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Episcopal Address: Why Church

Posted: November 17 2020 at 09:08 PM

Over a year ago, “Y Church” became our theme for AC2020 because we had just come off a particularly difficult special General Conference 2019 where further restrictions were put on the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons. It was a painful time for many clergy and local churches. Y Church—why put up with all this—we were wondering on some days. 

Then before we knew it, COVID hit and we weren’t even able to meet in person.  After the murder of George Floyd, more and more of us were delving deeper into understanding the history and practices of racism.  Again, some wondered how we could belong to such a flawed organization that has sanctioned racism, beginning with slavery and then Jim Crow laws, over the years. Throughout a federal election season, we became more and more politicized and polarized as a nation and that has bled into our churches. Who needs it—one more body of imperfect people to put up with? Why church?

The scripture upon which our theme is based is 1 Peter 3:15b: “Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you why you have hope in Christ Jesus.” We may feel that our hope is flagging from day to day, but yet it’s exactly for times like these that we need not only a personal response to Y Church but a community of faith that can answer that question. 

As this is my last annual conference session as an active bishop, I want to reflect on my own answer to Y Church based on a prayer that has been a touchstone for me over all the years of my ministry.  It has sustained me through some very difficult times and focused me on Y Church. The prayer is by Carlos Carreto. I’ll read a line and briefly reflect on it.

How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you!

  • Mark Twain once said that he didn’t want to belong to any organization that would accept him as a member. Meaning that he knew himself to be flawed and realized that everyone else is, too. It’s pure grace that any of us is a member of the body of Christ. But no matter how committed we are to the Church, myself included, there are times when I just shake my head—how baffling, how incomprehensible the Church, the body of Christ, is to act like it does sometimes—in local churches, in the annual conference and as a denomination!  We can say and do some pretty unChrist-like things. 
  • And yet Church—the fellowship of the followers of Jesus—is the place/people where we discover and work out our own sanctification and redemption, as both John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say, in the midst of all these fellow saints and sinners.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said in Life Together: “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself [by that he means the ideal of the Church instead of the people who make up the Church] become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial.” I commend some studies on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together!  It challenges our consumer-oriented, self-focused church perspectives and reminds us that church is meant to help us grow in grace toward love for others as opposed to just what it will do for us.  I dare say that it could help us mend our polarities and divisions.
  • And yet how I love you, O Church!  I do…because in addition to the hate and exclusion, I have seen incredible, unconditional love and acceptance—not only seen it, but experienced it! In addition to the greed, I’ve seen amazing generosity. When despair has seemed like the only natural reaction, I’ve seen and experienced a reason to hope—usually because of others.  When others have been complacent, the Church has given courage.  Thinking conflict is the last word, reconciliation and peace have appeared before my very eyes when I have least expected it.
  • Baffling, yes, and yet how much I love the Church!

How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you!

  • Serving the Church for over 40 years in full-time Christian ministry has truly been a joy but it’s also been a cross to bear. The Church has hurt me countless times; deeply wounding me to my core…as it probably has you, too. None of us is a member of a church for years and years without being wounded; it will disappoint at some point or another. I have seen the very worst in people as a local church pastor, DS and Bishop.  I’ve seen lives destroyed through abuse of all kinds.  I’ve seen the denomination dance to the tune of the “powers and principalities” of this world instead of singing a new song of the gospel. 
  • And yet I love the Church—this UMC—and I owe my life to it!  If it wasn’t for the Church, I cannot even imagine what my life would have been. Through the Church I’ve met and learned to love so many people that wouldn’t have ever been possible at a depth that would have never been reached. I have been a part of and seen the ways that our UMC is always present in the worst disasters, who as often as not is quietly offering the presence of Christ for those who are going through the worst of life’s experiences, advocating for the least, the lost and the left out that our political ideologies of all kinds don’t begin to address.  Perfect?  No, but working and serving in amazing ways.
  • Yes, the Church has made me—made all of us—suffer, and yet to the level of our investment in it of love and commitment, we owe our very lives to it. Maybe more now than ever.

I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.

