Sermon transcript for February 1, 2015
Sermon for Feb. 1, 2015
8:15 a.m. service
“Who is Our Prophet?”
Take a ride through history with me. Close your eyes and imagine the things I tell you:
You are walking down the main avenue of the city you live in. The sun illuminates the bright, blue sky with little whisps of cloud interrupting the blue hues. The shop to your right bakes bread; the morning air is laced with aromas of cracked wheat with a little bit of char. Mmm, you think, that would be good with some honey drizzled on it. You only take a moment to pause as the dust of the street blows into your face and brings you back to reality. “It’s time to eat,” you think.
On your way to get a quick bite, you pass along the shops highlighted by clay pots filled with flowers. Orange and yellow flashes catch your eye, but you look at the shop owner, and he does not look pleased you are there. You walk a little faster to get to your destination. The few coins in your pocket are all you carry, and you only carry those to pay for lunch. You walk in the back entrance to the place - darting your eyes left and right before you enter - lest you get the owner in trouble. You walk in. *sigh* You made it. Friends of yours covered in the same dust that hit you earlier sit in a long row against a stone wall eating their lunches. You grab your bowl of stew and eat your quick meal before heading to work. These few minutes with a hot meal are the most quiet you will have all day, so you try to enjoy the bliss of being alone.
When I was told that story, I couldn’t quite place where I was. My professor was describing what it was like to be a Jewish person in a ghetto in New York at the turn of the century. I, a child of the post-civil-rights era South, assumed it was about an African American man in Alabama. My friend sitting next to me thought he was experiencing the life of a slave in Egypt or Assyria. We could all make a pretty good argument as to why we were right, and that may have been my professor’s point. History tends to find ways to repeat itself, and as much as we want to think otherwise, the basic experiences of living tend to only change in look.
So in preparing to work with this Sunday’s scriptures, I could not get my mind away from the news and how we continually seem to hear the same stories throughout our lives to the point we think nothing changes. We just celebrated the life of Dr. King a few weeks ago, yet the conversation of race and class continues to be on our minds and in our hearts. I hear the same headlines of crime, traffic, and celebrity gossip that I heard when my mother drove me to school. That feeling of continuity and familiarity occurs when I read the Bible sometimes, so I attempted to hear these readings with fresh ears. How can we continue on the righteous path of bringing heaven to earth? What can we do to honor King’s work and legacy?
I read the first passage in Deuteronomy and stopped at the word “Prophet.” The word is almost always ascribed to Dr. King, some have also ascribed the title to the current and some previous popes, many argue figures like Ghandi, Howard Thurman, various writers, thinkers, and activists, and others in recent history who they think deserve the term. And, to be fair, for some it really should stick. I felt it would be good if we asked ourselves, “who is OUR prophet today?”
We as Methodists love, for good reason, to point to our church’s founder John Wesley. He and his brother formulated our polity, our hymnody, and our understanding of God’s love and grace that supersedes all. But is either Wesley a prophet? What about people who work in the religious world now? We have academics who devote their life’s work to understanding the language and intent of God’s Word, would that make them prophets? What about pastors who put their credit and reputation on the line to stand with and even live with the marginalized peoples of the world. Are they prophets? How do we know who is on the cusp of seeing God’s next move?
I think we are safe with King. Letters from a Birmingham jail and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, along with countless others I am remiss to name individually, point to a world that need not be like the one we have. He goes after the exact problems he sees and names them and says, “NO MORE!” I think we could borrow the practice of naming our problems from our extended family in the black churches of America. They know how to say what needs to be said.
Those who we call prophets go to great lengths to show our mixed up and sometimes sinful values in real ways. I’ll admit I do not get the full effect of Ezekiel cutting off all of his hair and dividing it, but I do understand Ghandi literally standing against the British until the empire left. Both suffered by pushing against the taboos and mores of their culture, and that is how we know they were willing to fight for the cause of the just. God’s name may not always make an appearance in their words, but I believe in the mystery of our faith that says God moves in ways that we know in our hearts.
The sad reality is prophets by nature are on the leading edge of what God is doing in the world. From what I know of history, most people we give the title of prophet were not seen as prophetic by the wider world of their day. Prophets are tasked with swaying society back toward what God wants, and what we want often is in direct conflict with that. The Bible tells us to share what we have with others, but the world tells us not to enable those who take charity for granted. “Love your neighbors,” Jesus said, “…unless they try to steal from you,” the world adds, “then they deserve what’s coming.” God’s will is often different from our will. Our will usually has something to do with our wallets. God works in the currency of infinite love and grace.
When we look to Deuteronomy, the writer makes clear where our prophets will come from. They don’t originate out of nowhere and they certainly cannot name themselves as such. Verse 18 says, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people;…” For one, the prophet will have authority, because not everyone was versed in the law of the Pentateuch – the Jewish law from which Deuteronomy comes. To know the law, one must have wisdom and patience to understand God’s will. Similarly, that person will come from within the community. No one who does not know the community can speak for it.
