important to him: his credentials, his heritage, and his bragging rights. He writes, “If anyone has reason to put their confidence in physical advantages, I have even more: I was circumcised on the eighth day, born a Jew--not converted, from the tribe of Benjamin (it’s a small tribe but from it came the first king, Saul, and I was named for him), I was a Pharisee—a strict keeper of the law. I was zealous and blameless. I have a lot of important baggage.” (my paraphrase)
But that is not what Paul would pack into his minivan. What is most important to him is the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. Compared to that everything else is “sewer trash.” The word can be translated “excrement.” This is pretty strong language but his hyperbole makes the point that at the end of his life he knows what is most important.
Heritage is a good thing. Credentials can be helpful. The past can help inform th present and the future, but faith in Christ as Lord trumps everything else.
And Paul says it is this one thing that keeps him moving forward. It is this singular focus that keeps him motivated to fulfill God’s purposes in the world.
What about us? What is most important to us? Is it the superior value of knowing Christ as Lord? If so, how will we live into the importance of that affirmation? If we believe this we will not stand in a circle and congratulate ourselves. We will not rest on our past accomplishments, or slow down, or get stuck in mediocrity. We will live each day as church as though this is the most important thing in our lives.
Today we come to this table and celebrate a meal that had its birth at Passover. The Passover meal was a refugee meal, made up symbols that represented the suffering of people under oppression and the faithfulness of God. The bread was unleavened because they had to leave their homes quickly before the bread could rise.
Jesus’ own family had to flee their home and go to Egypt for fear of violence. What did these Biblical refugees take with them? They probably took some of the basic things they needed. Jesus’ family may have taken the gifts of the magi to provide for their basic needs. But they also took the knowledge that God was faithful and that God loved them and led them.
As we come to this table today, let us be in prayer for all those who are displaced in our world and let us ask ourselves, “What is the most important thing for me, for my family?”
Sermon transcript for September 28, 2014
This Generous Gift
2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Belmont UMC—September 28, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
By now you know that our theme for this years giving campaign is Joy in Giving. Thanks to Madison Henry for her story and witness of finding joy in giving this morning. I want to encourage all of us to share stories of those times when we have experience deep gladness through giving, through service, through acts of kindness. If you are chairing a committee during this month or in a small group gathering, you might want to use that as a centering moment, inviting others to share their stories. Or you can email me a memory. I’d love to read it.
As I was making notes for this sermon I recalled a warm, sunny Saturday when a group of people from the church I was serving were working on a Habitat House. I was outside on a step ladder painting trim, some folks were inside installing cabinets, and a young couple was under the house putting insulation in the crawl space. I had the better job. The young man stuck his head out of the crawl space and looked at me. He was covered in dirt and perspiration. He said, “I’ve never been more dirty, or more tired or more happy.” There was a profound sense of joy in knowing that we were making a difference in someone’s life. There is great deep gladness in knowing that your gifts make a difference.
Ms. Gladys lived in a small white framed house across the street from the church. She would come over to the church one day a week and make the sanctuary look beautiful. We had Bibles and two kinds of hymnals in the pew racks and she would arrange every rack so it looked uniform from the back of the room. She would ask me to come out and look when she was finished and she would smile and make a broad sweeping gesture with her hand, and asked, “How does it look?” She was a kind and uncomplicated person who took great joy in simple things.
And she loved giving money to the church. She didn’t have a lot and sometimes she seemed to exemplify that story of Jesus watching people bring their gifts to the temple. There were lots of people bringing large sums of money, but Jesus pointed out the widow who put it a small sum because her gift was all she had.
One Sunday Ms. Gladys brought me a small paper bag and said, “I brought you a little something.” I assumed it was something she had baked because she was always doing that, so it put it on top of my filing cabinet and out of the sight of my small children. I knew if they found it there would nothing left to share when church was over. After worship I opened the bag and found several rolls of paper towels. Inside each roll was a $100 bill. There was a note, “I’ve been saving this for the capital fund.”
On Monday morning I went to her house and I thanked her for the generous gift. We sat her kitchen table and drank coffee and I finally asked her, “Do you mind if I asked how you managed to save so much money?”
She said, “Well I decided to wait another year to have my house painted. The church needs the money more than I do.” Her house needed to be painted. I walked around her house that day and looked it over.
