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Sermon transcript for March 31, 2013 - Easter

Evidence of the Resurrection
John 20:1-18  
Easter Sunday—March 31, 2013
Belmont UMC—Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

On this Happy Easter morning I look around this room and everywhere I look I see evidence of the resurrection. Thanks be to God! Everywhere I look I see signs of the divine reversal. Thanks be to God!

Hear this surprising resurrection text, one of my favorites, from Isaiah. “For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of a thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (55:12-13)

There are other texts throughout the scripture that remind us that God is the God of hope and resurrection, from the creation story, God making something out of nothing, making something from the void and bringing it to life.

There is story of about a couple named Abraham and Sarah, who in their old age, so old that the Bible says there was little life left in them, they find out that new life is on the way and is growing inside of an old woman. (Genesis 18) The news of this divine reversal takes them so off guard that Sarah can’t stop laughing.

There is that dramatic story of Ezekiel prophesying to a valley of dry bones and the bones come together and take on flesh and life. (ch. 37) This is a prophecy of hope in the midst of exile—one of the darkest periods of Israel’s history.

There is the story of Jesus bringing a man back to life, a man so full of demons, so mentally ill that he is left alone and nicknamed Legion. Everyone is afraid of him. He is isolated in a cave and left to his delusions and left to die alone. Jesus releases the man and brings him back to life, back to his community and family. (Mark 5:1-13)

Walter Brueggemann says that life in the Bible is always associated with relationship, so this man is brought back to life by being fully related to his community once again. When we welcome someone in, we welcome someone back to their community or their family, especially someone who has been excluded, that is a resurrection story. (The Bible Makes Sense, “From Death to Life,” pp. 109-121)

Resurrection is like homecoming. When the prodigal son returns home, what does his father say to the older brother? “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:32)

We are given this beautiful story in the Gospel of John that reminds us that sometimes we are staring Easter in the face and we do not see it. Mary is staring Easter in the face and she does not see it. Mary comes looking for the body of Jesus. She is experiencing overwhelming grief and she has come to do the last thing she will ever do for her friend, Jesus of Nazareth.

Mary has expectations. She knows exactly what to expect. She expects a tomb, death, decay and finitude. But there is no body. The tomb is empty. She is not sure what to do. She turns and sees a man she presumes to be a gardener. She says to the man, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”

In Mary’s mindset of the natural, the expected, she fails to see who this supposed gardener is, until he calls her name, “Mary.” And she knows!

She cries, “Teacher!”

Mary is staring Easter in the face and she does not know it. I suppose that has something to do with expectation. Resurrection is not natural, not expected. Mary expects death, not life. She expects a body, not an empty tomb. She expects a gardener, not a risen Jesus.

We do not see Easter because we do not expect Easter. We are like Mary; we expect logical explanations—we do not expect God to reverse the irreversible. But that is the message of Easter.

There are some people who will not see Easter because they have been trapped in a Good Friday mentality for so long. I say “will not” because I think it’s a choice, even if they are wired that way. We all know people who will not embrace hope and possibility.

I used to subscribe to The New Yorker but it came every week and I would fall behind on reading the articles. I did read all of the cartoons, however. I recall one favorite cartoon of a young man who went to see a fortune teller. She read his palm and she said, “You will be unhappy until you are 45 years old.”

He looked shocked and he said, “And then what?”

She answered, “And then you will get used to it.”

Some people and some churches do not want to see the hopeful possibilities and Easter hope escapes them. They are stuck in Good Friday and they’ve gotten used to it. Fred Craddock tells about a minister who, becoming so frustrated with his congregation because of its negativity and lack of vitality, that one Sunday night at the end of the worship service, he said, “Why don’t we all form a circle, hold hands, and try to communicate with the living.”

And there are those who cannot see Easter hope. They cannot hear the mountains and hills bursting into song or the trees clapping their hands. They cannot see the cypress and the myrtle, they can see only thorns and briers. They cannot see Easter because they have been so beaten down, excluded, saddened, wounded or traumatized by life that there is no way they can see Easter hope. We are Easter people and we will come alongside them and lift them up. We will love them, feed them, bind up their wounds and treat them with patient tenderness, until that time when they are able to hear the Risen Teacher saying their name, and then they will know, they will know, that Easter is real, and God has not forgotten them.

There are those who see Easter hope against all odds and they amaze us and inspire us. A few months ago we were privileged to meet Bishop Gabriel Unda Yemba of the East Congo Episcopal Area. Reverend Bill Lovell introduced him to us and he greeted us in worship one Sunday with such humility and grace. The Congo is an incredibly challenging place to be at present, with much political unrest and rebel activity. Many of the church buildings, homes and office buildings have been destroyed by rebel forces.

