Sermon transcript for July 6, 2014
Year A 4th Sunday After Pentecost
July 6, 2014 - Chris Allen, preaching
"Thanks Be To God"
Wow. At first glance, the biggest hurdle to understanding Paul’s words to the Romans is the tongue twister that it is.
If you read earlier in Romans, you will recall that in the previous chapter, Paul’s straight talk to the church in Rome could be summed up as, “Come one now, you’re baptized. You are raised with Christ in conquering sin and death. Now start acting like it.” Now in chapter seven it seems that Paul is in need of his own advice. Its as if Paul is now floundering in excuses. "It is not me, it is sin's fault!"
Let’s take a moment and retrace Paul’s argument from chapter six. First, Jesus is victorious over sin and death. Paul makes this point clear. Second, at our baptism we are given the power to experience freedom from sin and death because of the work of Christ. This should sound familiar to our baptismal covenant when the candidate or sponsor is asked, “Do you accept the freedom and power God has given you to reject evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” Paul will go on in chapter eight to call this acceptance of freedom and exercising your power in Christ over sin and death, “life in the Spirit.” Life in the Spirit is where we welcome, experience, and delight in God’s law in our innermost being.
Paul says, “I don’t do what I want to do. Instead I do the thing I hate.” The struggle that Paul describes is the reality of our actual experience. The persons we have been and the habits we have kept keep us from knowing, much less delighting in the law of God. We’ve been patterned by sin to respond in certain ways without even knowing. The pervasive power of sin in our lives forms us to seek revenge when we want reconciliation. The conditioning of sin deafens our ears to the cries of those who are in need. We’ve got a lot of unlearning to do.
This isn’t just a you problem or problem for me. This is an all of us problem. These words from Paul in Romans chapter three can be unsettling but they are true. All have sinned and fall short of God’s God (Romans 3:23). These words can be a tough pill to shallow but they’re true. It’s true about your life. It’s true about my life.
But, are you going on to perfection? This is a question that is asked of all the candidates at ordination as part of what is known as “the Historic Questions." Ken, Linda, Pam, Susan and many others in this room have all been asked this question. Heather, Adam, and I look forward to the day when the Bishop asked this question. It is a question that goes all the way back to John Wesley. This question was not reserved to candidates for ordination as it is reserved today. (REPEAT). Wesley asked this question to all the women and men who served as leaders in the Methodist societies. These were the lay people, no just clergy, who lead Bible studies, prayer meetings, watched over the finances, visited those in prison, fed the hungry, and clothed the naked.
So are you going on to perfection? Notice that the question is not “Are you perfect?” it asks, “Are you going on to perfection?” If you are not going on to perfect, then where are you headed? The destination of the life of Christian discipleship is marked by loving God with all of heart, with all of your being, with all of your mind, and with all of your strength. Loving other people with the same love that God has shown to you marks the life of discipleship. The life of Christian discipleship is moving toward the love of God within each one of us becoming a visible reality of God in the world we live. It is unlearning the habits of sin and being formed by the Holy Spirit with the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If this is perfection, who doesn’t want to move towards that? What might the world look like if all of us are fully committed to going on to perfection?
There is a fancy Methodist word used to describe this movement towards perfection and it is called sanctification. It is word you probably don't use much in conversation. Sanctification is the ongoing process by which we are drawn into the likeness of Christ, into that full relationship with Jesus. The sanctification of our lives is truly by the grace of God, that sweet amazing grace that finds us when we are lost, guides us through the many dangers, toils, and snares, and never gives up to lead us home.
Sanctification is beautiful part of our tradition, the Wesleyan tradition. In the final verse of “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” Charles Wesley wrote these words.
Finish, then, Thy new creation; Pure and spotless let us be. Let us see Thy great salvation Perfectly restored in Thee.