1 Corinthians warns us that we must also be vigilant in discerning what is good for us. When we hear someone speaking on our or God’s behalf, we must be mindful of what they say and do. While this passage concerns food specifically, it talks about how we should know what is good for us. We can have all the knowledge in the world but it is not good unless it serves love of God and love of neighbor. Otherwise, knowledge runs the risk of ego.
Knowing who our prophets are sits well in the context of food and community. I am a firm believer that you really get to know someone when you share a meal with them. Community is based on what we do together. It is no surprise that our two major sacraments of communion and baptism are both deeply personal actions – eating and washing – that are done in the presence of others. Paul warns the community in Corinth to be mindful of what they do just as Deuteronomy asks we be mindful of what God wants for us. This morning, while we celebrate communion, I ask that you take a moment to show appreciation for the God who loves you always and finds various avenues for you to be reminded that you are loved and cared for.
So, when we speak of prophets coming from amongst us, how can be sure we have found someone whom God has anointed to speak? My first instinct is to point to the Gospels. We see Christ as being so much more than a prophet, but he was still a prophet of his time. He told people that empires did not dictate the ways of the world; God does. The same laws passed through history were taught to Jesus as a boy. He came from a Jewish family. Given he was a craftsman, I can’t vouch for his education and knowledge of the law, but I think our faith in his Son of God status has a wisdom component.
Jesus shows us that God’s word and will can often be hidden like the parables. Sometimes God is as plain as “love God, love neighbor.” God’s will can hurt our plans as the rich, young ruler learned. God also knows when we are poor and blesses us with loaves and fish. If you ever need to know what a prophet looks like, I would recommend brushing up on the Gospels and look for the good news that God loves all of us, wants us to love each other, and is in the business of seeing the world serve for goodness for all and not just for some. The Gospels and the Living Christ still challenge us to hear God’s words fresh and new.
Jesus offers us a litmus test for knowing who our modern day prophets are. They must be willing to be honest yet unyielding to naming and ending injustice. They must achieve justice without violence or manipulation. They will be one of us. Prophets will come and go, but those who will lead us to a new tomorrow will look a lot like Christ, because they have God on their side.
If you are looking for our prophet, start by looking around you. Belmont serves a single community in a single city, but its members are doing some good things. Who is to say OUR prophet for today is not sitting in a pew here this morning or at the 10:30 service. We are a community striving to love God and neighbor as best we can by opening our doors to people who need love. I say this community, and communities all around Nashville, Tennessee, and the world, are building up their members to do great works in the name of God. May we be so blessed as to find our prophet. Amen.
Sermon transcript for January 25, 2015
Come, Follow Me!
Belmont UMC—January 25, 2015
The obvious question that comes from the Gospel text this morning is why these men follow Jesus without question. He speaks to them, “Come, follow me,” and right away they follow him. The Gospel of Mark begins with a flurry of things happening. There is no long birth narrative and here in the first chapter Jesus is baptized, spends time in the wilderness with the wild beasts and then begins calling disciples.
What motivates these four to become disciples? The two sets of brothers: Simon and Andrew, James and John, are all fishermen. Some wonder how successful they were. We see them mending worn out nets and casting nets into the shallow water on the wrong side of the boat. The only time they seem to catch fish is when Jesus shows them how.
In another place James and John have the nickname, Sons of Thunder. One has to wonder how they got that name. I picture them in preschool, a whirlwind of activity in the corner of the classroom, destroying all the other kids’ toys. I heard Tony Campolo say he could imagine them riding into Capernaum on Harley Davidsons, wearing black leather jackets, with the words, Sons of Thunder, emblazoned on the back.
Some have suggested that they were disciples of John the Baptist and already had some interest in the teachings of Jesus. What motivates them to be Christ followers?
What motivates us to be Christ followers? When I was a child, fear was a motivator. I recall going to revival services in which the preachers could paint some rather scary pictures of the consequences of not following in the way of Jesus. It doesn’t appear that Jesus uses fear to motivate these four brothers.
When my older sons were in youth group they came to my office one Sunday and asked if they could go to something called Judgment House at a nearby church. Judgment House is what I would call a “Christian” haunted house, set up around the time of Halloween each year. I brought the boys in and told them that Judgment House was a series of fictional scenes that depict teenagers who have made some questionable decisions, got killed in an accident and wound up in the torments of Hell. I said, “You are not going. If you are going to become followers of Jesus, I want you to be loved into that decision, not scared into it.” They agreed.
Fear is not a very good motivator and it doesn’t have a lasting impact on our lives.
Neither is guilt. A lot of us were raised on unhealthy doses of guilt. It can move us to fulfill obligations but not because we want to but because we want to avoid feeling lousy about ourselves. Guilt doesn’t have a lasting impact on us either.
But love does. The Jesus that Andrew, Peter, James and John decide to follow is the one who heard God say at his baptism, “You are my child. I love you. In you I find happiness.” These four and many more after them will hear God say the same thing to them and so do we. Love is a powerful motivator.
Parents of preschoolers meet with disappointment on weekend mornings when they hope to sleep a little later. But their children wake up early and need their attention. It’s usually not a good idea to allow these young children to have free run of the house.
