Michigan Area Annual Conference June 1, 2017
Texts: Mark 6:30-44
Good morning Michigan United Methodists and welcome to the 2017 Annual Conference. Let’s begin with a little music: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wYEwJujSHV8
I’m David Bard, your bishop, and that song may confirm for you the title of this sermon: “Your Bishop is a Basket Case.” I’ve lost it, I’ve lost it, my good sense I’ve lost it. Has someone seen it ‘round, cause I can’t live without it.
Let me take you back a bit and then move fast forward through these past months. July 2016 I was a candidate for bishop from Minnesota at the North Central Jurisdictional Conference in Peoria. It was not the first time I had been Minnesota’s nominee. As balloting began that first day, Wednesday late afternoon, I was very much in the middle of the pack, 7 of 13 candidates, with four bishops to be elected. Over the dinner break following that first ballot, my wife Julie and I began to talk about going back to Duluth and continuing there as pastor. I did not see how I was going to gain enough support to be elected. There was sadness, but also determination to continue being in ministry with people I loved and enjoyed. There was more balloting after dinner, and something began to change as I slowly moved up in the voting. On the tenth ballot, the final ballot of the night, I was elected, and my life changed instantaneously. I had to think about leaving and moving, and on Friday night Julie and I found out we were being assigned to Michigan.
We had about five weeks to pack up. We had to say “good-bye.” We arrived and got to say “hello” to lots of new people and discover lots of new places. Thank you for your consistently gracious welcome. Whenever I would preach now, it would be to new people. I continue to learn practices of new conferences, and be part of bringing West Michigan and Detroit together. My first day on the job was a Design Team meeting. In the coming year there will be significant decisions to make about staff and about districts. Someone said that there is a train coming down the tracks right at me. People are always trying to make me feel better. This is a tough and tender time for the United Methodist Church and in the coming year I will be hosting conversations about LGBT inclusion and the unity of the UMC. I’ve had to confront the deep existential decision – U of M or MSU, when for fifty plus years of my life, U of M, always meant a big school in Minneapolis. Then one also has to decide, ketchup or gravy on your pasties. I am learning to use my hands as a map, but not when I am driving, and the different meaning of “the thumb”. Getting ready for annual conference someone shared with me that a previous bishop had twice suffered heart attacks during annual conference. That was comforting. And to top it all off, what is the topic for the worship service in which I get to preach my first annual conference sermon? Scaracity! Your bishop is a basket case! Not so much, however, as to neglect the remembrance part of this service with thanks for those remembered.
I am not the first disciple of Jesus to be a basket case. The apostles/disciples have just returned from what sounds like a successful missionary endeavor. They are sharing with Jesus what has happened – an early version of Tables 1, 2 and 3 and Church Conference reports! Jesus invites them away for a time of rest. For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. As happens with Jesus, crowds find he and the disciples, and even though Jesus is seeking some down time, he begins teaching because “he had compassion for them.” So much for the small group retreat, but perhaps they can at least salvage a quiet meal with Jesus. As it gets late, the disciples tell Jesus to send the people away so that the people can eat. Jesus responds, “You give them something to eat.” What! “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” Whose got that kind of money in their tunic or purse. Here we are in the middle of nowhere, and rather than send these folks to the villages to eat, you want to send us there and bring them back food. Obviously we have to go, ‘cause in the sticks here we are outside of Jimmy John’s delivery area.
So the quiet retreat has gone south, and Jesus wants the disciples to provide food. By now, these disciples are basket cases. They are anxious and afraid. They are scared. They are scared because of their concern over scarcity. Perhaps there have been other times in their lives when there has been a lack. Perhaps the disciples, then, are also scarred – scared and scarred in the face of scarcity. We do not have enough for the situation. We are not enough to meet the situation. Scared and scarred, basket cases, all.
Jesus responds to his scared and scarred disciples, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” “Five loaves, and two fish.” Jesus asks, “What do you have?” Great question. We might call this appreciative inquiry or asset-mapping, and it is something we often neglect. When things seem scarce, ask what resources you have. In some instances what we have is a rich history to celebrate and the best next question is what kind of legacy we might leave. In most cases, we will discover a few loaves and maybe some fish – something we can begin with to multiply in the Spirit of Jesus.
I like that there is an element of mystery in the story at this point. Five loaves and two fish multiply. In John’s Gospel, a boy brings forth the bread and fish. In that version, his example might become an inspiration for others to give. Some in seeking to explain the story say that the generosity of the boy, or others, inspired generosity and before anyone knew it, there was enough, more than enough – sort of like stone soup. The “how,” though, is shrouded in mystery and I think of the words of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who, in one of his late essays wrote: “the human story is too grand and awful to be told without reverence for the mystery and majesty that transcend human knowledge” (Faith and Politics, 13, from the 1966 essay: “Faith as a Sense of Meaning in Human Existence”).
There is mystery here. Jesus takes what is given, blesses it, breaks it, shares it, and there is enough, more than enough. In fact, baskets are needed, and it is a bit of a mystery where these come from, too. You don’t need twelve baskets for five loaves and two fish. Had the food been passed around in baskets that people provided? These baskets just show up, an outward and visible sign of something else going on, a sign of grace. Bread and fish become enough, baskets are needed, and in all this people are touched, fed, cared for. The baskets, woven from the common materials of the day, become baskets of grace. The disciples, participating in what is happening, being closest to the mystery of what is taking place, also become, in a way, baskets of grace and for grace. They bring what they have, they bring who they are, allow their gifts to be blessed and broken open and shared and grace happens. The disciples go from basket cases to being baskets of and for grace.
