Sleep In Heavenly Peace: Advent 1 2018

The following is the first sermon of Advent 2018 at McFarland United Methodist Church in Rossville, Georgia. The series is “Calm and Bright: 200 Years of Silent Night” from Worship Design Studio.

Gracious God, open our ears that we may hear your truth, open our eyes that we may see your kingdom, and open our hearts and minds that we might know the cries of our brothers and sisters who are hungry, and hurting, and sometimes even dying without the knowledge of your love for them. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Happy New Year, McFarland!

No, I haven’t been raiding the spiked eggnog and getting confused. Today is the First Sunday of Advent and it marks the beginning of a new year in the Christian calendar, a cycle rhythm of our life together that celebrates the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Advent means preparation, preparation for a coming King. In our case, as followers of Jesus, we prepare in this cycle not only for the remembrance of the birth of the Christ, but also for his coming again to rule a kingdom that is here and yet to be fulfilled.

It is a time when we are called to slow down and prepare to receive the gift of Emmanuel, God with us, contrary to the popular belief being perpetrated by our favorite merchants who urge us to rush into the maddening crowd to the sound of what would be ringing cash register bells… if cash registers, or point of sale devices as we know them today had bells. Now we hear the annoying sound of the card reader telling us that it is ok to remove our credit or debit card from the machine.

Advent calls us to be counter-cultural as we prepare to receive the one who came to spend his life among us, teaching us how to live and how to love. The one who gave his life for us so that we may have life. The one whose resurrection ensures us the hope of our own transformation as we allow ourselves to be molded by his grace so that the image of the One who created us shines forth in us and through us to a world desperate for that light.

In this Advent season, we will celebrate the 200th Anniversary of one of the best loved Christmas Carols of all time: Silent Night. The song “Silent Night” came to be during an era when the entirety of Europe was in a state of dramatic transition. Political upheavals, wars and economic hardships bled and traumatized the peoples of the Salzburg and Bavaria for decades. Napoleon had disempowered, looted and set fire to entire stretches of land through a series of wars and military campaigns. Additionally, a natural catastrophe with dire consequences came to haunt Europe in the year 1816. The eruption of Mount Tambora in present day Indonesia in 1815 was the largest single volcanic event in nearly 2000 years.  The magnitude of the eruption particulates blown into the atmosphere caused the temperature across the earth to drop 1 degree Fahrenheit on average. Crop failures, debts and a “Year Without a Summer” led to hunger and even more hardship. Against this backdrop, Joseph Mohr composed his poem “Silent Night” in 1816. On Christmas Eve 1818, he passed the lyrics to Franz Xaver Gruber, who added a melody. The result was a Christmas message filled with hope and comfort.

During this series, each of the four weeks of Advent will be themed around each of the four verses of the carol. This week, we focus on Peace.

How appropriate it is for this first week of Advent to be about peace. It is something that we desperately need in our world, in our nation, in our church, in our lives. Divisions among us threaten to tear apart the very fabric of community and identity; divisions that are based primarily in fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of loss of power and influence, and mostly fear of “the other,” the outsider who isn’t like us… or so we are led to believe.

It is in this frame of mind that we engage with our Scripture this morning. In Isaiah 2, we are invited “to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” It is in this place that the Lord will judge between the nations and “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” Instruments of war shall be repurposed to instruments that can benefit all of humanity as the world, under the direction of the God of all nations enforces the dictum that “nation shall not lift up sword agains nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” This is not some Shangi-La pipe dream that the prophet is speaking of, this is the way it will be when the kingdom of God is fulfilled and fully established in the here and now.  Each one of us has the ability to bring peace. I’ll admit that it’s not so easy to do, but if each of us individually decides that the conflicts are not worth it, that the tensions are not worth it, that the animosity is not worth it, then we can make a difference. As the song says, “let peace begin with me,” and with God’s help it can.

On Christmas Eve of 1914, along the Western Front in France in the early months of World War I, British soldiers heard the familiar sound of their German counterparts singing Silent Night from only about 100 yards away across “No man’s land”, <Stille Nacht, Heileger Nacht> and they started to join in, each in their own language. First one, then another soldier from both sides ventured out into “no man’s land” and between soldiers, a temporary truce was called through the end of Christmas Day. Even though the soldiers on both sides were ordered to remain in their trenches and not fraternize with the enemy, the orders were ignored. Gifts of cigarettes and candy were exchanged, impromptu games of soccer were held and for one day in the early days of the war, humanity won the upper hand as soldiers on both side discovered that the things that they shared in common with one another were greater than the differences among them. Primarily that among the common soldier, none of them wanted to be there and that they were forced to be there by conscription. The average British, French, and German soldier had no beef with their counterpart, yet the war trudged on because the leaders had issues and, by God, they were going to fight for control. It was known as the Christmas Truce, and it appeared again, in a diminished form, in 1915, but disappeared in 1916 & 17 as the “War to End all Wars” dragged on and troops on both sides were eager for an end to the madness.

