Preached at the Celebration Service of the Assignment of Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton to the Illinois Area of The United Methodist Church, Sept. 30, 2012 at Springfield First UMC
There was a knock at the door. It was Thursday night, July 19, 2012. Two members of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee entered my room. It was sometime between 9:30 and 10 PM. A phone call had put me on notice. One of them, a female superintendent with paper in hand announced, “We’re sending you to Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference.” She said more. But my mind had already “scaped,” back to assignments in both Michigan and the Ohio East Areas, back to appointments in Northern Illinois Conference, back to my grandmother telling me that I was going to be a preacher, back to Saul’s call on the road to Damascus and back to the inauguration of Jesus’ his public ministry. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,” he said, “ because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." As I see it, Jesus was SENT BY THE SPIRIT.
(Luke 4: 17-19, Isaiah 61: 1-2)
My coming to Illinois Great Rivers Conference is far more than the work of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee. It’s a God thing. Is this conclusion dismissive of the decision, the evaluation and/or the consultative processes bringing me to IGRC? Not at all; it’s all good. I do not know of the struggles to address the competing needs of bishops and Annual Conferences. I do not know of the extended periods of prayerful discernment and compromise involved in the process. What I do know is this. The Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee were and are people in the hands of a directing God; One who sets high and looks low; One who uses surprises, the "stuff of life" and “Follow Me” to send workers into the vineyard. Yes, I am here in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference because I have been Sent By The Spirit.
Too many folk act like “being sent” is not normal, atypical, weird, strange or out of date. “It’s something Methodists do,” some say. Don’t the Bishops know that “Have it your way” offers the best approach to contemporary times? Is it not better to “give the people what they want” than having Bishops and Cabinets sitting in prayer filled rooms discerning who should go where and when? Being sent is not weird, strange out of date. It’s not even fastened to all things sacred.
Some children of the Baby Boomer Generation know of a tradition of punishment consigned to history. Before the ascendancy of time out, stand in corner, no dessert or you're grounded were in vogue, switches were the popular childrearing technique. For instance, a teenager does something wrong and the parents find out. Then, one parent sends the child outside to get a switch. Translated, it means “go get me switch for your spanking.” If the child comes back with a twig or sapling, the child is sent outside again with a warning. “Go get me appropriate switch. You don't want me to get one. Then, the punishment occurs. Neither parent nor the child could endure that kind of “Sentness” for long. Yet, that kind of discipline or corporal punishment did occur decades ago. I know.
Earlier this month, the Republican and Democratic Party's had their National Convention. Each party rolled out its plan for America and lined up speakers to undergird their platform. Radio, television, newspaper, Internet, Twitter, FACEBOOK, E-mails and text messages Tele-man and Tele-woman have repeated their message relentlessly. Voters, those registered and those to be, were targeted. Hundreds of candidates are convinced they have the skills to be effective leaders locally, in the Illinois Senate, the U.S. Congress and the White House. If they are duly elected, then it is said they were “sent” into office by the electorate.
In the past 40 years, Uncle Sam has given our family and many others a clear vision of the “sending notion.” Two of my four brothers were sent to the battlefield. My eldest brother went to Vietnam. His brilliance as the smartest sibling in the family was arrested by war. My youngest brother saw action in the Gulf War. As far as I can tell, neither brother returned with PTSD. But they are no longer the same. Other maladies of mind, body and spirit have marked their lives since returning home as military veterans. No one can be sent anywhere to do anything without cost.
Hence, I am impressed with Jesus the Christ. He allowed himself to be sent. He left house and home in glory, set aside his immortality and robed himself in the mortal, acceded to the wishes of the first and third person in the Godhead although he stood on equal footing with each. Christ laid aside his status not his Divinity so that he could be sent to do job on earth. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) Paul may have said it best in Philippians 2:8-9. Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself ,taking on the form of a servant…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross.”