That’s the invitation, isn’t it – to bring our resources and our very selves so that we might be baskets of and for the grace of God in Jesus. We bring who we are to Jesus to be blessed and opened and then in turn to touch others, to feed others, to care for others, to care for the world. We come sometimes scared and scarred, yet the compassion of Jesus is contagious. We can be baskets of grace and baskets for grace.
Baskets hold things. As I have been playing with this image of being a basket of and for grace, I could not help but think of the idea of a holding environment. Are some of you familiar with the concept of a holding environment? The original context is psychotherapy, particularly the therapeutic thought of D. W. Winnicott. A healthy holding environment provides space for a person to grow, it provides openness for discovery of self and others, it helps increase one’s capacity for experiencing the richness of the world and for taking responsibility for one’s experiences and emotions. One’s original holding environment is literally being held by your parents. Adequate parenting and family dynamics allow for a child to grow, to experience joys and disappointments and know that they will not be crushed by their own experiences or emotions. When one has experienced damaged holding environments, a therapist can provide a holding environment of empathetic interpretation so that a person might work through difficulties that are otherwise interfering with their development.
Beyond individual therapy, the concept of a holding environment has entered leadership studies and organizational theory. Ronald Heifetz in his wonderful work Leadership Without Easy Answers uses the concept to talk about an important part of leading. A holding environment consists of any relationship in which one party has the power to hold the attention of another party and facilitate adaptive work…. The holding environment can generate adaptive work because it contains and regulates the stresses that work generates. (104-105)
Becoming baskets of grace and for grace may is like becoming holding environments for others individually and for our congregations corporately. We are invited, I think, to become people in whose presence others find the space to grow in love, compassion, concern for justice, joy, generosity, curiosity, responsibility. Our very presence, shaped by Jesus, becomes a basket of grace, and gives a basket for the grace of God to touch and transform others. Organizationally, as leaders, we seek to help our congregations or organizations become baskets of grace and for grace, by helping them do the kind of adaptive work needed in our day and time. Leaders keep the work before the group while also buffering some of the pain and strain of the work. The church itself can be a basket of grace, a holding environment for the spiritual development of the people who are part of it. The church can be a basket of grace in a community – being willing to bring its resources to touch and feed and care for others.
And as I was thinking about being baskets of and for grace and being a holding environment I was reminded of words about hospitality written by Henri Nouwen. Hospitality… means primarily the creation of a free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. (Reaching Out, 51)
In the midst of seeming scarcity, where even the disciples are basket cases because they are scared and scarred, Jesus asks the simple yet profound question, “what do you have?” What they have is blessed and broken and shared, and there is transformation. Hungry people are fed. Isolated people are touched and connected. People hungering for a new way are given food for the soul, teaching to ignite the imagination. The disciples are transformed from basket cases to baskets of and for grace. Jesus has created a holding environment for Spirit work. Jesus has created hospitality – a free space where a stranger can become a friend, a space where change can and does take place.
And just as those first disciple basket cases, those ordinary people scared and scarred, became baskets of and for grace, so, too can we. Each of our lives can be a basket of and for grace. Each of our churches can be a basket of and for grace. Michigan United Methodists together can be a basket of and for grace. All the work of the Design Team is a kind of weaving – here is what the basket of Michigan United Methodism can look like focused on our vision of Christ-centered mission and ministry, bold and effective leaders, and vibrant congregations. In the end, though, we have to be open to the Spirit so that this new woven basket of the Michigan Conference is a basket of and for grace.
I’m almost done, but need to say something important. We all know that we are doing this work of coming together under the shadow of a potential coming apart of The United Methodists Church. Some may wonder what good this will do if in four years we are dividing as a denomination. Here’s what I’ve been thinking. Nothing good and grace-filled is ever lost. God may weep a bit if we split. I think God weeps rather a lot over humanity. Yet God also smiles – God smiles when God’s love becomes real to someone in Jesus, when the hungry are fed, when the lonely are embraced, when the fearful are hugged, when broken lives are healed, when relationships are restored, when peace is achieved, when strangers become friends, when all persons regardless of race, ethnicity, place of origin, gender identity, sexual orientation, or economic status are seen and treated as persons of sacred worth, when the earth is cared for, when hand touches hand in friendship, God smiles. Nothing can take away the smile of God in God’s eternal memory.
So the good we do matters. The love we love matters. The reconciliation we achieve matters. The gospel we preach matters. The justice we do matters. It all matters regardless of what the UMC does in the coming years.
In my introductory sermon as your bishop, I put forward the idea that I wanted four watermarks to characterize our time together, however long that may be – joy, wisdom, love and hope. Not long after that, as I was learning to make the Michigan map with my hands, something struck me. Those hands that can make a map can also make a basket. Regularly I have gone from map to basket, holding you all in my prayers, praying for joy and wisdom and love and hope, praying that I might be a basket of and for grace to you, praying that you might be such baskets of and for grace in your lives and communities, praying that together we Michigan United Methodists from Marquette to Monroe, from Harbor Beach to Benton Harbor, from Traverse Bay to Saginaw Bay, from Kalamazoo to Calumet, from Erie to Escanaba, from Detroit to Dowagiac, from Ithaca to Ironwood, from St. Joseph to Sault St. Marie – that we Michigan United Methodists might be woven together into a basket of and for grace.
A tisket, a tasket, God make of me a basket. A tisket, a tasket, God make of us a basket. A basket of and for grace – that’s the kind of basket case I pray to be and I hope we can be together. Amen.