By Stuart Davis, special contributor
Urging the congregation in his benediction at the closing worship of the United Methodist Great Plains Uniting Conference Friday night to embrace the motto, “Great Churches, Great Leaders, Great Disciples, Transformed World” and go out in Jesus’ name to change the world, Bishop Scott Jones ended the final session of the Uniting Conference on a high note.
In his message, Jones used illustrations from the struggles of African-Americans to bring home his point that in times of deep change — both in society and in the Church — individuals and organizations need clarity of purpose.
“Faithfulness to your past requires change for your future,” the bishop said as he reminded the conference that while Abraham Lincoln quoted the best of the past in the U.S. Constitution in the Gettysburg Address, he was looking forward to a changed nation, one where blacks would no longer be bound by the chains of slavery. In quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Dream Speech,” Jones showed how King paid homage to both Lincoln’s speech and the constitution as he looked to the day where his children would be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Drawing on Acts 15:22-29, the bishop noted that the early church, as it was faced with Gentiles wanting to join the community of Jesus Christ, had “a full-blown problem” on its hands, as it had to leave much of its civil and ceremonial law behind and look at the situation morally. Jones compared this with what Jesus did during his earthly ministry. As Jesus broke laws — healing on the Sabbath, speaking to a Samaritan woman, etc. — he showed his followers that the moral law was what mattered.
“Jesus had a boundary-crossing ministry that reached out to new people,” Jones said. This is what we need to be about as the Great Plains United Methodist Church, and we do it by being faithful to our past while we look to necessary change for our future.
“I have spent my time as a professor, pastor and a bishop trying to help United Methodism reconnect with who it really is,” the bishop said. “We have forgotten who we are.”
As we “come home” to being a combined annual conference, as it originally was in 1856, the bishop noted that we bring what is best from the pasts of the three conferences in order to create something new. In committing to doing these things together it opens “a conversation about better and worse practices” that helps us discover what we have in common, decide what parts of the recent past we carry forward and drives us deep to “a level where we discover who we are.”
The bishop pointed to four things about the people called United Methodist. First, we commit to the idea that God is Love. Second, that God is Holy. Third, that Jesus Christ is Lord and he is still working among us. Fourth, that the Holy Spirit is God and is still working in the world around us.
The challenge, Jones noted, is figuring out what it means to be a United Methodist Christian living in the 21st century.
“How do you take that essential Wesleyan DNA ... articulate it to others and, the hard part, live it out?” he asked.
In a final illustration from the Jackie Robinson story movie, “42,” the congregation saw where Kentuckian Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese walked across the infield in Cincinnati with his southern family in the stands. He put his arm around the shoulder of Robinson. As the boos died down a little, Robinson questioned Reese about his actions.
“They need to see who I really am,” Reese said.
“You’re going home,” Jones concluded. “You’re Wesleyan Christians. People need to know who you are.”
Also participating in the service were the Revs. Charlotte Abram, Ashley Barlow-Thompson, Evelyn Fisher and Rebecca Hjelle. The extended cabinet was introduced, an entertaining video on the afternoon of service was shown, and knitted prayer shawls were blessed and presented to leaders from the three conference offices.
The At the Well Band rocked the house, as well, commenting, “we want to present a different way of worship for some of you, even if you don’t like it.” In their prayer, they noted that “God is so diverse” and that our worship offerings “brought a smile to the heart of God tonight.”
During the service that could be described as both celebratory and heartwarming, worshipers were encouraged to take a copy of the Uniting Conference liturgy and a candle to use on the first Sunday in January. However, a conflict with the OneEvent for Great Plains youth has been noted, so congregations are encouraged to celebrate the birth of the new conference on Jan. 12, 2014.
This writer noted that most people were singing, smiling and at times fighting back the tears as they left the last gathering of the three individual annual conferences. But they can look forward to the ways God will help us as one new body of Christ that will move forward in ministry, in touch with its Wesleyan DNA and make disciples to change our world.
Somehow, I think John Wesley was right there with God, smiling all evening too.
Stuart Davis is pastor of the HOPE Parish in the Nebraska Conference.