St. Matthew's UMC > eNote > Enote Week of November 30, 2018

Enote Week of November 30, 2018

Dear St. Matthew’s Church Family,

The Christian season of Advent officially begins on Sunday. This is the four-week season of preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas. During Advent, Christians around the world, light candles on Advent wreaths, count down the days until Christmas on Advent devotional calendars, and – most importantly – spend time praying, reading the Bible, giving, and serving. Advent is a season of spiritual preparation, an intentional period of making room in our hearts for Jesus to be born once again into our lives.

My prayer is that every member of the church family will experience the joy of Christmas and mystery of the Gospel promise that God is with us. On the church calendar, and in various announcements, you will discover opportunities to prepare for Christmas and observe a holy Advent. These include: the family advent celebration tomorrow evening (December 1) at 5:00pm; Wednesday evening prayer services in the chapel from 7:00-7:30pm; and Music Sunday on December 16 – the combined choirs’ Christmas Cantata at 8:15 and 11:15 services, and a special music service, led by the Modern Worship Team at 9:45. This will be one of the Sundays that you will want to attend two (2) worship services and experience the wonder of Christmas through the power of music.

Our theme for Advent and Christmas this year is Christmas Through the Eyes of Mary.We’ll read some familiar stories and discover that there are many lessons to learn from Mary’s life. We will start with the final chapter of Mary’s life and work backward in time, finding ourselves at the manger in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. As we journey with Mary, we will learn more about the meaning of Christmas. With God’s help, we follow the example of Mary by welcoming the Christ-child and responding to the Good News of Jesus’ birth with these powerful words: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”The first sermon in the series is called, Beginning with the End. The Scripture readings will be 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and Acts 1:8-14.

This is a wonderful time of year – and many people in our community have an increased desire to connect with the meaning of the season. Someone you know may be ready for an invitation from you to come and hear the Good News about the life-changing power of God’s love and grace. Ask God to guide you to someone who needs to experience the beauty and wonder of Christmas this year.

The United Methodist Men (UMM) are selling high-quality Christmas trees at the church. The hours are 3:00pm-8:00pm on weekdays; 9:00am-7:00pm on Saturdays; and 12:30pm-5:00pm on Sundays. If you’re purchasing a tree this year, I hope you will support the UMM. The money raised supports projects at St. Matthew’s and in our community. If you can spare a few hours, the UMM are looking for help selling trees. Go to this link to sign-up to help.

In conjunction with the UMM Christmas Trees sales, wreaths and greenery are also available for purchase. The money raised by greenery sales will support youth summer mission trips to the Appalachia Service Project (ASP) and the Jeremiah Project (JP). You should know that as of right now, more than 60 youth and adults from St. Matthew’s and Woodlawn-Faith UMC (our ASP partner congregation) are planning to go to ASP. This is one of the largest groups that St. Matthew’s has ever sent. Please support them if you are able.

We continue to receive Estimates of Giving (EOG) for 2019 and I want to thank the 172 individuals/families who have turned one in. The total EOG’s to date add up to $732,630, which is approximately 70% of what we need to fund the ministries that we believe will accomplish our mission next year. If you have not returned your EOG, please do so as soon as possible. We need to hear from everyone who considers St. Matthew’s to be their church home. You can go to our website and use the Give link to download a form, complete your EOG, and/or sign-up for online giving. Remember: online giving saves church resources and makes sure you can fulfill your commitment when you are traveling. Many people find online giving helps them grow in their stewardship. Don’t forget that if you use our automatic online giving service, it must be reauthorized every year.

Earlier in November, we held our annual Charge Conference. The meeting, chaired by the District Superintendent, included action required by the United Methodist Book of Discipline along with reports about the ministries of the church. On our website, we have posted the State of the Church Report and each of our Pastors’ Reports. I encourage you click this link and read them all. The State of the Church report celebrates much of what St. Matthew’s has been doing over the past twelve months. It’s truly amazing to consider what God has been doing in and through the ministries of St. Matthew’s Church. This is the work that is supported by your generous gifts. Thank you for changing the world in Jesus’ name.

Finally, I am including below a Christmas Letter to the United Methodist Church from Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., who is the President of the Council of Bishops. It is fairly long, but it will be worth your time.

I look forward to seeing you on Sunday.

In Christ,

*******

A Peaceable Kingdom in a Divided World

A Christmas Letter to the United Methodist Church
from Kenneth H. Carter, Jr., President, Council of Bishops
and taken from Isaiah 11.

