"Our Story", Bishop Harvey's Episcopal Address, 2021 Annual Conference

May 22, 2021
Let me invite you on a journey. The bus winds around the bend and as you look back and down you see the Sea of Galilee and in front of you, a beautiful hillside comes into view.

You are traveling somewhere between Magdala and Capernaum where Jesus first taught, where he spent most of his time. 

The bus parks and you take a stroll behind the church at Tabgha.  That’s the place where you find that beautiful mosaic on the floor of the loaves and fishes in front of the altar table.  As you stroll through the beautiful gardens, you see that bend in the road you just traveled, you see the Sea of Galilee, you see the beautiful hillside and you catch a glimpse of what is known as the Cove of the Sower. 
People are gathering to hear Jesus.  Thousands – maybe even 5,000 fit onto the hillside.  They spread their blankets and hold their children in their lap anticipating they will hear a word from none other than Jesus.  So many people gather that Jesus decides to use the space well and he hops onto a boat and pushes off a bit in order to be heard. 

This hillside is a perfect place to speak from, it’s shaped like an amphitheater and the sound carries up the hillside.
Can you hear Jesus?  He begins here to tell tales, parables, stories that make the everyday things of life a teaching moment, stories that provoke the imagination, stories that illustrate, the first being that of the sower, of soils, and of seeds – “other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty…..Let anyone with ears listen!”

Jesus is inviting us to be an actor in the story of discipleship –a story of seeding seeds, soil searching, a story of gospel gardening!  Plant your seeds in the good soil says the master gardener! And then he doesn’t just say let everyone with ears HEAR, instead, he says “let everyone with ears LISTEN!”
The difference between hearing and listening is distinct.  Hearing is the act of perceiving sound say the experts.  Listening, however, is something you do consciously.  Listening requires a willingness to be fully present, to pay attention, to hear not just the words said, but the meaning, the feeling, and the spirit behind them. Listening requires intentional attentiveness.
Our call today and every day is to listen to the stories of Jesus that unfold in our lives.  To process meaning.
The stories of people – the stories of the young, the old, the black, the white, the brown, the Asian, the rich, the poor, the stories of straight people, gay people, the stories of republicans and democrats, - LISTEN to the stories of Jesus that are being lived each and every day in ourselves, in our world, and in our neighbors!
Don’t just hear but LISTEN!  Our story is the story of a God who chose to become human, like us, so that all of creation could be made whole again. 
That story is worth telling and worth listening to.  It is rich.  It is like the best novel you have ever read.  It is filled with intrigue and suspense, it is filled with love, it is unfortunately filled with hate – yet it is still our story – of how we experience faith.  How we experience life.  How we experience one another.  It is the story of Jesus made manifest in each of our lives.   

What we know as followers of Jesus is that while THE story never changes, our story does, it is dynamic – hearts and minds change, lives are transformed.  
As our relationship with one another and with God deepens, it expands how we live life, have celebrations and heartbreaks, achievements and failures, moments of joy and moments of despair, all of these things in us and in those around us expand our experiences of God in the world.
We are not limited to our point of view but invited to enter another’s world and see their story from their perspective, we by the power of the Holy Spirit are able to be in solidarity, and in it finding hope, peace, reconciliation, salvation!
Chimamanda Adichie, the Nigerian author made known through her TED Talk on the Danger of a Single Story, reminds us that stories matter.

She says, “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign.  But stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.  Stories can break the dignity of people.  But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

My dear friends, OUR story has the power to empower and humanize.  Our story has the power to repair broken dignity because we know the foundation for our story is in the Good News of Jesus.  We know our story is about loving God and loving neighbor.  We know our story is better because of our diversity.  Our story is better because of our differences.  Our story is OUR story.
Our story is a story steeped in Wesleyan tradition. 

We are a communion of different races, ethnicities, cultures, and perspectives united by the Holy Spirit, driven by the mission of Christ, and bearing the good news of an unmerited grace that changes lives and transforms communities. 
As Wesleyan Methodists, we believe that Christ gave us a ministry of reconciliation that binds us together despite our differences.  Friends, this is HARD work and it is SACRED work. 
I still long for a United Methodist Church that will move us towards new forms of connection.
I ask that we recommit ourselves to strengthening our churches where the Word is proclaimed, Christ is offered, and where the table is set before all who hunger and thirst for righteousness. 
Beloved, your local community is where the action is, where the rubber meets the road.  Though I would like to think that we on the Conference Staff contribute to that mission, I fully understand that disciples are made in your congregations, in local communities, on the ground, in the messiness of life lived together, in a rapidly changing cultural landscape – NOT at 527 North Blvd. 
Our story continues to be told and it is complex.  We are in a time of uncertainty because we have never traveled these roads before.
The United Methodist Church as a denomination is in an uncertain time but as people who are followers of Jesus – I believe we have never been more certain of the need to reach out to our neighbor in love and grace than we are now.
Yes, postponements of General Conference have impacted the structures and institution of the church and some, even I have called it stuck, but every day I am more and more convinced that while the structure of the church might be stuck - ministry is not. 
I am learning that stuckness births a new imagination, new ways of looking at our situation.  A feeling of stuckness can be generative, life-giving, fruit-producing if we commit to facing our situation in community through the lens of a God who showed up, lived our struggles, healed those he encountered, and died because he loved too much. 

Our story is unfolding every day in the incredible ways our pastors and congregations are connecting to our communities. 
You are responding to the needs of the people in significant ways.  You continue to explore new ways of reaching people for Jesus. 
God continues to reveal Godself to us, in us, and through us – continues to help us write our own parables that respond to the needs of people today!
Just listen to this: 42 churches have engaged over the past year in the Church Transformation Process.  Small churches, large churches, campus ministries.
You have attended over 100 workshops on visioning, hospitality, discipleship, leadership, finance, alignment.
That friends is not a STUCK church.  It is not a STUCK conference.
You are looking for new ways to worship because you know that you can’t return to what we were doing before.
You are relearning what it means to be evangelistic in the midst of a pandemic.
You are reaching new people who need to hear the good news of Jesus.
You are exceeding all expectations of generosity – money AND time.
You continue to respond to those impacted by one disaster after another.  It is hard to hold you back because responding is what you do, responding is part of your DNA. 
Some of you even suggested we cancel annual conference and host a workday.  You want to help, you want to listen to the stories of those impacted.  This is not a stuck church.  It is not a stuck conference.
Once the assessment and early response teams complete their work, we will have plenty to do for another long while. 
That is not a stuck church.  That is not a STUCK Conference.  We might get tired.  We might be exhausted and rightfully so and it is okay – but ya’ll  - we are not stuck!
Our story is a shared story.  We know as Louisiana Methodists that you cannot tell a story about Shreveport without talking about New Orleans or Bogalusa or Monroe.  We are together.  We share collective responsibility for one another.  We truly care about each other.
Our story is entwined.  Remember a few years ago when we talked about Redwoods and how their root systems are entangled and I think I even said they were a gnarly mess. 
When you are entwined and entangled, when you share story it is often messy.  Sometimes we are a gnarly mess.  But we are entwined and confident that the entanglement produces fruit – new fruit, unexpected life-giving fruit.
We know this because we know that we stand on the Good News of Jesus.  No, we don’t all agree but we do agree that it is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that is our gift on which we can build a future.
We also know our story is not over. 
Last night we commissioned four persons, ordained four, and received one into Associate membership. 

This story is not over because God is still calling people.  And not just to ordination but to serve the church as laypeople who know and understand that by their baptism they are called!
The word that keeps coming to mind in describing this season in our life as a church is untamed. To be untamed is to “not be domesticated or controlled” but also uncultivated, wild, natural.”
We are at a time in our life as a church that is untamed.  Untamed is the opposite of stuck!  
The wildness of this season has forced us to look at everything in a new way, including ourselves, our priorities, our hopes, dreams, and our plans.

Though not everyone has adapted well and though many of the struggles in our society have been revealed, we are becoming more resilient.  Parents have turned into teachers, doctors are meeting patients online, we don’t go to a restaurant the same way or travel as we used to.   
We are freer to adapt than ever, to try even more things.  Our story is untamed – we are free to explore freedom -- to be something new.
Our story continues to surprise.  We surprise even ourselves as the Holy Spirit shows up and teaches, pulls back the veil of what we thought we knew.
And….Our story is OURS – yes, it is filled with things we are not proud of – racism, classism, exclusion, misogyny  – but my dear friends, it is OURS.

It is OURS to own, it is OURS to do something with and about and it is OURS to shape for the future.
A favorite author who died much too soon at the age of 37, Rachel Held Evans says this, “Jesus invites us into a story that is bigger than ourselves, bigger than our culture, bigger even than our imaginations, and yet we get to tell that story with the scandalous particularity of our particular moment and place in time.  We are storytelling creatures because we are fashioned in the image of a storytelling God. May we never neglect the gift of that.  May we never lose our love for telling the tale.”

OUR story matters!    
My dear friends, OUR story has the power to empower and humanize.  Our story has the power to repair broken dignity.
Our story is bigger than we are. 
Will you join me in this story of hope, joy, peace, reconciliation, this story of empowerment, of resilience, this story of love?
In the beginning was a story and that story is ours!
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