Sermon transcript for September 30, 2012
Living God’s Dream in Community
Mt. 16:13-18; James 5
Belmont UMC—September 30, 2012
Ken Edwards (with Bill Lane)
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah! For flesh and blood have not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (16:13-18)
It’s a powerful statement, especially with what we know about Peter, who later in the Gospel story, does not look much like a rock, a firm foundation, upon which to build anything. He looks more like a fault line!
“Living God’s Dream” is our theme for 5 Sundays through October 21st as we move toward making pledges of our giving to support the ministries of the church. When we think about Living God’s Dream for the church, what does that look like in our minds?
What did Jesus envision when we spoke of building the church? The Greek word for church, ekklesia, means “those who are called out.” Like Peter and the other disciples we are community of people called by Jesus. Who is Jesus calling us to be?
We’ve been reading through the Letter of James in this Lectionary cycle and James has lots of practical advice, some of it stated in strong language, about what it means to be the church. And it appears that the early church was trying to understand what it meant to live toward God’s dream for them, as a group of people, coming together in expressions of faith.
Here are some snapshots of church life from the Letter of James: It is a place where expressions of generosity are reminders of God’s generous grace. In the church we hear the word and act upon it. In the church we use our words to encourage and build up, never to tear down. In the church we learn that status does not exist in the mind of God. In the church we care for one another and help meet the needs of those who are lacking. In the church we learn to put aside our selfish pursuits and agendas. In the church we work out our differences in an atmosphere of grace and unity. In the church we pray for one another and bear one another’s burdens. And it is in the church that we ask daily for Godly wisdom, because we know we cannot survive without it.
And all these years later we still struggle to fully understand who God is calling us to be, but we keep moving toward this dream of God anyway. I suspect we all have images, snapshots, in our minds that describe what we think church is about.
As United Methodist people we know that we are a covenant church. Long ago when our founder, John Wesley, started class meetings, the people were bound together in love and they held each other accountable to faithful living, and they were serious about it, too. We continue to speak the words of our covenant with God and we repeat them every time a new member joins the church. We promise to support the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service and our witness. Sometimes, we say those words quickly and we forget how transformative they can be when taken seriously.
It had snowed on Saturday night—that’s a pastor’s nightmare. The pastor has to make a decision about opening the church but knows that few people will venture out on a morning like that. I made the decision to cancel the early service and Sunday School, but to hold the later service and that decision necessitated dozens of phone calls in a time before email and websites. I drove on snow covered streets to the church and began to help the custodian shovel the walks and porches to make them somewhat safe.
Thirty minutes before the late service was to start, a car pulled into the driveway. Inside the car was an older couple. The wife was driving; the husband had given up his driving privileges when he reached his late 80’s. They were very faithful to the church and had been involved in every aspect of the church’s life. His claim to fame was that, at age 80, against everyone’s advice, he had climbed to the top of the bell tower and painted the peeling roof—because it needed a coat of paint.
His name was Garland and I approached the car to help him and his wife. I said, “Garland, this is a terrible day for you to be out on the roads. You could easily fall and break a limb.’ Garland was feeble and stooped, and he cocked his head to one side to look me in the eye. The look he gave me was not a pleasant one. He said, “All these people keep joining the church here and you keep making us repeat these words, ‘With you we renew our vows to support the church with our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service.’ Well. I am present.” He took the covenant he made with God and with the others in the church very seriously.
We promise to pray for our church and we have entered into a season of prayer and discernment and seek God’s guidance in developing a strategic plan for the church. We asked, “What are God’s dreams for us as the people of Belmont UMC? Where is God leading? Where do we hear God’s call?”
We promise to be present here on Sunday mornings and at events throughout the week. Our presence is important to the life and vitality of the church. We love each other we need each other. In the spirit of the African concept of ubuntu, which means “I am because you are,” we know that we are defined and enriched by each other’s presence.
We promise to give to the church and we give in faith because we do not always see the life changing results of our giving. Some folks would rather give to capital funds, which are important as well, but our regular giving may indeed change the life of someone we will never meet or know and we give in faith. That kind of giving has a cumulative impact, like compound interest. We change a life, and that persons changes two lives and those two persons change several more.
We promise to serve the church—to hear God’s call be engaged in hands on service for Jesus Christ. Bill and Mary Ruth Lane live in Fairview, TN and come here each week to worship and to teach the Senior High Sunday Class. They are committed to working with our teens and as a father, as well as a pastor, I’m grateful for their service. I’ve asked Bill to come and share about an exciting ministry of the youth and their partnership in feeding the hungry.
This all started for me several years ago when Mary Ruth and I attended a seminar at Focus on The Family in Colorado Springs. The subject matter was "Balancing family life with your professional life." Upon our return I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the things I enjoyed doing that would help "balance" my life. Being self employed as an attorney has its ups and downs. I definitely needed balance!
The activities I enjoyed included several things which lead me outdoors. Backpacking,
Kayaking, Mountain Biking, Fly Fishing....Despite being able to do all of this, there was
something that was obviously missing. Mary Ruth had always told me to "be still and listen" so I gave it a try... It works.
