Good and messy

Passage: Mark 6:1-13
Date: July 09, 2006
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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Did you ever want to have a conversation with Jesus? I often do. These two episodes prompt one for me. It might go something like this:

Jesus, you were a carpenter. That was only a part-time job. It meant you were not even a land-owner. Your honor status was below that of the farmers. Yet, when you went home and began teaching in the synagogue, you intentionally stepped out of that inherited social place. You put yourself into another, significantly higher. And when you did that, it diminished all of the others' status, because honor was a finite commodity. How could they not have been threatened by you? You must have expected them to question what you were doing, and to try to reduce you down to the honor status of your family. So, why did you do it? I mean, why did you go there?

And then, you sent your twelve most trusted followers out in pairs. They hardly knew you, let alone understood what you were about. But, you commissioned them. I can't believe it. You commissioned them to do the same things you were doing: proclaim repentance, urging people to turn their lives to God; to cast out evil spirits, bringing wholeness of mind; and to anoint and heal illness, all of which would restore people to their places in community. You gave these nondescript people your work to do. Did you know what you were doing? I mean, they were hardly trained. They were a mixed group of misfits who did not even trust each other. Later they would all abandon you in your desperate need. One would betray you. Their leader would deny you. And then still later, they'd argue and have divisions and trouble agreeing on much of anything about you. Did you know that? How could you just send them out, mere fallible human beings, out there in hostile territory, to do your precious ministry?

In the northwest, particularly, we live in a post-denominational age. Most people in do not care about denominations, even church members. When people select congregations, mostly it is on the basis of personal needs, not denomination. A majority of northwesterners claim no religious affiliation, but also say that they are spiritual. That is, whatever their spiritual connections, they are not institutional. Their experience, either first or second hand, is that the religious institution is a hindrance, not a help, to their spiritual lives.

Last month, I served as one of 534 elected commissioners to the 217th General Assembly of our denomination, meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. There were also 173 Youth Advisory Delegates, young adults 17-23; 25 theological student advisors, 15 ecumenical visitors, and General Assembly staff. In addition, at any given time, there were up to 2,000 visitors. Depending on how one saw the Assembly, or what moment one observed, one could feel immensely grateful spiritually, or nearly cursed by this institution I deeply love. The biennial Assembly is an eight day marathon. Work often began with a 7 a.m. breakfast, and continued until 10 or 10:30 in the evening. Our last evening stretched until 12:30 a.m.

Prior to going, commissioners became graphically aware of the most controversial business items. I received over 70 pieces of mail, including whole books, CD's, study guides, letters from sessions, special interest groups, clergy and laity, printed and hand written, all encouraging me to vote particular ways on particular issues. Three were refreshing. Each said they were not writing about any political stance, but rather to thank me for serving, and to let me know that they would hold me and others in prayer. What I can tell you is that there were no letters concerning poverty, either in this nation or abroad; none about Iraq, the Sudan, the Congo, federal taxation policy, evangelism, economic justice, health care for the uninsured, new church development, prostitution slavery around the world, Colombia.... You get the idea.

Probably the most controversial issue surrounded the report of the Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity. This is a really churchy thing. In 2001, the General Assembly appointed an extremely theologically diverse group of elders and clergy to lead the Presbyterian Church in a time of discernment about our Christian identity in and for the 21st century. That is, given our deep divisions on key beliefs, can we Presbyterians discern ways to live together faithfully, or do we need to go separate ways? That is not quite what was written, but that was the idea. For a number of years, congregations and clergy have threatened to pull out because of particular denominational beliefs and/or practices. This group was specifically asked to address issues of what we believe about Jesus, biblical authority and interpretation, and ordination standards and power. That is church talk for who is Jesus, how do we use the Bible, and how do we decide who can be our leaders-all ongoing divisive issues. Some suspected that the Task Force would have a very short life, given its profound differences. I believe that the Task Force itself was this Assembly's gift to the church. During four years, its members told their faith stories, learned from professors of Bible and theology and church history, worshiped and prayed together, presented papers to each other, and shared life together. Moreover, they learned and practiced a different way of decision making-discernment and consensus building, not voting. What occurred can only be ascribed to the Holy Spirit. They produced a theological statement. It concludes:

Peace, unity, and purity are gifts of the Spirit to the church. They are also hard won virtues for any church....Presbyterians have regularly and sometimes vehemently disagreed about fundamental features of our confession, order, and discipline. How we deal with one another in controversy-especially how we accept judgment and reconciliation won for us in Christ-is a challenge to our discipleship, a test of our faith, and our most convincing witness to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim. (Lines 920-926)

