Jeremiah 33:14-16 Psalm 25:1-9 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13 Luke 21:25-36
This past Sunday, while on vacation, I decided to satisfy a curiosity and I attended Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Since I was a youth, I have seen AME churches in communities and wondered about them, but I never attended one nor did I ever do any research as to their history and their faith – until now.
I now know that the AME denomination split from the Methodist Church in the late 1700’s – the Methodist Church was then known as the Methodist Episcopal Church. After forming the Free African Society in response to the need for aide, two Methodist clergy, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen left the Methodist Church where blacks were treated as second class citizens. Absalom Jones formed the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, and Richard Allen and others who wished to remain Methodist, formed the AME denomination.
In high school I worked with a mission program of the Methodist church for two summers and was one of only a handful of whites who attended the Mallalieu United Methodist Church in Fort Smith. When a new minister was appointed whose wife was a wonderful gospel pianist, the church came alive. The level of energy and emotion expressed in the service and music was life giving – nothing like the church I attended throughout the school year. Last Sunday, I experienced some of the same at Bethel AME. Mind you, it was a much, much smaller congregation and there was no one playing the piano or organ as we sang the hymns – but the Spirit of God, love for God and one another was clearly present. It is a much different style of worship and not one that I can replicate in our liturgy or in my sermons – but I left feeling blessed for having been a part of their worship. I love our liturgy and worship, but it can be good to experience something different from time to time.
The Sunday before, my brother and I preached at the community Thanksgiving service which was held at the Compass Church. It, too, was a very different not only in the form of worship that we experience in the Episcopal Church but also in how the service is laid out . And, the Wednesday before that, the confirmation class from First United Methodist Church attended our Wednesday evening service to experience our liturgy. I invited my brother to serve with me, so the two of us served communion to these fifth and sixth graders. Afterwards we answered questions about the difference in how we approach worship.
So, these past two weeks have been an ecumenical experience for me. After years of focusing on how we, as Episcopalians, are different from other denominations – a hazard of being clergy, I have been challenged to consider how we are the same. I was recently on a panel at Lyon College to discuss the church’s views on sexuality, the Rev. Brent Swanson, the lead pastor for Fellowship Bible Church, and I agreed more often than we disagreed. I admit I was very surprised.
How are we different, and how are we the same? I think these are important questions to answer. We need to understand how our theology, our understanding of God varies, and where we share common ground. It is easy to focus on our differences as we have labels to separate ourselves from one another. Labels beyond just the name of our denominations. We are theologically liberal or conservative. We are progressive or traditional. And, of course, we use labels to describe ourselves in a more positive light than others, saying things like we are open and accepting as opposed to churches that closed and judgmental.
Yet, we all say there is but one God. Our differences are often more in where we focus our attention and how we worship. Our favorite scriptures tend to reflect differences in how we understand God. I focus on the two great commandments. Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. . . . And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Many denominations tend to focus on “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
I believe our primary focus needs to be on the here and now, on loving God, loving others – and loving ourselves. Others think our primary focus needs to be on God’s love for us, Christ’s sacrifice for our sins and the promise of eternal live. Where we focus our attention makes a difference in how we live our lives – but it does not negate the truth of both. We need to focus on the here and now, on being the people God has called us to be – and we give to recognize and accept God’s love for us.
Advent is a time of year when our differences stand out. Yesterday I saw a cartoon where two children were standing by an advent wreath. One is explaining it to the other and says, “We use it to count the days until Christmas. The younger child responds, “You mean so we’ll know how many shopping are left?” The older child, says, “I’m sensing a need for some remedial Sunday School.” In the Episcopal Church we observe the Season of Advent as a time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. Our Christmas Seasons begins Christmas Eve with our vigil and lasts for twelve days.
We are not only out of sync with the merchants, we are out of sync with most other Christians denominations by our observance of Advent. And, as noted in this month’s edition of St. Paul’s Epistle, our newsletter, the readings during this season focus on Christ’s coming, not his arrival. We anticipate what is to come, God coming in the flesh to be with us.
We see this in our reading from Jeremiah where he says, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.” Jesus will be born into the “house of David,” meaning he will be a descendent of King David, and Jesus will execute justice and righteousness in the land.
In the Gospel, Jesus talks about the day of judgment, which we as Christians say is the day Jesus comes again. His purpose is not to scare us into being good so as not to be caught doing something we shouldn’t be doing. He does say “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighted down . . .” by your sins and lack of faith, but then he says, “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things . . .,” meaning the trials and tribulations in this world and the temptation to celebrate Christmas too soon. Jesus tells us to pray for the strength “to stand before the Son of Man.”
Personally, I like to read this passage from Luke as a call to remember that we are always standing before Jesus and he is calling us to stand with him, serving all those who are, as he said in the first part of this passage, “faint from fear and foreboding what is coming upon the world.” We are to stand with those who are hurting, those who are grieving, those who are struggling to get through each day. This is what Christians of all denominations are called to do – to serve those in need. At Bethel, they took up two offering – one for mission, and one for the church.
Advent is not about preparing for Christmas morning, it is about preparing ourselves to doing the work Christ. The most important thing we can do to prepare, therefore, is to be silent and listen for Christ call to us – not an easy task when we are busy attending Christmas parties and shopping.
Let us pray.
Loving God, help us, we pray, to take time during the coming weeks to listen for your call. Open our hearts that we might see the needs of others and respond to them with love. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen