What Time Is It?

This was the message that I presented at the Fishkill (NY) United Methodist Church on 31 December 2000. I have this Sunday listed as the 1st Sunday after Christmas but I used the lectionary readings for New Year’s Day (Ecclesiastes 3: 1 – 13, Revelation 21: 1 – 6, and Matthew 25: 31 – 46).

I had moved up to this part of New York in May of 1999 and transferred my membership to the Fishkill Church at the beginning of June. In August, 1999, I began serving as the pastoral assistant to the District Superintendent with the assignment of being the lay pastor for the Walker Valley United Methodist Church. As such, I only knew the pastor (Arlene Beechert) and a few other members of the Fishkill Church. Most of the Fishkill church only knew of my assignment but did not know who I was. So, Pastor Beechert and I looked for a date where we could exchange pulpits and I might introduce myself to my home church at that time.

Unfortunately, the weather on this day was miserable. Services at Walker Valley were cancelled and attendance at the Fishkill Church was minimal. The bad part was that the organist couldn’t make the trip to church and we had to sing unaccompanied. That didn’t help matters. I like singing and think that music is an integral part of any service but I was never a good musician and I have to hear the music in order to lead it. In all honesty, this was not one of my better services. I would return to Fishkill pulpit in June of 2005; I did a much better job that time.

So here are my thoughts for 31 December 2000:

The measurement of time has always been a challenge for mankind. While we can say with a certain degree of certainty that it is 10:00 a.m. on December 31st, the telling of time has not always been that easy. For the founders of the Methodist Church some two hundred and sixty years ago, the telling of time required clocks that were big, bulky, and highly unreliable. And in Jesus’ time, time was measured by the hour glass and the passage of events.

And even today, we still mark the passage of time by the occurrence of certain events. That fact that today is the last day of the year 2000 and tomorrow is the first day of the year 2001 is one such occurrence. The Old Testament reading for today is about the passage of time.

For the Preacher, the name we give to the writer of Ecclesiastes saw time as a passage, as a balance of the events of life. Some of these events are joyful while others are not. And while we may wish to eliminate and do away with those events of life that are not so joyful. But with birth comes death, with love there is hate and with war there is peace.

Does this mean that God condones hatred, war, death, and uprooting? Or are these things beyond His control? I think that is why this reading is paired with the reading from the Book of Revelations. John’s words were words of hope. When John wrote this letter to the churches of Asia Minor, the Roman Empire was exacting a terrible toll on all those who would defy the power of Rome. It was a time of hoping for the return of Christ and the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth.

But the time of Christ’s return was unknown and though John offers a great hope for that kingdom, He also points out that God is now and forever, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. In making a reference to the eternal nature of God, John was telling his readers not to wait for the return of Christ on this earth. In the opening verse of this passage from Revelation, “Now I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” John offers not a second beginning but a freshness, a fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah 65: 17, Isaiah 66: 22, and 2 Peter 3: 13

“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind.” (Isaiah 65: 17)

“For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain befroe me,” says the Lord, “so shall your descendants your name remain.” (Isaiah 66: 22)

“Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”(2 Peter 3: 13)

But how is the hope that John speaks about fulfilled? How do we deal with the lack of meaning that Preacher gives to this existence on earth? Early in the American Revolution Thomas Paine wrote, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It was time when things were not going good for the colonists; such a sentiment could be justly as easily expressed today.

We look around us and see countless examples of problems for which we feel there is no solution. Unlike those in the Gospel reading who asked who were the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the naked, sick or in prison, we know who they are. Yet many times, we like they, walk right by.

Jesus told his disciples and followers that the Kingdom of God was already in place. We do not have to wait for His Second Coming because He is always with us, if we but look for him.

