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Sermon transcript for May 17, 2015

God is at Work in You
Ephesians 1:15-23
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
John 15:9-17
Ken Edwards

Audio MP3

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.

   

Sermon transcript for May 3, 2015

“Love One Another”
1 John 4:7-21
May 3, 2015—Belmont UMC
Ken Edwards

Audio MP3

Last Sunday we focused on God’s love for us and our response to that love. Much of that response is summed up in these challenging 3 words:  Love one another. When I read those words I always picture the church of my childhood, Mt. Zion UMC, in Robertson County. It’s an old church, one of the oldest Methodist Churches in Middle Tennessee.

Mt. Zion is the church in which I was baptized as an infant, welcomed as a new confirmed church member when I was 10 years old. My early thoughts and beliefs about God were formed by teachers, preachers, cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who were part of that church. We went to Vacation Bible School there in the summer, revivals in the fall, and we celebrated Easter and Christmas with special events and pageants. Homecoming at that church was/is a big event.

John wrote these simple words to the early Christian community, “Love one another,” and many years later we learned ‘love one another” in the elementary class at Mt. Zion. We wrote those words on handmade Bible markers and painted them on flower pots holding tiny marigold seedlings for our mothers on Mother’s Day. I’m not sure we understood the full impact of those words, but we learned them and we internalized them, and here they are again in our scripture reading for today.

As a pastor I have become sort of a family chaplain and I wind up doing funerals for many of our family members. The last funeral I did at Mt. Zion was for my great uncle Tom. He was 92, a big man, a farmer, with long arms and huge hands. He wore overalls and a straw hat. He loved working with cows and mules. When he was younger, he married a widow with two sons. He raised the boys as his own. They always called him “Thomas.” His sons said, “He wasn’t very demonstrative, but we always knew that he loved us.” He was a part of a generation of men that do not hug and I say, “I love you,” but they find ways of letting you know that they love you.

He did not like getting dressed up, and he had wanted to be buried in his overalls, but my aunt said, “Absolutely not!” He quit going places where he could not wear his overalls, like church, but he kept his prayer life up and he watched a TV preacher once in a while.

Uncle Tom never said, “I love you,” to me either, but he came to hear me preach one time. It was a big deal to see him in church, wearing a suit no less. He came up to me after the service with a smile on his face and said, “Boy, I don’t know what to think about you.” I translated it, “I’m proud of you and I love you.” Several years ago he took me aside and said, “I want you to preach my funeral when I die. Say you will.” “I promised that I would.” I translated it, “I love you and I trust you to say some good things about me when I die.” Uncle Tom represents a whole host of people who taught me, “Love one another.”

John writes, “God is love;” this is one of the early affirmations of faith for the Christian community. The whole nature of God is summed up in these words. The Bible is God’s love story—the story of God’s unrelenting, unconditional, unilateral, and sacrificial love.  Paul Tillich wrote, “In every moment of genuine love we are dwelling in God and God in us.” (source unknown)

“God is love” is evidenced by God’s great longing for God’s people and for the whole of creation. “God is love” is expressed in covenant making and keeping, it is revealed in liberation from bondage, expressed in the passionate words of prophets and psalmists. It is a longing that is expressed in the life and death of Jesus. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that God loved us, and sent God’s own son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10)

“Dear Friends, if God loved us this way, we also ought to love each other.” (v. 11 CEB) Love one another means to love as God loves. It means loving as an affirmation of the true nature of God. It means love extended to people we would not automatically think to love—love that stretches our sensibility and rationality.

I remember hearing a prayer in the early days after the 2001 terrorist attacks on our country, in which the person prayed for our attackers, and expressed a willingness to love and forgive. It was a surprising prayer, an uncomfortable prayer to hear, but we all knew that it was a prayer centered in the nature and heart of God.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies. We tend to think of love one another as loving the people in this room, or the people in our families or the people we like. God’s nature is to extend God’s self to everyone—even those outside our small, well-defined, and often exclusive circles.

We can be rather tribal in the way we group up. We are on the eve of another presidential campaign cycle and we will watch people group into red and blue tribes.

