I am at Dover United Methodist Church this morning (Location of church). The Scriptures for this Sunday are Joel 2: 23 – 32; 2 Timothy 4: 6 – 8, 16 – 18; and Luke 18: 9 – 14. The service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.
Right now, the schedule has me at Dover again on November 21st, December 26th, and January 2nd.
It seemed to me that the Old Testament reading for today was out of place in the calendar. It seemed more logical, with the promise of new growth and rebirth, to read this passage in the spring. This passage just seems out of place right now, with the days getting shorter, the weather getting colder instead of warmer, and the colors of the trees, once ablaze with color but now beginning to fade. But perhaps that is more the reason to be reading the passage from Joel for today for it offers a promise of hope and a new birth at a time when such thoughts may very well be disappearing.
And at a time when darkness seems to be such a part of our lives as well as the season, perhaps we need such words of hope and promise. For just as the promise of a new spring brings the promise of rebirth and a renewal of life, so too do Joel’s words offer a promise of rebirth and renewal.
Now, when I first started working on this sermon and I saw the theme about the changing of the seasons, a line from a 1970s song, “No Time”, sung by the group The Guess Who, “seasons change and so did I, you need not wonder why.” I also recalled a 1966 song by Simon and Garfunkel, “A Hazy Shade of Winter”, with its line, “seasons change with the scenery”. But this second line didn’t seem to fit the thoughts that were developing with the first.
I suppose that the reason for even thinking about the changing of seasons and the changes it brings into our lives is that we are the only species on this planet that wonders why the seasons change. Other species know that the seasons change and that they must hibernate or migrate with the change. But we are the only ones that look around at the world and marvel at the changes and then wonder why there are such changes.
And we understand that against the framework of time and the universe, such changes cannot be stopped. Still, for all our wondering and pondering about the mysteries of change, we still have some fear of what the change might bring. I am almost certain that when mankind first came up with an explanation for the changes in the seasons there was a cynic amongst them who proclaimed that yesterday was a better day than tomorrow will ever be.
And while I am sure that no one ever said such a thing, it should come as no surprise that, when the ideas about why there were seasons were developed from the ideas about the earth and universe, there was much opposition. If you are like me, you have this ancient image of Galileo being tried by the Catholic Church for heresy for believing and then suggesting that the Sun was the center of the Solar System and that the earth moved around the Sun. It is an image which dominates our thought about science and faith to this day.
And while Galileo was tried by the Catholic Church some four hundred years ago, the opposition to his ideas and the ideas of Copernicus and Kepler did not originate with the church. Rather, the opposition came from individuals within the academic establishment of that time. They were opposed to these new ideas because their reputation, status, and power were built on maintaining the Aristotelian view of an earth-centered universe. The church was brought into the argument because the academic establishment convinced members of the church establishment that the changes proposed by Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo would harm the church and threaten their status, reputation, and power.
The darkness that I see creeping slowly over the face of the earth today is not because it is becoming winter and the days grow short. Rather, it is a darkness of the minds because there are those in both the secular and sectarian worlds who see any sort of change as a threat rather than a promise.
Now, let me make one point. There are times when changes should be opposed; there are times when change is necessary. But offer reasons why you make the proposal. Not argue that the status quo is the best that it will ever be without providing an explanation; similarly, don’t argue that change is necessary simply because change is necessary. Offer a plan of change and a way to change and show what you think the outcome will be. Change requires more than words; change requires action. And change requires that you see that the present may not be the best idea.
The tax collector in the Gospel reading for today understood this; the Pharisee didn’t. The Pharisee held up his life in the present for everyone to see and marvel at. He pointed out that he did what was required of him and that he need not do anything else. On the other hand, the tax collector knew that he had fallen short in life and he sought God’s mercy. The tax collector did not seek the mercy or the approval of the people like the Pharisee did; he sought out God.
Forty-one years ago, in the spring of 1969, I had a conversation with my pastor, Reverend Marvin Fortel. It was just before spring break and I was getting ready to go home to Memphis. To be honest, life wasn’t going well then. And while I knew that I would have the opportunity to take communion when I went to the Easter Service at the church in Memphis where we attended, it didn’t seem right not to be at what was my home church, First United Methodist Church in Kirksville.