The foundation of the Methodist Church was and will always be in how we treat others less fortunate than us. Granted that salvation only comes to those who accept Christ in their hearts but coming to know Christ is very difficult when you are hungry, when you are sick, or when you are in prison, be it one with walls of stone or one which entraps your soul. John Wesley knew that for the world to be saved, concern for the poor, the weak, and the helpless had to be more than just words said on a Sunday. There had to be action on Monday.

But if we try to take on the task of solving all the world’s problems by ourselves, we will be like the Preacher seeing that after everything was tried how futile our efforts were. Because we alone cannot are not equal to the task. But the Preacher also pointed out that God put eternity in our hearts so as to give us a sense that what was around us is not all there is too life. If we allow God to be a part of our lives each day, then the moments of our lives can be transformed into something beautiful and with meaning.

As we end this year and get ready to begin the new one, it is important that we see what is before us, not in terms of what the world puts before us, but rather in what Christ shows us. Christ shows us that the opportunities to let the world know of His presence are in our actions.

The call this day is a simple one. For those in despair and exclusion, Christ offers the acceptance that the world denies you, the dignity denied by the world, and the spiritual guidance and community that are a foretaste of life in the Kingdom of God.

And for those who have come to know Christ as their personal Savior, there is also a call, “I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who knew my grace and were formed by love. But now the hour has come for you to see the signs of a New Hope that are being given to my people in this world. The hour has come to join Me in the midst of the struggle to interpret that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know me as their Lord and Savior in the midst of the events of their daily life.”

What time is it? For some it is 1030 and time to get on with the rest of the day. But I hope that it is time to take Christ into your heart and then take the light of Christ out into the world.


Top Posts of 2011

Here are my top posts for 2011. What amazes me is how it hasn’t changed from last year.

  1. The Chemistry of Bowling – July 26, 2008 (#1 in 2010)
  2. Why Do We Celebrate Palm Sunday? – March 13, 2008 (#2 in 2010)
  3. Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch – November 18, 2009 (#5)
  4. A Collection of Sayings – January 17, 2008 (#4)
  5. Who Cuts the Barber’s Hair? – September 15, 2009 (#13)
  6. The Dilemma of Modern Christianity – April 18, 2009 (#6)
  7. Ten Pretty Good Rules – June 16, 2008
  8. Hearing God Call – January 7, 2009 (#10)
  9. What Does Stewardship Mean to Me – November 6, 2005
  10. Pledges and Loyalty Oaths – March 27, 2008 (#8)
  11. What Does It Mean To Be Called? – August 30, 2008 (#11)
  12. The Meaning of Service – November 14, 2008
  13. The Mountaintop Experience – March 2, 2011

It is interesting how some of my older posts are getting read more now than when they were first posted.

My all-time list is:

  1. Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch – November 18, 2009 (new to the list)

For those who are interested in this sort of thing, here are links to my previous “top posts”:

My Top Posts for 2006

My Top Posts For 2007

My Top Posts for 2008

Top posts for 2009

Top Posts of 2010

We no longer have a “Best of the Methoblogosphere”, not because there are no noteworthy posts but because there are so many to pick from. I want to give my thanks to Allan Bevere for his effort is picking the best of the bunch. During 2011, Allan focused on the posts of note and one of my posts (“The Situation Today” – July 14, 2011) was chosen to in this group.

The challenge of a weekly blog is a daunting one. There has been a steady increase in the number of individuals who read the various things that I post and for that I am very grateful. Still, I have to wonder what the lifetime of a blog, like any ministry, is. I began posting in July of 2005 so I am approaching the end of my 7th year. Perhaps, in a biblical sense, I should take a sabatiacal and step away from blogging for a while.

Answering the Call to Action

I started thinking about this piece before Christmas.

If we as individuals, churches and a denomination are going to answer the Bishop’s call to action, then we must know some things about ourselves and the United Methodist Church. And whatever answers we receive we have to understand that it each one of us who must answer the call. Individual churches can only answer the call if the people who make up the church do so.

