Episcopal Address

Texas Annual Conference, 2020


Bishop Scott J. Jones

 

We are living in interesting times. That may be a gross understatement. By the way, there is no Chinese curse suggesting that someone might do that. But we are living in interesting times. Or Maybe we should say Crazy. Unprecedented. Anxious.

I was greatly entertained to read a blog by Eric Huffman in which he wrote a letter to his future grandchildren written in July. He said, “Look, we were having a tough year before the virus took over.” He then gave a list of the problems we have faced this year:

  • #WorldWarIII trending for a week on Twitter
  • Impeachment and acquittal of President Trump.
  • Australia up in flames.
  • The United Methodist Church’s plans to split
  • United Kingdom brexited the European Union
  • Harry and Meghan mexited the United Kingdom.
  • Iran shot down a Ukranian airliner,
  • Hong Kong protests
  • Kobe died.
  • Harvey Weinstein’s trial
  • Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal
  • coronavirus It’s no big deal.” OK, so it was a pretty big deal. twenty million people have been infected, over seven hundred thousand have died,
  • Brooks Brothers and many others filed for bankruptcy,
  • anger about toilet paper and face masks.
  • Unemployment has skyrocketed to numbers not seen since the Great Depression.
  • Loneliness, anxiety, depression, and suicide are all on the rise.
  • no solace in sports and entertainment, March madness and other events were cancelled
  • He did not mention that my Jayhawks were going to win the national basketball championship and were denied their rightful trophy but that may be a person problem. Huffman continued,
  • Tiger King on Netflix increased our shame even as we watched
  • George Floyd’s death
  • Peaceful protests, violent demonstrations
  • presidential election.
  • Murder Hornets,
  • squirrel with Bubonic Plague.

He concludes the letter, “So, sweet grandchildren, I say this with all the love in my heart: no matter what problems you may be facing, if you weren’t alive in 2020, you don’t get to complain about anything. Ever.” He certainly summed up how I feel about this year. The message of his blog, in which this letter was embedded, is that we need a larger perspective with which to view our current troubles. I certainly agree that such a perspective is important.
 

For example, people who lived through the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918-19 and then the Great Depression, want to say to us that even COVID-19 is not unprecedented. We have been through this before. What about World War II? I loved the internet meme that said, “Your grandparents were called to war in Europe and the Pacific. You are called to sit on your couch and use the internet. You can do this.”
 

I want to say thank you to all of the clergy and laity in the Conference. You have been doing this. You have done well. You have been creative. You have been faithful. You have worked hard and tried new approaches to ministry. You have adapted. I am grateful to John Esquivel for the examples he just gave us—they are representative of the many ways in which our congregations have continued worship and service to our communities. We have moved to online worship or expanded our ministries there. We have distributed food, we have prayed with the sick, we have done weddings and funerals with social distancing. There are lots of stories. Groveton UMC has bought equipment to start live streaming worship.  Another church reported their worship attendance had increased by 50% online from what it was before the pandemic. One pastor I know partnered with the police chief in his community to publicly respond to the George Floyd killing. In many places we have been leaders in our community in times of racial tension. Thank you!
 

But if you are like me, you are getting a little weary. Or in the words of James Weldon Johnson,

God of our weary years,   

God of our silent tears,

Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;

Thou who hast by Thy might   

Led us into the light,

Keep us forever in the path, we pray


I need to ask, God, HOW are you going to “keep us forever in the path?” What do we as the Church have to offer? I think the heart of the answer lies in our Conference’s theme: turn your eyes upon Jesus.


Colossians 1 teaches us about Jesus and suggests three themes of what it means to turn our eyes upon him. I want to talk about unity, reconciliation and holiness and how they apply to the Texas Annual Conference and The United Methodist Church today. Colossians 1:17 says “He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” A key characteristic of Jesus’ ministry and the whole New Testament was the movement toward unity. This applies to all of humanity. The great commandments set the stage for this, by teaching that love of God is always connected to love of neighbor. When asked to define neighbor, Jesus pointedly refused to give a narrow definition. He deliberately picked out the Good Samaritan’s action toward a Jew to show that love of neighbor includes every body. Jesus’ ministry crossed all sorts of boundaries. He spoke with women in public. He ate with tax collectors. He forgave sinners. He even associated with Roman soldiers. So when the apostles began accepting Gentiles into the Christian community, they were simply following Jesus.


