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Sermon transcript for May 19, 2013

Belmont UMC—May 19, 2013
Heather Harriss, preaching

Audio - MP3

 

Sermon transcript for May 12, 2013

You Are My Witnesses
Luke 24:44-53
Belmont UMC—May 12, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

In Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead, the Reverend John Ames, a Congregational Church pastor, the 3rd generation of pastors in his family, writes a memoir for his son. Ames married rather late in life and he has a young son, a seven year old. Realizing that his heart condition will someday take his life, Ames sets out to write down the things he wants his son to know and remember. He shares his family history, stories of his own grandfather, a radical abolitionist and of his father, a pacifist. He shares observations about life, being fully present to all that goes on around him. He marvels at the sense of awe and beauty he experiences as he watches two young men laughing and playing around with one another on the town street—a simple expression of friendship and joy. He proclaims his desire for his son “to live long. . . and love this poor perishable world.”

What words of wisdom, memories, thoughts or words of encouragement would you like to leave behind? If you knew you were leaving this earth soon, what would you want to say to your children or your friends?

Today’s text is for Ascension Sunday. Luke offers two versions of this story: the one here and one in Acts 1. In both texts Jesus bids the disciples farewell, promises the coming of the Holy Spirit and then tells them that they are witnesses to what God has done in and through him. Through the last chapters of the Gospels Jesus begins to prepare the disciples for his departure.

An alternative text for today is from John 17; John 13-17 are considered “farewell discourses,” 5 chapters of last words, words of farewell, words that intend to prepare the disciples for Jesus’ leaving them alone. In John 17 Jesus offers this beautiful prayer for the disciples, “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (17:20-21)

For 5 long chapters Jesus bids the disciples farewell. And the disciples have questions for Jesus—they are simple questions like those of children. Imagine that Mother and Father gather their hats and coats and prepare to depart for the evening. Their children look up from their play and ask a series of predictable questions:  Where are you going? Can we come, too? Who’s going to stay with us? When will you come back?

And in these moments before leaving this earth, Jesus prays for them and tells them the things they will need to know to continue being his disciples. My understanding of these passages is quite simple. Jesus is saying, “I am leaving and you, the disciples/the church, will be the only evidence that I was here, that I lived with you, that I taught you, that I died for you and that I’m still alive. Here’s what you need to remember to get that right.”  He speaks to them about their relationship with each other and their relationship with the world.

In Luke Jesus describes the work of the disciples as the work of repentance and forgiveness. These words describe who we are as the people of God. “Repentance” implies that we are a people who have turned toward God. The Greek word for “repentance” in the New Testament (metanoia) means that we have “new minds” and we think differently about each other and about the world around us. We are the people who have embraced a new way seeing things—we have turned around and now see things as God sees them. It means that we see each person as a child of God. In each person we see hope and possibility and we hear God’s call to love each person as God loves them.

I was reading the story of Will Campbell in the newspaper last Sunday (Tennessean, May 5, 2013). Will is often called the “bootleg preacher.”  Will, a white man, was there when blacks were picketing lunch counters in Nashville, lunch counters that excluded blacks. Will was there when Dr. King was shot in Memphis; he was grieving and comforting others who grieved with him. He was there when black children entered white schools in Arkansas for the first time. Will is a prophet who believes God calls us to do things a little differently. Will believes this God calls us to love everybody. And for Will Campbell, a civil rights advocate, that means loving members of the Ku Klux Klan, as well. The Klansmen represent hatred and homegrown domestic terrorism perpetrated toward our black citizens. How can we be expected to love the Klan?

As I read some of Will’s story in the paper last week, I was struck by how high Jesus sets the bar for us. Does that mean I need to love a young man who casually set a backpack holding a bomb in the middle of crowd toward the end of the Boston Marathon? I’m going to carry that question around with me for a bit, but I think I know the answer. I know Jesus said we should love our enemies. That is indeed a radical new way of looking at the world around us. It is the repentant way of seeing things. If we loved our enemies, the world might remember that Jesus was here, teaching, leading, loving in a way that no one had experienced before.