I keep thinking about those who essentially tell me that we must focus on making sure that we have a building in order to do the work of the church. Doesn’t that mean that if we lose the building the faith of the people will be lost as well? How many churches have seen their sanctuaries and educational buildings destroyed by tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters yet vowed to meet elsewhere until they could rebuild. The work of the church is through the people, not the building. It will be the people of the church who respond, not the building.

I will admit that I have mixed and mostly negative feelings about the Call to Action. Everything that has been written and said about it suggests that it favors the bigger churches and that it is a top-down model. My experience in science education tells me that the innovative practices come from those in the field, not the top level management (a bottom-up model, if you will) – see “To Search for Excellence”. And if decisions are going to be made based on the numbers that pastors submit every week, I think that we are missing the point about what the church is and what the church is supposed to be doing.

The church needs to focus on people, not numbers. I know or have come to understand that individual pastors are required to submit weekly reports on their churches. I suspect that such numbers focus on weekly attendance, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. I hope that we aren’t asking for the number of souls that have been saved since that number is truly one that can only be reported on the bottom line. I would suspect that pastors are supposed to report the efforts of their local ministries. It may very well show which churches are viable and vital but I am not altogether certain that it will.

Knowing how many people are supported by the church’s food closet or the feeding ministries of the church only tells you something about the conditions of the area where the church is located. I am more interested in how many members of the church worked at the food closet or served the breakfast and dinners each week. How many individuals supported the specific local ministries through their donations, gifts, tithes, or prayers?

While on a trip a number of years ago I engaged in a conversation about church membership and church duties with someone. She was interested in measuring the number of individuals who had multiple jobs within a given church. I pointed out that she needed to factor church size into the equation. Let us suppose we are comparing a church with 1000 members and a church with 100 members. If ten people are doing all the work in the 100 member church, that is 10% of the membership. If ten people are doing the work in the 1000 member church, then you are looking at 1% of the membership doing the work. Which church is more alive?

I will argue that it is the 100 member church. Yes, it looks great when you have 1000 members in a church but if only 10 people are doing the work, then what are the other 990 doing? And when you could those who participate, make sure that it is more than one time. I don’t mind it when 20 people come to help serve a Christmas breakfast but what are they doing on the other days that the church serves breakfast to the community?

What do you do about the others in the church who don’t even know that there is a feeding ministry or would rather that it not be in the church at all? What does this say about the vitality of a church?

To answer the call to action, we also need to remember from where we as United Methodists came. Consider the following items:

  • The first Sunday School was Methodist. John Wesley started Sunday schools because he knew that an understanding of the Bible required literate pupils and the only time many people were going to be able to do that was on Sunday.
  • The first Credit Union was Methodist. When the Methodist Revival began in the 18th century, it was possible for In a day and time when individuals could be thrown into jail for failing to pay their bills and not be released until the bills have been paid (otherwise known as debtors’ prisons, an institution that seems to be making a comeback in some states – see the following story). Wesley created the first credit union in order to give the lower classes a way to borrow the needed funds and be able to pay them back at a reasonable interest rate; something that the banks of that time were unwilling to do (sounds vaguely modern, doesn’t it).
  • The first health care clinic was Methodist. Again, the poor and lower classes of England during the Methodist Revival were unable to get adequate healthcare. Wesley began a healthcare clinic in London to offer low-cost healthcare; he even wrote a book of home remedies though his qualifications as a physician were limited at best.

Historians have long suggested that these efforts kept England from undergoing the violent revolution that swept through France at the same time.

I have said before but I sometimes wonder what John Wesley might think if he were to wander about this country today. What would he say about “those people called Methodists?” (Here is what Garrison Keillor said about Methodists – “Garrison Keillor on “Those People Called Methodists”)

It may be that the Bishop’s Call to Action is about reviving the denomination. But it cannot be simply by talking about it or listing numbers in some weekly report. It is about reaching out to the people in the same manner that our ancestors did almost three hundred years ago. It requires looking at where the church is and what the church can do in terms of where it is at.

