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Sermon transcript for June 22, 2014

“Divine Disruption”  Matthew 10:24-39
Belmont UMC—June 22, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

When I was a teenager, growing up in Springfield, Tennessee, our church was pastored by Vanderbilt Divinity School students for the most part. One Sunday, in my 17th year of life, when I was wrestling with my faith and wondering if I should run away from the church or try to help bring transformation to the church, we had a guest speaker, a young man from Malaysia, who was a student at Vanderbilt Divinity School and a friend of our pastor. That Sunday my parents had invited the pastor, his wife and this young man, named Boon Chin, to be our lunch guests.

Over lunch I asked him a lot of questions about his faith and I never forgot what he told me. He said, “I was converted to Christianity after reading the Gospels at about the same age as you, Ken, and I came home to tell my family. I knew they would not approve but I was not prepared for their reactions. My father beat me with a stick and kicked me out of the house and out of my family. I haven’t seen them since that day.”

I looked around the table at my family. My mother’s eyes filled with tears and she reached out and put her hand on Boon Chin’s shoulder. I couldn’t imagine what it might be like to lose my family for my faith.

In our Gospel lesson Jesus is preparing the 12 disciples to be sent out in the world. He’s painting a very stark and somewhat frightening picture of what might happen to them out in the world. This is a difficult and troubling passage, especially if we take it out of the context of the disciples’ commissioning.

My friend, who says he reads the Bible with the book in one hand and a bottle of White Out in the other, will need to get his bottle out before reading Matthew 10.

In some ways the text seems a bit foreign to us. In our culture we are not apt to have to make the hard decisions of discipleship, between family and faith, or between friends and faith. We are taught to be fairly tolerant and we do not have a state religion. We live in a culture in which politicians use their faith stories to campaign for office.  No one is going to kick us out of our family or put us in prison for practicing our faith.

But even still, we may experience the presence of Jesus as a disruption, if we take Jesus seriously, if we take the call to discipleship seriously.

If we take discipleship seriously then we experience Jesus as the disrupter of complacency. The Hebrew prophet declared, “Woe to those sit at ease in Zion.” Or the Edwards’ paraphrase, “Woe to those who have become too comfortable and complacent.”
There are those to whom church is not a place of discipleship but a place to show up once in awhile, to have a place to call their “church home” even if their relationship with the church is superficial at best.

There is a wonderful scene if one of Garrison Keilor’s stories about the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Wayward Catholics have returned to their home town for the Christmas Eve mass at the only Catholic Church in town, Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility. Father Emil roused himself from bed where he had been down with cancer since Columbus Day.

He wanted to offer the Christmas Eve homily, inspired by the sight of all those lapsed Catholics with their unbaptized children, and he gave them good tongue lashing. When you’re sick and vulnerable, you can become a little more passionate about things. He left the pulpit and walked right down to the first row and put his hand on the back of the pew to brace his self. It scared the people all around and they moved away from him.

He said, “Shame. Shame on us for leaving what we were given that was true and good. To receive a great treasure in our younger days and to abandon it so that we can lie down in the mud with swine.”

“They came for Christmas, to hear music, to see the candles, and smell incense, and feel hopeful, and here was their old priest with hair in his ears whacking them around.” The people were afraid of him.

Keilor wrote, “He stopped. It was so quiet you could hear them not breathing. Then he said that this is why Our Lord had came, to rescue us from dullness of spirit, and so the shepherds had found and so shall we, and then it was Christmas again.” (Garrison Keilor, “Exiles” in Listening for God, pp. 199-220)

I would never preach like that on Christmas Eve, but it does seem surprising that so many people come to hear of such a great truth, a great disruption to the whole world and to our lives, and go away glowing as if it didn’t matter that much.

Jesus came into the world and he disrupts our complacency. But when I was awake at 3 AM the other morning and imagined looking out at you on Sunday morning and I thought, “Belmont is not a complacent church or an apathetic church.” When I was in college someone had written on the restroom wall in the library, “Apathy abounds at this institution.” Someone came along later and wrote under those words, “Who cares?”
But you care and you’re not complacent.

But we may need Jesus to disrupt our inertia borne out of feeling overwhelmed. I arrived home in time for the nightly news one night last week. It was terrifying:  more violence in Iraq and Syria, unrest all over the world, twin tornadoes destroying a town in the Midwest, and gun violence on campuses. I went out into the backyard and pulled weeds in the perennial garden, reflecting that at least I could have some control over this small part of my world.

I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of need and sometimes it paralyses me. Do you feel that way? And then I remember those words of Mother Theresa, words I’ve quoted to you a dozen times. When asked, “How do you feed all the hungry people of India?” She replied, “One at a time.”