Brian McLaren has written about this tendency and calling for a unity energized by diversity. He writes, “That doesn’t mean all our tribes need to wear the same paint and feathers, speak the same language, cook with the same spices, and celebrate the same religious holidays. But it means all our human tribes . . . need to convert from what we might call dirty energy to clean energy to fuel our tribal life. True, the dirty energy of fear, prejudice, supremacy, inferiority, resentment, isolation, and hostility is cheap, abundant, and familiar. That’s why societies run on it, even though it’s destroying us. More than ever before in our history, we need a new kind of personal and social fuel. Not fear, but love. Not inferiority, but equality. Not prejudice, but openness. Not supremacy, but service. . . Not the spirit of hostility, but the holy Spirit of hospitality.” (We Make the Road by Walking. P.218)



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God’s love holds nothing back. Throughout scripture, God chooses those we would deem unlikely, affirms possibility within them, awakens hope in them and causes them to do great things. That’s how God’s love works.

I watch this happen in our church community. I see adults, teachers, choir leaders faith friends, and counselors encouraging young people and bringing the best out in them. They affirm in these children and youth what they may not be able to see in themselves. I’m sure most of us in this room have been on the receiving of such affirmation.

It means living out the covenant of “steadfast love.” We say in our baptismal liturgy, “We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their trust of God and be found faithful in their service to others.” We promise to be responsible for their care, to love them and to model love and forgiveness in all we do. We cause their faithfulness to happen by our love and affirmation of them.


Mother Theresa said, “I am a little pencil in the hand of a writing God who is sending a love letter to the world.’

Welcome to the love one another community! This is the place where we learn to love one another, to embody the true nature of God, to break down barriers to widen the circles and, in the words of Mother Theresa, live as little pencils in the hands of a writing God, sending love letters to the world.

The second thing that happens is that we feel compelled to respond. 1 John tells us, “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech, but with action and truth.” (3:18)/The love of God is compelling and we begin to think, “I can’t just leave this on the table. I have to do something with this.” And thus begins a wonderful and adventurous journey of faith.

Today, if you don’t remember anything else, remember this:  The most important thing is that God loves you. And God has loved you from the very beginning.  

 

Sermon transcript for April 26, 2015

Love in Action
1 John 3:16-24
Belmont UMC—April 26, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio MP3

“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.” (1 John 3:16a CEB)

Over the next two weeks we will be focusing on the one thing that is basic to our understanding of our relationship with God: Love. Today will focus on God’s love for us and our response to that love. Next Sunday we will focus on loving one another. It doesn’t get anymore basic than this, but this is the most important thing for us to consider.

Heather Harriss, Richard and Martha Hooper and other staff members are leading our Confirmation Class and preparing them for membership on May 17. It’s a wonderful group of 6th graders and a delight to be with them. In my last appointment the Director of  Education and Program and I led those groups. We teach them many things to Confirmands like church history, understanding the Bible, the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and the 3 movements of grace, worship and sacraments, but we decided that the most important thing was to teach them that they are loved by God. We would begin many of those classes asking, “What’s the most important thing?” And they would answer, “God love us!” And we ask, “How long has God loved us?” And they would answer, “From the very beginning.”

We have a baptism today. We seem to have lots of baptisms lately, which is a sign of a vital congregation. I told the parents, as I tell everyone, from 6 months to 60 years of age, that baptism is not a celebration of our decision to be baptized, but it is a celebration of God’s decision. God decided to love us from the very beginning of our lives and we can only celebrate it. I recall hearing Bishop Ken Carder saying something like that many years ago and it has stayed with me.

Why talk about God’s love for us? We all know this to be true. We learned this in our preschool years when we sang, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Right?  Over the course of my ministry I have met many people who have said to me, “God could never love me.” I’ve met many people who were told, “God could not love you.” Or they were told, “God loves you, but God does not love who you are.”

That is how people feel sometimes but 1 John says that even when our feelings (our hearts) condemn us, God is greater than our feelings and God comes to us to remind us that God loves us.

Jim and Mary (not their real names) had been attending the church I was serving for several months. They were dating. Mary had become a member, but Jim decided to wait. One day they came up to me after worship and Mary showed me her new engagement ring. I congratulated them and we talked about beginning premarital counseling and setting a date for the wedding.

At the end of our second premarital counseling session Jim said, “Pastor Ken, I want to go ahead and join the church, but I’ve never been baptized. I have lots of questions about this.” So the two of us set up some meetings to prepare him for baptism.

