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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

What the Spirit is Saying to the Church
June 28, 2018

One of the joys of last week’s General Assembly was worshiping with sisters and brothers from across the church. On Thursday we heard Rev. Floretta Barbee-Watkins of Charlotte deliver a clarion call to practice the justice of God’s kingdom, based on Jesus’ parables of leaven and the mustard seed. (Luke 13:18-21) Both stress how tiny beginnings can grow into major movements – something true both of the justice of God’s reign and of the sin that so easily besets us from pursuing God’s righteousness. Jesus uses leaven as a metaphor of sin, as well as of God’s reign. (Luke 12:1)

Friday’s preacher, Rev. Don Meeks of Washington D.C., shared with us a stirring challenge to join him in his five-fold personal covenant for pursuing unity in times of disagreement: praying for the other; acknowledging our own failings; trusting the good intentions of the other; listening with understanding before speaking; and, speaking convictions with gentleness and respect. Rooting his sermon in Jesus’ prayer for his followers’ unity (John 17:20-23), he spoke of the ways in which his presbytery has faced squarely the challenge to build unity across long standing differences in theology and politics. This is a clear instance of the “kindom-building” for which this Assembly advocated.

The Assembly concluded in worship on Saturday with the Rev. Ekram Kachu, a recently-ordained pastor originally from Sudan, challenging us to persist in prayer no matter how difficult it may be to see any forward movement. Basing her sermon on the story of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), she told her own story of surmounting all the challenges she faced as an African Arab-speaking immigrant seeking a church home in the U.S. Her persistent search eventually led her to undertake the arduous journey of completing college and seminary, so she could be ordained to serve as pastor to a new worshiping community, the First Arabic Presbyterian Church of Waukee, Iowa. She succeeded against all odds, buoyed by her constant reliance on God’s power to do what she could not do on her own.

I hear in these emphases a recap of a classic biblical formulation of God’s will for God’s people: Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8) I suspect that this correlation was not intentional, since none of the preachers referred to that text. Often that’s just how God works, pointedly challenging us in ways we had not planned. Perhaps the Spirit is telling us that we need right now to heed afresh these three pillars of godly purpose.

A new commitment to doing justice was reflected in the Assembly’s Tuesday afternoon march to the City Justice Center, to free from jail people charged with petty crimes who had insufficient money to make bail. The Assembly gathered an offering of more than $47,000 to donate to this effort. Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson has made new engagements in evangelism and justice the centerpiece of his leadership, rather than the ecclesiastical process traffic control that is so often the primary visible function of the Stated Clerk.

As a remarkable demonstration of devotion to kindness, Rev. Meeks gave his testimony of pursuing what he called “A Modest Attempt at Cultivating Unity in the Church.” His invitation to the rest of the Assembly to join him in his five-fold personal covenant (noted above) was reflected in the debates of the Assembly, where differences in the church are always sure to emerge. Several of the matters before the Assembly elicited significantly divided votes, yet none of them evinced rancor. I cannot recall an Assembly where real differences of conviction and gordian procedural knots were resolved so amicably. Can we be agreeable with each other even when we disagree with each other? This Assembly testified by its way of doing business that the answer is a clear “Yes!”

Walking humbly with God is a perennial challenge requiring readiness to set aside our own agenda when God is moving in a different direction from our desired path. One of the strong themes at this Assembly was our need to find new ways of doing the Lord’s work. Ways that have worked well for us in the past no longer work. One reason this Assembly commissioned so many study groups was that it recognized how profoundly short we are right now of the necessary wisdom to chart our way forward. This quest for new ways needs to be guided by attention to the movement of the Spirit, rather than by our best minds coming up with great new ideas. The Assembly often referred to our conviction that the church “is always reforming.” That is true, as long as we remain mindful that God’s Word, rather than our wisdom, is what drives the church’s reform. Our Book of Order reminds us that the reformed church is “always to be reformed according to the Word of God in the power of the Spirit.” (F-2.02) True church reform can break forth only among those who live in humble submission to the Word of God.

Listening for the Spirit’s call,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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