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Episcopal Address, Annual Conference 2019
The love of God is here!
The love of God is here to stay,
Embracing those who walk God’s way!
Embracing those who walk God’s way!
All you need is love! Love is all you need!
The scriptures tells us that:
Nothing can separate us from the love of God!
Not general conferences, not the labels we give ourselves or that we give others
(you know progressives, traditionalists, centrists), not this plan or that plan.
The love of God is more than all 800-plus of us collectively can conjure up, manufacture, legislate, decide, agree on, more than we can ask or imagine.
We, the Louisiana Annual Conference, we have an opening, an opportunity to show the rest of the world and the rest of the United Methodist Church what it means to love, love like God LOVES!
In a recent gathering of the conference leadership team which is made up of the chairs of the various committees, they shared their thoughts about the current state of the church and their hopes and dreams for this conference.
“We want to love and serve the Lord and others,” they said.
I heard some of them say – we can’t live this way – we have to care for one another – we have to care for our people.
Someone asked, “can we reclaim being a people of open hearts, open minds, open doors?”
I heard others say – the Gospel is not in danger! We, the Louisiana Annual Conference can be a unique expression of the gospel!
I also heard – we can love one another no matter what General Conference 2019 or 2020 says or does!
A common theme in the room was a desire to reclaim our mission and ministry to the world.
These are people that might label themselves in a variety of ways. They are from what I would call the heart of this Annual Conference.
Friends, the love of God is here to stay because The love of God is in you!
Yet in the midst of this excitement and awareness we recognize that to love as God loves us, to love as the Spirit has empowered us, is not an easy task.
Frederick Buechner says:
The love for equals is a human thing – of friend for friend, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely.
The world smiles.
The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing – the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely.
This is compassion and it touches the heart of the world.
The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing – to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice, the love of the poor for the rich, of the black man for the white man.
The world is always bewildered by its saints.
And then there is the love for the enemy – love for the one who does not love but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love.
And it conquers the world!
I am ready for love that is God’s love.
Love that is patient,
Love that is kind,
Love that is not jealous, does not brag and is NOT arrogant
Love that is not rude, that does NOT seek its own advantage.
Love that is not irritable nor keeps score.
Love that is not happy with injustice,
But is happy with the truth
Love that puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, and endures all things.
Love that conquers the world.
What about you?
We have the unique opportunity to be that kind of love – a love that conquers the world.
A love rooted in God’s creative Spirit that made us into infinite ways of being human, our many differences a sign, a symbol of the mystery of God’s being.
Though challenging we are a people that largely love one another despite our differences. This conference is small enough that we can know one another. We have the opportunity to highlight what loving in difference looks like. What sitting around table with family members looks like.
Many of you have grown up in this conference; you were raised, nurtured, and influenced by folk in this room. This is a gift! Not every conference is like this.
You have lived with differences and while we have far to go in many areas – you have found a way to make room for one another.
This way of lived love in difference reminds me of worshipping with you across the annual conference.
In each corner of this state, you have made music – you have learned to sing in eight-part harmony, in unison, and at times even in dissonance.
Listen to how this choir makes music.
The variety of your voices is a witness to the variety of our stories. We make beautiful music, a joyful noise to God!
As you may recall, this time last year I stood here and shared with you my support for what was then the One Church Plan which would have created space for differing and diverse opinions in hopes of multiplying the United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible.
While this is not the legislation that passed at the 2019 Special Session of General Conference, my position has not changed.
I still believe that as Wesleyan Methodists we are a yes/and people and not an either/or people.
A people of sacramental life and evangelistic zeal!
A people of the head and the heart!
A people of Sunday morning worship and Friday Evening prison ministry!
A people of works of piety and works of mercy!
A people of scriptural holiness and social engagement!
A people of global presence and local expression!
We are and have always been a place that has strived to celebrate differences.
In that Spirit let me quickly recap for those of us who have not been following the difficult events of the last few months.
