“The Right Time!”
(From Scripture Mark 1: 29-39)
In the morning, while it was still dark, he [Jesus] got up and went to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is looking for you.” He answered, “Let us go into the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (Mark 1: 35-38, NRSV).
I suspect that we are all familiar with the old adage, “Timing is everything.” It implies the same message as the one King Solomon revealed in Ecclesiastes 3—that there is a season and a right time for everything, for every matter under heaven. This perspective leads us to an understanding that we need to be watching for signs and be prepared to shift gears to be “on-time” for a change in the seasons.
A case in point that illustrates this lesson occurred in my home Church in the mid-1980s. The Church was located in the inner-city of Schenectady, New York. In its Post-World War II heyday of the 1950s, the Church was a booming representative of the programmatic church model of that time. Its 1800-era sanctuary was upgraded at this time to accommodate the ever-growing congregation through a massive building campaign supported by the membership. The Sunday School program was large enough to fill the upstairs chapel with the sound of laughter, song, and prayer. Life was good for this 1950’s era Church.
As the years rolled on, people began to leave their city homes and move into the surrounding suburbs popping up all around. Newer churches with more modern amenities were planted within these suburban locales, providing new options for church membership. This new suburban lifestyle took a toll on the inner-city Church I attended, and membership severely declined throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. During this time, the Church followed pretty much a business as usual format—and it, like many other urban churches of this time was faltering–physically, financially, programmatically…and spiritually.
In 1984, a new pastor was appointed to this ragtag group of church members clinging on and still committed to “stay the course” and continue to bear what light it could into the ever changing community environment; yet unsure about how to make this happen. For many of the political and socio-economic reasons that were associated with the rise of the new suburban lifestyle, the days of the traditional program-driven church model had ended for this church, like so many others of its time. What was needed was a new paradigm of being church for this community. This pastor had a new vision, and he helped the people in the congregation to see a new mission field in the neighborhood, one that had changed from working middle class to lower the income families unable to afford the new suburban lifestyle. The old and outdated church programming gave way to new groups that were geared at meeting the needs of the current neighborhood—like singles groups, recovery meetings, and renting space to bring in helping organizations to serve the needs of this changing community. What was required was a new vision of being church, and a willingness for the members to change our church-driven program mindset to one driven by our local community. The Church prospered and grew under this new leading of the Spirit for another 15-20 years, until a new season emerged, and the Church was, again, prayerfully led to yolk with a neighboring mid-urban United Methodist Church located only 2 miles down the road, and to share its newer building and resources.
You may be saying to yourself about now, “So what? What does some 30+ year old story about a church in upstate New York have to do with us and our Church in the year 2021? I am here today to answer that question for you. You see, we, like the Church I attended in New York, are living in the midst of changing times. We need to open our eyes and take note. Some of the change may have been the immediate result of, or perhaps been heightened and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s associated awareness of the need for personal safety and social distancing concerns. But the truth we must now face, accept and incorporate into our current reality is that along with all of the other changes we are experiencing in our lives, how we worship, how we serve one another and our community, and even how we exist together as the Church of Christ Jesus today is undergoing a season of change.
Research shows that churches today are facing a new era, and that some of the current trends in our worship and home life will continue long beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. As we now see a light at the end of our tunnel of social isolation with the COVID-19 vaccine program well under way, the new “normal” for churches will not be the old normal of even one year ago. Researchers have discovered that some of the people who have had to leave our church pews at this time will not be returning to them. In our media-centered generation, live and personal on-line worship services and Zoom meetings have created an opportunity for the exodus of many folks from traditional in-person worship services and group activities. The churches that catch on quickly and can adapt successfully to these changing times and trends are the churches best poised to not only survive, but thrive in this new paradigm, this new way of being church.
We at Peninsula United Methodist Church have worked together during these past several months to develop many creative means of worshipping, meeting as small groups, and serving needs we have discovered within our church family and community. We will need to continue to hone these tools and skills so that we can best build upon our current successes in ways that will secure a bright and Spirit led future for our beloved Peninsula Church. We have the perfect model to guide us as we engage in the process of visioning what we can become together as we grow into our future. In our scripture lesson from Mark this morning, we find Jesus going to a deserted place for prayer and discernment before gathering his Disciples and entering into his public ministry throughout the region of Galilee. Now is the time for us to begin entering into a time of prayerful discernment and visioning about the future of our ministry. We will need to be open and creative, willing to accept the current realities of our time, and prepared to act by incorporating innovative ways of being church into our portfolio. We have already received many blessings as a result of new ways we are being church—we have Lori, Walter and even some new friends joining us for worship each Sunday. They can now be an active part of our church community from the comfort of their distant locations. A few weeks ago, Loretta and Sheila joined us via Zoom on Sunday from Hilton Head. This would not have been possible within the confines of our past paradigm of being church. So, brothers and sisters in Christ, the times…they are a changing. Now is the right time, the time for this Church, in this very time and place, to accept a new commission. It is time for this Church to pray and to follow the example of Jesus in discerning together new means by which to go forth in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and to make new Disciples for the transformation of our world. The right time is now. Amen—let it be so.
“Hymn of Promise” (words and music-Natalie Sleeth)
In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free. In the snow and cold of winter there’s a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.