Sermon transcript for February 8, 2015
Everyone is Looking for You
Belmont UMC—February 2-8-12
Ken Edwards, preaching
As I prepared for this sermon I kept coming back to the phrase, “Everyone’s looking for you.” And I kept recalling a visit by a young man named Ben a year or so ago. He had made an appointment to talk about coming to church. He hadn’t been to church for a long time and something was pulling back. He had experienced some hurt and pain in the last church he had attended. People had been unkind and some had asked him to leave. He wondered if he would find a more hospitable place at Belmont. I assured him that he would find that here, but he asked, “How can you be sure?” He hasn’t come to church but I ran into him again in the village one day and he said he was still thinking about it. He’s fearful and reluctant. He is searching and trying to find his way back. Keep that in your mind as we look at this text.
There is a tone of urgency in the Gospel of Mark. Mark skips the details of Jesus’ birth and childhood and moves straight to John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, a brief mention of the wilderness temptation (no mention of fasting), the call of the disciples and then the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. And we are still in the first chapter. Mark’s favorite words are “at once” (or “immediately” in NRSV) and the words, which add to the sense of urgency, comes up frequently in the first chapter.
Today’s story needs to be set in this context. The work of Jesus had been focused on the area near Capernaum, which is alongside the Sea of Galilee, the home of the fishermen whom Jesus called as disciples. The people of the area have been astonished by Jesus’ teaching and even more so by his authority over suffering. Mark writes, “At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.” (v. 28)
Today’s text finds Jesus and the disciples entering the house of Simon and Andrew, only to find Simon’s mother-in-law sick with fever. Jesus heals the woman and by evening the whole city has converged outside the door. Jesus begins to heal and restore those who ill. Sometime after midnight Jesus escapes to a quiet place to pray and here in the first chapter we get a glimpse of the pattern of Jesus’ life and the rhythm of service and prayer.
Simon and the other disciples do not understand Jesus’ need for solitude and they go to find him. The verb here has a hostile tone to it, and the Common English Bible translates it best with “they tracked him down.” They have come to tell Jesus, “Everyone is lookking for you.”
“Everyone is looking for you.” Throughout the gospel stories crowds of people are attracted to Jesus. At one time he was standing beside the water and so many people came to see and hear him that he had to get in a boat and teach them from there. In our minds we can imagine the scene of people pressing in on him. (Mk 4:1-2) Another, more familiar time there were thousands who gathered to hear and see him and Jesus instructed the disciples to feed them. (Mk. 8:1-10)
Who are these people who are looking for Jesus and what do they hope to find?
Luke describes the people during the time of John the Baptist and Jesus as “being filled with expectation.” (Luke 3:15) One of my professors used to paraphrase this and say “the people were on tiptoe with expectation” or “on the edge of their seats” with expectation. They were people who felt the oppression of the Roman government and they longed for liberation. There was a deep longing within them for God to come among them and do something to turn things around. There was a deep spiritual hunger and thirst among the people. “Everyone is searching for you, Jesus!”
They were some people who were physically ill and desperate. In a time when health care was limited and when disease was often associated with God’s judgment, and often meant alienation from community life, there was a longing for wholeness. To be made whole carried with it the possibility of being liberated from suffering and a return to the fellowship of others.
Everyone is searching for you, Jesus! Those words continue to be contemporary. We have gathered here as those who are searching for Jesus. I worked alongside my good friend, David, for many years and he would always greet the church on Sunday morning with, “For whatever reason you find yourself here this morning, God greets you and welcomes you!” We have all gathered here with searching hearts. Yes, I’m here because I have certain responsibilities, but I come here each week searching and longing to be with you, to experience God’s presence in your presence. I come here each week, like you, with a deep hunger for God’s grace.
We may not know what brought us here this day, but we know that all those around us come with some human need. When I took a preaching class several years ago at our Lake Junaluska, NC, our professor took us through a series of exercises before we could begin to write. One of those exercises invited us to spend 15-30 minutes with the question, “Who is in the room?” And by that question he did not mean for us to answer with names, Mary, Bill, John, Amy, etc, but to answer with life situations and needs. Who is in this room? It’s a good question as you begin to look around your well loved seat. Who are the people around you and what are their needs? What are their greatest joys? What are the longings of their hearts? How can we make them feel more welcomed? Everyone is looking for Jesus!
What if those of us who are regulars here at Belmont treated everyone around us as if they had come here searching for Jesus. Maybe they are here because they are wounded or grieving. Maybe, like Ben, they have been hurt by other churches where they were not welcomed. Maybe they feel uncertain about being here and you are the one who can make them feel at home. Every week we can and do create an environment that is welcoming, grace-filled, and hopeful
It’s hard to enter a new group for the first time. I recall my first weeks at Grace UMC. I had some computer problems and I had no idea how to resolve them. One day the Trustees sent a 15 year old boy came into my office. He said, “Hello sir, my name is Justin and I’ve come to help you with your computer.” He sat beside me and did some magic to clean up my computer and give me some space and speed. Then he showed me how to do things I did not know and he wrote the steps on post-it notes and put them around my screen. I kept those post-it notes for 6 months until I got used to doing what came natural for Justin.
