Sermon transcript for November 3, 2013
Belmont UMC—November 3, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
A couple of years ago we visited the small hillside town of Assisi in Italy. It’s a beautiful town with historic buildings, narrow streets and a rich history. It was the home of Francis, the rich young man who gave away all his belongings to enter the priesthood and lived his commitment to serving the poor. It’s also the home of St. Clare, a woman who joined Francis in this calling. Both Francis and Clare experienced the rejection of their families because of their commitment to Christ. Their lives have been sentimentalized in stories and their images are recreated in beautiful reliefs, statues and stained glass. (and bobble heads in the gift shops). They are two of the people I admire in the Christian history, and when I think of saints, I think of them. I suspect the word “saint” causes us to think of those heroes of church history.
But All Saints Sunday is not about people who have achieved stained glass status. They are the ordinary persons, women, men and children who have lived their lives in a way that allowed us to glimpse something of God in them. Tom Long wrote that a saint is a person whose life manages to be more than a “cranny through which the infinite peeps.” (“Preaching in the Middle of a Saintly Conversation,” The Journal of Preachers, Lent 1995, pp.15-21)
We are the saints of God--we who have given our lives over to God and seek to follow God’s plan and purpose in the world. We are not perfect and maybe our life has been characterized more by failure than success, more by false starts and faltered steps than winning races, but we are God’s children.
The word “saints” means “holy ones” or ones who are set apart for a purpose. We may not be comfortable being associated with those ideas either, but even though much our lives seem mundane and ordinary, there is that part of who we are that is set apart for God’s purposes instead of our own, and we remain fully aware that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.
The Gospel text today is often called The Sermon on the Plain as opposed to Matthew’s version of this text which is called The Sermon on the Mount. It’s been noted that in Luke the mountain is always the place of prayer. Jesus has come down from the mountain of prayer to where the people live. This sermon is for the crowds, for the people, for everyone like you and me. It was for people from the north and the south (Tyre and Sidon), for everyone no matter where they came from. It is a call to living the holy life and it is a call to all of us.
And as we consider the names of people that will be read this morning and the list of names we carry in our hearts and minds, these are those people who lived in such a way that we were able to glimpse the eternal and infinite God in them. They lived the values expressed in these beatitudes.
On All Saints I always remember my loving grandparents, kindly aunts and uncles, faithful Sunday School teachers, generous friends and neighbors, quiet church members and prophetic preachers, compassionate senior adults and smiling children, persons who are no longer among us, and others whose continued presence blesses us even now and in this place.
On one of my first Sundays in this church I said that church is where we hold each other in love and we hold each other accountable (Bishop Carder used to tell us that.) We are held accountable to being better than we might be otherwise. I noted that the mere presence of some persons in this church raises the bar higher for all of us and simply being around these persons will make us better people, better saints.
It is good for us to be here, gathered each year, to remember the saints, all the saints of the church--ordinary saints like us, for it is the saints who make us who we are today. And we shall never forget them. And that’s why it’s a little difficult to speak the names of our dear friends without getting a little choked up.
All Saints reminds us of kinship and family. It reminds us that we are part of a beloved community where we share in our love for God and in our love for one another. It reminds us that we are not, have not been, and never will be alone in this world.
At funerals and memorial services I often try to imagine what those who left this world would say if they could speak. I thought about our list of saints this morning and I could imagine them saying something like this: “You might want to take a moment and look around the room this morning, look at the people who love you, who brought casseroles to your house when your husband had surgery, who took care of your children when you were out of town, who listened to your stories (even when they’ve heard them before), who encouraged you when you were out of work, who wiped your tears when your best friend died. They are the ones who do not share your DNA but they are closer than family. If you are new to this church look around and make yourself at home among people who want to be your family.” All Saints is about kinship and kinship is one of the great blessings of the church.
I love these words of Frederick Buechner, describing an All Saints Service in Whistling in the Dark:
“At the altar table, the overweight parson is doing something or other with the bread as his assistant stands by with the wine. In the pews, the congregation sits more or less patiently waiting to get into the act. The church is quiet. Outside, a bird starts singing. It’s nothing special, only a handful of notes angling out in different directions. Then a pause. Then a trill or two. A chirp. It is just warming up for the business of the day, but it is enough.”
“The parson and his assistant and the usual scattering of senior citizens, parents, and teenagers are not alone in whatever they think they are doing. Maybe that is what the bird is there to remind them. In its own slapdash way the bird has been part of it too. Not to mention “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven” if the prayer book is to be believed. Maybe we should believe it. Angels and Archangels. Cherubim and seraphim. They are all in the act together. It must look a little like the great jeu de son et lumeire (great day of sun and moon) at Versailles when all the fountains are turned on at once and the night is ablaze with fireworks. It must sound a little like the last movement at Beethoven’s Choral Symphony or the Atlantic in a gale.”
“And “all the company of heaven” means everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved until we lost them or didn’t love at all.
It means people we never heard of. It means everybody who ever did—or at some unimaginable time in the future ever will—come together at something like this table in search of something like what is offered at it.”
And so all of us ordinary saints gather around this table today, but we are not alone. We are in this together. We are the communion of saints.
Sermon transcript for October 27, 2013
Mission. . . A Way of Life
Belmont UMC—October 27, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching (with Adam Kelchner)
Today we conclude the series of sermons and worship services focused on the 4 core values identified during our Strategic Planning process: Diversity, Nurture, Hospitality and Mission. It’s important to note that these 4 themes emerged over and over again during 18 months of prayer and discernment, and listening sessions and input from the congregation. It’s important to note that these 4 core values do not stand alone but are interrelated and overlap throughout the work of the church. If you are engaged in mission, it is likely that you are expressing hospitality, experiencing diversity and being nurtured spiritually. And it is important to note that these 4 core values are a way of life, describing who we are and who we are called to be as Christ followers.
