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Sermon transcript for April 6, 2014

Live Again
John 11:1-45
Belmont UMC—April 6, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

This is a wonderful and surprising story. It is surprising because we are as deep into Lent as we can go and we are reading a story of resurrection. During a season in which we refrain from “Alleluias!” and we use unadorned branches in the place of flowers, here we have a story that stirs hope in us. But it fits the season because John uses the story to move Jesus closer to Jerusalem and the events of Holy Week. Jesus comes to Bethany, against the advice of his disciples. Bethany is only a couple of miles from Jerusalem, on the other side of the Mount of Olives. The story is pivotal because it connects us to the plot against Jesus. The storm clouds of Good Friday begin to hover over the life of Jesus.

Jesus has taken the risk of going to Bethany because of his good friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. This is a story about Jesus’ love for his friends and the evidence suggests that these three were among Jesus’ closest friends. It was with them that he could retreat. Jesus needed them and they needed him in return. Jesus loved Lazarus like a close friend. “See how he loved him!” There is no more moving scene in the New Testament than seeing Jesus weeping at the grave of his friend.

Everyone needs close friends like these three friends of Jesus—friends with whom we can relax, be ourselves, let our hair down and feel at home. These are the friends who know us, who are full of grace and forgiveness, and who hear our complaints and have permission to interrupt us with good news and special requests. These are also the friends who gently hold us accountable when we are on the wrong path. Jesus took a great risk for this kind of friendship.

We might put ourselves in the place of early Christians in the late first century, who are hearing this story for the first time. In this story we would hear of a Messiah, who called his disciples friends and loved them with passion and sacrifice. We would hear a story of Jesus who would call us friends, understand our human dramas and failings, weep with us and laugh with us, treat us with grace and forgiveness, and make us feel at home in his presence.  We would hear the story of Jesus who befriends us and calls us forth to new life.

This is also a story about Jesus’ power over death, defeat and despair. John’s Gospel makes it clear that Lazarus is truly dead. He’s been in the tomb four days. If you’ve been to Israel you’ve probably been to Bethany and a place called Lazarus’ tomb. It is not an ordinary grave, but a cave dug out of the hillside. You enter and walk down stone steps deep into the earth and at the bottom of the steps is another opening for the burial. There is a deep, dark permanence to it and Lazarus is deep in the grave.

Ever practical Martha says, “Lord, it’s been 4 days and there will be a smell.” That’s crude but a real and practical response. So holding their breath and expecting the worse, the grave is opened and Jesus calls forth into the darkness, “Lazarus, come out!” And Lazarus comes up, up, up, reaching the opening, shielding his eyes against the sun light and dragging his grave cloths behind him, wondering, “What has happened?”

Jesus said to the crowd, “Unbind him and let him go!” Take the signs of the death off of him. The point is not that Jesus protects us from death. He does not. We will all have to face death. The point is that because of what Jesus does with death, we do not have to fear it. “I am the resurrection and the life!” Jesus says.

God is the life giver and God has the power to summon us out of the dark places of despair and defeat. I’ve been to many funerals and I’ve never seen anyone come back to life. I have seen those who have given up, felt defeated, and reached a kind of finality, hear the summons of Jesus and found new life in him.

People often express defeat and despair. “I’ll never amount to anything.” “I’ll never kick this habit.” “I’ll never find a decent job.” “I’ll never find my way out of poverty.”  Sometimes the hole gets deeper and despair darker. In our world where the disparity between the rich and the poor grows wider and wider, there is a culture of disparity for those who are poor.

For some folks depression feels like a slow death. People lose heart and hope. Some years ago I was called to a friend’s house. His wife had entombed herself in their bedroom with the blinds closed. She had been there for days living in the darkness of depression and grief. With much love and tenderness we coaxed her out into the light and finally into life itself. “Unbind her and let her go!”

Kayla McClurg wrote, “The Lazarus parts of us feel abandoned, deserted, dead. Lazarus is whatever lies beyond our ability to restore, so bound up in old beliefs or hurts that spiritual rigor mortis has set in. The Lazarus in us no longer seeks to grow and learn, no longer asks if we might be of use in God’s unfolding story, fearing the response. We hunker down in caves of regret, we zone out, grow numb, live small. Dead as dead can be.”  (Inward/Outward, April 6, 2014)

But Jesus comes to us in the form of a faith friend, AA sponsor, Sunday School teacher, pastor, neighbor, to offer new life. In the church we are in the “unbind them and let them go” ministry. We come alongside those who despair and we bring them into the presence of the One who has the power to give life.

