WHAT SEASON IS IT?
Ecclesiastes 3: 1-8
Preached by Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
North Central Jurisdction
Black Methodists for Church Renewal
Springfield Grace UMC
November 7, 2013
What season is it? In some places, it’s the season of harvest. A bumper of corn is ready for market. Before long, families will gather for Thanksgiving. Cakes, pie a la mode, turkey and all the fixings will succumb to the whetted appetites of loved ones. There are other seasons. Baseball is over for the Cardinals and the Red Sox. The Red Sox rejoice as World Champs; the Cardinals think on what might have been. Yes we pray for those who find themselves “in seasons of distress and grief.” Trouble and tragedy abound in all our lives.
The question that drives this homily is apropos for Jurisdictional BMCR. Given the tragedies and triumphs of BMCR these past 45 years, what season is it? Is it a time to live and a time to die; a time to pluck up and a time to plant; a time to seek and a time to lose; a time for war and a time for peace; a time to keep silence and a time to speak? For these and others concerns, the writer suggests we are in the season of staying focused on our unfinished agenda. A lot of things are essential to the life and spirit of Black Methodists for Church Renewal. I will focus on three of them: race or racism, the Black Church, and following Jesus.
Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, the state of Illinois became the latest state to sanction and/or legalize same-sex marriage. Also, you’ve heard that one of my Episcopal colleagues, Bishop Melvin G. Talbert performed a same-sex ceremony Oct. 26 near Birmingham, Ala. One of the most popular arguments for sanctioning these marriages is equating them with America’s struggles on the race issue. Racism and the prohibition of same sex-marriage are usually put in the same category. Then, a capstone is added. Since we’ve solved the problem of civil rights and race, we ought to use the same methods to attain the rights of our brothers and sisters in the LBGT community.
Here is the contradiction. Racism and the issues of race are alive and well in this country. In his book entitled The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois prophesied about race. “Gentle Reader, the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” It has remained so in the 21st century. When a crime is reported by the news media, it’s still typical to identify the perpetrator by race. If race is not used, no word is needed. The picture tells the tale.
The late great mystic, Dr. Howard Thurman, raised the issues in his powerful book Jesus and the Disinherited, declared that “the majority church had very little to say, if anything, to the man who lived with his back against the wall.” Unsaid but implied was their silent assent to the impoverished conditions of the disinherited. I turned the pages of the Nov. 25 edition of JET Magazine. Former Mayor of New York City was asked to describe one of the biggest challenges of his administration. In two words, Dinkins remarked “racial tension.” Has the church has avoided some of the issues of race as described by DuBois, Thurman and David Dinkins? After all, we in the church know Jesus, the Rose of Sharon, the Lilly of the Valley and the bright and Morning Star.
In 1939, we became The Methodist Church. Split apart by the issue of slavery 1844, The Methodist Episcopal church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church. To deal with the black folk involved in this denomination escaping the vicissitudes of hostile divisions from 1844 on slavery, the Methodist Church created a race based Jurisdiction called the Central Jurisdiction. It lasted nearly thirty years. Not said nearly enough, the Central Jurisdiction did great work that God won’t forget. Advocacy by people on all sides brought about the demise of the Central Jurisdiction in 1968. The United Methodist Church was created. During its lifetime, the Central Jurisdiction created hundreds of strong black churches all over the Connection.
Two experiences I witnessed at General Conference document the unfinished agenda of race. My area hosted General Conference 2000. Although it was a tumultuous conference, we were privileged to serve people from around the world. Because racism caused a division in the Methodist family, an Act of Repentance and Service of Reconciliation was held. The African Methodist Episcopal (AME), African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) and Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) churches were honored. Bad feelings erupted because the service ignored the similar sacrifices from African-Americans who never left the fold. Had not a BMCR spokesperson been allowed to express the concerns of those who stayed, a number of African-American delegates may have boycotted the service.
Before the Judicial Council struck down a proposal for re-structure, the General Commission on Religion and Race was scheduled for demolition. What left a bad taste in the mouth of BMCR was General Conference decided Religion and Race would cease ahead of schedule rather than the termination scheduled for other legislation. No racism had not been solved or gone away. General Conference wanted the issue to go away so the body politic would not have to be bothered. Our work in addressing racism continues. We re-iterated that commitment in our special edition of the Holy Bible. “BMCR aims to empower Black Methodists for effective witness and service; involve them in the struggle for economic justice; and expose racism at all levels in the church.” Am I right about it? Racism has not gone away despite intimations that the problem has been addressed. Stay focused on the unfinished agenda of race and racism.
