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

COMMON GROUND

Delivered 6/22/97

Text: Eph. 4:1-7, 11-16 (Psalm 133)

To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

It all began a week ago yesterday...the 209th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), our annual gathering which alternately points with pride or views with alarm all that goes on in our church and our world. This year we met in Syracuse, NY, hosted by six presbyteries of the Synod of the Northeast.

I anticipated a relatively peaceful Assembly this year after all the contentiousness of recent gatherings because of the human sexuality issues that seemed never ever to go away. After last year's passage of, depending on your point of view, the either celebrated or notorious "Fidelity and Chastity" amendment, I expected fairly smooth sailing. People were worn out from all the wrangling and were searching for ways to put the battles behind us. Yes, the differences still exist, but, for this year at least, my feeling was that this would be the "Rodney King Assembly" - in his words, "Can't we all just get along?" As the psalmist says, "How very good and pleasant it is when kindred...family - brothers and sisters in the Lord...live together in unity!" Amen!!!

Others felt the same way. In approaching the Assembly, the General Assembly agencies proposed that the church begin a six-year emphasis on the so-called "Great Ends of the Church." There are six of them (that's why six years), and they are found in the first chapter of our Book of Order(1):

  • The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
  • the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
  • the maintenance of divine worship;
  • the preservation of the truth;
  • the promotion of social righteousness;
  • and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

Nothing the matter with those as a source of unity (more about them later). For further emphasis on the unity theme, a special pre-assembly conference was held on the day prior to the assembly opening. The focus was on the issues that unite us rather on those that divide. It was called COMMON GROUND.

Actual business got underway on Saturday afternoon with a traditional time of orientation for the 570 Commissioners. Since 90% of them have never ever been to a General Assembly, they need instruction concerning committee work, voting procedures, parliamentary concerns, and so on and so on and so on. The first "work" of the Assembly is the election of a Moderator on Saturday evening - there were three candidates this year, each nominated by his or her Presbytery. After a period of nominating speeches, then questions from the floor, Elder Patricia Brown of Cincinnati was elected. A good choice, as it turned out - Pat ran the meetings with grace and good humor all week long, and will represent us well as the GA Moderator in the coming year.

The highlight of Sunday at the Assembly is always worship. It always lasts at least two hours, and this year ran two hours and twenty-five minutes. All the Presbyterian churches in Syracuse and surrounding areas moved their worship to the assembly site (as will be the case next year when the Assembly meets in Charlotte - and, yes, I anticipate we will go), so 11-12,000 people gathered in an arena that was not designed to accommodate that number. I ended up standing the whole time.

The preacher was outgoing Moderator John Buchanan who used the Ephesians text we read a moment ago. Citing Paul, he asked, "Is there a more passionate plea than this?...`I therefore, a prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you are called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.'"

"Paul's thought has lately taken wing," he said. "Now he believes that in Jesus Christ, God has started a new creation, a new humanity. In Christ, God - with a plan before the ages - intends to heal divisions, break down walls of hostility, unite all things. Paul soars as he sits in that miserable jail cell."

Buchanan told us the church is supposed to show the world what God's new creation looks like. "It is, I propose, a lot more difficult to maintain the unity than to walk away, to destroy it." He asked, "Does it matter? Does unity of the church matter as much as my conscience, my convictions, my opinions which I increasingly believe are God's opinions as well? Yes, it matters. It matters because Paul was right - whether we like it or not - the church shows the world what God's new creation looks like. And if what we show the world is a fractured, broken, fragmented mess, that, I believe, is a major failure, a very serious sin."(2)

And I say AMEN!

Assembly worship is always a mountaintop experience, but the work goes on in valley of committee meetings. There were 17 committees this year, each with responsibility for some facet of life in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Committee work at the Assembly is always a challenge. Considering the inexperience of most commissioners, it is "Rule by Rookies," aggravated by the fact that these rookies were generally chosen by their Presbyteries, because, among other things, they have strong opinions and are not afraid to talk. To put forty or so of them in a room and expect to get anything accomplished is a major act of faith. But they do it, and guided by the Holy Spirit, they generally do it well...and all within 72 hours.

Committee work takes up the first half of a General Assembly week; plenary gatherings resume on Wednesday afternoon. Each of the sessions begin with prayer and, often, a greeting from some important ecumenical visitor. Wednesday's greeting came from the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa, Maake Masango. He held up to us the necessity for overcoming divisions (a most appropriate word for us) and used the struggle for racial reconciliation in his own country following apartheid to illustrate.

Masango asked in his richly-accented Southern African English, Do you know the story of creation? It started on a Monday morning. God put the ingredients for humanity into a pan and placed them in the oven for cooking at 450 degrees. After what should have been an appropriate amount of time, the pan was removed, God looked...and was HORRIFIED! God said, "Look at this...it's only HALF-BAKED. It's not done. It's PINK! Just like CLIFF KIRKPATRICK [our fair-skinned Stated Clerk]. This will never do."

So God began the process all over again the next day - ingredients, pan, oven at 450 once more. This time, God resolved to let the process go a bit longer, but, as things sometime happen, God became involved with other pursuits, admiring the plants and flowers, caring for the animals. Suddenly, God remembered the oven, dashed back, opened the door, and exclaimed (if you can imagine God doing this), "OH, MY GOD! It is OVER-COOKED! Just like ISAIAH JONES [our dark-chocolate African-American song leader]. Whatever shall I do?" And the decision was made to let them BOTH comprise humanity.

