Opening worship “together” at the 2023 Upper New York Annual Conference
The arena was filled with energy as United Methodists of Upper New York gathered for opening worship at the 14th session of Annual Conference. The theme of this year’s Annual Conference is Together. Together for the first time since 2019, due to the coronavirus.
This year, for the first time, the attendees sat at round tables instead of rows of chairs. The tables were adorned with black linen and had beautiful sea glass in blue, turquoise, mint green, and white sprinkled across the table. Each table also had a chalice of grape juice and a wrapped gluten-free crusty baguette.
Upper New York Area Conference Resident Bishop, Héctor A. Burgos Núñez, said, “When thinking and praying about a theme for our gathering, we wanted not only to highlight the fact that we were coming back together in person but also, given all that’s happening in the world and our denomination – we felt it was important to lift the value of our TOGETHERNESS IN Christ as the Church and United Methodists.”
In his opening prayer, Bishop Héctor expressed his heart’s yearnings, “for joy, for healing, for dance…It longs to share the stories of community- of building- of growth…that we may once again know the joy of (God’s)presence…the work of (God’s) hands, the unity of (God’s) Spirit, the strength of (God’s) Love.”
In the Call and Response, the Rev. Tanya Spencer expressed the good news that we are no longer isolated, that we drink of one Spirit, that God heals the illusion of separateness and makes us one and whole.
She called the room of clergy and laity to proclaim “Together” multiple times. They complied, enthusiastically.
In his Opening Worship message, entitled “Togetherness,” Bishop Héctor used the metaphor of a sports team to illustrate the importance or working together in unity and diversity.
He said, "The most popular sport in our household is soccer. All our children have played it. And our son Joel today plays it professionally in Belize.
As for most team sports, in soccer, two values are prioritized, celebrated, and lifted as essential for a team to be successful - UNITY and DIVERSITY."
Remembering a moment when Joel’s soccer coach was pumping up the team before a game, Bishop Héctor said, “Joel’s coach…told the players, ‘Kids, we will do well in the game if we play it TOGETHER. If we go out to the field as ONE and leverage the skills each of you brings to the game…there is no space for lone rangers or superstars in this team – we are one, each with a different role, but all important and playing for the same outcome.’”
Bishop Héctor asked the crowd to turn to the person next to them and say, “You are a member of God’s team!”
The scripture reading that corresponded with Bishop Héctor’s message was 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, the Apostle Paul’s first letter to Corinth, where he uses the metaphor of the human body to describe the body of the Church, “if the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” In other words, we all need each other together in unity and diversity to effectively build the kingdom of God.
Bishop Héctor elaborated on the importance of unity and diversity in fulfilling the mission of the Church.
He described some of the ways in which Upper New York is exemplifying unity—planting New Faith Communities; responding to natural disasters; locally and regionally; working to eradicate racism, sexism, and exclusion from the Church and society; empowering a new generation of spiritual leaders, and more.
“That’s what unity in Christ looks like. That’s you!” exclaimed Bishop Héctor.
He then described many examples of diversity in Upper New York. Small churches with less than 10 members and churches with 2,000 + members; urban, suburban, and rural towns and inner cities; conservatives, evangelicals, centrists, and progressives.
“That’s what diversity looks like in the body of Christ—Diversity is not a problem but a gift from God we need to celebrate,” Bishop Héctor said.
With passion, Bishop Hector cried, “God is calling us to be together and remain focused on what is most important: loving God and loving our neighbors – encouraging one another to thrive in life and ministry.”
The crowd roared in applause.
Bishop Héctor offered suggestions in how to go about being together in unity and diversity:
- Keep Christ at the center of our individual and communal expression of faith.
- “Stop questioning who belongs to the body or is more valuable—if someone is in Christ—they are part of the body, period!”
- Despite disagreement on some matters, we need to honor our diversity in all its forms and expressions as a gift from God.
- We must pursue the good of the entire body, not just our well-being, and God’s vision to bring hope and reconciliation to all people.
- We commit not to do harm. To do good—and grow TOGETHER in our inward and outward expressions of our love for God and one another.
Bishop Héctor recognized that following these suggestions is not easy. He asked the attendees to “Think about one way you can live and promote togetherness in Upper New York that lifts unity and diversity.”
The room grew very quiet as everyone reflected.
An offering was then taken for Mission Central HUB. At the writing of this article, close to $6,000 has been collected.
The Rev. Theresa Eggleston came to the lectern and brought forth the idea that we all have personal brokenness as well as brokenness in our community. We are broken just like the sea glass.
She asked everyone to pick up a piece of glass and silently pray and reflect on all that has been broken over the past few years. She then invited everyone to bring their piece of glass to the baptismal font at the front of the room.
Rev. Eggleston said, “As you come forward to the font, I invite you to bring your broken piece and offer it as a symbol of the hope and promise that is offered in this place; a symbol of possibility, a symbol of newness.
As we spend these next few days together, let us remember the God who brings new life from the ashes, who brings new life to the broken pieces, who transforms death into life, despair into hope, and isolation into community.”
Opening worship ended with each table offering communion to each other with the chalice of grape juice and baguette at their table.