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Sermon transcript for January 27, 2013

Jesus’ Mission Statement
Luke 4:14-21
Belmont UMC—January 27, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Preaching is very much a part of the rhythm of my life. I preach a sermon on Sunday and walk to the narthex at the end of the service to greet worshippers and I’m often thinking, “What am I preaching next week?” I plan sermons ahead of time and they are often being written in my thoughts before they make it into the computer and into a manuscript. I’ve made some people happy with my preaching and I’ve made some people less than happy with my preaching. One never knows how a sermon will be received. Be patient with me; I’m still learning to do this work.

I recall a powerful sermon by our friend, Bishop Ken Carder. It was at the ordination service at Annual Conference. He spoke the truth in love to all of us who are clergy and some of what he said was difficult to hear. But I respected him for telling the truth and being courageous. I went to him after the service to thank him for his prophetic words and he said, “Oh Ken, I fear that I was too harsh. I’m already regretting that sermon.” I tried to reassure him but he was not convinced.

Some of you have heard me say that preaching seems unfair at times because the listener is at a disadvantage. In a teaching session there is opportunity for feedback but in the context of worship that does not happen. I recall a sermon I preached at my last church at the beginning of the Iraq War, a sermon that I anticipated would create some tension. I prepared them for that by inviting their feedback via email and sure enough, I received some interesting and helpful feedback on Sunday afternoon.

In our Gospel text today Jesus returned to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. Nazareth was a town that suffered from low self-esteem, hence the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus was the hometown boy, son of Joseph and Mary. They knew him and they had watched him grow up, playing with other kids in the neighborhood, and it’s likely that they have heard of his miracles in Capernaum. They needed him to do something spectacular and put them on the map.

In the synagogue he read a familiar passage from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim release to the captives and sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” So far so good—other rabbis read this passage. Then he said a peculiar thing, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

The story is divided into two weeks of lectionary readings but we aren’t sure why. But if we read on we hear Jesus remind them of Bible stories, stories from familiar Hebrew texts, but the stories are about God’s blessing and favor shown toward Gentiles—a widow in Zarephath and the Syrian leader, Naaman. These were outsider stories and this was not the sermon the people of Nazareth wanted to hear. “Who does he think he is?” they asked. Things got a little out of hand and violent and they took him to the edge of town and threatened to throw him off a cliff, but he escaped.  

In this text from Luke Jesus describes his mission and his purpose. Fred Craddock notes, “Luke places the Nazareth visit first because it is first, not chronologically but programmatically. That is to say that this event is to announce who Jesus is, of what his ministry consists, what his church will be and do, and what will be the response to both Jesus and the church.” (Luke, p. 61)

Jesus’ mission is clear. Jesus, with the anointing of God’s Spirit, announces his mission is to bring good news to the poor, like a widow whose only son has died or a woman who spent all her money on trying to get well. Jesus’ ministry is to bring release to the captives, like a man held prisoner by a demon or the man who has been paralyzed for years. Jesus seeks to set free those who are captive to tragedy and difficult life circumstances. Jesus’ mission involves helping those who are blind, like Bartimaeus on the road to Jericho, crying out to Jesus for deliverance and like those who are spiritually unable to see God’s will. Jesus’ mission is to bring freedom to the oppressed like a woman about to be stoned to death by a group of self-righteous men.

I suspect that Jesus’ words in Nazareth were troubling to the people because he said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” We like the text because it contains good thoughts but we like to think of it as something distant from us, something that will happen in the future. We are not comfortable with it being the present reality. Here it is upon us now! That can seem threatening to our status quo.

But dear friends in faith, if this was Jesus’ mission, then it’s our mission as well and we must embrace it. Luke tells us that the Spirit was upon Jesus, giving him this mission. And later in Acts Luke will tell us that the Spirit is upon us, the church, empowering us to be witnesses in every part of the world. And this is our witness: we will be the people who bring good news to the poor like the homeless neighbor or the working poor who run out of money before the end of each month; release to the captives like those who are fearful, addicted or trapped in abusive relationships, sight to those who are blind like those who cannot see God or God’s grace at work in their lives because of dark circumstances, and freedom to the oppressed like those who are bullied or our immigrant friends who live in fear.

We would do well to reread this mission statement every three days, not every three years in Year C of the Lectionary cycle. We will find ways that are unique to Belmont to fulfill this mission, but if our mission is something other than this it is not the mission of Jesus Christ.

Does that make us uncomfortable? They say that preaching can comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. These words of Jesus must stir something in us one way or another. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that preaching, “allows the risen Christ to walk among his people.” (source unknown) But I’m not sure how comfortable we feel about Jesus walking among us this morning.

Let me share some words with you that I wrote for us together several years ago. Think of these words as “gently used” words that still resonate with us as we hear this text again this morning.

