The theme for the Florida Annual Conference this year was “On Mission Together.” Each year, a bishop outside our conference is invited to deliver a sermon that acts as the keynote address for the conference. This year, we were treated to a sermon by retired Bishop Will Willimon. He preached on a story in the gospel of Luke, chapter 10, which is known as “the mission of the seventy.” The story indicates that after Jesus established his relationship with the twelve disciples, he appointed seventy other people to go on a journey. They were to go out ahead of him to places where he intended to go in the near future. They were to establish relationships with the people there, helping them where needed, and telling them that the Kingdom of God was near. Jesus specifically instructed the seventy that they were to travel together, in pairs, helping each other to accomplish their task.
Bishop Willimon indicated that, in his mind, there were two main points to this story. The first is that Christian disciples are sent. He cautioned us, saying: “If you’ve been told that Jesus has come to help us with our problems. No. Jesus is here to enlist you to help him with his mission.” He suggested that the unique gift of Wesleyan Christianity to the other churches of the world is that we, at our best, have linked the love of Christ with obedience to the mission of Christ. We are uniquely people of mission. We believe that our relationship to Christ is best expressed in our service to others.
His second point from the story in Luke is that we are sent together. Interestingly, Bishop Willimon noted that the most demanding aspect of the this scripture is not the task of mission, but rather that the work of mission should be done together. As he stated in his own unique manner, “our biggest problem with mission is not the enormity of the job. It’s with each other. We love Jesus,” he told us. “We just can’t stand any of his friends.”
Perhaps he put too fine a point on it. But we all know that, at this moment in our history, the worldwide UMC is struggling to determine if we can all work together for the sake of the our common mission for Christ in the world. That struggle is based largely on the very real differences we hold concerning the full inclusion of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters in the community of faith.
This past February, by a narrow margin, the special general conference, representing delegates from around the world, voted to continue the restrictive language concerning the full inclusion of our LGBTQ members in our discipline (the church rules), and tighten enforcement of those rules that are in place. The annual (regional) conferences taking place this summer represent the first opportunity for the UMC to respond to the rulings in February. In its meeting earlier this month, the Florida Annual Conference elected a slate of delegates to the 2020 general conference that were overwhelmingly in favor of inclusion. As it turns out, this was true of most of the annual conferences throughout the United States. However, these US delegates will be participating with other delegates from around the world that are, in general, much less inclusive. This issue, therefore, is not resolved, nor is it likely to be at any time in the near future.
From the scripture in the Gospel of Luke, we are told that followers of Christ are sent together out into the world. We are together in this common mission, whether we like it or not. I believe it is vitally important that we prayerfully consider what it means to be together in this important work. However, increasingly over the past year, I have been concerned that all of us have been so centered on this impasse regarding LGBTQ inclusion – an issue of what it means to be together, that we have begun to lose sight of what it means to be sent – to be in mission for the transformation of the world.
The issue regarding the full inclusion of LGBTQ members is not resolved, but I believe it will be in time. I don’t know exactly what this church will look like at that time, but I believe it will provide for full inclusion of our LGBTQ community. In the meantime, while I think we should work to be the church that God calls us to be regarding this issue, I also believe that we must be at work in every other aspect of Christ’s mission for us. We must never lose sight of what it means to be sent – to be the people of mission at home and abroad.
~ Bod Constant, 2019 Annual Conference Delegate