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Sermon transcript for August 18, 2013

Belmont UMC—August 18, 2013
James Salley, Africa University, preaching

Audio - MP3


Sermon transcript for August 11, 2013

Ready and Waiting
Luke 12:32-40
Belmont UMC—August 11, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father delights in giving you the kingdom.” (v. 32) With these tender and comforting words Jesus teaches his followers how to be ready and postured to receive the kingdom. By kingdom Jesus does not mean the kingdom of heaven and the sweet by and by, but the kingdom is God’s active reign over all things; the kingdom is witnessed here and now where God’s purposes are being fulfilled among us.

The kingdom is the gift of God. And the tense of the Greek verb here indicates that God has already given us the kingdom, but we must be ready and waiting and attentive to receive the kingdom, to receive what God has already given us--to receive the kingdom when it comes, when we witness the kingdom’s fulfillment, and when we are fully engaged in it ourselves.

Jesus invites his followers to get their priorities straight, to invest in things that last—in spiritual things, in our relationship with God. There are echoes here of last week’s text and the parable about the man who had all these things stored in barns but had not taken care of his spiritual life. We are to make the focus of the kingdom our primary concern in all things. We are to be ready and waiting like those who keep their lamps lit and await their master to return from the wedding banquet.

“Do not be afraid, little flock. . .” But we are afraid sometimes and Jesus’ followers, hearing these passages for the first time, had much to fear as well. They were making their way to Jerusalem, to the seat of power, where evil systems were set in place to attempt to upend all that they were doing and experiencing with Jesus. Jesus knew they were afraid and he was saying, “Focus on those things that the downturns in life and hardships, and even the systemic evils, can never take away from you.”

We are afraid, as well. We are afraid of heightened terror alerts, of raging storms that send us to the basement, we are afraid of the known and of the unknown. When I was very young pastor I visited an older church member who had not been at church for several weeks. I found her locked in her house, trembling with fear. The drapes were pulled and the doors were locked. When I asked her what was frightening her, she said, “Everything!” She had run out of food but was afraid to go out to the store, afraid to drive her car, afraid of strangers, afraid of everything. Her fear had imprisoned her in her little house. I spent a long time with her that day and I had to call her family to come and help her. I never forgot that visit.

A mom sent her six year old son to talk to me. He had become obsessed with, and fearful of death and what might happen if he died. I had no idea how this conversation was going to go and I wish parents would not put me in these positions. As it turned out, the little boy did most of the talking so I was pretty much off the hook.

He said, “I have nightmares about people trying to kill me and I wake up afraid that I might die.” (I suggested to his parents that they monitor his TV use and video games a little more closely.)  He said, “I wonder what heaven will be like. When I have nightmares I wake up very afraid and I go and crawl in bed between my parents and I’m not afraid anymore. Maybe that’s what heaven is like. Not being afraid anymore because you feel safe.” Then he got up and said, “Thanks, Pastor Ken, I feel better now.” I learned a lot from that conversation. Maybe the kingdom is that place where we do not have to fear because we can feel safe in the presence of God. “Do not be afraid, little flock. . .”
God has already given us the kingdom.

There is always patient and attentive waiting involved in the coming of the kingdom. We do not like to wait; I do not like to wait. We are the culture of immediate gratification. We do not like the process or the time it takes; we like the goal. Last week on Facebook I saw lots of photos of children ready for their first day of school. One photo was of a pretty, little girl, heading off to kindergarten for the first time. I remember when her parents spent many hours in my office--during the time they worked with Miriam’s Promise to adopt a baby. There were long months of waiting and some moments of disappointment. Their house was ready, diapers were bought, the nursery was ready, their hearts were ready and full to overflowing. But the waiting was unbearable. One day the call came and a beautiful little girl was placed in their arms. And last week the parents held each other and cried when they left her at kindergarten for the first time. Waiting for the kingdom is a lot like that, but at the end of the attentive waiting we are handed the gift of God’s presence and grace.