I’ve praised Christ for agreeing to be sent!! Even more, I’ve praised Jesus for not permitting any old Tom, Dick and Harriet to lead him. The Spirit sent him. The Spirit led him. The Holy Spirit made sure that our Lord was equipped for the journey. Before our Lord preached at Nazareth-before Jesus was permitted to share his ministerial goals, the Holy Spirit directed that he get his inner house in order. In other words, his messianic journey was preceded by a 40 day fast in the wilderness, hunger and a classic duel with the devil. Exemplified in political terms, if a person wants to be President of these United States, they are required to contend with an opponent and to mount a campaign in and outside their party. If they aren’t willing to be vetted, to endure the slings and arrows of campaigning, election as President of these United States is a pipedream.
Every single day of his required 40 day fast, our Lord confronted the tempter. His experience mimicked what happened to Esau. Have you heard about it? “Esau sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.” How so? One day, Jacob cooked a delicious and delectable meal. His brother came in from hunting nearly starved to death. So, he asked his brother for something to eat. Knowing that he was ripe for exploitation, Jacob agreed to feed his brother in exchange for his birthright. Weakened by hunger and seduced by his brother’s invitation, Esau foolishly gave away his birthright. Subsequently, Esau regretted his decision. But it was too late. Esau lost the great heritage due him as the elder son.
During the 40 day fast, the devil attempted to separate our Lord from his mission, from whom he would follow, and the spiritual growth and development required to lead his movement in the world. He had hoped to besmirch and devalue the birthright of Christ. Loaded with guile, the devil spoke to Jesus in sweet seductive tones. “If you’ll turn this stone to bread, you’ll prove to me that you are Son of Man. If you bow down and worship me, I’ll give you the kingdoms of this world. If you are the Son of Man throw yourself down the highest pinnacle of the temple. It is written “the angels will not let you dash your feet against a stone.” To all three requests, our Lord said, no, no and No!! Defeated, the tempter left in a huff until the next time. The 40 day fast had strengthened not weakened our Lord’s willpower or misdirected his focus. Our salvation was too important to let the devil’s temptations get in the way. Jesus was clear. He was sent by spirit of the living God. The wilderness provided a foretaste of the challenge ahead-challenges that required our Lord to keep get his house in order and keep it. In passing, may we all be blessed to contain the hungers within and without that would lead us to throw away our health, friendships, marriages, jobs, spiritual birthrights for a “mess of pottage?”
Esau’s struggles have not left us. Neither do wilderness experiences. Quite frankly, we need them. Far from a sojourn in the wild kingdom, God uses solitary times and moments to think about the burden upon us, to discern our strengths and weaknesses and to offer a quiet place where dialogue occurs between the Creator and the created regarding the challenging days ahead. To lead One’s life and leadership in a new context is lived out best in partnership with the Triune God. One’s heart, soul mind and spirit are fixed by the Holy One. As with every appointment the Bishop makes, the announcement of my new assignment sent the Keaton family into the wilderness. We prayed in the spirit of Joseph Scriven. “Oh what peace we often forfeit, oh what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer. In an article titled “The Law of Sacrifice: Quality Leaders Are Prepared in the Wilderness,” John Maxwell notes in his Leadership Bible that “God uses the wilderness to equip and prepare quality leaders…During wilderness times, “our motives become purified, our backbone solidifies, and our calling gets clarified.” It’s true. Let me say more.
Between July 19, 2012 (when I received my new assignment) and September 1, 2012 (the day I reported to (IGRC), 42 days passed. Like most people, I had made other plans although I knew that a new assignment remained a possibility. When I learned of my new assignment in the night, I remembered my first appointment, St. Luke, Southside of Chicago, 1970. One of the old matriarchs of the church talked about how “Man plans; God un-plans.” So many unexpected events occurred in her life that the saying became a mantra to live by. I have learned that lesson afresh in the last two years; e.g. grown children looking for well paying jobs and major surgery in 2011, a new assignment and empty nest in 2012. “Man plans; and God un-plans.” What John Maxwell opined concerning leaders and the wilderness is my current reality! In my wilderness, “my motives become purified, my backbone solidifies, and my calling gets clarified.”
