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Sermon transcript for March 9, 2014

“Lost in God’s Garden”   
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-9
Belmont UMC—March 9, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

We know this story from Genesis. It has an ancient and primitive feel to it, but in some ways it can seem quite contemporary and it can remind us of how human nature has stayed the same for a very long time.

The episode comes on the heels of the creation. God puts the human that God created right in the middle of the Garden of Eden, the garden’s name means “delight” and from it we get the idea of paradise. God gives the human the mission to “to farm it and to take care of it.” The human is to take care of and serve the creation of God. That mission continues to be our responsibility even today, but we have not always fulfilled the mission of creation care, have we?

The story we read today also describes how people become alienated from God. In Romans, Paul describes this alienation this way, “For I do not do the good I want but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (7:19) Why is that?

When I was 18 years old one of the persons responsible for the renewal of my faith was a friend named Dinah. She was a young school teacher who nurtured me and a lot of us along the beginning of new found faith in God. One day Dinah and I were supposed to rendezvous at her home for a trip to church. I arrived first and I could hear the vacuum cleaner, an ancient bullet shaped monstrosity that had been passed down to her by her grandmother. The door was open and I could see into the living room through the screened door. To my horror, my spiritual mentor was screaming at the vacuum cleaner, which was clogged and I watched as she threw sections of the vacuum across the room. I did not know whether to knock or run away.

Dinah saw me standing there and she started laughing, though angry and frustrated tears still flowed down her face. She said, “How does a human being get so far away from God because of a stupid vacuum cleaner?”  Why is that? How do we get alienated from God?

I haven’t found any place in the Bible where it says that it’s a sin to curse the Electrolux but Dinah’s question has stayed with me over the years, “How do we get so far away from God?”  (I had a similar experience with a weed eater last summer and does feel a bit like sinning.) And the Genesis passage is a story about alienation, vulnerability and human nature. 

The setting of our story is Paradise. The setting is the place of blessing. The setting is the place of God’s graciousness. It is the garden of God’s creation and I try to picture some of the most beautiful and idyllic places, from hiking Cascade Canyon in the Grand Teton Mountains or up the Porter Creek Train in the Smokey Mountains during the height of wildflower season, or watching glaciers calve in Glacier Bay in Alaska. Try to imagine a place more compelling, a place where God has given creation everything needed, even companionship with each other, with God.

God said to the humans, “Look around, make yourselves at home. Eat anything you want.” There was this one exception: one tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and of that tree God said, “Do not eat the fruit from that tree.” Then human nature kicked in and the trouble began.

The story gets a bit familiar. Imagine parents saying, “Children, you can have a snack when you get home. There are healthy snacks in the refrigerator, there’s string cheese and fresh vegetables and yogurt. We even have apples and potato chips. We are well stocked with snack foods. Feel free to eat any of those snacks, but you may not, under any circumstance eat any of the freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that are in the yellow cookie jar beside the stove.” Hearing that, all the children can think about are chocolate chip cookies.

Imagine if God said, “You can sit anywhere in the garden. There are garden benches all over the place. But you may not sit on this bench. I painted this bench just a few minutes ago with dark green paint and the paint is still wet. That’s why it has a wet paint sign on it. Do not get near it. Do not touch it and get your finger prints on it. Do not even think about it!” And as soon as God leaves the garden, I’ll touch that bench just to see how wet that paint really is.

When our oldest son was a little boy, his mother wrapped his birthday gifts and then said something like this, “Lars, I have wrapped all your gifts and put them by the desk in the bedroom. Stay away from them.” (This was not her finest parenting moment.) When I came home that afternoon and went into the bedroom, I found that all the presents had been cut open and Lars had tried to conceal his sin by taping them back with little suture like strips of green florist tape. There was a part of me that wanted to show him how sneak a peek at his presents more deceitfully.

What is wrong with us? Why are we so disobedient? We judge the human beings in our story today for deliberately disobeying God—especially after God had been so gracious and generous. Was it so hard to stay away from that one tree? How hard could that be?

The setting of the story is the setting of God’s blessing and God’s graciousness and this is the setting of our lives as well. God has been so good to us so gracious. God loves us and in the setting of this gracious, we fail and become alienated from God. Things have not changed much.

