Sermon transcript for November 30, 2014
1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37
Sunday, November 30
Chris Allen, preaching
Have you ever been to a Christmas Party where there is a White Elephant Gift Exchange, Dirty Santa, or whatever else you may call it - I'm talking about the exchange where you bring a inexpensive gift to a party, an order for opening the gifts is established, and when it's your turn you have the choice to open a wrapped gift or steal one of the already opened gifts. We'll even have one this coming Saturday when the Belmont youth group gathers for our Christmas party.
I am going to let you in on a little secret of mine. If I am ever involved in a White Elephant gift exchange I am going to do one of two things:
1. I will steal an already opened gift or
2. I will open the gift that I brought to the party.
I cannot stand the unknown of what may be inside the wrapping paper. I have been doing this for as long as I remember. I like the certainty of knowing what I am getting. I don't want to be deceived by the pretty wrapping paper or how big the box is. Who knows what could be inside? Sure you can pick up the package and shake it around to hear what rattles around but that will only get you so far. Why take on that risk when I can go for the unwrapped gift?
So my inclination is to go for the gift I can easily identify - it either has to be already unwrapped or the gift that I wrapped myself. I don't want any surprises even though there very well may be a better gift still wrapped up, a gift that is better than I can currently see. But I just can't bring myself to take that risk. I have a hard time imagining the hope in the wrapped gifts. And at a gift exchange I don't want to get stuck with a gag gift.
Needless to say, I am settling. But that's exactly what Paul is telling the Corinthians they are doing. The Corinthians find themselves in a place like the third servant in the "Parable of the Talents" who buries the master's money. There are two things that Paul identifies here as gifts among the Corinthians - knowledge and communication. However, what's not clear at this point in Paul's letter to the Corinthians is the way they are using these two gifts have got them into some trouble.
While Paul is giving them high praise for their knowledge and communication, he will rebuke them in later chapters for the misuse of their gifts. This is to say that there are some in the Corinthian church who are full of themselves because of their knowledge about God and are now unintelligible in communicating the Gospel. They're now sitting on their gifts and seem to have forgotten the reason God gave them these gifts. They forgot they were living in the in-between times as they wait and hope "for the day of our Lord Jesus Christ." They become satisfied about the way things were. They were ready to settle for the unwrapped gift. The Corinthians were complacent.
Complacency is part of human condition called sin that causes us to become complacent, to be okay with a half-hearted attempt, to be satisfied with the way things are. But hear the good news, even when we are complacent and satisfied with the status quo God rips off the wrapping paper and bursts into the world. Today, we begin the period called Advent, the first season in the church year, where we are keenly aware we are living in-between the coming of Christ in a manager and Christ's second coming. The scandal of grace begins with Jesus coming to dwell among us. How scandalous that God would come among the creation!
God ripping off the wrapping paper, tearing open heaven, and bursting into the world threatens our status quo. Jesus coming among us threatens the status quo of each one of us on a personal level. To confess with your mouth that Jesus - the human one who died on a cross - is Lord of your life is to say that you open your life to being turned upside down and inside our by God's grace. There are often the testimonies of faithful Christians people who tell about how their life was a wreck until they encountered Jesus, but my story has been that I felt like I had life figured out until I read the gospels and it wrecked me forever with the story of God's grace.
Not only does Jesus threaten each of us individually, Jesus coming among us threatens the status quo of our whole society. Just ask King Herod. In Matthew's gospel there is the story that as the news of a new king born in Bethlehem spreads, the government grew fearful at this threat to the status quo so they allowed the systematically killing of all the young boys living in their community. Doesn't this sound familiar?
So how do we imagine hope? In today's Gospel reading from Mark, Jesus gives us this apocalyptic scene of the sun and moon becoming dark and the earth quaking. Then Jesus says that no one but God knows when all this will happen and there is no use in trying to figure it out. However, there is one thing that Jesus does tell us to pay attention to and that is the fig trees. Jesus says when you see the new spring growth summer is near - those early, sweet-tasting figs will soon be appearing. Those early figs are our foretaste to what the fullness of God's kingdom will be like at Jesus' second coming.
Let me make this a bit clearer for you. Do you remember when you were younger and helped out in the kitchen and got to lick the spoon? I remember helping my grandmother out in the kitchen when I was a kid. She makes the best pound cake in the world. She would mix together the eggs, flour, sugar, and butter with her electric beater. When she was done, she would pour the cake batter from the mixing bowl into cake pan. As the cake was being put into the oven, she would offer me the cake batter covered spoon to lick and allow me to scrap any of the remaining batter out of the bowl. And boy did this taste good but it was just a foretaste of what was still to come. While I am licking the spoon the best pound cake ever is still in the oven. That's what it's like to imagine hope as wait for the coming of Christ among us again.
