Sermon transcript for March 8, 2015
The Day Jesus Came to Church
Belmont UMC—March 8, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching
The title of this sermon was not the first title but it was the one that wouldn’t go away. I thought it was odd, but it wouldn’t go away. So this is about the day Jesus came to church.
Then I recalled a comedy sketch I saw some years ago—I think it might have been on Saturday Night Live. A comedian was portraying a televangelist. He standing behind his gilded pulpit and he’s preaching and gesturing and telling the crowd what Jesus wants them to do. It was Jesus this and Jesus that, like he and Jesus are pretty thick.
Then an usher hands him a note that reads, “Jesus has just arrived in the studio and he has few things he wants to discuss with you.” The TV preacher gets a horrified look on his face and says, “He’s here? He’s really here in the studio?” Then he crouches down to hide behind the pulpit and attempts to sneak off the stage as though he’s been doing something terribly wrong.
In the Gospel story Jesus does not show up at church but he does show up at the Temple. The Temple is the center of Jewish faith and worship. By Jesus’ time synagogues existed in local areas where people gathered to hear the reading of the Torah and the rabbis would expound on the meaning of the texts. But the temple was the holiest place in the Jewish faith. The temple in Jesus’ day was always under construction. Herod was rebuilding the temple and Jesus comments on this building in the scripture.
When Jesus visited the Temple he was confronted by the busy, bustling scene in the courtyard. It was expected of Jesus to go to the temple during Passover, where he, like other Jewish people, would pay the Temple tax and offer a sacrifice.
The money changers were there to exchange the currency of travelers. The animal sellers were there, also. For the wealthy, this served as a convenience. For the poorer pilgrims this represented a harsh and oppressive obligation. The money changer and animal sellers distracted the pilgrims from the sense of sacredness.
I picture wall to wall people when I read this text. When I was in Jerusalem I went to an open air market on the day before the Sabbath. People were crammed in there buying food for the weekend. They were yelling, talking and laughing—kind of like a Nashville grocery store right before a snow storm. It was chaotic and wonderful. I imagine a similar scene at the temple.
Jesus is suddenly struck by the futility of the activity—the waste, the deception, the manipulation of God’s intentions for selfish human purposes. The terminal sickness of this religious system hit Jesus in the face and he reacted with whip-cracking anger. This does not seem premeditated.
Inside the temple in Jerusalem was the holiest place—the holy of holies, in which the Ark of the Covenant rested--a place that only the High Priest was allowed to visit. At the heart of the Ark was the Mercy Seat, a slab of gold resting on top of the Ark and guarded by cherubim. Nothing was on the Mercy Seat, no idol, no representation, only an empty place that is said to be for the divine imaginings of the people. This was a holy place where they could connect with their faith. Here they could imagine the God who had loved them and had been faithful to them over and over again.
Jesus’ reaction was against the intrusion of noise and unholy images into this sanctuary where people came to experience the presence and mercy of their God. Jesus is clearing the temple of these distractions. That’s what happened the day Jesus went to the temple.
What would happen if Jesus came in here today and sat down among us? Would he come with blessings or with a whip? Would he turn over some tables or would he smile on us? Are there systemic injustices in the church that Jesus would confront? Would we even recognize him? Or would we be too distracted to notice him? What would he look like?
Several years ago Jesus came to Mt. Juliet. I saw him walking along Lebanon Road. He was wearing a loose fitting robe and his feet were bare. He was carrying a large cross. It was quite surprising to see him as I was driving along the road to work at Grace UMC.
I pulled over to talk with him. This Jesus was a young man with long brown hair who had set out to walk across the country as Jesus, carrying nothing but a cross. His presence startled people, but they brought him bottles of water and sandwiches and invited him to stay in their homes at night. He had not lacked for food or a place to lay his head. Sometimes they asked for his autograph. His presence made people slow down and think.
He said he had no political or personal agendas, but he felt led by God to walk across the country to allow Christ’s presence to speak to peoples’ hearts.
The coming of Christ into our typical Sunday morning would certainly have a profound impact on us and on what is important. Our attention would shifted away from own opinions, our pet peeves, our beloved traditions, our busyness, our talking and activity.
I suspect that all eyes would be on him. Nothing else would matter. It would be an experience we would never forget. It would change our lives. This space, this whole building would be made holy by the presence of Jesus.
