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Sermon transcript for November 10, 2013

Belmont UMC—November 10, 2013
District Superintendent Harriet Bryan, preaching

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Sermon transcript for November 3, 2013


Ordinary Saints
Luke 6:20-31
Belmont UMC—November 3, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

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A couple of years ago we visited the small hillside town of Assisi in Italy. It’s a beautiful town with historic buildings, narrow streets and a rich history. It was the home of Francis, the rich young man who gave away all his belongings to enter the priesthood and lived his commitment to serving the poor. It’s also the home of St. Clare, a woman who joined Francis in this calling. Both Francis and Clare experienced the rejection of their families because of their commitment to Christ. Their lives have been sentimentalized in stories and their images are recreated in beautiful reliefs, statues and stained glass. (and bobble heads in the gift shops). They are two of the people I admire in the Christian history, and when I think of saints, I think of them. I suspect the word “saint” causes us to think of those heroes of church history.

But All Saints Sunday is not about people who have achieved stained glass status. They are the ordinary persons, women, men and children who have lived their lives in a way that allowed us to glimpse something of God in them. Tom Long wrote that a saint is a person whose life manages to be more than a “cranny through which the infinite peeps.” (“Preaching in the Middle of a Saintly Conversation,” The Journal of Preachers, Lent 1995, pp.15-21)

We are the saints of God--we who have given our lives over to God and seek to follow God’s plan and purpose in the world. We are not perfect and maybe our life has been characterized more by failure than success, more by false starts and faltered steps than winning races, but we are God’s children.

The word “saints” means “holy ones” or ones who are set apart for a purpose. We may not be comfortable being associated with those ideas either, but even though much our lives seem mundane and ordinary, there is that part of who we are that is set apart for God’s purposes instead of our own, and we remain fully aware that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.

The Gospel text today is often called The Sermon on the Plain as opposed to Matthew’s version of this text which is called The Sermon on the Mount. It’s been noted that in Luke the mountain is always the place of prayer. Jesus has come down from the mountain of prayer to where the people live. This sermon is for the crowds, for the people, for everyone like you and me. It was for people from the north and the south (Tyre and Sidon), for everyone no matter where they came from. It is a call to living the holy life and it is a call to all of us.

And as we consider the names of people that will be read this morning and the list of names we carry in our hearts and minds, these are those people who lived in such a way that we were able to glimpse the eternal and infinite God in them. They lived the values expressed in these beatitudes.
On All Saints I always remember my loving grandparents, kindly aunts and uncles, faithful Sunday School teachers, generous friends and neighbors, quiet church members and prophetic preachers, compassionate senior adults and smiling children, persons who are no longer among us, and others whose continued presence blesses us even now and in this place.

On one of my first Sundays in this church I said that church is where we hold each other in love and we hold each other accountable (Bishop Carder used to tell us that.) We are held accountable to being better than we might be otherwise. I noted that the mere presence of some persons in this church raises the bar higher for all of us and simply being around these persons will make us better people, better saints.

It is good for us to be here, gathered each year, to remember the saints, all the saints of the church--ordinary saints like us, for it is the saints who make us who we are today. And we shall never forget them. And that’s why it’s a little difficult to speak the names of our dear friends without getting a little choked up.

All Saints reminds us of kinship and family. It reminds us that we are part of a beloved community where we share in our love for God and in our love for one another. It reminds us that we are not, have not been, and never will be alone in this world.

At funerals and memorial services I often try to imagine what those who left this world would say if they could speak. I thought about our list of saints this morning and I could imagine them saying something like this: “You might want to take a moment and look around the room this morning, look at the people who love you, who brought casseroles to your house when your husband had surgery, who took care of your children when you were out of town, who listened to your stories (even when they’ve heard them before), who encouraged you when you were out of work, who wiped your tears when your best friend died. They are the ones who do not share your DNA but they are closer than family. If you are new to this church look around and make yourself at home among people who want to be your family.” All Saints is about kinship and kinship is one of the great blessings of the church.