The best time for Jim to meet me was when he was finishing up work. Jim had a fencing business. He was very ruddy from being outside all day long and his had huge arms and shoulders from digging post holes and lifted heavy 4 by 4 posts all day long. And he would arrive at church, take off his muddy boots at the side porch, come in my office and go into the rest room off of my office, clean up and put on a clean shirt. He would apologize for being so dirty, but he knew I didn’t mind.

I love those visits with Jim. We talked about the theology of baptism and I told him what I tell everyone, that baptism is a celebration of God’s choice to love us from the very beginning. I told him that the water was a symbol of that love. We talked about a lot of other things as well, but I always had a sense that Jim was holding back something that he wanted to tell me. We met several times and then set a date for his baptism and church membership.

On the Saturday night before his baptism, Jim called me at home. I could tell he was upset and he said, “Pastor Ken, I can’t be baptized tomorrow.” He was crying a bit and I could hear Mary in the background saying, “You need to tell him.”

I said, “Jim, you have prepared for this. What’s wrong?” He didn’t answer so I said, “Can you meet me at the church office and talk with?” He agreed to meet with me in 30 minutes.

I waited for over an hour and worried that he wasn’t coming. Finally, Jim appeared in the doorway, bracing himself with his hands on the door frame. He was reluctant to come in. Finally, he walked into the room, fell on his knees and began to sob. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone cry that hard. I sat down in the floor beside him and put my arm around him and waited. Between sobs he kept saying the oddest thing, “I can’t take the water.”

Finally, he was able to say, “I can’t take the water. You said the water is a symbol of God’s love and I can’t believe that God could possibly love me.”

Then he told me his story. His mother had died when he was in middle school and his father had not handled the grief well. His father began to drink a lot and when he drank he became violent and he would beat Jim and his little brother. Jim told me that after the first beating he ran to a friend’s house to escape and the friend offered him some pills to calm him down. This was the beginning of a long history of drug abuse.

Jim told me that he had been clean for over a year but he also told me the things he had done to get money to buy drugs. It was a pretty ugly story but he let it all out. Before it was over I was crying with him. Finally, he said, “So now you know what an awful person I have been and why God could not possibly love me. I can’t take the water.”

I said, “Jim, God does love you and God has always loved you without condition. I wish someone had come to you when you were in middle school and helped you with this. But I don’t think I’ve met many people who need to receive the water of baptism more than you. And I’m not letting you out of this. Tomorrow you will come to church and kneel at the chancel and I will put the water of God’s love on your head and this will be the beginning of something new.” He said, “I need to think about it.”

The next day I had asked the associate pastor to lead most of the liturgy for the baptism because if Jim showed up, I knew I’d probably be too emotional to read it. And the associate pastor did not know the story behind this baptism.

I watched the crowd as worship started, and did not find Jim or Mary. We said the greeting and the opening prayer, and it was during the first hymn they walked in the sanctuary. Jim looked me, took a deep breath and shrugged. When it came time for his baptism he and Mary walked to the front and both of them were crying.

When he knelt for the baptism, I knelt beside him. By then I was crying a bit, also. I put my arm around him and whispered, “Jim, I know you are struggling to believe that God loves you, but today begins a journey toward believing and I’m here to help you.” I stood and scooped a hefty amount of water out of the font and placed it on his head. Water ran down his face. It was a beautiful moment and I’ll never forget it.

Two things happen when we begin to believe that God truly loves us unconditionally. The first thing is transformation. This reality of this love changes us, sometimes without our being aware of it. We begin to live differently.

I heard a man say that he had lived pretty recklessly during his young adult years but one day he and his wife had their first baby and when he held that little baby in his arms and felt overwhelmed with love, he thought, “You are going to have to pull yourself together and be a better person.” Love has a way of changing us.

The second thing that happens is that we feel compelled to respond. 1 John tells us, “Little children, let’s not love with words or speech, but with action and truth.” (3:18)/The love of God is compelling and we begin to think, “I can’t just leave this on the table. I have to do something with this.” And thus begins a wonderful and adventurous journey of faith.

Today, if you don’t remember anything else, remember this:  The most important thing is that God loves you. And God has loved you from the very beginning.  

   

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