Sermon transcript for May 17, 2015
God is at Work in You
Belmont UMC—May 17, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching
Today is Confirmation Sunday and the words I have written have had the Confirmation Class in mind, but they certainly relate to all of us. These young people have been on quite a journey these last few months and I want to thank Pastor Heather Harriss and Richard and Martha Hooper, the class members, faith friends and ministry staff members and a host of others who have had a hand in this experience.
In Ephesians Paul writes that God’s power, the same power that was at work in Jesus Christ, is at work in us. Paul’s prayer for the church at Ephesus is that God will give them a spirit of wisdom and understanding, and that the eyes of their hearts will have enough light to see the hope of God’s call and the richness of God’s inheritance.
I have a friend who describes the work of God in us as giving us a new way of seeing the world and a new way of being in the world. Some people might call those conversions or life changing experiences that happen all at once or over a long period of time. These changes come when we receive God’s grace. When we get too close to God’s grace, we find that grace changes us in unexpected ways. The Greek word for repentance (metanoia) literally means a new mind set—a new way of thinking.
Have you ever had an experience that changed the way you thought about things? A friend told me that he had always avoided people who lived on the streets until one day he was at a fast food place in the city. A man who was homeless asked him for money and my friend said, “How about I buy you something to eat instead?” The man who was homeless followed my friend into the restaurant and he said to the clerk, “I’ll have whatever he’s having.” To my friend’s surprise the man followed him to his table and ate with him. They talked for two hours and my friend realized that there was not that much difference between the man’s story and his. It changed the way he looked at the homeless and caused him to want to make a difference in their lives. We call those experiences paradigm shifts.
For our Confirmands this means that today is a very important day for you, but it is not the end of your journey. It means you are on the journey and have been for a long time, and God will continue to be at work in you and changing you and allowing you to grow closer to God and grow deeper in the way you see the world. You will always be changing and growing in God’s grace. That’s the adventurous part of the journey.
The work that God is doing in us is ongoing. When I was in UMY we used to have these buttons we’d wear with these letters on them: PBPGIFWMY. The idea was that others would ask you what the letters stood for and the answer was: Please Be Patient, God Isn’t Finished With Me Yet. That’s pretty sound theology.
In Life Abundant theologian, Sally McFague, writes about “four conversions, four experiences of such importance that they changed my thinking about God and my behavior.” (p. 4) I’d never really thought about my faith journey in that way, but I realized that most of us experience these shifts in the way we look at the world and the way we are in the world, as God is at work in us. I can trace my own faith journey through these transitions and shifts in my thinking. This is God at work in me, giving my heart enough light to see more clearly. God will continue to be at work in the lives of these young people and all of us if we are open to what God wants to do.
God is not only at work in us but God is at work through us. God has been at work through this Confirmation Class and their long time commitment to Heifer International. Through this global organization, people can donate money to buy farm animals and create systems of sustainability all over the world. These young people have been making a difference in ways they may never fully know. And they have learned, during their time at Belmont, that this journey of faith is about something bigger than them selves. God is at work through them.
God will continue to use us. Trust this! We do not know where God will use us but we can trust that it will happen if we open ourselves to God’s guidance. In 1977 I knelt at the altar of this church and a bishop laid his hands on my head and I was ordained a deacon, which at that time was the first step toward being ordained as an elder. If you had asked me then where God would send me and where God would use me, I would have told you I have no idea. I certainly did not expect to be appointed to Belmont exactly 30 years later. And I have no idea what the future holds for ministry.
And we do not always know when God is using us. We have to trust that our God will use our faithfulness. Over years of ministry I have had people tell me that something I did for them years ago made all the difference. More often than not, I don’t even recall the act of faithfulness. We are called to faithful, not successful. If we are faithful we can trust that God is using us.
A good way to begin each day is with a simple prayer, “Lord, I give you this day. I do not know who I will encounter, and I do not how you will use me, but let me move through this day with your Spirit guiding me. Let me be faithful to your call.” The day that is before us becomes an adventure!
