Sermon transcript for June 2, 2013
A Surprising Faith
Belmont UMC—June 2, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
Helen LaFrance was born in Kentucky in 1919. Though poor, her family did own a bit of land where they raised tobacco and cotton to sell, chickens and other farm animals, and vegetables for the table. They enjoyed a simple rural life of gathering with family, working hard and going to church. Helen’s family encouraged her to read and learn as much as she could. She only finished the eighth grade in school.
When Helen finished her chores and school work she was allowed to have free time and she spent that time doing the thing she loved most, drawing and painting. Her mother encouraged her and helped her make colors from dandelions, walnut bark, berries, and bluing. She would draw and paint on anything she could find, even left over wallpaper.
Helen was a memory artist, painting from memory the rural scenes from her childhood. Church scenes were among her favorite. She said, “Sometimes something gets on my mind and I try to paint it. I just try to tell the truth. I guess I’m just good at it because it’s what I like to do. I just thank the Lord that I have tried.”
In her 40’s Helen LaFrance finally made enough money to buy art supplies and began painting in between loading dried tobacco on conveyor belts in tobacco warehouses and cleaning offices. In 1986 she began painting full time.
For most of her life no one really paid much attention to Helen’s work, which is considered “outsider art.” Outsider art is art that is outside the mainstream; it is art done by those who are self taught. Along the way someone took an interest in Helen’s gifts and Helen LaFrance went from outsider artist to having a quite a following of collectors, that include Oprah Winfrey and Bryant Gumble. (Source: “Memory Painting: The Work of Helen LaFrance” Kathy Moses Shelton)
There is a large movement of those who collect “outsider art.” These persons are able to see the beauty and value where others cannot or have not.
The two main characters in our Gospel story today would be considered “outsiders” by their communities. It is a surprise to see them paired together in this way. One is a centurion, who would have been in the militia of Herod Antipas. He is likely a God-fearer, one of the non-Jews who were attracted to the Jewish faith because of its monotheism and ethics. Most God-fearers did not convert but attended Jewish services and kept the commandments. The centurion has contributed toward the building of the synagogue. He does not approach Jesus directly but sends Jewish leaders to plead for help. The Jewish leaders try to make the case for the value of this outsider. The Centurion is not a Jew; he is a Roman and a part of the oppressive Roman system. And yet here he is in our Gospel this morning, asking for Jesus’ help.
The slave would have been the ultimate outsider—someone who has been completely marginalized. And it’s hard to imagine how anyone in the first century in Israel would see value in this individual. The surprise of this story is that the slave owner becomes the voice of concern and compassion for his voiceless slave.
We know that Jesus sees the needs of the least and the last; that is clear throughout the Gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke. Jesus sees beauty and value where others cannot. We see him reaching out to the poor, to women, to children, to those who were wounded and ridiculed, to those who were ostracized and to those who suffer from mental and physical illnesses. Jesus sees beauty and value in each supposed outsider and he welcomes them into his circle of love and kinship.
But we are surprised by his response to the wealthy centurion. Maybe he is moved by the compassion of the centurion for his slave. Maybe he is moved by the centurion’s humility and vulnerability at making the request and yielding to another’s authority. In this outsider Jesus finds a surprising faith and the catalyst of another person’s healing. Jesus says of the centurion, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” Jesus is saying, “This man gets it. This man knows God. This man sees others as God sees them—with value and beauty.”
The Centurion has faith in God who sees value and beauty in every human life—in those at the highest levels of society and those who are pushed to the margins and those mundane ordinary people in this world. God sees value and beauty in you and me and loves us beyond all that we could imagine.
It is faith in God who brings together these unlikely players in a story of healing. The Centurion becomes a surprising hero and advocate and this reminds us of another story that comes up in our lectionary cycle in July. In that story Jesus tells us a parable about a Good Samaritan. Luke tells us a story about a good Centurion.
In our human drama, at the point of great need, the lines between who is inside and who is outside are blurred. At the Boston Marathon bombing, people rushed to help each other and they did not stop to check their credentials, or party affiliation, or race, or status, or religious background, or nationality, or sexual orientation. They were moved by deep compassion for those in need. At the point of human need there are no outsiders and insiders. Should it not always be so?
The Centurion has faith in God who brings us together around the table where there are no outsiders, only family. Sometimes the folks who pull their chairs up to this table side by side and share the bread and the cup together are surprising pairs. But here we are all God’s children, equal in every way, and we come to receive the blessed gift of grace.
During the height of apartheid in South Africa, Reverend Ike Maloabi was picked up by security police and detained without trial. Peter Storey and another minister were allowed to visit him and they took Holy Communion. They were placed in a corner with a prison officer to watch them.
Since Methodist have an open table, Peter invited the officer to join them. After some hesitation, he accepted. Peter writes, “And Methodists always served the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters first, don’t we? So I passed the cup to Ike, and he drank. And Methodists would never take communion before offering it to the stranger in their midst, so the cup was naturally passed next to the prison officer. Now this white Afrikaner had a dilemma. He realized that if he wanted to receive the means of God’s grace, he would have to place his lips for the first time in his life on a cup from which a black man had just drunk. You have to come from South Africa to know what that means. After a long pause, he took the cup and he drank—and for the first time, I saw a hint of a smile on Ike’s face.” (With God in the Crucible, pp. 70-71) I suspect there was a smile on the face of God as well.
Our communion table is not very big, but it symbolizes a great banquet table so long and large that one cannot see to the end of it. Picture it in your mind’s eye (close your eyes if that helps your imagination). See the long table and try to see to the end of it as it disappears over the horizon. See the people sitting in chairs around the table. Some are in wheelchairs. I see a woman signing the words of the liturgy to her friend who is deaf. I see a young man who cannot see me for he is blind. He leans forward to smell the bread and the juice and the sweet aromas make him smile. He reaches out to gently touch the crust of the bread, the stem of chalice. I see people of every nation and race gathered side by side. I see families of all kinds and single folks and a young woman assisting an older woman to her chair. Little children are running around everywhere. I see a Roman centurion with his arm around his young slave.
And I see Jesus standing there. He’s walking back and forth and helping people find their seats and he’s smiling. He’s saying something, a word he keeps repeating over and over. Can you hear him? Listen, he’s saying, “Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful . . . .”
Sermon transcript for May 26, 2013
When the Spirit Comes
Belmont UMC—May 26, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
This morning I want us think together about the work of the Holy Spirit.
When I was child we still referred to the Spirit as the Holy Ghost, and I found the notion of a holy ghost frightening. There was a dark storage area under the steps in the basement of our church and occasionally I’d go in there with my Dad to retrieve extra folding tables or chairs for pot luck suppers. The storage area was full of junk, like old rummage sale signs, discarded Vacation Bible School crafts and casserole dishes that had been left behind. In the corner was Pastor Jim’s famous rugged cross that he built and set in the middle of the chancel because he thought were too squeamish about suffering. As soon as he left our church, the Trustees took the cross down and put it in the storage room, replacing his rugged cross with a new, shiny brass one. As a child I thought the Holy Ghost must come out of that dark storage room at night and wander the halls of our church.
Somewhere along the way I came to understand the Spirit in a different way and the fear of the Spirit dissipated. But maybe there is something to be said for reclaiming, if not fear, then a healthy sense of respect and awe in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
There was a pastor who preached often at our church when I was kid. He was retired and would fill pulpits for pastors who were away on vacation. His name was John Kelly and he had Irish roots. His sermons were passionate and sometimes he would pound the pulpit and raise his voice. When he did he would slip into a distinct Irish brogue and I liked his voice and his passion. I remember one thing he said during those sermons. It was something like this, “I often hear people pray to be more like Jesus, without once considering the consequences. That can be a dangerous prayer and once you pray it you better prepared to duck.”
It’s possible that an equally dangerous and consequential prayer is found in these three words, “Come, Holy Spirit.” Allowing the Holy Spirit to come into our lives is powerful and transformative.
In the farewell discourses of Jesus from John 13 through John 17, Jesus prepares his disciples for his leaving. He promises them that they will not be left alone, but God will send the Spirit and he describes the work of the Holy Spirit to them. Much of what we believe about the Holy Spirit is found in these chapters of the Gospel of John.
The followers of the Way in Acts, sometimes called The Gospel of the Holy Spirit, dare to pray this provocative prayer, “Come, Holy Spirit!” Then they waited. We know that the Holy Spirit descended on them at Pentecost and the rest of Acts is one wild roller coaster ride.
