Sermon transcript for April 28, 2013
Another Kind of Circle
Belmont UMC—April 24, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
I was at a retreat years ago that involved a lot of small group discussion and small group activities. I don’t recall the theme of the retreat but I do recall that the process was challenging for someone who is a bit introverted. Our leader asked our group of about 10 to form a circle and we dutifully stood in a circle. She then said, “Form another kind of circle.” We looked at each other and shrugged and then someone decided that we could hold hands in a circle. The leader instructed, “Now form another kind of circle.” More shrugs until we decided to raise our joined hands in the air. The leader said again, “Now form another kind of circle.” All of us looked annoyed and then we sort squatted down in our circle. Then the leader said (you guessed it), “Form another kind of circle.” Someone in the group suggested that we face sideways so we turned like we were in a single line around the circle. The annoying leader said, “Form another kind of circle.” We gave up!
Our leader noted that another kind of circle would be one that faces outward. She noted that we rarely think of circles that face outward. We are comfortable in circles that face inward but outward facing circles take us out of our comfort zones. (She could have told us that instead of having us do this ridiculous and embarrassing exercise.) She noted that this is a metaphor for the church—the church is a circle of people that sometimes faces inward but is always challenged when asked to face outward. We are comfortable with the call to worship of the service, but the sending forth at the end is challenging for us. We are comfortable with the familiar and expected but out there we will encounter the unfamiliar and unexpected.
As we grow in our understanding of Jesus, we know that Jesus can be quite comforting at times. Jesus makes us feel at home in his presence and in the presence of his people. Jesus can give us the Holy Spirit and warm our hearts. Jesus can still the storms of our lives and make us feel safe. Jesus can calm our fears and give us peace that we cannot find anywhere else.
And as we grow in our understanding of Jesus, we know that Jesus can make us quite uncomfortable. Jesus can ask us to love and feed our enemies. Jesus can ask us to forgive those who have wronged us. Jesus can challenge our prejudices and our narrow, preconceived notions that we cling to so dearly. Jesus can ask us to welcome the outcast at our table. Jesus can ask us to turn and look outward into our community and world, look carefully and passionately at those places where people are hurting and forgotten. Jesus can ask us to look into the face of human suffering and we would rather not.
We like to think of ourselves being in the tight and secure circle of Jesus. In John 10 Jesus speaks of the sheepfold, an encircled and safe place where the shepherd would gather the sheep for the night, safe from predators. It’s a beautiful and idyllic scene and it makes us feel good to read it. We like the idea of being gathered in a safe circle with others who are much like us. But a few verses later Jesus throws these words into our peaceful circle. “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.” His words create discomfort and we wonder who these other sheep are.
Our text today is quite surprising. Peter has a vision from God that takes him out of his comfort zone and causes him to cross well loved boundaries, and in doing so, he witnesses this God of wide compassion at work. Few boundaries were more rigid than the boundaries between Jews and Gentiles. Through centuries of persecution, exile, and difficulty the Jewish people had maintained their unique identity as Israel by carefully distinguishing themselves as people of the covenant and their survival had depended on these boundaries. Peter was in this tight circle of Jewish people. Peter had been well schooled in the law and he knew that Gentiles and Jews did not find common ground. One of the big questions of the early church was whether Gentiles must convert to Judaism before being welcomed into this new gathering of Jewish Jesus followers.
Peter has a vision from God in which he sees a sheet being let down from heaven and in the sheet are all kinds of animals—foods that for the Jewish people were clean and unclean, acceptable and unacceptable foods—all mixed together. Peter hears God say, “Rise up and prepare a meal for yourself.” Peter replies, “Lord, I’ve never violated the Jewish dietary laws.” And God said, “Nothing I have made is unclean.” The vision is repeated 3 times. Peter experiences everything in threes. Peter did not understand the vision but he is called to go to the house of a Gentile where the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentile people just as it had on Jews. Peter realizes that the vision is not about clean and unclean food, but supposedly “clean” and “unclean people” and Peter has been a witness to the love of God which knows no boundaries. God is doing something new!
Peter is called before the church council to explain why he crossed this boundary. He doesn’t try to explain it. But he tells them about a vision from God and about seeing this vision revealed in the midst of Gentiles. This is a miracle! Every time the church obeys the vision of God, miracles happen. Every time the church obeys God’s call to go outside the comfort zone, a miracle happens. Every time hospitality is extended to a stranger, a miracle happens. Every time we welcome someone new to our table, a miracle happens.
