This is a sermon that I gave at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church on Ascension Sunday (23 May 2004). The Scriptures for this Sunday are Acts 16: 16 – 34, Revelation 22: 12 – 14, 16 – 1, and John 17: 20 – 26.
It was the noted philosopher Woody Allen, I believe, who once noted that "time was nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once." And the Preacher, author of Ecclesiastes noted that "for every thing there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven." And the authors of the Talmud once noted that "In every age there comes a time when leadership suddenly comes forth to meet the needs of the hour. And so there is no man who does not find his time, and there is no hour that does not have its leader."
Our history is marked by moments in time, moments that define our country, our society, ourselves. September 11, 2001 is once such date. Whether we want it to or not, the actions that occurred on the date and the reactions that followed will define this country for history. I hope that we have not squandered the opportunity presented to us to fight for peace, justice, and righteousness.
May 17, 1954 is another such date. For on that date, when the Supreme Court said that "separate but equal" was no longer an equitable solution, we became a country of one whereas before we were many. It still remains to be seen if the goals set for this country on that date have been met.
There are also moments in time that define an individual in such a way that the choices that they make have an impact on the society and civilization for years to come. May 24, 1738, 266 years ago tomorrow, is one such day.
On that date John Wesley went to a prayer meeting in a chapel on Aldersgate Street in London. There he felt his heart warmed by the presence of the Holy Spirit, a feeling of warmth that he had never felt before. Prior to that night, his attempts at a new way to find God had failed. Wesley wrote, "In vain have I fled from myself to America: I still groan under the intolerable weight of inherent misery . . .Go where I will, I carry my hell about me; nor have I the least ease in anything." Prior to that night and his encounter with the Holy Spirit, John Wesley was convinced that his life was a failure. His brother Charles, of the same beliefs as to the righteousness of their ideas, had returned from America some months earlier and was now broken in spirit and in health, to point of lying in death’s bed.
That one moment in time, separate for each Wesley but equal in magnitude transformed them from legalists, those who would follow the letter of the law, into evangelists, those who would follow the spirit. Their own experience of God’s love gave them the sense of spiritual peace, an impulse for evangelism, and a sustaining, motivation for addressing the evils of society. Having experienced spiritual liberty for themselves, they began a new career spreading the good news of God’s love. (Adapted from The Heritage of American Methodism, Kenneth Cain Kinghorn, 1999, page 12 – 13)
And just as John and Charles Wesley encountered the Holy Spirit, so too did Saul on the road to Damascus. His encounter that day some two thousand years ago changed him from Saul to Paul and allowed perhaps the greatest missionary effort of all time to begin.
Our own encounters with the Holy Spirit are perhaps not so dramatic and the effects that each of us have on others will not be known until long after we are gone and aware that changes occurred. But those moments like those of the Wesley brothers and Paul changed our lives. But that is really a discussion for next week, Pentecost Sunday.
Today is Ascension Sunday, the day forty days after Easter when Christ ascended into heaven. This must have really scared the disciples. Again, Jesus is leaving them, this time voluntarily. Taken away from them on Good Friday and crucified, the disciples rejoiced with His resurrection. Celebration and joy on that First Easter morning replaced the pain and sorrow felt on Good Friday. But now He was leaving again, going where, as He said, "they could not go." But He also said, "that he was sending someone to prepare them, to make them ready for when they would be able to go."
And that is what this particular moment in time is all about, our preparation to receive the Holy Spirit and our preparation so that others may receive the Holy Spirit. We are meeting this day to lay the groundwork for the future of the church. We are not deciding the future of the church today, for such decisions are a little more complicated for one meeting. But we can make a decision today and that is to be ready, if we aren’t already, to accept the Holy Spirit into this place and into our hearts.
I know that what I am about to say will make some people upset or uncomfortable but I think we need to change the way Tompkins Corners is seen. It is right and proper to say that this church is an historic one, for it is. But people come to visit historic places; they do not come to stay. The great cathedrals of Europe were built as monuments to the presence of God in the lives of the people. But now they are now largely empty on Sunday and visited by countless number of tourists during the rest of the week. We need to make sure that is not the fate of this church.
We have a number of social activities that people come and support, but the people who come to the social activities, for the most part, do not come to church on Sunday. No matter how important they were to the well being of the church, Paul did not compliment the Ephesians on the wonderful bake goods the members of the church produced. No matter how important they were to the well being of the church, Paul did not compliment the Ephesians on the linen goods the women of the church wove. No, he complimented them on the most important part of the church, the faith exhibited by the members.
It was the faith of the people of the church in Ephesus that was well known; so too must it be that the faith of the people of the Tompkins Corners church that must be known. The generation of people to whom we must reach out are called "seekers"; they are seeking evidence of faith, evidence that there is, amidst all the trouble and pain of this world, an answer. They are seeking people with faith, faith that shows itself and that allows those who seek to find it.
In trying to come to grips with his own struggles, it was the faith of a group of Moravians that guided John Wesley. It was their faith that gave them comfort in times of strife and faith that helped in their understanding of God. It was their faith that brought John Wesley to the Chapel on Aldersgate Street that evening some 266 years ago. So too is it for those coming to this community, so too is it for those members of this church who have stopped attending – it is here that they should find in those of us here today evidence that the presence of the Holy Spirit is strong.
What I am going to suggest today, you can blame in part on my own Southern heritage. But it is something that I feel must be done today. Instead of ushers coming forward to get the offering plates and passing the plates among you all in the pews, I am going to ask that, if you are able, you bring your offering to the altar rail today. We have stated that as United Methodist members we will be loyal to this church through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. Today I want you to offer your prayers as well as your gifts and service. After placing your offering in the plate, I would ask that you spend a few moments at the altar rail praying. Pray for those on our prayer list, pray for this conference and its ministers, pray for those ministers going to new charges, pray for ministers beginning the pastoral career or beginning their retirement. But today, this one moment in time, pray that the Holy Spirit will come to this church and that some later day Paul will write that in Tompkins Corners one can truly find the presence of Christ, our Savior and Lord.