The problem with Jesus is that he does not live up to our expectations. Jesus lives up to God’s expectations. And yet it is Jesus who defines our faith. There are lots of voices out there trying to tell us what defines our faith and purpose and many of them seem completely divorced from the life and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels.    

Jesus is truthful and challenges our tendencies toward a narrow world view, but we want him to care about me and mine and no one else.
Jesus is telling stories about people outside the circle of our race and our class and our religion and we want him to talk more about us.
Jesus is telling us to refrain from retaliation and we feel stung by his words because we have cheered the battle “to fight evil” and have called for revenge.
Jesus is blessing peacemakers and we have blessed those who have been too quick to make war and called peacemakers “unpatriotic.”
Jesus is telling us to love our enemies and we’re still trying to learn to love the people with whom we hang out.
Jesus is telling us to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the imprisoned and we would rather talk about charity that begins at home.
Jesus is defining his identity and his mission to the captives, the blind, the oppressed and we suspect that he is telling us that this is to be the church’s identity and mission. We would argue for a feel-good mission and one that is more comfortable and more marketable.
Jesus is telling us that we are not to get attention for the spiritual disciplines of prayer and fasting and we were thinking of making those into a media event.
Jesus is telling us to forgive those who have wronged us and we like to hold on to our grudges and cling to the past.
Jesus is reaching out to the least and the last but we are drawn to people with power and prestige.

We are in the season of Epiphany which has these bookend stories of the baptism of Jesus and the story of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. These stories are similar because in the stories a voice is heard from God, “This is my Son, listen to him.” Epiphany invites us to listen to Jesus! Listen to Jesus who defines our faith, our identity and our mission. Thanks be to God!


Sermon transcript for December 30, 2012

Pam Hawkins, preaching

Audio - MP3


Sermon transcript for January 20, 2013

A Wedding Story
John 2:1-11
Belmont UMC—January 20, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

I have not kept up with the number of weddings I’ve done over the years; I have 7 on my calendar for this year and I look forward to each of them and to the counseling sessions for each. They provide me an opportunity to get to know the couple better. One of the weddings this year is for our son, Gairdt, and his fiancée, Lacey.

I will remind the couples that their well planned event may have a hitch (no pun intended) or two. Things can go wrong at weddings but usually these “wrong” things are small surprises that only the wedding party is aware of. It’s not unusual for couples to want their cute 4 year old nephew to serve as a ring bearer and I always caution the couple about giving a child that age a set of rings that costs several thousand dollars. Ten minutes into the service they get bored, because they are too young to do otherwise, and start tossing the ring pillow in the air.

At one wedding I was impressed by the maturity of the ten year old ring bearer. The wedding was taking place at a state park and at the rehearsal he was a model of responsibility. The wedding was held in the evening, right as the sun was going down so that the candles would be more effective and help set the tone for the couples’ experience. Twenty minutes before the wedding started the ten year old came to me and tugged on my arm, saying, “Ken, I lost one of the rings.” The boy was in tears as he showed me the grassy area where he thought the ring had fallen off the pillow. I took off my robe and got down on my hands and knees and searched in the faint light. I heard the violinist begin the processional music and almost immediately I caught a glimpse of something sparkly out of the corner of my eye. It was the ring. I tied it on the ring bearer’s pillow, gave the boy a reassuring pat on the shoulder and said, “This will be our secret.”

In fairness to young ring bearers everywhere I must say that the only time a ring was lost and not found, the ring was lost by the father of the groom who was serving as the best man. He borrowed his daughter’s wedding ring for the service and the bride wore it on the honeymoon and did not realize the switch had been made until her return.

Things at weddings don’t always go as planned, and that was true of a wedding in the small town of Cana of Galilee, not far from Nazareth. Weddings in Jesus’ day were long celebrations, often lasting several days. Jesus and his mother (who is not called by name in the Gospel of John) were there, along with some of Jesus’ disciples. It’s possible that Mary had some hosting responsibilities at the wedding. An early Coptic Gospel suggests that Mary was the aunt of the bridegroom. And it may be that the arrival of Jesus and his disciples added so much to the crowd that the wine ran out prematurely.

Wine was served in all mid-Eastern homes, drunkenness was discouraged, but wine was a symbol of hospitality and joy. The Rabbis had a saying, “Without wine, there is no joy.” (William Barclay’s commentary, p. 97)  The story troubles some folks because not only did Jesus make an abundance of wine, he made very good wine. The steward notes that the good wine is usually served first and when people have had too much to care, the inferior wine is brought out. Running out of wine at the wedding would have been a source of embarrassment to the host family.

This story seems quirky and humorous from our 21st Century perspective because of the exchange between Jesus and his mother. It is Jesus’ mother who initiates the miracle when the wine gives out. She says, ‘They don’t have any wine.’