I’ve thought about holy, sacred spaces a lot after reading this passage. My brother brought me a plate with the image of Mt. Zion UMC, in Robertson County. He found it at among my family’s things. There were two so he gave me one of them. This was the church where I was baptized as an infant, where I learned the stories of Jesus in Sunday School, where I was nurtured in the early days of faith and where I went through Confirmation. We went to Vacation Bible School there in the summers and in December we dressed up as shepherds for the annual Christmas pageant. When I think of prevenient grace, the grace that leads to God, I think of this little, white framed church. In later years I would return to this church, as the family chaplain, to lead the funerals of beloved aunts, uncles and cousins. It’s a holy place for me.
During the last winter blast, several small churches burned to the ground. The images of them reminded me of Mt. Zion. I saw photos of them on Facebook and on the evening news. I heard people tell, through their tears, of how much these buildings had meant to them, and how sad it was to lose these places of worship.
In 70 A.D. the temple in Jerusalem would be completely destroyed and it has never been rebuilt. People would never again come there to offer sacrifices. The holy place was gone, the Ark was gone, and the Mercy Seat was destroyed.
Jesus said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” (v. 19) He was speaking of the temple of his body, not the temple built by human hands over forty-six years. Jesus is the temple which has come from God, who will always be with us, no matter where we are.
The people from those churches that burned over the past month said they would find a place and a way to gather on the Sundays after the fires. Jesus came to their churches on those Sundays, just as he had every Sunday, in those beautiful little white framed churches. His presence made all of those spaces holy places.
So we don’t come here to wonder “What if Jesus came to our church?” We come here every week to be in his presence, his loving and transforming presence. We invite him here at the beginning of the service and we make space in our hearts to experience his presence. We do recognize him, in the warm smiles and the tender embraces of friends. We see him in the hands that welcome and feed the homeless. We see him on the faces of acolytes who bear his light into this space. We hear him calling to us through the music of choir and congregants singing hymns. We hear him as the Word is shared, and he challenges our complacency and our love for the status quo.
Here we enter into the holy place, made holy by the presence of Christ. Here we lay aside the distractions and our hearts that have been anxious all week are set at ease and turned back toward God. Here we are changed and renewed, because Jesus came to our church again today.
Sermon transcript for February 22, 2015
Now Is the Time
Mark 1:9-15--First Sunday in Lent
Belmont UMC—February 22, 2015
Ken Edwards, preaching
Here we are on the first Sunday of Lent and most of us have had quite a week dealing with ice, snow and cold. Some of us have had some time on our hands to ponder what the Lenten journey means to us. Some of us missed coming on Ash Wednesday for worship and we found guides to use at home and ways to honor that special day that reminds us of our humanity, our frailty and our deep need for God. Some of us are just glad to be able to get out of the house and be here in the fellowship of friends in faith.
This first Sunday of Lent begins with the story of Jesus’ baptism and then being forced into the wilderness by the Spirit. There he is tempted by Satan, he was among wild animals and the angels came to minister to him. As usual, Mark does not give us a lot of details. But Jesus comes out of this 40 day experience to say, “Now is the time! Here comes the kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust the good news.”
“Now is the time!” The announcement is about the coming of the kingdom of God. The announcement is often translated, “The time is fulfilled,” and I recall a seminary professor saying that the word “fulfill” comes from a word that means “to fill up” as in “to fill up with meaning.” What does it mean for us to fill the time of Lent with meaning? How will be mark the time of Lent so it is meaningful?
The wilderness becomes a metaphor for Lent, our 40 days to journey in faith toward Easter. And how shall we choose to experience this time in the wilderness of Lent?
We might think of all spiritual practices as ways of emptying our lives to make space for God. Shane Claiborne wrote in his blog that he heard a priest say something like this, “During Lent we choose to be a stick in the mud or a flute. A stick in the mud is full of itself, but a flute empties itself so it can make beautiful music.”
As I prepared for Lent I began to think about Lent in this way: it is a time of emptying, a time of laying aside, and a time of ceasing. It is also a time of filling, a time of picking up new things, and a time of embracing newness.
We make space for God in our lives as we engage the spiritual practices of our faith. We might decide to fast one meal a week and the time that we would have spent eating could be used for study, prayer, and meditation. I recall hearing Reverend Pat Barrett saying Lent is a time of becoming vacant for God.
