Episcopal Address – Annual Conference 2023

Isaiah 55:1-3

People of the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church, as a part of this opening service of worship, I greet you in the name and spirit of Jesus Christ. We stand on holy ground today, because of Christ’s presence with us. We stand on holy ground, because in this worship, we have opened our hearts to God and to one another, to share our grief, our lamentation. We have shared our vulnerability in asking God to heal our hearts and to renew a right spirit within us. And now, having lifted up an honest account of who we are and where we stand, we come–to the table. We are standing on holy ground.

            You and I are still getting to know each other. You have been so good to me since my arrival not quite six months ago, lavishing gifts and hospitality on me and making sure I know that I am welcome here, that you’re glad to see me, that you want us to be related in this work. I’ve felt the hospitality of God through you, and I want you to know that I have already come to feel great affection for you. There’s a delight I feel when I look into the eyes of a person, lay or clergy, whose heart is open, and that’s what I’ve experienced all over Arkansas. 

What I want you to know about me is that the very same hospitality, the same invitation that you have offered me and that we today all hear in the words of Isaiah–this hospitality lies at the very core of my faith. The divine invitation I have found in Christ and in his people is why I stand before you today. I was fortunate to be raised in the church, and I experienced the privilege of full affirmation and acceptance there–that’s not true for everyone, but it was deeply true for me. Yet inside, especially as a young person, I still wondered if I was enough, if I could ever do enough to make God really proud of me. I carried pain in my life, brokenness in my family, and I didn’t know how to fix it. I wanted to feel healed and not afraid. 

            So when I heard words like these from Isaiah – “Come, eat, listen, live” –I dared to believe that God was speaking to me. When I heard my preacher father speak the words of assurance every time we prepared to come to the Lord’s table – “Come to me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” – I yearned to believe it might be true for me. Over and over since that time, I have come to the table, seeking that blessing, that healing, that rest for my soul. It’s this promise, the promise of exactly what my soul yearns for, that keeps me coming back, keeps me as a part of this body, when it is so easy to find reasons not to be. This table, this rich feast, this promise that reaches deep into our bodies and our bones–this is our inheritance as people of God in the United Methodist tradition. This extravagant gift of God, wine and milk, poured out into us, without money and without price–this is where we begin. 

            There’s something about this table, though, that moves our focus from this (vertical) to this (people). We learn from both scripture and the Wesleyan tradition that somehow, drawing close to God moves us toward other people. Part of that is simply an expression of gratitude that bubbles over. “Hey, come here; look what we found!” When you celebrate regularly the love that you didn’t create for yourself, the gifts that didn’t come from you, it makes you open-handed with that love. Some people come by generous love very naturally, and others of us have to practice! But the wonder of this life in Christ, the joy of it, the deep feeding of it–it’s so much bigger than we are, in the very best way. So we rejoice, and it makes us want to share. 

At the table, that means we scoot over. Have you ever been at a meal with a bunch of people, and you end up sitting on the corner, with the table leg poking into your leg? Or have you had to share the piano bench with a couple of wiggly kids? Sometimes we end up with a kids’ table for overflow, but other times the grandma is determined that we’re all going to fit around the same table, so we use the TV trays or the card table to make it bigger, and we pull up whatever people can sit on, and we make room. It’s different, it’s even uncomfortable. We might be bumping elbows; we’re not in our regular spot, doing our regular thing. But we make room, and we look across the table into each other’s eyes and see each other’s faces. We light candles and tell stories and talk about our lives; we learn about each other; we teach the children.

            And we eat. Some of our best meals are the ones where we don’t know exactly what we’re going to end up having. Church potlucks are like that. People bring things to the big, crazy table that are familiar and comforting–maybe something from the church cookbook, using something from their garden, or just store-bought chicken, and maybe you have a whole bunch of one thing and not enough of another, but it doesn’t really matter. I’ve gotten to enjoy this kind of meal with many of you, and I know what a good time you have with each other. 

Then what makes potluck meals really interesting is when people from different backgrounds come together. That means new flavors, and it can mean a different conversation at the table, too. I remember the time I went to a potluck at the Chinese UMC in the city where I was serving. I had never seen any of that potluck food before. But it was very good, and even the limited conversation we were able to have was full of joy. Or maybe the meal is with another church, or a visiting mission team or VBS families, or the people who come to your food pantry. When different people are invited, and invited to bring food that’s special to them, it changes the meal. It changes the conversation. And if you do it often enough, the superficial niceties can fall away, and you can begin to really share and truly learn about each other.  

