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Sermon transcript for December 29, 2013

Chris Allen
Belmont UMC
Year A
First Sunday of Christmas
Matthew 2:12-23

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).

 

Sermon transcript for December 24, 2013

God at Our Doorstep
Luke 2:1-20
Christmas Eve—December 24, 2013
Belmont UMC--Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

I have always told my children this story, a true story from my childhood. It was from a time when I was small child, and I lived with my family in a country farmhouse, way out on a gravel road in the southern part of Robertson County, here in Tennessee. The homes were few and far apart. These were simple houses, most of which had not been upgraded with things like modern plumbing, or central heating systems or even single line phone systems. Most of the houses had been wired for electricity after the establishment of TVA, which meant each room had one electrical outlet and a light bulb hanging from the ceiling in every room. Very few cars traveled our road and very few people knocked on our door.

My grandparents lived on a neighboring farm down the road. I recall sitting with them at their kitchen table eating good, hearty farm food, and if someone happened to drive down our road during meal time, their conversation would shift to wondering who that was or where they were going.

Grandmommy would say, “Who was that?”

Granddaddy would respond, “That was Mr. Smith’s old Plymouth. He must be going to the doctor again. Or maybe he went to get that part for his tractor; the thing was broken down all last week.” They would entertain us with these speculations.

On one Christmas Eve we were gathered in the living room of the farmhouse. There was the Christmas tree, a cedar cut on the farm and adorned with our simple ornaments. Coals burned in the fireplace to heat the room. My brother and I were too excited to go to sleep. Mom and Dad kept telling us to go to bed, but we could not settle down. When my boys were little and all excited, I would say, “They have happy legs!” On that evening we had a bad case of “happy legs.” 

Mom said, “If you don’t go to sleep, Santa will not come.” Parents have been telling their children this for generations and it’s absolutely true. It’s been true for me for 61 Christmases now. But I could not overcome my excitement and my parents, usually very strict about such things, were cutting us a little slack. It was Christmas Eve after all.

Then there was a loud knock on the front door and the four of us went quickly to the door. I opened the door and in front of me stood Santa Claus. His huge size filled up the doorway and his hands were on his hips and he looked frustrated. He said, “Kenneth Edwards, why are you still awake? You know I cannot bring your gifts until you go to sleep.” Then he picked me up in his arms (I was terrified.) and he said, ‘I’m going to give you and your big brother one more chance. I’ll be back later but you better be asleep.”

He put me down and my brother and I ran like lightning up the stairs, into our beds, and pulled the quilts up over our heads, until we fell asleep.

Annie Dillard, in a short essay, recalls her own childhood experience with Christmas Eve. Her family had returned from dinner and settled into their celebration. There was a commotion at the front door. It opened and her mother exclaimed, “Look who’s here! Look who’s here!”

Annie Dillard wrote, “It was Santa Claus, whom I never wanted to meet.” He “stood in the doorway monstrous and bright” with “night over his shoulder, letting in all the cold air of the sky.” She ran upstairs and hid. Her parents encouraged and pleaded but she refused to come down. She was afraid of Santa. Santa was not to be seen, but he could see her and he knew whether she had been good or bad and she had been very bad (or so she thought.)

She was afraid of God, too. She reflects, “I misunderstood and let everyone down. God I’m sorry I ran from you and I’m still running . . . for you meant only love and I felt only fear and pain. . . So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.” (“God in the Doorway,” Teaching a Stone to Talk)

My wife tells the children of a Christmas Eve when God came knocking on their door. She was a child and she lived with her family in a parsonage (her father was a pastor). One Christmas Eve they had just finished reading this passage from Luke 2:1-20, the story of Jesus’ birth, when someone knocked on their door. It was a young couple with a tiny baby. They were on their way home for Christmas when they ran out of money and out of luck. Her parents invited them in and fed them a simple meal of scrambled eggs and toast. The children went to their rooms and found toys to give to the baby. Her mother gave the couple some baby clothes that had belonged to the older children. Then her Dad took them to a gas station and filled their tank for the journey and then put them up in a motel room for the night.

My wife believes this was a visitation from God and through this visitation they understood the story they had read from the Bible. They understood how young Mary was and how troubling and fearful the journey to Bethlehem must have been. They felt Joseph’s and Mary’s sense of isolation and the strangeness of everything.

I love Christmas Eve; it’s one of my favorite days of the year, because it’s the night we remember again how God came and stood in the doorway between our two worlds and we do not have to be afraid. It does not matter what we’ve done or who we are; because all that matters is who God is and what God has done for us. We only have to open the door and allow God’s love to come into our lives. Tonight God is at our doorstep. Don’t be afraid. Open the door. Make room. Make room.

