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Are We Yet Alive?
Episcopal Address, June 7, 2018, Shreveport Louisiana
Are we yet alive?
Are We Yet Alive?
Contrary to what you might be reading and hearing – WE, the Louisiana Annual Conference – are very much alive.
Amazing things are happening and for that and for you I am thankful!
Together, we are making a difference in the lives of people here and around the world.
From Monroe to Mandeville, Alexandria to Arcadia, Baton Rouge to Breaux Bridge – amazing things are happening because we have chosen to hold nothing sacred but the mission.
Is it perfect? NO! We have a long way to go. That’s why we continue to sing as a prayer the powerful words of Charles Wesley, “let us see thy great salvation, perfectly restored in thee.” We are still on the road to perfection, following Jesus and discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit.
We will talk more about this later today, but the United Methodist Church is in a precarious place. Great uncertainty surrounds the Special Session of General Conference in 2019 but of one thing I am certain - we have the capacity to model what it means to be the body of Christ – to be a people of love, reconciliation, healing, wholeness, and new life.
We have the capacity because we know how to treat each other in the midst of difference and conflict, we know to respect, to be compassionate, and to listen to one another.
Most of all we know that the power of the Holy Spirit cannot be contained. That we have been called to be bearers of the Wesleyan Way of salvation!
This week we will model for others what happens when we allow the Holy Spirit to be present as our guide. We will model what it means to inspire one another and to be the best that God has called us to be.
Rev. Dr. Maria Dixon Hall will inspire, meddle, and stir us up to be more attentive to one another. To hear one another’s pain. To share who we are. To raise our level of understanding of one another.
That starts with difficult conversations. It starts with our willingness to be vulnerable, to lay aside our personal opinions and personal preferences maybe for just a minute so that we can create space to hear another. This is what it really means to be together.
In reviewing my prayer for our church in Louisiana when I was installed as your Bishop in 2012, I offered these words:
While it is strange to quote yourself this is what I said. ... “We are traveling together into unchartered waters and I am convinced that God has brought us together for such a time as this.”
We were together in 2012 and here we are still together in 2018 – together. We need each other.
God has brought us together for such a time as this! For navigating these choppy waters because we have chosen to faithfully follow Jesus –together - to share God’s love with a new world.
We have been down similar roads but nothing like this one. While I am not yet clear of what is on the other side, of one thing I am clear God has been there. God has prepared the way for us. So, here we go!
TOGETHER – facing whatever challenges we encounter.
Back in 2012, I shared my “I Believe” statements; I want to remind you of what I said.
I am a faithful servant of God who believes:
- I believe that God is infinite in wisdom.
- I believe that Creativity is most often birthed in the tension.
- I believe that I am not God.
- I believe that everyone deserves to be loved.
- I believe that everyone deserves to be heard.
- I believe in justice for all people.
- I believe in caring for those living on life’s edge.
- I believe in giving voice to the voiceless.
- I believe I was raised to be excellent in all things. Not perfect but excellent.
- I believe that in sorrow I discovered the real me.
- I believe and actually know that I am a work in progress.
- I believe that God has placed people and places in my life to discover the deeper me.
- I believe that God is using every experience to prepare me for today.
- I believe that when I have not been in control, God has been the most present.
- I believe that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
- I believe that Grace prevails.
These "I Believe" statements were true in 2012 and they are true today. Maybe even more true. You can hold me to it. They have not changed!
The next three years seem to be so uncertain, yet we must focus on one main truth of which I am certain – God has brought us thus far and God will lead us through- together.
We Americans like certainty and while we cannot control world events and perhaps even the UM Church, we can control how we will be with one another and we can know with great certainty that God has been with us, will be with us – until the end of time.
Over the next three years we will gather as a family of faith under the overarching theme – Making disciples, transforming the world – this year we will focus on how we do that together. Making disciples, transforming the world – together.
And next year our theme will be Making disciples, transforming the world ... in love using Romans 13 as our guide – do everything in and out of love for one another.
And in 2020 Making disciples, transforming the world ... day after day using Eugene Peterson’s interpretation of Matthew 28 – I will be with you until the end of the age – day after day after day.
Regardless of what happens in the United Methodist Church or the world – God will still be with us – day after day after day.
God is preparing us as we continue to be in ministry together by serving people who are hungry, people who are sick, caring for people who impoverished and people who are lost and seeking those who are on the margins of our community; people who still need to encounter the living Christ.
What does it mean to be together - not just “us” together but together with the communities where we serve?
Not in full agreement with one another but in unity willing to plow the fields together so that we might produce a great bounty.