I knew he needed a ride home and it was lunch time so I took him out for a burger. He and his family were new to the church and he said he wanted to go to the Youth meeting on Sunday nights but he didn’t know anyone and he not sure he’d be welcomed. I said, “You know me. I’ll go with you and introduce you to everyone.”
We met at my office on Sunday night at 4:45 and I walked him to the youth meeting and I introduced him. After 30 minutes or so it was clear he didn’t need me anymore. The next year he was playing his guitar in the youth praise band. By his senior year he was the president of the youth council.
How many people come in here and need to find others who will welcome them and make them feel at home in their presence? Some of us in this room may have come anxious and reluctant, but everyone is looking.
What about those out there who are looking for a deeper faith? I have a concern about reaching young adults who are moving into the city in large numbers, but are not in churches on Sunday morning. I suspect they are looking for experiences of faith, and some of them want what they find here week after week, but I doubt all of them will come here on a typical Sunday morning. I suspect they will find Jesus in a setting that is different from this. How do we reach out to them? I think about them and pray for them when I’m awake at 2 AM. Everyone is looking for you, Jesus.
Some of us are searching for healing and wholeness. Some of us have experienced brokenness and suffering. Some of us are grieving. Some of us are fearful. Some of us are trying to break free from addictions and unhealthy life patterns. Some of us are suffering from a wounded sense of self and we will have trouble believing that God loves us or that anyone could love us. Some are us on the verge of giving up. Some of us are optimistic and hopeful. Some of us are struggling with doubts. Some of us are joyful and celebrating. Some of us are lonely and isolated.
Who is in the room today? Everyone is looking for you, Jesus!
Sermon transcript for February 1, 2015
Sermon for Feb. 1, 2015
8:15 a.m. service
“Who is Our Prophet?”
Take a ride through history with me. Close your eyes and imagine the things I tell you:
You are walking down the main avenue of the city you live in. The sun illuminates the bright, blue sky with little whisps of cloud interrupting the blue hues. The shop to your right bakes bread; the morning air is laced with aromas of cracked wheat with a little bit of char. Mmm, you think, that would be good with some honey drizzled on it. You only take a moment to pause as the dust of the street blows into your face and brings you back to reality. “It’s time to eat,” you think.
On your way to get a quick bite, you pass along the shops highlighted by clay pots filled with flowers. Orange and yellow flashes catch your eye, but you look at the shop owner, and he does not look pleased you are there. You walk a little faster to get to your destination. The few coins in your pocket are all you carry, and you only carry those to pay for lunch. You walk in the back entrance to the place - darting your eyes left and right before you enter - lest you get the owner in trouble. You walk in. *sigh* You made it. Friends of yours covered in the same dust that hit you earlier sit in a long row against a stone wall eating their lunches. You grab your bowl of stew and eat your quick meal before heading to work. These few minutes with a hot meal are the most quiet you will have all day, so you try to enjoy the bliss of being alone.
When I was told that story, I couldn’t quite place where I was. My professor was describing what it was like to be a Jewish person in a ghetto in New York at the turn of the century. I, a child of the post-civil-rights era South, assumed it was about an African American man in Alabama. My friend sitting next to me thought he was experiencing the life of a slave in Egypt or Assyria. We could all make a pretty good argument as to why we were right, and that may have been my professor’s point. History tends to find ways to repeat itself, and as much as we want to think otherwise, the basic experiences of living tend to only change in look.
So in preparing to work with this Sunday’s scriptures, I could not get my mind away from the news and how we continually seem to hear the same stories throughout our lives to the point we think nothing changes. We just celebrated the life of Dr. King a few weeks ago, yet the conversation of race and class continues to be on our minds and in our hearts. I hear the same headlines of crime, traffic, and celebrity gossip that I heard when my mother drove me to school. That feeling of continuity and familiarity occurs when I read the Bible sometimes, so I attempted to hear these readings with fresh ears. How can we continue on the righteous path of bringing heaven to earth? What can we do to honor King’s work and legacy?
I read the first passage in Deuteronomy and stopped at the word “Prophet.” The word is almost always ascribed to Dr. King, some have also ascribed the title to the current and some previous popes, many argue figures like Ghandi, Howard Thurman, various writers, thinkers, and activists, and others in recent history who they think deserve the term. And, to be fair, for some it really should stick. I felt it would be good if we asked ourselves, “who is OUR prophet today?”
