April 2, 2021 | “Hallelujah anyhow!”

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe sitting to the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you. So they went out and fled the tomb, for terror and amazement has seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

                                                                                         – Mark 16:5-7

 

Beloved:

 

There are times when the language of the atmosphere speaks to the deepest conundrums of our lives. The language of the atmosphere is music, and there is a song, “God is Good,” that has carried me through the past few weeks. It is a simple song, but the message is an instructive invitation to live our faith out loud. The lyrics by Jonathan McReynolds are:

 

           “May your struggles keep you near the cross,

           May your troubles show that you need God,

           And may your battles end the way they should,

           And may your bad days prove that God is good,

           And may your whole life prove that God is good.”

 

The song speaks of the battles, struggles, and bad days life often brings, and yet it also invites us to live through them, proclaiming that God is good – that God is good. Those lyrics move me significantly in this season because there is no way to pretend that we are not still living in difficult times. Every day brings news of more loss. Each week opens the door to a greater distortion of the truth. Each month chronicles more delay, another postponement, another expectation unfulfilled. The pain is real and unrelenting at times and there is no veneer that will offer a Hollywood ending. 

 

The events of the tomb, as told in the Gospel of Mark, do not provide a very satisfying ending, either. The narrative begins in concert with the other resurrection stories as we see the women approaching the tomb to care for Jesus’s body. They arrive and find the heavy lifting literally accomplished and they are greeted by an angelic figure who offers comfort for their fear and an answer for their unasked question.

 

“Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.”

 

But, unlike the narrative in Matthew, the women do not leave the tomb with joy after encountering the risen Christ. In the Markan telling, they flee “for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” In the shorter version of Mark, which scholars believe is the most accurate ending of this synoptic Gospel, fear seems to have the final word.

 

And yet, this Easter story is perhaps exactly what we need at this moment. Easter was not a triumphal moment in the lives of the early followers. Easter was a faith-testing, fear-inducing cataclysmic encounter. Easter is not a quaint service filled with lilies and new patent leather sandals and hallelujah choruses. Easter is a revolutionary belief in a scandalous Savior who breaks into human history and redeems it despite present circumstances. The women flee, which is a very human response, and they do not encounter another event that will transform their consternation to celebration. The only means available to them is their faith in God. The God who brought Jesus into their midst against the plans of the empire; the God who empowered Jesus to perform miracles; the God whom Jesus testified to is the God they must now trust. The only antidote to their fear is faith.

 

We have yet to emerge fully from the grips of the coronavirus. The toll it is taking on families, communities, and the economy is still palpable. Our faith communities continue to wrestle with the complexities of in-person worship. Violence is still prevalent in our streets, whether that is evidenced through random gun violence, attacks on Asian-Americans, or the conflicts gripping the globe. The pandemic of racial unrest and injustice is yet before us, most significantly as Derek Chauvin stands trial for the death of George Floyd. The denomination continues to postpone our global and jurisdictional gatherings, further frustrating our quadrennial calendars. As much as we would like for there to be an event that brings all of this to a pleasant conclusion, no such event is coming. And many stand afraid.

 

Our faith in God, the God who has never left nor forsaken us, the God who has proven faithful in every circumstance heretofore, the God who has continually made a way out of no way, will once again make a way for us. We stand on the promises of God – not human events. As Father Richard Rohr teaches, “Suffering, of course, can lead us in one of two directions. It can make us very bitter and close us down, or it can make us wise, compassionate, and utterly open. Our hearts open either because they have been softened, or perhaps because suffering makes us feel like we have nothing more to lose. It often takes us to the edge of our inner resources where we ‘fall into the hands of the living God’.” (Hebrews 10:31). In the words of the song, our struggles keep us near the cross.

 

Even as the cancer diagnosis continues, we know that God is with us.

Even as the job offer has not yet come, we know that God is with us.

Even as the marriage ends in divorce, we know that God is with us.

Even as the date for the vaccination continues to be pushed back, we know that God is with us.

Even as we are not able to gather in our sanctuaries for another Easter celebration, we know that God is with us and that God is good.

 

Even as the vicissitudes of life continue to be what they will always be, may we yet extol and proclaim that God is good. May our faithfulness never waver, and may even our bad days prove that God is good, and may our whole lives prove that God is good.

 

Christ is risen, Christ is risen, indeed!

Hallelujah anyhow!

God is good!

 

Blessings and peace,

Bishop Easterling

December 18, 2020

                                    

Beloved:

 

Mary probably didn’t hear the choir of angels. On that first Christmas night in Bethlehem, it would have been chilly, there would have been pain mixed with tears after giving birth, alone in a strange place, as a teenage girl with a man she barely knew, separated from all she loved — she probably didn’t hear the angels.

