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Sermon transcript for February 23, 2014

Who are your people?
1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23
Belmont UMC—February 23, 2014
Pam Hawkins, preaching

Audio - MP3

“Who are your people, child?” the woman asked as she poured me a glass of ice-cold lemonade. I was sitting with a passel of other hot, sweaty children on the stoop of the woman’s front porch in Columbus, Georgia. “The Cunninghams on Eberhart,” I replied, to which she said, “Hmm, Annie Tom and Leon” before going back inside, seeming satisfied with my answer. I was about seven years old at the time, and during that long summer learned that belonging to my grandparents was a good thing – edged with privileges of new playmates, trips to the community pool, and fresh lemonade. Knowing to whom I belonged was good.

But before I turned nine, I learned something else about belonging that, to this day, is also imprinted on my heart.

Because of my father’s work, we moved overseas the year I was to begin third grade and one day, as part of getting to know each other at my new school, our teacher asked my classmates what church we each belonged to. One by one, some of the more confident children named things like “Baptist,” “Quaker,” and “Catholic.” And when I finally got the nerve to speak up, I said – “Christian.”

I still remember the giggling and snickering that made my whole body blush in embarrassment when I gave my answer. Even the teacher laughed as she said something like, “we’re all Christian. Don’t you know what church you belong to?” But the fact was, I didn’t. For whatever reason – ignorance or forgetfulness – I could not remember “Methodist” for the life of me.

I knew I was a Christian, but that I was a certain kind of Christian had not yet invaded my religious identity. At the age of eight, I didn’t yet know that what Christian faction I belonged to would matter to other people. But on that day I had my first painful lesson that being a Christian for one person is not the same thing as being a Christian to another.

When Paul writes the letter from which we read today, he too is facing a painful lesson about Christian divisions. Even though the new Christian community at Corinth is still wet behind the ears, having been founded by Paul just a few years before this letter is written, word had already spread that the once-enthusiastic community of Christ-followers is beginning to bicker and compete within itself about who are the better and “real” Christians.

Although many factors contribute to the growing fractures in the young Corinthian church, one of the striking obstacles to unity is rooted in their diversity. Corinth was an urban center where wealth and poverty, free persons and slaves, Jews and Gentiles, refugees and locals made up strands of the city’s fabric.  Consequently, the church too was made up of diverse ranks – uneducated poor, slaves, those who had won their freedom, patrons, clients, and at least a few community leaders. And each baptized member brought into the church different and often competing cultural biases and social experiences. It would take time, patience, and love to bring all hearts and minds together in the ways of Christ - a truth we are still learning today.

Paul knows this – and he knows – personally – that shedding old ways, prejudices, and beliefs in order to take on the “mind of Christ” is not easy for anyone. For the people of Corinth it means that they can no longer equate poverty with inferiority. It means that the socially accepted practice of boasting at the expense of a neighbor must stop, and that shaming and ridiculing “undesirables” – a politically correct way of Corinthian life at the time – can have no place in the church. But Paul also knows that the roots of social, cultural, and political “belonging” run deep in the veins of every human being – so deep that only Christ can clear them for new life to flow.

Teach Christ, follow Christ, belong to Christ, Paul preaches and the church begins to flourish and grow. Then when the time comes for Paul to leave Corinth for Ephesus, he leaves it in the hands other committed, trusted preachers and teachers, including Apollos, Cephas, and Chloe, and he stays in touch through letters, some of which – like our reading today – remain for us to hear.

But the news from Corinth, once good, doesn’t stay good for long. Rumors of problems begin to spread – members of the church are returning to ways that are not Christ-like. Paul hears that the new Christians are choosing sides about which preacher is better, whose baptism is real, and whose spiritual gifts are most important. Cliques in the church are sprouting over worship and Holy Communion, church finances and beliefs. Devotion to Christ is being overgrown by devotion to favored church leaders, and even Paul’s ministry is becoming suspect, criticized, and set aside as less than stellar.

Sisters and brothers, this letter may be old, but the message has no expiration date, for we also know how hard it is to follow Christ together – to hold in holy tension, perspective, and love what can divide us, if we let it  – our cultural biases, our social experiences, our interpretation of scripture, our political perspectives.

