Thursday, December 10, 2015

What the “H” are we doing here?

The following is an edited transcript of Rev. Barry Robison’s address at his installation as Harrisburg District Superintendent, held at Grace UMC in Harrisburg, October 18, 2015.

Since we’ve been in the Harrisburg area, there have been several big storms that have rolled through. We were only here a couple of weeks when a really big one hit in the middle of the night. It was loud. Right after we had gone back to sleep, there came a pounding on the door.

I got up and I went downstairs, turned on the porch light, and opened the door, and there is a guy totally drenched. And through the screen of the door, I could smell the alcohol. I looked at him and he looked at me, and he kind of said could you give me a push? Now, you have to understand, it had not been a particularly good day. And the fact that my sleep had already been interrupted by the storm, I was not in a very good mood. And I told him that. I said, “You’re kidding me.
You want me to come out in this storm and give you a push? Why don’t you just call AAA?” What I wanted to say was, “Why don’t you just get back in your car and sleep it off?” And I closed the door. I went back up to bed and my wife Joni said, “What was that all about?” And I explained.

Joni said to me, “Barry C. Robison, I am ashamed of you. Don’t you remember just a couple of weeks ago when our car broke down in a place we didn’t know anybody? And when you asked for help, someone gave you help?” She said, “I am ashamed of you. What kind of witness is this for a minister, and now a D.S.? What kind of Christian witness are you giving?”

Well I thought about it. She was right. So I went back downstairs, opened up the door, turned on the porch light. It was dark. The wind was blowing. I stepped outside. And I am still on the porch, but I’m getting wet and drenched. So I hollered, “Hey, are you still there?” And I heard a voice say, “Yes, I am.” I said, “Do you still need a push?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Well, where are you?” He said, “Over here on the swing.”

Now, what does that story have to do with what we are doing here? Absolutely nothing. I just thought it was a cute story.

The sad thing is, that’s exactly what a lot of people think about the church. They think the gospel is nothing but a bunch of cute stories, and the church has nothing to do with what they are doing.

Why is that? What has happened that we appear to be irrelevant to many? Could it be that we refuse to get out of our comfort areas, to be disturbed by others?
Shortly after I got the call [from the bishop] and began sitting with the Cabinet, someone asked me, “What is your vision for the Harrisburg District?” I had no idea, because I only knew a few of the pastors in the district, and even fewer churches. How was I to have some sense of vision for this district when I didn’t know the churches or the pastors?

As we began to meet and I began to receive paperwork and all the things that go along with the position, every time the Harrisburg District was recorded it was done so with the letter “H.” And so I began thinking we’re the “H” District. And words began coming to me about what our district might be.

Could it be that we have become irrelevant to many in the world because we don’t know what the “H” we’re doing? Or at least we have forgotten what it is we should be doing.

And so as these words began coming to me, the first one was holy. If I were to say that I had a vision for the Harrisburg District, it would include being holy. Now, I’m not talking holier-than-thou. That’s one of the problems I think that has contributed to the distain for the church and its people today. But I’m talking about being holy in terms of being different, of being set apart from the world that is around us. Now I’m preaching to the praise band here, we know that. But doggone-it, it’s hard to live like that.

Obviously the story I told at the beginning didn’t happen. I hope that was obvious. But I’ll tell you what, had it really happened, I’d have been sorely tempted.

I’ve always been struck by the passage where God says, “Be holy, for I am holy.” There is our example. We’re going on to perfection — we’re not there — but we’re to be separate, we’re to be distinct. And it seems to me that part of the reason that the world thinks we’re irrelevant is because we look just like the world in many ways. We’ve lost that distinctiveness. We struggle at times, even within our own church families, to be Christ-like. We tend to treat each other in the church sometimes like others treat us out in the world.

I don’t want this to be a negative message, because there are churches who are lifting up the importance of being holy, of being different and distinct for Christ. I wish I could be speaking about this a year from now, when I will have visited almost every church, but I’ve only been to a handful so far. But I do know of a congregation who is being the face, the hands, the feet of Christ to what they call “neighborhood friends.” For the people who live around them they are trying to be distinct and set apart, so that they might see Jesus.

It starts with personal holiness. Sometimes I struggle with that, setting aside that dedicated time with God, because there is so much more to do. But when I don’t start by giving that time to Jesus, I lose some of that distinctiveness for the rest of the day.

The second word that came to me was home. A vision I would have for the Harrisburg District is that our churches would become a place where people would feel at home. Not so much in terms of being comfortable, but rather that people would feel that they belonged, that they were accepted. People would feel that church is a place where they could grow into the person that God created and intended for them to be. That our churches would be a place where they felt loved. Isn’t that what home is to us? A place that we want to go back to, no matter how far away we are.

There is another church in our district that I have encountered who is redefining themselves to be a church to the neighborhood. They shared with me that people in that neighborhood — many of them the least, the last, and the lost — now know that if they want to find someone who cares, that church is the place to go. What a wonderful witness and testimony for that congregation to give to the world.

The Chi Rho Singers sing an anthem by Heather Sorrenson entitled, “Home (The Arms of God.)” We’ve been singing this for two or three years now, and nearly every time I sing it I begin to tear up, and I have a hard time getting through it, because I know people who are described in this song. I know people who need to hear a church say, “Welcome home.” Listen for people you might know who need to hear your church say to them, “Welcome home.”
   Every heart without a home, every widow left alone, 
   Every soul that is distressed ...
   There is hope for the broken. There is help for the weak ...
   Every sinner who confessed, but in guilt is still oppressed, 
   By the sin that’s been erased, there is grace. 
   When the father’s walked away, and the mother’s left to pray, 
   When the child has been disowned, welcome home.

When Jesus is in the center of our church families, folks will find that rest, that peace, that grace. And as a result they will receive the third word that came to me, which is hope. Something to look forward to, something to live for, something that makes a difference in world.

So the third part of my vision for the churches in the Harrisburg District is that as we become more holy, more distinct, set apart for Jesus, as we offer a place where people can come and not only find the love of Jesus, but find the love of other Christian brothers and sisters, that we will be a place and places that offer hope.

So what the “H” are we doing? My hope and my dream for the Harrisburg District and on into the Susquehanna Conference is that we would be a holy people, whose places of worship are seen to be home to those who need the loving arms of Christ. And that we would be a people who would bring hope to the world. Amen.

Visit for the video of Rev. Robison’s address.

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