We cannot solve all the world’s problems. But we can do something. We cannot stop malaria on our own, but we can buy nets and save some lives. What we do will a difference. I cannot stop gun violence, but I’m sure our governor and our two senators wish I would stop sending emails about sensible gun control legislation. I cannot solve the homeless problem in our city but I can buy the Contributor and I help provide services for the homeless neighbors. The needs are so great and we are called away from our inertia to respond in ways that make a difference.

I met a young father who said he didn’t have much time on his hands, but he wanted to do some good. When he gets his paycheck, he gets $50 in one dollar bills and he buys contributors on every corner he passes until the money is gone. He said, “It doesn’t take extra time and I don’t miss the money. Maybe it makes a difference.”

Following Jesus can mean a disruption of our plans. I didn’t plan to be here. When I was sitting at lunch, listening to Boon Chin, I was planning on getting a degree in English and signing up for the Peace Corp. God had other plans.

Jesus can change your life plans. He changed the plans of those first disciples and in Matthew 10 he’s helping them understand the consequences of following him.

And at 18 years of age, when I became reacquainted with Jesus and decided to follow his plan for my life, there were some friends who were uncomfortable with that and didn’t come around me anymore. And there was a girlfriend who decided that I was not the one for her.

When Bishop Willimon was the dean of the chapel at Duke he would get calls from troubled parents. They weren’t troubled about their children’s promiscuity or alcohol abuse, but they were alarmed that their sweet daughters and sons had decided to go on a mission trip over spring break to Haiti to help with the earthquake relief effort. They worried that their children were becoming religious fanatics.

I have the privilege of mentoring, officially and unofficially, a number of young adults who are entering the ministry of the United Methodist Church—some of the finest young women and men I’ve ever met. They are bright and gifted and they could do anything. They could have careers that pay better. (we promise them a salary of $38,000) They could be ambitious. But they made the decision to get on the Jesus’ journey, and Jesus has other plans for them. And they want to make a difference in the lives of others. They inspire me and I’m a better pastor and a better person because of them.

Following Jesus can disrupt your plans. Following Jesus can create tension around your life or in the life of a church. Following Jesus comes with some risks, but they are the kinds of risks that can make difference in our world, the kind of risks that lead to transformation, the kind of risks that usher in the kingdom of God.

Today we hear Jesus asks, “Will you come and follow me?”


Let us live with these words this summer and see where they take us:  Put things in order, respond to my encouragement, be in harmony with each other, and live in peace.  

Then Paul says, “Then the God of love and peace will be with you.”

 

Sermon transcript for June 15, 2014

Put Things in Order
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Belmont UMC—June 15, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

If you’ve read through First and Second Corinthians you know that the church at Corinth was not a healthy church. Paul had helped birth this church, had lived among the people for a time and had made two visits to the church. The make up of the church was diverse, especially with regard to economics. Some people were wealthy, some were very poor and it appears that some were even slaves. Huge divisions developed within the church. And by the time Paul wrote this second letter, some had rejected his leadership and had turned to following what scholars call “super apostles.” Some bragged of being followers of these various personalities and some bragged that they followed Jesus. Some boasted of having gifts of the Spirit that gave them a sense of self-importance.

The church existed in a city that was quite corrupt. In the Greek language there was a word, korinthiaesthai, that meant to live like a Corinthian, to live a drunken, hedonistic and immoral life. Above the city toward the hill of Acropolis, stood the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, a temple that housed approximately 1000 temple prostitutes.

Corinth was a metropolitan city and a center of trade. It was at the crossroads of trade and merchandise, but it was at the crossroads of ideas as well. And many of these ideas influenced the new church.

Paul had heard of the church’s divisions, of people’s tendency to follow after spiritual leaders (they longed for the good old days when Pastor _______ had been their pastor), of their idolatry, their bickering and grumbling and their misuse of spiritual gifts.
And he seeks one last chance to bring them back to order.

(I have to admit that during many years of back roads travels, I still marvel to find little churches that have taken on the name of Corinth. Fortunately, they are not often United Methodist Churches. But one has to wonder if the founders had read the letters of First and Second Corinthians. Maybe they only read the beautiful love poem in 1 Corinthians 13, which itself is part a corrective.)

