Sermon transcript for November 11, 2012
Discerning God’s Way
Colossians 1:9-12; Psalm 127
Belmont UMC—November 11, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
When Bishop Wills called me five and a half years ago about coming to Belmont as a pastor, he said something that most Bishops and Superintendents do not say when making those calls. He said, “Why don’t you spend a few days in prayer to discern if this is the right move for you?” I still remember my response to him, “Oh Bishop, I’m not very good at discernment.” He said, “You need to work on that!”
We have invited you to join us in a period of prayer and discernment as we prepare for a strategic planning initiative. A lot of us would rather rush to the end and make a plan but the most important part of this process is the prayer and discernment phase. As we began this process I have tried to be intentional about allowing space and time to be quiet and apart, and to allow myself to experience God’s presence. This spiritual practice, even on days when I resist it or I’m distracted, has become very important to me. I invite you to do the same, to find time each day for quiet, prayerful reflection and prayerful listening.
Why is this important to us? Bishop Rueben Job answers that question in the book, A Guide to Spiritual Discernment, “To live with God in this world that God loves requires some intense and intentional listening.” He says that the prerequisites for hearing clearly the voice and direction of God are “faith in a God who communicates with us,” and “a great love for God and a passion for God’s will.” (pp. 24-25)
The Psalmist says, “Unless it is the Lord who builds the house, the builders’ work is pointless.” (CEB 127:1) This is one of my favorite Bible verses. It means that the house belongs to God and God must be in the plan to build it or we are wasting our time.
I told Pam Hawkins the other day that I’m constantly annoyed by a 4 word sentence that plays over and over in my head. The sentence is, “It’s not about you!” I think someone is trying to tell me something. It’s not about my plan; it’s about God’s plan. It’s not about my will; it’s about God’s will. It’s not about my agenda; it’s about God’s agenda. It’s not about my way; it’s about God’s way. We need a strategic plan for this church, but it’s not my strategic plan or your strategic plan, it has to be God’s plan. We need to spend some generous time alone with God to hear God’s voice and know God’s direction.
Let’s confess that everything in our lives and in our culture conspires against the possibility of us doing this. The fact that most of us are goal oriented makes it difficult. I’m a compulsive list maker. I have lists for work and home, lists of things needed at the grocery and lists of projects I hope to do in the future. I make a list every morning when I get up and I work toward completing everything on that list. If I do something that’s not on the list, I add it to the list and then mark it off. I thought everyone did that but I’m discovering that it’s a bit peculiar. I keep the old list for a few days to remind me of my accomplishments. Our culture evaluates us for our accomplishments. I’ve never seen an employee evaluation form that asks if the employee has mastered the art of quiet discernment. Our culture values measurable results.
The way we tether ourselves to smart phones, Ipads, and computers conspires against our ability to find time to be quiet and alone with God. Our schedules, carpooling children to events, work, household chores, and all the voices that threaten to drown out the voice of God, all these things conspire against the possibility that we might spend time in prayer, listening, and discernment.
We would also confess our reluctance to listen to God and to discern God’s way for fear that we might hear we hear something we do not like. There is risk in being fully open to God’s leading. We like the path we are on. Why stir things up? Rueben Job writes, “When we are very settled and comfortable, it is hard to listen for and respond to God’s voice calling us to move out, up, over, beyond or even to new ministry where we are.” (A Guide to Spiritual Discernment, p. 36) How many times have I heard people say, “I’ve known God was calling me to _______ for a long time, but I kept fighting it.”
So I invite all of us to give ourselves permission to spend some quiet time alone with God. Give yourself permission to quit working, quit thinking about the chores ahead of you. Give yourself the gift of being in God’s presence. Turn off your cell phone and move away from places of labor. Don’t talk over God, but be very quiet and inviting. Wait, be still, be quiet and listen. Listen! For the first part of the discernment process is listening.
The other part of the discernment process is watching. We have used the question, “Where do we see God at work?” in our church. We have used this question as centering question at the beginning of committee meetings. It is a question that calls us to the spiritual practice of observing the places where the holy and divine are breaking into our secular and mundane worlds.
