Sermon transcript for January 26, 2014
Belmont UMC—January 26, 2014
Adam Kelchner, preaching
Audio - MP3
In Houston, Texas, a young African American man recounts how he worked in the family business with his father: In his words he says, my dad and I owned a business in a tough Houston neighborhood, a motel that catered to prostitutes and their customers. For my entire life, I literally lived in a house of pain. There were buyers and sellers and most of the sellers were female. It didn’t matter. My entire life, I spent every day in that place not caring who got hurt, and or even the cost. We profited from darkness. My business was the sex trade. I had no idea the ages of the girls who worked in and out of our place. I didn’t care.
Then Jesus proclaimed, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has already come near.’ Light has dawned on the region of death and the prophet Isaiah echoes, Land of Zebulun, Land of Naphtali, you who sit in darkness have seen a great light. In as something as a simple relocation from Nazareth to Capernaum, Jesus has fulfilled the ancient prophecy that holy light will disperse darkness from a region deeply plagued by violence and war.
Most of us would have difficulty locating Zebulun and Naphtali on an ancient map, much less a fragmented and divided map of our present Middle East. But these two locales were located in the northern reaches of ancient Israel. North of Jerusalem. And when the Assyrians invaded, Zebulun and Naphtali were some of the first regions to fall. These regions were held in low esteem and heavily oppressed by the conquering force. So no wonder that the prophet Isaiah and Matthew situate the dawning of holy light in a region known so well for foreign occupation and oppression. What could be a more fitting setting? They even call it a region of death. What is good news for a place like that? What is a life giving invitation to the people who live there?
Can you imagine, the power of Isaiah’s prophecy driving Jesus to retreat to places held in such low esteem? Land of deep darkness. Lands ravaged by outside forces, people treated as worthless. Jesus is declaring the kingdom of God drawing near wherever darkness prevails. A great light has dawned in Kandahar, Baghdad, Fallujah, and Damascus and no longer do these regions live in the shadow of death. That’s good news to communities held under the thumb of an oppressor. Christ retreats to these regions to proclaim, ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’ and to call his followers to their life long work.
The waves are breaking on the shore, the reeds blowing in the wind, there are people dotting the banks of the sea going about the work of the day making home and making money. Jesus is walking on the seashore, presumably a familiar one, since he’s made a home in Capernaum and he calls out to two brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew. Does he know these men? Are they familiar to him? ‘Come, follow me.’ You aren’t worthless. You’ve been fashioned in the image of God Almighty. I’ll take the skills you have heaving these nets to and fro and lead you to greater, eternal things. His walk continued and he called out to two sons of Zebedee. Come, experience the kingdom-align yourself with what God is doing in this overlooked place. Whatever he said must have promised life and life abundantly because they left their father in the boat that day.
Remember the man in Houston, whose family business created space for pimps, prostitutes, and call girls to work-one day he walked into a Methodist Church with his wife. And the church told him, Rudy, we love you. And for five more years, he ran the family business aiding a vicious and destructive cycle for Houston’s sex workers. And the church kept telling him, Rudy, we love you. And then he began believing it and he heard the voice of Christ-‘Come be part of my crowd.’
An invitation from Jesus the Christ to come and experience the living, powerful, life changing work of God Almighty is no joke. It’s not an invitation to come see if the grass is greener and the paycheck is bigger on this side of the lake than the other; it’s certainly no promise that health, wealth, and prosperity are divinely ordained for your future; in other words, it’s not the prosperity gospel that’s prevailing in our culture right now, it’s not an invitation to corporate ladder climb and put the pursuit of meaningless wealth above compassion and human integrity. Come follow me is an invitation to experience a great transition, a dislocation of creative sorts. It’s a transition of worthlessness to God’s worth. It’s a transition from addiction to the bottle and prescription pills to recovery, freedom, and restoration.
It’s a transition from the emptiness and despair of the soul to new life through the baptismal waters. It’s a transition for the bigoted oppressor who is called to repentance and hears anew that they are a beloved child of God in spite of a history of prejudice.
That was my transition. Quite honestly, in the early 2000’s I was a religiously driven bigot. I blamed our denominational woes on the gay community. I took delight when church trials began to defrock gay and lesbian pastors and then rejoiced when the verdict was read. And in the depths of that insidious prejudice and discrimination was a call to ordained ministry. Some time later Christ said: Beloved, we’re going to put your prejudice, animosity, and your homophobia in the grave. You’ve chosen to follow me and you don’t get to hold on to these things that carry no kingdom value. But what has kingdom value are the gifts of the Spirit poured out for you and all of creation. Cling to them; use them; and rejoice that the kingdom of heaven is among you.
Indeed, come follow me is a transition from idle meaningless work that pays the bills to the realization that God has given you gifts and passions that burn deep in your soul and when you use them in alignment with God’s vision for community, there is the fire of holy transformation.
Theologian Tom Long puts it this way: Our work is truly effective when it serves to express the will of God. The patterns of our lives are not made secure by the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom of heaven rearranges them into the new design of God's own making.
