Tampa, Florida, May 4, 2012—The preacher put a hard question to the audience: Do United Methodists love Jesus more than they do all the denominational trappings, debating, and number counting?
On the night before the last day of the denomination’s 2012 legislating General Conference, Bishop Deborah Lieder Kiesey reminded the almost 1,000 delegates and a host of guests that Jesus’ last mandate to his disciples, to show love for him, was “Feed my sheep.”
“Are we feeding Jesus’ sheep?” the bishop asked. “Are we offering everyone food for the soul, the food of hope, the bread of life?”
The sermon came after two days of heated debates on how to restructure the denomination and on ethical issues, including the church’s views on homosexuality.
The episcopal leader of the Dakotas Area, Bishop Kiesey used as her text the appearance of Jesus to his fishermen disciples, the last post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to followers in the Gospel of John, chapter 21. It is the story of how Jesus appears to the men in the boat, as a stranger on the shore, and asks if they are catching anything.
“No,” they respond. Well, then, the stranger indicates, try on the other side. The catch is great.
Later, on shore, Jesus has a fire going to cook fish for breakfast. He three times asks Peter if he loves him. Peter, getting a little irritated, says, “You know I do.”
“Feed my lambs… tend my sheep….feed my sheep,” Jesus tells him.
“Lord,” said Bishop Kiesey, “we have spent two weeks in Tampa doing your work; doesn’t that prove how much we love you?” She had doubts. While acknowledging the importance to millions of what the delegates do in Tampa, she said, “What matters is to care for the lambs.”
The sermon was followed by a hymn, “Until All are Fed,” and by a “love feast,” a particularly Methodist observance that is not a sacrament but involves the sharing of bread. The service in Tampa used hot-cross buns, which the delegates broke and offered to one another.
Bishop Kiesey said that the church, like the disciples, has a way of falling back into familiar ways—the disciples to fishing. But, she asked, does the church pay attention to the stranger on the shore who makes new proposals about where to fish, and who turns out not to be a stranger at all but the familiar figure of Jesus?
“Jesus is calling one more time,” she said.