That’s the kind of connection that we will celebrate as United Methodists over the next three days. Connection with people we know and love, people we have shared journeys with. We’ll gather around these very tables to form new connections, too, with people in this conference we might not know, building relationships that will leverage and strengthen the ministry of your local churches. And we’ll also celebrate United Methodist connection with people we may never meet, people who share the table with us in a bigger way. From higher education to family health, from childhood hunger and literacy to relief and response, everywhere from Wynne AR to Ukraine and Congo, the church of which you are a part is built upon a legacy of life-giving, world-transforming connection. Together, we extend the invitation of Christ far beyond what any one of our churches could accomplish alone. Annual Conference is a time to give God thanks for the fruit of those relationships. 

I love to be invited and to invite others. I love to be connected, to feel a part of something that matters. These are good. But when we turn back to the scripture, it calls us beyond the potluck, beyond the comfort of the family or even the extended neighborhood meal. The eating, the extravagant table, the delight in rich food–all are associated in the Isaiah passage with listening, with hearing the voice of God. In each verse, the prophet says, “hear and come,” “listen and eat,” “incline your ear, and live.” And then this convicting question, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your earnings for that which does not satisfy?” The scripture asks us to listen and to choose what will give us life. It reminds us that we can fill ourselves with all sorts of junk, junk that will not heal or save us and whose cost is far too high. Just head on over to Facebook and spend an afternoon. Between the ads and the ugliness, you’ll be full up, you’ll have spent all your money, and your body and your spirit will be weaker for it. 

And it’s not just social media–that’s the superficial stuff. There are real-life voices in our ears of late that have tried their best to break down this body. Y’all, we in the United Methodist Church have been told that by extending a broad, open, grace-filled welcome to the table and church of Jesus Christ, we’ve conformed to the culture of the world, as if the opposite were not actually true. We have been told that there is no value in our connection with each other, that it’s onerous and unnecessary. We have been told that in making room for questions and differences of opinion and experience, we don’t take the Bible seriously. We have been told that in taking the road of humility, where we scandalously admit that we don’t know everything, that we have things to learn, we don’t really believe in Jesus. We have been told that we are sliding down a slippery slope that leads straight to hell. We have been told all this and more, but I am here to tell you, it’s not true! These are not the voices we need to listen to. God bless those folks, and may God bless their future ministry–I say that sincerely–but they do not speak the truth about the United Methodists of the state of Arkansas. People leaving this body are not our enemies, but nor should they disparage this body, nor recruit from our churches. Their words do not speak who we are and will not give us life. 

No, we are standing on holy ground today. Many of you have heard me say that if you’re still here, you’re here for a reason. If you came back after covid and resisted the lure of your couch and your pajama pants on a Sunday morning, you’re here for a reason. If you’ve survived painful attacks and separation in your local church, or even accusations by other Christians in your community, and you’re still here, you’re here for a reason. If you know deep in your heart, deep in your life with God, that you are called to resist polarization and cutoff, called to be a voice of sanity, kindness, and justice, then you’re here for a reason. And if we know we’re here for a reason, we can trust God to tell us what’s next, to show us our purpose. We can listen for that voice. We can trust God to speak to us through the scriptures and through prayer. God will speak to us through the discernment of the body of believers, with divine love as our rule. God will speak to us through the voices of people we love and the voices of our neighbors. 

Standing in that trust and on this holy ground, tuning our ears to hear the voice of God, we can gather at this table today and at these tables this week, and hear again God’s purpose for us. We can eat the holy meal that Christ provides and take strength in the power of the Holy Spirit. We can offer ourselves as a church that seeks to give its life away for the sake of the world, just as our Lord has done. We can be a church that crosses the chasm of discomfort to invite people who are strangers to us, people we honestly might not think to invite, except that Jesus told us to, neighbors who are brokenhearted and yearning; neighbors full of hope and possibility; neighbors who just might hold part of the key to our future. We can be a church that proclaims by word and deed that the kingdom of heaven itself, the reign of holy love, is already at hand.

That’s why I’m here, y’all. That’s why we are all here. So incline your ear, and eat what Christ has prepared, so that you may live.  

An Invitation to Abundant Life

Isaiah 55 

Hear, everyone who thirsts;
    come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread
    and your earnings for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me;
    listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
    my steadfast, sure love for David.

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