The man and woman ate from the tree and then went and hid themselves among the trees in the garden. They felt alienated from God. When I got into trouble as a child, I would go and hide in the woods for awhile. But one cannot hide forever.

Do you ever feel that kind of alienation from God? We all do from time to time. We blame the Sunday School literature or the hymn choices or the sermon. Or maybe it is because we went to church under pretense, unwilling to be honest about our utter helplessness without God. I suspect there is no better hiding place than right here on Sunday mornings. We can at least try to fool the neighbors, even if we cannot fool God.

And God said to the man (Adam), “Where are you?” The rabbinical interpretation I read about this went something like this:  Yes, the all knowing God knew where the Adam was, but the Adam did not know where Adam was. Adam needed to confess “I a here, I am hiding, I disobeyed, I’m lost in your garden. I just realized that I’m naked and cold.”

During the season of Lent we need to hear God asked, “Where are you?” And spiritual transformation begins when we are able to answer that question openly and honestly through self-examination and awareness.

We know that Adam and Eve were not ready to answer this honestly. Adam said, “The woman you gave me, she gave me the fruit and I ate it.” He blames God for creating the woman and he blames the woman for giving him the fruit. It is not his fault.  And he disassociates himself from the woman. He does not say, “My wife gave it to me.” Have you ever said, “Do you know what your child did while you were at work?”

Eve is not ready for confession either. She says, “The serpent did it. He tricked me and made me eat it.” How quick to blame someone else for our failures!

I was throwing the ball to my little boy in the back yard. Time after time he swung his bat and missed the ball. He’d pick it up, look frustrated and throw it back to me. I threw the ball and he missed yet again. He picked up the ball and he walked up to me like a professional catcher coming out to the pitcher’s mound to talk to the pitcher. It held that ball up toward my face and said, “You are not very good at this, are you? You are supposed to hit the bat. Try again.”

“Lord, I could do better if you would quit missing my bat. If only you were a better pitcher, Lord.”

We need the season of Lent. We need to smear the ashes of our humanity on our foreheads and start to be honest about where we are on this journey. We need to come out of hiding. We need the time to say to God, “This is who I am right now. I know it is not a very pretty picture but it is who I am, and I know that only by your grace and forgiveness will I be able to be your disciple.’

We need the season of Lent to honest about our failure to fulfill the mission, to take care of the garden, the creation. We can use the season to find new ways to do this well. 

We need the season to reflect on our relationships with each other and seek ways to make them better. We may need to forgive someone and be reconciled.

We need this season to hear God ask, “Where are you?” “Where are you, Ken?” And our gracious God will always be there, waiting to love, to forgive and to fellowship with us.

 

Sermon transcript for March 2, 2014

Youth Sunday
Belmont UMC—March 2, 2014
Youth preaching

Audio - MP3

Whatley’s sermon

In Matthew 17, Jesus says, “you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” God always wants us to ‘face the mountain,’ but what does that mean? For me, it is about overcoming what seems impossible and the little fears that hold you back.

It’s fitting that my favorite movie is The Sound of Music. I remember as a child watching it with my dad, and I grew up with the lessons it taught me. As I grew older, I began to understand these lessons and how I could incorporate them in my life. Maria is terrified of the mountain in front of her. She runs away and returns to the comfort of the abbey. The Mother Abbess says to Maria, “these walls were not meant to shut out problems. You have to face them. You have to live the life you were born to live.” The Mother Abbess speaks on behalf of God. God wants every one of His children to reach the dream He has for us. But, He wants to challenge us to figure out what potential is by placing the mountain in front of us.

Ever since I was little, I have had a limited understanding of the world around me. I always say that I have grown up in the ‘bubble’ of my everyday life. I have had little variations of what it means to overcome the mountain in front of me. But after this past summer, my limited knowledge of God’s global village expanded. I participated in the Youth VIM team to Malawi, Africa and experienced different interpretations of facing your own mountain.  Each one of the nine youth and four adults that travelled on the trip had to conquer one of their mountains God placed in front of us. I had to overcome my comfort zone and face the unknown. As the trip went on, I took little steps to get over the mountain until I reached the peak and realized that God would not challenge us with something unless He knew we could overcome it. Teaching and traveling is what I want to continue to do for the rest of my life. I heard God’s call to maybe be a teacher while I was in Malawi, playing with the children at the United Methodist Conference Office’s preschool in Blantyre. I began to understand that each obstacle He places before us are meant to be a challenge so we can grow from it and become better children of God.