One morning when our oldest was about 4 years old he got up early on a Saturday morning. His mother and I did not hear him and we slept through the whole thing. He appeared beside our bed, which is a high four-poster bed and all I could see was his little face, which was smiling from ear to ear. He said, “Daddy, I made you some breakfast.” And though I grew up on a farm where big breakfasts were served, I am not a fan of breakfast. I like to get up early, drink a couple of mugs of coffee (preferably in silence), get some exercise, and then eat some yogurt, or if I’m really hungry, I’ll eat some fruit as well. I eat because I’m told I need to, not because I want to.
I looked down at the large bowl in my little boys hands. He said, “I made you a salad; I know you like salad.” I do like salad but I do not like salad at 6 AM on a Saturday morning. In this bowl there was unwashed lettuce, crude chunks of carrots that were neither peeled nor washed, some whole radishes and a few things I could not identify. On top he had poured a pint of blue cheese dressing. I like blue cheese dressing but not at 6 AM on a Saturday morning.
I pulled myself up in the bed and took the bowl from the little boy. I patted the bed beside me and he climbed up and sat there. I put my arm around him and drew him close and said, “I love you so much, son.” “I love you, Daddy.” And I proceeded to eat the entire bowl of unwashed, disgusting food because of one thing: love. Love like that will make you do some foolish things. It might even make you put down your nets and follow a stranger.
So the Gospel text is not about what motivates these 4 persons to become Christ followers. Rather the Gospel is about what motivates God to call us in the first place and the answer is love. For God is love. (1 John 4:7) God calls each of us God’s child. God loves each of us and God finds happiness in us. I will follow a God who loves me that much.
The other question that comes naturally out of this text is: Who is this Jesus that we are asked to follow? I’m not sure the disciples fully understood who they were following. And we have to confess that we fall into the temptation of recreating Jesus in our own image. Jesus is 62 year old white man who doesn’t like dirty salad covered in blue cheese dressing given to him at 6 AM. Jesus is a Democrat or a Republican. Jesus is my buddy who has all the same habits and traits I have. Jesus is easy-going and predictable. This Jesus we have recreated in our image is not very challenging or threatening to our status quo and we like it that way.
This Jesus who calls us to follow him is the image of God. I recently sat at my desk and reread the little book, Three Simple Questions, by Bishop Rueben Job. At Rueben’s memorial service last Sunday I spoke of his stewardship of words. And in just a few short paragraphs, Rueben tells us who we are asked to follow in Jesus, the Christ. Listen to his words.
“The God Jesus reveals shatters all our little ideas about God and reveals a God who is author and creator of all that is. In Jesus we see a God who reverses the values of our culture and turns upside down our scheme or priorities, leaving us gasping at the sight of such bone-deep love, justice, and mercy. In Jesus we see such bold and radical truth that we tremble in awe and then cry out for help as we try to practice the faithful way of living he demonstrated so splendidly.”
“In Jesus we see a God who does the unexpected and the unpredictable. We see Jesus choosing to be the friend of sinners and being just as comfortable with the very wealthy as he is with the homeless beggar. We see a God who refuses to accept the boundaries that culture establishes and who moves with ease among scholars, religious leaders, soldiers, prostitutes, farmers, fishermen, tax collectors and demon-possessed men and women—inviting them all into a new way of seeing the world, a new way of living, a new kingdom.”
In Jesus we see a God who is not swayed by popular opinion, loud adulation, or noisy rebellion. In Jesus we see a God who is not controlled by any ideology, philosophy, concept, force, or power. In Jesus we see a God who is never under our control. . . . Jesus reveals a God who is always and forever beyond us, completely other than we are, yet who wants to come and dwell within us. Jesus reveals a God of love.” (pp. 21-22)
I was in Junior High School and I was sitting on the back row of church with a bunch of other young people. Our District Superintendent was preaching. We were passing notes to one another and giggling. Several times we got that scolding look from our parents as they turned and glared at us.
The District Superintendent was a kind and gentle man and I kept hearing him use the word love. He repeated, “God loves each of us.” “God is love.” He kept saying it and I found myself listening, against my better judgment. He looked at us and said again, “God loves you.” I knew this. We sang, “Jesus loves me, this I know,” in Vacation Bible School. I heard it in Confirmation, but on that day it was like I was hearing it for the first time. The Holy Spirit was delivering this message to my heart and my mind and I found myself transfixed.
The sermon ended and the preacher invited persons who wanted to pray to come forward during the hymn. We were standing and all of sudden I realized that I was walking, walking down the aisle and toward the chancel. I fell on my knees at the kneeler. I came face to face that day with the One who has said to me all my life, “I love you. You are my child. You make me happy.”
Kneeling there, I heard Jesus say, “Come, follow me.”
Jurgen Motmann wrote, “The message of the prophet is a message for the people, a message sent into the camps of the exiled, and into the slums of the poor. It is a word against the captains of the arms industry and the fanatics of power. If we really understood what it means, it bursts the bonds of Sunday worship. For if this message really lays hold of us, it leads us to Jesus, the liberator, and to the people who live in darkness and who are waiting for him—and for us.” (The Power)
This Advent may we hear our call to be witnesses to that light and hope that came to us in Jesus Christ. In Christ light and hope have come into our dark world.