Sermon transcript for December 1, 2013
“Going Up To the Mountain of God”
Isaiah 2:1-5 Advent Theme: “What Isaiah Saw”
Belmont UMC—December 1, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
Let’s begin today with some thoughts about the theme of our Advent Season and that theme is “What Isaiah Saw!” First let me give credit for this theme to Barbara Lundblad. Several of us had the honor of hearing her speak in May of this year and she introduced the idea of focusing on the visions of Isaiah during Advent. You will note that the words of the doxology we are using throughout the season were written by Barbara Lundblad and the words change each week. She has given us permission to use these words.
The text today begins with these words, “The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. . .” (verse 1) It does seem odd; the idea of seeing a word, rather than hearing a word, but the word Isaiah saw is gathered up in images and visions and ones mind has to see it to capture what it means and where it is taking us.
Throughout the season you are invited to participate by photographing images that relate to the themes of each day. Those are posted on our website and are found in the Advent guides. These images can be shared on social media sites and they will help all of us to engage in spiritual reflection.
I would also encourage you to read the texts each week and reflect on them. What do you see as hear the words that Isaiah saw? Take your time. Use lectio divina, reading each passage three times, pausing and reflecting on one image between each reading. Use this practice as a respite during this season that can become hectic and frenzied. My friends, we need Advent. We need to take our time on the way to Jesus’ birth. We need to spend some time with Isaiah in order to fully appreciate what his birth means to us.
And then, as you read these texts, ponder this idea: If this is what Isaiah saw concerning God’s vision, God’s future, where do you hear God calling you, where do we hear calling us as a church. The text today invites us to follow the vision: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord. . .” (v. 3) “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” (v. 5) Are we willing to go where the visions take us?
What did Isaiah see? Isaiah saw that in God’s future there will be a mountain, a high and holy place, and all people are streaming toward it. See them making there way up the mountain, people of every nation, culture, and language—a new community being gathered there. From the mountain they are able to see what God has in store for them.
It is a place of divine instruction—the people of Isaiah’s time are in need of divine instruction and direction and tired of false teaching and false direction from their culture’s gods (sounds contemporary, doesn’t it?)
Marcus Borg suggests that one those cultural gods is individualism, the kind that that says “I am self-made!” but these images from Isaiah are images of a diverse and peaceful community moving and working together. In our culture we are tempted to climb the mountain by ourselves, go to the gift shop and buy a t-shirt that reads I CLIMBED THE MOUNTAIN OF GOD! But in God’s future it’s all about living in community. (Patheos, The Progressive Christian, blog, “The Cultural Captivity of Christianity: The Poisoning of the Church” November 19, 2013, Marcus Borg)
Even during this season we struggle to move toward God when our culture calls us to the gods the marketplace and to rampant consumerism. We are always let down by culture’s lure.
In Tennessee Williams’ play “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” the Southern patriarch Big Daddy says, “A man buys and he buys and he buys and the reason he buys is because he hopes one of his purchases will be eternal, which it never is.” (from an unreliable source: my memory)
From the mountain of God we experience God’s justice, God’s arbitration, and all people are drawn toward the mountain. “And they shall beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools and nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.”
What do with do with this beautiful image of God’s future peace when we live in a different reality? These hopeful words from Isaiah are carved into the wall outside the United Nations Building, but what do they mean to us in a present world where hundreds of thousands have been killed in Syria and central Africa? Even as I speak people are falling victim to the violence of war. In chapter 1 of Isaiah there are images of violence, bribery, desolation and trampling on the poor.
Is Isaiah speaking of something that is only in the far off future, the sweet by and by? They are images of days to come, but the invitation of Isaiah is in the present. Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord, now, come now. We pray for peace and justice in our world and we work toward peace and justice in our world now because God has invited to begin living toward God’s future.
During this Advent Season I would invite you to look for places where God’s vision for the future is becoming a reality. I follow Shane Claiborne on facebook and twitter. Shane is the author of The Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President and was the Belmont All Church Retreat leader a year or two before I arrived here. He posted photos from around the world of weapons, rifles and pistols, being refashioned as shovels and spades and used in agriculture. He posted images of women, mothers, whose children had been victims of senseless gun violence, using sledge hammers to beat pistols into spades.
Barbara Lundblad reminded us of the killing fields of Cambodia, where in 1996, 4,320 people were killed by land minds. Now dozens of programs are ridding the country of these minds and farmers can be seen in the fields where there are now rice paddies, green and lush.
She reminded us of the work of Marion Wright Edelman and The Children’s Defense Fund and their refusal to be quiet on the issue of gun violence in our country. (Lecture, Festival of Homiletics, May 2013) And a new group, Moms Demand Action, formed in response to the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, seeks sensible gun laws in our country and is unrelenting in their effort to turn weapons into iron plows or into the local police stations. These groups are living toward God’s future vision.
Paul Simpson Duke reminds us, “At St. Louis University is a small Jesuit chapel that is creatively lit. The light fixtures are made of twentieth-century cannon shells, converted. Emptied of their lethal contents, they now hold light for people to pray by. In such light we pray and live. And having laid our own weapons down, we bear witness to the promise of greater transformations in the days to come.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 4, p.7)
What did Isaiah see? What do you see? During this Advent Season look for signs of peace in the world, glimpses of God’s future. And may we together hear God calling us, “Come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!”
Sermon transcript for November 24, 2013
Thanksgiving, With a Conscience
Psalm 100; Philippians 4:4-9
Belmont UMC—November 24, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching
We knew the holidays were rushing toward us when we saw Christmas items for sale sometime before Halloween. And a little over a week ago my family began posting on Facebook the items that we would be bringing to a Thanksgiving gathering. We used to just show up with food. The truth is we bring pretty much the same thing every year anyway and we are expected to bring everyone’s favorite dishes, so the Facebook page serves as some pre-holiday internet fellowship and not much more.
I like Thanksgiving Day. I know it comes with some historical baggage that makes some of us uncomfortable. We do remember the Pilgrims who in 1621 had a larger harvest than they had expected and spent three days eating and drinking themselves silly to celebrate. Many in the Native American community see this day as a day of mourning because of the way these new settlers displaced native peoples and shifted the course of their history.
But I like coming together with family for any reason. I like the familiar foods, the fellowship, the catching up, seeing how much the little children have grown since our last visit together, and the sharing of stories around the table. And we are not there around the table to thank the Pilgrims but to thank God who loves us in spite of our flaws and failings.
As a people of God, thanksgiving and deep gratitude are in the fabric of our beings, so much so that we are invited in the scriptures to give thanks in everything, even when our mouths struggle to form the words because of hardship and calamity. This means so much more to us than simply “Count your many blessings, name them one by one.”
In a Thanksgiving sermon Peter Gomes said, “God is. We are. In spite of our fumbles and because of God’s grace we are not daunted by the troubles of this age, nor are we fearful of what is to come. We do not bless God for our wealth, our health, or our feeble wisdom. We bless God that God is, that we are, and that his promise and love shall be with us when time itself shall be no more.” (“Thanksgiving: Redeeming the Familiar,” Sermons-Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living, p. 234) We are God’s people and we are thankful people. We are blessed to be the people of this unfailing God.
We have another Thanksgiving table around which we gather. It is this table (the communion table). The thanksgiving meal we share at this table is called by at least three different names: The Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion and The Eucharist.
Calling this meal The Lord’s Supper reminds us of the meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples the night before he was crucified. It was the Passover Meal at which Jewish people prepare symbolic and meaningful foods and tell their story. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” someone asks, and then the story of liberation from slavery and hardship in Egypt is retold and the people remember the faithfulness of God and give thanks.
The name “Holy Communion” reminds us of our fellowship and kinship with all people everywhere who share in this common meal. It reminds us of the blessing of the local and global community of the faithful.
Until I was an adult I had not heard the word “Eucharist” but I like this word because it comes from the Greek word for thanksgiving. It reminds us of The Great Thanksgiving we pray before sharing in this meal. And what do we do in that prayer? We tell our story again—the story of the creating and faithful God and the specific story of one night when Jesus gathered with his disciples. Our story begins like this, “On the night in which he gave himself up for us, Jesus took bread, gave thanks to God, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples and said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body which is given for you.” And then he said, “Remember.” “Do this in remembrance of me.”
