Sermon transcript for September 14, 2014
Belmont UMC—September 14, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
It was a bright sunny day in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995, when a Federal Building was bombed, killing 168 persons. Among them was Julie Welch. Julie’s father, Bud, was devastated and he was angry. He said, “At first, I wanted Timothy McVeigh not even to have a trial, but just to die. But then I saw that I would only contribute to the circle of violence that helped produce Timothy McVeigh.” And so Bud began a journey toward forgiveness.
It’s hard to imagine forgiving such a horrific act. I recall being in a church service not long after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and hearing a clergy friend offer prayers of forgiveness for the attackers. I knew that this was theologically correct and it was what Jesus would have wanted us to do, but my heart was not there yet.
Bud Welch had friends who encouraged him on his path toward forgiveness. It was process within him that had begun in hatred but ended in forgiveness. He found Timothy McVeigh’s father and visited him. He saw Timothy McVeigh’s graduation photo on the mantel. He looked at the picture and he cried, realizing that here was another father on the verge of losing a child, a father with whom he had a kinship through grief. Sympathy and compassion were evoked in him. At first revenge and payback seemed the normal response but at last forgiveness became possible. (Pulpit Resource, Vol. 42, No. 3, Year A, pp. 47-48)
The text today is about forgiveness and it ends a section in the Gospel of Matthew that focuses on relationships in the community, and through this section we hear a call to be in right relationship with each other and to do all we can to foster the bonds of love.
The disciple, Peter, has been listening to Jesus and he wants Jesus to be a little more specific. So he asks Jesus, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Should I forgive 7 times?” (v. 21)
There ought to be a limit to how many wrongs must be forgiven. Right? And in a world in which we are taught over and over again to get even, to settle the score, Jesus gives us a story about forgiveness. He is telling us today that the church, that Belmont and other churches like us, are to be communities that embrace and model the spiritual practice of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not easy and it is often elusive. I have to confess that it’s easier for me to preach about forgiveness than to actually practice it.
Over the years we have watched what happens when people are unable to forgive another. There was an older man in one our churches who was angry all the time about something that happened, or he perceived it to have happened, several decades earlier. He did not leave the church. He stayed on to allow his angry persona to punish others. Over the years, the church members simply ignored him. Sadly, he had allowed his life to be defined by unforgiveness and it had taken a toll on his physical and emotional health.
When Kathryn and I first married we became a very young parsonage couple, serving two small churches in Montgomery County. We had some interesting neighbors, an eclectic mix of folks who had moved out our way, to the country, for extra land and for peace and quiet.
We enjoyed the neighborhood children and it wasn’t unusual for them to knock on our door for a visit. We especially adored the little girl next door named Gabi. Gabi had befriended the little girl who moved in next to their house. One day they got into a spat over something minor and they each ran home to tell their mothers. Within the hour the children were ready to apologize and get on with the business of playing together. But the mothers had called each other and exchanged some angry words. The little girls were not allowed to play together and the families remained divided the rest of our time there. We encouraged reconciliation but no one was ready. Children are better at forgiveness than adults.
Jesus tells Peter that he is to forgive, not 7 times, but 77 times, meaning, “Peter, quit trying to keep count.” And Jesus answers Peter’s question with a story about a king who wants to settle accounts with his servants. One servant who is brought before him owes an enormous sum, 10,000 talents--equal to about 1.5 billion dollars in today’s money. There is no way the servant can pay this amount so the king forgives or releases the servant from the debt.
But the servant learns little from this generous act of forgiveness. The servant finds one of his fellow servants who owed him a small sum and he threatens him, violently grabbing him by the throat and has him thrown into prison.
From this parable I am reminded that I have learned to forgive by being on the receiving end of forgiveness. I suspect if you have spent time being my friend, my parent, my spouse, my child, my sibling, or my co-worker, you have probably had to forgive me at some point along the way. I fail, I forget, I falter, I change my mind, and I make many mistakes.
I am keenly aware of how many times I’ve been forgiven. I am keenly aware of the gracious gift of God’s forgiveness in my life. If I am able to forgive another person, that forgiveness is deeply rooted in profound gratitude for the forgiveness of God and of others. And I must never take that for granted.
