By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
The word “inauguration” (New Oxford Dictionary) means, “The beginning or introduction of a system, policy or period; the formal admission of someone to office; a ceremony to mark the beginning of something.”
Next week our country will hold its Presidential Inauguration. It will be in the foreground briefly against a current backdrop of political turmoil, last week’s violent assault on the U.S. Capitol, and a worldwide health crisis. And more turmoil, more attacks are threatened.
It is my prayer that on that day we can begin to heal and find ways to mend our chasms of deep division. We all bring converging ways of thinking, believing and being.
There is a tiny city (population 780) in Western Pennsylvania, in a borough of Somerset County, known as “Confluence.” It is named as such because it is a place where three rivers come together: the Casselman, Laurel Hill Creek and Youghiogheny rivers. When these rivers meet, there is turbulence but also the benefit of becoming a bigger river, which makes this area a great place to do fishing and boating.
Divergent political thoughts (be they Republican, Democrat or Independent) often create turbulence. If we can somehow manage to flow in the same direction, like these rivers, some big—indeed, great—things can happen in the future.
Everyone thrives when we work together as a nation for the good of all. At the end of the day, rivers are all made of the same water; and we are all God’s children made in the same image and likeness of God. We are all different by the design of our Creator, so that we can accomplish all that is needed through our different gifts and passions.
On January 20, 2021, may we inaugurate not just a new President or his new policies, but a new period of respect and cooperation that will yield peace and prosperity for all. May that be especially true for those who are poor and oppressed, who live in the dim margins of our nation’s bright political and economic fortunes.
This can only be accomplished as we seek to do the will of God, acknowledging and using the resources of the Holy Spirit. Psalm 85:10 expresses my prayer for the future of our country: that “steadfast love and faithfulness meet and righteousness and peace kiss each other.” May it be so!
Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
This time of year, the word “Believe” shows up in curious places. It’s printed on glossy department store shopping bags and sewn on wooly Christmas sweaters.
It is a comfy word, kind of holy but not too holy, because, after all, the Christmas season has become more of a festival of commercialism, family gatherings, and feasting—but less about Jesus or his mission.
Madison Avenue would still like to maintain an air of magic in its advertising by using the word “Believe.” It is something you can’t buy, something miraculous, even if that only means telling a little girl, “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” to believe in. Deep down inside we all want to believe in something beyond ourselves, something reassuring and eternal. Such things cannot be purchased at the mall and placed under the Christmas tree.
Believing is the bedrock of the Christian faith. It is the affirmation of what we know and profess about God’s mission to save the world. Believing in Jesus means we are trusting in him for the forgiveness of our sins and eternal life. But it doesn’t stop there.
Christians are called to live in alignment with the essence of the teachings of Jesus, who is present with us in the Spirit once we believe. We become his agents, so that when people see what we do in is name, they too may come to believe and follow Jesus. Believing is a lifetime of service, not just a one-time decision of the heart.
What does your witness look like? When people encounter you in the world, do they experience the love, acceptance, generosity and grace of Jesus in you? Can people with heavy loads to bear believe that God really cares about them because of the generosity that you extend? Do people from a different ethnic background experience the hospitality and kindness that you would give to Jesus himself?
Leo Tolstoy’s classic Christmas story “Martin the Cobbler” features a poor cobbler who was told in a dream that Jesus would visit him on Christmas Day. Instead of Jesus at the door, there were three needy visitors, and he helped each one. By the end of the day, Martin was sad that he did not receive a visit from Jesus as promised.
In a vision, the Lord explained that the three needy visitors Martin helped were indeed his visit in disguise. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40).
Still today, Jesus visits us in the anxious faces and outstretched hands of persons in need—the stranger, the alien and even those we don’t particularly like. As we serve them with grace and generosity, we are proclaiming to the world what we believe and whom we serve. This is a profound way to inspire belief in our divided world. It is our very best tool of evangelism.
Believing is not just a wistful word, the lyric of a song or a shiny decoration on a Christmas tree. It is a two-fold process of faith and works. The two are inseparable, as we navigate through our Christian journey in the world and especially at Christmas. That is when the world is looking and listening a little more closely for signs of hope, for good news and for something to truly believe in.
Deacon Jerome Kiel was the only Deaf Deacon in the Roman Catholic Church’s Archdiocese of Baltimore years ago when I was serving as the pastor of an all-Deaf United Methodist congregation.
It was significant that he achieved the office of Deacon because holy orders were rare for culturally Deaf people who used sign language exclusively. This was true not only in the Roman Catholic Church, but also among United Methodist and other mainline denominations.
Deacon Jerome was a faithful pastoral presence at the “Little Flower” Deaf congregation for many years. He was at the end of his ministry when I was beginning mine, and I appreciated so much his ministerial wisdom and gentle patience with my rookie mistakes.
Back then, the Roman Catholic, United Methodist and Lutheran Deaf congregations in Baltimore offered many shared. ecumenical events, especially during the seasons of Advent and Lent. Our Wednesday night dinners and worship services gave us a chance to learn about each other’s beliefs and traditions. We had so much in common.
During Advent one year, I learned from Deacon Jerome the meaning of the pink candle on the Advent Wreath. I was mistakenly taught that it was the last candle to be lit during the four Sundays of Advent and it signified God’s love at Christmas. That was not the true story at all!
Advent began in the 4th century when the church was getting more converts than it could handle because Emperor Constantine had declared that Christianity would be the religion of the Roman Empire. Prior to that time people preparing for baptism would do so exclusively during the season of Lent. Then they would be baptized and brought into church membership on Easter Sunday.
With so many new candidates for baptism, the church needed to offer a second option. That became the season of Advent (prior to Christmas); and baptism would happen on Epiphany Day, January 6..
Because of that, the Advent season was marked as a time of preparatory penance for sin, personal examination and prayer. The liturgical color for sorrow and repentance is purple, as it is during the season of Lent.
Pink (or rose), the color of “joy,” became a part of the Catholic Mass every year on the third Sunday of Advent. The opening missal (a book containing the texts used in the Catholic Mass throughout the year) included the Latin word “Gaudete,” which literally is a command to “rejoice.” (There was also a designated “pink” Sunday on the fourth Sunday of Lent, known as “Laetare,” which calls for Jerusalem to “rejoice”.)
The church taught that in the midst of this season of penitence and sorrow, there needed to be a reminder about the joy of the Lord. It was a call to rejoice in the truth that Jesus has come, is with us, and will come again. Nothing can separate us from that relentless love of God.
I thought this was a wonderful thing since pink has always been my favorite color. During the years of my pastoral ministry, I took full advantage of “Gaudete Sunday” with pink bulletins, pink flowers, pink offering envelopes, pink altar cloths, etc. The worship service on the third Sunday of Advent was always a time of rejoicing, second only to Christmas Eve.
Deacon Jerome died one morning after a long illness during the season of Advent. A box arrived at my church a few months later. In it was an amazing and deeply meaningful gift: Deacon Jerome’s pink Deacon stole. I have kept it as a cherished reminder of this saint who knew the meaning of the joy that comes from serving God with generosity, compassion and love.
This year’s Advent season comes at a time when our church struggles to keep preparations for the coming of Christ at the forefront of our minds. As usual, we seek spiritual introspection while the world is screaming for holiday festivities and non-stop commercialism.
But this Advent season is most unusual, burdened by the threat of more COVID infections, political unrest in our country and theological division in our church. It might be hard to “rejoice” on that third Sunday of Advent when you cannot hold regular Christmas services in the same way due to social distancing concerns. Our cherished gatherings of family and friends are also clouded with concerns and fears of becoming viral “super spreader” events.
“Gaudete” calls us, commands us, begs us to “Rejoice” nonetheless, because when we rejoice even in the midst sorrow, difficulty and uncertainty, it is an affirmation of faith that God is still God. “Emmanuel” means God is with us.
God will work all things together for good, even when we can’t see our way forward. When we rejoice something deep within us feels the joy of the Lord that is not dependent on circumstances but rather on that “peace that passes understanding.”
