Our theme for this conference is “Pathways to Hope.” When I was thinking of what to say, it became obvious that I had to talk about hope. And when you are going to talk about hope, the most natural thing in the world is to go find some. And I did. And it didn’t take long to find it. Because, Arkansas Annual Conference, you are amazing. Look at these signs of hope: Our annual conference ministry with youth; the Ozark Mission Project; local pastors who talk powerfully about their call to ministry; the incredible growth at Philander Smith College and the amazing quality of education at Hendrix; the many local churches that take mission trips, locally and globally; our Disaster Response and Volunteers in Mission network; the 200,000 Reasons Childhood Hunger initiative involving more and more congregations and making a bigger and bigger difference in the lives of children in Arkansas; more women clergy in larger churches; innovative ministry like that occurring at Canvas Community Church; babies being baptized, youth coming to faith, adults making professions of faith in Christ; the work of the United Methodist Foundation and on and on and on.
But you know it doesn’t matter how long a list of hopeful things I come up with, the fact of the matter is the world is struggling, the Church is struggling, and many of you are struggling. We live in this time where we are a people of hope and yet we see the pain of the reality around us. We live in tension with each other, and we have to address that before we can find our true hope. I will share with you what I wish I could say to you. And then I will tell you the reality of what I feel I must say to you.
I wish I could tell you that we have settled issues around human sexuality and everybody is happy. But the reality of what I must say to you is that the Way Forward is still going to be a confusing journey, with an uncertain ending.
I wish I could tell you we are turning the corner in becoming a more vital annual conference – but the reality of what I must say to you is that we continue to experience decline in spite of all your hard work: the Bishop‘s mission plan; our emphasis on every congregation “Growing-by-One” in worship attendance, professions of faith, small groups and outreach into the mission field; the cabinet’s commitment to making mission field appointments; the work of our Center for Vitality on our “vital” emphasis this past year; all the money the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas has invested; the Arkansas Tithe Initiative; and the Bishop’s Ordinands’ Retreats.
I wish I could tell you that spiritual revival has taken hold and has truly made a difference. But the reality of what I must say to you is we are far more focused on survival than revival, being comfortable than being ready to sacrifice for Jesus and having things the way we think they should be rather than getting serious about doing God’s Will.
I wish I could tell you that we have absolute clarity and commitment about who we are and what we are doing. But the reality of what I must say to you is that we are struggling to embrace our trajectory of creating vital congregations that make disciples of Jesus Christ, who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world.
I wish I could tell you that it doesn’t matter whether we are right-leaning, left-leaning or somewhere in the middle and that we all are joined by Jesus Christ as the heart of faith. But the reality of what I must say to you is that I think we have turned Jesus into an assumption, a social media hashtag or some sort of mascot attached to what we would be doing anyway.
I wish I could tell you that we are experiencing ‘holy unsettledness’ about all of this because that would be a sign we are ready to do something. But the reality of what I must say to you is that I think we have become complacent, accepting of the status quo and being comfortable with low expectations about the future.
I wish, I pray, oh how I pray, that I could tell you that hope abounds in Arkansas. But the reality of what I must say to you is there is a great deal of hopelessness, perhaps even despair, and some of it is in this room right now. Many of you are struggling to understand why so many congregations think that God-called and gifted females cannot lead churches as pastors. Our nation, indeed the entire world, is so polarized that we seem incapable of solving the problems we face. Towns are depopulating throughout much of our state, and that means many of you are watching your towns slowly die, young people moving away, and once-strong vital congregations dwindle. Almost all United Methodist congregations in Arkansas are growing smaller and smaller, with no indication that things are going to turn around. Did you know more American students have been killed in schools this year than American soldiers have died in battle? Laity don’t trust clergy, clergy don’t trust laity and let me tell you, no one trusts the Council of Bishops. Sports, dance and other activities take priority far too often over kids being in church. Religious leader after religious leader has been caught in an act of sexual misconduct.
