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Prophecy amidst scarcity


This message was delivered by Bishop Forrest Stith (retired) during the May 16 worship in the Simpson Memorial Chapel in the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Bishop Stith used two scriptures as the basis for his message: I Kings 19:1-11 and Matthews 4:1-11.

The history books of the Old Testament contain two parallel stories. One portrays the deeds, decisions and dilemmas of kings and their kingdoms. Paralleling these stories are the lives and proclamations of the prophets to and with the people of God. Chosen and revered.

Bishop Stith

Bishop Stith

The prophets’ tasks are to counsel, support, correct, advise and judge the acts and decisions of the kings and the kingdom. Or, as the old adage says, They were to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

This judgment or public criticism, “Thus says the Lord,” is what we call prophecy, not necessarily foretelling the future, unless it is foretelling the consequences of actions. Thus, there was often this creative tension between the kings and the prophets.

An exciting prophetic story

One of the most exciting of these prophetic stories is that of Elijah, who comes along in the midst of kings coming and going like musical chairs, following the mythical rule of David. What is significant about this story in our text is that Elijah’s prophecy is proclaimed amidst a protracted famine, or scarcity.

Scarcity always creates a vulnerability of faithful people to receive false doctrines.

King Ahab, who like other successors to David, attempts valiantly to be faithful to the Lord. He struggles, however. To compound his dilemma, he intermarries with an Assyrian woman named Jezebel, who true to her culture is a devoted follower of Baal, the god of fertility.

So, King Ahab struggles: He vacillates in pleasing his wife and more and more of his people become enticed to follow Baal, whose followers claim will end the drought. Like many popular religions, Baal worship becomes a cultural fad to the degree that even those who do not fully believe accept it as a norm, and simply add it to their regular Yahweh worship.

One might say scarcity always creates a vulnerability of faithful people to receive false doctrines as they grasp for straws.

Win-lose situation

The priests and leaders of the Lord God are persecuted, killed, or at the least, ignored. The history book, I Kings, tells the story of Elijah, the prophet, who must engage in a difficult struggle that climaxes on Mt. Carmel where Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to a contest. Of course, Yahweh wins.

Like most win-lose situations, Elijah ultimately loses. Elijah flees to Mt. Horeb where he encounters God through a still, small voice “ to be faithful,” even amidst adversity and scarcity. Elijah’s life is re-directed.

I remind us of that story for many reasons. One being, that many of us have just returned from our General Conference, where issues dear to us and what we considered core faith issues were either subjugated or defeated in a struggle against great odds. And though there were small victories, we were in a lose-lose paradigm. We discovered that to proclaim “Thus says the Lord” is difficult any time, but amidst scarcity it often seems impossible.

To proclaim “Thus says the Lord” is difficult any time, but amidst scarcity it often seems impossible.

When Elijah confronts King Ahab, the response of Ahab is “O you great troubler of Israel.”

Elijah’s response is “you, O King, are the troubler.”

Now before I go any further, let me state a disclaimer. It is not my intention to establish a dualism of righteous and unrighteous, or good guys and bad guys. In reality, each of us struggles in our attempt to be faithful and finds it is easier to grab hold of quick fixes, immediate solutions and feel good remedies.

Rather I am suggesting that at General Conference, we all wrestled with the dilemma of scarcity, looked for solutions, and in our angst, faithful choices were difficult. We live in a day, where the choices are not between Baal and Yahweh, but rather the gods of stability, security and prosperity.

I confess, that as a retiree with a fixed income and the cost of everything increasing, I would be tempted to vote tomorrow for a 100% income raise whatever the long-term consequences might be.

Limping between opinions

Or, as Elijah said to the people, “How long will you go limping between two opinions? If it is Baal choose him, but if Yahweh choose Him.” For often they were espousing devotion to Yahweh, while visiting the synagogue, but giving obedience to Baal.

The test of faithfulness is the temptation to affirm the moral norms and culture where one lives. The gods of stability, security and prosperity are the greatest challenge for the Church of Jesus Christ as we attempt to be faithful to the hermeneutical core of our faith.