God has told prophets such as Moses and Elijah to climb the mountain. For them, climbing the mountain was a way to receive the message that God wanted them to share with God’s people. As a result, more people began to see the miracles God performs every day, and they understood what it meant to be a Child of God. God told Moses the Ten Commandment, which spread through His kingdom and more people began to follow and belief, overcoming their personal mountains to do so.

As a result, God’s children realized why they were put on this earth: to utilize and glorify the gifts God has given them. They must grasp the idea that in order to apply their gifts, they would have to climb the mountain God has placed in front of them. Our ancestors passed this understanding to their children until it has reached us today. Therefore, more and more people were living to their fullest potential, and that is all God wants from us. He wants us to experience him in our everyday life, and in order to do so, we must know why we are put on this earth.

Some people never come to accept their gifts or realize their fullest potential of life. I would say the age we are living in makes it even harder to understand God’s dream for us. But I hope one day, you will reach the dream God has for you. It will be hard to climb over the mountains to reach it, but it will be worth it. He wants to challenge us to find our gifts, or else life would not be fun to experience. It might take years to understand why God make you the way you are. I know that I haven’t seen God’s full plan for me. I hope to know in the next couple of years as I move to a new adventure in college.  And I also realize that there will be enormous mountains that I will have to climb. That’s the part I look forward to the most, overcoming the mountains to a new realization of God’s intentions for my life. Psalm 99:9 says, “Exalt the LORD our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the LORD our God is holy.” Praise God’s mountain, because that is what allows us to live God’s dreams.

Kaleb's sermon

On the mountain... To stay, or leave?

Hello everyone, and good morning. For those of you who don't know who I am, my name is Kaleb Tench, I am the oldest son of Chris and Vicki Tench, and the older brother of Riley and Owen Tench. Most of you who know me will know that I'm usually disinclined to do things involving writing, and, as expected, this was done practically last minute, and as a side bonus, made my parents a little irritated, but, I digress.

The passage of Matthew 17: 1-5, tells of Jesus taking Peter, James, and John, up a high mountain, transfiguring before them, and presenting them with a vision of Moses and Elijah. Now, in all honesty, this seems like a story that isn't at all serious. I mean, come on, transfiguration of his clothes and face, and random visions of Moses and Elijah?? That's a little difficult to believe, even for the work of God. Yet, when Peter speaks, he doesn't want to leave, it's near paradise for him. He wants to make temples and monuments for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. He wanted to stay in the place where he could continue to feel the warmth of love and fellowship for as long as he desired. However, as he spoke, a large cloud overshadowed them all, and God spoke to them. And both of them were overcome with fear. Now, there's another question I have... Why fear? Wouldn't most of us be in awe if we encountered God's voice and presence? I mean, I know I would; I'd be fearful yes, but awe would overcome my fear, and I'd be like Peter. I wouldn't want to leave. Leaving a feeling like that would probably be equivalent to... Well, something that I don't know. Sometimes I think we all feel like Peter did. We sometimes don't want to leave the places and /or people that allow us to feel God's presence. I know I've felt like Peter before, and I can say for certain that I would definitely return to where I could feel His presence.

Over the past summer I went with the choir on a tour to Charleston, South Carolina. While we were there we visited quite a few places, and sang at most of them. To be more specific in this story, one church we sang at was the Trinity United Methodist Church, in Charleston. About a three to five minute walk from where we were staying, unless you're with Gayle and you REALLY have to be somewhere -now-; in which case more like a one to two minute walk. In any case, we sang for the church that Sunday morning and were presented with a rather fantastic spaghetti lunch and afterwards sang for the cooks in the small chapel room that was on the same floor. The fellowship of this trip, and the friendliness and happiness that the people we met at Trinity showed, gave me this near overwhelming feeling of God's presence. One person and particular stood out, yet, sadly, her name eludes me; but, I digress. She was extremely friendly and incredibly nice, and this lady did something that I don't think many people have done for the Belmont UMC Open Door Singers. Because when we left Trinity UMC, and made the three hour drive to our next stop at Greeneville UMC. We sang for the people who came and afterwards discovered that the lady from Trinity UMC had driven all three hours from Charleston to Greeneville simply to see us perform again. This gave me an increased abundance of God's presence and although there wasn't fear in my thoughts, the sheer awe that this lady had driven just to see us sing again was... More than I usually have. The love and friendship and fellowship this lady gave off took me completely by surprise and, to tell you the truth, I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay in this place and just bask in the feeling of it. But, as Jesus told Peter, and as I realized shortly into wanting to stay, I had to head down the mountain and rejoin reality and the people of the world. However, unlike Peter, I was able to tell of what I experienced. I was able to go into the world with a feeling of pride, and a continued presence of God on my shoulder. Peter wanted to stay with the Presence of God and the presence of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, in his near paradise; but in the end, he had to come down to reality and do what everyone else has to do: Go with the presence of God, remember friendliness, fellowship, and kindness, and never miss a chance to present them to other people, even if they may not need it.

