If you haven’t figured out by now, I am fascinated by the political world. As a child, I was more interested in watching the news than cartoons. I remember a time in elementary school that highlights this fascination. We had a dress-up day where we dressed in apparel from the 1950s. Most of my classmates came in white T-shirts, slick back hair, or, for the girls, poodle skirts. I came dressed as President Harry S. Truman.
One of the things that captivates my interest in politics are the major speeches politicians make from time to time. These speeches serve multiple functions. Sometimes, the speeches are used to inspire people to the cause of liberty and freedom. At other times, they are tools to promote one’s ideas for the country, especially in an election year. As well, sadly, these speeches are often attempts to console a grieving nation after a time of loss.
The speech I am the most interested in is the “State of the Union” address. Even though the speech preempts our favorite television programs, it is an important speech. It acknowledges the previous year’s accomplishments. It makes comments regarding the country’s current condition. Finally, it sets a vision for the future and announces plans to reach those goals. Often, it is the most important speech a head of government gives each year.
On this the second Sunday of 2012, I believe it is appropriate, and perhaps fun, to use the basic principles we find in a “State of the Union” and apply them to our two churches. Today, is our “State of the Pulpit.” What follows will be an honest dialogue about the state of our two churches as we move forward in 2012, which I firmly believe will be an exciting and prosperous year for our churches. I hope these words are met with the same love and encouragement that they are given. Today, I want to begin casting a vision for us as a charge, which sets the tone of how we will proclaim the loving and gracious name of Jesus Christ in our communities in 2012 and beyond.
First, I want to take a moment and look at where we’ve been, both historically and in the past year. This is important for us. Looking at who we are and where we’ve been is our act of remembering what God has done in us and through us. This idea is a central theme in our understanding of communion. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul says we are to remember all that Christ did and continues to do through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a great reminder for all of us that the activity of the church, both locally and globally, is the ongoing ministry and representation of Jesus Christ.
There is much history between our two churches. We are familiar of the stories of Confederate Brigadier General John Hunt Morgan’s raid, which came through Mackville and interrupted the plans of a convocation dinner the church was preparing. We know Antioch served as a hospital during the Battle of Perryville, and some who fought in the war are buried on our grounds. But, there is more to our history than these stories and many like it. The story of Mackville United Methodist and Antioch United Methodist are filled with memories of life changing moments where God transformed the lives of many people through the ministry and mission of our two churches. We could spend hours talking about the many blessings God has poured out on our two churches. We should praise God, today and always, for what has transpired in the history of our charge and how God has used us to serve the “least of these” and to proclaim the truth of God’s love to all.
As we think back on the past year, God has worked in us and through us to care for the poor and needy in our communities and world. We have been used by God to proclaim the truth of Christ’s love to all people through our generosity. I am always humbled to share with others the many ways you give of yourselves for others. At Christmas, Mackville provided a major blessing to a family in need by providing a Christmas they will never forget. When I took the gifts to them, they were blown away by an entire trunk full of gifts. I’m always blessed by the compassion the people of Antioch show to all people. At both churches, we have formed a relationship with Harvesting Hope that will carry forward in this new year. We have lived out Jesus’ call in Matthew 25:34-36 to see the least of God’s children as an opportunity to serve Christ himself.
However, we cannot live on past accomplishments and blessings alone. We are called to be forward thinking. We must continually discern God’s desires and how God wants to use us as messengers and servants of God’s love for all people. This means we must make an honest and loving assessment of where we are today, so we may move forward in sharing the grace of God. When we do this, we are able to be a witness of God’s love and participate in the ongoing mission of the Spirit in Mackville, Perryville, Danville, Harrodsburg and all corners of the earth.
In order to grow numerically and spiritually, we must be honest about our current condition. The glaring challenge before us in 2012 is our worship attendance. This is not a new challenge. While we have a consistent number of worshipers each week, we have reached a critical point where the decline in numbers must be discussed seriously and openly. As we look ahead to the next five or ten years, our attendance could lead to potential issue that are all too common for small churches. At both Mackville and Antioch, we have a generation gap. That means, we have a gap in the worship participation and the membership between various generations. This gap exists, for the most part, between those over the age of 60 and those between the ages of 20 and 35. In other words, we are not reaching young adults and their families. A thriving and stable church should be able to reach people of all age ranges and demographics.