   

Sermon transcript for December 22, 2013

What Isaiah Saw—Emanuel
Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
Belmont UMC—December 22, 2103
Ken Edwards, preaching

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On this Fourth Sunday of Advent we conclude our theme, What Isaiah Saw, exploring the visions of Isaiah and where we hear God calling us in those visions.

Walter Brueggemann said that the Hebrew prophets tended to prophesy against the data, in other words the prophets spoke of things that were not happening in the present. We see war and violence, but Isaiah saw weapons of war turned into farming implements. We see abuse of power, but Isaiah saw predators and prey living peacefully together. (Woody Allen said, “The wolf will lie down with the lamb but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”) Isaiah spoke of streams in the desert places and blooming flowers among the parched earth. People heard these words and they took them as a sign of God’s hopeful future for us and for all of creation.

But the prophets also spoke of God coming to the people in ways that perplex them. Brueggemann also says that the strangest thing about the Bible is God, because God is one of a kind and that makes God hard to understand. The strangeness is this: God is with the people. God is for the people. God is not preoccupied with God’s own business but always seeks to be with us and for us—to be in covenant relationship with us. (The Bible Makes Sense, 60-61)

In our text today from Isaiah, King Ahaz is fearful because the allied forces of Aram and Ephraim are attempting to attack Jerusalem. God comes to King Ahaz and tells him to ask for a sign. It seems that the sign is intended to engender trust in God, but the King refuses to ask for a sign on supposedly noble reasons—so as to not test God. But God offers a sign anyway, as an expression of the faithfulness and grace of God.

What is the sign that God offers? The sign is a child. “Look the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (v. 14) I’m not sure this was the sign Ahaz wanted. He may have wanted the sign of chariots and artillery to defend the city from siege. What good is a child in the face of an enemy? But this child has a name Emanuel, which means “God with us!”

Emmanuel, God is with us! What did that mean for the people of scripture? What does that mean for us today?

Emmanuel means disruption! That might not be the sign we expect in this season we associate with joy, peace and light, but the reality is that this God who comes to be with us often creates some disruption at first. That was true for Ahaz and even truer for Joseph and Mary in the Matthew text. Matthew connects the birth of Jesus to what Isaiah saw hundreds of years earlier.

Matthew’s version of the birth narrative is rather matter of fact and he focuses on the name Emmanuel and effect of Emmanuel on Mary and Joseph. Mary is very young, probably a teenager. She is engaged to Joseph when she discovers that she is pregnant. In Luke’s version of the story Mary is told by an angel that she is “favored” by God. Mary may have been thinking, “Please, favor someone else.” But instead she asks one question, “How can this be?” There may have been other questions on her mind, “What will people say?” “Will Joseph still love me?” “Will they stone me to death for adultery?”

Joseph has a dilemma. When he discovers that Mary is having a baby he makes plans to dismiss her quietly, no embarrassment needed. But God has another plan and God comes to Joseph in a dream, God, the disrupter of plans, has other ideas.

I suspect Mary and Joseph had plans. They would get married, settle down, build a little house in the suburbs of Nazareth, live a simple, good life, but God has other plans.

Emmanuel is the great disrupter of our plans, the disrupter of the status quo, and or the disrupter of our ease with things as they are. Some of us who have been called to full time ministry have experienced Emmanuel as the great disrupter of our plans. During this holy season may we receive the gift of God with us as an occasion to yield our plans to God’s and recommit ourselves to a renewed faith in following God’s direction for us as individuals, as a church, and as a denomination.

Emmanuel means transformation! Because God is with us we can no longer be the same, as God comes among us and changes us. Bishop Will Willimon told the story of a parishioner who once confessed that he had interpreted and kept his marriage vows rather loosely, he had thought little about the past, and had not the slightest interest in the future. He had spent the first years of his marriage mainly on the road making money. “But one night,” he said, “I got turned around—the night I walked into a hospital room and held my little baby in my arms for the first time and realized that she was part of me even if she was better than I deserved. I said to my self, “You’re going to have to stop your foolishness and start living like somebody because she is somebody.”

This child that Isaiah saw, this child that came to Mary and Joseph, this Emmanuel summons something within us that causes us to change and to live toward God’s hope for us and for all of creation. It doesn’t mean we won’t be flawed and imperfect but it does mean that we know where we are going, and it means that it’s not about us but about God and God’s purposes. Emmanuel means transformation of our values. It means a transformed way of being in the world and a transformed way of seeing the world. 