What was happening in Paul’s day is still happening in ours. One group in the church pits itself against another, both claiming to be the more faithful interpreter of Word and tradition. Threats to follow one leader over another cast a shadow of separation over a once united faith community. One set of church members ostracize another because of deeply held convictions that differ so much, neither group can find a way to listen to the other. Sadly, we know, from first-hand exposure that factions, cliques, and differing opinions can and do exist within the church – and we know that harm is often the result if not held up to the forgiving light of Christ.

And I believe that we know as well, in the depth of our souls, that when one of us is harmed by the divisive words or actions of another, all of us are harmed. And all of us have been on both sides of such harm – adding to it and bearing under it.

Friends, if we do not place Christ at our center, as the compass point of our life together, then the gift of our differences, of our diversity, can become the source of pain and disunity. This is what Paul is writing about to the church. What makes life together possible in the church - with all of our unique, colorful, one-of-a-kind, God-given stories and ideas, callings and opinions, agreements and disagreements - is that we all belong to Christ first, before we can find our way of belonging to each other through love.

And Christ does not ask us to leave our differences at the door of the church, but rather to bring them inside, to use our differences, one beside the other, generation by generation, like building blocks – in Paul’s words again – to “build people up.” “Love build’s people up,” Paul writes to the disintegrating church of Corinth, if that love is grounded in the love of Jesus.

When Christ’s love is the foundation into which God traces our names side by side, like children on a freshly smoothed sidewalk, then Christ’s love will always be there to sustain us and remind us, as we come and go our separate Christ-following ways, that we all belong here.

We belong first to the Christ of love, and that foundational love makes us one, which means that we belong to each other. Isn’t that the beauty and power of the welcoming statement that some of you wrote for all of us and that is always in our bulletin now at the bottom of the insert? In those few lines, by which I think the apostle Paul would be deeply moved - we claim Christ first. And then we bless and celebrate each other – unique and different as God has created us – before following Christ out into the world again and again and again.

And then, when we are out wandering through God’s neighborhoods around the corner or around the world, someone’s likely to wonder out loud -“Who are your people, child?” “Whom do you belong to?” To which we can reply in unison, “we belong to Christ. We are each other’s people – all of us – no exceptions.”

May it always be so, for together we have much work to do.

Sunday's Closing Prayer

At the end of our sermon on Sunday, Pam closed with a prayer that she wants to share again. It comes from the Upper Room Worship book: Music and Liturgies for Spiritual Formation (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2006), and was written by Chuck Wilhelm.

I pray that Christ may come to you early in the morning, as he came to Mary that morning in the garden. And I pray that you find Christ in the night when you need him as Nicodemus did. May Christ come to you while you are a child, for when disciples tried to stop them, Jesus insisted that the children come to him.

I pray that Christ may come to you when you are old, as he came to old Simeon’s arms and made him cry: “ Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”

And may Christ come to you in your grief as he did for Mary and Martha when they lost their brother. May Christ come to you in joy as he did to the wedding of Cana. And may Christ visit you when you are sick, as he did for the daughter of Jairus, and for so many who could not walk, or stand straight, or see, or hear till he came.

May the Lord Jesus come in answer to your questions as he did once for a lawyer and a rich young ruler. And in your madness may he stand before you in all his power as he stood among the graves that day before Legion.

May Christ come to you in glory upon your dying day as he did to the thief hanging beside him that Good Friday. And though you seldom come to him, and though you often “make you bed in hell,” as I do, may you find Christ descending there, where the apostles in their creed agreed he went – so you would know there is no place he would not come for you.


Sermon transcript for February 16, 2014

Choosing to Live
Deuteronomy 30:15-20
Belmont UMC—February 16, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

“Choose life!” exhorts Moses. We like choices and lots of them, don’t we. They are a part of our market economy. To win in the marketplace you have to offer lots of choices. “Which side would you like with your entrée? We have a dozen options.” We have 31 flavors of ice-cream—your choice. We can choose meals in large, medium or small sizes. The voice coming from the speaker outside the fast food restaurant asked, “Would you like to supersize that meal?” The voice was expecting a yes or no answer, but your pastor asked, “Do you think the meal needs the added calories or fat grams?” The voice went silent, not knowing how to respond. I finally said, “No. I do not.” The voice said, “That will be $5.85. Please drive around to the first window.”

Our youngest is in college and he had to make his choices for next year’s housing last week. We went on line to see all the choices that college students have with regard to housing. They list the square footage and amenities and show photos of beautifully decorated rooms. Things have changed as campuses try to compete with off campus options.

Moses does not offer a lot of options. The only options are life or death. Moses did not have a market mentality. And some of the people to whom he was preaching were just happy to have made it that far. They were completely satisfied with something in between life and death. Some had even complained that they missed being back in the good old days in Egypt. Some of you long for the good old days, too. The good old days when Rev. ____was the pastor or back to a time of our childhood. In my childhood the days were only good for the privileged and the whites, but not good for anyone else.

Moses knows he’s going to die. Moses knows he will not enter the Promised Land and he is offering this final sermon that is 26 chapters long. The passage today is the final appeal of the sermon. It is the altar call, if you will, to urge the people to make a choice between life and death.
I tell people that the choices seemed simpler when we were younger. Maybe they weren’t really simpler, but they were presented that way. We only had 3 flavors of ice-cream. I grew up in small United Methodist Churches where we had fall revivals. The preachers who made the circuit to preach revivals in those churches were fairly evangelistic and they could be rather enthusiastic and unrelenting in their appeal for us to make a decision. There would be a long altar call at the end of the service as we sang a hundred verses of “Just as I Am” and the preachers would continue the appeal until someone went forward and knelt at the chancel rail. I recall being in the youth group and sitting on the back row. We hated the altar calls and we wanted to go home so we would try to talk each other into going forward to satisfy the preacher so the service would end.
“Johnny, why don’t you go up this time?”

Johnny replied, “I went up two nights ago. It’s Debby’s turn. If I go again tonight, they’ll think I’m a big sinner or they’ll catch on to our plan.”

Most of the families were tobacco farm families and those revivals always took place after tobacco had been cut and put in the barns in August. Sometime after Labor Day we would gather at church for 7 nights for revival services. And it was hot! Our small churches were not air conditioned so the windows would be opened and we sat there in our starched dress shirts and ties, which irritated our sunburned necks. Perspiration ran down our backs and our shirts would stick to the pew in the thick hot air. And the preacher would preach for a long time. It was so hot!

Our only relief came from the little fans that were provided in the pew racks. They cardboard squares attached to something that looked like oversized Popsicle sticks. On one side of the fan was a picture of Jesus—the smiling, friendly Jesus, with long, golden brown hair and handsome features. When I moved into the dorm in 1970 (a very simple dorm without amenities) there was a hippy fellow in the dorm who looked just like that picture of Jesus. I remember what I said when I first met him, “Don’t I know you from somewhere.” On the other side of fan was a picture of the local funeral home and their phone number and address, just in case. It was good marketing for the funeral home to provide these fans for churches.

As the preacher exhorted us to come to Jesus, we would fan back and forth, faster and faster to create a little breeze and get some relief from the heat. Before our eyes flashed the choices: Jesus or the funeral home, Jesus or the funeral home, life or death, life or death.

Moses urged, “I have set your choices before you, life or death. Choose life!” What does Moses mean? Moses is speaking to the people of Israel, the large community of God’s people, and he is trying to make sure they make the right choices when they enter the Promised Land. Earlier in Deuteronomy he sets the tone for what it means to choose life—it means to love the Lord as their one God and to love God with heart, soul, mind and strength. To choose life means that at the heart of who we are, we are people in love with God because God chose to love us and always seeks to be in relationship with us. Moses is saying, “Don’t forget that!”
Moses is telling the people to obey God. We are reminded that “obedience means more than doing as one is told. Obedience means ‘to listen,’ which involves more than just hearing and following. Obedience is a discernment process that involves not only the mind and will but also, and most especially the heart. Throughout Deuteronomy . . . Moses calls on the people to listen ‘with all (their) heart.’” (Carol J.Dempsey, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 342)

To listen in this way means the possibility that hearts will be transformed and they will remain in love with God. It means to same for us as well, my friends.

Throughout Deuteronomy Moses points the way to what choosing life looks like. Life choices are choices that bring blessing to the entire community, not just some. Life choices are choices that mean a new home, not just for the Israelites, but for the immigrants as well. Life choices are choices that mean economic policies that leave enough for everyone.