To imagine hope is to imagine God's future breaking into the now, our present reality. Imagining hope is what we do when we pray the Lord's Prayer and say "on earth as it is in heaven." Imagining hope is in police officers welcoming demonstrators with coffee and hot chocolate. Imaging hope is what I experience each Wednesday morning when I walk down to Eakin Elementary to tutor in Mrs. Jackson's class. When I step in the room I am greeted by a chorus of "Hello Mr. Chris." Spending an hour each week with these fourth graders is a foretaste of the kingdom that is to come. They are reminder to me that God is with us.
However, I wish I could say it was an easy week to imagine hope. There seemed to be more bitter tastes in my mouth as I watched the news cycles of injustice, arson, and looting in the city where I spent my college years. Maybe you felt a little hopeless this week as well. Maybe your Thanksgiving meal didn't turn out like you had planned. Maybe you find yourself closer to hopeless than hopeful as you will celebrate your first Christmas without a loved one. Or maybe you find yourself worried about how you are going to pay for this year's Christmas gifts.
If you are having a hard time imagining hope right now, let me tell you that's okay. That's what Advent is for, that's what we are doing here. Advent is a chance to pause and admit that we can no longer hope in ourselves, our government, that deal of a TV we got on Black Friday, or that pill or bottle to save us. We are here to essentially say we are out of hope.
Our hope must be in someone out there who comes to us. We can imagine hope only because Jesus tears into our world and gently leads us home. If you remember nothing else about the sermon this morning what I want you to hear this: On this first Sunday of Advent, know that Jesus is coming into the world, tearing open the heavens to be among us. This is our hope. This is the foundation from which we imagine hope. Among the pain of our lives, in the midst of the many injustices in Ferguson and deaths from a preventable disease like Malaria, there is still a gift we have not fully unwrapped, God bursting into world. It is coming in the small things like the new growth of a fig tree. This season, watch for the foretastes and know that God is faithful.
Sermon transcript for November 23, 2014
The Face of Christ
Belmont UMC--November 23, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
It was during the holidays last year and I was standing in line at the grocery check-out with a few things that we needed. In front of me was a young man wearing a nice suit and he was holding a basket of groceries and waiting his turn. In front of him was a young woman with her little boy. The boy was sitting in the seat of the grocery cart and he was enjoying smiling at people while his mother checked out. The mother’s cart was pretty full and it was obvious that she was concerned. She was looking at the items on the conveyor belt as they moved toward the scanner. She watched the totals adding up on the screen in front of her and she looked at the money in her purse. When everything was totaled she sighed and looked at the clerk and said, “I don’t have enough for all of this; let me put some things back.” The clerk rolled her eyes and looked impatient. The young man in front of me, without hesitation, said, “Of course, you have enough.” He put his items on the conveyor belt and said, “Put her purchases on my bill.”
I watched the man. He was very relaxed about what he had done. He smiled at the little boy. The young mother, who had tears in her eyes, offered thanks. The man said, “You know, it’s really not that much for me to do for you” and then he looked away as though he wanted to preserved the dignity of the woman, or because he did not want her to see the tears that had formed in his eyes.
It was a brief moment but it was beautiful and rich and I’m sure I saw the face of Christ in all of them—in the earnest face of a young mother, in the smiles of a little boy, in the generosity of the man and in the surprise on the face of the clerk. And these words went through my mind, “And when was it that we saw you hungry, Lord, and gave you something to eat?”
Our Gospel text for today is a familiar one and every time I read it I find it more compelling, radical and profound. Everyday I encounter some of the “least of these” of whom Jesus speaks and every time I’m tempted to close my eyes and walk away, I hear Jesus saying, “Here are the least of these.” They are the persons who are vulnerable, strangers, hungry, weak, poor, voiceless, and imprisoned. Jesus did not say that we were to help those who appear to be deserving or more grateful, he said simply the “least of these.” What Jesus is saying is that we are to look into these human faces and to see his face in there’s.
Dorothy Day struggled to connect her faith to her social conscience—a struggle that gave birth to the Catholic Worker Movement in 1933. It started as a newspaper, but became a house of hospitality for the homeless and the poor. The first house of hospitality was Day’s own apartment because she could not turn away a homeless woman who read her newspaper article and came looking for her help. One hundred and seventy-five Catholic Worker houses were established under her guidance.
Day said that the core of her life was her experience of ultimate beauty—Christ’s face hidden in the faces of America’s human cast-offs. She once said, “Those who cannot see the face of Christ in the poor are atheists indeed.”
The Gospel text teaches us something radical about God. To quote John M. Buchanan, “The God of Jesus, the God of the Bible, is not a remote supreme being on a throne up there above the clouds or out there somewhere in the mysterious reaches of the universe. Jesus said, God is here, in the messiness and ambiguity of human life. God is here, particularly in your neighbor, in the one who needs you. You want to see the face of God? Look in to the face of the least of these, the vulnerable, the weak, the children.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A. Volume 4, p. 334)
I occasionally attended a Disciples of Christ Church when I was in college. In the narthex of the church was a print of a famous painting, “The Presence.” The original painting is in St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland. The painting depicts the sanctuary of a beautiful cathedral. The light of the painting draws your eye toward the magnificent high altar, the candles, and all the altar ware. The sanctuary appears to be empty, but upon closer inspection you see a woman in the back of the sanctuary, kneeling in the shadows. She appears to be a poor woman who has come in off the streets. And behind her Jesus is standing reaching toward her to offer his help. Jesus is not standing in the spot light of the high altar, but in the shadows among the vulnerable one in need.
Bishop Ken Carder visited prisoners regularly on death row. He said once, “I thought I was going to the prison to take Christ, but when I arrived I discovered that Christ was already there.”
I like the Greek word for the Holy Spirit that is often translated in Comforter or Advocate in the Gospel of John. The word, parakaleo, literally means “the one who is called alongside of us.” That is where we find God—where people are, especially people in need.
Scholars remind us that this passage is the only description of judgment in the New Testament. And as such, it says something pretty radical about religious practices. A friend and I spent some time talking about different denominations and ways of understanding things like the sacraments recently. I told him about my many visits to the Church of Christ as a child and I was very aware that I was not allowed to take Holy Communion because of I was a United Methodist. And as United Methodists we have our own ideas of about theology and we feel pretty strong about those.
At our All Church Retreat this year Father Charles Strobel told us the story of a homeless man who was a very difficult and contrary man. Charles’ mother told him that the man would be his ticket into heaven. Charles said that he had to learn to love this man and when he did the man’s demeanor changed, because Charles had changed. Father Strobel brought up the issue of baptism to the man several times and the man refused baptism. When the man was dying, Father Strobel asked him again and the man shook his head and was adamant about not being baptized. And Father Strobel said in passing, “That’s okay because God is bigger than baptism.” That line has stayed with me ever since the retreat.
I told Father Strobel, “We will be up here on this mountain interviewing candidates for ministry in March of next year. We will want to hear them articulate a proper theology of baptism or we will not approve them for ordination.” He smiled and said, “That’s because we care more about baptism than God does.”
Don’t misunderstand me. I think baptism is important and it is a beautiful experience of God’s grace. Every time we gather around this font for a baptism, I sense the presence of the Holy Spirit pouring God’s love all over us.
But here deep in the Gospels in the only passage about the judgment, there is only one criterion for being invited to inherit the kingdom. It is not baptism or denominationalism or orthodoxy or creeds or theology, “it is this whether or not we saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not we gave ourselves away in love in his name.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, p. 336) That is all.
“When you have done it for one of the least of these members of my family, you have done it for me.” Seeing Christ in others, seeing Christ in those in need is revolutionary. It changes the way we interact with the world and it requires a conversion, a changed heart, a new way of seeing the world around us. And when we are changed responding becomes second nature to us.
Many see the needy as intrusions, as lazy or losers. Some think they deserve their unfortunate positions, especially among the poor. So seeing them different requires a new way of seeing things—it calls us to see as God sees. And it is not easy. It is frustrating at times.
There was a young man named Scotty who came by Grace UMC when I served there. He seemed earnest and he had a way about him that was likeable. He always needed something. He worked as a house painter but he never seemed to have enough to make ends meet. His money always ran out before the end of the month, and over the years I had given him money, food and gasoline. I had bought some car parts so he could keep going to work. He did not always make good decisions. I would get hopeful that he could do better. One day I said, “You know Scotty, I think God has a better plan for you than the one you are living.”
One day I got a letter from Scotty. It came from the Northwest Correctional Complex in Tiptonville, where he had been incarcerated for stealing. I was so angry and disappointed. He was asking me to help his family out for Christmas. The letter came when I was working on a sermon about this passage and I heard these words in my mind, “When you have done it for one of the least of these members of my family, you have done it for me.” My heart was changed and I knew what God wanted me to do.
So I sat down and wrote Scotty a long letter. I told him that I was disappointed in him but I loved him and I wasn’t giving up hope for his life. I told him that I saw Christ in him when we visited. I told him that we would send a gift card to his family so they could have Christmas gifts and food.
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink. And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
We see the face of Christ all around us everyday. Everyday we are presented with the opportunity to give ourselves away in love in the name of Jesus.
As we make our financial commitments….as we prioritize our ministries…as we seek to be faithful in loving God and one another let us imagine communities where all God’s children are cherished, honored, and loved; where all God’s children are fed and clothed and live in safe homes; where all God’s children experience and know the love of Jesus Christ.