The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 6/27/99
Text: John 5:1-9
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

It has come and gone...that annual gathering of American Presbyterians known as the General Assembly of the PC(USA). This year it was held in Fort Worth, Texas; next year we will gather in Long Beach, California. As most of you know, I make it a practice to attend the Assembly every year. After all, it is the highest governing body in our denomination, and the Assembly's pronouncements are listened to around the world as the voice of the Presbyterian Church. Since the Presbyterian Church includes you and me, and since some of those pronouncements in years past have been more than a bit disquieting, particularly as reported in the press, I go every year just to keep track of what is happening, to see if we have shot ourselves in the foot, and then come home to report to you on the state of your church.

I left Greensboro last Saturday with a sense of both anticipation and anxiety - the anticipation of seeing old friends from around the country, the anxiety of perhaps watching the church I love being bloodied and battered for the umpteenth time by competing social and theological interests who are intent on promoting their own agendas, come hell or high water, and, in the process, make us an ecclesiastical embarrassment to the Lord we say we serve. "And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love; And they'll know we are Christians by our love." Sadly, that is a scenario which has been repeated with unfortunate regularity in recent years.

Upon arrival in Forth Worth, we were greeted with an ominous word. Our General Assembly Council, the body that acts for the church between assemblies, had been meeting during the week and, faced with a controversial issue (whether or not a committee's recommendation that a Women of Faith award be given to a lady who is a self-avowed lesbian should go forward), had settled the matter by a solid 41-40 vote. Gracious! What would happen when 560 Commissioners plus another 200-or-so Advisory Delegates started casting ballots?

We did not have long to wait to find out. The first order of business at these annual gatherings is the election of a Moderator, a person whose task is to preside over the meetings but, more than that, to represent our denomination as its highest elected official for the coming year. There are brief nominating speeches, brief statements from the candidates (there were four this year), a question-and-answer period during which commissioners can ask whatever is on their minds with responses coming from each candidate, and finally a vote. One can generally get a sense of the mood of an Assembly by listening to those questions. Amazingly, almost all of them dealt with NON-controversial issues. Hmm. And one can generally guess who the winner will be by gauging who gives the best answers, who makes the fewest blunders, or, as our friend Houston Hodges adds, "who looks good with their face blown up to twelve feet tall on the giant TV screen."(1) For what it is worth, in my not so humble opinion, the one who did best in the back-and-forth was Dr. Freda Gardner, a 70-year-old gentle grandmotherly type, who happens to be a retired Professor of Christian Education from Princeton Seminary. And, yes, Freda won the election.

Sunday at the Assembly is always highlighted by worship. The Order of Service filled 14 pages with the proceedings lasting an hour-and-forty-five minutes (a bit shorter than normal, but still long enough to help the average church-goer appreciate getting done every other week of the year within a few minutes of noon). A massed choir of several hundred voices from area churches led the music in spectacular fashion. Over 100 mission workers were commissioned and we capped it all off with a celebration of the Lord's Supper. Someone wistfully said, "I wish we did business as well as we do worship." Amen!

As every dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterian knows, the real business of the church is handled in committees, and at General Assembly, the rule is writ large - 16 standing committees, each with over 50 members who have probably never laid eyes on one another before, dealing with over 800 items of business, subjects ranging the nitty-gritty of church government to the broad questions of national and international affairs. Committee meetings began on Sunday night then continued on Monday and Tuesday with Wednesday morning reserved for everyone to read the committee reports of everyone else.

As many of you are aware, sometimes the whole world hears what a committee does before their colleagues at the Assembly hear. For example, this past Wednesday, just after dawn, as I chugged along the streets of downtown Fort Worth on my daily walk, I was listening to Public Radio's Morning Edition on my headphones, and I heard that a committee of the Presbyterian Church's General Assembly had recommended that the denomination allow the previously-prohibited ordination to ministry of gays and lesbians. I almost tripped over the curb. The report went on to say that the proposal would have to go to the full Assembly before final approval. As I continued my walk, I thought THIS is the reason I come to these gatherings each year - I knew that you back in Greensboro (and for that matter, everywhere in the country) were hearing the same reports and would want to know what was going on. The fact that the full Assembly would have to deal with the recommendation was noted, but I wondered what the report would be in several days if the full body rejected the committee's conclusion when it would come before them on Friday morning. Stay tuned.

