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Bishop Harvey Delivers a Stirring Ordination Sermon, 2021 Annual Conference
Matthew 13:1-3,9 NRSV
In the beginning, was a story and that story continues to unfold. It is complex, shared, good, not over, untamed, surprising, and it is ours and it is yours. It is a story of nudging, of prompting, of surprise, of revealing, of courage, - it is a story of calling.
It is a story of eight who set out on a journey toward ordination.
For the discerning, prayer-making, paper-writing, you surely don’t mean me God? – ordinands, tonight marks a new chapter in their story.
For those to be commissioned the story has three more years of unfolding.
Tonight, we catch a glimpse of the trailer, the teaser, or as my good friend Todd Rossnagel calls it, “the sizzle reel” or maybe we just go old school and read the forward to this unfolding story.
While this is their story, the rest of us get to play a part in this story because this story belongs to all of us.
This is a story of healing hurts, a story of reconciliation, grace, mercy, justice, and love – it is the gospel story – it is the story of God at work in the lives of ordinary people that produce extraordinary fruit.
It’s the unfolding story of people who are learning each and every day new ways, better ways, more ways to love God and neighbor.
In a time of uncertainty, when the world is upside down and the United Methodist Church is facing such challenges, God is still calling people to proclaim the Good News to a world desperate to hear a little good news.
And not only is God calling – even more amazing - you are listening and you are responding. You are saying YES! Not just to ordination but YES to the work of discipling and of transformation.
You could say, “not now God we are in a pandemic. Not now because this race stuff is really hard. Not now we have no idea whether there will even be a UMC.” “Not now, call somebody else.”
You have not said NOT NOW, you have said, “YES NOW!”
Yes, Now for such a time as this.
These are unusual times that call for courageous action. A courage that you often muster in darkness – like trying to make your way across a dark space – but then when your eyes adjust all of a sudden you can see.
This is especially a time that calls for deep listening. That is why I like this passage – yes, I love the site – it is lush and you get a sense of the amphitheater-style of the hillside where the sound carries from the sea to the top of the hill.
It is where Jesus first begins to teach using stories, illustrative stories that take ordinary stuff like seeds, pearls, coins, and sheep to help the people understand more fully.
It is located in the place where Jesus spends most of his time.
But it is what he says at the end of the passage that catches my ear – he says, “Let anyone with ears, Listen!” He doesn’t say everyone with ears hear but listen! Eugene Peterson’s The Message says, “Are you listening to this? Really listening.” The Common English Bible says, “everyone who has ears should pay attention.”
This is important!
As you travel the next paths of your journey you will need to be bearers of the good news, the stories of Jesus but you too will need to tune your ears more than ever – to LISTEN, REALLY LISTEN, PAY ATTENTION to the needs of the people for that is where the stories of Jesus unfold.
I am not just talking to preacher types. Laity, you, too are bearers of the Good News of Jesus as you teach children, youth, adults, sing in the choir, usher on Sunday morning, serve as communion stewards – you must not simply speak or sing the good news you must BE the good news -- embody, incarnate the Good News of Jesus so that you too will have ears to LISTEN! Really listen. Pay attention.
I don’t have to tell you that people are hurting, they are returning to our churches, our small groups, Sunday school classes – wounded!
These are challenging times – there is illness, Covid-19 still exists, cancer, mental health challenges are at an all-time high, as is addiction, people are hungry, children are being left at the border – alone, people are being othered by well-meaning Christians – we have to be the walking around, talking, serving, Good News-loving, listeners, attention-paying followers of Jesus Christ.
Now more than ever we must listen and live in solidarity with the marginalized and draw people towards the margins by our example and deep faith and love.
Ordinands, it is harder than ever to lead a congregation! There isn’t much in our daily life that is as we have known it in the past. So please care for yourselves.
Tend to your relationship with God, your family, and those you enter into covenant with today.
Be clear about your purpose, your mission. If it is to love God and neighbor if it to make disciples that transform the world – whatever it is be clear about your purpose.
The Cabinet listened in on a session with Bishop Michael Curry of the Episcopal Church this week. He too spoke about clarity of purpose and mission. He said, “throw yourself into this work, allow the Holy Spirit to guide you, and rely on the support of the Covenant community.”
That is pretty good guidance for all of us.
