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
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!