Thankful for our Partnership in the Gospel

Bishop Paul L. Leeland



Philippians 1:3-11
Welcome to this 225th Anniversary of The United Methodist Church in North America. We approach our Annual Conference from the unique perspective of John Wesley who said the Methodist Church was “open to all who desired to flee from the wrath to come and live a life of holiness.”
When the first Methodist Conference was formed in 1784 in Baltimore, MD., we adopted a Discipline for the sole purpose that we might “Reform the nation, especially the Church, and spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” The Methodists called our church, “The Methodist Episcopal Church in America;” Episcopal, meaning “Bishop.” Although, I need to say that as I travel among our congregations, I’m not sure everyone understands what a Bishop does.
Bishops are to travel the connection, strengthening the local churches and teaching the apostolic kerygma; to appoint the clergy (we still use the model of Acts 13, where we send them off); and to preside over the gathering of church conferences for the purpose of ministry and mission.
We remind ourselves at this 225th birthday of The UMC, not only of the unique contribution Wesley made to our understanding of Grace (Previenient, Justifying, and Sanctifying), not only of how we are informed and shaped by Scripture, Experience, Reason and Tradition, not only of how our Doctrinal Standards are expressed by Wesley’s sermons, explanatory notes of the N.T., the Articles of Religion and the EUB Confession of Faith…but specifically of how we are shaped by the General Rules (Do no harm, Do all the good you can, and to keep the Ordinances of God), and the belief that we can be made perfect in love in this life as we create a natural rhythm of inward Holiness and outward compassion.
Our Conference does not need for me, as your bishop, to remind you of Wesley’s sermon, “The Character of a Methodist” in which he defined a Methodist as one who has “the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit given unto him”; one who ‘loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.’ Those who believes God is the joy of their heart and the desire of thier soul.”
To accomplish this, Wesley offered one of his greatest organizational contributions of creating Classes (consisting of 12 persons to watch over one another in love) and bringing all the classes together for worship and ministry through Societies.
So, here we are, on the very birthday of The UMC. I continue to hear the old rhyme rattle around in my head:
As the covered wagon rolled and pitched Along the prairie track,
One sat looking forward and one sat looking back.
One searched the wide horizon for a bright and better day;
And, one saw the disappointing road ‘Til it too slipped away.
As the covered wagon rolled and pitched Along the prairie track
One sat looking forward and one sat looking back. (Author Unknown)
And that’s the question, isn’t it? What shapes the lens as we look at our UM ministry?
Most of us took note of the Kentucky Derby last month. Anyone who has lived in Louisville, KY, feels the strong pull to go down to Churchill Downs; and for several weeks before the race, you can watch the beautiful thoroughbreds gracefully gallop around the track in the early morning workouts. There is only one catch, they usually work the horses very early – about six o’clock in the morning. You have to rise early if you’re going to catch the action. For years, Eddie Arcaro was considered a leading jockey. Following his retirement a reporter asked him if he still got up early to help work out his mounts at daybreak. Arcaro confessed frankly: “It becomes difficult to get up early once a guy starts wearing silk pajamas.”
Our UMC cannot afford to wear silk pajamas as we move into our 225th year. We can’t afford to become fat with self interest, sluggish in our responses, or blurred in our vision. We’ve got to be willing to rise early and to be willing to do those things which we claim we believe. The problem is that we have too often been out-passioned on every front. We will need to pause here and confess some of us have been chasing our pension instead of our passion.
Dr. Albert Outler, before his death, often, “we have indeed begun to rely on our own ingenuity and power to renew the Church when in fact it is the Spirit of God who has given Methodism the success it has achieved.” Our next 225 years will be totally dependent on the new work of the Holy Spirit.
Did you listen carefully to the reading of Ezekiel? 
Woe be to the shepherds. You have been feeding off the flock for too long. Shouldn’t you be feeding the flock? 
  • You have not been feeding the flock.
  • You have not strengthened the weak.
  • You have not healed the sick
  • You have not bound up the wounded
  • And with force and harshness you have ruled them.
We have to be so careful. This is not to make us feel guilty, but to see the beautiful invitation God is extending to us to be shepherds of God’s people:
To feed the flock; to strengthen the weak; to heal the sick; to bind up the wounded; and with gentleness and love to lead the people of God.
