Sermon transcript for November 18, 2012
“Wonder and Freedom”
Belmont UMC—November 18, 2012
Audio - MP3
We were at the closing worship service at a retreat for children and their families. The worship site was one of those outdoor worship places, where the seats are 2 by 12 planks set on top of posts and the altar looks makeshift and the cross is made of twigs bound together. My purpose at this service was to offer the Great Thanksgiving before the service of Holy Communion so I took a seat a few rows from the front. Someone had led us in singing choruses, guitars were the accompaniment and people were sharing where they had experienced God throughout the weekend. It had been a beautiful weekend with perfect weather and many opportunities to grow closer to one another and to God.
On the row where I sat was a little boy a few feet away from me. I knew this little boy well. His name was Clay and he loved to talk to me after worship on Sunday mornings and it pleased me that a child would take that time with me on Sundays. Clay had been trained to be an acolyte that year and he took his job so seriously. His mother explained that he would pick out his clothes on Saturday night if he was going to be the acolyte on Sunday, and he insisted that his parents get him to church early so he could practice one more time (even though being on time was not their habit). Even though I was extremely busy on Sunday mornings he could always convince me to watch him practice in the sanctuary between services. When he walked down the aisle with the light of Christ in front of him he would look at me and smile.
On that morning at the worship service, I sensed that Clay was looking toward me so I turned to him as well. But he wasn’t looking at me, he was looking somewhere beyond me, not at anything in particular. I could tell by looking at his big blue eyes that he was imagining something. His mind’s eye was seeing something that I could not see and for that moment I felt caught up in the power of the child to wonder and to imagine. I can’t explain it but watching him that morning gave me a deep sense of peace and reminded me that my adult mind has often lost the gift of wonder. Clay finally looked me in the eye and said, “Hello Pastor Ken!” and I said, “Hello, Clay. Thank you so much.” And as if he understood my thank you, he replied, “Why, you’re very welcome.”
As adults we lose something of the ability to wonder, to use our imagination. By imagination I don’t mean that we make things up, as in “we’re just imagining things.” But I mean the ability to wonder at the power of God or imagine the wideness of God’s vast love. Or to look up into a night sky of celestial wonder, solar systems and galaxies that go on for eternity and think, “God created all of that; God is bigger and beyond even the vastness of the night sky.” Wonder like that is the heart of true worship.
We are told that the words “look” and “consider” are exceptionally strong words in the Sermon on the Mount. Tom Long suggests “when Jesus asks us to ‘look’ at the birds of the air and to ‘consider’ the lilies of the field, he is not asking us to imitate sparrows and flowers. He is rather asking us to peer more deeply into that alternative reality called the kingdom of heaven. . . . If we look long enough and hard enough, at the birds of the air and lilies of the field, suddenly there will break into our imagination a slice of that alternative reality, a world not of tooth and claw, but a world of providential care, a world in which the One who created it delights in tending the garden and nourishing the creature.” (Feasting on the Word, pp. 71-73)
I have photographs of fields of wildflowers in my computer, places I have visited in the springtime, where there are huge patches of larkspur and trillium, acres of blue-eyed Marys, dotted with wood poppies and Dutchman’s britches, and Virginia bluebells. And I have a flower garden in my back yard that I have labored over, weeding and watering and fertilizing, and my flower garden never matches the beauty of those wildflowers, tended only by our Maker. “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
Our yard borders a small forest and we are not far from the lake. We have possums and raccoons that come to our back door at night. And we have lots of birds that visit our feeders and herons that clean out the goldfish pond ever so often. Over the last few weeks, 3 deer wander into the yard to nibble fresh grass in the early morning hours and I have had the pleasure of watching, amazed at their beauty and grace. Those are sacred moments for me.
