Sermon transcript for June 17, 2012
June 17, 2012
Linda Johnson, preaching
Audio - MP3
When I was in elementary school we were taught a strange little song about growing things that could very well be right out of today’s gospel lesson.
I suggested to Gayle Sullivan that I begin the sermon by singing it. She paused for a minute and then said, “Well, if that’s really the way you want to end your ministry here.”
The song, which I will not sing, goes like this: “Oats, peas, beans and barley grow. Oats, peas, beans and barley grow. You, nor I, nor nobody knows how oats, peas, beans and barley grow.”
According to Jesus, neither do we understand how the Kingdom of God grows. It is pure mystery – God’s mystery.
Jesus is teaching beside the sea. The crowd got so large that he had to get into a boat, where he sat and taught the people in parables. I can’t help but wonder why people sat on a hot hillside to listen to Jesus’ teachings.
I mean, if you think about it, he’s telling weird little stories that he doesn’t even expect everyone to understand. And the amazing part about his questionable teaching method is that the subject he’s teaching about is nothing less than the Kingdom of God.
The Kingdom of God – the core of his message, the point of it all. And how does Jesus convey this crucial truth? He says,
The Kingdom of God is “as if” someone scattered seed on the ground, and then went on about their business until it was harvest time. The seeds then did what they were supposed to do – grow into the plant hidden inside them. The farmer doesn’t seem to have much to do with the growth itself.
Then again, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” Well, it is like this teeny, tiny seed that becomes what it is suppose to become – a plant so large that birds can nest in its branches.
What is the Kingdom of God? It is God’s place – God’s time, where and when things are the way God wants them to be. It is the culmination of creation, the perfecting of what God created the earth to become.
We have some great images for the Kingdom of God in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The Holy City; the New Jerusalem; the Peaceable Kingdom. Even nature will be transformed. A tender lamb can lie down beside a lion; a child can play with a snake. There will be no more war. And one of my favorites, they will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain. There will be no more sadness, no more tears. A big banquet where everyone sits together as equals.
I love the idea of this place – or this time. I look hard for signs of it, signs that good is growing, signs of peace and reconciliation. Signs that humanity is maturing into the people God created us to be. I look for signs and try not to get discouraged by what I see. It is easy to be discouraged these days, is it not?
I enjoy gardening – not the end results so much as the process. I don’t like to buy plants that are full-grown and already flowering. I like to buy small plants so I can watch them grow. And I love to plant seeds because then you see the real miracle of growth. But I’m also impatient for the growth to begin, so I start watching for signs of growth a few days after planting. Staring at the bare ground does not make my seeds grow faster. Getting frustrated or impatient does not make my seeds grow faster. Worrying that maybe I planted them too deeply and preparing to be disappointed doesn’t make them grow or not grow. It just makes me less peaceful. It takes away some of the pleasure of gardening for me.
Jesus says that the kingdom is like seeds that grow after being planted – we have no idea how, and that, in fact, we have little to do with it. We might as well just go take a nap since our efforts are not required for the seed to grow to fruition. So, are we not necessary at all in the growth of the Kingdom? Is that what Jesus is telling us?
That may seem to be the message of these two parables, but elsewhere Jesus tells us that what we do does matter. It matters a lot. That we believe and what we believe matters. What we DO with our belief matters. How we treat people matters
It is ironic that this is the lectionary lesson for today, my last sermon at Belmont. This is an issue I continue to work on. What, exactly, is our responsibility for partnering with God in God’s work of salvation? And what is God’s job alone? And especially, when might our actions actually do more harm than good?
How do we give ourselves to caring for the needs and hurts of the world as Jesus told us to do, but without falling into despair and depression? How do we act with passion for what we believe in without judgment or hatred at those who have different passions or beliefs?
It is important to me that we are God’s partners. That this relationship we have – with God and with each other – matters.
I think when we get into trouble it is because we take on more than our share of the responsibility – and when we take on more than our share of blame – or credit.
It is in thinking that we have THE right understanding and when we try to exercise power over those who don’t see our way. Or when we get so overwhelmed with responsibility that life becomes dreary. Or when our well-intended efforts end in anger or bitterness and we end up hurting each other.
Jesus wants us to sit a little looser in the saddle than that. Jesus wants us to take naps -- with the confidence that the Kingdom is growing even while we sleep.
Jesus proclaims that the kingdom is planted HERE, is AT HAND, and is growing in this world.
As long as I can remember I have heard warnings that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. “What is this world coming to?” people say with a shake of their head.
If we are to believe Jesus, then what the world is coming to is – The Kingdom of God, God’s place and time. It is coming to be what it was created to be. And it’s becoming is both mystery and gift.
Can you believe that? And can you believe it deeply enough that you can go about the business of your life with the confidence that God is at work – right here and now – right here in this world – bringing creation to a glorious fulfillment.