A former Superintendent in the Michigan Area drove home the import of these factors some weeks ago. He asked how I was dealing with not continuing in the Michigan Area for a third Quadrennium. “Doing okay,” I responded. Then, the bishop rehearsed my July 19th encounter with two members of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee. After hearing the place of my new assignment, my immediate response was “I’ll go.” However, the two members of the committee did not hear an additional response shared with the District Superintendent. He had asked the same question people began asking at the site of Jurisdictional Conference, my family asked when I returned home, that friends near and far posed over 42 days as I wrestled with temptations born of surprise and fundamental change. My answer went something like this. “I have been a General Superintendent for 16 years and served as a District Superintendent for 73 months previously. During that time, I have participated in making well over 1000 appointments. As a Bishop of the church, I have asked pastors and their family to go where sent in roughly 800 of those appointments. At my Ordination as an elder and my Consecration as a Bishop, I covenanted, vowed, agreed before God and humankind to go where sent. How could I protest or reject my new assignment when I have asked so many others to do the same? It would be disingenuous. Bishops are itinerant as well. To which my former superintendent quipped, “I suspected as much. I just wanted to hear it from you.”
And now I want you to hear it from me. “I am glad to be here. God is good.” Like my other assignments, I have come looking for joy.” I have experienced what the Lord said in Acts 1:8. “And you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you shall be my witness Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria to the ends of the earth particularly IGRC. And when I‘ve needed the presence of the Holy Spirit even more, I have prayed thusly, “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me. Mold me. Fill me. Use Me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.” Through the years, I leaned on the legacy from my enslaved ancestors. “Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my works’ in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.”
Recently, The State Journal Register sent Mr. Steven Spearie to interview me. “Growing the church is my major goal,” I told him. It’s a version of our denominational mission. The church’s statement and mine are part of a two sided coin, one general the other leaning toward the specific. Folks who grow the church transform the world. A similar connection exists between Jesus’ spirit filled statement to a synagogue audience and his post-resurrection commission. Transform the world and/or grow the church by various means necessary. At the beginning of his ministry, the spirit directs our Lord “to proclaim good news to the poor, the imprisoned, the blind and the oppressed. Three years later, Christ offers his own version of the primary task. “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all I have commanded you with the promise to be with them forever and ever.” I heard a sermon where the pastor was bemused with our so-called confusion over the Great Commission. “What part of “Go” do you not understand,” he said? In other words, we understood run Spot run and go Jane go in the Dick and Jane stories, as kids. As adults, we act like we do not understand “Go” make disciples. Centuries ago, our fore-parents understand. In the book of Acts, speaking in tongues and Peter’s preaching grow the church. Seven deacons grow the church. Their justice ministry makes certain that non-Jewish widows receive them. Lydia, a business woman responds to her conversions by participating in prayer meetings and Bible Study. She convinces her nuclear and extended family to join the church. Brother Paul accepts his permanent appointment to non-Jews cross-cultural ministries. There is more than one way to make disciples.
Don’t you want to be like the Twelve Disciples, the seven deacons, Lydia, mother Mary, the apostle Paul, John, Charles or Susanna Wesley, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa ad infinitum? Can’t you see yourself, local congregations, lay and clergy, full of the spirit making this world a better place in which to live? Have you dreamed of God helping you to grow the church far beyond what you can imagine or think? Aren’t we grieved by the 2010 statistics for United Methodism? “Scott Brewer of GCFA noted 140,295 persons were received on profession of faith or faith restored in 54 per cent of our churches. 46 percent of our churches reported no growth.” We need a passionate desire to make disciples of Jesus Christ-stronger than the love for power, prestige and money-greater than the sum of our collective wills. I am talking about the kind of passion John Wesley expressed in a letter to John Clayton March 28, 1739. “I look upon the world as my parish, thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it right, and my bounden duty to …declare the glad tidings our salvation.”
Getting beyond the seven last words may be our greatest challenge. Namely, “We’ve never done it that way before.” How might the church get beyond the seven last words? “Just do it.” Some of you are saying to yourself, “Bishop, that’s not enough.” How about this? Think of something new and creative in order to accomplish the mission. God does. When our Lord sends his only Son into the world to save it; God never did it that way before. Is that enough? Someone might be saying “Bishop, I do not want to sacrifice the life of my son or daughter to grow the church. Do it anyhow. We ought to make the catalyst of choice antithetical to the humorous mantra heard on the Flip Wilson Show, years ago, namely, “the devil made me do it. Instead of claiming “the devil made me do it, i.e. leave the church or lose hope in the church.” Embrace a new mantra “the Holy Spirit made me do it,” i.e., grow the church and keep on keeping on.