After all, that is what the church of Acts did. By the power of the Holy Spirit, they went into the world. They pooled all of their resources and together – they lived in community -- in service to one another. And amazing things happened.
In a recent TED Radio Hour, Simon Synek tells us: “Movement is when people move, when they choose to go from here to there.”
Leaders of movements: “have deep undying belief in something bigger than themselves. And the best leaders are actually the best followers because they don't see themselves as the thing to be followed.
They actually see themselves as following a cause bigger than themselves. They actually see themselves in service to something else.” It’s like Wesley’s experience 280 years ago when his heart was moved sensing he was in service to the love of God that was greater than he. He was inspired to lead people from spiritual malaise and religious boredom into a vibrant life of faith.
In order to be this kind of together, in order to be a movement again, we have to be willing to lay aside our differences and focus on God’s Mission – remember that in Louisiana we say that we hold nothing sacred but that mission.
Our future is in front of us, the vision God is calling us to, is that together we will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to manage anything that is before us.
We must embrace our differences. Some real and some perceived. The hand cannot say to the eye I have no need for you or the foot to the hand – I don’t need you.
There are people with whom I share much more than theology or scriptural understanding – there are people with whom I share a deep abiding love even though we have distinct differences. These are people who finish my sentences. Call me at the perfect time. Hold my feet to the fire when they need to be! I need them. I don’t want to live without them. They are my soul mates.
Here now a story of two other soul mates.
The church of Acts did not put stipulations on who can eat or drink together or who can go get ice cream with you or who can share the same clothes.
Friends, we can model the church of Acts when we take seriously that through our baptism we now belong to each other, we are siblings in God’s Kingdom, siblings who’s call is to make disciples that transform the world – TOGETHER.
I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together.
All who follow Jesus all around the world! We are the church together.
Sometimes we say things over and over and you are not sure it is sinking in and then one day someone says...I think what you are trying to tell us is that ....We are the church, the gathered community for worship is the congregation, the address on our stationary guides people not to the church but to the sanctuary where our community gathers for worship and formation.
You keep on pushing us to see beyond the address where we gather for worship and formation and to BE the church, the body of Christ, the ecclesia, the gathered called assembly of God’s missional body, in the places where we live, work, and play, ALL the places, especially those easy to avoid, ignore, and forget -- where people need to experience the love of God in real ways with real people.
Yea, yea... that’s it! That’s exactly what I have been trying to say. Sometimes others just say what I am trying to say better than I do want us to see beyond the address, in all the places, especially those easy to avoid, ignore and forget - where people need to experience the love of God in real ways with real people. Yes, I do want you to BE the church, the body of Christ, the ecclesia, the gathered called assembly of God's missional body.
So, you might imagine that I am overjoyed, can hardly contain myself when I see you get it in real and tangible ways...
I hope they don't really drive around Shreveport that fast!
"Anything someone might need", "We have to have each other", "We have to be in relationship", "It’s the way the kingdom works – just need a person willing to do it!"
Our first Wesley of the 2018 AC goes to Noel UMC – you will have time to receive your Wesley this afternoon.
What do people in our communities need? How do we respond to their greatest yearnings – the greatest needs of the people around us?
Believe it or not....we still have churches that tell us they are fine the way they are. We have churches who are not willing to explore ways to extend the love of Christ into their community because they do not look like us.
All the while the needs continue to grow and our zeal for discipleship wanes.
We still have over 50% of our churches with no professions of faith. And while I don’t want to focus only on numbers, I wonder how we will ever increase our witness in our communities if we are not reaching those who need to meet Jesus.
Hear this story of one of our Wesley Foundations. While the story is a great witness – I want you to know how this nomination for our next Wesley came to be.
The NOLA Wesley at Tulane was nominated for a Wesley and when I read the nomination, I had some questions so I called the director of the Wesley.
He shared with me that the ministry they had nominated had not come through and then he said something remarkable – rather than talking about another ministry we ought to consider from the NOLA Wesley – he said, “I would like to nominate my brother down the road at the Southeastern Wesley.”
“He and I have some pretty deep theological differences but we respect one another and share ideas about how to best reach students on our campuses. Bishop, I nominate Sam Hubbard and the Southeastern Wesley.”
"Sometimes God busts through", "They are none and done because no one ever saw them..." "I like you, I love you just the way you are right NOW", "They need to see who Jesus really is...we gotta get a whole lot better looking like him!"
Our second Wesley goes to the Southeastern Wesley Foundation.
By the way their coffee is on store shelves!
As I watch this video over and over again I keep thinking “give them Jesus, give them Jesus.” Pretty simple.
No qualifications needed, no certifications required - just give them Jesus.