Where are you today? Are any among us defeated, entombed in the darkness of despair? Come to this table to eat and drink with us and meet Jesus here! Come forth and live again.

 

Sermon transcript for March 30, 2014

And Now I See
John 9:1-41
Belmont UMC—March 30, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

In one of the churches I served there was a delightful man named Al. Al was gradually losing his eyesight. He had retired early and by the time I met him he was no longer able to drive and was learning to use a cane to find his way about. He could still see some things and he could use his computer to enlarge reading material.

One of Al’s gifts was financial planning and he was skilled at communicating this gift with others. Al led financial planning and management with our senior high youth and they loved him. One of my sons was fortunate to learn from Al. Al would meet with the couples I was counseling and preparing for marriage. He would help them set a budget and make plans for their future. Sometimes the couples would complain about having to set up the sessions and having to go out to Al’s home to meet him, but once they had been there, they wanted to go back again and again. “We just love Al,” they’d say.

I asked Al to be on the Finance Committee. The treasurer would email Al a copy of the spreadsheets so he could view them on his computer. One of us would pick him up and bring him to the meetings. Al was incredibly helpful to our church during times of financial stress. More than once it was Al’s insight that kept us on track. We had long Finance Committee meetings. I recall one lasting 3 hours and there was a lot fretting and hand wringing. Al was patient and on many occasions he would suggest we table something that we were divided over. He would say, “We don’t have to decide this tonight so let’s agree to pray about it everyday until we come back in a month.” This frustrated some of our goal oriented members, but each tabled item would be met with renewed consensus a month later. His spiritual vision was far better than our physical vision.

Last week we noted that the Gospel stories for these three weeks of Lent are stories in which Jesus shifts the dialogue from the physical to the spiritual. With the story of Nicodemus, he shifts the conversation from physical birth to spiritual birth. At a well in Samaria where Jesus has come to quench his physical thirst, he encounters a woman and he shifts the conversation to living water that quenches spiritual thirsts.

In our gospel story a man who was born blind is healed by Jesus. One day Jesus and the disciples happen upon the man and Jesus makes a little paste of mud and spit and spreads it on the man’s eyes. Jesus says, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam.” He does what Jesus told him and he is able to see.

Imagine what that was like for a person who has always been blind! I saw a video this week of a woman who was born deaf. With cochlear implants she heard sounds for the first time. Another woman was saying the names of the days of the week and the woman who had been deaf was laughing and crying with amazement.

We would think that the religious community and the man’s family would throw a party to celebrate the man’s new eyesight, but that is not what happens. All of their energy is spent on looking for a reasonable explanation. No one wants to believe this miracle. The neighbors look at the man and say to him, “Are you the man who used to be blind? You look like him but you must be someone who looks like the man.”

The neighbors brought him to the Pharisees and they are upset that the man has been healed on the Sabbath, a clear violation of the law. And they question how a sinner could perform such a miracle. The once blind man says that Jesus is a prophet.

So they question the parents, who are being threatened with expulsion from the synagogue, and the parents want no part of it and suggest that they ask the son since he is old enough to speak for himself. And the story becomes almost comical as people run around and try to figure out what has happened, but no one stops to celebrate the miracle of new sight.

In the story the religious community tries to control the narrative. We are like that sometimes, too. We aren’t sure what to do when some wonder making event happens and we try to reframe it so that it makes sense or it makes God seem more within our control. We are glad that God is powerful but we would rather harness God’s energy for our own small purposes. We like a God who is more manageable, one who will follow our contrived formulas about what can and should happen and when. Our attempts to control the narrative often blind us to what God is trying to do in the world. What God is doing needs to be greeted with the simplicity of silence and wonder.

We are like the people in this story in that we like to find a meaning for everything that happens. Our attempts to do this often cause us to fumble around in the darkness of bad theology. In Jesus’ day it was assumed that blindness and other physical afflictions were caused by sin. Hence the disciples question, “Who sinned that this man was born blind?” Jesus did not embrace this theology and answers, “No one sinned.” We hear people say that everything that happens is God’s will and we hear others say that people get what they deserve, but the grace of God means precisely the opposite of that, doesn’t it. Grace means we get loved, forgiven, and another chance, and another and another. . .