Paul ends the Second Letter to the Corinthians with some declarative appeals. “Put things in order!” This is sometimes translated “Be perfected,” “Be restored” and one scholar suggests the translation, “Pull yourselves together!” (Stephen A. Cooper, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, p.41)

It is a call to do some self-evaluation and get things back on track. It is a call to remember who they are and whose they are. It is a call back to what is most important in life. Sometimes churches lose their way; they lose sight of what they are called to do and be, and they drift into divisiveness or focusing things of little importance.
I was with a financial adviser who was taking care of our tax preparation. He told me of couple he was helping who had $35,000 in credit card debt and they were in trouble financially. He said that people don’t get in debt like that in one big shopping spree. Usually, they begin to make a series of small steps in the wrong direction. There are subtle compromises and lack of discipline and before they know it, they have dug a deep hole.

Our spiritual lives are like that. We take small steps in the wrong direction and before we know it we have lost our way and any sense of who we are called to be. I read somewhere that sheep get lost because they graze in a straight line and they simply nibble their way to lostness. We lose our way one nibble at a time.

Friends, let us hear the call to put things in order.  I like our mission statement because it takes us back to the basics of who we are. Our mission statement is based on the words of Jesus when he was asked about the greatest commandment. Jesus quoted the shema of Deuteronomy 6, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And he added, “And the second one is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Our mission statement is simply this: “Belmont is a community of Christ followers, growing in our love of God and neighbor. This is what we, at Belmont UMC believe Christian discipleship is, what we are to be, and what Jesus meant when he sent his followers to ‘make disciples.’” We are Christ followers, not Ken or John or Linda or Pam followers.  If we wake up every morning and say, “Jesus, I will follow you today, not other personalities, not the desires of my own heart, not the many calls and summons of this world, but I will go where you lead me, then we are on the right path.”  

And we are “growing” in our love of God and neighbor. We added the word “growing” because it means we are not there yet. We need spiritual nurture and daily spiritual disciplines to enable to grow in our love of God and others. John Wesley would have called this “being perfected in love.” Put things in order.

Let’s allow ourselves some time this summer for self-evaluation, as individuals and as a church. Let’s pull ourselves together and agree to live toward this simple and clear vision of who we are called to be.

Then Paul says to the Corinthians, “Be in harmony with each other and live in peace.”  All churches need to hear this, but the Corinthians especially needed it. Some versions of this passage will say, “Agree with one another,” but “be in harmony” or “be of one mind” is a better translation. It’s reassuring to know that we don’t have to agree with one another (because we don’t), but we do have to love one another.  

In one of the churches I served there was a rather large young adult class that met in the fellowship hall because they had outgrown all the other rooms in the church. Their teacher asked me to teach a series on the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. I declined the invitation but he was persistent. The Social Principles contain statements on all sorts of things, like abortion, the environment, human sexuality, genetic engineering, drug and alcohol abuse, capital punishment, etc. I said to the teacher, “Let’s allow that pot to simmer; no need to stir it up.”

My fear was not that the class members would disagree with some of the social principles; I disagree with some points there myself. But I was afraid the classes would highlight their disagreements with each other.

I did teach the class and I did warm them about the risks. And sure enough by the third session there was a fairly heated exchange between two men who were very good friends, and it worried me. But the people in this class had known each other for a long time and they had shared many social gatherings and retreats, and they had grown to love each other. I watched as these two men stood beside each other at Room in the Inn on Wednesday night as they served food to homeless guests. I watched them embrace one another after class one day. I watched as their love for one another trumped their opinions. I watched love win.  

Recently, I was part of a team of clergy who led a spiritual life retreat for ministers from the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences. One of our worship services was a Service of Healing and Wholeness. At the end of the service people were invited to come forward for prayer and to be anointed with oil. I was at one of the prayer stations and I would ask persons who came forward if they wanted to be anointed and if they had specific prayer request. I was stunned by how honest and vulnerable persons were when they came forward. United Methodist ministers are not usually very honest about their personal struggles and hurts. But this group seemed liberated to admit a lot of deep need for healing and almost everyone in the conference hall came to the front.

At one station, two men came together, two pastors. They asked for prayer for their relationship. They had a falling out with one another some months ago and they had grown to hate one another. They were trying to put things in order and forgive one another. They had their arms around each other and they were both weeping.

We are human and frail and that is why the scriptures constantly remind us to be at peace with one another, to forgive one another. We pass the peace of Christ on Sunday morning as a sign that we are in right relationship with one another. We cannot always hope to do this on our own power but the power of the Holy Spirit and can move us to forgive and be reconciled with one another. When we allow that to happen, the church can become the model of the love and peace of Christ. Where are you in your relationship with others, in your family, in our church?

Let us live with these words this summer and see where they take us:  Put things in order, respond to my encouragement, be in harmony with each other, and live in peace.  

Then Paul says, “Then the God of love and peace will be with you.”

