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Sermon transcript for May 4, 2014

Their Eyes Were Opened
Luke 24:13-35
Belmont UMC—May 4, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

Let’s begin with a quote from Frederick Buechner, “Jesus is apt to come, into the very midst of life at its most real and inescapable moments. Not in a blaze of unearthly light, not in the midst of a sermon, not in the throes of some kind of religious daydream, but . . . at supper time, or walking along a road . . . He never approached from on high, but always in the midst, in the midst of real life and the questions that real life asks.” (The Magnificent Defeat)

As we hear this text we always ask the obvious questions: Why is it that these disciples do not recognize Jesus? What causes their eyes to be opened to his presence? And we might turn the questions on ourselves and ask: Why is it that we fail to acknowledge the presence of Christ in our lives each day? When we do see the risen Christ in our everyday lives, what causes our eyes to be opened?

My extended family comes together on several occasions throughout the year. One of those is Easter Sunday. We are blessed that my parents at 85 years of age are still up to hosting those gatherings at their home in Springfield, TN. Our gatherings are a little chaotic, checking on the little ones who have grown a lot since our last gathering at Christmas, pulling food together, waiting for the niece or nephew, who always seem to be running late. Then we hold hands in the kitchen and pray over our food, and then we gather around the big cherry dining room table. And there is always a wonderful “aha” moment for me. Yes, this is it; this is how I remember it. This is what it feels like to come home. It doesn’t feel like Easter without that this gathering and these people--my people. It is about relationship, presence and familiarity.

It must have been something like that for these two disciples who walked along the road to Emmaus with Jesus, who was a stranger to them. They invited him to stay with them and he sat at the table with them. He had opened the scriptures to them, as he had so many times before. Then at the table he took bread and broke it and blessed it and their eyes were opened. This was the risen Christ.

What happened to you this week that made you aware of the risen Christ?

My wife and I served as counselors for a Junior High camp one year. It was a week long event at Beersheba Springs, where we have our All Church Retreat, but it was during more primitive time when there were no rooms with bathrooms. One had to walk down the path to a bathhouse and the water was always cold.

We had a wonderful time. Eighty-five junior high youth--I was responsible for a cabin of 5 boys and Kathryn had a cabin of 5 girls. This made up our small group each day. We went hiking, shared our stories, went swimming below the waterfall, saw a lot of snakes, and provided nourishment for a host of mosquitoes and ticks. We went to Vesper Point for devotionals, gathered around bonfires at night and told ghost stories, made crafts and shared Bible studies.

We were serious and silly, controlled and out of control. I spent a lot of time with the boys in my group. I taught them a few things about kindness. There were times when I thought they were completely impossible and other times when they gave me much joy. I kept us with some of those guys until were out of high school.

At night we gathered in the large room above the dining hall. This room had always been a bit run down. On our last night we gathered there for a talent show that was a lot fun.

Our camp leader announced that we would have closing communion service the next day before heading home. The tradition was that the service was held in the chapel, but he told us that he had decided to have the service in the room above the dining hall. I looked around the room; it was a wreck. It did not look like a place that could house a sacred gathering like communion. I questioned his decision and he assured me that it would be okay.

The next morning we gathered in that room. We sat on the floor. A make-shift altar was set up in the middle of the room. On the altar were rolls like the ones we ate in the dining hall and there were a few paper cups, the ones we had used for snack time. They were filled with grape juice. There was a well used candle and crude cross made of sticks.

Our leader held up a roll and he said, “This is bread. You know bread. Your mom probably bakes bread and you’ve been eating bread all your life. Wheat flour, yeast, oil, and things like that make up this bread. It is merely bread.”

Then he picked up a paper cup with grape juice and he said, “And this, this is grape juice—no big deal, right--juice that has been squeezed from grapes. Some of you drink grape juice everyday and never think twice about it.”