I love these words of Frederick Buechner, describing an All Saints Service in Whistling in the Dark:

“At the altar table, the overweight parson is doing something or other with the bread as his assistant stands by with the wine. In the pews, the congregation sits more or less patiently waiting to get into the act. The church is quiet. Outside, a bird starts singing. It’s nothing special, only a handful of notes angling out in different directions. Then a pause. Then a trill or two. A chirp. It is just warming up for the business of the day, but it is enough.”

“The parson and his assistant and the usual scattering of senior citizens, parents, and teenagers are not alone in whatever they think they are doing. Maybe that is what the bird is there to remind them. In its own slapdash way the bird has been part of it too. Not to mention “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven” if the prayer book is to be believed. Maybe we should believe it. Angels and Archangels. Cherubim and seraphim. They are all in the act together. It must look a little like the great jeu de son et lumeire (great day of sun and moon) at Versailles when all the fountains are turned on at once and the night is ablaze with fireworks. It must sound a little like the last movement at Beethoven’s Choral Symphony or the Atlantic in a gale.”

“And “all the company of heaven” means everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved until we lost them or didn’t love at all.
It means people we never heard of. It means everybody who ever did—or at some unimaginable time in the future ever will—come together at something like this table in search of something like what is offered at it.”

And so all of us ordinary saints gather around this table today, but we are not alone. We are in this together. We are the communion of saints.


Sermon transcript for October 27, 2013


Mission. . . A Way of Life
Matthew 25:31-40
Belmont UMC—October 27, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching (with Adam Kelchner)

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Today we conclude the series of sermons and worship services focused on the 4 core values identified during our Strategic Planning process: Diversity, Nurture, Hospitality and Mission. It’s important to note that these 4 themes emerged over and over again during 18 months of prayer and discernment, and listening sessions and input from the congregation. It’s important to note that these 4 core values do not stand alone but are interrelated and overlap throughout the work of the church. If you are engaged in mission, it is likely that you are expressing hospitality, experiencing diversity and being nurtured spiritually. And it is important to note that these 4 core values are a way of life, describing who we are and who we are called to be as Christ followers.

Our Bishop says, “Mission is a lifestyle, a way of life, a way of living.” Mission is not a program of the church, carried out by a select group of people. Instead we are each called to be engaged in the mission of fulfilling God’s purpose in the world.   

United Methodists, from our very beginning, have been engaged in mission, in acts of social justice, in concern for the poor and marginalized of society. Our founder, John Wesley, was known to say, “The world is my parish.” Wesley reached out to those who felt disenfranchised by the church because of their economic status. This was not only an institution of the early church but Wesley took this personally. He sought to give something to the poor each day and somewhere along the way I read a description of an elderly Mr. Wesley, trudging through deep snow late at night, looking for some poor soul to whom he could give alms for he had gone through the day without having done so.

Belmont has always been a church in mission; it’s a part of our identity. We sent Volunteer in Mission teams to Mexico and Malawi in Africa during this year. We have supported many important missions locally as well. I won’t take time to list them all but Belmont, as a church, is making a difference in many places, both locally and globally.  For that we give thanks.

The text today is a familiar one. It lists some of those who are among the most vulnerable and most marginalized in our world: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”

Today is Children’s Sabbath at Belmont and this particular Sunday focuses on the needs of the children in our world, children who are often the most vulnerable, the most vulnerable to hunger, poverty, drought, political unrest, gun violence and disease. It’s not proper for me to put words in Jesus’ mouth, but I can almost hear him saying, “I was a child and you treated me with love and respect.”
Jesus welcomed little children and blessed them, inviting his hearers to become like these children in order to receive the kingdom. (Mark 10:13-16) In Jesus’ day children were among the most marginalized.

I recall Bishop Ken Carder saying something like this, “The church will be judged by how it treats the poor and the children.” In other words, how we respond to the needs of the most marginalized and the most vulnerable is likely a good measure of how are doing in fulfilling the mission of the kingdom.

