The following is the transcript used by Bishop Saenz in his Episcopal Address to the 2022 South Central Jurisdictional Conference. Please note, the below is not a verbatim of the address as he did engage in some ad libbing.
The grace and peace of Christ be with your spirits.
On behalf of the Great Plains and Central Texas Conferences and the South-Central Jurisdictional College of Bishops, let me express my deepest gratitude for the honor and privilege of addressing you today.
“Together in Christ, Rooted in Love” is an appropriate theme for this long-awaited jurisdictional conference. We saw a sign of what a people Together in Christ, Rooted in Love can do when you elected three bishops on the first ballot - it was an Acts moment like when all the people were together had all things in common, of one spirit[i]
These two God-initiated possibilities, - together in Christ, rooted in love - are central to the letter to the Ephesians – a letter that portrays the church as one and universal amid many winds of fragmentation.
We have seen this kind of fragmentation in the life of The United Methodist Church as of late, haven’t we?
The letter to the Ephesians helps us gain wisdom from a church facing challenges not so different from our own. Wisdom for today, and more importantly, wisdom for shaping the Church we will one day hand over to our children, our grandchildren, our grandchildren’s children, and generations to come.
Ephesians illuminates the beauty and the mystery of God’s love and will to create a radical, countercultural, peaceful, and reconciled new humanity from different cultures, races, and ethnicities made possible through Christ’s death on the cross that broke down the dividing wall and hostilities[ii]
Their togetherness and love for God and one another are rooted in Christ. Their unity is centered in one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all[iii]
. This new state of relating with one another is a gift of God, imagined and dreamed by God before the foundations of the world[iv]
This new Christ-created, Christ-centered humanity was the hope for a fragmented world. This new society was centered in Christ and grounded in sacred personhood, human connectedness, caring, and hope. As a church, they were called by God to preserve their togetherness in Christ and “unity of the Spirit” by watching over one another in love, showing tolerance, and extending forgiveness.
For too long, but particularly the past six years, we have been consumed by and focused on the present as a denomination. In fairness, we have had difficulty imagining a time other than the present, given all the successive shocking events we’ve been through as a denomination, nation, and global community.
Friends, everything seems to be happening at the same time. We face one catastrophe after another, with no respite.
We’ve been through a disruptive global pandemic we were not prepared for that claimed the lives of one million Americans and nearly seven million people worldwide.
Populism divides the United States and elsewhere. Fear of the other, hatred, and racism persist. Some lives seem to matter more than others. Disparaging and toxic rhetoric by our leaders creates dangerous climates and breeds violence.
A war recently broke out in Ukraine that impacts everyone. People are migrating to escape conflict and human rights violations. Inflation escalates and recession looms; economic indicators are concerning.
Technology, social media, and artificial intelligence are advancing faster than our ability to understand their short and long-term impacts.
The world’s climate gets warmer.
An epochal global and cultural turning is well under way. It’s as if an alarm clock is sounding. We keep hitting the snooze button trying to delay our response as a church, but the alarm keeps screeching!
In such a world, we will need to “save souls” by leading people to repent of their sin and confess Jesus Christ as their Savior, put their whole trust in his grace, promising to serve his as Lord in union with the Church which Christ opened to people of all ages, nations, and races.
And we will need to emphasize the role of baptized Christians to claim their moral voice and agency to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
With all that is spiraling around in our hurting world, beckoning for the Church’s help, healing, and hope, we have decided to focus and expend much of our energy and resources to separate from each other because of fear that the denomination’s ban on same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly LGBTQ clergy will be lifted.
This impetuous and reckless splintering over the presenting issue is symptomatic of deeper divisions regarding scriptural authority, biblical interpretation, theology, justice, doctrine, polity, appointments, apportionments, property ownership vs holding all things in common for the common good, autonomy vs connectionalism and so on. But let’s not overlook what is at the root of it all. At the root of it all is a struggle for power and control.
“Power,” says Adam Kahane in his book, Power and Love, “has two sides, one generative and the other degenerative.” “Our power,” he writes, “is generative and amplifying when we realize ourselves while loving and uniting with others. Our power is degenerative and constraining – reckless and abusive, or worse – when we overlook or deny or cut off our love and unity.[v]
” We have seen and experienced the degenerative, reckless, and abusive side of power that cuts off love and unity manifest itself too often in our world, and in our churches. This must stop for the sake of our mission in the world.
Millions of hours and dollars have been spent on efforts to erode and sever our denominational interconnectedness and interdependency since the close of the 2016 General Conference in a struggle for power and control.
As a result, our mission for Christ has been impeded, our denominational unity fragmented, and our Church’s public witness as the face of Christ, marred and scarred.
We’ve exhausted ourselves with endless in-fighting, with all the harm and hurt we’ve inflicted on each other.
Our souls are weary of dealing with all the agitated anger, the betrayals, the emotional frenzy, the de-legitimizing narratives, and calls to distrust. And we are weary of the erasure and fragmentation of relationships with family and friends over polarizing wedge issues.
