Sermon transcript for October 19, 2014
Thank God for All of You
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Belmont UMC—October 19, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
Paul usually begins his letters to the churches with gratitude for the people, even in those letters where he proceeds to take them to task for something they’ve done wrong. But he had a deep love for the people of Thessalonica and he prayed for them and longed for them, especially in their struggles and persecution.
And as I read this passage again, and as we looked at this passage and others from the Pastoral Letters a few weeks ago in Covenant Bible Study, I was touched by the phrase, “Thank God for all of you.” As I look out at all of you this morning that phrase goes through my mind, “I do thank God for all of you.”
On Monday and Tuesday of last week, I was at gatherings of clergy from the Memphis Conference (West Tennessee) and then the Tennessee Conference (middle Tennessee) and I received such warm greetings from so many friends gathered over the course of several decades of ministry. I even received some warm hugs. As I looked out over that group, people so different in so many ways and yet bound to the same call to serve, I thought, “I thank God for all of you.”
I was telling a young clergy friend recently that I still get anxious before preaching. He asked, “What do you about that?” My answer, “I look at the people and the anxiety is dispelled.” That seems counterintuitive to some folks but looking at the people who I have come to know and love, helps calm any fears I have about what I am about to do. “I thank God for all of you.”
I like the theme for our operating campaign, “Joy in Giving” but it’s in this shared community, this community of people who love one another and serve alongside one another, that we find that real joy, that deep gladness in giving.
Community, church, and family have always been important to me. It’s how I was raised, surrounded by family, church and the simple traditions that accompany them. I knew every acre of our farm when I was a kid, but I knew every acre of all my cousins farms as well. We worked on all those farms and shared meals in all those farm houses. We were surrounded by family and friends. Holidays meant being around lots of those folks and eating some delicious food.
We were in California in September, visiting our son and daughter-in-law in Berkeley. We had a conversation about Thanksgiving and holidays away from family. I knew that Lars and Laura would not be coming home for Thanksgiving so I asked about their plans. They have a group of friends, friends who also live far from their families, and they share holidays with them with pot luck dinners. These are the people who give them rides to the airport or take care of their pets and plants when they are away. These are the people who step in and do the things that families normally do.
In our mobile world we see the development of makeshift families. The church often has a role in these new communities of friends.
In The Shelter of Each Other, Mary Pipher writes, “When I speak of families, I usually mean biological families. There is a power in blood ties that cannot be denied. But in our fragmented, chaotic culture, many people don’t have biological families nearby. For many people, friends become family. Family is a collection of people who pool resources and help each other over the long haul. Families love one another even when that requires sacrifice. Family means that if you disagree, you still stay together.
Families are the people for whom it matters if you have a cold, are feuding with your mate or training a new puppy. Family members used magnets to fasten the newspaper clipping about your bowling team on the refrigerator door. They save your drawings and homemade pottery. They like to hear stories about when you were young. They’ll help you can tomatoes or change the oil in your car. They’re the people who will come visit you in the hospital, will talk to you when you call with a dark night of the soul and will loan you money to pay the rent if you lose your job. Whether or not they are biologically related to each other, the people who do these things are family.” (pp. 21-22)
Friends become like family in some of these settings. They become communities that support and care for one another. I recently spoke to a group of United Methodist young adults who meet in the Nashville area on Tuesday nights. They are called Anchor and they agreed that their lives reflect that quote from Mary Pipher.
And we also agreed that there are two ingredients to building that kind of community. One is food. There is an old saying that “A friend is someone who has eaten a peck of salt with you.” That’s a lot of salt but it means you’ve eaten a lot of meals together. I still believe that something wonderful and sacred happens when we sit down at a table and share a meal together. Something happens in that setting that doesn’t happen anywhere else. We recently shared a meal together with some clergy friends. We’d each brought something to add to the meal. Our conversations were light-hearted but our time in each other’s presence was beautiful and holy. I looked around the table and thought, “I give thanks for all of you.”
The other ingredient to build community is our stories. We learn each other’s stories, where we were born, how we were raised. We learn about struggles and successes. We share our faith stories. We talk about our children or our siblings and our crazy old Uncle Harold. To really know someone we must know their story.
Is it no wonder that the center of our faith is this table, where we share the food that Jesus gave us to share and to remember him by. And when we come to this table we retell our story and God’s story. And we look around and think to ourselves, “Thank God for all of you.”
I believe we need these communities of friends. We were created to live in community. Yes, we need private space and solitude, but even the introvert among us needs to know that there are people who care about them, love them and will be there for them.
I like social media and find it to be an efficient way of connecting with lots of people. I like having Facebook friends, even if the definition of friend there is very loose. But we need personal, face to face, encounters, like sitting at Fidos over a cup of coffee in the late afternoon, sharing stories and laughing until your face hurts. It doesn’t get any better than that.