As we seek to follow Jesus today, we have to ask about our communities. Do we love everyone in our town? In our county? In Texas? In the United States? In the world? God’s will is to create a world where all people are valued and have life abundant. God’s vision for humanity is for salvation, peace, justice and well-being. It extends to the whole of creation and includes the environment as well.


That includes fighting Covid-19. We did a great job of responding to Hurricane Harvey. I was proud to be part of our Conference then. But generally speaking, Texans have done a much poorer job of responding to the pandemic. I have listened to Dr. Marc Boom of Houston Methodist Hospital urging all citizens to link arms and fight this together. We as a church, along with Houston Methodist, have done our best to unite our communities. It has been hard to not worship in person and to socially distance from our friends and fellow church members. We are holding this annual conference session over the internet and I miss being with you all in person. But defeating this virus is a high priority and part of our calling to follow Jesus. Our unity as a state and a nation requires we work together for the common good.


God’s plan for unity also includes the church. In John chapter 17:21 Jesus prayed that all his followers might be one. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, fourth chapter, emphasized that they should maintain the unity of the Spirit, and that there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. John Wesley sought to build ecumenical relationships, and we Methodists and United Methodists are deeply committed to ecumenical relationships. We remain committed to the unity of the church even though our preferred strategies for ecumenical engagement have to change.


However, there are different forms and levels of unity. There is a kind of unity that binds us together with all Christians who affirm that Jesus is Lord. There is a closer unity we have with Roman Catholics from whom we are descended. We are closer yet with Protestants. There is an even closer unity with Pan-Methodist denominations and other members of the World Methodist Council. My father’s generation, following World War II and building on relationships created during the world-wide missionary movement, carried a vision of organic church union. This led to the creation of the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1946 and the United Methodist Church in 1968. There were hopes for the Church of Christ Uniting and the National Council and World Council of Churches. There were hopes for the re-union of four churches in the Pan-Methodist movement. As of now, all these hopes for organic union are dead.


Instead, the unity of our own United Methodist Church has been attacked by the disobedience of clergy, bishops, annual conferences and jurisdictional conferences. It now appears quite possible that our United Methodist denomination will divide. The General Conference that meets next August and September will determine how and on what terms some kind of separation will happen. Please understand me clearly. This breaks my heart. I am the biological son of a leader in the World Christian Student Federation. My theological mentors, John Deschner and Albert Outler, spend much of their ministry seeking to increase visible Christian unity. Do you know what it meant to me to publicly state that the protocol presented to General Conference deserves our support as the least bad way forward? I do not believe in divorce. But there are situations that are so bad, divorce is the least bad way forward. In the same way, I do not believe in church splits, but I regard some sort of separation, by some group in some direction as inevitable.


The only reason I can countenance such a thing is that I am even more deeply committed to the missional vitality of the Wesleyan movement. I want each and every church in our conference, progressive or traditional, to be as strong and vital as possible. I also want to keep the Texas Annual Conference together as much as possible. We are facing an increasingly secularized culture where Jesus has been pushed to the sidelines and many leaders make fun of our faith. It is harder than ever to be a openly professing Christian. In such a situation, we need strong congregations that focus on the mission of making disciples rather than fighting to change or protect our doctrine and discipline. After the General Conference meets next year, we as a conference will have significant decisions to make. I urge all leaders, progressive and traditional, to clarify their competing visions for how the Wesleyan movement should be organized going forward. Achieving such clarity will then allow individuals and congregations to find the best place for them to align.


In the midst of that turmoil, we are going to consider a Strategic Mapping Plan. I have supported this plan’s development because I think we must set a direction to adapt to our new situation and new opportunities. Our mission remains unchanged. But like our Methodist forefathers and foremothers, we know how to adapt and follow the leadings of the Spirit into new territory. This plan sets a direction that allows us to continue as a connectional church while adapting to the change that is coming.


