Sermon transcript for February 17, 2013
Free Lunches, Power Trips, Quick Fixes
Luke 4:1-1-13 First Sunday in Lent
Belmont UMC—February 17, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
One of my favorite movies is the 2000 film, Chocolat, based on the novel by the same name (writer, Joanne Harris). Chocolat tells the story of a young mother, Vianne, who arrives in a repressed French village with her six year old daughter and opens a Chocolaterie. The village is a very serious little place under the leadership of a severe and unhappy mayor, whose countenance is reflected in the faces of the people. The cinematographer does a wonderful job of capturing the environment of the town in the use of monotones of gray and brown. Vianne arrives with her daughter, both wearing bright red capes, in contrast to the town and we know immediately that something is about to happen.
The time is the beginning of Lent and Vianne opens her chocolaterie across the street from the church. Beautiful, mysterious chocolates begin to adorn the front window of her shop and the contrast between the chocolates and the town’s Lenten observance is stunning. One by one Vianne wins over the people of the village with her happy and gregarious personality. The conflicts between Vianne and Mayor Renaud grow more intense throughout the movie until she decides to move on to another place. A group of townspeople come to encourage her to stay and each has a story of how she has changed their lives.
At the end of the movie the staunch Mayor breaks into the chocolaterie on the day before Easter and destroys the beautiful display of chocolates in the window. But to his surprise, a small piece of the chocolate drops on his lip and he gives in to the seduction, devours the chocolate, collapses in tears and falls asleep in the window. Vianne finds him there the next morning and agrees to keep his secret, vows to stay and live in the small town that has been transformed by her presence.
I have told a story that has made the first week of Lent more difficult for those who have given up chocolate for the season. Lent is about our identity, not our ability to resist chocolate for 40 days. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness defines Jesus’ identity as the son of God, as the one who will not take the easy path in this life, the one whose power is centered in servanthood, not aggrandizement. Jesus spent 40 days of reflection and preparation for what his future would hold.
“The devil said to him, ‘Since you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” (v. 3) In the wilderness Jesus is tempted to make bread from a stone, but Jesus has come to the wilderness to fast. Fasting is not designed to starve a person, but to feed the soul, to make space in the soul for God. During Lent fasting is not only about giving up food in the spiritual discipline of fasting but replacing the time spent in eating and meal preparation with prayer and meditation. It would be easy for the man who can turn water into wine to make bread out of stones, but we do not live by bread alone. We have spiritual needs and spiritual hungers and fasting would prepare Jesus for the difficult days ahead. As fasting would prepare Jesus for the difficult days ahead, so it prepares us as well.
When I was in seminary, the spiritual life department proclaimed a day of prayer and fasting during Lent. Posters had gone up all over campus calling students and faculty to participate. We all knew about it but we were too busy learning how to be pastors to attend to such spiritual disciplines.
The day of the fast arrived and at lunch time we lined up at the only place on campus for food, the cafeteria. Instead of the usual two lines, only one line was open and the line was long. I still recall the look on the face of the cafeteria manager as he walked up and down the line, wringing his hands and saying, “I thought you were supposed to be fasting today. We did not prepare enough food. Why are you here?”
Chances are we won’t be fasting this Lent, because we won’t understand the value in it. We are so accustomed to satisfying every hunger, every hint of loneliness and isolation, every moment of silence, with something, anything that prevents us from being alone with ourselves and our feelings.
Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that the empty space within us belongs to God and the simplest definition of addiction is anything we use to fill that space other than God. She writes, “The hollowness we sometimes feel is not a sign of something gone wrong. It is the holy of holies inside of us, the uncluttered throne room of the Lord our God. Nothing on earth can fill it, but that does not stop us from trying. Whenever we start feeling too empty inside, we stick our pacifiers in our mouths and suck for all we are worth. They do not nourish us, but at least they plug the hole. To enter the wilderness is to leave them behind.” She invites us to live with the emptiness for a bit and see what we find out. It’s possible that the emptiness of fasting will remind us to make room for the God who calls us children of God and who loves us with all God’s being. (Home by Another Way, p. 67)
From a high place where he could see all the kingdoms of the world, the devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms.” (v.5) Jesus is tempted with power, but being prepared to follow God’s plan meant learning that power is found in servanthood, not in self-serving displays. Jesus shunned the flashy, attention getting events. He would heal people and instruct them to tell no one. On the way to Jerusalem two of his disciples would ask him if they might sit on his left and his right in his coming kingdom. He scolded them, saying, “You do not know what you are asking.”
Jesus criticized those who lord power over others and taught that the mission of our lives in serving others, not ourselves. Jesus came as a servant, not a political leader or conquering hero. Consequently, many rejected him. But he came to teach us that there is no place for power trips in the kingdom of God.
The forty days of Lent prepares us to be God’s servants, calling us away from the temptation of the world to rise to the top, stepping on others on the way up. There are no ladders of success in the kingdom and we have 40 days to come to terms with this reality.
“Do whatever you want, and God will protect you.” the devil said. (v. 9) I’ve known folks who believed that. Jesus did not come to be protected; he had come with a mission. He came to show us what God is like and to do that he had to suffer and he continues to suffer with us when we are wounded by the realities of this world.
We want the God of the quick fix. We want a God who will always protect us from the hurts and pains we might experience. We want a God who will give us pat answers to all our questions and we want all of this now, right now. We know from human experience that it doesn’t work that way. We will all experience suffering, loss, defeat, sadness, disappointment, and failure. And we need to be prepared.
The people I have known who have spent significant time alone with God, in prayer, in study, in reflection are those who are better prepared to live victoriously and hopefully everyday, in spite of what they face. Because the Jesus who said “no” to the devil in the wilderness is the Jesus who says “yes” to us when we are suffering and he comes along side of us and gives us courage, comfort and hope.
You have heard this quote from Frederick Buechner before, but here it is one more time. “After being baptized by John in the River Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.”
It means more than giving up chocolate for 40 days. It can be a little frightening like looking in the mirror first thing in the morning, before we’ve had time to comb our pillow hair and put on our make up. It’s frightening because who we see is who we are. It means bringing all we are to the wilderness, all our baggage, all our painful memories, our broken hearts, our history of failure, and our weird idiosyncrasies. We come to allow our emptiness to speak to us of God and hope and identity.
This is a process and there are no quick fixes to our humanness. It takes time but with Christ, everyday, we can learn and grow and find our way, our identity as the children of God.
REFLECTIVE QUESTION: Today I want you to capture in your mind one person, one person who typifies the servant ministry of Jesus, one person who has been to the wilderness and come back again, changed. Ask yourself, how can this person’s life example lead me on this journey of Lent?
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?