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Sermon transcript for November 17, 2013

A New Order
Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 21:5-19
Belmont UMC—November 17, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3


The bumper sticker on the car in front of me read, “Jesus is coming soon. Look busy.” 

The texts from Isaiah and Luke today are considered apocalyptic texts. We always have one of these texts on the first Sunday in Advent and during Advent we will be exploring Isaiah texts, using the theme “What Isaiah Saw!” which draws our attention to see what Isaiah saw as he looked toward the future. The text today is filled with some of those same vivid images.

Apocalyptic literature is about God creating a new world. In Isaiah it is about a new order, a new heaven and a new earth, and a new Jerusalem. Apocalyptic literature often contains troubling and frightening images, like the ones in Luke’s gospel.

Apocalyptic literature often uses symbols and imagery which were understood best at the time they were written. Those images and symbols are difficult to decipher hundreds of years later.

Apocalyptic literature often describes the epic battle between good and evil. Apocalyptic literature points the way to the ultimate victory of good over evil and the ultimate fulfillment of God’s purposes in the world.

The truth is that we don’t think about these things very much. We don’t talk about the second coming of Christ, about end times or a new heaven and earth. And most of us would not interpret those texts the same as others have interpreted them. When I had a heart turning experience at the age of 18 many folks were reading a best seller, The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsey, in which he predicted the literal second coming of Christ.

And at a time when I needed to be reading the gospels, I read that book. Then I read The Revelation of John and the Book of Daniel because if Jesus was coming again soon I needed to know what to expect. Reading those books of the Bible did nothing to clear that up. I was more confused than ever.

Many modern images of end times come from popular novels and movies like Tim LaHay’s and Jerry Jenkins’ Left Behind series. These ideas assume a rapture where Christians are called up to meet the Lord and those who are not Christians are left behind to face years of scary tribulation. When I was in college I was part of a small prayer and study group. One of the persons in that group believed literally in these images of the rapture and the second coming of Christ and talked about them often. One day he had spent several hours trying to find the members from our group and could find no one.
So he came to my room and stated that he feared we had been left behind. He didn’t seem surprise that I was still there, however.

I recall one of the pastors of our church saying, “The church is held together by two things: hope and fear. Hope that Jesus will come. And fear that Jesus will come. And fear is winning out.” 

Standing in front of the temple in Jerusalem, Jesus described a time when the great stones of the temple would be toppled, and this would come to pass in 70 CE. He described times of unrest and uncertainty, times of earthquakes, famines, plagues and betrayal. People of every generation have looked at their own troubled times and wondered if the time of the coming of Christ was near.

Some find it problematic that the promised coming of Christ has not happened. Many of those early Christians believed it would happen in their life time. In 1 Thessalonians Paul chastises Christians who have been idle because they believe that Jesus is coming soon. Scholars differ on their understanding of these texts. Some believe the second coming is a metaphor for the building of the kingdom or the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

But whatever we believe about this, we are still here and the new order has not been ushered in. So what do we do with these texts?

I hear the words of Luke and I’m reminded to pay attention to the world around—even when the world around me is turbulent and troubled. I hear these words as a reminder to pay attention to those God moments that come to us every day. In one meditative practice we learn to stare with the “dull eye,” which means our eyes are open but we are not seeing anything in particular. I suspect you and I often go through our days seeing with a dull eye, eyes open but not seeing the encounters with Christ that come our way.

We are called to be expectant and watchful for the God of the unexpected to reveal God’s self to us throughout our days—our stormy and turbulent days and even our mundane and boring days. I looked back on the past week and recalled the places I encountered the holy: Looking at creative photographs in a wonderful exhibit and learning the spiritual practice of visio divina, sharing a meal with friends at their dining room table, hearing the music of our choirs last Sunday, talking with a young pastor friend who lives in Colorado, sharing conversation with a couple who wants to join our community of faith, and mentoring a young friend over coffee at Starbucks. In all of these moments I was drawn out of myself, my selfish preoccupations, my needless worries, and I was invited into the presence of God. How many more encounters did I miss?

Jesus in Luke is saying that paying attention to the world around us and seeing God at work in it, will help us endure when our worlds turn shaky and uncertain. He invites us to trust God who will be with us and will give us what we need, event the words to say, when are faithful.

And we have been given these beautiful images from Isaiah, images of home and health, the end of infant mortality, the end of hurt and destructiveness--a new order, a new world where there is peace, where predator and prey get along and eat out of the same feeding trough. These are concrete images that would be anybody’s dream world. Sounds beautiful and hopeful, doesn’t it. But this is not a pie in the sky idea.

