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Bishop Park's Opening Address to Annual Conference

. 13 min read

“For Such A Time As This”
Scripture Readings:
Old Testament: Esther
4:14-17
Psalm 100
Epistle: Romans 15: 5-7, 13
Gospel: John 13:34-35
12 June 2014
I greet you in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and
Savior, the Redeemer, the Prince of Peace, Healer of our brokenness, and Hope
of the world!
As I stand before you here for the second year, my heart is
overflowing with joy and thanksgiving for the exceptional opportunity of
serving God and God’s people called United Methodists of the Susquehanna
Conference. God has been faithful and God’s people have been gracious.
Lisa and I would like to express our heart-felt appreciation
for your warming hospitality, that we were privileged to receive, when we
visited places throughout the conference. We love Pennsylvania and the
Susquehanna Conference! We continue to enjoy living in your midst. Indeed,
we’ve found a home here in the Harrisburg Area. Thanks be to God for you!
The story of Esther is so intriguing. It’s a story with
multiple plots, memorable lines, fascinating characters, intense suspense,
powerful moments, dramatic reversals, unlikely conclusion, and best of all, a
happy ending!
To me, the most pivotal and watershed moment in the story is
Mordecai’s plea on behalf of God’s time and Esther’s decision in response: He
says to Esther: “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a
time as this.” (Esther 4:14b) In other words, “Esther, this is God’s time for
you to act for the sake of the future of God’s people. This is the time and you
are the one.”
Fully knowing what it means to go to the king without prior
permission, Esther replies, “I will go to the king, even though it is against
the law. And if I perish, I perish.” (Esther 4:16b)
In other words, “I am here for this moment.” Even though it
well could cost her life, Esther claims that it is the time to approach the
king and she is the one.
Ecclesiastes says that there’s a time for everything.
Jesus once said, “My time has not yet come.” (John 2:4)
He also said at another time, “Father, the time has come.”
(John 17:1)
Indeed, there’s God’s time for God’s purpose.
What time is it for our
church?

The United Methodist Church is going through the most
challenging and painful conflict of our time over the issue of same-gender
marriage. Churches of our conference cannot be insulated from its effect.
Recently same gender marriage has become legal
in the common wealth of Pennsylvania.
 Among
the people in our church, as well as in the general public, this change of law
certainly gives a reason for celebration for some, causes frustration for some,
and raises confusion for some.
Church law remains the same. It does not allow same gender
marriages to be performed by clergy or on church property. However, the recent
developments within and outside of our church heighten the sense of growing
uneasiness and anxiety among us.
Our church is not of one mind over the issue. The faithful
disciples of Jesus Christ, who love and serve God with passion, devotion, and
integrity, honestly have different biblical and theological beliefs and
understandings of the issue. People on both sides are hurting and are in pain
as brokenness and divisiveness over the issue continue to deepen and widen
among our people. The way to build a bridge and keep the unity becomes ever
more challenging. People in some circles have now begun to use words like
amicable separation.
We see
a dark cloud forming over the horizon in the shape of an S word: “schism”.
God’s people, we are called to be a church for such a time
as this.
Recently I read an article written by a young clergy of our
conference in response to the emerging voices for schism. His plea was that
it’s time to talk. It resonated deeply with me. When such an explosive topic as
a schism in our connection over such a divisive issue as same gender marriage
is brewing and spilling all over the place, simply to remain silent is not an
option.
When the brokenness hurts and harms people, it’s a time to
talk. When the divisiveness threatens the unity and peace of the church, it’s a
time to talk.
When the foundation of our common covenant is in serious
jeopardy, it’s a time to talk. When the future path of our church is at stake,
it’s a time to talk.
As your Bishop, I propose that a sacred space be created,
where our people can come and open themselves to one another in trust and have
a holy conversation.
Before approaching the king, Esther commits herself to a
time of deep prayer and fasting.  She
also asks her whole community to fast with her.
A time to talk is a time to pray.
When God’s people are gathered in a sacred space of trust
and pray together and talk together in the spirit of compassion, gentleness,
humility, openness, honesty and integrity, and with respect and love for one
another, God will take charge and God will show us the way. Let’s put our trust
in the God who called us to be a church for such a time as this.
Today’s scripture readings are powerfully relevant to our
current struggle: God’s people of the Susquehanna Conference, take heart! God
is faithful! God who gives us endurance and encouragement is with us. Though we
may go through the ordeal of disagreement, we do not lose a spirit of unity.
Though we may not think alike, we follow one Lord, Jesus Christ. Though we may
not believe exactly the same way, we glorify God with one heart and mouth.
Though we may have differences, we accept one another as Christ accepts you and
me.
Jesus reminds us that the world will know us as His
disciples, not by taking certain biblical, theological, and doctrinal
positions, but by our love for one another. Whatever position we may take, let
the love arise and reach to the other side.
That’s the witness we are called to give to the world for
such a time as this.
It is my hope and prayer that the world will say of us
someday: “Look at those people called United Methodists. They have
disagreements with one another. They show differences among them. But see how
they still accept one another. Look, how they still love one another. They must
be disciples of Jesus Christ!” By God’s grace, together we will hasten the day.
While we seek a way to overcome the most challenging issue
of our time, let’s not lose perspective. The mission of the church remains the
same: “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
Knowing that the current
conflict can drain the spirit, energy and resources that are
essential to keep the body of Christ healthy and strong for mission,

