The Church We Are Called to Be and Become

COVENANT NETWORK CONFERENCE 2003
New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC
Address – Friday Afternoon, November 7, 2003

THE CHURCH WE ARE CALLED TO BE AND BECOME

Susan Andrews
Moderator of the 215th General Assembly
Presbyterian Church (USA)

 

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. And greetings from your brothers and sisters around the nation and around the world – 173 presbyteries, 16 synods, ten theological institutions, 11,142 congregations, and over 200 global partners. At this conference, we have been exploring God’s vision for the church, who God is calling us to be and become as the resurrected body of Christ in the world. I would like to offer you my perspective, mid-year, on where God is leading us as a reformed and always reforming church. And give you some more glimpses of what such a church already looks like tucked away in various corners of our PCUSA family.

The church that God is calling us to be and become is first of all a church that is joyfully evangelical. One of my fondest dreams as a pastor, as a Moderator, as a Christian would be for all of us to recapture the language of evangelical faith. Evangel – we all know – simply means Good News. And the Good News of Jesus Christ is for all people – not as a talisman of holiness that separates us from those not quite worthy, but as the extravagant gift of grace that pours out abundant life for all. And because it is good news, because it is great news, the Good News of Jesus Christ can only be shared effectively if we are enthusiastic and joyful and generous and transparent in sharing and showing the world what it means to be God’s person.

As Presbyterians, as those steeped in the reformed tradition, we are called to be Good News tellers – evangelists in some very particular ways. First of all our Good News is Trinitarian. It is complex, and it is personal. We can show and tell the world that submitting body and soul to the sovereign love of God is the most liberating way to find meaning in this world. We can show and tell the world that submitting body and soul to the Lordship of Jesus Christ means to give up all pretense of privilege or power, and that walking with Jesus means to walk with the poor, the oppressed, the outcast, the lonely, the anxious, the grieving, the sick, and the young, that walking with Jesus means to find an intimacy with love and hope that makes all things new. And then we can show and tell the world that submitting body and soul to the always fresh power of the Holy Spirit means to be reformed and always reforming – never able to imprison God within doctrine or category.

And because our Good News is Trinitarian, it is also incarnational. It is best told in the flesh and blood of the world – at the intersection of faith and life – in the systems and the programs, the marches and the rituals that underline the words of the gospel with the breath and the sweat and the labor of everyday life. Seventh Avenue Presbyterian Church in San Francisco is an 82 member congregation with the heart and the energy of an army of angels. Located near the Castro neighborhood in San Francisco, its membership is one-third gay and lesbian. But its identity as a community of healing is as wide as God’s mercy. The life of the community flows from rich worship steeped in prayer and light and eucharist – yes it flows and then overflows into dozens of 12 step programs, a day care center, a senior housing complex, and a special focus on spiritual direction and wholeness.

And so, in the beginning of the 21st century, God is calling our Presbyterian part of the Body of Christ to be and become joyfully evangelical – visibly Trinitarian, and passionately incarnational.

But God is also calling the church to be and become intentionally multi-cultural. One of the best General Assembly decisions made in recent years was the decision to increase our racial-ethnic and immigrant membership from its current 7% to 20% by the year 2010. And even then, we will be far short of the current 35% non-Caucasion population of this country. I can attest to the vitality of cultural diversity already stirring up many of our urban presbyteries with new church developments and immigrant fellowships – 8 here in National Capital, 11 in Atlanta Presbytery, 14 in New York City Presbytery – new Presbyterian communities embracing Burmese, Arab, Sudanese, Taiwanese, Filipino, Hispanic, and African communities.

But as Jin S. Kim, the new Moderator of Presbyterians for Renewal has made clear, multi-cultural is not the same as multi-racial. Just putting a variety of different people together – and then continuing to do things the way they have always been done – this is not multi-cultural. Multi-cultural means honoring the traditions, the language, the music, the process, the timing, the rhythms, the rituals of all the cultures involved – and such re -creation takes time and patience and understanding and compromise. In January Jin will be come the pastor of a new church development in Minneapolis that will include English speaking Taiwanese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, African, African-American, and Caucasian families, many with adopted international children. The new Church of All Nations, as this congregation is being called, will be intentionally multi-cultural.

But, brothers and sisters, multi-cultural doesn’t just mean racial or ethnic identity. Multi-cultural also means theological perspective and community dynamics. Multi-cultural also means contextual. For the Seventh Avenue and Old First and Calvary congregations in San Francisco, to be multi-cultural means – among other things – to serve, honor, and welcome the gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans-gendered residents of their neighborhoods. For the Madison Avenue and Brick and Fifth Avenue and First congregations in upper Manhattan and Wall Street, being multi-cultural means – among other things – to serve and welcome and challenge the culture of money and power that runs America. To be multi-cultural in the community of Bethesda where Scott Winnette and I serve means to honor and welcome a NIH scientific curiosity and a population that is 35% Jewish and a multi-faith pluralistic world view that demands a theological perspective that is open-minded and complex.