A crucial part of our ministry, because it was Jesus’ ministry, is reconciliation. Colossians 1, verse 20 is clear: “and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”


Reconciliation means first and foremost reconciliation of each and every individual and group to God. We need to offer them Christ. More than 200 hundred of our churches in the Texas Annual Conference reported 0 professions of faith in 2019. That means those churches did not even have a confirmation class. The real measure of professions of faith is to take that number and subtract the confirmation class. How many adults came to Christ because of your preaching? Because of your ministry in the community? How many unbelievers did you invite to church? John Wesley took his preaching out into the fields. And when a Methodist society built a building, he told the preachers they should still preach out of doors, going to where the people gathered. For the spiritual children of John Wesley, our declining worship attendance and membership numbers are embarrassing. I know it is hard. I know society is less open to the gospel. But we have got to adapt. We can no longer wait for people to come to us on an attractional model of ministry. We have to be missionaries, taking the gospel to where the people are.


The other focus of Jesus’ reconciliation was between people. As Paul put it to the Galatians, in chapter 3, verses 27-29: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” God is in the business of creating a new people. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.


Loving someone who is different means going deep. We all need to go deep in addressing the sin of racism and the systemic ways it is manifested. If we truly want to move faster and farther toward Dr. Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community, we have to be more honest about where we are now. The recent turmoil over the death of George Floyd and others has given us a window of opportunity. We need to use this occasion to ratchet up our conversations about race in America.


In addition, reconciliation concerns more than just race. We have on our plate the issues of poverty, health care and immigration. How do we move forward toward God’s justice?
 

We in the Texas Conference have taken some steps in the right direction. We have a huge advantage in being a diverse church. You are fellow members of a denomination with people whose skin is a different color than yours. You know people who belong to a different ethnic group. Any progress we make as Americans, as Texans, as Christians will be based on mutual respect, friendship and relationships. We are hoping to create places of dialogue where we can listen to each other and understand our various experiences.
 

Which leads me to the third lesson from Jesus for our time. We are called to holiness. Verses 10-12 from Colossians 1 “so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.”
 

Holiness means set apart for God. We are called to wear our identity as Jesus-followers on our sleeves so that the world knows who we are. We worship weekly, we pray daily, and we invite others to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. We think the whole world is called to this kind of holiness, and we need to cast a vision for each man, woman and child about how they can lead lives of fulfillment and true happiness. We call that sanctification, and we believe that it is God’s will that every person be sanctified. Just as we are justified by grace through faith, we are also sanctified by grace through faith. That growth toward holiness happens best through the ministries of our congregations.
 

But there is also a kind of sanctification for the whole of society and that we call justice. There are hungry children in our communities, and that is wrong. We need to make sure that every third grader in our 58 counties is reading at grade level so he or she has the best chance of leading a fulfilling life.
 

We are going to continue the program we call “We Love all God’s Children” where congregations work hard at connecting with the children in their mission field. We are going ton continue addressing health issues. We are very happy that we have a grant from Houston Methodist Hospital allowing us to deploy community health workers. Even in a time of social distancing they are helping congregations with immunization clinics.
 

I know that lots of innovative partnerships are taking place, but I want to pay tribute to the 16 churches who have entered into arrangements with the Houston Independent School District. As some children are coming back to school in Houston, the schools need additional space to allow a teacher to work with a small group. We have lots of space in our churches not being used during the week, and we are supporting our public schools by allowing them in our classrooms.
 

Friends, like everyone I occasionally have low spots where my faith is weaker than it should be. During one of those times two years ago, BT Williamson led a devotional for the cabinet where he read from the confirmation liturgy in the 1964 Book of Worship. These are holy words and I have reminded myself of them many times: Dearly beloved, the church is of God and will endure to the end of time for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers and the conversion of the world.
 

Change is coming, but as a historian I know that God’s people have seen changes before and God has led us through those times. I believe in God. I know the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that we in the Texas Annual Conference will be strong, faithful and fruitful in following Jesus.