So…the Presbyterian Church (USA) met in General Assembly this month. Perhaps you heard about it. Our own Eric Muller-Girard was there with one of the coveted blue nametags identifying him as one of the 600-and-some with a vote – he was sent by the Presbytery of the Western Reserve as a Ruling Elder Commissioner.
I am a GA junkie – this was my 17th Assembly, most of them attended for the purpose of working for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in the church and their civil rights in our society.
I am grateful for the partnership of Forest Hill Church in my efforts – the particular overture for which I was an advocate was proposed to the presbytery by the Session; the awesome Lynda Bernays made hundreds of copies of materials that my organization, the Covenant Network of Presbyterians, needed for our work in Detroit; and of course Forest Hill is a longtime congregational member of the Covenant Network, working as our tagline says “toward a church as generous and just as God’s grace.
The theme of the 221st General Assembly was “Abound in Hope” – which is why I chose the passage from Romans even though it is not in the lectionary for today. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
For the Covenant Network, hope did indeed abound at this Assembly – every item we wanted approved was approved, every item we wanted disapproved was disapproved.
The GA overwhelmingly rejected attempts to enforce narrow theological orthodoxy. It continued the process of adding to our Book of Confessions the Belhar Confession from South Africa, a proclamation against racism and for church unity – portions of Belhar form much of our liturgy this morning. It finalized the process of changing the translation of the Heidelberg Catechism, a goal that we have had since the 1990s because the old translation contained an erroneous anti-gay slant that was not faithful to the original text of the catechism – the preparation for worship is taken from the catechism’s first question and answer.
And our primary goal – it approved the two items about marriage that the Covenant Network has been advocating over the past year. The first, an overture supported by the FHC Session and this presbytery, opens the way for Presbyterian ministers to officiate at marriages for same-gender couples where they are legal, freeing pastors to serve all their people equally if their conscience leads them so to do. The second proposes an amendment to our Book of Order that revises the whole marriage section in the Directory for Worship; instead of describing marriage as only between a man and a woman, the section would now name “two people, traditionally and man and a woman.” In the coming year, that amendment will be voted on by the presbyteries, with 86 affirmative votes needed for approval.
There were numerous other actions taken by the GA for which the Covenant Network had no official position, but for which I am grateful. An amendment to the Book of Order proposed by our presbytery in order to protect the vulnerable from abuse by former ministers will also be considered in presbytery voting. An overture on gun violence prevention supported by this presbytery was combined with two other approaches and passed by a large majority.
Other actions were taken, both to address internal church issues and in witness to the world beyond our walls. The most controversial, both in the attention it’s getting and as demonstrated by the closely-split vote, was the decision to divest Presbyterian funds from three American companies that have been identified as aiding in the occupation of Palestine by Israel – not my area of expertise or focus, and since you didn’t come this morning expecting to be here for several hours, I will not try to explain, other than to caution you not to accept uncritically everything you read. If you would like to talk further about this or any topic, I am happy to do so after the service.
Many – in fact, most – of the GA’s actions were agreed upon by substantial majorities. The two marriage overtures gained 61 and 71% in favor, considered a landslide in most elections. But of course that still means that 39 and 29 % of commissioners were opposed, and they reflect lots of Presbyterians in the pews who are as dismayed by the actions as I am elated. Some of you might be in that group.
Paul’s message in Romans – “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” – is for all of us, whatever our position on the issues of the day. In Romans Paul addresses the church’s “struggles to live as one community despite cultural and ethnic differences” [N.T Wright, in New Interpreters’ Bible] – particularly, between those of Jewish heritage and the growing numbers of Gentiles accepting Jesus; it’s appropriate that today’s lesson is the end of a section on “the dangers posed to the unity within the Christian community by different conceptions of the proper response to the gospel of Christ” [Paul Achtemeier, Romans, Interpretation series].
