Opening worship highlights "Divine Health Initiatives"
Rev. Erik J. Alsgaard
Michigan Area Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton preaches during the opening worship service of the 2012 session of the Detroit Annual Conference. (Photo by Rev. Jeremy Africa)
The Rev. Matthew Packer accepts Holy Communion during the opening worship service at the 2012 Detroit Annual Conference session. (Photo by Rev. Jeremy Africa)
Amid colorful drummers from the Ann Arbor Korean United Methodist Church, Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton opened the 44th session of the Detroit Annual Conference Thursday afternoon with worship at the Herrick Chapel on the campus of Adrian College.
Gathering under the theme “Imagine a world…,” Bishop Keaton used the service to highlight the fourth quadrennial emphasis of eliminating poverty and the killer diseases associated with it.
Using the biblical story from 2 Kings 4:8-37, of Elisha and the woman from Shunem, the bishop encouraged the clergy and laity of the Detroit Conference to see a need and fill it; to work at eliminating killer diseases around the world; and to eliminate “killer situations.”
Bishop Keaton noted the world-wide United Methodist emphasis to eliminate Malaria, saying that more than $20 million has been raised by the church since 2004, and that the death rate from Malaria has slowed from one every 30 seconds to one every 60 seconds.
“What happened between Elisha and the woman ought to be noted,” the bishop said. He drew several comparisons between the biblical story and contemporary life.
The bishop, preaching to a full chapel, said that the woman’s hospitality was a great example of changing a situation that could have been “a killer” for Elisha.
The Shunammite woman, he said, built an extra bedroom on to her house as a place where Elisha could stay whenever he came to town. The biblical story says that Elisha, in fact, stayed at her house and took a nap the first time he used it.
“Some pastors are dropping like flies,” Bishop Keaton said, “because they can’t or won’t stop driving themselves into the dust.”
The bishop shared a personal moment when he talked about a heart condition he was diagnosed with many years ago. After surgery, the bishop was sent home to convalesce, with instructions to take one four-letter word seriously: “r-e-s-t.”
“Sabbath is essential,” said Bishop Keaton. He then outlined several facts about overall clergy health that are alarming: clergy, he said, are 10 percent more likely than the general population to be obese; clergy are 10 percent more likely to suffer from depression; and incidences of diabetes and heart disease are also higher.
Elisha, of course, also helped eliminate a “killer situation” for his hostess. The woman, when asked by Elisha what he could do to repay her hospitality, said that everything was well. However, it was Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, who noticed that the woman was without a son.
“In those days, a woman without a child was stigmatized,” the bishop said. “She was barren.”
Bishop Keaton proclaimed that there is more than one kind of barrenness. “It’s not just not having children,” he said.
Being barren also includes having no food, no sanitation, no disciples in churches, dying churches, no prayer, now power, Bishop Keaton said. “It is a fact of life; there are times when we are barren.”
Elisha, the bishop said, prophesied to the woman that within a year, she would be nursing a son. That, the biblical story relates, is exactly what happened. The child grew up but one day became ill. Shortly thereafter, he died. Immediately after he died, his mother took him to the room she had built for Elisha. She then set out to find Elisha and tell him the news.
When the woman met Gahazi, he asked her what was wrong. She replied, “Everything’s fine.” But when the servant finally brought the woman to Elisha, she fell at his feet and held him tightly.
When Elisha heard the news, he departed immediately to see the child. Once there, he laid directly on top of the corpse and prayed to God. Twice he did that, and the boy came back to life, signaled by him sneezing seven times.
“Best of all,” the bishop said, “the Shunnamite woman had no idea when she built a room for the prophet it would the room where son was raised.” The prophet, through God’s power, had literally eliminated a killer situation.
“Sometimes God has to step in and do what God can do,” the bishop said. He related how, in the 1880’s, when immigrant women were landing in New York City and several were falling victim to theft, rape, and being left homeless, a Methodist woman named Alma Matthews stepped in and removed a “killer situation.”
“The forerunners of our United Methodist Women took care of the situation,” the bishop said. Today, he said the Alma Matthew’s House in Lower Manhattan still exists as a place of rest and refuge for visiting missionaries.
The bishop closed his sermon by noting the woman’s initial response to Elisha’s servant. When her world was falling apart, she remained calm and carried on. The bishop then related how Horatio Spafford, once a successful lawyer in Chicago but ruined by the infamous fire, lost four daughters in 1873 when they drowned as the result of a sea-going accident. Spafford had sent his family on ahead of him to Europe while he stayed behind to tend to business.
Later, when Spafford made the same crossing, the ship’s captain pointed that they were passing over the very spot when his children had died. Spafford retired to his cabin and set pen to paper, the bishop said, writing the lyrics to the hymn we now know as “It is Well With My Soul.”
The bishop then led the congregation in singing that hymn.
During communion, which followed the sermon, members of the conference brought forth local church offerings that will be used to support ministries in Haiti and Liberia. Introducing the offering earlier in the service, the Rev. Bill Dobbs, clergy assistant to the bishop, said that the offering was an opportunity “to be a blessing to those you may never know.”
Conference officials expect to have a total for the offering later during the Annual Conference, which runs through Sunday afternoon, May 20.
Note: Erik J. Alsgaard is the chairperson of the conference Commission on Communications and pastor at St. Ignace UMC in St. Ignace, Mich. He is a former conference communicator for the Baltimore-Washington and Florida Conferences.