Nelson Rivera writes, “This is the very stuff of a new reality as conceived within the prophet’s vision of God’s willful ability to create new things. This is what God intends for all things and all relationships to be. According to this prophet’s vision, the very stuff of life as we know it needs to be changed.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 4  p. 292)     

This is what God intends. If this is what God intends for the world, is this not what God intends for me and you to be about. Maybe it’s time for us to be preoccupied with the first coming of Christ. Jesus has come into the world bringing the message of good news for the poor and liberation to the oppressed and imprisoned, and vision to those who blind. Is this not what God intends for us to be about? Isaiah’s words call us to be agents of these changes in the present world, not in some future world that is out of our reach.

These texts are full of urgency. And my friends, there is something very urgent about the world in which we live, too. Twenty thousand people dying of starvation every day is an urgent matter. The situation in Syria where war and genocide have killed so many innocent citizens is an urgent matter. The crisis in the Philippines is an urgent matter. The growing gap between rich and poor in our nation is an urgent matter. The increase in senseless gun violence in our country is an urgent matter. The condition of our environment is an urgent matter. Our unwillingness to engage in civil discourse and understand one another in our differences is an urgent matter, for our country and for our church. The wolf and the lamb will eat together out of the same trough, but the liberal and the conservative cannot or will not engage in holy conversation. Instead they continue to create walls of division that harm all of us.

With all of this urgent need in our world, how can we have hope for this new order, this new way of being in the world? It helps that our hope is in God who creates and recreates. Our hope is not in flawed and failing institutions, but in God who can create a beloved community of those who seek to live as God intends.

My friends, it has been a week of frustration and disappointment for many in our United Methodist Church, myself included, but I kept finding my way back to Isaiah and reacquainting myself with the God who wants to do a new thing among us. I kept hearing afresh the call to build bridges and opportunities for holy conversation. I kept hearing afresh the call to be a part of that new thing God intends to do in the world.

In these words of the Gospel and the Prophet today I hear God saying, “Do not give in to despair and do not be overwhelmed by the failings of systems, but hear again the call to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus, to the God who loves us all as God’s children, who calls us by name and sees all of us as people of sacred worth. Be a part of the new order I wish to usher into this world.” Amen.

 

Sermon transcript for November 10, 2013

Belmont UMC—November 10, 2013
District Superintendent Harriet Bryan, preaching

Audio - MP3

 

   

Sermon transcript for November 3, 2013

 

Ordinary Saints
Luke 6:20-31
Belmont UMC—November 3, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

A couple of years ago we visited the small hillside town of Assisi in Italy. It’s a beautiful town with historic buildings, narrow streets and a rich history. It was the home of Francis, the rich young man who gave away all his belongings to enter the priesthood and lived his commitment to serving the poor. It’s also the home of St. Clare, a woman who joined Francis in this calling. Both Francis and Clare experienced the rejection of their families because of their commitment to Christ. Their lives have been sentimentalized in stories and their images are recreated in beautiful reliefs, statues and stained glass. (and bobble heads in the gift shops). They are two of the people I admire in the Christian history, and when I think of saints, I think of them. I suspect the word “saint” causes us to think of those heroes of church history.

But All Saints Sunday is not about people who have achieved stained glass status. They are the ordinary persons, women, men and children who have lived their lives in a way that allowed us to glimpse something of God in them. Tom Long wrote that a saint is a person whose life manages to be more than a “cranny through which the infinite peeps.” (“Preaching in the Middle of a Saintly Conversation,” The Journal of Preachers, Lent 1995, pp.15-21)

We are the saints of God--we who have given our lives over to God and seek to follow God’s plan and purpose in the world. We are not perfect and maybe our life has been characterized more by failure than success, more by false starts and faltered steps than winning races, but we are God’s children.

The word “saints” means “holy ones” or ones who are set apart for a purpose. We may not be comfortable being associated with those ideas either, but even though much our lives seem mundane and ordinary, there is that part of who we are that is set apart for God’s purposes instead of our own, and we remain fully aware that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves.

The Gospel text today is often called The Sermon on the Plain as opposed to Matthew’s version of this text which is called The Sermon on the Mount. It’s been noted that in Luke the mountain is always the place of prayer. Jesus has come down from the mountain of prayer to where the people live. This sermon is for the crowds, for the people, for everyone like you and me. It was for people from the north and the south (Tyre and Sidon), for everyone no matter where they came from. It is a call to living the holy life and it is a call to all of us.

And as we consider the names of people that will be read this morning and the list of names we carry in our hearts and minds, these are those people who lived in such a way that we were able to glimpse the eternal and infinite God in them. They lived the values expressed in these beatitudes.
On All Saints I always remember my loving grandparents, kindly aunts and uncles, faithful Sunday School teachers, generous friends and neighbors, quiet church members and prophetic preachers, compassionate senior adults and smiling children, persons who are no longer among us, and others whose continued presence blesses us even now and in this place.