Where do we see God at work? On Sundays we see God at work all over this place. Walking the halls before and after worship and Sunday School we see God at work in the generous and glad greetings of friends in faith. We see God at work through educational ministries of Sunday School Classes, volunteers, and teachers. We see God at work in the experiences of worship in the chapel and sanctuary, in the beautiful music of organ and piano, in the voices gathered in song and praise, and in the sweet sounds of hand bells.
Last week we could see God at work in the lives of our Open Door Singers, our youth choir, continuing to grow in numbers and now filling the balcony on the east side of the sanctuary. On Children’s Sabbath we saw God at work in the lives of our children’s choirs, gathered on the sanctuary chancel steps, and filling the space with beautiful music and smiles. Our young people are learning about God and about the theology of worship through their participation in these choirs.
We see God at work in your hospitality to visitors. One couple told me that on their first visit here they came through the front door of the sanctuary and Keith Roberts was out on the steps to greet them. And though they have learned other ways to enter the sanctuary, they still prefer to enter the front doors so they can see Keith there. Visitors tell me all the time that they are welcomed and treated like old friends when they come to Belmont.
During the week I’ve seen God at work when Anne Hoback takes time out of her busy day to sit on the bench outside her office and talks with one our homeless neighbors. I’ve seen God at work through the Justice for our Neighbor attorney, Adrienne, as she greets immigrant families and offers them guidance and hope. I’ve seen God at work among the many ESL students who come here to learn English each week. I’ve seen God at work in the faces of Week Day School Children. Every week older adults who are ill or homebound experience God through the personal visits of Linda Johnson and homebound visitors.
On Friday our veterans gathered for a brunch. They were there to fellowship, to tell their stories and to thank God for one another and to pray for those families and friends whose lives have been affected by war. And God was with us.
I could go on and on with this list, because there are so many places that God is at work among us already. But where do you see God at work? Ask yourself this question each week as you engage the spiritual practice of experiencing God in everyday life.
Another question of discernment is, “Where are the places of need in our community and in our world?” Where is there suffering, hunger or hopelessness? In moments of quiet reflection we reflect on those places where the grace of God is needed. Where are the places of exploitation, places of rejection and alienation that need the healing presence of God? This takes the level of discernment to a deeper and less pleasant place. We may want to walk or drive the streets of our city and ask God to guide our thoughts and prayers.
We also ask the question, “Where do we hear God’s call?” We often rush to answer this question, before we have engaged the practice of discernment. I believe that when we have allowed ourselves to be in God’s presence and to listen and wait, the answer to that question will come.
Let me close with these words from Wendy Wright, “Discernment is about feeling texture, assessing weight, watching the plumb line, listening for overtones, searching for shards, feeling the quickening, surrendering to love. It is being grasped in the Spirit’s arms and led in the rhythms of an unknown dance.” (A Guide to Spiritual Discernment p.53)
Sermon transcript for November 4, 2012
“Kinship” Ruth 1: 1-18
All Saints Sunday—November 4, 2012
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
The reading today from the Book of Ruth contains this beautiful story of a bond and covenant between courageous women. “During the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land. A man and his wife and two sons went from Bethlehem of Judah to dwell in the territory of Moab.” (verse 1 CEB) It was a time of hardship, and the decision to leave home for Moab was life changing. In this foreign land the sons of Naomi and Elimilech take foreign wives, Ruth and Orpah. Elimilech dies soon thereafter, leaving Naomi a widow. In turn Naomi’s sons die leaving her daughters-in-law widows as well. In a patriarchal culture this creates even greater vulnerability for them and they are forced to make difficult decisions. Like many immigrant families they find themselves facing numerous hardships and losses.
Hearing that the drought in Judah is over, Naomi decides to return home to the land of her people. This decision forces the daughters-in-law to make their own tough decisions. Naomi encourages them to return to their people but Ruth refuses and vows incredible allegiance to her mother-in-law, in words that are often quoted, she proclaims,
“Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die and there I will be buried. May the Lord do this to me and more so if even death separates me from you.” (vv. 16-17, CEB) So Naomi returns home and she returns with this unlikely companion, a Moabite woman, a foreigner, a widow, and an outsider who represents the people who have been the enemies of Israel.