I do so recognizing my own heartbreak, disappointment, and weariness. I do so also recognizing that the way I tell the story is my own and that others might see it differently than I do. I, alongside you, am trying to process what all of this might mean for us.
Also know that as the Bishop of all who follow Jesus throughout the Louisiana Conference of the United Methodist Church, I continue to pray for wisdom to lead with integrity through these trying times.
The special called session of the General Conference held this past February voted by a slim majority to accept the traditional plan which is no longer a plan but in effect will be included in the Book of Discipline and will take effect on January 1, 2020.
The road to the vote was not pretty. We were not at our best. The conferencing was hardly holy and frankly had little semblance of a United Methodist gathering and at times didn’t even resemble a Christian gathering.
The monster truck rally that followed the general conference in the convention center space in St. Louis might have been more holy.
On the walk back to the hotel after dinner on Tuesday night after the vote, I turned to my spouse, Dean and asked, “did today really happen?” It seemed surreal.
The United Methodist Church would never be the same.
Some are elated, some are saddened and many still confused.
The Traditional Plan, after Judicial Council scrutiny for constitutionality, maintains the current language in the Book of Discipline added in 1972 – homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and it strengthens and adds additional punishments for those who violate the discipline including and not limited to suspension for up to one year without pay for clergy who perform a same-gender wedding and are found guilty by a trial of their peers.
Without pay could mean without health insurance, without a place to live.
This is the only violation of the Book of Discipline with this kind of penalty.
In addition, this legislation does not allow for the commissioning or ordination of LGBTQ persons.
A plan for disaffiliation was also approved which means that churches may choose to disaffiliate from the United Methodist Church on the grounds of disagreement with the church’s position on homosexuality.
To do so a church conference has to agree to disaffiliate by a 2/3 vote and this decision has to be ratified by annual conference vote.
The church must satisfy all unfunded pension liabilities, pay two years of apportionments and satisfy several other requirements. This is a costly endeavor at many levels, not the slightest being financial. This could cost an average church $3-4 million.
Some want progressives to leave and others want traditionalists to leave. I don’t want anyone to leave!
Some want to dissolve the United Methodist Church and start over with possibly two or three new expressions of Methodism. The United Methodist Church would cease to exist. It makes me very sad that it could come to this!
I have not backed down from my position that God’s love extends to all people and we must be a church that loves and accepts all people at all levels.
I consider myself a centrist although I know some of you have boxed me into and given me a lot of other labels.
I consider myself a centrist because I do not want to be part of any church that is so inclusive that it excludes.
I do not have much of an appetite to be in a denomination that works to purify itself from the other.
I do not want to be part of a denomination of only progressives or only traditionalists.
Our call is to broaden the center and live in the tension. And though heartbreaking, I am also very aware that for some, both left and right, the tension is getting harder to hold. Some of you have been holding on for a very long time.
We must stop the name-calling and finger-pointing, the questioning of another’s relationship to Jesus and the mischaracterization of another’s position, we must stop claiming that we are the only ones who know what the scripture says, what Jesus taught, or what real Methodism is, we must remember what Ephesians 4: 2-3 teaches us:
Conduct yourselves with all humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.
The center is hard and as one of my Bishop colleagues says, the center is the hardest and requires the most courage.
Yet, the Center is most in keeping with the Gospel.
The Center requires we accept one another even when and especially when we don’t agree. We might have to confess that we might be wrong.
We might have to confess that we are right yet not demonize those who think differently than we do. We must stop slinging arrows at one another. We must be open to one another, listen to one another.
Echo chambers are just ... well ... echo chambers.
I recognize that our current state is untenable! The rules have become so restrictive that we have left no room for the movement of the Holy Spirit in the lives of people.
We have restricted who can be called by God and who cannot.
I do not intend to spend my ministry as a compliance officer nor do I expect any of you to do so.
God expects much more of us. God expects us to disciple people, God expects us to reach out to a hurting and broken world.
God expects us to take a stand for justice and name the injustices all around us.
As our baptismal covenant asks us:
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?
And not just name them but “resist them,” do something about them!
Like racism - now that is incompatible with Christian teaching!
And what about Sexism, ageism, pay parity?!?!?!
Power, privilege, and money are becoming as abusive, manipulative, and coercive in the church as they are in the world.
Friends, power, privilege, and money used to manipulate – NOW THAT’S INCOMPATIBLE WITH CHRISTIAN TEACHING.
In a paradoxical kind of way – everyone, every single one of us is incompatible with Christian teaching and yet in the eyes of God who sent his only son to live among us - no one is incompatible.
We are after all resurrection people, people who believe in redemption, people who believe that in the holy name of Jesus we can be reconciled to God and one another and loved deeply. We believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God – heteronormativity, homosexuality, included.
We are made in the image of God. God does not make mistakes!
Do not let anyone, anywhere – ever - tell you that you are incompatible with Christian teaching.
So what will WE do? What will the Louisiana Annual Conference do? Who will we choose to be?
The Book of Discipline says that the annual conference is the basic body of the church. We have agency. We have the capacity to choose who we will be.
The General Conference is broken but we are not! We are not going to legislate our way out of this.
We have the power to reclaim our purpose to love our neighbor. This could in fact redefine who we are as human beings and Methodists. This could redefine our connection.
The Connection is a fundamental understanding of the Wesleyan Way.
I love what the Book of Discipline says about connectionalism: Connectionalism in the United Methodist tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope and local in thrust.
Our connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships.
We are a vital web of interactive relationships bound together by God’s love.
What if we consciously decided that we would be a conference that loves neighbor in extraordinarily extravagant ways so that the love of Jesus might be known to a broken world? So that disciples are formed and become true followers of Jesus.
We can model for the church what it looks like when people love their neighbor regardless of who they are, where they are from, or who they love.
Regardless of how different our positions, opinions, and biblical understandings are we can still love one another.
The three General Rules of the Methodist Church Societies are still part of our shared covenant.
The first rule being: DO NO HARM. DO NO HARM!
Bishop Reuben Job speaks from his grave as he writes,
The first simple rule is ‘Do no harm’. It is not complicated.
And when practiced, it works wonders in transforming the world around us.
The first simple step, when practiced, can provide a safe place to stand while the hard and faithful work of discernment is done. I will guard my lips, my mind and my heart so that my language will not disparage, injure or wound another child of God. I must do no harm, even while I seek a common good.
We must stop the harm! General Conference 2019 and every general conference before it in my generation has caused harm to LGBTQ persons.
To LGBTQ persons, and parents, friends and siblings of LGBTQ persons – I am deeply sorry for the pain we have caused and continue to cause.
I am deeply sorry!
For the harm we continue to heap on one another - on all of us! I am deeply sorry!
With every general conference, we have continued to marginalize the marginalized.
We have not resolved our indifference to racism. We keep going along as if we have made great strides because we lump all marginalization into one basket. Every time I think we have taken a step forward, I realize we continue to be complicit in the harm.
While I am privileged to stand before you as your bishop, the harm toward women in our churches continues.
THIS MUST ALL STOP!
You have heard me say, probably at nauseam left, right, middle, black, white, male, female, gay, straight, transgendered...
We are all children of God and loved by God. God’s love has no limits. I am not giving up on the United Methodist Church and the possibility that we might make this untenable, hate-filled rhetoric tenable, grace-filled and loving. I can get really excited about setting our eyes squarely on the mission and stop fighting over these questions. Imagine a church that allows people to disagree and yet provides a loving welcome and does no harm.
Imagine a church for our children and their children’s children. Whether you realize it or not some of you have already chosen to love your neighbor in extraordinary ways. From the largest to the smallest churches, you are proclaiming the love of God in every corner of our Conference.
St. Mark’s in New Orleans is a great example. So many of you provide lunch to the homeless community that makes up a large part of St. Mark’s every Sunday.
I had the privilege of preaching there during Advent last year. I encountered the mostly homeless men that lined the sidewalks leading up to the church.
The congregation was made up of professors, authors, lawyers, nurses, and other professionals some of them were gay, some were straight. There were same-gender couples, heterosexual couples, transgendered persons, and they were sitting next to homeless people who didn’t smell too good, who had a rough night. Members of one of our churches were busy in the tiny kitchen preparing lunch, which is served in the sanctuary after worship because there is no other space.
I call that Communion.
I stood up to preach and I had to turn around and collect myself. You see I stood and faced this congregation that was diverse in every way and I thought to myself – this is what “thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” must mean. I could hardly control the tears. You know how to love in the midst of diversity; you know how to love in the tension. You know how to love your neighbor.
Watch how this group has learned to love:
There is power in taking a hand and offering love – as Wesley tells us Offer them Christ.
The power of taking a hand and leading someone to possibilities beyond their imagination is an outward and visible sign of extravagant love! Of being included ... maybe for the first time ever. Of being loved....maybe for the first time ever. That’s the power of love! That’s the power of a hope filled life in Jesus. I am a prisoner of hope! I am a prisoner of the kind of love that can change the world. God’s love for God’s people is more than any of us can even begin to imagine. No General Conference can change that because you cannot legislate love!
Jesus can still calm the storm,
feed the multitudes,
heal the sick
teach people what the kingdom of God is like,
free those who are bound,
bring good news to the poor,
tell the little children to come to him,
and the dead to come out of the grave!
General Conference 2019 or 2020 can’t do that but with God’s help, you can! You can usher in the Spirit of the living God to fall afresh on God’s people. This church is not mine, it is not yours – this is the church of Jesus Christ. I suppose what has troubled me most in the last few months is that we have made little mention of Jesus. The legislation process did not mention Jesus, discipling, love. It was all about rules and regulations and I am afraid it will be even more so in 2020 less we take a stand.
As I said earlier I am unwilling to see us spend our time as compliance officers instead we must focus on the mission extending the love of God throughout our communities. Holding nothing sacred but the mission.
Sometimes you learn a lot about God watching movies. I found myself reaching for pen and paper while watching a documentary about Mr. Rogers. You don’t have to do anything sensational to make people love you says Mr. Rogers. In the Mr. Rogers documentary, the head of the Mr. Rogers foundation said,
If you don’t believe everyone has inherent value you might as well go against the fundamental notion of Christianity that you are the beloved son or daughter of God.
Everyone longs to be loved and to know that he or she is lovable. Thank you, Mr. Rogers. To love is to embrace the whole person - to love is to include.
Verna Myers, vice president of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix and founder of the Verna Myers Company says it like this,
Diversity is being invited to the party. Inclusion is being asked to dance.
I will work until my dying day for full inclusion – that people may know that they are loved. That they can dance. I have said time and again that as a person who has been marginalized and excluded, there is not a fiber in my being that can tolerate excluding anyone. I want people, all people, to be invited to the party and I want them to dance until the proverbial cows come home. We must bring new forms of unity to the dance! God’s love and our love for one another is what ultimately unifies us.
The cross required the softness of cotton and the hardness of the cardboard. Thank you Shelley for your prophetic word: “sometimes it takes brokenness to find your way back.” When Shelley emailed me to tell me what had happened not just to the cross but to her, I asked, “can we please capture your experience on camera?” Holding the center firmly, a little bit of cotton, a little cardboard and a little flexibility giving a chance to unify the pieces again.
The Center is hard! It is hard work! It takes softness and it takes bold edges. Yet it is the place where the fullest expression of the Gospel lives. It is the heart of the gospel. It is where Jesus lived. He engaged with people that others refused. He ate with them, traveled with them and even chose to appear to them after his death.
These disciples were a vagabond of diversity: the tax collector and the zealot, the beloved disciple and the rock, the older brother and the youngest. Then there were the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jews and Gentiles, people of wealth and beggars. Men and yes, even women. All were given the same opportunity to respond to the Good News.