And in a few moments, we will pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Jesus modeled this forgiveness. He offered it unilaterally to almost everyone he encountered. He did not wait for an apology or for pleading and begging. He said, “You are forgiven.” And from the cross he offered the greatest model of forgiveness, forgiving those who would put him to death.
And if I am able to forgive, forgiveness is a gift from God. I may not find the strength in myself to do so, but God can give me strength and set me on the journey toward forgiveness.
Our friend, Bishop Rueben Job, grows weaker these days and he is unable to stand here and address us but his words will continue to teach us and make live more like Christ.
Hear these words Rueben has given us: “Forgiveness is a life-and-death matter because forgiveness lies at the very heart of Christian belief and practice. To remove forgiveness from our theology and practice is to tear the heart out of any hope of faithful Christian discipleship, and to drive a stake through the heart of Christian community. . . .
Forgiveness is not only a preposterous gift; it is unbelievably difficult and costly. To offer forgiveness to our national enemy today will most likely be branded as unpatriotic and to extend forgiveness to another is often branded as being soft and unrealistic. But the forgiveness Jesus taught is neither soft nor unpatriotic. But it is extremely costly and laden with a mother load of grace for those who practice it.” (When You Pray, pp.189-191)
The parable reminds us that the root meaning of the word “forgive” is a word that means “release” or “let go.” The king released the servant from his debt. It suggests letting go of something we have held onto for a long time. What is it that we hold so tightly but we need to release? We have all been wounded, abandoned, abused, and betrayed. We all need God’s grace.
I want to invite us to join in a spiritual practice this morning. I invite us to close our eyes, if we will. Clench our fists as tightly as we can. Imagine that in our clinched hands we hold onto something we have refused to let go. What is it? See it. Is it a broken relationship, anger, hatred, a deep woundedness, resentment? Let’s spend a moment being honest about our lives and what we hold so tightly.
Let’s now ask God to help us be on the journey toward forgiveness. Let’s ask God to help us let go of that which we hold so tightly. Slowly begin to open your hands as you pray and visualize releasing what is held in your hand.
This exercise does allow us to instantly experience forgiveness, but it sets us on a journey, a slow journey sometimes, a costly journey sometimes, but one that allows us to experience, in the words of Rueben Job, “the mother load of grace.”
Sermon transcript for August 31, 2014
August 31, 2014
Moses was taking care of the flock of sheep for his father in law, Jethro. Moses led the flock out to the edge of the desert, out to the place they called God’s mountain.
The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. Moses said to himself, “My day just got more interesting!”
When God saw that he had Moses’ attention, God called out from the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
Moses responded, “I’m here.”
God said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals you are standing on Holy Ground. I am the God of your father and mother, of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, “I’ve seen my people oppressed in Egypt, I’ve heard their cry of injustice, I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey. A place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites all live.
“So Get Going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites out of Egypt.”
Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
God said, “I will be with you.”
“But” Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and they ask me to tell them the name of the God who has sent me to them, what am I supposed to say?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am” So say to the Israelites, “I Am has sent me to you.”
God tantalizes Moses with this glimpse of divine presence, giving him a moment of glory shining through the driest and most barren of deserts. However, by the conclusion Moses has more questions than answers. He has been given a job that he has no idea how to do, he turns back to his sheep stunned by this very unexpected turn of events.
When I worked as a hospital chaplain the first thing we did when we arrived for our shift was to get report from the chaplain that was leaving. He told me that during the night a young woman had been brought to the emergency department, she had attempted suicide, but she had survived the night. The nursing staff thought she would be regaining consciousness this morning and they wanted a chaplain to be with her when she woke up.
Taking a deep breath, I started to her unit, the long brightly lit hallways like walking to the edge of the desert. At the nurses station they still don’t know anything about the young woman, no family has yet been identified. Stepping into her room the clicking and beeping of the machines is in sharp contrast to her stillness. Tucked into the sheets, she sleeps on. I put my hand on hers and slow my nervous breathing to match her steady breath in and out. As I stand, I silently pray asking, “What am I going to say? What has happened in her life that led to this?” “Who am I to be standing here?”