Come follow the Christ you who work at the medical center across the street and you will bring divine balm where suffering is deep. Come, follow the Christ you who labor in the courts of justice and you will be peacemakers. Come follow the Christ you who labor with your hands and demonstrate the beauty of God’s creation. Come follow the Christ all you who rest from your work.
If you only hear me say one thing this morning this is it: God calls on your everyday living, working, and playing to show love to a hurting world.
If you were here a few Sundays ago, you might recall it was Baptism of the Lord Sunday, recalling John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan. You were invited to come forward and receive water on your hands and hear these words: Remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember that you are baptized and be thankful. As you came forward, the pastors got to look you in the eyes and see your smiles and awe as we put the water on your hands. Many of you shared how rich and deep that service was-it struck a chord somewhere deep in your souls. That’s what God does in baptism and the celebration of Holy Communion. God takes the ordinary things, sometimes the things that are overlooked-water, bread, and grapes-and invites us to experience the holy. Like the four fishermen on the side of the Sea of Galilee, God takes our ordinary, the everyday, blesses it, and retools it to demonstrate love to a hurting world.
Today is a day to hear the waters flowing:
The waters that move through pipes,
Some waters fresh, some polluted,
Some falling from the sky, some rising from the earth,
Waters bringing life and hope,
Waters bearing waste and loss,
Waters cleansing and being cleansed.
Today is a day to hear the waters flowing:
The waters of baptism with which God birthed you,
Birthed us all anew in Jesus Christ,
And bids us come, and drink,
To slake our thirst,
And bids us go and share,
That thirst may be fulfilled for all.
Today is a day for hearing Christ’s call,
like those fishermen heard Jesus calling long ago—
to hear and to decide:
are we ready to follow Christ,
ready to declare and rejoice in his love,
and demonstrate his glory in the world?
We need to keep reading the gospels keeping an eye on Simon, Andrew, James, and John. They usually don’t understand the parables, they impede Jesus’ ministry to the crowds, and even Peter denies the Christ at a time of crisis. But this morning, Christ called upon them, and perhaps out of a deep longing for fulfillment, they put down their soggy nets so that Heaven might come on Earth.
This morning may be the first time you’ve ever heard that divine invitation, ‘come follow me’ and discover greater, eternal things for your life. Maybe you've heard it a hundred times over but never gave it much more than a passing glance. Perhaps your story is a bit like Rudy’s, caught in a darkness and despair and you’re surprised to hear of your belovedness before God. No matter, the invitation is still good. Come follow Jesus the Christ.
And this morning especially, I invite you to come to this chancel rail during our last hymn for prayer-pray for the journey, pray for those who journey with you, pray for those who’ve never heard that they’re God’s beloved, pray for those whose lives need transitions that lead to freedom and resurrection.
Sermon transcript for January 19, 2013
Come and See
Belmont UMC—January 19, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
There are three sentences in the verbal exchange between Jesus and the would-be disciples? Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” They answer with another question, “Where are you staying?” Jesus responds, “Come and see!”
“What are you looking for?” Jesus asks the two men who were following him. They were disciples of John the Baptist and they likely knew of John’s interest in Jesus. So they followed Jesus, not like disciples following a leader, they simply followed around behind him, curious, wondering followers. Jesus turned around and asked, “What are you looking for?”
I’m not sure those disciples knew the answer to his question. They may have felt vague about the notion of following this man, but they followed anyway. Something about him attracted their attention. And they followed.
What are we looking for? We sit here in the presence of Christ each week. Is Jesus asking us to ponder this question week after week? What we you looking for? What brings us to this place? What causes us to give up our morning at home to gather here? We could be home drinking a latte and reading the morning paper, or snuggled warmly in bed underneath the warm blankets. (It’s probably not good marketing for me to make that sound so appealing.) What are we looking for? What is it about Christ that bids us to follow him?
At some point in our journey we ask our selves this question or some question similar to it. Why am I here? Why have I followed this path? What does my faith really mean to me or to others? What am I seeking? These are the questions of searching and longing hearts.
One pastor said, “As a pastor I have found it helpful to begin with the assumption that most of us, myself included, are here at church for the wrong reasons.” (Bishop Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 42, No. 1, Year A, p. 14) We may have come for the wrong reasons (if there are any wrong reasons) but once in the door we found something far more than we could have imagined. We found joy in being a part of something bigger than our selves.
We may have come here looking for a place among the people of God, a place where we can know and be known, a place where we can be held accountable, loved and supported through difficult times. We are looking for a place where friends are like family and where we and our children can find spiritual growth and a sense of extended family. As a person who values community, these reason appeal to me.
We may have come here looking an answer to all of life’s persistent questions. What is the meaning of life? What is the will of God? Some of our questions can be answered in our relationship with God, but there will be many others for which there is no easy answer. We came looking for pat answers to life’s big questions and that’s what got us in the door, but what we discovered was a lasting relationship with Jesus that kept us in the house. We came looking for the answers and have learned how to live with the questions.
We may have come here looking for someone who has the grace and hope to fill an emptiness we carry around inside of us. I believe God created us with a longing and a desire to know more of God. This is why those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are blessed and filled. In our theology we would call that prevenient grace—the grace that brings us to know God. Over the course of ministry I’ve heard many people say, “I felt like there was an empty place within me waiting to be filled.”