Our Bishop says, “Mission is a lifestyle, a way of life, a way of living.” Mission is not a program of the church, carried out by a select group of people. Instead we are each called to be engaged in the mission of fulfilling God’s purpose in the world.
United Methodists, from our very beginning, have been engaged in mission, in acts of social justice, in concern for the poor and marginalized of society. Our founder, John Wesley, was known to say, “The world is my parish.” Wesley reached out to those who felt disenfranchised by the church because of their economic status. This was not only an institution of the early church but Wesley took this personally. He sought to give something to the poor each day and somewhere along the way I read a description of an elderly Mr. Wesley, trudging through deep snow late at night, looking for some poor soul to whom he could give alms for he had gone through the day without having done so.
Belmont has always been a church in mission; it’s a part of our identity. We sent Volunteer in Mission teams to Mexico and Malawi in Africa during this year. We have supported many important missions locally as well. I won’t take time to list them all but Belmont, as a church, is making a difference in many places, both locally and globally. For that we give thanks.
The text today is a familiar one. It lists some of those who are among the most vulnerable and most marginalized in our world: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”
Today is Children’s Sabbath at Belmont and this particular Sunday focuses on the needs of the children in our world, children who are often the most vulnerable, the most vulnerable to hunger, poverty, drought, political unrest, gun violence and disease. It’s not proper for me to put words in Jesus’ mouth, but I can almost hear him saying, “I was a child and you treated me with love and respect.”
Jesus welcomed little children and blessed them, inviting his hearers to become like these children in order to receive the kingdom. (Mark 10:13-16) In Jesus’ day children were among the most marginalized.
I recall Bishop Ken Carder saying something like this, “The church will be judged by how it treats the poor and the children.” In other words, how we respond to the needs of the most marginalized and the most vulnerable is likely a good measure of how are doing in fulfilling the mission of the kingdom.
In the Matthew text Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the lonely, the sick, the hungry and the imprisoned. The feeding, clothing, visiting, caring, welcoming offered to those in need are offered to Jesus as well. In doing these things we come face to face with Jesus. He says, “When you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the on who sent me. . . I assure you that everyone who gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones (children or the vulnerable) because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” (Matthew 10:40-42)
(Adam Kelchner’s witness) I had been reading with Alejandro for just shy of a half hour in the fellowship hall of Antioch United Methodist Church. He had already worked through the Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and several other classics when we exclaimed ‘My dad fixes broken things?’ ‘What type of broken things?’ ‘He fixes cars and my mom stays at home right now with my brothers and sisters. She wants to get a job this fall when we’re all back in school during the day-she just can’t get a job right now while school is out. She needs a job because we need more money to survive. We need that money to buy food and clothes.’ Where is your family from? I asked. ‘Some of them are from Mexico and others are from Guatemala.’
As quickly as this window into Alejandro’s family’s life opened, it closed. The bell rang. Our time was up. We walked together back over to the bookcase to file his stack of books and then he ran off to the gym for recreation, not quite sensing the gravity of his words. Then another rotation of reading began and I as quickly scanned the room, I imagine there were 40 or 50 stories like Alejandro’s.
Blessed Christ, I dare say that I’ve looked into your eyes, shadowed by the frames of childhood eyeglasses and I can almost imagine your eyes recalling the Guatemalan landscape of your parents’ home. You’ve come quite some distance to a new home, you’re a stranger in a new land. You weren’t quite as I expected-your stature was small, your legs dangling over the side of that uncomfortable steel folding chair, your hands gripping that book as a prized possession, your words still echoing the accent of a place far from here.
I’ve heard you say, I was a child and you treated me with love and respect. Yes, I’m sure of it. It was you, Blessed Christ.
What does it mean for mission to be a way of life, for me, for you? All of us cannot go to Malawi or Mexico. Many of us cannot afford to take those trips and if we could, it’s impossible to get the time off. And some of us no longer have the energy to go on Volunteer in Mission teams.
But what if each of us woke up every morning and prayed, “Dear God, Where are you calling me today? I know you have a mission for me to do this day. Make me fully aware when that mission presents itself and strengthen me so that I may do it well.” Wouldn’t this be a normal prayer for those of us who follow Jesus? Imagine how radically it might change the course of our days.
In the Matthew text Jesus does not speak of heroic deeds or extraordinary feats but of simple tasks, the occasions for expressing care for other persons as they present themselves in everyday life. Do we dare ask, “Where are you calling me?”
I was grateful to be able to attend a wedding last weekend in Wisconsin for a young friend named Ben Konecny. I have always known Ben to be a kind and generous person, but I was touched by a story his brother, and best man, told about him. Ben and his brother, Dan, lived together for a year in Denver, Colorado and during that time Dan noticed that they were going through peanut butter and bread pretty at an alarming rate. Dan saw Ben making a stack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and asked him why he was eating so much peanut butter. Ben said, “Oh these are not for me. These are for the men and women who I encounter each day who live on the streets.” On the way to work each day, Ben saw an opportunity to feed the hungry. Frankly, I see that opportunity every day.
One of Ben’s roommates, who is an active Belmonter, told me that Ben regularly invited the homeless to their house for dinner. This was where Ben heard God calling him.
In one of those early churches I served there was a 90 year old woman who did not drive and had become less physically active, but she began each day with prayer, asking God, “Where are you calling me today?” She spent many hours in morning prayer for the people of our church and community and she spent the afternoons calling and writing people who were in need. She was the dear friend who would welcome me in and give me strong coffee and banana bread and pray for me. I sometimes wonder if I would have survived those early years of ministry without her support and prayers. This was where God was calling her to serve.
What does it mean for us to hear God’s call to mission as a way of life? Are we willing to find out?