Somewhere in the second hour of Moses farewell sermon, Moses gets specific as he encourages the people to cancel the debts of the poor (15:1-11), guard against government leaders becoming excessively wealthy (16:18-20), limiting punishment to protect human dignity ((19:1-7), restricting those who could be drafted into military service (20:1-8), offering hospitality to runaway slaves (23:15-16), paying employees fairly (24:14-15), leaving part of their harvest for those who need it (24:19-22). (Brett Younger, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, p. 341)  With regard to this last choice, Moses said, “When you pick your olives, don’t go back and pick a second time but leave some olives for the widows, the orphans and immigrants.” Why? Because these are the people who have nothing, the people who are the poorest, the ones who are the most marginalized.

Over and over again the people of Israel are reminded to offer hospitality to immigrants because they too had been immigrants in a strange land. Why should I care about our immigrant population in Nashville? Because the Edwards, the Watts, the Lipscombs, and the Dowlens, whose blood runs through my veins, were not here when the first boats arrived. They were across the pond and would arrive later, and they would be immigrants in a strange land. Some of our politicians have forgotten this, evidently.

One of my favorite fatherly things to say to my sons is, “Make good choices.” Moses is saying to the people, “Make good choices in the new land.” Moses believes that to choose life is to choose what is best for the entire community. To choose life means to be full participants in acts of justice, mercy and compassion. This must be the identity of the new community if it is to live. Any other identity will put them on the journey toward death as a people. That’s very serious talk, Moses.

My dear friends, this must be our identity as a people of faith as well. This must be who we are as United Methodists. To choose life is to choose what is best for everyone, not just our selves, our tribe, or our circle. To choose life is to live a life characterized by acts of justice, inclusion, compassion and mercy. It worries me that we are beginning to be identified in the world as the church that puts its pastors on trial for following their conscience. And I fear that in choosing this path, we are making a choice that does not lead to life.

I was here at church on Friday night. It was Valentines Day and a lot of folks were out doing other things. There were a lot of Belmonters here to greet Mhote and Esther, who had come from Malawi in Africa to tell us about the good things God is doing in the ministry there. They told us about the preschools being started in all the churches, churches which you helped build. They told us about the women’s ministry and our UMW presented them with $1,800 for this ministry. You have been such an important part of all God is doing in Malawi.

While we gathered in Parker Hall about 50 folks from Nashville’s Chinese community gathered in room 124 for a Bible Study. They play guitars and sing hymns in Mandarin and bring delicious food to share. They are here every Friday night.

And across the way in the Community Center homeless guests were being welcomed in on that cold and rainy night. Here they found warm food and a comfortable bed in which to sleep—not to mention the delightful faces of the Brownie Troop that hosted them.

As I was heading to my car to leave, I thought, “That is what church is supposed to be about if we are to live into this life choosing identity.” People speak well of us out there. When I was in the Village one day, a merchant said, “Your church is doing amazing things in the world. I know you are proud of them.” I am proud to be a part of this church but we cannot rest on our laurels. We must go out into the world everyday and make choices—choices that lead us to life.

God is putting before us two choices. Choose life!


Sermon transcript for February 9, 2014

You are the Light of the World
Matthew 5:13-20
Belmont UMC—February 9, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

For many years the men on my Dad’s side of the family would go on an annual fishing trip to some remote place along the Red River, which runs through northern parts of Robertson County and into Montgomery County. The River is not a large river but is comparable to the Harpeth River in width and depth. The women, who were much smarter than the rest of us were glad to see us go so they could enjoy the comforts of home without a bunch of men around to bother them. We would pack up fishing poles and tackle boxes, sleeping bags, lanterns, cooking gear, tarps, tents and a large array of gear and head off to the river on Friday afternoon. The trip involved fishing along the banks of the river or running trot lines from one bank to another, but more importantly, it involved a lot of good story telling by my uncles and cousins and eating fish fried over an open fire.

