God Includes the Outsiders

Remarks to the Covenant Network Luncheon
211th G.A. — Fort Worth
21 June 1999

by John M. Buchanan
Co-Moderator, Covenant Network of Presbyterians
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago

 Excerpts from these remarks appear in Covenant Connections Vol. 2, #3.

In the past 12 months, this Covenant Network of Presbyterians has come of age. We are still very new — we came into being just two years ago. We have held two national conferences and this is our second G.A. luncheon.

We’re still new; but it is very clear that the Presbyterian Church (USA) needs the voice and witness and faith and love of this organization.

And another thing is clear to me — namely that thousands and thousands of Presbyterians look to the Covenant Network to articulate and present a theology of the church that is different and more expansive and more grace-filled and more inclusive than the ecclesiology represented by G-6.0106b.

Can two ecclesiologies live together in the same church? Of course they can — they always have. Until 1997, it never occurred to many if not most Presbyterians that whether or not you believed gay and lesbian persons could be ordained was a litmus test upon which to test your Presbyterianism, if not your acceptance of the authority of Scripture and the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

But in two years that is where we have come — if you read what I read and hear the lectures and speeches I hear: if you do not agree with G-6.0106b, if your trust in God’s word and your reliance on the grace of Jesus Christ for your salvation will not allow you to affirm — or “obey” it (and by the way, when did “obedience” to a constitution — when did obedience to anything or anyone but Jesus Christ become orthodox Presbyterianism? I don’t think John Calvin or John Knox would have had anything to do with it. But I digress), if your personal faith convictions about Scripture, Jesus Christ, and the church will not allow you to affirm or live for long with the prohibitions regarding ordination contained in G-6.0106b — the space for you in the church is getting smaller by the day.

Well, the Covenant Network exists because there are many of us who cannot, as they say, go there. And, I believe, there are many — I think, the vast majority of Presbyterians — who, while they may not personally approve of the ordination of gay and lesbian persons, nevertheless do not want their church to be focused on, sometimes obsessed with, organized around that prohibition. And they certainly do not want it to be split or to be deeply divided.

In the past twelve months, the leadership of the Covenant Network has made several important strategic decisions:

  • To stay in business — essentially because you have told us, as have many across the church, that the Covenant Network of Presbyterians represents hope and keeps before the whole church an important vision of what the Presbyterian Church(USA) can be;
  • To articulate a traditional, progressive, engaged vision through publications, our newsletter, and conferences;
  • To organize local Covenant Networks for prayer, study, witness, and support;
  • To offer legal help to officers and governing bodies challenged under the provisions of G-6.0106b; and
  • To become more politically active within the governing bodies of the church.

One of the great ironies is the accusation that the Covenant Network is preparing to “take over” the Presbyterian Church — this coming from a group that has been trying to do just that since 1993, with a much more substantial financial basis and with a “declaration” which says that its purpose is, in fact, to transform the church into its own image. We don’t have as much money, or as much staff — nor do we have a newspaper with a distribution list in excess of 500,000 to promote our agenda. Compared to all that, we’re amateurs.

But we’re committed to be a more active witness in the decision-making bodies of our church, and to respond to overtures and initiatives which propose to transform our beloved church into the image the Executive Committee of the Presbyterian Coalition has adopted.

Many of you have asked Bob and me and others why the Covenant Network Executive and Steering Committee recommended no action on the three overtures before this assembly having to do with ordination, overtures which essentially seem to be promoting our agenda. We believe what our church needs is intentional conversation now, debate and study on this and related issues, not divisive, unthinking debate leading to votes. We believe the value of the sabbatical is not in retreating from deeply held positions but in the opportunity a sabbatical creates for research, study, and dialogue.

Please hear me: we are deeply committed to a vision of our church that is broad, engaged in the world, a reflection of the radical, incarnational inclusivity of Jesus Christ. And we continue ro believe that means the removal of G-6.0106b. But we do not believe the church is ready to spend another year voting on it this year.

We decided to hold another conference after the wonderful Covenant Conference in Denver last November. This year’s Covenant Conference will be at Central Church in Atlanta. It’s on the crucial topic of Jesus Christ and the Church, and we’re very pleased that Professor Douglas John Hall and President Barbara Wheeler of Auburn Seminary will be our keynoters.

And we decided it was time to elect new leaders. The Rev. Laird Stuart, Pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, and the Rev. Deborah Block, Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Milwaukee, will become Co-Moderators at the conference in November.

Bob and I are still going to be very actively involved — we’re not going anywhere!

I’ve been a Presbyterian all my life. My relatives came to Pennsylvania from Glasgow by way of Belfast before the American Revolution. They made their way westward through the Alleghenies and established some of the first Presbyterian churches in the mountains. They are buried in old churchyards beside those churches.