If we turn our circle outward and look at the community, what do we see? We were told recently that one in five households in and around our church will have someone who has a disability. We are told that these families do not always feel welcomed in churches. They face many other hardships and disappointments. We have already come to expect a close encounter with God when we welcome and serve alongside these special children of God.
What do we see when we look out into our community? We see homeless neighbors who are in need of hospitality and dignity. We see the working poor who do their best but cannot make ends meet. Many of them are one check away from losing their homes or one car repair away from disaster.
I was recalling a visit we had with a couple who needed help with one of their utility bills. They had stopped by the church and as they were leaving they asked to see the sanctuary. I brought into this beautiful space and they stood in awe and wonder. The woman said to me, “I would love to come here and worship sometime but I know I cannot.”
I asked, “Why?” Her answer was, “My clothes. I don’t have clothes good enough for this place.” I assured her that we wear all kinds of things on Sunday but she was not convinced. Some of God’s children will not feel comfortable setting foot in this church so this church will have to turn outward and go out to them.
What boundaries is God calling us to cross? As we look outside our walls we see folks from the Edgehill community. We see the effects of gentrification as properties are being developed and the housing projects are becoming an island of poverty. We see food deserts where the poor are not within walking distance of groceries and healthy foods.
As we look outward, what boundaries do we see? What boundaries is God calling us to cross?
During the winter months a number of us participated in an interfaith study. I found myself once again among new friends from Congregation Micah and the Islamic Center on 12the Avenue South. During our last gathering I found myself sitting between a very animated Rabbi Flip Rice and an equally animated Imam Mohammed, each talking passionately about their love for God and their spiritual practices. In the midst of this gathering of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, all who love God and who have come to love each other deeply, I suddenly felt my heart leap with gladness that these barriers were coming down. God was smiling on us gathered there.
We spend a lot of energy protecting our neat circles of comfort and safety but if we truly want to experience God we may have turn around and look outward. We may have to move out of our comfort zones. We may have to cross some well loved boundaries. We may have to be courageous with love.
I’ve been reading sermons by Peter Story in his book, With God in the Crucible.
The sermons are set in the historical context during the rise and fall of apartheid in South Africa. Peter reminds us of the protest of children and youth that began on June 16, 1976. They staged a nonviolent protest for having to use the hated Afrikaans language in their schools, and the protest took police and soldiers by surprise. Many children and youth were shot to death that day and in the coming days. Violence broke out in Johannesburg. It was the beginning of the end of apartheid.
Peter told the story of white Afrikaner social worker who was surrounded by an angry mob and rescued by a black pastor’s wife. The black woman brought the white woman into the safe shelter of her home, even though the woman was her enemy and even though she took a great risk to do it. Why did she cross this well defined boundary? Peter said, “Hers was an act of courageous love—given the role of the Afrikaans in all this strife—also an act of magnanimous grace. She incarnated our conviction that in Christ the dividing wall cannot stand.” (p. 38) In the midst of polarizing violence and racial separation, there were glimpses of God at work, breaking down the barriers of separation, extending those sacred arms across the great divides.
Our circle we call the church is supposed to face outward to see the world in need and to expose the barriers and boundaries that threaten to divide us. God is calling us out of our comfort zones and into the world.
Take a moment to close your eyes and allow your mind to see outside these walls. Picture the neighborhoods around us. Picture the streets you drove on to get here this morning. Where are the places of need? Where are the boundaries you are afraid to cross? Who are the persons or groups of people you have been afraid to know or unwilling to know? Where do you hear God calling you?
Jesus meets us here today and asks, “Do you love me?”
We respond, “Yes, Lord, you know that we love you. Yes, Lord, we will feed your sheep.”
Sermon transcripts for April 21, 2013 - Youth Sunday
Youth Sunday - April 21, 2013
Kelsey Fields sermon
Psalm 23: 5 reads “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” When we were first discussing Psalm 23 with Chris we looked at this image of the cup overflowing. I personally tried to decipher the meaning of this image. I thought about it in the literal sense of a cup overflowing with water or wine and how that would mean that if we follow God he will provide for us so that we will never thirst.
I also thought about it in the metaphorical sense and tried to picture what would be the cup and what would be overflowing. The idea that I liked the best was the cup representing the heart and soul, and some of the things that would be overflowing would be hope, love, joy, grace, and peace. But then I pictured a full human body and soul being filled with different experiences and life lessons. When I came up with this image, I took a cup from one of the sunday school rooms by Chris’s office and started tearing up a piece of paper and writing down the different experiences or things that I experience that ‘fill me up’ and give me hope, love, joy, and peace. My objective was to make the cup overflow with experiences that have shaped me in life so far, even though some weren’t as impactful as others. I didn’t really make it that far on my first run, only about an inch up the cup, but since I started this little project, it has made me think more about the things that really make me happy and have served as guiding experiences for what seems like just the very beginning of this life.