When I began thinking about this piece, I thought of a Buffalo Springfield piece, “For What It’s Worth.” Now, many people think this is an anti-war song from Viet Nam era; others think this song is about the Kent State shootings in 1970 which is pretty good since the song itself was written and recorded in 1966. In actually, it is about social unrest in Los Angeles during the fall of 1966. The key in including this song in this piece today are the words about looking around and see what is happening. No matter where a church may be, if the people are to answer the call they must first look around and see what is happening.

For some churches, this is an easy thing to do. The problems of society are right outside their doors. The only thing the members of these churches have to do is step outside.

For other churches, it is not that easy. They are in areas of declining population and see their own membership dropping each year. Their struggle is to be able to keep the doors open for those who are members, let alone those in the community. It would be very easy to say to small churches in areas of declining population that they should prepare to close their doors. I think that is wrong because sometimes the church is what keeps hope alive in a community.

It does not matter whether one is talking about a church in an inner-city community or somewhere on the plains of the rural Midwest; how do we bring hope to the people we serve and who are the community in which we live?

I don’t want to see the United Methodist Church die; the predictions in the Call to Action suggest that we have 25 years left before the funeral. I have thought long and hard about where I would go if the denomination were to do or I was forced to seek another place to go. At a time when I needed a place of hope and promise I found it in the United Methodist Church; I cannot leave so I will, as I hope I have already done, answer to call. What will you do?

Check out Pete Townsend’s “Somebody Saved Me”.

The True Gift of Christmas

I meant to post this on Sunday. It was meant as a blog both for Sunday, using the lectionary readings for Christmas Day (Year B) – Isaiah 52: 7 – 10, Hebrews 1: 1 – 12, and John 1: 1 – 14 – as well as a blog for Christmas. From one standpoint, Christmas this year was special because it came on a Sunday. Looking back at my notes and records I find that I have yet to preach a sermon on Christmas Day.

During the time I was at Neon, Walker Valley, and Tompkins Corners Christmas was on another day of the week and neither of the churches planned anything special. Twice in my career Christmas Eve been on a Sunday; both times it was also the 4th Sunday in Advent. In one instance at Walker Valley (December 24, 2000), I prepared one message for the morning (“It’s the Little Things”) and another for the evening Christmas Eve service (“Why All the Shouting?”) The second time, December 24, 2006, I was at Dover and had to plan for the transition from Advent to Christmas Eve during the same service; it made for an interesting service – “Words of Christmas”.

My previous Christmas Day messages are “So This Is Christmas”
(2005), “Does It Matter?”
(2006), What Gift Did You Give?
(2007), “The Christmas Miracle”
(2008), and “Why Should This Day Be Any Different?” (2009).

So this is an interesting blog

I sometimes wonder if we really understand what the true gift of Christmas is. I am not even sure we understand what the meaning of Christmas is or why we even celebrate Christmas.

Like so many people I grew up with a traditional view of the Christmas story, of Christ being born in a stable in Bethlehem on December 25th with shepherds, wise men, and assorted farm animals in attendance. It was a combination of what Matthew and Luke had written and I accepted it, even though it was clear that there were contradictions in the narrative.

In addition, the celebration of Christmas didn’t begin until almost 250 years after the beginning of the church. Christ’s birth was not as important as was His death, resurrection, and 2nd coming. And if the shepherds were in the fields with their flocks, it probably was more like March or April than December.

It is probably just as well that we do celebrate Jesus birth in December because if we opted for the more probable time we would have the interesting situation of celebrating Christmas and Easter almost at the same time. I do not think that would be the best solution.

The December date was chosen as an alternative to traditional pagan celebrations that occurred around the 25th. For some, doing this creates a falsity in Christianity. I don’t know; Christ was born and so he had to have a birthday. What do those individuals whose birthdate is February 29th do? Do they only celebrate their birth once every four years? It isn’t the date or the choice of dates that is the important part of the moment; it is the celebration of the moment so we do it on December 25th.