 

Joseph probably didn’t see the star that night. Traveling on foot for days with a young woman who carried a child that was not his own, kneeling next to her while the barn animals looked on and the baby was born, envisioning all that might lie ahead for a simple carpenter — he probably didn’t see the star.

 

But there were angels, and there was a star that lit up the sky. Our story tells us so. This year, we are living through a Christmas like no other. It is probably closer to the original Christmas than those of past years. We might not be hearing choirs of angels or seeing the star of Bethlehem. But the story is still real — very real. And, the story is still God-anointed. Amid the pain, uncertainty, loneliness, and unfamiliar things that mark this Christmas amid twin pandemics, the miracle still unfolds.

 

That is one of the joys of Christmas — each year, the Christ child is born anew into our lives and into the world. We celebrate an ancient story, but as people of faith, we also rejoice in the coming of a savior, the Prince of Peace, who comes bearing the gift of unconditional love. It is both ancient and new every year.

 

This Christmas, I pray that the spirit of Emmanuel — God with us — fills your life. I pray that God will once again break into history and hold you and all those you love in God’s embrace. I pray you will share God’s love with those around you in acts of mercy and justice. And, I pray that you will hear — however distant — the singing of the angels’ alleluias and experience the light of God’s glory illuminating the year ahead.

 

This year has taken so much from us, but it has also gifted us with blessings as well. One of those blessings is unfolding in the night sky. The Star of Bethlehem or Christmas Star, which astronomers theorize may have been caused by the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn passing one another very closely, will be visible on December 21. This magnificent celestial wonder has not been visible in this way since March 4, 1226, and will not likely occur again before 2239. I hope you will take the time to look up and receive this blessing. I pray we will all quiet ourselves and receive the wonder of the light.

 

May your Christmas celebration reflect the realities of these uncertain times. But more importantly, may it also be filled with the wonder of a star that caused the angels to sing. I wish each of you love.

 

Grace and Blessings, the Lord is come!

 

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling
Baltimore-Washington Conference
The United Methodist Church

 

 
July 8, 2020
 
Bishop Easterling’s Letter:
The Time is ‘Now’ to Address Racism
 

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Over the past four years, we have proclaimed, together as a conference, that “We are One.” (Ephesians 4:1-16) We are one in times of celebration and joy, and we are one in times of challenge and struggle. As the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and so many others have drawn the nation and our denomination into a conversation about the sin of racism, our conference has been engaged in several prayer vigils, public witnesses, and an intensified call to action. For some, these acts of public witness have created the sense that we are no longer one because we are talking about systemic racism and oppression. Yet, it is more important than ever that we remain connected; that we embrace our unity in Christ to confront this evil together.

 When Jesus opened the scroll to the passage from Isaiah, he announced that, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19). 

 I believe this and many other passages evidence that equality, justice, freedom for all, and fullness of life are ours because Jesus is Lord and God has ordained it to be so. We must work together to make this become a reality for all.

 What is happening in this country must be addressed from the perspective of the Gospel — not to make people feel bad or to engage in partisan politics — but to equip disciples for the transformation of the world. That is our duty. To not engage the crises of the day makes our preaching and teaching disconnected from our lived reality and, some would argue, irrelevant. Karl Barth famously quipped that a good preacher should have a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. As is stated in our shared Social Principles, racism is a sin. To help everyone explore and respond to becoming an anti-racist church, I have called upon the people of the Baltimore-Washington Conference to preach one sermon a month and offer one teaching opportunity on racism or systemic oppression. Each of us has much to learn in this area. We do our best learning together in covenant with one another.

 In order to help facilitate this work, The Discipleship Council has provided an excellent outline of action for churches who are ready to commit to becoming an anti-racist church. This, and other resources for people at various points along this journey, may be found at bwcumc.org/justicenow. There will also be resourcing added each month to assist with the preaching and teaching efforts.

Our focus on rising united to end racism does NOT mean that anyone is being asked to apologize for being White, to denounce their ancestors, or confess that being White is to inherently be a racist. And yet, there is still a truth that stands before us: racism exists; the architecture of racism and White supremacy are real and harmful; and we must confront them to live out our Gospel commitment, baptismal vows, and the Social Principles of The United Methodist Church. As we engage this work, it will also be incumbent upon those who have suffered under systemic oppression to release any bitterness or animosity and, as real confession and change occur, work toward reconciliation and healing. This is what it means to walk the road toward Christian perfection. This is what it means to be one.