Part of this has to do with the changing natures of our communities. More people, especially younger families, are moving away, which makes it harder to retain and reach new members. But, that should not stop us. As I have said before, there is a vast mission field all around us of people who are waiting for the church to come to them. This is why I believe worship attendance is not a problem, but a challenge. It is a challenge that, in 2012, will require the work of all of us to address and work to reach out to people in new ways. We have shown the ability to fill our churches on special occasions, but let us show our willingness to fill our congregations each time we are gathered to worship and glorify the Lord.
I firmly believe our two churches can be like the dry bones that are found in Ezekiel 37:1-14. Ezekiel is taken to a valley of dry bones, which represented the people of Israel. They had lost their focus and obedience to God as their first love. They were worn out, exhausted, and, because of that, there was no energy arising from God’s Spirit living within them. Ezekiel is looking around, when God asks him a question. It is a question that, perhaps, God is asking of us today. “Can these bones become living people again?” For us, “Can this church, and charge, be alive with the Spirit of God again?” As we see in Ezekiel, when God’s Spirit blows it creates an energy that can bring life to what was once dead. The is true for the church. When God’s Spirit is alive and manifested in the life of a community, a new energy is prospered that can transform and bring to life a community with new people, new ministries, and new opportunities to proclaim God’s love.
“Can this church and charge be alive again?” I believe the answer to that question is a resounding yes. Together, we can be a church that is like the dry bones that came to life. We can be renewed and revitalized for a purpose of serving God faithfully in our communities. For this to happen, we must look forward and set the course for this process to begin.
There are two comments I want to make. As we move forward, we must follow Christ’s words in Matthew 10:16. When sending the Disciples out on their first mission, he calls them to be like “sheep among wolves” and “shrewd as snakes.” What Christ is saying is we must be wise and make thoughtful decisions about how best to serve our communities. We must understand the changing culture, and our changing communities, and understand how we might adapt to reach our people. We must be gracious and compassionate towards all people. As well, we must be willing to go where our people are and engage them. The people who are not in church on Sundays will not come to us unless we are willing to go to them. This will require us to ask serious questions of how best to reach and engage our Jerusalem of Mackville, Perryville and Harrodsburg, as we go out to the Judea of Springfield and Danville, the Samaria of our many counties and to all the ends of the earth of the entire Commonwealth, nation and world. This is Christ’s call, from Acts 1, of how we are to go out into the world, and it is our call as a church as well.
Also, we must be passionate about Paul’s words in Ephesians 3:14-21. These words will guide us as we enter this time of visioning and revitalization. In verse 17, Paul calls us to be “rooted” in God’s love. As individuals and as a charge, our vision and purpose should be rooted in God’s grace. This grace has its core in the life of Jesus Christ. The grace that appeared on Christmas morning, was seen by the Wise Men on this Epiphany Sunday, and redeemed us all on Easter should be our focal point. Everything we do and desire to be should be formulated in the love of Christ, which knows no end. God’s love, which we receive through the Holy Spirit, must be at the center of our church, our charge, and our lives. It must be our guiding light at all times.
The love of Christ strengthens us in times of discouragement and in times of challenges. There are multiple forms of love. There is the love God shows us, which is expressed in God’s grace and mercy. It builds us up to a point where we can reach the mountains of all God has for us in our communities. Christ strengthens us as we remember all the blessings that has occurred in the past, but also as we set a path for the future. As we are strengthened, we come to seek a deeper dependency on the love of Christ. There is also the love that is our respect and adoration for all God has done in us, through us, and in spite of us. This is the love that we are called to share with others. As we meet people and invite them to church, we are telling our love story of God’s grace that redeemed us and gave us a purpose to be witnesses who share the width, depth, length, and heights of God’s love to all people.
The story of Mackville United Methodist and Antioch United Methodist is not finished. Our story is not complete. There are more chapters to write. God is at work writing the story, and we are called to participate in the story by participating in the mission of God here in our communities through the actions of our church and charge. This year will be a time of visioning and revitalization, but more importantly it will be a time of hope and new beginnings. My hope is we will look back on 2012 as the year that the bones came to life, energy was fostered, and a new vision and hope came forth.
May that hope, and, most importantly, the hope of our love in Jesus Christ guide us each day as we seek to live as witnesses of Christ in our lives and in this charge.