What comes from our ability to look and consider and wonder? Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life, about your food or clothing or about tomorrow.” That is lot for Jesus to ask of a person whose DNA is loaded with worriers. I come from a long line of them and if we did not have anything to worry about we would worry about lack of worries. It is our hobby to worry; it’s how we fill the extra time, with hand wringing and fretting.
Peter Gomes once preached this passage at an exclusive girls’ school in Massachusetts, hoping that a sermon about letting go of anxiety would help the students. He thought the sermon went well. But he wrote, “At the reception, the father of one of the girls came up to me with fire in his eyes and ice in his voice, and told me that what I had said was lot of nonsense. I replied that I had not said it, that Jesus had. ‘It’s still nonsense,’ he said, not easily dissuaded by an appeal to scripture. ‘It was anxiety that got my daughter into this school, it was anxiety that kept her here, it was anxiety that go her into Yale, it will be anxiety that will keep her there, and it will be anxiety that will get her a good job. You’re selling nonsense.’” (The Good Book, p.179)
I hear Jesus linking the care and tending of God to our ability to let go of worry. Worry suggests to us that we are in control and somehow by worrying over everything, we can muster up more control. Most of us are living with the mere illusion of control. About the time we think we are in control of everything or some thing, life happens and we are reminded that is not the case.
A few months before I married Kathryn, when I was 19 years old and a college student, my mother and I went to find an apartment or house for us to rent in Clarksville. Some time late in the morning we found a little framed cottage with one bedroom and a very reasonable rent. But I made minimum wage at the part time job I had ($1.60/hour) and there were school expenses. We went to lunch together and I took a pen and started writing out a budget on napkin and I was worrying about the numbers. My mother reached across the table and took the napkin away from me, wadding it up and putting it in her purse. She said, “Son, everything doesn’t work on paper. You have to trust God.” I never forgot that but my entire spiritual journey has been one of constant reminders to let go of the illusion of control and trusting God. And during that first year of marriage we didn’t make much money but little surprises like an extra check from a church I served during the summer, kept popping up to remind us to trust.
Last week in a sermon I confessed that there is sentence that goes through my mind a lot. Four words, “It’s not about you.” I’m sure God is trying to tell me something. I’ve taken those words two ways. The first is that the work I do is not about me but about God, about God’s plan, God’s agenda, God’s will. But the second is really quite liberating. It’s not about you—it is about God!--God who is wiser; God who is able to do exceedingly, abundantly, above all that I might ask or think. Those words set me free to trust God. All that God asks of me is to show up and be faithful. I do not have to be the Messiah and the savior of the world. What a relief for me! What a huge relief for the world!
Letting go is never easy. I’m reminded that the word which means “to forgive” has its roots in a word that means “to let go.” It’s hard to let go of unforgiveness and move on, but it’s liberating when we do. I have held onto dear friends as they have slipped from this life to a new life with God. It’s hard to let go of them, but we trust God to continue to care for them in their new life.
Jesus isn’t suggesting that we wander through life, aimlessly waiting for God to provide everything for us. He did not model that way of life for us, but he is inviting us to the freedom of trusting God. So on my better mornings, I make my list for the day ahead and I look at my calendar and I think I know what the day has in store for me. Then I have some quiet time and then I give it all to God because I do not know what God has planned. On mornings when I’m struggling to let go of controlling everything, I close my eyes and clinch my fists like I’m trying to hold onto something very tightly and then I hold my hands upward, slowly opening them and releasing control to God, who can always be trusted.
Wonder and freedom come when we look deeply into that alternative reality called the kingdom of heaven, letting go and trusting God whose love and strength have never failed us. And in those moments of true yielding humility, gratitude springs up in us and guides our journey onward.
So let me close with this prayer that our Open Door Singers will sing for us:
Give us humble hearts to praise you and listening ears to hear your voice.
Willing hands to serve you. Thankful spirits to rejoice.
Lord of all we adore you and bring this prayer before you.
Create in us humble hearts. (“Prayer for Humility” by Mark Patterson)
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)