In one church I served we used to invite people to pass the peace of Christ to one another with these words: “As forgiven and forgiving people, let us turn and pass signs of Christ’s peace among us.” The root idea of “forgive” means “letting go” of something we are holding onto tightly. We are people who forgive each other, letting go of grudges and letting go of past hurts and failures. I suspect Jesus knew his disciples, past and present, would have to learn to forgive each other in order for them to be witnesses of God’s love.

I had lunch with a friend the other day. I love this friend very much and we find much joy and grace in being together. But I know there have been times when we have had to forgive each other—it’s not as easy being my friend as one might expect. To be here with one another in this diverse community of faith, we will need to learn the spiritual practice of forgiveness, and as we do we will be witnesses of the One who forgives us and sets us free to live and serve. And maybe the world will remember that Jesus was here, teaching, leading, loving, forgiving and that he continues to do so.

My parents are here today. I grew up in a home where we didn’t sit around talking about theology. In our home we learned that faith is about something we do. We were taught to attend church where we could learn about God and grow in our understanding of who God is and what it means to live as God’s beloved children. In our home we learned that faith meant loving our neighbor, even when doing so was inconvenient or difficult. We learned, “Be kind to one another.” Faith is more than ideas; faith is action. Jesus would want his disciples to remember that.

In Luke 24 Jesus appears to the disciples who are standing around talking about the possibility of the resurrection. A couple of them claim to have seen Jesus on the way to Emmaus. Jesus appears and frightens them. He says to them, “Why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I, myself. . . . He showed them his hands and his feet.” (vv. 38-40)

Later in this chapter Jesus prepares these disciples for his departure. In a way I think he is saying, “Now you must be my hands and my feet. When people see that you believe, see how you live, how you serve, how you care for the least of these, you will be witnesses of my life, my presence, my love.” Jesus sends the disciples to the ends of the earth to be his hands and feet.

I heard the Dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School say to the graduating class this week that they are to be translators of faith into action. He used those words of St. Francis, “Preach the gospel everyday, and if necessary, use words.” Our lives must model the life of Jesus and we must be ready to go and to serve where Jesus calls us.

The world must see Jesus in us or the world will not see Jesus. Jesus said, “I’m leaving and you will be the only evidence that I have been here. You must now be my hands and my feet.”

Let us close with these words of prayer, attributed to Teresa of Avila:

God of love, help us to remember
that Christ has no body now on earth but ours,
no hands but ours, no feet but ours.
Ours are the eyes to see the needs of the world.
Ours are the hands with which to bless everyone now.
Ours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.

   

Sermon transcript for May 5, 2013

Another Vision—Setting Sail
Acts 16:9-15
Belmont UMC—May 5, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

When reading today’s text I recalled a book I read in my young adult years in which the author kept referring to the Christian life as The Great Adventure. I like the metaphor, and it is certainly applicable to many of these stories from Acts. It’s obvious that the early followers of Jesus began to respond to the resurrection of Jesus by living out this great adventure. Each day was a new experience and a new revelation. God was at work forming the community of followers called the church.

There are several things that are unique about this adventure. The first and most important is that it is not our adventure—it is God’s adventure. In the book of Acts it is the Spirit that is leading and guiding the followers of Jesus. In last week’s text it was the Spirit that gave Peter a vision that opened his eyes to a new way of seeing the world. The Spirit led him to move beyond the comfort of his well defined circle of Jewish followers. He saw God at work among the Gentiles in the very same way God had blessed the Jews. It was the Spirit led vision that changed the course of Christian history. You and I might not be here if Peter had not been opened to that vision.

In Acts we see Paul and the other apostles responding to the leading of the Spirit. At one point the Spirit stops them from going one place they had intended to go and redirects them. In the Book of Acts God is calling the shots. The Spirit is leading and making things happen. In today’s text Paul has a vision in which he sees a man from Macedonia pleading, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Paul responds to the vision by setting sail.