My sisters and brothers, I stand here before you saying I wish I could tell you I have hope. But wait… I do. It doesn’t matter, the struggles, the pain, the uncertainty, the hopelessness. I have hope. And it’s real hope. Great hope. Incredible hope. Eternal hope. And here is why: God created us to do more. Christ died for us to do more. The Holy Spirit is empowering us to do more. And that means God’s hope is as real, alive and shining as brightly as the August Arkansas sun in the delta.
So let me be clear about what I’m doing here right now. I am not about cheerleading, imploring you to work harder or selling you on the latest greatest conference program. I am not going to do that. I’m going to simply lay out where we can get the hope we long for, the hope we pray for, and the hope we need. I’m going to be honest. It’s not flashy or trendy. In fact, it’s really very basic. But I tell you; it gives us that hope we need. And here’s why: It’s God’s hope. It’s God’s gift to us. And we can find it. We can experience it. We can live it on four of God’s pathways to hope.
Here’s God’s First pathway to hope: God’s still God and God’s not finished yet. This pathway is beautifully expressed in the Book of Revelation:
1 I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea.
2 I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband.
3-5 I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Revelation 21:1-5 The Message (MSG)
That’s scripture. That’s God’s Word. We walk on God’s pathway to hope when we believe and live as if God is at work making God’s will just as real on earth as it already is in heaven. Now, look, this doesn’t mean we’re naïve or in denial about the way things are – including all the sin, suffering, pain, and injustice. It simply means we trust God’s promise a whole lot more than what we see or how we feel or what other people are saying. When God goes to work, and that may be in the church or outside the church, it is absolutely as real as that person sitting next to you. It’s certainly far more real than all the bad news with which you are confronted every single day. Here’s the difference you will experience when you walk the first of God’s pathways to hope: You’ll have a new spirit in your life. You’ll have a new way of seeing things,
a new way of living. You’ll experience the joy the Holy Spirit gives you because you know God’s will is becoming real right now. You experience hope because you feel closer to God. You discover meaning at the deepest level because you are a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. And here’s what it looks like. We no longer are “Chicken Littles,” which Christians are really very good at imitating. We are no longer “Chicken Littles,” who go around saying, “the sky is falling, the sky is falling!” Instead, we are witnesses to the ultimate reality of what God is doing in our lives, in our church, in our conference. It has already happened in the person and work of Christ. We live knowing its true.
Here’s God’s second pathway to hope: We’ve still Got Jesus and that’s all we need. This is powerfully expressed in one of the best-known passages of Scripture.
This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death sentence without knowing it. John 3:16-18 The Message (MSG)
Let me say as clearly as I can. We Christians, we Arkansas United Methodists, cannot count on the prestige of our church, any endowments we have squirreled away, winning battles at General Conference, powerful preaching, the latest and greatest program or superstar laity. We can’t count on those, although it’s really nice to have all of those in your back pocket. When all is said and done, all we Christians really have is Jesus. The Jesus who voluntarily came into the muck of human life. The Jesus who shared the fullness of God’s love. The Jesus who was rejected by almost everyone. The Jesus who died on the cross as a common criminal. The Jesus who was raised from the dead. The Jesus who promised to be with us always. And the Jesus who calls each one of us to live as his disciples.
This is not a conservative thing or a liberal thing. It’s a Christian thing. Jesus gave us what we absolutely need, but can never get on our own: salvation, forgiveness, healing, hope, new life, second, third and fourth chances, and the opportunity to become part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s a challenge for me and I know it’s a challenge for you.
It seems like the smarter we are, the more affluent we become, the more technologically savvy we become, the more we live into the culture in which we find ourselves, the less convinced we are that we need Jesus as the cornerstone of our lives. Those of us in this room are smart and affluent and blessed and successful. The greatest threat we experience as disciples of Jesus Christ is relying on this instead of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. There is no more important work we have as United Methodist Christians than going back to Jesus, letting him embrace us, letting him hold us tight, letting him transform us from the inside out. And I want to tell you that’s not simplistic; it’s simple. It’s not fundamentalist; it’s basic. It’s not outdated; it’s eternal.
