Sermon transcript for June 10, 2012
Do Not Lose Heart!
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Belmont UMC—June 10, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
“So we do not lose heart!” As I read over the lectionary readings this week, these were the words that kept coming back to me—the words that kept speaking to me. Some might want to analyze why those words kept speaking to me. Could it be that I’m on verge of losing heart, of giving up or losing hope? I don’t think so, but I do believe that those words speak clearly to all of us, who have at one point or another felt like losing heart.
“So we do not lose heart!” Those are the words as they are translated in the New Revised Standard Version. The Common English Bible, which we have been using more and more, translates this phrase, “So we aren’t depressed.” We are familiar with depression in our society as it touches many lives and at many different levels of intensity. Depression causes persons to lose hope, to despair, to give up, to lose motivation, to quit caring deeply about things, to feel that life is futile, to sense utter discouragement or to lose heart.
There are many causes for losing heart. We lose heart because we are afraid and fear wins over other emotions. We lose heart because of circumstances that overwhelm us and we can’t see a way out. We lose heart because we have been faithful to work toward a purpose but cannot see the fruit of our labor. We lose heart when we lose confidence in ourselves, in God, in our abilities, or in the value of our work. We lose heart when we feel small and insignificant in the face of massive global problems that are beamed into our living rooms each night.
I was sent to serve a church that had been losing ground for several years. When I arrived and met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee for the first time, one of the committee members said, “You did not want to come here did you? I can’t imagine anyone wanting to come and serve this church.” Another person said, “Some people here will resent it if you make any changes, but if you don’t change some things we will die.” The church was so demoralized and discouraged by loss that they could not imagine surviving and their discouragement had created dysfunctional patterns that kept them digging the hole of despair ever deeper. My wife and I decided right away that we needed to help the people see the gifts and graces they possessed and we sought ways to encourage and be as positive as we could. It was a couple of years into that appointment before they began to rekindle a strong sense of mission and purpose.
The Apostle Paul has had lots of reasons to lose heart. He writes, “We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we are not crushed. We are confused, but we are not depressed. We are harassed, but we are not abandoned. We are knocked down, but we are not knocked out.” (verses 8 and 9) In verse 1 of chapter 4 Paul writes, “Therefore, we don’t get discouraged.”
I have avoided speaking or writing about General Conference, United Methodism’s chief legislative conference that meets every 4 years. I have avoided it because so many things have been written or said that I couldn’t imagine that I have anything to add to the discussion. Most people agree that the Conference in May was a failure on many levels. Some came away calling the United Methodist Church a “sinking ship.” We were unable to agree on a plan to restructure the church leadership. We were unwilling to remove language from the Book of Discipline which excludes and labels. In that failure we continue to do harm to many of our members and constituents. We were unable to pass legislation that speaks the truth about who we are. Namely, that we are a people who are not likeminded and who can agree to disagree. That remains the truth about who we are in spite our lack of courage to acknowledge it. Frankly, some of us felt like losing heart after General Conference concluded.
Christian writer and blogger, Tony Jones, suggested that all young clergy should leave the denomination in response to our last General Conference. Many of my colleagues have taken issue with his call to leave and let me add my voice to those. Tony wasn’t around during the Civil Rights Movement and he wasn’t in church the day I heard my young pastor speak bravely for the cause of blacks and others who were victims of racial injustice. He was not there when people in the church got up and walked out in anger in the middle of his sermons. And though he may have been discouraged from time to time and he may have felt like losing heart, he kept preaching and speaking the truth and calling us out for our racism. And he did not give up. I am standing here today because of young pastors who did not jump ship when the water was a little rough.
And where would our church be today if a generation of clergy had left when their voices were so desperately needed? We may get discouraged but those who stick around will live to see a better day. I’m confident of that. So we do not lose heart!
We have 4 gifted women clergy on our staff. When I was younger, and to some extent, even now, women clergy have had an uphill climb. District Superintendents would tell them that they could not appoint them—that churches would not accept them. One of my colleagues sat in the church to which she was being appointed, only to hear the DS apologize to the church saying, “I’m sorry but we will have to appoint a woman to your church. We have no one else. It’s the best we can do.”
Of course, they felt like losing heart, but where would the church be if it weren’t for women like Linda Johnson, Pam Hawkins, Heather Harriss, and Sandy Sakarapanee.
