Is Anything Too Wonderful for Our God?

Is Anything Too Wonderful for Our God?

Address to the Covenant Network General Assembly Luncheon
214th General Assembly, Columbus, OH
17 June 2002 

Jon M. Walton
Pastor, First Presbyterian Church in the City of New York

I am honored to be with you today, to be the speaker at this luncheon, and to try to focus our thoughts for just a few moments on where we are as a church, and where God is calling us to go.

It seems especially important that we are together this year when so much has happened since we last met. When Joanna Adams stood before you as the speaker at last year’s General Assembly luncheon, it hardly seemed possible that Amendment 01-A had all that great a chance of coming out of committee unaltered. But the Spirit blew where it willed, Amendment A was approved by the Assembly, and was sent to the presbyteries.

Now, a number of things happened on the way to ratification and one of them occurred in the midst of September, on the 11th of the month, to be exact, and the energies and passion and focus of the church and of the nation were called to another pressing concern, a concern for war and peace in the Middle East, and safety at home.

I don’t know much how this is felt in the rest of the nation, but I know that in New York we look at the cafés of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and wonder what June or July evening we might likewise be sitting at a sidewalk cafe at the end of a meal, sipping coffee, or step into a subway on the way uptown after a night at the theater, and find our world changed once again by the pressing of a trigger or the releasing of a gas.

The world has changed dramatically since we last gathered in Louisville, but the Book of Order has not. G-6.0106b is still in place, and the soul and the spirit of the church suffer because of it.

Whatever hopes any of us had for the passing of Amendment A intact, they were quickly discouraged by the quick scheduling of the vote on “A” in the most certainly disapproving presbyteries. That was a formative action and one which built momentum, as more and more presbyteries, in a national season of hearth-gathering and home-tending, feared making changes in the church such as those of Amendment A. It hardly seemed navigable to wade into the murky waters of a post G-6.0106b church, when the very future of the nation was unclear. Too much unknown all at once.

More simply said, it was not time for this offensive portion of the Book of Order to be removed. It’s as simple as that. It was not yet God’s time to remove G-6.0106b. That God will do that, is certain, as certain as the establishment of the everlasting reign of God on earth; but that this past year was not yet God’s time, is equally certain.

In a movement that has been counting its progress by the narrowness of its defeats, this has been a discouraging year for those of us who wait with eager longing for the coming of a better day.

In recent months our brothers and sisters on the right have said that the season of legislation is over, “Let the season of litigation begin.” And so Paul Rolf Jensen has filed allegations against seventeen persons around the country, most if not all of whom, he does not know, and all of whom he has alleged are guilty of charges that in Presbyterian polity are equal to criminal offenses. I am thankful that the session of the church he last attended, St. Andrews, and its pastor John Huffman, have declared formally as recently as last month that Mr. Jensen does not speak the mind of the Session at St. Andrews or of its congregation.

But by Mr. Jensen’s hand, the season of litigation has started nonetheless. And pity the church for the sadness of it.

It has come to this! Whatever happened to Paul’s direction to the Colossians?

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you [And] above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3: 12-14).

God help us if we are beyond that! I pray that we are not.

One of the things I keep hearing is that we are all tired of this constant wrangling, year after year, sending controversial overtures to the Assembly, and Amendments to the presbyteries dealing with ordination. The expressions of tiredness come out in a number of ways. One expression of it is that we should declare a period of moratorium on things having to do with sex and ordination in the Presbyterian Church (as if those two ever went together, sex and ordination!)

Another expression of tiredness is the suggestion that we refer all ordination matters to the Task Force on the Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church, delaying any further discussion of these matters until 2005. As if the Task Force did not have enough to do in trying to restore the peace, unity, and purity of the church!

Another expression of our tiredness comes from those on both sides of the issue of G-6.0106b who say, “Why doesn’t the other side just leave?”

It grieves me when the people with whom I disagree say, “Your side lost. So either get with the program or suffer the consequences. Obey the constitution or get out, or worse yet, get sued.”

It also grieves me when I hear people with whom I agree on the ordination issue say, “Why don’t those other folks just leave?”

It grieves me to think about anybody leaving, about anybody winning or losing, about either side taking their marbles and going home, and giving up on the other side. If we give up on each other, what kind of witness does that offer the larger body of Christ? Even those life-long rivals Isaac and Ishmael were reconciled as brothers when the day came to bury Abraham their father (Genesis 25:9).

Our enmity with our brothers and sisters on the other side of G-6.0106b is unseemly. And the root of bitterness that we both are planting and tending and watering and nurturing ever so passionately and carefully, will yield nothing but fruits of bitterness.

The writer of the book of Hebrews warned us against such. “Pursue peace with everyone,” he wrote, “and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

I am not here to lay blame, nor to say that if we all just act with compassion and kindness toward one another everything will be all right in time. But one thing is for sure: if we are not compassionate and kind to one another, if we do not, as Paul advised, “bear with one another and forgive each other,” then what kind of gospel is it that we are holding up to the world?