In the Matthew text Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the lonely, the sick, the hungry and the imprisoned. The feeding, clothing, visiting, caring, welcoming offered to those in need are offered to Jesus as well. In doing these things we come face to face with Jesus. He says, “When you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”  

Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the on who sent me. . . I assure you that everyone who gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones (children or the vulnerable) because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” (Matthew 10:40-42)   

(Adam Kelchner’s witness) I had been reading with Alejandro for just shy of a half hour in the fellowship hall of Antioch United Methodist Church. He had already worked through the Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and several other classics when we exclaimed ‘My dad fixes broken things?’ ‘What type of broken things?’ ‘He fixes cars and my mom stays at home right now with my brothers and sisters. She wants to get a job this fall when we’re all back in school during the day-she just can’t get a job right now while school is out. She needs a job because we need more money to survive. We need that money to buy food and clothes.’ Where is your family from? I asked. ‘Some of them are from Mexico and others are from Guatemala.’

As quickly as this window into Alejandro’s family’s life opened, it closed. The bell rang. Our time was up. We walked together back over to the bookcase to file his stack of books and then he ran off to the gym for recreation, not quite sensing the gravity of his words. Then another rotation of reading began and I as quickly scanned the room, I imagine there were 40 or 50 stories like Alejandro’s.

Blessed Christ, I dare say that I’ve looked into your eyes, shadowed by the frames of childhood eyeglasses and I can almost imagine your eyes recalling the Guatemalan landscape of your parents’ home. You’ve come quite some distance to a new home, you’re a stranger in a new land. You weren’t quite as I expected-your stature was small, your legs dangling over the side of that uncomfortable steel folding chair, your hands gripping that book as a prized possession, your words still echoing the accent of a place far from here.

I’ve heard you say, I was a child and you treated me with love and respect. Yes, I’m sure of it. It was you, Blessed Christ.

What does it mean for mission to be a way of life, for me, for you? All of us cannot go to Malawi or Mexico. Many of us cannot afford to take those trips and if we could, it’s impossible to get the time off. And some of us no longer have the energy to go on Volunteer in Mission teams.

But what if each of us woke up every morning and prayed, “Dear God, Where are you calling me today? I know you have a mission for me to do this day. Make me fully aware when that mission presents itself and strengthen me so that I may do it well.” Wouldn’t this be a normal prayer for those of us who follow Jesus? Imagine how radically it might change the course of our days.

In the Matthew text Jesus does not speak of heroic deeds or extraordinary feats but of simple tasks, the occasions for expressing care for other persons as they present themselves in everyday life. Do we dare ask, “Where are you calling me?”

I was grateful to be able to attend a wedding last weekend in Wisconsin for a young friend named Ben Konecny. I have always known Ben to be a kind and generous person, but I was touched by a story his brother, and best man, told about him. Ben and his brother, Dan, lived together for a year in Denver, Colorado and during that time Dan noticed that they were going through peanut butter and bread pretty at an alarming rate. Dan saw Ben making a stack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and asked him why he was eating so much peanut butter. Ben said, “Oh these are not for me. These are for the men and women who I encounter each day who live on the streets.” On the way to work each day, Ben saw an opportunity to feed the hungry. Frankly, I see that opportunity every day.

One of Ben’s roommates, who is an active Belmonter, told me that Ben regularly invited the homeless to their house for dinner. This was where Ben heard God calling him.

In one of those early churches I served there was a 90 year old woman who did not drive and had become less physically active, but she began each day with prayer, asking God, “Where are you calling me today?” She spent many hours in morning prayer for the people of our church and community and she spent the afternoons calling and writing people who were in need. She was the dear friend who would welcome me in and give me strong coffee and banana bread and pray for me. I sometimes wonder if I would have survived those early years of ministry without her support and prayers. This was where God was calling her to serve.

