Note: what follows is a synopsis of Rev. Harlan Gillespie's sermon for his Installation service as Superintendent of the North Central District, September 28, 2014, at First UMC, Iowa Falls...
With a brief nod to the Bears fans and Packer fans who were part of the gathered community for the Installation service, Rev. Harlan Gillespie, the new Superintendent of the North Central District, asked people, “What do you think?” Following the call and response of faith experienced by Jesus’ followers and critics, Rev. Gillespie urged all to respond to God’s invitation, “What do you think?” as he had done years ago during his own call to ministry.
The message began with a word of appreciation to clergy colleagues and laity who were in the congregation at First United Methodist Church, Iowa Falls. “The covenant of ministry is a marvelous thing…we are all people of God!”
True to his musical giftedness, Rev. Gillespie sang his prayer of preparation, “By the rivers of Babylon…how can we sing out the song in a strange land? Let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord.”
Rev. Gillespie remembered his pastor, Rev. Tom Stewart, preach about the world that was in the midst of the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement and the nuclear arms race. Rev. Stewart preached about growing up in a diverse neighborhood where kids on different sides of the track threw rocks and called each other names. In particular, “I remember how he preached on this little parable that Jesus taught…it was the day after Palm Sunday…he went to the Temple, if that wasn’t enough rabble rousing, and threw those who were selling and buying the sacrificial grains and the sacrificial animals for forgiveness and praise offerings right out of the Temple.” He went on, “This was not a well-managed transition as we’re want to do in the world and the church, today. But this is what Jesus did.”
Jesus returned the Temple the next day “and no one challenged him except the elders and the chief priests who asked, ‘who are you to do the things you are doing and say the things you are saying?’” After they couldn’t answer Jesus’ questions “he went on to ask them, ‘What do you think?’ and told them the Parable of the two sons.”
“As I sat there listening Tom ask that question,” he remembered, “I got to thinking, because he said, ‘What do you think?’ and ever since then, and over the years, I’ve found myself being both sons at one time or another.”
“I do know that this whole thing of ministry is not exactly easy…and sometimes we come up short,” he observed, “but, as in Romans 8, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.”
“I’ve also seen how churches and pastors can struggle together through the midst of difficulty and come out, sometimes, richer for the whole process.”
“I remember how the church, Bradford, wasn’t isolated from the change that was happening around them. It was a church and a people who had the privilege of being visited by traveling missionaries like Don and Dora Campbell.”
“I how Bishop Thomas, who, after his election, in the midst of his busy schedule, ended up at the Lee Center church in front of a whole group of farmers and their kids and grain elevator operators and their kids very patiently answering questions about race relations…They were curious and wanted to be the church that God wanted them to be.”
“So, What do you Think, Harlan? Yes, Lord there are times,” Rev. Gillespie said, “that I sometimes I say Yes and don’t go. And sometimes I say No and end up going. And sometimes I like to think I say yes and go and actually that it all takes place. And I think sometimes that is who we are as a church too.”
His favorite letter of Paul is the one to the Philippians. “I sometimes envision that letter being read to a group of people, like us as we’re gathered here today were perplexed, worried, and sometimes just in wonderment about the world around them…about terrorism and war…disease… the good things still happen among people…in spite of everything.”
Despite being in prison, “Paul wrote back this letter that had nothing about bitterness in it…’Whatever happens,’ Paul writes, have this attitude in you that was in Christ Jesus… And as the people who were gathered heard the Word, their hearts began to be quickened and even inspired and even with all the challenges in the world, they know that there was more than just hope but the realness of the risen Jesus Christ with them, which is a bit like saying while human nature hasn’t changed a lot neither has the goodness of God in Jesus Christ, neither has the fact that God has come to us in Jesus Christ…this long, expected Christ who still is alive and active and in the world, and in the midst of this district and all of the districts of this Conference, this Communion an the Communion of other faithful people.”
“I know that there are two things that are true,” Rev. Gillespie confessed. “One is gravity…and the other is the reality of Grace…the unmerited free gift of God’s love…Even though I didn’t know I was lost. That’s what I know to be true. And you know what? Truth be told, I think I am still lost sinner. Maybe you are too.”
“So while we say to each other, ‘What do you think?” just remember, we’re all walking along with each other.”