This is what will happen when you rely more and more on Jesus: The clearer you are about who Jesus is, the clearer you will be about who you are. The clearer you are about who Jesus is, the clearer you will be about how he calls you to live. The clearer you are about who Jesus is, the clearer you will be about the power he gives you to be that disciple who makes disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world. The clearer you are about who Jesus is, the freer you will be – we will be – to be the Church Jesus is calling us to be.
Through God’s third pathway to hope, we can experience the fullness of God’s unconditional, invitational and transformational love in Jesus Christ that changes everything. It’s proclaimed in such an amazing way in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth:
1 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.
2 If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.
3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.
Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “Me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
I Corinthians 13:1-7 The Message (MSG)
Jesus loves you just the way you are right this moment. Nothing ever can change that. I have come to believe that one of the biggest sins of the church is that we have too often been more interested in judging people than celebrating the fact that God’s love is so great that God loves people we have a hard time loving. Sometimes it seems we are overcompensating for our past sins and we seem to be stuck in God’s unconditional love – as if it is the sum total of all of God’s love.
Jesus loves you unconditionally and nothing you do can ever make Jesus love you more or less. But Jesus loves you so much; Jesus is not going to leave you the way you are. Jesus is going to invite you into a personal relationship with him that changes you and everything about you – now and forever. It literally makes you more loving, compassionate, joyful, committed to justice and ready to share with others the privilege of experiencing Jesus’ love.
Now, listen carefully to what I’m going to say. It’s going to change you if you are a liberal. It’s going to change you if you are a conservative. It’s going to change you if you are in-between. It’s going to change you if you’re lay. It’s going to change you if you’re clergy. It’s going to change me if I’m a bishop. It’s going to change those of you with great passion and fervor and it’s going to change those who are lukewarm. It’s going to change those of you who have been Jesus’ followers for a long time and those of you who are brand new Christians. Jesus’ love is a total love, a complete love that embraces us as we are and loves us into the person God has created us to be.
Walking this pathway of God gives you hope. It’s going to root you more deeply in Jesus, regardless of who you are, and regardless of what your life is like. It’s going to make you so passionately in love with him that you will never want to drop his hand because you know he is going to guide you where you need to go. It’s going to take you deeper into the world – especially outside the door of your church to get involved with real people who have real problems. It literally will de-polarize your desire to be polarized, open eyes to see the power of God’s love will make you more comfortable reaching outside your comfort zones. That may sound a little scary because we all want that Jesus we can shrink down and put in our pocket, but Jesus loves us into something bigger than we already are.
God’s fourth pathway to hope: It’s not how “successful” we are; it’s what Jesus’ power can do. John’s Gospel describes what we will be able to do when we acknowledge this very basic reality.
Believe me: I am in my Father and my Father is in me. If you can’t believe that, believe what you see—these works. The person who trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but even greater things, because I, on my way to the Father, am giving you the same work to do that I’ve been doing. You can count on it. John 14:11-14 The Message (MSG)
We will walk God’s pathway to hope when we get over the fact that the church is declining and dying, and discover that being a struggling church frees us up to do things for Jesus we’ve not yet begun to imagine. There are a lot of people, starting with bishops, who bemoan the current state of the church. I’m beginning to be convinced that it’s maybe the greatest gift that God could possibly ever give to us. I would much rather be in a struggling church filled with people who want to be there than a church that seems to be thriving with people who think they are expected to be there. I want to be in a church where people are really, truly, passionately seeking God and not just going through the motions day after day, week after week, month after month. I want to be part of a church ready to claim Jesus’ power and not simply rely on their own abilities.
