Bishop Harvey Delivers Episcopal Address at Annual Conference 2017
June 09, 2017
Amazing Grace! Sisters and brothers, it is by God’s grace that we have come this far.
Just think about what has happened since we were last together...
In early July, Baton Rouge experienced the tragic shooting of Alton Sterling, a young African American man; this was only one of a rash of shootings that received national attention.
In July, we gathered for Jurisdictional Conference in Wichita, Kansas to elect new bishops and deal with the tense-filled work of the church.
As we were departing Wichita, we learned of the tragic shooting of four police officers in Baton Rouge. The ambush resulted in three dead and one severely injured officer, who is still in recovery.
In August, a trillion gallons of water fell in parts of South Louisiana, resulting in flooding of epic proportions.
In November, we survived one of the most divisive election seasons in our history.
In February, a tornado touched down in New Orleans, the strongest tornado to strike in the city’s history, causing $2.7 million dollars in damage.
In the midst of all of this, there is Syria, North Korea, and the refugee crisis.
Then there are the events in our lives that have not made the nightly news.
Many of you in your local communities of faith have made decisions that have not been well received, that have been hard to understand, and that have caused discomfort, questions and hurt.
I, as your leader, acknowledge that I, too, have made decisions that have added to the already heightened anxiety, fear, and uncertainty.
Any one of those things could have undone our work and us, any one of those things could have distracted us, drawn us inward, but we have persevered.
Our world is in chaos, but I remind you that it was out of the chaos that God created the heavens and the earth, and God said it was good!
I have no doubt that God is still speaking, still creating, still re-creating and still calling it good!
We may have a bold imagination, but none of us can outdo God’s imagination!
Just look at the mighty oaks, the stars in the sky, the smile of a newborn. The lame walk and the blind see.
Five thousand people are fed, and there are 12 baskets of leftovers! People got doggy bags to take home!
You might call them miracles, and yes, they are indeed. But it is out of God’s bold imagination that when there is chaos – when people can’t see – when they can’t see with their eyes or their heart, when people can’t walk – literally, or something in their lives has paralyzed them from making any forward progress, or when they are hungry for food or for friendship, for truth – God steps in.
Our ask cannot even begin to measure up to God’s greatness and faithfulness.
I have absolutely NO DOUBT that in the perceived chaos in the world, the church, the Louisiana Annual Conference – that God will, once again, step in.
The Spirit of the Lord has been poured upon us to feed the hungry, provide water to those who thirst, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick and visit those who are in prison.
We, the body of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, bringing order out of chaos; if that doesn’t take Bold Imagination, I don’t know what does!
I’ve said it before and I will say it again: What worked in 1990 no longer works; heck, some things that worked in 2012 when I arrived don’t work today.
I did some research on some new discoveries since 2012 – these are from Wired (a great publication and website, by the way) and Time Magazine.
Did you know that . . .
For the last three billion years, life on Earth has relied on two information-storing molecules, DNA and RNA. Now there's a third XNA, a polymer synthesized by molecular biologists Vitor Pinheiro and Philipp Hollinger of the Medical Research Council in the United Kingdom.
Just like DNA, XNA is capable of storing genetic information and then evolving through natural selection. Unlike DNA, it can be carefully manipulated. For now, researchers hope it might be used for medical or industrial purposes.
It will also be a useful tool for researchers studying the origins of life.
And while both XNA and human understanding are still too basic to synthesize a life form unlike any yet known, it can now be imagined.
For many without medical insurance, this could potentially be a lifesaver. Only requiring $40 and 20 minutes of your time, this device uses a saliva swab to detect the signs that lead to HIV, saving people from trips to the doctor and waiting days for results.
It might take away some of the stigma, if you can test at home.
Self-driving cars? Apple watch? Echo Dot?
The world is changing and changing fast!
Our past experiences are valuable, yet they alone will not get us through the next season of our life. Not our work lives, not our personal lives, and certainly not our lives together as the church.
We must continue to innovate, experiment, discover new ways of being church. Not doing church – BEING church.
We continue to decline at a rapid rate. So we can’t just keep doing what we have always done, and we can’t work harder--we have to work differently.
In his book, Canoeing the Mountains, Tod Bolsinger tells us about the Corp of Discovery Expedition, better known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Great book by the way. I am thankful for Bolsinger’s great insight into our current reality.
Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark to find a practical route from St. Louis to the West Coast.
There had supposedly been a previous journey about a century before, and Jefferson had a book detailing the journey and provided a copy to Lewis and Clark that they took with them.
