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Sermon transcript for March 24, 2013

Holy Week—Keeping Our Distance
March 24, 2013—Palm Sunday
Belmont UMC--Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

We have been on a meaningful journey through Lent and the journey has brought us here today and to the beginning of Holy Week. How do we prepare ourselves for the week ahead of us? I suspect that many of us approach this week with a bit of reluctance and that would be understandable. The story of Holy Week is a story that is difficult to hear. We make it prettier with our worship settings, but that doesn’t change the harsh reality of it. Somewhere in her writing Annie Dillard notes that people who go to church should wear crash helmets. Holy Week may be a crash helmet kind of week.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes that we approach the story of Holy Week, especially the story of Good Friday like we approach a wreck on the highway. We see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, we slow down, we gaze from the safety of our cars, we may offer a prayer for the victims, and we move on. She writes, “Today the wreck is right here, and we have all decided to pull over. For a little while or a long while, each of us had decided to put aside whatever it was we were supposed to be doing in order to see what has happened here.” (Home By Another Way, “The Voice of Love” p. 83)

The story of Holy Week is the story of the human condition. It is a story of things like corrupted power, betrayal, denial, abandonment, systemic evil, oppressive governments, hatred, senseless violence, deep grief and fear. On Thursday we will gather here for a beautiful and meaningful worship service. We will wash feet, light candles and share the sacrament together and we’ll be tempted to forget how horribly frightening that night was for Jesus and the Jesus followers.

Holy Week reminds us of the ethical dilemma of capital punishment. (United Methodists do not support capital punishment.) I once invited our friend Harmon Wray to lead a combined Sunday School Class on the issue of capital punishment. He offered a list of reasons why we should oppose it and one those reasons was that people are sometimes wrongly convicted. One of my church folks challenged him, saying, “You people always say that, but you never give us any examples to prove it. Name one person who was put to death wrongly.” Harmon was quick with his response, “The first name that comes to mind is Jesus, The Christ.” The discussion ended.

Holy Week is a time for the disciples to come to terms with who Jesus really is and what discipleship means. On the way to Jerusalem James and John asked Jesus for a place of prominence in his coming kingdom. They did not know the irony of their request. Jesus answered them with a question, “Can you drink from the cup I am going to drink?” He was speaking of his death. They wanted power, prestige and influence but Jesus was offering servanthood, sacrifice and suffering. The disciples were not fully prepared for the harsh reality that awaited them in Jerusalem and neither are we.

We want to follow you, Jesus, but we do not want to drink from that cup. We will stand back here, keeping our distance, back behind the yellow tape that separates the onlookers from the reality.

In the readings for the passion narrative, Luke tells us that “women stood at a distance, watching things.’ The Greek word, makron, literally means “not too close.” Watching what was happening, any rational person would keep her distance.

Luke tells us that Peter, who vowed to follow Jesus no matter what, “followed Jesus at a distance” after Jesus’ arrest. He stood by a fire and warmed himself and cowered as he watched Jesus being taken away. Three times he denied knowing Jesus. Peter was afraid but some of the other disciples had fled in fear.

I sometimes see myself standing there by the fire with Peter, keeping my distance, not getting too close to the events of Holy Week. We keep our distance when the call of discipleship is too demanding. We keep our distance when we have to take a difficult stand because of our faith. We keep our distance when we are called to do the uncomfortable work of caring for the poor and marginalized. We keep our distance when asked to welcome strangers and those who are not welcomed anywhere else.

We keep our distance but God does not!

That is the good news. On this Palm Sunday we celebrate Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and we are celebrating the God who does not keep us at a distance, but enters completely into our human world with all of its ugliness and reality.  

We think of Christmas as the time of celebrating the incarnation, when God came to live among us in Jesus Christ, in the flesh, but Holy Week seems to be the fullest expression of what incarnation means. Holy Week is not only about violence, fear, and grief, but it is about great hope for the world. And the hope of Holy Week is found in this God who enters fully into our lives, into our suffering, our troubles, into our human reality, event when that reality is an ugly reality. In the garden the night of his arrest, Jesus prays for guidance, and what Jesus hears is that God wants him to fulfill the work of the incarnation and walk, all in, into our human world. He does this knowing the consequences.

