Delivered at the morning worship service, North Central Jurisdictional Conference, Akron, Ohio, July 19, 2012
But We Had Hoped
Luke 24: 13-35
During my second quadrennium in the Ohio East Area, excitement came to the Cleveland, Cavaliers. Akron native, LeBron Raymone James was drafted. The Cavaliers started winning a lot. The stadium filled up. King James was named the NBA's 2003 Rookie of the Year. Things got better. Perennial all-star selections and NBA play-off appearances became routine. In 2007, the Cavaliers played for the NBA championship eventually losing to Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs. Given these successes basketball pundits predicted a future with hope. With "King James," the Cavaliers were destined to win multiple championships, “not one, not two, not three” etc. Suddenly, these hopes were dashed. LeBron left Cleveland for Miami. When the Miami Heat stole OKC's Thunder recently making James a champion, Ohioans sounded a lament heard in days gone by, "but we had hoped that he would be the one to restore Cleveland to basketball glory."
A similar cry fell from the lips of Cleopas on the road to Emmaus. Cleopas and another disciple walked and talked about the devastating loss they had experienced in Jerusalem. Their leader, Jesus of Nazareth, had been betrayed, beaten and crucified. He died and was buried. Early Sunday morning, some of their women friends found the tomb empty. Two angels said that their leader had risen from the dead. That seemed impossible. Our Lord heard the story as he joined them on the road to Emmaus. Though the disciples had eyes to see and ears to hear, they failed to recognize the risen Christ in their midst. Disenchanted, confused and possibly frustrated by what happened to his Lord, Cleopas shared his angst of spirit in a revealing opinion to Jesus and the other disciple. "But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” What is the meaning of these things?
Cleopas' statement was a backhanded compliment of Jesus ' leadership. His coming had brought hope to Israel. People sensed that things were changing or were going to change for the better. Men forsook their fishing businesses to become of fishers of persons. Despised tax collectors responded to Jesus. Fishing for people and following Christ seemed more attractive and productive than collecting filthy lucre. Jesus' intellectual and practical knowledge moved people in society to think and act differently. For instance, he crossed a major boundary when he met the woman at the well. Not only was she the recipient of respectful dialogue from a Jewish man in public; she met the source of living water able to replenish her thirsty soul. Some of his adherents were actually convinced that loving their enemies, not hating them, would become the order of the day. True, our Lord failed to break down the walls between Jews and Gentiles permanently. True, incessant military conquests by Rome had created multiracial and multicultural cities, towns and villages. Nevertheless, Jesus became the relational bridge for persons divided by religious and cultural prescriptions and proscriptions. To be sure, some of his hearers heard a battle cry in his first sermon as the spirit of the Lord directed him to "proclaim release to the captives and let the oppressed go free.” At best, Rome’s occupation and dominance of the Holy Land always felt like a foot on the neck of the Jews. Yet, our Lord brought hope to a divided world without resorting to “by any means necessary”.
As our denomination put flesh on the concern for others dramatized in Matthew 25 concerning the "least of these,” we have brought hope to our world, like Christ. Imagine No Malaria has become the most public expression of this health filled quest. Rick Reilly's Nothing but Nets campaign provided the spark. Bishop Tom Bickerton's leadership and the 2008 General Conference lit the fuse and our support rocketed into flight. United Methodists have raised over $20 million dollars to date. A new goal of $75 million has been set. When a representative of GBGM shared this information with the Detroit Conference, a ‘God thing’ happened. Without consulting with the Council on Finance and Administration, the Director of Connectional Ministries or the Bishop, a member of Detroit Conference moved, procured a second and received overwhelming support for a $500,000.00 campaign in support of Imagine No Malaria. After the fact, we took action consistent with our Rules of Order.
Three years ago, one of my districts initiated a campaign to build Phase I of a Gathering Center at Africa University. At the 2012 West Michigan Annual Conference, the District Superintendent, the District Chairperson of the Africa University Task Force and the churches on that District announced they had reached the goal of raising half a million dollars in cash and pledges, six months ahead of schedule. Major donors, conference offerings and support from five other districts helped. Dr. Jim Sally shared a bonus. The AU chancellor said a major donor had pledged another $500,000.00 to match West Michigan’s gift thus enabling the construction of Phase II and the completion of the Gathering Center.