There are scriptures that call us to a response of some sort. To live or act differently. I think today’s message is that we should just stop for a minute. To stop all our franctic busyness. Stop thinking about ourselves for a change – and think about God.
I was given this message one day and it changed everything for me. Beverly Job and I were walking down Thomasson Hall one day after leaving a meeting. Beverly said, in her quiet calm voice, “Linda, God is really working through you here at Belmont.”
I don’t know if Beverly noticed that the world went still and silent. But it did for me.
God was working through me! It wasn’t about me and whether I was getting it right or not, whether I was doing enough or not.
It was about God. It was about letting God work in and through me.
That may not sound so earth-shattering to you, but it changed everything for me. I relaxed and began to enjoy ministry more. I didn’t fret or worry as much. I took my mistakes and failures into stride. I could just go about my work and do the best I could – and leave the rest to God. It was liberating. Beverly’s words didn’t change WHAT I did, but they did change me.
Our two parables today are not about what we should or shouldn’t do. They are about what God is already doing.
Perhaps the best thing we can do is to live with the confidence of that, with the relaxation of that, with the peace that such faith brings. The parable is asking us to wait for God to do what God is sure to do, and to wait with the non-anxious and carefree attitude which is becoming to the children of God. It means building our life entirely upon God’s promise and no longer upon our abilities or inabilities, our doing or not doing.
After I had made the decision to retire this year at Annual Conference and actually started the process, I had a kind of panic attack. I couldn’t visualize retirement; I worried about finances and how life would be different. I was afraid of an unknown future. Then, during my Lenten devotional reading, I came across words to guide and hold me through this transition.
They are helping me move into the mystery of God’s future with a sense of peace and trust. I hope to keep them before me every day. They are from Pam Hawkins’ book, “The Awkward Season: Prayers for Lent”.
Let me share them with you:
Ah, Holy Spirit;
I plant my feet into the soil of the Living God;
I turn my ear to the voice of the calling Christ;
I lean my life into the Wind of Holy Change.
Go forth from this place with the confidence and trust that God is at work bringing creation to fulfillment.
Be content to live with the mystery of it and be grateful to be part of it.
Let your life be a joyful witness as you lean into the wind of holy change.
Sermon transcript for June 10, 2012
Do Not Lose Heart!
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Belmont UMC—June 10, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
“So we do not lose heart!” As I read over the lectionary readings this week, these were the words that kept coming back to me—the words that kept speaking to me. Some might want to analyze why those words kept speaking to me. Could it be that I’m on verge of losing heart, of giving up or losing hope? I don’t think so, but I do believe that those words speak clearly to all of us, who have at one point or another felt like losing heart.
“So we do not lose heart!” Those are the words as they are translated in the New Revised Standard Version. The Common English Bible, which we have been using more and more, translates this phrase, “So we aren’t depressed.” We are familiar with depression in our society as it touches many lives and at many different levels of intensity. Depression causes persons to lose hope, to despair, to give up, to lose motivation, to quit caring deeply about things, to feel that life is futile, to sense utter discouragement or to lose heart.
There are many causes for losing heart. We lose heart because we are afraid and fear wins over other emotions. We lose heart because of circumstances that overwhelm us and we can’t see a way out. We lose heart because we have been faithful to work toward a purpose but cannot see the fruit of our labor. We lose heart when we lose confidence in ourselves, in God, in our abilities, or in the value of our work. We lose heart when we feel small and insignificant in the face of massive global problems that are beamed into our living rooms each night.
I was sent to serve a church that had been losing ground for several years. When I arrived and met with the Staff Parish Relations Committee for the first time, one of the committee members said, “You did not want to come here did you? I can’t imagine anyone wanting to come and serve this church.” Another person said, “Some people here will resent it if you make any changes, but if you don’t change some things we will die.” The church was so demoralized and discouraged by loss that they could not imagine surviving and their discouragement had created dysfunctional patterns that kept them digging the hole of despair ever deeper. My wife and I decided right away that we needed to help the people see the gifts and graces they possessed and we sought ways to encourage and be as positive as we could. It was a couple of years into that appointment before they began to rekindle a strong sense of mission and purpose.
The Apostle Paul has had lots of reasons to lose heart. He writes, “We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we are not crushed. We are confused, but we are not depressed. We are harassed, but we are not abandoned. We are knocked down, but we are not knocked out.” (verses 8 and 9) In verse 1 of chapter 4 Paul writes, “Therefore, we don’t get discouraged.”