Jesus replies, “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My time hasn’t come yet.” (CEB) The word “woman” seems rude and harsh to us, but it is meant to be taken as a term of disengagement.

What is humorous to us is that Mary appears to ignore Jesus. She turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” It may not be his time but it’s obvious that she understands his power and authority and has likely seen him at work. It may not be his time but he does what his mother tells him to do and he instructs the servants to fill 6 stone pots with water (pots used for Jewish rites of purification), holding 20-30 gallons each, then draw some of the water out and take it to the steward. When the steward tasted it, it was good wine.

(As aside: If you go to Cana today on a Holy Land tour, you can buy a souvenir of a water pot that has a trick reservoir inside. You can pour water in the top and tilt it over so that wine comes out the spout. I did not buy one of these but I was tempted to buy it for a children’s sermon.)

We may find this miracle story uncomfortable at a couple of levels and as I prepared this sermon I allowed the places of discomfort to speak to me and guide me.
We may be surprised by Jesus’ presence at a wedding celebration, a place of human joy, where there would be laughter and levity. We have a more serious mental image of Jesus, as one who only shows up in a crisis to solve a dilemma or cure a disease, but Jesus was criticized for eating and drinking with sinners and many of his stories and parables include banquets and parties. In a month or so we will again read about the extravagant party that a father threw for his long lost son who has returned home.

At Christmastime my extended family gathered for food and fellowship. It was noisy and chaotic and we have grown in numbers so that we overfill my parents’ house. I went outside and stood behind the garage for a few breaths of air and I sensed someone beside me. It was brother; he put his hand on my shoulder and said knowingly, “Me, too.” But I had this sense that Jesus would have been at home with us, in our noise and chaos, our food sharing, laughing and joking, gift giving, and catching up with one another.

We need to reclaim an image of Jesus as a person who experienced joy at its deepest level. We have a too limited and too ordered understanding of what is holy. Wendy Wright wrote, “This is holy we say, walking the clearly demarcated boundaries between church and not church, sacred and secular, good and bad, clean and unclean, believer and non-believer, solemn and frivolous, worthy and unworthy. God, however, has a way of tickling us in the places where we’re least expecting it and, depending upon how open we are to being surprised, tricks us into laughter or finds us shrinking back in righteous outrage at being tickled when we are not in the mood.” She describes joy as “divinity dancing in us.” (Weavings, November/December 1993, p.16) May this story of a wedding in Cana remind us that Jesus joins us in those moments of deepest joy and in times of our happiest life celebrations.

We may find ourselves uncomfortable with the extravagant abundance in this passage and forget that the abundance is likely symbolic of something deeper than gallons of wine. It is considered an eschatological fulfillment. Everything in the Gospel of John is symbolic: water is not merely water, bread is not merely bread and wine is far more than wine—all are symbols of God’s fulfillment in Jesus Christ. The miracle story is a revelation of Jesus’ glory and John is intentional about sharing it at the beginning of his Gospel for this purpose.

Some writers take issue with what appears to be a frivolous and superficial miracle, asking, “How do we come to terms with such abundance in the face of poverty and suffering?” I would suggest that we need to less concerned about the symbolic abundance of 30 gallons of wine and more concerned with what we do with our own abundance.

How do we come to terms with our discomfort with our own extravagant abundance? I might need to be a bit confessional here. I like to tell my children that their mother and I lived through the Depression. I tell them that it wasn’t the Depression of the history books but it was the time we were married college students, living on very little money. But even during those lean years we were well off compared to much of the world. We were always comfortable and never missed a meal or missed paying a bill.

We recently raised $30.000 to build 3 new parsonages for pastors in Malawi in Africa. I’m not sure how you build a $10,000 parsonage but I’m told it can be done. But pastors in the Tennessee Conference have a little game they like to play. I call the game “Worst Parsonage Ever” and we sit around and tell about the worst parsonage in which we ever lived. I have one of those stories but I can tell you that the worst parsonage in which we lived, with its faulty plumbing and leaking roof, was pretty extravagant by the world’s standards.

If we are uncomfortable with extravagant abundance, I’d recommend the antidote of generosity and sharing. We are a people of abundance and God is waiting for us to share what we have with the world in need.

And as we read this quirky story about a wedding miracle of turning water into wine we can allow our discomfort with the story to lead us to experience the presence of Christ in our deepest joy and our life celebrations, and we allow our discomfort with the abundance to guide us to do God’s work of sharing in the world. And then we, too, will reveal God’s glory!


Sermon transcript for January 6, 2013

Did You See the Star?
Matthew 2:1-12
Belmont UMC—January 6, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

Lake Junaluska, North Carolina is the home of the Southeastern Jurisdictional Headquarters for the United Methodist Church. It is also a beautiful retreat center located on the eastern side of the Smokey Mountains. Many of us have enjoyed meaningful retreats there over the years. There is a lake and a trail that takes one around the Lake and across a foot bridge.