And in this God we see the model for our work in the world. As we gather here in the comfort and safety of this space, among our friends in faith, we know that God is calling us to do continue the work of taking the love of God out into the world that awaits us. We cannot confine God inside these walls.

Bishop McAlilly was with us last week. He asked the members of our Administrative Board, “If your church disappeared, who would miss it?” He wasn’t talking about us here in this place, but who, in the community and the world, would miss Belmont? The answer to that question has everything to do with how we understand this work of taking God’s love into our world, even when that world troubling, even when we risk our comfort and safety to do it.

Bishop Joe Pennel was the pastor here for ten years but he served in Memphis before coming to Belmont UMC. He was a pastor in Memphis when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. The morning after the shooting The Commercial Appeal urgently called the clergy of the city to a meeting.

Joe wrote of this experience, “Pastors representing every racial, cultural, and educational level in the city gathered for a mass meeting. . . . Reverend James Lawson, a friend of Dr. King’s and an effective pastor in South Memphis, read the Old Testament lesson. The local Greek Orthodox priest read from the New Testament and symbolically kissed the feet of Reverend Lawson. Reverend Frank McRae, a courageous leader in the United Methodist Church, spoke about hope in the midst of despair.”

“After a session of Bible study, prayer and speaking the clergy decided to march en masse to the office of the mayor, as a symbol of love and reconciliation. We wanted the Mayor to reconsider his opposition to the striking sanitation workers as a symbol of repentance and love.”

“After leaving the sanctuary, we formed ourselves in lines two abreast and started walking toward the city hall. Just before we completed one block of our march, a young deacon from St. Mary’s ran back into the church brought out the processional cross which was commonly used on Sunday morning for the worship service. With humility and yet boldness, he put himself at the head of the processional now aimed at the city’s seat of power. As we walked, television cameras descended upon us. . . .

“When our journey was about half completed, an older woman started yelling from a second floor apartment window. . . . As I drew closer to her flowerboxed window, I could hear the anger in her shrill voice: “The cross belongs in the church! The cross belongs in the church! I am a member of St. Mary’s. Take the cross back to the church where it belongs!” (The Whisper of Christmas, pp. 113-114)

If we learn anything from Holy Week, it must be this: the cross cannot be kept in the church. “For God so loved the world, that God gave God’s only son.” He didn’t say, “For God so loved the Methodists, the Belmonters.”

I first read the following words of George Macleod, founder of the Iona Community, when I was 18 years old and they spoke to me of what my call to ministry must look like. I’ve shared them before and they are words that will be familiar to many of you.

I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the marketplace, as well as on the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a high cross between two thieves: on a town garbage heap; at a crossroad so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew, in Latin and in Greek. . . . At the kind of place where sinners talk smut, and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died and that is what he died about. And that is where church (people) ought to be and what church (people) ought to be about.”

Reflection: Now I invite you to a time of silent reflection. Allow your imagination to take you somewhere outside these walls. See the places where the message of God’s love is needed. Where do you hear God calling you?


Sermon transcript for March 17, 2013

Bishop Bill McAlilly preaching
Belmont UMC—March 17, 2013

Audio - MP3


Sermon transcript for March 10, 2013

Another Prodigal Child, Turning Toward Home
Luke 15:1-3; 11b-32
Belmont UMC—March 10, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

I’ve often said that if we only had the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Prodigal Son as sacred texts, we would have a lot. We would enough to keep us engaged in our faith for a life time.

