The COVID-19 pandemic prevented Bishop Peggy Johnson and her Cabinet from doing their annual December outreach visit to a church or ministry site this year. But they may still get to visit many churches this month and next—not in person but onscreen, as they come bearing homiletical gifts for Christmastide and Epiphany.
The bishop typically records a New Year’s video message to greet conference members and churches. But this year she and other Cabinet clergy will expand on that gift through a series of sermons preached and recorded for churches to use over the coming month if they wish.
Those who unwrap these sermonic gifts to share with their congregations can then offer their pastors one or more Sundays off from performing their preaching duties. That is sure to be a welcome respite for pastors wearied from Advent and Christmas endeavors, as well as the extended labors of serving their churches during COVID-tide.
A ‘much-needed respite and time for renewal’
“The Bishop and Cabinet recognize how tirelessly you have worked over this year,” wrote the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm in a post on the Eastern PA Conference Pastors Facebook group page. “You have adapted to the present challenges with courage and grace. So, the Bishop and Cabinet are preparing sermons for your use in the coming weeks, if it might be helpful to you.”
Taylor-Storm, who is Director of Connectional Ministries and a former district superintendent, serves on the Extended Cabinet. She invited her peers to participate as a way to offer pastors “some much needed respite and time for renewal.”
The collection of seven Cabinet messages—spanning from Christmas Eve until Jan. 31—will appear on the Conference’s YouTube page through January as a Christmastide and Epiphany gift to churches. (Christmastide is the 12-day period from Christmas Day, Dec. 25, until Epiphany Day, Jan. 6, when the three Wise Men, or Magi, arrived to see and present gifts to the newborn Christ child and his family. The full season of Epiphany ends Feb. 14, 2021, on Transfiguration Sunday.)
Bishop Johnson preaches a sermon annually Dec. 24 at historic Barratt’s Chapel in Fredericka, Del., as part of a Christmas Eve worship tradition in the Peninsula-Delaware Conference. But this year she pre-recorded her sermon there to be shared online with both conferences for this occasion.
Her sermon, titled “The Hopes and Fears of All the Years,” tells of the Rev. Phillips Brooks, a pastor and anti-slavery abolitionist who penned “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and inspired the faith of many, including famed, deaf-blind author and activist Helen Keller. Her sermon and the full recorded worship service—including music provided by other churches—are available separately in the new Christmastide-Epiphany Sermon Series YouTube playlist.
“Depart in Peace” is Taylor-Storm’s sermon for Dec. 24, about old Simeon, the faithful prophet in Luke 2:22-40, who watched and waited patiently at the Temple for many years for God to reveal to him His people’s promised Savior. She likens his waiting to ours, caught in the throes of a protracted pandemic and yet showing up each day for Christ and for one another, as we wait to see the fulfillment of our promised deliverance.
“It’s easy to walk through these pandemic days and feel like somehow you missed Christmas,” Taylor-Storm says. “But in some ways, friends, this Christmas is the most real one we have had in a long time. Christmas was never about church gatherings or pretty decorations or gifts under a tree. Christmas is about God breaking into the brokenness of this world, showing up in our pain, refusing to walk away from our mess.”
Bishop urges churches to celebrate Watch Night Dec. 31
The YouTube sermon series playlist also includes the bishop’s New Year’s video message, which this year focuses on the Methodist tradition of holding Watch Night services on Dec. 31 to bid farewell to the year ending and hopeful, glad tidings to the New Year just beginning. While urging churches to celebrate Watch Night this year, she also provides a suggested liturgy, authored by her husband, the Rev. Michael Johnson, for churches that might want to use it.
The Watch Night (also spelled as one word, “Watchnight”) service tradition was started and promoted by Methodism’s founders John and Charles Wesley. But it took on special meaning and popularity among African American churches with the Emancipation Proclamation enacted by President Abraham Lincoln to free slaves in the Confederate states as of Jan. 1, 1863. As Bishop Johnson cites in her message, New Year’s Eve became known as Freedom’s Eve among African American congregations that would gather before midnight to welcome the New Year and honor their gift of freedom.
More than three dozen clergy responded affirmatively to Taylor-Storm’s post on the clergy Facebook group page. Some will no doubt use the sermons for worship, while others wrote that they would find other devotional uses or ways to share the sermons with their congregations if not during Sunday worship.
“Thank you so much. We celebrate our connection and thank you all for this gift!” wrote the Rev. Mary Jane Kirby. “What a great gift for all our hardworking and weary clergy!” wrote the Rev. Susan Worrell. “Can’t wait to unwrap these gifts!” wrote the Rev. Greg Impink.
“Thank you, Cabinet! I am constantly nurtured by your witness of love and care,” wrote the Rev. Jean Howe. “It means so much to have the example of such thoughtful shepherds.”
- Christmas Eve – Bishop Peggy Johnson
- Dec. 27 – Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm, Director of Connectional Ministries
- New Year’s Message & Watch Night Service– Bishop Peggy Johnson
- Jan. 3, Epiphany Sunday – Bishop Peggy Johnson
- Jan 10 – Rev. Steve Morton, North District Superintendent
- Jan. 17 – Rev. Dr. Andrew L. Foster, III, East District Superintendent
- Jan 24 – Rev. Evelyn Kent Clark, South District Superintendent
- Jan 31 – Rev. BK Chung, West District Superintendent