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Bishop Stith's Remarks to 2018 Class of Retirees

June 12, 2018

ON BEING BENEATH THE CROSS
Remarks to the Retirees Class of 2018

Bishop Forrest C. Stith

May 30, 2018

Good morning. Grace and peace are yours because God is the creator of all things, and Jesus is the redeemer of every life. Amen. 

First, to the retirees, my congratulations on your survival (Joke); or as an old spiritual put it, “Tell me, how did you feel when you come out the wilderness, Come out the wilderness, leaning on the Lord.” 

Josephine and I are honored to be invited to share this week with each of you, and our Bishop, LaTrelle Easterling, who in two short years, has proven to be one of the outstanding Bishops of the U. M.  Church. 

This personal word. 2018 is significant to me. Sixty years ago, I was ordained a deacon in the old Baltimore Conference in the chapel of the old Western Maryland College. Two years later I became a full member and married Josephine. So, this is a special year. Now hear this word of the Lord.  

1 John 4:7-16
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

Let us pray.

God be in my head and in my thinking

God be in our ears and in our hearing

God be in our hearts and in our living

In days ahead, you may look back and reminisce and ask the question how did I do? For the answer, you may even go so far as to use some form of metrics, or measuring stick:

 How many churches did I serve, including charges? How many buildings did I build? How many converts did I receive? How many children did I baptize? How many funerals did I conduct? How many marriages did I preside over? How many counseling hours did I share?

The more you count, the “tired-er” you will be.  And while these are helpful benchmarks and speak well of your commitment and energy, I submit this morning that the most important benchmarks were none of these.  Excuse my vernacular grammar: “It’s not how you do but how you BE.” Although your doing was significant, it was your BEING that was most significant in relationship with God’s children. 

Was that not after all, your call? Not to do great things and be lifted up to greatness, but to lift the Savior of the world up. “Lift him up, lift him up, Lift him up for eternity, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.” 

The scripture I read indicates that BEING was the priority of the early church as portrayed in the first letter of John. “God is love and whoever abides in love abides in God and God in them.” If that metric is present, everything else falls in place. So, on behalf of the whole church, I remind you of Paul’s salutation to the Church in Corinth:

 1 Corinthians 1:4-5 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

I give thanks to my[a] God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him,

I thank you, retirees, not just for surviving, or for doing good, but most of all, for BEING in relationships that will last forever. 

You know all that. I am just reminding you of first things first. BEING was certainly the priority of our leader, the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley. His brother Charles wrote a hymn we used to sing at the beginning of Annual Conferences:

“And are we yet alive, 
and see each other's face? 
Glory and thanks to Jesus give 
for his almighty grace! 

Preserved by power divine 
to full salvation here, 
again in Jesus' praise we join, 
and in his sight appear.

What troubles have we seen, 
what mighty conflicts past, 
fightings without, and fears within,
since we assembled last! 

Let us take up the cross 
till we the crown obtain, 
and gladly reckon all things loss 
so we may Jesus gain”.

                                                DILEMMAS

There are, however two dilemmas with the word BEING. The obvious one, is, it is easy to quantify our doing, but oh so difficult to quantify our BEING.

When our daughter was in the first grade, her teacher asked each child what work their fathers did. By the time she came to Lori, and Stith being near the end of the alphabet, Lori had heard all the various vocations of physically exhausting tasks, so she responded, “Oh, my daddy doesn’t work; he just goes to church every day.” The teacher immediately ran down the hall where Josephine was teaching to share Lori’s belief that her Daddy didn’t work.  Perhaps she was right, if one’s doing is the only legitimate work, and yet, I hope as years passed, Lori appreciated the difficult task of BEING a pastor, you and I performed. 

You will be surprised at the pastoral acts of compassion and mercy you have long forgotten that still resonate in the hearts of people you shared. Yea, sometimes just your presence brought hope and perhaps even changed a desperate life into hope and joy. And yes, it wasn’t the doing, it was the BEING that transcended our limitations and “healed the sin sick soul.” 

During your ministry over the last 25, 30, or maybe 40 years, more technological breakthroughs have occurred than much of history before you, especially in communications. We now have the ability to quantify words, data, ideas, and statistics faster and larger than ever before. Yet, we struggle with that technology’s ability to enhance the common good. Which ought to be the goal of progress. Nor do I mean making our GPS give us the right direction to the Marriott. No, I mean helping a world where hunger is experienced by 2/3 of God’s children every night. Where refugees are willing to face almost certain death, rather than the atrocities of their homeland. And where even in this country, the poor or poorer and the rich or richer.

Perhaps we need to hear again the message delivered by Episcopal Bishop Currie at the Royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, who had personally invited him to share a homily in front of 600 guests at St. George’s Chapel and millions of others around the world.   He used our text in first John, and quoted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. "We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way."