The church is one of those special communities and I’m not sure I know how to live without it. We are not perfect but we can do some amazing things together as a community. We believe that it’s in the presence of community, where two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus that we experience something holy, something beyond ourselves.
Bishop Ken Carder used to tell a story of his seminary days. He was an excellent student but he had gotten a paper back and he’d been given a “C” and he thought he deserved a better grade. He wanted to talk to the professor but he couldn’t find the words. One day he saw the professor walking across campus. The professor spoke to him but Ken ignored him. The professor stopped him and asked, ‘What’s wrong?” Ken told him and the professor could see that Ken was tearful and hurt. The professor literally put his arms around Ken and held him and said, “I gave you that grade because you can do so much better.” Ken Carder said, “He held me and he held me accountable.” For Ken Carder that was a metaphor for the church.
This is the place where we hold each other. We love each other. We express this love in many ways. Our doorbell rang one afternoon and there were several men and women standing at my door with covered dishes in their hands. They were at the wrong house but the food in their dishes smelled wonderful. The house on the cul de sac up from our house has a similar address and we often get their mail and deliveries by mistake. The woman who lived there had cancer and these folks were members of her Sunday School Class bringing food to support the family.
We hold each other accountable. We need people who will tell us the truth in love and help us be better people. We need to hang out with folks who are better at keeping their spiritual disciplines, who understand the joy in giving, and who pray for us. There are people in this church who will cause you to be a better disciple just because you hang out with them. And in this place we grow to understand the words of Paul, “I give thanks for all of you.”
Look around this morning. Look into the faces of these dear friends. Remember their stories. And give thanks.
Sermon transcript for October 12, 2014 (8:15 a.m. service)
Nick Baird Chrisohon
“The Grace of Getting Over Myself” : A Sermon on Romans 12:1-8
Sermon for Belmont UMC, 8:15 service
October 12, 2014
I have a confession to make: About ten years ago there was a trend of music known as “emo.” Some of the older adults in the audience may have no idea what I’m talking about, but I’d be willing to bet many parents and friends in my generation have experienced “emo” in one way or the other. Think of it as old “woe is me” country lyrics backed by whiny rock ‘n’ roll. This music had a powerful effect on younger generations. Parents dealt with moody, dark teenagers who thought “things are so hard,” or, you were like me and were the moody, dark teenager.
I really liked the emo scene, because they were generally accepting people, but if you’ve spent more than a minute with me, you would quickly realize I didn’t quite fit the aesthetic. I smile too much and eyeliner is super hard to put on.
What drew me to this kind of music was its honesty – albeit somewhat fabricated and a little too dramatic – because many of the artists asked some very hard questions about the human condition. Themes like “I’m not perfect,” “what if no one likes me,” “Am I relevant,” “who cares,” “what if I’m not good enough” and on and on. These are valuable issues to young minds, and I don’t believe we ever really escape our curiosity of our own value. We all struggle to understand the potential we have and hate it when we fall short of perfection. It seems like everyone is telling us what we can be and should be, but that kind of pressure can make it difficult to get out of bed. The weight of the world somehow hangs on your shoulders, and that is a terrible burden to bear.
That’s where music came in to play for me. It was the best way I could rebel against my own feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt [and it was a great way to get girls to notice me, too.] Obviously, we have to go through the risk of understanding our identities, but after a while, our obsession in knowing ourselves leads us away from fruitful self-reflection and into darker realms of depression or narcissism.
Add to that problem the fact that as we get older and adjust to who we are, we start filling our lives with things to do, places to be, friends to see, and on and on. Between work, kids, church, and the myriad things that demand our attention, we become taskmasters of a neverending calendar of “stuff I have to do.” I call this the vice of busy-ness. For whatever reason, we fill our calendars to the point where spending time with loved ones has to be “penciled in.” Isn’t it weird how troubled teens I knew from a decade ago have transitioned from hours alone with their radios and MP3 players wallowing in their emotions all of a sudden become driven robots who barely have time for a cup of coffee? Again, matters where we are not fully engaged in something other than ourselves signals a need for reflection. They sound so different, but I don’t think they are.
So, in light of concerns about ourselves and how we go about living, today’s passage from Romans sounds like a tall order. It says all of those concerns are the wrong concerns, and we are to sacrifice what we have and who we are to God. The ideals that we hold so dear – being accepted, being noticed, being “good enough,” having a good life, having tons of friends – these are all goals of the same self-centered mind. We build noise into our lives to the point where everything becomes a static-y mess. Our hopes toward understanding who we are built on our accomplishments rather than our status as children of God.
What are we to do? Paul is telling us to have the grace to get over ourselves.