Some are just done. They’re done talking about it, done dealing with it, and done waiting for a resolution that will never satisfy everyone. Many have decided to stop talking through the tears, so they have withdrawn from our Churches and life-long friendships and relationships. We can and should be better for the sake of Christ and the world God loves.
All the while, says Bolivian Bishop Mortimor Arias, “a watching world starves for genuine community, languishes in loneliness, fear and alienation, and clings to poor substitutes to fill a spiritual void only God can fill[vi]
Evermore, people walk away in search of hope and meaning elsewhere, distancing themselves further and further from the Church and the means of God’s life-giving and transformative grace and hope.
While a groaning world looks for the grace and hope that the Church can offer, we’re paralyzed into collective inaction, telling ourselves that we can’t lead because we don’t know where we are going in this liminal season. We wait to apply ourselves to our mission because we’re too busy journeying through the wilderness, not able to do much of anything until we get out of the wilderness.
I hope you can agree with me when I say, I am tired of being fixated and paralyzed by liminality and wilderness wanderings when our hurting world hungers for God’s acceptance, God’s community, God’s care, and God’s love!
Let’s stop kidding ourselves about not knowing where we are going.
We do already have great clarity about where we’re heading – at a minimum - in the next 30 years because futurists already see the directions that signals are pointing to today.
Paul Taylor, in a Foreign Policy Journal article, “Here’s Looking at You, 2050”[vii]
points to a planet that will be inhabited by 9.8 billion multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural people.
We know global aging will rise to unprecedented levels while the working age-share of the world’s population will shrink. Poverty will ameliorate in poor countries, and inequities will worsen in wealthy ones. The number of forcibly displaced refugees will rise exponentially, without easy solutions. Nationalism and populism will grow. Global pandemics are inevitable.
We know reliance on technology, social media, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and virtual reality will continue to advance.
We know that lurking behind everything is climate change whose impact is now being felt in worsening natural disasters, increased civil conflicts, and rising migration from areas affected by pressures on food and water sources. Failure to take collective action now to attend to caring for the environment will existentially threaten future generations.
Regarding the 2050 United States demographic projection — assuming the country’s policies or factors that influence birth, death, and immigration don’t change — Pew Research Center[viii]
reports that the US population will rise from 332 million to 438 million. Of the 102 million added to the population over the next thirty years, 80% will be due to immigrants arriving and their descendants.
We know that by 2050, racial/ethnic groups in the United States will break down categorically as follows: White 47%, Hispanic 29%, Black 13%, Asian descent, 9%, Native American and others, 2%. By 2050, the US will be a majority non-white population. This reality already exists in many of our cities and contexts.
We also know the Millennial generation, continuing with the Gen Z and Alpha generations, not to mention the yet-to-be-born Gamma and Beta generations, are and will be increasingly tolerant of varying religious beliefs. They increasingly identify themselves as spiritual but not religious.
They will connect with nature, defend their future and the planet, which leads them to embrace sustainability. Committed to sustainability, they will strive to conserve the environment for themselves and future generations.
These next generations will work in newly emerging industries such as nanotechnology, block-chain, cyber security, app development, cryptocurrency, autonomous transport, virtual reality, and yet to exist industries.
They will believe in changing communities for the better and benefit of others unlike themselves. They are increasingly becoming more diverse racially, culturally, and ethnically.
Listen very carefully, diversity, equity, and inclusion are non-negotiables for them.
And, of course, their use and reliance upon technology, social media, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality will continue to advance exponentially.
Friends, if we are to reach the next generations for Christ like the ones I just described, we need to understand who they are, what they value, and care about the things they care about.
We are at an inflection point in this season of the life of the United Methodist Church, and we are at an inflection point in our world.
Now more than ever, our world needs our distinct and vibrant United Methodist witness, a witness that is “faithful to the gospel as reflected in our Wesleyan heritage — authentic, and convincing in the light of human experience and the present state of human knowledge.”[ix]
We, by spiritual nature, are a far-sighted people who already know we are ultimately moving toward the promised fulfilment of the coming Reign of God which Christ proclaimed.
We cannot be so myopically focused on the current crises of our day so that we ignore what futurists see ahead in 2050, even if we don’t see ourselves being around by then. We may not be there, but our children – and I’m not talking only about our biological children — I’m talking about all God’s children, and their children’s children, who will be there and beyond.
Look. This is a picture of my five-year-old grandson’s elementary school lunchroom in San Antonio, Texas. Maye and I had lunch with our grandson, Ruben IV, on grandparent’s day this past September. As I looked across the lunchroom, I saw children of different races, cultures, and ethnicities eating lunch together, laughing, talking, and sharing their food. They didn’t care who sat next to them or across from them, or behind them, or in the same room with them. They were all part of one student body. I prayed for the day that our churches would someday soon reflect our society, not only at a conference like this one, but on Sunday mornings.
We must begin preparing the ground now for a church that next generations will feel at home at, not as less thans or minorities, but as equals, with gifts to share that augment and benefit the whole community.