I want to say to you what I said to the Coalition Gathering last month in Portland. I want a church big enough and multi-cultural enough and diverse enough to include all of us – conservative, liberal, and every point in between – agnostic, evangelical and members of peace and sanctuary churches -Asians and Latinos and Native Americans and African- Americans and Euro-Americans – gays and straights, single and partnered, young and old, certain believers and confused seekers, literal biblicists and metaphorical biblicists – all the varied children of God who can help us change and grow and become more together than we can ever be apart. But, in order to be and become this multi-cultural church in every sense of the word, we must refrain from making decisions or rushing through conflict in ways that will encourage anyone to leave.

So God is calling us to be and become joyfully evangelical and intentionally multi-cultural. Which means we are also being called to be purposely paradoxical. I have shared before with this group my delight in the dilemma that John gives us when he proclaims that Jesus, as the Word Become Flesh, is full of both Grace and Truth. This stands as one of the great paradoxes of our paradoxical God. Grace is utterly free and utterly welcoming. But Truth sets limits and demands accountability. And God calls us to live and breathe and honor this tension in our lives. Jesus loves children and touches bleeding women and eats with sinners and weeps when he sees the broken-ness of Jerusalem. But he also turns over tables of materialism, rails at liars and hypocrites and calls us a brood of vipers when we fail to honor covenant God. forgives the prodigal unconditionally, but then separates the selfless sheep from the greedy goats at the moment of judgment. Yes, graceful truth and truthful grace is the great paradox of our faith – a faith that is both radically free and rigorously accountable.

The authors of our form of government were either brilliant or diabolical when they put together the seventh ordination question in chapter 14. For this question is not just paradoxical – it is, to coin a phrase, tri-doxical. “Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?” As the Theological Task Force is discovering, balancing this triad is only possible through the wily wisdom of God. All too many of us put purity before peace and unity. And this what I am hearing. On one side, there is the purity of holiness – based on heartfelt understandings of scripture and powerful personal conviction. And on the other side is the purity of justice – based on heartfelt understandings of scripture and powerful personal experience. But, in some ways, both sides are saying the same thing. We are right. You are wrong. And if our commitment to purity splits the church, so be it. I have heard this all too often during these past few months. But my friends, I believe that purity apart from peace and unity – is not what God or the Book of Order calls us to be and become.

On the other hand, there are plenty of folks who go the other way. Let’s just not talk about it and maybe it will go away. Let’s just pretend that G6.0106b is not in the book and that thousands of Presbyterians are not being excluded from office and that new members for the Presbyterian Church are not staying away because we can’t get our act together. Some people have said to me “Let’s just keep it in the book – and ignore it – just so we can have some peace.” But that is not true peace – for peace with out justice is a sham. And peace for the sake of avoiding conflict is unhealthy. And so we have purity purists on both ends of the perspective. And we have “peace” panderers hoping all of this will just go away.. And somehow unity gets lost in the shuffle.

As I read the letters of the Apostle Paul, as I read Jesus’ great prayer in the 17th chapter of John’s gospel, unity trumps both peace and purity as the intention of God for the church. Or at least, unity is offered as the bridge to help purity and peace hold together in holy, healthy tension. You know, brothers and sisters, as special as the PCUSA is, we are only a drop in the bucket of God’s vast global community. And if we, in our relatively small community cannot figure out how to live together and love together in the name of Jesus, how will this woeful, weary, wrangling world ever be able to survive? How will this tumultuous world be able to pull back from the brink of terrorist destruction and hatred and inequality? The Book Of Order, in my favorite sentence of all, says quite simply that the church is called to be the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity. Dear friends, what kind of provisional demonstration are we currently demonstrating? And how instructive is that image for the rest of the world?

God is calling the church of the 21st century to be joyfully evangelical, intentionally multi-cultural, and purposely paradoxical. God is calling the church of the 21st century to model the dynamic tension of peace, unity, and purity as a provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity. Which, if we respond, will incarnate us into the passionate missional community that God has created us all to be together. What we have in common – conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between – is mission – our baptismal vocation of discipleship – our calling to be those sent to be the just and generous presence of God in the world.

At the Presbyterian Youth Connection Assembly this past July in Louisville, a young man named Nathan was elected as one of the new Co-Moderators of the NPYC for the next two years. In his campaign speech, Nate shared a story about his own faith journey. He traveled to Africa as part of a mission team, and was confronted by both the beauty and the pain of our African brothers and sisters. At one point a little boy skipped up to Nate and offered him his hand as a gesture of friendship and play. But the hand was dirty and the clothing was tattered and the hunger was palpable. And so, out of fear, Nate backed away. But then the mission tour group studied the story of the Good Samaritan, and realized that he was being like the Levite and the priest – too scared and too busy to reach out to a stranger in need.. And so, he went and found that little boy and he took his hand and he walked with him on our common human journey of faith. That was the day that Nathan decided that he – and we – need to get our hands dirty – eagerly engaging ourselves in the incarnational love of God. Brothers and sisters, as joyful evangelists, as passionate missionaries, as those who embrace the paradoxical and multi-cultural beauty of God’s creation, let us recommit ourselves to be and become the recreated, resurrected Body of Christ on earth.

May it be so. Amen.

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