Part of our problem is that we want to do everything immediately, in our time, on our schedule, in our way. As if our time was God’s time, our schedule God’s schedule, our way, God’s way. Isaiah knew better: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isaiah 55:8).

There is no question that this is a wearying process of discernment and of seeking clarity, of working for the perceived right. And it calls for tireless effort, great expense, and boundless commitment to doing what we believe should be done, to remove G-6.0106b from the Book of Order, to remove a poorly stated, inexact, and litigiously divisive section of our constitution, not to mention an unjust and ungracious requirement that cannot bear the weight of the grace and mercy of the gospel.

It takes its toll on us, this wrangling, and I have seen, as you have, over these past five years since G-6.0106b became the law of the church what a terrible price we have paid:

  • We have kept from ordination many qualified and faithful people who have been called to serve the Lord but who cannot do so in an ordained capacity in a church which rejects them.
  • We have driven from the ministry and from leadership in congregations good and faithful leaders who want nothing more than to be faithful.
  • We have become intolerant of one another, dividing Christ’s church into those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree, as if it were our Church and not Christ’s.
  • We have indulged in the arrogance of believing that it is all right that there is enmity with our brothers and sisters.
  • We have disillusioned a whole generation of young people in the church who cannot understand how we can be the church and treat each other so badly, how we can preach the gospel but not live up to it. Surely one of the reasons church membership is declining is that no one wants to become a part of a family with this much dysfunction.

We have reduced the polity of the church to an endgame of judicial cannibalism that pits presbyteries against their own churches, and sessions against their own congregants in matters of conscience and non-essential theological disagreements.

By our constant obsession with sins sexual, we have become so focused on the sins of the bedroom that we have made of no import the grievous sins that threaten all of us who are ordained: pride, selfishness, envy, work without Sabbath, and our idolatry of Mammon, not to mention Biblical sloppiness, and theological bickering which puts ourselves at the center of our faith and not God, as we fight our brothers and sisters in Christ whom we have gotten used to calling our enemies, God help us.

Meanwhile, according to Bread for the World, six million children die each year, mostly from hunger-related causes. Twelve million children in this country alone have to skip a meal or eat less in order to make ends meet.

The continent of Africa today is lost in a pandemic of AIDS. It is the largest single cause of death in sub-Saharan Africa, and 40,000,000 people world wide are infected with the virus while most of us are just worried about our cholesterol.

Every day as I walk down Fifth Avenue to my church office, I pass homeless young adults hanging out on store stoops, toking a joint, and looking through hopeless, fearful eyes at a world on fire around them.

I wonder if God is not more concerned about some of those issues, and our complicity in doing too little as Christ’s people about them. How can we so easily lose sight of the larger indictable sins of our time before the Great Court of Heaven? “I was hungry and you gave me food,” Jesus said. “I was sick and you visited me.”

While the world suffers, we Presbyterians are taking each other to court over the question of who people hold onto through the night. Maybe we should give greater weight in ordination examinations to the matter of who our candidates for ordination hold up in their prayers, and what they have done to hold in check their complicity in this suffering world, and what for the sake of the gospel they will do to hold out salvation and the good news of the gospel to others with all its healing power.

A few months ago, Mark Achtemeier speaking to, of all people, the Confessing Churches gathering in Atlanta, said that it is sinful that in a world of such enormous human suffering, “we Presbyterians fill our driveways with luxury cars and our houses with expensive gadgets.” He went on to say that he has two cars in his driveway, and that he has no intention of giving up the second car, even when he knows that Jesus taught that “whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

Then Mark Achtemeier asked, “If genuine repentance seems so terribly out of reach in the face of my attachment to a second car, where would I be if I were a gay person, and the demand were to go home and let go, not of an inanimate piece of machinery, but of the intimacy that bound me to a beloved partner with whom I had built a life? What would it be like to hear that?” [Mark Achtemeier, “The Holiness of Christ,” 2/26/02]

If conservative Presbyterians like Mark Achtemeier are asking questions like that, then it’s time we liberal Presbyterians were asking some hard questions of ourselves. Questions about our purpose and our prayers, our Biblical rootedness, our theological integrity, and our willingness to live in peace with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

There is a great deal of complaining in the church that because we cannot successfully resolve the ordination issue once and for all, we cannot get on with the so-called real business of the church.

But I want to suggest to you that resolving this issue may in fact be precisely the business that God has given us to do, which is why it will not go away. In fact, if we cannot solve this with God’s help, then what do we think God will help us solve? This ordination issue is not on our plate by accident, nor is it an interruption from our other work.

Henri Nouwen, the late Dutch priest of the Roman Church who taught us so much about spirituality and vocation, once wrote, “My whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work.”