Knowing where we are heading over the next 30 years is a gift, it is a hope, and it is a challenge of the Holy Spirit that provokes insight and action from today’s Church. What we already know about the future must impinge on our present way of being and doing Church if we are going to be good ancestors of faith to the next generations of Christ followers.
Only a far-sighted vision of an abundant, life-giving, and peaceable reign of God will enable us to stay focused on our mission moving forward as the Church amid a disruptive present, a rapidly changing world, and emergent future.
We already know that the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ, Christian community, worshipful celebration, teaching and learning, service to others; especially the poor and aging, and the prophetic role and witness of the church will be more – not less – important and needed in the future.
We already know that the church must become very intentional about forming disciples of Jesus Christ with a concern and compassion for the “sinner” for whom Christ died.
And we must also be intentional about forming disciples with just as much, if not more concern and compassion for those “sinned against” every day by life-robbing and unjust cultural, economic, financial, industrial, military, political, and technological principalities, and powers of this world.
We already know that tomorrow’s disciples must be more fully prepared to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land and participate in God’s redemptive work in our world.
The good news, fellow United Methodist Christ-followers, is that God has provided all we need.
We have the abiding presence of Christ who promised to be with us until the end of the age as we go boldly into the world and future forming disciples that reflect his love, forgiveness, mercy, and justice.
We have the promised Holy Spirit who empowers us to be Christ’s witnesses and enables us to expand our horizons, raise our hopes, and dream new dreams for a fractured and hurting world.
United Methodists, we, and the many millions who remain, have each other. We are together in Christ and rooted in God’s love for the sake of the world that is and is to come.
The alarm is sounding! There is no snooze button!
People of God called United Methodists, this is not a time for despair and cynicism, this is a time to dream God’s dreams for a world not our own.
Now is the time to think about our responsibility to the coming generations, to “laud God’s works and declare God’s mighty acts”[x]
says the Psalmist, so that they should “set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God”[xi]
, but love God and their neighbor as themselves.
Now is the time to be the kind of ancestors of faith that the next generation will look back on with blessing and thanksgiving.
Now is the time to listen and understand the hopes of our young generations. They are the ones who have the moral authority to speak on behalf of future generations, as well as the credibility to lead us into a good, peaceable, and sustainable future they envision for themselves and their world.
We must face the future with faith, not fear, with our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts wide open to what God is doing, seeing what is on the horizon, what is at our periphery, and always keeping our eyes on Christ who promises to be with us, and generations to come, until the end of the age.
We must move forward together in Christ, rooted in God’s love, looking to the horizon, far beyond the next general conferences, to a future not our own.
We must work for a church that holds, not our but the next generation’s best interest at the center and heart of all we do. We must be a church that is alive for Christ, welcoming, celebratory, generous, compassionate, and engaged in the issues that concern humanity.
As a people together in Christ, rooted in God’s love, we must draw our circle larger than ourselves, larger than our circle of family and friends, larger than our local congregations, larger than our annual conferences, larger than our denomination, larger than our communities, and larger than our nation.
Friends, the world is our parish!!!
And we must set our minds on handing forth a Church to tomorrow’s generations that forms them in the love God and disciples them in the love of neighbor - a Church that provides them with a robust covenant community and equips them to live with core convictions and spiritual confidence in changing world.
Cardinal John Dearden offered a prayer in 1979 at a memorial service for Oscar Romero and other departed priests[xii]
. I share it with you in the hope that it lifts your hearts and eyes to God’s future and provides you with the encouragement I receive from it when the urgencies and troubles of the present cloud the hopeful horizon and the vision of God’s reign Christ proclaimed was at hand yet to fully realize.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The Reign of God is not only beyond our efforts, but also even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. We know that nothing we will ever do will be complete because God’s reign always lies beyond us. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
That is what we are about. We will plant seeds that one day will grow. We will water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations for tomorrow’s generation that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This realization, my fellow United Methodists, enables us to – together in Christ, rooted in love - do something, and to do it very well … for the Church Christ gave birth to through the resurrection and opened to all people and the world around us God so loves and sent Christ to heal and to save.
May it be so, not only for us, but for the sake of the next generations of Christ followers God entrusts to us today so that they may, like us, set their hope in God, taking the long view … together in Christ, united in love.
[v] Kahane, A. (2010). Power and Love: A Theory and Practice of Social Change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, p. 26.
[vi] Arias, M. (2001). Announcing the Reign of God: Evangelization and the Subversive Memory of Jesus. Academic Renewal Press, p. 118.
[vii] Taylor, P. (2022, October 16). Read here's looking at you, 2050 online. Scribd. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.scribd.com/article/336091762/Here-S-Looking-At-You-2050
[viii] Passel, J. S., & Cohn, D. V. (2020, May 30). U.S. population projections: 2005-2050. Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project. Retrieved October 30, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2008/02/11/us-population-projections-2005-2050/
[ix] The United Methodist Publishing House. (2016). The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2016. ¶ 105. Section 4 – Our Theological Task, p. 81
[xi] Psalm 78:5-6; Matthew 27:37
[xii] O'Brien, K. (2011). The Ignatian Adventure: Experiencing the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius in Daily Life. Loyola Press.