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Sermon transcript for August 24, 2014

Be Transformed
Romans 12:1-21
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!


Sermon transcript for August 17, 2014

Have Mercy on Me, Lord
Matthew 15:10-28
Belmont UMC—August 17, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

If we were reading today’s Gospel text like we were reading good fiction and we came to the words, “Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon,” we would brace ourselves for what would come next. These words introduce us to a turning point and we would know that some shift in the story was about to occur. Jesus has moved into the land of Canaanites, Gentiles, outsiders. Jesus has gone where he has not gone before.

Sure enough, in this new land Jesus encounters a woman and we are given this odd and perplexing interchange in today’s lectionary reading. Smart pastors who are preaching from the lectionary today read this and decided to preach from the Genesis passage where we find a nice story of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. But I was drawn to this passage, this passage that leaves us scratching our heads and wondering.

In this land Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman who comes to him and begs him to heal her daughter. She pleads with him to have mercy on her and her daughter. “Show me mercy!”  “Have mercy on me!” It is a prayer that is repeated throughout the Gospels. It is the prayer we pray when we cannot think of other words. It is the prayer we pray at the point of our greatest vulnerability. We sing this prayer, “Kyrie eleison!”--words found in ancient Greek language of the Bible. It is the prayer I use in the middle of the night and when my thoughts are racing and I cannot go to sleep. It becomes a breath prayer, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on _________.” I let names come to the surface of my thoughts and I say the name. Some of those names are your names, some are names I haven’t thought of for a long time and I wonder why they are given to me at 2 AM, but I know we all need the mercy of God. A Canaanite woman needs mercy!

And the woman calls Jesus, “Son of David,” the name reserved for one who is the Messiah. It is surprising throughout the Gospel stories that the Gentiles, the physically ill, the outcasts and even the demons know who Jesus is but the disciples seem clueless to his identity. He has to be impressed by her words.

But he does not answer her. She is shouting; he is silent. And the disciples want him to respond by sending her away. He responds, “I was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He tells the disciples something like this in chapter 10, also. The sheep of Israel may be lost but they don’t act like they want to be found.

Jesus draws a line. It appears to be a line between who is in and who is out. This surprises us because we see Jesus crossing lines all the time. It surprises us because he has walked intentionally into Canaanite land and seems surprised to encounter a Canaanite. Canaanites are considered unclean outsiders.

Or maybe he draws a line because he needs a break. People have been very demanding. Everywhere he and the disciples have gone and Jesus’ reputation has preceded him, the crowds, the needy crowds show up and they can’t catch a break.

I mentor young clergy and I often say to them to set boundaries, take a day off, and seek places of Sabbath. I feel hypocritical sometimes because I’m better at saying it than I am at doing it. We need rest. We need space to recoup our energy and prepare ourselves for ministry. We need to turn off the phone and walk in the woods. We need quiet places.

But I also tell these young clergy that sometimes the phone rings and you have to go, because the needs trump your boundaries and your need for rest. When that phone call comes, most of us do not think twice about heading out the door.

Jesus draws a line but the woman is persistent. She kneels in front of him and pleads, “Lord, help me!” The woman, the outsider, the outcast, knows Jesus, and knows he can help her.

Then Jesus says what we wish he had not said, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Did he really call her a “dog?” It wasn’t unusual for Gentiles to be called dogs, but it was an insult.

She is undeterred because this is about a sick child, her sick child. I recall that Oscar winning scene in the movie, Terms of Endearment, where the character played by Shirley McClain asks for pain medication for her daughter, who is dying of cancer. She is told that it’s not time for the medication and the mother goes into a tirade so fierce the nurses give in. We do that for our children.

She responds, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” “Just a crumb then--I’ll take a crumb.”

Then something happens, something shifts. We can feel it happening, even if we don’t fully understand it. It’s the shift that happens when the compassion of God clicks into place and we begin to feel differently and see differently all that is going on around us.

Steven Covey used to tell a story to describe a paradigm shift. He was on a train heading out of New York City. A man with three small children got on the train the children were terribly unruly and they were running round bothering people. The man sat with his head down, ignoring the behavior of his children. Finally, Covey said something like, “Sir, you may want to attend to your children; they are bothering people.”

And the man said, “I’m so sorry. We just came from the hospital. My wife died suddenly today and I’m trying to take it all in.” And the man began to weep.