For 16 years, I participated in the denominational effort to strengthen the Black Church for the 21st Century. Our work and witness was valiant. We helped churches big and small, connected them to staff in general agencies and served as resource persons to talk to where possible. Events like the Great Event or helping churches travel to the site of a Windsor Village, St. Luke Dallas proved to be invaluable experiences for growth. But we never stopped the overall membership loss plaguing the Black church or the whole church. Quite frankly, neither has the General Board of Discipleship. Among many things, the General Board of Discipleship has general oversight of the Evangelism Ministries of The United Methodist Church. Denominationally speaking, our numbers have continually headed south in the midst of membership growth across certain parts of the connection. We’ve longed for more churches like Paul described in 2 Thessalonians. “We must always give thanks to God for you brothers and sisters…because your faith is growing abundantly and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing.”
Wednesday, I talked to Ms. Cheryl Walker. She is the Black Staff at the General Board of Discipleship. My inquiry had to do with statistics on the African-American Church in the United States of America. Cheryl wasn’t in her office so recalled the following on the fly. In the past quadrennium, GCFA reported that Annual Conferences closed 171 Black Churches. New church starts numbered 42. Only one has been chartered. The rest have struggled. In 2005, one of our largest Black Churches averaged 7,100 in worship attendance. By 2011, those worship attendance numbers dropped. Surprisingly, 87 percent of the Black Churches reported a worship attendance under 50 weekly. I’ve wondered if the Central Jurisdiction produced better results than that. Some or all of these issues ought to be cause for concern in the local church, the Annual Conference, SBC-21, the General Board of Discipleship and Black Methodists for Church Renewal. These numbers have raised the specter of an unfinished BMCR. All kinds of reasons have been cited as the cause for this downturn. We don’t have a clear mission. Laity aren’t trained. Guaranteed appointments have increased pastoral mediocrity. Salary and benefits get more attention than making disciples of Jesus Christ. Yes, some have argued that theological debates over a long range of issues may have caused others to steal away. In passing, I have to be especially careful in noting potential consequences. We blessed with a top notch researcher in the room from Purdue. So I have set these conclusions in sand not concrete.
Clearly, the brain/leadership drain has eviscerated the Black Church! Too often, Ebony Bishops, District Superintendents, General Agency Staff and other clergy and lay don’t return to ministry in the Black Church. To be sure, persons like me have and continue to serve the larger church. But the effect of the leadership drain has been deleterious to the Black Church. For example, only 9 of my 43 years have been served in the Black church. How many pastors here tonight have served a black church and a currently in a cross-cultural appointment? (Show of hands) All those years have been lost to the Black Church. I tried to paint a picture realistically. At the same time, I tried not to describe the Black Church as the epitome of Paul’s term “whitened sepulchers (Mathew 23:7), outwardly beautiful and inwardly unclean dead bones.” As you know, selection of leadership is one of the most important tasks local churches, Cabinets and Bishops do together. Trouble is our farm team has been so diminished over the years we have “strained at gnats and swallowed camels” to provide leadership. Yet, I am convinced that God has not abandoned the Black Church. If we are down in the valley or on top of the mountain, making our way across the burning sands in the heat of the day or caught in the wind and the waves of a stormy sea, God can say “Peace Be Still”. And the wind and the waves will obey his will. Listed number 1 in the BMCR Bible under our purpose is the following: “To empower Black Methodists for effective witness and service among pastors, laity in local churches, conferences, schools, and the larger community.” We need to stay focused on strengthening the Black Church in every way we can for as long as we can. Zan Holmes is correct; we can be “Black and United Methodist.”