In Isaiah 9, we hear that “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” As we approach Christmas in this season of Advent, we experience the diminishing of the natural light here in the Northern Hemisphere as we approach the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year, at 5:23 pm on December 21 and we celebrate the fact that:

For a child has been born for us,

a son given to us;

authority rests upon his shoulders;

and he is named

Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

His authority shall grow continually,

and there shall be endless peace

for the throne of David and his kingdom.

He will establish and uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time onwards and for evermore.

Our exploration of the hymn “Silent Night” for this Advent/Christmas season is a way of “shining a light” on the power of reaching out across divides and getting silent enough to listen to the “hopes and fears of all the years” of those we tend to cast as the enemy (or simply “different”) for one reason or another. As we connect face to face, we each have the agency to reach out across divides and connect because we are humans with common human needs and, deep down, we all have the desire for peace for ourselves and our children. It might just change the course of history, if only for a day. 

For unto us a child is born… a child who brings light into the darkness. As followers of the light, let us allow that light to shine in us and through us to illuminate a darkened world. Thanks be to God.

The McFarland Free Store

This morning, I had the opportunity to experience my first Free Store at McFarland UMC. Now, you need to understand that the Free Store collects donated clothing and personal care items for those in need. I understand from Vicki Riddle, the co-ordinator and driving force behind the free store, that folks start arriving around 7:30 a.m. to be first in line to shop at the free store which opens at 9:15 or so.

We gathered in the Sanctuary at 9:00. After instructions from Vicki about the process (everyone registering is given a number and a few groups at a time are allowed to shop based on a first-come first-served basis), I gave a devotion based upon the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a devotion that was designed to reassure folks that they are a beloved child of God, no matter what they might have been told by others. Once we prayed, folks moved from the Sanctuary to the Hospitality space and the hallway to wait for their turn to shop. Coffee, cookies, and snacks were available while folks waited their turn. It was a pleasure to talk and pray with some of the clients. It was also a pleasure to talk with some of the volunteers that make this ministry happen.

The Free Store clientele reminds me of the clientele that we saw at the Tri-State Food Pantry during my time at Sand Mountain, people who just needed a hand-up and not a hand-out. There were folks who got the limit of what they could get and there were folks who just got what little they needed. Everyone who came had a chance to get something that they needed.

As I watched the morning unfold, I got to see the church be the church. People of different backgrounds reached out to their neighbors in need to provide a bit of comfort and a bit of respect for them as children containing the image of the living God within them. And, as I watched the church be the church, my heart was strangely warmed to see that my folks “get it.” Once again, I am so blessed to be their pastor.

Settling In

My first Sunday in this new appointment to McFarland UMC (101 E Gordon Ave., Rossville, GA) was July 1. I started moving into the office on June 20, but then Charlene and I took a leisurely trip to/from Saratoga Springs, NY to visit our daughter, Monica. After a couple of weeks of introduction, I will be starting a new sermon series following the Revised Common Lectionary readings in Ephesians that I’m calling “No Longer Strangers.” The texts and rough topics for this series are:

July 15        Ephesians 1:3-14     All in the Family
July 22        Ephesians 2:11-22   Aliens No More
July 29        Ephesians 3:14-21   God’s Powerful Love
August 5     Ephesians 4:1-16     Bound Together
August 12   Ephesians 4:25-5:2  Making Peace
August 19   Ephesians 5:15-20   Overflow

Paul’s letter to the Church at Ephesus is an interesting, and controversial, text.  However,  it is an important text dealing with how we, as the church, relate to each other and to the community in which we serve.  As we approach this first series together, I would invite you to read the entire letter to the Ephesians in one sitting.  It won’t take you more than a half hour.  Read to get a feeling of the gist of this letter.  If you have a copy of The Message by Eugene Peterson, read that since it will provide you with an overview of the letter.  Then set it aside for time.  Next, take your study Bible and read the text for this week. Note what you find that resonates with you.  Read it again.  Set it aside for a bit, then read it a third time, paying attention to the things that call to you in the text.  Once you do all of this preparation, you will be ready to engage the text in worship on Sunday morning.

