What Sign Shall We Wear?

What Sign Shall We Wear?

Joanna M. Adams
Pastor, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Atlanta 

Remarks to the Covenant Network Luncheon
June 11, 2001
213th General Assembly, Louisville, Kentucky

It is an honor to be here among such a great company of friends.

I imagine that almost all of you have gone through my home town on your way to somewhere else. They say that you won’t even be able to get to heaven without going through Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport. Perhaps, during your travels through Atlanta, you encountered an elderly man on Concourse A. He stood there, straight and silent, seven days a week, at least four hours a day, for almost twenty years. He always wore a hat, and he always had a sign hanging around his neck by a string.

Mr. Davis died several weeks ago, and his obituary was in the Atlanta Constitution. It was there that I learned that when he wasn’t standing by the train track on Concourse A, he was at home putting religious tracts in ketchup bottles and sealing the bottles with wax so that he could put them into the Chattahoochee River, in case someone might come along and find a ketchup bottle filled with a good word from the Lord.

The messages on his signs were not always so encouraging. The message he usually wore consisted of a stark three-syllable imperative: “Turn or Burn.”

Reading the obituary got me to thinking about the choices that are before our Presbyterian family. With all due respect to Mr. Davis, I have been hoping that something other than a “Turn or Burn” mentality will prevail at the 213th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. These are challenging days for our denomination. Some are saying that the “Fidelity and Chastity Amendment” must stay in the Constitution, or else. Some are advocating loyalty oaths for denominational leaders and are calling for the Church to repent of alleged apostasy. In many quarters, the issuing of ultimatums has become the order of the day: Turn or Burn.

I remember a story about a visiting preacher who got up in a pulpit somewhere in the southeastern United States and began to deliver a fire-and-brimstone sermon to the congregation that had invited him to preach. The more he preached, the more worked up he got. At one point he said, “I’ll tell you: Every single member of this congregation who refuses to repent will burn in hell for all eternity!”

Just about everybody began to pay attention, with the exception of one fellow sitting in the third pew, who yawned and appeared to be completely uninterested. The preacher shouted: “You — in the third row! Didn’t you hear what I said?”

He answered, “Yeah, I heard you. I’m just not a member of this church.”

We are members of this church, and we have gathered in Louisville to discern the will of God in our distinctive Presbyterian fashion. I missed George Will’s speech the other night. I understand there was an even better party going on while Mr. Will was speaking [the Covenant Network Commissioner Convocation Dinner]. Mr. Will, an extreme baseball fan, once said that football combines two of the worst characteristics of American culture: violence and committee meetings. We are hopeful that while we have many committee meetings ahead of us, there will be no spirit of violence, no spirit of hatred or animosity, no spirit of polar opposites and dismissing of the other, whoever the other is. Whether the other is the person with whom we disagree deeply on matters of inclusion or not, we always remember that every person is a child of God.

I remember when Bishop Tutu spoke in Atlanta at the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church not long after we had had a terrible tragedy in our city. A number of people had been shot by a man who had gone berserk at a day-trading firm. After Bishop Tutu’s speech, someone asked him, “What in the world are we going to do about the NRA?”

Bishop Tutu was silent for a minute. He looked up to heaven. Then he looked back down and said, “The first thing we’re going to do is to remember that every single member of the National Rifle Association is a child of God.” That’s where we begin, and then we go on from there to advocate for what we need to advocate for.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to be able to be with you here in Louisville. I’m very grateful for the privilege of being a part of the Covenant Network, the most splendid array of Presbyterians I’ve ever known, dedicated to preserving the unity of the Church and to the full inclusion of those who are called into community and into leadership. The Covenant Network, sisters and brothers, is unalterably opposed to categorical exclusion. The Covenant Network is unalterably in favor of the unity that is our gift as members of the Body of Christ.

