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Sermon transcript for September 29, 2013

“Diversity. . . a way of life”
1 Corinthians 12
Belmont UMC—September 29, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

As you learned earlier, we are beginning a focus on pledging gifts to support the ministries of our church in 2014. As a part of that emphasis we decided to design worship around the 4 themes that emerged during our strategic planning sessions. I’m calling these our 4 core values as Christ followers:  Diversity, Nurture, Hospitality and Mission. The theme of our campaign is “I’M IN. . .” because we want to emphasize our full engagement in the life of the church and in these 4 core values. Diversity, Nurture, Hospitality and Mission are not programs of the church, but a way of life, a part of our spiritual DNA. They are not someone else’s responsibility; they are mine; they are yours.

I have suggested to the staff and others that we might use these core values as points for accountability as Christ followers. In the early Wesleyan small groups called class meetings, the people would go around the circle and ask, “How is with your soul this week?” We might ask ourselves:  How did we celebrate diversity this week? How are we enriching our lives and the lives of others through spiritual formation and worship (nurture)? Where did we offer genuine hospitality to someone this week?  Have we gone to the places where God is calling us in mission?

Today, let us think together about diversity as a way of life. The creation story of Genesis reveals how God created a diverse world. And the story of the creation or birth of the church in Acts 2 reveals how the church came together in diverse setting where people from all over the Mediterranean world gathered in Jerusalem for the Festival of Pentecost and the disciples were given the gift to speak in the different languages of the people. We were born in diversity.

There are many ways in which we experience diversity in the church. We are blessed with different age groups from tiniest babies brought to the chancel for the covenant of baptism to the oldest adults. 

At Belmont we are blessed with a diversity of cultures and that diversity brings depth, meaning and great joy to our gatherings. I am fortunate to be here on weekdays when ESL classes are in session. I am fortunate to be greeted by smiling faces from all over the globe. The whole world gathers at Belmont on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Our lives have been enriched by church members from many countries. We continue to learn from our members who came here from Burma, Thailand, Laos, India, Mexico, Uganda, Afghanistan, Hungary, Russia, Indonesia, New Zealand, Canada, China, Korea and the list goes on. We celebrate diversity as it reminds us of the wideness of God’s love and reach. If we showed up here on a Sunday morning and every body was a 61 year old man named Ken, we wouldn’t come back because it would so very boring and uninteresting.

Our text today is about the diversity of spiritual gifts in the church. In this chapter Paul uses the metaphor of the human body for the church and calls the church “the body of Christ.” The human body has many parts, many different parts that work in concert with one each other, many diverse parts that dependent on each other. The diversity in the human body creates unity. Paul is saying that the human body needs diversity or it cannot survive. The church needs diversity or it will not survive.

The Holy Spirit has given each of us gifts to serve within the church. We have diverse gifts. We are not all teachers or pastors or administrators but we are all gifted and called to serve. To be fully engaged in the life of the church we must discover our spiritual gifts and find ways to use them to enrich the life of the body of Christ.

In the text today we learn that each person’s gift is to be valued. This was very countercultural for Paul to say in the first century and it continues to be so in a culture that esteems some over others. Listen to what Paul says, “Instead, the parts of the body that people think are the weakest are the most necessary (we can’t live without them). The parts of the body we think are less honorable are the ones we honor the most.” (verses 22-23 CEB) Do we hear how counter-cultural this was and is even now? Do we value diversity of gifts in the body of Christ in that way or do we think some people are more important than all the others?

I was away from the church on the morning of September 11, 2001 when terrorists attacked our country but I quickly returned. I found the administrative assistant answering the phone and she indicated that the phone was ringing non-stop. Lots of people were calling the church and many of them just wanted to talk. A deacon from the Publishing House, which had been closed, came to the church and offered to help answer calls. In between calls the staff conferred about ways to respond to the needs of our church members.

One of the calls I received came from a young teenager, a teen who really hadn’t been on my radar until that day. She was crying as she said, “Pastor Ken, I was wondering if we could gather at church tonight and worship?”

I knew immediately that I needed to listen to her. I asked, “What time do you think we should gather and what do you think we should do?”

She said, “Seven would be a good time for worship. I think we simply need to be together and we could sing some hymns and read from the Psalms and maybe we could write prayers and bring them to the chancel.” I asked her to call the other youth and tell them that we would be gathering for worship at 7 PM.

I went into the outer office and called all the staff together and said, “We are going to gather for worship at 7 PM because we need to be together. We will sing some hymns and read from the Psalms and we need 3 by 5 cards so we write prayers and bring them to the chancel. Let’s get the word out. And by the way, this great idea was not mine but one of our teenagers who is very wise for her age.”