I recall Bishop Ken Carder’s story of one visit to the Center. He is an avid walker and he set out the first morning to walk the trail around the Lake. Soon after setting out he noticed some litter on the ground and he picked it up. He saw more litter and picked that up, and he became upset by the amount of litter he was finding. So the next day he came with a bag so he could pick anything he found. Now mind you, this was Methodist litter so there were no beer cans or spent whisky bottles. This was sanctified litter, but litter none the less.

One morning as he was picking up the litter he looked up to see the beautiful rose garden that graces one side of the Lake. He had not noticed it on the other days because he was looking to the ground for things that needed to be picked up. The rose garden took him by surprise and he realized that he become so obsessed with cleaning the grounds that he had missed the beauty of the retreat center. Ken noted that in life we often see what we are looking for.

Our text today reminds us that in the dark of night some saw a star. For the people of Israel, in the days of King Herod, the night must have seemed especially dark. For centuries prophets had been dropping hints about a Messiah, one who would come from God, one who would come with power and redemption. But the years slipped by and except for a brief flutter of independence under Maccabees in the mid-second century, the nation had been subjected to one conquering empire after another. Darkness and despair were easy to see.

There were some though, who in the midst of that darkness, saw a new star at its rising. The Greek text can be translated, “a new star in the east,” but what they were seeing was much more. They were seeing a new beginning, a new hope, the gift of God.

These stargazers, called Magi (a word which has its roots in the word we use for “magician”) were not likely kings as our hymnody suggests. They were more like astrologers, those who watched the heavens for changes and signs. We know they brought 3 gifts, but we do not know how many Magi there were. Matthew doesn’t tell us that. But scholars have suggested that they likely came from the east, maybe from Persia, some 1500 miles away. It’s likely that they traveled with a large entourage of servants and belongings and they may have started this journey long before Jesus was born. It’s likely that they came some time after Jesus’ birth though we like to depict them in our nativities and Christmas pageants, standing there in the stable in sharp contrast to the shepherds.

They searched the darkness and saw a star, a new star at its rising, and they believed that something was up. It was a discovery so startling that they could not sit still but set out on this long journey to seek its origin.  

They tried to get information about the star asking for a baby “born King of the Jews.” Herod and his cronies found their questions disquieting and Herod could barely disguise his fear of losing power. “Go and find him and come back and tell me where he is, so I, too, can worship him.” It was a lie! And we know Herod’s dark paranoia had been stirred up once again.

They found the baby and his mother and offered him gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And being warned in a dream of Herod’s plot they returned home by another way. In the dark of night, some saw a star.

I’m not suggesting that we ignore the reality of our world by being stargazers. I’m not suggesting that we close our eyes to the litter along the way, that we ignore the reality of human suffering and human need. I’m not suggesting that we look at the world through rose colored glasses.

The Magi were fully aware of Herod’s dark side and their keen discernment of the very real and cruel world was an important component in this story. And as people of God, whose consciences have been enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we are completely incapable of ignoring the harsh and dark realities of this world. There was plenty of darkness in 2012 to cause us to feel overwhelmed and it is exactly at that point when we need to see some stars, some reminders that God has not abandoned us, that God is still making a difference in this world.

I promised myself that I would be more attentive in this New Year, that I would keep my eyes open to hope and possibility; that I would be open to seeing those places where the divine intersects with our world. I doubt we can be much help to those in need unless we are able to see the stars, those bright moments of the sacred breaking in upon our darkness.

Christmas Eve was a wonderful worship experience here at Belmont UMC, as always. We had planned the service down to the last detail, but I saw God in so many places we had not thought about. I saw God in the embrace of a father and his grown son as they celebrated his Christmas homecoming. Ruby Truett, our dear friend, has processed the Baby Jesus to the altar for several years on Christmas Eve. As Ruby stood in the back with us before the processional, she held the small carving from the African crèche in her hands and look at the baby with such love and joy. Watching her I understood the words, “O come, let us adore him,” in a new and profound way. Listening to the words of the Christmas story read from Luke is always profound, but this year, hearing Nancy Whitehouse’s strong and confident voice reading this text, after a year of cancer treatments and pulling her way back to health, and hearing the voice of her granddaughter, Jordan, finish the text in her sweet but articulate voice. God was in your faces as you came forward for communion. And God was in your generosity as we raised funds to build parsonages for pastors in Malawi. I saw God at work among us in all of these things and more.

There will be plenty of darkness in the year to come, but we will need to see the star that shines in the night in order to make a difference in this world. We will want to be those people who have seen the star and followed it to the Christ Child



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