Delivered at John Wesley UMC in Washington. Just a reminder, this is pretty much a transcript of the sermon, so it's written as I spoke it, not how it would be written it for publication.
Good morning church. It is an honor and a privilege to be greeting you in the name of Jesus Christ on this 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. My name is Trent Somes. I am a student at W&J, and my goal is to become a Pastor in the United Methodist Church. I served as a conference intern in Clairton this summer, living and working there, especially with youth. Pastor called me on Wednesday while she was in New York and asked me to preach today, and I am glad to do so.
Haggai is a short book, but it is an important one. When this was said, the Babylonians had defeated the Israelites and had forced everyone into exile. The Babylonians fell and the Persians became the rulers of Jerusalem, but they allowed the Israelites to come back. When they returned, the people began to rebuild their own homes, rather than restoring the temple, at which point Haggai rebuked them and told them to rebuild the temple, God’s dwelling on Earth. When they start building the temple, they realize it is disappointing. It’s not as grand as the temple that King Solomon had built, and they are upset. In this passage, Haggai is prophesying to Israel encouraging them to remember the temple that Solomon had built, but to look forward to what God had promised them, a New Jerusalem, a restored Kingdom, a Kingdom for all nations.
As part of a study I am currently doing for a class, I am analyzing a study called the General Social Survey. It’s been taken since 1972, and combined with some other studies, we can view trends in America almost a century back. I’m looking at one variable, where respondents were asked what religion they identified with. In 1972, just over 5% of the population claimed they had no religion. Around the 1990s this number started to dramatically increase, and by 1996 this number had more than doubled to 11%. It didn’t stop growing, and by 2018, nearly a quarter of the respondents said that they had no religion. The vast majority of this secularization affected Christians and this staggering message our society is sending us should not fall on deaf ears.
Church we are not losing people to other religions, we’re losing them to nothingness. What people are saying is that we have literally less than nothing to offer them; that having nothing is better than having a relationship with the Church. And that is the problem. See in the book of Haggai, the chosen people are so focused on rebuilding the city, restoring what they loved and remembered, that they were not focused on the glorification of the kingdom of God. They were not focused on the big picture.
In the same way, we are focused on maintaining our many buildings, expecting people to walk into our doors without first being in relationship with them, we are not preaching the gospel, but rather using our privilege as the majority to reap the benefits of being in charge. We are focused on glorifying the church, when we should be looking to glorify the kingdom. In a generation that favors authenticity over the grandeur of a building or the production quality of the worship, our current approach will secure the decline of the church for generations to come.
The Letter to the Thessalonians reminds us of our purpose as the church. In a world where we are surrounded constantly by news of tragedy, of pain, of suffering by wars and rumors of wars - our job is to preach the Good News of Christ’s Resurrection and the opportunity for salvation. The Good News of Christ’s resurrection should be something of mass appeal. The message of the church is one that reaches all people, and the church should be offering it up to all those that we can reach.
We should be loving rather than condemning, telling people what Christ offers rather than what we think is unacceptable. We should be offering people the grace and peace that Christ offers to all instead of telling them they don’t belong. We need to preach the true gospel. We need to practice the Good News. We need to practice Resurrection.
Hundreds of years ago in the year 432 in a pagan Ireland, St. Patrick who was a former slave, returned to people who enslaved him to preach the gospel. It was tradition of the Christians of the time to light a fire on Easter, symbolizing the light of Christ in the world. The same night as Easter, Ireland’s pagan king ordered that no fires be lit until one was lit by his priests in accordance with a festival they had on the same day. In direct defiance, St. Patrick lit a bonfire on top of a hill for all to see. This angered the pagans, and word eventually reached the King who was warned that if the flame was not extinguished, he would lose his authority to rule. He sent messengers ahead to extinguish the flame St. Patrick had lit, but they could not do so, and were converted when hearing the Good News that St. Patrick offered. When the King reached St. Patrick, he was so impressed with his defiance that he allowed St. Patrick to preach the Good News, eventually leading to the entire conversion of the country, and changing the course of history. One Christian’s actions started a revolution of restoration.
We live in the same world as he did. It is time to light a fire in defiance of the things of this world, and instead glorify the kingdom.
We are not supposed to forget about the Christians that came before us. Thessalonians stated So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold [tightly] to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.
And I ask you church, what is the tradition of Wesleyans?
We have always been at the forefront of justice. Methodist were the abolitionists, Wesley and the early Methodists expressed their opposition to societal ills such as slavery, smuggling, inhumane prison conditions, alcohol abuse, and child labor.
Wesley stated “Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.” Our job is to preach the Good News by being the best example of it.
When describing what a Methodist is, Wesley stated, “Methodists love God and love others as self. They love every person as their own soul. They love enemies, even the enemies of God. If it is not in a Methodist’s power to “do good to those who hate,” he or she does not stop praying for those who hate, even though they reject love and continue to abuse and persecute. . . . For a Methodist is “pure in heart.” Love has purified the heart from envy, bitterness, resentment, and every unkind temper. Love has cleansed the Methodist from pride, from which comes only strife. Methodists have put on “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Indeed, the Methodist has removed all possible ground for strife on his or her part. Because a Methodist does not love the world, nor any of the things of the world, no one can take what he or she desires. All desire is for God and for living as one who bears God’s name. . . . A Methodist’s one ambition, at all times and in all places, is not to please self but to please the One whom his or her soul loves.”
This is our tradition. This is what we have been taught, this is what we need to aspire to in our lives.
I don’t want this message to be bleak. That wasn’t the tone of Haggai or the Letter to the Thessalonians. We live in the most interconnected period in world history. Viral sensations can travel the face of the globe in seconds. We live in a time where it takes almost no effort for one person’s message to reach millions – even billions - of people. Our current church has the potential to bring the gospel to more individuals than any previous communion of saints did.
Church we are the New Jerusalem as Haggai prophesied and our job is to restore this temple of the Holy Spirit. The good news for us is that I think we are amid a revival within our society.
We live in an unprecedented time where our society is spiritually deprived, in search of something for their souls, and we have the message. We have rap stars making gospel albums and leading church on Sundays, we have ministers becoming elected officials, we have movements across the world that are already in existence that support what our message should be. We need to recognize that revival can happen and is happening, and we must act.
Just as the temple before, I don’t think it’s going to look like the church of the past. I think it is going to look like something we have never seen or heard of before. It will involve people of all national origins, all backgrounds, all genders, all classes. It will be a revolution of love and dignity for the human race. We must not allow the secular world to be doing a better job at countering the evils that we collectively face. We must be the loudest voices when it comes to facing against the destruction of God’s creation, the greed and materialism that drives our society, and the injustices that exist all around us.
If we are to restore this country and this church, we must be the individuals to dance in the darkness and be the lone voice crying in the wilderness in the pursuit of righteousness. We must take our responsibility to preach the gospel seriously, not only with our words, but with our actions. We must be the church of the Good News.