Because this young woman used the gift God had given her, we did gather and we could not seat all the people who showed up that night. Dozens of people stood around the walls. For a number of our folks this was a night of spiritual transformation and renewal. For all of us it was a night of healing and hope. Everyone has gifts of ministry and all are important to the vitality and unity of the body of Christ.

We need to admit that we have diverse ways of looking at the world. We are not all like-minded nor are we called to be. We are called to love one another and sometimes our diverse points of view make that more challenging. But as Christ followers we are always up for a challenge.

The first Disciple 1 Bible Study I taught was an interesting group. Disciple Bible Study is an overview of the entire Bible and it spans 34 weeks and requires a commitment of time and preparation. It also requires a covenant of the members to be present, to pray for one another and to respect one another’s opinions.

There were two people in that class who were as different as night and day. George was a single older adult. He had only been at the church about 6 months, having moved from Texas. He had warm heart, a big smile and a very, very conservative, evangelical view of the world. Nell was an older widow who was active in serving the poor and in other aspects of social justice. She had huge heart and a very, very liberal, activist view of the world.

On the second week of the Study we were focusing on the creation stories from Genesis. Nell was sitting next to George that night, and about 30 minutes into the class Nell said, “I don’t know why we are spending so much time on these stories; everyone knows they are myths.”

George’s face turned a deep red color not normally seen in nature and I think he stopped breathing for a few seconds. Then he turned toward Nell and said, “I beg your pardon.” I took a deep breath and shot up a prayer that said, “Dear God, I am going to need some help with these two.” I explained that we were going to read these stories and ask what they told us about God, about ourselves, and about our relationship with God and we are going to respect each other’s point of view.

Each week Nell and George set next to each other. There were more disagreements but things seem to be less heated. One night George came in my office and asked me to pray for him. He was scheduled for an arteriogram that week and he had some heart problems. Knowing that he lived alone, I asked if he needed me or someone to drive him to the hospital for the tests. “No,” he said, “Nell is taking me.” Then he winked at me.  Unbeknownst to me and the rest of the class, these two had become good friends. We may not always agree with one another but we will still love one another.

Diversity is a gift from God and we celebrate this gift knowing that it is in diversity that we find strength and unity to live as followers of Jesus Christ. During the next few weeks, let’s agree to reflect on the diversity of the church and the community. Let’s ask God to help us discern the unique gifts of ministry we have been given. And let us find some quiet moments to celebrate the gift of diversity.


Sermon transcript for September 22, 2013

Finding Balm in Gilead
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Belmont UMC—September 22, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

As most of you know I have returned from a one month study and renewal leave. One of our bishops suggested the standard of clergy taking a renewal leave once every four years so after 40 years it seemed like time to do that. I want to thank you for that time. I want to thank the Staff Parish Relations Committee at Belmont for its continued accountability for staff self-care. I want to thank our staff who may have had extra work to do during my absence. Many of you prayed for me during that time away and I was blessed to know. And then others of you probably did not notice that I had been away. I love you anyway.

Many of you asked me how my time away was and how I spent it. I read a lot and began a personal writing project. I organized the garage, painted the bathrooms and did some yard work. I went for long meditative walks and rekindled some atrophied spiritual practices. I sat on a beach and stared at the ocean for many hours one week and I visited the mountains for a few days. Both of these places remind me of the vastness of God’s mercy and grace. Once in awhile I got a glimpse of what real Sabbath means. And I’m glad to be back with you.

I chose today’s text and sermon title before I left for this month-long leave. Somehow the words of this lament spoke to me then. Maybe there would be time to find renewed sources of hope and healing during my time away.

Maybe I would find balm in Gilead. Balm was an aromatic ointment that was thought to have medicinal qualities; it is mentioned in several places in the Hebrew Scriptures. Here it is a metaphor for healing. Gilead was a real place north of the Dead Sea and a little east of the Jordan River. David took  refuge there when he was being hunted down by his enemy, his own son, Absalom. Gilead is a place of refuge, a retreat from the threats and hardships of life. The lament is, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”

I had forgotten what a downer this passage from Jeremiah is. Jeremiah is not known for his sense of humor; he is often called the weeping prophet, and his prophesies gave birth to a word, ‘jeremiad,” which means a long complaint or lamentation. Jeremiah, like the other prophets spoke the truth to power but they also spoke truth to weakness and suffering. Speaking the truth is never the pathway to popularity. Jeremiah and the other prophets suffered the consequences of their words. They were mocked, held in contempt and isolated.

These words from Jeremiah were spoken at a time when the people of Israel had lost their way and had lost sight of who God had called them to be. When Jeremiah was young, Josiah was king of the land of Israel. Israel’s perpetual enemy, Assyria, waned in power and left Israel alone. Josiah had rebuilt the temple and launched religious reform. He removed the shrines of Assyrian deities from the countryside and moved the center of worship and religious back to the temple. But Josiah was killed in battle and Jehoiakim became king. Jehoiakim was apathetic toward religious reform. The words of this lament were written at a time of spiritual and moral crisis. It was a time of great woundedness of spirit.

We are reminded that, “Every generation can hear the lament of Jeremiah with new ears, because demoralization and suffering span the centuries and the cultures.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4, p. 74, Stephen Breck Reid) And after weeks of tragic news, genocide in Syria, more senseless gun violence in our nation’s capital, and floods in Mexico and Colorado, and more unnecessary gridlock in Washington, we may have arrived here this morning and wondered, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”

The rhetorical questions and laments of this passage seem to imply a negative answer. Is there no balm in Gilead? No balm? So we must remember that these words are given to us as though they are coming directly from God. Jeremiah is not weeping. God is weeping. God is weeping for the hurt of God’s people. It is God who is heart sick. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt. I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” (v. 21)

There is great hope in this God who cares so deeply for God’s people, for us. If we can find a way to this God of mercy and grace, then we can find healing. We can find balm in Gilead.

I enjoyed reading the novel, A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr, and there is a wonderful British film of this novel. So if you’re not a reader, you might like the movie version. The main character, Tom Birkin, is a veteran of the Great War and he has returned with Post Traumatic Stress (what was then called “shell shocked”). His marriage has failed and he’s a broken man. He comes to a remote Yorkshire village to restore a medieval wall painting in tiny parish church. His arrival is dismal. It is raining. No one comes to meet him at the train. The parish rector is hostile toward him because he fears that the restored painting will be a distraction for his already inattentive congregation.

During the weeks that Tom works on the painting there are two local children who keep him company, but his most constant companions are the nightmares and the dead artist who painted the judgment scene he is restoring.

Gradually, the painting comes to life and Tom’s bitterness and fears begin to diminish. As he spends his days with the image of Jesus at the heart of the painting, Tom begins to see others in the village with new compassion. His heart is filled with love for the people in the village:  the children who visit him as he works, a young girl in the village who is dying of tuberculosis, the bereaved family of a soldier killed in France, a young man tormented by his secret homosexuality, and Alice, the rector’s lonely wife.

As he uncovers the image of Christ, revealing a forgotten beauty in the small church, Tom finds restoration and healing of his soul. In face of God’s great compassion his heart is transformed to the point that he is able to deal compassionately even with those who are the most unsympathetic. ( see also: Weavings, XVIII: 3, pp. 11-12)

I did not choose this text because I felt wounded before I went on leave, at least not that I was aware of. One of the books I read in preparation for leave-taking suggested that one often discovers painful realities about oneself and hidden wounds during time of solitude and retreat. Frankly, I found that disconcerting. But I did sense a deep longing for places of solitude, quiet places where I could make space for God. And don’t we all long for those places. And don’t we all hope to find the healing balm of God’s grace in those places?

These words of Henri Nouwen continue to teach me and guide me, “In solitude we can listen to the voice of him who spoke to us before we could make any gesture to help, who set us free long before we could give love to anyone. It is in this solitude that we discover that being is more important than having, and that we are worth more than the result of our efforts. In solitude we discover that our life is not a possession to be defended, but a gift to be shared. It’s there we recognize that the healing words we speak are not just our own, but are given to us; that the love we can express is part of a greater love; and that the new life we bring forth is not a property to cling to, but a gift to be received.” (Out of Solitude p. 22)

When I was a boy we went to a small rural church that began every worship service, singing these simple words, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.” Over the years I have heard in my mind the sweet, tinny voices of older women in that church singing those words and found comfort in knowing that healing and wholeness do not rest with me, but with our God and our God’s wide mercy and rich grace.

We find balm in Gilead when we allow space for this God who loves us so very much and who longs for us and who even weeps for us and with us when we have lost direction, when we have become distracted from whom God called us to be, or we are simply overwhelmed by much of the harsh realities we face each day.

And so we are not without hope in this world. And there is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.


Sermon transcript for September 15, 2013

Belmont UMC—September 15, 2013
Chris Allen, preaching

Audio - MP3

Celebrate With Me

After finishing my first year at Duke Divinity School, I was sent as a seminary intern to a small, remote, rural church in western North Carolina. My very first task was to teach the children’s Sunday School class. The children ranged in age from about five to nearly eleven. The first lesson I taught was a compilation of Psalm Twenty-Three, The Good Shepherd from John, and the first part of our text for today. As the young pastoral intern I dove right into my first children’s lesson. I was well versed in Jerome Berryman’s God Play. As the children entered I gathered them in a circle on the floor and opened the gold colored parable box with curiosity on my face.
Then I laid out large pieces of green felt that act as the green grass pasture and proceeded to tell the children the story how this shepherd had flock of one hundred. This shepherd led the flock to greenest grass and coolest water. When the shepherd led the sheep in the sheepfold, he noticed that one was missing so the shepherd went out to look for the one missing sheep. The shepherd went even to the darkest of valleys to find this one sheep. When the shepherd found the one lost sheep, he put it on his back and carried it back to the sheepfold.

