Sermon transcript for February 2, 2014
Belmont UMC—February 2, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
Today’s Gospel reading is probably one of the most familiar texts of the Bible. When I was in elementary Sunday School we had a teacher who believed in memorizing scripture. Usually, this meant memorizing a verse, like John 3:16, but out most ambitious project was to memorize the Beatitudes. Our prize for successfully memorizing this passage was a pair of chopsticks. We were all pretty excited about winning these chopsticks, which in hindsight doesn’t make much sense, because in the rural parts of Robertson County in those days none of us had ever eaten Chinese food and had no clue as to how use chopsticks.
But I do think our familiarity with Biblical texts causes us to forget how impactful they were to the first hearers. The Beatitudes are not what the hearers would have expected.
Jesus is describing the journey toward true happiness or the truly blessed life. The word “happy” “blessed” is translated differently in other versions of the Bible. N.T. Wright translates it “Wonderful News!” “Wonderful news for the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.” Wright says that this is “God’s wonderful news. God is acting in and through Jesus to turn the world upside down. . . to pour out lavish blessings on all who turn to God and accept the new thing God is doing.” (Matthew for Everyone).
The word here is translated “happy” by many modern versions, especially the Common English Bible, and this translation is consistent with the Old Testament translation (see Psalm 1). I like the word “happy” except for the limitation our cultural understanding of happiness puts on this word. To us happiness is fleeting and conditional. “I’ll be happy when it warms up!”
But the Beatitudes describe a journey toward something I call “deep gladness.” It is a journey toward a blessed, happy, glad heart whose gladness is deep and abiding and withstands circumstances and life changes. These persons described in the Beatitudes have found deep gladness and they are on the way to the new thing God is doing in Jesus.
But Jesus turns worldly wisdom on its head and it is likely that these words would have been received with gasps or maybe chuckles by the first hearers. The world of Jesus’ day, and the world we live in, believes that those who are strong, powerful and rich are the most blessed. Jesus says precisely the opposite. Barbara Brown Taylor says the Beatitudes can be summed as “Blessed are the upside down.”
Jesus says those who experience this deep gladness are the poor, the hopeless, the sad, the hungry, the humble, and those who have pure hearts, those who show mercy and those who make peace, and even those who are harassed and persecuted. Jesus is describing this new kingdom toward which we are all called to journey.
I have to admit that I struggled with writing the sermon this week, because every time I sat down to write I heard a voice in my head that said, “Read the text again.” And I’ve read this text over and over and in a variety of translations and paraphrases. My very goal-oriented self wanted to write this sermon on Tuesday but I could not write it until I had read the text over and over and over.
The last time I read it, at the least the last time before I felt permitted to write anything, I realized what the text does not say. It does not read, “Happy are the self-sufficient. . . “ or “Blessed are those who call themselves ‘self-made men and women’. . .” or “Happy are those who always feel entitled. . . .” “Blessed are those who always think they are right. . .” “Blessed are those who think they have all the answers. . .”
Thomas Merton wrote, “The things we really need come to us only as gifts, and in order to receive them as gifts we have to be open. In order to be open we have to renounce ourselves, … our autonomy, our fixation upon our self-willed identity.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)
But the people who find true happiness, the ones who experience deep gladness on this journey toward the kingdom, are the ones whose lives have made room for God. They have come to terms with the profound poverty of their own spirits, they know the deep hunger in their souls for God, they have made a place for God to come and reconcile their broken relationships, and they have made room in their hearts for possibility of forgiveness.
Former South African Bishop Peter Storey remembers serving in District 6 in Cape Town as a young pastor. This was the ghetto where mostly mixed-race and poor people lived. He said his life was profoundly shaped by this time of his ministry. Among the people he visited there, was a humble married couple living in two rooms. The husband was paralyzed from the waist down and each day someone would push his wheelchair the few blocks into the city where he would sell matches to make some money. His wife suffered from a twisted spine and hopped about with a crutch. He would visit them and take Holy Communion and he confessed that he visited more than he needed to. He writes, “I wish I could say it was because I cared so much for them, but the truth is more selfish: I went because I felt so close to God in that home.” (With God in the Crucible, p. 82)
I suppose Peter learned from this dear couple that he did not have to become poor or physically disabled to feel closer to God, but he would have to come to terms with his own poverty of spirit before he could know God in such a profound way. And so will we; and so will we!
These words from our hymn book have been in my head this week, “Come ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore; Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love and power.” (UMH, No. 340, words: Joseph Hart, 1759) I suspect these words describe the reality of who we are and where we are on our journey.