Let me identify what are to my mind several of the core convictions of the Covenant Network. I am going to assume they are the core convictions out of which you operate, wherever you are, serving Christ and his Church. The first conviction is the ground of all the rest, and that is that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all. His ministry and life give shape and content to all that we say and do. Because of his hospitality, we welcome all whom God calls in Christ’s name. I do not know when, in the providence of God, other Presbyterian friends are going to come to this realization; but I do believe with all my heart that the future belongs to the church that lives out of a vision of inclusion and justice and grace and mercy.

We’ve been working at this a long time now. Sometimes, for encouragement, I return to the words of my friend and colleague Eugene Bay, who, when the Amendment B struggle began, preached a sermon at the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania, in which he said:

One hundred and thirty-two years after the Emancipation Proclamation, one hundred and thirty years following the Civil War, and twenty-seven years after the death of Martin Luther King, the Southern Baptist Convention has finally gotten around to apologizing for slavery. Only recently did the Roman Catholic Church apologize to Galileo. I understand that old prejudices die hard, and that it takes time to assimilate new understandings and to let go of old fears. I do not dismiss those who counsel patience, but I do not have a hundred years. I have four grandchildren who I hope will grow up to be Presbyterians, and I do not wish, when they are grown, that they will have to apologize for what their grandfather did not do. I’m the one who has to look at myself in the mirror when I shave every morning. I’m the one who has to represent Christ when, as happened this week, I met a lifelong Presbyterian, who with tears in his eyes, tells me he has two gay sons and wonders why he should stay a Presbyterian.

For many, myself included, that question has been a personal crucible. Al and I have two fabulous grown children, of whom we are very proud. Both are honorable, creative, ethical human beings with wonderful gifts to offer to the Church and to the world. One is straight, one is gay. Both are leaders: One can be a leader in the Church; the other is, according to our Constitution, not allowed to do such a thing.

Al and I have remained in the Presbyterian Church because we are convinced, that one day soon, the mind of the Church, through the grace of God, will become more faithfully aligned with the mind of Christ. We have stayed because we simply cannot get out of our heads the stories that he and I learned in Sunday school, stories like the one about the shepherd who, when he gathered his sheep together to lead them home, realized that one of his lambs was missing and right away went to search for the one who was lost.

We believe that, any time the one who is “the other,” however “otherness” is defined, is made to feel less worthy, the very heart of God is broken. Only God will reveal when the kairos moment will come for the changing of the Presbyterian Constitution; but I’m convinced that the change is coming, that it ought to come sooner rather than later, and that in the not too distant future, people who follow Christ will deeply regret the fact that the Church they love has had discrimination and exclusion as a matter of policy.

Our congregation in Atlanta has wrestled with these matters, and I’m proud to say that we are one of the strong southern churches that has been a part of the Network since its founding.

This spring at Trinity, as I have preached from the Book of Acts, I have been struck again and again by the Holy Spirit’s power to shake the early church out of its assumptions about the parameters of God’s grace.

I think of Ananias, the disciple of Christ who was minding his own business and then had a vision that he was supposed to go pay a visit to a man named Saul, persecutor of the Christians. Ananias argued with God: “I’m not going to go.”

But the Lord said to Ananias, “He needs you, and I need him.” It is clear Ananias’ conversion has really taken when he lays his hands on Saul and calls him “brother.” The enemy, the alien, he now understands, is a part of God’s family.

That’s the kind of conversion that we need to be praying for. “Turn or burn,” Mr. Davis said, and we react negatively; but we do believe in conversion, don’t we? I hope we believe that in the twenty-first century, as well as in the first century, God is still about the business of transforming minds and hearts into the mind and heart of Christ. New insights are possible about the true nature of brotherhood and sisterhood. Surprising changes come to pass through the power of the Spirit of the Living God.

Last fall, at Columbia Seminary, I participated in a seminar with Douglas John Hall, who expresses so well the ground of our hope:

God, graciously and apart from all deserving, offers us a future that our own past does not warrant. God’s future breaks, continuously, the dread patterns of cause and effect in which, both personally and corporately we languish. The hope that is God’s gift to faith is therefore precisely hope, not sight, not inevitability. It must be grasped and implemented by all who glimpse possibilities for what is new.