Christians with differing, even opposite, convictions about what it means to be faithful to God – it’s nothing new. When our positions are fervently held, it’s easy to conclude that people on the other side of an issue are stupid, deluded, or even evil; after all, if you are listening to God you will hear the same word I do, right? But here’s what Paul says: it’s not being right on the issues that saves us – it’s the grace of God. We don’t earn a place in God’s family because we are on God’s side in the controversies – God’s family includes people on all sides. “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
This might be one of the most important verses in all of Scripture, so listen again. “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Has Christ welcomed you or me because we are so deserving? It’s tempting to think so, but no – we are welcomed because God loves us all unreservedly, loves us all equally, in spite of the ways we fail to measure up. Therefore, we don’t welcome one another because of our merit, or because we get along so well together, or because we will never disagree – we welcome one another because every one of us has been welcomed unconditionally, entirely by the grace of God who loves us all – even the people who are wrong on the issues, whichever people they happen to be. Every one of us needs the forgiving love of God. That’s where our hope lies – our certainty: in the unconditional love of God made known in Christ. Our hope is not in our own capacity always to understand and to do God’s will, but in God’s promise to love us and welcome us and forgive us – even when we get it wrong.
When we welcome one another fully and freely, as Christ has welcomed us , we bring glory to God’s name.
Presbyterians who may differ, welcoming one another – for the glory of God. Praising God together – even when we’re annoyed with each other or worse. Sometimes we all agree, and sometimes we make difficult decisions that leave some of our fellowship grieving; but either way, we rely on grace alone as the basis for our hope. Either way, God still embraces us all. Either way, we continue to seek to discern what it means to be faithful in a confusing and hurting world that needs our witness.
Presbyterians believe that God is sovereign over every aspect of our lives, sovereign over the whole world. That’s why the General Assembly speaks on a variety of issues – about how we order our lives within the church, and about peace and justice in the world. I am quite certain that we don’t always come up with the right solutions – we are fallible, after all, only God knows for sure. But we do our best, and we have been known to revisit those decisions when some of us are uncomfortable with them. The GA in 2012 made the opposite calls on both marriage and divestment. Those who set the theme for this GA had no way of knowing what decisions would be made, but it was a good bet that we the church would need to be reminded of the source of our hope, no matter what the outcomes.
Romans 15, the GA theme, is not the assigned lectionary reading for the day. Matthew 10 is – and this passage also speaks about welcome. Jesus’ words remind us that we Christians are both givers and receivers of hospitality – and that Christ is in the midst of us in both cases. Whoever welcomes a little one, a vulnerable one, a marginalized one, welcomes Christ, welcomes God.
Sometimes the little ones we are called to welcome stretch our understanding of the gospel beyond our comfort zone; what does it mean to welcome those who seemingly refuse to welcome others, for example; to welcome those who have been barring the door we’ve struggled to open; to welcome those who might disturb our tidy home; to welcome those who blame us for their pain? And yet for our Lord – no exceptions. Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you. Christians welcoming one another, welcoming all those whom God created, bring glory to God.
Yesterday I marched with Forest Hill folk in the Gay Pride Parade, which was wonderful but involved a lot more standing around waiting than it did marching. There were several other churches around us, and I happened to greet a fellow minister there, from another denomination, with a positive comment about last week’s General Assembly. To my surprise, my colleague responded with a critical comment in reference to the Assembly’s decision on Israel-Palestine – presumably, the divestment action, since that’s the only one getting much press. At the Gay Pride Parade. The week after Presbyterians voted for same-gender marriage. Honestly, I was shocked and not a little troubled that this colleague wanted to criticize the Presbyterian Church rather than praise it, to focus not on what I expected we would join in celebrating, but on what apparently divides us. It wasn’t a very welcoming experience, and frankly, I was inclined to be miffed. But it’s not the first time that attention gets drawn to complaint rather than concord, and it’s not the first time I’ve been challenged to listen to my own sermon. It’s nice when we can agree, but the call of God is to be in harmony with one another, maintain that relationship, even when we don’t. For the glory of God.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Our joy and peace come from believing the promise of God to welcome each one of us unconditionally into God’s loving embrace. The reason we abound in hope is not because everything always goes our way, or because we always get it right, or because we agree with one another, but because the future is secure in God’s love.
For all of us. Together. Abound in hope.