The plenaries resumed. There was reaffirmation of the Presbyterian Church's long-standing commitment to ecumenism as we approved continuing participation in the nine-denomination consortium called the Consultation on Church Union - COCU, for short. From here on out, it will be known as Churches Uniting in Christ - C-U-I-C, "Quick," for short. The proposal brings the member churches in fuller communion without requiring any changes in forms of government or creating any additional church structures. The PC(USA) is the first COCU member church to approve the plan.

We moved to Christian Education. The Assembly voted to direct the church's curriculum writers to revise the sexuality materials we currently offer to children and youth to conform more closely to our biblical and constitutional standards. There was concern that what we presently use is too ambiguous about the church's teachings on premarital sex and abstinence outside of marriage. That will be repaired. Last week, as I made way to the airport, I was intrigued to see a large billboard that said, "Talk to you children about sex. Everyone else is." Good point. We want to do it right.

Wednesday night offered one of those situations that makes you wonder whether to laugh or cry. Out of the blue, in the middle of the report dealing with our Board of Pensions, there was an iddy-biddy item about a Presbyterian widow and her children, from Birmingham, Alabama, and a recommendation from the presbytery there that an unresolved claim over twenty years old be settled to care for that widow. As is often the case with such issues, there was much more to it than met the eye, but for a solid hour, these hundreds of commissioners who had never heard of the case before that moment, tried to micro-manage it for our Pension professionals. Strange! Houston Hodges again: "I'll confess mixed feelings -- a lot, a lot of time over a matter involving just one family -- but on the other hand the sight of the great deliberative body slowing down its fancy production line for one widow and two kids was not a bad picture at all."(2)

Speaking of minutiae, there was a proposal to establish a Day of Prayer for Nuclear Peace on our Presbyterian Calendar, but WHICH day? Back and forth the debate went between those who thought that it should be July 16 (which, as we all remember, is the 1945 date of the New Mexico test explosion - you did remember that, didn't you?), while others were steadfast about August 6, the Hiroshima anniversary. No one seemed to remember that last year the question was about whether any date should be marked at all. No matter. The dubious distinction, after lengthy debate, will go to August 6.

As always, the Assembly had words to say to the world beyond the church. A policy paper on rebuilding community life in our nation's urban areas addresses a number of economic and social issues. In a companion piece, the Assembly approved a resolution that calls for the easing of restrictions on the flow of immigrants into the United States and on more humanitarian government policies. There was approval of a far-reaching program to implement the church's policy on health care, including the careful monitoring of HMOs around the country, to insure that the quality of care available to Americans does not deteriorate further. The Assembly asked both the government and the church to address the issue of prostitution; it included a request of governments to deal with prostitution-related problems in other ways than simply jailing offenders and called on the church to advocate for and support measures to help individuals get out of prostitution.

Looking around the world, the Assembly turned to issues of international conflict, particularly Kosovo, where Presbyterian missionary personnel have been actively aiding humanitarian relief efforts. The statement, proposed by the Assembly's Peacemaking and International Relations Committee, concludes with a call to the whole church to contribute generously to ongoing relief work and to be sensitive to the needs of refugees who may resettle in this country. The Assembly also appealed for greater peacemaking efforts in Sri Lanka, Northern Ireland, and East Timor and reaffirmed the call issued by many church groups and non-governmental organizations for international debt relief in the Third World as the new millennium approaches. Regarding this week's news from the Middle East, the Assembly passed a resolution expressing profound sadness at the deadly Hizbollah attack in southern Lebanon, and the retaliation by Israel resulting in more death and destruction along with a call for a quick return to the peace process.

