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Sermon transcript for April 14, 2013

Do You Love Me?
John 21:1-19
April 14, 2013—Belmont UMC
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

When I was in my mid-thirties I hit a wall of substantial burn-out. I’ve talked about that time in my life with you and I talk about it with young pastors who are learning the benefits of self-care. The church I was serving at the time was full of wonderful, caring people who seem to be responding to the work we were doing. The church was growing in number and growing in its missional outreach. But I was exhausted and overextended. I was preaching, teaching a Sunday School class, leading youth programs in the evening and a Sunday night worship service after that. I directed a capital campaign for the church that lasted several long months. And there were the usual weddings and funerals that come with this work. One day I went home and collapsed and said, “I quit. I can’t do this anymore.” I call this “the time I left the ministry but didn’t tell anyone about it.”

Several things happened during those days. I could not bear to be in my office for some reason—it seemed oppressive. I would go to work in the morning and take things out of my office and work on them on a pew in the sanctuary or I would go outside and sit under a tree. I scheduled lunch meetings with church members so I could leave the office. I visited home bound members in the afternoon. I visited one older friend so many times one week that she asked if she was dying, if there was bad news her children and I were keeping from her. I told her I was burned out and tired and visiting her made me happy. She patted my hand and said, “You come to see my anytime you need to be cheered up and I’ll do my best.”

The trustees had their monthly meeting and one of the members observed that the parsonage trim needed painting. We had depleted most of our maintenance funds so I volunteered, “I was a house painter during seminary days and I’ll paint the parsonage if you will get the paint donated.” I knew that I could call this church work and it would get me out of the office for awhile in the afternoons.

Painting is quiet work. No one comes around to bother you for fear of being asked to help. Up on the ladder I was scraping, caulking and thinking, praying and asking myself if I could go on living into this call to ministry. I pondered other careers, like teaching school or raising organic zucchini and selling it at a road side stand. I was gifted at growing zucchini but I couldn’t give it away so that seemed like a flawed idea. Lots of things went through my head but I knew that something had to change.

I was running away from the call of God on my life. One day up on that ladder, praying, I heard an Inner Voice in my mind, and the Inner Voice asked, “Do you still love me?”

I responded, “Yes, Lord, I still love you.”

The Voice said, “I’ll help you find your way back.” And I have learned to trust that Inner Voice. I’m still here today because of that trust.

Life takes a toll on us and we gravitate toward the comfort of the familiar, especially those places where we see immediate gratification, like visiting homebound folks, painting or fishing.

Life has taken a toll on the disciples and they find themselves back in the boat in the familiar waters of the Galilee. And as usual in the Gospels they are not catching fish; they never catch fish without Jesus’ help. The disciples have experienced the tension of Holy Week—the emotional high of their entry into Jerusalem, the extraordinary Passover, Jesus’ intense time of prayer in the garden, betrayal, arrest, a mock trial, a mob shouting for crucifixion, the gruesome death, and the stories of resurrection and the appearance of Jesus behind locked doors. No wonder Peter said, “I’m going fishing.” No wonder the others followed him.

But Jesus appears on the bank of the Galilee and he calls out to them with familiar fishing advice. One of the disciples recognizes Jesus and the impulsive Peter got so excited he jumped into the sea and went ashore toward Jesus. They all shared a meal together over a campfire.

Then Jesus turned to Peter and asked, “Do you love me more than these?” Maybe he meant, “Do you still love me?” Jesus asks Peter three times, the same number of times Peter denied knowing Jesus before the crucifixion. It is interesting that the author uses the Greek verb agapao (agape) in the first two questions and in the last one he uses phileo. It’s likely that he uses them interchangeably but together they describe the full relationship between Jesus and Peter. “Do you love me, Peter? Do you love the kingdom, the great purpose of the One who sent me? Do you love me, Peter? Do you love one who named you Peter and called you friend, the one who lifted you out of troubled waters and embarrassing situations? Do you still love me even though you denied knowing me and have returned to fishing?”

Peter responds almost in anger and indignity that Jesus would feel a need to ask this question, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” The question comes to us as one of the most compelling questions of the Bible. Have we not all heard this question during those moments of quiet and honest prayer?

We have such frivolous and shallow notions of love in our culture that we might miss how compelling this question of Jesus really is. We use the notion of love to sell things like perfume and Subarus. It’s the love of Madison Avenue advertising and it pales in the presence of Jesus’ question about love that is heart rending and transformational.

Jesus is asking Peter if he is willing to love him in a way that sacrifices something, lays down a life, gives up security and selfish motives and selfish concerns for the sake of another. Peter is being called to love sacrificially, and after professing his love adamantly, Jesus reminds him that real sacrifice is down the road, in the form of loss of freedom and possible persecution. “Will you love me then, Peter?” Jesus asks us, “Will you love me when it’s inconvenient and uncomfortable to do so?”

When Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” he is asking him to move beyond himself, beyond his guilt and shame. As Jesus asks that same question of us, he is asking us to move beyond ourselves and into the world. We forget that discipleship is not about us and we get stuck in our self-concerns or we cannot move beyond places of regret or guilt.

Garrison Keilor writes about Larry, a resident of the fictional town of Lake Wobegon. Larry got saved 12 times at the Lutheran Church, an all-time record for a church that never gave altar calls. There wasn’t even an organ playing, “Just As I Am” in the background. Regardless of that, between 1953 and 1961 Larry Sorenson came forward 12 times, weeping buckets and crumpled up at the communion rail, once to the shock of the pastor who had just delivered a very dry stewardship sermon.

But now the pastor needed to put his arm around this Larry, pray with him and be sure he had a way to get home safely. Keilor writes, “Even the fundamentalists got tired of Larry. God didn’t mean for you to feel guilty all your life. There comes a time when you should dry your tears, join the building committee and grapple with the problems of the church furnace and the church roof. But Larry just kept repenting and repenting.” (Leaving Home, p. 182)

“Peter, you will never really love me until you let go of your guilt and the weight that holds you back. Then you can take up the shepherd’s staff and feed the lost and hungry lambs of this world.” ‘Feed my sheep, Peter”

Peter would remember when they were up on that hillside, teaching and healing until it grew late in the day. Thousands of people were there—there were people as far as your eyes could see. And Jesus turned to the disciples and asked the unthinkable. He asked them to feed the people for they were hungry. Jesus’ heart was full of love and concern for they were to him like sheep without a shepherd. “You give them something to eat,” he said. He didn’t say, “Give them something to eat if their children are making passing grades in school.” Jesus would never say something ridiculous like that.

Today, Jesus meets us here again and he asks, “Do you love me?” And we answer that question in two ways: with words of affirmation and witness in here and with actions of compassion and justice out there.

It is good to come here to hear again the compelling love of God call on our lives. We hear it and we are moved in our hearts and we are moved out to feed the hungry and shepherdless lambs of this world.

Jesus meets us here today and asks, “Do you love me?”

We respond, “Yes, Lord, you know that we love you. Yes, Lord, we will feed your sheep.”

 

Sermon transcript for April 7, 2013 - Creation Care Sunday

Creation Care Sermon
April 7, 2013
Adam Kelchner, preaching

Will you pray with and for me this morning? Creating and recreating God, we give thanks for the ways in which you teach us and show us visions of your justice through the proclamation of your Holy Word. Give us clear eyes to see and hear how you are working for the restoration of all of creation. Amen.

In a recent Bible study with students at Belmont University during Holy Week, one student noted how much of a downer Maundy Thursday and Good Friday can be. Exactly. At first impression, the crucifixion of Christ feels like defeat, a cause for despair and hopelessness. An innocent man is put to death and the power of mob mentality and a domineering government reigns triumphant. Perhaps the experiences of Jesus’ disciples on Good Friday set the stage for Creation Care Sunday.

Some of us may find ourselves disillusioned by the Earth’s suffering in animals, plants, air and water quality, and the most vulnerable human communities. Others may be angry that the powerful and their policies in the world exploit rather than protect the Lord’s Earth and its resources. Perhaps a few cast the gaze inward compelled by the proximity of the Earth’s suffering and degradation to examine how wastefully we consume as families, communities, and nations. But many others, like those in Jerusalem on that Friday, overlook the nearness and intensity of innocent suffering and exploitation.    

Like Jesus’ disciples on that fateful Friday, wherever we find ourselves in relation to creation, if we’re honest enough, we can say this: all is not right in God’s creation. Things are not well in the world-creation is groaning for redemption and freedom from decay and bondage we have put upon it. There is the importance of days like today, to reflect, to confess, to tell the truth, to pray, and to hope for the restoration and livelihood of God’s creation: animals, plants, air, water, dirt, and people. For we share in one mutually bound fabric and the restoration of our souls is tied up in the health of God’s good creation.

Across the globe, 780 million individuals lack access to clean water. This is a justice issue for all of creation-clean water is a life or death kind of issue for us and our animal friends.

In Keeli Lewis’ retelling of her time working in marine biology research on the Mississippi gulf coast, she notes how manmade pollution and unsustainable farming practices are creating red tides and dead zones in such a diverse and beautiful marine ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico. From Montana to Pennsylvania to Oklahoma, fertilizers and urban waste are draining into the Mississippi River basin and settling at the mouth of the river. Tied up in access to clean water are issues of sustainable farming practices, industry waste regulation, the health of balanced ecosystems, family and community sanitation practices, and the corporate profiteering for water rights. For the healing of creation, we cannot be idle.

