So when you saw the sermon title, how many of you thought of Willie Nelson? How many of you thought of Canned Heat? Maybe some of you thought about Jack Kerouac. Anybody think, Bob and Bing? So we have some country music people, some blues people, some literary people, and some classic movie buffs. You may also be thinking that this sermon will be about the life of a bishop – on the road again. Yes, I have been and will be traveling plenty, and I look forward to seeing you and meeting you and getting to know you and working with you in the ministry of Jesus Christ, but that is not the road I am going down in this sermon.
The Bible can be seen as a kind of road story. One of the earliest confessions of faith in the Scriptures (re: Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology) is found in the twenty-sixth chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. The setting for the confession is an offering – an offering to be made when the people arrive in the land. When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and prosperous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
The earliest confession of faith in God in our Scriptures is a road story. A wandering Aramean was my ancestor. The God of the Bible is a God on the move. The God of the Bible is a God who walks with us. God wants to enter our stories, the stories of our lives. God wants to give our lives and our stories direction. That direction is love. The earliest confession of faith in the Bible, this road story, lets us know that God wants our stories, the stories of our lives and our faith communities, to become part of the story of God, a God who wants to move our lives in the direction of love. When we lose sight of that direction, our lives and our churches lose their way.
So let me tell you a little bit of my story and of how God has touched my life, bringing me to this point where I am now the United Methodist Bishop of Michigan, your bishop. It is a pretty unlikely story with some Michigan roots, perhaps as unlikely a story as God finding the ancestors of a wandering Aramean enslaved in Egypt and bringing them to a new place.
My ancestor was not a wandering Aramean. My father was not much of a church goer, either, nor was his father, my grandfather who was the son of Swedish immigrants born in Bay City, Michigan. My grandfather, Albert Bard, was born in Bay City, but his mother died when he was young and his father re-located the family to Duluth, Minnesota. My dad was raised Catholic in Duluth, the faith of his mother, but as an adult he rarely went to church. I can only remember a few times, confirmation and my first Sunday at First UMC Duluth. Though he lived near, he never came back to First UMC Duluth, until we brought his ashes there after his death in 2009, and there is some sadness in that for me. He came by his lack of church-going naturally, I guess. When my dad was dying in 2009 he told me that his father did not want to see a clergy person while he was in the hospital dying. I don’t know why my grandfather felt the way he did, I was only in my early teens when my grandfather died, but it may have had to do with his struggles with alcohol, something my dad also struggled with. It may be a reason my dad found church difficult.
It was my mom who got my sister, brother and I to church when she could. She did not drive, so we walked – walked to the nearest Protestant church. I was baptized Presbyterian. We moved about a mile and a half when I was six, and we ended up at a United Methodist Church. My mom did her best. She signed us up for religious release time classes and vacation Bible school. We would not have been the most active family in the church by any means. Yet it was at that United Methodist Church that God’s love in Jesus became real to me. When I was thirteen, in the eighth grade – you know those junior high years that we all consider so wonderful - my Sunday School teacher at Lester Park United Methodist Church in Duluth told me about God’s love for me in Jesus. Her own care and compassion made that love very real to me. I said “yes” to God, “yes” to Jesus. I was born again. I accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. For me, the best way I have come to think about this is that I said “yes” to this God who had already said “yes” to me. God had joined me on the road of my life, or I could say I took a different road with Jesus.
My life was changed. I became involved with a Jesus People church. I witnessed in the streets. To be honest, I was probably a little religiously obnoxious. I may not have been very gracious is describing God’s grace in Jesus. There were times I thought my United Methodist Church was not getting it right, but I stayed with it. As I grew, questions emerged. I needed a thoughtful faith, a faith that could help me navigate questions and ponderings. I drifted some, but this United Methodist Church had a place for me, even then.
College was a time of questioning, wondering, wandering, not giving up on faith, but asking how I could engage it, asking what it meant to be a follower of Jesus in a more complicated world than I imagined at 13. I majored in philosophy and psychology. I had become a lover of music and literature. I had developed a deep concern for justice and peace. Seminary was a time to explore even more questions, and there God took this questioning, wondering follower of Jesus and called him into the ordained ministry. How odd. How unlikely. Yet if God was willing to walk the road with me in Jesus, even in the midst of doubts and questions and wonderings, perhaps God could use me to walk with others on the road of their lives in ways that helped bring them closer to Jesus. Perhaps God could use me to help people come together in communities of hope and healing, compassion and caring, justice and joy, witness and service, love and forgiveness. God has put in my heart a burning desire to help people find a faith that is thoughtful – engaging the mind; passionate – engaging the heart and wanting to share this love of God in Jesus; and compassionate – seeking to bring justice and healing to a hurting broken world in the name and Spirit of Jesus. God called me to do this in The United Methodist Church, this place that has been there to help me be born again, and to help me born again and again – deepening my faith, enlarging my heart, setting my mind and soul on fire. If I have a passion for The United Methodist Church, and I do, it is because here God has met me time and time again on the road, embraced me in love, gently nudged me to grow in the direction of love.
My formal education was not done with seminary. Following seminary and my first appointment as a pastor, I went back to school, earning a Ph.D. in religious studies, with a focus on Christian ethics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I thought teaching might be my ministry, but it was not to be. I went back to Minnesota where I have served churches and as a district superintendent. The road finally led to my election as a bishop this summer, and now down the road to Michigan.