They did not give up! And so we do not lose heart!
Former South Africa Bishop, Peter Storey, was planning to be with us last week and he had to cancel his trip to the Untied States. We hope he will make that trip in the future. But I thought I would share one of his stories. Peter Storey was a champion of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He once told a story about how he and Desmond Tutu were nearly executed for their work. An armed guard took them out to a remote sugar cane field. There they were bound for execution. The guard raised his gun toward them. But, the guard did not have the fortitude to do this evil thing, so he lowered his weapon and walked away in shame. Storey and Tutu, upon realizing their deliverance, excitedly returned to their car that had brought them out to the killing field. As they drove back to civilization, Tutu suggested they offer prayers of gratitude for their deliverance. Immediately, he folded his hands, closed his eyes and uttered a prayer of thanksgiving. While eager to join in prayer, Storey was unnerved by Tutu’s actions. Tutu was driving the car at the time.
Where would South Africa be if Peter Storey and Desmond Tutu and a host of other brave women and men had lost heart and abandoned the cause? So we do not lose heart!
What motivated Paul or those early followers to not lose heart, to avoid discouragement when they often faced intense opposition and persecution? For one thing they understood that the kingdom is not about them or their plans. It is about God’s purpose being lived out in the world. And they trusted the grace of God to sustain them and guide them in whatever they did. And they understood the call to be faithful, even against all odds. And they trusted that they were in God’s hands no matter where they were or what they were doing. Paul wrote, “We have this awesome power that comes from God, not from us.” (v. 7) “We do not focus on things that can be seen, but on things that cannot be seen. The things that can be seen do not last, but the things that cannot be seen are eternal.” (v. 18)
We often lose heart when we forget to trust, when we fail to remember that this journey of faith is not so much about us but about God’s dream for our world. I’ve been there many times and so have you. We forget that this journey is about something bigger and beyond ourselves—about something eternal, not temporal.
I read a story of an experienced mountain climber who thought he could anything, and one day he came to a great overhang of rock. He tried several techniques to get himself up and over the massive outcropping, but he could not. He began to lose strength and after some time he realized that he had done all he could. He could go back down and he did not have the strength to go up. He began to think about death, about his family and friends and the things he had hoped to do in his life. He had reached the end of his journey. At the point of complete surrender, he heard a noise above him and then a piece of climbing equipment fell past him on the mountain. He realized that another climber was in trouble somewhere above him. Somehow, not for himself, but for another, he found the strength to pull himself up and over the outcropping to help a fellow climber. We will not lose heart when we remember that there are others counting on us to be faithful. So we will not lose heart.
And we do not lose heart because we have each other. When one gets discouraged, and we will, there will be another in this wonderful community of faith who will come along and encourage, support, and hold out hope to her or him. You may want to look around you this morning at the faces of some of the people who love you and want the best for you. These people, God’s people, will be there when you need them. Aren’t we blessed? So we will not lose heart.
Sermon transcript for June 3, 2012
Bread of Life
Belmont UMC—June 3, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
My wife and I were in our very early 20’s, married, and taking a sociology class together at Austin Peay State University. We needed a semester project to tackle so we joined forces with another friend and volunteered to assist the county health department in surveying the needs of rural citizens. On our free days we drove into rural parts of Montgomery County, among farm families and some rather isolated poor families to quiz them about their health needs. We met a lot of interesting and sweet people and most of them were reluctant to talk to us about their personal lives.
One hot day we parked our car under a shade tree and walked down a country road to a rather run down looking home. In spite of the heat there was smoke coming out of the chimney in the back of the house. Overgrown privet bushes almost hid the dilapidated front porch from our view. We found a front door, knocked and waited. Finally, an older woman in a long dress came to the door. Her hair was tied up in a bandana and she didn’t look that pleased to have company. We introduced ourselves and started to give her our speech about county health care. She interrupted us, “I can’t invite you in because my husband is real sick and he needs to sleep. Wait here.” She shut the door and left.
In a few moments she returned to the front porch saying, “I had to get the cornbread out of the stove before it burned” as she held the plate of cornbread for us to share. She said, “Have some. I still used a wood stove for cooking because it makes the food taste better.” She disappeared again and returned with glasses of sweet tea. The three of us sat on the front porch together for a long time. She never answered our health care questions but she told us her life story over broken bread and shared glasses of tea. There was something sacramental about our time with her on that front porch, because even out of her obvious poverty she shared what she had and it felt life giving and holy.
