Sermon transcript for August 31, 2014
August 31, 2014
Moses was taking care of the flock of sheep for his father in law, Jethro. Moses led the flock out to the edge of the desert, out to the place they called God’s mountain.
The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. Moses said to himself, “My day just got more interesting!”
When God saw that he had Moses’ attention, God called out from the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
Moses responded, “I’m here.”
God said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals you are standing on Holy Ground. I am the God of your father and mother, of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
Then the Lord said, “I’ve seen my people oppressed in Egypt, I’ve heard their cry of injustice, I know about their pain. I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey. A place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites all live.
“So Get Going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites out of Egypt.”
Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
God said, “I will be with you.”
“But” Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and they ask me to tell them the name of the God who has sent me to them, what am I supposed to say?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am” So say to the Israelites, “I Am has sent me to you.”
God tantalizes Moses with this glimpse of divine presence, giving him a moment of glory shining through the driest and most barren of deserts. However, by the conclusion Moses has more questions than answers. He has been given a job that he has no idea how to do, he turns back to his sheep stunned by this very unexpected turn of events.
When I worked as a hospital chaplain the first thing we did when we arrived for our shift was to get report from the chaplain that was leaving. He told me that during the night a young woman had been brought to the emergency department, she had attempted suicide, but she had survived the night. The nursing staff thought she would be regaining consciousness this morning and they wanted a chaplain to be with her when she woke up.
Taking a deep breath, I started to her unit, the long brightly lit hallways like walking to the edge of the desert. At the nurses station they still don’t know anything about the young woman, no family has yet been identified. Stepping into her room the clicking and beeping of the machines is in sharp contrast to her stillness. Tucked into the sheets, she sleeps on. I put my hand on hers and slow my nervous breathing to match her steady breath in and out. As I stand, I silently pray asking, “What am I going to say? What has happened in her life that led to this?” “Who am I to be standing here?”
Her eyes open and meet mine, a spark of wonder flies between us, with surprise and delight we smile at each other awash with amazement.
“What should I say?”
“What should I do?”
“I’m Heather, I’m one of the chaplains here at the hospital.”
She whispers, “I am…” her throat too sore to finish,
We gaze at each other, my hand in hers, she drifts back to sleep. I leave her room having shared a moment of God’s glory. In the midst of being inadequate to the task, in the thick of pain and despair, into our hopelessness God speaks and says, “I Am.”
We are having a summer marked by pain and despair. Wars, border disputes, oppression and retaliation. Our ears ring with reports from the Ukraine, Russia, Iraq, Syria and ISIS, Palestine and Israel, and more. In our own country we are reeling from the events in Ferguson, Missouri stunned by the depth of racism that continues to exist in our nation. We are overwhelmed, paralyzed by fear, by guilt by having no idea what to do. Like Moses we wonder, “Who am I to go?”
We are saddened by the death of Robin Williams, reminded that the ravages of mental illness are just as debilitating and lethal as those of physical illness. In the face of such overwhelming loss and endless needs, we seek order in the chaos. We attempt to quantify needs, match resources, narrow the focus and find ourselves at the edge of the desert, where the flame of fire in the middle of a bush reminds us suffering is suffering.
God says to Moses, “I’ve seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain.” Seeing the injustice, seeing the pain, what does God do? God says, I’ve come down to rescue them, to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hiites and the Jebusites all live. And how is God going to do this? He says to Moses, “Get Going.”
Moses does not want to get going. We like Moses have unlimited reasons to not get going. We’re tired, weary, too busy, We’re afraid, doing just fine, thank you very much. We’re judgmental, we don’t have an opinion, we’re angry, sad. too shy, too overbearing, too loud, too timid…it’s pretty easy to keep going with these. But to each of our protests, God says, “I will be with you.” And Moses says, and we say, “But…”
God says, “I Am.”
If we want a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites the Perizzites the Hittites all live, you can substitute here the groups of people you feel it will be the biggest challenge to live together, it is time to get going.
Recently as a church we went through a very lengthy and involved strategic planning process. A huge effort was made to get input from as many individuals and ministries as possible to help us discern as a faith community what God is calling us to do now. As a staff member, I have a confession to make. I was counting on ONE clear purpose to emerge. I wanted one initiative towards which we would put all of our collective prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. I thought this made perfect sense, it is logical, other churches do this to great effect. I was praying that we were going to get clarity on the one ministry Belmont is called to in this time and place.
This was not the outcome! Guess what, the process to discern our strategic plan revealed, not only is Belmont not called to focus on one ministry, we are called to be engaged in many varied and diverse ministries, and we are a congregation that is also called to start new ministries. In the collective wisdom of this body, our strategic plan has provided us with the map we need to be the church in this time and in this place.
We are amazingly blessed here at Belmont, because you need to look no further than the person beside you to learn a new way to get going. In our community of faith, we have members who are making a difference in the world, in countries in Africa; Congo and Malawi; in Mexico. In our community through tutoring programs, Project Transformation, the SEE Program, Our ministries of nurture, Homebound Visitors, Care Partners Faith Companions and the Alzheimer’s Dementia Caregivers Support group. Ministries of transportation, of fellowship and hospitality and welcome. Sitting beside you is someone who advocates for positive change in our local systems and in our global community. In front of you is a Sunday school teacher, a choir director, a partner in ministry to our youth. Behind you is a greeter, a collector an usher, a preparer, a storyteller.
