Sermon transcript for June 15, 2014
Put Things in Order
2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Belmont UMC—June 15, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
If you’ve read through First and Second Corinthians you know that the church at Corinth was not a healthy church. Paul had helped birth this church, had lived among the people for a time and had made two visits to the church. The make up of the church was diverse, especially with regard to economics. Some people were wealthy, some were very poor and it appears that some were even slaves. Huge divisions developed within the church. And by the time Paul wrote this second letter, some had rejected his leadership and had turned to following what scholars call “super apostles.” Some bragged of being followers of these various personalities and some bragged that they followed Jesus. Some boasted of having gifts of the Spirit that gave them a sense of self-importance.
The church existed in a city that was quite corrupt. In the Greek language there was a word, korinthiaesthai, that meant to live like a Corinthian, to live a drunken, hedonistic and immoral life. Above the city toward the hill of Acropolis, stood the temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, a temple that housed approximately 1000 temple prostitutes.
Corinth was a metropolitan city and a center of trade. It was at the crossroads of trade and merchandise, but it was at the crossroads of ideas as well. And many of these ideas influenced the new church.
Paul had heard of the church’s divisions, of people’s tendency to follow after spiritual leaders (they longed for the good old days when Pastor _______ had been their pastor), of their idolatry, their bickering and grumbling and their misuse of spiritual gifts.
And he seeks one last chance to bring them back to order.
(I have to admit that during many years of back roads travels, I still marvel to find little churches that have taken on the name of Corinth. Fortunately, they are not often United Methodist Churches. But one has to wonder if the founders had read the letters of First and Second Corinthians. Maybe they only read the beautiful love poem in 1 Corinthians 13, which itself is part a corrective.)
Paul ends the Second Letter to the Corinthians with some declarative appeals. “Put things in order!” This is sometimes translated “Be perfected,” “Be restored” and one scholar suggests the translation, “Pull yourselves together!” (Stephen A. Cooper, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3, p.41)
It is a call to do some self-evaluation and get things back on track. It is a call to remember who they are and whose they are. It is a call back to what is most important in life. Sometimes churches lose their way; they lose sight of what they are called to do and be, and they drift into divisiveness or focusing things of little importance.
I was with a financial adviser who was taking care of our tax preparation. He told me of couple he was helping who had $35,000 in credit card debt and they were in trouble financially. He said that people don’t get in debt like that in one big shopping spree. Usually, they begin to make a series of small steps in the wrong direction. There are subtle compromises and lack of discipline and before they know it, they have dug a deep hole.
Our spiritual lives are like that. We take small steps in the wrong direction and before we know it we have lost our way and any sense of who we are called to be. I read somewhere that sheep get lost because they graze in a straight line and they simply nibble their way to lostness. We lose our way one nibble at a time.
Friends, let us hear the call to put things in order. I like our mission statement because it takes us back to the basics of who we are. Our mission statement is based on the words of Jesus when he was asked about the greatest commandment. Jesus quoted the shema of Deuteronomy 6, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And he added, “And the second one is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Our mission statement is simply this: “Belmont is a community of Christ followers, growing in our love of God and neighbor. This is what we, at Belmont UMC believe Christian discipleship is, what we are to be, and what Jesus meant when he sent his followers to ‘make disciples.’” We are Christ followers, not Ken or John or Linda or Pam followers. If we wake up every morning and say, “Jesus, I will follow you today, not other personalities, not the desires of my own heart, not the many calls and summons of this world, but I will go where you lead me, then we are on the right path.”
And we are “growing” in our love of God and neighbor. We added the word “growing” because it means we are not there yet. We need spiritual nurture and daily spiritual disciplines to enable to grow in our love of God and others. John Wesley would have called this “being perfected in love.” Put things in order.
Let’s allow ourselves some time this summer for self-evaluation, as individuals and as a church. Let’s pull ourselves together and agree to live toward this simple and clear vision of who we are called to be.
Then Paul says to the Corinthians, “Be in harmony with each other and live in peace.” All churches need to hear this, but the Corinthians especially needed it. Some versions of this passage will say, “Agree with one another,” but “be in harmony” or “be of one mind” is a better translation. It’s reassuring to know that we don’t have to agree with one another (because we don’t), but we do have to love one another.