I like to know what is going to happen—what is predictable. I begin my day by making a list—you’ve heard about my list making. But I often look at that list and say, “God, that’s what I have planned for the day. What’s on your list? Make me open to your leading.” My mother always says, “You never know what is going to happen when you wake up in the morning.” That’s true of this great adventure we call the Christian life.

Some time ago I was part of the leadership team for a clergy retreat. I had several responsibilities—nothing complicated. One of the things I was asked to do was lead a hike during the free time. I had started to regret the commitment. I wanted that time to myself for some solitude and quiet. I was pleased when it started raining that morning. But by the time of the hike the rain had stopped. So I went to the gathering place hoping no one would show up. Two clergy were there waiting for me and we set out. Not long into our hike I realized that I was hiking with two very wounded persons and they began to pour out their pain and struggles to me. I thought, “God, I do not want to be on this hike with these people.” But that sometimes annoying sacred voice in my mind said, “You are exactly where you are supposed to be. Please pay attention.” At the end of our hike we circled up in prayer and support of one another and I have continued to be in contact with these wounded fellow travelers. I keep being reminded that it’s not about my plan; it’s about God’s plan.

We have been in a period of prayer and discernment at Belmont for some time now and we hope that process will lead us to a strategic plan for the church. But let’s remember that it must be God’s strategic plan, not ours, and we would not want it any other way.    

To experience this adventure we must be ready to respond when God calls, we must be ready to go where the Spirit leads. Like Paul we must be prepared to set sail. Douglas Steere wrote, “The wind of God is always blowing but we must hoist our sails.” (I’m indebted to Steve Bryant for this quote.)

Another distinctive of this adventure is that we will encounter many special friends along the way. These new friends will enrich and bless our lives. Because of Paul’s obedience to the Spirit he meets a woman named Lydia. Lydia is described as a “God worshipper. . . . and a dealer in purple cloth.” She is a business woman, dealing with the elite class of people in Philippi, who were allowed to wear the color purple. She was a Gentile who was attracted to Judaism and interested in what Paul has to say. She eagerly listens to Paul and then asks to be baptized. It is not likely that this Pharisee turned Christ follower would have sat and talked with women under any other circumstance, but following the Spirit’s call takes us to surprising places and to surprising encounters with the people God puts in front of us.

Look around this place and give thanks for those you have met because you allowed the Spirit to lead your life. I could share my faith story in the context of those persons whom I have met along the way--lay and clergy, saints of God, who have loved me, sometimes against all odds, and who have taught me, inspired me, and held me accountable to be a better human being, a better pastor, a better friend, a better husband and father, than I could have ever been without them. This was not on my radar when I followed the call of God into ministry. I was thinking of what I would do for others but more often than not I am on the receiving end of great blessing because these surprising encounters with God’s people. Who are some of the people you have met because you have set out on this adventure called the Christian life?

On this adventure we will experience transformation. We will experience our ongoing transformation and the miraculous transformation of others. Because those early Christ followers yielded themselves to the Spirit’s leading they were witnesses to life changing events. Lydia would not only be baptized but would offer her home as a place of hospitality. And it is likely that Lydia’s faith and home were the centers of a new movement of God in Philippi.

I had learned of Andy’s illness and hospitalization as his parents left church on Sunday morning. I didn’t know him but I felt compelled to visit him anyway. On Monday I tentatively knocked on his hospital room door and introduced myself to him. He welcomed me into his room, into his life and into his journey with cancer. Months later he would stand in front of our church, where he and his family had become involved, and he would say that my visit was the beginning of an incredible life transformation. I was surprised by his words because I was, and am, pretty sure it was the other way around.

I suspect that the Apostle Paul felt much the same way with his encounter with Lydia. We keep learning how important it is to follow the Spirit’s lead and every time we do we are once again surprise by where God takes us, who we meet along the way, and what incredible transformations take place in us and in others.