We need Gaudete Sunday more this year than ever. Light a pink candle in your heart and on your altar. Celebrate the joy of the Lord. Also, remember to do something to bring joy to someone else whose journey is especially lonely and difficult this year. Spread the “pink!” Rejoice!
By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
November 1 is “All Saints Day,” a day on the church calendar when we celebrate the lives of Christians (“saints”) who have gone before us to join the “Church Triumphant.” It is a time to remember them, to give thanks for their faithfulness and ponder the passage from the Book of Hebrews (12:1) that reminds us of the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on.
This year has been most challenging with the emergence of the Coronavirus pandemic back in March. I don’t know anyone who has not been affected by the passing of a loved one this year. So many of our faithful members have gone to be with the Lord. The high volume of deaths has increased our sadness as the year draws to an end. But like those who lived before us, we must persevere with hope and patience.
I encourage you to use this solemn day, a day that our founder John Wesley called a “day of peculiar love,” to recommit your life to the work of the Lord. Emulate the good works of those saints who lived in the past and set a path for us to follow. Commit to an act of “peculiar love” for those in need of justice, shelter and bread.
“Then your light will break forth like the dawn. Your healing shall spring forth speedily. And your righteousness shall go before you.” (Isaiah 58:8)
A Prayer for All Covid-19 Saints
One who notices the sparrows,
One who counts the hairs upon our heads,
You share in our loss,
as we pause to remember all the saints
who have been taken from us because of Covid-19.
Our world is out of balance.
We did not think that something so very small would matter.
We have not been mindful of the upset we cause to an environment
that You have balanced so precisely,
every single part essential to those living around it.
You have humbled us because our pride has gotten the best of us.
We are not all powerful.
We are not so wise.
We have lived foolishly.
Help us learn, that the lives of all are interrelated,
from the smallest virus to the most precious humans we know.
Help us learn, that we cannot make it on our own.
We need each other.
We need each other’s compassion.
We need to understand our responsibility to look out for each other.
Help us learn, to see the world as You do,
as one living creation that is so very precious in Your sight.
Teach us to respect all living creatures,
every plant, every animal, every person,
who together make up this amazing biosphere,
this community where we all live together as Yours.
Be with us as we mourn.
Be with those of us who grieve.
Be with us who are thankful for the miraculous gifts of healing grace,
when one was taken and one was left.
Today we remember the Covid-19 saints,
those now in heaven and those still upon the earth.
May we together praise Your Holy Name,
Forever and ever. Amen.
By the Rev. Michael C. Johnson
By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson
I am happy to announce that I completed my mail-in ballot and have officially voted in the fall 2020 election. Whatever your political affiliation, I urge you to be sure to vote.
“The strength of a political system depends upon the full and willing participation of its citizens,” according to the United Methodist Social Principles (para. 164 in the 2016 Book of Discipline).I encourage you to participate in the following important ways:
V – stands for “volunteer.” Volunteer to help a neighbor, friend or family member cast their vote by driving or accompanying them to the polling place or helping them to cast their ballot by mail.
O – stands for “open mind.” Study the candidates’ positions and platforms to determine your choices. Have open and civil conversations with people regarding some of the important issues that are a part of this election season.
T – stands for “teach.” Teach people about the “strong ethical influence” (Social Principles) the church needs to exercise in order to insure a fair election process. Identify and challenge policies and practices used to limit or suppress voter participation—such as, closing and limiting the number of polling places, stoking confusion about voting by mail, locating unauthorized ballot drop-off boxes in communities, etc. In our country’s long history, there have been overt attempts to exclude people from voting, especially among people of color, women, college students and the poor. The “people called Methodists” believe that all are of sacred worth and have a right to a legitimate place in the election process in a free democracy.
E – stands for “engage in prayer.” No matter the outcome of this election, there is much we as citizens of this country can do together to promote the welfare of all. Pray for God’s Spirit to move among us as a nation during this time to inspire with peace, transparency and civility. There should be no place for mud-slinging and mean-spirited rhetoric and actions.
Many United Methodist bishops, including myself, signed onto a letter, titled “A Crisis of Faith and Democracy,” which further describes our civic duties as followers of Jesus Christ. May God be with us as we journey toward Election Day 2020 and beyond.