Which brings us to the second dilemma with BEING, which is, we are after all, imperfect vessels, sinners saved by grace. And if our ministry was dependent upon our works, our hands and our thoughts, we would be sorely dismayed. Or as Martin Luther once wrote:

“Did we in our own strength confide / Our striving would be losing / Were not the right man on our side / The man of God’s own choosing
Doth ask who that may be /Christ Jesus it is he / Lord Sabaoth his name / From age to age the same / And he must win the battle”.

No, we are who we are, mortal, finite creatures, filled with SIN. But our joy is salvation in Jesus Christ, whose life and ministry Identified with all God’s children. The essence of his ministry was built on BEING. Note his job description in Luke 4:18-19: 

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

 After 3 years of pouring out his very being, He took the final act, went to the cross to signal to the world the ultimate of BEING and caring. So, this has been your model, and again we thank you for hearing and following that blessed call. 

                                    OUR CONNECTIONAL MINISTRY

In less than a year, in February, John Wesley’s great movement will be at a crossroads, and perhaps the fate of our denomination will be known. It is my opinion that human sexuality is not the core issue we face, but simply a manifestation of three key issues which have been continually before us: Connectionalism, Globality, and Diversity. How do we live out connectionalism amdist a society of individualism? How do we become fully global amidst distances, varied cultures, languages and finances?  And how do we learn to transcend the errors of diversity and wholeness in our past? All are cultural issues, with biblical overtones.

If you dig deeply enough, our struggles are based on our world views; that is, how we experience culture, and dare say I, our BEING in relationship with each other. The doing is hard enough, but the BEING!!! “Ah that’s the rub,” as Shakespeare would say.

Was not that the issue of the early church, as it struggled with who is chosen by God.  Those who were descendants of Abraham or Gentiles, Greeks, and others all over the world? And I for one am glad the church chose to be inclusive of all humankind.

Throughout the journey of Methodism, we have done well with our doing; our evangelism, missions, education, and social outreach, second to none. We have labored to include all God’s children.  In our quest for inclusiveness, however, we have sometimes. left those we included, marginalized, and not full participants.

The 1844 split between the Northern and Southern Methodist church was often based on long biblically based sermons supporting the separation of the races, which was similar language used to justify the confederacy and states’ rights to retain slavery. We are still wrestling with the vestiges of the Central Jurisdiction, created in 1939 as a sacrificial lamb to create a so-called union or reunion.

The miracle of that separation was how thousands of people of color stayed in the denomination, not only surviving but thriving, hoping that full inclusion would soon come. As one dear soul said, “we helped build this Denomination, and our ancestors shared their tears and bodies for this church, so we ain’t going nowhere.”

Personally, growing up in a Midwest conference of that Central Jurisdiction meant that sometimes a District Conference was 200 miles away, and Annual Conference was 500 miles west to Colorado one year and 500 miles in the other direction in St. Louis the next year. And yet, we stayed connected, paid apportionments in full (we called them conference claims) and offered our utmost loyalty to the denomination.

Finally, amidst many trials and tribulations, 50 years ago. in 1968, segregation was officially eliminated, and we are now officially in fellowship. We are not there yet, but at least we have officially declared who we want to be.

Or, one could mention the inclusion of women at every level in spite of years of Bible-toting preachers telling women to keep in their place. That exclusion was also a cultural phenomenon based on patriarchal models in history. However, if you look at the results of the recent Constitutional amendment for gender equality, some parts of our church are not yet sure.

                                                UNITY AND HARMONY 

Here we are, after more than 250 years as a great denomination, still seemingly unable to define true inclusion. Perhaps our issue is not unity but harmony. Unity is an intellectual agreement around common held beliefs and systems. To claim unity requires words and deeds. Harmony, on the other hand.  is living and being in relationship with each other often transcending differences of all sorts, but nevertheless creating something special out of the differences.

So here we are, full circle: DOING and BEING. The bright future of our denomination will not be determined by changing the Book of Discipline. That is necessary and may bring temporary unity.  Our best future is to accept our differences and find ways and means to create harmony. Or as Wesley once said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

Which is two-fold -- BEING in love with God through Jesus Christ and BEING in love with each other.

Years ago, someone likened our struggle of racial inclusivity with a Symphony orchestra. When you enter the concert hall, you hear all the discords and screeches of many different instruments, each seeking a pure tone. You may wonder if this is all there is. Then the concert master enters, picks up her violin and plays one note. Soon all the instruments find the same chord, and in UNISON, play the same note.

Then the conductor steps forward, lifts the baton and soon what was once discord, then unity, suddenly is a rich harmonic sound that could never have been accomplished by one single instrument, or one unison tone. Instead it required a variety of horns, strings, percussions, coming together in a majestic symphonic sound. All because of the master conductor who brings them all together.

That is our hope: that Jesus Christ, the Master Conductor, will reign. And he shall reign forever and ever. May it be so. Amen.

  

 

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