Quite frankly, we are at our best when we’re underdogs and when we don’t have anything to lose and can focus on what Jesus wants us to do and not on what other people think. You know, sometimes it’s only when we’ve tried and failed, and tried and failed, and done everything we can that we realize that we can look beyond ourselves and trust Jesus’ promise.
Here is how walking this pathway of God gives us hope: It enables us to discover the true hope that comes when we embrace Jesus’ promise to let him help us do what we long to do.
In families that are broken by addiction or abuse, in congregations where racism overshadows the liberating love of Jesus, in lives where people are more intent on making sense of Jesus than following Jesus, in a world where people think the more stuff you got, the happier you are.
This past week, I was in Cuba. I was invited to preach at the Cuban Annual Conference. I’d heard a lot about Cuba and talked to people like Dede Roberts who had been there before. But when I arrived, my first impressions as I toured Havana and as I got to see what life was like in Cuba, just dismayed me; they depressed me. The poverty is real. It is still a communist state where the state holds a very heavy thumb on people. I was told that every time I preached, there would be agents of the government present. You travel around just outside the city and there are cars, most of which are from the 40s and 50s, and the means of farming was by animal. It literally was like going back in time 90 years. People make very little money. You walked around the city and, the buildings, every single one of them could have used a paint job and a repair job. And there was just a sense in which it was depressing and dying and struggling. I heard a story about Bishop Pereira about 19 years ago. When he was ready to be elected bishop and everyone knew it would happen, the first thing the government did was to arrest him and throw him in jail to keep him from becoming a bishop. That failed. The next thing that happened is that they tried to murder him. They ran him off the road on his motorcycle and he was left for dead. It was a miracle he survived. This is Cuba. And yet, that first Sunday morning when I preached at the Bishop’s church, the church was filled. There were around 900 people in the sanctuary that probably only seated 650. They showed a picture of 200 people downstairs in the basement and they were live streaming. Worship began and people were praising God as they sang. They were dancing in the aisles and were hungry to hear the Good News of the Gospel. When the Bishop gave a call at the end, people came forward, longing to be touched by the power of God. But the thing that struck me most every time I was with the people of the church of Cuba was the joy, the love, the passion for the people to know Jesus and the passion to live as a new people. I experienced greater hope in that setting than any time ever in my ministry. We, who have so much, struggle. They, who have so little, live the hope. And Lord knows, that’s God’s pathway of hope.
We’re in a very difficult time in the life of the United Methodist Church. This room is divided. The tension is beginning to become palpable. Friends are struggling with each other. People are saying harsh things. And in this kind of setting, it’s sometimes hard to find hope. You see, the deal is, we don’t have to find hope. We don’t have to manufacture hope. We don’t have to create hope. We simply need to receive God’s hope, the hope that’s real because God is still God and God is working to make God’s will just as real on earth as it is in heaven, the pathway of hope that comes from the fact that Jesus Christ is the son of God and gives us everything we need. The hope that comes from the totality of God’s love, that embraces everyone of us as we are and makes us into God’s children who are filled with love and joy and passion and the hope that comes from walking with God and trusting Jesus’ words that we can do far more than we ever thought possible.
In the coming days and then next February in St. Louis at General Conference, and then when we return in a year, and certainly when you go back to your church or your new church, you have a choice. You can be cynical and angry and self-righteous and judgmental, or you can say liberal, conservative or in-between, I know where hope is found and I am going to walk the pathways that God has given me.
Imagine what would happen if those of us in this room, returned to our places of service, to our churches, to our communities, filled with that kind of hope. Imagine it. Imagine the difference we could make in the lives of individuals. Imagine how our churches would change. Imagine how our communities would change. Imagine how the world would change. It does not take everyone else figuring out how to do it. It takes you, starting to do it. And it is my prayer, and it is my hope, and it is my deepest desire that together we will join hands and we will walk God’s pathways of hope. Come Holy Spirit, come. Amen.