Charles is talking about sanctification. Sanctification is not some otherworldly process. It is has happening right here and right now. And I’ve seen it…
I’ve witnessed it in the lives of Kim Hawkins, Lori Pearce, and bunch of young women. Kim and Lori co-led the middle school girls small group for the past two years. The on-going process of sanctification, of growing into the likeness of Christ, is at work in this group as they’ve studied scripture together, prayed for each other, and served alongside one another. I know God’s sanctifying grace is at work in this group of women because Kim and Lori have both come to me after youth group on Sunday night and said, “I just don’t know the answers anymore to the questions they are asking now asking me. I need to go home, read more scripture this week, and do some research.” You see, the grace of God loves us so enough us to meet us where we are. The good news is that God’s amazing grace doesn’t leave us there. God’s grace loves us so much as to transform our way of being into the likeness of Christ.
Are you earnestly striving after it? So you say you are going on to perfection and you believe it can happen here and now, so what are you doing about it? Grace invites us to respond. This is where the rubber meets the road. Its one thing to look up on Google Maps how many miles Dallas is from Nashville but it’s quite a different thing to jump in your car actually make the drive to Dallas. So what are you doing to move in the direction of Christian perfection?
The are a number of opportunities to help you move in that direction, no matter if you are still exploring the faith, just getting started, or seeking to take the next step to deepen your faith. Throughout the history of the church there have been certain practices that lead us towards perfect love such as studying scripture, prayer, community, service, and worship. If you are just starting out maybe its just join us again next week for worship or becoming a part of one of our affinity groups. If you are seeking to take a deeper step, I invite you to be apart of one of the upcoming Covenant bible studies groups or be a mentor to the young people of our congregation through our youth and children ministries. As we gather around this table today, may the spirit work within all of us, no matter where we are on the journey, knowing that God’s grace leads us home.
1 Unlearning the pattern of sin is a term borrowed from L. Gregory Jones in Embodying Forgiveness: A Theological Analysis.
2 Book of Discipline 2012, ¶336.
3 Steve Manskar, “What’s Christian Perfection got to do with Leadership?” http://wesleyanleadership.com/2010/03/15/whats-christian-perfection-got-to-do-with-leadership/
Sermon transcript for June 29, 2014
A Cup of Cold Water
Belmont UMC—June 29, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
During our college days, Kathryn, my wife, and I participated in a sociology class project with a number of other students. Our project involved volunteering for the county health department and doing a health needs survey of a poor pocket of the county. We were given a list of questions and a road map of the area we were to survey. We were told to expect rejection because the people in that area of the county were wary of strangers.
On several Saturday mornings we set out to see how many households we could survey. We did meet with quite a bit of rejection. People were suspicious of us and of government programs and they did not want us meddling in their lives.
One very hot sunny morning we parked our car on the side of the road and looked at the house in front of us. It was very run down, bushes were overgrown all around the place, the grass had not been mowed for a long time, paint peeled from the siding, gutters hung loose from the roof line. We would have assumed the house to be abandoned, except for the smoke coming from the chimney.
We went to the front door and knocked—no answer. We knocked again and louder and we waited. Finally, an older disheveled woman peered out the glass in the door frame. “What do you want?” she asked. We explained who we were and that we had a few questions to ask. She said, “I’m not going to do that.” Then she cracked the door and said, “Wait a minute; I have to get my cornbread out of the oven before it burns.”
We waited a long time and almost decided to leave, when she returned to the door. She had a tray in her hand with three wedges of cornbread and three glasses of sweet ice tea (Southerners make their tea so sweet you could put it on your pancakes if you ran out of syrup.)
There were no chairs so the three of us sat on the edge of the porch with our legs hanging over the side. She told us she didn’t like to be asked a lot of questions, but we looked hot and she wanted to give us some tea and cornbread. She explained that she cooked on a wood cook stove, because the food tasted better than food coming out of those electric stoves. She told us that her husband was sick with cancer and resting or she would invite us in the house. She told us much of her life story and somehow over the course of the next hour she inadvertently answered all the questions we would have asked.
In a act of surprising hospitality the walls between us came down and the three of us began to feel very much at home with one another.
The Gospel text today comes on the heels of Jesus sending the disciples out to share the good news. He sends them warnings about the consequences of being a Jesus follower. They can expect rejection and they can expect division and name calling. He reminds them of how important they are to God, every hair on their heads counts to God.
