It occurred to me that many of us, myself included, have often used the pandemic and our current denominational stress as excuses to put off doing the important work of the church. We decided that we didn’t want to invite people to church because, well, we weren’t having in-person church, or because we were only having parking lot church, or because we were afraid that they might not want to come because they’d heard about the division within our denomination. But the problem with that kind of procrastination, is that it’s and excuse that never ends.
Every one of us has heard Harry Chapin’s 1974 hit song, “Cat’s in the Cradle.” In it, the man telling the story always promises his son that he would find time for them to be together, but he never did. And at the end of the song, the son is exactly the man that his father was, and repeatedly promises that one day they will find the time to be together. But sadly, we all know that they never will. We hear a similar tale in Robert Bloch’s story “That Hellbound Train.”
In it, a young hobo, Martin, makes a deal with the devil and exchanges a trip to hell for a watch that will allow him to stop time at the happiest moment of his life. And at each of his happiest moments, his wedding day, the birth of his children, Martin debates whether he should use the watch and stop time or if an even happier moment is yet around the corner. And, in the end, Martin never manages to use the devil’s watch before he dies.
Our reaction to our current crises seems to be the same.
We all thought Covid was going to go away in a few weeks, or months, and here we are, more than two years along that road, and still the end is not yet in sight. We keep hearing promises that our denominational confusion will end at “the next General Conference,” but I remember that my pastor and mentor, Linda Somerville, had the same hope when elected as a delegate to the 2000 or 2004 General Conference. Even now, even as churches are choosing to leave our denomination and form another, I simply do not believe that the end is anywhere in sight.
What I’m trying to say, is that there is no point in waiting to do the things that we know that we must do. We know that our church must continue to do the work of Jesus Christ, we know that we must continue to reach out, to be agents of healing and hope, and to continue the mission that Jesus Christ has given to us in Alliance, in Ohio, and in the world. We know that we must grow, we know that we must become an invitational church, we know that we need to reach out to our neighbors, coworkers, family, and friends. We know that we must show them the love that Jesus has shared with us, and invite them to be a part of Christ Church, and a part of Christ’s eternal kingdom.
There’s never going to be a “perfect” time. We don’t know when, or even if, this pandemic is going to end, or what the new normal will look like on the other side of it. We have no idea when, or if, the division within our denomination will end, or if it will just transmogrify into some new kind of debate.
There’s no point in waiting.
There is no benefit to procrastinating or kicking the can down the road.
The only thing that makes any sense, is for us, to do the things that God has called us to do…
Last week I shared a little about what is happening in our United Methodist denomination and what may or may not happen in the future. We are still at a place where much can change, and the situation could be quite different after the next General Conference in 2024. In the end, we still have no idea how that might affect us here at Christ Church but regardless of what happens, we can anticipate that whatever happens, there will, eventually, be some significant, and dramatic changes.
And it was last week’s conversation that struck me as I read this week’s scripture from Luke’s account of the Acts of the Apostles contained in Acts 11:1-18 where he says this:
11:1 The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him 3 and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”
4 Starting from the beginning, Peter told them the whole story: 5 “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance, I saw a vision. I saw something like a large sheet being let down from heaven by its four corners, and it came down to where I was. 6 I looked into it and saw four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, reptiles, and birds. 7 Then I heard a voice telling me, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’
8 “I replied, ‘Surely not, Lord! Nothing impure or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’
9 “The voice spoke from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ 10 This happened three times, and then it was all pulled up to heaven again.
11 “Right then three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. 12 The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them. These six brothers also went with me, and we entered the man’s house. 13 He told us how he had seen an angel appear in his house and say, ‘Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. 14 He will bring you a message through which you and all your household will be saved.’
15 “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?”
18 When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
As I read this, I noticed something that we often skip past, and when I thought about it, that one thing reframed how I thought about the entire passage. The thing that we often fail to notice is in the very beginning when it says who had heard about what Peter was doing. It says that “the apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles” had received the word of God. When they heard these stories, they summoned Peter and criticized him for preaching to uncircumcised men or, in other words, Gentiles or, you know, those people. That doesn’t seem too surprising, but remembering that among the people having this conversation with Peter were the apostles, the eleven disciples of Jesus, and the other believers who were among those men and women who personally knew Jesus, their presence then becomes important to understanding Peter’s explanation of what he did, what he saw, and what happened.