Eight years of ministry in the Michigan Area has taught this bishop that nothing will keep the Michigan Area from raising half a million here or half a million there to “make the wounded whole,” not Michigan's high unemployment, not a slowly recovering auto industry, not the financial woes of Detroit, Marquette and Flint, Michigan; Grand Rapids, Lansing and Kalamazoo, Michigan, nothing - not even plain old doubt. Giving to mission is stamped in the DNA of people called “Methodists” in Michigan. Quite frankly, our whole church is possessed by such contagion. The Book of Discipline is correct today, “The church in mission is a sign of God’s presence in the world.”
Like so many of you, I have written about, read, discussed, consented, dissented and/or questioned some of our decisions at General Conference 2012. In one article, I simply asked, “what happened” to cause the defeat of the Set Aside Bishop, guaranteed appointments and the unsalvageable UMC Plan turned aside by Judicial Council, constitutionally speaking? What happened to Holy Conferencing in the two score year debate that resulted in the preservation of our denominational language on human sexuality? And why had General Conference delegates indicated that “Structure” was the most important issue facing them? How did arranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic gain such prominence? Another “what happened” moment troubled me. It was omitted from my article. Our primary mission - making disciples of Jesus Christ - along with our continuing membership slide, was relegated to the long ago status of children: to be seen and not heard.
Given the primary concerns our Lord expressed and lived out before his twelve disciples, it is ironic that Cleopas expressed a sentiment akin to the meanderings of General Conference. He was bitterly disappointed and disenchanted. The mission had not been accomplished. Israel had not been redeemed. How could this be? It was Easter!! God in Jesus Christ had gotten up from the grave just like he said he would. Mary’s baby had accomplished what he had been sent to do, glory hallelujah. Here and there, men and women proclaimed, “He is Risen.” Others exclaimed, “He is risen indeed.” Unmoved by the celebrative moment, Cleopas concluded that three long years of working for the Master had been wasted. Three long years of working for the Master hadn’t brought Israel any closer to liberation. Three long years devolved into a litany of familiar laments such as: 1. We lost confidence in Jesus. Loss of confidence led us to denial, betrayal and sleeping on the job. Regrettably, all of us forsook him and fled. 2. Jesus chose an impulsive leader. You never knew what Peter was going to do, walk on water, go fishing or tell Jesus what to do. Peter is too frenetic to be called, “The Rock” much less lead us. 3. Jesus did not hold us accountable enough. Why not? 4. He saved others, himself he could not save. Why not? 5. Jesus gave us a milquetoast mission hardly designed to transform the world. Why? 6. Last but not least, he failed to use any means necessary to redeem Israel. Why not? Apparently, the global focus of Jesus’ leadership got under the skin of Cleopas per his comment, "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel." Ironically, our Lord was on the same walk to Emmaus when Cleopas roasted him alive unknowingly. He heard every word of criticism leveled at his leadership. So what did Jesus do?
First, Jesus criticized Cleopas, but not for what we might think? Getting back at his critics with vengeful word or deed was never his way. Our Lord refused to put Cleopas down verbally, evaluate the quality of his discipleship or eliminate him from the Eleven. However, Jesus “took to task” Cleopas and his colleague for “slowness to believe.” We used its parallel, “O ye of little faith.” Countless times, Jesus told his disciples about the suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection awaiting him In Jerusalem. Like so many others things God tells us, it went in one ear and out the other. Why? What God wants isn’t as easily remembered as what we want.
When I was assigned to the Ohio East Area, the late Bishop Boulton gave me a book that Richard Raines handed down to Lance Webb in 1964, Lance Webb to Ed Boulton in 1980, and Ed Boulton to me in 1996. When my time is up, I will be handing it on to the next Bishop Elect, one who will replace me. In Sacerdos et Pontifex, Catholic Bishop Francis Clement Kelly shared his wisdom in letters with a Bishop Elect. In a chapter entitled “The Christlike Bishop”, the Catholic bishop painted a picture of our struggles or “slowness to believe,” just like Cleopas.