Thank you.

Kate's sermon

In Matthew 17, the story of the Transfiguration begins with Jesus leading Peter, James, and John up the mountain. Suddenly Jesus undergoes a transformation, God speaks to the disciples and says “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” After the disciples quivered in fear, Jesus came to them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” In this story, Jesus brings comfort to the disciples with a few simple words. Not only does God show the disciples His power, but He also shows them His love. God is pleased with the work Jesus is doing on earth, just as God is pleased with the work each of us are doing in the kingdom of God. A little before the reading that was shared today, Jesus tells his disciples “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24). This applies to us today, as we are called to take up our crosses and follow Jesus.

One way I have applied this to my life is through service opportunities Belmont has given me. Throughout the planning of the youth mission trip to Malawi, I was excited, but also nervous to travel to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language and didn’t know anyone. Plus, it was my first time to travel out of the country without a member of my family. While I was nervous about the adventure I was about to embark on, there was no other group I would rather experience the trip with than the youth of Belmont. During our time in Malawi, I had the opportunity to hear the stories of people who daily pick up their own cross and follow God. One of these people is Joyce, who runs Kayesa Inn, a place we made our home for four nights. Before opening Kayesa, Joyce served as a Malawi Member of Parliament. She quit her job, because she no longer felt like she was helping others. Joyce donated land to local non-profits and kept some of the land she owned to start Kayesa Inn. Joyce has opened her home and her heart to several children in Malawi, who now help her run the inn. The Sunday we were staying at Kayesa, we were going to the farm for worship and Joyce came with us. Her presence in Sunday school and at church was a blessing to every one present. Joyce walked away from wealth and a comfortable lifestyle to follow God’s call. I know that God looks at Joyce’s life and the lives she has changed and says “This is my daughter with her I am well pleased”.

The theme for this year’s youth Sunday is facing the mountain. This mountain can be a literal mountain like Mount McKinley, Mount Rainer, or the Appalachian Mountains. Or the mountain can refer to a difficulty a person has to overcome in life.

The first thing that comes to my mind when I think about the word mountain is Beersheba. Every year for the past 18 years, I have spent one weekend on the mountain celebrating and feeling the presence of God in my life and at work through Belmont. It provides a place to be together in community with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. People of all ages gather together to learn more about Christ, as we take in beautiful landscapes and escape from daily life. Beersheba creates community and family bonded by our love for one another and our love for this church. Some of my favorite memories from my childhood have occurred at Beersheba. Whether it was a hike led by Dr. Cooper, four square with Cato, or Vesper’s led by the youth, Beersheba always proves to be a rewarding weekend full of laughter and fun. The memories I have of looking at the stars and realizing the beauty of God’s earth sustain me as I go through everyday life. At the end of a long week, made longer by my excitement for the weekend ahead, Beersheba is a reward. As we leave the mountain, we are reminded of God’s call in our lives. Whether that call looks like going across the ocean to Malawi or being in relationship with people in our every day lives, we trust that God will guide our footsteps through the journey.