The thanksgiving/communion table in my home church has these words carved into the front of it, “In Remembrance of Me.” Remember; don’t forget! Thanksgiving is remembering the faithfulness of God.
Thankfulness and deep gratitude are transformative. They cause us to be more attentive to the world around us. I think I shared a spiritual practice that I do once in awhile. I write down three things for which I am thankful in my journal every day for several months, and they have to be different everyday. It challenges me to be thankful for simple and particular things, not the only the broad sweep of creation, of family, of health and of friends, but for the kind text message I received from an old friend late one afternoon, or the way the sunlight plays on the yellow leaves of the ginkgo tree outside my office, or the taste of good coffee on a quiet Saturday morning.
C.S. Lewis and a friend were talking about worship and gratitude as they walked in a forest with a small stream running through it. Lewis said that prayer should begin with summing up “everything we believe about the goodness and greatness of God, by thinking about creation and redemption and all the blessings of life.” But his friend, objected to this abstract approach, turned to the brook beside them and splashed his face and hands in the little waterfall, and asked, “Why not begin with this?” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, p. 116)
There is something about deep gratitude that makes us fully aware of the world around us, attentive to what God is doing and better able to hear where God is calling us.
And gratitude and thanksgiving transform us in other ways as well. As people of faith we are not able to gather around tables of thanksgiving feasts without being fully aware of those who will have little to eat. As we gather around the dining room in my parents’ home on Thursday I will be aware of tornadoes that went just north of their home last week. I will be thinking about people in Washington, Illinois who lost their homes during that same storm, and have no table to gather around this year. As I embrace my wife and am thankful for her, I think of Jimmy down the street. His wife died suddenly this summer and I need to go by and check on him again.
We may see this level of thanksgiving as a curse as much as a blessing. We cannot escape our conscience that has been enlivened by the Holy Spirit. This is not about upper middle class guilt but what the Apostle Paul refers to as having the eyes of our hearts enlightened. I like the Common English Bible version here. “I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call.” (Ephesians 1:18)
I recall a dear friend named Bea who was part of a small Bible study group I led on Wednesday nights. We had taken a break for the summer and had gladly come back together. We went around the room and shared stories from our time away, stories of adventures, trips, gardening, of time with children and grandchildren. Bea told us about a trip she had taken to the Caribbean. She said their guide took them through some of the poorest areas of Jamaica and she exclaimed, “Why would he think we would want to see all of this suffering on vacation?” And then tears formed in her eyes and rolled down her face and she said, “This summer I learned that we cannot go on vacation from our faith. Our conscience goes with us and I have not been able to get this suffering out of my mind. We’ve had long conversations at home about how we can help the poorest among us.”
Our youngest son will be home in a few days and we look forward to seeing him. Our sons have been blessed to grow up in a home where they have had many opportunities. They attended art classes, they went to summer camps, took swimming classes and piano lessons. They played soccer, basketball and lacrosse. They went on nice vacations and school field trips. We made sure they had opportunities for enrichment.
Deep gratitude for my children may have something to do with my love for ministries like Project Transformation, which provide learning and enrichment opportunities for the underserved children of our community. We have learned from Brighter Days after school program and summer program how much this enrichment means to these children, who would spend countless hours inside apartments and homes being idle and bored. I imagine that the kingdom of God looks a bit like Project Transformation where childhood illiteracy is reduced and children are equipped to learn and grow. The kingdom looks like empty inner city churches revived by the life of children who have come together for this wonderful ministry. The kingdom looks like young adults serving children and discerning where God is calling them in their lives.
It’s an accident of timing that Thanksgiving Day comes so close to Advent and Christmas. We will be making some decisions over the next weeks about purchasing gifts and how much we will participate in the consumerism of the holidays. I doubt I can talk some of you out of that, but I would invite you to think of how you will live out of deep gratitude over these weeks. Maybe this kind of real thanksgiving will allow us to see God in new and profound ways through this often hectic season. Where will this gratitude take you over the weeks ahead as we prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth?