News and Views

'We are one,' new bishop proclaims

Posted by Erik Alsgaard on

By Erik Alsgaard

UMConnection Staff

Members, friends and special guests of the Baltimore-Washington Conference officially welcomed their new bishop, LaTrelle Eastering, at a worship service Oct. 1. It became a 120-minute living embodiment of disciples of Jesus Christ that captured the diversity and unity proclaimed in the bishop’s sermon, “We Are One.”

With revival-level intensity in her preaching, soul-stirring anthems and solos, and even a banjo picker playing jazz riffs on the five-string, the celebration lifted hands, hearts and souls.

Bishop Easterling, who was elected bishop last July at the Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference and assigned to the Washington Area, began serving the Area Sept. 1. She is the first woman bishop to serve the BWC and its predecessor bodies, going back more than 230 years.

“I am the bishop of all,” Easterling said before starting her sermon. “And I mean all.” After giving thanks for the many people present, including Bishops Sudarshana Devadhar of the New England Conference and Bishop Gabriel Unda of the Congo West Episcopal Area, a special note of thanks to the black clergy women of the BWC, and her family, Easterling preached on that topic.

The bishop’s sermon not only called the Baltimore-Washington Conference to remember the new reality of disciples being one in Christ Jesus, but the whole church. At a moment in time when The United Methodist Church mirrors the United States in energetic division over politics and social issues, the bishop offered a steady stream of reminders that it is the cross of Christ that matters and that changed all of our lives.

She began by wondering aloud what “you would say” when some asked you to introduce yourself. Easterling said that there are numerous “identifying markers” a person could use, such as professions, geographical locations, sports affiliations, political associations, economic status, and more.

“With these distinctions, we begin to draw lines that often declare that not only I am ‘this,’ but more importantly, I want you to know that I am not ‘that,’” she said. Even within the Christian community, she said, people draw distinctions and categories. For example, the bishop lamented that the term “evangelical” had been co-opted by a certain group of people.

“The term evangelical is not reserved for a specific group of individuals,” she said. “If you share the good news of Jesus Christ; if you love to tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love, then you, too, are evangelical and don’t let nobody tell you otherwise.”

Too often within the body of Christ, she said, we draw lines than make “insiders” and “outsiders;” the religious “haves” and the religious “have-nots.” This is not, she noted, the first time that these distinctions have been made.

Noting that the Apostle Paul faced similar issues of division, such as around the practice of circumcision and following Jewish law, Easterling said even then, “second class citizens” were being created.

“Paul understood this as a theological crisis,” she said. “He did not respond passively. Rather, he wrote an urgent letter offering his students a remedial class on Salvation 101.”

That lesson: Paul made it clear that the cross of Jesus Christ, not the law, formed the basis of our relationship with God, Easterling said. Paul wrote to the church in Galatia that all people were God’s children, she said. All people who had “passed through the waters of baptism and clothed themselves not with the trappings of the state, but with the righteousness of God,” were children of God, she said.

Reminding her congregation that Paul wrote, “There is no Greek or Jew, slave nor free, male or female,” the bishop again said, “You are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Because of the cross, she said, all the “ignoble identities” of the past had been destroyed and a new reality had been created, “bound together in faith, love and service.”

The bishop, preaching from the center of the altar instead of from the pulpit, said that heritage isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when you allow “race and culture and practice to divide you, you are betraying the truth of the Gospel.”

Paul, she said, wasn’t just preaching to the ancient church; he has a word today to the church in America.

“I know we’re proud of our country,” Easterling said. “I know we want to delineate between those who are patriots and those who are not; those who were born here and those who were not; those who speak English and those who do not. Paul says, ‘I know right now you’re fighting over who puts their hands over their hearts and who takes a knee during the national anthem, but remember, your cultural imperialism will not save you.’”

Bishop Easterling said that she wanted the BWC to know that she loves “our country.” As the spouse of a veteran and the parent of a child in ROTC, she has never lived in a house that did not wave the American flag.

“So all y’all posting on Facebook and on Twitter and on Instagram, get it right!” she said. “Your bishop loves her country, but this is too important and we must understand: the eagle does not fly higher than the cross.”

In this new reality, the bishop said, we should not have to argue that black lives matter, or that Latino lives matter, or differently-abled lives matter, or immigrant lives matter, or that LGBQ lives matter.

“Within Jesus Christ, we are one, we are equal, we are beloved, we are unified, we are united,” she said. “Therefore, we can, and mean it when we say, that yes, because there aren’t any lives that don’t matter, all lives matter.”

This is because we all share one common DNA, the bishop said, and that’s the DNA of Christ which makes us all brothers and sisters with each other.

“The dichotomy of stratification, or social hierarchy, is washed away in the birth canal of our baptism,” she said.

Again, she said, in this new reality, we don’t have to long for justice. Rather, she said, we become the creators of justice, compassion and peace. What we need “right now,” she said, was a movement of the baptized out into the streets and highways and byways of this nation and the world to bring a leveling of the playing field.

“We need to understand,” she said, “that at the foot of the cross, the ground is level.”

In Christ’s new creation, the bishop said, we are “created equally, called equally, baptized equally, sent equally, serving equally, ordained equally, consecrated equally,” and for everyone, “a system that’s fair.”

There is, she said, no “one dollar for the one and 70 cents for the other,” referencing the disparity of pay between men and women. “There is no two steps ahead for some and two steps behind for others. There is no house on Pennsylvania Avenue that cannot be held by a woman as well as by a man.”

The bishop charged the laity and clergy of the conference with work to do, noting that drug problems, poverty, homeless and other social struggles don’t know the difference between inner-city and suburbia, between rural and city neighborhoods.

“We have to come together to meet people’s needs,” Easterling said. “We cannot, we should not, and we will not be a conference that does not stand together because if its knocking on one door, its knocking on all of our doors; if it affects my daughter, and we are one in Christ Jesus, it affects your daughter; if my son is lying bleeding in the street, if we are one in Christ Jesus, it is your son lying in the street.”

If we reject the unity we gain through Jesus Christ, she said, “then we are rejecting our very salvation and we are once again becoming slaves under the law. It’s that serious, beloved.”

Easterling said that the way forward is to remember, in the words of Martin Luther, that our baptism wasn’t just a historical event, but that it is a present reality. “Not ‘I was baptized,’” she said, “but ‘I am baptized.’ We must rise every day and splash the waters of baptism on our faces and reclaim who we are and whose we are.”

During the service, several greetings were offered to the bishop, especially noting the historic occasion of her assignment. United States Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.) attended, and offered his congratulations. He also presented a Senatorial Special Citation to the bishop.

Other dignitaries included Jennifer Gray, representing Maryland Governor Larry Hogan; the Rev. Teresa Fry-Brown, who brought greetings from the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Bishop Unda from Congo, also spoke and offered an invitation to Bishop Easterling to make her first official out-of-country episcopal visit to his Area.