In a similar way to Joyce, I see Belmont carrying out God’s call of creating disciples out of children and youth. Belmont has shaped and strengthened my relationship with God by providing me with opportunities to experience new adventures. I first discovered my passion for service on a VIM trip to Slidell, Louisiana in 2005. Every mission trip I have participated in since then has strengthened my call to be in service with others. Through Appalachia Service Project, I spent time repairing houses to make them warmer, safer, and drier. I have seen God’s work within the Golden Triangle Fellowship through tutoring and leading Mission Nashville. I see people within this church, who daily pick up their cross to follow God and their own personal call. The youth group has taught me the importance of making a change in this world, not only through mission trips, but also through living out your daily life for Christ. It has helped me to grasp the importance of a personal relationship with God and challenges me to think harder and delve deeper into the word of God. The music ministry has shown me that music can serve as more than a beautiful sound, but can be an outlet to share the word of God with others around the world and in our own community. I have grown into the person I am today because of the impact several members of this congregation have made on my life.

For me, Belmont has always been more than a place to come to worship. Belmont has given me friends that I could not find anywhere else. Most importantly, Belmont has given me a home to come to when I am weary and when I am in need of spiritual renewal.

As I travel in the fall to Elon University in North Carolina to start my college experience, I will hold the memories created through trips and experiences with Belmont close to my heart. I will face the mountain that is created with a new school, a new state, and being hours from my family. But most importantly, I will remember that Belmont has shaped me and has given me the power and the knowledge to know I’m not facing the mountain alone. And I have a home waiting to embrace me with open arms when I return to Nashville.

Belmont is more than the church on 21st and Acklen. Belmont is a family daily striving to serve God’s kingdom in whatever way possible. And I am thankful for this community, where we are challenged weekly to answer God’s call in our individual lives.

 

 

   

Sermon transcript for February 23, 2014

Who are your people?
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Belmont UMC—February 23, 2014
Pam Hawkins, preaching

Audio - MP3

“Who are your people, child?” the woman asked as she poured me a glass of ice-cold lemonade. I was sitting with a passel of other hot, sweaty children on the stoop of the woman’s front porch in Columbus, Georgia. “The Cunninghams on Eberhart,” I replied, to which she said, “Hmm, Annie Tom and Leon” before going back inside, seeming satisfied with my answer. I was about seven years old at the time, and during that long summer learned that belonging to my grandparents was a good thing – edged with privileges of new playmates, trips to the community pool, and fresh lemonade. Knowing to whom I belonged was good.

But before I turned nine, I learned something else about belonging that, to this day, is also imprinted on my heart.

Because of my father’s work, we moved overseas the year I was to begin third grade and one day, as part of getting to know each other at my new school, our teacher asked my classmates what church we each belonged to. One by one, some of the more confident children named things like “Baptist,” “Quaker,” and “Catholic.” And when I finally got the nerve to speak up, I said – “Christian.”

I still remember the giggling and snickering that made my whole body blush in embarrassment when I gave my answer. Even the teacher laughed as she said something like, “we’re all Christian. Don’t you know what church you belong to?” But the fact was, I didn’t. For whatever reason – ignorance or forgetfulness – I could not remember “Methodist” for the life of me.

I knew I was a Christian, but that I was a certain kind of Christian had not yet invaded my religious identity. At the age of eight, I didn’t yet know that what Christian faction I belonged to would matter to other people. But on that day I had my first painful lesson that being a Christian for one person is not the same thing as being a Christian to another.

When Paul writes the letter from which we read today, he too is facing a painful lesson about Christian divisions. Even though the new Christian community at Corinth is still wet behind the ears, having been founded by Paul just a few years before this letter is written, word had already spread that the once-enthusiastic community of Christ-followers is beginning to bicker and compete within itself about who are the better and “real” Christians.

Although many factors contribute to the growing fractures in the young Corinthian church, one of the striking obstacles to unity is rooted in their diversity. Corinth was an urban center where wealth and poverty, free persons and slaves, Jews and Gentiles, refugees and locals made up strands of the city’s fabric.  Consequently, the church too was made up of diverse ranks – uneducated poor, slaves, those who had won their freedom, patrons, clients, and at least a few community leaders. And each baptized member brought into the church different and often competing cultural biases and social experiences. It would take time, patience, and love to bring all hearts and minds together in the ways of Christ - a truth we are still learning today.

Paul knows this – and he knows – personally – that shedding old ways, prejudices, and beliefs in order to take on the “mind of Christ” is not easy for anyone. For the people of Corinth it means that they can no longer equate poverty with inferiority. It means that the socially accepted practice of boasting at the expense of a neighbor must stop, and that shaming and ridiculing “undesirables” – a politically correct way of Corinthian life at the time – can have no place in the church. But Paul also knows that the roots of social, cultural, and political “belonging” run deep in the veins of every human being – so deep that only Christ can clear them for new life to flow.