The Parable is a simple and beautiful story of two sons. The youngest son foolishly asks for his share of the estate and heads off to a far land, where he squanders the money on reckless living. “Prodigal” means “wasteful or reckless.” So he hires himself to a pig farm where he spends the day feeding hogs. He is poor and hungry and he comes to that “turning home” moment when he realizes that the servants on his father’s land have it better. In fact, even the pigs are eating better than he is. So he decides to go home, and tell his father how sorry he is and ask to be a hired hand on his father’s farm.

He makes his way home and to his surprise, his father sees him in the distance and runs to him and put his arms around him and kisses him. This is such a beautiful scene. There is a big party for the son who has returned. No expense is spared. He gets a new ring, new shoes, and they kill the fatted calf and celebrate.

The older son, the one who has stayed home and worked on the farm and been faithful to his father, comes home from the fields to hear the sound of music and laughter coming from the house. He asks a servant, “What’s going on?” The servant tells him about his brother’s return and the party to celebrate his homecoming. This makes him furious with resentment and he refuses to go in the house. So the father goes out to meet the older son and the father says to the son, “You are always with me and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate the return of your younger brother, whom we feared was dead but now he is alive and home again.”

Reading this parable again took me down a new path and one that I traveled with some reluctance. As this sermon played out in my head over the last two weeks, it convicted me of some things that I would have rather avoided.

I kept remembering a conversation I had one night at Room in the Inn. Room in the Inn is a ministry of churches in the Nashville area to homeless folks in our community. During the coldest nights, from November to March, these guests are welcomed into churches to be fed and housed for a night. They are given dinner and breakfast and sack lunch to take with him. In most settings they have an opportunity to get a shower and to sleep on clean sheets on mattresses and cots. We share in this ministry every Friday night at Belmont.

Jimmy was a frequent guest at Room in the Inn and I talked with him several times. He was a young man with a gentle spirit and a big smile and I couldn’t imagine how he could have become homeless. So one night I asked him to tell me his story. He said he graduated from High School and his parents offered him money to go a state college, but he wanted to wait a year. During that year he floundered around, wound up in some bad company, drank too much and wound up owing some questionable characters a lot of money. He was afraid and confused so one day he stole a check from his parents’ checkbook, wrote himself a check for several thousand dollars and forged his father’s signature on it. He packed a bag, loaded it into his old car and cashed the check on the way out of town.

He wound up in St. Louis, where he quickly went through the money he brought with him. He worked a little but never made enough to keep up. After his car died, and he couldn’t afford to have it fixed, he abandoned it and wound up on the streets with a few belongings and a sleeping bag. He was a miserable but he didn’t know what else to do. One night several men attacked him while he was sleeping. They beat him and took his belongings. A police officer found Jimmy and took him to the emergency room. He stayed in the hospital for several days.

While in the hospital, he was visited by an advocate for the homeless. The advocate convinced him to call home, ask for forgiveness and hope to be welcomed back. He would make that call and offer to come home, go to work, pay back the money he stole, and try to start over. He said, “I still recall that night of the phone call. My Dad picked up the phone but I was sure my mother was listening in. I cried and told him I was sorry and I wanted to come home. There was a long pause and then my Dad, ‘No, Son. We can’t welcome you home. After what you did to us, which was such a betrayal of trust, you can not come home.’” His father hung up the phone. There would be no homecoming, no celebration, no fatted calf, and no happy ending. What if you can’t go home? Where do you go if you cannot go home?

I was asked to preside at a funeral several years ago. I did not know the man who had died--he was an inactive church member. So I met with his 3 children, 2 sons and a daughter, to plan the funeral. After the service that Saturday I went out to my car to get in the line of cars heading to the gravesite. A young man, whose face was red from tears, came up to me, touched my arm to get my attention and said, “Pastor, did they tell you about me? Did they even mention me?” I did not understand what he meant and I responded, “I’m at a disadvantage here. What do you mean?” He replied, “I was his son, too. Did they tell you about me? I’m the son who was disowned and disinherited?” I asked him if he was going to the gravesite and he indicated that he was. I offered to talk with him after the burial.

After the burial the young man and I walked over to a shade tree and he began to share this story, “I’ve always known I was a gay, but in my mid twenties I finally got up the courage to go home and tell my Father this truth about myself. I knew this would be difficult news for him, but I did not realize how hard it would be and I did not anticipate his anger.” His response was this, ‘If you are going to do this, you are not going to be my son. And he asked to leave and never come back.’ I haven’t seen my father or any of my family since that time—until today.” After the story he told, I was surprised he came to the funeral at all. Where do you go when you cannot go home?

He continued by telling me that he was an architect and lived on the east coast. He said, “I knew I wanted to be an architect when I was sitting in Belmont UMC on Sunday mornings. Bored with the sermon, I would draw pictures of the columns and arches and coffered ceiling on the back of my bulletin. I would love to come to church tomorrow if we have time, but I understand Methodists don’t welcome people like me.”

I assured him that he would be welcomed at our church. I told him about our new building that won an architectural award. “Come and look for me. I’ll give you a tour.” He did not come to church the next day and I never heard from him again.

Imagine you have been living in a refugee camp in Burma for 3 years and now you are on a plane to a place called Nashville, Tennessee, a place where everything will be new and different—the language, the food, the housing, the schools, everything. But all you can think about is this, “I’m leaving my country and I’ll probably never be able to go home again.”

Where do you go when you can not go home? When I was younger, people would ask, “Where is your church home?” That may be a Southernism, and I don’t hear that much anymore. But I like the idea of home being a metaphor for church. Where do you go when you can’t go home? Is it possible that you might make your home here with us, among the people of God at Belmont?

When I read this story this week, I read it through the lens of hospitality. We use the term “Radical Hospitality” around here. This has emerged as a major theme in our discernment process, sometimes by those who think we do this well, sometimes by others who are concerned that we are not doing well enough. I prefer the words “genuine hospitality” or “authentic hospitality,” and this kind of hospitality always looks radical to the world, but to Jesus it just looks normal. And we are the Jesus People so it should look normal to us as well.

Looking at this story through the lens of hospitality we ask the question, “Who are we in this story?” Are we the older brother? If you call home in the middle of the night and want a bus ticket back to Nashville and the older brother picks up, you’re not coming home. He’ll tell you that you are no longer welcomed.

Are we the father in this story? Are we willing to be on the watch for those who need a home, are we willing to love them and run out to them with open our arms, embrace them and welcome them in? This kind of hospitality means more than a word of welcome, mixed with a little suspicion or resentment; it means an all embracing, glad hearted welcome, the kind that makes us want to throw a party.

Where do you go when you can no longer go home? You can come and make your home with us! May it be so!

Today, I invite you to a time of quiet reflection. Pray for Belmont’s ministry of hospitality. Pray for someone who needs the church to be a home for her/him.


Sermon transcript for March 3, 2013

The Tenacity of Grace
Luke 13:1-9
Belmont UMC—March 3, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

I first met Tom when he started coming to church with his girlfriend. After they were engaged he and his fiancé began coming for premarital counseling. Tom was a friendly guy. He owned a small fencing company so he was strong and ruddy from being outdoors all the time and engaged in physical labor. After we began the counseling sessions he would often call me and asked if he could stop by for conversation. He’d come in my office at the end of the day, covered in dirt and mud, go in the washroom off my office, clean up and change into a clean T-shirt. I enjoyed those conversations but I always felt he was holding back something.

I learned that Tom’s mother had died when he was in middle school and I knew that event was a turning point for him. He hadn’t attended church since his mother died and he was a little surprised by the new experience. What surprised him most was how kind everyone was to him. The older ladies who sat near him and his fiancé on Sunday mornings always welcomed him and told him how glad they were to see him. They would give him gentle hugs during passing the peace. Those embraces reminded him of his mother.