We are called to be ready and alert. Jesus wants us to be able to recognize the kingdom when it comes. What does the kingdom look like? We have to have some idea of what the kingdom is like to see it when it comes. It might surprise us or catch us off guard. United Methodist Communications has this promotional theme called “Rethink Church.” I like the concept but for some of us rethinking church does not come naturally. When I think of church I think worship like this, Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, church camp, and many traditional models of church life. But we need a broader vision of those places where God comes to us and reveals the kingdom.

Jim Wallis speaks of one of his “lesser known” mentors, an old Pentecostal woman named Mary Glover. He writes, “She taught me more about the call of Jesus to the poor than any seminary professor I ever had.” Mary Glover volunteered in the weekly food line and she was so poor herself that she, too, needed one of the bags of food handed out there. Mary often said the prayer before we opened the doors each Saturday morning because she was the best pray-er. “Mary was one of those people who pray like they know to whom they’re talking. You got the sense that she’d been carrying on a running conversation with her Lord for a very long time.”

Mary’s prayer was pretty much the same each week and Wallis loved to be present for this prayer. She always began by saying something like this, “Thank you, Lord, for waking us up this morning! Thank you, Lord, that our walls were not our grave and our bed was not our cooling board! Thank, you, Lord!” Then she would always pray the same words as the long line of people waiting outside, “Lord, we know that you’ll be coming through this door today, so Lord, help us to treat you well.” (God’s Politics, p. 217)

God’s kingdom might come to us in the middle of the week instead of 8:15 or 10:30 on Sunday morning and God’s kingdom might come in the form of the poor, or a stranger, or in the presence of someone who would not feel comfortable joining us for worship or Sunday School, but God comes and we must be ready and alert and able to recognize it in whatever form it comes to us.

What does the kingdom look like? The text presents an image that is quite countercultural. The head of the home returns late at night, he does not threaten or judge, but he dons the apron of a servant and prepares and serves food to those who are alert and ready. It looks like a banquet table full of comfort foods and God is the host and server. There is so much beautiful grace in this passage.

A few years ago I read the book, The Shack, (by William P. Young) because a lot of folks were reading it and kept asking what I thought about it. Though I did not enjoy the book as much as others did, I did love the image of God as one who fries up bacon and eggs for the weary and grief stricken traveler. She speaks to the traveler with honesty and tenderness and you can almost hear her say, “Do not be afraid, little one. . .” 

Use your imagination here. Last week I visited my parents in Springfield. It was a few days after my Mom’s birthday and I took a wonderful pot roast and some sides to share with them for dinner. We sat at their small kitchen table and enjoyed the food, food that was simple delicious and familiar.

As we were eating my Mom said, “Your brother came one afternoon last week and around dinner time he offered to take us to dinner, but I didn’t want to go out. I told him that I had some white beans that had been cooking on the stove all day. We didn’t have much, but we made a little meal. I did make some cornbread to go with the beans and I cooked up some fresh corn from the garden. We did have some yellow squash and I found some turnip greens in the freezer because your brother loves turnip greens. We didn’t have much, just a little light supper.” I think I had a religious experience just listening to her description of this little meal.

The kingdom looks like folks gathered around a table, all kinds of people from every nation, every tribe and walk of life. We look like a motley group, a hodgepodge of weary, reluctant and fearful travelers settling down to receive the gifts of God, to eat God’s food that comforts us: there is fruit from the first garden and cake made from manna scooped from the floor of the wilderness, there is bread made from the last oil and flour of a widow in Zarepheth and a bowl with morsels of food brought by ravens to a hungry prophet, there are loaves and fishes (tilapia from the Sea of Galilee) shared from a little boy’s lunch box up on a hillside at a Jesus’ teaching session, there is a breakfast foods cooked by Jesus alongside that same Sea a few days after the resurrection.
And there is wine from Cana and from Elijah’s cup, the wine of joy and forgiveness.
And there are pitchers of water drawn from Samaria’s well, water that springs into eternal life.