Teach Christ, follow Christ, belong to Christ, Paul preaches and the church begins to flourish and grow. Then when the time comes for Paul to leave Corinth for Ephesus, he leaves it in the hands other committed, trusted preachers and teachers, including Apollos, Cephas, and Chloe, and he stays in touch through letters, some of which – like our reading today – remain for us to hear.

But the news from Corinth, once good, doesn’t stay good for long. Rumors of problems begin to spread – members of the church are returning to ways that are not Christ-like. Paul hears that the new Christians are choosing sides about which preacher is better, whose baptism is real, and whose spiritual gifts are most important. Cliques in the church are sprouting over worship and Holy Communion, church finances and beliefs. Devotion to Christ is being overgrown by devotion to favored church leaders, and even Paul’s ministry is becoming suspect, criticized, and set aside as less than stellar.

Sisters and brothers, this letter may be old, but the message has no expiration date, for we also know how hard it is to follow Christ together – to hold in holy tension, perspective, and love what can divide us, if we let it  – our cultural biases, our social experiences, our interpretation of scripture, our political perspectives.

What was happening in Paul’s day is still happening in ours. One group in the church pits itself against another, both claiming to be the more faithful interpreter of Word and tradition. Threats to follow one leader over another cast a shadow of separation over a once united faith community. One set of church members ostracize another because of deeply held convictions that differ so much, neither group can find a way to listen to the other. Sadly, we know, from first-hand exposure that factions, cliques, and differing opinions can and do exist within the church – and we know that harm is often the result if not held up to the forgiving light of Christ.

And I believe that we know as well, in the depth of our souls, that when one of us is harmed by the divisive words or actions of another, all of us are harmed. And all of us have been on both sides of such harm – adding to it and bearing under it.

Friends, if we do not place Christ at our center, as the compass point of our life together, then the gift of our differences, of our diversity, can become the source of pain and disunity. This is what Paul is writing about to the church. What makes life together possible in the church - with all of our unique, colorful, one-of-a-kind, God-given stories and ideas, callings and opinions, agreements and disagreements - is that we all belong to Christ first, before we can find our way of belonging to each other through love.

And Christ does not ask us to leave our differences at the door of the church, but rather to bring them inside, to use our differences, one beside the other, generation by generation, like building blocks – in Paul’s words again – to “build people up.” “Love build’s people up,” Paul writes to the disintegrating church of Corinth, if that love is grounded in the love of Jesus.

When Christ’s love is the foundation into which God traces our names side by side, like children on a freshly smoothed sidewalk, then Christ’s love will always be there to sustain us and remind us, as we come and go our separate Christ-following ways, that we all belong here.

We belong first to the Christ of love, and that foundational love makes us one, which means that we belong to each other. Isn’t that the beauty and power of the welcoming statement that some of you wrote for all of us and that is always in our bulletin now at the bottom of the insert? In those few lines, by which I think the apostle Paul would be deeply moved - we claim Christ first. And then we bless and celebrate each other – unique and different as God has created us – before following Christ out into the world again and again and again.

And then, when we are out wandering through God’s neighborhoods around the corner or around the world, someone’s likely to wonder out loud -“Who are your people, child?” “Whom do you belong to?” To which we can reply in unison, “we belong to Christ. We are each other’s people – all of us – no exceptions.”

May it always be so, for together we have much work to do.

Sunday's Closing Prayer

At the end of our sermon on Sunday, Pam closed with a prayer that she wants to share again. It comes from the Upper Room Worship book: Music and Liturgies for Spiritual Formation (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006), and was written by Chuck Wilhelm.

I pray that Christ may come to you early in the morning, as he came to Mary that morning in the garden. And I pray that you find Christ in the night when you need him as Nicodemus did. May Christ come to you while you are a child, for when disciples tried to stop them, Jesus insisted that the children come to him.

I pray that Christ may come to you when you are old, as he came to old Simeon’s arms and made him cry: “ Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”

And may Christ come to you in your grief as he did for Mary and Martha when they lost their brother. May Christ come to you in joy as he did to the wedding of Cana. And may Christ visit you when you are sick, as he did for the daughter of Jairus, and for so many who could not walk, or stand straight, or see, or hear till he came.

