Third Sunday of Pentecost
Annual Conference Sharing
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John 15:1-12 Philippians 4:4-9
Pastors Donna Buell and Marty Raths, Charlie and Sharry Swann
Pastor Donna Buell
This week the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church gathered in St. Cloud. Annual Conference provides the opportunity for clergy and for lay leaders from each congregation to come together for what John Wesley called holy conferencing. During our time together we had opportunities for worship, for learning, for expressing our spirituality through the arts, for finding out about the work of our United Methodist Church here in Minnesota and across the world, for discovering resources to support our ministries, for listening and speaking to one another around tables, for sharing together over meals and reconnecting with friends and colleagues, and for honoring all of the ministerial transitions that are taking place this year.
Annual Conference has changed a lot over the years. There is far less legislative wrangling, though that does still happen in small doses. Worship styles have changed a great deal, as have many of the issues we are called upon to address as we seek to do the work of the church and to respond to the call of Christ in this ever-changing world.
Annual conference is the congregation of United Methodist clergy; for clergy are not members of local churches. And because United Methodists have a tendency to be part of one conference throughout their ministry, conference is like a homecoming for clergy. There is a lot of reconnecting with people who have touched your life throughout your years; people who were pastors and mentors to you when you were growing up, people who have been friends since your youthful days as a camper or who have been colleagues in your ministry. It is also an opportunity to reconnect with members and pastors of congregations you have served during the course of your ministry. On Friday Marty and I had lunch with Jim and Karen Boots, a couple who were lay delegates from the Redwood Falls congregation with whom we share our wedding anniversary, their current pastor Randy Koppen who we’ve gotten to know since he was appointed there, and the pastor of the Northfield UMC, Rachel Morey, and Rachel Haines, the 21 year old lay delegate from the Northfield congregation who went through the confirmation program and graduated from high school while we were serving there. It really was quite something to be gathered around a common table with all of those folks.
The Annual Conference theme this year was discover joy ~ live deeply! And this year was especially meaningful for us, as Marty and I were being recognized with other retirees for our years of ministry and Abigail was being commissioning as a provisional member of the Annual Conference.
And now Marty, Charlie and Sharry are each going to share some reflections from their experience at Annual Conference. I encourage you to visit the conference website, Facebook and Flicker to read articles, watch videos, and view photos from the event.
Pastor Marty Raths
Some years ago, when we were serving at the Northfield United Methodist Church, we had Jason Ripley, a religion professor at St. Olaf, speak on the Gospel of John in one of our adult studies. And Jason talked about Jesus’ “I am” statements in that gospel – I am the bread of life, I am the living water, I am the light of the world – and Jason called these statements metaphors for contemplation.
These metaphors are images that have rich associations for us, bread, water, light, so they invite us to think more deeply about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and about our own faith walk and our work together as people of faith. At annual conference this past week another one of these “I am” statements was used as our centering scripture, when Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.”
In his opening address Bishop Ogh talked about this contemplative metaphor of the vine and the branches, and he stressed the need for us to stay connected to Jesus the vine. He is the source of life for us, the source of spirit and truth and grace and peace. And he encouraged us to ask what he called the why question. Why Jesus? And I want to extend the bishop’s invitation to all of us. If someone were to ask you, “Why Jesus?” what would you say? Why does he matter? Why take his teachings to heart? Why choose to follow him? Why Jesus?
All week we talked about how our relationship to Jesus, our being connected to the vine, is at the heart of our faith, but we also talked about how that is not the end all of faith. Though we forget this sometimes, we need to remember that there is a larger purpose to our being connected to the vine. And Jesus reminds us of this in our passage, and he even reminds us that it is of such importance that it requires some pruning at times, and that larger purpose is for us to bear good fruit in abundance.
And all week we heard stories about the good fruit that our Methodist Church is bearing here in Minnesota and around the world, and in a sort of collage-like way I want to highlight just some of this fruit, the fruit of people in service, the fruit of new and creative forms of ministry, the fruit of lives being changed by the good news of God’s love for the world.
There are a lot of new church starts happening around the state, and older churches like ours growing in attendance and participation, in giving, and in discipleship practices. The Spirit River Church is one of the churches whose ministry was highlighted at conference, and this is where our own Guy and Gail Sederski are currently serving. Thanks to all of you who brought in jewelry to support their work in one of the poorer counties in our state. Guy and Gail very much appreciated it. Guy also preached at one of the worship services, telling us a little about his own faith journey, and how the native traditions that are a part of his heritage can enrich all of us. One particular Dakota saying spoke to my heart. “We will be known by our tracks,” goes the saying. Jesus says as much, doesn’t he, when he says, “By their fruit you will recognize them.”
There was a wonderful singer, Carrie Newcomer, who performed one evening, and she would witness between songs, talking about her own life and faith. If you remember, I spoke about the power of witness a couple of weeks ago, how it has always been the most compelling evidence for the truth of the gospel. One particular story stood out for me. When she was younger, Carrie was talking to her great aunt, talking about changing the world. And her aunt gave her this wise piece of counsel, “Carrie,” she said, “You cannot change the whole world, but you can change the three feet around you.” Imagine if we were all to do just that? To do, each in our own lives, whatever is true, as Paul says, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable. What sort of fruit would we see? I believe the harvest of good fruit would be abundant.
Last year marked the 25th anniversary of Africa University, which is one of the best fruits that our worldwide church has born in the past quarter century. Located in Zimbabwe it currently has 1800 students from 31 African nations, and in its 25 years it has produced more than 8000 graduates who are bringing their training, expertise, and leadership to bear in the areas of health care, agriculture, business, technology, education, government, and church ministry, improving the quality of life for many, many communities around the world. And we have only begun to see the good fruit that will come from all of this.
There was a woman doctor from Nigeria, Dr. Ige, who was introduced to the conference. She is the Executive Director of Global Health for the General Board of Global Ministries. She witnessed to a deep faith and commitment to making the world a better place for the sake of God’s kingdom coming. And she talked about the millions, yes millions, of children whose lives have been made better, and whose futures have been made brighter, by the work of our United Methodist Church. And then she gave one of the most touching witnesses to our connection as Methodists, to how we are all connected as branches to one another through the vine that is Jesus. She greeted us by saying that, even though she is from Nigeria, here among this gathering of Methodists in Minnesota she felt at home. This is one of the true marks of our being the church, that we make for one another a place that feels like a spiritual home, even if we come from separate continents and are separated by vast oceans.
And it is this treasuring of our deep connections with one another as Methodists from around the world that is undergirding all those who are working on finding a way forward for us as a church, especially as we wrestle with the difficult issue of homosexuality. We know how complicated relationships can be even in our own small families and church families, so imagine how complicated they can be in a worldwide church family. Leading up to a special general conference that will be held this coming February 23 -26 in St. Louis, our council of bishops is asking us to hold this conference and our church in our prayers. They are encouraging us to pray every day from 2:23 to 2:26, either am or pm, or any time that works for us, and to consider if we are able fasting weekly. These practices of prayer and fasting are biblical practices for discerning the will of God for our lives and for maintaining our unity as a people connected to Christ the true vine.