It makes a difference in whether we see violence as a solution to disagreements and thus justifying any war; or enslaving a whole race of people; or denying full equality for women; or accepting responsibility for the sick, the homeless, the dispossessed, the unemployed, the underemployed, the poor in our midst, and the stranger within our gates.

If we search the Holy Book long enough, we can justify all these core principles of our Jesus faith, as we negate the Baalic mores of our culture.

'Vegetable Christians'

It was the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard who called the Christians of his early 19th century "vegetable Christians," who simply sit in one spot absorbing the nutrients from God’s soil while soaking in the sunlight and the moisture, but never caring for the world around them. For these, there is no ministry, no mission; these only posture themselves to receive God’s grace.

It is the oxymoron of real Christian living. The test for Elijah and for you and me is to trust in God, even when it might seem we are all alone.

We have just experienced one of the most unique General Conferences I have attended since 1968, though not as progressive or radical as those addressing the Central Jurisdiction or war and peace. Rather, this one seemed to have a pallor or dark cloud hanging over it. Like all those preceding it, it too was filled with great preaching and marvelous guest choirs, good fellowship and committed people addressing serious questions.

The mood was set in the first business session. It was stated best by the Rev. Adam Hamilton and the transitional committee that offered sobering statistics of money and membership within The United Methodist Church. Hamilton mathematically demonstrated that if our trends were not reversed, we would cease to exist as a denomination.

It was Biology 101: “Any organism that does not reproduce itself will surely die.”

So for the first time in the history of this denomination, we were facing the crisis of profound scarcity. With this anxiety hanging over our heads, we proceeded to legislative sections, in which delegates were urged to address the scarcity issue and make radical changes in structure and the budget so the trend could be reversed.

Problems with mandate

There were at least three problems with this mandate. First, although the prognosis was overwhelmingly accepted, the prognosis was met with mixed responses.

Second, the delegates represented the core of our congregations, who have been involved in a variety of mission and ministry programs locally and around the world. Many such persons were not willing to accept reduction or to lose those ministries.

Third, the committee did not address the question of our identity, and what our unique purpose as United Methodists has been. Like unto the point raised by Jesus, “what doth it profit a person if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” Or, is it better that the denomination meet its demise, if its unique mission and ministry are forsaken, which is its soul?

Those questions made it impossible for the body to come to a common agreement on solutions. So we struggled for two weeks with the question: What does it mean to be faithful amidst scarcity?

The ministry section struggled with how to make our clergy and key leaders more accountable and effective so they could make more disciples. But underneath that question was how do we adjust guaranteed appointments, while preserving the itinerant system, which guarantees inclusive appointments of women, ethnic minorities and appointments in missional settings?

Council of Bishops meeting

For me, it began with our Council of Bishops meeting, where we wrestled for three days before General Conference with the structure of the Council and its large number of retirees. Many retirees seem to have a different perspective from some of the active body who wrestle with how to maintain our collegiality and strength within our own financial scarcity. We worked out a compromise, parts of which were not accepted in sufficient numbers to make it constitutional.

Other struggles continued on a variety of petitions and resolutions. We affirmed Arab Palestinian Christians seeking relief from their oppression and granting them identity and statehood. We were unwilling to take a radical stand against Israel, though, lest we offend the lobbyists on Capitol Hill and our perceived security.

As in past conferences, we struggled with human sexuality. What do we do with those who have accepted God’s creation in their own lives, whose only plea is that the church affirm their self understanding of their own sexual orientation and open the doors to allow them to be full members of the household of faith, and not second-class members.

Open, but fearful delegates

As I mingled amongst the delegates, I found most were open, but fearful. Some African members said they could not return home if we voted full participation. Others said they feared a split in the denomination. In these and other resolutions, stability, security and prosperity were dominant decision-makers.

Again, the same issues surfaced in our lukewarm message to immigrants, “the stranger that is within our gates.” As if we forget that many persons in the late 1880s and early 1900s were illegal immigrants, though of European origin. Now their children’s children turn a deaf ear, perhaps because these, the new immigrants, are usually brown.

Finally, there was the awkward way we handled globality, as if a new sign of inclusiveness.

Now hear this carefully: For the past 50 years or more, our denomination has labored to include a rich diversity of its people at the table of decision-making. We included women and men, youths, young adults and seniors; African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans; small congregations, large congregations; town and country and urban congregations. The result has been a great melting pot of ideas, backgrounds and experiences.

Reversed definition of inclusiveness

But this General Conference reversed that definition of inclusiveness. It spoke in an implied message that henceforth representation will be based on numbers, not diversity, nor any other criteria. Numbers became our Baal in times of scarcity.

The result is that one jurisdiction, the Western, with more diversity than anywhere in the world, is barely at the table. A host of other entities will be absent altogether, in spite of any insights lost.

After laboring four years as missionary bishop in East Africa, I rejoice that the church in Africa has demonstrated such growth. The assumption, however, that their unique evangelism and spirit can be transferred onto general boards and agencies that evolved within an American history and context is questionable.

Rather, the financial cost, logistics, agenda content, and other factors may transcend the “feel good moment.” We may yet determine that the regional concept proposed for three quadrennium by central conference bishops may be our best model.

Call to faithfulness

Faithfulness is our call.

We survived. I suspect it will be many summers before we rise above scarcity. But whether we live or whether we die we must be in the Lord.

The gospel of Matthew, in its narrative, deliberately sets the context of Jesus’ ministry in sequence. After his birth and nurturing, Jesus accepts God’s call and is baptized at the River Jordan. Soon thereafter he is taken by the Spirit to a desolate spot, a spot filled with scarcity. If you have seen it, you will note its only peculiarity is its remoteness, isolation and scarcity.

There Jesus encounters Satan. Without arguing as to whether there is a being named Satan, we can agree that as we each travail this mortal coil, we must address the systemic Baals that would cripple us, devour us and take away our souls. Let me reiterate, these systems are stability, security and prosperity.

All these are paraded before Jesus, and sequentially he rejects each. Now we know who Jesus is because only he can completely arise above the temptations of his culture, mores and expectations.

Then, according to Matthew, Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, punctuated with the Sermon on the Mount. In this sermon, Jesus draws a line in the sand, declaring who he is and what he yearns for his people, or the kingdom of God. Namely: doing good for evil; loving your enemies; caring for favored ones of God, the poor and rejected; remembering those who have faced the vicissitudes of the Roman army, even the loss of loved ones; you cannot serve two masters; and the primary importance of a life of healthy relationships, agape love for all God’s people.

Jesus’ life and ministry completes the message and trials of Elijah and for each of us. You can be faithful, even amidst scarcity. As Bonhoeffer once said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

I have often fretted that President Obama has hesitated to take bolder stances on crucial issues. So I was delighted that he showed courage in affirming same-sex marriage. But I was more delighted that he gave for his reason his own personal, faith understanding of core principle of Jesus, who prioritized full and faithful relationships as the essence of life, as reflected in the Golden Rule.

Each of us has our opinions on a host of matters, but at the very least, we can treat and respect others as we would have them do unto us. I believe, that beyond all the structural ideas and implementation, if we hold fast to the principles of faith and the Wesleyan tradition, “this too will pass.”

I close with this poignant prayer by Felix Mendelssohn from my favorite Oratorio, “Elijah.”

O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him
and He shall give thee, thy heart’s desire.

Commit thy way unto Him and trust in Him
and fret not thyself because of evil doers.

O rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him.

Amen.

Editor's note: Bishop Forrest Stith is president of the African American Methodist Heritage Center (AAMHC), housed at Drew University in Madison, N.J. As bishop, he led the Upper New York and New York Annual Conferences from 1984 to 1996. He is regarded as a master of the history of Methodism.

Born in Marshall, Texas, the bishop earned a B.S. degree in Education at the University of Nebraska and an M. Div. at Drew Theological School. Upon his retirement in 1996, he and his wife, Josephine, served The United Methodist Church of East Africa, providing episcopal oversight to areas of Uganda, Rwanda and Southern Sudan, where the late Bishop J. Alfred Ndoricimpa was unable to travel because of political strife.

In retirement, Bishop Stith continues to study, to teach, to lecture and to preach.

 

Letter to the Editor