We are also hung up on the gift giving that takes place, so much so that it seems our economic system will collapse if we do not buy each and every one of our friends, relatives, and neighbors a gift. But the gifts that were given that first Christmas were not to the parents or the shepherds but to a newborn baby perceived to be a present and future King, a King who would change the world.

Nothing in the Bible tells us when they came (and some traditions put their arrival at up to two years after the birth) or how many there were. We get the idea of three wise men from the number of gifts given. The names of the three wise men that are associated with the gifts come from church tradition perhaps some 500 years after the fact.

We have over the years called the wise men astrologers because they sought relationships between the actions of stars and the actions of mankind. But the study of stars and their motions then was the beginning of astronomy and organized science. We don’t understand this and we tend to trivialize what they did.

Do these contradictions and how we arrive at the Christmas story that we have told for generations dilute or somehow weaken the message? If we focus on the message rather than the date, then I don’t believe so. But it does require that we do what we have been asked to do from the very beginning of our faith journey and that is grow in the faith, if for no other reason than to better be able to tell the story to the next generation.

When you study the story, when you put it into the context of time and place, the message that Jesus will preach when He does begin His ministry becomes clearer. The problem today is that we do want to do this. We have heard the same story for so many years that we have accepted it as it is. It results a terrible misunderstanding of the story and what transpired.

The true gift of Christmas is in the story but we have lost that gift because we do understand the message and we are more wrapped up in what we get from others, not what we get from the Christ Child.

We know that the first announcement of the birth of the Christ Child was made to the shepherds but we fail to understand the significance of that announcement. Perhaps because we so often will refer to Jesus as the Good Shepherd, we think that is why the shepherds were the first to be told.

But what many don’t know is that shepherds were social outcasts, perhaps in part because of Biblical laws stated in the Old Testament and partially because their work in the fields left them dirty and smelly, far more than normal.

To announce to the lowest of society that a Savior was born was to say that all would be welcome in God’s Kingdom. Throughout His ministry Jesus took down the walls that society had erected between people. It began with His birth and the announcement to the shepherds. And yet, how many people in church cringe at the thought of homeless people and other outcasts being allowed into the church today?

The wise men who sought the Christ Child saw signs in the world that suggested something was about to happen. It was this curiosity and desire to seek new knowledge that drove them to leave the safety and comfort of their home and journey to a distant land.

But the inclusion of the wise men is more than just about gifts for a baby who would be a king; it was a statement that we must seek the Christ Child with all our resources. One of the gifts that we receive on Christmas is knowledge, knowledge about the world around us as well as knowledge about God. The passage from Isaiah speaks of the wonders of God; we cannot see the wonders of God if we do not look at the world around us. The wise men that came were scientists more than astrologers; they sought God in His works.

But we live in a world today that says that you either believe in science or you believe in religion but you cannot believe in both. Christ’s birth was a statement that knowledge was important; yet we seem today determine to limit the spread of knowledge in fear that it will destroy us.

Too many people today want religion to limit the boundaries of both society and the mind. Too many people use religion as an instrument of fear. And combined with political power, this fear is a very powerful tool.

Herod feared the Christ Child and we know what he did. The shepherds were fearful when the angels first told them of the Savior’s birth. But they overcame that fear and saw firsthand that hope had been born in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem. The wise men journey to an unknown land; surely they must have been afraid at times about having made that decision to travel so far. But they made the journey and beheld the wonders of the Christ Child. And they choose to travel a different direction home because of the knowledge that they have gained during that trip.

On Christmas, we are given the gift of freedom. It is a gift that goes beyond the walls of society and extends the limits of the mind. In accepting Christ as your Savior, you are given that gift. In allowing the Holy Spirit you can use this gift. The call today is to seek this gift, the birth of the Christ Child, and then use this gift so that others can find it to.