“But today, when you eat this bread and share this juice, something wonderful will happen to you. You will think about Jesus. You will remember how much Jesus loves you and you will sense his presence with you in this place. The reason I wanted to come here, to this familiar place, for this closing service, is to remind you that Jesus has been with us all week, whether we thought about him or not. He was with us on our hike and here with us last night when we were having fun and he has been with us around tables in the dining hall.”

We passed around rolls and cups of juice and I watched my 5 boys tear pieces of bread and dip them in the cup and I watched their eyes fill with tears as they became aware of Jesus’ presence with them. It was something about relationship, presence and familiarity coming together. Our eyes were opened and we knew Jesus was with us.

The story in the Luke has a lot to do with expectation. The disciples did not expect to see Jesus because they knew he had died. Have you ever run into someone completely out of context and it throws you a bit and you cannot remember who the person is or where you knew them? It happens a lot to those of us who have served in a number of ministry settings. Well, the walk to Emmaus is Jesus completely out of context for the disciples. But the story teaches us to live with expectation of Jesus in our midst.

Where were you this week when your eyes were opened to the presence of the risen Christ? It happened for me when I was sharing a meal with former pastor and friend, John Collett. It happened when I was visiting Belmonters in the hospital. We held hands and prayed together. It happened when I was comforting a young man whose father had died. It happened late last night when I received a text message from a young pastor, that read, “Praying for you; love you!”  

It will happen for us this morning when we gather around this table and break bread together and remember. What happens at this table is about relationships, and presence, and something wonderfully familiar.

 

Sermon transcript for April 20, 2014

Why Are You Weeping?
Belmont UMC – Easter, April 20, 2014
John 20:1-18
Ken Edwards, preaching

Recently, I was sitting in a circle of good friends, colleagues in ministry. We were sitting on a porch on bright spring day, sipping ice tea and talking about Easter. As I looked around the circle at these beloved friends, I realized that 2 of them had experienced the death of young adult children. Then the two of them began to talk about preaching Easter sermons following their children’s deaths. This was powerful and moving experience for me. There was a lot of love and grace in that circle.

That may not be the kind of thing we want to hear on Easter. But is not this is the point of Easter. We are not here today to deny the reality of sadness, but to be reminded that the story doesn’t end with weeping. And if Holy Week is the ultimate climax of God’s love story for us, the story does not end on Good Friday and it’s just getting started on Sunday morning.

There is a lot of sadness and weeping in these weeks of Lent. Two weeks ago we read of the story of the death of Lazarus, the story of his sisters, Mary and Martha and their grief, the story of Jesus standing at the tomb of Lazarus and weeping. There are actually two stories of Jesus’ weeping—toward the end Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives, looked out over the city of Jerusalem and wept as he expressed his longing for the welfare of his people. There is the sadness of Jesus’ last days and Passover meal with the disciples, the sadness of farewell, and the sadness of betrayal.

Today’s Gospel story begins with sadness: “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” Mary was weeping.  Mary of Magdala had followed Jesus with inexpressible gratitude since the day he freed her from 7 demons. Released—made whole by the love of God. If Mary wanted to know what resurrection was like, she only needed to remember how he had given her life back to her. From that moment she had lived in complete devotion to Jesus.

Mary was weeping. She had been at the cross until the gruesome end—even after the disciples ran away in fear. She had been there when they took his body down. She had been there when the body was placed in a borrowed tomb. She had listened as the stone had rolled across the entry with heavy, grinding finality.

The Sabbath had passed in silence—Mary had been alone in her grief, battling with the reality of what had happened. On Sunday she made her way back to the tomb to mourn and to help prepare the body for a proper burial. She was prepared for facing death; she was not prepared to find the tomb open and the body missing. Being a realist she assumed the body had been taken. It was bad enough that he had been executed, but then someone had stolen his body.

Mary wept at the thought of this. Mary wept because that is what we do at the grave of a friend. Mary wept because the one who had set her free had died a prisoner’s death. Mary wept over a world in which there are powers that seem to beat the life out of love and kindness. Mary wept over a kind of mob violence that would choose a Barabbas and execute the Prince of Peace.