In another way, 93 million barrels of oil are consumed a day, not in a year, but in a day around the world. That’s an addiction and we are in need of healing! In this instance and many more, we are living beyond our means and being unfaithful to our calling as stewards of God’s good creation. For the healing of creation, we cannot be idle.

Silence.

Let’s go back to that Good Friday story-Jesus Christ is crucified and buried. Then a few days later, a few of Jesus’ closest followers go to the place where he was buried. They find an empty tomb! The empty tomb is the boldest claim of the Christian church-it signals that God is more powerful than death, that despair never has the last word, and that God’s love in Jesus Christ is healing pain and restoring the health of all creation. 

The good news of God in Jesus Christ is that the way things are isn’t the way things have to be. Even though all of creation is suffering-that isn’t the end of the story. There is hope and by the grace of God, there will be restoration. That is the hope we have in the wake of Easter-that God is at work restoring health to our souls, our bodies, and every piece of matter on Earth harmed by sin, evil, negligence, and malice.

I’ve seen glimpses of that restoration! Remember that issue of access to clean water-imagine with me a rural village or town with a river running through it and harvest fields on either side, livestock on its banks pressing for a drink, and women gathering jugs for cooking and washing. Perhaps you’ve been to this place. Imagine that upstream another village’s human excrement emptying into the river due to poor sanitation facilities-in other words, a lack of toilets is contaminating drinking water and causing preventable diseases in villages around the world. In a community that doesn’t have access to clean water and whose children are sick from preventable disease, what is a sign of God’s healing and restoration?

I dare to say it’s a dry composting toilet or a village full of them, so no longer is human waste running off into public water sources. This is a reality of stewardship and creation occurring throughout villages in Latin and South America, Africa, and Asia though I first encountered it in Mexico at the Give Ye Them to Eat, Tree of Life training center. Give Ye Them to Eat is teaching the good news of dry composting toilets in central Mexico, restoring community health, and protecting the Earth’s resources with sustainable living. That’s a sign of restoration!

Will you continue to imagine with me the vision of the culmination of God’s work in the world, where pristine rivers and crisp clean air sustain our communities, where harvest fields yield enough food for all, when the face of the Earth is no longer scarred by man made destruction of eco systems, when we live in congruity with the natural world and no longer dominate it and its resources, and when our lifestyle choices are healed of the addiction of consumption? May we live in the hope and freedom of God’s work on Easter morning, daring to be bold enough to care for God’s good creation. Let it be so.

   

Sermon transcript for March 31, 2013 - Easter

Evidence of the Resurrection
John 20:1-18  
Easter Sunday—March 31, 2013
Belmont UMC—Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

On this Happy Easter morning I look around this room and everywhere I look I see evidence of the resurrection. Thanks be to God! Everywhere I look I see signs of the divine reversal. Thanks be to God!

Hear this surprising resurrection text, one of my favorites, from Isaiah. “For you shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of a thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.” (55:12-13)

There are other texts throughout the scripture that remind us that God is the God of hope and resurrection, from the creation story, God making something out of nothing, making something from the void and bringing it to life.

There is story of about a couple named Abraham and Sarah, who in their old age, so old that the Bible says there was little life left in them, they find out that new life is on the way and is growing inside of an old woman. (Genesis 18) The news of this divine reversal takes them so off guard that Sarah can’t stop laughing.

There is that dramatic story of Ezekiel prophesying to a valley of dry bones and the bones come together and take on flesh and life. (ch. 37) This is a prophecy of hope in the midst of exile—one of the darkest periods of Israel’s history.

There is the story of Jesus bringing a man back to life, a man so full of demons, so mentally ill that he is left alone and nicknamed Legion. Everyone is afraid of him. He is isolated in a cave and left to his delusions and left to die alone. Jesus releases the man and brings him back to life, back to his community and family. (Mark 5:1-13)

Walter Brueggemann says that life in the Bible is always associated with relationship, so this man is brought back to life by being fully related to his community once again. When we welcome someone in, we welcome someone back to their community or their family, especially someone who has been excluded, that is a resurrection story. (The Bible Makes Sense, “From Death to Life,” pp. 109-121)

Resurrection is like homecoming. When the prodigal son returns home, what does his father say to the older brother? “This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:32)

We are given this beautiful story in the Gospel of John that reminds us that sometimes we are staring Easter in the face and we do not see it. Mary is staring Easter in the face and she does not see it. Mary comes looking for the body of Jesus. She is experiencing overwhelming grief and she has come to do the last thing she will ever do for her friend, Jesus of Nazareth.

Mary has expectations. She knows exactly what to expect. She expects a tomb, death, decay and finitude. But there is no body. The tomb is empty. She is not sure what to do. She turns and sees a man she presumes to be a gardener. She says to the man, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”

In Mary’s mindset of the natural, the expected, she fails to see who this supposed gardener is, until he calls her name, “Mary.” And she knows!