I would love to tell you that every day will be filled with joy but there are days you will feel abandoned - abandoned by God, the congregation, the system, even your family – on those days I say, “be of good courage and know that best of all God is with you even and especially when it doesn’t feel like it.”
Always remember that God is still speaking, still prodding, still listening – you must continue to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Be willing to take a stand for justice even when it is not popular! Lead your people to know that the love of Christ is extended to all people, for people are not issues – they are people – human beings, sons, daughters, siblings, faithful followers of Jesus – they are black, white, Asian, rich, poor, gay, straight, left, right – they are people and matter. Their story matters because their story is your story, their story is our story.
Let us continue to set a table with room for all. We once had this breakfast table that was about four feet by four feet but you could pull it out and it just grew and grew. We could go from a table of 4 to a table of 12 in a snap.
I envision a table with more leaves than we can count. You see it is at the table that we experience the fullness of God.
The power of gathering as God‘s people at table – even a virtual one - is powerful. While, yes, I think about the table as in Jesus’ table, the communion table.
I also think about the table as families gather around table for a meal and conversation.
In our family, when our daughter was young, it was important for us to share a meal together especially dinner so that we could talk about our day.
Sometimes our “table” was in the car on the way to soccer practice or in the parking lot of McDonald's but that time together as a family, to break bread together invited us into conversation.
The table - dinner table, conference room table, coffee table, Sunday School Room Costco table, the table at Starbucks - is where conversation happens where we share life, where we share work. It is where we divide and share our work. It is where we listen, really listen and pay attention to one another and the movement of God.
I learned this early on as a child as my mother’s table was always open and ready to feed – and not just food but feed the soul, feed the community around the table. There was always room for another!
It is where we did our best thinking and sometimes even our worst thinking. We agreed at the table, we disagreed at table and sometimes we even argued at table but when we pushed away from the table of plenty we remained full and deeply in love with one another.
The Table is, I believe our United Methodist theology at its best. It is at the table - an open table when all of Gods people can gather and share and BE.
It’s where our collective wisdom comes together.
It’s where creativity happens out of conversation.
New things happen. We join in concert with one another.
Our United Methodist theology at its best – at table, an open table where the ordinary becomes extraordinary.
People and places come together out of a Holy space at the table. I know sometimes our tables don’t always feel very holy – when we disagree, or trust less than we should – but the Spirit intercedes and uses even these moments. God never wastes anything.
I believe the table is where we can best express our love for the church and its people and it is also the place where our deepest listening, love, and respect for one another ought to be so very present.
The table is a place of respect as we gather to celebrate the holiness and sacredness of being together around table.
It is where we can turn chaos into peace.
There is so much conversation about chaos right now and I want to challenge us to shift that narrative - to tell a new story. Let us be honest, we are often the creators of the chaos. We hold the spoons that stir the pots.
Yet, we have agency to change the outcome of our story. Can it be said that we Louisiana United Methodists – share a story of deep love for Christ and for one another?
Despite our differences and maybe even because of our differences we love in ways that defy all odds. We love because Christ first loved us.
This night, a night of commissioning, ordination, and associate membership is a chapter in the ever-unfolding story.
God has called YOU for such a time as this! To sow seeds, to find lost coins and lost sheep. To teach others to sow seeds, find lost coins, and lost sheep.
To teach others to listen for the movement of the spirit and to one another….Really listen!
God is calling you now to reach deep into the margins of our communities and name the racism, sexism, and all the other isms and otherness that exists.
We must be a church for all. Not a traditional church or a progressive church. Not a gay church or a straight church.
Certainly not a white church or a black or brown or young or old church.
We cannot set our little individual tables but instead set the ever-expanding table of unmerited grace.
This is hard work and it is sacred work - work worth doing!
This is sacred work and work with doing --- not just for preachers and church staff but for all of God’s children.
We must proclaim the gospel in every way so that those who have ears will LISTEN! AND WE MUST BE LISTENERS OF THE TRUTH, GRACE, AND LOVE OF GOD.
My dear friends – this story of ours is the story of Jesus who came to live among us and now calls us into a deeper relationship with him and with one another.
We have a story to tell to the nations that have the capacity to turn hearts.
A story that can bring peace to a chaotic world.
A story that can turn darkness into light.
The story is ours!
Are we paying attention?
Are we listening?
THIS IS OUR STORY!
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