There was one tiny detail left out of the book – it failed to mention the need to cross the Rocky Mountains.
See Lewis and Clark and their fellow explorers, were water people, river people, and they thought they could carry their canoes from the Missouri Headwaters to the Columbia River - but no can do.
Some days do you feel like Lewis and Clark?
You have traveled the river in your canoe and now you realize that what is in front of you is not a river, but the Rocky Mountains and a canoe will not help you cross them!
Are we bold enough, imaginative enough to get across the mountains, especially when we don’t really know what is on the other side?
Lewis and Clark probably had their own version of a “Back to Egypt Committee.” Let’s just go back to St. Louis via the Missouri River-- we know how to do that!
In Numbers, we read of an expedition. This time it was not the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but the Joshua and Caleb Expedition.
Their commission? Inspect the land and see what it is like. Are the people strong or weak, few or many? Is the land good or bad, rich or poor?
They returned with grapes, pomegranates, and figs, and reported to Aaron, Moses and the Israelite community, “The land is full of milk and honey and this is its fruit. There are, however, powerful people in the land with huge fortifications.”
The people got really nervous when they heard this. Others who had been with them said, “We can’t do it, they are stronger than we are.” They started rumors that the land they crossed to explore devours its residents.
They are bigger than we are, they are giants! We are mere grasshoppers next to them.
Sound familiar? We can’t go into that community – there are shootings there, they don’t look like us, they like drums in worship, the Baptist/the non-denoms/the whatever church has the market cornered on Christians in this community,
they are giants, we are fine right here with our families.
I was born in this church, and by golly, I am going to die in this church.
Are we bold enough?
Recently, Dr. Stinson introduced me to Halford Luccock, a Methodist pastor, and professor of Homiletics in the 50’s. He wrote a book of sermons entitled Marching Off the Map.
Luccock describes a venture by Alexander the Great as his army is making their way across Asia Minor when they discover that they had marched clear off the map.
Back then the only maps they had were Greek maps, showing only part of Asia Minor. The rest, the unexplored parts, had these tiny illustrations – dragons, sea beasts.
They got to the Himalayas with no map. They had to send word back that they had Marched Off the Map.
Friends, we are Marching Off the Map! We are in unchartered territory and perceive it to be filled with darkness, maybe even dragons and sea beasts, giants…but…if we keep going, I am convinced there are also some wonderful opportunities, maybe even milk and honey, figs, pomegranates, grapes.
Map making will require courage and risk – we’ve never been this way before. But the possibilities are endless!
Can you imagine a land filled with milk and honey, figs – all that we need – maybe even more than we need? Remember God is the God of abundance.
Are we bold enough?
There are many of you who have been marching off the map. Some of you saw some of these at the Expo last night.
You will hear some of those stories as we present this year’s Wesley's throughout Annual Conference.
There are a few that I want to lift up today...
During the epic floods, you went way beyond the call of duty.
Listen to this story of a church that while working to provide support to over 90% of their congregation that was impacted, became THE place of worship in their community. The Baptists, the Episcopalians, and yes even the Methodists worshiped under one roof.
To this day the Episcopalians remain...
Our first Wesley goes to First UMC Denham Springs and St. Francis Episcopal, our first non-Methodist Award, although we count Father Dan as one of our own...
Sometimes in the midst of chaos, in the middle of surprise, we create something new and it is good!
New life in the midst of chaos--opening ourselves to surprises, creating something new -- takes risk!
I realize that I needed to think more about risk, so I have been studying risk aversion and risk tolerance. Often we are risk averse because we are afraid.
We fear we might lose something. We might lose tangible things like money, our homes, cars or the intangible which are even greater losses for some of us – dignity, identity.
Father Richard Rohr says this about the connection between creativity, loss and new life.
“Creativity and newness of life have a cost, and the cost is what appears to look like death. But really it is not.
He says, “It is just letting go of one thing to make room for another thing.
Loss is always perceived as an enemy or affliction and looks like what we don’t want. Somehow to embrace loss, spiritually speaking, is to achieve something more and something bigger.”
I know some of the changes we are experiencing might feel like we are facing death but if we don’t experiment, if we don’t try new things, make some changes, the risk is that we will miss reaching those who need to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ!
Remember, we said that we hold nothing sacred but the mission – to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!
This disciple-making, transformation business takes courage, requires risk, creativity and yes, sometimes all of that comes at a cost. But new life rises! AND....It is so worth it.