I recall when I finally reached the age when my Dad thought it was appropriate to take me. I was about 7 years old and my brother was 9. My Dad always tried to get off work early on Friday for these trips, finishing packing and then get to the river long before dark to help set up camp. But on this particular occasion Dad could not get off work early and the drive to the camping site was longer and more confusing than he had anticipated. Dad would verbalize his concern, “I’m not sure where this place is. I’m concerned we left so late. This year we will have to transport our gear down the river in a boat. This worries me.” I sat quietly in the car absorbing all the fear and concern my Dad verbalized. I looked at my brother who just shrugged his shoulders and looked unconcerned.

Night fell before we reached the little farm road that would lead us to the place where we were to find the boat left my uncles and cousins. I still remember my Dad’s complaint. They had left my Uncle Tom’s canoe for us. This canoe was old and rickety and it sat very low in the water and my Dad despised this canoe. He cursed under his breath. To make things worse he had only packed one flashlight and he expressed concern that the batteries would last until we reached the campsite downstream.

We carefully loaded our things into the canoe, and watched as it moved even lower in the water. My Dad placed me in the center of the canoe and my older brother sat in the front with the one flashlight. My Dad was in the back, paddling and steering us forward into the dark night and the swift, black water. To a 7 year old this seemed like the darkest night in history. I sat in the boat and listened to the rush of water, the call of Hoot Owls in the woods and I began to imagine monsters jumping out of the water and pulling me overboard, or snakes falling out of the limbs of trees. I wondered what would happen if the boat tipped over in the darkness. At 7 I was just learning to swim. I was terrified.

This was a long journey, about a mile downstream to the campsite, and we could barely see the river with the light of the one flashlight. My Dad was worried and if Dad was a little worried, we were overly worried. Several times the old canoe ran aground on a sand bar and Dad would have to work hard to free us. More than once he got out of the canoe and into the water to move us forward. Every time he got in and out of the canoe, I was sure we would tip over and into the dark water.

Then my brother yelled, “There!” He was pointing and sure enough we could see a faint light in the distance. As we moved downstream the light grew brighter and we could hear the voices of our relatives. I can still remember how I felt when I saw that first ray light coming through the darkness. I can still remember the relief I felt inside when I knew that we had found the campsite. It meant that we were safe. It meant that the presence of family. It meant shared stories and food with those we loved. It meant hope; it meant everything.

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”  You are the first glimpse of light shining in the darkness of this world. You are the source of hope in the midst of someone’s despair.

Last week we began to take a look at Jesus’ signature teaching in Matthew, a teaching we call the Sermon on the Mount. In this teaching Jesus describes a new world, a new way of seeing things, and a new way of being in this world. It is a way that runs counter to much of what we experience in our day to day lives. Last Sunday we looked specifically at the Beatitudes and said that to experience the presence of God in this new kingdom we would have to come to terms with the poverty of our own spirits.
Last Sunday, Jesus was offering blessing and happiness. This week we hear Jesus calling us out into the world, to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Jesus says that we are the light of the world. Lights are not meant to be hidden but put on a stand where they can be seen by everyone in the house. Jesus is saying, “Church, make a difference. Make this your Monday morning mission statement as you head out tomorrow. Say to yourself, ‘Today I will be a light in the world to which I am sent.’”

Another text that is part of our lectionary reading is from Isaiah 58. It is powerful and straightforward, calling out those who attend to the spiritual practice of fasting but are actually self-serving, oppress others and tend to fight and quarrel. Isaiah says that the fast that is acceptable to God is this: releasing evil restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke. We are to be participants in the liberation of those who are bound to injustice. We are to share out bread with those who are hungry and bring the homeless into our house. Isaiah says, “Then your light will break forth like the dawn. . . :” (v. 8a)

This is what being the light of the world looks like. To the homeless it looks like a warm place to stay and to the hungry it looks like food. To the poor it looks like dignity and hope. To those who are trapped in their own darkness it looks like being set free.
We were stunned by the death of actor, Phillip Seymore Hoffman last week and more stunned to learn that he lived in a dark world of heroin addiction. It is incredibly sad to know that there are so many who live in a prison of addiction and cannot find a way to break free. It’s important that churches provide spaces for Twelve Step Programs, where people can find the possibility of freedom. These places are bright lights shining in the darkness of our world.

Matthew’s gospel was directed to a Jewish audience. So it seems surprising that Jesus says that our righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees in order for us to enter the kingdom of heaven. No one followed the law more scrupulously than these religious groups.