It is so easy to become distracted by the present, afraid of the future, and regretful of the past. Ezekiel reminds us that even clergy, yes, the church itself, can be influenced by the current culture – a culture of self interest. We cannot allow ourselves to be captured by the culture, but instead we must be the force that defines our culture – “To reform the nation, especially the church and to spread Scriptural holiness throughout the land.”
Our churches are keenly aware of what our spiritual leaders and pastors value in their lives.
A few people here already know the story of my first appointment, but I want to tell our Annual Conference on our first gathering together for a specific reason.
Itinerancy is not about moving, it is about obedience. It’s a condition of the heart. It’s about our willingness to be “voluntarily displaced.” Are we going to do what the Church asks us to do? Or are we going to do it our way?
If we are not voluntarily willing to change our place of service, our present appointment, or to leave our communities – then you know, and I know, our core value is our security, not the Kingdom of God. We can rationalize all we want, believing we are doing a wonderful work where we are currently appointed, but the point is if we are not willing to allow the church to send us where the church needs us, no amount of rationalization will cover our primary idol of security and self preservation.
This is the reason I encouraged all clergy who were moving this year, “Don’t simply move your books, move your heart; fall in love with your people.” This is exactly what Janet and I have tried to do. We have moved our household items, but we have also moved our hearts. We are clearly falling in love with the United Methodist people of Alabama-West Florida Conference.
We should never become so secure in our appointment that we feel we no longer need to be obedient. We confess, even the church can become a refuge from the world rather than a force within the world.
Did you hear the Apostle Paul’s approach toward those who share ministry together? It is both hopeful and assuring. Paul looks forward at God’s intentions for this world and finds a remarkable vision. It is a vision which can bring us into another chapter of Spirit filled ministry. I am personally assured that God has a “plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things into God, things in heaven and things on earth.”
We know for Paul, there was no doubt of the new life promised in Christ. He believed it is the salvation and redemption that has been God’s plan since all eternity. For each of us, like the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before, those who first hoped in Christ, have received the Holy Spirit, and now share a unity with God through all creation. This is what God offers.
This is why Paul says:
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you. Thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, Sure that the God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.
Allow me to quickly share my hope and desire for our ministry together:
  • We will affirm the Spirit of God dwells in our people; not in our programs and church facilities.
  • That Every Congregation can be a healthier, evangelistic and missional church regardless of size.   
  • That we can fulfill the Great Commission by starting new churches.
  • That we can fulfill the Great Commission by starting new faith communities in areas where there has been no Christian presence or witness.
  • That we can change the role of our conference staff and district superintendents to claim every soul within the bounds of their district for Jesus Christ.
  • That superintendents will no longer be visible only at charge conference to collect forms and handle internal conflicts.
  • That our superintendents will be prophets, apostles and teachers linking congregations and pastors together in a greater ministry.
  • That the extended cabinet will form Wesley class of 12 persons around me to hold me accountable and watch over one another in love.
  • That every extended cabinet member will launch, and lead, a major ministry within the next 12 months to claim every soul for Jesus Christ.
  • That Alabama-West Florida will forget about taking care of the Methodist organization, and preach the Methodist Message.
  • That we will emerge stronger and more visible in our Witness for Jesus Christ because we are truly building partnerships with our laity. St. Jerome said, “Baptism is the ordination of the laity.”
Paul said, “It is my prayer that your love may abound more and more. In this way you will prove what is excellent, that you may be pure, and you may be blameless; filled with the fruits of righteousness.”
This best expresses my hope for our Conference as well.
As the covered wagon rolled and pitched Along the prairie track,
One sat looking forward and one sat looking back.
One searched the wide horizon for a bright and better day;
And, one saw the disappointing road ‘Til it too slipped away.
As the covered wagon rolled and pitched Along the prairie track
One sat looking forward and one sat looking back.
We are beginning our 225th Annual Conference in North America. What kind of future there will be for United Methodists depends on how early we are willing to get up in the morning, how willing we are to Model and Teach the General Rules reflecting Christ’s Love among us, and how serious we are about ministering and not just being ministered to.
As we quietly slip past Milepost 225, we can take great pride in our acquisition of property and erection of buildings – including hospitals, clinics, retirement homes, children’s homes, and conference camps.
But these things are not the church. What we need are people to match our buildings, a vision to match the height of our highest steeples, a harmony of purpose to match the superb music of our congregations, a ministry as strategic as our location, and a love as broad and inclusive as the heart of God.
“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High;
For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
The dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.”   (Luke 1: 76-79.)
Now is the time: To reform the nation, especially the Church, and to spread Scriptural Holiness throughout the land.