On one of my first Sundays in this church I said that church is where we hold each other in love and we hold each other accountable (Bishop Carder used to tell us that.) We are held accountable to being better than we might be otherwise. I noted that the mere presence of some persons in this church raises the bar higher for all of us and simply being around these persons will make us better people, better saints.

It is good for us to be here, gathered each year, to remember the saints, all the saints of the church--ordinary saints like us, for it is the saints who make us who we are today. And we shall never forget them. And that’s why it’s a little difficult to speak the names of our dear friends without getting a little choked up.

All Saints reminds us of kinship and family. It reminds us that we are part of a beloved community where we share in our love for God and in our love for one another. It reminds us that we are not, have not been, and never will be alone in this world.

At funerals and memorial services I often try to imagine what those who left this world would say if they could speak. I thought about our list of saints this morning and I could imagine them saying something like this: “You might want to take a moment and look around the room this morning, look at the people who love you, who brought casseroles to your house when your husband had surgery, who took care of your children when you were out of town, who listened to your stories (even when they’ve heard them before), who encouraged you when you were out of work, who wiped your tears when your best friend died. They are the ones who do not share your DNA but they are closer than family. If you are new to this church look around and make yourself at home among people who want to be your family.” All Saints is about kinship and kinship is one of the great blessings of the church.

I love these words of Frederick Buechner, describing an All Saints Service in Whistling in the Dark:

“At the altar table, the overweight parson is doing something or other with the bread as his assistant stands by with the wine. In the pews, the congregation sits more or less patiently waiting to get into the act. The church is quiet. Outside, a bird starts singing. It’s nothing special, only a handful of notes angling out in different directions. Then a pause. Then a trill or two. A chirp. It is just warming up for the business of the day, but it is enough.”

“The parson and his assistant and the usual scattering of senior citizens, parents, and teenagers are not alone in whatever they think they are doing. Maybe that is what the bird is there to remind them. In its own slapdash way the bird has been part of it too. Not to mention “Angels and Archangels and all the company of heaven” if the prayer book is to be believed. Maybe we should believe it. Angels and Archangels. Cherubim and seraphim. They are all in the act together. It must look a little like the great jeu de son et lumeire (great day of sun and moon) at Versailles when all the fountains are turned on at once and the night is ablaze with fireworks. It must sound a little like the last movement at Beethoven’s Choral Symphony or the Atlantic in a gale.”

“And “all the company of heaven” means everybody we ever loved and lost, including the ones we didn’t know we loved until we lost them or didn’t love at all.
It means people we never heard of. It means everybody who ever did—or at some unimaginable time in the future ever will—come together at something like this table in search of something like what is offered at it.”

And so all of us ordinary saints gather around this table today, but we are not alone. We are in this together. We are the communion of saints.

 

Sermon transcript for October 27, 2013

 

Mission. . . A Way of Life
Matthew 25:31-40
Belmont UMC—October 27, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching (with Adam Kelchner)

Audio - MP3

Today we conclude the series of sermons and worship services focused on the 4 core values identified during our Strategic Planning process: Diversity, Nurture, Hospitality and Mission. It’s important to note that these 4 themes emerged over and over again during 18 months of prayer and discernment, and listening sessions and input from the congregation. It’s important to note that these 4 core values do not stand alone but are interrelated and overlap throughout the work of the church. If you are engaged in mission, it is likely that you are expressing hospitality, experiencing diversity and being nurtured spiritually. And it is important to note that these 4 core values are a way of life, describing who we are and who we are called to be as Christ followers.

Our Bishop says, “Mission is a lifestyle, a way of life, a way of living.” Mission is not a program of the church, carried out by a select group of people. Instead we are each called to be engaged in the mission of fulfilling God’s purpose in the world.   

United Methodists, from our very beginning, have been engaged in mission, in acts of social justice, in concern for the poor and marginalized of society. Our founder, John Wesley, was known to say, “The world is my parish.” Wesley reached out to those who felt disenfranchised by the church because of their economic status. This was not only an institution of the early church but Wesley took this personally. He sought to give something to the poor each day and somewhere along the way I read a description of an elderly Mr. Wesley, trudging through deep snow late at night, looking for some poor soul to whom he could give alms for he had gone through the day without having done so.

Belmont has always been a church in mission; it’s a part of our identity. We sent Volunteer in Mission teams to Mexico and Malawi in Africa during this year. We have supported many important missions locally as well. I won’t take time to list them all but Belmont, as a church, is making a difference in many places, both locally and globally.  For that we give thanks.

The text today is a familiar one. It lists some of those who are among the most vulnerable and most marginalized in our world: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. “I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.”