There were plenty of reasons for Mary’s weeping—futility and despair ruled her emotions. We have felt this futility—we, too, have wept at the side of a friend’s grave or at the bedside of a terminal patient. We have wept over injustice and scenes of senseless violence. Sometimes there is nothing left to do but weep.

But on that Sunday morning Mary encountered a person she assumed to be a gardener.  “Do you know where they have put his body? If you moved it, tell me where you have laid him, I will take him away.”

But the man did not answer her question. Instead he said one word, her name, “Mary.” No angels singing, no jubilant choruses, just “Mary.” The man said her name and with that her predictable, rational, cause and effect world came to a screeching halt—hope sprang up inside of her and she replied with one word, “Rabbouni” or “Teacher.”

Somehow God had wondrously intervened and defeat and futility had been turned into hope and purposefulness. That day a new hope dawned in the lives of Mary and the other followers. That day a new hope dawned in human hearts—our hearts.

God has a way of bringing hope to desperate situations. God has a way of turning things around. The resurrection means we do not have to settle for darkness and defeat—that we know that more deeply than we have ever known that love is stronger than hate, that good is stronger than evil, that truth will outlast falsehood, and that life will triumph over death. We know that faith is not in vain. We know that God has caused hope to dawn in human hearts.

We need this hope—hope that carries us through the dark days of this life. We need hope when the unpredictable or unimaginable happens. We need a confidence and courage in the midst of life events that would normally evoke resignation.

The resurrection means that we can stand by the side of the tomb and hope no matter how much evidence piles up against it. God gives us this hope!

So in the circle of colleagues on that bright spring day, one of them shared a story that she found helpful when her son died. It is a story told by a Pastor after his friend, David, had returned from a funeral near his Mississippi home town. His nephew, Zeke, had been the victim of a drunk driver, leaving behind his wife, Andrea, and two small children.

The Pastor asked David about the funeral. David began sharing his happiness at being back in his rural Mississippi community. David then spoke about the funeral, “The service was alright but gathering at the cemetery, that made the difference. As we brought the casket to the grave, the little band played spirituals, songs of pain, grief and sorrow like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” We all sang through our tears.”

“The elders read scripture and prayed as the casket was lowered into the ground. We began covering it with dirt. We wept together and we wept individually.”

“Suddenly, a stillness settled over the cemetery. Out of that quiet the band resumed, increasing their volume and tempo . . . resurrection jazz; trombone, trumpet, saxophone . . . Everyone sang their way back to the cars and to the church for dinner.”

“Incredible,” said the Pastor, “but what about Andrea and the children? They have no father, no husband.”

David continued, “They will weep for a long time . . . the house will seem empty . . . the clothes in the closet a constant reminder of what should have been. But at the cemetery that day we were all reminded that we have two songs to sing:  a spiritual of sorrow and a hymn of promise.”

The Pastor asked, “Can the family sing both songs?”

David replied, “I don’t know. Perhaps they can only sing spirituals of grief . . . I do know that the church will sing both songs every week. They can will sing spiritual songs of trouble and songs of promise . . . they will sing with Andrea and on behalf of Andrea . . . My guess is that eventually Andrea and the children will sing both songs . . . for one another and for others in the community in grief and joy.” (Source unknown)

My friend was saying that for a long time after her son died all she could sing were the spirituals of grief, but others sang the hymns of promise and resurrection for her, until she was able to stand with them and sing them, too.

For a time in her life, Mary of Magdala, could only sing songs of sorrow. I don’t know what it means to have 7 demons and the scriptures don’t offer a description, but during those days, it must have felt like being trapped, and cut off from community. It must have felt like dying. Jesus set Mary free and brought her back to life. 

Today, Mary stands in a garden and hears the Lord calling her name. Today, Mary stops her weeping. Today, Mary can sing the songs of promise and resurrection. And today, she goes out to preach the first Easter sermon, five words, “I have seen the Lord!”