Just to give an example, one experience that happened a little over two weeks ago has shaped my college plans and has solidified what I want to do career-wise for the rest of my life. I was considering music therapy as a major at the University of Evansville in Evansville, Indiana. Many of you may recognize this school from Sarah Kessen who was a member of the youth a couple years ago and now attends there. My parents and I decided that it would be a good idea to do some job shadowing to figure out if this was the path I wanted to take. For my second session of job shadowing, I observed a session with a musical therapist named Heather and a 12 year old girl with Cerebral Pulsy named Catherine. I have seen the power of music other places but nothing can be compared to this. I could go on for hours about the details of the session and the specific techniques that Heather used with Catherine, but the moments that opened my eyes the most were the moments when Catherine sang. Catherine’s favorite music to sing was the Beatles. The first thing she wanted to do when we stepped into her living room was sing Let It Be for me. Later, she and I sang Hey Jude together. Being able to sit next to her and to see what joy she had for music gave me joy. From this moment, I decided that I wanted to be a music therapist.
This of course was just the most recent example, but there were so many other moments that I put into my cup. I won’t go into them, but I can tell you that each and everyone has impacted me in some way and have given me the gifts of love, hope, peace, and joy.
In the scripture of Psalm 23, I believe it tells us that if we walk with God, he will protect us and guide us through the darkness and times of struggle; if we follow Him, we shall want for nothing, for if we go were He leads us, He will give us everlasting peace and comfort.
As we go out into the world, I urge you to ask your self what things in your life that you can be thankful for. God has given you these things so you shall not want and it is only fair that we recognize them and appreciate these gifts, then be able to place them in our cups so that we many see the abundance of God’s gifts to us. If your hearts and souls were cups, would they be overflowing? Amen.
Catherine Sadler sermon
Psalm 23 is my favorite passage in the bible. It embodies everything that I believe in. The Lord shall lead me to peaceful places. He restores my soul. I will not fear evil because The Lord is with me. He will comfort me. And most importantly, he makes my cup run over. My cup of blessings will never end, and it will always overflow. This psalm was written by David. He was a man of God who showed me that I need nothing if I have The Lord. The Lord gives me everything that I need even if he gives me nothing.
My cup runs over with blessings of God. The theme of this year is abundance. We are not always aware of how blessed we are. This passage is there to remind us to be thankful. David was so overwhelmingly thankful for all the God had given him. David wanted to share this thought with everyone who was blessed by God. He wanted to show that even in hard times, you should still be thankful. I'm especially thankful for this youth group. I have made life long friends, had many unique opportunities, and gained many life lessons. I just recently became a real member of the church, and the whole youth group surprised me by showing up to the early service to see me become a member. To see everyone there just for me was a true blessing. The youth group has taught me lessons that I couldn't get anywhere else. From building houses on asp, to running the streets of Toronto, this youth group is one of the biggest blessings in my life. God has made my cup run over by bringing my family to Belmont.
ASP brought the world into perspective for me. In 2011 we went to Harlan County, Kentucky. It's a small town on top of a mountain. My group was assigned a couple named Pat and Kelvin. They lived in a small house right next to town. Throughout the week we got to know more and more about Pat and Kelvin. Although they lived a completely different life from us, there were many similarities. Psalm 23 talks not only about the good, but also about the bad. The valley of death gives a clear picture of when a cup is not full. It is an open valley. But The thing that I noticed the most about Pat and Kelvin was how content they were with their lives. They didn't have a big, fancy house or a brand new car. They had gone through some very rough times, but no matter how many bad things had happened, to them their cup was still running over. They were thankful for what they had. I realized then that blessings are not just about having stuff or being happy. Blessings are gifts from God. The biggest present of all is that God is our shepherd. He will lead us beside still waters. God is the true blessing. We may not always understand God and his ways, but in the end it all works out.