Some of you will decide to give up or lay aside something for Lent. I’ve heard some folks who are giving up colas, chocolates, breads, desserts and even Facebook. Some have said they will give up ice and snow for Lent. It is about laying aside something that is special or something that takes up a big space in our lives but it also about making a space for God to be welcomed in.
Now is the time to change our hearts! Fitness experts tell us that we need to do something new and different to jar our bodies into a new response. I like to walk and run but my body needs something new to awaken it physically so I get on the bike, do some yoga or do strength training. Our spiritual lives need some new, soul jarring practices that awaken us to be fully available and open to what God has for us.
A few years ago I read Marva Dawn’s book, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly, because I thought Sabbath keeping would be a soul jarring practice for a person like me, who was raised with a strong work ethic. She reminds us that the word Sabbath literally means “ceasing.” In her words, Sabbath is to cease from work, “but also from the need to accomplish and be productive, from the worry and tension that accompany our modern criterion of efficiency, from our efforts to be in control of our lives as if we were God, from our possessiveness and our enculturation, and finally, from the humdrum and meaninglessness that result when life is pursued without the Lord at the center of it all.” (p. 3)
Marva Dawn reminds us that Sabbath is not merely ceasing work, but it is embracing. Practicing Sabbath allows us to embrace intentionality, time, values, our calling, peace, wholeness, and the world itself. Taking time away from our compelling schedules allows us to be attentive to the momentary experiences of grace that we might miss otherwise. Ceasing during Lent will make space in our lives for God and in that practice we are enabled to see what God is doing all around us. We might try a little Sabbath keeping to change our hearts.
In the scripture the wilderness is usually an untamed place of struggle. We picture Jacob, at Peniel, wrestling with God and wrestling with the truth about his self. We picture Elijah, who after defeating the prophets of Baal, runs for his life. Ahab and Jezebel have a contract out on his life. He almost gives up but an angel comes to him and feeds him and he journeys for 40 days and 40 nights until he reaches Mt. Horeb, and there he encounters God in the silence. We picture Jesus, in the wilderness among the wild animals, encountering Satan--those voices that entice us to take the easy road and the road to power and self aggrandizement.
Now is the time for the kingdom to come. The kingdom is for everyone. We find ourselves and our church at a crucial time in its history and its life. It is an important time and one in which I believe the Spirit is moving among us. For us at Belmont I encourage us to use the season of Lent as a time for deep prayer and discernment—a time to truly make space in our hearts for God.
One of the gifts Bishop Rueben Job gave the church before his recent death was his contribution to a book, written for the church, Finding Our Way, Love and Law in the United Methodist Church. He sent me several versions of this chapter to me to read as he prayed his way through the writing. The book focuses on the United Methodist Church’s struggle to find unity around the issue of sexual orientation and same-gender relationships.
Rueben’s chapter, “Trust God,” invites the church to find its way through honest prayer--prayer that doesn’t try to tell God what to do, but truly listens. Rueben believed that God wants to do a new thing in the church but we must make space in our hearts for that to happen. As we have found our way over the years to make changes, like ordaining women and overcoming our racism, so may we find our way again. This well loved and respected Bishop believed that Belmont had the potential for leading the way for the rest of the church, and so do I.
This is what he wrote about his beloved church community, Belmont UMC. “This congregation is in many ways like others in the denomination we love and serve. There are similar tensions and questions, but in most cases there is always an honest, robust, gentle, and protracted time of prayer, study, and reflection before any issue is considered ready for decision. Our congregation is extreme in its diversity and equally extreme in its love and welcome for all who gather for worship, study, prayer, reflection, food and community and then are sent out into the world to give themselves for others.” (p. 102)
Rueben used this writing to invite the church to a time of ceasing, but also to a time of honest and humble prayer. He modeled this way for us and during this season of Lent I hear him inviting us to live into it, as well.
Now is the time for good news! In the wilderness of Lent we do come to terms with some of the truth about ourselves. We see ourselves as God sees us and sometimes this is painful and troubling, because we discover the things of our lives that we need to lay aside in order to continue the journey with God. But there is good news because the most important aspect of our identity is that we are children of God, always loved and always forgiven.
And we do not make this journey alone, but with the God who loves us and meets us everyday and gives us strength. And in the wilderness of this Lenten season we will meet God. Now is the time!