1999 Covenant Conference
Closing Worship, November 6, 1999
Micah 6:6 – 8; Matthew 23: 1-12
Deborah A. Block
Pastor, Immanuel Presbyterian Church
A child comes home from school, filled with the day, eager to show and tell. Elie Weisel recounts the memory of his mother’s words. She didn’t ask who he had seen, what he had done, what subject he had studied. She asked him, “Did you have a good question today?”
So just in case you have to go home and report to your mother– Did you have a good question today and yesterday? We’ve had lots of good questions. Tough questions. Probing the issues, provoking responses. In parliamentary procedure, calling the question is a move to close debate. In theological process, asking the questions is a move to open the conversation. Open our eyes and ears, hearts and minds.
So we’re talking, sharing, planning, covenanting and networking to do more of same. Where do we go from here, when we go from here? What is our estimated time of arrival? ( Or its Biblical variant, “How long, O Lord?”) What are the possibilities for unity and diversity in our beloved, beleaguered church? How to proceed? What do we do? WWJD? What would Jesus do? WWPD? What will Presbyterians do? Good questions.
What would Jesus do? — besides not abbreviating ethics to bumper sticker slogans and endorsing a full line of name brand products. Fourteen million bracelets sold to date! And now there’s the WWJD? New Testament, “created to be reader-friendly, easy to understand, conveniently sized, and only $9.99.” I’m curious, but not $9.99 curious, about the– as promoted– “special notes that highlight over 100 examples of how Jesus faced the same issues we face today.” Okay. WWJD? Re: G-6.0106b? Translated from the Greek, What would Jesus do about sexual orientation and ordination? What did Jesus do? What is the answer to Jesus’ silence on homosexuality? (Is that a blank page in the WWJD? New Testament?) — How do we practice what Jesus teaches? How do we “do” Jesus’ word and example of gracious and radical inclusiveness?
What will Presbyterians do?
Think it through, talk it over, fight it out, face it down, lift it up in prayer Shall we come with the usual offerings: thousands of programs, ten thousands of rivers of overtures and the fruit of our body for the sin of our soul? Sacrificing human lives on the altar of fear and ignorance. Our own brothers and sisters in Christ given up and given up on for our “wrong-doing” (Micah 6:7b REB, NJB). What Jesus would not do. What we Presbyterians must not do.
We listen to one another, when we’re feeling decent and orderly. Even listen to ourselves, when conscience calls. If we’re listening for mutual understanding, that’s good. If we’re listening for common ground, that’s good. If we’re listening for good questions, that’s good. In all of that, are we listening for what’s God? What are the God questions, the ones God asks of us? Do we have a God question today?
God has told us mortals what is good; and what does God require of us “but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
The wise ones say that these verses from Micah echo an “entrance liturgy.” One Professor Simundson suggests that “a religious official, probably a priest, responds to questions about who may approach the holy space, what one must do to please God and be acceptable. . . . The questions are all related to participation in Israel’s sacrificial cult” (NIB:1996). The acceptable offerings are hyperbolic, over the top. Who could possibly meet these criteria? What could a person do?
Again we incline an ear to the Old Testament Professor at Luther Seminary (perhaps we should be talking not only to “other Presbyterians” but to other Christians): “The answer changes the question. . . . The people’s questions were preoccupied with what they could do to please God” (1996:580). You know how we always say, “There is no such thing as a stupid question”? Well, Micah never said that. Our question of God is not exactly a stupid question. But it is the wrong question. The good question is God’s question of us:
What does God require? You. Your life. A life of faithfulness marked by justice, covenant love, humble and careful walking with God. Familiar words. And — was Micah a Presbyterian? What does the church require of you, but a life demonstrating the gospel: strong faith, dedicated discipleship, love of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. G-6.0106a. A familiar ring and a faithful resonance to an irrepressible prophetic witness. Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. God has a good question for us and some high expectations of us. “Specific expectations [are] placed on God’s covenant partner,” is the way Walter Brueggemann puts it. “In biblical faith, the doing of justice is the primary expectation of God.” The people of God are “here commanded to attend to the very thing which God most values: Justice” (1986:5).
What will Presbyterians do?
Let’s try this for a good answer: Pay attention to this justice thing, the justice question, the justice expectation God has for us. Listen to God’s Word for us in scripture and through the confessions. Hear ourselves say, “In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.” What about that confessional standard?
Justice means different things to different people. And perhaps we prefer to leave it as elusive and nonspecific, because to nail it down invariably means that it will pry us out of our places and rearrange the furniture, and if we do it right we’ll be sitting someplace else with someone else. Mr. Brueggemann offers this as a way the Bible thinks about justice: “Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.” Sort out what belongs to whom, and return it. “So the work of liberation, redemption, salvation is the work of giving things back” (ibid.) That takes courage and grace. And Presbyterians can do that.
We can do that because God asks it of us and has empowered us to do it — by the Spirit, in our baptism.
