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!
Sermon transcript for September 9, 2012
“Compassion for the Desperate”
Belmont UMC—September 9, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
One of the best scenes in movie history is a scene from the 1983, Terms of Endearment. Shirley Maclaine portrays Aurora Greenway, an over involved mother to her grown daughter. In the second half of the movie, Greenway’s daughter is diagnosed with cancer and toward the end of the movie she lays suffering from pain in a hospital bed. Aurora has asked several times for pain medication for her daughter, only to be told that they have to wait for the doctor’s orders and follow protocol. The pain continues and Maclaine’s character reaches a tipping point. She runs out of the room and confronts the nurses at their station and goes into a tirade of anger and compassion. The nurses are moved to action and quickly respond to the mother’s urgent and fiery demands.
Scenes like this, though not usually as dramatic, happen each day a few blocks from here at the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital. I’ve been with parents who are worried and demanding because they want answers and help for a sick child. It’s what parents are supposed to do. Their responses are not always measured and patient, and I have watched doctors and nurses handle the parents’ anxiety and demands with tenderness and understanding.
In the Gospel text today there are two healing stories but the one that catches our attention, and the one that is a bit perplexing, is the first story. Geography is important in the Gospel of Mark and Mark reminds us earlier that Jesus has crossed the Lake, which means he is in Gentile territory. We know that there are Jews in the region and these Jews are economically oppressed and some wonder if these persons are the reason Jesus has crossed the Lake.
But in this place he encounters a Gentile woman who has a sick daughter. The woman begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Then we have this unusual exchange. Jesus said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs.” (The word, “dogs” is a derogatory reference to Gentiles.) But the woman persists, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” For that, Mark says, Jesus sent her home to find her daughter cured. Matthew tells us that it is the woman’s faith that surprises Jesus. I recently reflected on William Sloane Coffin’s statement about faith. He said, “I like the recklessness of faith. First you leap and then you grow wings.” (Credo, p. 7) This statement seems to describe the woman’s faith, which is reckless and unrelenting.
We don’t know how to understand this exchange. We try to over explain it to make Jesus look better in the story. It is possible that Jesus’ understanding of his mission across the Lake is to the suffering Jews. But it appears that the faith and prophetic wisdom of this woman radically reorients his understanding of his mission and vision. Dawn Wilhelm writes, “We do not sense the diminishment of Jesus’ power through this exchange but the expansion of it, as he blesses her heart’s desire and heals her daughter. However unsettling this exchange may be, its resolution reveals that God is not unchanging or unresponsive but compassionate and merciful.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm, p. 49) And after this encounter Jesus begins to widen the circle of ministry to include the Gentiles.
The other healing in this story is about a man who is deaf. Both stories are about persons who have reached the tipping point of desperation. Both stories reveal the wideness of God’s mercy toward all persons. Both of the healed persons have little status in their world. The little girl would have been thought of as a worthless, Gentile girl, with a demon, and the man who was deaf would have been looked upon with disdain and of little use to society. In these stories we see the great compassion of God, God who is able to see both of these persons as beloved children, just like you and me. In these stories we are reminded that status exists only in our minds, but never in the mind of God.
The Gospel lesson reminds us that there are many people in our world today who have reached the point of desperation. The stories call our attention to these persons, to look beyond our small, comfortable worlds and see the real human needs that exist all around us.
A call came to our home late one Saturday night. I’m not sure how the man got may home number but there he was on the other end of the line. His story sounded familiar, “Pastor, we are traveling through and we have run out of money. A truck driver paid for our motel room for the night, but our car is on empty and our children are hungry. They haven’t eaten all day. Can you help us?”
As I said, it was late on Saturday night and I was getting ready for bed. I get up early on Sundays and I’m usually heading to bed by 10 PM. I explained to the man, “It’s late. Why don’t you come by the church tomorrow morning and I’ll see what I can do.”
But the man persisted, “I’m not asking for myself; my children are hungry and haven’t eaten all day. If we could have just a loaf of bread and some peanut butter, anything to feed my children; please, sir, please.”
I responded, “Okay, give me the name of the Motel and the room number. I’ll need an hour or so to pull things together.” I went to the grocery and bought two bags of things I thought children would like, milk, apples, peanut butter, bread, chips, breakfast bars, and brought some paper plates and plastic knives and forks from home. I went to the motel and knocked on the man’s room. A bedraggled looking man in old worn clothes came to the door and I introduced myself. He called into the room and 5 children, 5 stair steps of red hair, ages 5 to 12, came out on the sidewalk. I greeted them and handed the bags of groceries, explaining what they contained. The children’s mother came to the door to thank me. I invited the father to follow me to a gas station where I filled his tank with gas.
I never forgot that family. The father’s persistence on behalf of his children touched my heart and summoned compassion from within me. The family was on their way to Arkansas because someone told them that there were jobs in Arkansas. I hope they made it. I hope that they encountered other compassionate folks along the way.
And I hope we will get a mental picture of some of the people in our community who are at the point of desperation. I hope we can put aside the artificial boundaries of race, class, ethnicity, gender, age, physical condition, or sexual orientation, and see persons through the eyes of God’s wide compassion. The needs of the world cry out to the church and to other people of conscience and we cannot ignore them.
In each of these healing stories, the persons who are healed are dependent on someone else to advocate for them—the mother of the little girl and the friends of the man who is deaf. We are reminded of the church’s role of advocacy. We hear God’s call to stand beside those who have no standing in this world. We hear God’s call to speak up for those who are without voice. We hear the cries of the desperate.
Luke’s Gospel records two parables that are similar. I like to think that Jesus created those parables after his encounter with this Gentile woman. In one parable he imagines going to a friend’s house at midnight and asking for bread to feed company that has arrived unexpectedly. The friend refuses, insisting that his children are in bed and he’s locked the house for the night. The person persists and the friend relents and gives him what he wants. (Luke 11:5-8)
In another parable a widow keeps coming to a judge to demand justice. The judge is described as one “who neither feared God not had respect for people.” The judge wants to ignore the widow but finally gives in because she is so unrelenting in her demands. He says to himself, “I don’t fear God or respect people, but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.” (Luke 18:1-9, CEB)
Too often the church is timid. We knock on the doors timidly like we are afraid someone will hear us. But the world to which we are sent needs a church that is not afraid to show a little righteous indignation. God will be okay with that, especially when we are unrelenting in our concerns for others. Friends, the church better be pounding loudly on some doors and demanding justice.
Today, I want to encourage you to get a mental image of someone in our community who is waiting for us to advocate for them. They may be the poor, the homeless, the transient, the mentally ill, the immigrant, the older adult who is alone and afraid, the working poor who run out of money before the end of the month, or a child who needs attention and care. God is calling us to be advocates to those who are desperate. God is calling us to be as unrelenting as a parent seeking help and justice for our child.