The message of Easter is not a denial of death or grief—realities of life. But Easter means that we believe the words of Paul that “Nothing in life or in death can ever separate us from the love of God.” (Romans 8) And we affirm with Psalmist, “Weeping may last for a night but joy comes in the morning.” (Ps. 30) 

And as Easter People we hope for those who have lost hope and we sing the hymn of promise and resurrection for them when they cannot.  God will use us to give birth to hope. Today, hope is dawning in human hearts. God is turning things around. Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Call to Serve:
We hear the call of God to take the hope of resurrection into the world.
Everywhere the church goes, Easter is happening:
Where the hungry are fed, Easter is happening!
Where the poor are raised up. . .
Where the stranger is offered hospitality. . .
Where the prisoner is visited. . .
Where the good news is shared. . .
Where the thirsty are offered a drink. . .
Where those who weep are given hope. . .
Everywhere the church goes, Easter happens!

   

Sermon transcript for April 13, 2014

Entering Jerusalem
Matthew 21:1-11; 27:32-37; 49-61
Palm/Passion Sunday
April 13, 2014—Belmont UMC
Ken Edwards, preaching

The young man came up to me on the street and as he greeted me he began to pull a small black leather New Testament out of his shirt pocket. He looked earnest and he said to me, “Sir, may I ask you a question?” I responded reluctantly, “I guess.”

He proceeded to take me through the four spiritual laws, popularized by the Campus Crusade people and then he asked me, “Are you saved?” I said, “Yes, I am a United Methodist pastor.” Then he repeated the question, “But are you sure you are saved?”

I wanted to tell him about the three movements of grace as outlined by John Wesley and suggest the possibility of an ongoing work of salvation but it occurred to me that a simpler answer was what the fellow wanted and so I answered, “I am certain.”

He still wasn’t convinced and he followed up with, “If you died tonight, would you go to heaven.” Again I thought of lots of theological ideas such as the sovereignty of God went through my mind but I thought better of it and answered, “Yes.” He smiled, called me “Brother,” and moved on to his next opportunity.

Are we saved? Is God’s work of salvation being realized in our lives? “Saved” is one of those church words that we used to hear more often. But on Palm Sunday we cry out “Hosanna!” a word that has come to have the tone of adoration, much like “Hallelujah!” but the word really has a tone of desperation and literally means, “Save us!” or “Save us, now!”

Jesus looks like a savior, even though scholars say that Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey was a deliberate political statement to the prevailing authorities. He has raised a dead man in Bethany, 2 miles away and his reputation as a teacher and healer has led many people to hail him as one who has the power to save Jerusalem. People gathered along the parade route, throwing their coats and branches in his path, like greeting a victor returning from battle. Victory is in the air! “Save us!” “Hosanna!” “Save us, now!”

It makes for a beautiful story. On that day the crowds praised and sang to Jesus in the streets, but by the end of the week another crowd would mock him and call for his death. On that day the crowds cried out to him, “Save us!” but by the end of the week another crowd would yell at him while he his hanging on a cross, “Save your self!” At the beginning of the week, Jesus looks like the victor but by Friday he looks every bit the part of a loser. How can a man who is hanging on the cross save the world?

God has chosen to save us by surprising means. It’s a paradox of sorts. But we are being saved, not from political powers, outside forces, as was the hope of many along the parade route when Jesus came into Jerusalem. But God saves us from the forces of evil and from those tendencies within us that would threaten to defeat us and keep us separated from God. God offers the salvation that we need, not necessarily the one we want.

God saves us through God’s willingness to be vulnerable and this vulnerability is revealed in the life and death of Jesus Christ. He was born of human parentage, an infant in a cruel world, a world that wanted him dead. The word became flesh (vulnerable) and lived among us.

This vulnerability is revealed in the ministry of Jesus, in his willingness to associate with the lowly, the outcast, and the poor. Jesus’ love for children, his willingness to include women among his followers, and his attention to those who had been cast to the margins of society were acts of vulnerability that resulted in the criticisms and threats.

God’s vulnerability is expressed in Jesus’ willingness to do what was right and what was good, to do God’s work, even when it brought criticism from the religious and political establishment. Those who are prophetic in this world, who are courageous to tell God’s truth, will always be vulnerable to the threats of the status quo.