   

Sermon transcript for June 8, 2014

“God Speaks Our Language”
Acts 2:1-21--Pentecost
June 8, 2014---Belmont UMC
Ken Edwards

Audio - MP3

Many Languages

Last Sunday we worshipped with members of our Golden Triangle Fellowship. The people who make up the membership of this part of our congregation are mostly from Thailand and Burma. As I processed in beside Sandy Sakarapanee she was singing the hymn in Thai and I quit singing so I could listen to her. Most of the folks are from Burma and speak a language known as Karen. Different languages and dialects were being heard during all the hymns and the service was translated into the languages of all the people gathered here. Thanks to Carver Hla for being our tireless interpreter last Sunday. Carver is one of the most dedicated persons I’ve met along the way. He loves God and he feels called to this work. Last week the languages we were speaking were different but the message was the same.

At Pentecost God was the interpreter. The disciples were given the gift of speaking the many languages of the persons present, pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the celebration of Pentecost. The disciples were not speaking in unknown tongues but in easily identifiable languages “of every nation under heaven.” These were the languages of the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean world. And with this manifestation of the Spirit and the empowered preaching of the disciples, God gave birth to the church.

Immediately, Spirit-empowered church was challenged by a contingent of naysayers, who scoffed at the linguistic gift as mere drunkenness. And it was Peter who stood and responded to the critics. He did not say what some might wish he had said, “These people are not drunk because they are not drinkers.” No, he said, “They are not drunk because it’s too early in the day for that.” But then in eloquent words Peter retold the story of Jesus and invited the crowds to join this new adventure of being Christ followers.

God had spoken in a definitive moment in time. And the work and message of Jesus, no longer present in the flesh, will continue to be experienced through the lives and work and words of his followers.

God Speaks Our Language

The world is a very diverse place and over the centuries persons in pockets of the world have developed language systems. Within these language systems lies the cultural identity of each ethnic and geographical group. Preserving the cultural identity is tied to preserving the language (we have learned this through the Native Americans, who were on the verge of losing much of their heritage as they were discouraged by white Americans from speaking in their own languages).

When we were in Quebec again a few summers ago, it was obvious how important the French language is to their sense of identity and culture. They have fought off attempts to make English the only official language in Canada. It was a great opportunity and challenge for me to see how much French I could remember from my college French classes—not much. I know how to ask for coffee and I know how to say, “I do not speak French.”

Among English speaking folks in our country there are cultural differences that we observe—especially in accents and dialects. The first time my New England born father-in-law and my rural Southern father were together in a room, I sat between them and translated. It was really quite humorous. I finally gave up and left them to their own devices.

Our inability to think outside our own culture is evident in some of the failed attempts to take our products to other countries. When Coca-Cola first went to China the were determined to used a symbol that phonetically represented the sound of their name, but the new symbol translated, “Bite the wax tadpole.” When Chevrolet wanted to market the Nova in Latin America, they neglected the fact that the word means, “won’t go” in Spanish. In Taiwan, Pepsi’s slogan, “Come alive with Pepsi’ translated, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back to life.” When Frank Perdue used his slogan, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” in Spanish it translated, “It takes a virile man to make a chicken affectionate.” (Susan Resnick Pierce, “Can the Center Hold”)

The point of Pentecost is that God speaks our language and we will understand. If  we speak Redneck or sophisticated Southern, Midwestern, or LA street talk, Bostonian or Piedmont, God knows our language and God speaks it loud and clear.

The People Whisperer

A few years ago I read the story of Buck Branaman. (Smithsonian Magazine) Buck’s life story has more recently been made into a documentary. Buck is lanky Wyoming cowboy who sees the world from a horse’s point of view. He doesn’t believe in “breaking horses.” He believes in turning frightened horses into friends, a way that has more to do with respect and trust than mastery or manhandling. He seems to understand why a horse is scared to have a person crawl up on his back and his job as a horse trainer is to get the horse comfortable with the idea of people being around.

Buck Branaman is one of the real life characters who inspired the novel and movie, “The Horse Whisperer.”  Horse Whisperer is an ancient term from the British Isles, and it is used to refer to persons who have an almost mystical rapport with horses.

Buck Branaman doesn’t think there is anything mystical about it. “It’s about being one with the horse. There is not secret to this. I just know what we need to do in order for both of us to speak the same language and dance the same dance.”

To many “horse breakers” this seems new and radical. They do not understand this horse whispering that is not forced or angry, but rather a method that is loving, gentle and spiritual, a method that seeks to speak in the language of the horse.

