Monday, January 23, 2017

Salvation by Faith

Last week a group of agency leaders and bishops gathered in Charleston, South Carolina to discuss the strategies of our connectional work in our mission.  As most know, we have zoomed in on our collective work in increasing vital congregations throughout the church as they carry out mission and ministry in our four areas of focus.  This mission and ministry fruit will be known as we create new places for new people and invite 1,000,000 new disciples to profess their faith in Jesus the risen Christ.  It will be known as we partner with 400 communities engaged in ministry with the poor through our annual conferences around the world.  The fruit will be known as we invite 3,000,000 Christian disciples to make an outward commitment to their experience of the inward gift of grace.  And of course, our efforts in joining hands to save 1,000,000 children through life-saving interventions is an important way we live out our transformed lives.

As we engaged in this conversation, someone raised the theological question about our church striving to do good works, and forgetting why we do this work to begin with.  Everyone paused and started engaging in the conversation about whether or not we knew how to “BE” the church, rather than being stuck in the “DOING” part of our church work.  It reminded me of the “Salvation by Faith” sermon Wesley wrote in 1738.  It is part of a series of sermons introducing Wesley’s “new gospel,” proclaiming that salvation is by faith alone. 

He writes: For there is nothing we are, or have, or do, which can deserve the least thing at God’s hand.  ‘All our works thou, O God, hast wrought in us.’ These therefore are so many more instances of free mercy: and whatever righteousness may be found in man, this also is the gift of God.

Wesley continues to make the case that there is nothing in our will or in our being that warrants God’s salvation on us.  But, rather it is our faith in Christ that overrides all our actions and inactions.  Instead it is about being and becoming new creations through our faith in Jesus.  It is about inviting everyone to discern where God is calling and responding out of our love for God and our deep desire for living with God’s grace in us, through us and in-spite of us.  So, how can we BE the church as we strive for these strategic directions together?  How can we communicate that everything originates from that glorious and wonderous gift of grace?  It wouldn’t hurt us to re-read “Salvation by Faith,” and find ways for us to live as people transformed by the power of Jesus Christ who are reaching new people, developing Christian leaders, engaging in ministry with the poor and striving for abundant healt for all.  This is who we are.  This is what we do as people saved by God’s grace through our faith.

With God's Love,
Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Circumcision of the Heart

The first week of 2017, I shared with the Connectional Table members that I would be reading a Wesley sermon each week over the next year.  Using Outler’s Anthology of the sermons I started with the “Image of God” and this week have read “The Circumcision of the Heart,” a sermon he first preached in 1733.  Wesley describes what it means to be in a right relationship with God and attempts to offer words of wisdom that might guide the hearer’s thoughts about this relationship.  In particular, he states:

“To be more particular: Circumcision of the heart implies humility, faith, hope and charity.  Humility, a right judgement of ourselves, cleanses our minds from those high conceits of our perfection, from that undue opinion of our own abilities and attainments, which are the genuine fruit of a corrupted nature.”

Over the weekend, I gathered with seasoned scholars from our Methodist connection and new scholars from our Methodist family.  We had interesting and robust conversations about the future of The United Methodist Church.  Some felt fairly certain that our church had reached the point of no return and that our irreconcilable differences would be that which leads us down the road of separation.  Others felt that the questions we have about sexuality are dwarfed by the missional needs of the world.  I pointed back to our Disciplinary language in the preamble to our Constitution about unity and acknowledged our history of brokenness and humility.  Out of it all, despite our deep differences, participating in the conversation reminded me that each person in this conversation is a beloved child of God.  Whether I fundamentally disagreed with their conviction made them no less important in the eyes of God. 

Therefore, out of the dialogue, I spent time with several of these scholars, both individually and in groups and was blessed.  By approaching them with humility, I was able to see and experience their humanity.  And in the midst of these conversations my faith was deepened, hope in my heart arose and a sense of charity was extended to one another from all of us. 

I am fully aware that it is easy to say this when there is relative safety in the engagement of our dialogue.  I’m not at risk of having my very identity challenged, nor am I at an immediate risk of being arrested or convicted of my opinion.  But, if the church could provide safe spaces for people to have these kinds of conversations and offer ways to have deep authentic dialogue, then maybe together we can explore further what Paul was saying to the Romans in chapter 2 and what Wesley was saying to his listeners in this message.  What I do know is that it will take a change in our hearts to find the gifts that God has offered us to be together as the Body of Christ, united by his love and grace.

May it be so.

With God's Love,
Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker

Imagio Dei

Welcome to the New Year!  I pray that God has blessed you with the gifts of reflection on the many blessings you experienced in 2016.  I pray that you were able to note where the Holy Spirit was at work in your life and in the lives of those around you.  I pray that you were able to see the Holy Spirit’s work in and through the people called United Methodist in the places and spaces where you engage in ministry.  God’s blessings are always all around us, even when we find it hardest to see.

As we begin 2017, we have much that is before us in the work of the Connectional Table and the life of our denomination.  I hope you were able to read the update on December 23rd from the Moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward (LINK) and remember the gift of the Imago Dei within each of us.  They write:
Our way forward, as women and men created in the image of God, is to seek reconciliation with one another. It is not that we do the work of reconciliation so that we can later share the gospel through evangelism and mission. There is no evangelism, no mission, no gospel apart from reconciliation. 

And so we enter into the work of the Commission on a Way Forward, seeing it not as an interruption to our real mission, but as essential to our calling. To be for or against each other, or a cause, is less than God desires for us. We are created in God’s image, to be forgiven, reconciled and made holy. – Bishop Yemba, Bishop Steiner Ball, and Bishop Carter, Moderators of a Way Forward

I have committed to reading and meditating on one of John Wesley’s Sermons each week this year using the book put together by Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater, John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology.  I invite you to join me in this practice this year.  There are 50 sermons and the first one I read is entitled “The Image of God.”  This sermon was preached at St. Mary’s at Oxford University in 1730 and remains relevant to the challenges we face when we consider Christian anthropology. 

This is what Wesley reminds us about God and the Divine image created within us:
(God’s) affections were rational, even, and regular—if we may be allowed to say ‘affections’, for properly speaking he had but one: (hu)man was what God is, Love. Love filled the whole expansion of his soul; it possessed him without a rival.  Every movement of his heart was love: it knew no other fervor.  Love was his vital heat; it was the genial warmth that animated his whole frame.  And the flame of it continually streaming forth, directly to him from whom it came, and by reflection to all sensitive natures, inasmuch as they too were his offspring, but especially to those superior beings who bore not only the superscription, but likewise the image of their Creator.

God is LOVE!  So much so that it fills the expansion of our souls, if we so allow it and choose it.  How might LOVE be our central grounding place for our lives and our ministries this year?  How might we examine and ponder, explore and discover all the aspects of love as part of the Divine imagination?  Will we allow LOVE to govern our thinking, our decision-making, our being and our actions the way God created it for our lives? 

His sermon goes on to challenge us to consider where we have fallen out of this image and invites us to consider ways to pursue the image of God.  In the last paragraph is his call to Discipleship, he writes:
We, lastly, have daily opportunities of knowing, if Christianity be of God, then how glorious a privilege are they thought worthy who persuade others to accept of its benefits.

May, by Christ’s great gift of grace, we pursue LOVE with all of our hearts, with all of our souls and with all of our minds this year. 

Let us continue to pray for one another as we begin this New Year!

With God's Love,
Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker