Sermon transcript for April 5, 2015
Belmont UMC—April 5, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching
I receive Sunday School class emails and updates from many classes and in one church I served the class communicator would include a summary of what she thought I had said in the Sunday sermon, for those who had missed church. I was always interested to read what she thought I said. Sometimes she was spot on, but most of the time she wrote of a very different version of the sermon than what I had actually said. Sometimes her version was an improvement of the sermon.
Tom Long shares a story about Clint Tidwell, who was a pastor of a church in a small Southern town, and one of his blessings—and one of his curses—was that the 80 year old owner and editor of the local newspaper was a member of the congregation. The blessing was that the editor believed Tidwell was a fine preacher and he wanted the whole town to know it, so he published a summary of Tidwell’s sermons every Monday morning in the paper. The curse part was that the editor, though well meaning was a bit eccentric, and Tidwell was often astonished and sometimes embarrassed by the editor’s synopses.
Tidwell’s deepest amazement came not when the newspaperman misunderstood the sermon, but when he understood it all too clearly. It was early on a Monday morning after Easter. Tidwell, in his bathrobe and slippers, paddled out the carport door to retrieve the morning paper. He could see that the morning headline was in “second coming” size type. Had war broken out? Had the banks failed? What had happened in the dark of night while he slept?
As he drew close he was startled to read in giant bold letters, TIDWELL CLAIMS JESUS CHRIST ROSE FROM THE DEAD! His face turned red. Yes he had proclaimed that news in worship but what would the neighbors think. You are supposed to say that on Easter, aren’t you, that’s not like saying that some person who died last week had risen from the grave, is it? As he looked at the glaring headlines he felt a little foolish. (Tom G. Long, Whispering the Lyrics: Sermons for Lent and Easter) So what about us? Does the Easter story ring true and is it filled with power?
One might think the title of the sermon to be a bit unusual but the word “power” is associated with Easter and the resurrection in the New Testament. The word “power” may evoke a lot of different thoughts and it’s a word that has the ability to attract a lot of connotations, some of which are negative, like “power trips, power corrupts or abuse of power.”
But the power of Easter, the power that comes out of the story of the resurrection is very different. Paul speaks of this in his letter to Philippi, “The righteousness that I have comes from knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection.” (3:10 CEB) This was important to Paul because he believed he had encountered the Risen Cross on the Damascus Road. The idea that the resurrection has power is present throughout the New Testament.
The resurrection of Jesus is the key event in the Gospels that transformed the disciples from fearful, betraying, questioning followers, into leaders of the early church. They were so convinced that the affirmation, “Christ is risen!” was true that most of them would die for their faith.
But do we believe this and are we prepared to declare that the Easter is a real event that has power in our lives today?
Easter is a little hard on our faith but it was hard on those first century Christians as well. As someone said, “Death has been around for a long time.” And people in the first century knew the reality of death better than we do in our sterilized, death-denying attempts to avoid the whole subject altogether. We expect death but we can get a little unsure about resurrection.
Easter was hard on the faith of Mary who is weeping in the garden because she thought Jesus’ body had been stolen. Mary thought the man she encountered was a gardener. Why would she think otherwise? She did not expect to encounter the Risen Christ. When she hears her name, she hears something familiar, something powerful and knowing—wonder and surprise leap up inside of her and she responds by calling him “Rabbi.” He speaks to her and she runs to tell the others, “I have seen the Lord.”
But Easter changes everything for the disciples and it changes everything for us. Easter is a powerful event.
Easter is power in the face of death! For those early Christians, who faced great hardship and persecution, the words, “Because he lives, you will live also,” were a source of hope and encouragement. These words continue to speak hope and encouragement to us as well.
I preached an Easter sermon a couple of Saturdays ago. It was the funeral sermon for our friend, Gabe Segovia. Gabe, who died on his 45th birthday, was an amazing young man who was a blessing for us all. He learned he had a brain tumor when he was 41 and he went through 3 bouts of cancer treatments, including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
I told the crowd at his funeral that Gabe did not lose his battle with cancer. He won because he did not let cancer take anything of value away from him. Instead he turned the disease on its head and used it to teach him how to live fully. It led him to a profound experience of faith in God—a story that he told in many, many churches. He was here a couple of Sundays before he died and he hugged me and said, “I love you, Pastor Ken.” Then he took a selfie of the two of us to post on Facebook. I often wonder how many selfies he has taken over the last few years.
Gabe would tell us that he believed that Christ is risen, because the risen Christ came to him, loved him and transformed him in a powerful way. He would tell us that as a member of the Homeless Ministry Team here at Belmont, he had encountered the living Christ in service to our homeless neighbors.