A blessing God has given me is the life lessons I've received from Belmont. The church and youth group have shaped me into the person I am today. And although that might seem to be enough, there is yet another step I have to take. To truly feel the abundance of God's love I must share my blessings with others. The church creates disciples to go out into the world and spread the lessons they learn to other people who do not have a Belmont United Methodist Church nearby. My freshman year of college is looming over my head. I am scared, but I am also very excited. I met my roommate online. She is from Illinois and a very sweet girl. One of my first questions was "are you a Christian?" Her response was "yes, but my family has never really gone to church and I'm too scared to go alone." I saw God working in my life at that moment. I told my roommate that I was looking for a church in Knoxville and would love if she would join me. It may not seem to be a big deal, but to me I understood that I will be helping another person join the walk with Christ. Not only my cup will run over, but also i am helping to fill other cups as a disciple for Christ. No church will ever compare toBelmont. It is a special place with special people. God has granted me a gift that I will never replace. That is what I am truly thankful for.
Jack Rhodes sermon
As I listened to Jackson, Kelsey, and Catherine’s speeches about how Psalm 23 has impacted their lives, I was struck by how different and unique each one was. From personal experiences to an analytical perspective, Psalm 23 was broken down in different ways. The more I thought about Psalm 23, the more I felt that certain phrases stuck out more than the passage as a whole. Phrase’s like “lie down in green pastures”, “fear no evil”, “restores my soul”, and “they comfort me” appeared to me as bright as a firework on an Independence Day celebration. “Lie down in green pastures” sends a calm and relaxing feeling through me, because of the peacefulness associated with resting in a green pasture, almost pure bliss. “Fear no evil” is a good one, because God says those who believe in him will triumph over evil in the end. “Restores my soil,” sound great as well. Who would not like the sound of that? Those are definitely comforting words for me as I, like my fellow youth, go through the daily ups and downs of a life in high school. Last but not least is “they comfort me”. Those words are what it boils down to... belief in God makes life more comforting and relaxing as the pieces of life are put together. I have heard many, many people tell me how much more enjoyable and relaxing life was after they converted to Christianity.
Well all of those thoughts were going through my mind when I remembered a couple of hours earlier as I had just seen first hand how different passages in the Bible can mean to different people. Then I remember back in seventh grade where I got into a tough situation at school. Things weren’t going right, and life was tough. And church the next Sunday was inspirational for me in one way, but it had a completely different meaning to my fellow youth members. It had helped guide me through some tough times while speaking to others in different ways. Therefore from me to all of you, each verse has a different tone and way it speaks to you personally. So when church is over, and you all carry on with your lives, remember that everyone sees and feels things differently. But that also means that it only matters what it means to you. What someone tells you a verse means is only their opinion and their thoughts. In life you act on your opinions and your thoughts. In the end what the verse tells you and means to you is all the matters, because that is what will shape how you live your life.
Jackson Myers sermon
Writing a sermon about a verse as ubiquitous as Psalm 23 is a double-edged sword: on one hand, everyone knows it, I don’t have to teach it. I bet the majority of people hear today could recite it from memory. The other hand is that there’s not much I can say without sounding cliché, which I try to avoid at all costs. So I’ll give it my best shot.
The Psalm is attributed to David, one of the 73 in the Book of Psalms that are. David, who worked as a shepherd as a boy, would have been particularly drawn to this representation of the Lord. However, David was not all peace and love and grassy meadows and overflowing cups of oil. David was a famous and skilled warrior. And, while he is best known for the endearing, humble story of his triumph over Goliath, David was a conventional king of that age, consistently dealing with rebellions and military struggle. But here is what I find interesting: David portrays the Lord not as the conquering general or even the defending guardian, but as the humble and quiet shepherd.
What does this say? This psalm would not be the first to portray the Lord as a warmonger; it is perhaps the dominant image of the Old Testament, a God who quite literally fights for His people, smiting those who stand in their way. However, this perception changes drastically in the New Testament, shifting to the loving, caring, fatherly, dare I say shepherd figure that is the dominant image of God now. (unless you are the Westboro Baptist Church) In this way, Psalm 23 is very forward-looking theologically, and perhaps can lend us a message. How do you see the Lord? Is he Yahweh of the Old Testament, sending his enemies to the fiery depths and leading the forces of Israel into battle against whomever they are fighting at the time? Or is he the God that Jesus represents, that David chose to show Him as, that we are called to emulate by following Jesus’ example? Is he the God that inspired the Crusades, or the God that loves each one of us unconditionally, as Pam says every morning, no matter what we believe or what we doubt and no matter whom we love? Our answers to this question are only of secondary importance, what really matters is how they manifest themselves. Will you be the Christian that smugly luxuriates in his own piety and judges all those whom you deem to be less, morally speaking? Or will you be the Christian that does what the essence of this religion is: emulate Jesus and love even the least of these.