I refuse to be consumed by the conflict. The mission of the church is larger
than whatever causes the conflict. The mission of the church demands and
deserves our unsurpassing commitment with a sense of urgency, priority, and
focus more than any other.
Here we are, Susquehanna Conference, gathered once again,
under the theme of  “Alive in Christ
together….Raising up Transformational Leaders”.
So we ask: Who are the transformational leaders? How do we
raise-up transformational leaders? Why transformation?
We know that our church is having a tough time. The
environment of our culture continues to grow to be unfavorable to us. Churches
are in a fierce competition with other attractions and activities. Sports have
become the dominant religion in America. The fastest growing segment of the current
religious landscape is called “ the nons”, who claim themselves spiritual but
not interested, if not hostile, to church or organized religion. The absence of
young adults and the dwindling presence of youth and children in our
congregations paint a bleak future for our church. This is no easy time for us
to be a church.
Transformation in the life and ministry of our church is not
optional for such a time as this.
A complacent church has little future. Business as usual
will not work. Indeed, for some churches, no change now means no future. We
still have sizable numbers of faithful people who have been with our church for
a long time and will continue to be with our church for some time. Thanks be to
God for them! However, more and more congregations are facing the
ever-increasing challenge of sustaining their current status of being and doing
the church. The channel of receiving new people to make up those who move away
or die away in a rapid pace is getting narrower. A demographic study suggests an
impending death tsunami among those who have been with our church so faithfully
for a long time.
Then what will happen to our church? As most churches are
slowly losing their presence in the community and its potency in ministry with
continuing loss of membership, worship attendance, ministry engagement, and
financial resources, what can be done before it is too late? 
Thanks be to God that we have many churches that have turned
around and are turning around. Hear this: About one third of the churches of
the Susquehanna Conference experienced growth in membership and worship
attendance last year. We have churches of all sizes in all different places
that continue to be vital and vibrant as they keep producing the fruit of
ministry in abundance. They represent the presence of hope among us. Leaders in
such churches are transformational.
A substantial and sustainable transformation of our church
does not come with programs and resources. It comes with the transformational
leaders, who serve as catalysts for transformation by making some critical
shifts take place and take hold. Some shifts are essential to transformation. I
would like to suggest that we start with a culture shift, a shift from a
culture of low expectancy to a culture of high expectancy.
A different expectation brings different results.  When little is expected, you get little and
when much is expected, you get much. 
Jesus expected to get from his disciples not just Jerusalem, not just
Judea, not just Samaria, but the whole world – and he got the world!
When anyone is baptized as a child of God, confirmed as a
disciple of Jesus Christ, and received as a member of the United Methodist
Church, let’s not be apologetic for or shy away from making our expectations
emphatic and clear.  People will never
fulfill their potential as disciples of Jesus Christ if they are not clear and
serious about what is expected from them. 
The Book of Discipline has these words in it: “There was no
place for those whom Wesley called the ‘almost Christians.’”
I believe that no one should stay long in a place of almost
pastor or almost United Methodist. Every pastor is expected to be the best
pastor that he or she can be.  Every
United Methodist is expected to be the best disciple that he or she can
be.   Clergy and laity alike, all of us
are expected to be the best ministers of the gospel that we can be, who strive
to reach the expectation that God has for us.
Along with a cultural shift from low expectations to high
expectations, I call upon our church to make a few critical transformational
shifts. Once again, they are not about programs. They are about the fundamental
reorientation of being and doing the church by challenging and changing our
priorities, values, and attitude. They are shifts:
(1) One, from a maintenance priority to a mission priority:
It is about reclaiming the mission of the church, the purpose of our existence
as a church of Jesus Christ.
(2) Two, from inwardly focused ministry to outwardly focused
ministry: It is about making the intentional investment of ministry resources
for the community and its people; and
(3) Three, from making members to making disciples: It’s
about connecting our people to a faith journey and a movement rather than to a
church as an institution.
First, from a maintenance priority to a mission priority:
A growing number of churches are searching for answers that
can help them stay vital and viable, not just barely making it. There is no
simple or easy answer.  However, one
thing is clear to me.  Unless people are
excited, passionate, and enthused about the ministry of the church, motivating
existing people, attracting new people, and thus drawing more resources for
ministry will be unlikely. When people are preoccupied with keeping the doors
open to survive and with building maintenance as priority, they are hardly
excited and enthused for who they are and what they do as a church.  Claiming mission as a priority by connecting
the congregation to life changing, soul saving, community redeeming, and world
transforming missions changes the tide.
A man was driving home. While driving, he was listening to
his favorite music station. A one point, the disc jockey asked the audience,
“When was the last time you brought flowers to your wife?” The driver thought
that it would be a good idea, because he couldn’t remember the last time he
had. It must have been a long, long time ago. So he dropped by a florist and
bought a beautiful bouquet of flowers. He pulled his car in the garage and went
to the front door and rang the bell. As his wife opened the door, he offered