Many of you know I like to read Anne Lamott’s books. She has a refreshing way of allowing us to peak into her spiritual journey. She can be authentic and funny and a bit edgy at times. In Traveling Mercies there is a chapter titled, “Why I Make Sam Go to Church,” Sam is her son, and at the time of the writing, he was very young. Lamott started going to the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church, a small multi-ethnic church, when she was pregnant with Sam. She had found her way to the church one Sunday morning when she was hung over and shaky from alcoholism and she heard the sweet sounds of hymns floating out the windows and into the little flea market nearby.
One Sunday at the end of the service she stood up and told the congregation that she was expecting a child and everyone clapped and clapped. She reported that even the people who had been raised in those Bible thumping churches of the deep South clapped. She was not married and this was not the reaction she expected.
The people reached out to her and brought her clothes and casseroles. They kept referring to her baby as “our baby” or “my baby.” They gave her money. An older woman named Mary Williams, who lived on Social Security, would bring her baggies filled with dimes.
Long after Anne Lamott was on her feet financially, Mary Williams would still bringer her baggies filled with dimes. Lamott would give them to the homeless people on the street corner. She wrote, “Why do I make Sam go to church—none of his other friends go? I make him go to church because someone brings me dimes.” Lamott wrote that when she looked around St. Andrews, she saw the face of God.
God was at work in Anne Lamott’s life through these people. God was changing her and giving her a new way of seeing and a new way of being in the world. God was at work through her as she faithfully shared God’s love with others.
To these young people today and to all of you, know that God is at work in you. God is at work through you making a difference in the world.
Sermon transcript for May 10, 2015
“Friends of Jesus”
May 10, 2015—Belmont UMC
Jesus said, “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I don’t call you servants any longer, because servants don’t know what their master is doing. Instead I call you friends, because everything I heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (verses 14-15)
Not everyone is comfortable thinking about Jesus in such personal terms. When I was growing up I would hear people talk about Jesus as their personal savior and I would hear, “my very own personal savior.” We like to use that word, “personal,” as in “my personal trainer” or “my personal shopper.” It’s a very marketable idea. The store or the bank wants to personalize my account. Somehow the word “personal” makes the rest of us feel excluded. (Some of our hymnody contains that same language. “What a friend we have in Jesus.” “And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.” And as kids, we would wonder, “Who is Andy?” I like those hymns but the sometimes the words make me a little uncomfortable.
But in the Gospel text Jesus gets personal with the disciples. “I don’t call you servants any longer, I call you friends.” The word we translated as “servants” really means “slaves” and the meaning is one of greater contrast—one that would have surprised the first hearers. These are among the final words of Jesus—final words are the most important words and Jesus wants his disciples to understand the bond of affection and connection that marks their relationship.
Jesus gets personal with us as well. What Jesus is describing is a bond, a relationship centered in grace, God’s love, unconditional love, love that is a gift, love that we cannot earn. “I call you friends!” He says this to disciples who, in the weeks ahead may run away, deny him and betray him. At the end of the same Gospel we see the unrelenting nature of this friendship as the resurrected Jesus comes to the lakeshore to find the disciples who have gone back to their old life of fishing. He gives them the gift of a huge catch of fish and then greets them with breakfast on shore. He asks Peter the friendship question, “Do you love me?’ We’ll ask the confirmands several questions next Sunday, but the question that hovers over all of these questions is Jesus’ question, “Do you love me?” Will you live as a friend of Jesus?
Jesus says to the disciples, “I have chosen you!” It doesn’t mean, “I have chosen you over somebody else.” It means “I have chosen all of you.” Being chosen is a good feeling. It is a feeling of grace, a feeling of love. On Facebook, you can request someone to be your friend and they can either confirm or ignore your request. It’s a tough decision, allowing someone into your Facebook life, where the definition of “friend” is very loosely defined—especially your pastor. I read some of the things people post on their walls and I wonder if they recall friending me.
When I was in the 5th grade, we transferred from the small rural school to the larger elementary school in town. Everyday during recess, we played kickball or softball. Everyday the teacher would choose two kids to be captains and the captains would choose up sides—this is a terrible way to choose teams because someone always feels left out. Even though I grew up with a ball in my hands and was a pretty good softball player, I was an unknown entity in those first weeks and would always be chosen near the last. I had to prove myself to those new kids.
But one very small kid named Billy was always last to be chosen. Billy was not a bad player, but he was so small that he could not hit the ball far and he was not fast around the bases. So the captain who got stuck with Billy would always sigh and say something like, “OK, Billy, I guess you are on our team.” Billy would roll his eyes and go with it. I know he hated this day after day.
One day, my friend Tim was selected as captain and he got the first pick. He scanned the class lined up along the first base line. He was going to take his time and choose carefully. Then he said, “I choose, I choose Billy!” Everyone gasped! Then everyone said, “Go Billy!” No one was more stunned than Billy.
Grace is like everyone being chosen the first time every time. Jesus said, “I have chosen you! Living as the friends of Jesus is living as the recipients of this grace.
There is another component to friendship that bears stating here. There is a saying that we become the company we keep. I have a young friend who is a drug addict. I have known him and his family for many years and he has caused them a lot of heartache. He has been in rehab programs and jail numerous times, but he comes out of those places and returns to those old “friends” who lead him back into the darkness of addiction.
I have a 30 year old friend who texts me or calls me almost every day. We try to connect and have long conversations together. One day I asked him why he wanted to hang out with someone twice his age. His answer startled me, “I love you a lot and I want to be more like you.” I can promise you that no one has ever told me that before, but it was touching and it made me want to be a better person.
Aristotle wrote about the deepest kind of friendship being the kind that exists for the very sake of friendship itself. (Nicomachaen Ethics 1170b7) I doubt we can have many of those friendships because they require presence and time that most of us don’t have. But these friendships are the most formative. David S. Cunningham writes of these friendships, that. “A true friend who loves God, will, in time, teach us how to love as God loves.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2 p. 500)
Thomas Aquinas noted that the goal of the Christian life is to become friends with God. (Summa Theologica Italiae, 23-24) Through this friendship we hope to take on the characteristics of God and love as God loves us. To be a friend with Jesus means we will become more like him in every way.
Jesus chose us and “appointed us to go and bear fruit.” Our lives are to mean something, to bear fruit, to live into a purpose beyond ourselves. I thought about those who have lived as friends of Jesus and in doing so have blessed my life and the lives of others. I want all of us to remember that we are friends of Jesus who are called to serve and live in such a way that our lives make a difference. What difference will our lives make?
I was touched by an article written by Glen Henson who shared his story of being raised by an alcoholic father in an angry, fighting and dysfunctional family. His only memory of church was attending séances in the Spiritualist Church or attending the Hardshell Baptists (his father’s favorite). Surprisingly, he grew up with a career centered in the church as a seminary professor and a writer.
The reason he gave for this transformation in his life were the luminous saints, “ordinary saints scratching around in the soil of my soul.” We might describe them as those who had lived as friends of Jesus. He mentioned Mr. Helms and Mr. Thurman, deacons in the church who always kept their word and he remembered his Uncle Ossie and Aunt Fleta, who were always helping members of the family and who took him in during college. And there was also Mr. Busch, the General Store owner, who kept forgiving their debt, because he knew they were too poor to pay him.
(Weavings, May/June 2003, p. 28 ff)
Henson told of the walks in his neighborhood, seeing the home of a single mother, a home in need of repair and paint. One day he knocked on her door and offered to help. He spent a scorching summer repairing and painting the woman’s house. It was his way of thanking those saints who had lived as the friends of Jesus.
Today we give thanks for those who have lived as friends of Jesus. Today Jesus greets us in this place and invites us to live as his friends, recipients of God’s love, chosen to walk with Jesus and called to make a difference by embracing God and embracing others.