Emmanuel means vulnerability. The sign of a child represents hope, but a child represents vulnerability and dependency. This sign reminds us of our own vulnerability and fragility. Everything about us is vulnerable and fragile, even our hope. Do we really want a sign that reminds us of vulnerability? Wouldn’t we rather have a sign that points to strength and a sure future?

I have the honor of being the bearer of many of your stories, stories told in my office or in the hallway or in hospital rooms. I know your secret and you probably know mine. Our secret is this: we are not perfect and our worlds are not as idyllic as the picture on the front of our Christmas card suggests. We struggle, we falter, we grieve and we hurt. And the season of love and light causes some of our wounds to seem a little deeper and some of our sadness to be intensified. All the Christmas lights and Christmas cheer is not going to make that go away.

We have romanticized the birth of Jesus and the honest truth is that has not helped us very much. Barbara Brown Taylor imagines the birth of Jesus like this, “Joseph and Mary got a stall instead of a room, which was not as bad as sometimes make it out to be, but still, not an ideal situation. With luck they got a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow. We know they got a feed trough, because that was where they laid their treasure, and that was when the picture was taken—right then, while the star was still overhead and the angels were still singing in the rafters.

“But twenty minutes later, what? The hole in the heavens has closed up and the only music came from the bar at the inn. One of the cows stepped on a chicken and the resulting racket made the baby cry. As she leaned over to pick him up, Mary started crying too and when Joseph tried to comfort her she told him she wanted her mother. If she had just married a nice boy from Nazareth, she said, she would be back home where she belonged instead of competing with sheep for a place to sleep.”

“Then she said she was sorry and Joseph said not to think another thing about it. He meant it, too. They both hurt all over and there was nothing to eat and it was cold as the dickens, but you know what? God was still there, right in the middle of the picture. Peace was there, and joy, and love—not only in the best of times but also and especially in the worst of times. . .” (“Past Perfection,” pp. 23-24)

I suspect we need this Emmanuel who reminds us that God knows our stories and our secrets, too. We need this God who comes into our world to enter our very vulnerable and fragile lives and reminds us, “I am here with you. I know you. I love you.”

 

Sermon transcript for December 15, 2013

What Isaiah Saw--Everlasting Joy
Isaiah 35:1-10
Belmont UMC—December 15, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

If you are just joining us in the Advent Season, the theme for this season is “What Isaiah Saw” and we have been exploring the visions of the prophet, the visions of God for the future of creation and for all of us. We are invited to live toward these images given by the prophet.

Isaiah saw miraculous and redemptive reversals: a dry desert will blossom with flowers because there will be streams of water there, the weak hands will be strengthened, the feeble knees will be made firm, the fearful heart will be calmed, the eyes of those who are blind will be opened, the ears of those who cannot hear will be unstopped, the lame person will leap like a deer, those who are exiled will find a way home because God will create a safe highway for their passage, and sorrow and sighing will be turned to everlasting joy. (Notice this subtle reversal--that even “sighing” will flee away.)

Isaiah saw hope that God was coming and God would bring healing and redemption to a broken world. That is the message of Advent:  Behold your God is coming and the God of divine reversals will turn things around. God will make a way when it appears there is no way.

Most scholars agree that there was more than one Isaiah because of the time span covered and the different writing styles found throughout this book of the Bible. Scholars think Isaiah 35 belongs to Second Isaiah or later, which would mean that the chapter has been placed earlier than it belongs. Why does it appear in this place? Barbara Lundblad imagines, “The Spirit hovered over the text and over the scribes: ‘Put it here,’ breathed the Spirit, ‘before anyone is ready. Interrupt the narrative of despair.’” (Workingpreacher.com)

Interrupt the narrative of despair. What narrative is that? Looking back to chapter 34 and we find vengeance, destruction, and environmental chaos. “Edom’s streams will be turned to pitch, its dust into sulfur, and its land will become burning pitch. Night and day won’t be extinguished; its smoke will go up forever. From generations to generation it will lay waste; no one will ever pass through it again.” (34:9-10) 

Interrupt the despair with these words of hope in chapter 35: “Waters will spring in the desert and streams in the wilderness. The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water.” (35:6b-7a) Interrupt the despair with these words placed out of time.

There are plenty of images of despair in our world today and you don’t need me to list them here for you. Pick up any Sunday paper and you’ll find enough despair to go around.

And here, out of place, out of order, comes a message that brims over with hope. Here, deep into Advent, comes a message that sounds like springtime after a dark winter, like Easter at the end of a long season of Lent, like the ultimate divine reversal, like resurrection!