Branaman explains his way of seeing horses as being centered in his past. His mother died of diabetes when he was a little boy. He and his brother were left to be raised by a violent and abusive father. They lived in fear until rescued by a school teacher and a police officer who sent them to live with Forrest and Betsy Shirley. The Shirleys had taken in other frightened and abused children. The police officer had been one of those children. Branaman said, “Forrest and Betsy seemed to know me and they seemed to be able to speak my language.” We might call them People Whisperers.

Friends, Jesus reminds us that God chose a new and radical way to be among us, to know us--a gentle, loving spiritual way to live among us. And God speaks our language. God is the People Whisperer.  God, who understands who we are and how we are, speaks to us and we are not afraid to respond.

God is the People Whisperer! To a thirsty woman at a well in Samaria, God speaks the language of water and quenched thirst. To a searching Nicodemus, God speaks the language of new birth and fresh starts. To a grieving father, God speaks the language of encouragement and possibility. To the hungry, God speaks the language of bread from heaven. To the depressed and confused, God speaks the language of healing. To the lost and those who despair, God speaks the language of hope. To those who are abused, God speaks the language of gentle, healing love.

Wherever we are in our spiritual walk with God, God comes to speak the language that we can hear and understand. Listen today, and hear what God is saying to you.

The Message is the same

The languages are different. The cultures are diverse. The message is the same.

In spite of the variety of sounds and expressions pouring forth from the Spirit-filled disciples, they produced a unified, global message. All of those witnessing this phenomenon heard and testified that all these different languages were proclaiming the same message, “God’s deeds of power.”

It is the message of the power of God’s love. It is a message that seeks to do more than console or comfort; it is the message that transforms lives who, in turn, transform communities. There is no message more transformative than the message that says, “I love you, I forgive you, I call you, I entrust you with this gift.”

We are people whisperers

If Pentecost teaches us anything, it is that we are People Whisperers, too. We are the ones through whom God will speak. The message of God’s love and power was on the tongues of Christ’s followers. We, too, are gifted by God to speak the language of the message of love and healing in a way that is understandable.

Listen to the Spirit this morning. Where is calling God calling us to bear the message of love and healing? Who in our world comes to mind when we ask that question? My friends, it is likely that God is calling us to take this message to that person.

 

Sermon transcript for June 1, 2014

June 1, 2014
Joint GTF Worship
Sermon: Acts 1:6-14
Adam Kelchner, preaching

Audio - MP3

Let me begin by expressing my deep thanksgiving to God that I’m your pastor and have the honor of preaching at such a special service.

In our scripture text, Jesus makes a promise that the Holy Spirit would move among his followers. Next week, we will celebrate Pentecost and remember the story of the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus’ church for the first time.

Jesus’ promise is that the power of the Spirit will lead us to witness, to give evidence of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in very key geographical places.

I wish that I had a map up here large enough so that even those seated in the balcony could see it. We need to know where Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria are to make sense of Jesus’ instructions.

We can imagine that ancient Jerusalem is like Nashville in some ways. It is an important and diverse city where people come to gain political power, to build businesses, to get educated, or to raise a family.

Judea is like the region of middle Tennessee that includes Nashville and then expands into the suburbs and rural countryside, out to Antioch, Springfield, Spring Hill, and Jackson.

Samaria is like another nearby region called Appalachia, East Tennessee, or southern Virginia, where people from the city might not want to normally go because of deep cultural and economic barriers.

And the ends of the earth are to us places like Puebla Mexico, Nasange Malawi, or Chaing Mai Thailand. These places may be difficult to travel to but the good news of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit goes to these places and many more. Around the world, the church is continually witnessing to God’s reign of justice, unfailing love, and compassion.

For the church, a witness is someone who tells a story of what they have heard, seen, and experienced God doing in their life.

Jesus instructs his followers to go into the parts of the city where they live, into the nearby regions and countryside where they work and travel, and to places far away to retell their stories of Jesus Christ. He instructs them to be God’s witnesses.

Each of us is a witness to the powerful work of God’s Spirit. We have life giving stories to tell. With the power of the Holy Spirit, go into your neighborhoods and tell the good news that people are being freed from their addictions in this place.

With the Spirit’s leading, call your friends and family and tell the good news that hurting marriages and divided families have hope of healing in Jesus Christ.

Call, email, and facebook your social circles and tell them that churches across TN are protesting this state’s use of the death penalty because it’s against the good news of Jesus Christ.

God’s Spirit is upon us to witness to the neighborhood and the city that Christ’s church is housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, educating children and youth, and resisting oppression in whatever form it presents itself.

With the power and blessing of the Holy Spirit, go into the city and the countryside and be a witness to God’s good news. Amen.

   

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