May the Lord Jesus come in answer to your questions as he did once for a lawyer and a rich young ruler. And in your madness may he stand before you in all his power as he stood among the graves that day before Legion.

May Christ come to you in glory upon your dying day as he did to the thief hanging beside him that Good Friday. And though you seldom come to him, and though you often “make you bed in hell,” as I do, may you find Christ descending there, where the apostles in their creed agreed he went – so you would know there is no place he would not come for you.

 

Sermon transcript for February 16, 2014

Choosing to Live
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Belmont UMC—February 16, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

“Choose life!” exhorts Moses. We like choices and lots of them, don’t we. They are a part of our market economy. To win in the marketplace you have to offer lots of choices. “Which side would you like with your entrée? We have a dozen options.” We have 31 flavors of ice-cream—your choice. We can choose meals in large, medium or small sizes. The voice coming from the speaker outside the fast food restaurant asked, “Would you like to supersize that meal?” The voice was expecting a yes or no answer, but your pastor asked, “Do you think the meal needs the added calories or fat grams?” The voice went silent, not knowing how to respond. I finally said, “No. I do not.” The voice said, “That will be $5.85. Please drive around to the first window.”

Our youngest is in college and he had to make his choices for next year’s housing last week. We went on line to see all the choices that college students have with regard to housing. They list the square footage and amenities and show photos of beautifully decorated rooms. Things have changed as campuses try to compete with off campus options.

Moses does not offer a lot of options. The only options are life or death. Moses did not have a market mentality. And some of the people to whom he was preaching were just happy to have made it that far. They were completely satisfied with something in between life and death. Some had even complained that they missed being back in the good old days in Egypt. Some of you long for the good old days, too. The good old days when Rev. ____was the pastor or back to a time of our childhood. In my childhood the days were only good for the privileged and the whites, but not good for anyone else.

Moses knows he’s going to die. Moses knows he will not enter the Promised Land and he is offering this final sermon that is 26 chapters long. The passage today is the final appeal of the sermon. It is the altar call, if you will, to urge the people to make a choice between life and death.
I tell people that the choices seemed simpler when we were younger. Maybe they weren’t really simpler, but they were presented that way. We only had 3 flavors of ice-cream. I grew up in small United Methodist Churches where we had fall revivals. The preachers who made the circuit to preach revivals in those churches were fairly evangelistic and they could be rather enthusiastic and unrelenting in their appeal for us to make a decision. There would be a long altar call at the end of the service as we sang a hundred verses of “Just as I Am” and the preachers would continue the appeal until someone went forward and knelt at the chancel rail. I recall being in the youth group and sitting on the back row. We hated the altar calls and we wanted to go home so we would try to talk each other into going forward to satisfy the preacher so the service would end.
“Johnny, why don’t you go up this time?”

Johnny replied, “I went up two nights ago. It’s Debby’s turn. If I go again tonight, they’ll think I’m a big sinner or they’ll catch on to our plan.”

Most of the families were tobacco farm families and those revivals always took place after tobacco had been cut and put in the barns in August. Sometime after Labor Day we would gather at church for 7 nights for revival services. And it was hot! Our small churches were not air conditioned so the windows would be opened and we sat there in our starched dress shirts and ties, which irritated our sunburned necks. Perspiration ran down our backs and our shirts would stick to the pew in the thick hot air. And the preacher would preach for a long time. It was so hot!

Our only relief came from the little fans that were provided in the pew racks. They cardboard squares attached to something that looked like oversized Popsicle sticks. On one side of the fan was a picture of Jesus—the smiling, friendly Jesus, with long, golden brown hair and handsome features. When I moved into the dorm in 1970 (a very simple dorm without amenities) there was a hippy fellow in the dorm who looked just like that picture of Jesus. I remember what I said when I first met him, “Don’t I know you from somewhere.” On the other side of fan was a picture of the local funeral home and their phone number and address, just in case. It was good marketing for the funeral home to provide these fans for churches.

As the preacher exhorted us to come to Jesus, we would fan back and forth, faster and faster to create a little breeze and get some relief from the heat. Before our eyes flashed the choices: Jesus or the funeral home, Jesus or the funeral home, life or death, life or death.