At the time of Jesus, under Roman rule and oppression, some Jews became Roman collaborators and others did the best they could to remain faithful. The Pharisees were a divided group. There was one camp that wanted to take up swords (Zealots); this group tended toward insurrection and militancy. The other group kept to themselves, taking on a kind of bunker mentality, isolating themselves to protect the order and the keeping of the law. There Sermon on the Mount confronts both approaches. Jesus says those who wage peace, not violence, are blessed and called the children of God. However, Jesus does not endorse a passive relationship with the world. (Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4, Edwin Chr. Van Driel, p. 337)

We need to hear this teaching from Jesus to live as light for the world. And the church cannot afford to take up a bunker mentality, locking ourselves behind closed doors and fearfully protecting the status quo. In the church we spend far too much time and energy on institutional maintenance and survival. The Sermon on the Mount teaches us to be out in the world and engaging the world, not with anger, but with acts of kindness, with acts of justice and with forgiveness. We are the light of the world. We are the difference makers in our community and in the world.

Where will you be the light of the world this week? There will be opportunities when we walk out the doors today and into the world. Through some simple act of justice or mercy you may be providing a first glimpse of light for someone who has given up hope. You may be providing an entry point into a community, like this community, where someone can find the redemptive power of love and family, of shared stories and a welcome at the table.

I suspect I have shared this story, but it’s a good one and worth repeating. I was visiting in a local nursing home one day when I was serving in Mt. Juliet. I had been given the wrong room number and I walked into the wrong room I spoke to the older woman who was sitting in a chair by the window and I apologized for interrupting her. She invited me to stay and visit with her so I sat down and introduced myself. We had a nice visit and she asked to pray with her.

As I was leaving her room I saw two framed photographs on her dresser. I knew the women in the photos; they were members of the church I served. I turned back to the woman and said, “Are these ladies kin to you. I know them.”

She answered, “They walked in here one day and changed my life. I don’t have any family left, never had children, and did not expect to adopt some in my 80’s. I tell people they are my daughters, because they visit me every week, bring me fresh flowers. They celebrate my birthdays and they take me to their homes at Christmas. They bring me chocolates and lotions and listen to my stories. I couldn’t love them more if they were my flesh and blood.”

Later, I asked the women how they met the woman in the nursing home. They had lunch together each week and one day they talked about the times their mothers had been in the nursing home, how often they visited and how they had worried about patients who had no visitors. So after lunch they drove to the nearest nursing home and asked someone in the front office, “Is there anyone here who has no family, who has no visitors?” We were taken to this woman’s room and introduced. The rest is history. These women understood Jesus’ words, “You are the light of the world.”

Someone out there needs us to respond to Jesus’ call to engage the world with compassion, justice and forgiveness. The opportunities are all around us. We are the light of the world.


Sermon transcript for February 2, 2014

Deep Gladness
Matthew 5:1-12
Belmont UMC—February 2, 2014
Ken Edwards, preaching

Audio - MP3

Today’s Gospel reading is probably one of the most familiar texts of the Bible. When I was in elementary Sunday School we had a teacher who believed in memorizing scripture. Usually, this meant memorizing a verse, like John 3:16, but out most ambitious project was to memorize the Beatitudes. Our prize for successfully memorizing this passage was a pair of chopsticks. We were all pretty excited about winning these chopsticks, which in hindsight doesn’t make much sense, because in the rural parts of Robertson County in those days none of us had ever eaten Chinese food and had no clue as to how use chopsticks.

But I do think our familiarity with Biblical texts causes us to forget how impactful they were to the first hearers. The Beatitudes are not what the hearers would have expected.   

Jesus is describing the journey toward true happiness or the truly blessed life. The word “happy” “blessed” is translated differently in other versions of the Bible. N.T. Wright translates it “Wonderful News!” “Wonderful news for the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours.” Wright says that this is “God’s wonderful news. God is acting in and through Jesus to turn the world upside down. . . to pour out lavish blessings on all who turn to God and accept the new thing God is doing.” (Matthew for Everyone).

The word here is translated “happy” by many modern versions, especially the Common English Bible, and this translation is consistent with the Old Testament translation (see Psalm 1). I like the word “happy” except for the limitation our cultural understanding of happiness puts on this word. To us happiness is fleeting and conditional. “I’ll be happy when it warms up!”