We come to church on Sunday mornings looking great. We clean up well and put on some nice clothes, either our best jeans or our finest suits and dresses. And no one would imagine how wounded and weak we’ve been for days, no one could see beyond our façade to our grief, our depression, our unresolved angers and our immense spiritual poverty. Truth is, what most of us really need is to fall down on our knees and cry out, “Christ, have mercy on me!”
What was the condition of your soul when you arrived here this morning, friends? Was there any space for God there? Did you arrive here incredibly hungry, with a deep longing to be filled with the Spirit of God? Is there room in your heart to forgive and to be forgiven? Is there space for us to live in peace with one another?
Adam Kelchner gave an altar call last week at 10:30 and invited us to come and pray. It kind of took us all by surprise and a lot of us needed to come to the altar, but we didn’t. But today we are all invited to come to this chancel, and open our hands in a humble posture that acknowledges our profound poverty of spirit and our deep hunger for God. And receive, receive and discover that deep gladness that comes only as a gift from God.
Sermon transcript for January 26, 2014
Belmont UMC—January 26, 2014
Adam Kelchner, preaching
Audio - MP3
In Houston, Texas, a young African American man recounts how he worked in the family business with his father: In his words he says, my dad and I owned a business in a tough Houston neighborhood, a motel that catered to prostitutes and their customers. For my entire life, I literally lived in a house of pain. There were buyers and sellers and most of the sellers were female. It didn’t matter. My entire life, I spent every day in that place not caring who got hurt, and or even the cost. We profited from darkness. My business was the sex trade. I had no idea the ages of the girls who worked in and out of our place. I didn’t care.
Then Jesus proclaimed, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has already come near.’ Light has dawned on the region of death and the prophet Isaiah echoes, Land of Zebulun, Land of Naphtali, you who sit in darkness have seen a great light. In as something as a simple relocation from Nazareth to Capernaum, Jesus has fulfilled the ancient prophecy that holy light will disperse darkness from a region deeply plagued by violence and war.
Most of us would have difficulty locating Zebulun and Naphtali on an ancient map, much less a fragmented and divided map of our present Middle East. But these two locales were located in the northern reaches of ancient Israel. North of Jerusalem. And when the Assyrians invaded, Zebulun and Naphtali were some of the first regions to fall. These regions were held in low esteem and heavily oppressed by the conquering force. So no wonder that the prophet Isaiah and Matthew situate the dawning of holy light in a region known so well for foreign occupation and oppression. What could be a more fitting setting? They even call it a region of death. What is good news for a place like that? What is a life giving invitation to the people who live there?
Can you imagine, the power of Isaiah’s prophecy driving Jesus to retreat to places held in such low esteem? Land of deep darkness. Lands ravaged by outside forces, people treated as worthless. Jesus is declaring the kingdom of God drawing near wherever darkness prevails. A great light has dawned in Kandahar, Baghdad, Fallujah, and Damascus and no longer do these regions live in the shadow of death. That’s good news to communities held under the thumb of an oppressor. Christ retreats to these regions to proclaim, ‘The kingdom of heaven is near’ and to call his followers to their life long work.
The waves are breaking on the shore, the reeds blowing in the wind, there are people dotting the banks of the sea going about the work of the day making home and making money. Jesus is walking on the seashore, presumably a familiar one, since he’s made a home in Capernaum and he calls out to two brothers, Simon Peter and Andrew. Does he know these men? Are they familiar to him? ‘Come, follow me.’ You aren’t worthless. You’ve been fashioned in the image of God Almighty. I’ll take the skills you have heaving these nets to and fro and lead you to greater, eternal things. His walk continued and he called out to two sons of Zebedee. Come, experience the kingdom-align yourself with what God is doing in this overlooked place. Whatever he said must have promised life and life abundantly because they left their father in the boat that day.
Remember the man in Houston, whose family business created space for pimps, prostitutes, and call girls to work-one day he walked into a Methodist Church with his wife. And the church told him, Rudy, we love you. And for five more years, he ran the family business aiding a vicious and destructive cycle for Houston’s sex workers. And the church kept telling him, Rudy, we love you. And then he began believing it and he heard the voice of Christ-‘Come be part of my crowd.’