According to Bishop Francis Kelly, “many of our failures are signs of God defending himself against his thoughtless friends,” i.e., men and women of the cloth. We’ve made some big plans for God; plans that God has to achieve for us. When God wants the glory for God’s own self; “God allows everything to be reduced to powerlessness or utter failure, and then God acts,” explains Bishop Kelly. Is that what happened with the UMC Plan at General Conference? Bishop Kelly posed a parallel question, “Why do Bishops fail to be the light of the world? “ “Because we often make the mistake of putting ourselves in his place, of thinking that we ourselves are doing everything, of exalting our persons and failing to exalt the Person of the Son of God.” responded Bishop Kelly. “It is not a humanly planned aposolate that will convert the world again. It is Christ lifted up, Christ living among men and living especially in the hearts that know him for what he is, the Lover of man and his salvation.” Have we lifted up Christ with the same fervor and passion as we draft legislation, defend and explain it in committee and speak to it on the floor of General Conference to all who are willing to hear? Bishop Francis Kelly adds, “People must see Christ in us and hear Christ when we speak in His name. We can do nothing or say nothing of power by ourselves. Not we, but Christ living in us.”
Brother Cleopas was “slow to believe.” So, Christ had to move him beyond critique and despair regarding what “he had hoped for” to belief and acceptance of what God wanted. In passing, how could they not know they were talking to the One who had already gotten up early Sunday morning?
Second, Jesus’ criticism of lack of faith was not just connected to his leadership. Their lack of knowledge about the “suffering” Messiah beginning with Moses and the prophets demonstrated an unfamiliarity with Old Testament scripture. Two troubling misperceptions or core values emerged. In one case, the Twelve focused on the redemption of Israel, a homeland. The Messiah was sent to redeem the world not just them. Self-centeredness, personal or public is a hard thing for all of us to escape. Given Jesus’ priority; Cleopas had to expand his concept of Jesus’ mission from his people to all God’s children. In the other case, redemptive suffering was a major aspect of Messianic ministry. To be cast in the role of the Messiah or to be an extension of the Messianic role is to be engaged in a ministry of “redemptive suffering.” Time and again, Christ re-iterated that “making disciples of Jesus Christ and/or transforming the world” carried a heavy price tag, sacrificial living and dying. Albeit effective, redemptive suffering is not something we’re attracted to.
He who Ohio called “King James” has learned a great deal about suffering in the past two years. Heralded as the bearer of good news to the NBA like Magic and Bird, LeBron James went from the frying pan into the fire leaving Cleveland. Even folks who don’t care a drab for professional basketball noticed. Once loved and honored. LeBron became hated and reviled across the basketball world. Humiliation and disgrace dogged James’ footsteps especially when the Dallas Mavericks beat the Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. LeBron James secluded himself at home for two weeks praying and crying. He took a hard look at his immaturity and failure to deliver in the clutch, e.g. when the game was on the line. He opened his mind and spirit to critics who took joy in epithets of derision. For example, “If you ask LeBron James to give you change for a dollar; he only gives you three quarters in return for a dollar.” Or, “Today is National LeBron Day. Everybody gets out of work 12 minutes early.” Long story short, King James said that his suffering was the best thing that ever happened to him in basketball. It changed him. It got him back to the basics of working on the things that would improve his game. More importantly, LeBron said that his suffering of the past year seeded and resourced his success in the 2012 NBA finals. LeBron has changed. He has earned an NBA championship ring. Even now, forgiveness has still escaped him.
King Jesus communicated the positive aspects of suffering to his disciples on the road to Emmaus. His crucifixion, death and resurrection were the best things that ever happened to Israel and the world. Old Testament passages which he reviewed with them imaged Christ as the suffering servant who redeemed and transformed the world. To be crystal clear, Christ reminded his disciples that ministry on his behalf is filled with suffering. Maybe they had forgotten what our Lord stated in his call to ministry, “If anyone would come after me, let him first deny himself, take up his/her cross and follow me.” (Mt. 16:24). Maybe they ignored the prophet Isaiah, writing seven hundred years before Christ, “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Is. 53:4-5). Isaiah painted the Messiah as ‘The Suffering Servant’. All of the above precipitated salient questions. Was the suffering experienced at the 2012 General Conference the best thing that ever happened to us? In other words, was it Good Friday in Tampa getting us ready for an Easter in Portland?
I had a General Conference experience that relates to redemption and/or transformation seeded by suffering. After a majority of delegates maintained our denominational position on human sexuality, activists poured on to the floor of General Conference singing, “What Does the Lord Require of Thee?” I had a General Conference flashback. I wondered if we were going to see a repeat performance. Let me explain. I was assigned to the Ohio East Area in 1996. We hosted General Conference 2000 in Cleveland. It was a privilege and great responsibility. Tumult and turmoil squared affected virtually every session of our work. When the protestors claimed the floor of the 2000 General Conference because voting delegates maintained the language in the book of Discipline on homosexuality, we had no idea that 30-35 people would go to jail two days in a row; that 180 protestors blocking auto access would be arrested, as well; that collecting money for bail would happen in earnest, albeit informally. If that were not draining enough; Jeanne Smile, a visitor, threatened to jump off the balcony. Other pitched battles were fought on a variety of issues, etc.