I have avoided speaking or writing about General Conference, United Methodism’s chief legislative conference that meets every 4 years. I have avoided it because so many things have been written or said that I couldn’t imagine that I have anything to add to the discussion. Most people agree that the Conference in May was a failure on many levels. Some came away calling the United Methodist Church a “sinking ship.” We were unable to agree on a plan to restructure the church leadership. We were unwilling to remove language from the Book of Discipline which excludes and labels. In that failure we continue to do harm to many of our members and constituents. We were unable to pass legislation that speaks the truth about who we are. Namely, that we are a people who are not likeminded and who can agree to disagree. That remains the truth about who we are in spite our lack of courage to acknowledge it. Frankly, some of us felt like losing heart after General Conference concluded.
Christian writer and blogger, Tony Jones, suggested that all young clergy should leave the denomination in response to our last General Conference. Many of my colleagues have taken issue with his call to leave and let me add my voice to those. Tony wasn’t around during the Civil Rights Movement and he wasn’t in church the day I heard my young pastor speak bravely for the cause of blacks and others who were victims of racial injustice. He was not there when people in the church got up and walked out in anger in the middle of his sermons. And though he may have been discouraged from time to time and he may have felt like losing heart, he kept preaching and speaking the truth and calling us out for our racism. And he did not give up. I am standing here today because of young pastors who did not jump ship when the water was a little rough.
And where would our church be today if a generation of clergy had left when their voices were so desperately needed? We may get discouraged but those who stick around will live to see a better day. I’m confident of that. So we do not lose heart!
We have 4 gifted women clergy on our staff. When I was younger, and to some extent, even now, women clergy have had an uphill climb. District Superintendents would tell them that they could not appoint them—that churches would not accept them. One of my colleagues sat in the church to which she was being appointed, only to hear the DS apologize to the church saying, “I’m sorry but we will have to appoint a woman to your church. We have no one else. It’s the best we can do.”
Of course, they felt like losing heart, but where would the church be if it weren’t for women like Linda Johnson, Pam Hawkins, Heather Harriss, and Sandy Sakarapanee.
They did not give up! And so we do not lose heart!
Former South Africa Bishop, Peter Storey, was planning to be with us last week and he had to cancel his trip to the Untied States. We hope he will make that trip in the future. But I thought I would share one of his stories. Peter Storey was a champion of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He once told a story about how he and Desmond Tutu were nearly executed for their work. An armed guard took them out to a remote sugar cane field. There they were bound for execution. The guard raised his gun toward them. But, the guard did not have the fortitude to do this evil thing, so he lowered his weapon and walked away in shame. Storey and Tutu, upon realizing their deliverance, excitedly returned to their car that had brought them out to the killing field. As they drove back to civilization, Tutu suggested they offer prayers of gratitude for their deliverance. Immediately, he folded his hands, closed his eyes and uttered a prayer of thanksgiving. While eager to join in prayer, Storey was unnerved by Tutu’s actions. Tutu was driving the car at the time.
Where would South Africa be if Peter Storey and Desmond Tutu and a host of other brave women and men had lost heart and abandoned the cause? So we do not lose heart!
What motivated Paul or those early followers to not lose heart, to avoid discouragement when they often faced intense opposition and persecution? For one thing they understood that the kingdom is not about them or their plans. It is about God’s purpose being lived out in the world. And they trusted the grace of God to sustain them and guide them in whatever they did. And they understood the call to be faithful, even against all odds. And they trusted that they were in God’s hands no matter where they were or what they were doing. Paul wrote, “We have this awesome power that comes from God, not from us.” (v. 7) “We do not focus on things that can be seen, but on things that cannot be seen. The things that can be seen do not last, but the things that cannot be seen are eternal.” (v. 18)
We often lose heart when we forget to trust, when we fail to remember that this journey of faith is not so much about us but about God’s dream for our world. I’ve been there many times and so have you. We forget that this journey is about something bigger and beyond ourselves—about something eternal, not temporal.
I read a story of an experienced mountain climber who thought he could anything, and one day he came to a great overhang of rock. He tried several techniques to get himself up and over the massive outcropping, but he could not. He began to lose strength and after some time he realized that he had done all he could. He could go back down and he did not have the strength to go up. He began to think about death, about his family and friends and the things he had hoped to do in his life. He had reached the end of his journey. At the point of complete surrender, he heard a noise above him and then a piece of climbing equipment fell past him on the mountain. He realized that another climber was in trouble somewhere above him. Somehow, not for himself, but for another, he found the strength to pull himself up and over the outcropping to help a fellow climber. We will not lose heart when we remember that there are others counting on us to be faithful. So we will not lose heart.
And we do not lose heart because we have each other. When one gets discouraged, and we will, there will be another in this wonderful community of faith who will come along and encourage, support, and hold out hope to her or him. You may want to look around you this morning at the faces of some of the people who love you and want the best for you. These people, God’s people, will be there when you need them. Aren’t we blessed? So we will not lose heart.