“The Presence Under The Tree”

Here is the sermon for the 1st Sunday after Christmas, 30 December 2012. The Scriptures for this Sunday are 1 Samuel 2: 18 – 20, 26; Colossians 3: 12 – 17; and Luke 2: 41 – 52.

At Grace UMC (Newburgh, NY) we are celebrating Laity Sunday this Sunday. This message was presented by Debra Albrecht (who outlined the plans of the church for the coming year in her part of the message), Eric Szulewski (one of the youth of the church who asked the questions that Jesus might have asked the teachers and leaders), and myself.

There is a reason for the title and it becomes evident to the congregation at the end of the message; I put in an explanation but don’t jump to the end of the message to find out what I did.

Service begins at 10 am this Sunday. On Tuesday, January 1st, Grannie Annie’s Kitchen will be open from 11 to 1 to serve soup and bread. All are welcome as we begin the New Year.

The Presence Under The Tree”

So here we have come, to the end of another year, a year of sadness and disappointment, joy and wonder. A year where loved ones were lost; new lives began. And while we look back on the year that was, we also look forward to the year that is to be.

Each year at this time, we have to the opportunity to cast aside the worries and fears that have collected in our minds and throw them out with the beginnings of a new year. Each year also gives us the opportunity to take from the old year in order to make the new year a better one. And, in that regard, the transition from 2012 to 2013 is no different than any other year. Or is it?

In 2012, the United Methodist Church received the Bishop’s Call to Action. In one sense this is one of the most frightening documents ever composed, for it prophesizes that unless something is done and done quickly, the United Methodist Church will cease to exist within the timeframe of the next generation. But as frightening and ominous as that might sound, in the same pages a way to turn things around is suggested and offered.

The church today can no longer pretend or even strive to be what some would like it to be, the imposer of moral authority and judge of what is morally right or wrong. It must show the way to a better world, both on earth and in heaven.

The church today must be what it once was; it must be the place where people, no matter if they are members of the church or not, can find hope and peace, and come to find and know Christ for themselves.

Simply stated, to answer the Bishops’ Call to Action, the church, as a denomination, a conference, a district, or individual congregation, can no longer simply be a church that is present in the community; it must become a presence in the community.

Debra Albrecht

To be a presence in the community requires several things. It requires a commitment to the ongoing operations of the church. In the first reading for today, we read of Samuel’s mother preparing new clothes for Samuel each year, Her commitment to Samuel’s growth wasn’t merely to say that Samuel was God’s; it was also in her seeing that each year he had the proper materials to be the priest. It is a reminder that each one of us has to have an understanding of what is taking place so that we may better practice our faith, better establish the presence of faith and Christ in this community.

We begin the New Year with an understanding that Grace Church will commit to the Action Plan developed and established last year. As we move into the New Year we will educate, communicate, delicate and fully commit to the 5 year plan to make this church a relevant part of this community. We hear in our reading from 1 Samuel the story of Samuel’s mother’s preparations for her son’s new life. We can begin to see how we all need to grow and change and find the wisdom and strength to move forward toward the future.

My daughter Jenny help me to understand the generation of new believers recently. Over the holiday she was sharing with me a little about the religion course she attended this Fall. As I listened she explained that her generation of 20 year olds are defining themselves as spiritual and not religious. What does that mean for us?

We could see that this generation is looking for a community of believers that are open hearted and committed to showing the love of God in whatever they do. When we are less judgmental and more accepting we show how God loves all and a new life can be found in Jesus Christ. Look to your own heart and ask if you are willing to have a church that truly has an open heart and open doors to transform the world.

Our action Plan for the future is a detailed report with set goals for the future. Our main focus will be on creating dynamic worship renewal with emphasis on the following. (I will explain briefly each point)

  1. Embracing, Igniting and Uniting through Worship
  2. Sojourning
  3. Restructuring redesigning relevancy
  4. Embracing and redefining leadership

You, like all the members of this church, will be involved in this plan. Each committee in the church council has a set of goals in the plan, let us all work to achieve this goals. The finance committee is working on their set of plans to help the church be financially strong. The committee is ready to make these plans and set goals. We all need to prepare ourselves and be clothed in the spirit of Jesus Christ, the one who we all are called to serve. Now Eric will share some insights of a new generation of believers.

Eric Szulewski

To understand the church’s presence in the community, it must also offer a vision, not just of God’s Kingdom, but where it sees itself in the coming years. It must be a vision that echoes all the voices of the community, not just a select few.

The Gospel reading for today reminds us that when He was twelve, Jesus engaged the teachers and rabbis in a discussion of the Torah. It may have been that they were amazed at His understanding but then again, how many times had they had such a discussion with the young men and young women that would be the leaders of the community? What are the concerns and thoughts, what are the questions that today’s young people would ask of the elders of the church?

Here are the questions I would ask this morning:

  1. How should I ask my friends to come to church with me?
  2. How can I make my faith a larger part of my life?
  3. What can the Bible tell a teenager about growing up, even in today’s world?
  4. How can I tell my friends about Christ without being pushy?
  5. We hear of all the negative news stories in the media, how do we know God is here with us, even with such horrible things happening so close?


There is no doubt that without some sort of plan, it becomes very difficult for a church or any organization to have a current presence in a community. Without a vision, without an understanding of the future, it becomes almost impossible to venture into the region of tomorrow. But it is equally impossible and impractical for a church to have a presence in the community without the presence of Christ in the lives and practices of each member and each individual associated with the church.

There is no doubt that John Wesley had things in place when he began what would become the Methodist Revival. There is no doubt that he had a vision of the future, a church that was responsive to the needs of the people.