The gospel story is about spiritual blindness and spiritual sight. In the story the man who is blind gains his sight and everyone else seems to lose theirs. They cannot see beyond their own narrow vision. And their blindness prevents them from celebrating the gift of sight for this man. They expel him from the synagogue because in their blindness they do not know what else to do.

There is another kind of blindness here as well. One writer noted that “the blind man lived in a community but it is striking how little his neighbors knew about him or even of him. They saw mostly his condition. And yet, when he says, ‘I am the man’ it seems they only hear their own doubts, their own circumscribed realities.” (Workingpreacher.org, Robert Hoch)

Our tendency to label persons by their condition undermines their true identity as children of God.  Dr. Jim Fields reminds us of the emotional pain caused by labeling people by their condition. He has worked with many persons who have leprosy and to call someone a “leper” devalues them as persons of sacred worth. I regret that our man who was blind from birth is not given a name. He is dismissed as “that blind man” who is likely a sinner and the cause of his own misfortune. The neighbors walk by him everyday but they do truly see him for who he is.

As I read the story this year I was invited by the Holy Spirit to ask myself, “Who are the people I do not see in my neighborhood? Who has been invisible to me?” The man in the wheelchair said, “No one really looks me in the eye anymore.” The woman who sells The Contributor said, “People don’t have to buy papers from me but I wish they would look at me and wave back and smile. They divert their attention and I feel like a non-person.”

Michele M. Bilyeu is a textile artist who uses her medium to undermine our understanding of those who suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. She entitled one piece, Mama’s Brain Got Tangles…But Mama’s Still Inside. She said, “Like my mother’s memory, this art quilt consists of many layers, tangles, and threads . . . with spots of clarity and light hidden amidst the colorful (but often chaotic) surface layer.” She goes on to say, “I pray that caregivers and family members will care for their patients and loved ones as the people they truly are . . . and not just who they seem to have become.” (“With Heart and Hands,” September 25, 2012)

Will you hear the invitation with me to ask God, Who do you want me to truly see in the world around me? Who has been invisible to me?

I’m reminded of the story of the rich man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke. Lazarus was the poor man who sat at the rich man’s gate. He was homeless and hungry and the story implies that the rich man walked by him everyday but did not see him.

This week we used another text for Lectio Divina, a spiritual practice of reading and rereading the scripture texts and allowing words, images, feelings and invitations to arise out of them. The text is from Acts, chapter 3, and it describes an event that happens right after Pentecost. Peter and John have gone up to the temple and there is a man there who is lame from birth. He is taken there each day in order to beg for money. He is the kind of person we ignore on the streets of Nashville.

Listen to these words, “Peter looked intently at the man, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us!’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. Peter said, ‘I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give to you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.” (Acts 3:4-8) There is great liberation and celebration because the man was seen and given the full attention by the disicples

At the end of today’s Gospel story, the Pharisees wonder, “Surely we are not blind, are we?”

Who does God want us to see in my community, in this church, in our family, at school, at work? Where are places of our blindness, the kind of blindness that prevents us from being faithful disciples of Jesus?

   

Sermon transcript for March 23, 2014

Give Me This Water
John 4:5-42
Belmont UMC—March 23, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

One of the things we notice about the stories from the Gospel during these Sundays of Lent is this: in each of them we hear dialogue that seems to run parallel, not coming together until the end of the conversation. Have you ever entered into a conversation that didn’t quite make sense and then you realized that the two of you were talking about two different things?

When I was an associate pastor, another young associate pastor and I were trading stories of our work with the senior ministers. He told me a story from one communion Sunday. It was toward the end of serving communion and he came alongside the senior pastor and said in a stage whisper, “I think I’m going to run out.” By that he meant that he was concerned about running out of small cups of juice.

But the senior pastor did not understand what he meant and assumed that the young clergy was planning to run out of the church at the end of the service. The senior pastor responded, “Don’t you think you’ll look silly if you run out?”

The associate pastor said, “I don’t think it will look silly, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to run out anyway.”

The senior pastor, “Well, you can run out if want to, but I’m not going to run out.”
Associate pastor, “Yes, I’m going to run out.”

Senior pastor: ‘Please don’t do that. If you do it, you’ll have to explain this to the Staff Parish Committee.

The associate pastor, “It may be beyond our control.”

The senior pastor said, “Do you think this the work of the Holy Spirit or something?”

The associate pastor was perplexed and responded, “Sometimes you don’t make any sense to me.”