We share this food, and we share our stories and together we find strength to journey on. Jesus is there with the towel of a servant around his waist, to serve us and teach us to serve others, and he begins the meal with grace, saying, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father delights in giving you the kingdom.”


Sermon transcript for August 4, 2013

Rich toward God
Luke 12:13-21
Belmont UMC—August 4, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

I visited with Frank on a Monday afternoon in his hospital room. When I walked in he became tearful and I said, “Every person I’ve visited today has cried. Is there something about me that makes people cry?”

Even in his illness Frank could not resist a wisecrack, “Ever think it might be your face,” he said.  Thanks a lot, Frank.

Frank proceeded to tell me that his doctors had just been in the room and they told him that they had done all they could. He was advised to call his children to talk with them. I knew his 3 grown children well; we’d spent many hours together in surgical waiting rooms over the past 2 years of Frank’s illness. Both Frank and his wife were faithful to church and well-loved throughout the church and the community. They lived in a modest brick house around the corner from our parsonage and they took great pride in their rose garden.

Frank asked if I could come back the next day at 11 AM; the time he expected his whole family to gather in the hospital room for a meeting. I assured him I would be there. There would be more tears to come.

The next day all of us gathered around Frank’s bedside. He was feeling strong and seemed glad to have everyone there. The faces of his family were solemn at best. He turned to me; it seemed easier for him to address his speech toward me and allow his children to overhear what he had to say. He began, “As you know by now, I’ve been very blessed in my life—especially by these children and my wonderful wife. These young adults have been raised to love God, to love each other, to care for those who are less fortunate, and to live with integrity. Each of them is making a difference in the world in some way. We never had a lot of money but we had enough. We invested what we had in their education and did what we could to help them fulfill their dreams. But we are rich, rich, rich! Pastor Ken, these 3 children are our legacy and as I prepare to depart this earth for better housing, I leave them to you and to your care.”

And then Frank got that gleam in his eye, turned toward his children and said, “And if you don’t live the way I taught you, I’ll ask for permission to come back to straighten you out.” A little humor helps when things turn too serious. I never read this parable from Luke without thinking of that day in Frank’s hospital room.

Jesus told a parable about a man who had lots of investments—his portfolio was full to overflowing. His money seemed to beget more money so he opened more accounts to hold all of it. And the man was happy with all he had. He sat back in his recliner with his favorite beverage and said, “Life is good—it doesn’t get any better than this.”

But God said to the man, “You are a fool. Tonight you could fall over dead. What will all these accounts do for you then?” So it will be for those who store up treasures for themselves but forget to be rich toward God. (This is the Revised Edwards version.)

The parable calls us to ask ourselves some questions: How much are we really worth? What is the real measure of our lives? What kind of lasting investments are we making?  How rich are we in the things of God?

Jesus is not suggesting that we ignore financial planning. We need to be wise with the resources that we have, but he is speaking to us about our priorities, our potential greed, our investment in things that last, things of God.

Jesus is saying that the best of life is not what we store in a barn or a garage or a bank account, it’s likely what we cannot see and measure. It’s the spiritual treasures, the relationships, the love and joy and peace, the ability to make a difference in the world. It’s the stuff that does not end when we come to the end of our lives—it’s eternal and lives on with God and in the lives of those we have loved and taught and cared for. That’s really living.

We were in Chatham, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, a few years back. We were in an antique store and the owner asked me if we had been to the Chatham dump. “They have a lot of good stuff out there. People around here are rich and they throw a lot of good stuff away. At the dump they have a shed where they keep all the good stuff and you can go there and get it for free. I saw a man throw away a brand new set of golf clubs the other day.  He said he had used them twice and he had not scored well with them so he threw them away. I have them now and I don’t even play golf.”

They say junk yards are theologically rich places, because everywhere you look you see the stuff that did not last, that people wanted and then decided to discard—things that people once treasured and now they are only fit for the dump. We all have these things but the question is, “How much do we have in our lives that will last forever? How rich are we in the things of God?”

Those who are rich toward God have made the decision to share their resources, not hoard them. I recall a story from Mr. Ackerman’s world history class in college. He was a fascinating lecturer and he told a fabled story about Marquis de Lafayette, the French general who assisted George Washington and the colonists in their quest for freedom during the Revolutionary War. Lafayette came from wealthy family, owning numerous estates.

In 1783 the grain harvest was poor which meant that the peasant farmers and their families suffered great hunger. But Lafayette’s managers till managed to fill their barns with grain. The price of wheat skyrocketed and the managers urged Lafayette, “Now is the time to sell.” But Lafayette, thinking about the peasants, said, “No, now is the time to give.” And he released the stores of grain to the peasants. Giving did not make Lafayette poor; it made him rich—rich toward God.

Those who are generous with what they have—those who give instead of hoard are those who are rich toward God!  Look around this room today, friends! Look at the faces of your friends in faith. See what we have in our shared lives together. We are very rich, my friends! Rich, rich, rich!


Sermon transcript for July 28, 2013

Teach Us to Pray
Luke 11:1-13
Belmont UMC—July 28, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

“Teach us to pray,” the disciples said to Jesus. How many times I have said those words during difficult times, times of crisis or dark nights of the soul. I sat in my office after the shootings at an elementary school in Connecticut, closed my eyes and said, “I have no idea how to pray now. Please teach me. I can’t remember the words or even how to begin.”

When nothing else comes to me I return to those familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer. The words bring peace and comfort like going home at the end of a long day, changing into familiar home clothes and retreating to a favorite chair. Why is that? Because they are not my words, but my Lord’s, and I know I can trust those words when I cannot trust my own. “Teach us to pray, Lord.”

The prayer that Jesus taught the disciples and us has become a part of our faith tradition. I remember a little boy who kept trying to get my attention on a church retreat. He was sitting next to me in worship one day when we were invited to say the Lord’s Prayer. After we finished he tugged on my shirt to get my attention and he said, “Hey, how did you know that?” This prayer has become a part of our spiritual DNA and it is the place where we retreat when we have no other words to offer.

The prayer that Jesus taught us in five sentences is both straight forward and radically transforming. Our familiarity with it may cause us to forget about the deep meaning of the words but the meaning is there nonetheless.

It begins by calling us into the presence of God. We come into God’s presence with awe and wonder. Prayer is a time for us to allow space for God, for putting aside the mental clutter and to be present to God who is always present to us. That’s why I the like the prayer with which we begin worship. You were praying that prayer when I arrived here 6 years ago and I think it was written by Reverend Carmen Lyly-Henley. “Help us to present in worship this day, even as you are present.”

When I pray I have to leave my desk area where the distractions abound. I sit in the prayer chair in my office and sometimes I go into the sanctuary or the chapel. Over the years I have made it a habit of praying for church members while sitting in their favorite seat in the place of worship. I take advantage of your habitual seating patterns. (It is also how I take attendance on Sundays. Some of you move around, but there are only a handful of you. It has been noted that I always sit in the same chair, as well.)

At home I go out on the screened porch or sit in my favorite reading chair in my office. We have to move away from our places of busyness and allow ourselves permission to be present to God.

I often wake up in the night; three o’clock in the morning is typical. My mind races to many things. Years ago I took comfort in Morton Kelsey’s story of those late night awakenings. Kelsey, an Episcopal priest and author, would wake up in the middle of the night and complain, “Lord, why is this happening to me?” One night he heard this reply in his mind, “Morton, you’re so busy all day that this is the only time I can get your attention.” After that those early hours became times of intimate communion with God. I heard theologian, Marjorie Suhocki, speak of making 1 AM appointments to talk with God.

At 3 AM I will often say the Jesus’ prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on . . .” Usually, it begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me and let me go to sleep.” That never works, so I repeat the prayer over and over in my mind and filling in the name of any person or group that comes to my mind. I’m surprised that many of the names that arise are persons I haven’t thought about or heard from in a long time. I believe that God guides those prayer thoughts.