the bouquet, with big smile on his face. He said, “This is for you!”  His wife, with a surprise look, said, “Oh no,
today I had such a rough day. Jimmy was sick so I had to take him to the
doctor. Tommy was in trouble in school, so I had to go school to see the
principal. The washing machine broke. And now you come home drunk!”
God’s people of the Susquehanna Conference, I would like you
to know that, as far as making mission a priority is concerned, there are those
who may think this Bishop is coming to you drunk! I am willing to do something
more, something extra, something unusual, and even something extraordinary as
needed to keep our church alive in mission. Knowing that more mission would
mean more lives touched, transformed, and even saved in the name and love of
Jesus, I am willing to extend myself beyond the ordinary. 
Susquehanna Conference, we must refuse to be a maintenance
driven church and boldly claim to be a mission driven church for such a time as
this.
Second, from inwardly focused ministry to outwardly focused
ministry:
Whether we thrive or wither as a congregation largely
depends on our capacity of making connections with the people in our
community.  We know that.  But where does a breakthrough come from?  It comes from a radical shift of our ministry
focus from inward to outward!
I have watched our congregations shrink smaller and smaller,
and the one common but significant factor that those congregations have in
common is a decreasing engagement from their neighborhood. They become focused
more and more on themselves and their survival. This is a trap that we must
escape from. As long as we continue to look to our own needs first and exhaust
our resources for us we become more like a self-preserving institution and less
like a movement that reaches out and touches and transforms lives. This is a
downward spiral we must break.
Our ministries must give more attention to and focus on
those who are not yet with us in our church and our resources must be invested
to serve the needs of our community. Let’s be reminded that our pastors are
appointed to the community, as well as to a congregation. A vital connection
with the community makes a vital congregation.
Radical shift from inward to outward turns a church around.
It is the transformational movement that we cannot afford to lose.
Third, a shift from making members to making disciples:
There was a time when most people would want church
membership without hesitation. People found our churches everywhere and came
through the doors for themselves by drove. No longer.
Now, for many people within and outside of the church,
church membership doesn’t mean much. Sadly, membership is associated primarily
with one’s privileges with minimum obligation, instead of with one’s
commitments and responsibilities. The most disturbing thing about it is, for
some, church membership has little to do with a journey of faith as a disciple
of Jesus Christ.
Church membership is not inherently wrong. However, there is
a difference in membership and discipleship.
Membership is defined by its relationship with an
organization.
Discipleship is defined by its relationship with a person,
Jesus Christ.
Membership has maintenance as its priority.
Discipleship has mission as its priority.
Membership has its primary focus on care of the members.
Discipleship has its primary focus on ministry for others.
Membership is oriented inward for institutional interest.
Discipleship is oriented outward for the transformation of
the world.
The future of our church will be determined by its ability
to regain its identity as a movement. Making members may make a church survive
as an institution for some time, but making disciples will keep a church alive
as a movement for the transformation of the world until the day of Christ.
For too long, as an established church, we have focused on
instructing people to become good members, rather than nurturing, equipping and
having the expectation that people will become committed disciples. It’s time
to make a shift. The mission of the church is to make disciples for the
transformation of the world in the first place.
Who shall be the leaders who will lead our church to make
these transformational shifts?
There have always been God’s transformational leaders for
every period in God’s time. God has never left us as orphans with no one to
guide and lead us in the journey. If we know anything about the character of
God, we know that God is faithful. God has always been and will always be
faithful.
As I stand before you today and look across this sea of
faces numbering some 1,500 people of God, I realize that the transformational
leaders are already here. They are within this room and within the churches of
the Susquehanna Conference. We do not have to wait until some people arrive or
until God provides someone else – for God has already provided. My brothers and
sisters in Christ, you and I are the ones God has called and sent to make a
difference for such a time as this!
I deeply resonate with the words that I heard at one of the
district Laity Days this year: “The best way to make disciples of Jesus Christ
is to become one!” Likewise, the best way to raise-up transformational leaders
is to become one! The most compelling leadership is leading by example.
An optimist would say, “Somehow somebody will do it.”
A pessimist would say, “Under no circumstances, nobody will
do it.”
A disciple would say, “Here I am!”
Who are the transformational leaders?
Who will raise-up transformational leaders?
God’s people, look in the mirror.
You are the one God has called for such a time as this.
You are the one our church is looking for, for such a time
as this.
I stand ready to partner with you, the laity and clergy of
the Susquehanna Conference, to be a church alive in Christ together…. raising
up transformational leaders.
The God whom I worship and serve fills me with hope that we
will meet the challenge of our time. I will keep prepared to give compelling
answers to those who ask the reasons for the hope that we have. The God who
raised Jesus from the dead is the reason for hope.
The Risen Christ who is here with us is another reason for
hope.
You, God’s people of the Susquehanna Conference, are yet
another reason for the hope that we have.
Together we are the reason for hope that our God has for our
church and for the world for such a time as this.
This is our time. We are the ones.

Amen!