Sermon transcript for February 10, 2013
Retreat or Encounter
Luke 9:28-26--The Transfiguration
Belmont UMC—February 10, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
One of my most unusual pastoral calls was to a man named Eugene. This was in my first appointment as a pastor. Eugene’s wife, Lilly, had stopped by the parsonage one afternoon to ask me to visit him. When I asked what was going on, she replied, “It’s too stupid for me to explain, but I’m really angry with him.” The next day I drove to the farmhouse where Eugene and Lilly lived. Eugene was on the front porch and he did not seem happy to see me. I told him about Lilly’s visit and request. Eugene said, “She’s mad because I won’t go back to church. I have no place to sit since you removed my post.”
Years before someone had decided that the sanctuary was structurally unsound so a large support post had been added to the center of the room. We had some restoration work done on the building and new roof supports added, so there was no need for the unsightly post. Eugene sat behind the post every Sunday and as soon as the sermon started he would go to sleep. Lilly had joined the choir and was no longer sitting next to him to nudge or elbow him to wake up. He thought he was hiding but even I could see him sleeping. Everyone in the small church knew he slept through the sermon. I assured him that his sleeping did not bother me but I did want him to come back to church and make Lilly happy. He did come back, the marital crisis was averted, and all was well.
It is okay to fall asleep during the sermon. I’m told that my voice puts babies to sleep and I should provide CD’s for all new parents (and maybe insomnia sufferers as well). I heard that if you were to take all the people who fall asleep in church on any given Sunday and lay them end to end, they would be a lot more comfortable. Thanks for enduring that old joke.
The text today is the Transfiguration Story, which always ends the season of Epiphany. Jesus took the inner circle of disciples, Peter, James and John, up on a mountain to pray and there Jesus’ appearance was changed—his clothes were white like lightening and Elijah and Moses appeared with him. Luke adds this detail: “the disciples were weighed down with sleep” (NRSV) or “almost overcome by sleep” (CEB) but they managed to stay awake and experience Jesus’ glory. Have ever tried to stay awake when you were very sleepy? We can almost imagine the disciples about to drift off when this event happened and startled them fully awake.
Luke notes that the same disciples fell asleep when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane and had asked the disciples to pray with him. “Pray that you won’t be overcome by temptation.” But they fell asleep and Luke notes that they slept because they were overcome by grief. Jesus asked them, “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you won’t be overcome by temptation.” (22:39-46)
There is a recurring theme in scripture when the people of God are called on to stay awake, stay alert, and listen. From the words of Isaiah, “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the Lord, Awake. . .” (51:9) And the stories of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration where we hear a voice announcing, “This is my son, listen to him.”
Or the words in the Book of Revelation to the churches, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (3:13)
Why does this theme of paying attention recur in scripture? Because the church’s vitality depends on the church’s willingness to hear God’s call and follow. And because we believe that God continues to reveal God’s self to us and we must always be in the posture of listening and receiving God’s revelation. Our ability to be God’s people and to live as Christ’s followers hinges on how awake and alert we are to the call of God on our lives.
Several years back I read an essay in which the writer (now unknown to me) referred to the modern church as the somnambulistic church, or the sleepwalking church. He noted that the modern church is like someone who walks in her sleep, going through what appear to be normal motions but not really paying attention or remembering what she is doing. (We have a child who is a sleepwalker and it is fascinating and a bit disconcerting to see him do this.) The sleepwalking church is the church that is going through the motions. Rituals, deep in meaning, are reduced to meaningless and repetitive exercises. The church is not fully alert to God and what God is saying and where God is leading. The sleepwalking church becomes irrelevant and is on the road to decline.
As a church we are in a season of prayer and discernment so that we might posture our selves to be fully alert to hear God’s voice guiding us for the journey ahead of us. This is an exciting time in the life of our church, but it can also be an anxious time because of uncertainty. We may feel the tension that comes from upsetting the status quo. We ask, “Where do we see God at work? Where do we hear God’s call?” Those questions come with risks. Those questions can lead us to transformation and our tendency is to resist transformation.