Moses urged, “I have set your choices before you, life or death. Choose life!” What does Moses mean? Moses is speaking to the people of Israel, the large community of God’s people, and he is trying to make sure they make the right choices when they enter the Promised Land. Earlier in Deuteronomy he sets the tone for what it means to choose life—it means to love the Lord as their one God and to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength. To choose life means that at the heart of who we are, we are people in love with God because God chose to love us and always seeks to be in relationship with us. Moses is saying, “Don’t forget that!”
Moses is telling the people to obey God. We are reminded that “obedience means more than doing as one is told. Obedience means ‘to listen,’ which involves more than just hearing and following. Obedience is a discernment process that involves not only the mind and will but also, and most especially the heart. Throughout Deuteronomy . . . Moses calls on the people to listen ‘with all (their) heart.’” (Carol J.Dempsey, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 342)

To listen in this way means the possibility that hearts will be transformed and they will remain in love with God. It means to same for us as well, my friends.

Throughout Deuteronomy Moses points the way to what choosing life looks like. Life choices are choices that bring blessing to the entire community, not just some. Life choices are choices that mean a new home, not just for the Israelites, but for the immigrants as well. Life choices are choices that mean economic policies that leave enough for everyone.

Somewhere in the second hour of Moses farewell sermon, Moses gets specific as he encourages the people to cancel the debts of the poor (15:1-11), guard against government leaders becoming excessively wealthy (16:18-20), limiting punishment to protect human dignity ((19:1-7), restricting those who could be drafted into military service (20:1-8), offering hospitality to runaway slaves (23:15-16), paying employees fairly (24:14-15), leaving part of their harvest for those who need it (24:19-22). (Brett Younger, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 341)  With regard to this last choice, Moses said, “When you pick your olives, don’t go back and pick a second time but leave some olives for the widows, the orphans and immigrants.” Why? Because these are the people who have nothing, the people who are the poorest, the ones who are the most marginalized.

Over and over again the people of Israel are reminded to offer hospitality to immigrants because they too had been immigrants in a strange land. Why should I care about our immigrant population in Nashville? Because the Edwards, the Watts, the Lipscombs, and the Dowlens, whose blood runs through my veins, were not here when the first boats arrived. They were across the pond and would arrive later, and they would be immigrants in a strange land. Some of our politicians have forgotten this, evidently.

One of my favorite fatherly things to say to my sons is, “Make good choices.” Moses is saying to the people, “Make good choices in the new land.” Moses believes that to choose life is to choose what is best for the entire community. To choose life means to be full participants in acts of justice, mercy and compassion. This must be the identity of the new community if it is to live. Any other identity will put them on the journey toward death as a people. That’s very serious talk, Moses.

My dear friends, this must be our identity as a people of faith as well. This must be who we are as United Methodists. To choose life is to choose what is best for everyone, not just our selves, our tribe, or our circle. To choose life is to live a life characterized by acts of justice, inclusion, compassion and mercy. It worries me that we are beginning to be identified in the world as the church that puts its pastors on trial for following their conscience. And I fear that in choosing this path, we are making a choice that does not lead to life.

I was here at church on Friday night. It was Valentines Day and a lot of folks were out doing other things. There were a lot of Belmonters here to greet Mhote and Esther, who had come from Malawi in Africa to tell us about the good things God is doing in the ministry there. They told us about the preschools being started in all the churches, churches which you helped build. They told us about the women’s ministry and our UMW presented them with $1,800 for this ministry. You have been such an important part of all God is doing in Malawi.

While we gathered in Parker Hall about 50 folks from Nashville’s Chinese community gathered in room 124 for a Bible Study. They play guitars and sing hymns in Mandarin and bring delicious food to share. They are here every Friday night.

And across the way in the Community Center homeless guests were being welcomed in on that cold and rainy night. Here they found warm food and a comfortable bed in which to sleep—not to mention the delightful faces of the Brownie Troop that hosted them.

As I was heading to my car to leave, I thought, “That is what church is supposed to be about if we are to live into this life choosing identity.” People speak well of us out there. When I was in the Village one day, a merchant said, “Your church is doing amazing things in the world. I know you are proud of them.” I am proud to be a part of this church but we cannot rest on our laurels. We must go out into the world everyday and make choices—choices that lead us to life.

God is putting before us two choices. Choose life!























   

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