Now, here we are, eons later, the half-baked and the over-cooked, both from the same source. Masango described some of the pain of getting past the horrors of racial divisions as the Truth & Reconciliation Commission held hearings into past atrocities, and the half-baked and the over-cooked ARE making progress (which, he suggested, should encourage Presbyterian proponents and opponents of the Fidelity & Chastity Amendment to get over our divisions which pale in comparison to those faced in his nation).

Speaking of that infamous amendment, the Assembly Committee on the Book of Order stunned us all by proposing a rewrite...even before the first one has had a chance to take effect. In an effort to offer more moderate language, the committee suggested the following:

Those who are called to office in the church are to lead a life in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture and instructed by the historic confessional standards of the church. Among these standards is the requirement to demonstrate fidelity and integrity in marriage or singleness, and in all relationships of life. Candidates for ordained office shall acknowledge their own sinfulness, their need for repentance, and their reliance on the grace and mercy of God to fulfill the duties of their office.

The language of the revision is, in my view, much less strident and much more grace-filled than the amendment it is proposed to replace. The assembly agreed - after impassioned debate, by the three-to-two margin (greater than last year's which passed the original amendment), the new language will be sent to Presbyteries for ratification. Moderation.

In the only other "stunner," the Assembly, despite the recommendation of its Social Justice and Witness Committee, decided to say a word about so-called "partial birth abortions." An overture had come from Huntingdon Presbytery taking a strong stand opposing all such procedures as immoral; the Assembly Committee recommended that it be disapproved because in some few cases the procedure is really necessary. But three commissioners on the committee refused to let the issue die - they offered a minority report saying such a dreadful choice is "not morally acceptable."

No doubt, the majority, had it insisted, could have won -- and forced the body to remain silent on this agonizing choice: but spurred by the minority, they worked for a solid hour to add a word, change a word, delete a word, amendment, amendment, amendment...instead of "not morally acceptable," they settled on "of grave moral concern." By a vote of 409 to 98 they adopted the amended minority report, which refused to leave us silent in face of such dreadful choices, and offers our church's help to families faced with this dilemma, no matter how many or how few they be. Moderation.

Some 700 items of business came to the assembly. Most were routine, non-controversial. The Board of Pensions gave our retired workers a 6% raise. The year 2000 was named the Year of the Child, during which children's issues will receive special Presbyterian emphasis. The Assembly viewed a video introducing the new national media campaign and voted to explore television advertisement for both national and local markets, all in an effort to stanch our annual net loss of some 35,000 members. A mission budget of $116.5-million for 1998 (a $600,000 decrease from '97). Ecumenical involvements were reaffirmed - after all, even old John Calvin once said he would "cross even ten seas" in the cause of Christian unity.(3) In an historic vote, a closer relationship with the Lutheran Church was established (which, as a graduate of a Lutheran seminary, did my heart good). The Assembly decided to establish a new office in Louisville to handle business affairs. The name as originally proposed was the National Office of Finance and Technology (NOFAT). With warm-hearted wisdom, the name was changed to the Technology and Finance Office (TAFO) when a commissioner pointed out that the job would be hard enough without everyone laughing at the place.

Oh yes, the Great Ends of the Church referred to earlier were indeed chosen for special denominational emphasis in reaffirmation of our unity. However, instead of a six-year emphasis, it is pared down to two years (three Great Ends per year). No doubt, the argument that swayed at least some votes was from a Youth Advisory Delegate who came to the microphone and said, "Six years? In six years, I'll be 23! I can't IMAGINE what that's like!" I wanted to yell to her, "Some of us can't REMEMBER what that's like, dear." A friend of mine and I were watching the debate together and he mentioned that a commissioner acquaintance, reflecting on the good food in the group meals (which I found hard to believe), said that if it keeps up, HIS will be one of the great ends of the church.

The 209th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). History now. For the most part, it was a "Rodney King - Can't we all just get along" Assembly. And I am glad. As one of the morning worship leaders reminded us, the church is to be like a nest...a bird's nest, where there is nurture and love and care, not a hornet's nest, where people are always getting stung. "How very good and pleasant it is when kindred...family - brothers and sisters in the Lord...live together in unity!"

John Buchanan was right - the VISIBLE unity of the church is important for our witness. People on the outside see us - not just the big old Presbyterian Church, but you and me as well - as exemplars of the Kingdom of God. If we are fractured by theological differences, political differences, stylistic differences, or even personality differences, we seriously damage the witness of the church. The Apostle Paul's message is GET OVER IT! "There is ONE body and ONE Spirit, just as you were called to the ONE hope of your calling, ONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE baptism, ONE God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all..." That is our COMMON GROUND, and as Paul continued, "we must GROW UP in every way into him who is the head, into Christ..."

Let us pray.

O God, we are grateful to be a part of your church, and in particular, this branch of the faithful called Presbyterian. Help us to overcome divisions and heal breaches so that the world will see our unity and understand our witness. We pray in the name of Jesus. Amen!


1. G-1.0200

2. Bill Lancaster, "Sunday Morning Opening Worship Service," General Assembly News Service, 6/16/97

3. Quoted by Clifton Kirkpatrick & William Hopper, What Unites Presbyterians: Common Ground for Troubled Times, (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1997), p. 8

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