Unfolding Leaves, Softening Branches, and the Importance of Keeping Watch.

Below is the text of the sermon I preached this morning at Memorial United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach, Florida.  The sermon was written based on our chosen gospel text for the week, Mark 13: 28-37 and in response to the events that came to light during the last week in America around the barbaric, racist murder of Ahmaud Arberry. I post it here as I do with other sermons I want to share more publicly and hold in place (although all my sermons since July 2018 are available on the Memorial YouTube Channel.)

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I was speaking with one of our congregation members recently on the telephone.  We had been talking about a different matter and we were beginning to come to the end of our conversation.  The individual mentioned to me that they thought my preaching was good, but that there was a sermon a few weeks ago in which he remembered me stepping away from my notes. “It really made a difference Pastor Charlie, I felt you really preached from the heart that day!” he said.

Of course, I hope that every word I preach to you and to anyone else comes from my heart, every week as a result of good study and preparation, but I would be lying to you if I said that the comment has not stuck with me a little and made me wonder what the difference is that that person saw that day.  Is it just the absence of notes?  Is it just my ability to look at a camera directly or to look a congregation in the eye as I speak?

Who knows?

I can tell you this though, as I got ready to preach today, I asked the specific question of myself:  what is in your heart Charlie?

This is week nine of online worship.  Speaking from my heart, I can tell you that I am fed up with it.  I want you all back here.  I want to gather with you.  I want to hear the chatter of your voices before a service.  I want to hear you singing.  I want to hear you laugh a little when I make a joke in a sermon. I want to hear you give an amen at just the right time, and then again when I repeat the point and make you give me an louder, stronger and more affirming amen…

That is very much in my heart.

What else was in there?

This is week nine of this strange new normal that we have all been thrust into.  Some of us are still staying in doors and some of us are rushing out to do our thing in the world again.  Some people are wearing masks and some are not.  Some are keeping their distance from others and some are up close and personal.  I had to get gas in my car yesterday and as I was filling up, a guy came up to me and asked me the way to Jekyll Island.  When I turned to him to reply, he was just a little bit too close for my comfort.  The poor man wasn’t even thinking about it.  I had to go to Target also to get Margaret’s Mother’s Day gift and cards – it feels weird when you have not seen that many people in one place for a few months to then see them all at once, and all way too close to each other…I was glad to get home.  And as I think about that I think that this whole experience has changed me a little bit, and that it is likely changing us all somewhat.

In my heart I am struggling with this new normal.  I don’t like it.  I don’t know what to do with it. And I don’t know how we are supposed to be with one another any more.

It’s confusing, and annoying, and hard.  That’s all in my heart today. Maybe it’s in yours too?

But I am not here to preach to you about how well or not well I am coping with the global pandemic, and you’re not here to listen to me talk about that stuff either.  What else is in my heart today that I must speak?

This is the week that the world outside of Albany, Georgia heard about a young man called Ahmaud Arberry.  Ahmaud would have turned 26 years old on Friday past if he had not been shot and killed in an incident way back in February.  As we have learned about the story this week we have learned that the young man was just out for a run when he was chased down and murdered in a racist attack, and that someone thought it was okay to catch this all on video.

When I say I want to talk to you about what’s in my heart today, I want to talk to you about this, friends, because this story does run right to the core of who we are and of how we are with one another.

I go out for a run several mornings every week.  I run freely and without a care for my safety.  When I see people they wave and smile at me, or they say hello and I do the same in return. Ahmaud Arberry was not free to run the streets of a neighborhood without being looked upon by some with suspicion.  Ahmaud Arberry was not free to run the streets of a neighborhood without being chased down by those who would look down upon him and who would consider his life worthless and ultimately expendable because of the color of his skin.

You might be listening right now and thinking that this does not apply to you.  You don’t have a racist bone in your body.  You have many black and brown skinned friends and work colleagues in your life.  And that might well be true.  I can say the same in my own life.