An invitation from Jesus the Christ to come and experience the living, powerful, life changing work of God Almighty is no joke. It’s not an invitation to come see if the grass is greener and the paycheck is bigger on this side of the lake than the other; it’s certainly no promise that health, wealth, and prosperity are divinely ordained for your future; in other words, it’s not the prosperity gospel that’s prevailing in our culture right now, it’s not an invitation to corporate ladder climb and put the pursuit of meaningless wealth above compassion and human integrity. Come follow me is an invitation to experience a great transition, a dislocation of creative sorts. It’s a transition of worthlessness to God’s worth. It’s a transition from addiction to the bottle and prescription pills to recovery, freedom, and restoration.
It’s a transition from the emptiness and despair of the soul to new life through the baptismal waters. It’s a transition for the bigoted oppressor who is called to repentance and hears anew that they are a beloved child of God in spite of a history of prejudice.
That was my transition. Quite honestly, in the early 2000’s I was a religiously driven bigot. I blamed our denominational woes on the gay community. I took delight when church trials began to defrock gay and lesbian pastors and then rejoiced when the verdict was read. And in the depths of that insidious prejudice and discrimination was a call to ordained ministry. Some time later Christ said: Beloved, we’re going to put your prejudice, animosity, and your homophobia in the grave. You’ve chosen to follow me and you don’t get to hold on to these things that carry no kingdom value. But what has kingdom value are the gifts of the Spirit poured out for you and all of creation. Cling to them; use them; and rejoice that the kingdom of heaven is among you.
Indeed, come follow me is a transition from idle meaningless work that pays the bills to the realization that God has given you gifts and passions that burn deep in your soul and when you use them in alignment with God’s vision for community, there is the fire of holy transformation.
Theologian Tom Long puts it this way: Our work is truly effective when it serves to express the will of God. The patterns of our lives are not made secure by the kingdom of heaven; the kingdom of heaven rearranges them into the new design of God's own making.
Come follow the Christ you who work at the medical center across the street and you will bring divine balm where suffering is deep. Come, follow the Christ you who labor in the courts of justice and you will be peacemakers. Come follow the Christ you who labor with your hands and demonstrate the beauty of God’s creation. Come follow the Christ all you who rest from your work.
If you only hear me say one thing this morning this is it: God calls on your everyday living, working, and playing to show love to a hurting world.
If you were here a few Sundays ago, you might recall it was Baptism of the Lord Sunday, recalling John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in the River Jordan. You were invited to come forward and receive water on your hands and hear these words: Remember your baptism and be thankful. Remember that you are baptized and be thankful. As you came forward, the pastors got to look you in the eyes and see your smiles and awe as we put the water on your hands. Many of you shared how rich and deep that service was-it struck a chord somewhere deep in your souls. That’s what God does in baptism and the celebration of Holy Communion. God takes the ordinary things, sometimes the things that are overlooked-water, bread, and grapes-and invites us to experience the holy. Like the four fishermen on the side of the Sea of Galilee, God takes our ordinary, the everyday, blesses it, and retools it to demonstrate love to a hurting world.
Today is a day to hear the waters flowing:
The waters that move through pipes,
Some waters fresh, some polluted,
Some falling from the sky, some rising from the earth,
Waters bringing life and hope,
Waters bearing waste and loss,
Waters cleansing and being cleansed.
Today is a day to hear the waters flowing:
The waters of baptism with which God birthed you,
Birthed us all anew in Jesus Christ,
And bids us come, and drink,
To slake our thirst,
And bids us go and share,
That thirst may be fulfilled for all.
Today is a day for hearing Christ’s call,
like those fishermen heard Jesus calling long ago—
to hear and to decide:
are we ready to follow Christ,
ready to declare and rejoice in his love,
and demonstrate his glory in the world?
We need to keep reading the gospels keeping an eye on Simon, Andrew, James, and John. They usually don’t understand the parables, they impede Jesus’ ministry to the crowds, and even Peter denies the Christ at a time of crisis. But this morning, Christ called upon them, and perhaps out of a deep longing for fulfillment, they put down their soggy nets so that Heaven might come on Earth.
This morning may be the first time you’ve ever heard that divine invitation, ‘come follow me’ and discover greater, eternal things for your life. Maybe you've heard it a hundred times over but never gave it much more than a passing glance. Perhaps your story is a bit like Rudy’s, caught in a darkness and despair and you’re surprised to hear of your belovedness before God. No matter, the invitation is still good. Come follow Jesus the Christ.
And this morning especially, I invite you to come to this chancel rail during our last hymn for prayer-pray for the journey, pray for those who journey with you, pray for those who’ve never heard that they’re God’s beloved, pray for those whose lives need transitions that lead to freedom and resurrection.