We have to put down what we want in sacrifice to God’s wants, but sacrificing your life to God is the opposite of what the world demands, and we like the world. We are producers and doers so we can have more stuff. We spend years in school before all that to get the degree that will qualify us for jobs that pay lots of money (if you have a liberal arts degree, just nod) because we think money brings happiness and stuff and the way to get there is by doing whatever it is we do best. We turn back to what tells us that we are special and should forge our own paths to greatness. We hold on to what we think we should do tightly, because we can’t be bothered to do what God asks.
But we have to. We have to give it up.
Paul exhorts the audience to take whatever it is they do well and see it as a God-given gift to use for the greater good. The request is to be sober – not dramatic buried in our own self-doubt or clutching to what we think is ours – and to assess what it is that we can offer simply because we should. As someone who continually struggles with the definitions of purpose and call and career, it is indeed a welcome sobriety to be asked to see what it is that I do well and to only focus on that and give up the rest. Paul says, if you’ll allow me to paraphrase, “just go with it.” Getting over myself is the greatest luxury because I don’t have to prove my worth to anyone. I just have to what I already know I do well and use it for the work toward God’s ministry of creation and recreation.
Romans offers a promise for our compliance: laying down our lives leads to transformation. God’s working in your life will be brought to perfection in God’s will. I think this is what John Wesley was pointing to when he laid out the process toward Christian perfection. We answer the calls of God’s grace, and by continually laying down our will , we are given the will of God that leads to what is perfect. Your desires for busyness are gone. Money loses its power. Self-doubt cannot survive. There is no emo in perfection.
The road to perfection doesn’t ask much of us..” Paul says, “teachers will teach, preachers will preach, cooks will cook, givers give, etc. etc.” I do not see this as a limit – merely an encouragement to hone our gifts and not force ourselves to be jacks of all trades. I do believe that if the entire church could manage to find their one thing to do in service for God, we wouldn’t have people asking us to join yet another committee.
Sacrificing your life to God is the ultimate expression of freedom. It is total acceptance and validation of the self. It is what makes it all worthwhile. You are welcome to build upon your one thing and be good at multi-tasking; however, this passage speaks directly against our society’s demands to juggle many things and be successful at most or all of them and continually work and produce and be super all the time [breathe] because that is exhausting.
The church was not designed to be full of multi-taskers, either. It is a collaborative effort. All of the many parts of the body working together is what we call mission. Paul is telling the Romans to think beyond their own value and to discern God’s perfection in the world, and they are to be actors in it. If I am not using my gifts to point to the holy beyond me, what good am I? If we as the church aren’t pointing to God, then why are we here?
The world teaches us that our life’s mission is to do great things for the sake of building up our own assets and living in security. Somewhere along the way, the American church took that definition of manifest destiny of capital and sprinkled in language of God and Jesus. The same thing was true in Rome. Power and wealth were the same then as they are now, and the way we get them is to produce and accomplish more than others.
My friends, you have been told that mission means we must accomplish something. Paul’s letter makes no mention of “accomplishing” or “succeeding” but rather asks we reimagine our lives as part of the greater body of Christ. Mission is not living independently and striving alone; mission is recognizing your gifts as being of immense value – knit intimately into your being from your very beginning – that are also part of the grand tapestry of God’s kin-dom of heaven come to earth.
As the body of Christ, it is your responsibility to see that happen. By offering our bodies and lives as living sacrifices to be transformed into perfection, we welcome God’s mission into our lives.
We are to welcome mission in our lives whether it asks us to open a permanent homeless shelter in our community center, open our doors to local schoolchildren who go home to empty houses while their parents work to make ends meet, or to simply be open to prayer.
We are to cook dinners for the hungry, for those who think church is full of naïve fools, and to share the table with those who express religion in other ways. We are to give what is left to those who ask for it without being suspicious of whether it gets eaten.
We are to give our money to research to solve disease, to the Global Board of Ministry and UMCOR who heal aches around the world, give to the shelters that need to expand and renovate so a roof over a needy person’s head can also be a place where they are safe to sleep. We are to give in hope and not in cynicism.
We are to teach those who don’t speak the native tongue. We are to teach those who learn at a slower rate than others. We are to teach the community that there is hope for a better world, and Belmont wants to lead the way.
We are to grow community gardens and community outreach. Build playgrounds and relationships. Comfort crying babies and crying elderly. Belmont, you show such great efforts toward doing the mission of God here and abroad, but we all know that we can do more.
My friends, before you can hold on to this call to mission, you have to go back to the good news: doing mission isn’t all that hard. It takes our desire to reimagine our gifts in ways that can be used by only being present enough to ask, “God, what can I do?” How do I do that?: It takes having the grace to get over myself.
Go out and be a blessing to the world. Give of both your time and your resources. Yes, you must give to the church so the church can sustain its mission, but also sacrifice and give of your being. Earlier, we read pieces of a Wendell Berry poem called the “Peace of the Wild Things.” I believe this is the perfect meditation to step back and see the path towards mission. To close, let us read that piece one more time.