Here we are, traveling this same road as Michigan United Methodists, our stories overlapping. We are now going to be writing the next pages of our road stories with God together. I don’t know exactly where this story is going, and while we don’t know just what our story together will look like, here are some watermarks that I would like to characterize the pages of the story we write together as we travel the road of faith as Michigan United Methodists. Watermarks – you know, those marks that are found embedded in high quality paper, marks you still write over to tell your story, but that are always in the background of what you write. Here are four watermarks, and I want to touch briefly on them.
Joy. I would like joy to be one of the watermarks of our time together. The Christian Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann once wrote, “I think God will forgive everything except lack of joy; when we forget that God created the world and saved it. Joy is not one of the ‘components’ of Christianity, it’s the tonality of Christianity that penetrates everything – faith and vision.” Perhaps one reason churches struggle to welcome new people is that we lack the joy that is the tonality of Christian faith.
But how can we be joyful? Can’t I see the world around me? Am I ignorant of the hunger, injustice, abuse, addiction, poverty, greed, environmental degradation, human inhumanity, war that exists? Can’t I see that clean water is not just a problem in places far away but just down the road? Aren’t I aware of the deep divisions in our society in this contentious election season, or of the significant differences in our church which are threatening to divide us? Am I unwilling to look at hurting lives – where people grapple with illness and death and grief? Do I just turn away from struggling faith communities – places where numbers no longer sustain congregations or conflict has torn at the very fabric of the community? Of course not. I see the worlds hurt, and my eyes well up with tears. I listen to the news and my heart aches, and breaks. But isn’t the essence of Christian faith that God keeps acting in the world in Jesus Christ to redeem it, to transform it in the direction of love? We need to take the advice of poet Wendell Berry, “be joyful, though you have considered all the facts.” Sometimes the facts lead us to cry out or just to cry, but while weeping endures for a night joy comes in the morning. Let’s remember the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “discipleship is joy.”
Wisdom. I would like wisdom to be one of the watermarks of our story together. That is rather audacious. I chose the version of Jesus great commandment from Mark’s gospel because of that wisdom element. Jesus answers the scribe wisely when asked about the greatest commandment – love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; love your neighbor as yourself. The scribe responds wisely to Jesus. When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. At the end of the story, Jesus has answered so wisely that he leaves the crowd speechless, without further questions. One time in my time as your bishop I hope that can happen – just once!
More seriously I would like wisdom to characterize our story together, but I think of wisdom as something that emerges from deep dialogue – honest, caring conversation and deep listening. Parker Palmer writes that his working definition of truth is “an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline” (A Hidden Wholeness, 127). It may not be a complete definition, but he is on to something. Wisdom that emerges from this kind of conversation provides us with enough insight and conviction to act, and encourages enough humility to change.
Love. Can any good Christian story be told without love? Jesus said that love is the bottom line. What’s it all about? Love God with your whole being, love others as you love yourself. When I was in seminary I read a book on The Purpose of the Church and Its Ministry. The book was thirty years old at the time, making it sixty years old now, but its central claim still rings true. The purpose of the church and its ministry is the increase among [persons] of the love of God and neighbor. The author, H. Richard Niebuhr, whose brother Reinhold was a well-known theologian who got his start in a Detroit church, Richard Niebuhr went on to write: God’s love of self and neighbor, neighbor’s love of God and self, self’s love of God and neighbor are so closely interrelated that none of the relations exists without the others. Love is at the center of the purpose of the church.
So I know that we United Methodists have said that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I completely agree with that. But what do disciples look like? By this will people know that we are disciples of Jesus, by our love. If we are not helping people grow in love, we are not making disciples. If we are not helping transform the world in the direction of love – which includes forgiveness, reconciliation, compassion and justice, then we are not transforming the world in the direction of God’s kingdom. You know how John Wesley defined Christian perfection? By perfection I mean the humble, gentle patient love of God and neighbor ruling our habits, attitudes, words and actions (January 27, 1767)
One final watermark, hope. I love what the writer Anne Lamott says about hope. Hope is about choosing to believe this one thing, that love is stronger than any grim, bleak [stuff] anyone can throw at us (Plan B, slightly edited). She uses a more colorful term than “stuff,” one not appropriate for a bishop’s sermon, though perhaps occasionally for a bishop’s prayer life. Hope is choosing to believe that love is stronger than any grim, bleak stuff life can throw at us. We believe that because the road story of God reminds us that once God found people whose ancestor was a wandering Aramean, heard their cry and brought them to a new place in the power of love. We believe that because the road story of God reminds us that once God came among us in a special way, in a unique life, and though the forces of the empire put Jesus to death, the power of love raised him up again. We are people of hope, and because of that we are people of joy. We know that love is powerful and we trust that God’s Spirit still inspires in us the wisdom to follow love’s direction.
Let me end with a nod to a Michigan theologian, Bob Seger. Here I am, on the road again. He I am up on the stage. Here we are playing our song again. Here we go, here we go, turn the page. As we turn the page of the next chapter of our road story together and together with God, may our pages be marked with joy, wisdom, love and hope. May it be so. Come Spirit come. Amen.