We are losing about 1,000 worshippers per year. There are only 23 students in seminary from Louisiana. Last year we had 26 retirements; this year 22. We are ordaining only three people this year, and while all three are women, and that is good - there is no person of color. Out of 172 elders, only 18 are African American; 7 of those elders are eligible for retirement.
There are only six African American elders under 55, and the youngest is 40! We still have over 50% of our churches with no profession of faith.
Louisiana, we have a problem – a disciple-making problem!
As leaders, we have to make some very difficult decisions in the face of competing values.
Just like explorers – do we go east or west, north or south? Making our way in an unchartered territory can be very disorienting.
One thing is certain, we need each other so we have to trust each other as we navigate this new territory.
Like Lewis and Clark, we have reached the Rocky Mountains carrying canoes. Canoes will not help us get across the mountains. Canoes will not help us deal with the giants on the other side of those mountains!
Are we bold enough?
This small rural church nestled north of Shreveport is!
They worship about 100 each Sunday, and on Wednesday of each week, 25-30 children gather to focus on the mission.
These are not just children of the church.
Through Mission Possible Kids, these children have touched over 1,000 people from across the community and the world through their service projects.
It doesn’t end there for us...
Brushwood is not a booming metropolis, but it is booming in their connection to the community, and they are engaging in the community and the world in significant ways.
Today’s second Wesley goes to the faithful, and especially the children of Brushwood UMC.
Even when there are giants out there, we must take a chance in order to take steps toward the mission.
Are we bold enough?
Are we bold enough to take on literacy! One church is.
Education and health care have always been foundational to United Methodists dating all the way back to the work of our founder, John Wesley.
This church focused on literacy in a Title 1 school that serves 100% free lunches, has 2 subsidized apartment complexes just blocks from the school and a women’s shelter nearby.
The statistics are staggering and frightening – 2016 data for Louisiana states that 49% of children did not attend school, 71% of fourth graders were not proficient in reading.
And probably the most frightening, the biggest mountain we have to climb is that in Louisiana, the third-grade literacy rate predicts the amount of prison space that will be needed 20 years into the future.
They didn’t go away! Fifty-five volunteers teaching, mentoring, preparing meals and snacks – they didn’t go away! The third Wesley goes to University United Methodist Church in Lake Charles.
There are giants out there, or at least we think so, because in some cases, like the Israelites, the rumors are running rampant--“The people are huge and we are like grasshoppers next to them.”
We have marched off the map. No google earth, no GPS can guide us.
We must rely on the Spirit of the Lord that has been poured upon us to bring Good News to the poor, release to the captives. As civil rights leader John Lewis has said, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
I am not worried about God doing God’s work – will we do ours?
WILL. WE. DO. OURS?
Because there is a land out there filled with milk and honey. There is fruit – grapes, pomegranates, figs. The fruit is ripe.
As I have visited some of your churches, I hear story after story of amazing risk-taking. I see no fear in some of your eyes.
Instead, I see BOLD IMAGINATION!
I see fruit! I see hope!
There are times that I wish I had a trunk full of Wesley's, because I would have awarded some on the spot.
If I had a Wesley....
The day Dean and I traveled to this church in the middle of nowhere. A small farming community, that my GPS had no idea where it was located.
When I entered the sanctuary, stuffed animals lined the communion rail.
They told me they collected them for a women’s shelter in Monroe.
That’s not all!
They also told me that they provided food every month for a local food pantry, AND
for several years, they have been awarding scholarships in honor of an educator in their church.
The award nominations are open to members and non-member children alike.
They typically award two scholarships, but this past year, they had a third deserving recipient. They went back and raised more money so they could award a third college scholarship. I believe none of the recipients were church members. Friends, this is a small, BOLD, rural, farming community!
If I had a Wesley – I would have given it to the faithful at Crowville UMC.
The Sunday after this historic church burned to the ground, they met at the second church on the charge.
They hugged, they cried, they told stories. Some had not seen one another since the fire earlier in the week.
When it came time for the announcements, the pastor read through the week’s activities. Bible studies, youth group, UMW Circles....
They had every right to postpone their weekly activities. Their church had just burned to the ground . . . BUT not this BOLD church!
If I had a Wesley, I would have given it to the David Haas United Methodist Church in Bunkie.
Pastors, imagine that you prepare and prepare for your first Sunday in a new appointment. You gather with the staff and make sure you understand how things usually work on a Sunday morning.
You work and rework your first sermon.
This Sunday morning was everything but usual.
A shooting takes place during the service a couple of miles or so from your church, and you are on mandated lockdown from the State Police.