Last but not least, we must stay focused on following Jesus. If we don’t seek him first, do his will first, accept his critiques first, we are wasting our time. He is the reason for all the seasons. In his article BMCR: Its Reasons, Gilbert H. Caldwell is trying to make me shout. Gil wrote under the subsection entitled renewal these words: “Merger without renewal would not reflect the biblical faith, the call to mission and evangelism, and the God directed distinctiveness that the Church claims. It is our understanding that God is constantly making all things new. That has sustained us as we have responded to the renewal that comes from saying yes to Jesus Christ. We know that we cannot expect our denomination to be renewed if we, as Black Methodists, are not renewed.” Lord send us a revival and let it begin with me.
I’m drawn to the portrait of Jesus popularized by so many leaders down through the years. James Cone used it in the sixties to rock the church and seminary with his successful book Black Theology and Black Power. John Wesley used it in the late 1730’s for his most successful brand of evangelism called “Field Preaching.” Luke’s gospel drew this portrait of Jesus launching the most successful ministry on earth. Our Lord stood up in his hometown synagogue. He opened the scroll to the Book of Isaiah and found the place where it was written: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4: 17-19)
This passage holds some of the fundamental keys to the work of BMCR. Jesus comes to the synagogue, as was his custom. He is not there as a stranger. Worship customs, religious traditions are very familiar to him. Not only is our Lord familiar with the synagogues, he has been to Jerusalem on pilgrimages with his Mom and Dad to the temple and worshiped there. He is such a student of the Bible that he instructs the teachers of the Law at the tender age of twelve. No unfinished agenda for Jesus. He must be about his Father’s business. So must BMCR.
When our Lord speaks to the folks in the synagogue, he is fresh off a 40 day fast in the desert. He has communed with God and fought off the wiles of the devil. As a result, Jesus is filled with the power of the spirit. It possesses him. It’s like a “fire shut up in his bones.” So that his folks will not misunderstand, Jesus finds a passage from someone else that felt like he feels. The spirit of the Lord is upon me (Luke 4:17-19). An Old hymn says it in another way. “Something within me that holdeth the reins, something within me that banishes pain, something within me that I cannot explain, all that I know, there is something within.” John Wesley felt this same spirit presence in his conversion experience although he describes it in psychological language, I felt my heart strangely warmed, I felt that I did trust in God for my salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had forgiven me of my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.” BMCR we won’t accomplish much of anything without the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit that comes upon us from the outside as it did when folk gathered on the day of Pentecost.
Finally, Jesus is aware that what he has to say will not be received with joy. After he finished his talk, folk who know him get mad. A mob mentality takes over. They rise up and toss him out of the synagogue. Worse than that, they leave the worship service with the clear intent to kill Jesus. But he slips through their midst.
That remains my prayer for the Obama’s. The joy of electing the first black president disappeared the day after his election. The President and the First Lady wife have been the most vilified, disrespected, unappreciated couple in the White House that I have ever witnessed in my three score years and seven. Death threats have been unprecedented. I pray that the Obama’s will continue to pass through the midst of such harm. Dreams of a so-called post-racial America never materialized. Like W.E.B. DuBois said, “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the color line.” That hasn’t changed in the 21st Century.
What season is it for BMCR? It is the season to stay focused on our purpose. We have mentioned three of them, addressing race and racism, strengthening the Black Church and following Jesus Christ.
A comment made by one of my Senior Bishops to me a year or two ago puts this sermon in clear perspective. At the Council of Bishops Meeting, two or three Ebony Bishops were sitting around talking. So I said to Bishop Jordan, “I’m thinking about retiring.” Faster than a speeding bullet, Jordan said, “You can’t retire!” I was so stunned. Never had I heard him respond quickly to anything. Bishop’s usual response pattern tended to be much slower and more deliberate. Though startled, I received it as a God message. Translated “You can’t retire” meant, “Finish what you started.” That‘s the word to BMCR, “Finish what you started.”
I’m so glad that I didn’t retire. If I had retired, I would not have been around to meet God’s people in IGRC, clergy and laity. If I had retired, I would not have seen so many of you who know me and have supported me on the journey. If I had retired, I would not have preached at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of Africa University. BMCR was instrumental in advocating for that University. If I had retired, I would not have had a chance to tell the BMCR how one of your children had been resurrected from the grave by Judicial Council, namely the General Commission on Religion and Race. If I had retired, I would not have concluded this sermon with the spirit inspired words of the late Rev. Dr. Earnest Smith to NCJ BMCR, “Our Time under God is Now!” Amen.