And as I have said and written before, I went and asked Reverend Fortel if I could take communion before I left. To my knowledge, he had never had such a request as this. Most of the college students who attended First UMC came from towns in the area around Kirksville and were members of churches in their home towns. But he agreed to the idea and we meet in the chapel with the bread and the juice and two hymnals. (I first published my account of this conversation and what happened on that spring break trip home in “That First Baptism”; the details of the conversation itself were first published in “Our Father’s House”.)
It wasn’t a communion like we normally have where the words are read and the elements are blessed. It was more of a conversation about the words and what they really meant. Now, this was just after the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist Churches and we were using the old hymnal rather than the one that we currently use. So the ritual of communion was not the one found on page 12 in the present hymnal. Rather, it was the ritual that begins on page 26 in our present hymnal.
And what I remember most about that time in the chapel forty-one years ago was reading what is called the “Prayer of Humble Access”,
We do not presume to come to this thy table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.
We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table.
But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy.
Grant us, therefore, gracious Lord, so to partake of this Sacrament of thy Son Jesus Christ, that we may walk in newness of life, may grow into His likeness, and may evermore dwell in Him, and He in us. AMEN
Now, those words, especially the ones that said “we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table,” bothered me. I thought I was saved. I had done all “the right things”; I said the right words when I was asked, I had been baptized and I had been confirmed. I was working for justice and good. I was like the Pharisee, proud of what I had done and expecting great things as a result. Didn’t all of this mean that I had earned the right to sit at God’s Table any time I wanted to?
But Reverend Fortel calmly pointed out that it was God’s grace and mercy that allowed me to sit at the table with Him; nothing I did could compare. I was like the tax collector, who needed to acknowledge that I had failed and that I needed a new life.
And then it became a little clearer. My acceptance of Christ as my Savior opened the door for me so that I could receive God’s grace. And once I passed through that opening, things changed. My life could never be the same again. As Methodists, we understand that our lives can never quite reach the level of perfection that it should be at; but that doesn’t mean that we stop trying.
I work for justice, freedom, and good not because it will get me into heaven but because it is what is expected of me because I am a citizen of the New Kingdom. I left the chapel that day with a newer understanding of who I was and what path I had chosen to walk. Reverend Fortel also gave me some books to read, books I have kept with me over these past forty years. They show the signs of age and one has almost completely fallen apart from my constant use of it in my writings.
I have told this story many times before but it bears repeating. Reverend Fortel died this past week at the age of 93 and I wanted to celebrate his life and that conversation that changed my life. One small conversation forty-one years ago may not seem like such a big deal but it changed things. It gave hope at a time when hope didn’t seem possible; it provided opportunities when none seemed open. I can’t say that either of us anticipated what I would do in the coming years then nor do we know how this will all play out in the years to come. That is the nature of change and what happens in our lives.
Paul writes to Timothy at the end of his missionary life. But instead of thinking about his life, Paul is encouraging Timothy to take up the ministry and continue it. But it is not Paul’s work that Timothy is to continue; it is God’s work that will continue. Even in change is continuity.
And now Joel’s words become not just words but the actual promise of hope, renewal, and rebirth. They speak of what is to come through God and the Holy Spirit. They speak of a radical new world where the old can dream again and the youth will have visions.
Those who argue against change and speak of doom with the coming of change have no dreams; they have no visions. They live in the present and long for the past. They do not want to work for tomorrow. They are like the ones who said they supported Paul in his ministry but weren’t there when Paul was in court.
But God was there with Paul and gave him the support that he needed at a most difficult time. We may fear change because we are uncertain about what is to come but the certainty of the presence of God in our lives can remove that fear.
It begins when our lives change. It begins when we open our hearts and our minds to the presence of Jesus Christ. It is more than just saying that you accept Christ, it is the actual acceptance of Christ. It may not come immediately but it will happen if you let it. And then you let the Holy Spirit empower you and things begin to change.
The seasons change and as the days grow shorter and darker, it is perhaps hard to see what lies ahead. But in Christ, we have the promise of hope and rebirth, of renewal and new beginnings. The preacher once wrote, “To everything there is a season, a time and purpose under heaven.” This is the season in which the change comes in our lives and what we will do in the new kingdom.