What does it mean for us to hear God’s call to mission as a way of life? Are we willing to find out?


Sermon transcript for October 20, 2013


Hospitality—A Way of Life
Preached Oct. 20, 2013
Belmont UMC
Heather Harriss, preaching

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The scripture tells us that it is the Sabbath and Jesus is going to have dinner in the home of one of the leaders of the Pharisees.  We quickly learn that this is not a small affair, but instead a lavish banquet and a whole lot of other Pharisees are there as well.  Jesus enters the home and feels all eyes on him.  The Pharisees are watching him closely, studying his every move.  Is he a reckless lawbreaker? Could he be the Messiah?  

A man makes a beeline for a seat at the main table, another is close behind him.  Jesus sees another man sigh as he realizes he is not going to get one of the prime seats, dejected he heads to the table by the door.  When everyone is seated, those in seats of honor, looking pleased with themselves, those who are not looking a bit abashed, Jesus says, “When someone invites you to a wedding celebration, don’t take your seat in the place of honor.  Someone more highly regarded than you could have been invited by your host.  The host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give your seat to this other person.’ Embarrassed, you will take your seat in the least important place.  Instead, when you receive an invitation, go and sit in the least important place.  When your host approaches you, he will say, ‘Friend, move up here to a better seat.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.  All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

Talk about a conversation stopper!  After a bit of stunned silence, perhaps someone mentioned the weather.  But Jesus is not ready to let this group off the hook; he’s addressed how guests should behave; now he has a few pointers for how to be a good host.  First of all he says, “Don’t invite the people who will just invite you back over to their house for an even fancier dinner, oh no, if you are going to host a dinner, you know who you need to invite?  The people you would never dream of inviting!  That’s who needs to be on your list.  I wonder if Jesus stayed and finished his dinner?  These Pharisees who have been watching his every move, do they have their answer?  Could he be the Messiah?

Truthfully, I find this scene at the Pharisees house to be kind of a drag.  It reminds me too much of my own clamoring to get the best seat and my own reluctance to welcome the stranger into my home.  

Have you seen the show, Undercover Boss?  If you haven’t here’s the premise, the CEO of a large company disguises her or himself and works in different areas of the company.  Mostly areas that pay minimum wage and require much more skill and effort than the boss is aware of, As the boss is trained to do these jobs, (which he is always surprised to discover are way more complicated, difficult and at times back breaking than he or she ever imagined).  The boss encounters people who are doing an incredible job, but whose dedication and hard work go unnoticed, he also meets people who are all big talk and no results.  The show ends in a very satisfactory way, the hardworking noble people are finally recognized for the generous ways they share their gifts and talents and the louts are put in their place.  Isn’t it nice when things work out this way?  From our scripture this morning, this is sort of an example of Jesus’ first admonition to the Pharisees, “All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”   

But this is all so counter to our culture; this way of thinking so novel that it is fodder for summer television programming.  Because really it is the loudest, the boldest, the outrageous, the smartest, the richest, the winners, the powerful, the savviest, the successful who get the seats at the table.  We enter a room and scan it, “who’s here? Who should connect with, who do I need to be sure and speak to, who do I need to impress?”  And there’s Jesus watching us jockey to secure our place, he sees our desperation and he sees the futility of it all, he offers an alternative to this empty grasping for status:  Invite the lowly, you’ll know exactly what to do, be kind, gratitude will permeate the room and you will be blessed.  Befriend the person you fear, engage the one you usually ignore.  “Do this,” Jesus tells us and we will be builders of the kingdom of heaven here on earth.

Last week I was invited to attend a fundraiser for Thistle Farms.  Some of you may be familiar with this ministry that is the vision of the Reverend Becca Stevens.  She heard Jesus’ instructions on how to host a banquet and they caught fire in her heart.  She invited women who were addicted to drugs, in prison, those who were poor and crippled and beaten down by sexism, racism and misogyny.  She found these women and invited them to a banquet.  This banquet grew to include housing, intensive rehabilitation and therapy, job training, and because it is very difficult for people with a prison record to get a job, they started their own business.  That banquet has now become a nation wide model for helping women break the cycles of addiction and abuse.  