John Wesley might say that the spirit made him create Methodism. When Mr. Wesley tried to solve a problem in his own church, Methodism was born. The Anglican Church had become “a valley of dry bones.” And it grieved John Wesley. His church needed revitalization. So, Wesley vowed to do something about it. Through him and others, God did a new thing. Here is one version of how it happened.
Step 1. John Wesley began with a process of self-revitalization and spiritual growth. He had a conversion on Alsdergate Street. According to John Wesley, “he had gone to a society meeting unwillingly. Somebody read something from Luther’s preface to the book of Romans and John felt his “heart strangely warmed.” It changed his life forever. I think it was the Hoy Spirit. In society meetings, people prayed, studied scripture, fasted and raised money for the poor. Also, members became better Christians, parents, spouses and citizens as they held each other accountable for their behavior.
Step 2. Anglican priests such as John and Charles Wesley plus the great evangelist George Whitefield provided leadership in these societies. None of the societies were Anglican. Because of their involvement, they were banned from preaching in most local churches including those Anglican. Wesley involved himself happily in the Moravian Society at Fetter Lane in London. Two letters from Mr. Seward and George Whitefield requested that he drop everything and come to Bristol without delay. Wesley’s Journal entry Wednesday, March 28, 1739 reads thusly “This I was not at all forward to do.” A resistant Wesley again, what’s up?
Step 3. John turned the request over to the society. A spirited discussion broke out. Brother Charles said “No.” Too much work had to done at Fetter Lane. They needed John’s leadership. His word didn’t settle it. Neither did prayer and searching the scripture. So the society settled the matters like soldiers competing for Jesus’ cloak. They cast lots. John Wesley went to Bristol. But, he did so unwillingly.
Step 4. March 31, Wesley arrives in Bristol. John Wesley sees George Whitefield doing some field preaching. Whitefield hands the baton to John Wesley and departs for and evangelistic tour in America. Writes, Wesley, “I could scare reconcile myself at first to this strange way of preaching in the fields, of which he set me an example on Sunday; having been all my life (till very lately) so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order, that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church. In the evening I began expounding our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount (one pretty remarkable precedent of field preaching…”) Field preaching wasn’t new. Jesus did it.
Step 5. Field preaching made Wesley very uncomfortable. But success changed his mind. April 2, 1739, John penned this journal entry, “I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from an eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people. The scripture upon which I spoke was Luke 4:18-19. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, liberation for the oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” From that day forwards, Wesley preached thousands of folk in the field. Lots of converts joined his movement and were nurtured in Methodist societies and class meetings organized by John Wesley.
Mr. Wesley offered us a strong antidote to the seven last words “We’ve never done it that way before” with this classic lesson. “I am well assured that I did far more good to my Lincolnshire parishioners by preaching three days on my father’s tomb than I did three years preaching in his pulpit,” said Wesley. With field preaching the Methodist movement exploded like an atomic bomb. Yes, Brother Wesley still had some blue days about the new. “To this day”, he said, “field preaching is a cross to me, but I know my commission and see no other way of preaching the gospel to every creature. Wesley had to “go make disciples.” Every point of his reluctance was overcome by the animating, guiding and equipping force of the Holy Spirit. Why oh why church do we give up, grow weary or dig in our heels on Christ and his church but not on the fighting Illini, the St. Louis Cardinals, Da Bears and the longsuffering Chicago Cubs?
Sometime between 9:30 and 10 PM, Thursday night, July 19, 2012, two members of the Jurisdictional Episcopacy Committee dropped by my room to tell me I was being sent to Illinois Great Rivers Conference. That announcement reminded me of two things. July 19, 1996, I was consecrated a bishop of the church in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Second, somebody in this room heard my acceptance speech. “I am fifty years old,” I told them. My late grandmother, aging mother and my dear wife of 43 years have been involved in my call to ministry. I said that late Bishop Duecker had supported me too. The jurisdiction heard me acknowledge resisting the call to ministry, resisting other appointments and trying to avoid running for the episcopacy. But the Father, Son and Holy Spirit tracked me down. “I resist no longer,” spilled out of my mouth as did this refrain. “Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” I’ve been sent by the spirit, ya’ll; Glory Hallelujah Amen.