The Prophet
Living eight centuries before Christ, the prophet Isaiah had a vision, which over time was given a name: the peaceable kingdom. It’s a compelling vision: A shoot will come from a stump. A stump is a tree that has been cut down and destroyed. But the hope is that life would come out of destruction. We often place our hopes on a new leader, and so an ideal king would be enthroned, and would come from the family of David. A new political order would fulfill the hopes of the people. This passage may have been read on inauguration day, with the prayer that the Spirit of the Lord would guide and govern the leader.

Then Isaiah’s vision shifts from political science to art, to the creation, a vision of a new heaven and a new earth: the wolf and the lamb will lie down together; no one shall hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain. Paradise will be restored. All nature will sing in harmony. Isaiah is painting a picture: this is what peace looks like. This is the peaceable kingdom.

In the United Methodist Church, we have reflected on what it means to have a heart of war and a heart of peace. In seeking a way forward, we have been honest about the ways we have seen each other as issues to be discussed, problems to be solved and obstacles to be overcome. And we have seen the image of God in each other and listened with empathy to one another. We know what violence looks like, the harm we do to one another and the harm that we experience.

The prophet asks a different question: “What does peace look like?” This vision of the prophet Isaiah has always been inspirational. You can see it, and, of course, that is a part of what makes it so compelling. In the 1820s, almost two hundred years ago, there was a deep separation within the Quakers living in the United States over slavery. It was a church fight. Some of us have been through church fights. Conflict is present in many of our local churches, in many of our communities, in our nations, and in our global denomination. There are deep divisions within the people called Methodist as the year 2018 concludes, over our polity in relation to the LBGTQ community and the interpretation of scripture.

The Painter
Edward Hicks lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and was a Quaker minister. To make extra income he painted, mostly responding to the needs of others. He painted tavern signs, farm equipment, whatever was needed, and he was good at it. Although he was self-taught, he had a gift. He began to make a fair amount of money, and this upset his Quaker congregation, who felt that he was violating their customs of simple living. Finally, he became enmeshed in a church split, between those who wanted to live more frugally, and others who did not see a problem. He gave up painting and took up farming, but he was a terrible farmer. Later he gave up the preaching ministry too, and transitioned back to the craft of painting.

Soon enough, he came to discover that he could use his painting to express his faith. He began to draw oil paintings based on Isaiah’s prophecy: The wolf shall live with the lamb, a little child shall lead them (11.6). He drew the same painting over and over again, and there are now over one hundred versions. We know it now as the Peaceable Kingdom, and it is his best-known work. One version of the painting is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; another is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.; another, which inspired the composer Randall Thompson, is in the Worchester Art Museum in Massachusetts; and, another is in the Reynolda House, a few miles away from one of the congregations my wife Pam and I served, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

In most of the paintings the predators and prey are together. There is a bull, a lion, a lamb, a bear, a child. They are most often to the right of the painting, congested together. For the artist the animals reflected something of our temperaments–the lion was anger, the bear was calmness. To the left there is often a separate scene, William Penn conducting a treaty with the native Americans, the first peoples. A river flows toward them, and light shines upon them. The spirit, the light placed within us by God, helps us to dwell together in peace, despite our animosities and our differences.

It could be that Edward Hicks was inspired to paint this picture, over and over again, because he was obsessed with a vision of peace. Perhaps it was due to the growing division in America between North and South over the practice of slavery. Perhaps it was due to the conflict that was present in his own community, over the teachings of his church and his lifestyle. Perhaps it was due to the inner turmoil within, over what exactly God wanted him to do with his life.

The Theologian
Thirty-five years ago, in 1983, Stanley Hauerwas published a book entitled The Peaceable Kingdom. His earlier works had been collections of essays in the field of Christian Ethics; this was an attempt to write an introduction to his discipline, from the perspective of character, virtue and narrative. The title was taken from Isaiah’s prophecy and the introduction included a discussion of the painting of Edward Hicks. In time, Hauerwas would become one of our most influential theologians.

In The Peaceable Kingdom, Hauerwas suggests that Christians are called to bear witness to the truth of the Holy Scriptures, noting that “this world is the creation of a good God who is known through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus” (15). We believe this to be the truth of the gospel, and yet we cannot use violence in the advancement of this truth. Instead we have trust and confidence in the ultimate victory of God over the forces of evil, sin and death. In a fragmented and polarized world, this is crucial: Christians with liberal and conservative convictions are tempted to use coercive strategies for the sake of an end they believe to be just, and Christian leaders mimic the practices of our secular counterparts in seeking strategic gains through actions that are not consistent with our covenant promises.