Like those who encountered Jesus in his day, we too are hungry to know that we have purpose and that we matter; that we too can find freedom from all that keeps us from experiencing love, grace, wholeness. That we too are set apart for God’s purposes. People need to be who they are called to be and have the ability to be full participants in every facet of our church without fear of repercussion.
I am a big fan of the television show The Big Bang Theory. I am so sad the final episode aired just a few weeks ago. I will have to stick to binge-watching reruns. Just when I think I have seen them all I watch one I have never seen and wonder, “how can that be??” I love all the characters but I am particularly fond of Sheldon because I think there is a little Sheldon in all of us.
In one episode of Young Sheldon, the spin-off – you know Sheldon grows up in conservative East Texas probably not too far from here. He decides he wants to be Jewish and goes to meet with the local Rabbi who tells him that God will never ask him why he wasn’t Einstein but he might ask why he wasn’t Sheldon.
We cannot deny or suppress who we are.
Thomas Trotter, former General Secretary of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in his book, “Loving God with One’s Mind,” said,
There are many ways of loving God, some helpful, some problematic.
Some love God with their selfless service to neighbor.
Some love God by the diligent attention to the care of the things of God.
Some love God by blindly following their partial views of God.
Some love their views of God more than they love God.
Some think loving God means hating those who love God differently.
The problem in the world is not that the world is irreligious.
It is excessively religious, but the religious spirit is cramped and angular and hostile to the widest angles of God’s love.
Dr. Kim Cape who will soon retire from the post once held by Trotter reminded me recently in an article that the genius of John Wesley and Methodism is how it has held the tension between law and grace, the sovereignty of God and human free will.
Methodists hold together true knowledge and vital piety, head and heart. It did not just rain Bibles one day, she added. Scripture has to be interpreted.
Literalism is not the Methodist way. Scripture is not flat. Scripture, tradition, reason and experience is the Methodist way.
Trotter also says that it is important to remember that Methodism was born in a university. Our founder John Wesley always referred to himself as a fellow of Lincoln College, not a pastor. He and the Methodist movement were products of the Enlightenment. A new way of looking at the world where reason and experience became partners of scripture and tradition.
We must reclaim the Wesleyan way. We must also reclaim and believe in a future that has not yet arrived. Wesley would call this future God’s new creation, wholeness, completeness, this future is the Shalom of God. Because it is God who completes, heals, saves, makes whole.
Last year, we were fortunate to have the lawn re-landscaped to address some drainage challenges created by all the new construction in the neighborhood. The one thing I asked was if possible, I wanted to save the hydrangea. We had three beautiful and mature bushes that provided lovely large blooms several times a year. The landscaper graciously but cautiously said he would try and if they didn’t survive they would come back and plant something else. I have been watching and praying over these sad bushes for a while. No blooms. Just sticks.
I had planned to call them back and ask them to plant the camellias they had intended to plant in the first place. I returned home from a trip a couple of weeks ago and Dean said, “oh by the way, your hydrangea is blooming.” I was thrilled! God help my unbelief! I could not believe in a future I could not see.
I am a prisoner of hope and a prisoner of love. There is a future for the United Methodist Church, for the Louisiana Annual Conference and for your church. We may not yet be able to see it and it might be very different but I believe it is there for us because I believe in you.
I dream of a church that thrives.
I dream of a church that is filled with diverse opinion, diverse thought, diverse people that can hold all these things in tension and celebrate it.
I dream of a church that provides space for people to be different.
I dream of a church empty/bereft of cafeteria Christians that pick and choose what they will emphasize in order to divert us from the mission.
I dream of a church where all are loved.
I dream of a church that embraces its Wesleyan rootedness.
I dream of a church that believes that God is here to stay.
I dream of a church where everything hinges on love.
I dream of a church....
It’s your turn. What is your dream for your church? What is your dream for this conference? How might you bloom again in places that were thought dead?
There is no doubt that God will take your dreams, celebrate them, multiply them and by the power of the Holy Spirit shape your dreams into a future you may not yet be able to see. Because the love of God is here to stay!
The love of God is here to stay!
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