On Sunday I was teaching the young adult Sunday School Class and I said to these fine young folks, “How would you like to paint a house?” They loved Ms. Gladys and so I knew they would do it. They were so enthusiastic. Some volunteered to buy the paint. Some, who confessed to being lousy painters, offered to prepare a lunch.
When I told Ms. Gladys about our plan it was obvious she was more comfortable giving than receiving, but I assured her that this class was thrilled with the opportunity to something back. The next Saturday we gathered at Ms. Gladys’ house and we painted everything. She baked a big cake for us and we set up tables under a shade tree and shared a meal together. There was much laughter and joy all around.
Where were you when you experienced joy in giving? How do you experience this kind of joy through giving to and through the church?
The scripture lesson from Second Corinthians and Paul is encouraging the church in Corinth to give to the struggling Christians in Jerusalem. I’m not sure all of his fundraising methods are effective, but he reminds the church that “God loves a cheerful giver.” I suspect that most of us know that but Paul felt a need to remind the Corinthians. We find joy in giving, in serving, in all that we can do to make a difference in the world around us.
I’ve often said that I have regretted some of the purchases I’ve made over the years. There have been instances of buyers’ remorse. And some of those purchases have found their way into garage sales and donations to Goodwill. But I can recall ever regretting a gift shared. There’s been no givers’ remorse.
The giving campaign supports the ministries of our church over the next year. Our Finance Committee will be projecting a budget based on our generosity and the more we give the more the church can accomplish for God’s purposes in the world. People are not clamoring to serve on the Finance Committee, but the work they do enables ministry to happen and John Pearce, our Chairperson, and others on the committee foster that spirit.
Believe or not, those meetings can be very spiritual and positive as we consider ways to give birth to new possibilities.
I have to confess that I spent 8 years as the president of our Conference’s Council on Finance and Administration. When elected to that position I told the Council that I wasn’t sure I owned a calculator and I didn’t balance my own checkbook, but I would bring an emphasis on ministry to the Council. They didn’t impeach me but they let me lead in that spirit.
The first year we met for the budgeting process we handed out notebooks filled with budget requests—requests representing all the ministries of the Tennessee Conference. I said, “The requests in this book represent a lot of dollars and over the next two days we will look at a lot of numbers and we will calculate percentages and we have detailed spreadsheets to consider, but I want you to begin today by reflecting on things that you’ve experienced through the Conference or through the church that you can’t put a price tag on.”
There was a time of silence. Then one Council member shared about the baby her family had adopted from Miriam’s Promise. Another said he was fearful and uncertain when he went to college but he found a nurturing environment at the Wesley Foundation on his college campus. Another said he gave his life to Christ at a Conference camp. Each had something to share.
I asked, “What did those experiences cost you?”
They agreed, “That’s the wrong question. You can’t put a price tag on a life changing experience.”
James Hudnut-Beumler, former dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School has written extensively on fundraising. In one of his books he suggests that we often ask the wrong question in churches. We asked, “How much will that cost?” He suggests asking, “What is it worth to you?” What is this church worth to you? I think that question leads directly to the joy we find in giving.
It kind of reminds me of those American Express Commercials. “Disney Vacation--$3,500. Time spent with family—priceless.”
Someone could calculate how much we paid for the paint for Ms. Gladys’ house but the experience was worth far more than we could imagine.
We knew how much it cost to build that Habitat House but watching the keys being handed over to the new owner was priceless.
Our youngest son was in the Open Door Singers and the Youth Handbell Choir here at Belmont. Gayle Sullivan could tell us how much the sheet music cost or how much the music ministry budget was, but no one could put a price tag on his experience. He told us that he did not want in choir when we arrived here at Belmont over 7 years ago and that December he said, “Dad, you’re going to love this piece we are singing in Feast of Lights—it’s so awesome.”
I know what it cost to send him to South Africa and Swaziland for a Volunteer in Mission event in 2009. Those two weeks were life changing for him. Every essay he wrote for college entrance exams was about how those two weeks changed him. We cannot put a price on that life changing experience—it was worth far more than we could imagine.
So over the next few weeks let’s reflect on what the church is worth to you. Because that is where we connect to the joy in giving. What is your story?