And yet, until that moment that we have come to call Aldersgate, the Methodist movement was wallowing in abject failure. What drove John Wesley to the Aldersgate chapel that May evening in 1738 was a sense of failure, that no matter hard he worked, nothing he had done amounted to anything.

And what many people do not know is that so great was this sense of failure that Charles Wesley was convinced that he was about to die because of it. But when he compared his experiences with his brother John, he would discover that the burden of illness was lifted from him at almost the same time that John felt his heart strangely warmed. In both cases, the presence of the Holy Spirit became a part of their lives and it was that presence that would change the direction and fortune of the Methodist Revival.

A blogging colleague of mine, John Meunier, a local United Methodist Pastor in Indiana, offers the following thoughts:

We United Methodists talk about John Wesley in a lot of odd ways. We quote him, sometimes wildly out of context.

But for good or ill, he is part of what makes us who we are as Christians. A group of English Christians became convinced of some core truths about the real meaning of Christianity and being a Christian. They put those ideas into practice. And 300 years later, here we are.

When someone asks me what makes United Methodism different from another denomination, I nearly always go to Wesleyan theology.

One answer that I came up with a couple years ago and continue to find confirmed in my reading and experience comes down to one word: holiness. Wesley often quoted Hebrews 12: 14b – “without holiness no one will ever see the Lord.” He wrote over and over about the connection between holiness and salvation. Indeed, he saw them as two different words for the same thing.

Holiness is the state in which our heart is filled with love for God and humankind. It is the place in which we follow the laws of God with joy. It is the condition of soul in which we rejoice in God our savior whatever comes our way.

Before any other doctrine or practice that would become hallmarks of Methodism occurred to John Wesley, he was convinced of this doctrine: without holiness, no one will see the Lord. Indeed, this doctrine was a source of great anxiety for Wesley because he knew he was not holy. Aldersgate was such a relief because he discovered something that explained why he had failed so often. (from John Meunier, “Methodists: Holiness is essential”

It is very easy to say that one is a member of a church and that they are a Christian but such words are often hollow if the actions of the individual do not match the words and the thoughts. Paul several times tells the Christians to “clothe themselves” with behaviors and practices indicative of their status as “God’s chosen ones,” not unlike Samuel wearing the ephod and the robe. These practices include compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and love, “the belt of perfection” (3:12-14). All of these things take time and considerable practice to “put on.” They must be learned and practiced intentionally in communities as dedicated to these things as a priestly community is dedicated to its craft. One might call these the “habit of community.”

It bothers some people when you tell them that they need be wearing the cloak of Christ. They were brought up in believing and expecting that one’s personal belief in Christ is a private, personal statement. They equate the wearing of the cloak of Christ to the preacher, perhaps standing on the street corner and holding his Bible high in the air while exhorting the people to repent of their ways.

And I have met many people who don’t have a clue as to what they are to do when their pastor, perhaps Southern born and Southern bred, closes a particularly moving passage in the sermon with a request for the congregation to shout “AMEN!”

But wearing the cloak of Christ is not about where you were born, how you were raised, what translation of the Bible you read, or what songs you sing. It is about where Christ is in your life. You may go about working to meet the goals of the church but if Christ is not in your life while you are doing it, it will be an almost emotionless, mechanical response. You may believe, as I once did, that all one has to do is work for peace and justice and live a righteous life and all will turn out well in the end.

But, one afternoon in 1969, at one of the darkest points of my life, a point one might consider my Aldersgate moment, it was pointed out to me that nothing I did, no matter how good the job may be, will get me into Heaven. It is by God’s grace and the death of Christ on the cross that I have the access that I think my work here on earth will give me.

It may bother people that works without faith just get one hot, tired, and sweating. They may decide that it is not worth the effort. But we also have to understand that the opposite view, faith without works, does little to build the Kingdom of God.

And if you understand what it truly, truly means to be an United Methodist, then you understand that to walk in the footsteps of Philip Otterbein, Martin Boehm, John & Charles Wesley or to ride the trails that Francis Asbury once rode, you have to put your faith to work.

It is with that understanding that our faith, our lives are always going to fall short of the perfection of Christ but that should not stop us from seeking that perfection. If we are not going to seek the perfection of Christ in our lives, if we are not going to give our best for Christ, then who do we do it for? Sure we are bound to make mistakes but to do nothing so that you don’t make any mistakes is probably worse. If you do nothing with your faith, you neither grow in faith or spirit or help others to do likewise. (Can I have an AMEN!).

The plans of the church, the vision of the future are all meaningless unless you first not only put on the cloak of Christ but you let Christ into your life and let Him, through the Holy Spirit, work through you.

We are given a gift each year and a lot of times I think we leave it unopened under the tree. It is not in a fancy wrapped box, often times, it is not even seen. But it is the real and existing presence of Christ, that began that first Christmas some two thousand years ago and continues to shine each and every day. If one lets it, it will outshine every other light; but even if it just adds an after-glow to the scenery, it cannot be hidden.

At this point, I will be bringing a box from underneath the Christmon Tree next to the pulpit and opening it up. Inside is a large light bulb that will increase in luminosity as I increase the current. Hopefully, it will give the feeling of the Holy Spirit present.

Christ did not have to die on the cross but He choose to do so. Our choice is a far simpler one. We don’t have to do a thing. But the world will remain dark and cold.

Or we can take the presence of Christ from underneath the tree and take it into the world and through our thoughts, our words, our deeds, and our actions help it to grow until it shines throughout the whole world and universe.

2 thoughts on ““The Presence Under The Tree”

  1. Pingback: “What Did You Get For Christmas?” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  2. Pingback: The Unwrapped Christmas Present | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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