Shortly thereafter I realized that my connection to the earth was where I could find solace. We had the opportunity to purchase the farm where we live now back in 2006. After spending time out there on the weekends, I decided that "I was going to have a garden." That's when it started.
So in 2008 I had the equipment and the desire to get things going. As Mary Ruth will tell you I have a tendency to go a little overboard. I didn't want just a garden spot. So I put in a garden that was one-half acre and another half-acre which is an orchard. The garden was an immediate success. We had stuff growing out of ours ears. This was the next issue to deal with. We didn't can things and had no storage. So the question became what do we do with all these vegetables?
By this time we had returned to Belmont and were teaching the Sr. High Sunday School Class, and after a couple of years giving things away, and you can only give so much yellow squash away, and letting things rot in the garden, I had started having discussions with Mary Ruth about the fact we were being so wasteful and having been blessed with the garden we were not being good stewards with what God had provided. Don't get me wrong, I was having a great time and the garden offered the transition I was looking for from being at work to being at home. But there was something obviously lacking. However, the lack of stewardship was pretty heavy.
Then the idea hit. Why not supply a need for fresh vegetables in the Nashville community. I have always kept in mind the quote that "ideas without action are only hallucinations" and knew that it would be impossible to do this without help. Where could I turn for the help? That's when I approached Chris and with his help, we implemented the program that we have today. The Garden is good and God has made it grow abundantly this year even with the drought. You learn real quick that God has his own plan and it does not necessarily conform to your own. I contacted Tallu Quinn at the Nashville Food Project and needless to say she was thrilled. No one had ever offered up a food source like this.
The kids started coming out in early March of this year and with the assistance of parents and other volunteers built a 12 x 20 foot hoop house and planted some twenty-five flats full of various vegetable seed. When the weather broke, more kids, parents and volunteers came out and the ground was broken and everyone joined in planting more vegetables. The vegetables that were started in the hoop house went into the ground and when I looked up one weekend, the entire garden was planted and growing. We had Potatoes, Green Beans, Swiss Chard, Pac Choy, cauliflower, tomatoes, kale, corn and so on. It was truly amazing.
One instance that has stuck with me is when we were getting the potatoes out of the ground. We had several varieties and there was an abundance! Was that we had one child who was down in the dirt and pulled out a potato and looked at me and asked the question, very seriously "can I eat this?" I said yes but leave the dirt. He wasted no time. We ended up with about two hundred pounds ofpotatoes alone and parents so you know we don't use any chemicals at all.
Looking back we had ten youth and twelve adults that would take turns rotating in and out on a regular basis. Groups returned throughout the Spring and into Summer. It was great and God's presence was obvious. The fellowship was wonderful. The opportunity to meet and get to know parents, kids and other adults in a different setting has helped me grow in how I relate to others and given me a further understanding of what God had in mind all along.
By the end of the Summer, the garden, through God's plan and the help of the community right here today, was one of four which supplied over five hundred pounds of fresh vegetables to the Nashville Food Project who in turn took those vegetables and prepared 2,400 hot nutritious meals per month with the help of 1200 volunteer hours. It was a lot of work but it was good work.
We promise to be a witness for Jesus Christ, to share our faith stories, and to live in a way that speaks of Christ’s presence in the world. I like the words that are attributed to St. Francis, “Preach the gospel everywhere, and if necessary, use words.”
If we live this covenant we have made with each other, we will live toward God’s dream for us and we will be living witnesses of God’s expansive love in the world.
Sermon transcript for September 16, 2012
Belmont UMC—September 16, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
When I was serving the church in Lebanon, Tennessee, I received a call in the office one day. The call was from a couple who had visited the church on the previous Sunday. The husband made the call and the wife was listening in. He said, “We visited on Sunday and the people were very friendly. We enjoyed the music and the sermon and we are thinking about joining up.” I said, “That’s great! Can we set up a meeting to talk about membership?”
He said, “I guess, but I need to make a few things clear before we join. One is that we are retired now and we have decided that we will not be volunteering to serve on committees or teaching or things like that. We really want to be under the radar. And we don’t make pledges to giving campaigns. What we are looking for is a church where we come and enjoy worship on Sundays and be pretty much left alone.”
After a long pause, I said, “Actually, we ask new members to commit to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. So may I recommend you try First United Methodist? I think you’ll fit better there.” I never told the pastor First UMC that I did that. I probably owe someone an apology.
I was at a workshop a few weeks ago and one of the presenter’s slides read simply, “High Expectation Churches Grow; Low Expectation Churches Die.”
These were some of the thoughts that were floating through my head when I was reading these words of Jesus in Mark 8. And I was thinking about being a part of the church during an era of church growth experts, who encourage churches to give what people what they want so they will stay put and quit church shopping. We all want to be a part of the full service church.
Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “The effort to please does not stop once people decide to join the church. A good parish minister will work hard to make sure that worship is satisfying, that Christian education is appealing, that plenty of opportunities for fellowship and service exist. A well-run church is like a well-run home, where members can count on regular meals in pleasant surroundings, with people who generally mind their manners.” (Bread of Angels, pp. 46-47) She concludes that Jesus would not have been a successful parish minister.