We know from these texts that the Holy Spirit is the source of spiritual life within us. Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection and found them huddled together in fear. The first thing he did was frighten them a little more by showing up and then he said, “Peace be with you.’ and then he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” (John 20:22-23) The word for breath, spirit, and life (pneuma) is used interchangeably in the Greek. He breathed on them. He gave them life.
In her description of Pentecost, Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “They had sucked in God’s own breath and they had been transformed by it. The Holy Spirit had entered into them the same way it had entered into Mary, the mother of Jesus, and for the same reason. It was time for God to be born again—not in one body this time but in a body of believers who would receive the breath of life from their Lord and pass it on, using their own bodies to distribute the gift.” (Home by Another Way, “The Gospel of the Holy Spirit” p. 144)
To pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!” is to pray that God will come into our lives and breathe new life into us and that life is the very life of God. Have you ever seen or participated in the resuscitation of someone whose life has gone out of them? It’s a powerful experience, isn’t it? The disciples are as good as dead spiritually. They are fearful, desperate, surrendered, and locked in a room. All their hopes and dreams have died and they have no sense of purpose and direction. Jesus breathes on them, resuscitates them, and sends them out into the world.
We come here on Sunday mornings for worship and we have one of the best choirs, one of the best music programs, in Methodism. I tell people that I come here for the music. Occasionally, one of us will preach a heartwarming and inspiring sermon. All this is good; all of this is a gift of God. But the choir cannot breathe new life into us. Nor can an inspiring sermon. Only the Holy Spirit can do that.
So we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!” but don’t pray the prayer if you are satisfied with your life, your deeply rutted and boring life, because the Spirit will give you new life and purpose. It won’t be boring anymore; it will be adventurous!
We know that when the Holy Spirit comes, the Spirit forms us into something called the church. The Spirit gives each of us gifts of ministry and service. Here is some of that diversity we keep talking about. As we look around the room this morning we can identify so many different gifts of the Spirit. I believe that we are gifted by the Spirit and called to use those gifts in service to the church.
What would the church look like where everyone identifies their gifts and sets out to use them in service? It would be pretty transformative, but it’s supposed to be the norm not the exception. I believe that God has provided all the gifts we need in this church for the work of the ministry.
We had a capital campaign in one church I served and we put together a steering committee. The only person we were missing was someone who could help with publicity—posters, brochures, newsletters, etc. This was in the days before computers so it required skills that no one had. A woman named Kay had started coming to the church. On the Sunday after we formed the Steering Committee, she came to me after worship and said, “I want to join the church next Sunday.” We talked for a bit. I asked her where she worked. She answered, “I’m responsible for all the publicity for the company where I work. I put together their monthly newsletters, all their brochures and such. If you ever need any help with anything like that, let me know.”
I’ve had numerous conversations over the last couple of months with persons who have dared to pray, “Come, Holy Spirit!” and are now discerning where God is calling them. We have a number of young adults in our church who are discerning a call to ministry, what that means and where God is leading them. That’s exciting!
When the Spirit comes, we will be able to identify the gift of God in our lives. We will be moved to offer those gifts to help form the church that helps transform the world. “Come, Holy Spirit!”
Our Gospel text today says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13)
The Holy Spirit leads us into an understanding of God and into a deeper relationship with God. We use words like spiritual nurture or spiritual formation to describe this work of the Spirit. John Wesley might have called this “sanctifying grace.” This work of the Spirit is ongoing. This work of the Spirit comes through the spiritual practices of prayer, fasting, study, meditation, worship, etc. It may be that we will be open to something new through the music or the sermon on Sunday mornings.
This work of the Spirit means that we are continually being awakened to new truths about God and about ourselves in relationship with God. The way I think about God now is very different than it was 20 years ago or 40 years ago.
The Gospel of John speaks of the Spirit as the Comforter or Counselor or Advocate. (John 14: 26) The Greek word there means “the one who is called along side of us.” I love that image of the Holy Spirit as God coming along side of us, walking with us, teaching us about God’s self, awakening us to new life, guiding our journey, and calling us to serve.
Let’s end today with a simple spiritual exercise. Let’s close our eyes and place our hands in front of us, maybe on our laps, palms up in a posture of receiving. Quietly and slowly breathe in and out. And as you do, imagine that those breaths are the very life God. Take a moment in silence.
Now, if you dare, say in a whisper, “Come, Holy Spirit!”