She cries, “Teacher!”

Mary is staring Easter in the face and she does not know it. I suppose that has something to do with expectation. Resurrection is not natural, not expected. Mary expects death, not life. She expects a body, not an empty tomb. She expects a gardener, not a risen Jesus.

We do not see Easter because we do not expect Easter. We are like Mary; we expect logical explanations—we do not expect God to reverse the irreversible. But that is the message of Easter.

There are some people who will not see Easter because they have been trapped in a Good Friday mentality for so long. I say “will not” because I think it’s a choice, even if they are wired that way. We all know people who will not embrace hope and possibility.

I used to subscribe to The New Yorker but it came every week and I would fall behind on reading the articles. I did read all of the cartoons, however. I recall one favorite cartoon of a young man who went to see a fortune teller. She read his palm and she said, “You will be unhappy until you are 45 years old.”

He looked shocked and he said, “And then what?”

She answered, “And then you will get used to it.”

Some people and some churches do not want to see the hopeful possibilities and Easter hope escapes them. They are stuck in Good Friday and they’ve gotten used to it. Fred Craddock tells about a minister who, becoming so frustrated with his congregation because of its negativity and lack of vitality, that one Sunday night at the end of the worship service, he said, “Why don’t we all form a circle, hold hands, and try to communicate with the living.”

And there are those who cannot see Easter hope. They cannot hear the mountains and hills bursting into song or the trees clapping their hands. They cannot see the cypress and the myrtle, they can see only thorns and briers. They cannot see Easter because they have been so beaten down, excluded, saddened, wounded or traumatized by life that there is no way they can see Easter hope. We are Easter people and we will come alongside them and lift them up. We will love them, feed them, bind up their wounds and treat them with patient tenderness, until that time when they are able to hear the Risen Teacher saying their name, and then they will know, they will know, that Easter is real, and God has not forgotten them.

There are those who see Easter hope against all odds and they amaze us and inspire us. A few months ago we were privileged to meet Bishop Gabriel Unda Yemba of the East Congo Episcopal Area. Reverend Bill Lovell introduced him to us and he greeted us in worship one Sunday with such humility and grace. The Congo is an incredibly challenging place to be at present, with much political unrest and rebel activity. Many of the church buildings, homes and office buildings have been destroyed by rebel forces.

Bishop Yemba had addressed the Council of Bishops meeting in Georgia before coming to visit us at Belmont. He told the Bishops two stories. The first one was about himself. Several years ago he was taken by rebel forces and put in confinement in a very dark and small space. The quarters were so tight he asked the person next to him to move and when he did not Yemba realized that he was not alive. He soon realized that he was sharing a space with two live prisoners and three dead prisoners.

His Bishop tried to negotiate Yemba’s release but was unsuccessful. He sent a Methodist pilot to visit him but his captors would not release him. One day the other two prisoners were taken out and shot by a firing squad. The time came for Pastor Yemba’s  execution and the soldier raised his gun to shoot but the gun would not fire. The commanding officer took this as a sign and released him. Back home people were praying for him with great fervor. He said, “God brought life from death . . . hope where there was no hope.”

He told another story about a young mother from one of their churches. Rebel forces came to her village to burn it. They came to her home, tied up her parents, threw her baby on the ground and took her into the forest to assault her and kill her. She cried out boldly to God to rescue her. When one of the soldiers was undoing his belt, two hand grenades exploded seriously injuring the soldiers but leaving the woman unhurt. Astonished, she got up and ran home. She could hear the cries of the wounded soldiers begging her for help.

She ran home, untied her parents and tended to her baby. Here is some Easter hope, friends: she and her parents returned to help the wounded soldiers. “Today, the soldiers, all amputees, are faithful members of the United Methodist Church and the young woman is a living testimony of the hope of Christ.”

Bishop Yemba said, “As a newly elected Bishop, there is no residence that awaits me, no office building, no vehicles, not even a bicycle. But I serve a God of hope. God has power to give hope to the hopeless. I am not afraid of the future.”

Why would Bishop Yemba speak of hope in the face of such fear and darkness? Why would a young mother bind up the wounds of her enemy attackers?

And why are we here this morning? Why do we feed the hungry? Why do we welcome the stranger? Why do we provide shelter for the homeless? Why do we comfort the broken hearted? Why do we bind up the wounded? Why do we bother? Why do we care so deeply for those in need?

Because we went to the tomb and found it empty on Easter morning. Because we believe that Jesus lives and continues to call us. Because we believe every encounter with someone in need is an encounter with the living Christ.

Look around you this morning. Look around you on any Sunday at Belmont and you will look Easter in the face. We are Easter People. We are the evidence that Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!


 

Sermon transcript for March 28, 2013 - Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday
March 28, 2013
Pam Hawkins, preaching

Audio - MP3

   

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