Champaign First UMC
October 5, 2014
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Born in Moline, Illinois on June 1, 1842, his parents were Methodists. Twenty years later, this young man was class valedictorian and graduate of Illinois Wesleyan with a B.A. degree. Garrett Biblical Institute handed this scholar a B.D. degree in 1868. After one appointment in Pekin, he left Illinois for pastoral ministry in “The Big Easy.” Soon, trouble ensued in New Orleans. This white pastor became an advocate for African Americans. As pastor, DS, publisher and delegate to General Conference, he initiated open seating at his worship services, started schools, established a hospital, worked with the Freedman’s Aid Society and published the Southwestern Christian Advocate “to promote Methodist work among African Americans.” God flipped the script on this man after he passionately urged the 1896 General Conference to elect a black bishop and send him to Africa. Instead, delegates elected him. Just like the apostle, Bishop Joseph C. Hartzell was sent by God to a cross-cultural assignment for his entire episcopacy. He ministered to our African brothers and sisters for 20 years. There, Bishop Hartzell had a dream that “children from all over Africa would come to Old Mutare for education and training to lead Africa.” Ninety years later, African Bishops Emilio Carvalho and Arthur F. Kulah challenged the General Board of Higher Education and the entire denomination to fulfill that dream. Zimbabwe Annual Conference donated 1,545 acres land at Old Mutare for the school. And before you knew it; up came the university. To repeat, Africa University began in the mind’s eye of Joseph Hartzell, a native son of Moline, Illinois.
Press On epitomizes Paul’s charge to the church at Philippi. Opposition, challenge and struggle faced him in their quest to grow a strong church in Philippi. The pastor is not gentile. And the congregation is not Jewish. Culture clashes abound, sacred and secular. It’s enough to make him think about giving up. But he doesn’t. Remember Paul’s heartbreaking cry in 2nd Corinthians 12:7-12. Thorns in his flesh are tormenting Paul. It’s the worst of times. So, Paul literally begs God for relief. But God commands Paul to Press On. Keep your thorns. “My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness.”
To Press On, one must have some goal, vision, mission and/or dream in mind plus the will and the faith to see it through. For instance, some folk want the Cardinals to win another World Series. Others wish the Cubs could win one Pennant in their lifetime. Others don’t care. People do care about the mission of the UMC. “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” remains our denominational goal. We want to grow! Why? For umpteenth years our denomination has yearned and burned over continual membership loss. Yet, membership loss is not the whole story. Our church is growing like wildfire in third world countries like Africa. Its North American expression is not. Our losses constantly outpace our gains. With God’s help, we can change that. Whether there is loss or growth in the church, the commission of our Lord is the same, Press On. Why? “The world is still hungry for the living bread.” Seeing and hearing the Word from United Methodists is the key.
Is Champaign First UMC staying the course? Are you succeeding with the mission/vision publicized on your website homepage? Remember, your mission is “to introduce all persons to Jesus in loving ways, to grow as disciples through Wesley Covenant Groups and to relieve suffering.” This is a worthwhile and rich mission steeped in the ways of Jesus Christ and Methodism. Be careful. You might get what you ask for. One never knows who might come to dinner. Don’t worry. It won’t be Sidney Poitier, Santa Claus or Sandra Bullock. Whoever comes, are you open to them? Are you really open to them? In passing, the way Paul articulated his upward call in Christ Jesus spoke to my heart, mind and spirit. “I want to know about Christ and the power of his resurrection,” he says. “I want to share in his suffering and become more like him.”
To pursue his vision for the Philippians, Paul adopts a two-step methodology. First, he leaves some things behind. Weights and sins that beset him are laid aside. We know about that. To grow up, we put aside childish ways. To gain strength, sometimes we have to lose weight. To follow Jesus, we have to deny ourselves first and take up the cross. To get to the Promised Land, Pharaoh has to let God’s people go. And the Israelites have to let Pharaoh go. Returning to Egypt is not an option. The Promised Land lies across vast uncharted stretches of desert. Scorpions, snakes and sand abound. Water and food are in short supply. But God goes before them with the bread of heaven till they enter the Promised Land.
That Paul is the pastor of numerous new church starts speaks volumes. Serving God brings Paul face to face with transformation, personal and religious. On the Damascus Road, a Christ encounter turns his life around and re-configures his identity. Pastor Paul, formerly Saul, leaves behind beliefs and/or practices once held in high esteem. In Acts 8, Saul supports the stoning death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. No more of that, thank you. In Acts 9, Saul targets gentiles for persecution and prison because they are Christian. Consequently, Saul stops committing hate crimes sanctioned by the high priest in the Damascus synagogue. Second, when the voice of Christ confronts Saul about persecuting Christ; how so? Saul yields to a belief guiding us. “What you’ve done to the least of these my brethren, you’ve done it unto me.” Third, to accept God’s call is to accept a cross-cultural appointment for the rest of his ministry. What a shock to be told his primary ministry would be to other ethnic group, not his own, as if the world was his parish. In his future were new church starts in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi and Colossae, etc. They were predominantly gentile not Jewish. A Hebrew of Hebrews would serve folk not his own. “Lord have mercy!” It happened to Bishop Joseph Crane Hartzell after his election. He was assigned to Africa for 20 years.