And then I read today’s Gospel text. Listen again to some of these words. Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They respond with some of the things they are hearing on the streets. And then Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ.” That was the correct answer, but it’s likely that Peter had a different understanding what being “the Christ” meant.
Jesus describes what it means to be “the Christ” in these words, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts, and be killed, and then, after three days, rise from the dead.” (v. 31) Peter did not like this answer and he tried to scold and correct Jesus. Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are not thinking God’s thoughts, but human thoughts.” (v. 33)
The text seems to answer two questions: What does it mean to be Jesus? What does it mean to be a follower of Jesus? And the answers to both questions are hard to hear.
Jesus does not live up to Peter’s messianic expectations. Peter expects Jesus to be a strong, invincible savior, a super hero, who can conquer all his people’s foes. The disciples have been following Jesus and listening to his profound teachings. They have been witnesses to stunning miracles and they been amazed at Jesus’ compassion and power. They have been plotting how wonderful it will be to in this leader’s cabinet. They are well into this journey when Jesus drops this bomb on them. Suddenly he is talking about suffering and rejection and they must be wondering if they have embarked on the wrong trip.
I doubt that we want a Jesus who is a conquering hero, a super savior who can defeat our enemies. But we must admit that we would like a Jesus who is a little more domesticated, a Jesus who blends into our culture a little more smoothly. We want a Jesus who is more like us: a Republican or a Democrat, an optimist, a vegan or a progressive, or whatever we want him to be. We want a softer savior, a gentler Jesus and not one who talks about suffering and rejection. And no, he does not live up to our expectations; he lives up to God’s expectations. God seeks not only to enter into our world and to know us more intimately, but enters into our suffering as well. This God has the real power—the power that comes with unconditional love. This God has the power to save us!
What does it mean to be a follower of this Jesus? Listen to the words of Jesus, “All who want to come after me must say no themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them.” (verses 34b-35 CEB) Jesus has high expectations for us as well. He expects us to let go of our lives and give them over to God. That seems risky and we aren’t comfortable with some of the language Jesus uses, especially that part of carrying crosses.
I was coming of age in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and it was common to hear people say that they were “trying to find themselves.,” or wanting to experience some level of self-discovery, and answer the question, “Who am I?” That’s not the wrong journey to travel, but the choices people made often led them away from the answer, not toward it. Jesus says we won’t find ourselves until we are willing to lose ourselves in God’s purposes, in something bigger than us, in service that takes beyond our selfish needs and motives.
When people are asked to describe a meaningful time in their lives, or to share about a life changing experience, listen to what they say. I’ve never heard anyone answer that question by talking about getting a promotion at work or winning an award. They almost always talk about a mission trip, building a Habitat House, mentoring children, feeding and housing the homeless neighbors, or serving the needs of the world in some important way.
At Grace UMC we sent several mission teams to Gulfport, Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Our senior high youth went to New Orleans. I would meet these mission teams, often made up of young adult men and women who were taking vacation days to help someone else. We would pray together and then they would set out. They weren’t the same people when they returned at the end of the week. They had come face to face with suffering and with the people they were helping, people who had lost everything, including their hope for recovery. They had worked long days in dirty and uncomfortable surroundings, and they were profoundly changed by having given themselves in service to others. They were spiritually changed and renewed. And they understood what Jesus meant when he said, “All who lose their lives because of me and the good news will find them.”
Bishop Will Willimon shared a story from his days at Duke University. A representative from Teach America visited the campus to recruit talented college graduates to go into some of the nations worst public schools. This is Teach America’s method for transforming schools.
Willimon said, “One woman stood up in front of a large group of Duke students, a larger group than I would suppose would come out to this sort of thing, and said to them, ‘I can tell by looking at you that I have probably come to the wrong place. Somebody told me this was a BMW campus and I can believe it looking at you. Just looking at you, I can tell that all of you are a success. Why would you all be on this campus if you were not successful, if you were not going on to successful careers on Madison Avenue or Wall Street?’
‘And yet here I stand, hoping to talk somebody into giving away your life in the toughest job you will ever have. I am looking for people to go into the hollows of West Virginia, into the ghettos of South Los Angeles and teach in some of the most difficult schools in the world. Last year, two of our teachers were killed while on the job.’
‘And I can tell, just by looking at you, that none of you are interested in that. So go on to law school, or whatever successful thing you are planning on doing. But if by chance, just some of you happen to be interested, I’ve got some brochures here for you to tell you about Teach America. Meeting’s over.’”
Willimon said the whole group stood up, pushed into the aisles, pushed each other aside, ran down to the front, and fought over those brochures. He said he learned that evening that people want to be a part of something bigger than them selves; they want to be part of the adventure. (Pulpit Resource, Vol. 28, No. 3 p. 50)
We see this all the time around here—people who have let go of the control over their lives, giving their lives to God, and in the process, finding real life, and finding a deep and lasting relationship with God with this God of high expectations, this God, who has the power to save them. Let us join this great adventure with God!