We are invited to pray for the kingdom to come. This is a radical prayer—if we know what the kingdom looks like to God. In the prophets it looks a lot like the peaceable kingdom where all dwell together in peace and harmony and where weapons of violence are turned into implements of agriculture. In the gospels it looks like the great banquet where those who have been cast aside are welcomed as honored guests at the table. It looks like the stranger being welcomed in. It looks like the hungry being fed.

Our 10:30 worship service last Sunday looked a lot like the kingdom of God, with people of different cultures and different languages coming together around one table and worshipping together.

The kingdom looks like dinner time at Room in the Inn, a ministry where homeless neighbors are invited in to spend the night during the coldest months in Nashville. These neighbors, who are often treated like nuisances by many in our city, are invited in as honored guests, given seats at the banquet table, waited on by volunteers, and served delicious food. Many of you have shared the joy of sitting at the table with these guests and hearing their stories.

The kingdom looks like Belmont youth raising fresh vegetables at a farm in Fairview, vegetables that will be used to feed Nashville’s hungry. We see glimpses of the kingdom all the time around here and we are blessed.

The Lord’s Prayer takes on a very human element. The words are “give us,” “forgive us,” and “deliver us.”

“Give us our daily bread.” This prayer reminds us of the Israelites in the wilderness who collected manna each day. Manna was God’s daily provision to feed the wandering people. They could not store it but had to trust each day that God would provide. This prayer is a reminder of our daily trust and reliance on God.

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” We are invited to receive God’s forgiveness because we are human, frail, broken and in need of God’s generous grace. We are invited to participate in the spiritual practice of forgiving those who have hurt and wounded us. This is not easy but it’s necessary for the wholeness of the faith community.

“Deliver us from the time of trial.” This prayer reminds us that we are vulnerable and we need God’s hand to deliver us and save us. We cannot save ourselves.

“Teach us to pray, Lord.” I believe that prayer is more than making requests to God, but prayer at its deepest level is about listening to God. I tell premarital couples in our counseling sessions that communication at its deepest level is about listening, not talking. It’s about listing to the feelings of the other, even when the other person cannot name or articulate his or her own feelings. It’s easier to say that than it is for me to do it. In deep prayer we hear God articulating our deepest feelings and longings, even we cannot name them ourselves.

I had wonderful friend who died 15 years ago this summer. I think him every day and there are things in my office that remind me of him and of our friendship. During his last two months with us, I would call him or visit him almost every day. At his house I would find him stretched out on the sofa. He was about 6 foot 4 inches tall and there would be arms and legs sticking out of the blanket and draped over the ends of the sofa, but that was his favorite place to be.

Sometimes when I arrived at the house and let myself in the door, he would be asleep and I’d sit on the floor beside the sofa and wait and pray. When he woke up and saw me he would smile and pat me on the head or shoulder and I would say, “What’s on your mind today?” or “How would you like to spend this time together?” And he would start talking. I called these questions “launching pads.”

He was very much at peace with all that was happening to him and he never complained in the face of such suffering. He would tell me how incredibly close he felt to God and the images of God that he was having, images that gave him comfort and hope. My friend would talk until he was tired and then I’d pray with him. Sometimes I was jealous of his spiritual experiences. Because I was not at peace with what was happening to him.

One day my friend’s Dad came by the office to talk. He had come by to thank me for the visits and then he said, “My son says that your visits mean so much and the words you share with him are helping him feel at peace, and helping prepare for whatever comes.” I said, “That doesn’t make any sense. I only say a few words and then I listen as he talks and talks.” Later, I came to believe that my dear friend had learned to pray at a level I have never learned. And he was listening and hearing God, not me, speak words of hope and peace. May we learn to listen to the voice of God in the deep moments of prayer.

Jesus ends this teaching by telling us a parable which seems to mean, “Be persistent. Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart.” I like what Frederick Buechner wrote about this being persistent in prayer, “not because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there’s no way of getting to your door.”  (Listening to Your Life, p. 212)

(Note: I ended the service with a Call to Serve and more words of Frederick Buechner, who said, “Go where your best prayers take you!”)



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