If we accept God’s claim upon our lives and the life of the church, be careful. This Jesus will take disciples up and down the dusty roads of Galilee, Samaria and Judea. This Jesus will insist that we use our resources to feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned and welcome the stranger. This Jesus will challenge us to give up our preconceived notions about God’s diverse community in Champaign, Illinois, in Korea and the body of Christ in the so-called Dark Continent and serve them. In fact, the Korean and African Churches could teach us afresh how “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” They’re growing.
To build Africa University, this denomination had to leave some preconceived notions behind. Some people said it couldn’t be done. Too many problems had to be overcome to build a top notch university on African soil. Doubters rightly claimed that wars, rumors of wars, diseases of poverty like malaria and the Ebola virus, climate, substandard wages and living conditions, a failing economy, a dearth of workmen skilled in building construction would render the dream impossible. Dr. Jim Salley, Vice-President of Institutional Advancement at Africa University, has regaled many audiences over the years about folk casting doubt about the dream to build a university in Africa for Africans. They told Jim it would be, “like pouring money down at rat hole, never to be seen again.” Press On was the rejoinder across the church and up came the University.
From its historic groundbreaking in 1993, Africa University has attracted a student body numbering 1200 to 1500 students from over 22 African countries. Pressing On is a part of its DNA. Every time, Champaign First UMC prays a prayer, pays its apportionments, engages in special ventures, like the one million dollar Scholarship Initiative for Africa University, your mission and Christ’s mission to the world shines forth, namely “to introduce all persons to Jesus in loving ways, to grow as disciples…and to relieve suffering.” In other words, every mission effort is a letting go of the notion that we do church just to take care of ourselves.
Recently, the North Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops met in Indianapolis. During the meeting, Bishop John Hopkins announced that he and his wife had celebrated their Golden Anniversary. Hopkins told us how they got married. They had been childhood sweethearts. In high school, they fell in love. Both of them were good students and were headed for college with scholarships. Because they were madly in love, John and Elaine gave up their college scholarships to get married. Their parents and families thought they’d lost it. They were not pleased. Still, John and Elaine Hopkins loved one another enough to Press On. They got married, explained it later and still earned graduate and post graduate degrees. With the help of God, hard work and faith undergirding their decision, they made it just fine. Ultimately, family and friends got over it.
Paul found himself in a similar dilemma. But the issues were a whole lot different and dangerous. He made a decision to accept God’s call. That decision displeased and angered his family and the Jewish faith community. Asked if he would sanction the religious rite Jews as the criterion for membership in the church, Paul said No. Someone might ask, wasn’t that controversy settled in Acts 15? De Jure yes, de facto, No. The wall is down in Berlin; but it’s still up for others. This Hebrew of Hebrews turned against his former faith practice requiring circumcision. (See Genesis 17: 10-14) If there be circumcision, let it be of heart and life. Baptize in the name of the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Profess faith in Jesus Christ. Renounce sin. Flee from the wrath to come. Promise to lead a new life and the doors of the church will swing open per John 3:16. These were some of the sentiments of the Apostle Paul. As expected, former religious colleagues and sympathizers made him pay for that.
Every chance they get, his former friends and new enemies try to take him down. Nevertheless, Paul presses on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,” Paul says. “I want to share in his suffering and become like him.”
I am impressed by Paul’s response to suffering. Paul’s adversaries had him lashed with a cat of nine tails, beat up, ridiculed, subjected to death threats and thrown into prison with no possibility for parole. Despite the suffering, Paul kept growing churches, admitting the uncircumcised into fellowship with Christ and singing words that don’t align with his reality, “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” Like Jesus before him, Mandela and Martin King after him, Paul used his prison incarceration to advance the movement. Listen to this passage from Eugene Peterson’s, The Message. “My prayers and hopes have deep roots in reality. You have after all; stuck with me all the way from the time I was thrown in jail, put on trial, and came out in one piece…I want to report to you friends, that my imprisonment here had the opposite effect than intended. Instead of being squelched, the message has actually prospered. All the soldiers here and everyone else too, found out that I’m in jail because of this Messiah. That piqued their curiosity, and now they learned all about Him.” It’s called “redemptive suffering” like the gospel of John expressed in 3:16. Nothing Paul’s adversaries do can stop him.
Let nothing stop you from joining in this scholarship Initiative to endow student education at Africa University. As we know, students are the lifeblood of every educational institution. Too many African lives are hanging in the balance. Too few opportunities exist for African students with brain power but no green power to get an education, go back home and transform the world. So, we Press On because “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” We Press On because a life bereft of Jesus Christ is a disaster. Yes, we Press On with the high calling of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Amen.