Bishop Yemba had addressed the Council of Bishops meeting in Georgia before coming to visit us at Belmont. He told the Bishops two stories. The first one was about himself. Several years ago he was taken by rebel forces and put in confinement in a very dark and small space. The quarters were so tight he asked the person next to him to move and when he did not Yemba realized that he was not alive. He soon realized that he was sharing a space with two live prisoners and three dead prisoners.

His Bishop tried to negotiate Yemba’s release but was unsuccessful. He sent a Methodist pilot to visit him but his captors would not release him. One day the other two prisoners were taken out and shot by a firing squad. The time came for Pastor Yemba’s  execution and the soldier raised his gun to shoot but the gun would not fire. The commanding officer took this as a sign and released him. Back home people were praying for him with great fervor. He said, “God brought life from death . . . hope where there was no hope.”

He told another story about a young mother from one of their churches. Rebel forces came to her village to burn it. They came to her home, tied up her parents, threw her baby on the ground and took her into the forest to assault her and kill her. She cried out boldly to God to rescue her. When one of the soldiers was undoing his belt, two hand grenades exploded seriously injuring the soldiers but leaving the woman unhurt. Astonished, she got up and ran home. She could hear the cries of the wounded soldiers begging her for help.

She ran home, untied her parents and tended to her baby. Here is some Easter hope, friends: she and her parents returned to help the wounded soldiers. “Today, the soldiers, all amputees, are faithful members of the United Methodist Church and the young woman is a living testimony of the hope of Christ.”

Bishop Yemba said, “As a newly elected Bishop, there is no residence that awaits me, no office building, no vehicles, not even a bicycle. But I serve a God of hope. God has power to give hope to the hopeless. I am not afraid of the future.”

Why would Bishop Yemba speak of hope in the face of such fear and darkness? Why would a young mother bind up the wounds of her enemy attackers?

And why are we here this morning? Why do we feed the hungry? Why do we welcome the stranger? Why do we provide shelter for the homeless? Why do we comfort the broken hearted? Why do we bind up the wounded? Why do we bother? Why do we care so deeply for those in need?

Because we went to the tomb and found it empty on Easter morning. Because we believe that Jesus lives and continues to call us. Because we believe every encounter with someone in need is an encounter with the living Christ.

Look around you this morning. Look around you on any Sunday at Belmont and you will look Easter in the face. We are Easter People. We are the evidence that Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!


 

Sermon transcript for March 28, 2013 - Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday
March 28, 2013
Pam Hawkins, preaching

Audio - MP3

   

Sermon transcript for March 24, 2013

Holy Week—Keeping Our Distance
March 24, 2013—Palm Sunday
Belmont UMC--Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

We have been on a meaningful journey through Lent and the journey has brought us here today and to the beginning of Holy Week. How do we prepare ourselves for the week ahead of us? I suspect that many of us approach this week with a bit of reluctance and that would be understandable. The story of Holy Week is a story that is difficult to hear. We make it prettier with our worship settings, but that doesn’t change the harsh reality of it. Somewhere in her writing Annie Dillard notes that people who go to church should wear crash helmets. Holy Week may be a crash helmet kind of week.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that we approach the story of Holy Week, especially the story of Good Friday like we approach a wreck on the highway. We see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, we slow down, we gaze from the safety of our cars, we may offer a prayer for the victims, and we move on. She writes, “Today the wreck is right here, and we have all decided to pull over. For a little while or a long while, each of us had decided to put aside whatever it was we were supposed to be doing in order to see what has happened here.” (Home By Another Way, “The Voice of Love” p. 83)

The story of Holy Week is the story of the human condition. It is a story of things like corrupted power, betrayal, denial, abandonment, systemic evil, oppressive governments, hatred, senseless violence, deep grief and fear. On Thursday we will gather here for a beautiful and meaningful worship service. We will wash feet, light candles and share the sacrament together and we’ll be tempted to forget how horribly frightening that night was for Jesus and the Jesus followers.

Holy Week reminds us of the ethical dilemma of capital punishment. (United Methodists do not support capital punishment.) I once invited our friend Harmon Wray to lead a combined Sunday School Class on the issue of capital punishment. He offered a list of reasons why we should oppose it and one those reasons was that people are sometimes wrongly convicted. One of my church folks challenged him, saying, “You people always say that, but you never give us any examples to prove it. Name one person who was put to death wrongly.” Harmon was quick with his response, “The first name that comes to mind is Jesus, The Christ.” The discussion ended.

Holy Week is a time for the disciples to come to terms with who Jesus really is and what discipleship means. On the way to Jerusalem James and John asked Jesus for a place of prominence in his coming kingdom. They did not know the irony of their request. Jesus answered them with a question, “Can you drink from the cup I am going to drink?” He was speaking of his death. They wanted power, prestige and influence but Jesus was offering servanthood, sacrifice and suffering. The disciples were not fully prepared for the harsh reality that awaited them in Jerusalem and neither are we.