Steven Covey said he went from begin irritated to feeling deep compassion for the man and his children. He put his arm around the man and tried to comfort him.
Some scholars have suggested that this story represents a huge shift in Jesus’ ministry. This Canaanite woman appeals to something deep inside of him and he is pulled across the line by the compassion of God. He tells the woman, “Your faith is great.” And he heals the woman’s daughter.

This story would have been important to the early church and to those Gentiles and Canaanites and outsiders who became a part of the church. It is interesting that Matthew includes this story in a Gospel that was written for Jewish Christians. It is a clear call to erase the lines we have drawn around us. And at the end of this Gospel we hear Jesus call the disciples to go out and make disciples of all nations.

In the passage that precedes this story, Jesus reframes the boundaries of what is clean and unclean. Jesus declares that what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and what comes out of the heart determines what makes one clean. What comes out this woman’s heart is faith—faith that Jesus has the power and compassion to heal all of Israel and enough to save her Gentile daughter, as well.

We draw lines around our lives whether we admit it or not. We make assumptions about who is in and who is out. We’ve watch those lines form around racial tension in Ferguson, Missouri this week. The hatred and violence soared out of control. Then one man, Captain Ron Johnson of the Highway Patrol, took off his flak jacket and helmet and crossed the line, walking into the community and was embraced by the residents there. And for a time the tensions eased and all of humanity felt a little healed.

During this season let us remember that we journey with a God who is in the business of entering new territory and breaking down boundaries and this calls us to the same work. We hear God calling us to the welcome the outsiders and offer them, not just a crumb, but a place at our table.

Hear this call to serve by Barbara Brown Taylor:
“Let go! Step out! Look a Canaanite in the eye, knock on a strange door, ask an outsider what his life is like, trespass an old boundary, enter a new relationship, push a limit, take a risk, give up playing it safe! You have nothing to lose but your life the way it has been, and there is lots more life where that came from. And if you get scared, which you will, and if you get mad, which you probably will too, remember today’s story. With Jesus as our model—and our Lord—we are called to step over the lines we have drawn for ourselves, not because we have to, and not because we ought to, or even because we want to, but because we know that it is God’s own self who waits for us on the other side.”
(The Seeds of Heaven, “Crossing the Line,” p. 67)

Petition prayer for Ferguson
written by Rev. Matt Miofsky, lead pastor at The Gathering UMC in St. Louis, MO.

Call & Response Prayer

For those who have seen their lives torn apart by violence of all kinds           
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For the family of Michael Brown, his friends and his community. For all those who grieve the loss of life tragically ended.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who believe the only response to violence is more violence,
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those people of faith willing to step out and to lead in times of trouble.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who look at a situation from a distance, neglecting to get involved or too easily passing judgment.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those in positions of power who work for reconciliation and justice.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For those who hold places of authority but have abused that power towards unjust ends,
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

For the people of Ferguson and of St. Louis, city and county—north and south, east and west,
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.

And for us, Lord—your body the church, that we may be agents of your reconciliation, peace and justice.
Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.  Amen.


Sermon transcript for August 10, 2014

Romans 10:8b-13
Emilie M. Townes Dean and the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society Vanderbilt Divinity School
Belmont United Methodist Church 10 August 2014

pastoral prayer

maybe you remember this game from childhood: king of the mountain—it was decidedly not the king of the mountain you find in the urban dictionary the object of my childhood game was to try to get to the top of a mound of dirt or snow and stand there yelling "i'm king of the mountain" it wasn't possible to be king for very long since every other kid on the hill was trying to take over the top position it was a rough game and it was rare that no one went home with some part of the body a bit bloody and there were always a fair amount of shattered egos when you didn't make it but many of us kept coming back some of the kids, who had some sense and were good at strategy went to the mound of dirt when the other kids weren't there and sat or stood on top in silent testimony to their good sense

i wasn't terribly successful at playing the game but i do remember how good it felt what a sense of accomplishment wafted over me when i stood or sat on top of that mound of dirt and declared myself king (and later queen) of the mountain even though no one else but God was around to see my victory and share my joy now that i've grown a bit older, i like to think that i don't play king of the mountain any more at least i don't play it the old fashioned way but if i'm really honest with myself i have to admit that there is still some of that old king-queen mentality there and i do find new ways to play that old game from time to time