Mommas have their babies in the nursery in another building.
No one can leave the sanctuary, the gym, the nursery - they must shelter in place.
The staff remains calm, the pastor prays the congregation through the morning until they are able to leave never preaching his first sermon.
If I had a Wesley, I would have given it to Donnie Wilkinson and the BOLD staff and members of Broadmoor UMC, Baton Rouge.
It is a very typical Sunday morning in this small church.
It is nestled right under the first exit as you come off the Mississippi River Bridge.
On one side of the church is a YMCA where the church has recently re-engaged with the children in significant ways; on the other side is a community center, which has become an extension of the church – Bible studies, senior activities, even funerals – are shared between the community center and the church.
Across the street from the church is, well . . .let’s say, a less than Hilton kind of hotel.
When the current pastor was first appointed, he decided he would teach a Bible study in the courtyard of this less than reputable motel. His partner in ministry told him it was not a good idea – I think she actually said, “You’re gonna get killed if you do that.”
He did it anyway.
On this particular Sunday, the pastor preached a moving message and then delivered an invitation to the 20 or so folk in the congregation like we were at a Billy Graham crusade.
After a stirring invitation, a woman stepped up to join the church. We will call her Sue.
Sue joined, and the church welcomed her like she was the most powerful person in the city. A dignitary had just joined the church.
The pastor introduced Sue and shared that she had been helping with the youth, had volunteered to help with VBS this summer, was already fully assimilated into the life of the church . . . and on this day, she was making a commitment to support the church with her prayers, presence, gifts, service and her witness.
Sue is the manager of the motel! Do you know how many other Sue’s are out there?
If I had a Wesley, I would have given one to the amazing BOLD people of Neely United Methodist Church.
By the way. I DO have a Wesley for each of you!
It is risky to lift up these churches when I know there are many more stories like this happening day in and day out in your churches.
While the world is in chaos, you are creating – and it is good!
There are mountains, but some of you have chosen to set your canoe aside; and like Lewis and Clark, barter for a few horses to get you across the mountains.
Are you afraid? Am I afraid? Heck yea, but you can’t be brave unless you are facing fear.
People of faith become even more faithful when things are out of our control. We can’t be courageous unless we are facing fear, especially fear of the unknown giants.
WE ARE OFF THE MAP.
We don’t know what is on the other side of the mountains.
Is the land rich or poor, are the indigenous peoples strong or weak? Are they few or many? Are there trees or not?
We will never know unless we keep marching. Gargoyles, Dragons, giants and scary things might turn out to be rivers and lakes, cypress trees and mighty oaks. It might just be a land flowing with milk and honey.
I want us to continue to boldly imagine what God may be trying to break in and do in our lives, and in the lives of the people around us, and the mission field where we serve.
How might we be transformed when we risk, when we are bold, when we imagine, dream, innovate?
When we don’t know what to do, so often, we go back to what we know.
Somehow we think if we do more of something, if we try harder, that something different will happen.
If we had a better preacher, if he or she were more pastoral or caring, if only our worship was better if we had more activities.
All important, but we cannot expect that everything we have done in the past will actually prepare us to lead in the world today, and especially the future – a world that frankly none of us are prepared for.
So, you ask me, what are we going to do Bishop? I wish I could answer with certainty, but I have never been this way either.
What I do know, is what we knew won’t get us much further, so we have to keep trying new things.
If it works, great. If not, we will learn and take another step.
With every experiment we gain new knowledge to take the next step, we learn the landscape, the pathways, the markers.
This is not a journey for the Lone Ranger! We cannot do it alone. This is a journey for God’s faithful.
Taking one step at a time, assessing our surroundings as we go, making adjustments as we go.
Trusting one another, and more importantly, trusting that God will lead us to a place flowing with milk and honey.
A place where others may have never been or wanted to go or set out to go and it got too hard, so they turned around and went back.
A place where we can expand the kingdom of God, creating something new and being able to say, “It is good.
Sometimes the mission comes with sacrifice. Watch this baseball player live it out in one crazy at bat.
This poor guy gets hit three times!
His mission was to score a run and it came with sacrifice.
Aligning with the mission, holding nothing sacred but the mission often comes with sacrifice. Because it challenges all that we know.
Are we bold enough to trust the mission to lead us?
Are we bold enough to hold nothing sacred but the mission?
What are we willing to do, no matter what, to stay aligned with the mission, to hold nothing sacred but the mission?
Are we willing to take the hit and the heat to hold nothing sacred but the mission?
Are we willing to make unpopular decisions to hold nothing sacred but the mission?
Are we willing to sacrifice, give something up, lose something in order to make room for something else to hold nothing sacred but the mission?
I am clear, we need to be in this together, giving one another space to try new things.
We are not the ones at stake! Those we have not reached are the ones at stake!
So, please don’t be the “Back to Egypt Committee,” but instead, be willing to go into the unchartered waters with a sense of adventure and the knowledge that while we have not been there – while we are marching off the map – God knows the way.
We have to go with eyes, hearts, and minds wide open for the leading of the Spirit.
It took Lewis and Clark two years, two HARD years to get to the Pacific.
It is likely to take us a little longer but what if we begin to see fruit along the way – grapes, pomegranates, figs.
What if now, with the help of our newest transformation leader – Dr. Gloria Fowler, we can begin to explore even newer territory for transformation?
Two of Lewis and Clark’s comrades in the Corps said, “The mountains continue as far as our eyes could extend. They extend much further than we expected.” Another said they were, “The most terrible mountains I ever beheld.”
After all, they had planned to explore the new territory by boat. They were river explorers. They planned to row and thought the hardest part of the trip was behind them.
The world in front of us is radically different than what is behind us.
With every step, we will have to be thinking about retooling for the next.
I read this the other day and thought of us--We are knee deep in a river, searching for water.
I keep thinking that maybe the answers are at the tip of our nose. Maybe they are, but we don’t yet have eyes to see. Maybe we won’t see them with our eyes maybe it is our heart, our soul that needs to see.
We have to be spiritually prepared for this kind of expedition.
As hard as it is for us to accept, new solutions will result in loss of some kind. And I know that is painful.
But let me remind you what we have said,
We boldly imagine a future with churches that are:
Leading people to an abundant life in Christ
That are engaging in the community in significant ways
Churches that are learning, living and telling the gospel story
And are reaching out and drawing in people from all walks of life resulting in vibrant, vital and alive congregations.
We said we would lead with integrity, accountability, an unrelenting love for all people, courage, and risk and most importantly that we would hold nothing sacred but the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
That has not changed. How we get there is changing every day.
Things might feel a bit chaotic, but I think we are exactly where we need to be!
It is not comfortable. I know you don’t like it, neither do I.
When you are inventing, innovating, experimenting, adventuring – when you are marching off the map – it is uncomfortable, it is scary, there are giants out there, those are the most terrible mountains my eyes have beheld.
As I see it, we have a couple of options.
We can be paralyzed by fear and stay stuck,
we can go back and never discover what is new and continue to decline,
or we can pack up what we might need at least for tomorrow and head out on this adventure.
It will be important for us to stay calm in the face of change and uncertainty.
We have to resist the tendency to reach for a quick fix.
I know it feels like mush and that things are falling apart – the world, the church – but let me say it once again we are exactly where we need to be.
Remember God is the God that transforms, that turns things upside down that reverses! God is the God who is still speaking, still creating and recreating, still calling us to Imagine Boldly!
A favorite, foundational and much read scripture for me these days is Isaiah 61:
This the Spirit of the Lord is upon you passage, but it goes on to say, mourners will receive a crown instead of ashes, oil of joy in place of mourning, a mantle of praise instead of discouragement, ancient ruins will be rebuilt, deserted places will be restored, ruined cities will be renewed, on and on... instead of shame there will be a double portion, instead of disgrace they will rejoice over their share.
Do you hear the reversal, the transformation?
Creativity is birthed in tension. God makes all things new, joy in the morning, there is light in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it!
Out of this chaos, God will once again create something new and say it is good.
Once again grace will carry us when we have no tools when we arrive at the mountain with canoes strapped to our back.
Grace has brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us to the next place on the journey, a new home filled with milk and honey. A place where the fruit is plenty full where there are grapes, pomegranates, figs.
Let’s take a chance.
Trust one another.
Trust the mission.
Let’s sing Amazing Grace one more time. This time, like our lives, depend on it.
Let’s sing it like we have just come through a flood, tornadoes, the shooting of a young black man, three police officers.
Let’s sing it like we have gotten to the mountains and are ready to take them on; we are ready to face the giants. And we might discover that actually the indigenous people of Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Shreveport, Crowville, Winnfield will lead us across the unknown, unchartered territory.
Let’s sing it like our life depends on it!
Let’ sing it like we know, really know that God is the God who is still speaking, still creating and recreating, still calling us to Imagine Boldly!
Let’s sing like God is making something out of our chaos something new and calling it GOOD!