But Jesus said to them, “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me.” Those are powerful words. Today, across the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences, pastors are experiencing their first Sunday in a new appointment. There couldn’t be a more appropriate text for this new beginning. I remember being in that place 7 years ago, standing before you for the first time. I was nervous and I written the word “BREATHE!” at the top of my notes for feat that I would forget. I had a dream the night before that my cincture fell around my ankles and I fell down the chancel steps. You were so gracious to this stranger among you and you welcomed me and my family, and in welcoming us you were welcoming Jesus.
Jesus said, “I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” He did not say give them cold sweet tea, but it would still work.
This text is about how we receive others in the name of Jesus. It echoes the call for genuine hospitality, the kind of hospitality that breaks down barriers and creates a space for relationships to form.
We are called to the ministry of hospitality—all of us. This is not the responsibility of The Inviting Team of Belmont UMC; it is the work we are all called to do. It is one of the 4 core values of our church. From the Hebrew Scriptures where God reminds the Hebrew people to “welcome the immigrant, because you were once immigrants in Egypt (Deut. 10:19) to the Gospels where Jesus models the gift of hospitality, especially toward those who are not being welcomed by others, we are hearing this call. Jesus said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” Paul implored the people to welcome the stranger (Romans 15). And the writer of Hebrews gave us this: “Do not neglect to welcome the strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (13:2)
Henri Nouwen noted that contemporary Americans are nomads, “a world of strangers estranged from their own past, culture, and country, from their neighbors, friends and family, from their deepest self and their God.” He proposed that “if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality.” Hospitality is the creation of free space “where strangers can become friends.” (Reaching Out)
Genuine hospitality is not always easy. It means stepping outside our comfort zones. It means radical inclusivity. It means offering the welcome of Christ to persons who are different from our selves, persons of different classes, life choices, races, political parties, and cultures. Many of the people of our church have come from refugee camps in Burma. They feel at home and safe in our church. That’s what they tell us. Many of them do not speak English but they will understand a friendly greeting that comes with a warm smile.
Jesus’ disciples were not always comfortable with the boundaries he crossed. They were uncomfortable with his conversation with a Samaritan woman, with children and with persons who had diseases that made them ritually unclean. Jesus modeled this kind of genuine hospitality, reaching out to those who were marginalized and unwelcomed in their own culture an by their own places of faith.
Genuine hospitality is transformative to both host and guest. Nouwen wrote, “When hostility is converted to hospitality, then fearful strangers can become guests . . . and the distinction between host and guest evaporates in the recognition of newfound unity.” (Reaching Out)
Diana Butler Bass says, “Hospitality is not a tame practice.” She tells of being at Cornerstone UMC in Naples, Florida, a church with a rich practice of hospitality and watching a preppy retired man chatting with a man covered in tattoos, a Haitian man chatting with teens, and 3 black-clad teenage girls with pierced noses and Goth makeup approach an elderly lady in a wheelchair. One by one they bent down and kissed her and asked how she was doing.” (Christianity for the Rest of Us, pp. 77-87)
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me,” Jesus said to his disciples. In hospitality we see Christ and we offer Christ to a hurting world. We are too often apologetic for being the church and reaching out to others in evangelism. We have forgotten what it has meant for us to be here, among this wonderful community of faith and how much it has meant to our lives.
We sometimes forget that the people who come through these doors are people in need. Look around you on Sunday mornings. Chances are we have no idea of the needs represented in this place. Some have come here seeking and they may not know what they are seeking—only that there is an emptiness that the rest of life is not filling. The people sitting around you may have huge struggles to face. They do not expect us to meet all their needs. And all they need from us is a warm welcome, a welcome gracious enough that they feel at home in our presence and in this church.
Everyone here is in need. Everyone here is in need of God’s grace. Everyone here needs to know that God loves them and values them. Everyone here needs forgiveness. And they will find what they need if we give them a hospitable space in which to find their way to God.
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.”