We as Methodists love, for good reason, to point to our church’s founder John Wesley. He and his brother formulated our polity, our hymnody, and our understanding of God’s love and grace that supersedes all. But is either Wesley a prophet? What about people who work in the religious world now? We have academics who devote their life’s work to understanding the language and intent of God’s Word, would that make them prophets? What about pastors who put their credit and reputation on the line to stand with and even live with the marginalized peoples of the world. Are they prophets? How do we know who is on the cusp of seeing God’s next move?
I think we are safe with King. Letters from a Birmingham jail and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, along with countless others I am remiss to name individually, point to a world that need not be like the one we have. He goes after the exact problems he sees and names them and says, “NO MORE!” I think we could borrow the practice of naming our problems from our extended family in the black churches of America. They know how to say what needs to be said.
Those who we call prophets go to great lengths to show our mixed up and sometimes sinful values in real ways. I’ll admit I do not get the full effect of Ezekiel cutting off all of his hair and dividing it, but I do understand Ghandi literally standing against the British until the empire left. Both suffered by pushing against the taboos and mores of their culture, and that is how we know they were willing to fight for the cause of the just. God’s name may not always make an appearance in their words, but I believe in the mystery of our faith that says God moves in ways that we know in our hearts.
The sad reality is prophets by nature are on the leading edge of what God is doing in the world. From what I know of history, most people we give the title of prophet were not seen as prophetic by the wider world of their day. Prophets are tasked with swaying society back toward what God wants, and what we want often is in direct conflict with that. The Bible tells us to share what we have with others, but the world tells us not to enable those who take charity for granted. “Love your neighbors,” Jesus said, “…unless they try to steal from you,” the world adds, “then they deserve what’s coming.” God’s will is often different from our will. Our will usually has something to do with our wallets. God works in the currency of infinite love and grace.
When we look to Deuteronomy, the writer makes clear where our prophets will come from. They don’t originate out of nowhere and they certainly cannot name themselves as such. Verse 18 says, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people;…” For one, the prophet will have authority, because not everyone was versed in the law of the Pentateuch – the Jewish law from which Deuteronomy comes. To know the law, one must have wisdom and patience to understand God’s will. Similarly, that person will come from within the community. No one who does not know the community can speak for it.
1 Corinthians warns us that we must also be vigilant in discerning what is good for us. When we hear someone speaking on our or God’s behalf, we must be mindful of what they say and do. While this passage concerns food specifically, it talks about how we should know what is good for us. We can have all the knowledge in the world but it is not good unless it serves love of God and love of neighbor. Otherwise, knowledge runs the risk of ego.
Knowing who our prophets are sits well in the context of food and community. I am a firm believer that you really get to know someone when you share a meal with them. Community is based on what we do together. It is no surprise that our two major sacraments of communion and baptism are both deeply personal actions – eating and washing – that are done in the presence of others. Paul warns the community in Corinth to be mindful of what they do just as Deuteronomy asks we be mindful of what God wants for us. This morning, while we celebrate communion, I ask that you take a moment to show appreciation for the God who loves you always and finds various avenues for you to be reminded that you are loved and cared for.
So, when we speak of prophets coming from amongst us, how can be sure we have found someone whom God has anointed to speak? My first instinct is to point to the Gospels. We see Christ as being so much more than a prophet, but he was still a prophet of his time. He told people that empires did not dictate the ways of the world; God does. The same laws passed through history were taught to Jesus as a boy. He came from a Jewish family. Given he was a craftsman, I can’t vouch for his education and knowledge of the law, but I think our faith in his Son of God status has a wisdom component.
Jesus shows us that God’s word and will can often be hidden like the parables. Sometimes God is as plain as “love God, love neighbor.” God’s will can hurt our plans as the rich, young ruler learned. God also knows when we are poor and blesses us with loaves and fish. If you ever need to know what a prophet looks like, I would recommend brushing up on the Gospels and look for the good news that God loves all of us, wants us to love each other, and is in the business of seeing the world serve for goodness for all and not just for some. The Gospels and the Living Christ still challenge us to hear God’s words fresh and new.
Jesus offers us a litmus test for knowing who our modern day prophets are. They must be willing to be honest yet unyielding to naming and ending injustice. They must achieve justice without violence or manipulation. They will be one of us. Prophets will come and go, but those who will lead us to a new tomorrow will look a lot like Christ, because they have God on their side.
If you are looking for our prophet, start by looking around you. Belmont serves a single community in a single city, but its members are doing some good things. Who is to say OUR prophet for today is not sitting in a pew here this morning or at the 10:30 service. We are a community striving to love God and neighbor as best we can by opening our doors to people who need love. I say this community, and communities all around Nashville, Tennessee, and the world, are building up their members to do great works in the name of God. May we be so blessed as to find our prophet. Amen.