And then we get to verse fifteen, Peter says that as he was speaking to the Gentiles that had gathered in Caesarea and “the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning.” And this is where it’s important to remember who was there. It was the disciples and the early followers of Jesus that were listening. When Peter says that the Spirit of God came upon the Gentiles just as it had come upon them, we remember that on the day of Pentecost, the Spirit came with a “sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” And so, when Peter tells them that this is exactly the way that it happened to the Gentiles, this is what they all remember and I’m certain that’s why this passage concludes by saying, “When they heard this, they had no further objections.”
I’m certain, that the day, and the events, of Pentecost were something that none of them could ever forget. And hearing that the same thing had happened to the Gentiles immediately eliminated any other objections that they might have had as faithful, orthodox, and practicing Jews. It was obvious that the world was changing in ways that none of them had ever expected, or even imagined. But the message was also clear, that God was at work and that God could be found within those changes.
Today we are facing profound challenges and a world that is changing in ways that we never expected or imagined. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed, and continues to change, the world around us. The war in Ukraine has sent ripples of change around the world that has impacted fuel prices, supply chains, caused shortages in diapers, baby formula, fresh vegetables, sound system components, paper, floor wax, and all sorts of other things. And as we continue to watch the unfolding drama within our own denomination, regardless of where the future may carry us, the one thing of which we can be certain, is that we will see profound change.
But as we face these changes, and as we leave the old “normal” behind us forever, there remains one thing of which we can always be certain.
God is at work in the world and God can always be found within the changes.
Rather than worrying and living in fear, let us instead look for God, look to see what God is doing in the world, and seek to understand what work that God has for us to do as we move forward into a new normal.
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com . All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.
This year, our season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, on March 2nd.
But what will that look like?
Lent is a time to remember and to reflect. Spring is coming. And with its arrival, we will celebrate Jesus’ resurrection at Easter. Ordinarily, we see Lent as a time to prepare. A time to give up a favorite treat, food, or activity to remind ourselves of Jesus’ sacrifice and to reflect on him whenever we think about our abstinence from the thing that we “gave up” for Lent. But over the past two years we’ve all given up so many things, my heart almost breaks when I think about giving up anything else.
Our hearts ache for the return of “normal.”
And isn’t that sort of the point?
And so, let’s think about Lent, and our preparation for Easter with that in mind. Last year, we couldn’t be together for Lent. We held Ash Wednesday online, but in dispensing own ashes, and marking our own foreheads, we missed out on pieces that felt crucial to our sense of belonging and normalcy. This year we are worshipping in person and this year we will hold Ash Wednesday in person (and since we noticed that our attendance at our virtual Ash Wednesday far exceeded our regular in-person service, we will also have a livestream).
As we walk through the scriptures of preparation during Lent, you will notice that then, like now, the disciples were passing through a season of radical change. Their routines were disrupted. They were separated from their families, from Jesus, and often from one another. By Easter morning they were heartbroken, frustrated, grieving, and longing for a return to normal. And while our circumstances are vastly different, our own experiences over the last two years certainly make us appreciate what they were going through.
And, assuming the progress of the pandemic continues the downward trend that we’ve been seeing, let’s plan to be together on Easter. Let us use this time to start breaking the habits of the pandemic. Rather than “giving up” for Lent, let’s start “adding back.” Let’s try to attend church on Sunday rather than on Monday or Tuesday (remember YouTube tells me when you’re watching), try to get back in the habit of watching “live” at 10:15 instead of watching in the afternoon and try to attend weekly instead of skipping weeks.
In short, let us use this season of lent hopefully, and prepare ourselves for a return to as “normal” and Easter as we can muster.
Let us commit to a season of preparation so that we will arrive on Easter morning renewed, refreshed, equipped, expectant, and joyful.
My hope is that we can journey together during this season of anticipation and arrive, together, joyfully on Easter morning.