Nouwen goes on,

What if our interruptions are in fact our opportunities, if they are challenges to an inner response by which growth takes place and through which we come to the fullness of being? What if the events of our history are molding us as a sculptor molds his clay, and if it is only in a careful obedience to these molding hands that we can discover our real vocation? (Nouwen, Reaching Out, 1975, pp. 36, 37).

I want to suggest to you that the reason this matter of ordination does not go away, is not because it is an interruption or a distraction. It won’t go away because it is the work God means for us to do. It is precisely the issue God means for us to resolve, for heaven’s sake and for the sake of the gospel.

And what’s more, God has given us each other as the means by which it shall be resolved. Not so that one side can have more votes than another, or one side can out-shout another, or one side can litigate out of the church all those with whom it disagrees. God has put us together on both sides of this issue for some inscrutable reason that only God understands. But my hunch is that God has something in mind that calls the church to a rigorousness of Biblical integrity and a faithfulness to theological depth to which all of us, conservative and liberal alike, aspire if we can hang on to one another. Because we will not achieve it without each other.

I have come to believe that God will not let us off the hook until we settle this in a way that we will all understand and welcome when its resolution comes. It is, don’t you understand, the way to resolving many of the problems before the church in this time.

How, after all, can we presume to address peace in the world if we cannot make peace in the church?

How can we presume to speak to our Muslim and Jewish and Buddhist and other brothers and sisters in the world when we cannot even speak to other Presbyterians?

How can we discuss the claims of our Muslim brothers and sisters regarding the divine inspiration of the Koran when we do not fully comprehend the power and the claim of the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to us?

We are meant to undertake this work in our time, in the same way that previous generations in the church were given by God the task of resolving other troubling theological and Biblical matters: slavery and divorce and the ordination of women in the church.

We cannot do this as a monologue. This is discernment that requires dialogue, and as it stands now, we are in the process of failing God and one another in the task.

In this time in the Church’s life when many in the Presbyterian family are being caught up by three-point confessions, simple slogans and simplistic solutions to complex theological problems, we cannot settle for anything less than the most rigorous of commitment to Biblical discernment and theological inquiry along with what the scriptures describe as the agon of prayer, a word taken from the world of the athlete, meaning to wrestle, to struggle in prayer together.

I wish I had a simple way to suggest that would move the church forward. I wish I could offer the rallying cry that would marshal the forces and raise the banner under which we all could agree that G-6.0106b is not good for the church. I wish I could inspire a better, deeper discussion of how we can be a church in which sexual orientation is not the issue for ordination, but sexual responsibility and accountability regardless of orientation are.

But rallying the Covenant Network is not the most important issue this year. Fending off attack is not the most important issue this year. Looking for hope for our cause is not the most important issue this year.

Discernment of God’s will and our unity in Christ is the issue this year. This is what we are all tending to forget in our frenzy to beat down the other side. What does it profit us to win the whole world, make our point, and lose our soul?

What does it profit us to win the issue eventually and lose the body of Christ? It is especially important for those of us who are being attacked in these days to ask that question of ourselves, even as we ask it of those who attack us.

Some time on the far side of removing G-6.0106b and resolving these issues that divide us, we will need to be able to stand together with our brothers and sisters in Christ, the very brothers and sisters from whom we are estranged now. And what will be the point of having survived the resolution of the differences while having inflicted a mortal, bleeding wound in the body?

One hundred and forty years ago, Abraham Lincoln, in a time of great national trial, wrote that “in the present civil war it is possible that God’s purpose is something different than the purpose of either party.”

As the General Assembly convenes once again, it is an auspicious and divisive time in the life of the church. Many of you are discouraged, many of you are disillusioned, and all of us are weary in this church that cannot seem to settle its differences in peace and unity. Some of you are not sure that you can go on. But maybe God’s purpose is something different than what any of us have yet seen.

At just such a seemingly hopeless time as this God is faithful to come to us, because it is always in God’s time that God comes. It was, after all, to a woman ninety years old, and she as good as dead to whom God came, bearing the word that she would give birth. Sarah was her name, our mother, whose descendants were “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.”

And in another time it was to a woman betrothed, living in a poor village in a backwater town in Galilee, that an angel came and announced a new beginning. Mary was her name, our savior’s mother by whom salvation came to us who were outcasts and Gentiles.

Both women asked a question with awe and wonder at such a hopeful promise, “How can this be?” To which heaven’s answer was, “Is anything too wonderful for our God?”

I take heart in that. I think we all can. In this time of litigation and enmity, when we have not yet seen the better church we are called to be, nor yet the church in which we are at peace with one another, I commend to you the faith that God can see that church. Which is all that really counts. Not what we can see, but what God can see.

And God will lead us to that better church if we are patient enough, work hard enough, listen closely enough, trust enough, pray enough. God will bring about what we have not, a better, stronger and more faithful Presbyterian church of which we all can be thankful we are a part. Because nothing is too wonderful for our God.

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