The report concludes with seven recommendations. The miracle here: The Task Force unanimously approved both the theological statement and the recommendations. One recommendation in particular, the fifth, stirred the greatest controversy. Its focus is on how the church-congregations and presbyteries in particular-choose who to ordain as elders, deacons, and ministers. Dominating the discussion was not what a particular person might believe about Jesus Christ, the trinity, the Bible, the sacraments, or even God. Rather, the concern most passionately and repeatedly discussed was whether or not this recommendation might make it easier for congregations and presbyteries to ordain persons of homosexual orientation. After uncounted hours of committee deliberation, testimony, discussion, and prayer, the committee responsible to present a recommendation to the General Assembly voted to recommend approval of the Peace, Unity, and Purity Report. A minority report was also presented, a Presbyterian thing to do. The Assembly heard lengthy rational and deeply impassioned voices. Finally, we approved the statement and recommendations, 298-221. Hear the sound of division. Later in the day, a pastor stood at a microphone to invite all who were "grieved" by the passage of the Peace, Unity and Purity report to meet in the plaza during the dinner break for discussion and prayer. I heard deep pain and I felt profound sadness. I also know wonderfully gifted gays and lesbians, some of whom are dear friends, who felt beat up at this Assembly, because of discussion around recommendation 5 and other issues we considered. Friends, judgmentalism, either from the left or right, has no place in the church of Jesus Christ which we call Presbyterian. I believe that we are called to live into the incredible gift of grace, most particularly in our differences. Each of us is precious in the sight of our God, and we are called to treat each other accordingly. A final observation about this report: like much at the Assembly, we commissioners reflected this nation and its mood: tentativeness, caution, heaviness, division, and fear. Like our nation, there was little optimism, little joy. We should not be surprised. This is where we do life and faith. I hope this fall that we can spend adult ed time on this amazing report, talking and listening to each other.

One evening, we received the report of our Katrina and Rita relief work along the Gulf Coast. Through much of it, I was in tears. The Rev. Ted Roeling, from South Louisiana Presbytery and Dr. George Bates, from the Presbytery of Mississippi, reflected on recovery efforts in their region. Our denomination's response: we are becoming known as people who provide hospitality to work teams after disaster. We have established portable villages to house and feed volunteers. For those of us who have not been there, the disaster is beyond imagination. More than 250,000 houses in New Orleans alone suffered very significant to catastrophic damage. 35 of 68 churches in South Louisiana Presbytery are significantly damaged. The human anxiety level is off the chart. To date, more than 20,000 volunteers in 1,340 work teams from 40 states and Mexico and Canada have come to do Christ's work there. Through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, part of the One Great Hour of Sharing, Presbyterians have contributed more than $23 million. Story after story moved us. Five days after Katrina, a small adult work team from Florida arrived, with chain saws. Its bouncy youth pastor gave them a morning pep talk: "What we will do will only be a drop in the bucket, but it's OUR drop." Bates added: "We have witnessed God's people each adding their drop in the bucket, and the bucket is not yet full, but soon it will overflow."

Bates also told about Josh, a young man who led a recovery team from a community college. They lived in one of our villages. They stressed in their planning that they were a secular group. Josh told the person coordinating their work team that "he didn't do the God thing." Bates continued: during the week, the college group ate with other volunteers, and then excused themselves when they moved to worship or singing. Then Bates commented: "Well, he may not have done the God thing, but what he didn't know was God was doing the Josh thing. By the end of the week, Josh's life had been changed forever. He was overtaken by the God thing."

Bates concluded: "This has been our finest hour since [our] reunion [with the northern church in 1983]. And I thank God for the connectional church. This is the most tangible example of the peace, unity and purity of the church that we have ever witnessed. Hurricane Katrina was not an act of God. The act of God is what we are doing now." Friends in Christ, our denomination is committed to Katrina relief for seven years, seven. I hope in the next year that at least one adult group from here will extend Christ's love in this relief effort.

Remember where I began, that conversation with Jesus about the wisdom of charging amazing and fallible human beings with his own work? Friends, Jesus chooses us in our day. Jesus entrusts to us the most precious of gifts-to do God's work, to be God's people. Jesus commands us into his very own ministry. Yes, at times it is immensely messy. At times it seems very good. Sometimes, messy and good occur together. Even in the messiness, may we know the goodness of God in our Lord Jesus Christ. And, may we be empowered to live accordingly. Amen.