I can’t imagine preaching Gabe’s funeral if I did not believe in the power of the resurrection. Gabe believed it fully. Easter doesn’t get any more real than this.
Easter is power in the midst of life! I listened as my friend, Michael, prayed for us the other day. He said something like this, “Death, darkness and defeat do not have power over us anymore because Jesus took those things with him into the tomb and left them there.” The resurrection gives us new life and new hope in living everyday. It is transformational.
The great missionary, E. Stanley Jones, in his autobiography, tells about a man from Africa that he met who had changed his name to “After” immediately after his conversion. He reasoned that all things were new and different and important after he met Christ, so he was going to reflect that new reality in his name as well as in his thinking. (A Song of Ascents, p. 16) After Easter, nothing is the same again.
This Easter power is manifest in the transformation and work of the Christian community. In his book, The Bible Makes Sense, Walter Brueggemann, explores themes of the Bible and what they mean. In a chapter titled, “From Death to Life” he notes that life always means relatedness. “Life means to be significantly involved in a community of caring, meaning and action. Death means to be excluded from such a community or denied access to its caring, meaning and action.” (p. 109)
Brueggemann references the story of the mentally ill man who is consigned to live among the tombs, which for society meant that he was as good as dead. (Mark 5:2). Jesus heals the man and sends him home. He restores him to health and to his community from which he has been excluded. This is an Easter story.
Brueggemann notes that the “the early Christians were not much interested in the mechanics of (Jesus) coming out of the tomb, but they were mightily moved by his present power to gather outcasts around him to form a new community. Resurrection is the good news that the banished, destroyed one, is the one (the only one) who has the power to create a new community.” (pp. 115-116) Radical hospitality is an expression of the power of the resurrection.
Today we read the beautiful Easter story out of the Gospel of John. But there are new Easter stories being written every week in this church and in every place where people seek to follow the Risen One. These Easter stories are written in every act of kindness and in every word of encouragement. They are written when the hungry are fed, and the homeless are welcomed in. They are written when our hospitality models the welcome of Jesus, who excluded no one. They are written when love and justice win.
In the words of Brian McLaren, Easter “feels like an uprising. An uprising of hope, not hate. An uprising armed with love, not weapons. An uprising that shouts a joyful promise of life and peace, not angry threats of hostility and death. It’s an uprising of outstretched hands, not clenched fists. It’s the “someday” we have always dreamed of, emerging in the present, rising up among us and within us. . . . This is what it means to be alive, truly alive.” (We Make the Road by Walking, p. 170)
So let tomorrow’s bold headline read that your pastor and pastors all over this city, claimed that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Because the Lord is risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Sermon transcript for March 29, 2015
“Bystanders Becoming Cross-bearers”
Belmont UMC—March 29, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching
Here we are at the beginning of Holy Week; the season of Lent seemed to go by quickly this year. I took the time to read through many of the passages that we will consider as we move through the coming week. Every year we come face to face with the events in the last week of Jesus’ life. Every year we stop and look and listen with awe and dismay. The story inspires us and troubles us. The story changes us and draws us closer to God, giving us a fresh glimpse at the wonder of God’s incredible love.
I was asked to write a reflection for the Station of the Cross based on the Gospel reading and it stayed with me all week. Simon of Cyrene, a bystander is compelled by soldiers to carry the cross of Jesus. Each year I’ve read that part of the story, but this year I was struck by the way the lives of these 2 persons, Simon and Jesus, come together along the way of the cross.
Cyrene is a name that comes up several times in the New Testament. Located in what is modern day Libya, it was a place where a large number of Jewish people lived and we see them coming to Jerusalem as pilgrims at Passover and Pentecost (Acts 2). Mark, who is not big detail, gives us this subtle clue, calling Simon “the father of Rufus and Alexander.” Why would Mark add this detail? It is obvious that these two men were known by the early Christian community. This may be Mark’s subtle way of saying that Simon became a Christian, a follower of the Way.
In our story he is a bystander, like thousands of other pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover—to pay the temple tax, the make a sacrifice, and to eat the Passover meal. Simon is likely a religious, dutiful, keeper of the law. He is an ordinary person, from an ordinary place, looking upon an extraordinary scene.
The week had begun with an unusual little parade—a man named Jesus was riding into the city on a donkey. It was festive and celebratory. But the mood has changed and the quietness of tragedy hangs in the air. The cheers of Palm Sunday have become the jeers of Good Friday.