Baptism is our “entrance liturgy.” Questions are asked and answered about participation and belonging. We come before the Lord with ourselves, with our firstborn, to be claimed by grace, to become a disciple, to begin a walk. We come to say Yes to God’s questions of us, to be covenanted to our Creator and Lord, commissioned for ministry to the world. We come remembering that “the disciples were empowered by the outpouring of the Spirit to undertake a life of service and to be an inclusive worshiping community, sharing life in which love, justice, and mercy abounded” (W-2.3002). We come united in the Body of Christ, confirming that “barriers of race, gender, status, age” — and, we are bold and faithful to say, sexual orientation — barriers are “to be transcended. Barriers of nationality, history, and practice are to be overcome.”
We come back knowing that “God’s faithfulness needs no renewal.” But ours does — for the living of these days in courage and in grace. All of which argues for a turning of our attention from government and discipline to worship! Barbara Wheeler made that point yesterday. “Worship is the purpose of the church” — where our good questions connect to some good answers. Where we are brought back to the grace of God expressed in Jesus Christ and sent “forward to that same Christ who will fulfill God’s purpose in God’s promised future”.
What will Presbyterians do?
Go back to the beginning. To our entrance ritual and its questions. “Let us remember with joy our own baptism,” we say. We don’t, really, most of us. Remember. And if we do it is not with joy but with sentimentality. And, as we heard yesterday, baptism is “not a chummy bonding”. We should come clean on baptism. It’s a cold shower and not a bubble bath. The waters are choppy, even dangerous. A small amount can effect a sea change. In these waters we die and rise with Christ. From these waters we emerge to new life. There is no holding on to these waters. They hold us. Through the Spirit, “claim us.” Free and forgive us. Tell us we belong and to Whom we belong. Member and re-member us, bonding us, ingrafting us to Christ. Not a “chummy bonding,” indeed. A uniting that is graceful. A unity that is just.
Justice is to sort out what belongs to whom, and to return it to them.
Claimed by the Holy Spirit in our baptism, we belong to God in life and in death. A good starting place for justice: To give ourselves back to the One whose we are and trust that Who to be the how we go from here. To trust in God to give us courage “to work with others for justice. . . .” To trust ourselves to live the faith we profess and live up to God’s expectation of us.
Ordination belongs to baptism. And all sorts of persons are baptized! How to sort out what sorts belong to ordination? Thin ice on the baptismal font! In baptism we give up what is making us out of sorts. Galatians 3:28 was a baptismal formula: fundamental divisions washed away. “No longer Jew or Greek slave or free male and female All of you are one in Christ Jesus you belong to Christ.” “Sort out what belongs to whom and return it to them.” Justice is to give back the covenant of grace and the call to all those baptized.
That’s where I first knew what Presbyterians would do. I learned it from the Sacraments. When women were called and excluded. In 1977 when my professor of systematic theology patted me on the back and said, “You’re very bright. It’s just too bad no presbytery in the country will ever ordain you.” And that was 20 years after the General Assembly opened the ministry of word and sacrament to women. I knew what he meant, but I wanted to hear him say it, to my face and preferably with his hands off my shoulder. “Not Barthian enough?” I asked. No: “The church just isn’t ready for you girls”. And that’s when I knew– that “girl” is a four-letter word. That the Pharisees did not practice what they taught. That baptism was not remembered — not with joy, not with justice.
Those of us who stayed in the church during those years argued that if you’re not going to consider us eligible for ordination, don’t baptize us. Oops! No confessional standard then affirming that the Spirit calls women and men to all ministries of the church. But there was baptism. And where there is baptism there would be the church. In the integrity of the Word, we would practice what we proclaim; in the power of the Sacrament, we would walk in new life.
Can’t Presbyterians be more faithful than “déjà vu all over again”? (I take a risk saying that, I know. When will it be safe to quote a Yankee in Atlanta — even a great theologian like Yogi Berra?)
It was a privilege to be asked to preach at this conference. It was a challenge to be the clean-up batter. We’ve already had one home run after another! It was a disappointment not to have this worship service in the beautiful sanctuary of Central Church. But, perhaps, it is as it should be. If God can prepare a table in the wilderness, God can set a font in a hotel ballroom. Especially in a hotel where the pipes loudly and all through the night flow and flush running water worthy of Amos’ rolling waters and ever-flowing stream.
So re-imagine this space. That beautiful wood font at Central — with a little stool next to it. (Short preachers notice those things.) Just a little reminder that we are called to step up to our baptismal covenant, walk tall in living it. My suitcase is always heavier than I can carry, so I didn’t bring the font from Immanuel Church. But imagine it: 700 pounds of gleaming white marble. For years forgotten, broken and piled in pieces in a dark corner of a dirty basement room. Recently given a new life. Restored and returned and, like the sacrament itself, a focus for the community “on what is essential”; as Placher has written, “a witnessing trust” to another reality. “ONE LORD + ONE FAITH + ONE BAPTISM” in large letters around the basin — the only words you see in that worship space. “One Lord, one faith, one baptism.” Imagine that font. Imagine that covenant. Imagine living that covenant.
What will Presbyterians do?
We have some good questions. And in Word and Sacrament, God is speaking some good answers. Take the plunge faithfully.
We go back to the beginning for our “exit liturgy”. To return to its promise and reaffirm its call. “Remember your baptism.”
[The response to this sermon was the singing of “God of Grace and God of Glory” and the saying of the third section of A Brief Statement of Faith. The Reaffirmation of the Baptismal Covenant concluded the service.]