In this season we remember that Jesus was born into a world that was bleak, as the people of Israel were living under the oppression and domination of Rome. Luke tells us that at the time of John the Baptist, the people were on tiptoe with expectation; they were on the edge of their seats, anticipating the arrival of a Messiah, the arrival of hope, the arrival of one who might interrupt their despair.

How do we live into the language of this Isaiah text? How do we live toward God’s dream of a world of reversals, of a world where those who are lame can leap like the deer, and those who are deaf are able to hear or those who are blind are made to see? We might begin to look at those who are disabled in a new way. Some use the words “differently abled” and I like those words.

Chuck Campbell taught preaching classes at Columbia Seminary in Georgia. He required students in one of his classes to lead worship at the Open Door Shelter for homeless people in downtown Atlanta. One day he was leading worship in front of the shelter, amid the noise of rush-hour traffic. After the call to worship and a song, Chuck’s plans were interrupted. He said, “I noticed one homeless man waving to me and pointing to himself. I was surprised when I saw him for the man can neither hear nor speak and is normally reserved.”

But there he was, eager to do something. He stepped into the middle of the circle, bowed his head in silence and began to sign a hymn for us. It was beautiful, like a dance. . . In that moment our notions of “abled” and “disabled” were turned upside down. The rest of us had been shouting to be heard, but the noise was no problem for our friend. . . Our worship became a token of the resurrection in the midst of the powers of death, a glimpse of God’s beloved community.” Even Isaiah couldn’t have imagined the glory of that moment in downtown Atlanta as the hands of the speechless were singing for joy.” (Charles L. Campbell, The Word before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching, 123-124)

In one church I served a family arrived with a son who suffered from a severe form of autism. He did not communicate, seemed to be in his own world, and sometimes he was a bit out of control. When he was having a bad day, he would make loud outbursts. They had not felt welcomed in the church they had previously attended because of Eric’s outbursts. I watched this community of faith as they reached out to this family with love, with offers of help and with patience.

The boy would be very calm when he came up for Holy Communion and as he received the bread and dipped it into the cup. A couple of Sunday mornings his mother called me and said, “We’re having a difficult morning. Could you take a minute to serve Eric communion in your office this morning?” I recall one Sunday morning when the mom brought Eric into my office. She was pulling the reluctant boy by the arm and he was resisting. Eric was often completely lost in whatever world he was experiencing. But when he saw the chalice and the bread on the table by my desk, he became calm and received the elements and looked me in the eye. In his eye I experienced the presence of God. It was a holy moment and I couldn’t find words to describe this experience but Isaiah did. It felt like waters breaking forth in the wilderness and like streams flowing in the desert. It felt like burning sand becoming a pool of refreshing water, and springs of water bursting out of thirsty ground.

In Isaiah this hope always comes in the midst of despair. And in Isaiah hope always looks like people being welcomed home again. It looks like the hospitality that only the beloved community can offer.

In The Bible Makes Sense, by Walter Brueggemann, he explores recurring themes of the Bible. In the chapter “From Death to Life” Brueggemann writes that the Bible’s notion of life and death are very different from ours. He writes, “Life means to be significantly involved in the community of caring, meaning, and action. Death means to be excluded from such a community or denied access to its caring, meaning, or action. (109-112)

Brueggemann notes that in the Gospel of Mark there is a story (Mark 5:2) about the man who is called Legion because he is so lost in mental illness. He is assigned to live among the tombs, among the dead, his healing comes at the hands of Jesus and what does Jesus do to complete the healing, he sends him home. His homecoming is a resurrection story; it is the ultimate divine reversal; it is like blossoms in the desert; it is everlasting joy in the face of sorrow.

Where do we hear God calling us in this Isaiah passage?

May we as a church hear the call to be a word out of place--a joyful, hopeful word that interrupts the narrative of despair in our world!

And if we consider the context of the environmental chaos of Isaiah 34, may we hear God’s call to live in ways that care for creation, that reduces our carbon footprint and be advocates for systemic changes that help recreate a healthy planet and reduce global warming!

This passage speaks to our hospitality to those who may be differently abled and calls us to we see each person as a gift from God, from whom we can learn and grow and come to know God better.

Isaiah saw people returning from exile; he saw this, “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way.” (v. 8a) May we be that safe highway on which those who have felt exiled  from their peoples, their home and even their churches, can find their way home. A few months back, we asked the question, “Where do you go when you can not go home?” May we, Belmont, be a home to those who have no other place to call home!

And then, my dear friends, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”

“And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

   

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