After the telling the story, the children and I spent some time imagining what it would have been like to be the lost sheep. Do you think the sheep thought it would ever be found? How do you think the sheep reacted when it saw the shepherd? How do you feel when you are lost?
I surmise that we often put ourselves in the perspective of the lost sheep, the one who is lost because when we are honest with ourselves that is the truth. It is something we have in common. We get lost. We get disoriented. We get confused. We get turned around. We go down the wrong path. We end up separated and lost from God, from others, and ourselves.
This separation from God, others, and the best of who we are is called sin. Sin is the broken relationship. It’s missing the mark. It’s getting off the path and losing our way. We are tendency to lose our way. We deliberately, and even sometimes unknowingly, choose the to miss the mark. Our choices will often lead to destructive consequences for others and ourselves.
But hear the good news! God is like the shepherd who cares for the one. God is like the woman who sweeps and searches for the one missing coin. God celebrates when one is found.
The good news is that God is not like me. I am much too cautious to leave ninety-nine to go look for one. I would count my losses and just hold on tighter to the ninety-nine to make sure that does not happen again. If a youth turned up missing on a trip, I would definitely look for them but before heading up the search I would make sure that the other ninety-nine were properly supervised by another adult. And most certainly I would not search for a coin, finally find it, and then throw a party that costs much more than the other nine coins. Call me cheap or frugal but that’s just fiscally unsound.

The good news is that God never gives up on searching for us. In verse five it simply states, “when he finds it.” Again in verse nine it says, “when she finds it.” There is no mention of how long this search takes. It doesn’t say after 20 minutes or an hour of searching the coin was found. We can only imagine how long this search may have taken. God is always doing everything God can do, even all the way to the cross, to search and bring us back into the fold of God’s love. If you feel like a lost coin this morning, know that God is not going to give up searching for you.

This is called grace. God searches for us before we even know we are lost. When the sheep is found there are no condemnation, no guilt, and no questions – Where have you been? What were you thinking? Do you know how long I have been looking? The shepherd is only thrilled to have found the sheep. This is the offer to free grace. It is grace that stirs our whole being to sing, “I was once lost, but now and found.” God search does not end there. God carries us back to fold. In searching God cleanses. Grace continues to sweep away the brokenness.

What happens when we change the perspective in the story? Instead of being the lost sheep or the lost coin, what happens when you are the shepherd or the woman? When was the last time you turned the house upside-down, swept every nook and cranny until you found the one lost coin? When did you last risk everything by leaving behind the ninety-nine to search and find the one? What happens when God uses us to search, sweep, and light the way for others with the same love that found us?

Justice for Our Neighbors, self-described as “scrappy” have turned the house upside down searching for the one as their team helps immigrants navigate the complicated legal system. The Golden Triangle Fellowship Committee saw how the young people were getting lost and further behind in the public schools. They responded and searched out a way to prepare these young people for high school graduation, employment, and college. This is what it looks like when God uses us to search, sweep, and light the way for others with the same love that found us.

When you take the perspective of the shepherd or the woman you care much more about the ones who are not here. I have to admit this is very hard for me. I do not always do a good job of this. In working with the youth, it much easier shepherd the ones that find their way back into the sheepfold each Sunday. The youth, who show up each Sunday, keep the youth program going. We’re able to have a bible, UMY, a basketball team, and a summer trip to Malawi. This interest in the ones who are not here does not make much sense. The ones that are here, the ones that put money in the offering plate, the ones that are in leadership positions are the ones that keep the spokes of the institutional church moving. Those are the ones that matter the most, right?
The gospel sends us to the ones who are not here. God wants to use us. God wants to use Belmont to bring others back to the flock. God wants to put brooms in our hands to be a part of the sweeping. When we’re brought into the frock, we have a choice celebrate or look down upon. But the temptation is the longer we are part of the flock, the longer the flock exists we are tempted for it to become about us. “Hey shepherd! Pay attention to me!” But we can’t do that there are loss sheep. When we have the focus on us we lose the focus on what is going on in our neighborhood. We lose what’s going on outside. We forget to search after the lost coins.

But do you remember what happens when the lost is found? There is a party, a celebration with our friends and neighbors. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of a celebration? Will you celebrate with me?



Sermon transcript for September 8, 2013

Belmont UMC—September 8, 2013
Pam Hawkins, preaching

Audio - MP3




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