Her eyes open and meet mine, a spark of wonder flies between us, with surprise and delight we smile at each other awash with amazement.
“What should I say?”
“What should I do?”
“I’m Heather, I’m one of the chaplains here at the hospital.”
She whispers, “I am…” her throat too sore to finish,
We gaze at each other, my hand in hers, she drifts back to sleep. I leave her room having shared a moment of God’s glory. In the midst of being inadequate to the task, in the thick of pain and despair, into our hopelessness God speaks and says, “I Am.”
We are having a summer marked by pain and despair. Wars, border disputes, oppression and retaliation. Our ears ring with reports from the Ukraine, Russia, Iraq, Syria and ISIS, Palestine and Israel, and more. In our own country we are reeling from the events in Ferguson, Missouri stunned by the depth of racism that continues to exist in our nation. We are overwhelmed, paralyzed by fear, by guilt by having no idea what to do. Like Moses we wonder, “Who am I to go?”
We are saddened by the death of Robin Williams, reminded that the ravages of mental illness are just as debilitating and lethal as those of physical illness. In the face of such overwhelming loss and endless needs, we seek order in the chaos. We attempt to quantify needs, match resources, narrow the focus and find ourselves at the edge of the desert, where the flame of fire in the middle of a bush reminds us suffering is suffering.
God says to Moses, “I’ve seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain.” Seeing the injustice, seeing the pain, what does God do? God says, I’ve come down to rescue them, to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hiites and the Jebusites all live. And how is God going to do this? He says to Moses, “Get Going.”
Moses does not want to get going. We like Moses have unlimited reasons to not get going. We’re tired, weary, too busy, We’re afraid, doing just fine, thank you very much. We’re judgmental, we don’t have an opinion, we’re angry, sad. too shy, too overbearing, too loud, too timid…it’s pretty easy to keep going with these. But to each of our protests, God says, “I will be with you.” And Moses says, and we say, “But…”
God says, “I Am.”
If we want a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites the Perizzites the Hittites all live, you can substitute here the groups of people you feel it will be the biggest challenge to live together, it is time to get going.
Recently as a church we went through a very lengthy and involved strategic planning process. A huge effort was made to get input from as many individuals and ministries as possible to help us discern as a faith community what God is calling us to do now. As a staff member, I have a confession to make. I was counting on ONE clear purpose to emerge. I wanted one initiative towards which we would put all of our collective prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. I thought this made perfect sense, it is logical, other churches do this to great effect. I was praying that we were going to get clarity on the one ministry Belmont is called to in this time and place.
This was not the outcome! Guess what, the process to discern our strategic plan revealed, not only is Belmont not called to focus on one ministry, we are called to be engaged in many varied and diverse ministries, and we are a congregation that is also called to start new ministries. In the collective wisdom of this body, our strategic plan has provided us with the map we need to be the church in this time and in this place.
We are amazingly blessed here at Belmont, because you need to look no further than the person beside you to learn a new way to get going. In our community of faith, we have members who are making a difference in the world, in countries in Africa; Congo and Malawi; in Mexico. In our community through tutoring programs, Project Transformation, the SEE Program, Our ministries of nurture, Homebound Visitors, Care Partners Faith Companions and the Alzheimer’s Dementia Caregivers Support group. Ministries of transportation, of fellowship and hospitality and welcome. Sitting beside you is someone who advocates for positive change in our local systems and in our global community. In front of you is a Sunday school teacher, a choir director, a partner in ministry to our youth. Behind you is a greeter, a collector an usher, a preparer, a storyteller.
In the crackle and hiss of a burning bush God speaks to us and says, “I Am.” In the chaos of revolution when we hear the steady beat for justice, we hear God say, “I Am” In the embrace of another in a time of grief, God sighs, “I Am.”
Like Moses, when we experience the mystery of God’s presence, at the edge of the desert, God tells us to get going, to enter into the fray. When we worry that we are inadequate to the enormous task before us, God says, “I will be with you.” We are God’s people, rescued from the wilderness, let us have eyes that see flaming bushes, ears that hear, “I Am.” And hearts and minds ready to get going.
May it be so, AMEN