Simone Weil wrote, “Absolute attention is prayer.” Prayer allows us to attend to the gentle, grace filled leading of God.
I mentioned Alan Storey last week. Alan is the pastor of Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town, South Africa. Our mission team spent an hour or so with Alan when we were in Cape Town in 2009. When Alan was younger he had to decide if he would resist the draft to serve in an army that supported the apartheid government of South Africa. He went to Australia to work as a laborer and to spend a year in intentional and prayerful discernment. He returned to South Africa declaring he would never fight in the apartheid army or any army. He was arrested and put on trial, with a six year prison term the likely outcome. The trial was abandoned midway for unknown reasons. Alan went to the court but no one showed up to prosecute him. Alan’s courage meant that he was the last conscientious objector to be put on trial in South Africa. The year after Alan’s arrest 30,000 young men were drafted but only a third of them showed up to serve. His willingness to follow Christ was a factor in ending this oppressive government system.
During this Black History month we are reminded of the courageous faithful who heard God’s call and at great risk led our nation out of the grip of racism and toward God’s dream for a better and more just world. Like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. hearing Jesus’ voice late one night, sitting alone in his kitchen and pondering a threatening phone call. He said, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying, still to fight on, still to fight on.”
The church Eugene and Lilly attended was built in 1840 and had solid brick walls. The bricks had been made on the property by slaves. One of the older men in the church told me that when he was a boy one could still find finger prints of the slaves molded into the bricks. I thought about those slaves, building a church in which they would never be welcomed. Even in 1840 some courageous Christians were listening to God and God was speaking words of human dignity and liberation!
We are not the same church we were when I was born in 1952. We are not the same church because the discerning faithful have been courageous enough to listen to God. In 1952 women could not be ordained in the Methodist Church. In 1952 blacks and whites served in separate conferences in the Methodist Church. But God spoke to the church and some were listening. We have a long way to go to end racism and sexism in our country and in the United Methodist Church. And I believe God still has a word for us that we need to hear.
The transfiguration story is one of those mystical stories and it’s difficult for us to wrap our minds around it. The disciples saw Jesus transformed, standing with these heroic figures in Jewish history, figures that represented the law and the prophets. Peter’s response is typically impulsive as he suggests that they build three shrines, one for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Then they were enfolded in a thick cloud and filled with awe. A voice from heaven was heard, a voice that silenced the impulsive and talkative Peter, “This is my Son, my chosen one, listen to him.” The voice seemed to be saying, “Peter, stop talking and listen. Peter, pay attention to what is happening here.”
This event was not meant for Jesus but for the disciples. It was meant for the early church, and it was meant for us at Belmont. It calls our attention to the identity of Jesus and invites us to align our lives with his. It reminds us that we are not on our journey; we are on the Jesus journey. It reminds us that we are not called to build shrines to the status quo, but to posture our lives so that we can be fully awake, fully alert, to listen and to hear where God is calling us. It reminds us of God’s grace, because even when we are almost overcome with sleep, even when we are reluctant or fearful of change, God can and will break into our lives and get our attention.
Belmont, God is calling us to do great things. Will we listen and hear? Will we have the courage to follow?
Sermon transcript for February 3, 2013
The Greatest of These
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Belmont UMC—February 3, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
It is said that “familiarity breeds contempt,” but if that were true then we would approach these words of Paul with contempt. Instead we hear them over and over again. They make us smile as we read them at weddings, funerals, or simply sitting quietly during our morning devotional time. They warm our hearts and we greet them gladly.
But these words are meant for much more. Paul wrote these words so that they would change our lives. So let’s look at them again this morning but let’s look at them with a new and transformed way of seeing them.
We will need some context for this spiritual exercise. A number of years back Kathryn and I went to a local restaurant at the end of a busy Sunday schedule. We would order coffees and something simple and talk about the day and plan for the week ahead. As we sat there we noticed our District Superintendent walk into the restaurant. He did not see us and he took a seat on the other side of the room from us. He ordered something and then he put his elbows on the table and rested his head in his hands. It was obvious to us that he was tired or troubled.