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

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

 

Sermon transcript for April 28, 2013

Another Kind of Circle
Acts 11:1-18
Belmont UMC—April 24, 2013
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

I was at a retreat years ago that involved a lot of small group discussion and small group activities. I don’t recall the theme of the retreat but I do recall that the process was challenging for someone who is a bit introverted. Our leader asked our group of about 10 to form a circle and we dutifully stood in a circle. She then said, “Form another kind of circle.” We looked at each other and shrugged and then someone decided that we could hold hands in a circle. The leader instructed, “Now form another kind of circle.” More shrugs until we decided to raise our joined hands in the air. The leader said again, “Now form another kind of circle.” All of us looked annoyed and then we sort squatted down in our circle. Then the leader said (you guessed it), “Form another kind of circle.” Someone in the group suggested that we face sideways so we turned like we were in a single line around the circle. The annoying leader said, “Form another kind of circle.” We gave up!

Our leader noted that another kind of circle would be one that faces outward. She noted that we rarely think of circles that face outward. We are comfortable in circles that face inward but outward facing circles take us out of our comfort zones. (She could have told us that instead of having us do this ridiculous and embarrassing exercise.) She noted that this is a metaphor for the church—the church is a circle of people that sometimes faces inward but is always challenged when asked to face outward. We are comfortable with the call to worship of the service, but the sending forth at the end is challenging for us. We are comfortable with the familiar and expected but out there we will encounter the unfamiliar and unexpected.

As we grow in our understanding of Jesus, we know that Jesus can be quite comforting at times. Jesus makes us feel at home in his presence and in the presence of his people. Jesus can give us the Holy Spirit and warm our hearts. Jesus can still the storms of our lives and make us feel safe. Jesus can calm our fears and give us peace that we cannot find anywhere else.

And as we grow in our understanding of Jesus, we know that Jesus can make us quite uncomfortable. Jesus can ask us to love and feed our enemies. Jesus can ask us to forgive those who have wronged us. Jesus can challenge our prejudices and our narrow, preconceived notions that we cling to so dearly. Jesus can ask us to welcome the outcast at our table. Jesus can ask us to turn and look outward into our community and world, look carefully and passionately at those places where people are hurting and forgotten. Jesus can ask us to look into the face of human suffering and we would rather not.

We like to think of ourselves being in the tight and secure circle of Jesus. In John 10 Jesus speaks of the sheepfold, an encircled and safe place where the shepherd would gather the sheep for the night, safe from predators. It’s a beautiful and idyllic scene and it makes us feel good to read it. We like the idea of being gathered in a safe circle with others who are much like us. But a few verses later Jesus throws these words into our peaceful circle. “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.” His words create discomfort and we wonder who these other sheep are.

Our text today is quite surprising. Peter has a vision from God that takes him out of his comfort zone and causes him to cross well loved boundaries, and in doing so, he witnesses this God of wide compassion at work. Few boundaries were more rigid than the boundaries between Jews and Gentiles. Through centuries of persecution, exile, and difficulty the Jewish people had maintained their unique identity as Israel by carefully distinguishing themselves as people of the covenant and their survival had depended on these boundaries. Peter was in this tight circle of Jewish people. Peter had been well schooled in the law and he knew that Gentiles and Jews did not find common ground. One of the big questions of the early church was whether Gentiles must convert to Judaism before being welcomed into this new gathering of Jewish Jesus followers.

Peter has a vision from God in which he sees a sheet being let down from heaven and in the sheet are all kinds of animals—foods that for the Jewish people were clean and unclean, acceptable and unacceptable foods—all mixed together. Peter hears God say, “Rise up and prepare a meal for yourself.” Peter replies, “Lord, I’ve never violated the Jewish dietary laws.” And God said, “Nothing I have made is unclean.” The vision is repeated 3 times. Peter experiences everything in threes. Peter did not understand the vision but he is called to go to the house of a Gentile where the Holy Spirit falls on the Gentile people just as it had on Jews. Peter realizes that the vision is not about clean and unclean food, but supposedly “clean” and “unclean people” and Peter has been a witness to the love of God which knows no boundaries. God is doing something new!