But the Beatitudes describe a journey toward something I call “deep gladness.” It is a journey toward a blessed, happy, glad heart whose gladness is deep and abiding and withstands circumstances and life changes. These persons described in the Beatitudes have found deep gladness and they are on the way to the new thing God is doing in Jesus.

But Jesus turns worldly wisdom on its head and it is likely that these words would have been received with gasps or maybe chuckles by the first hearers. The world of Jesus’ day, and the world we live in, believes that those who are strong, powerful and rich are the most blessed. Jesus says precisely the opposite. Barbara Brown Taylor says the Beatitudes can be summed as “Blessed are the upside down.”

Jesus says those who experience this deep gladness are the poor, the hopeless, the sad, the hungry, the humble, and those who have pure hearts, those who show mercy and those who make peace, and even those who are harassed and persecuted. Jesus is describing this new kingdom toward which we are all called to journey.

I have to admit that I struggled with writing the sermon this week, because every time I sat down to write I heard a voice in my head that said, “Read the text again.” And I’ve read this text over and over and in a variety of translations and paraphrases. My very goal-oriented self wanted to write this sermon on Tuesday but I could not write it until I had read the text over and over and over.

The last time I read it, at the least the last time before I felt permitted to write anything, I realized what the text does not say. It does not read, “Happy are the self-sufficient. . . “ or “Blessed are those who call themselves ‘self-made men and women’. . .” or “Happy are those who always feel entitled. . . .” “Blessed are those who always think they are right. . .” “Blessed are those who think they have all the answers. . .”

Thomas Merton wrote, “The things we really need come to us only as gifts, and in order to receive them as gifts we have to be open. In order to be open we have to renounce ourselves, … our autonomy, our fixation upon our self-willed identity.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

But the people who find true happiness, the ones who experience deep gladness on this journey toward the kingdom, are the ones whose lives have made room for God. They have come to terms with the profound poverty of their own spirits, they know the deep hunger in their souls for God, they have made a place for God to come and reconcile their broken relationships, and they have made room in their hearts for possibility of forgiveness.

Former South African Bishop Peter Storey remembers serving in District 6 in Cape Town as a young pastor. This was the ghetto where mostly mixed-race and poor people lived. He said his life was profoundly shaped by this time of his ministry. Among the people he visited there, was a humble married couple living in two rooms. The husband was paralyzed from the waist down and each day someone would push his wheelchair the few blocks into the city where he would sell matches to make some money. His wife suffered from a twisted spine and hopped about with a crutch. He would visit them and take Holy Communion and he confessed that he visited more than he needed to. He writes, “I wish I could say it was because I cared so much for them, but the truth is more selfish: I went because I felt so close to God in that home.” (With God in the Crucible, p. 82)

I suppose Peter learned from this dear couple that he did not have to become poor or physically disabled to feel closer to God, but he would have to come to terms with his own poverty of spirit before he could know God in such a profound way. And so will we; and so will we!

These words from our hymn book have been in my head this week, “Come ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore; Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love and power.” (UMH, No. 340, words: Joseph Hart, 1759) I suspect these words describe the reality of who we are and where we are on our journey.
We come to church on Sunday mornings looking great. We clean up well and put on some nice clothes, either our best jeans or our finest suits and dresses. And no one would imagine how wounded and weak we’ve been for days, no one could see beyond our façade to our grief, our depression, our unresolved angers and our immense spiritual poverty. Truth is, what most of us really need is to fall down on our knees and cry out, “Christ, have mercy on me!”

What was the condition of your soul when you arrived here this morning, friends? Was there any space for God there? Did you arrive here incredibly hungry, with a deep longing to be filled with the Spirit of God? Is there room in your heart to forgive and to be forgiven? Is there space for us to live in peace with one another?

Adam Kelchner gave an altar call last week at 10:30 and invited us to come and pray. It kind of took us all by surprise and a lot of us needed to come to the altar, but we didn’t. But today we are all invited to come to this chancel, and open our hands in a humble posture that acknowledges our profound poverty of spirit and our deep hunger for God. And receive, receive and discover that deep gladness that comes only as a gift from God.



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