Below is the sermon that I preached at the Moderator’s Conference in Louisville, KY on Friday, November 7, 2014. Over 100 people registered for the event to equip presbytery or synod moderators and vice moderators for their service to the Church. May they lead the denomination to new horizons through their unique calling!
No Way Back: A sermon on John 20: 19-29
Shut the doors! Haven’t you heard, our denomination is in deep trouble. We lost 224 congregations and our membership declined by 89,296 people. We might as well round that up to 90,000. We’ve got fewer hands to do the work and even fewer resources to make anything happen. We’ve lost buildings and whole congregations. We can’t risk losing any more people.
Turn the locks! Our churches and presbyteries are in dispute. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. And these debates aren’t just about the paint color for the sanctuary or moving the baptismal font two feet to the left. It’s all about sex and sexuality; marriage, the right to marry and the freedom to officiate…divestment and the relationship with our Jewish brothers and sisters…and gracious dismissals. I’ve experienced this struggle myself. Even before I returned home from General Assembly this summer I had an email in my inbox from a neighboring rabbi. I made an appointment and sat in his office as he talked about how we had broken our friendship with their congregation. I’ve had conversations in my presbytery with people from all different sides of the spectrum who say, “Don’t you think it’s ____________________ what the Presbyterian Church (USA) decided about gay marriage?” Lock the doors before we have these conversations so that no one can escape.
Close off every single exit! Our polity as failed us: with up and down votes, winners and losers, we’ve pitted our communities against one another. We’ve been encouraged to label one another and uncover categories so that we know how to “work together” in supposed partnership. We’ve allow the debates of our presbyteries through our General Assembly define who we are and what we stand for, forgetting that we, we embodied, are the Church.
Shut everything off! It’s time to hunker down and hit preservation mode. If we can’t save what’s inside, then we surely can’t save anyone outside. It’s time to focus on us.
I imagine that that is what the disciples must have felt like at the beginning of the week after Jesus’ death. Closed doors. Locks turned. The world shut out. The joy of a culture changing Messiah so easily traded for mourning and inactivity. I always picture them cramped inside of the room, occupying the same space and yet, somehow, completely withdrawn from the deep sadness that envelops each.
“It’s time to focus on us,” they must think. “How can we face the crowds when we barely know what to think, ourselves?!”
Did you forget so easily about the unnamed men and women who had been transformed by the presence of Jesus? A simple miracle, sermon, lesson or word of mouth that travelled from city to town to village and back around again. The people who were on the ground, trying to change their lives even though they didn’t walk alongside Jesus every day like those disciples. They had the harder job of keeping their faith alive without Jesus with them, day in and day out. Jesus the Messiah…now Jesus the Conquered. Visions of victory only to be beaten and hung on a cross. All of those communities, those countless individuals hoping for a new future, gathering outside the walls of that closed off room and mourning alone.
Only they weren’t mourning alone were they? There was Thomas. Thomas, who is no where to be found in that locked room. He’s somewhere else, dare we say among some people who are asking the same questions about the executed Christ? Unlike the disciples, might he be asking the same questions? Could he have made himself vulnerable, answering as a disciple of Jesus with the daringly honest words, “I have no idea. I don’t know.” But doubts and incomplete answers, he was still there and among them, steeped in pain and loss as a community together.
There are real, deep scars out there in our churches…mourning and vulnerabilities torn open from our denomination’s decisions…but you don’t need me to tell you that, do you?!
There are people who are celebrating the vote concerning marriage. Pastors and congregational leaders in states that recognize same-sex marriage that finally feel free to offer pastoral care and support to their parishioners without strings attached. Individuals who have fought for decades for full inclusion of the lgbtq community that feel like the long road to get here was hard won. Some have said to me, “We want to celebrate but we feel like we can’t in respect to those who disagree with us.”
There are those who mourn this decision, feeling as though we have left biblical authority at the door for cultural relevancy. Churches who have left or are considering leaving because they’re not sure we can break bread and share the cup at the same Table; they’re not even sure we believe in the same Savior who prepares the Table. And those who stay are faced with the ongoing pressure that they have conformed, giving up their long held beliefs just to stay together as a denomination. Another person said to me, “We’re bleeding. We’re hurt, and then we’re told that we’ve betrayed our beliefs by staying. And everyone else wants us to just move on.”
There are individuals and communities of color who look at the Belhar Confession and wonder if the denomination is capable of wrestling with the call to racial reconciliation. Immigrant communities whose ministries are hindered in the larger church because of language barriers and cultural differences, lack of resources in their native tongues, and an inability to adhere to our denomination’s structural demands because of their unique callings. A long history of racial/ethnic presbyteries that were never fully integrated into the life of their regional governing bodies, only joined together by name. We are a 90% white denomination in a country that is becoming increasingly more diverse. And, let’s be honest, eleven o’clock is still the most segregated hour on Sunday in many of our congregations.
There are real, deep scars…wounds that need tending. You all know them….you can name them…and if we did, we might be here all morning.
So here’s the thing: The disciples knew it was Jesus because they saw his hands and his sides. The scars and wounds didn’t disappear from his resurrected body, they were still right there as an acknowledgement of everything he had endured on earth, from his first breath to his last. They saw the marks of pain with their own eyes and only then does the text tell us that they were overjoyed to be with their Lord again. And don’t call him Doubting Thomas anymore! Thomas wanted to see the nail marks in Jesus’ hands, put his fingers in the wounds, and his hand to his side because those marks were a witness that every single thing Jesus went through, beginning to end, was real. The good, the bad, all embodied in Jesus’ resurrected form.
Every single one of you knows the wounds and scars that your communities bear. The days of trying to move around the issues or somehow skip over them or even pretend that they don’t exist, that we’ve done the hard work and can move forward…those days are gone. This day, we are called to move through the pain and suffering, to have the tough conversations, to face one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and take the harder road together.
I have a confession to make: A few days before this summer’s General Assembly I started to panic. I’ve run session and business meetings before, but what if Heath and I were actually to be installed and moderator and vice moderator. How would I moderate a meeting of over six hundred people from across the country and even around the world? So I confess, I ran to the bookstore and bought “The Annotated Roberts’ Rules” and then I bought, “Robert’s Rules for Dummies.” I had my Stated Clerk email me his flowchart of commonly used motions and how to handle them.
This weekend you will learn about parliamentary procedure, amendments that need action from your presbyteries, and resources available from our national office. You’ll engage in conversations in structured workshops and open source spaces. I hope that you will also connect with fellow moderators and find ways to support one another when you leave this place. But in our governance of up down voting, winning and losing, and the attempts to do it decently and in order, we can’t think that that’s all we need to do.
In your calling, I charge you to be like Thomas. Go out in the midst of the crowds and, even without answers, meet people where they are. And when they tell you that they have seen Christ, go and see the marks of pain and suffering. Go to touch, see, and experience the broken body of the Church, and then believe for yourself that resurrection is possible. Share that story in every meeting that you moderate and all that you do.
Because the truth is, even if we close our doors and shut ourselves off from the world, the resurrected Jesus still comes among us and says, “Peace be with you.”