Peter is called before the church council to explain why he crossed this boundary. He doesn’t try to explain it. But he tells them about a vision from God and about seeing this vision revealed in the midst of Gentiles. This is a miracle! Every time the church obeys the vision of God, miracles happen. Every time the church obeys God’s call to go outside the comfort zone, a miracle happens. Every time hospitality is extended to a stranger, a miracle happens. Every time we welcome someone new to our table, a miracle happens.

If we turn our circle outward and look at the community, what do we see? We were told recently that one in five households in and around our church will have someone who has a disability. We are told that these families do not always feel welcomed in churches. They face many other hardships and disappointments. We have already come to expect a close encounter with God when we welcome and serve alongside these special children of God.

What do we see when we look out into our community? We see homeless neighbors who are in need of hospitality and dignity. We see the working poor who do their best but cannot make ends meet. Many of them are one check away from losing their homes or one car repair away from disaster.

I was recalling a visit we had with a couple who needed help with one of their utility bills. They had stopped by the church and as they were leaving they asked to see the sanctuary. I brought into this beautiful space and they stood in awe and wonder. The woman said to me, “I would love to come here and worship sometime but I know I cannot.”

I asked, “Why?” Her answer was, “My clothes. I don’t have clothes good enough for this place.” I assured her that we wear all kinds of things on Sunday but she was not convinced. Some of God’s children will not feel comfortable setting foot in this church so this church will have to turn outward and go out to them.

What boundaries is God calling us to cross? As we look outside our walls we see folks from the Edgehill community. We see the effects of gentrification as properties are being developed and the housing projects are becoming an island of poverty. We see food deserts where the poor are not within walking distance of groceries and healthy foods.

As we look outward, what boundaries do we see? What boundaries is God calling us to cross?

During the winter months a number of us participated in an interfaith study. I found myself once again among new friends from Congregation Micah and the Islamic Center on 12the Avenue South. During our last gathering I found myself sitting between a very animated Rabbi Flip Rice and an equally animated Imam Mohammed, each talking passionately about their love for God and their spiritual practices. In the midst of this gathering of Christians, Muslims, and Jews, all who love God and who have come to love each other deeply, I suddenly felt my heart leap with gladness that these barriers were coming down. God was smiling on us gathered there.

We spend a lot of energy protecting our neat circles of comfort and safety but if we truly want to experience God we may have turn around and look outward. We may have to move out of our comfort zones. We may have to cross some well loved boundaries. We may have to be courageous with love.

I’ve been reading sermons by Peter Story in his book, With God in the Crucible.
The sermons are set in the historical context during the rise and fall of apartheid in South Africa. Peter reminds us of the protest of children and youth that began on June 16, 1976. They staged a nonviolent protest for having to use the hated Afrikaans language in their schools, and the protest took police and soldiers by surprise. Many children and youth were shot to death that day and in the coming days. Violence broke out in Johannesburg. It was the beginning of the end of apartheid.

Peter told the story of white Afrikaner social worker who was surrounded by an angry mob and rescued by a black pastor’s wife. The black woman brought the white woman into the safe shelter of her home, even though the woman was her enemy and even though she took a great risk to do it. Why did she cross this well defined boundary? Peter said, “Hers was an act of courageous love—given the role of the Afrikaans in all this strife—also an act of magnanimous grace. She incarnated our conviction that in Christ the dividing wall cannot stand.” (p. 38) In the midst of polarizing violence and racial separation, there were glimpses of God at work, breaking down the barriers of separation, extending those sacred arms across the great divides.

Our circle we call the church is supposed to face outward to see the world in need and to expose the barriers and boundaries that threaten to divide us. God is calling us out of our comfort zones and into the world.

Take a moment to close your eyes and allow your mind to see outside these walls. Picture the neighborhoods around us. Picture the streets you drove on to get here this morning. Where are the places of need? Where are the boundaries you are afraid to cross? Who are the persons or groups of people you have been afraid to know or unwilling to know? Where do you hear God calling you?

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

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

   

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