At our best, we understand that leaders never cease being disciples. The formation of character and conscience takes place through immersion into the Christian narrative and participation in the Christian community. We discover that we are sinners, that we have a continuing capacity for self-deception. To be a Christ-follower is to move beyond individualism to see the persons God has called us to serve; in so doing we discover the needs of others to be the pathways to our freedom, as they remove the greatest obstacle to freedom, namely our self-absorption (44).

Freed from self-absorption, as individuals and congregations, we are given new life. The call of God is, in Hauerwas’ words, “the confidence, gained through participation in God’s kingdom, to trust ourselves and others. Such confidence becomes the source of our character and our freedom as we are loosed from a debilitating preoccupation with ourselves” (49).

The Present Moment
United Methodism, at the conclusion of 2018, has become a church infected by “a debilitating preoccupation with ourselves”. Many of our congregations do not have the energy or will to be in mission beyond the walls of the sanctuary. Commenting a few days after his election to the papacy, Pope Francis spoke of the “self-referential church”, which believes that “she has her own light”, and “lives to give glory only to one another, and not the rest of the world.” At a denominational and structural level, we often reflect the systemic polarization of our political cultures; our social pronouncements, even those that advance values of inclusion, protection of the vulnerable, and seek peace, are often harsh and brittle. Ironically, these pronouncements become louder as the church itself becomes more marginalized, fragmented and disconnected from the real world.

Our fragmentation, violence and disconnection are signs that “we have failed to be an obedient church,” in the language of our prayer of confession (United Methodist Hymnal, p. 8). In our individual lives, in our congregations, in the Council of Bishops, in our denomination, in our nation, we yearn for a right path, for a new and living way, for an alternative to the status quo. In the language of the hymn, there are “fightings without and fears within.”

The way forward may be the rediscovery of our core mission: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world” (Book of Discipline, 120). Jesus is the embodiment of the peaceable kingdom. To recall the words of the gospel about John the Baptist: “he was not the light; he came to bear witness to the light” (John 1. 8). The church approximates the peaceable kingdom as she stays close to the person and work of Christ. This is an act of radical self-denial. The first task of a disciple, Hauerwas notes, is not to forgive but to be forgiven (89). To confess our need for forgiveness is an act of humility, and one that calls upon the patience of God. To confess that we need to be forgiven is to give up control, and to place ourselves in communion with God’s people, who are also imperfect and, yet, who are God’s chosen messengers of grace and acceptance for us.

The Question
And so, we gather under the cross and flame, in communities around the world, to discover anew the meaning and message of Advent and Christmas. As we take the bread and cup into our hands we hear the good news:

Christ has died–making peace with God on our behalf (Ephesians 2);
Christ is risen–breathing on the disciples and saying, “peace be with you” (John 21);
Christ will come again–this is Advent….”Emmanuel–God with us–shall come to Thee, O Israel” (Matthew 1).

As United Methodists, the words of an eighth century prophet, the vision of an eighteenth-century painter, and the writings of a twentieth-century theologian can guide us, for our questions and struggles remain the same.
• How do we discover restored relationships?
• Why is it so difficult for us to ask for forgiveness?
• How do we most faithfully advocate for those who have been treated unjustly?
• How do we accept God’s will for the future?
• Where do we find the capacity to live in fellowship with those who differ from us?
• What is our vision of peace?
The ruins and devastation surround the prophet Isaiah in the eighth century, but he remains faithful: he sits still long enough, listens closely enough, discerns carefully enough, and it becomes clear. God paints a picture for him, and us. It is a portrait of anger and calmness, strength and weakness, living together. Could this vision exist, in the present moment: in our nations, in our denomination, in our local churches, in our families, within each of us?

Perhaps, in the words of Hauerwas, “we have the grace to do one thing” (149-151), meaning we live in community, we stay in connection and we engage in the basic practices of discipleship that make the forgiveness and love of God visible and tangible. This is the peaceable kingdom.

How can the United Methodist Church, in its global expression, become a sign of this peaceable kingdom?

At Christmas, if we sit still long enough, if we listen closely enough, if we discern carefully enough, all of this may become clear. Let us open our eyes and our ears, our hearts and our hands, so that we might see the salvation of God.

The Peace of the Lord be with you!

+Kenneth H. Carter, Jr.
President, Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church

Sources:
John Braostoski, “Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom”, Friends Journal, February, 2000. Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom. Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Edward_Hicks_-_Peaceable_Kingdom.jpg. The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VI. Pope Francis, Speech to the Pre-Conclave College of Cardinals (America, March 27, 2013). The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Hymnal. The Anatomy of Peace (The Arbinger Institute).

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