As people of God, we understand that God created all people in God’s own image. God didn’t create one race as superior and others as inferior. God created all persons as sacred, worthy, and equal. For centuries, humans have distorted this truth to exert power over one another. While progress has been made toward creating a more just and equitable society and church, we have much more work to do. The coronavirus stands out as an example of disparities in health care and the systemic inequality rampant in our society. Another current example is the disparity in access to the Internet, which has impacted distance learning. It is these types of disparities that we must work to overcome.

The work of dismantling racism is hard. Very hard. It evokes resentment, denial, anger, fear, and pain. And yet, we must do it. As we dive into this work, we must realize, it is always easy to talk about racism and oppression in general, but it is exceedingly harder to create real, tangible change. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stated in his speech, The Other America, “It is much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good solid job. It’s much easier to guarantee the right to vote than it is to guarantee the right to live in sanitary, decent housing conditions. It is much easier to integrate a public park than it is to make genuine, quality, integrated education a reality.” Generalities are easy; specifics are hard. It is hard, but it is not impossible. We are a people of faith, hope, and determination.  

Some have argued that this is not the right time to engage this work. That we are stretched thin as we face the realities of COVID-19, a recession, and other exhausting events in our lives. I again look to Dr. King in addressing this sentiment. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he states, “‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'” To demand that those suffering injustices be patient and wait is itself a manifestation of privilege. If you literally cannot breathe, you cannot wait patiently for air. The time, beloved, is now.

It is essential that we keep the doors open for further conversation. I pray for each of you every day. I love you, I seek to serve you, and I recognize that each of us is a sacred child of God. It is my prayer that we will continue to serve Christ together — all to the glory of God.

Blessings and Peace,

Bishop LaTrelle Easterling 

The time is “NOW” to address racism

2021 Lenten Message

Beloved of God, as we prepare to enter this deep and rich time of Lent — a time of prayer, remembering our baptism, and preparing others for theirs — we look back over almost a year of global pandemic, racial and political unrest, and almost a year of social distancing, tremendous loss, and struggles against feelings of isolation and resignation. And, we look forward to a future yet filled with continuing liminality, more questions than answers, and perhaps yet more dreams deferred. But one thing is certain: what brought us through the past, and will hold us in the future, is our faith – our faith in God.

Our faith enables us to endure through all. Therefore, may we take this time in the present to immerse ourselves in the deepest things we know: the art of sacred contemplation, the soul-stirring intentionality of daily prayers, and the faithful discipline of fasting. This year, many will continue the tradition of fasting from food. But I’m also inviting us to fast from social media. I know many of us rely on professional platforms for our ability to worship and to work. I’m not speaking of that engagement. I’m talking about those entertainment platforms, those that so easily absorb our time and innocently draw us in. May we use that time, instead, to write, to write our own prayers of lament and thanksgiving, read a classic of our faith tradition, or perhaps engage a new theologian, or simply sit in the beauty of silence. I also invite us to intentionally pray three times a day — at the beginning of our day, at midday, and again in the evening. What a powerful expression it will be to know that throughout our entire annual conference we are in a posture and attitude of prayer as one.

There are two Lenten studies (presented by the Baltimore-Washington Conference) that we hope that you will consider using during this time. Both of them are modeled on the format introduced through the “Who are We” study and offer an opportunity to come together as the beloved community to focus on our faith through our United Methodist Social Principles.

The first study is entitled “Reclaiming and Living Covenant.” This study will be focusing on reading and studying Scripture, exploring ways we are equipped to seek justice, learning about the experiences of other United Methodists engaged in the work of ending oppression, and creating accountability to, and with, each other. It will explore such topics as incorporating justice as a spiritual discipline, caring about all of creation, promoting peace and restorative justice, and transforming the context of hate to love. Rev. Neal Christie will offer a guided journey through this study each Thursday of Lent at 12 noon.

The second study is “Created to Love.” In this seven-week study, participants will be invited to follow the rhythm of our creator. God spun the sinews of creation. From the beginning, God modeled six days of activity, followed by a day of rest. In turn, we are called from the long stretches of our busy labor, into holy Sabbath. We pause in order to take in the joy and weight of being formed in love as the hope of creation. In these seven weeks, you will be drawn into a rhythm of renewal through such topics as: is my heart pure, how are my actions aligned with God’s will, and where do we need to be transformed.

Beloved, whichever study you choose, I pray that you will engage it enthusiastically and with an expectation of transformation and blessing. I hope that you will join us three times a day in prayer and that you will fast from platforms of entertainment on social media. God is with you; God is with us. May this sacred time be one of spiritual renewal, revelation, and transformation, May God richly bless you.

Join us for a six-week Lenten Experience of Scripture, UMC Social Principles, and Antiracist Action to Build Beloved Community with one of its authors.