In one of the churches I served there was a rather large young adult class that met in the fellowship hall because they had outgrown all the other rooms in the church. Their teacher asked me to teach a series on the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. I declined the invitation but he was persistent. The Social Principles contain statements on all sorts of things, like abortion, the environment, human sexuality, genetic engineering, drug and alcohol abuse, capital punishment, etc. I said to the teacher, “Let’s allow that pot to simmer; no need to stir it up.”
My fear was not that the class members would disagree with some of the social principles; I disagree with some points there myself. But I was afraid the classes would highlight their disagreements with each other.
I did teach the class and I did warm them about the risks. And sure enough by the third session there was a fairly heated exchange between two men who were very good friends, and it worried me. But the people in this class had known each other for a long time and they had shared many social gatherings and retreats, and they had grown to love each other. I watched as these two men stood beside each other at Room in the Inn on Wednesday night as they served food to homeless guests. I watched them embrace one another after class one day. I watched as their love for one another trumped their opinions. I watched love win.
Recently, I was part of a team of clergy who led a spiritual life retreat for ministers from the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences. One of our worship services was a Service of Healing and Wholeness. At the end of the service people were invited to come forward for prayer and to be anointed with oil. I was at one of the prayer stations and I would ask persons who came forward if they wanted to be anointed and if they had specific prayer request. I was stunned by how honest and vulnerable persons were when they came forward. United Methodist ministers are not usually very honest about their personal struggles and hurts. But this group seemed liberated to admit a lot of deep need for healing and almost everyone in the conference hall came to the front.
At one station, two men came together, two pastors. They asked for prayer for their relationship. They had a falling out with one another some months ago and they had grown to hate one another. They were trying to put things in order and forgive one another. They had their arms around each other and they were both weeping.
We are human and frail and that is why the scriptures constantly remind us to be at peace with one another, to forgive one another. We pass the peace of Christ on Sunday morning as a sign that we are in right relationship with one another. We cannot always hope to do this on our own power but the power of the Holy Spirit and can move us to forgive and be reconciled with one another. When we allow that to happen, the church can become the model of the love and peace of Christ. Where are you in your relationship with others, in your family, in our church?
Let us live with these words this summer and see where they take us: Put things in order, respond to my encouragement, be in harmony with each other, and live in peace.
Then Paul says, “Then the God of love and peace will be with you.”
Sermon transcript for June 8, 2014
“God Speaks Our Language”
June 8, 2014---Belmont UMC
Audio - MP3
Last Sunday we worshipped with members of our Golden Triangle Fellowship. The people who make up the membership of this part of our congregation are mostly from Thailand and Burma. As I processed in beside Sandy Sakarapanee she was singing the hymn in Thai and I quit singing so I could listen to her. Most of the folks are from Burma and speak a language known as Karen. Different languages and dialects were being heard during all the hymns and the service was translated into the languages of all the people gathered here. Thanks to Carver Hla for being our tireless interpreter last Sunday. Carver is one of the most dedicated persons I’ve met along the way. He loves God and he feels called to this work. Last week the languages we were speaking were different but the message was the same.
At Pentecost God was the interpreter. The disciples were given the gift of speaking the many languages of the persons present, pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the celebration of Pentecost. The disciples were not speaking in unknown tongues but in easily identifiable languages “of every nation under heaven.” These were the languages of the Roman Empire and the Mediterranean world. And with this manifestation of the Spirit and the empowered preaching of the disciples, God gave birth to the church.
Immediately, Spirit-empowered church was challenged by a contingent of naysayers, who scoffed at the linguistic gift as mere drunkenness. And it was Peter who stood and responded to the critics. He did not say what some might wish he had said, “These people are not drunk because they are not drinkers.” No, he said, “They are not drunk because it’s too early in the day for that.” But then in eloquent words Peter retold the story of Jesus and invited the crowds to join this new adventure of being Christ followers.
God had spoken in a definitive moment in time. And the work and message of Jesus, no longer present in the flesh, will continue to be experienced through the lives and work and words of his followers.
God Speaks Our Language
The world is a very diverse place and over the centuries persons in pockets of the world have developed language systems. Within these language systems lies the cultural identity of each ethnic and geographical group. Preserving the cultural identity is tied to preserving the language (we have learned this through the Native Americans, who were on the verge of losing much of their heritage as they were discouraged by white Americans from speaking in their own languages).
When we were in Quebec again a few summers ago, it was obvious how important the French language is to their sense of identity and culture. They have fought off attempts to make English the only official language in Canada. It was a great opportunity and challenge for me to see how much French I could remember from my college French classes—not much. I know how to ask for coffee and I know how to say, “I do not speak French.”
Among English speaking folks in our country there are cultural differences that we observe—especially in accents and dialects. The first time my New England born father-in-law and my rural Southern father were together in a room, I sat between them and translated. It was really quite humorous. I finally gave up and left them to their own devices.
Our inability to think outside our own culture is evident in some of the failed attempts to take our products to other countries. When Coca-Cola first went to China the were determined to used a symbol that phonetically represented the sound of their name, but the new symbol translated, “Bite the wax tadpole.” When Chevrolet wanted to market the Nova in Latin America, they neglected the fact that the word means, “won’t go” in Spanish. In Taiwan, Pepsi’s slogan, “Come alive with Pepsi’ translated, “Pepsi brings your ancestors back to life.” When Frank Perdue used his slogan, “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” in Spanish it translated, “It takes a virile man to make a chicken affectionate.” (Susan Resnick Pierce, “Can the Center Hold”)
The point of Pentecost is that God speaks our language and we will understand. If we speak Redneck or sophisticated Southern, Midwestern, or LA street talk, Bostonian or Piedmont, God knows our language and God speaks it loud and clear.
The People Whisperer
A few years ago I read the story of Buck Branaman. (Smithsonian Magazine) Buck’s life story has more recently been made into a documentary. Buck is lanky Wyoming cowboy who sees the world from a horse’s point of view. He doesn’t believe in “breaking horses.” He believes in turning frightened horses into friends, a way that has more to do with respect and trust than mastery or manhandling. He seems to understand why a horse is scared to have a person crawl up on his back and his job as a horse trainer is to get the horse comfortable with the idea of people being around.
Buck Branaman is one of the real life characters who inspired the novel and movie, “The Horse Whisperer.” Horse Whisperer is an ancient term from the British Isles, and it is used to refer to persons who have an almost mystical rapport with horses.
Buck Branaman doesn’t think there is anything mystical about it. “It’s about being one with the horse. There is not secret to this. I just know what we need to do in order for both of us to speak the same language and dance the same dance.”
To many “horse breakers” this seems new and radical. They do not understand this horse whispering that is not forced or angry, but rather a method that is loving, gentle and spiritual, a method that seeks to speak in the language of the horse.
Branaman explains his way of seeing horses as being centered in his past. His mother died of diabetes when he was a little boy. He and his brother were left to be raised by a violent and abusive father. They lived in fear until rescued by a school teacher and a police officer who sent them to live with Forrest and Betsy Shirley. The Shirleys had taken in other frightened and abused children. The police officer had been one of those children. Branaman said, “Forrest and Betsy seemed to know me and they seemed to be able to speak my language.” We might call them People Whisperers.
Friends, Jesus reminds us that God chose a new and radical way to be among us, to know us--a gentle, loving spiritual way to live among us. And God speaks our language. God is the People Whisperer. God, who understands who we are and how we are, speaks to us and we are not afraid to respond.
God is the People Whisperer! To a thirsty woman at a well in Samaria, God speaks the language of water and quenched thirst. To a searching Nicodemus, God speaks the language of new birth and fresh starts. To a grieving father, God speaks the language of encouragement and possibility. To the hungry, God speaks the language of bread from heaven. To the depressed and confused, God speaks the language of healing. To the lost and those who despair, God speaks the language of hope. To those who are abused, God speaks the language of gentle, healing love.
Wherever we are in our spiritual walk with God, God comes to speak the language that we can hear and understand. Listen today, and hear what God is saying to you.
The Message is the same
The languages are different. The cultures are diverse. The message is the same.
In spite of the variety of sounds and expressions pouring forth from the Spirit-filled disciples, they produced a unified, global message. All of those witnessing this phenomenon heard and testified that all these different languages were proclaiming the same message, “God’s deeds of power.”
It is the message of the power of God’s love. It is a message that seeks to do more than console or comfort; it is the message that transforms lives who, in turn, transform communities. There is no message more transformative than the message that says, “I love you, I forgive you, I call you, I entrust you with this gift.”
We are people whisperers
If Pentecost teaches us anything, it is that we are People Whisperers, too. We are the ones through whom God will speak. The message of God’s love and power was on the tongues of Christ’s followers. We, too, are gifted by God to speak the language of the message of love and healing in a way that is understandable.
Listen to the Spirit this morning. Where is calling God calling us to bear the message of love and healing? Who in our world comes to mind when we ask that question? My friends, it is likely that God is calling us to take this message to that person.