As we were leaving we walked over to his table to greet him and we asked if he was okay. He invited us to sit down. He told us about the church from which he had just returned. The church members were in a feud with each other and as I recall the feud was over the color of the new sanctuary carpet. A special meeting had been called and he had been invited in to convene the meeting. There had been a pot luck meal before the meeting and one group set their food up on one side of the fellowship hall and the other group set their food up on the other. They sat on opposite sides from one another during the meeting, a meeting that was contentious and hateful and no resolution to the carpet dilemma had been found. Paul is writing to a church that has similar problems and Paul documents their divisiveness in the opening chapters of this letter. “I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are not ready. . . For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, behaving according to human inclinations.” (3:1-3 NRSV) We need to remember that when reading 1 Corinthians 13.
The other contextual piece I want to mention is the preceding chapter. Chapter 12 was a Lectionary option over the last two Sundays and we did not read it, but we have to visit that chapter to fully understand the transformational nature of 1 Corinthians 13. In this chapter Paul uses the metaphor of the human body for the church. The human body has many parts, many different parts that work in concert with each other and dependency on each other. He is saying that the human body needs diversity and unity or it will not survive. He is saying that the church needs diversity and unity or it will not survive. Since unity/diversity has emerged as a major theme in our ongoing discernment process we need to hear this, remember it and we come back to it again.
In the words of Reverend Alan Storey (from his sermon, “Unity and Diversity”) of South Africa, I was reminded this week that Paul took the prevailing philosophy and turned it upside down. Aristotle and other philosophers had used the body as a metaphor as well, but they used it to describe how societies work. The prevailing sociological viewpoint was that there were different roles for different persons in society. Some were more significant and important; some less significant. That was a natural order of society and those that were less significant should not complain but accept their position. This worked out well for the privileged few. Alan noted that he was raised in a country that told him he was more significant than others because of the color of his skin. So was I.
But listen to what Paul writes, “On the contrary, the members that seem to be weaker are indispensable (we can’t live without them), and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.” (verses 22-25) He goes on to say that we need each other and “if any one member suffers, we all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” (v. 26) Do we hear how counter-cultural this was and is even now?
And then Paul writes one of the most startling sentences in the New Testament. It is this, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (v. 27) He didn’t write, “You will be the body of Christ someday.” He said, “You are it.” The church at Corinth, with its jealousies and quarreling and new Flamingo colored carpet in the sanctuary, is the body of Christ? And Paul is speaking to us across the centuries, “Belmont, you are the body of Christ!” You are the present and visible reality of the risen Christ for this world. That’s a tall order for the church at Corinth and it raises the bar for us as well. We are the body of Christ!
The 12th ends with these words, “And I will show you a still more excellent way.” And we see why the chapter and verse designations do a disservice to this passage because it flows naturally into the 13th chapter. The more excellent way is the way of love. If we are to be the body of Christ we must embody the love of God. To embody the love of God is to embody the very nature of God’s self.
Paul notes that we can have the gift to speak in angelic languages, prophesy until the cows come home, have faith to move mountains, and even become a martyr for the faith, but if we do have the love of God in us, we have nothing, we gain nothing. Because it’s not about us; it is always about God and God is the source of everything good that happens in the body of Christ. We have nothing apart from God and we have nothing apart from God’s love.
Paul describes love this way: “Love is patient and kind. Love is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
I have said before that years ago a friend said that the test of our embodiment of this love is rewriting these phrases and putting our name in the place of the word “love.” So it reads, Ken is patient and kind. Ken is not envious, or boastful, or arrogant, or rude. Ken does not insist on his own way. Ken is not irritable or resentful.” Do the words ring true? Do they ring true to my wife, my children, my close friends? Hearing it that way leads me to the altar of confession. Is it possible for me to love this way? Probably not on my own, but it is possible with God. And God can lead us to these new depths of love.
So this morning, as we consider these texts and as we prepare to come here to this table of unity and diversity, and to kneel or stand at this chancel, we may want to bring something with us, something we need to leave here. Maybe we’ll leave our jealousies, our resentments, our arrogance, or our insistence on having our way, and may as we feed on the food of this table, may it fill us with God’s love so that we can be the body of Christ for the world.