Tom decided he wanted to be baptized and join the church so we set a date and we talked through several sessions about the meaning of baptism. On the Saturday night before his baptism he called me. He was obviously upset and I had difficulty understanding what he was saying; he was crying. I said, “Tom, I’m worried about you. Meet me at the office in half an hour.” I drove to the church and waited for him in my office. He burst through the door, fell on his knees and wept. I’d never seen a person cry with that much intensity. I knelt down beside him and put my arm on his shoulder and waited until he could talk. He kept saying over and over again, “I can’t be baptized; I’m not good enough.”

Over the next hour Tom poured out his story. When his mother died, his father started drinking a lot, and when he was drunk he became violent and beat Tom and his little brother. Tom said that the worst part was not the beating but what his father said to him. He told him, “You are worthless. You’ll never amount to anything.” (I’m cleaning the actual language quite a bit for church.)

After the first beating, Tom ran to a friend’s house. His friend helped wipe the blood off Tom’s face and then offered him a joint of marijuana. The drug helped ease his pain. After that Tom turned to marijuana and other drugs to ease the emotional pain of his life. His father quit beating him when Tom was big enough to fight back, but he kept using drugs. Every time he used drugs, he could hear his father telling him how worthless he was.  Tom said, “I’ve been clean for a year now, but you can see I’m not baptism worthy. I’m not worth anything and I’ve always known it.”

Over the next hour I talked with Tom about baptism as a sign that he is a child of God; that God had loved him from the beginning of his life and that God’s love gives him and all of us worth. It is this love that redeems us. I told him that his father had been wrong and his baptism would be a new beginning and a new way of seeing the world and seeing himself in it.

I did not give him the option of backing out of the baptism. The next day standing with him at the chancel and beside the baptism font, we both cried through the whole service. No one in the congregation knew what the tears were for, but I think I understood the power of baptismal water more that day than ever before.

Jesus told a parable about a fig tree, a fig tree that did not bear fruit. Every year for three years, the vineyard owner came looking for fruit on that tree and found none. The vineyard owner said, “It’s worthless, cut it down. It’s wasting soil. Cut it down.” But the gardener said, “Give it some time. I’ll cultivate around it and add some manure/fertilizer. Give it another chance.”

I’m not sure I’d be as patient as the gardener, but God is. God does not give up on God’s children. God is patient and waits for us to find our way to life and fruitfulness. There is nothing more tenacious than the grace of God. Last summer I threw a “dead” plant in the compost pile, a plant I’d given up on and finally yanked it out of the garden along with some weeds. In late summer I was surprised to find it sprouting in the pile of other dead leaves so I pulled it our and repotted it and it looks better than ever.

Who are we in this story? We may be the gardener who like God tends to the fruitless ones with love and patience until they come around and begin to live into their identity as fig trees, that is, as children of God. Transformations don’t take place over night and we need the time and patience that God gives us.

In the text some folks come to Jesus and ask him a hypothetical question. Sometimes people asked Jesus these questions to distract him or to trap him into saying something that sounded blasphemous. Jesus always had a way of turning the question back on the interrogator. He says it’s really about repentance. Repentance is about a complete new way of thinking and a new way of being in the world.

Who are we in this story? We may be the manure. Sorry if that offends anyone. We are to be the rich environment of love and hope that comes around another person and allows him/her space to come to know who and whose they are. Like those older ladies who greeted Tom with gladness each week and hugged him during Passing the Peace. They were doing what came natural to them and they never realized that their love was creating an environment of acceptance and care, a rich soil for his transformation. They created an environment for repentance to happen in his life, repentance that allowed him to see things differently, to see himself as a child of God.

We have lots of baptisms here at Belmont and that’s a sign of our vitality. But we must not let the language of the baptismal liturgy grow stale. This is our promise to each baptized person. “We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.” These words are full of grace and promise. At Belmont we begin to surround persons with love and forgiveness long before they make it to the Baptismal font.

Reflection question: Think of someone who needs you to provide a rich environment of grace for them. Picture them in your mind. Pray for them and carry them in prayer throughout this holy season.



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