yes, there is a strong sense in many of us to play the role of king or queen as often as possible we expend a great deal of time and energy climbing one mountain or another in our careers, we may be in the position of having to prove ourselves constantly to co¬workers and bosses so that we don't slide or loose our place on the mountain known as work in the pressure of our work and in our own desire for security and status we may find ourselves leaving others by the wayside as we climb our partners or spouses our lovers our friends our health all these and more, suffer in our climb to success as the long hours and all too frequent preoccupation with work begin to wear them away and we hear ourselves or feel ourselves wondering if being the king or queen is really worth the price we have to pay

and we are tempted into playing king of the mountain in our personal lives too often the goal of being on top of things becomes our guiding principle we think something's wrong with us when we don't have total control of ourselves and the situation we think we have to manage every aspect of our lives—perfectly we have to be
the perfect spouse
the perfect partner
the perfect lover
the perfect parent
the perfect sister
the perfect brother
the perfect son
the perfect daughter
the perfect friend
the perfect student
we drown ourselves and those around us in our drive toward being, doing, giving, and representing it all we take that old army recruiting line, “be the best you can be,” to the absurd and we lose ourselves we lose our spirit in trying to manage every aspect of our lives into perfection and heaven forbid that we should trouble others with our problems because that would be admitting that our perfection has some unpaved places or uncertainty being king or queen of the mountain means being in control and when time and circumstance prevent us from being in control we blame ourselves for being weak or unrealistic or emotional and it frightens us then, for some strange reason we think fear is not human or natural so we withdraw or we spend our time apologizing or avoiding it's hard for us when the king or queen in us faces financial trouble or substance abuse or mental illness or senseless violence or the loss of a loved one it's difficult for us to admit our brokenness and it is oh so tempting to pretend that we don't need any help from anyone or from God like the game of our youth, king of the mountain, it is dangerous to play and it tempting

when we are caught in this game it will help if we remember Paul's words to the romans the word is near you, on your lips and in your heart; because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is sovereign and believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved brothers and sisters, we have to be willing to be vulnerable we have to get a grip on ourselves and admit our humanness we must learn to confess our faults and our strengths to a power and presence that knew us before we were born and loves us with a fierceness that rocks us when we need to be comforted and challenges us when we need to move out of our inertia such honest confession can only come through a faith which is not content with where it is today but is ever-growing a faith that widens its boundaries and is willing to be tempted and buffeted by
new ideas
new people
new circumstances
and a new witness
for it is confession and faith to believe with our hearts and be justified to confess with our mouths and be saved it is confession and faith that leads us into new journeys of wholeness and redemption it is confession and faith that teach us about a peace a spirit a principle within a mission it is confession and faith that enables us to ask the important question what's so gosh awful special about this mountain, anyway

we have to remember again and again Jesus' own struggle against the temptations of success and control if we look at the gospel again we see that he could have chosen a much more "successful" path Jesus could have presented himself as the ultimate success story, the epitome of the model of triumph he could have been a flashy leader relying on miracles to prove his authority turning a few stones here into bread, a jug or two of water over there into wine Jesus could have opted to appear to be totally in control throwing himself dramatically off the temple tower and daring God to save him but this was not the path he chose Jesus did not come to us as a miracle worker or magician he was utterly human and wonderfully divine he knew well the struggle of living—it's rough edges and challenges as well as its happiness and joy and he consciously chose not to play king of the mountain in his ministry he chose to be prophet of the valleys one who walked and ate and lodged with those who had been kicked to the base of the hill the ones who the rest of society despised the mountain he chose to climb was a hill called Golgotha where he died the death of a common criminal, not a king or queen

V. brothers and sisters, God does not expect us to always be on top of our lives or the situation even though we often expect ourselves to be let’s live more fully into our humanness—it’s moments of the sublime, it’s times of despair celebrating the living we do in the meantime Jesus is with us wherever we are on life's mountains and perhaps he seems most near when we lose our footing and wind up with bruises and scrapes from a fall O yes, God knows our pain and comes to bind the wounds and to lift us up by God's own tender and passionate grace all we have to do...all we have to do: is accept this gift offered in love offered not by the king of the mountain, but the ruler of creation and beyond thanks be to God!



Sermon transcript for August 3, 2014

Feeding the Multitude
Matthew 14: 13-21
Belmont UMC—August 3, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

When Jesus instructed the disciples to feed the crowd of people, the disciples must have felt overwhelmed. Matthew writes that there were 5000 men, plus women and children and we like to count the women and children, too. So the crowd could have been as many as 10,000 people or more. The town in which I was raised had a sign that read, Welcome to Springfield, population 10,000, so I always try to imagine that they were trying to feed my entire home town with five loaves of bread and two fish.