Simon watches a man carrying a wooden cross beam. He’s seen this before. The Romans used crucifixion freely as way of punishing criminals and sometimes for no good reason at all. The man with the cross is wounded and there is blood and sweat on his face and torso. The man stumbles. Simon watches, like one looks at the scene of a car wreck—looking but not wanting to look at the same time. Simon watches as the man falls. The soldiers are becoming impatient; they want Jesus to move along, quit holding things up. They want to get this over with.
Suddenly, Simon is pulled from the edge of the crowd, “You! You help him carry it!” There he is, shoulder to shoulder with the man they call Jesus. They look at each other as they come along side one another. Simon gently lifts the cross off the Jesus’ wounded back and he hears Jesus exhale with a great sigh of relief.
Jesus had come to Jerusalem with his disciples. They had not understood why he felt it necessary to make this dangerous trip into a city of enemies, but they would in time.
I’m always struck by how alone Jesus must have felt, even when surrounded by a multitude of people. And he’d felt alone long before he arrived in Jerusalem. There were days when no one seemed to understand his teaching. There was the day they threatened him in his own home town. There was a day when many left him and quit following him and he turned and asked the disciples, “Will leave me, also?”
In Jerusalem he knew he would be alone, tried alone, and crucified alone. He prayed in Gethsemane and asked God for a new plan and there his disciples fell asleep and could not keep him company. On the cross he would cry out to God in words from the Psalms (Ch. 22), “My God, my God, why have you left me all alone?”
He carried the cross alone. Already beaten and too weak to make the journey to Golgotha. He feels the weight lifted from his wounded shoulders and looks into the eyes of a stranger, Simon.
And there we are—bystanders, ordinary people from ordinary places, spectators, looking but wanting to look away. We could have been there. We could have been called from the sidelines and compelled to carry the cross. And there we would come shoulder to shoulder with Jesus, side by side.
We do come alongside Jesus during this Holy Week. We take a closer look at Jesus and remember his life and what he did. He healed the sick, even those with leprosy and those who had been cast to the margins. He included everyone and turned no one away. He taught with authority, like one from God. He forgave those who thought they could never be forgiven. He loved those who would say, “God could never love me.”
Alongside Jesus this week, we see the world as it really is. We see the failings of our humanity. We see our fickleness and shortsightedness. We see our mob mentality and our cruelty. We see our reluctance to forgive or to see the best in others. We see our tendency to exclude. We see our prejudices.
This week our lives and the life of Jesus come together in a new meaningful way and we will likely be changed by it.
I remember singing a hymn when I was kid. “Must Jesus bear the cross alone and all the world go free? No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.” I never liked that hymn, because it troubled me. I didn’t want to bear a cross—it suggested a cruel and harsh side of life I wanted to avoid.
But the cross represents the extent of God’s love for the world. Madeline L’Engle wrote, “What one of us can understand a love so great that we would willingly limit our unlimitedness, put the flesh of mortality over our immortality, accept all the pain and grief of humanity, submit to betrayal by that humanity, be killed by it, and die a total failure (in human terms) on a common cross between two thieves?” (source unknown)
I was in High School and it was Holy Week. I was having a cool relationship with the church, but I kept showing up, because it’s what we did. The Youth were asked to have a Good Friday service and I was asked to participate. I was busy working in town and on the farm. I said I can be there but I can’t make the rehearsal. So they asked me to process the cross. Someone had made it for the service. It was crude and thick and extremely heavy. I weighed about 140 pounds, and I could barely lift it. The congregation began singing, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord.” The words of that spiritual have always had an effect on me. It seemed like a simple thing to do but under the weight of that cross I began to feel something. I held back tears as I walked down the aisle and the words, “This is how much God loves us,” came to my mind. I never forgot that.
A year later, in my first year of college, my life turned around and I found renewed faith in God. I wonder if that is what happened with Simon.
Today we stand in the crowds and watch as Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. We wave palm branches and shout “Hosanna!” But we do not fully understand what this parade is all about.
On Thursday we will sit at the table with Jesus and the disciples and celebrate Passover. He will tell us that one of us will betray him. We will turn to one another and ask, “Is it I?” And we will be stunned by these words and even more stunned when our Rabbi/ Teacher gets up from the table and begins to wash our feet.
On Friday we will walk with him to Gogotha and watch him die. We will celebrate and reenact these events in worship on Thursday and Friday and we hope a lot of you will come. But I do think these worship services should come with warning labels. I think it was Annie Dillard who said that people who go to church should wear crash helmets. The may be a crash helmet kind of week for us. For if you come these services, your life may be changed by the power of God’s transforming love.
We do not carry crosses but we do carry the power of God’s transforming love into the whole world-to everyone. We do carry the grace of God’s forgiveness which is extended to everyone. We are called from the sidelines the carry the message of good news, the message of healing, hope and liberation to everyone. Thanks be to God!