At the end of the service, the senior pastor and the young associate recessed to the narthex of the church. When they arrived in the narthex, the senior pastor said, “Well young man, I thought you were going to run out!” And then both of them realized their miscommunication and started laughing. (Senior pastors can be so obtuse.)

In the Gospel stories, beginning with the story of Nicodemus last week, and continuing through next week’s encounter with a blind man and the Pharisees, Jesus is speaking about spiritual things and others are focused on the physical. Jesus told Nicodemus, “You must be born again (a spiritual birth).” Nicodemus asked, “How can I enter my mother’s womb and be born again (a physical birth)?

In today’s rich story, Jesus has arrives at Sychar, a Samaritan city, at the ancient well of Jacob. At midday Jesus sits on the edge of the well, where he can feel the cool air rising from the water below. He is thirsty and he has no vessel with which to draw water. A woman arrives to get water for her house and Jesus asks her for some water. Immediately, Jesus is crossing barriers, barriers between men and women, historic barriers between Jews and Samaritans.

Jesus begins to talk about water, but it’s not the water that can be pulled up out of the well, it is water that can be found at the deep, cool well of God’s grace. There the woman and all of us can find living water, water that will forever quench thirsts, a spring of water that will gush up into eternal life. The woman says to Jesus, “Give me this water!” With her we plead, “Jesus, give us this water!”

Then Jesus tells her that he knows her, he knows her life, he knows about the five husbands she’s had, and he knows about the man she is now with, who is not her husband. For too long people have read this as a judgment about the woman, calling her a loose woman, forgetting that in her culture she’s had little choice in this. Her community may be judging her as well and this may be the reason she has come to draw water in the heat of the day, so as not to encounter the others. But she lives in a culture where divorce is the man’s prerogative. Fred Craddock says she is a woman who has been passed around by men. She is not a sinner but the victim of abusive men in an abusive system. (Cherry Log Sermons, p. 50)

Jesus knows about the woman. He tells her this to say to her, “I know you. I know what your life has been like. I know how deeply thirsty you are.” And in this knowing presence of Jesus the woman feels love, authentic love, love that feels a lot like water gushing up into life. “Give me this water!”

There are lots of barriers in this story and I read the story through the lens of those barriers, specifically through the lens of offering hospitality in the presence of those barriers.

There is the gender barrier. The disciples return from town they are shocked to find Jesus talking with a woman. This is out of the norm but none of the disciples is willing to say anything about it.  We continue to live with a gender gap. I attended a training event for pastors of large churches from the Tennessee and Memphis Conferences two weeks ago. There was one woman there and all the rest were men. We have a long way to go.



We still have racial barriers as well. All the male pastors present at the training event were white men. We have a lot of work to do to break down these barriers.

There are cultural and ethnic barriers. Jesus and the woman are not all that different but their cultures had been divided by years of animosity. The woman said to him, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” Jesus said, “It’s not about mountains, it’s about worshipping in spirit and truth.” He cuts to the heart of the matter; it is about the God we  worship, not the mountain we stand on when we worship.

We had a conversation in our ministry staff meeting this week about last Sunday’s beautiful worship service with the Golden Triangle Fellowship, our members who are from Burma, Thailand, and Laos,. It was a wonderful gathering and it felt a bit like the kingdom of God in here. But we wondered if the folks from the Golden Triangle Fellowship may have felt a bit intimated about coming into the sanctuary. They seemed a little hesitant and uncertain and we wondered how we might make them feel more welcomed and at ease. Would you wonder with us how you might be a part of that barrier breaking hospitality?

In this story I see a pattern of hospitality that breaks down barriers. The pattern is set by Jesus. The first thing Jesus does is acknowledge what he has in common with the woman. They are both thirsty and Jesus needs the woman to give him water; he cannot do this by himself. The woman needs Jesus to give her water; water that she cannot fetch from the well, water that only he can provide. They are both thirsty and they both need each other.  

We spend a lot of time focusing on our differences but we need to begin with what we share in common. We are all here because we are terribly thirsty, and we desperately need each other to give us this water that comes from God. When we come to this place we need to focus less on our differences, our political, theological, cultural differences. Let us focus on our shared thirsts for God.

The second thing Jesus does is he takes the initiative to break down the barriers. Jesus could find many good reasons not to talk to this woman. He could excuse himself as being too tired, or wanting to avoid the possible conflicts the conversation with a Samaritan woman could cause. The differences between them are great. But Jesus takes the first step toward crossing the line. Jesus models barrier bursting hospitality.