This story and the celebration of All Saints Sunday teach us something about the power of kinship. Kinship causes us to do extraordinary things that we would not do otherwise. Ruth is fiercely and completely committed to her mother-in-law and this commitment is spoken beautifully in words of covenant that say, “My relationship with you transcends everything else.”
On the list of persons we are remembering is Rebecca Graham Ferris. Rebecca and her family had deep roots in this church. In her later years Rebecca met Walter and they fell in love. During their short but fulfilling marriage they traveled all over the world. They love to dance and be together and they had wonderful stories of their life together. Walter died a little over a year ago. Walter was a “cradle Catholic” and even considered the priesthood when he was young. He loved the church and he and Rebecca come to Belmont one Sunday and go to the St. Henry’s on the next.
One Sunday, when Walter was 92 years old, he decided to join Belmont and sometime during the last hymn he started down the aisle. I did not know he planned this and I did not see him, even though he waved to get my attention. The hymn ended and Walter never made it all the way to the front. I gave the benediction and walked to the back. After service the Randolph’s said, ‘Ken, Walter wanted to join the church today, but you didn’t let him.” So that afternoon I called him to apologize. He had a wonderful sense of humor and he said, “Well I’m kind of slow; maybe I should have started down the aisle during the middle hymn.” I assured him that we would gladly welcome him the next Sunday.” I talked to him before the service that next Sunday and I said, “Walter, you can join the United Methodist Church if you want to but I suspect you will always be a Catholic at heart.” He smiled but did not respond. Walter did not join us because he loved John Wesley or because he liked my sermons. He joined because it was the ultimate sign of his deep love for his dear Rebecca. When he died his service was at the Catholic Church and this United Methodist Minister offered the message of faith. Kinship can cause you to do extreme things, like becoming a United Methodist when you’re lifelong Catholic, or following your mother-in-law homeward, not knowing if you, a Moabite, will be welcomed.
At the heart of kinship we come to understand the meaning of obligation—obligation not in its negative connotation, out of a rote and sterile sense of duty or guilt, as in, “I feel obliged to do this even though I do want to.” But I’m speaking of obligation to the other, born out of compassion, empathy and caring. Obligation that arises out of the human bond and a desire to do for the other what is right and good. We see this sense of obligation between Naomi and Ruth. We see it lived out among the saints of this church as well. (Deep Symbols, Their Postmodern Effacement and Reclamation, Edward Farley, “Obligation” pp. 42-44)
Our nation is starting the slow recovery from another national disaster and we hold the people whose lives have been upended, from Cuba to New York and New Jersey, in our prayers. Natural disasters are times of great hardship and suffering but it is during these times of extreme need that we finally get it right. Persons reach out in love and compassion to anyone and everyone in need, and they do without asking if the person is Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Moabite, a Democrat or Republican, because it doesn’t matter. What does matter is our response and our sense of obligation and kinship overrides our even our deepest prejudices.
The story of Ruth reminds us that kinship is more than blood ties. Kathleen O’Connor writes us that “this God does not belong to one people alone but gathers peoples into this wide family.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, p. 246) This story and the celebration of All Saints remind us of the importance of relationships centered in God and not in our narrow understandings of relationship. Ruth would marry Boaz and become an ancestor to King David, and according to Matthew’s gospel, a foremother of Jesus. Jesus’ own genealogy is a theological statement that speaks of a wider understanding of kinship.
And it is through Ruth’s faithfulness that God works to bring hope and redemption to God’s people. Hope arises out of this broader understanding of kinship. As we read the names of these dear saints, we are reminded of our deep love for one another in this family we call Belmont. These names represent some of our finest; people who have lived as an example of compassion, people who by their example have shown us the way of life through Jesus Christ. We miss them, but like Naomi and Ruth, ordinary saints, they continue to inform and transform how we live and think. As we hear their names we offer thanks for their continued witness among us. And as we come to this table to break the bread and drink from the cup, we are aware of our kinship with a communion of saints here and elsewhere, known and unknown. As we think of them may the hope which comes to us as a gift from God, spring up in us and give us new purpose!