Maybe you are thinking that the preacher doesn’t need to be speaking into these kinds of matters. But church, that’s not true. We can’t sit by witnessing evil like this in the world and do nothing about it.  That is not what the church of Jesus Christ does.  It’s not what the church of Jesus Christ is called to.  When we see suffering in the world, we roll up our sleeves and do something about it. When we see hunger in the world we do something about it.  We exist to see the world transformed, to announce the good news in both word and deed, and see the Kingdom of God made real in the lives of all people.  That is our call.  We all want to make a difference for good in the world.  When we see evil at play in our world, we must be those who are willing to do something about it.  Shaking our heads and walking by on the other side of the road is not good enough.  Jesus himself said that in the parable of the good Samaritan.  Being silent is not good enough.  The twentieth century German theologian, Deitrich Bonhoeffer said: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Dr. King said: “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”

It hurts to hear that, right?  It hurts me to hear it as I say it.  And the chances are that it hurts us because it is true – often in the face of these things that happen frequently around us we choose silence and passive head shaking over and above doing anything about it.

That’s how I reacted this week when I heard about it.  I watched that footage online, found myself disgusted and disturbed by it, and then I found myself scrolling right on by to the next thing in my feed.

But it did not leave my mind.  I started to wonder what I could do that might make a difference.  I could make a couple of social media posts that might raise awareness some, but would it really make a difference?  Not really is the answer.  I could sign an online petition and make a donation to an organization that is working every day to make against the evil of racism in the United States.  Those two things  might certainly make a little difference…but inside there was still this nagging feeling that something else should needed to be done.  So I lifted my cell phone and I sent a text message to two of my African America brothers in ministry and humbly asked for their help in shaping a response to this that might be effective and make a difference.  Anthony and Granardo welcomed my initiative and we will talk more in the days ahead.

I tell you this because signing my name wasn’t enough.  Writing a social media post was not enough.  Friends, I can tell you from first hand experience in my life – if there is a division in a society between human beings no bridge will be built and no difference will ever be made by sitting comfortably in our own tribes and shaking our head in lament at the tragedy of it all.  We have got to talk about this stuff. We have got to get up and move towards the other, and make the rights and freedoms of the other as important and as defendable as our own.

What does all this have to do with the parable of the fig tree in Mark 13?

At the beginning of the chapter, the disciples have asked Jesus a question regarding the things that Jesus has been talking about – namely the fall of the Temple that Jesus has just foretold.  “When will all this take place?” They ask.  Jesus tells them that this is going to happen, and that there will be difficulty and persecution for his followers.  That there will be many who will falsely claim to be the messiah.  His followers are to remain alert because he has already told them everything.  And they are to watch out for the coming of the Son of Man.

In the same way that they know summer is coming by the unfolding leaves and softening branches of the fig tree, so they will be able to tell when the Son of Man is coming.  Mark writes these words as a word of hope for his community who are living in times of conflict and division all around them.  They are to remember that they are people with purpose and their call is to remain focused and steadfast on that purpose.  Heaven and earth will pass away, says Jesus, but his words will not pass away.  Jesus is echoing the words of Isaiah 40 and in doing so he is showing his followers once again that he is who he says he is – the Son of Man who will come back to his people.  So they are to stay focused on their purpose.  They are to be alert so that they are ready when he does return.

Nobody knows when that time will be.  As Jesus had said a few verses earlier, many would proclaim they were the Messiah, or they knew who the Messiah was and when the Messiah would come, but they could not know.  Nobody knows that hour says Jesus – only the Father.  And so the only thing that the followers of Christ can do is be about their business – the business of the kingdom, all day every day until that time.  It is like a landowner who goes off on a trip, leaving his employees in charge.  Their job is to keep the land going.  It is to do what they are called to do until the landowner returns.  He could show up tomorrow, or it could be months from now but the important thing is that they be ready, so they are to stay alert.

Church we are called to be about the business of the Landowner in this world.  We are called to be about our work until the time comes for the Landowner to return, and that work is the work of easing suffering, of feeding the hungry, of giving shelter to the homeless, of being peacemakers and bridgebuilders in the world, of announcing good news of great hope for the forgiveness of sin and the freedom of Christ to experience healing and restoration,  and to begin a new life in Christ.  That’s who we are, and that is why we cannot sit by and passively shake our heads when we are witness to the realities of the evil of racism in our society.  We must each do something to ensure that a 25 year old black man can go for a run, or drive on the roads, or go into a store in this nation without fear for his own safety and life. It is by doing these things, that we stay alert and ready for the return of the landowner at any moment.

Let’s not be found sleeping, friends.