Anna Carter Florence asks, “What rules is Jesus breaking to talk with us? What social conventions is he disregarding? What lines is he stepping across, in order to speak about what truly matters, and what may save our life? Human beings are, by definition, rooted in social contexts and ordered by those realities. Sometimes we let ‘the way it is’ determine what we can or are willing to see.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 2 p. 95)

But Jesus is always stepping over the barriers of customs and conventions. At one point in my life Jesus came to me, stepped over the barriers that would naturally separate us and his initiative caused me to experience love, authentic love that felt like cool, life-giving water to my parched soul.
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I hope that during these weeks of Lent we will look around and identify the barriers that separate us and follow Jesus model for us. I challenge you to sit down with someone you do not know, or possibly a person you do not think you will like. Listen and get to know that person. Look into the soul of that person and see your shared thirst for God. Let the conversation bring you together. Build a new relationship and experience something that will feel a lot like water springing up into life.

It may seem inappropriate to say it here, as deep in Lent as we can go, but the truth is, it might feel a bit like resurrection. “Lord, give us this water!”

 

Sermon transcript for March 16, 2014

How Can These Things Be?
John 3:1-6; 16-17
Belmont UMC--March 16, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Note: This sermon was preached in a combined service with our Golden Triangle Members, representing Burma, Thailand, and Laos. It was interpreted in Karen, a Burmese dialect.

Audio - MP3

Nicodemus was a leader of the Jewish community. He came to Jesus in the dark of night, searching for answers. He had witnessed the work that Jesus was doing and he was hearing the words that Jesus taught. Nicodemus was a person who felt he knew what to expect from God. He thought he knew God’s limits. He thought he knew what God would or would not do in the world.

But a teacher, named Jesus, was challenging all of Nicodemus’ ideas and beliefs. So he came to Jesus during the cover of darkness to get some answers.

Some of us recently attended an educational event in which one of the guiding rules is this sentence, “God’s middle name is surprise.” This means that God may do things we have not expected. God may indeed surprise us like God did for Nicodemus.

Jesus told Nicodemus that he had to be born again.

Nicodemus asked Jesus the logical question, “How can I be born again when I am old?” Jesus was talking about a spiritual birth. Nicodemus was thinking about a physical birth. We forget that God can surprise us because we think about physical things and not spiritual things.

Nicodemus asked, “How can these things be?”

A few years ago I listened to the story of a young man whose life had been marked by hatred and violence toward persons who did not look like him. But he had a spiritual encounter with God. And now he teaches and preaches about love and justice. He brings different groups of people together and guides them to live together in peace and to love one another. The young man’s friends look at him now and asked, “How can these things be?” “How can this man be so different?”

We find it hard to think outside the physical and see the possibilities that God brings to our lives. But Jesus said that this is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

If we had asked the congregation at Belmont 10 years ago if we would be worshipping together today, we would ask, “How can that happen?”If we had asked how friends from many cultures, friends from Thailand, Burma, Laos and many other countries would gather under in one room and worship, we would have asked, “How can that happen?” If we could have looked into the future to see us here together, we would have asked, “How can that be?”

But the Holy Spirit had another plan, God’s plan. And God used Pastor Sandy and her husband, Nick, and members of the church to fulfill God’s plan. And here we are, worshipping God in different languages. Here we are, growing in our love of each other, and learning to see things as God sees them.

Sometimes our different languages seem like a wall between us. At Christmas I watched the youth of the Golden Triangle Fellowship act out the story of the Prodigal Son. The language was not my language, but I quickly knew the story. And I was inspired by the youth and their enthusiasm for telling this familiar story of God’s love and forgiveness.

How can these things be? Because our stories are all centered in God’s story of love and forgiveness. This is the common language of all our lives.

And we are blessed when we remember what God is doing among us.

How can these things be?

The question is answered in five words of the Gospel story. The words are these, “God so loved the world. . .” “God so loved the world. . .” Do we believe those words?

Nicodemus must have started to believe them. The words changed his heart. And the wind of the Holy Spirit began to blow through his life.

We see Nicodemus again at the end of the Gospel. He is bringing spices to help prepare the body of Jesus for burial. His heart is full of God’s love. His new faith filled with imagination. Because of 5 words, “God so loved the world. . .”

Say them in your language to yourself. God so loved the world.

Feel the Holy Spirit moving in your life as well.

   

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