As we enter into this 3rd week together, I look forward to engaging further with you.  Visitation with the shut-ins begins this week and I look forward to meeting all of you, hearing your stories, and establishing a vision for McFarland for the years to come.

I’m so thankful to be your pastor.  I am so thankful for the reception that you have given to me as we get to know each other.  My prayer is that we will seek and conform to God’s will for this community and our place in it.  Please pray for me as I pray for each one of you.

Blessings,
Wayne

To Be the Church

Last Sunday, in the opening of the Acts of the Apostles, we found Jesus making his last appearance with the disciples.  They were gathered on the mountaintop at Olivet and Jesus final words to them are reported with minor variances in the four Gospels, but there is a common theme.  In his final words, Christ commissions the disciples to go and preach repentance in Jesus’ name to all the nations.  In Luke’s Gospel, we hear:

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things.  And see, I am sending upon you what my Father has promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.

Parallel texts can be found in all of the Gospels and in the opening of the book of Acts.

In John, we hear “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

In Mark, “Go into all the world and proclaim the Good News to the whole creation.”

At the opening of the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we hear “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

But the description of the final words of Christ that we know best are found in the Gospel according to Matthew:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

This Great Commission, as it has come to be known, along with the other scriptures, call all of us to a life of action.  Hear again the action words in the Great Commission.

We are to go.

We are to make.

We are to teach.

And, we are to remember.

When Jesus ascended to the Father as we heard it described in Acts 1, we hear these words: “While he was going and they (the disciples) were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  The angels were telling them to get off their duffs, to stop looking and start living; living the life that Jesus had called them to live and living the commission that he had given to them.

The disciples returned to Jerusalem, to the same upper room that they have occupied since the time of the crucification and they wait.  Well, the waiting is over.  It’s the day of Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit has arrived and the Spirit has arrived with a vengeance.

We’re told that like a mighty rush of wind, the Spirit swooshes in upon them, descending upon them like tongues of fire.  In that moment, they are seized with a power to speak in other languages… not some gibberish “spirit language,” but languages that are the native languages of the folks passing by in the streets below… and the disciples are all telling of the Gospel of Jesus Christ fluently in these foreign languages and the people who hear them are amazed.  Everyone wonders what this is all about… some of the more cynical among them speculate that the disciples are drunk.

When Peter addresses the crowd, he reminds them of the words of the prophet Joel…

In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
    Your sons and daughters will prophesy.
    Your young will see visions.
    Your elders will dream dreams…
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. (Acts 2:17,21 CEB).

Peter continued the sermon, encouraging those who were listening to give their hearts and their lives to Jesus, to change their lives and at the end of the day, nearly 3,000 were baptized and they became a community of faith.

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. All the believers were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47).

This was the day that the church was born.

Recently, we’ve heard the news from the Pew Study of Religious Life that Christianity is losing ground in America.  Almost across the board, the percentages of people in America who identify as Christian are dropping.  The number of persons identifying as having no religious preference, the “nones” are increasing…these folks aren’t necessarily atheist (people who believe that there is no god) or agnostic (folks who really aren’t sure if there is a god or not), they are typically folks who really don’t care either way.  There is another number that is increasing as well, and these are the “dones” the folks who have just dropped out of the church because they are tired of the infighting, the hypocrisy, and the close alignment between some factions of evangelical Christianity and a social conservatism that is shrill, hateful, and so far removed from the concept of loving neighbor…the 2nd part of the Great Commandment, if you can remember.

Now, I’m not worried about the Church.  The holy, apostolic, and universal (or catholic) church.  I’m not worried about it because Jesus told Peter in Matthew 16:18 “upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”

But I am concerned that we in North America just don’t get it  Not long ago, Dr Marsha McFee, a leader in worship design and practice presented this thought, “It’s ok if people hate you because you are a Christian.  It’s not ok if people hate Christianity because of you.”  This quote came from her atheist neighbor who heard it from who knows where.

In so many cases we have forgotten that the church is the people, broken people who have been empowered in their baptism and in the baptism of the Holy Spirit with gifts that are to be used to build the kingdom of God here on earth.  In too many cases, the focus of the church has become the building; in too many cases, that building has either become an albatross or an idol or both and it causes us to lose sight of our mission.

Paragraph 120 in the Book of Discipline tells us what our mission is: “The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  That is the mission of every one of us in this room today.  The mission might sound vaguely familiar.  Matthew 28:19 anyone?  “Go and make disciples of all nations…”  I told the folks at our Wednesday night dinner and devotional that the Greek could also be translated this way, “As you go, disciple” which changes the word disciple from a noun… an object to be acted upon to a verb which connotes action.