We want to follow you, Jesus, but we do not want to drink from that cup. We will stand back here, keeping our distance, back behind the yellow tape that separates the onlookers from the reality.

In the readings for the passion narrative, Luke tells us that “women stood at a distance, watching things.’ The Greek word, makron, literally means “not too close.” Watching what was happening, any rational person would keep her distance.

Luke tells us that Peter, who vowed to follow Jesus no matter what, “followed Jesus at a distance” after Jesus’ arrest. He stood by a fire and warmed himself and cowered as he watched Jesus being taken away. Three times he denied knowing Jesus. Peter was afraid but some of the other disciples had fled in fear.

I sometimes see myself standing there by the fire with Peter, keeping my distance, not getting too close to the events of Holy Week. We keep our distance when the call of discipleship is too demanding. We keep our distance when we have to take a difficult stand because of our faith. We keep our distance when we are called to do the uncomfortable work of caring for the poor and marginalized. We keep our distance when asked to welcome strangers and those who are not welcomed anywhere else.

We keep our distance but God does not!

That is the good news. On this Palm Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and we are celebrating the God who does not keep us at a distance, but enters completely into our human world with all of its ugliness and reality.  

We think of Christmas as the time of celebrating the incarnation, when God came to live among us in Jesus Christ, in the flesh, but Holy Week seems to be the fullest expression of what incarnation means. Holy Week is not only about violence, fear, and grief, but it is about great hope for the world. And the hope of Holy Week is found in this God who enters fully into our lives, into our suffering, our troubles, into our human reality, event when that reality is an ugly reality. In the garden the night of his arrest, Jesus prays for guidance, and what Jesus hears is that God wants him to fulfill the work of the incarnation and walk, all in, into our human world. He does this knowing the consequences.

And in this God we see the model for our work in the world. As we gather here in the comfort and safety of this space, among our friends in faith, we know that God is calling us to do continue the work of taking the love of God out into the world that awaits us. We cannot confine God inside these walls.

Bishop McAlilly was with us last week. He asked the members of our Administrative Board, “If your church disappeared, who would miss it?” He wasn’t talking about us here in this place, but who, in the community and the world, would miss Belmont? The answer to that question has everything to do with how we understand this work of taking God’s love into our world, even when that world troubling, even when we risk our comfort and safety to do it.

Bishop Joe Pennel was the pastor here for ten years but he served in Memphis before coming to Belmont UMC. He was a pastor in Memphis when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The morning after the shooting The Commercial Appeal urgently called the clergy of the city to a meeting.

Joe wrote of this experience, “Pastors representing every racial, cultural, and educational level in the city gathered for a mass meeting. . . . Reverend James Lawson, a friend of Dr. King’s and an effective pastor in South Memphis, read the Old Testament lesson. The local Greek Orthodox priest read from the New Testament and symbolically kissed the feet of Reverend Lawson. Reverend Frank McRae, a courageous leader in the United Methodist Church, spoke about hope in the midst of despair.”

“After a session of Bible study, prayer and speaking the clergy decided to march en masse to the office of the mayor, as a symbol of love and reconciliation. We wanted the Mayor to reconsider his opposition to the striking sanitation workers as a symbol of repentance and love.”

“After leaving the sanctuary, we formed ourselves in lines two abreast and started walking toward the city hall. Just before we completed one block of our march, a young deacon from St. Mary’s ran back into the church brought out the processional cross which was commonly used on Sunday morning for the worship service. With humility and yet boldness, he put himself at the head of the processional now aimed at the city’s seat of power. As we walked, television cameras descended upon us. . . .

“When our journey was about half completed, an older woman started yelling from a second floor apartment window. . . . As I drew closer to her flowerboxed window, I could hear the anger in her shrill voice: “The cross belongs in the church! The cross belongs in the church! I am a member of St. Mary’s. Take the cross back to the church where it belongs!” (The Whisper of Christmas, pp. 113-114)

If we learn anything from Holy Week, it must be this: the cross cannot be kept in the church. “For God so loved the world, that God gave God’s only son.” He didn’t say, “For God so loved the Methodists, the Belmonters.”

I first read the following words of George Macleod, founder of the Iona Community, when I was 18 years old and they spoke to me of what my call to ministry must look like. I’ve shared them before and they are words that will be familiar to many of you.

I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace, as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a high cross between two thieves: on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew, in Latin and in Greek. . . . At the kind of place where sinners talk smut, and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died and that is what he died about. And that is where church (people) ought to be and what church (people) ought to be about.”

Reflection: Now I invite you to a time of silent reflection. Allow your imagination to take you somewhere outside these walls. See the places where the message of God’s love is needed. Where do you hear God calling you?



 

Sermon transcript for March 17, 2013

Bishop Bill McAlilly preaching
Belmont UMC—March 17, 2013

Audio - MP3


   

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