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May 12, 2000 GC-070

Bishop Swenson preaches difficult text at difficult time

CLEVELAND (UMNS) – United Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson stepped to the podium at General Conference on May 12 with a difficult task: After two days of protests against the church – actions in which she took part -- she came to preach a Bible lesson on violence and separation.

"There was a lot pain and hurt yesterday, something that I really wanted to speak to, especially since it is our last day together," Swenson said. "But here I have this text where Jesus says, ‘Think not that I have come to bring peace; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’"

About 30 people were arrested at the Cleveland Convention Center on May 11 after protesting the General Conference’s reaffirmation of its rules against homosexuality. The United Methodist Church’s top legislative body upheld its official stand that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Swenson, who leads the church’s Denver Area, was not among those arrested, but she participated in a rally and march May 10 in support of changing the denomination’s position. Four years earlier, at the 1996 General Conference, she was one of the 15 "dissenting bishops" who signed a declaration opposing the church’s policy.

In her sermon on Matthew 10:34, Swenson introduced the sword as an image of separation and clarity, of decisiveness about purpose. "I wanted to use the image to ‘cut through’ all of the stuff that keeps us from doing what we are supposed to do as the church."

Swenson spoke of her frustration with institutional matters. She said that this was the source of her pledge for the last year to spend 1,000 hours of direct, hands-on service with homeless people and low-income children in her area. The delegates responded with applause.

Using the idea of the sword "cutting to the core of our purpose," she talked about the "center and the edge," and her desire to "bring the edge to the center, to bring those at the margin to the core of our purpose."

Swenson tempered her usually exuberant style to match the subdued feelings in the auditorium after the previous day’s events. Representatives of the Western states – who largely support her position – told her the night before that the worship service should begin a time of healing.

"We need to hear the gospel, Bishop!" several members said. When she told them the Scripture lesson, a groan went up from the group. Several said, "We will be praying for you."

Swenson’s sermon was interrupted several times by applause. Repeating the words of the lesson, she talked about the sword defining the line between the past and the future. She closed her remarks noting that the edge of the sword can cut an opening into something new for the church and the world.

"If we follow this Jesus, can we carry this sword?" she asked. " ... Go then, with the sword of clarity, of purpose, of leadership, of change and of grace."

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--Gary Keene

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