It reminds me of a great word from Peter Storey, preaching in Johannesburg, South Africa during the reign of apartheid, when he suggested that we should be prepared when we sing that old hymn: “Into my heart, into my heart, into my heart, Lord Jesus.” That Jesus’ reply would be: “Okay, here I come, but I’m bringing all these other people with me, too”
“They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone.” Says the author of Acts.
This text in Acts returns us to our roots, to the basics – the blocking and tackling of the faith. Devoted to teaching, sharing meals, praying together. And you know what happened – signs and wonders – amazing things happened!
It is not complicated nor is it complex. This should be second nature to you as is your next breath.
Amazing things happen when you reach out to your neighbor when you share the love of God through a shared meal, a time of prayer....a simple dress...
Listen how this church expressed the love of God to their neighbor....
Together – do you know how many times, unprompted by the way – did they use the word together? I counted at least 5!
All it takes is for God to put a vision in 1 or 2 people’s heart.
I love Christ and I want to serve.
The third Wesley goes to First UMC, Welsh.
Too often we see our neighbor but we don’t really SEE our neighbor. I am so guilty of this. I know my neighbors, I see them all the time but I don’t really see them.
Remember Mr. Rogers? Won’t you be my neighbor....
Amy Hollingworth has written a book reflecting upon the things that Fred Rogers taught her in her life.
In The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers she writes, “At the center of Fred’s theology of loving your neighbor was this: Every person is made in the image of God, and for that reason alone, he or she is to be valued—“appreciated,” he liked to say.
His definition of neighbor was simple: the person you happen to be with at the moment—whether that person is a Samaritan, a hermit bearing gifts, or a television viewer. He believed there is a sacredness in all. “It is God who inspires and informs all that is nourishing and good in this world,” Fred once said. (pp. 75–88)
And another Fred...
Frederick Buechner says it this way...
When Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command of all is to love God and to love our neighbor, he too is asking us to pay attention.
If we are to love God, we must first stop, look and listen for him in what is happening around us and inside us. If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors.
As followers of Jesus, our hearts are transformed by the love of God and we see not just the faces of our neighbor but we begin to see the lives behind and within their faces. We begin to truly see our neighbor.
If you have not watched Bishop Curry’s sermon from the Royal Wedding, you must make it a point to watch it. I have watched it at least four times - three the day of the wedding. I think it was Time Magazine that called him the real rock star of the wedding. Imagine the preacher being the real star...of anything.
I was first taken aback by the expressions on the faces of the Brits – they didn’t know quite what to do with Bishop Curry.
Love! he said over and over. LOVE! Imagine governments and nations where love is the way,” Most Rev. Curry said. “Imagine this tired old world when love is the way — when love is the way, unselfish, sacrificial, redemptive!
When love is the way, poverty will become history.”
That is the message that prevails for us today and I believe it did for the community in Acts sitting around table sharing a meal, sitting next to one another in the temple in worship and prayer.
Did they agree on everything – most probably not but they STILL chose to live in community.
That is our choice as well.
It is well within our power to choose to lead change in this messy world of ours.
We cause change by leading change.
One of our greatest human longings is to belong. There are so many things to belong to.
There is cross-fit – it’s like a new religion, you can join a book club, the junior league, a bowling league. This week Dr. Dixon Hall will talk about tribes.
The idea of tribes goes back over 50,000 years – you can belong to a church tribe, a community tribe, a mom’s group tribe, - you can find just about anybody or anything to connect to these days.
In fact did you know there is not only a Chuck Norris Facebook page but that there are over 80 Chuck Norris groups – one for Chuck Norris jokes, Chuck Norris fitness, Chuck Norris memes, Chuck Norris movie lines – it’s a tribe within a tribe!
There is a “People for ethical treatment of dragons” Facebook group AND get this..I will go out of my way to step on a leaf that looks particularly crunchy. That really is the name of the group – “I will go out of my way to step on a leaf that looks particularly crunchy!” It has 224,913 members AND 1.5 million followers. I bet you are going to think about that every time you see a crunchy leaf and I know you are going to want to step on it!
People want to belong – they have a yearning for community.
According to author and entrepreneur, Seth Godin, leaders challenge what’s there, they are curious, they connect people and they commit to people.
Leaders inspire. You can inspire – all of you are called to inspire – that is what discipleship is all about. That is what our baptism is all about.
At the core, discipleship is about uniting a group of people to lead change – we call it conversion.
Think about those amazing young people from Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Diane Wolk Rogers a history teacher at the school says her students have an incredible sense of citizenship that inspires! She went on to say in her recent interview that these students are not only leaders that inspire; they have a high level of emotional intelligence – they yell without yelling.