Mr. Davis didn’t have it all wrong. Sooner or later, we must turn: turn from self-righteousness to humility, turn from living behind the fences that are built by human habit and move into the future that the barrier-breaking spirit of God is creating.

Four years ago, when our Session wrestled with the matters that will be before our General Assembly in the next few days, we had a debate that lasted several hours. At the end of the debate, an elder in our church and a prominent leader in our city came up to me and said, “Do you know what I just remembered? I remembered the first Bible verse I ever learned: ‘Be ye kind one to another.'” The Presbyterian Church could do a lot worse this week than to remember our Lord’s profound admonition.

I’ve been meeting in recent months, as many of you have, with friends on the other side of some of these issues. I do not know a single person who is not fighting a tough battle. I really do hope we can be kind to those whose point of view is different from ours, kind to those who are excluded, and kind to those whose deep convictions are antithetical to our own. We need to do the right thing and to be energetic in our advocacy for what we believe and what we believe God is leading the Church to do. But we want to take care here in Louisville not to allow what we believe about God’s will to become our God. It was Paul Ricoeur who defined original sin as “thinking that we are God.”

All of us are prone to error, and that we know anything on this side of the dark glass is through God’s grace. I celebrate with you the election of Jack Rogers as our Moderator. I came to know Jack on the Brief Statement of Faith Committee, to which he made such a fine contribution. I recall that the most controversial line in the Brief Statement of Faith was the line that drove Presbyterians crazy when we sent different drafts of the Confession out to the larger church: “We deserve God’s condemnation.”

I remember two of the suggestions that were sent in: “Some people deserve God’s condemnation.” My personal favorite was: “We deserve to be evaluated by God.”

The afternoon is hastening on, and as I close, I want to lift up two words that, were I to experience the call to go stand in Concourse A beside the train track at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport, I would print on the sign that hung by a string around my neck.

The first word I would write on that sign would be the word “Peace.” “Christ is our peace, who hath made us both one and broken down the middle wall of partition between us.” I deliberately chose to share that verse out of the King James Version of the Bible with you in honor of my grandmother. She was born in South Georgia in the year 1867. The work of peacemaking and barrier-breaking has been going on for a long time in my part of the country.

The first word would be the word “Peace.” This is our calling — to bear witness to the peace that is ours in Jesus Christ. If you haven’t read David McCullough’s new biography of John Adams, you ought to. John Adams, the great peacemaker at the beginning of our Republic, once wrote to a friend: “I desire no other inscription over my gravestone than this: ‘Here lies John Adams, who took upon himself the responsibility of peace.'”

And the second word that I would put on my sign is the word “Perseverance.” “Not that I have achieved the goal,” Paul wrote, “but I press on to make it my own; forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the prize of the high calling of Christ Jesus.” It’s not time, not nearly time, to give up; instead, it is time to persevere.

Some years ago, a member of my church gave me a wonderful book written by a woman named Sue Hubbell, an ex-librarian, beekeeper, and self-taught naturalist who lived in the Missouri Ozarks. Her beehive consisted of 18 million bees. She got around the mountain roads by means of a red Chevy truck, a 1954 half-ton pickup without many of the parts normally considered necessary for the running of a truck. She gave her truck a name. She named it “Press On Regardless.” She writes: “That pickup and I have been over some pretty rough spots, through mud and through hard times, but we press on regardless because we have places to go.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we have places to go. Let us press on regardless for justice and inclusion. Let the Covenant Network be known for the list of the things we’re for, rather than the things that we are against. Let us bear witness to the bridge-building power of God through Jesus Christ. Let us not put another single brick in the wall of hostility.

May the grace and peace of Christ fill our hearts, and direct the actions of the 213th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Amen.

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