By now, the week of work is winding down. But there is still that report from the Committee on Church Orders and Ministry that the whole world has heard about (including my Methodist mother-in-law in Massachusetts with whom I overheard Christie discussing it long distance last night). The proposal was a simple one: that a paragraph in the Book of Order(3) which demands chastity in singleness or fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the standard for officers in the Presbyterian Church (USA) be deleted. If it is removed, that would open the way constitutionally for openly gay or lesbian persons to be ordained IF - and this is another big IF - IF the long-standing explicit policy of the denomination (known as definitive guidance) preventing such a thing is ever reversed. Ninety minutes later, after impassioned debate, the Assembly rejected the committee's proposal by a vote of 319-198. Instead, the Assembly urged congregations and presbyteries to conduct studies and dialogues around the issues of gay and lesbian ordination for a minimum of two years. Whether THAT will make the national news is another question.

Speaking of sex (and we Presbyterians do so all the time - and amazingly, manage to make the subject actually boring), the Assembly found middle ground on the contentious issue of sexual orientation conversion therapies. Overtures arrived at the Assembly both supporting and condemning such therapies and the Assembly, acting on the recommendation of its National and Social Issues Committee, approved a statement saying, "No church should insist that gay and lesbian people need therapy to change to a heterosexual orientation, nor should it inhibit or discourage those individuals who are unhappy with or confused about their sexual orientation from seeking therapy they believe would be helpful." Right down the middle.

The reality is that these sexuality questions are with us as a church because they continue to be with us as a society. Regarding homosexuality, what was once called "the love that dare not speak its name," now seems to be the love that will not shut up. In my view, nothing we say or refuse to say is going to end the discussion, no matter how tired we are of it or how much we wish it would go away.

The Assembly took one more action of note. It will never make national headlines, but it could have wonderfully positive effects. We enthusiastically approved the recommendation of our Evangelism and Church Development Committee and adopted the Church Growth Strategy Team Report. Among other things, the report notes:

  • Our world is in the midst of the greatest spiritual awakening since the Reformation. For the first time the church is not leading it.
  • The church has for too long assumed that "if we build it, they will come." They haven't.
  • Many ways of doing church are obsolete and are not meeting emerging and changing needs.
  • Money alone is not the answer to church vitality and growth.
  • We must give up on our hope of reproducing the past.
  • Doing the same thing harder, faster, smarter, won't grow churches.

In listening to the report, the Assembly also heard the Gospel lesson we read a few moments ago, the story of Jesus' encounter with the paralytic at the pool by the Sheep Gate. For 38 years the man had been sick. That is just about the same length of time that mainline churches in America have been experiencing a hemorrhage of members that has reduced our numbers by more than a third. Jesus asked him, "Do you want to be made well?" The man responds with complaints about not being able to get timely help to which Jesus responds, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." That sounds like what, for want of a better term, the NIKE approach to getting well - "JUST DO IT!" Now Jesus asks the declining church, "Do you want to be made well?" The church that seeks to stem the tide responds with excuses about changing neighborhoods, shifting cultures, diminishing resources, to which Jesus responds, "Stand up, take your mat and walk." In other words, JUST DO IT! Stop complaining, stop wringing your hands, JUST DO IT.

In approving the report, the Assembly noted that our nation is a mission field. Churches were called to redouble their efforts to reach out, find new ways to proclaim the gospel in their communities, provide worship that is easily understood and participated in by all, explore new ways of decision-making, integrate children, youth and young adults in all aspects of the church's life, and set a challenge of increasing worship attendance by 2 percent each year. Can we do it? Of course, we can. "Do you want to be made well?" JUST DO IT!

The 211th General Assembly. Done now. Oh. If you recall, at the beginning of this I mentioned that General Assembly Council 41-40 vote that seemed to be so ominous. I did not tell you what happened afterward. The leaders of the Council were almost ecstatic. They reported that Council members really, really listened to each other with respect; they chose writers from both sides of the issue to draft a pastoral letter to the Assembly about the vote; and afterward they all joined in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. What a delightful surprise! Not the narrow margin of the vote, but the spirit of the process which produced it.

Jesus asks, "Do you want to be made well?" It sounds as if we are on the way. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.


1. Houston Hodges, via PresbyNet, "GA211 Reports," #4, 6/20/99

2. Houston Hodges, via PresbyNet, "GA211 Reports," #12, 6/24/99

3. G-6.0106b

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