  • Countless people have left the church.  My own family members who grew up in the church and would say they believe in God (maybe even pray) but now with the struggles of their lives don’t have a spiritual grounding or community to help them through.
  • We need the presence of the body of Christ in our lives (as imperfect as it is) in order to grow in our discipleship and to challenge our self-centeredness. I actually worry about the moral integrity of our country as a connection with a faith community becomes weaker and weaker for more and more people.  Many people now live on the spiritual inheritance of their parents and grandparents instead of having a spiritual grounding of their own.  It makes people have less and less of “we” and more and more of an “I.”  This is a threat to our communities as well as churches.
  • In the balance, the Church makes us stronger even with its limitations and imperfections.  More than ever, we need to strengthen it instead of undermine it.  More than ever, we are stronger together than going our individual ways.  We need each other!

You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand sanctity.

  • One of the things that always grieves me is that most United Methodists don’t know all the good that we do around the world and often even in our own annual conference or communities.  All they seem to know are the faults and sometimes literal scandals.  At the very least, could we refrain from talking about the imperfections of our pastor and/or church in front of others who are not a part of the church? Because that alone has caused more people to turn off from the church than probably any other thing.  No, I don’t have a study to prove it: I have 43-plus years of observation. I call it “anti-evangelism,” where we badmouth our own, airing our dirty laundry in front of others, and then wonder why they—often our own children and grandchildren—don’t want to be a part of a church. If only we were as intent upon sharing the gospel and the goodness of our mission, yes, while facing what’s not right in appropriate ways. Just imagine the impact the Church would have in the world! 
  • And yet there is sanctity that comes from the Church that is greater than we are.  The sanctity of the Church isn’t our holiness but the Holy Spirit who inspires, transforms and redeems who we are…together. Truly the gates of hell cannot prevail against the goodness of the Church in spite of our limitations, imperfections and attempts to destroy it from both inside and outside. 2000-plus years of church should teach us that! 

I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful.

  • Admittedly, the church too often is petty, focused on minutiae, practicing ministry avoidance by splitting hairs over how to do something and who should do it and who has the most status and power within the church…instead of going out the door and sharing the love and grace of Jesus in word and deed.  
  • But for those of you who do, there’s nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful to be experienced. Even now during COVID-19, when you can’t always go out the door (or in very limited ways or in the ways you’ve “always done it before”), I’ve seen nothing more pure, generous and beautiful through the ways you/we have found to reach out to our communities.  COVID-19 has caused us to pivot from “how we always did it,” because you can’t do it that way anymore and now must we do things in a new and innovative way to help others in need. 
  • New people have come to our churches online.  As Rev. Junius Dotson said in his last Bible study, online worship is an equalizer—whether you’re a congregation of 10 or 10,000, you can reach people in ways you never could before. I’ve been preaching and praying that we would reach beyond our walls for years but it was COVID-19 that really made it happen!  No, the pandemic is not a good thing, but many of you have responded to the situation in a good way—in a pure, generous and beautiful way, even with all the stutter steps technologically to get there! And an innovative spirit must not end with a vaccine! In other words, we must continue the kind of innovation we have seen during this time into the future!  For the sake of the gospel!

How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face,
And how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

  • How has this time made you focus on what’s really important in your life and in your spiritual journey?  When we look back on this time, will we be able to say: “Look, this was hard, but this is the way I grew in my faith. These are the ways that I grew in discipleship. This has been a foundational time in my understanding of anti-racism. I’m a more vital Christian than I was, and so my church will be one more person closer to being a vital congregation!”? And if you feel like you can’t quite say that yet, I think you have some more time work on it!

No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, although not completely.
And (besides) where should I go?

  • I’ll be honest with you. I have benefited from a break from in-person church. I’ve gone online (although I’m not a huge fan); I’ve practiced my spiritual disciplines; I’ve found ways to grow in my discipleship. I have to say that a break has been nice but now I’m looking forward, along with Ken, to when we can go to the UMC in our neighborhood. We’ve had the pastor over in a socially-distanced backyard conversation when I was there. We already give. We’re eager to find ways to serve our community—our house is right next to a Hispanic community where there are opportunities to be in service; there are many people of all ages and economic conditions who sometimes need disaster relief as well many who regularly need food and shelter. Ministries of both mercy and justice abound!  I’m ready to embrace a new church community in a more local setting. That’s Y Church for me now.
  • Why Church? I encourage you to think and pray about that question and then live it out with others in order to draw us closer to what God’s preferred vision and future is for us all. As local churches. As an annual conference. As a denomination. And as the Church universal. 

If ever we needed to get this right, to understand what truly is Church—why Church—it’s now!  Amen!

 --Carlo Carretto from The God Who Comes

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