With the idea that mission informs vision which in turn generates missions into the world, I want to share the vision statement of the Holston Annual Conference with you… it’s something that we should be hearing often… and believe me, you will:

God envisions
bold, passionate, and joyful communities of faith
where the spiritual hunger to worship God and to serve Christ
sets disciples on fire with Spirit-filled, risk-taking love for all God’s children
until Holston Conference reflects the saving grace
and redeeming justice of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Where is our boldness?

Where is our passion?

Where is our joy?

Several years ago, Bishop Swanson asked us to consider the question, “If you church closed its doors tomorrow, would anyone notice?  Would anyone care?”  It’s a question that has been haunting me for the last couple of weeks.

First, let me salute the ministries that are being done through the UMW, through the Food Pantry, through individuals working with Relay for Life , the Quilts of Valor program and others.  We do a pretty good job of caring for each other and, when we see a need we try to help.  This not only plays out in the local community, but elsewhere as well.  For example, when the Sand Mountain choir had its Valentine Dinner last year, a portion of the proceeds from that night went to Heiffer International to purchase a water buffalo for a family… a gift that will be a long term benefit to that family.

These ministries are great things, but I think we can do better.  I’m not suggesting that we should re-invent the wheel, but that we can find ways to work together with our other United Methodist churches in the area to make an even bigger difference in the lives of people that we touch.

Once again, this year’s Annual Conference mission offering is staying right here in the Holston Conference to fund block grants to churches and ministries within the conference that impact children in poverty.  These block grants will be divided among the 12 districts in Holston and they will be administered at the local level.  Bishop Taylor has challenged us to a minimum of $10 per regular attendee, not only that, but she has challenged each of us to give 10 hours of service to a ministry that benefits children in poverty… to my mind, the Tri-State Food Pantry fits that definition.

To put this into perspective, for this church:

Rising Fawn: $300 Sand Mountain: $310

That doesn’t sound like a lot, but if all of the churches in the Holston Conference, some 887 congregations, met the goal of $10 per average attendee, we would raise $685,000 to help children in poverty right here in our own back yard.  We proved that we could accomplish big goals 3 years ago with our $1 million dollar goal for Imagine No Malaria. We raised $1.2 million… pretty impressive considering the most that we had ever raised in a conference offering before was $175,000.

Finding ways to work together with Trenton, New Salem, Morganville, Slygo, Whiteside, Wildwood, and Payne’s Chapel and, of course, with (Rising Fawn/Sand Mountain), we can make a greater impact on Dade County than we could ever do on our own.  Finding ways to work in tandem with the Upper Sand Mountain Parish in the North Alabama Conference could help us to have an impact upon an entire region.

I’m not asking us to work harder, although that wouldn’t hurt, but by breaking down the barriers, whether they be jealousy, pride, or any number of things that provide stumbling blocks to our mission of making disciples and caring for the least of these, I believe that we can work smarter and reach more people who need to see the church in action, but more than that, they need to see Jesus reflected in all that we say, all that we do, and in all that we are.

And it doesn’t matter how old or how young we are, this calling is for all of us.  As we hear from the prophet Joel, your young will see visions, your elders will dream dreams.”  You’ve heard me talk about Peg Butler, telling you that at age 97 she considered her ministry to be driving the old folks to the store.  She died two years ago at age 104 and 6 months.  One of the stories told about her at her memorial service was from when she was in her mid 80’s and serving on a visitation team at Brainerd UMC. She would stop by to greet visitors to the church, leave them a basket of home made cookies and invite them to come again.  On one visit, as the story goes, as Peg issued the invitation, the person receiving it said, “I don’t know.  I’m 73 years old and find it difficult to get out.”  Peg’s response was “Well, I’m 86 and I’m there every week.”

On the opposite end of the scale, 7 years ago, a 10 year old boy named Jack Skowronnek, read a book about a 4 year old boy with cancer and his teenaged brother who shaved his head in solidarity with his baby brother when the 4 year old lost his hair from chemotherapy.  Jack started what is now known as Jack’s Chattanoggins and on July 17,  the 17 year old Jack will be at the Chattanooga Market where folks will be shaving their heads to raise money for Children’s Hospital at Erlanger.  So far, over $130,000 has been raised.

Your young will see visions, your elders will dream dreams…

As the body of Christ, we should be in the vision and dream business as we go about seeking God’s vision and God’s dreams for us and our communities and then making those dreams happen.

We are not alone.

We can make a difference.

Together, we can transform the world in Jesus’ name.

So, what are we waiting for?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.