In the crackle and hiss of a burning bush God speaks to us and says, “I Am.” In the chaos of revolution when we hear the steady beat for justice, we hear God say, “I Am” In the embrace of another in a time of grief, God sighs, “I Am.”
Like Moses, when we experience the mystery of God’s presence, at the edge of the desert, God tells us to get going, to enter into the fray. When we worry that we are inadequate to the enormous task before us, God says, “I will be with you.” We are God’s people, rescued from the wilderness, let us have eyes that see flaming bushes, ears that hear, “I Am.” And hearts and minds ready to get going.
May it be so, AMEN
Sermon transcript for August 24, 2014
Belmont UMC—August 24, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching
It was the first Administrative Board meeting at the new church to which I had been appointed. There was the usual business and reports given at Board meetings. And then someone made a motion that we have the Pepsi machine in the fellowship hall removed and replaced with Coca Cola machine. The discussion that proceeded was heated and had been going on for almost 45 minutes, when someone said, “Let’s ask the new pastor and see what he thinks.”
The new pastor did not drink colas very much and the new pastor had been sitting there thinking, “This discussion is ridiculous and I doubt it’s about Coke or Pepsi but about a church that has lost its way and has other underlying tensions. What have I gotten myself into?”
Everyone turned toward me and I smiled and stood up. I said something like, “I’m a little concerned that we have spent so much time talking about something that has little to do with our mission as a church. You are very fine people so I’m going to suggest that I offer a prayer and that we adjourn and all go home and talk to Jesus about what it means to be a church.” The place grew quiet. I prayed and everyone walked sheepishly to their cars.
Over the next months we began each board meeting with a reading of Romans 12. We read from different versions and I offered a time of centering around portions of the chapter. It helped us to focus on our true identity as followers of Jesus and as a community of faith.
The chapter begins with a call to give our lives to God and to find transformation in the process. I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases the opening verses, “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him (God). . . . You’ll be changed from the inside out.” (The Message)
When we give our lives to God without reservation, it changes us, it transforms us. It changes the way we think about God, about the world and all those who are in community with us. We see things through a new lens, God’s lens.
After the opening paragraph of Romans 12, Paul paints a picture of what this transformed church looks like. We prefer our image of what church should look like.
We carry around an image of the perfect church and there are lots of folks who have been shopping for the perfect church for a long time.
We have acquaintances who always like to tell us about the church they are attending. It’s always the best church, but it’s always a different church from the last one they told us about.
Who among you has left church on Sunday and said, “I wish they would. . .” I wish they would sing the hymns I like best. I wish Ken’s sermons were twice as long. I wish they’d put a cappuccino machine in the foyer. I wish the church could be more entertaining, less demanding. The Properties Committee wishes for a building where nothing ever breaks or needs updating. The Finance Committee wishes the offerings were so large that meetings were held to discuss ways to deal with the surplus in a responsible way.
Pastors have their own ideas of the perfect church. Some of my friends in the Holston Conference asked me to transfer to their Conference in East Tennessee. I said, “Tell your Bishop to find me a church that pays well, has a light work load and is located near hiking trails and waterfalls.” That was a decade ago and I never heard back from them.
I suspect we’ve made an idol of the Perfect Church. Our images of the Perfect Church are often exclusionary and self-interested.
Paul describes a church that is not perfect but is transformed into a new way of being. It is a place where each person discovers their gifts of ministry and uses them for the glory of God and the good of the community.
Again Peterson’s paraphrase, “If you preach, just preach God’s Message, nothing else. If you help, just help, don’t take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching, if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don’t get bossy; if you’re put in charge, don’t manipulate; if you’re called to give aide to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don’t let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face.”
And this new transformed community embraces a new way of treating each other and a new way of relating to the world around us. This transformed church is a place of authentic love—no pretending—and out of that love flows mutual affection for one another. In chapter 13 the encouragement is to “owe no one anything except to love one another.” It sounds simple but it requires a transformation to a new way of seeing and being. Paul does not say that we have to agree with one another, but we must love one another with genuine love.
We live out that love by honoring one another—yielding to our pet agendas, not being afraid to play second fiddle (The Message), remembering that second fiddles can still make beautiful music.
The transformed church is a place where people have a firm grasp on what is good and right and just. The do not give up easily when they are serving God and God’s purposes.
It is a place of prayer and hope, a place where we try hard to make sure no one is lacking anything—we help each other during times of need.
Adam Kelchner and I visited with the principal of Eakin Elementary School on Thursday. Dr. Tim Drinkwine seems like a fine person who cares about the students of his school. When one of the students was acting out on Monday morning, he brought him into his office and talked with the young boy. He discovered the boy’s problem—he had gone home on Friday to a place where there was nothing to eat for two days. We are going to partner with this school and help Eakin fill their food pantry so they can send food home with children in need on Fridays.
The transformed church is empathetic. We rejoice at celebrations and weep with each other in times of sadness. We sacrifice for each other when homes are burned or flooded. We invite you to be members of our family, especially when your family lives far away.
The transformed church has a new way of interacting with the world. We are hospitable with strangers. We bless our enemies. We do all we can to live in peace and harmony with one another. We avoid retaliation. We take the high road of good, not the low road of evil.
So the church that argued over Pepsi versus Coke began to see their role in the world in a new way. They began to love each other again with authentic love. They laughed more and joy in being together. They began to look beyond their walls and seek places of service. They started to let go of their personal agendas and ask where God was calling them as a church.
Today, I invite each of us to take our every day, ordinary lives, and give them to God without reservation. Are we willing to do that? If so, we need to brace ourselves for change!