Bread is featured prominently in the stories of the Bible. From the Israelites finding manna in the wilderness, Elijah and the widow of Nain, sharing what she thinks will be a last meal for her and her son before starving to death, only to experience the miracle of abundance, to the Passover Meal shared between Jesus and the disciples, bread is a symbol of life and the life giving abundance of God.
In all four of the Gospels there is a story of bread and fish being multiplied and shared among the thousands of people who have come to see and hear Jesus. This story was important to the early church. It is a story of God’s provision for the people. It is a story that has sacramental overtones and later in this chapter of John’s Gospel we hear Jesus speaking of the bread which came from God, linking himself to the gift of bread. “I am the Bread of Life!”
But in each of the Gospel stories it is clear that Jesus has compassion on those who are hungry and need to be fed. It is the nature of God to have compassion for the hungry of this world. And as people of God, this must become second nature for us as well. And that compassion must be translated into action. And Jesus turns to the disciples and instructs them to feed the multitude. And Jesus turns to us, the Christ followers of Belmont United Methodist Church and challenges us to feed the hungry.
The task seems overwhelming when we examine the statistics. Throughout the world 1.5 billion people live in extreme poverty, 990 million people suffer from chronic hunger and on the Horn of Africa almost 13 million people are on the brink of starvation because of the worst drought in 60 years.
In the United States, more than one in five children lives below the poverty level. The number of people at risk of hunger in our country increased from 36.2 million in 2007 to 48.8 million in 2010. Food banks saw a 46 percent increase in clients seeking emergency food assistance between 2006 and 2010.
We can do many things to help and we must not allow the numbers to overwhelm us, causing us to do nothing. We can volunteer and participate in feeding programs in our city. Our Belmont youth, led by Bill and Mary Ruth Lane, are gardening and growing food to share with hunger ministries in our city. We can help advocate for an end to food deserts in our communities. We offer direct assistance to those in need through our Belmont Benevolence Fund. We can contribute to the hunger fund of the United Methodist Committee on Relief. We are told that we have the resources to end hunger but people still go hungry day after day.
Today, our Belmont Advocacy Team is inviting us to support Bread for the World which supports policies and programs that meet the needs of hunger here and throughout the world. Through Bread for the World we have an opportunity to influence the decisions of our government regarding policies and spending. And the church has the opportunity to act as the conscience of our nation when many would want us to embrace a “save yourself” mentality. We must ask Congress to protect programs that combat poverty and prevent families here and abroad from going hungry.
One of my closest friends tells a painful story of his childhood. His father deserted the family when he was a little boy and his mother did the best she could to make ends meet. His mother remarried and the new step father was abusive and violent. One night they fled the home to save their lives. They first went to their church and the pastor and his wife took them in and hid them. Later they moved to public housing. His mother worked but she was not skilled and never made enough money to pay the bills. He said if it had not been for food stamps (now called SNAP) they would have starved. I have heard him tell how he and his younger sister would search the parking lot of the grocery for money that people had dropped or lost, while their mother shopped inside. The extra money would have been used to buy food. His life is better now and so is his family’s, but at that crucial time in their lives there was a program that saw them through and kept them alive.
There are some important players in our Gospel story. When Jesus saw the large crowds coming he said to Philip, “Where are we going to buy bread for all these people?” Philip answered, “Six months wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a tiny bit.” He saw the task as overwhelming and he was read to give up. We have all felt that way at one time or another.
But another disciple, Andrew, who is always introducing people to Jesus, introduced Jesus to a little boy who had five barley loaves and two fish. It wasn’t much and Andrew acknowledges that, but it was something and it was offered and it was shared. I like to think that somewhere in that little boy’s life a mother or father, grandparent, or faith friend or rabbi took him aside and said, “You may not have a lot in your lunch box, but if you see someone hungry, God will want you to share what you have.” And it became that child’s second nature to care for the hungry.
God can use everything we can offer. It might not always seem like much but it might be the beginning of a miracle. It always seems sacramental when we break bread together and share what we have with others. And so we shall!