As people were still working at finding their way around a new venue for Annual Conference Session this year, Rev. Daniel Hilty began his sermon at opening worship by acknowledging that moving is hard.
Hilty was moving from Campbell UMC in Springfield to Missouri UMC in Columbia. That move involved selling a house, which meant having to vacate his home at a moment’s notice so real estate agents could show it. He frequently had to quickly make himself scarce, along with his two dogs, Heidi and Murphy. The plan was to make a happy place for the dogs in the back of the van and to go for a drive when they had to leave.
“Murphy was super happy for about five minutes,” Hilty said, showing a picture of his happy dog.
Days turned to weeks, and the dogs enjoyed every impromptu cruise less and less.
“It felt like endless hours,” Hilty said. “I could feel the tension ratcheting up and up – the whining, stinky breath, shedding – and that was all just me. The dogs were whining, too.”
After a few weeks, he didn’t even want to look at his dogs. This bothered him because he had always considered himself a dog person with a special connection with dogs.
“Have you ever thought of yourself as a model of love, understanding, patience and connection, then suddenly you realize that you’re not?” Hilty asked. “Maybe where you think there is a connection, there is a disconnect.”
Hilty said there are times when he realizes he still has a long way to go and times that he wishes he hadn’t said or done something. But Christ is always at work to move us from disconnect to connection, inviting us to widen our circle.
Hilty then presented a series of video clips in which people gave a testimony about where they see God. They shared times of fighting for freedom, fighting for unity, working through depression, overcoming grief and coming together with people who are different.
“Christ always moves us from disconnect to connection,” Hilty said. “Let’s be honest. This is a time and place where Christ needs us to move the world from disconnect to connection. I’ve never experienced a time when we felt so polarized. Sometimes, behind closed doors, we kind of encourage it, kind of celebrate it. We prove loyalty with one group by putting down the other group.”
Hilty said we behave as if we need permission from our group to love someone outside of it. But Jesus never waited for permission to love anyone, even though those in his circle tried to rein him in. He cited the following scriptures.
Mark 3 – With a new kind of family.
Luke 5 – Tax collectors and sinners.
John 4 – The woman at the well.
“I wonder if the most revolutionary thing about Jesus is not that he refused to allow his enemies to stand in the way of his love, but rather that Jesus did not allow his friends to stand in the way of his love,” Hilty said.
Hilty then shared the story of Sadie. A newcomer to the church, she shows up early, so she can pray for every person who walks through the door. She founded a new prayer ministry at the church and helped start a prayer walk. She drives people to church and gave away a car to a family that needs it more than she does. In her first six months at the church, she invited more than 200 people to church.
Sadie came to the church through Embrace, a transgender support group. She has been through many difficult things as a transgender person, including a time of homelessness.
“I saw a burning love of Christ in her that I haven’t seen in anybody,” Hilty said. “I’m telling you this story about Sadie because she isn’t waiting on anyone to give her permission to love people around her. She doesn’t care if it is reciprocated. She doesn’t care if they ‘get’ who she is or not.” Hilty encouraged the Conference to resolve to do the same.
“You don’t need anybody’s permission to love like Jesus,” Hilty said. “All you need is Jesus. A desire to connect. A desire to make new friends. A desire to grow in Christ’s likeness inside and out.”
The offering collected during opening worship was to aid disaster response. $18,329.27 was given.