The disciples’ respond to Jesus, “We have nothing. . .”  (v. 17a) They wanted to send the people away. No wonder!

I served two small churches when I graduated from seminary. One was a small church and the other a very small church, and though the small church was active and vital it didn’t have much in the way of money. My salary was supplemented by the Conference and my full-time salary the first year was $10,500.

One of the first persons I met was the treasurer, Raymond, who lived next door to the church in a neat, small ranch house. He told me that he had been very close to the previous pastor and when he left he vowed not to get close to another one. He seemed distant and a little crusty at first. Over the next few months he warmed up to me and my wife. My grandfather had died right before I graduated and this man became a surrogate grandfather to me. We would stay up until 1 AM working in his shop, refinishing furniture and telling stories.

I had asked him for a copy of the budget when I first arrived and he said, “We don’t have one; we just pay the bills when they come in. And you need to watch your spending because we don’t have enough money to pay them all.” I had made a case for having a budget but he was unyielding. After a few months I realized what Raymond was doing to balance the budget. He never put any money in the offering plate when it was passed in church. He would wait until he paying bills and he would make up the shortfall by writing a check to the church. His wife confirmed this but Raymond denied it. He was a generous man, even if he was a bit of a liar.

The church didn’t have much but we were doing some great ministry and the church was growing in numbers. We had an active youth group and we were involved in several local outreach ministries. We paid our Conference askings in full every year. Still, I spent a lot time worrying over what little we had to work with.

One day I came out of church and found two women in the parking lot. They were attached to metal detectors and had the headgear listening for sounds that would bring them hidden treasure. They saw me and stopped and frankly the sight of them irritated me. I said, “Ladies, I hope you find some treasure because we’ve been looking for it around her for a long time without success. I’ll leave the front door unlocked so you put whatever you find in the offering plate.”

And then I said, “If you want to find treasure here, you need to come back on Sunday morning and meet the people. They are the real treasure of this church.” The two ladies fled to the car and sped away.

This was a turning point for me. I heard myself say that the people were our real treasure and it caused me to quit fretting over having little or nothing to work with. On Sunday I took a long look at the people (70-80 people on most Sundays) in the church and I said, “God we don’t have a lot of money, but we have a church full of resources. I was kind of like the disciples who said, “We have nothing. . .”  But then they added, “but five loaves and two fish.”  And Jesus took what they had and managed to feed the town of Springfield with it. Imagine what Jesus could do with 70 or 80 committed disciples.

We are often guilty of seeing what we do not have and forgetting that a little is a lot in the hands of God. Small churches use their size to excuse them from service. “We are too small and cannot do that.” Large churches find other excuses, often focused on scarcity rather than the abundance of God.

In Mary Pipher’s book Seeking Peace, she references the scene in the movie, Jaws, where the local sheriff is chumming for the great white shark. When it appears out of nowhere and its size is so overwhelming, the sheriff says in a major understatement, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” (p. 176) Pipher was writing of her recovery from an emotional breakdown while on a book tour. In her recovery she realized that she needed a bigger container. She needed God, for prayer and meditation, and space for something beyond herself.

The disciples need a bigger container (and so do we), one that reminds them and us that five loaves and two fish are huge in the hands of God. Once we acknowledge what we have and give it to God, anything can happen. We give what we have to God and God’s deep compassion becomes the catalyst for a miracle.

There was a story being passed around last week from one of the Sunday School Classes in this church. One year the class was signed up for Room in the Inn for the following Friday night. It happened to be Christmas Day and no one signed up—everyone was too busy to host homeless guests in the Community Center. Then one person said, “I could bake a turkey.” (“I could bring 5 loaves and 2 fish.”) And her simple act of selflessness inspired the others and before the end of the day a feast had been set for those who were homeless and hungry.

Today about 400 Central American children will cross our border looking for hope and a new home. They are hungry and desperate and fearful. That’s more than 10,000 children a year; that’s a multitude. Some will say, “Send them away. We do not have anything to give.” Others are hearing the call of Christ to give them something to eat and they are heading to the border to give what they have. Because that is what Jesus would do. And they will watch God’s compassion give birth to a miracle.

“Taking the five loaves and two fish, Jesus looked up into heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled.”

This morning I want to encourage you to come to the chancel as we look up into heaven and bless bread and wine, and I want you to look around at the people in this church. We will not be able to say, “We have nothing. . .” We will say, “We are blessed. We are full to overflowing. We bring what we have and we watch God work the miracle.



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