As you can imagine, this was a very inspiring fundraiser.  Together on the stage of the Ryman were women participating in the program, graduates, and women of wealth and privilege and they were united by the love, friendship and admiration they have for one another.  It was a glimpse of the kind of banquet Jesus invites us to host.  

Luckily, as a minister here at Belmont, I get to see some of the banquets that you all throw.  I get to see first hand, the shocking hospitality Jesus was urging on those Pharisees all those years ago, lived out right here.  
In an art club that welcomes all artists, in gatherings in homes, in our Community Center where people with homes and those without share a meal and conversation and often a bit of surprise when they discover something they have in common, in a school for English learners who come from around the world and find new friends as they study the language of their new country.  In Sunday school classes that carry one another’s burdens, in members who greet newcomers and make sure they know they are welcome here.  In the laughter and spiritual formation of our children and youth, In soccer teams, sewing circles and massive tutoring programs, in music that invites us to sacred places, in worship that unites us and reminds us that we are indeed the children of God.  In meetings where grace abounds, in a word of kindness spoken at just the right time, in friends gathering around the bedside of a beloved friend.  In the person who sees a ministry that needs to happen and starts it, in the people who pray daily, in these things and so many more we are guests and hosts, receiving and giving shocking hospitality.

The poet Mary Oliver writes, “Keep some room in your heart for the unimaginable.”  As Jesus sat down to dinner with the Pharisees this is what he was urging them to do.  We don’t know the name of Jesus’ host, but can you see Jesus leaning over to him and saying, “let’s imagine something different, what if you weren’t hosting this banquet because last month you attended an astounding Sabbath meal at your neighbor’s house and not only are you now in his debt, you want to make your dinner even more lavish, and the money you have spent is keeping you up at night, let’s imagine something different.”

If Jesus stood behind the man who had just sunk into a place of honor with palpable relief on his face, thinking, “maybe now I’ll feel like I belong,” and Jesus whispers in his ear, “Let’s imagine something different,” If Jesus went to the woman serving the meal and said, “Let’s imagine something different.”  Might they not all sigh with relief and say, “Yes, for goodness sake, yes!  Get me out of this crazy cycle of reciprocity with the ante going up with each round, free me from this anxiety that somehow I’m not good enough, smart enough, rich enough, pious enough to belong here, free me from the constraints of stereotypes, gender roles, class and prejudice.”

Jesus looks around and says, “Imagine this, give a banquet and invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind.  And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you.  Instead, you will be repaid when the just are resurrected.”  They look blankly at Jesus, they can’t imagine it yet, but perhaps in their hearts there is now a space, be it ever so small, for the unimaginable.

Each year our confirmands participate in a retreat at Lake Junaluska.  One of the things the leaders teach is the word, Theotokos.  The confirmands learn that Theotokos means God bearer and that it was first used to describe Mary the mother of Jesus, then they go on to say that because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are now all image bearers, each of us bearing the image of Christ out into the world.  In her book, A Million Little Ways, Emily Freeman writes, “Every moment is packed with artistic possibility because, as an image bearer with a job to do, there is potential to reveal the glory of God in every circumstance, no matter how I feel, who I’m with, what my hands hold, or what’s gone wrong, God with us lives within us.  And God will come out through us in a million little ways,”  Keep a little room in your heart for the unimaginable; after all, we are image bearers with a job to do.  

We live in a world that frightens and overwhelms us, that pressures us with so many demands we can forget that we are image bearers and it is our job to help our fellow travelers feel a little more at home in this world, to remind each other that we are so loved by God that we are compelled to lover one another, even when it is hard to love one another.  When we remember this, when we shock ourselves with our hospitality, we bear the image of Christ out into our world and Jesus continually says to each of us, “Imagine that!”




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