This is a sermon that I gave for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost on November 14, 2004 at Tompkins Corners UMC (Putnam Valley, NY).
This is a story about time. Like the Preacher writing in Ecclesiastes, it is a time of wonder and a time for thought. It is a time to consider and a time to act. It is a time to look forward but not a time to look back. But what will we see when we look forward? What will come from the thought we put into today? What can we expect from our actions of today and tomorrow?
There will come a time, Jesus says, when all the works of mankind are destroyed. And the people wonder how they will know when that time has come. Will it come when wars ravage this world? Will it come amidst great earthquakes or other natural disasters? Are the signs of desolation, poverty, oppression that we see every day the indication that this is that time? Or are their other signs that we have not seen or heard?
That is the problem. All the signs that we see and read and hear are indications of something but many times we do not know what they mean. And Jesus warns us, in today’s Gospel reading and in other times and places, that we will not know the time or place of His Coming. So how is it that others can speak so fervently and with great imagination that this is that time?
We are at a moment in time when everything that we believe, everything we have ever learned is being challenged. We are being told that to be an evangelical Christian is to be a conservative Christian. We are told that the only issues of importance for Christians are abortion and homosexuality.
But what do we do about the poor? What do we do about education or the environment? What do we do when the system that is in place ignores the little children of this country in favor of big business and greedy corporate interests? What do we do when other Christians tell the parents of gays and lesbians that their children’s sexuality is their fault, that they somehow have lived a sinful and wrongful life? How is it that we have allowed Christianity to become so judgmental when our own Savior never judged anyone? (1)
Now, these thoughts, while parallel to some of my own, are not mine. They come from an interview with Tony Campolo, a noted sociology professor and evangelical. He was the man that President Clinton called when he, President Clinton, needed some spiritual support and counseling. It should be noted that Dr. Campolo, in addition to being an evangelical Christian, is also a Baptist minister. He is also a conservative Christian.
But even with those credentials, he feels that the concept of evangelism has been hijacked by the political motives of the religious right. He feels that the Gospel message, of reaching out to the poor, the sick, the homeless, and the oppressed, has somehow been lost in the politics of the times.
What I find interesting are his thoughts on the churches of today. One reason, he feels, for the decline of mainline churches in today’s society is that they have been so concerned with social justice that they have forgotten to place a major emphasis on bringing people into a close, personal relationship with God through Christ. The Pentecostal and evangelical churches, the churches growing today, are doing so because they attract people who are hungry to know God. These individuals are not interested in knowing God from a theological standpoint, as a moral teacher, or as an advocate for social justice. They want God to be a part of their lives, to strengthen them, to transform them and enable them to better deal with the problems they have, both socially and personally.
Mainline churches have done little in these matters. They believe it, they articulate it but it’s not where their emphasis is. It is why they are dying churches and why the Pentecostal or evangelical churches are growing.
Christianity has two emphases. One is social, the other personal. It is the responsibility of Christians to impart the values of the kingdom of God in society – to relieve the suffering of the poor, to stand up for the oppressed, to be a voice for those who have no voice. But it is also the responsibility to help bring people into a personal, transforming relationship with Christ so that they can feel the joy and love of God in their lives. In today’s society, we see that fundamentalism emphasizes the latter while mainline churches emphasize the former. If we are not careful, we are going to find out that those who ignore the social ministry of the church are going to drive away those who seek God but they will have no place to go because the places that speak to the social ministry will have closed.
Another article that I read this last week was about the turn around of a small church. In this article Shane Mize writes about the efforts of his church to turn around its decline and keep from closing its doors.
In 1995, his church had nineteen active members. During the first year, the membership did a number of things to change what visitors saw. Some of the things, like changing the name of the sanctuary to “worship center” and creating a songbook with praise choruses, I disagree with. Others, like explaining what doxology means, make some sense when you realize that many of the people seeking a church home are basically unchurched and do not understand the Latin phrases that dominate the worship service. Some of the changes would not apply to a church like Tompkins Corners, simply because we do not need a sign telling people where the sanctuary is (though it sometimes seems that we ought to have a sign pointing out where the bathroom is). There was one change they made in the church that we definitely need to consider though; they refurbished their nursery. Those seeking a church home are likely to have children and probably will not consider visiting, let alone join a church if it does not have a nursery.
The success of the program can be seen in the fact that they had twenty-five visitors in the second year of their program and eighty-five visitors in the third year. Eleven of the visitors joined in the church in the second year and twenty-five joined in the third year. But, the one thing that stood out as central to the success and growth of this church was the fact that the church made a visible and concerted effort to build an atmosphere of prayer, faith, and community.
He does mention money and he does mention that there were problems. Money was a problem because it was a small church. But it was never a problem, because the people knew that it was a necessity for success. What they did not anticipate and what caused the greatest problem was that with the growth of the church, in membership, came change. Not everyone there at the beginning was open to the concept of change. Pastor Mize wrote that the church leaders had to deal with a lot of things solely empowered by their faith and that it was faith that empowered the changes and success that came.
He concluded his article with words probably inspired by Paul’s words today. A church that stops reaching starts dying. Faith, prayer, and love create an environment that produces disciples who live to fulfill the Great Commission. Paul was writing about those who had stopped working because they expected the Second Coming of Christ to be during their time. (2)
Though there are others today who would use what Paul wrote some two thousand years ago in a different context, Paul he was simply telling the people in Thessalonika who expected the Second Coming of Christ at that moment in time that they cannot quit working. Just because Christ is coming is no excuse to keep ready; rather, it is a sign to work harder.
Isaiah speaks of signs, signs that speak of Christ’s coming. We know that Isaiah is speaking of Christ’s coming birth, for which we start preparation in two weeks. As we begin our preparation for Advent, as we begin our preparation for the coming of Christ, we need to think about how we can continue working for Christ. How can we show people that this is a place of the living God? How can we show people that this is a place of faith, hope, and community?
We have begun this task by asking some of our members to reaffirm their membership, simply by saying “Yes, I want to remain a member of Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church.” Now, today, I will put the challenge to you individually and collectively, what will you do to match those who are simply asked to respond in writing? The service next week will be an opportunity for you to come forward and reaffirm your membership vows. There will be no pressure put on you to do so; as we sing the invitational hymn next week, if the spirit moves you to do so, then you can come up and will we reaffirm your vows.
That will be one sign that the times of this church are changing. There are others. As we close today, we are reminded of the one constant sign that tells there is hope. We come to this communion table celebrating in the Risen Christ, our Lord and Savior. The bread and juice that we partake are signs that we are a forgiven people and a reassurance that Christ lives in each of us. As we leave this building today, it is that presence of Christ in each of us that give a sign to others that Christ does live.
(1) From an interview with Tony Campolo posted on Beliefnet.com on 12 November 2004
(2) “Small-Church Turnaround” by Shane E. Mize, from Net Results, December 1998.