The Presbyterian Church baptized me, confirmed, taught, and nurtured me, put up with my adolescent nonsense, gave me role models, mentors, and friends — and pastors who in their own faithful and lively witness showed me how precious and vigorous and lively this church of ours can be. And the church ordained me and gave me the great gift and privilege of ministry in its congregations and presbyteries and synods and General Assembly.

And along the way, this church taught me about the mystery and magnificence of God’s lively word, and how that word, down through history, has often times come into conflict with the people and the institutions it had inspired.

The Presbyterian Church taught me about John Calvin and the important movement that began in Geneva.

It taught me to value the life of the mind. It encouraged me to think and question and probe and doubt.

It taught me, in those interesting days of the ’60s, that it is the mission of the church and the mind of Christ for us to be in the world, incarnationally, deeply involved in the life of the nation — in the name of Jesus Christ.

And it taught me always to ask about who is being left out. It kept reminding me that Jesus was amazingly — disturbingly — sometimes frighteningly inclusive in his life and ministry.

And because of all that, I am grateful to the Covenant Network, which for many of us is the steward and protector of the Presbyterianism that nurtured us and called us to ministry. 

You know the lectionary readings yesterday included the strong story of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 21, and the words of Jesus in Matthew 10 about the sparrow and not one falling to the ground apart from God’s knowledge and love.

The only time I ever preached on Hagar and Ishmael, I got in trouble.

It was in one of those venerable, big southern Presbyterian churches, where on the wall of portraits of past elders and ministers you see a few staring out at you in Confederate Army uniforms. I was asked to preach on Hagar and Ishmael for the installation of a friend of mine, and I did.

Now we Yankees are susceptible to and somewhat vulnerable to genuine southern charm and graciousness. After all, in Chicago I’m not often told how wonderful I am and how lovely it is that I came today and how utterly fascinating my description of a trip to the grocery store was. So I was greeting the people after preaching about Hagar and Ishmael, and really enjoying being told how wonderful I was and how lovely it was that I was there and wouldn’t I be sure to come back. And I noticed a woman waiting to see me. At the end of the line, she took my hand in both of hers and smiled sweetly and said with all the charm and grace of 200 years of her culture, “Mr. Buchanan, it was lovely of you to come all the way down here from Chicago to be with us today. I just wanted you to know that I just hated your sermon.” And she gave my hand a special squeeze and smiled and walked away.

Well, I think what she didn’t like, and what I don’t like, about the story of Hagar and Ishmael is the way it confronts and judges the exclusiveness of otherwise good and faithful people, and its reminder that while we are busily excluding this one or that one for what we are convinced are important, even theologically orthodox, reasons, God is not.

Hagar and Ishmael are ultimate outsiders. The big story is about Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Rachel, about a chosen people. Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave, who is assigned the duty of bearing Abraham’s baby, and does it — is in the way now, after Sarah bears Isaac. Ishmael, Hagar’s baby, is in the way — expendable, disposable — which is what Abraham and Sarah try to do to them — push them out into the desert.

The water runs out. The baby is dying. Hagar can’t stand to watch. She cries; the baby cries. God hears the cries of the baby, God saves them both, God gives them a future. What a story!

Do you get it? It’s almost as if God is arguing with God’s own self. It’s almost as if the Bible is having an internal debate. It is the Bible reminding us from the very beginning that God does not forget the ones being pushed out of the big story itself. From the very beginning, God is passionately committed to the very ones the laws and traditions and customs and theologies and ecclesiologies of the people of God are excluding.

It is, obviously, one of the major themes of our Lord’s life.

You simply cannot read scripture and avoid the radical inclusivity of God’s love. You cannot claim the tradition without claiming the part of it that judges the tradition’s own exclusivity. You cannot claim the name of Jesus and ignore his embrace of those his own religion marginalized.

We tried to do that for centuries on the basis of race. We held out as long as we could on gender and even marital status. And we’re at it again — this time on the basis of sexual orientation.

It is in light of scripture — not in spite of scripture — that we are here. It is not a matter of political correctness. It has nothing to do with accommodating the amorality and relativism of post-modern culture. It has everything in the world to do with the God who surprises everybody by transcending the customs and boundaries and orthodoxies and orthopraxies of the religion that claims God’s name and reaches out to include the outsider, the God who — right in the midst of the big story — hears the cries of the abandoned child.

Friends, that’s good news. And when that love and amazing grace get to work in an institution, when God’s inclusive love is working in a community of faith, lives start changing: life starts to overcome death, rebirth starts to happen, people start to live again and laugh and love, thirst is quenched, life renewed.

And that is why we are here today. And that is why we’re not going anywhere but into the future, with hope and confidence.

And that is why the mission of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians is a source of life and hope for the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Thank you.

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