God’s vulnerability is expressed in Jesus’ willingness to choose ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Even at the risk that some of those ordinary people will betray him.

God’s vulnerability is expressed in two scenes of Holy Week. The first happens in an upper room where Jesus goes to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. He shared wine and bread with them and said a very human thing, “Don’t forget me.” Later on the cross he would out of a sense of abandonment, “Why have you forgotten me?” 

In John’s Gospel he not only takes his place with the 12, he gets up from the table wraps a towel around his waste and begins to wash the disciples’ dirty feet. The vulnerable one came into the world to serve, not to be served.

Dr. Doug Meeks has pointed out that servants are the powerless and most vulnerable people in our world, but the towel of a slave becomes the authority symbol of the church, for only those who serve have authority in the kingdom of God. It is the towel of servanthood—it is the towel that wipes the eyes of Saul of Tarsus, it is the towel that cradles an orphaned baby in Malawi, Africa, it is the towel that wraps the casserole carried to a grieving family, it is the towel that wipes the brow of a migrant worker. We are saved by the vulnerability of servanthood! (From lecture notes.)

It is only Jesus, the servant who has the authority to save us. Hosanna! Save us, now!

We are saved by God’s vulnerability, ultimately revealed in God’s sacrificial love. The second scene of Holy Week is the scene of the crucifixion. Crucifixion was no unusual in Jesus’ day. Yet it is our belief that not only was Jesus crucified, but he was crucified for us.

Paul wrote, “Why you might be willing to die for a good person, but God shows God’s love for us in that, at the right time, Jesus died for the ungodly (that’s us).” (Romans 5:6)

In Jesus we are reminded that God was willing to become vulnerable to our suffering. This God suffers with us and understands our suffering. This symbol of suffering as a symbol of salvation is difficult to understand, but a God who doesn’t suffer with us isn’t much help to us, frankly. It is this God who loves the world and has the power to save us!

When my wife and I were quite young, we took our camping gear and made a tour of Virginia. We pitched our tent at Virginia Beach. On a Sunday when we were packing up our little car to go home, we decided to attend worship at the campground. We met an older couple there. They were smartly dressed in white slacks and matching polo shirts. We started a conversation and the woman said, “I feel like I know you from somewhere.”

After the service they invited us to stop by their RV for coffee. We found their “campsite” and their massive Recreation Vehicle. They had poodle with toenails painted pink and a matching bow in her fur. They gave us coffee and toast and we shared our faith stories. The woman said, “I’m pretty sure I’ve met you before but I can’t imagine where.” Kathryn and I had nothing in common with this couple. We were young and poor. Our clothes smelled of last night’s campfire and I felt a little embarrassed, but the older couple was gracious.

As we were leaving the woman came out of the RV to bring us a jar of honey as a gift. She said, “Oh I know where I met you before. We met at the foot of the cross.”

To find salvation we must bring our own vulnerabilities to this one who came from God. We were there at the cross and we do find ourselves in the stories of Holy Week. We were there when Jesus said, “One of you will betray me.” And we turned to the others and asked, “Is it I?” knowing full well the possibility of our betrayal. We were there with Caiaphas defending the status quo at all costs. We washed our hands with Pilate to rid ourselves of guilt and responsibility. We warmed our selves by the fire with Peter and refused to honor our faith. We were there at the cross when the Savior said, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

 

Sermon transcript for April 6, 2014

Live Again
John 11:1-45
Belmont UMC—April 6, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

This is a wonderful and surprising story. It is surprising because we are as deep into Lent as we can go and we are reading a story of resurrection. During a season in which we refrain from “Alleluias!” and we use unadorned branches in the place of flowers, here we have a story that stirs hope in us. But it fits the season because John uses the story to move Jesus closer to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week. Jesus comes to Bethany, against the advice of his disciples. Bethany is only a couple of miles from Jerusalem, on the other side of the Mount of Olives. The story is pivotal because it connects us to the plot against Jesus. The storm clouds of Good Friday begin to hover over the life of Jesus.