You remember Emma – the student who stood in silence for 6 minutes and 20 seconds illustrating the time it had taken for 17 of her classmates to die. She said nothing for 6 minutes and 20 seconds! She made you feel, she made you listen to your own thoughts.
Young people like Emma are not willing to wait for us adults. They are not waiting to lead change, they Inspire Change and they are doing it NOW!
People choose to change. People choose to inspire change.
These type of people are those that see the future. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw a different future. He had a dream of a playground where black children could hold hands with white children.
His dream, his future was one that most of us want to imagine.
He didn’t say I have a plan. He said I have a dream. He didn’t suggest the whole world should hold hands and wrap themselves around the planet, he said one playground, two children.
I dream of a future where our world is at peace. Can you imagine with me all of Louisiana – Monroe to Sulphur and New Orleans to Bogalusa - experiencing peace as we come together as one people. It begins with us right here, right now in this room.
With all the talk of schism, division, One Church Plans, Judicial Council rulings, progressives, conservatives, good news, WCA, Uniting Methodists....and the list grows.
Can we for a second – maybe a minute – be willing to put our differences aside?
For the sake of the children that are dying from abuse, neglect, and human trafficking?
For the homeless man that sits in front of the Circle K at Foster and Government Street in Baton Rouge?
For the woman who cries herself to sleep every night in fear of being beaten to death?
For the teenager who lives in fear of what might happen when he tells his parents he is gay?
For the child who needs help with her homework but no one is home because mom and dad have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet?
Can we for just a minute – maybe a second – not for us but there - for the work of God’s Mission – put our differences aside?
Not even 6 minutes and 20 seconds = just one minute!
This is the 50th anniversary of the Uniting Conference of the UMC that united the United Brethren and the Methodist Churches. It is perhaps even more significant for us the anniversary of the elimination of the Central Jurisdiction that was set-up so that blacks and whites did not have to worship together.
These words ring as true for us today as they did 50 years ago.
In the year that we celebrate the UNITING of our church I cannot believe we are having conversation about division – un-uniting. We cannot, must not create a new way of being that is simply segregation by new name.
One at a time – one playground, two children – hand in hand, together.
They were united and shared everything. They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them.
EVERY day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity.
They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to EVERYONE. AND... the Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.
This friends, this is the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. It is love!
You all know that if Richard Rohr had a fan club I would want to be president.
Listen to Father Rohr...
All of Jesus’ rules of ministry, his tips for the road are very specific and interpersonal. They put people in touch with other people, which becomes his very school of conversion.
We are a living lab of relationship. A living lab of love, he says. Learning to love.
"Shared experience", "Demonstrate to the an outside community that we care", "The Holy Spirit is driving us to do this", "Giving not expecting anything back", "A box of Jesus!", "It starts with one person and we create an army of change"
Our fourth Wesley goes to St. Andrew’s UMC.
We are a living lab of love. So much so that I am convinced that our future is bright – brighter than we can even possibly know.
I wish I had a crystal ball or was at least a bit more prophetic – but I cannot help but think that we are where we are so that we can become more of what God wants us to be. More like the church in Acts 2. More like a living lab of love.
This is how convinced I am. I want you to reach under your seat. No, this isn’t Oprah and you have not all just won a car. You have won something even more exciting.
Under your seat is a Save the Date card. I want you to put June 4, 2020 on your calendar. I’m serious!
For those of you in the balcony and standing on the edges, ushers will hand you your invitation on the way out.
We are going to gather for a grand celebration of the amazing ministry that is happening across this Annual Conference on June 4, 2020!
We will celebrate ministry where children are being fed.
Ministry that is impacting the schools in our towns.
We will celebrate ministries of visiting the sick and imprisoned.
We will celebrate our devotion to the apostles teaching,
We will celebrate that are deeply devoted to the community,
That we share meals and prayers.
We will celebrate that many wonders and signs are happening all over the place.
That we are united and share everything.
We are going to celebrate that we praise God and demonstrate God’s goodness to everyone.
We will celebrate that we are yet alive!
We are alive because we are people who serve a resurrected Lord.
We are alive because we have been born by water and the Spirit.
We are alive because we belong to the living body called the church.
We are alive because the diverse organs of this body are working in sync with one another.
We are alive because we are nourishing ourselves with the presence of Jesus.
We are alive because we are encountering the holy in the other.
We are alive because sin and death have been defeated by the love of the cross and the powerlessness of the grave
We are alive because we are God’s Called Ones for God’s Mission of wholeness, healing, and salvation!
WE ARE YET ALIVE!
SING ARE WE YET ALIVE AGAIN!
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