If you had told me last week that I would get to high-five a bishop in the middle of his sermon at Annual Conference, I would have told you that you were dreaming. Bishops don’t do that. But bishops do do that and there I was last Saturday as the visiting bishop from Mississippi, James Swanson, wandered the floor of the Hampton Roads Convention Center preaching about the good news at the end of the book (the Bible) and telling us, “We win!” When he looks you in the eye and says that, what else can you do but go up top?
Swanson preached twice, each time confounding the sign language interpreters who gamely tried to keep pace as he went gleefully off-script. He spun in a circle to emphasize a point. He thundered. He engineered an impromptu altar call that brought hundreds to the front.
[Bishop Swanson] wandered the floor…telling us, “We win!” When he looks you in the eye and says that, what else can you do but go up top?
Not that it was all about the theatrics. Or even about Swanson. Our own bishop, Sharma D. Lewis can unsettle your expectations about preaching, too. (And she admits that she has learned a thing of two from her mentor, Bishop Swanson.) She ended the conference by standing on a chair in the middle of the crowd calling out young people and old people and all people to join her in a mission.
No, the thing that was most impressive about this super-charged 235th session of the Virginia Annual Conference of United Methodists, was the way it embodied the hope of a new day with a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We didn’t just hear about the Spirit’s work; we were invited into it body and soul.
Bishop Lewis, presiding for the first time in her new role as Virginia’s episcopal leader, began the Conference by sharing that she has the gift of faith. This sounds a little unusual. After all, isn’t faith what we all should have? Well, yes, in that faith is what restores our relationship with the One who made us. But that faith comes as a gift. If faith is just an exercise of the will it places too much confidence in our own ability to enact it. It is a gift to trust that God has done and will do everything necessary in Jesus Christ to bring about God’s purposes. Bishop Lewis has that gift in abundance.
In her closing sermon, she cast a vision, which is “to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are life-long learners, who influence others to serve.” We’ll be unpacking it for awhile. It’s a deceptively simple sentence born of her many hours in Chat and Chew sessions across Virginia. But in the context of what we saw in Hampton, it is clear that the vision is not just words – it’s a total immersion in the work of God in the world.
In the music, in the people she brought to participate in this conference, and most especially in herself, Bishop Lewis gave us the best of where she has come from. What we saw is firmly rooted in the African-American tradition where she has been nurtured, but basic and universal enough to speak far beyond that context.
I have seen this dynamic in my bishop before. She is always ‘on’ but when she is preparing for a big moment, there is a new gear. It’s as if she is saying, “I know you’ve got doubts. I know there are trials. But I know Jesus. So follow me. Hop on my back if you need to. We’re going with him.” The Rev. Morgan Guyton noted this gear in a very insightful and personal reflection on the Conference: “All I could see was that she was all in.”*
She is. We are. So we go. And I’ll high-five anybody who wants to go with me.