Jesus has taken the risk of going to Bethany because of his good friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. This is a story about Jesus’ love for his friends and the evidence suggests that these three were among Jesus’ closest friends. It was with them that he could retreat. Jesus needed them and they needed him in return. Jesus loved Lazarus like a close friend. “See how he loved him!” There is no more moving scene in the New Testament than seeing Jesus weeping at the grave of his friend.

Everyone needs close friends like these three friends of Jesus—friends with whom we can relax, be ourselves, let our hair down and feel at home. These are the friends who know us, who are full of grace and forgiveness, and who hear our complaints and have permission to interrupt us with good news and special requests. These are also the friends who gently hold us accountable when we are on the wrong path. Jesus took a great risk for this kind of friendship.

We might put ourselves in the place of early Christians in the late first century, who are hearing this story for the first time. In this story we would hear of a Messiah, who called his disciples friends and loved them with passion and sacrifice. We would hear a story of Jesus who would call us friends, understand our human dramas and failings, weep with us and laugh with us, treat us with grace and forgiveness, and make us feel at home in his presence.  We would hear the story of Jesus who befriends us and calls us forth to new life.

This is also a story about Jesus’ power over death, defeat and despair. John’s Gospel makes it clear that Lazarus is truly dead. He’s been in the tomb four days. If you’ve been to Israel you’ve probably been to Bethany and a place called Lazarus’ tomb. It is not an ordinary grave, but a cave dug out of the hillside. You enter and walk down stone steps deep into the earth and at the bottom of the steps is another opening for the burial. There is a deep, dark permanence to it and Lazarus is deep in the grave.

Ever practical Martha says, “Lord, it’s been 4 days and there will be a smell.” That’s crude but a real and practical response. So holding their breath and expecting the worse, the grave is opened and Jesus calls forth into the darkness, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes up, up, up, reaching the opening, shielding his eyes against the sun light and dragging his grave cloths behind him, wondering, “What has happened?”

Jesus said to the crowd, “Unbind him and let him go!” Take the signs of the death off of him. The point is not that Jesus protects us from death. He does not. We will all have to face death. The point is that because of what Jesus does with death, we do not have to fear it. “I am the resurrection and the life!” Jesus says.

God is the life giver and God has the power to summon us out of the dark places of despair and defeat. I’ve been to many funerals and I’ve never seen anyone come back to life. I have seen those who have given up, felt defeated, and reached a kind of finality, hear the summons of Jesus and found new life in him.

People often express defeat and despair. “I’ll never amount to anything.” “I’ll never kick this habit.” “I’ll never find a decent job.” “I’ll never find my way out of poverty.”  Sometimes the hole gets deeper and despair darker. In our world where the disparity between the rich and the poor grows wider and wider, there is a culture of disparity for those who are poor.

For some folks depression feels like a slow death. People lose heart and hope. Some years ago I was called to a friend’s house. His wife had entombed herself in their bedroom with the blinds closed. She had been there for days living in the darkness of depression and grief. With much love and tenderness we coaxed her out into the light and finally into life itself. “Unbind her and let her go!”

Kayla McClurg wrote, “The Lazarus parts of us feel abandoned, deserted, dead. Lazarus is whatever lies beyond our ability to restore, so bound up in old beliefs or hurts that spiritual rigor mortis has set in. The Lazarus in us no longer seeks to grow and learn, no longer asks if we might be of use in God’s unfolding story, fearing the response. We hunker down in caves of regret, we zone out, grow numb, live small. Dead as dead can be.”  (Inward/Outward, April 6, 2014)

But Jesus comes to us in the form of a faith friend, AA sponsor, Sunday School teacher, pastor, neighbor, to offer new life. In the church we are in the “unbind them and let them go” ministry. We come alongside those who despair and we bring them into the presence of the One who has the power to give life.

Where are you today? Are any among us defeated, entombed in the darkness of despair? Come to this table to eat and drink with us and meet Jesus here! Come forth and live again.

   

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