That suffering was averted in Tampa. We adjourned till the afternoon session. Conversations between some of the bishops, concerned persons and leaders such as Rev. Amy DeLong resulted in an agreement. If the protestors were allowed to pray from the podium, they would leave the floor peacefully though deeply grieved. Rev. Frank Wulf prayed. Per the agreement, demonstrators left the floor and the hall singing, “What Does the Lord Require of Thee?” The sufferings and struggles of General Conference 2000 informed and helped shape the dialogue at the 2012 General Conference.
Third, arriving In Emmaus, the unrecognized companion (who was Jesus) had convinced the two disciples to look at their leader’s suffering differently. What had happened to their leader was hope-filled, not hopeless. Yes, the chief priests and other leaders had engineered the crucifixion and death of Christ. No, it wasn’t a disaster. Rather, our Lord showed the disciples Biblical proof that his suffering and its purpose had long been prophesied. What happened to our Lord fulfilled the scripture. Jesus’ suffering was the best thing that ever happened to us and them. This shift in perspective caused the disciples to understand that the impossible dream still lay before them. Redemption of the world included the salvation of Israel. In the words of Jeremiah, was our Lord saying “I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah. 29:11)
The discussion had grown so rich and productive that the disciples compelled the stranger to stay for dinner. Jesus must have been astounded - his disciples still didn’t recognize him. But the moment he took bread, blessed and broke, and gave it to them, the scales fell from their eyes. Then, they recognized him in the breaking of the bread!!! Instantly, Jesus disappeared. He left them shouting, “Did not our hearts burn within us, while He talked with us by the way and …opened up to us the scriptures?” (Luke 24:32 KJV)
Earlier, I mentioned having a General Conference flashback related to the demonstration on human sexuality. Another flashback happened as I witnessed the “breaking of the bread.” Years ago, the late William Carter, the Director of the Advance, sent me overseas with a group of seminarians. He wanted to get them interested in Missions before their first appointment. I served as their Chaplain organizing worship times, facilitating discussions, mediating conflicts and/or interpreting the importance of missions at home and abroad.
Our New York orientation went well. We formed a sense of community. But during our two week sojourn to Zimbabwe and Kenya, our sense of unity dissolved quickly. All the problems of race, gender, theology, cultural values and diverse personalities tore gaping holes in our community. Leading the spiritual life of the seminarians, refereeing spats, resolving misunderstandings, ministering to our group, and having a good time-turned into hard work and major challenges. Through it all, our worship time held us together as did our visitation schedule. However, the day of departure - things fell apart. The morning of, I overslept and missed worship. The group struggles had taken a toll on me. Disconsolate for missing this important moment, we boarded the plane for Heathrow and home. At Heathrow, we sat around waiting for our flights home. Spontaneously or moved by the spirit, a seminarian asked me if we could do communion since we had missed our closing worship. I said “yes”. Someone volunteered to purchase bread. Another seminarian rushed off to buy wine. Still another secured a cup, paper, glass or porcelain - I can’t remember. There, on the floor of Heathrow, we sat in a circle and sang the songs of Zion. There, we broke the bread and drank the wine. The repentant spirit and fellowship of the Acts 2 community broke out among us on the floor of the airport. I saw Jesus Christ in the breaking of the bread and the coming together of our broken community. On the floor of Heathrow Airport, all “our hearts burned within.” What we had hoped for occurred in the breaking of the bread.
It was Easter, the first day of the week. Cleopas and his colleague had lost their hope. On the road to Emmaus, a little talk with Jesus changed everything. Feasting on the Word of God and seeing the risen Christ in the breaking of the bread rebuilt their hope. One hymnologist said it best for Cleopas:
My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus
When darkness hides his lovely face, I rest on his unchanging grace,
in every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.
His oath, his covenant, his blood support me in the whelming flood.
When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.
Refrain: On Christ the solid rock I stand,
all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.
When he shall come with trumpet sound, O may I then in him be found!
Dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne!
On Christ the solid rock I stand,
all other ground is sinking sand; all other ground is sinking sand.
So be it. Amen.