The disciples who followed Jesus may not have been able to express why they followed or what attracted them to him. And he asked them, “What are you looking for?”
They replied with what seems like an odd question, “Where are you staying?” The question appears to be a distraction or it appears to ignore Jesus’ question. But Tom Long says this is a theological question, not a hotel question. “Where are you staying?” It means, “What are you about?” It means, “Before we get too close to you, we want to know what you are working for in the world.”
What are you all about, Jesus? For the Gospel of John this question is answered in the names given to Jesus or the names he gives himself. I am the Door. I am the Good Shepherd. I am the Way. I am the Light. I am the Bread which has come down from heaven. Is this what we are looking for?
In the story of our text, John the Baptist gives Jesus another identity, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” When we think of lambs, we are apt to imagine softness and comfort, but the Lamb of God image of scripture was an image of strength. John’s disciples would have understood the image as one that evokes animal sacrifice. They would have pictured Temple priest sacrificing animals. The image is not for the squeamish. The image is messy and real.
In the church we like things to be neat and orderly. We like tidy and sanitized. I like to get my new bulletin before Sunday and see all the order it promises us. I like to know exactly what’s going to happen on Sunday. But Sunday comes and sometimes things don’t go as planned. The pastor forgets the liturgy and the microphone squeals loudly during the scripture reading and the acolyte sets the table on fire and the pastor spills grape juice all over the white paraments. One church I served used white grape juice for Holy Communion because they did not want red stains on their new carpet. As it turns out white grape juice makes a brown stain on carpet. We like everything to be neat and tidy, but life is messy and chaotic and out of our control a lot of the time.
I’ve shared about one of my favorite pastors when I was a teenager. His name was Jim and he was tall and lanky fellow from Arkansas. He had a kind and gentle spirit and I liked to be in his presence. Being around him during those years was transformative for me. Jim could also be passionate and prophetic. It was the mid 1960s when he arrived at our church and he was involved in the Civil Rights Movement, which did not always play well with the conservative, status-quo loving, farm families of our church.
We lived down the road from the church and I often walked to church through the backyards of our neighbors. I mowed most of those yards so I knew them well. This walk took me through the backyard of the parsonage. One day I saw Jim out in the back yard and he was working on something. As I got closer I saw he had a huge wooden cross laid across two old saw horses. It was obvious he had built the cross out of scrap wood and he was beating it with a hammer to distress it. He had smeared plaster on it in random places and it looked rough and ugly.
I asked what he was doing with the cross. Jim said, “I’m going to hang this cross in the back of the chancel where that awful painting of Jesus and the little lambs is hanging.” The painting was rather sentimental. Jesus is standing in a pasture, looking very handsome and well coiffed, and he’s holding a lamb and smiling. Gathered around him were other sheep and the sheep are looking up at him and smiling. I’m not kidding—smiling sheep!
I was really young but even then I knew Jim was asking for trouble. I knew there was a brass plaque on that painting but I couldn’t remember whose name was on it. I said, “You really think that’s a good idea?” He put his hand on my shoulder and smiled as though he could read my mind.
On Sunday Jim’s ugly cross was hanging in the chancel and I looked around to see the horrified looks on the congregants’ faces. There were lots of whispers and I’m sure a plot was being hatched before the first hymn could be sung to remove Jim’s ugly cross.
One of the ways Jim’s presence in my life was transformative was that he was constantly challenging our racism. Jim would meet with the youth on Sunday evenings and we would have these rap sessions about the issues of our time: the War in Viet Nam and the Civil Rights movement were hot topics. Jim would push us to think differently about the world around us.
Then April 4, 1968 came and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood outside a motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Jim went from being gentle to being fiery and prophetic. I recall the Sunday after Dr. King’s death, Jim’s face at church that morning was grim and he looked like he hadn’t slept for days. I knew his heart was broken.
He stood in the pulpit that morning and he said, “Some of you are not going to like my sermon this morning so I’m going to offer a few minutes of silent prayer. During that time some of you may choose to leave and I’m fine with that.” The church grew very quiet and still. Then there were sounds of rustling behind us and I looked back to see several families get up out of their seats and walk out the door.
Jim proceeded to call us out for our racism. I don’t remember the content of the sermon but I remember his passion and I remember the tears that ran down Jim’s face as he preached.
I was 16 years old and I still remember looking up at that ugly cross behind Jim in the chancel that day and thinking, “Today we do not need the image of little happy lambs; we need to see the ugliness of the cross.” We needed to come to terms with our own hatred and the ugliness of our racism. And we needed to get a glimpse of the Lamb of God whose sacrificial love has the power to take away the sins of the world.
Racism is still present in our country and we are often reminded that God is not finished with us yet. And we still need that Lamb who takes away our sins.
“Where are you staying?” they asked Jesus? “What are you about? What are you doing in the world?”
Jesus answered them, “Come and see!” Do we dare follow this Jesus and see who he is and what he is doing in the world today, and where he invites us follow?