Today is Children’s Sabbath at Belmont and this particular Sunday focuses on the needs of the children in our world, children who are often the most vulnerable, the most vulnerable to hunger, poverty, drought, political unrest, gun violence and disease. It’s not proper for me to put words in Jesus’ mouth, but I can almost hear him saying, “I was a child and you treated me with love and respect.”
Jesus welcomed little children and blessed them, inviting his hearers to become like these children in order to receive the kingdom. (Mark 10:13-16) In Jesus’ day children were among the most marginalized.

I recall Bishop Ken Carder saying something like this, “The church will be judged by how it treats the poor and the children.” In other words, how we respond to the needs of the most marginalized and the most vulnerable is likely a good measure of how are doing in fulfilling the mission of the kingdom.

In the Matthew text Jesus identifies himself with the poor, the lonely, the sick, the hungry and the imprisoned. The feeding, clothing, visiting, caring, welcoming offered to those in need are offered to Jesus as well. In doing these things we come face to face with Jesus. He says, “When you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”  

Earlier in Matthew, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me and whoever welcomes me welcomes the on who sent me. . . I assure you that everyone who gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones (children or the vulnerable) because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” (Matthew 10:40-42)   

(Adam Kelchner’s witness) I had been reading with Alejandro for just shy of a half hour in the fellowship hall of Antioch United Methodist Church. He had already worked through the Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and several other classics when we exclaimed ‘My dad fixes broken things?’ ‘What type of broken things?’ ‘He fixes cars and my mom stays at home right now with my brothers and sisters. She wants to get a job this fall when we’re all back in school during the day-she just can’t get a job right now while school is out. She needs a job because we need more money to survive. We need that money to buy food and clothes.’ Where is your family from? I asked. ‘Some of them are from Mexico and others are from Guatemala.’

As quickly as this window into Alejandro’s family’s life opened, it closed. The bell rang. Our time was up. We walked together back over to the bookcase to file his stack of books and then he ran off to the gym for recreation, not quite sensing the gravity of his words. Then another rotation of reading began and I as quickly scanned the room, I imagine there were 40 or 50 stories like Alejandro’s.

Blessed Christ, I dare say that I’ve looked into your eyes, shadowed by the frames of childhood eyeglasses and I can almost imagine your eyes recalling the Guatemalan landscape of your parents’ home. You’ve come quite some distance to a new home, you’re a stranger in a new land. You weren’t quite as I expected-your stature was small, your legs dangling over the side of that uncomfortable steel folding chair, your hands gripping that book as a prized possession, your words still echoing the accent of a place far from here.

I’ve heard you say, I was a child and you treated me with love and respect. Yes, I’m sure of it. It was you, Blessed Christ.

What does it mean for mission to be a way of life, for me, for you? All of us cannot go to Malawi or Mexico. Many of us cannot afford to take those trips and if we could, it’s impossible to get the time off. And some of us no longer have the energy to go on Volunteer in Mission teams.

But what if each of us woke up every morning and prayed, “Dear God, Where are you calling me today? I know you have a mission for me to do this day. Make me fully aware when that mission presents itself and strengthen me so that I may do it well.” Wouldn’t this be a normal prayer for those of us who follow Jesus? Imagine how radically it might change the course of our days.

In the Matthew text Jesus does not speak of heroic deeds or extraordinary feats but of simple tasks, the occasions for expressing care for other persons as they present themselves in everyday life. Do we dare ask, “Where are you calling me?”

I was grateful to be able to attend a wedding last weekend in Wisconsin for a young friend named Ben Konecny. I have always known Ben to be a kind and generous person, but I was touched by a story his brother, and best man, told about him. Ben and his brother, Dan, lived together for a year in Denver, Colorado and during that time Dan noticed that they were going through peanut butter and bread pretty at an alarming rate. Dan saw Ben making a stack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and asked him why he was eating so much peanut butter. Ben said, “Oh these are not for me. These are for the men and women who I encounter each day who live on the streets.” On the way to work each day, Ben saw an opportunity to feed the hungry. Frankly, I see that opportunity every day.

One of Ben’s roommates, who is an active Belmonter, told me that Ben regularly invited the homeless to their house for dinner. This was where Ben heard God calling him.

In one of those early churches I served there was a 90 year old woman who did not drive and had become less physically active, but she began each day with prayer, asking God, “Where are you calling me today?” She spent many hours in morning prayer for the people of our church and community and she spent the afternoons calling and writing people who were in need. She was the dear friend who would welcome me in and give me strong coffee and banana bread and pray for me. I sometimes wonder if I would have survived those early years of ministry without her support and prayers. This was where God was calling her to serve.

What does it mean for us to hear God’s call to mission as a way of life? Are we willing to find out?

   

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